Sunday, 30 July 2017

Movie Review: Heist (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, 29 July 2017

Movie Review: Chain Reaction (1996)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Movie Review: The Song Of Bernadette (1943)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Movie Review: Good Kids (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, 24 July 2017

Movie Review: The Beguiled (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, 23 July 2017

Movie Review: Dunkirk (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, 22 July 2017

Movie Review: Wildcats (1986)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, 21 July 2017

Movie Review: Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)

A romantic comedy with a twist, Grosse Pointe Blank follows a cold-blooded but sympathetic hit-man as he attends his high school reunion to pursue his dream girl while dodging bullets.

Martin Blank (John Cusack) is an independent assassin for hire, receiving his missions through his assistant Marcella (Joan Cusack). Fellow hit-man Grocer (Dan Aykroyd) tries to convince him to join a cartel, but Martin wants to maintain independence. Starting to feel depressed and jaded Martin's mood is not improved when a couple of his missions are bungled. His shrink Dr. Oatman (Alan Arkin) is of little use.

After being nagged incessantly by Marcella, Martin agrees to attend his 10 year reunion at Grosse Pointe high school in a Detroit suburb, but only after his next target happens to also be in the same city. He uses the opportunity to try and win back the love of Debi (Minnie Driver), the sweetheart he abandoned on prom night ten years prior. He also bumps into other high school friends including real estate agent Paul (Jeremy Piven). As he makes progress in wooing Debi, Martin realizes that Grosse Pointe is crawling with hit men, and that he may be a target.

Set to a continuous soundtrack of mid-1980s hits, Grosse Pointe Blank takes a sardonic look at the love life of a killer. Directed by George Armitage with John Cusack co-writing, the film goes into rarely explored territory where killers need affection too, and laughs, love and hot lead collide. It doesn't necessarily always work as intended, but enough emotional mayhem registers to make the film stand out.

With so much going on some parts of the narrative kookiness understandably land awkwardly. Unless blatant satire was the goal, Debi's ability to look past Martin's profession and love him anyway was never going to be an easy sell. The music soundtrack also occasionally overreaches and gets in the way. While the selection of hits from the 1980s is a boon to fans of the decade, stretches of the film introduce a new track every 10 seconds, the songs disintegrating into useless snippet territory. And finally the big reunion scene is a messy series of encounters that seem to start and stop at random and offer nothing new.

But for the most part Grosse Pointe Blank delivers an irreverent mash-up of wild action, romantic pursuit, career depression and caustic comedy. And the genres somehow rub against each other at the right angles, the film emerging as a unique hybrid refusing to adhere to any preconceived notions of formula. Rarely has a love story with a high school backdrop been interrupted by an intense gunfight between two assassins culminating in a bomb placed in a microwave. And of course the battle happens to take place in a mini mart that displaced Martin's childhood home, just to add to the hero's depressed sense of aggrieved angst.

John Cusack brings his persona of intense cool to Martin Blank, and provides the film with its critical centre of gravity. None of the other characters are too important to matter. Even Debi is reduced to lazily orbiting Martin's disorderly life, Minnie Driver unable to exert much pull on the proceedings other than work through Debi's residual anger issues.

Grosse Pointe Blank bravely goes back home, and with a wicked smile gleefully breaks all the rules.

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Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Movie Review: Tumbledown (2015)

A romantic drama with a sprinkling of humour, Tumbledown carries plenty of charm as it works its way through the late stages of personal grief.

In a small town in Maine, Hannah Miles (Rebecca Hall) is a young widow still grieving the death two years prior of her husband Hunter. He was an up-and-coming folk singer who released just one album prior to his mysterious death. Protective of Hunter's legacy, Hannah fends off persistent approaches from New York-based professor Andrew McCabe (Jason Sudeikis) to interview her for a book about talented musicians who died early.

Hannah takes a crack at writing Hunter's biography, but her friend and local bookstore owner Upton (Griffin Dunne) convinces her that she needs writing help. She swallows her pride and hires Andrew as her co-author. He moves into her cabin and as he starts to uncover details about Hunter's life and death, an undeniable attraction develops between the widow and the academic.

