Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Movie Review: The Hurricane (1999)

A boxing, prison and court room drama, The Hurricane is based on the real-life of champion boxer Ruben Carter. Thanks to a potent story, a committed central performance by Denzel Washington and agile directing by Normal Jewison, the film is a dominant viewing experience.

It's the mid 1960s, and Ruben "The Hurricane" Carter is a top ranked middleweight boxer, having risen from a poor childhood including long stints in juvenile detention. With Hurricane at the peak of his abilities and fame, a triple murder is committed in a Paterson, New Jersey bar, with three patrons shot dead. Ruben and a friend happen to be in the area; they are arrested, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Ruben insists that he is innocent and from his cell writes an autobiography.

With Ruben incarcerated a parallel story features Lesra Martin (Vicellous Reon Shannon), a young black man from Brooklyn being raised by a foster family in Toronto. Lesra takes an interest in Ruben after reading his book, and communicates with the boxer first through letters then visits. Eventually Lesra's guardians decide to investigate Ruben's case, and relocate to New Jersey to agitate for a legal review of his conviction.

Many other key characters from Hurricane's story also come to life. Featured prominently are Lesra's foster family Lisa Peters (Deborah Kara Unger), Sam Chaiton (Liev Schreiber) and Terry Swinton (John Hannah); Ruben's lifelong pursuer Detective Sargent Della Pesca (Dan Hedaya), Ruben's wife Mae Thelma (Debbi Morgan) and compassionate prison guard Jimmy Williams (Clancy Brown). Late in the film, David Paymer and Harris Yulin make important contributions as Ruben's long-term lawyers, while Rod Steiger has a short but memorable turn as a judge.

Directed by Norman Jewison as an adaptation of Carter's autobiography and the book by Chaiton and Swinton, The Hurricane is a powerful story about the search for justice. Set partially in the world of boxing and mostly behind prison walls, the film is a carefully crafted experience, covering close to 20 years of Carter's life and charting his unwavering dignity in the face of larger forces of racism, conspiracy and discrimination.

As with many biographical but non-documentary features, The Hurricane does portray Carter in the most favourable light, and his opponents come across as seething villains. The film rises above any such simplifications thanks to the intensity of its central performance. The Hurricane is quite possibly Denzel Washington's finest on-screen moment. He embodies the role and disappears into it, the actor leaving no trace as Ruben Carter comes to life, driven by rage, personal determination and quiet resistance. Whether in the ring or in prison, Washington is superb at finding the man smirking at a system that can defeat his body but never his soul, and expressing his emotions with a combination of lyricism and cutting critique.

The film runs for 145 minutes, but does not feel long. Especially in the first half Jewison keeps the energy level high and jumps across time to capture various episodes from Carter's life. Snippets from childhood through to life in prison are presented out of sequence but nevertheless logically, to establish the full scope of Ruben's life experience. The second half settles down and is more focused on attempts to secure Hurricane's release, and the film finds a new but still compelling groove as an amateur detective story seeking to lift the lid off decades of deception.

The Hurricane encapsulates rage in all its colours: a child's rage to survive, a boxer's rage to win, and a prisoner's rage to secure freedom. And it's the battles fought without weapons and boxing gloves that are ultimately most effective.

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Sunday, 26 March 2017

Movie Review: Killing Them Softly (2012)

A grim gangster flick, Killing Them Softly has an overabundance of gab, some flair and insufficient substance.

It's 2008, and the great recession is creating economic chaos. Against a backdrop of politicians trying to bail out the financial sector and the looming presidential election campaign, low-level gang boss Johnny "Squirrel" Amato (Vincent Curatola) hires young thugs Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) to rob an illegal large-stakes poker game hosted by mobster Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). Australian Russell is an unreliable heroin addict and dog snatcher, but Squirrel believes that they can get away with the crime because suspicion for organizing the theft will immediately fall on Markie himself, who has admitted masterminding a previous similar heist.

The robbery is committed, and the Mob uses Driver (Richard Jenkins) as a go-between to hire hitman Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to dish out revenge. At first it appears as through Markie is indeed considered the principle suspect, but news filters back to Cogan about the involvement of Squirrel, Frankie and Russell. Cogan recruits fellow assassin Mickey (James Gandolfini) for extra firepower, but Mickey has issues of his own.

Written and directed by Andrew Dominik, Killing Them Softly aims for a hip Tarantino-like vibe, and generally fails. The mixture of long conversations, incessant profanity and short scenes of gory action is fundamentally unbalanced. The characters never come close to achieving the requisite level of likability to make the film work, and the tension remains at a flaccid level.

The one element that does intermittently relieve the tedium is the film's visual style. In-between all the talking Dominik and his cinematogapher Greig Fraser compose some memorable scenes, using sharp framing and ominous urban decay as a visual representation of the collapsing financial sector. The background soundtrack includes a steady stream of sound clips from President Bush reacting to the crisis and candidate Barack Obama electioneering. Their words serve as jolting reminders of how close the world's economy came to the brink and how effectively Obama's idyllic promises of a new hope lifted spirits. Nevertheless, the connection to the film's story of criminals living in a world of their own is both too obvious and completely irrelevant.

The scenes of violence are few, but are executed with panache, a cold detachment and an excess of blood and broken bones. With the f-bomb dropped every other word, Dominik confuses excess with impact.

Brad Pitt cruises through the film with a general sense of disinterest, Jackie Cogan bordering on a secondary presence. Frankie and Russell are the two most prominent characters and both hoodlums are far from capable of carrying this or any other film.

