Wednesday, 17 August 2022

Movie Review: Get The Gringo (2012)

An action thriller, Get The Gringo mixes mean humour, plenty of violence, and many sweaty characters, all of them up to no good.

Dressed as a clown and frantically escaping with millions in stolen cash, an audacious thief (Mel Gibson) crashes his car across the border wall and into Mexico. He is promptly arrested by corrupt Mexican border guards, who also steal the stolen money. Known only as the Gringo, the thief is thrown into El Pueblito prison, which in reality is a ramshackle city run by crime lord Javi (Daniel Giménez Cacho) and his goons. The Gringo starts to chart his way through the prison's social structure, and befriends the scrappy 10-year Kid, who is in the prison with his Mom (Dolores Heredia).

Javi has a special reason to pay attention to the Kid, and becomes more interested in the Gringo when he learns about the stolen money. Meanwhile, corrupt US Embassy official (Peter Gerety) is intrigued by what the Gringo may be hiding, while the original victim of the theft, San Diego-based master criminal Frank (Peter Stormare), is determined to get his money back and extract revenge by any means.

An irreverent, almost cartoonish adventure, Get The Gringo offers large dollops of silly fun. Co-writer and co-producer Mel Gibson narrates with a Bugs Bunny attitude, and director Adrian Grunberg doesn't pause long enough for any of the plot gaps to undermine the entertainment value. This is a high-paced, self-aware romp where nothing is too serious, but plenty of people are nevertheless badly hurt.

All the characters are criminals of the past, present, or future (or all three), including Mom and her 10-year-old son, who is already plotting a murder as intensely as he badgers for cigarettes. The Gringo is just the most well-adjusted of all the bad guys, navigating his way out of every jam and straight into the next, usually bigger, mess, but always somehow finding time to instigate his own brand of trouble.

Most of the action takes place at El Pueblito, here presented as a vibrant world for the Gringo to discover. The shanty town is filled with entrepreneurs, everyone from drug dealers, taco peddlers, tattoo artists, real estate agents, and guards out to make a buck as long as Javi gets his cut. Grunberg esures something nefarious is happening in every corner, and bathes the visuals in reds, yellows, and oranges expressed at maximum heat. When the time comes for the bullets and grenades to fly, a combination of slow motion cinematography and surreal staging underline the campy mood.

A liver transplant surgery subplot, Clint Eastwood impersonations, a mass federal police raid, Pancho Villa's gun, a surrogate father-son bond, and hints of romance are all somehow jammed into the 96 minutes. Get The Gringo is never short of ideas, most of them of the all-out-wacky variety.



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Tuesday, 16 August 2022

Movie Review: Under The Bombs (2007)

A post-war drama, Under The Bombs is an intimate story set within a physically and emotionally scarred landscape.

As soon as a ceasefire is announced to end the 34 day war between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, Zeina (Nada Abou Farhat) arrives in Beirut from Dubai via Turkey. She hires taxi driver Tony (Georges Khabbaz) to drive her to the south, where she wants to look for her sister Maha and young son Karim. They were in the family's ancestral village when the war started.

Initially Zeina is cold towards Tony, but as they witness the devastation caused by the war, they start sharing their backgrounds. Zeina had sent Karim to stay with her sister just before the war to spare him from witnessing her crumbling marriage. The Christian Tony is from the south, and suffers from the stigma associated with his brother's prior association with a pro-Israel militia. Now Zeina starts receiving snippets of news about what may have happened to her sister and son, but establishing facts amidst the post-war chaos will be difficult.

A Lebanese production directed and co-written by Philippe Aractingi, Under The Bombs mixes actual footage of grim reality from the 2006 war with a traditional quest to find missing family members. Loss and sorrow hold hands as Aractingi's cameras capture in close-up the scale of damage, abandoning abstract notions to show actual entire villages reduced to rubble and the eradication of a country's basic infrastructure.

