Movie Review: Z (1969)
Wed, 17 Apr 2019 01:53:00 +0000

A political conspiracy thriller, Z delves into the sordid world of government plots to silence dissent by any means necessary.

An unnamed country, presumed to be Greece, is governed by shadowy right-wing military types operating a pseudo-democracy and proclaiming independence from any ideology. An opposition left-leaning pacifist parliamentarian known as the Deputy (Yves Montand) arrives at a countryside town to make a speech, despite death threats. He and his handlers are stymied in trying to find a venue, eventually settling for a union hall and installing speakers to broadcast into an adjacent public square.

Supporters, agitators, and ranks of police officers congregate. After delivering the speech the Deputy is assaulted by two hired goons, severely injured and rushed to hospital. His wife Helene (Irene Papas) is numbed by the incident, while surgeons fight to save her husband's life. The Examining Magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) starts a methodical investigation, and despite pressure to sweep the incident under the carpet he doggedly pursues all available leads to uncover proof of a plot.

Based on the 1963 attack on Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis and the subsequent investigation by respected Magistrate (and later Greek President) Christos Sartzetakis, Z (a Greek graffiti symbol for "he lives", used in reference to Lambrakis) is a hard-hitting, expertly crafted condemnation of dirty politics. Director and co-writer Costa-Gavras creates an environment of gritty street tension dominated by a government determined to maintain it's version of discipline, and opposed by a small group of idealistic politicians and journalists willing to take disproportionate risks.

In government offices bands of sweaty men (and they are all men) representing the military, police and intelligence services of the ruling junta nonchalantly concoct versions of the truth to best suit their needs, using a combination of indoctrination, intimidation, bureaucracy, truth reimagination and goon squad tactics to maintain control. Stuffed into unearned uniforms adorned with cheap medals, the rulers' audacity and layering of lies is Orwellian in scope, as the machinery of the state extends to every street corner.

Into this dark nightmare steps the Magistrate, a man intent on serving justice despite government intentions, and empowered by an ethical code above any oppressive directive. With star names Yves Montand and Irene Papas enjoying smallish roles, it is Jean-Louis Trintignant who finally occupies the heart of Z. As the unflappable and bespectacled Magistrate he becomes the irresistible force pushing against the immovable wall, under no illusions as to the limits of his power but willing to let evidence speak for itself.

Costa-Gavras uses flashbacks, multiple perspectives of the same key incidents, quick edits, sly humour and short scenes to bring plenty of dynamism into the movie. The staging of some of the action scenes lands on the slightly clunky side, but otherwise Z is crafted to chase events into a rage. Eternally relevant as an exposition of powermongers controlling the state apparatus, Z lives on as a faint flicker of hope.

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Movie Review: The Constant Nymph (1943)
Sat, 13 Apr 2019 20:59:00 +0000

A love triangle featuring a subdued underaged romance, The Constant Nymph offers plodding treatment of a controversial subject.

In Belgium, classical music composer Lewis Dodd (Charles Boyer) learns that his most recent composition was performed in London and flopped. In need of fresh inspiration, he relocates to the rural Swiss mountain farm of his friend and music aficionado Albert Sanger (Montagu Love). Albert is in ailing health, but his four spirited teenaged daughters are excited to welcome Lewis. In particular, Tessa (Joan Fontaine) harbors a deep crush, and hopes that one day Lewis will notice her, although she suffers from a weak heart and fainting spells.

But Lewis meets Tessa's sophisticated older cousin Florence Creighton (Alexis Smith) and they quickly get married, crushing Tessa's hopes. The extended family relocates to the London home of Florence's wealthy father Charles (Charles Coburn). Tessa and her sister Paula (Joyce Reynolds) are hustled off to a boarding school, while Lewis starts resenting Florence's conceited lifestyle and friends. When Tessa moves back into the Creighton house, the smoldering passion between her and Lewis becomes undeniable, igniting Florence's fury.

An adaptation of a novel and play by Margaret Kennedy, The Constant Nymph was out of general circulation for close to 70 years after initial release. Turner Classic Movies reached agreement with Kennedy's estate and the restored film re-emerged for broadcast in 2011. This 1943 version was already Hollywood's third take on the book, after adaptations in 1928 and 1933.

With the Lolita-like difficult subject matter of a fourteen year-old girl-woman dreamily lusting after a much older man who eventually awakens to her love and reciprocates (here in words only), director Edmund Goulding deserves credit for steering a steady path away from sordid implications. An overall sense of blandness helps, and Boyer rather flatly portrays Lewis as mostly oblivious to Tessa's passion until late, generally treating her as a younger ardent sister.

Fontaine, at 26 years old, does her best with unconstrained physical mannerisms to portray a barefoot farm-raised young teenager, but she can only do so much. On the screen Tessa is never anything other than an accomplished actress pretending to be a girl.

A stage director before moving to films, Goulding settles for lumbering theatricality and uninspired camerawork. Many of the scenes slowly sink due to length and listless talkiness. Somewhat saving the day is Alexis Smith in fine form as Florence Creighton. Finally here is a woman who knows what she wants and how to get it, but who also pays the price for the hurriedness with which she snags Lewis. Florence emerges as the most emotionally involved woman, and her struggle to control her rage and not lose her man gives The Constant Nymph some verve.

The cast also includes Brenda Marshall as Tessa's oldest sister Toni, and a rather wasted Peter Lorre as Toni's shifty suitor then husband Fritz.

Kennedy infuses the relationship between Tessa and Lewis with an inspirational subtext to soften the troublesome age difference. Wise well beyond her years and inspired by her father, Tessa deduces Lewis will only unleash his musical creativity when he finds true love and experiences heartache. The Constant Nymph follows a predictable narrative path to misery as a gateway to inspiration. Pity the film itself is more stilted than imaginative.

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Movie Review: Band Of Angels (1957)
Sat, 13 Apr 2019 04:50:00 +0000

A Civil War drama, Band Of Angels is stranded between old and new representations of racism and eventually falls between the cracks.

In Kentucky just before the Civil War, Amantha Starr (Yvonne DeCarlo) is the daughter of a cotton plantation owner who is unusually kind to his slaves. Upon her father's death, Amantha is shocked to discover her mother was a slave, and so therefore she is half negro. Brutal slave traders holding her father's debts immediately capture and ship her to New Orleans, where wealthy businessman Hamish Bond (Clark Gable) buys her at auction for $5,000.

Hamish owns multiple properties and treats all his slaves with dignity, and indeed has raised Rau-Ru (Sidney Poitier) as a son, but Amantha remains unsure what Hamish wants from her. Eventually a romance develops between them and he offers her freedom, but she elects to stay. Hamish is hiding dark secrets about his past, while various other suitors enter Amantha's life as she struggles with her identity. The eruption of the Civil War severely disrupts Hamish's business, while Rau-Ru finds the dream of true freedom within grasp.

Based on the book by Robert Penn Warren, Band Of Angels deserves some credit for adopting a relatively enlightened stance and featuring multiple dignified black characters carving out a place in a shifting societal landscape. Sidney Poitier's outspoken Rau-Ru is the most prominent, but the intriguing Michele (Carolle Drake) is another of Hamish's slaves grappling with loosely defined captivity, the complications of freedom, and quiet infatuation.

Despite the good intentions, Band Of Angels stumbles and stalls rather than building momentum. Director Raoul Walsh is unable to ever ignite the film as it trundles from scene to scene with little passion. The intention to duplicate the grand drama of Gone With The Wind with more modern sensibilities is clear, but Band Of Angels does not come close to replicating the grandeur of the 1939 classic. Neither the writing nor the acting are at the requisite level, and indeed many scenes unfold with a stiff and artificial theatricality.

