Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Movie Review: The Song Of Bernadette (1943)

A religious drama based on reported events, The Song Of Bernadette is an engaging story of belief balanced by a reasonable amount of cynicism.

It's the late 1850s in the small town of Lourdes in France. Bernadette Soubirous (Jennifer Jones) is 14 years old and lives in a dank single-room basement dwelling with her mostly unemployed father Francois (Roman Bohnen), mother Louise (Anne Revere) and siblings. The family is poor and Francois struggles to put food on the table. Frequently sick and admittedly a bit dim, Bernadette struggles to learn her catechism at the Catholic school and is humiliated by her teacher Sister Vauzous (Gladys Cooper).

One day while out collecting firewood the image of a beautiful Lady (an uncredited Linda Darnell) appears to Bernadette in a rock niche near the town's garbage dump. No one else sees the Lady, but Bernadette insists that she was there, and furthermore, that the Lady promised to reappear on many successive days. Bernadette's claims are met with skepticism by her parents as well as Mayor Lacade (Aubrey Mather), Imperial Prosecutor Vital Dutour (Vincent Price), and police chief Jacomet (Charles Dingle). Doctor Dozous (Lee J. Cobb) is brought in to examine her, while local Catholic Abbott Dominique Peyramale (Charles Bickford) adopts a hands-off, wait-and-see attitude.

The local population starts to accompany Bernadette to the site, and news spreads of the visions. When a water stream with apparent healing properties emerges near the location of the Lady's appearances, the crowds multiply and the story attracts national attention.

Directed by Henry King, The Song Of Bernadette is an adaptation of the best-selling book by Franz Werfel. The story of the Virgin Mary appearing repeatedly to a naive girl is beyond debate for devout Catholics, but probably represents nothing more than overactive hallucinations combined with a strong willingness to believe among the uneducated.

Those whose lives are made better worshipping rocks and supposed spectral images visible to only one person, augmented by magically healing water and the sweet words of a fairly dumb 14 year old, will need no convincing that all this is true. But screenwriter George Seaton deserves a lot of credit for maintaining, sometimes forcefully, a sarcastic and opportunistic alternative narrative through the words and actions of Mayor Lacade, Imperial Prosecutor Dutour and police chief Jacomet.

This trio and others refuse to believe anything other than Bernadette is either sick or manipulative, and director King gives them plenty of time and scenes to make their point. Even Sister Vauzous remains among the sceptics for long stretches, while Abbott Peyramale rides the fence and remains troubled by some aspects of Bernadette's story. Only towards the end of the film does King tilt the balance towards reverence.

The running length of 156 minutes is quite hefty, but this is a story spanning many years and rich in characters and events, and King rarely lingers in one place for too long. The sets are limited but intricate. The garbage dump, the cramped Soubirous household, a bustling town environment and the more ostentatious government offices capture the rich mosaic of a small but busy society. Alfred Newman replaced Igor Stravinsky and provide an evocative but sometimes overbearing orchestral score than plays throughout.

Helped by producer David O. Selznick, Jennifer Jones (previously known as Phyllis Isley) relaunched her career and landed the Best Actress Academy Award for her turn as Bernadette. For most of the film Jones delivers a monotonal performance, speaking in an irritatingly fake girlish tone. The final scenes, set some 20 years after the visions, offer her an opportunity to stretch and she becomes more credible. The supporting cast is deep in talent, with Charles Bickford, Vincent Price, Anne Revere, and late on, Gladys Cooper sharing the load and all leaving a positive impression.

The Song Of Bernadette is a graceful film, and handles spiritual territory with sensitivity and a nod towards alternative viewpoints. Bernadette may have been a saint chosen to inspire religious fervour, or a dimwitted girl caught in a web created by her own imagination. Either way, the story of the passion she ignited is worth watching.

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Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Movie Review: Good Kids (2016)

An end-of-high-school comedy, Good Kids is about 35 years behind the times.