Zeina and Tony's car trip provides a front-row seat to this carnage, however the dynamics inside Tony's Mercedes are less impactful. The pair of strangers thrown together by fate start at borderline hostile and over a couple of days progress to almost affectionate, their emotional progress both linear and predictable. Nada Abou Farhat and Georges Khabbaz credibly embrace the material and do what they can with the relatively shallow writing, but the personal revelations involve never-seen third parties - his brother, her husband - and remain at the level of tidbits without resonance. 

The search for Zeina's sister and son makes the usual rounds to hospitals, aid agencies, and governmental offices, every stop harbouring hope but at best providing a clue to the next destination. Along the way, the surviving locals provide hollow-eyed testimony to the horrors of the previous 34 days. As it moves along dangerous roads towards a powerful ending, Under The Bombs refuses to sweep despair away with the fading sounds of war. The bombs may fall silent, but the pain prevails.



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Monday, 15 August 2022

Movie Review: Deadline - U.S.A. (1952)

A journalism drama, Deadline - U.S.A. underlines the fundamental importance of the press through the story of an esteemed newspaper fighting for existence.

In a thriving metropolis, Ed Hutcheson (Humphrey Bogart) is the managing editor of The Day, a long-established and respected family-owned newspaper. His staff are shocked to learn the founder's heirs, including the widow Margaret Garrison (Ethel Barrymore) and her daughters, are planning to sell the paper to a competitor, and The Day will be shut down. Undeterred, Ed pursues stories exposing crime boss Rienzi (Martin Gabel), who pretends to be a respectable businessman.

Ed assigns his reporters to cover different angles of the mobster's business, and soon makes a connection between Rienzi and murdered showgirl Bessie Schmidt. In his personal life, Ed is desperate to win back his ex-wife Nora (Kim Hunter), and doggedly lobbies Mrs. Garrison to stall the newspaper's sale. The Rienzi story reinvigorates the paper, and Ed's team track down the dead girl's brother and mother for more details. But Rienzi will not be easily intimidated, and Ed has to decide how far he will fight in the name of journalism.

Deadline - U.S.A. provides full-throated advocacy for journalism's essential role in a free society and the imperative to guard against press monopolies. Writer and director Richard Brooks is happy to demonstrate bias for fact-based reporting and disgust towards news as shock-value entertainment. Despite the clear agenda, the results are still excellent thanks to crisp pacing, an efficient running time, and a plot packed with converging storylines. 

The film thrives on a high energy, sleep-deprived ambience, the collision of multiple crises ensuring every interaction can offer a surprise. Ed Hutcheson's days are filled with urgent phone calls, barked orders, and on-the-fly decisions. But just as important, Humphrey Bogart also provides Ed with plenty of passionate humanity. He is as willing to fight for the paper as he is determined to win Nora back, and his dogmatic attitude is steeped in confidence, leaving only contempt for other (obviously wrong) viewpoints.

While Ed's definition and motivations are sharp and unerring, Nora's arc is less convincing. The speechifying does go on well after the point is made, and the mystery of showgirl Bessie's death is bogged down in too much talking and not enough showing. A minor subplot about a new college graduate seeking a career in journalism is forgotten in the waiting room.

Elsewhere in the cast, The Day's dedicated on-the-go reporters are brought to life by Ed Begley, Warren Stevens, Audrey Christie, and Paul Stewart, all with small but impactful roles. James Dean is uncredited in a bit appearance.

The final act ties the threads together in resolutions both satisfying and bittersweet, but intentionally never conclusive. Deadline - U.S.A. acknowledges the news never ends, and prints the known facts in clear type.



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Sunday, 14 August 2022

Movie Review: 28 Days Later (2002)

A zombie apocalypse horror film, 28 Days Later is a creepy vision of societal collapse.

In England, animal liberation activists invade a lab to free captive chimpanzees and accidentally release a fast-spreading virus that causes rage, triggering an epidemic. 28 days later, bicycle courier Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up from a coma at an abandoned London hospital. Chased by zombie-like infected humans thirsty for flesh and blood, he is saved by the intervention of survivors Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark.

