Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Movie Review: Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)

A straightforward, fact-based dramatization of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Tora! Tora! Tora! does its job well. But the absence of character depth and individual drama reduces the film to the level of an educational documentary, a valuable piece of history but less than compelling as a cinematic experience.

It's 1941, and Japan is acting on expansionist ambitions in Asia while negotiating with the United States to avert hostilities. The Japanese Navy commanders are not aligned with their warmongering Army counterparts, and within the Navy ranks there are disagreements regarding the role of air power relative to traditional battleships. Admiral Yamamoto (Sō Yamamura) concludes that if a conflict with the United States is inevitable, a preemptive first strike on the US Navy Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor is essential for Japan to stand any chance of success. Popular commander and ace pilot Mitsuo Fuchida (Takahiro Tamura) is tasked with leading the attack.

Meanwhile, the US Navy command and the politicians in Washington are nervously tracking negotiations and reading intercepted Japanese messages. Admiral Kimmel (Martin Balsam) is convinced that an attack is forthcoming, but he finds it difficult to convince others, while his commanders, including Lieutenant Short (Jason Robards) are caught in a cycle of indecisive double talk and botched communications. Blunders and missteps reduce Pearl Harbor's effective state of readiness despite the presence of radar technology and increasingly clear intelligence. As the Japanese preparations and training for the mission continue, the Americans fail to connect the dots and are caught complete unaware as the attack starts.

Co-directed by Richard Fleischer, Toshio Masuda and Kinji Fukasaku, Tora! Tora! Tora! offers a balanced, both-sides-of-the-conflict view leading up to the day of the attack. The final 45 minutes are then purely dedicated to recreating the attack itself. With the Japanese language used in all the scenes involving the Japanese side, and almost every scene capturing a historically accurate meeting or event, the film is a faithful look back at a seminal moment in World War Two.

Two themes emerge during the lead up to the attack. The first is conflict and uncertainty among Japan's military leadership. The Navy and the Army are not on the same page, with the Navy commanders portrayed as more pragmatic. Conflict also resides within the Navy ranks, the shift away from emphasizing battleship superiority to appreciating what aircraft can offer proving difficult. Yamamoto is portrayed as a logical and realistic strategist: knocking the American carriers out at Pearl was the centrepiece of his plan. While the attack was wildly successful, Yamamoto realized that with the carriers out of port, the prized objective was missed.

The second theme is the series of early warnings not heeded by the United States. From early in November until December 7th itself, intelligence intercepts suggested that an attack was imminent, yet a series of fumbles and a general sense of indecisiveness and hand wringing prevented US politicians and the Navy brass from drawing the correct conclusions and taking the threat seriously. The continued lurching in and out of half-hearted states of alert blunted awareness at Pearl Harbor. Tora! Tora! Tora! was the agreed code for the Japanese pilots in the first wave to report a state of complete surprise, and that was what they achieved.

Where Tora! Tora! Tora! suffers as a movie is in abject soullessness. Particularly in the American scenes, the actors rigidly go through the motions, reciting earnest lines with extreme cardboardiness. The decision to not cast any stars to allow the story to dominate backfires: the lack of star power in this instance also means an absence of charisma, empathy and depth, and the film quickly wears the cloak of a stiff documentary project. The Japanese scenes are a bit better, with Yamamura the one actor afforded the opportunity to give his character Yamamoto some introspective layers.

When the attack is finally unleashed, the machines take over completely. There is little dialogue as the harrowing and deadly efficient assault is recreated with plenty of attention to detail. The small Japanese Zeros swarm Pearl Harbor, their torpedoes and bombs wreaking havoc on the US Pacific fleet, and the film drives home both the astonishing success and outright horror of the day that will live in infamy. Tora! Tora! Tora! may be dry as dust, but it's also an admirable portrayal of an extraordinary day in world history.

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Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Movie Review: Jason Bourne (2016)

Star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass return to the series, and offer more of the same. Jason Bourne teases out a promising story that adds depth to the central character, but is otherwise obsessed with ridiculously over-the-top action set pieces that defy all laws of physics and human endurance while occupying copious amounts of screen time.

