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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Movie Review: Fifty Shades Of Grey (2015)
Sun, 03 Nov 2019 16:31:00 +0000

An erotic romantic drama, Fifty Shades Of Grey is a slight improvement on the book but is still an exceptionally poorly written bore.

Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is about to graduate from her Portland-based university. She heads to Seattle to interview young business tycoon Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for the student newspaper. Despite Ana's clumsy nervousness, the two are immediately attracted to each other. Christian initiates a few dates, but then darkly hints he is possessive and that Ana may want nothing to do with him.

He nevertheless starts showering her with gifts, then reveals he is only interested in a contract-based dominant/submissive sexual relationship whereby she would be his consenting sex slave. Ana is unsure, and takes her time reviewing and mulling over the contract while trying to understand why Christian cannot establish normal human connections. Without her committing to the contract they anyway initiate sex, and he introduces her to his playroom, filled with bondage, dominance and submission equipment.

The source material by E.L. James consisted of kitschy sex scenes stitched together with laughable prose, all originating as fan fiction. Yet the enormous commercial success of the books spawned an imperative for a film adaptation, and here writer Kelly Marcel and director Sam Taylor-Johnson sign up for unenviable task of creating a viable movie out of tawdry erotica. They fail.

With plastic dialogue and character actions extracted from delusional reveries, Fifty Shades Of Grey is a slow motion fantasy in cold colours. The film stretches for a mind-numbing 128 minutes all bathed in blue, grey and black (except, of course, for the red playroom), while what passes for sensual music floods the soundtrack.

Within this milieu Jamie Dornan cannot manage anything other than a deer-in-the-headlights performance as Christian Grey, a supposed genius gazillionaire suddenly bamboozled by a woman who refuses to sign away her sexual freedom just because he demands it. Of course almost nothing will be known about Christian, because the script requires he stays silent and mysterious about his troubled past while Ana asks him essentially the same question for about two hours. Dornan can deal with the silent part, but rather than mysterious he is just blank.

Ana fares better, and in the hands of Dakota Johnson she is the one marginally tolerable part of the viewing experience. Whether intended or not, the film carries a feminist message of Ana only acquiescing to a man's obtuse demands after conducting due diligence and then on her own terms. Johnson does what she can with the flimsy material, at least for the parts when she is not naked.

The sex scenes are far fewer than in the book, but the second half does feature a steady stream of love making sessions ranging in kinkiness from vanilla to various forms of bondage, all filmed on the mainstream side of softcore. By the time Christian graduates to whipping, Anastasia decides she has wasted enough time with a man who can only express compassion through inflicting pain. In a non-ending meekly surrendering to the inevitable, she asserts her independence but unfortunately cannot escape the all-powerful clutches of the compulsory sequel.






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Movie Review: Blackhat (2015)
Sun, 03 Nov 2019 01:05:00 +0000

A laborious techno thriller, Blackhat clicks all the wrong commands and hacks its way to a failure of entertainment.

An unknown hacker uploads malware, blowing up a Chinese nuclear reactor and manipulating the Chicago mercantile exchange to yield instant profit. The Chinese government appoints Captain Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) to collaborate with the FBI's Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) to track down and stop the hacker. Chen brings along his tech-savvy sister Chen Lien (Tang Wei), and once in the US insists that master hacker Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) be released from prison to help out.

The investigation leads to Hong Kong and ruthless Lebanese middle man Elias Kassar (Ritchie Coster), who is doing the dirty work for the techno crime lord. Hathaway and Lien fall in love as the pursuit picks up pace, with Kassar proving a deadly and resilient foe. To track the identity of the mastermind Hathaway infiltrates a National Security Agency system, instantly becoming a fugitive again but leading him to a desolate site in Malaysia and a climax in Indonesia.

Despite a potentially compelling and topical hacking premise, director Michael Mann manages to almost get everything wrong in Blackhat. At 133 minutes, this is an over-long movie devoid of interesting characters and in love with its own look, Mann returning to his worst Miami Vice tendencies of focusing on wavy hair, cool shades and colour compositions while the core of the film disintegrates all around the pretty pictures.

A lame and derivative script does not help. The central crime is familiar since Goldfinger, and is here punctuated by plot holes and asked to lean heavily on the criminal-helping-out cliche done to death in movies like The Rock and The Jackal. Once again, a subject matter expert is released from prison to help stop a crime, and once again, the convict is somehow much more proficient in all aspects of crime fighting than all the assembled law enforcement professionals.

The film suffers a stunning blow when the plot details are revealed, a really? moment that pauses to reflect on the irreversible damage to the film's credibility whereby an attack on a nuclear facility is just a test run for...flooding remote river beds to corner the tin market? Compounding matters is the cardinal sin of never introducing the antagonist as a character, the mastermind behind the dumbfounding plan to attack the trading price of a cheap metal never even given the courtesy of a decent introduction. He's just a guy with a bad haircut and worse wardrobe.

A couple of signature Mann action scenes featuring plenty of gunfire help alleviate the tedium, and Blackhat does have an attractive multicultural cast in its favour, and goes out of its way to promote US-Sino cooperation. But while Tang Wei emerges as a possibly interesting character, Chris Hemsworth sucks the charisma out of the film with a dour one-note performance, and all too often grabs Tang's arm and pulls her along in a nauseatingly old-fashioned display of faux male authority. Viola Davis is utterly wasted in an underwritten role.

