Movie Review: Notes On A Scandal (2006)
Sat, 20 Jul 2019 17:15:00 +0000

A drama about loneliness and lust, Notes On A Scandal is a compact and explosive examination of two women suffering through different forms of desperation.

In London, Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) is nearing retirement as a history teacher at a tough school. Lonely and never married, she confines her deepest thoughts to her diary. At the start of the school year Barbara spots new art teacher Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) struggling to deal with raucous student behaviour, and befriends her. Sheba is married to the much older Richard (Bill Nighy) and returning to work after taking 10 years off to care for her son Ben, who has Down's Syndrome.

Just as their friendship is solidifying, Barbara discovers Sheba having an affair with 15 year old student Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson). Sheba admits all the details of the passionate affair to Barbara and pleads with her to delay telling the administration until after Christmas. But Barbara has other plans, and assures Sheba her secret is safe as long as Sheba breaks off the relationship with Steven.

The serious issue of loneliness among the elderly is rarely tackled on film, and Notes On A Scandal rectifies the omission with relish. Barbara is a fascinating character to place at the middle of any story, and Judi Dench brilliantly captures the complexity of a lonely but proud woman drowning in dwindling expectations, her mind justifying the creeping dark shadow of manipulative and stalking behavior.

Zoë Heller's book is adapted into an efficient 91 minute screenplay by Patrick Marber, and director Richard Eyre makes potent use of every scene. Driver by Philip Glass' soundtrack and without any dawdling the film breathes deeply from a school environment beset by a teachers' mood of prevalent resignation and hormonally-driven students who would rather be anywhere else. Any hint of an optimistic narrative about an inspirational teacher helping even one student rise above is stomped into the grey concrete, and Notes On A Scandal sets off to uncover the thriving weeds of selfish immorality growing between the cracks.

If Barbara is the silent hunter hiding behind the proper stiff mannerisms of an unloved but respected veteran, Sheba is the wispy newcomer escaping a stressful home environment overrun with childcare responsibilities. She was a 20 year old ingenue student when she wrecked Richard's first marriage, and now she is incurably attracted to her own affair with a toyboy. Sheba's indiscretion renders her hopelessly vulnerable and exposed to Barbara, and the two women are soon locked in an impossible embrace of dependence.

Blanchett remarkably matches Dench's performance with her own rendition of a woman slowly cut adrift from rational behaviour, Blanchett convincingly occupying Sheba's fragile head space as she risks family and career.

The third act does veer towards a couple of overclocked meltdowns, but overall Notes On A Scandal maintains focus on the insidious damage caused by the yawning gap between hope and reality. Barbara and Sheba may be a generation apart, but they are on the same emotional collision course.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: White Hunter Black Heart (1990)
Fri, 19 Jul 2019 23:53:00 +0000

An adventure about living life to the fullest, White Hunter Black Heart follows a flamboyant character as he doggedly chases a defining prize.

Respected film director John Wilson (Clint Eastwood) is an anti-authoritarian free spirit, marching to the beat of his own drummer and unconcerned with studio requirements. John convinces writer Pete Verrill (Jeff Fahey) to travel with him to Africa to film a movie for producer Paul Landers (George Dzundza). Despite the financial risks and complicated logistics, John insists the entire film be shot on location, further raising the anxiety level of the studio and financiers.

But John's real objective is to embark on a safari to hunt a large tusked elephant. Once in Africa he ignores the film preparation activities and instead instigates hell-raising brawls and connects with local guides who could lead him to the trail of elephant herds. Pete grows increasingly frustrated with John's obsession and disagrees on principle with hunting elephants. As the clock ticks down to the scheduled start of filming, the cast and crew arrive in Africa to find a distracted and dismissive director.

Co-written by Peter Viertel, adapting his book of the same title, White Hunter Black Heart lands in an unfortunate narrative limbo. Viertel was a co-writer of The African Queen, and although this story is billed as fictional it is clearly inspired by events leading up to the filming of John Huston's classic. The obvious yet unspoken parallels with famous real people and actual events are disconcerting.

Eastwood directs and acts in the starring role as John Wilson, delivering a mixed impression of Huston. Worrywart Paul Landers is modeled on producer Sam Spiegel, while Marisa Berenson and Richard Vanstone have small roles as Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart (here called Kay Gibson and Phil Duncan), and are essentially made up as lookalikes.Viertel becomes Pete Verrill, the mostly passive observer of Wilson's overindulgent eccentricities.

As a film White Hunter Black Heart is theatrically staged and mostly concerned with examining the psyche of a man willing to test his own limits and happy to poke society's tolerance of his insubordination. Undoubtedly talented and passionate, Wilson's artistic abilities as a movie creator are fueled by his maverick tendencies. He thrives on violating the sensibilities of everyone around him, hoping for reactions to cultivate his creativity.

But Wilson's obsession with hunting an elephant as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to connect with a primordial definition of masculinity takes the film only so far. Many barely defined secondary and tertiary characters clutter his adventure, and all can be categorized as enablers, targets or irrelevant. Eastwood the director builds to a few deliberate highlights, including Wilson sparring with an anti-semitic socialite and a racist hotel manager. The incidents are just too obvious as attempts to soften Wilson's character in the face of his determination to fell an elephant and irritate his colleagues.

The filming locations in Zimbabwe add an organic beauty, but Viertel's dialogue errs towards an awkward combination of artificial and florid, always in search of the killer quip or witty retort but never quite landing.

John Wilson may believe his wild beast hunt carries a greater purpose than any mere contemporary human can understand. But White Hunter Black Heart is a just a middling pursuit of the mythical edge, the stripped consequences grounded in down-to-earth reality.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Flight Of The Phoenix (1965)
Wed, 17 Jul 2019 03:51:00 +0000

A survival adventure, The Flight Of The Phoenix explores tense dynamics among a group of men stranded in the unforgiving desert.

In North Africa, jaded veteran pilot Frank Towns (James Stewart) and his hard drinking navigator Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough) are in command of a cargo flight to Benghazi, flying an aging twin-engine Fairchild C-82 Packet airplane. A disparate group of men from various backgrounds are hitching a ride, including British military men Captain Harris (Peter Finch) and Sergeant Watson (Ronald Fraser); French Doctor Renaud (Christian Marquand); German scientist Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Krüger); and several oil field workers including the dimwitted Cobb (Ernest Borgnine).

During the flight Towns encounters a severe sandstorm, first knocking the plane off course then stalling both engines and forcing a hard landing in the desert. The men have plenty of dried dates for food but only enough water for about 10 to 15 days. With no signs of a forthcoming rescue Harris and one other survivor embark on a perilous march through the desert, while Heinrich reveals he is an airplane designer and develops an audacious plan to build a flying plane out of the wreckage.

An adaptation of the 1964 Elleston Trevor novel written for the screen by Lukas Heller and directed by Robert Aldrich, The Flight Of The Phoenix is an epic story of stress, hope and interpersonal dependencies under desperate circumstances. In the classic tradition of survival stories, the film is most interested in exploring emergent conduct and mental pressure when strangers with contrasting perspectives are trapped together for a prolonged period.

Themes of discipline, leadership and the transference of behavioral expectations from routine to emergency contexts permeate through the film. Heller's script delves into the complexities of authority under stress through the hierarchical relationship between Captain Harris and Sergeant Watson. Here codes of discipline and obedience built for war buckle under the strain of bleak prospects unrelated to hostile action. Suddenly deception and cowardice are in play, all in the name of eking out a survival advantage.

More fundamental to the group's prospects is the tension between Captain Towns and Heinrich Dorfmann. The normative leadership of the only man who can fly a plane is challenged once his aircraft is a crumpled wreck in the desert. Heinrich's well-calculated idea to build a new plane may sound insane, but it's the only available plan, and only he can lead it. Towns has already managed to steer his career in a downward spiral towards flying for a fifth-rate cargo operation in the desert with a drunk as his navigator, and yielding authority to a German nerd is not something he can readily accept. The essential role of the moderator, fulfilled by the now forcibly sober Moran, is accentuated.

The performances from James Stewart, Richard Attenborough and particularly Hardy Krüger are sturdy and appropriately layered, helping the film overcome its mammoth 142 minutes of running time. Some episodes serve to unnecessarily prolong the action while thinning the herd, but Aldrich overall keeps his focus on the characters. The resultant drama is engrossing despite most events being confined to a single location in and right around the plane's wreckage.

