Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Movie Review: Runner Runner (2013)

A drama thriller set in the world of gambling, Runner Runner deals a potentially intriguing hand but folds early.

Richie Furst (geddit? played by Justin Timberlake) is a financially struggling mature student at Princeton. Richie was on the fast track to Wall Street wealth when the 2008 financial crisis destroyed his prospects. Now he makes money on the side by channeling fellow Princeton students to online gambling sites. Threatened with expulsion, Richie tries to win his entire tuition playing online poker on the Midnight Black site. He loses everything, but not before spotting signs of a sophisticated cheating scam.

Richie travels to Costa Rica and confronts Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), the charismatic head of the Midnight Black online gambling empire, with proof of the scam. Impressed, Ivan offers Richie a job, and the money starts pouring in. Richie meets and starts a relationship with Rebecca (Gemma Arterton), one of Ivan's associates, but also starts to get exposure to the dark underbelly of Ivan's business, including massive extortion of local Costa Rican officials and dodging threats from FBI Agent Shavers (Anthony Mackie).

Directed by Brad Furman, Runner Runner has the kernels of a good story, even carrying echoes of no less a classic than Gilda. The film looks slick, capturing the vivid decadence of life with the super rich operating marginally legal but massively profitable gambling businesses from off shore havens. Furman mixes glitz and glamour with earthy Costa Rican surroundings, and Runner Runner is nothing if not a colourful and visually immersive experience.

Furman also deserves credit for avoiding the temptation to suddenly turn Furst into any kind of action hero. Runner Runner remains reasonably grounded in reality, and the thriller elements are drawn from a battle of wits and influence, rather than the more typical surge into cheap action.

But little else works. Timberlake offers bored and unnecessary narration, and the story only starts off with promise. It is quickly apparent that little will actually be explained, and so the nature of Furst's job with Block is incoherent, the relationship between Rebecca and Ivan is barely sketched in, and Richie has a couple of buddies who seem to be essential to the story but hardly register. Richie's father (John Heard) pokes his head into the margins of the story, seemingly from a whole other movie.

The deeper the film gets into the sub-plot of grafting local politicos, FBI Agent Shavers' hissing agenda, and the inner workings of Ivan's business and his grand plan, the less useful information is provided. By the time the third act arrives and true colours start to be revealed, it's impossible to care about any of the characters.

The performances are predictably stoic. Timberlake maintains the same tone throughout, Affleck mails in an easy turn as the slick mover and shaker, and Arterton is never quite sure what her role in the movie really is.

Runner Runner starts with a decent sprint but quickly runs out of steam.

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Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Movie Review: Less Than Zero (1987)

A coming-of-age drugs-and-sex morality tales, Less Than Zero oozes style but reeks of plastic music-video superficiality.

Classmates Clay (Andrew McCarthy), his girlfriend Blair (Jami Gertz) and Julian (Robert Downey Jr.) were best friends from wealthy families at their Los Angeles high school. After graduation Clay heads out to college, Blair stays in LA to pursue a modeling career and Julian dreams of successful business investment ventures using his father's money. At Thanksgiving Clay discovers that Blair and Julian are sleeping together, and at Christmas he returns home for another visit at Blair's request.

Clay finds Julian broke, addicted and descending into a spiral of hard drugs supplied by slick dealer Rip (James Spader). Julian is still charismatic and dreaming of his next big venture, but running on empty, and owing Rip a lot of money. Clay reconnects with Blair and they rekindle their relationship as they try to help Julian break out of his destructive cycle.

A loose adaptation of  Bret Easton Ellis' celebrated book about life among LA's decadent teens, Less Than Zero is loud but exceedingly tedious. Self-consciously directed by Marek Kanievska, the film looks sumptuous, with every frame an attempted work of art, Kanievska particularly fond of symmetrical framing and glitzy hyperactive lights puncturing the LA nights. The music, for better or for worse, is the other notable achievement, Less Than Zero featuring a nonstop soundtrack of what passed for cool rock and party tunes in the mid to late 1980s.

Otherwise this is a story about teenagers attending parties and dabbling in unconstrained sex, drugs and rock'n'roll dreams, but unfortunately the film drops to the vacuous level of its protagonists. Clay and Blair attend party after party, usually looking for Julian as he struggles through his latest drug-induced haze, only to restart the same cycle the next day. Kanievska may have intended the endless succession of parties with throbbing music and stroboscopic lights to meld into one long 98 minutes as a metaphor for lives being wasted on indistinguishable highs, but as a viewing experience, the film dances up a sweat in one place and gets nowhere fast.

Apart from the insatiable appetite for all-night parties featuring flickering mountains of monitors as the decor object of choice, the film struggles to reconcile the main character interactions with their age. Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz, Robert Downey Jr. and James Spader represent core and loose affiliates of the Brat Pack, and here they fail to convince as 19 year olds six months out of high school. The actors range in age from 22 (Gertz) to 27 (Spader), and the dialogue, courtesy of a Harley Peyton script, suggests thirtysomethings rather than spoiled teenagers. McCarthy comes off worst in his perpetual dreamlike state. Downey Jr. and Spader are suitably intense and slimy respectively, while Gertz is adequate.

With plenty of throbbing ostentation, Less Than Zero is not wholly negative, but it is less than meets the eye.

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Monday, 27 November 2017

Movie Review: I Ought To Be In Pictures (1982)

A comedy-drama stage adaptation, I Ought To Be In Pictures tackles father-daughter issues and comes up empty.

19 year old Libby Tucker (Dinah Manoff) travels from New York to Los Angeles to reconnect with her father Herbert (Walter Matthau), a writer who abandoned the family when Libby was three. Libby dreams of a career in acting and imagines Herbert to be a powerful Hollywood big shot, but instead finds him to be a washed-up gambling addict, unemployed and suffering from writer's block. His girlfriend is movie studio hairdresser Steffy (Ann-Margaret), who tolerates Walter but is growing weary of his lack of ambition.

