Monday, 15 May 2017

Movie Review: Lord Of War (2005)

An exposé drama about the international arms trade, Lord Of War is a highly enjoyable romp through the business of selling the tools of death.

The son of Ukrainian refugees, Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage) grew up in a rough Brooklyn neighbourhood and learned from personal experience the value of guns. In the early 1980s Yuri starts his own business as a gun dealer, before teaming up with his brother Vitaly (Jared Leto) and quickly expanding into the international trade. Yuri became an expert in finding loopholes to break arms embargos, and particularly skilled in locating and reselling abandoned weapons caches around the world. His initial attempts to partner with Simeon Weisz (Ian Holm), the world's most renowned weapons dealer, are rebuffed.

Staying one step ahead of dogged and incorruptible Interpol agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke), Yuri sells weapons in all the world's hotspots including Liberia where dictator André Baptiste Sr. (Eamonn Walker) becomes a favoured client. Yuri also wins the love of glamorous fashion model Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan) but Vitaly falls victim to a drug addiction. The fall of the Soviet Union results in a flood of new product on the market, and Yuri uses old family connections in Ukraine to expand his business and join the ranks of elite weapons traders. Weisz now needs Yuri's help, and Valentine remains in hot pursuit.

Written and directed by Andrew Niccol and co-produced by Cage, Lord Of War is an irreverent but sharp-eyed take on the world of independent gun smuggling inspired by real world characters such as Sarkis Soghanalian, Oleg Orlov and Viktor Bout. Touching down in the rubble of some of the world's worst conflict zones, the film pokes away at the double standards of an international system that places sanctions and admonishes dictators while ensuring men like Yuri carry on with the business of supplying rifles for child soldiers.

Although the story is undoubtedly episodic and over-narrated, Niccol finds a groove in the adventures of an antihero who uses every excuse in the book to justify his profession, and has every trick at his disposal to skate past international laws. The film moves briskly and with plenty of panache, Niccol finding memorable set-pieces in places as diverse as the rubble of war-torn Beirut, on the high seas off the shores of South America, in a derelict Monrovia hotel, in Ukrainian warehouses crammed with weaponry, and most effectively on a dusty road in Africa. A forced cargo plane landing results in a real-time lesson in third world armament distribution efficiency and recycling economics.

Meanwhile back home Yuri builds a life of wealth and comfort for his family. Ava and his parents turn a blind eye to the source of all the money until the glare of the obvious becomes impossible to ignore. But just as Vitaly is addicted to cocaine, Yuri is addicted to the thrill of the weapons deal, and with no shortage to the number of buyers, sellers and dirty wars, his services are always in demand. Nicolas Cage delivers a pragmatically laid back central performance built on an advanced intellect thriving in a despicable profession, his dead eyes concealing layers of self-delusion.

Lord Of War is a gut punch to the concept of a world at peace. As the guardians of morality profit from war, killing is Yuri's business, and business is good.

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Sunday, 14 May 2017

Movie Review: Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

A talky drama about a marriage in turmoil, Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? breaks new ground in frank discourse and features astounding acting performances. It is also over the top and tiresome in its obsession with shouty drunkenness.

Middle aged married couple Martha and George (Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) walk home at 2am, after attending a party at the house of Martha's father, the president of the college where George teaches history. Once home Martha and George bicker continuously, his passive aggressiveness a response to her continuous agitation. She then announces that despite the late hour, she has invited another couple for a visit to continue socializing.

Nick and Honey (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) soon arrive. He is a young and ambitious biology professor at the same college, while she is mousy, loves to drink and gets sick easily. The visitors are at first astounded by Martha and George's incessant war of words, and the night gets weirder when Martha reveals that she and George have a 16 year-old son, conspicuous by his absence. With the alcohol flowing, Martha then proceeds to humiliate George, expressing her disappointment with his lack of ambition. But George has tricks up his sleeve as well, and extracts information out of Nick that he will use to his advantage as the night progresses.

An adaptation of the Edward Albee Broadway play sensation, written for the screen and produced by Ernest Lehman and directed by Mike Nichols, Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (the title refers to a silly song) is at once intolerable and irresistible. Featuring what at the time was considered scandalous and borderline profane dialogue, the idea of spending more than two hours with four distinctly unlikable characters humiliating each other is almost tortuous. But the performances and the appeal of watching a marriage disappearing into a mushroom cloud of carnage turn the experience into a must-see psychological case study.

The union between Martha and George has disintegrated into a combative relationship that feeds on its own poison, an example of love's extension snapping into hateful dependency. The acrimony serves as the film's fuel, but is also carried several steps too far. Even for this couple the gamesmanship on display steps into fantasy territory, and the final 30 minutes run on vapours, Martha and George stepping over the cliff and into the domain of the ridiculous.

Taylor and Burton do their best to keep a hold of the material, and in many ways Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? is only watchable thanks to the two legendary stars and real-life combustible couple. Yes, of course they are theatrical, but they are also commanding, and Taylor and Burton make it impossible not to be drawn into the tumultuous life of Martha and George.