Former CIA agent Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) hacks into the agency's network and uncovers evidence that Jason Bourne's father Richard Webb (Gregg Henry) was instrumental in instigating the ill-fated Treadstone covert program. Nicky alerts Bourne (Matt Damon), who is in self-imposed off-the-grid hiding, reduced to bare knuckle fighting to make a living. Nicky's hack is detected, and CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) tasks Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), the ambitious new head of the Cyber Ops Division, to clean up. Heather activates a hit man known only as the Asset (Vincent Cassel) to track and kill both Nicky and Bourne, and he almost succeeds in a chaotic Athens.

The Asset bears a personal grudge against Bourne, but after delving in Jason's files, Heather starts to believe Bourne can be brought back into the fold rather than killed. This puts her on a collision course with Dewey who just wants Bourne terminated for self preservation reasons. Meanwhile, Dewey's newest illicit program has him partnering with technical wizard Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), the CEO of social media giant Deep Dream, to harvest massive amounts of global personal information. Bourne starts to investigate the role his father played in his troubled career, all while evading the Asset and wondering whether he can trust Heather.

The fifth film in the Bourne series, the fourth to feature Damon and the third directed by Greengrass, Jason Bourne is glossy, professional and undoubtedly exciting. But the film also barely brings anything new to the table. The action moves from Athens to Berlin to London and then onto Las Vegas, but all the hyper-kinetic, micro-edited scenes of carnage now fall into familiar territory.

The motorbike chase, the chaotic crowd scene, the narrow escapes, the hand to hand combat to the death and the ridiculous car chase: they are all here, they all go on for too long, and they've all been seen before in this very series. Bourne has a narrow escape or cheats death at the rate of once per five minutes, and has the resilience to routinely survive collisions with fixed and moving objects that would reduce mere mortals to a vegetative state. And most tiresome of all are more retreads of scenes at CIA HQ, with multiple monitors flickering and grim faced operations commanders like Lee and Dewey barking orders and moving assets into position like pawns on a digital chess board.

On the more positive side, the film tries to include some new wrinkles to keep the series relevant and aware of current events. There are nods to the refugee crisis in Europe, and a toe-dipping into the grey world of mass surveillance using back doors within social media apps. The backstory related to the role of Bourne's dad in the agency and a deadly explosion in Beirut add good context to the convoluted Bourne family history.

Damon remains smooth in the role, projecting just enough emotion at the right times to serve as a reminder that there is a person in the middle of all the projectiles. Vikander is a welcome addition to the series. Tommy Lee Jones finds the weathered look of an old man ready to cut to the chase of kill or be killed, Dewey no longer possessing the patience for drawn-out strategic encounters. Vincent Cassel infuses the hitman role with more texture than usual, but further details on his story and background would have been appreciated.

Greengrass stubbornly sticks to his jerky, hand-held, up-close-and-personal style, the action amplified into a million edits none lasting for more than a split second. The eye catches glimpses of what may be going on and leaves it to the brain to try and make some sense of the fractured mosaic. It is undoubtedly artistry in editing, but nevertheless remains an annoying celebration of choppiness gone mad.

Although undoubtedly slick and efficient, Jason Bourne's biggest battle is against familiar motions and seen-before visual tactics.

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Saturday, 27 August 2016

Movie Review: Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

A road trip comedy, Little Miss Sunshine offers up a contemporary family dealing with a unique brand of turmoil. Both funny and poignant, the film succeeds by staying close to reality and true to its message.

The Albuquerque family of Richard and Sheryl Hoover is in disarray. Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a fledgling motivational speaker trying to secure a book deal for a hokey 9-step self improvement program. The frazzled Sheryl (Toni Collette), struggling to keep the family functional, picks up her brother Frank (Steve Carrell) from the hospital after he tried to kill himself over after a failed relationship. Frank is a homosexual professor of literature and an expert on the French author Proust.

Sheryl: I'm so glad you're still here.
Frank: Well, that makes one of us.

