Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Movie Review: Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing (1955)

A Hong Kong-set post-war romantic drama, Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing has a few good ideas about multi-racial relationships, but also gets bogged down in a generally unimaginative script.

In Hong Kong of 1949,  Dr. Han Suyin (Jennifer Jones) is a prominent Eurasian doctor working at a busy hospital. A widow, Suyin has decided not to get involved in any further romantic relationships. But then she meets American foreign correspondent Mark Elliott (William Holden), who openly admits to being married but estranged from his Singapore-based wife. Mark is persistent in his pursuit of Suyin, and gradually she grows attached to him.

After several dates they become a couple, despite the wagging tongues of Hong Kong's social elites. Suyin questions whether a Eurasian woman can ever be accepted as the partner of an American man, and after an argument abruptly travels to China to reconnect with her family elders. Mark does not give up and proposes marriage, but complications await in the form of securing a divorce from his wife, while the eruption of the Korean War adds another obstacle to happiness.

Directed by Henry King as an adaptation of the autobiographical novel by Han Suyin, Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing is traditional romance with all the expected impediments. Suyin and Mark have different ethnicities and backgrounds, he is married, she is widowed and happy to remain unattached, and her traditional family is uncomfortable with a modern, cosmopolitan union.

The more original aspects of the film revolve around Suyin forging ahead with establishing a strong identity unencumbered by her mixed heritage, and resolutely ignoring those who wish to believe that a Eurasian woman cannot be a respected doctor or the lover of an American man. The Hong Kong backdrop, with many scenes filmed on location, and the rumblings of the communist revolution in nearby China, also add some interest.

But otherwise, the film trundles along fairly slowly, the romance taking its time to ignite and then simmering quietly. The script singularly focuses on Suyin and Mark, and they are front and centre and almost alone in every scene, creating a rather claustrophobic environment and a lack of relief from the travails of two people. There are very few supporting characters, with Isobel Elsom as the insufferable local society gossip Adeline Palmer-Jones the most prominent.

William Holden and Jennifer Jones apparently could not stand each other while filming, but on the screen they generate sufficient chemistry to make for believable lovers. With so little else going on the two stars had to be good to make the movie tolerable, and they do make the best of their characters.

Less helpful is a suffocatingly overcooked music score that explodes into unnecessary flourishes at every opportunity, and deploys the strings of the title song seemingly every 90 seconds. Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing is passionate enough but also suffers from the creative clumsiness evident in its title.

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Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Movie Review: Fantastic Voyage (1966)

A unique science fiction adventure about a group of miniaturized scientists traveling through a human body, Fantastic Voyage is full of bright ideas brought to life with energetic execution and admirable special effects.

The US is embroiled in a secret race with the Soviet Union to master miniaturization technology for military purposes. Scientist Jan Benes defects to the US, but suffers a brain injury in the process and slips into a coma. Benes has key knowledge that could help in overcoming the 60 minute limit currently hampering miniaturization efforts. At the secret Combined Miniaturized Deterrent Forces facility, General Carter (Edmond O'Brien) recruits agent Grant (Stephen Boyd) to provide security on-board the experimental submarine Proteus, which is about to be miniaturized and injected into Benes' bloodstream to find and remove the damage affecting his brain. The rest of the submarine team consists of Captain Owens (William Redfield), human physiology expert Dr. Michaels (Donald Pleasence), laser surgeon Dr. Duval (Arthur Kennedy) and his assistant Cora (Raquel Welch).

Carter and Grant suspect that there is a traitor within the group, and once the journey starts inside Benes' body, little goes according to plan. Michaels suffers from claustrophobia, the submarine is buffeted by turbulence and knocked off course. The laser surgery tool is sabotaged, and the sub suffers an air supply leak. A re-route requires a dangerous trip through the heart, forcing Carter to order that Benes' heart be temporarily stopped. With time running out, the crew decide to take a hazardous short-cut through the inner ear to the brain, but again there are problems, as the mission is jeapordized by the unknown traitor and Benes' own body working to defend itself against the foreign objects floating within it.

