Saturday, 30 April 2016

Movie Review: Harold And Maude (1971)

A dark romantic comedy about nothing less than death and its place in life, Harold And Maude is low-key, eccentric and always engaging.

Harold (Bud Cort) is a young man suffocating under his domineering but very rich mother (Vivian Pickles). They live in a huge estate, and Harold mostly occupies himself with staging ever more elaborate mock suicides to try and get a reaction out of his mother. She is routinely dismissive. Harold's other past-time is attending the funerals of strangers, and he buys an old hearse to drive around in. Sessions with a psychiatrist don't appear to help.

Harold spots the elderly Maude (Ruth Gordon) attending many of the same funeral services. She approaches him and they strike up an unusual friendship. A former radical protester for the cause of the day, the whimsical Maude loves art, music, and plants, but mostly appreciates life and lives it according to her own rules. She freely "borrows" the cars of others, disobeying all traffic rules, and relocates trees to help them grow. As Harold's mother arranges a series of dates to try and get him to settle down, he grows more attached to Maude, who is finally giving him something to love.

Directed by Hal Ashby, Harold And Maude is a film with modest ambition and exceptional scope. Scenes of gruesome yet funny mock suicides alternate with the warmth of an unlikely friendship, and Ashby achieves a steady tone where dark humour, pathos, and the essence of being alive comfortably cohabitate.

Essentially a two-person character study constructed with humour through a series of off-kilter encounters, the film charts the natural progression of a relationship between two unique individuals. Harold is a young man seemingly pining to die, Maude is an old but sprightly woman literally racing around in life, and in each other they find liberation.

Maude gravitates towards teaching the morose Harold about the value of a life lived fully with principles that adhere to no rules and behaviours that respect no standards. She sets her own boundaries and joyously explains herself to anyone willing to listen, and in Harold she finds a willing student. Her guiding principle is the limited time available before death, and the need to enjoy every minute with no constraints.

Harold finally finds a reason to start enjoying life once he gets to know Maude. Stifled to the point of emotional strangulation by his domineering mother, Harold is dead in all but name until Maude comes into his life. She provides a reference point to how life can be lived, and he awakens to the joys of emotional independence and unrestricted love.

Harold And Maude bravely goes where few films have gone before and since. An extrapolation of themes from The Graduate, Harold represents burnt out youth completely detached from the achievement of his parents, and Maude the strangely alluring older woman. Her attractiveness starts out as more intellectual than physical, and the love that develops between them is less a seduction than an education. The age difference carries greater shock value, and Ashby deploys the services of no less than a screen priest to articulate just how hideous their relationship must appear to greater society.

Harold And Maude don't care. When nothing less than understanding what it means to be alive is at stake, jolting society out of its stuffy confines is a small price to pay.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Deadpool (2016)

A superhero profane comedy, Deadpool deploys sarcasm and juvenile jokes in large doses to try and paper over the lack of content.

The story is partially told in flashback. Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) takes a taxi to a freeway where he waits to ambush the motorcade of his foe, a man named Francis (Ed Skrein). As Deadpool causes carnage on the highway, he recalls his origin story. Wade Wilson (Reynolds) was a former military special forces soldier from a troubled family who became a low-level mercenary, helping low-lifes settle the score with lower-lifes. He met and fell in love with "escort" Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), and they were planning to marry when Wade found out that his body was ravaged by terminal cancer.

He accepted an offer from a mysterious recruiter (Jed Rees) to undergo life-altering treatment. Francis (who prefers the name Ajax) and his sidekick Angel Dust (Gina Carano) dish out the subsequent brutal "medical" treatment that resembles a prolonged torture session, permanently disfiguring Wilson's body but also curing him and providing him with self-healing powers. He adopts the persona of Deadpool and is now seeking vengeance against Francis, and refusing the pleas of X-Men superheros Colossus (voice of Stefan Kapičić) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) to join the forces of good and resist revenge temptations.

Directed by Tim Miller, Deadpool offers panache and plenty of attitude but also tedious repetition of the genre's worst excesses. Together, the fine eye of artistry and the foul-mouthed, sex-obsessed barrage of one-liners provide some relief from an otherwise tepid experience. The story is remarkably slight and flimsy, and without the cynical narration and over-the-top humour with plenty of fourth wall breaks, the film would have very little to offer.

As it is the final act descends into the usual boring territory of mass destruction and carnage using unconstrained amounts of CGI. The stuntmen and CPUs take over, destroying virtual sets imagined against the Vancouver skyline. The twin dilemmas of whether Deadpool will re-win the love of his girl and join the good-guys of X-Men are nowhere near interesting enough to compensate for the childish action on display.

Ryan Reynolds is passable and Morena Baccarin as Vanessa matches him as they both emphasize sizzling sexual attraction over any character redeeming traits or acting talent. The supporting cast offers the usual assortment of hissing villains and interchangeable good guys and bad guys quick to unleash violence on each other.