The Hoover's teenaged son Dwayne (Paul Dano) is severely antisocial, reads Nietzche, and has taken a vow of silence until he achieves his dream of entering flight school. Seven year old and slightly portly daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) is thrilled to learn that she has qualified to enter the Little Miss Sunshine child beauty pageant, but this means that the family will have to travel to Redondo Beach, California. Richard's dad Edwin (Alan Arkin) lives with the Hoovers after having been kicked out of a retirement home. He is a curmudgeonly, foul-mouthed and disruptive presence, but is helping Olive prepare her routine for the pageant's skills competition. Edwin also dabbles in heroin.

Grandpa (Edwin): Every night it's the fucking chicken! Holy God Almighty! Is it possible, just once, we could get something to eat for dinner around here that's not the goddamned fucking chicken?

The family piles into their VW Van and embarks on the 800 mile road trip to California. Along the way not much will go according to plan: car trouble will slow down their progress; grandpa Edwin will encounter a significant mishap; Richard will finally receive news about his book deal, necessitating a quick detour to Scottsdale; the surly Dwayne will discover an unwelcome truth; and Frank will have to survive an awkward encounter with old acquaintances. As Olive's pageant draws closer, the family dynamics undergo dramatic changes.

[after being persuaded to go on the trip, Dwayne writes]
Frank: [reading Dwayne's writing] "Ok, but I'm not going to have any fun." Yeah, well, we're all with you on that one, Dwayne.

An independent film written by Michael Arndt and directed by the husband and wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Little Miss Sunshine is the little film that could. With a brilliant cast, well-defined characters and no shortage of funny moments, the road trip where everything can go wrong becomes a journey about a family rewiring all its connections. Filled with moments of delicious awkwardness and character-driven humour, the film achieves and sustains an irresistible tone of irreverent merriment.

The film is a compact 101 minutes, and Dayton and Faris nail the pacing. The film never descends into farce, nor does it ever get bogged down in the many familial dramas. The balance is perfect, the comedy and drama working together, the frustrations mounting as the laughs accelerate.

Dwayne [writes] Please don't kill yourself tonight.
Frank: Not on your watch; I wouldn't do that to you.
Dwayne [writes] Welcome to Hell.
Frank: Thank you, Dwayne. Coming from you, that means a lot. Goodnight.

The theme throbbing at the heart of the film is about the strength of family ties, where problem issues can be extremely annoying but also superficial, and real strength resides in pushing together in the same direction. The VW van conspires to remind the Hoovers of the value of teamwork by losing its clutch early and necessitating a push start after every stop, the image of individuals forced to push together becoming the enduring image of the road trip. Later Richard and Dwayne will encounter severe disappointments while Edwin's unique misadventure threatens to derail the entire trip. The light and innocent touch of Olive becomes the most tender of unifying causes and a reason to believe in a better tomorrow.

None of the turmoil is lost on Frank, who serves as a recovering observer. Now he gets a front seat (or middle seat) to a family swimming in chaos, but also learning to stick together and not give up despite setbacks. Frank evolves from morose to a supportive role as he discovers that even he can provide caring at crucial moments.

Dwayne: I wish I could just sleep until I was eighteen and skip all of this, high school, everything.
Frank: Do you know who Marcel Proust is?
Dwayne: He's the guy you teach.
Frank: Yeah. French writer. Total loser. Never had a real job. Unrequited love affairs. Gay. Spent 20 years writing a book almost no one reads. But he's also probably the greatest writer since Shakespeare. Anyway, he, uh, he gets down to the end of his life, and he looks back and decides that all those years he suffered, those were the best years of his life, 'cause they made him who he was. All those years he was happy? You know, total waste. Didn't learn a thing. So, if you sleep until you're 18-- ah, think of the suffering you're gonna miss. I mean high school? High school-- those are your prime suffering years. You don't get better suffering than that.

Little Miss Sunshine features a cast that could not have been more perfect. Abigail Breslin leads the way as the wide eyed, curious, talented and extremely grounded child navigating her way through the minefield of family emotions. Greg Kinnear has never been better, while Toni Collette delivers another stunning performance as the mother trying to anchor a flailing household. Paul Dano is a perfect fit for the dangerously tortured Dwayne, while Steve Carrell and Alan Arkin provide strong support and expert comic timing.

