Monday, 30 January 2017

Movie Review: Bright Leaf (1950)


A potent mix of business manoeuvring and romantic entanglements, Bright Leaf is a drama filled with fierce characters seeking fortunes and confronting flaws.

It's the 1890s, and Brant Royle (Gary Cooper) returns to Kingsmont, North Carolina to establish a tobacco business. Years earlier the Royles were driven off their land by the powerful tobacco mogul Major Singleton (Donald Crisp). Now Brant wants revenge, although he still lusts after the Major's feisty daughter Margaret (Patricia Neal). She has grown up to be as conniving as her father, and as interested in causing trouble. Meanwhile, businesswoman and brothel owner Sonia Kovac (Lauren Bacall) always loved Brant and is happy to see him back in town, but he never reciprocated her affection.

With financial help from Sonia, Brant teams up with inventor John Barton (Jeff Corey) and colourful promoter Chris "Dr. Monaco" Malley (Jack Carson). Using a production machine invented by Barton and Malley's promotional savvy, they corner the market by automating cigarette manufacturing and launching a catchy marketing campaign. With Brant on the ascendancy he makes his move on Margaret and tries to buy out the Major, but both business and romance are about to get a lot more complicated.

Directed by Michael Curtiz and possibly inspired by real events, Bright Leaf is a rich broth of corporate machinations, personal greed, cold revenge and hot romance. Clocking in at 110 minutes, the film is packed with grim emotion and multiple struggles for self-definition through destroying others rather than nurturing personal growth. Curtiz maintains interest by quickly cycling through the various threads of Brants life, and efficiently moving through the passing years.

Aesthetically Curtiz creates an enjoyable environment of a bustling town built on the tobacco industry before the product was associated with any health threats, with every frame populated by activity in all corners. From the prostitutes tempting their customers to the frenzied auctioneer selling the latest tobacco leaf bundles to the tycoons fretting over their business prospects, Bright Leaf is a dynamic experience.

The film is distinguished by colouring all the main characters an interesting shade of grey, and avoiding simplistic good and bad definitions. As Brant claws his way from a penniless man driven by revenge to the top of the tobacco heap, the lines of distinction between him and the Major begin to blur. Brant is blinded by a mission to reclaim his family's heritage, destroy the Major, and conquer the Singleton estate and Margaret as two ultimate prizes. His focus blinds him to the victims he creates along the way, and they are all ready to help bring him down when his turn comes.

Margaret Singleton and Sonia Kovac stand out as women true to their intentions, but at diametrically opposite ends of the spectrum. Margaret is her father's daughter from her first introduction, a fact that makes her irresistible to Brant. She plays his need to subjugate her for all its worth. Meanwhile Sonia remains true to her genuine love for Brant, her heart persisting in the belief that someday he will awaken to what she has to offer, while her head says otherwise.

Gary Cooper is freed from his typical good-guy persona and presents a dour, single-minded man. His aggressive intensity creates a hard shell at the heart of the film. Patricia Neal is all conniving sass, and Lauren Bacall conveys the struggle between passion and pragmatism. Donald Crisp, Jeff Corey and Jack Carson add plenty of animation to the other supporting roles.

Engaging and entertaining, Bright Leaf glows with the heat of sweltering determination colliding with human failings.






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Sunday, 29 January 2017

Movie Review: Sundown (1941)


A World War Two adventure drama set in colonized Africa, Sundown carries the exotic feel of faraway military exploits but is hampered by low-budget production values and stiff performances.

In a remote military outpost in British East Africa, commander William Crawford (Bruce Cabot) is trying to keep the peace while protecting Allied interests from the creeping dangers of the global war. Rumours of guns being smuggled into the hands of a local aggressive tribe cause anxiety. Major Coombes (George Sanders) arrives to increase a sense of readiness. Also in and around the base are Italian prisoner turned cook Pallini (Joseph Calleia), Dutch geoscientist Jan Kuypens (Carl Esmond) and local big game hunter Dewey (Harry Carey).

The arrival of exotic and mysterious local leader Zia (Gene Tierney) signals the start of real trouble, as the suddenly well-armed tribesman Abdi Hammud (Marc Lawrence) threatens to lead his men in armed attacks against the outpost. Both Crawford and Coombes are infatuated by the alluring Zia, but they also have to find out who is supplying the guns and how to put a stop to the smuggling.

Directed by Henry Hathaway, Sundown features an early role for Gene Tierney, with support from a decent cast including an uncredited Woody Strode in his debut. Despite the confused mix of African tribalism infused with Arab shadings interacting with British colonialism in a California Mojave desert pretending to be East Africa, the story does carry potential as a sweaty action drama set in a forgotten outpost as the dark clouds of war move closer.

With Crawford's base accessible mainly by air, the film boasts an impressive number of scenes featuring assorted small planes taking off and landing in unforgiving terrain.

But otherwise this is a case of ambition exceeding talent and resources, with the film's good intentions hampered by cardboard execution. The screenplay (co-written by Charles G. Booth and Barré Lyndon) is a stiff exercise in emotionless line delivery. The story, simple as it may sound, is bungled and tripped up by incomprehensible events, including characters wandering in a trance into battle and some horribly inefficient use of firepower.

The action scenes border on amateurish, the acting is second rate at best, there are too many characters hanging around the base and none of them display any subtlety. The Italian Pallini emerges with the most animation, Joseph Calleia displaying admirable commitment, but while he emotes the others stand and stare, waiting for their next line.

And when it comes to Ms. Tierney, standing and staring is what the film does. Hathaway insists on long lingering close-ups every time she makes an entrance, applying a freezing agent in time and space to allow the camera to get its fill.

Sundown demonstrate how conceivably tasty ingredients in the jungle can be wasted in a rudimentary jumble.






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Saturday, 28 January 2017

Movie Review: The Last Detail (1973)


A slice-of-life drama about fleeting friendships and the oppressive responsibilities of military life in a civilian context, The Last Detail is an unforgettable low-key road trip.