Four brainy 18 year old friends who have emphasized academic achievement over having fun throughout their school years arrive at their final summer before college. Suddenly, they decide to let loose for a few weeks. Andy (Nicholas Braun) becomes a toy boy tennis pro servicing the sexual needs of club cougars, including Gabby (Ashley Judd). Nora (Zoey Deutch) seeks romance and starts a relationship with a 30 year old Australian man. Aspiring chef Spice (Israel Broussard) goes looking for a straightforward sexual release. And Lionel (Mateo Arias), better known as the "The Lion", starts experimenting with drugs.

As the previously good kids go wild, Andy realizes that he harbours feelings for Nora, but things get more complicated when his dishy online pal Danya (Tasie Lawrence) arrives for a visit from India.

Written and directed by Chris McCoy, Good Kids is astonishingly bad. Apparently oblivious that this sub-genre of sexual high jinx by high school kids was thoroughly chewed and spit out in the early to mid 1980s, Good Kids spends its entire running length in the putrid landfill of old garbage ideas. McCoy does not offer a single original reason for this film to exist, as his characters behave with plastic predictability and spout recycled dialogue on their way from one over-familiar situation to the next.

Kid caught naked in the open? Run-in with the local cops? Suddenly falling in love with a friend? Drugs impairing work? Clueless parents? An older man playing a teen for a fool? And the ever original final party that ends in a brawl? All the boxes are ticked as Good Kids revives one moribund cliche per scene with spiritless monotony.

Ashley Judd gets a couple of scenes as an oversexed rich bored wife looking for a cheap thrill with a teen, and it is sad to find a once-classy actress reduced to an appearance in this bilge. Elsewhere Zoey Deutch (daughter of Leah Thompson and director Howard Deutch) reveals hints that she deserves better material.

The Good Kids want to dabble with being bad, but instead stumble into thoroughly dreadful territory.

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Monday, 24 July 2017

Movie Review: The Beguiled (2017)

A Civil War psychological drama, The Beguiled is a more lyrical remake of Don Siegel's 1971 classic. Director Sofia Coppola softens some of the edges but maintains a keen focus on the theme of emotional and physical survival.

Rural Virginia, in the fourth year of the American Civil War. While out collecting mushrooms, 12 year old Amy (Oona Laurence) stumbles onto badly wounded Union soldier Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) and helps him back to the school for girls run by Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst). With the war raging, only a few students have remained at the school, including the eldest Alicia (Elle Fanning), who is bored of all the repetitive lessons.

Martha agrees to temporarily shelter McBurney and tends to his leg wound, but fully intends to hand him over to Confederate troops as soon as he recovers. The soldier's presence at the school disrupts the status quo, and he quickly appreciates that he has limited time to influence the women and avoid a prisoner's fate. McBurney uses a combination of flattery, gratitude and seduction to turn the women to his side, but also ignites jealousies and conflict.

Director Coppola also wrote and co-produced the film, and The Beguiled overflows with her hallmark soft veneer of natural beauty, gentle light and flowing aesthetics hiding simmering tension. The physical setting is a wooded corner of Virginia at the interface between battlefields - heard but not seen - and an old fashioned school clinging to the vestiges of a disappearing way of life. But the real location of the film lies in the hearts and minds of seven women, suddenly awakened by a manly presence. Coppola aims her attention at the women's emotional state, and McBurney probing for openings to chart a path to freedom through charm, flattery and deception.

Coppola spreads the 94 minutes of running time across four of the women. Miss Martha is the pragmatic leader, the woman responsible for the girls and the facility. Yet a man is a man, and despite her cold and calculating demeanour she is not beyond appreciating what McBurney may offer. Teacher Edwina is older than the other girls, caught in a nowheresville life with relatively plain looks. It does not take McBurney long to identify her as the weakest link.

Alicia is blossoming into a woman, her sexual awakening kicked into overdrive by the soldier's presence. And finally young Amy can lay claim to having found McBurney, and is just old enough to harbour a crush that he can exploit.

Despite the short length the film does drag in the middle act before picking up again as the climax approaches with an eruption of colliding aspirations fueled by alcohol. Compared to the original Coppola strips out some of the characters and more radical incidents from the narrative, leaving the mostly calm interplay between the central characters to carry the entire load of the film, and at times the energy dips to saggy levels.

