Movie Review: Booby Deerfield (1977)
Sun, 13 Oct 2019 17:41:00 +0000

A romantic drama, Bobby Deerfield is a slow story about love blooming between a racing driver and a dying woman.

In Europe, Bobby Deerfield (Al Pacino) is an American driver on the elite Formula 1 motor racing circuit. Both he and his team are shocked when a fiery race accident claims the life of his teammate. He demands to know the cause of the crash prior to the next race, while his long-time girlfriend Lydia (Anny Duperey) tries to provide comfort.

Bobby heads off to visit Karl Holtzmann, another driver hurt in the wreck and now recuperating. At the hospital he meets the free spirited Lillian Morelli (Marthe Keller), who appears to be a patient but hitches a ride out with Bobby. On the long drive they get to know each other. She talks a lot and asks many questions, while he is reserved and subdued. Nevertheless a romance blossoms as Bobby prepares for his next race.

Although supposedly set in the world of car racing, Bobby Deerfield's profession may as well be watching wait paint dry. Neither the Alvin Sargent script, adapting the book Heaven Has No Favorites by Erich Maria Remarque, nor director Sydney Pollack appear to have a clue as to how to make use of the sport as a backdrop. So the entire motor racing subtext is reduced to three short and frantic scenes, two of which appear remarkably similar and end in crashes, while the third features an unconvincing crash analysis session.

Most of the film unfolds as a languid European road trip travelogue, Bobby either alone or with Lillian criss-crossing the continent from one barely defined destination to another in pursuit of  poorly described purposes. The spectre of death hovering over him from the track to Lillian's disease may have carried some intellectual promise, but the conversations that are supposed to nourish the romance are pointlessly slow to the point of exhaustion. Lillian's lust for a receding life crashes against Bobby's emotional constipation, and they mostly get mad at each other for communicating on different wavelengths. In real terms these two who have fled from each other in opposite directions, but because the script demands it here they fall in love in slow motion.

Al Pacino goes through the entire film with a singular expression of annoyed tedium, although he may be unsuccessfully trying to sort out the meaning of life and death behind the wall of pregnant pauses and one-word non-answers. Marthe Keller overcompensates with an animated portrayal of Lillian, a woman seeking to meet death on her own terms. Anny Duperey shares the pain with her own series of dead-end conversations with Bobby. The rest of the characters are pushed so far into the background none of them register.

The scenery is picturesque, Pollack finding plenty of vistas featuring quaint European towns and idyllic rural landscapes. And here Bobby Deerfield finds its true calling, as a perfect example of cinematic still life.

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Movie Review: Judy (2019)
Sat, 12 Oct 2019 12:48:00 +0000

A biographical drama about a star fading into life's twilight, Judy features a powerful Renée Zellweger central performance but is otherwise emotionally monotonal.

It's the late 1960s, and former movie star Judy Garland (Zellweger) is bankrupt and reduced to performing for a few dollars in cheap joints, dragging her two younger kids onto the stage when they should be at school. Her ex-husband Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell) takes in the children, and in a desperate attempt to raise money Judy heads to London for a series of concerts.

In a series of flashbacks to the late 1930s, every detail of the life of young Judy (Darci Shaw) is controlled by the MGM studio under the watchful eye of boss Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery). She is overworked, and studio-supplied pills control her energy, emotions, diet and sleep patterns.

In London, handler Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley) tries to ensure Judy shows up on stage and on time every night. Judy is depressed to be separated from her kids, fully dependent on pills and alcohol, has trouble sleeping, and refuses to rehearse. Still she frequently shines on stage, but her erratic behaviour tests the patience of the show's promoter.

At a time when Hollywood's men controlled and manipulated children for profit, the young Judy Garland could not have conceivably calculated the high price she had to pay throughout her life in return for global adoration. Judy is the story of a wonderfully talented woman as a spent force, her glory days well behind her, the studio system having sucked her dry and deprived her of any normalcy.

The film is written by David Evans (better known as U2's The Edge) as an adaptation of the play End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilterand. Rather unfortunately, all that Judy has to say is revealed in the opening 30 minutes. By the time Garland is struggling to pull herself onto the London stage for the first time, the movie has a further 90 minutes to run and not much left to say. As an indication of the narrative inertness the few flashback scenes to Judy's childhood emerge as the more enjoyable jolts of energy.

Renée Zellweger is relatively stranded in the sameness of the material, but is nevertheless stellar throughout. Aided by transformational makeup she shines in portraying Judy as a mournful former star aware of the impact she can still have on an adoring public, but unable to undo the damage of a lost childhood and a brain eternally warped on chemicals and alcohol. The singing performance scenes are strong, director Rupert Goold emphasizing the loneliness of the stage.

Consistent with the absence of any evolving drama, the rest of the cast is underpowered and contributes little. Jessie Buckley as chief handler Rosalyn shows character promise but is provided with a functionally truncated role, while Finn Wittrock as fifth husband Mickey Deans drifts in and out of the movie as an advertisement for convenient masculinity. More positive is the excellent set design evoking a late 1960s vibe, a swinging and hip London confirming Garland's status as a throwback misfit.

A sad chapter in the life of a great star, Judy twinkles then fades away.

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Movie Review: Instant Family (2018)
Thu, 10 Oct 2019 15:22:00 +0000

A comedy with dramatic elements, Instant Family explores the complexities of foster parenting through the story of one couple taking on all they can handle.

Married couple Pete and Ellie Wagner (Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne) flip houses for a living, and have delayed having children. They decide to become foster parents and go through the required screening courses, where they meet social workers Karen (Octavia Spencer) and Sharon (Tig Notaro). Although initially hopeful of fostering one young child, Pete and Ellie eventually take in 15 year old Lizzy Viara (Isabela Moner) and her two younger siblings Juan and Lita.

The three kids were raised in harrowing conditions with a drug addicted mother, now in prison. Isabela is surly and cold, unsure why a middle class white couple would take on the hassle of caring for three Hispanic kids. Juan is accident prone and Lita resorts to shrieking to get whatever she wants. Pete and Ellie do their best, but the road to learning instant parenting is bumpy. And once the children's mother finishes her sentence and cleans up, their challenges multiply.

Inspired by director and co-writer Sean Ander's real-life story of adopting three siblings, Instant Family is a sweet family-friendly comedy. The mix of laughs and serious incidents is well calibrated, and although the march towards a happy ending is assured, enough ups and downs happen along the way to maintain interest.

Moments of doubts, setbacks and accidents mix easily with cute silliness involving bathroom use, finding new routines and public temper tantrums. Pete and Ellie have to learn on the job what it means to support each other through the parenting obstacle course, all while under the judgmental gaze of the deeply sceptical Lizzy. She is mostly passing time until her mom is released and recovered enough to regain custody of the kids, and has no interest in establishing emotional connections with yet another set of temporary caregivers.

In addition to extending the film to close to two hours, Anders does overcook a few scenes in search of cheaper laughs. In the most egregious, Lizzy gets involved in a sexting debacle with a sleazy school janitor, leading Pete and Ellie to perpetrate two assaults within five minutes while abandoning Juan and Lita in the car, in a fine example of how not to parent.

In the middle of the learn-on-the-fly turmoil Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne make for an appealing pair, both quickly comfortable as a couple and leaning on their understated comic timing to project less-is-more humour. Isabela Moner excels as Lizzy and steals every scene she is in with a sassy performance of passive-aggressive teen angst justified by deep insecurities.

In support Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer provide a social worker twist on good cop / bad cop, here Notaro's properly by-the-book version of fostering bounced off against Spencer's warts-and-all colour commentary about how it really works. Surviving an Instant Family requires deep-seated belief in the ideal, and imperfect navigation of the real.

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Movie Review: Days Of Wine And Roses (1962)
Tue, 08 Oct 2019 03:47:00 +0000

A grim drama about the perils of alcoholism, Days Of Wine And Roses traces the agony of a middle class professional couple as they sink to the bottom of the bottle.

