Sunday, 31 July 2016

Movie Review: All The Right Moves (1983)

A coming of age sports drama, All The Right Moves benefits from a gritty small-town setting, excellent cinematography and a raw, unfiltered attitude towards themes of desperation and ambition. A dedicated Tom Cruise performance is an added bonus.

In tough economic times, the small steel town of Ampipe, Pennsylvania is slowly dying, with The American Pipe and Steel factory the only major employer. The high school students are mostly descendants of Eastern European immigrants, and the brighter students are anxious to secure college scholarships or face a dour future in a dwindling industry. The high school's football team is one avenue for a sports scholarship, and defensive back Stef Djordjevic (Cruise), entering his graduation year, dreams of doing enough on the football field to win the attention of a good college where his dream is to study engineering.

Others have similar ambitions, including teammate and best friend Brian (Chris Penn), while Stef's girlfriend Lisa (Lea Thompson) also wants to leave Ampipe to pursue studies in music. Even the school's football coach Nickerson (Craig T. Nelson) is angling for a better job as a college team defensive coordinator. With the football season drawing to a close and a big game against an undefeated rival coming up, Nickerson pushes his players to their limit, leading to an epic on-field performance but plenty of unintended consequences.

Directed by Michael Chapman with cinematography by Jan de Bont, All The Right Moves is an unblinking view of personal agendas in a forlorn town facing austere economic times. Beautifully filmed to capture the grit, grime bleakness and perpetual dampness of a steel town where the only certainty is a dead-end job, the film is all about individuals thinking of their own futures and plotting a lonely, anywhere-but-here course.

The Michael Kane script refuses all the easy short cuts, and indeed allows Stef to discover the many ways that he can sabotage his own prospects. The film is really about all the wrong moves, and for long stretches Stef, Brian and many of their teammates face the unappetizing prospect of staying in Ampipe for all the wrong reasons. There are unwanted surprises with girlfriends, blow-ups with the coach, relationship breakdowns, mistakes on the field, and acts of mischief and petty crime that derail the already tenuous plans to escape life in the steel factory.

The tension between Nickerson and his players is at the heart of the film, and Craig T. Nelson deserves a lot of credit for creating an unsympathetic, hard-nosed high school football coach just as desperate as his students to find something better. Nickerson pushes his players to perform and think as a team, but whether he actually cares or is using them to better his own prospects is open to interpretation. The film creates a premise where both the coach and the players are scheming beyond the collective, and yet everyone needs the team to be successful for personal reasons.

For a film set in a football milieu, there is just the one football game, and de Bont captures the action in coherent and exciting takes. Plenty of time is spent at the training field, a deglamourized place overtaken by mud where the coach cuts his players to size while injecting just enough encouragement to make his abuse barely palatable.

Released two months after Risky Business, All The Right Moves confirmed Cruise's stature as the hottest emerging star in Hollywood. As Stef Djordjevic Cruise builds on his persona as a young man more than capable of getting himself into a lot of trouble, and then having to methodically work his back into his starting position. Lea Thompson gives the girlfriend role a sharper edge than usual as she stands up for herself and avoids cliches and daydreams about happily ever after.

All The Right Moves suffers from a really dreadful 1980s music soundtrack, but otherwise makes a sharp turn towards a fulfilling story of concentrated struggles on and off the field.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Movie Review: Taps (1981)

A military academy drama, Taps explores themes of honour, duty and loyalty through a story of cadets who make a stand. The film is in equal measures intense and stretched too thin.

The kindly Brigadier General Harlan Bache (George C. Scott) runs the Bunker Hill Military Academy for cadets between 12 and 18 years old. Bache selects the idealistic Brian Moreland (Timothy Hutton) to be the next Cadet Major, effectively the leader of his graduating class. Moreland's cohorts include the more pragmatic Cadet Captain Alex Dwyer (Sean Penn) and the militaristic Cadet Captain David Shawn (Tom Cruise). Moreland idealizes Bache and hangs on his every word about honour, duty, and military ethos.

Two tragedies strike the school in quick succession. First Bache is stunned to be informed that the Academy will be closing within a year to make room for a money-making condominium development project. Then during a gala evening, a confrontation between the cadets and a group of local teenagers ends in a calamity and Bache suffers a heart attack. Moreland decides to take matters into his own hands: seizing the Academy's cache of weapons, he leads the cadets in a takeover of the facility, demanding an inquiry into the planned closure. With the parents of the cadets thrown into panic, a long confrontation with local authorities ensues, with the National Guard's Colonel Kerby (Ronny Cox) entrusted with bringing the incident to an end.