Jim insists on visiting his parents' home, then he and Selena connect with fellow survivor Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter Hannah. They pick up a radio transmission promising safety at an army checkpoint near Manchester, and head out in Frank's cab. After several close escapes they connect with Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston) and his small group of soldiers, but Jim and Selena's troubles are far from over.

Director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland revitalize the zombie genre (although the term is never used) with a sparse, character-driven journey into a collapsed civil structure. 28 Days Later delivers a haunting vision of evacuated cities beset by marauding infected victims seeking fresh blood, with pockets of survivors left to fend on their own. Whether surviving another day to live in this nightmare is even worth the effort is a question posed early, Jim's parents finding a peaceful ending when all hope seems lost.

The zombies move quickly, and while the violence is often shocking, Boyle's jerky hand-held cameras and dark environs imply more than what they show. Not satisfied with revealing street-level horrors, Garland takes the story towards the essence of the human condition. The second half shifts gears a couple of times. First Major West and his men appear to provide refuge, but a twist awaits, initially outrageous but upon reflection most plausible in the context of men reverting to the laws of the jungle. The ability to kill in the name of living becomes a pressing reality.

The tangle with the military men adds thematic spice, but does create a movie-within-a-movie and takes the intense focus away from the core apocalypse story. The star-free cast helps to maintain dour concentration within the changing nature of the challenge, Cillian Murphy as Jim navigating the transition from courier to adept survivor with help from Naomie Harris' unyielding determination to do what it takes.

As the rules of chaos take hold, the abstract happenstance of who lives and who dies is a random variable. One drop of blood landing in exactly the wrong place is as much a cause for a machete attack as hordes of chomping zombies. With the virus easily representing the spread of any condition that corrodes social fundamentals and triggers anarchy, 28 Days Later is disturbingly cogent.



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Movie Review: The Mechanic (1972)

A crime thriller, The Mechanic is a deceptively complex and tidily executed action drama about an assassin's life.

In Los Angeles, Arthur Bishop (Charles Bronson) is a methodical hitman working for a mysterious criminal syndicate. After eliminating a target by staging a gas leak explosion, Bishop receives orders to terminate Harry McKenna (Keenan Wynn), an elderly friend of Bishop's deceased father and an ousted member of the syndicate. 

McKenna's 24-year-old son Steve (Jan-Michael Vincent), who never liked his father, enjoys the party lifestyle and also displays cold-blooded comfort around death. Bishop starts experiencing health issues, and takes Steve under his wing as a potential successor, teaching him the tricks of the assassination trade. But the syndicate is unhappy Bishop is making unilateral decisions, and the next few assignments for Bishop and Steve, including a rushed job in Naples, will be challenging.

Written by Lewis John Carlino and directed with panache by Michael Winner, The Mechanic is a career highlight for Charles Bronson and a superlatively economical thriller. The opening 15 minutes feature no dialogue: Bishop carefully plans and executes a hit, no words needed as Winner introduces the protagonist through deliberately efficient scenes. The final act is packed full of breathless action and twisty revelations, ending with a memorably abrupt triple punctuation mark. 

In between, unique character traits are allowed to surface. Bishop has a romantic partner (Jill Ireland), but only in the morning does their interlude expose corners of his psychology. Carlino is also interested in exploring the core theme of surrogate father-son dynamics. Both Bishop and Steve had troubled relationships with their dads, and Bishop finds a personal reason to make amends bundled within professional succession planning objectives. In this world of violence of course nothing will go according to plan, but the thoughtful human context infuses The Mechanic with unexpected depth.

Despite enjoying numerous locations ranging from Bishop's elegant bachelor's pad to plenty of learning-the-trade settings (including a small plane flight), the film is edited for bold brevity. When the time comes for action scenes, Winner excels with a deft touch, building tension in sharp strokes to keep the energy on edge. The stuntmen enjoy their moments of glory in a motorcycle chase on hillside trails and a car chase on twisty Italian coastal roads. The explosions are plentiful and spectacular, and the one shootout is suitably noisy. Using finely crafted tools, The Mechanic delivers the fix.



