Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Movie Review: Eye For An Eye (1996)

A mother's vigilante justice drama, Eye For An Eye works hard to raise a sweat but remains just one notch above TV movie fare.

Karen and Mack McCann (Sally Field and Ed Harris) have two daughters, teenager Julie (Olivia Burnette) and the much younger Megan (Alexandra Kyle). On the day of Megan's birthday, a home intruder violently rapes and kills Julie. Detective Joe Denillo (Joe Mantegna) arrests lowlife delivery man Robert Doob (Kiefer Sutherland), and with strong DNA evidence linking him to the crime, a conviction appears likely. But Doob escapes justice on a technicality and is released, infuriating Karen.

She joins a victim support group where she befriends the sympathetic Angel Kosinsky (Charlayne Woodard), and secretly starts plotting to take justice into her own hands. She tracks Doob's movements and begins to suspect that he is about to rape and murder again. In desperation, Karen turns to a group of grieving parents who appear to be facilitating vigilante justice, including Sidney Hughes (Philip Baker Hall). But Karen will learn that extracting revenge is much more difficult than she imagined.

Directed by John Schlesinger and adapted from the Erika Holzer novel, Eye For An Eye has above-average talent working with below average material. The urbanite victim frustrated by the justice system and deciding to turn to vigilantism is at least as old as Charles Bronson in Death Wish (1974). That movie and all its sequels and imitators, including women revenge fantasies in such fare as Ms. 45 (1981), squeezed the concept dry a good 15 years before Eye For An Eye.

The film does try, and Schlesinger raises the violence quotient by ensuring that the two rape and murder scenes are harrowing and painful to watch. Forcing Karen McCann to listen-in over a cell phone as her daughter is assaulted adds to the sense of a parent's helplessness and increases the justification for her fury. Sally Field dominates the film and delivers a committed performance, while Kiefer Sutherland does his part by creating in Robert Doob a truly hate-worthy piece of white trash, a psychopath driven by the basest animal instincts to copulate and kill. Doob taunting Karen and Mack in the courtroom after the case against him is thrown out is a classic piece of despicable behaviour.

But the weaknesses of the material are quickly apparent. This is a film in which nothing will be known about Doob's backstory, and most of the strong supporting cast is wasted. Ed Harris, Joe Mategna and Beverly D'Angelo (as Karen's business partner) are derivative characters reduced to the shallowest of line readings, and several potentially interesting sub-stories featuring Angel and Sidney are abandoned when convenient.

Eye For An Eye is predictable revenge fare, arriving late to the party and leaving next to no impression.

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Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Movie Review: The Rainmaker (1997)

A David versus Goliath courtroom drama with plenty of appeal, The Rainmaker enjoys a stellar cast in fine form and hits all the right notes, but never quite reaches the emotional heights that it strives for.

Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon) graduates from law school in Memphis, and the only job he can land is with the office of ambulance-chaser "Bruiser" Stone (Mickey Rourke) and his crony Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito), who has never been able to pass the bar exam. Shifflet takes Baylor under his wing and teaches him the ropes. Soon Rudy has three clients: the elderly Miss Birdsong (Teresa Wright) wants to rewrite her will; low-income mother Dot Black (Mary Kay Place) wants to sue the Great Benefit insurance company for denying coverage for her leukemia-afflicted son Donny Ray (Johnny Whitworth); and Kelly Riker (Claire Danes) is being regularly physically abused by her husband.

Bruiser runs into some serious trouble with the law, prompting Rudy and Deck to establish their own business, as the insurance company lawsuit starts to occupy most of their time. Great Benefit hires a crack team of lawyers headed by the slick Leo F. Drummond (Jon Voight) to defend the case, and Rudy finds himself out of his depth in terms of experience and resources. But Dot refuses to settle, and the case lands in court, with Judge Tyrone Kipler (Danny Glover, in an uncredited performance) presiding. As Kelly's confrontations with her husband grow ever more dangerous, Rudy has to uncover Great Benefit's unethical practices to convince the jury that Donny Ray never received the medical treatment that he deserved.

By the time The Rainmaker arrived in movie theatres as a big-budget, high-quality adaptation of a John Grisham novel, the 1990s alone had already offered a multitude of quality courtroom dramas including three Grisham adaptations. A Few Good Men (1992), The Firm (1993), In The Name Of The Father (1993), The Client (1994), Sleepers (1996), and A Time To Kill (1996) featured big name stars, big name directors and some seminal courtroom moments, and The Rainmaker unfortunately suffers from the nagging feeling that Hollywood was perhaps going to the same well one time too many. There was little new that the genre was able to offer by 1997, and while The Rainmaker does everything right, it doesn't do much that is particularly memorable.

Director Francis Ford Coppola wrote the screenplay, and in one of his more traditional outings, steers the film safely through all the tight corners. The 135 minutes of running time pass by smoothly, and the Memphis setting, mostly in the grungier parts of town, enriches the context. Rudy Baylor is a likable if somewhat bland protagonist, and Matt Damon applies his boyish charm in the right doses to make the rookie lawyer a scrappy hero worth investing in. The narration provided by Baylor, is, for the most part, unnecessary.

The three stories compete for attention in the first half of the movie, but the insurance lawsuit dominates the second half, and the movie evolves as expected into a satisfying high-stakes courtroom showdown to influence the jury. Jon Voight does his part and creates in Drummond a worthwhile adversary who justifies his high fees by shredding witnesses just when Rudy starts to believe that he might gain an unlikely upper hand.

The other two legal cases, involving Miss Birdsong's will and Kelly's domestic abuse, do get short changed, and ultimately get in the way of the main narrative thrust and are almost all but discarded. Miss Birdsong's ordeal with the will is a great excuse to see Teresa Wright on the screen one last time. Kelly's wife abuse story takes a turn towards mayhem that has all the appearances of a desperate attempt to occupy Rudy with something other than the insurance firm lawsuit.

Danny DeVito, Mickey Rourke and Danny Glover add plenty of animation and some moments of humour, while late in the case Virginia Madsen and Roy Scheider make telling contributions in the courtroom.

Despite having its heart in the right place and working the big bad corporation theme to perfection, The Rainmaker lacks a killer moment of impact to differentiate it from other legal dramas. This does not make it a lesser film, just a lower profile but still enjoyable adventure in the jungles of the law.

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Monday, 29 December 2014

Movie Review: The Ice Storm (1997)

A family drama about dysfunctionalities hidden beneath the surface of middle class normalcy, The Ice Storm uncovers emotional wreckage but fails to properly engage with its characters.

