Category Archives: Highbrow Fun

Trance (2013) 3/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 76
Genre: Crime, Thriller
Duration: 101 mins
Director: Danny Boyle
Stars: James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel

A suave and tricksy thriller detailing a heist mob’s unconventional attempt to hypnotically uncover the location of a stolen painting amidst emotional turbulence and full-blown crises of identity. Trance offers the best and worst of mercurial director Danny Boyle at about a 30/70 split. Stunningly shot and soundtracked to Rick Smith’s pulsing melodies, it sets out to explicitly defy narrative convention and treat us to a razzle-dazzle experience over old fashioned storytelling. Though we’ve seen attempts like this before, what Trance lacks in originality it makes up for in burning focus and unflinching persistence. And with James McAvoy and the always splendid Rosario Dawson mischievously wrapped up in the deep dark psychological hijinks, the experiment is only enriched. But trippy entertainment only goes so far and with the plot hoisted so brazenly atop of Boyle’s sacrificial alter, not even actors of their class and magnetism can keep us invested in the manner we’d expect and desire from a clever heist thriller.

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Heathers (1988) 3.28/5 (8)

 

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Rating: The Good – 77.7
Genre: Comedy
Duration: 103 mins
Director: Michael Lehmann
Stars: Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Shannen Doherty

“Dear diary, my teenage angst bullshit has a bodycount.” Recent addition to the school’s most popular clique, Winona Ryder, is growing ever wearier at the inane conventions of her new friends, three preppy girls all named Heather. In steps Christian Slater, a proactive cynic whose extreme reactions to the superiority complexes of the chosen few are the source of the some shockingly funny moments.

Like all great black comedy and unlike so many recently failed attempts, the darkness in Heathers is effortless and so the comedy is viciously hilarious. Daniel Waters’ delicious script is driven by a playful yet unyielding focus that slices fantastically at the indulgence of the high-school movie genre and indeed society’s broader indulgence of the precious order that its middle class teenagers had so mercilessly forged in the 1980’s in particular.

Ryder has never been better and for those who’ve only seen her Dracula-type performances, they should take a look at this. For such an acerbic story, she brings a level of reality and even warmth to the role that serves to make her incredulous narrations and interactions with the various characters all the funnier. Slater is at his best too, his slow burning charisma making him the perfect choice to play the self-anointed social equaliser. His character becomes both Waters’ main vessel and his target as he slowly works his way through the equally self-anointed social elite. Michael Lehmann’s directing is adequate but a little uninspired, which is actually quite a shame because this movie would otherwise be damn near perfect.

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Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) 3.73/5 (8)

 

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Rating: The Good – 77.1
Genre: Drama, Satire
Duration: 102 mins
Director: Mike Nichols
Stars: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman

Mike Nichols turns his prodigious talent for satire to Aaron Sorkin’s clever adaptation of the true story of a Texas congressman’s attempts to secure the covert military funding that would ultimately tip the balance of the Soviet-Afghan war. Tom Hanks as the unorthadox good-time politician and Philip Seymour Hoffman as his irreverent CIA adviser form one of the best on-screen partnerships in recent decades as they bat Sorkin’s indignantly funny dialogue back and forth while Julia Roberts and Any Adams help to fill out the support roster intelligently rising to the spirit of Sorkin and Nichols’ storytelling as they go. The movie that unfolds is a delight of sardonic wit in both its writing and directing but, in typical Mike Nichols fashion, it effortlessly doubles as an engrossing political drama by perceptibly accounting for geo-political implications and character development alike. Sorkin’s feisty screenplay zips along at its usual pace but Nichols knows exactly when to channel that momentum or temporarily contain it so that its energy is maintained without dumbing down the drama. Unsurprisingly, Wilson comes out smelling like roses but only because Hanks and co. know exactly how to turn those warts into beauty spots and so, like the man himself, Charlie Wilson’s War charms its way into the audience’s hearts.