All men eventually wilt but a few also rise to the challenge. The Flight Of The Phoenix salutes the human ability to adapt and survive against overwhelming adversity.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)
Sun, 14 Jul 2019 19:29:00 +0000

A sequel to the classic 1987 financial drama, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is a competent continuation of the story without ever rising to the same heights.

In 2001 Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) is released from prison after serving eight years for fraudulent financial activities. By 2008 he is living a quiet life, promoting his book and predicting an economic disaster to come. Ambitious securities trader Jacob Moore (Shia LaBeouf) is in love with Gordon's daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan), who is not on speaking terms with her father. Jacob works for Keller Zabel Investments, a firm being shaken by the early rumblings of the subprime mortgage crisis.

Rival Bretton James (Josh Brolin) of the firm Churchill Schwartz senses weakness and ends the career of Jacob's boss and mentor Louis Zabel (Frank Langella). Bretton and Gordon share a chequered history, creating an opportunity for Gordon and Jacob to team up against a common foe. In return for Gordon supplying Jacob with information about Bretton's unethical trading conduct, Jacob tries to arrange a reconciliation between Gordon and Winnie. But with the entire financial market system on the verge of collapse, personal agendas may be sideswiped by bigger events.

With the 2008 Great Recession providing a seemingly ideal backdrop, director Oliver Stone returns to the world of greed, backstabbing and unimaginable wealth among the movers and shakers at the epicentre of capitalism. Money Never Sleeps is glitzy and visually hyperkinetic, featuring rushed plot developments, the occasional dizzy torrent of characters and names, and an abundance of split screens superimposed with rapidly changing numbers, charts, and artistic silhouettes.

But for all the moving and shaking, the reality of the financial crisis is more astounding than any fictional story conjured up by co-writers Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff. Here the script goes searching for memorable moments to rival the Greed is Good speech from the first film, but instead settles for a routine tale of revenge, comebacks, father-daughter tension and an unconvincing romance. Freshness and originality are sorely lacking, and even the ending reaches for sappy when a more biting resolution was available.

Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko is by far the best thing on display, and the film suffers mightily when he is off-screen. Neither Josh Brolin as the designated new villain nor Shia LaBeouf as the feisty newcomer have the charisma or sparkle to engage, and they are ill served by predictable and bland dialogue exchanges.

The romance between Jacob and Winnie is the weakest part of the film, as they spend most of the time arguing. Carey Mulligan cannot overcome her character's repeated internal inconsistencies, starting with why a woman with left-leaning politics and disgusted by her father's profession would fall for a slick Wall Street guy.

The cast is deep in underutilized talent, including Eli Wallach in his last feature film as a Wall Street veteran and Susan Sarandon as Jacob's mother, overextended on real estate speculation. Charlie Sheen makes a one-scene appearance as Bud Fox, and Sylvia Miles has an equally brief role as a realtor. The soundtrack is an audacious but ultimate incongruous and unsuitable selection of songs written and performed by David Byrne and Brian Eno.

Money Never Sleeps offers a nod to emerging technologies and the fledgling field of alternative energy sources, and a few strong and tense scenes are staged at the Federal Reserve as the most powerful bankers in the country grapple with the meltdown of their entire industry. But while the subject matter is always reasonably engrossing due to the inherent corruption, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps uses gilded packaging to cover up distinctly familiar fundamentals.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The King And I (1956)
Sat, 13 Jul 2019 16:58:00 +0000

A musical drama and romance, The King And I enjoys a larger-than-life Yul Brynner performance and a couple of good musical numbers, but otherwise sags under the weight of a turgid production.

It's the 1860s, and British teacher Anna Leonowens (Deborah Kerr) and her young son arrive in Siam. Anna has accepted the position of educator to the children of King Mongkut (Yul Brynner), but she is disappointed to learn from Prime Minister Kralahome (Martin Benson) that the King has reneged on a promise to provide her with a house outside the castle.

Anna finds the King a stern but intriguing man, the arrogant father of numerous children but keenly interested in expanding his knowledge of science and international politics. She establishes a good rapport with her students and also meets Tuptim (Rita Moreno), the Burmese slave wife of the King who is still secretly in love with her beau Lun Tha (Carlos Rivas). Anna gradually establishes herself as a capable advisor to the King, but their relationship remains complex.

Based on the 1951 Broadway musical which in turn was an adaptation of the 1944 book Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon, The King And I features the music of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II and Yul Brynner's career defining performance. Recreating the role he made his own on the stage, Brynner dominates the screen with a restless, authoritative hands-on-hips display of power.

While Kerr (with her singing dubbed by Marni Nixon) adequately grounds Anna in predictable British mannerisms, most of the rest of the film does not live up to Brynner's energy level. Getting To Know You and Shall We Dance? are superlative set-pieces, but the rest of the musical numbers are eminently forgettable. And for a film drawn out to 133 minutes, the supporting characters are close to nonexistent. Anna's son Louis appears at the start and end and otherwise disappears entirely, while Prime Minister Kralahome is equally underutilized. The lingering romance between Tuptim and Lun Tha is reduced to the simplest of fallow sketches.

The King And I features a bewildering play-within-a-play, an artistically staged eastern version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, converted by Tuptim into a condemnation of the King's attachment to wife enslavement. The sequence is both enchanting and distracting, a misfit in the overall narrative arc but nevertheless captivating in its simplistic beauty.

Director Walter Lang confines the action to a few studio-created sets representing various mammoth rooms within the King's castle. Captured in CinemaScope, the set design is impressive and colourful, but the film never threatens to escape its stage origins. Meanwhile the core story suffers from a tired west-is-best mentality, and is further hindered by a hideous make-up job to unconvincingly transform white and Hispanic cast members into Asians.

The King And I enshrines Brynner's forceful screen persona, but is an otherwise confounding royal encounter.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Private Benjamin (1980)
Sat, 13 Jul 2019 04:58:00 +0000

A comedy and romance about life's twists and turns and resultant decision points, Private Benjamin combines army humour with a worthwhile story about finally growing up.

In Philadelphia, 26 year old Judy Benjamin (Goldie Hawn) is a spoiled princess from a rich family, about to get married for the second time. But new husband Yale (Albert Brooks) expires during intercourse on their wedding night, sending Judy into a depression. She is lured into volunteering for the army by a recruiter (Harry Dean Stanton) selling her a vision of private waterfront rooms and yachts.

Instead, Judy finds herself in Biloxi, Mississippi, undergoing six weeks of basic training under the command of Captain Doreen Lewis (Eileen Brennan) and Drill Sergeant Ross (Hal Williams). She wants to quit and her parents (Sam Wanamaker and Barbara Barrie) arrive to take her home. But Judy experiences a last minute change of heart and decides to tough it out, changing her life's trajectory and leading to a romance with suave French doctor Henri Tremont (Armand Assante).

Close to her stardom peak, Goldie Hawn co-produces, stars in and energizes a warm hearted comedy. Private Benjamin is an old-fashioned star vehicle, and Hawn owns every scene of her movie. From flighty and overindulged rich girl looking for a professional husband and an easy life to a hardened army graduate standing up for herself, Judy Benjamin's journey combines laughs with knowing commentary about redefining trajectories.

The comedy stems from the conflict in expectations between a self-proclaimed professional shopper and life in an army barracks, and director Howard Zieff places Judy in plenty of awkward situations to ram home her new reality. Cleaning toilets, endurance training and physical tussles with other volunteers create rich terrain for humour and evolution, while raising Judy's awareness that there may be more to life than choosing the perfect interior decorating fabric colour.

The film's third act is more serious and involves Judy's post-graduation posting in Europe, and the subsequent relationship with Henri. The departure from the earlier broad laughs and the abandonment of Judy's hard-earned gal-pals is a narrative risk. But co-writers Nancy Meyers, Charles Shyer, and Harvey Miller know what they are doing, because as the 1980s kick-off, women's empowerment extends beyond admittance to previously male-only domains and towards putting new found skills to practical use. Judy's journey is only satisfying when she starts navigating her life with a new sense of maturity and independence.

Eileen Brennan provides solid support as a tough but vulnerable Captain Lewis, who evolves from trainer to nemesis. Armand Assante is all smarmy charm as the latest seemingly safe catch luring Judy into old habits.

Private Benjamin joins the army to escape a personal tragedy and chase a fantasy, but discovers a bold new reality instead.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: My Favorite Year (1982)
Sat, 13 Jul 2019 03:50:00 +0000

A nostalgia-driven comedy about the insanity of early live television shows, My Favorite Year combines laughs with joyfully expansive characters.

