Sunday, 19 May 2019

Movie Review: Crazy Heart (2009)

A drama and romance set in the country music world, Crazy Heart is a sincere story about second chances at love and life.

Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) is a 57 year old washed up and broke alcoholic country music singer reduced to touring on his own in his beat-up truck and playing at bowling alleys. At a bar gig in Santa Fe he meets Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a single mom to four year old Buddy. She is an aspiring music reporter and interviews Bad before and after his show. A cautious romance develops between them.

The next stop is Phoenix, where Bad accepts the humiliation of opening for country music star Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), who was mentored by Bad early in his career. Despite some tension between the two men Tommy encourages Bad to get back to writing as a way to earn royalties. After a mishap on the road the relationship between Bad and Jean deepens, but his excessive drinking will cause a rift.

A film that drinks deeply from the sorrows and regrets of a derailed life, Crazy Heart is a human profile about still finding hope amidst the carnage. With a monumental Jeff Bridges performance, director and writer Scott Cooper, adapting the Thomas Cobb book, jumps into Blake's pick-up truck and crafts a tender story of broken dreams and an unlikely chance at new love.

At the film's outset Blake is reduced to the loneliness level of human existence. No backing band, a lost family, hardly any friends, and just a smattering of remaining fans, he is the living embodiment of a mostly forgotten has-been, spending his days in derelict motel rooms watching porn. Even drowning his miseries is a challenge, as he cannot afford to buy alcohol and is reduced to the charity of store owners to hand him a free bottle.

From this beginning Crazy Heart charts a course towards something resembling a revival. The intervention of others is crucial. Blake's manager insists he opens for Tommy, who in return demonstrates kindness to his mentor and hints at a potential path to recovery. In the meantime Blake forges an unexpected connection with Jean and her son Buddy, stirring within him a renewed yearning for a more complete life.

The film includes plenty of country music, with soundtrack contributions from T Bone Burnett, Stephen Bruton, and Ryan Bingham. Adding to the film's authenticity Bridges and Farrell perform their in-concert songs, and the music never gets in the way of the narrative. Robert Duvall has a small role as a bartender and longtime friend.

With an aesthetic dominated by the wide open skies of mostly rural America, Cooper and Bridges manage a remarkable feat: Bad Blake, despite all his faults, is a human being worth knowing and caring about. Beneath all the flabby grime is a sensitive songwriter and a man who can be rescued. All it takes is a  Crazy Heart to point the way.

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Saturday, 18 May 2019

Movie Review: Burnt (2015)

A drama set in the world of haute cuisine, Burnt is an overcooked attempt to stage a high-stakes thriller in the kitchen.

Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper) was once a top chef in Paris, but lost everything due to a life of excess and addictions. After three years of self-imposed exile to clean up his life, he heads to London to reestablish his reputation. He conspires with food critic Simone (Uma Thurman) to secure the chef role at the prestigious hotel restaurant of his former partner Tony Balerdi (Daniel Brühl), although Tony ensures Adam stays clean through weekly check-ups with Dr. Rosshilde (Emma Thompson).

Adam hires a kitchen team from among his former associates, including Michel (Omar Sy) and Max (Riccardo Scamarcio). And after some effort he convinces the promising Helene Sweeney (Sienna Miller) to join his crew. Adam renews his rivalry with chef Montgomery Reece (Matthew Rhys) and obsessively drives his staff in pursuit of the elusive three-star Michelin Guide rating.

Almost everything about Burnt is overdone. Adam Jones is an unlikeable character ripped from cheap action thrillers, leather-jacketed and obsessive about getting his revenge on a world that chewed him up and spit him out. Whether he does or does not achieve his third Michelin star means everything to him, but director John Wells, filming a Steven Knight script, is very far from making anyone else care.

A large part of the problem is the unironic setting within the tony world of unaffordable uppity restaurants where food critics opine about the minutiae of whether the scallops stayed on the fire for seven seconds too long. And Wells does not help his cause by overheating all the emotions to child tantrum levels, then plastering the film from start to end with kitchen staff shouting at each other and close-up shots of food being prepared and served. To suit the milieu Cooper does his best foul-mouthed impression of Gordon Ramsey on a gnarly day.

