Monday, 30 November 2015

Movie Review: Assault On Precinct 13 (2005)

A police-under-siege action thriller, Assault On Precinct 13 tries to find some balance between a hail of bullets and character interaction. But by dumping logic into the Detroit snow, the film achieves guff rather than grit.

Undercover detective Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke) leads his small team into a botched drug sting operation, resulting in the loss of two officers. Eight months later, Roenick is still traumatized, killing time at a desk job and making no progress with psychiatrist Alex Sabian (Maria Bello). It's New Year's Eve, Detroit is smothered by a snow storm, and Roenick, secretary Drea de Matteo (Iris Ferry) and veteran Sergeant Jasper O'Shea (Brian Dennehy) are staffing the otherwise abandoned Precinct 13 for the final time before the station closes for good.

Crime boss Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne) is arrested after killing an uncover police officer, and the snow storm forces his prisoner bus to unexpectedly divert to Precinct 13 for the night. Roenick places the high profile Bishop and a bunch of petty prisoners into the station prison cells, and soon enough Precinct 13 is under armed assault. It's not Bishop's men who are out to free him, but rather rogue cops under the leadership of Captain Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne) who need to silence Bishop and all witnesses before he reveals the depth of corruption in the police ranks. With no help in sight, Roenick has to hunker down for the night and organize a defence, which forces him into an uneasy alliance with Bishop.

A remake of the 1976 John Carpenter film of the same name, Assault On Precinct 13 features no shortage of gruesome action. Bullets to the brain and icicles in the eye are just some of the treats director Jean-François Richet throws at the screen for full splatter effect. On the more cerebral level, there is an honest attempt to give Roenick a backstory, but the narrative is not well served by the very tired premise of the hero hiding in a bottle to escape a bad episode in his life.

The third and final attempt to distinguish the film is the complex relationship between Roenick the honest cop and Bishop the master crime lord, two men from opposite sides of the law forced to work together against a common enemy for just one night. Thanks to fine performances from Ethan Hawke and Laurence Fishburne, the dynamic between the reluctant protector and the supremely confidant target brings a trace of depth to an otherwise rudimentary film.

But any good intentions to deliver a quality thriller are severely undermined by the stupid bad guys syndrome, which ultimately obliterates any promise held by the film. Gabriel Byrne as lead villain Marcus Duvall fails miserably in a lame attempt to convey evil intent. Meanwhile his army of heavily armed and fully equipped murderous men are somehow outsmarted in every confrontation by Roenick and his ragtag group made up of prisoners, one beat cop and a couple of civilians.

There is no escaping the sense that the assault could have been over in about three and half minutes had Duvall brought his full force to bear, as any smart antagonist aiming to murder a group of people in cold blood would have done. Matters are made much worse when the equivalent of a mini-war rages for hours at Precinct 13, and no external force responds to all the gun fire. Detroit may be bad; it's not this lawless, yet.

Inside the besieged building Maria Bello gets a couple of good scenes but then dissolves into victimhood when the shooting starts, while Iris Ferry's take on secretary Drea as an oversexed doll seems to be entirely incongruous. The other prisoners offer roles for John Leguizamo and rapper Ja Rule.

Assault On Precinct 13 ends at daybreak with combatants pursuing each other in a forest shrouded by fog. They can't see each other, and neither can anyone see much point in this unnecessary remake.

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Thursday, 26 November 2015

Movie Review: The Graduate (1967)

A classic drama and romance about the rift between generations, The Graduate is a sharp examination of youth in the late 1960s bumping up against the rules of their parents.

Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) has returned home to Los Angeles after finishing his college degree. A top student, Benjamin does not know what he wants to do in life, and his parents (William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson) are no help. Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) is the bored, alcoholic wife of the business partner of Benjamin's father, and she relentlessly pursues and seduces Benjamin. They start and sustain a prolonged affair behind the back of Mr. Robinson (Murray Hamilton). While the sex is great, Mrs. Robinson is not too interested in ever actually talking to Benjamin.

The Robinsons' daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) is a Berkeley student, and Benjamin's parents and Mr. Robinson believe that she is a perfect fit for him. But Mrs. Robinson wants to keep Benjamin for herself, and warns him away from getting close to her daughter. Benjamin is initially happy to oblige, but when he reconnects with Elaine, a spark ignites. Benjamin finds his life getting exceedingly complicated as he gets caught between loving one woman while being held emotionally hostage by her mother.