Directed by Harold Becker, Taps is a grim but also gripping tale of pushing too far and too soon for all the right reasons. Quickly finding and then sustaining an emphasis on the passion of young men navigating the treacherous years between boyhood and adulthood, Becker infuses the film with a serious tone that fits well with the strict military surroundings. Despite the good intentions and quality execution, at over two hours the film is too long, and the second half begins to drag with more of the same in the absence of new ideas.

The story explores earnest objectives misplaced into the wrong cause. Moreland is trained to embrace the concepts of loyalty, national service and respecting tradition, and deploys all that he has learned to defend his academy against what he perceives as an imminent existential threat. Meanwhile Shawn is on the path to red beret training where killing with ruthless efficiency is all that matters, and whatever the cause he is eager to release his inner demon. Dwyer is the conscience of the group, not as invested in cadet principles but bound by friendship to stand by Moreland's side.

Becker ties the story together with admirable efficiency, and adds expansive cinematography and visuals to allow the film to breathe deeply from the grandeur that contributes to the majestic aura of life in the military for bright and eager youth indoctrinated early into the culture.

Taps does begin to suffer from relying too much on Moreland's descent from well-intentioned leader to a young man in over his head and not knowing when to quit. There is only so much that can be milked out of Moreland's admiration for Bache, and the dysfunctional relationship between Moreland and his father deserved more than one scene.

Taps features a terrific cast of young actors. Timothy Hutton was coming out of his breakout role in Ordinary People and continues to build his quietly tense screen persona, calm on the surface but struggling to control inner beasts. Tom Cruise and Sean Penn were on the cusp of stardom and prove their credentials by drawing out the characters of Shawn and Dwyer into memorable and unpredictable members of the rebellion. Despite top billing, George C. Scott has a supporting but pivotal role and transforms into a symbol rather than a presence after setting the initial stage.

Taps may not perfectly hit every note, but still plays a thoughtfully worthwhile tune.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Newton Boys (1998)

Based on real events, The Newton Boys is a lighthearted drama about a band of brothers from rural Texas who robbed banks at will without hurting anyone in the early 1920s. Despite decent style, the movie never moves beyond perfunctory "good old boys" elements.

In rural Texas, Willis Newton (Matthew McConaughey) comes from a family of horse trainers. Recently released from prison for a crime he claims not to have committed, Willis joins career criminals Slim (Charles Gunning) and Glassock (Dwight Yoakam) in what proves to be a botched daytime bank robbery. Willis decides he can do better leading his own gang, and buys a list of bank safes that can be exploded open with nitroglycerin. He adopts the attitude that the banks and insurance companies are all corrupt, and that he is just a small thief stealing from bigger thieves.

Working with Glassock and eventually recruiting his brothers Joe (Skeet Ulrich), Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Dock (Vincent D'Onofrio), the Newton Boys successfully hit a succession of banks in various cities, all at night, and with plenty of guns but minimal violence. Willis meets and falls in love with Louise (Julianna Margulies) and tries to reinvent himself as an honest oilman, but has to admit that he is better at crime than anything else. But with the banks strengthening their safe security, the robberies start to get more complicated.

Director Richard Linklater tries his hand at a period piece, and does not do so well. The Newton Boys aims at a Bonnie And Clyde vibe without the violence, but instead delivers a frivolous piece celebrating charismatic hold-ups by characters who remain caricatures. There is plenty of 1920s style on display and the film generally looks attractive, but in the absence of depth behind the costumes, it devolves into a repetitive series of robberies by faceless and interchangeable men. The film is not helped by a cluttered cast that features plenty of side characters, including criminals, bankers, insurance agents and law enforcement types who come and go while contributing little.

The context and motivations start and stop with Willis Newton's Robin Hood-inspired philosophy that it's alright to rob banks because banks are corrupt and insurance companies anyway need robberies to sustain their business. It's a simple message for times that were perhaps simpler, but it's insufficient to sustain the film's two hours. The rest of the Newtons range from the charming Jesse (an animated Ethan Hawke) to the worrywart Jess and lughead Dock, and they all remain barely defined people, generally standing aside as the safes blow open with loud bangs.

