Movie Review: The Lobster (2015)
Fri, 10 Apr 2020 05:00:00 +0000

A dystopian satire and dark comedy, The Lobster pokes fun at the rules and social norms of dating and mating in an imaginative story of loneliness, loss and love.

In the near future, society shuns single people. Those without partners willingly check-in to a tightly controlled resort where they have 45 days to mingle and fall in love with a mate. If they fail, they are transformed into an animal of their choosing.

Introverted David (Colin Farrell) is newly single and enters a resort where every detail is supervised by a Manager (Olivia Colman). He befriends John (Ben Whishaw), who limps, and Robert (John C. Reilly), who lisps. Common traits are a prerequisite to finding love, and so John bruises his nose to connect with a woman (Jessica Barden) who suffers from chronic nose bleeds. With his days running out David is almost resigned to being transformed into a lobster, but fakes heartlessness to forge a relationship with a merciless woman (Angeliki Papoulia).

Meanwhile the resort guests are regularly sent on hunting expeditions to tranquilize and capture "loners" who pursue a single lifestyle of forest foraging. The loner Leader (Léa Seydoux) forbids romance, but when David experiences the loner life he meets and quickly falls in love with a short-sighted woman (Rachel Weisz).

With a unique visual style and distinctively reserved and halting dialogue, director and co-writer Yorgos Lanthimos mercilessly exposes the couplehood obsession fueled by superficial tools. In the twisted world of The Lobster twosomes are venerated but finding a soulmate is a matter of manufacturing superficial commonalities, with omnipresent overseers evaluating compatibility and intervening at will.

And the ironic futility of overreaching social orders is further exposed with the loners eschewing societal rules but outlawing love by decree. David cannot win. He struggles to find a mate at the resort, then again falls afoul of expectations by stumbling into a love among the loners.

The first half of the film is stronger as Lanthimos embarks on a sly journey of discovery, peeling away the layers of his bizarre world. The ridiculous premise re-imagines the societal fascination with the love life of others, pushing towards an organized extreme in a technology-free future. Here mall cops stop shoppers to demand partner confirmation, and back at the resort, hopelessly amateurish nightly skits compare the dangers of being alone (choking to death; getting raped) to the benefits of being a couple (the Heimlich maneuver; a discouraged rapist).

The second half is more traditional in exploring the illicit love between David and the short-sighted woman, and the film almost visibly runs out of steam, most of the good ideas exhausted early. But far from getting encrusted, The Lobster is a memorable sharp jab at a judgmental culture.

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Movie Review: Jeremiah Johnson (1972)
Fri, 10 Apr 2020 03:59:00 +0000

A picturesque western, Jeremiah Johnson is ponderous and long, but creates a unique aura through stubborn persistence.

In the mid-1800s, Mexican War veteran Jeremiah Johnson (Robert Redford) heads west and into the mountains, seeking a life of isolation, hunting and fishing. After a quiet run-in with Paints-His-Shirt-Red (Joaquín Martínez) of the Crow tribe, Johnson is befriended by grizzly hunter Bear Claw Chris Lapp (Will Geer) who teaches him hunting and trapping skills.

Johnson then meets a half-crazed widow (Allyn Ann McLerie) whose family was slaughtered by Blackfoot warriors. She thrusts her young son (Josh Albee) into Johnson's care. He next befriends Del Gue (Stefan Gierasch), a wild man of the west tortured and left for dead by the Blackfeet. Through that strained friendship Johnson ends up with a wife Swan (Delle Bolton), the daughter of a Flathead tribal chief. Now with a woman and child to care for, Jeremiah attempts a life of domesticity, but more difficult trials await.

An episodic and languid western, Jeremiah Johnson stretches close to two hours but feels much longer, complete with an Overture and an unnecessary Intermission. The story is loosely based on an actual John "Liver Eating" Johnson, but given the limited scope of character development offered by the script (co-written by John Milius), it almost does not matter. Director Sydney Pollack is most interested in capturing snow-covered and wide open landscapes, with unspoiled nature and a smattering of Native Americans reluctantly tolerating adventurers like Johnson.

The film unfolds in mostly listless episodes chronicling encounters along the route to loneliness, Johnson a man of few words and fewer emotions but capable of assessing his environment and protecting himself as needed. The portrayal of Native Americans is reasonably nuanced and varies by tribe from naturally aggressive to suspicious but docile. Johnson is portrayed as a pacifist but responsive according to specific survival requirements, from acquiescing to marry Swan to seeking revenge when it's time to spill blood.

Robert Redford peers out from a narrow vantage point located below a thick mop of hair and above a bushy beard, mostly satisfied with staring at the surrounding beauty. The rest of the cast is under-powered. Will Geer and Stefan Gierasch play different versions of essentially the same character, while both the woman and child collected by Johnson are distinctly uncommunicative.

And yet, Jeremiah Johnson almost wills its way to a plateau of significance. The film is slow to cast its spell, but gets there in the end. After the hunting, marrying and killing (plenty of killing), almost all in slow and silent motion, the character leaves a mark of tired triumph, a man determined to absorb all the hostility his chosen environment can throw at him and live to tell the tale.

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Movie Review: Airport (1970)
Sun, 05 Apr 2020 21:51:00 +0000

A grand multi-story disaster epic, Airport helped formulate the genre template. A star-studded cast and multiple overlapping emergencies sustain the thrills over one long night.

The setting is Chicago's Lincoln International Airport during a snowstorm. Airport Manager Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) is struggling to keep the airport functional, an objective made difficult when a taxiing airplane gets stuck in the snow and blocks the airport's main Runway 29. The alternative Runway 22 is shorter and impacts a surrounding community. Mel calls upon chief maintenance mechanic Patroni (George Kennedy) to help unwedge the Boeing 707.

Mel's brother-in-law is womanizing pilot Vernon Demerest (Dean Martin), who is about to take charge of an overnight flight to Rome. Vernon is having an affair with stewardess Gwen (Jacqueline Bisset), and she reveals her pregnancy just before departure. Mel's marriage to his wife Cindy (Dana Wynter) is falling apart, allowing him to evolve his relationship with airline customer service representative Tanya Livingston (Jean Seberg).

Meanwhile Tanya has to deal with the elderly Ada Quonsett (Helen Hayes), who is apprehended as a serial stowaway but anyway boards Vernon's flight. But most worrisome is depressed businessman D. O. Guerrero (Van Heflin), who plans to kill himself with a briefcase bomb in order for his wife Inez (Maureen Stapleton) to benefit from insurance money. As Vernon deals with in-flight emergencies, Mel and Patroni frantically work to reopen Runway 29, now an urgent matter of life and death.

The adaptation of Arthur Hailey's 1968 book is brought to the screen by director George Seaton, who also wrote the surprisingly taut screenplay. The film created the blueprint for a decade-long cycle of disaster movies, spawned three direct but lesser sequels, and inspired several parodiesAirport also heralded the blockbuster era to come, well-produced but easy-to-digest escapism loved by audiences and generating mass profits on a previously unimaginable scale.

And despite the stiff dialogue, lack of any narrative depth beyond the here and now, and some cringe-worthy corporate boosterism, there is no denying the film's appeal. The cast members are stereotyped but in good form, Lancaster, Martin, Kennedy and Heflin playing to their pre-established strengths, while Seaton fills the screen with activity, inside the terminal, on the tarmac, and on-board the flights, all in gorgeous technicolor. Frequent use of split screens, relatively accurate technical jargon, and a packed agenda of colliding personal and work emergencies easily occupy the 136 minutes of running time.

With action and events moving briskly, the memorable moments are plentiful. Helen Hayes earns many of them, and claimed a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for a delicately funny turn as the unlikely stowaway Ada. Her repertoire of tricks to get past every checkpoint plus a disarming charm and conversational gifts are put to good use on the ground and in the air.

Dean Martin makes the most of the cocky Vernon coming to terms with Gwen's pregnancy, and gets another well-crafted highlight in his attempt to talk down Guerrero.

As the man in the middle of it all, Mel's agitation with bureaucrats and politicians comes to a satisfying boil when a clueless Commissioner chooses the worst possible time to suggest the airport's closure. And after a few rounds of bickering, Mel and Cindy as a husband and wife presiding over a wrecked marriage carve out a surprisingly adult resolution.