Walsh and writers Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts also manage to fumble the most pertinent discussions around racism. Amantha openly resents her blackness, Rau-Ru is angry at everything, and Hamish's relative kindness appears to stem from embers of guilt rather than any core belief. Although Gable is absent from large chunks of the film, Hamish's dark backstory is by far the most compelling aspect of the story, and Band Of Angels would have greatly benefited from showing samples of his formative years. Instead Walsh leans heavily on Gable, who is excellent, to recall the past, reducing the film to plenty of talking and spurning the opportunity for a more powerful cinematic experience.

Elsewhere, and between bouts of self-hate, Amantha too easily falls in love with every man who sets eyes on her. There is a fiery preacher and ardent believer in freedom, a handsome military type, the gruff Hamish, and a slimy next-door plantation owner. They take turns abusing and rescuing her, not necessarily in that order, as Band Of Angels desperately tries to define itself. In search of stability and fulfilment Amantha wastes too much time purring at the wrong targets, much like the film itself.

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Movie Review: Hawaii (1966)
Tue, 09 Apr 2019 12:58:00 +0000

A historical epic about Christian missionaries, Hawaii aims for a spectacular scope but has to settle for competently stodgy.

It's 1819 in New England, and the strictly idealistic Calvinist Reverend Abner Hale (Max von Sydow) heeds the call from Hawaii's Prince Keoki (Manu Tupou) and volunteers for a Christian mission to the islands. The Reverend Dr. Thorn (Torin Thatcher) insists that Abner first get married, and connects him with the eligible Jerusha (Julie Andrews), the daughter of church member Charles Bromley (Carroll O'Connor).

Jerusha is still nursing a heart broken by whaler Captain Rafer Hoxworth, who loved her and abandoned her. After a brief and awkward courtship she agrees to marry the stiff and clumsy Abner. They travel to Hawaii on an arduous sea journey including traversing the Magellan Strait. Upon arrival they are welcomed by Keoki's mother Malama (Jocelyne LaGarde), the local ruler considered sacred by the natives.

As per tradition to preserve the purity of bloodlines Malama is married to her brother Kelolo (Ted Nobriga), one of many examples of adultery and incest that Abner immediately starts raging against. Jerusha is more patient and teaches Malama how to write, while Abner builds his first church and slowly starts to exert influence, although changing deeply entrenched local customs proves difficult. Abner and Jerusha start a family, but further complications arise when Captain Hoxworth (Richard Harris) appears in Hawaii and reinitiates his romantic pursuit of Jerusha.

An adaptation of one chapter from James A. Michener's 1959 book, Hawaii is ambitious in scope and proficient in execution but hamstrung by dry subject matter and an aloof protagonist. The beautiful scenery and grand Elmer Bernstein music score ensure a base level of entertainment. But the story of humourless missionaries browbeating locals into redefining themselves as worthless sinners is grating.

While Julie Andrews receives top billing after achieving stratospheric success in The Sound Of Music, Jerusha is very much the secondary character. Instead the script by Daniel Taradash and Dalton Trumbo chooses Reverend Abner Hale as the focal point. His uncompromising view of the world and Bible-thumping attitude defines the fire and brimstone style of proselytizing, and makes for an exceptionally dour central character. Three hours is a long time to spend with anyone, but three hours with Abner are more than enough to capitulate and buy whatever he is selling just to avoid his continued wrath.

Relatively unknown at the time, director George Roy Hill replaced Fred Zinnemann and was himself reportedly fired and rehired several times during the course of the troubled production. To his credit, Hill does tease out the agonies (including loss of culture and rampant diseases) experienced by the natives due to the missionary invasion, and raises questions as to whether the locals ultimately benefited from welcoming and trusting the social and religious fundamentalists.

With Max von Sydow in full preacherman mode, it is left to Andrews to prove she can handle dramatic roles. She effortlessly passes the test in the two key scenes, first Jerusha explaining to Abner intimacy's place in marriage, and much later awakening him (somewhat) to the power of love over dogma.

Native Tahitian Jocelyne LaGarde earned an Academy Award nomination for her one and only screen role as Malama, who injects much needed spirit whenever she is on the screen despite LaGarde knowing any English and reciting her lines phonetically. As Abner will spend a lifetime learning, sometimes what matters is not what needs to be said, but how the message is conveyed.

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Movie Review: Hotel Mumbai (2018)
Sun, 07 Apr 2019 17:48:00 +0000

A recreation of the large-scale 2008 terrorist attacks, Hotel Mumbai portrays selfless bravery amidst unfolding panic and deadly coordinated mayhem.

It's November 2008 and 10 heavily armed and well-trained terrorists, all indoctrinated young men, arrive in Mumbai on an inflatable dinghy. In constant touch with their handlers through cell phones and earpieces, the terrorists split up to attack various predesignated targets.

At the lavish Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, chef Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher) and waiter Arjun (Dev Patel) are among the staff members and take pride in providing exceptional service. The guests include the wealthy and recently married Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) and her American husband David (Armie Hammer), along with their infant son and nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey). Vasili (Jason Isaacs) is a tough Russian ex-military type also staying at the hotel.

After killing scores of civilians at a train station terminal and other locations, a subgroup of the terrorists infiltrate the Taj and start randomly killing guests and staff, while seeking out foreigners as hostages. With local authorities outgunned and help slow in arriving, Hemant, Arjun and other staff members have to find ways to shelter and save as many guests as possible.

Based on real events, with chef Oberoi an actual character and the other featured guests and staff members amalgamations of real survivors and victims, Hotel Mumbai is an astounding achievement. Tense, harrowing, gripping and heartbreaking, often all at the same time, the film recreates with unblinking audacity the tragedy of a large-scale terrorist slaughter and conveys what it means to live through an unfolding hell.

With terrorist attacks aiming to inflict maximum damage an all too frequent occurrence around the world, Hotel Mumbai pauses and humanizes the scale and depth of the atrocities. The statistics become husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, infants and nannies, businessmen, backpackers and locals, and life-long employees dedicated to their guests and working to support their families. Each has a story and a life disrupted or terminated by human-inflicted terror.

And director Anthony Maras, who co-wrote the script with John Collee, insists on also defining the attackers and their loss of humanity. They are portrayed as indoctrinated and uneducated young men from rural areas, bewildered by the big city surroundings and fully in the grip of handlers providing continuous reassurance and brainwashing through earpieces. The promise of money to their families is part of the motivation, and Maras takes time amidst the carnage for an attacker to phone home and check on that commitment.

The film does not judge the official local non-readiness to deal with a well-planned attack, allowing the facts to speak for themselves as residents are left to fend for themselves for more than two days while a counter-terrorist force arrives from New Delhi. The brave attempts of a few out-gunned local police officers to provide help are highlighted.

With its numerous victims and relentlessly grim tone Hotel Mumbai is extraordinarily difficult to watch, but also an essential story of a barbarous bloodbath confronted by exceptional courage.

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Movie Review: Twins (1988)
Sat, 06 Apr 2019 20:23:00 +0000

A buddy comedy about mismatched men discovering they are brothers, Twins draws some laughs from its kooky premise but otherwise struggles to build a meaningful narrative.

Julius Benedict (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is the perfect human being, a product of a US government science experiment mixing the DNA of six carefully selected men with one remarkable woman, who unfortunately died in childbirth. Physically superior, emotionally mature and well educated, Julius has spent his sheltered life working with scientists on a tropical island.

Julius is shocked to learn he has a twin brother Vincent, an unwanted byproduct of the experiment who was sent to an orphanage upon birth. He ventures to Los Angeles and finds Vincent (Danny DeVito), a scrappy car thief owing money to loan sharks. They eventually team up and learn that not everything they were told about their parents is true. Meanwhile, Vincent steals a car with valuable merchandise in the trunk, and has an opportunity to finally get rich.