James Gandolfini suffers most from the film's lack of punch: hitman Mickey burns up an inordinate amount of time, most of it invested in exceedingly tedious stories as he drinks and whores his way to inconsequence. Much like the movie itself, Mickey is overinflated with boring talk and can't deliver when it matters.

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Friday, 24 March 2017

Movie Review: Side Effects (2013)

A neo-noir psychological crime drama, Side Effects enjoys a twisty tale but mediocre execution.

Young wife Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is suffering from depression as she awaits the release of her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) from prison. The couple's lavish lifestyle had come to a crashing halt when Martin was arrested and locked up for financial fraud. Martin is freed after finishing his sentence and starts planning to reconstitute their life, but Emily is suicidal; she tries to kill herself by driving head-on into a wall.

She survives, and psychologist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) takes her on as a patient, eventually prescribing Ablixa, an experimental new anti-depressant drug. In researching Emily's background, Jonathan also connects with Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who had previously tried to help Emily. Ablixa appears to improve Emily's mood, but the side effects include sleep walking. Suddenly, a violent crime is committed, and Jonathan finds his life turning upside down and his career threatened with ruin.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh, Side Effects holds promise as an unexpected murder mystery laced with illicit passion, a devious conspiracy, and potentially a lot to say about the pharmaceutical industry, mental health and financial wrong doing. While the twists and turns maintain a decent level of engagement, the film's plot points start tumbling into each other. This is a movie that bites off large chunks and then refuses to chew.

At 106 minutes, the film is shorter than it needs to be for the amount of plot and characters packed in. Soderbergh may be aiming for the compact noir style of no scene longer than it needs to be and absolutely no unnecessary scenes, but he sells the narrative short. As the final third hurtles towards a conclusion, counter conspiracies unfurl at a pace too frantic to generate the appropriate level of appreciation. The rest of the noir elements are more about content than visual style. The story contains almost every foundational plank from crime to sex passing through the manipulation of a clueless man, but the aesthetics are relatively free of the more obvious noir stunts.

The film is hampered by an abrupt change of perspective. The first half is Emily's story, but about halfway through she is effectively marginalized and Side Effects becomes a lot more about Jonathan. While both characters are interesting, neither is provided with enough time or context to become truly rounded.

The cast is solid, with Jude Law controlling his more rascal-like tendencies and delivering an inviting performance despite the limitations of the material. Rooney Mara is the most memorable part of the movie, and Side Effects suffers as her prominence fades. Catherine Zeta-Jones is victimized the most by the film's too-sharp editing. Dr. Victoria Siebert could have been a fascinating character, but here she is reduced to a cartoon schemetress.

Side Effects promises forward momentum, but too often moves sideways.

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Thursday, 23 March 2017

Movie Review: Premonition (2007)

A supernatural psychological drama, Premonition offers an intriguing premise but is handicapped by sloppy attempts at sappiness.

The marriage of Linda and Jim Hanson (Sandra Bullock and Julian McMahon) has hit the doldrums. The passion has seeped out despite a seemingly idyllic life, two young daughters and a large house in the suburbs. Things get much worse when Linda learns that Jim has died in a fiery car crash on the highway while on a business trip. Linda's mother Joanne (Kate Nelligan) and friend Annie (Nia Long) arrive to offer comfort.

But the next day Linda wakes up and Jim is still alive. Dumbfounded, she starts to question her sanity. Other scary incidents over the coming days include one of her daughters smashing through a glass door, and a gory encounter with a dead crow. Not knowing what each new day may bring and confused over the health of her marriage and the sequence of events in her life, Linda reaches out to psychologist Dr. Norman Roth (Peter Stormare), but he may be more of a hindrance than a help.

Directed by Mennan Yapo and written by Bill Kelly, Premonition plays with the idea of a mind under stress mimicking a marriage spiralling in all the wrong directions. The film offers a puzzle built on jumbled time, and once the framework is set, all sorts of possibilities emerge. Premonition in this case is a vivid experience which may have either already happened or could still be prevented, and with the failing dynamic between Linda and Jim, she has interesting choices to make.

The theme of preordained destiny or a future potentially shaped by human decisions bubbles to the surface, and Premonition deserves credit for presenting an eternal debate through a fresh lens. The final third of the film veers towards some maudlin moments, and Linda's last-ditch attempts to save her marriage are less than convincing.

Brief but effective horror moments punctuate the film and add to the sense of unease. The encounters with the glass sliding door and the dead crow provide opportunities for gory and sharp shocks, signposts that all is clearly not well in Linda's week.

Sandra Bullock capably carries the weight of the film, mixing incredulity with determination while handling the time shifts with increasing confidence. The rest of the cast members are given relatively little to do, with Julian McMahon operating at a particularly bland television movie level.

Premonition offers decent quality and thought-provoking entertainment without necessarily reinventing the wheels of time.

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Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Movie Review: Get Out (2017)

A psychological horror film with some elements of humour, Get Out builds some fine tension but then surrenders to a rushed and bloody climax.

Aspiring photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is black, his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) is white, and they are about to embark on a weekend trip to visit her parent for the first time as a couple. Dean and Missy Armitage (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) live out in the suburbs and espouse liberal views, but Chris notices the strange, subdued behaviour of their black groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) and black maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel).

Missy is a hypnotist and offers to help Chris quit smoking. He reveals his childhood trauma surrounding his mother's death in a hit and run accident and Missy tricks Chris into an an unsettling experience in the hypnosis chair. Dean and Missy host a weekend gathering for their friends, who all appear to be elderly white people with health problems, including blind arts supporter Jim Hudson (Stephen Root). The one black guest at the party is Logan King (LaKeith Stanfield), whose strange demeanor adds to Chris' anxiety that something is very wrong in this idyllic suburb.