Taylor won her second Best Actress Academy Award, while Sandy Dennis won the Best Supporting Actress trophy. Hers is a well written role, but also much less difficult: Honey spends most of the film in a drunken haze, from where confused but impactful quips are easy to deliver. George Segal suffers from the least convincing of the four lead roles, his biology professor too easily falling into Martha and George's lair, neither his ambition nor his naivete ever convincing enough to justify his actions.

The film's almost total reliance on alcohol consumption gets quite laborious. Every two minutes drinks are being offered, conspicuously consumed or discussed. Drama dependent on drunken incoherence is cheapened, and the film errs on the side of piling on cruelty based on artificial lubrication.

In an astonishing big screen directorial debut, Nichols moves his cameras and perspectives in a remarkable display of agility in confined spaces. The film is more often about reactions than actions, and Nichols plays with focus and placement, highlighting characters in the background and sometimes in entirely other rooms listening in to heighten the drama of not just what is being said, but also how it is being received by the intended and unintended audience.

Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? is less than perfect, but it is also an unmistakable milestone. A drama for adults about deeply flawed and literally impaired adults viciously manipulating each other where love, hate and selfishness collide, the world of film was suddenly open to new levels of rude verbal sparring and hitherto unknown magnitudes of intended and collateral psychological damage.

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Movie Review: Bullet To The Head (2012)

A mindless anti-buddy action flick, Bullet To The Head is a throwback to another era and offers little to suggest that the memories are worth saving.

In New Orleans, hitman James Bonomo (Sylvester Stallone) and his partner Louis Blanchard successfully kill their target Hank Greely, an ex-cop turned criminal. But they are double crossed and Blanchard is knifed to death, while Bonomo barely escapes the clutches of brutal assassin Keegan (Jason Momoa). Washington DC detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) arrives in town to investigate the murder of Greely, his former partner.

Bonomo and Kwon form an uneasy alliance to track down the mastermind behind all the killings, with Kwon insisting on due process while Bonomo is more inclined to shoot his way to quick solutions. Bonomo's daughter Lisa (Sarah Shahi), a tattoo artist, provides some help and catches Kwon's eye. The unlikely partners dodge murderous crooked cops on the way to confronting sleazy middle man Ronnie Earl, crooked lawyer Marcus Baptiste (Christian Slater) and corrupt businessman Robert Nkomo Morel (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje).

Director Walter Hill (age: 70) and Sylvester Stallone (age: 65) attempt to turn back the clock to their glory action film era from 30 years ago, and fail. Bullet To The Head, an adaptation of a French graphic novel, is squarely aimed at the undiscerning subcomponent of the international market, but even with Kang added to boost appeal in Asia, all audiences knew enough to steer clear.

It's easy to see why. Despite Hill introducing stylistic touches and Stallone delivering dry one-liners, the film is entirely constructed of recycled and tired old components long since exhausted. The banter between Bonomo and Kwon is lifted from the 1980s and numerous opposites-but-partners-in-the-car buddy movies. Kwon wants to question and interrogate, Bonomo wants to threaten and intimidate, and it's clear early which method will always prevail.

The action scenes are slightly better, but are lined up with sequential set-piece discipline, Bonomo predictably knocking-off his opponents with mechanical efficiency. As far as the detective work is concerned, the film starts and ends with Kwon making phone calls to his DC headquarters whenever he needs to locate anyone, and within seconds receives the information needed to pinpoint the exact current location of the intended target.

Bullet To The Head sorely needed a dose of its own medicine before it ever jumped onto the screen.

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Saturday, 13 May 2017

Movie Review: Batteries Not Included (1987)

A Steven Spielberg produced family friendly science fiction drama, Batteries Not Included features cutesy aliens and cool special effects, as well as bloated emotions, superficial characters and a flimsy plot.

In a derelict corner of East Village, Manhattan, an entire neighbourhood of old buildings has been purchased and razed to the ground as ruthless developer Lacey plans to build a clutch of new highrises. One old building still stands in the way, and Lacey has hired local thug Carlos (Michael Carmine) and his gang to pay off or scare away the few remaining tenants. The holdouts include elderly couple Frank and Faye Riley (Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy), struggling artist Mason (Dennis Boutsikaris), pregnant woman Marisa (Elizabeth Peña) and handyman Harry (Frank McRae).

With Carlos becoming more violent in his methods to forcibly evict the tenants, Frank fervently hopes for some kind of intervention and two miniature friendly spaceships arrive to help. The mechanical aliens have the ability to repair anything, fight off aggressors and even reproduce. The residents are empowered by their new allies to stand their ground, forcing Carlos and Lacey to pursue even more desperate measures.

A mash-up of Cocoon, E.T. and a scaled down version of the alien spaceship from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Batteries Not Included is too intent on pushing facile emotional buttons to register with anyone over 12. Directed by Matthew Robbins and closely following the Spielberg whimsical playbook but lacking any genuine depth, the film generally gags on its own sugar level.