At the U.S. Naval base in Norfolk, Virginia, Signalman Billy "Badass" Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Gunner's Mate Richard "Mule" Mulhall (Otis Young) are given a new assignment: escort 18 year old prisoner Seaman Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) by train and bus to Portsmouth Naval Prison. Meadows has been convicted of attempting to steal $40 from a charity jar, and sentenced to a ridiculous seven years because he targeted the favourite charity of the naval base commander's wife.

Badass and Mule hatch a plan to make the most of the trip to break the dull monotony of life on the base. They plot to deliver Meadows to Portsmouth as quickly as possible and then spend a week living it up. But Badass starts to feel sorry for the goofy, oversized kleptomaniac Meadows, and decides to give the kid a good time to make up for what he will lose while serving his sentence. Badass and Mule prolong their stay in New York and then Boston, and introduce Meadows to alcohol and women, while helping him build up his assertiveness.

Directed by Hal Ashby and written by Robert Towne, The Last Detail is an understated piece of quintessential 1970s film making. The story of a prison escort detail triggering a road trip cannot be any simpler. The layered theme of psychological confinement holding back all three men emerges slowly, and finally takes over the film with unusual potency.

Stylistically Ashby bathes the film in harsh tones, browns, yellows and whites dominating many of the scenes to represent the unmistakably bleak outlook for all three me. From nondescript cheap motel rooms to characterless diners, the film crawls along an uninspired America surviving through one day just to get to the next similarly joyless day.

And traversing this terrain is one man in handcuffs and two men just as confined in their careers. Meadows cannot help his kleptomania and will be paying the price behind bars for a long time. Badass and Mule are prisoners of their own making. Lifers in the Navy, now stuck inside a military machine but on land and away from any war, their prospects are more grim than anything Meadows faces: at least he gets variety in locale and a release to look forward to. They get nothing except more of the same.

The road trip is a brief escape for all three men, Meadows getting his first introduction to drinking, chanting with hippies, whoring and generally being purposelessly loose. Badass and Mule enjoy the freedom of breaking some rules away from the eyes of authority and doing good by being bad. The three men form a bond of friendship anchored by sailing outside the lines.

Jack Nicholson dominates the film as the anti-authoritarian man reluctantly resigned to a life under the thumb of authority, but seeking every opportunity to bend the rules. Otis Young allows Mule to be a counterbalance, a sailor more invested in the daily regulations of his career but gradually allowing his resistance to crumble. Randy Quaid delivers one of his finest career performances as the clueless Meadows, a man-sized boy with his fate already in the hands of others. Carol Kane, Nancy Allen and Gilda Radner appear in small early career supporting roles.

The Last Detail momentarily challenges all the small details in the inconsequential lives of three men, but the vast emptiness of soul confinement is an overpowering, if quiet, force.






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Thursday, 26 January 2017

Movie Review: Live By Night (2016)


A crime drama, Live By Night carries plenty of style but also too much plot. The story of an Irish gangster carving his way through a life of crime is scattered and fails to build effective momentum.

In Boston of the 1920s, war veteran turned independent gangster Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) falls in love with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller). She's the floozy of gang lord Albert White (Robert Glenister), who is embroiled in a turf war with rival mobster Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Coughlin is of Irish descent, and the son of respected police captain Thomas (Brendan Gleeson). Joe is eventually betrayed and almost killed by White, but survives. After a stint in prison Joe joins Maso's gang and with his loyal sidekick Dion (Chris Messina) relocates to Ybor City, an immigrant dominated, crime infested neighbourhood of Tampa, Florida.

Joe establishes an alliance with the local Cuban gang and builds an impressive crime empire capitalizing on the illegal rum trade. He also falls in love and eventually marries Graciela (Zoe Soldana), the sister of a Cuban crime lord. Joe maintains an uneasy understanding with Ybor's Sheriff Irving Figgis (Chris Cooper), but their relationship sours when Irving's dim witted brother-in-law R.D. Pruitt (Matthew Maher), a member of the Ku Klux Klan, tries to muscle in on Joe's profits. Meanwhile, Joe tries to expand into the casino business, but there are more unexpected troubles in the form of Irving's daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning).

An adaptation of the Dennis Lehane book written for the screen and directed by Affleck, Live By Night has a lot going on and nothing going on. The drama motors on from Boston to Tampa, featuring a dizzying number of gangsters hissing at each other, but the film never grabs hold of a compelling narrative arc. This is the story of Joe Coughlin and he is the one constant, but Affleck plays the central character as a laid back soft spoken type, his obvious narration droning on as he disappears into the set. It's a problem when the assorted villains who enter and exit every other scene are much more colourful than the presumed protagonist.

The film is a demonstration of more is less. A dedicated focus on fewer story lines may have improved control of the material. Instead the overflow of plot and characters eventually overtakes the film, and plenty of seemingly important conversations and incidents start to happen off-screen. Joe's father appears magically at the right time and in the right place to intervene in a murder-in-progress. Joe seems to take over Ybor City in a remarkable hurry, and wins Graciela's heart even quicker. After a long build up, the resolution of the KKK problem is rushed. Major chunks of Loretta's story are summarily dealt with in a few words. Late in the film two adversaries become allies with barely an explanation. And even critical battlefield tactics are botched, Affleck choosing to talk about rather than demonstrate Coughlin's ability to influence goons in battle.

Affleck does have an eye for creating beautiful settings, and the film is awash in vivid colours and plenty of artistry. The camerawork is fluid, capturing bustling neighbourhoods and idyllic landscapes. And some of the climactic showdowns with the head baddies are well constructed.

A large cast supports Affleck's docile take on Coughlin. By far the most memorable is Elle Fanning as the enigmatic Loretta. In just a few scenes she demonstrates what intense charisma can accomplish, and the film would have hugely benefited from investing more in her story.

