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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Movie Review: The Devil's Advocate (1997)

A supernatural courtroom drama, The Devil's Advocate takes a fiendish look at the world of high-stakes corporate law to find a literal hell on earth filled with souls for sale.

In Gainesville, Florida, Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) is a handsome and cocky hot shot defence lawyer. Raised by his deeply religious single mother Alice (Judith Ivey) and married to the vivacious Mary Ann (Charlize Theron), Kevin has never lost a case. Facing his worst crisis as he defends a pervert school teacher against charges of sexual molestation, Kevin pauses in the men's room to gather his thoughts before proceeding to shred the testimony of the young victim. He secures a stunning not-guilty verdict.

Soon after, Kevin is recruited by a New York City law firm headed by John Milton (Al Pacino), and is quickly sucked into the lavish corporate culture alongside Milton's fellow executives Eddie Barzoon (Jeffrey Jones) and Christabella Andreoli (Connie Nielsen). But despite being handed the keys to a highly coveted apartment overlooking Central Park, Kevin's marriage to Mary Ann starts to suffer as she struggles to adapt to their new life. With Kevin's career soaring under Milton's mentorship, he is provided with the opportunity of a lifetime to defend real estate tycoon Alexander Cullen (Craig T. Nelson), accused of a triple murder. With his wife and marriage falling apart, the young lawyer begins to understand the price to be paid in return for tainted courtroom success.

Directed by Taylor Hackford and based on the Andrew Neiderman book, The Devil's Advocate is glossy fun. The mix of adult themes wrapped into a devil's agenda narrative and plonked into the world of criminal law could have been a righteous mess, but Hackford maintains good control, helped by a polished screenplay co-written by Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy.

The Devil's Advocate carries many parallels with the equally good legal thriller The Firm, and inflates the cost of morally vague legal quests to its ultimate conclusion. Hackford brings in Alice's religious extremism as the counterweight to devilish desires, and includes liberal doses of crime, sexuality and extremes of wealth to create the domain where evil thrives.

The film quickly gets down to the business of justice versus ethics, and the moral dilemma of proving innocence in a legal system that requires lawyers to stand by their clients no matter how putrid. It's a small step from there towards discarding principles of right and wrong and simply chasing the winning outcome at all costs, an apt description of selling the soul to maintain ever higher charge-out rates. If the devil and his acolytes were to choose a profession, defending the indefensible is a better choice than most.

The Devil's Advocate hurtles towards Kevin coming to terms with his own destiny from the perspective of Milton's reality, with Christabella equally thrust into a central role as far as humanity's future is concerned. In a wild climax Hackford does lose some discipline, with the lure of the supernatural and Pacino's tendencies to veer towards excess overpowering the more cerebral aspects of the material.

But to its credit, The Devil's Advocate does not shy away from the human responsibility to be accountable for each decision. As Milton insists to Kevin, there are choices at every step, and indeed Milton on several occasions offers up failure and withdrawal as viable options. It is up to Kevin to decide how far he will push himself into the moral morass; the devil just sets the stage for man's foibles to flourish.

In a career littered with performances that resemble sleep-walking, Keanu Reeves is much more animated as Kevin Lomax, finally unshackling some passion and emotional depth. In her breakout role Charlize Theron is a revelation, the character of Mary Ann having the longest arc and traveling from joyous small-town wife to a big-city victim struggling with her husband's increasing work obsession and sinister colleagues.

Equally campy and creepy, The Devil's Advocate makes a compelling case for demonic entertainment.

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Saturday, 23 July 2016

Movie Review: Chapter Two (1979)

A romantic drama with some wit, Chapter Two is an autobiographical story about second chances from writer Neil Simon. The film is talky and stagy but nevertheless saved by earnest intentions and good performances.

In New York City, George Schneider (James Caan) is a writer still coming to terms with the death of his wife Barb after 12 years of marriage. His brother Leo (Joseph Bologna) arranges a series of disastrous blind dates, but eventually one of them works: George meets and falls in love with stage actress Jennie MacLaine (Marsha Mason), a recent divorcée.

The romance between George and Jennie is fast and idyllic, and within days they are talking about marriage, although George does suffer episodes of withdrawal and guilt as he continues to process the loss of Barb. In the meantime, Leo's marriage appears to be wobbling, and Jennie's best friend Faye (Valerie Harper) also seeks something beyond the confines of her marriage. Despite Leo's warnings that the couple are moving too fast, George and Jennie do get married, but there is trouble ahead for the seemingly happy couple.

Directed by Robert Moore and based on Simon's play, Chapter Two is a retelling of Simon's romance with Mason, his actual second wife. With Mason effectively playing herself under the guise of Jennie MacLaine, the film has undoubted passion and agony anchored in the writer's real experiences.