But the performances are uniformly good, with Kirsten Dunst the most quietly expressive, her searching, desperate eyes betraying a heart all too ready to believe in empty promises. Colin Farrell brings to the role more charm and less obvious dominance compared to Clint Eastwood.

The Beguiled is a meditation on the damage unleashed when war seeps inside the walls of civility. The big guns rage outside, but they are no match for the turmoil within.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Movie Review: Dunkirk (2017)

A stellar World War Two film, Dunkirk is the story of an army's survival, defeat salvaged from the jaws of catastrophe as seen through the eyes of the combatants.

Three separate but convergent stories related to the evacuation of the defeated British Army at Dunkirk, France in 1940 are recounted simultaneously. In the first story young British Army Private Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) barely survives patrol duties in the town and flees to the beach where he tries to find his way onto an evacuation ship. But with the beaches under fire from German guns and aircraft, the injured are being evacuated first. Over the course of a week Tommy teams up with Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), a soldier of few words. They rescue fellow soldier Alex (Harry Styles) from death by crushing and then attempt to smuggle themselves on-board any available outbound vessel.

The second story takes place over one day and features civilian Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his teenaged son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) responding to the British Navy's call for assistance. Without waiting for official help they set sail from England in Dawson's small boat with their eager helper George (Barry Keoghan). The Dawsons soon pluck a shell-shocked mariner out of the water, and doggedly continue on their way towards the hell of the Dunkirk beaches.

The final story takes place over one hour, and centers on Farrier (Tom Hardy), one of three Royal Air Force pilots flying towards the skies over Dunkirk to provide what support they can and counter the German air threat. Farrier engages in dogfights with Luftwaffe fighters and attempts to shoot down bombers targeting evacuation ships. Gradually Farrier becomes increasingly isolated and low on fuel.

Meanwhile, the Navy's Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) is doing his best to organize an orderly withdrawal of more than 300,000 men in the face of hostile seas and incessant enemy pressure.

Written, directed and co-produced by Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk is a beautifully overwhelming and all-encompassing multi-sensory experience. Eschewing traditional narrative structures in favour of telling a story with barely any dialogue, no defined heroes and no venomous villains, Nolan allows the evacuation itself to take centre stage as a seminal event and pursues it from the land, the sea and the air.

Whereas Saving Private Ryan was about the ethos of a generation, Fury delved into the limits of sacrifice and Hacksaw Ridge focused on one individual's private war against war, Dunkirk is about a nation's psyche. As such Nolan is less interested in the mechanics of battle or individual actions; rather this is a film about collective character being forged through the mist of a stunned and stunning reaction to a devastating retreat.

Each of the three stories generates specific momentum and unrelenting tension. The fear, frustration, hunger and desperation of the massed soldiers builds up in the eyes of Tommy, Gibson, Alex and others, willing to try anything to get on a boat, despite the danger of being blown out of the water by the marauding German bombers. The stoic response of the civilian population is represented by Mr. Dawson and his son Peter, and their chapter most embodies the spirit of Dunkirk as a country comes together to rescue its sons. Meanwhile the dogfights and aerial duels in the sky are superbly choreographed, the pilot Farrier aware that his contribution can only be small but yet decisive in terms of morale and for the lives he may save.

To augment the impressive vistas of a gloomy beachfront war theatre, Hans Zimmer provides a soundtrack that is simultaneously filled with dread, anticipation and extreme anxiety, adding to jarringly loud sound effects that bring the horrors of war to the fore. Every bullet in Dunkirk registers as a transmittal of potential death, every bomb and torpedo an individual parcel of destruction. The few lines of dialogue suffer in comparison and are often drowned out or garbled.

In the absence of a focus on individuals, Nolan's cast is filled with newcomers and relative unknowns in most of the key roles. Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson, Kenneth Branagh as the pier master Commander Bolton and Tom Hardy as the pilot Farrier share the most prominent acts of above-and-beyond valour. On the beach, the widescreen is filled with thousands of startled young men maintaining relative calm and some discipline in the face of enemy fire as they patiently await either rescue or death.