Live By Night may suggest an adventurous lifestyle, but this is a fragmented, surprisingly dull and ultimately unsatisfying experience.






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Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Movie Review: The Major And The Minor (1942)


A bland one-trick comedy, The Major And The Minor suffers from a ridiculous premise, a lack of wit and phony execution.

Frustrated with a series of dead-end jobs in New York City, Susan Applegate (Ginger Rogers) gives up on life in the big city and decides to return to her simpler roots in Iowa. Short of money for the adult train fare, Susan pretends to be 12 years old and buys a discounted child's ticket. On board the train she plays a cat and mouse game with the conductors to avoid detection. She finally hides in the compartment of  Major Philip Kirby (Ray Milland), who is returning to his military academy where his smothering fiancée Pamela Hill (Rita Johnson) awaits.

Philip falls for the child trick and takes Susan under his wing, housing her at the academy for a few days after train trouble delays her trip. She finds herself having to carry on pretending to be 12 years old, surrounded by lustful adolescent cadets. Pamela's younger sister Lucy (Diana Lynn) immediately sees through Susan's disguise, but more trouble awaits when Philip and Susan start to develop genuine feelings for each other.

The first Hollywood film directed by Billy Wilder, The Major And The Minor has seedlings of ideas that would grow into better films in the future, notably the adults-in-disguise theme of Some Like It Hot. But in and of itself, The Major And The Minor is a flimsy and forgettable effort that has aged exceptionally poorly. There is very little that is funny about 31 year old Ginger Rogers unconvincingly pretending to be 12 for almost the entire duration of the film, and it's made worse with all the other adults in the story somehow falling for the lame deception.

The film would be more tolerable if it stumbled onto some moments of cleverness or romance, but it does not. The script (co-written by Wilder) is hampered by poor pacing, repetitiveness and scenes prolonged well past their useful length, and the narrative is filled with generally unappealing characters behaving poorly. It's difficult to remember a knock-out scene or even one sharp exchange of dialogue. OK, there is one:

Train conductor, suspicious that Susan is not who she says she is: If you're Swedish, suppose you say something in Swedish.
Susan: I vant to be alone.

The romance never has an opportunity to gain traction, because Philip believes that Susan is 12. The adult affection he starts to develop for her is fundamental for the film and yet can only be icky. Susan is left to engage in a battle of surreptitious wills with the possessive Pamela, and starts to demonstrate the emotional maturity of a 12 year old by using juvenile antics to get between Philip and his chosen fiancée.

The Major And The Minor is an inauspicious US debut for Wilder, neither major nor minor, just annoyingly discordant.






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Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Movie Review: Marriage Italian Style (1964)


An Italian celebration of complex relationships, Marriage Italian Style bravely navigates the hazards of a long-term love reaching a moment of truth after years of persisting outside societal norms.

In Italy, fervent Filumena (Sophia Loren) causes a stir when she faints and appears to be near death. Her long time companion, respected businessman Domenico (Marcello Mastroianni) rushes to be by her side. With a doctor confirming that Filumena's prospects for recovery are looking grim, Domenico goes ahead and marries her, believing that she has hours to live.

It's all a ruse. Filumena is fine, and orchestrated the drama to finally tie the knot with Domenico. The couple had met and fallen in love years earlier during World War Two, when Filumena was working at a brothel. They maintained an illicit relationship, with Domenico supporting Filumena and even taking her into his house on the pretense of caring for his mother. But he never took the step to propose and make the relationship respectable. Now Filumena forces the issue, and has a few more surprises in store for Domenico.

An earthy exploration of power dynamics between men and women directed by Vittorio De Sica, Marriage Italian Style benefits from a vibrant Sophia Loren performance representing womanhood engaged in the eternal fight for respect. Landing somewhere between deadly serious drama and derisive comedy, the film maintains a tone that demands attention while poking fun at a society adhering to superficial rules of paternalism.

At the heart of the film is the contest between men and women to control the heart of the community. Domenico may think he is the master of his household, his various romantic affairs and his business, but his vulnerability is exposed as soon as Filumena decides to make a stand. Once she refuses to be taken for granted and springs her masterful offspring mystery, Domenico is helpless. On the surface he may control the present, but she controls the psychological future, and he will have to treat her with renewed respect, if she believes she deserves it.

Loren has a lot to do in Marriage Italian Style, and she does it well. Filumena transitions from a frightened waif through to a life-loving woman in full bloom and finally to a mother demanding that her place be recognized, and Loren convinces at every turn. Her vivacious spirit is matched by Mastroianni's entitled restraint, and the two make for an appealing couple engaged in a life long private romance filled with genuine love and plenty of loud bickering. De Sica directs with an eye towards an Italy in transition, emerging from the war a battered nation creating ripe grounds for a rapid evolution towards a modern and more egalitarian society.

Marriage Italian Style sometimes succumbs to the coarse theatricality of a film eager to report on a clever skirmish between the sexes, but it is a nevertheless enjoyable romp, brimming with heartfelt passion.






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Saturday, 21 January 2017

Movie Review: Mr. Brooks (2007)


An intriguing psychological crime thriller, Mr. Brooks has layered depth but also too much plot and some questionable character behaviours.

In Portland, Earl Brooks (Kevin Costner) is a seemingly respectable businessman, married to Emma (Marg Helgenberger) and with a daughter Jane (Danielle Panabaker) in college. But Brooks is actually a methodical serial murderer known as the thumbprint killer. His evil alter ego Marshall (William Hurt) has just reappeared, egging Brooks to resume the killings. Brooks yields and goes ahead with the double murder of a young couple, but their neighbour Graves Baffert (Dane Cook) captures photographs of the crime in progress. Baffert adopts the name Mr. Smith and blackmails Brooks into accepting him as a protégé.