Libby and Walter immediately clash, as he finds it difficult to connect with his headstrong and talkative daughter and she is unable to forgive his past sins. But gradually they warm up to each other, she moves into his apartment, and they construct a functional relationship. But Libby will not find it easy to carve out a new life.

An adaptation of the Neil Simon play directed by Herbert Ross, I Ought To Be In Pictures is smothered by over-embroidered prose dancing between cringe-worthy, needlessly profound and just plain embarrassing. Ross also directed the Broadway show and does not try too hard to transform it into a film experience. As is often the case, what works well on the stage appears ridiculously ceremonial on the screen, and the phrases coming out of the mouth of Libby and Herbert rarely carry a genuine warmth.

The movie is very much a two character study, and scene after scene feature Libby and Herbert carrying on long conversations, typically at his apartment. Ross throws in perfunctory excursions to the baseball park and the racetrack in half-hearted attempts to ventilate the claustrophobic setting. The topics of conversation range from her improbable career aspirations to his unforgivable abandonment of the family, and finally no less than the most awkward father-daughter non-talk about the emotions of sexual experiences. Simon's writing is undoubtedly clever, but when every other line has to be a zinger, the unrealistic quantity competes unfavourably with quality.

Dinah Manoff was the one stage performer allowed to recreate her character for the film, and she receives no help from Ross in modulating. The character of Libby is borderline irritating at the best of times as the talk-non-stop Quixotic daughter on a quest to conquer her father and the acting world, and Manoff's shout-it-to-the-rafters delivery does not help. Matthau is much better, and carries the film as the stooped writer long past caring in a town run by younger men. Ann-Margret is fine in a supporting role, although she is never able to properly explain why the seemingly smart Steffy is hanging out with an indebted has-been like Herbert.

Despite the many weaknesses the film does find a few highlights, and most of these arrive in the final act. Once father and daughter make the adjustments to accommodate each other, Ross finally finds a few poignant scenes. The shouting and recriminations are replaced by hushed, tender, and cinematic conversations, and finally emotions seep through. It's all too little and too late, the film having been well and truly pulverized by all the theatrical antics.

Despite the title, I Ought To Be In Pictures ought to stay on the stage.

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Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Movie Review: Reap The Wild Wind (1942)

A colourful maritime epic, Reap The Wild Wind has a bit of everything but not much of anything.

It's the 1840s, and Key West, Florida is a key marine gateway to the United States. Vessels frequently wreck in the rough seas, and salvage operators rush to rescue sailors and retrieve cargo. Rough and ready Loxie Claiborne (Paulette Goddard) runs a legitimate salvage company, while her rivals King Cutler (Raymond Massey) and his brother Dan (Robert Preston) are more interested in causing wrecks for profits. As a further complication, Dan is secretly in love with Loxie's cousin Drusilla (Susan Hayward).

The Cutlers' chicanery causes the ship captained by Jack Stuart (John Wayne) to wreck. Loxie rescues Jack and they fall in love. He dreams of captaining the Southern Cross, a modern steam boat owned by shipping tycoon Commodore Devereaux. Loxie travels to Charleston and flirts with Steven Tolliver (Ray Milland), Stuart's rival and Deveroux's influential second-in-command, to try and secure the Southern Cross command for Stuart. Instead, Tolliver falls in love with Loxie. Tolliver travels to Key West to investigate the Cutlers, heating up the love triangle but also forcing Tolliver and Stuart to cooperate to try and stop the escalating series of shipwrecks.

Produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille, Reap The Wild Wind is a bright, boisterous, and busy adventure. The story hops between the hustling port of Key West and the much more refined and civilized Charleston, with frequent sailings out to sea to experience the world of cargo ships in rough waters and the salvage crews who either provide assistance or prey on misfortune. The production values are high, the screen pops with colour, the costumes are lavish, hordes of extras populate every corner of the screen, and the sets and special effects are state of the art for the era.

With no shortage of characters and events, the film breezes through the two hours of running time, and DeMille somehow contrives to end his epic with a dangerous underwater dive featuring a massive angry squid, but only after the film takes a substantive detour into courtroom drama territory.

The romantic triangle and underhanded business alliances crackle away as DeMille alternates between affairs of the heart and cut-throat underhanded double-crosses. It's all happening all the time, not a surprise given that Reap The Wild Wind is based on a newspaper serialization. The film benefits from the brisk fun factor, and also suffers from the consequent lack of depth and any sense of lasting substance.

Loxie is in the middle of everything, an irrepressible independent woman well ahead of her time in a man's world. and Goddard injects the necessary energy to allow Loxie to drive the film ever forward. The men are more troublesome and less worthy, rendering the romance moments more irritating than engaging. Ray Milland as Tolliver is foppish, bland and abusive, and worst of all attached to silly dog ventriloquist tricks. John Wayne as Stuart is sturdy but maybe none too bright, and the fistfights between the two men erupt all too predictably.

Reap The Wild Wind is undoubtedly entertaining, and just as definitely sailing in shallow waters.

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Monday, 20 November 2017

Movie Review: Loving Vincent (2017)

An animated drama, Loving Vincent explores the artist's legacy through the mystery of his death. The film is a stylistic feast but struggles dramatically.

All the characters are represented by animated paintings of the actors. One year after the suicide death of Vincent van Gogh (voice and likeness of Robert Gulaczyk), family friend Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) is tasked by his father, postman Roulin (Chris O'Dowd), to deliver Vincent's final letter to his brother Theo. After learning that Theo is also dead, Armand travels to the village of  Auvers-sur-Oise, where Vincent lived his final years and created most of his artwork.

Armand investigates Vincent's final days and meets the people who knew the artist, many of whom appeared in his paintings. Innkeeper's daughter Adeline Ravoux (Eleanor Tomlinson) remembered Vincent as a troubled but kind man who had a turbulent relationship with his physician Dr Gachet (Jerome Flynn). A local paint supplies salesman, a boatkeeper (Aidan Turner), another physician, Gachet's daughter Marguerite (Saoirse Ronan) and the doctor's stern housekeeper all have different perspectives on the man, his life and death.

