Thursday, 11 February 2016

Movie Review: Good Kill (2014)

An anti-war film about the modern art of remote combat, Good Kill makes its point early and then struggles to find a purpose.

On the outskirts of Las Vegas, Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke) works at a U.S. Air Force base remotely controlling killer drones over places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, seeking and killing the enemies of the US in the war on terror. Egan is a veteran pilot used to flying actual combat missions in real war zones, and he is starting to seriously struggle with the detached remoteness of his drone assignment. His wife Molly (January Jones) takes the brunt of his descent into depression and alcoholism.

Things go from bad to worse when Egan, his commander Lieutenant Colonel Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood) and Airman First Class Vera Suarez (Zoë Kravitz) are placed under the command of missions ordered by the CIA with instructions received directly from Langley (via the detached voice of Peter Coyote). The intelligence agency is much less concerned about the rules of war and civilian casualties, and Egan finds himself growing increasingly uneasy with who he is being asked to kill and how he is doing the killing.

An independent film directed by Andrew Niccol, Good Kill is a companion piece of sorts to the more well-rounded American Sniper. While also delving into the ravaging effects of contemporary war on the soldier at the tip of the spear, Good Kill adds the innovation of isolating the combatant from the combat zone. The video-game aspects of modern warfare are ironically intended to secure the soldier's health, but for Egan, who has experienced the thrill of being at personal risk over a live battlefield, the complete lack of danger as he control a joystick 7,000 miles from his targets is an emotionally unhinging experience.

Niccol's script sets its course early and sticks to it, and as a result Good Kill cannot avoid falling into a repetitive trap. The psychological study of Egan's tumble into non-functionality features a recurring series of well-executed and often tense "good kills" on the monitor, alternating with snippets of a disintegrating home life and Egan staring at the sky. The one inflection point comes with the heavy-handed intervention of the CIA, demanding more kills that are maybe not so good. There are some debates among Egan's crew about the morality of the war and the method of killing, but precious little depth is achieved in character or narrative arc.

Ethan Hawke does all that he can with the character of Egan, starting off uneasy and restless and linearly progressing towards an abyss where the personal and professional career self-destruct buttons begin to look tempting as seen through the bottom of a bottle. The rest of the characters are strictly predicable.

Good Kill provides instructive commentary on the unexpected hazards of soulless, robotic bloodshed. Much like the world of controlling drones, the action on the monitor is immersive, but it is ultimately stuck in a box.

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Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Movie Review: The Blues Brothers (1980)

A bombastic musical comedy, The Blues Brothers is a raucous exercise in unconstrained charisma. The story of two hip brothers seeking to raise money for an orphanage is just a good excuse for automotive mayhem and buoyant musical performances.

Released from jail after serving three years for robbery, Jake Blues (John Belushi) is picked up by his brother Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) driving a repurposed ex-police car. Together they visit an orphanage run by nuns, and discover that the institute will shut down unless a $5,000 tax bill owed to the City of Chicago is settled within days. Jake and Elwood decide that they are "on a mission from God" and set out to do the only thing they know how: reunite their old blues band and perform a show to raise the required money.

They track down their old bandmates, who are all initially skeptical but ultimately game. Along the way, Jake and Elwood manage to enrage the police and the local neo-Nazi chapter, while a mystery woman (Carrie Fisher) does all she can to blow the brothers to smithereens. Hotly chased by their pursuers, the reunited Blues Brothers bungle their way into a show at a rough country and western eatery before finally landing a gig at a lavish hotel to give themselves a chance at raising the funds in time.

The Blues Brothers is a celebration of excess. Perfectly mixing music and comedy, director John Landis packs in over-the-top auto chases filled with wild stunts and crashes involving a ridiculously large number of cars, along with several long, energetic music numbers. He also milks every drop of star John Belushi's stratospheric star power, and unapologetically delivers an over-budget 133 minute musical comedy about very little. It is all disproportionately larger than life, and it all works.

