Saturday, 30 September 2017

Movie Review: Wind River (2017)

A crime mystery drama set in a grim and hostile rustic environment, Wind River derives portentous energy from human emotional resilience wilting under the pressure of nature's relentless hostility.

In snow-covered rural Wyoming, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent based in the small town of Lander. An expert tracker and hunter, Cory is divorced from Wilma (Julia Jones), whose parents still live on the Wind River Indian Reservation. Their marriage never recovered from the death of their daughter Emily. While out tracking killer mountain lions on the reservation, Cory stumbles onto the dead body of Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow), the young woman having frozen to death after attempting to flee a rape. Natalie used to be Emily's best friend.

The FBI send inexperienced agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to investigate. She teams up with Cory and tribal police chief Ben (Graham Greene) to investigate, while Cory also tries to console Natalie's father Martin (Gil Birmingham). The investigation leads to Natalie's brother Chip (Martin Sensmeier), who has fallen in with a group of drug dealers, and the revelation that Natalie was in a relationship with a man called Matt Rayburn (Jon Bernthal), who worked as a security guard at a nearby oil rig site.

Directed and written by Taylor Sheridan, Wind River is exhilarating and yet almost physically exhausting to watch. With a bleak setting where the unforgiving snow and bitter cold boost the prevalent economic misery, this is a film where nature is a visible force, and humans are pushed to the limit just to survive. Thriving is not an option.

It's no surprise that all the characters are scarred, grieving or hiding emotional turmoil. The film features no smiles, humour or irony, just a continuous battle to mentally and physically keep up. Cory Lambert is a robust character, played by an excellent Jeremy Renner as a throwback to western heroes, carrying no illusions and at peace with the laws of the land dictating what must survive and what must be killed. He is an ideal partner for the capable but unseasoned FBI agent Banner, but Natalie's death also strikes too close to home for Cory: his own daughter Emily's unresolved demise remains a clear source of fragility.

Despite Sheridan's tight command of storytelling, the film does shortchange the backstory of the main antagonist. But otherwise Sheridan adopts slow and sure-footed pacing, building up the drama through the harsh landscapes and the hurt behind the characters' eyes, keeping most of the actual agony off the screen  As the second half unfolds the threat of violence slowly but surely increases until the action explodes in successive orgies of expertly-executed mayhem.

Wind River is inspired by the high rate of missing and murdered aboriginal women, cases that often go unreported or unsolved. The film is suitably grim and a high evocative tribute to numerous shamefully forgotten victims.

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Movie Review: Sin City (2005)

An adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novels, Sin City is an artistically stunning anthology crime thriller. With every frame a stylistic triumph, the film jolts the comics to life, ironically in a grim and crime-infested city where life is cheap and hope goes to die.

After a brief prologue featuring an assassin (Josh Hartnett) and his target (Marley Shelton) at a rooftop party, the film features three loosely related stories, with the adventure of detective John Hartigan (Bruce Willis) split into two chapters. With his heart close to failing, Hartigan is about to retire, and as a final mission sets off to rescue 11 year old Nancy Callahan (Makenzie Vega) from child killer Roark Junior (Nick Stahl). Hartigan's partner Bob (Michael Madsen) tries to convince him not to go through with it, but Hartigan is determined to end his career with a bang. The film's final major chapter returns to this story, with Junior identified as the son of Senator Roark (Powers Booth), and a grown-up Nancy (Jessica Alba) still in peril.

In the second story, ugly brute Marv (Mickey Rourke) is enchanted by prostitute Goldie (Jaime King), but finds her dead in his bed after a night of passion. Marv bruises his way through town to identify the killer, a revenge quest that involves his parole officer Lucille (Carla Gugino) and Goldie's twin sister Wendy. The trail leads Marv to maniac cannibal Kevin (Elijah Wood), who is protected by the all-powerful Cardinal Patrick Henry Roark (Rutger Hauer).

The third story takes place in Old Town, where a group of prostitutes rule the streets. Gail (Rosario Dawson) is their leader, and her man is Dwight McCarthy (Owen Wilson). When a gang of thugs led by corrupt cop "Jackie Boy" Rafferty (Benicio del Toro) first intimidate Shellie (Brittany Murphy) and then Gail's girls, a bloodbath ensues, with silent martial arts expert Miho (Devon Aoki) having a field day. The carnage destroys the fragile balance between the working girls and the cops. An epilogue again features the return of the assassin, as well as Becky (Alexis Bledel), one of Gail's girls.

Co-directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez with Quentin Tarantino credited as a special guest director, Sin City is a visual feast of cinematic artistry. Filmed in black and white but with isolated splashes of vivid colours, the film dives into the deep end of adult graphic novel territory, where extreme violence is a shortcut to every problem and every scene threatens to end with a gory punctuation mark.

To survive for any length in this milieu, the men possess superhuman strength, and the women use a combination of weaponry and seduction to carve out their territory. Heads are routinely bashed or severed and body parts are chopped off for fun: Sin City has no pretense of law and order and film is not for the faint of heart.

Across all its stories, Sin City easily lands its punches on traditional targets: politicians and priests are the symbols of corruption hiding behind dirty veils of authority, literally spawning and protecting generations of evil and mayhem. Prostitutes (Goldie, Gail and her entourage), cynical but honest goons (Marv), righteous killers (Miho) and honest cops willing to bend the rules (Hartigan) are the heroes of Miller's world.

Men propelled into action to protect or avenge women, who may or may not need help, is a prevailing theme powering the film. Hartigan's final mission is to rescue Nancy; Marv will tear up the town in memory of the only woman who was ever nice to him; and Dwight risks his life to try and save the ladies of Old Town from annihilation.

The Old Town segment is relatively the weakest, Dwight and the gaggle of girls tangling with Jackie Boy never quite clicking as individual characters worthy of attention, and a few too many mob and mercenary baddies show up to muddle the objective. Jackie Boy himself and the dialogue-challenged Miho emerge as the most memorable contributors, which probably wasn't the intent.