And finally George Kennedy creates the Patroni legend with his full-throttled attempt to prod the stranded Boeing 707 into motion, the irresistible force of one man determined to triumph over a mammoth immovable object. The night will not be over until the cigar is well and truly chomped.

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Movie Review: Split (2016)
Sun, 05 Apr 2020 18:05:00 +0000

A psychological suspense thriller, Split combines to good effect a disturbing story of dissociative identity disorder with a girls-in-captivity drama.

Teenage friends Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) and their blacksheep classmate Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) are abducted by Kevin (James McAvoy), a troubled man with 23 distinct personalities. The girls are held in the windowless basement of an unknown building, and are gradually introduced to Kevin's various identities, including the obsessive compulsive Dennis, the prim and proper Patricia, and the childlike Hedwig.

The girls try various tricks to escape, while in flashback Casey recalls her dark childhood experiences being taught to hunt deer by her father and uncle. Another of Kevin's personalities is the artist Barry, and he frequently visits psychologist Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) apparently seeking help but unable to articulate his latest crisis. A bad situation threatens to get worse when Hedwig warns the captive teens that The Beast, a destructive 24th personality, is about to come forth.

Split splits its time telling three satisfying stories, as director and writer M. Night Shyamalan weaves together elements from the past and present. The abduction and captivity is the centrepiece, and although fairly traditional in premise and execution, the strained dynamics between the duo of Claire and Marcia and Casey's darker disposition introduce intriguing texture. Shyamalan makes excellent use of the subterranean maze where the girls are being held, a dank and forgotten basement filled with unlabeled doors and endless hallways lined with pipes.

With James McAvoy never less than intimidating in a career defining performance, the sequential emergence of Kevin's various personalities also maintains an edge, although only about five of the 23 are properly introduced

The second parallel story is Kevin (with Barry presenting) interacting with psychologist Karen. She has a deep understanding of what and who she is dealing with, and doggedly probes Kevin's dense psyche to try and understand why he is reaching out for help. Karen's quest is not made easier by the broader psychology community's general skepticism about the reality of DID.

And finally, and in some ways most absorbing, are the flashbacks to Casey's childhood. Here Shyamalan gradually builds to horrors awaiting a young girl, starting with an innocuous introduction to wildlife hunting as a core life skill and ending with lifelong trauma.

Shyamalan builds enough material towards a powerful final act, but decides to undo some of his own good work. The director with an insatiable penchant for twists decides to steer Split towards a different final dimension, and the climax is a relative disappointment compared to the build-up, the suspense and human psychology elements left in a crumpled heap in favour of a late-arriving novelty theme.

But before the splits widen to cracks, Split offers a provocatively multi-faceted experience.

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Movie Review: White Bird In A Blizzard (2014)
Sat, 04 Apr 2020 19:57:00 +0000

A mystery and psychological drama, White Bird In A Blizzard combines dysfunctional family issues with burgeoning lust cutting across generations.

In a small suburban town, the world of 17 year old Kat Connors (Shailene Woodley) is upended when her mother Eve (Eva Green) suddenly disappears. Kat's father Brock (Christopher Meloni) is equally stunned, while her stoner boyfriend Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) makes matters worse by immediately losing interest in intimacy.

In flashbacks Kat recalls the loveless marriage between her parents, with Eve an emotionally suffocated stay-at-home mother sensing her life slipping away. She grows increasingly resentful as Kat blossoms into the woman she once was, and Eve starts to exhibit an uncomfortable sexual interest in Phil. Back in the present, Kat is dealing with her anguish by meeting with therapist Dr. Thaler (Angela Bassett) and planning a seduction of hunky Detective Scieziesciez (Thomas Jane), who is investigating the disappearance case.

An independent production written, directed and co-produced by Gregg Araki, White Bird In A Blizzard boasts Shailene Woodley in fine form, but otherwise suffers from graceless execution. While the slow revelation of Eve's mystery and the accompanying interpersonal complexities swirling around Kat hold some interest, the emotions are often too close to the surface, and many scenes land with amateurish awkwardness. Phil's "I'm looking for the cat" poolside routine with Eve purring at him borders on a porn parody.

Which is unfortunate, because the film touches on several worthwhile themes. Eve (the name representing womanhood) is struggling with an unappreciated life spent serving her husband, the vitality of youth now a long lost memory. And Araki presents a relatively original take on the mother-daughter bond, here Eve descending into outright jealousy and embarking on a Mrs. Robinson quest to entrap Kat's boyfriend Phil. Meanwhile Kat is mimicking her mother's tendencies to seek sexual thrills across generations with Scieziesciez.

But most of the narrative arcs are eventually abandoned, and many other threads fall flat. The therapist sessions are an utter waste of Angela Bassett, Kat's high school friends suffer from wedged-in diversity, and the entire rushed third act, set two years after Eve's disappearance, emits a first draft stink. A late twist is inconsistent with everything preceding it but is nevertheless presented with dumbfounding dispassion.

White Bird In A Blizzard occasionally flutters but mostly disappears against the horizon.

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Movie Review: Love, Rosie (2014)
Sat, 04 Apr 2020 17:40:00 +0000

A romance with tinges of both humour and drama, Love, Rosie explores an elusive love between two life-long friends.

In England, Rosie (Lily Collins) and Alex (Sam Claflin) have been best friends since childhood. Grounded and perfectly matched, they both have deeper feelings for each other but cannot properly express them. In the final year of school, Alex finds a girlfriend in the conceited Bethany (Suki Waterhouse), while Rosie has a clumsy one-night stand with jock Greg (Christian Cooke).

She ends up pregnant, disrupting her plans to attend college in Boston, where Alex pursues a medical education and finds a new live-in girlfriend. They stay in touch but apart, never quite connecting at the right time in their lives, as Greg re-enters Rosie's life and Alex has to deal with a pregnancy of his own.

A winning Lily Collins performance enlivens a sweet romance spanning over a decade between two souls stumbling in pursuit of fulfilment. Not quite a romantic comedy nor a drama, Love, Rosie strikes its own tone with a middle ground of pragmatism, director Christian Ditter and writer Juliette Towhidi allowing the obstacles of life to speak for themselves.

Setting the film apart is an absence of dumb decisions that often beset star-crossed lovers. Rosie and Alex are weighed down by their childhood pre-adolescent friendship, and find it naturally difficult to cross the threshold into purposeful adult lovers. From that foundation all their choices make sense as they set out into the world looking for an alternative, good-enough, match.

Physically separated by an ocean and emotionally in different places, the film captures the threat of erosion that can beset the closest friendships. Alex finds a succession of icy women brimming with ego and style instead of practical substance, and Rosie is preoccupied first with a baby then Greg's return offering the promise of stable fatherhood to young Katie.

Sam Claflin's Alex channels a young Hugh Grant. His rather truncated arc gives way to decent subplots favouring Rosie's evolution, including her dream to enter the hotel business and daughter Katie following in her mother's footsteps.

Rosie and Alex mature as people but still encounter more hurdles to happiness, and Towhidi does throw at least one curve too many at the would-be lovers as the years pass by. Love, Rosie could have been 10 minutes shorter, but is otherwise a romance well earned.

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Movie Review: Memoirs Of A Geisha (2005)
Thu, 02 Apr 2020 03:53:00 +0000

A drama and romance epic, Memoirs Of A Geisha reveals a corner of Japanese culture from the perspective of a young girl sold into a life of service. The film weaves a cultural spell but is overlong and cloaked in haughty self-importance.

The setting is Japan in the period between the two World Wars. Chiyo is a young girl with beautiful eyes, the daughter of a struggling fisherman. At nine years old she is separated from her sister Satsu and sold into the care of Nitta (Kaori Momoi), the "Mother" responsible for training and nurturing future geishas in Kyoto. At Nitta's house Chiyo meets another young trainee Pumpkin, as well as leading geisha Hatsumomo (Gong Li), who is arrogant and unfriendly.

