Saturday, 29 October 2016

Movie Review: Deepwater Horizon (2016)

A disaster film based on real events, Deepwater Horizon is the story of the workers on board the vessel involved in one of the world's worst environmental disasters. The film tries to create characters worth caring about, but instead surrenders to excellent pyrotechnics.

It's 2010, and electronics technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) leaves his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) at home for another 21 day stint on board the Deepwater Horizon oil rig about 40 miles off the Louisiana coast. Deepwater Horizon is owned and operated by Transocean, and contracted to global energy giant BP. Also on the vessel is crusty rig manager "Mr. Jimmy" Harrell (Kurt Russell), Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), a member of the bridge navigation crew, and a clutch of BP executives including Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich).

Williams and Mr. Jimmy know that the vessel is underfunded, with many basic systems inoperable, including phone lines and some computers. The crew is under pressure from BP to accelerate their schedule, and shortcuts are taken despite worrisome pressure test results. A blowout followed by multiple mammoth explosions cripple the vessel and set it on fire, causing multiple fatalities and injuries, and forcing the survivors to try and abandon ship to save their lives.

The Deepwater Horizon explosion resulted in an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days, one of the world's all-time worst environmental disasters. But this film's intention is to remember the men victimized by the explosion and fire, and to pay tribute to the eleven workers (about 10 percent of the workforce) who lost their lives in the horror.

The first half of Deepwater Horizon sets the context, and the trouble with the film is apparent early on. Director Peter Berg has the opportunity to humanize the men (and with one exception, they are men) who will face disaster, but he comes up empty. Williams and Mr. Jimmy are sketched in as principled heroes-in-waiting, otherwise the first 60 minutes are a blur of gruff men and impressive equipment going about their work, and little that matters is revealed about any of them. Just before everything blows up the BP executives as exemplified by Vidrine are installed as the perfunctory cartoon villains of the piece, and then the special effects folks take over.

The second half is all jerky camera work, jarringly loud explosions, impressive fires and stroboscopic lights. There are acts of heroism amidst the chaotic horror, but the superb recreation of a floating hell casts a shadow on everything else. The special effects team does a masterful job of avoiding the cheesiness of CGI, and Deepwater Horizon does look and sound superb. But as a drama about people, it fundamentally lacks substance.

Wahlberg and Russell dutiful fulfill their roles as the men who connected the dots leading to tragedy, and then responded as best as they could to save lives. Malkovich makes for an effective corporate scoundrel. Kate Hudson is reasonably refreshing in a role away from awful romantic comedies. But the film ultimately sinks under the weight of good intentions consumed by raging fires.

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Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Movie Review: The Interview (2014)

A mindless raunchy bromedy, The Interview carries its limited premise well past the funny stage and into exceedingly tedious territory.

Entertainment television show host David Skylark (James Franco) and his producer Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen) land an interview with North Korea's Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un (Randall Park). Before they can travel to Pyongyang, CIA agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) recruits them to assassinate the dictator by pressing poison into his palm.

Once they arrive in North Korea, nothing goes according to plan. First they lose the poison, then Aaron tangles with a tiger. David spends time with Kim and they strike up an unlikely friendship, causing David to question the mission. Aaron falls in love with Sook-yin Park (Diana Bang), the dictator's chief propagandist. When Kim reveals his true colours, David and Aaron have to make their move and their troubles multiply.

The Interview caused an international incident, with the humourless North Koreans giving the project much more publicity than it ever deserved by issuing all sorts of threats ahead of the film's release and perpetuating the hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment's servers.

Left alone, the lame film would have likely died a quick death. Co-directed by Rogen and Evan Goldberg, The Interview suffers from a lazy script that relies almost solely on frat boy humour intended to appeal to impressionable 12 to 16 year old boys. Every other joke surrenders to a mention of body parts, excretions or pornography, with Franco delivering the majority of his lines with an over-the-top wide-eyed maniacal zealotry. When merely mentioning the anatomy is not enough, The Interview resorts to on-camera hacking of body pieces in the name of fun.

Rogen mostly stands back and allows his co-star to careen out of control. Lizzy Caplan as agent Lacey, Randall Park as Kim Jong-un and Diana Bang as propaganda officer Sook deliver by far the more controlled and watchable performances. The two good moments in the entire movie involve the out-of-place tiger and a Soviet-era tank.

The Interview may have made for a useful 15 minute sketch. Stretched to a seemingly endless 112 minutes, the film is disqualified for aiming low and hitting nothing.

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Sunday, 23 October 2016

Movie Review: The Call (2013)

A high concept thriller with some horror elements, The Call carries echoes of the 1990s in its basic simplicity, but delivers better than expected entertainment.

In Los Angeles, Jordan Turner (Halle Berry) is a 911 operator. She receives a frantic call for help from a girl threatened by a home invasion in progress. Despite Jordan's best efforts the girl is murdered, sending Jordan into a depression. Months later, Jordan receives a cell phone call from Casey Welson (Abigail Breslin), another young girl who has just been abducted by an unknown assailant and stuffed into the trunk of a car, now speeding down the freeway.

Jordan has to pull herself together, face her demons and try to help Casey avoid a horrible fate. The cell phone is a disposable unit lacking a locator signal, so Jordan prompts Casey to attract attention in various ways, including kicking out the car's taillight. Gradually emergency responders, including Jordan's police officer boyfriend Paul Phillips (Morris Chestnut), start zeroing in on the moving car, but the kidnapper Michael Foster (Michael Eklund) is a deeply disturbed and dangerous man, with abominable plans in store for Casey.

An independent production directed by Brad Anderson, The Call carves out refreshingly original territory in the tired woman-in-distress thriller genre. The heroine is a 911 dispatcher, and the command centre is "the Hive"where all the calls come in and operators deal with brutal levels of stress on a daily basis. The film humanizes what is often a dispassionate, peripheral voice in all other cop movies, and Jordan Turner gives heart and emotion to the people exposed in real time to society's worst crises.

The first two thirds of the film stick close to the trauma of Jordan dealing with the crushing blow of the opening murder, and then crawling over the shards of her self doubt to try and help Casey survive long enough for a rescue to be mounted. The bond between 911 operator and kidnap victim is at the core of the film, and Anderson does an excellent job creating palpable edge-of-panic on both sides of the phone. Jordan is Casey's only hope to live, and Casey is Jordan's only chance at redemption, and the two women establish an unspoken but potent pact of mutual dependence.