Detective Tracy Atwood (Demi Moore) is tough as nails, independently wealthy, dealing with a nasty divorce and intent on investigating Brooks' latest crime scene all while evading a violent recently released criminal bent on revenge. As Tracy closes in on Brooks, Mr. Smith demands to be involved in the next killing, while Brooks' daughter Jane starts to reveal shocking secrets of her own.

Directed by Bruce A. Evans, Mr. Brooks delves into the mind of a killer battling against his own demons. The interaction between good and evil within one damaged intellect is cleverly personified by the ominously laid back presence of Marshall, a character only seen and heard by Brooks but instrumental to his being. The film is taut and dark despite suffering from sprawl.

Mr. Brooks packs in enough plot for about three movies. Tracy's divorce sub-plot and her stalking by a maniacal murderer provide plenty of distractions, while over at the Brooks household, daughter Jane comes up with some really big surprises every time she appears on screen. It's a potpourri of evil intentions, all justified and at least loosely connected to the central emotional themes. Evans maintains decent control and Mr. Brooks can never be accused of standing still or shortchanging the main characters.

But the film's core drama is the tension in Brooks' head as personified by Marshall, and the scenes between Costner and Hurt are a class above everything else going on in the film. The many side-quests are much more routine and start to get in the way. And unfortunately, the character of Mr. Smith is by far the weakest thing going on in Mr. Brooks. Despite the incriminating photographs, Mr. Smith's desire to participate in murder is less than convincing and he never comes close to being a match for the Brooks / Marshall combo. They always appear to be a couple of laps ahead of the hapless amateur photographer, depriving the film of tension.

Occasionally Mr. Brooks slips into unnecessarily gory violence, creating disharmony with the more welcome emphasis on psychological turmoil Brooks and Tracy are suffering through.

Kevin Costner and William Hurt are a joy to watch together, the two veterans smoothly playing off each other in the tight confines of the psyche. Demi Moore stays within herself and is all grim determination, while Dane Cook simply cannot keep up with the talent around him.

Mr. Brooks is a mind trip to the land of mental disturbia, cluttered by plenty of more conventional diversions.






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Movie Review: Turner And Hooch (1989)


A police comedy with a massive dog as the real star, Turner And Hooch finds plenty of funny moments thanks to the antics of a perpetually frothing canine, but suffers from a pretty flimsy plot.

In the fictional Sacramento suburb of Cypress Beach, young, single and extremely tidy police Detective Scott Turner (Tom Hanks) generally has nothing to do. He is getting ready to take a higher profile job in the big city, and is showing his replacement Detective David Sutton (Reginald VelJohnson) the ropes. The peace and quiet is suddenly shattered when old geezer Amos Reed (John McIntire) is killed after witnessing suspicious activity at the local fish processing plant. Amos' dog Hooch, a massive slobbering French Mastiff, is the only witness to the murder.

Scott reluctantly takes Hooch in as his new roommate, and the dog promptly proceeds to make a gargantuan mess out of Scott's house while chewing out his car. Scott starts a relationship with local veterinarian Dr. Emily Carson (Mare Winningham), while Hooch proves his worth by identifying a prime suspect in the murder case. With the dog's help, Scott, Sutton and their boss Chief Howard Hyde (Crag T. Nelson) close in on a conspiracy centred at the fish processing plant.

Directed by Roger Spottiswoode, Turner And Hootch proves the old W.C. Fields adage about never working with children or animals. There is a film here about some sort of crime, and Tom Hanks is as likeable as ever, but the only thing that matters is the big, uncoordinated, lovingly ugly Hooch (played by Beasley the Dog). The film is a showcase for the beast, and large chunks of running time are dedicated to Hooch being Hooch.

The best comic moments are fuelled by Turner's tidiness being an irresistible target for Hooch's antics. The dog methodically destroys anything that resembles neat, clean and orderly in Turner's life, and what he does not damage, he eats. The appeal of the film is in making Hooch lovable despite his unattractive drool and bulky clumsiness, and Spottiswoode succeeds in turning the dog into a sympathetic and loyal best friend.

As for the plot, it takes a back seat way at the far end of the bus. Both the nefarious activity at the fish processing plant and the romance between Turner and Emily are sketched in with thick lines, barely developed, and mainly serve to interrupt the fun with the dog.

Turner And Hooch is amiable entertainment, a woofing good time without much of a memorable bite.






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Friday, 20 January 2017

Movie Review: Last Love (2013)


A slow-paced study of relationships among the lonely, Last Love (also known as Mr. Morgan's Last Love) meanders through Paris on a quest to try and make a point, but generally gets lost within the scenery.

In Paris, Matthew Morgan (Michael Caine) is an elderly retired professor, still grieving the passing of his wife Joan (Jane Alexander). Matthew has a strained relationship with his US-based son Miles (Justin Kirk), who appears to be going through marital problems of his own.

On a transit bus Matthew meets local dance instructor Pauline (Clémence Poésy). She is also lonely, and despite a tremendous age difference she takes a liking to the retired professor. They start spending time together, and he comes out of his shell and starts to attend her dance classes. But there are emotional, health and financial complications ahead, with both Miles and his sister Karen (Gillian Anderson) arriving in Paris and questioning Pauline's motives.

An independent production written and directed by Sandra Nettelbeck, Last Love is a soft spoken, slow moving adaptation of a French novel. While primarily a study of two lonely souls forging a connection while drifting in the ocean of life, the film rambles from one narrative stream to another.

Starting with a tender winter/spring relationship, themes of grieving, death with dignity, father/son resentment, family legacies and finally an entire other romance creep into the film, and often inelegantly. With story lines melding and the focus shifting lazily, Nettelbeck can't hold Last Love together, and the drama unravels as it arrives at an obvious ending brimming with self-congratulatory symmetry.

With Paris as the setting the film does look elegant, with plenty of outdoor scenes capturing the graceful city. Michael Caine and Clémence Poésy are adequate, but for both the displays of sad loneliness occasionally enlivened by the potential promise of a unique friendship are almost too easy.

Last Love aims for wistful, but achieves wayward.