Dunkirk is war in its unspoken complexity, death, hope, bravery and astonishing selflessness coming together to define a nation and write a momentous chapter in a history-defining conflict.

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Saturday, 22 July 2017

Movie Review: Wildcats (1986)

A sports comedy, Wildcats is stunningly predictable. But the underdog theme combined with the women's empowerment message contains enough rude energy to make the film tolerable.

In Chicago, Molly McGrath (Goldie Hawn) grew up in a football household and always wanted to coach. Now a divorced mother of two girls and an athletics coach at Prescott high school, she makes a case to fill the vacant junior varsity football coach position but is mocked and blocked by senior coach Dan Darwell (Bruce McGill). Instead she accepts the challenge to coach the senior boys football team at the tough inner-city Central High School. The principal Ben Edwards (Nipsey Russell) is willing to take a chance on Molly because no one else wants the position.

She encounters fierce the resistance from the team members, including Trumaine (Wesley Snipes) and Krushinski (Woody Harrelson) before earning their respect and setting out to turn the perennial losers into a functioning team. Her prospects improve when she convinces quarterback Levander "Bird" Williams (Mykelti Williamson) to turn his back on a life of crime and return to the team. But on the home front things are not going well, with ex-husband Frank (James Keach) claiming that Molly's new job is a bad influence on their daughters and seeking full custody.

Directed by Michael Ritchie, Wildcats has enough talent on both sides of the camera to pull itself into respectability. The story of a team of multi-ethnic misfits coming good fully buys into the White Savior trope, and Molly's ability to transform losers into perpetual winners within a few short weeks is nothing short of remarkable. But Wildcats also contains an edge in its fearless deployment of adult-language, and the script by Ezra Sacks insists on investing time exploring the price ambitious women have to pay at home and at work.

The scenes of domestic turmoil are clunky but do add texture to the film's message. Juggling a demanding new job with household single-mom duties stretches Molly to her limit, exposing her to the risk of losing her daughters. The film brings into sharp contrast the unattainable standards to which women could be held. The invisible barriers between white suburbia and inner city hurt are also revealed: Frank panics at the dangers he perceives everywhere once Molly starts to interact with black and hispanic youth, while Molly's dedication to the family he abandoned is quickly forgotten.

The on-field football action scenes are plentiful and patchy. Ritchie sometimes succeeds in creating fluid sports movement, but just as frequently plays it for plastic laughs in obviously staged sequences. Meanwhile the script abandons any pretense of aiming for a family-friendly audience. The language is raunchy and includes several jarring foul-mouthed zingers.

Goldie Hawn, near the peak of her career, brings her megawatt personality to the film and frequently lights up the screen. She combines her spunky persona with a determination to succeed and to break the victim pattern of her life, and pulls it off with ease. While most of the rest of the lead roles are at the television level, Wildcats features a telling performance from comedian Nipsey Russell, the debuts of Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes, and an early role for Mykelti Williamson.

Wildcats is far from throwing a touchdown, but does pick up good yards here and there.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Movie Review: Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)

A romantic comedy with a twist, Grosse Pointe Blank follows a cold-blooded but sympathetic hit-man as he attends his high school reunion to pursue his dream girl while dodging bullets.

Martin Blank (John Cusack) is an independent assassin for hire, receiving his missions through his assistant Marcella (Joan Cusack). Fellow hit-man Grocer (Dan Aykroyd) tries to convince him to join a cartel, but Martin wants to maintain independence. Starting to feel depressed and jaded Martin's mood is not improved when a couple of his missions are bungled. His shrink Dr. Oatman (Alan Arkin) is of little use.

After being nagged incessantly by Marcella, Martin agrees to attend his 10 year reunion at Grosse Pointe high school in a Detroit suburb, but only after his next target happens to also be in the same city. He uses the opportunity to try and win back the love of Debi (Minnie Driver), the sweetheart he abandoned on prom night ten years prior. He also bumps into other high school friends including real estate agent Paul (Jeremy Piven). As he makes progress in wooing Debi, Martin realizes that Grosse Pointe is crawling with hit men, and that he may be a target.

