Monday, 14 August 2017

Movie Review: Erin Brockovich (2000)


Based on a true story, Erin Brockovich is a stirring drama about two struggles: one woman fights to redefine herself, and one suffering community takes on a big corporate polluter.

In the Los Angeles area, Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts) is twice divorced and trying to raise three kids on her own. Desperate to find employment, she finally lands a filing clerk position at the ramshackle office of lawyer Edward Masry (Albert Finney) after he fails to secure compensation for her in a car accident case. At Masry's office Erin stumbles onto files related to the Pacific Gas and Electric Company and the small community of Hinkley. PG&E is attempting to quietly purchase the houses of many residents who appear to be suffering from various serious health ailments.

Erin takes it upon herself to personally investigate the case, and meets Donna Jensen (Marg Helgenberger) and her family to better understand their plight. She spends days digging up records at the local water authority office, and pieces together a soil and water contamination cover-up involving the dangerous chemical hexavalent chromium. Erin's personal, down-to-earth approach allows her to connect with more than 600 potential victims as the ramifications of the case grow into hundreds of millions of dollars, but all the hours at work are taking a toll on Erin's children and her latest boyfriend, next-door biker George (Aaron Eckhart).

Directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Susannah Grant, Erin Brockovich is a classic David versus Goliath story multiplied by two. Erin bulldozing her way into a respectable career against all odds plays out next to her efforts to win compensation for a tiny community from a behemoth corporation. Soderbergh makes both stories work in an engaging narrative that balances the deeply personal aspects of Erin's story with a high-stakes investigative drama about environmental maleficence.

The character of Erin is a huge part of the film's charm. Clobbered by life ever since she won a local beauty pageant, Erin has reached the stage of fighting back, and loudly. Unloading with profanity-laced tirades whenever she senses her rights being wronged, Erin is at once irrepressible, approachable and thorny. Insisting at all times on big hair, small skirts, uncomfortably high heels and either tight or transparent cleavage-revealing tops, the one thing she now refuses to do is fade away. Her scrappy attitude, persistence and street smarts make for a potent combination.

Julia Roberts brings Erin to life in an Academy Award winning performance. Roberts is not about one highlight scene or revealing profound depths of character. Rather, over the two hours of running time her portrayal focuses on capturing a real and uncompromising woman with all her faults, fears, strengths, and spirit. She dominates the film and never dips into sentimentality or victimhood.

Albert Finney provides the perfect foil as the veteran lawyer Edward Masry. Finney allows Masry to be Erin's opposing force, absorbing plenty of her flack and firing back with no shortage of his own understated venom. The two gradually work their way to becoming a formidable duo, her energy and his experience gelling into a powerful team.

The investigation into the soil and water contamination mystery remains admirably grounded in facts and legal process. Erin's truth-seeking efforts consist of unglamorous digging through files in government offices coupled with finding then talking to the victims to learn their affecting stories of disease and suffering. Gradually insiders and informers also step forward to provide key puzzle pieces. Soderbergh constructs the process of connecting the dots with a welcome pragmatism and avoids needless theatrics.

In keeping with the film's focus on reality, most of the tension comes from Erin trying to hold her personal life together as the case consumes every waking hour. Her relationship with her children suffers, and boyfriend George is reduced to an unhappy babysitter. Balancing kids, career and partner becomes a daring juggling act.

Erin Brockovich is a compelling drama about the individual and the collective, engaged in a common fight for recognition and respect.






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Sunday, 13 August 2017

Movie Review: How Do You Know (2010)


An insipid romance, How Do You Know is a torturous two hours of nothingness.

At 31 years old Lisa Jorgenson (Reese Witherspoon) is cut from the US national baseball team. She starts dating two men: professional baseball star Matty Reynolds (Owen Wilson) and businessman George Madison (Paul Rudd). Matty is rich, handsome and superficial, but starts to genuinely care about Lisa. George is head of a large corporation, but he is facing a serious fraud investigation related to falsifying tax records. George's pregnant personal assistant Annie (Kathryn Hahn) is loyal, but his domineering father Charles (Jack Nicholson) appears to be behind all that is bad in George's life.

Lisa moves into Matty's swanky apartment, but he misbehaves just enough to push here away and into the waiting arms of George. Meanwhile, Charles is trying to find a way to stay out of trouble with regulators by pushing George deeper into the hole.

Written, directed and co-produced by James L. Brooks, How Do You Know may be the moment a once great filmmaker finally hit the wall with a dull thud. From the uninspired title to the stultifying pacing and abject lack of content, How Do You Know is devoid of laughs, drama or genuine emotion of any kind. The film rolls over and dies early, with neither Brooks nor the cast able to generate even the faintest of pulses.

The one interesting element in the plot would have been Lisa dealing with the rejection of being summarily cut from the sport she loved. Witherspoon tries hard in a couple of scenes to convey the trauma of dealing with the emptiness that resides on the other side of the dream, but Brooks soon loses interest and resumes the ping pong between Matty and George. Witherspoon is reduced to hauling her luggage back and forth between the two men, by buses and taxis, in an unbelievable display of bankrupt writing.

Meanwhile the two men stay at the most superficial level, Matty the playboy athlete and George the honest businessman. Neither progress an inch from their starting positions, and two hours into the movie Matty is still being a dork and George is still all innocent puppy admiration. In a desperate attempt to stretch the proceedings to two hours, Brooks introduces several scenes in which the characters agree to not talk, and then proceed to not communicate, thereby setting up more excruciating scenes to cover the same ground.

How Do You Know is sad late career misfire for Brooks as director and Nicholson as a film star, and they both took a long, possibly permanent hiatus after this debacle.






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Saturday, 12 August 2017

Movie Review: In Your Eyes (2014)


A romance fantasy, In Your Eyes delves into what makes two people connect while touching on issues of mental illness and loneliness.

