Movie Review: Crazy Heart (2009)
Sun, 19 May 2019 14:45:00 +0000

A drama and romance set in the country music world, Crazy Heart is a sincere story about second chances at love and life.

Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) is a 57 year old washed up and broke alcoholic country music singer reduced to touring on his own in his beat-up truck and playing at bowling alleys. At a bar gig in Santa Fe he meets Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a single mom to four year old Buddy. She is an aspiring music reporter and interviews Bad before and after his show. A cautious romance develops between them.

The next stop is Phoenix, where Bad accepts the humiliation of opening for country music star Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), who was mentored by Bad early in his career. Despite some tension between the two men Tommy encourages Bad to get back to writing as a way to earn royalties. After a mishap on the road the relationship between Bad and Jean deepens, but his excessive drinking will cause a rift.

A film that drinks deeply from the sorrows and regrets of a derailed life, Crazy Heart is a human profile about still finding hope amidst the carnage. With a monumental Jeff Bridges performance, director and writer Scott Cooper, adapting the Thomas Cobb book, jumps into Blake's pick-up truck and crafts a tender story of broken dreams and an unlikely chance at new love.

At the film's outset Blake is reduced to the loneliness level of human existence. No backing band, a lost family, hardly any friends, and just a smattering of remaining fans, he is the living embodiment of a mostly forgotten has-been, spending his days in derelict motel rooms watching porn. Even drowning his miseries is a challenge, as he cannot afford to buy alcohol and is reduced to the charity of store owners to hand him a free bottle.

From this beginning Crazy Heart charts a course towards something resembling a revival. The intervention of others is crucial. Blake's manager insists he opens for Tommy, who in return demonstrates kindness to his mentor and hints at a potential path to recovery. In the meantime Blake forges an unexpected connection with Jean and her son Buddy, stirring within him a renewed yearning for a more complete life.

The film includes plenty of country music, with soundtrack contributions from T Bone Burnett, Stephen Bruton, and Ryan Bingham. Adding to the film's authenticity Bridges and Farrell perform their in-concert songs, and the music never gets in the way of the narrative. Robert Duvall has a small role as a bartender and longtime friend.

With an aesthetic dominated by the wide open skies of mostly rural America, Cooper and Bridges manage a remarkable feat: Bad Blake, despite all his faults, is a human being worth knowing and caring about. Beneath all the flabby grime is a sensitive songwriter and a man who can be rescued. All it takes is a  Crazy Heart to point the way.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Burnt (2015)
Sun, 19 May 2019 00:01:00 +0000

A drama set in the world of haute cuisine, Burnt is an overcooked attempt to stage a high-stakes thriller in the kitchen.

Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper) was once a top chef in Paris, but lost everything due to a life of excess and addictions. After three years of self-imposed exile to clean up his life, he heads to London to reestablish his reputation. He conspires with food critic Simone (Uma Thurman) to secure the chef role at the prestigious hotel restaurant of his former partner Tony Balerdi (Daniel Brühl), although Tony ensures Adam stays clean through weekly check-ups with Dr. Rosshilde (Emma Thompson).

Adam hires a kitchen team from among his former associates, including Michel (Omar Sy) and Max (Riccardo Scamarcio). And after some effort he convinces the promising Helene Sweeney (Sienna Miller) to join his crew. Adam renews his rivalry with chef Montgomery Reece (Matthew Rhys) and obsessively drives his staff in pursuit of the elusive three-star Michelin Guide rating.

Almost everything about Burnt is overdone. Adam Jones is an unlikeable character ripped from cheap action thrillers, leather-jacketed and obsessive about getting his revenge on a world that chewed him up and spit him out. Whether he does or does not achieve his third Michelin star means everything to him, but director John Wells, filming a Steven Knight script, is very far from making anyone else care.

A large part of the problem is the unironic setting within the tony world of unaffordable uppity restaurants where food critics opine about the minutiae of whether the scallops stayed on the fire for seven seconds too long. And Wells does not help his cause by overheating all the emotions to child tantrum levels, then plastering the film from start to end with kitchen staff shouting at each other and close-up shots of food being prepared and served. To suit the milieu Cooper does his best foul-mouthed impression of Gordon Ramsey on a gnarly day.

Jones' background and intriguing sexual preferences, including a complex relationship with Tony, are promising topics when touched upon, and the film would have greatly benefited by better exploring the man outside the kitchen.

Instead, Burnt loudly smashes the promising dishes against the wall and settles for 100 minutes of food porn.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Year Of Living Dangerously (1982)
Sat, 18 May 2019 19:02:00 +0000

A drama and romance, The Year Of Living Dangerously enjoys the tense setting of a foreign country on a knife's edge, but sacrifices much of its political intrigue in favour of a trite romance.

It's 1965, and Australian Broadcasting Service journalist Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) arrives in Jakarta on his first foreign assignment to cover rising tensions in Indonesia, where President Sukarno is whipping up anti-Western sentiments and fending off Communist threats. Hamilton socializes uneasily with other veteran foreign correspondents, and establishes a working relationship with local fixer and cameraman Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt).

With Billy's help Guy secures a coveted interview with the communist party leader, and then meets Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), the assistant to British military attache Colonel Henderson (Bill Kerr). A romance starts to blossom between Jill and Guy, while tensions rise in the country with rumours of an arms build-up and impending coup, and Billy grows increasingly disillusioned with the Sukarno regime.

Two stories vie for attention within The Year Of Living Dangerously, and ultimately director Peter Weir opts to maximize the romance elements between the naive journalist and sophisticated government agent. An argument can be made that with two alluring and photogenic stars in Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver at his disposal Weir made the right choice.

But this is also an opportunity wasted, because the film invests heavily in a sense of place wracked by political uncertainty, and the setting is wasted on what transforms into a pretty traditional and rather unmemorable story of mutual infatuation.

The first half of the film is better. Adapting the book by Christopher Koch, Weir carefully creates an Indonesia beset by poverty and governed by an autocratic President losing his grip on power. With nervous soldiers at every street corner and mobs taking over the streets, Hamilton finds himself a misfit with a group of caustic journalists covering a country in the throes of unraveling.

After acclimatizing to the oppressive heat he latches on to the beguiling Billy to guide him through the political swamps. And the character of Billy, with his secret files, shadow puppets and eloquent prose, emerges as the best thing about The Year Of Living Dangerously. With Linda Hunt superb in a male role filled with complexity and self-doubt, the film occasionally threatens to break into genuinely thoughtful commentary about the third world's complex relationship with great military powers.

But Weir then shortchanges the politics and investigative journalism, as these elements become a distant backdrop to Hamilton and Jill courting each other and pondering the sense of starting a relationship when she is scheduled to shortly leave the country. For awkward periods Gibson defaults to stock angry young lover mannerisms, and the sense of menace unfortunately seeps out of the dark and hot Indonesian nights.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Seduction Of Joe Tynan (1979)
Sat, 18 May 2019 18:01:00 +0000

A political drama, The Seduction Of Joe Tynan explores the intoxicating power of politics and the price paid in pursuit of a high profile.

Charismatic and photogenic New York Senator Joe Tynan (Alan Alda) is the rising star in the Democratic Party. He is married to Ellie (Barbara Harris), who tolerates his career despite the tension caused by his frequent absences from home and their two children's growing detachment from their dad. To further raise his profile Tynan decides to lead opposition to the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Anderson, a southerner with a chequered record on racial segregation.

This places Tynan at odds with his friend and long-time Senator Birney (Melvyn Douglas), whose health is fading. Tynan starts working on the Anderson file with labor lawyer Karen Traynor (Meryl Streep), who uses her connections in the south to dig up dirt on the nominee judge. Passion soon ignites between Joe and Karen, further straining his home life, but his career momentum appears unstoppable.