From there the film dances with the dark edges of outright horror, as the perpetrator Michael Foster is coloured in and emerges as quite the monster, with a deranged mind and a twisted past. But Anderson eventually surrenders to the pull of more routine fare, Jordan leaves the Hive to get personally involved, The film abandons its creative premise in favour of a familiar climax, complete with typical plot holes and all the cliches that emerge when a vulnerable woman clashes with a manic killer clash.

Halle Berry and Abigail Breslin make for an effective screen pairing, both unleashing satisfying doses of consternation, fury and resiliency without crossing the line into ridiculous heroics. Neither of their characters is provided with too much depth, but together they carry the torch for women willing to fight back as best as they know how.

The Call may evoke an earlier generation of thrillers, but carries enough honesty to stay on the line.

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Saturday, 22 October 2016

Movie Review: Affair With A Stranger (1953)

A romantic drama with some touches of humour, Affair With A Stranger is an uneven film, with adequate performances and decent construction but some strange choices and mainly predictable twists and turns.

In Philadelphia, stage star Janet Boothe (Monica Lewis) throws herself all over celebrated playwright Bill Blakeley (Victor Mature), and then she spreads rumours that his marriage to Carolyn (Jean Simmons), who is back home in New York, is in big trouble. As the gossip spreads that they may be divorcing, the story of Bill and Carolyn's romance is recalled by their friends.

Several years prior, Bill was a struggling writer with a gambling addiction and grand dreams of making it big. He meets model Carolyn in Times Square on New Year's Eve, and romance gradually blossoms. They eventually get married and she supports him even as his hopes for success appear to fade and he fritters away any small amounts of cash. One of his plays finally makes it to the stage, but it bombs. When Carolyn gets pregnant Bill is forced into a humiliating job as a waiter, but the couple's fortunes are about to change, with both triumph and tragedy around the corner.

Directed by Roy Rowland, Affair With A Stranger tries hard to be interesting. Bill and Carolyn occasionally threaten to become an engaging couple, the motley crew of friends, neighbours and acquaintances who recall the story in flashback create an animated backdrop, and the struggle for success in the theatre milieu offers possibilities.

But any sense of intriguing drama is let down by a ho-hum narrative. Most of the story's potential is wasted on a romance that labours to offer anything that is new or unique, leaving the film floundering in search of a purpose and feeling quite a bit longer than the brief 87 minutes. The central relationship features a fundamental disconnect never reconciled by the Richard Flournoy script: Bill is a largely wretched character, and what compels Janet to stick with him is not convincing. He is a liar from their first meeting, a gambling addict and living a life based more on hope than conviction. She holds their couplehood together as he remains a stranger, and it's questionable whether he is worth the effort.

Victor Mature and Jean Simmons deliver reasonable performances given what they have to work with, but they are sometimes betrayed by mismatched moments that fall between the cracks of clunky romantic comedy and ineffective societal drama. A prime example is a scene involving Bill helplessly munching on fried chicken on his first visit to Carolyn's apartment. Rowland seems to go for inelegant laughs while portraying a desperately starving man callously targeting a woman as his literal meal ticket. Elsewhere, the ups and downs of their relationship offer little that is imaginative: she worries, he squanders, they stumble, rinse and repeat.

The spirited supporting cast includes Jane Darwell as a restaurant owner, while a taxi driver (Wally Vernon), a newspaper kiosk merchant (George Cleveland), a big-time theatre producer and his wife (Nicholas Joy and Olive Carey) also take turns recounting parts of Bill and Carolyn's romance in flashback. The result is episodic, but keeps the film reasonably nimble.

Affair With A Stranger hints at a better film that is unfortunately intercepted by an absence of composed crispness.

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Movie Review: My Six Loves (1963)

A family drama and romantic comedy, My Six Loves is a fluffy career-versus-family story with attempts at humour but lacking any edge or substance.

Janice Courtney (Debbie Reynolds) is a Broadway star who has just wrapped up her first Hollywood role. Extremely popular but very single, Janice wonders if she has made the right choice dedicating her life to her career and never getting married. Driven to exhaustion by her agent Marty Bliss (David Janssen), Janice is ordered to rest and retreats to her Connecticut country home for a few weeks of recuperation in the company of her loyal assistant Ethel (Eileen Heckart).

In the nearby woods, Janice stumbles on six kids and a dog living on their own after being abandoned by their parents. She takes them in and starts to care for them. She also meets local Reverend Jim Larkin (Cliff Robertson), and they start to fall in love. Janice is attracted to the life of domesticity and considers adopting the children, but then she is offered an opportunity of a lifetime to star in the latest play by celebrated playwright Kinsley Kross (Hans Conried).

The first feature film to be directed by stage legend Gower Champion, My Six Loves is a lame affair suffering from an outdated societal message and a feeble script (despite the involvement of four writers). Every moment of conflict is immediately resolved, every event and emotion is obvious, and all the characters are superficial. The laughs are often juvenile, sometime descending to the let's-all-run-around-the-bus-after-the-dog variety, targeting eight year olds.

As a pure family film aiming to entertain pre-teens My Six Loves may be relatively harmless, but the film sells an infantile solution to the serious debate about finding balance between career success and family life. The choice offered to Janice is to give up her career success entirely to adopt and look after six children she barely knows. That the domestic option comes with the love of a man of the church makes the premise more troublesome. The film avoids any astute discussion: Janice is presented with a forceful, often guilt-laden binary decision, and the film disintegrates under the weight of seeking a simplistic solution to a profoundly complex dilemma.

Debbie Reynolds does her best to capture some semblance of an internal conflict. She looks great and even gets to sing one song. The scruffy dog is adorable and emerges as the only other thing worth watching. The rest of the supporting cast members, including a too-serious Cliff Robertson and a too-glib David Janssen, are wooden, predictable and overtly theatrical. The children are saddled with an overdose of doe-eyed cutesiness and no depth.

My Six Loves has little to say, and even that comes out all wrong.

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Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Movie Review: The Spoilers (1942)

A western with an excellent cast and rich plot mixing business with romance, The Spoilers is an enjoyable story set in the madness of the Alaska gold rush.

