Movie review: Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
Sat, 14 Dec 2019 16:43:00 +0000

A psychological drama, Martha Marcy May Marlene delves into the shadows hanging over the troubled psyche of a cult survivor.

Deep in the Catskill Mountains, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) escapes from a commune and sex cult consisting of young men and women under the influence of creepy leader Patrick (John Hawkes), who granted her the name Marcy May, and his sidekick Watts (Brady Corbet). Martha makes it to the posh lakefront Connecticut vacation home of her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who is married to architect Ted (Hugh Dancy).

Martha and Lucy have a strained relationship, and the peace and quiet Ted craves at his vacation sanctuary is disrupted by Martha's unsettling presence and unconventional behaviour. In flashback Martha's experiences at the commune are revealed, including her increasing attachment to Patrick and the commune's involvement in criminal activity. It becomes clear to Lucy her sister is going to need professional help, but Patrick may not be ready to accept Martha's departure.

Featuring a brooding mood and a haunting debut performance from Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a sombre experience. Martha's odd and argumentative behaviour at Lucy's house, including public nudity, nonchalantly walking in on Lucy and Ted during lovemaking, and a psychotic episode of mistaken identity, lay bare the reality that while she has physically escaped Patrick's cult, the damage lingers deep within her.

And she is not quite sure where she belongs. In the cold and mostly empty lakeside house Martha starts longing for the familiar comforts of the cramped commune, where similarly lost souls looked out for each other and kept warm at night sleeping in the same room. Her phone calls back to the commune are juxtaposed with flashbacks of the crimes Patrick is capable of inspiring, and suddenly Lucy's house may no longer be a safe haven.

Director and writer Sean Durkin is more interested in a slow reveal of Martha's troubled history rather than any character evolution. He builds unease by progressively exposing the horrors beneath the surface of a group of young adults supposedly living off the land. Patrick is the classic egotistical manipulator using psychobabble and veiled threats to control others and satisfy his twisted needs. While Martha's life chapter before the commune remains vague, her rebellious nature clearly led her down the wrong path.

And just as the pre-commune origins are skipped, the postscript is also left open. Martha Marcy May Marlene is concerned with the young survivor's middle chapters. Her bad decisions past and present are never far away, and neither are the dreadful consequences.

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Movie Review: Swiss Army Man (2016)
Thu, 12 Dec 2019 03:22:00 +0000

A drama and adventure about an unlikely friendship forged in the pursuit of rescue, Swiss Army Man is a challenging journey into the disorienting recesses of mental illness.

Hank (Paul Dano) is stranded alone on an island. About to hang himself out of desperation, he notices a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) washed up on the beach. With the dead body emitting a regular stream of farts, Hank rides the corpse like a jet ski to the relative shelter of an undefined wooded area, where scattered trash signals nearby civilization and the opportunity for salvation. Hank cannot bring himself to abandon the corpse, and they take shelter together in a cave.

The dead body helps Hank again by vomiting out a stream of drinkable fresh water, and then starts to communicate, adopting the name Manny and the persona of a naive but well-meaning friend. Hank introduces Manny to the picture of a dream woman called Sarah on his cell phone, leading to discussions about masturbation, confidence and Hank's difficult and repressed upbringing. Within his pants Manny's penis springs to action and starts pointing the way out of the forest. Hank carries his friend through the difficult wooded terrain, with Sarah's house as the intended destination.

At face value Swiss Army Man is dumbfounding and more than irritating. The film requires tolerance of a talking, water-emitting corpse that can launch itself like a rocket, endless conversations about masturbation, pop psychology discussions related to dysfunctional parenting, a fart routine repeated too many times, and a penis-as-compass. Hank also appears unable to navigate out of relatively easy terrain, and instead gets distracted by rudimentary role playing related to a singular encounter with an unattainable girl.

Co-directors and co-writers Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan make none of it easy or rationally accessible, laying out events in a stubborn approximation of a dissonant reality where everything appears grounded but actually nothing is. Swiss Army Man works better as a searing exploration of a catastrophic mental illness and severe personality disorder, a representation of the world as only the traumatized and scarred Hank sees it. The final act reveals the very few clues as Hank's physical location is suddenly clarified and Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and a few other characters come into focus.

Most of the film features Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe in a ghastly world of their own, and both actors pull off exceptionally difficult roles. Dano hints at the emotional distress corroding Hank, while Radcliffe gently normalizes the macabre concept of an animated corpse with humour and a surrender to an alternative reality.

Swiss Army Man demands a willingness to accept an incongruous sense of existence. It's a hazardous entertainment experience, but also a courageous one.

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Movie Review: Patriots Day (2016)
Wed, 11 Dec 2019 04:58:00 +0000

A crime drama recreating the 2013 Boston Marathon terrorist bombings, Patriots Day is a taut and precisely crafted fact-based thriller.

It's April 2013 in Boston, and Sergeant Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg) is working his way out of the police doghouse for kicking a fellow officer. Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) assigns Saunders to menial crowd control duties at the marathon finish line, where terrorist brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev detonate two pressure cooker bombs. The bombings narrowly miss Tommy's wife Carol (Michelle Monaghan), but three innocent people are killed and hundreds injured, many suffering lower body injuries and amputations.