Jones' background and intriguing sexual preferences, including a complex relationship with Tony, are promising topics when touched upon, and the film would have greatly benefited by better exploring the man outside the kitchen.

Instead, Burnt loudly smashes the promising dishes against the wall and settles for 100 minutes of food porn.

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Movie Review: The Year Of Living Dangerously (1982)

A drama and romance, The Year Of Living Dangerously enjoys the tense setting of a foreign country on a knife's edge, but sacrifices much of its political intrigue in favour of a trite romance.

It's 1965, and Australian Broadcasting Service journalist Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) arrives in Jakarta on his first foreign assignment to cover rising tensions in Indonesia, where President Sukarno is whipping up anti-Western sentiments and fending off Communist threats. Hamilton socializes uneasily with other veteran foreign correspondents, and establishes a working relationship with local fixer and cameraman Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt).

With Billy's help Guy secures a coveted interview with the communist party leader, and then meets Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), the assistant to British military attache Colonel Henderson (Bill Kerr). A romance starts to blossom between Jill and Guy, while tensions rise in the country with rumours of an arms build-up and impending coup, and Billy grows increasingly disillusioned with the Sukarno regime.

Two stories vie for attention within The Year Of Living Dangerously, and ultimately director Peter Weir opts to maximize the romance elements between the naive journalist and sophisticated government agent. An argument can be made that with two alluring and photogenic stars in Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver at his disposal Weir made the right choice.

But this is also an opportunity wasted, because the film invests heavily in a sense of place wracked by political uncertainty, and the setting is wasted on what transforms into a pretty traditional and rather unmemorable story of mutual infatuation.

The first half of the film is better. Adapting the book by Christopher Koch, Weir carefully creates an Indonesia beset by poverty and governed by an autocratic President losing his grip on power. With nervous soldiers at every street corner and mobs taking over the streets, Hamilton finds himself a misfit with a group of caustic journalists covering a country in the throes of unraveling.

After acclimatizing to the oppressive heat he latches on to the beguiling Billy to guide him through the political swamps. And the character of Billy, with his secret files, shadow puppets and eloquent prose, emerges as the best thing about The Year Of Living Dangerously. With Linda Hunt superb in a male role filled with complexity and self-doubt, the film occasionally threatens to break into genuinely thoughtful commentary about the third world's complex relationship with great military powers.

But Weir then shortchanges the politics and investigative journalism, as these elements become a distant backdrop to Hamilton and Jill courting each other and pondering the sense of starting a relationship when she is scheduled to shortly leave the country. For awkward periods Gibson defaults to stock angry young lover mannerisms, and the sense of menace unfortunately seeps out of the dark and hot Indonesian nights.

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Movie Review: The Seduction Of Joe Tynan (1979)

A political drama, The Seduction Of Joe Tynan explores the intoxicating power of politics and the price paid in pursuit of a high profile.

Charismatic and photogenic New York Senator Joe Tynan (Alan Alda) is the rising star in the Democratic Party. He is married to Ellie (Barbara Harris), who tolerates his career despite the tension caused by his frequent absences from home and their two children's growing detachment from their dad. To further raise his profile Tynan decides to lead opposition to the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Anderson, a southerner with a chequered record on racial segregation.

This places Tynan at odds with his friend and long-time Senator Birney (Melvyn Douglas), whose health is fading. Tynan starts working on the Anderson file with labor lawyer Karen Traynor (Meryl Streep), who uses her connections in the south to dig up dirt on the nominee judge. Passion soon ignites between Joe and Karen, further straining his home life, but his career momentum appears unstoppable.

A rich representation of what a career in politics entails, The Seduction Of Joe Tynan moves smoothly between committee meetings, backroom dealings and rural backwaters as strategies are crafted, pressure applied and the sometimes dirty work of laying traps and outmanoeuvring opponents is plotted.

