Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Movie Review: Trespass (2011)

A stale family hostage drama, Trespass is a brain-dead exercise in rehashing old ideas with a large dose of ineptitude.

Kyle Miller (Nicolas Cage) is self-employed as an independent middle-man in the diamond trade business, operating in the more shadowy corners of the industry. He lives in a large custom-designed house, but his marriage to Sarah (Nicole Kidman) is dying due to lack of attention. Their teenaged daughter Avery (Liana Liberato) is fully into the rebellion stage.

At night, with Avery having sneaked out of the house to attend a house party, the Millers are invaded by a noisy armed gang consisting of leader Elias (Ben Mendelsohn), his brother Jonah (Cam Gigandet), Elias' girlfriend Petal (Jordana Spiro) and the brutish Ty (Dash Mihok). Elias demands that Kyle hand over the diamonds stashed in his safe. Kyle refuses and starts stalling, allowing for cracks to emerge among the home invaders. And it soon becomes apparent that Jonah was the technician who installed the Millers' complex alarm system, and his hunky wiring work may have attracted the roving eye of the lonely Sarah.

Trespass invests 10 minutes in establishing the Miller family dynamic, the next 10 minutes firing the opening salvo of the home invasion, and then disintegrates into nonsense. The script by Karl Gajdusek has a torrid trying to extend the drama to 90 minutes, and most of the movie consists of angry people screaming loudly while pointing guns at the heads of scared victims.

On numerous occasions the guns change hands, and the Millers have many opportunities to run and call for help, but of course the film always contrives a way to prolong the hostage agony for another round of hissing, cussing and shouting. Director Joel Schumacher, working hard to erase memories of his better films, never comes close to creating any sort of tension or excitement.

The home invaders soon turn into a band of dysfunctional idiots, with internal arguments, drug addictions, botched previous jobs, jealousies and double-crosses all coming to the fore. Jonah's infatuation with Sarah places him on the wrong team and at odds with his brother, adding to the loud arguments erupting throughout the Miller household.

Nicolas Cage and Nicole Kidman embarrass themselves with this schlock, both mailing in routine wide-eyed victim roles. It is left to youngster Liana Liberato to deliver the most engaging performance as the pouty and headstrong Avery.

Trespass crosses all the wrong lines, heading in a misguided direction.

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Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Movie Review: The Company Men (2010)

A corporate downsizing drama, The Company Men faithfully reveals the trauma caused by a contracting economy. The film works as a straightforward chronicle but without capturing any emotional resonance.

In a suburb of Boston, Global Transportation Systems (GTX) is a large corporation specializing in shipbuilding. With the great economic recession in full swing, business is down, the firm's share price is being hammered, and management responds with plant closures and brutal staffing cuts. CEO James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson) and his HR manager Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello) set their sights on the underperforming division run by Salinger's longtime friend and first employee Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones).

While McClary survives the cuts along with veteran salesperson Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), the casualties include young and ambitious marketing executive Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), who has an MBA, a large house, a larger mortgage, a Porsche, golf club membership, wife Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt) and two kids. Bobby struggles to come to terms with the seismic impact to his personal life, and refuses to accept the economic crisis that has descended on his household. But with months passing and no prospects for another corporate job, he has to seriously consider accepting the humiliating offer from his brother in-law Jack (Kevin Costner) to help out on a construction site. Meanwhile, back at GTX, the rift between the considerate Gene and the much more ruthless James grows wider, as another round of cuts looms.

The Company Man has sincere intentions to delve into the human cost of job losses. Writer / director (and co-producer) John Wells does a fine job of looking at the carnage from all perspectives, including the people at the top pulling the trigger (Salinger and Sally); the senior manager caught in the guilt-drenched middle (Gene), the susceptible old-timer (Phil), the young, relatively cheap early victim (Bobby), and the blue collar worker all too familiar with hard times (Jack). The main focus is on Bobby, but The Company Men gives each of the main characters the opportunity to tell a distinctive story.

And through Bobby's story The Company Men does question the priorities of the young and ambitious, as wealth is translated into a mountain of debt that leaves no buffer. A smaller house, a practical car, and less golf would have allowed Bobby to ride out the recession in better shape. At the top, the rich find the ways to get richer. Salinger's reward for initiating deep cuts is an improved share price and the opportunity to sell the company and cash in on a new fortune.

