Saturday, 29 April 2017

Movie Review: Cinderella (2015)


A fairy tale fantasy romance, Cinderella hits perfectly pure notes in retelling the story of one woman overcoming hate with kindness.

Ella (Lily James) is simple rural girl brought up by kindly parents. Her mother dies when Ella is still a child, and on her death bed she pleads with Ella to always have courage and be kind. Her father (Ben Chaplin) remarries, but Ella's new Stepmother (Cate Blanchett) is an evil and selfish woman, while her two step sisters Drisella and Anastasia are conceited and rude. When Ella's father dies, her Stepmother reduces her to the status of a maid and the stepsisters nickname her Cinderella. Her only friends are a group of house mice, but still Ella does not lose her commitment to kindness.

On a ride through the forest Ella has a brief encounter with the charming Prince (Richard Madden), and the two are immediately enchanted with each other. The Prince is about to succeed his ailing father the King (Derek Jacobi), and a grand ball is arranged for the Prince to choose a wife, with all the maidens in the land invited. Stepmother and the two stepsisters get themselves ready, but cruelly prevent Ella from attending the ball -- until Cinderella's Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) intervenes.

Directed by Kenneth Branagh, Disney's live action non-musical remake of the 1950 animated classic creates magic of its own. Targeting a family audience with a laser focus on story rather than sarcasm, irony, or gimmicks, Cinderella is a throwback to simpler times, and yet effortlessly succeeds in updating the message of tolerance and hope in the face of animosity and antagonism.

Recognizing the inherent magic of the story, the film steers well clear of silly cutesiness. There are no talking animals and the few friendly mice and one mean cat are deployed in just the right amount. Otherwise Branagh allows the film to breathe deeply from the magical fantasy elements. A particular highlight is the centerpiece palace ball scene, starting with the Fairy Godmother's arrival all the way through to the carriage turning back into a pumpkin. The CGI is seamlessly woven into the action, with editing smooth enough for eyes young and old to appreciate the wizardry.

It's not easy updating the character of a genuine Ella for a more modern audience, but the Chris Weitz screenplay focuses on virtues of tolerance and kindness reinforced with steely determination, and Lily James pulls off the role with glowing restraint. The Stepmother tests the limits of Cinderella's compassion, Cate Blanchett amplifying the character's hateful attributes while just hinting at a woman gone stone cold due to a stream of broken expectations.

The film looks rich and magnificent, with colours often subdued around Ella to allow her to literally shine. The sets are grand and imposing, Branagh finding impressive perspectives to fill the screen with activity and detail. The story may be familiar, but with charm and ambition, this Cinderella earns her own place as an inspiration for young hearts and minds.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.



Movie Review: 5 to 7 (2014)


A romantic drama, 5 to 7 explores a perfect love that just happens to thrive in the most imperfect of circumstances.

In New York City, Brian (Anton Yelchin) is a fledgling writer in his early twenties still waiting for his first publishing break. In front of the St. Regis Hotel he spots Arielle (Bérénice Marlohe), and it's love at first sight for both of them. Arielle is French and nine years older than Brian, which he does not mind. But with the relationship quickly turning serious, he is shocked when she reveals that she is contentedly married to diplomat Valéry (Lambert Wilson) and the mother of two young children.

Arielle educates Brian about the French custom of accepting affairs within marriage, as long as all parties are discreet and respectful, with the extramarital couple traditionally only meeting from 5 to 7 in the afternoon. Brian adapts to the concept, proceeds with the affair within the rules, and even gets to meet Valéry, his lover Jane (Olivia Thirlby), and Arielle's two children. The unusual arrangement completely rattles Brian's father Sam (Frank Langella), but his mother Arlene (Glenn Close) is more understanding. Brian's career catches a break, but as he falls ever so deeply in love with Arielle his delicate romantic arrangement starts to teeter.

Written and directed by Victor Levin, 5 to 7 benefits from exploring a romance with a few relatively original twists. While the New York City setting is familiar, Brian and Arielle navigate around differences in age and culture, her marital status and quite progressive views about the role of love and lovers in life. For long stretches Levin sustains interest not so much because of the love story, but because of where the romance fits into Arielle's life.

Despite the affair unfolding through Brian's eyes, Arielle emerges as a much more compelling character, and Bérénice Marlohe makes the film her own. Seemingly effortlessly, Arielle juggles the role of lover, mentor in affairs of the heart, wife and mother, and Levin succeeds in creating a captivating and stylish woman who can make a young man believe in alternative passion arrangements.

Less convincing is the concept of Arielle falling in love with Brian. Whatever charms the struggling writer possesses to turn the eye of a sophisticated woman are left off the screen, and Brian remains a rather whiny if infatuated young man. Anton Yelchin is dewy eyed but also miscast, unable to elevate the role beyond the star-struck American.

Brian's parents provide the comic relief and a contrast in bridges across the cultural divide. His mother Arlene is more than willing to give the liaison with a married woman every opportunity to thrive. His father Sam remains skeptical, barely tolerating Arielle's Frenchness, let alone the age difference and her marriage. Glenn Close and Frank Langella make for a fine married couple thriving in their eccentricities.

5 to 7 unravels in its final third, and the last 15 minutes are dominated by narration, Levin defaulting to describing rather than showing emotions. A great love can survive a lot, but it finally trips on a writer with too many words at his disposal.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.



Monday, 24 April 2017

Movie Review: Napoleon Dynamite (2004)


An off-beat comedy about the unlikeliest of nerds in the unlikeliest of settings, Napoleon Dynamite marches to its beat of brilliant weirdness.