A disappointing combination of boring and asinine, Blackhat deserves a dose of its own malware.






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Movie Review: A Walk In The Woods (2015)
Sat, 02 Nov 2019 15:55:00 +0000

A semi-biographical drama and buddy comedy, A Walk In The Woods uses a long hike late in life to explore past decisions with a soft touch.

Elderly travel author Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) has reached a creative dead end. With his career reduced to reissuing old books and attending the funerals of dead friends, he decides on a whim to hike the 3,500 kilometre Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Main, an arduous months-long commitment. Bill's wife Catherine (Emma Thompson) is horrified at the idea, but cannot talk him out of it. She does, however, convince him to find a hiking partner.

None of the friends and colleagues that Bill approaches are interested, but his buddy from the old days Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte) hears about the hiking plan and eagerly volunteers. Katz is a grizzled free-spirited hell-raising adventurer who has done little with his life, and is now overweight and in poor health but at least has quit drinking. The two men travel to Georgia and start the hike, which turns into an opportunity to get reacquainted and for Bill to reassess his life.

A Walk In The Woods is sharply written and funnier than it needs to be. Directed by Ken Kwapis, the adaptation of the novel by Bill Bryson adopts a low key attitude towards the sense of malaise permeating the author's life. Dramatic revelations, hug-outs and big reveals are mercifully left out of the backpacks. Instead, Bill reflects upon his life tangentially and almost apologetically, as the hike and conversations help lift the fog about his achievements as he regains the perspective easily lost within daily minutiae.

As they huff and puff across the terrain Bill and Katz trade barbs and chip away at the jumble of life's compromises. Their friendship may have melted away under the strain of decidedly different attitudes, but neither claims the higher ground. Katz remained loyal to the young and fearless version of himself, gathering memories, legendary exploits, poor health and arrest warrants along the way. Bill settled to a life of domesticity with one woman, writing popular travel books and maintaining a healthy curiosity for learning. Passing a rock formation along the trail, Bill explains the various types of rocks and how, when and why they were created. "They're just rocks", growls Katz.

Along the way Bill and Katz encounter other hikers, mostly younger, some helpful, a few irritatingly smug, others just tired. Mostly these meetings serve to remind Bill and Katz they are slow, old and unlikely to complete the trail. While Katz is happy to call it a day anytime, Bill insists he is no quitter and doggedly proclaims he will carry on, with or without companionship. And when they face potentially lethal hazards in the form of hungry wildlife, bad weather and slippery ledges, maturity jumps in front of panic to handle the risk.

The film's primary joy is derived from the buzz between Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, two veterans finding a crackling dynamic built on character contrasts. Redford allows the cragginess of his 79 years to rest easily on the surface, wisdom, patience, honesty and stubbornness now the only things that matter for Bill. Nolte at 74 gives Katz a memorably gravelly and lumbering presence, a man who can dominate any environment just as easily as he can outstay his welcome.

In addition to Emma Thompson as Bill's wife, the supporting cast also features Mary Steenburgen as lodge owner the men meet along the trail.

A Walk In The Woods brings fresh air, edgy discourse, brushes with danger, moments of spectacular scenery, and a much needed emotional reset, useful at any age.






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Movie Review: Love Happens (2009)
Sat, 02 Nov 2019 04:38:00 +0000

A superficial drama dealing with familial loss with elements of romance and light comedy, Love Happens is stuck in a vague space where dubious psychology meets inferior writing.

Burke Ryan (Aaron Eckhart) is a Ph.D. self-help guru and the author of A-Okay!, a bestseller with tips on surviving grief following the loss of a loved one. Burke's wife was killed in a car crash and his experience prompted the book. In Seattle to run a week-long workshop, he connects with his manager Lane Marshall (Dan Fogler), who is close to finalizing a lucrative multimedia marketing deal to expand Burke's brand.

During the week Burke meets hotel florist Eloise (Jennifer Aniston), who runs a local flower shop with her assistant Marty (Judy Greer). He also bumps into his father-in-law (Martin Sheen), who encourages Burke to stop lying. As Burke helps seminar attendee and former contractor Walter (John Carroll Lynch) work through the anguish of losing his son, Burke and Eloise start dating, and she starts to understand Burke himself has unresolved issues related to his wife's death.

Basing a plot on the world of self-help seminars and pop-psychology is a rickety foundation for a movie. Director Brandon Camp and his co-writer Mike Thompson appear unconcerned, and Love Happens pushes ahead with large chunks of running time dedicated to Burke Ryan leading for-profit workshops where banal truisms and trite platitudes are used to help grief-stricken relatives get on with their lives.

To make matters worse, the film is stacked from end to end with blatant product placements, none worse than a group field trip to a hardware store purportedly to help a grieving contractor reconnect with his true purpose in life. Rarely has a film been burdened with a more obviously grating embedded commercial.