One day a despondent Chiyo has a chance encounter with a distinguished businessman known as the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), and sets her sights on becoming the best possible geisha to win his heart. Soon the kindly geisha Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) selects Chiyo as a mentee and accelerates her training. The adult Chiyo (Ziyi Zhang) adopts the name Sayuri and indeed becomes a coveted geisha, creating a vicious rivalry with the resentful Hatsumomo.

Sayuri never gives up hope of reuniting with the Chairman, but to increase Sayuri's desirability and market value, Mameha introduces her to other men, including the engineer Nobu (Kōji Yakusho), Dr. Crab (Randall Duk Kim) and The Baron (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). The intervention of World War Two soon changes everything.

The settings, production design, costumes, cinematography and make-up are all lavish, and Ziyi Zhang in the central role delivers understated dedication. But Memoirs Of A Geisha is ultimately an effusive production teetering on the tip of a small story. The novel by Arthur Gordon is brought to the screen by director Rob Marshall, and the film is too grandiose for its own good. The substance of the twee story is overloaded with petty inter-geisha jealousies and infantile infatuation, and is simply incapable of sustaining or justifying a 145 minute epic.

After a slow start and excruciatingly repetitive scenes of young Chiyo yearning to be reunited with her sister, the second act starts to flow better. The introduction of Michelle Yeoh's steady presence as mentor Mameha boosts the energy level, and Chiyo's transformation into Sayuri offers an intriguing peek into the geisha culture.

But then the bland interpersonal conflicts with Hatsumomo kick in, and despite a powerful Gong Li antagonist presence the film quickly sinks into the amateur theatrics of geishas undermining each other. These are followed by a sordid loss-of-virginity auction, the film's emphasis on portraying geishas as elegant companions adept at music, culture and reading undermined by a straightforward sex-for-sale subplot.

Finally an interminable post-war fourth act combines stereotypical boorish Americans abroad with a late-in-the-day romantic triangle plus petty score settling, and by this stage the sun of enthusiasm starts to set even in the east. Memoirs Of A Geisha wears a pretty kimono, but takes an inordinate amount of time wrapping it up.

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Movie Review: The Square (2013)
Thu, 02 Apr 2020 02:42:00 +0000

A street-level documentary about the Arab Spring in Egypt, The Square explores the combustible mixture of enthusiasm, chaos and crackdown as the people take to the streets en masse demanding regime change.

Starting in January 2011, crowds start to gather in Cairo's Tahrir Square, demanding the fall of the military regime of President Hosni Mubarak. After 30 years of emergency rule, the yearning for democracy and better social conditions reaches a boiling point. The demonstrators are peaceful, and include a mixture of liberals, academics, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Christians from all walks of life, genders and social classes.

Ahmed is an idealistic non-religious young man, Khalid Abdalla is a well-known actor (best known for starring in The Kite Runner), Magdy is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ramy is a musician and Aida is a liberal. They descend onto the square along with thousands of others, and under the unyielding pressure of the masses Mubarak resigns, but only to be replaced by other generals. Then the Brotherhood strikes a deal with the military for early elections, causing rifts within the ranks of the demonstrators, while bursts of brutal violence and attacks by police and military forces cause casualties.

A prime example of be careful what you wish for, The Square chronicles societal upheaval as a country politically convulses. Director Jehane Noujaim captures the Egyptian edition of the popular uprisings that swept through the Arab world in the early 2010s. She finds a populace fully convinced the current regime has to be upended, but with no readiness or plan for what comes next.

And so after Mubarak's resignation a power vacuum takes hold, the status quo of military governance deemed unacceptable and the Muslim Brotherhood, the only semi-organized political entity in the country, a seemingly worse second choice for the liberals, Christians and educated elites of the country. Not surprisingly, the violence gets worse as unity fragments.

As a documentary The Square focuses on the in-the-crowd experience rather than any overall context. With the articulate and thoughtful Ahmed as primary guide, the film spends most of its time with the teeming masses in the square. Music, food, tents, discussions, slogans and bursts of national pride create an improvised social structure to galvanize the will of the people. The perspective sometimes shifts to the apartments of the main characters, with Khalid Abdalla's video conversations with his US-based father providing an interesting alternative dynamic.

And when things turn ugly, the film does not look away. Violence arrives in the form of tear gas, live bullets and military vehicles ramming into the crowds, and the consequences are agonzing, often fueling anger and a redoubling of determination.

With morale flowing and ebbing with fervour and disillusionment, several waves of protestors take over Tahrir Square over the course of two years. By 2013, alternatives have been tested, energy exhausted, and the square completes the circle.

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Movie Review: It Could Happen To You (1994)
Sun, 29 Mar 2020 15:09:00 +0000

A romantic comedy loosely inspired by true events, It Could Happen To You is amiable enough and benefits from grounded Nicolas Cage and Bridget Fonda performances.

In New York City, Charlie Lang (Cage) is a kind-hearted police officer, happy to remain a beat cop working the streets with his partner Bo (Wendell Pierce). Charlie is married to the materialistic Muriel (Rosie Perez) who resents Charlie's lack of ambition and their modest Queens apartment.

Yvonne Biasi (Fonda) is a compassionate coffee shop waitress, and she has to declare bankruptcy when her no-good husband Eddie (Stanley Tucci) racks up massive credit card debt. Yvonne and Eddie are separated, but she cannot afford to go through a divorce.

After a quick coffee stop Charlie finds himself short of cash for a tip and promises Yvonne half his lottery ticket. The draw is that night, and the ticket wins $4 million. Although Muriel is furious, Charlie insists on honouring his promise and sharing half with Yvonne. All their lives change forever, and as Muriel starts indulging her every whim, Charlie finds himself increasingly attracted to Yvonne, although the reemergence of Eddie adds further complications.

It Could Happen To You adheres strictly to genre conventions, and adds a layer of genuine sweetness. Charlie and Yvonne are an impeccable fit, both saddled with insufferable spouses, and director Andrew Bergman never introduces even an iota of doubt that the cop and waitress will end up together. With down-to-earth Queens locations, a relaxed tone and an ideal run time of 101 minutes, the film is easy to enjoy.

The couple-to-be are almost too perfect: he helps New Yorkers cross the street and plays ball with the neighbourhood kids every night. She looks after all her regular customers with an outstanding level of bona fide affection. Which raises the question as to how they ended up with their polar-opposite spouses. Muriel is greed personified, hyper-agitated by her man's disinterest in financial wealth. Eddie is nothing but a slimy leach.

Clumsy narration courtesy of an Isaac Hayes character named, of all things, Angel, as well as globs of exposure for the New York Post, are among the other unnecessary distractions.

Where the Jane Anderson script dares to be original is on doubling down on a level of natural goodness and old fashioned charm. Charlie and Yvonne create an irony-free, honesty-rich bubble and gradually work their way towards an authentic love, casting aside the edgy snarkiness often deployed as a humour device. Nicolas Cage and Bridget Fonda buy into the wholesome personas and add doses of benevolent elegance to the romance.

A lottery win brought two perfectly compatible people together, and the only irony on display is their joint understanding of what true affluence means.

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Movie Review: Das Boot (1981)
Sun, 29 Mar 2020 01:17:00 +0000

A World War Two submarine warfare epic, Das Boot (The Boat) is a grim, claustrophobic and harrowing depiction of survival against aching boredom punctuated by moments of euphoria and terror.

It's 1941, and Germany's U-Boat fleet is starting to suffer significant losses in the Atlantic. Regardless, more boats are pushed into service with inexperienced crews. Lt. Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer) is a reporter assigned to accompany U-96 on her next patrol. The Captain (Jürgen Prochnow) and Chief Mechanic Johann (Erwin Leder) are veterans, but many of the crew members are young men.

After setting sail from La Rochelle in occupied France, days of crushing tedium are endured at sea. The monotony is broken by a minor skirmish with an Allied destroyer, followed by a chance encounter with another U-Boat in rough seas. Eventually U-96 locates a large Allied convoy of merchant ships and engages in warfare. But enemy vessels launch devastating counter strikes, resulting in U-96 enduring a severe beating. The Captain has to navigate back to safety, but further nasty surprises await.

An uncompromising representation of life in a steel tube crush-filled with mariners fulfilling their national duty and based on a German reporter's actual account, Das Boot aims for and achieves an overbearing, physically uncomfortable impact. Deploying frequent long takes, writer and director Wolfgang Petersen elbows his cameras on board the submarine to capture the men in their squished status at close quarters.

