Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Movie Review: Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

A romantic comedy set among Singapore's hyper wealthy set, Crazy Rich Asians freshens up the context but otherwise just recycles old and stale genre cliches.

In New York City, Nick Young (Henry Golding) convinces his girlfriend Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) to travel back with him to Singapore to attend a friend's wedding. Rachel is an economics professor at New York University, but knows little about Nick's family background. Upon arrival in Singapore, it becomes apparent the Youngs are incredibly rich, own half the island city-state, and have set high expectations for any future wife of Nick's.

Rachel was born and raised in the US and her modest family background is simply not good enough for Nick's domineering mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). In the lead-up to the wedding she struggles to fit in and prove her worth. She meets various members of Nick's family, including his cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) who has marital problems of her own. Rachel's old friend from college days Peik Lin (Awkwafina) tries to help navigate the local culture and customs.

Directed by Jon M. Chu, Crazy Rich Asians is a Hollywood-backed adaptation of the Kevin Kwan novel, with an all-Asian cast. Set primarily in a foreign culture and breathing deeply from the customs of exceptionally affluent but nevertheless traditional Asian families, the film tells its story  with fresh faces in fresh places, and adds plenty of flashy style and attractive Singaporean scenery.

But unfortunately, it's the same old story. A fish-out-of-water modest girl trying to win the support of a vehemently disapproving potential future mother-in-law is a yawn-inducing tired premise, and for all the razzmatazz and colourful background characters thrown onto the screen by Chu and screenwriters Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim, at its core Crazy Rich Asians is exceptionally familiar.

For a long stretch Nick and Rachel become passengers in their own movie, as a parade of the wacky, wealthy and wicked move across the screen. In addition to the disapproving mother Eleanor, Rachel gets to meet the icy Astrid, the elderly family matriarch Shang Su Yi, as well as Nick's spiteful former lover Amanda, plus a large assortment of other family members, friends and hangers on. A few are supportive of Rachel but others live down to what it means to be rich, stupid and condescending. Some of the subplots, including Astrid's disintegrating marriage to her husband Michael, nursing a pointed inferiority complex, are agonizingly underdeveloped.

But carrying the film through all its rough patches is Constance Wu, who delivers an agreeable performance and frequently rises above the material. While Henry Goulding is often a blank slate and the rest of the actors are loyal to their mono-dimensional characters, Wu portrays a smart woman in love, navigating a new culture and admirably standing up for herself.

The Young family are Crazy Rich Asians capable hosting the most lavish parties, but even they cannot escape the clutches of routine romantic comedy trappings.

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Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Movie Review: Frances Ha (2012)

A drama and comedy about millennial life drifting sideways, Frances Ha is a whimsical tale of catching up on growing up.

In New York City, Frances (Greta Gerwig) is a free-spirited 27 year old apprentice dancer, perpetually positive in an almost childlike manner, although life is passing her by. Financially struggling, Frances shares a close friendship with her roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner), and sacrifices a boyfriend to remain loyal to her lease commitments with Sophie.

But Sophie decides to move to a place of her own in a better neighbourhood, leaving Frances stranded. She moves in with Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen), and pins her financial hopes on more dance studio work over the Christmas period. But when told her services will not be needed, Frances visits her parents instead. With Sophie drifting further away and into a serious relationship with boyfriend Patch (Patrick Heusinger), Frances is forced to chart a new and more independent life path.

Directed by Noah Baumbach who also co-wrote the script with Gerwig, Frances Ha is an irresistibly quirky story of creeping adulthood. Beautifully captured in black and white, the film contains no traditional plot structure and instead ambles along with Frances, touching on the real but mundane concerns of finding money for rent, coming to terms with realistic career options, and friendship dependencies both genuine and superficial.

Frances is an intriguing and immediately likeable character, still approaching life from the perspective of a playful girl rather than a grown woman, admitting  she has trouble letting go of places, and not yet fully acquainted with the concept of responsibility. She is also very much in Platonic love with Sophie. And Frances faces an inflection point when Sophie starts to make difficult grown-up decisions.