The characters fighting eviction are a contrived multi-ethnic collection of lovables whose only purpose is to play stoic victims. Frank runs an old-style cafe located in the building, while his dotty wife Faye is exhibiting signs of dementia and always calling out for her absent son Bob. Mason's girlfriend has just walked out on him, Marisa is hoping against hope that her musician boyfriend and father of her child will return to her. Of course Mason and Marisa, both abandoned, start a relationship. Harry is a former boxer, recluse and television addict. He rarely speaks and when he does all his sentences are television advertising slogans.

All that is relevant about the characters is revealed in the first 15 minutes, and they are then frozen in time as the cute machines dominate the rest of the film. The robots are adorable and the special effects are good for the era, but the film feels more like a manipulative advertisement for toys than a serious attempt at family-oriented drama.

The bad guys are all bad, and the script fails to ever explain why a developer with the deep pockets and resources of Lacey would ever resort to blatant goonery to evict a building.

Veteran couple Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy deliver reliable performances, but they are way above the material. The batteries may not be included, but the film nevertheless oozes icky acid.

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Movie Review: End Of Days (1999)

A supernatural horror thriller, End Of Days finds Arnold Schwarzenegger delving into unusually dark territory. The film is laden with over-the-top special effects, but nevertheless strangely compelling.

With midnight on December 31 1999 approaching, the spirit of the devil infiltrates the body of a nameless New York City investment banker (Gabriel Byrne). The devil's plan is to mate with a pre-ordained woman by the stroke of midnight to conceive satan's child and fulfill Biblical end of days prophecies. Christine York (Robin Tunney) is the 20 year old intended victim, and the Vatican has been searching for her since her birth. The Papal faction of the church wants to protect her, but the rogue Vatican Knights believe that she should be killed.

Ex-cop Jericho Cane (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a private security expert still grieving the murder of his wife and child. Along with his partner Bobby Chicago (Kevin Pollack), they think they are doing their jobs by foiling the murder of the banker by a deranged priest. Jericho investigates further and finds Christine unknowingly protected by satanists, awaiting the arrival of the mating hour. With Father Kovak (Rod Steiger) and the murderous Vatican Knights also looking for Christine and the devil closing in, Jericho has to find a way to protect the young woman from all threats while figuring out who can be trusted and sorting out his own demons.

End Of Days is an extrapolation of Rosemary's Baby and The Omen for the Schwarzenegger international fanbase. After a two year hiatus, the action superstar returns and resets with one of his darkest outings, both in subject and style. As directed by Peter Hyams, End Of Days is frequently gloomy and brooding, with many scenes claustrophobically located in poorly-lit settings. The grim aesthetic is punctuated by over-the-top but still impressive supernatural special effect extravaganzas courtesy of the devil's antics. The Arnold super-sized action scenes are of the unnecessarily spectacular variety.

What stands out most in End Of Days is that beyond the ridiculous premise, the film adopts a somber tone. The Bobby Chicago character wisecracks on the sidelines, but Arnold's Jericho is depressed and near suicide as the film starts, and then sucked into a battle with the devil himself, leaving no opportunity for irony or satire. By avoiding self-awareness the film demands to be treated seriously, and generally overcomes its own silliness with large doses of uncompromising violence.

In the body of Gabriel Byrne, the devil is given a decent opportunity to make his case. And insofar as these who-should-be-in-charge-of-humanity debates go, a prolonged scene with the devil offering Jericho attractive inducements to side with him is much better that it needed to be. The exchange straddles the line between absurd and existential and lands just on the right side of explaining human propensity to sell out in favour of selfishness.

And credit to Hyams, Schwarzenegger and screenwriter Andrew W. Marlowe for conjuring up and then sticking with a bittersweet ending. The special effects may consume most of the budget, but amidst the rampant destruction at the End Of Days happiness is found in a serene reunion.

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Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Movie Review: Airport '77 (1977)

A disaster movie with a galaxy of stars trapped on a submerged airliner, Airport '77 is as corny as can be expected but also surprisingly well produced.

Aging tycoon Philip Stevens (James Stewart) invites high profile guests to travel on his lavishly outfitted private Boeing 747 en route to the grand opening of his home-based museum. Captain Don Gallagher (Jack Lemmon) is in command of the flight, while Eve Clayton (Brenda Vaccaro) is Don's long-time lover and in charge of passenger comfort. The guests include Nicholas St. Downs III (Joseph Cotten) and Emily Livingston (Olivia de Havilland), who first met in the 1930s and are reunited on the flight. Businessman Martin Wallace (Christopher Lee) and his neglected and perpetually drunk wife Karen (Lee Grant) are also on the flight, as are Stevens' daughter Lisa (Pamela Bellwood) and her young son.

In the cargo hold is a large collection of expensive art, and this attracts a band of thieves under the leadership of co-pilot Chambers (Robert Foxworth). Over the Bermuda Triangle the criminals release a sleeping gas to knock out Gallagher and all the passengers, and Chambers changes course, flying below the radar towards an uninhabited island. But in dense fog the 747 clips an off-shore oil rig, the plane crashes into the sea and sinks to the sea bed, intact but leaking. Gallagher has to keep the passengers calm and find a way to notify rescuers of the plane's location while the Navy and Coast Guard mount a search operation.

