Tuesday, 29 November 2022

Movie Review: The Human Stain (2003)

A drama about love and lies, The Human Stain initiates numerous narrative pathways and shortchanges them all.

In New England, literature professor Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) retires from his distinguished college position after being falsely accused of using a racial slur. His wife Iris dies soon afterwards. Embittered, Coleman approaches author Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise) to help write his story. He then starts an affair with Faunia (Nicole Kidman), an angry-at-life janitor. She is living in fear of her psychotic ex-husband Lester (Ed Harris), a psychologically damaged Vietnam War veteran.

Flashbacks to the 1940s reveal Coleman's secret. He comes from a Black family, but can pass as white. As a young man (Wentworth Miller) attending college he develops a romance with white classmate Steena Paulsson (Jacinda Barrett), but their relationship is compromised when she meets his mother. Coleman disavows his family and commits to living a lie pretending to be a white Jew. Now in the twilight of his life, the affair with Faunia rejuvenates his spirits.

The Human Stain appears to have no idea what topic to pursue. The disjointed Nicholas Meyer script, adapting a Philip Roth novel, is burdened with enough big ideas and juicy subplots to occupy several movies, and unsurprisingly, director Robert Benton never grabs hold of the material. The production quality is high and each individual social issue holds promise, but the whole is considerably less than the sum of the parts.

The competing themes are wedged into a 105 minute jumble. A career ended by political correctness run amok, a wife dying of a broken heart, a winter-spring romance that also spans the class divide, a secret life hiding true racial identity and resulting in a fractured family, an author dealing with writer's block, a lost romance of youth, and a violent ex-husband who wants to turn a drama into a thriller: every scene steers in a different direction and the movie spins in place.

Benton is not helped by the miscasting of both central characters. Hopkins and Kidman share no chemistry, and misery loving company is the only justification for their characters' romance. Neither Hopkins as an inherently Black man nor Kidman as a scrappy white trash woman convince, but of the two, Hopkins seems particularly lost. While Benton is working overtime to make racial origins a centrepiece, Hopkins appears clueless, his focus purely on the unexpected joy of finding a new love. 

Fundamentally lacking discipline, The Human Stain is overloaded and underdeveloped.

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Saturday, 26 November 2022

Movie Review: Ice Cold In Alex (1958)

A World War Two desert adventure, Ice Cold In Alex is a gripping battle for survival in unforgiving terrain.

The setting is Libya in 1942, and the British are about to face a second siege in Tobruk. Captain Anson (John Mills) of the Motor Ambulance company is suffering from battle fatigue and a drinking problem, and is ordered to evacuate through the desert towards Alexandria. Separated from other ambulance trucks, Anson and his capable Sergeant Tom Pugh (Harry Andrews) pick up two British Army nurses left behind in the evacuation chaos. Diana (Sylvia Syms) is calm and steady; Denise (Diane Clare) is easily frazzled.

At a refueling station, the burly Captain van der Poel (Anthony Quayle) of the South African army joins them. van der Poel is quick to ply Anson with gin, but his physicality and ability to negotiate with Germans prove invaluable as the traveling party encounters the advancing Afrika Korps. Anson realizes he has to shape up to navigate the arduous trek ahead, and arriving safely in Alexandria becomes a personal quest bordering on obsession.

A perilous sand-in-the-teeth military journey, Ice Cold In Alex builds momentum by placing one obstacle after another in the path of a small but resourceful group. Here the war is background context, and only a few bullets are fired in anger. Writers Christopher Landon and T. J. Morrison (adapting Landon's 1957 novel) are more interested in tracking levels of character determination as a scrappy motley crew overcomes each challenge and moves on to the next, with all their strategic options equally grim.

Director J. Lee Thompson makes best use of the desert expanse to create a desolate and relentless setting, the ambulance truck (nicknamed Katy) an added character subjected to the harsh conditions. Minefields, quicksand, daunting hill climbs, enemy forces, injuries, mechanical failures, and spy activity all stand in the way of Alexandria, not to mention scarce water and fuel supplies. 