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Saturday, 13 August 2022

Movie Review: The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

A disaster epic, The Day After Tomorrow shortchanges character depth but compensates with genuinely spectacular special effects.

Paleoclimatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) and his team uncover evidence in Antarctica supporting the theory that climate change could trigger an ice age by disrupting North Atlantic currents. At a subsequent conference, his warnings are unheeded by Vice President Becker (Kenneth Walsh), but Scottish oceanographer Terry Rapson (Ian Holm) is intrigued and starts to share data with Hall. Soon thereafter ocean temperatures start plummeting, and extreme weather events strike without warning, including a hailstorm in Tokyo and multiple tornadoes in Los Angeles. 

Three massive storms then form over the northern hemisphere. Hall's son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his college friends including classmate Laura (Emmy Rossum) are in New York when the city is submerged by a massive tsunami. They take refuge in the public library and have to keep warm as temperatures plummet to extreme freezing levels. Jack has to provide advice to the President by developing new climate models, while also planning a rescue for Sam.

A throwback to the large-scale disaster movies of the 1970s, The Day After Tomorrow deploys the latest CGI technology with impressive results. Director and co-writer Roland Emmerich crafts an often stunning vision of nature flipping upon itself and establishing a new normal in short order, the northern hemisphere plunging into a new ice age within days. The science is dubious and the speed of transition questionable, but the magnificence of the screen spectacle is not in doubt.

Emmerich and the army of computer wizards enjoy destroying both Los Angeles and New York in separate catastrophes. Numerous mammoth tornadoes leave Los Angeles in ruins, before the film's coup de grâce: a humongous tsunami crashes into Manhattan, the visuals creating a terrifying wall of water forcefully invading the great metropolis. The hailstorm in Tokyo, a triple helicopter crash, and the quick-freeze visuals add a never-a-moment-to-rest gloss.

Amidst the high quality artistry, the humans are understandably short-changed, and the plot points are often groan-inducing. A sick kid in the care of Hall's wife (Sela Ward) is the most nauseating attempt at smarmy manipulation, but another unnecessary interlude involves an inconvenient infection necessitating a medication search interrupted by wolves-on-the-loose. The father-son tension between Jack and Sam is haphazard, and Jack's entire icewalking trek from Washington DC to New York City is just loony. Other than taking potshots at inept politicians, the government response subplot is elemental, leading to a tepid denouement.

The performances are generally as plastic as the characters, although Jake Gyllenhaal does make an impact as a young man starting to find his voice. Regardless, The Day After Tomorrow does not need good acting nor perceptive character motivations to impress: this is a joyride vision of global disaster, masterfully rendered.



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Friday, 12 August 2022

Movie Review: Lake City (2008)

A drama about tragedies of the past and mistakes of the present, Lake City barely rises about the mundane before sinking into ineptitude.

Maggie (Sissy Spacek) lives on her own farm in the small rural town of Lake City. In a nearby big city, her grown son Billy (Troy Garity) tangles with drug dealer Red (Dave Matthews) who is looking for Billy's girlfriend Hope. Billy collects Hope's son Clayton (Colin Ford), a young teenager, and flees back to the countryside and his mother Maggie's house.

A dark chapter from the past stands between Maggie and Billy, and they find it difficult to communicate. Young Clayton explores the farm and starts to bond with Maggie, while Billy reconnects with childhood friend Jennifer (Rebecca Romijn), who is now Lake City's local police officer. The frantic Hope suddenly barges in on Maggie and Billy, followed quickly by the agitated Red, triggering heightened tensions.

An independent production written and directed by Perry Moore and Hunter Hill, only the presence of Sissy Spacek saves Lake City from television-level tripe. Spacek elevates the material and infuses much needed quality, although she never has to stretch in the role of a soulful mother living under the shadow of an event-that-should-not-be-talked-about, her quiet misery now amplified by the re-emergence of a troubled son. 

Troy Garity struggles for impact as the other major character, Billy stuck between prodigal son and grumpy bad boy. A couple of familiar names do better in underwritten roles, Keith Carradine and Barry Corbin deserving more screen time as salt-of-the-earth locals.