A Polish production co-directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, Loving Vincent is a partially crowd-funded labour of love. Approximately 125 classically trained painters created the 65,000 paintings used in the film. The scenes featuring Armand's search for the truth are all inspired by Van Gogh's actual paintings, animated in colour using his distinctive oil painting style. The flashbacks to Vincent's days in Auvers are in sharper black and white.

The film's dual aesthetic tonality carries echoes of the artist becoming famous only after his suicide. Van Gogh dedicated his art to capturing life's bursts of beauty, but was ridiculed and ignored while alive. He figuratively burst into life after he died, and the film stylistically echoes his tragic trajectory, a stark black and white when alive, erupting in rich colours after death.

Loving Vincent's visual achievement is certainly a thunderbolt of originality in the animation world. Sequentially, the imagery is first distracting, then fulfilling, and finally somewhat tiresome. The endless stream of animated images inspired by Van Gogh begins to feel like a gimmick. Meanwhile, the actors and their acting is lost within the post-impressionist style, and the film's emotions are stunted into whatever can be conveyed by the voiceovers. These feature a bewildering array of pronounced accents, mostly British and Irish, but certainly neither French nor Dutch.

The relatively limp story does not help. The letter is an obvious McGuffin, and Armand's search for the truth becomes a Sherlock-lite mystery where every witness offers a different version of events and the truth is somewhere between all the conflicting accounts. It's painfully clear that the details of Van Gogh's death are of limited significance long before the hard drinking and overly intense Armand labouriously reaches the same conclusion.

Undoubtedly imaginative, Loving Vincent deserves recognition for immense creativity, but it's also an experiment where an excess of art subdues substance.

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Sunday, 19 November 2017

Movie Review: Lady Bird (2017)

A coming-of-age drama-comedy, Lady Bird is a poignant and irresistible exploration of the awkward transformation into adulthood, with two tremendous central performances.

Sacramento, 2002. Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is in her final year of high school and struggling to define herself while navigating a tumultuous relationship with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who is perpetually stressed about money. Christine insists that she be called Lady Bird, while at her Catholic school she carries the burden of coming from a poor family and has a limited number of friends, including Julie (Beanie Feldstein).

Determined to escape from Sacramento and seek a college education at a respectable east coast university, Christine has to face the reality that money is tight, her father Larry (Tracy Letts) is unemployed, and her grades are not quite good enough. She joins the drama club and finds her first boyfriend in Danny (Lucas Hedges). She also tries to fit in with a new set of friends, including rich girl Jenna (Odeya Rush) and cool band member Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), but growing up and striking out will not come easy.

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird is a tender look at the mother-daughter relationship during the clumsy final steps on the journey from girl to woman. Gerwig infuses her film with plenty of humour while holding irony firmly in check, Lady Bird avoiding smart-alecky moments and just focusing on the small tears and joys that naturally flow through family life. The film is energetically edited by Nick Houy, some scenes lasting for just a few seconds, the pace conveying the blurry commotion of life's hectic high school chapter drawing to a close.

The film contains plenty of painfully real moments that dance between the playfulness and agony of a teenager exhibiting childlike behaviour in the service of budding adulthood. Christine is embarrassed by her family, her relative poverty and her city, and is beginning to find the tools of independence to help influence major life-altering decisions. At the same time, the final stages of high school carry less fear of disciplinary consequences, and Christine and her friends let loose. Previously hidden antics bubble to the surface, none more entertaining than Christine finding her voice during an anti-abortion lecture. She also participates in a prank involving the head nun as revenge for years of institutionalized paternalism.

But when Christine engineers the disappearance of a crucial math course grading book in a too-smart attempt to get into better colleges, the math teacher calls out her honour. The flash on Christine's face, brilliantly captured by Ronan, is the responsible adult starting to push aside the unaccountable child.

Away from the high jinx, Gerwig's story is about a mother who has sacrificed everything to make her family financially viable, and along the way forgot that expressed compassion and words of encouragement are more important than a tidy bedroom. The film's sustained emotional intelligence resides in Lady Bird being aware of  how much her mother loves her, despite the continuous barrage of incoming grief. Christine can sometimes handle the turmoil, but is also forced to invest plenty of time navigating around Marion's hardened emotions.

Gerwig needed two strong central performances to make the film work, and gets them from Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf. Ronan at 23 can still convincingly pull off 17, and plays Christine with the delicious slyness of a teenager beginning to believe she can outsmart the world of adults. Metcalf delivers a career defining role, conveying the harried life of a mother measuring life in dollars and cents, and yet somewhere deep in her heart still harbouring a deep if complicated love for her daughter.

Lady Bird glows with warm authenticity, the universal story of a fledgling adult seeking to fly away from a nest that will only start to look cozy from a distance.

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Movie Review: Grandma (2015)

A drama-comedy character study, Grandma is an engaging story enhanced by provocative characters and excellent performances.

Elle (Lily Tomlin) is a fifty year old (or so she claims) grandmother, ex-poet, unemployed academic, lesbian and staunch feminist. Following the death of her long-time partner, Elle is now breaking up with the much younger Olivia (Judy Greer) after a four month relationship. Elle's granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) shows up unexpectedly seeking help: she needs more than $600 to pay for an abortion scheduled later that day.

Elle is also broke, but she decides to help by trying to collect money from a variety of sources. The pair visit Sage's boyfriend Cam (Nat Wolff), Elle's bookstore owner friend Carla (Elizabeth Peña), tattoo artist Deathy (Laverne Cox) and Elle's lover from a long time ago Karl (Sam Elliott). Finally, Elle and Sage have to gather up their courage to also seek help from Elle's daughter and Sage's mother Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), a perpetually high-strung businesswoman.

Written and directed by Paul Weitz, Grandma is a compact 79 minutes delving into the world of a fading scholar. The film is a showcase for 76 year old Lily Tomlin, who dominates the screen with a caustic performance as Elle. This grandma is bitter, foul-mouthed and proud of it, her life reduced to no debt, no apologies, and not accepting nonsense from anyone, and Tomlin brings her to life with gallons of bravado.

