Monday, 22 August 2016

Movie Review: War Dogs (2016)

A dramatic comedy, War Dogs is an unapologetic story of young men profiteering from the business of weapons trading. Brash and vivid, the film passes no judgment: this is digital capitalism as applied to the often hypocritical enterprise of feeding the global death machine.

It's the mid-2000s in Miami. David Packouz (Miles Teller) is a pot-smoking college dropout, making ends meet as a massage therapist serving creepy rich men. David tries his hand at selling high quality bed sheets to retirement homes, and nearly bankrupts himself, just as he discovers that girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) is pregnant. Fortunately, David's high school friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) has just moved back to Miami. A fearless, quick-witted entrepreneur, Efraim is dabbling in low-level arms trading as a middle man bidding on official US Army requisitions through a public procurement website.

Efraim is good at what he does and asks David to join his fledgling company AEY Inc, an offer David accepts although he lies to Iz about his sojourn into the arms trading business.  AEY lands an order to supply handguns to the Army in Iraq, but when the shipment is held up in Jordan, the two friends have to personally intervene, resulting in a harrowing war zone experience. Higher stakes opportunities lie ahead, as AEY goes after a mammoth contract to supply the Afghanistan Army. Efraim and David partner with shady international arms dealer Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper), and find themselves in an Albania warehouse where Cold War surplus equipment can be translated into huge profits.

Based on real events chronicled in a Rolling Stone feature article and directed by Todd Phillips, War Dogs picks up the theme and style developed by The Wolf Of Wall Street and The Big Short: young men behaving badly and finding extreme riches in surreal yet factual environments. And War Dogs polishes the formula to a shine, mixing millennial brohood comedy, the ugly yet fearless American prototype, and deadly serious world events into a potent mix. Propelled an excellent thumping soundtrack featuring plenty of 1970s and '80s rock, the result is a tight dramatic comedy with plenty of punch.

At just under two hours the film contains no flab. Phillips uses the first 30 minutes to draw in the characters of David and Efraim, and they are a classic opposites-attract duo. David is more timid, struggling to find his place in life and reduced to half-baked business ventures doomed to both cause embarrassment and financial failure. Efraim is brash, big, and ridiculously confident, finding opportunities, swinging for the fences and easily able to cast aside the horror of a bad war in search of the capitalist dream. While David frets about profiting from a war he and Iz do not support, Efraim has no such qualms: the war is happening anyway, the weapons have to be sold, and the profit is there to be made.

The heart of the film is then dedicated to the seemingly bizarre world of modern weapons bought and sold to feed war's voracious appetite. It a wild west market where young men can make money by sitting in nondescript offices and clicking their way into the world of go-betweens, connecting idle weapons with active war zones. Phillips captures the anticipation, excitement and frenzy of dealmaking, with David's character providing engaging narration to fill in the gaps. And when deals go bad and on-the-ground sojourns are needed, War Dogs soars, first to the chaotic Iraq theatre and then onto Albania, a forgotten Cold War front line now waiting to translate ancient surplus hardware into cold hard cash.

The interaction between David and Efraim is maintained at the heart of the film, Phillips guiding the two protagonists through phases of a friendship that morphs into a hazardous business relationship, ultimately revealing some painful true colours. Jonah Hill easily occupies the eye of the storm, giving Efraim a force of nature personality, deploying the same obtuse behaviour whether in glitzy Miami bars or in the world's worst hell holes. The story is told through David's eyes, and Miles Teller delivers a circumspect performance, David's dilemmas shaped by burgeoning family responsibilities both pushing him towards money making opportunities and pulling him to question his motives.

War Dogs is absurdly serious, the business of war translated into a wild adventure where extreme riches dance with death.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Movie Review: Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978)

A science fiction horror drama, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers builds to a fine level of tension in the story of aliens duplicating and replacing humans through organic, plant-generated pods.

Alien spores from a distant but dying planet travel to Earth, latch onto plants, mix with water, and morph into beautiful small flowers. In San Francisco, health department worker Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) takes one of the flowers home. A few days later she notices a dramatic change in the behaviour of her boyfriend Geoffrey (Art Hindle), who has become a lot more aloof and robotic. Elizabeth confides in her co-worker and lover Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), who suggests that she has a talk with celebrated psychiatrist Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy).