Directed by Mike Nichols and set to the magical tunes of Simon and Garfunkel, The Graduate defines an era. The screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry (adapting the Charles Webb novel) perfectly captures the angst shrouding the journey from youth to adult, and made all the more hazardous in a time of societal turmoil. Members of the greatest generation are at their economic and sexual peak, and the baby boomers are tentatively seeking their way in a changing world but bumping up against old rules they don't respect. The conflict is filled with transformational moments.

The genius of The Graduate is in capturing a generational shift through the simple story of Benjamin's search for a purpose. The narrative is always intimate, personal and singularly concentrated on one man. But the broader seismic shift of the next generation bedazzled by the fantasy of their elders while seeking to break free is the silent yet dominant backdrop to Benjamin's post-graduate summer. The first half of the film consists of none too subtle coercion and seduction, the men in his life throwing thoughtless career advice his way, sometimes literally reduced to one word ("Plastics!"), while his dad parades him in a scuba diving suit supposed to represent scientific achievement but only serving to heighten Ben's sense of isolation.

Mrs. Robinson is more persistent and more successful in her attempts to lure Benjamin into her bed. With Anne Bancroft enjoying the role of her life, Mrs. Robinson expertly snags Benjamin like a prized fish and reels him in with a combination of hints, seduction, flattery, and ultimately insults that demand his physical response. And once she lands her trophy, Mrs. Robinson will not let go. Benjamin represents her fountain of youth, a reason for her to believe that she is still relevant, the older generation emotionally and physically dominating the younger generation, a strategy that works fine as long as the youth keep their mouth shut.

Once Benjamin demands that they start talking he is not happy with what he hears, her possessiveness sowing doubts in his mind and triggering an encounter with Elaine that will finally start to define a purpose. Still under Mrs. Robinson's influence Benjamin is initially aloof and cruel with Elaine, but her calm frailty wins him over, and soon he learns what true love can offer his life. Untangling himself from Mrs. Robinson's clutches will not be easy, but it is never easy for any generation to emerge from the shadows, cast off the burden of its elders, and aim for new horizons.

Few films are as closely associated with their soundtracks as The Graduate. The songs include Mrs. Robinson, The Sound Of Silence and Scarborough Fair, with Neil Simon's fragile yet intense singing and the soulful melodies adding immeasurably to the film's impact. Nichols directs with audacity, using jump cuts, playing with focus and perspective and sprinkling touches of humour to portray the tentative first steps of a young man into adulthood. Benjamin's initial foray into the surreptitious world of booking upscale hotel rooms for sexual encounters, under the suspicious gaze of the stern desk clerk, is turned into a deliciously awkward misadventure.

In his first major screen role, Dustin Hoffman shows remarkable talent and uncommon maturity, holding the film together with a mixture of unease, drift, and finally intent. The film launched his stellar career and rewarded him with his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Bancroft (Best Actress) and Ross (Best Supporting Actress) were also nominated, as was the film, the script and the cinematography. Nichols won the Oscar for Best Director.

The Graduate crosses the stage with confidence, passion and humour, leaving behind a lasting legacy for future generations.

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Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Movie Review: The Party (1968)

A comedy poking fun at the Hollywood elite through the eyes of an outsider, The Party is a wild laugh fest.

Hrundi Bakshi (Peter Sellers) is an error-prone simpleton of a man, somehow hired as an actor on the grand set of a Hollywood historical adventure epic being filmed on location. Through his bumbling Bakshi manages to repeatedly disrupt filming, and he then mistakenly destroys the entire set. Studio head Fred Clutterbuck (J. Edward McKinley) vows that Bakshi will never again work in the film industry, but the actor's name erroneously ends up on the invite list for Clutterbuck's latest social gathering at his swish house.

From the moment that Bakshi arrives at the party, everything that can possibly go wrong does so. Within the sleek rooms and hallways of Clutterbuck's modern house, Bakshi loses his shoe, inadvertently insults the guests, disrupts the sit-down dinner, and manages to push every wrong button on the complicated electronic home control panel. He endures misadventures with caviar and an exceedingly uncomfortable quest to find a usable bathroom. Also at the party is aspiring starlet Michele Monet (Claudine Longet), who is escorted by boorish producer C.S. Divot (Gavin MacLeod). Feeling like an outsider, Michele is the only person to try and connect with Bakshi, and as the evening progresses from disastrous to catastrophic, they develop an unlikely friendship.

