Movie Review: Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy (2004)
Sun, 23 Feb 2020 19:40:00 +0000

A satire of television newsrooms in a male-dominated era, Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy features more comic misses than hits and falls victim to the culture it attempts to skewer.

It's the 1970s in San Diego, and Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) is the leading news anchorman in town. Unintelligent but possessing self-proclaimed excellent hair and therefore full of himself, he leads an entourage consisting of sportscaster "Champ" (David Koechner), field reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) and imbecilic weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell).

Their reign of toxic masculinity using the workplace as hunting grounds for women is threatened when station manager Ed (Fred Willard) hires ambitious news reporter Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) in the name of improving diversity. Ron and his buddies immediately make gauche moves to seduce and belittle Veronica intending to stop her career before it starts, but she proves a tough opponent.

Featuring plenty of improvisation and no shortage of vulgarity, Anchorman showers the screen with coarse humour. With a cast also including Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Seth Rogen in minor roles, the talent surplus is not matched by sharp wit. The comedy is often at the throw-the-dog-off-the-bridge slapstick level, compounded by plenty of outright yelling and wailing.

The ultra male shenanigans step well over the stupid border, and while a few moments of humour survive and a couple of lines land, the film remains mired in a clueless celebration of body parts and imbecility.

The counterbalance is provided by Christina Applegate's steady role as Veronica Corningstone, and she emerges as the best thing in the movie, working hard for future generations to truncate the man in Anchorman. The film is not smart enough and too invested in Burgundy to properly leverage Corningstone's strengths, but expanding her perspective would have dramatically enhanced the otherwise flimsy narrative.

The more positive notes include a delightful non-sequitur gang rumble scene and Steve Carell's deadpan interventions. Director Adam McKay does create a wonderfully ridiculous visual feast awash in loud 1970s clothes, absurd hair and the decade's sickly colours (brown and orange everywhere), although a lack of ambition prevents a meaningful extension of the aesthetic to the outdoors.

A mostly tedious exercise in attempted hilarity, Anchorman is too smug and self-satisfied with guys believing the legend in the mirror.

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Movie Review: Begin Again (2013)
Sun, 23 Feb 2020 17:38:00 +0000

A musical drama with elements of romance, Begin Again offers enough tender torment to transcend genre conventions.

In New York City, disconsolate Gretta James (Keira Knightley) reluctantly performs one of her songs at an open mic night in a dingy bar. She is spotted by down-on-his-luck ex-record company executive Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo).

In flashback, the events leading up to that night are revealed. Dan is separated from his wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) and losing touch with his teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). Drinking heavily, he is fired by his long time business partner Saul (Yasiin Bey, better known as Mos Def).

Meanwhile, Gretta had arrived in New York from England with her up-and-coming boyfriend Dave Kohl (Adam Levine of Maroon 5 fame), who is riding a wave of success after his music featured in a hit movie. Dave is quickly sucked into the celebrity whirlpool and abandons Gretta.

Now Dan promises Gretta he can help her record an album. After Saul turns them away, Dan decides to use the city as a studio, recording Gretta's songs at street level with the urban din as an integral part of the music.

Featuring original music by Gregg Alexander, Begin Again carries enough intelligent freshness to steer clear of most cliches. While the music walks a fine line between genuinely soulful and white-girl-with-a-guitar singer-songwriter banality, most of the songs land on just the right side of evocative. In her first singing role Keira Knightley does enough to convince as a tentative talent, gradually gaining confidence under Dan's tutelage but unsure where she wants her music to take her.

Multiple relationships meld together as Gretta and Dan's lives intersect, and director John Carney, who also wrote the screenplay, deserves credit for keeping personal interactions honest and unpredictable. Gretta is hurt by Dave, Dan and Miriam are surveying the wreckage of their marriage, while Dan and Violet are standing at the edge of a barely functioning father - daughter bond. Professionally Dan's long standing partnership with Saul is in tatters, and Begin Again touches upon the changing fundamentals of the music industry in the digital era.

Lazier scripts would telegraph how all the knots will be untangled, but Carney plays coy throughout, riding the energy of al fresco musical performances in streets, alleyways, subways and roofs to stitch together the various emotional rescues.

Begin Again hums an original tune, only enhanced by the pleasantly intrusive background noise.

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Movie Review: Den Of Thieves (2018)
Fri, 21 Feb 2020 14:13:00 +0000

A gritty heist movie, Den Of Thieves enjoys good moments with uncompromising characters but offers little that is new to the genre.

In Los Angeles, ex-convict Ray Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber) leads a gang of well-organized bank robbers, most of whom are ex-Marines. A hold-up of an armored truck goes wrong, resulting in a wild shootout and attracting the attention of county sheriff  "Big Nick" O'Brien (Gerard Butler) and his tough group of detectives. Nick's personal life is falling apart, which only spurs him to take more risks on the job.

Nick pressures Donnie Wilson (O'Shea Jackson Jr.), a bartender and getaway driver, into revealing group membership details, and the gang is placed under close surveillance. But Merriman vows to never again be captured, and along with his associate Levi (Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson) proceeds with planning an audacious robbery of the Federal Reserve bank, a seemingly impregnable target.

Following in the footsteps of Heat (1995), The Town (2010) and Triple 9 (2016), Den Of Thieves adopts a familiar formula. Hardened criminals with high powered weaponry, smart leadership and military training pull off brazen robberies and plan successively higher risk heists, the film connecting the dots between action scenes with the usual attempts at character depth, macho posturing and investigative procedures.

While the overall quality is adequate, writer and director Christian Gudegast creates an unnecessarily flabby 140 minute movie, awash in a sickly yellow and brown aesthetic derived from suburban blandness. The action scenes carry plenty of kinetic zing, but Gudegast stumbles trying to establish a human connection. Nick's disintegrating marriage and strained family situation is contrived to maximum yawn levels, but even worse is a single disconsonant and just bizarre scene at gang member Levi's home, as his daughter prepares for her first serious date.

Elsewhere the men on both sides of the law hiss at each other with medieval levels of decorum, Den Of Thieves emphasizing the thin line between good guys and bad guys. Big Nick is happy to at least threaten to break every rule in his quest to maintain law and order, while Merriman is a mostly honourable thief, favouring clean operations with no shots fired and no one getting hurt. But his foot soldiers carry enough armament to win most small country civil wars, just in case.

Gerard Butler perfects the frumpled slob cop routine, his unbathed stink jumping off the screen. Pablo Schreiber gives Merrimen enough thoughtful polish to create a worthwhile adversary. The rest of the predominantly male cast members sweat a lot while revealing an impressive range of body art.

The final heist is complicated beyond comprehension and Gudegast throws in a too-late twist that lands awkwardly. Den Of Thieves rides the momentum of decent content, but with mediocre artistry.

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Movie Review: Gerald's Game (2017)
Thu, 20 Feb 2020 05:10:00 +0000

A suspense and horror psychological drama, Gerald's Game explores a broken marriage and childhood trauma through a sex game gone wrong.

In Alabama, married couple Jessie and Gerald (Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood) are trying to spice up their stale marriage by spending a romantic weekend at an isolated lakehouse. On the drive to the cabin they encounter a stray dog, and upon arrival Jessie tries to feed it. Gerald is using Viagra and has brought along handcuffs to instigate a rape fantasy.

He handcuffs Jessie to the bedposts and encourages her to scream for help, with no neighbours anywhere within earshot. She quickly expresses her disapproval of the whole scenario and demands to be freed, but Gerald suffers a fatal heart attack and slumps to the floor. Jessie is unable to free herself, and the dog, smelling Gerald's body, joins her in the bedroom and starts munching on the corpse.

