Sunday, 19 October 2014

Movie Review: In The Heat Of The Night (1967)

A simmering murder mystery overheated to the boiling point by racial tensions, In The Heat Of The Night is a seminal cinematic achievement, a turning point in the portrayal of blacks on the screen and a riveting small town thriller.

In the small southern backwater of Sparta, Mississippi, night patrolman Sam Wood (Warren Oates) finds wealthy businessman Mr. Colbert dead in the street, killed with a blow to the head. The local redneck police chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) orders a sweep of the town, and Wood picks up Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) at the train station. Black, well-dressed and very much a stranger, Tibbs is immediately a suspect, and Gillespie treats him with racist contempt. But Gillespie is stunned to learn that Tibbs is a Philadelphia police detective, passing through Sparta while visiting his mother.

Through a combination of pressure from his superior and his personal pride, Tibbs stays in Sparta to help solve the murder, while Gillespie is grudgingly convinced by Sparta's mayor (William Schallert) to accept Tibbs' help. Tibbs and Gillespie never really get along, but start to tolerate each other as they track down persons of interest including Mrs. Colbert (Lee Grant), small-time drifter Harvey (Scott Wilson), Colbert's business rival Endicott (Larry Gates), and late night diner counterman Ralph (Anthony James). Sam Wood also emerges as a suspect, as well as being implicated in a sordid unwanted pregnancy involving a 16 year old local girl. With Mrs. Colbert threatening to pull her late husband's investment out of town and Tibbs attracting an increasing number of enemies, the pressure mounts to catch the murderer.

Directed by Norman Jewison and written by Stirling Silliphant based on the John Ball book, In The Heat Of The Night draws one of the most distinct before-and-after lines in Hollywood movie history. Poitier's Guess Whose Coming To Dinner, also from 1967, portrayed a black man being accepted into a white liberal educated family. In The Heat Of The Night has no such acceptance: Virgil Tibbs is a qualitatively better law officer than Gillespie; and through his sheer force of conviction, Tibbs will prove to Sparta and all its bigoted residents that a black man will overcome deep-rooted racism and serve the cause of justice.

For all its redefining of racial relations, In The Heat Of The Night is also a fine, complex murder mystery. In sweltering heat made worse by prevailing hot winds of xenophobia, plenty of suspects emerge as the potential killer, and Tibbs gathers personal enemies by focusing the investigation in unexpected directions. He is convinced that the drifter Harvey is innocent when plenty of evidence points to his guilt, and Tibbs rocks the town to its core by suspecting Endicott and then getting involved in the unwanted pregnancy case. The film's climax does feel rushed, and Jewison would have done better to provide some of the secondary characters a bit more room to breathe.

In The Heat Of The Night maintains its tension by not caving in to any easy moments of reconciliation. To the bitter end, Gillespie just barely finds a way to work with Tibbs, and never misses an opportunity to make Tibbs' life harder than it needs to be. The film avoids becoming a buddy movie, as Gillespie's respect grows by barely perceptible increments. It's only in the final scene that Tibbs gets the benefit of the slightest kind gesture and phrase, and even then, Gillespie wraps his gratitude with a tinge of relief that the two are finally parting ways.

Two moments from the film stand out and earn their place in movie history. In the first, when Gillespie, who has been callously referring to Tibbs as "boy", asks Tibbs what they call him in Philadelphia, he roars back "They call me MISTER Tibbs!."  And in the second, Endicott is insulted that he is considered a suspect in the Colbert murder and slaps Tibbs hard. Tibbs returns the slap, just as hard. It's a shocking, time-stands-still moment, a black man striking a respected white cotton magnate deep in the south.

The two central performances are perfect, primarily because they don't stray from the essence of the two characters. Poitier emphasizes Tibbs' pride, confidence and hints of justified arrogance. Steiger keeps Gillespie true to a small-town cop, refusing to admit that he is in over his head, furiously chewing his gum to compensate for the absence of any useful detective skills, while eyeing Tibbs with a combination of suspicion and contempt.

In The Heat Of The Night the movies encountered an inflection point. A murder was committed, and race relations on the big screen changed forever.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Movie Review: Men, Women, And Children (2014)

An episodic look at relationships and sexuality in the online age, Men, Women, And Children is a mildly interesting probe of modern family dysfunctionalities, but the film stumbles on unjustified pretensions.

