Thursday, 31 March 2016

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Movie Review: The Quiet Man (1952)

A romantic comedy set in rural Ireland, The Quiet Man features John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara in fine form as two headstrong individuals destined to be together. But the film also suffers from slow pacing and an oversaturation of local Irish flavours.

Sean Thornton (Wayne) arrives back in his birth town of Inisfree, Ireland, after turning his back on a boxing career in the United States. Sean buys back the home where he was born from the widow Sarah Tillane (Mildred Natwick), a transaction that annoys his boorish neighbour Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen) to no end. Sean sets his eyes on Will's resolute and fiery sister Mary Kate (O'Hara), a stunning red head, and becomes determined to win her heart, but the perpetually angry Will does all he can to block the relationship.

For personal reasons Sean avoids a physical confrontation with Will at all costs, and is instead helped by the local townfolk, including Father Lonergan (Ward Bond) and wagon driver Michaeleen Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald), to succeed in his pursuit of Mary Kate despite Will's protests. But Mary Kate herself has preset and traditional ideas about her self-worth, and even when Sean thinks he is making progress in his domestic life, he is surprised by local customs and forced to seek an unconventional resolution with Will.

Directed by John Ford as a celebration of his Irish roots, The Quiet Man is an amiable-enough film that is easy to enjoy. Filmed on location in Ireland, the scenery is lush, the Winton Hoch cinematography brings out the best of the landscape, and the romance elements find the cozy space between comedy and drama. There is just enough background story and character development to keep things reasonably interesting, and the central characters of Sean and Mary Kate carry sufficient edge to generate sparks. And it's good to see John Wayne in a sturdy role that doesn't require a gun.

Mary Kate's quest for a sense of self-empowerment while still respecting traditions is an engaging theme. She is devastated when Will blocks Sean's attempt at courtship, but cannot bring herself to disobey her brother. She is further demoralized when Will withholds the cash portion of her dowry. The money is not the issue, but the symbolism of independence matters, and Sean will need to prove that he cares enough to fight for her dignity. The liberated sensibilities sit uneasily next to some dated scenes featuring Mary Kate being roughly manhandled by Sean, his physical impositions portrayed as the normal demands of a well-meaning but impatient lover-to-be.

At 129 minutes, The Quiet Man does go on. The actual plot is quite thin, which is no surprise given that the source material is a short story that appeared in a magazine. Ford pads the running time with plenty of local colour. In a case of seasoning trying to cover for the absence of substance, there are a few too many secondary characters, and all of them are jovial Irish locals with a love for vivid outfits and of course frequent stops at the pub. There are also several tedious Irish songs, and quite a few scenes drag on well after the point is made.

This all leads to the climactic fist fight, a prolonged, genuinely funny across-the-fields bout between Sean and Will that goes on for about 20 minutes, complete with a drinks intermission at the pub. The fight injects some much needed energy and jolts the film back to life. The Quiet Man is decent if a bit mundane when he adheres to his title, but better when his fists swing into boisterous action.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Movie Review: The Third Man (1949)

A missing man murder mystery set in post-war Vienna, The Third Man is a masterpiece of ambiance. Director Carol Reed creates a world of intrigue populated by men and women hiding secrets, and captures it all with stunning visuals filled with uneasy shadows and glistening surfaces.

Vienna after the war is divided into five sectors. Each of the French, British, Americans and Russians control one, while the centre of the city is the international sector, where the four countries run hopelessly inept joint police patrols. It is here that all the criminals have congregated to run the assorted dangerous rackets that flourish in a devastated city. American Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a little-known writer of bad pulp westerns, arrives in the city at the invitation of his old friend Harry Lime only to find out that Lime has just died in an accident after being run over by a truck.

Martins meets British police Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) and his assistant Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee), and they are keenly interested in any friends of Lime. Martins also gets involved with the cryptic Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), Lime's former lover. But more intriguing is the collection of Lime's former associates, including  "Baron" Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch), Dr. Winkel (Erich Ponto) and the Romanian Popescu (Siegfried Breuer). In addition to the coincidence of all having being present when Lime died, they appear friendly and keen to meet Martins, and just as eager to see him leave town.