Set to a continuous soundtrack of mid-1980s hits, Grosse Pointe Blank takes a sardonic look at the love life of a killer. Directed by George Armitage with John Cusack co-writing, the film goes into rarely explored territory where killers need affection too, and laughs, love and hot lead collide. It doesn't necessarily always work as intended, but enough emotional mayhem registers to make the film stand out.

With so much going on some parts of the narrative kookiness understandably land awkwardly. Unless blatant satire was the goal, Debi's ability to look past Martin's profession and love him anyway was never going to be an easy sell. The music soundtrack also occasionally overreaches and gets in the way. While the selection of hits from the 1980s is a boon to fans of the decade, stretches of the film introduce a new track every 10 seconds, the songs disintegrating into useless snippet territory. And finally the big reunion scene is a messy series of encounters that seem to start and stop at random and offer nothing new.

But for the most part Grosse Pointe Blank delivers an irreverent mash-up of wild action, romantic pursuit, career depression and caustic comedy. And the genres somehow rub against each other at the right angles, the film emerging as a unique hybrid refusing to adhere to any preconceived notions of formula. Rarely has a love story with a high school backdrop been interrupted by an intense gunfight between two assassins culminating in a bomb placed in a microwave. And of course the battle happens to take place in a mini mart that displaced Martin's childhood home, just to add to the hero's depressed sense of aggrieved angst.

John Cusack brings his persona of intense cool to Martin Blank, and provides the film with its critical centre of gravity. None of the other characters are too important to matter. Even Debi is reduced to lazily orbiting Martin's disorderly life, Minnie Driver unable to exert much pull on the proceedings other than work through Debi's residual anger issues.

Grosse Pointe Blank bravely goes back home, and with a wicked smile gleefully breaks all the rules.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Movie Review: Tumbledown (2015)

A romantic drama with a sprinkling of humour, Tumbledown carries plenty of charm as it works its way through the late stages of personal grief.

In a small town in Maine, Hannah Miles (Rebecca Hall) is a young widow still grieving the death two years prior of her husband Hunter. He was an up-and-coming folk singer who released just one album prior to his mysterious death. Protective of Hunter's legacy, Hannah fends off persistent approaches from New York-based professor Andrew McCabe (Jason Sudeikis) to interview her for a book about talented musicians who died early.

Hannah takes a crack at writing Hunter's biography, but her friend and local bookstore owner Upton (Griffin Dunne) convinces her that she needs writing help. She swallows her pride and hires Andrew as her co-author. He moves into her cabin and as he starts to uncover details about Hunter's life and death, an undeniable attraction develops between the widow and the academic.

Directed by Sean Mewshaw and written by Desiree Van Til, Tumbledown is an appealing journey along the seam between mourning and living. The film blends lightweight drama and wry humour in balanced doses and benefits from a rustic rural setting. Mewshaw maintains a light mood and brisk pacing as the story explores weighty themes, while the folk music soundtrack adds a melancholy tone.

The road to recovery from the untimely death of a loved one is an arduous process, and Tumbledown captures Hannah at the place where she can have fun, laugh and fight for what she believes in, but where she also remains beholden to the memory of a happier time and a partner who grows more ideal by his absence. Andrew is further along in his trip away from a similar trauma but is caught looking for obvious answers in a complex reality.

The film does not escape the linearity of romantic movies that start with two attractive people clashing furiously, and some plot developments such as Andrew moving into Hannah's cabin happen with illogical speed. But one of Tumbledown's graceful achievements is in avoiding some of the more obvious genre traps. Hannah will of course chart a course towards loving again, but not before she exposes Andrew to some unexpected lessons about the magic that develops in perfect unions, relationship nuggets unleashed by welcoming Andrew into Hunter's sanctuary.

Rebecca Hall infuses Tumbledown with most of its appeal. She sometimes slips briefly into overacting, but mostly straddles a fine line between Hannah's wicked independent streak and her still-tender emotional scars. Jason Sudeikis is more monotonal and less convincing as a romantic lead.