The FBI's Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) takes charge of the investigation, and through a review of CCTV and cell phone video the Tsarnaevs are flagged as primary suspects. The brothers attempt to flee by car to New York, victimizing MIT security guard Sean Collier and carjacking college student Dun Meng. Enforcement authorities catch up with them in the suburb of Walkerton, where Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons) leads a small police detachment.

Although Tommy and Carol Saunders are fictional, most of the rest of the characters populating Patriots Day are real. Director and co-writer Peter Berg, again teaming with regular collaborator Wahlberg, effectively wraps his film around the terrorism attack and the tense days that followed. Given the time and geographic sprawl of events, the film is surprisingly spry, Berg displaying a welcome nimbleness to capture diverse perspectives and a drama unfolding in discrete but connected chapters.

While one objective is to celebrate the Boston Strong spirit that emerged after the attack, Patriots Day does not sterilize the often imperfect actions of investigators and enforcement agencies. The FBI's DesLauriers and Boston Police's Davis lock horns in a debate around whether to publicly release the photos of the presumed suspects, as hours pass by and their identities remain a mystery. Later, police actions are often chaotic and uncoordinated as multiple agencies run into each other, poor discipline and miscommunication allowing the bombers to remain on the loose longer than necessary.

A decision to essentially lock down the city and ask residents to shelter in place while SWAT teams conduct door to door searches is portrayed as an adhoc martial law declaration, and interrogators are also challenged in attempting to crack the silence of Tamerlan's arrested devout wife Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist, in a small but chilling role).

With plenty of ground to cover Berg avoids dawdling in one place for too long, and mastefully introduces enough background to provide depth to most of the key characters. The bombing scene is haunting in its random cruelty, and the Watertown shootout is recreated as a study of violent chaos, unsuspecting police officers tangling with determined terrorists at close quarters.

Wahlberg cruises through the surreal events in the role of guide and representative of Boston as a proud if temperamental society, tough and caring in equal measures. Trent Reznor contributes a suitably eerie music score, often stripped down to a forceful continuous sound effect conveying exasperated tension as a community holds its breath in the grip of unknown assailants.

The worst atrocities spawn remarkable resiliency, and Patriots Day captures both extremes of an exceptional chapter in the life of a city.

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Movie Review: Seven Days In May (1964)
Sun, 08 Dec 2019 17:02:00 +0000

A Cold War political thriller, Seven Days In May uses a tense military takeover scenario in the United States as an avenue to explore themes of democracy, loyalty and nationalism in the shadow of a global conflict.

It's the early 1970s, and U.S. President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) is facing severe criticism and protests for pushing ahead with a nuclear disarmament deal with the Soviet Union. He believes the agreement to be the only pathway to peace, but the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster) believes the President is severely undermining national security.

Scott's right-hand man Colonel "Jiggs" Casey (Kirk Douglas) picks up cryptic clues suggesting Scott is planning a coup d'etat within a few days, using a covert military unit funded without appropriate authority and assembled and trained at a secret base near El Paso, Texas.

Jiggs takes his evidence to Lyman, who believes enough to investigate. He dispatches his chief aid Paul Girard (Martin Balsam) to interrogate a Navy commander stationed in the Mediterranean, trusted Senator Ray Clark (Edmond O'Brien) heads to El Paso, and Jiggs approaches Scott's former mistress Eleanor Holbrook (Ava Gardner) to dig up potentially useful dirt. But with the clock ticking, finding hard evidence against the plotters will prove a challenge.

With the Cold War at its peak after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Seven Days In May joined Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe in a trio of 1964 films exploring various what-ifs of the conflict. Based on a novel by Charles W. Bailey II and Fletcher Knebel with a script by none other than Rod Serling, Seven Days In May delves into the perils of harbouring trust in a peace process, and at least as a starting point comes closest to predicting the actual course of negotiations eventually pursued by the United States and the Soviet Union.

The film uses the Cold War as background stage set. The focus is on the erosion of trust in a President's actions at the highest levels, and the potential for a cabal of generals and politicians to hide in plain sight while plotting a governmental takeover. Serling places intrigue and evidence gathering at the forefront of the story, Seven Days In May not featuring a single act of serious violence despite the threat of massive military and political upheaval. Director John Frankenheimer luxuriates in choreographing deep focus black and white scenes, turning the nation's most secretive boardrooms and offices into cerebral battlegrounds.

Along with star Kirk Douglas, Frankenheimer was instrumental in pulling the project together, and he assembled a dream cast, adding Lancaster, March, Gardner, O'Brien and Balsam, all in good form and tackling grim roles with requisite seriousness. And the film passes the baton around the lead roles at regular intervals, Douglas, Gardner and then March taking turns in spotlight, with Lancaster a menacing presence throughout.

By the end March rolls back the years and emerges as a dominant presence, his scenes opposite Douglas (revealing the conspiracy threads) and Lancaster (a tense confrontational showdown) both mesmeric. Serling's script may be faulted for underplaying the President's hand and authority as the climax approaches, but also allows for the epic interpersonal clashes to play out.

As the race against time to unmask the conspiracy hurtles towards the designated hour of action, the film grabs opportunities to debate the merits of pursuing peace. General Scott cannot fathom how a powerful ideological foe can ever be trusted to disarm and has the public on his side, while Lyman, with sinking approval ratings, is convinced negotiating a treaty from a position of strength is the only path to a non-ruinous future. It's an eternal warmongers versus peacemakers polemic, and sometimes nothing less than the future of a powerful nation hangs in the balance.

