Thursday, 23 June 2016

Movie Review: The Getaway (1972)

An action film trading on star appeal, The Getaway offers reasonably slick and fast-paced entertainment, but all the stunts, squealing tires and shoot-outs cannot conceal the limited substance.

In Texas, prisoner Doc McCoy (Setve McQueen) is denied parole four years into serving a ten year sentence for armed robbery. Unable to tolerate life behind bars any longer, Doc instructs his wife Carol (Ali MacGraw) to strike a deal at any price with sleazy businessman and master crime lord Jack Beynon (Ben Johnson). Beynon pays off the right people, Doc is released and Beynon connects him with hoodlums Rudy (Al Lettieri) and Frank (Bo Hopkins) to plan and execute a bank robbery.

The heist is messy and several dead bodies are left behind. Doc and Carol find themselves on the run with a bag full of $500,000, trying to make it to the Mexico border, with the authorities, a wounded Rudy, and Beynon's men all on their trail. Doc then uncovers a nasty secret that severely strains his relationship with Carol, while Rudy takes veterinarian Harold (Jack Dodson) and his wife Fran (Sally Struthers) hostage as he mounts his own chase for the stolen money.

Directed by Sam Peckinpah and written by Walter Hill adapting a Jim Thompson book, The Getaway perfectly exploits McQueen's star wattage. A bad guy with good guy looks and less evil intent than all the other bad guys, Doc McCoy oozes McQueen's customary coolness. The film is more about watching McQueen slice through the Texas landscape with the company of a blazing shotgun and a smoldering MacGraw, and less about plot, character or context.

The actual events of the film are quite thin on the ground. The Getaway is a two hour post-hold-up chase, with plenty of padding and fairly ridiculous distractions. The supposedly sharp Carol allows herself to be duped by a rail station conman, triggering a long ordeal for Doc to regain control of the bag full of money. Meanwhile, Rudy's quest for revenge gets bogged down in a tiresome and ill-conceived attempt at dark and sexual humour with Harold, Fran and a pet cat.

But the action scenes are what matter, and Peckinpah conjures up some fine set-pieces. The bank hold-up and its immediate aftermath is tense mayhem, Doc and Carol tangle with the local police in a couple of small towns, they have to extract themselves from a truck full of garbage, and the final showdown at an El Paso hotel is a satisfyingly bullet-riddled conclusion to all the running around.

MacGraw and McQueen fell in love while filming, and while their is undoubted chemistry between them, the sparks cannot hide MacGraw's atrocious performance. Although Hill's script contrives to supply her with the worst lines, her wooden delivery and blank expressions expose a model trying to be an actress and failing miserably. Al Lettieri leaves an impression as the sweaty and unrelenting hoodlum who simply will not give up the chase, while Slim Pickens makes a late appearance near the border.

But with McQueen exuding his sizzling brand of dominant magnetism, The Getaway can get away with sub-par content in almost all other departments.

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Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Movie Review: Executive Suite (1954)

A drama about a duel for dominance in the corporate boardroom, Executive Suite takes an admirably direct route towards its objectives, but in the process sacrifices character depth and elaboration on plot subtext.

In New York City, Avery Bullard, the President of large Pennsylvania-based furniture manufacturing firm Tredway Corporation, drops dead on the sidewalk. Avery never appointed a successor, and at the company headquarters office building a power struggle erupts as the Vice Presidents immediately start to manoeuvre themselves to succeed him.

The men in contention are the ambitious Finance chief Loren Shaw (Fredric March); the womanizing Sales VP Walter Dudley (Paul Douglas); the elderly Treasurer Frederick Alderson (Walter Pidgeon) who was closest to Bullard; the young and idealistic VP for Design and Development Don Walling (William Holden); and Jesse Grimm (Dean Jagger), VP for Manufacturing. Matters are complicated by majority shareholder Julia Tredway (Barbara Stanwyck), the daughter of the company's founder, and Board of Directors member George Caswell (Louis Calhern), who is looking to financially profit from Avery's unexpected death.