Directed by Jerry Jameson, Airport '77 arrived relatively late in the cycle of 1970s disaster films. By now the formula is overly familiar: collect a bunch of mostly elderly Hollywood stars, place them in peril, and play a parlour game of who lives and who dies before the credits roll. While everything about the film is conventional, the production values are well above average, yielding a mixed experience where the content is tired but the packaging is slick.

Disaster movies tend to work better in confined spaces, and the coffin-under-the-sea premise is appropriately claustrophobic and generates a real sense of danger, with water slowly seeping into the plane, and the passengers threatened with both drowning and asphyxiation.

The film's ambitions are reflected in a superior cast deep in veteran talent. Lemmon and Cotten are most prominent and get to run around the bowels of the cavernous plane and play the role of heroes. The likes of Stewart, de Havilland, Grant and Lee ensure that as irritating as the passengers are, they are good at being irritating. George Kennedy makes his obligatory disaster movie appearance, but this time is limited to a more minor role as a rescue coordinator. The special effects are decent for the era and have survived the test of time.

The final act transforms into a propaganda piece for the rescue capabilities of the Navy and Coast Guard, and although again the cheese factor is odorous, the execution is polished. Jameson keeps the pacing tight, delivering the drama in under two hours, and the final acts of tactical implementation, heroism, late-in-the-day death are completed with requisite precision.

Airport '77 is definitely all wet, but enjoys its time in the cinematic tub.

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Monday, 8 May 2017

Movie Review: Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)

A raucous action film, Rambo: First Blood Part II features a one-man army re-fighting the Vietnam War in the name of soldiers left behind.

Vietnam War special forces veteran John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is serving prison time for his role in the events portrayed in First Blood. His former commander Colonel Samuel Trautman (Richard Crenna) secures his release in return for Rambo undertaking a covert mission to photograph a prisoner-of-war camp in Vietnam. The objective is to obtain proof whether or not any former American soldiers are still being held captive.

The mission commander is Marshall Murdock (Charles Napier), based out of Thailand. Rambo parachutes into the Vietnam jungle and connects with his contact Co-Bao (Julia Nickson). They make it to the prison camp, Rambo silently infiltrates the compound, and is shocked to find a large number of American POWs being used as slave labourers. Instead of just taking photographs he rescues one prisoner and heads back to the pre-arranged extraction point, only to learn that the mission is compromised and his jungle adventure is just beginning.

Directed by George P. Cosmatos with a screenplay co-written by Stallone and James Cameron, Rambo is a generally mindless, quite simplistic but also well-executed action film. At the peak of his physical abilities and boasting a superhuman muscularly chiselled torso, Stallone dominates proceedings with a dour performance that starts with scepticism and ends with outright rage at the establishment. More so that the Vietnamese and the Russians, the target of the film's fury is the home front, both for command incompetence and lack of post-war support.

Setting aside politics and messages, the action scenes are the film's lifeblood, and Cosmatos delivers slick jungle battles alternating stealth and cunning with plenty of oversized guns, helicopters and noisy explosions. The final 30 minutes feature barely any dialogue, as Rambo takes matters into his own hands, rewrites the mission and proceeds to unleash the wrath of the wronged soldier on all his foes. None of it is anywhere near credible, but the fun quotient is high.

With the Vietnamese soldiers portrayed as unworthy opponents, Russian  Lt. Col. Podovsky (Steven Berkoff) and his squad of torture-loving henchmen emerge as Rambo's real enemies. Berkoff competes with Napier and Crenna in the battle of the square-jawed supporting actors.

Rambo was a massive hit, spawning numerous knock-off imitators, and reopening questions about the American role in the Vietnam War and the post-war treatment of veterans. Although the superficial criticism that Stallone went back into the jungle and this time single-handedly won the war is valid, the film deserves credit for raising awareness about the need to the separate the treatment of individual veterans from the criticism of an unpopular war.

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Sunday, 7 May 2017

Movie Review: King Kong (1933)

A classic monster adventure film, King Kong breaks new ground in the art of cinematic special effects, and delivers a scream-filled rollicking good rampage.

Flamboyant film producer Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) plucks Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) off the streets of New York City with the promise of stardom, and sets out with his large film crew on a ship packed with guns and explosives across the ocean. The destination is the uncharted and fog-shrouded Skull Island, where legend has it the mysterious creature Kong resides. On the journey first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) falls in love with Ann.

Finally arriving at the island, Denham and his crew interrupt an elaborate sacrifice ritual by the native tribe. The locals quickly recognize the value of the exotically blonde Ann, and the tribesmen kidnap her and offer her to Kong. The big ape emerges from the jungle and grabs his prize, but is immediately enamoured by the terrified Ann and protects her from other rampaging dinosaur-era monsters on the island. Meanwhile Denham and Jack have to mount a rescue to try to free Ann and capture Kong.

Co-directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack and produced by David O. Selznick's RKO Pictures, King Kong set a new achievement bar for all monster movies to follow. Combining stop-motion animation, matte paintings, rear projection and miniatures, Cooper and Schoedsack allowed their cast to interact with the prehistoric dangers of Skull Island. Equally impressive are the scenes back in New York City, where an angry Kong has to battle against the hazards of civilization, with high rises replacing the jagged terrain he is familiar with.