Written and directed by Jordan Peele, Get Out is a compact exercise in peeling away superficial layers of civility to expose evil at play. Riffing on themes from The Stepford Wives but with the extra specter of insidious racism, Get Out enjoys a strong ramp-up, Peele focussing on building cerebral and creepy tension as Chris stumbles onto a not-quite-right world of large homes, white owners and creepy black people. Once the conspiracy takes flight, the film flips to a more gory mode, and the final third is more routine and less interesting.

Get Out works as a metaphor for the dangers of liberal views disconnected from actions, where the soothing spoken words are a cover for dangerous intentions. The film also fits as a summary of the black experience in America, Chris journeying from his supposedly wild urban habitat to the seemingly more cultured suburbs, only to find unimaginable mistreatment hidden within the pretense of advanced civility.

Aesthetically Peele makes frequent and unsettling use of some extreme close-ups, both Catherine Keener as Missy and especially Betty Gabriel as Georgina enjoying some mammoth zoom-ins to loom large over Chris' psyche. Caleb Landry Jones as Rose's slightly unhinged brother Jeremy contributes to the sense of dread.

Daniel Kaluuya is sturdy as Chris, and the horror unfolds through his eyes, expanding from eerie encounters with Georgina to more shocking episodes of mind control and unwanted surgery. The rest of the cast does not stray from the conventional, and Peele flicks a switch rather suddenly to turn the environment and characters from scheming to outright demonic.

Chris' adventure ends with bloody violence and plenty of corpses. The black man did not start this mess, but doubtless he will be held accountable for the resulting carnage.

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Sunday, 19 March 2017

Movie Review: Hidden Figures (2016)

A feel-good drama recognizing the scientific contributions of three black women, Hidden Figures has an inspirational story to tell but is also packed with over-amplified melodrama.

It's 1961, and three black women work as "computers" on the nascent NASA space program in Virginia. Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) is a mathematical genius whose potential has not yet been recognized; Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is being held back from a supervisory position she richly deserves, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) has ambitions to be an engineer but faces obstacles due to segregation laws. With the Soviet Union comprehensively winning the space race, director of the Space Task Group (STG) Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and his head engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) are under increasing pressure to place a man into space.

Katherine is recruited into the STG and starts to prove her worth despite entrenched racist attitudes. Dorothy spots the emergence of computers as a key new technology and takes the initiative to teach herself and her team computer programming. Mary refuses to take no for an answer, and pushes to get accepted into the courses she needs for an engineering degree. As the countdown continues to John Glen's maiden flight, the three women play an increasingly prominent role.

An adaptation of the Margot Lee Shetterly book directed by Theodore Melfi, Hidden Figures shines a light on the previously unheralded contributions of three remarkable women who toiled against both gender and racial discrimination. Their story is irresistibly uplifting, and the film is a celebration of quiet dignity, persistence and strength of character against seemingly impossible odds.

The film does several things well. The challenge of developing the science of safely launching objects and people into orbit is tackled at regular intervals. The language may be simplified, but the hard work of inventing the math of space exploration is captured. And Melfi recreates the cerebral workplaces of the era to good effect. White men in white shirts dominate the hallowed halls of science, a pale background of uniformity against which Katherine, Dorothy and Mary literally stand out as coloured invaders.

But this being Hollywood, Hidden Figures also takes every opportunity to push a quiet story to over-saturated levels. While there is no expectation of documentary-levels of realism, the film ironically cheapens the women's achievements by adding large doses of mediocre mythology. Black women earning respect in a white male dominated world should generate sufficient drama; here the real accomplishments are obscured by superficial incidents of racial discrimination that are either fully made up or over exaggerated.

Melfi, who also co-wrote the film, invests too much time on Katherine running back and forth to the coloured ladies room, a case of first inventing a crisis and then not knowing when to let go. Dorothy's leadership of her team is elevated to a military style, invade-the-computer room heroics. Mary's courtroom highlight scene is another long stretch of the truth. The climax is most egregious, offending the space program with contrived last-minute panics.

The three lead actresses rise above the material and are uniformly excellent, with Taraji P. Henson shining brightest. Kevin Costner is his steady self, while the supporting cast includes telling contributions from Mahershala Ali as Katherine's romantic interest and Kirsten Dunst as a prim supervisor hiding behind passive racist attitudes.

Hidden Figures is stirring story partially compromised by suspect storytelling.

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Saturday, 18 March 2017

Movie Review: Death Of A Gunfighter (1969)

A second-rate Western, Death Of A Gunfighter strives for earnest intensity but lacks the talent,
skill or depth to deliver.

The setting is the town of Cottonwood Springs, Texas, in the early 1900s. Progress is coming, the railroad has arrived in town, horseless carriages are starting to appear on the road, and the city elders want to attract more business. Standing in the way is Marshal Frank Patch (Richard Widmark), who has had the job for 20 years and knows all the town's dirty secrets and scandals. Patch still settles disputes the old way, and proceeds to shoot dead a drunk and depressed man, albeit in self defence.

City council members and business leaders, including Mayor Chester Sayre (Larry Gates) and the smarmy Lester Locke (Carroll O'Connor), try to convince Patch to quit on his own terms, but he is too stubborn and too proud to listen. County Sheriff Lou Trinidad (John Saxon) arrives in town to try and arrest Patch, but is rebuffed and bloodied by the Marshal. The town elders have to decide whether or not to resort to more violent methods to end the reign of their long-term protector.