The democratic process demands that willing individuals like Tynan bear the load of governance in the public spotlight, elevating them to celebrity status and the associated trappings. The Seduction Of Joe Tynan succeeds in highlighting the emotional and personal toll of public office. Directed by Jerry Schatzberg and written by Alda, the film is a fast-paced jaunt through one man's upwards trajectory. Equally balanced between the Senator's work and family, Schatzberg deftly keeps an eye on all aspects of Tynan's life and avoids getting bogged down in any one subplot.

Alda's script at times descends into the obvious, some of the political machinations and family fights drawn with stark crayons. But generally The Seduction Of Joe Tynan captures a fundamental struggle between the lure of public adoration and the essential grounding of a personal life. As the Senator flies closer to the sun, the glare of positive publicity and euphoria of future potential obscure what matters, leaving his wife and family in the shadows.

While Alda's performance in the lead role is confined to well-defined and often stiff parameters, the two actresses portraying the women in Tynan's life shine. Streep brings uncommon depth to the "other woman", displaying seriousness, seduction, playfulness and introspection as Karen influences the Senator's life. Barbara Harris also shines as the wife intent on carving out an identity and pushing back against the increasing intrusion of politics into her life, and yet wanting to support her husband's career.

Reserving judgment on Tynan's decisions, the film allows the trade-offs to bump against each other. Ultimately the question is not about right or wrong, but the levels of accommodation available for driven politicians to help shape a country.

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Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Movie Review: Point Blank (1967)

A stark revenge thriller, Point Blank offers hard-hitting action enhanced by large dollops of audacious style.

In San Francisco, Walker (Lee Marvin) participates in a heist of gangland money at the abandoned Alcatraz prison. He is double-crossed by his presumed partner Mal Reese (John Vernon), who not only shoots Walker but also steals his wife Lynne (Sharon Acker). Walker recovers and is determined to recover his $93,000 share of the heist. He teams up with the mysterious Yost (Keenan Wynn), who also wants to find Reese and dismantle the criminal syndicate he works for.

Walker locates Lynne in Los Angeles and she leads him to car dealer Stegman (Michael Strong), who knows where Reese is hiding. Walker partners with Lynne's sister Chris (Angie Dickinson) to infiltrate Reese's fortified building. But to get his money back Walker will need to work his way up the syndicate's hierarchy, where men called Carter (Lloyd Bochner), Brewster (Carroll O'Connor) and Fairfax call the shots, and a sniper (James Sikking) dispatches threats with ruthless efficiency.

An uncompromising, almost surreal experience, Point Blank adapts The Hunter by Richard Stark into a unique hyper-kinetic film. With star Lee Marvin deeply involved in the film's production along with director John Boorman, the film combines innovative sound editing, a neo-noir visual style and bursts of resolute action interlaced with patient, frequently dialogue-free set-up sequences. An undercurrent of sardonic humour completes the package.

Boorman also plays with Walker's memories, inserting short eruptions of previous incidents (most notably his point blank shooting by Reese) to highlight the rage driving his quest for revenge. Unsubstantiated but nevertheless compelling artistic arguments can be made for the entire story to exist in Walker's mind as he lies dying at Alcatraz, his smooth, seemingly indestructible and faultless glide through the ranks of gangsters the ultimate final fantasy.

Several scenes stand out as cinematic classics. Walker purposefully strides through an empty airport hallway, the clicking of his shoes on the tiles going on for an eternity. An exotically lit fight in the backroom of a noisy bar eventually synchronizes screams of agony with the screaming of the world's most annoying singer. A nervous money exchange within the paved Los Angeles river bed turns into a delicious triple cross ambush opportunity. And when it's time to extract information from the sleazy car dealer Stegman, Walker demonstrates the values of a unique test drive.

In one his finest roles Lee Marvin cuts through Point Blank with the precision of a sharp scalpel. He is ably supported by Dickinson in a relatively small role, and a deep cast of character actors bringing life and death to layers of grim faced bad guys.