Similar reports of strange personality changes sweep through the city. Elizabeth, Matthew, and their friends Jack and Nancy (Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright) start to piece together what is going on: when humans sleep the flowers grow into large pods that create emotionless duplicates and destroy the original. With the snatchers taking over the city, Matthew and his friends have to fight off sleep and find a way to survive.

A remake of the 1956 original and directed by Philip Kaufman, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers expertly plays with a sense of creeping dread. The film contains its fair share of disgusting moments and effective shocks, but Kaufman's intention is to create cerebral rather than physical scares, and he succeeds admirably.

Relying on a sense of hopelessness in the face of an unseen threat rather than outright horror, the story unleashes an organic, messy and determined foe on an unsuspecting city. With no spaceships or weapons of any kind, the invaders simply destroy humanity from within, using the disguise of an innocent, exotic-looking flower. The film works as a metaphor for the proliferation of pollution and toxins destroying all that is good and transforming people into uncaring beings. It is equally effective as a cautionary tale about the speed with which pandemics can spread, and the potentially woefully inadequate levels of preparation to combat an unexpected threat.

The first two thirds of the film establish the characters and introduce the warning signs that all is not well. Kaufman is patient, hinting at what might be and allowing Elizabeth and Matthew plenty of time to round into real and flawed people. The final third does occasionally struggle to find new plot elements, and there are some prolonged chase segments that could have been trimmed. Excellent nighttime cinematography by Michael Chapman, combined with chilling a music score by Denny Zeitlin featuring some blood-curdling screams, help to maintain momentum.

Brooke Adams gives the brightest performance, and the unfolding horror is mostly seen through her character's eyes. Donald Sutherland is a bit more sleepy but swings into action in the second half of the film. Jeff Goldblum, in one of his earlier prominent roles, and Veronica Cartwright provide good support. Leonard Nimoy's casting is a clever touch, as his Dr. Kibner tries to exude calm and promote an intellectual rather than panicked reaction.

There are no heroes or epic showdowns in Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, and the film leaves plenty of open questions, contributing to a sense of pessimism. The intention of the aliens is to survive on a new planet; the fate of the suddenly hapless human species is a less important detail.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Movie Review: Ransom (1996)

A child kidnapping thriller, Ransom enjoys excellent production values, a committed Mel Gibson performance and a determination to accentuate the cerebral aspects of crime gamesmanship.

Tom Mullen (Gibson) is a successful businessman, the head of a successful major airline that he created from humble beginnings. He lives in a swanky Manhattan condominium overlooking Central Park with his wife Kate (Rene Russo) and young son Sean (Brawley Nolte). However, there is a shadow hanging over Tom's business dealings involving unproven accusations of illegal payments to avoid a union strike. The Mullens' world is plunged into a nightmare when Sean is abducted during an outdoor public event. Tom and Kate soon receive a ransom demand for $2 million, and FBI Agent Lonnie Hawkins (Delroy Lindo) takes charge of the investigation.

The kidnap mastermind is New York Police Detective Jimmy Shaker (Gary Sinise), who is disgusted with Tom's seemingly shady business ethics. Jimmy's crew consists of girlfriend Maris (Lili Taylor), tech expert Miles (Evan Handler), and brothers Clark and Cubby (Liev Schreiber and Donnie Wahlberg). Sean is handcuffed to a bed and blindfolded while Jimmy makes his demands, with Tom and Kate wondering how much they can trust Lonnie's advice. When an arranged money drop goes bad, Sean's life is placed in grave danger, and Tom decides that a fundamental change in negotiating tactics is needed.

Directed by Ron Howard, Ransom is an intelligent thriller which relies on plot and characters and resists most impulses to engage in mindless action. The film remains grounded in relative foundations of reality, and the kidnapping ordeal enjoys a trio of excellent, out of the box twists. The drama is well paced, the two hours of running time efficiently used to recount a story rich in detail and resolve.

The script by Richard Price and Alexander Ignon gets the fundamentals right by investing in both sides of the kidnapping. While Tom and Kate's trauma does get the majority of attention, a significant amount of time is spent with Jimmy and his gang, humanizing the criminals and building to an effective climax where the need for complex decisions will come to the fore at the individual level.

