Monday, 11 November 2019

Movie Review: The Seven-Ups (1973)

A gritty crime action film, The Seven-Ups conveys a deglamourized world of enforcement but stumbles on a shallow story full of faceless characters.

In New York City, police detective Buddy Mannuci (Roy Scheider) heads the small "Seven-Ups" undercover unit using controversial tactics to catch criminals in the act and ensure they receive sentences of seven years or more. After busting a currency counterfeiting operation, Buddy connects with his childhood friend and now mob informant Vito Lucia (Tony Lo Bianco) to extract information about mobster Max Kalish (Larry Haines).

But before Buddy can act, Max is kidnapped and held for ransom by goons pretending to be enforcement agents, just the latest in a series of kidnappings targeting the underworld. With the mob on edge, one of Buddy's team members gets caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and is killed, shining an unwanted spotlight on the Seven-Ups and enraging Buddy. He leans on Vito and all available sources to finger the killers, but few people can be trusted.

After producing Bullitt and The French Connection, Philip D'Antoni takes over directing duties and recruits Roy Scheider to portray a character inspired by real-life detective Sonny Grosso. The results are patchy. The Seven-Ups does feature a quite magnificent all-Pontiac central car chase sequence, as Buddy's Ventura pursues a Grand Ville driven by a murderous duo, but the plot surrounding the tire screeching action is less than engaging.

The work of the Seven-Ups unit gets quickly marginalized by a rather bewildering and sketched-in bad guys targeting bad guys kidnapping plot, crowded with barely introduced and interchangeable goons being nasty to each other. Buddy Mannuci has to wait on the sidelines for a long time before springing into action, and by the time he gets going D'Antoni has lost momentum and focus.

The second half of the film improves, but Buddy's revenge-driven agenda and predisposition to questionable interrogation tactics leaves the film floundering in a moral void where the real cops, pretend cops and mobsters are all just about equal on the reprehensible scale.

The settings in grim corners of New York are depressingly suitable, D'Antoni finding the necessary wrong side of the tracks, puddle-afflicted streets and ramshackle graffiti-tagged buildings in forgotten industrial zones to host the action, all bathed in gloomy greys and dingy browns.

Roy Scheider wears a stern expression throughout but like the rest of the underpowered cast, has no opportunity to create a man behind the purposeful cop. The Seven Ups occasionally revs its engine, but often forgets to kick into gear.

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Saturday, 9 November 2019

Movie Review: The Midnight Man (1974)

A convoluted low-key murder mystery, The Midnight Man is overstuffed with plot but lacks any sense of mood or relatable characters.

Released on parole after serving a prison sentence, ex-Chicago police officer Jim Slade (Burt Lancaster) accepts a position as a night watchman at Jordon College, the job arranged for him by his pal and the college's head of security Quartz Willinger (Cameron Mitchell). Jim reports to parole officer Linda Thorpe (Susan Clark), who is constantly bickering with local sheriff Jack Casey (Harris Yulin) about his deputy Virgil's goonish methods.

Slade stumbles upon a psychiatry department break-in and the theft of sensitive cassette tapes. One of the students involved is the troubled Natalie Clayborne (Catherine Bach), and soon she turns up dead. Casey arrests creepy janitor Ewing (Charles Tyner), but Slade starts his own unauthorized investigation. Natalie's boyfriend, a professor and a local artist are among the suspects, while a trio of local redneck goons start to threaten Slade. When Natalie's father Senator Phillip Clayborne (Morgan Woodward) arrives in town, the death count escalates rapidly.

An adaptation of a book by David Anthony filmed on location at Clemson University in South Carolina, The Midnight Man is co-directed, co-produced and co-written (all with Roland Kibbee) by star Burt Lancaster. Unfortunately he glides through the film in an essentially comatose state, as an almost impossible to follow plot clatters all around him.