Combining a 1950s sci-fi mentality with 1960s special effects, Fantastic Voyage is visionary kitsch. With the space race in full swing and the cold war at high heat, there is no denying the inventiveness of turning the exploration theme inwards, and transforming the concept of flying through endless space into navigating the smallest capillaries of the human body. The Harry Kleiner screenplay (with four others sharing story and adaptation credits) efficiently introduces the set-up, and cleverly integrates the not-yet-perfect miniaturization science into the cold war tension, with secret military labs and threats from saboteurs thrown in to create numerous opportunities for drama.

Director Richard Fleischer and cinematographer Ernest Laszlo then weave together the visuals, and create a creditable environment with a succession of stunning backdrops mostly inspired by ocean depths. For the most part, the special effects have held up remarkably well.

The adventures of Proteus within the human body are never dull, the incredible obstacles and dangers of traveling through the human body becoming a thrill ride heightened by the subversive attempts to sabotage the mission. Fleischer constructs the film in the form of an obstacle course with a surprise around every corner. The scientists are forced to rely on their ingenuity to problem solve on the fly, including frequent excursions out of the submarine to circumvent, fix, or innovate their way through the latest crisis.

Slightly less successful are the goings-on back in the secret lab as anxious military and medical types monitor the mission's progress. Some of the buffoonish attempts at tension and humour in the control room do not work, and fully deserve the parodies that they inspired in films like Airplane!.

The performances are generally bland, and this is a good thing, since there is enough stimulation in the premise, backdrops and special effects not to require flashy acting. Stephen Boyd, Donald Pleasence, Arthur Kennedy, Raquel Welch and William Redfield maintain an even keel. For the most part Welch remains subdued and is surprisingly convincing as a scientist's assistant. She stays under the wraps of her mundane submariner outfit, although late in the film she starts forgetting to fully zip up her top. Kennedy's Dr. Duval attempts some clunky philosophizing inspired by the journey through the human body, at regular intervals spouting weighty but meaningless musings about humanity, life and the order of things.

Innovative, audacious and sometimes campy, Fantastic Voyage lives up to its name.

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Monday, 25 May 2015

Movie Review: Terms Of Endearment (1983)

A family life drama-comedy with spectacular acting performances by a dream cast, Terms Of Endearment is a masterpiece of authentic emotions.

In Texas, Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) has always been slightly paranoid and definitely overprotective of her only daughter Emma. Aurora was widowed at a young age, leaving her relationship with Emma as the one true connection in her life. When Emma (Debra Winger) grows into a young woman and decides to marry school teacher Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels), Aurora certainly does not approve, believing Flap to be unworthy. Around the same time, retired astronaut Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson) moves into the house next door. A party-loving, womanizing and free-spirited bachelor, Garrett is a man denying his age.

Emma and Flap push ahead and get married anyway, and eventually start a family and move to Des Moines. As the years pass Aurora remains in close touch with her daughter, the two sharing their lives over frequent phone calls, and despite plenty of arguments and no shortage of agitation, their love and commitment to each other never wavers. Seeking physical closeness, Aurora finally works up the courage to start a relationship with Garrett, about 15 years after he became her neighbour. With three kids to raise and Flap's limited earning power causing a financial burden, Emma's marriage starts to seriously fray, and both she and Flap are subjected to extramarital temptations. The threat of another relocation and a serious illness are yet to come.

Directed and written by James L. Brooks in his directorial debut, and based on the Larry McMurtry book, Terms Of Endearment is a perfectly polished gem. For the full 131 minutes, not a scene is wasted, Brooks trusting his audience to keep up as the film gallops through the years using short, often funny and frequently poignant scenes. Chronicling the bond between Aurora and Emma from birth and through about 40 years of life, Brooks nails the ups and downs that define the unique cycles of frustration and happiness between mother and daughter, with undying love providing the sturdy foundation upon which two lives are lived.

Brooks' singular achievement is in creating uniquely memorable characters and then treating them with utmost realism. Aurora, Emma and Garrett are a simply unforgettable trio, three people living life on their own stubborn terms but yet behaving fully within the normal rules where selfishness, sacrifice and life's surprises require a steady stream of critical decisions. There are no heroics in Terms Of Endearment; just happiness and heartache generated by the life's little successes and failures.