The central twist in the negotiations, a ploy too clever to reveal, sets the film off in a new direction and radically changes the dynamic between Jimmy, Tom and Kate. It's an idea both foolish and audacious, and sets the film apart from most other kidnap thrillers. Of course all daring initiatives can suffer from the law of unintended consequences, and Ransom rides one wild notion straight into another, victim and perpetrator locking horns and engaging in a new battle of wits within an unexpected context.

Howard infuses the film with his usual commitment to quality, and Ransom enjoys lush cinematography courtesy of Piotr Sobocińsk, attractive locations and the occasional on-the-street burst of dynamism. Not unexpectedly, there are hints of big budget over orchestration in some scenes, Howard always choosing multiple helicopters and hordes of extras when more intriguing and more modest options were perhaps available.

Mel Gibson delivers a surprisingly effective performance. He tones down both his boyish charm and his manic intensity, and settles into the relatively steady tone of a concerned father who nevertheless will not subdue his entrepreneurial inclination to seek a different and better solution. Gary Sinise offers a perfect foil as the smart and determined police detective moonlighting as a criminal, although more background on what fueled Jimmy Shaker's motivation would have been welcome. The rest of the cast is brimming with talent and provides solid support.

Canny and resourceful, Ransom delivers a satisfying pay off.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Texas Killing Fields (2011)

A bleak crime drama, Texas Killing Fields offers plenty of moody atmosphere, but is undermined and ultimately sunk by a wayward script.

In Texas City, the body of a brutally murdered young woman is discovered. Detectives Mike Souder (Sam Worthington) and Brian Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) start to investigate. Meanwhile Detective Pam Stall (Jessica Chastain) is responsible for the surrounding rural area, notorious for the high number of murdered and missing women dating back to the 1970s. Pam also has a missing woman case on her hands and calls for help from Brian and Mike, the latter being her former husband.

Complicating life for the detectives is concern for Anne Sliger (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young teenager living with her white trash single mother Lucie (Sheryl Lee) and older brother Eugene (James Hebert). Lucie is a local whore of sorts, and the menacing Rhino (Stephen Graham) appears to move into her house to help himself to a piece of her action.

Mike wants to focus his effort on the Texas City murder, while Brian, a deeply religious man, is more inclined to widen the investigation to help Pam and include the surrounding swampy fields. Mike zeroes in on pimps Levon (Jon Eyez) and Rule (Jason Clarke) as potentially involved in murder, while Brian enlists the services of a phone company contact to try and triangulate the origins of cell phone calls linked to the murders. The detectives soon find themselves being taunted and drawn into a deadly game with the mysterious killer.

Inspired by real events and directed by Ami Canaan Mann (daughter of Michael Mann), Texas Killing Fields throws plenty of characters and events of the screen, but fails to make any of them count. Three detectives, four creepy possible villains, several victims, many crime scenes, plus a few side-plots: there is plenty going on, and unfortunately none of it captivates. The film is stylishly assembled and the lead performances are professional enough, but the final product is badly let down by a confused script and poor execution.

The film is written by Don Ferrarone and it does appear that in trying to create a dramatic fictional narrative, the enormity of the real life agonies and tragedies of the Texas Killing Fields along the Interstate 45 overwhelmed the writing. The resultant tone is simply off. Somehow, the most important debate presented in the film is whether Mike and Brian should or should not help Pam, who is outside their jurisdiction. On multiple occasions Mike berates Brian for venturing into the hinterlands instead of sticking close to home. With everything going on, it's a stupefying issue to repeatedly waste screen time on.

Meanwhile, we learn precious little about Mike, Brian and Pam, except that they are grim faced, dour and fairly snappy with each other. The ashes of the relationship between Mike and Pam just scatter in the wind, serving no purpose. Similarly Brian's religious fervor is introduced and forgotten.

The murder suspects fare much worse. Levon, Rule, Rhino and Eugene must be despicable characters because they scowl at the camera, have tattoos, and generally look the way pedophiles and pimps are supposed to. They remain prototypical bad guys with no backstory. Even less is known about the murder victims and their families. And then Mann throws into the mix even more peripheral characters in the form of prostitutes and runaway kids, who drift in and out of various scenes and serve to further distract from a focus that is never found.