The family comes to terms that unique individuals make the whole richer, a lesson that hits home at the pageant. We have to let Olive be Olive is Sheryl's rallying call, and the young girl goes on to unintentionally outdo all the hypocrisy on display, her family right behind her on the imperfect stage of life.

Police Officer Martinez: Okay, you're out. On the condition that you never enter your daughter in a beauty pageant in the state of California, ever again... ever.
Frank: I think we can live with that.

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Friday, 26 August 2016

Movie Review: Duel In The Sun (1946)

An overwrought Western romantic drama, Duel In The Sun is a barely tolerable exercise in overheated emotions. David O. Selznick's foolish attempt to create another Gone With The Wind unfortunately crosses the line into unmitigated camp.

In Texas, the wealthy Scott Chavez (Herbert Marshall) kills his flirtatious wife (Tilly Losch) and her lover. Before being hanged for murder, Scott arranges for his half-breed free-spirited daughter Pearl (Jennifer Jones) to live with the family of his former lover and second cousin Laura Belle McCanles (Lillian Gish). The McCanles own a massive ranch, and while Laura Belle welcomes Pearl, her wheelchair bound patriarch husband Senator Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore) does not conceal his condescending and racist attitudes.

The two McCanles sons immediately start to vie for Pearl's attention. Jesse (Joseph Cotten) is a calm and educated man, but also lacking in charisma. Lewt (Gregory Peck) is rough and rude, but also passionate and possessing a violent streak. Pearl tries to grab Jesse's attention, but it is Lewt who makes the aggressive move to start a steamy, possession-obsessed relationship, and Pearl can't resist his advances. With the approaching railway supported by Federal troops encroaching onto the McCanles property, a deep rift emerges between Jesse and the Senator, amplifying the tension.

While King Vidor is credited as the director, Duel In The Sun was a troubled production that suffered from Selznick's continuous meddling. In total up to seven directors may have had a hand in creating the film, including William Dieterle, Otto Brower, Selznick himself and none other than Josef von Sternberg, who was hired as a lighting expert to ensure Jennifer Jones always looked good.

And making Jones look good was one of Selznick's main motivations. They were in a relationship that would end in marriage, and Selznick was intent on sparing no expense to make Jones a huge star. He also wanted to top Gone With The Wind with another big-scale romance. Unfortunately, Duel In The Sun fails on all counts.

Despite a hideous makeup job that miserably fails to conceal her whiteness, Jones does look ravishing, and her wardrobe helps her convey an unconstrained sexuality. But Jones' overacting has to be seen to be believed, and in many scenes she descends into theatricality only suitable for the silent era or the amateur stage.

But much worse is a jackhammer script that invests 145 minutes on a romantic triangle featuring love, hate, sex, rape, racism, devotion and repulsion, often crammed into the same scene. An adaptation of a Niven Busch novel, the film does deserve recognition for daring to tackle some thorny issues head-on, including sexual power struggles and discrimination due to race. But the film fundamentally fails to provide any enriching societal or historical context around the romantic complications. The subplot related to the railway expansion appears in brief throwaway scenes and is soon forgotten. Instead the entirety of the movie drowns in the melodramatic emotions of Pearl as she wildly fluctuates between the breathless pursuit and evasion of Jesse and Lewt with no rhyme or reason.

While Lionel Barrymore and Lillian Gish show the younger cast members how its done, the stars surrounding Jones flounder just as badly as she does. Gregory Peck struggles mightily as the bad guy, the script calling on him to transform into an overtly evil man but depriving him of any depth. Joseph Cotten is so bland as Jesse that when he leaves the ranch after his dispute with the Senator, no one seems to notice.

If nothing else Duel In The Sun looks gorgeous, with plenty of sunsets, silhouettes, deep reds, blazing yellows and grand vistas to convey the harsh but wide open Texas terrain. But after a train wreck that seems to belong in another movie but here serves as an apt metaphor for the entire project, the film ends with what is probably one of Hollywood's best bad climaxes: a crawl-in-the-dust fiasco that is intended to be dramatic but is nothing short of hilarious in the worst possible way. For all the wrong reasons, it really is difficult to look away from the debacle that is Duel In The Sun.