In the tiny rural community of Preston, Idaho, Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) is a gangly and socially clueless 16 year old high school kid. His only skill is sketching imaginative animals. He lives at home with his brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), who at 32 years old is addicted to online chatting. When their grandmother is hospitalized after a sand dune buggy accident, Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) arrives to ostensibly look after Napoleon and Kip.

But the egotistical Rico, who lives in a camper van, is still dreaming of making it as a pro football player and lamenting a lost game during his college years. He sets off with Kip to make money as door-to-door salesmen. Meanwhile, Napoleon meets equally awkward classmates Pedro (Efren Ramirez) and Deb (Tina Majorino). Pedro tries to woo Summer (Haylie Duff), the most popular girl in school, while Napoleon invites Summer's best friend Trisha (Emily Kennard) to a party. These attempts at relationships predictably don't end well, but nothing deters Napoleon.

Directed by Jared Hess, who also co-wrote the film with his wife Jerusha, Napoleon Dynamite is a study in the unexpected. Following exactly no rules, the film goes off to explore and amplify the awkwardness of growing up in nowheresville USA, and succeeds in delivering a stunningly original understated comedy. Among other outliers, the film features a stubborn llama, adventures on an egg farm, a dubious time travel machine, and the unlikeliest transformation for Kip.

Napoleon's obliviousness provides him with unshakable strength. Every potentially significant emotional setback washes off his back and on he marches into the next surreal situation armed with his unique brand of uncoordinated ineptitude. In their own way, Kip, Uncle Rico, Deb and Pedro are cut from the same cloth. Napoleon Dynamite places the marginalized left-behinds of society's cliques at the centre of attention, and finds the resiliency that allows them to dust themselves off and go on.

Hess directs with a quiet observational tone, the camera settling down to record with long takes and wide perspectives to capture the expanse of rural America. Everyone has a plan and an angle, maybe even a dream, but Preston, Idaho is a place where not much will change over time, no matter what. The film's time setting is appropriately vague and confused. Much of the surroundings, including the music and fashions, evoke the 1980s, but Kip lives his life online, including establishing a relationship with vivacious chat room girlfriend LaFawnduh (Shondrella Avery).

In his feature film debut Jon Heder get the role of a lifetime and delivers a mythical performance. Napoleon awkwardly and hilariously over-emotes, learned mannerisms that scream of a desire to fit in. Never smiling, Heder's eyes are often closed, his lanky body contorted into every posture except comfortable. Efren Ramirez and Tina Majorino complete the triangle of inelegance, but in their case less is more; both drown their misfit status with quiet sedateness, with Ramirez's Pedro bordering on catatonic.

An off-beat celebration of being different, Napoleon Dynamite commands the stage and dances in its own groove, achieving legendary status.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Sunday, 23 April 2017

Movie Review: 5 Flights Up (2014)


A drama about dealing with change late in life, 5 Flights Up (also known as Ruth and Alex) is an amiable story about what matters and why.

Alex and Ruth Carver (Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton) are an elderly biracial couple who have lived in the same 5 story walk up Brooklyn apartment for more than 30 years. The lack of an elevator is catching up with them, and Ruth's niece Lilly (Cynthia Nixon), a real estate agent, has convinced them it's time to sell. Alex, a struggling artist all his life, is not quite sure that selling is the right thing to do, but grumpily goes along.

As prospective buyers troop through their apartment during an open house, he recalls their early days as a ground breaking newly-married couple (Korey Jackson and Claire van der Boom) moving into the neighbourhood. A bidding war heats up for the Carver's unit and the selling price approaches $1 million. As Ruth and Alex start their own frantic search for another place to live, two other stories unfold simultaneously: the media breathlessly covers a police chase for a possible terrorist on the loose in New York City; and the Carver's aging dog Dorothy undergoes expensive surgery for a back ailment.

Directed by Richard Loncraine and written by Charlie Peters, 5 Flights Up focuses on the deeply personal crossroads of one couple, but captures some universally applicable truths. The film's strength is that there is absolutely nothing unique about the decision point facing Alex and Ruth. Indeed, even the expanded narrative about the media's frenzy over a terrorist manhunt and the pet in distress stays in the realm of the routine. Loncraine uses the familiar to focus on a couple still very much comfortably in love grappling with uncomfortable changes at an advanced stage in their relationship, and the human dynamics and emotions ring true.

The film enjoys a calm, modest pace, the economical 92 minutes suitable for the small story about big transformations. Brooklyn has gentrified, real estate prices are unimaginable, the world of violence and 24 hour inaccurate coverage is at the literal doorstep, and everything demands accelerated attention. Alex views the world around with soulful eyes, accepting the need for time to move on but not quite sure that it's for the better.

The only solid rock foundation is the love between Alex and Ruth. They accommodate and tolerate each other with a natural commitment built on years of trust. Both contribute pebbles in the shoes of the marriage, but as with all couples who have made it through decades of marriage, Alex and Ruth are not so much two distinct people as they are one entity driven by two complementary psyches. Loncraine captures their union with a serene beauty: no matter what craziness is going on, this is an unshakable marriage.

Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman instantaneously click as a couple, and the veterans navigate the film with a natural smoothness. Cynthia Nixon nails the manic intensity of a real estate agent operating on hyperdrive and surviving on the oxygen emanating from a restless cell phone.

5 Flights Up may be about nothing that matters in the grand scheme of things, and it ambles towards the contentment of a predictable outcome. But it achieves its modest goals with the warmth of seasoned affection.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Saturday, 22 April 2017

Movie Review: Mirror Mirror (2012)


A fantasy drama comedy aimed at a family audience, Mirror Mirror enjoys a unique, over-the-top fairy tale aesthetic and an enchanting Julia Roberts performance.