The women in the lives of the men are Don's wife Mary (June Allyson), who is urging her husband to quit Tredway and pursue his dreams away from corporate politics; Eva Bardeman (Shelley Winters), both secretary and mistress to Walter Dudley; and Erica Martin (Nina Foch), Avery's loyal secretary. As the Board of Directors gets to ready to meet and appoint a new President, Shaw pulls all the strings to try and control the outcome in his favour. But his uncompromising bottom-line focus does not sit well with Alderson and Walling, who start looking for an alternative, with unexpected results.

Directed by Robert Wise, Executive Suite is an almost mechanically-tuned examination of boardroom politics. The film is brisk and pointed, with the all-star cast in fine form. But the Ernest Lehman script is a bit too crowded with many similar middle-aged men, and a bare minimum of texture is offered to differentiate them. Tredway is plunged into a crisis, the power plays kick-off, and not enough breathing room is afforded for the men to establish who they are and why they may or may not deserve a promotion to the top chair.

Eventually Shaw emerges as the beady-eyed schemer and Don as the optimistic designer harbouring dreams of technical breakthroughs. Don gets the luxury of a family background to juggle with the unfolding workplace crisis, but the other men remain mostly office-dwelling creatures. The power struggle and tension builds to a nice sizzle, but the sub-plot involving Julia Tedway and her strained relationship with the deceased Avery never quite gains traction.

Executive Suite frequently circles the theme of driven men sacrificing everything, and mostly their families, for the sake of corporate ladder-climbing. The women are victims of neglect, pining either secretly or openly for attention that they will not receive. Later the film explores the still relevant conflict at the heart of company priorities in the age of shareholders demanding instant gratification. Short-termism competes with loftier ideals of longevity and quality that demand investment in research and development.

The stellar cast members share the screen time, with Fredric March leaving the biggest mark as Shaw schools his competitors in the art of backroom company politics. William Holden is less convincing as the waffling Walling, while the other actors are somewhat trapped in straightforward characters. Barbara Stanwyck adds some drama as the economically powerful but emotionally weak link to the company's past, but her character is susceptible to slipping into melodramatics all too quickly.

Dispassionate and cold, Executive Suite is as ruthlessly efficient as the business world it represents.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Movie Review: Fort Apache (1948)

A Western with an unbalanced mix of romance, humour and frontier action, Fort Apache eventually finds a purpose, but not before plenty of languid distractions.

Gruff and humourless Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) is the reluctant new commander at the remote Fort Apache, an appointment he perceives as a snub by the army. He is accompanied by his daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple), and she immediately sets her eyes on handsome and freshly minted Lieutenant Mickey O'Rourke (John Agar, Temple's real life husband at the time). The Fort's leadership group includes the pragmatic Captain Kirby York (John Wayne), Captain Sam Collingwood (George O'Brien), who shares a chequered service history with Thursday, and Sergeant Major Michael O'Rourke (Ward Bond), Mickey's proud father.

Thursday sets about to improve discipline among the men, while romance blossoms between Philadelphia and Mickey. The Fort's main purpose is to maintain peace with the local Apache tribe led by Conchise (Miguel Inclan), who has taken refuge in Mexico due to perceived treaty violations perpetrated by corrupt government agents in the form of Silas Meacham (Grant Withers). Thursday sees an opportunity to make a name for himself by subjugating Conchise, and embarks on a duplicitous approach very much against Captain York's principles.

Directed by John Ford, Fort Apache enjoys spectacular Monument Valley locations and interesting character dynamics. But the film is poorly paced and quick to stray onto tangents that serve no purpose. The main conflict resides between Thursday and York, and it takes too long for the tension between the two men to manifest itself in a meaningful way on the screen.

Ford and screenwriter Frank S. Nugent fall into several unfortunate traps. The worst scenes are ill-conceived attempts at slapstick humour involving new recruits and undisciplined soldiers (including an insufferable Victor McLaglan) who are in the army mostly for the liquor. There is also a doctor who does little except drink, and even an Irish song makes its way into the movie, as Ford slips into his "celebrate Ireland" mode to the detriment of the film. Scenes of dance banquets go on much longer than needed, as the running length unnecessarily creeps over two hours.

