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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Movie Review: Where The Heart Is (2000)

A drama about life and love, Where The Heart Is finds most of the right notes in the story of an underprivileged young woman determined to carve a life for herself.

Seventeen years old, penniless and pregnant, Novalee Nation (Natalie Portman) is abandoned by her scummy boyfriend Willy Pickens (Dylan Bruno) at a Sequoyah, Oklahoma WalMart. The kindly Thelma Husband (Stockard Channing), a recovering alcoholic, extends a welcoming hand, but with nowhere to go Novalee surreptitiously starts to sleep at the WalMart by night while wandering around the community during the day. She meets store photographer Moses Whitecotton (Keith David) as well as town librarian Forney Hull (James Frain), an awkward young man whose college education was interrupted.

Novalee gives birth to a daughter she calls Americus, with Forney instrumental in the midnight delivery at the WalMart. While recovering at the hospital she meets nurse Lexie Coop (Ashley Judd), a vivacious unmarried mother of four who easily attracts all the wrong men. Meanwhile, Willy heads to Nashville in search of a music career and connects with talent agent Ruth Meyers (Joan Cusack). After an unsavory encounter with her no-good mother Lil (Sally Field), Novalee moves in with Thelma to start assembling something that resembles a life, and there are plenty of ups and downs ahead in the pursuit of happiness.

An adaptation of the Billie Letts novel of the same name, written for the screen by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, and directed by Matt Williams, Where The Heart Is establishes a methodical one-crisis-per-10-minutes pace and does not stray far from the formula. And yet the film executes its mandate with admirable proficiency, and wins its audience with a heartfelt and well-intentioned portrayal of the human spirit hard at work.

Films populated entirely by relatively poor people are few and far between, and there is no knight in shining armour or rich saviour of any kind in Where The Heart Is. Nor is this a class warfare story glamorizing the poor but morally upright masses. Rather, this is a tale of gaining inches in the marathon of life. Novalee starts with literally nothing and the deck stacked against her, and works her way to something through sheer force of will and an always positive disposition.

Along the way she meets women of the same ilk, Thelma and Lexie fighting their own battles (against various addictions and insufferable men respectively) but just as determined as Novalee to fight back on their own terms of kindness.

Williams energetically works the film through the obstacle course of abandonment, poverty, abuse, natural disasters and awkward relationships, sprinkling enough small wins and moments of love and laughter to ensure Novalee always has the motivation and glimmers of hope to carry on. The outcome is a film that despite its sentimentality capably mirrors life's ups and downs.

All of 18 at the time of filming, Natalie Portman holds the film together and convincingly portrays Novalee from 17 to 22, adding textures of experience as the character ages. Ashley Judd is equally irresistible as Lexie, smiling at a life that serves her up a succession of adorable children but also a series of less than useless sperm donors.

Where The Heart Is finds a place that is honest and comfortably familiar, rich soil to help a young woman grow.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: She's Funny That Way (2014)

An old fashioned screwball comedy, She's Funny That Way registers some laughs in an unlikely coincidence-filled setting with plenty of references to other classic movies.

Rising movie star Isabella "Izzy" Patterson (Imogen Poots) is recounting the story of her acting breakthrough to an interviewer. While working as call girl "Glo Stick" she spends one night with theatre director Arnold Albertson (Owen Wilson), who unexpectedly gifts her $30,000 to quit prostitution and chase her acting dream. Izzy heeds his advice and shows up to a Broadway audition, unaware that Albertson is the director and the show stars his wife Delta (Kathryn Hahn) and British actor Seth Gilbert (Rhys Ifans). To make matters worse, Seth had spotted Izzy and Arnold on their night together. The playwright Joshua Fleet (Will Forte) immediately takes a liking to Isabella.

Meanwhile, Isabelle is seeing neurotic therapist Jane Claremont (Jennifer Aniston), who is also Joshua's girlfriend. Jane's other clients include Judge Pendergast (Austin Pendleton) who is obsessed with Izzy, and who has hired private detective Harold Fleet (George Morfogen), Joshua's father, to track Izzy's every move. Delta starts to suspect that Arnold has had a series of affairs with call girls, handing out $30,000 to each. The characters bump into each other in a series of compromising situations, resulting in Isabella launching her acting career while Albert has a lot of explaining to do.

Directed by Peter Bogdanovich who also co-wrote the film with his ex-wife Louise Stratten, She's Funny That Way deploys the tried and tested formula of multiple threads connecting all the characters and wild coincidences resulting in compromising encounters at the worst possible time. As comedies go this is old territory, and She's Funny That Way has a strong whiff of good but recycled Woody Allen without the angst, with salutes to Billy Wilder and Blake Edwards. Bogdanovich provides enough of a polish to make his film interesting, and utilizes the cast to good effect.