An adaptation of Stephen King's 1992 novel, Gerald's Game creates an irresistible premise, mixing the mounting horror of expiration by shackled abandonment with the gradual release of repressed childhood memories. Director and writer Mike Flanagan efficiently works through the introduction to get Jessie onto the bed, her hands in handcuffs, her husband dead on the floor, and a mean dog smelling fresh meat. And then the fun starts.

The bedroom becomes an active zone where Jessie's strained mind unleashes companions in the form of a cynical post-death Gerald exposing the frailties of their union and cheering on her hopelessness, countered by a strong unbound Jessie advocating ingenuity in the name of survival. Intermittently her memories take her back to a key family vacation when she was twelve. The young Jessie ended up sitting on an outdoor swing next to her father to watch a solar eclipse, and what happened next shaped the rest of her life in ways she can only now start to understand.

Back in the bedroom the shadow of death by dehydration starts to creep over Jessie, and literally in the case of a shadowy nighttime monster in the corner. Narrative weaknesses in King's source material are unfortunately transposed to the screen. As Jessie's ordeal reaches a gory climax, a late but unwanted and exceptionally poorly defined character is tossed into the narrative, weakening an otherwise potent psychological vector.

Regardless of the disappointing denouement, Carla Gugino enjoys a career highlight and delivers a stellar performance as both the real Jessie and her resolute alter ego. In a role that could have easily descended into hysterics, Gugino maintains impressive control and a strong hold on her character's warped reality.

Gerald's Game quickly turns into Jessie's nightmare, a single bedroom where all of her life's horrors are waiting to pounce.

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Movie Review: What Happens In Vegas (2008)
Sat, 15 Feb 2020 14:44:00 +0000

A miserable non-romantic comedy, What Happen In Vegas chokes on a contrived premise laced by a nasty streak of mean behaviour.

In New York City, meticulous planner and stock trader Joy (Cameron Diaz) is dumped by her boyfriend Mason (Jason Sudeikis). Separately, super slob Jack (Ashton Kutcher) is fired from his woodworking job by his own father (Treat Williams). Joy and Jack head to Las Vegas, where a booking mix-up results in them sharing first a hotel room, then a wild and drunken night of partying. They wake up married to each other.

The two realize they have nothing in common and actually cannot stand to be together. But before they separate he uses her quarter in a slot machine and wins $3 million. Back in New York, a judge (Dennis Miller) gives them six months to make their marriage work before he decides on the fate of the money. They spend most of that time making each other miserable between visits to marriage counsellor Dr. Twitchell (Queen Latifa).

Stretching for rom-com originality, What Happens In Vegas loses sight of its own purpose. Writer Dana Fox creates rough sketches of two unlikeable characters, labels them "perfectionist" and "boor", and throws them together. It's no surprise Joy and Jack share no chemistry, and director Tom Vaughan clutters most of the film with juvenile shenanigans as the unwilling couple try to wind each other up.

Other than a couple of laughs, most of the attempted jokes plumb the deep depths of cliche land, resorting to the most tired of toilet seat and dirty laundry gender conflicts. Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher go through the motions stuck in overacting mode, and never come close to convincing. The requisite relationship u-turn demanding they start to perhaps care for each other arrives late and is based on nothing.

The best friends supporting roles are occupied by Lake Bell and Rob Corddry, and they mostly fill the background with forgettable presence.

What Happens In Vegas should never have happened.

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Movie Review: The Babysitters (2007)
Sat, 15 Feb 2020 05:55:00 +0000

A social drama, The Babysitters conjures up a devious but truncated feminist take on the business of sex between married men and babysitters.

High school student Shirley (Katherine Waterston) is facing normal pressures of preparing for college applications and entrance exams. She also babysits the children of Michael (John Leguizamo) and Gail (Cynthia Nixon). Their marriage appears tense, which encourages Shirley's crush on Michael. One evening Shirley and Michael share a sexual encounter, which he ends by throwing a handsome amount of money at her.

Realizing she will never be more than a sexual plaything for Michael, the entrepreneurial Shirley monetizes married men's lust for babysitters, and starts recruiting other high school girls for a prostitution ring. Her best friend Melissa (Lauren Birkel) emerges as her strongest business ally, but word soon spreads and rival girls establish competing businesses, creating a strong undercurrent of conflict and tension at school.

An independent production written and directed by David Ross, The Babysitters latches onto a complicated idea but is not quite sure what to do with it. The concept of high school girls profiting from the uncontrolled philandering of married men by organizing for-profit prostitution cartels is intriguing, not least because it is fraught with the pitfalls of a three-way collision between capitalism, feminism and the oldest profession unfolding in quaint suburbia.

Ross avoids all hints of titillation by almost completely stripping the film of any emotion, and this becomes a double-edged sword. Michael is the only character to display some semblance of conflict, but John Leguizamo fights an uphill battle against a script uninterested in warmth or depth. The other men are almost uniformly portrayed as doofus husbands and fathers quick to trade money for sex and unable to control their most base urges.

Meanwhile Shirley knows when she is being used and strikes back with pure economics, but her anger at men's transactional perception of babysitter sex can only carry the narrative so far. Likewise the other girls adopt a strictly business stance and march into whoredom in an almost trance-like state, middle class women-to-be seizing an opportunity to fund a college education (or buy more makeup and glitter).

Without any genuine human connections to latch onto, The Babysitters crumbles into a cold and calculating battle between competing girls to control the market, and unfortunately none of it registers as relatable drama. The plot devolves into a series of nasty and borderline exploitive actions featuring drugs, alcohol and mechanical sex as a weapon, a combination of connivance and naivete predictably leading to messy disappointments for all.

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Movie Review: In The Fade (2017)
Fri, 14 Feb 2020 13:54:00 +0000

A hard-hitting and rain-soaked justice and revenge drama, In The Fade examines the impact of a terrorist atrocity on one woman who loses everything.

In Hamburg, Germany, Katja Şekerci (Diane Kruger) drops off her son Rocco at the office of her husband Nuri, located in a Kurdish neighbourhood. A bomb planted in a bicycle subsequent kills both Nuri and Rocco, destroying Katja's life and pushing her into drug use and suicidal depression. The police investigation focuses on Nuri's chequered past: he served prison time for drug dealing, and suspicions linger he was back involved in criminal activity.

But Katja, who spotted the woman who parked the bike, believes the bomb was planted by anti-immigrant neo-Nazi terrorists. She is eventually proven right when couple Edda and André Möller are arrested. Katja and her attorney Danilo Fava (Denis Moschitto) will have to endure a difficult trial in the quest for justice.

The impact of anti-immigration extremist acts is the subject of In The Fade, and while the quest for justice theme is familiar, writer and director Fatih Akin aims his punches straight at the gut. The film is uncompromising in presenting the physical and emotional devastation caused by a terrorist bombing, and in a crisp 106 minutes brings the victims and survivors, often perceived as numeric statistics, to the centre of the story.

Here Katja cannot even see the remains of husband Nuri and son Rocco: there are none, the two victims reduced to small burnt fragments. And the police investigation initially victimizes her husband again, seeking evidence of criminal activity to test a gangland murder scenario.

Under grey skies and frequent intense rain, Katja resorts to drug use, sinks into a depression and seriously ponders suicide. For her the bomb's shockwave continues long after the initial explosion, amplified by mounting fury and a deep seated desire for personal vengeance.

With Katja in the courtroom, the medical examiner testifies about Rocco's cause-of-death injuries in methodical detail, and her dry monotonal scientific words sear the soul. Meanwhile the neo-Nazi suspects and their smug lawyer need only drill enough holes in the prosecution's case to introduce reasonable doubt, and Akin adopts a less is more approach towards the antagonists. Their calculated coolness and ruthless stares are sufficient to convey the vacuous ignorance and virulent hate at the base of perverted ethnic superiority philosophies.

