Monday, 5 December 2016

Movie Review: Flipped (2010)

A coming-of-age tentative romance, Flipped is a tender story of first crush told with warmth and heart but without straying too far from the familiar path.

It's the early 1960s, and grade eight student Bryce Loski (Callan McAuliffe) cannot shake the attentions of his classmate and across-the-street neighbour Juli Baker (Madeline Carroll). The young but precocious Juli had first set eyes on Bryce six years earlier when the Loskis moved into the community, and she made it her mission in life to win his affection. Always less mature and uncertain how to behave, Bryce had rebuffed her at every opportunity. Now at 14 years old, Juli is beginning to blossom into a young adult, and gains local prominence by trying to protect a beautiful neighbourhood tree from the chainsaw.

The Bakers are a relatively poor family, with Juli's free spirited artist father Richard (Aidan Quinn) dedicated to funding the expensive private health care of his retarded brother. Bryce's grandfather Chet (John Mahoney) moves in with the Loskis and acts as a catalyst and counterweight to Bryce's boorish father Steven (Anthony Edwards). After Bryce manages to unwittingly insult Juli in an incident involving eggs and backyard chickens, Chet sets about building bridges with Juli, her unique spirit reminding him of his recently deceased wife. With both Juli and Bryce learning hard truths about their families, their potential friendship hangs in the balance.

Flipped is pleasantly sweet, sometimes poignant and with its heart firmly throbbing towards nostalgia. But there is also no denying that the film is not much more than three back-to-back episodes of The Wonder Years television show. Flipped introduces he said, she said narration of the same incidents to contrast Bryce and Juli's perspectives, but otherwise the film ploughs very familiar territory: coming of age in the 1960s, the exaggerated traumas of life in junior high school, and early experiences in understanding the greater world.

Director and co-writer Rob Reiner is a safe pair of hands. The decision to relocate Wendelin Van Draanen's young adult novel from the early 1990s to the early 1960s opens up the film's appeal to a wider audience, the wistful pull of the early 1960s still holding strong resonance. The actual events that drive Juli and Bryce towards various points of conflict are the types of episodes that build early personal adulthood memories. The beautiful neighbourhood tree is threatened; Juli cares deeply, Bryce not so much. Juli wins a science fair competition, much to Bryce's chagrin. She reaches out to the entire neighbourhood with fresh egg donations; Bryce's family haughtily reject the gesture, disgusted by the Bakers' backyard.

It is left to wise old head Chet to cut past the social barriers and spot in Juli the emergence of a remarkable young woman. Bryce's mom Patsy (Rebecca De Mornay) follows up with an invitation to dinner that is another turning point in the growing up process, exposing Bryce for the fist time to his father's true colours. And gradually Reiner builds his way to a respectful resolution, as Bryce clumsily but doggedly seeks the inflection point between child and adult.

Although some snippets of the crystallizing adult world, including Juli's retarded uncle, are dealt with in just the right amount, Reiner leaves many other sub-plots in frustratingly poor condition. Bryce's father Steven casts a long shadow over the family, but the film only pokes at his repressed frustrations and then leaves him suffering. Grandpa Chet is a key catalyst, but drops out unceremoniously. And both Bryce and Juli have interesting siblings who deserved bigger roles.

Madeline Carroll is excellent as Juli, demonstrating a good emotional range and nailing the traumas of adolescence. Callan McAuliffe as Bryce has less to do and comes across as more wooden. Aidan Quinn, Rebecca De Mornay, John Mahoney, Penelope Ann Miller and Anthony Edwards provide the supporting case with a welcome gloss.

Flipped is gentle and pleasingly engaging, but leaves no lasting impact.

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Sunday, 4 December 2016

Movie Review: Sunday In New York (1963)

A romantic comedy exploring the changing rules of sex and relationships, Sunday In New York has enough courage to tackle its subject matter with a good degree of frankness, and a cast in fine form to tease out effective moments of comedy.