The creature effects are simply stunning and perfectly deployed in battles Kong wages with a Tyrannosaurus (this one is a jaw-dropping epic) and then a Pteranodon. Kong's thoughtful actions, reactions and death confirmations in these scenes are breathtaking and painstakingly scripted and executed. Meanwhile a Stegosaurus charges at the humans then a Brontosaurus sinks their boat, and the movie magic at play to combine humans with oversized monsters on the screen re-imagined the art of the possible.

Despite all the groundbreaking artistry on display, the film also endures because at its heart King Kong is a story of asymmetrical and unreciprocated love. Kong immediately falls for Ann, and despite her continuous shrieking he claims her as his own and will not allow any harm to come to her. But this being the pre-Code era, the film does not shy away from outright violence. Kong does not hesitate to drop irritating humans to their death from great heights, and in a reference to either ape curiosity or sexual violence, he peels away Ann's clothes and sniffs both the garments and his fingers.

By allowing Kong to demonstrate feelings of affection, rampant lust and protectionism towards beauty, the film builds some empathy for the beast, providing an emotional opening to examine Denham's actions. In searching for profit Denham invades Kong's territory and forcibly relocates him. The prisoner breaks his chains of confinement and violently rampages in pursuit of love in foreign surroundings. Intended or not, plenty of parallels can be drawn between Kong's story and the history of slavery.

Fay Wray spends most of the movie screaming her head off, and does a fine job of it. King Kong not only reinvented movie special effects, but also demonstrated new boundaries for screaming decibels and frequencies by one actress.

Exciting, inventive and unexpectedly passionate, King Kong is a towering cinematic landmark.

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Movie Review: Danny Collins (2015)

A dramatic comedy with some music, Danny Collins is about better-late-than-never priority adjustments. The film succeeds by staying within itself despite falling into some melodramatic traps.

Danny Collins (Al Pacino) is a singer in the twilight of his career, milking his hit songs from decades past in front of an antiquated audience. He is frequently high on coke, and superficially enjoys the trappings of fame including a huge mansion and trophy girlfriend Sophie (Katarina Čas). When his long-time manager and friend Frank (Christopher Plummer) unearths a letter to Danny written by John Lennon in the early 1970s but never delivered, the performer is shaken out of his stupor.

Recognizing he may have wasted away a career, Danny abandons his latest tour, ditches Sophie, cleans up, and relocates to a modest Hilton in New Jersey to reach out to his long estranged son Tom (Bobby Cannavale). He finds Tom, his wife Samantha (Jennifer Garner) and daughter Hope living a modest middle class life. Danny also meets and try to woo the hotel's resistant manager Mary (Annette Bening). Although at first Tom wants nothing to do with his father, Hope's ADHD and a family sickness provide the now persistent Danny an opportunity to reset some relationships.

Written and directed by Dan Fogelman, Danny Collins a low-key characters study brought to life by an irrepressible Al Pacino performance. Despite his late career crisis, Collins is written to stay true to his rascal tendencies, allowing Pacino to ride the wave of a consummate entertainer intent on making some changes but never straying far from who he is. Even as he sets up in a nondescript New Jersey suburb, Danny enjoys his fame and fortune, is not hesitant to flaunt his wealth and influence, and is happy to dole out advice and pursue Mary with minimal subtlety.

The scenes with Danny getting to know Tom and his family benefit most from this focus on realistic human behaviour, with both father, son and daughter-in-law reacting with laudable maturity within the field of awkwardness. Danny is too old to worry about his own feelings, so he just niggles his way through the initial barriers to find the openings where he can make some amends to a life of neglect. Tom and Samantha are pragmatic enough to appreciate effort and good fortune when it smiles on them.

The film's weaknesses reside with the eye rolling introduction of a serious disease, layered on top of young Hope's ADHD. It almost makes Danny's restitution mission too easy, fast forwarding the familial bonding opportunities to tidily fit into the under two hours of running time. Danny's romantic pursuit of Mary fares better, her wariness of the celebrity at her modest hotel providing a sturdy defence against his frontal advances.

Danny Collins may lack boldness and any sort of cutting edge, but it's a well-rounded effort delivered with a veteran's sure touch.

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Saturday, 6 May 2017

Movie Review: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)

The Hollywood adaptation of Stieg Larsson's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is filled with ambiance but otherwise cannot fully justify its existence.

In Stockholm, Millennium magazine investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is found guilty of libel for wrongfully accusing wealthy industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström of fraud. Mikael is carrying on an affair with his editor-in-chief Erika Berger (Robin Wright), but leaves her behind to accept an assignment from elderly business tycoon Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), living in the remote northern island community of Hedeby.

Mikael in unaware that his background had been thoroughly checked by young hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) on behalf of Henrik and his lawyer Dirch Frode (Steven Berkoff). Lisbeth is an extremely intelligent but deeply troubled ward of the state, waging a battle for survival against Nils Bjurman, her horrifically abusive state-appointed guardian.