As a child, Dylan Kershaw physically experienced a sledding accident through the eyes of Rebecca Porter, who crashed into a tree. More than twenty years later Dylan (Michael Stahl-David) is on parole having just been released from a stint in prison for theft. He lives in a ramshackle mobile home in rural New Mexico. Suddenly he mentally connects with Rebecca (Zoe Kazan), who is in New Hampshire and married to Phillip (Mark Feuerstein), a respected doctor.

Through telepathy Dylan and Rebecca can talk and physically share experiences. They realize that they have been sharing experiences throughout their lives. They start to regularly chat and get to know each other, behaviour which leads to a blossoming romance and accusations of mental illness. Rebecca tries to help Dylan survive a date with local girl Donna (Nikki Reed), as he fends off pressure from his past criminal associates. Meanwhile he learns that Rebecca has a history of mental trauma, with the career-driven Phillip playing the complex role of saviour, lover and protector.

Written by Joss Whedon and directed by Brin Hill, In Your Eyes offers a hypnotically original perspective on romance. Echoing other together-but-apart efforts such as The Lake House, In Your Eyes goes further, toying with the external symptoms of schizophrenia, and asking what crazy in love actually means when two people connect at the deepest level and effectively become one.

It's a mesmerizing premise, and Hill paces the film with great beauty. The connection is established early, allowing the theme to develop first with intrigue, then with depth, followed by romance and physical intimacy (think phone sex without the phone), and then jealousy and even the lovers' quarrel. All the time Dylan and Rebecca are dealing with the outside world observing their increasingly bizarre behaviour as they talk to themselves with increasing comfort.

In order to work the film requires fully committed performances, and both Zoe Kazan and Michael Stahl-David deliver. Acting opposite each other but alone, they smoothly slip into the mindspace occupied by somewhere else and believably function within two realities. Kazan, in particular, is captivating as she gradually reveals Rebecca's anguish, her physical mannerisms always hinting at a woman struggling against something not quite right despite being surrounded by all the modern trappings of success.

The ending could have gone in many different directions, and the choice made is perhaps slightly less brave than the rest of the film. But In Your Eyes is a gem of a romance, a subtle and gentle exploration of infatuation and the magical bonds that merge two into one.






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Friday, 11 August 2017

Movie Review: The Big Wedding (2013)


A feeble comedy, The Big Wedding is a an underwritten and mostly unfunny attempt at farce.

In suburban Connecticut, Don Griffin (Robert De Niro), his ex-wife Ellie (Diane Keaton) and his current partner Bebe (Susan Sarandon) are set to host the wedding of Don and Ellie's adopted son Alejandro (Ben Barnes) to Missy O'Connor (Amanda Seyfried). The other Griffin children are Jared (Topher Grace), a hunky doctor still seeking his first sexual experience, and Lyla (Katherine Heigl), who has recently separated from her husband. Ahead of the wedding Alejandro and Missy seek the advice of Father Moinighan (Robin Williams), who is a recovering alcoholic like Don.

The wedding arrangement are rocked when Alejandro announces that his biological mother Madonna (Patricia Rae), who is arriving from Colombia, is a strict Catholic and he has never told her that his adopted parents are divorced. Don and Ellie agree to pretend that they are still married, much to Bebe's disgust. Meanwhile Alejandro's biological sister Nuria (Ana Ayora) immediately sets her sights on Jared. A messy situation gets worse when passion seems to reignite between Don and Ellie, and secrets are revealed involving Missy's parents Muffin (Christine Ebersole) and Barry (David Rasche).

A case of throwing as many recognizable names as possible at the screen and hoping for the best, The Big Wedding is a colossal waste of talent. Directed and written by Justin Zackham, the film sputters and stumbles in search of any meaningful traction, and mostly settles for an endless stream of juvenile sexual jokes involving adults who should know better.

Zackham litters the script with references to oral sex, out-of-wedlock affairs from long ago, lesbian encounters, extended orgasms, handjobs, loud coupling and the size of specific body parts. The material is what would be expected in a raunchy low-budget teen comedy aimed at the undiscriminating market. But here it is applied to a cast featuring multiple Academy Award winners in search of an easy pay cheque.

Worse still, most of the attempted comedy is in the form of lazy verbal sparring rather than actually creating funny situations. By the second half of the film it is clear that anyone can say anything about anyone, everyone is guilty of some sexual proclivity or other, but none of it matters because it's all talk and the film is heading to the same bland conclusions no matter what.

De Niro cannot help but stand out as much better than the material, and Katherine Heigl is the only other cast member who appears to be trying. The others mail in performances that are way too easy, with Williams a particularly lazy culprit.

Despite the stellar invitation list, The Big Wedding is as enjoyable as a bed wetting.






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Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Movie Review: National Lampoon's Vacation (1983)


A road trip comedy, National Lampoon's Vacation concocts a hit-and-miss subversive mix of dark humour with seemingly innocent family fun.

The eternally optimistic Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) insists on taking his family on a long road trip from Chicago to the Walley World theme park in Los Angeles. His wife Ellen (Beverly D'Angelo) and kids Rusty and Audrey (Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron) are less enthusiastic but pack into the newly acquired garish green Wagon Queen Family Truckster station wagon to embark on the trip.

Along the way they stop in Kansas to visit Ellen's country bumpkin cousin Catherine (Miriam Flynn), her husband Eddie (Randy Quaid) and their numerous children. Ellen and Eddie foist Phoenix-bound Aunt Edna (Imogene Coca) and her gnarly dog onto the Griswolds. The adventurous episodes continue, including an unscheduled sojourn into the desert and frequent encounters with a beautiful woman (Christie Brinkley) driving a red Ferrari.