A rich representation of what a career in politics entails, The Seduction Of Joe Tynan moves smoothly between committee meetings, backroom dealings and rural backwaters as strategies are crafted, pressure applied and the sometimes dirty work of laying traps and outmanoeuvring opponents is plotted.

The democratic process demands that willing individuals like Tynan bear the load of governance in the public spotlight, elevating them to celebrity status and the associated trappings. The Seduction Of Joe Tynan succeeds in highlighting the emotional and personal toll of public office. Directed by Jerry Schatzberg and written by Alda, the film is a fast-paced jaunt through one man's upwards trajectory. Equally balanced between the Senator's work and family, Schatzberg deftly keeps an eye on all aspects of Tynan's life and avoids getting bogged down in any one subplot.

Alda's script at times descends into the obvious, some of the political machinations and family fights drawn with stark crayons. But generally The Seduction Of Joe Tynan captures a fundamental struggle between the lure of public adoration and the essential grounding of a personal life. As the Senator flies closer to the sun, the glare of positive publicity and euphoria of future potential obscure what matters, leaving his wife and family in the shadows.

While Alda's performance in the lead role is confined to well-defined and often stiff parameters, the two actresses portraying the women in Tynan's life shine. Streep brings uncommon depth to the "other woman", displaying seriousness, seduction, playfulness and introspection as Karen influences the Senator's life. Barbara Harris also shines as the wife intent on carving out an identity and pushing back against the increasing intrusion of politics into her life, and yet wanting to support her husband's career.

Reserving judgment on Tynan's decisions, the film allows the trade-offs to bump against each other. Ultimately the question is not about right or wrong, but the levels of accommodation available for driven politicians to help shape a country.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Point Blank (1967)
Thu, 16 May 2019 02:50:00 +0000

A stark revenge thriller, Point Blank offers hard-hitting action enhanced by large dollops of audacious style.

In San Francisco, Walker (Lee Marvin) participates in a heist of gangland money at the abandoned Alcatraz prison. He is double-crossed by his presumed partner Mal Reese (John Vernon), who not only shoots Walker but also steals his wife Lynne (Sharon Acker). Walker recovers and is determined to recover his $93,000 share of the heist. He teams up with the mysterious Yost (Keenan Wynn), who also wants to find Reese and dismantle the criminal syndicate he works for.

Walker locates Lynne in Los Angeles and she leads him to car dealer Stegman (Michael Strong), who knows where Reese is hiding. Walker partners with Lynne's sister Chris (Angie Dickinson) to infiltrate Reese's fortified building. But to get his money back Walker will need to work his way up the syndicate's hierarchy, where men called Carter (Lloyd Bochner), Brewster (Carroll O'Connor) and Fairfax call the shots, and a sniper (James Sikking) dispatches threats with ruthless efficiency.

An uncompromising, almost surreal experience, Point Blank adapts The Hunter by Richard Stark into a unique hyper-kinetic film. With star Lee Marvin deeply involved in the film's production along with director John Boorman, the film combines innovative sound editing, a neo-noir visual style and bursts of resolute action interlaced with patient, frequently dialogue-free set-up sequences. An undercurrent of sardonic humour completes the package.

Boorman also plays with Walker's memories, inserting short eruptions of previous incidents (most notably his point blank shooting by Reese) to highlight the rage driving his quest for revenge. Unsubstantiated but nevertheless compelling artistic arguments can be made for the entire story to exist in Walker's mind as he lies dying at Alcatraz, his smooth, seemingly indestructible and faultless glide through the ranks of gangsters the ultimate final fantasy.

Several scenes stand out as cinematic classics. Walker purposefully strides through an empty airport hallway, the clicking of his shoes on the tiles going on for an eternity. An exotically lit fight in the backroom of a noisy bar eventually synchronizes screams of agony with the screaming of the world's most annoying singer. A nervous money exchange within the paved Los Angeles river bed turns into a delicious triple cross ambush opportunity. And when it's time to extract information from the sleazy car dealer Stegman, Walker demonstrates the values of a unique test drive.

In one his finest roles Lee Marvin cuts through Point Blank with the precision of a sharp scalpel. He is ably supported by Dickinson in a relatively small role, and a deep cast of character actors bringing life and death to layers of grim faced bad guys.

Throughout, Boorman maintains a high level of dynamism, the action swiftly bouncing between locations and the level of tension rising as Walker gets closer to the tip of the criminal pyramid. And it's not only lonely at top, but also deadly.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The White Crow (2018)
Wed, 15 May 2019 02:23:00 +0000

A biography of Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev including events leading up to his 1961 defection to the West, The White Crow is purposeful but exceptionally slow and prolonged.

The film intermingles incidents from three time periods. Nureyev was born on a train in 1938 and endured a childhood in rural poverty despite the best efforts of his loving and dedicated mother. Nureyev's father, a stoic hunter, meets his son for the first time in 1945 after returning from the war.

In the 1950s Nureyev (Oleg Ivenko) combines his talent with intense determination to become the Kirov Ballet's principal dancer, and instructor Alexander Pushkin (Ralph Fiennes) helps him perfect his art. Pushkin's wife also takes an interest in Nureyev's career and well-being. Always displaying a rebellious streak, Nureyev pushes the rules for male dancers, borrowing from the grace and fluidity of women's movement to galvanize the male role.

In 1961 the Kirov company is on a five week tour of Paris as part of a propaganda campaign to demonstrate Soviet artistic superiority. Nureyev stretches the limits set by the KGB handlers, touring the city on his own and socializing with French dancers and locals. He also befriends socialite Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchopoulos), who helps introduce him to the Parisian social highlights.

A portrait of a self-made dance star, The White Crow conveys the single-minded and selfish fortitude Nureyev deployed to rise from humble beginnings to the bright lights of the world's most prestigious stages. The period details are enjoyable and Nureyev's personality is compelling, but the movie is not. In addition to his supporting role Ralph Fiennes assumes director duties, and is unable to sharpen the story into a worthwhile cinematic drama.

The film unfolds at a ponderous pace, stretching over two hours but stuck in the same emotional space throughout. With an absence of music and an overabundance of pregnant pauses and dull passages, The White Crow succeeds only as an admirable impression of still life.

The childhood scenes are black and white snippets, and most of the movie takes place in Russia of the 1950s and Paris of 1961. The ballet training studios and performance stages are similar in either setting, and it is sometimes difficult to track which time zone a scene is in. In adapting the book by Julie Kavanagh, screenwriter David Hare does not bother to define the people around Nureyev. The husband-and-wife Pushkins and Clara come closest to influencing Nureyev's life, but they remain vague tertiary characters, devoid of context.

For a long film about ballet, Fiennes reins in any tendencies for protracted dance scenes. Instead, an inordinate amount of time is invested in Nureyev soaking in Parisian art and culture, while KGB agents keep an eye from a distance. Both the dancer admiring classic art and the spooks surveilling their man are both immersed in something more engaging than this film.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Green Room (2015)
Tue, 14 May 2019 02:54:00 +0000

A horror siege thriller, Green Room recycles familiar elements into a blotchy package.

The underground punk band Ain't Rights, including bassist Pat (Anton Yelchin) and guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat), is touring the Pacific Northwest in a beat-up van, not even making enough money for gas. Their fortunes look even dimmer when their latest gig is cancelled and replaced by a performance at a diner in front of totally disinterested patrons. In desperation they accept a show at a remote clubhouse frequented by neo-Nazi skinheads.

The crowd is rough but the performance is ok and the band is about to depart with a decent payout when they stumble onto a violent crime scene in the ramshackle green room. Ain't Rights along with the victim's friend Amber (Imogen Poots) now know too much and find themselves in hostile surroundings, locked up in the waiting room as the skinheads' leader Darcy (Patrick Stewart) plots a cover-up.