But while the film functions smoothly, it never latches onto an emotional vein. Unlike Up In The Air (2009), The Company Men does not get under the skin of any of the protagonists, and remains a superficial if well-meaning study of people struggling through a crisis. Almost mechanically, Bobby goes through the academic stages of anger, denial, and dejection before being picked up by his wife Maggie once he reaches rock-bottom. Gene demonstrates why he is not the CEO of GTX by displaying too much caring for people rather than share price. And Phil represents the most exposed corporate soldier, the loyal employee who worked his way up, but has been stagnant for a long time and is now too old to be re-trainable. All good stories that unfold with integrity, but in the context of an imploding economy, all also rather predictable, and Wells doesn't find too many new angles to explore.

The cast of dependable stalwarts is consistently good, and while Affleck, Jones, Nelson and Cooper perform admirably with no surprises, Kevin Costner and Rosemarie DeWitt grab the opportunity to shine in excellent supporting roles.

With their company exposed to an economic crisis, all of The Company Men will experience tumultuous losses. For most of the men the pain is raw and visible. And those who emerge from the crisis with much greater material wealth and little empathy for the misfortune of others have actually suffered most of all. They have lost their soul, although they may not know it.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Movie Review: The Double (2011)

A rather listless spy adventure, The Double is caught between a flimsy plot that leaves out all the details and tired action scenes that offer nothing new. A couple of good plot twists maintain a modicum of interest.

When a US senator is suddenly killed by having his throat slit, CIA Director Tom Highland (Martin Sheen) suspects that the murder is the work of Cassius, the codename for a long dormant Soviet-era assassin. Highland calls in retired agent Paul Shepherdson (Richard Gere) to try and capture Cassius. Prior to retirement Shepherdson had led a multi-year effort to eliminate a nest of Soviet spies, and had succeeded in killing them all except for the elusive Cassius.

Highland is asked to work with young FBI agent Ben Geary (Topher Grace), who wrote his Master's thesis on Cassius. Geary is obsessed with the case, and Stephenson finds it difficult to work with the eager but inexperienced young agent. They nevertheless track down and interrogate the imprisoned Brutus (Stephen Moyer), the lone surviving member of Cassius' cell, to try and determine the killers' whereabouts. Brutus is soon killed, and the emergence of another brutal Soviet-era assassin in the form of Bozlovski (Tamer Hassan) further complicates the investigation.

The Double offers two significant twists, the first about 30 minutes into the film and the second in the final 10 minutes. Both of the script summersaults are sharp and unexpected, and credit to the writing team of Derek Haas and director Michael Brandt for conjuring up a crisp double. The relationship between Shepherdson and Geary also steps beyond buddy movie territory and into some moments of anguished reflection and anxiety.

But otherwise, there is precious little to enjoy. The story stumbles and falls early, avoiding any depth, and skipping past details such as the background to the senator's death, Bozlovski's mission, why Cassius is being smoked out of hiding, or how Stephenson was able to track down Bozlovski for the final confrontation. The investigative skills on display bounce between simplistic and embarrassing, and finally tilt on incredulous, primarily consisting of Geary concluding that Cassius must always attend the scene of his crimes and then scouring photos to find the common face.

There are a few action scenes consisting of the most mundane foot chases, exchanges of gunfire and some close-quarters combat, and it is all about 40 years out of date in terms of originality and execution.

Richard Gere and Topher Grace fulfill their obligations with minimal fuss and impact, both playing their roles with notable dedication but without being able to rise above above the material. Martin Sheen breezes through the film often in the company of expensive suits and a large overcoat, throwing his authority around and serving as a reminder than most movies improve when he is given more screen time.

The Double offers a pair of intriguing jacks, but also serves up a series of frustrating double faults.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Movie Review: Love In The Afternoon (1957)

A spring - winter romance, Love In The Afternoon is talkative and static, but still manages to shine thanks to a radiant Audrey Hepburn and a congenial Maurice Chevalier.

Claude Chavasse (Chevalier) is an elderly private detective in Paris, typically hired to prove infidelity. A widower, Claude lives with his daughter Ariane (Hepburn), an aspiring cellist with a inquisitive disposition who does not hesitate to rifle through her father's files. Claude's latest client is Monsieur X (John McGiver), and sure enough Claude uncovers Madame X having a liaison with rich American businessman and renowned philanderer Frank Flannagan (Gary Cooper) at Frank's Ritz Hotel room. Monsieur X claims that he wants to catch his wife in the act and shoot Frank. This horrifies the eavesdropping Ariane, and she sets about to intervene.

Monsieur X: Please, monsieur, is the news good or bad?
Claude: That depends. Is this your wife? [Hands over a photograph]
Monsieur X: It looks like her.
Claude: Then I regret to inform you that it looks bad.
Monsieur X: Then there IS another man!
Claude: There is. And I regret to say that he looks good.