Somewhere within Love Happens a romance is supposed to blossom, but Camp has difficulty bringing it to the screen. No chemistry materializes between Jennifer Aniston and Aaron Eckhart, partly due to the blankness of the Eloise character, who appears to exist for the sole process of awakening Burke to his emotional blindspot. So instead of delivering any romantic sizzle the film goes off on a ghastly tangent involving stealing a pet parrot then freeing it into the wild, which is neither funny nor profound, just dumbfounding.

For all the film's weaknesses, the worst is saved to last, a most cringy on-stage soul-baring fiasco crashing against a hackneyed plot twist telegraphed an hour earlier. Love Happens, except when it doesn't.






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Movie Review: The Hitcher (1986)
Sun, 27 Oct 2019 19:08:00 +0000

A horror road movie, The Hitcher is a chilling thriller combining suspense with gore, shock, and high revving engines.

On the wide open highways through rural west Texas, Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) is a young man delivering a car from Chicago to San Diego. During a stormy night of non-stop driving Jim battles fatigue and almost dozes off behind the wheel. He picks up a hitchhiker (Rutger Hauer) to help stay awake, and immediately regrets it. His new passenger calls himself John Ryder, and his creepiness soon escalates to threats as he darkly talks of death and brandishes a knife.

Jim kicks John out of the car and speeds away, but Ryder displays an uncanny ability to catch up by hitching rides with innocents who quickly become his murder victims. At various isolated eateries and gas stations Jim tries to call for help, but only diner worker Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh) believes his story. With Ryder adept at killing then disappearing, the police suspect Jim is behind the mounting body count, and he has to flee and find a way to clear his name and escape the mysterious killer mercilessly stalking him.

Starting with Steven Spielberg's Duel and adding large doses of more explicit horror enabled by the genre's 1980s evolution, writer Eric Red conjures up an unsettling tale of evil most persistent. The inherent danger of picking up a stranger along the side of the road creates a sturdy foundation, and The Hitcher articulates every driver's dilemma: the generosity of offering help set against the minute risk of dismemberment.

Here the hitchhiker is barely defined. His name is generic, his background nonexistent. He could be anyone or no one, a man with a death wish who thrives on killing while desperately seeking to die. Ryder also works as a metaphorical outcome for perilous human behaviour. By pushing through the fatigue limit and risking falling asleep behind the wheel instead of taking a break, Jim is foolishly dancing with death. So here comes the grim reaper invited into the car, challenging Jim to vanquish death or have his life destroyed.

The Hitcher does take a couple of prolonged detours towards 1970s redneck police chase flicks, Jim and Nash escaping numerous inept cop cars, with the predictable outcome of spectacular wrecks and highway carnage. Director Robert Harmon handles the action scenes well, but for all the kinetic energy the film works much better as a slow burning tale of Ryder leaving a bloody trail to incriminate Jim and force him to understand what must be done.

Most of the gore is hinted at rather than shown, Jim's stomach churning reactions often sufficient to convey the horror unseen by the cameras. Two scenes do stand out for shock value. The first involves a misplaced digit and the second a couple of large trucks, and both earn their place as punctuation marks in the genre's history.

The film is a visual treat, Harmon creating a desolate aesthetic of empty highways, sun-baked desert and dry shrubbery under the immense Texas sky, the only hints of civilization arriving in the form of lonely diners dotting the landscape. And of course when help does arrive in the form of local police authorities, they misunderstand the threat and are no match for the unfolding butchery.

Building on his classic tragic role in Blade Runner, Rutger Hauer again nails the misunderstood monstrous presence, here adding a layer of merciless joy in doling out agony onto others. C. Thomas Howell is adequate, and Jennifer Jason Leigh marginally underutilized.

For Jim Halsey, survival is a matter of finding a path through rapidly dwindling choices while he still has some elemental control over his fate. Since death maintains ultimate dominion, The Hitcher is both cautionary and inevitable.






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Movie Review: The Enemy Below (1957)
Sun, 27 Oct 2019 15:41:00 +0000

A tense naval warfare action movie, The Enemy Below distills World War Two to a classy battle of wits between an American destroyer and a German U-boat.

The destroyer USS Haynes is patrolling the South Atlantic under the command of Captain Murrell (Robert Mitchum). The days are long and the men are itching for action. When the radar picks up signs of an enemy vessel Murrell gives chase and catches up with a German U-boat commanded by Captain von Stolberg (Curd Jürgens) on its way to an important rendezvous.

Murrell carries a fatalistic attitude, having already faced the horrors of military loss at sea, while von Stolberg is tired of war and sceptical about the Nazi party. Both men are wily commanders, and a lethal game of cat and mouse ensues as the two vessels take turns outmanoeuvring each other. Murrell attempts to anticipate von Stolberg's every navigational turn and drops depth charges to attack the U-boat, while the German commander deploys subterfuge and courage to escape, hide and launch torpedo strikes when the opportunity arises.

A chess match at sea with lethal consequences, The Enemy Below seeks the characters behind the war and strips the conflict of its geopolitical complexity. An adaptation of the 1956 novel by Denys Rayner, a veteran of the Battle of the Atlantic, here the struggle for global supremacy between competing ideologies becomes a one on one duel between two enemy vessels that happen to come across each other in the vast and otherwise lonely ocean.