A low-budget independent production, Green Room provides a skinhead spin to the well-worn horror cliches of bumpkin dangers lurking in the woods and a small group beleaguered in a compound with help out of reach.

The premise of punk rock as an aspirational occupation for the scrappy protagonists introduces a whiff of originality to the first third of the film, but then fades away as a narrative thread. Director and writer Jeremy Saulnier struggles to concoct enough incidents to stretch the running time to 95 minutes, and Green Room suffers from the familiar ailment of utter incompetence by the bloodthirsty attackers at every crucial juncture. Darcy's troops appear to have the numbers, weapons, savagery and terrain familiarity to end the siege within a few minutes, but always find lame excuses not to do so.

Some character depth would have helped, but Green Room almost goes out of its way to keep all the key people on both sides of the siege as flat as possible. Despite bassist Pat and skinhead leader Darcy emerging as the leaders on both sides of the divide, the film ends with precious little revealed about either of them, the talents of Anton Yelchin and Patrick Stewart quite wasted. The rest of the cast members, particularly the interchangeable attackers, suffer even worse non-definition.

The few positives include some dry humour, limited but effective gore, and fun with microphone feedback and attack dogs. Stylistically the film is frequently dark and muddy, the dialogue often mumbled or obscured by loud music. The Green Room is caught in the land of grunge, after the music stopped.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here

Movie Review: Their Finest (2016)
Sun, 12 May 2019 23:26:00 +0000

A wartime drama and romance with sprinklings of comedy, Their Finest is an attractive period piece although the small story struggles for resonance.

It's 1940 in England, World War Two is raging and London is subjected to almost daily German bombing raids. Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) finds work as a propaganda short film script writer in the Ministry of Information. She meets fellow scribe Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and veteran actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), who is not yet accepting his days as a leading man are over. Meanwhile, Catrin's husband Ellis (Jack Huston) is a struggling artist with a physical disability, dealing with the humiliation of not being able to support his wife.

After the Dunkirk evacuation, government officials seek a morale-boosting story as a basis for a feature film. Catrin interviews two sisters who reportedly heroically sailed to the Dunkirk beaches and helped rescue soldiers, but finds the truth to be more mundane. Nevertheless to save her job Catrin embellishes the tale of nationalistic bravery, and with Buckley's help joins the team developing the film.

The fictional story of a colourful band of characters conceiving and filming a wartime propaganda movie is a pleasant enough experience. Director Lone Scherfig, adapting the book by Lissa Evans, effortlessly adds a pinch of dry humour and a dash of romance, muted as it is by the tumultuous clouds of war. The period details bring to grey life an England under siege, London's residents dusting themselves off, tending to the wounded and then carrying on with their lives until the next set of bombs rain from the sky.

With all able-bodied men off to war, Catrin represents women striding forth to join the workforce in large numbers. Their Finest includes mostly sideways but still telling references to the societal role of women past, present and future, as Catrin is increasingly empowered by the newly discovered and paycheque-triggered sense of value and independence. Gemma Arterton delivers a suitably stoic performance as a representative for both her nation's resilience and her gender's emergence.

But this is ultimately an individually-scaled story stretched perilously close to its load limit. The film runs up to two hours, and to get there Scherfig slows the pace down and includes plenty of ultimately repetitive scenes. The side story of the actor Ambrose Hilliard, his agent and the agent's dog and sister occupies a disproportionate amount of time and expands into a clumsy distraction, as does the involvement of a government minder nosing into the creative process.

The unconventional romance steadies the narrative. As Catrin unpacks her domestic situation with Ellis, her attraction  to Buckley is slow to unfurl, and is constructed on a foundation of workplace banter and mutual respect. And in a world turned upside down by war, Their Finest deserves credit for charting some unexpected twists for the lovers to navigate in a unique time and place, the rules first suspended then rewritten.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Mona Lisa (1986)
Sun, 12 May 2019 05:55:00 +0000

A crime drama and romance, Mona Lisa offers a gritty London milieu, but the story of an unlikely business and personal relationship lacks some texture.

In London, low-level hoodlum George (Bob Hoskins) is released from prison after serving seven years. His former associates under the leadership of sex club owner and mobster boss Denny Mortwell (Michael Caine) give him a job as the chauffeur for expensive call girl Simone (Cathy Tyson). Initially the sophisticated Simone and the excitable George clash over everything, but gradually a friendship evolves.

She confides in him about her past as a street prostitute regularly abused by her pimp Anderson (Clarke Peters), and requests George's help in finding her close friend Cathy, a young prostitute also suffering Anderson's mistreatment. George tries to mend his relationship with his daughter Jeannie (Zoë Nathenson), but is drawn into a heap of trouble and violence as he wades deeper into Simone's world.

A grim descent into London's slimy underbelly, Mona Lisa is a rough English equivalent of Taxi Driver, at least in spirit and intent if not overall quality. The story of an irrelevant and coarse man enchanted by an unattainable woman carries possibilities, and director Neil Jordan (who also co-wrote the script) teases an evocative performance out of Bob Hoskins in the lead role.

But once George falls under Simone's spell and embarks on a quest to find her friend Cathy, the film stagnates. The antagonists of this world, as defined by Mortwell and Anderson, are exceptionally poorly defined. Michael Caine sleepwalks through his few scenes, while the supposedly menacing Anderson is reduced to a generic jack-in-the-box presence, popping up to randomly chase and threaten people at designated intervals.

Much better is the core bond between scrappy driver and sophisticated call girl, and Mona Lisa draws its warmth from the emerging dynamic between them. They navigate past the hostile stage and allow an asymmetrical friendship to develop as George starts to fall hard for Simone and extrapolates potential beyond reality. Again Jordan stumbles over the final few hurdles, and once George understands his emotional misplacement Mona Lisa limps over the finish line in more common thriller land.

Newcomer Cathy Tyson has an enigmatic screen presence and adds a layer of allure to Simone's secrets, metaphorically representing the mysterious smile of the title painting.

Stylish and carrying a strong sense of place, Mona Lisa ventures through a sordid version of London and finds a mix of organic and generic.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Experiment In Terror (1962)
Sat, 11 May 2019 18:52:00 +0000

A muddled crime thriller, Experiment In Terror offers dashes of style but suffers from a flabby script and an unconvincing plot.

In the Twin Peaks neighbourhood of San Francisco, bank teller Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick) is threatened in her dark garage by an unseen intruder. He demands she steal $100,000 from the bank, otherwise he will hurt her younger sister Toby (Stefanie Powers). Despite the intruder insisting on no police involvement, Kelly connects with the FBI's John Ripley (Glenn Ford).

With few clues to go on, Ripley places Kelly under surveillance. Meanwhile, he is also contacted by Nancy Ashton (Patricia Huston), a troubled woman who may be going through a similar experience to Kelly. Ripley's investigation also leads him to Lisa Soong (Anita Loo), the mother of a sick child who may also be connected to the criminal. As the clock ticks down and the threats intensify, Kelly has to commit the theft or face the consequences.

A rare departure towards darker material for director Blake Edwards, Experiment In Terror lathers on the noir style with odd camera angles, nighttime scenes, characters hiding in shadows, plenty of fog and stark light sources. But the credible production design cannot hide a wayward plot filled with weird distractions and plenty of loose ends.

After the opening attack Kelly is unfortunately reduced to an afterthought in her own story, and the film defaults to an uninteresting police procedural. And for a seemingly well-resourced detective provided with plenty of advance notice about a crime in the making, Ripley manages to repeatedly botch the basics. Equally improbable is a convenient criminal who always does just enough to move the plot along but never enough to push through with his threats.