Henrik wants Mikael to investigate the disappearance 40 years prior of his great niece Harriet. In return, Henrik promises to reveal the real dirt on Wennerström. Henrik also warns Mikael that the extended Vanger family includes plenty of squabbling relatives, long-held grudges, vendettas and a sprinkling of Nazi sympathizers. The Vanger clan includes Henrik's deceased brother Gottfried (Harriet's father) and Gottfried's son Martin (Stellan Skarsgaard), who now runs the business, while Henrik's other brother Harald is ailing but still clinging to his fascist views.

Mikael sets up shop in a cold cabin and starts delving into family archives, police records and old newspaper reports. He finds a cryptic code in Harriet's Bible, and Frode connects him with Lisbeth to help advance the research. Mikael and Lisbeth join forces, start a passionate affair, and gradually uncover a horrific trail of crime much more complex than they ever expected.

Directed by David Fincher and arriving two years after the Swedish version, this Girl With The Dragon Tattoo exists in the name of avoiding subtitles. It's otherwise difficult to understand the artistic logic of imposing Swedish accents onto Anglo actors and recreating the same movie. Michael Nyqvist as Blomqvist, Noomi Rapace as Salander and director Niels Arden Oplev did a terrific job the first time around. Fincher adds a bit more style, subtracts some heart and plot comprehension, and lands in the same place with less authenticity.

Nevertheless, plenty of impressive visuals are on display. From the Bond-inspired opening credit sequence to the stark, frigid landscape of Sweden's remote north, Fincher creates an environment where things happen at the speed of creeping ice, and secrets lurk beneath a family's dominant blanket of power and wealth. Back in Stockholm Lisbeth dances on the edge of madness, her survival instincts kicking into overdrive in her morbid battle of excessive brutality with Bjurman. The material is strong, and Fincher extracts a stunning punk performance from Mara, Lisbeth Salander a brilliant source of coiled and angry energy.

Fincher does however bungle the central mystery of Harriet's disappearance. Too many names and locations are thrown at the screen far too quickly, and Fincher moves on to capture the next frozen pond instead of allowing the plot and supporting characters to breathe and mature.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo does convey the layered impact of individuals victimized by power brokers, personal tragedies covered up by a veneer of civility. But despite the professional treatment, this remains a wholly unnecessary remake.

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Movie Review: While We're Young (2014)

A dramatic comedy about generational gaps, While We're Young starts with strong ideas but meanders into mundane territory in search of bogus conflict.

Josh and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) are a childless couple drifting into middle age, and losing touch with their lifelong friends who are now all preoccupied with children. Josh is a documentary filmmaker with a bright future behind him, and his latest project is an incomprehensible sociological treatise 10 years in the making and still unfinished. Cornelia is getting tired of her husband's ineptitude and carries guilt feelings about her inability to conceive. Her dad Leslie (Charles Grodin) helped Josh early in his career, but now believes his son-in-law has failed to fulfill his potential.

Josh and Cornelia meet the much younger hipster couple Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). Jamie is also an aspiring documentarian and full of admiration for Josh's early work. The two couples start to socialize, and Josh and Cornelia get a boost of energy from their new younger friends. Jamie launches a new film project to record in-person meetings with social media friends, and Josh is happy to collaborate. But a hallucinogenic episode between Cornelia and Jamie causes stress, and all relationships begin to unravel when Leslie secures financial support for Jamie's project while dismissing Josh's appeals for help.

Directed and written by Noah Baumbach, While We're Young works well as a sly commentary on the differences between Generation X and the Millennials. The first half of the film benefits from the sense of discovery experienced by Josh and Cornelia as their creativity, fitness and sex drives are all kick started after interacting with the younger, cooler and seemingly less complicated Jamie and Darby.

And there is plenty of true irony and opportunities for humour sprinkled into the dynamic between the couples, the hipsters full of admiration for the music (vinyl), technology (turntables), fitness classes and achievements (Josh's first documentary) somehow left behind by the previous generation.

But Baumbach hits a creative wall heading into the second half of his film, and the narrative stalls. The story of competing documentarians is simply not that interesting, with the subject matter of both projects particularly dreary. Jamie is revealed to be potentially less than pure in his intentions and just as capable as any other young man to bend artistic rules in favour of his career. This sets Josh off on a Quixotic quest for vindication, an overreaction that serves to prove his stunted stature. All the pokey back and forth is sophomoric and empties the charm out of the film.

The four central performers enjoy themselves, Stiller playing mostly within himself, Watts emerging with the most credit, while Driver and Seyfried capture the friendly but detached cool of hipsterdom.

While We're Young is fun for a while, but grows old quickly.

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Friday, 5 May 2017

Movie Review: That Thing You Do! (1996)

A musical dramatic comedy about a fictional one-hit wonder band, That Thing You Do! captures the vibe of an era but remains as shallow as its one hit song.

It's 1964 in Erie, Pennsylvania, and Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott) works at his father's appliance store while practicing his drums as a hobby. He agrees to perform on a one-off basis with the band of his friend Jimmy Mattingly (Johnathon Schaech) when the regular drummer breaks his arm. Jimmy has written a new ballad, but Guy doubles the tempo and turns That Thing You Do! into a peppy pop love song.