In talking with Lime's porter (Paul Hörbiger), Martins discovers inconsistencies in the narrative about Lime's death, including the possibility that a "third man", in addition to Kurtz and Popescu, helped carry Lime after he was struck by the lorry. Martins is drawn to the troubled Anna but out of his depth investigating the death of his friend. Another man dies and Martins himself is now a suspect, before the truth gets further entangled in a growing web of deceit.

Written by Graham Greene and directed with panache by Reed, almost every frame of The Third Man is a piece of art. Making outstanding use of film noir techniques including oblique angles, enormous shadows, acute light, reflective surfaces and stark blacks and whites, Reed and his cinematographer Robert Krasker create a world unhinged by the aftereffects of war, occupied by desperate men profiting from a vacuum of civil order and the slow creep of anarchy. Almost everything important appears to happen in the dark hours, Vienna at night the playground of the twisted and evil.

For a story set in the land of Mozart, Strauss, Haydn and Schubert, Reed goes looking for a unique music score and veers sharply away from anything resembling convention. Composed by the unknown-at-the-time Anton Karas, the music consists of simple, rural tunes played by Karas himself on the zither. The music adds enormously to the sense of a world gone halfway insane, and is a timeless, playful and instantly recognizable accompaniment to the dazzling visuals.

As for the plot, it is sturdy enough to compete with all the dramatic style on display. A classic investigation into a dense mystery by an unwelcome outsider, it is evident early on that nothing about Harry Lime's death is routine. It is equally clear that not much good will come from Holly Martins' well-intentioned but ultimately misguided search for a better truth.

Before long a bad situation is just getting worse thanks to his meddling, Anna landing in trouble with the Russians, another dead body landing on the Vienna streets, and Martins fingered as a suspect and on the run from both an unruly mob and more clinical goons. It's a cat and mouse game in the half abandoned back alleys of a wounded city, and Martins is never sure until it's too late whether he is the hunter or the hunted.

And then there is Orson Welles. Appearing for less than 20 minutes of screen time, Welles turns a glorified cameo into an unforgettable experience. His lines of dialogue have entered movie folklore, and his searing, beady-eyed and ruthless intensity leaves an indelible impact. Joseph Cotten, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee and Alida Valli are steady, but once Welles appears he dominates with effortless composure, and the film becomes about a man controlling the strings while hiding in the literal and figurative shadows.

The Third Man ends brilliantly, with an exquisitely framed encounter that doesn't happen, full of words that aren't spoken, and the tantalizing promise of a better life that is not fulfilled. The war may have ended, but for many the misery will continue.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Movie Review: The Truman Show (1998)

An astute commentary on television culture's evolution, The Truman Show also explores the limits of human tolerance for the ordinary. The film is an engrossing examination of the societal condition, and as fascinating as its central show.

Television producer Christof (Ed Harris) has created a monstrously successful live, perpetual television show, tracking the minute-by-minute life of Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), the only non-actor. Inserted from birth into a custom-built community of Seahaven, which is one humongous dome-enclosed and climate-controlled film set, Truman has no idea that every second of his life is being broadcast live to millions of viewers, using more than 5,000 hidden cameras.

Truman think he works as an insurance agent, and believes he is married to Meryl (Laura Linney, as actress Hannah Gill), that his best friend since school is Marlon (Roland Emmerich, as actor Louis Coltrane), and that his father died in a boating accident. Over the show's remarkable 30 years of continuous broadcast, various outside activists have tried to infiltrate the set to free Truman. He has never forgotten Lauren (Natascha McElhone, as actress Sylvia), an extra hired to play a high school student who tried to help him escape before she was bundled off the set. When the actor who played his father unexpectedly reappears in his life, Truman starts to suspect that something is not quite right and starts to question the world around him.

Directed by Peter Weir and written by Andrew Niccol, The Truman Show expands the reality television concept to an unsettling edge, and in the process contemplates human boundaries of control, comfort and compliance. The film is thoughtful, often profound, but also tackles its serious issue with humour. The act of viewing and enjoying Truman's story is itself part of the societal guilty-pleasure dilemma. The film is also unsettling enough to raise doubts about any life: if Truman is so deluded about his reality, who is to say what is defined as real and what is not?