Trendsetting for its time, National Lampoon's Vacation was written by John Hughes (based on his short story for National Lampoon magazine), and directed by Harold Ramis. The film features coarse language spouted in front of children, mild nudity, animal cruelty, sudden death, a theme of middle-aged lust, and unhinged behaviour that tips into armed threats. But it's all presented in the context of an uproariously fun family road trip with a cheerful father egging his brood to have a good time.

The film's dual personality is what gives it a sharp edge, because otherwise this is an episodic and fairly sparse comedy singularly lacking in narrative arcs or character depth. Beyond Clark's insistence that the family ought to have fun no matter how little fun they are having, the film trundles on from one set piece to another, fully dependent on abject stupidity to land the Griswolds in their next mess.

Clark's other journey is that of a middle aged man lusting after a mythical sexy girl driving a super sportscar. The reality is that no Christie Brinkley would ever cast a second glance at a doofus like Clark Griswold as he lugs his family around in a ridiculous station wagon, and this is part of Hughes' perverted take on comedy.

Chevy Chase's screen persona of the straight man with a much higher opinion of himself than merited is perfectly deployed to create Griswold, and he arrows through the film on a downward trajectory towards total humiliation. Other funny men appear in small roles, including Eugene Levy as a car salesman and John Candy as a security guard at Walley World.

National Lampoon's Vacation travels the bumpy road of comedy, delivering some laughs, some bewilderment and plenty of silliness.






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Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Movie Review: A Farewell To Arms (1957)


A grand romantic drama set against the backdrop of war, A Farewell To Arms enjoys some salient moments but also gets bogged down in arduous prolonged on-location padding.

The setting is the Great War, in northern Italy. Frederick Henry (Rock Hudson) is a well-liked American who has volunteered as an ambulance driver in the Italian Army. His close friend Major Alessandro Rinaldi (Vittorio De Sica) introduces him to the newly arrived British nurse Catherine Barkley (Jennifer Jones). Frederick and Catherine immediately hit it off, but their nascent relationship is interrupted when the Italian Army starts an offensive across the Alps and Frederick is called into action.

He sustains a knee injury which necessitates a long period of rehabilitation at an American-run hospital, and an opportunity to resume the illicit affair with Catherine and cultivate a deep love, culminating in pregnancy. They discuss getting married, but that would force Catherine back to Britain as married nurses are not allowed to serve. When Frederick is sufficiently healed, grouchy nurse Van Campen (Mercedes McCambridge) releases him back into service, forcing another separation. This time the Italian Army is routed, and Frederick experiences the worst horrors of war.

An adaptation of the Ernest Hemingway novel directed by Charles Vidor, A Farewell To Arms was producer David O. Selznick's final attempt to create an epic at the success scale of Gone With The Wind. Hollywood's second kick at the story after a 1932 effort starring Gary Cooper and Helen Hates, this version is a sometimes plodding CinemaScope affair, inordinately self-satisfied with scenery and location shooting. Working from a Ben Hecht script, Vidor (who replaced John Huston) botches the pacing, and long stretches of the film's 152 minutes appear to be little more than an excuse for adding yet more European vistas.

On the positive side there is plenty of adventurous material on display to generate intrigue and controversy. The film takes on some difficult topics, including sex and pregnancy outside of marriage circa 1917, defeated armies turning upon themselves, and the silent tragedy of both civilians and soldiers exposed to war's brutality. Vidor does not shy away from gore, and his best sequence is a mammoth, near-silent retreat, as defeated, exhausted and emotionally spent men, women and children trudge through the mud to escape death or welcome it. And through the character of Major Rinaldi, a grizzled army veteran, the mind-bending mental strain of the conflict is also explored.

And some of the wide-screen scenery is a joy to behold. The sight of the Italian Army columns on the move along the steep switchbacks of the Alps towards the Austrian front lines is fine cinematic craftsmanship.

While these highlights are welcome and often sparkle, the central romance eventually dominates the film entirely. Long stretches of the second half are exclusively centered on Frederick and Catherine, either joyously in love or confronting the consequences of their actions. Both the war and all the secondary characters disappear, and the two lovers predictably wilt under the pressure of carrying an epic.

Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones are passable without ever setting the screen alight. Hudson operates within a fairly narrow range on either side of bland. Jones is more interesting, and allows hints of her character's fragility to sneak out through sheer insistence on being a perfect, almost subservient partner.

Ambitious but unbalanced, A Farewell To Arms has love leaving war behind, but unfortunately also losing its edge in the process.






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Monday, 7 August 2017

Movie Review: Notting Hill (1999)


A romantic comedy, Notting Hill is heavy on star power and ambiance, with enough moments of humour to help navigate an overlong running time.

International movie star Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) is in London to promote her latest film. She visits the bookstore owned and operated by the divorced Will Thacker (Hugh Grant) in the Notting Hill neighbourhood. After another accidental sidewalk encounter involving spilled orange juice, Anna and Will share a kiss and start a tentative low-key relationship. Will's eccentric roommate Spike (Rhys Ifans), his friends Max (Tim McInnerny) and Bella (Gina McKee), and his starstruck sister Honey (Emma Chambers) can barely believe what Will is up to.

But soon reality intervenes in the form of Anna's Hollywood boyfriend Jeff King (an uncredited Alec Baldwin), and Will gets on with his life. But Anna suddenly reappears at his apartment, seeking refuge from an exploding scandal involving pre-stardom nude pictures. Will has to decide whether a relationship with one of the most famous women in the world is worth the trouble.

With Roberts and Grant both close to their peak wattage as big screen stars, Notting Hill benefits from an endless supply of photogenic opportunities. Director Roger Michell adopts languid pacing, allowing the romance to blossom at a measured, almost hesitant speed, but more importantly always lingering on the attractive faces of his two leads for just a bit longer than each scene should allow.

The other star of the film is the community of Notting Hill, the film setting up in a trendy corner of London and making best use of a location less obstructed by tourist traps and enlivened by natural street activity and charming architecture.