Director Dick Powell builds the film's strength on the personalities of the two commanders, and invests the time to define Murrell and von Stolberg as men of war who wish they were not. Murrell carries emotional scars of a lost ship and a lost love, but instead of withdrawing now projects a steely determination and gutsiness to challenge the limits. von Stolberg is too canny to buy into the Third Reich's fervour and carries a particular disdain for Hitler, evidenced by nonchalantly throwing his jacket to cover the word "Fuhrer" dominating the sub's interior. He also views with a mixture of bemusement and disgust a young submariner's fervour for the cause.

Both Robert Mitchum and Curd Jürgens are in fine form, displaying quiet authority and analytical leadership laced with calculated risks to earn the respect of their men. In a relatively underpowered supporting cast, the captains are surrounded by loyal officers. Theodore Bikel is Heinie, von Stolberg long-time friend on board the U-boat. Al Hedison is Lieutenant Ware, Murrell's executive officer, while Russell Collins is the USS Haynes doctor, and the captain's most trusted colleague.

The Enemy Below is set entirely at sea, and the special effects are excellent for the era. The second half of the film reaches and maintains a deliciously elevated level of tension as the two vessels close in each other and both captains realize they are up against a worthy opponent. The climax combines the close quarters showdown between hardware built for war with the humanity of men who understand that when the fighting is done, there will be a world waiting to be rebuilt.






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Movie Review: Executive Action (1973)
Sat, 26 Oct 2019 14:38:00 +0000

A conspiracy drama, Executive Action offers an alternative plot for the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

It's early in 1963, and a group of powerful men including Robert Foster (Robert Ryan) and black ops organizer James Farrington (Burt Lancaster) are convinced the Kennedys are planning a ruinous multi-term dynasty. They ask influential industrialist Harold Ferguson (Will Geer) to support an assassination plot already under preparation. Foster predicts the President will soon seek a nuclear disarmament treaty with the USSR; support the black civil rights movements; and pull troops out of Vietnam, all actions considered damaging to the plotters' interests.

Ferguson is sceptical, but Farrington and Foster continue with the arrangements. Three-man sniper hit squads are trained to shoot at a slow moving target, and Lee Harvey Oswald, a troubled ex-Marine with a shadowy history including a stint in Moscow, is unknowingly selected and groomed as a convenient fall guy. When JFK's trip to Dallas is announced, the plotters influence the parade route to include the perfect kill zone. In the meantime Kennedy does announce the policy initiatives predicted by Foster, convincing Ferguson to throw his weight behind the plot.

Eighteen years before the much more famous JFK, the modestly budgeted and independently produced Executive Action pitched a fuzzy conspiracy theory as an explanation for the presidential assassination. Written by Dalton Trumbo and featuring one of Robert Ryan's final career performance, the film does not pretend to bring any new facts to the debate; this is just a hypothesis, cobbling together a vague cause and possible methodology.

Director David Miller mixes documentary footage from Kennedy's final few months with the fictional narrative of Foster and Farrington spearheading operational readiness and Ferguson gradually gaining conviction that Kennedy needs to be eliminated. The shooting in Dealey Plaza is recreated as a triangulated kill zone with multiple trained snipers firing at the President in his motorcade.

Other than as a curiosity, not much of Executive Action gains traction. Despite the presence of stars Burt Lancaster, Ryan and Will Geer, the conspirators are barely introduced and remain plastic puppet masters devoid of background and context. Too much time is invested in the efforts to entrap Oswald as a fall guy, and no theory is suggested to explain how a well funded plot involving seemingly limitless resources and dozens of operatives (including Ed Lauter as a grim-faced kill squad team leader) could be kept secret. The evildoers openly and confidently discuss their plans, leaving the impression JFK himself was the only man not to know he was about to be a target.

And the final third of the film loses all narrative momentum. After the shooting the lead conspirators are relegated to standing around and watching television like the rest of the country, as Oswald is arrested then killed by Jack Ruby, here introduced in a botched hurry. Executive Action becomes a rerun of well-known events stitched together with little added value, a cinematic hypothesis rejected due to truncated imagination.






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Movie Review: Niagara (1953)
Fri, 25 Oct 2019 05:10:00 +0000

A film noir featuring stunning scenery and Marilyn Monroe's first starring role, Niagara offers luscious visuals but suffers from underdeveloped characters and a crime story sidetracked by distracted execution.

Polly and Ray Cutler (Jean Peters and Max Showalter, credited as Casey Adams) head to the scenic Canadian side of Niagara Falls for a delayed honeymoon. At the motel they meet troubled couple Rose and George Loomis (Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotten). George has spent time at an army mental hospital and remains agitated. Rose is bored with her husband and has no hesitation flaunting her sexuality.

As the Cutlers enjoy the local tourist attractions they stumble upon Rose carrying on an illicit affair with the hunky Patrick (Richard Allan). Polly feels sorry for George and reaches out to offer support. Rose has a nefarious plan in mind to move on with her life, but her plot will unexpectedly unravel, leaving Polly in the middle of churning danger.

