Sunday, 15 October 2017

Movie Review: The Finest Hours (2016)

A rescue-at-sea drama, The Finest Hours is serviceable but never rousing.

The year is 1952, the location coastal Massachusetts and the Chatham Coast Guard Station. Boatswain's Mate First Class Bernie Miller (Chris Pine) meets and falls in love with local girl Miriam (Holliday Grainger). When he dawdles to commit, she proposes marriage, but Bernie insists on following the tradition of requesting permission to get married from his stiff Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana).

But Cluff is preoccupied with a massive incoming storm, and two oil tankers break apart in rough seas on the same night. One of them is the SS Pendleton, where the reticent engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) has to rally the surviving crew to keep half the massive ship afloat. Using a small boat, Bernie is dispatched to the Pendleton's last known location on a dangerous rescue mission, joined by Coast Guard Seaman Richard Livesey (Ben Foster), Engineman Andrew Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner) and Navy Seaman Ervin Maske (John Magaro). Back on shore, Miriam frets about the fate of her husband-to-be.

The story of one of the Coast Guard's most famous rescues, The Finest Hours gets most of the technical details wrong, and is infused with a heavy dose of Disney's saccharine wholesomeness. The music crescendos to epic levels every five minutes, the dangers faced by Bernie and his crew are exaggerated to Greek mythology levels, the faces of Bernie and his love Miriam always glow in the incandescent light of love, and any hints of darkness, death, and guilt are pushed far to the edges, and often fully off-screen.

But after an ill-considered and really slow start that stumbles to connect Bernie with Miriam, director Craig Gillespie settles down to a respectable retelling of a harrowing rescue at sea, with Bernie's against-the-odds small-boat-in-a-big-storm journey intercut with Sybert rallying the Pendleton crew to improvise a pathway to survival. For once the CGI is extensive but also good; the images of a monstrous sea are impressive, whether threatening to swallow up Bernie's tiny motor lifeboat or mercilessly tossing half an oil tanker.

Less effective is Miriam's subplot back on shore. She runs around rather aimlessly and tangles with other locals who are suspicious about Bernie's competence due to a previous non-rescue that is only ever hinted at but never properly discussed, the script dangling a backstory and then timidly backing away from it.

Out on the seas Chris Pine and Casey Affleck are stoic without ever stretching, the enormity of events surrounding them enough to sustain the drama without the need for stellar performances.

The Finest Hours is a rescue adventure painted by numbers, produced with slick efficiency but tightly confined between dependable and predictable.

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Saturday, 14 October 2017

Movie Review: The Mountain Between Us (2017)

A survival adventure, The Mountain Between Us is a two-person character study that intermittently connects but also drags on for too long.

Photojournalist Alex Martin (Kate Winslet), traveling to her wedding, is stranded at an airport when her flight is cancelled due to an incoming storm. She spots fellow traveler, Dr. Ben Bass (Idris Elba)  on his way to perform a surgery and equally frustrated by the delays. Alex and Ben team up to charter a small plane from grizzled and dishevelled Vietnam War veteran Walter (Beau Bridges) and his dog.

Walter does not file a flight plan, and during the flight suffers a stroke. The plane crashes in the remote snow-covered mountains in a Utah wilderness area. Ben, Alex and the dog survive, although Alex suffers a broken leg. They shelter for days in the half-destroyed plane cabin against the bitter cold, but help does not arrive. With food running out, and against Ben's wishes, Alex insists that they need to leave the crash site and start descending the mountain to reach help.

Directed by Hany Abu-Assad as an adaptation of the Charles Martin novel, The Mountain Between Us is a chilling drama about surviving the elements and unanticipated closeness with a stranger. The hip-deep snow, unimaginable cold, blinding storms, injuries, wild animals and isolated mountains provide plenty of physical challenges for Ben and Alex to overcome. And Abu-Assad doesn't hide from some awkward details: how does a woman with a broken leg urinate in a cramped cabin with a strange man for company?

But of more interest is the connection that needs to be forged between two travelers with nothing in common, and indeed plenty of rub points. Alex is talkative, inquisitive and a risk-taker. With her chase-the-story instincts, she is unable to sit still and await rescue, despite a broken leg. Ben is quiet, reserved, cerebral and slow to share anything intimate about himself. Applying the methodical logic of a surgeon, he finds Alex's impulsiveness grating.

The fact that Alex instigated the ill-fated charter adds to the strain between them. The journey from frigid distance to the warmth of dependency underpins the film, and of course their contrasting character traits will need to merge in the name of survival.