Moore does his best to disguise the stage origins of the material, locating events around New York City and keeping the actors moving even within the confines of George and Jennie's apartments. There is even a longish honeymoon interlude thrown in, showcasing the Caribbean. The initial romantic pursuit scenes between George and Jeannie, featuring numerous phone calls culminating in a five minute date, are genuinely awkward and cute. But at 124 minutes the film is too long, and many scenes carry on with long monologues that work well on paper and perhaps the stage, but appear contrived on the screen.

However, Simon's prose is witty enough to ride out most of the bumps, and the film's highlight is a passionate soliloquy delivered by Mason confirming her desire to stand and fight for herself, her man, and their relationship. It borders on wince-inducing, but Mason finds enough fire in her heart to make it work, and wraps the evolving status of feminism, women's aspirations and the embrace of second chances in one epic pitch.

Caan is less engaged, and other than his initial passionate pursuit of Jennie, the character of George Schneider is written as generally passive. For long periods Caan just has to play at morose and silently stare out into the distance, an understandable stance given his profound loss, but not great cinematic drama. Joseph Bologna and Valerie Harper provide stronger than usual support, and the characters of Leo and Faye get their own side stories to add texture to Simon's commentary about the status of relationships among sophisticated urbanites in the late 1970s.

Although the film is obviously self-obsessed, the euphorias and miseries of hearts struggling through emotional rollercoasters carry enough universal appeal for Chapter Two to create and maintain interest.

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Friday, 22 July 2016

Movie Review: What To Expect When You're Expecting (2012)

A multi-story ensemble cast romantic comedy, What To Expect When You're Expecting is as bad as can be expected. The concept of adapting a pregnancy guidebook into a movie was only ever going to result in a trivial experience, and the outcome is the blandest from of purée.

Five stories unfold in parallel. Jules (Cameron Diaz) is a celebrity television fitness instructor who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant after sleeping with her dance partner Evan on a reality television show. Both are type-A personalities and clash over every detail. Freelance photographer Holly (Jennifer Lopez) is desperate to adopt a child and makes plans for an overseas adoption from Ethiopia. Her husband Alex is less ready to start a family.

Wendy (Elizabeth Banks) runs a maternity shop and becomes pregnant after years of trying with her husband Gary, who is locked in a lifelong competitiveness contest with his ex-racing car champion dad Ramsey (Dennis Quaid). Sure enough, Ramsey's much younger trophy wife Skyler (Brooklyn Decker) is also pregnant, and with twins. And food truck operator Rosie (Anna Kendrick) finds herself pregnant after hooking up for one night of sex with former high school flame Marco, who runs a competing truck.

Directed by Kirk Jones, What To Expect When You're Expecting borrows the title from Heidi Murkoff's go-to pregnancy guide but is otherwise a banal exercise in stars cashing cheques for doing little. The film predictably follows the five mini-stories from conception to delivery, with plenty of bare but fake baby bumps, barely any laughs, no depth of character and nothing new to offer.

The best that Jones can come up with in terms of surprises is one pregnancy that terminates early, one inconvenient loss of employment causing financial stress, and routine plot devices involving dads feeling not ready for the major upcoming change in lifestyle. It's all dealt with in the most superficial, obvious manner with no style to cover up the lack of substance.

The performances are uniformly overexcited, with Dennis Quaid suffering the most embarrassment as the insufferable dad engaged in a perpetual hobby of humiliating his son. In relative terms, Anna Kendrick emerges with some credit, and it's no surprise that her role aims for more drama and less fluff. Chris Rock makes an appearance as part of a group of dads who meet in the park with their kids to try and provide comic relief, and Rebel Wilson plays store owner Wendy's sidekick.

What To Expect When You're Expecting is as tedious as that eighth diaper change at the end of an exhausting day filled with baby poop and burps.

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Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Movie Review: The Sixth Sense (1999)

A ghost story with heart, The Sixth Sense is a gem of a movie. The story of a deeply troubled young boy being helped by a child psychologist rides a wave of emotion, jolts and twists to a rousing climax.

In Philadelphia, Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is a celebrated child psychologist happily married to Anna (Olivia Williams), although she does believe that he has placed his career ahead of their marriage. One night the couple's house is invaded by the deranged Vincent Grey, a former patient of Malcolm's. Claiming that the doctor failed him, Vincent shoots Malcolm in the stomach and then kills himself.