Snow White (Lily Collins) is the beautiful daughter of the kindly King (Sean Bean), a popular and benevolent leader. Unfortunately he disappears while riding through the forest, and his devious wife Queen Clementianna (Julia Roberts), who is also the narrator, takes over as ruler of the land. A vain woman obsessed with her beauty, Clementianna confines Snow White to one room and a darkness descends onto the land.

Prince Andrew Alcott (Armie Hammer) of Valencia tangles with the seven dwarves while riding through the forest and is rescued by Snow White, who is on an unsanctioned trip outside the palace. Clementianna sets her eyes on the handsome prince as marriage material, and arranges for her assistant Brighton (Nathan Lane) to kill Snow White. But Brighton does not have the heart to do so, Snow White takes refuge with the dwarves, and starts to plot her return to power.

Directed by Tarsem Singh, Mirror Mirror is an irreverent take on the Brothers Grimm Snow White story. Tangentially side-swiping the legend from the perspective of the evil Queen, here the dwarves are dirtier and edgier, they fight on stilts and teach Snow White battle tactics, and a power-hungry and lustful love triangle features mother-in-law and daughter.

While the plot does tilt more towards adult themes than children's fare, Singh entertains younger eyes with outlandish sets and ridiculous costumes. Despite a limited number of locations and what appears to be a confined and theatrical milieu, Mirror Mirror pops with colour, oversized hats, and inventive set design. The basics of the story may be well known, but the presentation is highly imaginative.

As the eyes absorbs all the fantastical aesthetics, Roberts entertains the ear with snarky narration. Her take on the Queen is unapologetically manipulative, a satirical extrapolation of a culture obsessed with looks, fame, power and little else. By design, this is mostly the Queen's story, but Snow White is provided with some feminist steel in the second half of the film, choosing a warrior's costume, standing up to her rights, and going toe to toe in forest fights as she fights to win back her land and claim her man. Lily Collins does well in the role, infusing it with quiet confidence.

Mirror Mirror is a reimagining of a popular fairy tale; all the elements are familiar, but the warped reflection is reasonably enjoyable in its weirdness.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Friday, 21 April 2017

Movie Review: Life (2017)


A horror-in-space thriller, Life borrows heavily from Alien, but still achieves the requisite mix of excitement, tension and some human drama.

On board the International Space Station, a six member crew is on a mission to receive and research a soil sample from Mars that may contain evidence of extraterrestrial life. The team is led by Russian Commander Kat (Olga Dihovichnaya), and includes Japanese pilot Sho (Hiroyuki Sanada) and medical officers David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson). Once the capsule containing the sample is retrieved, astrobiologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) isolates and revives a single cell organism, the first proof of life beyond Earth.

Dubbed Calvin, the single cell soon multiplies and grows into a tiny creature exhibiting enormous sensory, cognitive and survival abilities. An atmospheric accident causes Calvin to go dormant; Derry awakens it with a mild electric shock, but Calvin is immediately hostile, and attacks Derry's hand, growing bigger. Calvin escapes from its isolation box, consumes a research mouse, and grows bigger again. System Engineer Roy Adams (Ryan Reynolds) fails to incinerate it, and Calvin escapes into the ISS ducts, damaging the communications system. Kat has to conduct a dangerous space walk to attempt repairs, as it becomes clear that Calvin represents a significant threat to the survival of the crew.

Directed by Daniel Espinosa, Life is full of the mounting sense of dread that something awful is going to happen at any minute. The film quickly gets into a groove, and Calvin is established as a powerful foe, stopping at nothing and growing with every gory attack. The film is almost entirely set on the claustrophobic ISS, with communications back to Earth severed early, leaving the crew on their own, tantalizingly close to home but in grave danger of never making it back.

Unlike Alien, Life is almost entirely set in a zero gravity environment, adding to the sense of realism and making movements and reactions more difficult. The crew is also more internationally diverse, although apart from a few jokes not enough is made of the United Nations in space. Within the limits of a relatively short 103 minutes, Espinosa does try and provide some backstories. Jake Gyllenhaal's Dr. Jordan receives the most attention as a long-term ISS tenant and a man who is now more comfortable in orbit rather than on Earth. The pilot Sho gets a more routine new-father-in-space treatment.

Some of the sense of realism is however compromised by the dubious decisions made by the crew. The film's constant search for the next thrill means many actions by the supposedly highly trained scientists and pilots appear rushed and ill-considered, with arguments, shouting and impetuous behaviour often trumping more careful thought.

The horror elements are otherwise well-handled, and feature the usual mix of jump-out-of-your-seat scares and carefully constructed turn-the-screws tension. Calvin emerges as a supremely intelligent and capable creature, perhaps on the edge of credibility even for a science fiction invention, but nevertheless ugly and scary enough to represent an existential threat.

The Life of one newly discovered species could mean the death of many others, and in this space no thing can be more mean.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Thursday, 20 April 2017

Movie Review: Rudderless (2014)


A drama set in the world of grief and music, Rudderless tackles the seemingly insurmountable difficulties of carrying on with life after a crushing family tragedy.

College student Josh (Miles Heizer) is killed in an on-campus school shooting, sending his father Sam (Billy Crudup), a marketing executive, into a depression. Two years later, Sam has quit his job, moved two hours out of town, is living on a boat and working as a lowly painter. His ex-wife Emily (Felicity Huffman) drops off some of Josh's old items, and Sam stumbles onto song recordings and lyrics that Josh was working on.

He performs one of Josh's songs during open mic night at The Trill tavern, attracting the attention of Quentin (Anton Yelchin), a young man who insists that they team up and perform together. Sam is reluctant but eventually yields, and gradually the band Rudderless is formed, gaining local prominence with the help of music shop owner Del (Laurence Fishburne). Sam helps Quentin mature as a man, but with the reappearance of Josh's old girlfriend Kate Ann (Selena Gomez), the events of the past are about to again rock Sam's life.