It's 1900, and gold mining has transformed Nome, Alaska, into a bustling but lawless town. Cherry Malotte (Marlene Dietrich) runs the local saloon and presides over the town's social pulse. Her loyal assistant Bronco (Richard Barthelmess) harbours a hopeless crush on Cherry, but she is awaiting the return of her true love, mine owner Roy Glennister (John Wayne). The business of mining in Nome is in turmoil: claims and counterclaims to seize control of mines are causing rifts between miners and newcomers looking to make a quick profit. Recently arrived gold commissioner Alexander McNamara (Randolph Scott) appears to be at the centre of many of the dubious claims, while also casting an eye towards Cherry.

Roy arrives back in town but to Cherry's horror he is in the company of the attractive Helen Chester (Margaret Lindsay), the niece of newcomer Judge Horace Stillman (Samuel S, Hinds). Roy appears to want to enjoy the company of both Helen and Cherry, while Judge Stillman's arrival to bring some law and order is viewed with a mix of relief and suspicion. Roy clashes with his partner Al Dextry (Harry Carey) on whether to trust the legal process to determine the ownership of their mine, but there is a lot more going on that initially meets the eye.

Directed by Ray Enright, this was already the fourth film version of the Rex Beach novel, and one of two 1942 films to unite Dietrich, Scott and Wayne (the other was Philadelphia). With Scott sinking his teeth into a rare antagonist role as a corrupt businessman amidst a love, lust and gold story with Dietrich the centre of attention of three men, The Spoilers offers amplified versions of many traditional western elements: saloon brawls, corrupted attempts at frontier justice, and a mad rush in search of quick riches, spiced with multiple often hidden personal agendas.

The film thrives in an environment of frontier lawlessness where no one can fully claim the moral high ground. The characters start at grey and moves towards sinister. Even Cherry, conceivably the purest person in town, meddles with the paperwork at the gold claims office. Roy thinks nothing of two-timing the women in his life, while McNamara is superficially on the side of officialdom but actually seeking his own fortune. And these are just the main characters. Sidekick Bronco, ambitious Helen and Judge Stillman have their own motivations, and the film benefits by gradually establishing a reality that no one arrives in Nome seeking the greater good.

The trio of Wayne, Scott and Dietrich share the screen time equitably, and ensure a high calibre of dedicated talent in every scene. Dietrich doesn't get to sing but easily places Cherry at the heart of the film and elegantly wears several fetching dresses, while Wayne and Scott enjoy their time playing much less than perfect characters. Margaret Lindsay, Harry Carey and Richard Barthelmess offer capable and animated support.

The Spoilers suffers from a few of weaknesses. The comic elements are often overplayed, and tend to undermine what is a good drama. Many men are shot and killed in the film, the deaths are instantaneously dismissed as funny and the violence stepped over like inconveniently placed trash. An unfortunate blackface episode is also played for laughs but nevertheless confines the film to a very different era.

Enright does better in lovingly creating an engrossing aesthetic: Nome is presented as a ramshackle town heaving with activity in every corner, with a main street overrun by ankle-deep mud. Cherry's saloon is the gathering place where every seat is occupied, deals are struck, alliances are made, and disputes are settled with brawls. Fittingly, the film ends with a legendary and prolonged two-man fistfight, extending from the upper balcony of the saloon through the lower level and out to the street. Every piece of furniture and pane of glass is shattered in pursuit of barefisted justice, frontier style.

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Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Movie Review: The Accountant (2016)

An action thriller with a rich story and plenty of style, The Accountant is an intelligent and inventive addition to the genre.

Department of Treasury Agent Ray King (J.K. Simmons) recruits analyst Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) to dig into a mysterious accountant who appears to have ties with some of the world's worst criminals. Now going under the name Chris Wolff (Ben Affleck), the accountant is a mathematical savant with a high functioning form of autism. He leads a double life as a nondescript local store-front accountant while surreptitiously traveling the world and working for shady clients with major financial secrets to hide.

As Medina digs into the accountant's mysterious identity and background, Wolff's next assignment is a legitimate forensic audit of a large Chicago-based robotics company headed by Lamar Blackburn (John Lithgow), where junior accountant Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) has accidentally stumbled upon financial irregularities. Wolff uncovers a dangerous and well-hidden secret that triggers a round of brutal violence leaving him and Dana in mortal danger from a well-armed hit squad, while Medina unearths more twists in Wolff's past.

Directed by Gavin O'Connor and written by Bill Dubuque, The Accountant surprises with a crisp introduction of a new screen action hero. With tired sequels, reboots and comic book adaptations flailing and failing to gain traction, credit to the The Accountant for venturing into original territory. The concept of an autistic mathematical genius as a conflicted protagonist, capable of untangling dense annual financial statements and disposing of ruthless killers with equal effectiveness, is a breath of fresh air. Far from a clean-cut hero, the accountant holds morally ambiguous ground, helping dubious clients while toiling towards difficult to discern ulterior motives.

The film's pacing and construction is also commendable. O'Connor displays remarkable patience, allowing the rich story to unfurl its various sails in an intriguing first hour. There are several flashbacks, some to Wolff's childhood, others to a bloody massacre at a mafia hideout, and still others to a prison stint. The exploits of Agent King and analyst Medina run in parallel with Wolff's latest investigation into the robotics company, and only deep into the film do all the pieces start to fit together, and even then there are more clever surprises to come. When the puzzle picture starts to take shape, it's a satisfyingly elegant mosaic, and a sturdy foundation on which to build a franchise.

The Accountant is weakest when it mimics routine action flicks, and does suffer from one over-the-top combat scene, a prolonged one-against-many home invasion that could have been extracted from any Jason Bourne movie. But most of the 128 minutes of running time are preoccupied with more intelligent fare, and the accountant's uncovering of financial deviousness is more thrilling than any conventional gun play. Even more captivating is his agony when his forensic work is interrupted: this is man who absolutely needs to see every task through to full completion, and can mentally fall off a dark edge in the pragmatic world of enough is enough.

Chris Wolff is an almost perfect role for Ben Affleck. Inexpressive, introspective, alone and with a lumbering gait, the actor does not need to stretch much. The supporting cast is good but predictable, Kendrick at 31 years old still able to pull off the ingenue trick, J.K. Simmons extracting maximum gruffness out of Agent King while Addai-Robinson gets a role with depth and potential as the analyst with a dark past of her own. Jon Bernthal makes for a handsome but lethal leader of an intimidation and murder squad.

Both smart and stirring, The Accountant's pen and sword are equally mighty.