Inside the ambulance, Anson has to overcome physical and emotional scars to gradually accept the leadership challenge. At 50 years old, John Mills is willing but undeniably too old for the role, and this becomes awkwardly apparent as 24-year-old Sylvia Syms' nurse Diana instigates a romance. Thankfully Anthony Quayle is frequently nearby, his muscular and seemingly indestructible presence a potent catalyst in most situations. Whether sweet-talking the Germans or supporting the ambulance's weight on his back, Quayle's van der Poel becomes an essential but still vaguely mysterious team member.

The title refers to the ice cold beer Anson intends the group to enjoy upon arrival at his favourite Alexandria hotel. Even the most modest rewards will need to be earned with exhaustive sweat.

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Movie Review: Land (2021)

A mental crisis drama, Land is scenic but slight.

Edee (Robin Wright) is in a depression following the death of her husband and son. After her sister Emma (Kim Dickens) pleads with her not to harm herself, Edee leaves her life behind and relocates to a rural off-the-grid mountain cabin where she intends to live off the land.

Having no experience in hunting, fishing, or chopping wood, she runs out of food. Hunter Miguel (Demian Bichir) finds her near starvation, and with support from nurse Alawa (Sarah Dawn Pledge), they help Edee regain her strength, although she refuses to leave the cabin. Miguel starts to frequently drop by to teach Edee survival skills, and they develop a gradual friendship.

The directorial debut of star Robin Wright, Land is filled with static shots of beautiful rugged terrain. The movie was filmed in the Alberta Rockies, and mother nature is a prominent co-star. However, an 89 minute film stocked with ponderous postcard beauty is in some amount of narrative trouble. Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam collaborated on the script, and a woman alone in an isolated cabin yields many pages devoid of any dialogue, momentum drifting away towards the distant mountain tops.

This takes nothing away from Wright's performance, as she throws herself into a role reminiscent of Emile Hirsch in Into The Wild. Ill-prepared, Edee will disconnect from a pain-causing society and retreat into nature, and if death is a price to pay, so be it. This asking-for-it attitude is both frustrating to watch and effective at conveying the depth of despair, and Wright carves a path from nice-try determination to hopeless odds, where a bear, bitter cold, and starvation await.

The final third is a maybe friendship-in-the-making with Edee nudged back to an equilibrium by a kind stranger and his dog. She perks up, but this Land best belongs on an art gallery wall.

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Movie Review: American History X (1998)

A forceful and violent crime drama, American History X lifts the lid on the evils of white supremacy and racial hatred corroding civil society's fabric.

In the Venice Beach area of Los Angeles, white supremacist Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) kills two Black men breaking into his car. Derek started down the path of extremism as a young teenager when his firefighter father was killed by a Black man. Released after serving a three year sentence, Derek is reformed and eager to prevent his 17-year-old brother Danny (Edward Furlong) from following in his footsteps.

Danny is already falling under the spell of local white supremacist leader Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach) and the boorish behaviour of neo-Nazi Seth Ryan (Ethan Suplee). However, his high school history teacher Dr. Bob Sweeney (Avery Brooks), who also taught Derek, still believes Danny can be saved. With the threat of hate-motivated violence always nearby, Derek has limited time to influence his brother.

A startling exposé of a virulent ideology, American History X is a past-and-present story of attempted redemption. David McKenna's screenplay spares no pain delving into the heart of hatred, and Edward Norton delivers a cunning performance, especially in the flashback scenes, to demonstrate coiled reasoning fed by fear of the other and released through unchecked violence.

Using an obvious but still effective technique, director Tony Kaye films the flashback scenes in black and white and the present in colour. The sequences charting Derek's rise to street level notoriety as a white supremacist leader are stronger, including a dinner table ruckus where his mother (Beverly D'Angelo) and her new partner (Elliot Gould) finally encounter the beast within the young man. A duel on the basketball courts with Black youth and a raid on a Korean-owned convenience store both buzz with the undercurrent of a scrappy movement gaining strength with local victories.