The first film credited to non-existent director Alan Smithee, Death Of A Gunfighter started under Robert Totten and finished under Don Siegel, after Totten had a falling out with star Richard Widmark. Totten was mostly a television director, and Death Of A Gunfighter has the plastic, staged look and feel of a slightly glorified TV movie. The premise of the passing of the old west is simple and stale, the execution ponderous, and with the ending given away in the title, precious little drama is generated.

Once the conflict is established between Marshal Patch and the townsfolk, the script stalls. There are rudimentary attempts to create a dynamic between Patch and a young man who hero worships the Marshal, and a lukewarm long-term romantic relationship with local woman Claire Quintana (Lena Horne, in a rare dramatic role) stutters in the background. Another father-son pairing enters and exits the fray with only the outlines of a relationship sketched in. None of the subtexts move past the perfunctory.

Meanwhile, Richard Widmark tries too hard to carry the weight of the film, grimacing fiercely at the injustice of it all and allowing Patch's increasingly irrational stubbornness to dominate. John Saxon wanders in from a whole other movie only to get beaten up by Patch in short order, but Saxon does enough with the character to suggest that the film would have only been better with a bigger role for Lou Trinidad. Other than Carroll O'Connor ensuring that baddie Lester Locke drips mean connivance, the other conspirators against Patch remain poorly defined.

Death Of A Gunfighter is a lightweight exercise in bundling old genre themes into an unfortunately bland rehash.

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Movie Review: El Dorado (1966)

A robust Western, El Dorado gallops on familiar grounds but does so with veteran respect.

Gun-for-hire Cole Thornton (John Wayne) has a long friendly rivalry with El Dorado's Sheriff J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum). Not wanting to tangle with J.P., Cole turns down a job offer from greedy businessman Bart Jason (Ed Asner) to drive peaceful landowner Kevin MacDonald (R.G. Armstrong) and his family off their water-rich land. But in self defence, Cole kills one of MacDonald's sons and is then himself shot and wounded by MacDonald's daughter Josephine (Michele Carey).

On a trip away from El Dorado, Cole strikes up a friendship with young Mississippi (James Caan), an expert knifesman who spent two years avenging his friend's death. Cole also runs across notorious gunslinger Nelse McLeod (Christopher George) and his gang. Cole and Mississippi return to town and find J.P. a full-fledged drunk, having been dumped by a woman. Cole has to dry out J.P., and along with help from Mississippi and old timer Bull (Arthur Hunnicutt), they face-off against McLeod and his men, who have now been hired by Jason to finish off the MacDonalds.

The penultimate film directed by veteran Howard Hawks, El Dorado is an almost straightforward retelling of Rio Bravo. Hawks and Wayne recreate every essential element with just a few new shadings, and deliver a surprisingly enjoyable and polished experience. Particularly in its later scenes, El Dorado injects elements of humour, mainly of the self-deprecating poke-fun-at-the- elderly-walking-wounded kind, and does open up the locations to include more incidents away from the town.

The film is almost from another era, and that's a good thing. By this stage in the 1960s many Wayne movies were becoming parodies of the man and the image, overly reliant on slapstick and lowest common denominator, feed-the-fans-what they-want fodder. El Dorado strikes a mostly earnest tone, giving the story enough respect to anchor the narrative and celebrate traditional western staples of friendship, loyalty, and doing what is right despite the risk of harm.

The film is enhanced by the grey moral zone occupied by Cole Thornton. His flaws come to the fore early, from his profession as a gun for hire, to killing MacDonald's son, and then falling victim to Joey's ambush. Meanwhile the action scenes come at regular intervals but are only as long as they need to be, punctuation marks enhancing rather than sapping the strength of the story.

Helping El Dorado stand up to the long shadows of classic westerns is a terrific cast surrounding John Wayne. Robert Mitchum as J.P. Harrah takes on the Dean Martin role and makes it his own, Mitchum shedding most of his usual lackadaisical mannerisms and appearing much more engaged than usual. A young James Caan shines in the role of Mississippi, and is a notable upgrade on Ricky Nelson. Catherine Holt creates the role of Maudie, a more subdued long-term romantic interest for Cole, while Michele Carey provides the female firepower, literally, as the shotgun-toting Joey MacDonald.

The depth of talent continues. Christopher George as dangerous gun-for-hire Nelse McLeod comes with plenty of confident menace, while Arthur Hunnicutt, R G. Armstrong and Ed Asner provide plenty of grizzled veteran presence.

El Dorado is a welcome echo from the past, a good story deserving of a second telling, any lack of novelty overcome by the traditional strength of material.

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Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Movie Review: Edge Of Tomorrow (2014)

A science fiction military action film, Edge Of Tomorrow (also marketed as Live. Die. Repeat.) makes the most out of a gritty time loop battlefield premise.

In the near future, Earth has been invaded by a destructive and seemingly unstoppable alien species known as the Mimics. With Europe largely occupied, a human army is assembled in England to prepare a massive counterattack, emboldened by a new exoskeleton weapons system. General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) presses Public Affairs Officer Major Bill Cage (Tom Cruise) into covering the front line, despite Cage's lack of combat training. Very much against his will, Cage joins J Squad under the command of Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton) as they prepare for the invasion on the next day.

The human army is ambushed on the beaches by massive Mimic forces, and Cage duly dies, but not before spotting the famous Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) in the midst of combat. During the battle Cage is splattered by the blood of a rare alien command species, giving him special powers to loop back in time, and he awakes on the previous day back in the clutches of Farell and J Squad. He repeatedly relives the massacre on the beach, trying to learn from each day's experience to influence the outcome of battle. He finally connects with Vrataski on the day before the invasion, and together they have to figure out a way to destroy the main brain behind the Mimics before Earth is annihilated.