The deep flaws are obvious throughout. Key events take place off-screen and are then verbosely explained. For the purpose of expanding the pool of suspects a multitude of individuals are introduced in snippets, creating an avalanche of indistinct characters. The result is a go-through-the-motions whodunnit crammed with creeps, with no individual rounded into anything more than a plastic representation.

Actions and motivations are eye-poppingly dreadful, from blatant police brutality to a parole officer jumping into bed with her parolee passing through professors lusting after their young students. And somehow the film takes a detour to Deliverance inspired bayou territory, a trio of inbred idiots (including Ed Lauter) complete with their own Ma Baker styled leader unleashing their version of primitive chaos on the pristine college campus town for reasons that never quite make sense.

At least the rednecks do provide a platform for the one energetic sequence in the film, as Slade bulldozes his way out of farm captivity. As for resolving the actual murder - blackmail - abuse crime fiasco, pick any suspect, they all deserve to be locked up.

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Friday, 8 November 2019

Movie Review: The Candidate (1972)

An inside look at an election campaign from humble beginnings to election night, The Candidate is immersed in the cacophony of creating energy and momentum at the cost of abandoned values.

Veteran campaign manager Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) goes looking for a Democratic candidate to challenge popular Republican incumbent Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter) in the upcoming California election race for Senator. He settles on relative unknown Bill McKay (Robert Redford), an idealistic social activist and son of former governor John J. McKay (Melvyn Douglas).

Bill is initially reluctant, and agrees to run only if he remains unfiltered and honest in all his communications. From initial stumbling outings at scarcely attended events, he gradually builds momentum, closing the gap in opinion polls. With his entourage of handlers growing McKay's message and image become much more polished, and he emerges as a credible threat to Jarmon as voting day approaches.

A political drama with a few touches of humour, The Candidate traces the build-up of one man's public image, from relative unknown to charismatic challenger. Early in his initially fledgling campaign Bill McKay delivers a speech to a large room filled with hundreds of empty cheap folding chairs and a couple of old geezers. With election day beckoning his candidacy catches fire, and he is continuously surrounded by supporters and oversized posters of his face, barely able to move without being mobbed.

This transformation is the subject of Jeremy Larner's script, and director Michael Ritchie adopts a high energy documentary style, cameras constantly on the move chasing McKay from event to event as he hones his message and grows comfortable in the spotlight. McKay and Lucas scale an undeniable high as they start to believe Jarmon can genuinely be defeated, and the mutual exchange of nourishing energy between the candidate and his growing army of supporters is palpable.

Along the way, McKay loses all that he started with. His stump message becomes repetitive, simplistic and utterly banal. He learns to deliver it with conviction and the crowds love it, but his promises are devoid of content and details. Externally he beams, waves and pretends to love the adulation. In private moments he knows he is selling out like every other politician, delivering what the masses think they want, not what they need.

Ritchie wedges his cameras into the hustle and bustle of makeshift strategy rooms and campaign stops, The Candidate a non-stop on-the-run sequence of jostling and jerkiness. The background noise and overlapping conversations are also incessant. Larner's script thrives on phones ringing, hordes banging on doors, hangers-on either shouting over or interrupting each other and engaging in their own sidebar conversations. It may all be admirably realistic, but eventually exhausting and marginally irritating as a cinematic experience.

With all the focus on event mechanics, The Candidate neglects to round out its central characters. Both McKay and Lucas are defined only by the trajectory of the election, with precious few moments for the men behind mission. Whenever McKay tries to find a quiet moment to think or hold a serious conversation the phone rings or a mob invades the room, a familiar case of political noise trumping any genuine reflection on policy.

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Thursday, 7 November 2019

Movie Review: Race (2016)

A biography of sprinter Jesse Owens, Race recreates events before and during the 1936 Olympics as one remarkable man stares down hatred and enters the athletic history books.