In contrast, the Marv story works best and is delivered as pure cinematic gold. The relentless revenge quest of a most ugly man perfectly fits the film's dank soul, his indestructible forward momentum cutting a swath through sin city and all the way to its religious core. Mickey Rourke as Marv has never been better, transformed into a half-monster yet with his damaged moral compass somehow still functioning.

Slick, hyperkinetic and cynical to a fault, Sin City is an enthralling experience.

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Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Movie Review: Big Trouble (2002)

A madcap comedy, Big Trouble overloads the screen with wild characters and ridiculous events hurtling at an insane pace. A lot of it does generate big laughs, but the entertainment remains breathlessly shallow.

In Miami, former journalist Eliot Arnold (Tim Allen) runs a one-man advertising business. Eliot's teenaged son Matt (Ben Foster) attempts to drench classmate Jenny Herk (Zooey Deschanel) with a water gun, but instead interferes with the real attempted assassination of Jenny's father Arthur (Stanley Tucci) by hitmen Henry (Dennis Farina) and Leonard (Jack Kehler). Miami cops Monica (Janeane Garofalo) and Walter (Patrick Warburton) try to sort out the mess, while Eliot is immediately attracted to Anna (Rene Russo), Arthur's long suffering wife.

The events of the night result in wandering free spirit Puggy (Jason Lee), who likes to live in trees, meeting Arthur's housekeeper Nina (Sofia Vergara), and the two develop an immediate attraction.

Arthur is embezzling funds from a mobster-linked organization, and to seek revenge on his would-be killers he attempts to purchase a mysterious weapon in a steel case from Russian criminals. But his plans are foiled by Snake (Tom Sizemore) and Eddie (Johnny Knoxville), two sleazeball incompetent petty thieves. FBI agents Pat Greer (Heavy D) and Alan Seitz (Omar Epps) are trying to recover the missing weapon, resulting in a frenzied chase across Miami.

There is no doubt that Big Trouble contains some big laughs. Director Barry Sonnenfeld adapts the Dave Barry book of the same name with an eye to achieving a nutty spectacle at a breakneck pace, and often hits his targets within a compact 85 minutes of pure insanity.

Despite the numerous characters and events, Sonnenfeld manages to keep a hold of the material and generates a steady stream of laughs, quickly moving away from any sense of normal and into the realm of the absurd where anything goes. The scenes involving the Russian arms traders pretending to be seedy bar operators tend to work best, and the hitman character of Henry gets the sharpest lines and some funny gems.

The hapless duo of Snake and Eddie are effective as victims of Darwinian certainty surely awaiting their hour of extinction. Meanwhile a herd of goats makes a late appearance and gets right into the action, as does a mall cop, Eliot's cigar-chomping client and the Herk family dog.

Less effective is the airy subplot involving the ethereal Puggy being lifted along with events, while Nina is the most notable victim of the overstuffed script. Tim Allen is supposed to be in the middle of the mess but only achieves middling success, his suburban doofus Dad persona not quite finding a home in the edgy material. Stanley Tucci goes the other way with his over-the-top bagman, cussing up a storm.

Ultimately what Big Trouble lacks is any sense of genuine soul or caring. The film is about a large number of people running around engaged in cartoon-like behaviour and stirring up crazy funny antics; none of them come close to being real characters worth knowing or caring about. Big Trouble is really funny while it lasts, but has big trouble leaving a lasting impression.

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Movie Review: In The Line Of Fire (1993)

A thriller set in the world of Secret Service agents protecting the President, In The Line Of Fire mixes good action with plenty of character depth and cerebral touches.

In Washington DC, Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) is an aging Secret Service agent, still traumatized by his inability to prevent the Kennedy assassination. Frank investigates evidence at a nondescript apartment suggesting a potential assassin on the loose, and starts to receive taunting phone calls from a man calling himself Booth (John Malkovich), who openly admits to planning a kill the current President. Secret Service Director Sam Campagna (John Mahoney) places Frank back on the security detail surrounding the President, who is in the midst of a re-election campaign.

Frank works with his partner Al D'Andrea (Dylan McDermott) and fellow agent Lilly Raines (Rene Russo) to keep the President safe and try to uncover Booth's true identity. But Frank's age and emotional demons get in the way and White House staff get tired of his temper and over-eager actions. Despite setbacks Frank doggedly pursues the shadowy Booth, who has a dark background of his own.

Directed by Wolfgang Petersen, In The Line Of Fire is a well-paced cat and mouse game between two damaged opponents, with bursts of action matched by thoughtful interludes designed to flesh out Frank's past and present emotional condition. The film succeeds due to its significant investment in Frank as a flawed warrior, the last Secret Service agent from the day Kennedy was killed still on active duty.

Booth pushes Frank's buttons, and the film derives as much enjoyment from their psychologically riveting phone conversations as from their kinetic on-the-ground chase scenes. The phone calls are a chess game of taunt and counter-taunt, filled with clues, traps and cryptic signposts, the killer-to-be enjoying the game only so long as it is close. And when it's time to turn up the heat Peterson knows how to deliver breathless action, with one rooftop chase landing at an excellent climax, hunter and hunted in a most ironic clutch.

Once Booth's identity is revealed another layer of scar tissue is added, the boomerang of government actions coming home to roost. Although the killer is a chilling menace throughout thanks to John Malkovich's blood curdling performance and some terrific disguises, the Jeff Maguire script could have invested more time to delve into his damaged psyche. And the romance elements between Frank and Lilly are stuttering at best, the 24 year age difference between Eastwood and Russo not helping.

Eastwood is much better away from any notions of love. In The Line Of Fire allows him to do what he does best: spit bullets as the angry lone wolf working within the system, fighting to save the incompetents from themselves, able to match wits with a maniac because he is unafraid to unleash his own inner fiend.

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Sunday, 24 September 2017

Movie Review: Man In The Saddle (1951)

A sturdy western with appealing artistic touches, Man In The Saddle does not stray far from genre conventions but carries a stylistic kick.