With Worthington, Morgan and Chastain stuck in angry detective mode, it is left to Chloë Grace Moretz and Sheryl Lee to deliver the most affecting performances in relatively small roles. Moretz is steady, her vulnerability representing potential victims who come from hopelessly broken homes. Lee is the stand-out performer as Lucie, a woman so far gone into desperation that she routinely kicks her daughter out of the house to better serve her sleazy clients.

Despite earnest intentions and no shortage of talent, Texas Killing Fields is messier than grasslands trampled by an unruly herd, and a regrettably wasted opportunity.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Movie Review: Bridget Jones's Diary (2001)

A romantic comedy with edge and heart, Bridget Jones's Diary enjoys a ditzy protagonist navigating the choppy waters of relationships after 30.

In London, Bridget Jones (Renée Zellweger) is 32 years old, single and slightly overweight. She also enjoys cigarettes, a few too many drinks, and is getting very worried that she will never find a man to call her own. At a New Year's party her parents Colin and Pamela (Jim Broadbent and Gemma Jones) attempt to introduce her to divorced barrister Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), but the encounter ends disastrously. Bridget starts a diary and resolves to improve herself, find a man and never be lonely again. At the book publishing company where she works, Bridget has a huge crush on her handsome boss Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant). They start to flirt, and soon embark on an intense relationship.

Just when her love life appears to take a hugely positive turn, Bridget is stunned to learn that her parents' marriage is in crisis. Meanwhile, at social events Bridget frequently bumps into Mark, who appears to be in a relationship with his work colleague Natasha (Embeth Davidtz). Matters are complicated when Bridget learns that Mark and Daniel were college classmates and have a troubled history. Bridget believes that Daniel may be her dream man and they enjoy a getaway vacation, but her hopes and dreams are about to be severely tested.

Directed by Sharon Maguire as an adaptation of the Helen Fielding book, Bridget Jones's Diary is a smart, funny and honest romantic comedy. Rude when it needs to be, sometimes hilarious and enlivened by Zelleweger's bright performance, the film rides the emotional ups and downs of a woman stuck between girly fantasies of what romance should be and the messy reality of adult relationships.

The film derives most its laughs from the personality of Bridget herself. Self conscious, self-deprecating, fully aware of her foibles but nevertheless outgoing and unafraid to crawl out onto the farthest limb, Bridget is both determined to improve and absolutely true to herself. When she gets into trouble, which is often, she owns the situation, never better than when caught in a playboy bunny outfit at a stiff uppercrust outdoor party.

The two men in her life are also nowhere near perfect, and that's just fine. Daniel offers sex, adventure and more sex, with a not so deep undercurrent of playboy dismissiveness. Mark is stiff, uncharismatic and potentially a crushing bore, seemingly wrapped around the finger of Natasha. At her age Bridget cannot afford to be picky and both men nevertheless appear to have much to offer, as she quickly progresses from having no suitors to occupying the key node of a romantic triangle.

Maguire surrounds Bridget with plenty of colourful supporting characters, including one snotty co-worker, one resident office pervert, two dotty parents, and three foul-mouthed friends. Meanwhile both Daniel and Mark have barracudas circling them, representing Bridget's competition. Of course, both the lawyer Natasha and Daniel's American counterpart Lara (Lisa Barbuscia) are everything that Bridget is not, including thin, confident and flying high in their careers.

Renée Zellweger overcomes the obstacle of an American playing a prototypical English woman with ridiculous ease and makes the role her own. Bridget requires a delicate mix of self-pity, and blissfully ignorant audacity with the occasional foray into unabashed flirtation and Zellweger hits all the right notes. Colin Firth and Hugh Grant are dependable, playing close to their most comfortable screen personas, and enjoy a rollicking, perfectly timed fist fight.

In the search for love, Bridget Jones' Diary offers a sparkling how-not-to guide, full of horrifyingly funny revelations and authentic wit.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

An artistic coming-of-age story, Moonrise Kingdom takes a quirky look at young love between two troubled adolescents. The film is a visual delight, and the story includes layers of sharp social commentary.