With all the distractions, the film takes an extended time to gain traction. The first hour is wholly concerned with Thursday taking command, the bland romance between Philadelphia and Michael, and routine life at the Fort. The film is already wilting in the desert sun, John Wayne's Captain York almost a nonexistent sideshow, before the Conchise story is introduced, and the conflict between the army and the Apaches is a hurried, under-developed narrative.

All of the shortcomings are a pity, because Fort Apache also offers plenty that is good. The film is sympathetic to the plight of the Indians, with Thursday firmly established as the antagonist with his uncompromising approach inconsistent with life both within and outside the fort's walls. When the conflict with Conchise finally takes centre stage, the film picks up considerably and the final 30 minutes finally find momentum. And despite the sloppy editing, the film presents an engaging view of life at a remote army facility, with wives taking a prominent role turning an outpost into a functioning village.

Henry Fonda enjoys an atypical role as the disciplinarian unable to modulate his approach to suit his current circumstance. John Wayne rises late to claim the moral high ground. Shirley Temple is radiant but also predictably flighty and flirty, quick to fall under the younger O'Rourke's shirtless spell.

Fort Apache meanders and then stumbles upon arrival, but when the dancing, romancing and witless humour are finally evicted, the film manages to offer patches of reasonable entertainment.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Movie Review: Love And Friendship (2016)

An adaptation of Jane Austen's novel Lady Susan, Love And Friendship rattles off long passages of dialogue in a series of confined setting as the protagonist tries to steer her life towards comfortable money. The film is static, stagey and unconvincing.

England, in the 1790s. Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) is widowed and penniless. She is also conniving and desperate to find monied husbands for herself and her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark). Susan, whose one friend is transplanted American Alicia Johnson (ChloĆ« Sevigny), sets about winning the heart of her sister-in-law's younger brother Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), while trying to convince Frederica to accept the wedding proposal of the rich but stupid Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). The real prize, however, is the wealthy and powerful Mr. Manwaring, but he is already married to the increasingly frantic Lucy (Jenn Murray).

Directed and written by Whit Stillman, Love And Friendship gets bogged down with too many stuffy characters who have little to do except be victimized by Lady Susan's sharp wit. The film's comedy stems from the inherent, and sometimes explicit, stupidity of everyone except Susan, and once the pattern is set, the film sinks into a predictable downward spiral of Susan moving the chess pieces to checkmate all around her.

Some of the dialogue exchanges are witty, there are a few laughs, the costumes and hairstyles are lavish and Beckinsale radiates confidence. But the material is extremely thin, the various settings in London and the countryside estates are excuses to continue the same conversations within different indoor sets, and too often the scenes resemble readings of Austen's prose rather than acting. The film fundamentally fails to shift from a clever book to an engaging visual experience.

When it comes to Lady Susan, Love And Friendship are irrelevant; instead, her world is all about convenience and manipulation, and unfortunately her gamesmanship is also a crushing bore.

All Ace Black Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Movie Review: Sideways (2004)

A tender yet funny drama about middle-aged men dealing with life's disappointments, Sideways excels as a quest for joy and when all options for happiness appear exhausted.

Failed writer Miles (Paul Giamatti) and his friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a has-been actor, head out for a week-long trip to California's wine country to celebrate Jack's upcoming wedding to Christine. Miles is broke, lonely, and deeply depressed due to his divorce two years prior, and his lack of success in getting his book published. Meanwhile, Jack is not really sure he wants to get married, and is more interested in having sexual flings than tasting wine.

Miles and Jack settle at a motel amidst all the wineries. At the Hitching Post restaurant, they connect with waitress Maya (Virginia Madsen), who vaguely knows Miles from his previous trips and is herself nursing scars from a recent divorce. At a local winery, they also connect with server Stephanie (Sandra Oh), and Jack is immediately attracted to her. Miles and Maya start a tentative courtship based on their mutual love of wine, while Jack and Stephanie engage in a passionate affair. But with plenty of deception and half-truths generated by Jack's selective interpretation of the truth, trouble lies ahead for both men.