The focus is on the loosely related lives of high school teenagers and their parents in a middle-class suburban Texas community. Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Don (Adam Sandler) are parents who have worked their way into a stagnant marriage. Don harbours a healthy online porn habit and Helen is no longer attracted to her husband. Individually, they both use the Internet to spice up their sex lives with extramarital affairs. Meanwhile their 15 year old son Chris (Travis) is so jaded by online porn that he can only be aroused by extreme fetishes. Chris' classmate Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia) is the high school's extroverted cheerleader and claims to be sexually experienced. Hannah has an online web site managed by her single-mom Joan (Judy Greer), featuring provocative modeling photos. Joan never made it in Hollywood, and is hoping to help her daughter into the career that she missed out on.

Patricia (Jennifer Garner) is obsessed with Internet safety for teenagers, and controls every online move made by her daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), who starts a tentative friendship with Tim (Ansel Elgort). Formerly the school's football star, Tim has quit the team and now immerses himself in online gaming as he drowns into a depression caused by his mother abandoning the family. Meanwhile Tim's dad Kent (Dean Norris) kindles a relationship with Joan. Allison (Elena Kampouris) is also a cheerleader, and friends with Hannah and Brandy, but she is suffering from anorexia, and turns to online support from fellow anorexics to ward off food temptations. Allison is looking for a her first sexual experience, and has a crush on an uncaring football player.

Men, Women, And Children is narrated by Emma Thompson, and frequently interrupted by pablum about the Voyager space probe hurtling through space and out of the solar system. Both the supercilious narration and the we-are-all-alone preachiness confirm the hubris hinted at in the film's title. Somehow director and co-writer Jason Reitman thought that he was making a deeply profound movie about humanity's destiny; rather, this is a modest film about a collection of people struggling with routine growing up and growing old issues in the Internet age. Men, Women And Children would have been better with more focus on characters and less galactic preachiness.

On the positive side, the stories are provocative, as intended, and fuelled by the online world's dramatic facilitation of access to explicit sexuality and seemingly anonymous interaction. Reitman is able to generate empathy for all the key characters. Refreshingly all the men, women and children are well-intentioned and doing the best with what they know. The teenagers are grappling with generational angst and awakening sexual desire in a world seemingly drenched by sex, the adults are groping through the fog of middle-age and the complexities of parenting, where the theoretical and the practical collide. And it's all happening aided and abetted by screens of all sizes, their glow the new essential backdrop for every important decision and communication.

Whether intentionally or through oversight, the film omits any families and characters who can be classified as normally happy. While unconflicted characters are admittedly less interesting, they would provide a useful reference point in a sea of turmoil. Brandy is the closest thing to a normal teen that the film offers, but even she has online secrets waiting to be revealed.

The performances err towards the entrenched side of adequate, with both Jennifer Garner and Judy Greer not helped by over-the-top parental characters that push the boundaries well past reasonable. Adam Sandler, Rosemarie DeWitt and young Kaitlyn Deaver emerge with the most credit.

Men, Women, And Children is close to being a worthwhile chronicle of digitally-driven familial dynamics. The film needed less pomposity and more tenderness to properly wriggle into the heart.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Movie Review: Rio Bravo (1959)

A classic few-against-many western, Rio Bravo is a study of determination against the odds. The story of a sheriff and his two allies doggedly holding out against the overwhelming forces of a corrupt businessman is a thrilling standoff in defence of what is right.

When the dimwitted Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) shoots and kills a man in a saloon fight, he is arrested by Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne). Chance holds Joe in the town's small jail, guarded by old timer Stumpy (Walter Brennan). Chance's only other ally is his deputy Dude (Dean Martin), who is struggling to escape the clutches of severe alcohol dependency. Chance has to await a Marshall who will arrive within days to transport the prisoner. The problem is that Joe's brother Nathan (John Russell) is the richest landowner in the area, and he wants his brother set free.

As the siege grips the town, Chance gradually gains a few allies. Young gunslinger Colorado Ryan (Ricky Nelson) first insists on minding his own business but starts to change his mind after his mentor Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond) is killed by Nathan's men. Meanwhile card shark Feathers (Angie Dickinson) arrives in town and catches Chance's eye. Nathan intensifies his efforts to intimidate and threaten Chance into releasing Joe, but the lawman and his allies are determined to bring Joe to justice, leading to a series of ever more violent skirmishes with Nathan's men.

A response and rebuke aimed squarely at High Noon (1952), in Rio Bravo the sheriff is comfortable standing tall on his own. Wayne and director Howard Hawks wanted to portray a law officer who refuses help from the ordinary townsfolk, but gets it anyway. In this version of America, the hero stands up to his individual responsibilities despite the obvious risks, and by doing so inspires others to step forward.