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Monday, 17 October 2016

Movie Review: Ninotchka (1939)

A romantic comedy with political ornaments, Ninotchka is an appealing story of love and laughter blossoming across cultural barriers.

The cash-strapped Soviet government dispatches three officials named Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kopalski to Paris to sell a precious set of jewels previously belonging to the Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire). The three men struggle to reconcile their communist ideals with all the luxuries that Paris has to offer, but eventually succumb and install themselves in a lavish hotel suite. Swana calls on her suave agent and potential lover Count Leon d'Algout (Melvyn Douglas) to quickly impose a court order freezing the sale or transfer of the jewels. Leon also proceeds to fully corrupt the three Soviet officials with parties, booze and women.

Nina Ivanovna "Ninotchka" Yakushova (Greta Garbo) is the next Soviet envoy to arrive, in an attempt to resolve the thorny situation. All business and fully committed to the communist cause, Ninotchka appears incorruptible. But Leon is persistent, and gradually she capitulates and falls in love with both the Count and the benefits of capitalism. With Ninotchka overwhelmed with love, Swana moves in to try and seize the initiative, claim her jewelry and reassert her hold on Leon.

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch and co-written by a team of four writers including Billy Wilder, Ninotchka showcases Greta Garbo at her best in a role designed to tease out her talent for dry comedy and sweet romance. The film is also a prescient early salvo in the war between ideologies. And in stubbornly concluding that the charms of luxury that come with capitalism are irresistible, the story manages to look ahead 50 years to the ultimate Achilles' heel of the communist ideal.

The first two thirds of Ninotchka are sharper and more enjoyable. The stage is set in the misadventures of Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kopalski as they wrestle between their conscience and Paris' decadence. The battle is decisively won as soon as Leon brings out the weapons of mass seduction in the form of endless supplies of food, drinks, music, tobacco and attractive servers delivered straight to the extravagant hotel suite. But this is all an intro to Garbo's arrival as Ninotchka to straighten matters out. The witty script reaches a peak in the battle of wills between her intractable, factual adherence to soulless discourse while Leon tries all he knows to touch her heart.

Once love blossoms and Ninotchka surrenders to an entranced state the film slows into a mild overdose of sentimentality, and the edge is lost. Swana swoops in to create a standard love triangle and the film becomes more of a routine struggle between two women hoping to win the heart of the same man according to their moral compass.

In her penultimate film role Garbo is as entrancing as ever, and particularly effective in her deadpan delivery of communist beliefs, dutifully stripped of any semblance of individual humanity. Melvyn Douglas provides a strong counterpart as the elegant lover with a metaphorical blowtorch patiently intent on melting the ice around her heart. Bela Lugosi makes a late appearance as Commissar Razinin, Ninotchka's fearsome boss back in Russia.

Cleverly weaving romance, politics and humour, Ninotchka is as elegant as its Parisian setting.

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Sunday, 16 October 2016

Movie Review: The North Star (1943)

A pro-Soviet propaganda film intended to whip up sympathy for the war effort against Germany, The North Star (also known as Armored Attack) is a cringe-inducing dud.

It's 1941, and the Nazis are about to invade the idyllic farming village of North Star in western Ukraine, part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Before the shooting starts, five youth from the village embark on a trip to the capital Kiev, including Marina (Anne Baxter), her would-be lover Kolya (Farley Granger), Clavdia (Jane Withers) and Kolya's older brother and conscripted soldier Damian (Dana Andrews).

The travellers don't make it very far: the Nazi's attack with bombing raids, tanks and troops. The village is occupied before it can be burned down. In the face of Nazi atrocities including forcing local children to donate blood, the villagers have to scatter to join the nascent resistance movement.

Produced by Samuel Goldwyn, directed by Lewis Milestone and written by Lillian Hellman, The North Star is unabashed agitprop. Despite the high budget and respected cast, Milestone delivers a painfully bad cinematic experience devoid of any artistic merit.

The first half is preoccupied with portraying Ukrainian villagers living under the Soviet boot as happy simple folks, and it's punctuated by ghastly singing and dancing interludes straight out of amateur high school plays. The fingers-on-the-chalkboard level of irritation is enhanced by inane nationalistic dialogue, ham-fisted delivery and enough over-sugared sentiment to kill a horse.

Once the Nazis make an appearance, the music mercifully stops and the fighting starts. The second half improves, but it's a really low bar to step over. As a story of guerilla warfare and peasants taking up arms, The North Star lacks anything resembling thoughtfulness, nuance or genuine emotion. This is an in-your-face sophomoric effort intended to rally the home front, and Milestone can't even get the basics right: the battle scenes, tactics and consequences are asinine.

Everyone from the children to the old geezers lustily and blindly buys into the die-for-your-country hokum. Given the general level of near unwatchable incompetence, the film boasts a remarkable cast collectively performing at their worst, consumed by Hellman's fatuous prose. Anne Baxter leads the way with one of the many overwrought eyes-dreamily-to-the-stars performances on display. Walter Huston is a local doctor tangling with Erich von Stroheim's Nazi surgeon, while Walter Brennan is a stereotypical crusty farmer-on-a-wagon.

The North Star is not bad because it's propaganda; it's bad because it's a wretchedly awful film.

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Movie Review: The Outlaw (1943)

A Western drama, The Outlaw is a ridiculously uneven mishmash of love, sex and violence.

In the dusty town of Lincoln, New Mexico, Doc Holliday (Walter Huston) reunites with his friend Pat Garrett (Thomas Mitchell), who was recently appointed town sheriff. Doc soon tangles with notorious outlaw Billy the Kid (Jack Buetel), who has stolen Doc's horse. But Doc and Billy strike up a friendship, much to the disgust of Garrett.

The relationship between the three men is further complicated by Doc's girlfriend Rio McDonald (Jane Russell), who would like to kill Billy because he previously murdered her brother. Instead, while Doc is away distracting Garrett's posse, Rio and Billy fall in love when she helps him recuperate from a gunshot wound. Garrett, Doc, Billy and Rio eventually catch up with each other and collectively have to survive an encounter with Mescalero Apaches.

Directed by Howard Hughes, The Outlaw achieves a level of awfulness that has to be seen to be believed. Prolonged, boring, oscillating wildly between juvenile comedy and blatant sexuality, saddled with a stupendously bad music score, featuring amateurish acting, directing, editing and lighting, Hughes' only objective in making The Outlaw was to showcase Russell's cleavage. The subsequent notoriety and censorship scandal, fanned by Hughes, turned the much-delayed movie into must-see event. By contemporary standards what appears on the screen is tame, leaving only a mess of a film splattered all over the walls.