It's 1965, on a fictional island in New England. Scout Master Randy Ward (Edward Norton) leads a troop of 12 year olds at a summer camp. One morning, Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), an orphan and the least popular member of the scout team, goes missing, leaving a polite note behind. Police Captain Duffy Sharp (Bruce Willis) starts a search, and soon discovers that Suzy Bishop, the troubled daughter of Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand), is also missing. A year earlier Sam and Suzy met and bonded during a school play performance, and eventually they planned an escape adventure.

Once they learn of the escape, Sam's foster parents immediately disavow him and announce that he is not welcome back at their house. Meanwhile, out in the wilderness Sam uses his scouting skills as he and Suzy hike to a secluded cove, where they set up camp and tentatively start to get intimate. The search intensifies with Ward, his scouts, Sharp and the Bishops frantically trying to find the children, with matters complicated by a relationship between Laura Bishop and the police captain. A representative of Social Services (Tilda Swinton) flies in to help. Sam and Suzy enjoy a few moments of idyllic isolation, but there are surprises and complications ahead, including a mammoth storm.

Directed and co-written by Wes Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom is a fresh take on young and emerging love. With exquisite use of staging, colour and symmetry, Anderson creates a fictional yet potentially real world where the setting is as important as the characters, and the almost magical surroundings contribute to the sense that all is indeed possible. The film thrives on a sense of whimsy as seen through a storytelling lens, and builds to a frantic, blustery finale.

The central characters of Sam and Suzy share the experience of troubled households and loneliness bordering on depression. While keeping the film light, Anderson does not shy away from hinting at the violent tendencies that troubled children are capable of: both Sam and Suzy can and do take care of themselves when needed.

But more sharply, Moonrise Kingdom is about adults contributing to the trauma of children needing something different. Suzy's parents come off worst, seemingly wholly incapable of connecting with their daughter. Meanwhile Sam is suffering through the bullying and ostracizing that comes with being an orphan, and exhibits both the anger and resourcefulness needed to survive in a hostile world. Suzy is so miserable she confides in Sam that she wishes she was an orphan. Pointedly, he responds that he loves her but she doesn't know what she is talking about.

Placing sensual affection at the emotional centre of an idyllically framed, fairytale-like story is mildly startling and adds to the film's uniqueness. The scenes of budding intimacy between the two 12 years old are handled with sensitivity but also honesty, Anderson confronting the reality that two troubled kids are likely to start a journey of sexual exploration sooner than most.

The performances from Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are touching, and they confront the material with admirable sincerity. They also benefit from a script that allows their characters to be children while yearning to break free of their childhood traumas. For her great escape adventure, Suzy takes along her cat, mounds of cat food, a battery-operated record player, vinyl records and three heavy hardcover books: not exactly items to facilitate a fleet-footed getaway, but fully consistent with what a child would think of.

The adults stick to their assigned supporting roles, with each of Willis, Murray, McDormand and Norton getting limited screen time but also key moments to advance the plot and sketch in Suzy and Sam's background stories.

Poignant and charming, Moonrise Kingdom beams an elegant light over the universal yet intensely personal adventure of childhood graduation.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Movie Review: Planes, Trains And Automobiles (1987)

A comedy about the trip home from hell, Planes, Trains And Automobiles finds writer and director John Hughes graduating from teenagers to adults, and maintaining his clever ability to mix humour with humanity.

It's two days before Thanksgiving, and marketing executive Neal Page (Steve Martin), in New York for a meeting, just wants to hop on a plane and get home to Chicago where his wife Susan (Laila Robins) is waiting patiently. Neal is a relatively quiet and introverted man, and his trip starts off badly when his attempts to hail a cab are unintentionally thwarted by shower curtain ring salesman Del Griffith (John Candy). Neal finally makes it to the airport only to find his flight delayed, then he finds himself squished into the middle seat next to Del, who is a boorish, talkative bore.

With bad weather over Chicago, the plane is diverted to Wichita and the two men find themselves sharing the same motel room. Neal discovers Del to be a disgusting slob, but also an honest, resourceful and somewhat lonely man. With most flights grounded, Del arranges for the two men to travel by train, and momentarily Neal starts to believe that things are looking up. But then the train breaks down in the middle of nowhere, Neal and Del are thrust back together again, still a long way from Chicago.

