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.






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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.






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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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Movie Review: Taken (2008)


An action thriller, Taken is a slick pursuit film enhanced by an unrelenting pace, polished execution and Liam Neeson in a career re-defining performance.

In California, Bryan Mills (Neeson) has retired from a career as a CIA undercover operative to settle near his seventeen year old daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), an aspiring singer. Bryan's constant absence from home caused the breakup of his marriage to Lenore (Famke Janssen), and he is now hoping to make up for lost time by being part of his daughter's life.

Bryan reluctantly agrees to allow Kim to travel to Paris for a sightseeing adventure with her friend Amanda (Katie Cassidy), and his worst fears come true when they are both abducted by a brutal gang of Albanian human traffickers. Learning Kim will be sold into sex slavery within hours, Bryan swings into action and travels to Paris to pursue the kidnappers in an attempt to locate and free his daughter.

Produced and co-written by Luc Besson, Taken recasts Liam Neeson as an unlikely action hero, here as a man with "a very particular set of skills" and more than willing to use them as necessary. The film is often exhilarating, combining Parisian settings with a bull-in-a-china-shop mentality as Mills does a good impression of a bowling ball knocking down all the pins in the path of finding his daughter.

In addition to Besson's touch and Pierre Morel's controlled direction, Taken rises above typical action fare thanks to a concerted effort in the first third to colour in the pertinent details of Bryan Mills' life. He has retired early to try and reconnect with his daughter and make amends for all the times he was never present, and Kim is now the reluctant centre of his universe. He maintains a strained but functional relationship with his remarried ex-wife, and Neeson is convincing as a good guy willing to fully dedicate himself to domesticity, owning his past and accepting his failings.

The asymmetrical father-daughter bond sits at the heart of the film, and makes his quest all the more intense. The abduction scene with Mills on the other end of Kim's phone as she tries to hide from her assailants is an excellent foundation for the manic action to come, and once Mills packs his bags and heads to Paris, the French capital will never be quite the same again.

His ability to emerge victorious in numerous encounters with countless foes is of course ridiculous, but also ridiculously fun. Mills quickly latches onto the outer edges of the Albanian gang and works his way towards the centre in a wondrous series of set-piece featuring car chases (with a yacht thrown in for good measure), infiltrations, impersonations, explosions, torture, close quarters combat and no shortage of rapid fire killings.

Along the way he also exposes look-the-other-way French police corruption, and Taken shines a much needed light on the horrific human trafficking industry, modern-day for-profit slavery exploited by organized crime. Bryan Mills sets out to rescue his daughter with steely determination, but tragically innumerable current and future real Kims also need urgent help.






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Movie Review: Triple 9 (2016)


A crime thriller, Triple 9 features stellar action set-pieces, but also a large cast struggling against a convoluted and context-free plot.

In Atlanta, Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) leads a gang of ex-military types conducting high-risk heists for Russian crime lord Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet), who holds Michael's young son as leverage. He calls upon corrupt cops Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Franco (Clifton Collins Jr.) to join his crew to steal a bank safety deposit box. Detective Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson) starts to investigate, while Irina demands Michael immediately start planning a follow-up theft of critical records from a Homeland Security building.

Jeffrey's nephew Chris (Casey Affleck) is an honest cop and Marcus' new partner. They tangle with a group of tough street gang members, including Luis Pinto (Luis Da Silva). To create a diversion for the Homeland Security heist, Michael's crew decide an "officer down, code triple 9" incident is required to draw police resources to the wrong side of town. Chris is selected as the victim to be shot, but little will go according to plan.

Triple 9 features three well-executed action set-pieces, neatly placed at the start, middle and near the end of the film. The first establishes the pace with Michael's gang pulling off the audacious bank break-in followed by an insane car chase. The second is an incidental but still impressive house search followed by a street chase and fire fight as Chris and Marcus go after a member of Pinto's gang in a hostile neighbourhood. And the finale is the double whammy of the code triple 9 incident overlapping with the Homeland Security theft.

In these scenes director John Hillcoat excels in delivering cohesive thrills, but the film struggles during all the in-between sections. The Matt Cook script drops in on all the characters essentially mid-flight and never pauses to set a meaningful context. The people, places and relationships are sketched in using the broadest of strokes, and as a result it is exceptionally difficult to care about any of them.

The central plot supposedly driving all the action involves the evil Irina attempting to free her barely-seen but highly influential husband from an overseas prison by getting her hands on some vaguely defined records, a classic example of a hastily slapped together, needlessly complicated yet still utterly flimsy MacGuffin.

The effort to portray Michael as a victim lands with an unconvincing thud, his semi-hostaged child (the mother is Irina's more chill sister Elena, played by Gal Gadot) a lame device to garner sympathy. Chris is supposed to emerge as the honest core of the story but he is dramatically under-defined, while a myriad of greasy bad guys, bad cops, and bad guys who are ex-cops, all with labyrinthine personal connections, clutter the screen. By the time it becomes clearer who is who, most of them are dead anyway.

Woody Harrelson adds his distinctive brand of caring by not caring, here as a drug-addicted detective unpeeling the rash of daring heists, while Kate Winslet's turn as a Russian mob boss borders on cartoonish.

Triple 9 does feature a triple header of accomplished highlights, but these are strung together with saggy material.






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Sunday, 24 November 2019

Movie Review: Sea Of Love (1989)


A crime mystery and romance, Sea Of Love is a polished thriller with an engaging premise and good cast, but the film also chases many threads and loses some in the process.

In New York City, police detective Frank Keller (Al Pacino) has reached 20 years of service with no plans to retire. Still not recovered from the breakup of his marriage and drinking heavily, he starts to investigate the murder of a man found naked on his bed and shot through the back of the head, with Phil Phillips' Sea of Love left playing continuously on the turntable. A similar murder in Queens results in detective Sherman Touhey (John Goodman) joining forces with Frank, with clues in both cases pointing to the killer being a woman.

Concluding that the victims were likely killed by a date arranged through magazine personal ads, Frank and Sherman create a sting operation by placing their own ad and going on a series of dates to collect women's fingerprints. One of Frank's dates is Helen Cruger (Ellen Barkin), a spirited single mother and shoe store manager. They start a steamy relationship, with Frank falling in love and convincing himself she is not the killer, but their affair is both passionate and dangerous.

Marking Al Pacino's return to the big screen after a four year hiatus, Sea Of Love offers a bit of everything. A murder mystery with an unknown killer, a detective story featuring a budding friendship and camaraderie between two investigators, a central protagonist in Frank going through a serious mid-life crisis and an inability to cope with a marriage break-up, and Helen as a love interest trying to construct a romantic life as a single mom with a full-time job.

Add in some steamy sex, close-up violence and layers of real and possible lies, and it's remarkable the Richard Price script holds together as well as it does. Director Harold Becker does his best to steer the film is several directions at once, but can only do so much. Once the passion erupts between Frank and Helen the murder investigation aspects are shoved to the background. Frank may be convinced Helen is not the killer, but appears to lose interest altogether in finding the real murderer.

The film's discontinuous attention spans are made tolerable by Pacino and Barkin. He remains well within himself in a relatively calm performance, allowing Frank's slow descent into career and personal depression to gradually wash over him. Barkin is even more subtle, the is-she or isn't-she puzzle demanding a performance that works both ways, and she delivers with an edgy combination of determination, doubt and sensuality.

But a murderer still has to be unmasked, and in the final act Price resorts to borderline cheating and reliance on some sloppy police work to get back to the business of crime solving. Sea Of Love rolls onto a decent shoreline, a bit wet but still serviceable.






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