The directorial debut of William H. Macy (who also has a small role as the tavern's owner), Rudderless combines music and mourning as it ventures into rarely explored territory. The world of hurt in the shadow of a mass shooting makes for difficult story telling material, but Macy along with screenwriters Jeff Robison and Casey Twenter construct a highly watchable and heartfelt drama.

The songs are of the soulful soft rock white-man-with-a-guitar variety, not nearly as unique as the film makes them out, and the musical performance segments are more numerous and longer than they need to be. Macy finds better traction when the focus is on Sam, and then in the dynamic between Sam and Quentin. Josh's ghost is never far away from Sam's new stripped-down life, much as he wants to avoid it, and his interactions with Quentin and the other young men of the band are built on a rickety foundation of deep hurt.

Without ever showing what happened at the school shooting, the film drops steady hints that no matter how many houses he paints, beers he drinks or songs he sings, Sam will not be able to avoid confronting the past. His own actions inadvertently but finally open the door for recent history to storm in, and it is as painful as Sam knew it would be. The final act hits some, but not all, the high notes it aims at, as this chapter of the grief journey maybe ends too tidily.

Rudderless rides on a majestic Billy Crudup performance as he revisits the musical world that made him Almost Famous. Here his performance is built on active emotional hide and seek, and Crudup perfectly captures a grieving father bottling up a yearning to scream at himself and the world. Anton Yelchin is all about the intensity of youth making something happen out of the haziest opportunity. One of the film's strengths is in only hinting at Quentin's troubled past and present, Sam's help remaining at the superficial level, the damaged ex-father not equipped to re-assume fatherly duties.

Rudderless is about new beginnings setting sail, but only after catching the winds of the past.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Movie Review: Ex Machina (2014)


A near-future psychological science thriller, Ex Machina peeks into the potential ramifications of evolving artificial intelligence and offers a stark vision.

Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is a programmer working for Blue Book, the world's dominant on-line search engine. Caleb wins an employee contest to spend a week at the home of Blue Book's reclusive founder Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). After a helicopter trip Caleb arrives at the luxurious but secluded house, where Nathan gives him his assignment for the week: Caleb is to interact with Ava (Alicia Vikander), Nathan's latest artificially intelligent robot, to determine her level of self-consciousness through a version of the Turing test

Caleb starts spending time with Ava in sessions recorded and monitored by Nathan, and Ava quickly demonstrates that she is indeed supremely capable of displaying human cognition and emotions. Between the sessions Caleb gets to know Nathan, who emerges as a hard drinking, lonely but manipulative genius. When mysterious power outages start to repeatedly disrupt the interactions with Ava, Caleb suspects there is more going on than he initially believed.

Written and directed by Alex Garland, Ex Machina is sparse, sometimes slow moving but always thought provoking. With the sleek look of detached modernity, Garland extends the Frankenstein narrative into the age of advanced robotics, and proposes a viable scenario where unintended consequences, both human and artificial, are the norm. When artificial intelligence includes heightened self awareness and inherent sexuality, the line between intelligent human and intelligent machine begins to blur, loyalties merge, and outcomes are predictably unpredictable.

The film is a three-person (or two-person, one robot) character study set almost entirely at Nathan's house, and the locations are limited to a handful of rooms. Garland effectively designs a theatrical dynamic where the three characters are forced to interact together by choice or design, and the implications of Ava's near-human levels of intellect and emotion are revealed through Caleb's eyes. Ava wastes no time in gaining the emotional upper hand and starts to dominate her visitor's psyche, maybe to get back at her creator or maybe just because she is bored and looking for an escape. Whether Nathan is implicated in her behaviour or simply her inventor is the puzzle that Caleb has to grapple with as the dark side of artificial intelligence evolution starts to emerge.

The film encounters a few substantive weaknesses. In stretching to 108 minutes of running time Garland notably runs out of original ideas about halfway through, and some of the scenes between Caleb and Nathan descend into tiresome drunken stupors. The ending picks up energy but in the wrong direction: Ex Machina abandons its more cerebral pursuits to chase more familiar but less satisfying conclusions. The robots are getting more clever, but the humans sometimes still get stuck in stock territory.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Movie Review: For Greater Glory (2012)


A well-produced historical war epic, For Greater Glory (also known as Cristiada) shines a welcome light on a little-known but ugly conflict. The film is old-fashioned in scale and scope, but leans too far towards sanctifying pro-Catholic sentiment to be taken seriously.

It's 1926 in Mexico, and secular President Calles (Rubén Blades) insists that anti-Catholic provisions in the 1917 Constitution be enforced. Protestors demanding religious freedoms take to the streets, and the subsequent government crackdown includes the deportation of priests and the killing of others, including Father Christopher (Peter O'Toole). The violence triggers a rebellion, with ragtag militias known as the Cristeros squaring off against federal soldiers. The rebel leaders include the militant Father Vega (Santiago Cabrera), ostensibly responsible for a civilian massacre, and legendary peasant commander Victoriano "El Catorce" Ramírez (Oscar Isaac), known for single-handedly killing fourteen federalist soldiers.

Needing better organization, the Cristeros approach retired General Enrique Gorostieta (Andy Garcia) and offer him the opportunity to forge the disparate anti-government troops into a cohesive fighting force. Over the protests of his wife Tulita (Eva Longoria), he agrees to leave his comfortable life as a soap magnate and heads to the hills to lead the rebellion. A young boy José (Mauricio Kuri) joins the rebels and becomes Gorostieta's surrogate son. The war drags on for years, until the American government through Ambassador Morrow (Bruce Greenwood) decides to intervene while keeping an eye on American interests in the Mexican oil fields.