Produced, directed and co-written by Blake Edwards, The Party endures as a classic example of pure farce. The film sets out to place Bakshi in every awkward situation possible, and thanks to Sellers' extraordinary ability to portray a man desperately trying to conceal his physical and emotional discomfort, the laughs keep coming.

The film is a study in effective minimalist comedy built on a single premise. After the opening film-within-a-film scene, almost the entire running time is invested in the one location, with Bakshi as the outsider trying all he knows to fit into a context filled with people he does not know partaking in social norms he knows nothing about. There is minimal dialogue, plenty of background chatter, and a never ending stream of old-fashioned situational comedy.

Some jokes, of course, run too long. The waiter Levinson (Steven Franken) cannot resist a drink and gradually descends into a state of abject drunkenness, and his mishaps occasionally threaten to take the focus away from Bakshi. The search for the bathroom is also dragged beyond its capacity to sustain laughs, although once Bakshi does find an unoccupied bathroom, Edwards hits his stride to deliver an epic sequence of silent disaster.

The highlights are many, and include the entire on-location opening sequence, Edwards bravely staking his territory by extending the introductory laughs to the riotous stage. Later there is a flying chicken during dinner, a Birdie Num Num pet, and finally a young elephant and bucket loads of soap to put an end to the evening.

Embedded in the merriment is Edwards' drive to poke fun at his industry. Bakshi is undoubtedly a dimwitted misfit, but he possesses a pure and honest soul. As the night turns into day, Edwards reveals that some other guests at the party are also morons but in maybe less apparent ways (Divot wants to take advantage of Michele more than he wants to help her), or they may be smart but soulless (Clutterbuck cares more about his paintings and less about his wife).

It takes all kinds to make a bash come to life, and if nothing else, Hrundi Bakshi will go home with the same genuine smile on his face as when he arrived at The Party.

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Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Movie Review: The Company You Keep (2012)

A drama about former revolutionaries approaching their twilight, The Company You Keep presents an interesting treatise but is ultimately undermined personalized simplifications.

Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) is arrested in upstate New York. For over 30 years she was living a simple domestic life under a false identity, evading arrest for the murder of a Michigan bank security guard during a 1980 robbery-gone-wrong. Sharon was as a member of the revolutionary Weather Underground, a small group of idealistic students who turned to violence against symbols of the US government. After her arrest, young reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) is encouraged by his editor (Stanley Tucci) to explore Sharon's story. Ben's investigation leads him to Jim Grant (Robert Redford), a widower and well-respected Albany lawyer. Shepard exposes Jim's real identity as fugitive Nick Sloan, another former member of the Weather Underground.

FBI agent Cornelius (Terrence Howard) closes in, forcing Nick to flee. He deposits his young daughter with his brother Daniel (Chris Cooper) and embarks on a cross-country escape to re-connect with his old associates including lumberyard owner Donal Fitzgerald (Nick Nolte) and college professor Jed Lewis (Richard Jenkins). Nick's real objective is to flush out Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie), the only former member of the revolutionaries who can clear his name. Ben also continues his chase of the story, and starts to uncover some well-kept secrets related to the botched Michigan heist from many years ago.

The Company You Keep walks a tightrope between a serious examination of idealism in old age, and a rather opportunistic gathering of veteran actors enjoying a reunion. Director Robert Redford manages to land the film just on the right side of relevant, thanks to an earnest tone, committed performances, and a story that touches on broad societal dynamics but always retains a personal focus.

The script by Lem Dobbs presents the many different pathways to adulthood available to young revolutionaries. Sharon and Nick attempted to meld into obscurity. Mimi and her friend Mac Mcleod (Sam Elliott) kept up the subversive protests in any available form, with Mimi evolving into a marijuana trafficker. College teacher Jed never approved of violent methods, and so never forgave the likes of Nick for contaminating the movement of peaceful protesters. Lumberyard owner Donal and organic farmer Billy Cusimano (Stephen Root) moved into seemingly respectable businesses, with just a whiff of illicit dealings.