The Roger Curtis script avoids many of the genre's worst traps. Will's competition for Anna's heart is not another man or a series of contrived misunderstandings. Rather, her status as one of the planet's most admired women sits uneasily with his reality as a modest store owner with quirky friends who sit around the table arguing about who has the saddest life. Straddling the divide between the manufactured glitz of Hollywood and the authenticity of everyday life is the challenge facing this romance.

Julia Roberts essentially plays herself and does a fine job. She generates plenty of apparently genuine down-to-earth emotion, but always allows room for the character of Anna to be in potentially acting mode. Hugh Grant reins in his roguish tendencies and stays well within himself while allowing the sensitivity of an often disappointed man to shine through.

After a couple of unnecessary machinations that push the running time past two hours, Notting Hill does end with the perfunctory madcap race-against-time for the two lovers to have their final encounter. It's a better-than-most romantic comedy, but it's still a romantic comedy.






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Movie Review: Doom (2005)


An adaptation of the revolutionary first person shooter computer game, Doom is mess of muddled action and bad science.

It's the year 2046, and there is trouble on a Mars research facility accessed through an "Ark" portal in Nevada. A group of Marines led by Sarge (Dwayne Johnson) and including Reaper (Karl Urban) are dispatched to investigate reports of carnage. At the research centre they team up with Reaper's twin sister Samantha (Rosamund Pike), who is one of the scientists conducting genetic experiments to replicate superhuman powers apparently perfected by an ancient but defunct civilization.

The Marines fan out and soon stumble upon murderous monsters with super strength. As the Marines sustain casualties, tensions mount and it becomes apparent that the infected dead can rise again and cause havoc. Sarge is determined to annihilate all living things before evil is transported back to Earth, but Reaper and Samantha want to be more careful about who to kill and who to protect.

The videogame Doom and its sequels reimagined what gaming can be, and became a worldwide phenomenon. Adapting a visceral first-person experience to the more staid movie screen was always going to be tricky, and the project predictably fails. Despite a fair effort from director Andrzej Bartkowiak, Doom the movie is often too dark, the action an incomprehensible blur, the monsters poorly defined. Too many minutes are burned with images of marines pointing their rifles and searching nondescript and poorly lit rooms, waiting for the next beast to emerge from the shadows.

Still there are flashes of promise. The film hints at an interesting backstory involving the parents of Reaper and Samantha. And placing siblings rather than an awkward attempt at a romance close to the centre of the story is a welcome touch. The discussion of genetics, chromosomes and pathways of evolution would have generated more curiosity in better hands, while the conflict between the follow-orders Sarge and the more conflicted Reaper does build up nicely.

But unfortunately the better moments are overtaken by repetitive forgettable firefights generating plenty of noise but clumsy, grainy visuals, and only the half-crazed Corporal Dean Portman (played with wild-eyed intensity by Richard Brake) registers from among the supporting cast of disposable Marines. Dwayne Johnson (credited under his wrestling name The Rock) and Karl Urban are all about muscular grimness, while Rosamund Pike, three years after her Bond girl debut, finds herself ankle deep in gore.

Late on, Bartkowiak captures the spirit of the game with a fun first person perspective sequence in which Reaper finally gets mad and embarks on a wild monster killing spree. Otherwise, Doom is dour, dreary, and dank.






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Movie Review: Accepted (2006)


A high school comedy, Accepted has one bright idea but then fails to do anything of substance with a story of oddballs launching their own place of higher learning.

In suburban Ohio, Bartleby Gaines (Justin Long) graduates from high school, fails to get accepted into any college, and equally fails to get noticed by beautiful classmate Monica (Blake Lively). Wilting under the pressure of his disappointed parents, Bartleby teams up with fellow misfits, including brainy Rory (Maria Thayer) and athletic "Hands" (Columbus Short), and creates an acceptance letter from the fake South Harmon Institute of Technology. Bartleby's best friend Sherman (Jonah Hill), who does have an acceptance to the real Harmon College, helps out by creating a functional website for the fake Institute.

Using $10,000 from his parents Bartleby and his friends leases and refurbishes an abandoned mental hospital. Soon they are flooded with underperforming students, as Sherman had programmed the website to issue one-click acceptances. While Sherman struggles with demeaning fraternity initiating rights, Bartleby is faced with the challenge of actually creating a functional college, winning Monica's heart, and fending off the evil ambitions of Harmon College's Dean Richard Van Horne (Anthony Heald).

A one-joke teen comedy, on a few occasions Accepted threatens to create a few laughs. But the film, mechanically directed by Steve Pink and featuring an obnoxious soundtrack of obvious rock tracks, quickly exhausts its premise and spends most of its 92 minutes killing time until a tired climactic speech exalting the virtues of individuality, nonconformity and yes, acceptance.

The talent in front of the camera almost makes the experience watchable. Justin Long, Jonah Hill and Blake Lively and the bright Maria Thayer are committed enough to deserve better material, but they cannot save Accepted from sinking in its sea of bland predictability.

Their characters are borrowed from ancient and much better movies including Animal House and all its imitators. After creating the clever-but-lazy Bartleby and his brainstorm of inventing his own college, the team of three writers forgets to insert anything resembling actual laughs or original content. The Institute's abbreviation appears to be their proudest achievement. The result is a tired movie that sits by the pool, ogles girls in bikinis, attends parties and waits for the end credits.






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Saturday, 5 August 2017

Movie Review: Crimson Tide (1995)


A post-Cold War submarine thriller, Crimson Tide expertly explores a tense scenario involving a high-stakes conflict among commanders.