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Movie Review: Babe (1995)
Thu, 05 Dec 2019 14:04:00 +0000

A humourous animal drama oriented to children, Babe contains some simple life lessons in an attractive and easily accessible package featuring cute talking farm critters.

Sheep farmer Arthur Hoggett (James Cromwell) wins the young orphaned pig Babe (voice of Christine Cavanaugh) by guessing its weight at the state fair. The pig arrives at Hogget's farm and befriends the sheepdog Fly (Miriam Margolyes), although fellow sheepdog Rex (Hugo Weaving) is less hospitable. Babe also tangles with the troublesome duck Ferdinand (Danny Mann) and entitled house cat Duchess (Russi Taylor).

Babe settles in to life at the farm and gradually displays an aptitude for sheepdog duties, adopting a gentler approach to guiding the flock and establishing a connection with elderly sheep Maa (Miriam Flynn). But with Rex growing more resentful, wild dogs attacking the sheep and Hoggett starting to think of entering Babe into a sheepdog competition, plenty of challenges lie ahead for the little pig.

A gentle story of belonging, Babe is a modern day fairytale. Co-produced by George Miller and directed by Chris Noonan, the Australian production cleverly deploys special effects to add speech and choreographed movements to the world of cute animals. The often adorable farm creatures only talk to each other, leaving the oblivious humans in their own sheltered domain.

So we learn dogs think sheep are inherently stupid, the sheep think all dogs are dangerous wolves, the duck knows it's at greatest risk of becoming dinner and therefore takes on rooster duties to try and serve some useful function. Meanwhile, the house cat is well, just luxuriating in entitlement. The cows and horses here are reduced to background extras contributing some wisecracks, while the annoying mice animate the chapter introduction title cards.

Through it all the innocent but curious and brave young Babe is the orphan who has to carve an identity and a purpose in foreign surroundings. He gets help from the sympathetic Fly, who believes Babe can learn to fit in on the farm, and encourages his ventures into sheepdog duties. Rex is much more hostile and insistent a pig should not be trusted with a dog's duties.

Meanwhile Hoggett is the one main human character, a resourceful farmer of few words who spots opportunity where others only see turmoil. Hoggett establishes an early connection of trust and belief in Babe and can see beyond superficialities to focus on abilities, even risking humiliation to draw out the pig's potential.

Frequent touches of humour and brief scenes of danger maintain the required balance for younger audiences. Babe is tender, innocent and approachable, breathing from the genuine air of farm-inspired learnings.

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Movie Review: The Hunting Party (2007)
Wed, 04 Dec 2019 13:49:00 +0000

A journalists-in-peril adventure, The Hunting Party has a potentially good story to tell but features an imbalance between danger and levity.

War zone journalist Simon Hunt (Richard Gere) and his cameraman and close friend Duck (Terrence Howard) enjoy an adrenaline-fuelled life covering the world's most dangerous conflicts. But in 1994, Simon suffers an on-air meltdown while covering the brutal war and ethnic cleansing atrocities in Bosnia. He is fired and his career goes into a downward spiral. Duck eventually loses track of his friend and secures a cushy job as the chief cameraman for the network's main anchor Franklin Harris (James Brolin).

In 2000, Duck and Franklin along with rookie reporter and nepotism beneficiary Benjamin Strauss (Jesse Eisenberg) arrive in Bosnia to cover the 5 year anniversary of the war-ending peace treaty. Simon re-enters Duck's life, claiming to know the whereabouts of wanted fugitive Dragoslav "The Fox" Bogdanović (Ljubomir Kerekeš), one of the main purveyors of ethnic cleansing. Duck and Benjamin join Hunt on a dangerous journey deep into Serb-controlled territory, where suspicious locals and UN peacekeepers immediately mistake the journalists as a CIA hit-squad, leading to surreal encounters.

Filmed in Croatia and loosely inspired by real events recounted in an Esquire magazine article, The Hunting Party attempts a difficult balancing act. The Bosnian conflict resulted in over 100,000 deaths and horrific acts of massacre and ethnic cleansing in the heart of Europe. While levity can be an antidote for brutality, here writer and director Richard Shepard tries to have it both ways by exposing his trio of intrepid journalists to genuine horror and danger then angling for laughs. The mix rarely works and more often leaves an unsatisfactory taste in the mouth.

In 2007 this story was a condemnation of inaction. By chronicling the misadventures of a group of bickering journalists as they get close to The Fox within a couple of days of amateurish searching, the film rightly exposes foot-dragging by an international community seemingly unwilling to seriously go after the architects of war. Since then the wheels of justice have turned, leaving The Hunting Party in mid-narrative territory.

Idea fragments, some more promising than others, are introduced on the periphery of the main plot. Simon Hunt's emotional collapse and career disintegration after repeated exposure to violence is a welcome acknowledgement of post traumatic stress disorder creeping up on the seemingly immune, but deserved more exposition. Much less successful is the hurried injection of a barely-baked romance to personalize his tragedy and turn the quest to find The Fox into a personal vendetta.

Richard Gere, Terrence Howard and Jesse Eisenberg are functional without ever departing from stock characterizations. Diane Kruger gets one scene as a mysterious informant demanding money from the CIA (as she is convinced the journalists are all undercover agents) to reveal The Fox's hideout.