The first film to feature Marilyn Monroe as the primary star name, Niagara shamelessly showcases both the famous falls and Ms. Monroe's figure. The murder-most-foul plot does contain intriguing nuggets, including unresolved mental health and infatuation issues. But the narrative takes a back seat as director Henry Hathaway is preoccupied with finding the best angles to capture the forceful waterfalls and his force-of-nature star.

This includes celebrating her derriere and hip-swaying walk in a famous scene that lingers as Monroe sashays away from the camera. Hathaway also dresses - and undresses - his star in a series of legendary outfits, pushing 1953 cinematic boundaries and cannonballing Monroe into superstardom as the world's premier sex symbol.

Niagara's visual objectives demand vibrant exposition, and so this is a film noir bursting with colour. Hathaway plays with window blind shadows creating prison stripes and a few moments of suspense, but otherwise allows Rose's femme fatale and her evil intentions to stand alone against the rather incongruous backdrop of spectacular imagery.

With attention focused elsewhere, the real shadow falls on the wholesome characters of Polly and Ray. Supposedly the entryway into the story, they are reduced to passive observers as the plot unfolds. Ray is a dorky businessman oblivious to the evil brewing in the cabin next door, and he mainly represents the red-blooded male exhibiting helpless tongue-hanging-out lust at Monroe's sensuality. Meanwhile the attempts to insert Polly into the swirl of tension are only partially successful, and she also has to tolerate Ray's infantile attempts to overtly glamourize her once he's exposed to the Rose calibre of sexuality.

The conniving Rose and troubled George are by far the more interesting characters, but they are not provided sufficient context to harbour sympathy. The background of George's mental health troubles deserved a deeper dive than afforded in the script co-written by producer Charles Brackett.

Hathaway's best Hitchcockian sequence comes courtesy of a bell tower and a suspenseful chase up the stairs serving as a build-up to an act of sorrowful revenge followed by unexpected entrapment. Niagara is frustratingly sprinkled with moments of promise, but drenched by a near-exploitive yet star-making agenda.






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Movie Review: Sinister (2012)
Mon, 21 Oct 2019 00:37:00 +0000

A horror movie about a series of chilling unsolved family murders, Sinister extracts maximum impact from old 8mm footage of abhorrent crimes but is otherwise too reliant on standard genre clichés.

True crime author Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) has not written a successful book in years. With financial pressures mounting, he relocates his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and two young children Ashley and Trevor to a new community to research his latest book. He wants to investigate the unsolved death of four members of the Stevenson family, found hanging from their backyard tree. Their young daughter Stephanie was never located and remains missing.

Ellison does not tell Tracy they have moved into the actual Stevenson house where the hangings took place. Upon starting his research he finds a box with a Super 8mm projector and a set of labeled films. To his horror he discovers every reel depicts a different gruesome real mass murder of an entire family, dating back many years and each occurring in a different city. With daughter Ashley drawing spooky imagery on the walls and son Trevor suffering from night terrors, Ellison's life begins to unravel as he investigates the links between the murders.

Sinister fully exploits the inherent spookiness of old jittery films voyeuristically chronicling the lives and deaths of unsuspecting families. The premise is built upon an unseen murderer gleefully capturing crimes on film, and the scenes featuring the 8mm movies carry a disturbing impact and propel the core mystery, as well as providing a treasure trove of clues. Repeated exposure to the abominations infiltrate Ellison's mind and unhinge his life.

The parallels to The Shining are present but subtle, as Ellison starts to succumb to the pressure of writing and experiences difficulty differentiating reality from fantasy. Director and co-writer Scott Derrickson is more blatant about the price of chasing fame and monetary glory, Ellison seemingly driven more by greed than any noble pursuit of truth and justice for murder victims.

While the suspense level is uniformly adequate, Sinister is hampered by an ill-advised over-reliance on darkness, Derrickson allowing most scenes to languish in insufficient or misdirected light. As well, too many segments default to boring what's-that-sound investigations, Ellison skulking around in the blackness towards the next cheap jump scare. The two kids Ashley and Trevor both bring pre-packaged creepy tendencies to the table, which only serve to encourage lazy writing.

Ethan Hawke is a steady presence in the middle of the murky mayhem, never stretching but conveying ample creeping discomposure.

Sinister works its way to an ancient bloodcurdling being thriving on the destruction of families and children, the line between image and reality blurring into a continuum of horror. The film is a mixed bag of inventiveness, but the films within the film create a special whir.






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Movie Review: The Cabin In The Woods (2012)
Sun, 20 Oct 2019 19:10:00 +0000

A horror film laced with comedy and satire, The Cabin In The Woods enjoys building up and breaking down genre conventions.

A group of five college friends head off for a fun weekend at an isolated cabin deep in the woods. Curt (Chris Hemsworth) and Jules (Anna Hutchison) are a lustful couple, Dana (Kristen Connolly) is their unattached virginal but-not-a-virgin-friend, Holden (Jesse Williams) is the hunky newcomer who could be a good love match for Dana, and Marty (Fran Kranz) is the surprisingly perceptive stoner.

In parallel, Gary (Richard Jenkins) and Steve (Bradley Whitford) are two weary managers in charge of a large high-tech facility under the command of an unseen Director. Gary and Steve see and manipulate everything going on at the cabin.