Hunter (Denzel Washington) is the new Executive Officer (XO) on the USS Alabama, a submarine armed with nuclear missiles and commanded by Captain Ramsey (Gene Hackman). Ramsey is a cigar-chomping old school leader who creates his own rules but is respected by his men. Hunter is younger, more cerebral and willing to think through situations before pulling the trigger. When a rebel faction of the Russian army takes control of a nuclear facility and threatens to launch nukes at the United States, the Alabama sets sail in readiness for a potential war. The boat's officers include Zimmer (Matt Craven), Cob (George Dzundza), Weps (Viggo Mortensen) and Dougherty (James Gandolfini).

Hunter and Ramsey clash frequently as the sub approaches waters off Asia. Then an enemy sub is spotted, and at the same time orders are received to prepare for the launch of nuclear weapons against Russian targets. But after the Alabama sustains damage, including a breakdown of the communications system, another incomplete message is received, potentially canceling the missile launch orders. Ramsey insists on pressing ahead with the potentially world-altering launch of nukes, but Hunter demands a delay to verify the orders. A tense stand-off ensues, testing the loyalty of the the men on board.

Directed by Tony Scott and produced by the Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer power duo, Crimson Tide is a better example of what the glitzy 1990s could deliver in terms of cerebral-oriented thrillers. Mostly aiming for tension, mental strain and building drama instead of cheap thrillers and explosions, Scott makes good use of an original Michael Schiffer screenplay, and Crimson Tide is a fine example of the submarine war drama sub-genre, carrying echoes of classic command conflict dramas such as Run Silent, Run Deep and The Caine Mutiny.

The film's premise worms its way into a real but unlikely scenario. United States nuclear submarine commanders used to have a certain level of autonomy to launch nukes independent of final confirmation from the President. And the on-board situation conjured up by Schiffer was theoretically possible: both Hunter and Ramsey were correct in their opposing positions. With communications lost Ramsey was justified in following the last received orders and unleashing a holocaust. Hunter had enough reason to refuse to second that command. It's a compelling set-up and cleverly exploits the generational gap between the scar-tested Ramsey and the more circumspect Hunter.

But this is a Tony Scott film, and after a careful build-up the balance occasionally tips towards contrived thrills. Opposing forces are formed, guns are drawn, threats are made, there is a frantic race to fix damaged equipment and of course an artificial countdown clock provides a backdrop to a just-in-time climax.

The weaker moments are more than tolerable thanks to the fine form of the two leading stars. Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman are perfectly cast and expertly play off each other, Hackman comfortable as the seen-it-all crusty veteran confident in his own judgement, and Washington nailing the newcomer who has to tiptoe his way into a pre-established delicate dynamic between Captain and crew. When the two clash head to head, the screen positively sizzles. The supporting cast is disciplined, and Jason Robards makes an uncredited late appearance back on shore.

Crimson Tide streaks through the ocean on a mission to deliver taut entertainment, and the torpedoes mostly register satisfying hits.






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Sunday, 30 July 2017

Movie Review: Heist (2015)


A derivative crime thriller, Heist liberally borrows ideas from other sources but still sinks into its own yawning plot holes. A decent cast barely avoids a total write-off.

Luke Vaughn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is a card dealer at the casino run by Francis "The Pope" Silva (Robert De Niro) and regularly frequented by money laundering Asian mobsters. Vaughn was formerly The Pope's protégé, a position now occupied by Derrick “The Dog” Prince (Morris Chestnut). Vaughn's young daughter is sick and he needs to quickly raise $300,000 for her life-saving operation, but The Pope turns down his request for a loan. In desperation Vaughn teams up with fellow-employee Jason Cox (Dave Bautista) and they plan an after-hours robbery of the casino.

The heist yields $3 million but the getaway goes wrong, and Vaughn, Cox and their wounded accomplice Dante (Stephen Cyrus Sepher, who also wrote and co-produced the film) hijack a city bus driven by Bernie (D.B. Sweeney), with police officer Kris Bajos (Gina Carano) in hot pursuit. The combustible Cox threatens mayhem, and it's left to Vaughn to negotiate with Kris to try and diffuse the situation. Meanwhile The Pope lets Dog loose to retrieve the stolen loot and also has to deal with failing health and an estranged daughter Sydney (Kate Bosworth).

A simplistic mash-up of The Taking Of Pelham 1 2 3 with Speed, Heist does not try too hard. Dependant almost entirely on the performances by De Niro and Morgan, director Scott Mann barely sketches in the plot, leaving out most of the required logic and just riding the kinetic energy of a high-stakes theft-from-thieves gone wrong.

The plot holes happily ride along the bus, and range from Kris the police officer breaking every rule in the book to The Pope seemingly having an army of goons and infiltrators at his disposal, and culminating in a reveal near the climax that is fully dependent on wild coincidences.

Set against the fast and loose plot is a welcome attempt to flesh out the two central characters. It is corny, but amidst all the burning petrol The Pope's quietly tense encounter with his daughter is the highlight of the film and at least sets up an interesting parallel dynamic with Vaughn. The latter's need-to-save-my-daughter imperative provides a shaky foundation for his return to a life of crime, but is also enough to differentiate Vaughn from the pure evil of his fellow criminals.

De Niro and Morgan are much better than the rudimentary material, but take the project seriously enough to register some moments of welcome depth, both men lamenting lives that could have gone better. It's not enough to elevate Heist to a decent film, but at least the acting talent on the bus goes round and round along with all the other recycled debris.






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Saturday, 29 July 2017

Movie Review: Chain Reaction (1996)


A doltish thriller set in the world of science, Chain Reaction has an incomprehensible plot and defaults to a tiresome series of repetitive and routine chases.