Eileen (Jane Fonda) comes to New York to visit her brother Adam (Cliff Robertson), a dashing airline pilot enjoying the bachelor life. Eileen has just broken up with her long-time boyfriend Russ (Robert Culp), because she refused his advances to have sex before marriage. She is now wondering if her old-fashioned attitudes need an overhaul. Adam goes out on a date with Mona (Jo Morrow), one of his girlfriends, while Eileen has a chance encounter on a Fifth Avenue bus with the handsome Mike (Rod Taylor). Their first attempt at a chat over coffee is a disaster.

But fate brings Eileen and Mike together again, and a rainstorm means that they end up soaking wet back at Adam's apartment. Eileen decides this is her opportunity to finally lose her virginity, but her plans will meet an unexpected hurdle. Meanwhile, Adam and Mona face troubles of their own, with his on-call pilot duty severely disrupting their romantic pursuits. The day in New York gets much wilder when the oblivious Russ shows up, wanting to win his girl back.

Directed by Peter Tewksbury and written by Norman Krasna (adapting his play), Sunday In New York reflects its era: an airline pilot as a magnet for women, a tide of sexual liberation challenging long-held attitudes, and feminism taking hold and allowing women to ask previously unthinkable questions about relationship rules. The film now appears quaint in leaning towards lauding more conservative views, but it earns points for airing out conversations rarely discussed on film.

Tewksbury does well in breaking out the story from its stage confines, and finds reasons for his characters to go out and about in a vibrant New York. Despite the generally sharp dialogue, some scenes are talky and go on longer than necessary. But for the most part the film achieves the requisite balance between idealized romance and screwball comedy.

And the laughs do register. Once Russ shows up in New York to reclaim Eileen's affections and propose to her, an intentional mess of mistaken identities sparks the film into some excellent comic moments. Cliff Robertson, Rod Taylor and Robert Culp create a watchable trio of men uncomfortably pushed outside their normal boundaries. The side story of the airline pilot Adam and his would-be lover-of-the-day Mona contriving to always end up apart - far apart - also creates some good manic moments.

The romance also works well within the confines of the genre, and the two leads quickly find the requisite chemistry. Jane Fonda shines in an early role, and succeeds in portraying a confident yet searching 22 year old charting a new course on the fly. What Eileen needs most is a navigator for a brave new world filled with untested rules for relationships between men and women, and Rod Taylor creates in Mike the ideal man, handsome, assured, vaguely available, world-wise but still chivalrous.

Sunday In New York is a day to relax, laugh and try to disentangle the increasingly convoluted guidelines for romance.

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Movie Review: Volver (2006)

A story about working class women and their generations-spanning struggles to clean up after their men, Volver is a cleverly constructed drama with plenty of earthy humour.

In a working class Madrid suburb, Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) is grinding out a living to raise her 14 year old daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo). The family finances get worse when Raimunda's partner Paco loses his job. Raimunda and her sister Sole (Lola Dueñas) are orphans after their mother Irene and their father died in a fire a few years prior. The sisters travel to their ancestral village to visit elderly Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave) and find her in the late stages of dementia babbling as if her sister Irene was still around. The village is rife with rumours that the ghost of Irene is indeed hovering. Aunt Paula's neighbour Augustina (Blanca Portillo) keeps an eye on the old lady, but Augustina has troubles of her own: her mother has disappeared and not been seen for years.

Tragedy strikes when Paco attempts to rape Raimunda's daughter Paula, claiming that he is not her father. The young girl fights back and stabs Paco to death. Raimunda conceals the body in the freezer of a nearby closed-for-business restaurant. When an unexpected opportunity arises for Raimunda to operate the restaurant and make some money, things appear to be looking up despite the body stuffed in the freezer. But then back in the village Aunt Paula finally expires, and an unlikely visitor moves in with Sole.

Directed and written by Pedro Almodóvar, Volver ("to go back" in Spanish) tap dances on the edge where black comedy meets the drama of life. The film is sneaky funny, creating situations that should be more tragedy than comedy but nevertheless trigger reminders that life can be absurd in any context. And Volver is almost exclusively about the rollercoaster of life as experienced by women, three generations bracketed by name from the young Paula to her elderly great Aunt Paula.

The theme of women as the guardians of society is the film's most powerful current. The story starts with women cleaning the graveyards of their family members, and the comment that around these parts, women outlive men. And indeed, the male characters are mainly notable by their absence: the restaurant owner takes off early; Raimunda's father is a dead presence best not discussed; and the useless Paco meets a bloody end.