Inspired by Saturday Night Live sketches and capitalizing on Belushi's post-Animal House popularity, The Blues Brothers is more an attitude and a cultural landmark than a narrative-driven film. Co-written by Landis and Aykroyd, the film achieves a cool vibe, with the two lead protagonists quickly achieving cult likability by sticking to their principles and their dark suits, hats, and shades, achieving hyper self-awareness and simultaneously remaining oblivious to the carnage unfolding all around them.

The highlights are many. The performance at Bob's Country Bunker is the perfect irreverent set-up, a place where the blues band has to quickly pretend to love country music, and where chicken wire protects the band from beer bottles hurled at them to signify derision and appreciation. Carrie Fisher's mystery woman bursts into the movie at regular intervals with ever more destructive weaponry, harbouring all of hell's fury. James Brown, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin among others show up for extended and dynamic musical cameos, sparking career revivals. And Landis somehow makes it perfectly logical that by the end of the film, an army of law enforcement vehicles, a militant group of neo-Nazis, and the Good Ol' Boys country band and their RV are all in hot pursuit of the Blues Brothers.

Aykroyd and Belushi are as smooth as any film buddy couple can be, whether acing their cool test, escaping from hundreds of police cars or performing their unique music-and-dance routines. In addition to Fisher and John Candy, the supporting cast is peppered with blues performers thought to be well past their prime, until the film propelled them back into the limelight.

The Blues Brothers is a spectacular success, but with a dark cloud hovering on the horizon. Within two years of the film's release date, Belushi was dead from a drug overdose, and Landis was charged with manslaughter for the tragic deaths of Vic Morrow and two child actors on the set of The Twilight Zone, caused by pyrotechnics bringing down a helicopter. Every type of excess, as it turns out, has its limits.

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Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Movie Review: Room (2015)

An intimate drama about survival, Room is a child's view of an abduction ordeal. The film is original, but offers frustratingly little beyond its basic premise.

Joy Newsome (Brie Larson) is raising her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) in a single room. As a teenager, Joy was abducted by a psychopath known only as Big Nick, and held captive as a sex slave in a back yard garden shed. A skylight is her only window to the outside world. Jack was born in captivity, and all he knows is the inside of the room, plus whatever Joy explains to him and what he sees on the rudimentary television. Every night Big Nick visits the room to have sex with Joy, with Jack confined to the closet. Once Jack turns five, Joy's thoughts turn to plotting an escape, and she will need Jack's help to succeed.

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, Room is a small story built on one big idea. The film spends its first half literally in one small room serving as an entire habitat, and the second half exploring emotional damage, all from the perspective of five year old Jack. The film mixes intensity with a sense of wonderment, with Joy portrayed as a hero and a victim, and the rest of the world a large, mysterious place filled with strangers, both intimidating and welcoming to a young curious mind.

The charm of Room is also its limitation. The world as seen by a five year old is a fascinating, sometimes scary place, but it is also a truncated, splintered perspective, lacking in depth and continuity. And while Room succeeds in capturing the astonishment and anxiety that comes from a child discovering what the world has to offer, by definition the film stops short of delving into any one issue beyond what young Jack can comprehend.

The second part of the film particularly suffers. Jack is an observer as the world outside the room opens up to him, and he witnesses adults grappling with the aftermath of the abduction ordeal. Joy has to find her bearings in the real world, deal with her parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy), the media, and the lawyers, and redefine her purpose in life all while struggling with feelings of guilt.

There is rich territory to explore, but Room can only offer partial scenes and fragments of discord, because this is all that Jack can discern. There are tender moments as Jack emerges out of his scarred shell and creates new connections with other grown-ups, but the film defaults to a menu of themes that would make for an engrossing experience, but without the follow-through to more fully deliver any of the items.

Brie Larson as Joy and young Jacob Tremblay as Jack are both quite touching as victims and survivors. The script by Emma Donaghue (who also wrote the book) never asks for cheap pity, and Larson emphasizes the smart toughness Joy had to call upon to raise her son in confinement and come through her ordeal. Tremblay avoids all the hazards of cuteness, and also steers Jack towards coherent stubbornness and a less-than-perfect disposition forged by a most unusual upbringing.