It's 1954 in New York City. Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker) has landed a job as a junior writer and errand boy for the weekly live television show Comedy Cavalcade, starring Stan "King" Kaiser (Joseph Bologna). While Benjy is busy trying to ignite a romance with office girl K.C. Downing (Jessica Harper), he is tasked with ensuring that ex-movie star Alan Swann (Peter O'Toole), once a popular hero of swashbuckling spectacles but now a notorious drunk, remains sober and functional enough to fulfil his guest star appearance.

In the days leading up to the show King is threatened by mobster Karl Rojeck (Cameron Mitchell), who is unhappy being one of the King's regular satirical targets. Meanwhile Benjy tries to keep Swann under control, and their misadventures include a wild sojourn to a nightclub, a highrise rooftop escapade, and dinner with Benjy's family in Brooklyn. The two men get to know each other and find they have more in common than expected.

A look back at the early days of writing and producing popular live television comedy shows, My Favorite Year feeds off the buzz and energy of writers, actors and producers tasked with pulling together a weekly event in which anything can go wrong in front of millions of viewers. Director Richard Benjamin finds a good rhythm alternating comedy and character depth, My Favorite Year enjoying moments of farce interspersed with more quiet scenes of pathos, reflection and some romance.

The film draws on the real-life personal experience of Mel Brooks, here an uncredited executive producer. The script (by Norman Steinberg and Dennis Palumbo) is inspired by Brooks' days writing with Woody Allen for the Sid Caesar variety program and Alan Swann is based by Errol Flynn, once a guest star on Caesar's show.

My Favorite Year plays on the theme of screen fantasy colliding with the reality of the men who create it. The larger than life imagery lifts but also consumes, and Swann's surrender to mythology comes at the expense of true fulfilment. While Peter O'Toole is in top form bringing Alan Swann to life as happily addicted to alcohol and women, some of the drunken antics are tiresome. Better are the moments where Swann displays surprising humanity and perception, demonstrating to Benjy a startling level of self awareness.

To a lesser extent King Kaiser is dealing with the same issues but at a more immediate level, his current mass popularity antagonizing the real target of his stinging sketches. The line between actor and role blurs, King standing up to mobster Rojeck as if he has an entourage of muscle rather than actors supporting him.

The romance elements are choppy and essentially disappear from the second half of the film. But the comedy highlights are many, including a dinner event with Benjy's parents that draws in all the occupants of a Brooklyn apartment building, followed by an attempted party gate-crash stunt involving misuse of a firehose. Director Benjamin finds a suitable finale that brings together the past and present while meshing the actors and their roles in a fitting tribute. As it turns out, once actors create their legend, there is no turning back.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Loving (2016)
Sun, 07 Jul 2019 14:54:00 +0000

A historical biography, Loving is the story of the romance that resulted in a legal challenge on laws banning mixed-race marriage in Southern states.

It's the late 1950s in rural Virginia. In a small but diverse Caroline County community, bricklayer and car mechanic Richard Loving, (Joel Edgerton), who is white, is very much in love with Mildred (Ruth Negga), a local black woman. After she announces her pregnancy they get married in Washington DC and start planning to build a house. It does not take long for local sheriff Brooks (Marton Csokas) and his men to burst in at midnight and arrest Richard and Mildred for violating Virginia's law banning interracial marriage.

Judge Bazile (David Jensen) suspends their one year prison sentence on condition they leave the state for 25 years. They relocate to Washington DC, where the family grows to three kids. But the lure of home is strong and with the civil rights movement gaining momentum, Mildred writes to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, seeking his intervention. The case is referred to the American Civil Liberties Union, and lawyer Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) is appointed to investigate appeal options.

A story of a humble and simple couple who became the catalysts for historic change, Loving is as low key and understated as its reluctant protagonists. Director Jeff Nichols also wrote the script, and he adopts a suitably detached observer tone, avoiding any hint of speeches, moralizing or even condemnation. Nichols also resists the temptation to enter the courtroom for any longer than needed. Once their case makes it to Supreme Court Richard and Mildred decide to stay away, and Nichols respects their decision and avoids turning Loving into a courtroom drama.

The story only gains strengths from it rejection of grandstanding and labels of heroism or villainy. Richard is a lumbering man of few words, his brooding exterior hiding a sensitive soul deeply dedicated to Mildred. In a memorably minimalist performance Joel Edgerton often occupies the screen with awkward silence and uncomfortable shuffling.

Ruth Negga compensates with a soft smile, a home-grown glint in her eye and a more patient stance. Mildred is devoted to her roots, her community and her new husband and growing family. Always a misfit in urban Washington DC, it is Mildred who takes the initiative to write to Kennedy, and then agitates Richard into accepting meetings with the ACLU. She is also marginally more comfortable with the media and engages with the press to shine a light on their case. Michael Shannon has a one-scene appearance as a Life magazine photographer.

Loving finds tender beauty in the elegance of rural life, Richard and Mildred the products of a tight-knit community that has largely embraced diversity and moved past labels based on skin colour. As is often the case, seminal change traces back to the most humble of origins.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Yesterday (2019)
Sat, 06 Jul 2019 19:04:00 +0000

A music-inspired romantic comedy with a fantasy premise, Yesterday combines the songs of The Beatles with an appealing and lighthearted story about the lure of fame.

In England, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is an unknown struggling singer songwriter close to giving up on the dream of a music career. His manager and agent Ellie (Lily James) has steadfastly supported him since grade school, but their relationship never progressed beyond friendship. A mysterious global power blackout lasts for 12 seconds, during which Jack is hit by a bus.

He wakes up in hospital, and upon recovering is stunned to realize he is the only person on earth who knows who The Beatles are. The Fab Four (along with a few other iconic items) appear to have never existed. Jack senses an opportunity to claim The Beatles' catalogue as his own work. He is soon discovered by Ed Sheeran (playing himself) and business manager Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon), and sets off on a wild ride towards superstardom, but at a cost to his relationship with Ellie.

Tapping into the eternal magic of The Beatles' music, Yesterday sets off to explore the conflict between fame and fulfilment. The film is elegantly paced and earnestly staged by director Danny Boyle, and benefits from agreeable performances from Patel and James, with a terrific assist from McKinnon.

Richard Curtis conjured up the script, and uses the global memory hiccup as a humorous launching off point to delve into eternal conflicts. Jack can achieve everything he ever wanted if he can just continue to lie to himself and turn away from Lily's adoration. Keeping one secret and losing one woman will allow him to become the world's biggest music star, and Yesterday playfully toys with Jack's internal agony as he gets to decide which version of the future he will seize.

The romance between Jack and Ellie underpins the story. The two are perfectly suited to each other but in their ten years as friends and business partners never found the courage to express their true feelings. Now with fate and fame intervening it may all be too late, but Curtis keeps the flame flickering, with both demonstrating vulnerability to provide the film with its human warmth.

Elsewhere McKinnon gets the best one-liners as the acerbic music manager fully in charge of the industry machinery and just as fully fixated on the bottom line, while Joel Fry as accidental roadie Rocky provides laidback comic support. Ed Sheeran lends plenty of star power and credibility as the already-there superstar paving the way for the next and greater talent to emerge.

With the clever cosmic twist deployed to tangle up would-be lovers in a global knot filled with delicious pitfalls and opportunities, Yesterday is suitably inspired by music that changed the world. 

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Sexy Beast (2000)
Sat, 06 Jul 2019 15:26:00 +0000

A crime thriller with comic touches, Sexy Beast rides a wave of profanity in a patchy story of multiple dueling gangsters.

In Spain, retired British criminal Gal (Ray Winstone) is living the easy life with his wife DeeDee (Amanda Redman) and their friends, fellow-Brit couple Aitch and Jacki. After surviving an errant boulder that tumbles into his swimming pool, the out of shape but happy Gal gets a visit from notorious thug Don Logan (Ben Kingsley), who is recruiting a bank vault heist team for a job in London on behalf of mobster Teddy Bass (Ian McShane).

Gal is not interested, but the combustible Don will not take no for an answer, and over two days escalates the pressure and hurls steely insults at Gal, DeeDee, Aitch and Jacki. In the meantime, the ice cold Teddy will have the final say about Gal's fate.