Abu-Assad gets the most out of the story, but at 112 minutes, there is more film than plot. There are only so many arguments and encounters with near death that two people can carry, and by the time a bear trap snaps, an inevitable tired sense of "what else" creeps into the film. The denouement back in civilization also drags out longer than needed.

Kate Winslet and Idris Elba easily maintain watchability, the two stars enjoying several emotional highlights. Winslet gives Alex a stubborn vivaciousness, while Elba allows the cover of calm silence to regularly lift and reveal hidden pain and frustrations within. Beau Bridges as the pilot and Dermot Mulroney as Alex's husband-in-waiting get a few scenes, but the real co-star is the dog, who provides essential companionship without undue cutesiness.

The Mountain Between Us is worth traversing, but it is a bit of a trudge.

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Movie Review: Lone Survivor (2013)

A war endurance story, Lone Survivor is a harrowing recreation of a mission-gone-wrong in the mountains of Afghanistan.

The setting is June, 2005, in Afghanistan. Four Navy SEALs are deployed on a remote mountaintop near an isolated village on a reconnaissance mission to identify and track a Taliban leader. The team consists of sniper Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Lieutenant Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Communications Specialist Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and sniper Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster). Lieutenant Commander Erik S. Kristensen (Eric Bana) tracks their progress from a forward operations base, but communications are patchy due to the difficult terrain.

The mission is compromised when three local goat herders stumble onto the SEAL's observation point. Murphy and his men decide to retreat from the area, but local anti-American militias are alerted to their presence and the four men are caught in a vicious firefight, vastly outnumbered and cut off from any support.

Directed by Peter Berg and based on the book of the same name by Luttrell, Lone Survivor stays close to the facts and pays respectful attention to the events of the ill-fated Operation Red Wings. Similar in tone to Black Hawk Down, Lone Survivor looks for the acts of valour and unshakeable brotherhood emerging in the midst of a ruinous military misadventure.

Berg steers clear of any politicizing or examination of why the US troops are in Afghanistan in the first place. This is a story zoomed-in on four highly-trained warriors attempting to execute a mission, and forced to innovate their way out of trouble while under fire. The ordeal is agonizing, the casualties are high, and Berg's cameras do not flinch in the face of bullet strikes, physical and mental suffering, and death.

Berg's script relied on actual mission reports and autopsies to capture the details of individual wounds, and Lone Survivor is a testimony to the eternal horrors of war, up-close and personal. More than once the SEALs tumbled down steep rocky embankments to try and escape their pursuers, and the images of human bodies hurtling out of control and bouncing repeatedly off hard objects are painful to watch.

Once the combat starts at around the 45 minute mark, Lone Survivor unleashes and sustains unrelenting intensity, the bonding between the men rising as their casualties mount and the inevitable arrives. Berg achieves a memorable combat and heroism climax when Murphy, under intense fire, insists on reaching a rocky but exposed high point to try and establish communications and call for help.

Given the film's focus on just the four men, Lone Survivor could have invested more time in their backstories. Berg provides a few perfunctory and abstract references to wives and girlfriends, and leaves it at that. The film also unfortunately falls into the tired Hollywood trap of over-juicing the final drama, placing Luttrell in perils that he never actually faced, when his actual ordeal should have been sufficient.

But these are relatively minor quibbles. Lone Survivor is a superior and forceful war film, capturing soldiers at their best under the worst possible conditions.

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Thursday, 12 October 2017

Movie Review: Diamond Cartel (2017)

An action crime thriller and Peter O'Toole's final film, Diamond Cartel is notable for somehow collecting some famous actors who should know better and throwing them into a Grade Z Kazakh production.

The barely comprehensible plot involves two lovers caught up in a feud between numerous gangsters somewhere between Siberia and Kazakhstan. Gang boss Mussa (Armand Assante) attempts to negotiate a $30 million deal to purchase a massive diamond from a Mr. Liu. But the exchange, which includes a brief appearance by an undefined Mr. Mike (Michael Madsen), is violently disrupted by the crew of Mussa's disgruntled henchman (played by Nurlan Altaev).

The bloodbath triggers an unexpected reunion between Aliya (Karlygash Mukhamedzhanova) and her childhood friend and former lover (actor Aleksey Frandetti), a soft-spoken non-violent man. Aliya was forced into becoming an assassin by Mussa. Now in possession of both the diamond and the $30 million, Aliya and Frandetti traverse Kazakhstan from end to end, hotly pursued by a large group of heavily armed bad guys. At the end of the journey is none other than Peter O'Toole as a crusty boathouse keeper, waiting to deliver his final two minutes of screen time.