With no wasted scenes, the story is small and personal but also elaborate enough to explore relevant themes for Elle's generation, from the abortion question to the status of feminism and exactly where the battles for women's rights have landed. Weitz steers a delicate course, avoiding any sense of moral high ground or preachiness. Elle may have lived on her own terms, but her life is cluttered with the wreckage of her decisions, including an unfulfilled career and, closer to home, broken relationships with daughter Judy and former lover Karl. Elle achieved independence, but far from triumphantly.

The film cruises through the interactions Elle initiates in her quest to find the money Sage needs, and  grandma's world is revealed through the eyes of the granddaughter, oscillating between resigned, panicked and horrified by grandma's behaviour. Weitz challenges the millennial to assess whether the paths paved for her by the warrior women of the 1960s and 1980s are worth following. Julia Garner is excellent portraying a young woman forced to understand, all too closely, where she came from, but still inquisitively looking for her own trajectory.

Sharp and feisty, Grandma is worth knowing and does not overstay her welcome.

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Saturday, 18 November 2017

Movie Review: San Andreas (2015)

A disaster epic, San Andreas is saturated with special effects and little else.

Los Angeles Fire Department Air Rescue Pilot Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson) is a devoted father to his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) but going through a divorce from his wife Emma (Carla Gugino). Ray and Emma's marriage never recovered from the drowning death of their other daughter Mallory in a rafting accident. Now Emma is moving in with her new boyfriend, architect Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffudd).

A massive earthquake destroys the Hoover Dam, where California Institute of Technology Professor Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti), testing his earthquake prediction algorithms, barely escapes with his life. Soon major earthquakes start to hit the coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Dr. Hayes does his best to warn people to flee the cities. Ray attempts to rescue his wife in Los Angeles, and then tries to find and rescue Blake, who is stranded in San Francisco with two brothers from England, Ben and Ollie Taylor (Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Art Parkinson).

Directed by Brad Peyton, San Andreas delivers exactly what it promises: mindless, methodical destruction on a grand scale, in many ways a re-do of 1974's Earthquake but with fewer characters and victims. Dams, bridges and buildings are knocked down with mind-numbing regularity, the CGI techs working overtime to create stunning graphics, equal parts awe-inspiring and science-defying. A narrow escape clocks in every ten minutes or so, and our hero Ray, his massive muscles flexing in synch with the earth shaking, does just the right thing at just the right second time and time again.

While watching computer-simulated scenes of devastation is fun, with the tsunami scenes particularly effective San Andreas is aggravating in every other way. Ray appears to forget about his profession entirely and focuses singularly on saving his wife and daughter. A brief perfunctory scene where Ray waves random people to the relative safety of a stadium wall is thrown in just to remind us that the man's job is supposed to be about helping others, not steal helicopters, cars and boats to save family members.

Worse still is the almost complete absence of suffering and mention of casualties. This is a film about the largest quakes in recorded history devastating two crowded cities. Yet hardly anyone dies, and the post-quake streets often appear to be conveniently deserted: plenty of debris and collapsed buildings, yet no bodies, no deaths, and only the most superficial of injuries. When the entirety of the Hoover Dam collapses, the event is shrugged off with a few "too bad" comments. No mention of casualties, and no follow-up related to the impacts of downstream flooding.

Added to the to-be-expected shallow characterizations and stiff acting, San Andreas' bloodless aesthetic enhances a level of plastic artificiality that is difficult to stomach. This is destruction as pure tourism, the equivalent of advertising-saturated glossy magazine imagery to ogle at, free from any meaningful exploration of repercussions.

San Andreas is superficial computer artistry devoid of emotional payoff, a childlike knocking-down of toys with no consequence.

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Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Movie Review: Beau Geste (1939)

An epic military adventure about brotherhood and sacrifice, Beau Geste is an absorbing and richly rewarding drama.

It's the middle of the Sahara desert, and a French Foreign Legion relief column, responding to reports of Arabian tribal attacks, arrives at Fort Zinderneuf and finds no signs of life. All the men inside the fort are dead but positioned at their parapet firing stations with rifles pointed at a departed enemy. Only two men lie dead in more natural positions, one of them killed by a sword and holding  a note confessing to the theft of "Blue Water", a precious gem.

Fifteen years earlier, the Geste brothers Beau (Gary Cooper), Digby (Robert Preston) and John (Ray Milland) are adopted orphans being raised by the kindly Lady Patricia Brandon (Heather Thatcher). The brothers are close friends and dream of joining the French Foreign Legion. Patricia is running into money problems, and her one remaining precious asset is Blue Water, a massive sapphire worth a fortune but also legendary for bringing bad luck to its owner.

The boys grow up into upstanding young men, and John falls in love with his childhood sweetheart Isobel (Susan Hayward). One evening Lady Patricia and her adopted sons are admiring Blue Water when the lights go out and the jewel disappears. No one confesses to the theft. Soon after, the three men do join the Foreign Legion and undergo training at the hands of the brutal Sergeant Markoff (Brian Donlevy). Digby is separated from his brothers before circumstances lead to a reunion at Fort Zinderneuf.

A remake of the 1926 silent film and making use of the same sets, the 1939 version of Beau Geste is a lavish adaptation of the classic P.C. Wren novel. Director William A. Wellman and his excellent cast weave the intricate story with confidence, delivering in under two hours a deeply satisfying adventure touching on themes of military honour, family bonds, companionship, and sacrifice.

The narrative arc is supremely elegant. The opening scene at an isolated fort filled with dead soldiers is unforgettable, setting a sweeping mood of anticipatory dread. It is followed by a flashback to events 15 years prior with the Geste brothers as young boys, Wellman and screenwriter Robert Carson cleverly unveiling the brothers' personalities and future legacies. Both scenes boast details that will echo back in amplified tones close to 100 minutes later, when the events at the fort are finally revealed.