It's the early 1970s in the quaint town of New Canaan, Connecticut. Thanksgiving is approaching, winter is setting in and an ice storm is in the forecast. The Watergate scandal is brewing, and a new wind of sexual and drug experimentation sweeps through the seemingly staid suburban subdivisions. Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) is married to Elena (Joan Allen), but their marriage spark has long since extinguished, driving Ben into having an affair with married neighbour Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver). Elena meanwhile is depressed and resorts to shoplifting. The latest adult trend is the "key party", where couples swap partners at the end of the evening through a random draw car key lottery.

The Hoods' teenaged children are Paul (Tobey Maguire), now attending college, and the younger Wendy (Christina Ricci), and they are having issues of their own. Paul has developed a crush on classmate Libbets (Katie Holmes), but his roommate Francis (David Krumholtz) always nabs whichever girl Paul is interested in. The brooding Wendy is into full sexual experimentation mode, and her targets include Janey's two boys Mikey (Elijah Wood) and Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd). When the ice storm arrives and outdoor conditions become treacherous, the indoor drama also reaches critical levels.

Ang Lee directed this adaptation of the Rick Moody book, and while it is always salaciously irresistible to peak behind the curtains of the neighbours' bedroom windows to spy on dirty secrets, and the wintry New England setting is attractive, this is as far as the film's appeal goes. Past the sex, drugs, infidelity and misery running rampant through two generations of suburbanites, The Ice Storm offers little in the way of engagement.

Part of the problems is that the characters are reactive (or, more accurately, inactive) and living under the shroud of non-communication. They say so little that they never become rounded people. Ben and Elena are presumably at the centre of the film, but close to two hours pass and next to nothing is revealed about them, except that their marriage is in trouble. Even less is known about the Carvers as people, other than that their relationship is also broken.

Ironically, Paul and Wendy emerge as more provocative than their parents, with Wendy in particular harbouring all kinds of strange intentions, victimizing Mikey and Sandy in pursuit of her own journey of discovery. Paul's clumsy attempts to carve out private time with Libbets backfires in humourous fashion.

Other than frequent viewings of President Nixon on television and some fashion garments on the wild side, the early 1970s era is underused. The dialogue is generic, and the James Schamus screenplay is unable to convey a genuine vibe for the turbulence of the times. Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver and Joan Allen are strongly associated with the 1980s or later years, and not much is done with hairstyles and mannerisms to help them relocate to an earlier time.

The Ice Storm is a polished observation of a society in flux. But it remains a superficial view, as cold to the soul as the ice unleashed by nature.

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Sunday, 28 December 2014

Movie Review: Almost Famous (2000)

A sweet coming of age story set in the world of 1970s rock music, Almost Famous is an engaging dramedy inspired by the true life adventures of writer and director Cameron Crowe.

It's 1973 in San Diego, and 15 year old William Miller (Patrick Fugit) is an aspiring music writer, despite the protestations of his mother Elaine (Frances McDormand), who wants him to become a lawyer. Inspired by a meeting with the dean of rock critics Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), William tries to sneak backstage at a Black Sabbath show, but instead connects with the opening band Stillwater, a middling rock outfit on the cusp of either stardom or obscurity.

The band's guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) sees something that he likes in William, especially once William stumbles his way into a free-lance assignment to write for the influential Rolling Stone magazine. Stillwater have their groupies, including the wispy Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), who regularly sleeps with Russell, although the guitarist has a wife stashed in New York. William anyway develops a serious crush Penny, and they both end up on Stillwater's bus as the band tours across the United States in search of their moment in the spotlight. With William growing up quickly surrounded by sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, he struggles to focus on writing as the band starts to tear itself apart and Penny falls hard for Russell.

Crowe himself wrote for Rolling Stone, and toured with bands including The Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, Eagles, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. He created the fictional Stillwater as a prototypical 1970s rock band, and amalgamated his tour experiences into the adventures of young William Miller. Almost Famous has the unmistakable feel of a heartfelt trip to the nostalgia of youth, a young man discovering the world and himself while enjoying a real live soundtrack.

The film draws its energy from a diverse group of believable characters surrounding William. Starting at home with his mother (frazzled as she loses control of her children) and his I've-had-enough sister (Zooey Deschanel) and extending all the way to the groupies, band manager and the Rolling Stone editors, Almost Famous feeds off the dynamics of suburban normalcy colliding with the parallel universe of the rock stardom industry. For the first two thirds Crowe keeps the drama on an even keel, the film unfolding gradually as a slice of life. The final third introduces a heart-stopping near-catastrophe for the band followed by an overdose, as the dramatic quotient spikes up. Both incidents are fully believable, but they also detract from the more impressive gentle focus on relationships.

Russell Hammond is the heart of the film, the guitarist at the centre of his band, bonding with William as an older brother and leading Penny to a potential broken heart. Billy Crudup provides Russell with a world weariness stemming from an appreciation that while the lifestyle is great, time is running out, Stillwater is still a second-rate band, and maybe the dream won't come true. Penny Lane remains one of Kate Hudson's best roles, as the young actress finds both confidence and fragility within Penny, a young woman who thinks she has all the answers but finds herself irresistibly drawn to an unavailable man. Less interesting is Patrick Fugit as William, as Almost Famous is a film where the main character is more of an observer than an instigator. Fugit is unfortunately stuck with a goofy smile and floppy hair for too many scenes.

With a soundtrack of music both from the era and inspired by it, including songs written for the film by Peter Frampton, Almost Famous captures the spirit of an era, where rock came out to play and to a young man coming of age, everything in love and life seemed possible.

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Saturday, 27 December 2014

Movie Review: Planet Of The Apes (1968)

A seminal science fiction film, Planet Of The Apes challenges humanity's status as the dominant species through a provocative confrontation on a planet ruled by apes.

On-board a spaceship, astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston) and three crew members enter deep hibernation as they head back to Earth after an 18 month journey. Due to their near light speeds of travel and time dilation, Taylor knows that close to 2000 years would have elapsed on Earth by the time of their return. The crew is awoken when the spacecraft crash lands into a lake on a seemingly hostile, barren planet. Taylor, Landon (Robert Gunner) and Dodge (Jeff Burton) survive the crash and set about exploring their surroundings. They traverse a desert and reach fertile soil, where they first encounter foraging wild humans with no language skills, then civilized ape soldiers on horseback. Taylor is captured by the apes, treated like a wild animal, and taken to a nearby city.