Derek emerges from prison a different man intent on steering his brother Danny away from hate, and the transformation is only partially successful. Kaye takes the necessary time to reveal what went on behind the prison walls, but when finally stitched together, that part of the story remains dubious. Even less convincing is Danny's response to Derek's U-turn, which shortchanges the effort required to undo years of organic indoctrination.

Despite the shortcuts and a clumsy ending, American History X is painful and stark, achieving shock with relevance.

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Movie Review: Runaway Train (1985)

A thriller combining prison dramatics, kinetic action, and cryptic philosophy, Runaway Train is a surprisingly effective mishmash.

Oscar "Manny" Manheim (Jon Voight) is the toughest inmate at Alaska's remote Stonehaven Maximum Security Prison. A court order forces Associate Warden Ranken (John P. Ryan) to release him from three years of solitary confinement. The two men resume a duel, and Manny is injured in a knifing arranged by Ranken. He accelerates his latest breakout plan and escapes through the sewer system, with fellow prisoner Buck McGeehy (Eric Roberts) tagging along.

Buck: [in the sewer] It stinks in here, man.
Manny: You don't like that smell? That's the smell of freedom, brother.

The two men traverse the snowy wilderness to a rail switchyard, were they secretly jump onto a short train consisting of four locomotives. The engineer suffers a heart attack, leaving the train hurtling at high speeds. With Ranken pursuing the escapees, control centre dispatchers Dave Prince (T. K. Carter) and Frank Barstow (Kyle T. Heffner) scramble to clear other trains out of the way. Manny and Buck have to survive each other and look for ways to stop the runaway, and are then shocked to find locomotive hostler Sara (Rebecca De Mornay) with them on the train.

Manny: I'm at war with the world and everybody in it.

Based on a story by Akira Kurosawa, Runaway Train is assembled from contrasting pieces yet somehow works. Djordje Milicevic, Paul Zindel, and Edward Bunker collaborated on the screenplay, and wedge-in an overheated prison drama, a wild and chilly ride on a brakeless train, unpredictable character dynamics, and finally a turn towards hallowed acts of redemption. Director Andrei Konchalovsky approaches the material with a no-compromise attitude and plenty of gumption, repeatedly betting on a no-half-measures approach and scoring impressive wins in words, actions, and visuals. Once the action moves to the frigid outdoors, cinematographer Alan Hume creates a mystical grey aesthetic, the runaway train piercing terrain more than capable of consuming human incursions.

Suitably occupying the plot's centre is Jon Voight's scenery chewing performance as Manny. His brutal nature is more talked about than demonstrated, although he survives a knifing with barely a grimace. Using an off-centre accent, Manny's lines of dialogue flow from a tortured poet's soul, an emotionally wounded human beast refusing captivity and aware no other place suits him. 

Sara: [tearfully] You're an animal!
Manny: No, worse! Human. Human!

One monster deserves another, and the antagonist Warden Ranken is a worthwhile and dogged adversary, the jailer evolving into an amalgam of the men he keeps locked up. Eric Roberts attempts to inject jokey comic relief with limited effect. Rebecca De Mornay fares better as the resourceful civilian witnessing the unfolding high speed drama from under layers of grease and dirty coveralls. 

The film's thematic heart is the function and purpose of men like Manny in a modern society. Fearless, indestructible, resolute, and incapable of adhering to any rules, here he is free in the wild, his last available environment. This thoughtful brute is confronting dwindling options, but Manny will still choose the train and only ride on his own terms.

Manny: Win, lose, what's the difference?

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Saturday, 19 November 2022

Movie Review: Thirteen Lives (2022)

A survival and rescue drama, Thirteen Lives recreates the extraordinary international effort to find and save youth footballers trapped in grim circumstances.