Ariane does save Frank, there is an immediate attraction between them, and they start to see each other regularly at Frank's hotel room, always in the afternoon. But Frank is a high flying businessman with a lover in every city and no intention of settling down. Ariane is a romantic looking for her dream man, but to make Frank jealous, she creates the illusion of also having numerous lovers. It's a dangerous game, as Frank is well set in his womanizing ways, and Ariane's heart is deeply set on Frank.

Cooper was 56 years old at the time of release, and only four years away from his untimely death. Hepburn was literally half his age at 28. As in the quote above, the script tries to insist that Cooper is a handsome devil, but unfortunately he was not a leading man who was able to camouflage his age in later years. He carried every one of those 56 years, creating a central problem for Love In The Afternoon. As much as Frank Flannagan is a successful jet-setting businessman, Ariane is simply too smart, practical and resourceful to immediately fall for a man who could well be her elderly uncle. Any chemistry between the two quickly smells foul.

Past the troublesome age difference, the film is a romance based on a lot of talking in just the two locations. Director Billy Wilder, who co-wrote the script with I.A.L. Diamond, is rarely able to break away from Flannagan's hotel room and Claude's apartment, which doubles as his office. With a running length of 130 minutes, a sense of claustrophobia is unavoidable. Since Love In The Afternoon is based on a novel (Claude Anet's Ariane, Jeune Fille Russe), and not a stage play, the inadequate variety in settings is a sign of either a lack of imagination or budget limitations, or both.

But despite the shortcomings, the movie does work better than it should. The dialogue exchanges are sharp, Wilder and Diamond, who would go on to collaborate on a total of twelve films, finding frequent zingers that comment on everything from Paris, to shady business, and the airiness of love confronting the practicality of lust without commitment.

Ariane's one strategy to gain Frank's attention is to hold up a mirror and talk his walk, pretending that she behaves as he does, arousing intense jealousy as Frank finally has to confront the emptiness of a life full of women but lacking the one woman. It's the film's central hook, and it works beautifully thanks to Hepburn's seductively intellectual approach to her quest. And Hepburn is the film's main asset, displaying her coy appeal, giving Ariane a delightful spirit of level-headed rebellion mixed with insecurity.

Frank: Everything about you is perfect.
Ariane: I'm too thin! And my ears stick out, and my teeth are crooked and my neck's much too long.
Frank: Maybe so, but I love the way it all hangs together.

Even with Hepburn in top form, Chevalier steals every scene that he is in, creating in Claude Chavasse a memorable father pretending to still have some control over his daughter while knowing full well that she is off on her own, enjoying new adventures inspired by his own detective work.

Ariane: Papa, you are a cynic!
Claude: I guess I am.
Ariane: You enjoy your work!
Claude: I guess I do.
Ariane: You'd enjoyed it even if you weren't paid for it!
Claude: I wouldn't go that far.

The one recurrent elaborate gag running through Love In The Afternoon is a good one: Frank has a musical foursome known as the The Gypsies at his disposal, and they follow him around on his travels providing musical accompaniment to his numerous trysts. The Gypsies provide the film with dry humour and an entertaining musical score, although Fascination is eventually overused to distraction.

Love In The Afternoon is an imperfect but still enchanting romance, celebrating love's ability to overcome and soar, any time of day.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Movie Review: The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014)

A feel-good story of cultures clashing then reconciling in rural France, The Hundred-Foot Journey offers grown-up entertainment in a pleasantly predictable package.

Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal), a young Indian man, was taught how to cook by his Mama (Juhi Chawla). Tragedy strikes when Mama is killed and the family restaurant owned by Papa Kadam (Om Puri) is burned to the ground by an enraged mob following disputed elections. The surviving Kadams emigrate to Europe, and eventually stumble onto an abandoned restaurant property just outside a quaint town in France. Papa purchases the land and builds his dream Indian restaurant with Hassan as the chef, much to the disgust of Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), who owns an haute cuisine French restaurant across the street.

Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon) works as a sous-chef with Madame Mallory, and she starts a tentative friendship with Hassan, which evolves into a romance. Madame Mallory's establishment is proudly recognized with a single coveted Michelin star, and she craves winning a second star. But with the noisy Indian restaurant suddenly offering competition and disrupting her staid environment, a tense stand-off erupts between the two establishments, with a racist undercurrent. But Hassan's burgeoning talent will not be denied, and his rising reputation takes him on an unexpected journey.

Directed by Lasse Hallström from a script by Steven Knight, perhaps The Hundred-Foot Journey's tone and intent are best revealed by the producing team of Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey. This is an elegant film, oozing with classy performances, filled with beautiful scenery, and singularly focussed on teasing out the best of what makes seemingly discordant cultures work together. That the ending is preordained, and that romance will flourish despite cultural barriers, comes with this territory.