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Thursday, 25 August 2016

Movie Review: Great Expectations (1946)

An adaptation of the Charles Dickins novel, Great Expectations features a spooky milieu and a captivating, layered story. David Lean's imaginative direction helps to create an absorbing experience.

It's the early 1800s in rural England. Phillip "Pip" Pirrip (Anthony Wager) is a young orphan boy, being raised by his ornery older sister and her kindly blacksmith husband Joe Gargery (Bernard Miles). While visiting the resting place of his parents in the spooky church graveyard, Pip is suddenly grabbed by escaped and ruthless convict Abel Magwitch (Finlay Currie). Pip is kind to Magwitch, providing him with food, but the criminal is soon recaptured anyway. Pip is then summoned to be a regular daily companion to Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt), an elderly woman who lives in a nearby massive estate with a young girl called Estella (Jean Simmons).

Miss Havisham has confined herself in her mansion for years, while Estella is incredibly beautiful, but also extremely mean to Pip. Nevertheless, Pip falls hopelessly in love with her. At age 20, the adult Pip (John Mills) receives unexpected news from Mr. Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan), a London-based lawyer: a secret benefactor will fund Pip's transformation from rural blacksmith to refined city gentleman, with a promise of future land holdings to come Pip's way. Pip moves to London to start his new life, and makes friends with Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness), while maintaining his love and pursuit of the grown up and still ravishing Estella (Valerie Hobson).

A captivating drama, Great Expectations features exceptional cinematography and use of light and silhouettes to heighten the already powerful events of the book. Lean deploys his masterful craftsmanship to capture compelling landscapes, grand buildings, and rooms that range from sparse to imposing. Dickens' characters jump to life in Lean's surroundings, Pip's life populated by exquisitely defined and indelible family members, friends, and acquaintances.

Lean neatly divides the film into two halves, Pip as a child and Pip as an adult. The opening is undoubtedly stronger, and features some brilliantly memorable interactions. Pip's initial encounters with Magwitch, Estella, and Miss Havisham contain cinematic magic of the rare kind. Pip displays bravery in the fog shrouded moors as Magwitch emerges from nowhere to barge into his life, and he demonstrates a different kind of steeliness to enter the gothic surroundings of Miss Havisham's mansion and then deal with the old lady's cob-webbed eccentricities and Estella's conceit.

Even the early and relatively brief introductions of Herbert and Mr. Jaggers are unforgettable. The more refined Herbert learns what it means to play boxing with the more streetwise Pip, while Jaggers' first scene on a candlelight staircase in Miss Havisham's house is a revelation that echoes into the future.

The second half of the film remains strong but is also more episodic and less ethereal. Dickens' original serialization emerges underneath the narrative, with some of Pip's adult adventures more contrived and mainly intended to create a breathless anticipation for the next installment.

The film plays with the theme of childhood experiences shaping adulthood. Pip the man encounters vestiges of his childhood at all of life's key moments, but not necessarily in the logical sequence that he would have expected. The decisions that the child took resonate into the future, the seemingly innocent encounters with people, places and events throwing long and often unanticipated forward shadows.

While John Mills and Valerie Hobson deliver functional performances, the children and the supporting characters are the true stars. Anthony Wager as Pip the boy and Jean Simmons as young Estella carry the poignancy of complex childhoods, while Martita Hunt, Francis L. Sullivan and Finlay Currie leave everlasting impressions as Miss Havisham, Mr. Jaggers and Magwitch respectively.

Visually haunting and intellectually engaging, Great Expectations rises to the challenge of translating a classic novel into a screen classic.

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Movie Review: California Split (1974)

A slice-of-life film set in the world of pitiful men succumbing to a life of continuous gambling, California Split suffers from a vague structure, less than compelling plot and loud overlapping dialogue. But once the story finally finds an anchor, both the drama and the level of engagement improve.