It's 1935, and promising black sprinter Jesse Owens (Stephan James) is the first member of his Cleveland-based family to head to college. He leaves girlfriend Ruth (Shanice Banton) and a young daughter behind and heads to Ohio State University in Columbus, where track and field coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) immediately spots his potential. Snyder fine-tunes Owens' technique, and despite rampant verbal racial abuse Jesse is soon winning track meets across the country and setting new records.

The 1936 Olympics in Berlin beckon, but Germany is in the grip of Nazi rule and propaganda Minister Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) with help from filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) wants to use the games to showcase the party's anti-Semitic and racist ideology. Members of the American Olympic committee, including Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) and Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), debate a boycott. And as the most famous black athlete in the country, Owens comes under specific pressure to withdraw as a political statement.

A mixture of biography and social history, Race is competent on both fronts. Jesse Owens' record-breaking achievements on the track at the Berlin Olympics are legendary, and so carry little dramatic tension. Director Stephen Hopkins and writers Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse therefore wisely expand the film's scope to capture the broader context of the Nazis setting the stage for the games as a demonstration of white supremacy, highlighting Owens' achievements in both winning on the track and delivering a powerful anti-prejudicial message.

The dilemma confronted by American Olympic officials, torn between punishing their athletes or taking a principled stand against twisted institutionalized hatred, becomes an intriguing subplot. The debate on whether to exert influence through engagement or isolation resonates across generations, and here includes Nazi tactics of minimal appeasement combined with business enticement also serving a useful entrapment purpose.

As for Owens' personal story, Race is a straightforward biography. Jesse's inspirational love for Ruth, reconfirmed after an ill-considered liaison, and the strong bond he forges with coach Snyder are the two pillars of his success. The racist taunts he endures at the University and at every track across the United States serve as a reminder of progress required at home not precluding the imperative to stand up to tyranny abroad.

Stephan James brings Owens to life with determined dignity, and Jason Sudeikis delivers a vivacious performance as Snyder, the coach finally finding a way to experience the glory he missed in his days as an athlete.

Hopkins finds a late moment of poignancy with German athlete Carl Long conjuring an unlikely bond with Owens when it matters most, a reminder of the difference between the German people and their rulers. But overall Race runs the distance with proficiency rather than excellence, the cinematic interpretation of an intrinsically inspiring story more middle of the pack than frontrunner.

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Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Movie Review: Mr. Majestyk (1974)

A simple but well-executed action film, Mr. Majestyk is a story of two uncompromising men from different worlds meeting at the wrong time and in the wrong place.

In rural Colorado, Vince Majestyk (Charles Bronson) is a melon farmer with a chequered past, now mostly worried about finding enough labour to bring his harvest in. He befriends a group of migrant workers led by union activist Nancy Chavez (Linda Cristal), then tangles with upstart crew boss Kopas (Paul Koslo), who tries to muscle in on the melon picking action.

Arrested for setting Kopas straight, Majestyk finds himself in the middle of a wild gun battle as a gang of goons attempts to free mafia hitman Frank Renda (Al Lettieri) from a police transport bus. Majestyk exploits the confusion to flee the scene and takes Renda as his prisoner, hoping to hand in the hit man in return for the Kopas assault charges being dropped. But the intervention of Frank's partner Wiley (Lee Purcell) disrupts the plan. Frank escapes and pledges to get his personal revenge on Majestyk for all the trouble and humiliation he caused.

An original story written by Elmore Leonard, Mr. Majestyk strikes a stubborn streak of boldness consistent with its central character. Locating a hitman in nowhereseville Colorado then finding uncompromising heroism within a melon farmer takes courage, but director Richard Fleischer grabs the concept and runs with it. Not only are the melons an occupation, they feature repeatedly in the plot: Majestyk's main worry in life is to bring his melons to market, and Renda gets partial revenge by venting his bullet fury at...a mountain of melons.

More traditional is a rowdy car pursuit featuring Majestyk and Nancy in a yellow Ford pick-up truck escaping from three chasing cars through rough terrain, a unique take on the must-have high speed exploits of the cinematic era.