In San Francisco, Joe Clay (Jack Lemmon) works in public relations and easily reaches for a drink while schmoozing clients and fulfilling their unsavoury whims. He meets and quickly falls in love with Kirsten Arnesen (Lee Remick), the secretary of one of his clients. Kirsten is initially a non-drinker, but Joe introduces her to the pleasures of alcohol and soon they are both drinking heavily.

They get married and have a daughter, but his constant heavy drinking starts to take a toll on work performance. Joe is eventually re-assigned to a small account based in Houston and is forced to spend long stretches away from home, driving Kirsten to drink ever more heavily to combat loneliness. They both succumb to full-blown alcoholism and their lives enter an uncontrolled downward spiral. They reach out for help from Kirsten's father Ellis (Charles Bickford), a salt-of-the-earth landscape businessman, but any road to recovery will be treacherous.

While 1945's The Lost Weekend was about a struggling writer surrendering to his alcoholism, Days Of Wine And Roses brings the disease into mainstream living rooms. Here Joe and Kirsten are attractive, successful and respected young professionals with good careers and excellent future prospects. They have everything to lose and they test the boundaries of losing everything, their story a sobering tale of how quickly and easily the American dream can dissolve into an alcohol-saturated nightmare.

JP Miller adapted his own teleplay, while director Blake Edwards and star Jack Lemmon accepted the challenge of embracing full-on drama without a hint of the humour or even pathos that made them both famous. The result is a relentlessly bleak romance doubling down on tragedy, two lives all but destroyed as the couple enable each other's behaviour.

Whether they can recover a semblance of balance and normalcy is the subject of the film's second half, and Edwards painfully portrays the many false attempts at drying up. Each becomes ever more agonizing, the next spark of hope extinguished by succumbing to the singular first drink, months of progress dashed in an instant. Presented as one pathway out of the gutter, Alcoholics Anonymous received a real-life boost, here represented by Jack Klugman as a recovering alcoholic who reaches out to Joe at one of his low points.

Early in the film Edwards allows a few of the scenes to run longer than they need to, the courtship scenes particularly laborious. And overall the script is robust but rarely finds a memorably cutting edge or poignant lyricism.

But the two lead actors provide a boost whenever one is needed, as Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick embrace their roles with fearsome commitment. Both had actual struggles with alcohol, and here their performances are almost physically hard to watch. Whether rationalizing their drinking, wallowing in the happy haze of drunkenness or arguing loudly, Lemmon and Remick drive for the gritty realism of self-delusion rather than sympathy.

The film plays out to a soulful Henry Mancini soundtrack featuring judicious use of the award-winning title song, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Days Of Wine And Roses sounds like an idyllic romance, but as it turns out, it's either the wine, or the roses.

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Movie Review: Christine (2016)
Sun, 06 Oct 2019 18:46:00 +0000

A biographical drama about coping with depression, Christine explores the build-up of suppressed anxiety to acute levels.

It's the early 1970s, and Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) is a field reporter with a Sarasota, Florida television station, approaching her 30th birthday. Professionally respected but socially awkward, she prepares and presents the Suncoast Digest segment, focusing on local politics and people. Station manager Michael Nelson (Tracy Letts) finds her material boring, and with the ratings sinking, prods Christine towards more sensational journalism. She resists and they clash constantly.

In her private life Christine is single, tense and depressed, although she does volunteer as a puppeteer at a children's hospital. She harbors a secret crush on station anchor George Ryan (Michael C. Hall), while still living with her mother Peg (J. Smith-Cameron), and suffering through bouts of severe abdominal pains. When the station owner Bob Anderson (John Cullum) announces opportunities for a promotion to a higher-profile Baltimore station, the competitive stress levels at work are heightened.

An independent production based on a true and shocking story, Christine delves into the reporter's life with a mixture of real and imagined events. Written and co-produced by Craig Shilowich and directed by Antonio Campos, the film explores the dichotomy of a woman respected for her principled professional standards, and indeed looked up to by colleagues, but personally and quietly suffering the devastating impacts of depression.

Campos invests plenty of screen time to tease out the attributes and dynamics of his lead character within her work environment. Yes there are petty professional jealousies and arguments about the trajectory of news-as-entertainment, but Christine is recognized as smart, ambitious, and confident, embracing feminism and willing to protect her integrity and fight against the rising tide of blood-and-gore ambulance-chasing news coverage.

Yet away from work the insecurities are gnawing away at her psyche. She is socially uneasy, difficult to approach, and cannot get any man to pay her any attention. Desperate for male companionship and eager to start a family, instead she is confronted with a grievous medical diagnosis. And conversations with her mother Peg include dark references to how badly everything ended at her previous job in Boston.

The film maintains a pragmatic matter-of-factness and focus on the one individual, Campos alternating the action between the local television station resplendent with garish 1970s-era decor (yellow and orange everywhere) and Christine's cramped apartment. He draws a stellar performance from Rebecca Hall, who carries the entire film. With a slightly bent but still assured public posture, she conveys the clash between internal insecurities and a dogged external determination to soldier on.

Life reaches a crossroads of apparent dead-ends, shattered personal and professional expectations, and an unacceptable imperative to conform. Despite all the seemingly insurmountable difficulties, the film nevertheless captures the sometimes difficult to discern but always present love and respect surrounding Christine, both at home and at work.

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Movie Review: The Florida Project (2017)
Sat, 05 Oct 2019 21:46:00 +0000

A slice of life drama, The Florida Project passively observes the marginalized lives of America's poor, unemployed and uneducated as they eke out a seemingly futile existence.

In the Orlando suburb of Kissimmee, mischievous six year old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives at the pink-coloured Magic Castle motel, managed by the sympathetic Bobby Hicks (Willem Dafoe). Moonee's mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) is an unemployed former stripper, and she allows Moonee to run loose all day amongst the strip malls and other cheap motels in the shadow of Walt Disney World, dreaming up pranks with her friends Scooty and Jancey.

Halley struggles to make ends meet and can barely afford to pay the weekly room rate, but Bobby is tolerant and always gives her another chance. Halley's life gets even more difficult when she has a serious falling out with her only friend and source of food, Scooty's mother Ashley. Halley resorts to desperate measures to keep her daughter fed and a roof over their head, and through it all the resilient Moonee does her best to still have a semblance of a childhood.

The daily struggles of society's marginalized can make for compelling cinema, but moving from head-shaking deep shock and sadness towards a film plot requires artistic intervention. Director and co-writer Sean Baker appears intent on getting away with a minimum amount of effort, The Florida Project often resorting to passive observation of kids being kids. Here the children are crude and foul-mouthed, full of potential to unleash vandalism, and completely unsupervised.

But this is mostly documentary-level material lamenting the neglected and pessimistic corners of American society. The juxtaposition of acute poverty with the scrubbed Disney fantasy next door hovers over Moonee, but otherwise the film requires plenty of patience as momentum is assembled at a pedestrian pace.

Eventually Baker gets there by finally shifting focus from Moonee the daughter to Halley the mother, and the adults take over the final third of the movie. Halley's lackadaisical approach to parenting reaches crisis levels, friendships are ruptured, consequences crystallized and eventually social services are called in.

Willem Dafoe injects plenty of humanity as the world-weary and kind hearted Bobby, a kind man in an unkind place always giving his guests the benefit of the doubt because they have precious little else. But once Halley crosses enough boundaries even his bag of tricks to provide continued shelter starts to run out. Whether at The Florida Project or any other location, Moonee's rough start in life renders future optimism the stuff of fantasy.

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Movie Review: The Killing Of A Sacred Deer (2017)
Sat, 05 Oct 2019 19:08:00 +0000

A surreal drama with psychological suspense and hints of horror and tragedy, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer is a quietly sinister exploration of guilt and perverted justice.

Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a renowned heart surgeon, married to ophthalmologist Anna (Nicole Kidman). They have two kids, 14 year old Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and the younger Bob (Sunny Suljic). Steven also spends time with 16 year old Martin (Barry Keoghan), a slightly awkward adolescent. Martin's father had previously died on Steven's operating table, and the surgeon carries an unspoken sense of responsibility towards the boy and his mother (Alicia Silverstone).