A lavish Mexican production directed by Dean Wright, For Greater Glory recalls Hollywood's epics of the 1950s and 1960s, with a grand scope, multiple storylines, serious characterizations, armies of extras and grand battles. For Greater Glory is also unfortunately encumbered by a lack of subtlety that may have been acceptable in a different era, but now borders on propaganda. The film treats the conflict as an almost straightforward battle between good (the Catholic church) and evil (President Calles), and there is no attempt to introduce shades of grey or nuanced context.

The obtuse tone is unfortunate, because there is a lot to enjoy in the movie. Wright, the visual effects producer for Titanic, two Lord of the Rings movies and two Narnia movies, knows how to make a scene look good, and despite the long 145 minutes of running time the film never lacks for visual splendor or energy. The action scenes are particularly well handled, Wright navigating the chaos of battle with fluid expertise.

Less impressive is an overemphasis on the story of young José, a fable that creeps into consecration territory, impressive for the devout but otherwise overcooked into a chewy mess of miraculous manipulation.

Andy Garcia leads a large cast and delivers a distinguished performance as General Enrique Gorostieta, a man who believes in freedom, family and finances, and therefore triangulates his way into leading the Cristeros despite being a confirmed atheist. Peter O'Toole, at 80 years old, is much more theatrically divine as Father Christopher.

Unabashedly one-sided, For Greater Glory preaches to the converted and allows its tone-deaf stance to compromise an otherwise worthwhile retelling of a largely forgotten civil war.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Movie Review: Gifted (2017)


A low-key thought-provoking drama, Gifted presents a difficult social dilemma and explores it with requisite tenderness and some cutting humour.

In Central Florida, Frank Adler (Chris Evans) lives in a trailer park and repairs boats while trying to give his seven year old niece Mary (Mckenna Grace) a normal upbringing. Frank's sister and Mary's mother, a math prodigy, committed suicide and left Mary in Frank's care. Frank and Mary's closest friend is their pragmatic and outspoken neighbour Roberta (Octavia Spencer). Once Mary starts attending school, her own superlative math skills are quickly noticed by Grade 1 teacher Bonnie Stevenson (Jenny Slate).

Frank and Bonnie start a romantic relationship, but he rejects all attempts to enroll Mary in a school for gifted children, insisting that she should be treated like any normal kid. But Frank's wealthy mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) has other ideas. After a long period of estrangement she shows up from her privileged Massachusetts life and insists that her granddaughter be given every opportunity to fulfill her potential. Frank resists, triggering a custody battle.

Directed by Marc Webb, Gifted possesses surprising natural warmth. Thanks to a stellar Tom Flynn script and excellent performances from Chris Evans and 10 year old Mckenna Grace, the film radiates a genuine glow, where family relationships matter, adults and kids behave as they should, and even in the heat of a court battle, civility is maintained.

While the icy cold Evelyn is the closest thing to a villain, Flynn and Webb make sure to give her time and space to put forward her case. Evelyn herself was a math genius, her career interrupted by domestic duties and the expectations of a different era. Now she wants to ensure Mary is given the financial support and environment to reach her obviously tremendous potential, and it's difficult to argue with her intentions.

Standing on the other side is a seemingly rock solid relationship between uncle and niece, the dynamics between Frank and Mary captured with exquisite honesty. Mary may be brilliant at math but she is still a kid and behaves as such, while Frank was dropped into a parental role he never anticipated. The bond between them is formidable, captured with stunning grace in a quite breathtaking silhouette scene against a setting sun with Mary playfully climbing all over Frank - her literal life anchor.

The film sets up its central conflict of who gets to decide what is best for a gifted child and plays with the options, avoiding lectures and easy answers. The last act stumbles a bit in search of a tidy ending, but does offer one delicious final sting in the tug of war between mother and son, the equation featuring parenting, mathematics and familial pride as variables suddenly stripped to its essentials.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Friday, 14 April 2017

Movie Review: Alien 3 (1992)


The second sequel in the franchise, Alien 3 stumbles with a weak plot, poor execution, and uninteresting interchangeable supporting characters.

Picking up immediately after the events of Aliens, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is the only survivor when her spaceship crash lands onto Fury 161. The remote planet is home to a derelict foundry facility and penal colony inhabited by 25 male inmates predisposed to extreme violence, and who have now turned to a form of religion. Ripley suspects that her fellow escapees, the young girl Newt, the Marine Hicks and the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen), were killed in their sleep by a stowaway alien. Medical officer Dr. Jonathan Clemens (Charles Dance) appears to be the one sympathetic person on Fury 161, and he tries to understand Ripley's story.

Also on the planet but less empathetic are the prison warden Andrews (Brian Glover) and inmate spiritual leader Dillon (Charles S. Dutton). When an alien spawns out of a dog and inmates start encountering horrible deaths, Ripley has to create a plan to kill the beast despite having no weapons or resources. With a rescue crew days away and inmates lusting after the only woman they have seen in decades, she realizes that her problems are actually much worse than just one alien on the loose.

The first feature film directed by David Fincher is also the first disappointment in the Alien franchise. A troubled production with a myriad of script ideas mushed together never gels. Citing studio interference, Fincher subsequently disowned the film. The script starts in the worst possible way, betraying all of Ripley's thrilling Aliens exploits by killing off Newt. In the annals of creative sequel ideas, this is one of the worst, and Alien 3 never really recovers.

Ripley is instead dropped into the uninteresting premise of a planet occupied by convicts, and neither the inmates' criminal background nor their new found religious zealotry are properly exploited. Instead a couple of supporting characters are built up to provide some level of interest, and then summarily bumped off halfway through the film, leaving Ripley with a collection of ill-defined, interchangeable co-stars. They are all sweaty, dirty and have shaved heads, and nothing else to offer.