Rich landowner Will Isham (Alexander Knox) is about to marry Laurie (Joan Leslie), the former sweetheart of the much more humble cattle rancher Owen Merritt (Randolph Scott), who is still very much in love with Laurie. Will is keen to extend his influence and eliminate all competition both real and perceived, by good means or foul. His band of enforcers is led by Texan Fay Dutcher (Richard Rober). Meanwhile, Hugh Clagg (John Russell), another of Will's men, is lusting after independent cattle woman Nan Melotte (Ellen Drew), but she only has eyes for Owen.

Will goes about buying out adjacent landowners, but when Owen refuses to sell, their conflict becomes violent with a series of back-and-forth raids, murders and reprisals, and Laurie has to decide whether she can stand by her new husband. When Owen is wounded and forced to flee to the hills, it is Nan who helps him out, which further inflames Hugh's rage.

Notably directed by Andre DeToth, Man In The Saddle features noir and suspense touches rarely seen in a western. Just when what seems to be a traditional saloon shootout scene is about to ignite, DeToth turns out all the lights, allowing the bullet flashes and little else to tell the story. Several other scenes feature backlighting, silhouettes and shadows, heightening the drama.

In the film's most famous scene, a prolonged fist fight between Owen Merritt and Hugh Clagg literally brings down the roof and extends for hundreds of yards down a snowy embankment. As the punches fly, DeToth finds the time to inject a classic suspense element featuring a shotgun trapped under fallen debris.

The plot is only slightly above average, but the two overlapping romantic triangles add a dash of originality. Laurie is unusually clear that her marriage to Will is all about convenience and loveless social climbing, leaving all the threads hanging with Owen. Meanwhile the down-to-earth Nan is exactly Owen's type of woman, if only he can peel his eyes off Laurie and rescue Nan from Hugh. DeToth doesn't allow the romances to bog down the film but they do provide a potent power source.

Also adding to the film's appeal is Will's soft spoken, clearly insecure but immensely powerful villain, a classic example of a man who undeservedly has everything but won't be satisfied until he pushes too far for his own good.

Elsewhere Man In The Saddle is a straightforward 87 minutes of stock acting and gunplay or fisticuffs at regular intervals. The second half runs out of new ideas and defaults to raid and counter raid, rinse and repeat to run down the clock, with several scenes of riders on the plains extending well past what is necessary to pad the already thin running time. But with DeToth at the helm, the Man In The Saddle is just that bit more intriguing that he needed to be.

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Saturday, 23 September 2017

Movie Review: When The Daltons Rode (1940)

A raucous western, When The Dalton Rode is historically suspect but packs action, stunts, extras, comedy and romance into a thrilling package.

On his way to Guthrie, lawyer Tod Jackson (Randolph Scott) stops in Coffeyville, Kansas and inquires about his childhood friends the Daltons. Soon he stumbles upon Bob Dalton (Broderick Crawford) who is the local Marshal, and his brothers Grat (Brian Donlevy), Ben (Stuart Erwin), and Emmett (Frank Albertson) and their Ma (Mary Gordon). Tod also meets and quickly falls in love with local girl Julie (Kay Francis), before finding out that she is Bob's girlfriend.

Along with family friend Ozark Jones (Andy Devine), the Daltons are pushed into taking the law into their own hand when the evil Kansas Land and Development Company threatens their property and Ben is accused of murdering a surveyor. With Bob as the gang leader the Daltons take to the hills and become notorious outlaws, robbing a succession of banks and trains in several states. Meanwhile Julie is left behind, very much in love with Tod but unable to give up on Bob.

Only loosely inspired by actual events, When The Dalton Rode joins the stream of movies from the era taking a sympathetic look at famous western outlaws. After a slow opening half an hour, director George Marshall kicks the action into gear and the remainder of the brisk 82 minutes of running time is genuinely impressive.

Once the Daltons turn into a gang, the action is unrelenting, and the set pieces are very well staged. When The Daltons Rode is particularly notable for the frequency and quality of stunts, including a perfect Yakima Canutt under-the-stagecoach special, several leaps from horses onto trains, with an exclamation mark featuring a succession of horses and riders galloping off a moving train.

Not satisfied by the breathless thrills, Marshall throws in plenty of humour, almost all of it courtesy of Andy Devine's Ozark character, who is incongruously a magnet for the ladies. The comedy always threaten to border on the ridiculous, but Marshall and Devine conspire to consistently land the jokes on the right side of funny and sometimes hilarious, a memorable pie-on-a-wagon moment taking home the cake.

Marshall also deploys throngs of extras in several teaming crowd scenes of prodigious power. An unruly courthouse melee and a mob near-lynching are executed with unusual raw intensity, cinematographer Hal Mohr allowing his cameras to get up close and personal with the carnage of angry men - and some women - pushing and shoving with intent.

All the focus on the wild antics of the Daltons does mean that the two notable stars take a back seat for most of the film. Tod Jackson and Julie are more framing devices than central characters, and here are used to ensure that empathy can be parked with two people who stand for good. The romantic chemistry evaporates early with a telling moment at the end of the film where an old codger mistakes Tod and Julie for brother and sister. Randolph Scott and Kay Francis grin and bear it, Scott never even wearing a gun and allowing himself to be frequently victimized. Broderick Crawford gradually takes over the film in an impressively aggressive performance as Bob Dalton.

When The Daltons Rode may be a sympathetic and fictional portrayal of murderous outlaw thugs, but it is nonetheless a rollicking good time.

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Movie Review: Albuquerque (1948)

A routine western, Albuquerque enjoys a couple of rousing moments but never rises above its humble ambitions.

A stagecoach on the way to Albuquerque is held up by a gang of thugs and passenger Celia Wallace (Catherine Craig) is robbed of $10,000. Fellow traveler Cole Armin (Randolph Scott) rescues young Myrtle Walton from inside the runaway wagon. Once in Albuquerque, Cole realizes that his uncle John Armin (George Cleveland), a ruthless and widely despised but wheelchair-bound freight line tycoon, runs the town and masterminded the holdup to try and shut down the rival business of Celia and her brother Ted (Russell Hayden).