But narrative weaknesses ultimately overwhelm all the acting talent. Numerous plot fragments are tossed at the lake in the hope that some will float, all predictable and none provided with the necessary buoyancy. Of course Clayton is more than just the son of Billy's friend, but their bond is never properly evolved. The cause of the chill between Maggie and Billy is an event lyrically telegraphed in sunset-drenched flashbacks. The details are finally revealed over the kitchen sink, and not much else of emotional substance follows.

Worse of all is the wedged-in drug smuggling plot, which does not reach half-baked status. Hope as the main agitator gets one scene and no coherent opportunity to present as a real person. Red is a cartoonish villain out of countless other movies. And in a crippling final act, nameless goons show up to wreak havoc in a bewildering and clumsy last-gasp attempt to convert a drama into a thriller.

Despite earnest intentions, Lake City is a collection of familiar ideas recycled into flotsam and jetsam.



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Thursday, 11 August 2022

Movie review: Freeway (1996)

A crime drama infused with dark humour, Freeway thrives on unexpected twists, but the surprises are blunted by cartoonish disorientation.

In Los Angeles, 15-year-old high school student Vanessa Lutz (Reese Witherspoon) comes from a white trash family and barely knows how to read. Her mother Ramona (Amanda Plummer) is a prostitute and her drug addicted step-father Larry (Michael T. Weiss) is sexually abusive. When both Ramona and Larry are arrested, Vanessa slips away from her social worker and starts driving north towards the home of a grandmother she has never met.

When her car breaks down on the freeway, Vanessa hitches a ride with the seemingly helpful Bob Wolverton (Kiefer Sutherland), who claims to be a counselor. On the long drive he starts asking increasingly awkward questions, then reveals himself to be a twisted psychopath and murderer of women. But when faced with a threat, the scrappy Vanessa is more than capable of fighting back.

A reimagining of Little Red Riding Hood with Oliver Stone as one of the executive producers, Freeway aims for an irreverent, anything goes vibe. A sun-drenched, vivid aesthetic enhances the fairytale-for-adults mood, and writer/director Matthew Bright rides the wave of his central character Vanessa all the way to extremes of cheeky violence. The wacky energy is unflagging and undoubtedly infectious, if often misdirected.

The plot intentionally toys with fundamentals but carries every intention of subverting the familiar. Vanessa is introduced as a survivor of a chaotic upbringing and the girlfriend of a drug dealer. In an early scene, she fends off Larry's latest sexual advances with impressive determination. Still, the extent to which this potential victim is willing and able to resort to physical harm is revealed only gradually, setting up a war of equals with Wolverton.

Bright does eventually carry this premise too far. Vanessa approaches indestructible status (as does Wolverton), robbing the movie of tension, and extreme bloodlust threatens her standing as a sympathy-deserving protagonist. The plot detours to a meandering women-in-prison stint, and a couple of detectives (Dan Hedaya and Wolfgang Bodison) are more inept than effective. Another shift finds Wolverton and his wife (Brooke Shields) playing the victims with no scrutiny. The final act hastily, and artificially, reverts back to Red Riding Hood origins.

At 20, Reese Witherspoon almost convinces as five years younger, and cuts through the increasingly wacky action by channeling a combination of Bugs Bunny and the Tasmanian Devil. When it comes to fairytales, Freeway is happy to explore the corkscrew off-ramps.



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Wednesday, 10 August 2022

Movie Review: West Beirut (1998)

A coming-of-age drama with a wicked sense of humour, West Beirut is a slice-of-life story about growing up in the shadow of war.

The setting is Beirut, Lebanon, at the outset of the Civil War in 1975. Violence erupts, militias take over the streets, and the city is split into East and West sectors. Mischievous high school student Tarek (Rami Doueiri) finds himself in mainly Muslim West Beirut, cut off from his school in Christian East Beirut. Tarek and his friend Omar (Mohamad Chamas) spend their days roaming the streets looking for misadventure. Tarek is also smitten by his new neighbour May (Rola Al-Amin), a Christian refugee.