After firmly establishing his credentials as one of the world's premier action movie superstars, Arnold Schwarzenegger branches out into his first comedy role. Twins is built on a simple big-man small-man buddy concept, adding in simple themes of nature versus nurture and the benefits of a privileged upbringing.

Of course director Ivan Reitman isn't too interested in seriously exploring of any social topics. Twins goes after pretty basic humour portraying Julius as strong and book smart but naive and Vincent as a street survivor with a chip on his shoulder because life offered him nothing. The MacGuffin item-in-the-trunk leads to poorly defined bad guy Webster (Marshall Bell), and some bland action in the final quarter to satisfy Arnold's core fan base.

Enroute, plenty of momentum is lost with a sidequest romance featuring Vincent's girlfriend Linda (Chloe Webb) and her knockout sister Marnie (Kelly Preston). Once Vincent learns Julius is a virgin, setting him up with Marnie becomes an obsession occupying way too much screen time. The two women are overall treated badly by a script surrendering to male fantasy exploitive tendencies.

Schwarzenegger is quickly at ease in the lighter milieu, more than adept at making fun of his own image and deploying his muscular presence to serve a steady stream of humour. The partnership with DeVito is a natural fit, the two immediately sharing chemistry built on having nothing in common and therefore everything to learn from each other.

Twins is a classic exercise in broadening a star's audience, the quality of the content less important than the appeal of the concept.

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Movie Review: The Hummingbird Project (2018)
Sat, 06 Apr 2019 16:41:00 +0000

A business drama, The Hummingbird Project tackles a potentially dry subject with some verve, despite never quite engaging at the human level.

In New York City, stock trader Vince Zaleski (Jesse Eisenberg) works at the firm run by Eva Torres (Salma Hayek). His socially awkward but technically brilliant cousin Anton (Alexander Skarsgård) is Eva's technology guru, part of the team continuously trying to improve transaction speed to gain millisecond advantages. Vince finds a backer to finance his dream of building the fastest fibre optic line from Kansas to New Jersey. Access to the line can then be sold to traders, generating millions in profits.

Vince and Anton quit their jobs, enraging Eva, and team up with construction expert Mark Vega (Michael Mando). Building in a straight line will require negotiating with numerous property owners, crossing rivers and swamps, and the small matter of drilling through the Appalachian Mountains. Vince will also have to deal with unwelcome health news and Eva's determined efforts to torpedo the project, while Anton struggles to make his software as efficient as possible.

The Michael Lewis non-fiction book Flash Boys (2014) highlighted the dangers and eccentricities of the high speed stock trading world, and how the race to gain milliseconds in transaction speeds drives the madcap construction of dedicated fibre optic lines across the country. It's an arcane subject at best, so credit to Canadian writer and director Kim Nguyen for conceiving a fictional movie (not based on the book) tackling the same subject matter.

The Hummingbird Project tries to create human subjects worth caring about, and Nguyen colours in just enough personality to help move the action along. Vince and Anton Zaleski are sons of Eastern European immigrants living the dream and chasing more, Vince the always persuasive dealmaker while Anton is the prototypical dour coder. Less successful is Eva as the one-dimensional antagonist, sketched in as a cartoonish villain.

The script's real investment is out in the field, where the idea of building a communications conduit in an absolute straight line takes shape. The sheer audacity of such a project is at the heart of the film, and Nguyen provides a taste of the challenges to be overcome, from negotiating with individual landowners to flying in drilling equipment by gigantic helicopter to the base of the Appalachians, where there are no roads.

Of course almost everything that can go wrong does, Vince's dream threatened by serious personal challenges and obstacles as mundane as an obstinate Amish community, while on the sidelines Eva tries every trick to halt the line in its tracks.

Although the acting performances are secondary, Alexander Skarsgård is a pleasant surprise, entirely losing his Tarzan features and transforming into a bald, haunched and entirely pessimistic anti-social tech geek.

The Hummingbird Project is a version of the American Dream where millions are sunk in pursuit of an imperceptible advantage for dubious purposes, and making a quick buck is defined literally.

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Movie Review: Lucky Number Slevin (2006)
Sat, 06 Apr 2019 02:47:00 +0000

A raucous crime thriller, Lucky Number Slevin offers a delectable multi-faceted plot and jaunty execution. A busy story of gangland vendettas offers rich rewards and plenty of barbed wit.

After a series of seemingly unrelated murders including the killing of two bookies and a sniper attack, Goodkat (Bruce Willis) sits next to a young man at an empty bus terminal and recounts a strange story from 1979, when a struggling family was brutally annihilated as a result of a horse race fix gone wrong.

Back in the present Slevin Kelevra (Josh Hartnett) arrives in New York City to stay at the apartment of his friend Nick Fisher, who is mysteriously nowhere to be found. Jovial next-door neighbour Lindsey (Lucy Liu) makes friends with Slevin, but he is soon mistaken for Nick and abducted, twice: first by mobsters working for The Boss (Morgan Freeman), then by goons working for The Rabbi (Ben Kingsley).

The Boss and The Rabbi used to be gangland partners who ran the city's most powerful crime syndicate. Now they have fallen out, The Boss' son has been killed, and he wants Slevin to assassinate The Rabbi's son in retaliation. Meanwhile The Rabbi wants Slevin to repay an outstanding loan. Goodkat is lurking in the shadows, and police detective Brikowski (Stanley Tucci) tries to untangle all the motives as Slevin seeks to survive the impending mayhem.

Plenty of movies have attempted to recreate the sheer verve of Pulp Fiction; few have succeeded as well as Lucky Number Slevin. This is an in-your-face barely-in-control full throttle thriller, a white knuckle wild ride through the world of crime and punishment.

Combining numerous disparate events that slowly converge into a brilliant whole with a collection of memorable characters, Lucky Number Slevin is an intricate narrative puzzle. The film starts with the pieces all over the place, but writer Jason Smilovic and director Paul McGuigan know exactly where they are heading and how to get there. Every detail matters, and as the picture is assembled the narrative wizardry comes to the fore. Of course the plot holes are there to be picked, but overall the story of vendettas, revenge, goons and rogue assassinations is sly and resplendent.

Stylistically McGuigan deploys typical Tarantinoesque touches, including colourful marginal characters, just about everyone lying about almost everything, occasional philosophizing, brief explosions of violence, and oddities like rivals The Boss and The Rabbi occupying apartments across the street from each other. In relative terms the blood and gore are dialed back, and Lucky Number Slevin revels in the power of a single compact trigger event for all the mayhem.

The cast members stay within themselves and allow the script to star. Josh Hartnett is in the middle of the pandemonium as Slevin, and finds one of his career best fitting roles. Without stretching beyond established personas, Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley offer plenty of weighty veteran talent, all three as men still trading in death when they should know better.

Breezy and fierce in equal measures, Lucky Number Slevin runs the perfect race.

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Movie Review: Dune (1984)
Fri, 05 Apr 2019 03:29:00 +0000

A science fiction fiasco, Dune is a disastrous epic, the ineptitude registering at a jaw-dropping scale.

Set in the distant future, the plot is convoluted beyond belief. The comprehensible core is a battle for control of the desert-like planet Dune, which is the only source in the universe for "the spice", which is required to fold space and enable "travel without moving". Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan), the son of Duke Leto Atreides (Jürgen Prochnow), is a "chosen-one" type destined to save the local population of Dune, while Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV (José Ferrer) and the despicable Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan) are engaged in power hungry conspiracies.

The production of spice on Dune is hampered by giant subterranean worms that eat anything they deem annoying, and a large assortment of nondescript people, creatures and places enter and exit the plot with little consequence, but blue eyes and the "Water of Life" are important parts of the fantastical universe.