Held captive and treated like a savage, Taylor realizes that on this planet, the apes are the masters and the humans are the animals. He is introduced to ape scientists Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter), who are amazed to learn that Taylor can write and talk. His mere presence casts doubt on the prevailing theories of ape supremacy, and he is immediately perceived as a threat by the ape leaders, including Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans). Despite having the cage company of Nova (Linda Harrison), a wild woman, Taylor realizes that he is going to have to plot an escape to try and save himself from a fate worse than death.

An adaptation of the book by Pierre Boulle, and with a screenplay co-written by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling, Planet Of The Apes is a stirring science fiction adventure in a land where evolution appears to have taken a different turn, and man gets to face a taste of his own medicine. The film enjoys debating religious, evolutionary, and species-specific arguments from the perspective of apes as rulers and humans as savages incapable of evolving. Presenting apes as intellectuals while the humans are confined to filthy cages is a brilliantly disconcerting premise.

Director Franklin J. Schaffner constructs a three act movie with excellent pacing and plenty of bravado. The first third is survival against the elements: Taylor and his crew members have to traverse harsh terrain in a desperate search for sources of food and water. The middle third is the jarring introduction to the rudimentary ape society, where science, religion and philosophy are combined by the elders to weave enough of a foundation for the ape civilization to take hold. The arrival of Taylor is a disruptive, and unwelcome, surprise. The final third is a clash of the species. Taylor grows bolder, challenges the apes, and finds in Cornelius and Zira potential allies to help him survive and challenge the laws of the elders about the ranking of apes and humans on the evolutionary ladder.

The movie is a constant source of intellectual stimulation. Schaffner maintains plenty of interest by emphasizing different exploratory levels, transition from the physical planet to the ape society and then the scientific implications to evolution and the origins of the planet.

The revolutionary prosthetic makeup techniques by artist John Chambers are excellent, allowing McDowall, Hunter and Evans to express a range of emotions despite their facial appearances being fully transformed into apes. Charlton Heston gets to let loose as the last defender of humanity's honour, expressing rage and fury (with a substantial dose of 1960s anti-authoritarianism) but gradually realizing that his intellect will likely be his best weapon in the fight for survival.

Planet Of The Apes is celebrated for a shock ending, Taylor forced to confront exactly where humanity stands when it comes to species supremacy. It's an unforgettable conclusion to an imaginative adventure exploring the farthest reaches of space and the most fundamental attributes of what it means to be human.

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Friday, 26 December 2014

Movie Review: The Juror (1996)

A bewildering drama about a juror caught up in a mob trial, The Juror misses every mark it aims for and crashes into a ridiculous mess.

Annie Laird (Demi Moore) is an aspiring New York modern art sculptress and single mom of teenager Oliver (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Annie is initially excited to be selected as a juror in the high profile trial of mobster Louie Boffano (Tony Lo Bianco), accused of ordering the murder of rival Salvatore Riggio, a botched hit which included the unplanned killing of a young boy as collateral damage.

But Annie is soon regretting her involvement in the trial. Henchmen Mark (Alec Baldwin) and Eddie (James Gandolfini) are assigned to intimidate Annie into voting Not Guilty no matter what. Mark is also known as The Teacher, and he is the actual trigger man in the Riggio murder. He is also psychotic, and sidles up to Annie and starts to dominate her life with threats while also angling to dispose of Boffano. As Annie realizes that her life and Oliver's future are in the hands of The Teacher, she receives another shock: a hung jury is not enough. The mobsters want her to deliver a Not Guilty verdict in order to fully acquit Boffano.

While there is a good story hiding here somewhere about juror intimidation, the final product is a debacle. The Juror is an adaptation of the George Dawes Green book directed by Brian Gibson, and he is incapable of saving a disastrous script by Ted Tally.

Nothing about the film rings true. The Teacher is a baffling combination of philosopher, killer, and wannabe lover, capable of cold blooded child murder and dissolving into a puddle of sentimental goo when staring at photos of Annie's eyes. The actions of the mob are inexplicable, placing Boffano's entire future into The Teacher's hands, after he managed to botch the hit on Riggio. And that initial crime is a sloppy foundation for the story: the Teacher goes chasing after a young boy to kill while leaving another adult witness alive and well in the murder room.

The Juror may have been intended as a courtroom drama, but precious little time is spent within the court or in the jury room. The trial scenes are rushed, while the five minutes that depict Annie's attempts to turn the jury in her favour are the best thing about the film by far. Neither Moore nor Baldwin are remotely convincing in their roles. Better are the performances by young Gordon-Levitt as Annie's son, while Gandolfini as a sympathetic mobster and Anne Heche as Annie's best friend do their best to enliven the film.

The Juror adds to its misery by contriving a climax in, of all places, Guatemala, as bits of unresolved plot are strewn all over the place in order to transform The Teacher into an out of control killing machine and Annie's character into an all-action heroine. The Juror is dismissed for lack of discipline.

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Thursday, 25 December 2014

Movie Review: The Pledge (2001)

A thoughtful psychological crime drama, The Pledge plays with a patient mood while grappling with a brutal murder and the search for the mysterious predator.

In Reno, Nevada, police detective Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) is retiring. On his last working day, the brutalized body of a young blonde girl named Ginny is discovered in a snowy field. Jerry pledges to the victims' mother (Patricia Clarkson) that no matter what, he will bring the murderer to justice. Toby (Benicio del Toro), a dimwitted vagabond aboriginal, is arrested and detective Stan Krolak (Aaron Eckhart) extracts a confession from him, declaring the case closed.

Jerry doubts that Toby is the killer, and after retirement he continues his informal investigation, interviewing Ginny's grandmother Annalise (Vanessa Redgrave); the victim's best friend at school; and the father (Mickey Rourke) of another young blonde girl who met the same fate as Ginny. He gains a vague picture of the killer's car model and colour, and a murky connection between the crimes and porcupines.

Jerry purchases a gas station along the main highway in the rural area where he believes the next murder may happen. As the months pass, he befriends single mom Lori (Robin Wright Penn), who has a young blonde daughter Chrissy (Pauline Roberts) about the same age as the previous victims. Gradually, Jerry starts to encounter men who could be suspects. But Jerry is also hearing voices in his head, and may be starting to lose his grip on reality.

Directed by Sean Penn, The Pledge is an adaptation of the Friedrich Dürrenmatt book. This is a film that takes a deep breath from the surrounding landscape, and focusses on characters, atmosphere and emotion. There is little action that takes place on screen, but plenty that goes on in the thoughts, fears, and hopes of Jerry Black as he tries to fulfill the promise he made to the distraught mother of a young victim.

