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.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

The Movies Of Rooney Mara

All movies starring Rooney Mara and reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

The Social Network (2010)

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Side Effects (2013)

Her (2013)

Carol (2015)

Lion (2016)

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

Monday, 19 September 2016

The Movies Of Jim Belushi

All movies starring Jim Belushi and reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

Trading Places (1983)

The Man With One Red Shoe (1985)

Salvador (1986)

About Last Night... (1986)

Red Heat (1988)

New Year's Eve (2011)

The Whole Truth (2016)

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

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