Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Movie Review: Johnny Dangerously (1984)


A comic parody of 1930s-style gangster films, Johnny Dangerously tries hard but misses most of its targets.

Johnny Kelly (Michael Keaton) now operates a pet store. He catches a would-be young thief in the act, sits him down and explains that crime does not pay by recounting his life story. Johnny was brought up on the street corners of New York City, and his Ma (Maureen Stapleton) was perpetually sick and in need of expensive surgical procedures. To secure the money Johnny drifted into a life of crime and joined the gang of Jocko Dundee (Peter Boyle), saving Jocko's life in a gunfight with the rival gang of Roman Moronie (Richard Dimitri).

Johnny adopts the flashy surname of Dangerously and rises through the ranks to become Jocko's second in command while fending off the threat of long-time rival Danny Vermin (Joe Piscopo). He meets and marries showgirl Lil Sheridan (Marilu Henner), and helps his brother Tommy (Griffin Dunne) get an education as a lawyer. Jocko and Johnny have the law in control by keeping District Attorney Burr (Danny DeVito) on the payroll, but trouble arrives when Tommy graduates and embarks on an anti-crime career, setting himself on a collision course with his brother.

Directed by Amy Heckerling and written by a clumsy committee of four, Johnny Dangerously is only occasionally funny. Heckerling and Keaton were coming off successful but small films in the form of Fast Times At Ridgemont High and Mr. Mom respectively, and perhaps bit off more than they were ready to chew. Despite a barrage of jokes and visual gags, Johnny Dangerously sets the sophistication bar quite low, and most of the humour is ho-hum at best. Making matters worse, the set design is just too slick, giving the film an inappropriate polished and theatrical shine, while the central performances of Keaton, Boyle, Henner, and Piscopo stop just short of winking at the audience and shouting to the rafters.

The better moments come from secondary sources. Gang boss Moronie is an expert at mangling the English language and draws the best laughs with some classic sputtered lines, while Burr's quietly frantic and ultimately fruitless attempts at controlling Tommy make best use of DeVito's talents. And when Johnny calls on the services of a priest on the way to a possible date with the electric chair, the priest's supposedly Latin ramblings are simply priceless.

Roman Moroni, testifying at a congressional-style hearing: I would like to direct this to the distinguished members of the panel: You lousy cork-soakers. You have violated my farging rights. Dis somanumbatching country was founded so that the liberties of common patriotic citizens like me could not be taken away by a bunch of fargin iceholes... like yourselves.

The rest of the film is conspicuously forgettable, and features too many obvious repetitions of jokes that run out of steam early but are anyway mercilessly re-deployed. Despite a smattering of good intentions, Johnny is neither on the spot nor in the least bit dangerous.






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Movie Review: Julia (1977)


A pre-war drama centred on the friendship of two women who carve different paths in life, Julia is beautifully filmed and deliberately paced, but also somewhat misdirected.

It's the 1930s, and Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda) is an aspiring writer struggling to finish her first play. Her friend and lover Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards) is in turns encouraging and gruff, prodding her to be the best that she can be but also intolerant of her complaining. Dashiell advises Lilly to travel to Europe for some inspiration and to catch up with her childhood friend, the idealistic social justice crusader Julia (Vanessa Redgrave). Lilly settles down for a stint of writing in Paris, but rushes to Vienna when she learns that Julia has been brutalized by the authorities for her anti-fascist activism. Once Julia is released from hospital, Lilly is unable to find her.

Lilly returns to the US, completes her first play, and achieves great success. Now a celebrated playwright, she embarks on a tour of Europe with Alan Campbell (Hal Holbrook) and his wife, but before she can set off to Moscow, she is unexpectedly approached by the mysterious Johann (Maximilian Schell) with a pleading message from Julia. Lilly can help rescue hundreds of political prisoners by smuggling $50,000 into Berlin for use by an underground network of activists to bribe prison officials into releasing detainees. Lilly has to decide whether she wants to risk her own life by getting involved in a dangerous world she knows nothing about.