The following fall, Malcolm takes on his next case, 9 year old Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment). Cole lives with his divorced mother Lynn (Toni Collette), and is a social outcast, hiding out at the local church, barely communicative, made fun of at school, and exhibiting signs of abuse on his body. Malcolm, whose relationship with Anna has disintegrated following the shooting, tries to help Cole by delving into his background to understand what triggered his social withdrawal. Eventually, Cole reveals his shocking secret to Malcolm: he can see dead people. Malcolm at first struggles to believe the young boy's story, then desperately tries to find a way to help him.

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, The Sixth Sense thrives on a sense of understated foreboding. With a slow but effective build up triggered by the opening interruption of a happy marriage and the introduction of Cole as a troubled child, the film reveals its increasingly disconcerting secrets slowly and steadily, offering little relief along the way. Cole's big reveal that he sees ghosts unleashes a torrent of more horror-oriented scenes, and the film combines strong elements of both psychological suspense and straight-out spookiness to excellent effect.

Shyamalan demonstrates plenty of style to go along with the stimulating content. The camerawork is showy but playfully potent, a red balloon in the middle of a spiral staircase as example of an exclamatory opportunity to introduce an episode of horror. The film's palette is dominated by the muted greys and blues of the ghostly world, with red often used as a punctuation.

Haley Joel Osment delivers an outstanding child performance, in turns vulnerable, resilient and scared. Osment grows with the character over the duration of the film, and once Cole comes to understand his conundrum and what to do about it, Osment's evolution is subtle but essential. Bruce Willis creates one of his most complex roles in Dr. Crowe, and proves his serious abilities in a dramatic yet subdued context. Toni Collette contributes strong support as Cole's mother Lynn, and reaches an unforgettable highlight in a late revelatory scene with Osment at the scene of a car accident.

Thematically The Sixth Sense assembles a puzzle about missing fathers, unfinished business, life's truncated journeys, the need to properly close chapters, and the regrets that haunt both the living and the dead. The film unfurls a blanket of sadness where none of the main characters are remotely happy, Malcolm, Cole, Lynn and Anna all harbouring deep sorrows and imbedded fears. But just underneath all the grief lies a reservoir of good will and potential relief. The story of Cole and Malcolm is all about approaching scary challenge from a different perspective to unlock the pathway to contentment.

The Sixth Sense ends with one of Hollywood's most famous twist endings. Although possible to foresee, the sting in the tail in nevertheless deftly handled and adds a layer of reciprocal depth to the relationship between child and doctor. Without the twist, The Sixth Sense is brilliantly poignant ghost story; with it, the film is a cinematic masterpiece.

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Monday, 18 July 2016

Movie Review: Foxcatcher (2014)

A somber drama about wrestling and egomania, Foxcatcher is a quietly powerful examination of human relationships. The story of one rich man's need to be admired on his own terms is unsettling in its normalcy, and the film enjoys three excellent central performances.

It's 1987, and brothers Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo), both Olympic wrestling gold medalists, are training for the upcoming world championships and the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Having endured a difficult upbringing in a broken household, the brothers have a tight relationship, with the older Dave acting as a mentor and inspiration to the younger, moodier Mark. Dave is now settled and raising a family with wife Nancy (Sienna Miller); Mark remains a loner.

Out of the blue, Mark is contacted by billionaire John E. du Pont (Steve Carell), who offers an annual salary and training facilities as part of Team Foxcatcher at his expansive estate in Pennsylvania. John is single and living under the shadow of his mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave). He claims to be a patriot and wrestling fan, and imagines himself as a coach and a mentor, wanting to nurture and celebrate America's heroes. Mark accepts the offer and relocates to the du Pont estate for training with other wrestlers. Dave initially refuses a similar offer, not wanting to disrupt his family. With continued success in the wrestling ring, a bond develops between John and Mark, but gradually John's increasingly bizarre behaviour begins to cause tension between the brothers.

Directed by Bennett Miller and based on real events, Foxcatcher is a disconcerting story about the insidious forces that lurk within a damaged psyche. Filled with pregnant pauses, quiet moments and awkward interactions, the film burrows into the soul of three men and finds plenty of opportunities for victimization. Foxcatcher never shouts its intentions; Miller allows the characters to speak for themselves through often subdued actions, and creates remarkable heights of drama from nothing but stares and silence.

The triangular relationship between the two wrestlers and the billionaire heir is at the centre of the film. John du Pont is severely damaged, but his scars are not on the surface. A man who owns everything but is yet exceedingly needy, his faults emerge gradually like an invisible vaporous poison seeping slowly and infecting his surroundings. Once Mark understands that John is not a well man, he is in too deep, entangled in a soul-destroying relationship. Dave is more settled, more secure and therefore more able to resist John's money and superficial pablum about patriotism. But driven at least partially by the need to help his brother, even Dave is not fully immune and he is also sucked into John's orbit.