It is left to the women to hold together society's threads, and this they do with a startling matter of factness. Both the ghost of Irene and Augustina look after Aunt Paula. Raimunda looks after her daughter Paula and the restaurant. Paula looks after herself. Both Raimunda and Sole, who runs an illegal salon, do what is needed to survive and carry on, well outside the confines of the law. Almodóvar squarely hits the target of his women-as-society's-cleansing-agents thesis: with Paco's lifeless bloody bleeding in the middle of Raimunda's kitchen, she expertly soaks up his blood with a domestic mop and bucket.

Penelope Cruz as Raimunda, Lola Dueñas as Sole, Blanca Portillo as Augustina, Carmen Maura as Irene and Yohana Cobo as the younger Paula bring the women to life, and they deliver stellar performances filled with the clear-eyed determination of blue collar pragmatism. But as hard as she tries to convey a working class ethos, Cruz's lusciously glamorous looks can't help but undermine her credentials as a woman mired near the poverty line.

As Almodóvar unspools his story, the ghosts of the past begins to find an echo in the present, with Raimunda not really surprised to find herself in the middle of recurring tragic comedies involving revenge, death and retribution. Even bad men need to find peace either through life or death, and of course it will be the watchful women, ghosts or not, who will go back as necessary to help them find a final resting place -- and then keep it clean.

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Movie Review: Payback (1999)

A tongue-in-cheek neo-noir film with a throwback 1970s edge, Payback is a rollicking fun time, filled with sharp dialogue, a smooth anti-hero and jarring violence.

A career criminal known only as Porter (Mel Gibson) has been double crossed, shot and left for dead. With his wife Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger) and partner in crime Val Resnick (Gregg Henry), Porter had just stolen $140,000 from a Chinese gang. But Lynn and Val conspire to relieve Porter of his $70,000 share, with Lynn shooting Porter in the back for good measure, upset that he was having an affair with call girl Rosie (Maria Bello). Val uses most of the money to buy his way back into a powerful criminal organization known as The Outfit, run by Carter (William Devane) and Fairfax (an uncredited James Coburn).

Porter recovers and sets about plotting his revenge with violent methods, demanding the return of his $70,000. Lynn overdoses on heroin, and Porter tracks down Val through drug dealer Stegman (David Paymer). But his exploits attract a crowd, and soon the Chinese gang, including S+M dominatrix Pearl (Lucy Liu) are on his tail, as well as two crooked cops. The closer Porter gets to Val, the more he tangles with the leadership of The Outfit, all the way up to kingpin Bronson (Kris Kristofferson).

Porter, narrating: Crooked cops. Do they come in any other way? If I'd been just a little dumber, I could have joined the force myself.

Directed and co-written by Brian Helgeland, Payback is a gritty, aggressive thriller. With a bad-guy hero carrying a kick-ass, dead-already attitude and Mel Gibson at his absolute cool peak, the film oozes danger with extreme prejudice. The story understandably stretches Porter's capabilities beyond rationality, but otherwise the mix of sardonic humour, punchy action and unconstrained ballsiness among bad guys and worse guys is triumphant.

Carter: There's an old expression that's served me well: "Do not shit where you eat."

A big part of the film's appeal is the investment made in Porter as a character. He is humanized both in his sense of honour among thieves, and through his relationship with Rosie, two flawed sinners drifting sideways until they meet each other. The oily Val Resnick is also provided with plenty of latitude to come to life as the antithesis of Porter, a criminal without scruples just looking for his version of the good life.

Carter, to Resnick: Do you understand your value to the organization, Resnick?...You're a sadist. You lack compunction. That comes in handy.

The everything-including-the-kitchen-sink elements work surprisingly well. Lucy Liu has a blast as the dominatrix turned on by violence; her depraved arousal in bed next to Resnick as he is being threatened by Porter summarizes the film's unconstrained wickedness, culminating in Porter's classic let her work quip. The gun-toting Chinese gang, the crooked cops, and the ever mounting layers of sleaze up the ladder of The Outfit all add to Payback's enjoyable insanity. Veterans William Devane, James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson glide in with mounting levels of evil smarminess.