Despite exposing snippets from a tragic and cinematically underexposed conflict, The Hunting Party misses its prey.

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Movie Review: Café Society (2016)
Tue, 03 Dec 2019 04:21:00 +0000

A romance with mild humour, Café Society finds writer and director Woody Allen exploring familiar love entanglement themes with a light touch.

It's the 1930s, and Phil Stern (Steve Carell) is a slick and successful Hollywood talent agent. His awkward nephew Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) arrives from New York City seeking adventure and a potential career. Phil eventually gives Bobby a job and introduces him to his assistant Veronica (Kristen Stewart). Bobby is immediately smitten, although Veronica discloses she already has a boyfriend she calls Doug.

Back in New York City, Bobby's brother Ben (Corey Stoll) is rising up the ranks of mobsterism and buys into a swish nightclub, while sister Evelyn (Sari Lennick) is married to the intellectual Leonard (Stephen Kunken) and dealing with a boorish neighbour. In Hollywood Bobby befriends married couple Rad and Steve (Parker Posey and Paul Schneider) and continues his pursuit of Veronica, unaware that "Doug" is really Uncle Phil, who keeps on promising Veronica he will leave his wife.

Romance between an older married man and the younger woman, a years-long mutual infatuation that must remain out of reach, and emotionally insecure and hopelessly in love men making and breaking commitments. Woody Allen's favourite themes all make an appearance in Café Society, a film as much about mood and place as it is about plot.

With loving care Allen recreates the sparkly upper echelons of 1930s Hollywood as a swirl around powerful agent Phil Stern, a man on a first name basis with anyone who matters, with a deal in the making and snippets of conversation ready for every person in the room. For both contrast and comparison, back in New York Allen tracks the rise of Ben Dorfman along the mob's career ladder, with short and sharp acts of violence (played for laughs) clearing his path towards managing a glitzy nightclub. From their kitchen parents Rose and Marty Dorfman (Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott) worry and bicker about the progress of both their sons.

While the material is warmly recognizable as Allen operating well within his comfort zone, it is all too safe. Precious little about Café Society is fresh or demanding, as the film meanders its way towards indecisive lovers settling for selfish choices that best fit both Hollywood's dream factory and New York's grittier scene. The writing is sometimes clever but also often too eager to over-reach for the profound zinger. Allen's directing is confidently laidback, allowing the actors' motions to occupy the patient cameras. His uncredited narration is quite unnecessary.

At 33 years old Jesse Eisenberg can still just about pull off his young-man-opening-his-eyes-to-the-world schtick, but at least here he gets to grow with the role as Bobby evolves into a self-assured family and business man. Carell has a lesser arc as Phil Stern, a man confident about everything except the value of his long-lasting marriage. Kristen Stewart is fine as the naturally seductive muse to both Eisenberg as protégé and Carell as mentor, and she emerges as the convincing focal point for both men. Blake Lively appears relatively late as another Veronica in Bobby's life.

Resisting the urge to tackle any new and thorny challenges, Café Society settles for easy on the eyes and intellectually cozy.

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Movie Review: A Prayer For The Dying (1987)
Sun, 01 Dec 2019 02:08:00 +0000

A character study set in the shadow of the Irish Troubles, A Prayer For The Dying offers a plethora of moral dilemmas but is hampered by choppy momentum. 

In Northern Ireland an Irish Republican Army unit including Martin Fallon (Mickey Rourke) and Liam Docherty (Liam Neeson) mistakenly blows up a bus full of school girls. Martin flees to London and attempts to put violence behind him, but mortician and mobster boss Jack Meehan (Alan Bates) and his psychotic brother Billy (Christopher Fulford) pressure Martin into one last murder to eliminate an underworld rival in exchange for a new passport and money.

Martin reluctantly commits the murder, but is witnessed in the act by Father Da Costa (Bob Hoskins). Martin spares the priest's life but follows him to his church and confesses to the murder in the confession booth, forcing the Father into silence. Meehan is unhappy about the loose end and sets about intimidating both Martin and Da Costa. Docherty embarks on his own search to bring Martin back into the revolutionary fold, while Martin starts to develop feelings for Da Costa's blind niece Anna (Sammi Davis).

A drama with snippets of action and tension, A Prayer For The Dying works best as an examination of regret as the dark shadows of Martin Fallon's victims finally catch up with him. The film's focus is on the collision between his intentions to start anew and the reality of his reputation as an expert in killing. A hardened criminal cannot just walk away, and everyone from his former IRA colleagues to the gangsters of London and English enforcement authorities are interested in finding and pressuring him.

The film is based on a Jack Higgins novel, and he helped to co-write the script. Mike Hodges directs, and both are victimized by content spread too thin. By the time the characters are all introduced and the tense dynamic is established between Fallon, Da Costa and Meehan, the film stalls. Hodges has to find a rickety excuse to keep Fallon hanging around near the church, and chunks of screen time are consumed by uninteresting side quests including the unhinged Billy running loose, the clunky romance between Fallon and Anna, and Da Costa tangling with Meehan.