Everything in Seahaven is designed to be idyllic, and to convince Truman that he has no reason to want to leave. Ironically, Christof's attempts to instill the emotional fear of leaving and segregate Truman from the outside world create the most compelling moments of drama for the viewers of the show. And once Truman starts to suspect that everything is too perfect, it becomes increasingly difficult to convince him to settle for his artificial surroundings.

The film plays on the parallel themes of obsession with other people's lives, and the essence of the human condition. The viewers of the show are transfixed, immobile, living their lives vicariously through the television set and following Truman's ups and downs rather than getting on with creating their own memories. The further Truman pushes to escape his sad life, the more entrenched the viewers are in front of the television. It's a sad indictment of the culture, where society cares more about an artificial world labelled as reality than actual existence.

Also permeating through the film is Christof's relationship with Truman, presented as a surrogate for the mysteries of the bond between God and man. Christof loves Truman like a son, and wants him to be safe and content. But Truman has free will, and eventually learns to use it. As much as Christof will try and send cosmic signals about what may be the appropriate path, it will ultimately be man's actions that will govern his fate.

The Truman Show is one of Jim Carrey's most complete performances. Staying as far as he can from the elastic mugging and physical comedy which made him famous, Carrey as Truman conveys innocence, curiosity and ultimately a willingness to question and confront. In addition to excellent supporting performances from Ed Harris, Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich and Natascha McElhone, the cast also includes Paul Giamatti as Christof's chief control room manager.

What is comfortable is not what is necessarily right. The Truman Show finds the spirit of a simple man yearning for a challenge, part of the never ending quest to self-define happiness.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Movie Review: The Seven Year Itch (1955)

A comedy about lust threatening marriage, The Seven Year Itch features a lustrous Marilyn Monroe but is otherwise stage bound and borderline monotonous.

With Manhattan suffering through a mid-summer heatwave, New York pulp book publisher Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) packs off his wife Helen (Evelyn Keyes) and insufferable young boy to the country. Left alone in his modest apartment, Richard does his best to behave himself and not succumb to the temptations of smoking, drinking and womanizing. But as soon as he sets his eyes on the unnamed girl (Marilyn Monroe) house-sitting the unit above him, most of his self-control dissipates.

He tries to distract himself by locking away his cigarettes, talking to himself, and reading a manuscript about men's tendencies to stray seven years into their marriage. But then the girl accidentally drops a tomato plant onto his patio chair, setting off a series of interactions. She visits him for a drink, and Richard's wild imagination, fuelled by his career as an expert promoter of sex and violence for any book, combines with his lustful impulses and his insecurities to drive him in many different directions at once. The inconvenient interruptions of the building's janitor do not help.

Directed by Billy Wilder, who also co-wrote the screenplay with George Axelrod, The Seven Year Itch is an adaptation of Axelrod's play and never strays far from its stage origins. Mostly trapped in Richard's apartment, the film uses some imaginative sequences to try and break out of its confines, but barely avoids a sense of slow suffocation. The humour is mild, the social critique topical but also unsubstantively dealt with. This is a comedy about men struggling to control their most base urges and accept the benefits of domesticity, and that point is made early and repeated often.

In the most brusque terms, with Richard literally talking to himself throughout the film, The Seven Year Itch explores the clash between men's primordial tendencies and modern expectations. Richard wants to believe that he will remain forever insanely desirable; he loves Helen but wonders if they take each other for granted; he wants to believe that she trusts him and yet works his way into the most uncompromising mess; all while his insecurities, jealousies and misguided belief that he is a suave lover play havoc with his psyche. The themes are interesting, but dealt with in literally theatrical terms, spilled out into the open with no room for any subtle contemplation.

Marilyn Monroe as the appropriately unnamed girl represents every man's fantasy fling, and Wilder gets the best out of his star, as she radiates with her unique brand of self-consciously innocent sexuality, desperately trying to cool herself by blowing air through as little clothing as possible, including the famous subway grate scene. Poured into a succession of stunning outfits Monroe effectively plays herself, complete with a history of risque fashion photography and Richard's character referring to the girl as "maybe she's Marilyn Monroe".

The vivid colour cinematography pops the film to life, while Richard's favourite piece of music, Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto, adds blustery grandeur to his Lothario imaginings (as it turns out, the girl is actually turned on by Chopsticks).