Cole abandons his uncle and goes into business with the Wallaces, and with the help of grizzled wagon driver Juke (George "Gabby" Hayes) they start winning contracts to transport ore along dangerous mountain trails. John, his chief goon Steve Murkil (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and the corrupt Sheriff Ed Linton (Bernard Nedell) do all they can to sabotage their upstart rivals, including recruiting the beautiful Letty Tyler (Barbara Britton) as an undercover corporate spy.

Not exactly a B western but perhaps no more than a B+, Albuquerque suffers from a bland script, predictable characters, asinine plot developments and wooden acting from an underpowered cast. Most of the shootout scenes are poorly staged, and the dialogue is of the plastic variety.

On the positive side, director Ray Enright has an eye for the interesting perspective and often disarmingly finds clever angles. Enright also knows a highlight when he sees one, and delivers a solid sequence of suspense with an out-of-control ore-filled wagon pulled by 12 mules hurtling down a narrow mountain pass. The film was shot in Cinecolor, the poorer cousin of Technicolor, but Enright makes the most of the excessively vivid palette and does a decent job stitching together scenic location shots with in-studio close-ups.

But the good elements are undone by a mechanical plot filled with gaping holes, cheapish production values and the most basic good guy - bad guy characterizations. The opening stage coach robbery sequence sets the tone, a poorly edited mess in which the bandits seem to simply vaporize after a few shots are exchanged. Later Cole has the remarkable ability to never miss a shot while his opponents of course can never find the target. The cast surrounding Scott is talent-challenged, with Enright over-reliant on George "Gabby" Hayes' old codger schtick. However, George Cleveland in a wheelchair is an effective villain.

Albuquerque is passable for what it is, a below average western ticking off the most conventional boxes for an undemanding audience.

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Friday, 22 September 2017

Movie Review: Ride The High Country (1962)

A western exploring the changing times, Ride The High Country (also known as Guns In The Afternoon) gets bogged down in a tedious subplot and plods its way into blandness.

Former respected Marshall Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) has fallen on hard times. He arrives in the gold rush town of Hornitos, California, where he accepts an assignment from the local bank to provide security services on the dangerous trail to and from the Coarse Gold mining camp. Steve recruits his old friend Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) as backup. Gil himself is also past his glory days and along with his young sidekick Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) is now part of a cheesy traveling wild west show.

The trio head out to the gold camp, with Steve unaware that Gil and Heck have intentions to double cross him. Along the way they rest at the ranch of religious zealot Joshua Knudsen (R.G. Armstrong) and his daughter Elsa (Mariette Hartley). Heck is immediately attracted to Elsa, but she has already decided to marry Billy Hammond, who is working the gold mines. Elsa is desperate to escape her father and joins Steve, Gil and Heck as they journey to the mines. Once there, her husband-to-be Billy (James Drury) and his boorish brothers Elder (John Anderson), Sylvus (L. Q. Jones), Jimmy (John Davis Chandler) and Henry (Warren Oates) prove to be nothing but trouble, making Steve's security assignment much more complicated.

The second film directed by Sam Peckinpah and the final screen role of Randolph Scott's career, Ride The High Country contains some points of interest. Filmed in CinemaScope and featuring some stunning mountainous scenery bathed in rich colours, the film carries strong visual appeal. The story of two aging and imperfect veterans in the twilight of their life experiencing the dying days of the old west, the film contains many of the themes Peckinpah would return to in later efforts.

Ride The High Country is punctuated with reminders that the past was better, the glory days have been firmly left behind, and final acts should be invested to either polish a legacy or chase a final pay day. However, after a slow but steady start, that appealing narrative stumbles, and badly.

The intrusion of Heck, Elsa, Billy and his idiot band of brothers starts as an irritating distraction and is allowed to morph into the dominant story. Heck and Elsa have nowhere near the depth of Steve and Gil, and yet many precious scenes are burned on their non-romance and the rough treatment she receives at the hands of her father and then the Hammond clan. Steve's mission to protect the gold trail is forgotten, the simmering tension with Gil taking a firm back seat for long stretches, much to the film's detriment.

Peckinpah also falls into the trap of inserting unnecessary juvenile fistfights or face slaps at regular intervals, the film often descending into literal and only partially intended slapstick.

McCrea and Scott bring grizzled maturity to their roles, and are by far the best thing about Ride The High Country. Their journey to atonement would have been worthwhile, but this western drama rides the wrong horse.

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Monday, 18 September 2017

Movie Review: Whispering Smith (1948)

A thoughtful western tackling themes of friendship and lost love, Whispering Smith packs action, tension and drama in a zesty package.

Rail company detective Luke "Whispering" Smith (Alan Ladd) reconnects with his old friend Murray Sinclair (Robert Preston) while on a mission to track down the Barton Brothers gang. When he finally catches up with the bandits at a telegraph office, Smith is wounded but kills two of the three outlaw siblings. Smith recovers at Murray's house, reigniting his passion for his lost love Marian (Brenda Marshall), who is now Murray's wife.

Smith doggedly goes after Blake Barton, the sole surviving brother, and finds him hiding under the protection of influential landowner Barney Rebstock (Donald Crisp) and his gunslinger henchman Whitey Du Sang (Frank Faylen). Smith starts to suspect that his friend Murray, who runs the rail company's local wrecking crew, may be involved in sordid business with Rebstock. With his allies Bill Dansing (William Demarest) and George McCloud (John Eldredge), Smith starts investigating Murray and Rebstock, creating a deep rift in a lifelong friendship as well as romantic complications.

Based on the often-adapted novel by Frank H. Spearman, Whispering Smith is a superior western, buoyed by an almost perfect mix of action, character conflict, romance, secondary depth and high production values. Directed in rich Technicolor by Leslie Fenton, the film is a feast for the eyes. Paramount constructed a large western town complete with an active railway for Whispering Smith, and the set became a much-used stage for many later productions. Here Fenton creates a bustling environment nestled against mountains and lush nature, with several highlight scenes featuring 1870s-era trains up close and at their noisy best.

The heart of the film is a love triangle complicated by an established friendship and greed, and the complexities of the human relationships transcend what is expected in most westerns. Luke and Murray absolutely care for each other, but start to drift apart over Murray's less than honest dealings at the train wreck sites and his alliance with Rebstock. The resulting imbalance opens the door for Marian and Luke to start imagining a different future, but here again the character depth shines through: Luke cares about doing right by Murray just as much as he cares for Marian, meaning there are no easy decisions.