Penn's pacing is deliberate, but nevertheless engrossing. Within the forgotten back road setting where time is slow, towns are small, cars are old and technology is outdated, the film is packed with tiny unsettling moments, indications that all is not well, neither in the rural community stalked by a vicious child killer, nor in Jerry's mind. Jerry could be suffering from old-age, post-retirement emotional turmoil, the stress of his pledge, or something else altogether more serious. Penn provides hints, but never any clear resolutions. What is for sure is that some danger is lurking and closing in, and Jerry is welcoming, almost eager to face his nemesis. Whether or not he is ready is another question.

While The Pledge unfolds on its own terms towards a rich and rumpled conclusion, it does suffer from almost too much silence, as the details of Jerry's deliberate actions are sacrificed in search of style and a brooding aesthetic.

Jack Nicholson provides a thankfully subdued performance, staying well within himself despite the mounting stress. Jerry Black is a stoic, calculating character, well past the days of running after suspects and now more interested in laying an elaborate trap and waiting for the right time to pounce. Nicholson conveys a man under self-imposed pressure, with his judgement increasingly clouded. He may or may not be using Lori and Chrissy as a lure; he likely does not quite know anymore whether his need for a family is in conflict with the burning desire to solve a crime.

In support, almost every one-scene role is brought to life by a prominent actor. In addition to Clarkson, del Toro, Eckhart, Wright Penn, Rourke and Redgrave, Helen Mirren makes an appearance as a psychiatrist, Harry Dean Stanton is the original owner of the gas station purchased by Jerry, and Sam Shepard is a police detective.

The Pledge weaves a spell and luxuriates in its foggy density, as much a crime mystery as a thought-provoking sojourn to the place where promises become obsessions.

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Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Movie Review: Rock Of Ages (2012)

A musical romance that manages to both satirize and celebrate the mid-1980's LA metal scene, Rock Of Ages is wholly predictable and mindlessly fun.

It's 1987, and wholesome small town Oklahoma girl Sherrie (Julianne Hough) arrives in Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a singer. She meets and falls in love with Drew (Diego Boneta), an aspiring musician waiting for his break by working at The Bourbon Room, a legendary club on the Sunset Strip. The Bourbon is owned by Dennis (Alec Baldwin) and his sidekick Lonny (Russell Brand), and they are struggling with a mounting tax bill and declining revenues.

Dennis pins his hopes for a financial recovery on a final concert by the metal band Arsenal, whose lead singer Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) is leaving to pursue a solo career. Arsenal's manager is the oily Paul (Paul Giamatti), who has his own plans for the financial windfall. Meanwhile Rolling Stones reporter Constance (Malin Åkerman) is hoping for a groundbreaking interview with Stacee, while a new Mayor (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) vow to clean up the city from the evils of heavy metal. When Sherrie appears to fall under the irresistible spell of Jaxx, her relationship with Drew is threatened.

An adaptation of the Broadway show, Rock Of Ages draws all of its energy from the music. Featuring famous metal and rock anthems from the 1980s, including songs by Guns 'N Roses, Foreigner, Def Leppard, Scorpions, Bon Jovi, Pat Benatar, Twisted Sister, Whitesnake, Extreme and REO Speedwagon among others, Rock Of Ages soars during the musical numbers as delivered by the cast members.

Director Adam Shankman finds the best moments when focussing on stage performances, and Cruise stomping all over Leppard's Pour Some Sugar On Me is a particular highlight in capturing the era's deliciously decadent sexuality. Also good are some of the mash-ups, where two songs are cleverly stitched together into one. Less successful are the larger song-and-dance numbers, where creaky choreography is exposed, and Shankman appears out of his depth as he fumbles to try and capture the dynamism of fluid group dance movements.

The story is standard musical tripe, a romance among wannabes set against the backdrop of big shows and industry politics. There is a steady stream of humour to keep things lively, and certain plot elements work better than others. Reporter Constance falling under Stacee's spell gets the movie's vibe and is over-the-top entertaining, while Patricia's quest to stamp out metal fares poorly as a sub-plot and never gains traction. The Sherrie - Drew romance is as bland as can be expected.

Meanwhile, most of the performances are better than they could have been. Baldwin, Giamatti and Brand fully buy into the silly premise, and Tom Cruise outshines them all with a ridiculously good turn as Stacee Jaxx. Cruise is nothing less than perfect as a burnt out and yet still magnetic rock star, trading on past glories and without a surviving creative bone in his body, but beyond caring as he enjoys the life of a god. It's a performance that should have nabbed Cruise an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

The two leads are trampled by their more established colleagues. Julianne Hough is out of place among all the Sunset Strip filth, both in her less than convincing acting and in her country music appeal, while Diego Boneta as Drew never threatens to steal any of the spotlight.

Embracing the simplicity of an era when shallow superstars fueled a festival of sweat, sex and self-indulgence, Rock Of Ages rocks on.

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Monday, 22 December 2014

Movie Review: Rawhide (1951)

An often overlooked Western, Rawhide is a tense and compact hostage drama set at an isolated overland mail outpost.

Rawhide Pass is a remote rest stop for the Overland Mail Company, on the treacherous yet popular route to deliver mail, passengers and cargo via stagecoach between San Francisco and St. Louis in 25 days. Grizzled veteran Sam Todd (Edgar Buchanan) is the stationmaster, and he is assisted by the inexperienced Tom Owens (Tyrone Power), who is still learning the business. The mysterious Miss Vinnie Holt (Susan Hayward) arrives at Rawhide on the eastbound wagon, accompanying a young child named Callie. But Miss Holt and Callie are forced off the wagon and asked to spend the night at Rawhide as a safety precaution, because convicted criminal Rafe Zimmerman (Hugh Marlowe) has broken out of prison and is threatening the safety of stagecoaches in the area.

Miss Holt is beyond irritated and immediately clashes with Tom. But things get a lot worse when Zimmerman and three other escaped inmates, including the borderline psychotic Tevis (Jack Elam), arrive at Rawhide, dispatch of Sam, and take control of the station. Zimmerman wrongfully jumps to the conclusion that Vinnie and Callie are Tom's wife and child, and holds them hostage to manipulate Tom into cooperating. Zimmerman and his men intend to ambush the eastbound coach arriving the next day and carrying a large quantity of gold. Tom and Vinnie have to find a way to tolerate each other, maintain the pretense of a married couple, and survive the ordeal.