With the best years well behind them they all ask themselves questions about the value of their youthful struggle, whether the fight was won or lost, and what they could or should have done differently. In adulthood they find varying degrees of contentment, either hiding from their past or celebrating it. As parents Sharon and Nick view life through the lens of their families, a perspective that brings a desire to accept responsibility and right the wrongs of history. The Company You Keep retains its power as long as it rides the wave of social movement commentary through the retrospective and tired eyes of the individuals who influenced it.

The film falters when it starts to resemble a routine chase movie, with Nick always one step ahead of agent Cornelius. And while the focus on individuals is commendable, the ending is fumbled once it gets too personal. As the background to the ill-fated Michigan bank robbery is revealed, threads emerge to entangle Henry Osborne (Brendan Gleeson), the investigating officer of the time, into the web once inhabited by Nick and Mimi. The film gets distracted by the minutiae of shady family friendships, lost children and selfish behaviour, and the momentum built by the broader social context is all but lost.

A cast this deep in talent was only ever going to be excellent. Redford and LaBeouf get the biggest roles, with Redford showing every one of his 77 years, and LaBeouf perhaps pushing the aggressive young reporter role too hard. While it is a pleasure to see Julie Christie in a short but still meaningful role, frustratingly, stars like Sarandon, Nolte, Elliott and Anna Kendrick (as an FBI agent) get minimal screen time.

The Company You Keep does not fully engage, but does delve into essential issues in the company of outstanding talent.

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Saturday, 21 November 2015

Movie Review: Devil's Knot (2013)

A triple murder mystery drama based on real events, Devil's Knot wades into well-worn territory, and offers neither anything new nor any sort of resolution.

In the rural community of West Memphis, Arkansas, three eight-year-old boys go out for a bike ride into a wooded area and never come back. After a mammoth search, the dead and naked bodies of Stevie, Christopher and Michael are found at the bottom of a creek, tied up and seemingly brutally assaulted. Stevie's mother Pamela Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon) is distraught, not helped by her coarse husband Terry (Alessandro Nivola). The national media descends on West Memphis, the local police force is overwhelmed, and rumours start to swirl that the boys were victims of a satanic death cult. Soon, three teenagers are arrested and charged with the murders. The dark and brooding Damien Echols is designated the ring leader, with his friends Jason Baldwin and the borderline retarded Jessie Misskelley as active accomplices.

Christopher's father John Mark Byers (Kevin Durand) regales the media with tirades about satanic forces at play. Meanwhile, private investigator Ron Lax (Colin Firth) notices plenty of holes in the case against the three teens, and offers his services to the defence team. The muddled police investigation includes botched questioning, missing evidence, dubious confessions, and improbable witness testimony. The case goes to court with Judge David Burnett (Bruce Greenwood) presiding, and the community witnesses a trial circus that compounds the tragedy of the murders.

The West Memphis murders occurred in May 1993, and in subsequent years, the crime and subsequent trial have been the subject of several in-depth documentaries and books. The arrest and trial of Damien, Jason and Jessie are considered an injustice piled onto to a calamity, and every aspect of the story has been poured over in detail, on film and in print.

It is not clear what director Atom Egoyan thought could be gained from dramatizing the story, using the non-fiction book by Mara Leveritt as source material. The production has undoubted quality and polish, and Egoyan succeeds in recreating a small town consumed by unimaginable events, invaded by the media, and obsessed by fear-based wild stories of satanic rituals. Devil's Knot also takes an unblinking look at a small town police force simply not equipped to deal with a brutal triple murder, and a trial judge who redefines the rules of objectivity.

But none of this is new material, and the film flounders in search of a purpose. It does not offer anything new to the story, and neither does it work as compelling drama. Egoyan adopts a documentary style to chronicle and annotate events on the screen, a puzzling case of a non-documentary positioning itself in bewildering competition with actual documentaries that already delved into the same story.

Colin Firth sleepwalks through the film, an Englishman trying to conjure up a southern accent but unable to latch onto a dramatic lifeline. Amy Ryan as Lax's ex-wife is wasted in a couple of throwaway scenes. Reese Witherspoon does a bit better and gets a few moments to infuse some emotion, but Pamela Hobbs mostly exchanges meaningful glances with Ron Lax across the courtroom, only for all meaning to seep out of the film as it fizzles into an non-conclusion and more documentary-style postscripts.