An irreverent peek into the lives of thugs, Sexy Beast collects a cross section of retired and active operatives and throws them into a different kind of conflict. The script by Louis Mellis and David Scinto uses the actual heist as a secondary objective, and focuses attention instead on the personalities of men at different stages in life influencing each other. Gal and Aitch have serenely settled down to a post-work world in sunny Spain, Don is very much still engrossed in plotting the next job, and Teddy is an aging but effective master plotter.

Don's irresistible force methods to pressure and shame Gal into coming out of retirement is the film's centrepiece. First time director Jonathan Glazer comes from the music video world and jacks up Don's level of intensity into the vivid absurd. With Don Kingsley not holding back, this recruiter is more a force of nature than a man. His persuasive communication methods consist of a never ending stream of insults, mercilessly probing his target's emotional weaknesses to achieve the desired outcome.

Don also serves as a catalyst, his re-emergence forcing secrets from Gal's past life into the open and exposing vulnerabilities that either hold ex-cons together or tear them apart.

With every second word of dialogue a profanity, Sexy Beast often slips into stylistic excess at the expense of plot coherence, and the third act starts to sketch in events with minimal explanation. Ian McShane's Teddy Bass is an intimidating presence, his piercing eyes capable of boring into any skull, but Gal is almost reduced to a side observer in his own story as the film rumbles erratically towards a conclusion.

The beasts are human and their sexy days well behind them, but they still make for colourful subjects.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Goodbye Girl (1977)
Fri, 05 Jul 2019 22:03:00 +0000

An opposites-attract romantic comedy, The Goodbye Girl enjoys amiable lead performances but suffers from constrained writing.

In New York City, cash-strapped Paula McFadden (Marsha Mason) is a former Broadway dancer, now raising her 10 year old daughter Lucy (Quinn Cummings). They are both shocked when Paula's current boyfriend Tony, an actor, abandons them and heads off to Europe. To make matters worse, Tony sub-lets their apartment to Elliot Garfield (Richard Dreyfuss), an actor arriving from Chicago to star in an off-Broadway production of Shakespeare's Richard III.

Paula and Elliott reach at a tense agreement to share the apartment. She goes back to dance training and auditioning to support herself and Lucy, while Elliott struggles during rehearsals to understand his director's unique interpretation of King Richard. Although they bicker constantly, an attraction starts to develop between Paula and Elliott.

This time writing directly for the screen, Neil Simon goes back to The Odd Couple concept and crams two incompatible adults into a small apartment. The Goodbye Girl throws in precocious but clever Lucy into the mix to further boost the mismatched dynamics. The outcome is familiar material with a decent makeover, and the duo of Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason (Simon's wife at this stage) easily shoulder the responsibility of creating and maintaining momentum.

In addition to being opposites Paula and Elliott joust as equals, both claiming the high ground when justified and retreating or yielding when prudent. Dreyfuss is all about restless energy, despite Elliott meditating (in the nude) with his guitar and practicing yoga at all hours. Mason brings barely-contained anger at how Paula's life is unraveling. Together they create enough humorous tension to navigate Simon's prose, engaging in clever, robust and generally sharp dialogue exchanges.

Despite some zingers and wry observations from Lucy, The Goodbye Girl's script does carry hints of lazy writing. Despite writing for the screen Simon is unable to break away from the stage. The action is frequently confined to the apartment, the excursions to Elliot's rehearsals and Paula's dance auditions appearing forced and perfunctory before Simon hurries back to the friendly confines he knows best.

More disappointing is a romance that appears imposed on the two leads, director Herbert Ross unable to convincingly pivot from hostility to love. Elliott and Paula spend so much time bickering and angry, then conveniently fall into each other's arms for seemingly no other reason than the movie entering its final third. The scenes of conflict make for much better entertainment than the clunky romance, and The Goodbye Girl loses its edge once the arguing stops, forcing Simon and Ross to chart one last prolonged conflict to regain a spark.

The story waves at a few routine overarching themes, include Paula always falling for the wrong guy (usually an actor) and taking out her anger on the next wrong guy (also usually an actor), the scrappy hand to mouth lifestyle in the arts world, and a mother balancing career, daughter and romance. The Goodbye Girl can't pick her men very well, but at least her ups and downs make for modest entertainment.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Ace Black's List: The 10 Best Movies of 2015
Tue, 02 Jul 2019 01:45:00 +0000

More than 60 movies from 2015 have been reviewed on the Ace Black Blog. Here are the 10 Best:

Directed by Sarah Gavron.
Starring Carey Mulligan, Ben Whishaw, Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep.
The harrowing story of women's struggle to win the right to vote in England of the early 1900s, and an unblinking look at the consequences of dedication to a just cause. Full review.

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter.
A grim and ferocious western, and a story of individual survival in an untamed land. A feast for the eyes and a challenge for the mind, unrelenting and almost physically exhausting to watch. Full review.

Directed by Ridley Scott.
Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels and Sean Bean.
An epic space survival and rescue drama celebrating science, resiliency and innovation under pressure in a graceful, visually rich package. Full review.

Directed by S. Craig Zahler.
Starring Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, Patrick Wilson and Matthew Fox.
An engrossing horror western featuring a sturdy rescue mission punctuated by a few unforgettable moments of abominable gore. Full review.

Directed by Jay Roach.
Starring Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren, Diane Lane, and John Goodman.
A character study and a cautionary tale about social paranoia, and a sharply written story of career survival set during the Red Scare. Full Review.

Directed by Danny Boyle.
Starring Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen and Michael Stuhlbarg.
An honest portrayal of a deeply flawed genius innovatively presented through sharp conversations prior to the launch events for three seminal products. Full review.

Directed by F. Gary Gray.
Starring Jason Mitchell, Corey Hawkins, O'Shea Jackson Jr., and Paul Giamatti.
The hard hitting history of the gangsta rap band N.W.A., and an engrossing story about the power of music and the destructive forces of wealth and greed. Full review.

Directed by John Cowley.
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters.
The story of a young Irish immigrant woman creating a new life in the United States is filled with overtones of the future clashing with the past, the new world contrasting with the old, and how one individual story carves out a new nation. Full review.

Directed by George Miller.
Starring Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult and Hugh Keays-Byrne.
Two hours of roaring engines, imaginative machinery, post-apocalyptic maniacs, high speed carnage, ridiculous outfits, unbelievable but real stunts, and outrageous destruction. And it's all delivered with loving beauty, a symphony of annihilation where every note contributes to the artistic devastation. Full review.

Directed by Adam McKay.
Starring Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt.
A sharp and irreverent take on the 2007 housing market collapse that precipitated the Great Recession, The Big Short is fast-paced, glitzy, funny, brash, flippant and derisive when it needs to be. Full review.

Movie Review: Toy Story 4 (2019)
Mon, 01 Jul 2019 15:58:00 +0000

The fourth chapter in the animated saga of toys who come to life when kids are not looking, Toy Story 4 explores the courage to embrace life's ever-changing phases.

Nine years ago, Woody (voice of Tom Hanks) decided to remain loyal to his owner Andy and forgo the companionship of Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who was boxed up and shipped out. Now Woody finds himself falling out of favour with his new owner Bonnie. He nevertheless helps her through the first day at preschool, where she creates a new toy Forky (Tony Hale) made from craft material briefly dumped in the trash.

Bonnie's family embark on a road trip, and Woody tries to educate Forky on his new role as Bonnie's favourite toy. But the confused Forky escapes the family RV, and Woody goes after him. The two end up at an antique store where Forky is grabbed by the bitter doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), who has a broken voice box. Woody re-connects with Bo Peep, and with the help of Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and motorcycle stunt toy Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), they have to rescue Forky and reunite with Bonnie.

The first trilogy arrived at a near-perfect ending, so re-launching the franchise nine years later was a calculated risk. Thanks to a clever and multi-layered script by Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton, Toy Story 4 is a worthy addition to the adventures of Woody, Buzz Lightyear and their pals. The film contains perfect doses of madcap adventures, sharp humour, new toys, as well as lessons in friendship and loyalty. And this time Woody's strong value system is challenged in new and unexpected ways as his emotional landscape changes again.

The main new theme arrive courtesy of Bo Peep, who has embarked on a life of freedom and independence away from serving a child's happiness. She is exploring the world on her own terms and having plenty of fun doing it. In addition to the forceful message of female strength and empowerment, her unapologetic stance is completely at odds with everything Woody knows and stands for. But gradually, combined with Bonnie confining Woody more frequently to the dark closet and playing with other toys, Bo Peep's lifestyle starts to make a lot more sense.