Based on an apparently fictional chapter from Hellman's 1973 book of memoirs Pentimento, Julia is a grand story of a friendship suddenly thrust into the turbulence of impending evil. Gorgeous to look at and filmed with rich flourishes, Julia unfolds at a leisurely pace, small gestures allowed the time to register, the thoughts, concerns and talents of the tentative Lilly unfurling in measured doses as she achieves success and is then awakened to a world about to go insane.

However, and for all the excellence and talent on display, it's difficult to escape the conclusion that Julia chose the right title but the wrong story. Of the two women, Julia is by far the more intriguing, but she disappears from the movie for long stretches. While Lilly's tangential incursion into danger as a reluctant furtive courier generates good drama and unfolds with potent tension, Lilly is simply not that interesting. For the entirety of the central trip to Berlin, Lilly is a hapless participant in a much bigger game, steered by others every step of the way, incapable of making any decisions herself. Lilly is as much along for the ride as the film's audience, while tantalizing hints reveal that the mostly unseen Julia is busy fighting for justice as fascism grabs Europe by the throat.

But director Fred Zinnemann overcomes most of the shortcomings of the Alvin Sargent script and delivers a dazzling old fashioned visual treat. Julia is all about ambitious staging, spectacular sets, and stunning use of colour, smoke and costumes. From Hammett's beach house to the train journey and various locales throughout Europe, Zinnemann creates impressive vistas that linger long in the memory.

Also effective are the frequent flashbacks of Julia and Lilly as teenaged friends (played by Lisa Pelikan and Susan Jones respectively) maturing into young adults, the vignettes serving to bring out the women's nascent personalities. The common theme is always of Julia as the passionate instigator and Lilly as the passive disciple. Their relationship blossoms into the love of deep friendship, and the film stops short of hinting at a physical connection, other than through the malicious gossip network that comes back to hurt Lilly.

Fonda and Redgrave are in top form, and deliver alluring performances. Fonda gets the screen time and has to convey more apprehension and self-doubt. Redgrave makes intermittent but telling appearances, and gives Julia an edgy commitment to global justice fuelled by large doses of self-belief. Redgrave won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award, and Robards won the men's equivalent for his relatively traditional turn as author Hammett. Meryl Streep makes her film debut as a haughty member of Lilly's social circle.

Julia could have invested more time on its compelling title character, but the film never falters as high quality entertainment.






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Monday, 24 November 2014

Movie Review: How Green Was My Valley (1941)


A family drama rich with longing for bygone days, How Green Was My Valley is an irresistible homage to the bright eyed innocence of childhood awakening to the convolutions of an adult world.

In Wales of the 1800s, members of the respected Morgan family make a living by working in the local coal mine, much like everyone else in their scenic village community tucked into the lush countryside. The family patriarch Gwilym (Donald Crisp) still works in the mine, while his wife Beth (Sara Allgood) maintains the household with help from daughter Angharad (Maureen O'Hara). The eldest five sons Ianto, Ivor, Davy, Gwilym Jr and Owen work with their father, while 10 year old youngest son Huw (Roddy McDowall) is smart enough to go to school, but is also eager to follow in the footsteps of his father and brothers.

Change slowly but surely comes to the valley. Wages are driven down due to the availability of too many workers, triggering a strike and calls for a union that create a wedge between the more traditional Gwilym and his sons. Ivor gets married to the beautiful Bronwyn (Anna Lee), and Huw develops an immediate crush on his sister-in-law. The handsome Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon) arrives as the new preacher in the village and catches Angharad's eye. Huw and his mother are hurt on a snowy night, while Angharad is pressured into marrying Mr. Evans, the son of the mine's owner. Huw has misadventures at school, there are tragic accidents within the mine, and Angharad tries to find a way to once again be with Mr. Gruffydd.