And because laughs and tears punctuate life's milestones, Brooks includes plenty of both. The emotions are always there, but even at the darkest moments they rarely veer towards exaggerated agitation. In a peak moment of frustration Aurora does let loose at a hospital nurse station, but it's a scene that is equally funny and heartbreaking, capturing a devoted mother willing to move mountains for her daughter.

Terms Of Endearment features astounding acting from the three principals. Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson deliver some of their best work in their long and celebrated careers. MacLaine won the Best Actress Academy Award for what may have been her last great performance, bringing to life Aurora as a proud woman of the South dealing with the changing times and her own evolving needs. Nicholson took a step back from the madness and murderous urges that had began to define him after The Shining and The Postman Always Rings Twice, and nabbed the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award as Garrett the astronaut, a man determined to turn his past celebrity into a life of irresponsible pleasure.

And Emma was undoubtedly Debra Winger's finest on-screen moment. Winger celebrates Emma as a feisty woman full of love, laughter and a singular determination to meet life on her own terms while forging friendships, sharing every moment with Aurora and adoring and tolerating Flap in equal measures. It's a performance for the ages, and Winger was also nominated as Best Actress but lost out to MacLaine.

In addition to Daniels, Danny DeVito as Aurora's long-time admirer and John Lithgow as Emma's amorous banker round out the cast.

Towards the end of Terms Of Endearment, Emma and Aurora share a moment. It's a brief locking of the eyes, without a word being spoken, Winger and MacLaine pouring their characters into a few seconds representing a lifelong bond, a breathtaking ending, a sorrowful beginning, a heartfelt thank you, and the meaning of love itself. It's an unforgettable instant in an enduring treasure of a movie.

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Sunday, 24 May 2015

Movie Review: Wolf (1994)

The story of an American werewolf in corporate New York, Wolf shows promise as a metaphor for adults, but then loses its edge by insisting on following the childish werewolves-on-the-loose path.

Respected book editor-in-chief Will Randall (Jack Nicholson) is bitten by a wolf after a car accident in the snowy Vermont mountains. Back in New York, Will finds himself a victim of a corporate shuffle. Tycoon Raymond Alden (Christopher Plummer) is the new publishing house owner, and he demotes Will and assigns young and hungry marketing executive Stewart Swinton (James Spader) into his position. Will's life hits rock bottom when he discovers his wife Charlotte (Kate Nelligan) having an affair with Stewart.

But Will also starts to feel the after-effects of the wolf bite: his senses are amplified, he feels younger, more vigorous, and more aggressive. He meets Alden's daughter Laura (Michelle Pfeiffer), an aloof heiress, and starts to plot his revenge to reclaim his job and make Stewart and Charlotte suffer. But then Will starts to lose control of what is happening to him at night, when the werewolf within him emerges and goes hunting for blood and adventure. A brutal murder is then committed, and Will emerges as a suspect.

Directed by Mike Nichols, Wolf tries to appeal to two distinct audiences and by doing so fails them both. The first half displays promise as an analogy of the need for an emotional rebirth to survive middle age trauma, as Nichols explores the symbolism of Will discovering and then adopting wolf-like tactics to fight for his patch of the corporate and relationship jungle.

But once the film transitions in its second half to actual werewolf adventures, howlings in the night, wolves hunting deer and eventually murder and mayhem in Central Park, it veers sharply away from its intellectual premise. With this heavyweight cast there is nothing to be gained chasing special effects, blood, gore and werewolves battling each other, complete with incompetent detectives attempting to solve murder-by-wolf.

Mayhem caused by werewolves has of course been done before many times, and with much better horror and special effects, including in 1981's An American Werewolf In London. By insisting on chasing the thrill-seeking audience Wolf loses its purpose and surrenders the cerebral advantage.

Casting Jack Nicholson as a wolf is almost too easy, but he does a fine job adopting a more-is-less philosophy. Nicholson keeps Will sharp but low-key, and remains remarkably calm even when the werewolf transformations start. Laura Alden is an interesting but underwritten role, and Pfeiffer can't do much with it. More effective is Spader as the power-hungry Stewart Swinton, a shrewd natural wolf in man's clothing.