Director Josh Cooley also has another interesting narrative thread to pursue. Gabby Gabby is introduced as the villain of the piece, her entourage of ventriloquist doll goons prime candidates for inducing nightmares among young viewers. But the film's commitment to delving beneath superficialities is laudable, and Gabby Gabby has her own backstory and quest to fulfil. Woody is again faced with an exceptionally difficult decision to make, and once again his current status relative to Bonnie will influence his actions.

Visually Toy Story 4 continues to achieve new levels of excellence in computer animation, and the screen is often rich with crisp content and stunning details. Various intriguing settings afford the animators opportunities to flex their muscles, from the RV's interior to expansive carnival grounds teaming with activity. The ramshackle antique store emerges as the film's most memorable locale.

While all the old favourites are here and Bo Peep's promotion to a strong female central role is a welcome boost, the series refreshes the toy line-up with some new arrivees. Most prominent and marketable is the insecure Duke Caboom, a Canadian stunt rider rejected by his first owner because Duke could not live up to his extravagant television advertising exploits.

An excellent use of nostalgia to push into brave new territory, Toy Story 4 builds upon tradition to thoughtfully challenge the status quo.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Gun Crazy (1950)
Sun, 30 Jun 2019 17:51:00 +0000

A crime thriller and tumultuous romance, Gun Crazy is a breathlessly seductive film noir.

At the age of 14, Bart Tate is arrested for stealing a gun. His sister Ruby (Anabel Shaw) explains to the judge that Bart has been obsessed with guns from a young age, and is an expert marksman but never shoots at any living thing. Bart is sentenced to a stint in reform school, and subsequently serves in the army. The adult Bart (John Dall) returns to his home town and reunites with childhood buddies Clyde (Harry Lewis), now the sheriff, and Dave (Nedrick Young), a newspaperman.

The carnival is in town, and Bart falls under the spell of sharpshooting performer Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), who harbours a dark past. He joins her traveling roadshow, they become a couple, and after tangling with her no-good manager Packett (Berry Kroeger), they take off on their own, get married and start a life together. But Bart's savings only take them so far. Annie is ambitious, wants the expensive things in life and starts to agitate for a life of crime as a shortcut to wealth.

Bart, to Annie: We go together, Annie. I don't know why. Maybe like guns and ammunition go together.

A B-movie budget transformed into A-level entertainment, Gun Crazy is a tight 87 minutes of noir excellence. Written by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo and credited to MacKinlay Kantor, the film assembles the perfect elements for a whirlwind descent into crime. The well-meaning but susceptible man, the seductive woman who purrs on the outside but has a killer's instinct, the torrid lust and greed driving them both to the edge, and the one last big heist that just has to happen.

Bart: I can still get that job at Remington.
Annie: Forty dollars a week?
Bart: We can get by on that.
Annie: Yeah, maybe you can, but not me. It's too slow, Bart. I want to do a little living.
Bart: What's your idea of living?
Annie: It's not forty bucks a week.

Director Joseph H. Lewis uses short and sharp strokes to define the characters and their psyche, investing efficient screen time into what makes Bart such a perfect victim. The early scenes outline his life as a withdrawn child who finds solace in his love of guns but is subsequently mortified when he takes a shot at a chick. As a man Bart appears to have placed his troubles behind him, but attractive, gun-toting, sharp-shooting Annie is just too perfect as a soulmate, and he is trapped into her orbit before he ever joins her on the carnival stage.

As with the best femmes fatale, Annie knows exactly who she is and warns Bart often and early a life with her will mean trouble. If he wants to keep her he will have to satisfy all her impulses, and when she demands they turn to lawlessness, he succumbs. Despite their torrid lifestyle Bart and Annie remain deeply in love, and Trumbo conjures up a most elegant statement of their devotion when a planned getaway in two separate cars immediately reconverges with dual U-turns.

Annie, to Bart: I told you I was no good. I didn't kid you, did I? Well, now you know. Bart, I've been kicked around all my life. Well, from now on, I'm gonna start kicking back.

Some of the cinematography is supremely impressive, Lewis decades ahead of his time in placing his camera in a converted moving car and in real traffic and allowing improvised dialogue for heightened realism, culminating in a quite magnificent continuous 3 minutes and 30 seconds bank heist scene shot in a single take from the back seat of the car.

And leave it to British actress Peggy Cummins to nail the most American of film noir roles as the quintessential femme fatale, her flirtatious girl-next-door performance dominating the screen with sparkling eyes that more than hint at her nothing-can-stop-me fortitude.

Annie, to Bart: Bart, I want things, a lot of things, big things. I don't want to be afraid of life or anything else. I want a guy with spirit and guts. A guy who can laugh at anything, who will do anything, a guy who can kick over the traces and win the world for me.

Both Bart and Annie are both Gun Crazy and crazy about each other; only one of them insists on pushing the insanity to its limits, but they will travel together no matter the destination.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Hunger (1983)
Sat, 29 Jun 2019 15:26:00 +0000

A vampire erotic horror thriller, The Hunger invests all its effort in an overabundance of style at the expense of narrative and character depth.

In New York City, vampire Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve) is living with her latest long-term lover John (David Bowie). They feed by luring unsuspecting victims to Miriam's lavish house then violently killing them and drinking their blood.

John is shocked to discover that although Miriam had promised him eternal life, he will eventually age rapidly and expire. He progresses from young and handsome to old and derelict in a matter of hours, but not before making contact with Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), an expert on aging. Miriam sets her eyes on Sarah to be her next long-term partner and proceeds to orchestrate an emotional and physical seduction.

An adaptation of the book by Whitley Strieber, The Hunger's plot points would fit neatly on a small napkin, and the story could be easily told in about 20 minutes of screen time. The serious themes of longevity and the human desire to extend life are used as a juvenile springboard for an inconsequential froth of blood, gore and titillation.

But Tony Scott, making his directorial debut, uses the thin material as a basis for an exercise in stylistic muscle flexing to dazzle the eyes and distract the mind. And so every single frame is drenched in blue light, flowing curtains make a guest appearance at 10 minute intervals, and stroboscopic lights, silhouettes, odd camera angles, manic editing, thumping music, screeching caged monkeys and fluttering white pigeons are deployed to create sensory overload.

While the visual buffet is entertaining and the premise of Catherine Deneuve seducing Susan Sarandon is rich with undeniable eroticism, eventually all logic is jettisoned in favour of a climax full of attempted gothic horror (from the skeletons on the loose variety) but completely devoid of contextual coherence.

The special effects focus on aging, David Bowie the primary victim as he endures decades of physical decline in a matter of minutes, appropriately while he sits in a hospital waiting lounge. Deneuve exudes the icy patience of a person who will live forever, while Sarandon is adequate, despite the script never quite getting a handle on her Dr. Roberts.

The Hunger revels in artistic excess, sucking in blood while avoiding all substance.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Night Of The Iguana (1964)
Sat, 29 Jun 2019 04:12:00 +0000

A drama about life's dead-ends, The Night Of The Iguana aims for profound but lands on the wrong side of laborious.

Reverend Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton) suffers an emotional meltdown and is locked out of his own church. He re-emerges as a cut-rate tour guide in Mexico, escorting a group of women unfortunate enough to find themselves on his cheap bus. He clashes with the prim Judith Fellowes (Grayson Hall), the stressed chaperon for the underaged but oversexed Charlotte (Sue Lyon), who in turn is intent on seducing Shannon and re-triggering the cause of his downfall.

With Judith starting to make long distance phone calls to probe into Shannon's background, he leads the group to the Puerto Vallarta hilltop villa hotel operated by his earthy friend Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner). They are soon joined by penniless sketch artist Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr), who is traveling with her delipidating grandfather Nonno (Cyril Delevanti), a presumed poet. Shannon, Maxine and Hannah engage in discussions about life and love, while Charlotte and Judith continue to pursue their own agendas.

An adaptation of the 1961 Tennessee Williams play, The Night Of The Iguana explores the downfall and potential salvation paths of one man as he tangles with the consequences of succumbing to temptation, argues against himself, and surrenders to the charms of a young women and the more potent influence of the bottle. The film placed Puerto Vallarta on the map, and the congregation of Hollywood superstars and their entourages at the remote Mexico location, with Elizabeth Taylor joining her lover Richard Burton on-set (they were both married to others), has entered Hollywood folklore. The movie itself, however, is a largely insufferable excuse to wallow in self-imposed misery, despite dripping with displays and discussions of sexuality.