A large part of the film's appeal lies in the complexity of the characters. None of the Gestes are presented as impeccable heroes, lending weight to the mystery of the missing Blue Water gem. And the ambitious and brutal General Markoff, the closest thing to the villain of the piece, gets plenty of time to demonstrate his qualities when the going gets tough. Brian Donlevy's chilling turn as Markoff, bordering on psychotic but finding an arena where psychosis may be a good thing, was deservedly nominated for an Academy Award.

The rest of the cast members share the screen time, with Gary Cooper, Ray Milland and Robert Preston getting their individual moments without dominating. In one of her earliest roles, Susan Hayward gets a relatively few scenes. The rest of the supporting cast is filled with sturdy character actors, including J. Carrol Naish, Albert Dekker, and Broderick Crawford.

Beau Geste is packed with plot, and all the pieces come together in the rousing final act. Once the action moves into the fort for the final third of the film the mystery of the missing jewel intermingles with a brewing mutiny and an external threat to the troops. At the middle of it all are brothers looking out for each other. Wellman never loses sight of the heart of his story, and proceeds to deliver one of the screen's most poignant farewells. Whether in the comfortable surroundings of home or in an unforgiving desert surrounded by death, gallant gestures matter.

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Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Movie Review: The Eagle And The Hawk (1933)

A World War One aerial combat drama, The Eagle And The Hawk is a contemplative anti-war film exploring the psychological damage caused by prolonged exposure to death.

From their base in England, American volunteer pilots Lt. Jerry Young (Fredric March) and his buddy Lt. Mike Richards (Jack Oakie) are redeployed to an airbase near the front lines in France. Young blocks the deployment of the brash Lt. Henry Crocker (Cary Grant), who is an undependable  pilot but an ace gunner.

Young and Richards are tasked with missions to take photographs of enemy positions, and they frequently skirmish with enemy aircraft with plenty of casualties on both sides. Young proves to be a brilliant pilot, but many of his gunners are killed, and the deaths start to take an emotional toll. Crocker is finally called-up to the front lines and becomes Young's gunner, although the two men never get along. Young is celebrated as a role model and receives plenty of accolades, but finds it increasingly difficult to cope with the pressure.

Directed by Stuart Walker, The Eagle And The Hawk packs plenty of heartfelt emotion into 68 minutes of running time. The film is based on the book Death in the Morning by American author John Monk Saunders, who was a member of the Air Services during the Great War but was deeply frustrated by his lack of front-line service and committed suicide at age 42 after battling poor health. 

By elevating Young to the status of a revered ace pilot with the military world at his feet, the story earns the freedom to have its say about battle consequences through the eyes of a hero. The screenplay by Seton I. Miller and Bogart Rogers fully embraces a downbeat, depressing view of war and its ramifications. Young views war as a ridiculous premise where inexperienced men are sent to die, and the celebrations, salutes, songs, medals and glorification are all part of a perverted deception to camouflage the unacceptable as gallant.

The film needs a strong central performance to work, and Fredric March is intense in his portrayal of a thoughtful man celebrated as an exemplary role model for killing other men. He is unable to cope both with the death of his own gunners and with the fiery destruction he inflicts on the enemy. As the victims become younger, Young's descent into the emotional wreckage today defined as post-traumatic stress disorder is convincing and difficult to watch.

Less impressive is Cary Grant, still learning his craft, and never quite striking the right tone. His Henry Crocker oscillates between aloof and hot-headed, and Grant doesn't get a grip on the character. Carole Lombard has one extended scene and makes an impression as the mysterious woman offering Young a temporary distraction.

Many of the aerial dog fight scenes are generally muddled and pilfered from other productions, and other than a few harrowing moments in the sky, the film is better when the actors are grounded. The Eagle And The Hawk is less about combat with the enemy, and more about the fight against the soulless private demons unleashed by war.

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Monday, 13 November 2017

Movie Review: Foreign Correspondent (1940)

A World War Two thriller, Foreign Correspondent overcomes some war time propaganda stiffness thanks to epic espionage showpieces expertly crafted by director Alfred Hitchcock.

It's 1939, and hard-nosed reporter John Jones (Joel McCrea) is chosen by the editor of the New York Globe newspaper to head to Europe, cut through the diplomatic drivel and determine if war is indeed imminent. In London, Jones interviews key diplomat Van Meer (Albert Basserman) but can get little useful information out of him. Jones also meets Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), who runs a for-peace advocacy group, and falls in love with Fisher's activist daughter Carol (Laraine Day).

Moving on to Amsterdam, Jones finds himself witness to a shocking assassination and a cover-up, and stumbles onto a nefarious enemy agitator cell hiding out at a rural windmill. As the war drums beat louder, he teams up with fellow reporter ffolliott (George Sanders, playing a character with two "f"s and no capitals in his surname) to try and uncover the work of enemy agents in western Europe, and Jones himself becomes a target.

After a slowish start to establish the premise, director Hitchcock transforms Foreign Correspondent into an unrelenting spy adventure movie. In his second Hollywood production after Rebecca, many of the director's soon-to-be signature themes emerge. Jones is a man plunged into events greater than he could have imagined, vast conspiracies are unfolding behind veneers of respectability, and the bad guys are quick to resort to innovative assassination methods to get the job done and cover their tracks.

Foreign Correspondent features several highlights signalling Hitchcock's emerging mastery of the polished and playful suspense set-piece. The Amsterdam staircase assassination scene and subsequent escape, starting on foot amongst a sea of black umbrellas and evolving into a car chase, is the film's startling pivot point. Quickly afterwards, Hitchcock unspools a tense hide-and-seek game inside a windmill, filled with clever touches including an uncooperative overcoat and unforgiving machinery.

The director then hits his stride. Jones has to extricate himself from an upper-floor hotel room with two assassins waiting inside. But this is only a prelude to another deliciously taut encounter with a covert killer-for-hire (Edmund Gwenn), this time culminating at the top of a cathedral observation tower, and another gasp-inducing punctuation mark of a climax.

Remarkably, Hitchcock is far from done. The film ends with a prolonged climax featuring a spectacular plane crash into the water, and then a rescue and still more clever duplicity onboard a neutral American ship. After Jones' epic survival saga on land, air and sea, the film's appeal for American involvement in the war emerges as a short but powerfully effective piece of propaganda.