The problems reside in the overburdened script by the husband and wife crime writing team of Gordon and Mildred Gordon, and a saggy running time extending to over two hours. The characters of Nancy Ashton, Lisa Soong and her suffering son occupy large swaths of screen time to no great effect, their connection to the central crime barely sketched in. Meanwhile the details related to the villain's plot to steal and keep the money are all but omitted. Finally young sister Toby is placed in proper peril, but when the opportunity arises the film appears caught flat footed between seeking terror and settling for timid.

Lee Remick, Glenn Ford and a young Stefanie Powers provide plenty of star appeal, but despite the flashy execution this Experiment In Terror is classified as flawed in design.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Break-Up (2006)
Sat, 11 May 2019 15:54:00 +0000

A romantic comedy about the ignoble end of couplehood, The Break-Up succeeds in disrupting the genre's predictability.

In Chicago, Gary (Vince Vaughn) and Brooke (Jennifer Aniston) have a seemingly perfect relationship and are living in the condominium they co-own. He runs a tour business with his brothers (Cole Hauser and Vincent D'Onofrio), while she works at the gallery owned by celebrated artist Marilyn Dean (Judy Davis).

But after one long day Brooke snaps at Gary's lack of sensitivity and appreciation for everything she does for him. Feeling he takes her for granted, she breaks-up their relationship, but secretly wishes he will change his ways once he understands what he's losing. Forced to co-exist in their apartment until it sells, they both deploy nasty antics to irritate each other and evoke jealousy, reducing the likelihood of the relationship being salvaged.

Perhaps one way to revitalize the romantic comedy is to skip past most of the meet cute and courtship stages, and The Break-Up gets all that out of the way in the first scene. Gary spots Brooke at a baseball game, charms her with his rough goofiness, and the next major incident presented by director Peyton Reed is the dinner party ramp-up to a pretty spectacular relationship implosion.

And for once the big argument has nothing to do with an ex-lover, jealousy or one of those contrived misunderstandings that litter the genre. Here Brooke has her fill of Gary's selfishness, evident in that first scene at Wrigley Field, and she erupts in a volcano of rage against his me machine.

The rest of the film takes a sharp scalpel to the relationship remains. With plenty of humour and some touches of boorishness, Reed explores her and his points of view, with a focus on character-consistent blind spots. Brooke judges herself the perfect partner and is certain Gary will come around and understand how much poorer life will be without her. It's a valid but unproven assumption: Gary's life centres on fulfilling his needs and wants with no emotional room for much else, and understanding her desire for appreciation does not register.

They trade wind-up tactics during the reluctant real estate wind-down phase. He brings in a pool table; she retaliates with her insufferable brother's acapella choir. He hosts a stripper party. She prances naked, reminding him of what he's missing. Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn invest enough venom with hints of regret to make the tit-for-tat war of attrition work. And the film is enriched by a superior supporting cast featuring real estate Jason Bateman, bartender Jon Favreau and Brooke's work colleague Justin addition to Hauser, D'Onofrio and Davis.

The Break-Up shatters most rom-com cliches, and not unsurprisingly finds welcome new edges to sift through.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Wages Of Fear (1953)
Fri, 10 May 2019 03:02:00 +0000

A tense thriller, The Wages Of Fear is a journey to the burning soul of desperation, where damaged men hold hands with explosive death as an alternative to the ignominy of fading away.

In a dusty, remote and exceptionally hot South American town surrounded by desert, Mario (Yves Montand) is a stranded Frenchman wondering how to make enough money to escape this hell hole. He is not alone: the town is filled with washed-up foreigners including the German Bimba (Peter van Eyck) and Italian Luigi (Folco Lulli). The men spend their days at the canteena of the excitable Hernandez (Darío Moreno), ogling his barmaid Linda (Véra Clouzot).

The most recent arrivee in town is Jo (Charles Vanel), an older Frenchman still in possession of good suits but otherwise as broke as all the other desperados, only better at hiding it. He strikes up a close friendship with fellow countryman Mario.

A fire erupts at the desert oil field operated by the American-owned Southern Oil Corporation. The foreman Bill O'Brien (William Tubbs) develops a plan for a large controlled explosion to extinguish the fire, and calls for volunteers to drive two large trucks full of highly unstable nitroglycerin 300 miles to the derricks. The journey on bumpy roads is close to being a suicide mission, but with $2,000 on offer, Mario, Jo, Bimba and Luigi are desperate enough to risk it.

A riveting experience, The Wages Of Fear is a road movie like no other. After a profound opening hour to establish the setting and characters, director and co-writer Henri-Georges Clouzot, adapting the novel by Georges Arnaud, proceeds to create an unforgettable 90 minutes of white-knuckled tribulation. The film achieves and sustains a supreme level of suspense as every bump and curve becomes a potential trigger for an unrecoverable disaster.

Through the story of men accepting a seemingly impossible mission, Clouzot explores various sub-themes, sometimes carrying echoes of The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. The desperation and restlessness of doing nothing in a hopeless environment is the subject of the first hour, and the film presents creeping nihilism as reason enough to risk everything for a fistful of dollars.

Of course for men like Mario and Jo to land in a dusty isolated town with no money and no prospects explains plenty about their judgment, but their past is less important than their present and future. They still dream of something better while scheming and scraping to survive, all while seeking that singular opportunity to turn everything around.

The Wages Of Fire is also a political film with plenty to say about creeping American colonialism and exploitation. The Southern Oil Company conveniently carries the same initials as Standard Oil, and here displays abject disregard towards the local population and victims of industrial accidents. And in dangerous situations requiring sacrifice, it is American dollars incentivizing other nationals to place their lives on the line.

On the road, the men face life-changing fears and discover their essence. With death lurking under both the accelerator and brake pedals, initial bravado quickly transitions to cowardice in some, while for others staring down death through dogged problem solving becomes a thrill onto itself. Clouzot never runs out of surprising obstacles to place on the road to the oil derricks, and within every incident displays masterful control to layer and unveil hidden risks in torturous succession.

Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Peter van Eyck and Folco Lulli create four memorable and resourceful men, each with something unique to contribute to the journey. But all of them also carry visible character flaws pushing them to the edge, and the absence of any margin for error in transporting nitroglycerin in lumbering trucks is brilliantly unforgiving.

The Wages Of Fear is life compacted into a series of tests with only two possible outcomes: alive and heading to the next outrageous challenge, or very much dead.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Blood Simple (1984)
Tue, 07 May 2019 13:15:00 +0000

A neo-noir masterpiece, Blood Simple is the debut of the Coen brothers and an exquisitely crafted crime thriller.

In rural Texas, Abby (Frances McDormand) is cheating on her husband Marty (Dan Hedaya), a bar owner, with his employee Ray (John Getz). But Marty is on to her, and has hired private detective Lorren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to catch Abby in the act, which he promptly does. Marty tries and fails to reel Abby in, and in desperation hires Visser to help him exact revenge. But events will spiral in unexpected and dangerous directions for the lovers, the jilted husband and the detective.

The plot summary is just the start. Blood Simple stands atop that foundation of infidelity and humiliation and builds a delightfully askew structure, where every next level is twisted. Double crosses and on-the-fly criminal improvisations engulf the characters in a nightmare of their own making, driven by overlapping combinations of lust, love, greed and retribution.

Produced on a budget of $1.5 million, Blood Simple credits Joel Coen as director and his brother Ethan as producer, and both as co-writers. But this is the start of their shared vision to create quality quirky films, and their first big screen foray delivers a visual and cerebral treat.

Classic film noir fundamentals abound, with all the characters deeply flawed and susceptible to self-serving sin. In the first scene Abby hints to her lover Ray that maybe something bad should happen to her husband Marty; the detective Visser is primarily interested in lining his pockets; and all three men are not beyond plotting and executing acts of violence most foul.