Playing with some of the same themes from The Petrified Forest (1936) and Key Largo (1948), Rawhide is less about action and more concerned with establishing a remote, cut-off location, exploring bubbling tensions within a small group under stress, and presenting an intelligent antagonist with a back story, struggling to maintain control of his shifty allies and terrified hostages. The ingredients are mixed well by director Henry Hathaway, and the result is a taut 89 minute exercise in character dynamics.

The Dudley Nichols script gets most things right. Tom and Miss Holt get off on the wrong foot, creating a natural conflict that is only made worse when they are mistaken for husband and wife. And on the other side, the dangerous Tevis is introduced as an unstable member of the invading gang, injecting a source of volatility that Zimmerman will rarely have full control over. And finally, little Callie is the most vulnerable hostage, and also a delightful catalyst capable of generating doses of unpredictability.

It can be argued that Zimmerman would have been better off ambushing the gold-laden stagecoach on the trail rather than at Rawhide, and his background and motivations would have benefited from some additional elaboration. When Zimmerman's crimes are revealed it is others who do the talking, and the film would have been enriched had the escaped convict himself had an opportunity to tell his story.

But Hathaway keeps the narrative moving and the stress mounting, as deep fractures appear among the outlaws, and Tom and Vinnie reach the limit of their tolerance for captivity and the charade of marriage. Tyrone Power demonstrates welcome vulnerability as a man who is afraid and devoid of answers, while Susan Hayward brings her typical fieriness to the role of Vinnie Holt, a strong woman having to deal with a large number of men, many of them dangerous. Marlowe as Zimmerman is adequate, but more handsome than menacing. Jack Elam gets a larger supporting role than usual, and with an everpresent sneer, he ensures that Tevis is a memorably despicable villain.

As effective as the pioneering overland mail service it celebrates, Rawhide delivers the goods with admirable efficiency.

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Sunday, 21 December 2014

Movie Review: The Nun's Story (1959)

A drama about the struggle to adhere to higher ideals, The Nun's Story is a sincere exploration of the conflict between two competing aspirations, both admirable.

In Belgium of the late 1920s, Gabrielle "Gaby" Van Der Mal (Audrey Hepburn) enters a convent to start the process of becoming a nursing nun. Her father Hubert (Dean Jagger) is a famous surgeon, and Gaby's ambition is to provide medical services as a nun in Congo. Gaby commits herself to learning the proper habits of a nun, including long periods of silence, letting go of her past, frequent prayers, and public confession of every transgression in front of all the other nuns. Gaby makes good progress, takes her vows, and is granted the title Sister Luke. But she continues to struggle with the concept of absolute obedience and complete humility. Her background as the daughter of a recognized surgeon is a point of pride, and her love of medicine competes with her dedication to religious ceremony.

Sister Luke serves a stint in a Belgian mental hospital, and is finally assigned to the Congo, where she is disappointed to find herself stationed at a hospital for white people rather than helping the locals. But gradually she proves her value, and is assigned to help the abrasive Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch) as his head surgical nurse. An unconventional emergency surgery, an unexpected illness, and a shocking incident bring Sister Luke and Fortunati close together, but she is called back to Belgium. When World War Two erupts, Sister Luke is forced to assess the discord between religious duty and the longing to pursue medical and political involvement.

Directed by Fred Zinnemann from a Robert Anderson adaptation of Kathryn Hulme's book (based on the life of her friend Marie Louise Habets), The Nun's Story is involving without necessarily touching the emotional heights that it aims for. The evolution of Gabrielle Van Der Mal into Sister Luke is a ponderous journey filled with introspection, self-evaluation, self-doubt and struggle to conform to an impossible ideal. This is a story about the search for personal fulfillment through individual endeavour, and for long stretches there is not much of interest going on outside of Gabrielle's discovery process and internal thoughts.

The film unfolds like a documentary, an earnest depiction of the sacrifices and ceremony involved in dedicating a life to the service of others. The lack of a narrative thrust makes for a slow but educational first two thirds of the protracted 149 minutes of running time. Hepburn as Gaby is almost silently swept along by the higher calling and fully immersed in unlearning any personal desires while striving for the appropriate inward and outward behaviours of a nun.

The final third of the movie picks up the pace, as Dr. Fortunati proves to be a turning point in Sister Luke's life, then World War Two interferes and pushes for a conclusion about her aspirations and beliefs. The film finally offers a sharply defined dilemma for the main character to grapple with, and the dramatic quotient positively benefits.

Zinnemann directs with his usual courtly approach, giving every scene stately time to breathe, impress and register. The initial transformation of Gaby into Sister Luke, which occupies the first hour, is filled with imposing ceremonies in the Mother House, allowing Zinnemann and his cinematographer Franz Planer to find impressive angles and capture lofty assembly halls filled with solemn extras, while the Franz Waxman music score adds to the ambiance. It's a visual and auditory feast, the dividend achieved from the leisurely pace.

Audrey Hepburn was nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award, and her performance is a rewarding study in restraint. Hepburn conveys all her internal conflict from within an ocean of calm and through the briefest of blurted expressions, and only late in the film does she start outwardly expressing clear thoughts that challenge the rules of others. The coarse and refreshingly blunt Peter Finch injects plenty of energy, but is on the screen for a relatively short stretch. The rest of the supporting cast is a large but rather interchangeable sea of faces representing all the nuns that Gaby interacts with over the years.

The Nun's Story is impressive and dignified. What the film lacks in intensity, it more than makes up for in quiet grandeur.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Movie Review: Torrid Zone (1940)

An enjoyable if lightweight adventure in an exotic land with romance, drama, humour and droll characters, Torrid Zone delivers ripe fruit.

Steve Case (Pat O'Brien) is the highly strung manager of an international fruit export company based in a literal banana republic. Case controls chief of police Juan Rodriguez (Frank Puglia), and orders him to deport newly arrived lounge singer Lee Donley (Ann Sheridan) because she is too hot for the locals. Case and Rodriguez also have problems with revolutionary leader Rosario (George Tobias), who is at least temporarily behind bars, while Plantation 7 is under-performing ever since Case's best man Nick Butler (James Cagney) quit after having an affair with Case's wife. The new man Anderson (Jerome Cowan) and his wife Gloria (Helen Vinson) are overwhelmed and unable to cope with Rosario's hit and run raids.

Case cajoles Butler back to work with the promise of a big bonus, Lee avoids deportation by easily duping Rodriguez and sidling up to Butler, Rosario escapes the execution squad and gets back to the mountains to lead his men. Butler tries to whip Plantation 7 back into productivity while figuring out a way to find Rosario's mountain hideout and subdue the revolution. But the real battle is on the plantation, where Lee and Gloria are hissing at each other, in a claws-out battle to claim the queen banana crown.