A large part of the film's appeal is the wealth of characters and events that make it onto the screen. Hitchcock populates every scene with details and people who may or may not prove to be relevant, but keep the eye and mind engaged. From Jones being provided with the clumsy pseudonym Huntley Haverstock to the wide-eyed Latvian diplomat seemingly hovering on the edge of every encounter, there is always something going on just to the side of the main plot.

Before dedicating most of his career to Westerns, Joel McCrea was a versatile actor, and he is surprisingly effective as Jones. He gives the central character a sharper edge compared to Hitchcock's later reliance on the more rounded personas of Cary Grant and James Stewart. Herbert Marshall and George Sanders provide potent support, both men scheming their way in and out of trouble, and indeed in the second half of the film the dynamic between Fisher and ffolliott takes some of the load off Jones.

Hitchcock's McGuffin in this case is career diplomat Van Meer, Albert Basserman bringing to life a frustrating obfuscator harbouring valuable secrets that could tip the balance of power in the event of war.

Foreign Correspondent is an entertaining milestone, creating the how-to template for powering an absorbing plot with a high voltage current of suspense.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Movie Review: All Through The Night (1942)

A jaunty thriller, All Through The Night mixes laughs with action in a story of a New York gambler tangling with a Nazi terrorist cell.

"Gloves" Donahue (Humphrey Bogart) is prodded by his Ma (Jane Darwell) to investigate the murder of popular cheesecake maker Mr. Miller. Along with his sidekicks Sunshine (William Demarest), Barney (Frank McHugh), and Starchy (Jackie Gleason), Gloves starts to investigate Miller's mysterious customer, the alluring singer Leda Hamilton (Kaaren Verne). Soon another murder is committed, and this time Gloves is falsely implicated, forcing him to delve deeper into the plot to try and clear his name.

Gloves: [Breaking into a building] Personally, I'd feel more comfortable if I had a rod.
Sunshine: Here lies Sunshine under the sod. That's not odd. He had no rod.
Gloves: You know, there are times when I wonder about you.

His pursuit of Hamilton leads him to an auction house used as a front by a Nazi terrorist cell commanded by Ebbing (Conrad Veidt) and assisted by Madame (Judith Anderson) and their enforcer Pepi (Peter Lorre).With the cops on his tail, Gloves has to infiltrate the terrorists before they can launch their latest elaborate bombing plan, all while deciding which side Leda is really on.

Ebbing: You're not afraid to die, are you?
Gloves: I don't mind dying, but I hate to be divided up into small pieces.

Any wartime film that tries to add levity to a raging conflict where the outcome is still in doubt is bravely walking a tightrope above the abyss of bad taste. All Through The Night pulls it off, barely, thanks to a smart script filled with really sharp zingers courtesy of Gloves' collection of dubious friends.

[Sunshine knocks out a Nazi with an ax handle]
Gloves: Very good. Joe DiMaggio couldn't have done better.
Sunshine: I used to bat .320 at reform school.

The central character is good natured and only a bit shady, Gloves apparently a Broadway promoter of some sort but mostly interested in gambling scams. His background gives director Vincent Sherman and co-writers Leonard Spigelgass and Edwin Gilbert license to surround Gloves with wisecracking friends who provide a continuous stream of witty commentary on the evolving mess. A running gag features Barney marrying his girl Annabelle at the start of the evening, but unable to spend any time with the new bride because of the events of the wild night.

Barney: Say, chief, can't I get away just long enough to give my girl a quick hello?
Gloves: No, stick around, will ya?
Starchie: What are you so nervous about? She'll keep!
Barney: That's what you think. I can't take a chance. The fleet's in and she's defense-minded!

On a more serious note, the film makes mention of the Dachau concentration camp, perhaps one of the earliest references in a Hollywood film to the Nazis' worst atrocities. And while the plot contains a large number of holes as the Nazis oscillate between dangerous and dimwitted, Sherman maintains brisk pacing on the cheap, limiting the action to a few sets and several hide-and-seek set-pieces with conventional gunplay and fisticuffs.

Barney: I don't get it. I marry Annabelle and I spend my honeymoon with you.
Sunshine: Well, I can cook.

With Bogart injecting his confident swagger into every scene, this time emboldened by unscrupulous tendencies rather than personally-defined principles, All Through The Night is never less than watchable. Kaaren Verne is more than adequate as the damsel in distress who may or may not be part of the terrorist cell, and Conrad Veidt is as oily as bad guys come. The film features a large gathering of the Warner Bros. company of character actors, with Peter Lorre prominent as the the most cold-hearted plotter.

Leda [speaking to gathered reporters]: Well, I also feel it's about time someone knocked the Axis back on its heels.
Gloves: Excuse me, baby. What she means is, it's about time somebody knocked those heels back on their axis!

Any film that gets away with that line deserves some recognition.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

A magnanimous science fiction epic, Blade Runner 2049 expands on the original with a rich quest for private and collective identity.

It's the titular year, and Agent K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant working for the Los Angeles Police Department, is a "blade runner", an expert at tracking down and retiring older generation rogue replicants. He uncovers the whereabouts of replicant Sapper Morton (David Bautista), a farmer who puts up a fierce fight before K gets the upper hand. Buried deep under a tree on Morton's property is a strong box. K's boss Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) and her team unearth the container and find it filled with the bones of a deceased replicant harbouring a shocking secret.

Joshi assigns K to track the origins of the bones, a journey that starts at the Wallace Corporation, the massive company that took over the assets of the replicants' original designer and manufacturer Tyrell. Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) suspects that the answers being sought by K could give him enormous additional influence, and instructs his chief enforcer replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to track K's movements. Helped by his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), K's inquiries lead him to replicant dream creator Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri) and retired blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), hiding in the radiated wasteland of Las Vegas.

Set 30 years after the events of the first film and released 35 years after Ridley Scott's flawed and multi-versioned classic, Blade Runner 2049 is an unequivocal masterpiece. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, the sequel breathes deeply from the world created by Scott and original short story author Philip K. Dick, and creates an absorbing, thought-provoking story about the evolution of what is real and what ultimately matters.