The adaptation of the 1939 Richard Llewellyn novel is a nostalgic celebration of childhood, family and simpler times. Told through the eyes of young Huw, How Green Was My Valley unapologetically pines for days of yore, and yearns for people who have since departed and places that have since changed.

With a Wold War rendering filming in Europe a difficult proposition, California locations and Irish accents have to suffice as representations of Wales. Director John Ford nevertheless strikes all the right notes, creating the most picturesque of mythical villages, where all the miners sing their way to and from work, the community is united, laughter is aplenty and families look out for each other and respect their elders. Then reality starts to creep into Huw's perspective, as labour strife, family divisions, economic realities and impossible affairs of the heart start to tear the family apart, and the community of his childhood disintegrates.

The film touches on a broad range of issues, including social class divisions, workers' rights, religion, and economic immigration. As Huw experiences more adult interaction, he is exposed to hypocrisy within the church community, business imperatives dispensing with surplus workers, malicious community gossip, loveless marriages, physical trauma and harrowing bullying by classmates and teachers alike. It's a lot to pack into a two hour movie, which means that no one topic dominates, but Ford keeps the film pointed in a steady direction and the pace remarkably measured, while making sure that every scene is worthy of a postcard.

Roddy McDowall was 13 years old at the time of filming and had already been acting for three year. He delivers a remarkably mature performance, the events in the valley unfolding from his viewpoint, and Huw emerging as the central character in a changing landscape. McDowall displays a range of emotion including respect for his father, worry for his family, fear for the future and the courage to adapt, all without resorting to bathos. The other performances are steady and more traditional, Maureen O'Hara as Angharad provided with the most promising adult role but ultimately not much evolution.

How Green Was My Valley succeeds as an attractive trip down memory lane tugging at the heartstrings that connect family and community, a case of the grass being greener on the other side of childhood.






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Sunday, 23 November 2014

Movie Review: Interstellar (2014)


An elaborate and ambitious science fiction adventure grounded in science fact, Interstellar tackles no less than the survival of the human race in a story about explorers desperately searching for alternative life-sustaining planets.

In the near future, Earth is suffering through a devastating drought. Dust bowls have created "the blight", almost all crops have been destroyed, only corn can be grown, and farming is again the one occupation that matters. Former NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is trying to hold his family together, particularly young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), who is hard-headed and strongly attached to her Dad.

Mysterious gravitational signals lead Cooper and Murphy to NASA's secretive headquarters, where Professor Brand (Michael Caine) is the brain behind a series of missions to explore planets that can serve as a potential new home for humanity. A wormhole apparently placed by superior alien beings has appeared near Saturn and is providing a shortcut to another galaxy, and individual astronauts have already landed on several promising planets, although communication back through the wormhole is garbled and limited. Brand recruits Cooper to lead a mission to visit the three most promising planets and report back. In the meantime Brand continues to work on solving the intractable problem of how to transport billions of humans to a distant planet, should one prove to be livable.

Murph is inconsolable that her Dad is leaving her behind and embarking on a seemingly impossible journey, but Cooper nevertheless joins Brand's daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and two other astronauts as they travel through the wormhole and start the tour of three candidate planets. Relativity means that the years pass much more slowly for the space travellers, and back on earth Murph (Jessica Chastain) grows up to join Professor Brand's team, as time runs out and humanity's fate hangs in the balance.

From the mind of director Christopher Nolan, who also co-wrote the script with his brother Jonathan, Interstellar is probably the most thought-provoking and visionary science fiction film since Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nolan sets out to apply the best known facts and theories about space travel into a credible narrative, and delivers a story that expands the looming threat of destructive climate-driven change into a desperate and existential quest for an alternative home planet.

For most of its 169 minutes, Interstellar is a visual feast. Whether on a barren earth covered with choking dust, or out in space as the astronauts swing by Saturn, travel through the wormhole, snuggle up to a black hole and then land on the surfaces of planets filled with either hope or death, Nolan offers up a spectacular set of rich and memorable images. Less impressive is the soundtrack by Hans Zimmer, which falls short of the intended soul-stirring impact but nevertheless drowns out too much of the low-key dialogue.