But the trial will need to deliver some sense of a fair outcome, otherwise Katja's torment, buffeted by nostalgic memories of happier times, will continue. Akin accompanies his central character to the bittersweet end, where longing, revenge and longing for revenge come together in a perfectly imperfect resolution.

Diane Kruger delivers a haunting and career-best performance at the centre of In The Fade. She is raw, fearless and exposed, a woman as emotionally broken as her family is physically destroyed. Long after the headlines, ravaged survivors have to soldier on towards finding their own sense of peace.

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Movie Review: Cedar Rapids (2011)
Fri, 14 Feb 2020 03:55:00 +0000

An independent small-scale comedy, Cedar Rapids creates a clever premise with potentially interesting characters, but then quickly runs out of ideas.

Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is a naive but well-meaning insurance agent who has never left his small Wisconsin hometown of Brown Valley. He enjoys sexual encounters with his former school teacher Macy (Sigourney Weaver), although he is much more serious about the relationship than she is. Tim's boss Bill (Stephen Root) is adamant the agency maintain the coveted "Two Diamond" rating awarded by the regional insurance association.

When star agent Roger unexpectedly expires, Bill dispatches Tim to the industry conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with a mission to impress association president Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith). On his first ever trip to anywhere, Tim meets a trio of seasoned insurance agents: the kind Ronald (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), boorish Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), and frisky Joan (Anne Heche). They expose him to conference-style fun, but Tim soon discovers some hard truths.

The world of nondescript conferences in nowheresville towns where salespeople congregate provides potentially rich soil for humour. Screenwriter Phil Johnston, director Miguel Arteta, and co-producer Alexander Payne conjure up a good foundation for laughs, with most of the film taking place at the mundane cookie-cutter hotel.

But once the place and people are introduced, Cedar Rapids quickly stalls. Tim's naive disposition is too easy a target, and he quickly succumbs to alcohol and pot, leading to all the usual and predictable misadventures. Uncomfortable nude encounters, skinny dipping, drunken sexual liaisons, and wild parties with prostitutes ensue, the film ticking off a checklist straight from the horny teenager comedies of the 1980s.

Ed Helms as Tim is essentially a blank canvass allowing events to be drawn on him. It is left to the veteran conference attendees to enliven the film, and thanks to a strong cast enough energy is injected to provide bursts of entertainment. John C. Reilly gives Ziegler a few good layers to peel away, while Anne Heche is the married-too-early mom who uses the conference as the one annual opportunity to live a different life. Isiah Whitlock Jr. is less well defined, while Alia Shawkat as the local whore with a heart of gold has nowhere to take her character.

Most of the laughs come from Reilly going all out with the churlish mannerisms of Ziegler as loud, rude and with a ready insult for any situation. He is a common but unwelcome conference presence, lingering like the sickly chlorine smell of the hotel's indoor swimming pool.

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Movie Review: The Return Of Doctor X (1939)
Wed, 12 Feb 2020 04:26:00 +0000

A science fiction suspense thriller, The Return Of Doctor X is a stiff low-budget mystery featuring bloodthirsty murders and corpses that refuse to remain dead.

Newspaperman Walter Garrett (Wayne Morris) scores an interview with theatre star Angela Merrova (Lya Lys). He is shocked to find her stabbed to death in her hotel room, but even more astounded when the next day her corpse disappears, and then Merrova shows up alive, if a little pasty. Garrett turns to his friend and blood expert Dr. Mike Rhodes (Dennis Morgan) for some amateur sleuthing.

Suspicion soon centers on Mike's mentor Dr. Francis Flegg (John Litel) and his creepy, pale assistant Marshall Quesne (Humphrey Bogart). Flegg is experimenting with blood transfusions and the development of synthetic blood. Soon another murder is committed, and then Mike's new girlfriend nurse Joan Vance (Rosemary Lane) is threatened.

The Return Of Doctor X is a curiosity due to the presence of a pre-stardom Humphrey Bogart in one of his least favourite roles. He plays a dead-eyed ex-physician with memorable makeup and hair, in a role better suited to Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff. The film is also the first to be directed by Vincent Sherman.

As a B-movie clocking in at 62 minutes, The Return Of Doctor X is not a total loss. The potential benefits of blood transfusions and synthetic blood as a life-saving scientific advancement are among the topics discussed. The Lee Katz script also features some wry humour, Garrett maintaining his sense of investigative fun despite losing his job and finding himself at the centre of multiple murder scenes.

But otherwise this is a standard monster-in-human-form cheapo production, heavily inspired by Frankenstein but with plastic characters, rushed delivery, and a plot designed for bargain thrills rather than any logic. The three lead performances from Wayne Morris, Dennis Morgan and John Litel belong in local amateur theatre productions, while the character of Joan Vance hangs around on the margins for the sole purpose of becoming a final act damsel in distress.

Bogart looks suitably ghastly and aghast at having to endure the rampant nonsense. His roles had already started to improve with appearances in classy productions like Dark Victory (also from 1939). Within a couple of years High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon would make him a star, consigning Dr. X to embarassing footnote status.

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Movie Review: Action In Arabia (1944)
Sun, 09 Feb 2020 18:15:00 +0000

A low budget World War Two adventure, Action In Arabia has enough ideas to maintain interest, but not enough budget nor talent to deliver on its ambition.

American newspaperman Michael Gordon (George Sanders) and fellow reporter Chalmers (Robert Anderson) arrive in Damascus, a hotbed of World War Two intrigue and espionage. At the airport Chalmers is smitten by Mounirah al-Rashid (Lenore Aubert), the daughter of an influential tribal chief. She is greeting shadowy French spy Leroux (André Charlot). Chalmers decides to snoop around Leroux's business and receives a fatal knife in the back for his troubles.

Meanwhile Gordon bumps into hotelier and Nazi sympathizer Eric Latimer (Alan Napier), American agent Matthew Reed (Robert Armstrong), professional information merchant Josef Danesco (Gene Lockhart) and the alluring Yvonne (Virginia Bruce). They all insist he leave town immediately, but Gordon senses something big is about to happen, with both sides of the war eager to win al-Rashid's backing.

An RKO production produced at the height of the war, Action In Arabia reaches for a Casablanca-style vibe but falls well short. The script by Philip MacDonald and Herbert J. Biberman is rich with potentially compelling characters harbouring competing secrets and pursuing clashing agendas. And notwithstanding a few too many camels, the RKO backlot disguise as a Middle Eastern locale is decent.

But otherwise, the execution, exposition and narrative flow expose limited resources all around the camera. At 75 minutes the film features too much scheming and not enough time, and despite George Sanders' best efforts to convince, his white suit remains stubbornly spotless as he ventures in and out of teaming bazaars and greasy planes, tangling with sweaty assassins along the way.

Meanwhile, the seemingly pivotal character of al-Rashid is introduced about 10 minutes from the end, and barely gets any lines of dialogue. Another conniving tribal chief is even less defined, and overall the plot and conspiracy elements are botched. The romance and infatuation interludes featuring the exotic Mounirah and Yvonne are laughably juvenile.

Least convincing are rudimentary surveillance and action scenes, director Leonide Moguy unable to construct anything resembling rational sequencing, editing or tension. At one point Gordon takes off in a small plane in the middle of the desert with no clue in which direction to fly, but is anyway soon spotting all the important tribal movements and encampments down below (actually footage filmed for a whole other unreleased movie).

Action In Arabia cannot be faulted for aspiration, but is ultimately betrayed by insurmountable inadequacies.

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Movie Review: The Irishman (2019)
Sat, 08 Feb 2020 21:00:00 +0000

A sprawling gangland epic, The Irishman weaves a multi-decade story of violence and corruption among mobsters and unions.

