Sunday, 15 December 2019

Movie Review: Frozen River (2008)

A crime drama, Frozen River is a low-key yet tense exploration of two mothers forging an unlikely bond under extreme economic hardship.

Christmas time is approaching in frigid upstate New York. Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) is a working class mom struggling to raise her two boys, 15 year old T.J. (Charlie McDermott) and five year old Ricky. Her gambling-addicted husband has just abandoned the family, taking with him money set aside to buy a new double-wide trailer. While out looking for her husband, Ray meets and initially clashes with smuggler and car thief Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a member of the Mohawk nation.

Lila lives alone, having lost custody of her infant son at birth. Recognizing that Ray desperately needs money, Lila introduces her to the people smuggling trade across the frozen river straddling the border between Canada and the United States but within Mohawk territory. Money starts to roll in just in time for Christmas, but with state troopers starting to get suspicious and the human cargo business rife with risks and murky characters, life for both Ray and Lila gets ever more complicated.

An uncompromising sojourn to rarely explored territory, Frozen River seeks the warm flickers of humanity attempting to survive frigid physical and economic realities. The frozen St. Lawrence River presents an intimidating but open border opportunity rife with possibilities and risks, and for two women with almost nothing to lose, quick profits from makeshift human smuggling runs are impossible to resist.

But Ray and Lila are both mothers trying to safeguard or reclaim the sanctity of their families, and rather than motives of greed or power, director and writer Courtney Hunt is interested in the plight of ordinary women reduced to choices of starvation, ostracism or felony. Frozen River avoids any notions of lecturing or juvenile dot connections. The dire economic circumstances in the form of derelict housing, missing responsible males, microwaved popcorn and Tang as meals, no job opportunities, makeshift housing and property repossessions are just stark realities to be navigated for the basic cause of survival.

Hunt and cinematographer Reed Morano capture startling imagery of hauntingly beautiful and sparsely populated rural America and native reserve territory. The on-location filming near Plattsburgh creates a unique aesthetic and a sense of place detached entirely from modern urbanism, feeding the notion of people forgotten on the margins of what constitutes economic success.

Melissa Leo is a sturdy presence at the heart of the film, her mama bear performance filled with stripped-down determination and resourcefulness to do what it takes. The tragic Misty Upham provides a more subdued counterpoint, Lila's Mohawk heritage embedding a resigned disposition and quicker understanding of the tradeoffs that come with challenging laws.

With Ray as a primary focus Frozen River does shortchange Lila's background story, her child custody battle and troubled relationship with the Mohawk leadership receiving just perfunctory attention. And the ending is rushed compared to the preceding build-up. But Frozen River is a deep and fresh breath of filmmaking, carrying the sting of painfully cold realities.

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Saturday, 14 December 2019

Movie Review: Shaft (2000)

A next-generation sequel and reboot, Shaft reaches for a cool vibe but stumbles on shallow stock characters and a dull story.

In New York City, detective John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) roughs up snotty and racist rich kid Walter Wade Jr. (Christian Bale), who has just been arrested for a murder. The only witness to Wade's crime is bartender Diane Palmieri (Toni Collette), and she immediately goes into hiding. Walter is released on bail and promptly flees to Switzerland. Two years later Shaft tangles with local drug gang leader Peoples (Jeffrey Wright), then re-arrests Wade as soon as he lands back on US soil.

Again the justice system fails and Wade is released on bail, enraging Shaft who quits the force and vows to pursue private justice. Wade wants to silence Diane before she testifies against him, and hires Peoples to do the dirty work. Shaft gets help from detective Vasquez (Michelle Williams) and taxi driver Rasaan (Busta Rhymes), but has to overcome crooked cops Roselli (Dan Hedaya) and Groves (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) in his quest to find and save Diane.

The original Shaft spawned two sequels, but after 1973's Shaft In Africa the series fizzled along with the blaxploitation sub-genre. A full 27 years later the 2000 entry picks up with the nephew of the original character in the lead role. Richard Roundtree does get to reprise his star-making turn in a few incidental scenes, still as a private investigator and now waiting for his nephew to experience the futility of working within the system.

The problem with Shaft in 2000 is its utter routineness. Director and co-writer John Singleton is unable to elevate the film beyond standard-fare Hollywood-style police work and masculine posturing, with frequent nods to broken officialdom perforated by corruption and justice tilted heavily towards white rich people. These are well-worn themes, and no amount of profanity (in almost every sentence) can elevate the film towards a new edge.