Room is innovative and appealing, both faithful to and constrained by its unique vision.

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Saturday, 6 February 2016

Movie Review: Prisoners (2013)

A harrowing and intense child abduction drama, Prisoners ratchets up the tension early and never lets up. A magnificent cast and an atmosphere of quiet yet unpredictable dread creates a superlative experience.

In a suburban Pennsylvania community, Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and their young daughter Anna head over to Thanksgiving dinner at the house of their friends Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) and their young daughter Joy. Keller is a carpenter and a survivalist, a proudly self-sufficient man. Later in the evening Anna and Joy head back to the Dover's house to play, and go missing. Suspicion immediately surrounds an old-model RV earlier seen parked in the neighbourhood.

Missing persons detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is immediately on the case, the RV is located, and its driver Alex Jones (Paul Dano) arrested and interrogated. Loki is unable to get anything out of Jones, who has a child's IQ and is barely able to construct sentences. Regardless, a search of the RV reveals no suspicious evidence, and neither does a search of Jones' room at the house of his Aunt Holly (Melissa Leo). Loki is forced to release Jones, which enrages Keller. Loki sets off to track down and question known former child molesters living in the area, a process which uncovers another shocking crime in the community. Meanwhile, Keller takes matters into his own hands, seizing Jones and embarking on his own quest for critical information to find his daughter

Directed by Denis Villeneuve, with stunning Roger Deakins cinematography and a moody music score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, Prisoners is an expertly crafted piece of mature cinema. The story gets to its central drama quickly, with Anna and Joy disappearing inside the first 20 minutes, creating a challenge for Villeneuve to sustain a 153 minute film. Not only does he succeed, he excels beyond any expectations. Prisoners sets off in unpredictable directions that are at once deeply satisfying and insanely disturbing, as Keller Dover's devastation is exploited to sharply veer the film off the well-travelled path of abduction movies and into a morass of complex emotions and moral ambiguities.

Much of the credit goes to Aaron Guzikowski's smart script, which studiously avoids every opportunity to take an easy out. Loki is far from perfect, his dialogue exchanges with Dover lacking in empathy and helping to inflame the grieving father. The character of Alex Jones remains stubbornly opaque, there are no easy revelations, and mental blockages padlocked by years of damage remain infuriatingly stubborn. Tormented parents behave like human beings, torn between incomprehensible grief and a lust for vengeance, all while surrendering to escapes offered by alcohol and pills.

Prisoners is not for the faint of heart. There are scenes of blunt torture, badly deformed faces, decayed human and animal corpses, bloodied children's clothes, and, for an extra kick of ickiness, slithering snakes. Dank, dangerous basements and holes in the ground are explored, all with a matter of factness that strips away cheap horror tactics in favour of a more insidious sense of evil-lives-next-door, and maybe also behind the door after that one. This is a film that tackles the horror that lives within without being a horror film, and as a result is acutely disconcerting.

Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal take on the two central roles and create unforgettable characters. Jackman in particular excels as Keller Dover, humanizing a traumatized father and finding the justification for unjustifiable actions in the face of personal anguish. Gyllenhaal moves Loki away from stock heroism towards belief in process and old-fashioned investigative police work, but with the pressure mounting with every passing hour even his relatively dispassionate approach will be tested.

Paul Dano is quite phenomenal in his few scenes, creating a broken, exasperatingly non-functioning man-child who may or may not hold all, some, or no answers. Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard and Melissa Leo round out the impressive cast, and despite sharing screen time they all create in-depth individuals.

Prisoners stares at the demons that live in the community and inside the soul, waiting to be unleashed to serve causes great and small, just and deranged, and causing immense societal suffering.

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Movie Review: Gangs Of New York (2002)

A raucous story of revenge among the rabble, Martin Scorsese's Gangs Of New York is impressive but also overwrought, more a visual treat than a cerebral triumph.