O'Toole passed away in 2013. His last role was in this film, initially called The Whole World At Our Feet and released in the local Kazakh market in 2015. Two years later the film was redubbed, re-edited and renamed as Diamond Cartel, and released more widely.

Directed by Salamat Mukhammed-Ali, Diamond Cartel is a throwback to low budget mindless 1980s action movies. Horrifically dubbed (even the English-speaking actors appear victimized) with stupefyingly plastic dialogue, and featuring acting talent that oscillates between non-existent to over-the-top, this is an impenetrable chase film, serving intermittently as a Kazakh tourist video and otherwise aiming for ultra violent set-pieces delivered with no wit and less context.

To be fair, as a viewing experience it's not a total loss. The production values are decent, director Mukhammed-Ali does demonstrate regular doses of in-your-face panache, and leading lady Mukhamedzhanova shows flashes of promise. The film is delivered with a vivid, almost over-exposed colour palette, and the combination of a stark aesthetic bolted onto a bizarrely disjointed plot manages to hold interest, if not always for the right reasons.

And then there is Armand Assante, the one recognizable import with substantive screen time. He spends the film establishing a new fashion trend of slick jackets with no shirt underneath, and bites into the Kazakh scenery with unrestrained venom.

A so-bad-it's-bad curiosity, Diamond Cartel has shiny star names but the glitter is all fake.

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Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Movie Review: Dead Man Down (2013)

A revenge crime thriller, Dead Man Down benefits from a focus on characters and a suitably grim mood.

In New York City, Victor (Colin Farrell) and his partner Darcy (Dominic Cooper) are violent gang members, part of the crew run by crime boss Alphonse (Terrence Howard). However, while pretending to be a loyal foot soldier, Victor is also on a secret and personal revenge mission, seeking retribution against Alphonse for the murder of his wife and child two years earlier.

Victor meets his neighbour Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), who lives with her mother (Isabelle Huppert). Beatrice was the victim of an accident caused by a drunk driver that left her with permanent facial scars. Having witnessed Victor commit a murder in his apartment, she demands that he kill the drunk driver, who got away with a light sentence. With Darcy investigating who is behind the threats against Alphonse, Victor has to quickly advance his complex retribution and satisfy Beatrice before his cover is blown.

Directed by Niels Arden Oplev, Dead Man Down is better than it needed to be. Oplev restricts the action set pieces to just a few punchy moments at the start, middle and end, and keeps them short if a bit muddled in execution. Plenty of room is therefore created for a complex double revenge plot to unfurl from the middle outwards, and the characters of Victor and Beatrice occupy centre stage.

The story of Victor plotting an elaborate payback contains a compelling backstory and a patient build-up, while Beatrice is an intriguing woman, scarred physically but more deeply damaged emotionally. The two combine to create an unusually provocative duo with overlapping objectives. When the inevitable relationship evolves between them, their rage is also cast in a new light.

None of which is to say that Dead Man Down doesn't contain glaring faults. Gangster stereotypes and narrative shortcuts litter the screen, plot holes waltz through the film, and New York City is somehow suddenly devoid of law enforcement. Early in the story a gangland massacre takes place, with an exchange of gunfire worthy of a war zone, and yet none of the perpetrators are ever remotely bothered by any sort of investigation.

Oplev skips past the shortcomings with an appealing dark aesthetic, many of the scenes taking place at dusk or later, with dark blues and artificial lighting complementing the underworld milieu. And the quality of the cast also helps to ride out the weaker moments. Colin Farrell's generally expressionless persona is well suited to the secretive and scheming Victor, while Noomi Rapace matches Farrell with her sense of determined despondency. Isabelle Huppert as Beatrice's mostly deaf mother adds depth to Beatrice's domesticity. Veterans Armand Assante and F. Murray Abraham have small supporting roles.

A reasonably potent mix of action and layered plot, Dead Man Down enjoys more ups than downs.

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Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Movie Review: A Star Is Born (1976)

A romantic drama musical, A Star Is Born is primarily a Barbra Streisand concert with a bit of plot thrown in around the sides.

Rock star John Norman Howard (Kris Kristofferson) is rapidly burning out, late to his own concerts, addicted to booze and too jaded to care any more. One night he stumbles into a bar where lounge singer Esther Hoffman (Streisand) is performing, and an attraction develops. He subsequently pushes her onto the stage during a show, where her unrehearsed performance draws raves.