Fincher does succeed in creating a bleak and depressing aesthetic. The film takes place entirely in a facility that should have been condemned and abandoned decades prior, providing ample opportunities for dank and dark hiding places.

While the battle between the sole alien loose on the planet and Ripley resembles more the original film than the first sequel, the conflict is almost totally devoid of tension. Fincher resorts to alien point-of-view shots, and promptly over-uses his gimmick, landing in bad video game land. The more interesting drama of Ripley struggling with what is within catches some passion, but it's too little and too late.

Alien 3 is neither tense nor thrilling, just dead on arrival.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Movie Review: A View To A Kill (1985)


The fourteenth James Bond spy adventure and the seventh to feature Roger Moore, A View To Kill is a strong contender for the worst Bond movie of all time.

After recovering a microchip from a dead British agent in Siberia and escaping his Soviet pursuers, James Bond (Roger Moore) is asked to investigate the activities of industrialist Max Zorin (Christopher Walken). Working with Sir Godfrey Tibbett (Patrick Macnee) Bond uncovers a plot to illegally juice racing horses by implanting adrenaline-releasing devices in their legs.

Bond tangles with Zorin's assassin May Day (Grace Jones) and stumbles onto the mysterious Stacey Sutton (Tanya Roberts) accepting a cheque for $5 million from Zorin. Much worse is to come: Zorin, who is revealed to be a KGB-created psychopath, has intentions to corner the global microchip market by triggering a massive earthquake along the San Andreas fault to destroy Silicon Valley. Bond and Sutton team up to try and stop a series of underground explosions designed to kill thousands.

By far the best thing about the film is the Duran Duran tile song. Directed by John Glen, A View To A Kill is a slipshod, lethargic effort.  At 57 years old Moore is now decades beyond being convincing as a dashing spy involved in high-stakes physically-demanding battles, so the stuntmen again take centre stage. Moore is reduced to ludicrous close-ups, where he generally winces his way through trouble.

Much worse are the romantic interludes, now bordering on disgusting. Bond couples with British agent Kimberley Jones (actress Mary Stavin, 28 years old), KGB Agent Pola Ivanova (actress Fiona Fullerton, 29 years old), and Grace Jones as May Day (37 years old). The main girl and love interest is the unfortunately talentless Tanya Roberts (30 years old). The average discrepancy in age between Bond and his four sexual conquests is 26 years; Bond was comfortably old enough to be the father of all these women.

The plot may have partially saved the film, but by now the reservoir of ideas has run bone dry. About half the film is consumed with a story about microchips embedded in race horses; this turns out to be next to irrelevant. Zorin's plan to destroy Silicon valley is provided about one minute of exposition before the action moves to a nondescript mining site where explosives are being packed. Of course, there is a digital ticking clock.

The set piece locations include the Eiffel Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge, both boring in their familiarity. There is an endless slapstick chase scene on the streets of San Francisco, complete with a stupid sheriff, and a break-in at city hall says a lot about the lack of imagination: Bond reduced to rifling through dusty cabinets in the hell of municipal bureaucracy.

Roberts is saddled with perhaps the worst-written Bond girl role in the series. She is relegated to repeatedly hanging off edges and shrieking "JAMES!" for help, in a display of brain-dead scripting meeting the actress-as-decoration.

But the nadir is reached when a main character grabs a machine gun and mercilessly mows down hundreds of extras. A once-proud series based on wit, smarts, charm, exotic locations and genuine sexual magnetism - in short, the best of everything in the spy world - is reduced to an emotionless, featureless, perfunctory and derivative slaughterhouse.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Thursday, 13 April 2017

Movie Review: Jaws 2 (1978)


A sequel that was always going to be inevitable, Jaws 2 nevertheless lacks any reason to exist other than cashing in on the success of the original.

On Amity Island, Sheriff Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is still emotionally scarred by his previous experience battling a great white shark. The community under Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) wants to move on, and Brody's wife Ellen (Lorraine Gary) has a job at the band new Holiday Inn resort hotel. Brody's sense of unease is heightened when two scuba divers mysteriously disappear, and then an unexplained explosion destroys a small boat, killing two more people including a water skier.

Brody tries to convince the Mayor and the town council that another large shark may be feeding in the waters of Amity, but they ignore him. Brody's two boys also circumvent his pleas to stay out of the water, and they join other teenagers on a multi-boat sailing trip. The shark first attacks a group of student scuba divers and then turns its attention to the sailing boats, and Brody has to swing into action to try and save his kids and their friends.

With Steven Spielberg, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw steering clear, only Roy Scheider returned for the first sequel, and then only because he had contractual obligations to fulfill. First John D. Hancock and then Jeannot Szwarc were brought in to direct, but the production was beset by infighting, a lame script, and more troubles with mechanical sharks.

Jaws had toyed with the audience before revealing the enormity of the monster, and added an existential men-against-nature layer of depth. With no new ideas to offer, Jaws 2 resorts to lining up interchangeable teenaged victims as food offerings to a clunky shark. The film is devoid of any elements of tension or drama, and already resorts to some wild contrivances of the shark-versus-helicopter variety.

Back on shore Brody battles the Mayor and other men in suits who refuse to believe another large shark is on the loose. Scheider and Hamilton lose the fight against a witless script boxing them into the same emotions for close to two hours.

The final 30 minutes finally build up a head of steam. Not that anyone can care about a group of barely defined teens being targeted by the shark, but at least the film defines a mission, Brody sets out to sea in another boat that may not be big enough, and Szwarc finds a gritty-enough final showdown. But thrash as it might, Jaws 2 is best remembered for the Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water... tagline, a near perfect example of a poster being much better than the film it promotes.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Movie Review: Earthquake (1974)


A big scale disaster movie, Earthquake has some effective moments of destruction but is an otherwise sloppily constructed and cheese-filled exercise in tolerating aggravating stock characters spouting horrible lines of dialogue.