Pearl, seductively: I've got a few minutes.
Porter: So go boil an egg.

The film's colour palette is a mixture of bleached greys, blacks and browns, appropriate for an underworld rife with backstabbing. Payback goes into the sordid corners of criminality, and lands on a pile of misanthropic revelry.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Movie Review: A Walk Among The Tombstones (2014)

A brooding crime thriller, A Walk Among The Tombstones creates a promising ambiance of mounting dread, but fails to develop its characters and stagnates into an unconvincing kidnapping procedural.

It's 1991 in New York, and police detective Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson) is partially drunk when he gets involved in a wild shootout and takes down three armed robbers. He leaves the force, quits drinking and starts a new career as an unlicensed private detective. Eight years later, Scudder is approached by drug dealer Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens), who wants Scudder to find out who kidnapped and then viciously murdered and dismembered his wife. Her remains were stuffed into the trunk of a car despite Kristo coughing up a $400,000 ransom.

Scudder starts to investigate and uncovers a string of similar kidnapping, ransom and murder crimes, including a case where the remains of another dismembered woman were left strewn all over a graveyard. The perpetrators are a couple of monstrous men kidnapping family members of drug lords. Their latest target is the daughter of Russian mobster Yuri (Sebastian Roché), and Scudder inserts himself into the case to try and save the young girl's life.

Directed by Scott Frank as an adaptation of the Lawrence Block novel, A Walk Among The Tombstones offers an intriguing protagonist in Matt Scudder, with Liam Neeson at his best in creating a modern day Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe (the script is filled with references to the classic pulp detectives). Scudder is suitably tortured, a loner more comfortable when surrounded by sleaze, and in a constant fight against his internal demons. He is presented with a case well suited to his agony, criminals targeting criminals, murderers all but with sufficient distinctions in the grey zone of brutality for Scudder to get involved.

With an aesthetic dominated by washed-out greys and browns, for the first 30 minutes Tombstones promises to be a worthy addition to the list of notable, cynical and dark detective thrillers.

But then Frank starts to seep momentum, and the film loses its way. The irrelevant introduction of scrappy street kid (Brian "Astro" Bradley) as an annoying sidekick backfires. The murderous kidnappers remain opaque barbarians with no backstory, and the victimized and almost interchangeable drug lords fare no better. In a case of ill-defined scum threatened by unexplained scum, it gets increasingly difficult to care who lives, who dies and why. Worse of all, the women who die are never more than abstract names, with a couple of superfluous scenes of implied torture thrown in.

Neeson's commitment to the cause and Scudder's ice cold, dead-inside confidence occasionally threaten to save the day, but ultimately the film just lays to rest with a tired whimper.

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Movie review: Sleeping With The Enemy (1991)

A battered wife romance thriller, Sleeping With The Enemy carries the distinctive stink of a bad made-for-television production masquerading as a serious film.

Laura (Julia Roberts) is married to wealthy investment advisor Martin (Patrick Bergin), and they live in a gorgeous Cape Cod beachfront house. Martin is a possessive control freak who does not hesitate to physically abuse Laura, before showering her with gifts the next day. Fed up, Laura plots an escape involving faking her own drowning death when the couple take a sailing trip.

Laura assumes a new identity and settles in Iowa near the care home where her elderly mother lives. Soon she meets and starts a relationship with dishy next-door neighbour Ben (Kevin Anderson), a college drama teacher. But Martin soon connects the dots, uncovers Laura's deception, and comes looking for his wife with revenge on his mind.

One of Julia Roberts' worst early career missteps, Sleeping With The Enemy is burdened with an atrocious script, over-the-top acting, and bland, paint-by-numbers execution. Written with plastic dialogue by Ronald Bass as an adaptation of a Nancy Price novel and directed without emotion by Joseph Ruben, the film never rises above the easily calculable.

Banal, bland and eye-rollingly vanilla, Sleeping With The Enemy has no appetite to delve into any of the issues it purports to tackle. The physical abuse dished out by Martin is reduced to two blows, and Roberts' looks are never compromised in the name of authenticity. The romance with Ben is immediate and unobstructed, complete with nauseating meet-cute moments involving his impromptu dancing with a water hose and her stealing his apples. There is a stultifying montage sequence to the tune of Brown Eyed Girl as Roberts tries on numerous wigs, hats and dresses in Ben's company, the producers clumsily reaching for a Pretty Woman shopping moment and failing miserably.