While the censors were abuzz about Russell, Hughes slipped by them an unambiguous gay love triangle between Garrett, Doc and Billy, with Doc's abandonment of Garrett in favour of the younger Billy the cause of all the drama. Also in the mix is one in-the-dark rape scene and another prelude-to-sex scene between Rio and Billy, both creaking with melodrama and dreadful camera dynamics. The actual slow moving and repetitive story spends an outlandish amount of time rehashing arguments about who owns a horse, the film adding outright but unintended parody to its abominable genre mix. A brief, non sequitur episode with Apache Indians is thrown in just because.

Russell, in her debut at l9 years old when The Outlaw was filmed in 1940, is ironically one of the least bad things in the film, and she went on to salvage a career. Poor Jack Buetel must have thought that he was on his way to stardom after Hughes plucked him from obscurity, placed him under a long term contract and offered him the nominal lead role of Billy the Kid. Buetel wears the same expression throughout the film, and Hughes refused to allow him to act again. Thomas Mitchell and Walter Huston offer typically dependable performances that deserved a much better movie.

The Outlaw is a classic example of a more modern theme: famous for being famous, the film is lurid attention-seeking trash.

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Saturday, 15 October 2016

Movie Review: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

A gleaming comedy, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels enjoys star power and a convivial attitude but also falls into self-inflicted traps of excess.

On the French Riviera, Englishman Lawrence Jamieson (Michael Caine) is a well-established con artist specializing in fooling women into willingly handing over their cash and jewelry. Lawrence pretends to be a suave Prince-in-hiding of a small country under siege by communists, and convinces vacationing lonely rich women to part with their wealth to aid his cause. He is helped in his ruse by local police Inspector Andre (Anton Rodgers).

Lawrence's easy life is disrupted when American con man Freddy Benson (Steve Martin) invades his turf. A low level operator, Freddy scams meals and a few bucks off women with sob stories about a sick grandmother. Lawrence's repeated attempts to bounce Freddy out of town fail. They finally agree on a bet: whoever can first fleece soap baroness Janet Colgate (Glenne Headly) out of $50,000 gets to stay in town. Freddy adopts the identity of a Navy veteran paralyzed due to psychological scars; Lawrence responds by pretending to be psychologist Dr. Shaffhausen, the only man who can cure emotional paralysis. They both play on Janet's emotions, but winning this bet will not be easy for either man.

Directed by Frank Oz, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a glossy comedy with a sly attitude, capitalizing on two stars in fine form. With vivid colours capturing the idyllic sun-drenched opulence of the Riviera, the film pops off the screen, never takes itself seriously and offers a steady stream of laughs. The script is witty and contains a healthy dose of one-liners, while Martin offers up his brand of more physical comedy, resulting in a rare combination of smart and crass.

But Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is also flabby and suffers from stretches of tedium. The running time of 1 hour and 50 minutes is a good 15 minutes too long for the material, and Oz shows no ability to end a joke at its peak. Individual scenes carry on longer than necessary, but particularly weak is a stretch where Lawrence convinces Freddy to play the role of idiot young brother to scare off women who are starting to think of seeking commitment. Encouraging Martin's worst childish tendencies, Oz stretches out the joke over several painful scenes long after the point is made. The game of devious one-upmanship between Freddy and Lawrence in pursuit of Janet's money is also stretched too thin, the battle of wits becoming predictable the more unlikely twists it takes.

Both Michael Caine and Steve Martin are good at what they do, but in the head-to-head acting battle, Caine easily comes out on top. He allows less to be more, using an economy of actions and pauses to speak from themselves. Martin is all about over-emoting and over-expressing. Both actors are consistent with their characters, but Caine's comedy comes across as sophisticated and restrained, while Martin is simply churlish and juvenile. In one of her career highlight roles Glenne Headly demonstrates clever comic timing, and proves a worthy match for her more famous co-stars.

Mischievous, frivolous, and lightweight, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a fun frolic.

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Movie Review: Places In The Heart (1984)

A feel good drama, Places In The Heart celebrates the human spirit through the simple story of a widow determined to thrive.

Rural Texas in 1935, the depth of the Great Depression. Edna Spalding (Sally Field) is suddenly widowed when her police officer husband is accidentally shot and killed by a drunk, leaving her to care for their large farm and two young children. Edna receives moral support from her sister Margaret (Lindsay Crouse), who does not know that her husband Wayne (Ed Harris) is carrying on a passionate affair with married local woman Viola (Amy Madigan).

Threatened with foreclosure by banker Mr. Denby (Lane Smith), Edna accepts help from drifter Moses (Danny Glover), a black man who claims that he can create a revenue-generating cotton plantation on her farm. Edna also takes in the blind Mr. Will (John Malkovich) as a boarder to raise some money. Despite the price of cotton plummeting, enormous pressure to sell the farm, rampant community racism against Moses, and nature's fury, Edna pushes ahead, determined to not give up on her land or her family.

Directed and written by Robert Benton, Places In The Heart is a slice of rural life, where the struggle for economic survival shatters class, race, and gender divides. The film may be a hopelessly optimistic parable in its portrayal of a woman in the 1930s staring down the depression, the bankers, the racists, physical disabilities and mother nature to turn her life around, but there is no denying the uplifting and well-intentioned energy coursing through Edna's story.

With beautiful period sets and Néstor Almendros cinematography glorifying the landscape, the film plays with themes of trust and betrayal. Once her husband is killed Edna is forced to trust first Moses, a drifter and thief, and then Mr. Will, a blind man much more likely to be a hindrance than a help. They will need to prove their worth, and the film revels in contrasting Moses and Will's contributions to Edna's life with the individuals who should be her more natural allies: healthy white men in the form of the banker Mr. Denby and the cotton merchant W.E. Simmons (Jay Patterson).

Benton's script includes a substantial subplot involving the illicit affair between Wayne and Viola, at the expense of Edna's sister Margaret. The story of a marriage under tremendous stress adds to the texture of the community and the themes of trust and betrayal, and Viola's fury at Wayne's continued affection for his wife contributes an uncommon cutting edge. But Edna's story of endurance never fully meshes with the turmoil in her sister's life, and the two plots occasionally trip over each other.