The script certainly does not help. The find-the-witness central quest is misplaced into an environment where scores are settled with bullets flying around every corner and dead bodies piling up on the street. The thought that after all the killing some sort of court case will determine Wade's fate is quaint, and too thin a thread to hang a film on. The complete absence of any character backstories adds a lightweight feel to 99 minutes of superficiality.

Samuel L. Jackson slices through the film oozing self-confidence but lacking any depth. Singleton delivers a few deft directorial touches and handles the frequent shootouts with decent cohesion, and Isaac Hayes' classic Theme from Shaft enlivens the otherwise forgettable soundtrack. But rather than a cool cat, in 2000 Shaft is just another angry cop.

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Movie review: Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

A psychological drama, Martha Marcy May Marlene delves into the shadows hanging over the troubled psyche of a cult survivor.

Deep in the Catskill Mountains, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) escapes from a commune and sex cult consisting of young men and women under the influence of creepy leader Patrick (John Hawkes), who granted her the name Marcy May, and his sidekick Watts (Brady Corbet). Martha makes it to the posh lakefront Connecticut vacation home of her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who is married to architect Ted (Hugh Dancy).

Martha and Lucy have a strained relationship, and the peace and quiet Ted craves at his vacation sanctuary is disrupted by Martha's unsettling presence and unconventional behaviour. In flashback Martha's experiences at the commune are revealed, including her increasing attachment to Patrick and the commune's involvement in criminal activity. It becomes clear to Lucy her sister is going to need professional help, but Patrick may not be ready to accept Martha's departure.

Featuring a brooding mood and a haunting debut performance from Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a sombre experience. Martha's odd and argumentative behaviour at Lucy's house, including public nudity, nonchalantly walking in on Lucy and Ted during lovemaking, and a psychotic episode of mistaken identity, lay bare the reality that while she has physically escaped Patrick's cult, the damage lingers deep within her.

And she is not quite sure where she belongs. In the cold and mostly empty lakeside house Martha starts longing for the familiar comforts of the cramped commune, where similarly lost souls looked out for each other and kept warm at night sleeping in the same room. Her phone calls back to the commune are juxtaposed with flashbacks of the crimes Patrick is capable of inspiring, and suddenly Lucy's house may no longer be a safe haven.

Director and writer Sean Durkin is more interested in a slow reveal of Martha's troubled history rather than any character evolution. He builds unease by progressively exposing the horrors beneath the surface of a group of young adults supposedly living off the land. Patrick is the classic egotistical manipulator using psychobabble and veiled threats to control others and satisfy his twisted needs. While Martha's life chapter before the commune remains vague, her rebellious nature clearly led her down the wrong path.

And just as the pre-commune origins are skipped, the postscript is also left open. Martha Marcy May Marlene is concerned with the young survivor's middle chapters. Her bad decisions past and present are never far away, and neither are the dreadful consequences.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Movie Review: Swiss Army Man (2016)

A drama and adventure about an unlikely friendship forged in the pursuit of rescue, Swiss Army Man is a challenging journey into the disorienting recesses of mental illness.

Hank (Paul Dano) is stranded alone on an island. About to hang himself out of desperation, he notices a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) washed up on the beach. With the dead body emitting a regular stream of farts, Hank rides the corpse like a jet ski to the relative shelter of an undefined wooded area, where scattered trash signals nearby civilization and the opportunity for salvation. Hank cannot bring himself to abandon the corpse, and they take shelter together in a cave.

The dead body helps Hank again by vomiting out a stream of drinkable fresh water, and then starts to communicate, adopting the name Manny and the persona of a naive but well-meaning friend. Hank introduces Manny to the picture of a dream woman called Sarah on his cell phone, leading to discussions about masturbation, confidence and Hank's difficult and repressed upbringing. Within his pants Manny's penis springs to action and starts pointing the way out of the forest. Hank carries his friend through the difficult wooded terrain, with Sarah's house as the intended destination.

At face value Swiss Army Man is dumbfounding and more than irritating. The film requires tolerance of a talking, water-emitting corpse that can launch itself like a rocket, endless conversations about masturbation, pop psychology discussions related to dysfunctional parenting, a fart routine repeated too many times, and a penis-as-compass. Hank also appears unable to navigate out of relatively easy terrain, and instead gets distracted by rudimentary role playing related to a singular encounter with an unattainable girl.