And the classic noir style is also evident in almost every scene. The film opens with an in-car conversation between two silhouettes on a rainy night, interrupted at regular intervals by the headlights of oncoming traffic. Later, light streams through bullet holes in a perforated wall. Lazy ceiling fans shuffle the stale air and help transition scenes and settings. And from third-rate motel rooms to the cluttered back room of Marty's bar, the Coens find ideal locales for everything to go wrong.

The highlight set-piece is an unforgettable Hitchcock-meets-noir sequence involving a victim, blood-soaked clothes, an attempted cover-up, an abandoned country road, a shovel and a grave site. It's an excruciatingly beautiful piece of tense film making, devoid of dialogue but filled with dread and mounting horror.

The four principal cast members fully immerse into their characters. Dan Hedaya and M. Emmet Walsh have rarely had similar opportunities for prominence, and both demonstrate their often underutilized dedication to scheming personas. Walsh, in particular, finds a career highlight as the sleazy private detective happy to freelance in search of maximum profit for least amount of work.

John Getz creates in Ray the perfect handsome but maybe not-so-smart guy ensnared by the wrong woman. In her debut, Frances McDormand projects just the right amount of sly seductiveness under an innocent veneer.

The final showdown features an attempt to tidy up criminal loose ends, and by this stage every ill-advised plan to cause harm has taken an astonishing turn. It's generally inadvisable to take a knife to a gunfight, but in Blood Simple, nothing is that simple.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Long Good Friday (1980)
Sun, 05 May 2019 15:51:00 +0000

A crime drama, The Long Good Friday offers a deep and character-rich story set in London at the cusp of massive change. Doses of jarring violence add plenty of verve.

It's Easter in London. Mobster boss Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) has kept the peace in gangland for the past 10 years and is eager to venture into respectable investments. With his partner Victoria (Helen Mirren) and chief fixer Jeff (Derek Thompson), they invite New Jersey Mafia financier Charlie (Eddie Constantine) to discuss a massive docklands redevelopment project, which also involves corrupt and frequently drunk city councillor Harris (Bryan Marshall).

But on the same day of the meeting with Charlie, Harold's people and businesses are targeted in coordinated attacks. His trusted lieutenant and closest friend Colin (Paul Freeman) is killed at a swimming pool, his Rolls Royce bombed in front of a church, and two other businesses attacked. Police detective Parky (Dave King), who is on Harold's payroll, is of little help. With Charlie's commitment wavering, Harold and Victoria have to quickly uncover who is behind the attacks and stop the carnage.

A gritty exploration of the overlap between crime, business and politics, The Long Good Friday mixes ambition with startling violence. Written by Barrie Keeffe and directed by John Mackenzie, this is an uncompromising dive into a sordid world: gangsters in suits, police officers on the take, and vendettas on London's streets. And when the time comes to reveal the brutality of men like Harold Shand, The Long Good Friday is unblinking. Rivals are strung-up upside down next to sides of beef, and the gaping wounds of traitors splurt blood.

At the heart of the story, the pugnacious Harold Shand is a remarkable character. Scrappy and visionary in equal measures, he carries echoes of his country and city at the cusp of colossal change. Just as Shand is looking to capitalize on his achievements by forging a more reputable legacy,  England is growing into a union with Europe and London offers swaths of opportunity in the form of waterfront redevelopment opportunities. The audacious projects Harold describes in the film came true in the 30 years following the film's release.

Emphasizing the deep desire for transition into respectable capitalism, here the Mafia is a potential investment partner. When explosions start rocking Harold's world, the New Jersey representatives are repelled: they are seeking a future of wealth through business, not bombs.

Bob Hoskins found his breakout role as Shand, and Mackenzie uses the actor to great effect. The cameras frequently linger on Hoskins' face, combustibility and intelligence vying for space as Shand assesses the latest setback and plans his next counterpunch. Helen Mirren is marginally underutilized, and the rest of the cast consists of robust character actors bringing London's underworld to life.

Despite the strength of Harold's conviction and dreams of a different future for man and country, political realities are a force to be reckoned with. This is still England of 1980, where Northern Ireland Troubles cast a long shadow over the nation. In an impressive display of breadth, The Long Good Friday seamlessly encompasses that conflict, Harold confronted with a final, mammoth and unexpected challenge on his difficult journey from the business of crime to the business of business.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Friends With Money (2006)
Sat, 04 May 2019 16:28:00 +0000

A drama and comedy about friendship, Friends With Money introduces four interesting women grappling with life's various challenges, but doesn't quite engage them at the required depth.

Olivia (Jennifer Aniston) is poor, single, and works as a maid. She is also timid, does not stand up for herself and starts dating good-for-nothing fitness instructor Mike (Scott Caan) despite all his obvious faults. Meanwhile her three best friends are all married and wealthy.

Christine (Catherine Keeler) is a script writer but is unhappy in her marriage and clashes constantly with aloof husband Dave (Jason Isaacs). The perpetually irritable Jane (Frances McDormand) is a successful fashion designer but is having trouble dealing with aging. She lashes out at all around her and refuses to wash her hair, while her fashion-conscious husband Aaron (Simon McBurney) is always mistaken for being gay. Franny (Joan Cusack) is independently wealthy and a happy stay at home mom married to Matt (Greg Germann), who tends to overspend on everything.

Christine's marriage disintegrates, and Jane's rage at the world reaches a literal breaking point. But the four women nevertheless do their best to support each other through their emotional ups and downs.

An understated tour of empathy among women, Friends With Money explores the differences that unite and the superficial veneers of happiness hiding misery underneath. Written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, the film does focus on first world problems of the white class, and three of the four women enjoy wealth and supportive partners, so their despondency stems at least partially from a fundamental lack of perspective.

Within that context, Olivia is the outsider with her nose glued to the window observing the seemingly perfect life of her rich friends. While it is difficult to swallow Jennifer Aniston as a maid, making every bad decision, unable to launch a career and still stalking an ex-boyfriend, Holofcener's script at least allows Olivia to acknowledge her faults and wear her failures with dignity.

Christine, Jane and Franny are not as well served, and generally remain flat mirrors for Olivia to measure herself. Christine's marriage crumbles into predictable chunks and Jane's inability to deal with being in her forties barely evolves. Franny is most content and endeavors to support her friends, but is also the least defined character. Too much screen time is invested in the ultimately pointless subplot of Aaron fending off perceptions of being gay.

Friends With Money adroitly avoids histrionics as Holofcener stays close to the realms of reality, seeking both humour and pathos within familiar behavior. The Friends With Money ring true, but would have benefitted from a bit more to do.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Sniper (1993)
Sat, 04 May 2019 01:21:00 +0000

A covert military action film, Sniper offers basic macho entertainment in a slick enough package.

Based in Panama, veteran Sergeant Beckett (Tom Berenger) of the U.S. Marines is a sniper specializing in covert missions. After a successful assassination, the extraction is botched and Beckett's spotter is killed. The next mission teams Beckett with the inexperienced Miller (Billy Zane), a civilian trained as a sniper, to terminate the rogue General Alavarez, who is planning a coup.

Beckett and Miller traverse the jungle towards Alavarez's hacienda. Along the way they tangle with the ruthless El Cirujano, an ex-CIA agent and expert in torture. When Miller botches a shot, Beckett is more convinced he cannot trust his partner in combat situations. The mission is compromised before Beckett and Miller even arrive at their target destination, but despite the danger Beckett is determined to seize the opportunity to eliminate the General and an elusive Colombian drug lord funding the rebels.

A sweaty expedition through the jungle punctuated by moments of tense and well-executed action, Sniper is better than it needs to be. The plot is a crumpled sketch, the dialogue is crude and the acting limited to alpha males hissing at each other, but director Luis Llosa works with what he has and delivers decent entertainment.