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Into the Night (1985) 4/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 77.2
Genre: Comedy, Thriller
Duration: 115 mins
Director: John Landis
Stars: Jeff Goldblum, Michelle Pfeiffer, Carmen Argenziano

A wild and trippy furlough into the LA night as envisaged within the quirky mind of John Landis at the height of his powers. Jeff Goldblum stars as an aerospace engineer suffering from insomnia, marital discord, and a general malaise. Michelle Pfeiifer is the confident and plucky damsel in distress who jumps into his car on lonely sleepless night only to see them both pursued by a peculiar group of foreign gangsters led by the director himself. Ron Koslow may have written this wonderfully off-kilter comedy thriller but make no mistake, it’s Landis’ world we are thrown into where the ride is as enjoyable as it is unique. The variety of peripheral and support characters is a treat to behold as are their various realisations at the hands of a brilliantly counter-intuitive cast of actors (David Bowie’s bizarre hit-man alone makes this one worth the watch). But paramount among the movie’s virtues is the foundation in which the plot is rooted. Convincing the audience to tag along on such a meandering journey isn’t simply about ingeniously engineered set-pieces (which Into the Night offers in spades) but a weight of reality that could see a normal Joe’s life shunted into hyper-reality. Like Scorsese did that very same year in After Hours, Landis places huge faith in his leading man’s ability to strike a paradoxical balance between delicacy and sturdiness. And in achieving that, Jeff Goldlum becomes the rock against which the delightful insanity can repeatedly crash. If anything, Landis ups the ante on Scorsese by adding a similarly finely tuned lead performance into the mix which not only bolsters her co-star’s but offers the madness a second pillar to rest on. Pfeiffer is nothing short of exquisite in a feisty reformulation of the femme fatale trope adding as much solidity as she does intrigue. And it helps not a little that her and Goldblum click like few male-female on-screen partnerships have! It’s all wrapped up in a rather pretty package too as Landis and his director of photography Robert Paynter shoot it in the soft night glow of 1980’s L.A. and soundtrack it to Ira Newborn’s equally contemporaneous (not to mention sumptuous) electronic score. A must see!

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Once Upon a Time in China (1991) 3.86/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 78.2
Genre: Martial Arts
Duration: 134 mins
Director: Hark Tsui
Stars: Jet Li, Biao Yuen, Rosamund Kwan

Epic martial arts adventure starring Jet Li as the famous warrior Wong Fei-Hung who becomes embroiled in the intrigue of foreign powers and local corruption as he attempts to protect his homeland and traditions from their destructive influence. The outright strength of this magnificent piece of cinema is the tapestry of plots and stories it weaves into the central narrative not to mention the chorus of martial artists that intermittently set the screen alight. The result is a sprawling extravaganza of martial art drama. Hark Tsui brings an unabashed grandiosity to the film with striking cinematography and balletically choreographed action. James Wong’s magnificent score tells the story on its own level while Marco Mak’s editing whisks the audience along to the melodically unfolded action. As imaginative as the wire-work action sequences are there’s a slightly anaemic quality to their thrust which is a common problem with the flying style of fight movies. But what is lacking in oomph is made up for in artistry as Li, Biao Yuen, and company put on a masterly exhibition of on-screen action gymnastics. Within this, Li makes for a strong lead and catches the dramatic qualities of the famous leader admirably. Like the life and personality that Hark breathes into his epic saga from behind the camera, his lead actor and the remainder of the cast ensured that Once Upon a Time in China became much more than just another Kung-Fu flick.

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Blackhat (2015) 3.76/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 71.5
Genre: Crime, Thriller
Duration: 130 mins
Director: Michael Mann
Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Wei Tang

Michael Mann has been a long time between films and while his latest cyber thriller is marked by his trademark style and dramatic distance, a vague meandering plot ultimately precludes it from ranking amongst his best work. Chris Hemsworth stars as a prodigious hacker released from prison on the condition that he helps a joint FBI-Chinese task force trace the source of a cyber attack on a nuclear power plant. The resulting investigation sprawls across the Pacific from LA to Malaysia sporadically interrupted by some lively gun battles the type Mann has, at this point, mastered to perfection.

Blackhat isn’t as bad as some critics and fans have made out and there’s much to be admired along the way. Despite flimsy character construction across the board, Hemsworth makes for a sturdy lead and Viola Davis cuts a confident figure of authority as the FBI agent in charge of his team. Leehom Wang is competent as the lead Chinese agent even if Wei Tang proves too slight to overcome her character’s writing as Wang’s sister and Hemsworth’s inevitable love interest. Mann’s visual and auditory style is at its impeccable best as the technically astute director seems to have finally come to grips with all aspects of Digital Video. Complementing this aesthetic is Atticus Ross’ grainy score which, while not quite matching that of Heat, is certainly on the same track.