There are a few good set pieces, including a particularly chaotic money-transfer hold-up in Toronto that descends into a well-executed farce. The romance elements fare much worse, with Louise easily falling under Willis' sweet talking spell and deluding herself that he is a businessman. Once she confronts the truth, Louise's role becomes to whine incessantly for her man to stop doing what he does best.

With jovial bluegrass music adding to the sense of flippancy, The Newton Boys is flighty film that unfortunately fails to impress.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Winter's Tale (2014)

A century-spanning fantasy romantic drama, Winter's Tale combines a love story with an eternal battle between good and evil, with plenty of supernatural elements thrown in. Attempting to be profound, the film is a hopeless mess.

In New York of 1916, Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), having survived been set adrift in a small boat by his parents in 1895 after they were rejected as immigrants, attempts to escape a street gang led by the demon Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe). A white horse that can fly helps Peter's getaway, and eventually leads him to the door of the sickly Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), her rich father Isaac (William Hurt), and younger sister Willa.

Peter and Beverly fall in love, while Pearly pleads with his boss Lucifer (Will Smith) for permission to put a stop to their magical romance. Peter stays one step ahead of Pearly, but the relationship with Beverly suffers, and Peter lands in New York of 2014, where his story will continue.

Based on a book by Mark Helprin adapted and directed by Akiva Goldsman, Winter's Tale may have worked well on the written page, but is an unmitigated disaster on the screen. The film's ambition far exceeds its cinematic abilities, and comes across as fairy tale for children being repackaged as a serious romantic drama for adults, and falling into a vacuum of confused and morose nothingness.

The story demands natural acceptance of flying white horses, demons on the loose but with turf restrictions, Lucifer holding court in New York City, and plenty of romanticized bumf about miracles, destiny and people turning into literal stars. The material may have had a chance to succeed with a whimsical light touch, but Goldsman goes the ultra serious route, delivering a grim, dour and boring two hours.

Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe and Will Smith generally embarrass themselves in roles where anything goes since there are no familiar rules in this world. Farrell's character exists as a baby in 1895 and is still going strong in 2014, but never expresses any emotion other than grim displeasure. Crowe as a demon seems obsessed with Peter but Goldsman does not pause to explain why a petty thief is such a danger to a demon. Smith sits back and reflects on a sidetracked career, the devil reduced to dealing with the machinations of a fledgling romance between a burglar and a frail woman.

Jessica Brown Findlay portrays the tragically sick but otherwise perfect vision of a woman who fulfills every superficial man's dream of beauty and tenderness with no depth of character necessary. Meanwhile, Jennifer Connelly and Eve Marie Saint appear in the latter 2014 chapter, and seem genuinely confused about their roles in the story.

Buckling under its own weight of needless solemnity, Winter's Tale is better left untold.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 29 July 2016

The Movies Of Kurtwood Smith

All movies starring Kurtwood Smith and reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

Blue Thunder (1983)

RoboCop (1987)

Rambo III (1988)

Broken Arrow (1996)

A Time To Kill (1996)

Deep Impact (1998)

Girl, Interrupted (1999)

Hitchcock (2012)

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

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Monday, 25 July 2016

Movie Review: Action In The North Atlantic (1943)

A World War Two merchant navy war film, Action In The North Atlantic suppresses most of its propaganda tendencies to deliver a rollicking seaborne adventure.

World War Two is raging and the merchant marines are doing their best to supply the war effort in Europe. Commanding an oil tanker, Captain Steve Jarvis (Raymond Massey) and his first officer and friend Joe Rossi (Humphrey Bogart) tangle with a German U-boat and are sunk, their lifeboat rammed for good measure. Steve's men make it onto a raft and drift for eleven days before being rescued.

Awaiting their next assignment, Steve recuperates with his wife Sarah (Ruth Gordon) while Joe meets and marries lounge singer Pearl O'Neill (Julie Bishop). The two men are then paired up again and placed in charge of the new Liberty class SS Seawitch. They join a large multinational supply convoy on the way to the Soviet port of Murmansk via a stop in Halifax. Despite a navy escort, the journey across the North Atlantic will be perilous.