John and Esther get married, her career takes off while his fades away. Their marriage suffers from ups and downs, but his impetuous behaviour isn't conducive to a long-term happy union.

The third screen treatment of the story after the 1937 and 1954 versions, the 1976 film is by far the weakest. Although the decision to relocate the story from the world of film studios to the anarchic rock arena is a good one, the pacing, character development, and relationship dynamics are all poorly handled.

Directed by Frank Pierson and co-produced by Streisand, A Star Is Born gets bogged down early and often in prolonged scenes featuring Streisand belting out a succession of songs, and neither the drama nor the romance are provided an opportunity to gain traction. The cinematography and editing lack dynamism, and the film is surprisingly energy deprived. The love theme Evergreen became an international hit, and the film's soundtrack album was a massive seller, but none of that makes for a good movie.

Despite the bloated 140 minutes of running time, the narrative is delivered in plot-challenged shorthand. The few exchanges of intelligible dialogue contain contrived and painfully bad lines that fuel often ridiculous emotional vacillations. The supporting cast is non-existent (Gary Busey and Paul Mazursky fade in and mostly out of the background), and Streisand the actress never comes close to convincing as an undiscovered talent.

A montage sequence features artistic scenes of passionate romance, and Kristofferson is often the best thing on view, delivering a sinewy performance propelled by copious amounts of booze and filled with implied self-hate. But his character doesn't get the opportunity to complete even one song. Instead the screen is filled with Streisand for long periods in a display of unchecked egotism. At the climax, she gets about 10 minutes of uninterrupted close-up time encompassing her final performance and the end credits.

A Star Is Born unabashedly celebrates Streisand as a star chanteuse, but as a movie experience, it offers big hair and precious little else.

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Monday, 9 October 2017

Movie Review: What's Up, Doc? (1972)

A modernized screwball comedy and romance, What's Up, Doc? features no plot to speak off but an excellent cast and plenty of loony situations.

Four similar plaid handbags converge at a San Francisco hotel. Dr. Howard Bannister (Ryan O'Neal) is an unassuming professor of musicology and his bag is filled with rocks. Bannister is attending a conference where he is nominated for a research prize, and is traveling with his domineering fiancée Eunice Burns (Madeline Kahn). Mr. Smith's bag hides top secret documents, and he is pursued by Mr. Jones. The third bag contains the jewelry of a hotel guest, and she is the target of theft. The fourth bag holds the personal items of Judy Maxwell (Barbra Streisand).

Highly educated but completely kooky, Judy sets her sights on Howard as a romantic conquest and elbows her way into his conference program, sidelining Eunice. Howard is befuddled by Judy's behaviour as he tries to make a good impression on award sponsor Frederick Larrabee (Austin Pendleton) and fend off the boorish other nominee Hugh Simon (Kenneth Mars). Meanwhile a series of hotel room break-ins result in all four bags falling into the wrong hands, and a madcap chase.

Co-written, directed and produced by Peter Bogdanovich, What's Up, Doc? does not even try to pretend that it is anything more than an adult playground for nutty comedy of the cartoonish kind. An homage of sorts to the screwball classics of the 1940s, Bogdanovich includes even less story and less romance than expected. What's Up, Doc? has the same depth as a Bugs Bunny short, but does feature an all-in cast and one terrific highlight.

The film demands the suspension of any attempt to follow an actual narrative. Bogdanovich burns many minutes with scene after scene of characters skulking in and out of hotel rooms, as the ubiquitous plaid handbags repeatedly change locations, hiding places and hands. None of the characters are defined beyond their presence at the hotel to engage in the prevailing shenanigans, with people like Mr. Smith, Mr. Jones and the jewel thieves receiving plenty of screen time but hardly any dialogue.

But the actors fully invest in the prevailing anarchy, turning the exercise into an amusing romp. Barbra Streisand is the engine that powers events well past normal, and she nails the combination of revved-up cool, Judy laser-focused on winning Howard's heart and seemingly unaware of the commotion in her wake. As the clueless midwest professor of obscure music theories, Ryan O'Neal finds a role that suits his rather blank persona, and he provides the empty canvas for Judy to paint on. And in her full-length big screen debut, Madeline Kahn is suitably irritating as Howard's too-desperate wannabe wife.

The film's climax is a prolonged chase through the streets of San Francisco that reaches hysterical levels of madness. Bogdanovich constructs a finely crafted sequence involving a delivery bike, multiple vehicles and a Chinese dragon racing up and down the city's ridiculously steep streets, with a highlight featuring one tall ladder, two workmen and a large pane of glass.