None of the characters are afforded any depth, with Bergin sinking into bug-eyed madness as the aggressor Martin and Anderson wallowing in doe-eyed long-haired lover territory as the dreamy and all-too-perfect Ben. Roberts is much better than the material, but Ruben is so clearly smitten by his star that his directing defaults to training the cameras on her and standing back in admiration.

Sleeping With The Enemy does not even manage to be trashy fun: it's just inept.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Movie Review: Wild (2014)

One woman's literal and figurative journey to painful self-discovery, Wild is an exquisitely constructed drama, capturing the heart and intellect of a struggle to re-calibrate a life gone astray.

Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) places her life on hold and embarks on a solo hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, a 1,000 mile journey from the deserts of California to the Oregon rain forest. Along the way, she confronts her demons, seen in flashback snippets. Cheryl and her brother Leif were raised by their mother Bobbi (Laura Dern), a victim of spousal abuse who had little to offer her children except plenty of love, nurturing and a sunny disposition. Cheryl marries Paul (Thomas Sadoski), but the marriage has fallen apart after she descended into a life of drugs and random sex with strangers. Along the trail Cheryl has brief encounters with a variety of other locals and strangers, some funny and others scary, and pushes through the pain barrier and her own fears and inexperience, seeking to come to terms with her life.

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and written by Nick Hornby, Wild is an adaptation of Cheryl Straid's best-selling non-fiction book describing her 1995 hike. The film starts at the Mojave Desert trail head in southern California and ends 94 days later at the border between Oregon and Washington. And while there are plenty of on-trail experiences as the over-equipped but under-trained Cheryl grapples with what it means to live rough day and night, the important events are taking place in her head. Vallée and Hornby shine in opening up Cheryl's psyche, revealing her memories, thoughts, self-doubt and self-castigation through flashback fragments that slowly coalesce to create a picture of a life in need of a serious intervention.

Unlike the intolerably self-indulgent Elizabeth Gilbert in the saccharine Eat Pray Love, Cheryl knows she has messed up in the worst possible way. Her sex and drug addictions have destroyed her marriage and her remaining friends are pleading with her to get a grip. She embarks on the trail to find out what happened to the girl raised by Bobbi on nothing but love and optimism. The answers are not easy, but the film offers up moments of genuine and emotional discovery, driven by little surprises of achievement, fear and anxiety on the hiking trail.

Cheryl meets a gruff farmer who could have been menacing but who proves that looks and first impressions can be deceiving. Other encounters with an initially naked man, another solo woman, and a group of young men are just as enlightening. She encounters hunters who must be descendants of the Deliverance natives, and overcomes jagged rocks, exhaustion, dehydration, ill-fitting hiking boots and deep snow. She is happily stunned to learn that she has outlasted much more experienced hikers on the trail. All the while the memories are churning, the forces that defined her life become clear, and a path to salvation is charted.

Reese Witherspoon delivers a raw, honest performance, finding Cheryl's trauma and staying true to the reality of a woman stoically charting a new course in the company of herself. Laura Dern has a relatively short but pivotal role as her mother Bobbi. With a free and airy performance, Dern conveys what it means to be a perpetual idealist in the service of her children. Both women received Academy Award nominations.

Wild ends with unnecessary and rushed narration that appears too eager to package up Cheryl's story in a neat box. It's an unfortunate tone to conclude her adventure on, because Wild is about the universal human instinct to strike out in anger, in depression and in a mad search for recovery. Good or bad, wild instincts contribute to life, but rarely in an orderly manner.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Movie Review: Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

A war epic based on a true story, Hacksaw Ridge is the stunning story of a conscientious objector who stuck to his principles and found his purpose on a tortuous field of battle.

With World War Two rumbling to a start, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) from rural Virginia enlists in the Army. Desmond grew up to despise violence, having been raised in a strictly religious family dominated by his father Tom (Hugo Weaving), a drunk, abusive and emotionally damaged World War One veteran. Desmond refuses to carry a weapon, and wants to serve his country as a medic. His anti-violence stance as a conscientious objector who nevertheless volunteered confounds the army. His unit Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) tries to drum him out, while his squad mates, including Glover (Sam Worthington) and Riker (Luke Bracey) turn against him and label him a coward.

