Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Movie Review: Love Actually (2003)

Featuring nine loosely-connected vignettes about love as London counts down to Christmas, Love Actually achieves its modest objectives by risking a variety of outcomes and allocating almost enough time for each story to breathe and develop.

With five weeks to go until Christmas, several tales of love and romance unfold concurrently:

  • Aging and washed-up rock star Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) attempts an unlikely comeback by re-recording one of his old songs and promoting it as the Christmas hit of the season. Much to the horror of his long-suffering manager Joe (Gregor Fisher), Billy embarks on a crass, foul-mouthed marketing campaign which remarkably starts to work.
  • The newly elected British Prime Minister (Hugh Grant), an eligible bachelor, moves into 10 Downing Street and is immediately attracted to Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), a junior staff member.
  • Karen (Emma Thompson) is the Prime Minister's sister. She is married to Harry (Alan Rickman), but the passion has seeped out of their relationship. At Harry's office, Mia (Heike Makatsch) sets her eyes on sexually devouring Harry. 
  • Also at Harry's office, the dowdy Sarah (Laura Linney) has a deep crush on co-worker Karl (Rodrigo Santoro), but she cannot find the courage to act upon it. Sarah's life seems to be controlled by her cell phone, as she frequently receives calls from someone who desperately needs her.
  • Writer Jamie (Colin Firth) discovers his girlfriend sleeping with his bother. He resets his life in the country and meets Portuguese housekeeper Aurélia (Lúcia Moniz). They have a huge language barrier between them, but nevertheless grow close.
  • Jamie's friend Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) marries his long-term girlfriend Juliet (Keira Knightley). Peter's best friend Mark (Andrew Lincoln) harbours a deep, silent crush on Juliet.
  • Karen's friend Daniel (Liam Neeson) is recently widowed. His young stepson Sam (Thomas Sangster) is experiencing his first schoolboy crush, falling under the spell of flashy American classmate Joanna (Olivia Olson).
  • John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page) are movie set body doubles who meet while simulating hot sex scenes. Although both are comfortable fully naked, both are also painfully shy in their private lives.
  • After repeatedly striking out while trying to chat up women, Colin (Kris Marshall) decides that he needs to head off to the United States, where he is convinced there would be plenty of stunning girls waiting to fall into bed with him, mainly due to his British accent.
Directed and written by Richard Curtis, who had previously found success as the writer and producer of Four Weddings And A Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones's Diary (all with Hugh Grant), Love Actually is simply sweet. With an ambitious running time of 136 minutes, the film hops between the various stories with admirably agility, never lingering for too long and returning to every sketch just in time to catch up with the latest developments. Curtis' main achievement resides in creating about 25 characters who are all memorable in their own way, despite not spending much more than 15 minutes on each of the romances.

As can be expected, not all the stories fully hit their targets. Body doubles John and Judy are perhaps the most short-changed in terms of narrative development, while wannabe womanizer Colin's escapades are played purely for laughs. The progression and resolution of Mark's crush on best-friend's-wife Juliet misses the mark completely. Sam's grade school crush on Joanna is overextended, and falls victim to a sugar overdose. 

Better and more engaging, the language-challenged affair between struggling writer Jamie and housekeeper Aurélia emerges as the most romantic story, while the Karen/Harry/Mia triangle is a serious peek at a marriage drifting sideways and falling victim to middle aged ennui. Grant brings the best aspects of his arrogant self-doubter persona to the Prime Minister's office, and gets to deliver a punchy speech to the American President (Billy Bob Thornton) that has become legendary in British political circles.

Curtis demonstrates courage to find endings that are a mixed bag of happy, sad and unresolved, and extends the definition of love to some unexpected places, particularly with singer Billy Mack and office worker Sarah. Love Actually is about the connections formed by the human spirit, and sometimes the sparks are brightest in the most unlikely places.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Movie Review: Passengers (2008)

A story of survivors of an airplane crash struggling to make sense of the tragedy, Passengers suffers through a clumsy opening but steadies itself for a better than expected resolution.