Directed by Sean Mewshaw and written by Desiree Van Til, Tumbledown is an appealing journey along the seam between mourning and living. The film blends lightweight drama and wry humour in balanced doses and benefits from a rustic rural setting. Mewshaw maintains a light mood and brisk pacing as the story explores weighty themes, while the folk music soundtrack adds a melancholy tone.

The road to recovery from the untimely death of a loved one is an arduous process, and Tumbledown captures Hannah at the place where she can have fun, laugh and fight for what she believes in, but where she also remains beholden to the memory of a happier time and a partner who grows more ideal by his absence. Andrew is further along in his trip away from a similar trauma but is caught looking for obvious answers in a complex reality.

The film does not escape the linearity of romantic movies that start with two attractive people clashing furiously, and some plot developments such as Andrew moving into Hannah's cabin happen with illogical speed. But one of Tumbledown's graceful achievements is in avoiding some of the more obvious genre traps. Hannah will of course chart a course towards loving again, but not before she exposes Andrew to some unexpected lessons about the magic that develops in perfect unions, relationship nuggets unleashed by welcoming Andrew into Hunter's sanctuary.

Rebecca Hall infuses Tumbledown with most of its appeal. She sometimes slips briefly into overacting, but mostly straddles a fine line between Hannah's wicked independent streak and her still-tender emotional scars. Jason Sudeikis is more monotonal and less convincing as a romantic lead.

The rest of the cast features a quirky mix, and includes Blythe Danner and Richard Masur as Hannah's parents, Dianna Agron as Andrew's girlfriend Finley, and Joe Manganiello as Hannah's hunter-gatherer casual sex buddy.

Despite some predictable constraints that come with the territory of romantic movies, Tumbledown is a relatively elegant and thoughtful search for love on the far side of emotional damage.

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Monday, 17 July 2017

Movie Review: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

A satirical comedy inspired by Homer's The Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou? features some enjoyable episodes but is a mostly fragmented exercise of scattered ideas looking for a purpose.

The setting is Mississippi during the 1930s with the Great Depression still lingering. Three convicts escape from a chain gang and set out across the countryside. The wordy and cerebral Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) claims to have buried stolen treasure before being incarcerated. His fellow escapees are the tightly wound Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) and the rather dim Delmar O'Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson).

As they barely stay one step ahead of the chasing posse, the trio encounter various obstacles and characters, including Pete's cousin "Wash" Hogwallop (Frank Collison), crazed bank robber Baby Face Nelson (Michael Badalucco), three distracting singing sirens, guitarist Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King) who claims to have sold his soul to the devil, incumbent Governor Menelaus "Pappy" O'Daniel (Charles Durning), and dangerous Bible salesman Daniel "Big Dan" Teague (John Goodman). The Ku Klux Klan also make an appearance before Ulysses catches up with his wife Penny (Holly Hunter), who is just about ready to abandon him.

Written and directed by the Coen brothers Joel and Ethan, O Brother, Where Art Thou? transposes the ancient Greek poem to the American rural south, suffering under the strain of an economic depression and the sweltering heat. It's all played for laughs, the actors over-emoting at will and most of the dialogue exchanges featuring Ulysses Everett McGill's over-elaborate prose and the stupefied reactions of his chainmates.

The film's pacing cannot be faulted, as each episode lasts about 10 minutes before the next, generally unrelated adventure kicks off. Whether hit or miss, nothing lingers for too long. The better sub-plots feature the trio of prisoners recording an impromptu hit song at an early-era radio station, and an enchanted encounter with the seductive sirens in the forest. Less successful is the run-in with Bible salesman Big Dan, while the chapters featuring Governor O'Daniel seem to rotate in a singular circle.

Wide open landscapes, appealing cinematography and an interesting colour palette that often evokes the photographs of the era maintain interest, while the period-specific folk music often moves to the foreground to provide a soulful kick.

Towards the end the film threatens to completely unravel, a case of too many marginal ideas thrown at the screen and sliding to the bottom due to a lack of cohesion. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is inspired by great literature, but achieves only modest success.

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Sunday, 16 July 2017

Movie Review: To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995)

A culture clash comedy drama, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar goes for road trip laughs but rarely shifts out of neutral and runs out of gas early.