The blending of Hollywood and Bollywood in neutral France works well, with Helen Mirren perfectly haughty as the widow denying her emotions by throwing her soul into perfecting her already impeccable restaurant. Bollywood veteran Om Puri matches her with a performance of grace and determination. Papa Kadam is man more stubborn than he at first appears, holding on to Indian traditions but not beyond raising his elbows and adapting as needed to ensure that his family not only survives but thrives in their new environment. Both Madame Mallory and Papa Kadam will have to overcome some of life's deeper scars before coming to terms with each other.

The romance between the younger couple Hassan and Marguerite is ironically more traditional, complete with bicycle rides through the countryside. The complications emerge in the form of career competitiveness. Marguerite is at first welcoming and helpful, but once Hassan's talent as a potential star chef becomes clear, she struggles with the sudden and unexpected threat to her own ambitions.

The final third of the film smoothly switches gears, as peace breaks out between the competing restaurants and the journey becomes that of Hassan, the talented immigrant struggling with the definition of success, the importance of family, and the unfinished business of the heart. The journey starts with the first hundred feet, but it's ultimately the trip of globalisation, around the world to define the new meaning of home.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Movie Review: Gilda (1946)

A classic film noir, Gilda smolders in the Buenos Aires heat as a small time gambler, his ex-flame and an illegal casino baron get embroiled in a personal duel against the backdrop of a dangerous cartel emerging from the post-war shadows.

American Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) washes up in Buenos Aires penniless but still adept at cheating his way to winning at any gambling opportunity. He is spotted by Ballin Mundson (George Macready), the smooth but ruthless operator of a lavish underworld casino, where the elite come to play. Ballin hires Johnny as his business manager and second in command, and the two men develop a strong friendship. But the trust between them starts to evaporate when Ballin returns from a trip suddenly married to the beautiful Gilda (Rita Hayworth).

Although they both initially deny it, it becomes obvious that Johnny and Gilda are former lovers who broke up on bad terms. Gilda, perhaps a mistress of the oldest profession, is a wild spirit who cannot be contained by Ballin, and she starts running around with any available man, primarily to make Johnny jealous. Ballin becomes preoccupied when his involvement with an illegal, Nazi-linked tungsten cartel starts to catch up with him. He asks Johnny to keep an eye on Gilda and make sure that she stays safe, but the flame of passion between Johnny and Gilda is about to be reignited.

Directed by Charles Vidor, Gilda is careening adventure into the sordid world of lovers' revenge, packed into the tight quarters of shady gambling and global intrigue. It's a breathless exercise in smooth narcissism, every man for himself, one woman on a twisted vendetta, all in a foreign location where all the normal rules are suspended. Photographed by Rudolph Maté in smoky black and white, almost every scene is a masterpiece of shadows, angles and lighting that hides the sinners in the corners.

Gilda is populated by slippery secondary characters who animate Ballin's casino, oozing hidden agendas from every pore and turning the gambling den into the favourite hangout for the crooks, the cops, and the crocked. Maurice Obregon (Joseph Calleia) doesn't drink and doesn't gamble, he is there as a government agent charged with keeping an eye on the place and untangling the tungsten cartel's secrets. The durable Uncle Pio (Steven Geray) looks after the bathrooms, and is a lot more astute than he looks.

And then there is the twisted-looking old man who regularly walks in, bets on "2 black" at the roulette wheel, and walks away with a wad of cash, all part of the effort to keep the peace. And finally there are the two "Germans" who show up to try and reclaim control of the cartel away from Ballin, now that the world war is over and all.

It's all reminiscent of Rick's Cafe Americain, of course, but the Gilda screenplay (by Jo Eisinger
and Marion Parsonnet) is not concerned with great struggles between good and evil. At Ballin's casino it's all about personal greed, lust, jealousy and betrayal, a world full of selfish Ricks who are looking out for their personal gain and pleasure.

A luminous Rita Hayworth has never been in a better film, and she creates in Gilda a seductress, a lover and a victim all rolled into one amazing woman who can neither be resisted nor controlled. Liberated by Gilda's unrestrained sexuality deployed in a frontal assault to reclaim her one shot at true love, Hayworth gets to perform two sizzling dance numbers (with singing dubbed by Anita Ellis). Put The Blame On Mame is an inferred striptease meant to make the walls sweat, while Amado Mio is a more subdued but still sinewy number. Glenn Ford and George Macready are both excellent as the two men in her life, but Vidor ensures that whenever Hayworth is on the screen, nothing else matters.