Guy sticks with the band, now named The Oneders, and they land a regular show at the local bar. On the strength of the catchy song they develop a following, attracting the attention of a local music producer who helps them cut a record and start touring locally. At an unfortunately bad show in Pittsburgh, Guy connects with promoter Mr. White (Tom Hanks), who signs them to Play-Tone Records. Renamed The Wonders, the band hit the road and seem to be on their way to the big time as the song races up the chart. But Jimmy is frustrated that neither his fellow band members nor White seem interested in writing and recording more material.

Tom Hanks' directorial debut, That Thing You Do! is good natured fun. Much like the band, the film rides its one ridiculously catchy song all the way from garage band territory to the top of the charts. But the story is also remarkably linear in recounting the rapid rise and quicker fall of a ragged band, and at the end of the film little of substance is revealed about any of the main characters.

The movie recreates a more innocent America discovering the sounds of The Beatles and not yet tainted by Vietnam and Watergate, the young boomer bonhomie of the times providing plenty of energy. Hanks constructs a breathtaking highlight when the young band members hear their song played on the radio for the first time, their sense of unbridled joy and exuberance jumping off the screen.

The title song is inspired by I Want To Hold Your Hand-era Beatles, and the film benefits from an everything-is-possible attitude, where with the help of the right promoter and radio play new stars can indeed be born.

While the rise of The Wonders is spectacular, their fall from grace is abrupt, and the film begins to feel rushed when the fun stops. A clunky romance is tacked on to conjure up a sappy ending, but by then the magic is well and truly gone.

Tom Everett Scott is lively as the cocky drummer Guy Patterson, not taking anything too seriously as he rides the wave as far away as possible from his father's cold appliance story. Hanks exudes detached and steely eyed professionalism as Mr. White, engineering the band's rise and prioritizing the commercial power of their one hit.

Johnathon Schaech as the serious Mattingly is short changed, Hanks' script confining the band leader to one dour mode, while his smarts and drive deserved more exposition. Other cast members include Liv Tyler as Jimmy's girlfriend Faye and Charlize Theron as Guy's high maintenance and soon to be ex-girlfriend Tina. The band members are rounded out by Steve Zahn, Ethan Embry and Giovanni Ribisi.

That Thing You Do! offers light-hearted toe-tapping enjoyment, like a summer hit that's everywhere at once before blowing away when it's time to get serious.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Movie Review: The Circle (2017)

A near-future technological thriller exploring loss of privacy, The Circle starts with some good ideas but quickly loses its way.

Mae Holland (Emma Watson) is thrilled to join social media giant The Circle as a customer service representative. Her best friend Annie (Karen Gillan) is a high powered member of the firm's leadership team, advising co-founders Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) and Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt). In her personal life Mae is drifting away from childhood friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane), and trying to help her father Vinnie (Bill Paxton) deal with multiple sclerosis.

Mae enjoys her job although she finds the company's cult-like insistence on a high level of social media activity and participation at company events intrusive. She meets star software coder and fellow employee Ty Lafitte (John Boyega), who is keeping a low profile and is deeply suspicious of the company's ambitions to dominate and record people's lives. The Circle's latest tech innovations include mini cameras recording everything everywhere, but also medical advancements that help Vinnie. When Mae has a brush with death and is saved by The Circle's all-pervasive monitoring, she becomes a strong advocate for more intrusion into people's lives and freedoms.

Directed and co-written by James Ponsoldt and based on the book by Dave Eggers, The Circle imagines a bleak future where a social media giant is ready to fully eradicate privacy with a combination of mass surveillance, data gathering, storage, retrieval and analytics, and partnerships with government, all in the sunny name of worshipping the positive power of sharing. It's difficult to argue with the central premise that society is willingly surrendering privacy to the benefit of gigantic corporations. But after an encouraging start, The Circle hits all the wrong keys, and quickly dissolves into a dissonant mess.

Mae's transformation from an everyday millennial carrying healthy doses of cynicism and caring for her family into an advocate for subversive plots is unconvincing. She acquiesces in a zombie-like state to having every moment of her life live streamed, and later champions a really lousy digital version of global mob justice. Meanwhile, the characters of Eamon Bailey and Tom Stenton are throwbacks to another era when boomers presided over large corporations: today's tech giants are more likely to be owned and run by individuals two generations removed from Tom Hanks.

The thriller elements are particularly half baked. Mae and Ty run around empty cavernous underground tunnels that are supposedly extremely threatening because they will be filled with...more servers.

And ultimately The Circle stops being a movie and becomes a series of tedious Ted talks, Ponsoldt running out of ideas, money or both. The ending is a highly unsatisfactory mess. Annie cracks under unexplained pressure, Mae performs a couple more unexplained 180 degree turns, and an unexplained plot of secret emails is revealed, exposing...what, exactly?

Emma Watson and Karen Gillan do their best to inject energy into the film, and the more watchable parts are due to Gillan nailing the hyperstrung young executive relishing her part in ruling the world. Hanks generally sleepwalks through his few scenes.