A plane crashes onto a beach, and there are just a handful of survivors. Psychotherapist Claire Summers (Anne Hathaway) is assigned by her boss Perry (Andre Braugher) to help the survivors deal with the trauma in group sessions, and individually if needed. Hunky survivor Eric (Patrick Wilson) insists that Claire meet him alone; she agrees, especially once he appears to exhibit some post-traumatic extrasensory abilities. Eric advises Claire to reach out and repair the relationship with her estranged sister. Meanwhile, he suffers bouts of agitation upon hearing a dog barking.

The stories recounted by the survivors seem to contradict the official explanation of the crash provided by airline executive Arkin (David Morse). Claire begins to suspect that there may be a cover-up underway, and senses that she is being watched by one or more creepy individuals. Meanwhile, Caire's dotty next-door neighbour Toni (Dianne Wiest) appears to take a greater interest in Claire's affairs. Gradually Claire and Eric fall in love and they start a relationship. Meanwhile, attendance at the group sessions diminishes, as the increasingly upset survivors appear to give up on the therapy, increasing Claire's frustration.

Directed by Colombia's Rodrigo García and filmed mostly in and around Vancouver, not much more can be said about Passengers without revealing its true intentions. Sufficient to say that while the opening half is a slow-baking romance unfolding against the background of some amateur survivor therapy mixed in with hints of corporate chicanery, it's all a careful set-up for where the film goes in its second half, which is much better.

The first 45 minutes are a study of the fragmented search for the truth and change that follow a tragedy. The film unfolds slowly and rather awkwardly, and the more Claire interacts with the survivors the more she realizes that there may be more to the story of the crash than first meets the eye. The recollections of the various passengers don't mesh with each other, much less with the official version. The number of survivors seeking Claire's help keeps on dwindling, and there are mysterious men and women who always seem to be hovering whenever Claire meets with the survivors. Then she finds herself affected by the tragedy in unforeseen ways. Her behaviour changes, first in reaching out to her sister and then in crossing all professional boundaries to get romantically involved with Eric.

Once it becomes apparent where the film is heading, it picks up the pace and becomes much more enjoyable. Garcia finds better success once he starts steering Claire's perspective towards not just what she is being told but also what is possible, and the film stitches itself to provide a satisfying conclusion. Anne Hathaway does a fine job mixing eagerness to please with sweet naiveté and building anxiety as Claire realizes that her assignment may not be as simple as she thought.

Passengers is worth the journey. Despite a rather ponderous take-off and plenty of turbulence along the way, the landing is quite uplifting.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Movie Review: Consenting Adults (1992)

A klutzy thriller with an uneven tone, Consenting Adults tries to convey a slick erotic vibe but then morphs into ridiculous murder territory and sinks under the weight of its misguided pretensions.

Richard and Priscilla Parker (Kevin Kline and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) are a typical suburban couple, working in the music industry, raising their daughter, grappling with some debt issues, and dealing with a passion-reduced marriage. Eddie and Kay Otis (Kevin Spacey and Rebecca Miller) move in as the new couple next door. Eddie is a fast-talking, risk-taking bundle of energy, with a solution to every problem, no qualms about bending the law, and a pushy personality.

The two couples become friends, and Richard can't help but be attracted to the winsome Kay, an amateur blues singer with a husky voice. Eddie pulls an insurance scam to generate some quick money for the Parkers, and then starts to hint at a wife-swap, initially horrifying Richard. But sensing that Priscilla may be open to the experience, Richard warms up to the idea. Then a bloody murder is committed, turning Richard's life completely upside down.

Directed by Alan J. Pakula, the first 45 minutes of Consenting Adults is a fairly interesting exploration of close to middle age angst, and the pressures of work, kids, and finances as they attack the stability of a marriage and leave it vulnerable to outside temptations. Eddie is a catalyst to stir the Parker relationship, and stir he does. Eddie offers a window into an attractive lifestyle where, with just a bit of innovative skirting of societal laws, everything can be refreshed.