At a nursing home, the elderly Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) reminisces about his life, starting in the 1950s when he was an army veteran working as a truck driver in the Philadelphia area. He meets influential mob boss Russell "Russ" Bufalino (Joe Pesci), an associate of respected mobster Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel). Starting out as a chauffeur and graduating to assassin, Frank proves himself loyal to Russ. Meanwhile, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) runs the powerful Teamsters union, and authorizes pension fund investments in mafia-backed projects.

When Hoffa's position is threatened by rival Tony "Pro" (Stephen Graham), Russell dispatches Frank to prop him up, and the two men become close friends. The appointment of Bobby Kennedy as Attorney General causes Hoffa no shortage of trouble, and he eventually lands in jail. Upon his release in the early 1970s Hoffa insists on wrestling back control of the union, but his behaviour starts to antagonize powerful mob figures, placing Frank in an awkward position.

Reaching deep into the heart and soul of the epic gangster film, Martin Scorsese rolls back the decades and assembles a grand ode to the genre. The Irishman carries echoes of The Godfather, Once Upon A Time In America and Scorsese's own Goodfellas and Casino, but also makes its own mark as a more sombre, contemplative effort. Style, pizzazz and moments of violence underpin the drama without overwhelming it, the emphasis instead placed on men perpetuating an era and then looking back upon it.

Given free rein by Netflix to nurture and create his vision, Scorsese adapts the 2004 non-fiction book I Heard You Paint Houses (a mob reference to blood-splattered walls) by Charles Brandt, chronicling Frank Sheeran's startling life-long association with the mafia and Hoffa. The film runs for 209 minutes covering events from the 1950s to the early 2000s, but thanks to the stellar cast, a powerful Steven Zaillian script and nimble editing, The Irishman earns its length and never drags.

Scorsese's focus is on strong male characters grappling with necessary relationships, friendships and betrayals over the years. Crusty and cut-throat as they are, the men nevertheless forge bonds of respect, reciprocity and loyalty within their crime ridden world. Frank nurtures twin affinities with Russ and Hoffa and over the years becomes an essential communication bridge, the one person trusted by both the mobsters and union boss. His status transforms from enviable to tenuous as personal and business interests diverge.

The conflicted emotions buffeting Frank's life provide the film with a rich central character, and Robert De Niro delivers one of his best late-career performances to convey the complexity of a man comfortable with killing but yet craving and valuing meaningful interpersonal bonds. De Niro and Scorsese use the film's eloquent denouement to fully round out Frank as an old man using his remaining time for reflection, pockets of regret competing with pride.

Russ Bufalino emerges as the most compelling secondary character, Joe Pesci coming out of retirement to exude the quiet disposition of power. Jimmy Hoffa is more broadly drawn as a scrappy boss who perceives the Teamsters union as his own business. Hoffa has no individual identity without being at the helm, and as a result Al Pacino is constrained into a loud, shouty and repetitive performance.

The three lead actors play their characters across the decades, and superimposed digital technology is used to de-age their faces for the early years. It's a semi-successful experiment: the images appear seamless, but the combination of young faces and clearly old bodies and postures is incongruous.

Despite the mammoth length, Scorsese shortchanges the men's families. The women and children remain unfortunate afterthoughts, occasionally dipping into the narrative to pull on the strings of contrition before dropping right out again.

But The Irishman does not disguise its intentions as an intimate portrait of a few hard men painted on a huge canvass of time. Their business was crime and manipulation, their roles fulfilled according to the underworld code where cooperation yields wealth just as stubborn impedance means death.

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Movie Review: Parasite (2019)
Sat, 08 Feb 2020 05:04:00 +0000

A social drama with biting humour and canny twists, Parasite provides piercing commentary on internecine class warfare disguised as upward mobility.

In Seoul, the poor Kim family lives in a cramped semi-basement. Father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) is good natured but has stopped looking for work. His enterprising low-key son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) finds employment as an English tutor for Da-hye (Jeong Ji-so), the daughter of wealthy tech tycoon Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun). The Parks live in an impressive modern house designed by a renowned architect. Ki-woo quickly realizes he can take advantage of Da-hye's naive but well meaning mother Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong).

He contrives an opportunity for his feisty sister Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) to tutor Da-hye's younger brother Da-song, and soon Ki-taek and his wife Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin) are also employed by the Parks after the Kims plot the ouster of the chauffeur and housekeeper. Just when the fortunes of the Kim family are looking up, the dismissed housekeeper Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun) reappears and reveals a shocking secret. The Kims are suddenly confronted by the prospect of losing everything they worked for.

The intrinsic, almost irresistible drive to move up in the world and the price to be paid in exchange for elevated social status receive a grilling in Parasite. Director and co-writer Bong Joon-ho composes a narrative of two families living in the same city but on different planets, rubbing against each other with superficial delicacy hiding incalculable estrangement. The outcome is an enthralling stress test with escalating degrees of discomfort.

Parasite is as much about two families as it is about two places. The Kims' household is partially subterranean and kept economically afloat by leeching WiFi from neighbours and opening the windows to allow street fumigation to dispose of the resident cockroaches. The local drunk urinates in front of their window, and sewer water flooding the streets flows into the apartment, leaving the top of the toilet seat as the final place of refuge.

In contrast the Parks live in a spacious architectural jewel of concrete, steel, open space, contemporary furniture and wondrous landscaping. At the first opportunity the Kim family take over the living room and transform it into a trashy dump of crumbs and wrappers, a celebration that turns into a ceremonial beginning of the end. The Kims are destined to meet a most unexpected guest, leading to a disruption of another domestic arrangement, this one brimming with potential for danger.

The story's construction requires some logic leaps, as the ingenuity demonstrated by the Kims to infiltrate the Park household is inconsistent with their initial economic stature. But otherwise Bong assembles an intricate and fleet-footed train wreck featuring a cunning plan running afoul of its own victims and laced with wicked humour.

A majestic music score nurtures running themes about the dangers of crossing lines and the inescapable stench attached to the lower classes as Bong builds to a jarring, almost Tarantinoesque climax. The rush to success leaves a trail of unsuspecting casualties, and karma can be particularly jagged in luxurious surroundings filled with sharp edges.

With one monster unleashed and social barriers penetrated on multiple fronts, all expectations of decorum are comprehensively violated.

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Movie Review: A Single Shot (2013)
Wed, 05 Feb 2020 05:52:00 +0000

A suspense drama, A Single Shot explores themes of guilt and despair as one flawed man's life is forever changed by a moment of carelessness.

John Moon (Sam Rockwell) lives alone in a mobile home, deep in the woods. While poaching a deer he inadvertently shoots and kills a young woman. He hides her body then stumbles upon an abandoned ramshackle encampment where he finds and keeps a box full of seemingly stolen cash.

Hoping to patch up his marriage to Jess (Kelly Reilly), John follows the advice of his frequently drunk friend Simon (Jeffrey Wright) and reaches out to lawyer Pitt (William H. Macy), who is eager to ask questions more awkward than his wardrobe. Jess is not interested in a reconciliation and appears to be hanging out with the wrong types. John's loneliness and sense of guilt are further stressed when he finds himself under threat from creepy criminals Obadiah (Joe Anderson) and Waylon (Jason Isaacs), who want their cash back.

A backcountry drama, A Single Shot luxuriates in barely comprehensible accents and a hostile environment where tough terrain, uncompromising townfolk and seedy ex-cons co-mingle uneasily. The raw material threatens a potentially cold and calculating human-centred thriller, but director David M. Rosenthal is unable to harness the available elements into a satisfying whole.