Rio Bravo is a masterpiece of mounting tension, as a state of physical and psychological siege creates a perfect canvass for classic western themes. Chance, Stumpy and Dude have to defend a shrinking perimeter around the jailhouse, their enemies already present inside and outside the town, and ready to pounce at any instant and upon any sign of weakness. And Chance's allies are far from perfect or dependable. Dude's battle against the bottle hangs in the balance, and the movie opens with a brilliant, dialogue-free scene of Dude reduced to retrieving coins from a spittoon to get yet another drink. Stumpy is an old-timer, trigger happy but handicapped by a limp leg and a caustic attitude.

Arrayed against these three is an army of cowboys on Nathan Burdette's payroll, plus mercenaries happy to kill in exchange for Nathan's money. Gradually Nathan tightens the noose and intimidates or kills those who express support for Chance. But still the community does not turn its back. Hotel keeper Carlos (Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez), wagon master Wheeler, gunslinger Colorado and the passionate Feathers all show varying degrees of support, and as the stand-off moves towards an inevitably violent climax, their support becomes more overt and active.

The script by Jules Furthman Leigh and Brackett Hawks mixes plenty of character interaction and development with bursts of action to keep the pressure building. By the time Hawks unleashes all the guns to explode into action for the raucous final showdown, Chance and his friends are remarkably well developed, having faced down their real demons and come to terms with their destinies.

John Wayne is iconic as John T. Chance ("T for trouble", according to Feathers), a man who knows his role, ready with an answer for everything but reduced to a puddle of uncertainty when placed in the cross hairs of Feathers' affection. Dean Martin and Angie Dickinson rarely had better roles. Martin is the most complex character in the film, Dude struggling against his past potential, present dependency and unsure if he deserves a second chance for a better future. Dickinson is a combination of confidence and sensuality that allows Feathers to match wits and stubborn commitment with Chance.

Rio Bravo celebrates righteous struggles against enemies both external and internal. As is often the case, winning the fight against self-doubt makes disposing of outside foes that much easier.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Movie Review: Gone Girl (2014)

A missing person mystery wrapped into a drama about dysfunctional family relationships, Gone Girl is an entertaining romp through the physical and psychological wreckage of a wild tabloid crime story.

In a small Missouri town, Nick Dunn (Ben Affleck) returns home one day to find that Amy (Rosamund Pike), his wife of five years, has mysteriously disappeared. There are signs of a struggle in the house, and police detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) quickly spots blood traces in the kitchen. Amy's parents (Lisa Banes and David Clennon) arrive from New York, and the community rallies around Nick to organize searches and ramp up efforts to find Amy.

But Nick's behaviour is awkward, and as the case starts to generate a national media frenzy accusatory fingers start pointing in his direction. Nick's twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon) stands by him, but even she starts to have her doubts when Nick's affair with nubile college student Andie (Emily Ratajkowski) becomes public, and a nosey neighbour reveals that Amy was pregnant when she disappeared. With Rhonda becoming more convinced that Nick had something to do with his wife's disappearance, Nick turns to famous attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry) for help, but this case will have some unexpected revelations.

The synopsis can only recount half the story, because Gone Girl's major twist comes midway through the film. What appears to be a standard missing woman case, routine fodder for the tabloids and the kind of story that regularly helps to fill hours of brain-deadening cable TV "news", suddenly takes a turn into darker territory. Nick and Amy's marriage was in deep trouble, but not in any way that Nick fully understood. Amy's role in the disintegration of the relationship emerges like a spectre to knock the mystery on its head, and Gone Girl engages the evils that lurk in twisted minds. But after expertly negotiating the mid-stream gear shift, the film ends with a spectacular and bloody somersault that is maybe too ambitious in the context of the story's solid anchors in realism.

Written by Gillian Flynn based on her own bestseller, Gone Girl is directed by David Fincher (Seven), who enjoys nothing more than morphing worrisome events into previously unimagined extremes. Gone Girl gets down to business with brisk efficiency: the disappearance happens early, and the couple's dynamic is introduced in flashback, as Amy narrates from her diary. Fincher allows the past story of the marriage to comfortably run in parallel with the present search for a missing woman. The first few years of the relationship in New York are filled with boundless love and the electricity of frequent sex. But then a recession kicks in, a parent gets sick, the couple relocate to nowheresville and the marriage is thrust into troubled terrain.