The setting is 2018 in northern Thailand. Members of a youth soccer team and their coach visit the Tham Luang cave, consisting of a complex series of tunnels and chambers deep beneath a mountain. An early monsoon causes flooding and traps the boys. After their parents raise the alarm, the local governor arrives and a Navy SEAL team conducts a search but is forced to turn back. To ease the flood levels, a government worker organizes volunteers to start diverting water away from the mountain's sinkholes.

Within a few days, British expert cave divers Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) arrive to help. After a difficult hours-long dive they locate the boys alive in a chamber more than 2.5 kilometres into the cave. But it's impossible for the trapped kids to navigate the dangerous flooded tunnels back to safety. With days ticking by, oxygen levels dropping, and more rain forthcoming, Richard proposed a dangerous solution involving Dr. Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton), an expert Australian cave diver who also happens to be an anaesthetist.

Based on real events that earned international headlines, Thirteen Lives recreates the barely organized chaos of experts coming together for a humanitarian cause. The event's recency and the well-known outcomes rob some tension out of the movie, but this is a nevertheless well-constructed, high-quality production. The William Nicholson screenplay covers the events of June and July 2018 from several angles, with director Ron Howard taking a deep 147 minute breath and wisely using the time to sidestep white saviour clichés.

Plenty of scenes feature only Thai dialogue with subtitles, and prominent local figures include the region's governor, the SEAL team leader, the government worker diverting water away from the caves, the mother of one player, and the team coach. They all play a role in ensuring all efforts are expended in the face of an unprecedented heart-aching drama. Howard also excels in recreating the bustle of the mud-drenched tent city which springs up outside the cave to house parents, the media, rescue workers, and support volunteers.

John Volanthen and Richard Stanton are highlighted from among the expert international cave divers who arrive to help. Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen provide both men the gritty tranquility necessary for a dangerous hobby, but also distinct personalities. Farrell's Volanthen is the optimistic peacemaker, while Mortensen's Stanton is the realist innovator.

Howard spends a lot of time underwater, and Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom conveys the dark, murky, and potentially deadly claustrophobia and disorientation of water-filled twisty passageways barely wide enough for one diver. The exhaustion is palpable, and any climactic euphoria will be both well earned and subdued by extreme fatigue.

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Monday, 14 November 2022

Movie Review: The Dam Busters (1955)

A World War Two mission drama, The Dam Busters is a methodical recreation of a famous British raid, filled with engrossing technical details but lacking human depth.

In England of 1942, aeronautical engineer Barnes Wallis (Michael Redgrave) develops a far-fetched idea to destroy three crucial German dams using bombs designed to bounce on the water's surface. Breaching the dams is expected to flood and severely damage Germany's industrial heartland. The plan requires bombers to fly low and release their bombs at a precise altitude and distance from the dams. After some convincing up the chain of command, the military approves testing and training for the mission.

Wing Commander Guy Gibson (Richard Todd) is selected to assemble and train the new 617 Squadron, consisting of accomplished pilots with expertise in flying low. Months of intense training follow on Lancaster bombers, with Wallis frantically working to fine-tune his calculations and develop bomb casings to survive the initial water impact. Finally the big night of the raid arrives, with Gibson leading the squadron of Lancasters deep into enemy-controlled airspace and Wallis anxiously awaiting the mission's results.

A British production directed by Michael Anderson and written by R.C. Sherriff, The Dam Busters is an inside look at Operation Chastise, although the debate surrounding strategic outcomes and overall merits are studiously avoided. Clocking in at a long 124 minutes, this is relaxed and comprehensive storytelling, closely following actual events as recounted in two books: The Dam Busters by Paul Brickhill and Enemy Coast Ahead by Guy Gibson. 

The opening act showcases Wallis as he conceives the idea and battles bureaucratic scepticism. Gibson takes centre stage in the middle segment, focusing on training and team-building under a shroud of secrecy. The final act is the raid itself, concept and execution tested under fire and presented with enough nail-biting intensity to serve as partial inspiration for the attack on the Death Star.

