Sunday 16 June 2024

Movie Review: At Close Range (1986)


Genre: Crime Drama  
Director: James Foley  
Starring: Sean Penn, Christopher Walken, Mary Stuart Masterson, Christopher Penn, Tracey Walter, David Strathairn  
Running Time: 115 minutes  

Synopsis: The setting is rural Pennsylvania in the late 1970s. Shiftless youth Brad Whitewood Jr. (Sean Penn) starts a romance with local girl Terry (Mary Stuart Masterson), and reconnects with his absentee father Brad Sr. (Christopher Walken), who leads a hardened gang engaged in industrial scale theft. Eager to raise money to start a new life with Terry, Brad Jr. is drawn into his father's orbit, with unexpected consequences for his dim brother Tommy (Christopher Penn) and their group of friends.

What Works Well: Based on actual events involving the Johnston crime clan, this is a brooding father-son drama bathed in lyrical aesthetics and moody characterizations. The cinematography (by Juan Ruiz Anchía) and artistic lighting create landscapes of forgotten Americana where youth routinely resort to alcohol and drugs to escape adult-created unattractive realities. Christopher Walken dominates his scenes with the dead-eyed charm of a cold-hearted career criminal, and a muscular Sean Penn brings a winning combination of likeability and intensity in search of upgraded prospects. The opening notes of Madonna's Live To Tell provide ominous soundtrack underpinnings.

What Does Not Work As Well: For long durations, the content is sparse and the pace slow. Director James Foley enjoys stylistic immersions in scene after scene of attitude setting, the lack of narrative thrust increasingly apparent. As a result, the exclamatory events in the final 20 minutes are more of an ill-fitting jolt than an enhancement.

Conclusion: Ferocity as a feeling rather than a force.



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Saturday 15 June 2024

Movie Review: Jane Eyre (2011)


Genre: Romantic Mystery Drama  
Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga  
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Judi Dench, Sally Hawkins, Imogen Poots  
Running Time: 120 minutes  

Synopsis: In 1800s England, a distressed Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska) leaves the Thornfield Hall estate of Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender) and finds shelter with clergyman St. John (Jamie Bell). In flashbacks, Jane's story is revealed. She was an orphan when her evil aunt Mrs. Reed (Sally Hawkins) dispatched her to a grim residential school. Upon graduation, she became the governess at Thornfield, where she met kindly housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench) and gradually fell in love with the passionate, brooding, and wealthy Rochester. But he not only harbours a dark secret, but may also be interested in marrying Blanche Ingram (Imogen Poots).

What Works Well: Writer Moira Buffini adapts Charlotte Brontë's classic novel with elegance, and packs Jane Eyre's many adventures into a brisk two hours. Drama, romance, mystery, danger, and passion mingle as Jane navigates each hurdle on her own terms, never losing sight of her worth and the basics of right and wrong. The central romance may lack sizzle but is held together by shadows of tragic pasts, and director Cary Joji Fukunaga relies on candlelight to emphasize mystery-filled interiors loaded with the presence of the unseen. Adriano Goldman's cinematography makes excellent use of the rugged and windswept English countryside. 

What Does Not Work As Well: Jane and Edward progress from verbal sparring to thorny romance in a hurry, and as Rochester's notional counterpart, Jamie Bell struggles to find the right tone as St. John.

Conclusion: This quest for happiness goes through foreboding chambers.






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Friday 14 June 2024

Movie Review: Match Point (2005)


Genre: Romantic Crime Drama  
Director: Woody Allen  
Starring: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer, Matthew Goode, Brian Cox, Penelope Wilton  
Running Time: 124 minutes  

Synopsis: In London, tennis pro Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) befriends his wealthy client Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), leading to a serious romance with Tom's sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer). Meanwhile, Tom's fiancée is Nola (Scarlett Johansson), a struggling American actress. Although Chris is also immediately attracted to Nola, Chloe is his ticket to riches. Chloe's parents (Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton) help Chris launch a successful business career, but he cannot abandon his Nola infatuation, leading to numerous complications.

What Works Well: Woody Allen takes a break from neurosis to reflect on luck, class, justice, and the conflict between stability and lust as contradictory pursuits. Both Chris and Nola are outsiders to the elite Hewett family orbit, but while he is embraced, she is rejected, setting the stage for a divergence in the illicit lovers' destiny. After a deep investment in characters, Allen introduces a couple of delicious crime and punishment twists, adding zest to the final act. The quality cast bubbles with enthusiasm, Emily Mortimer particularly excelling along a romantic arc beset by unforeseen challenges. Sparkling London locations and an opera soundtrack accompany the unpredictable trajectories.

What Does Not Work As Well: One startling turning point is arguably inconsistent with a character's core capabilities, and while the content is rich, the running time could have used a trim.

Conclusion: Love could be life-changing, or just a zero.