In Los Angeles, building engineer Stewart Graff (Charlton Heston) is having marital problems with his depressed wife Remy (Ava Gardner). A series of minor tremors create concern at the Mulholland Dam overlooking the city. At the California Seismological Institute a young staffer crunches the numbers and concludes that a major quake will likely strike the city within 48 hours, but his methodology is unproven. Meanwhile Stewart's boss and father-in-law Sam Royce (Lorne Green) promotes Stewart to President of their engineering company, but Stewart is more interested in pursuing young widow Denise Marshall (Geneviève Bujold).

The big quake does hit, effectively destroying Los Angeles. Stewart has to help Sam save employees from their partially destroyed office tower. Remy, Denise and Denise's injured young son Corry are evacuated to the basement of a supposedly quake-proof highrise. Others caught up in the mayhem are wannabe motorcycle daredevil Miles Quade (Richard Roundtree), short-tempered police officer Lou Slade (George Kennedy) and the financially strapped Rosa Amici (Victoria Principal). But just when it appears that the worst is over, there is more shaking to come.

Produced and directed by Mark Robson, Earthquake arrived at the peak of the epic disaster movie cycle of the early 1970s, with The Towering Inferno and Airport '75 released in the same year. Unfortunately gimmickry was already creeping into the genre as productions competed for viewers' attention. Unable to secure any relevant current stars to boost the box office, Earthquake resorted to something called Sensurround, a mammoth sound system designed to literally shake theatre seats with sub-audible "infra bass" sound waves.

Which is just as well, because what is on the screen is pretty awful. Earthquake underwent extensive post-production editing to tighten up the narrative, and the outcome is notably choppy. Other than the few minutes of special effects depicting the earthquake itself, the rest of the movie is two hours of badly-acted television-level drama. Despite a script co-written by Mario Puzo, the dialogue is cringe-worthy, the characters are stiff, and the attempts at drama and conflict border perilously near laughable.

The marital strife between Stewart and Remy plays like a particularly bad daytime soap episode, while Stewart's lusting after Denise is tawdry. Miles Quade disappears entirely from the ending of the movie, after wasting plenty of set-up time with a useless story about his ambition to be the next Evel Knievel. Walter Matthau appears under a pseudonym as an oblivious barfly, while George Kennedy plays a stock angry but good-hearted cop. Victoria Principal wages battle on two fronts: she fights against a frizzy hairdo that occupies half the screen, and fends off a deranged homicidal national guardsman (Marjoe Gortner) who stumbled in from another movie.

The only bits worth watching are the prolonged earthquake strike scenes, and the special effects range from reasonably impressive to amateurish. When an elevator crash ends with cartoon blood drops childishly superimposed on the image of mangled bodies, the splatter is literally on the screen for a genre that had nowhere to go but down.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.



Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Movie Review: Miller's Crossing (1990)


A gangster drama with neo-noir elements and a mean streak of humour, Miller's Crossing is a character rich story about the sordid but engrossing business of crime.

Mobster Leo O'Bannon (Albert Finney) rules an unnamed city during the Prohibition. He refuses the request of fellow gang boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) to kill bookie Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro). Caspar believes that Bernie is an unethical cheat when it comes to fixed boxing bouts, but Leo is in love with Bernie's sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) and wants to maintain the peace. Leo's second in command Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) is unsuccessful arguing that liquidating Bernie is a cheap price to pay in order to avoid a conflict with Caspar.

What Leo does not know is that Tom, who is saddled with gambling debts, is also carrying on a steamy affair with Verna. Leo does suspect Verna enough to have her followed, but things start to get complicated when the tail shows up dead in an alley. Meanwhile Caspar is fed up with taking orders from Leo and a full-fledged violent turf war erupts between the two. Tom and Leo have a public falling out, and with Caspar appearing to gain the upper hand in the fight to control the underworld, Tom joins Caspar's inner circle.

Directed by Joel Coen and written by his brother Ethan, Miller's Crossing builds slowly but surely to some magnificent peaks of tension and drama in the criminal world. Deploying a measured pace, grim aesthetics and a narrative that smoothly swerves with divided loyalties and suspect alliances, the film works both as a salute to the genre and a memorably unique story.

Inspired by the novels of Dashiell Hammett, the canon of gangster films and sharing some man-in-the-middle story principles with the likes of A Fistful Of Dollars, the Coens create a matter-of-fact world where the mobsters own the law and the politicians, and the prize at the heart of the struggle for power is nothing less than economic control of an entire city. The film does not question the reasons behind this reality; with a combination of jarring violence and sharp wit, Miller's Crossing proceeds to reveal the cunning, conspiracies and collusion required for survival and success in the world of mob rule.

Leo and Caspar will settle their conflict with bullets rather than votes; Tom just has to find a way to navigate and manipulate the dirty war without losing his head, no easy task when he is sleeping with the boss's girl. A black fedora becomes a symbol for loss and death, while a cold blooded crime in the titular forest clearing provides a neat twist and a reminder for Tom that there is a price for everything, but sometimes others pay to play. Verna is a classic woman desired by many but truly attainable by probably none, and her magnetism tugs at the raging egos to make every dangerous situation worse.

Miller's Crossing is punctuated by manic action scenes, ranging in scale from raids and battles involving hordes of cops and gangsters exchanging hot lead from blazing Tommy guns, to quiet one-on-one showdowns prolonged to reveal the fragility of life. Tom's one big advantage is that he is smarter than everybody around him, and particularly wise enough to stand close to power but not cling onto it. In a world gone crazy with killings, Tom slices through the drama using brains instead of brawn. Reluctant to use a gun, he also counts on the incompetence of the goons supposedly running the show to wriggle out of tight spots.