Shannon's inability to control his impulses represents a short-cut to ignominy, and four unmarried women offer the disgraced Reverend opportunities for either further debasement or redemption. Judith looks down upon him as filth as she desperately tries to protect Charlotte's reputation in a case of apportioning all blame in completely the wrong direction. Maxine is pragmatically engaged in a hedonistic lifestyle and enjoying the on-demand company of two perpetually maracas-shaking virile and much younger locals. She understands Shannon's weakness in front of the flesh all too well.

Hannah is touring the world riding the generosity of others, although she offers her amateur artistry and her grandfather's tottering talent in return. She connects with Shannon as another soul peddling culture to cover up abject failure. And finally Charlotte has embarked on an unconstrained expedition of sexual discovery, the presence of her chaperon a minor and inconsequential inconvenience.

Despite the potential for intrigue residing within the characters, director John Huston gets bogged down in static, long, and mind-numbingly talkative scenes. His script is unable to expand the material into a meaningful cinematic format and particularly in the second half settles for dialogue that would sound hopelessly artificial even on stage. The cast members don't help much, Burton (resigned), Gardner (jaunty) and Kerr (perceptive) appearing to be in different movies but all of them marginally overacting just the same.

An iguana spends a long time on a leash as Reverend Shannon is also roped to protect himself from his own worst tendencies. For both man and lizard, The Night Of The Iguana is tightly tied to the deep malaise of failure.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Winning Team (1952)
Fri, 28 Jun 2019 23:20:00 +0000

A baseball biopic, The Winning Team is earnest, straightforward and largely uninspired.

It's early in the 1900s in Nebraska and Grover Cleveland Alexander (Ronald Reagan) is a telephone company employee and amateur baseball pitcher planning to settle down with his sweetheart Aimee (Doris Day). Grover's superior pitching skills are discovered during a game against traveling opposition, and he signs a pro contract, disrupting his domestic plans.

But his seemingly burgeoning career is unceremoniously halted when a blow to the head causes double vision. He marries Aimee and attempts to put baseball behind him, but his health recovers and the dream lives on. Grover makes it to the major leagues where glory and heartbreak await, plus an interruption for a World War.

The name Grover Alexander is unlikely to be well known outside true baseball aficionado circles, and The Winning Team is a workmanlike effort to spotlight one of the game's greatest pitchers from the early part of the 20th century. Alexander is presented as a beaming and wholesome All-American guy devoted to the game and placing his love for Aimee in a close-enough second place to maintain a long-time relationship.

But this is also a relatively low budget effort with a pre-breakthrough Doris Day and a plodding Ronald Reagan in the lead roles. They are not helped by a methodical script that checks off Alexander's life and career milestones with automated soullessness, notwithstanding the unnecessary Hollywoodization of many facts.

The on-field action scenes are introduced in good doses, supporting rather than overwhelming the film. For the higher profile games in Grover's career, real footage (of sometimes irrelevant games) is mixed-in to showcase mammoth crowds and enhance the big-league ambiance.

Director Lewis Seiler tries to uncover a few interesting visual angles from around the diamond, and on the domestic front finally starts to find some traces of humanity and character depth when serious post-war health issues and the bottle enter Alexander's life in a big way.

The pitcher's late-career resurgence with the St.Louis Cardinals provides the groundwork for the movie's best moments, and within the limits of the flat story Reagan and Day are able to conjure up a few moments of self-reflection and supportive affection. Frank Lovejoy is the one notable supporting cast member as fellow baseball legend Rogers Hornsby.

Competent enough and nothing if not well-meaning, The Winning Team is a basic cheerleading routine.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Sweet Smell Of Success (1957)
Tue, 25 Jun 2019 04:12:00 +0000

A drama about the power of the press deployed for all the wrong reasons, Sweet Smell Of Success is a messy but still potent treatise on misplaced priorities.

In New York City, Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is a sleazy publicist who has been frozen out by influential show business newspaper columnist J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). The cold-hearted Hunsecker is unhappy that Sidney has been unable to break up the budding romance between J.J.'s sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and jazz musician Steve Dallas (Martin Milner).

Berated by his clients, almost broke and desperate to get back into Hunsecker's good books, Sidney pulls out all the stops and plants a false rumour about Steve with a rival newspaper columnist. This triggers a confrontation between Steve and J.J., with unexpected consequences.

Sweet Smell Of Success features a free-wheeling, always-on-the-move style riding the energy of New York City after dark, a city that never sleeps because vile men spend the night plotting. An adaptation of an Ernest Lehman novella with the character of J.J. Hunsecker inspired by the real-life columnist Walter Winchell, the film boasts dialogue rich with insults, put-downs, threats and sarcasm as dark-hearted rivals outmaneuver each other in a sordid world of their own making.

While the story's essence of a wicked man attempting to derail his sister's romance is relatively lightweight, crazed dynamism is derived from a chaotic production which had filming start before the script was ready. Pages of the Clifford Odets screenplay went instantaneously from typewriter to set, and the result is a torrent of characters and factoids, some relevant and others not so much, drifting in and out of scenes, adding plenty of ambience and realism but also disorienting narrative dizziness.

Director Alexander Mackendrick makes the most of the anarchy and maintains focus on two men utterly lacking in scruples. Falco and Hunsecker are obsessed with their own self-interest, the publicist a say-anything hustler and the columnist a power broker in a business built on his whispers and innuendo. Neither men should matter at all in a rational society, but this is show business in New York City, where careers are made or destroyed with a few words published in the right column.

The unattached Hunsecker's incestuous obsession with his sister is strongly hinted at, and Lancaster brings to the role a chilling empathetic blankness highlighted by the most perfectly fitting browline glasses. Tony Curtis enjoys a dramatic role, losing his morality in the sudoriferous sewers as Falco prostitutes a cigarette girl, arranges a blackmail sting, then peddles career-destroying drugs-and-communism lies, all within a couple of nights.

The lovers Susan and Steve are the pure couple, and unsurprisingly, the most boring characters in this story. Nor should they expect any noble help from the authorities: Lt. Harry Kello (Emile Meyer) of the New York police is not much more than a freelancing goon-for-hire.

Sweet Smell Of Success condemns malevolent journalism and the men who enable it, but does so with undisguised relish.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Mon, 24 Jun 2019 00:01:00 +0000

A western about the frontier's evolution towards civility, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance  thoughtfully reflects on the people and events that shaped an emerging nation.

Respected Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) make an unexpected visit to the town of Shinbone. The Senator reveals to the gathering journalists he is in town to attend the funeral of a man called Tom Doniphon and proceeds to recount their history together.

Decades earlier Ransom arrives in Shinbone as an idealistic young lawyer, and is quickly introduced to the ways of the wild west by vicious outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), who robs Ransom and violently beats him up. The lawyer is rescued by rancher Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), the only man with the courage and gun skills to stand up to Liberty.

Tom's presumed bride-to-be Hallie runs the local eatery and helps Ransom recuperate while he teaches her to read and write, and an attraction develops between them. The rugged Tom pragmatically believes in the the ways of the gun, but Ransom wants to use education and the law to help bring outlaws to justice. With tensions in the territories rising, Ransom, Tom and Liberty are drawn into a raucous political conflict over statehood.

A western rich in narrative threads, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance offers a quest for a new form of justice, a tense friendship, a romantic triangle, and the messy birth of political process as an alternative to individual score settling. John Ford directs with a intimate focus on characters and personal events rather than large-scale action, and the film uses individual stories to evoke a mood of inevitable change.

The overarching theme is creeping progress, for better or for worse. Happy to help out in the kitchen and serve at tables, Ransom Stoddard idealistically stands for education (for all), due process, and judgment in a courtroom rather than through the barrel of a gun. And yet he is forced to pick up a weapon and (haplessly) practice his shooting skills in a town still deciding whether to join the future.

Although John Wayne is first billed on the screen and his Tom Doniphon is the hinge around which the film rotates, James Stewart's Ransom Stoddard is the main character and the change agent pushing back against the west's more primitive tendencies to help create a more rational society. Together with Lee Marvin as an excellent title villain, the three men create a strong central triangle representing the past, present and future.

The capable supporting cast also includes Andy Devine as the cowardly and less than useless Marshal Appleyard, Edmond O'Brien as the newspaper editor Peabody, Woody Strode as Tom's loyal ranch hand Pompey, and Lee Van Cleef as one of Liberty's thugs.