After arriving, settling down and enjoying a swim, the five friends stumble into the cabin cellar. Dana finds an ancient diary and reads macabre text with Latin phrases, unleashing a family of killer zombie monsters from nearby graves. The college friends are soon under vicious attack, with Gary, Steve and their army of technicians intervening in real time to ensure the deadly carnage unfolds according to plan.

A frantic and bloody horror film riding a wave of eccentric originality, The Cabin In The Woods carves out a unique path while still saluting genre fundamentals. The adventure at the spooky cabin carries all the familiar elements of twentysomethings introduced to horrible deaths, but early on director Drew Goddard interweaves the Gary and Steve oversight command centre to make clear this is not a traditional horror narrative.

The film's middle segment is a relatively standard kill-or-be-killed zombie war zone, with the added mischievous gloss of explaining why victims-to-be always behave the way they do. Gradually the two settings come together in a story of sacrifice and international efforts to ward off humanity's end at the expense of cultural offerings.

The final act explodes into a climax that turns sharply towards blood soaked irreverent humour. Monster lovers will rejoice at where Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon gleefully steer their imaginations, and The Cabin In The Woods relocates from rustic isolation to a new and more modern battleground.

Within the twisted take on why so many teenagers die in all those horror movies, the film explores themes of free will, sin, penance, friendship, loyalty and layers of discourse on individual rights versus collective good. Dana and Marty are forced to confront uncomfortable choices, in this case heroics in pursuit of personal survival not necessarily the only satisfactory resolution to the lurking evil.

By pushing deep into uncharted terrain, The Cabin In The Woods ticks all the expected boxes and creates a few new ones.






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Movie Review: REC (2007)
Sun, 20 Oct 2019 16:02:00 +0000

A found footage zombie horror movie, REC confines the action to a small and cramped building and effectively cranks up the tension to demented levels.

In Barcelona, television reporter Angela (Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman Pablo are covering a typical evening at a firehall when they join a crew responding to an emergency call about an agitated woman. Once at the apartment building they connect with a couple of police officers and enter the woman's unit. The crazed woman violently attacks and bites the neck of one of the police officers.

With all the concerned residents now congregated in the lobby, Angela, Pablo and firefighter Manu (Ferrán Terraza) learn the building has been surrounded and quarantined by the authorities for undisclosed reasons. The night gets worse when another firefighter falls into the lobby from a great height also suffering from a bloody neck wound. As they await rescue Angela interviews the terrified and confused residents, including a mother and her young daughter battling tonsillitis. But when a health inspector enters the building in a hazmat suit, things get a lot worse.

A Spanish production, REC is a taut 78 minutes of zombie thrills captured on a television reporter's camera. After a deliberately paced opening, co-directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza risk inducing nausea due to excessive jerkiness, but effectively convey a claustrophobic environment where victims are trapped between faceless figures of authority on the outside and blood sucking maniacs roaming the halls inside.

All the action is viewed through Pablo's lens, with Angela serving as guide and narrator to a night spiralling from bland journalistic normalcy to rumblings of horror. Balagueró and Plaza cleverly maintain interest by introducing calm-before-the-storm interviews between Angela and the residents to round out the assembled victims-to-be. Once the killings start, the wobbly camera movement provides disturbing snippets of a hell unleashed.

If the middle act is a routine if effective kill fest, the climax finds another level altogether. As hope fades and more residents become victims then spring back to zombified life as assailants, the camera loses resources. The survivors are eventually forced to resort to night vision mode to try and find a way out, the field of view darker and narrower, the details of friend or foe compromised as the chilling origins of the infection mystery step into murky view.

What REC lacks in originality it makes up for in potent brevity. These neck munchers don't mess around with games, warnings or slow walking. And with the building in lockdown and nowhere to hide, the horrific action lunges straight for the jugular.

 




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Movie Review: Scream (1996)
Sat, 19 Oct 2019 23:32:00 +0000

A slasher horror comedy, Scream is a self-aware gore-fest exploiting its own genre for scares and laughs.

In the small community of Woodsboro, teenager Casey (Drew Barrymore) is harassed by a menacing phone caller with a love of horror movie trivia, and is then brutally killed along with her boyfriend Steve by an assailant wearing a ghostface mask.

Fellow high school student Sidney (Neve Campbell) is still recovering from the rape and murder of her mother a year ago and is now fending off the sexual advances of her boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich). With the school community still reeling from the murder of Casey and Steve, Sidney starts to receive threatening phone calls. Billy is initially arrested as a suspect before being cleared.

Sidney is supported by her best friend Tatum (Rose McGowan), whose brother Dewey (David Arquette) is the Deputy Sheriff. Meanwhile ambitious television reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) has her own theories about the murder of Sidney's mother, and starts hounding Sidney and her schoolmates. When the school is closed due to the proliferation of ghostface costumes, Tatum's boyfriend Stu (Matthew Lillard) throws a huge party, where the killer will again cause bloody chaos.

