Sunday, 25 September 2016

Movie Review: Snowden (2016)

A biographical thriller dramatizing recent events, Snowden recreates the story of one of America's most famous whistleblowers. The film is never less than competent, but also struggles to add much that is revelatory.

It's 2013, and former CIA employee Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo). Snowden is in possession of a microchip with thousands of files he stole from the National Security Agency (NSA) revealing the depth of illegal surveillance being perpetrated on the unsuspecting American public under the guise of counter terrorism. In flashback, Snowden's story is revealed. Stymied from joining the special forces due to injury, computer wizard Snowden joins the CIA where his mentor Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) exposes him to the world of intelligence. He also meets Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage), a technology wizard from an earlier era now marginalized after a whistleblowing incident.

Snowden starts a relationship with photographer, dancer and model Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), and her more liberal views gradually rub off on him. Assigned to Geneva, Snowden grows disillusioned with the intelligence world after experiencing first hand how global surveillance serves the world of dirty tricks. He continues to work in intelligence as a contractor, to the detriment of his health and relationship. Back at the hotel room, reporters from The Guardian newspaper arrive, including Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson). Snowden wants the newspaper to break the story, but the international manhunt has already started.

Directed by and co-written by Oliver Stone, Snowden is a relatively straightforward story told too soon. As of the film's 2016 release date, Edward Snowden is still a guest of convenience with the Russians and the true impact of his spectacular data theft is perhaps yet to be fully understood. The story of his remarkable hack and subsequent escape played out in real time on television screens and websites across the world in 2013. The wisdom of dramatizing fresh events from three years prior while the implications are still reverberating is fundamentally questionable.

Nevertheless, the story is undeniably provocative and Stone, operating well within his passion and expertise in dramas with broad political dimensions, delivers a decent package. The relationship between Snowden and Mills is the one new area that the film explores well, and the film hits its bright spots conveying Snowden trying to hold the relationship together while wrestling with increasing paranoiac discomfort. His bottled up awareness of the government machine spying on everyone takes an increasingly worrisome toll on his health, as he observes the carefree Mills, like most millennials, sharing her life on the computer, including government-questioning liberal views and uninhibited eroticism.

Less interesting are the scenes in the Hong Kong hotel room. Stone tries to wring tension from Snowden's interaction with Poitras and The Guardian reporters, but it's choppy viewing culminating with a not exactly gripping shouting match between journalists and editors across a laptop connection. The scenes with Snowden's CIA mentors and influencers in the form of Corbin O’Brian and Hank Forrester carry more promise and deserved more screen time.

While the software capabilities at the core of Snowden's growing resentment of the NSA's surveillance programs are briefly presented, this is another film where technology is deemed too complex for anything beyond a cursory description, much like The Theory Of Everything and The Imitation Game.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt carries the film and is fine in the title role, although the personality of Snowden as a pale-faced and introverted techno-geek does not necessarily provide the opportunity for expansive acting. Shailene Woodley gets more freedom to explore the breadth of Mills' emotions, a woman genuinely in love with a man transforming before her eyes into a tortured enigma.

Snowden contains enough of Stone's stylistic touches to maintain interest. But this is a biography that arrives too soon and carries too few surprises to register as a genuinely effective drama.

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Movie Review: Pitfall (1948)

A tense drama with noirish elements, Pitfall uncovers the dangers that seep to the surface when the thrill of an affair clouds better judgement.

In Los Angeles, John Forbes (Dick Powell) is an mid-level manager with the Olympic Mutual Insurance Company. Married to Sue (Jane Wyatt) and father to young son Tommy, John is going through a mid-life crisis, feeling stale in his life, marriage and career. At the office, private detective MacDonald (Raymond Burr) reports to John that he has uncovered Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott) as the recipient of gifts paid for by the convict Smiley (Byron Barr) with ill-gotten money insured by Olympic. MacDonald also does not hide the fact that he found Mona to be stunningly attractive.

John sets off to meet Mona and recover as many of the gifts as possible. He is immediately attracted to her vulnerability and they embark on a brief affair. But MacDonald wants Mona for himself, and from behind bars Smiley is seething with jealousy. John's stray impulses set off a chain of events that will threaten his career and result in unexpected violence.

Directed by André De Toth, Pitfall carries the insurance-and-crime echoes of Double Indemnity and foreshadows the straying-man-ruins-life lessons of Fatal Attraction, but is not quite as sharp as either of these two classics. Pitfall builds a decent mood, boasts a good cast in fine form, and is packaged into a compact 86 minutes. But the crime elements take a long time to grab hold, and are focused within the obtuse character of the private detective MacDonald.

The film's black and white cinematography and crime elements suggest some noir-light aesthetics. But De Toth does not go out of his way to engage in the noir style, nor does the plot forcefully move in a noir direction. Pitfall is more of a morality tale about the dangers of wandering away from the comforts of family, with defined villains and few motivational ambiguities.

John Forbes is the prototypical middle class man, well established in his career with a loving wife and cute kid. And yet he has hit the middle age wall where he is deeply resentful of his life, using sarcasm as a crutch, questioning what it all means and aching for the carefree freedom of youth. In short, a perfect candidate for the lure of a quick affair, and he stumbles into Mona's apartment fully vulnerable to her sob story.

But alluring as she is, John does not belong in the sordid world occupied by the likes of Mona, MacDonald and Smiley, and his dive into emotional entanglements within their gutter creates ripples that culminate in a series of crimes. MacDonald's obsession may the main catalyst for evil deeds, but John's involvement makes a bad situation much worse.

Dick Powell is dependable and well suited to the role of bland insurance man. But Lizabeth Scott and Raymond Burr deliver the two most memorable performances. Scott is perfect as the attractive victim with the darkness of a misdirected life swirling behind her eyes. Burr as MacDonald is simply imposing in a suit about three sizes too big, a self-satisfied presence trying to force the world to bend to his will, consequences be damned. Jane Wyatt's role as Sue Forbes grows in importance as the story progresses, and Wyatt rises up to the challenge of the pivotal role Sue ultimately gets to play in deciding John's fate.

Pitfall may not always shine with new ideas or blazing execution, but it does deliver a solid cautionary tale about the hazards of succumbing to wayward impulses.

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Saturday, 24 September 2016

Movie Review: A Foreign Affair (1948)

A stressed romantic comedy set in a dramatic post-war environment, A Foreign Affair creates an intriguing context but gets caught reaching for an unsuitable level of frivolity.