Unlike Kubrick's masterpiece, Nolan attempts to keep Interstellar grounded in events back home, and the central relationship between Cooper and Murph is intended as the emotional core of the film. In trying to wrap his film around an enormous span extending from an affecting father-daughter bond to wormholes, black holes, relativity and multiple hostile planets, Nolan overreaches. The drama between the absentee father and his emotionally abandoned and deeply resentful daughter rarely connects.

When it does, it is thanks to McConaughey's deeply felt performance. The film's most impressive human moment by far is a simple close-up of Cooper's face, light years away from Earth, as he watches a grainy video from home. Caine and Chastain provide steady support, while John Lithgow, Casey Affleck and Ellen Burstyn enhance the cast depth. Matt Damon makes an unexpected appearance, demonstrating the human frailties that will continue to threaten the existence of the species.

The final 30 minutes of Interstellar unravel rather quickly. There is just too much happening too quickly, with rudimentary Morse code, book ciphers and the complexities of gravity, time travel and the eternal power of love as unleashed by black holes colliding into a muddle. One character is reduced to running down hallways throwing sheets of scientific papers into the air in a high school level demonstration of happiness. In the context of a movie approaching three hours, it is inexcusable to rush an ending that is neither abstract nor properly elucidated.

But Interstellar is a gem in other ways. It is a thrilling journey into what might be possible, and what may become a terrifying necessity.






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Saturday, 22 November 2014

Movie Review: White Heat (1949)


A hard-hitting and action-packed gangland thriller, White Heat boasts an absorbing story, enduring characters and James Cagney in top form.

Cody Jarrett  (Cagney) is a ruthless, psychotic gang leader. He leads his mob on a daring armed robbery of a mail train in the California mountains, killing several innocent men in the process. Cody is unhappily married to Verna (Virginia Mayo), but his real, intimate attachment is to his Ma (Margaret Wycherly). Despite the large cash haul secured from the train robbery, there are deep divisions within Cody's gang, amplified by the need to hide out in a cold mountain cabin. His second in command "Big Ed" Somers (Steve Cochran) has ambitions to usurp Cody's authority, and Big Ed also has his eyes on Verna.

By tracking Ma's car, US Treasury investigator Philip Evans (John Archer) closes in on the gang's hideout, forcing Cody into the open. To escape facing justice for multiple murders, Cody confesses to a lessor non-violent crime and is sentenced to a relatively short stint behind bars. Evans is not fooled, and inserts undercover agent Hank Fallon (Edmond O'Brien) as Cody's cell-mate to keep tabs on Cody's plans and uncover the identity of his money-laundering associate. Hank gradually gains Cody's trust, and just in time. Despite Ma's best efforts, Big Ed and Verna forge an uneasy alliance and make their move to usurp Cody, who breaks out, retaliates and plans his next big job: a payroll robbery at a chemical plant.

Perhaps the finest example in Warner Bros. long catalogue of hardboiled crime thrillers, and a magnificent highlight in James Cagney's career, White Heat is a complex, gripping tale of rampant gangsters and the policemen charged with tracking them down. Director Raoul Walsh expertly constructs a compelling three-act drama over almost two hours, with no wasted moments and a level of tension than increases as Cody's options are gradually diminished.

With a finely polished script by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, the first act introduces Cody, the gang, wife Verna and Ma, and it is the uncomfortably close relationship with Ma that immediately jumps out as the biggest influence in Cody's life. As he suffers from severe migraines, it is Ma who comforts him, encourages him to get to the "top of the world", and advises him on how to manage his gang members. Meanwhile, Cody treats the luscious Verna with nothing but disdain.