The men are individually fascinating. Drawn together, they create a new, volatile dynamic, their co-dependencies built on an unstable mixture of deep family bonds, exceptionally easy money and unpredictable narcissism.

Miller demonstrates noteworthy control over the material and uses an economy of words and scenes to build complexity. The causes of John's character issues are dealt with in a few effective strokes featuring his mother and the family background. One devastating sequence has John pathetically trying to convince himself and the unimpressed, wheelchair-constrained Jean that he is indeed a coach. In another exceedingly uncomfortable interlude, John celebrates with the wrestlers by clumsily attempting to joke-wrestle with them, the privileged loner trying in vain to be one of the guys.

Foxcatcher needed three exceptional performances to thrive, and Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum deliver. Carell is a revelation, leaving far behind his comic persona and finding a dangerous place for John, where reality slowly detaches and drifts away from a seemingly normal mind. Ruffalo and Tatum create a winning pair of brothers, their relationship filled with a mosaic of tension, mutual admiration and layered dependencies.

Foxcatcher is a unique and captivating achievement, a stunning and unforgettable story told with muted authority.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Movie Review: My Darling Clementine (1946)

A loose retelling of events leading up to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, My Darling Clementine is a gorgeously filmed but curiously paced Western. The black and white images are stylish and evocative, but the story gets bogged down in lengthy nothingness for surprisingly long stretches.

Former lawman and now cattleman Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and his brothers tangle with Newman "Old Man" Clanton (Walter Brennan) and his sons on the outskirts of Tombstone. When Wyatt's brother James is killed and his cattle stolen, Wyatt accepts the offer to serve as Marshal of Tombstone. He imposes law and order, including reigning in the coarse behaviour of resident gambler and local legend "Doc" Holliday (Victor Mature).

Doc's former love Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs) unexpectedly shows up in town having traveled all the way from Boston, much to the disgust of Doc's current girl Chihuahua (Linda Darnell). Wyatt takes a romantic interest in Clementine, but his attention turns back to the Claytons when proof emerges that they were involved in James' death.

Directed by John Ford, My Darling Clementine is a feast for the eyes but a strain on the concentration. Ford invests heavily in look and feel, and captures a lyrical, poetic vision of the west, with carefully constructed framing and astute use of lighting. The scenes unfold at a leisurely pace and linger long enough to luxuriate in saturated beauty.

Less impressive is the narrative thrust and character definitions. Despite the shortish 97 minutes of running time, Ford struggles to find a focus. The Clantons effectively disappear almost entirely from the heart of the film, leaving Wyatt Earp to tangle off and on with Doc Holliday, and it's never clear if the men settle down to being friends, rivals or something vague in-between.

Clementine plays a big role in the title but barely contributes to the actual events of the film. She and Chihuahua represent two versions of the west, Clementine a more civilized future and Chihuahua a more earthy present, but they are more catalysts than well-defined characters, standing to the side as the men sort out their conflicts. Little is known about any of Earp brothers, and the Clantons remain faceless bad guys with no objective except to cause harm.

Henry Fonda makes for a serious, respectful Wyatt Earp, Fonda's screen persona as the stand-up guy in the group ensuring that Wyatt is all good and fully on the side of due process and the law. As usual Doc Holliday is the more nuanced and interesting character, and Victor Mature is fine in interpreting the once-doctor (he was actually a dentist) and now hard-drinking, harder-coughing gambler with appropriate complexity.

The final showdown, once it arrives, jerks the film back into its center of gravity, and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral is well handled, if far removed from historical outcomes. Clementine may be a darling, but the film works better when the good guys get down to the business of tangling with the bad guys in the west's most famous horse enclosure.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Some Like It Hot (1959)

A madcap comedy and romance, Some Like It Hot is a brilliantly constructed celebration of romance at its most complicated, incorporating gender politics, criminals on the loose, and an audacious anything goes, nothing to lose attitude.

It's 1929 in Chicago. Penniless friends and musicians Joe (Tony Curtis), a risk-taking saxophonist, and Jerry (Jack Lemmon), a more cautious double bass player, narrowly escape a police raid on an illicit nightclub run by mobster "Spats" Colombo (George Raft). Still reeling, Joe and Jerry are next unwilling witnesses to a St. Valentine's Day-type massacre perpetuated by Spats on informant "Toothpick" Charlie (George E. Stone) and his men. Desperate to leave town to avoid Spats' wrath, Joe and Jerry dress up as women, adopt the personas of Josephine (Joe) and Daphne (Jerry), and join an all-girls music band heading to Miami.