Within the harsh confines, the passage of time is a character unto itself. The theatrical cut of Das Boot, at 149 minutes, is already an epic representation of the boredom and mental atrophy that seeps into the sub with days and nights of nothing but choppy seas. Other versions run to miniseries length at close to 300 minutes.

But then unexpected encounters crack the monotony, and a rush of adrenaline sweeps through the vessel. The euphoria of vanquishing an enemy is matched by the absolute dread caused by the grim reaper banging on the walls with depth chargers. The oscillating emotions are exhausting, and it is the Captain's duty to manage his men's mental state, keeping them focused on the most immediate task while ensuring the sub remains functional to survive another day.

Although the film is about the collective more than the individual, Petersen does sufficiently define three characters. The Captain is approaching the resigned state, now far removed from buying into state propaganda and witnessing a future defeat in the raw age of recruits assigned to the U-boats. But he is still in complete command of his commission, capable of making every required decision under extreme duress.

The Chief Mechanic Johann is also a veteran but closer to the edge, and he may have completed more missions than he can mentally handle. His journey features the wildest oscillations, his character tested like never before. And finally the reporter Werner is the outsider's eye, standing apart from the men and witnessing war from within a submarine for the first time. Physically and mentally unprepared, his lack of foreknowledge is sometimes advantageous in shielding him from horrors to come.

Das Boot is at its most intense when U-96 is under unyielding attack from an unseen enemy. Petersen draws out these scenes to the point of unrelenting psychological collapse, finding the corners of men's souls where there is nothing left to do but wait for death. With a submarine under attack offering the expedient opportunity of a mass coffin, young men will either grow old in a hurry or pass into legend.

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Movie Review: 12 Strong (2018)
Sat, 28 Mar 2020 21:54:00 +0000

An action war movie based on real events, 12 Strong benefits from stirring action scenes and a strong connection to remarkable facts. But the film is overlong and often wades into traditional jingoism.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Green Beret Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) reverses his decision to seek a desk job and accepts an assignment to lead his unit of 12 men into Afghanistan. Nelson has no combat experience but is respected by his men, including Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon) and Sergeant Sam Diller (Michael Peña).

The unit is dropped behind enemy lines in Afghanistan with orders to connect with the forces of anti-Taliban Northern Alliance leader General Dostum (Navid Negahban) and storm the strategically vital city of Mazar-i Sharif. Nelson finds it difficult to earn Dostum's respect, and his men have to learn horsemen skills to navigate the mountainous terrain. And although Nelson can call upon airstrikes, the Taliban are dug-in with heavy armaments and are much more familiar with the local terrain.

The first American combat mission after the 9/11 attacks was a secret incursion eventually chronicled in the 2009 book Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton. The script by Ted Tally and Peter Craig is brought to the screen by first-time director Nicolai Fuglsig, and the film combines plenty of action scenes with some character backfill and culture clash sequences. Fuglsig is more comfortable with combat, and when the bullets start flying 12 Strong settles into a whizzy groove, over the top for sure but edited into welcome coherence.

The attempts to round some of the key members of Nelson's crew into relatable people are laudable but ultimately futile. This is a war film where tough guys just grimace and carry on, and none of the jokeyness, serious conversations and difficult-talks-with-the-wives add much nuance.

The thrust to humanize men of war includes a concerted effort on the relationship between Nelson and Dostum, and here Fuglsig finds more success if well within genre conventions. East meets west, a veteran fighter assesses an untested possible ally, and fear of the unknown cuts both ways. Both men will have to come through for each other, and while the tension between them adds to the drama, the outcome is never in doubt.

The trio of Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon and Michael Peña provide sufficient star presence to propel the action without overpowering the narrative. One Taliban commander is afforded the dubious honour of representing the enemy, dressed all in black all the time for emphasis, and here the script falls flat by providing no context whatsoever to the other side of the conflict.

But the greatest threat to the film's success emerges in the form of creeping length, almost every scene unnecessarily prolonged. Nelson promised to achieve his objectives in a remarkable three weeks; at 130 minutes, the film did not need to feel as long.

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Movie Review: Susan Lenox (Her Fall And Rise) (1931)
Sat, 28 Mar 2020 15:43:00 +0000

A torrid drama and romance, Susan Lenox features the only teaming of Greta Garbo and Clark Gable in a sometimes overheated love story mixed with the struggles of a woman defining her own way in life.

Helga is born to an unmarried mother who dies during childbirth, and raised by cruel uncle Karl (Jean Hersholt). As soon as the adult Helga (Garbo) reaches marrying age, Karl arranges for her to wed the boorish Jeb (Alan Hale). Helga wants no part of a loveless marriage and escapes into a stormy night, ending up at the cabin of engineer Rodney Spencer (Gable).

They fall in love, but when Rodney has to travel to Detroit, Helga has to again escape the clutches of Karl and Jeb. She joins a traveling carnival and assumes the identity of Susan Lenox, cozying up to the show's leader Wayne Burlingham (John Miljan) for safety. When Rodney comes looking for her he is disgusted by her indiscretion, rupturing their relationship and leading Susan towards a new bohemian lifestyle.

Clocking in at a quick 76 minutes, Susan Lenox is an adaptation of the at-the-time scandalous (and posthumously published) 1917 novel by David Graham Phillips. Director Robert Z. Leonard works from a tight screenplay (co-written by four people) to slim down the 900 page book into a compact story of one woman taking on the world and determined to deal with men on her own terms. And Leonard sneaks in some clever introductory scenes using nothing more than shadows on the wall to summarize Helga's difficult upbringing.

Despite an obsession with the objective of snaring a man for legitimate marriage, the story's early feminist streak is impressive. Helga refuses to marry the man assigned to her, strikes out on her own during a stormy night, wins Rodney's heart, and when fate tears them apart, does what she needs to do to survive and then thrive. As the years roll on she gains a world weariness but never loses sight of her sense of self-worth, and keeps her eyes on the one prize that matters.

Many of the dialogue scenes exhibit signs of awkward clunkiness, and the heat between Garbo and Gable reaches only lukewarm temperatures, her aura of sophistication floating well above his well-intentioned gruffness. Despite the film's brevity the scenes between them are prolonged and stray into repetitiveness, until a most abrupt ending ties everything up with a sharp emotional U-turn.

Better are some of the set designs, including the final location of "Puerto Sacate". The dancehall bustles with all manner of peripheral, shady and hustling characters, drowning miseries or seeking fortunes at a peripheral and seedy port hub. Susan Lenox absolutely knows what she does not want out of life, but will need to transition through unlikely outposts to secure what she craves.

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Movie Review: Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
Fri, 27 Mar 2020 02:45:00 +0000

An adult fairytale and horror drama, Pan's Labyrinth creates a mystical world adjacent to the darkness of fascism, and explores humanity's options in the face of monsters.

It's 1944 in Spain, and Franco's Nationalists are victorious. Captain Vidal (Sergi López) welcomes his pregnant wife Carmen (Ariadna Gil) to his military camp at the edge of a forest where the remnants of anti-Franco Republican forces are still active. Young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is Carmen's daughter from a previous marriage, and she is contacted by magical creatures and led into a labyrinth where she meets Faun (Doug Jones), a half-man, half goat. He provides Ofelia with a series of tests to confront intimidating monsters, to confirm if she is a long-awaited immortal underworld princess.

Meanwhile the vicious Vidal wants to flush out and kill the hold-out revolutionaries, not knowing that his housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdú) and camp doctor Ferreiro (Álex Angulo) are sympathetic to the Republicans. Carmen's pregnancy is complicated, but Vidal yearns for a son to pass on the warrior legacy he inherited from his father. With Ofelia growing more courageous and Mercedes actively helping the rebels, an existential confrontation looms.

From the imagination of director and writer Guillermo del Toro, Pan's Labyrinth juxtaposes real and fantasy worlds, exposing the monsters in both. Adopting the perspective of young Ofelia, the film is a dazzling visual and emotional experience and a breathtaking battle between forces with no obvious good cause, as evil in human form and mythical creatures of the forest offer contrasting challenges and no easy answers.