Mickey Rourke sports bright red hair as a neon sign to his Irishness, but does not bother to change it to any other colour once Fallon is designated Britain's most wanted fugitive. Rourke's performance walks a tightrope between cool and disinterested, and ultimately he does just enough to hold the film together. Bob Hoskins never quite convinces as an ex-military operative now playing at being a man of religion. Alan Bates bites into the role of Jack Meehan with an expensive overcoat, shiny teeth and a snarky smile, taking immense pride in preparing corpses for burials and ordering his goons to create more.

Fallon has to decide whether to kill or not, Da Costa whether to betray his vows and talk or not, and Meehan whether he can tolerate witnesses to his dirty work. A Prayer For The Dying asks the right questions, but is not as good at concentrating on the answers.

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Movie Review: Taken (2008)
Sat, 30 Nov 2019 22:42:00 +0000

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Movie Review: Triple 9 (2016)
Sat, 30 Nov 2019 16:34:00 +0000

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Movie Review: Sea Of Love (1989)
Sun, 24 Nov 2019 19:27:00 +0000

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Movie Review: Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
Sun, 24 Nov 2019 01:32:00 +0000

A costume drama set in the haughty world of the ridiculously wealthy, Dangerous Liaisons is a visually gorgeous story of immoral activity fueling gender wars among the idle rich.

It's pre-revolution Paris in the late 1700s, and Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil (Glenn Close) is a rich and conniving widow who gets her pleasure by manipulating others. She attempts to convince notorious seducer Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich) to sleep with her young and innocent niece Cécile de Volanges (Uma Thurman), a covenant-educated virgin, as revenge against Isabelle's former lover Bastide, who abandoned Isabelle and is now set to marry Cécile.

Vicomte refuses, as he is focused on enhancing his reputation by seducing Madame Marie de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer), a married woman with morals beyond reproach. Isabelle is impressed with the bravado of his quest, and promises to sleep with Vicomte if he succeeds in corrupting Marie and provides a written letter as proof. But Vicomte's pursuit of Marie is compromised by the gossipy Madame de Volanges (Swoosie Kurtz), Isabelle's cousin and Cécile's mother. As revenge, a furious Vicomte agrees to deflower Cécile and redoubles his efforts to have Marie fall in love with him.

As an incendiary exposé to support peasant revolutions, Dangerous Liaisons serves its purpose. The adaptation of Christopher Hampton's play, based on the Pierre Choderlos de Laclos book, is singularly obsessed with vindictive and lustful elites, idle and libidinous women and men with no better purpose than to plot sexcapades. Hampton's script is brought to life by director Stephen Frears in a lavish production, and the stellar cast shines amidst ostentatious costumes, cleavage and castles.

While none of the principal characters are remotely likeable, the dialogue exchanges between Isabelle and Vicomte reveal two sides of one coin, a female and male version of the same surreptitious behaviour trading in sex and deploying bribery, blackmail and subterfuge as needed. Vicomte can flaunt his reputation and indeed publicly work to enhance it, while by nature of women's social stature Isabelle is more discreet. She works by influencing others and nudging them towards ruin. At her most vulnerable moment Cécile turns to Isabelle for advice, and the aunt encourages her niece to embrace rape as a learning experience and seek multiple lovers.

Despite the seemingly frivolous attitude towards seduction, the film steers towards unexpected love intruding on intrigue. Vicomte can only break through Marie's barriers by falling in love with her, a condition he labels temporary, but Isabelle knows better. And Isabelle herself is sideswiped by intense jealousy, her facade penetrated upon learning another woman can emotionally preoccupy her man. The outcomes are well deserved, as Frears revels in moving his two protagonists towards emotional troughs of their own making.

Glenn Close occupies the centre of chicanery with an impressive performance, her sly smiles, pregnant pauses and sideways glances riding the line between outward social respectability and continuous conspiring. She is matched by John Malkovich riding through the field of conquests on nothing but unshakeable confidence in his seductive powers.

Although the scenes of verbal sparring between Marie and Vicomte are unconvincing and repetitive, Michelle Pfeiffer is surprisingly affecting as prey, while Uma Thurman is a doe eyed victim. In addition to Kurtz, Keanu Reeves as a naive artist caught up in the sex plots and Mildred Natwick as Vicomte's aunt round out the cast.

Dangerous Liaisons is an irresistible study of virtue making way for subversion, with predictably calamitous consequences.

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Movie Review: Sharky's Machine (1981)
Thu, 21 Nov 2019 04:03:00 +0000

A police detective thriller and romance, Sharky's Machine features gritty violence and a sense of camaraderie, but also a klutzy plot and gauche dialogue.

In Atlanta, a botched drug bust results in narcotics police detective Tom Sharky (Burt Reynolds) being demoted to the scorned vice squad, reporting to the excitable Friscoe (Charles Durning). Sharky pulls together a team consisting of Papa (Brian Keith), Arch (Bernie Casey) and Nosh (Richard Libertini). They start to investigate a high-priced prostitution ring featuring $1,000 a night call girls entrapping politicians, including Governor candidate Donald Hotchkins (Earl Holliman).

Sharky sets up round-the-clock surveillance of an apartment occupied by call girl Dominoe (Rachel Ward), and starts to fall in love with her from a distance. The stakeout identifies the shadowy Victor (Vittorio Gassman) as a master criminal grooming women into prostitution from a young age and using them to manipulate political careers. When assassin Billy Score (Henry Silva) enters the scene and leaves behind a trail of murder victims, the vice investigation turns much more dangerous.