The plot is an uncomplicated clash of wills between two men who refuse to be pushed. Both Majestyk and Renda are comfortable with violence and refuse to back down from anything or anyone, and it does not matter how big the Colorado sky is, once they cross swords this territory isn't big enough for the two of them. They take turns playing the hunter and the hunted, culminating in an effective close quarters siege and climax.

The music by Charles Bernstein playfully complements the action, and even sneaks in echoes of the harmonica theme once Majestyk decides enough is enough.

The attempted romantic subplot featuring Majestyk and Nancy is as ridiculously clunky as a relationship between a jaded melon farmer and a determined union organizer is supposed to be. Fleischer eventually abandons any pretense of courtship and surrenders to the reality that these two are more compatible as all-action partners in the bad guy eradication business.

And whenever the film hits a rough patch Charles Bronson rides to the rescue, here delivering a smooth performance fully compatible with his typical persona as a man happy to live a quiet life but more than ready to swing into action as needed to shove villains into their place. Al Lettieri provides an effective foil as the sweaty Renda, although his propensity for spluttering exasperation is not necessarily consistent with a hitman's temperament.

Mr. Majestyk is deceptively smooth and calm green on the surface, but explodes to reveal red rage on the inside.

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Monday, 4 November 2019

Movie Review: The Exorcism Of Emily Rose (2005)

A courtroom drama and supernatural horror movie, The Exorcism Of Emily Rose combines two genres with decent results.

Father Richard Moore (Tom Wilkinson) is arrested and accused of causing the death through neglect of a young woman named Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter), who died from malnutrition and self inflicted wounds after she entrusted Moore with her care and stopped taking medication. Moore refuses a plea bargain and insists the case go to court. His archdiocese retain Erin Bruner (Laura Linney) as his defence lawyer. Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott) is the hard nosed prosecutor, with Judge Brewster (Mary Beth Hurt) presiding.

Through witness testimony Emily's story is revealed in flashback. Originally from a devout rural family, she was in her college dorm when she felt attacked and invaded by a malevolent spirit. Diagnosed with epilepsy, episodes of severe body contortions and hallucinations persisted despite medical intervention. In desperation her family turned to Moore, who believed Emily was possessed. As the trial proceeds, Erin starts to experience disturbing late night incidents.

Based on the true story of German woman Anneliese Michel, The Exorcism Of Emily Rose is a reasonably effective exploration of a collision between science and religion, with generous doses of outright horror. Director and co-writer Scott Derrickson efficiently merges two familiar genres that rarely share the same space.

Half the film is a fairly robust courtroom debate, with the expected cut and thrust between prosecution and defence under the watchful gaze of a patient judge. The other half features plenty of straightforward horror, Emily's descent into a hell of either possession or disease played for maximum shock, plus the bonus of Erin confronting spooky after-midnight scares of her own once she takes the case.

Because the movie opens with Emily already dead and Moore on trial for neglect, the scenes documenting her trauma carry a relatively contained threat level. Derrickson therefore uses extreme physical angularity to amplify shock value, with actress Jennifer Carpenter pulling off some creative contortionist moves. The tension is marginally elevated when Erin and Moore start to experience things going bump in the night in her apartment and his prison cell respectively, the present-day scares occurring concurrently with the trial and carrying the menace of an undefined outcome.

Back in the courtroom, the mechanics of the trial are often suspect with plenty of hurried evidence and new witnesses introduced haphazardly. But Derrickson manages to provide a balanced view of the charges. Prosecutor Thomas presents a forthright case of a desperately sick girl taken off her medication and allowed to suffer due to ill-informed and unscientific religious intervention. Erin counters by introducing doubt as to whether the diagnosis of epilepsy was ever accurate to begin with, and brings in an expert on global incidents of possession to back-up Moore's beliefs.

Emily's exorcism is notionally both the beginning and the end of the film, a harrowing fight between good and evil erupting over an innocent young woman's body. She was either saved or destroyed by religion, the definitive conclusion a matter of imperfect evidence and degrees of belief.