Mixing genuine slasher scares with sharp humour may seem an impossible task, but director Wes Craven goes back to his roots and conjures up an effective combo package. With the ghostface mask perfectly capturing a spirit of goofy evil, Scream is rarely only scary or just funny; it is often both, Craven creating a pretzel of laughs and gore. The Kevin Williamson script sets out to craft effective shocks while poking away at genre conventions (many invented by Craven), and the film crackles with the energy of twisted murders occurring in a meta milieu where the characters are active participants in celebrating quintessential horror movies.

Scream features dozens of knowing references to other slasher movies. The skillful opening scene sets the stage, the mystery caller emotionally toying with Casey but most tellingly challenging her to a horror movie trivia quiz with the prize of staying alive if she gets the answers right. Later, students supposedly traumatized by the killings converge at the horror movie section of the video store, while potential victims and suspects debate the genre rules and celebrate Jamie Lee Curtis as their scream queen heroine.

Williamson and Craven push ahead with a wild juxtaposition of horror inspired by art creating new prototypes. The teenagers watch Halloween at the climactic house party, as they themselves are being surreptitiously watched by a hidden camera planted by reporter Weathers. The kids who have sex are of course most at risk of dying, but once Sidney decides to take charge of her own narrative she starts to outthink the assailant, providing Scream with a welcome empowerment boost.

The film is packed with the madcap energy of secondary characters and side quests swirling around Sidney and her family. Her mom's death is the subject of Weathers' opportunistic upcoming book, while her dad incongruously becomes a prime suspect in the latest string of killings. Meanwhile Sidney is debating whether to have sex with Billy, a decision that suddenly carries existential consequences given that everyone knows the final girl is always virginal.

The game cast is led by the lively Neve Campbell and Rose McGowan, who both buy into the vibe and cruise through the butchery with bucketfuls of sass. David Arquette nails the insecure man unable to command respect despite his well-pressed uniform, while Skeet Ulrich adds a restless performance gripping the edge of instability. Henry Winkler is uncredited but appears in a significant role as the school principal, while Drew Barrymore finds an unlikely career highlight in her ten minutes of screen time.

The ending is over the top, the material almost running away from Craven. But by both celebrating and skewering well-loved franchises, Scream rises above the commotion.






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Movie Review: The Big Sleep (1978)
Sat, 19 Oct 2019 17:57:00 +0000

A private investigation thriller, The Big Sleep moves Raymond Chandler's novel to modern day England but fails to recreate the requisite mood of pervasive dank criminality.

In suburban London, private investigator Philip Marlowe (Robert Mitchum) is hired by the elderly and paralyzed General Sternwood (James Stewart) to investigate and stop a blackmail campaign involving his wild younger daughter Camilla (Candy Clark). Marlowe also meets older daughter Charlotte (Sarah Miles), whose husband Rusty Regan has been missing for a month. The blackmail investigation leads Marlowe to book merchant Geiger, his assistant Agnes (Joan Collins), and her partner Brody (Edward Fox).

The trio are running a small scale pornography and blackmail racket, but soon Geiger is murdered, the Sternwood chauffaur turns up dead, and Brody is also summarily killed. One common thread linking the deaths appears to be slick gangster and casino operator Eddie Mars (Oliver Reed), whose wife Mona (Diana Quick) is also missing. With chief henchman Lash Canino (Richard Boone) emerging as a ruthless intimidator, Marlowe is intrigued that everyone he meets mentions the missing Regan, but no one is especially keen to find him.

A certain amount of courage is required to remake a classic, and to relocate a quintessential late 1930s Los Angeles crime story to 1970s England. This Lew Grade production insists on wedging a sordid American tale into a manicured British context, with English director Michael Winner also writing the screenplay. The result is predictable: despite the engagingly convoluted criminality, everything seems just off.

The story is faithful to the labyinthine book, but Winner never finds the style and mordant temperament required to stitch together the blur of killings and multiple conniving characters. The events are ticked-off with mechanical proficiency but zero chemistry, the staid English settings never clicking with the material and also left unexploited. Winner almost apologetically steers clear of contaminating Chandler's caustic attitude with any prim Englishness, leaving the film stranded in a vague blend of time and space.

Given the strength of the cast, the lack of any cohesiveness between people, events and places is almost tragic. Every key role is occupied by solid talent, but the stars appear to operate in detached parallel dimensions. The temperature between Robert Mitchum's Marlowe and Sarah Miles' Charlotte remains colder than the inside of a basement freezer unit. Oliver Reed is effective as the fashionable nexus of evil Eddie Mars, but never connects at a human level with any of his victims or enemies. And Candy Clark as Camilla lands on the side of childishly insane, missing all the essential nymphomaniac and rebellious undercurrents.

Although some of the dialgue wit survives and James Stewart rolls back the years to convey a stricken tycoon's heartache, this version of The Big Sleep is an exercise in transplanting the body but ignoring the soul.






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Movie Review: Rambo (2008)
Sat, 19 Oct 2019 14:19:00 +0000

A rudimentary action flick, Rambo recycles and reuses tired elements from the glory days of overblown 1980s one-against-all combat movies.

Burma is in turmoil as the brutal regime terrorizes the population and unleashes fury and death on the Karen Christian minority. In Thailand, former special forces operative John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) lives a quiet life as a snake catcher and boat operator. A Colorado-based faith group led by Michael Burnett(Paul Schulze) and Sarah Miller (Julie Benz) request Rambo's help to travel upriver into Burma to deliver medical supplies and assistance to peaceful villagers. He reluctantly agrees.