Steven invites Martin to his house for dinner and to meet Anna, Kim and Bob, and the evening goes well, both Kim and Bob entranced by their new visitor. Martin reciprocates, but Steven's evening with Marin and his mother (Alicia Silverstone) does not go as well. Soon after the visits, young Bob starts to experience inexplicable health problems, and life for the Murphy family takes an unexpectedly dark turn.

Inspired by Greek tragedies but transposed to a modern context, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer is written and directed with contorted glee by Yorgos Lanthimos. The film unfolds at a carefully calibrated pace, Lanthimos investing the entire first hour in character and background introductions before starting to turn the dial towards malevolent settings.

And even once the trajectory is locked towards Steven and his family confronting unimaginable outcomes, Lanthimos refuses to surrender to any genre cliches. Other than eerie music, the mood remains cold, the camera placement and dialogue exchanges precise and oddly clipped. Here bad things and horrible decisions are devoid of shock and turbulence. The awful ailments confronting the Murphys arrive quietly and sit down with the family, dramatically shaking every vestige of normalcy through mere presence.

With emotionally draining quiet pleas for forbearance creeping to the narrative forefront, the seemingly supernatural trauma serves to create an unsettling mood throughout the film's second half. Although Lanthimos has trouble nailing the ending, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer lingers in its portrayal of guilt and karma as overpowering metaphysical realities.

Nicole Kidman and a bearded Colin Farrell buy into Lanthimos' surreptitious tendencies with icy performances, two polite professionals lacking the time to express passion and only alive to the spectre creeping into their family once it takes root. The film hinges on finding a human representation of self-righteous calamity, and Barry Keoghan obliges with a suitably creepy and ominously awkward performance.

The Killing Of A Sacred Deer may fend off other physical afflictions, but at an unimaginable emotional cost.

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Movie Review: The Five-Year Engagement (2012)
Sat, 05 Oct 2019 15:09:00 +0000

A romantic comedy about the compromises needed to bridge diverging aspirations, The Five-Year Engagement features a genial couple but is needlessly over-long.

On New Year's Eve in San Francisco, sous-chef Tom Solomon (Jason Segel) proposes marriage to his girlfriend and aspiring psychology teacher Violet Barnes (Emily Blunt) exactly one year after they met. She accepts, but they delay setting a date. Meanwhile, his best friend Alex (Chris Pratt) and her sister Suzie (Alison Brie) meet at the engagement party and get married quickly after Suzie becomes pregnant on their first night together.

Violet accepts a two-year graduate position in Michigan, which means a major relocation and delays to the wedding plans. She quickly makes friends with her charming professor Winton (Rhys Ifans) and a tight-knit group of fellow graduate students. But Tom cannot find a good position as a chef and settles for preparing artisan sandwiches at a popular hangout. He starts resenting Violet's success, and when she is offered an extended stay at the university, the strain on their relationship reaches crisis levels.

Just because Tom and Violet's engagement stretches for five years is no excuse for the film to feel that long. Director Nicholas Stoller, working from a script he co-wrote with Segel, contrives to stretch proceedings over the two hour mark. For a relatively slight romantic comedy with the entire premise given away in the title, the bloat is galling.

But The Five-Year Engagement is a slick Judd Apatow production, and the quality shines through. Working in the film's favour is sharp humour, smart performances, lively chemistry and a cast deep in comic talent. Thanks to calibrated execution from Segel and Blunt, Tom and Violet make for a believable couple, invested in caring for each other despite the deep potholes and uncertainties in their relationship.

In support, Chris Pratt and Alison Brie get plenty of screen time and offer some big laughs as the offbeat but perfectly compatible couple building a family a warp speed as Tom and Violet procrastinate for years. And in addition to Rhys Ifans as the potentially seductive Winton, the cast also includes David Paymer, Jacki Weaver, Mindy Kaling, Kevin Hart and Dakota Johnson.

The laughs come from numerous sources. As the wedding wait drags on, grandparents quietly expire. Violet and her classmates conceive of psychology tests involving donuts, with the results spilling over into her relationship with Tom. And while he waits out Violet's graduate studies in Michigan, Tom reverts to Mountain Man mode, complete with an ill-advised attachment to a crossbow. The Five-Year Engagement does go on forever, but also enjoys pointy edges.

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Movie Review: Big Fat Liar (2002)
Sat, 05 Oct 2019 13:56:00 +0000

A breezy teen comedy about truthfulness and Hollywood's cut-throat culture, Big Fat Liar delivers easy chuckles without exceeding expectations.

14 year old Jason Shepherd (Frankie Muniz) is an expert at lying about everything. When his teacher Ms. Caldwell (Sandra Oh) catches him lying about a homework assignment, Jason has to write a 1,000 word essay in one afternoon. He writes about what he knows and calls the piece Big Fat Liar. Unfortunately, the assignment falls into the hands of evil Hollywood producer Marty Wolf (Paul Giamatti) and Jason is confined to the tedium of summer school.

A few months later Jason and his friend Kaylee (Amanda Bynes) are horrified to catch a trailer for an upcoming movie called Big Fat Liar produced by Wolf. When Jason's parents refuse to believe his idea was stolen, he convinces Kaylee to join him on a trek to Hollywood to confront Wolf. Filming is about to start with Wolf's overworked assistant Monty (Amanda Detmer) doing all the actual work, and Jason will need help from limo driver Frank (Donald Faison) and aging stuntman Vince (Lee Majors) to prove that for once he is not lying.

A reimagination of The Boy Who Cried Wolf fairytale, Big Fat Liar is family-friendly entertainment aimed at young teenagers, and easily hits its modest targets. Parts of the film unfold as a version of Home Alone set in Hollywood, Jason and Kaylee setting up a makeshift command centre in a movie props warehouse and laying a series of traps to force the uncooperative Marty into admitting his theft.

The Dan Schneider screenplay seeks character-driven jokes, and most of the laughs are derived from Jason's ability to quickly make up more elaborate lies to extract himself from the mess created by his previous lie. Director Shawn Levy keeps the mood appropriately light and delivers the film in a compact 88 minutes, with just the one musical montage.

Behind all the laughs is a basic morality tale about the importance of staying close to the truth, Jason sensing the genuine hurt of losing his dad's trust due to the never ending stream of fibs. Meanwhile Schneider mercilessly pokes away at a Hollywood culture portrayed as selfish and mean-spirited. The smarmy Wolf is on a losing streak and desperate for a hit, and stealing from a kid is the least of his worries as he attempts to curry favour with new studio boss Marcus Duncan (Russell Hornsby).

And of course in this town anything good is instigated by assistants, in this case the resourceful Monty, who has the power to disrupt the status quo should she choose to use it.

In the central roles Frankie Muniz and Amanda Bynes radiate confident charisma, and in a commendably cartoonish performance Paul Giamatti physically and mentally throws himself into the exaggerated antagonist role. Every Wolf has his day, until the kids come to play.

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Movie Review: Billy Elliot (2000)
Sat, 05 Oct 2019 03:49:00 +0000

A drama and comedy about chasing dreams amidst economic hardship, Billy Elliot sparkles with good intentions and a mischievous glint in the eye.

It's 1984, and England is in the grips of a raucous miners' strike. In the small mining town of Everington in County Durham, eleven year old Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) witnesses the struggle of his out-of-work father Jackie (Gary Lewis) and older brother Tony (Jamie Draven) as they join the daily picket line protests against replacement "scab" workers. Billy's mother is dead, and the family live in a cramped house with grandma (Jean Heywood) in a working class neighbourhood.

Billy loves to dance, and instead of boxing lessons he starts to sneak into the ballet class run by the seemingly jaded Sandra Wilkinson (Julie Walters). She spots potential in his enthusiasm, and encourages him to attend a Royal Ballet School audition in Newcastle. But when Jackie discovers what his son is up to, he demands that the ballet lessons stop, forcing Billy to either obey his father or give up on his dream.