In Los Angeles, Bill Denny (George Segal) and Charlie Waters (Elliott Gould) meet at a poker game and establish a loose friendship based on their mutual love of gambling. Charlie has no expectation of a life outside gambling and will gamble on anything at anytime, maintaining an easy going, roll-with-the-punches (sometimes literally) attitude. Bill is more serious and intense, struggling to balance a career with his increasingly dominant gambling habit. Charlie introduces Bill to his friends, the rather dimwitted prostitutes Barbara (Ann Prentiss) and Susan (Gwen Welles).

Just as Bill starts to enjoy Charlie's regular company, the latter suddenly disappears. Left on his own, Bill freefalls into a full-fledged gambling addiction and finds himself deep in debt with his bookie Sparkie (Joseph Walsh, who also wrote the script). Upon Charlie's return, Bill is determined to prove himself a winner, and plans an all-or-nothing gambling trip to Reno.

Directed by Robert Altman in his trademark off-handed style, California Split takes a long time to find traction. Patience is rewarded once the characters are belatedly defined, but while Bill's downward spiral does engage, an element of vague tedium permeates proceedings. The technique of having multiple loud conversations overlapping in the same scene quickly grows tiresome, and it takes Altman the best part of an hour to be done with introducing the characters in a freewheeling first half that often dips into structural sloppiness.

The second half is much better. Once Bill find his rock bottom and starts to understand that just like gambling, Charlie's friendship comes with no guarantees, the film latches on to a theme. The trip to Reno turns into an expedition to prove that at least one winning streak resides in every gambler. Altman and Walsh then nail the climax, gambling emerging as more about self-definition and less about winning and losing.

The film's aesthetic accurately captures the depressing surroundings in which gambling thrives. Far from the glittery razzle dazzle marketing image of gambling, Bill and Charlie spend large chunks of their days and nights in smoke-filled windowless and featureless rooms, filled with desperate, unsavory souls intent on drowning their reality in pursuit of cheap riches.

George Segal and Elliott Gould do what is expected, the film's easy-going tone suiting both actors but also not providing any highlight opportunities for them to shine. Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles as the sweet but messy roommate hookers add to the general milieu of losers getting by as best as they know how. Jeff Goldblum makes a brief early career appearance.

California Split is half of a good film, the early clumsiness offset by a late winning hand.

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Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Movie Review: Kingdom Of Heaven (2005)

A historical epic based on real events, Kingdom Of Heaven is ambitious in scope and thoughtfully examines turmoil in the Holy Land during the Crusades. While the politics and battles are engaging, the film lacks emotional depth.

It's 1184, about a hundred years after the first wave of crusaders established a Kingdom in Jerusalem. Balian (Orlando Bloom), a blacksmith in the French countryside, has just suffered the loss of his wife through suicide. He reconnects with his father, the respected Baron Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), a crusader making his way back to the Holy Land. Godfrey is wounded in a skirmish along the way, but Balian makes it to Jerusalem, where he finds the Leper King Baldwin (Edward Norton) ruling Jerusalem by allowing peaceful coexistence among all faiths and maintaining hold of a tenuous peace with Saracen leader Saladin (Ghassan Massoud).

The Marshal of Jerusalem Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) is an ally of the King, but the Knights Templar, under the leadership of Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) and Raynald of Châtillon (Brendan Gleeson) are blood thirsty and power hungry, eager to set off a war with Saladin to impose Christian rule. To complicate matters, Guy is married to Baldwin's sister Sibylla (Eva Green). Balian settles down to working his father's lands, but with the Knights agitating for a war and Baldwin in ailing health, peace in the Holy Land is about to crumble.

Directed by Ridley Scott, Kingdom Of Heaven combines grand scenes of battle with an individual quest for life's true purpose. The film is passable both as a spectacle and a human drama, but never soars in either direction. Balian's story is interesting but never breaks through to a genuine level of engagement, while the army clashes are intense but often disintegrate into extras being thrown into a meat grinder.