Wolf ends up being not scary enough, not gory enough, and not smart enough, as it howls at the moon of confused objectives.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Movie Review: G.I. Jane (1997)

A military training action drama, G.I. Jane tackles the issue of gender equality in the armed forces but more often than not heads straight towards the most obvious clichés.

Veteran Texas Senator Lillian DeHaven (Anne Bancroft) strikes a sleazy deal with Department of Defence officials. The Navy will allow women to prove their combat capabilities by participating in a training program, in exchange for DeHaven facilitating the confirmation hearings for the incoming Secretary of the Navy. Navy analyst Lieutenant Jordan O'Neil (Demi Moore) is selected to be the first woman trainee, and she is thrust into the Navy SEAL-like Combined Reconnaissance Team program, considered the most arduous training regime offered by the military.

Command Master Chief Urgayle (Viggo Mortensen) runs the brutal training program, and with Jordan the only woman in a class full of male recruits, she is not expected to survive even the first week. Initially Jordan is provided with special treatment to help her compete, but she rejects the privileges and insists on being treated exactly like the men. With a determined Jordan making surprising progress through the physically punishing and mentally draining program, her success starts to make waves in Washington DC, where DeHaven is facing another crisis that will require more deal making.

Whenever G.I. Jane tries to expand its horizons beyond the training course, it stumbles awkwardly. The scenes in Washington featuring Senator DeHaven and a large group of faceless defence department suits never move beyond the most obvious theatre. Jordan's home life and romantic relationship is hard boiled in scenes so brief that next to nothing is known about her as a person. And the film ends with the ever so tiresome bromide of a class full of trainees suddenly thrust into a poorly defined actual combat mission. Hello undefined bad guys running around in the Libyan desert.

The film therefore lives and dies in the training program that Jordan and her fellow recruits are subjected to, and here director Ridley Scott does shine. The exercises designed to harden the trainees into well-honed fighting machines capable of withstanding whatever nature and enemies throw at them are long, detailed and almost physically exhausting to watch. Scott deploys his usual expertise in shadows and back-lighting, and along with cinematographer Hugh Johnson the film is bathed in spectral blue-green representing the nighttime home of special forces.

G.I. Jane is at its best when there is little dialogue and plenty of physical effort on display. Whenever the film moves towards humanizing the tension between Jordan, Urgayle and the many interchangeable men surrounding here it becomes obvious that the script (by David Twohy and Danielle Alexandra) is firmly stuck in first gear, and none of the characters can say anything or display any emotions beyond basic "women don't belong here / yes they do" clipped exchanges.

Demi Moore deserves a lot of credit for undergoing an intense physical training program to get in shape for the role of Jordan O'Neil. She shaves her head on-screen, performs all her own stunts and enjoys plenty of scenes showing off her buff body being put through the exhaustive training grind. Her acting is admirably intense, but that is all. G.I. Jane never succeeds in revealing much about Jordan except that she starts out resolute and gets ever more tenacious, in proportion to the number of people who want her to fail, and Moore is stuck in that box. Viggo Mortensen provides an interesting angle on the traditional ruthless training instructor persona, but the script cannot deliver an evolution to his poetry-loving ferocity.

G.I. Jane succeeds as an inside look at what it takes to be an elite soldier, but otherwise misfires when it comes to creating people and a story worth caring about.

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Friday, 22 May 2015

Movie Review: You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger (2010)

A routine Woody Allen slice-of-life comedy, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger offers typical vignettes on love, loss and transition, but little that is genuinely fresh.

In London, elderly couple Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) and Helena (Gemma Jones) have divorced after a long marriage. Helena is crushed, and turns to fortune teller Cristal (Pauline Collins) for advice. The easily impressed Helena is soon obsessed by Cristal, believing everything the fake clairvoyant tells her. Alfie, going through a full-fledged late-onset middle-age crisis and desperate to have a son, hooks up with voluptuous and trashy escort girl Charmain (Lucy Punch).

Sally (Naomi Watts) is Alfie and Helena's daughter, and she is stuck in a stagnant marriage with writer Roy (Josh Brolin), who has one bestseller and a string of subsequent failures to his name. Sally is eager to start a family but she and Roy are struggling financially and dependent on Helena's charity to survive. Roy's wandering eye soon turns to sexy neighbour Dia (Freida Pinto), an aspiring musician who is engaged to be married. Sally also finds herself growing increasingly attracted to her boss, suave art gallery owner Greg (Antonio Banderas).