A fusion of Groundhog Day and wicked Aliens-on-Earth engaged in an existential Saving Private Ryan scale battle, Edge Of Tomorrow is an adaptation of the Hiroshi Sakurazaka book All You Need Is Kill. Directed by Doug Liman, the film contains enough human interaction between the charismatic Cage and the jaded Vrataski to infuse the action scenes with meaningful emotion. The combat setting, on the beaches of France and then pushing into the continent, is intended to bring echoes of World War Two to life, the fight against evil this time not so much about ideology but rather human survival.

Edge Of Tomorrow recreates the video game experience of frequent dying, re-spawning and trying again, every attempt intended to improve forward progress by small margins. Death is no longer final, just a momentary frustration that comes with the aggravation of having to replay the familiar in order to venture a few more steps into the new. Ironically, this is the feature stripped out of game-to-movie adaptations, here embraced in a non-adaptation that capitalizes on the value of learning what does not work in order to find what does.

For Vrataski, every day is new. For Cage, it will take a multitude of attempts to save Earth. He cannot succeed without failing, and his frustration and evolution into an efficient killing machine go hand in hand. In depicting this procress, Liman cleverly holds his cards close to his chest: once the premise is set, the film is often intentionally unclear until late in a scene whether events are depicting Cage's first attempt at navigating new terrain, or the umpteenth time.

Less successful are the CGI-dominated action scenes. Most of the Mimics are a swirl of tentacles, and the combat scenes are frantic and fuzzy rather than fearsome.

Tom Cruise is in his element as the roguish public affairs officer dealing with a new and unwelcome reality, Cruise's comfort with the more cerebral elements of action serving the film well. Emily Blunt is intense and bordering on dour, but carries the flag for feminine fighters acquiescing to no one.

Edge Of Tomorrow is a breath of original air, and a breathless exercise in racing against time -- repeatedly.

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Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Movie Review: McFarland (2015)

A feel-good sports drama, McFarland (also known as McFarland, USA) delivers exactly what it promises, and does so with a glossy professionalism.

Jim White (Kevin Costner) is a high school football coach with a chequered history of ill-conceived temper tantrums. He accepts a last-chance job as the physical education teacher in the nowheresville town of McFarland, California. His wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) and two daughters are none too pleased to be relocated into what appears to be an unwelcoming foreign culture. The McFarland school's population largely consists of Hispanic kids whose main priority is helping their parents harvest the surrounding agriculture fields. School is very much an afterthought.

White is quickly jettisoned from the football team's coaching staff, but notices that some of the kids are phenomenal long distance runners, as they regularly traverse the large distances between the school and the harvest fields. He assembles a rag tag team of seven students, including Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts) and the three Diaz brothers, into a long distance running squad and they start entering local meets. Under White's guidance the boys train hard, get better and start to achieve good results. Meanwhile, Jim and Cheryl are gradually drawn into the local fabric of the community.

A Disney Pictures production based on true events and directed by Niki Caro, McFarland is a simple story of one man finding his purpose in life in the unlikeliest of communities. Although filled with a healthy dose of the White Savior narrative, McFarland is an irresistible tale of a group of underdogs lifting themselves up to previously unthinkable heights.

The film is largely predictable and devoid of standout moments. Caro keeps the tone even and the pace consistent as White travels along his arc from reluctant outsider to local hero. The scenes of cross country running are delivered effectively despite their simplicity, Caro focusing on White's nervous anxiety at the finish lines as his boys push themselves towards over-achievement and work their way past rivals.

The local colour and warmth comes through in the many scenes of White gradually getting accepted into the community. He experiences the back-breaking agony of what it means to be a field worker, and the hospitality of local families at meal time. The home life of the Diaz brothers and especially Thomas Valles is the lens through which Caro presents inter-familial social tensions and the struggle to make a living that stands in the way of commitment to school and sports.

Kevin Costner delivers a mature performance as Jim White, maintaining level-headed pragmatism and avoiding most cinematic sports coach cliches.

McFarland is a worthwhile if not groundbreaking story of human achievement told with heart, a linear run through the real field of dreams.

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Saturday, 11 March 2017

Movie Review: The Da Vinci Code (2006)

The most famous book of its era comes to the screen, and The Da Vinci Code is magnetic and muddled in equal measures.

While on a trip to Paris, symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is summoned to the Louvre, where Police Captain Bezu Fache (Jean Reno) is presiding over the gruesome murder scene of Jacques Saunière. Although he was killed by the assassin Silas (Paul Bettany), before dying Saunière left cryptic clues potentially implicating Langdon. Fache's interrogation is interrupted by detective Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), who claims to be Saunière granddaughter and helps Landon escape the Louvre and set out on a wild hunt to find the real killer.

By sequentially solving Saunière's art-related puzzles, many involving the works of Leonardo Da Vinci, Langdon and Neveu conclude that Saunière was a grand master of the Priory of Sion, a secretive organization dedicated to protecting one of the most explosive religious secrets in history. Langdon connects with his old colleague Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen) and starts to piece together a murderous conspiracy involving the someone called the Teacher working with Bishop Aringarosa (Alfred Molina) of Opus Dei to either find or destroy the Holy Grail. Neveu's family history increasingly becomes part of the story.