A bombed-out Berlin, just after the end of World War Two. A US congressional committee led by prim and proper Iowa congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) arrives to investigate troop morale. She is soon exposed to soldiers fraternizing with local woman, and in particular gravitating to a popular cabaret where sultry singer Erika von Schlütow (Marlene Dietrich) performs. Erika has a dark past with strong connections to the highest echelons of the Nazi party, but is currently surviving by carrying on a secret affair with Captain John Pringle (John Lund), who is also from Iowa.

Phoebe insists on investigating Erika, not knowing that Pringle's commander, Colonel Plummer (Millard Mitchell), already has the singer under observation in the hopes of smoking out a high ranking Nazi still in hiding. Pringle worries that Phoebe's meddling will expose his affair, so he feigns a romantic interest in the congresswoman, melting her heart and creating a complex love triangle in the destroyed city.

Directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, A Foreign Affair is visually attractive, but otherwise more curious than successful. The grim setting of a Berlin in ruins hosting emotionally shattered locals and a bored occupying army creates fundamentals for a hefty drama. Instead Wilder half-heartedly steers towards comedy, and the playful elements are never at ease within the dour context.

The film's conflicted core is typified by the two women at the heart of the story. Erika rules at the smokey, rowdy cabaret, and Dietrich gets to perform three melancholy numbers inspired by a broken city and its demoralized people: Black Market, Illusions, and The Ruins of Berlin. Her character is world weary, dealing with a glorious but destroyed past and an uncertain future. In contrast Phoebe Frost is a cartoon figure, starting out in humourless headmistress mode and transforming into a puddle of goo melted by fake romance. It's no fault of Jean Arthur, who does well in the role, but Frost is a ludicrous character with no credibility, dropped into a grieving world.

John Lund in the role of Captain John Pringle does not help matters as all. Singularly lacking in charisma, it is difficult to imagine one woman even pretending to be attracted to him, let alone two at the same time. Buffoonish congressmen and the barely sketched side story of a Nazi coming out of hiding further erode enjoyment.

It is left to the prevailing mood and on-location cinematography to rescue the pleasures of the film, and Wilder and cinematographer Charles Lang do not disappoint. The mountains of debris on every street corner and the bombed-out buildings still serving as housing for shell-shocked Germans are captured in their destructive majesty, with plenty of crisp nighttime scenes making the most of the black, white and grey austerity.

A Foreign Affair is an uneven effort, a laughing-in-the-graveyard exercise where the fun falls flat but the prevailing aesthetics impress nonetheless.

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Movie Review: The Proud Rebel (1958)

An appealing post-Civil War western, The Proud Rebel is a family-friendly story of a father from the south finding both lingering resentment and the welcome of strangers as he tries to help his son.

Immediately after the Civil War, southerner John Chandler (Alan Ladd) is travelling north from town to town, looking for a doctor who can help his mute son David (Alan's real-life son David Ladd) talk again. The clever sheepdog Lance is David's close companion. In Aberdeen, Illinois, Dr. Enos Davis (Cecil Kellaway) suggests that a Minnesota-based expert may be able to help. Before John can set out again he tangles with rowdy sheep ranchers Jeb and Tom Burleigh (Harry Dean Stanton and Tom Pittman) and their father Harry (Dean Jagger) after they try to steal Lance. John is found guilty of instigating a brawl, but farm owner Linnett Moore (Olivia de Havilland) saves him from prison by paying his fine in return for John working her land.

John and Linnet establish a good rapport and David enjoys the stability of life on the farm. But the Burleighs are a constant menacing presence, seeking to drive Linnet off her land to expand their herding territory. Meanwhile, John is desperate to raise the money needed for the Minnesota trip, and an opportunity arises when a local dog breeder offers a lot of money to buy Lance.

A resizing of Shane to appeal to a younger audience, The Proud Rebel hits all the amiable notes. Directed by Michael Curtiz and well-served by a deep cast, the film carries enough edge to avoid sentimentality and despite a rather clumsy ending maintains focus on a shifting western landscape where the wounds of war are slowly healing. Often beautiful colour cinematography, making exquisite use of red skies and silhouettes, adds to the film's quality.

The character of John Chandler as a steadfast yet proud man dedicated to his son and seeking to avoid conflict allows all colours of society to swirl around him. Dr. Enos and Linnett represent the more mature residents of the north eager to help close the war chapter. The crude Burleighs are at the opposite end of the scale, condescending towards Chandler just as they are keen to chase Linnett off her farm. And Judge Morley (Henry Hull) who hurriedly convicts Chandler for his part in the brawl is somewhere in between: he offers at least a modicum of due process for a rebel from the South, and allows Linnett's generosity to trump the court's half-baked version of justice.

Alan Ladd delivers a stoic performance as John Chandler, a man who lives a principled life where resolute actions speak much louder than words. Olivia de Havilland slips easily into the role of the farm owner stubbornly holding onto her land and staring down the Burleighs, de Havilland displaying plenty of breadth to combine determination with lurking passion for a family. Dean Jagger and Harry Dean Stanton contribute suitably despicable villains, and Cecil Kellaway adds colour to the role of a Quaker doctor.

The triangle of emotions between John, Linnett and David resides at the heart of the film, and allows a warm glow to seep through the drama. John is still grieving the death of his wife and until he finds a cure for his son there is no place in his heart for any other quest, as much as Linnett is emotionally available for him. And young David is dedicated to his father and but also quick to accept Linnett as a mother figure, creating a conflict for John since moving on will mean tearing his son away from an essential new bond. The resourceful dog Lance is the glue holding David's life together, and John faces his biggest test when the sale of the dog offers a possible route to heal David.

On his search for a cure, The Proud Rebel will find conflict and resolution in unexpected forms, for both father and son.

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Movie Review: Five Branded Women (1960)

An independent war film with a unique perspective, Five Branded Women is a thought-provoking drama delving into the human cost of war, and the warped values that emerge in a world consumed by an endless conflict.

The setting is a small town in Yugoslavia under German occupation in 1943. Womanizing German officer Sergeant Keller (Steve Forrest) is simultaneously seducing five local women. Members of the local anti-Nazi partisan militia, led by Velko (Van Heflin), soon catch up with Keller and summarily extract revenge. The five women are punished for sleeping with the enemy: the partisans forcibly cut their hair short to visibly humiliate them. The embarrassed Nazis evict the disgraced women out of town.

The women are Jovanka (Silvana Mangano), Ljuba (Jeanne Moreau), Daniza (Vera Miles), Marja (Barbara Bel Geddes), and Mira (Carla Gravina). Jovanka perceives war, rather than the Germans, as the enemy interrupting her lust for life. Ljuba is the innocent shop girl looking for an ideal man. Daniza never actually slept with Keller, but was swept up in the roundup of the women. The widow Marja was desperately trying to get pregnant with Keller, while Mira is already carrying his child.