The film that spawned the hit musical, Billy Elliot is a grounded story of hope flickering within the ashes of a community's despair. Touching on themes of old-fashioned masculinity equating men dancing ballet with homosexuality, the inter-generational divide, and nondescript towns making the difficult transition from resource extraction to a more diverse future, writer Lee Hall charts a tender coming-of-age story.

Just as the adolescent Billy is a product of his environment, the film takes deep breaths from its stark and unscrubbed mining community. Director Stephen Daldry makes the bold decision to keep the language rough and real throughout, coarse words used in every sentence by everyone all the time, including the children and women.

Equally pragmatic is Billy's dancing ability. This is a boy with a natural willingness to dance and interest in learning; he is not anywhere near a prodigy or even naturally talented. As Ms. Wilkinson advises, the Royal Ballet School auditions are in search of attitude; they can teach the rest. As such, the few dance scenes feature Jamie Bell throwing himself into dance moves more with determined resiliency than fluidity, adding to the prevailing sense of authenticity.

If the first half of the film is about the discovery of dance and confronting hardened expectations, the second half is more about fatherhood. Dad Jackie steps out of the background and into the parental role, tapping the depth of love, support and willingness to sacrifice lurking within seemingly rough and ready families just below the surface layer of grimy coal dust.

The miners' strike serves as a backdrop without intruding too far into the main story. The hardship of unemployed men is worsened as some surrender and return to work, fracturing the fraternity. In some respects Billy's discovery of dance and subsequent disobedience of his dad could not come at a worse time, but elsewhere other boys are also coming out of their shell, including best friend Michael.

As it turns out, in an environment where there is nothing left to lose, both the men and their sons discover new and commendable reservoirs of fortitude.

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Movie Review: Southpaw (2015)
Sat, 05 Oct 2019 02:48:00 +0000

A boxing drama, Southpaw piles on the genre cliches in thick layers, but features good production values and a willing cast, along with pounding ring action.

Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the undisputed and undefeated light heavyweight boxing champion. Both he and his wife and confidant Maureen (Rachel McAdams) were orphans who had nothing as children. Now they can afford a lavish lifestyle, a grand mansion and private school for their young daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). Billy does possess a quick temper and depends on Maureen to manage most of life's details.

His aggressive no-defence boxing style also means he takes severe punishments during his bouts, and his latest victory comes with significant facial injuries and a deep cut over his left eye. Maureen pleads with him to consider retiring, but his manager Jordan Mains (Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson) is eager to line up a string of high profile money-making fights. A tragedy befalls the family, and Billy loses everything. He turns to down-to-earth trainer Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker) to rebuild his life and career.

A most traditional fall-and-rise story, Southpaw almost chokes on banality. All the elements are recycled from the rich history of boxing movies, and writer Kurt Sutter surrenders early and often to every possible obvious platitude and broad emotion.

Hope's name, his hardscrabble upbringing, inability to control his temper, and contribution to his own downfall and the loss of a perfect wife and child come straight from the big book of boxing bromide. The triteness continues throughout the second half, a long road to redemption that starts with cleaning toilets and passess through learning what matters in life all the way towards a rousing shot at reclaiming past glories combined with revenge in one fatty roll.

Stuck in a swamp of the mundane, director Antoine Fuqua does have excellent talent working for him in the form of Jake Gyllenhaal and Forest Whitaker. Gyllenhaal occasionally slips into his almost comatose low-key mode, but otherwise maximizes all the available compassion within the Billy Hope character to provide the movie with a beating heart. Whitaker takes the overly familiar grizzled-trainer-in-a-derelict-gym and gives him undeserved grace and regency.

Fuqua also brings admirable and often bloody intensity to the boxing scenes. Without fully avoiding Hollywood's propensity to portray every bout as non-stop punch-fest, the training scenes do give the strategy aspects some prominence. The same concentration of energy is carried to all of life's events between the bouts, every turn in Hope's fortunes amplified to eleven.

Southpaw is as predictable as a weigh-in brawl, but carries the shine of a boxing ring under the lights.

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Movie Review: My Life Without Me (2003)
Sun, 29 Sep 2019 22:55:00 +0000

An end-of-life drama, My Life Without Me is a perceptive portrayal of a pragmatic mindset triggered by the final countdown.

In Vancouver, 23 year old Ann (Sarah Polley) works as an overnight janitor, is married to her high school sweetheart and swimming pool builder Don (Scott Speedman), and is the mother of two young daughters. Her family is poor but happy living in a cramped mobile home parked in her mother's backyard (mom is played by Deborah Harry, of Blondie fame). Ann receives a shocking diagnosis of terminal cancer: she has at most three months to live. She decides to not tell anyone, and makes a list of things to accomplish in her remaining time.

This includes speaking her mind at all times, having an affair, finding a replacement wife and mother for Don and the girls, and recording birthday messages for both daughters until they reach the age of 18. At the laundromat she meets lonely land surveyor Lee (Mark Ruffalo) and they start to fall in love, while she tests her co-worker Laurie (Amanda Plummer) and a new neighbour also called Ann (Leonor Watling) as potential replacements for herself.

When life's finish line appears surprisingly early and is suddenly within touching distance, what are the remaining priorities? My Life Without Me tackles this question with a steely, matter-of-fact determination but is nevertheless drenched in tears of emotion and loss. An adaptation of the book Pretending the Bed Is a Raft by Nanci Kincaid, the film is written and directed by Isabel Coixet, and unashamedly breaks most conventions.

This is not a typical story of heroic treatments, hospital visits, forgiveness, redemption and a family rallying around a tragedy. By keeping her imminent demise a secret, Ann steps outside her routine while everyone else carries on unperturbed, allowing two intertwined narratives to unfurl in tandem.

The working class family continues to deal with the mundane tasks of making ends meet, looking after the kids, and tolerating Ann's mom's idiosyncrasies. On her own Ann is simultaneously working through her bucket list, making sure she is expressing her love and thoughts, being a present wife, mother, and daughter, and stealing private moments to record greetings for birthdays she will never attend. She also audaciously plots to find a woman who can fill the void her death will create, and ponders the wisdom of visiting her imprisoned and estranged dad (an uncredited Alfred Molina).

And most of all, as a woman who settled down with her one and only man upon becoming pregnant at 17, she pines to experience another love, and her bittersweet potential romance with Lee is full of short-term promise. Ann's honest selfishness in seeking an affair to feel alive is a stark humanization of a compelling character, and Sarah Polley redefines independent and lonely courage in a poignant performance.

Coixet does overelaborate a few scenes featuring the young daughters Penny and Patsy, and is guilty of always looking for new sources of tears. But overall, My Life Without Me looks death in the eye, and crafts refreshingly new terms of engagement.

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Movie Review: The Jackal (1997)
Sat, 28 Sep 2019 18:05:00 +0000

An assassination thriller, The Jackal features big star names in all the wrong roles and a plot filled with mammoth holes.

In Moscow, a joint operation between internal security services MVD and the FBI results in the death of a notorious mobster. In Helsinki, the dead man's brother Terek (David Hayman) promises revenge and hires an assassin known only as The Jackal (Bruce Willis) to kill a high profile American target. The FBI's Deputy Director Carter Preston (Sidney Poitier) and MVD's Major Valentina Koslova (Diane Venora) get wind of the contract and turn to imprisoned former IRA terrorist Declan Mulqueen (Richard Gere) for help.

Mulqueen and his former girlfriend, ex-Basque militant Isabella Zancona (Mathilda May), have a history with The Jackal, and Mulqueen joins Preston and Koslova on the manhunt from Europe to Canada and into the United States. Meanwhile The Jackal procures a high powered weapon and uses numerous fake identities and forged documents to carefully plan his audacious assassination.