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Movie Review: Lovelace (2013)


The sad story of the porn industry's first celebrity, Lovelace is cautionary tale of exploitation and abuse. The film is cleverly constructed but lacks any emotional breakthroughs.

It's 1970 in Florida, and 20 year old Linda Boreman (Amanda Seyfried) is living with her oppressive parents Dorothy and John (Sharon Stone and Robert Patrick). Her rebellion is enabled by the sleazy and much older Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard), who claims to maybe own a strip joint. Soon they get married, Chuck teaches Linda all about oral sex, and she is remarkably good at it. Claiming money pressure, Chuck pressures Linda into the pornography industry and Lovelace is created.

They connect with producers Anthony Romano (Chris Noth) and "Butchie" Peraino (Bobby Canavale), director Gerard Damiano (Hank Azaria) and co-star Harry Reems (Adam Brody). Over a matter of six days in 1972, Damiano films Deep Throat, a relatively artistic porn film capitalizing on Linda's abilities. The film becomes an unexpected breakout hit among mainstream audiences and helps to kick-off the porno chic trend. Linda becomes a household name and travels in celebrity circles, including a meeting with Playboy's Hugh Hefner (James Franco). But behind the surface glamour there is a very dark side to Linda's life involving rampant abuse by the domineering Chuck.

Co-directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Lovelace is a worthwhile companion piece to Boogie Nights. While the Paul Thomas Anderson film rides the breezy waves of pornography's golden era, Lovelace dives beneath the surface to poke at the visible bruises. Lovelace is too emotionally detached and conflicted in its messaging to be the better film, but it nevertheless places on record the horrific price paid by the performers exploited to serve a sordid industry.

As for the film, Epstein and Friedman do try something different. The first half breezes through Lovelace's rapid transition from rebellious young woman to porn celebrity. There are hints suggesting the hell created by Traynor, but without details. The second half retraces some of the same steps and fills in the blanks, exposing the oppressive brutality of his treatment and the degradation she faced. It's a thought provoking structure forcing a comparison between public image and private agony, but Lovelace also emerges as an unbalanced film, hitting discordant notes and mainly moving sideways.

The denouement shifts focus to Linda years after her brief foray into the industry, fighting to reclaim her dignity and identity by publishing a book. It's another shift in cinematic gears, and while the loop is closed, the film is tonally fragmented.

Lovelace delivers one devastating scene, in the least expected context. At her lowest point Linda flees back to her childhood home, and her encounter with her mother is a study of the void exposed by mutually unmet expectations.

Amanda Seyfried displays excellent breadth to convey first adventurous naiveté and then a gradual awakening to abuse. Peter Sarsgaard is fully committed to the role of Chuck Traynor, and sustains the required menace.

Lovelace tells an important story with competence but at the expense of dramatic flair.






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Thursday, 19 January 2017

Movie Review: Empire (2002)


A routine crime drama, Empire tramples on exceedingly familiar gangster land territory and offers little in the way of originality.

In New York City, Vic Rosa (John Leguizamo) is a young and charismatic drug lord, leading a gang with control over a patch of the South Bronx. Vic and his lieutenants get involved in turf skirmishes with rival gangs from adjacent districts, although all the local dealers are supplied by the same drug import queen, known only as La Colombiana (Isabella Rossellini). Vic is dedicated to his girlfriend Carmen (Delilah Cotto) but also desperate to move up in the world.

He spots an opportunity to build a more legitimate fortune when he meets slick Manhattan investment banker Jack Wimmer (Peter Sarsgaard), who is living the rich life with glamorous girlfriend Trish (Denise Richards). Jack offers to cut Vic in on mysterious investments with promises of quick returns, and soon the money is rolling in. Vic and Carmen move into a swanky Manhattan apartment, but with the stakes getting higher, Vic discovers that leaving his old life behind isn't as easy as he thought.

Empire was an initially modest sub-studio effort aimed at Hispanic audiences. But gradually the profile of the cast expanded and the film, directed by Franc Reyes, saw a wider release. No one really needed to bother. While the movie carries some style and is competently assembled, this is a rehash of all the well-known gangster film themes, familiar since the early 1930s.

Every character is a cliché, every line of dialogue predictable, and the narration by Vic is oh-so- bland. Empire is not violent enough to cause a stir, nor groundbreaking in its portrayal of how gangsters, criminals and their molls think, act and react. It's a mercifully compact 90 minutes of lined up and knocked down platitudes.

Reyes does achieve some good aesthetic contrasts between the ramshackle street gang existence of the South Bronx and the glistening allure of Manhattan's high life, so at least Vic's quest to buy himself an upgrade is coherent. But the ease with which the supposedly whip-smart Vic gets seduced by Jack's ill-defined investment schemes introduces a severe central character contradiction.

John Leguizamo gives it his all in the central role, but often seems to be trying too hard. Peter Sarsgaard glides through the film with a glazed look of disinterest. The rest of the cast earnestly labour against the tight confines of characters who live and die within strict definitions.

Empire in not inherently deficient; just entirely derivative and utterly unnecessary.






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Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Movie Review: Passengers (2016)


A touching science fiction romance grappling with human-scaled dilemmas, Passengers is both visually gorgeous and deeply satisfying.

In the distant future, the massive spaceship Avalon is traveling in deep space to the Homestead II planet, carrying 5,000 colonists. The journey is supposed to take 120 years with the passengers asleep in hibernation pods. A mishap occurs when the spacecraft strikes an asteroid, and passenger Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), a mechanical engineer, is awakened 90 years early. Unable to reenter hibernation, Jim has the massive craft to himself as he faces the reality of a lonely existence and a lonelier death to come. With the android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen) as his only companion, he drops into a severe depression.

Jim becomes infatuated with young writer Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), another passenger in deep sleep. Desperate for companionship, he finally makes the difficult decision to wake her up, pretending that it's another mishap. Once she gets over the shock, Aurora and Jim do fall in love, but there is plenty of trouble ahead for the couple and all the passengers on board.