Throughout, Boorman maintains a high level of dynamism, the action swiftly bouncing between locations and the level of tension rising as Walker gets closer to the tip of the criminal pyramid. And it's not only lonely at top, but also deadly.

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Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Movie Review: The White Crow (2018)

A biography of Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev including events leading up to his 1961 defection to the West, The White Crow is purposeful but exceptionally slow and prolonged.

The film intermingles incidents from three time periods. Nureyev was born on a train in 1938 and endured a childhood in rural poverty despite the best efforts of his loving and dedicated mother. Nureyev's father, a stoic hunter, meets his son for the first time in 1945 after returning from the war.

In the 1950s Nureyev (Oleg Ivenko) combines his talent with intense determination to become the Kirov Ballet's principal dancer, and instructor Alexander Pushkin (Ralph Fiennes) helps him perfect his art. Pushkin's wife also takes an interest in Nureyev's career and well-being. Always displaying a rebellious streak, Nureyev pushes the rules for male dancers, borrowing from the grace and fluidity of women's movement to galvanize the male role.

In 1961 the Kirov company is on a five week tour of Paris as part of a propaganda campaign to demonstrate Soviet artistic superiority. Nureyev stretches the limits set by the KGB handlers, touring the city on his own and socializing with French dancers and locals. He also befriends socialite Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchopoulos), who helps introduce him to the Parisian social highlights.

A portrait of a self-made dance star, The White Crow conveys the single-minded and selfish fortitude Nureyev deployed to rise from humble beginnings to the bright lights of the world's most prestigious stages. The period details are enjoyable and Nureyev's personality is compelling, but the movie is not. In addition to his supporting role Ralph Fiennes assumes director duties, and is unable to sharpen the story into a worthwhile cinematic drama.

The film unfolds at a ponderous pace, stretching over two hours but stuck in the same emotional space throughout. With an absence of music and an overabundance of pregnant pauses and dull passages, The White Crow succeeds only as an admirable impression of still life.

The childhood scenes are black and white snippets, and most of the movie takes place in Russia of the 1950s and Paris of 1961. The ballet training studios and performance stages are similar in either setting, and it is sometimes difficult to track which time zone a scene is in. In adapting the book by Julie Kavanagh, screenwriter David Hare does not bother to define the people around Nureyev. The husband-and-wife Pushkins and Clara come closest to influencing Nureyev's life, but they remain vague tertiary characters, devoid of context.

For a long film about ballet, Fiennes reins in any tendencies for protracted dance scenes. Instead, an inordinate amount of time is invested in Nureyev soaking in Parisian art and culture, while KGB agents keep an eye from a distance. Both the dancer admiring classic art and the spooks surveilling their man are both immersed in something more engaging than this film.

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Monday, 13 May 2019

Movie Review: Green Room (2015)

A horror siege thriller, Green Room recycles familiar elements into a blotchy package.

The underground punk band Ain't Rights, including bassist Pat (Anton Yelchin) and guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat), is touring the Pacific Northwest in a beat-up van, not even making enough money for gas. Their fortunes look even dimmer when their latest gig is cancelled and replaced by a performance at a diner in front of totally disinterested patrons. In desperation they accept a show at a remote clubhouse frequented by neo-Nazi skinheads.

The crowd is rough but the performance is ok and the band is about to depart with a decent payout when they stumble onto a violent crime scene in the ramshackle green room. Ain't Rights along with the victim's friend Amber (Imogen Poots) now know too much and find themselves in hostile surroundings, locked up in the waiting room as the skinheads' leader Darcy (Patrick Stewart) plots a cover-up.

A low-budget independent production, Green Room provides a skinhead spin to the well-worn horror cliches of bumpkin dangers lurking in the woods and a small group beleaguered in a compound with help out of reach.

