Friday, 30 October 2015

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Movie Review: Rising Sun (1993)

A disorganized murder thriller, Rising Sun attempts to inject cross-cultural corporate commentary into the story of a sordid death that occurs during a boardroom sex session. The result is a high quality but rather convoluted mess.

In Los Angeles, a large Japanese corporation is negotiating the takeover of a US tech company. The deal has political ramifications and Senator John Morton (Ray Wise) comes out strongly in opposition. During a lavish corporate reception hosted by the Japanese, escort girl Cheryl Austin (Tatjana Patitz) ends us dead after having kinky sex with an unidentified man on the boardroom table. Cheryl was the girlfriend-of-sorts of Eddie Sakamura (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), the son of one of the senior Japanese tycoons involved in the negotiations.

Lieutenant Web Smith (Wesley Snipes), a police liaison for foreign dignitaries, and Captain John Connor (Sean Connery), an expert in Japanese culture, are called in to help Lieutenant Tom Graham (Harvey Keitel) investigate the death. Web and John soon obtain a surveillance disc recording of Cheryl's death, and the visual evidence appears to implicate Eddie. But John senses a greater conspiracy, and recruits tech geek Jingo Asakuma (Tia Carrere) to prove that the disc has been altered. Eddie anyway finds himself on the run, while John and Web uncover a dense plot involving an internal power struggle and an attempt to influence the high-stakes negotiations.

An adaptation of the Michael Crichton book directed by Philip Kaufman, Rising Sun looks good and features watchable stars delivering smooth performances. Sean Connery as a detective who marches to his own drum with a deep appreciation for all things Japanese immediately elevates the proceedings, while Wesley Snipes, Harvey Keitel and Tia Carrere are never less than dependable. Plenty of rain and a glistening nighttime Los Angeles add an attractive aesthetic.

But as a plot, the film unravel rather quickly, and thanks to a flabby script it loses focus with remarkable ease. A lot of what may have worked as a book does not connect on the screen, and Kaufman is never able to find a human hook to any of the sprawling plot elements. Overlong at 125 minutes, the film starts turning in circles and as more of the conspiracy is revealed, less of it makes sense. Entire sub-plots are unnecessarily introduced and abandoned, including Steve Buscemi showing up late as a reporter delving into Web's past, and disappearing just as abruptly. By the end, minor characters come to the fore with no explanation, most of the loose threads are left dangling, a few Yakuza types show up to settle scores, and everyone goes back to work.

There are a few most unconvincing attempts to give Web a family life, while very little is known about John Connor. Kaufman inserts plenty of dialogue about the differences between Japanese and US culture, often intercut with scenes of misery on LA streets. While there is thoughtful material about the various forms of racism and observations on east meeting west, it's only the Americans who provide commentary. In a film purportedly about two cultures, all the Japanese remain poorly defined as stock characters.

Part buddy movie, part us-versus-them, part murder mystery laced with titillating sex, part corporate intrigue, and part Yakuza action thriller, Rising Sun throws everything at the well. Some of it sticks, but not much of it rises.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Movie Review: The Martian (2015)

A space survival and rescue drama, The Martian is an epic odyssey. The film celebrates science, resiliency and innovation under pressure, in a graceful, visually rich package.

In the relatively near future, the crew members of the Ares III mission, under the command of Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), have established a temporary base on Mars and are conducting scientific experiments. An unexpectedly severe Martian storm descends on them suddenly, forcing a quick evacuation. In the darkened confusion, crew member Mark Watney (Matt Damon), the mission botanist, is struck by debris, assumed dead, and left behind. But Mark is very much alive, just temporarily knocked out, his space suit damaged to falsely indicate no vital signs. He is completely alone on Mars.

Once Mark takes care of his puncture wound, he realizes that he will soon run out of food, and starts the process of planting his own nutrition. He puts his botanist skills to use, creates soil from packets of human waste, water by mixing hydrogen and oxygen, and is soon harvesting new potatoes. He eventually re-establishes contact with NASA back on Earth. NASA Director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) has to explain to an astounded public why a man was abandoned on Mars. Sanders then gets to work with Mars Mission Director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Flight Director Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) and a team of scientists and contractors to concoct an on-the-fly resupply plan until a manned rescue mission can be prepared. Meanwhile a debate rages as to whether Lewis, her pilot Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), and the rest of the Ares III crew, still on the return flight to Earth, should be told that Mark is alive.

Director Ridley Scott again returns to space to create another cinematic classic. An adaptation of the Andy Weir book, The Martian is a grand, feel-good, gorgeously filmed space adventure, celebrating the human spirit and ingenuity in the face of adversity. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and the special effects team create an astoundingly beautiful yet desolate Mars, while Matt Damon and the rest of the cast bring to life unforgettable characters.

At over 140 minutes, this is an interplanetary story told with both breadth and depth. For the most part Scott takes his time to explain what Mark is up against on Mars and the science behind every step he takes to survive, while similarly tracking NASA's frantic efforts back on Earth to first get to grips with the situation and then devise an extraordinary rescue. Some plot points are glossed over, but overall, the film exudes the confidence of an adventure that soars in space but is grounded by reality.