Co-directors and co-writers Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan make none of it easy or rationally accessible, laying out events in a stubborn approximation of a dissonant reality where everything appears grounded but actually nothing is. Swiss Army Man works better as a searing exploration of a catastrophic mental illness and severe personality disorder, a representation of the world as only the traumatized and scarred Hank sees it. The final act reveals the very few clues as Hank's physical location is suddenly clarified and Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and a few other characters come into focus.

Most of the film features Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe in a ghastly world of their own, and both actors pull off exceptionally difficult roles. Dano hints at the emotional distress corroding Hank, while Radcliffe gently normalizes the macabre concept of an animated corpse with humour and a surrender to an alternative reality.

Swiss Army Man demands a willingness to accept an incongruous sense of existence. It's a hazardous entertainment experience, but also a courageous one.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Movie Review: Patriots Day (2016)

A crime drama recreating the 2013 Boston Marathon terrorist bombings, Patriots Day is a taut and precisely crafted fact-based thriller.

It's April 2013 in Boston, and Sergeant Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg) is working his way out of the police doghouse for kicking a fellow officer. Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) assigns Saunders to menial crowd control duties at the marathon finish line, where terrorist brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev detonate two pressure cooker bombs. The bombings narrowly miss Tommy's wife Carol (Michelle Monaghan), but three innocent people are killed and hundreds injured, many suffering lower body injuries and amputations.

The FBI's Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) takes charge of the investigation, and through a review of CCTV and cell phone video the Tsarnaevs are flagged as primary suspects. The brothers attempt to flee by car to New York, victimizing MIT security guard Sean Collier and carjacking college student Dun Meng. Enforcement authorities catch up with them in the suburb of Walkerton, where Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons) leads a small police detachment.

Although Tommy and Carol Saunders are fictional, most of the rest of the characters populating Patriots Day are real. Director and co-writer Peter Berg, again teaming with regular collaborator Wahlberg, effectively wraps his film around the terrorism attack and the tense days that followed. Given the time and geographic sprawl of events, the film is surprisingly spry, Berg displaying a welcome nimbleness to capture diverse perspectives and a drama unfolding in discrete but connected chapters.

While one objective is to celebrate the Boston Strong spirit that emerged after the attack, Patriots Day does not sterilize the often imperfect actions of investigators and enforcement agencies. The FBI's DesLauriers and Boston Police's Davis lock horns in a debate around whether to publicly release the photos of the presumed suspects, as hours pass by and their identities remain a mystery. Later, police actions are often chaotic and uncoordinated as multiple agencies run into each other, poor discipline and miscommunication allowing the bombers to remain on the loose longer than necessary.

A decision to essentially lock down the city and ask residents to shelter in place while SWAT teams conduct door to door searches is portrayed as an adhoc martial law declaration, and interrogators are also challenged in attempting to crack the silence of Tamerlan's arrested devout wife Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist, in a small but chilling role).

With plenty of ground to cover Berg avoids dawdling in one place for too long, and mastefully introduces enough background to provide depth to most of the key characters. The bombing scene is haunting in its random cruelty, and the Watertown shootout is recreated as a study of violent chaos, unsuspecting police officers tangling with determined terrorists at close quarters.

Wahlberg cruises through the surreal events in the role of guide and representative of Boston as a proud if temperamental society, tough and caring in equal measures. Trent Reznor contributes a suitably eerie music score, often stripped down to a forceful continuous sound effect conveying exasperated tension as a community holds its breath in the grip of unknown assailants.

The worst atrocities spawn remarkable resiliency, and Patriots Day captures both extremes of an exceptional chapter in the life of a city.

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Sunday, 8 December 2019

Movie Review: Seven Days In May (1964)

A Cold War political thriller, Seven Days In May uses a tense military takeover scenario in the United States as an avenue to explore themes of democracy, loyalty and nationalism in the shadow of a global conflict.

It's the early 1970s, and U.S. President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) is facing severe criticism and protests for pushing ahead with a nuclear disarmament deal with the Soviet Union. He believes the agreement to be the only pathway to peace, but the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster) believes the President is severely undermining national security.

Scott's right-hand man Colonel "Jiggs" Casey (Kirk Douglas) picks up cryptic clues suggesting Scott is planning a coup d'etat within a few days, using a covert military unit funded without appropriate authority and assembled and trained at a secret base near El Paso, Texas.