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Sunday 2 June 2024

Movie Review: Disturbia (2007)


Genre: Thriller  
Director: D.J. Caruso  
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Carrie-Anne Moss, David Morse, Sarah Roemer, Viola Davis  
Running Time: 105 minutes  

Synopsis: Depressed after losing his father in a car accident, teenager Kale (Shia LaBeouf) strikes his Spanish teacher and earns a sentence of house arrest for three months. With little to keep him occupied, Kale clashes with his mother Julie (Carrie-Anne Moss), but eventually settles down to a routine of spying on the neighbours. Newly arrived girl-next-door Ashley (Sarah Roemer) catches his eye, but more menacing is neighbour Robert Turner (David Morse), who may or may not be a fugitive serial killer.

What Works Well: This reimagining of Hitchcock's Rear Window is formulated for a younger audience, and enjoys a likeable cast led by Shia LaBeouf (understandably glum but sensitive), Sarah Roemer (every teenage boy's dream sexy-and-smart girl-next-door), and Aaron Yoo (as Kale's best friend Ronnie). As they get into deeper trouble snooping on the neighbourhood, co-writers Christopher Landon and Carl Ellsworth sneak in snide commentary about the suburbs as a place where secrets (whether bland or malevolent) hide behind every hedge.

What Does Not Work As Well: Director D.J. Caruso never quite gets the tone right. For too long the plot embraces the light-hearted humorous adventures of a troubled young man and the beginnings of puppy love, but the third act suddenly descends into all-out horror territory. Not enough time is spent with the antagonist, who remains a shell of boogeyman, robbing the climax of impact. 

Conclusion: The curtains and shades are there for a reason.



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Movie Review: Unthinkable (2010)


Genre: Torture Drama  
Director: Gregor Jordan  
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Carrie-Anne Moss, Michael Sheen, Stephen Root  
Running Time: 97 minutes  

Synopsis: Terrorist Yusuf (Michal Sheen), a former member of Delta Force, releases a video claiming to have armed three nuclear devices for detonation in different US cities within three days, but does not reveal the locations. He then allows himself to be arrested. The FBI's Agent Helen Brody (Carrie-Anne Moss) and a CIA black-ops operative known only as H (Samuel L. Jackson) are recruited to interrogate Yusuf. H is an expert at brutal torture techniques to extract information at any cost, horrifying Helen. Meanwhile, Yusuf is well-prepared for his ordeal.

What Works Well: The Peter Woodward script is charged with the debate around the efficacy of torture when countless lives are at stake. The torture scenes are suitably disturbing, and the performances by Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Sheen descend to the depths of human cruelty, starting from different origins but arriving at the same depraved destination.

What Does Not Work As Well: The balance between plot drivers and abuse tactics is never achieved. Director Gregor Jordan invests too much repetitive time in the torture chamber, well after the point is made that H and Yusuf are two sides of the same no-limits coin. Yusuf's motivations and demands are barely sketched-in, leaving a hollow space where fuel for his fire ought to reside. In a world without rules, Carrie-Anne Moss struggles to convince as the voice of reason and basic morality.

Conclusion: Plenty of pain for no appreciable gain.



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Saturday 1 June 2024

Movie Review: Unlocked (2017)


Genre: Espionage Thriller  
Director: Michael Apted  
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Douglas, Orlando Bloom, Toni Collette, John Malkovich  
Running Time: 98 minutes  

Synopsis: In London, CIA Agent Alice Racine (Noomi Rapace) is an interrogation specialist traumatized by her inability to prevent a bombing in Paris two years ago. She is called back to active service to interrogate an apprehended courier who holds key information about an impending terrorist attack involving biological weapons. Her assignment quickly spirals into a race against time involving Alice's ex-boss Eric Lasch (Michael Douglas), former soldier Jack Alcott (Orlando Bloom), MI5 Intelligence Chief Emily Knowles (Toni Collette), and CIA Europe Division Chief Bob Hunter (John Malkovich).

What Works Well: This a smart, well-constructed, fast-paced, and twist-filled thriller. Writer Peter O'Brien minimizes over-the-top action scenes in favour of strategic and tactical surprises, rewarding concentration, thoughtfulness, and anticipation. With an emphasis on efficiency, veteran director Michael Apted maintains control over content-rich plot machinations fueled by a trust deficit. Noomi Rapace leads a stellar cast with a combination of grim determination and resourcefulness, while Orlando Bloom, John Malkovich, Toni Collette, and Michael Douglas add quality in smallish roles.

What Does Not Work As Well: With so much going on, it's no surprise that some of the details get frazzled, and important characters are short-changed in a crowded cast list. 

Conclusion: Unlocks refreshingly serious spy schemes.



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Movie Review: Snakes On A Plane (2006)


Genre: Horror Comedy  
Director: David R. Ellis  
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Julianna Margulies  
Running Time: 106 minutes  
 
Synopsis: FBI Agent Neville Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson) is escorting star witness Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips) on a commercial flight from Hawaii to Los Angeles. But to eliminate the witness, brutal crime boss Eddie Kim has arranged a cargo of deadly snakes to be unleashed mid-air, forcing Flynn and flight attendant Claire (Julianna Margulies) to improvise a frantic survival plan.

What Works Well: This purpose-designed B-movie embraces campiness from title to credits, and offers exactly what the tin says: a none-too serious horror adventure where laughs and groans occupy adjacent economy class seats. The snakes come in all shapes, sizes, and colours, but thankfully Samuel L. Jackson is aware the predators are either rubber or computer-generated, and cuts through the carnage with nothing-can-touch-me vibes. 