What's Up, Doc? may lack substance, but it doubles down on pandemonium.

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Sunday, 8 October 2017

Movie Review: Victor/Victoria (1982)

A gender-bending comedy romance with some music, Victor/Victoria finds laughs by poking sharp fun at traditional masculine and feminine roles.

Paris, 1934. Victoria Grant (Julie Andrews) is an unemployed and starving classically trained soprano singer in a city looking for edgier and more decadent entertainment. An accidental meeting with recently-fired and openly gay nightclub host Carroll "Toddy" Todd (Robert Preston) results in a brainstorm: Victoria will pretend to be the exotic Polish Count Victor Grazinski, an expert female impersonator and cross-dresser performing as the sultry Victoria. The ruse works and soon Victoria is the toast of the town.

American nightclub owner and businessman King Marchand (James Garner) is visiting Paris with his girlfriend Norma (Lesley Ann Warren). King has gangland contacts and so travels with bodyguard "Squash" Bernstein (Alex Karras). King catches the glitzy show featuring Victoria and is hopelessly infatuated, and just as stunned when she is revealed to be Count Victor. King refuses to fully believe that Victoria is a man, and sets out to find out the truth, unleashing a knock-on series of sexually confused events.

Written and directed by Blake Edwards and featuring one of his wife Julie Andrews' finest roles, Victor/Victoria celebrates love across gender divides. With a lovingly recreated Gay Paree between the two wars providing the perfect backdrop, the film dives headfirst into murky waters where inner souls attract and traditional gender roles are hopelessly muddled.

The premise of a woman pretending to be a man who impersonates women in order to launch a successful cabaret act tests the limits of what a movie can explain. Edwards just about gets away with it, although Andrews passing herself off as a man rarely carries conviction. But beyond the labels, this is a story of connections and friendships, and Edwards' message is one of love. The heterosexual Victoria and homosexual Toddy form a strong bond based on a business partnership, the very hetero King jettisons the over-sexed Norma and is hopelessly attracted to Victor whether or not she is Victoria. Before all emotions are sorted, even the bodyguard Squash will get in on the act.

Surrounding the central theme is some cheap Clouseauesque comedy, and Edwards is unable to exercise the necessary restraint to trim the fat, especially in the second half as the film extends to a flabby 132 minutes. The few musical routines are serviceable but also repetitive and far from memorable.

Julie Andrews helps the movie through the rough patches and is laser focussed on keeping Victoria a rational character through the comic sexual mayhem. Robert Preston gets the showiest role, and revels in the freedom of portraying a man who could care less about what others think. Lesley Ann Warren is also humorously flamboyant, but disappears from the film for a long stretch.

Victor/Victoria is a fun frolic through the weird world of human magnetism. Whether you come as you are or as you want to pretend to be, Cupid's arrow is pointy.

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Movie Review: Battle Of The Sexes (2017)

A biography of tennis legend Billie Jean King around the time of her famous showdown with Bobby Riggs, Battle Of The Sexes reveals the tumult behind the headlines but doesn't quite achieve the intended emotional heights.

It's 1973, and 29 year old Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is on top of the tennis world. When tournament organizer Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) refuses to close the gender pay gap, King leads a renegade group of players in the establishment of the Women's Tennis Association, with her friend Gladys (Sarah Silverman) as manager. Although married to Larry (Austin Stowell), King meets and starts a secret lesbian affair with hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough).

Meanwhile, former tennis champ Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is now 55 years old, a compulsive (but successful) gambler much to the disdain of his wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue). He is also a self-professed male chauvinist pig. Sensing an opportunity to make money and reclaim the spotlight, Riggs tries to goad King into a publicity-grabbing "battle of the sexes" televized tennis match. She refuses, but Riggs does find an opponent in Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee). The outcome of that game forces King into accepting Riggs' challenge, although her private life is in turmoil.

Directed by the duo of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Battle Of The Sexes takes on plenty of weighty topics. The early 1970s witnessed the confluence of turbulent currents that had been building up over a decade, and finally feminism, sexuality, money, broadcasting and politics started to fully come together.

The specific tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King was just that: a one-off, made-for-television stunt event, but it also carried the winds of change: if the reigning queen of women's tennis, carrying the torch of pay equity, could not defeat a loudmouth overweight over-the-hill sexist man in his mid-50s, the cultural setbacks would have propagated far from the tennis court.