The film is uncompromising in its commitment to exposing brutality. Vidal is a heartless killer pursuing a lineage legend of his own making. Despite all the power he wields, Ofelia sees right through his bombast and never once attempts to appease him. And when Faun, himself a shifty character, challenges her to confront a hideous giant toad and a pale faceless child killer, she is equally fearless.

But even Ofelia is not perfect, nor is her fate pre-ordained. She succumbs to temptation as del Toro introduces religious overtones, and Ofelia compromises a legacy that only she will ultimately define. As the showdown between Vidal and the rebels intensifies, so does Ofelia's imperative to intervene where it matters most.

Combining layers of make-up, astounding animatronics, and seamless CGI, del Toro brings creatures to life in visually rich scenes filled with wonder, but with sinister danger always lurking. The action moves briskly back and forth between the mystical labyrinth and Vidal's compound, Carmen's burdensome pregnancy counting down to the birth of what could become a future monster under Vidal's tutelage. 

But the newborn will also be Ofelia's half-brother, and as she works her way through to understanding her role, the real and imagined worlds merge to offer the purest of destinies.

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Movie Review: Ocean's Eight (2018)
Mon, 23 Mar 2020 04:19:00 +0000

A heist thriller, Ocean's Eight features an all-women gang plotting a daring diamond heist at the dressy gala event of the year. The female perspective is empowering, but the plot and characters are middling.

Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), sister of the infamous Danny, is released from prison after serving more than five years for theft and fraud. She sets about assembling a team of women for her next big job. Lou (Cate Blanchett) is Debbie's frequent partner-in-crime, Tammy (Sarah Paulson) is a fence hiding behind a suburban family facade, Nine Ball (Rihanna) is a top-notch hacker, Constance (Awkwafina) is a light-fingered thief, and Amita (Mindy Kaling) is a jewelry maker.

Their target is the New York Metropolitan Museum of Arts annual fundraising gala. The event's star attraction is actress Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), and Debbie recruits fashion designer Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter) to ensure Daphne wears a precious Cartier necklace worth $150m for the evening. The plot to steal the necklace involves spiked soup, security camera blind spots and a special role for Debbie's former partner, smarmy art dealer Claude Becker (Richard Armitage).

While there is merit in re-imagining familiar stories with women in lead roles, the inherent added value can be limited. Ocean's Eight is slick, vivid and sparkly, but other than featuring women as instigators, barely adds anything new to the heist genre. Indeed, the details of the theft are less clever than most. A security camera nudged into a blindspot is not the most thrilling innovation, and becomes essentially ridiculous when the full extent of the plan is later revealed.

The film is sprinkled with wit and some humour, but also lacks character depth and any sense of genuine surprise. Other than Debbie and her spectral bond with Danny (presumed dead, but she has her suspicions) and grizzled friendship with Lou, the other characters threaten to be interesting but are singularly defined by their expertise and receive precious little opportunity to evolve.

As for attempts at unexpected delights, Ocean's Eight introduces a late and unnecessary twist that lands flat and only serves to underline the script's lack of confidence in its own core narrative.

Director and co-writer Gary Ross twiddles the style knobs and recognizes the value of a star-studded cast willing to have some fun, and the film rides their energy. Bullock (determined), Blanchett (circumspect) and an especially ditzy Hathaway generate their own momentum, almost independent of the plot details.

Helena Bonham Carter is unfortunately saddled with a caricature representation of an eccentric fashion designer, while Sarah Paulson's Tammy is bland enough to be instantly forgettable. Rihanna, Awkwafina and Mindy Kaling add diversity but are strictly confined to stereotypes of hacker, thief and jewel maker respectively.

On the positive side, the final act features an intervention by insurance investigator John Frazier (James Corden), an acid-tongued Brit capable of seeing through every conceivable lie. His presence adds a jolt of cheeky electricity as he skewers everyone to determine the fate of the precious necklace. He's a man navigating a maze carefully constructed by a group of sharp women, a welcome reversal of fortune even if the content is familiar for any gender.

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Movie Review: The Cell (2000)
Sun, 22 Mar 2020 15:15:00 +0000

A serial killer drama with a difference, The Cell combines imaginative horror, psychology and science fiction to invade a murderer's psyche.

Psychologist Dr. Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) is part of team attempting experimental treatments for schizophrenia. Using revolutionary technology developed by Dr. Miriam Kent (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and Henry West (Dylan Baker), she enters the mind of young patient Edward to try and lure him out of his coma.

Meanwhile Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio) is a deeply disturbed schizophrenic serial killer. He kidnaps young women and isolates them for days in an automated holding tank, gradually increasing the level of water in a cleansing ritual before the kill. After kidnapping his latest victim Julie Hickson (Tara Subkoff), Carl succumbs to his illness and drops into an irreversible coma. FBI Agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) desperate needs to know where Julie is being held, and turns to Catherine with a request to enter Carl's mind to search for clues.

More of a visual feast than a traditional serial killer thriller, The Cell most resembles a visit to an elaborate modern art gallery as director Tarsem Singh brings music video panache to his cinematic debut. Stunning production design, outlandish costumes and make-up, an imagination on steroids and crisp cinematography combine to produce a memorable and knowingly disturbing experience.

The Cell is rich in symbolism, some of it religious, as well as echoes of inspiration from other films, including an opening shot that salutes no less than Lawrence Of Arabia. Water plays a key role in Stargher's agony and derangement, while horses help Catherine navigate foreign minds.

For all the emphasis on ostentatious style, the Mark Protosevich script does also provide an intriguing and relatively original race-against-time narrative. There is a short segment of detective work where Novak and his colleagues frantically work to identify and apprehend Stargher as his kill rate increases, but the real drama resides in the urgent infiltration of a killer's mind.

And it's up to Catherine to navigate a horror show where childhood trauma and a history of brutal abuse co-exist with an adult damaged beyond repair, trapped in his own grandeur but holding one last secret that may yet save a life. The link between deep childhood emotional upheaval and the adult descent into the worst kind of criminality is typical Hollywood fare, and here it amped up with sexual repression, sado-masochism and some disgusting gore.

Just as the film's strength are vivid, so are some suspect moments. The Peter Novak character almost literally wanders in from another movie, and some of the protocols in the mission-critical mind invasion science room, including dog privileges, are loosey-goosey at best. Singh's rush to the next spectacular tableau often overwhelms the pacing, The Cell sometimes resembling a hypnotic experience on warp speed.

Jennifer Lopez maintains a steady presence without achieving any breakthrough moments, while Vince Vaughn struggles to grab a hold of Novak. Vincent D'Onofrio plays to his strength as an unhinged murderer responding to vile impulses.

The Cell tackles horrid subject matter, wrapping grotesque inhumanity in incongruous yet gorgeous packaging.

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Movie Review: Wag The Dog (1997)
Sat, 21 Mar 2020 14:59:00 +0000

A satire about the power of spin doctoring in politics, Wag The Dog is never less than over the top, but also always funny.

The United States presidential election is eleven days away. The President is running for re-election, but is suddenly facing damaging accusations of sexual misconduct. Renowned spin doctor Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) is called in to manage the crisis. Working with presidential aid Winifred Ames (Anne Heche), he starts to conceive of a war scenario with Albania to distract the press.

Conrad and Winifred recruit Hollywood movie producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) to help the cause. He assembles a group of creative artists to create the justification for war, complete with a made-up story of a suitcase nuclear bomb hidden in Canada, fake Albanian village vignettes, manufactured patriotic songs and imaginary victims. When CIA agents disrupt the bogus war narrative, Conrad and Stanley pivot towards a prisoner-of-war sob story featuring Sergeant William Schumann (Woody Harrelson) as a soldier in need of rescue.

In 1998 President Bill Clinton became embroiled in the sex scandal featuring White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and by 1999 the United States was bombing Yugoslavia. By 2016 the concept of fake news and alternative facts had become part of the political lexicon. But before all the jaw-dropping reality came the prescient fiction. Director Barry Levinson brought Wag The Dog to the screen with almost perfect timing, screenwriters Hilary Henkin and David Mamet adapting the 1993 book American Hero by Larry Beinhart just in time to grab an I-told-you-so front seat to history.