Featuring a plot dripping with sex as a weapon, corrupt politicians, victimized women, bloody murders and a detective itching to rehabilitate his reputation, Sharky's Machine should have been much better than it is. Directed by Reynolds and adapted from a book by William Diehl, the film sputters in fits and starts, with an inconsistent tone and misplaced emphasis.

Distancing himself from the frivolous comedies that made him famous, in this outing Reynolds finds a sturdy character on which to build a thriller. Sharky is serious, determined and thoughtful, a detective capable of uniting a "machine" around him, in this case a collection of capable but dispirited detectives. The film admirably explores an emerging team dynamic and invests the time to demonstrate a group of men (they are all men) gelling into a high functioning group.

The pacing and narrative progression are less impressive. The film is soaked in voyeuristic scenes of Sharky intruding on Dominoe's life and falling in love just by observing her. Worse still is a barely-there plot filled with unanswered questions, the antagonists in the form of criminal mastermind Victor and sleazoid politician Hotchkins stamped as evil by the script but otherwise undefined, their intentions and overall context left to the imagination.

Sharky's Machine is not helped by a wooden Rachel Ward performance. The role demands a muse-like commitment to etherality, but Ward is too stiff to deliver, and her scene of verbal and physical sparring with Sharky is an unmitigated disaster. Henry Silva fares worse, his character initially defined as a stone-faced drug-fuelled assassin before crossing the line to almost mythical indestructible status.

The scenes of tension and action are competently staged, and Reynolds boldly strides towards bloodier representations of violence spiced with a torture showdown to augment some grim back alley aesthetics. Sharky's Machine sometimes rumbles to life, but also occasionally misfires.

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Movie Review: Love And Bullets (1979)
Wed, 20 Nov 2019 04:05:00 +0000

A bungled chase thriller, Love And Bullets wastes a good cast on a ridiculous plot and lacklustre execution.

Phoenix detective Charlie Congers (Charles Bronson) is coerced by the FBI into traveling to a remote Switzerland ski resort to extract mobster floozy Jackie Pruit (Jill Ireland) from the clutches of the goons guarding her. She is the long-term lover of crime boss Joe Bomposa (Rod Steiger), and the FBI agents believe she will testify against him.

Joe reluctantly orders Jackie killed, and cold-blooded assassins Vittorio Farroni (Henry Silva) and Huntz (Paul Koslo) team up to try and terminate both Jackie and Charlie. A chase across Switzerland ensues, with Charlie forced to improvise an escape to Geneva. Along the way, he and Jackie start to fall in love.

Most of Love And Bullets consists of Charlie and Jackie getting on and off trains going up and down mountains, or trundling in the snow, all in an attempt to avoid faceless killers. The husband and wife team of Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland are pre-equipped with a natural ease, but even they appear skeptical a romance can blossom between a craggy Phoenix cop and a mobster's vacuous moll.

Meanwhile the film around them is an unconvincing mess, lacking depth, characterization, and sophistication. Rod Steiger's Bomposa is a cartoon-level villain, and Henry Silva ghosts through the movie as the imagined personification of intimidating evil, because he never wears his expensive overcoat; he just places it over his shoulders.

Cast members Strother Martin, Bradford Dillman, Michael V. Gazzo and Val Avery get to stand around and do not much of anything as the body count mounts, including a massacre of innocent civilians at a train stop, and not a single Swiss authority figure bothers to show up and investigate.

Director Stuart Rosenberg (a replacement for originally intended director John Huston) ensures the travelogue aspects in picturesque Switzerland are well covered, but finds the blandest escapes to keep Charlie and Jackie alive for 100 minutes, including improvising a most implausible blowgun weapon. Then a rushed climax manages to undo most of the preceding action for the sake of a final large explosion. When nothing works, blow everything up.

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Movie Review: The Train (1964)
Tue, 19 Nov 2019 04:53:00 +0000

A gripping World War Two action film, The Train is an intense story of heroism presented with considerable panache. An uncompromising battle over the fate of a train unfolds as a metaphor for unyielding resistance in the chaotic dying days of the German occupation of France.

It's August 1944, and the Allies are close to liberating Paris. German Colonel von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) is intent on transporting to Germany hundreds of celebrated paintings by famous artists looted by the Nazis from throughout France. He overcomes bureaucratic delays and secures a train, loading it with his cargo of stolen art.

Arts curator Mademoiselle Villard (Suzanne Flon) understands the value of keeping the masterworks in France, and appeals to the underground cell led by rail yard manager Labiche (Burt Lancaster) to stall the train's progress until the Allies arrive. But Labiche's group strength has been decimated, and he expresses no interest in culture. His cell is anyway busy delaying a German armaments train to expose it to a British bombing raid.

When gruff engineer Papa Boule (Michel Simon) risks his life to save the arts train, Labiche and his collaborators Didont (Albert Rémy) and Pesquet (Charles Millot) decide to risk everything for one last mission. They improvise an elaborate and risky ruse to try and keep the train in France, a plan that will involve station manager Jacques (Jacques Marin) and innkeeper Christine (Jeanne Moreau).

Combining ferocious action with quiet moments of tension, The Train is a superlative World War Two adventure. Loosely inspired by factual events recounted in the 1961 book Le Front De L'art by Rose Valland, the film extracts surprising drama and poignancy from a simple story about a small group of resistance fighters doing all they can to derail a grand theft. The focus is a train, but the message is about national pride and standing up with limited and ever dwindling resources to a barbaric regime.