A wholly unnecessary re-imagining of 1973's The Day Of The Jackal, the 1997 version manages to make everything much worse. Bruce Willis is stripped of his charisma and is utterly boring as a cold-blooded killer. It does not seem possible but Richard Gere fares even worse, saddled with an Irish accent and never coming close to convincing as an ex-IRA killer. And at seventy years old Sidney Poitier does his best, but loses the battle to engage as a senior FBI agent huffing and puffing across the globe.

Despite the casting horror show The Jackal may have been salvageable with a decent script, but the story of a barely-defined mobster seeking revenge by targeting an unspecified target loses all momentum early. The character of Terek as chief instigator carries promising menace but disappears entirely from the film, and the Chuck Pfarrer screenplay makes the wrong call by investing absolutely nothing in the intended assassination victim. Any potential for tension or mounting danger is lost, and the film disintegrates into a series of disjointed, routine and often irrelevant set-pieces.

Of course Mulqueen, a convict and ex-terrorist, is given full access to the inner sanctums of the FBI and becomes chief investigator, primary clue-finder and next-step deducer, the rest of the bumbling FBI team either following his instructions or actively compromising the investigation. Director Michael-Caton Jones does manage to deliver a few half-decent action scenes, but The Jackal falls through holes of its own making and shoots itself in the foot for added impact.

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Movie Review: See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989)
Sat, 28 Sep 2019 16:32:00 +0000

The third big screen teaming of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, See No Evil, Hear No Evil is a mostly dull on-the-run crime comedy.

In New York City, Dave Lyons (Wilder) is deaf but can read lips and runs a newsstand. Wally Carew (Pryor) is blind and secures a job as Dave's assistant. Both of them refuse to allow their disabilities to slow them down. One morning assassin Eve (Joan Severance) kills a target at the newsstand as she pursues a precious coin with her partner Kirgo (Kevin Spacey). Wally smells Eve's perfume but does not see anything, Dave sees Eve's legs but does not hear anything. Wally inadvertently ends up with the coin in his pocket.

With no witnesses to the murder police Captain Braddock (Alan North) arrests Dave and Wally, but they escape and go on a wild trip to clear their name, a journey leading to the estate of master criminal Sutherland (Anthony Zerbe).

Using disabilities as crutches for comedy is suspect enough, but See No Evil, Hear No Evil also suffers from a limp script and bland execution. Five screenwriters (including Wilder) somehow contrive to create a non-story solely dependent on a couple of set-pieces, and director Arthur Hiller is unable to enliven the material.

Two scenes actually work and salvage some laughs. In the first Dave and Wally team up to engage in a comic fist fight against a boorish opponent. Wally fancies himself a boxer and Dave steers him and provides on-the-fly targeting advice. The second and only other highlight features a long and rowdy car chase, the blind Wally steering at high speed while Dave in handcuffs issues frantic instructions from the passenger seat.

Wilder and Pryor are both surprisingly lacklustre, both stars appearing distracted. Dave and Wally's insistence on marching on with life and mostly ignoring their disabilities is admirable, although in the few moments of reflection the film appears unsure whether to celebrate or criticize their stubbornness. Not that is matters; See No Evil, Hear No Evil is frivolous comedy, best left unseen and unheard.

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Movie Review: Talk Radio (1988)
Fri, 27 Sep 2019 13:00:00 +0000

A drama set in a world crawling with society's worst tendencies, Talk Radio lifts the lid on the intersection of flippant celebrity and human degradation.

In Dallas, Barry Champlain (Eric Bogosian) is an acerbic and popular late night talk radio show host. His call-in guests are a mix of weirdos, fanatics, right-wing nutcases and spaced-out addicts. Barry insults them all, and receives his share of abuse and death threats in return. His producer and girlfriend Laura (Leslie Hope) bears the brunt of his narcissism, along with call screener Stu (John C. McGinley). Radio station head Dan (Alec Baldwin) is excited the show may be expanded into national syndication, and media boss Dietz (John Pankow) arrives to finalize the deal.

Barry insists he will not compromise his coarse style to suit a broader audience and calls on his ex-wife Ellen (Ellen Greene) to join him for moral support. In flashback, the story of  his breakthrough from selling men's suits into the world of radio celebrity is revealed. Ellen's arrival triggers Barry's insecurities as he awakens to what he has lost on the way to stardom. With the syndication deal on the line, he goes on the air questioning all that he stands for.

A hard-hitting descent into the carnage caused by commercializing derangement, Talk Radio is a grim journey to hopelessness. An adaptation of Bogosian's play as well as the book Talked to Death: The Life and Murder of Alan Berg by Stephen Singular, director Oliver Stone delves into the grimy corners of a broken society where the filth oozes out on nighttime radio. And this being America, the twin promises of notoriety and profit attract exploiters, and men like Barry, Dan and Dietz don't care what they are selling as long as it sells.

The film is mostly set in the studio as Barry handles the incoming calls, his talent revealed to be a quick thinking ability to exploit every caller into a micro-shock moment, forgotten as soon as the next caller is on the air. His aura is irresistible for the same reasons accidents attract crowds, and most of his audience cannot articulate why they tune in.

Despite the limited set variety Stone injects large doses of dynamism by playing with lights, shadows and close-ups, keeping the cameras moving, and drawing on Bogosian's energy. Dan, Dietz, Stu, Laura and Ellen are a ready-made in-studio audience, their behind-the-glass background observations and reactions to Barry's highs and lows amplifying each outrageous phone call.

Poking the insomniacs, the depressed and the demented carries obvious risks, and Barry as a successful, influential and outspoken Jew attracts more than his fair share of intimidating hate callers hurling abuse or outright threatening his demise. Every package received in the mail is a potential threat, the dance with death a macabre escalation of the show's appeal.

Barry works his way to understanding that never mind the threats, his soul may already be dead, the extraction of sewer gases consuming his very essence. To achieve success, his Talk Radio is not so much a spotlight on filth, but a personal mirror.

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Movie Review: Bear Island (1979)
Wed, 25 Sep 2019 12:46:00 +0000

A basic thriller, Bear Island offers a good cast and plenty of stunts, but the rather senseless plot is beyond salvation.

American academic Frank Lansing (Donald Sutherland) joins a group of international scientists researching climate change on the remote and icy Bear Island, located between Norway and the Arctic Circle in the Barents Sea. The expedition leader is German Otto Geran (Richard Widmark), and the other scientists include Norway's Heddi Lindquist (Vanessa Redgrave), Poland's Lechinski (Christopher Lee), American Smithy (Lloyd Bridges) and Canada's Judith Rubin (Barbara Parkins).

Bear Island was a Nazi naval base bombed heavily towards the end of the World War Two, and Lansing reveals he is the son of a German U-Boat commander. Geran designates parts of the island off-limits to the other scientists. Suspicious mishaps including avalanches and explosions start to beset the expedition and it becomes quickly apparent that an evil plot is unfolding and the scientists are in grave danger.

A Canadian production directed by Don Sharp, Bear Island is a perfunctory adaptation of the Alistair MacLean's novel. The cast is talented, the stunt performers do their job well and Sharp effectively conveys the unforgiving environment of ice, snow, wind and bitter cold. But the sloppy and barely defined treasure hunt story is straight from the bottom drawer of adventure ideas and unlikely to resonate with anyone past the age of ten.

Bear Island jettisons all its intriguing climate change research subplot within the first 15 minutes. After brief introductions the scientists are reduced to unwilling participants in a frozen version of And Then There Were None, one scientist killed or seriously hurt every ten minutes or so. Once revealed, the villains are a disappointing clutch of featureless characters, while the assorted red herrings are just as bland.

The action scenes are plentiful and feature a killer avalanche, a mammoth explosion, a completely unnecessary dunk in icy waters and a high speed chase across snowy terrain using innovative motorized vehicles. Due to the lack of engaging content elsewhere, Sharp prolongs these scenes well past what is necessary, and as a result the stunt performers appear to get more screen time than the cast members.

Bear Island is cluttered with hidden history and secret agendas, all of them best kept frozen.