Devil's Knot suffers from that most insidious of flaws: a film that works its way to irrelevance.

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Friday, 20 November 2015

Movie Review: Crash Dive (1943)

A serviceable World War Two submarine action drama and romance with a propaganda bent, Crash Dive spends equal time on land at the sea, but is better wet than dry.

Lieutenant Ward Stewart (Tyrone Power) is a veteran of the Navy, most recently enjoying the nimble speed of Patrol Torpedo (PT) boats. Reporting to the navy base in New London, Connecticut, Stewart reluctantly agrees to join the crew of the submarine USS Corsair as Executive Officer, under the command of Lieutenant Commander Dewey Connors (Dana Andrews). Before the Corsair sets sail, Stewart meets schoolteacher Jean Hewlett (Anne Baxter) and is immediately smitten. He pursues her with great determination, and although she initially fends him off, eventually they fall in love.

Stewart does not know that Jean is Connors' fiancée, a man she admires but does not quite love. Meanwhile, out in the North Atlantic sea, the Corsair tangles with a German mine boat, and discovers evidence of a secret enemy base. Stewart and Connors make an effective commanding team, with Stewart more of a risk taker and Connors more strategic in his approach. With the romantic triangle reaching a climax, the Corsair is sent on a dangerous mission to uncover and destroy the hidden German naval station.

For a war film designed to boost recruitment in the US Navy, Crash Dive spends a lot of time on the shore, delving into the romance between Ward and Jean. Tyrone Power and Anne Baxter make for an attractive couple and the Technicolor production captures them both at their most resplendent. But Stewart's relentless pursuit and Jean's coy hard-to-get act consumesplenty of screen time, and it's often difficult to remember that there is a war going on.

In the scenes back on the sub, director Archie Mayo switches gears and mounts a credible thriller. Although many of the submarine tactics and actions portrayed are pure Hollywood, Mayo does manage to portray the camaraderie and tension inherent in life underwater, from the hours of abject boredom to suddenly engaging in deadly hide and seek with the enemy. There are plenty of scenes with the requisite depth charges, subterfuge, silent pursuit, and torpedo attacks on enemy vessels. Upon returning from one mission, Stewart and Connors demand a massive meal made exclusively of fresh fruits, vegetables and milk, in a rare acknowledgement of the deficient nutrition served up on a sub.

The character dynamics are above average, with Stewart and Connors melding their leadership styles to good effect and with just a trace of competitive juice. The script by W.R. Burnett and Jo Swerling also deserves a lot of credit for featuring the black crew member Oliver Cromwell Jones (Ben Carter) in a prominent and sympathetic role. Oliver befriends fellow submariner Mike "Mac" McDonnell (James Gleason), who is suffering from a heart condition, and their relationship evolves throughout the film and culminates in the final battle.

And that final climax is not half bad. Despite all sorts of questionable tactics and unrealistic dullness from the Germans, Mayo delivers a solid 20 minutes of commando-style Grade B action to enliven events and stir the blood.

Crash Dive will never be mistaken for a classic war film or an emotion-packed romance. It's an honest war time romp promoting the war effort on a limited budget and in a decent package. Already enlisted in the Marine Corps, star Tyrone Power headed off to recruit training for the real war soon after filming wrapped, a rare case of an actor staying true to the message of his own film.

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Thursday, 19 November 2015

Movie Review: The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse (1962)

A melodrama set mostly in Paris under Nazi occupation, The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse enjoys some juicy character dilemmas but otherwise falls foul of a turgid romance that never sparkles.

Madariaga (Lee J. Cobb) is the patriarch of a proud Argentinian clan. One of his daughters is married to Frenchman Marcelo Desnoyers (Charles Boyer), while the other daughter is married to German Karl von Hartrott (Paul Lukas). Julio (Glenn Ford) and Heinrich (Karl Boehm) are the now adult offspring of Marcelo and Karl respectively. With the clouds of war gathering over Europe, Madariaga is horrified to learn that Karl and Heinrich have joined the Nazi Party. Madariaga dies during a raucous family dinner, haunted by images of the biblical four horsemen of the apocalypse: Conquest, War, Pestilence, and Death.