The thoughtful pacing is a plus. Llosa avoids the temptation to go into the jungle with all guns blazing, and the foundational premise of patient snipers who kill quietly forces the film into calm patches and build-up sequences. The moments of reflection between Beckett and Miller contain nuggets of humanity, never quite enough to elevate the film much above routine but also sufficient to define the characters beyond the blockhead level.

Despite cruising through the entire film with a singular pissed-off expression, Tom Berenger capitalizes on his Platoon jungle master persona and infuses Sniper with credibility. Billy Zane is either miscast or perfectly cast, depending on whether his character Miller is a fraud soldier out of his element in a combat zone or an efficient killing machine (the film offers both, without much explanation). The only other notable cast member is J.T. Walsh in a small role.

The action scenes are ultimately where it's at, and Llosa constructs taut set-pieces as snipers play cat and mouse games with each other and use the hostile elements to their advantage. Bullets are often captured and traced by the cameras mid-flight, and while Sniper doesn't hit every target, most of the shots are close enough.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Sophie And The Rising Sun (2016)
Fri, 03 May 2019 04:07:00 +0000

A slow burning drama and romance, Sophie And The Rising Sun is a well-intentioned but languid story.

It's 1941 in rural South Carolina. A dazed and wounded Asian man arrives on a long distance bus in the tiny fishing community of Salty Creek. Mrs. Anne Morrison (Margo Martindale), a kindly widow, takes him in and nurses him back to health. Once he recovers, Ohta (Takashi Yamaguchi) reveals himself an expert gardener and helps Anne care for her yard.

He also demonstrates an eye for painting, a passion shared by Sophie Willis (Julianne Nicholson), a free-spirited single woman and crab catcher. Slowly a passion emerges between Ohta and Sophie, much to the disapproval of the local society ladies, especially the prudish Ruth Jeffers (Diane Ladd). Then the Japanese attack Pearl Harbour, and an asian man in a small community is deemed a most unwelcome presence.

Breathing deeply from a sense of a small and isolated place grappling with the sudden intrusion of the outside world, Sophie And The Rising Sun never rises much above its modest scale. Writer and director Maggie Greenwald adapts the 2001 Augusta Trobaugh novel with studious respect, and the metaphor for World War Two shaking a clueless nation out of its isolated slumber plays out along elementary lines.

The film unnecessarily extends to close to two hours, and the rudimentary plot simply cannot sustain the length. The pace is distressingly slow, long pauses, aching glances and repetitive scenes transforming the film into a proper test of endurance. The romance between Sophie and Ohta takes a long time to emerge, and once it does the bigoted disapproval of the local prudes commands more screen prominence than the lovers' passion.

And after the Pearl Harbor attack, the film further retreats into a basic hide and seek structure, the community split into enlightened progressives attempting to survive the torches-and-pitchforks brigade.

The absence of star power helps to maintain the largely featureless backwater ambiance, but also hinders the film's appeal. Julianne Nicholson does her best, but she joins Margo Martindale (brusque), Diane Ladd (stereotypically insufferable) and Takashi Yamaguchi (predictably stoic) as a secondary character in her own romance. Lorraine Toussaint as Mrs. Morrison's housekeeper Salome brings some quiet dignity to the cast in an underwritten role.

Sophie And The Rising Sun is pretty to look at, but nevertheless all too dreary.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Please Give (2010)
Fri, 03 May 2019 02:45:00 +0000

A quirky comedy and drama, Please Give offers low key but astute commentary about family relationships, guilt and death.

In New York City, Kate (Catherine Keener) and her husband Alex (Oliver Platt) run a mid-century furniture resale business. They buy their stock from the apartments of recently deceased elderly people, taking advantage of grown children during their moment of grief. Kate is wracked by guilt, and hands money to every seemingly homeless person. She is also having trouble communicating with her teenaged daughter Abby (Sarah Steele), who is suffering from a bad skin condition.

Kate and Alex have purchased the next-door apartment occupied by crusty ninety-two year old Andra (Ann Guilbert), with plans to expand into her unit when the old woman dies. Andra is cared for by her kind granddaughter Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a mammogram technician who lives with her more contemptuous sister Mary (Amanda Peet), a skin care therapist. The lives of Alex, Kate and Abby start to intertwine with Rebecca and Mary in unexpected ways.

Death as an avenue for profit is always a queasy topic rich with possibilities. Writer and director Nicole Holofcener finds the damp patches of guilt in this well-constructed and character-rich story, and Please Give is filled with calibrated moments of pleasure along with honest, funny, awkward and sometimes painful human contact.

To assuage her guilt Kate is a one-woman charity, distributing bills to New York's homeless population and then some. Except Kate is much less generous with her daughter Abby, who is desperate for a new pair of jeans, and Holofcener elegantly folds in the unintended consequences of charity that begins outside the home.

Abby's teenage traumas are relatively typical for a white privileged child of wealthy parents, but her angst is also the spark that forges connections with the sister pair of  Rebecca and Mary. Her skin condition brings the opportunistic Mary into focus, while the considerate Rebecca offers Abby a comforting bond over dog walking.

Meanwhile the husband and wife team of Kate and Alex appear to be friends and business partners, but perhaps they lost the passion in the gap between his dismissive iciness and her remorseful fretting. Suddenly Alex is flirting with Mary, and she is happy to engage on another ill-considered adventure. Meanwhile, Kate's exploration of volunteer opportunities at charity organizations is all kinds of wrong funny.

Please Give demands strong performances to work, and the cast delivers. Rebecca emerges as the pure heart of the film, and Rebecca Hall shines in a role full of selfless commitment. Catherine Keener is also excellent in conveying an exterior of polished professionalism barely concealing gobs of self-loathing.

With the elderly Andra and the grandmother (Lois Smith) of Rebecca's new boyfriend also meddling in the lives of their offspring, Please Give is a candid and clever probe of dynamics between four generations of women.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Collateral Beauty (2016)
Mon, 29 Apr 2019 12:58:00 +0000

A drama with touches of humour addressing the consequences of personal loss and profound grief, Collateral Beauty is well meaning but excessively sententious.

In New York City, marketing executive Howard (Will Smith) is still in a deep depression two years after the death of his daughter. To try and cope with his grief he writes angry letters to the abstract concepts of Death, Love and Time. His business partners Whit (Edward Norton), Clare (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Peña) are facing a deadline to sell the company, but cannot seal the deal without Howard, the majority shareholder.

In desperation the partners decide to hire struggling theatre actors to engage with Howard, either to snap him out of his funk or prove he is incapable of functioning. Brigitte (Helen Mirren), Amy (Keira Knightley) and Raffi (Jacob Latimore) agree to impersonate Death, Love and Time respectively. Howard does take the initiative to join a support group managed by Madeleine (Naomie Harris), while the hired actors learn that Whit, Clare and Simon are facing personal issues of their own.

Death is part of life, love persists despite everything, and time is precious and should not be wasted are universal themes straight from the bottom shelf of simplistic self-help pop-psychology. Collateral Beauty wears these concepts with utmost reverence, and weaves around them a saccharin story befitting the excessively maudlin mood.

The clunky plot is an excuse to construct the rickety device of actors impersonating abstract concepts and ambushing Howard in street-level interventions. And it's no surprise whatsoever when backstories are introduced for Whit, Clare and Simon to double down on the sappiness of Howard's ordeal and give the hired actors more people to fix, Hollywood style.

But it's not all totally bad. Director David Frankel, working from a spec script by Allan Loeb, has an embarrassment of acting riches at his disposal, and makes reasonably good use of the talented cast given the emotional immaturity of the material. The shortish running-time of 97 minutes is shared equally among the many of stars on display, and most of them get at least a couple of scenes to shine. Helen Mirren appears to have the most fun as a never-will-be actress romping through the role of Death.