Dayton and Faris, working from a script by Simon Beaufoy, are workmanlike in capturing the events of the times, but the central character's spirit eludes them. The film largely focuses on King as she helps form the WTA, meets Marilyn and awakens to her sexuality. Despite a focused Emma Stone performance, King's energy and societal drivers are notably missing. The film meets her at the peak, a woman demanding change while grappling with fundamental personal changes. How and why King got here are absent, an unfortunate gap in a biographical film.

Riggs is very much a supporting character, a caricature battling his middle-age demons and refusing to grow up because his wealth means he does not have to. The rest of the characters are fleeting. Marilyn remains an ethereal partner, more a muse than a person. Riggs' wife Priscilla and WTA organizer Gladys drop in and mostly out of the story.

The match itself forms the climax of the film, and is well presented as an inflated media circus, King cutting a lonely figure as she singularly enters a noisy arena in a world tilted against women's equality. Her on-the-court public showdown contrasts well with her private life, King compelled to keep her relationship with Marilyn a secret despite the whispers, the battle to come for gay rights already visible, but for now still ahead.

Battle Of The Sexes is a good serve, but misses the ace.

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Saturday, 7 October 2017

Movie Review: 10 (1979)

A sex comedy about the mess men can create at the midpoint of their life, 10 achieves laughs but also dawdles for too long in obvious territory.

Beverly Hills-based music composer George Webber (Dudley Moore) arrives at a full-fledged mid-life crisis after his 42nd birthday. Neither his lover Samantha Taylor (Julie Andrews) nor his friend and co-composer Hugh (Robert Webber) can help. Things get worse when George stumbles onto the wedding of Jenny (Bo Derek), and is immediately infatuated with the stunning young bride, whom he rates as an 11 on a scale of 1 to 10.

George starts to drink excessively, abandons Samantha and follows Jenny to a Mexico honeymoon resort, where he befriends Don (Brian Dennehy) the bartender. George stalks Jenny on the beach, fantasizing about an unlikely romance and trying to work up the courage to conjure up a meeting. Meanwhile, Mary Lewis (Dee Wallace) is a lonely woman at the same resort, and she sets her sights on George.

Cast as the almost mythical subject of a middle-aged man's lust, 10 catapulted Bo Derek from obscurity to superstardom. Her braided cornrow hairstyle and skin-coloured one-piece swimsuit became instantly recognizable and much-copied, and she was immediately appointed as the newest Hollywood sex symbol.

With Derek dominating the headlines, the film itself is almost, but not quite, irrelevant. Director Blake Edwards does not help his own cause by flubbing the pacing, somehow contriving to extend the flimsy story to over two hours.

Almost every scene and idea is tediously stretched beyond what is necessary, the initial laugh always drowned in a chorus of prolongation. George walking across the hot sand is funny; but not after the first 30 seconds. George tumbling down an embankment and attempting to climb back up is maybe funny; but not after many minutes of panting and gasping. George and Samantha missing each other's phone calls is amusing the first couple of times; by the fifth round, the joke is truly spent.

And Dudley Moore is afforded far too much drinking time, with scene after scene of George chugging back the alcohol and stumbling around in a drunken stupor in a desperate attempt to reverse his age.

She may not know the first thing about acting, but here the better moments almost always feature Derek, whether running on the beach in slow motion or matter-of-factly exposing George to the generational gap that he will never be able to traverse. Edwards fully commits to the world of adults with plenty of nudity, and the bedroom scenes, once they arrive, carry the requisite awkward edge. Ravel's Bolero (Jenny's favourite lovemaking soundtrack) enjoyed a massive worldwide revival.

The rest of the cast members are capable but hampered by the excessive focus on George. Julie Andrews as Samantha is the grounding mechanism that George refuses to hold onto, but she disappears for long stretches from the second half. Brian Dennehy and Robert Webber provide robust support but both deserved more screentime, as did Dee Wallace.

The theme of middle-aged angst is run thoroughly through the wash-dry cycle, but Edwards appears oblivious to George's life of immense privilege. His emotional troubles are the embodiment of the ultra rich and comfortable finding something - anything - to whine about between trips in the Rolls-Royce.

10 enjoys its moments at the expense of the wayward male mind, but while Bo Derek may have briefly been the world's 11, the film scores a more mundane 6.

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Friday, 6 October 2017

Movie Review: Move Over, Darling (1963)

A lame bedroom comedy, Move Over, Darling over-stretches a flimsy premise to excruciating extremes.