Sophie moves away to a neighbourhood she likes, compromises somewhat to solidify her boyfriend relationship, and is soon in a different orbit. Cut adrift, Frances goes into a freefall, and finds what she thinks is rock bottom during an aimless and wasteful overseas trips - the highlight of the film is a lowlight of irresponsible spur-of-moment decision making and jet lag.

Greta Gerwig is luminous as Frances, her performance finding the irrepressible inner child optimistically smiling at life's complexities while expressing them beautifully.

Frances: I want this one’s what I want in a relationship, which might explain why I’m single now ha ha. It’s hard’s like that thing where you are with someone and you love them and they know it, and they love you and you know it but it’s a party and you’re both talking to other people and laughing and shining and you look across the room and catch each other’s eye not because you are possessive or that it’s precisely sexual but because that is your person in this life. And it’s funny and sad, but only because this life will end, and it’s a secret world that no one else knows about that exists right there in public unnoticed - sort of like how they say other dimensions exist all around us but we don’t have the ability to perceive them. That’s...that’s what I want out of a relationship. Or just life, I guess. Love. Blah, I sound stoned. I’m not stoned.

Frances loves life and loves to embrace the goodness within it. She is still searching for her specific slice of contentment, but with her cheerful and indefatigable attitude, the Ha must mean more complete happiness is just around the corner.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Movie Review: The Women (2008)

A social drama with a comedy sprinkling, The Women adapts the classic play to tackle 21st century issues.

The film is set in New York and Connecticut. Although she gave up on a fashion design career to look after her family, dedicated mother and philanthropist Mary Haines (Meg Ryan) believes she has the perfect comfortable well-to-do life. But her best friend Sylvie (Annette Bening), a high-powered magazine editor, learns from Saks manicurist Tanya (Debi Mazar) that perfume sales girl Crystal Allen (Eva Mendes) is having an affair with Mary's husband Stephen.

Sylvie and Mary's other friends Edie (Debra Messing) and Alex (Jada Pinkett Smith) are torn whether to tell Mary; she finds out anyway, straight from Tanya. Mary's mother Catherine (Candice Bergen) encourages her to wait before confronting Stephen. Meanwhile, Sylvie is struggling to improve the fortunes of her fashion magazine, and finds her ideas out of touch with popular opinion. Mary eventually confronts Stephen and starts to re-examine her life, unintentionally heaping pressure on her teenaged daughter Molly (India Ennenga).

The play was written in 1936 and the classic film adaptation arrived in 1939. Here Diane English writes, directs and co-produces an update to the story of women navigating the choppy waters of family, relationships, careers, friendships, sacrifice and personal expectations. Once again the film consists exclusively of women in every role, including all the children and extras (and more than likely, all the pet dogs are also female).

The film delves into all the expected topics. Mary is forced to assess her own priorities, and whether she allowed her various roles to subsume who she is as a person. Crystal represents a case study in women who appeal to vulnerable men's most base instincts. Sylvie had one failed marriage and is now happily single and focused on her career, but has to reckon with her values diverging from what is popular, placing all she worked for at risk, including her friendship with Mary.

More superficially, the pregnant Edie is a baby factory, and Alex is a lesbian, the only one among the friends blissfully going through life unconcerned by men. Young Molly is struggling with body image issues and the fallout from her mother's disintegrating marriage.

Not that The Women offers any profound new thoughts, nor is it expected to. This is a polished, glossy and sometimes humorous representation of relatively wealthy and comfortable women, with all the depth of a monthly advertising-dominated magazine. For all the concerns and tensions at hand, self-empowered resolutions will be found for all, and English still finds time for the requisite fashion show montage and a baby delivery scene in a double-headed climax.

The cast members share the screen time, Ryan and Bening most prominent but never being asked to stretch. Heavyweight star power appears in the form of Carrie Fisher and Bette Midler providing single-scene support, while Cloris Leachman as Mary's housekeeper contributes resigned comic relief.