For anyone unfamiliar with Frank Herbert's source books, Dune the movie is overwhelmingly incomprehensible within five minutes. A barrage of names, places, clans and concepts is unloaded onto the screen through narration (including the disembodied head of Virginia Madsen, who otherwise barely features in the movie), and voice-overs that tell us what characters are really thinking once they stop talking.

Director and writer David Lynch appears utterly clueless on how to translate Herbert's admittedly difficult epic onto the screen, and the bumbling storytelling on display is something to behold. It's impossible to follow who is who and why, and scene after scene comes and goes featuring barely defined people and creatures conspiring with and against each other.

The multitude of characters brings forth a massive cast featuring the likes of Francesca Annis, Brad Dourif, Patrick Stewart, Linda Hunt, Freddie Jones, Silvana Mangano, Dean Stockwell, Max von Sydow and Sean Young. They mostly stand around, often in a crowded flat line, and spout gibberish in full pantomime mode. Then there is a Sting, who tries to introduce menace but only succeeds in further escalating the madness quotient.

The special effects are worthy of B-movies from the glorious cheap sci-fi era of the 1950s, while the set designs are a garish steampunk nightmare. The action scenes appear staged by children, and mostly consist of dorky extras aimlessly running around the desert.

It is exceptionally difficult to avoid the impression that Dune is intended as a bad joke, a big-budget reimagining of Plan 9 From Outer Space to stake out new boundaries of awfulness. But unfortunately it's not a parody, just a sad exercise in large scale incompetence.

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Movie Review: The Man (2005)
Fri, 05 Apr 2019 02:20:00 +0000

A buddy comedy about incompatible men forced to cooperate in pursuit of criminals, The Man offers a few laughs but is otherwise familiar and slight.

Meek dental supplies salesperson Andy Fiddler (Eugene Levy) travels to Detroit to attend a convention. His arrival coincides with a daring federal armoury heist that releases hundreds of dangerous weapons into the hands of criminals. Internal affairs investigators including agent Peters (Miguel Ferrer) suspect streetwise agent Derrick Vann (Samuel L. Jackson) of involvement, because his partner was identified as the key inside man and showed up dead.

Eager to clear his name Vann shakes down informer Booty (Anthony Mackie) for information and arranges an undercover buy-back of the weapons. The clueless Andy inadvertently botches Vann's plan: he shows up at the wrong time in the wrong place and is mistaken by ruthless gang boss Joey (Luke Goss) of being an international weapons trader. Vann is forced to seize Andy and use him to try and apprehend the bad guys. The two polar-opposite men continuously frustrate each other but eventually realize they have to cooperate.

Running a grand total of 83 minutes, The Man trots out a tired concept and not much else. There is a bit of fun to be had in placing a timid but talkative salesperson in a car with an angry and ruthless cop, but director Les Mayfield brings nothing else to the screen. Most of the movie is set within the confines of Vann's admittedly impressive and imposing black 1983 Cadillac Coupe DeVille, as Andy and Vann exchange barbs and take turns making each other angry. Plot, logic and depth are forgotten on the curb.

The faults reside within a flimsy script, a collaboration between Jim Piddock, Margaret Oberman, and Stephen Carpenter that reduces the bad guys to hissing cardboard cutouts, somehow capable of planning and executing a major heist but then foolishly botching every subsequent criminal step. Vann does receive a family including an ex-wife and young daughter to care about should he choose to, but his journey towards finding some empathy thanks to Andy's influence is nauseatingly linear.

The action scenes are spotty and forgettable, while a running joke featuring Vann inflicting pain on Booty's booty fits right in with the over-dependence on juvenile body function jokes.

Eugene Levy and Samuel L. Jackson stay firmly within the bounds of their most basic personas, although their talent just about elevates The Man to tolerable in patches. That, and the car.

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Movie Review: The Gift (2015)
Thu, 04 Apr 2019 03:08:00 +0000

An intriguing suspense drama, The Gift uncovers its secrets with mischievous expertise.

Married couple Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) relocate back to Los Angeles for a fresh start and move into a dream home in the suburbs. Although Simon is on the fast-track to success at his corporate job in technology security, their marriage is tense due to a miscarriage and unspoken hints about Robyn's career burnout. At the mall they bump into Gordon (Joel Edgerton), Simon's slightly awkward former classmate from high school days.

Gordon appears to be a loner, claims to be ex-military and has otherwise not done much in his life. He starts showing up uninvited to Simon and Robyn's home, bringing them gifts and lingering for dinner. Simon wants nothing to do with his weird ex-schoolmate and insists on curtailing contact. Robyn is more sympathetic towards Gordon and willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Soon Gordon's intrusions trigger layers of lies, secrets and threats, further straining Simon and Robyn's relationship.

Exploring the broad definition of antisocial behaviour and damage from the past haunting the present, The Gift is an expert blend of psychology, suspense and social unease. The film is character-rich, and uses intriguing locations, unspoken words and a build-up of palpable tension to create a Hitchcockian experience with just a dash of Cape Fear.

The directorial debut of Joel Edgerton who also wrote the script, The Gift rides a shifty rhythm of gradual revelations. The film feints towards the story of a creepy guy bothering an appealing couple before dropping tactful hints that tension can and will emanate from various unexpected sources. Edgerton plays his cards with deliberate care, investing in all three characters to build sympathy and tease out strengths and failings.

What emerges is a narrative that dares to skip past traditional roles of victims and aggressors, subverting expectations and challenging norms around personal responsibility, achievement and success. No one escapes unscathed from the flare up of personal protectionism, denial and multiple rounds of retribution.

The three central performances are all grounded by the steady script. Edgerton gives himself the most unsettling role as Gordon, but Jason Bateman also deserves credit for a veiled turn as the cocky Simon, so sure that he can deal with a fragile wife and annoying wannabe friend. Rebecca Hall is disarmingly natural in her portrayal of Robyn, carrying the burden of recent traumas and yet wanting to believe in the good within the men around her.

Expertly packaged and carefully unwrapped, The Gift keeps on giving.

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Movie Review: For Keeps? (1988)
Sun, 31 Mar 2019 16:01:00 +0000

A reality-bites romance and drama with tinges of humour, For Keeps? (the title is known with and without the question mark) tackles weighty issues but suffers an identity crisis.

In the small town of Kenosha, Wisconsin, aspiring writer Darcy Elliott (Molly Ringwald) and budding architect Stan Bobrucz (Randall Batinkoff) are high school sweethearts wondering how to maintain their relationship now that Stan is planning to attend CalTech. Their lives are thrown into disarray when Darcy learns she is pregnant. Her mother Donna (Miriam Flynn) is obsessed with French culture and insists on an abortion, while Stan's loud father (Kenneth Mars), a shoe store owner, argues for an adoption.

Instead, Darcy and Stan decide to keep the baby and break off relations with their families. They get married, rent a derelict apartment, and start their life together. Soon they face severe money pressures and once the baby arrives Darcy suffers through postpartum depression, adding stress to the lives of the young couple.

Moviedom's favourite high school student Molly Ringwald tackles the transition from student to adult, and For Keeps? does not spare many grown up agonies. Before completing school Darcy has to deal with an impending separation from her boyfriend, an unexpected pregnancy, a less than useless mother, parental estrangement, night school, poverty, post-delivery depression, and a young husband suddenly adrift in life.

The film deserves credit for not sugarcoating serious issues. This is more drama than comedy or romance, and the stresses facing the young couple are portrayed as real and painful, with every compromise, sacrifice and trade-off spiraling into further grim consequences.