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Movie Review: The F Word (2013)
Mon, 23 Sep 2019 13:40:00 +0000

A romantic comedy about the pitfalls of friendship evolving into love, The F Word (here the F is for Friends; the film is also known as What If? to sidestep the sly original title) features good laughs, amiable performances and sparking chemistry but not much originality.

In Toronto, technical manual writer Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) is finally over his previous failed relationship. At a party he meets animation artist Chantry (Zoe Kazan), the cousin of his best friend Allan (Adam Driver). Wallace and Chantry hit it off, but agree to be just friends because she is already in a long-term committed relationship with boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall), a United Nations policy negotiator.

Allan enters into a new relationship with Nicole (Mackenzie Davis), while Chantry's sister Dalia (Megan Park) tries to seduce Wallace. Ben relocates to Ireland for a six month assignment, clearing the way for Wallace and Chantry to develop a stronger bond. But transforming a deep friendship into a romance will not be easy for either of them.

The age old question of whether men and women can ever be just friends gets another treatment, and in the hands of director Michael Dowse and a game cast, the potholes along the well-intentioned road of friendship provide ample opportunities for humour. A Canadian-Irish co-production, The F Word offers a satisfying clutch of idiosyncratic characters navigating careers and love lives, and while the ultimate destination is as predictable as the genre demands, the journey is never less than pleasantly breezy.

The conundrum of an emerging attraction with one partner already pre-committed powers the film. Ben is a rising star in his chosen career field and offers plenty of attractive stability, but he may already be taking the relationship with Chantry for granted, creating the emotional encouragement for her and Wallace to take every tentative next step.

Plenty of joy is derived from the instant chemistry between Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan, and both actors easily embrace their roles as slightly insecure but nevertheless willing partners in the quest for companionship. But while the script is mostly sharp and enjoys some genuinely funny exclamation points, passages of dialogue are obviously improvised, and these tend to be weak, often defaulting to unfunny and gross non-jokes about body functions. Also disappointing is the oh-so-predictable tiff Wallace and Chantry are forced to suffer through before finally sorting out their relationship.

Romantic comedies can receive big boosts from well-written supporting characters, and here a torrent of relationship cheerleading and jeering is added from the energetic sidelines. Chantry's cousin and Wallace's best friend Allan and his new girlfriend Nicole are interested observers when they are not sexually devouring each other; Chantry's sister Dalia is recovering from her own break-up and targeting Wallace as the perfect rebound; and Wallace's sister Tabby (Meghan Heffern), a single mom, leans on him for informative babysitting sessions.

The friendship prospects both jump to life and are threatened with evolution from the very first meeting between Wallace and Chantry. The F Word confirms the obvious, but with bittersweet congeniality.

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Movie Review: The Alamo (1960)
Sun, 22 Sep 2019 18:44:00 +0000

A cinematic recounting of the famous battle, The Alamo is a well-staged but bloated western. Historical events are used as a faint foundation for mainly fictional heroics.

It's 1836 in a Texas conceivably controlled by Mexico, with the army of General Santa Anna sweeping through the countryside to consolidate his rule. Ramshackle pro-independent Texas forces are militarily disorganized but united in opposition to Santa Anna. General Sam Houston (Richard Boone) is the leader of the fledgling Texas Army and to gain precious time to recruit and train troops, he appoints Colonel Travis (Laurence Harvey) to make a stand at the abandoned Alamo mission compound.

Travis has only a few dozen men under his command, and a strained relationship with fellow Colonel Jim Bowie (Richard Widmark), an adventurer who commands his own small contingent. The two men can barely stand each other but join forces to cobble together a defensive plan. They are eventually joined by former Tennessee congressman and legendary maverick Colonel Davy Crockett (John Wayne), who adds his band of two dozen men into the ranks. Altogether about 200 men prepare to defend the Alamo against an army of more than 1,800.

A passion project for director and producer John Wayne, The Alamo is a grand western with elaborate sets, thousands of extras, mythological themes of heroism, nation building and sacrifice, and rousing battle scenes, including the climactic final assault. The film certainly does not lack ambition, but features enough misplaced bombast to also aggravate.

The film extends to close to three hours, and the fat surfaces in errant emphasis. The James Edward Grant script barely provides any context to the Texas Revolution. Instead an entire pre-siege sub-plot featuring a fledgling relationship between Crockett and Mexican widow Maria de Lopez (Linda Cristal) and her unwanted suitor drops in seemingly from another movie, and is then unceremoniously scrubbed out of the narrative. Hit-and-run raids by the mission defenders to sabotage a Mexican cannon and then steal heads of cattle are fictional enhancements and serve as juvenile distractions to introduce action and prolong the adventure.

Wayne injects a few soap-box soliloquies about freedom and his love of republics, and these land in the gap between rousing and cringe-inducing. Better are the inter-character dynamics, and here Wayne does invest welcome time is defining and building upon the tension between Travis and Bowie. Travis is a top-down by-the-book authoritarian, Bowie is an instinctive freewheeling and adventurous leader. They cannot reconcile their contradictory styles but both are effective, and the best moments of the film are drawn from the evolution of the barbed dynamic between them.

The cast is large, although not many secondary characters are provided an opportunity to shine. Heartthrob singer Frankie Avalon appears as a young soldier to attract the teenage demographic to the theatres. Chill Wills as a Tennessean known as Beekeeper, Ken Curtis as the loyal Captain Dickinson and Joan O'Brien as his resolute wife Sue get a few perfunctory scenes.

The Alamo ends with the Mexican army deploying overwhelming force in a final push to dislodge the dogged defenders. The combat is suitably spirited, bustling, daring and a bit bloody, another case where the western legend is perhaps more important than the more mundane facts.

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Movie Review: Moving Violation (1976)
Fri, 20 Sep 2019 03:48:00 +0000

A basic car chase action film, Moving Violation lives down to elemental expectations.

Laidback Detroit autoworker Eddie (Stephen McHattie) is hitchhiking through the south and wanders into the small town of Rockfield, where he quickly tangles with redneck Sheriff Rankin (Lonny Chapman). Eddie meets local ice cream parlour girl Cam (Kay Lenz), and together they witness the corrupt Rankin shooting dead his deputy on the estate grounds of oil tycoon Mr. Rockfield (Will Geer), whose family built the town.

Eddie and Cam realize they are in deep trouble and speed off in their van, with Rankin labelling them police-murdering terrorist fugitives. Wild chases ensue with multiple police cars joining the pursuit. The befuddled Eddie and Cam eventually seek the help of lawyer Alex Warren (Eddie Albert), but clearing their names will not be easy.

Produced by low-budget master Roger Corman and his wife Julie but backed by some studio money from 20th Century Fox, Moving Violation is 90 minutes of car chases and stunts interrupted by a few awkward scenes of attempted acting. The film looks reasonably slick and meets all expectations of B-movie drive-in level "beware the hick South" themed entertainment from the era, including horrid acting, childish dialogue and cartoonish villainous characters.

The chase scenes are often comically sped up except when director Charles S. Dubin introduces slow motion shots to better highlight the key stunts, and most of the fast motoring unfolds to hillbilly banjo music and plenty of repetitive tame cussing. The drive for humour occasionally collides with Sheriff Rankin's uncompromisingly evil stance and moments of abrupt shotgun violence.

Stephen McHattie and Kay Lenz often look embarrassed, confined to grim-faced close-up reaction shots while holding onto steering wheels with no actual lines to say. Moving Violation barrels down the highway seeking every possible crash opportunity, a mind numbing but efficient demonstration of scrap metal production.

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Movie Review: The Hindenburg (1975)
Wed, 18 Sep 2019 04:07:00 +0000

A disaster drama, The Hindenburg offers a few impressive visuals but is an otherwise a turgid exercise in waiting for the inevitable to happen.

It's May 1937, and Colonel Franz Ritter (George C. Scott) is recruited by German officials to be the head of security for the airship Hindenburg. One of the symbols of pride for the ruling Nazi party, the Hindenburg is about to embark on the travel season's first journey across the Atlantic from Germany to the United States. A woman from Milwaukee has written a letter predicting the destruction of the vessel, and Ritter, who is still recovering from the death of his son, is asked to keep an eye on the passengers and deal with any possible sabotage threats.