Marcelo and Julio relocate to Paris along with Julio's sister Chi-Chi (Yvette Mimieux). Julio enjoys the playboy life, and wants no involvement in the world of politics and conflict. War does indeed erupt, but not before Julio meets and falls in love with Marguerite (Ingrid Thulin), although she is married to harried newspaper publisher Etienne (Paul Henreid). With the Germans threatening Paris, Etienne is shipped to the front lines, creating space for the romance between Julio and Marguerite to blossom. Paris falls and soon Karl and Heinrich make their presence felt as part of the occupation force, Karl as a local German military administrator and Heinrich as an influential member of the feared SS.

With high level contacts among the German occupiers, Julio finds himself in a position of unwanted privilege. He has to fend off the brutish advances of General von Kleig (George Dolenz) towards Marguerite, but then events turn serious when Etienne is released from a prisoner of war camp, Chi-Chi starts to demonstrate sympathies with the French resistance, and Julio realizes that despite his natural inclination to remain uninvolved, the war will demand that he chooses a side.

MGM's 1921 adaptation of the Vicente Blasco Ibáñez novel is fondly remembered as a star-making vehicle for the young and virile Rudolph Valentino. By the late 1950s the studio was scrounging around for properties to help revive its fading fortunes, and settled on this epic remake, resetting the story to World War Two and bringing in director Vincente Minnelli to infuse the project with prestige. It didn't quite work as intended. The 1962 version does enjoy some moments of cinematic grandeur, but it is also relatively slow, bloated, and lacking in charisma.

A large part of the problem resides in the casting of the two central characters. Glenn Ford is most unconvincing as a Latin playboy. He instead comes across as Rick Blaine's boring cousin, an American in Paris passively observing events passing him by. Julio's romance with Marguerite enjoys an initial 10 minutes of glamour, then collapses into tiresome domesticity, bickering, and passive aggressive tension, a very poor foundation on which to build a 150 minute movie. Even when Julio swings into action in the final third, both the missions and the execution are unconvincing.

Ingrid Thulin is just as cold in the role of Marguerite, not the fault of the actress, but again a poor casting choice that shifted the romance to an older age where rationality trumps devotion. For most of the film there is hardly any genuine chemistry between Ford and Thulin, undermining Julio's reasons to hang around Paris and deal with the mess of the occupation.

As the feisty Madariaga, Lee J. Cobb expires spectacularly within the first half hour. Cobb takes his role to the extreme end of theatricality, submitting his resume to join the ranks of the horsemen as the harbinger of dramaturgy.

It's not all a loss, and despite the film's stodginess, there is plenty to admire. The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse looks good, with Minnelli recreating a wartime Paris where opulence persists behind closed doors while tensions rise on the street corners. The special effects to create the galloping horsemen in the clouds are impressive, but undoubtedly overwrought. At least Minnelli shows restraint by using them in small doses. The other cast members are more reserved and often more than adequate, with veterans Henreid, Boyer and Lukas showing that good things happen when actors are properly fitted to roles.

And eventually, the film does build some epic weight in the story of individuals caught up in the whirlpool of history, with Julio facing a triangular moral dilemma: his partial French heritage demands that he act, his beliefs require him to remain on the sidelines, and his German uncle and cousin offer him the prestige of high-level connections at a time when knowing the right people is the difference between life and death.

The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse ride into the bloodiest conflict in world history. After stumbling around in somewhat questionable manner, they emerge still holding the flag, but a rather tattered one.

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Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Movie Review: The Rains Came (1939)

A character drama and serious romance set against a mammoth natural disaster, The Rains Came offers excellent special effects, powerful emotions, and memorable characters in an exotic location.

Tom Ransome (George Brent) is an American artist living the lazy expatriate life in the fictional city of Ranchipur, India, where the respected but childless Maharaja (H.B. Warner) and Maharani (Maria Ouspenskaya) throw lavish parties for society's elites. Tom's apathetic routine is disrupted when he meets Fern Simon (Brenda Joyce), the daughter of local missionaries. Fern develops a serious crush, and latches on to Tom as a potential escape route away from her parents. Around the same time, the uppity and bored Lady Edwina Esketh (Myrna Loy) and her insufferable older husband Lord Albert (Nigel Bruce) arrive for a visit.