With help from an unlikely intervention by his father, Doss eventually gets his way, stays with the army, graduates as a medic, and marries his sweetheart, the nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). His squad is dispatched to join the Battle of Okinawa, and quickly thrown into a meat grinder of a fight to dislodge the Japanese army from well-entrenched positions on top of a steep embankment labelled Hacksaw Ridge. With grim determination on both sides resulting in mass casualties on a brutal battlefield, the weaponless Doss will find his true calling.

Mel Gibson returns to the director's chair for the first time since 2006, and delivers a raw human story soaked in the blood and gore of battle. Hacksaw Ridge is an unflinching look at true heroism, and Gibson finds in Desmond Doss an assuming oddball, a deeply religious pacifist looking for his calling in the heat of battle. Doss won the Medal of Honor, and Hacksaw Ridge is a deeply satisfying salute to selfless courage.

The film is divided into three parts, with some flashbacks in the later scenes to fill in the gaps. The first third is an elegantly delivered coming of age love story, Desmond's background and formative years presented under the blazing sun of farm-bred innocence and the dark clouds of a damaged father figure. Key incidents from Doss's early life are efficiently presented, as he grows into a teenager willing to stand up to Tom, protective of his mother Bertha (Rachel Griffiths), and dogged in his pursuit of the ethereal Dorothy.

The middle of the film is a search for self: Doss knows he wants to be in the army, is insistent that he wants to go war without a weapon, and is stubborn about both points to the point of taking on an incredulous army establishment. Slowly he garners a grudging respect among the fellow trainees who don't understand him, but even the grunts and sergeants begin to admire something intangible in the gangly kid with a goofy attitude but a core of steel.

The foundations solidly laid, Gibson moves confidently into the final act, shifting gears and creating nothing less than hell on earth. Taking the opening 27 minutes of Saving Private Ryan as just a starting point in the realistic representation of battle, Hacksaw Ridge goes beyond what is easily imaginable, presenting a harrowing close-up vision of war and its destructive impact on bodies and souls.

The Battle of Okinawa is recognized as one of the bloodiest of the entire conflict, with estimates of up to 130,000 soldiers killed, and is cited as one of the core reasons the decision was made to drop the atomic bombs on Japan. Gibson does not flinch from what this level of human carnage means: in a series of battles at close quarters, men are torn to pieces, guts are spilled, partial torsos are used as bullet shields, and rats feast on human remains. Death rains in from all directions, and Gibson leaves no doubt what the field of combat can do to a man who survives the horror. Suddenly both Tom's descent into an alcohol-fuelled depression and Desmond's anti-war stance make perfect sense.

The camerawork in the combat zones is superb. Gibson along with cinematographer Simon Duggan and editor John Gilbert keep the images rational, the cameras fluid, up close but only slightly jerky. The images of brutality, death, and heroism never compete with stunt directing and micro editing.

Andrew Garfield is serviceable and stays loyal to Desmond's admittedly dopey persona. Vince Vaughn finally demonstrates some acting chops outside of lame comedies, and enjoys a tremendous entry scene, Sergeant Howell invading the barracks of the new army recruits and exposing them to his brand of discipline and humiliation. Sam Worthington and Luke Bracey are the most prominent of the many fellow soldiers who endure the war with Desmond and witness or benefit from his exceptional audacity.

Hacksaw Ridge is an instant classic war film, a story of true love, religious conviction, dedicated service and remarkable bravery set amidst the worst form of perdition.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Movie Review: Two Days, One Night (2014)

A drama about economic survival, Two Days, One Night explores the thin personal and civil strands that weave a society. A superlative Marion Cotillard performance helps to create gripping viewing.

It's Friday in a small suburban Belgian town, and factory worker Sandra (Cotillard) receives bad news: her sixteen crew mates at a cash-strapped solar panel manufacturing plant have voted that she lose her job so that they can each keep a €1,000 bonus. Sandra, a married mother of two, was vulnerable because she was off work suffering from depression, and her absence proved to her boss Dumont that the work could be done with one less person. Sandra's friend Juliette helps convince Dumont to hold another, this time secret, vote on Monday morning.