In turns funny, ludicrous and cutting, the film never pretends to be anything other than a broad satire. The spin doctoring to create and then capitalize upon a non-existent war is beyond any realms of reality, but Levinson runs with it as a plot device to poke fun at the extremes of both Washington DC and Hollywood. Nothing is sacred, least of all the truth, as Conrad, Stanley and their assembled entourage of talented artists allow their imaginations to run wild. They then possess and can deploy unlimited resources to turn their fantasies into a polished visual and aural reality to dominate the attention of a nation.

And even when CIA agents shine a light upon the grand ruse of a non-existent war with Albania, the subterfuge does not stop. Now the story of Sergeant William Schumann, complete with the nickname Old Shoe, is concocted. Just when it seems the film is stretching its own incredulity too thin, Woody Harrelson arrives with a hilariously edgy performance deserving its own narrative. The Schumann character proves too hot handle even for the combined manipulative skills of Conrad and Stanley, and still they will not give up on their lofty plan to achieve mass distraction.

The lead performances are happy to yield to the enormous wackiness. Veterans Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman easily bounce each off other with relaxed portrayals of men good at what they do, comfortable in their own skin, and aware they are still stronger as a team. In an underwritten role, Anne Heche suffers in comparison. Willie Nelson appears as a grizzled songwriter recruited to provide the soundtrack to a crisis, although Levinson is guilty of giving all the incidental mock artefacts too much screen time, as well as a surplus of self-congratulatory moments.

Wag The Dog is happy to propose that everything perceived as fact may be an artistic creation in service of  nefarious objectives. The rich and powerful not only influence history, but also bankroll the peddling of absurd alternative realities to serve selfish agendas. It's an entertaining premise, and at least in spirit, painfully close to the truth.

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Movie Review: Night Train To Munich (1940)
Thu, 19 Mar 2020 05:04:00 +0000

A spy adventure, Night Train To Munich creates the fundamentals of a good thriller but mixes in an excess of unfortunate frivolity.

It's 1939, and the Nazis invade Czechoslovakia. Unwilling to work for the Germans, Czech armour-plating scientist Axel Bomasch (James Harcourt) escapes to England, but his daughter Anna (Margaret Lockwood) is caught and imprisoned in a concentration camp. The Nazis believe she will lead them to Axel's whereabouts, and Gestapo Captain Karl Marsen (Paul Henried) dupes her into a staged escape and lands with Anna in Britain.

With the help of British Intelligence Officer Dickie Randall (Rex Harrison) Anna indeed locates her dad in the small seaside community of Brightbourne. Karl pounces and captures both Axel and Anna, returning them to Germany via U-Boat. Randall has a narrow window of opportunity to extract the scientist and his daughter before they are transferred to Munich. He pretends to be Major Ulrich Herzog of the Corps of Engineers and infiltrates the Nazi bureaucracy to attempt a dangerous rescue.

Approximately half of a very good film, Night Train To Munich is Hitchcock light. The spy versus spy adventure includes a lukewarm romance, some humour and plenty of subterfuge, but the story becomes more absurd with every passing scene, straining credibility even by jovial genre standards.

Director Carol Reed keeps the action moving briskly, leading to the reasonably engaging set-piece journey on an overnight train between Berlin and Munich. England declares war on Germany that night, and Randall's mission is suddenly much more dangerous, with his ruse of pretending to be a German officer already fraying at the edges.

But here Reed stumbles. The marginal characters of English travelers Charters and Caldicott crash the story quite late into the film and suddenly start to burn many minutes of screen time with their lighthearted but irritable Englishmen abroad banter. Their side-character intervention deflates all the built-up tension and momentum, and Night Train To Munich never recovers.

Reed makes an attempt at amends with a final 15 minutes featuring an almost literal cliffhanger, placing the doofus sidekicks back into a box and delivering a well-executed climax straight out of the Hitchcockian playbook.

The performances are adequate, with Paul Henreid (billed as Paul von Hernried to amplify his German credentials) overshadowing Rex Harrison. Lockwood is more prominent than Harcourt, but both are primarily victims of swirling events around them and barely leave an impression.

Clever, improbable and uneven, Night Train To Munich offers mixed scenery.

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Movie Review: The Calling (2014)
Sun, 15 Mar 2020 21:15:00 +0000

A serial killer drama, The Calling benefits from a frigid rural aesthetic and a good cast, but never quite grabs an enigmatic emotional hold.

In the small community of Fort Dundas, Ontario, hard-drinking Hazel Micallef (Susan Sarandon) is the local Sheriff, suffering from back pain and not over the breakup of her marriage and loss of an unborn child years prior. Hazel and fellow law enforcement officer Ray Green (Gil Bellows) are stunned to confront the community's first murder in years, an elderly woman found nearly decapitated. Soon another murder is committed and in both cases the victims' faces and mouths were contorted post-death.

Detective Ben Wingate (Topher Grace) relocates to Fort Dundas from Toronto and starts researching cases from across the country, uncovering other victims, all terminally ill, Catholic, and poisoned to death. Hazel connects with the elderly Father Price (Donald Sutherland), who suggests the murders may be related to an ancient prayer and the sacrifice of disciples in anticipation of resurrection. Meanwhile creepy fake healer Simon (Christopher Heyerdahl) is roaming the land, promoting his brand of unconventional herb-based medicine.

A Canadian production overlaying echoes of a gloomier Fargo with murderous carnage inspired by twisted interpretations of religious doctrine, The Calling succeeds in creating a chilly evil-roams-the-land vibe. Hazel is a deeply flawed protagonist spurred into action despite the fog of pain and alcohol, while Simon is the personification of the grim reaper cloaked in ancient Catholicism. Together they create two decent bookends, and the film wisely stays away from cheap thrills and instead derives momentum from characters inhabiting an isolated community.

Scott Abramovitch wrote the screenplay as an adaptation of the book by Inger Ash Wolfe, and director Jason Stone recognizes the locale as one of the narrative strong points, capturing the natural beauty and grounded resilience of a snow-covered small town. No one is surprised when every rumour instantaneously spreads through the community, all residents are on a first name basis, and they all know each other's history and emotional baggage.

As much as the film's strengths are apparent, so are the mushier components. Some of the police work falls through plot holes, and pieces of background between Simon and Father Price are sketched-in at best. Hazel's mother Emily (an underused Ellen Burstyn) putters around the house seeking a purpose, while the marriage break-up and baby loss tragedy never evolve past plastic plot devices.

But with Sarandon in the crunchiest of crusty form and Heyerdahl weaving a spell of death with dreamy eyes and marvellous oral delivery punctuated with unhitched pauses, The Calling makes it through the winter.

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Movie Review: What We Did On Our Holiday (2014)
Sat, 14 Mar 2020 20:02:00 +0000

A family comedy and drama, What We Did On Our Holiday packs in the laughs while exploring themes of divorce, life, death and tolerance.

In London, Abi and Doug McLeod (Rosamund Pike and David Tennant) are a separated couple heading towards an ugly divorce. They have three young kids: Lottie is the eldest, tired of her parents' continuous bickering and lying. Middle child Mickey is obsessed with Viking culture. Youngest daughter Jess talks to rocks, steals keys and is an expert at holding her breath until she gets what she wants.

Abi and Doug put on a fake happy front as they pack up the kids and drive to rural Scotland to celebrate the 75th birthday of Doug's ailing dad Gordie (Billy Connolly), who is suffering from terminal cancer. Once there they connect with Doug's rich brother Gavin (Ben Miller), his frazzled wife Margaret (Amelia Bullmore) and their gangly son Kenneth. With Doug and Gavin constantly clashing, Gordie escapes the mounting craziness by taking his grandkids to the beach ahead of the big party being planned for his birthday.

In addition to the expected bonding between a perceptive grandfather and his grandkids, a lot happens on that beach and afterwards, but nothing that can be revealed without spoiling the film's sly sense of fun. Featuring a wry, dark and often biting sense of humour, What We Did On Our Holiday starts with a perfectly imperfect family and piles on lessons in life delivered in macabre packaging.