Directed by Morten Tyldum, Passengers is a deep space science fiction adventure focussed on down-to-earth issues. The film soars with a rare beauty, but never loses sight of it central premise, and explores themes of loneliness, depression, and stalking. The script by Jon Spaihts ventures into the fundamental territory of the true purpose of life in the face of death, and what it means to aspire towards lofty goals only to be forced by external factors into essential, wrenching re-orientations.

The film's pervasive theme is about reacting to dreams rudely knocked out of orbit. Jim's planned life is eternally altered by a technical glitch; he can only rage against the machine, an ultimately unsatisfying pursuit. Aurora is awakened by Jim, and will have to first get over the shock of a future death in space; and then confront the truth that another human had intervened in her trajectory and condemned her to a life and death she never imagined. She can rage against another human, but in the abject loneliness of space, to what end?

The film looks magnificent. Rarely has space or a human-imagined space craft looked more beautiful, and the 3D imagery of the Avalon streaking through the void is awe inspiring. The vessel is cavernous, allowing Tyldum to set the action in a variety of internal locations as the universe passes by outside, and a few space walk excursions add to the diverse visual buffet on display.

Passengers does hurtle into a bit of a technical muddle towards its climax. While the emotional build-up is superb and Tyldum hits all the high notes required for the human drama, the scientific parts of the story are jettisoned into deep space. There is a frantic rush to bang things into shape, and it's all a blur of running around, opening hatches, pointing at random items, pulling levers and putting out fires with condescendingly minimalistic explanations.

Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence competently bring the two central characters to life without necessarily setting the planets on fire. They hold their own amidst all the sleek hardware, and Lawrence handles the emotional ups and down forced on Aurora with a growing maturity. Michael Sheen is ridiculously appropriate as an android bartender, while in a late and relatively brief appearance, Laurence Fishburne adds heft as a crew officer.

The story of Jim and Aurora carries echoes of everyday life, where some some events appear bigger than what an individual can comprehend, while others are clearly the work of a human hand but no less impactful. Finding meaning in the here and now is never easy, and Passengers is a lyrical exploration about dealing with what is, despite what may have been.






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Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Movie Review: Far From The Madding Crowd (2015)


A luscious adaptation of the Thomas Hardy romantic classic, Far From The Madding Crowd looks dreamy but is constrained by the frustrations inherent in the story.

In rural Britain of the 1870s, Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) is a humble, strong-willed and unmarried young woman. Next-door sheep farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) sets his eyes on Bathsheba and eventually proposes, but she turns him down, unwilling to become a man's property. Gabriel hits hard times and loses everything; Bathsheba unexpectedly inherits an estate and becomes a respected land owner. She hires Gabriel to tend to her sheep, he continues to care deeply for her from afar, but their relationship remains tense.

Two more suitors come forward to try and win Bathsheba's heart. William Boldwood (Michael Sheen) is a very wealthy but aging and lonely estate owner. Sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge) is a dashing soldier who lost his true love Fanny (Juno Temple) due to a wedding-day misunderstanding. Bathsheba finally makes her choice and marries a man, setting off a series of unexpected events.

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg, Far From The Madding Crowd is a pleasure for the eye. Plenty of outdoor scenes bring the British countryside to life, and Vinterberg and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen use the magic hour to capture an idyllic landscape filled with lush greens and yellows, long shadows and beautiful skies. The music score by Craig Armstrong adds to the pensive mood.

The artistry is appreciated, because the story belongs in another century and carries suspect appeal. While Bathsheba is a fictional heroine ahead of her time, Hardy's story is bogged down in her love life, and for two hours the story starts and stops with Bathsheba agonizing over men. This smart and independent woman also suddenly displays atrocious instincts to pick the very worst of three possible choices, pushing deep into incredulous melodrama territory and prolonging the resolution.

The sturdy performances help to maintain interest. Carey Mulligan does the best she can with the central role, not necessarily giving Bathsheba new depth but displaying a convincing version of early prototype feminism. Matthias Schoenaerts looks as good as the scenery, although he does slip into mopey mode. Michael Sheen and Tom Sturridge stick closely to their characters' basic definitions of the lonely love struck rich man and conniving soldier respectively.

In Far From The Madding Crowd Bathsheba's judgment may be patchy, but at least the visuals are consistently absorbing.






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Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Movie Review: The Sessions (2012)


A drama about overcoming physical disability to satisfy a basic human need, The Sessions cannot move much beyond its basic premise.

Berkeley, California, in 1988. Aspiring poet Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) lives most of his life in an iron lung, his muscles rendered fairly useless due to complications from polio. Mark functions in society thanks to the help of full time caretakers, but grows increasingly desperate to have sex. He consults with his priest Father Brendan (William H. Macy), before connecting with professional sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt).

Cheryl commits to working with Mark over six sessions. He gradually gets used to being touched and controlling his arousal, and works his way towards an ability to have intercourse. But there are emotional complications ahead, both between Mark and Cheryl and between Cheryl and her husband.

Directed and written by Ben Lewin based on the article by O'Brien, The Sessions is a small intimate story, and that is both its charm and its limitation. The desires of one man to experience the joy of sex and his subsequent encounters with a sex surrogate are intriguing, but provide constrained scope for a cinematic experience. Apart from featuring frank depictions of sexual mechanics, the story of The Sessions could have been told in a 15 minute television segment with no loss of impact.

The padding is apparent, and extends to quite useless side-stories involving Mark's caretakers, a predictable but nevertheless prolonged journey to the land where sex and love become confused dance partners, and some unconvincing attempts to capture the impact of the relationship on Cheryl's already unusual family life. The scenes featuring Mark providing a startled Father Brendan with a play-by-play describing the quest to lose his virginity inject some humour but also become repetitive.