Rather frustratingly, though, it’s the basic stuff that Blackhat fails to get right. The meticulously distanced relationship between Mann’s lens and his protagonists has traditionally helped to engender a documentary-like sense of realism to his stories but, during his prime, that was balanced out with well developed characters whose arcs were functionally relevant to the story as much as the plot. Here, like his previous movies Public Enemies and Miami Vice, the connection ends with the plot as the characters’ depths are kept hidden or at best implicit. If the main players are kept at arms length, then the bad guys are barely acknowledged. Missing is the traction of Neil McCauley’s motivations in Heat or even just the remorseless entitlement of Robert Prosky’s Leo in Thief. Instead, a straight line of inexplicable badness replaces any sense of personality and we struggle to care. Then there’s the equally inexplicable tactical training of Hemsworth’s computer jock. In place of a techno-intellectual showdown, things come to a head in a rather bizarre action face-off that smacks of rushed rewrites and/or studio interference.

Instead of a properly laid narrative, whatever successes Blackhat achieves are episodic in nature such as the visceral action sequences or those informed moments when Hemsworth and co. are hacking into the enemy’s servers or even their bank accounts. Not surprisingly, it’s here where Morgan Davis Foehl’s script comes into its own (forgetting the one or two moments of philosophical gibberish ala Miami Vice). Nothing is dumbed down but neither are the uninitiated left lost at sea. And of course, as is the case in most of Mann’s procedurals, its technocratic lilt adds abundantly to the movie’s overall sense of street smarts. With so much good and so much bad, Blackhat will, like most of Mann’s work since 1999’s The Insider, tantalise his fan’s but ultimately go down as an opportunity missed.

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MASH (1970) 3.86/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 87.4
Genre: Satire, War
Duration: 116 mins
Director: Robert Altman
Stars: Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt

Robert Altman unfolds his broad interpersonal canvas to stunning effect in this classic piece of American cinema. Bold, hilarious, touching, and heartbreaking, there are few statements on war as focused as what he serves up here. Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerrit, and Elliot Gould are at their unorthodox best as the ragtag bunch of draftee surgeons working three miles from the front line of the Korean War to keep their spirits high and the endless wounded alive. Sally Kellerman and Robert Duvall are a hoot as the stiff career officers whom they pester unmercifully both intentionally and unintentionally. As with most of Altman’s films, the plot isn’t what drives M.A.S.H but rather the satirical vignettes which loosely coalesce around the personal conflicts. Whether it’s Hot Lips and Major Burns’ infamous broadcast or the gleeful irreverence of that “Last Supper”, Altman’s dry script and impeccable distance, not to mention the immense craft of his actors ensured they became immortal moments of humour. The result is an iconic piece of film making and one of the few movies that helps to definitively mark a moment in time and culture without ever feeling dated. “Hot Lips you incredible nincompoop, it’s the end of the quarter!”

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Live Die Repeat (2014) 3.21/5 (6)

 

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Rating: The Good – 80.5
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 113 mins
Director: Doug Liman
Stars: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton

After decades of waiting for an action sci-fi that can match those of the late 80’s and early 90’s in class and smarts, Doug Liman, Christopher McQuarrie, and Tom Cruise have come up with the goods. Set during a future war for the planet against a horde of prescient aliens, the Cruiser headlines as a cowardly press officer who is railroaded into the infantry on the eve of humanity’s attempt at a D-Day style liberation of Europe. However, during the battle he gets killed and caught in a time loop that sees him re-live the same day over and over again which allows him to hone his initially hapless skills and, at the same time, avoid the pitfalls of the previous day.

The concept which inspired Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s graphic novel All You Need is Kill (brilliantly adapted as “Live, Die, Repeat” before some drone snatched “Edge of Tomorrow” off a low shelf) may have been the classic video game scenario, but Liman adds so much more polish and depth to the concept that, as with Groundhog Day, Cruise’s most wearing and touching battle is his fruitless and unending dance with time. However, that Liman merely tantalises us with this heaviness only to constantly kickstart the scenario with energetic optimism is his masterstroke. Thus, the danger with the Groundhog premise, namely repetition boredom, isn’t as much sidestepped here as it is leapfrogged…. in a funnel of brilliantly edited, pulsating action! They even make the mechanised exoskeleton (which everyone from James Cameron to Neill Blomkamp has failed to actualise) look cool while also making it work for the script.

Cruise is to be commended for playing such an unflattering character with real gusto and whether it be tapping the humour, hopelessness, and/or heroism of his circumstances, he makes for a smashing lead. As his comrade in day-tripping, Emily Blunt is equally strong in an admirably feminine way and watching the pair burst their way off the beaches of Normandy in a whirlwind of mechanised alien fighting (along to Christophe Beck’s muscular score) is just spine-tingling.