Jerry: [in high heels] How do they walk in these things, huh? How do they keep their balance?
Joe: It must be the way the weight is distributed. Now, come on.
Jerry: It's so drafty. They must be catching cold all the time, huh?
Joe: Will you quit stalling? We're gonna miss the train.
Jerry: I feel naked. I feel like everybody's staring at me!
Joe: With those legs, are you crazy? Now, come on.
[They see Sugar Kane]
Jerry: Look at that! Look how she moves. That's just like Jell-O on springs. She must have some sort of built-in motors. I tell you, it's a whole different sex!
Joe: What are you afraid of? Nobody's asking you to have a baby.

On the train, they meet singer and ukulele player Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), and both men fall madly in love with her. Sugar confides in Josephine and reveals all her hopes and aspirations, including exactly what she desires in a man. Joe uses the information to take on the new persona of young intellectual millionaire Junior, heir to the Shell Oil fortune, and starts a serious pursuit of Sugar. Meanwhile Jerry (as Daphne) finds himself the target of lecherous eldery millionaire Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown). With Spats still seeking to eliminate witnesses to the Chicago killings, Joe and Jerry frantically try to sort out their increasingly complex romantic entanglements and save their lives.

Jerry: Dirty old man...I just got pinched in the elevator.
Joe: Now you know how the other half lives.
Jerry: Look at that. I'm not even pretty.
Joe: They don't care. Just so long as you're wearing a skirt. It's like waving a red flag in front of a bull.
Jerry: Really. Well I'm sick of being the flag. I want to be a bull again.

Directed by Billy Wilder, who also co-wrote the script with I.A.L. Diamond, Some Like It Hot is one of Hollywood's perfect comedies. The laughs are derived from the ridiculous situations, the wild pacing and lust made troublesome by mixed-up genders.  The dialogue is filled with zingers, the cast is deep with talent, and the script finds a loony groove and does not stop. The two hours are filled with frantic moments, and the antics of Joe and Jerry keep piling up. By the end of the film Joe has three personas, Jerry is still pining for Sugar but being pursued by both a millionaire and a bellboy, gangsters are at war with each other, and somehow it still all makes sense.

Osgood: You must be quite a girl.
Daphne: Wanna bet?

With the 1950s about to turn into the 1960s, Wilder and Diamond push the boundaries of sexual innuendo well past typical expectations for the era. With the plot device of an all-girls band providing the excuse for plenty of barely-dressed women to parade past Joe and Jerry in drag, Wilder deploys Marilyn Monroe as his weapon of mass distraction. Although apparently a horror on the set due to pill addiction, Monroe has never looked or acted better as the explosively innocent woman unaware of her impact on men. As an added bonus she also performs three songs at her breathiest best. For most of the second half of the film Wilder dresses her in daring possibly see-through dresses (impossible to tell in black and white) with just enough coverage to get past the censors.

Sugar: Water polo? Isn't that terribly dangerous?
Junior: I'll say. I had two ponies drowned under me.

And with Joe-as-Junior pretending to have lost interest in women and daring Sugar to cure him on Osgood's yacht, she needs no further invitation to unleash all her expertise to get a rise out of the millionaire of her dreams. Meanwhile, back on shore Jerry-as-Daphne and Osgood dance up a storm all the way until dawn to the tango tune of La Cumparsita, and in the morning Jerry is quite convinced that he will be marrying Osgood.

Jerry: Have I got things to tell you!
Joe: What happened?
Jerry: I'm engaged.
Joe: Congratulations. Who's the lucky girl?
Jerry: I am!
Joe: WHAT?!
Jerry: Osgood proposed to me! We're planning a June wedding.
Joe: What are you talking about? You can't marry Osgood.
Jerry: Why, you think he's too old for me?

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon have rarely been better and perfectly complement each other. Curtis as Joe is more cerebral, more adventurous and much more likely to get the pair into trouble, while Lemon as Jerry is more of a worrier but also more willing to follow along and complain about it. George Raft provides the counterbalance by playing it straight as mobster Spats, and Wilder again breaks ground by mixing comedy with brutal massacres and Tommy gun violence.

Some Like It Hot has fun at the expense of both genders and all ages. The film ends with a classic exasperated admission that while love can be hot and messy, no relationship and no one sex is perfect, which is exactly why there is so much fun to be had.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Movie Review: The Stepford Wives (1975)

A suspense drama, The Stepford Wives is a grim parable about women's struggles in a male-dominated world, and a reasonably effective surreptitious thriller.

Aspiring photographer Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross) reluctantly joins her lawyer husband Walter (Peter Masterson) in relocating away from noisy New York City to the quiet community of Stepford in suburban Connecticut. Walter quickly settles in and joins the shady Stepford Men's Association, but Joanna finds all the women of Stepford strangely demure, obsessed with the trivia of housework and uninterested in any intellectual pursuits. The only friend she makes is fellow new arrival Bobbie (Paula Prentiss).