Gilda proves to be the catalyst for both Johnny and Ballin. Both men are enjoying financial riches until she walks into their lives, and by the time the drama has played out, it is clear that no life stays on the same trajectory once Gilda makes an appearance. An exceptional force of nature and an alluring partner for the man who tames her heart, Gilda is a game changer.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Movie Review: The Valley Of Decision (1945)

A sprawling romance set amidst Pittsburgh's steel industry, The Valley Of Decision is epic in scale and ambition, and well-served by a committed Greer Garson performance.

It's the late 1800s in Pittsburgh, and Mary Rafferty (Greer Garson) is hired as a housemaid by the Scott family, owners of a major steel mill. William Scott (Donald Crisp) is the head of the family, his wife Clarissa (Gladys Cooper) runs a lavish household, while their son Paul (Gregory Peck) is passionate about the business. Paul's sister Constance (Marsha Hunt) is spoiled, impulsive, and looking to marry a rich man of her own.

Mary's father Pat (Lionel Barrymore) has an uncontrollable hatred for the Scotts, whom he blames for the industrial accident that left him in a wheelchair. Nevertheless, Mary quickly earns the respect of the family with her committed and no-nonsense attitude. Mary and Paul share an immediate attraction, and although they do fall in love, the gulf in class between the wealthy scion and the lowly maid means that any serious relationship is likely doomed, particularly with Paul seemingly destined to marry his childhood sweetheart Louise (Jessica Tandy). Mary also gains the deep trust and gratitude of Clarissa, and becomes a close friend to Constance.

Over the years and in the constant shadow of the smoke stacks, the family goes through many struggles, including challenges with introducing technological innovations, Constance's sudden marriage to an Englishman, and a dispute between workers and management that turns violent. Paul's love for Mary endures, but finding happiness together proves elusive.

An adaptation of the Marcia Davenport novel, The Valley Of Decision is a grand love story with a rich cast of characters, an impressive backdrop of industry, an undercurrent of class struggles, and an absorbing breadth of events. Under the guidance of director Tay Garnett's steady hand, the two hours of running time fly by, as the well-rounded characters prove to be engaging and relatable.

With so much going on the film invariably suffers from a few moments that fall flat, and some of the emotions are either truncated or simplistic. But whenever events threaten to overwhelm The Valley Of Decision, the depth of the characters and the bonds that form between them prove to be unshakeable foundations. Mary shares meaningful and separate connections with Paul, Clarissa and Constance, giving the film three anchors to build around.

And even the supporting characters add plenty of substance, the old warriors William Scott and Pat Rafferty carrying the burdens of generations past, while plant foreman Jim Brennan (Preston Foster) and Paul's brothers William Jr. (Dan Duryea) and Ted (Marshall Thompson) play key roles in the family's destiny.

Despite the human focus, The Valley Of Decision does not lose sight of the business and social contexts. The script by John Meehan and Sonya Levien invests an impressive amount of time on manufacturing and labour issues at the steel mill, Paul a hands-on future owner keen to move with the times. The Scotts are presented as determined but potentially sympathetic, as Paul pushes his father towards offering better working conditions for the striking workers. Not all goes according to plan, and the family suffers its share of losses and disappointments.

Greer Garson positively shines as Mary Rafferty, bringing to the role confidence, determination, and courage. Garson is able to convey love coupled with wisdom, and the unique empathetic traits that would allow a housekeeper to gain the trust and admiration of the family she serves. Gregory Peck establishes his strong screen persona as Paul, a good man not afraid of setting an example by breaking down barriers and building meaningful relationships with the less fortunate.

With Lionel Barrymore as the caustic Pat helping himself to large bites of the scenery to chew on, it is left to Marsh Hunt to deliver the other stand-out performance as Constance. She evolves from entitled and rich to entitled and struggling, while forming a genuinely warm bond with Mary, a deep friendship that would unexpectedly prove to be vital for the Scotts' future. The business may be steel and smoke, but ultimately, it is people who determine the destiny of any venture.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Movie Review: Do Not Disturb (1965)

A lame romantic comedy, Do Not Disturb suffers from manic over-acting by Doris Day and an almost total absence of chemistry between any of the couples on display.

American businessman Mike Harper (Rod Taylor), an executive with a wool fashions and textile company, is relocated to England and asked to breathe life into the failing European side of the business. His wife Janet (Day) insists that they live in a country house in Kent, a long train commute away from Mike's London office. He starts to spend more and more time at his firm's apartment, and in the company of his attractive assistant Claire Hackett (Maura McGiveney).

Back in Kent, the town's busybody Vanessa Courtwright (Hermione Baddeley) convinces Janet that she needs to arouse Mike's jealousy by pretending to have a lover of her own, and arranges for suave antique furniture dealer Paul Bellari (Sergio Fantoni) to be the pretend lover. But Paul has plans of his own, and whisks Janet away to Paris on a quest for some furniture pieces - and possibly some romance.