The adaptation of Dan Brown's runaway bestseller was always going to be a challenge, and director Ron Howard nearly buckles under the pressure. Seemingly overawed by the material, Howard delivers a bloated 149 minutes consisting mostly of characters debating undoubtedly compelling and competing versions of religious history, punctuated by a few implausible action scenes. What was exciting on the written page often becomes rather mundane on the screen, as the cerebral puzzles central to Brown's thrill ride only partially translate to a captivating visual experience.

The Akiva Goldsman script tries hard but is only successful in patches. He stubbornly refuses to shed any of the book's complexities. Every character and every twist and turn contained within almost 500 pages are crammed into the film, and the result is almost incomprehensible to anyone who has not read the book (admittedly, that's a small number). Despite the long running length, the film struggles for balance: most of the talk is about history, but when it comes to explaining the here-and-now conspiracy, Goldsman and Howard leave behind scattered fragments of a difficult to follow plot.

And yet The Da Vinci Code survives despite itself. There is enormous power in Brown's imaginative story, and the underlying strength of the material holds the drama together. Extrapolating the implications of the purported mission of the Priory of Sion and the supposed clues hidden in Da Vinci's Last Supper is a mind bending experience, and with help from an excellent Ian McKellen performance, Howard handles these scenes well. Paul Bettany is the other stand-out performer, providing the killer Silas with an intriguing mix of tortured pathos and grim determination.

Simultaneously astute and awry, The Da Vinci Code is a puzzle of partially perfected promise.

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Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Movie Review: Family Business (1989)

A multi-generational crime drama, Family Business is a dour exercise in stretching a simple idea well past its breaking point.

In New York City, Vito McMullen (Dustin Hoffman) works in the meat distribution industry, having distanced himself from his father Jessie (Sean Connery), a life-long thief. Vito has worked hard to ensure that his son Adam (Matthew Broderick), now in his early twenties, gets a good education and never comes close to a life of crime.

But Adam is restless for adventure. He drops out of university and hatches a plan to break into a high-tech company headquarters to steal DNA research vials and log books worth $1 million. Jessie immediately and enthusiastically agrees to help. Vito is unable to talk his son and his father out of the heist, and so joins to try and protect Adam. The theft at first appears to go well, but then things go very wrong.

Directed by Sidney Lumet, Family Business never gets off the ground. The stellar cast features three actors at the top of their fame, Connery enjoying a late career resurrection, Hoffman at his mid-age peak and Broderick the hot young star. The actors do their best but are simply too powerful for the underdeveloped material, and the flimsy Vincent Patrick story sinks under the weight of the talent pushing against it.

Although the stars include a base level of watchability and the germs of some good ideas spark the occasional moment of interest, the film is overall slow and boring, the tension and drama never convince, and given the talent involved, the key characters remain surprisingly shallow. The backstories of the three men are sketched in the broadest of strokes through juvenile tales. The supporting characters, in the form of wives and mothers, are next to non-existent.

With the absence of substance embarrassingly obvious, the film is filled with bloat. There are two prolonged family dinner scenes celebrating Jewish heritage, two wakes celebrating the Irish spirit complete with two renditions of Oh Danny Boy, both equally unnecessary. Fathers and sons regularly slap or punch each other between hopelessly trite arguments about parenting methods, what really matters in life, and sons expressing disappointment in their fathers.

Lumet reaches for a theme about the sacrifice of the father not being appreciated by the son. It was the choice of Vito to try and build a respectable life for Adam and he should have known better: Jessie's fun-loving, grab-life-by-the-balls approach was always the way to go. And that's about as far as the message of the film extends, one hour and fifty minutes of tiresome fatherhood pop psychology punctuated by the single action sequence.

An unfortunate waste of talent on both sides of the camera, Family Business is a bust.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Movie Review: Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)

A Woody Allen dramatic comedy mystery, Manhattan Murder Mystery explores Hitchcock-light territory but ignores its own potential and defaults to Allen's traditional turf.

In New York City, married couple Carol and Larry Lipton (Diane Keaton and Allen) finally meet their next-door apartment neighbours Paul and Lilian House (Jerry Adler and Lynn Cohen), who appear to be a jovial and healthy elderly couple. The very next day Lilian drops dead apparently from a heart attack. Larry thinks nothing of it, but Carol finds it weird that Paul does not seem to be grieving much, and suspects foul play. Carol confides in her recently-divorced friend Ted (Alan Alda), and together they start an amateur investigation of Paul, including invading his apartment and tailing his movements.

Larry, a neurotic book editor, is horrified that his wife appears obsessed with spinning theories about a murder than may have never happened, but gradually he is sucked into the intrigue. Glamorous and available book author Marcia Fox (Anjelica Huston), one of Larry's clients, enters the fray and starts sharing her ideas as to what Paul may be up to. When Carol spots someone who resembles Lilian very much alive and staying at a seedy hotel, her suspicions kick into overdrive.

Directed and co-written by Allen, Manhattan Murder Mystery started life as an early draft of what became Annie Hall. Allen considered the story of a couple suspecting foul play too shallow, and not much had changed by 1993. Despite a prevalence of wit, Manhattan Murder Mystery is both over-complicated and under-developed. Allen tips his hat to Hitchcock's  Rear Window, Vertigo and Orson Welles' The Lady From Shanghai, but his own film is dominated by Larry's insecurity and a perfectly silly final act.

Despite a potential murder, apartment break-ins, dead bodies popping up everywhere, elevator break-downs and Ted lusting after Carol, most of the dialogue exchanges start and end with Larry's numerous anxieties about his life, his deficiencies and his stress points. Funny the first couple of times, staleness sets in by the time Larry and Carol have their umpteenth argument as he insists that they should let the whole matter drop while she breathlessly contends that the snooping should continue.