The Women freshens up the challenges, but does not stray too far from cushy and safe film territory.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Movie Review: The House Bunny (2008)

An empowerment comedy, The House Bunny makes the grade thanks to an above-average script and two committed lead performances.

Abandoned at an orphanage at birth, Shelley (Anna Faris) blossoms into a beauty and finds a home at the Hugh Hefner (playing himself) Playboy mansion. Just after her 27th birthday party she receives an eviction notice presumably because she is too old. Out in the real world for the first time, Shelley stumbles onto the Zeta Alpha Zeta sorority house on a university campus, and finds seven misfit girls themselves facing eviction because they cannot attract any new pledges.

The Zeta girls include the brainy Natalie (Emma Stone), who gets tongue tied in front of her crush Colby, and the piercings-happy Mona (Kat Dennings). Shelley installs herself as the housemother and proceeds to rejuvenate the residents, encouraging them to express their sexuality and organize parties. She also meets and develops an attraction towards Oliver (Colin Hanks), who volunteers at a seniors' care home. The reinvigorated Zeta girls take the campus by storm, antagonizing their prissy adversaries at the Phi Iota Mu sorority.

Directed by Fred Wolf and co-produced by Faris and Adam Sandler, The House Bunny occasionally carries the whiff of cheap Sandler productions, with some stiff supporting acting, scenes that just don't work, perfunctory directing and unpolished first-draft dialogue. The story about campus eccentrics struggling to fit in, coupled with strong echoes of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, is out-of-the-box stale.

And yet the film often clicks, thanks mainly to the two lead actresses. Anna Faris brings just the right touch of self-deprecating innocent bewilderment to Shelley and convinces as a woman who may be much more capable than she thinks she is. And Emma Stone, in an early career role, adds plenty of zest as the smart cookie who just needs a nudge to develop better social skills. Together Faris and Stone propel several scenes towards excellent comic territory, helped by a periodically sparkling script.

Elsewhere the film avoids vulgarity, nudity and body fluid jokes, and marches purposefully towards a the predictable non-judgmental message of celebrating individuality, with all the mean antagonists finding their harmless comeuppance. Even the folks back at the Playboy mansion turn out to be not so bad after all. The House Bunny is an altogether better than expected wholesome happy hop.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Movie Review: Seven Pounds (2008)

A redemption drama and romance, Seven Pounds is fervent but structurally over complicated and slow moving.

Ben Thomas (Will Smith) phones 911 to report his own suicide. In flashbacks, Ben verbally abuses Ezra (Woody Harrelson), a blind call center operator, and uses his IRS credentials to track down multiple people who owe taxes but also appear to have serious medical or social problems. They include Emily (Rosario Dawson), who suffers from a serious heart condition, and Connie (Elpidia Carrillo), a single mom being abused by her boyfriend.

Other flashback snippets show Ben as an aeronautical engineer; enjoying the company of his girlfriend; reliving the trauma of a car crash; having tense conversations with his brother (Michael Ealy); and moving into a motel room. He refuses to give a tax break to seniors' care centre manager Stewart (Tim Kelleher), who is mistreating patients. Ben comforts Emily after a medical scare and a mutual attraction develops, but he remains mysterious and refuses to reveal too much about himself.

After 2006's The Pursuit Of Happyness, Smith reunites with director Gabriele Muccino, and the result is a thick broth of sincerity and self-sacrifice. Although undeniably thought-provoking and debate-inducing, Seven Pounds also unmistakably tries too hard. Through its convoluted structure the film hides plenty from its audience and the jumbled fragments of flashbacks are confusing for the sake of confusion. Unraveling both the why and the what of Ben's actions is a big load for the film to carry, and suggests Muccino did not believe in the inherent strength of the core material.

And maybe that's because beneath the film's well-intended message, the plot holes are massive for what is intended as a grounded soul-searching drama. Seven Pounds skips over the ease with which government agents can be impersonated; transplants administered; families relocated; and vintage machinery repaired.