The culprit is a weak script written by Matthew F. Jones as an adaptation of his own book. While John Moon is a compelling enough central character and Sam Rockwell brings him to life in an appropriately moody performance, most of the film's events are suspect. Moon is subjected to a campaign of intimidation that makes no sense upon just rudimentary examination, and the bad guys in the form of Obadiah and Waylon look the part but are otherwise devoid of context.

The third act defaults to plenty of violence and blood-letting, although Rosenthal does find a poignant resolution which almost salvages the entire film. After John stumbles into an opportunity to make symmetrical amends with an act of agonizing heroism, the burden of guilt nevertheless conspires to have the final say.

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Movie Review: Unsane (2018)
Tue, 04 Feb 2020 14:13:00 +0000

A suspense drama, Unsane is an intimate psychological thriller with horror elements cleverly exploiting the fatigue of an over-stressed mind.

Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is alone in a new city, holding down a bank data analyst job but still traumatized by her experience of having been stalked for the previous two years. She checks in with a psychiatrist at the Highland Creek mental wellness institution and inadvertently signs papers admitting herself for 24 hours. Unable to leave, Sawyer lashes out, but her acts of rebellion only prolong her stay to seven days.

Things gets much worse when she encounters her stalker David (Joshua Leonard) working at the facility as an attendant under an assumed name, although she cannot be sure what is real. She also meets fellow patients Violet (Juno Temple) and Nate (Jay Pharoah). Occasionally drugged, frequently restrained and feeling threatened by David, Sawyer uses Nate's smuggled cell phone to call her mother Angela (Amy Irving) for help. But freeing herself from the clutches of both David and the profit-driven institution will not be easy.

A study of paranoia either real and perceived, Unsane playfully prolongs the question of whether Sawyer is experiencing actual or brain-manufactured traumas. Director Steven Soderbergh experiments by shooting the film entirely on an iPhone7 Plus and in a blocky 1.56:1 aspect ratio. With a miniscule production budget of $1.5 million, Unsane is a surprisingly potent drama penetrating Sawyer's tormented mind and the business of bogus treatments fueled by insurance money.

The tight focus on Sawyer and her mental condition is effective. Soderbergh literally and physically closes the walls of the world around her and confines the movie to the institute once she is admitted. She is in a surreal world where all the patients are sure they don't belong, and at least some of them are probably right. As for Sawyer's compounded nightmare of finding her stalker operating in her new prison, the story depends either on her delusions, a relatively wild coincidence, or layers of conspiracy too dense to contemplate.

In addition to the struggle of mental patients to find advocates, Soderbergh pursues the evils of a private health system run amok, placing profit ahead of patients while hiding behind oily corporatespeak and well-rehearsed sales pitches. None of which helps Sawyer get better before, during or after her stay at Highland Creek. She needs rescuing, as does the system pretending to treat her.

The entire film rests on Claire Foy's shoulders, and she delivers a delectable performance of knowing vulnerability laced with sarcastic determination. Joshua Leonard is suitably creepy as her stalker.

Unsane's final act rushes towards more stock horror elements as nuance is left behind, violence is unleashed and the blood flows. Whatever Sawyer's specific condition, the world around her is unhinged and likely to remain so.

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Movie Review: Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind (2002)
Tue, 04 Feb 2020 03:39:00 +0000

A biography contaminated by an attention-seeking juvenile imagination, Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind undermines itself with frivolous distractions.

It's the early 1980s and Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) is despondent and holed-up in a New York hotel room, refusing to open the door for long-term girlfriend Penny (Drew Barrymore). He starts writing his memoirs, chronicling his often futile pursuit of women. By the late 1950s television is a burgeoning industry and Chuck conceives of The Dating Game, although the networks initially reject the idea. He finds domestic bliss with Penny but refuses to consider marriage.

Chuck's memoirs also contain a fictional narrative about his life as a CIA-trained Cold War assassin. Recruited by the mysterious Byrd (George Clooney), Barris is assigned targets in various European cities, and meets fellow agents Patricia (Julia Roberts) and Keeler (Rutger Hauer). When The Dating Game finally takes off, Chuck uses his chaperon cover to complete his CIA missions. An assignment goes wrong in West Berlin, but Chuck finds huge success with a string of tacky television shows.

Chuck Barris left an imprint on the world of cheap television catering to the lowest common denominator and helping create a foundation for the later abominations of reality TV. Despite a seemingly boorish and self-absorbed personality he may provide the basis for an interesting story, but it's not on display in Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind.

First-time director George Clooney adapts Barris' autobiographical book but keeps all the hokum about a double-life as a secret agent. Big chunks of the film are therefore preoccupied with an alternative fictional reality, but unlike compelling dramas like A Beautiful Mind, Barris' fantasies dangle as unaddressed vestiges of a troubled psyche, cratering his real story. Meanwhile, his actual life is dealt with in a perfunctory manner, Clooney and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman unable to colour in the man behind the garish shows.

Clooney overcompensates with an infusion of style, the assassination scenes underlining fictionality with a combination of absurd humour and film noir shadings. Meanwhile Sam Rockwell throws himself into the role, fractured and frenzied as it is, in a performance that cries out for more narrative depth and less superficial glitz. Julia Roberts and Rutger Hauer add star power but are wasted in stock secret agent characterizations.

Barris may have had a mind dangerous to himself and to unsuspecting cultural victims of his television shows, but his so-called confessions are best forgotten.

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Movie Review: U-571 (2000)
Mon, 03 Feb 2020 06:34:00 +0000

A World War Two submarine action film, U-571 offers combat thrills in tight quarters but with limited character depth.

With German U-boats dominating the North Atlantic, U-571 sinks an Allied merchant ship but is then itself damaged by depth charges. The US Navy quickly conceives of a ruse to disguise the submarine S-33 as a German rescue vessel, storm the U-571, and seize the Enigma cipher machine and its valuable code books.

Captain Mike Dahlgren (Bill Paxton) commands S-33, with Lieutenant Andrew Tyler (Matthew McConaughey) as his Executive Officer. The respect between the two men is undermined by some tension as Dahlgren does not believe Tyler is yet ready to command his own vessel and make life-or-death decisions in the heat of battle.

Joining them for this mission are Major Matthew Coonan (David Keith) and Lieutenant Michael Hirsch (Jake Weber). The crew members include Chief Gunner's Mate Henry Klough (Harvey Keitel) and Seaman Bill Wentz (Jack Noseworthy), who is half German. In rough seas the U-571 is captured, but enemy action throws the mission into disarray and Tyler finds himself unexpectedly in command and under extreme pressure to salvage a desperate situation.

The Allied attempts to capture and decipher Enigma resulted in many heroic missions, most of them completed by British naval forces. Here Hollywood takes over with a crass Americanization of history, the US Navy crew and commanders of S-33 portrayed as instrumental in the intelligence gathering war.

Setting aside the snub, U-571 is a decent thriller within the typical limitations of a De Laurentiis production. Any half-hearted interest in people starts and ends in the first 10 minutes with Tyler's nose bent out of shape as a result of not receiving the commission he was hoping for. Once the S-33 mission gets underway the movie is all about hardware, torpedoes, depth charges and the typical thrills, spills, leaks, explosions, solar pings and stealthy combat expected from the submarine warfare sub-genre.

Director Jonathan Mostow co-wrote the screenplay (with David Ayer and Sam Montgomery), and delivers a taut if always-slightly-implausible two hours. The special effects and claustrophobic submarine cinematography convey the tension of enemy confrontations on the surface and underwater. The surprises arrive on cue, a few good men die, and heroics combine with out-of-the-box thinking as crews and machines are pushed to the limit, men sweating outwards in direct proportion to submarines leaking inwards.