Written and directed by Alexander Payne, Sideways finds humour in the ordinariness of middle age pathos. The film honours the achievement of nothing where many men wallow, as both Miles and Jack have little to show for lives half lived except failed attempts at happiness and false expectations of a better future. The film stays focused on the men, their fading hopes and divergent attitudes towards the future, as Miles is weighed down by the past while Jack is intent on living for today.

Despite the odds they find suitable mates in wine country. Maya is just as emotionally scarred as Miles but is handling it better. while Stephanie is enjoying a life of carefree adventure. The relationships take on the colours of the men, as Miles and Maya proceed slowly and carefully, Jack and Stephanie rush into physical intimacy with wild abandon, and the outcomes carries echos from the pat into the future.

Payne's writing is stellar, and the film stands on the shoulders of the sturdy yet complex friendship Payne creates between Miles and Jack. Although a study in contrasts, the foundations of the relationship are clear: Miles is downbeat but smart, Jack is a dense optimist. They complement each other, and both are at crossroads in life where they need each other, warts and all. Miles needs Jack's encouragement to have any chance to move past his depression, and Jack needs Miles as a logic check against his impending marriage. Miles can't always trust himself because of his depression, and he wonders how much he can trust Jack, who is, after all, an actor, albeit a fading one.

The film uses wine as shorthand for depth of sophistication, if not exactly intellect. Wine is portrayed as a tragic ending worth celebrating, the more convoluted the plight of the fragile grape, the more worthwhile the taste. Wine and whine are also companions, Miles' endless laments about his failure in love, life and publishing matched only by his eloquent descriptions of all things related to wine and winemaking.

In the two lead role, Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church create an enduring pair of friends. Giamatti has never been better, and in Miles finds the perfect role to suit his persona: cerebral but flawed and weighed down by luggage of his own making. Church is the perfect foil, and gives Jack a bounciness stemming from an inability to admit that with fading looks and creeping age, Jack's bright future as an actor is firmly behind him. Virginia Madsen turns Maya into a rich, complex red, while Sandra Oh mimics an in-your-face blast of popping champagne.

Sideways finds the sorrow and the laughs that come when forward momentum is well and truly lost, life starts drifting sideways, and it is suddenly apparent that for now, sideways is better than backwards.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Singles (1992)

A romantic comedy set at the peak of Seattle's grunge scene, Singles captures a unique moment in time and music, but is an otherwise unremarkable story of typical relationships among young adults.

The film focuses on the love lives of twentysomething friends living in and around a Seattle apartment rental block. Linda (Kyra Sedgwick) is an environmental activist. After getting burned by an affair with a duplicitous foreign student, she meets Steve (Campbell Scott), an engineer with the department of transportation also smarting from a recent breakup. They start a relationship that will have its fair share of unexpected ups and downs.

Meanwhile Steve's neighbour Janet (Bridget Fonda) is obsessed with musician Cliff (Matt Dillon), a member of the grunge band Citizen Dick. She wants to be dedicated to him, but Cliff is unsure he wants to commit to anyone, as his mediocre band struggles for a breakthrough. Also looking for a mate is Debbie (Sheila Kelley), who is friends with Steve and Janet. She decides to go the video dating route, and creates a video to try and find the perfect match.

Written and directed by Cameron Crowe, Singles is more about mood, feel and music and less about plot and characters. The film is a celebration of a Seattle's unexpected moment in the spotlight of the music world, when grunge erupted as the sound of the day and bands went from underground to global stardom within months. The film features the music of Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Mother Love Bone and Mudhoney among others, and band members, mostly before their fame, appear in supporting roles.

As for the relationship stories, they are simple and routine. Crowe's writing is not sharp enough to highlight any of the personalities, and the characters do not move beyond pleasant, generally inoffensive and only vaguely interesting. There is nothing wrong with the romance, comedy and frequent fourth wall breaks; there just isn't anything too compelling on offer, either. Crowe does earn points for keeping his characters deglamorized and refreshingly real, in keeping with grunge's no-frills blue collar aesthetic.