Directed by Ralph Levy, who spent almost his entire career in television, Do Not Disturb is a second rate production which never gets going, and is a lot more annoying than funny. Doris Day unleashes all the loud ditziness with none of the seductive cuteness, pushing her persona to intolerable levels of aggravation.The character of Janet is an insufferable dimwit bouncing on the energy of her cluelessness, and it's a wonder that the Harpers have any kind of a marriage to care about or save.

There is not a hint of warmth between Mike and Janet, while Janet spends most of the interminable Paris trip drunk out of her mind, eliminating the potential for serious romance with Paul. The most dangerous woman on show is Claire Hackett, who has all the icy attributes of an expert home wrecker, but the screenplay by Richard Breen and Milt Rosen gives her next to nothing to do.

Not all is completely lost, as the film reaches a climax at a business conference attended by all the textile industry magnates with curvy "assistants" rather than their wives. Janet crashes the event to try and reclaim her husband. Levy finally finds some good laughs on a dance floor filled with older men behaving badly, younger dolled-up mistresses vying for their attention by shaking their assets, an orchestra smoothly switching tunes according to who is on the dance floor, and catering staff navigating the flailing limbs with consummate skill. It's party that would have been worth attending, unlike the rest of this feeble film.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: A Separation (2011)

A social drama from Iran about the cascading consequences of individual decisions, A Separation is an impressive triumph, teasing perceptive observations of the human condition from the simple story of a failing marriage.

The marriage of Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaadi), a middle class couple in Tehran, is strained beyond repair. She wants to leave Iran; he feels the need to stay and look after his elderly father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease. When the judge does not grant them a divorce, they separate. Simin moves in with her mom, and Nader is left to care for his father and the couple's 11 year old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi).

Nader hires a housekeeper, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), to help with his father during the day. Razieh is poor, has a young daughter Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini), is pregnant with another child, and is married to the combustible Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), who owes a lot of money to creditors. Razieh finds the task of caring for Nader's father too much for her, and the pay too low to make it worth her while. But before she can quit, an unexpected crisis causes an angry confrontation between Nader and Razieh, and the physical altercation results in escalating personal, financial and emotional damage to two families.

Directed, produced and written by Asghar Farhadi, A Separation is about the ripple effects of personal decisions spreading rapidly through the greater social pond. Simin makes the choice to leave her husband, daughter and father in law; Nader chooses to hire an ill-equipped and unwilling Razieh to help out with his father. She in turn decides to try and juggle caring for the old man while struggling with her pregnancy and keeping her work a secret from her husband. Before long, Nader and Hodjat are locked in an ugly struggle for pride, for the truth, and for money. It's a dispute that neither man asked for, and with potentially life-altering consequences, all stemming from an unrelated marital squabble.

The quirky realities of Iran's culture embellish the film, and contribute to the mounting misunderstandings. Simin and Nader need the permission of a judge to divorce. With Nader non-committal either way, the judge does not grant it. Razieh does not want Hodjat to know that she is caring for a man all day, despite Nader's father being a helpless sick man. She also needs to check with the country's religious hot-line prior to cleaning up the old man after he wets himself. And Razieh does not tell Nader that she is pregnant, hiding her condition under the flowing chador, to safeguard a job that she decides is anyway not for her.

And despite Iran being superficially a male-dominated society, it is Simin and Razieh, both driven by guilt and empathy and not nearly as saddled by ego as their husbands, who finally take the lead in trying to find honest solutions as events cascade towards familial ruin.

Farhadi also uses his story to comment on the perceived injustices imparted on the lower classes, as Hodjat feels the justice system tilted in favour of the middle class, Hodjat's word and his wife's honour seemingly not quite as important as Nader's version of the story. Witnesses are quick to line up and corroborate Nader, and Hodjat's temper is used against him to insinuate complicity in harming his family.

Even more thought provoking is Farhadi's unblinking view of the children dragged into the conflicts of their parents. Termeh and Somayeh are observant witnesses to the events around them, and Termeh becomes an essential interrogator of her father as Nader stretches the truth to try and extricate himself from the unfolding predicament. In desperation Nader turns the guilt tables onto his precocious daughter and places her squarely in front of an adult dilemma, linking his questionable actions on his need to care for her. At an early age, Termeh is going to have to decide between family and fairness.