Alan Ladd, Robert Preston and Brenda Marshall bring the three central characters to vivid life. The acting is admirably stoic yet nuanced enough to carry the narrative weight. Ladd in particular portrays a range of emotions mostly through the intensity level of the fire in his eyes, while Preston is more emotive, capturing increasingly frantic attempts at self-delusion. In her penultimate screen role, Marshall shines as the dignified wife potentially losing a husband but regaining a true love.

A large part of the film's appeal resides in well-developed secondary characters adding plenty of texture. Donald Crisp has rarely been more intimidating as a land baron running his own black market. By his side is Frank Faylen, delivering a simply chilling performance as bloodless albino gunslinger Whitey Du Sang, his dead eyes always fixated on his next victim-to-be. William Demarest, Fay Holden and John Eldredge ensure that there is talent in every role that matters.

Fenton stumbles a bit in staging the action scenes, most of which appear hurried and awkwardly edited when it matters most. Otherwise Whispering Smith is a western that speaks softly but leaves an impressively loud impression.

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Sunday, 17 September 2017

Movie Review: Paper Bullets (1941)

A B-movie crime drama, Paper Bullets (also known as Gangs, Inc.) packs too many characters into too much plot and loses all focus.

Young Rita Adams is orphaned when her stool pigeon father is gunned down. She grows up at an orphanage, forming friendships with Mickey and Bob. Mickey (Jack La Rue) grows up to be an underworld nightclub manager, while Bob (John Archer) becomes an aeronautical engineer. The grown-up Rita (Joan Woodbury) and her roommate Donna (Linda Ware) scrape together a living, but Rita has to serve a stint in prison after she naively agrees to take a hit-and-run rap for her no-good boyfriend Harold, the son of powerful businessman Clarence DeWitt.

After Rita's release, Mickey gets his hands on evidence that DeWitt was involved in falsely incriminating her. Meanwhile the police force is under pressure to act against the underworld, and Jimmy Kelly (Alan Ladd) is recruited to infiltrate the criminal syndicate controlling the protection and gambling rackets. When DeWitt reveals his political ambitions, Rita makes her move to seek revenge, and audaciously teams up with crime bosses to get a cut of the criminal action.

Filled with sub-plots that go nowhere, characters that drop in and out of the story with dizzying speed, and some external car chase scenes too dark to be comprehensible, Paper Bullets lives well within its miniscule budget. Filmed in 6 days by director Phil Rosen and released by poverty-row studio Producers Releasing Corporation, the movie is mostly known as the debut production effort for the King Brothers (here still known as the Kozinskys), who went on to cobble together a string of low-budget but sometimes not-bad efforts through to the late 1960s.

Paper Bullets also features Alan Ladd in a relatively small but pivotal role, although the importance of his character depends on whether or not the convoluted plot makes sense to anyone. The film was later acquired by competing B-movie studio Eagle-Lion films and re-released as Gangs, Inc., with the now-famous Ladd ridiculously given top billing in the opening credits.

As for what made it onto the screen, there is plenty to try and follow. Rita's story heads in many different directions, and it is all crammed into a breathless staccato-style, hammer-down storytelling package. While the first half is engaging enough, with Joan Woodbury delivering a more than decent performance, once Rita's revenge narrative takes off the film starts to completely unravel. The numerous criminal types, the many enforcement folks, the parade of victims, hangers-on and romantic interests, and the wannabe politicos all converge into a mess of a story hurtling away from logic at breakneck speed.

Paper Bullets wraps up in a rough and tumble 72 minutes. While there is easily enough plot for another 30 minutes, sadly there wasn't the budget to go there.

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Saturday, 16 September 2017

Movie Review: Thunder In The East (1952)

A war drama and romance set in India, Thunder In The East aims for a Casablanca vibe but settles for methodically mixing the ingredients without any of the magic spices.

It's 1947, and India has just won independence from the British. Jaded American arms trader Steve Gibbs (Alan Ladd) lands his plane loaded with machine guns and ammunition in remote Ghandahar province, intending to sell the weapons to the local Maharaja. A local rebel group under the leadership of the elusive Newah Khan is threatening to seize power, but Prime Minister Singh (Charles Boyer) believes in Gandhi-like peaceful negotiations and blocks Gibbs' sale, instead impounding and storing the weapons.

The stymied Gibbs mingles with a group of foreigners caught up in the violence, and starts to fall in love with blind British woman Joan Willoughby (Deborah Kerr), the granddaughter of local priest Dr. Willoughby (Cecil Kellaway). Seductive French woman Lizette Damon (Corinne Calvet) throws herself at Gibbs to try and win a seat on his outbound plane. But with Khan's men making rapid progress and Singh refusing to authorize the use of heavy weaponry in defence of the government, options to evacuate the city starts to diminish, and Gibbs reveals his true colours.

Alan Ladd tries his best to channel his inner Humphrey Bogart, the character of Steve Gibbs intermittently aligning with Bogart's independent emotional mercenary persona. But the Thunder In The East script, based on the novel The Rage of the Vulture by Alan Moorehead, patently lacks the bright spark and sharp wit needed to ignite the drama and romance around its cynical anti-hero. The film settles into average territory and oscillates between an awkward love-hate relationship between Gibbs and Joan as the romantic anchor, while Singh's internal conflict as his abhorrence of violence confronts increasingly desperate surroundings represents the dramatic counterweight.

In support of Ladd, Deborah Kerr flirts with abject boredom as the too-pure Joan who may have enough angelic dust to save Gibbs' soul, but certainly doesn't offer anything else of interest. Charles Boyer just about overcomes the bizarre spectacle of a French actor playing an Indian Provincial Prime Minister.

Director Charles Vidor does a decent job of creating an exotic India location out of the Paramount Studios sound stages, although some of the backdrops are painfully clear paintings and rolling footage.Vidor conjures up a modest sense of overlapping sweaty crises and subplots, with relatively minor characters like Lizette, the retired General Harrison (John Williams) and Dr. Willoughby adding welcome depth in several sequences. The action-oriented scenes of siege, shoot-outs and explosions are mostly held in reserve until late in the proceedings, and then handled proficiently.