After violently fending off pirates Rambo drops off the aid group, and having witnessed his brutal tendencies they dispense with his services. But Michael, Sarah and the rest of the aid workers are captured by the Burmese army and held hostage. Their church assembles a team of mercenaries including caustic ex-SAS operative Lewis (Graham McTavish) and sharpshooter School Boy (Matthew Marsden), and Rambo joins them on a dangerous mission to find and rescue the hostages.

A full 20 years after the previous instalment, Sylvester Stallone brings back the Rambo character for another go-around in the Asian jungles. With Stallone directing and co-writing, this is a quickie effort clocking in at under 90 minutes, and notable mostly for excessive blood and gore, even for this genre. The battle scenes seem to revel in imagery of bodies being mangled and blown apart at every opportunity, and the slaughterhouse aesthetic overpowers anything else Stallone may have had in mind.

Which is not much. The story is a standard fare rescue operation overly familiar from the days when Chuck Norris used to churn out low budget, micro intelligence derivatives. Here Stallone gets fully trapped in the White Saviour trope, all the prominent doctors, aid workers and mercenaries uniformly white and all the locals essentially indistinguishable Asians. The essentially unnamed chief villain spits out venom in his untranslated local language and may as well carry the "monster" stamp on his forehead given the complete lack of context.

Rambo's brooding presence offers the only spark of interest. With Stallone now a weathered 62 years old, his economical stares and grunts serve the character well, the hollow blankness behind his eyes the result of stoic disillusionment and a prescribed destiny of never fitting in unless actively engaged in the business of killing.

Beyond the main character are interchangeable fields of massacre saturated with the blood of faceless victims and countless enemy soldiers, Rambo unable to overcome the agony of his most resilient enemy: the useless sequel.






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Movie Review: Notorious (1946)
Mon, 14 Oct 2019 17:51:00 +0000

A romantic drama and spy adventure, Notorious is a gripping and multi-faceted thriller.

In Miami, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is a hard-drinking party girl. After her Nazi-sympathizer father is imprisoned for treason, she is recruited by government agent Devlin (Cary Grant) to infiltrate a dangerous Rio de Janeiro-based ring of former Nazis. During the journey to South America Alicia and Devlin start to fall in love, although she is conscious of her libertine reputation and he is trying to not get emotionally involved.

In Rio, Alicia reconnects with Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), a former family friend, and now a key member of the clandestine Nazi cartel. Alex always harboured a crush on her, and now she exploits his love to get into his house and start observing and reporting on his nefarious business associates. But Alex is jealous of Devlin, who in turn is conflicted between love and duty. The spy mission becomes much more complicated when Alex proposes marriage as a test of Alicia's loyalty.

Perhaps Alfred Hitchcock's most perfect film, Notorious is an exquisitely constructed romantic triangle residing within an espionage mystery. Written with devious clarity by Ben Hecht, the story offers three conflicted and sympathetic characters struggling against personal demons and larger existential forces. The romance crashes against imperatives of duty, commitment to others, and matters of personal and professional survival.

After efficiently establishing the context of Alicia as a fun-loving but conflicted woman caught between her father's legacy and patriotism, Hitchcock pours the foundation of a deeply complex love story with one of cinema most celebrated and sensual kisses. At her Rio apartment Alicia and Devlin kiss, nuzzle and nibble for approximately three minutes, with Hitchcock unapologetically getting around the Hays Code's three second rule by introducing brief interruptions that only serve to heighten the scene's elegant eroticism.

But this is not a straightforward love triangle. Devlin is unimpressed with Alicia's promiscuous tendencies and desperate to maintain focus on his assignment. Alicia is quite unsure if she deserves to be loved by a man of integrity, upset at how easily he deploys her to pretend to love another man, and conscious of how quickly she can acquiesce to pleasure with others. And Alex's love of Alicia is perhaps the most pure, blinding him to her true purpose and distracting him from the business at hand. They will circle each other with a combustible mix of passion and doubt.

Despite the fascinating romantic triangle, the spy elements are not shortchanged. With Alex's coldly villainous mother (played to perfection by Leopoldine Konstantin) lording over all her son's affairs and the Nazi co-plotters quick to reveal their ruthless streak, Hitchcock conjures up one of his classic tense sequences. A swanky party at Alex's mansion, a supply of champagne running low, a stolen wine cellar key and a broken bottle come together at exactly the wrong time, with Alicia and Devlin tantalizingly close to uncovering the heart of the Nazi conspiracy while risking both her carefully constructed cover and their troubled illicit romance.

Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains make for a dream cast filled with texture and self-doubt, all three delivering the requisite mix of delicate courtship, surrender to affection and callous focus on self preservation. Ted Tetzlaff's cinematography features sparkling use of black and white saluting many noir fundamentals, with Alex's cold mansion providing opportunities for playful use of space from imposing and grand to close-up and personal.

Notorious is a collision of multiple agendas, and a dazzling example of weary characters grappling with difficult dilemmas and deliciously dangerous outcomes.






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