Prodded by her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), the reluctant Sandra sets out to talk to all 16 of her work colleagues over the weekend, pleading with them to consider voting to save her job. The response will be varied, sometimes unexpected, and Sandra will discover plenty about herself and her community.

Directed by the Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Two Days, One Night is an engrossing character study that expands outwards from Sandra and into her surrounding ecosystem. With a strong focus on the dynamics of a working class neighbourhood, the film asks questions about the individual and the collective, personal needs versus social good, and the surprising limits and opportunities that reside within relationships, both personal and professional.

The Dardennes establish the premise quickly, and then settle down into a pattern of Sandra approaching each co-worker in turn, pleading for their vote, and then an interlude where the most recent interaction either raises her spirits or crushes her psyche. While some repetitiveness creeps in, the film keeps each encounter fresh, Sandra never knowing what response she is going to get, her already emotionally fragile, pill-popping state ready to either shatter or regroup according to the decisions of near-strangers.

About two thirds of the way through, Sandra's quest takes on an added dimension. There is a touching scene in the car with Manu where she smiles for the first time, discovering more about herself than she wanted to know. Then a co-worker springs a surprise and takes an emotional and financial risk of her own: a new, unexpected bond of friendship is forged. Sandra's appeal for collegial sympathy will have mixed and unintended consequences, none more important than her understanding of what emotional fulfillment looks like.

Marion Cotillard own the entire film, the cameras fully fixated on her in each scene, her acting finding a magical sweet spot where extreme anxiety and delicate determination join hands, both looking to score a win over the other.

Two Days, One Night is a stark look at the simple economics of life: a bonus or a colleague, the relative value varies according to each individual, but all the ripples are nevertheless felt throughout the same small pool.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Movie Review: Inferno (2016)

The third film adaptation of a Dan Brown novel, Inferno reaches a new low in the series: mechanical, plodding and lacking in both logic and intensity.

Harvard University symbologist Professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) wakes up in a Florence hospital, with evidence of a bullet having grazed his head, suffering from short term memory loss and horrific hallucinations of a hell-on-earth. Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) administers care, but soon she is helping him flee the hospital when assassin Vayentha (Ana Ularu) shows up, seemingly intent on killing Langdon. At Sienna's apartment they discover a miniature image projector in Langdon's possession depicting Sandro Botticelli's Map of Hell, a visualization of Dante's Inferno. The image has been slightly modified to contain clues.

The hidden text in the image suggests that recently deceased billionaire Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) has arranged for a catastrophic virus to be unleashed on humanity to solve the overpopulation problem, and it's up to Langdon to discover the virus location and stop its release. Langdon and Sienna chase down a series of art-based clues in Florence and Venice, hotly pursued by the assassin Vayentha, World Health Organization officials Christoph Bouchard (Omar Sy) and Elizabeth Sinskey (Sidse Babett Knudsen), as well as Harry Sims (Irrfan Khan), the head of a secretive private security agency.

Directed by Ron Howard, Inferno is a soulless connect-the-dots exercise. While the book was already suffering from formula fatigue, the film manages to conclusively erode any lingering interest by defaulting to the worst kind of chase movie, where every other scene has to feature dozens of police cars, helicopters and drones, but none of it creates any sort of tension or engagement. The intricate puzzles supposedly at the core of Langdon's skill set are presented and solved within about a minute each, reducing the main character to a lumbering professor huffing across a couple of European cities in a perfunctory sprint to a stock climax.

Making matters worse is a plot that ultimately defies all logic. The film changes the book's challenging final twist in favour of a really dumb Hollywood ending. This is not only a weak-kneed surrender to the worst tendencies of an industry often afraid to provoke debate, but in this case also undermines the entirety of Zobrist's carefully constructed plot.

The few flashback scenes to Zobrist ironically emerge as the most interesting thing that Inferno has to offer: a movie about the billionaire would have been much more interesting, but only in the hands of a more astute director.  As for Inferno, it's neither cerebral nor kinetic; just an irritatingly inconsequential burn-out.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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