The two leads almost salvage the film. John Hawkes delivers a physically punishing performance, mainly prostrate with his body painfully deformed. Helen Hunt was nominated for an Academy Award, seemingly as a reward for embracing nudity as a matter-of-fact business requirement.

The courage on show in The Sessions is mildly uplifting, but the film otherwise carries next to no lasting resonance.






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Monday, 9 January 2017

Movie Review: La La Land (2016)


An original modern musical, La La Land is an instant masterpiece. Director and writer Damien Chazelle crafts a loving homage to the classic Hollywood musicals and the town that created them, and modernizes the genre by combining pragmatic sensibilities with an enthralling infusion of magic.

In Los Angeles, Mia (Emma Stone) is a fledgling actress still waiting for her big break. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a pianist dreaming of opening his own jazz bar. Mia is getting disillusioned, working at a coffee shop on a studio lot, attending countless auditions and getting no callbacks. Sebastian is also getting despondent, playing bland tunes in featureless lounges to an uncaring audience.

Mia and Sebastian meet at a party and their relationship gets off to a rocky start, but gradually they fall in love and enter into a deep relationship. Their courtship includes a visit to the Griffith Observatory, inspired by the scene from Rebel Without A Cause. Sebastian's career seems to catch a break when band leader Keith (John Legend) invites him to be part of his emerging ensemble, combining jazz with a more modern pop and synthesizer sound. Meanwhile Mia attempts to write and perform a one-woman play. Sebastian's touring obligations take him further away from both Mia and his dream, while Mia has to decide if she will ever make it as an actress.

With an evocative music score by Justin Hurwitz, La La Land is a daring gem. A modern-day romance, grounded in the reality of careerism and a city that promises much only to deceive, set to original music and featuring song and dance numbers by actors not known for their singing and dancing, La La Land sounds like the farthest thing from an interesting film. Out of that premise Chazelle creates a magical experience, capturing the flighty charisma of the best Hollywood musicals but modernized for a world firmly rooted in pragmatism born out of disillusionment.

Mia and Sebastian have their limits, and have been kicked around enough. Having tasted too many false dawns both are now just as likely to pursue their dream as abandon it, Sebastian ready to sell out in pop land and Mia one bad audition away from retreating to her family home. Somewhere within the increasingly pessimistic milieu of dream chasing they have to maybe fit in a romance, love as another ethereal pursuit, either helping or hindering lifelong ambitions. The film's dogged tenacity in holding on to what defines success in a city that manufactures fantasies sets a unique platform for Mia and Sebastian, and from that skewed starting point Chazelle can and does take their couplehood in unexpected directions.

To set this story to music, Hurwitz fills the film with a catchy, show-stopping piano tuned for poignancy and playfulness. City of Stars is the signature tune, its title already hinting at the potential for competing objectives. Mia and Sebastian's Theme makes regular appearances and is an old fashioned tune dripping with irresistible melancholia, while Mia finds her voice, her purpose and salutes the people of her adopted city with the tender yet unforgettably resilient The Fools Who Dream.

Stylistically Chazelle insists on fluid, long and continuous takes, and old fashioned musical framing with Gosling and Stone always filmed full length when dancing. The film is saturated in colour, dark blues punctuated by yellows featuring prominently as La La Land celebrates a Los Angeles that lives by night and loves its stars.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone reunite for the third time after Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad, and they enjoy an easy chemistry allowing them to mix squabbling with honesty in romance. Stone does the heavier lifting when it comes to acting, while Gosling gets away with just being himself but does throw in some well-timed comic mannerisms.

Chazelle bookends La La Land with two sequences of breathtaking majesty, both destined to be remembered for generations. The opening song and dance extravaganza on the freeway to the tune of Another Day In The Sun is 4 minutes of single-take wizardry, a celebratory number that sets the stage, introducing the city, the stars, the colour and the attitude.

Not satisfied with one scene for the history books, Chazelle just goes ahead and ends the film with a stupendous knock-out punch, an eight minute epilogue of heartbreaking imagined happiness holding hands with giddy sorrow, dreams fulfilled and lost, connections made only across the room, definitely within hearts, and in time eternal for two people. The audacity of the epilogue in echoing a re-imagined past, refusing to surrender to the obvious, and yet finding a uniquely satisfying conclusion within the context of a romance set in the land of fantasy elevates La La Land from a simply brilliant movie to a remarkable artistic achievement for the ages.






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Sunday, 8 January 2017

Movie Review: Blood Ties (2013)


A good brother - bad brother cop drama, Blood Ties features a superlative cast but is undermined by an overwhelming lack of originality and chemistry.

It's the 1970s in New York City, and police officer Frank Pierzynski (Billy Crudup) arrests criminal Anthony Scarfo (Matthias Schoenaerts) and reignites a romantic relationship with Scarfo's wife Vanessa (Zoe Saldana). Meanwhile Frank's brother Chris (Clive Owen) is released from prison and despite an uneasy brotherly dynamic, Frank tries to help Chris go straight. Chris accepts a job at an auto garage, reconnects with his wife Monica (Marion Cotillard), and establishes a new relationship with Natalie (Mila Kunis).

Frank and Chris were brought up by their father Leon (James Caan) after their mother abandoned the family. Leon is now physically ailing and just wants the brothers to get along. But Chris is soon sucked back into a life of crime and gets involved in gangland murders and armed heists, placing Frank in the awkward position of having to pursue his brother. Meanwhile Scarfo is stewing in jail, plotting revenge against Frank.

Directed by Guillaume Canet as a remake of French film in turn adapted from a French novel, Blood Ties labours its way towards offering nothing new. All the ingredients are there, from the gritty 1970s New York setting to the conflicted characters living in the shadows of emotional damage built up over a lifetime of disappointments and betrayals. But the film lands with a dull thud of inertness, the performers almost seeming disinterested, the script never building a head of steam, and a general sense of ennui suffocates the movie.