In a classic distillation of the war to two individuals on opposite sides of the conflict, the script by Franklin Coen, Frank Davis, and Walter Bernstein pits Colonel von Waldheim against Labiche. The irony is that it is von Waldheim who is an admirer of the arts while Labiche could care less. The struggle between them transcends the train cargo and evolves into a battle of wills to record one last blow before the Germans depart France.

The film is a visual study in dynamic fluidity. Director John Frankenheimer was a late replacement for Arthur Penn, and elevates The Train to a stylish art piece. Making excellent use of black and white cinematography, Frankenheimer goes looking for eye catching framing, and packs the film with several memorable long uninterrupted tracking shots featuring exquisitely choreographed activity. The settings vary from offices filled with German army clerks frantically burning documents as defeat looms to bustling rail yards where French workers, German soldiers and their nervous officers intermingle with cacophonous train traffic supporting the war effort.

The heart of the film is action, and The Train is filled with breathless set-pieces, from a bombing raid on a train yard to several clandestine stealth missions, and a quite spectacular derailment / crash combo designed to wedge and delay a treasure. All the action scenes are real, and star Burt Lancaster does many of his own stunts in a performance full of understated bravado.

The human cost of exceptional courage is high, and The Train is unblinking in confronting the sacrifice required to stop evil. After years of brutal conflict, a resigned determination on both sides to wage battle to the bitter end assures horrific casualties. And for the French resistance fighters, the prize is much more than a train full of paintings.

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Movie Review: There's Something About Mary (1998)
Sun, 17 Nov 2019 17:38:00 +0000

A raunchy comedy, There's Something About Mary aims for wild over-the-top laughs and remarkably hits the target more often than not.

It's 1985 in Rhode Island, and awkward high school student Ted (Ben Stiller) secures a prom date with the seemingly unattainable dream classmate Mary (Cameron Diaz). But the big night is scuttled by an embarrassing zipper mishap. Thirteen years later, Ted decides to try and find Mary, and  encouraged by his friend Dom (Chris Elliott) hires sleazy insurance investigator Pat (Matt Dillon) who promptly locates her in Miami.

Mary is now a successful orthopedic surgeon, a sports lover and still single. Pat falls in love with his surveillance target and pursues her romantically, pretending to be a free-spirited architect. Mary's friend Tucker (Lee Evans) also harbours a crush and senses Pat's lies. Eventually Ted and Dom also make their way to Miami where Mary will find herself surrounded by numerous men professing their love.

Two epic scenes of abject raunchiness ensure the lasting notoriety of There's Something About Mary. The first is the prom night zipper fiasco at Mary's home, a scene as funny as it is physically uncomfortable for half the world's population. The second occurs when Ted and Mary finally have their reunion, and involves bodily fluids showing up in all the wrong places. Both sequences burst through any notional limits of decency, but land with hilarity intact and in the process define new limits of bawdiness.

Co-written and directed by brothers Peter and Bobby Farrelly, the film takes big swings at the conventions of both the high school teenage comedy and romantic comedies. The first act features Stiller and Diaz made up to look like teenaged versions of themselves, and lays the groundwork for a lifetime of infatuation. Young Ted is a living example of a painfully uncoordinated high school persona, and the luminous young Mary is the too-good-to-be-true new school arrivee who is believed to be elusive but is actually surprisingly empathetic.

The rest of the movie occurs in the present day and thrives on shredding the misunderstandings, pets, neighbors, best friends and rivals that collectively create the foundational elements of any rom-com. The Farrellys' motto is to push bad taste as far as it goes and then a bit more, and they probably intentionally veer off-course in scenes involving gays at a highway rest stop and in actively seeking laughs at the expense of Tucker's physical challenge in using crutches.

For anything about There's Something About Mary to function, the ultimate fantasy woman as imagined by juvenile males has to be created, and the Farrellys hit the jackpot with Cameron Diaz. She brings to life a dream combination of the sexy, approachable, sports-and-beer loving gal who happens to be professionally successful, single, charitable, and dedicated to helping her mentally challenged brother. She is more than a bit naive to fall for creeps and not be aware of the impact she has on men, but Cameron thrives in radiating the character's energy at the epicenter of the film.

Stiller as the adult Ted is a relatively reserved presence, and it is Matt Dillon as the sleazoid Pat who bursts through with a memorably off-center performance, combining stalker behaviour with carefully constructed manipulation.

A milestone in coarse humour, There's Something About Mary is supremely good when it's very bad.

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Movie Review: The Mississippi Gambler (1953)
Sat, 16 Nov 2019 20:31:00 +0000

A drama and romance set among the rich and adventurous in mid-1800s New Orleans, The Mississippi Gambler has no shortage of plot and is gorgeous to look at, but is also undermined by overflowing soapiness.

Mark Fallon (Tyrone Power) hails from a respected New York family but decides to seek a life of adventure as a professional riverboat gambler on the Mississippi River. He strikes a friendship with Kansas John Polly (John McIntire), and on their first sailing they meet the brother and sister duo of Angelique and Laurent Dureau (Piper Laurie and John Baer). Mark is immediately smitten with Angelique, but she is standoffish. Laurent is a weasel and covers his gambling losses with his sister's precious necklace.