The women have to fend for themselves in the unforgiving war-torn countryside. Jovanka assumes the group's leadership as they sleep rough and steal food to survive. Before long they witness partisan attacks on German convoys and make contact with Velko's militia, which includes the charismatic fighter Branco (Harry Guardino), who has difficulty controlling his libido. The women prove themselves in combat, and even capture the German Captain Reinhardt (Richard Basehart) as a prisoner. But the war is long, and the strain begins to tell.

A Dino De Laurentiis production directed by Martin Ritt, Five Branded Women carries a European sensibility towards the war. Traversing territory devoid of heroes and villains, the Yugoslavian countryside contains mostly victims trying to carve out a path to survival. While there are some cringe-worthy moments of wooden acting and melodramatic dialogue, the film thrives in an environment of humanity shorn of civility and stripped down to the basics of endurance.

Ritt alternates his characters' musings about the war with sharp action scenes. mostly consisting of noisy ambushes as the partisans deploy classic hit and run tactics to make life miserable for the occupying Germans. But the film's impact is carried by the strong-held beliefs of Jovanka and Velko. Jovanka does not care who is at war with whom; she just resents the war for disrupting her quest for a full life, and seeks the opportunities to strike back at the tide of misery. Velko is resigned to becoming a killer, and has parked his soul to the side, fully accepting that his embrace of brutality creates little functional separation between him and the occupiers. Silvana Mangano and Van Heflin bring these two memorable characters to life with a welcome facade of dour determination.

The grim black and white cinematography adds to the appropriately depressed tone: the lush countryside may be beautiful, but now is not the time to admire nature's colours. And in the unhinged reality of a land ravaged by war, ironies prevail. Daniza is punished once for a sin she did not commit with the enemy; she will be punished again for consorting with an ally. Ljuba establishes a relationship with the prisoner Reinhardt. He helps bring life to a countryside filled with death unleashed by his army before presenting Ljuba, who has long been waiting for a decent man, with a stark choice.

War resets the rules of sex, and Five Branded Women is unflinching in dealing with a topic that Hollywood movies typically avoided. The town is obsessed with the liaisons perpetrated by the womanizing Keller. Out in the fields, Branco's first instinct is to rape Jovanka; there is barely a difference between occupiers and freedom fighters in claiming women as trophies. Velko insists that the first rule of his militia is no fraternization between men and women, a goal both noble and impossible.

And although Velko and Jovanka avoid getting romantically entangled, they finally connect intellectually. He wants to free his country at all cost, she wants the freedom to embrace all that a miserable life can offer, and after an audacious militia attack their interests finally intersect, machine gun at the ready, Nazis in pursuit.

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Movie Review: The Young Savages (1961)

A tight crime and courtroom drama, The Young Savages energetically probes the culture of youth-gone-bad on the streets of Harlem.

In Harlem, three members of the Italian American street gang the Thunderbirds stab to death Roberto Escalante, a blind member of the rival Puerto Rican Horsemen gang. The three culprits are soon apprehended: Arthur Reardon is the combustible leader, Anthony "Batman" Aposto is a dimwit, and Danny diPace is still a juvenile at fifteen, escaping a broken home. Daniel Cole (Edward Andrews) is the ambitious District Attorney about to launch a campaign to become Governor. He agrees with assistant DA Hank Bell (Burt Lancaster) to charge the three boys with first degree murder and seek the death penalty.

With help from Detective Gunderson (Telly Savalas), Bell starts to put together the case. He is originally from the same Harlem neighbourhood, and in his younger days used to date Mary diPace (Shelley Winters), Danny's mother. Bell's wife Karin (Dina Merrill) holds liberal views espousing tolerance and understanding of the social conditions driving youth to violence. As Bell delves into the details of the murder and the backgrounds of the victim and the assailants, he finds more than meets the eye. But with the Puerto Rican community baying for revenge and Cole seeking the good publicity of a quick conviction, there is little room for compassion.

Directed by John Frankenheimer, The Young Savages is a gritty film, intent on seeking all sides a complex societal issue. A dramatic companion piece to West Side Story, Frankenheimer delivers a thoughtful, well-rounded exposition of the hidden factors that drive youth into trouble on the streets. What starts as a straightforward brutal murder of a helpless kid in broad daylight turns into much more, with complex and varied motivation and no easy answers.

The black and white cinematography, courtesy of Lionel Lindon, is a perfect fit for a rough Harlem dominated by dog-eat-dog sensibilities, petty turf wars and sneering youth finding a better fit among peers than at home. The film draws energy from the menace of alleys dominated by wild kids engaged in their own civil war. Bell is proud to have escaped this ghetto and believes that anyone who also tries should succeed. It is ironically left to his well-bred wife Karin to prod him into seeing that not all kids will have the same opportunities, and some will be left behind to fend for themselves with knives as the primary survival tool.

The climax in the courtroom veers more towards social commentary to the detriment of pragmatic legal reality. Bell seeks to punish guilt but only in the right doses while accounting for evil intent, peer pressure and abject lack of intellect. He also tries to find space for the sensibilities of his wife, his boss and the victims' families. It all a bit too much for one case to absorb and one attorney to deliver, and his improvisation away from a senior lawyer's discipline undermines credibility.

Burt Lancaster delivers a typically sturdy performance, ably assisted by small but precise roles from Dina Merrill and Shelley Winters. Merrill is cool and collected, almost icy, as Bell's life partner in the new world he created for himself. Winters is ruffled and frantic as the woman left behind: Bell could have been Danny's father, a scenario that Mary holds onto as her greatest achievement and he looks back on as his greatest escape. Such are the margins of life between savagery and civilization.

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Saturday, 17 September 2016

Movie Review: Sully (2016)

A dramatization of the 2009 miraculous landing of a civilian airliner on the Hudson River, Sully delves into the aftermath at the personal level, as the captain is thrust into a maelstrom of attention from an astounded world and befuddled officials.

It's January 2009 in New York City. Veteran airline Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and First Officer Jeffery Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are dealing with the chaotic immediate aftermath of the "Miracle on the Hudson", where Sully landed an Airbus A320 on the Hudson River after losing both engines due to a bird strike soon after takeoff from LaGuardia airport. All 155 passengers and crew on-board were saved relatively unharmed, plucked from the aircaft wings by boats that rushed to the rescue within minutes.