The weak supporting cast includes Sonny Tufts as a well-tanned potential rival for Helen's affections in the country, Robert Strauss as the building janitor, Victor Moore as a plumber who helps the girl unplug her toe from the bathtub faucet, Marguerite Chapman as Richard's assistant Miss Morris, and Oskar Homolka as Dr. Brubaker, the author of the manuscript Richard is trying to read. They each get a couple of scenes at most, and leave no impact.

The Seven Year Itch is undeniably dated and constrained, but also timeless thanks to the presence of one of the screen's eternal idols.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Movie Review: Forrest Gump (1994)

A comedy-drama about the American dream in the 20th century, Forrest Gump is an irresistible romp through pop culture history with one simpleton who is always in the right place at the right time.

The film is mostly told in flashback, with Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) sitting at a bus stop recounting his story to a succession of strangers next to him. Born in rural Alabama, Forrest has a low IQ of 75, but his mother (Sally Field) does all she can to make sure he feels normal and gets a decent education. As a child Forrest is hampered by a bent spine, and his only friend is Jenny, an almost angelic schoolmate growing up in an abusive household.

While avoiding bullies, Forrest discovers that he can outrun anyone, and his speed becomes his ticket to a college education, where he becomes a star if clueless football running back. He then joins the Army and serves a tour in the Vietnam War, where he meets Lieutenant Dan Taylor (Gary Sinise) and fellow Alabaman Bubba Blue (Mykelti Williamson), a wannabe shrimp fisherman. Forrest's simple outlook on life help him to become a battlefield hero, and after the war he finds success first as a table tennis champion and then as a shrimp businessman. All the time Forrest tries to maintain contact with Jenny (Robin Wright), the one love of his life, as she joins the cultural revolution and struggles to overcome the shadow of her childhood.

An Eric Roth screenplay adaptation of a Winston Groom novel directed by Robert Zemeckis, Forrest Gump is an easy to digest lesson in the art of seizing the sometimes ridiculous opportunities of life. Forrest remains true to core principles derived from a rural upbringing and a saint of a mother, and reaps the benefits from always doing well for others. Both funny and poignant but never demanding, the film is a smooth balm of reassurance that the American dream works even for idiots, as long they carry good intentions and retain human values.

Riding a steady Tom Hanks performance that mixes naive whimsy with the positivity emanating from believing the best about every situation, the film paints with the broad brush of nostalgia from the 1960s and 1970s. Forrest somehow finds himself over a 20 year period an unlikely hero on the college football field, in the Vietnam jungle, in the thick of the Cold War, in the world of business, and helping to define the cultural zeitgeist. It does not take a genius to positively shape global events much less the lives of others, and in the process of contributing to history, Forrest becomes a regular and celebrated guest at the White House. In an early deployment of clever CGI, Hanks as Gump is seamlessly inserted into many historical film reels, interacting with the likes of Presidents Kennedy and Nixon.

Despite a longish running time of over 140 minutes, Zemeckis never lingers on any one chapter. Highlights include the childhood scenes with Forrest's mother doing everything she needs to do to get him enrolled in school, and an epic Vietnam War firefight that sets the stage for Forrest's heroics and long-term future business success and friendship with Lieutenant Dan. Late in the film Forrest simply goes for a run; a really, really long run to leave the past behind and come to terms with the thing called life.

The impossible, long-distance candle of love that Forrest holds for Jenny ties the film together. Forrest unwittingly ends up a winner at everything that he doesn't intend to do, but his singular intention to win her love proves to be the toughest challenge of his life. Robin Wright brings Jenny to soulful life with plenty of angelic pragmatism, a victim of abuse whose life was spun into the wrong orbit at an early age and never quite recovered. Forrest Gump succeeds not only as a story of a man who rises above his lowly station to achieve remarkable success; but also because it lingers on the heartache of a woman severely damaged in childhood, struggling to hang on despite the constant devotion of her one true friend.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

The Movies Of Noah Emmerich

All movies starring Noah Emmerich and reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

Beautiful Girls (1996)

Cop Land (1997)

The Truman Show (1998)

Frequency (2000)

Pride And Glory (2008)

Blood Ties (2013)

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

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

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