Amidst the doom and gloom of mounting responsibilities, director John G. Avildsen working from a script by Denise DeClue and Tim Kazurinsky still wedges in moments of humour, tender romance and growing-up wonder. The resultant movie is not so much dissonant as distant. As Darcy and Stan experience ups and downs, the emotional fluctuations are less than convincing, and appear theatrically scripted rather than natural.

Ringwald is by far the stand-out performer, radiating warmth and genuineness whether in giddy excitement as to what life has to offer or in the depths of depression. The unfortunate Randall Batinkoff is miscast and horribly outmatched as Stan, his arc defeated by bland scripting and superficial delivery. Miriam Flynn is monotonal as Darcy's mom and Kenneth Mars gets too much screen time as Stan's obnoxious father.

For Keeps? stands up to reality, but wobbles a bit from the variety of punches.

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Movie Review: The Other Guys (2010)
Sat, 30 Mar 2019 17:58:00 +0000

A buddy cop comedy, The Other Guys combines sharp wit, good character dynamics and wild action.

In New York City, rock star police detectives Highsmith (Samuel L. Jackson) and Danson (Dwayne Johnson) grab all the headlines with spectacular arrests of multiple bad guys. Meanwhile detective Allen Gamble (Will Ferrell) is known as a paper-pushing dimwit, and his partner Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg) will never live down mistakenly shooting baseball superstar Derek Jeter. Their harried boss Captain Gene Mauch (Michael Keaton) does not believe they will ever amount to much.

When Highsmith and Danson are suddenly rendered inoperable, Allen and Terry agree to stop bickering and start doing field work. Allen's dogged investigation of construction scaffolding permit violations leads them to arrest corrupt billionaire Sir David Ershon (Steve Coogan), unknowingly triggering a massive pursuit as Ershon is at the centre of an illegal money transfer scheme involving international criminals. Meanwhile Terry is stunned to meet Allen's knock-out wife Dr. Sheila Ramos Gamble (Eva Mendes) and learns more about his partner's chequered college history.

The oil-and-water buddy cop movie genre is long in the tooth, but director and co-writer Adam McKay injects a large dose of revitalizing energy. By yanking background officers to the forefront and allocating good focus on their backstories, The Other Guys combines familiar bickering with unusual character-driven touches, always accompanied by a steady current of irascible humour.

Much joy is derived from Allen Gamble's unexpected story. From a stunning surgeon wife to a shady college business passing through hidden magnetism, there is more than initially meets the eye with the always happy brown nosed paper pusher. Through the eyes of his tightly would partner Terry, McKay sequentially teases out the always funny surprises. Will Ferrell is in his sweet spot, finding laughs by playing Allen straight, smart, but definitely different.

When it comes to jolts of wild action, McKay delivers with over-the-top panache. The car chases, crashes, and shoot-outs are perfectly paced, never over-used, and always played for exaggerated laughs. Other than some dubious editing, the carnage fits perfectly within the film's ambition.

The Other Guys will never be accused of startling originality or a cohesive plot. Despite Steve Coogan's best efforts to provide villain David Ershon with sophisticated smarm, the bad guys are generic and the money transfer deception barely sketched in. But the film happily skips past its weaknesses, riding a wave of fun with the unlikely partners experiencing the spotlight.

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Movie Review: Ender's Game (2013)
Sat, 30 Mar 2019 15:56:00 +0000

A science fiction war adventure, Ender's Game is a hopelessly inept Boys' Own debacle filled with video-game special effects, snarling bullies and little else.

In the future, humanity has repelled an alien invasion by the marauding Formics, an ant-like species intent on colonizing Earth. Preparations for a follow-up war are underway, and children are being groomed as military commanders due to the clarity of their mind and ability to think like the enemy. Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) spots the leadership potential in young teenager Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), although psychologist Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) is not so sure.

Under Hyrum's guidance Ender is pushed through the stages of the space-based military training academy, where he meets various other trainees including the sympathetic Petra (Hailee Steinfeld) and aggressive Bonzo. Ender has to prove himself at every turn, and misses his sister Val (Abigail Breslin). As the preparations for an impending war become more intense, he starts to question everything around him as he struggles to understand the motivations of the Formics.

An adaptation of the book series by Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game carries precious little appeal outside the target demographic of young teenaged boys. The film is a mind-numbing series of rudimentary bully conflicts experienced by young Ender, jazzed up by CGI mostly featuring kids floating around a "Battle Room" firing lights at each other. Any relationship between "training" involving games of tag and the reality of commanding massive battleships is tenuous at best.

Most of what passes as action happens on screens within screens, from Ender experiencing a seemingly profound search for the truth through an ipad game all the way to the climactic battle that entirely surrenders to an incomprehensible pixel show. Director and writer Gavin Hood is unable to elevate the material to anything other than over-elaborate fireworks. The sudden eruption of emotional displays are more embarrassing than effective.

The performances match the material, Harrison Ford and Viola Davis delivering plastic line readings devoid of context, and young Asa Butterfield hamstrung by a never ending series of loner cliches.

After clumsily appending a post-genocidal u-turn towards an exasperating quest for interspecies harmony within a narrative void, Ender's Game cannot end soon enough.

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Movie Review: Gloria Bell (2018)
Sun, 24 Mar 2019 17:37:00 +0000

A romantic drama, Gloria Bell explores second chances at love and all the attached luggage weighing down new opportunities.

In Los Angeles, middle-aged Gloria (Julianne Moore) has been divorced for 12 years. She works as an insurance agent and tries to stay involved in the lives of her grown children, son Peter (Michael Cera) and daughter Anne (Caren Pistorius). But most of all Gloria likes to dance at a retro discotheque, where she eventually meets Arnold (John Turturro), who has been divorced for a year.

They start a relationship which quickly turns serious, although Arnold appears to be tethered to his two grown but emotionally immature daughters. An evening that brings Gloria together with her two children and ex-husband Dustin (Brad Garrett) ends badly for Arnold, and threatens Gloria's budding attempt at a new romance.

Chilean director Sebastián Lelio remakes his own 2013 drama Gloria, this time in English and with Julianne Moore in radiant perfection mode. Devoid of a traditional narrative structure and not free of meandering stretches, the film ambles along, tracing Gloria's ups and downs. Moore at least ensures that even the seemingly mundane scenes of club dancing and car radio singalongs carry the warmth of a genuine and expansive human spirit.

The emotional luggage accumulated by middle age is given a physical representation in the large bag Arnold places in Gloria's trunk. It carries his paintball paraphernalia, but symbolically weighs down their relationship with all his insecurities, mistakes and lingering dependencies. His phone is the rope, a metaphorical strangulation device interrupting the oxygen needed for the romance with Gloria to survive.

She is not without her issues, worrying about daughter Anne falling in love with a wandering Swedish surfer and son Peter already abandoned by his wife and left caring for a newborn infant on his own. Not to mention a colourless job, a hairless cat and a suicidal upstairs neighbour adding plenty of angst to what should be quiet time.

But at least Gloria is open about her life and has a semblance of balance between her personal needs and her family responsibilities. Arnold is falling through the cracks, and Gloria will use every device she knows, from companionship to sex to estrangement, in an attempted emotional rescue.

Gloria Bell features touches of humour to lighten the mood, the persistent hairless cat seeking to adopt Gloria a regular source of brief but welcome distraction. Gloria has to decide whether to allow a damaged man and an ugly cat into her life, as the unexpected challenges of middle age range from profound to bizarre.

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Movie Review: Sudden Fear (1952)
Sat, 23 Mar 2019 20:01:00 +0000

A woman-in-distress suspense drama, Sudden Fear features stylish tension, playful plotting, and an overabundance of wide-eyed acting.