While acing the mission's mechanics, Anderson is much less adept at humanizing the men. Wallis is surrounded by a warm family, Gibson safely channels his affection towards his dog, but everybody else is unfortunately reduced to an interchangeable yessir uniform. Despite a laudable tone of respect for the high price paid in men lost, Sherriff appears satisfied to have the full name and rank of every serviceman who participated in the mission faithfully listed in the credits, but forgets to colour-in any of them as people worth knowing.

The flying sequences and special effects are a mixed bag. Actual Lancasters were used for many scenes, and some majestic low-flight moments are brought to life. However, the anti-aircraft fire and the bomb explosions are reduced to either mediocre or painfully awful superimpositions. The German perspective is entirely absent, robbing the drama of any counterpoint tension. A more pointed source of awkwardness is Gibson's faithful black dog, unfortunately saddled with a now utterly contemptuous name.

The best moments reveal the depth of problem solving and innovation required to pull off the unexpected. Every time Wallis and Gibson overcome one hurdle, they encounter another. Measuring the bombers' exact altitude over the water, determining the precise moment to release the bombs, and developing a bomb that will bounce without disintegrating upon initial impact contribute to moments of despair and jubilation as the clock ticks towards the designated mission date and time.

Despite a few wayward bombs, The Dam Busters hits the designated targets as a respectfully constructed salute to thinking on the bounce.

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Sunday, 13 November 2022

Movie Review: The Nest (2020)

A family drama, The Nest tries to delve into strained psychological dynamics but never gains traction.

In New York of the 1980s, English investment trader Rory O'Hara (Jude Law) suddenly decides to move his family back to London, mysteriously citing drying-up financial opportunities in the United States. His American wife Allison (Carrie Coon), a horse trainer, is not too pleased. Along with their teenaged daughter Samantha (Oona Roche) and younger son Ben, they relocate to a large but old rural estate in Surrey on the outskirts of London. 

Filled with ambitious money-making ideas, Rory goes to work for the investment bank owned by his old boss Arthur Davis (Michael Culkin). He enrolls Ben in the most expensive school in the area, buys a horse for Allison, and starts building her a barn. Rory and Allison plug into London's elite social circles where he pretends to be wealthy, but Allison suspects her husband is filled with empty talk and spending well beyond their means.

Written and directed by Sean Durkin, The Nest features excellent performances by Jude Law and Carrie Coon, and a wonderfully cold, dark, and spooky setting at the oversized mansion Rory rents for the family in England. But unfortunately, what promises to be an intriguing exposé of a marriage in trouble and a family coming apart at the seams never achieves lift off. From the opening scenes it's clear trust is lacking and a schism is developing between Rory and Allison, and 107 minutes later, they are still in the same emotional space, now just a bit more visibly dug in.

Along the way, a sub-story related to Allison's horse occupies plenty of screen time and appears to be trying to say something metaphorically important, but then just dies in place. The children muddle through mundane and familiar challenges. Daughter Allison drifts away from her mom and falls in with a party crowd, son Ben is on the receiving end of off-screen bullying and experiences bed-wetting. Both their trajectories are segmented and incomplete. The 1980s setting offers intriguing opportunities but is ultimately largely irrelevant.

Durkin provides Rory a couple of speeches to rage about a difficult upbringing translating to an imagined sense of entitlement that the world owes him wealth. Similarly The Nest imagines a perceptive drama, but skips over the sustained hard work needed to deliver.

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Movie Review: No Highway In The Sky (1951)

A commercial aviation drama, No Highway In The Sky demonstrates respect for science but loses altitude in a languid third act.

At the Farnborough air base in England, newly arrived executive Dennis Scott (Jack Hawkins) meets one of the employees, American aeronautical scientist Theodore Honey (James Stewart). Honey is an absent-minded eccentric obsessed with testing metal fatigue caused by vibration on the tail section of the Reindeer, a modern aircraft recently entered into service. He is also raising his daughter Elspeth (Janette Scott) on his own, after losing his wife during the war. 