After having made his name directing a series of teenage-oriented comedies renowned for treating young adults as real people, Hughes fully graduates to grown-ups, and loses none of his magic. Planes, Trains And Automobiles exaggerates to good effect, but is otherwise a comedy propelled by a story familiar to all travelers: the seemingly innocuous flight that turns into an ordeal. At an efficient 92 minutes, the film keeps the laughs coming at a steady pace, and uses side characters, including a car rental desk clerk and a local Wichita pick-up driver, to inject big laughs at regular intervals.

At the heart of the story Neal and Del interact like rotating magnets, alternating between being pulled together through circumstance and then pushing away due to abject incompatibility. Just when it seems the two men cannot survive a minute more in each other's company, Hughes expertly pulls out the pathos card and reveals the humans behind the comic masks, drawing the two men back together out of compassion or sympathy.

Hughes deploys Del's character extremes to maximum comic effect, turning the stereotypical salesman into the worst possible nightmare travel companion. Del has stinky feet, turns the bathroom into a mess, explodes beer cans all over the bed and makes animalistic noises before falling asleep. He also has the uncanny ability to make any situation worse, and to actively tempt residual bad luck just when good luck appears to get a foothold. If the film has a weakness it resides in Hughes carrying Del to an extreme; he too frequently steps over into caricature territory.

It would take the worst possible confluence of ill-timed and unfortunate events for the domesticated Neal to tolerate Del, and in the context of what should be a short flight from Chicago to New York, unfortunate events are all that Neal will get. Cab competitions, delayed flights, seat booking mess-ups, foul weather, a taxi literally from hell, bad motels, horror car rental companies and failing trains. If it can wrong, it will on this trip.

Steve Martin and John Candy reach career highlights under Hughes' guidance. Martin perfects his ordinary but combustible man facing intolerable chaos, and Candy steps out from the sidekick shadows to share centre stage, allowing Del Griffith to be chief comedy maker but never losing sight of the solitude at the heart of living on the road.

The film moves towards revealing the true nature of Thanksgiving, as one way or another Neal and Del are forced to look past their incompatible exteriors to finally confront the person within. Planes, Trains, And Automobiles features plenty of transportation modes failing to deliver, but is ultimately about the people inside the machines reaching true destinations.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Movie Review: Reservoir Dogs (1992)

A violent crime drama, Reservoir Dogs introduced Quentin Tarantino to the world and unleashed stunning levels of profanity and violence in a tight independent production

After a seriously botched off-screen jewelry store hold-up that ended in a wild shoot-out with police, a group of gang members who only know each other by pseudonyms convene at a warehouse to regroup and recriminate. Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) has been shot in the stomach and is slowly bleeding to death. The veteran Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) feels responsible for Orange taking a bullet during the getaway. The excitable Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) is unhurt, having shot his way out of the chaos and then stashed the prized jewels at an unknown location. Pink is sure that an informant double crossed the group.

The cool and detached Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) is blamed for starting all the shooting, and White labels him a psychopath. In the melee Blonde has also managed to abduct a police officer (Marvin Nash), who may hold information about the double cross. The group was brought together by crime lord Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) and his sidekick son "Nice Guy" Eddie (Chris Penn). Now Joe and Eddie need to clean up the mess and figure out what went wrong. With emotions running high among the group of armed strangers, sorting out who is responsible for what will not be easy.

Tarantino's directorial debut is a stunning crime film, filled with sharp dialogue, intriguing characters, and a story that gradually reveals itself through clever use of flashbacks. The central heist that causes the carnage is never seen, as Tarantino prefers to make his 100 minute compact film about people rather than events. The gang members are all strangers to each other, and the film is as much about a bunch of criminals getting to know each other and not liking what they uncover, as it is about the audience enjoying the experience.

The film is mostly set at the one warehouse, and stylistically Reservoir Dogs resembles a stage play on steroids. Most of the action is through intense, threatening dialogue exchanges, with guns being drawn and bullets flying at strategically timed intervals. There are numerous highlights, including several red mist Mexican standoffs, not all of which successfully de-escalate. Tarantino's staging and choice of perspective is often audacious, never more than when a character is shot and falls to ground long seconds later, after the camera has seemingly lost interest only to catch a crucial glimpse.