The perfectly sparkling locations featuring New York City decked out for Christmas fit perfectly within the film's simplistically magical ethos, but Loeb's dialogue exchanges needed at least one more thorough polish to scrub away the many awkward artificialities.

Collateral Beauty tries to achieve a whimsical fairytale vibe, but lands firmly on the wrong side of cloying.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Lovers (2017)
Mon, 29 Apr 2019 04:34:00 +0000

A romantic drama and comedy, The Lovers is a playful but sparse exploration of unexpected surprises lurking in a stale marriage.

Mary (Debra Winger) and Michael (Tracy Letts) are well into middle age and going through the motions of pretending to be married. In reality they cannot tolerate each other, and they are both having affairs and barely bothering to keep them secret. Mary's lover is writer Robert (Aidan Gillen) while Michael's mistress is Lucy (Melora Walters), a dancer and ballet teacher.

Both Mary and Michael have separately promised their lovers they will end their marriage around the time their son Joel (Tyler Ross) and his girlfriend Erin (Jessica Sula) arrive for a weekend visit. But an inadvertent morning kiss sparks passion back into the mariage, scrambling Mary and Michael's emotions and confusing their lovers.

The irony of The Lovers resides in both affairs starting to emit the same stale stench of tired relationships. Robert and Lucy appear well on the way to introducing heavy doses of irritation into the lives of Mary and Michael respectively, in a dual example of the sheets feeling silkier in a new lover's bed, but only temporarily.

And so it's no surprise when writer and director Azael Jacobs reignites the fire between Mary and Michael, the married couple rediscovering the joy of physical intimacy with each other and forced to hide the affair-within-marriage from their illicit lovers.

The Lovers deftly manoeuvres through this mixed up terrain of the heart, but the scarcity of substance is also obvious. The film is just over 90 minutes long, but the pace is slow, the pauses pregnant, and several scenes retread familiar dynamics without adding much new material. The arrival of son Joel and his girlfriend Erin is a prelude to some unnecessary histrionics.

Jacobs also has difficulty rounding out his characters. For a small film centred on four people, Mary and Michael are offered relatively little depth, while Robert and Lucy are sketched in with just the broadest of strokes. The limitations of the writing are sometimes painfully evident in the wooden dialogue, and other than stars Debra Winger and Tracy Letts, the performances and delivery border on amateurishly stiff.

But The Lovers succeeds more often than it fails thanks to a clear-eyed perspective on raw emotional eccentricity. The heart magnet between Mary and Michael rotates to alternatively push them apart and pull them together, lovers and their lovers caught in a whirlpool of amusing uncertainty.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Mulholland Drive (2001)
Thu, 25 Apr 2019 04:51:00 +0000

A Hollywood mystery, Mulholland Drive throws plenty of style and inconsequential abstractions at the screen.

In Hollywood, an unknown woman who later adopts the name Rita (Laura Elena Harring) survives an abduction and a car crash along Mulholland Drive, but loses her memory. She takes refuge in a temporarily empty apartment, where soon the perky Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives, a newcomer to town intent on starting her Hollywood career.

Film director Adam (Justin Theroux) is having a bad day. He is forced by shadowy financiers to cast an actress he does not know as the lead in his new movie, then he catches his wife cheating with the poolman and is thrown out of his own home.

Meanwhile, Rita and Betty become friends, and find a large amount of cash and a mysterious blue key in Rita's handbag. She starts having memory flashes, which lead the pair to a grisly discovery. Betty also nails her first audition, and briefly meets Adam. But Rita and Betty's troubles are just starting, and two other women called Diane and Camilla will enter the picture.

A rejected television pilot expanded into an incomprehensible mess of a feature film, Mulholland Drive is two thirds of a decent movie. Director and writer David Lynch conjures up a Hollywood dream/nightmare combination in the story of naive but talented Betty meeting the dark and damaged Rita. The initial 90 minutes, while containing plenty of dead-ends, abandoned incidents and characters meant to be developed later in the television series, offers plenty of promise, despite the cheap amnesia plot device.

Beyond the bounds of the rejected material, Lynch slaps on a further 45 minutes of dream-like, barely coherent concepts, and takes Mulholland Drive to the land of impenetrable theory where any explanation goes and none are satisfactory. The carefully constructed plot is all but abandoned, actresses Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring take on new roles, and the movie wanders off into mythology of its own making.

The parts of the film that make sense are infused with a smooth vibe and play on the metaphor of Hollywood as a field of dreams with a dark underbelly. The less coherent portions are all about the distorted haze of broken dreams, shattered promises and betrayal most foul. While there is some fun to be had in kicking around diverse interpretations, the totality of the film is disrespectful in its cavalier attitude towards its own characters and events.

By the end of the seemingly endless 146 minutes the pieces of Mulholland Drive lie scattered on the boulevard of broken dreams. The puzzle can be assembled into any number of pictures, but they are all distorted by bumptious storytelling.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Nocturnal Animals (2016)
Tue, 23 Apr 2019 05:00:00 +0000

A social drama with an embedded crime thriller, Nocturnal Animals is a complex and gripping multi-layered experience.

Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) manages an art gallery and is trapped in an icy cold and disintegrating marriage with the cheating Hutton (Armie Hammer). She receives a book manuscript titled Nocturnal Animals from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). Intrigued to find the book dedicated to her, she starts reading.

The novel recounts the fictional story of Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal), his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and teenaged daughter India (Ellie Bamber). While on a long road trip in rural western Texas they tangle on the highway with a group of thugs led by Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The horrifyingly violent episode ends with Tony humiliated and separated from his abducted family. Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) is assigned to find the two missing women and apprehend the perpetrators.

Susan is entranced by the novel, and recalls her relationship with Edward from initial courtship to the stress of a young marriage, finding parallels between the novel and their troubled history.

Seamlessly unfolding within three different frames, Nocturnal Animals weaves multiple interlinked stories with effortless ease. Director and writer Tom Ford displays a deft touch to stretch delicate threads between Susan's current and past lives and the fiction in her hands written by her ex-husband. The film is both a baroque composition and a revenge thesis, and works brilliantly in both contexts.

While superficially Susan's marriage-gone-wrong should have little in common with a crime-most-foul and a lust for revenge in the Texas desert, she senses the unsettling connection early. The raw power in Edward's story revealing the insecurities and anguish in alter ego Tony's heart carry unmistakable resonance, leading Susan to question where and how she steered her life. She carries guilt related to how the relationship with Edward ended, and the novel creates an opportunity to both make amends and rediscover her soulmate's trajectory.

Ford portrays Susan's current status in soulless darkness, and uses blues, blacks, shiny surfaces and not an item out of place to convey a perfectly empty life. In contrast Tony Hastings' nightmare burns in the Texas sun, grand skies, yellows and reds engulfing the rage at his own weakness and a passion to finally step forth and be counted.

Nocturnal Animals features four outstanding performances. Amy Adams covers plenty of terrain from a young woman in love to an emotionally stifled gallery manager passing the point of caring about her second husband's cheating antics. Jake Gyllenhaal plays two separate but related roles as the sensitive first husband Edward and the flawed family man Tony.

Michael Shannon stands as tall as Texas, a detective with unique methods and a personal agenda. And finally Aaron Taylor-Johnson creates a cinematic monster for the ages in Ray Marcus, barely in control of any emotion and willing to improvise his actions on the fly in response to juvenile provocations real or perceived. Together the four actors create unforgettable dynamics and textured characters feeding off each other's strengths and weaknesses.