While Sully is being feted as a hero and the media is in full frenzy mode, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) launches an investigation. There are whispers that one of the engines was maybe still functional, and that Sully could have made it safely back to LaGuardia instead of attempting a dangerous water landing. Meanwhile back home Sully's wife Lorraine (Laura Linney) can only communicate with Sully over the phone and is dealing with the media camped on her driveway. Sully starts to question whether he did the right thing, as the enormity of his achievement sinks in and the investigation escalates with some surprising simulation results.

Directed by Clint Eastwood and based on Sullenberger's book, Sully is a compact 96 minute story-behind-the-story drama focusing on the personal impact of an astonishing event that made global headlines. The safe water landing on the Hudson is stranger than fiction, so Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki wisely focus on the emotional burden that comes with an unexpected and overwhelming achievement.

The landing itself is recreated with care and presented with marvelous timing, key moments interspersed with the unfolding post-event confusion. Without delving into melodrama, Eastwood finds the awe-inspiring power of quiet heroism as Sully, the passengers and the rescuers come together and play their unscripted parts to make unintended history on the Hudson River.

Beyond the events on the river, the film tackles themes related to what makes a hero, and society's facile rush to attach simple labels to complex situations. Sully is keenly aware that a lifetime of flying experience came together in a few seconds in the air, his instincts kicking in to do the right things in the right order at the right time. But his self-awareness is such that he equally recognizes the thin line between success and failure.

The film does stretch to find pseudo-villains, and unfairly maligns NTSB officials into confrontational and adversarial roles. This is Eastwood unfortunately seeking the black hats in a story that did not need them, in the process taking away from the strength of the event itself and its already immense psychological aftermath.

Tom Hanks finds another perfect fit in the role of Chesley Sullenberger, a well-respected man able to rise above a situation that can easily crush the psyche. Hanks brings forth Sully's reserved dignity, never descending into any level of cheap engagement, and remaining grounded as he grapples with self-reflection. Aaron Eckhart has to decide whether the river landing or a bushy mustache represents the greater threat, but nevertheless provides solid support.

Sully never stops questioning his own actions, while sharing the credit with Skiles, the flight attendants, the passengers who remained mostly calm, and the rescuers who rushed to the scene. While the captain played the most prominent role, ultimately it took the efforts and actions of a group to create a real life miracle on a freezing cold January day.

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Thursday, 15 September 2016

Movie Review: A Star Is Born (1937)

A drama and romance set in the world of Hollywood, A Star Is Born is the classic tale of a new starlet rising just as her husband's career descends into sad oblivion.

Encouraged by her grandmother (May Robson), Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) heads from her North Dakota family farm to Hollywood, in search of her big break in the film world. She befriends struggling assistant director Danny McGuire (Andy Devine), but otherwise cannot get a foothold in the industry. She is finally noticed by star (and frequently drunk) actor Norman Maine (Fredric March), who convinces studio boss Oliver Niles (Adolphe Menjou) to give Esther a screen test. She has a simple and natural look that Niles believes will be coming into fashion, and she is signed up by the studio.

With the help of fast thinking and faster talking studio publicist Matt Libby (Lionel Stander), Esther is transformed into Vicki Lester and receives the full studio spiffing up treatment. Cast as the female lead in Norman's next picture, she is immediately acclaimed as the next big star of the movies. After a whirlwind romance Norman sobers up long enough to marry Esther. But her continued success and his descent from glory drives him back to a pattern of self-destruction that threatens to derail her career.

Directed in colour by William A. Wellman and produced by David O. Selznick, the 1937 version of A Star Is Born holds up to the test of time remarkably well. While the bloated 1954 version is more about Judy Garland's attempted comeback, the 1937 effort is a perfectly balanced drama, allowing the story, the milieu and the characters of Esther and Norman to share the spotlight.

At 1 hour and 51 minutes, Wellman delivers an efficient and rich film. There is enough investment in depth to develop Esther and Norman into real people worth caring about. The supporting characters of studio head Oliver Niles, publicist Matt Libby and assistant director Danny McGuire also receive ample screen time and help to nurture the inside Hollywood environment.

The opposite trajectories experienced by Esther and Norman anchor the film. She rockets from unknown ingenue to stardom after her first film. He descends from the top of the heap to the bottom of the bottle at a remarkable pace. They cross paths in the middle, Norman giving Esther a key career boost, Esther doing all she can to halt his slide. Business is business, and ultimately Hollywood is the dream factory where only those who connect with the public are welcome. Esther is the new darling, Norman is the has-been, and few have time or sympathy for yesterday's stars.

Both sides of Hollywood are captured in key scenes. Oliver reaches out to Norman at a key low point, offering a return path to the screen. There are traces of humanity in this town, but Norman's ego prevents him from grabbing the lifeline, or even recognizing it for what it is. In another sequence, Libby wastes no time telling Norman exactly what he thinks of him, now that Norman is washed up. The knives come out quickly when the gloss wears off.

Esther is both protagonist and observer. She is eventually swept up by the studio star-making machine, and gets to observe its inner workings. Esther brings healthy farm-grown pragmatism to her reign at the top as Vicki Lester. Having already witnessed the fleeting nature of fame, Esther will know better than most how quickly the machine can dump and trample on its own creations.

Janet Gaynor and Fredric March both do well and generally avoid melodramatics, with Gaynor in particular radiating the honest appeal of a rural girl candid about her determination to chase a far-fetched dream. Stars are born in an explosion of perseverance, but burn out with a dark whimper.

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Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Movie Review: Saturday Night Fever (1977)

The story of a young man who rules the disco floor but otherwise has little of meaning going on in his life, Saturday Night Fever is a majestic dance drama.

In Brooklyn, 19 year old Tony Manero (John Travolta) works at a paint store and still lives with his bickering parents. But on Friday and Saturday nights, Tony is the king of the local 2001 Odyssey dance club. Tony runs with a group of friends, including Joey, Double J and the naive Bobby C. Local girl Annette (Donna Pescow) desperately wants Tony to be her man and dance partner for an upcoming competition. Tony initially agrees and they start practicing, but he resists her sexual advances. As soon as he spots newcomer Stephanie Mangano (Karen Lynn Gorney) on the club dance floor, Tony becomes obsessed with her and eventually they team up as dance partners.

Stephanie is working at a talent agency across the river in Manhattan and looks down on Tony's unambitious Brooklyn life, only gradually warming up to him. Meanwhile there is trouble on the home front when Tony's brother Frank Jr. (Martin Shakar) unexpectedly quits the priesthood. There is also turmoil within Tony's group of friends, with Bobby C. getting his girlfriend pregnant, and the guys skirmishing with a rival group of neighbourhood kids. With the dance competition drawing near, Tony's life reaches a crossroads, with all his relationships at a crisis point.