With the situation desperate, Thunder In The East finds a surprisingly potent emotional crescendo, but then lands a bewilderingly abrupt ending. Once the bullets start to fly with steely intent, there is apparently not much more to say.

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Movie Review: Saskatchewan (1954)

A fairly routine Western, Saskatchewan (also clumsily known as O'Rourke Of The Canadian Mounted) examines tensions with native tribes from the Canadian perspective.

The setting is Western Canada in the 1870s. Thomas O'Rourke (Alan Ladd) was orphaned as a child and raised by the peaceful Cree tribe. Now a member of the Mounted Police, he is a soul brother of Cajou (Jay Silverheels). Together they stumble across Grace Markey (Shelley Winters), the only survivor of an attack on a wagon convoy by the aggressive American Sioux tribe. Empowered by their recent stunning victory over General Custer, the Sioux are planning to expand their influence northwards.

O'Rourke clashes with his new stuffy commander Benton (Robert Douglas), whose hard-nosed approach to the Cree creates an opening for the Sioux to bait the Cree into a warmongering alliance. Meanwhile US Marshall Carl Smith (Hugh O'Brian) arrives to arrest Grace, who is accused of killing her lover, who happened to be Smith's brother. With help from good natured scout Batouche (J. Carrol Naish), O'Rourke has to figure out a way to avoid a bloodbath and broker peace when all around him are agitating for a fight.

Filmed in rich, gorgeous colour in Banff National Park, Alberta, and directed with galloping efficiency by Raoul Walsh, Saskatchewan is proficient and also rather uninspired. Unlike the scenery, the characters are for the most part monochromatic, and the stock dialogue is delivered in clipped, read-the-damned-lines mode.Shelley Winters serves up flagrant sex appeal in low cut tops, her sub-plot stuck in neutral as O'Rourke bashes Marshall Smith at regular intervals to demonstrate turf supremacy.

Walsh does better staging the larger action scenes, finding enough extras for impressive legions of Mounted Police in resplendent but not-safe-for-battle redcoats and native tribes to stalk each other and occasionally charge. Despite a couple of impressive explosions the bloodshed is kept to respectable levels, the film's premise hinging on highlighting the relatively better relationships built with the natives in Canada compared to the United States.

In addition to the various levels of enmity between the white man and the natives, there is also enough within the main plot to tease out rivalries between different tribes as well as tensions inside the RCMP as clueless by-the-book commanders ignore the wisdom of trail-smart troops. Walsh rides his story to a climax somewhere between rousing and clunky, but the real highlight comes earlier in a most Canadian wrinkle for a standard western: a canoe chase.

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Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Movie Review: The Bible: In The Beginning...(1966)

The Book of Genesis brought to life in an American-Italian co-production, The Bible: In The Beginning... is a ponderous adaptation of some of ancient history's most famous stories.

God creates Adam (Michael Parks) and then Eve (Ulla Bergryd) in the Garden of Eden. After they eat the forbidden fruit God condemns them to a life of toil. Their son Cain (Richard Harris) kills his brother Abel (Franco Nero). Generations later, God decides to reset humanity with a massive flood and asks Noah (John Huston) to build the Ark to help restart all forms of life. Hundreds of years later the Tower of Babel is built under the leadership of the overly-arrogant King Nimrod (Stephen Boyd); God punishes his conceit by giving each man a different language and scattering humanity.

Abraham (George C. Scott), a descendant of Noah, follows God's command and leads his followers towards a promised land. His wife Sarah (Ava Gardner) cannot conceive, but she offers her Egyptian handmaiden Hagar (Zoe Sallis) to Abraham and she provides him with a son Ishmail. In the meantime the Cities of Sodom and Gomorrah become havens of corruption. God sends his Angel (Peter O'Toole) to oversee their destruction, but Abraham's nephew Lot (Gabriele Ferzetti) is spared. Sarah finally does conceive the child Isaac, but the elderly Abraham still has to face God's most difficult test.

Produced by Dino De Laurentiis and directed by John Huston, The Bible: In The Beginning arrived at the tail end of Hollywood's obsession with religious historical epics, and captures all that was bad with the bloated genre. Overly serious, with plastic characters and a complete absence of nuance, the film is unequivocal, overly reverential and way too long. It's The Bible set to slow moving albeit sometimes pretty images, with every episode prolonged well past what is needed, inflating the running time to a tiresome 174 minutes.

In addition to directing, Huston narrates, provides the voice of God, and has fun in the role of Noah. And it is the Ark episode, while still overextended, that is peppiest. Huston's twinkle in the eye introduces an element of human levity sorely missing from the rest of the film.

The Adam and Eve and Abraham stories get the bulk of the rest of the film. The Creation is a narration-dominated 30 minute opening interlude awash in the hazy colours of an imagined Eden, kicking off the film on a dull note. Despite a dedicated George C. Scott performance channeling his inner Charlton Heston, Abraham's story is rather botched. The Christopher Fry script shortchanges the man and his mission and devolves into a sordid drama about who will provide him with an offspring and when. The rivalry between Sarah and Hagar sets the precedent for catty television soap operas just a few thousand years later.

Surrendering too easily to earnest intentions, The Bible: In The Beginning never finds the flint needed to spark inspiration and creativity.

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Sunday, 10 September 2017

Movie Review: Clouds Of Sils Maria (2014)

A life imitates art imitates life drama, Clouds Of Sils Maria offers layers of emotional discourse but remains narrowly constrained within a deeply personal story.

Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is a middle-aged Europe-based star actress going through an ugly divorce. With help from her ever-present assistant and friend Valentine (Kristen Stewart), Maria is on her way to Switzerland to accept an award on behalf of reclusive writer Wilhelm when the shocking news arrives that he has committed suicide.

Years earlier Maria had become a star playing an 18-year old provocative character called Sigrid who seduces middle aged mentor and businesswoman Helena in the Wilhelm-penned play Maloja Snake (a reference to stunning cloud formations through the Alp mountains). Now director Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger) wants Maria to take on the role of Helena in a reworking of the play, opposite brash up-and-coming American starlet Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz) as Sigrid.