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Sunday, 3 November 2019

Movie Review: Brad's Status (2017)

A middle age crisis drama, Brad's Status explores issues of deep seated insecurity through the story of a father accompanying his son on a trip to assess college options.

In Sacramento, Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller) is well into middle age, and sure that he has been an underachiever in life. He runs a small non-profit agency, is married to government worker Melanie (Jenna Fischer), and their son Troy (Austin Abrams) is a budding musician and about to graduate from high school.

But Brad constantly compares his relative lack of success to the perceived wealth, fame and happiness achieved by his college friends Craig (Michael Sheen), Jason (Luke Wilson) and Billy (Jermaine Clement). Craig worked at the White House and is now an in-demand best-selling author and television political pundit. Jason built enormous wealth running a hedge fund, and Billy retired early to a life of leisure in the Caribbean after selling his technology firm.

Brad accompanies Troy to Boston for a college tour, and learns that Troy has a realistic chance of being accepted to Harvard. His burst of pride is punctured when a date mix-up results in Troy missing his interview. Brad struggles to decide whether or not to call upon Craig to pull some strings and open the right doors for Troy, and as the trip progresses he reassesses his life and the complex relationship with his past friends.

Brad's Status is over-narrated and ploughs familiar terrain related to keeping up with the Joneses, the grass always appearing greener on the other side of the fence, and the creeping realization that life's back-half is a plateau if not a downward spiral of mediocrity. Yet in the hands of writer and director Mike White, the film is a worthwhile journey into the stressed mind of a father flirting with depression.

Brad has built up his college friends' lives into some sort of wart-free utopia, all of them successful beyond imagination, leaving him as the only group member wallowing in middle class oblivion. And now his perceived failure means he is no longer invited to their social gatherings, whereas in the past he was the glue holding the crew together. The film avoids hammering the role social media plays in inflating insecurities, but the message is unmistakable.

Brad enjoys the luxury of a stable marriage with the terrifically supportive Melanie, runs his own meaningful business promoting good causes, and his son is well adjusted and may be musically gifted enough to gain admission to a top college. Instead of celebrating his achievements Brad emotionally flounders by measuring his life short against others. White prominently exposes Brad's sour attitude and negative outlook as his biggest obstacle, and does not shy away from presenting immaturity and self-directed degradation as harmful fuel for angst.

Within the prevailing sense of emotional gloom the trip to Boston serves to build a bond between father and son. Brad has clearly neglected to care much about Troy's progress, and in his eagerness to catch up he defaults to many ill-advised moves, often saying and doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. Troy remains impressively patient, poking back at his dad when needed but generally helping his father awaken to the world of young adults by being true to himself, a trait obviously inherited from his well-grounded mother.

The trip also provides unexpected opportunities for Brad to get back in touch with his college buddies, especially celebrity author Craig. A closer look at his friends' lives reveals all is not what it seems, and again White makes Brad real: knowingly or not he holds on tight to his resentment, botching more than one opportunity to rebuild meaningful connections.

Ben Stiller is in his comfort zone portraying an average man wrestling with restlessness, and Austin Abrams is equally impressive as a son refreshingly free of irony fluttering his way out of the nest.

Brad's Status is middling. He has more than he knows, but knowing is a big part of thriving.

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Movie Review: Fifty Shades Of Grey (2015)

An erotic romantic drama, Fifty Shades Of Grey is a slight improvement on the book but is still an exceptionally poorly written bore.

Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is about to graduate from her Portland-based university. She heads to Seattle to interview young business tycoon Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for the student newspaper. Despite Ana's clumsy nervousness, the two are immediately attracted to each other. Christian initiates a few dates, but then darkly hints he is possessive and that Ana may want nothing to do with him.