Myra Hudson (Joan Crawford) is an independently wealthy and successful middle-aged playwright, about to launch her new Broadway show. During rehearsals she insists on firing actor Lester Blaine (Jack Palance), because she does not believe he is handsome enough for the leading role. The show opens and is a great success.

On a train trip back to her hometown of San Francisco, Myra bumps into Lester. He is exceptionally gracious, they spend time together, fall in love and are soon married. Myra is deliriously happy to have found true love and starts planning to update her will to include Lester. Suddenly a woman called Irene (Gloria Grahame) appears in their social circle, and everything changes.

An RKO Pictures production with Crawford a driving force in pulling the project together, Sudden Fear has enough quality to engage. Romance, drama, deception and murder plots gel into a potent Hitchcockian noir package.

A slow and prolonged first half introduces the main characters but plays more like a fluffy romance than any kind of thriller. The suspense elements take off in the second half with a ticking clock, greed, a compromised conspiracy and a convoluted preemptive revenge plan. Director David Miller deploys plenty of panache and large serving of style as he focuses on Myra's predicament to deftly skip past some of the unlikely logic.

With Crawford fully committed to an almost silent movie level of overacting, Miller optimizes what he has. The dialogue all but disappears from the final 30 minutes, the excellent Elmer Bernstein music takes over and genuine tension is generated as despite the preponderance of plotters, nothing goes according to any plan. The twisty and hilly San Francisco locations (with some subbing by Los Angeles) echo the intermingling plots and add plenty of ambience.

The good cast contributes to the enjoyment level. With Crawford consuming the sets and her costars with her eyes, Jack Palance provides a robust counterpart as a complex charmer and struggling actor intent on proving just how good he is at romance. Gloria Grahame as Irene introduces a jolt of naked avarice, impatient to grab her undeserved slice of what rich society has to offer. Bruce Bennett and Mike Connors appear as brothers and lawyers Steve and Junior Keaney, the latter also entangled with Irene.

Miller throws in plenty of toys and red herrings to maintain an edge. Technology in the form of a sophisticated (for the day) recording system stands alongside playfulness represented by a wind-up dog gadget to amplify moments of revelation and tension. Any film where a tiny toy dog is transformed into a suspense device is tracking in the right direction.

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Movie Review: Battle Circus (1953)
Fri, 22 Mar 2019 03:26:00 +0000

A semi-documentary highlighting the difficult work of army medical units under fire, Battle Circus features a tepid romance floundering within a narrative void.

During the Korean War, Major Jed Webbe (Humphrey Bogart) is a battle weary doctor and part of the leadership team for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) unit 8666. Operating out of large tents near the front lines, MASH has to be ready to redeploy frequently and at short notice, and sometimes overnight. New arrivee Lieutenant Ruth McCara (June Allyson) joins the unit as a nurse, and Jed first saves her life during an enemy air raid and then tries to initiate a romance within the confines of a hectic military environment.

In addition to treating wounded soldiers and remobilizing to new locations, Jed and the other unit leaders including Sergeant Orvil Statt (Keenan Wynn) and Lieutenant Colonel Hilary Whalters (Robert Keith) have to deal with columns of displaced civilians requiring treatment, injured prisoners of war, enemy bombing raids, ambushes, foul weather, and the uncertainties of shifting front lines. Ruth initially resists Jed's advances and the other nurses in the unit warn her about him. But eventually a deep love emerges, although he refuses to reveal whether or not he is married.

Before the much more famous (but no better) MASH movie and television series, Battle Circus ventured to the front lines with doctors and nurses given the unenviable task of patching up bodies close to the arena of combat, although this is a field hospital with no visible blood or injuries, and remarkably pain-free and well-behaved patients. Director and co-writer Richard Brooks cobbles up a non-script most interested in featuring men-at-work putting up and taking down large tents, and occasionally dodging unconvincing and quite wayward enemy attacks.

Bolted on to the appreciation of American medical ingenuity under fire is a miserable love story, consisting of Jed lecherously pursuing Ruth. His pushiness to get his hands all over her borders on assault rather than romance. Regardless she falls passionately in love for reasons lost in the muddy terrain between the tents. Bogart and Allyson are far from convincing as medical professionals, and even less so as lovers, sharing no chemistry.

Brief glimpses of human drama poke their helmets out of the foxholes in the form of an injured Korean child who arrives at the field hospital near death, and later a delirious enemy soldier waving a hand grenade. The doctors carry on with their surgeries and disregard the wobbly intruder, just as this film is best ignored.

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Movie Review: Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1941)
Wed, 20 Mar 2019 04:17:00 +0000

A suspense fantasy drama, Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde delves into the darkest recesses of the soul, where vile tendencies await an awakening.

In London of the late 1800s, Dr. Jekyll (Spencer Tracy) is a respected physician, engaged to be married to Bea Emery (Lana Turner), although her father Sir Charles (Donald Crisp) has so far refused to set a wedding date. Jekyll is interested in the duality of the soul, and is conducting animal experiments to develop a drug that can separate good from evil.

Jekyll and his colleague Dr. Lanyon (Ian Hunter) rescue barmaid Ivy Pearson (Ingrid Bergman) from an assault, and she triggers his lustful impulses. He completes his research, tests the drug on himself, and is physically and emotionally transformed into Mr. Hyde, an immoral, selfish and violent man. He proceeds to kidnap and assault Ivy. Initially Jekyll is able to control his transformations back and forth into Mr. Hyde, but soon loses control, with his evil side making unwelcome appearances at inopportune moments.

An adaptation of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson story, the 1941 film version features a superlative and understated Spencer Tracy performance to help bring out the complex shadings of the internal human struggle between good and evil. With a deliberate one hour build-up, Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde invests in its characters and builds to a second half filled with disconcerting behaviour.

In this version Jekyll's virulent tendencies are unleashed by sexual repression. Director Vincent Fleming hints at the burning desire between Jekyll and Bea as they sneak passionate kisses at every opportunity behind Sir Charles' back. Maybe because of Jekyll's audacious nature Charles refuses to set a wedding date, only worsening Jekyll's frustration.

With Ingrid Bergman in full-on seductress mode, the sultry advances of Ivy are the final push. She is available and incessantly flirtatious; he perfects his concoction, drinks the potion and embraces his evil Hyde self. What starts as a mode that can be switched on and off quickly progresses to a powerful and uncontrollable condition, Jekyll unable to determine when and where Hyde appears, evil proving remarkably resilient once given room to breathe and thrive.

Fleming excels in making best use out of brooding sets to recreate 19th century London. Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde comes to life in a foreboding gas lit environment filled with cobbled streets, alleys and isolated park paths. Frequent fog and plenty of shadows complete the aesthetic.

On a couple of occasions Tracy's transformation is handled in real time with basic superimposed imagery and some shifty frame waviness, the effects basic but nevertheless achieving the objective. The actor does the rest, Tracy disappearing into Hyde's dark pool of soullessness with ferocious venom. The film is more unsettling than scary, the emphasis firmly fixed on revealing the ease with which human malevolence can dominate. Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde reside in every person, their eternal conflict often decided by thin margins.

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Movie Review: It All Came True (1940)
Tue, 19 Mar 2019 03:16:00 +0000

A crime comedy musical drama, It All Came True is a weird mixture of gangsters, entertainers and dotty seniors, but gels enough to maintain interest.

Hardened mobster Chips Maguire (Humphrey Bogart) and his naive piano player Tommy Taylor (Jeffrey Lynn) are forced to flee Chips' nightclub in a hurry to avoid arrest when the police stage a raid. During the escape, Chips shoots and kills an informer using a gun he had previously registered in Tommy's name. The two men take refuge at the financially struggling boarding house run by Tommy's mother Nora (Jessie Busley) and her lifelong friend Maggie Ryan (Una O'Connor). Nora is thrilled to welcome back her son, who still believes Chips will help him become a famous musician.