In New York City drag queens Noxeema Jackson (Wesley Snipes) and Vida Boheme (Patrick Swayze) are declared joint winners of a beauty contest. Their prize is a trip to Hollywood to compete in a national event. Before they depart Vida takes pity on Chi-Chi Rodriguez (John Leguizamo), a less confidant contestant, and the trio buy an old Cadillac and embark on a cross-country road trip. On the backroads of the hinterlands they tangle with bigoted Sheriff Dollard (Chris Penn) before their car breaks down and they are rescued by Bobby Ray (Jason London), a young man who provides a ride to his tiny community of Snydersville.

As they await car repairs, they get to know the locals, including innkeeper Carol Ann (Stockard Channing), who is suffering abuse by her husband Virgil (Arliss Howard), a mechanic and tow truck driver. Meanwhile a group of thuggish men threaten to rape Chi-Chi, who falls in love with Bobby Ray. The drag queens do what they can to help the community, including working with Beatrice (Blythe Danner) and other women to organize the annual Strawberry Social event.

Directed by Beeban Kidron and written by Douglas Beane, To Wong Foo must have looked good on paper: transform three macho male movie stars covering three ethnicities into drag queens, stuff them into a car and wait for riotous laughs to ensue. It never really works. While the costumes and makeup are brilliant and the men do their part in the acting department, the script is a limp exercise in contrived situations drawing on basic stereotypes exploiting the urban-rural divide.

With weak character development and the flimsiest of backgrounds afforded to Noxeema, Vida and Chi-Chi, the film defaults to a rather condescending story of three sophisticated urbanites invading a backwards rural community to make it better. Everything about Snydersville is in need of rescue, from spousal abuse to several sub-plots of awkward or unrequited love, plus the old lady who is thought to be mute but really just needs someone to talk to about old movies. And they are all threatened by the seemingly parentless local sneering hoodlums who have nothing else to do except rape and pillage.

Of course none of the locals are smart enough to notice that Noxeema, Vida and Chi-Chi are guys in women's clothing, and the drag queens set about to make everything better, because they know best how to fix all that ails small town USA. Once the film falls into the trap of its own making there is nothing to do except tediously await the obvious climax featuring the awakening of the great unwashed among the ramshackle structures that pass for a town.

Despite the weak material Swayze and Leguizamo do a fine job as drag queens. Snipes is over the top both in terms of looks and behaviour, his Noxeema Jackson reduced for long stretches to sideline quips. Robin Williams contributes an uncredited single-scene appearance.

The movie's title is derived from a signed memorabilia photo of actress Julie Newmar. The photo, the signature and the title have next to nothing to do with the film other than add to the general sense of clumsiness. To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar gets the fashion right, but everything else is a shambles.

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Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Movie Review: The Desert Fox: The Story Of Rommel (1951)

A profile of  Field Marshal Erwin Rommel during the latter days of World War Two, The Desert Fox portrays Rommel as a gentleman warrior who grew to oppose Hitler and was at least silently complicit in the attempt on Hitler's life.

The film starts with a recreation of Operation Flipper, a failed 1941 British commando raid on what was thought to be Rommel's headquarters. The action moves to North Africa in 1942, with Rommel (James Mason) rallying German troops in the Battle of El Alamein. As he is engineering an orderly withdrawal in the face of overwhelming forces, Rommel is shocked to receive ridiculous orders from Hitler to fight to the last man. He ignores the Führer.

While recuperating from a sickness Rommel and his wife Lucie (Jessica Tandy) are visited by family friend Dr. Karl Strölin (Cedric Hardwicke), the mayor of Stuttgart, who hints that Germany will be better off without Hitler. Later Rommel is placed in charge of organizing defences along the Atlantic Wall in anticipation of the Allied invasion. Once the D-Day landings take place, he is further frustrated by Hitler's strategic failure to muster the necessary military response. Further conversations with Strölin and Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt (Leo G. Carroll) convince Rommel that Hitler is a hindrance to Germany's future survival.

Directed by Henry Hathaway, The Desert Fox is an adaptation of the Desmond Young book with Michael Rennie narrating. Young was a British Army Lieutenant Colonel and prisoner of the Germans when he briefly met Rommel in the North African desert, a scene recreated in the movie. The film is just 88 minutes long, including not insignificant padding with actual war footage, such as random artillery guns firing in the desert and scenes from D-Day.