Taking up residence Wilhelm's house in the magical settlement of Sils Maria deep in the Swiss Alps, Maria struggles to emotionally prepare for the role of Helena. Val helps her with line readings, but a rift starts to emerge between the two women, Val expressing admiration for Jo-Ann's in-your-face talent and lifestyle and Maria trying to adapt to being the older woman.

Directed and written by Olivier Assayas at Binoche's suggestion, Clouds Of Sils Maria contains parallels with Binoche's experiences at it exposes what goes on behind the curtains of a star performer's life. This is both the film's appeal and its limitation. For all its fly-on-the-wall, vulnerabilities-laid-bare credentials, for very long periods the script defaults to a two-person talkfest, Maria and Val engaged in cerebral conversations about the past and the present, revealing the plot of Maloja Snake through line readings as Maria struggles to face her present and future and let go of her ingenue past.

The rehearsal scenes intentionally meld the lines between Helena / Sigrid and Maria / Val, and it's often pleasantly unclear what is a play and what is real life. To the extent that these scenes work at all is testimony to two flowing performances from Binoche and Stewart, heartily recruited as volunteer comrades representing their age groups.

The broader applications of the dialogue to Maria's life, actresses' dimming wattage and appeal as middle age takes hold in a merciless industry, inter-generational divides and more broadly the rapidly changing role of women from young disruptors to mature victims of disruption are all compelling. But these are themes that reside between the lines of Clouds Of Sils Maria. The film is to be commended for triggering conversations; in itself, the viewing experience sometimes resembles watching paint dry.

Ethereal elements creep into the story's final act, Maria facing up to her prospects and letting go of the past, in some cases literally. Clouds Of Sils Maria sits heavy in the sky, a largely private battle between provocative and pretentious.

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Movie Review: Rock The Kasbah (2015)

A muddled drama comedy, Rock The Kasbah cannot decide what it is and defaults to a series of abandoned plot fragments.

Los Angeles-based washed-up talent producer Richie Lanz (Bill Murray) claims to have discovered Madonna, among many other wild tales. Now he is reduced to living in motel room, his only client the willing but hapless singer Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel), who also doubles as his assistant and suffers from unmanageable stagefright. Desperate and cashless Richie accepts an offer to take Ronnie on tour to war-torn Afghanistan, where the military money is flowing and US troops crave any entertainment.

Once there, Richie and Ronnie are immediately exposed to the horrors of war. He tangles with military contractor Bombay Brian (Bruce Willis), rogue gun runners and local tribesmen, and creates a business alliance with American prostitute Merci (Kate Hudson). Richie then stumbles on the magical voice of local woman Salima (Leem Lubany) and immediately recognizes a star-in-waiting, but Afghanistan's culture may not be ready for a female entertainer.

Directed by Barry Levinson and written by Mitch Glazer, Rock The Kasbah is loosely inspired by the true story of Setara Hussainzada, who appeared on Afghan Star, a local version of American Idol. The problem is that Salima is a non-entity in the film, appearing late and they barely featuring as a character other than as the stereotypical subjugated woman in a male-dominated culture.

On the way to Salima's story Rock The Kasbah ambles along rather aimlessly, pinballing from Richie's career decline, to Ronnie's never-gonna-make-it stage antics, to encounters with fast and loose gun runners, then the mandatory working girl Merci padding her retirement account by servicing the troops, and plenty of predictable interactions with tribesmen in the desert. None of these sub-plots go anywhere, and when Salima finally enters the story, her narrative is just as tired, predictable and unsatisfying.

There is an unseemly level of throw-everything-at-the-screen desperation to the script, peaking with Richie landing in the middle of an inter-tribal coup with a bewilderingly botched climax. Stymied in his search for any cohesion, Levinson rushes the ending and leaves all the threads loose, the film packing up and leaving all the characters wondering where to go next.

Bill Murray delivers his now overly familiar older-man-out-of-place schtick, enough to rustle up some laughs and hold the center of the movie together but here buffeted by an overabundance of cultural clichés. Rock The Kasbah rolls downhill on a wayward path to insignificance.

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Saturday, 9 September 2017

Movie Review: Dark Places (2015)

A crime thriller mystery melding the past with the present, Dark Places has a promising, brooding premise but flubs the resolution.

The film takes place in two timelines: 1985, when a notorious crime happened, and the present day. In 1985, eight year old Libby Day is the only survivor of a Kansas farmhouse massacre that kills her two sisters and her mother. Based on young Libby's confused and fractured testimony, her teenaged brother Ben, a heavy metal music fan who dabbled in Satanism, is convicted.

In 2015, Libby (Charlize Theron) has wasted her life doing nothing and living off the charity of others. Now nearly broke, she accepts an offer from amateur murder sleuth Lyle Wirth (Nicholas Hoult) to research the real story of what happened at the Kansas farmhouse. Libby visits Ben (Corey Stoll) in prison for the first time and starts to piece together the events preceding the murders.

Prior to the massacre Libby's mother Patty (Christina Hendricks), divorced from the sleazeball Runner (Sean Bridgers), was struggling to make ends meet, while Ben was spending time with his older girlfriend Diondra (Chloë Grace Moretz) and criminal hardhead Trey Teepano. Ben was also facing accusations of sexually abusing young girls, including Krissi Cates. The grown up Libby tries to track down Diondra, Krissi and Trey among others to finally understand what really happened and why.

Based on the book of the same name by Gillian Flynn (of Gone Girl fame), Dark Places builds up a satisfying head of steam as the past and present story of Libby Day is revealed. Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner actually plays in three time zones, adding in increments a jerky recreation of the night of the murders, mostly from the muddled perspective of young Libby, to the two main narratives.

And there are enough subtle riddles about the events of the night to create a rich atmosphere of evil, and open up possibilities for motives and villains. Many family members, friends, associates and hangers on had reasons to unleash violence on the fateful night. At the centre of the mayhem then and still suffering now, Libby has to decide how much she wants to care, and whether poking away at the scars of the past is worth the emotional pain.