Directed by John Badham, Saturday Night Fever is a seminal film, transforming Travolta into an overnight sensation and exquisitely capturing the disco culture just as it exploded into the mainstream. Mixing irresistible dance scenes at the 2001 Odyssey Club with a story of lost youth, bleak prospects and general disenchantment, the film delivers street level grime punctuated by the alternative world of dance enlivened by vivid lights, and the juxtaposition works brilliantly.

The film's seductive music features songs by the Bee Gees and others, and is one of the all-time most famous and successful movie soundtracks. Stayin' Alive, Night Fever, How Deep Is Your Love, and More Than A Woman, all by the Bee Gees, plus If I Can't Have You by Yvonne Elliman became international hits and remain indelibly linked with the disco era.

Several of the film's scenes are the stuff of legend, firmly entrenched in the cultural zeitgeist. Tony's walk down the sidewalk carrying a can of paint opens the film and sets the stage, Badham frequently focusing on his classy shoes and slinky legs to show a natural dancer's grace in movement. The first time that Tony and his friends, known as "the faces", enter the club, the crowd parts to salute the local heroes, Tony suddenly in his element and his palace, all the petty troubles of the real world forgotten.

And when he takes to the dance floor Tony demonstrates why he dominates. Travolta's dancing, captured with slinky finesse by Badham's cameras, is all about sexy agility and an abundance of confidence, his tall, sinewy physique transforming the dance floor into his arena, where others are welcome but only at his pleasure. There is a magical dimension to the scenes on the dance floor, the combination of Travolta, the music and the lighting achieving intoxicating heights of enchantment.

The dramatic scenes are equally effective, with Tony's domestic world a nightmare of endless arguments within a dysfunctional working class Italian-American family. The dangerous high jinks on the cables of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge are also memorable, with the first round registering the exuberance of indestructible youth, and the second visit revealing how low the psyche can sink when the real world closes in.

Travolta at 23 years old owns the film, radiating star charisma and finding Tony's angst at entering early adulthood with an undefined future. He receives able support from Donna Pescow and Karen Lynn Gorney as Annette and Stephanie. Prescow nails the hopeless girl who will do anything to grab the attention of the local legend, including devaluing herself into abject humiliation. Gorney makes a huge impression as the girl desperate to prove that she can do better than what life in Brooklyn has to offer, and even more desperate to tell all of Brooklyn about her exploits in Manhattan, real or not.

Hypnotic, authentic and infectious, Saturday Night Fever is scorching hot.

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Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Movie Review: Die Hard (1988)

A brash, bold and boisterous action film, Die Hard is an exceptionally enjoyable thrill ride featuring one reluctant hero, one tall building, a gaggle of hostages and a large group of murderous terrorists.

It's Christmas Eve, and New York City police officer John McClane has just landed in Los Angeles to maybe try and patch things up with his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), an executive at the Nakatomi Corporation. John travels to the Nakatomi tower where the company Christmas party is in full swing, and barely avoids an invasion of the building by a group of well-organized and brutal terrorists. Mastermind Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his main henchman Karl (Alex Godunov) along with about a dozen armed men take all the Nakatomi employees, including Holly, as hostages, and set about opening the well-guarded corporate safe.

McClane escapes into the upper reaches of the building and initiates a one-man guerrilla war against the terrorists, picking off a few of them while trying to attract the attention of the enforcement authorities. Eventually LA police Sergeant Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) responds and initiates contact with McClane from outside the building, and a large police force gathers. Hans and his men still have surprises in hand, and the outnumbered and outgunned McClane has to fight a lonely battle just to survive and save his wife.

McClane: Mayday, Mayday, Emergency anyone copy, Channel Nine, terrorists have seized the Nakatomi Building, Century City, I repeat, unknown number of terrorists, six or more armed with automatic weapons on the 30th floor of Nakatomi Plaza.
LAPD Operator: [to other operator] I'll take this.
McClane: Somebody answer me, goddamn it!
LAPD Operator: Attention, whoever you are: This frequency is reserved for emergency calls only.
McClane: No fucking shit, lady! Do I sound like I'm ordering a pizza?!

Directed by John McTiernan, Die Hard turned Bruce Willis into a global action superstar and redefined what a high quality action movie can deliver. With a tight premise, plenty of quotable one-liners, hissing villains, a reluctant hero playing impossible odds, and no shortage of well-executed action scenes, the film unleashes an irresistible torrent of adrenaline.

The personality of John McClane is a huge part of the film's success. A classic fish-out-water hero, McClane's New York pragmatism is already being tested by the unfamiliar fluffy Los Angeles surroundings. His night gets much worse when the terrorists let loose, but McClane's streak of dark sarcasm carries through, his irritation at being forced into action the juice that keeps the evening going.

Bruce Willis brings McClane to life and finds his perfect career role. 33 years old with a prematurely thinning hair line, Willis brings credible world weariness to McClane, but makes the most impact at the personal level: Die Hard rises above typical action fare mainly due to McClane's desire for a reconciliation with wife Holly, and later thanks to the bond created over the radio between McClane and beat cop Al Powell. For all the flying bullets, shattered glass and huge explosions, Willis comes through at the personal level, creating a hero with heart, just as believable trading gunfire as he is at longing for human warmth.

Every good hero requires worthwhile villains, and McClane gets two. Decked out in expensive European threads, Hans Gruber is a distinguished killer, never hesitating to spill blood but insisting that he looks good doing it. Karl is more volatile, and runs on a short fuse once his brother becomes one of McClane's early victims. Alan Rickman and Alex Godunov deserve a lot of credit for creating a pair of hate-worthy bad guys.

The film has other troublemakers, first in the form of Deputy Police Chief Dwayne Robinson (Paul Gleason), and later two FBI agents (Robert Davi and Grand L. Bush).  Their hamfisted attempts to take charge and resolve the crisis only make matters worse for McClane, who learns the hard way that sometime the cavalry is more trouble than its worth.

Deputy Chief Dwayne Robinson: I got a hundred people down here and they're all covered in glass!
John McClane: Glass? Who gives a shit about glass? Who the fuck is this?
Deputy Chief Dwayne Robinson: This is Deputy Chief Dwayne T. Robinson, and I am in charge here.
John McClane: Oh you're in charge? Well I got some bad news for you Dwayne, from up here it doesn't look like you're in charge of jack shit.
Deputy Chief Dwayne Robinson: You listen to me you little asshole-
John McClane: Asshole? I'm not the one who just got butt-fucked on national TV, Dwayne! Now, you listen to me, jerk-off, if you're not a part of the solution, you're a part of the problem. Quit being a part of the fuckin' problem and put the other guy back on!