The ensemble cast does what is required, both Kyra Sedgwick and Bridget Fonda playing up the cutesy angle, while Campbell Scott downs in blandness. Matt Dillon as the generally clueless band leader of a mediocre band could have emerged with most distinction, but is given relatively little to do. His band Citizen Dick is a reminder that even in Seattle of 1992, that there were some grunge bands too crap to break out. Bill Pullman (a plastic surgeon), Tom Skerritt (Seattle's Mayor), Jeremy Piven (a store check-out clerk), Eric Stoltz (a random street mime), Victor Garber and Paul Giamatti all appear in small roles.

In addition to the music, Singles is most famous for possibly being the inspiration for the television series Friends. Regardless, the film is like a familiar friend: fun to hang out with, but not necessarily a sizzling experience.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Movie Review: His Girl Friday (1940)

A screwball comedy with a lot to dislike, His Girl Friday tries to find laughs in a love triangle and a death row drama, and fails on both counts.

Ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) arrives at the offices of The Morning Post newspaper with her new fiance and insurance salesman Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) to tell her ex-husband and Post boss Walter Burns (Cary Grant) that she is quitting journalism to settle down with Baldwin. Burns wants to win his girl back and immediately starts scheming to disrupt Hildy's plans to join Baldwin and his mother (Alma Kruger) on a train to Albany.

Burns finds ways to make Baldwin's life miserable while tantalizing Hildy with an opportunity to delve into a breaking story: a sad man named Earl Williams (John Qualen) is about to be hanged for the crime of shooting a police officer, but his execution may be politically motivated to garner votes in an upcoming election. Hildy can't resist a potential scoop and heads to the prison's press room to interview Williams and investigate local political machinations.

Directed by Howard Hawks as an adaptation of the 1928 stage play The Front Page, His Girl Friday mostly consists of characters shouting across rooms, talking over each other, and hollering down the phone, and often all three at once. While there is an undoubted loony energy to all verbal sparring, it is badly dated, surprisingly unfunny, and more often than not, quite cruel.

At the heart of the film's problems are the two acutely unlikeable male characters. Walter Burns is conniving, manipulative, self-centred, mean-spirited and singularly selfish. Admittedly the film is intended as a jaundiced view of newspapermen, but Burns is also supposed to be the main romantic interest. He instead leaves a cold, slithery trail at the core of the film. His competition is Bruce Baldwin, a meek wimpy man who does not stand a chance against Burns' buzzsaw tactics. Neither man comes close to deserving Hildy, and the romantic elements never spark in any direction.

The rest of the plot is equally uneven. The Earl Williams story descends into numerous newspapermen, law enforcement types and corrupt politicians bellowing past each other, the comedy again not working as it squirms uneasily next to themes of ignored depression, on-screen suicide, and extrajudicial state executions treated as a joke.

Rosalind Russell almost saves the film on her own with a confident, sassy display as Hildy Johnson, with enough style, smarts and instincts to keep up with fast-breaking stories and Burns' shenanigans. But the one good performance cannot overcome a stage-bound, distractingly vociferous yelling match full of distasteful characters.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Movie Review: Knocked Up (2007)

A crude romantic comedy, Knocked Up does not hold back on the vulgarities but also finds a few good comic moments in the story of an unwanted pregnancy resulting from a drunken one night stand.

Alison (Katherine Heigl) works at the E! television channel, and is unexpectedly promoted to celebrity interviewer. To celebrate she goes out for a night of clubbing fun with her sister Debbie (Leslie Mann), who is married to Pete (Paul Rudd) and the mother of two. Alison ends the night having unprotected sex with slacker Ben (Seth Rogen), who does nothing in life except get high and hang out with his equally useless friends Jason (Jason Segel), Jay (Jay Baruchel), Jonah (Jonah Hill) and Martin (Martin Starr). The morning after Alison, confirms that she has nothing in common with Ben and they part ways.