Although the London setting provides a relatively original context for a Woody Allen movie, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger rarely ventures into any other new territory. Allen himself has frequently explored the themes of relationships in trouble, disintegrating marriages, winter-spring romances, and crushes among adults. The one new idea here may be Helena easily falling under the spell of Cristal and treating all her predictions as certainties, Allen probing the tendency of the elderly to more easily want to place unfounded faith in the improbable.

The film is delivered with some annoying and utterly unnecessary narration, but otherwise the style is comfortably familiar. The stories meld, the characters are connected, the behaviour is for the most part restrained and courteous. The agitations and annoyances that creep into mature relationships happily pump through the veins of all the couples, just beneath the surface and often unspoken until the rupture happens and its too late to repair the damage. Despite the various story lines and seven principal characters, the film wraps up in an efficient 100 minutes.

Allen and his cast create characters that are intriguing because of their utter normalcy. The performances are uniformly steady, with Gemma Jones and Naomi Watts the most prominent. Sideways drift driven by restlessness and causing unintended damage is the common thread, as is the desperate need for offspring as a destabilizing force. Sally and Roy initiate flirtations with Greg and Dia respectively, and both dalliances become serious fixations more due to the neglect of their marriage than any ill intent. Alfie still wants to father a son and runs away from the idea of growing old with Helena and into the arms of a gold digging slut, and it will take him some time to realize that he has turned a bad situation into something much worse.

You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger is one possible outcome for adults at the crossroads of a distressed romance. Left unsaid is that the stranger may also carry a ton of trouble.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Movie Review: Me, Myself And Irene (2000)

A simply atrocious comedy, Me, Myself And Irene is an ugly stain in Jim Carrey's repertoire.

Charlie (Carrey) is a mild-mannered Rhode Island state police trooper. His new wife Layla (Traylor Howard) cheats on him with a midget black limousine driver. Even when Layla gives birth to black triplets and subsequently abandons the family, Charlie refuses to show any negative emotion or display anger. Years later and with his sons now foul-mouthed grow-ups, Charlie's bottled up anger snaps out in the form of a split personality. Hank is Charlie's alter-ego and his polar opposite, and emerges at unexpected intervals. Hank is rude, crude, and stands up for himself, seeking revenge on everyone who has disrespected Charlie.

Commanding officer Colonel Partington (Robert Forster) gives Charlie an assignment to transfer prisoner Irene (Renée Zellweger) to upstate New York. Irene is wanted on trumped up hit-and-run charges, but in reality she may have information that endangers the criminal activities of sleazy businessman Dickie (Daniel Greene) and corrupt police officers Gerke (Chris Cooper) and Boshane (Richard Jenkins). Charlie is attracted to Irene, and so is Hank but much less politely. Charlie struggles to contain Hank and soon finds himself on the run with Irene, trying to protect her from the bad guys.

Directed and co-written by the Farrelly brothers Peter and Bobby, Me, Myself And Irene is a lazy, almost insulting excuse for a parade of tiresome jokes directed at the pre-puberty immature boy market. With almost every attempted laugh involving the anus, dildos and combinations thereof, the film wallows in the misery of constipated minds who seem to genuinely believe that this material is funny.

There is no effort to explain the basic mechanics of the plot involving Irene, as the entire road trip is just a sorry backdrop for set-pieces that were not good enough for other movies. The best opportunity for a good laugh, in the shape of an encounter with a cow that refuses to die, could have been funny but is botched into a stupid wrestling match. Elsewhere, midgets, blacks, albinos and Rhode Islanders are mercilessly targeted with tasteless jokes, and its all delivered with a barrage of profanity that underlines the witless writing.

Carrey tries to emerge from the dross and does as best as he can with quick switches between Charlie and Hank, but even he is no match for the ghastliness of the material. Zellweger is generally wasted, while in barely defined roles Forster, Cooper and Jenkins appear mortified to be associated with the project.

Incomprehensibly overlong at close to two hours, Me, Myself And Irene is a nauseatingly interminable bungle.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Movie Review: The Beaver (2011)

A mental illness family drama, The Beaver boasts excellent performances and tackles its grim subject with laudable sensitivity, but ultimately veers towards awkward maudlin territory.