Security and economic conditions worsen and the strain reflects on Tarek's parents Riad and Hala. Riad is an intellectual and loses his job, but argues against leaving the country, believing the war has to end soon. Hala is a pragmatic lawyer and worries about a grim future. Meanwhile Tarek, Omar, and May are busy trying to find a store to develop their homemade Super 8 film. After another round of street violence, Tarek stumbles upon one of war-torn Beirut's secret locations: a brothel in no-man's land. 

Writer and director Ziad Doueiri draws on his personal experiences during the war, and West Beirut shines with autobiographical warmth. The dichotomy of discovering thrilling streetwise freedom within an eruption of violence and a country's dissolution is captured in a loose narrative structure, the episodes mixing surreal experiences with the pain of anarchy. Context and politics are pushed well into the background: this is a youth's perspective of a reality in flux and stocked with as much opportunity as danger.

The ramshackle aesthetics of a city divided provide a strong visual identity, the streets hosting bursts of violence and snippets of impish humour. Small details enhance the absurdities of war: in different contexts, a small cross and a brassiere contribute to risks of life and death. Some of the strongest dramatic moments occur at Tarek's home, as he becomes an unwilling witness to his parents Riad and Hala losing the battle to provide a viable nurturing environment. A gnawing sense of helplessness envelopes the family as the basic necessities of life - security, work, money - erode, with Riad and Hala not aligning on next steps.

The performances by a group of amateur actors perfectly fit the natural mood. Rami Doueiri (the director's younger brother) is a gangly teenager, his lackadaisical attitude helping him navigate increasing tensions. Mohamad Chamas brings an intensity to Omar, and occupies a better - and more bitter - understanding of what is at stake. Rola Al-Amin represents the ethereal attractiveness of what might become Tarek's first crush. 

The drama suffers from a few weaknesses. The odyssey to develop the Super 8 film goes on longer than necessary, then the brothel side-quest is similarly over-extended. But West Beirut is resilient, and emerges as heartfelt portrait of early adulthood under fire.



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Tuesday, 9 August 2022

Movie Review: Spiderhead (2022)

A drama combining pharmaceutical drug experimentation with the search for redemption, Spiderhead abandons interesting themes in favour of mindless thrills.

Located within an idyllic but isolated tropical setting, the low-security Spiderhead penitentiary houses inmates who have agreed to be subjects for experimental drug tests. The suave and confident Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth) and his assistant chemist Mark (Mark Paguio) operate the facility, creating and testing drugs that manipulate emotions. Jeff (Miles Teller) is one of the test subjects, still processing the trauma of having caused death by driving while impaired. He starts a friendship with fellow inmate Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett).

Steve has a soft spot for Jeff, and uses him to test a drug that enhances sexual attractiveness. But Jeff balks when forced to participate in tests of a drug that causes rage and pain. Meanwhile Steve carries his own emotional scars from a troubled upbringing, and self-administers experimental drugs to dull the pain. When a test goes wrong and a subject is harmed, the relationship between Steve and Jeff ruptures, leading to a final confrontation.

Spiderhead starts slowly, builds sufficient curiosity to warrant some attention, but then fizzles badly into a quite awful final act. Adapting a book by George Saunders, writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick take their time to create a sense of place and purpose. Good work from Hemsworth, Teller, and Smollett helps to create decent momentum by the halfway mark, the science faction exploring what human cravings the pharmaceutical industry may next choose to exploit.

But with many intriguing narrative avenues available to pursue, director Joseph Kosinki steers towards an inane climax involving bingo cards, sloppy safety and security measures, and critical devices placed in the hands of inmates. Revelations tumble out in an irrelevant torrent, and emotions oscillate with no coherence as chaos is allowed to reign. The drama disintegrates from potentially cerebral to plain stupid, and in a late act of desperation, madcap humour is inserted into the previously dour mood.

The set design is slick and sleek, but Spiderhead opts for the rancid juice.



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