Saturday, 29 August 2015

Movie Review: A Raisin In The Sun (1961)

An emotive drama about about race and class in America, A Raisin In The Sun only aims for the high notes. The preponderance of overcharged moments and absolute staginess hamper the film experience.

In a cramped urban apartment, the proud matriarch of a black family Lena Younger (Claudia McNeil) is trying to hold her household together. Her son Walter Lee (Sidney Poitier) is dissatisfied with his job as a chauffeur and dreams of going into the liquor store business. His wife Ruth (Ruby Dee) struggles with the family's tight finances and suffers at the hands of Walter Lee's anger and unease. Walter Lee's younger sister Beneatha (Diana Sands) is striving to become a doctor, although her brother scoffs at her ambition, which he views as unrealistic. Walter Lee and Ruth frequently clash over the parenting of their young son Travis, who has to sleep on the sofa because the apartment is too small to accommodate the family.

Following the recent death of her husband, Lena is about to receive a $10,000 insurance cheque. This heightens the tensions in the household. Lena wants to use the money for a bigger house, Walter Lee wants to risk the money on his liquor store business idea, and Beneatha's education is another deserving cause. Beneatha is also taking a great interest in her African heritage and culture, inspired by fellow student Joseph Asagai (Ivan Dixon), while she has another suitor in the form of George (a young Louis Gossett). With emotions reaching a boiling point, Lena has a key decision to make, and Ruth drops a new surprise on the family.

Not as much an adaptation of the Lorraine Hansberry play as a film capture of stage events, A Raisin In The Sun is directed by Daniel Petrie almost entirely in the confines of one room. While this sometimes can be made to work, the characters and the dialogue here are singularly overcharged. Almost every scene and every exchange quickly escalates to a heated dispute about race, ambition, God, heritage or money. The in-you-face level of intensity may work well on stage. On the screen the absence of even a modicum of circumspection in tight quarters is at first tiresome and ultimately just strangles the breath out of the drama.

The issues tackled by the film are worthwhile and never less than engaging, revealing the spectrum of social pressures faced by a working class black family not far removed from an oppressive past. There is a generation rift between Lena and Beneatha, with the latter veering into social and cultural interests deemed unthinkable by her traditional mother. For Lena the mere fact that the family has a roof of their own over their heads and can work with dignity to put food on the table is a great triumph. Beneatha wants a lot more, and now with a new decade beckoning and the influence of new friends like Asagai, she has the intellectual freedom to question fundamental assumptions about God while celebrating her African heritage in ways her mother could not dream of.

Walter Lee is a powder keg in the process of exploding. Disrespectful to both his wife and his mother, he is looking for a shortcut to wealth, and is obsessed by a get-rich-quick scheme that could jeopardize all that Lena has ever achieved for her family. The claustrophobia of the apartment is closing in on Walter Lee and mocking his life, which he views as a predetermined prison. He may now get paid to work for a rich white man, but he wants much more, and unlike his sister, he in unwilling to create the opportunity through self-betterment.

Most of the Broadway cast reprised their roles for the screen, and the performances are therefore not far from what would have been witnessed on the stage. Over the top, filled with passion, loud, and littered with an oversupply of profound moments and keynote statements, this is not a film that embraces calm discourse. There is no doubting the commitment, but the film thrusts the viewer into a room where everyone shouts, is angry, or engages in existential arguments all the time, and it becomes a predictably laborious experience.

A Raisin In The Sun has plenty to say, and it's all in UPPERCASE.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 28 August 2015

The Movies Of Tobey Maguire

All movies starring Tobey Maguire and reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

The Ice Storm (1997)

The Cider House Rules (1999)

Spider-Man (2002)

Brothers (2009)

The Great Gatsby (2013)

Labor Day (2013)

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.
The Index of Movie Stars is here.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Movie Review: Westworld (1973)

A low budget science-gone-wrong thriller, Westworld is engaging enough but runs out of steam in its final act.

The Delos amusement park features three "worlds" to serve as vacation resorts for the rich traveler. Western World provides a taste of the wild west, Medieval World recreates the dark ages, and Roman World offers the sinful opulence of a corrupt empire. The resort is populated by highly sophisticated robots in human form, programmed to offer the human vacationers excitement, adventure, thrills and sex. The robots are supposed to never harm the humans.

Peter (Richard Benjamin) and John (James Brolin) are friends who travel together for a vacation at Western World. It's Peter's first trip, and he has many questions, while John has been at the resort before and is back for another make-believe dose of the western frontier. Once the vacation starts all seems to go well, with Peter and John enjoying interactions with The Gunslinger robot (Yul Brynner), the company of prostitutes, a confrontation with the Sheriff robot, and a wild bar fight. But the technicians running the resort start to notice that the robots at all three worlds are going off script, and guests are starting to suffer injuries. Peter and John's adventure will turn from carefree fun to deadly serious.