In Chicago, a group of University-funded researchers are working on a new hydrogen-based power source to produce plentiful and free energy. Dr. Paul Shannon (Morgan Freeman) and Dr. Alistair Barkley (Nicholas Rudall) head the project, and the team includes physicist Dr. Lily Sinclair (Rachel Weisz), machinist Eddie Kasalivich (Keanu Reeves) and project manager Dr. Lu Chen (Tzi Ma). When the team finally achieves a breakthrough, their warehouse headquarters is invaded and destroyed in a spectacular explosion by unknown assailants. Barkley is killed, Chen disappears, and Sinclair and Kasalivich are framed as spies for a foreign government and go on the run.

FBI Agents Ford (Fred Ward) and Doyle (Kevin Dunn) lead the investigation, but Eddie and Lily stay one step ahead of their pursuers as they try to reconnect with Shannon. Meanwhile, the secretive C-Systems Research company headed by Lyman Earl Collier (Brian Cox) emerges as a shadow organization trying to control the science behind hydrogen energy.

Directed by Andrew Davis three years after his success with The Fugitive, Chain Reaction attempts to recreate the same formula of innocents-on-the-run and fails miserably. The fault lies entirely in a lame script credited to J.F. Lawton and Michael Bortman that places the focus squarely on scientific discovery and a large-scale conspiracy, and then fails miserably to explain itself even at the most rudimentary level.

This is a film where none of the villainous actions make any sense. The murder, large-scale destruction and mayhem caused by the explosion that launches the film appears to have achieved nothing, in that the bad guys flattened half of Chicago but did not manage to steal the secrets of the technology that purportedly triggered their action. The science is reduced to a series of noisy lasers, flashing lights and violently shaking cylinders, none of it deemed worthy of any clarification. The conspiracy is hurriedly explained in vague terms about world economic collapse, but the script does not bother to reveal what the antagonists' intentions are.

Elsewhere the lack of attention to basic details is evident. Eddie and Lily are supposedly smart people on the run for the entire film and never try to change their appearance. Perhaps Reeves demanded that his flowy long hair remain untouched during the shoot. Lily is a physicist, but the unfortunate Rachel Weisz is reduced to an almost mute appendage being pulled along by Reeves as they look for the next narrow escape. Not once does she say anything remotely smart or contribute to the plot.

With an acute lack of anything resembling thoughtfulness, Chain Reaction offers a never ending series of cheap thrills. This is bad guys chasing good guys in circles for close to two hours, less a sequential reaction and more of a downward spiral of dumbness.






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Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Movie Review: The Song Of Bernadette (1943)


A religious drama based on reported events, The Song Of Bernadette is an engaging story of belief balanced by a reasonable amount of cynicism.

It's the late 1850s in the small town of Lourdes in France. Bernadette Soubirous (Jennifer Jones) is 14 years old and lives in a dank single-room basement dwelling with her mostly unemployed father Francois (Roman Bohnen), mother Louise (Anne Revere) and siblings. The family is poor and Francois struggles to put food on the table. Frequently sick and admittedly a bit dim, Bernadette struggles to learn her catechism at the Catholic school and is humiliated by her teacher Sister Vauzous (Gladys Cooper).

One day while out collecting firewood the image of a beautiful Lady (an uncredited Linda Darnell) appears to Bernadette in a rock niche near the town's garbage dump. No one else sees the Lady, but Bernadette insists that she was there, and furthermore, that the Lady promised to reappear on many successive days. Bernadette's claims are met with skepticism by her parents as well as Mayor Lacade (Aubrey Mather), Imperial Prosecutor Vital Dutour (Vincent Price), and police chief Jacomet (Charles Dingle). Doctor Dozous (Lee J. Cobb) is brought in to examine her, while local Catholic Abbott Dominique Peyramale (Charles Bickford) adopts a hands-off, wait-and-see attitude.

The local population starts to accompany Bernadette to the site, and news spreads of the visions. When a water stream with apparent healing properties emerges near the location of the Lady's appearances, the crowds multiply and the story attracts national attention.

Directed by Henry King, The Song Of Bernadette is an adaptation of the best-selling book by Franz Werfel. The story of the Virgin Mary appearing repeatedly to a naive girl is beyond debate for devout Catholics, but probably represents nothing more than overactive hallucinations combined with a strong willingness to believe among the uneducated.

Those whose lives are made better worshipping rocks and supposed spectral images visible to only one person, augmented by magically healing water and the sweet words of a fairly dumb 14 year old, will need no convincing that all this is true. But screenwriter George Seaton deserves a lot of credit for maintaining, sometimes forcefully, a sarcastic and opportunistic alternative narrative through the words and actions of Mayor Lacade, Imperial Prosecutor Dutour and police chief Jacomet.

This trio and others refuse to believe anything other than Bernadette is either sick or manipulative, and director King gives them plenty of time and scenes to make their point. Even Sister Vauzous remains among the sceptics for long stretches, while Abbott Peyramale rides the fence and remains troubled by some aspects of Bernadette's story. Only towards the end of the film does King tilt the balance towards reverence.

The running length of 156 minutes is quite hefty, but this is a story spanning many years and rich in characters and events, and King rarely lingers in one place for too long. The sets are limited but intricate. The garbage dump, the cramped Soubirous household, a bustling town environment and the more ostentatious government offices capture the rich mosaic of a small but busy society. Alfred Newman replaced Igor Stravinsky and provide an evocative but sometimes overbearing orchestral score than plays throughout.

Helped by producer David O. Selznick, Jennifer Jones (previously known as Phyllis Isley) relaunched her career and landed the Best Actress Academy Award for her turn as Bernadette. For most of the film Jones delivers a monotonal performance, speaking in an irritatingly fake girlish tone. The final scenes, set some 20 years after the visions, offer her an opportunity to stretch and she becomes more credible. The supporting cast is deep in talent, with Charles Bickford, Vincent Price, Anne Revere, and late on, Gladys Cooper sharing the load and all leaving a positive impression.