Most of Action In The North Atlantic is directed by Lloyd Bacon, although a contractual dispute meant that he did not complete the film. Byron Haskin and Raoul Walsh, both uncredited, were brought in to complete the project. At just over two hours, this is an ambitious, visually rich war adventure, and the pace never slows down. While there are a few scenes undoubtedly geared towards rallying the troops and encouraging recruitment, between them the directors create an impressive war film, with a commitment to quick pacing, tension build-up, regular doses of action and plenty of variety.

Action In The North Atlantic spends most of its running time on water, and features an assortment of engagements: stealthy sub attacks, survival in lifeboats and rafts, a battle between a sub wolfpack and a large convoy, a prolonged one-on-one chase across the high seas, and seaplane attacks. Using a combination of stock footage and models the special effects and scenes of wanton destruction on the ocean are excellent. Large ships are torpedoed, set on fire, attacked from the air, and abandoned, while subs are destroyed with depth charges, rammed and sunk.

The enemy is portrayed as committed without being dehumanized. All the scenes featuring German combatants and their commanders are in German with no subtitles, adding a welcome sense of authenticity.

The scenes on dry land are relatively few, and are used to effectively sketch in the backgrounds and love lives of the key characters. The relationship between Captain Jarvis and first officer Rossi underpins the story, and the film avoids any superfluous dramatics, complexities or buddy tendencies, with Raymond Massey and Humphrey Bogart delivering typically dependable performances. Jarvis and Rossi respect each other and work well together towards the same cause, and there isn't much more in their dynamic.

The film invests plenty of time with secondary characters, the seamen who have to unquestioningly obey orders, endure boredom and bad food, question the likelihood of their own survival, and then jump into sudden action within seconds of the alarm sounding. Alan Hale Sr., Sam Levene and Dane Clark are among the grease-stained actors who bring the crew to life while adding some comic relief.

Action In The North Atlantic delivers what it promises, in a quality package brimming with wartime verve.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Movie review: The Male Animal (1942)

A romantic triangle drama-comedy with a competing sub-plot about academic freedoms, The Male Animal is never exactly sure what it is and ends up being not much of anything.

Midwestern University is gearing up for the big football game against rivals Michigan. Bookish English professor Tommy Turner (Henry Fonda) has no interest in the frenzy of football-related events, but he is married to former cheerleader Ellen (Olivia de Havilland), and she wants to get into the swing of things. Ellen's ex-boyfriend and the school's legendary former quarterback Joe Ferguson (Jack Carson) shows up for homecoming week, and his immediate rapport with Ellen further sours Tommy's mood.

Meanwhile, the university administration under the leadership of Ed Keller (Eugene Pallette) is on a witch hunt to label professors as "reds" and weed them out. When the school newspaper reveals that Tommy will be reading a letter from deceased anarchist Bartolomeo Vanzetti as part of his next lecture, he is immediately dropped into a controversy about academic freedoms. With the big game approaching and his marriage comprehensively falling apart, Tommy has to reassess his life's priorities.

Directed by Elliott Nugent and based on a play, The Male Animal has a few good ideas, some witty dialogue, and a typically principled performance from Henry Fonda. The prescient look ahead towards a near future when thoughts are scrutinized and leftist tendencies signal career death is also commendable.

But the film suffers from an identity crisis and an overcrowded agenda. About half the story focuses on the Tommy-Ellen-Joe romantic triangle, while the other half is distracted by the seemingly more serious narrative about defining and defending academic freedoms. By the end of the film the muddled intermingling of the two plot lines means that neither is dealt with satisfactorily.

There are other issues that stand in the way of Nugent's success. Olivia de Havilland is simply unconvincing as a former cheerleader seeking to relive the fun times of youth. de Havilland comes across as too prim and proper, and other than reciting lines from a script, never genuinely reveals an inner fun girl wishing to break out. As the critical corner of the triangle, her miscasting fundamentally weakens the movie.

The Male Animal is also littered with poorly defined ideas and fragments of characters. There is yet a third sub-plot revolving around the next generation of students, including a young nerdy student following in Tommy's footsteps, a dim current member of the football team who idolizes Joe, and a couple of girls vying for their attention. This maybe romance among the young is never properly defined and is eventually unceremoniously discarded. Meanwhile, Tommy's character spends a long time drunk and dragging out literary references about how animal mating and turf protection rituals apply (or not) to human relationships. A drunken fistfight is thrown in for good measure.

The Male Animal is not devoid of points of interest, but it's a scattershot of poorly handled ideas rather than a cohesive package.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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