Writer and director Michael Crichton would go on and evolve most of his concepts about scientific inventions turning on their human creators in the wildly successful Jurassic Park. Westworld is more an incubator of ideas rather than a stellar film. There is plenty to enjoy and ponder, but ultimately the film boils down to two thirds seen-it-before western set-pieces and one third routine chase action, all hampered by stiff acting, wooden dialogue, and a pervasive sense of a cheap production trying to look more expensive than it can get away with.

While Crichton takes his time to set up the premise and sell the lure of resorts offering make-believe adventures for adults, the film offers little to explain what is going wrong and why. Faceless technicians scurry around with worried expressions when the robots start to misbehave, but other than some quick one-sentence theories about a contagion, not much else is presented to explain why the robots may have transformed into murderers. And the absence of a kill switch in such technologically advanced robots is a critical oversight that receives no attention.

Ironically, once the robots turn to killers, the film loses most of its thrust. The final third is a slow moving and relatively uninvolving chase between The Gunslinger and Peter. Crichton does offer a few ideas that would be picked up and developed in future and better film, including the robot's stubborn indestructibility and his pixilated point-of-view. And once the violence starts, the blood and gore visuals are not spared. But the climax is hampered by the absence of a credible threat: Peter always seems to be faster, smarter and more resourceful than the cumbersome Gunslinger.

Yul Brynner, packing a few too many pounds and barely saying 10 words in the entire film, nails the beady eyed look of a robot gone bad. James Brolin and Richard Benjamin are perfectly suited to the grade B production values.

Westworld is worth a visit, but it could have delivered more: what makes science veer off in the wrong direction is more interesting than a slow chase with a six-shooter.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Movie Review: Murder By Death (1976)

A whodunit comedy satire, Murder By Death offers laughs aplenty but also runs out of ideas rather quickly.

The world's best detectives are invited to a spooky mansion for an evening of dinner and death. The detectives include Sidney Wang (modeled on Charlie Chan, and played by Peter Sellers), Dick and Dora Charleston (Nick and Nora Charles, brought to life by David Niven and Maggie Smith), Milo Perrier (Hercule Poirot, portrayed by James Coco), Sam Diamond (representing Sam Spade, played by Peter Falk) and Jessica Marbles (Miss Marple, interpreted by Elsa Lanchester). They need to overcome a rickety bridge and falling gargoyles just to make it into the mansion, where they are greeted by the blind butler Jamesir Bensonmum (Alec Guinness). Deaf-mute maid Yetta (Nancy Walker) is supposed to be helping to get dinner ready.

Their host is erratic millionaire Lionel Twain (Truman Capote), who promises them that one person in the mansion will be dead by midnight, and offers a reward of $1 million to whichever detective can solve the crime. In fact, by the time midnight rolls around two people appear to be dead, the rooms of the mansion are playing tricks of their own, and deep dark personal secrets about all the guests will soon be revealed. The detectives not only have to solve the crimes, but also fight to stay alive as they all come under personal attack.

Written by Neil Simon and directed by Ray Stark, Murder By Death is a good idea with mediocre execution. Making fun of the Agatha Christie-style detective genre is a promising premise, and the gathering of great minds in a stormy mansion to match wits with an evil schemer does set the stage for plenty of zingers, one-liners, and obvious convolutions. The great cast, spooky mansion setting and a clear sense of lighthearted self-depreciation create an agreeably entertaining film.

But the momentum only goes so far, and Simon surprisingly seems to have trouble developing the concept. The running time is about 90 minutes, and the first 30 minutes are fully occupied with the detectives arriving at the mansion. They all encounter the bridge, they all encounter the falling gargoyles, and they all encounter the blind butler, in what amounts to dullness by prolonged repetition. The remaining hour has an unexpectedly high number of flat patches. Too much time is invested in a limited number of gags, for example opening and closing the dining room door to find the room alternatively full and empty. This seems to go on forever and is repeated ad nauseam (and never properly explained).

To tide over the rough patches, there are jokes aplenty to keep things sort of humming along. Alec Guinness as a haplessly blind butler generates the most laughs. Peter Sellers mangling the English language with his eastern morsels of faux wisdom and trite traditional sayings adds plenty of fine comic timing. Peter Falk goes all-in as hard-boiled detective Sam Diamond. Less successful is James Coco as the food-obsessed Perrier, while Elsa Lanchester as Jessica Marbles is under-written. The cast also includes Richard Narita as Wang's adopted son, Eileen Brennan as Diamond's assistant, and James Cromwell as Perrier's driver.