In New Orleans Mark befriends Redmond Dureau (Paul Cavanagh), Angelique's father, and meets banker George Elwood (Ron Randell), who is trying to win her heart. Mark also helps Ann Conant (Julie Adams) when her brother commits suicide after incurring big gambling losses. Ann falls in love with Mark, Laurent falls in love with Ann, but Mark only has eyes for Angelique, as a series of high profile and self-inflicted tragedies strike the Dureau family.

A sprawling story featuring overlapping love triangles, multiple duels and tense poker table showdowns, The Mississippi Gambler moves quickly from one episode to the next. The overabundance of dramatic incidents combined with lavish sets, vivid colours and elegant wardrobes ensure the film is never slow or boring, but leave little room for reflection or character development.

If Mark Fallon left New York to find adventure, he is not disappointed. Director Rudolph Maté keeps the mood light and the pace fast by wedging an on-board ambush, two old fashioned duels-at-sunrise, a corporate bankruptcy, a suicide, an attempted murder, a business start-up venture and a couple of friendly fencing sessions in between all the romantic pursuits.

But the emotional core of the film is somewhat distant, as the central romance between Mark and Angelique sits on ice as he expresses his belief in a love she repeatedly rebuffs. As he waits for her heart to thaw, Ann develops a serious crush on Mark, the bland George adopts a slow and steady approach to win Angelique's hand in marriage if not her heart in love, and Laurent wastes no opportunity to make a fool of himself.

Mark and Redmond bond over a shared passion for adventurism, a common code of gentlemanly chivalrous living and an expertise in fencing, writer Seton I. Miller finding a way to salute Tyrone Power's swashbuckling past. The friendship between the two men unexpectedly emerges as the film's warmest element.

Tyrone Power easily represents the morally pure Mark Fallon in a role that suffers from a lack of any flaw. The supporting cast adequately portrays the high society of New Orleans, but all the characters are firmly defined in one non-evolving dimension. The Mississippi Gambler shuffles cards with admirable expertise, but deal with a flurry rather than deliberate focus.

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Movie Review: Saboteur (1942)
Sat, 16 Nov 2019 16:16:00 +0000

A spy thriller and propaganda film, Saboteur features several set-piece suspense highlights but also some creaky plotting and flat speechifying.

With World War Two raging, a deliberately-set fire destroys a military aircraft factory in Los Angeles. A worker is killed, and the victim's friend Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) believes he spotted the saboteur, a man calling himself Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd). But when no record or trace can be found of Fry, Kane himself becomes a suspect. He avoids arrest and sets out to clear his name.

Remembering an address on an envelope carried by Fry, Kane arrives at the rural ranch of respected businessman Charles Tobin (Otto Kruger), unaware he is one of the leaders of a treasonous cell. Tobin turns Kane over to the police but he escapes by jumping off a bridge, and finds refuge with kindly blind man Phillip Martin (Vaughan Glaser). Kane teams up with Phillip's initially suspicious niece Patricia (Priscilla Lane) as they dodge a nationwide search and pursue the dangerous saboteurs first to an isolated dam site and then all the way to New York City.

Filmed and released on either side of the Pearl Harbor attack, Saboteur is an evil-lurks-among-us cautionary tale. Director Alfred Hitchcock includes the requisite cringey propaganda speeches exalting the American way of life, and the film is fueled by sharply defined good and evil characterizations, with Barry Kane's innate goodness easy to spot, especially by the blind and dispossessed.

But what could have been a standard creaky exercise in wartime morale boosting greatly benefits from Hitchcock's talent for building up suspenseful moments. Saboteur features several elegant setpieces, including Barry evading the police with a breathtaking jump from a bridge, then hiding his handcuffed hands at Martin's house, and a cat and mouse game at a lavish New York City ballroom party.

And finally the climax atop the Statue of Liberty is a classic cliffhanger with ingenious use of special effects, the famous monument a suitable reminder of what's at stake as her raised hand with the torch of enlightenment hosts the final battle between wholesomeness and hate.

Between the film's highlights Hitchcock stitches together a decent on-the-run thriller, although the narrative coherence in the final third starts to slip, hampered by clunky and rushed scene transitions. The entire plot is also dependent on some sustained imbecilic actions by both the plotters and the enforcement authorities.

The cast is one of the most underpowered of any of Hitchcock's American-made movies. Neither Robert Cummings nor Priscilla Lane were first choice for the project, but their relative plain anonymity suits the theme of ordinary American resistance to homegrown malevolence. Saboteur lacks stardust, but compensates with sly craft.

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Movie Review: The Seven-Ups (1973)
Tue, 12 Nov 2019 00:11:00 +0000

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Movie Review: The Midnight Man (1974)
Sat, 09 Nov 2019 16:09:00 +0000

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Movie Review: The Candidate (1972)
Fri, 08 Nov 2019 19:26:00 +0000

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Movie Review: Race (2016)
Fri, 08 Nov 2019 04:28:00 +0000

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Movie Review: Mr. Majestyk (1974)
Wed, 06 Nov 2019 05:38:00 +0000

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Movie Review: The Exorcism Of Emily Rose (2005)
Tue, 05 Nov 2019 05:24:00 +0000

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Movie Review: Brad's Status (2017)
Mon, 04 Nov 2019 00:44:00 +0000

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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