With Walter spending more time with the men and exhibiting increasingly odd behaviour, Joanna and Bobbie try to drum-up interest among the other women in issues related to feminism and women's liberation, but the Stepford wives stubbornly adhere to 1950s stereotypical definitions of what a woman's role should be. An increasingly frustrated Joanna starts to worry that something is very wrong in the community, and that she may be under threat.

Directed by Bryan Forbes and based on the book by Ira Levin, The Stepford Wives does suffer from what appears to be a limited budget, with production values just a notch above made-for-television fare and a secondary cast hampered by inadequate talent and underwritten roles. Forbes is unable to inject anything resembling panache or tension into a story that is intended to be at least moderately unsettling.

It is left to Katharine Ross, in one of her better outings, and Paula Prentiss, happily vivacious, to brighten up proceedings, and they deliver all that is good about The Stepford Wives. Ross as Joanna perfectly captures the struggle of women to stand by their husbands despite growing misgivings, and she conveys the internal push and pull between self-fulfillment and adherence to established rules of domesticity. Bobbie in the hands of Prentiss is provided with fuller freedom to step into modernity, and she represents women less constrained by the past and ready to more fully participate in today's societal challenges.

As a drama, the film is a pessimistic view of gender relations and specifically what men desire from the women they theoretically love. Outside of the cosmopolitan city, the wealthy suburbs remain docile grounds where men govern, their meetings off-limits to women, and wives are subjugated into strictly defined household duties defined as cooking, cleaning and delivering sexual satisfaction to their husbands. They are not asked to think, participate or contribute in any other way. It is a static world divided along gender lines, utopian for the men and dystopian for the women, ironically enabled by the proliferation of technology supposed to improve human connectivity and interaction.

The suspense elements are less impressive. It takes a long time and plenty of repetitive hints, some as obvious as Joanna being asked to record thousands of dictionary words into a recorder, for her journey to reach its climax. Then the conspiracy is barely explained before she has to endure a confrontation with her fate. It is all passable entertainment, but beyond the concept, the film never threatens to deliver truly memorable moments.

The Stepford Wives became a catchphrase for women caught in an old fashioned time warp. Like the wives themselves, the film fulfills its role but is otherwise uninspired.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: To Catch A Thief (1955)

A romantic thriller, To Catch A Thief is heavy on allure and light on plot. The story of a retired cat burglar clearing his name showcases exotic locations and fancy gowns, to the detriment of narrative momentum.

In the French Riviera, John Robie (Cary Grant) is a retired jewelry thief nicknamed "the Cat" and a former member of the French Resistance. When a spate of audacious jewelry thefts hits the region, all deploying the Cat's signature rooftop entry technique, suspicions naturally fall on Robie. He tries to find refuge among his old Resistance buddies including restaurant owner Bertani (Charles Vanel) and his head waiter Foussard (Jean Martinelli), but they treat him with mistrust. Nevertheless Bertani arranges for Foussard's feisty daughter Danielle (Brigitte Auber) to help Robie escape.

To clear his name, Robie teams up with reluctant insurance company representative H. H. Hughson (John Williams) and tries to get ahead of the burglar by predicting who the next victims will be. His sleuthing leads him to rich widow Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her gorgeous daughter Frances (Grace Kelly), who soon uncovers Robie's motives and starts seducing him. But as the thefts continue, Robie finds it increasingly difficult to claim innocence and stay ahead of the law.

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, To Catch A Thief is a rather flimsy excuse for a film. The entire script (by John Michael Hayes) could have been written on the back of a napkin over drinks on a sunny patio in the south of France, and the suspense elements are clumsy and tired. Much more of a romance than a thriller, the story is a thin excuse to bring two of Hitchcock's favourite performers together for a whirlwind on-screen love affair: the icy but smoldering blonde matching wits with the debonair but potentially dangerous man.

And an easy pleasure is derived from the glamourous setting for two charismatic stars in sparking form. Once Kelly enters the movie her chemistry with Grant shines bright, and from then on Hitchcock's main concern is to showcase Kelly in a succession of stunning outfits. Kelly delivers the requisite purring sexuality as Frances simultaneously peels away Robie's layers of deceit and seduces him into submission.

Otherwise there is cinematic flab and fat everywhere. Between Robie latching onto Frances and the climax where the burglar is unmasked, about an hour of screen time needs to be killed, and Hitchcock stumbles about looking for unlikely plot points, the sloppy editing and lack of logical continuity not helping matters. He throws in a superfluous but well-executed high speed car chase and a bungled robbery that telegraphs the obvious conclusion to come.