What Does Not Work As Well: The premise just needs to be mindlessly accepted: securing, packing, then releasing hundreds of killer snakes onto a plane is a decidedly over-complicated murder method. There are no other plot points, as director David R. Ellis calibrates the mortality rate to achieve a respectable running time. The snake-eye-view green perspective is more muddled than threatening, and the assembled passengers ready to be poisoned or swallowed never rise above snake snack status.

Conclusion: A flight filled with hit and hiss moments.



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Sunday 26 May 2024

Movie Review: Quicksand (2003)


Genre: Thriller  
Director: John MacKenzie  
Starring: Michael Keaton, Michael Caine  
Running Time: 95 minutes  
 
Synopsis: In the South of France, violence erupts between Russian gangsters and corrupt local officials. Separately, New York-based bank auditor Martin Raikes (Michael Keaton) travels to Nice to investigate suspicious transactions being funneled through a movie studio. He meets CFO Lela Forin (Judith Godrèche) and fading actor Jake Mellows (Michael Caine), but the studio otherwise looks suspiciously like a front for nefarious activity. When Martin refuses a bribe to look the other way, he is implicated in an assassination and forced to go on the run.

What Works Well: Some of the South of France locations are attractive.

What Does Not Work As Well: This is a fetid example of tax-credit funded filmmaking with a couple of stars lured into a vacation opportunity. Michael Keaton phones-in a disinterested performance, and he might as well, since the premise of a stiff bank executive suddenly becoming an action hero collapses early. Michael Caine barely features until the final 15 minutes and almost gets away with an in-joke as an actor purely in it for the money. Elsewhere, all the characters are defined by no more than three words: Russian mobster, corrupt cop, clueless CFO, has-been actor, ugly goon. The action sinks into the soullessness of machine-generated scripting, where elaborately framing a boring banker in a JFK conspiracy theory-type assassination is deemed the easiest way to eliminate his threat.

Conclusion: Firmly stuck in the muck.



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Movie Review: Back Roads (2018)


Genre: Drama  
Director: Alex Pettyfer  
Starring: Alex Pettyfer, Jennifer Morrison, Nicola Peltz, Juliette Lewis, Robert Patrick  
Running Time: 101 minutes  

Synopsis: Harley (Alex Pettyfer) is a young man struggling to care for his three younger sisters after their mother Bonnie (Juliette Lewis) was imprisoned for killing her abusive husband. Eldest sister Amber (Nicola Peltz) is now a rebellious teenager and eager to make life miserable for her brother. 12 year-old middle sister Misty is quiet and withdrawn, while the youngest sibling Jody is only six years old. Harley is attracted to older married neighbour Callie (Jennifer Morrison), but as they start an affair, he is increasingly haunted by childhood trauma and overwhelmed by his responsibilities.

What Works Well: Co-writers Adrian Lyne and Tawni O'Dell (adapting her book) create a disturbingly dark portrait of a family wrecked by abuse and violence. In his directorial debut, Alex Pettyfer commands the challenging material and demonstrates maturity to register impact with understatement, his own performance a study in exhausted complexity. He is supported by a trio of bold women: Jennifer Morrison embraces lust that turns into a gateway for danger; Nicola Peltz is a study in misdirected antagonism; and Juliette Lewis shares a devastating scene with Pettyfer across the prison glass. 

What Does Not Work As Well: There is an awful lot going on in this family, and none of it is good. The featureless suburban setting and grim brown tones underline a depressed mood as the plot works hard to snuff out any ambers of hope.

Conclusion: Haunting, blunt, and essential.



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Movie Review: Safe Haven (2013)


Genre: Romantic Drama  
Director: Lasse Hallström  
Starring: Julianne Hough, Josh Duhamel, David Lyons, Cobie Smulders  
Running Time: 115 minutes  

Synopsis: Katie (Julianne Hough) escapes an abusive relationship and attempts to start a new life in the idyllic small community of Southport, North Carolina. She rents a secluded house, befriends her neighbour Jo (Cobie Smulders), and starts a romance with single dad Alex (Josh Duhamel), who lost his wife to cancer. Meanwhile, a Boston police detective (David Lyons) is obsessively hunting Katie down.

What Works Well: This adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel carries the requisite dreamy looks and feel good vibes, combining aesthetic gloss with a romance tinged by life's challenges. Julianne Hough and Josh Duhamel will not win many acting awards but make for an attractive couple, and do enough to register the scars of troubled pasts. The seaside village is a snug location for love to blossom, and a final gentle plot twist adds wistful elegance.

What Does Not Work As Well: Katie's backstory is kept secret for too long, leaving the antagonist to flounder in an altogether separate movie. Meanwhile the romance between Katie and Alex unfolds at a glacial pace, Hallström determined to milk the small town milieu for all its worth. The cliches include the canoe excursion disrupted by a downpour and the ever-so-charming 4th of July festivities. As a result of all the padding, the running time is a good 25 minutes longer than necessary. 

Conclusion: Passable postcard romance with some dark edges.



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