The second act switches gears to life in prison, and Walsh patiently allows Hank to gain Cody's trust, no easy task when Cody's natural instinct is to suspect everyone. It's a careful, layered process, police work at its best within the jungle rules of incarceration. White Heat is notable for highlighting excellence in advanced police techniques, including the use of multiple unmarked squad cars to surreptitiously track Ma's vehicle, and then radio signal emitters to remotely triangulate the location of a moving truck.

And finally Walsh steers the film towards a sensational climax, Cody finding renewed resolve to reassert his authority, seek revenge on those who betrayed him and pull off a spectacular payroll heist, with Hank caught in the dangerous middle.

Cody Jarrett emerges as a rounded, genuine villain, struggling against mental illness, the emotional scars of what must have been a twisted childhood, and frequent physical pain. While never slipping into false sympathy, Cagney allows Cody to become a believable person never equipped to understand the feelings of his victims. Wycherly's role is small but unforgettable, a mother never seen to be violent but nevertheless capable of motivating her son to extremes of coldblooded cruelty. There is never any doubt that Ma is Cody's biggest cheerleader, and he lives his life to please her.

With gritty, bullet-drenched and often explosive action driven by a psychotic criminal striving for the top, White Heat sizzles.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Movie Review: Whiplash (2014)


A story about talent, training, motivation and ambition in the music world, Whiplash shines the spotlight on what it takes to succeed, and at what cost.

The Shaffer Conservatory in New York is the best music school in the country, and Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a dedicated student drummer with ambitions to be the best in the business. Andrew is spotted by Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the legendary leader of the school's senior band. Andrew quickly establishes his credentials and graduates to the lead drummer position, while remaining close with his father (Paul Reiser), and starting a tentative relationship with Nicole (Melissa Benoist), the cashier at the local movie house.

Fletcher's punishing teaching and motivational methods are brutal, and rely on intimidation, humiliation, exhausting repetition and physical exertion. He pushes his students to be their best, at an enormous emotional cost. Andrew proves his talent and helps the Shaffer band to success at music competitions. But despite his best effort, Andrew finds Fletcher impossible to please, and the relationship between teacher and student reaches a dangerous breaking point.

Whiplash is a simple two-character story about raw talent being forged by the fires of fear into potentially exceptional ability. Directed and written by Damien Chazelle, the film explores familiar territory often seen in sports films, where talent alone is not enough, and achievements are only grasped when coaching, motivation and heart come together. Chazelle even throws in a family dinner scene where Andrew goes out of his way to puncture the overglorified arena of sports achievement. In Whiplash, music is all that matters, and the requirements in terms of blood, sweat and tears are as demanding as any other domain.

In expanding to 106 minutes, Whiplash does probably push its points further than they need to go. There are several occasions where Andrew's badly bruised hands are literally dripping blood onto the drum kit, and a couple of the confrontations between Andrew and Fletcher are over the top in their theatrics.

But the two central characters are never less than enigmatic. At age 59 and after a lifetime spent mostly in background character parts, J.K. Simmons lands the role of a lifetime and makes the most of it. Terence Fletcher is a conceited force of nature, a rule-by-terror music teacher, the type of coach hated every day of the year except on the night that awards are handed out. With his politically incorrect bellowing and emotionally abusive behaviour, Fletcher is also the type of employee that a high-achieving school would tolerate due to his unfailing ability to deliver the competition wins that maintain the school's reputation.

Miles Teller gets the more rational and therefore less showy part, and he is also excellent. Teller keeps Andrew balanced as an individual with his own set of issues, and never trips into bland victim or hero status. Andrew is driven, ambitious and carries hard-headed ideas about success, as Nicole will find out. And as much as Fletcher is willing to push, Andrew is willing to push back. Teller creates a believable young man taking on the greatest challenge of his life.

Against the backdrop of a terrific jazz band music score, Chazelle makes his key points with effortless intensity: anything worthwhile has to be earned, unleashing individual full potential is no easy task, and sometimes, worst enemies and essential allies are one and the same. Whiplash's lessons are not necessarily new, but they are delivered with pounding passion.






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