The Desert Fox was part of a concerted effort to recast Rommel as a good German, to help repatriate West Germany's post-war reputation. The film is less concerned with his military genius or battlefield exploits -- these are barely mentioned. Rather the focus is on his gentlemanly mannerisms, strong familial bonds, increasing disgust with Hitler and finally his support, morally at least, for the plot to assassinate the Nazi leader.

The film is professionally constructed to serve its purpose as educational entertainment. James Mason gets quickly in the groove of the role and maintains the steady temperament of a proud man who hides his arrogance well behind the veil of service. Utilizing the black and white cinematography in businesslike fashion, Hathaway hustles the action along, interspersing some battlefield scenes with pivotal meetings featuring Strölin, von Rundstedt, Lucie and Hitler himself. At no point does the film come close to revealing anything personally remarkable or enriching about the celebrated Field Marshal; but it always sustains a solid level of engagement.

Neither inventive nor dry, The Desert Fox: The Story Of Rommel fulfils its function with the efficiency of a well-drilled soldier.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Kiss Of The Dragon (2001)

A straightforward martial arts action flick, Kiss Of The Dragon delivers the requisite high energy fight scenes but little else of value.

Beijing police detective Liu Siu-jian (Jet Li) arrives in Paris to help Inspector Jean-Pierre Richard (Tchéky Karyo) arrest high ranking Chinese drug smuggler Mr. Big (Ric Young) and his mysterious local contact. But Liu is walking into a trap, because the corrupt Richard is the French connection in the international criminal ring. Richard kills Mr. Big and tries to incriminate Liu, forcing the Beijing detective to flee into hiding at a Chinatown safehouse.

Liu eventually teams up with prostitute Jessica (Bridget Fonda), an American who is forcibly working for Richard as he holds her daughter at an orphanage. Liu gets some help from the Chinese embassy but is mostly on his own as he fights against an army of heavily armed corrupt cops to clear his name.

Directed by Chris Nahon, Kiss Of The Dragon serves the sole purpose of highlighting Jet Li's exceptional martial arts skills. And Li is terrific, taking on hordes of bad guys in large groups at a time, and efficiently disposing of them with ruthless efficiency. With a minimum of special effects, the fight scenes are choreographed with artistic beauty and sneaky humour. The film satisfies the requirement of one good fight about every seven minutes or so.

In between, there is nothing to latch onto. The plot is elemental and features an inordinate amount of gaping holes in common sense and logic, served by mechanical acting and dialogue exchanges. The villain Inspector Richard is straight out of a comic book for juveniles, and the story of a cop on strange turf, battling a frame-up and seeking revenge is as basic as an action movie can get. The honest prostitute with a heart of gold and a child she yearns for completes the mandated check boxes.

The Paris locations add a modicum of interest and Liu's Chinatown hideout along a derelict back lane provides an earthy backdrop. But otherwise Kiss Of The Dragon is plenty of flying limbs and too few cerebral whims.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Movie Review: Focus (2015)

A drama and romance set in the world of high stakes con artists, Focus is too slick for its own good and never gains emotional traction.

Smooth con man Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith) easily picks out the inexperienced Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie) as she tries to pull off a clumsy sting. She insists on shadowing him to hone her skills and tracks him down to New Orleans, where she joins his crew as they work the crowds ahead of a big football game. Nicky and Jess become a pair, and after clearing over a million dollars from swindles in one week, Nicky matches wits with the extremely wealthy Liyuan Tse (B.D. Wong) in a high stakes betting duel.

At the end of the New Orleans trip the relationship between Nicky and Jess ends abruptly. Three years later in Buenos Aires, Nicky is planning an elaborate con job with wealthy motor racing team owner Rafael Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro). But Nicky is stunned to again bump into Jess, who is now Rafael's girlfriend. Nicky is torn between reigniting a romance with Jess and fulfilling the con, while Rafael's head of security Owens (Gerald McRaney) grows increasingly suspicious of Nicky's motives.

Co-directed and co-written by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, Focus looks sharp and exudes a certain amount of appealing cool. The pacing is brisk, the cinematography rich and Will Smith and Margot Robbie make for an elegant couple.