The first half of the film peaks with the promise of the Parkers succumbing to sexual experimentation as the next step in spicing up their lives towards the dark side, and then the film falls apart. Whether or not intended as a clumsy thou-shall-pay-the-price-for-coveting-thy-neighbour's-wife morality tale, Consenting Adults jettisons all its thoughtful content and disintegrates into cheap, large plot-hole filled murder and mayhem territory, culminating in asinine Ramboesque infiltrations and no less a weapon than an Uzi submachine gun making a late appearance to settle scores.

Kevin Kline delivers what must be one the worst performances of his career. He spends the first half of the film in a dumbfounded, dormant trance, before suddenly turning into an action hero with Bruce Willis capabilities. Kevin Spacey dominates with his excitable portrayal of Eddie, an infectious personality that devours life. But even Eddie falls off the cliff of sanity, along with the back-half of the film. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Rebecca Miller are fine, but also underutilized. Forest Whitaker as an insurance company investigator and E.G. Marshall as a crusty lawyer make late appearances before disappearing into irrelevance, making way for the flying bullets and swinging baseball bats.

Consenting Adults is frozen between attempted cerebral thriller and botched cretinous action, and is finally just caught with its pants down.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Movie Review: The Changeling (1980)

An old-fashioned haunted house horror film, The Changeling finds the right balance between mystery and chills in the story of a grieving man moving into a long-vacant estate.

In upstate New York, music composer John Russell (George C, Scott) loses his wife and daughter in a freak car accident on an icy road. After a period of grieving he accepts a university teaching position and relocates to Washington State. Claire Norman (Trish Van Devere) of the local heritage house society helps John to find and move into a Victorian-era mansion that used to belong to the Carmichael family. John also meets Senator Joseph Carmichael (Melvyn Douglas), a benefactor of the heritage society and one of the most powerful men in the state.

It does not take long for things to start going bump in the night. John encounters loud banging noises, doors that mysteriously open and close, and glass that suddenly shatters. He explores the house and finds a long closed-off cobweb-filled upper room, with a child's old wheelchair and a bathtub. John and Claire delve into archival records and find clues suggesting that back in the early 1900s, a child may have been murdered by his father at the Carmichael mansion.

A Canadian co-production directed by Peter Medak, The Changeling builds up a steady sense of trepidation.The film starts on a dour note with the car crash destroying John's family, and placing him in an emotionally vulnerable state. From there Medak steers the narrative into ever darkening physical and emotional corners, and John has to confront his own loss to help solve the mystery of a young murder victim.

An atmosphere of mounting dread is maintained throughout, helped enormously by an evocative piano-driven music score by Rick Wilkins, pregnant with the promise of bad things about to happen. The film is punctuated with memorable, scary scenes, none more so that one of the most chilling seances put to film. Medak conjures up a truly eerie intervention with a clairvoyant who connects with the dead in a terrorizing trance while scribbling furiously, and then ups the spookiness factor by capturing ghostly vocals on the tape used by John to record the event.

In other scenes, a child's small red ball and an empty wheelchair are deployed to bloodcurdling effect, and there are plenty of traditional what's-behind-this-door! jumpy moments, enhanced by limited light, striking shadows and the dreariness of the Northwest.

George C. Scott adds considerable weight to the proceedings, and creates in John Russell a victim and a sympathetic father with the courage to explore rather than flee. His sturdy presence is an equal match to the agony residing in the old Carmichael house.

The Changeling uses old tried and tested horror ingredients, but nevertheless creates an effectively haunting experience.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Movie Review: Appaloosa (2008)

An  old-fashioned western, Appaloosa enjoys many good moments thanks to a strong partnership between the two lead actors, but otherwise overreaches and sprawls towards an unconvincing romance and unnecessary prolongation.

It's 1882 in New Mexico. The marshal of the town of Appaloosa and all his deputies are killed by ruthless rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons). The town's elders recruit legendary gunman Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his gunshot-toting partner Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) to become the new law. Virgil quickly restores order and checks the aggressive behaviour of Bragg's men.