Amy's creepy childhood is also revealed: her parents used her as inspiration for the adventures of Amazing Amy, the fictional heroine for a children's book series. The real Amy was much less emotionally buoyant than her fictional counterpart, and the blurring of the lines between the real and fake Amys in the eyes of the books' fans, and maybe also in the eyes of her parents, did not contribute to stability.

Gone Girl explores what constitutes appropriate behaviour in the face of a family crisis subjected to continuous and incessant news coverage. The artless Nick is repeatedly caught on camera revealing expressions not consistent with what is expected from a suffering husband. His graceless overexposure becomes cause enough for suspicion and character assassination. Ben Affleck is perfectly cast, and delivers the gait and slightly stunned look of a man swept into the glare of unwanted events. Rosamund Pike is a revelation, coming into her own in the second half as Amy's story takes over the film. Pike demonstrates an impressive and persuasive range, from beaming newlywed sex-kitten wife to a troubled woman deep into the morass of a floundering marriage. Neil Patrick Harris provides support as Amy's ex-boyfriend who reappears at a critical point in her life.

Compelling as only a public familial crisis can be, Gone Girl starts with a drama that is all too common, and pushes it into multiple gasp-inducing, perversely absorbing twists.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Movie Review: The Departed (2006)

The film that finally delivered the Best Director Academy Award to Martin Scorsese, The Departed is a slick police drama centred on an epic battle to wrest control of Boston's underworld away from an entrenched mobster lord. A stellar cast helps to balance the film's more overwrought elements.

Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) is the head of Boston's largest criminal syndicate, brutally engaged in grand scale extortion, trafficking and wanton violence. Police Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and his deputy Staff Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) spot an opportunity to infiltrate Costello's empire by inserting new police graduate Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) as an undercover mole. Billy is from the wrong side of town, and a manufactured criminal record as well as his chequered family history eventually gain him entry into Frank's inner circle.

Costello: I don't want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.

But Frank has his own agent working inside the police department. Staff Sergeant Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is considered by his boss Captain Ellerbyone (Alec Baldwin) to be of the brightest officers on the force, but Sullivan is on the criminal payroll and ensures that Frank stays one step ahead of enforcement efforts to nab him. First Sullivan and then Costigan get romantically involved with psychologist Dr. Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga). With Costigan beginning to buckle under the tension of his double life, both Costello and Queenan come to the realization that there are moles within their organizations, leading to a ferocious settling of the scores.

FBI Agent Lazio: Do you have anyone in with Costello presently?
Dignam: Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe fuck yourself. My theory on Feds is, they're like mushrooms: feed them shit and keep them in the dark.

Written by William Monahan as an adaptation of the 2002 Hong Kong film Internal Affairs, The Departed is hard-hitting, loud and drenched in testosterone. At 151 minutes the film is probably a good half hour too long, and the second half bogs down in a seemingly endless find-the-mole pursuit driven by justified paranoia. But The Departed overcomes its weaker points thanks to a grim attitude of survival at all costs, with the characters of Costello, Costigan and Sullivan playing dangerous games of deception to further their careers in an uncaring world.

Costello: One of us had to die. With me, it tends to be the other guy.

Scorsese creates a world where men rule with incessant shouting, intimidation and cursing, and proceed to create spectacular messes. The police department is a cesspool of competing agendas and mistrust, and Frank Costello's criminal empire is barely held together by the iron will of one man who sees enemies everywhere. The agencies on both sides of the law appear equally dysfunctional and distasteful. Dr. Madden is the only woman of relevance in the cast, and she seems off-centre and out of place, getting in the way of the men's ruinous agendas.

The script is a treasure of caustic one liners. Before the guns are drawn (and eventually they are, in large numbers), the characters of The Departed fire ballistic words at each other. No calm sentence will do when it can be replaced by a fine-tuned verbal barrage, and Monahan excels at creating enduring quotable exchanges. In the hands of an exceptional cast, The Departed becomes an intellectual sparring match, a multi-pronged battle of wits where the acts are always violent, but not anymore so that the fierce thoughts that precede them.

(a police surveillance operation is not going well; there are blind spots, and officers are losing their sight lines and losing their cool).
Dignam: This is incredible. Who put the fucking cameras in this place?
Surveillance Guy: Who the fuck are you?
Dignam: I'm the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy.