Simon navigates the story towards his punchline, poking fun at detective stories that reveal key information in the frantic last few pages simply to try and outwit the audience. He probably carries that joke too far, as the rushed ending disintegrates into a muddled anti-climax of anything goes.

Murder By Death is a passable satire, and at the end, the butler maybe did it. Or maybe not.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Movie Review: Bend Of The River (1952)

A sturdy western, Bend Of The River is the story of homesteaders making their way west, and the resourceful men who can either help or victimize the new wave of settlers.

Glyn McLyntock (James Stewart) is leading a large convoy of wagons carrying optimistic farmers towards new pastures in Oregon. Jeremy Baile (Jay C. Flippen) is the grizzled leader of the settlers, and the group includes his headstrong daughters Laurie (Julie Adams) and Marjie (Lori Nelson). Laurie and Glyn are attracted to each other, but stop short of expressing any true affection. After making camp one evening, Glyn scouts ahead and stumbles onto a lynching-in-progress: he saves Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) from the noose. Emerson joins the convoy and proves to be handy in overcoming the challenges of the trail, including fending off a raid by Shoshone Indians, during which Laurie suffers an arrow wound and Emerson saves Glyn's life.

Glyn and Emerson recognize each other: they were both frontier raiders on the Missouri - Kansas border, and both are trying to find new starts away from chequered pasts. The convoy gets to Portland, where they meet professional gambler Trey Wilson (Rock Hudson) and local businessman Tom Hendricks (Howard Petrie). Glyn and Jeremy lead the settlers to remote hillside territory to establish the farming community, but their resupply plans are disrupted by an unexpected gold rush that consumes Portland. With Hendricks reneging on his deals and the settler community facing starvation over the winter, Glyn has to take matters into his own hands and joins forces with Jeremy, Emerson and Trey on a dangerous cross-mountain trek, although the lure of gold means that trust is in short supply.

The second collaboration between director Anthony Mann and star James Stewart, Bend Of The River is filled with characters, incidents, and fundamental questions about redemption and second chances. The film is as much an exploration of events as it is a thoughtful probing of the nature of the men who shaped the west, and the screenplay by Borden Chase finds a pleasing balance between action and character development.

Mutual suspicion colliding with the absolute need to trust forms the core of the film. Glyn and Emerson circle each other, each identifying both the danger and potential that resides in the other man. They are quickly indebted to each other and forced to collaborate, although neither is ever quite sure where loyalties will ultimately land. Jeremy has no choice: his group of settlers needs men like Glyn and Emerson to make it to safety and then to survive at the remote settlement. Jeremy will either trust men like Glyn and Emerson, or die. And there are always wildcards in the form of the gambler Trey and businessman Hendricks. They are out to make a buck one way or another, but whether it's principled or opportunistic profit could mean the difference between death and survival for Jeremy and his family.

And the fundamental question is whether men like Glyn and Emerson can change, from social outcasts to community builders. In the one area where the film falls short, the script tackles this issue loudly and repeatedly, the social message delivered with a jackhammer rather than any subtlety.

Mann and cinematographer Irving Glassberg colour the screen with the gorgeous scenery of the Pacific Northwest, with snow-capped mountains and the rich green forests creating a majestic backdrop. Equally impressive is the recreation of Portland as a frontier town, at first a staid and welcoming place and then a riotous town overrun by prospectors and profiteers. There is always something stunning to look at in Bend Of The River, and it's almost always beautiful.

James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy are excellent in the two central roles as frontiersmen who are the same yet potentially different. Stewart reveals Glyn's conflict as a man not comfortable admitting that his past is suspect, and fighting for his second chance in as dignified a manner as the west will allow. Kennedy allows Emerson to be, if anything, more honest. More comfortable with his past, Emerson will reform only on his own terms, and if the price is not too high.

Bend Of The River is a symbolic juncture where decisions will need to be made, trading off personal gain for societal benefit: not all men will turn in the same direction.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Movie Review: Operation Petticoat (1959)

A wartime comedy featuring the misadventures of a stricken submarine and her crew, Operation Petticoat offers some mild laughs but quickly becomes an exercise in routine waters.