But ultimately Die Hard is all about the action, and the film delivers in spades. Using the building as an excellent platform McTiernan stages the action in elevator and ventilation shafts, stairwells and half-completed floors, all transformed into intriguing settings for an escalating battle between one resourceful  man and a small army of terrorists. Handguns, automatic rifles, anti-tank missiles and C4 explosives are all put to good use, as the Nakatomi plaza building takes a fearsome pounding. The climax involves a fire hose and the roof, and it remains an all-time epic action movie highlight.

Die Hard holds nothing back: this is a whopper of an action film, a perfect dose of inescapable escapism.

McClane: Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker!

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Movie Review: Inherent Vice (2014)

A loose stoner crime drama, Inherent Vice is an incomprehensible mess, an assortment of ideas, characters and events thrown into a jumble and left to die on the vine of fake profundity.

It's Los Angeles in 1970, and perpetually stoned private detective Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) gets a surprise visit from his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). She wants Doc to investigate a plot against her current illicit lover, development tycoon Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). Doc is also contacted by ex-con Tariq Khalil (Michael K. Williams), who wants Doc to recover money from Glen Charlock, one of Wolfmann's guards. Before long both Shasta and Wolfmann have disappeared, Charlock is dead, and Doc is the main murder suspect, being harassed by legendary Detective Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin).

With help from his lawyer Sauncho Smilax (Benicio del Toro) Doc stays free, and is soon investigating the curious case of Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), a police informant seemingly embroiled over his head with white supremacists. Doc also uncovers a shadowy organization called Golden Fang, which may be a front for an international drug trafficking cartel involving creepy dentists. As Doc continues to poke his nose into the various cases, his own life comes under threat.

An ill conceived marriage of Chinatown and The Big Lebowski, Inherent Vice is director and writer Paul Thomas Anderson finding a putrid nadir as he tries to adapt a novel by Thomas Pynchon. With a production environment variously described as chaotic, crazy and devoid of a goal, the on-screen product appears to confirm that no one really knew what they were doing, least of all the director and actors. At an overlong 149 minutes, the film is excruciatingly tedious, before finally tripping into the unintentionally funny territory occupied by ridiculous narcissists.

Every scene introduces new characters in name or in person, and most of them then appear for one or two scenes and then disappear for good. Plot points come and go at random, and the synopsis presented above is just a starting point from which multiple threads end up dangling, none of them remotely coherent. By the end of the film Doc is held hostage and is then killing random bad guys for reasons that are never entirely clear. Flatfoot is either an ally or an opponent, Shasta and Wolfmann have undisappeared but no one seems to really care, drug deals are going down, and somehow Doc decides that it's important to trade for the freedom of informant Coy.

Anderson fails miserably to build empathy for any of the characters, a fundamental requirement to save an excessively dense plot. Instead all of the events are opaque and unresolved, and the movie is littered with guest appearances representing superficial and phony characters of no ultimate consequence. Anderson confuses long stretches of stoned dialogue involving Doc, Shasta and Coy for a deep delving into backgrounds and motivations, but the conversations are esoteric to the point of self-obsessed gibberish.

A case of an emperor caught decisively with no clothes on, Inherent Vice is inherently a disaster.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Movie Review: A Most Violent Year (2014)

A gritty business drama, A Most Violent Year is a pragmatic story of commerce and crime coming together in a brewing mix. The film promises much, but ultimately misses its boiling point.

It's 1981 in a violence-plagued New York City. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is an immigrant who has done well running the growing Standard Heating Oil company, having purchased the business from the father of his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain). Abel is now taking the biggest risk of his career, trying to close the deal on an expensive river front industrial property to further boost his business advantage. The Morales family move into their dream new house, but all is not well.  Abel's adversaries are circling, and the Standard delivery trucks are being repeatedly hijacked and their cargo of oil stolen. One driver, an ambitious young man called Julian (Elyes Gabel) is badly roughed up in one such heist.

Abel and his lawyer Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks) turn to District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) to try and identify the aggressors, but Lawrence is no help. In fact, the DA's office is about to charge Standard Oil with various counts of fraudulent business practices. An attempted break-in at Abel's house is followed by more truck hijackings, with the level of violence increasing to include shootouts on the freeway. Anna grows restless, the bankers get cold feet, and suddenly Abel has to face the prospect of potentially losing everything he has ever worked for.

Directed by J.C. Chandor, A Most Violent Year leaves the vague impression that it should be much better than it is. There is a thread of sloppiness that runs through the film, from a script (written by Chandor) that sounds remarkably stilted to a slipshod editing job that all too readily truncates scenes prematurely. Key characters, including the lawyer Walsh and most of Abel's business competitors, are barely provided with any screen time despite their increasing importance to the story. Instead the film tilts towards over-investing in individuals like Julian, who are ultimately not as relevant. The film ends with too many loose ends flailing in the riverfront breeze.

Visually the film captures a pleasing late 1970s / early 1980s dour aesthetic, but the attempt at industrial bleakness also borders on sparse.

Where the film does succeed is in presenting an inflection point in a struggle between good and evil on the battlefield of a single industry and more specifically one business. While the 1970s are associated with a crime-infested and dangerous New York City, by the time the late 1980s rolled around the city had undergone a remarkable transformation into a sparkling modern day and relatively safe metropolis. A Most Violent Year sits at the transformational crossroads, Abel's stubborn insistence on a different way of doing things representing a forthcoming societal sea change.

Most of the better moments come thanks to a terrific performance by Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales. He finds the essence of a man determined to play the business games as ethically as possible within the confines of a corrupt industry. Isaac's dark, intense eyes are essential in conveying a businessman carrying the weight of the future on his shoulder and fending off appeals from all around him to dive into distasteful sleaze and increased violence.

The pacing and tone are also generally good. The film maintains steady momentum, Abel and Anna dealing with one misfortune after another, and creating some of their own strife through a tumultuous lack of alignment. The rising tension serves to highlight the film's shortcomings, with some of the good set-up work going to waste, Chandor too often failing to deliver the intellectual punch when needed.

A marginally rewarding drama, A Most Violent Year is also an opportunity wasted.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: 127 Hours (2010)

A biographical survival story, 127 Hours is a glossy treatment of a harrowing incident. The film successfully transforms a tale of claustrophobic confinement into a wild journey of a deeply stressed mind.