When the threads of the plot finally start to make sense, the film gains some traction, but then far too much time is invested in the romance between Ben and Emily. Many of the other good deeds Ben commits are treated in almost dismissive morsels, and for a long stretch Seven Pounds transitions from a dramatic story of penance to a straightforward, old-fashioned romance between two damaged individuals.

Will Smith stretches his more serious acting muscles and is suitably dour for most of the film. Rosario Dawson emerges as the emotional centre, and radiates a joyful determination to appreciate life in the face of Emily's seemingly unalterable impending rendezvous with death.

Seven Pounds asks big questions, but though jumbled delivery comes up with only partial answers.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Movie Review: Half Nelson (2006)

A drama about addiction and morality, Half Nelson features damaged characters and an uncommon classroom dynamic.

At a Brooklyn inner-city school, Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) teaches Middle School history and coaches the girls' basketball team. He is also addicted to cocaine, and is caught using drugs in the school bathroom by Drey (Shareeka Epps), one of his students. Former girlfriend Rachel (Tina Holmes) returns to town but Dan carries on a casual relationship with fellow teacher Isabel (Monique Gabriela Curnen).

Drey's single mother Karen (Karen Chilton) is a police officer frequently occupied by her job, leaving Drey to fall into the clutches of smooth drug dealer Frank (Anthony Mackie). Dan wants to rescue his promising student from an obvious path towards a life of crime, but his addiction means he has limited moral authority to intervene.

Directed by Ryan Fleck who also co-wrote with Anna Boden, Half Nelson (a reference to a wrestling hold) adopts a non-judgemental stance towards its protagonist. This a classroom drama that spends little time in the classroom, and a cautionary tale about drugs that avoids preachiness.

Dan is who he is, a relatively young loner wasting his life away on drugs, but still caring enough to want to save Drey. But  he cannot break away from his own addiction, so how can he compel her to break away from Frank; and furthermore, she may not need saving, thank you very much, given her options.

The premise of a mediocre teacher who is far from an inspiration and just going through the motions until he can disappear into the next drug-induced trip carries a refreshing breath of originality. But Half Nelson does labour to develop its characters. Once the peculiar co-dependent dynamic is established between damaged teacher and precocious student, narrative momentum stalls.

Ryan Gosling helps to maintain interest and is hypnotic as Dan, alternating between mellow, high and intense. Shareeka Epps, about 17 at the time of filming, conveys a resigned maturity well beyond her years. Anthony Mackie generates the requisite drip of despicability.

The film features two climactic scenes, one early, the other late. In the first Drey stumbles upon Dan high on drugs and low on the floor of the school bathroom. Later they meet again under similar but different circumstances: again he is on the floor, but this time rather than surprising each other, they confirm their default trajectory. Whether or not they decide to break away from the hold is up to them.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Movie Review: Death At A Funeral (2007)

An English farce, Death At A Funeral creates enjoyable mayhem at a sombre family gathering.

In suburban England, a family gathers at the home of Daniel (Matthew Macfadyen) and Jane (Keeley Hawes) for the funeral service of Daniel's father. Daniel is stressed about delivering the eulogy, with Jane incessantly nagging him about putting a deposit on a flat in London they want to move into.

The attendees include Daniel's brother Robert (Rupert Graves), a successful New York-based writer, and their cousin Martha (Daisy Donovan), along with Martha's father Victor (Peter Egan), boyfriend Simon (Alan Tudyk) and brother Troy (Kris Marshall). Victor very much disapproves of Simon, while Troy dabbles in exotic hallucinogens, and hurriedly hides some pills in a Valium-labelled bottle. Martha gives one of the pills to Simon, and soon he is on an acid trip.