The premise of punk rock as an aspirational occupation for the scrappy protagonists introduces a whiff of originality to the first third of the film, but then fades away as a narrative thread. Director and writer Jeremy Saulnier struggles to concoct enough incidents to stretch the running time to 95 minutes, and Green Room suffers from the familiar ailment of utter incompetence by the bloodthirsty attackers at every crucial juncture. Darcy's troops appear to have the numbers, weapons, savagery and terrain familiarity to end the siege within a few minutes, but always find lame excuses not to do so.

Some character depth would have helped, but Green Room almost goes out of its way to keep all the key people on both sides of the siege as flat as possible. Despite bassist Pat and skinhead leader Darcy emerging as the leaders on both sides of the divide, the film ends with precious little revealed about either of them, the talents of Anton Yelchin and Patrick Stewart quite wasted. The rest of the cast members, particularly the interchangeable attackers, suffer even worse non-definition.

The few positives include some dry humour, limited but effective gore, and fun with microphone feedback and attack dogs. Stylistically the film is frequently dark and muddy, the dialogue often mumbled or obscured by loud music. The Green Room is caught in the land of grunge, after the music stopped.

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Sunday, 12 May 2019

Movie Review: Their Finest (2016)

A wartime drama and romance with sprinklings of comedy, Their Finest is an attractive period piece although the small story struggles for resonance.

It's 1940 in England, World War Two is raging and London is subjected to almost daily German bombing raids. Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) finds work as a propaganda short film script writer in the Ministry of Information. She meets fellow scribe Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and veteran actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), who is not yet accepting his days as a leading man are over. Meanwhile, Catrin's husband Ellis (Jack Huston) is a struggling artist with a physical disability, dealing with the humiliation of not being able to support his wife.

After the Dunkirk evacuation, government officials seek a morale-boosting story as a basis for a feature film. Catrin interviews two sisters who reportedly heroically sailed to the Dunkirk beaches and helped rescue soldiers, but finds the truth to be more mundane. Nevertheless to save her job Catrin embellishes the tale of nationalistic bravery, and with Buckley's help joins the team developing the film.

The fictional story of a colourful band of characters conceiving and filming a wartime propaganda movie is a pleasant enough experience. Director Lone Scherfig, adapting the book by Lissa Evans, effortlessly adds a pinch of dry humour and a dash of romance, muted as it is by the tumultuous clouds of war. The period details bring to grey life an England under siege, London's residents dusting themselves off, tending to the wounded and then carrying on with their lives until the next set of bombs rain from the sky.

With all able-bodied men off to war, Catrin represents women striding forth to join the workforce in large numbers. Their Finest includes mostly sideways but still telling references to the societal role of women past, present and future, as Catrin is increasingly empowered by the newly discovered and paycheque-triggered sense of value and independence. Gemma Arterton delivers a suitably stoic performance as a representative for both her nation's resilience and her gender's emergence.

But this is ultimately an individually-scaled story stretched perilously close to its load limit. The film runs up to two hours, and to get there Scherfig slows the pace down and includes plenty of ultimately repetitive scenes. The side story of the actor Ambrose Hilliard, his agent and the agent's dog and sister occupies a disproportionate amount of time and expands into a clumsy distraction, as does the involvement of a government minder nosing into the creative process.

The unconventional romance steadies the narrative. As Catrin unpacks her domestic situation with Ellis, her attraction  to Buckley is slow to unfurl, and is constructed on a foundation of workplace banter and mutual respect. And in a world turned upside down by war, Their Finest deserves credit for charting some unexpected twists for the lovers to navigate in a unique time and place, the rules first suspended then rewritten.

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Saturday, 11 May 2019

Movie Review: Mona Lisa (1986)

A crime drama and romance, Mona Lisa offers a gritty London milieu, but the story of an unlikely business and personal relationship lacks some texture.

In London, low-level hoodlum George (Bob Hoskins) is released from prison after serving seven years. His former associates under the leadership of sex club owner and mobster boss Denny Mortwell (Michael Caine) give him a job as the chauffeur for expensive call girl Simone (Cathy Tyson). Initially the sophisticated Simone and the excitable George clash over everything, but gradually a friendship evolves.