Ford plays with the theme of personal growth towards directions predicted and potentially unwanted. Susan's worst nightmare is to grow into her calculating mother (Laura Linney, expertly stealing her one scene), but there she is, giving up on her dreams and seeking the shallow pampered life at the expense of happiness. Edward was always the romantic type, just as likely to live in poverty as he is to write a seminal novel, and his brilliance now rests in Susan's hands. She both gave up on him and inspired his greatest achievement, and his creativity will again seep into her life, and not always as she expects.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Pet Sematary (2019)
Mon, 22 Apr 2019 15:42:00 +0000

A horror film about meddling with life after death, Pet Sematary offers chilling ambiance but is over-reliant on traditional jump scares.

In search of a slower pace and more family time, Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) relocates his life from Boston to rural Maine. His wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), nine year old daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and infant son Gage are initially happy with the transition, although the massive trucks speeding along the nearby country road are disconcerting. Rachel harbours deep guilt from childhood over the gruesome death of her sister. Her mood is not improved when the family discover a spooky pet cemetery in the woods behind their new home.

Meanwhile, Louis starts work at a local clinic and experiences a disturbing incident when a young man dies violently but appears to haunt Louis with talk of calamities to come. When Ellie's pet cat Church expires, grizzled neighbour Jud (John Lithgow) guides Louis to haunted grounds beyond the cemetery where whatever is buried comes back alive. Louis takes a chance to try and bring Church to life, starting a violent chain of unintended consequences.

The 1983 Stephen King novel was first adapted to the screen in 1989. Thirty years later, co-directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer working from a Jeff Buhler script recreate King's vision of a forbidden yet tempting place where willing humans have the ability to experiment with regenerating life. The film is effective in creating a bleak mood with death haunting the family's past and present. A steady start introduces the family dynamics and their ominous new surroundings, and once Lewis' patient dies quickly followed by Ellie's cat, the second half offers a tightening grip of unrelenting horror.

Pet Sematary delves into themes of persistent guilt casting a lifelong shadow. Rachel blames herself for the traumatic death of her deformed sister at a young age, an incident replayed and leveraged by Kölsch and Widmyer to good effect. Back in the present Lewis is overwhelmed with guilt when things start going wrong for the family he relocated to new surroundings, increasing the dark appeal of meddling with nature in a desperate attempt to set things right.

And the film does find a focus on the intoxicating magnetism of controlling life and death. Jud is honest about the inexorable pull of the haunted soils. The ramifications of meddling with the dead are not all good, and yet the enormous power to reinstate life cannot be resisted, especially when combined with human emotional failings and the medical imperative to save lives even when all seems lost.

While the story offers plenty of opportunities for interpretation, on the screen Kölsch and Widmyer resort to relatively safe and traditional genre elements. Things go bump in the night, doors creek, the wind howls, and intimidating creatures make sudden appearances from the shadows. It's all reasonably effective, but also quite predictable.

Pet Sematary may not break much new ground, but does place a worthwhile marker in familiar territory.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Us (2019)
Sun, 21 Apr 2019 15:44:00 +0000

A home invasion horror film, Us offers creepy thrills and astute commentary about the American dream.

As a young girl, Adelaide had a bad experience at the spooky mirror-filled funhouse on the Santa Cruz beach, where she bumped into an exact look-alike. More than 20 years later, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) is now married to Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke) with two kids of her own, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). During a vacation trip to the family's rustic summer home Adelaide's anxieties are reawakened when Gabe insists the family spend a day at the Santa Cruz beach.

Her mood is not helped when she spots the funhouse still standing, and she momentarily loses sight of Jason. But things get a lot worse that night when a family of four lookalikes shows up at the Wilson's doorstep. The vacation turns to horror when the lookalikes invade the house, and Adelaide's worst fears are realized.

Us toys with the concept that everyone has a doppelganger, and combines it with the American Dream as a zero-sum game. Every success is mirrored and tethered by an equivalent failure, and maybe one day, the failures will rise up and demand their share. Here director and writer Jordan Peele has the invading hordes dressed in red jumpsuits, emerging from subterranean tunnels, and generally unable to speak. But they are capable of extreme violence, causing societal anarchy and joining hands across the country.

Through Adelaide's complex character Peele explores the fragility of the human experience, where life's trajectory towards misery or happiness is dictated by one childhood incident. And he may also be more broadly commenting on the United States ("Us"), where haves and have-nots can pretend to exist in separate worlds, but eventually (and maybe now), both the delusion and the peace will shatter with the downtrodden rising to seize control.

Peele does pack his film with sketched-in content, from a preponderance of bunnies to government experiments gone awry and years-in-the-making but barely explained plans hatched in tunnels, passing through the remarkable ability of the tethered revolutionaries to repeatedly come back from the dead. It's all fodder for thought and theories, but also an indication of some lack of writing discipline.

But Us is an otherwise enjoyable romp, combining an overall creepy mood with occasional jump scares and a mean streak of humour. Peele makes excellent use of the vacation home's hidden nooks, the aways unsettling funhouse with too many mazes and mirrors, and recurring symbols from black flag T-shirts to Jeremiah 11:11 references.

And when the time comes to unleash mayhem, Adelaide and her family rise to the challenge, the film's final act veering towards bloody action with even the kids getting into the act of self-preservation. Because everyone has a role in repelling the barbarians at the gate, especially if the barbarians are us.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Detroit (2017)
Sat, 20 Apr 2019 17:02:00 +0000

A drama about race-fuelled tensions erupting into violence and murder, Detroit recreates a chapter of history that still carries powerful resonance.

It's 1967 in Detroit. Tensions are high in the black-dominated inner-city. A raid on an illegal nightclub by the all-white police force triggers violent street rioting and looting, and the national guard is deployed to support the Detroit police. Philip Krauss (Will Poulter) is trigger-happy police officer not beyond shooting rioters in the back.

Caught up in the chaos is security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega). Being black but also a figure of authority, he walks a fine line to try and maintain the peace. The aspiring R&B band The Dramatics is hoping for their big break, with lead singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith) poised for stardom. But the rioting interrupts their first big concert, and Reed and his friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) take refuge at the Algiers Motel where they meet Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), two white girls who may be prostitutes.

Vietnam veteran Karl Greene (Anthony Mackie) is also at the hotel, as is the confrontational Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) and his group of friends. When Carl fires harmless starter pistol shots out of the window, the police descend on the hotel with Krauss as the lead officer. The subsequent stand-off and brutal police interrogation leaves three people dead and a trail of unanswered questions.

Based on real events, Detroit reexamines a distressing episode in American race relations. The  murder of three black men at the Algiers Motel by white authority figures is another appalling milestone when black lives did not matter, and decades later the country continues to grapple with some of the same tragic fault lines.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal are broadly successful in creating the larger social context, and Detroit effectively conveys a city core where the predominantly black population clings to hope against an overwhelming wave of despair. The heavy handed enforcement tactics force a tipping point, unleashing anarchy that swallows up neighbourhoods in fires fuelled by rage. As in any urban war zone, most of victims are the innocents caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Bigelow is less effective in rounding out her characters. At over 2 hours and 20 minutes, Detroit would have benefitted from tighter editing, fewer incidental distractions and more focus on the people at the centre of the drama. Security guard Dismukes and singer Reed come closest to resonating, but still suffer from shallow definition.

As the centrepiece to the film, Bigelow stages the raid on the Algiers Motel as an agonizing nightmare unfolding in the searing pace of life-defining events perceived in real time as never ending. The cruel heartlessness of officer Krauss and his colleagues as they toy with the lives of black men (and two white women), deciding who lives who dies, is a harrowing cinematic achievement.

For all the lessons to be learned from the Algiers Motel murders, Detroit is unfortunately both essential history and regrettably close to continued reality.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Leave a Reply