It's December 1941, the US has just entered the war and somewhere in the South Pacific, the USS Sea Tiger is sunk in a Japanese air raid while still tied to the dock, having never experienced any action. Captain Matt Sherman (Cary Grant) is eager to get his submarine back to the surface, patched up and into the war. But the US military is still in a state of disarray and unable to fulfill Sherman's requisitions for essential replacement parts and supplies. Lieutenant Nick Holden (Tony Curtis), a suave fixer and ladies' man, arrives as a replacement officer with no real interest in the war but plenty of ideas on how to get things done. Sherman appoints Holden as the new supplies officer, and soon Holden is efficiently securing all that the submarine needs through ingenious scavenging adventures.

Somewhat repaired but still with plenty of mechanical and operational problems, the Sea Tiger sets sail, and at a port of call Holden finds five stranded US military nurses and brings them on-board, ostensibly as a rescue mission and to transport them to a safer harbour. With five beautiful single women now living within the sub's tight confines, the crew members are understandably sent into a tizzy. A succession of mishaps is now accompanied by unlikely romances as Sherman evades Japanese raids, tries to keep his sub in a semi-functional state, and deals with accident-prone women and Holden's neverending scheming.

Directed by Blake Edwards and later adapted into a television show, Operation Petticoat is a lighthearted look at the frolicking that takes place within the less than perfect margins of war. This is a colourful, sun-drenched corner of a global conflict where a ton of effort is applied for not very much gain. Men improvise just to create a semblance of a mission, nothing works as it should and anything that does work is stolen, modified and pressed into action.

Edwards finds plenty of opportunities to have fun in the war's backwaters, up to and including painting the submarine a bright pink and contriving to stage a climax where the American Navy unwittingly engages in battle against itself. And somewhere within the mayhem is the subplot of a large abducted pig, that starts out funny but is stretched to tedium once the wronged farmer invades the submarine seeking compensation.

But the film essentially starts and ends with two flimsy premises: the contrast between the rather stodgy Sherman and the freewheeling Holden; and the theoretically hilarious conflict created by women on a submarine. While there is enough substance to make the friendly stand-off between the two men worth exploring, the final third of the film deteriorates quickly as all but one of the women are treated with disdain, with a focus on their breasts getting in the way of everything, their inability to operate a shower, and their propensity for touching every dial at the worst possible time.

Rather overlong at more than two hours, ultimately the film fades due to a lack of significant investment in most of the major characters. While a little bit of Holden's background is brought to the fore, all the other men and women are left to flounder in the sea of stereotypical characters, devoid of any humanizing context, motivation or ambition.

Cary Grant and Tony Curtis supply adequate star power. They occasionally bounce well off each other, but mostly stay within themselves. Grant goes through the movie with a mostly bamboozled expression, as Sherman is befuddled first by the Japanese raids, then by the incompetence of the supply chain, then by Holden's audacity, and finally by the buxom nurses invading his submarine. Curtis is a bit more engaging as he expresses stony faced determination with a twinkle in the eye, as Holden works hard to stay as far away as possible from anything resembling a war while maximizing his pleasure and fun quotient. The rest of the rather thin cast includes Joan O'Brien, Dina Merrill, and Gavin MacLeod.

Operation Petticoat is amusing and offers bright moments; it's also as obvious as a bright pink submarine on a bright sunny day, sailing on the surface and belching black smoke.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Movie Review: Pillow Talk (1959)

A stylish romantic comedy, Pillow Talk combines romance, laughs and some prescient social commentary.

In New York City, a shortage of phone lines means that songwriter and womanizer Brad Allen (Rock Hudson) shares a party line with interior designer Jan Morrow (Doris Day). Both are single and live alone, but Brad spends an inordinate amount of time on the phone romancing a succession of women, interfering with Jan's ability to run her business. Without meeting in person they clash frequently over the phone as Jan tries to put some limits on how often Brad uses the line.

Jan is being romantically pursued by wealthy businessman Jonathan Forbes (Tony Randall), who also happens to be bankrolling a new Broadway show with tunes being written by his friend Brad. It's not long before Brad deduces that Jonathan's potential girlfriend is his phone nemesis. After a chance encounter at a restaurant Brad takes on the persona of Rex Stetson, a wealthy Texas businessman, and starts a long and passionate pursuit of Jan. She falls in love with Rex, while all the time receiving advice and warnings over the phone from Brad, who seems to have an uncanny ability to predict Rex's every romantic move. With the affair between Rex and Jan turning serious and Jonathan beginning to suspect that something strange is going on, Brad realizes that creating a real relationship out of an elaborate ruse will not be easy.

Directed by Michael Gordon, Pillow Talk is a jaunty romance, with two strong characters clashing, connecting under false pretenses, and then navigating their way to a resolution. The 98 minutes are packed with a healthy amount of romantic incidents contrived to bring Brad and Jan together via the most convoluted yet entertaining path possible, and the film maintains a brisk pace and a colourful, dynamic aesthetic.