Eight weeks later Alison discovers that she is pregnant. She reconnects with Ben, and decides to go through with the pregnancy. They try to make it work as a couple, while Debbie and Pete face a crisis of their own. As the due date draws nearer, the stresses of the forced relationship between Alison and Ben come to the fore.

Directed and written by Judd Apatow, Knocked Up is a hit-and-miss romantic comedy, although the romance element is more of a search through the jungle of incompatibility. There are plenty of laughs to be sure, but also many jokes that fall flat and others that are overcooked. The improvisational, irreverent vibe is a welcome shot in the arm for an often tired genre, as is the unapologetic celebration of the brotherhood of offensive slackerhood. But there is only so much humour that can be squeezed out of men who waste their life on dope, juvenile sex jokes and the general pursuit of nothingness, and Knocked Up frequently bumps up against these limits.

Beneath the coarse exterior, Apatow does add thoughtful commentary on relationship dynamics. The women, through Alison and Debbie, are portrayed as more stressed but also more responsible and more caring. The men, represented primarily by Ben and Pete, are either diamonds in the rough, or just rough, seeking escape from the emotional responsibilities of adulthood through actions that avoid accountability. While the men seem to be more fun, it is the women who set the agenda and make the key decisions that strive towards meaningful happiness.

The cast is mostly made up of Apatow regulars, and they are all in, riding the wave of organic humour, soaring and crashing depending on the cleverness of the dialogue. With all the bromances in full flow, it is left to Heigl and Mann to provide any sense of organizational structure, and they deliver steady performances. The cast also includes Harold Ramis and Kristen Wiig in small roles, and a host of celebrity cameos.

Knocked Up works its way to a spectacular climax, the pregnancy reaching full term just as the reality of what it takes to achieve couplehood finally dawns on Ben, labour pain mixed with manic panic and over-the-top laughs.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Movie Review: A Bigger Splash (2015)

A psychological drama about four people entangled in convoluted relationships, A Bigger Splash appears to have important things to say but fails to deliver when it matters.

Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) is an established music star recovering from vocal chord surgery. Only able to talk in a whisper, Marianne has retreated to the rustic Italian island of Pantelleria with her partner Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) a documentary filmmaker and recovering alcoholic who attempted suicide a while back.

Their idyllic time away is interrupted when Marianne's former lover Harry (Ralph Fiennes) and his grown daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) invite themselves to share the same house. Harry is a gregarious, larger than life music producer who was Marianne's partner for many years, and he actually introduced her to Paul. Now he may want to reclaim her love while preying on Paul's vulnerabilities. Meanwhile, Penelope oozes sexuality and proceeds to quietly stir the pot as well.

Directed by Luca Guadagnino, loosely inspired by 1969's La Piscine and financed by Italian film credit money, A Bigger Splash cannot quite shake the vague sense of a few stars gathering for a Mediterranean vacation and filming for convenience. Comprehensively too long at over two hours, the David Kajganich screenplay struggles to find content once the characters are set. There is a solid hour of time to kill between the initial introductions and the final act, and that middle segments drags with barely a pulse.

Guadagnino kills the time with plenty of pretty scenery, a lot of tasteful nudity and a few meaningful conversations, and finds a highlight with Ralph Fiennes doing a solo dance to Emotional Rescue by The Rolling Stones. But there is precious little narrative development to speak of, and the themes of love won and lost, jealousy, betrayal, depression, substance abuse, illicit liaisons and career loss are hinted at and then set loose in the Italian breeze, never to find context or shelter. The bolted-on sub-plot of Pantelleria serving as a landing spot for illegal migrants serves as a further reminder of how little progress is being made among the main characters

And when the emotions erupt into the open, the film takes a sudden leap from subdued to wild. Instead of arguments there is violence, and the film disintegrates into a half-baked investigation followed by a sloppy wrap-up. The four central performances are all excellent and maintain a basic level of interest, but the good acting alone does not paper over the structural weaknesses.