Jiggs takes his evidence to Lyman, who believes enough to investigate. He dispatches his chief aid Paul Girard (Martin Balsam) to interrogate a Navy commander stationed in the Mediterranean, trusted Senator Ray Clark (Edmond O'Brien) heads to El Paso, and Jiggs approaches Scott's former mistress Eleanor Holbrook (Ava Gardner) to dig up potentially useful dirt. But with the clock ticking, finding hard evidence against the plotters will prove a challenge.

With the Cold War at its peak after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Seven Days In May joined Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe in a trio of 1964 films exploring various what-ifs of the conflict. Based on a novel by Charles W. Bailey II and Fletcher Knebel with a script by none other than Rod Serling, Seven Days In May delves into the perils of harbouring trust in a peace process, and at least as a starting point comes closest to predicting the actual course of negotiations eventually pursued by the United States and the Soviet Union.

The film uses the Cold War as background stage set. The focus is on the erosion of trust in a President's actions at the highest levels, and the potential for a cabal of generals and politicians to hide in plain sight while plotting a governmental takeover. Serling places intrigue and evidence gathering at the forefront of the story, Seven Days In May not featuring a single act of serious violence despite the threat of massive military and political upheaval. Director John Frankenheimer luxuriates in choreographing deep focus black and white scenes, turning the nation's most secretive boardrooms and offices into cerebral battlegrounds.

Along with star Kirk Douglas, Frankenheimer was instrumental in pulling the project together, and he assembled a dream cast, adding Lancaster, March, Gardner, O'Brien and Balsam, all in good form and tackling grim roles with requisite seriousness. And the film passes the baton around the lead roles at regular intervals, Douglas, Gardner and then March taking turns in spotlight, with Lancaster a menacing presence throughout.

By the end March rolls back the years and emerges as a dominant presence, his scenes opposite Douglas (revealing the conspiracy threads) and Lancaster (a tense confrontational showdown) both mesmeric. Serling's script may be faulted for underplaying the President's hand and authority as the climax approaches, but also allows for the epic interpersonal clashes to play out.

As the race against time to unmask the conspiracy hurtles towards the designated hour of action, the film grabs opportunities to debate the merits of pursuing peace. General Scott cannot fathom how a powerful ideological foe can ever be trusted to disarm and has the public on his side, while Lyman, with sinking approval ratings, is convinced negotiating a treaty from a position of strength is the only path to a non-ruinous future. It's an eternal warmongers versus peacemakers polemic, and sometimes nothing less than the future of a powerful nation hangs in the balance.

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Thursday, 5 December 2019

Movie Review: Babe (1995)

A humourous animal drama oriented to children, Babe contains some simple life lessons in an attractive and easily accessible package featuring cute talking farm critters.

Sheep farmer Arthur Hoggett (James Cromwell) wins the young orphaned pig Babe (voice of Christine Cavanaugh) by guessing its weight at the state fair. The pig arrives at Hogget's farm and befriends the sheepdog Fly (Miriam Margolyes), although fellow sheepdog Rex (Hugo Weaving) is less hospitable. Babe also tangles with the troublesome duck Ferdinand (Danny Mann) and entitled house cat Duchess (Russi Taylor).

Babe settles in to life at the farm and gradually displays an aptitude for sheepdog duties, adopting a gentler approach to guiding the flock and establishing a connection with elderly sheep Maa (Miriam Flynn). But with Rex growing more resentful, wild dogs attacking the sheep and Hoggett starting to think of entering Babe into a sheepdog competition, plenty of challenges lie ahead for the little pig.

A gentle story of belonging, Babe is a modern day fairytale. Co-produced by George Miller and directed by Chris Noonan, the Australian production cleverly deploys special effects to add speech and choreographed movements to the world of cute animals. The often adorable farm creatures only talk to each other, leaving the oblivious humans in their own sheltered domain.

So we learn dogs think sheep are inherently stupid, the sheep think all dogs are dangerous wolves, the duck knows it's at greatest risk of becoming dinner and therefore takes on rooster duties to try and serve some useful function. Meanwhile, the house cat is well, just luxuriating in entitlement. The cows and horses here are reduced to background extras contributing some wisecracks, while the annoying mice animate the chapter introduction title cards.

Through it all the innocent but curious and brave young Babe is the orphan who has to carve an identity and a purpose in foreign surroundings. He gets help from the sympathetic Fly, who believes Babe can learn to fit in on the farm, and encourages his ventures into sheepdog duties. Rex is much more hostile and insistent a pig should not be trusted with a dog's duties.