McQuarrie, Jezz and John-Henry Butterworth deserve their fair share of credit too for delivering the freshest but most purposeful screenplay the genre has seen in quite some time but it’s Liman’s mastery of time-playing that deserves most respect. A coalescence of shot composition, alternate camera angles, and editing tempo that propels the plot forward in a series of groundhog-esque transitions. So good is this part of the movie, that the scenes in which a more traditional narrative is employed suffer immensely by comparison and even begin to drag. The relative facelessness of the aliens becomes more obvious at these points too alerting us to the fact that this is one area where Live Die Repeat (the original title has thankfully been restored for home-market release) fails to live up to the classics of the genre and is more in tune with today’s more generic movie evil. In the long run, however, these issues are eminently forgivable because the rest of this movie is such an irresistible blast from the past that it’s as likely to stand the test of time. Do Not Miss!

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RoboCop (2014) 3.64/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74.4
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 117 mins
Director: José Padilha
Stars: Joel Kinnaman, Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, Samuel L. Jackson

An audacious and laudable remake that takes the opportunity to look at a central concept of the original film from a fresh perspective. In other words, it does exactly what a remake should! Whereas most modern remakes simply use the name recognition of the original as a basis for spewing out a series of CGI action sequences and nothing more, this one takes the most fascinating ideas underlying the original RoboCop and teases them out one by one. And that it does so on a level that would put many academics on the subject to shame is even more impressive. The scenario is only roughly similar to the 1987 movie. An America of the future where OmniCorp (who are restricted to non-domestic military applications like the ED209) are eager to overcome a congressional bill by getting the American public to accept robot law enforcers on their streets. Their villainous CEO (a brilliant Michael Keaton with a performance so utterly untouched by cliche that we spend most of the movie liking him) comes up with the idea of putting a man in a machine. Unfortunately, an immediate conflict between the robotic components and his free will raises financial, political, and philosophical implications that place pressure on the scientists to separate the two when in reality they may share a much more dynamic and inseparable relationship.

In a further gutsy move, the man to play the hero was picked from relative obscurity. Far from an obvious choice, The Killing’s Joel Kinnaman nonetheless cuts a decent Murphy. He doesn’t have the booming presence of Peter Weller but his character is conflicted from the moment he’s awoken and thus less assured as the cyborg law enforcer. In truth, with everything that’s going on, he isn’t as central as Weller’s RoboCop was in the first place and while he, like the plot, could’ve had a little more room to breathe, the “secondary” characters, representing as they do the film’s wider questions, are just as important.

Keaton may not be playing a machine himself but he’s no less electric. There’s a genuine substance to his character’s actions like tiptoeing into his underling’s office out of concern for bring rude. Gary Oldman as the scientific mind behind the robot interface is just as complex and terrifically realised on screen. Of course, much of the credit must go to Joshua Zetumer and Edward Neumeier’s (yes, the same man responsible for the glorious satire of the original film) well nourished script (though much was added by uncredited James Vanderbilt). A less satirical screenplay but even more cynical, in this RoboCop humans are human, whether they be bad or good. Caricatures are few and far between in this remake – and there’s a sentence for you!

But what tips this movie into the net is the movie’s intellectual ambitions. Fascinatingly and indeed admirably informed debates regarding the nature and constituency of human consciousness and self-determination lie at the centre of the story and even the plot so that the film coheres like almost no other modern blockbuster. That it’s cohering around the most complex of subject matters is fairly impressive when practically every other tentpole movie can’t even balance the most trite themes of the human condition. Contrary to movies like Inception which have absolutely no bearing on the reality of human psychology, RoboCop 2014 is framed around cutting edge considerations in the science from the neuropsychological basis of free will to its fundamental interdependence with unconscious action. Similarly sophisticated is its glancing swipe at the role of the right wing media in the politics of fear through reduction, simplistic disingenuousness, childish anger, and naked hypocrisy.

Where the movie undoubtedly runs flat, however, is in its action sequences. Here, Jose Padilha’s direction (which by some accounts was beset with studio interference) needed a little more elegance and much more punch. The set pieces smack of tokenism and an overuse of the Call of Duty PoV attenuates their cinematic quality. That the original scored as high in this department as it did on its satire places it firmly above this remake. But then again, action is not what this remake is about. The ultimate twist here is that RoboCop 2014 isn’t an action sci-fi at all but a cerebral sci-fi with just a little action sprinkled on top.