New York City, 1846. At Paradise Square in the poor and crime-ridden Five Points neighbourhood, rival gangs square off for a grand battle with rudimentary but lethal weapons. The Natives are led by William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), and consider themselves rightful residents and true Americans. The Dead Rabbits are more recent Irish Catholic immigrants, inspired by "Priest" Vallon (Liam Neeson). The Natives win the battle, and Bill kills the Priest. Vallon's son witnesses his father's death and escapes.

16 years later, the grown-up Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns to the old neighbourhood, seeking revenge. Bill The Butcher is now the undisputed king of Five Points, controlling all crime activities, as well as the law in the form of officer Jack Mulraney (John C. Reilly). Bill, who still despises new immigrants, has also forged an uneasy alliance with politician Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent), who is more welcoming of new arrivals as potential voters.

Amsterdam starts a relationship with professional thief Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz) and becomes a trusted advisor to Bill even as he plots to kill him. But with the civil war raging and a military conscription draft about to be imposed, there is growing unrest on the streets of New York City, and Amsterdam's quest for Bill's blood will encounter some surprising twists.

Gangs Of New York delves into a slice of history almost lost in the shrouds of time. The social anarchy of Manhattan's poor neighbourhoods between 1846 and 1862 is now all but erased from collective memory, socially and metaphorically eradicated, built upon and transformed into a modern multicultural metropolis teaming with tourists.

But this is where Scorsese goes looking for the origins of American civility and democracy, and identifies Five Points as ground zero for cultural accommodation, a place where natives and newcomers (both relative terms) squared up to each other and literally engaged in slaughter before concepts of civilized discourse seeped down to street level. In parallel the nation was defining its soul in the bloody Civil War, a conflict that may as well have been occurring on another planet as far as Five Points residents were concerned. Eventually the national and local civil wars intersect in the orgy of violence known as the Draft Riots, and the bloodletting nudges the City towards understanding its future destiny.

The film boils down the intriguing social context to a simple story of revenge, and while compelling in its intensity, the story goes marginally too far in personalizing history. Amsterdam's lust for vengeance is a relatively small story to carry a 160 minute film, and other than the magnificent sets, Scorsese cannot build much around it. Amsterdam is dour and Bill The Butcher is larger than life, but otherwise the film is surprisingly devoid of any memorable secondary characters, sub-plots, or even noteworthy incidents. The likes of Cameron Diaz, John C Reilly and Jim Broadbent are too often reduced to shallow representations, and Liam Neeson's seemingly interesting Father Vallon is knocked-off early.

But when the story gets bogged down, there is always something compelling to look at. Gangs Of New York is extraordinary as a set design feast. Recalling the lavish era of Hollywood reproducing history on sound stages, the imagined New York City of the 1860s was recreated at Rome's Cinecittà studios. The film looks gorgeous, a cross between theatrical set-piece and crime-infested but irresistible Les Misérables inspired nightmare.

Diplomacy only prevails when thugs get tired of killing, and even the Gangs Of New York start to understand that a history of greatness will only be achieved when the blood-letting ceases, and other, still imperfect tools, like voting, start to take hold. The one spectacular celebration of violence arrives early in the form of the blood thirsty rumble in the square. Once victory is proclaimed and the bodies are cleaned up, the film settles down to a long, drawn-out and colourful story of a young man seeking self-defined justice but also finding himself in danger of falling under the spell of his prey. DiCaprio and Day-Lewis, moody and flamboyant respectively, are more than capable of carrying the film, and Gangs Of New York rides their talent to a rousing ending that, while still victimized by indiscriminate violence, carries echoes of a personal and national history finally taking shape.

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Thursday, 4 February 2016

Movie Review: The Revenant (2015)

An epic story of survival in the wilderness, The Revenant is a stunningly beautiful western exploring the limits of human endurance against a backdrop of frontier barbarism.

It's 1823, and a scrappy team of fur trappers deep in the barely explored territories of the northern Louisiana Purchase is attacked and mostly slaughtered by natives. A small group of trappers escapes the massacre, including experienced hunter Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), his half-native son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), the greedy and selfish John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), young trapper Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), and Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), the leader of the party.