The Departed basks in the glow of the current generation of superstar actors in the form of DiCaprio, Damon and Wahlberg rubbing shoulders with elder statesmen Nicholson, Sheen and Baldwin. DiCaprio and Damon deliver the requisite intensity as the men taking the highest risks to prove themselves and alter the outcome of the battle for street control. In terms of balance among the stars, the film probably has too much of Nicholson and too little of Wahlberg, Sheen and Baldwin.

The Departed reaches a climax of brutal bloodletting that delivers the requisite shock and gore, but also undermines a lot of the build up. When killing suddenly becomes too easy and everyone is a target, the careful game of cat-and-mouse that unfolded over several years is inevitably diminished.

There is no question that Scorsese has crafted better gems. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, among others, are greater artistic achievements and more deserving of Academy Award recognition. The Departed proved to be the opportunity to correct past oversights in recognizing one of Hollywood's greatest ever directors; fortunately, it is also a provocative story of conflicted men pushing their fate into dangerous territory, where Scorsese happens to be most comfortable.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Movie Review: A Few Good Men (1992)

A military court drama with a superb cast and a razor sharp script, A Few Good Men is an exhilarating story of murder, cover-up, honour and unexpected determination.

When Private Santiago is killed at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) is put in charge of representing the two defendants. Marines Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison) and Downey (James Marshall) don't deny that they intended to rough up Santiago as a disciplinary measure, but they claim that they were ordered to do so. Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore) and Lieutenant Weinberg (Kevin Pollak) join Kaffee's defence team.

Initially, the cocky Daniel is looking for a quick plea-bargain with his counterpart Captain Ross (Kevin Bacon), but a visit to the Naval Base and a meeting with Guantanamo's commander Colonel Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) begin to reveal a deeper story. Santiago was an underperforming Marine, Jessup wanted him kept on the base and "trained", and Lieutenant Kendrick (Kiefer Sutherland) was eager to please, over the objections of Lieutenant Colonel Markinson (J. T. Walsh). But Jessup tells Kaffee that Santiago was granted a transfer, and was murdered shortly before he was due to leave the base. Egged on by Galloway, Kaffee finds the courage to keep investigating. He takes the case to a court martial and argues on behalf of the defendants, resulting in a titanic battle for the truth.

Jessup, talking to Kaffee: I run my unit how I run my unit. You want to investigate me, roll the dice and take your chances. I eat breakfast 300 yards from 4000 Cubans who are trained to kill me, so don't think for one second that you can come down here, flash a badge, and make me nervous.

Written by Aaron Sorkin (adapting his play) and directed by Rob Reiner, A Few Good Men is a gripping experience. The film engages immediately, the complex mystery of what happened to Private Santiago providing layers of depth, the Guantanamo crime setting adding a stab of danger, while the evolution of Daniel Kaffee from carefree arrogance to intense commitment provides a compelling arc. For the entire running length of 138 minutes Reiner does not release the tension, instead building a courtroom emotional rollercoaster as Kaffee's case ebbs and flows, the plucky defence team taking on the establishment and trying to shake the defendants loose from the grip of a seemingly straightforward verdict of guilt.

Sorkin's script gains power as it cleverly transitions from what happens to why it happened. A Few Good Men keeps probing until it arrives at the heart of the issue: the need to maintain a unit's essential code of honour versus an individual's irrefutable rights. In an Army that depends on both to thrive, the collision between what the collective needs and what an individual stands for could have unintended consequences, and a lot can go wrong even when the intentions are steeped in a traditional code of conduct.

The film's central clash is translated into a climactic confrontation between Kaffee the lawyer and Jessup on the witness stand. As the sparks finally fly, Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson are both brilliant, Cruise growing from boy to man as he accepts his destiny to dominate courtrooms, while Nicholson delivers one his all-time great performances as the arrogant base commander, as sure of his methods and motives as he is oblivious to his creeping maniacal tendencies.

Jessup: I'll answer the question. You want answers?
Kaffee: I think I'm entitled!
Jessup: You want answers?!
Kaffee: I want the truth!
Jessup: You can't handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it? You? You, Lieutenant Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know, that Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives! You don't want the truth, because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. We use words like "honor", "code", "loyalty". We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it! I would rather you just said "thank you", and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand a post. Either way, I don't give a damn what you think you are entitled to!

The supporting cast is filled with superior talent in every key role. Moore is sometimes awkward but in keeping with JoAnne Galloway's slightly misfit character, and Kevin Pollak as Weinberg provides the calm brains to complement Kaffee's instinctive charisma. Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, and J.T. Walsh round out the men in uniform holding different moral perspectives on the same incident.