Family friend Howard (Andy Nyman) also attends, bringing with him Justin (Ewen Bremner), who is lusting after Martha, and the wheelchair-bound foul-mouthed Uncle Alfie (Peter Vaughan). The mysterious Peter (Peter Dinklage) shows up to the service uninvited. Simon's erratic behaviour throws the event into disarray as soon at it starts. Long-standing fissures between family members are revealed, and before long Peter explains who he is, triggering pandemonium.

Directed by Frank Oz and written by Dean Craig, Death At A Funeral is a brisk 90 minutes of often hilarious comedy. Featuring an ensemble cast with no star names, one location and a couple of sets, the film efficiently introduces the characters and quickly launches into the madness.

The case of Troy's mislabeled drugs is central to much of the amusement, with Simon the principal victim, his hallucinations and erratic under-the-influence behaviour a trigger for many of the film's highlights. Slightly less successful but still effective is the crunchy sub-plot featuring the mysterious Peter, who has dwarfism. Once he reveals his relationship to the deceased the film takes off in pursuit of new lunacy featuring blackmail, hostage-taking, and a crowded coffin.

Uncle Alfie provides running abrasive commentary and bathroom (literally) humour, while many undercurrents of tension crisscross the gathering: Daniel and Robert have unresolved money and jealousy issues, Jane is whining about the wrong thing at the wrong time, Justin is incessantly hounding Martha, who has to protect Sinon, her would-be fiancé (should he survive his bout with drugs) from her father's unequivocal disdain.

With so much going on of course not all the jokes land and there are some lulls. But Oz maintains a frantic pace, the cast members are uniformly committed, and no moments are wasted. Death At A Funeral rocks the casket.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Movie Review: Gigantic (2008)

An independent romantic comedy, Gigantic is subdued to the point of disappearing within itself.

Brian (Paul Dano) is a quiet mattress salesperson, and in his personal life waiting for approval to adopt a baby from China. After selling an expensive mattress to loudmouth businessman Al (John Goodman), Brian meets Al's daughter Harriett (Zooey Deschanel), who goes by the nickname Happy.

They start a relationship, but while he is quick to fall in love, she is unsure what she wants in life, leading to conflict. His parents (Jane Alexander and Edward Asner) try to be supportive. Meanwhile, a homeless man (Zach Galifianakis) regularly stalks and attacks Brian for no reason.

An independent production directed and co-written by Matt Aselton, Gigantic has the singular objective to portray a timid romance between a quirky couple. From the awkward pauses to the just-slightly-off dialogue and halting interactions, everything Brian and Happy do fits into the category of a nerdy, unsure and definitely-not-hip couple.

And that's about it. The 98 minutes contain precious little of note, Aselton padding the movie with multiple episodes featuring a rampaging homeless man who must signify something important in Brian's psyche. The few moments of good humour (usually courtesy of John Goodman) are more than counterbalanced by some out-of-place vulgarity (also usually courtesy of Goodman).

As for Brian and Happy, they go through the standard rom-com ups and downs, the adopt-a-Chinese-baby side quest rarely anything more than a slightly puzzling distraction. And the romance unfolds at an attitude mellow enough to easily induce a long sleep on one of Brian's mattresses (which many characters go ahead and do anyway).

Paul Dano and Zooey Deschanel are the perfect representatives for the we-are-so-not cool-that-we-are-cool set and take the material as far as it goes, which it turns out is not very far. But they will travel the short distance, you know, hesitantly.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 10 September 2018

Movie Review: The Commuter (2018)

An action thriller, The Commuter offers an initially intriguing premise but quickly falls through the large gaps of an outlandish plot.

In New York, Michael MacCauley is a 60 year old insurance salesman and ex-cop, buckling under growing family financial pressures. He commutes daily on the train from his suburban home to downtown Manhattan. On the same day he is laid off, a shocked Michael meets his buddy Detective Alex Murphy (Patrick Wilson) for drinks, then on the train is approached by the mysterious Joanna (Vera Farmiga).