But that's about all there is to enjoy in Focus. The film is too eager to portray Nicky as the king of the ultimate con, always several steps ahead of everyone around him. But without delving into the depth of his character he remains a superficial presence, with every one of his actions likely to be not what it seems. The film defaults to an exercise of guessing what the next game is rather than investing in any actual onscreen romance or drama. Nicky cannot be trusted in anything he says or does, so there is no value to be gained in believing any of his romantic overtures or spoken words.

Ficarra and Requa also push the envelope too far. The impromptu gambling joust with Liyuan Tse crosses the line into ridiculous territory, while the final con in Buenos Aires is both poorly defined - something silly about peddling secret algorithms that make racing cars go faster - and ponderously executed with an absurd variation on an old trick.

Focus has a few enjoyable moments mingling among crooked tricksters, but is mostly a frustratingly shallow exercise.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Movie Review: Morgan (2016)

A science fiction horror flick, Morgan has no new ideas and quickly runs into braindead territory.

In a secretive research facility located deep in the woods and operated by the SynSect company, an experimental human hybrid called Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) unexpectedly attacks and injures Dr. Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The company dispatches risk management expert Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) to assess the situation. She finds a tight knit team of scientists who designed, conceived and nurtured Morgan under the leadership of Dr. Lui Cheng (Michelle Yeoh).

The other researchers include Dr. Ziegler (Toby Jones) and Dr. Amy Menser (Rose Leslie), who has befriended Morgan and allowed the hybrid to explore the surrounding wooded area, which is perhaps contributing to Morgan's sense of rising anger due to the otherwise confined surroundings. Also at the facility is cook and marksman Skip (Boyd Holbrook). When Dr. Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti) arrives to aggressively test Morgan's ability to tolerate taunting, Lee has to quickly decide what action is needed to contain the damage.

Directed by Luke Scott (son of Ridley, who co-produced), Morgan is an irritating and derivative Frankenstein-type effort, falling far short of 2014's similarly themed Ex Machina. Despite starting with a premise that may have held some promise, Scott and writer Seth Owen make all the wrong choices as they somehow concoct to steer the film towards characters literally running around the forest whacking each other with all available weapons.

Prior to the outbreak of bloodshed, precious little is offered in terms of engagement. Neither the science nor the characters are remotely interesting, the team of researchers remaining shallow stock personalities and the protagonist Lee Weathers a coldly calculating and less than emotive presence. Paul Giamatti heats things up with his singular over the top scene, but departs too quickly to leave a mark.

There is one twist in the film, it arrives late but is easy to guess early. Despite the talent in the cast, Morgan is an experiment absolutely not worth saving.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Big Sick (2017)

A romantic comedy based on true events, The Big Sick provides laughs, warmth and honest emotions in the story of a cross-cultural love.

In Chicago, Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani, playing himself) is a struggling stand-up comic, the son of Pakistani immigrants. His mother Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) is determined to find him a future wife from the Pakistani community, but Kumail independently starts a relationship with all-American girl Emily (Zoe Kazan), and keeps her a secret from his family. When Emily learns that she may not be welcome in Kumail's culture, she breaks off their relationship.

Soon afterwards Emily is stricken with a mysterious serious illness, hospitalized and placed into a medically induced coma while an army of doctors try to devise a treatment plan. Kumail is irresistibly drawn to the hospital, where he meets Emily's parents Terry and Beth (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter). Initially suspicious of Kumail's presence and motives, gradually they warm up to him. However, Emily still faces a challenge to overcome her illness, while Kumail has to confront his parents and sort out his cultural identity.

Co-written by Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon, directed by Michael Showalter and co-produced by Judd Apatow, The Big Sick is both timeless and modern. The true story of love straddling a cultural divide resonates  across the ages with the charming echo of everything from Romeo and Juliet to Roman Holiday, and in The Big Sick it is presented through the prism of the melting pot called America in the high heat setting of the 21st century.

Only the first third of the film has romance as its focus. Kumail and Emily meeting, breaking down barriers and forging a bond (despite both claiming that they have no interest in a long-term relationship) is a gateway to introducing the characters and the context of a society where diversity is the norm. Nanajiani and Gordon as the writers do not shy away from laying bare the awkwardness, hesitancy and missteps that give every relationship its uniqueness.