That Torrid Zone does not bother to name the country where all events are taking place is a good clue to the film's attitude. The opening globe hints at a country somewhere near the equator, and that's all that needs to be revealed. This is a jungle romp played very much tongue in cheek, and although broad comedy is not the intent, the film aims for, and mostly achieves an amiable vibe where the actors are having fun trading barbs, the outcome is predetermined, happy and not very important.

Lee (to Case): Mister, the stork that brought you must have been a vulture.

Director William Keighley, never accused of trying to infuse quality where none is needed, hustles the action along to can the movie in 88 minutes. He also forgets to provide any guidance to the likes of Pat O'Brien, who shouts his way through the film with the deftness of a gorilla, and Andy Devine (as a Case loyalist and Cagney's sidekick at Plantation 7), who deploys his high pitched squeaky voice to distraction. Cagney just plays himself and easily gets away with it, while Ann Sheridan emerges as the star of the film.

Lee (cutting off Butler's shirt so she can dress his wound): Oh, did I hurt you?
Butler (sarcastically): Oh, no. How could you hurt me by sticking a scissors in my arm?

While the character of Lee Donley has no business being in this unkempt environment or anywhere near men like Nick Butler, Steve Case or Rosario, the script plonks her there to stir the pot, and stir she does. Sheridan glides through the movie with the silkiness of Bacall on her most dangerous days, and gets all the best lines. Her verbal duel with Gloria Anderson is filled with gems, as two cats go at it in the jungle heat.

Lee (picking up a cigarette dropped by Gloria): I believe this is how the Chicago fire got started.
Gloria: The Chicago fire was started by a cow.
Lee: History repeats itself.

The rest of the film stumbles along, large quantities of fruit moving on impressive trains, punctuated by Rosario cheating death on several occasions to continue leading his people's revolution. His guerrilla army seems to mainly consist of a small band of smelly nitwits more interested in banter than fighting, but it's all besides the point. Torrid Zone is a place where nothing is serious, and all the real action happens in the form of zingers paving the way for Nick and Lee to fall into each other's arms.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Movie Review: Stella Dallas (1937)

A touching mother-daughter drama, Stella Dallas is an affecting and brilliantly conceived film, featuring a career-highlight performance from star Barbara Stanwyck.

In a Massachusetts factory town after the Great War, Stella Martin (Stanwyck) is eager to win the heart of the handsome and capable Stephen Dallas (John Boles). Now working in mid-management at the factory, Stephen comes from a once rich family, and lost his father to suicide and his bride-to-be Helen to another man. Stella eventually wins Stephen's heart; they get married and a year later daughter Laurel is born.

Stella is eager to be seen as a sophisticated society woman, but her behaviour is over-eager and more awkward than elegant. Stephen pleads with her to calm down and be herself, but she makes friends with the boorish Ed Munn (Alan Hale), further alienating Stephen who moves to New York to further his career. Left alone Stella dedicates her life to Laurel, who grows into a well-behaved young lady (Anne Shirley), devoted to her mother but still on good terms with her distant father. Stephen has meanwhile reconnected with Helen (Barbara O'Neil), now a widow with three boys of her own. With Stella struggling to remain relevant in Laurel's life, the fractured family reaches a crossroads.

Directed by King Vidor and based on the book by Olive Higgins Prouty, Stella Dallas is an always engaging drama about a woman who reached for the stars of the good life but found her grasp exceeding her abilities to cope. Stella's basic social talent gives her a taste of a life that she could have enjoyed, but her fundamental lack of sophistication forces her to stumble, fall and ultimately reevaluate what is most important to her. This is not a film about happiness or sadness, just life, unintended consequences and the challenging decisions that must be confronted under less than ideal conditions.

The mother-daughter relationship is at the core of the film, and Laurel becomes the one anchor in Stella's life. Stella strives to give her daughter the best possible opportunities in life, and in return, Laurel gives her mother a reason to persevere. Rarely has a film so beautifully captured the complex and difficult bond of inter-dependence between mother and daughter.

Vidor keeps the film moving at a brisk pace, the progression of the familial relationships summarized through key scenes that demonstrate, rather than talk about, the evolution of connections between Stella, Stephen, Ed, Laurel and Helen. The film's editing and pacing is years ahead of its time, Vidor producing a masterclass of vignettes that say a thousand words without dialogue.

Ed clumsily snuffing out a cigar in young Laurel's bowl is shown but never mentioned; it represents a breaking point for Stephen. Stella's fashion disaster at the tennis club is never discussed by anyone except as gossip between unnamed strangers. Yet it is the moment of truth for both Stella and Laurel, the physical manifestation of Stella reaching the limits of her usefulness as a mother to the blossoming Laurel.

Barbara Stanwyck delivers the performance of her life as Stella Dallas, starting as a young flirty thing eager to land a prize husband, and ending as a mother willing to sacrifice the world for her daughter's happiness. It is to Stanwyck's enormous credit that she nails complex emotions without once resorting to over-the-top emotional outbursts or excessive melodrama. Indeed, Stanwyck scales the peaks of intensity by pulling back, delivering with silence and deft expressions mountains of feeling.

The many remarkable highlights include Stella lying awake in her train bunk bed, overhearing gossip, unable to do anything except quietly grieve for the embarrassment caused to her daughter. And the final scene, with Stella alone and silent, this time behind the fence, outside the window and in the rain witnessing her life carrying on without her, is devastating in its combination of outright relief and unimaginable pain on Stella's face.

This was the first of four Best Actress Academy Award nominations in eleven years for Stanwyck. She never won, but it is doubtful that she ever came closer to receiving the Oscar.

The supporting cast is solid, with Anne Shirley catching the eye as the grown up Laurel, a young woman caught between a deep love for her imperfect mother and the twinkling promises that only start to become available once Stella is sidelined.

Stella Dallas is an exceptional achievement, a film about people with emotions real and pure, ensuring enduring relevance.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Movie Review: The Westerner (1940)

An entertaining big-budget Western, The Westerner helped to establish the genre as a serious venue for bringing to life engaging characters and exploring key themes in the West's progression.

It's the 1880s, and large numbers of settlers are arriving in Texas, putting up fences and producing crops to the chagrin of cattlemen who want the country to remain wide open for cattle grazing. In the small town of Vinegaroon, self-appointed Judge Roy Bean (Walter Brennan) runs the local watering hole which doubles as his courtroom, with his rough, ready and regular customers providing a convenient jury pool. Bean is aware of the shifting social landscape and sides with the cattlemen, refusing to accept that the West is undergoing a fundamental change. He also worships stage performer Lily Langtry, plastering her pictures all over his saloon.