Aron Ralston (James Franco) is a confident mountaineer, adventurer and canyoneer. He sets off for a solo hike through Utah's Canyonlands National Park, without telling anyone what his plans are. During the day he meets and befriends two other hikers, Kristi (Kate Mara) and Megan (Amber Tamblyn), but they part ways and he continues on his own.

While traversing a narrow slot canyon in an isolated area of the park, a small boulder gives way, Aron stumbles and falls deeper in the crevasse, and the boulder smashes onto his right arm, trapping it against the canyon wall. With his one free hand Aron cannot move the boulder, and with limited food, water and equipment, he faces diminishing prospects for survival. After several days trying to free himself, Aron has to consider the drastic option of cutting his own arm off to free himself.

Directed by Danny Boyle, 127 Hours is based on real events that took place in 2003, later chronicled in a book by Ralston. Any story constructed around a single and well-known torturous event affecting one individual is by definition narrowly delineated. The film's main challenge is to create a drama out of an ordeal of confinement, with most of the trauma occurring in Aron's head. Thanks to a committed James Franco performance and an audacious, often hallucinatory style, Boyle succeeds in fully maintaining interest, and smartly limits the running length to a compact 93 minutes.

Boyle co-wrote the script, and the build-up is carefully constructed to convincingly convey a man running out of options. Aron stays mentally strong and tries everything at his disposal to free himself, but with supplies running out and his mind increasingly hallucinating, his choices narrow down to dying of dehydration or attempting the unthinkable.

The film sets up the pivotal arm amputation scene with perfect timing, and when it arrives it is nothing short of harrowing. Amateur self-administered limb-chopping surgery using a blunt knife is not for the faint of heart, and the film's climax requires a strong stomach. Using a combination of clever editing, realistic make-up, gruesome sound effects and Franco jumping all-in to the agony pool, director and star create an unforgettable sequence, fully worthy of all the carefully designed anticipation.

127 Hours does not shy away from criticizing Aron's action in setting off into the canyon alone and without telling anyone what his plans are. Cockiness meets comeuppance, and trapped by the boulder, he comes face to face with his limitations. The film's other theme is the mind's ability to travel when the body is trapped. Many of Aron's thoughts and emotions veer towards family and girlfriend memories, regrets, and aspirations, recreated by Boyle along the seam where sleep-deprived dreaminess holds hands with the consciousness of a nightmare in progress.

The duel between immovable obstacle and irresistible determination took 127 Hours to resolve, and ended in partial compromise: the boulder got to keep a piece of Aron Ralston, but he reconfirmed the phenomenal human desire to survive under all circumstances.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Movie Review: Irma La Douce (1963)

A grand comedy and romance, Irma La Douce delves into the business of working girls and finds good laughs while refreshingly avoiding any hints of moralizing.

In Paris, honest police officer Nestor Patou (Jack Lemmon) is newly assigned to the Casanova red light district, where prostitutes rule the street. The cafe run by the colourful Moustache (Lou Jacobi) is the local hangout for the girls and their pimps. Irma La Douce (Shirley MacLaine), famous for her green stockings and small pet dog, is the most popular of the girls, although she is treated roughly by her pimp Hippolyte (Bruce Yarnell).

The well-meaning but naive Nestor quickly gets himself into trouble by instigating a raid that disrupts the happy balance between the business of prostitution and police kick-backs. He is fired from tjhe force, and after tangling with Hippolyte pursues a friendship with Irma that becomes a romance. But Nestor cannot stand the idea of his girl working as a prostitute, so with Moustache's help he adopts the secret disguise and persona of a wealthy British upper crust gentleman known only as Lord X, to richly pay for monopolizing Irma's time and eliminate the need for other customers. But Nestor is actually broke, so his already complex plan is bound to backfire in unexpected ways.

Directed by Billy Wilder, Irma La Douce is colourful and jovial, but also overlong and stretched too thin for the available material. The decision to strip the music out of the French stage musical while still aiming for 147 minutes of running time is curious. Wilder gets away with it thanks to a sharp script co-written with regular collaborator I.A.L Diamond, but a good 25 minutes could have been stripped off with no loss in quality.

This takes nothing away from what makes it onto the screen. The film is hugely enjoyable, with both Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in fine form. The stars previously teamed with Wilder on The Apartment and quickly slip into a zone of comic comfort. Lemmon gets to play two roles as Nestor Patou and Lord X, and in the guise of the latter he gets an opportunity to finally drop the befuddled everyman routine and spreads his wings as the quirky made-up English Lord. To make the point that the hapless remain hapless in any disguise, Patou financially drowns into further debt as the Lord, before finding himself accused of an unlikely murder.

MacLaine is steady as Irma, a grounded prostitute with a pragmatic outlook on her lot in life. Neither a whore with a heart of gold nor a caustic messed-up fallen woman, Irma is a businesswoman who is good at what she does and looks for opportunities to maximize profit while improving work conditions and take-home benefits.

The big bonus surprise of Irma La Douce is Lou Jacobi. A reliable source of laughs, he handles all the heavy lifting in the main supporting role of Moustache. The cafe owner with a chequered life history featuring numerous other professions, Moustache keeps his tall tales to the point, and all his sharp recollections end with the trademark but that's another story. For a long film, the rest of the supporting cast is poorly defined and listless.

Wilder breaks away from stage constraints and keeps the action moving between several locations (all unfortunately in the studio). The sets include the street, the cafe, a Casanova hotel room, a police station, Irma's apartment, a bustling farmer's market and a walkway by the Seine.

Irma La Douce pushes the envelope of what was acceptable in 1963 in terms of portraying sexuality and eroticism in a big budget Hollywood production. The business of sex is presented as a natural part of Parisian society, and in addition to not judging the prostitutes, MacLaine (in a role originally intended for Marilyn Monroe) goes to bed naked and slips in and out of a succession of revealing outfits and lingerie. Lemmon is much more clumsy, but also gets to undress.

Humorous, vivid and just a tad overblown, Irma La Douce is an amusing romp through the hazards of an unlikely romance.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Movie Review: The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

A sharp Western with ominous overtones The Ox-Bow Incident is unapologetic in its bleak assessment of the enticing mentality to apply simple solutions to complex problems.

Nevada, 1885. Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan) ride into the small town of Bridger's Wells. Although not exactly strangers, Carter and Croft have been away long enough to be treated with some suspicion by the men at Darby's Saloon, where the talk of the town is about cattle rustlers. Carter is disappointed to hear that his girl Rose (Mary Beth Hughes) has left town during his absence. The townsfolk are enraged when word arrives that Kincaid, a local cattleman, has been shot dead by the rustlers.