She seems to know a lot about Michael and offers him a compelling hypothetical proposition: identify a person known only as Prynne from amongst all the passengers on the train in exchange for $100,000, of which the initial $25,000 is hidden in the train's washroom. Joanna quickly departs the train after hinting the offer is not hypothetical after all. Michael finds the $25,000, and also finds himself trapped: he has to identify Prynne, otherwise his family will be killed.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra and star Liam Neeson re-team and essentially remake 2014's Non-Stop, shifting the action from plane to train, along with borrowing some ideas from 2005's Red Eye. In The Commuter, the reassembly of the over-familiar components maintains only limited interest, and as usual in this particular sub-genre, as the plot reveals more of itself, logic and pragmatism are left further and further behind.

Collet-Serra deserves credit for knowing how to create energy and some tension in tight spaces, and The Commuter always looks slick. The cameras move with remarkable fluidity in, around and through the cramped multi-car train quarters, the setting just as important as the characters and events. Which is just as well, because the events immediately strain all credibility, and the characters, including MacCauley, are wafer thin.

Neeson can now knock off these roles in his sleep, and this is what he does, essentially sleepwalking through another damaged reluctant hero role. Joanna, the purported antagonist who sets the whole plot in motion, is for most of the film an intermittent voice over the phone.

Short bursts of action arrive at regular intervals, mostly in the form of sharp verbal sparring or physical tussles. Towards the end The Commuter turns into a clumsy sort-of hostage drama, the bad guys finding new ways to make their objective as hard as possible. This is a thriller where the evildoers have the remarkable capacity to do whatever they want, whenever they want, except when it matters most. In the process, the original would-be crime is overcomplicated purely for the sake of justifying a third-rate movie script.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Movie Review: Logan Lucky (2017)

A redneck heist movie, Logan Lucky offers some laughs but is too clunky and cluttered to succeed.

In North Carolina, Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) is fired from his construction job at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, but not before hatching up a robbery plan targeting the subsurface cash-carrying pneumatic tubes. Jimmy teams up with his brother Clyde (Adam Driver), a bar owner who lost an arm in the Iraq war, and they recruit imprisoned safecracker Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) and his two dimwit brothers Sam (Brian Gleeson) and Fish (Jack Quaid).

Clyde intentionally gets himself imprisoned in the same facility as Joe, and they spark a mini-riot as a diversion while they temporarily break out of jail and join Jimmy and the others under the Speedway on the day of the Coca Cola 600. Not much seems to go according to plan, and it's up to FBI agent Sarah Grayson (Hilary Swank) to try to clean up the post-heist mess.

Director Steven Soderbergh came out of a short-lived retirement to direct Logan Lucky, and maybe he need not have bothered. A lowbrow Ocean's Eleven set amongst the ignoramus set, it's never clear if the film is making fun of or celebrating its protagonists, and in any case, it barely matters. While there may have been some merit in exploring unsophisticated thievery among the unwashed, the film is disjointed, uneven, and overstuffed with incidental secondary and tertiary characters.

In addition to Jimmy, Clyde, Joe, Sam and Fish, Mellie (Riley Keough) is the sister of Jimmy and Clyde; Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) is Jimmy's ex-wife, and Moody (David Denman) is her current husband; Max (Seth MacFarlane) is an insufferable Nascar team owner; Dayton (Sebastian Stan) believes himself to be a finely tuned driver, and Dwight Yoakam plays prison warden Burns. All are barely developed characters poking in and out of the movie at regular intervals, tripping over each other and contributing little.

Channing Tatum and Adam Driver do their best to elevate the material, and the exchanges between the brothers, with Driver particularly effective as the sombre sibling fully convinced a curse hangs over the Logans, is the best thing going for the film.

Otherwise, the heist logistics and details are never explained, Soderbergh creating narrative chaos by clarifying nothing. Once some light is shed on what everyone was running around doing, the film's logic, already strained, falls apart, the heist details too far-fetched and ambitious for any one of the nitwits on display to cobble together.

Rarely funny and never exciting nor clever, Logan Lucky sputters off the start line, does one slow lap and retires into the pits.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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