At 144 minutes in length (with a much longer Director's Cut also available), the film is ambitious but doesn't create enough of a central drama to sustain its weight. Balian's story is a search for an objective after he loses his wife and commits murder in a rage, and his ponderous self-reflection does not always sit well in the context of massive historical events. It does not help that most of the dialogue is delivered with self-conscious importance, as if the characters knew they were partaking in events that would one day be chronicled in an important movie.

The rather unimaginative cast is adequate without threatening to compete with the grand sets and historical occasions. Orlando Bloom and Eva Green are promoted beyond their abilities to the front of a large production, and are not helped by an ill-defined and truncated romantic sub-plot. Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons and Edward Norton carry better gravitas but are unfortunately confined to smallish roles.

The film reaches a highlight with Saladin's siege of Jerusalem, the outnumbered Balian organizing a clever defence, his objective not so much victory but the carving out of a bargaining opportunity. Scott excels at quite stunning scenes of massive armies on the move, long range and close combat action, and city walls being grimly contested to the death.

Screenwriter William Monahan does not try to disguise the film's noble intentions: the Holy Land has been a place of strife and religiously-motivated slaughter for millennia, and the path of peace can only be plotted by characters like the righteous knight Godfrey, the brave blacksmith Balian, and the benevolent King Baldwin. They have their flaws, but they all look past the individual towards the collective and seek accommodation in search of the greater good. Alas, evil co-exists in plain sight, possessing small minds but great power. The bad guys are embodied by Guy and Raynald, and the religious zealots do enough to topple the fragile peace from its perch and reignite war.

Kingdom Of Heaven is a glossy treatment of a sensitive subject, and ultimately goes out of its way to confirm the obvious: in this part of the world the names, affiliations and weapons will change, but violence in the name of God prevails across generations.

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Monday, 22 August 2016

Movie Review: War Dogs (2016)

A dramatic comedy, War Dogs is an unapologetic story of young men profiteering from the business of weapons trading. Brash and vivid, the film passes no judgment: this is digital capitalism as applied to the often hypocritical enterprise of feeding the global death machine.

It's the mid-2000s in Miami. David Packouz (Miles Teller) is a pot-smoking college dropout, making ends meet as a massage therapist serving creepy rich men. David tries his hand at selling high quality bed sheets to retirement homes, and nearly bankrupts himself, just as he discovers that girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) is pregnant. Fortunately, David's high school friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) has just moved back to Miami. A fearless, quick-witted entrepreneur, Efraim is dabbling in low-level arms trading as a middle man bidding on official US Army requisitions through a public procurement website.

Efraim is good at what he does and asks David to join his fledgling company AEY Inc, an offer David accepts although he lies to Iz about his sojourn into the arms trading business.  AEY lands an order to supply handguns to the Army in Iraq, but when the shipment is held up in Jordan, the two friends have to personally intervene, resulting in a harrowing war zone experience. Higher stakes opportunities lie ahead, as AEY goes after a mammoth contract to supply the Afghanistan Army. Efraim and David partner with shady international arms dealer Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper), and find themselves in an Albania warehouse where Cold War surplus equipment can be translated into huge profits.

Based on real events chronicled in a Rolling Stone feature article and directed by Todd Phillips, War Dogs picks up the theme and style developed by The Wolf Of Wall Street and The Big Short: young men behaving badly and finding extreme riches in surreal yet factual environments. And War Dogs polishes the formula to a shine, mixing millennial brohood comedy, the ugly yet fearless American prototype, and deadly serious world events into a potent mix. Propelled an excellent thumping soundtrack featuring plenty of 1970s and '80s rock, the result is a tight dramatic comedy with plenty of punch.

At just under two hours the film contains no flab. Phillips uses the first 30 minutes to draw in the characters of David and Efraim, and they are a classic opposites-attract duo. David is more timid, struggling to find his place in life and reduced to half-baked business ventures doomed to both cause embarrassment and financial failure. Efraim is brash, big, and ridiculously confident, finding opportunities, swinging for the fences and easily able to cast aside the horror of a bad war in search of the capitalist dream. While David frets about profiting from a war he and Iz do not support, Efraim has no such qualms: the war is happening anyway, the weapons have to be sold, and the profit is there to be made.