A Few Good Men finds soldiers of all ranks believing that they are doing the right things for the right reasons. When the outcome is tragic, the foundation is set for an epic showdown in search of justice.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Movie Review: True Romance (1993)

A stylishly violent crime misadventure, True Romance is joyously out of control. The story of a newlywed couple who stumble onto a bag full of cocaine is crazy fun.

In Detroit, Clarence (Christian Slater), a big fan of Elvis, meets Alabama (Patricia Arquette) at a movie theatre. Although she is a call girl sent by Clarence's boss as birthday gift, Alabama genuinely falls in love with Clarence, and he reciprocates. They get married almost immediately. Clarence is not afraid of violence, and decides to eliminate Alabama's psychotic pimp Drexl (Gary Oldman) to prevent him from re-emerging in Alabama's life. In the bloody confrontation that ensues, Clarence does kill Drexl, and inadvertently also steals a briefcase full of uncut cocaine worth millions.

After a quick visit to his dad Clifford (Dennis Hopper), Clarence and Alabama head to Los Angeles, where they connect with Clarence's buddy Dick (Michael Rapaport). Dick arranges a meeting with fellow actor Elliott Blitzer (Bronson Pinchot), who may be able to arrange for big-shot movie producer Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubinek) to buy the drugs. But mobster types including Don Vincenzo (Christopher Walken) and enforcer Virgil (James Gandolfini) want their drugs back, and they are hot on the tail of Clarence and Alabama, and don't care who they hurt to get their hands on the merchandise.

Directed by Tony Scott and written by Quentin Tarantino, True Romance was Tarantino's first involvement with a major studio, big budget production. Scott rearranged the story into a linear structure and altered the ending, but otherwise kept Tarantino's vision intact. The result in a madcap, ultra-violent adventure, insanely enjoyable but just lacking the laser sharp edge that would emerge one year later with Pulp Fiction.

After a somewhat stuttering start, once Clarence and Alabama get their hands on the illicit drugs the film takes off on a dizzying, fast-paced trip into a world of unimagined opportunity, bloodshed and larger than life characters. Everything about True Romance is hyper-intense, and the film creates a vortex of wild activity that demands attention. Scott amplifies all the film's elements, from Clarence's oversized Cadillac to the garish colours of the Los Angeles hotel where he holes up, to the stomach-churning rollercoaster ride that serves as a negotiations venue with Elliott. The shoot-outs, villains and attitudes are no less magnified.

Tarantino conjures up two exceptional face-off scenes. In the first Don Vincenzo has Clifford tied up and is demanding to know the whereabouts of Clarence. Instead Clifford launches into a history lesson about the ethnic origins of Sicilians that will do his chances of surviving the ordeal no good at all, but then that's Clifford's point. The second scene features Alabama having to survive the brutal henchman Virgil without giving up the location of the briefcase. Both scenes are playful, savage and ingenious in celebrating sacrifice for a cause.

With a cast that also includes Christopher Penn and Tom Sizemore as police detectives; Brad Pitt as Dick's zoned-out roommate; Samuel L. Jackson as Big Don (a random thug); and Val Kilmer as the spirit of Elvis, True Romance boasts an incredible cast, with committed performers in almost every role. Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette make for an engaging and ridiculously cute couple in the middle of the mayhem, while Rapaport, Pinchot and Rubinek form an often hilarious triangle of self-obsessed Hollywood types tilting into dangerous territory.

And of course the film ends with Tarantino's traditional over-the-top showdown, a multi-pronged hotel room battle with plenty of ferocious firepower and precious few survivors. The romance is true, but it's just a spark for what proves to be true pandemonium.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Movie Review: Bite The Bullet (1975)

A western with epic ambitions to capture the drama of a 700 mile endurance race, Bite The Bullet fails on almost all fronts. While the cinematography is admirable, the plot, characters and conflicts are routine, boring and superficial.

It's 1906, and a disparate group of cowboys gather to compete in an endurance race sponsored by a newspaper, with $2,000 in prize money and plenty of side bets to spice up the pot. Rough Riders and long-time friends Sam (Gene Hackman) and Luke (James Coburn) both enter the race, although for different reasons: while Luke has bet big that he will win the race, Sam is a humanitarian who loves animals, and wants to try and help competitors stay out of trouble and ensure that horses are not abused.