Parts of Liberty Valance surrender to Ford's tendencies for rowdy excess. The film meanders to over two hours, and some of the democracy-in-the-making crowd scenes, first in Shinbone and later at the Capitol City, go on for longer than needed with plenty of Capraesque speechifying.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance finds its way to a most ironic and yet fully suitable denouement. The honest man of peace and order is a worthy political representative for the town that adopted him, even if his achievements are obscured by history's mythology.

Newspaper editor to Senator Stoddard: This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Ace In The Hole (1951)
Sat, 22 Jun 2019 16:58:00 +0000

A drama about personal ambition trumping journalistic integrity, Ace In The Hole is a masterful indictment of society's addiction to bad news and the reporters who provide it.

Big city reporter Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) has been fired from every major respectable newspaper for either pushing the truth or acting irresponsibly. He washes up in Albuquerque, and the straitlaced editor of the Sun-Bulletin Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall) offers him an opportunity to rebuild his reputation. A year later Chuck is still stuck in the doldrums, unable to find a big story.

Chuck, seeking a job with Jacob: I've done a lot of lying in my time. I've lied to men who wear belts. I've lied to men who wear suspenders. But I'd never be so stupid as to lie to a man who wears both belt and suspenders.

All that changes when he stumbles upon ancient Indian caves in the remote community of Escudero, where local trading post owner Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) has just been trapped in a cave-in deep inside the unstable mountain. Leo's wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) appears surprisingly composed. Chuck senses an opportunity to place his name back in the spotlight by creating a sensational national story around the rescue attempt. He secures the help of corruptible Sheriff Kretzer (Ray Teal), and proceeds to orchestrate a high publicity circus, unconcerned with the human costs and consequences.

Chuck: It's a good story today. Tomorrow, it'll be yesterday's news and they'll wrap a fish in it.

An uncompromising statement on a journalistic subculture quick to exploit personal tragedies to sell news and trinkets, Ace In The Hole is a bleak perspective on the human condition. Inspired by the real-life event of W. Floyd Collins (mentioned in the film), writer, director and producer Billy Wilder gives free rein to his dark tendencies, eschewing any hints of humour as he draws a picture of naked ambition. Ace In The Hole starts with Chuck's grim determination to climb back up the journalistic ladder by any means, and traces his journey of cold-blooded career reclamation by event manipulation.

Chuck: I can handle big news and little news. And if there's no news, I'll go out and bite a dog.

Kirk Douglas is at his best leading with his considerable chin as the ultimate puppet master, and Wilder surrounds him with other unsavory characters either looking after their self-interest or easily led down the wrong path. With her husband trapped under rubble, Lorraine spots an opportunity to escape the nothingness of Escudero; she is quick to change her mind when the tourist money starts rolling in. The loyalty of Sheriff Kretzer is easy to buy, as all he cares about is reelection and Chuck offers him unprecedented free publicity.

Lorraine, to Chuck: I've met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my time, but you--you're twenty minutes.

The supposed rescue team leader proves to be a hapless follower, his path to a quick rescue derailed by a mountain drilling plan concocted by Chuck to prolong the incident from hours to days. Jacob Q. Boot is the one principled character, and he is confined to the Albuquerque backwater, reduced to stepping stone status and ultimately completely sidelined.

But most depressing is the predictable Pavlovian public reaction to the "human interest" story. Tatum's plan works because he fully understands the public's appetite to exploit a tragic but ultimately irrelevant sob story. Entertainers, buskers, peddlers, families on vacation and national reporters descend on the site in their thousands to be part of an event they have no vested interest in, and where there are crowds there is money to made and celebrity to be pumped.

Chuck: Human interest. You pick up the paper, you read about 84 men or 284, or a million men, like in a Chinese famine. You read it, but it doesn't stay with you. One man's different, you want to know all about him. That's human interest.

The mammoth purpose-built set is an awe-inspiring location, and Wilder builds up the crowds with measured expertise as the desolate desert outpost mushrooms into a chaotic town overwhelmed with parked cars and the cheesiest of carnival scenes.

As Ace In The Hole pushes further towards the tawdriest of human tendencies, events spiral even beyond Chuck's control. But then maybe he was never in control, just the catalyst unleashing the worst tendencies of a society suffering the malaise of misplaced priorities.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Night Of The Hunter (1955)
Wed, 19 Jun 2019 04:55:00 +0000

A thriller fable about the clash between good and evil, The Night Of The Hunter combines child-level fantasy with religion-tinged intimidation and a majestic visual style.

During the Great Depression, self-appointed Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) roams the rural United States, preying on widowed women, stealing their money and killing them.

Farmer Ben Harper (Peter Graves) kills two men during a robbery and escapes with $10,000 to help feed his family. With the police in hot pursuit, Ben hides the stolen money in a secret location known only to his young children John and Pearl (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) and is then arrested.

Harry serves a short sentence for car theft and meets Ben in prison, learning about the stolen cash. After Ben's execution for murder, Harry charms Ben's wife Willa (Shelley Winters) and soon marries her. He tries to extract information about the money's hiding place from the children, but John and Pearl are resilient and resourceful, and will eventually receive help from the kindly Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish).

In his one and only directorial outing, actor Charles Laughton crafts a creepy children-in-peril thriller packed with noir stylistic elements. Written by James Agee as an adaptation of Davis Grubb's 1953 book which in turn was inspired by real murderer Harry Powers, the film is a visual treat. Many scenes are frame-worthy and look simply gorgeous, with brilliant use of silhouettes and lighting, the background often as important as the foreground, many frames staged with a stunning eye for visual excellence.

With LOVE tattooed on his right fist fingers and HATE on the left, Harry Powell is one of the slimiest and persistent villains to haunt the big screen. Robert Mitchum's laid back style is perfectly matched to the character's lackadaisical manner, as Powell hunts the weakest of the weak, targeting widows and children as they scrape to survive during an economic meltdown. And he does it all while spouting religious drivel both to gain instant societal respect and to intimidate the uninformed.

And yet this is a fairytale, and Laughton pulls back ever so slightly on the menace factor whenever it threatens to become too serious. Nature's quiet observance, represented by the stunning montage of animals overseeing a crystalline boat trip, ensures balance is maintained no matter how desperate the situation appears. The children's conflicted purity proves equal to Reverend Powell's sinister threat, and other forces of good in the form of Rachel Cooper will line up on their side to even out the battle.

Cooper is a genuinely devout woman, and Agee's astute script reveals the two sides of religion. Powell deploys doctrine for manipulation and personal gain, while Rachel dedicates her life to charity and helping others during desperate times.

The Night Of The Hunter stands unique as a dark story of disguised evil unleashed on the unsuspecting land, both a parable about economic devastation and a reaffirmation of the good and bad dichotomy within the human condition.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Passage (1979)
Sun, 16 Jun 2019 14:45:00 +0000

A World War Two escape thriller, The Passage features a stellar but poorly utilized cast struggling against a feeble script and the stench of a low budget production.

With France under Nazi occupation, hardy Basque sheep farmer (Anthony Quinn) is reluctantly recruited by the French resistance for a dangerous mission to smuggle American scientist Professor Bergson (James Mason) across the Pyrenees and into Spain.

Bergston is hiding in Toulouse, and the Basque is shocked to learn that the frail Mrs. Bergson (Patricia Neal) and the couple's two grown children (Kay Lenz and Paul Clemens) are accompanying their father. Meanwhile, sadistic SS Captain Von Berkow (Malcolm McDowell) is intent on hunting down the Professor. After receiving help from a gypsy leader (Christopher Lee), the escape party start their perilous journey across the snow-covered mountains, with Von Berkow in hot pursuit.

A British production directed by veteran J. Lee Thompson, The Passage collects an impressive cast and aims for a old-fashioned but smaller-scaled World War Two adventure in the vein of Thompson's The Guns Of Navarone from 1961. With a decent premise and impressive mountainous scenery supplementing the stars, the raw ingredients are promising.

But The Passage suffers from production values that appear cheap and hurried, and the script (by Bruce Nicolayson, adapting his own book) ignores everything related to backstories and personal dynamics. Most of the characters are hardly afforded a name, let alone rounded into individuals, with James Mason's Professor Bergson the primary victim. All of the dialogue is of the plastic variety, while Thompson's directing is muddled, his handling of the action scenes bordering on inept.

The void of quality is filled with shock value, and The Passage is notorious for all the wrong reasons. The main eye-popping excuse to watch the film is a misplaced Malcolm McDowell performance. His full-on British accent unexplained and unconstrained, McDowell mushes Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange with Caligula and enters World War Two with ridiculous madness. His Captain Von Berkow is an all-time over-the-top experience, a star running amok with no guidance from his director.