Farhadi's directorial style is low-key with a documentary feel, his cameras capturing everyday events transforming into swirling dramas at Nader's unassuming apartment and at the chaotic government offices where grievances are traded and sweaty magistrates patiently separate the half-truths from the exaggerations. The performances are stunning in their normalcy, Peyman Moaadi as Nader and Shahab Hosseini as Hodjat in particular bringing to life two unassuming men from opposite sides of town locked into a tempest that could claim both their futures.

There are no heroes and no villains in A Separation, no glamour, no pathos, and no crescendos of emotions or climaxes of any kind. This is a story about everyday people, all of them flawed but all of them also essentially just decent humans doing the best that they can. The film works brilliantly as a mirror to the men, women, children, and the elderly who share the seemingly simple but actually complex common characteristic of assembling the puzzle called life.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

25 Most Promising Actresses Younger Than Jennifer Lawrence

Jennifer Lawrence was born on August 15 1990, and by 2014 had secured three Academy Award nominations, winning the Oscar for her role in Silver Linings Playbook (2012). Lawrence is well established as the most exciting young star in Hollywood and looks set for a long and celebrated career.

But who are the other young actresses waiting in the wings to follow in her footsteps?  The Ace Black Blog identified the 25 most promising actresses younger than Lawrence who have the potential to establish serious careers in the movies, and secure their own fair share of future Academy Award nominations and wins. Call them Jennifer's younger sisters.

Young promise does not always translate into adult success. It takes a special combination of talent, determination and good decision making to succeed for the long haul in the tough business of Hollywood filmmaking. The Ace Black Blog will track these 25 at five year intervals to see if they fulfill their potential. Meet this generation of most promising actresses, presented by order of birth from oldest to youngest.

#1 Sarah Hyland
born November 24 1990, in Manhattan, New York
Best known from television's Modern Family, Sarah has dabbled in movies including Spanglish (2004) and Vampire Academy (2014). She will need to start focussing more on films if she wants to establish herself formally on the big screen.

#2 Emma Roberts
born February 10 1991, in Rhinebeck, New York
Julia Roberts' niece already has a long list of film credits, starting with Blow (2001) and notably including Lymelife (2008) and Adult World (2013). Her famous aunt may be a help or a hindrance as Emma tries to carve her own identity.

#3 Shailene Woodley
born November 15 1991, in Simi Valley, California
Already nominated for an Academy Award for her role in The Descendants (2011), Shailene made another strong connection with audiences in 2014's The Fault In Our Stars. For good measure she proved her action credentials in Divergent (2014). From the actresses on this list, she is one of the most likely to achieve long-term sustained success.

#4 Selena Gomez
born July 22 1992, in Grand Prairie, Texas
Perhaps a risky choice since Gomez is best known as a singer and Justin Bieber's girlfriend. But in Spring Breakers (2013) Selena demonstrated a willingness to take risks. It's a welcome attitude that could allow her to surprise with an interesting big screen career.

#5 Sofia Vassilieva
born October 22 1992, in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Best known for television's Eloise and Medium, Sofia made a mark in My Sister's Keeper (2009). She has gone back to University and secured impressive academic credentials, and is ready for a new assault on film stardom should she choose to pursue that path.

#6 Halston Sage
born May 10 1993, in Los Angeles, California
With roles in The Bling Ring (2013) and Neighbors (2014), Halston appears to be building momentum from her platform on television's How To Rock.

#7 Adèle Exarchopoulos
born November 22 1993, in Paris, France
Her stunning turn in Blue Is The Warmest Colour (2013) has already propelled her to the front ranks of young talents to watch. Will she focus on French cinema or try to establish herself in Hollywood?

#8 AnnaSophia Robb
born December 8 1993, Denver, Colorado
AnnaSophia already has an impressive resume and strong momentum. Her key films have included Because of Winn-Dixie (2005), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Soul Surfer (2011) and The Way Way Back (2013).

#9 Dakota Fanning
born February 23 1994, in Conyers, Georgia
Dakota has been appearing in films since 2001, and her best known roles include Charlotte's Web (2006), The Runaways (2010) and the Twilight series. She is transitioning to more adult roles with features like The Motel Life (2012).

#10 Saoirse Ronan
born April 12 1994, in New York City, New York
After her breakthrough and Academy Award nomination in Atonement (2007), Saoirse has continued to appear in classy big-budget productions including The Lovely Bones (2009), Hanna (2011), The Host (2013) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). She has established her place as one of the most talented young actresses in Hollywood, and appears set for a terrific career.

#11 Jodelle Ferland
born October 9 1994, in Nanaimo, British Columbia
A presence on television and on film since 2000, Jodelle is perhaps best known for Silent Hill (2006) and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010). With several film productions in the pipeline, she appears set to start focussing on a movie career.

