Monday, 30 November 2015

Movie Review: Assault On Precinct 13 (2005)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Friday, 27 November 2015

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Movie Review: The Graduate (1967)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Movie Review: The Party (1968)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Movie Review: The Company You Keep (2012)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 23 November 2015

The Movies Of Dan Hedaya

All movies starring Dan Hedaya and reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

Commando (1985)

The Usual Suspects (1995)

Clueless (1995)

Nixon (1995)

The First Wives Club (1996)

Ransom (1996)

Daylight (1996)

Marvin's Room (1996)

The Hurricane (1999)

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

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