The boarding house guests include the paranoid Miss Flint (ZaSu Pitts), washed-up magician The Great Boldini (Felix Bressart) and his scene-stealing dog, Mr. Salmon (Grant Mitchell), and Mr. Van Diver (Brandon Tynan).

Chips pretends to be a businessman named Grasselli and confines himself to his room, while Tommy reconnects with his childhood sweetheart Sarah Jane (Ann Sheridan), Maggie's daughter and now a feisty singer. Chips starts to go stir crazy, and eventually decides to convert the boarding house into a new nightclub venture with Tommy and Sarah Jane as the main attraction.

Made the year before Bogart's breakout roles in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon, It All Came True is a curiosity. A slow and meandering start and a weak ending dominated by vaudevillian performances bookend the film. But the middle third surprisingly corrals the right amounts of wit, gentle romance, light gangsterism and sweet musical numbers into a decent enough package.

The main theme of a hardened criminal gradually softening in the presence of mother-like care is predictable enough, but Bogart plays along and subjects himself to plenty of self-deprecating humour. His fish-out-of-water presence in a room filled with stuffed animals towers over the film, although Ann Sheridan comes close to matching him in a spirited performance of her own as an entertainer who stands her ground but cannot hold a job. Compared to Bogart and Sheridan, Jeffrey Lynn is unfortunately bland.

The weaker parts of the movie have director Lewis Seiler surrendering arduous stretches to the  boarding house guests gibbering away about not much or performing versions of poetry readings and magic shows decades past their best-by date. The film's title is a reference to the imaginative tall tales spun by Mrs. Taylor, and many scenes have a static theatrical feel as the residents natter. Happily, the little bits of interaction with law enforcement and Chip's gangland colleagues push back with doses of energy.

As the nutty fluctuations in tone, subject matter and quality develop a charm of their own, It All Came True is neither good nor bad, just quirky.

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Movie Review: Isn't It Romantic (2019)
Sun, 17 Mar 2019 16:24:00 +0000

A satirical romantic comedy, Isn't It Romantic tries to poke lame holes at an already self-perforated genre.

In New York City, Natalie (Rebel Wilson) grew up not believing in romance, and is particularly disdainful of the fairytale representations of love in traditional Hollywood romantic comedies. She works as an architect, allows her co-workers to take advantage of her, and is blind to interest from colleague Josh (Adam DeVine). Rich and dishy client Blake (Liam Hemsworth) does not even notice her.

Natalie tangles with a mugger, is knocked out and wakes up in an alternative rom-com reality where the city is pristine, everyone looks beautiful, her apartment is idyllic and Blake is immediately smitten. She plays along and starts a relationship with him, while Josh starts dating model Isabella (Priyanka Chopra) after a meet-cute moment. But Natalie learns that all the fluffy romance is not the answer to her problems.

Making fun of romantic comedies is just too easy, as the genre never represents itself as anything other than modern-day retellings of boy-meets-girl lightweight fairytales with the absolute promise of a happily-ever-after ending. Isn't It Romantic loudly proclaims all the genre's formulaic faults before proceeding to replicate them, as the second half in particular fizzles out into boring predictability.

Natalie's frumpy and imperfect life, seen at the start and end, offers some organic opportunities to celebrate fresh perspectives on modern single living, but the script decides to spend most of its time in the sanitized fantasy of immaculate streetscapes and handsome happy people, and simply does not offer enough of a satirical edge. And so for a long stretch Natalie is stuck in a world overloaded with cliches, as is the film.

Todd Strauss-Schulson directs with little panache, and star Rebel Wilson as Natalie is caught between mocking romance and succumbing to the imperative of finding a happy ending, satisfying no one in the process.

Isn't It Romantic desperately does not want to be what it ultimately is.

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Movie Review: Invisible Stripes (1939)
Sat, 16 Mar 2019 19:10:00 +0000

A gangster drama, Invisible Stripes examines the lingering stigma of prison and the ever attractive shortcuts to riches offered by crime.

Cliff Taylor (George Raft) and Charles Martin (Humphrey Bogart) are released from New York's Sing Sing prison on the same day. Cliff still has a year on parole, but regrets his criminal past and is intent on living a straight life. Charles has a more jaundiced view of society and quickly seeks out his old mobster buddies and reenters the crime world.

Cliff reconnects with his mother (Flora Robson) and younger brother Tim (William Holden), a car mechanic who is engaged to Peggy (Jane Bryan). Tim is financially struggling, hot headed and eager to live the good life. Cliff has to talk him down from thinking about crime as a quick pathway to riches, but Cliff himself finds life as a parolee difficult, as employers are unwilling to trust him. The option of joining Charles' criminal exploits becomes more difficult to dismiss.

The title refers to the stench of prison garb enduring upon release, and what Invisible Stripes lacks in originality it more than makes up for in polish. This is Warner Bros. studio at their absolute sweet spot, director Lloyd Bacon delivering a straightforward and compact crime drama with a mix of established and future stars. Morality, repentance, family, social barriers, bank hold-ups, shootouts and the eternal dilemma between good and evil are wrapped into a tidy 80 minute package.

The film is based on a novel by real-life warden Lewis E. Lawes, a proponent of prison reform, and Invisible Stripes invests well-meaning effort in exploring the tricky seam between good intentions and societal barriers. Both the warden and Cliff's parole officer are on his side and want him to succeed, but trust for an ex-con is in short supply among business owners, factory workers and yard bosses. Despite Cliff's best intentions and notwithstanding the Taylor brothers' short tempers, he is more pushed back rather than pulled into the orbit of crime in order to survive.

The cast members easily fit into the material. George Raft is in his element and immediately convincing, while Humphrey Bogart generates his own electricity fuelled by abrasive resentment. In his second major role, William Holden is relatively bland and superficial compared to his more weathered co-stars. Jane Bryan as his generic girl gets one scene to shine, bumping up against the dreams and reality of rich society.

On a sour casting note, Flora Robson is asked to play Raft's mother despite being six months younger, and there is an ickiness to the excessive nuzzling between mother and son.

The stripes are invisible, but the film's overall slick proficiency is on clear display.

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Movie Review: 3 Days To Kill (2014)
Fri, 15 Mar 2019 03:08:00 +0000

An action thriller combined with a light-hearted family drama, 3 Days To Kill suffers from a significant identity crisis.

Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner) is a CIA operative combating fatigue and a persistent cough, and his mission in Belgrade to terminate the international arms dealers known as Albino and Wolf does not go well. Ethan is then diagnosed with terminal cancer, given months to live and released from duty. He decides to reconnect with his Paris-based estranged family, and reaches out to ex-wife Christine (Connie Nielsen) and teenaged daughter Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld).

But Ethan's attempted return to domestic life is interrupted by the CIA's Vivi (Amber Heard), who entices him back to action by promising an experimental drug that may cure his disease. Vivi is determined to track down Albino and Wolf, and needs Ethan's efficient assassination skills by her side. Ethan juggles his renewed commitment to family life with bouts of surveillance and violence, and tangles with terrorist associate Mitat, a family man who could lead him to the mobsters.

Co-funded by European production money, 3 Days To Kill features the usual collection of vacationing American actors enjoying travelogue-like locales to boost tourism in the old continent. The talent surrounding the project does hold promise, with none other than Luc Besson conceiving the story and co-writing the script, and one-time action movie darling McG accepting directorial duties.

However, the premise is too similar to Besson's Léon: The Professional (1994), except that the budding fatherly relationship between the killer Ethan and his daughter Zooey never comes close to the requisite levels of tenderness. Instead 3 Days To Kill inserts decent action scenes within long stretches of boredom as Ethan plays hapless dad and makes very slow progress towards connecting with Zooey's life.