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Dark City (1998) 4.79/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 91.8
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 100 mins
Director: Alex Proyas
Stars: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly

This is one of those films that is so conceptually and aesthetically stunning that it can hit you like a freight train if you’re not expecting it. And isn’t that one of the great joys of cinema? Alex Proyas’ film has been described as a Kafkaesque sci-fi noir and it very much is. It begins in a strange grimy hotel room where John Murdoch wakes up to find a dead prostitute on his floor and a group of sinister men pursuing him. His escape brings us into a world that seems at odds with everything we know and expect. It quickly transpires that Murdoch isn’t quite normal himself and may even have abilities akin to those of the strangers who are following him.

For a film that was always going to repel mainstream audiences who demand conventional narratives and accessible plots it’s amazing at how much money seems to have gone into this. The production design is truly awe-inspiring and combined with Proyas’ dark vision it becomes psyche affecting. The script is electric and is as honest an attempt to live up to the potentials of science fiction as you’ll find. It presents us with highly defined yet idiosyncratic characters who are cast to perfection. William Hurt and Jennifer Connelly are excellent but it’s Kiefer Sutherland’s Dr. Schreber and Rufus Sewell’s Murdoch who are so utterly captivating. Sutherland nails his character and is responsible for much of the film’s thrust, while Sewell is immense in an altogether more difficult role. Proyas’ direction is slick and intense employing quick cuts with sharp angles to get the most out his extraordinarily lit and shadow friendly sets.

Dark City is a monumental piece of science-fiction that pre-dated The Matrix by a year but went well beyond that film in its scope and daring. Ultimately, the best thing you can say about Dark City is that it achieves that holy grail of science fiction movies. A film that looks and feels like nothing that came before it or since. Utterly utterly sublime.

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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) 4.83/5 (5)

 

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Rating: The Good – 89.4
Genre: Western
Duration: 110 mins
Director: George Roy Hill
Stars: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross

George Roy Hill’s iconic western is an inspired piece of film-making that takes a very different approach to the archetypal western. Adopting a humorous and light-hearted approach for much of the film, it gives the genre the time to breathe that it normally doesn’t receive and in focusing on one of the eras most legendary friendships it romanticises the old west in a manner more touching too. This was the first joint outing for Paul Newman and Robert Redford and they form an irresistible duo that easily goes down as the best on-screen partnership the medium has offered up. The two play off each other seamlessly and deliver two fascinating and novel characterisations. Newman is hysterical as the every-man Butch, the leader of the infamous Hole-in-the-Wall gang, while Redford is pitch perfect as the lightning fast gunslinger.

The action only kicks in about half way through when in the midst of all the gang’s usual shenanigans, a breakneck chase suddenly erupts which sees Butch and Sundance being pursued across mountain and desert by a ruthless posse of specialists. Hill’s decision to never show the faces of the posse was inspired and it gives the near half-hour long pursuit a real edge. In fact, there’s arguably not another chase sequence that is as electric or effectively shot as this one. Katherine Ross comes to the fore more in the final act as the woman in the middle but never in between and adds a nice counterpoint to the pair.

Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid is really a perfect film which plays by its own rules. The level of ingenuity and innovation that Hill brings to the shooting of it from the fleeting use of monochrome to the integration of Burt Bacharach’s counter-intuitive yet seminal soundtrack, ensures that there’s not a frame in it where you don’t notice something special. It’s also a genuinely funny and at times hysterical film thanks chiefly to the telepathic understanding shared between the leads but also William Goldman’s sublime script. With a movie that boasts such perfection it is, therefore, quite fitting that Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid signs off with one of the great cinematic salutes and in doing so immortalises its two heroes in splendid fashion. Cinema magic.

Network (1976) 4.33/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 87.8
Genre: Drama, Satire
Duration: 121 mins
Director: Sidney Lumet
Stars: Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall

Surely one of the most complete and effective satires, Network is a delicious take on the business of television programming, human relationships, and how both feed and feed off the impartial narratives that so many shows are built around. Peter Finch stars as the disturbed news anchor who upon hearing that he’s been fired launches an attack on his network live on air. So good are the ratings that the executives (an emotionally vacant yet ruthless Faye Dunaway and an equally ambitious Robert Duvall) order head of the news division William Holden to build a show around his deteriorating friend’s rantings. The script is pure gold with some of cinema’s most subtly cutting and scathing commentary threaded throughout. The characters are all in different ways reflections of the greed and selfishness of the modern world and are as good as the actors inhabiting them. The film is genuinely hilarious with Finch’s outbursts being the highlights. Lumet’s delicate touch is all over this and it is he who allows Paddy Chayefsky’s searing script to come to life in as stimulating a fashion as it does. Watch out for Ned Beatty’s thunderous cameo which ultimately more than anything else sets the tone for this cinematic monument.

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