California-bound drifter Cole Harden (Gary Cooper) is brought in front of Bean accused of stealing a horse. Harden is innocent, and recognizing Bean's fascination with Langtry saves himself from hanging by spinning long tales of personally having met Lily. Gradually Harden and Bean develop a thorny friendship, despite Harden lining himself up with the settler family of Jane Matthews (Doris Davenport). But when violence erupts and lives are lost in the battle between settlers and cattlemen, the two men are forced to finally confront each other, and matters are further complicated when it is announced that the one and only Lily Langtry will be arriving in Texas for a stage show.

A year after John Ford's Stagecoach revitalized the big-budget Western and proved that the genre can indeed be respectable and not just B-movie fodder produced on Poverty Row, William Wyler picked up the challenge and delivered another grand tale of the old West. Drawing inspiration from the life of the real and legendary Judge Roy Bean, The Westerner is a simple story of two resourceful men who discover that as much as they should be friends, the changing times will inevitably push them towards confrontation.

The Westerner is a story told with humour, elegance and two fine performances. The screenplay by Niven Busch and Jo Swerling keeps the mood light with plenty of wit and colourful secondary characters. The remarkable but real antics of Judge Roy Bean in self-appointing himself as the law and running a courtroom out of his saloon are genuinely funny, and the film celebrates one of the West's great eccentrics.

While Walter Brennan won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award (his third win in five years), his is the film's central performance, and Bean is its most compelling character. In his later years Brennan would become known as the cinematic goofy sidekick, good for a cheap laugh but little else. The Westerner may be his finest performance, as he gives the Judge depth, evil smarts, natural suspicion, and a potent mix of charm and deadly determination. Brennan's protective-aggressive portrayal of Bean's (apparently true) infatuation with Langtry is a particular joy.

In contrast Cooper is solid but unspectacular in a role that he only accepted reluctantly and to fulfill his contractual obligation to producer Samuel Goldwyn. Cooper recognized that Cole Harden is strictly second fiddle despite occupying the moral high ground. But The Westerner revealed the special magic that sparkles when Brennan and Cooper are together on the screen, and led to four more collaborations.

Despite the prevailing quality, the film is not without its faults. Wyler allows a few scenes to go on for longer than needed, and makes too much of Bean's obsession with obtaining a locket of Langtry's hair, which spills over into a drama between Harden and Jane.

But in addition to the two central characters, there is a plenty more going on in the film to compensate, and the tone easily switches to serious when needed. This is the story of the west evolving from wide open and generally lawless to a place where families are settling and hoping to raise children and tend the land. The era of the Roy Beans of the world is drawing to a close, and men like Harden will have more say as the new frontier evolves from rowdy to domesticated. The Westerner will endure, but only by transitioning from wild and carefree to thoughtful and considerate.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Movie Review: The King Of Marvin Gardens (1972)

A low-key character study set in Atlantic City, The King Of Marvin Gardens celebrates early 1970s minimalism but toils to create drama around a small group of dreamers and drifters.

David Staebler (Jack Nicholson) works as an overnight talk show host at a Philadelphia radio station, entertaining his audience with long-winded fictional stories. David lives in a large house with his grandfather and seems to be sleepwalking through life in a state of minor depression.  At the request of his brother Jason (Bruce Dern), David travels to Atlantic City, where he meets Jason's girlfriends Sally (Ellen Burstyn) and Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson).

Jason is a perpetual dreamer, always on the lookout for the next big deal, and is involved with some unsavoury Atlantic City criminal types including crime boss Lewis (Scatman Crothers). Jason's latest vague scheme is to build a casino resort on a tiny island off the coast of Hawaii, and he wants David's support. The naïve Sally and Jessica dream of joining Jason in Hawaii, while engaging in their own competition to be Jason's prime play mate. With Jason full of ambition but utterly lacking in focus or ability, David has to decide how close he wants to be to his brother, while Sally and Jessica head towards a resolution of their own.

Directed by Bob Rafelson in one of six collaborations with Nicholson, The King Of Marvin Gardens zooms in on four people and stays there. With a rudimentary story that never intends to go anywhere, the script (by Jacob Brackman and Rafelson) takes its time to delve into the shifting emotions of David, Jason, Sally and Jessica. While the foursome are interesting enough, it is an undoubted struggle to sustain attention even for the shortish 104 minute running time.

It is clear early that David is carrying emotional wounds and is repressing his life to guard against any shocks. It's a different role for Nicholson, allowing him to stay deep within himself and express annoyance with minimal expressions and gestures. Jason is equally easy to categorize: a small time hustler who will always end up on the losing side of any deal. Jason is introduced in a jail cell, and he never does anything to suggest that his half-baked schemes will help him find better outcomes. Bruce Dern grabs the role and runs with it, making a splash but falling short of finding a glimmer of pathos that may have helped the film glow. Neither David nor Jason undergo much of a transformation as the two brothers bump up against each other and find little willingness for change.

Sally and Jessica are both potentially compelling characters, but the the film only offers piecemeal hints about their backstory, and they are never rounded out into people. It's a wasted opportunity to expand the film into a wider circle. The movie is Julia Ann Robinson's one major film credit before her tragic death in 1975.

To make up for the relative leanness of the material, The King Of Marvin Gardens boasts plenty of style. The opening scene is a classic close up of a Nicholson monologue in dark surroundings, Rafelson revealing the setting and surroundings ever so slowly and with a large dose of cleverness. The rest of the film is full of compelling Atlantic City scenery from the early 1970s, when old glories had well and truly faded and a thick sense of defeatism hung heavy over the boardwalk. Rafelson also takes several surreal side trips into dreamlike scenes that are fascinating in their non sequitur state. One such sequence features the foursome staging a simulated Miss America pageant, while other scenes suddenly transpose the characters to unusual settings on the beach, with almost no context.

The King Of Marvin Gardens is an adequate curiosity, never achieving regal status but presenting a worthwhile stroll in the company of conflicted brothers.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Movie Review: Meet John Doe (1941)

Directed by Frank Capra, Meet John Doe is a feel-good story about populism, politics and pretense. The film is easy to enjoy, but lacks depth and sophistication.

Sassy newspaper columnist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) loses her job when the struggling daily paper is sold to tycoon publisher D. B. Norton (Edward Arnold). In her final column she writes about a letter she received from "John Doe" stating his intention to commit suicide on Christmas Eve, because he can't find a job and the world has become a grim place where people don't care about each other. John Doe and his letter are entirely manufactured by Ann. The published column is taken seriously and causes a political firestorm. Ann is re-hired to write a series of John Doe columns, outlining the source of his anger and creating a manifesto for a better society.