Other entrants with ambitions to win include an elderly man looking for a final shot at glory (Ben Johnson), a Mexican with a toothache (Mario Arteaga), an English gentleman (Ian Bannen), the young punk Carbo (Jan-Michael Vincent), and Miss Jones (Candice Bergen), the only woman in the race. The wealthy and conniving Parker (Dabney Coleman) owns a prize horse considered the favourite, and Parker intimates that he will stop at nothing to make sure that his horse comes in first. Once the race get going, the riders face challenges from the unforgiving terrain, bandits, and each other.

While the race, inspired by a real event, provides what could have been an intriguing backdrop, the script by director Richard Brooks is far too underdeveloped to build genuine drama. Despite the presence of a stellar cast, the characters are provided with insufficient depth to become compelling people worth caring about. Some of the key central competitors, such as Luke and the Mexican, remain astoundingly vacant at the end of the 131 minutes. In contrast, the young Carbo undergoes a jarring attitudinal transformation that defies all credibility, from a cocky young gun full of bravado to a meek and respectful kid.

The film appears to have suffered a gruesome fate in the editing room, and the botched cutting may have contributed to rampant character truncation. A central premise of the film is the front-runner status of Parker's horse; the cowboy entrusted with delivering victory on this thoroughbred is not even identified as a character, and the pair conveniently but inexplicably disappear at the film's climax. The one genuinely good moment involves Ben Johnson as the unnamed Mister, recognizing that he cannot anymore compete in a young man's world and summarizing his cowboy drifter life in an affecting soliloquy.

Otherwise, Bite The Bullet provides endless of scenes of horses and riders racing across the terrain, sometimes on their own, sometimes in pairs, and sometimes in artistic slow motion. The cinematography by Harry Stradling Jr. makes excellent use of the varied landscape, and conveys a sense of lonely isolation as horse and rider streak across the wide western expanse. But nice imagery of panting horses is not nearly enough to sustain a long film. Bite The Bullet stumbles, falls and bites the dust.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Movie Review: Mister Roberts (1955)

A World War Two multi-character drama set on a cargo ship in the Pacific, Mister Roberts features a dream cast in fine form debating man's destiny and military discipline. But the film can't quite shake its more hokey elements and the confining stage origins.

With World War Two coming to its conclusion, the US cargo ship Reluctant is on duty somewhere in the Pacific, keeping the rear lines supplied under the baking sun and very far away from any combat operations. Lieutenant Doug Roberts (Henry Fonda) is the executive officer, has the respect of the men, and shields them from the dictatorial antics of Captain Morton (James Cagney). Also on board is the world-weary "Doc" (William Powell) and the young Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon). The latter is in charge of "laundry and morale", but is trying to ride out the war while doing exactly nothing.

Roberts is desperate to be involved in combat missions before the war ends, and repeatedly requests reassignment to the front lines. Morton knows that Roberts is essential to the successful functioning of Reluctant, and refuses to endorse Roberts' applications. With Morton pushing the crew ever harder, Roberts has an opportunity to relieve the mounting pressure on his men, but at the cost of his own principles and desires.

Through a combination of round-edged drama and mild humour, Mister Roberts celebrates the men who missed the business end of the war and yet contributed the unglamorous work that ensured success. It's a rare perspective, with a focus on friction, camaraderie, restlessness and boredom among men stationed far from home and far from the action, suffering through all the drawbacks without any opportunities to confront the enemy.

The film is dominated by the talent of a fine cast, and the performances overcome a somewhat creaky script weighed down by the story's theatrical roots. Despite Fonda, Cagney and Powell (in his last film role) all being too old for their roles, they deploy the full depth of their talent to give the film a distinguished air. The younger Lemmon mugs his way towards an Academy Award as the officer who moves from the fringes of trouble towards the eye of the storm, in what would prove to be a template for his career persona.

A troubled production featured director John Ford sparring with Fonda, an altercation that eventually led to a physical tussle. Ironically, it was Ford who had insisted on Fonda reprising his Broadway role as Roberts, despite Warner Bros. worries that he was too old. Fonda had also spent seven years away from the movies, and the studio was concerned that his screen appeal was dimming. Ford's ill health eventually forced him to quit the project; Mervyn Leroy and an uncredited Joshua Logan (director of the stage production) finally tidied up the project with plenty of reshoots.