Finally To Catch A Thief resorts to an exceeding tiresome costume party, as if giving up on pretending to be serious entertainment and giving in to what it really is: an extravagant fashion show featuring handsome stars having a breezy vacation and enjoying expensive outfits on location.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: High Noon (1952)

A classic ticking clock Western, High Noon explores the theme of steadfastness in the face of adversity, and finds a society easily yielding to compromised appeasement.

In the town of Hadleyville, Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) marries his sweetheart, Quaker girl Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly). Just as they are heading off on their honeymoon, news filters in that gang boss Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) has been unexpectedly released from prison and is arriving in town on the noon train, seeking revenge. Indeed, three of Miller's hoods are already at the station, waiting for their boss. Kane interrupts his honeymoon plans and returns to Marshal duties, much to Amy's disgust.

Five years earlier, Kane cleaned up Hadleyville by arresting Miller and sending him to face justice and an expected hanging. Now Kane attempts to swear-in deputies to help him in the new looming confrontation with Miller, but finds no willing volunteers. Deputy Marshal Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) quits early, and in turn Kane's best friend, his mentor, the town judge, the pastor and other usually reliable allies turn their back on him. Meanwhile a disgruntled Amy plans to leave town, along with local businesswoman Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), who has a history with both Miller and Kane, and an uneasy relationship with Pell.

Directed by Fred Zinnemann and written by Carl Foreman who co-produced with Stanley Kramer, High Noon is a pessimistic study of societal failings. The action unfolds in real time, a looming clock making an appearance in almost every other scene, the tension building as Kane appeals for help and is rebuffed at almost every turn. The tight 85 minutes are dedicated to uncovering the various excuses the residents of Hadleyville concoct to avoid supporting their Marshal, resulting in the irony of a man forced into individually protecting a community that does not deserve his protection.

With Foreman labelled an uncooperative witness for refusing to name names by the McCarthy witch hunt, High Noon builds on the struggles of a man insisting on doing the right thing in the face of widespread public condemnation. With the noon hour approaching, everyone wants Kane to leave town and allow the bad guys to take over, a preferable outcome compared to a messy public confrontation that can ruin the reputation of the community. He refuses, stares down evil in the bright sunshine and exposes the appeasers as unworthy of their own societal freedoms. The story also carries echoes of non-interventionist attitudes to Nazi Germany prior to World War Two, and condemns the propensity to give in and get along for the sake of avoiding harsh truths.

The film is not without its weaknesses. The bad guys carry little menace, and waste away for most of the film at the train station waiting for Miller's train. Helen's backstory and previous involvement with both Miller and Kane deserves better than the sideways hints it receives. The relationship between Kane and Amy is quick to rupture, there being apparently no reservoir of love, trust and good will to help them through their first crisis. Modern Los Angeles makes an appearance in the background of an otherwise impressive crane shot, and the film's signature song Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin' plays pretty much continuously on a maddening loop for the duration of the film.

But Zinnemann overcomes the shortcomings with a stunning visual aesthetic, making full use of Cooper's increasingly anguished face as Kane's realization of just how pathetic his own community is grows with every encounter. The town empties out as High Noon approaches its titular climax hour, and Zinnemann achieves grandeur by setting his lonely Marshal against eerily empty streets and vacant buildings, one man standing tall, both mad enough and brave enough to defend principles everyone else is more than willing to abandon.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Movie Review: Mike And Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016)

A raunchy comedy, Mike And Dave Needs Wedding Dates celebrates girls and boys gone wild by offering a few laughs and plenty of improvisation. However, the overall quality is marginal.

Brothers Mike (Adam DeVine) and Dave (Zac Efron) run a liquor distribution business but are better known for regularly wrecking family events with their wild partying antics. With the destination wedding of their sister Jeanie (Stephanie Beard) to Eric (Sam Richardson) coming up in Hawaii, the brothers are warned by their parents that they each need to bring a nice girl as a date to keep their behaviour in check. They advertise on social media and soon their quest for two nice girls goes viral.

Best friends and roommates Alice (Anna Kendrick) and Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) are party animals and the furthest thing from nice girls, with Alice also an emotional wreck after being abandoned at the altar. But spotting an opportunity for a free vacation they scrub themselves down, adopt wholesome personas, plot a seemingly accidental meeting with Mike and Dave, and are soon picked to be the wedding dates. The foursome arrive in Hawaii, and predicably they are unable to control their natural tendencies to cause havoc at every turn.