Villeneuve combines regular doses action with stunning visuals to bring Agent K's search to life, and the film is a lavish feast for the eyes. Every scene features an exposition of a future world offering little to celebrate but enthralling nonetheless. Crowded markets dominated by garish and holographic neon signs on imposing buildings, garbage disposal wastelands, the sleek innards of colossal corporations, and the ruins of a gaudy Las Vegas all flicker to life in visions both harrowing and unmistakably compelling.

In addition to playing with colours, contrasts, mists and glowing nighttime environments, Villeneuve frequently shoots through partially transparent surfaces, rain-covered windows a favourite technique, both to add artistry and heighten the sense of receding-but-still-there barriers between humans and machines. As a quibble, some of the sets are notable for their lack of animation, Agent K incongruently often the only presence at locations away from the central marketplace.

The music is co-composed by Hans Zimmer, and is jarring in its exquisite discordancy. Loud, synth-driven and often overbearing, Zimmer adds to the film's sensory texture but also frequently intrudes rather than complements.

Plotwise Blade Runner 2049 is a proper sequel, and it's well worth recalling Deckard's adventure from the first film to properly enjoy the rich continuation of the story. Agent K picks up snippets of the physical and emotional dangers Deckard encountered a generation prior, and 2049 collects the echoes and builds upon the themes of core identity at the individual and collective levels.

Agent K's quest quickly becomes deeply personal and yet carries boundless implications. This is an imaginative science fiction film where the threads of the future are already present. A coming era where robots are more prevalent and integrated into a deeply damaged society appears well within reach, and the screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green is as strong as all the visual splendor. Blade Runner 2049's abundant plot rewards concentration, and effortlessly expands into the 163 minutes of running time.

And while 2049 finds the safe harbour of elegant resolutions, it also offers an abundance of fertile material introduced and parked for future films to perhaps pick up upon. The Wallace Corporation is a menacing behemoth that deserves further investigation, while an entire subplot featuring working girl replicant Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) and her colleagues appears to be more about set-up than resolution. And the enigmatic dream scientist Dr. Ana Stelline has stories that can feature in subsequent episodes.

The performances are competent without needing to be more. Gosling, Ford and Wright are generally appropriately monotonal, although Gosling does ride some emotional ups and downs as his journey veers into more than one unexpected valley. And the characters intermingle with extrapolated science beyond the replicant premise. Ana de Armas is surprisingly effective as the holographic girlfriend, and instigates a very different kind of high-tech lovemaking scene. Sylvia Hoeks is icy cold as the chief villain, doing the dirty work of the blind Niander Wallace, who overcomes his disability with miniature drones connected to a chip implant.

A hypnotic showpiece, Blade Runner 2049 expounds on the premise of humanity and its creations begin to meld in a bleak, haunting and potentially prescient version of the future.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Movie Review: Cops And Robbersons (1994)

A feeble comedy, Cops And Robbersons contains no laughs and plenty of stupidity.

Norman and Helen Robberson (Chevy Chase and Dianne Wiest) are a typical married couple raising their three kids in suburbia. Norman is a television police show geek, but his family is drifting apart. Veteran cop Jake Stone (Jack Palance) and his younger partner Tony Moore (David Barry Gray) need to set up a stakeout to keep close tabs on master forger and killer Osborn (Robert Davi), who happens to live next door to the Robbersons.

Jake and Tony invade Norman's house and set up an observation post in an upstairs bedroom. The family struggles to adjust to the unwelcome visitors, but gradually Jake starts to earn the respect of the Robbersons in a way that Norman never could. With Osborn plotting a big new deal, Norman interferes with the stakeout, frustrating Jake, while Norman's daughter Cindy (Fay Masterson) sets her eyes on the dishy young Tony.

Directed by Michael Ritchie and written by Lindsay Maher, Cops and Robbersons is 93 minutes of abject tedium. Only fans of Chevy Chase enthralled by his stupid family guy schtick will find any pleasure in an underdeveloped and tired story that never gains any traction. The characters are barely defined, the evil crimes of Osborn are mostly unexplained, and both the police work and the attempted comedy are half hearted and generally comatose.

The film is largely housebound, the energy level static, the production values reeking of an underfunded television show.

With almost nothing to work with, Ritchie leans heavily on Jack Palance, and he hisses his way through the film in a caricature of his late career City Slickers-propelled resurgence. The problem is that Palance, here at age 75, is far too old to be a convincing cop and genuinely seems to be struggling to get his lines out. The only tension in the film is whether Palance the actor will make it through his scenes intact.

Cops And Robbersons has neither chuckles nor action: just stars and a director who should know better, wallowing in the muck.

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Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Movie Review: American Ultra (2015)

A comedy action thriller, American Ultra aims for a hip and carefree attitude but has limited material to work with.

In the small town of Liman, West Virginia, Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) is a laid back stoner who works at a suburban discount grocery store. He is deeply in love with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), and wants to propose marriage, but can't quite find the right moment.

At CIA headquarters, Agent Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) orders Mike's assassination, much to the horror of agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton). Mike was part of a failed top secret program conceived by Lasseter to convert petty criminals into trained killers. Now Yates want to mop the program up and not leave any loose threads, although Mike has no memory of his training.

Lasseter gets to Mike first and activates him. He is ready when the assassination team arrives, and is able to fight back. Yates locks down the town and mobilizes a massive effort to corner Mike and wipe him out. Mike has to stay alive, figure out what is going on and still find a way to propose to Phoebe.

Directed by Nima Nourizadeh and written by Max Landis, American Ultra is Jason Bourne for the stoner set. The story of an efficient killing machine oblivious to his own potential suddenly tangling with his mother agency in a take-no-prisoners struggle to the death is extremely familiar. Landis gives it a comic spin with a loose, humorous vibe, allowing Mike's dopey, soft spoken, could-not-hurt-a-fly mannerisms to rub against his trained, kill-with-bare-hands abilities.