Written and directed by the duo of Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, the script takes pleasure in rubbing death against humour, the certainty of the end used to bring into focus life's precious fragility and the joy of individual peculiarities. Set against beautiful Scottish waterfront landscapes, bitter divorce, hidden depression, brotherly conflict, and the wisdom accumulated over the years are just some the serious topics woven into the film's fabric.

While the adult characters are funny, Hamilton and Jenkin excel at creating three kids with pointy individual personalities and an absolute immunity to the rules and logic of the adult world. Lottie (Emilia Jones) is knocking on the door of puberty and now uses a notebook to keep track of factoids and the lies told by adults. The observant Mickey (Bobby Smalldridge) is fully invested in Viking culture and particularly the god Odin, helping forge an unlikely connection with Grandpa.

And finally young Jess (Harriet Turnbull) has the world wrapped around her little finger, from the wisdom of rocks to the hold-my-breath trick and finally a fantastic ability to slow time down when confronted by an immediacy to recount crucial events.

With just a touch of British theatricality, the adult actors buy into the mounting level of panic as the events of the day spiral in unexpected directions. What We Did On Our Holiday works its way to an ending that is perhaps too tidy, but the journey towards patched-up family cohesion rides a boatload of fun.

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Movie Review: Tully (2018)
Fri, 13 Mar 2020 03:44:00 +0000

A social drama with moments of humour, Tully explores the darker and often unspoken perils of motherhood.

Full-time mom Marlo (Charlize Theron) is in her mid-40s and married to Drew (Ron Livingston). They already have two kids, including the "quirky" (social code for difficult) Jonah, and now the perpetually exhausted Marlo is about to give birth to a third child thanks to an unplanned pregnancy. Baby Mia is born, and with Drew frequently absent and otherwise uninterested in mundane baby tasks, Marlo is consumed by round-the-clock child care duties.

Near the point of emotional and physical collapse she heeds the advice of her brother Craig (Mark Duplass) and hires a night nanny. The energetic, bubbly, nocturnal and perpetually positive Tully (Mackenzie Davis) is surprisingly young, but immediately relieves Marlo of looking after Mia during the night. And Tully soon provides extra help, cleaning the house, preparing cupcakes and reviving Marlo's moribond sex life. A rejuvenated Marlo starts to feel much better about herself, and forms an unexpected bond with Tully.

Tully bravely ventures where few parenting stories dare to go. Marlo does enjoy fleeting moments of bonding with newborn Mia, but writer Diablo Cody is more interested in confronting the stress induced by sleepless nights, constant worry, and the elimination of any personal time or sense of self-identity. Already struggling with Jonah's tantrums and misbehaviour at school, Marlo is at a low ebb before Mia arrives, and the plunge back into the blurry cycle of diaper changes, nursing and burping threatens to push her over the edge.

Director Jason Reitman surrounds Marlo with the normalcy of a slightly befuddled and generally hands-off husband, a professional and caring school principal, and a wealthy brother with the seemingly perfectly balanced life, complete with a confident wife and well-adjusted kids. But from Marlo's increasingly warped perspective they are all any combination of clueless, judgmental and irritating, their every comment landing on the wrong side of her battered self-esteem.

Marlo finally succumbs to the idea of seeking help, and into her soiled world steps Tully, a remarkable energy source radiating youthful confidence, empathy, and helpfulness. And Tully makes it clear she not only wants to care for Mia, her real objective is to help recalibrate Marlo's whole life. Pressure starts to fall off Marlo's shoulder, the fog of fatigue parts and she can see her way towards joy.

In the film's final third Cody and Reitman playfully tease out the emerging and unusual relationship between mother and nanny, Tully excelling as commentary on the primal sacrifices and dangerous sojourns past mental and physical limits required to provide selfless care.

Charlize Theron commands attention as she soaks the screen with exasperated exhaustion and overflowing levels of frustration at a society that simply expects moms to cope with whatever the role brings. Mackenzie Davis provides a perfect foil, bringing Tully to life as a woman who thrives as a caregiver but has not yet experienced full adulthood responsibilities. The two women make for a remarkable duo, in a vivid personification of the supernatural motherhood journey.

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Movie Review: The Hollow Point (2016)
Thu, 12 Mar 2020 03:17:00 +0000

A crime thriller with occasional dollops of gore, The Hollow Point is visually inviting but offers a baffling jumble of poorly executed ideas.

Prodigal son Wallace (Patrick Wilson) is appointed Sheriff of his rural Arizona hometown, located on the Mexico border. He replaces the grizzled and hard drinking Leland (Ian McShane), who is growing increasingly disillusioned and has just killed an ammunition smuggler after a violent struggle. Wallace reconnects with his ex-lover Marla (Lynn Collins), whose current boyfriend Ken has gone missing after killing a cartel member and helping himself to some cash

Wallace goes looking for Ken and soon tangles with corrupt used car dealer Shep Diaz (Jim Belushi), who appears to be profiting from the illegal ammunition trade. But much worse is to come in the form of ruthless and mysterious murderer Atticus (John Leguizamo), who is working his way through a kill list.

A good cast, impressive rural and remote landscapes and stylish cinematography cannot save The Hollow Point. The script is muddled beyond redemption, and in the absence of wit, depth and soul, the ambitions to recreate a No Country For Old Men vibe fall well short.

The story by Nils Lyew appears to have been haphazardly reassembled after going through the business end of a shredder, with key characters and events popping in and out of the story in random disorder. Director Gonzalo López-Gallego ploughs ahead, oblivious to the incomprehensible mess on his hands. What starts out as cross-border ammunition smuggling thriller morphs into a pseudo-horror indestructible killer drama without breaking stride. Intended victims routinely survive close-quarters gunshots with minimal scratches and no explanations.

And with no prior or subsequent context, one scene appears intent on infusing twisted religious demagoguery as the root of all evil. A clunky romance between Wallace and Marla never registers, and John Leguizamo is horribly miscast as a ruthless machete wielding killing machine.

Only Ian McShane stands above the carnage, his emotionally drained and craggy presence an order of magnitude better than the material around him. Otherwise, The Hollow Point is hollow but pointless.

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Movie Review: Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down The White House (2017)
Mon, 09 Mar 2020 00:52:00 +0000

A political drama and biography, Mark Felt lifts the curtain to reveal a glimpse of the man behind the Watergate information leaks.

It's 1972 in Washington D.C, and legendary FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover dies from a stroke. His loyal Deputy Mark Felt (Liam Neeson), a staunch defender of the agency's mission, has every expectation he will be promoted to the top job. Instead the Nixon White House appoints inexperienced bureaucrat Pat Grey (Marton Csokas) as Acting Director. Mark's loyal wife Audrey (Diane Lane) is as disappointed as her husband.

The break-in at the Watergate Hotel starts to the make the news, and Felt mobilizes the FBI to investigate. But in short order pressure mounts from the White House to wind down the probe. Felt finds it increasingly difficult to function in an FBI subjugated by politics and witch hunts, and starts secretly feeding classified information to Time reporter Sandy Smith (Bruce Greenwood) and the Washington Post's Bob Woodward (Julian Morris).

At age 91 in 2005, Mark Felt revealed his identity as the informer known as Deep Throat, and he died just three years later. The film is caught in the gap between his story as a person and his famous whistleblower actions that helped bring down President Richard Nixon. In the end director and writer Peter Landesman, adapting the books by Felt and John O'Connor, offers a middling portrait of the man and a muddled foray into the political scandal.

Mark Felt spends large chunks of time away from the Watergate drama, occupied with an inside look at the FBI's machinations, good and bad. The agency's pride, efficiency and professionalism are a firewall against political interference, and the rot starts to spread when the White House seizes the opportunity of Hoover's death to plant one of their own at the organization's head. Felt tries to defend the fort, but it's a losing battle and eventually he resorts to press leaks as a weapon of last resort.

Maybe because the men surrounding Nixon are largely absent from the narrative and the White House's perspective is conveyed in television snippets, once Watergate erupts and grips the nation, the film is surprisingly inert. Landesman skips explaining the gravity of what Felt passed on to reporters, and a rush to the end credits leaves an empty feeling.