The German submarine crew do receive several sequences at the center of the action and speak their own language, but are otherwise strictly confined to heartless enemy characterizations. Matthew McConaughey wears a grim and stony faced expression throughout, and the supporting cast members dutifully follow suit, including rock star Jon Bon Jovi stumbling into an acting gig.

U-571 reimagines history and celebrates machines more than people, but does it all with an admirably straight face.

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Movie Review: Little Women (1994)
Sun, 02 Feb 2020 16:51:00 +0000

An amiable adaptation of the 1868 Louisa May Alcott novel, Little Women strives for a cozy tone of sisterly bonding.

Concord, Massachusetts during the Civil War. The March family's financial fortunes take a downturn when father goes off to serve in the war. Marmee (Susan Sarandon) nevertheless stays calm as she instills charitable values in her daughters Jo (Winona Ryder), Meg (Trini Alvarado), Amy (Kirsten Dunst) and Beth (Claire Danes).

The girls meet next-door neighbour Theodor Laurence (Christian Bale). Despite coming from wealth he becomes a constant companion of the sisters and starts to fall in love with Jo. But she is an aspiring writer more interested in starting a career than settling down. With Meg attracting the interest of Theodor's tutor John Brooke (Eric Stoltz), Jo sets off to New York where she meets professor Friedrich Bhaer (Gabriel Byrne), while the grown-up Amy (Samantha Mathis) heads to Paris with the elderly Aunt March (Mary Wickes).

45 years after the 1949 version starring June Allyson, Hollywood returned with the fifth big screen adaptation of the classic story, and the first to be directed by a woman. Gillian Armstrong aims for and generally achieves a Normal Rockwell-inspired mood, the script by Robin Swicord structured as a mostly quaint and family-oriented coming-of-age story.

Which is both an asset and a burden. Little Women never threatens to evolve into anything other than charming storytelling, often flirting with antiquated. The film always looks gorgeous, but also emit the whiff of staginess and almost perfect posing into just the right angle with fireplace lighting to achieve the nostalgic painting resonance.

Armstrong effectively uses the two hours of running time, every incident in the ups and downs of the March family given its due, but without bursting through a fairly narrow band of emotional involvement. The four girls remain short of memorable, just missing a cutting edge or breakout moment, all in favour of calm whimsy.

The talented young cast perform admirably within the confines of the material. Winona Ryder's Jo deserves more bite than provided by Swicord's script, while Christian Bale glides through the film with an appropriate reserve, a young man caught in love with a woman deciding her potential career matters more.

Capable but less than notable, Little Women is faithfully decorous.

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Movie Review: Nine (2009)
Sat, 25 Jan 2020 16:05:00 +0000

A musical drama, Nine explores middle age creative block in a story about a film director and the women in his life.

Rome, 1965. Famed Italian director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) is supposed to start shooting his next movie, but has no script and no ideas. Haunted by the failure of his two most recent films, he escapes to an Anzio hotel to try and find inspiration. He lies to his wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard) and is joined by his mistress Carla (Penélope Cruz). Costume designer Liliane (Judi Dench) tries to help, while Guido has visions of his mother (Sophia Loren) and memories of his childhood, when he was entranced by prostitute Saraghina (Fergie).

After reporter Stephanie (Kate Hudson) tries to seduce Guido, the last opportunity for a creative boost may be his regular leading lady Claudia Jenssen (Nicole Kidman). But with Luisa's patience with her philandering husband finally running out, salvaging Guido's latest project will prove difficult.

An adaptation of the play by Arthur Kopit which in turn was inspired by Fellini's (1963), Nine enjoys a stellar cast but is hampered by uninspired music and a consistently dour tone. The songs by Maury Yeston feature lyrics where clunky competes with obvious, and while Rob Marshall directs with panache, the script co-written by Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella gives him limited material to work with.

The film is entirely bogged down by Guido's doldrums and never generates narrative momentum. The tone is set early, the film structured as one-woman-at-a-time singing about her influence over the deeply flawed and egotistical director. Mistress, wife, confidant, mother, prostitute-from-childhood, muse: nothing helps him gain traction on his latest project, but he never misses an opportunity to light another cigarette.

The cast members bring a mix of interesting accents to the singing, for example Day-Lewis singing in an Italian clip, raising curious questions as to why anyone would sing in a language other than their mother tongue when entirely alone.

But despite several structural weaknesses, Nine benefits from a sparkling cast in good form. Guido is probably one of Day-Lewis' easier characters to embody, but he brings his reliable depth and dedication to the role. The many women rotating in his orbit are brought to life by energetic performances from Penélope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Nicole Kidman, and Judi Dench, although none of them receive substantial screen time.

In an awkward role obviously bolted on to the movie adaptation, Kate Hudson appears unsure what her character is supposed to be doing, but delivers Cinema Italiano with plenty of verve. The better musical numbers also include Cruz's seductive A Call From The Vatican and Cotillard's angry Take It All.

Nine carries a haughty self-rating, but is more of a middling effort.

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Movie Review: Joker (2019)
Fri, 24 Jan 2020 03:57:00 +0000

A mental anguish drama, Joker is a disturbing origins story infused with a dark mood.

In a dilapidating Gotham City, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) suffers from mental issues, including uncontrollable bouts of awkward laughing. He works as a clown-for-hire, and lives with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy), who speaks highly of mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). Arthur has unrealistic hopes of a career as a stand-up comic, and admires late night television talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro).

Arthur is assaulted by a group of thugs, then budget cuts curtail the social services available to him. A colleague provides him with a gun, presumably for self defence. He meets his neighbour, single mom Sophie (Zazie Beetz), but then loses his job and sinks deeper into despair. While wearing clown makeup Arthur tangles with a group of obnoxious men on the subway, and Wayne's glib reaction to the incident sparks class warfare street protests. Arthur starts to discover shocking secrets about his mother and his past, pushing him over the edge of sanity.

The primary villain in the Batman universe receives his own background story, and Joker is a gloomy descent into despondency. Director and co-writer Todd Phillips conceives of soulless wickedness emerging as a reaction to an uncaring world filled with rampant bullying, where a fragile man like Arthur Fleck does not so much fall through the cracks as is shoved through them.

Colleagues make fun of him, goons kick him in the street, and budget cuts take away his limited opportunities for subsidized help. Unfit for any meaningful work and unable to control his embarrassing laughter to even perform as a comic, Arthur is close to unsalvageable. Once he peels away the layers of his mother's secrets and with a gun in his hand, he turns into something much more dangerous.

The joys of evil cause a rare twinkle in his eye. Arthur notices how his subway incident brings a sense of power, media attention and people to the streets. The celebrity he craves by dreaming of an appearance on the Murray Franklin show is now within reach, but along a twisted pathway littered with victims.

Arthur's gradual transformation from societal victim to murderous freak is the film's sole obsession to the exclusion of any other plot elements, and as a result all the secondary characters are thinly defined. But in the title role Joaquin Phoenix dominates, delivering a haunting performance filled with coiled intensity. He alternates between pitiful, willing and menacing, dark eyes burning with building hatred at a world singularly lacking in empathy for men like him.

Phillips freely borrows aesthetics and themes from Scorsese's Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy as he steers Joker to several visual highlights, Phoenix physically throwing himself into statuesque posturing and scenes of urban landscape dominance through sheer presence. The costumes and make-up are chilling and build to a classic look as Joker finally introduces himself to a large television audience. The man looks funny, but he will now ensure no one else is laughing.

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Movie Review: 1917 (2019)
Wed, 22 Jan 2020 03:23:00 +0000

A World War One drama, 1917 is a gripping technical achievement but lacks narrative complexity and character depth.