Oozing Blues Brothers-type cool in black suits, thin neckties and old-fashioned shades, the cast have a blast. The performances are excellent, with Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth and Michael Madsen particularly impressing. Keitel brings surprisingly prominent principles to Mr. White and Roth delivers most of his role from the ground and flat on his back. Madsen is a vision of understated insanity, a man so far on the edge he alienates hardened criminals.

The violence and profanity are legendary. The thugs basically converse through streams of expletives and insults interspersed with a just the few non-profane words. Appropriately, Reservoir Dogs is male-only territory, and the film features no talking parts for any women.When it comes to blood and gore Tarantino also does not hold back, with messy bullet wounds and large puddles of blood literally painting parts of the set a bright red. But the peak of depravity is a torture scene not for the faint of heart, as Mr. Blonde reveals his inner derangement dancing to radio tunes while administering some impromptu butchery.

At this reservoir, the dogs bark, bite, bleed and back stab with unrestrained abandoned.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Movie Review: Contact (1997)

A science drama, Contact is an intelligent story about the passion to search for a connection with alien beings, and the implications once the unthinkable becomes true.

As a young girl, Ellie Arroway (Jena Malone) was encouraged to pursue astronomy by her father Ted (David Morse). The grown up Ellie (Jodie Foster) graduated from MIT and developed a passion for seeking signals transmitted by aliens. While on assignment at an observatory in Puerto Rico, Ellie establishes a rapport with fellow scientist Kent Clark (William Fichtner), and has a brief but passionate affair with Christian philosopher Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey). The Puerto Rico assignment is eventually shut down by National Science Foundation Director David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), who does not believe that searching for alien signals is worthwhile research.

Ellie finds private funding through the Hadden Corporation, led by the extremely rich but dying tycoon S.R. Hadden (John Hurt), and establishes her team at the Very Large Array (VLA) of massive listening satellite dishes in New Mexico. After months of effort Ellie stumbles onto a signal transmitted from the Vega star system. Her discovery unleashes a global frenzy, with the White House getting involved in the form of Chief of Staff Rachel Constantine (Angela Bassett) and National Security Advisor Michael Kitz (James Woods). Then Ellie's team uncovers more: the alien signal contains a coded message and reams of advanced data including the blueprints for an advanced, massive machine.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis and based on the novel by celebrated astronomer Carl Sagan, Contact is a spiritual successor to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Although neither as fantastical as Kubrick's epic nor as fuzzy as Spielberg's opus, Contact brings its own attitude to the search for intelligent life: a science-first stance, a willingness to take a pragmatic look at how politics will interfere with any major discovery, and a deliberate eagerness to delve into the debate about the role of religion when the time comes for human interaction with another species.

The film excels at maintaining a clear-headed, science-based perspective through the eyes of Ellie, including the frustrating chase for funds, clashes with superiors, disappointing initiatives that lead to nothing, and long hours, days and years of research sustained only by hope and belief that a breakthrough must be just around the next frequency.

And when contact is made and Ellie shakes the world with her discovery, Zemeckis takes his time to capture the frenzied reaction. From President Clinton (masterfully weaved into the film) and his army of White House suits to religious zealots, and passing through the journalists and talking heads on the cable news networks and Chevrolet Vega enthusiasts, the world will react to alien communications in unpredictable ways, and Contact imagines the outpouring of emotion and insanity with plenty of colour.

Some parts of the film don't work as well. There is a serious sabotage incident that appears far-fetched and ultimately neither adds to nor deletes from the story. As the machine is being built at enormous cost, Zemeckis dials back the curiosity factor and does not even attempt to explain how it may be expected to work. And the personal scenes between Ellie and Palmer too conveniently and quickly devolve into a complicated relationship that mirrors the tension between her science and his religious philosophy.

Jodie Foster is at the core of the drama, and allows Ellie to not only be a bright and fiercely determined scientist, but also a human being with faults. She has to check her anger and attitude at meetings, and is too honest when it matters least. As Sagan intended, Ellie carries with her the struggle of women scientists to stand alongside the men, and more than once Ellie has to swallow her pride and plan a recovery after men brutishly shove their interests ahead of her rights. The supporting cast is adequate, but none of the men around Ellie achieve much depth.