Jennifer Aniston as a narcissistic therapist registers the most laughs, while Wilson, Poots (who overdoes her Brooklyn accent) and Hahn carry the acting load. Pendergast and Fleet as the lecherous judge and his gumshoe add to the enjoyable sense of farce, while Ifans infuses dry humour from the sidelines.

The American Dream theme is handled with appropriate cynicism, Izzy's fantastical rapid rise from call girl to respected stage and screen actress presented without irony. Elsewhere Bogdanovich creates a society where marriage and relationships don't mean much to the men: Albert and Joshua betray their partners without hesitation, while Seth pursues Delta with nauseating smarm.

For fans of film history there are references to Lana Turner, Rio Bravo, True Romance, and the 1946 Ernst Lubitsch movie Cluny Brown. Cybill Shepherd (as Izzy's mom) and a Tatum O'Neal cameo provide a nod to Bogdanovich's stellar past,

The first coincidental gathering of all the characters at a restaurant is on-target, but the story is pushed beyond its limits in the final third, as yet another round of chance encounters this time on the same hotel floor kicks off, an example of the same joke told too often. But overall She's Funny That Way provides enough sharp dialogue, adult situations and respectful winks at the past to comfortably ride out the rough patches.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Movie Review: Journey To The Center Of The Earth (1959)

A science fiction adventure, Journey To The Centre Of The Earth is a family-friendly descent into a strange world. The science is suspect and the special effects dated, but the film nevertheless delivers easy entertainment.

Edinburgh, 1880. Celebrated geology Professor Sir Oliver Lindenbrook (James Mason) researches a piece of rock gifted to him by his student Alec McEwan (Pat Boone), and finds a hidden message from legendary explorer Arne Saknussemm who attempted to reach the centre of the Earth 300 years ago. McEwan interrupts a fledgling romance with Lindenbrook's niece Jenny (Diane Baker) and joins Sir Oliver on a hastily arranged expedition to retrace Saknussemm's path through an Icelandic volcano.

Once in Iceland they tangle with rival Swedish Professor Göteborg (Ivan Triesault), who is promptly poisoned to death by a mysterious evil doer. His widow Carla (Arlene Dahl) joins the expedition, as does local man Hans (Peter Ronson). Sir Oliver and his team descend into the volcano and discover an amazing world of caves, salt deposits, crystals, underground oceans, tree-sized mushrooms and massive reptilian creatures, but the main threat comes from Count Saknussemm (Thayer David), who wants to protect his ancestor's legacy.

An adaptation of the classic Jules Verne novel directed by Henry Levin, Journey To The Centre Of Earth is an efficient, almost mechanical, recreation of a fantastical expedition. Focussing much more on a succession of impressive (for the era) sets rather than character nuance and interaction, the film defaults to a series of set-pieces. Lindenbrook's group sequentially encounter and overcome one obstacle at a time with barely a pause for reflection, the challenges covering the animal, mineral and vegetable kingdoms.

The film is undoubtedly enjoyable for its vivid colours, outlandish sets, and earnest "what next" construction, but singularly lacks intensity and tension. Any sense of real danger, drama or conflict is easily swept away by the pedestrian execution, remarkably clean clothes and staged encounters, Levin never coming close to injecting anything that resembles emotion or genuine scientific discovery. Questions as to why gigantic reptiles live in the bowels of the earth, how oversized mushrooms grow down there, or what brought an ocean and a long-lost city to exist miles below the surface are barely even asked, let alone answered.

The character dynamics are equally superficial. There is some fun to be had in the banter between Carla and Sir Oliver, and her insistence on joining the adventure and proving her value is a welcome early feminist flagpost. But otherwise this team of intrepid explorers mainly exists to stop and stare in wonderment rather than conduct any actual science. The performances match the tone, Mason working up a theatrical sweat as the group's leader while Pat Boone awaits the next opportunity to take off his shirt and warble a song for his real fans.

Journey To The Centre Of Earth cannot be taken seriously, but remains a celebration of childlike imagination

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Movie Review: Mississippi Grind (2015)

A road movie delving into the psyche of two gamblers, Mississippi Grind is a study of addiction as a way of life.

In Dubuque, Iowa, stressed-out gambling addict Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) meets lighthearted professional gambler Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) at the poker table, and the two men strike a friendship. Curtis is an expert at darts, will gamble on anything, has a good natured winning attitude and adopts "the journey is the destination" as his mantra. Always on the move, he wins more often than he loses but does not care either way. Gerry is a divorced real estate agent, deep in debt, does not know enough to quit when he's ahead and is resorting to petty theft to feed his gambling habit.