The Song Of Bernadette is a graceful film, and handles spiritual territory with sensitivity and a nod towards alternative viewpoints. Bernadette may have been a saint chosen to inspire religious fervour, or a dimwitted girl caught in a web created by her own imagination. Either way, the story of the passion she ignited is worth watching.






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Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Movie Review: Good Kids (2016)


An end-of-high-school comedy, Good Kids is about 35 years behind the times.

Four brainy 18 year old friends who have emphasized academic achievement over having fun throughout their school years arrive at their final summer before college. Suddenly, they decide to let loose for a few weeks. Andy (Nicholas Braun) becomes a toy boy tennis pro servicing the sexual needs of club cougars, including Gabby (Ashley Judd). Nora (Zoey Deutch) seeks romance and starts a relationship with a 30 year old Australian man. Aspiring chef Spice (Israel Broussard) goes looking for a straightforward sexual release. And Lionel (Mateo Arias), better known as the "The Lion", starts experimenting with drugs.

As the previously good kids go wild, Andy realizes that he harbours feelings for Nora, but things get more complicated when his dishy online pal Danya (Tasie Lawrence) arrives for a visit from India.

Written and directed by Chris McCoy, Good Kids is astonishingly bad. Apparently oblivious that this sub-genre of sexual high jinx by high school kids was thoroughly chewed and spit out in the early to mid 1980s, Good Kids spends its entire running length in the putrid landfill of old garbage ideas. McCoy does not offer a single original reason for this film to exist, as his characters behave with plastic predictability and spout recycled dialogue on their way from one over-familiar situation to the next.

Kid caught naked in the open? Run-in with the local cops? Suddenly falling in love with a friend? Drugs impairing work? Clueless parents? An older man playing a teen for a fool? And the ever original final party that ends in a brawl? All the boxes are ticked as Good Kids revives one moribund cliche per scene with spiritless monotony.

Ashley Judd gets a couple of scenes as an oversexed rich bored wife looking for a cheap thrill with a teen, and it is sad to find a once-classy actress reduced to an appearance in this bilge. Elsewhere Zoey Deutch (daughter of Leah Thompson and director Howard Deutch) reveals hints that she deserves better material.

The Good Kids want to dabble with being bad, but instead stumble into thoroughly dreadful territory.






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Monday, 24 July 2017

Movie Review: The Beguiled (2017)


A Civil War psychological drama, The Beguiled is a more lyrical remake of Don Siegel's 1971 classic. Director Sofia Coppola softens some of the edges but maintains a keen focus on the theme of emotional and physical survival.

Rural Virginia, in the fourth year of the American Civil War. While out collecting mushrooms, 12 year old Amy (Oona Laurence) stumbles onto badly wounded Union soldier Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) and helps him back to the school for girls run by Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst). With the war raging, only a few students have remained at the school, including the eldest Alicia (Elle Fanning), who is bored of all the repetitive lessons.

Martha agrees to temporarily shelter McBurney and tends to his leg wound, but fully intends to hand him over to Confederate troops as soon as he recovers. The soldier's presence at the school disrupts the status quo, and he quickly appreciates that he has limited time to influence the women and avoid a prisoner's fate. McBurney uses a combination of flattery, gratitude and seduction to turn the women to his side, but also ignites jealousies and conflict.

Director Coppola also wrote and co-produced the film, and The Beguiled overflows with her hallmark soft veneer of natural beauty, gentle light and flowing aesthetics hiding simmering tension. The physical setting is a wooded corner of Virginia at the interface between battlefields - heard but not seen - and an old fashioned school clinging to the vestiges of a disappearing way of life. But the real location of the film lies in the hearts and minds of seven women, suddenly awakened by a manly presence. Coppola aims her attention at the women's emotional state, and McBurney probing for openings to chart a path to freedom through charm, flattery and deception.

Coppola spreads the 94 minutes of running time across four of the women. Miss Martha is the pragmatic leader, the woman responsible for the girls and the facility. Yet a man is a man, and despite her cold and calculating demeanour she is not beyond appreciating what McBurney may offer. Teacher Edwina is older than the other girls, caught in a nowheresville life with relatively plain looks. It does not take McBurney long to identify her as the weakest link.

Alicia is blossoming into a woman, her sexual awakening kicked into overdrive by the soldier's presence. And finally young Amy can lay claim to having found McBurney, and is just old enough to harbour a crush that he can exploit.

Despite the short length the film does drag in the middle act before picking up again as the climax approaches with an eruption of colliding aspirations fueled by alcohol. Compared to the original Coppola strips out some of the characters and more radical incidents from the narrative, leaving the mostly calm interplay between the central characters to carry the entire load of the film, and at times the energy dips to saggy levels.

But the performances are uniformly good, with Kirsten Dunst the most quietly expressive, her searching, desperate eyes betraying a heart all too ready to believe in empty promises. Colin Farrell brings to the role more charm and less obvious dominance compared to Clint Eastwood.

The Beguiled is a meditation on the damage unleashed when war seeps inside the walls of civility. The big guns rage outside, but they are no match for the turmoil within.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Sunday, 23 July 2017

Movie Review: Dunkirk (2017)


A stellar World War Two film, Dunkirk is the story of an army's survival, defeat salvaged from the jaws of catastrophe as seen through the eyes of the combatants.

Three separate but convergent stories related to the evacuation of the defeated British Army at Dunkirk, France in 1940 are recounted simultaneously. In the first story young British Army Private Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) barely survives patrol duties in the town and flees to the beach where he tries to find his way onto an evacuation ship. But with the beaches under fire from German guns and aircraft, the injured are being evacuated first. Over the course of a week Tommy teams up with Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), a soldier of few words. They rescue fellow soldier Alex (Harry Styles) from death by crushing and then attempt to smuggle themselves on-board any available outbound vessel.