And Von Berkow steers The Passage to a second claim to infamy as an exercise in excess violence and gore. The SS Captain perpetuates on-screen rape, torture, immolation and mass murder, and on a couple of occasions punctuates his atrocities with pantomime-level outfits. His articulated chef chop-chop scene is admittedly compelling as an indecorous horror-comedy routine.

The Passage is thankfully a mostly forgotten curiosity, a lost opportunity buried in the jagged mountains.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Sat, 15 Jun 2019 15:18:00 +0000

An adaptation of the David Mamet play, Glengarry Glen Ross examines the psyche of frenzied men in an ultra competitive business environment.

In New York, a group of salesmen work at a realty office, using unscrupulous tactics to peddle properties in Florida and Arizona to investors. Williamson (Kevin Spacey) is the office manager and hands out precious leads about potential buyers to the agents.

Roma (Al Pacino) has recently been achieving the best sales figures, and is now wearing down his latest client Lingk (Jonathan Pryce). In contrast the elderly Shelley (Jack Lemmon) is on a long losing streak and getting increasingly desperate, with family health issues adding to his stress. Moss (Ed Harris) is ambitious but unhappy at work, while George (Alan Arkin) feels he is losing his edge.

Blake (Alec Baldwin) arrives from head office and berates the salesmen for their recent poor performance, announcing that most of them will be fired if they don't immediately close more deals.  With Williamson safeguarding a deck of treasured new leads at the office, the men have just a few hours to prove themselves. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and an office break-in adds a new layer of tension to the already strained dynamics between the men.

Featuring a superlative all-male cast and a Mamet script, Glengarry Glen Ross (the title refers to two developments being peddled by the agents) is a profanity-filled high-energy talkfest. The film takes place over just a couple of days, but captures the trauma of alpha males growling at each other to gain every advantage and survive until the next batch of leads are distributed.

All the men are experts at deceit and underhanded sales tactics, and effortlessly flip between smooth talk, pleading and ultra aggressive put-downs depending on the immediate objective. And they are all also pathetic, Glengarry Glen Ross a study of manhood lost to the pursuit of shady profit by victimizing others.

Most of the film takes place at the office and the Chinese restaurant across the street. The theatrical origins are obvious, and some of the overclocked gestures translate poorly to the screen. But director James Foley keeps his focus on the talent-rich cast, often in close-up, and with most of the conversations walking on the edge of hostility, the film rides out the rough patches with ease.

Alec Baldwin's one scene performance as the slick downtown executive berating the sales agents for poor performance and goading them by comparing his success to their pathetic lives has entered into cinematic legend. Mamet added this scene to help extend the short play into feature film length, and while Baldwin's insults are never less than over the top, his unconstrained contempt perfectly sets the stage for the mood of desperation.

In a world where integrity and basic ethics are notably absent, Jack Lemmon shines as yesterday's man, surrendering Shelley to wounded melancholia living on past glories as he frantically seeks to catch a break by any foul means, unaware the sun has set on his career and sales tactics.

Glengarry Glen Ross is where life's dreams of success go to die, submerged in fast talking, subterfuge and self-imposed delusions.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Rocketman (2019)
Tue, 11 Jun 2019 13:02:00 +0000

A musical biographical drama with fantasy elements, Rocketman captures Elton John's artistry and the gap between massive public acclaim and dark personal demons.

Dressed in an outlandish devil/angel combo performance outfit, Elton John (Taron Egerton) enters a treatment centre therapy group and admits to being an alcoholic and addicted to drugs, sex and shopping. In flashback Reggie Dwight's life story is revealed, starting with a childhood in England where he felt unloved by his cold father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and disinterested mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard), but supported by grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones).

Reggie's talent on the piano grants him entry to the Royal Academy of Music, and he eventually backs-up touring artists from the US. He adopts the name Elton John and gradually accepts he is gay. A record company executive connects Elton with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and their music writing partnership leads to unimagined global success. John starts a romance with business manager John Reid (Richard Madden), but as the singer desperately searches for true love and personal fulfillment, he falls into a miserable life of empty excess.

On-stage flamboyance is a cloak to hide deep-seated insecurity, and untold riches, fame, fortune and debauchery are no replacement for true love. Such is the story Sir Elton John wants to tell, and he gets to shape his legacy as the film's executive producer. Written by Lee Hall and directed by Dexter Fletcher, Rocketman is a vivid biography using John's music in no particular sequence to underline his emotional state of mind at key milestones, and adding effective fantasy elements to convey the insanity of the pop star life.

Taron Egerton takes on both acting and singing duties, and is sparkling in both contexts. Fletcher keeps the songs short and in service of the plot, and the editing is rational and coherent, with some excellent long and fluid takes to capture the dynamism of the accompanying dancers and crowds.

In adopting the eternal search for love and belonging as a central theme, Hall does not hold back in conveying John's parents as a nightmare of uncomfortable incompatibility with a child's need for affection. And so Elton goes looking for partners of either sex to fill the gap in his soul. Taupin emerges as his spiritual brother and creative partner, while Reid is the passionate but manipulative devil-lover in a business suit offering false fondness.

Meanwhile Elton's vulnerability goes hiding behind increasingly extravagant outfits, the performer wowing the crowd on the outside as he privately sinks deeper into despair.

Once John performs his first Los Angeles show Rocketman zooms quickly through the artist's upward trajectory, and then spends a hefty portion of its two hours wallowing in the unhappy and filthy rich life consumed by the decadence of sex, drugs, and booze. Fletcher almost trips towards self-pitying drama, but Taupin's timely interventions in John's life always help move things along towards more promising outcomes.

Rocketman chronicles the quest for love on and off the stage, a journey where misery accompanied artistic triumph on a most tempestuous journey.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Beasts Of No Nation (2015)
Sat, 08 Jun 2019 23:37:00 +0000

A heartbreaking war drama, Beasts Of No Nation is the story of a child who becomes a soldier amidst the savage disintegration of his country.

In an unnamed African nation (with Sierra Leone probably serving as the closest inspiration), a civil war is raging with multiple rival militias vying for power and peacekeeping forces caught in the middle. Agu (Abraham Attah) is a resourceful young boy living with his family in a designated buffer zone, but merciless combatants eventually arrive at his village. His mother and younger sister are bundled off to the relative safety of the capital, and Agu is soon separated from his father and older brother.

In the jungle he is captured by a scrappy battalion of rebel fighters under the leadership of the Commandant (Idris Elba). Gradually Agu gets to know the other fighters, including 2-IC, Strika, Preacher, and Tripod. Exposed to the Commandant's rhetoric and abuse, Agu graduates from ammunition carrier to child soldier, participating in battles and fuelled by drugs. The rebels appear to make progress towards victory, but the Commandant has ambitions of his own.

An adaptation of the 2005 novel by Uzodinma Iweala, Beasts Of No Nation also bears a striking resemblance to the true story chronicled in Ishmael Beah's 2007 autobiography A Long Way Gone. The film was one of Netflix's earliest critical hits, and helped launch the debate on appropriate distribution channels for worthwhile films.

The plight of children in war-torn countries is bad enough. Methodically turning boys into murderous drug-dependent soldiers subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse is nothing short of horrifying. Beasts Of No Nation is never less than compelling, but also an undoubtedly challenging film to watch. The scenes of violence often convey barbaric cruelty, and plenty of blood is spilled on screen, stopping just short of excess.

Director Cary Joji Fukunaga also wrote the script, and invests the necessary time in the first act to bring Agu to life as a fun-loving and enterprising kid, surrounded by family and friends. Because he is well-rounded into his own person, his subsequent descent into a soldier on the ugly battlefields of a chaotic civil war becomes all the more harrowing.

The other main character is the Commandant, and Idris Elba brings to life a chilling military man totally invested in the world of war, adept at saying just the right thing at the right time to inspire, indoctrinate, gain respect and demand obedience from the men and boys in his battalion. Elba's larger than life performance remarkably ensures he is also human, and Fukunaga crafts a scene of mad battlefield brilliance featuring the Commandant inspiring his troops into a difficult battle to seize a bridge.

In dirty civil wars there are no winners, just various categories of losers, victims and survivors. All are devoured immediately or over time by the insatiable internal and external beasts that thrive on conflict.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Leave a Reply