A bloodthirsty posse is formed despite the absence of the local sheriff. The elderly Davies (Harry Davenport) and the local judge try to talk sense into the men, but the self-styled Major Tetley (Frank Conroy) appoints himself as posse leader. Gil and Art reluctantly join in. Soon the posse catches up with three men traveling together: rancher Donald Martin (Dana Andrews), Mexican Juan Martínez (Anthony Quinn) and a confused old man (Francis Ford). With Tetley leading the on-the-spot interrogation, the trio are accused of being the rustlers and Kincaid's murderers, despite Donald's well-reasoned protestations. Carter and Croft have to decide where they stand as an instantaneous triple hanging looms.

An adaptation of the novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark directed by William A. Wellman, The Ox-Bow Incident is a kick in the gut. A searing commentary on the human condition, the film is limited to about 4 sets and 75 minutes of running time, but packs a profound impact in its grim portrayal of group think, blind lust for revenge, and justice shortcuts exercised for convenience.

Wellman signals early that this is no ordinary Western. In the opening scene Gil Carter enters Darby's Saloon and is immediately captivated by the large painting above the bar, showing a dippy man emerging from behind a curtain, approaching an attractive woman reclining in the foreground. That guy'’s awful slow getting there, comments Gil, followed by I feel sorry for him. Always in reach and never able to do anything about it.” and then I got a feeling she could do better. Gil's not done: later he adds “Ain'’t that guy got there yet?”

Rarely has a seemingly incidental painting attracted so much attention in a film script, but of course the painting is about much more than a man and a woman. It's about reaching a better state of evolution where men find their status of civility, and in this dusty little town on the western edge of civilization, it ain't happening any quicker than the painted man is moving towards the woman. As soon as word reaches the Saloon that Kincaid is dead a lynch mob is assembled, and most of the men plus the gun-happy "Ma" Jenny Grier (Jane Darwell) are eager to ride and carve out a rudimentary version of justice. The old timers who protest are shouted down, while Gil and Art go along, not through any sense of conviction but because it is the expected thing to do.

When the mob comes face to face with Donald Martin's group, there is an attempt at due process. After all, the man is halfway emerging from the curtain. But by dawn the posse is restless. The delay tactics have run their course and the business of revenge needs to be looked after.

Despite the efficient duration and seemingly simple story, Wellman bundles an enormous amount into the film, with a theme of injustice feeding on egotistical quests. Major Tetley perceives his son Gerald (William Eythe) to be weak, and part of Tetley's motivation in leading the posse is to create a test environment for his offspring. Ironically, Gerald's unease with violence emerges as one of the few bright spots for a better future. Meanwhile, the deputy sheriff is also motivated by his desire to exert unearned authority, and oversteps his powers to deputize all the men.

Donald, Juan and the old coot in their company are not exactly squeaky clean. Their story keeps changing, Juan carries mischievous tendencies and the old man is quick to sell his soul for cheap. And finally Gil is on his own journey to better understand his destiny: on a teetering trail edge he will bump into Rose, once his future and now his past, but never to be his present: again, the lady is beyond reach, this time more literally. The multiple character-driven plot threads give The Ox-Bow Incident plenty of somber avenues to explore.

Fourteen years later Fonda would find himself in a similar on-screen situation, as The Ox-Bow Incident pairs remarkably well with 1957's Twelve Angry Men. In both cases men rush to justice for all the wrong reasons, lives hang in the balance, and Fonda is the outsider wielding some influence. The Ox-Bow Incident is darker and more visceral, the human desire for vengeance and retribution a powerful force on the bitterly cold nights of the frontier.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Movie Review: Hell Or High Water (2016)

A rural heist drama with plenty of soul, Hell Or High Water is a superlative crime film, delving into the us-versus-them psyche where resentment justifies audacious lawlessness.

In rural west Texas, divorced dad Toby Howard (Chris Pine) seeks the help of his older brother Tanner (Ben Foster) to go on a bank robbing spree. The brothers are about to lose their sprawling family property to the unscrupulous bankers, and Toby wants to quickly raise the cash to pay off the lien and allow his sons to inherit the property clear of debt. While Toby is low key and has led a quiet life, Tanner is more unstable, prone to violence, enjoys the thrill of crime and has just been released from prison.

The brothers try to hit the banks early in the morning to avoid customers and casualties, and aim to get away with a relatively small cash amount from each branch. Their exploits nevertheless attract he attention of gruff Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Marcus is nearing retirement but likes nothing more than tracking down bad guys. He sets about trying to predict what the robbers' next move will be, not an easy task in the wide open and sparsely populated terrain dotted with small towns.

Directed by David Mackenzie and written by Taylor Sheridan, Hell Or High Water breathes deeply from its surroundings and creates a complex world where good and evil co-exist in many of the same people. The film is smart and nuanced, tense action sequences sitting comfortably next to rich character development scenes to create a tapestry of rural life where different rules apply.

The three key characters are conflicted and not easy to like, but Mackenzie patiently rounds Toby, Tanner and Marcus into real people with faults and dreams, pursuing their targets as best as they know how. The scenes between the brothers allow the criminals to emerge as men worth caring about, trying to push back against unfavourable economic and social forces.

Meanwhile, Marcus does not even try to hide his colours: he is a politically incorrect borderline racist, with his partner Alberto bearing the majority of Marcus' taunts. Toby and Tanner may have been left behind by the American dream, but Marcus never went looking for any modern version of society: he is happy to be retiring with his caustic attitude towards life fully intact.

The landscape is a big part of the film's ambiance. With New Mexico representing West Texas, cinematographer Giles Nuttgens captures a sun-drenched, sweaty environment simmering under impressively huge skies, forgotten by much of what counts as progress. Here small town main streets look pretty much the same as they did a hundred years prior, and working the land whether to feed cattle or extract oil is still the main occupation. Except that the wide open secondary highways are dotted with signs of an ever lingering recession, with advertisements for loan and bankruptcy services providing the most prominent smudges of colour.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster are the heart of the film, and the two actors find the comfortable space where brothers naturally understand and support each other without necessarily sharing all the same values. Jeff Bridges casts a long shadow as the Texas Ranger who will only fade into the sunset once he solves his last case on his own terms.

Hell Or High Water stands tall on the prairies of rural despair where, with just some squinting, the rewards of crime shimmer as a viable tool to redress the economic balance of power.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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