Toy company executive Walter Black (Mel Gibson) is struggling with severe depression. His wife Meredith (Jodie Foster) and two children, including teenage son Porter (Anton Yelchin), try to cope as best as they can. Porter, who wants nothing to do with his sick father, runs a high school side-business writing essays for other students in exchange for money, and is approached by popular cheerleader Norah (Jennifer Lawrence) to write her valedictorian speech.

After being kicked out of the house by Meredith, Walter sinks into the abyss and attempts suicide. He fails, and in an alley dumpster stumbles upon a beaver hand puppet. Adopting an English working class accent, Walter starts to communicate through the beaver, giving the stuffed toy a personality and regaining his ability to function. Things initially look up and Walter moves back home and inspires his company to find success with a new beaver-themed toy. But as Porter starts to get to know Norah's secrets, the beaver puppet fully takes over Walter's life, and his mind is pushed into its darkest corners.

Directed by Foster, The Beaver is a worthwhile exploration of an important subject matter, made more real by Gibson's well publicized battles with alcoholism, manic-depression and public self-destruction. Despite some unnecessary narration that attempts to inject a trace of misplaced humour, for the most part the Kyle Killen script makes interesting choices. Walter's depression is presented as an incapacitating disease, and the hand puppet as an alternative form of communication that helps to separate Walter from himself, allowing him to confront many of his demons. The parallel story of Porter doing his best to escape his father, struggling with his own creeping black clouds and discovering that even popular kids like Norah have a lot to hide, adds a laudable multi-generational dimension to the drama.

While the first two thirds of the film are assured, the final act starts to unravel. Meredith is too demanding, the beaver is too controlling, Porter's world disintegrates and Norah's issues as a rebel with a sad past hiding in cheerleader clothing are just too convenient. Then Walter and the beaver engage in a battle of wills that barely avoids unintentional comic status, only to be followed by violent plot developments out of the schlocky horror drawer. The film never recovers and defaults to a yawn of an ending.

But despite the film's loss of direction, the performances are consistently good. Mel Gibson dominates as Walter and is exceptional in bringing to life a hand puppet with a unique personality of its own. Foster is believable as a wife struggling to hold herself and her family together in the face of a husband's dissolution, while Anton Yelchin is suitably dour as Porter, wanting any fate other than like father, like son. Jennifer Lawrence, one year before her 2012 breakout in The Hunger Games and Silver Linings Playbook, gives Norah plenty of depth and personality beyond the standard troubled potential girlfriend role.

A case of an intriguing idea provided with decent execution, The Beaver has a lot of good things to say but not the legs to necessarily walk all the talk.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Movie Review: Woman In Gold (2015)

Inspired by a true story, Woman In Gold is a drama about an Austrian woman's fight to reclaim precious family paintings seized by the Nazis during World War Two. The film is sincere and engaging, with the flashback scenes packing particular resonance.

It's 1998 in Los Angeles, and the elderly Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) lays her sister Luise to rest. Maria was born and raised by a wealthy Jewish family in Austria, but as a young bride fled to the United States to escape the Nazi occupation. In Luise's belongings Maria finds evidence to suggest that the she may be able to recover precious family paintings, including Gustav Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, now called Woman In Gold and claimed by the Austrian government after having been stolen by the Nazis. Adele was Maria's loving aunt, and Klimt a family friend.

Seeking legal advice, Maria turns to young lawyer Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), the son of a family friend and himself the grandson of the famous Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg. Initially skeptical, Randy agrees to help upon discovering that the Klimt painting may be worth $100 million. He travels with Maria to Vienna, and they find an ally in Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl), a magazine editor eager for Austria to confront her past. They take Maria's case in front of the Art Restitution board, but Woman In Gold is now considered a national treasure, and the government will make every effort to block Maria from reclaiming the painting of her aunt.