Meantime, a seemingly complex plot is being woven around the ever suspicious Mr. House, but Allen's script is not designed to flesh out a juicy conspiracy. Too busy with personal angst, the film hurriedly does the minimum possible to explain the actual plot, and rushes to a fairly ridiculous climax unbecoming of supposedly smart New Yorkers.

With the narrative focusing on relationships within a marriage and the stresses that accompany over-familiarity, the cast members are firmly in their domain and deliver fine performances. Allen and Keaton demonstrate a comfortable ease with each other, with Alan Alda and Anjelica Huston adding confident support and Jerry Adler riding the seam between friendly retiree and possible cold blooded killer.

Manhattan Murder Mystery is more about the inherently indisputable insecurities of an intelligent man rather than any attempts to crack a cryptic crime case.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Movie Review: Striptease (1996)

An adult-oriented comedy thriller, Striptease attempts to mix salaciousness with humour and some action. It falls short on almost all counts.

In Florida, Erin Grant (Demi Moore), formerly an FBI secretary, loses custody of her young daughter Angela (Rumer Willis) to her sleazeball husband Darrell (Robert Patrick). To make the quick money she needs to launch an appeal, Erin accepts a job stripping at the Eager Beaver nightclub, where the sympathetic bouncer Shad (Ving Rhames) looks after the girls.

One night Erin catches the eye of David Dilbeck (Burt Reynolds), a lecherous Congressman. Dilbeck is photographed getting into an embarrassing altercation at the club, setting off a cycle of blackmail that spirals into murder. Lieutenant Al Garcia (Armand Assante) starts snooping around, and Erin finds herself sucked into a world of big money, political corruption and personal danger as she doggedly pursues custody of Angela.

Directed and written by Andrew Bergman, Striptease is most famous for Demi Moore's record $12.5 million salary, and for perhaps being the first movie where an A-list actress aggressively promotes her nudity almost for its own sake. The film is not good, but also not nearly as awful as its reputation.

After the critical failure of 1995's Showgirls, the marketing and tone of Striptease was thrown into disarray, with attempts to focus more on the comedy and human story while somehow still capitalizing on Moore's bareness. The disconnects are evident in the film. The striptease sequences are longer and more numerous than they need to be for any purpose other than cheap titillation. When she is not gyrating, and despite the lack of meaningful character depth, Moore adopts a serious and dramatic, mother-on-a-quest stance, which is generally completely at odds with all that is going on around her.

Burt Reynolds as Congressman Dilbeck and Robert Patrick as the lowlife Darrell are on a different wavelength entirely and play their roles with screwball intentions. The result is quite a few funny moments, but also a film that is mainly stuck in a no man's land as eroticism, drama and comedy walk away from each other.

Despite the disharmony, the film delivers several sharp jabs towards the hypocrisy of seedy politicians like Dilbeck, a man who cannot control his libido, gets off on Erin's laundry lint and slathers himself with Vaseline in search of a cheap thrill, but yet stands up and pontificates about family values at election events. And Reynolds is in fine form, infusing the role with a breathtaking level of selfish yet clueless entitlement.

Ironically Striptease is limp when revealing flesh, but sharp when shredding spurious sanctimony.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Movie Review: Brazil (1985)

A dystopian satire, Brazil is an imaginative fantasy both mocking the growing incompetence of out-of-control government and chillingly predicting a miserable future.

In a dystopian alternative reality resembling the totalitarian regime of 1984 gone sideways, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is a government bureaucrat working in the mammoth Ministry of Information. With the regime under threat from frequent terrorist bombings, Sam experiences weird dreams featuring themes of flying, escaping from reality, and the love of a beautiful woman.

While investigating a government paperwork mix-up between the names Buttle and Tuttle that resulted in the wrong man being seized, tortured and killed, Sam spots the charismatic but elusive Jill Layton (Kim Greist) and realizes that she is the woman from his dreams. Breaking every possible rule, Sam uses the influence of his mother Ida (Katherine Helmond) to track down Jill, earning the wrath of the regime.

Directed and co-written by Terry Gilliam, Brazil is a quirky and unique masterpiece. The film creates a stunning world far detached from reality and yet starkly familiar in capturing the twin threats of all private information in government hands and an all-powerful yet totally inept ruling structure maintaining control through secret repression and public platitudes. And a culture of official forms run amok. By adding a layer of insidious gallows humour, Gilliam perfects a dark surrender to the inevitable.

Brazil's initial US release was famously botched by Universal Studios. The ending was changed, the running length was shortened, and the film fell flat. International audiences saw Gilliam's original 142 minute cut, and that version now endures as a classic.

Brazil thrives on its fantastical weirdness. Around the story of Sam' search for an escape through his idealistic pursuit of an unattainable Jill, Gilliam creates a world sinking into outlandish creepiness and dominated by...ducts. Bombs go off and are ignored. Sam's friend Jack (Michael Palin) has moved up in the bureaucracy and achieved the exalted level of torturer. Archibald "Harry" Tuttle (Robert De Niro) is a renegade mechanic who epitomizes subversive resistance against the regime by actually fixing things. His opposite character is Spoor (Bob Hoskins), a gleeful employee of Central Services.

There's more. Sam's mother Ida and her friends are obsessed with - and victimized by - the latest face lift surgery techniques. Sam's manager Mr. Kurtzmann (Ian Holm) can get nothing done without Sam, and therefore spends his days worrying about Sam getting promoted. Deputy Minister Mr. Helpmann (Peter Vaughan) is confined to a wheelchair and is the face of government, the closest thing to Big Brother but more real, less effective and possibly orchestrating the 13-year bombing campaign.