Deadpool is rude and crude and offers moments of genuine fun, but the infusion of edgy attitude cannot mask yet another tired and formulaic genre rehash.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Fault In Our Stars (2014)

A romantic drama, The Fault In Our Stars sets a teenage love story in the world of terminal disease. The film is squarely aimed at the young adult market and never rises above carefully constructed emotions designed to elicit sighs and tears in just the right amounts at just the right time.

In Indianapolis, teenager Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is a cancer survivor who made a miraculous recovery from the edge of death. She now lives day to day with her defective lungs requiring continuous breathing through tubes connected an ever-present portable oxygen tank. Her parents Frannie (Laura Dern) and Michael (Sam Trammell) encourage her to join a support group where she meets the hunky Augustus "Gus" Waters (Ansel Elgort), and a romance blossoms between them.

Gus has an artificial leg as a result of his own previous bout with cancer. Hazel introduces him to her favourite book An Imperial Affliction by the author Peter van Houten (Willem Dafoe), now a recluse living in Holland. Gus helps Hazel connect with van Houten, who invites her to drop in on him and discuss the book should she ever be in Amsterdam. Despite Hazel's frail health, the relationship with Gus becomes ever more serious and soon they are joined by Frannie for a trip to Amsterdam, where complications await.

Directed by Josh Boone and adapted from the John Green book, The Fault In Our Stars is earnest in its intentions but also almost mechanical in its execution.  For anyone outside the target age group of 12 to 17, it's easy to appreciate the effort but difficult to fully invest in the obvious connect-the-dots story evolution. The attractive stars, the wistful narration, the modern caring parents, the terminal disease, the puppyish love, the trip of a lifetime to a European dream destination, and the caustic author who shatters the illusion that anything matters. Of course it all culminates in true romance and true tears due to true tragedy.

Boone makes the best of the material, directing with restraint and avoiding most of the obvious cliches, except for a jaw-droppingly obvious travelogue montage of  Amsterdam and a clumsy side-trip to Anne Frank's house where romance awkwardly erupts in the attic. He is helped enormously by Shailene Woodley, who does shine as Hazel and carries the film through all its patches, never overselling the tough survivor elements and displaying enough warmth as a believably precocious teenager. Ansel Elgort is not as convincing, Willem Dafoe pulls his performance from the scorched drawer, and Laura Dern is relegated to worried but nevertheless reasonably cool mom.

The theme of life and love carrying on and emerging from the wreckage of horrid disease is predictably uplifting, and the film carries its message on its sleeve: it's better to experience the full joys of life despite the inevitable moments of despair than to surrender to emotional numbness in anticipation of the end.

The Fault In Our Stars is efficient to a fault. It delivers on all its calculated promises with admirable quality, and does little else.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Mommie Dearest (1981)

A trashy biographical drama, Mommie Dearest reveals Joan Crawford's home life as a train wreck of abuse and narcissism, with adopted daughter Tina the primary victim. The film has all the quality and thoughtfulness of a sleazy made-for-TV hack job.

It's the late 1930s and MGM star Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway) is at her commercial peak. Twice divorced she longs for a child, and her lawyer friend and lover Gregg Savitt (Steve Forrest) helps to arrange for the adoption of a girl (played as a child by Mara Hobel and as a young adult by Diana Scarwid).

Self-centred and egotistical, Joan places herself in the spotlight of her own world, suffers from wild mood swings, has strong hang-ups about cleanliness, and allows her career frustrations and disappointments to spill into her home. She has no understanding of what it takes to be a mother, and unleashes regular torrents of abuse on young Tina. The results are harrowing incidents of physical and emotional attacks which continue even as Tina matures into an adult.

Directed by Frank Perry and based on the tell-all book by Christina Crawford, Mommie Dearest looks, sounds and just feels cheap. For all the attempts to portray Hollywood glitz and glamour, the production just reeks of cheap television values. The script (co-written by Perry, producer Frank Yablans and others) consists of nothing but trite stock lines of dialogue that never come close to sounding real, and the film, painfully overlong at over two hours, just kills time between the episodes of abuse.

There are no meaningful attempts to try and find the people behind the facades, or the causes of Joan Crawford's clearly distressed behaviour. Her faults according to her daughter are just thrown upon the screen as a child would see them, and that is all the film has to offer. As an exercise in sordid shock tactics the film wallows in the gutter, and it's not even a serious contender as a human drama.

The one success story is the makeup and hairdressing talent to transform Faye Dunaway into Joan Crawford. But then her acting takes over and Dunaway is all wide-eyed hysteria, lurching from personal meltdowns to professional eruptions. The supporting cast barely qualifies as talented enough for daytime television, but then the material does not require the likes of Steve Forrest and Howard Da Silva (as Louis B. Mayer) to do much other than be obvious about all the bad acting. Diana Scarwid appears in the second half as the gown-up Tina and at least adds a measure of restraint.

Mommie Dearest is filmmaking at the level of a breathless gossip column: squalid and vulgar.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

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