It's April 1917 on the front lines of the Great War in France. The German army has set a trap by partially withdrawing from advanced positions to lure the British into an ambush. With the help of aerial photography General Erinmore (Colin Firth) spots the ruse. But with the telephone lines destroyed, he turns to Lance Corporals Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Will Schofield (George MacKay) to deliver the crucial message.

It's a near-impossible mission. Blake and Schofield have a few hours to cross no-man's land, pass through the disputed town of Écoust, and reach Colonel Mackenzie of the Second Battalion, Devonshire Regiment to hand deliver a message calling off a doomed attack scheduled for dawn. The lives of 1,600 men, including Tom's brother, depend on the message getting through. With Tom fearless but Will more circumspect, the two men embark on their mission to face the horrors of a grinding war.

Featuring the simplest of storylines, 1917 is more about a sense of time and place than plot or characters. Director Sam Mendes co-wrote the script with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, and constructs the film as a single, uninterrupted two hour shot. Long takes are seamlessly patched together to create the illusion, and the film brilliantly achieves a sense of real-time urgency by staying with the corporals from the first scene to the last.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins and editor Lee Smith deserve enormous credit. 1917 is a wonder of exquisite camera movement, precise timing, and fluid choreography. Many sequences are astonishing in their beautiful complexity, including a plane crash, an escape through a bombed-out town, and a manic sprint parallel to the trenches as men charge into battle and explosions rock the countryside. Through it all the relentless continuity conveys the inescapable theatre of war, enhanced by a lush Thomas Newman music score.

Along their journey Blake and Schofield witness at close quarters the consequences of large scale human devastation. The French terrain is littered with unclaimed corpses left to rot, some in expected locations but others waiting to provide the gruesome shock of the dead. Mendes does not spare the blood, gore and sheer horror of torn bodies ground into the mud or accumulating in rivers.

With the awe inspiring visuals and flamboyant construction occupying centre stage, 1917 shortchanges plot and characters. The story is a linear adventure, and despite a few surprises along the way the film essentially traverses a predetermined obstacle course between two predefined points. And other than the most basic of sketched-in personalities, Blake and Schofield remain everyman soldiers.

But despite limited human-centred warmth, 1917 offers audacious exposure to the unrelenting horrors of war.

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Movie Review: Little Women (2019)
Tue, 21 Jan 2020 03:33:00 +0000

An adaptation of the classic Louisa May Alcott book, Little Women is a coming-of-age tale with a focus on women carving out identities while grappling with personal and societal expectations and economic realities.

The film unfolds non-linearly across multiple time zones and locations. In simplified form, the March sisters are from a relatively poor Concord, Massachusetts family and growing up in the shadow of the Civil War. Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is fiercely independent and an aspiring writer. Meg (Emma Watson) loves acting and is a romantic at heart. Amy (Florence Pugh) is a painter and wants to marry well. The youngest Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is a talented pianist. With their father (Bob Odenkirk) serving in the war, Marmee (Laura Dern) instills in the girls a strong sense of service and selflessness.

The Marchs are neighbours of the wealthy and kind Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), whose grandson Theodore (Timothée Chalamet) becomes friends with the sisters and falls in love with Jo. She sets out to seek her fortune as a writer in New York, where she meets publisher Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts) and clashes with academic Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel). Amy heads to Paris for a cultural trip with Aunt March (Meryl Streep). Meg marries a struggling tutor and starts a family. But a sickness will pull the sisters back home to confront unexpected futures.

The sixth cinematic adaptation of Alcott's novel, the 2019 version is a sprawling and ambitious effort infused with a feminist edge. Clocking in at an overlong 135 minutes, writer and director Greta Gerwig takes her time to fully define the four sisters as rounded characters, and chases down their dreams, trials and tribulations on the path to womanhood. Along the way the sisters bicker, fight and support each other, all underpinned by warm foundations of familial love.

Gerwig structures the film as a dizzying jumping exercise, restlessly bouncing between various points of history in the lives of the four sisters. As a result Little Women rarely flows, some scenes spending a matter of seconds in one time and place before the next scene leaps to somewhere else with someone else at a different time.

But the fine work of the talented cast and the investment in characters does pay off in the final third, where the sometimes scattered narrative puzzle pieces start to come together. The film achieves poignant peaks of genuine emotion built on the discrete strengths and weaknesses of the March sisters, and Gerwig presents a satisfyingly wide array of personal achievements mixed with shades of disappointments, all built on honest passion.

While the emphasis on feminism is sometimes speechy and jarring, here it means the freedom to choose a future vision to pursue, and to defend that choice. And while no two dreams are alike, the sisters pragmatically understand their future, like their past, involves compromise and is not meant to be perfect. Gerwig also places admirable emphasis on economics as an essential part of future plans. Balancing the romantic pursuit of love, marriage's role as an economic benefit emerges as a theme.

Little Women enjoys stellar production design, the film recreating interiors and exteriors of the mid to late 1800s with an easy sense of place and time. This is a period piece unafraid to march into the open, as the March sisters stride into a post-war world with every intention to help define it.

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Movie Review: Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood (2019)
Sun, 19 Jan 2020 15:56:00 +0000

A comedy-drama, Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood lovingly recreates a slice of time and place but is also inexcusably flabby and lacking in narrative purpose.

In Hollywood of 1969, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is struggling to find acting work. He used to be a television western series star working with his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), but Rick failed in his attempted transition to big-screen roles. Now he is reduced to guest-starring on television shows, although agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) offers him the chance to star in Rome-filmed Spaghetti Westerns. Rick is also dealing with the ignominy of losing his driver's licence due a drinking problem, with Cliff now driving him everywhere.

Rick is neighbours with celebrated director Roman Polanski and his wife actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). She is enjoying her burgeoning stardom and spends an afternoon at the movies watching one of her recent films. Meanwhile as Rick shoots his latest television guest role, Cliff stumbles upon the hangout of the creepy Charles Manson cult at the isolated ranch of his old buddy George Spahn (Bruce Dern).

Featuring a series of vignettes rather than a cohesive plot, Quentin Tarantino writes and directs an ode to an era. 1969 is an assassination-weary inflection point as hippie idealism transitions to 1970s cynicism, with the horrors perpetuated by the Manson maniacs bringing death to the heart of Hollywood. Tarantino uses the looming threat of murder as a backdrop, but otherwise is more interested in celebrating the friendship between Rick and Cliff.

Their bond is the heart of the film, two men with their best days behind them and now confronting fading career prospects, but doing it together. Rick has good and bad moments filming the television pilot, both disappointing and surprising himself before taking a crack at the Italian movie industry. Cliff stands by his friend through thick and thin, picking up scraps of work but mostly supporting Rick because he has essentially nothing else to lean on.

Rick's struggle to accept his career trajectory is an intermittent theme. His drinking and denial get in the way of any positive initiative for transformation, although sparks of pride and talent point to a potential path towards redefinition.

The Sharon Tate chapter stands alone, and is a bittersweet and mostly dialogue-free tribute to an actress delighted by the prospect of her own success. The Manson cult menace intrudes onto both storylines starting with Cliff's visit to the Spahn Movie Ranch, the film's best scene featuring the stuntman infiltrating a twilight zone occupied by lost souls.

Tarantino prolongs the essentially plotless film to a wholly unnecessary 161 minutes. Most scenes are artificially stretched prompting a dance with tedium, and many sequences (hello Bruce Lee and Steve McQueen) are quite pointless. The quest for grandeur is misguided and frequently deflates the film's momentum.

Visually the film is drenched in stark California sunlight, and the production design is excellent in recreating Los Angeles circa 1969 without relying on digital gimmicks. DiCaprio, Pitt and Robbie occupy their roles with relaxed confidence.