The film works as far as Eisenberg and Stewart take it, and the couple stay with the material to the end, despite the plot running out of string. Eisenberg was born to play slightly bemused characters nevertheless happy to dive into the latest mess, and he makes Mike's plight worthwhile. Stewart's dark-behind-the-eyes persona is perfect for Phoebe, a woman seemingly tolerating a loser of a boyfriend but with secrets of her own. Both are surprisingly good when they spring into blood-splattered action.

And that is mostly what American Ultra offers up in its second half. Once the pattern is set with Yates unleashing the might of the CIA and Lasseter doing her best to help Mike, not much more happens beyond a series of set pieces as Mike fights off the latest batch of well-armed killers and tries to inch his way to survival. Nourizadeh injects plenty of style and energy into the combat scenes, and also tries to give the antagonists some menacing personality. But Topher Grace's take on Yates is limited, and Walton Goggins can't do much with the hitman Laugher who, well, laughs a lot. John Leguizamo and Bill Pullman provide support in small roles.

A weird combination of wry humour and hard-edged action, American Ultra is as curious as a secret agent in a perpetual haze, and just as constrained.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Movie Review: Pitch Black (2000)

A science fiction horror thriller, Pitch Black (later re-released on DVD as The Chronicles of Riddick: Pitch Black) introduces the character of Riddick in a solid if patchy adventure on a hostile planet.

Deep in space, an interplanetary merchant ship is damaged by a comet storm. With the captain killed, docking pilot Carolyn Fry (Radha Mitchell) crash-lands the stricken craft onto the surface of a seemingly deserted barren planet. The survivors include convicted murderer Richard B. Riddick (Vin Diesel), who is being transported by his captor bounty hunter William Johns (Cole Hauser). A Muslim Imam (Keith David), his children and a mysterious boy Jack are among the others who emerge from the wreckage.

The survivors stumble upon a small but abandoned outpost set-up by a geological expedition years prior, with a dropship in near-working condition. They also encounter monstrous killer creatures who live in caves deep below ground and can only survive in darkness. Riddick initially takes the opportunity to escape, but then strikes an uneasy deal with Johns to help the group survive. Fry believes they can repair the dropship and use it to escape, but the group discover that an eclipse will engulf the planet in darkness, giving the predatory creatures an opportunity to emerge and feast.

A mix of low-budget Aliens and humourless Tremors, Pitch Black may lack funding and fundamental originality, but makes up for it with better than average character dynamics. Riddick is an impressive anti-hero, a reluctant prisoner with a troubled background happy to kill on demand but with a humanity throbbing somewhere deep in his damaged soul. His surgically modified eyes, allowing him to pierce through the dark but needing shades for the light, is a nice touch. Riddick also gets to deliver a few deadpan lines of dialogue.

Providing the counterbalance to Riddick are three other survivors also worth knowing. Johns tries to pass himself off as the law, but he is less than he pretends, with weaknesses of his own. Fry, with Radha Mitchell in excellent form, is the reluctant leader, haunted by the decisions she had to make during the crash landing. And the Imam is another neat addition, a Muslim cleric and father introducing an uncommon tone.

But director and co-writer David Twohy has other challenges, probably budget-related, that cause a few stumbles. Much of the action is in the dark and not very clear, and some of the dialogue is mumbled and drowned out by the sound effects. The computer-generated creatures, mostly indistinct cousins of the Aliens, are a study in quantity not amounting to quality.

Still there are a few impressive visuals and the use of colour is inventive, Twohy and his cinematographer David Eggby creating a stark, scorched planet environment perfect for a severe survival test. And several of the death scenes are suitably sharp and brutal.

Pitch Black was Vin Diesel's breakout role, and also launched the intermittent Riddick franchise, a welcome reminder that movies are not totally dependent on comics for hero inspiration. Pitch Black could have used more polish, but nevertheless lights up with gory thrills and impressive heroics.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Anything Goes (1956)

A flighty musical, Anything Goes enjoys a few good moments but runs out of plot early and never recovers.

Established Broadway star Bill Benson (Bing Crosby) agrees to team up with rising television star Ted Adams (Donald O'Connor) for his next big musical. With rehearsals due to start, the search is on for a leading lady. Bill and Ted travel to Europe separately. In England, Bill is impressed with stage performer Patsy Blair (Mitzi Gaynor), and signs her up. In Paris, Ted is enchanted by cabaret performer Gaby Duvall (Jeanmarie) and signs her up for the same role.

The two ladies don't know about each other, and neither man gives way. Patsy has the added complication of her father Steve (Phil Harris), a gambler wanted on tax evasion charges. All of them board the ship back to the United States, and during the long journey, romance blossoms as Bill and Ted try to extract their way out of the awkward situation without insulting either Patsy or Gaby.

Adapted from a 1934 stage play by Cole Porter, Guy Bolton, and P.G. Wodehouse, Anything Goes does feature a couple of decent musical numbers: Anything Goes, performed by Gaynor, is filled with seductive energy, while It's De-Lovely by Gaynor and O'Connor, is a playful celebration of budding romance.

Unfortunately, there is little else to generate excitement. Once the cast get onto the so obviously studio-created ship, the plot drops anchor and is pronounced dead in the water. To prolong the frivolous misunderstanding, everyone avoids saying what needs to be said, and the characters are stuck with not much to do except contrive their way to the next bland musical number.

Robert Lewis directs with a distinct absence of inspiration. A dreamy ballet is thrown in for Jeanmarie, Crosby warbles a nondescript ballad, and romance blossoms with predictable speed under the moonlight. O'Connor kills more time with a childish musical number performed with, yes, children. Memorable moments are few and far-between, and the 106 minutes of running time drag on.

Bing Crosby glides through the film with a vague sense of disinterest and discomfort, with more than 20 years of age difference between him and his designated romantic partner. Donald O'Connor is his usual animated self, while Mitzi Gaynor emerges with the most credit thanks to a glowing performance.

Anything Goes seeks lighthearted entertainment, but anything does not always amount to something worthwhile.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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