She confides in him about her past as a street prostitute regularly abused by her pimp Anderson (Clarke Peters), and requests George's help in finding her close friend Cathy, a young prostitute also suffering Anderson's mistreatment. George tries to mend his relationship with his daughter Jeannie (Zoë Nathenson), but is drawn into a heap of trouble and violence as he wades deeper into Simone's world.

A grim descent into London's slimy underbelly, Mona Lisa is a rough English equivalent of Taxi Driver, at least in spirit and intent if not overall quality. The story of an irrelevant and coarse man enchanted by an unattainable woman carries possibilities, and director Neil Jordan (who also co-wrote the script) teases an evocative performance out of Bob Hoskins in the lead role.

But once George falls under Simone's spell and embarks on a quest to find her friend Cathy, the film stagnates. The antagonists of this world, as defined by Mortwell and Anderson, are exceptionally poorly defined. Michael Caine sleepwalks through his few scenes, while the supposedly menacing Anderson is reduced to a generic jack-in-the-box presence, popping up to randomly chase and threaten people at designated intervals.

Much better is the core bond between scrappy driver and sophisticated call girl, and Mona Lisa draws its warmth from the emerging dynamic between them. They navigate past the hostile stage and allow an asymmetrical friendship to develop as George starts to fall hard for Simone and extrapolates potential beyond reality. Again Jordan stumbles over the final few hurdles, and once George understands his emotional misplacement Mona Lisa limps over the finish line in more common thriller land.

Newcomer Cathy Tyson has an enigmatic screen presence and adds a layer of allure to Simone's secrets, metaphorically representing the mysterious smile of the title painting.

Stylish and carrying a strong sense of place, Mona Lisa ventures through a sordid version of London and finds a mix of organic and generic.

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Movie Review: Experiment In Terror (1962)

A muddled crime thriller, Experiment In Terror offers dashes of style but suffers from a flabby script and an unconvincing plot.

In the Twin Peaks neighbourhood of San Francisco, bank teller Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick) is threatened in her dark garage by an unseen intruder. He demands she steal $100,000 from the bank, otherwise he will hurt her younger sister Toby (Stefanie Powers). Despite the intruder insisting on no police involvement, Kelly connects with the FBI's John Ripley (Glenn Ford).

With few clues to go on, Ripley places Kelly under surveillance. Meanwhile, he is also contacted by Nancy Ashton (Patricia Huston), a troubled woman who may be going through a similar experience to Kelly. Ripley's investigation also leads him to Lisa Soong (Anita Loo), the mother of a sick child who may also be connected to the criminal. As the clock ticks down and the threats intensify, Kelly has to commit the theft or face the consequences.

A rare departure towards darker material for director Blake Edwards, Experiment In Terror lathers on the noir style with odd camera angles, nighttime scenes, characters hiding in shadows, plenty of fog and stark light sources. But the credible production design cannot hide a wayward plot filled with weird distractions and plenty of loose ends.

After the opening attack Kelly is unfortunately reduced to an afterthought in her own story, and the film defaults to an uninteresting police procedural. And for a seemingly well-resourced detective provided with plenty of advance notice about a crime in the making, Ripley manages to repeatedly botch the basics. Equally improbable is a convenient criminal who always does just enough to move the plot along but never enough to push through with his threats.

The problems reside in the overburdened script by the husband and wife crime writing team of Gordon and Mildred Gordon, and a saggy running time extending to over two hours. The characters of Nancy Ashton, Lisa Soong and her suffering son occupy large swaths of screen time to no great effect, their connection to the central crime barely sketched in. Meanwhile the details related to the villain's plot to steal and keep the money are all but omitted. Finally young sister Toby is placed in proper peril, but when the opportunity arises the film appears caught flat footed between seeking terror and settling for timid.

Lee Remick, Glenn Ford and a young Stefanie Powers provide plenty of star appeal, but despite the flashy execution this Experiment In Terror is classified as flawed in design.

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