Gerry decides that Curtis is his lucky charm and the two men team up on a road trip with a big stakes poker game in New Orleans as the ultimate destination. Curtis introduces Gerry to his friends, hookers Simone (Sienna Miller) and Vanessa (Analeigh Tipton). On the trip Gerry encounters wins and losses, and Curtis learns more about himself and continuously weighs how far he can tolerate the erratic behaviour of his deeply troubled new friend.

Co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, Mississippi Grind is an unofficial remake of 1974's California Split. A two-person character study, the film draws out the contrasts between two men with the same habit but completely different attitudes. Less messy and more focused in comparison to the Robert Altman film, Mississippi Grind sharply defines two well-rounded men within a classic road trip format but nevertheless suffers from a lack of originality.

The strength of the film resides in teasing out the dramatically different consequences of the same obsession. Gerry's life is on a downward spiral. He may not know it, but gambling has taken over his life, his relationships and of course his finances. He will experience some wins but no longer has control over what it takes to actually win at life, and every big windfall is an overture for a bigger loss.

Curtis is equally living the life of a gambler, but has his immediate priorities balanced. His loose attitude exudes the confidence to know when to stop, and his real enjoyment comes from befriending different people. Curtis' journey is to ask the question about the meaning of it all, and whether his carefree on-the-move lifestyle is sacrificing long term happiness for short term thrills.

Ben Mendelsohn is a revelation, injecting the film with the painful needle of potential going to waste. With unblinking intensity Mendelsohn finds the agony of a man living a life he no longer commands. He reaches a devastating depth in a sequence at the home of his ex-wife, the gambler confronting all that he has lost and still unable to stop inflicting more misery upon himself. Ryan Reynolds is more emotive than usual, Curtis a perfect fit for Reynold's often breezy screen persona.

Boden and Fleck accompany the two men through the good and the bad, alternating scenes of gambling (at the poker table, at the track, wherever there is a bet to be made) with character depth sequences providing insight into the power of addiction. Gerry's agony increases the longer he is away from a bet; Curtis' sense of unease increases whenever he is in the same place for too long. Their interests converge for the one trip that could change everything or nothing.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Z For Zachariah (2015)

A post-apocalyptic drama, Z For Zachariah explores the quiet dynamics between three survivors.

An unspecified event has wiped out most of humanity from the face of the earth. Somewhere in the southern United States, Ann Burden (Margot Robbie), a resilient young woman, survives on her own in a small lush valley mysteriously spared from the ravages of radiation. One day she stumbles upon fellow survivor John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and nurses him back to health. John helps Ann with her farming efforts, and develops a plan to generate hydroelectric power from a contaminated waterfall.

Ann was brought up in a deeply religious household while John is more of a non-believer, but they get along and grow close. Their domestic bliss is disrupted when Caleb (Chris Pine), another survivor, walks into their valley. Ann is welcoming, John is suspicious, and gradually sexual tension develops within the triangle of survivors.

Directed by Craig Zobel and written by Nissar Modi as an adaptation of a book by Robert C. O'Brien, Z For Zachariah contains plenty of food for thought. The idea of a small pocket of land remaining untouched while the rest of the landscape is devastated by radiation is an intriguing premise, while the tentative rebuilding of societal relationships between a few people who may be partially carrying the burden of repopulating Earth is rich with possibilities.

Zobel builds the story up slowly, introducing each of the three characters in turn, and only upon their entry into the green valley. Ann is initially the only resident, then she finds John and helps him survive, and then their tiny society is interrupted by Caleb. The communal tensions are reset with every new arrival, as the backdrop of devastation starts to take a backseat to the complications of one becoming two and then three.

Even in a group this small, familiar disruptive issues quickly emerge, including the clash between religion and science, as well as racism, sex and jealousy. John's plan to build a power plant would mean dismantling the small church that holds special meaning for Ann. Caleb and Ann are the same race and maybe closer in age; when they start to get close, John feels emotionally abandoned.

This familiarity of themes also weakens the film's final act. Caleb's introduction tilts the film towards domestic drama with less emphasis on the setting and more focus on the well-worn narrative of envy within triangular tensions.

Margot Robbie remains at the centre of the film throughout, and her accomplished performance holds the drama together during both the survival and emotional scenes. Ejiofor and Pine have less to do but provide able support.

Z For Zachariah creates a new small garden of Eden on a destroyed planet, but not surprisingly, given a chance at a new start the human tendency for mischief and mistrust stays the same.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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