Almost the entire film takes place on the Reluctant, and creating two hours of war drama with no enemies in sight and no shots fired unsurprisingly proves to be a stretch. In between the unfolding tension between Roberts and Morton, there are long-winded filler scenes about sailors ogling on-shore nurses; nurses coming on board the ship for no defined purpose; and the manufacturing of a cheap whiskey-like concoction from an assortment of chemicals. Ensign Pulver gets to play with a large home-made firecracker, and eventually manages to flood the boat with soap suds, in a sequence better suited to broad vaudevillian farce. Apart from making the point about the soul-crushing boredom of service in the war's deep background, these scenes add little to the film's central narrative while consuming plenty of trite minutes.

The story that does matter is a battle of wills, effectively delivered: the principled Roberts thinks that the war of his life is passing him by; the tyrannical dufus Morton considers captaining the Reluctant to be the pinnacle of his career and needs Roberts to stick around since he holds the men together; and the playful Pulver, the one character with something resembling an arc, is the clever but carefree officer who will grow into his responsibilities.

The script by Logan and Frank S. Nugent settles for a tone of light drama with occasional dips into more serious territory. But on the small boat there is not much room for nuance: when the central conflict between Roberts and Morton spills into the open, it's all conveyed in the black and white of selfish villainy and sacrificial heroism, the emotions setting sail into simplistic waters. Mister Roberts may not venture into complex waters, but it does just fine moored off the shore, contemplating different layers of ambition.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Movie Review: The Hours (2002)

A dense multi-era drama inspired by the life and works of Virginia Woolf, The Hours is a slow moving three character study revolving around depression and death.

After opening with Woolf (Nicole Kidman) committing suicide by drowning, the film alternates between three separate stories. In the early 1920s, Woolf is miserable living in the British countryside, struggling with writer's block and depression as she tries to write the novel Mrs. Dalloway. Her husband Leonard (Stephen Dillane) bears the brunt of her anti-social behaviour, while a visit from her sister Vanessa (Miranda Richardson) makes matters worse.

In Los Angeles of the early 1950s, Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) is a depressed housewife reading Mrs. Dalloway. Laura is pregnant with her second child, stuck in bland suburban hell, and no longer in love with husband Dan (John C. Reilly). Laura has a sensitive and precocious five year old son (Jack Rovello), and a glamorous neighbour Kitty (Toni Collette) who is facing her own hell.

And in New York City of 2001, Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep) is busy organizing a celebration and party for her lifelong friend and former lover Richard Brown (Ed Harris), a renowned author and poet suffering miserably with the late stages of AIDS. When they were lovers, Richard bestowed the title Mrs. Dalloway on Clarissa. Now Richard is deeply depressed, and forces Clarissa to question her approach to life. Clarissa's partner Sally (Allison Janney) and daughter Julia (Claire Danes) watch as Clarissa's big day disintegrates, and the appearance of Richard's former lover Louis Waters (Jeff Daniels) does not help.

Directed by Stephen Daldry, The Hours wallows in a misery of its own creation. While the three lead performances are perfect, with Kidman nabbing the Best Actress Academy Award, the film is a lengthy, unrelenting treatise on lives stalled at the dead end of severe depression. The Hours starts in a dark place and walks, slowly, into pitch blackness.

All three stories unfold over the course of one day, and Daldry cleverly weaves the emotional strings linking the three women, from the depression and death themes to visual parallels and dialogue, with Mrs. Dalloway serving as the common foundation. A vague strand of unexplored lesbian lust also oscillates across the three stories. A more physical connection ultimately emerges between Laura and Clarissa, and overall the film does just enough to maintain interest through the thick fog of despair.

Through the dense thicket of tangled negative emotions, relief comes only in the enjoyment derived from Kidman, Moore and Streep, actresses at the top of the craft bringing to life three women struggling against greater forces. Kidman sacrifices her looks with a harsh nose to simulate the common image of Woolf. Her subdued performance is filled with internal struggle and external iciness, a woman content to let her misery drip out and contaminate those closest to her.

Moore gets to reveal the least about Laura Brown, a character with hardly any other adults around her to talk to. Brown's day is centred on one major decision, a choice between seeking immediate relief or longer term opportunity. Her son appears to know more about his mother's mental state than most boys his age. Streep's Clarissa is trying to be positive, and she does her best to fend off Richard's choking negativity and carry on. But when misery comes knocking it can be relentless, and Clarissa's big day will see black clouds move across her sun.

Ultimately The Hours only finds resolution in various forms of emotional escape rather than difficult confrontation, all three women ending the day staring at future prospects that are at least as gloomy as they appeared in the morning. There are only glimmers of light, and the passing hours serve more to confirm the gathering storm of dejection.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.