In the courtroom of eccentric Judge Bryson (Edgar Buchanan), lawyer Nick Arden (James Garner) applies to have his wife Ellen declared dead. She has been missing for five years after her flight ditched in the Pacific Ocean. Bryson agrees, and Nick immediately marries his new sweetheart Bianca (Polly Bergen).

As soon as Nick and Bianca set out on their honeymoon, Ellen (Doris Day) reappears, having been rescued off an island by the Navy. She reconnects with her two daughters and her mother-in-law Grace (Thelma Ritter), and chases after Nick and Bianca at their Monterey Hotel. Nick is shocked but also happy to see his wife again, but is also very reluctant to break the news to his new bride Bianca.

Directed by Michael Gordon, Move Over, Darling is the salvaged remains of Something's Got To Give, after that troubled production was abandoned following Marilyn Monroe's death. Day eventually replaced Monroe, Garner stepped in when Dean Martin wisely stepped aside, and Gordon took over the reins from George Cukor. None of them need to have bothered. Move Over, Darling is bereft of laughs, strains to no avail, and chews away at a single idea long after all the juice is gone.

The film's central conflict can be resolved within minutes of Ellen's unexpected reappearance, but Nick artificially and repeatedly contrives to avoid facing his new facts, and the comedy wilts and dies along with his dithering. No amount of overacting, arm waving or running around can obscure the fact that these are supposedly smart characters acting in an incredibly stupid manner for the sole purpose of prolonging a movie.

Once the one-man-with-two-wives joke is beaten to death, the film introduces a second, even flabbier source of jealousy between Nick and Ellen, this time involving her behaviour while marooned on the island for five years. Again Ellen could resolve her predicament in seconds, but instead this revelation is an excuse for the likes of Don Knotts and Chuck Connors to make appearances in a further series of scenes choking on protracted misunderstandings.

Move Over, Darling is comedy at its worst, flat humour as a toxic byproduct of imbecilic behaviour.

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Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Movie Review: The Illusionist (2006)

A drama and romance set in the world of royalty, illusions and magic, The Illusionist looks grand but cannot conceal essential plot weaknesses.

The setting is Austria, late in the 19th century. As young adults Eduard and Sophie fell in love but were forcibly separated because he was the son of a lowly cabinet maker and she was from an upper class family. He grew up to be an illusionist using the name Eisenheim (Edward Norton) with a celebrated magic show in Vienna. One night Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) attends the performance along with his fiancée, the grown-up Sophie (Jessica Biel). Also in attendance is Leopold's faithful Chief Inspector Walter Uhl (Paul Giamatti).

The chance reunion reignites the passion between Eduard and Sophie, but Leopold is possessive and will not tolerate Sophie leaving him. Meanwhile Walter perceives Eisenheim as a threat to the Crown Prince's prospects, and starts a campaign of intimidation to run Eduard out of town. Eisenheim will have to decide if he has what it takes to tangle with the might of the royal family and fight for his love.

Written and directed by Neil Burger, The Illusionist offers a visually rich aesthetic featuring staid late 19th century Vienna surroundings, with frequent outdoor sojourns to breathe the distinguished  air of a handsomely recreated stately European city. The visual splendor is accompanied by an opulent Phillip Glass music score. Paul Giamatti is another plus, his shifty performance as a Chief Inspector who is also the son of a butcher filled with one-foot-in-each-camp nuance.

But much like a magic show with more sizzle than skill, there is limited substance beneath the magnanimous hand movements. Fundamentally the premise of The Illusionist is deeply troubling, Eisenheim's actions ending at a place where the line between aggressor and victim is severely blurred, with Burger appearing oblivious to the substantial betrayal of sympathy.

Worse still is an attempt at a plot twist that is exceptionally obvious. Kicking off about halfway through the 110 minutes of running time, Eisenheim unfurls a deception that is supposed to encompass the film's audience, but is telegraphed in capital letters. Rather than build towards a surprise, the second half of the film becomes a boring countdown until the glaring trap snaps around Uhl and Leopard.

In the meantime, Eisenheim sits on the stage creating incredible magic of the bring-back-the-dead variety, with no explanation given because all his tricks are CGI-created, and CGI would have been difficult to describe in a 19th century Vienna context. A dour Edward Norton performance does not help.

The Illusionist attempts to conceal suspect substance with stylish subterfuge, but stumbles off the stage.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Movie Review: Next (2007)

A science fiction action thriller, Next offers what could have been an intriguing proposition and proceeds to pulverize it into a predictable pisspot.