The story of The Martian mixes familiar elements from other excellent films where individuals face great tests of survival. The abandonment theme in a strange environment with minimal resources carries echoes of Cast Away (2000), the lost-in-space premise was explored in Gravity (2013), the small group risking everything to save one of their own was the central premise of Saving Private Ryan (1998), and space mission innovation under pressure was highlighted to great effect in Apollo 13 (1995).

But The Martian creates its own identity thanks to a smart script by Drew Goddard, firmly grounded in science and steering well clear of any antagonists. There are no melodramatics in The Martian, no evil plots, conspiracies or even hostility on any planet surface. Mars just is what it is, Mark just is where he is, and the story of adaptation and rescue unfolds with simplicity and minimal fuss.

In 3D, the film is marvel to look at, with awe-inspiring red Marsscapes, Mark and his meagre equipment often a dot set against a vast, empty, quiet and beautiful expanse. But despite the majestic scenery, Scott keeps the focus firmly on the people, and The Martian is a straightforward narrative of one man, first innovating to fend off starvation, then innovating to survive long enough to give his rescuers a half chance. The deployment of science expands from Mark alone, to Mark assisted by NASA, and then unexpected allies are found in the unlikeliest of places, and the effort to save one man spans the multicultural globe. It is a hopeful, perhaps idealistic stance, but the film is unapologetic in presenting the best that humanity can offer, from individual strokes of genius to nations sweeping away mistrust and offering a helping hand - or rocket.

Matt Damon acts on his own for most of the film, and delivers one of his career-defining performances. Generally speaking to inanimate cameras, Damon is perfect in bringing to life Mark Watney, an enduring film hero facing unimaginable loneliness and the near certainty of death, but who simply refuses to yield to a seemingly insurmountable survival challenge.

The rest of the cast is sound, with Jessica Chastain and Michael Peña exploding to life in the final third as Mark's crewmates take it upon themselves to execute an audacious rescue mission. Kristen Wiig as a NASA communications advisor, Kate Mara as a member of Lewis' crew, Donald Glover as a scrappy astrodynamicist and Mackenzie Davis as a NASA satellite tracker get small but still prominent and sometimes crucial supporting roles.

The climax of the film is thrilling, but also pushes towards the edges of credibility, as the pace of on-the-fly problem solving accelerates to almost manic levels. But despite all the technology, elegant space crafts and silent planets, at the end it is the human connection that triumphs. The Martian finds deliverance with an elegantly clumsy dual pirouette and then a small bump in space, humans reconnecting, eliminating the distance between them, and embracing the closeness that makes us stronger together.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Movie Review: Serendipity (2001)

A sweet romance, Serendipity fully commits to a single premise and makes the most of it. John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale find excellent chemistry and are extremely appealing as star-struck would-be lovers, their future guided by the quirky side of fate.

In New York City at Christmas time, Jonathan (Cusack) and Sara (Beckinsale) reach for the same pair of gloves at a department store. Although she has a boyfriend and he has a girlfriend, they are instantly smitten with each other and spend a few hours together, including sharing desert at an ice cream bar called Serendipity, and ice skating under the stars at Central Park. The magical evening is ruined by a devilish kid pushing all the elevator buttons at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, and the couple are separated. Jonathan only knows Sara's first name, and is unable to locate her.

Years later, Jonathan is engaged to Halley (Bridget Moynahan) and Sara has relocated to San Francisco and is engaged to musician Lars (John Corbett). But both are suddenly unsure of their chosen partners, and small clues prompt them to start looking for each other again. Jonathan recruits his best friend Dean (Jeremy Piven), a New York Times obituary writer, for a final quest to track down Sara, while Sara tricks her best friend Eve (Molly Shannon) to join on her on a trip to New York. With Jonathan and Halley's wedding day fast approaching, it's a race against time for the separated lovers to try and find each other again.

Directed by Peter Chelsom as a piece of whimsy with a dash of humour sprinkled on destiny's mischievousness, Serendipity announces its intentions in the title and never wavers from playing with the theme of fate dropping little hints at all the forks in the road of life. With the final outcome never in doubt, the film is playfully built on the little coincidences and seemingly random happenstances that may be harmless trivia or a grand indication of what decision is next needed.

An old Paul Newman film poster, a signed book given as a gift, an engagement ring that doesn't quite fit, a store receipt found inside a glove years after the purchase, a signed five dollar bill, a storefront converted to a bridal shop: little events could just be little events, or life-altering signposts urging a dramatic change in direction. The Marc Klein script cleverly keeps Jonathan and Sara in charge of all that they do in life. Fate is not imposed on them, but rather it provides them with what they need to reach their destination, or not, depending on how they interpret the available clues.

The lovers spend most of the film apart, an often troublesome plot device. And the two central characters are barely rounded, with their occupations and lives outside the romance context barely probed. But John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale overcome the separation with dedicated performances that convey genuine longing and a profound belief that the few hours Jonathan and Sara spent together were an introduction to something much more meaningful.

In support, Jeremy Piven and Molly Shannon do well to fill the void, providing Cusack and Beckinsale with foils to play against. Eugene Levy lets loose as a hilariously annoying store clerk who is both infuriating and helpful as Jonathan desperately tries to track down Sara.

New York City at Christmas time and a soundtrack of romantic songs add to the film's charm. Serendipity never threatens to tax the intellect, but it does brighten up the heart with a satisfyingly warm glow.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Sunday, 25 October 2015

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