The subversive climax features the usual Tarantino outburst of violence mixed with a mean streak of humour, here slightly less bloody than usual but still featuring dollops of gore. Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood expresses a genuine love for the town where movies live, but the good intentions suffer from fundamental narrative fragmentation and plenty of egotistical oversaturation.

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Movie Review: Chef (2014)
Sat, 18 Jan 2020 21:08:00 +0000

A lighthearted drama, Chef explores new beginnings in the story of a once-celebrated cuisinier rediscovering his touch and reconnecting with family.

In Los Angeles, chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) is being stifled by his restaurant owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman), who wants to keep the menu safe. In his personal life Carl is still on good terms with ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) and tries to spend quality time with his 10 year old son Percy (Emjay Anthony). A scathing review by food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) triggers a social media war of words, and Carl loses his job.

He agrees to join Inez and Percy on a trip to Miami to recharge. The wealthy Marvin (Robert Downey Jr.), Inez's other ex-husband, agrees to bankroll Carl's venture into the food truck business, selling Cuban sandwiches. With the help of his friend and sous-chef Martin (John Leguizamo) and with Percy tagging along, Carl launches the food truck and embarks on a multi-city cross-country trip back to California.

When early career momentum stalls and early promise buzz evolves into middle age compromise, a fork in the road offers alternatives. Writer and director Favreau places his lead character at the decision point and allows him to flounder. With plenty of close-up shots of food being prepared (tantalizing or boring, depending on appetite and food porn tolerance), Chef is a mostly buoyant study of a career reset assisted by friends and family.

Despite the potentially weighty subject matter the film sidesteps excessive displays of dramatic emotion in favour of some comic highlights, mostly stemming from Carl bumbling into a career-ending social media storm. The film otherwise rides a comfortably fun vibe, the better-than-usual relationship between Carl and ex-wife Inez adding a welcome ray of hope that not all failed relationships need to end in acrimony.

The second half is essentially a food truck summer travelogue, Carl reconnecting with Percy as they establish the Cubano business driving from Miami back to Los Angeles. While a few conflict points spark between father and son, again Favreau steers Chef towards genial fare, Carl building a strong bond by passing on his love of cooking to Percy, while the ten year old takes charge of an effective online marketing campaign.

The high-powered but small supporting cast seems to be having a good time. Scarlett Johansson features in the first half as Carl's confidant and the hostess at Riva's restaurant, but then disappears. Dustin Hoffman and Oliver Platt get two scenes each, Robert Downey Jr. just one, and overall Favreau conveys a sense of buddies pulling together to create a small but pleasant movie on both sides of the camera. No doubt they all also enjoyed good food while on set.

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Movie Review: Short Term 12 (2013)
Thu, 16 Jan 2020 14:23:00 +0000

A social drama, Short Term 12 explores the world of troubled young adults with mature awareness.

In Los Angeles, Grace (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) are supervisors at the Short Term 12 group home for troubled teenagers, and help rookie supervisor Nate (Rami Malek) settle in. Not much older than the young adults they look after, Grace and Mason are in a relationship, although she has trouble expressing her feelings and talking about her own troubled past. When she finds out she is pregnant, Grace initially schedules an abortion, but later confides in Mason.

The residents include Marcus (Lakeith Stanfield), who is gloomy as he approaches his 18th birthday. Sammy (Alex Calloway) is deeply insecure, has fits of screaming and often attempts to escape. Luis (Kevin Hernandez) is cocky and spends most of his time antagonizing Marcus. 15 year old Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) is a new arrivee with a sour attitude, claiming her dad will take her home for the weekend. Grace tries to reach out and establish a connection with Jayden, as she senses a common background drawing them together.

The continuum between caregiver and care receiver, and the firm tenderness and intelligent empathy required to manage teens going through traumas, are weighty topics for a movie to address. Director and writer Destin Daniel Cretton tackles the difficult terrain with a firm hand and credible sensitivity, and the independently produced Short Term 12 emerges as a remarkably confident and memorable effort. Running an efficient 96 minutes, the film stays within itself as an individual-scaled snapshot of humans in transition.

Cretton draws compelling characters and slowly reveals their internal struggles. Grace emerges as the heart of the film, a woman not far removed from her own agonies, now doing her best to steer teenagers to calmer waters. Brie Larson delivers a breakthrough performance surfacing Grace's dichotomy of a strong desire to help others coexisting with an inability to confront her own past.

Grace is inexorably drawn to provide the support that she never received. She sees a version of herself in Jayden, who at 15 years old is an expert in pushing everyone away as a defence mechanism and is still living in the shadow of an unstated horror. Kaitlyn Dever teases out hints of Jayden's vulnerability while building her sturdy emotional resilience with surly postures.

Cretton is interested in the troubled teenagers as tragic symptoms of multiple social ills. In a heartbreaking scene, Marcus recounts his childhood story and the resultant rage within him through rap lyrics. But here both the kids and the horrors they are escaping hide in plain sight. The film features sparse and realistic sets, capturing a modest and mostly nondescript aesthetic. Short Term 12 is just a large house with multiple rooms, and from the outside most resembles a school campus.

And once they cross the threshold of 18, the kids age out of the system and are essentially on their own, a prospect causing Marcus enormous stress. The number ticks over, but the scars run deep and the vulnerabilities continue well into adulthood, as Grace knows only too well.

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Movie Review: Marriage Story (2019)
Wed, 15 Jan 2020 22:17:00 +0000

A family drama, Marriage Story is a hard look at a divorce case dissolving from amicable to hostile.

The marriage of Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) Barber is falling apart and heading for a divorce. He is the director of a small but well-regarded New York City theatre company. She is his star actress, having give up a possible movie career. They have an 8 year old son Henry, who still prefers a parent to sleep next to him and is late in learning to read.

Nicole now perceives Charlie as self-absorbed and neglectful of her career. She relocates to Los Angeles, taking Henry with her, and starts filming a television pilot. Although they had promised not to use lawyers, Nicole hires the high-powered Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern) and files for divorce. Charlie is shocked, and counters by hiring the laid-back Bert Spitz (Alan Alda). The custody battle hinges on whether the family is based in Los Angeles or New York, and through the legal process all the irritations between the couple come flooding out.

Although Marriage Story is far from original, it is earnest and elevated by sincere performances. Director and writer Noah Baumbach revisits terrain he already traversed in The Squid And The Whale (2005), and earlier made familiar by films like Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and A Cool Dry Place (1998).

The focus this time is on the disruptive and expensive impact of aggressive lawyers in the domestic break-up. From the moment Nora sinks her hooks into Nicole, the divorce trajectory turns from a tentative drift to a swelling avenue of bitterness, with the lawyers the only beneficiaries. Baumach's script allows the depth of Nicole's unhappiness to be revealed in layers, and perhaps her reaching out to Nora was suppressed resentment bursting forth.

The issues generated by Charlie's ego and Nicole's unheralded sacrifice festered for years, and are now exposed in long dialogue scenes. Some work better than others. Nicole revealing the marriage's history to Nora in a long take is simply captivating, with Johansson mesmeric. Later the couple's attempt at civil discourse turns into a emotional shouting match and does not quite land, Driver willing but not quite able to convey the intended anguish.

Laura Dern makes a sharp impression as a barracuda in high heels. Ray Liotta gets a couple of scenes as the legal weapon Charlie considers using for the battle ahead.

A few moments of humour are sprinkled throughout the drama, but Baumbach allows the film to creep to an astonishing 136 minutes. The Los Angeles vs. New York debate drags on for far too long, and a knife incident is a needless distraction. A couple of wholly unnecessary songs add to the tedium.

Sifting through the debris of a once happy union, Marriage Story conveys the unfortunately all-too-common pain and sorrow of breaking up, made much worse by lawyers smelling profit.

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