For all its tedious pretensions, A Bigger Splash is actually a smaller plonk.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Movie Review: Catch Me If You Can (2002)

A light-hearted chase drama inspired by real events, Catch Me If You Can is treat for the eyes and the mind. The story of master con artist and cheque fraudster Frank Abagnale Jr. is a breezy tale told with a bouncy spirit.

In New York of the early 1960s, 16 year old Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) grows up idolizing his father Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken), an independently-minded businessman who constantly runs into money problems. When Frank Sr.'s marriage to passionate Frenchwoman Paula (Nathalie Baye) falls apart due to his financial difficulties and her infidelity, Frank Jr.'s life is shattered and he goes on the run. Having inherited his father's instincts for charming people into parting with money, Frank survives by cashing fraudulent cheques at various banks.

Frank Abagnale Sr.: Two little mice fell in a bucket of cream. The first mouse quickly gave up and drowned. The second mouse, wouldn't quit. He struggled so hard that eventually he churned that cream into butter and crawled out. Gentlemen, as of this moment, I am that second mouse.

Wanting more, driven by a desire to recover all that his Dad lost, and appreciating the power of a slick uniform, Frank pretends to be a Pan Am co-pilot. He starts forging payroll cheques, and is soon flying around the country, amassing a fortune in cash, and leaving a long trail of victimized banks in his wake. His exploits grab the attention of FBI bank fraud agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), who starts a years-long pursuit. But the FBI man is always half a step behind the con artist, and Frank has more tricks up his sleeve and new personas to disappear into.

Directed by Steven Spielberg and based on the book by the same name co-written by Abagnale, Catch Me If You Can is an engaging, remarkably entertaining film. Approximately 80 percent based on reality (according to Abagnale himself), the film focuses on one kid on the run possessing extraordinary self-confidence and one dour FBI agent determined to catch up to him. By avoiding all buddy movie and action cliches that could have crept into the narrative, Spielberg and his screenwriter Jeff Nathanson produce an original, funny and character-driven film, with the momentum generated by intellect and the human condition.

Frank Sr.: You know why the Yankees always win, Frank?
Frank Jr.: 'Cause they have Mickey Mantle?
Frank Sr.: No, it's 'cause the other teams can't stop staring at those damn pinstripes.

It's takes a perpetrator and a victim to run a successful con, and the film delights in showing the various ways Frank is able to either get what he wants or escape from sticky situations using confidence and the razzle dazzle of image and props. He's both the struggling mouse and the Yankees in pinstripes. Whether it's a Pan Am pilot's outfit, a doctor's white coat, a shiny pendant, or a wallet full of junk, he distracts and sweet talks in equal measure. He succeeds to the tune of millions in cash, even conniving to get a high class call girl to pay him for a night of pleasure.

Compared to real events the film overplays the two key relationships in Frank's life, and that's quite excusable because Spielberg knows what makes a good screen drama. Frank is provided with regular touch points with his father, whose life is on an endless downward spiral that only he fails to see. Frank Jr.'s motivation is to set all that went wrong in his dad's life, but for Frank Sr. the struggle is the life, and he takes joy not in escaping the bucket, but watching his son churn for another day.

The in-pursuit relationship between Frank and Carl is also enriched for cinematic purposes (and to provide Tom Hanks with more to do). The film features Christmas time phone calls between the two men to affirm the emptiness and broken homes they share, and to build a bond that comes to fruition in the final act.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks are both excellent, smoothly building complex characters continuously longing for something just out of reach. Christopher Walken gives Frank Sr. the doomed air of a smart man determined to fight a system that merciless crushes him into nothingness, but that is no reason for him to stop the fight.  The rich cast also features small but telling roles for Martin Sheen, James Brolin, Amy Adams and Jennifer Garner.

Catch Me If You Can features a stunning throwback opening credit sequence by Kuntzel+Deygas that recalls the best of Saul Bass. A whimsical, curious John Williams progressive jazz music score enhances the 1960s vibe.

Cool, creative and captivating, Catch Me If You Can is a cat and mouse game at its finest.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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