With Emily spending a large part of the rest of the movie in a coma, the heart of the film shifts to the relationship between Kumail and the two sets of parents, and he has work to do on both fronts. With his own parents Kumail is living a lie, playing along with their conservative culture and Sharmeen's dedicated agenda to arrange a partner, while in reality he has no intentions of honouring their traditional wishes. Ironically, it is only when Kumail starts to understand the hurt he is causing to one prospective but outspoken Pakistani bride that his awakening starts.

Even more complex is the morass Kumail navigates with Terry and Beth. As an ex-boyfriend of their daughter, from a foreign culture and with vague career prospects, Kumail is initially the last person Terry and Beth want to deal with their daughter in a coma and fighting for her life. But some of the sturdiest bridges are built under extreme duress, and the gradual thawing of the relationship between the young comic and the distressed parents comes with humour, unexpected support, and genuine affection.

Kumail's life as a stand-up comic and his motley crew of fellow comedians waiting for their big break provide plenty of colour and opportunity for laughs. The drama in Kumail's personal life clashes with his professional need to make his audience forget their troubles, adding to the film's emotional resonance.

Clocking in at just over two hours, the film is a bit longer than it needs to be, and all three acts pre-hospital, in-hospital and post-hospital would have benefitted from some trimming. But this is minor quibble. With compassion and a smile, The Big Sick celebrates the best of what everyone can do: see past superficial differences, persevere in pursuit for what really matters, and overcome adversity.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Baby Driver (2017)

A stylish, artistic and hyperkinetic action film, Baby Driver excels at burning rubber to a thumping soundtrack. Humour, idealized romance and violence have rarely mixed better.

In Atlanta, an orphaned young man known as Baby (Ansel Elgort) works as the getaway driver on jobs planned by master criminal Doc (Kevin Spacey). Constantly listening to music to counteract severe tinnitus and push away the demons of his parents' death, Baby owes Doc a debt, and is working it off as the wheelman in a series of high profile armed heists. Baby lives with the elderly and deaf Joseph (CJ Jones), who is supposedly his foster father although Baby now looks after the wheelchair-bound old man.

Doc's regular gang members include the quiet but dangerous Buddy (Joe Hamm), his girlfriend Darling (Eiza González), Griff (Jon Bernthal) and the slightly unhinged Bats (Jamie Foxx). In between jobs Baby meets diner waitress Debora (Lily James), and the two start a relationship and plot a future life away from Atlanta. But Doc will not let Baby go easily, and one final job takes a dangerous turn.

Written and directed by Edgar Wright, Baby Driver exudes a sense of detached cool. The film is modern-day full length music video, largely disconnected from reality and fully embracing stylized and high revving action as its primary mission. That Wright also provides a reasonably interesting, rounded and conflicted central character in Baby is a bonus, although Baby's exceptional skills behind the wheel and his overall calm demeanour in the face of unfriendly villains and street level carnage stretches all credible limits.

But none of that really matters, as character realism is a distant objective in this narrative. Similar to 1978's sparse The Driver (and much less similar to 2011's brooding Drive), Baby Driver sets out to create insane excitement through a series of breathless urban chase scenes with an aloof protagonist in the driver's seat, and succeeds in creating some of the best sequences of grounded automotive mayhem. At once modern and old-fashioned, Wright threads the needle by keeping the action just on the right side of plausible in relative cinematic terms.

The action scenes are properly spaced out to allow the story breathing room to progress, and when they do arrive, no effort is spared to maximize the highest possible revolutions per minute.

And it's all set to the music mix playing through Baby's earbuds, Baby Driver an audio experience as much as it is a visual feast. Baby's mother was a musician, and he insists on having the right tune playing at exactly the right time even when anarchy is about to be unleashed. Wright grabs a lot of tense and fun mileage by having his young hero insist on synchronizing his life to his chosen soundtrack, no matter what is happening around him.

While Baby is an innocent among wolves, the evil doers surrounding him are not kidding around. Buddy, Darling and especially the appropriately named Bats are various degrees of crazy, and this is a violent film where obscenities, threats, shootouts, corrupt cops, blood, violence and various forms of gruesome death are thrown at the screen. The contrast with Baby's sweet budding romance with Debora is sharp, Wright giving his young hero every opportunity to differentiate himself from the sordid world created by the likes of Doc.

Hip, unflappable and built for speed, Baby Driver rocks to his own tunes.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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