Honey 's calculations suggest the Reindeer's tail will fail without warning after about 1440 flight hours, although his lab tests are yet to prove the theory. He boards a flight to Canada to investigate a recent crash and is shocked to find himself on a Reindeer plane approaching the 1440 hour limit. He raises the alarm with the Captain as well as fellow passenger Monica Teasdale (Marlene Dietrich), a glamorous movie star, and flight attendant Marjorie (Glynis Johns). But his warnings to turn the plane back will not be immediately heeded.

After 1950's Harvey, director Henry Koster and star James Stewart re-team for another drama hinging on idiosyncrasies. No Highway In The Sky is an adaptation of a Nevil Shute novel and one of the earliest cinematic attempts to tackle the potential dangers of commercial flight. Despite plenty of (intentional) bafflegab extending to nuclear fission, the narrative focus is on science, engineering, mathematics, and rigorous testing.

What could have been dry subject matter is animated by the eccentricities of Theodore Honey. He is the prototypical absent-minded scientist who cannot remember his own home address, but can master complex mathematics and pass on his knowledge to his daughter through engaging games. Stewart overplays the role with exaggerated mannerisms, but his antics also inject a potent dose of likeability and humour.

Koster plays with various model and back-screen projection effects (some ok, others dreadful) to capture the flight scenes, while the roomy interior of the fictional Reindeer best resembles a hotel lobby. The film peaks in the middle third, the flight from England to Gander, Newfoundland introducing two women for Honey to fret about in Marlene Dietrich's movie star and Glynis Johns' stewardess. But first and foremost on the scientist's mind is the likelihood they will all die because the tail might fall off over the Atlantic. Koster keeps the drama finely poised between looming tragedy and warm character interactions shrouded in kindness.

Unfortunately all the events after that flight are grounded, and not in a good way. Energy seeps out quicker than jet fuel can be burned, as Honey struggles to prove his theory while the two women wonder if the scientist is worth the trouble of a love triangle. The ending is particularly flat, blurted news from elsewhere and an obvious scientific oversight colliding in a rushed wrap-up. No Highway In The Sky enjoys a brisk take-off and a good flight, but bungles the landing.

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Friday, 11 November 2022

Movie Review: The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

A comedy and drama about coming to terms with family and letting go of the past, The Darjeeling Limited is both airy and obvious.

Three American brothers reunite on the Darjeeling Limited train in India. The trip is organized by oldest brother Francis (Owen Wilson), a micromanaging control freak still bandaged up after a severe motorcycle crash. Peter (Adrien Brody) is a laid back expectant father, but has a tendency to take things that are not his. Jack (Jason Schwartzman) is going through a divorce and looking for sexual thrills.

The brothers lost their father about a year ago, and have not seen their mother since she abandoned the family and became a nun at an Indian village. Francis intends the trip to culminate in a reunion with mom, but little will go as he planned.

Directed by Wes Anderson, The Darjeeling Limited rolls down the tracks with clever joy bordering on knowing smugness. Anderson co-wrote the script with Schwartzman and Roman Coppola, and the antics of the three brothers remain just to the side of authentic. The visual splendor is filled with vivid colors and the sights and smells of a train trip through an exotic land, although this is a vision of India more staged than organic.

Anderson's signature artificiality is intentional, but the foundational narrative supports are shaky. The three brothers are more quirky sketches than real people, and none are particularly likeable. The overarching theme of discarding unnecessary luggage to rediscover familial love through the thicket of annoying personality traits is well-intentioned but far from profound.

Still, the humour is dry and consistent, and the journey is enlivened by unexpected twists, including Jack finding a libidinous partner and the brothers experiencing a tragic-heroic encounter with children near a village. Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman are quietly effective at finding all the right individual irritating behaviours while still sneaking in the commonalities of brotherhood. Bill Murray shows up early and Anjelica Huston shows up late to boost the star power.

The Darjeeling Limited is a curated ride, finely crafted but more cerebral than heartfelt.

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