Glass is inspired by visions and memories of his deceased wife (Grace Dove), and starts to guide the party overland towards Fort Kiowa. But Fitzgerald, who is living with the scars of being partially scalped by natives, challenges his leadership at every step. Meanwhile, a native chief and his men are searching in the same area for Powaqa, a native woman kidnapped by a party of French explorers.

While out scouting ahead of his group, Glass is attacked and badly mauled by a grizzly bear and scarcely hangs on to life. Henry leaves him in the care of Fitzgerald, Hawk and Bridger, who promise to give him a decent burial once he expires. But Fitzgerald had ideas of his own, and Glass is abandoned in the wilderness, badly hurt but very much alive. He embarks on a long journey back to a semblance of civilization, his determination to stay alive despite the harsh elements fuelled by a burning desire to seek revenge.

The Revenant is a grim, ferocious western, a story of individual survival in an untamed land.   Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and running for a surprisingly swift 156 minutes with relatively little dialogue, the film is a feast for the eyes and a challenge for the mind, offering a raw beauty but also unrelenting and almost physically exhausting to watch. For the men carving a path in uncharted territories, every step is a struggle, and every encounter with man, beast or nature a potentially existential battle.

Loosely inspired by the real adventures of fur trapper Hugh Glass, the story is a deglamourized view of how the west was explored. Men expire suddenly and sometimes in large numbers, and the deaths are often gruesome, bodies left behind with no semblance of dignity. Encounters with natives are mostly wordless. Sometimes a common humanity is found; more often killing comes first, followed by a startling absence of emotion. And nature still dominates, whether through a blanket of uncompromising winter eager to consume men's feeble attempts to exploit the land, or with wild animals stomping their turf and blithely dismissing human competition.

Filmed in British Columbia and Alberta, The Revenant is visually stunning. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki capture imposing vistas of winter in the wild, for the most part ignoring CGI and embracing the harsh reality of the frontier. The actors and crew famously battled deep-freeze temperatures and filming was limited to one hour at dusk, infusing the film with sunset hues and a genuine sense of end-of-the-day cold exhaustion. Lubezki's cameras are just as impressive in close-up shots, with plenty of point-of-view perspectives and fluid movements circling the characters as they confront the unforgiving landscape.

Leonardo DiCaprio dominates the film with a dedicated performance filled with passion and intensity. His version of Hugh Glass is a man of few words but plenty of resources and an unrivalled devotion to survival. The rest of the cast members are often difficult to differentiate, buried beneath layers of grey rags, bushy beards and thick accents.

The Revenant's main theme is life and death walking close together. For the trappers, explorers and natives, nature offers life and demands death in return. Glass' encounter with the bear pushes him into the clutches of annihilation, but the film treats existence as a binary condition, either alive or not, and with Glass life persists. Enraged by a sense of injustice and equipped with exceptional survivalist skills, he will have another, almost metaphorical encounter with an animal, this time simulating a full rebirth.

Glass works his way back to an approximation of functional health and achieves dominion over life and death, this time with the power to decide whether man or nature get the final say. The fragile journey of a father and husband from near extinction to mastery over man's fate is the story of humanity, where savagery and compassion compete for the evolutionary space within.

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Monday, 1 February 2016

Movie Review: One Fine Day (1996)

A good quality romantic comedy, One Fine Day enjoys star power in the form of Michelle Pfeiffer and George Clooney, and settles into a pleasant if entirely predictable story of an unlikely romance developing between two stressed single parents.

In New York City, businesswoman Melanie Parker (Pfeiffer) is divorced and raising her young son Sammy on her own. Sammy's dad is a rock band drummer who frequently misses family events. Jack Taylor (Clooney) is a popular newspaper columnist, also divorced, and sharing parenting duties for his young daughter Maggie, who is Sammy's classmate. One frantic morning Jack's lack of organization results in both Sammy and Maggie missing the bus and then the boat for a day-long school trip. Jack and Melanie are stuck with their kids on a working day, and Melanie is immediately hostile towards Jack.