Meanwhile Hoggett is the one main human character, a resourceful farmer of few words who spots opportunity where others only see turmoil. Hoggett establishes an early connection of trust and belief in Babe and can see beyond superficialities to focus on abilities, even risking humiliation to draw out the pig's potential.

Frequent touches of humour and brief scenes of danger maintain the required balance for younger audiences. Babe is tender, innocent and approachable, breathing from the genuine air of farm-inspired learnings.

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Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Movie Review: The Hunting Party (2007)

A journalists-in-peril adventure, The Hunting Party has a potentially good story to tell but features an imbalance between danger and levity.

War zone journalist Simon Hunt (Richard Gere) and his cameraman and close friend Duck (Terrence Howard) enjoy an adrenaline-fuelled life covering the world's most dangerous conflicts. But in 1994, Simon suffers an on-air meltdown while covering the brutal war and ethnic cleansing atrocities in Bosnia. He is fired and his career goes into a downward spiral. Duck eventually loses track of his friend and secures a cushy job as the chief cameraman for the network's main anchor Franklin Harris (James Brolin).

In 2000, Duck and Franklin along with rookie reporter and nepotism beneficiary Benjamin Strauss (Jesse Eisenberg) arrive in Bosnia to cover the 5 year anniversary of the war-ending peace treaty. Simon re-enters Duck's life, claiming to know the whereabouts of wanted fugitive Dragoslav "The Fox" Bogdanović (Ljubomir Kerekeš), one of the main purveyors of ethnic cleansing. Duck and Benjamin join Hunt on a dangerous journey deep into Serb-controlled territory, where suspicious locals and UN peacekeepers immediately mistake the journalists as a CIA hit-squad, leading to surreal encounters.

Filmed in Croatia and loosely inspired by real events recounted in an Esquire magazine article, The Hunting Party attempts a difficult balancing act. The Bosnian conflict resulted in over 100,000 deaths and horrific acts of massacre and ethnic cleansing in the heart of Europe. While levity can be an antidote for brutality, here writer and director Richard Shepard tries to have it both ways by exposing his trio of intrepid journalists to genuine horror and danger then angling for laughs. The mix rarely works and more often leaves an unsatisfactory taste in the mouth.

In 2007 this story was a condemnation of inaction. By chronicling the misadventures of a group of bickering journalists as they get close to The Fox within a couple of days of amateurish searching, the film rightly exposes foot-dragging by an international community seemingly unwilling to seriously go after the architects of war. Since then the wheels of justice have turned, leaving The Hunting Party in mid-narrative territory.

Idea fragments, some more promising than others, are introduced on the periphery of the main plot. Simon Hunt's emotional collapse and career disintegration after repeated exposure to violence is a welcome acknowledgement of post traumatic stress disorder creeping up on the seemingly immune, but deserved more exposition. Much less successful is the hurried injection of a barely-baked romance to personalize his tragedy and turn the quest to find The Fox into a personal vendetta.

Richard Gere, Terrence Howard and Jesse Eisenberg are functional without ever departing from stock characterizations. Diane Kruger gets one scene as a mysterious informant demanding money from the CIA (as she is convinced the journalists are all undercover agents) to reveal The Fox's hideout.

Despite exposing snippets from a tragic and cinematically underexposed conflict, The Hunting Party misses its prey.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 2 December 2019

Movie Review: Café Society (2016)

A romance with mild humour, Café Society finds writer and director Woody Allen exploring familiar love entanglement themes with a light touch.

It's the 1930s, and Phil Stern (Steve Carell) is a slick and successful Hollywood talent agent. His awkward nephew Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) arrives from New York City seeking adventure and a potential career. Phil eventually gives Bobby a job and introduces him to his assistant Veronica (Kristen Stewart). Bobby is immediately smitten, although Veronica discloses she already has a boyfriend she calls Doug.

Back in New York City, Bobby's brother Ben (Corey Stoll) is rising up the ranks of mobsterism and buys into a swish nightclub, while sister Evelyn (Sari Lennick) is married to the intellectual Leonard (Stephen Kunken) and dealing with a boorish neighbour. In Hollywood Bobby befriends married couple Rad and Steve (Parker Posey and Paul Schneider) and continues his pursuit of Veronica, unaware that "Doug" is really Uncle Phil, who keeps on promising Veronica he will leave his wife.

Romance between an older married man and the younger woman, a years-long mutual infatuation that must remain out of reach, and emotionally insecure and hopelessly in love men making and breaking commitments. Woody Allen's favourite themes all make an appearance in Café Society, a film as much about mood and place as it is about plot.