Widow Allie French (Renée Zellweger) arrives in town, and Virgil is immediately smitten. They start a romance and make plans to settle down together, although Everett notices that Allie's commitment to Virgil may be suspect. Meanwhile Virgil catches a big break when a ranch hand steps forward to testify against Bragg, allowing Virgil and Everett to arrest Bragg and hold him until a judge arrives to hold a trial. But Bragg has allies in unlikely places, and the arrival of gunman Ring Shelton (Lance Henriksen) and his brother Mackie signals the start of a new, violent chapter in Appaloosa.

The second feature film to be directed by Ed Harris (who also co-wrote the script), Appaloosa is a traditional western that treats the genre with the utmost respect. This is both a strength and a weakness. The measured tone and sturdy foundations of the film generate undeniable appeal and set the movie on a sound footing. But there is also little that is new here, and the film serves as a reminder that most of the stories of the west have been told before, and much more than once.

The main crisp element offered by Appaloosa is the relaxed, deep relationship between Virgil and Everett. This is a buddy movie in all the good, rich meanings of the world, and without the contrived tension that is so often added to the mix. Virgil and Everett are simply good together, creating a classic team, with Virgil more comfortable in a leadership role and Everett providing a natural support. Just a touch of humour is added by allowing Everett to carry not only the supportive shotgun but the stronger vocabulary. When Virgil stumbles on complex words, Everett invariably steps in to rescue his friend's sentences.

The film leans heavily on this core friendship, and never succumbs to the cheap thrill of testing it. The few times when Virgil and Everett have a reason to question each other, they quickly don't, emphasizing a bond of quiet trust forged over many years. Harris and Mortensen bring the two men to life with minimum fuss, and both are excellent.

Much less successful is Zellweger as Allie. A replacement for Diane Lane, Zellweger never clicks into a role that requires vulnerability, seduction and manipulation. Zellweger is not able to offer any of the required emotions, and is reduced to following the script along rather than leading with any conviction. Jeremy Irons is adequate as the villain, but he is hampered by the absence of any meaningful backstory to explain his motives.

The film also suffers from some prolongation that starts to get tiresome. A couple of the final chapters could have been shortened, as the mind games and confrontations between Virgil and Bragg drag on and the film meanders in search of a definitive climax. When it arrives, it is good, but the satisfying conclusion can't reverse the damage caused by all the detours to get there.

Neither a genre rejuvenation nor a waste, Appaloosa is a middling effort, a dependable riding partner who neither thrills nor disappoints.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Movie Review: The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

An inside look at the fashion industry, The Devil Wears Prada combines cutting comedy with career drama and emerges with a winning outfit.

In New York City, Andrea "Andy" Sachs (Anne Hathaway) joins the staff of Runway magazine as the second assistant to editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep). Andy has aspirations to be a serious journalist, could not care less about fashion, and dresses accordingly, much to the horror of first assistant Emily (Emily Blunt). Miranda is a living legend of the fashion world, a humourless trend-setting titan who looks after every detail of what goes into the magazine and demands nothing but perfection from her staff.

Andie is a complete misfit in the office, and struggles to keep up with the Miranda's obsessive and often menial demands. But she gets some advice and support from Runway's art director Nigel (Stanley Tucci), and gradually she finds her legs and earns Miranda's grudging respect. But as Andie grows more fond of her career and the world of fashion, her behaviour and interests change, causing a rift with boyfriend Nate (Adrian Grenier). Things get even more complicated when up-and-coming writer Christian Thompson (Simon Baker) takes a liking to Andie and starts pursuing her romantically. With Miranda as a mentor and the fashion world now a viable career option, Andie has to decide between her old and new values.

Based on the best-selling book by Lauren Weisberger, The Devil Wears Prada is a glitzy, polished romp through the world of high fashion and designer brands. Director David Frankel fully invests in creating a sparkly, glamorous, and luxurious look and feel, turning the film into a glossy fashion magazine in motion, and it works. The film succeeds in capturing all the seductive attributes of an industry that targets women and specializes in creating and selling new "must-haves" every month.

It's a powerful, fully-perfected and finely-honed bubble world, and even level-headed, idealistic Andie is sucked in. The film soars well beyond a satire or comedy by carefully tracing Andie's path from could-not-care-less to an insider in tune with the power politics that decide winners and losers behind the scenes. Andie and Miranda initially inhabit different planets, and the strength of the script (by Aline Brosh McKenna) resides in cleverly stripping away the dissimilarities and finding the core of two women who may have a lot more in common than either of them cares to admit.