The Circle attempts to tackle current and important online themes, but triggers error 404 instead.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Movie Review: To Rome With Love (2012)

An episodic comedy romance with some fantasy elements, Woody Allen's To Rome With Love offers mild amusement but minimal substance through four unrelated vignettes.

American tourist Hayley (Alison Pill) meets and falls in love with Italian lawyer Michelangelo. When Hayley's parents Jerry and Phyllis (Allen and Judy Davis) arrive in Rome for a visit, Jerry, a recently retired opera producer, discovers that Michelangelo's father Giancarlo, a funeral home director, has a magnificent singing voice, but only when he is in the shower.

Young student architect Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) lives with his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig). When Sally's alluring friend Monica (Ellen Page) comes for a visit, Jack can't help but fall in love with Monica's seemingly sophisticated charms. John Foy (Alec Baldwin), a successful architect revisiting Rome where he once lived, provides spectral advise to Jack. John and Jack may be the same person, 30 years apart.

Antonio and Milly are newlyweds from a rural town who have just relocated to Rome to start a new life and seek better jobs. Inadvertently separated, Antonio finds himself in the compromising company of vivacious prostitute Anna (Penelope Cruz); he has to pretend that Anna is Milly in front of his stuffy relatives. Meanwhile Milly stumbles onto a film set and allows herself to be seduced by famous Italian movie star actor Luca Salta.

Leopoldo (Robert Benigni) is an average office clerk with a mundane life. One day he wakes up and inexplicably finds himself an unlikely celebrity, with media and paparazzi hordes chasing after him with microphones and cameras and documenting his every move.

A flighty exercise in saluting the ethereal beauty of a city, To Rome With Love is almost astonishing in its lack of depth. While all four stories offer a benign level of enjoyment, the film is the equivalent of flipping through a glossy travel magazine; the articles are at best quick glance-through fluff, the pictures professional but also exceptionally familiar. The entire exercise is wholly forgettable moments after it ends.

While none of the stories carry any impact, a couple offer some marginal entertainment. Allen sporadically infuses a common theme of unexpected but non-threatening interventions altering the planned course of life, with the diversions from a charted course coming with both a smile and no explanation needed. The imaginative elements of the film work well, John Foy as a ghostly presence drifting in and out of Jack's life and Leopoldo's sudden detour into an alternate celebrity reality carrying some intrigue.

Antonio and Milly experiencing a chaotic start to their life in Rome appears to be a parable for the temptations of the big city, and is less successful. Least interesting of all is Allen inserting his typical neurotic New Yorker persona into the Roman context. The tiresome opera-singer-in-the-shower story starts out as not funny and is then stretched well past its breaking point.

To Rome With Love is Allen at his flimsiest, offering some old-world eye candy with a side of empty calories.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Movie Review: Assassins (1995)

A mindless action thriller, Assassins features a decent cast but takes itself too seriously and outstays its welcome.

Robert Rath (Sylvester Stallone) is a professional assassin growing old and looking to quit the business, still haunted by having killed his mentor Nicolai Tashlinkov 15 years prior. Rath receives his missions from an anonymous online source, and cannot resist a contract to kill an ailing financier of right wing dictators. But another assassin intervenes and claims the kill, effectively stealing the contract. Rath tracks down the new assassin and identifies him as Miguel Bain (Antonio Banderas), a brash young man exhibiting psychotic behaviour. Bain wants to be the world's premier assassin, which means eliminating Rath.

Rath's next mission is to assassinate mysterious electronics thief Electra (Julianne Moore), along with four would-be buyers of information she possesses on disc. Rath again finds himself in competition with Bain to complete the mission. When Rath gets the opportunity to kill Electra he instead decides to team up with her to plan a final mission that could get him out of the business once and for all -- if they can both survive the rampaging Bain.

Directed by Richard Donner and written by the Wachowskis (who later tried to disown the script), Assassins' theme of the veteran and the wannabe carries echoes of Charles Bronson's The Mechanic. While Stallone, Banderas and Moore provide plenty of on-screen talent, the film slowly but surely surrenders to over-the-top action scenes that defy all logic, an unfortunate trademark of producer Joel Silver.

Banderas' Miguel Bain takes the brunt of the ridiculous carnage, as he survives a spectacular car crash, gets scrubbed against a large truck at highway speed for a prolonged period, is blown out of an apartment in a massive explosion, and is finally dropped several stories as half a building collapses around him. Of course he dusts himself off and comes back for more punishment after every incident.

Assassins also gets bogged down in a final chapter that takes forever, as the running time extends to a wholly unnecessary 132 minutes. Rath, Bain and Electra find themselves in Puerto Rico, where Rath knows that Bain will try to kill him. A full 35 minutes of not much happening ensues, until an interminable climax in which not one but two characters come back from the dead.

All of the ineptitude wastes a half-decent performance by Stallone, who plays within himself and is able to generate some depth to the character of a killer tired of killing. In contrast Banderas starts at an insane level of manic intensity and just escalates with every scene. Moore provides some intrigue for Electra, but her better roles are still to come.

Despite all the bullets and the bombs, Assassins is finally felled by self-inflicted bloat.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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