He nevertheless starts showering her with gifts, then reveals he is only interested in a contract-based dominant/submissive sexual relationship whereby she would be his consenting sex slave. Ana is unsure, and takes her time reviewing and mulling over the contract while trying to understand why Christian cannot establish normal human connections. Without her committing to the contract they anyway initiate sex, and he introduces her to his playroom, filled with bondage, dominance and submission equipment.

The source material by E.L. James consisted of kitschy sex scenes stitched together with laughable prose, all originating as fan fiction. Yet the enormous commercial success of the books spawned an imperative for a film adaptation, and here writer Kelly Marcel and director Sam Taylor-Johnson sign up for unenviable task of creating a viable movie out of tawdry erotica. They fail.

With plastic dialogue and character actions extracted from delusional reveries, Fifty Shades Of Grey is a slow motion fantasy in cold colours. The film stretches for a mind-numbing 128 minutes all bathed in blue, grey and black (except, of course, for the red playroom), while what passes for sensual music floods the soundtrack.

Within this milieu Jamie Dornan cannot manage anything other than a deer-in-the-headlights performance as Christian Grey, a supposed genius gazillionaire suddenly bamboozled by a woman who refuses to sign away her sexual freedom just because he demands it. Of course almost nothing will be known about Christian, because the script requires he stays silent and mysterious about his troubled past while Ana asks him essentially the same question for about two hours. Dornan can deal with the silent part, but rather than mysterious he is just blank.

Ana fares better, and in the hands of Dakota Johnson she is the one marginally tolerable part of the viewing experience. Whether intended or not, the film carries a feminist message of Ana only acquiescing to a man's obtuse demands after conducting due diligence and then on her own terms. Johnson does what she can with the flimsy material, at least for the parts when she is not naked.

The sex scenes are far fewer than in the book, but the second half does feature a steady stream of love making sessions ranging in kinkiness from vanilla to various forms of bondage, all filmed on the mainstream side of softcore. By the time Christian graduates to whipping, Anastasia decides she has wasted enough time with a man who can only express compassion through inflicting pain. In a non-ending meekly surrendering to the inevitable, she asserts her independence but unfortunately cannot escape the all-powerful clutches of the compulsory sequel.

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Saturday, 2 November 2019

Movie Review: Blackhat (2015)

A laborious techno thriller, Blackhat clicks all the wrong commands and hacks its way to a failure of entertainment.

An unknown hacker uploads malware, blowing up a Chinese nuclear reactor and manipulating the Chicago mercantile exchange to yield instant profit. The Chinese government appoints Captain Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) to collaborate with the FBI's Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) to track down and stop the hacker. Chen brings along his tech-savvy sister Chen Lien (Tang Wei), and once in the US insists that master hacker Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) be released from prison to help out.

The investigation leads to Hong Kong and ruthless Lebanese middle man Elias Kassar (Ritchie Coster), who is doing the dirty work for the techno crime lord. Hathaway and Lien fall in love as the pursuit picks up pace, with Kassar proving a deadly and resilient foe. To track the identity of the mastermind Hathaway infiltrates a National Security Agency system, instantly becoming a fugitive again but leading him to a desolate site in Malaysia and a climax in Indonesia.

Despite a potentially compelling and topical hacking premise, director Michael Mann manages to almost get everything wrong in Blackhat. At 133 minutes, this is an over-long movie devoid of interesting characters and in love with its own look, Mann returning to his worst Miami Vice tendencies of focusing on wavy hair, cool shades and colour compositions while the core of the film disintegrates all around the pretty pictures.

A lame and derivative script does not help. The central crime is familiar since Goldfinger, and is here punctuated by plot holes and asked to lean heavily on the criminal-helping-out cliche done to death in movies like The Rock and The Jackal. Once again, a subject matter expert is released from prison to help stop a crime, and once again, the convict is somehow much more proficient in all aspects of crime fighting than all the assembled law enforcement professionals.