A further mix-up results in Melanie and Jack switching mobile phones, further complicating their schedules. Eventually they are both forced to agree to trade-off caring for the two children. Melanie tries to prepare for a big presentation at her office despite Sammy's disruptive presence, while the more laid back Jack tries to untangle a big political corruption scandal that may cost him his job, while caring for Maggie and sometimes Sammy. As the day rolls on, Melanie and Jack move from animosity to romance.

Directed by Michael Hoffman, One Fine Day is a small notch above standard rom-com fare. Most of the shine comes from the two leading actors lending their considerable charisma to the principal roles. Michelle Pfeiffer and George Clooney both possess high wattage, and they turn on the charm to good effect, allowing the sparks of love to emerge slowly from the mess of a chaotic day spent chasing kids and fulfilling work duties. Pfeiffer is comfortable and assured as an established star, while Clooney is on the cusp of finding his big-screen groove, and together they make for an attractive couple.

The film offers one relatively fresh angle by presenting both protagonists as divorced single parents, juggling high-stress careers and child care, their work routines easily thrown into disarray when the kids' plans are disrupted. Melanie and Jack are on an equal social footing, extending to an equivalent level of mutual cynical mistrust due to still-healing scars from failed marriages. The jaded realism adds a welcome wrinkle to the couple's evolving dynamic.

Not surprisingly, there is little else in One Fine Day that is even remotely original as the film moves through all the usual gears. The laughs are mild, the kids are cute, the office bosses are crusty, the moments of crisis are never too threatening, the dash to the climax (appropriately, the destination is kids' soccer pitch) is frantic, and the ending is as preordained as the sun setting at the end of the day. Of course, the locations are scrubbed clean and the music is dreamy.

The running time unnecessarily creeps towards two hours, and the film outstays its welcome well after it is apparent that Melanie and Jack will find a way to end their fine day on a positive note. The relatively under-used supporting cast does not help. While the kids (Alex D. Linz and Mae Whitman) are sound and avoid descending into an overdose of cutesiness, Charles Durning as Jack's boss and Amanda Peet as an office vamp get very few scenes to make an impact.

One Fine Day delivers exactly what the genre demands in the form of a far-fetched meet-cute come true, with the bonus of luminous leads investing enough talent to tilt the balance towards enjoyment rather than tediousness.

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Saturday, 30 January 2016

Movie Review: Coyote Ugly (2000)

A trite romantic drama set in the world of bar top dancing, Coyote Ugly lines up and kicks out tired clichés to fill the time between the many scenes of hot women cavorting on the bar to loud music.

Violet Sanford (Piper Perabo) leaves her New Jersey home and overweight toll booth operator dad Bill (John Goodman) to seek a career as a songwriter in New York City. Violet suffers from stage fright, a condition that also afflicted her late mother, and her inability to perform in front of a crowd hampers opportunities to get her material heard. Meanwhile she can't break through the front door of any of the record companies or talent agencies, and her apartment is robbed to compound her misery. Violet does meet handsome Australian burger flipper Kevin O'Donnell (Adam Garcia), and they start a relationship.

Desperate to find some employment, Violet stumbles onto work at Coyote Ugly, a rough and tumble bar owned by Lil Lovell (Maria Bello, portraying the real-life bar owner), where attractive waitresses including Cammie (Izabella Miko) and Rachel (Bridget Moynahan) rev up customers with seductive bar top dances. The timid Violet can't join the dancing but eventually finds the courage to sing along with the jukebox. Kevin insists that she not give up on her dream to be a serious song writer and prods her to overcome her stage fright. Her dad Bill is crushed when he discovers what kind of bar Violet is working at, and Kevin's pushiness threatens to rupture the one remaining good relationship in her life.

Directed by David McNally and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, Coyote Ugly is based on a magazine article by none other than Elizabeth Gilbert, who would go on to write more mawkish material like Eat, Pray, Love. The film is an unapologetic excuse to feature plenty of bar top dancing scenes, micro-edited down to artificially create energy and remove any traces of talent on either side of the camera. With a script apparently penned by an uncoordinated army of eight writers, Coyote Ugly is a standard innocent-girl-in-the-big-bad-city-falls-in-love story, the dancing scenes attempting to chase away the dullness but only adding another layer of asininity.