The rest of the cast features a quirky mix, and includes Blythe Danner and Richard Masur as Hannah's parents, Dianna Agron as Andrew's girlfriend Finley, and Joe Manganiello as Hannah's hunter-gatherer casual sex buddy.

Despite some predictable constraints that come with the territory of romantic movies, Tumbledown is a relatively elegant and thoughtful search for love on the far side of emotional damage.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Movie Review: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

A satirical comedy inspired by Homer's The Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou? features some enjoyable episodes but is a mostly fragmented exercise of scattered ideas looking for a purpose.

The setting is Mississippi during the 1930s with the Great Depression still lingering. Three convicts escape from a chain gang and set out across the countryside. The wordy and cerebral Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) claims to have buried stolen treasure before being incarcerated. His fellow escapees are the tightly wound Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) and the rather dim Delmar O'Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson).

As they barely stay one step ahead of the chasing posse, the trio encounter various obstacles and characters, including Pete's cousin "Wash" Hogwallop (Frank Collison), crazed bank robber Baby Face Nelson (Michael Badalucco), three distracting singing sirens, guitarist Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King) who claims to have sold his soul to the devil, incumbent Governor Menelaus "Pappy" O'Daniel (Charles Durning), and dangerous Bible salesman Daniel "Big Dan" Teague (John Goodman). The Ku Klux Klan also make an appearance before Ulysses catches up with his wife Penny (Holly Hunter), who is just about ready to abandon him.

Written and directed by the Coen brothers Joel and Ethan, O Brother, Where Art Thou? transposes the ancient Greek poem to the American rural south, suffering under the strain of an economic depression and the sweltering heat. It's all played for laughs, the actors over-emoting at will and most of the dialogue exchanges featuring Ulysses Everett McGill's over-elaborate prose and the stupefied reactions of his chainmates.

The film's pacing cannot be faulted, as each episode lasts about 10 minutes before the next, generally unrelated adventure kicks off. Whether hit or miss, nothing lingers for too long. The better sub-plots feature the trio of prisoners recording an impromptu hit song at an early-era radio station, and an enchanted encounter with the seductive sirens in the forest. Less successful is the run-in with Bible salesman Big Dan, while the chapters featuring Governor O'Daniel seem to rotate in a singular circle.

Wide open landscapes, appealing cinematography and an interesting colour palette that often evokes the photographs of the era maintain interest, while the period-specific folk music often moves to the foreground to provide a soulful kick.

Towards the end the film threatens to completely unravel, a case of too many marginal ideas thrown at the screen and sliding to the bottom due to a lack of cohesion. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is inspired by great literature, but achieves only modest success.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Movie Review: To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995)

A culture clash comedy drama, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar goes for road trip laughs but rarely shifts out of neutral and runs out of gas early.

In New York City drag queens Noxeema Jackson (Wesley Snipes) and Vida Boheme (Patrick Swayze) are declared joint winners of a beauty contest. Their prize is a trip to Hollywood to compete in a national event. Before they depart Vida takes pity on Chi-Chi Rodriguez (John Leguizamo), a less confidant contestant, and the trio buy an old Cadillac and embark on a cross-country road trip. On the backroads of the hinterlands they tangle with bigoted Sheriff Dollard (Chris Penn) before their car breaks down and they are rescued by Bobby Ray (Jason London), a young man who provides a ride to his tiny community of Snydersville.

As they await car repairs, they get to know the locals, including innkeeper Carol Ann (Stockard Channing), who is suffering abuse by her husband Virgil (Arliss Howard), a mechanic and tow truck driver. Meanwhile a group of thuggish men threaten to rape Chi-Chi, who falls in love with Bobby Ray. The drag queens do what they can to help the community, including working with Beatrice (Blythe Danner) and other women to organize the annual Strawberry Social event.

Directed by Beeban Kidron and written by Douglas Beane, To Wong Foo must have looked good on paper: transform three macho male movie stars covering three ethnicities into drag queens, stuff them into a car and wait for riotous laughs to ensue. It never really works. While the costumes and makeup are brilliant and the men do their part in the acting department, the script is a limp exercise in contrived situations drawing on basic stereotypes exploiting the urban-rural divide.