The film's set designs and aesthetics are legendary. Gilliam creates a grim world where everything has progressed in the wrong direction under government micro management. Surveillance is everywhere. Uncoordinated ducts dominate every interior space. Cars represent hideous design by committee. Government buildings are imposing spaces from the outside but inside, bureaucrats in tiny offices fight over desks and cabinets literally divided by walls. Rich women's latest fashions include outlandish hats with upside heel designs. Security men are oversized and overweight. Computers are flat screens bolted on to 1940s-era typewriters. Pro-state fascist-style posters dominate every wall space. Few movies have ventured this far into creating a viable, pathetic vision of a society in a march towards irrelevance.

Amidst the madness, Jonathan Pryce holds the film together with a performance combining subdued resignation with an itch to break free. His Sam Lowry is a dedicated government man, but unable to resist the temptation of freedom once his dreams to escape the inescapable take hold. Brazil is the title of the airy 1939 Ary Barroso song playing almost endlessly in Sam's head, representing the promise of somewhere else, anywhere away from here.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Married To The Mob (1988)

A mobster comedy for adults, Married To The Mob mixes violence with laughs. The film achieves a steady level of caricaturish entertainment but is generally overbaked.

In New Jersey, Angela (Michelle Pfeiffer) is getting tired of life as the wife of mob contract killer Frank "The Cucumber" de Marco  (Alec Baldwin). She demands a divorce, but Frank laughs it off. Everything changes when mob boss Tony "The Tiger" Russo (Dean Stockwell) kills Frank because he dared to share the same mistress. Tony immediately turns his attention to seducing Angela, much to the disgust of Tony's wife Connie (Mercedes Ruehl).

FBI Agents Michael Downey (Matthew Modine) and Ed Benitez (Oliver Platt) are tailing Tony and spot an opportunity to get to him through Angela. She moves with her young son to a derelict New York City apartment to try and start a new life, but Angela can't shake off the attentions of Tony, the FBI, or a furious Connie.

Directed by Jonathan Demme, Married To The Mob hits the notes it aims for, but this is a film that goes for dissonance. Roughly equivalent to Gloria on dubious amounts of laughing gas, Married To The Mob tries to do too much, but also does enough to generate occasionally satisfying madcap energy.

Demme often appears to be working from a hodgepodge script with too many ideas and not enough focus. Cold blooded assassinations and shootouts, a human story about a woman and child seeking a new start, a satirical look at the garish styles of the wives of gang goons, a tentative romance between the widow Angela and the agent Downey, an unexplained war between rival mob gangs, and finally over the top comedy mainly driven by Connie's rage are all thrown together into one mixing bowl. The result cannot be taken seriously in any context, and the film survives on the strength of committed performances.

Pfeiffer, Stockwell and Ruehl play it loud, which is the only way to compete with the sound of material splattering all over the screen. The big 1980s era hair gives the ladies licence to crash through all lines of subtlety. While Pfeiffer tries to maintain some level of serious drama, Ruehl just abandons all pretense and fully invests in wild antics and wide-eyed fury. Stockwell contributes the best moments as he fluctuates between oily mob boss and smarmy lecher pursuing the one woman who dares to resist him. Matthew Modine is just too blank to register, despite several disguises.

Married To The Mob reaches an appropriately wild and bloody climax in Miami, the vivid seaside colours adding a final flourish to the pop-off-the-screen intentions.


All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Movie Review: Broken Arrow (1996)

A straightforward action flick, Broken Arrow sets its sights on blowing things up and sticks to its agenda of expensive pyrotechnics attached to a cheap story.

Major Vick Deakins (John Travolta) and Captain Riley Hale (Christian Slater) of the US Air Force are tasked with flying a B-3 Stealth Bomber equipped with two nuclear missiles on a test mission over the Utah desert. Deakins is disgruntled with his career and has secretly masterminded a plot to steal the bombs and demand a large sum for their return.

Hale survives Deakins' attempt to kill him, and after the bomber crashes in the desert, the race is on to recover the nukes. Deakins has assembled a large and well equipped team of henchman to help with his plan, while Hale teams up with resourceful Park Ranger Terry Carmichael (Samantha Mathis). Meanwhile government agent Giles Prentice (Frank Whaley) is dispatched from Washington DC to assess the unfolding situation, while Colonel Max Wilkins (Delroy Lindo) tries to assemble a force to assist Hale.

Directed by John Woo, Broken Arrow is a a mindless action movie unconcerned with logic, characters or any semblance of plot progression. The only objective is to destroy hardware, and Woo blows up helicopters (many helicopters), planes, trains, trucks and a copper mine at regular intervals. If there is one certainty in Broken Arrow, it is that every piece of equipment introduced on the screen will be a flaming wreck before the credits roll.

In between, thousands of bullets are exchanged in chaotic firefights, as secondary characters are efficiently perforated while Deakins, Hale and Terry of course survive effectively unscathed to make it to the grand finale.

John Travolta does his best to exude some elements of cool evil, but even he struggles to make a mark among all the detonations. The rest of the cast members stick to plastic mode, neither Christian Slater nor Samantha Mathis emerging with any credit.

The true heroes are the stunt performers, and Broken Arrow features someone falling down a hill, off a bridge, out of a helicopter or thrown from a train at the same regularity as all those explosions.

Woo knows his way around filming action scenes and the movie looks great, but that's all. The script by Graham Yost is satisfied with broad brush strokes to define a most rudimentary plot and superficial characters, and then stands back from providing any depth. The result is a loud, boisterous and quite silly game of chase the bombs in the desert.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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