In this world a hip shake and a shoulder shimmy are inexplicably enough to send bar patrons into a whooping frenzy while the alcohol pumps kick into overdrive. The girls prance up and down the bar, spraying customers with water, juggling bottles and breathing fire, creating a wet dream environment for the young adolescent mind. For everyone else, no amount of gyration can cover up the utter banality of both the story and the action at the bar.

The struggle-to-make-it and romance elements are pulled from the laborious drawer. Every career door slams in Violet's face with a thud, stage fright is a hackneyed emotional hurdle, and lover-to-be Kevin is a remarkably charming and available prince in cook's clothing but of course he hides his own deep dark sob story.

Coyote Ugly is saved from being an utter debacle by Piper Perabo, the relative unknown plucked from obscurity and dropped into the lead role for a big budget production. Perabo is much better than the material deserves, and she somehow rises above the dross to deliver a relatively genuine and empathetic performance. Perabo combines small town smarts with a sharp edge and quick wit, and avoids most of the dopey innocence that typically accompanies the role.

The rest of the cast is more consistent with the sluggish story, with Goodman in particular veering towards obesity in both weight and melodrama. Tyra Banks has a small role as a former bar top dancer and LeAnn Rimes appears briefly as herself.

Coyote Ugly refers to waking up sober after a one night stand, and feeling the urge to gnaw off, coyote style, an arm trapped under a repulsive man. The film is not quite that bad, but does leave behind the sense of time wasted chasing an ill-conceived impulse.

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Thursday, 28 January 2016

Movie Review: Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)

A comedy about friendship and coming of age, Ferris Bueller's Day Off is a deceptively simple story about a high school teen getting a jump start on life as an adult.

Resourceful Chicago high school senior Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) feigns sickness, fools his parents (Cindy Pickett and Lyman Ward) and skips school for the day. After some effort, he convinces his uptight and frequently sick friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) to also take the day off. Together they concoct a plan to smuggle Ferris' girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) out of school, from under the nose of principal Edward Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), a ruse that involves driving the precious vintage Ferrari belonging to Cameron's dad. Ferris also spreads rumours that he is practically on his death bed, triggering an outpouring of sympathy that spreads throughout the city.

Both Rooney and Ferris' sister Jeannie (Jennifer Grey) are convinced that Ferris is not sick at all and separately set out to catch him in the act. Meanwhile Ferris, Cameron and Sloane enjoy a day that includes trips to the Sears Tower observation deck, a Cubs baseball game, a meal at a snooty restaurant, visits to the art gallery and the mercantile exchange, and impromptu participation on a parade float. Rooney and Jeannie suffer their own misadventures as they try to uncover what the trio are up to, and Ferris will need all his wits to wrap up the day with no one the wiser.

Written and directed by John Hughes in the heart of his personal golden era, Ferris Bueller's Day Off is the definitive teen dream movie. The film is funny, fast-paced and also the perfect Chicago travelogue, Hughes showcasing the best that his favourite city has to offer on a gloriously sunny day. The central character is cool, calm and courageous, always several smart steps ahead of anyone trying to ruin his day. And the film's mantra of life moves pretty fast -- if you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it, may as well be the most perfect pre-written excuse to occasionally step off the treadmill and test all of society's rules.

Ferris narrates the film and regularly breaks the fourth wall, adding to his appeal and firmly pulling the audience to his side and against his adversaries. And Ferris' opponents are easy to boo, with Rooney the worst type of bug-eyed foam-at-the-mouth authority figure, and Jeannie the sibling too worried about what her brother is up to rather than carving her own path (her perspective only changes upon meeting her own rebel in the form of Charlie Sheen).

Building on his break-out success in 1983's WarGames, Broderick finds his perfect role as Ferris Bueller. His boyish charm and the sly but disarming smile are deployed to full effect, and it's impossible to dislike his roguishness. Indeed, a large part of the film's appeal lies in Ferris being universally liked by all the high school factions, an impossible ideal that elevates the character's powers to legendary status in teen circles.