Edwina and Tom were formerly lovers, but although he is willing to resume an affair, she is not as interested. Instead, Edwina sets her sights on Major Rama Safti (Tyrone Power), a distinguished local doctor. Edwina pursues Rama aggressively, but he maintains his distance, not impressed but her haughty airs. With emotions at a fever pitch, the drought of Ranchipur suddenly comes to an end with a period of intense rain. A major earthquake then hits the area, causing a dam to breach and a massively destructive flood. The hospital is overwhelmed, Rama's medical skills are tested to the limit, while Tom, Fern, Edwina have to readjust their priorities in a devastated city.

An adaptation of the Louis Bromfield novel and directed by Clarence Brown, The Rains Came is a serious story given lavish treatment. Tom, Fern, Edwina and Rama create a romance-driven foursome with plenty of flaws, passion and varying levels of ambition. Despite plenty of local flavour and an abundance of sights and sounds to evoke India, Brown keeps the focus on his main characters, and the film succeeds in unveiling a grand story through an intimate lens.

When the time comes for spectacle, Brown does not hold back. Coming at almost the exact halfway point of the film's 105 minutes, the scenes of rain, then earthquake, then flood are exceptionally good for the era. In convincing fashion, the ground shakes, buildings fall, a dam breaks, and an entire city is devastated, streets turn to rivers, estate grounds turn to mush, and mass panic ensues. The sequence is thrilling as cinema and heartbreaking as unspeakable tragedy. The Rains Came deservedly nabbed the first Special Effects Academy Award, beating out the likes of Gone With The Wind and The Wizard Of Oz.

The natural disaster creates a massive inflection point. Caught in an isolated disaster zone, Tom, Fern, Edwina and Rama have to deal with a new reality, and the decisions they now have to make will change the trajectories of their lives. New bonds will form, self-discoveries made, and destinies confronted. The wise and wily Maharani keeps a watchful eye, taking a broader view than just personal interest, influencing events from a distance but influencing them nevertheless.

The performances are solid, with Myrna Loy particularly notable in an against-type role as she guides Lady Esketh on a journey from rich, privileged and spoiled to a woman seeing the world through the eyes of love, perhaps for the very first time. George Brent is appropriately caustic in a Clark Gable-type incarnation. Maria Ouspenskaya is a revelation as the crafty Maharani. Tyrone Power and Brenda Joyce are also good, but perhaps more stock. Henry Travers and Jane Darwell appear in smallish supporting roles.

There are some missteps in the movie. The romantic entanglements tend to overwhelm the film at the expense of other developments, and some of the dramatic romance elements veer into weepy melodrama, with a few too many scenes emphasizing longing and desperation. Fern is a bit too brash, while Lord Albert Esketh is milked for some mild buffoonery and then cast aside too easily. While the portrayals of the Maharani and Rama are dignified and there is some talk about a better future for India led by Indians, all the other local characters disappear to the background.

But overall, there is plenty to enjoy, and four characters to care for. When cholera sweeps through the destroyed Ranchipur, death comes calling with renewed vigour within the hospital walls, bringing a new urgency to unresolved relationships. Rama is a man of his people, Tom, Fern and Edwina are strangers in a friendly land, and all will come to terms with love, life and the winds of change emanating from a ravaged city.


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Monday, 16 November 2015

Movie Review: The Gazebo (1959)

A sharp black comedy, The Gazebo nicely builds up to a healthy dose of laughs in the story of a television executive dealing with an inconvenient blackmail problem.

Elliott Nash (Glenn Ford) produces crime dramas for live television. His harried life is that much more stressful because Elliott is also being blackmailed by a mysterious man who goes by the name of Shelby. Elliott is married to budding stage star Nell (Debbie Reynolds), and he does not want her to know that Shelby is in possession of compromising photos that can threaten their relationship. Elliott turns to his friend and lawyer Harlow Edison (Carl Reiner) for some advice, but Harlow has eyes for Nell and is of little help.

In addition to trying to convince Nell to sell their house to raise money, Elliott starts to nurture the idea of killing Shelby to get rid of the problem once and for all. Things get more complicated when Nell decides to buy a large gazebo for their backyard, and crusty construction crew chief Sam Thorpe (John McGiver) becomes an intermittent visitor around the house. But the gazebo's concrete foundation presents an opportunity, and Elliott's dabbling in a possible murder plot will also include the unlikely involvement of none other than Alfred Hitchcock.