The film suffers a stunning blow when the plot details are revealed, a really? moment that pauses to reflect on the irreversible damage to the film's credibility whereby an attack on a nuclear facility is just a test run for...flooding remote river beds to corner the tin market? Compounding matters is the cardinal sin of never introducing the antagonist as a character, the mastermind behind the dumbfounding plan to attack the trading price of a cheap metal never even given the courtesy of a decent introduction. He's just a guy with a bad haircut and worse wardrobe.

A couple of signature Mann action scenes featuring plenty of gunfire help alleviate the tedium, and Blackhat does have an attractive multicultural cast in its favour, and goes out of its way to promote US-Sino cooperation. But while Tang Wei emerges as a possibly interesting character, Chris Hemsworth sucks the charisma out of the film with a dour one-note performance, and all too often grabs Tang's arm and pulls her along in a nauseatingly old-fashioned display of faux male authority. Viola Davis is utterly wasted in an underwritten role.

A disappointing combination of boring and asinine, Blackhat deserves a dose of its own malware.

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Movie Review: A Walk In The Woods (2015)

A semi-biographical drama and buddy comedy, A Walk In The Woods uses a long hike late in life to explore past decisions with a soft touch.

Elderly travel author Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) has reached a creative dead end. With his career reduced to reissuing old books and attending the funerals of dead friends, he decides on a whim to hike the 3,500 kilometre Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Main, an arduous months-long commitment. Bill's wife Catherine (Emma Thompson) is horrified at the idea, but cannot talk him out of it. She does, however, convince him to find a hiking partner.

None of the friends and colleagues that Bill approaches are interested, but his buddy from the old days Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte) hears about the hiking plan and eagerly volunteers. Katz is a grizzled free-spirited hell-raising adventurer who has done little with his life, and is now overweight and in poor health but at least has quit drinking. The two men travel to Georgia and start the hike, which turns into an opportunity to get reacquainted and for Bill to reassess his life.

A Walk In The Woods is sharply written and funnier than it needs to be. Directed by Ken Kwapis, the adaptation of the novel by Bill Bryson adopts a low key attitude towards the sense of malaise permeating the author's life. Dramatic revelations, hug-outs and big reveals are mercifully left out of the backpacks. Instead, Bill reflects upon his life tangentially and almost apologetically, as the hike and conversations help lift the fog about his achievements as he regains the perspective easily lost within daily minutiae.

As they huff and puff across the terrain Bill and Katz trade barbs and chip away at the jumble of life's compromises. Their friendship may have melted away under the strain of decidedly different attitudes, but neither claims the higher ground. Katz remained loyal to the young and fearless version of himself, gathering memories, legendary exploits, poor health and arrest warrants along the way. Bill settled to a life of domesticity with one woman, writing popular travel books and maintaining a healthy curiosity for learning. Passing a rock formation along the trail, Bill explains the various types of rocks and how, when and why they were created. "They're just rocks", growls Katz.

Along the way Bill and Katz encounter other hikers, mostly younger, some helpful, a few irritatingly smug, others just tired. Mostly these meetings serve to remind Bill and Katz they are slow, old and unlikely to complete the trail. While Katz is happy to call it a day anytime, Bill insists he is no quitter and doggedly proclaims he will carry on, with or without companionship. And when they face potentially lethal hazards in the form of hungry wildlife, bad weather and slippery ledges, maturity jumps in front of panic to handle the risk.

The film's primary joy is derived from the buzz between Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, two veterans finding a crackling dynamic built on character contrasts. Redford allows the cragginess of his 79 years to rest easily on the surface, wisdom, patience, honesty and stubbornness now the only things that matter for Bill. Nolte at 74 gives Katz a memorably gravelly and lumbering presence, a man who can dominate any environment just as easily as he can outstay his welcome.

In addition to Emma Thompson as Bill's wife, the supporting cast also features Mary Steenburgen as lodge owner the men meet along the trail.

A Walk In The Woods brings fresh air, edgy discourse, brushes with danger, moments of spectacular scenery, and a much needed emotional reset, useful at any age.

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