While superficially about a kid who takes a day off, Hughes has a couple of not-so-hidden agendas, and he reveals them early. Not too many high school kids skipping school choose to go to an art gallery, the mercantile exchange, or a stuffy restaurant. Fewer still would propose marriage to their girlfriend. These are literal and figurative adult actions and destinations, and the intrepid Ferris is using his last day off crack open the door to the grown-up world that he and his friends will need to soon live in.

And the greater purpose of the day emerges in the relationship between Ferris and Cameron. Initially Ferris' insistence that Cameron join him in skipping school appears self-serving (he needs to drive that Ferrari!), but Cameron's quietly tortured character emerges as the one spot of darkness at the heart of the film. Ferris' agenda blossoms as the afternoon progresses, and rather than achieving personal fulfillment, his goal is revealed to be much more about providing an emotional lift to a friend in need, the most satisfying act on a most lively day off.

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Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Movie Review: The Freshman (1990)

A crime comedy mixing mobster satire with broad laughs, The Freshman benefits from a fine Marlon Brando performance riffing on his godfather persona, and an engaged Matthew Broderick. The film is astute and entertainingly frivolous in equal patches.

Clark Kellog (Broderick), raised by his wildlife-loving but otherwise obtuse step-father Dwight (Kenneth Welsh), leaves his rural Vermont home behind and heads to New York University to study film making. Within minutes of arriving in the big city, Clark meets the fast-talking Victor (Bruno Kirby), who offers Clark a ride but promptly steals all his money and luggage. Eventually Victor makes amends by introducing Clark to his uncle Carmine Sabatini (Brando), a businessman with a lucrative job offer that can't be refused.

Sabatini professes great admiration for Clark, who is intimidated into accepting a well-paid job as a driver tasked with transferring unspecified cargo from the airport to New Jersey. He also meets Sabatini's daughter Tina (Penelope Ann Miller), and with bewildering speed she professes her love for Clark and starts to talk of marriage. The cargo turns out to be a rare Komodo dragon being illegally imported into the care of the mysterious Larry London (Maximilian Schell), a flamboyant chef. Clark realizes that he has been sucked into an illicit and bizarre scheme involving gourmet meals featuring near-extinct species. He quickly wants out, but escaping Sabatini's web will be a complicated process.

The running joke in The Freshman is that everyone recognizes Carmine Sabatini as a spitting image of Don Corleone, but no one quite gets to say it. Brando mumbles his way through the role and has great fun recreating one of his greatest screen characters, but in this case the crime boss appears to be involved in nothing more serious than arranging over-priced banquets for air-headed rich guests.

The Freshman is filled with this kind of attractive asymmetry, where characters appear to be stereotypes but then step sideways into unfamiliar and quirky territory. Sabatini's pregnant pronouncements can be construed as either profound or simplistic, and his affection towards Clark may or may not be a real surrogate father-son bond, Victor oscillates between scruffy thief and resourceful potential brother-in-law, while Tina innocently combines mobster's daughter with a potentially genuine attachment to Clark. Larry London hints at a Nazi-laced evil past, but he could also be just an inventive cook.

Director and writer Andrew Bergman succeeds for the most part in threading the needle where Clark's ludicrous adventure stays on the right side of plausibly ridiculous. Broderick's fresh-faced, wide-eyed persona is a good match for Brando's dark and domineering boss, and the two create the film's best moments in several long conversational scenes. The Komodo dragon is also excellent and dominates a quite perfect comedy sequence as Clark and his film school friend (Frank Whaley) grapple with the reptile on an eventful trip from the airport to a hidden New Jersey zoo-of-sorts.

Some of the story details are less well constructed, and late on Bergman quick-fries a plot about corrupt conservation officers, while step-father Dwight reappears but is shortchanged into sitting in the back of a car and saying little.

The Freshman is a refined comedy which delivers a range of laughs without taking itself too seriously.

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