The film ends with a journey sequence driven by spectacular special effects, and a conclusion built on sober reflection. The search for evidence finds belief and the intrinsically faithful find evidence. The quest to find answers will continue, built on advancements measured simultaneously in light years and milliseconds.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Movie Review: Hud (1963)

A slow burning deep south drama, Hud is an intense four-person character study featuring superb performances and complex human dynamics.

In rural Texas, the aging Homer Bannon (Melvyn Douglas) runs the family cattle ranch. Homer's herd appears to be afflicted with a potentially serious ailment, and government types move in to investigate whether foot and mouth disease has infected the ranch. Homer is a principled man, growing increasingly horrified at the behaviour of his son Hud (Paul Newman), a hard drinking selfish womanizer openly seducing the married ladies of the nearby town and showing no real respect or regard for concepts of hard work and responsibility.

Hud: Well, I've always thought the law was meant to be interpreted in a lenient manner. Sometimes I lean one way and sometimes I lean the other.

Lonnie Bannon (Brandon deWilde) is Homer's grandson and Hud's nephew, a young man at the crossroads, beginning to idolize his Uncle but also respecting Homer's ethos. Lonnie's father Norman died under mysterious circumstances, with Homer attaching at least some blame on Hud. Alma (Patricia Neal) is Homer's housekeeper, a world weary divorced woman with a smouldering sexuality and not shy about flirting with both Hud and Lonnie. The possibility of Homer's entire herd of cattle being wiped out adds to the tension between Homer and Hud, and the turmoil will sweep up both Lonnie and Alma.

Homer, to Lonnie: Little by little the look of the country changes because of the men we admire. You're just going to have to make up your own mind one day about what's right and wrong.

Directed by Martin Ritt and gorgeously filmed in black and white by James Wong Howe, Hud contrasts wide open Texas skies with intricately linked emotions. A slice of life drama focusing on a fractured family at a generational cross roads, the film is pregnant with possibilities, situational tension and flawed characters. The story goes looking for the limit of often unspoken hostility that one family can withstand, and never relents in ratcheting up the weight of expectations pulling in different direction.

Hud: Happens to everybody. Horses, dogs, men. Nobody gets out of life alive.

The themes include Lonnie's coming of age in the shadow of the mystery of his father's death; the business of running a stricken ranch in a Texas where oil is pushing out cattle as the preferred money-making commodity; and layers of unresolved hostility between a father adhering to old fashioned principles and a son much more interested in self gratification and little else. And a sexual undercurrent keeps the tension high as Lonnie transitions from boy to man, Hud flaunts his animal magnetism all over town and Alma wonders who may be available to fill her needs.

Alma: I was married to Ed for six years. Only thing he was ever good for was to scratch my back where I couldn't reach it.
Hud: You still got that itch?
Alma: Off and on.
Hud: Well let me know when it gets to bothering you.

The film wastes no time drawing in the four characters, and Ritt expertly arranges his principles in a self-dependent puzzle, where Homer needs Hud's help on the ranch, Lonnie needs to decide whether or not Hud is a good role model, Hud needs to plan out his future as the sun sets on Homer's reign, and Alma needs to juggle the needs of three powerful men to maintain her economic well being. Ritt maintains control of the pacing and dramatics, never veering into excess and ensuring that the ties that bind get better defined even as they are exposed to higher stresses.

Hud: The only question I ever ask any woman is "What time is your husband coming home?"

The four performances are nothing less than perfect. Paul Newman has rarely been better, finding in Hud the ideal role for his most typical persona of the supremely selfish but also sexually irresistible man. In support Patricia Neal won the Best Actress Academy Award for the relatively small but pivotal role of Alma, uncovering lust and self preservation hiding just beneath the tousled housekeeper exterior. Melvyn Douglas and Brandon DeWilde bookend Hud with the previous and future stock of Bannons. Douglas is uncompromising in exposing Homer's deeply principled stand on life while DeWilde allows Lonnie to effectively walk the fault line between grandfather and uncle.

Homer: You don't care about people Hud. You don't give a damn about 'em. Oh, you got all that charm goin' for ya. And it makes the youngsters want to be like ya. That's the shame of it because you don't value anything. You don't respect nothing. You keep no check on your appetites at all. You live just for yourself. And that makes you not fit to live with.

Uncompromising and always finding the more challenging road, Hud is an elegant showpiece for intriguing, true-to-life characters.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...