Vagabond "Long" John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) is hired to pretend to be John Doe, with his every word scripted by Ann, who uses her deceased father's diary for inspiration. Willoughby's caustic travelling companion "The Colonel" (Walter Brennan) hangs around to witness the deception.

Willoughby plays along with Ann's every request, hoping to make enough money to fix a bum elbow and take another shot at a baseball career. The John Doe political phenomenon takes off across the country in the form of organized clubs promoting good neighbourliness and citizens looking out for each other. But Norton and his backroom backers harbour secret intentions of hijacking the John Doe movement as a springboard for a presidential election campaign, leaving Willoughby and Ann to struggle with the consequences of their actions.

Meet John Doe easily achieves it's objective of satirizing simplistic political messages, celebrating each individual and the power of neighbourliness while exposing the corrupt puppet masters behind every curtain. It's a simple slice of Americana effectively presented with Capra's typical charm. The plight of the average guy is once again placed front and centre as a gateway to a broader societal lesson, with simple solutions to complex problems easily devoured by the masses, a phenomenon that ironically reverberated in the real USA under the Tea Party banner 65 years later.

But the film itself stays on the same elementary plane occupied by its own message, and veers towards the simplistic. Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin cannot quite find the dose of magic needed to elevate the themes and emotions towards something greater than the sum of the most basic ideas, and the film plateaus early and plays itself out with a combination of predictability and mild amusement.

Several scenes run much longer than they need to, from The Colonel's rant about "heelots" (hordes of heels in search of money) to the endless Bert Hanson story about forming the first John Doe club. The film seems unable to make a point without resorting to an overabundance of tiresome talk. It's never quite bland, but the absence of any true spark, wit, threat or sharp edge gives John Doe and his adventure a free pass towards a contrived ending that fails to resonate.

Gary Cooper is fine in a role that would have better belonged to James Stewart, but Cooper does all that he can with it. Long John Willoughby is the ultimate reluctant hero, and Cooper sheds any semblance of confidence and dives into the character's sideswiped puzzlement over sudden wealth, fame and influence. Any energy enjoyed by the film is provided by Barbara Stanwyck as Ann Mitchell. She enlivens the first half, but her character is subsequently tamed and takes a back seat as the Jon Doe phenomenon sweeps the nation and Long John' mounting dilemma becomes the centre of attention.

Not unexpectedly Ann falls in love with Long John, but only because the script demands it, and the film waves from afar at the notion of a romance without genuinely engaging in the concept. John Doe's story ends at the top of a building on Christmas Eve, the movie turns suddenly towards religion to find a quick exit, and an imperfect man again understands his value. It's all delivered with the best of intentions, and it's all just a bit twee.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Movie Review: The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

The conclusion to the Jason Bourne trilogy, The Bourne Ultimatum does not disappoint. An action-packed joy ride filled with breathless chases and ruthless violence in international settings, the film places an exclamation mark at the end of a high calibre modern spy story.

Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is still on a mission to understand his own past, reclaim his identity, and confront the CIA superiors who turned him into a ruthless assassin engaged in black operations. Equally determined to stop him are CIA Deputy Director Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) and CIA Director Ezra Kramer (Scott Glenn), who just want Bourne to be terminated to tie up the one remaining loose end with the illicit Treadstone and Blackbriar operations. CIA Deputy Director Pam Landy (Joan Allen) is also brought in to try and snare Bourne, but she is more sympathetic to his cause.

Bourne keys in on British journalist Simon Ross (Paddy Considine) who is receiving information about Blackbriar from a source within the CIA. Bourne connects with Ross in London in a meeting that ends with a CIA sharpshooter taking out Ross in a crowded train station. The trail leads to Madrid, where Bourne reconnects with agent Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), who sides with him as they make their way onto Tangiers to track down the CIA source. There are more merciless assassins in wait, but Bourne doggedly makes his way to New York, to confront his past once and for all.

The Bourne Ultimatum sticks closely to the formula established for the franchise. Plenty of grim action, spies mercilessly chasing spies, hitmen galore, incredible stunts and feats of human durability, and the shortest possible narrative scenes to provide the action some structure to hang on. It's predictable, highly kinetic, and for this series, it works.

Almost everything in Ultimatum was seen before in Identity and Supremacy. The car chases, foot chases, motorbike chases, close-quarters combat, surveillance and panic in the streets are all here. Supremacy director Paul Greengrass returns for the third installment and polishes everything to a shine, the tension always high, the stakes for Bourne and his CIA controllers a matter of life and death, or for the higher ups at least a matter of saving a career and avoiding Congressional hearings.

With a story, style and characters that were never going to be blessed with the gift of originality, Greengrass pushes all the elements to the edge of credibility, and sometimes beyond. With each successive brush with death Jason Bourne appears to take on indestructible qualities, shrugging off his bone rattling injuries, instantaneously losing his scars and proceeding to travel effortlessly between countries and infiltrate the most secure of secretive buildings.

In one frantic foot sequence through Tangiers, Bourne jumps three or four times off of balconies and through apartment across the street, seemingly equipped with the ability to sense his enemy's movements through buildings several blocks away. The climactic carnage of the now mandatory car chase should be enough to a least send Bourne to the hospital for an extended stay. Instead he emerges from the wreck of what used to be his car unscathed, pointing his gun, ready for the next round.

Stylistically Greengrass finds the limit of his love for micro-edits, shoving the hand-held camera wherever it will shake the most and closest to the action, and then editing every chase and fight with the sharpest possible cutting. Greengrass doesn't so much capture the action as allow his cameras to be pummeled by the brute forces in every confrontation, challenging the eye and the brain to keep up. The effect walks the line between heart-pounding exhilaration and stomach-turning nausea.

The cast of veterans get on with the job with minimum deviation from the standard "this is serious" emoting. Matt Damon glides through the film fending off bad guys with the cold efficiency that comes with the certainty that the story only ends when the lion's den is infiltrated.  David Strathairn, Scott Glenn and, late in the game, Albert Finney form the triangle of men with secrets that need to be defended at all costs. Interestingly, Bourne is only ever helped by women during his Ultimatum adventure, with Julia Stiles and Joan Allen reprising roles from earlier installments and lending a more sympathetic ear to the man searching for the solution to his own mystery.

A suitable ending to a thrilling trilogy, The Bourne Ultimatum tidies up the story with another jolt of frenzied excitement.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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