Felt's home life is introduced through a few interactions with his wife Audrey and their shared trauma over the disappearance of their daughter Joan (Maika Monroe) presumably to the world of hippie communes. The domestic sub-plot is conflated with the bombing campaign perpetrated by the Weather Underground. While all the background adds good context, it also serves to detract from Felt's role in one of the nation's greatest political dramas.

Liam Neeson is reliable if rather monotonal as an upstanding and upright FBI agent incredulous as the agency atrophies from the top. He defines the film's suitably nondescript shade, perhaps the best tribute to the man who managed to change history and remain totally invisible.

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Movie Review: The Captive (2014)
Sat, 07 Mar 2020 19:45:00 +0000

A child abduction drama, The Captive peels away layers of secrets in frigid terrain to reveal a complex web of interconnected raw emotions.

The film is presented non-sequentially and in multiple timeframes, with all events occurring around Niagara Falls, Ontario (but also filmed in Sudbury). Chronologically, married couple Matt and Tina Lane (Ryan Reynolds and Mireille Enos) are rocked by the abduction of their young daughter Cassandra, an aspiring figure skater. Tina blames Matt, because Cass was kidnapped from his truck when he popped into a diner.

Police detectives and child abduction experts Nicole (Rosario Dawson) and Jeffrey (Scott Speedman) investigate, with Jeffrey suspecting Matt of selling his daughter for financial reasons. Years pass and the case goes cold. Tina and Matt separate but Tina maintains annual contact with Nicole. Meanwhile Cass grows up in captivity, held in a secret room by wealthy businessman and child pornographer Mika (Kevin Durand). Matt never gives up hope of finding his daughter, while the grown-up Cass (Alexia Fast) starts to exert her power over Mika to try and end her nightmare.

An intricate multi-faceted mystery, The Captive is spellbinding but also congested. Director, co-writer and co-producer Atom Egoyan weaves a fascinating multi-pronged tale of insidious evil hiding in a perpetually snow-covered small town, with the story ambitiously spanning many year of agony as Cassandra's disappearance casts a long shadow over the community.

The frequent jumps back and forth to multiple points in time are at first disconcerting, and for a movie clocking in at under two hours, there is a lot going on. But Egoyan maintains reasonable control as the narrative spreads its wings. The film is not just about grieving parents; it is also about Cassandra's burgeoning adulthood in a bewildering captivity, and the enticing but infuriating dead-ends well-intentioned detectives can be sucked into.

Still more sub-themes feature Mika deriving pleasure from torturing Tina with artefacts from her missing daughter's life while cameras secretly record her reactions, and Nicole herself becoming a target of the powerful pornographer cartel. The online luring menace, a pornographer's psychological weaknesses and a relationship between cops Nicole and Jeffrey also sneak their way into the film.

As the multiple threads intertwine The Captive inhales the icy coldness of working class desperation. The Niagara Falls are frozen in the background and stubbornly refusing to release any economic advancement. Matt struggles to run a one-man landscaping business while Tina works as a hotel room cleaner, their relationship comprehensively ruptured by her fury at what she perceives to be his carelessness in losing Cass. Ironically, the only moment of glitz is provided by two-faced slimy child porn merchants hosting a banquet.

The Captive appears to run out of either time or money, the climax rushed into an unsatisfying blur with a few threads left hanging. But the ever expanding ripples of trauma caused by one child's disappearance do leave a lasting impression.

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Movie Review: Pitch Perfect (2012)
Fri, 06 Mar 2020 05:12:00 +0000

A bright comedy and musical, Pitch Perfect wades into the offbeat world of acapella college group rivalries.

Beca (Anna Kendrick) is a freshman at Barden University, where the all-boys Treblemakers compete with the all-girls Barden Bellas for acapella group supremacy. Beca is an aspiring DJ and only attending college to please her father, but joins the Bellas after meeting the group's leaders Aubrey (Anna Camp) and Chloe (Brittany Snow). Another freshman, an Australian who calls herself Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), is also among the group's newcomers.

As the academic year progresses the Bellas strive to improve and qualify for the regional and national championships. But the champion Treblemakers, led by the brash Bumper (Adam DeVine), provide tough competition. Beca clashes with Aubrey over the Bellas' choice of music, and starts to catch the attention of Jesse (Skylar Astin), a Treblemaker, although the Bellas have a rule against hookups with the competition.

Shining a spotlight on a corner of campus weirdness, Pitch Perfect adapts the non-fiction book by Mickey Rapkin as an unironic celebration of quirkiness. The characters inhabiting the acapella world all know they are somewhat nerdy, but stop short of frivolous self-awareness. The collegiates take the singing and competitions seriously, and their ecosystem, like any other campus niche, is a microcosm of the growing into adulthood experience.

The smart screenplay by Kay Cannon deserves much of the credit for sufficiently rounding several of the Bellas within their acapella world while maintaining a caustic edge. Beca is a change agent, Aubrey the defender of the status-quo, while Amy is uninhibited and unfiltered. Chloe is perhaps the most complex, a peacemaker with an open mind caught between loyalty and advancement. They are all starting to accumulate life's emotional baggage, and growing into people worth knowing.

The romance elements between Beca and Jesse are more standard and relatively underdeveloped, and the film's other loose strands include Beca's relationship with her father. The darkest humour comes from the competition commentators played by Elizabeth Banks (who co-produced the film) and John Michael Higgins. They infuse their booth duties with all the overinflated seriousness of major sports coverage, laced with a large dose of politically incorrect banter.

Director Jason Moore populates the film with plenty of peripheral fun in the form of typical college residents and tensions, from the student-run radio station to dorm roommates knocking on the edges of eccentricity. Even some of the rank-and-file acapella group members pop with personality.

The music is a mix of familiar and restless, Beca's penchant for innovative mixes just waiting for an impeccable moment to burst forth. Imminently likable, Pitch Perfect hits most of the right notes.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: You, Me and Dupree (2006)
Wed, 04 Mar 2020 12:28:00 +0000

A comedy about love, friendship and finding a purpose in life, You, Me and Dupree carries enough laughs and originality to overcome the more mundane moments.

After an idyllic wedding in Hawaii, Molly and Carl (Kate Hudson and Matt Dillon) start their married life together, with Carl employed at the large housing development corporation of Molly's tycoon father Bob Thompson (Michael Douglas). Their lives are quickly disrupted when Carl invites Dupree (Owen Wilson), his friend from high school, to crash on their couch.

Dupree is kind and free-spirited, but his life has still not amounted to much. His sloppy presence creates tension between Molly and Carl, made worse by Bob giving Carl an unexpected promotion but also pressuring him into working long hours. Bob also makes it clear he believes Carl unworthy of marrying Molly and extending his legacy. With the marriage already in trouble, Dupree has to decide how he fits in.

Randy Dupree is a gentle soul, a loyal friend, a poet, aspiring cyclist, and a good cook. He is also hopeless at holding a job or finding any direction to steer his life, and an absolute expert at clogging up the toilet plumbing. Owen Wilson co-produced the film and gives life to an oddball combination of best friend and major irritant, and Dupree is the soul of the movie.

The first half is all about Dupree as a disruptor, but the second part veers towards left field as the guest cleans up and forms a bond of friendship with the emotionally abandoned Molly. The warped relationship triangle extends the film's reach, without ever threatening to break into stellar territory.

Michael LeSieur wrote the script, and with no more than about half the jokes finding a target, You, Me and Dupree bounces along a meandering path looking for detours to provide an edge. While imposing on Molly and Carl's hospitality, Dupree minimizes his job-seeking efforts and instead makes friends with the neighbourhood kids. Meanwhile Carl's stress level at work is cranked to eleven, Michael Douglas giving plenty of venom to too few ideas all related to demeaning his new son-in-law.

Brothers and co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo are perfunctory, generally standing back and allowing the stars to wrangle the material into the usual conflicts about trust, overcoming adversity and rising to the moment. Kate Hudson and Matt Dillon hold the middle ground and provide a platform for Dupree to perform his erratic orbit, themes of blooming late and discovering a calling emerging as warm-enough payoffs.

Seth Rogen appears in a small role as Neil, one of Carl's friends, socially suffocating in his own marriage. In an example of the film's underhanded slyness, Neil's wife and Dupree's crush are influential but never seen.

In You, Me and Dupree three's a crowd, but also reasonably good company.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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