Cris Johnson (Nicolas Cage) is a second-rate Vegas magician performing under the name Frank Cadillac. Cris does have a clairvoyant gift that he prefers to keep secret: he can see two minutes into his own future. After tangling with the security apparatus of a Vegas casino, Cris is approached by FBI Special Agent Callie Ferris (Julianne Moore), who wants to ask for his help to find a stolen Russian nuclear device that has been smuggled into the US.

Cris refuses and goes on the run, but pauses to meet and team up with Liz Cooper (Jessica Biel), a woman he has seen in his visions and who allows him to see further than two minutes into the future. Together they make their way to Flagstaff, with the FBI and the terrorists in hot pursuit.

Directed by Lee Tamahori as an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story, Next tries hard to be a straight-to-DVD bargain bin release, but is unfortunately prevented from finding its true destiny by too many stars in the cast looking for a quick payday. A reasonably glossy production cannot patch up a stinker of a plot that starts with a single idea and quickly disintegrates into a mundane thriller consisting entirely of people chasing people for about 96 minutes.

Next is most memorable for an atrocious ending, which will not be spoiled here, although it deserves to be. What the ending does achieve is almost conceal how horrible the rest of the film is. Next has generic terrorists who never get to explain their plot or their cause; the baddies are just convenient and interchangeable Europeans who want to detonate a nuclear device. Move along, no other explanation is necessary.

And the screenplay does not even attempt to reveal what else anyone is doing to prevent the attack. Agent Ferris provides regular reminders that about 8 million people are about to die, and yet the considerable resources of the FBI appear to be deployed for the single purpose of capturing a two-bit Las Vegas magician. To add further insults to any remaining intelligence, the terrorists decide that chasing and killing Cris Johnson is also worth risking their time and resources. What better way to proceed with a carefully planned terrorist attack than to intentionally be as close as possible to hordes of FBI agents.

Finally, the science fiction elements are made up and revised on the fly. This is a film that establishes a two minute rule about how far Cris can see into his future, a limit that is meticulously repeated by various characters for the benefit of slower audience members. Regardless, Next promptly breaks the premise without explanation upon introducing the Liz Cooper character. By the disastrous end of the film all bets are off and none of the rules seem to matter, Cris now capable of being in multiple places at one time.

Nicolas Cage goes through the motions, Julianne Moore carries an annoyed attitude throughout, and Jessica Biel never appears sure as to what her character is doing in the movie, a question that also stumped the filmmakers. Peter Falk pops up in one scene and cashes out. Next indeed, and quickly.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Fantastic Four (2005)

A lame superhero movie, Fantastic Four suffers from a cheap look and feel, stiff dialogue, uninspired casting and a profound lack of style.

Scientist Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and his lifelong friend Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) secure funding from narcissistic tycoon Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) to conduct an experiment near explosive cosmic clouds in space. Victor is dating his employee Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), a genetics researcher and Reed's former sweetheart. Along with Sue's daredevil brother Johnny, they all travel to Victor's space station. Something goes terribly wrong and they are all subjected to intense radiation. Victor's business empire is ruined by the debacle.

Back on Earth, the side effects of the radiation exposure becomes apparent. Reed's body gains incredible elasticity, Sue can bend light and appear invisible, while Johnny can set himself on fire and fly at supersonic speeds. Ben is permanently damaged, gaining superhuman strength but a monstrous appearance with a hard outer shell. Meanwhile Victor's body starts a slower transition to an alloy-like structure with enormous powers. Reed tentatively reignites his romance with Sue and attempts to invent a machine to reverse the DNA transformation, while Victor unleashes an evil plan.

It took about twenty years to bring Marvel's Fantastic Four to the big screen, and the film feels about twenty years out of date. Directed by Tim Story with a distinct absence of panache, this is a flat exercise in painting superheroes by numbers. The production sometimes slips into television-level territory, with cheesy special effects, sets that would have looked modern in the 1980s, and dull, static execution with bursts of over-the-top CGI.

The story is insipid, the science barely explained, and after the super powers are introduced, the film needs to kill about 60 minutes of not much happening before lumbering to a yawn-inducing let's- stand-in-a-circle climax.

Saving the exercise from a total loss are Jessica Alba, Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis giving their all to serve an undeserving cause. Alba and Evans as the sister and brother pair of Sue and Johnny Storm are the only source of energy and provide some wit and edge. Chiklis manages to convey a modicum of emotion from behind the The Thing's rhinoceros facade, and is the one character given a bit of a moral challenge by a script that otherwise seems more machine manufactured than human written.

Fantastic Four is a fumble, and far from fantastic.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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