Elsewhere, flashes of comedy search for their appropriate place between the family drama and the action mayhem, while the quest to liquidate Albino and Wolf takes the far back seat in the family van, lurching forward in awkward bursts as the villains are reduced to props trotted out whenever some shooting is needed.

Kevin Costner and Hailee Steinfeld occupy the centre of the film and ensure a basic level of competence. Connie Nielsen disappears for long stretches, while Amber Heard wanders in as a superhero movie character demonstrating chill abilities to outdrive anyone and arrive at any scene at just the right moment, her icy quips deadlier than any weapon. In her element within all the Euroglitz, Vivi can just about kill with her attitude and shouldn't really need help to eradicate any targets.

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Movie Review: The Comedian (2016)
Thu, 14 Mar 2019 04:14:00 +0000

A romantic comedy and drama, The Comedian is frequently foul mouthed but rarely funny or romantic.

In New York City, Jackie Burke (Robert De Niro) is an aging and caustic stand-up comic, well past his prime and best known for starring in the sitcom Eddie's Home from 30 years ago. His agent Miller (Edie Falco) struggles to find him work, and things get much worse when he assaults a heckler at a nostalgia night performance and is sentenced to 30 days in jail and 100 hours of community service. Upon his release Jackie is forced to borrow money from his brother Jimmy (Danny DeVito), whose wife Flo (Patti LuPone) cannot stand Jackie.

While fulfilling his community service hours Jackie meets Harmony Schiltz (Leslie Mann), who is also serving a community sentence for assaulting her cheating husband. They start a tentative friendship, she accompanies him to his niece's wedding, and he meets her overbearing father Mac (Harvey Keitel). But Harmony relocates to Florida, and Jackie is invited by his longtime rival Dick D'Angelo (Charles Grodin) to perform at an appreciation event for comedy legend May Conner (Cloris Leachman), where further surprises await.

At a running time of two hours, The Comedian is a solid 30 minutes too long. And most of these minutes are consumed by Jackie unspooling stand-up routines, most of them impromptu, but all of them exceptionally vulgar. Jackie is a deserved has-been, and his brand of humour is to insult as many people as possible as quickly as possible. Instead of making the point once and moving on, director Taylor Hackford repeatedly surrenders the microphone to De Niro as Jackie, and he proceeds to hurl an endless stream of bathroom and body function "jokes", consigning the film to the same gutter as the lead character.

Elsewhere four different script writers could not conjure up much of a story. This is bland older-man-meets-younger-woman-and-quickly-loses-her territory. The presence of stalwarts from the 1970s and 1980s in almost every role threatens to rescue patches of the film, but the combined talent of Harvey Keitel, Cloris Leachman, Danny DeVito and Charles Grodin is ultimately insufficient and they too run aground on the rocks of the mostly witless material.

Given the film's bloated length, it's remarkable how little is revealed about Jackie and Harmony, other than they are both short-tempered refugees from broken relationships and enjoy a full-throated screaming match. Perhaps they deserve each other, but these two abrasive characters cannot sustain much of a movie.

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Movie Review: Fracture (2007)
Thu, 14 Mar 2019 02:56:00 +0000

A legal crime drama, Fracture boasts an intriguing mystery and two worthy opponents squaring off on opposite sides of the law, although the plot is not as smart as it wants to be.

In Los Angeles, aeronautical safety expert Ted Crawford (Anthony Hopkins) is aware that his wife Jennifer (Embeth Davidtz) is having an affair with police detective Rob Nunally (Billy Burke). He waits for her to return home, shoots her in the head, and calmly surrenders to Nunally, confessing to being the shooter.

Hotshot deputy district attorney Willy Beachum (Ryan Gosling) is assigned the case by his boss Joe Lobruto (David Strathairn). Beachum is about to make a big money career move into the private sector to practice corporate law, and is already flirting with his boss-to-be Nikki Gardner (Rosamund Pike). The Crawford shooting appears to be a straightforward conviction, but Ted has meticulously planned his crime, and Willy will get sucked into a much more complicated case than he bargained for.

A cerebral chess game between a humiliated husband out for blood and a cocky prosecutor with one eye firmly on careerism, Fracture is a sharp and polished duel, benefitting enormously from the two lead actors. The showdown between veteran Anthony Hopkins and upstart Ryan Gosling is epic, and they are both at the top of their game. Hopkins is all about almost imperceptible eyebrow movements, knowing glances and shadows of smiles. Gosling is the confident steel of youth, riding his record of courtroom victories towards the dangerous land of arrogance.

But unfortunately the Daniel Pyne script cannot rise to the quality of the actors. Once Crawford's crime is committed and his intention to engage in a battle of wits revealed, Fracture stalls. Willy is quickly placed into a corner by Crawford's pre-planning, and director Gregory Hoblit is left stranded outside the courtroom and having to consume about 45 minutes of screen time without many plot developments. The lazy interval is half-heatedly invested in a side quest relationship between Willy and Nikki that sucks energy out of the main story without adding much relevant content.

The mechanisms available for Willy to eventually try and turn the tables are not difficult to guess, and the film's late reveals are not as clever as Pyne wishes them to be. However, there is some character depth along the way, particularly for Willy. Through his humbling encounter with a twisted but ingenious man, the deputy district attorney is provided the opportunity to reassess the legend in his own mind and redefine what matters most.

Although the acting aces the writing, Fracture is nevertheless an enjoyably discerning joust.

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Movie Review: Silent Hill (2006)
Sun, 10 Mar 2019 16:52:00 +0000

A horror ghost story, Silent Hill toys with a few decent ideas but cannot escape it's video game roots.

Sharon Da Silva (Jodelle Ferland) is the young adopted daughter of married couple Rose (Radha Mitchell) and Christopher (Sean Bean). Sharon sleepwalks, has nightmares about a place called Silent Hill, and draws frightening sketches while in a trance-like state. Rose's research identifies Silent Hill as an abandoned coal mining town in West Virginia, suffering from a long-burning underground fire and now considered a ghost town.

Against Christopher's wishes Rose drives Sharon towards Silent Hill. Along the way she tangles with police officer Cybil Bennett (Laurie Holden), then a car crash separates mother from daughter and Sharon disappears into the abandoned town. As she desperately tries to find her daughter Rose starts to encounter monstrous beings and horrifying imagery of violence and death in alternative dimensions, while Christopher teams up with police detective Thomas Gucci (Kim Coates) to try and find his family.

An adaptation of a 1999 survival horror game, Silent Hill is too repetitive and CGI dependent. Long stretches are consumed by Rose exploring spooky hallways and rooms within intimidating buildings, only to be attacked by a succession of pixel-created monsters. Given that Rose's death or incapacitation would mean the early end of the film, the lack of any real threat defangs the film's horror elements.

Director Christophe Gans compensates to some extent with reasonably impressive visuals and set designs, and if Silent Hill fails to deliver meaningful scares, it is at least good to look at. The abandoned town with fire burning underneath and ashes falling continuously from the sky is a spooky achievement.

Elsewhere distraught dad Christopher's parallel quest to try and find his wife and daughter is utterly useless, and it was an afterthought awkwardly added to the script to bolster the male content. Back in town, Rose gradually uncovers a mystery involving a bullied child, witch hunters, religious fanatics and a demon, with Deborah Kara Unger and Alice Krige joining the fun to try and explain a muddled narrative.

If there is a theme, it relates to fundamentalists creating their own hell as a happy place to justify their own existence. Radha Mitchell does the best she can within the confines of the material, and finally breaks out into kick-ass motherhood mode to end the nonsense.

Silent Hill is not entirely without merit, but this town needed more plots and fewer wandering corpses.

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