After rigorous security checks the journey proceeds with Captain Pruss (Charles Durning) in command. The passengers include Ritter's acquaintance The Countess Ursula (Anne Bancroft), whose property has been seized by the Nazis, as well as an assortment of businessmen, tourists, entertainers, charlatans, crewmembers, government types and possible spies. Ritter and Gestapo officer Vogel (Roy Thinnes) try to keep tabs on all possible suspects, and eventually Ritter determines that crew member Boerth (William Atherton) may be the saboteur.

With the tragic ending of the Hindenburg rendered as one of history's most well-known disasters by the presence of multiple television cameras, any and all cinematic drama would have to be generated by character-generated stories. Unfortunately director Robert Wise and a trio of writers adapting the 1972 Michael M. Mooney book fail miserably in creating anyone or anything to care about. Despite some beautiful scenic shots of the Hindenburg majestically floating across the sky, Wise's attempts to enliven the journey across the Atlantic fly into severe headwinds. One contrived mid-flight emergency repair job is far from enough to maintain interest, and the film is a listless affair, singularly lacking in personality, meaningful events or any compelling interpersonal drama.

The sabotage plot is one of the more far-fetched and unsubstantiated theories as to why the Hindenburg exploded during the docking process at New Jersey's Lakehurst Naval Air Station. Setting aside the fact or fiction debate, the movie manages to reduce the entire evil plot to one tiny bomb and one nondescript crew member, and adds layers of convoluted implausibility by meandering its way to portraying Ritter as the clumsiest of plot enablers.

George C. Scott affixes a single stern expression throughout the film, his Ritter caught between heroism and incompetence, while Anne Bancroft overacts her way through the role of the Countess. The rest of the cast members are a bland assortment of character actors (among them Gig Young, Burgess Meredith, Richard Dysart, René Auberjonois and Peter Donat) playing distinctly forgettable and interchangeable travelers.

The Hindenburg starts with fake but effective black and white newsreel footage summarizing the history of hydrogen powered airships, and switches back to black and white for the dramatically calamitous climax, juxtaposing real and recreated footage of the crash. Regrettably, all the coloured bits in-between also represent their own special brand of disaster.

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Movie Review: The Medusa Touch (1978)
Tue, 17 Sep 2019 13:01:00 +0000

A supernatural psychological disaster horror film, The Medusa Touch delves into the human capacity to cause harm through the story of a brain refusing to die.

In London, author John Morlar (Richard Burton) is bludgeoned nearly to death in his apartment while watching live television coverage of a space mission to the moon going wrong. Confined to a hospital bed in a deep coma, his brain remarkably shows continued activity. With London recovering from the shock of a jumbo jet crashing into a highrise causing hundreds of casualties, French police detective Brunel (Lino Ventura), part of an exchange program, starts to investigate the assault and connects with psychologist Dr. Zonfeld (Lee Remick).

Zonfeld had been treating Morlar for years, as he believed himself responsible for multiple deaths through sheer willpower dating back to his childhood. Flashbacks reveal incidents involving his nurse, parents, and schoolmaster. As an adult Morlar practiced as a lawyer and was convinced his mental rage caused harm to a judge and a neighbour. With no shortage of potential suspects seeking revenge, Brunel realizes that as long as Morlar's brain is still active, worse is to come.

An interesting hybrid tapping into multiple 1970s film trends including The Omen-style horror and large scale disaster epics, The Medusa Touch does not quite fit into any one category but nevertheless carries its own impact. The John Briley script adapts the 1973 Peter Van Greenaway book with clarity, allowing director Jack Gold to elegantly balance events between Brunel's investigation and Morlar's troubled past, all set against the context of catastrophes still smoldering and about to occur.

Scenes of brooding, supernatural death build up to satisfying punctuation marks, and intermingle with light psychology, telekinesis and a theme of helplessness and self-doubt. And in the final act the film works its way to a larger scale altogether, the mayhem expanding from personal to brutal.

As a British / French co-production the main detective was rather clumsily changed to a Frenchman, but Lino Ventura takes the role and runs with it, bringing a welcome air of frumpled French pragmatism to the otherwise prim and proper English surroundings. Richard Burton sits in his gloomy comfort zone as John Morlar, Gold deploying plenty of extreme close-up shots of the actor's eyes but thankfully reining in his more bombastic tendencies. Lee Remick is adequate but cold, while the supporting cast includes Harry Andrews, Gordon Jackson and Alan Badel.

The film features decent special effects as detective Brunel's dogged delving into the past reveals the carnage left behind by Morlar's brain willing bad things to happen. A runaway car hurtles down a hill all on its own, a fire burns through a large school, and later on, the death and destruction expand to a larger scale, some of it difficult to watch from the more modern perspective tainted by global terrorism.

Which only serves to highlight The Medusa Touch's main theme. Morlar's remarkable story is a metaphor for the capacity to imagine and then act upon the worst possible outcomes through the red mist of rage, a fatalistic stance on humanity's ability to ever evolve past solving conflicts by violent means. One man may die, but the deep-seated readiness to cause death and destruction lives on.

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Movie Review: McQ (1974)
Mon, 16 Sep 2019 03:06:00 +0000

A crime action movie, McQ attempts to contribute to the genre's increasing grittiness but achieves only modest success.

In Seattle, two beat cops are shot dead by police detective Stan Boyle, who is then himself gunned down by a mysterious assailant. Stan's long term partner Detective Lon "McQ" McHugh (John Wayne) chases away a thief breaking into his green Pontiac Firebird, then returns fire and kills a hitman. McQ connects with Stan's wife Lois (Diana Muldaur) and starts to investigate the murders, convinced that local drug lord Santiago (Al Lettieri) must be behind the killings.

McQ resigns from the police force when he runs afoul of Captain Kosterman (Eddie Albert), although detective Toms (Clu Gulager) tries to mediate. McQ partners with private investigator "Pinky" Farrell (David Huddleston) and shakes down informants Rosey (Roger E. Mosley) and Myra (Colleen Dewhurst) for information. He learns Santiago has assembled a small army of henchmen to steal a shipment of seized drugs from under the noses of the police, but not everything is at it seems.

With Bullitt (1968), Dirty Harry and The French Connection (both 1971) redefining what a star-driven police action film looks and sounds like, director John Sturges and John Wayne trade in horses for cars and attempt to join the fun. With a brass-heavy Elmer Bernstein music score, impressive weaponry, and no shortage of roaring American muscle cars chasing each other across Seattle, McQ is not a bad effort, but it lacks verve and originality.

After a solid opening featuring multiple murders and an intriguing set-up, the film settles down to long stretches of mundane, television-level tedium, the flabby script by Lawrence Roman lacking a cutting edge and unable to capitalize on the early momentum. Sturges does not contribute any notable directorial touches, and at 67 years old Wayne is well past convincing as a police detective.

The title character is also too faithful to Wayne's stand-up persona to be effective in the new reality of cops pushing boundaries and encountering walls of conspiracy. Sure McQ throws a few illegal punches and slams his badge on the table in disgust, but there is never any question which side of the line he is on, where he stands in the conflict between good and bad, and therefore which side will prevail.

But not all is lost. The story of police corruption and double-cross is actually decent, and in the final third the film finally latches on to its purpose as the action kicks out of second gear towards an acceptable if ultimately safe climax. In sharper hands and with more of the plot holes filled, McQ could have been elevated beyond merely average.

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Movie Review: To Live And Die In L.A. (1985)
Sun, 15 Sep 2019 17:28:00 +0000

A police investigation action thriller, To Live And Die In L.A. takes a conventional story and twists it into a compelling dark journey into the soul's abyss.