#12 Georgie Henley
born July 9 1995, in Ilkley, England
Best known for the Chronicles Of Narnia film series, Georgie has a raft of kid and youth awards to build a career on.

#13 Abigail Breslin
born April 14 1996, in New York
Abigail has been acting in films since 2002, and rose to prominence and earned an Academy Award nomination for Little Miss Sunshine (2006). She has since kept up her profile with notable performances in high-budget productions like Zombieland (2009), Ender's Game (2013) and August: Osage County (2013). She is on a terrific career trajectory that should see her established among Hollywood's top actresses.

#14 Hailee Steinfeld
born December 11 1996, in Los Angeles, California
Nominated for an Academy Award for True Grit (2010), her first feature film, Hailee has followed up with roles in Romeo And Juliet (2013) and Ender's Game (2013). She has plenty of upcoming releases to further enhance her credentials as a top star of the future.

#15 Chloë Grace Moretz
born February 10 1997, in Atlanta, Georgia
With a film career that started in 2005 with appearances in movies like The Amityville Horror, Chloë Grace has steadily built momentum and burst onto the scene with Kick-Ass (2010) and Carrie (2013). If I Stay (2014) and The Equalizer (2014) will firm-up her position among the front ranks of young actresses.

#16 Isabelle Fuhrman
born February 25 1997, in Washington DC
Her role in The Hunger Games (2012) placed her on the radar, but Isabelle has been appearing on television and on film since 2005, with Orphan (2009) a notable early role. She is currently alternating between voice acting, TV and the movies, and will need to focus on the latter to pick-up big-screen momentum.

#17 Maisie Williams
born April 15 1997, in Bristol, England
Maisie has made a splash on television's Game Of Thrones. She has started to dabble in the movies, and time will tell if she will stick to television or make a concerted effort to turn to the big screen.

#18 Bella Thorne
born October 8 1997, in Pembroke Pines, Florida
Bella has strong presence on television on shows like My Own Worst Enemy, Big Love and Shake It Up. She has started to ramp up a movie career, most notably in 2014's Blended, with many additional big screen productions in the pipeline.

#19 Peyton List
born April 6 1998, in Florida
Her television presence on Jessie has been augmented with movie roles since 2004. Peyton's appearances have included Spider-Man 2 (2004), 27 Dresses (2008) and Something Borrowed (2011). She is another talented actress who may have to soon decide between television and film.

#20 Elle Fanning
born April 9 1998, in Conyers, Georgia
Dakota's younger sister is also looking to carve out a serious movie career. She has been appearing on film since 2001, and her recent high-profile credits include Super 8 (2011), We Bought A Zoo (2011), and Maleficent (2014). Elle appears on course for continued success.

#21 Mélusine Mayance
born March 21 1999 in France
Mélusine came to the attention of international audiences in 2010's Sarah's Key. She has time to decide whether or not to try and carve out a career in Hollywood, or alternatively focus on French cinema.

#22 Bailee Madison
born October 15 1999 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Bailee is a charming scene-stealer on television shows like Trophy Wife, and has appeared in movies like Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark (2011) and Parental Guidance (2012). She has racked up numerous young artist awards, and if she can transition from kid to more adult roles in the coming five years, a career in the movies is there for the taking.

#23 Kiernan Shipka
born November 10 1999, in Chicago, Illinois
Kiernan is best known for television's Mad Men, and has had only a few film appearances, notably in Very Good Girls (2013). She has the potential to move into more prominent big screen roles in the coming few years.

#24 Sophie Nélisse
born March 27 2000 in Windsor, Ontario
Sophie has a short but impressive resume, having already been noticed in Monsieur Lazhar (2011) and The Book Thief (2013), and picking up a clutch of awards in the process. She is well positioned to build a powerful reputation as an up-and-comer.

#25 Quvenzhané Wallis
born August 28 2003 in Houma, Louisiana
The youngest of the group, Quvenzhané is the current record holder for the youngest ever Best Actress Academy Award nominee for Beasts Of The Southern Wild (2012). She has followed-up that break-out performance with 12 Years A Slave (2013) and the upcoming remake of Annie (2014). There have been plenty of child stars who never made the jump to an adult career, but Quvenzhané has every opportunity to achieve success.

The aggregated Academy Award scorecard as of September 2014:
Total Best Actress Awards: 0
Total Best Actress Nominations: 1
Quvenzhané Wallis, for Beasts Of The Southern Wild (2012)

Total Best Supporting Actress Awards: 0
Total Best Supporting Actress Nominations: 4
Abigail Breslin, for Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Saoirse Ronan, for Atonement (2007)
Hailee Steinfeld, for True Grit (2010)
Shailene Woodley, for The Descendants (2011)