The visual highlights include several snappy montage sequences brilliantly edited by Mark Livolsi and set to a stylish soundtrack. In the film's opening sequence the focus is on the effort women routinely go through in preparing to face the workday. Miranda's montage features her patented throw-the-coat-and-bag-at-Andie's-desk move; while Andie's fashion transformation gets its own before/after in-motion treatment. Montages can be more than tiresome; The Devil Wears Prada packs in three and creates the appetite for more. And as if the snazzy Manhattan setting is not enough, the film detours to Paris for a critical week in Andie's education.

Meryl Streep revitalized her career with her epic performance as Miranda Priestly. She lost the Academy Award to Helen Mirren for The Queen, but Streep's performance is arguably the more likely to be remembered down the years. Her understated sense of superiority is a delight to watch, and she makes the simple catch-phrase "that's all..." a signature line signifying the nightmarish abyss between legends and mortals.

Anne Hathaway is perfect if more predictable as Andie, while Emily Blunt is an absolute revelation and frequently a riot as first assistant Emily, a woman fully consumed by the fashion world and her standing within it. And as Nigel, Stanley Tucci portrays the lieutenants of the fashion world, faithfully following the orders of the Mirandas but unlikely to ever get their shot at stardom or status.

Both an expose and a character-rich essay on the unexpected allure of careerism, The Devil Wears Prada is dressed to impress.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Movie Review: Deceived (1991)

A blundering thriller with a few tense moments thrown in, Deceived relies exclusively on plot holes and general stupidity to build its narrative, and is quickly sucked into the vortex of the forgettable.

In New York City, Adrienne (Goldie Hawn) is an art restoration specialist. She meets and falls in love with art dealer Jack Saunders (John Heard). They get married, have a child and seem to have the perfect life. Then Jack reveals that he is under suspicion at work for stealing a precious necklace. One of his colleagues is found dead, and Adrienne starts noticing Jack's weird behaviour, including potentially lying about a business trip to Boston.

When she confronts him, Jack abruptly leaves the house, and word soon arrives that he was killed in a car crash. Through school records and by tracking down family friends and relatives, Adrienne starts to delve into the history of the man who was her husband, only to discover that the man she married was an impostor, and not called Jack at all. He was Frank Sullivan, a lonesome boy who was raised by an unloving mother (Beatrice Straight). Adrienne soon realizes that not only was her entire marriage a sham, but she is in mortal danger because the precious necklace has gone missing and there is a killer on the loose who thinks she has it.

Directed by Damian (son of Richard) Harris, Deceived would give made-for-TV movies a bad name had it been made for TV. The attempt to place Goldie Hawn in a serious film backfires spectacularly, although through no fault of her own, as she is serviceable as a damsel in distress. The problem lies within a pretty awful screenplay by Mary Agnes Donoghue and Bruce Joel Rubin, who can both do better, but maybe not in this genre. If there ever was the germ of a good idea here, it was eradicated by the sloppy, insulting script.

Deceived is the kind of thriller that relies on everyone being fairly imbecilic in order to move its plot forward. This is a film in which the police do not bother with fundamentals such as checking the identity of a crash victim. The tax authorities somehow do not notice that a dead man has been paying taxes for years. The murder of a respected art curator does not appear to ever be investigated. A smart wife who seriously suspects her husband of lying about traveling accepts his lame explanations and fails to request simple proof, such as an airline ticket or a hotel receipt.

The incredible lapses and ridiculous actions continue. A major expensive artifact coincidentally falls to the ground unnoticed, then is mistakenly placed in a basket of trinkets, and then casually walks out of the house around the neck of a child, with no one the wiser. Meanwhile, Adrienne, seeking a simple phone, has to wander through countless museum hallways and spooky backrooms where she will conveniently stumble onto a dead body.

The film ends with an interminable chase through a building under construction, and a character stepping into the void, a case of plot holes and literal holes finally overlapping to end the agony.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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