An underrated and often forgotten gem, The Gazebo works its way to often hilarious levels of farce. Director George Marshall adopts a measured pace in the first 30 minutes to set up the premise, and then unleashes the laughs to good effect. The George Wells script (an adaptation of the Myra and Alec Coppel play) delivers a compact 100 minutes of fun, with likeable protagonists who are sympathetic despite all their foibles.

Good as the film is, there are some weaknesses, notably performances that are very much overly theatrical. While Debbie Reynolds almost manages to find the right tone, Glenn Ford is guilty of going over the top early and often. Ford is funny as the frantic everyman digging an ever deeper hole of trouble for himself. But he doesn't even attempt any level of circumspect nuance, instead going for the all-flappy, all-the-time stance more appropriate for the stage than the screen. There are also a few issues with timing, with some plot events happening at unlikely hours just to feed the laugh-o-meter.

But the film adds to the fun quotient by cleverly keeping many of its surprises hidden from view. The exact nature of the blackmail takes some time to become apparent, and the various bad guys who will get involved in the plot as Elliott's nightmare spirals out of control are not exactly who he thinks they are. Every time Elliott starts to think that he's gaining a measure control, another twist sends him on a new frenzy of uncertainty. Ironically, the calmest presence is a plucky pigeon, saved by Elliott early in the film and intent on hanging around and returning the favour in the unlikeliest way possible.

The Gazebo includes a loud-talking house maid, a wild shooting leading to a ridiculously funny and prolonged death scene, an inopportune rain storm that spoils the all-important gazebo concrete base, and hideous curtains that can conveniently serve to hide a crime. It's the worst possible combination of events to assemble a staid backyard gazebo, but a terrific recipe for madly enjoyable revelry.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Movie Review: The Black Swan (1942)

A second-rate pirate swashbuckler, The Black Swan mechanically ticks off the genre boxes and generally forgets about context, character and charm.

In the battle between the British and the Spanish for supremacy on the seas, Britain relies on privateer pirates to extend its power. The legendary Captain Henry Morgan (Laird Cregar) is the most prominent, and his loyal followers include the charismatic Captain Jamie Waring (Tyrone Power), better known as Jamie Boy, and the crusty Captain Billy Leech (George Sanders), commander of the fast and powerful ship Black Swan. Just as Jamie extricates himself from his latest entanglement with the Spanish, and sets eyes on Lady Margaret (Maureen O'Hara), a peace of sorts is declared. As a reward the King installs Captain Morgan as the new governor of Jamaica, replacing Margaret's father, Lord Denby (George Zucco).

This causes a rift among the other Captains. Jaime remains loyal to Morgan and joins the side of law and order in Port Royal. Leech does not trust the peace process and decides to stay independent, terrorizing the Caribbean seas. Jamie continues his pursuit of Margaret, although she already has a suitor in the form of English gentleman Roger Ingram (Edward Ashley). Morgan finds the job of ruling difficult, and he is undermined by both the elitists of Jamaica and Leech's piracy. Jamie has to find a way to help his friend and win Margaret's heart.

Although it offers a modicum of enjoyment, everything about The Black Swan feels rushed. Directed by Henry King, the film clocks in at 85 minutes, and sacrifices most of what passes as thoughtful narrative development. The ship-to-ship battles are perfunctory, the politics rudimentary, and the characters neatly break down into good and bad. Hardly any background context is offered for any of the individuals, and the screenplay, co-written by Ben Hecht as an adaptation of a Rafael Sabatini story, strips down character interactions to almost childish levels.

Even allowing for the era portrayed, the treatment of women is close to harrowing, with ladies reduced to so much property thrown over the shoulder by uncouth men as spoils of battle. When Jamie suddenly reforms into a government man, he does modify his behaviour and pursues Margaret in a more gentlemanly way. She plays hard to get throughout the film, as well she should.

On the plus side, the The Black Swan does look great in rich technicolor, and won the Best Cinematography Academy Award. Maureen O'Hara is gorgeous as she rises above the material and looks sniffily down on the ramshackle happenings around her. Tyrone Power is frequently given reasons to lose his shirt, amplifying the film's all-round visual appeal. George Sanders is an imposing villain, and Anthony Quinn appears in a small role as another of the rough seamen.

The Black Swan creates plenty of splashy noise, but is singularly lacking in requisite elegance.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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