Sally Field won her second Best Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of Edna, and its a solid enough performance, more robust than spectacular. Field reaches an early highlight when Edna is forced to confront punishing her young son, a distasteful duty previously performed by her husband. Field captures the horror of a mother coming to terms with what it means to physically abuse a child, ticking off one more thing that will now change in her family's life.

Wisely, Benton is capable of removing the rose coloured glasses when needed. While Edna's journey carries an eternally positive trajectory, the film avoids the temptation to neatly tie up all the loose ends. There are troubles aplenty scattered in the unforgiving southern landscape, and the only certainty is continued interaction between what is sincerely labelled good and evil. Places In The Heart ends with a beautifully mystical moment, an unlikely gathering where human judgement is deferred in favour of a greater communion.

Breathing deeply from the complexities and mysteries of life, Places In The Heart emits a warm, soft glow.

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Movie Review: Night Moves (1975)

A neo-noir detective thriller, Night Moves is an engrossing character study ironically elevated by an almost incomprehensible plot featuring large gaps and plenty of edges.

Through his friend Nick (Kenneth Mars), Los Angeles based former pro footballer and now private detective Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) is hired by has-been movie starlet and multiple divorcée Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward) to find her runaway 16 year old daughter Delly (Melanie Griffith). Arlene is less interested in Delly's well-being and more in need of the money generated by her daughter's trust fund. Just as he starts his investigation Harry stumbles on his wife Ellen (Susan Clark) having an affair under his nose with a man called Marty Heller (Harris Yulin). He pushes on regardless and starts to uncover the web of Delly's friends, including greasy mechanic Quentin (James Woods), caustic movie stunt director Joey Ziegler (Edward Binns) and handsome stunt pilot Marv Ellman (Anthony Costello).

Learning that Delly is an uninhibited sexpot who is sleeping her way through her mother's former lovers, Harry makes his way to the Florida keys where he finds Delly hanging out with Arlene's second ex-husband Tom Iverson (John Crawford). Tom appears to have already been ensnared by Delly's sexual charms, but his partner Paula (Jennifer Warren) is nevertheless curiously still standing by him. Harry is attracted to Paula but struggles to make sense of what is going on and is unsure if he should return Delly to her mother. A grisly underwater discovery suddenly makes the case a lot more complicated.

Directed by Arthur Penn and written by Alan Sharp, Night Moves is a beautiful mess. With some jarring editing, audacious risks and a plot that scribbles on the periphery of character disintegration, the movie could have dissolved into irrelevance. Instead Penn conjures up a companion piece to The Big Sleep, stripped of even the pretense of thorny heroism. The story of Night Moves is littered with holes, ill-defined motivations and at least one incredible coincidence. It does not matter. The focus is on Harry Moseby standing witness to his family life and career crumbling around his ears, while he intellectually believes that there is something he can do about it.

The signs are clear early on that Moseby's detective skills fall short. This is a man who could not detect his own wife having an affair, and later cannot untangle the relationship between Tom and Paula. He thinks he is saving Delly by depositing her back with her mother, but that proves to be the worst possible move. All the time he is obsessed with replaying and demonstrating a chess match where a winning strategy. involving clever knight moves, was missed and the game lost. Moseby is a man always running behind events, falling further back every time he uncovers another piece of the puzzle, and most unfortunately oblivious to his own incompetence.

Penn is not just satisfied with an in depth look at one miserable character: he surrounds him with all that the mid-1970s had to offer in terms of a dispirited society, where 1960s communal idealism crashed against Watergate and the oil crisis, triggering an era of unfettered narcissism. Arlene is a silicone enhanced has-been collecting ex-husbands and still acting the role of being interested in her daughter, while her only real desire is income continuance.

Meanwhile, Delly is not waiting for anyone: she has appropriated the sexual revolution for her selfish purpose, devouring her mother's former lovers in service of personal pleasure. At 16, she is already deploying sex as a weapon of mass escapism across the country. Meanwhile, the movie industry is a cover for illicit activities, the exportation of American culture through on-screen magic a cover-up for a nefarious scheme involving cultural imports.

Moseby walks into this cesspool believing that he is actually good, and Gene Hackman is brilliant at portraying a pathetic man catching up too late with his own incompetence. Ruffled, betrayed, and played repeatedly for a fool, Hackman ensures that Moseby is an unforgettable tragic figure. The supporting cast members share the screen time, planets circling Moseby's dying sun. Particularly effective are Melanie Griffith and James Woods, who both make strong marks in early roles.

Night Moves ends with Moseby coming to terms with the limits of his talent. After chasing the truth back and forth across the country, his fate is simplified into small circles, so that even he can understand it.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Movie Review: The Magnificent Seven (2016)

A remake of the 1960 classic, The Magnificent Seven is a serviceable western with plenty of stellar action but little depth.

After the Civil War, the small town of Rose Creek is being terrorized by mining tycoon Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) and his army of hired guns. Bogue is exploiting the surrounding land for gold and kills at random to scare the townsfolk off their farms. After losing her husband to the wave of terror, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) goes looking for mercenaries to push back against Bogue. She stumbles upon warrant officer Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), and he agrees to help.

Chisolm assembles a group of six other men: gambler Joshua Faraday (Chris Pratt), sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his sidekick knife expert Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), frontiersman Jack Horne (Vincent D'Onofrio), Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). The seven men quickly eliminate Bogue's guards from Rose Creek, and set about fortifying the town's defences as Bogue plans a massive retaliatory attack with hundreds of men.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua, The Magnificent Seven gallops onto the screen with all guns blazing, a western with a predetermined focus to litter the screen with bloodless dead bodies while making seven stars look cool. The one reason for this version to exist is as an update with modern day stars, and Fuqua easily ticks that box with a diverse multi-ethnic cast, and adds a generational range for good measure. Washington is a healthy-looking 61, Martin Sensmeier is about half that, and the seven represent all the major ethnic group that built America.

The gun play and masculine violence is frequent and in traditional Fuqua style builds its way to overwhelming. Almost every other scene, and for some stretches every scene, features men killing other men. Several scenes end with multiple dead bodies decorating the dusty streets, raising concerns about the availability of enough pine boxes and grave diggers to clean up each subsequent mess. The flying bullets and stylish dispatching of bad guys is undeniably fun but also callous, as despite the 133 minutes of running length the film spends very little time providing context, background or humanizing back stories.