The second story takes place over one day and features civilian Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his teenaged son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) responding to the British Navy's call for assistance. Without waiting for official help they set sail from England in Dawson's small boat with their eager helper George (Barry Keoghan). The Dawsons soon pluck a shell-shocked mariner out of the water, and doggedly continue on their way towards the hell of the Dunkirk beaches.

The final story takes place over one hour, and centers on Farrier (Tom Hardy), one of three Royal Air Force pilots flying towards the skies over Dunkirk to provide what support they can and counter the German air threat. Farrier engages in dogfights with Luftwaffe fighters and attempts to shoot down bombers targeting evacuation ships. Gradually Farrier becomes increasingly isolated and low on fuel.

Meanwhile, the Navy's Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) is doing his best to organize an orderly withdrawal of more than 300,000 men in the face of hostile seas and incessant enemy pressure.

Written, directed and co-produced by Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk is a beautifully overwhelming and all-encompassing multi-sensory experience. Eschewing traditional narrative structures in favour of telling a story with barely any dialogue, no defined heroes and no venomous villains, Nolan allows the evacuation itself to take centre stage as a seminal event and pursues it from the land, the sea and the air.

Whereas Saving Private Ryan was about the ethos of a generation, Fury delved into the limits of sacrifice and Hacksaw Ridge focused on one individual's private war against war, Dunkirk is about a nation's psyche. As such Nolan is less interested in the mechanics of battle or individual actions; rather this is a film about collective character being forged through the mist of a stunned and stunning reaction to a devastating retreat.

Each of the three stories generates specific momentum and unrelenting tension. The fear, frustration, hunger and desperation of the massed soldiers builds up in the eyes of Tommy, Gibson, Alex and others, willing to try anything to get on a boat, despite the danger of being blown out of the water by the marauding German bombers. The stoic response of the civilian population is represented by Mr. Dawson and his son Peter, and their chapter most embodies the spirit of Dunkirk as a country comes together to rescue its sons. Meanwhile the dogfights and aerial duels in the sky are superbly choreographed, the pilot Farrier aware that his contribution can only be small but yet decisive in terms of morale and for the lives he may save.

To augment the impressive vistas of a gloomy beachfront war theatre, Hans Zimmer provides a soundtrack that is simultaneously filled with dread, anticipation and extreme anxiety, adding to jarringly loud sound effects that bring the horrors of war to the fore. Every bullet in Dunkirk registers as a transmittal of potential death, every bomb and torpedo an individual parcel of destruction. The few lines of dialogue suffer in comparison and are often drowned out or garbled.

In the absence of a focus on individuals, Nolan's cast is filled with newcomers and relative unknowns in most of the key roles. Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson, Kenneth Branagh as the pier master Commander Bolton and Tom Hardy as the pilot Farrier share the most prominent acts of above-and-beyond valour. On the beach, the widescreen is filled with thousands of startled young men maintaining relative calm and some discipline in the face of enemy fire as they patiently await either rescue or death.

Dunkirk is war in its unspoken complexity, death, hope, bravery and astonishing selflessness coming together to define a nation and write a momentous chapter in a history-defining conflict.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Saturday, 22 July 2017

Movie Review: Wildcats (1986)


A sports comedy, Wildcats is stunningly predictable. But the underdog theme combined with the women's empowerment message contains enough rude energy to make the film tolerable.

In Chicago, Molly McGrath (Goldie Hawn) grew up in a football household and always wanted to coach. Now a divorced mother of two girls and an athletics coach at Prescott high school, she makes a case to fill the vacant junior varsity football coach position but is mocked and blocked by senior coach Dan Darwell (Bruce McGill). Instead she accepts the challenge to coach the senior boys football team at the tough inner-city Central High School. The principal Ben Edwards (Nipsey Russell) is willing to take a chance on Molly because no one else wants the position.

She encounters fierce the resistance from the team members, including Trumaine (Wesley Snipes) and Krushinski (Woody Harrelson) before earning their respect and setting out to turn the perennial losers into a functioning team. Her prospects improve when she convinces quarterback Levander "Bird" Williams (Mykelti Williamson) to turn his back on a life of crime and return to the team. But on the home front things are not going well, with ex-husband Frank (James Keach) claiming that Molly's new job is a bad influence on their daughters and seeking full custody.

Directed by Michael Ritchie, Wildcats has enough talent on both sides of the camera to pull itself into respectability. The story of a team of multi-ethnic misfits coming good fully buys into the White Savior trope, and Molly's ability to transform losers into perpetual winners within a few short weeks is nothing short of remarkable. But Wildcats also contains an edge in its fearless deployment of adult-language, and the script by Ezra Sacks insists on investing time exploring the price ambitious women have to pay at home and at work.

The scenes of domestic turmoil are clunky but do add texture to the film's message. Juggling a demanding new job with household single-mom duties stretches Molly to her limit, exposing her to the risk of losing her daughters. The film brings into sharp contrast the unattainable standards to which women could be held. The invisible barriers between white suburbia and inner city hurt are also revealed: Frank panics at the dangers he perceives everywhere once Molly starts to interact with black and hispanic youth, while Molly's dedication to the family he abandoned is quickly forgotten.

The on-field football action scenes are plentiful and patchy. Ritchie sometimes succeeds in creating fluid sports movement, but just as frequently plays it for plastic laughs in obviously staged sequences. Meanwhile the script abandons any pretense of aiming for a family-friendly audience. The language is raunchy and includes several jarring foul-mouthed zingers.

Goldie Hawn, near the peak of her career, brings her megawatt personality to the film and frequently lights up the screen. She combines her spunky persona with a determination to succeed and to break the victim pattern of her life, and pulls it off with ease. While most of the rest of the lead roles are at the television level, Wildcats features a telling performance from comedian Nipsey Russell, the debuts of Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes, and an early role for Mykelti Williamson.

Wildcats is far from throwing a touchdown, but does pick up good yards here and there.






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