With loving care Allen recreates the sparkly upper echelons of 1930s Hollywood as a swirl around powerful agent Phil Stern, a man on a first name basis with anyone who matters, with a deal in the making and snippets of conversation ready for every person in the room. For both contrast and comparison, back in New York Allen tracks the rise of Ben Dorfman along the mob's career ladder, with short and sharp acts of violence (played for laughs) clearing his path towards managing a glitzy nightclub. From their kitchen parents Rose and Marty Dorfman (Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott) worry and bicker about the progress of both their sons.

While the material is warmly recognizable as Allen operating well within his comfort zone, it is all too safe. Precious little about Café Society is fresh or demanding, as the film meanders its way towards indecisive lovers settling for selfish choices that best fit both Hollywood's dream factory and New York's grittier scene. The writing is sometimes clever but also often too eager to over-reach for the profound zinger. Allen's directing is confidently laidback, allowing the actors' motions to occupy the patient cameras. His uncredited narration is quite unnecessary.

At 33 years old Jesse Eisenberg can still just about pull off his young-man-opening-his-eyes-to-the-world schtick, but at least here he gets to grow with the role as Bobby evolves into a self-assured family and business man. Carell has a lesser arc as Phil Stern, a man confident about everything except the value of his long-lasting marriage. Kristen Stewart is fine as the naturally seductive muse to both Eisenberg as protégé and Carell as mentor, and she emerges as the convincing focal point for both men. Blake Lively appears relatively late as another Veronica in Bobby's life.

Resisting the urge to tackle any new and thorny challenges, Café Society settles for easy on the eyes and intellectually cozy.

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Saturday, 30 November 2019

Movie Review: A Prayer For The Dying (1987)

A character study set in the shadow of the Irish Troubles, A Prayer For The Dying offers a plethora of moral dilemmas but is hampered by choppy momentum. 

In Northern Ireland an Irish Republican Army unit including Martin Fallon (Mickey Rourke) and Liam Docherty (Liam Neeson) mistakenly blows up a bus full of school girls. Martin flees to London and attempts to put violence behind him, but mortician and mobster boss Jack Meehan (Alan Bates) and his psychotic brother Billy (Christopher Fulford) pressure Martin into one last murder to eliminate an underworld rival in exchange for a new passport and money.

Martin reluctantly commits the murder, but is witnessed in the act by Father Da Costa (Bob Hoskins). Martin spares the priest's life but follows him to his church and confesses to the murder in the confession booth, forcing the Father into silence. Meehan is unhappy about the loose end and sets about intimidating both Martin and Da Costa. Docherty embarks on his own search to bring Martin back into the revolutionary fold, while Martin starts to develop feelings for Da Costa's blind niece Anna (Sammi Davis).

A drama with snippets of action and tension, A Prayer For The Dying works best as an examination of regret as the dark shadows of Martin Fallon's victims finally catch up with him. The film's focus is on the collision between his intentions to start anew and the reality of his reputation as an expert in killing. A hardened criminal cannot just walk away, and everyone from his former IRA colleagues to the gangsters of London and English enforcement authorities are interested in finding and pressuring him.

The film is based on a Jack Higgins novel, and he helped to co-write the script. Mike Hodges directs, and both are victimized by content spread too thin. By the time the characters are all introduced and the tense dynamic is established between Fallon, Da Costa and Meehan, the film stalls. Hodges has to find a rickety excuse to keep Fallon hanging around near the church, and chunks of screen time are consumed by uninteresting side quests including the unhinged Billy running loose, the clunky romance between Fallon and Anna, and Da Costa tangling with Meehan.

Mickey Rourke sports bright red hair as a neon sign to his Irishness, but does not bother to change it to any other colour once Fallon is designated Britain's most wanted fugitive. Rourke's performance walks a tightrope between cool and disinterested, and ultimately he does just enough to hold the film together. Bob Hoskins never quite convinces as an ex-military operative now playing at being a man of religion. Alan Bates bites into the role of Jack Meehan with an expensive overcoat, shiny teeth and a snarky smile, taking immense pride in preparing corpses for burials and ordering his goons to create more.

Fallon has to decide whether to kill or not, Da Costa whether to betray his vows and talk or not, and Meehan whether he can tolerate witnesses to his dirty work. A Prayer For The Dying asks the right questions, but is not as good at concentrating on the answers.

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