The final battle seems to last for about an hour, an all-out orgy of death complete with explosions and a Gatling gun spraying bullets with wild abandon. In an almost perfect example of quantity over quality, Fuqua parks his intentions firmly on the side of sheer numbers making up for the lack of depth. But there are only so many scenes of extras and stuntmen swan diving into death that the brain can absorb, and the film becomes an endless highlight reel where little stands out.

The script provides enough panache and the actors do well with what they have. Washington glides through the film as coolness personified, while Chris Pratt provides most of the animated energy and enjoys by far the best character resolution.

The 1960 version was an ode to the end of an era, gunmen questioning their purpose in life and aware of history closing their chapter. The 2016 version has little time for thoughtful pursuits, just snazzy style: there are hundreds of bad guys to kill, and a kill rate per minute that needs to be maintained.

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Sunday, 9 October 2016

Movie Review: WarGames (1983)

A technological teen comedy romance thriller, WarGames successfully mixes genres and takes an early look at the world of young geeks and computer hacking.

At the secret Colorado base for the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), systems engineer Dr. John McKittrick (Dabney Coleman) believes that computers should replace stress-prone humans to fulfill missile launch orders. In Seattle, high school student David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) has no interest in his classes but plenty of motivation to explore the burgeoning world of computer gaming and networks. As he starts a friendship with classmate Jennifer (Ally Sheedy), David goes looking for the latest gaming code and accidentally hacks his way into the military WOPR (War Operation Plan Response) simulation supercomputer, part of the NORAD network.

David thinks he is playing as game called Global Thermonuclear War, but WOPR was not programmed to understand the difference between scenarios and actual war, causing panic in the war room as the line between reality and simulation is lost and the US military machine is mobilized to respond to a seemingly massive attack by the USSR. David and Jennifer have to track down WOPR's reclusive creator Dr. Stephen Falken (John Wood) to try and stop the chaos.

Directed by John Badham, WarGames defies easy categorization. It's a a high school comedy, a techno-thriller, a young romance and a fulmination against military incompetence, complete with the most impressive war room set since Dr. Strangelove. It is not unexpected that some parts of the film creakily rub against each other, but overall Badham and his team of screenwriters make it work, and it has withstood the test of time remarkably well. A crackling current of irreverent, sly humour permeates the movie, Badham playing up some stereotypes with sharp wit and a quick wink.

The film is in many ways groundbreaking. David as a teenager with no interest in school but a bedroom full of computer equipment and an intrinsic ability to understand technology and circumvent security is a pioneer hacker, a milestone to a future generational shift. The portrayal of the military as an organization both harnessing the awesome power of computer technology and simultaneously wrestling with its implications and vulnerabilities remains remarkably applicable decades later. WOPR as a self-learning computer points the way to the future world of artificial intelligence. The set design is also astonishingly inventive, the NORAD headquarters a dazzling example of imagination matching future realities.

WarGames has a few chase scenes and moments of staged thrills, but primarily works its way towards more cerebral aspirations. The tragicomic character of Dr. Falken becomes a central figure, a man disenchanted with life having dedicated his career to understanding war at a deeper level than humanly possible only to suffer a devastating personal tragedy. No longer interested in winners and losers and only waiting for the one outcome, Falken slips into a father figure role for David, and doesn't so much solve the crisis as point the way. And credit goes to Badham for having the courage to allow the hot war threat to be resolved prior to revealing the film's real heart, as WOPR finally grasps the meaning of learning when it comes to war.

Matthew Broderick is perfect in the role of David Lightman, his screen persona of the lighthearted street smart misfit suitably deployed both on the domestic front and in the war room. Ally Sheedy creates the perfect girlfriend-to-be, and with help from the mischievous script she quickly turns Jennifer into a real person: fun-loving, sweaty, roguish, initially dubious of David's surreptitious computer wizardry but ultimately a helpful resource.

WarGames is both cheeky and perceptive, a clever film with a deft touch and timeless message.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Equalizer (2014)

A stylish action thriller, The Equalizer offers plenty of style and an immersive Denzel Washington performance, but also a limited premise stretched over an unnecessarily long running time.

In Boston, former CIA operative Bob McCall (Denzel Washington) lives a lonely quiet life, works at a home improvement store, and still grieves the loss of his wife. Most nights he is unable to sleep and whiles away the hours at a 24/7 diner, where young prostitute Alina (Chloë Grace Moretz) is also a regular. Bob and Alina strike up conversations and become friends of sorts. When Alina gets badly roughed up by her Russian mobster pimp, Bob hunts down the den of gangsters and kills five bad guys in 28 seconds.

Unfortunately, the dead Russians are part of a much larger criminal cartel controlled by the Moscow-based Pushkin (Vladimir Kulich) and involved in bribery, corruption and extortion on a national scale. Pushkin dispatches his top henchman Nicolai (Marton Csokas) to find out who killed his men. Nicolai teams up with corrupt police officer Frank Masters (David Harbour), and they start to hunt down McCall to seek revenge.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua and based on the 1980s television series, The Equalizer oozes with smooth style. While the story is standard fare involving hissing Russian villains and an incredulously indestructible hero, Fuqua's weapon is Denzel Washington in fine form. Together director and star create enough depth in the central character to elevate the film above the merely ordinary.

McCall suffers from a combination of obsessive compulsive disorder, insomnia, and leftover depression from his wife's death. These ailments are hinted at on the margins of the film, creating enough of a tantalizing taste that this is a person with a rich emotional history worth spending time with, despite his loner tendencies.

Fuqua's best and worst attributes are revealed in the two highlight action scenes. McCall's cool invasion of the gang hangout to eliminate the scum responsible for Alina's agony is a masterpiece of build-up and execution. But later McCall has to deal with a dozen or so heavily armed goons in a home improvement warehouse store. That scene is both prolonged to the point of exhaustion and starts to resemble a slasher film parody, with McCall taking down his enemies one by one with an assortment of power tools rigged into weapons of death.

Marton Csokas provides a sturdy enough counterpoint to Washington, but Chloë Grace Moretz is shortchanged as she disappears from the film for a very long time. Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman appear in one scene as McCall's former colleagues from his prior life with the CIA,

The Equalizer is effective in what it does, but it does relatively little and for too long.