Pillow Talk is a sign post proclaiming the end of the 1950s and the start of a more adventurous, sexually liberated decade, with women exerting much more control over their lives. Jan is happy living alone, nurturing her own business, and being choosy about which man she will decide to settle down with, if any. She is happy to keep Jonathan as a friend and dismiss him as lover, while sparring with Brad over the phone and taking her time to decide if Rex is worthy of her affection. While the ending is consistent with the expectations that come with the genre, Pillow Talk sets the stage for a new equilibrium in the evolution of relationships

Stylistically, the film also takes a modern turn. Gordon makes frequent use of split screens, and finds clever arrangements to enhance the romantic elements with a sexual charge. Day and Hudson (as Rex) in separate bathtubs but with their raised feet connected at the split screen seam is a classic shot, ushering in a new, less inhibited world that would soon take over screen romances.

This was the first of three collaborations between Hudson and Day, and they quickly establish an easy chemistry that mixes fireworks, charm and seductiveness. Tony Randall and Thelma Ritter (as Jan's perpetually hung-over housekeeper) provide the support, with Ritter suffering somewhat from an underwritten role that leans too heavily on her pre-established persona.

Pillow Talk is comfortably fluffy on the outside and stuffed with pleasingly risque feathers.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Movie Review: To Sir, With Love (1967)

A classroom drama set in a tough London neighbourhood, To Sir, With Love is a modest film that seeks and finds emotional connections thanks to a dominant Sidney Poitier performance.

Unemployed engineer Mark Thackeray (Poitier), originally from British Guyana, accepts a teaching position at North Quay Secondary School in the low-income East End of London. The other teachers have generally given up on trying to tame the wild students, who come from mostly broken homes and face bleak future prospects. The only other teacher who seems to care is Gillian Blanchard (Suzy Kendall). Thackeray's unruly group of students are led by Bert Denham (Christian Roberts), who does all he can to break every rule with the utmost disrespect. The other students include Pamela Dare (Judy Geeson), Potter (Chris Chittell) and Babs (pop singer Lulu).

Thackeray tries all he knows to engage the students in academics, but succeeds only in alienating them further. He finally discards the curriculum and transforms his class into an open discussion about social behaviour and life aspirations, revealing much about himself while insisting that the students treat each other with dignity. The students respond, and Thackeray starts to earn their respect, although Denham remains skeptical. But a new set of problems emerge with the increasing closeness between teacher and students, including one student developing a crush, while Thackeray risks alienating himself from the other teachers.

A British production directed by James Clavell, To Sir, With Love was part of Poitier's stellar 1967: it was released the same year as In The Heat Of The Night and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, and helped establish Poitier as Hollywood's first black superstar. To Sir, With Love is the most modest of the three films, but also the most intimate. This is a story of one teacher and a small group of students learning to deal with each other. It's also less about race than it is about class. Thackeray's skin colour is barely mentioned; his dogged attempts to reach out to kids who are just passing time in the classroom is the source of all the tension.

Most of the film is set in the classroom, and Clavell draws plenty of power from clearly drawn battle lines. Thackeray own the front part of the room, but that is all. Where the students sit is a mayhem zone where boys and girls are equally rude to each other, where flying objects, flying insults and on-the-fly plotting against the teacher rule the day. Thackeray's attempts to penetrate the students' own sense of despondency make for compelling viewing, and he only succeeds when he reorients his agenda to where these students want to be: in real life, talking about struggles at home, career prospects and what it means to be an adult.

Once the breakthrough is made Clavell's script does allow most of the students to transition quickly into more reasonable human beings, but that's because the film is also interested in the realities of what happens next: just as one set of challenges is hurdled, another emerges. Expectations are raised, fissures emerge within the student ranks, some students start to idolize their teacher, other staff members are not on same behavioural wavelength as Thackeray, and he starts getting involved in the students' troubled home lives.

The film benefits from a swinging sixties London vibe, and even at the derelict east-side school a counter-culture revolution of the young is brewing. Dancing, mini-skirts and an attitude of overthrowing stodgy societal norms provide texture to Thackeray's venture into the world of teaching. Lulu's hit song To Sir, With Love provides the perfect musical accompaniment.

Sidney Poitier commands the film with a performance of understated determination, and is at his best when he surprises his students with frank snippets from Thackeray's own life. Just because he is educated and wears a suit does not mean that Thackeray had an easy upbringing, and Poitier excels at presenting the teacher himself as the most inspirational lesson that the students can internalize. To Sir, With Love is about personal change, as one man finds his calling in life and guides students to discover that their potential far exceeds their own expectations.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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