Gabriel Byrne carries the role with requisite intensity, an intelligent man working overtime to design outcomes in a shifting landscape. Albert Finney, Jon Polito and John Turturro humanize a trio of enduring gangsters circling each other looking for the duplicitous kill. Marcia Gay Harden pouts her way through the role of Verna, fully understanding her influence but not feeling any better for it. A woman in a man's world gone mad has every reason to want to land on the winning side of a merciless conflict.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Sunday, 9 April 2017

Movie Review: The Prince Of Tides (1991)


A romantic melodrama, The Prince Of Tides spares no familial agony in search of emotional scar tissue, and delivers a patchy exercise in pop psychology.

Unemployed teacher and football coach Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte) of South Carolina endured a tough rural childhood, with his parents Lila (Kate Nelligan) and Henry (Brad Sullivan), a shrimp farmer, locked in a vicious cycle of spousal abuse. Tom's older brother Luke has since died, while his sister Savannah (Melinda Dillon) is depressed and suicidal. Tom is now facing a crisis of his own, with his marriage to Sally (Blythe Danner) seemingly drifting to an end due to his emotional neglect.

After another attempt by Savannah to kill herself, Tom travels to New York City to meet with her psychiatrist Dr. Susan Lowenstein (Barbra Streisand), who is trying to unlock the hidden traumas in Savannah's early life. Tom obliges, and start to reveal episodes from his childhood while falling in love with Susan. He establishes a friendship with her brooding teenage son Bernard (Jason Gould) and uncovers Susan's unhappy marriage to violin maestro Herbert Woodruff (Jeroen Krabbé).

An adaptation of the Pat Conroy novel directed by Streisand, The Prince Of Tides takes itself far too seriously as it wades into some laughable territory. There is no doubting the slick quality of the production, and Streisand constructs an elaborate journey into a thick jungle of overlapping psychological catastrophes spanning two generations. There are enough damaged souls and cracked psyches to fill an academic treatise on familial disasters, and the never ending revelations make for compelling viewing of the train wreck variety.

But the premise of a psychiatrist arm-twisting the brother of her patient into revealing childhood memories is fundamentally shaky, and the fiery hot and cold interactions between them never ring true. Tom's big breakdown scene on Susan's couch falls flat, and overall the film loses its way in pretty spectacular fashion in the final stages. The romance elements pour thick syrup over all else, and the original narrative drivers are effectively forgotten.

Regardless, there is enough value to maintain engagement. Nick Nolte delivers one of his better career performances, and Tom's excessive use of cynicism and humour to cover up a childhood of hurt is the one emotional part of the film that does work. The relationship between Tom and his wife Sally contains compelling nuggets of carnage, and more of the film should have been invested in their rocky marriage. Finally the flashback scenes are the foundations of the film and what Streisand does present is sharp and effective, but this is another aspect of Tom's story that suffers from increasing neglect as the film progresses.

A fly on the psychiatrist's wall, The Prince Of Tides is sometimes provocative but just as often cringe worthy.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Saturday, 8 April 2017

Movie Review: Vantage Point (2008)


A clever action thriller, Vantage Point rises above the routine thanks to a patient structure that reveals the twisty plot from the viewpoints of several key characters.

A diplomatic anti-terrorism summit is being held in the small town of Salamanca, Spain. Early in the public ceremony witnessed by large crowds and covered by the international media, United States President Harry Ashton (William Hurt) is shot twice by an unseen assassin; then two explosions rock the city, causing mass casualties and panic, and killing opinionated reporter Angie Jones (Zoe Saladana).

The events are presented from the perspective of multiple witnesses, including television producer Rex Brooks (Sigourney Weaver), secret service agent Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid), local police detective Enrique (Eduardo Noriega) and American tourist Howard Lewis (Forest Whitaker). Gradually the threads of the conspiracy are revealed, and Barnes stumbles onto a much more complex plot involving layers of decoys, distractions and subterfuge.

Directed by Pete Travis, Vantage Point maintains a high level of energy thanks to slick production values, an intriguing mystery, and a puzzle-like structure. Although the rewinds and repetitions begin to become a bit tiresome about halfway through, there is enough juice in the story to maintain strong momentum.

The film's hook resides in the convoluted plot that is only gradually teased out of the multiple perspectives. Each retelling of the events at the public square pushes a bit deeper into the background and consequence, and it becomes apparent nothing is what it seems to be, no matter how many people witnessed the murderous atrocities. There are layers of deception and counter-deception at play, a chess game unfolding on the public stage but planned in the conspiratorial shadows.

The plot spends as little time as possible on politics and motives, and focuses instead on thrills and spills. An attack on a hotel is a smooth demonstration of one against many, while a long urban car chase recreates Bourne-style intensity but with less manic editing. Meanwhile the large explosion in the square is viewed from multiple angles but never loses its jarring impact. And the film finds a frantic yet tidy conclusion, all the vantage points coming together at the same time and place.

The ensemble cast shares the chapters, and gradually Dennis Quaid moves into centre stage. His character Thomas Barnes is provided with a brief background as a secret service agent still healing from the emotional scars of having taken a bullet to save the President's life during a previous assassination attempt. Given the fragmented scheme unfolding around him, Quaid does well to inject some character intensity into his scenes. Barnes' partner Agent Kent Taylor (Matthew Fox) and initially peripheral characters Veronica (Ayelet Zurer), Sam (Saïd Taghmaoui) and Javier (Édgar Ramírez) gain in prominence as more is revealed about the plot.

Vantage Point defines its ambition and stays within it, delivering a controlled multi-angled barrage of thrills.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...