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Saturday, 8 October 2016

Movie Review: Trading Places (1983)

A social comedy set in the world of business, Trading Places is an early vehicle for Eddie Murphy's burgeoning talents and an entertaining romp through the lineage versus social environment debate.

In Philadelphia, filthy rich and racist brothers Randolph and Mortimer Duke (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) own a large commodities trading firm. To settle a bet about nature versus nurture, they decide to ruin the life of their firm's haughty general manager Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) while elevating streetwise bum Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) into his role. Valentine is bailed out of jail, installed in Winthorpe's swanky apartment, scrubbed down, provided with the services of butler Coleman (Denholm Elliott), and given free reign to run the firm.

Meanwhile, Winthorpe is framed for petty theft and drug trafficking, locked out of his apartment and has his accounts frozen. His fiancée Penelope (Kristin Holby) dumps him and he falls in with prostitute Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis), the only person to believe his story. Billy Ray thrives in his new environment while a desperate Winthorpe starts contemplating a life of crime. But once the two men learn of the Duke brothers' chicanery, they join forces and plot to turn the tables.

Directed by John Landis as a loose modernization of Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, Trading Places followed 48 Hrs. to help launch Eddie Murphy into superstardom. The film enjoys plenty of laughs, foul language and a deep cast, while the Duke brothers enliven the villainy meter and present a boo-worthy representation of the worst that the 1 percent have to offer.

Murphy lets loose and dominates the film, easily upstaging the top-billed Aykroyd. The character of Billy Ray Valentine may be altogether implausible as a rough diamond too easy to polish from street bum to corporate suit, but Murphy makes the most of it, his motormouth and quick-witted presence overcoming any character gaps.

Trading Places is at its best in the scenes catapulting Billy Ray from a prison cell to the corner office, while Winthorpe is simultaneously drop-kicked from a cushy upper crust life to a prostitute's derelict apartment. The Dukes play the role of hidden puppet masters and dramatically change two unsuspecting lives, creating plenty of room for comedy. Billy Ray can't hide his instincts to steal property from his own new palatial home, while Winthorpe's downfall starts with a petty theft set-up at the stuffiest of men's clubs. As Winthorpe nears bottom, Ophelia offers hope that among the downtrodden, there is more and better humanity than within the ranks of back-stabbing crooks in suits.

The final third of the film gets away from Landis and drifts off-topic, leaving the social aspects dangling in search of more adolescent laughs. While the wild train ride featuring Winthorpe, Billy Ray and dirty tricks operative Clarence Beeks (Paul Gleason) is fun, it also has little to do with the premise. And Landis is caught with a climax on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange that may be technically feasible but proves beyond the director's capabilities to explain. Landis settles for not bothering, and is satisfied with a rush to retribution.

Despite moments of sloppiness Trading Places is edgy fun, a glossy rags to riches meets riches to rags laugh fest given extra spark by an emerging comic star.

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Movie Review: The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2008)

A grand fantasy romance, The Curious Of Benjamin Button has a quirky premise but delivers an eloquent love story featuring a man living life in reverse.

It's 2005 in New Orleans, and Hurricane Katrina is quickly bearing down on the city. The elderly Daisy Fuller (Cate Blanchett) is on her hospital deathbed, and insists that her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) read to her from the diary of a certain Benjamin Button. Most of the story is then told in flashback.

In 1918, Benjamin is born with the wrinkles, cataracts, arthritis and failing body of an old man. His mother dies during childbirth and his father Thomas (Jason Flemyng) abandons Benjamin to the care of Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), who works at a home for the elderly. As Benjamin grows older in age, his body gets younger in health. His hair starts to grow back, his eyesight improves, and a visit to a faith healer gets him out of his wheelchair and on the way to walking. In 1930 Benjamin first meets seven-year-old Daisy (Elle Fanning) and they become fiends.  Around 1935 he leaves the nursing home and accepts his first job, working on the tugboat of the salty Captain Mike Clark (Jared Harris). Daisy pursues her fortune as a ballet dancer in New York City.

In 1941 Clark's boat is stationed in the port city of Murmansk, Russia, where Benjamin experiences his first true love and has a passionate affair with Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton), the bored wife of a British diplomat. The US joins World War Two and Benjamin has a harrowing encounter with the enemy on the high seas. After the war Benjamin tries to reconnect with Daisy (Blanchett), but their lives are on different trajectories. Meanwhile, his father Thomas reappears with surprising news about an industrial legacy awaiting Benjamin.

Directed by David Fincher and written by Eric Roth, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button is a loose adaptation of an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. Roth sprinkles the script with plenty of similarities to his own average man lives an extraordinary life as portrayed in Forrest Gump, and monumental but impossible romance through a diary lens popularized by The English Patient. Benjamin Button both suffers from comparisons to the two classics and benefits from the whimsical stars of destiny are aligning ethos. Meanwhile, Fincher makes sure that no matter what is happening on the screen over close to three hours, the film looks spectacular: Benjamin Button is frequently a sumptuous visual feast.

The film's weakness resides in the relative dormancy of its central character. Intriguing as his story is, Benjamin Button does not actually do much in his own life. He is swept along by the tide of history, navigating from 1918 to about 1990 in reverse health progression, things happening to him and all around him, but he himself instigating little. Daisy and Elizabeth steer the two big romances in his life, while his mother Queenie, the captain Mike Clark and Benjamin's father Thomas influence most of his life's directions. It is only late on that Benjamin independently insists on one key decision, but it's a relatively small contribution to a drama where he is most often a passenger and observer.

The film's first half nestles the more magical spirit and is more powerful, Benjamin's childhood years in the more innocent pre-war era resonating through a New Orleans open to strange events. That no one pursues answers to Benjamin's curious medical condition both raises the eyebrow and helps add fairy tale gold dust to the story. The second half is still interesting but less compelling. Benjamin and Daisy have to wait for a sweet spot of harmony as he grows younger and she matures, and there are typical emotional trials and tribulations as they find and then struggle to retain their couplehood.

The subtle and progressive makeup effects are a marvel, with Brad Pitt thriving as he convincingly portrays a physically frail teenager growing into an immature 70 year old in a young man's body. Cate Blanchett is less effective, particularly as the bed-ridden near-death Daisy, her mumbled and drugged lines of dialogue extremely difficult to discern.

The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button reaches most of the sentimental high notes that it strives for, and contains enough of its own peculiarities to overcome the more derivative fundamentals.

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