But the narrative thrust starts to unravel the closer Paquet-Brenner gets to his conclusion, and in some ways the story picks the weakest path towards resolution. The ending is rushed and jumbled, and in many ways inconsistent with some of the more determined character traits that the film invests in.

The choice for the two lead actresses gets in the way. Charlize Theron and Christina Hendricks don't do anything wrong; they are simply too glamorous for their roles, and have to work back from the starting line to convince as rural, poor and borderline white trash folks. Theron spends the entire movie covering her hair and eyes under a baseball cap in an unsuccessful attempt to get into the skin of a woman with nothing going for her except an offer for a few paltry bucks from true-life murder nerds.

As for Lyle Wirth and his club of amateur crime solvers, they fade out of the story after contributing a base level of interesting irritation.

Dark Places launches into a captivating and twisty mystery, but flubs the landing.

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Friday, 8 September 2017

Movie Review: A Million Ways To Die In The West (2014)

A western comedy, A Million Ways To Die In The West contains plenty of rude and crude laughs, but remains confined to a few repetitive themes.

It's 1882 in the small town of Old Stump, Arizona. Albert Stark (Seth MacFarlane) is a peaceful and meek sheep farmer, constantly worried about the many ways people can die in the west. When he walks away from a gunfight, his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him and immediately starts a relationship with moustache grooming business owner Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). Albert's only friend is Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), who is deeply in love with the town whore Ruth (Sarah Silverman).

Heartbroken after the breakup with Louise, Albert find solace with the newly arrived and mysterious Anna (Charlize Theron), who teaches him to shoot but forgets to tell him that she is married to Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), the meanest outlaw and gunfighter in the territory. Despite his peaceful nature Albert finds himself bracing for showdowns with both Foy and Clinch.

There is undoubted fun to be had in A Million Ways To Die In The West. The humour is sharp, dark sometimes brutal and always vulgar, and more often than not generates the required laughter. MacFarlane co-wrote and directed the film, and does not try to move it too far away from a modern piece of satire that happens to be set in the west. The film plonks self-aware personalities into a western context, and derives most of its charm from the characters commenting on a ridiculous way of life.

But MacFarlane also traps himself into a limited number of themes, and tumble dries the jokes to a stiff standstill. Yes, there are many ways to die in the west, yes Albert is sheep farmer, yes women married young, and yes Foy is insufferably full of himself. The humour don't stray far from these topics, and MacFarlane cannot climb down from a juvenile rate of one bodily fluid joke per minute. The romance elements never come close to clicking, and the many gunfight showdown set pieces don't try even try to generate tension.

The actors go through the film with various shades of smiles. None take their roles seriously, and given a prevailing tone that stops just short of openly winking at the audience, that's just fine.

At almost two hours the film is about 20 minutes too long. There may be A Million Way To Die In The West, but the point is made well before the end credits.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Movie Review: Batman Begins (2005)

A superhero origins story, Batman Begins kicks off the trilogy with an engrossing and cerebral character-centred experience.

In Gotham City, a young Bruce Wayne has a traumatic encounter with bats, then witnesses his parents' murder during a mugging. Wracked by guilt, Wayne (Christian Bale) abandons his family's wealth and heads out into the world, living a life of squalor and crime. Dumped into a remote prison in Central Asia, he is rescued by Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), who oversees his combat training and inducts Wayne into the League of Shadows, an organization of elite warriors led by the mysterious Ra's al Ghul. Once Wayne learns the League's real agenda, he abandons them and returns to Gotham to fight crime on his own terms.

With help from long-time family butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), head of the Applied Science Division at Wayne Enterprises, Bruce gradually adopts the crime-fighting persona of Batman. He keeps his mission a secret from childhood friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), now an idealistic Assistant District Attorney. Wayne embarks on a quest to both reclaim control of Wayne Enterprises and rid Gotham of corruption, starting with violent crime lord Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson). He recruits honest police lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman) and uncovers a vast psychotic drugs conspiracy involving psychologist Dr. Crane (Cillian Murphy), a villain known only as Scarecrow, and an unexpected powerful mastermind.

A big screen reboot of the Batman mythology, Batman Begins is an exquisite effort from director and co-writer Christopher Nolan. Committed to a surprisingly bright palette and an emphasis on people rather than action, Nolan creates a seminal example of what a smart comic superhero adaptation can achieve. Batman Begins first and foremost engages the mind and forgoes cheap thrills, and the origins story goes a long way towards grounding the film in the person of Bruce Wayne rather than the antics of a man in a costume.

The 140 minutes are surprisingly brisk, and despite some jumping around in time Nolan tidily breaks down the narrative into three parts. The backstory is the longest and best, rich in the details of a young Bruce experiencing the trauma of being trapped in a well, triggering a close encounter with bats, with a direct line from that experience to the death of his beloved parents. His formative years are then scattered on a life in search of any meaning in the company of other lost souls, until the intervention of Ducard and subsequent training as an elite warrior.

The second act focuses on Wayne defining his mission in life, buttressed by Alfred and supplied by Lucius on his way to assembling the raw material for what makes a Batman. Both Alfred and Lucius carry echoes of the past with strong links to the legacy of Bruce's father, and a large part of Batman Begins' appeal resides in the continued multi-generational commitment to do right. The finale is what can be expected, the true villains making themselves known and triggering an opera of mayhem with Batman improvising on the fly to save his beloved Gotham.

On the way to the transition Nolan has plenty of fun providing backstories to everything from the Batcave to the Batmobile, with detours to explain the origins of the suit, the mask and the emergency light signal. This is a true beginnings story, and nothing is left undefined.

Christian Bale slips into the role comfortably, displaying enough emotional depth to play up the emphasis on the individual rather than the role. Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer (a slimy executive at Wayne Enterprises) and Cillian Murphy ensure that every key role is bolstered by a serious talent boost. Only Katie Holmes is overwhelmed, with a difficult, underwritten role and an unconvincing performance.

Batman Begins is a storytelling masterpiece, a fascinating crime fighter finally receiving his deserved high quality big screen production.

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