The heart of the film is then dedicated to the seemingly bizarre world of modern weapons bought and sold to feed war's voracious appetite. It a wild west market where young men can make money by sitting in nondescript offices and clicking their way into the world of go-betweens, connecting idle weapons with active war zones. Phillips captures the anticipation, excitement and frenzy of dealmaking, with David's character providing engaging narration to fill in the gaps. And when deals go bad and on-the-ground sojourns are needed, War Dogs soars, first to the chaotic Iraq theatre and then onto Albania, a forgotten Cold War front line now waiting to translate ancient surplus hardware into cold hard cash.

The interaction between David and Efraim is maintained at the heart of the film, Phillips guiding the two protagonists through phases of a friendship that morphs into a hazardous business relationship, ultimately revealing some painful true colours. Jonah Hill easily occupies the eye of the storm, giving Efraim a force of nature personality, deploying the same obtuse behaviour whether in glitzy Miami bars or in the world's worst hell holes. The story is told through David's eyes, and Miles Teller delivers a circumspect performance, David's dilemmas shaped by burgeoning family responsibilities both pushing him towards money making opportunities and pulling him to question his motives.

War Dogs is absurdly serious, the business of war translated into a wild adventure where extreme riches dance with death.

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Saturday, 20 August 2016

Movie Review: Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978)

A science fiction horror drama, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers builds to a fine level of tension in the story of aliens duplicating and replacing humans through organic, plant-generated pods.

Alien spores from a distant but dying planet travel to Earth, latch onto plants, mix with water, and morph into beautiful small flowers. In San Francisco, health department worker Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) takes one of the flowers home. A few days later she notices a dramatic change in the behaviour of her boyfriend Geoffrey (Art Hindle), who has become a lot more aloof and robotic. Elizabeth confides in her co-worker and lover Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), who suggests that she has a talk with celebrated psychiatrist Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy).

Similar reports of strange personality changes sweep through the city. Elizabeth, Matthew, and their friends Jack and Nancy (Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright) start to piece together what is going on: when humans sleep the flowers grow into large pods that create emotionless duplicates and destroy the original. With the snatchers taking over the city, Matthew and his friends have to fight off sleep and find a way to survive.

A remake of the 1956 original and directed by Philip Kaufman, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers expertly plays with a sense of creeping dread. The film contains its fair share of disgusting moments and effective shocks, but Kaufman's intention is to create cerebral rather than physical scares, and he succeeds admirably.

Relying on a sense of hopelessness in the face of an unseen threat rather than outright horror, the story unleashes an organic, messy and determined foe on an unsuspecting city. With no spaceships or weapons of any kind, the invaders simply destroy humanity from within, using the disguise of an innocent, exotic-looking flower. The film works as a metaphor for the proliferation of pollution and toxins destroying all that is good and transforming people into uncaring beings. It is equally effective as a cautionary tale about the speed with which pandemics can spread, and the potentially woefully inadequate levels of preparation to combat an unexpected threat.

The first two thirds of the film establish the characters and introduce the warning signs that all is not well. Kaufman is patient, hinting at what might be and allowing Elizabeth and Matthew plenty of time to round into real and flawed people. The final third does occasionally struggle to find new plot elements, and there are some prolonged chase segments that could have been trimmed. Excellent nighttime cinematography by Michael Chapman, combined with chilling a music score by Denny Zeitlin featuring some blood-curdling screams, help to maintain momentum.

Brooke Adams gives the brightest performance, and the unfolding horror is mostly seen through her character's eyes. Donald Sutherland is a bit more sleepy but swings into action in the second half of the film. Jeff Goldblum, in one of his earlier prominent roles, and Veronica Cartwright provide good support. Leonard Nimoy's casting is a clever touch, as his Dr. Kibner tries to exude calm and promote an intellectual rather than panicked reaction.

There are no heroes or epic showdowns in Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, and the film leaves plenty of open questions, contributing to a sense of pessimism. The intention of the aliens is to survive on a new planet; the fate of the suddenly hapless human species is a less important detail.

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