With weak character development and the flimsiest of backgrounds afforded to Noxeema, Vida and Chi-Chi, the film defaults to a rather condescending story of three sophisticated urbanites invading a backwards rural community to make it better. Everything about Snydersville is in need of rescue, from spousal abuse to several sub-plots of awkward or unrequited love, plus the old lady who is thought to be mute but really just needs someone to talk to about old movies. And they are all threatened by the seemingly parentless local sneering hoodlums who have nothing else to do except rape and pillage.

Of course none of the locals are smart enough to notice that Noxeema, Vida and Chi-Chi are guys in women's clothing, and the drag queens set about to make everything better, because they know best how to fix all that ails small town USA. Once the film falls into the trap of its own making there is nothing to do except tediously await the obvious climax featuring the awakening of the great unwashed among the ramshackle structures that pass for a town.

Despite the weak material Swayze and Leguizamo do a fine job as drag queens. Snipes is over the top both in terms of looks and behaviour, his Noxeema Jackson reduced for long stretches to sideline quips. Robin Williams contributes an uncredited single-scene appearance.

The movie's title is derived from a signed memorabilia photo of actress Julie Newmar. The photo, the signature and the title have next to nothing to do with the film other than add to the general sense of clumsiness. To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar gets the fashion right, but everything else is a shambles.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Movie Review: The Desert Fox: The Story Of Rommel (1951)

A profile of  Field Marshal Erwin Rommel during the latter days of World War Two, The Desert Fox portrays Rommel as a gentleman warrior who grew to oppose Hitler and was at least silently complicit in the attempt on Hitler's life.

The film starts with a recreation of Operation Flipper, a failed 1941 British commando raid on what was thought to be Rommel's headquarters. The action moves to North Africa in 1942, with Rommel (James Mason) rallying German troops in the Battle of El Alamein. As he is engineering an orderly withdrawal in the face of overwhelming forces, Rommel is shocked to receive ridiculous orders from Hitler to fight to the last man. He ignores the Führer.

While recuperating from a sickness Rommel and his wife Lucie (Jessica Tandy) are visited by family friend Dr. Karl Strölin (Cedric Hardwicke), the mayor of Stuttgart, who hints that Germany will be better off without Hitler. Later Rommel is placed in charge of organizing defences along the Atlantic Wall in anticipation of the Allied invasion. Once the D-Day landings take place, he is further frustrated by Hitler's strategic failure to muster the necessary military response. Further conversations with Strölin and Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt (Leo G. Carroll) convince Rommel that Hitler is a hindrance to Germany's future survival.

Directed by Henry Hathaway, The Desert Fox is an adaptation of the Desmond Young book with Michael Rennie narrating. Young was a British Army Lieutenant Colonel and prisoner of the Germans when he briefly met Rommel in the North African desert, a scene recreated in the movie. The film is just 88 minutes long, including not insignificant padding with actual war footage, such as random artillery guns firing in the desert and scenes from D-Day.

The Desert Fox was part of a concerted effort to recast Rommel as a good German, to help repatriate West Germany's post-war reputation. The film is less concerned with his military genius or battlefield exploits -- these are barely mentioned. Rather the focus is on his gentlemanly mannerisms, strong familial bonds, increasing disgust with Hitler and finally his support, morally at least, for the plot to assassinate the Nazi leader.

The film is professionally constructed to serve its purpose as educational entertainment. James Mason gets quickly in the groove of the role and maintains the steady temperament of a proud man who hides his arrogance well behind the veil of service. Utilizing the black and white cinematography in businesslike fashion, Hathaway hustles the action along, interspersing some battlefield scenes with pivotal meetings featuring Strölin, von Rundstedt, Lucie and Hitler himself. At no point does the film come close to revealing anything personally remarkable or enriching about the celebrated Field Marshal; but it always sustains a solid level of engagement.

Neither inventive nor dry, The Desert Fox: The Story Of Rommel fulfils its function with the efficiency of a well-drilled soldier.

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