Directed by Jake Szymanski and very loosely based on real events, Mike And Dave Needs Wedding Dates is a foul-mouthed anything-goes comedy for adults, celebrating grown-ups who prefer to avoid grown-up responsibilities. The good news is that the film generally avoids jokes about body odour, farts and other secretions, and the girls and guys enjoys balanced amounts of debauchery and irresponsibility. The film is an equal opportunity outlet for bad behaviour, with Alice and Tatiana summarily rejecting any judgment of their lifestyle, least of all from fellow losers like Mike and Dave.

The bad news is that the humour is more miss than hit, there is too much obvious improvisation, plenty of over-acting, and not enough plot, even for a comedy obvious in its intentions to just go looking for the next rude punchline. Scenes are dragged out beyond their best-by date, the editing falling victim to the improvised dialogue where no one is sure where the next joke will come from - or if it's coming at all.

Once Mike, Dave and their dates arrive in Hawaii after the first 20 minutes, very little actually happens other than set-pieces intended to derail Jeanie and Eric's big day. Some of these are quite funny, including Jeanie receiving a spectacularly erotic massage and Tatiana tangling with the lesbian cousin of the brothers. But a drug-induced interlude featuring Jeanie and Alice is less successful, and the awakening of the foursome to the consequences of all their antics is contrived in the extreme.

Mike And Dave Needs Wedding Dates delivers on its minimal promise with a few solid laughs, but the film never rises beyond its predictable stature as an easy to forget time-passer.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Movie Review: Michael Clayton (2007)

A conspiracy drama, Michael Clayton is a cerebral thriller focusing on the underbelly of big corporate machinations in the era of globalization.

Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is a fixer on contract with a large New York corporate law firm run by Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack). Michael's job is to make bad news stories go away for the firm's clients. Michael is also recovering from a severe gambling problem and is trying to get away from the rat race, but his attempts to start a restaurant business backfire. Nearly bankrupt, he is under pressure to come up with a lot of money, and fast. With Bach and his team leading a settlement conference representing the interests of large agricultural firm uNorth, Michael narrowly escapes an assassination attempt while on an upstate business trip. He is forced to take stock of what exactly is going on at the law firm.

Four days earlier, Michael was called to Milwaukee to deal with a crisis precipitated by senior lawyer Arthur Edens (Tom Wilknson) suffering a mental breakdown during a deposition. Arthur was the lead lawyer on the uNorth case, defending the firm against a class-action suit involving allegations of poisoned soil on small farms. uNorth's ruthless internal general counsel Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) is not impressed with Arthur's disintegration, and even less impressed with Michael's pragmatic reaction to the crisis. Michael starts to investigate what may have pushed his friend Arthur over the edge of sanity, while Karen sets in motion an alternative plan to save her firm's reputation.

Directed and written by Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton is slick, cool and intellectual. Despite no shortage of criminal activity up to and including severe physical harm, the story is intended to stay just on the right side of grounded, with enough careful credibility to keep the narrative within plausible limits while also serving up excellent entertainment.

Michel Clayton demands concentration and rewards it handsomely. This is a film where scenes are sometimes joined mid-stream, while others appear to truncate early. Nothing is over-explained; the threads are laid out slowly, carefully, but not necessarily in an easy-to-weave pattern. All the events take place over just a few hectic days, but the subtle shift in perspective that occurs in starting near the climax and then drawing back to a few days prior achieves the desired unhinging effect.

Gilroy reveals his secrets on his own terms and according to his chosen pace, and the pay-off is immense. Once the conspiracy starts to take shape it all makes sinister sense, and the events are all driven out of a sense of knee-jerk desperation by corporate leaders wielding enormous power and pushing the envelope due to incredible strain. None of the characters have all the answers, plenty of loose ends remain beyond the reach of any tidying up, and the mess of corporate chicanery represents a familiar spiraling public relations disaster leaving many scattered victims in its wake.

The story boils down to a battle of wills between Michael and Karen, and they only meet twice, at the beginning and end of Michael's ordeal. They are two deeply flawed individuals, wracked by insecurity. In Michael's case his failures are now almost fully public, his humiliation complete once he has to grovel for a loan from Marty. Karen's anxieties are more concealed, but Gilroy bores into her fragile psyche with astonishing scenes of Karen practicing her public persona in private, the general counsel able to hide her jitters from everyone except the woman in the mirror.

George Clooney keeps his charisma wattage in check and delivers an understated performance, one of his most powerful and compelling screen achievements. Swinton gets fewer scenes but is equally magnificent, creating for Karen an icy exterior to conceal demons waiting to burst forth in all the wrong directions. Tom Wikinson and Sydney Pollack lend weighty veteran support, and Michael O'Keefe makes an appearance as another unapologetic shark in the corporate boardroom.

Michael Clayton is a rare example of a supremely smart thriller, where the battle lines are vague and the puppet masters may be hidden in business suits, but are no less lethal for it.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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