Secret Agents Richard Chance (William Petersen) and Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene) foil a terrorist attack in Washington D.C. The duo are reassigned to Los Angeles where Hart is gunned down days away from retirement while investigating the elaborate money counterfeiting operation run by Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe). Chance tells his new partner John Vukovich (John Pankow) he will stop at nothing to bring down Masters.

Chance controls the life of parolee informer Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel) with sex and money, and she leads him to crooked lawyer Max Waxman (Christopher Allport), a buyer of fake currency. His death yields a notebook with more details about the counterfeiting business. The agents arrest Masters' courier Carl Cody (John Turturro) and connect with his disillusioned lawyer Bob Grimes (Dean Stockwell). When Chance and Vukovich impersonate potential clients but are stymied by a lack of money to catch Masters in the act, Chance turns to methods well outside the rule book to pursue the investigation.

Director William Friedkin chose the novel by former secret agent Gerald Petievich for his return to form. Working with a limited budget and with a cast of relative unknowns, he crafts a nihilistic police thriller intent on breaking conventions and subverting expectations. To Live And Die In L.A. amplifies The French Connection themes of rampant corruption and the lost battle against crime. But this time Secret Agent Chance is more honest about his willingness to operate all the way outside the lines, resulting in a brilliantly disconcerting narrative running on unstable energy fragments.

Chance is an unforgettable and unsettling character. A cocky risk-taking thrill seeker, he believes in his own indestructibility, his version of justice, and fierce loyalty to the memory of his murdered partner Hart. He callously takes advantage of informant Ruth, using her for sex and information while threatening her with a return to prison. And when it's time to close in on his prime target Masters, Chance circumvents the bureaucracy by launching a rogue mission to secure the funds he needs, placing in jeopardy everyone he should care about but providing him with the ultimate thrill ride.

And Friedkin translates Chance's thrill into a seminal car chase scene, at least equalling the heart-stopping action of The French Connection and here featuring a sojourn through the iconic LA river then an astounding and incredibly staged high speed crash-filled manic race traveling the wrong way against freeway traffic.

In addition to bursts of violence and some effective gore, Friedkin infuses the movie with an undercurrent of unconstrained sexuality, both the predator Chance and the prey Masters stripped bare in several scenes and coldly engaging in emotionless sex as confirmation of their mirrored explicit personalities and rotting cores.

Other highlights include an elaborate and seemingly authentic recreation of the counterfeiting process, a vivid visual style inspired by television's Miami Vice, and a singular music soundtrack featuring English new wave band Wang Chung.

Petersen was plucked from the Chicago theatre circuit and his obscurity works in his favour. With no screen persona to adhere to, Petersen has a blank canvass to create Chance upon, and he succeeds in combining edgy cool with barely concealed combustible emotional tension. In one of his earliest prominent roles Willem Dafoe provides an aura of violent arrogance as Masters.

A gripping disruption of the familiar, To Live And Die In L.A. creates its own exhilarating set of rules and consequences.

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Movie Review: Push (2009)
Sat, 14 Sep 2019 14:33:00 +0000

A science fiction superhero thriller, Push crashes into an incomprehensible plot and burns on the fuel of witless character definition.

Various people who have enhanced psychic abilities are hunted down by an evil government group called The Division, made up of baddies who also have psychic powers. Nick (Chris Evans) a "Mover" who can manipulate objects with his thoughts, is hiding out in Hong Kong having been hunted all his life by Agent Carver (Djimon Hounsou). Now Nick is approached by young Cassie (Dakota Fanning), a "Watcher" who can see and draw snippets of the future.

Cassie needs Nick' help to locate Kira (Camilla Belle), a Pusher who escaped the Division after proving resilient to the strongest experimental injection. Kira and Nick have a history, but now she in possession of a case with mysterious contents that can bring down the Division and save Cassie's captive mother. In addition to Carver and his goons, a Chinese family featuring the intimidating Pop Girl (Xiao Lu Li) and men who can scream their enemies to death is also chasing the action.

Pushers, Watchers, Movers, Sniffers, Shifters, Wipers, Bleeders, Stitchers, Shadows...whatever. It takes no longer than 10 minutes for Push to collapse in a heap of nonsense overload, writer David Bourla and director Paul McGuigan clueless as to how to assemble a coherent story out of assorted hokum. Some of the visuals are impressive, but the film's style and good use of Hong Kong locations don't come close to saving the inept story.

Among the barely explained core elements are the reasons behind the prolonged war between two groups of psychics, the types of experiments being conducted by the Division, and why anyone is supposed to care. If weaponization is the objective, the current abilities on display by all sides, including stopping a hail of bullets with bare hands, influencing enemies to kill each other in a blink of an eye and predicting enemy movements, appear quite effective already.

Meanwhile, the film is riddled with internal inconsistencies related to how and when the psychic superpowers can be deployed. The case everyone is chasing takes pride of place as a most boring MacGuffin, and the bewildering revelation that it contains a serum already developed by the Division adds to the confusion. How or why a single syringe of a drug already in use will change the world order is a mystery abandoned for another day.

Chris Evans and Dakota Fanning are defeated by the material, while the other cast members don't even try and surrender quickly to superficial overacting. All the characters are dropped into the action with barely any background or context, with the notable exception of Cassie's mother, who is evidently central to the plot but never makes an appearance. She was doubtless being saved for the sequel, which was mercifully never pushed out.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: 17 Again (2009)
Sat, 14 Sep 2019 13:29:00 +0000

A body transformation high school comedy, 17 Again is a surprisingly breezy exploration of second chances and rediscovering priorities.

In 1989, 17 year old star high school basketball player Mike O'Donnell (Zac Efron) abandons the game of his life to be with his girlfriend Scarlet after she surprises him with news that she's pregnant. Twenty years later, Mike (Matthew Perry) is a jaded and depressed salesman, emotionally ignoring Scarlet (Leslie Mann) and their two teenagers Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg) and Alex (Sterling Knight). After they separate and Scarlet initiates divorce proceedings, Mike encounters a mysterious spirit guide and finds himself back in his 17 year old body.

Mike re-enrolls in high school with his nerdy and wealthy best friend Ned Gold (Thomas Lennon) helping out by pretending to be his dad. Now in his kids' environment, Mike learns Maggie is being pressured into having sex by school bully Stan (Hunter Parrish), while Alex is the victim of bullying and hesitant to express his basketball skills. Meanwhile Ned sets his eyes on wooing Principal Jane Masterson (Melora Hardin), who has a policy against dating parents. Mike has to try to be a father and reclaim Scarlet's love, all while navigating the hazards of high school.

Perfectly paced at 105 minutes and riding on the energy of a willing cast, 17 Again deftly combines a middle age crisis with a wacky second shot at rebooting a stalled life in an often edgy package. The film is as restless as a high school cafeteria at lunch hour, bustling with multiple intersecting stories of parents, offspring, schoolmates and one dorky but unimaginably rich and randy friend.

The film wisely does not dwell on Mike's shock at finding himself in a teenaged body, and avoids the tired body fluid jokes. Instead writer Jason Filardi and director Burr Steers find good laughs in high-risk areas, where a dad now has to witness at close quarters the burgeoning sexuality of his daughter while fending off the aggressive advances of her classmates, and a middle-aged husband who looks like a 17 year old has to romance his skeptical wife.

17 Again refreshingly does not immediately telegraph where it wants to go, and Mike is left without instructions on how to reassemble his life. His high school redux could be about seizing the opportunity to become a basketball star, understanding the pressures faced by his kids, learning what it means to be a parent, or making amends to his wife, but succeeding at anything will not be easy with the mind of a jaded adult and the body of a hunky teen.

The film rides on Zac Efron's shoulders and he delivers a winning performance, channeling with some devious cunning the spirit of a frustrated middle aged man solving his destiny puzzle. Efron handles a couple of soapbox scenes with aplomb. Leslie Mann brings her brand of laidback sarcasm to the role of Scarlet, first quite tired of her husband's defeatism them mystified by the attractive young man hovering around her.

17 Again is teen-oriented humour that refreshingly also works for adults. The body may be jumbled, but the entertainment is smooth.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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