Which is unfortunate, since the cast is full of talent. Clive Owen, Billy Crudup, Zoe Saldana, Marion Cotillard, Mila Kunis, James Caan and Matthias Schoenaerts should enliven any film. But the screenplay, co-written by Canet and James Gray, is unable to locate an adequate spark. The interactions remain dull and subdued, Frank and Chris too often squabbling, sulking and wrestling like children. Scarfo hisses stereotypical evil and the women suffer most in being unable to justify why they are hanging around this assortment of losers. James Caan tries his best to inject some dynamism but errs on the side of overcooking the father trying too hard to make up for the flaws of the past.

The few action scenes are well executed, and Canet does succeed in capturing the spirit of a grainy, crime-infested New York filled with over-sized cars transporting villains from one sleaze-infested neighbourhood to another. Blood Ties has the look, but it only serves as reminder that almost everything else is missing.






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Saturday, 7 January 2017

Movie Review: About Time (2013)


A fantasy romantic comedy and drama, About Time holds promise but eventually gets itself into a hopeless multi-tonal mess.

In Cornwall, England, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) turns 21 and is informed by his father (Bill Nighy) that the men in the family have the special ability to change their fortune by traveling back in time to any event they previously were part of. Tim has never been lucky in love, and so uses his newly found gift to try and improve his success rate with women. He is nevertheless unsuccessful in his attempts to woo Charlotte (Margot Robbie), the best friend of his free-spirited sister Kathy, better known as "Kit Kat" (Lydia Wilson).

After moving to London, Tim uses his time travel skills to help his father's friend and abrasive fledgling playwright Harry (Tom Hollander) have a more successful opening night. In the process he almost derails a promising relationship with Mary (Rachel McAdams), but then rescues his chances with her by doing more time traveling. Eventually Tim learns that there are limits to what he can and cannot change, and understands the true value of his special gift.

Directed and written by Richard Curtis, About Time starts with possibilities and an amusing attitude, mixing playful British eccentricity with droll fantasy elements. The early stages of Tim's experimentation with time travel are engaging, his clumsy but dogged pursuits of first Charlotte and then Mary full of understated charm and soft humour.

But unfortunately, About Time effectively unravels in its second half. New restrictions and rules on what is and is not possible with the time travel trick are introduced seemingly at random. Tim zips backwards and forwards in time at dizzying speed, and the film's emotional focus is hopelessly lost.

Curtis seems to have partial material for three different short stories, and he bolts them together inelegantly. After barely featuring as a character, Tim's sister Kit Kat suddenly becomes the new focus of attention, before a second jerky gear shift resets the emphasis on the relationship between Tim and his father. The narrative transitions are mishandled and in the process much of the initial charm evaporates, replaced by clumsy attempts at pathos. The film eventually settles for a couple of bland conclusions contradicting much of what Tim achieved with his hopping across time.

Domhnall Gleeson is passable as the slightly gawkish youth making his way in the world. Rachel McAdams, about 35 at the time of filming, mails in yet another perky but relatively trivial performance.

Well-intentioned but overambitious, About Time gets distracted in too many time zones.






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Friday, 6 January 2017

Movie Review: 13 Going On 30 (2004)


A fantasy romantic comedy, 13 Going On 30 is a compact gem celebrating life's simple lessons in a an energetic package.

It's 1987, and Jenna Rink (Christa B. Allen) is about to celebrate her 13th birthday. Her one genuine friend is geeky and slightly chubby next door neighbour and classmate Matt (Sean Marquette). Jenna desperately wants to be considered cool and envies the "Six Chicks" group of shallow but popular girls led by Lucy "Tom-Tom" Wyman. When her birthday party unravels into an unmitigated disaster, Jenna yearns to be "30, flirty and thriving". Thanks to a dose of "magic wishing dust", Jenna (Jennifer Garner) wakes up the next day as the 30 year old editor of the influential Poise women's magazine, living the glamorous Manhattan life.

As she adjusts to the sudden transformation from 13 to 30, Jenna discovers that Lucy (Judy Greer) is now her assistant, her live-in boyfriend is a dumb but hunky hockey player, and Poise is in a lot of trouble, consistently out-scooped by the rival Sparkle magazine. Jenna seeks out and reconnects with the 30 year old Matt (Mark Ruffalo), now a photographer engaged to be married to Wendy (Lynn Collins). But Matt doesn't want much to do with Jenna, since she grew up to be a shallow and deceitful narcissist. Jenna has to find a way to put her life right and reclaim her true self.

Directed by Gary Winick, 13 Going On 30 gets almost everything right. The film never takes itself too seriously, and contains just enough edge along with the humour and romance to entertain teens, their parents and everyone who years for romance as an outcome of a life lived better.

Plenty of breezy lessons are wrapped into the film, including be careful what you wish for, beware opportunistic friendships, cherish the value of family, and don't be in a hurry to grow up. But the messaging is conveyed with a light touch and allowed to emerge on the side of Jenna's sudden and frequently funny transition from adolescent to adult.

The early scenes quickly capture the trauma of high school for 13 year olds, a jungle of  insecurity, cliques and an oppressive need to fit in. Winick is just as good when the film moves into Jenna's adulthood, and her young teenager's perspective on the chic world of a glitzy magazine editor injects excellent gumption.

Jennifer Garner approaches the role of Jenna Rink with a winning, all-in attitude, and her wide-eyed, self-deprecating enthusiasm is infectious. Mark Ruffalo does not need to do much except convey mellow wistfulness while looking dreamy. Judy Greer provides acerbic support as the snooty Lucy, who grew up from her Tom-Tom years exactly as would have been predicted. Andy Serkis adds another gloss of understated humour as the senior editor attempting to maintain his cool under increasing pressure.

13 Going On 30 reverberates with a soundtrack of 1980s hits, and Winick incorporates an impromptu recreation of Michael Jackson's legendary Thriller video into Jenna's adventures. Her fantasy is as cheeky as a zombie dance, and almost as much fun.






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