A hybrid of Philomena and what The Monuments Men was trying to be, Woman In Gold largely succeeds in its mission to juxtapose the legal battle for personal restitution with the wider background of the horror unleashed on Austria's Jewish population. Director Simon Curtis finds a harmonious balance between the sepia-toned flashback scenes in Vienna with Maria as a young woman (played with palpable fervency by Tatiana Maslany), and the more modern day legal machinations played out on two continents. The flashbacks carry the emotional punch, capturing a Vienna torn asunder, with many residents welcoming the Nazis while the intelligentsia recoil in horror and the Jews stare at annihilation.

There is less drama in the numerous but brief court scenes. This becomes more the story of lawyer Randy Schoenberg, with Maria frequently reduced to delivering quips for comic relief. Randy's passion starts with a pursuit of possible riches, but after confronting Austrian government intransigence and coming face to face with the Holocaust memorial, he adopts Maria's fight as his own personal quest for a larger justice. To liven up the otherwise staid court battles, there are moments of mild drama involving Maria having to overcome her fear of traveling back to Austria, and Randy's wife (a bright Katie Holmes performance) coming to terms with his new found commitment to a cause.

Helen Mirren sparkles as only she can, and gradually steers the film towards a very personal story of recovery from the grave injustice inflicted upon her family by an evil tide of history. Curtis allows his star free reign to dominate, but then carries the emotions a bit too far into teary eyed nostalgia territory. Reynolds is better when he is likeable and skeptical, and stumbles somewhat when he needs to convey dramatic intensity. The scenes requiring him to be angry or emotional emerge as the weakest parts of the film. The strong cast is rounded out by Charles Dance as Randy's law firm boss and Antje Traue as Adele in the flashbacks, while Elizabeth McGovern and Jonathan Pryce enjoy bit parts as sympathetic judges.

Woman In Gold may not fully glitter as intended, but it does achieve a steady shine.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Movie Review: The River (1984)

A drama about the hard life on an independent farm, The River is an adequate story about the struggle to save a way of life, limited by its simplistic depiction of good and bad.

In a Tennessee valley, Tom and Mae Garvey (Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek) and their two kids run a family farm located near a raging river, growing corn as their main crop. Frequently battling against flooding and poor prices, Tom is deep in debt and barely holding on. Other nearby farmers do go bankrupt, and their property is scooped up by the ruthless Joe Wade (Scott Glenn), Mae's former lover and the owner of the big local business looking to build a dam and flood the entire valley to improve water supply.

When Tom's finances take yet another turn for the worse, he is forced to seek temporary work in a remote town, leaving Mae and the kids to tend the farm. Tom finds himself unintentionally harming the livelihood of others, while his absence opens an opportunity for Joe to make his move to try and reclaim Mae's affection. A bad crop and yet another flood push the Garveys to the limit.

Part of a series of films from the mid-1980s highlighting the plight of the small farmer, The River keeps its focus small and the emotions intense. Directed by Mark Rydell with sumptuous, close-up dominated Vilmos Zsigmond cinematography, the film rumbles from one predicament to the next, as Tom's story unfolds like a traditional country song: a flooding river, overturned machinery, dwindling finances, no more credit from the bank, poor returns from an auction sale, bad crops, and an overheating tractor. Even the cow dies. It's all a grim, unrelenting daily struggle for survival.

The only thing going for Tom and Mae is their love for each other, and amidst all the agony Rydell takes the time to show the strong bond between husband and wife that allows both of them to persevere. It does not hurt that Mel Gibson, who powers through the movie with a singular I'm-busy-broke-and-bitter-so-don't-bother-me expression, must be the handsomest farmer ever, and Spacek, in an Academy Award nominated performance, conveys understated and deep passion for both the land and her man.

Rydell takes one interesting detour away from the rigours of farm life. When Tom goes looking for any type of income to keep the farm afloat, he finds a job that piles agony onto others who are as desperate as he is. The film still manages to portray Tom as victim unknowingly trapped into a messy situation, but he learns a harsh lesson that even righteous indignation can have its limits when survival is at stake.

The conflict between small farms and big business is simplistically represented, a draw-by-crayons battle between good and bad, with the small, dedicated family-run farms representing hard graft and good traditions, while big business is all about greed and destruction. Scott Glenn presides over the boardrooms of evil with an effective if humourless stance, but the entire asymmetrical battle is portrayed with the sophistication of a fairy tale. The River runs strong, but very much in a predictable direction.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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