Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Movie Review: No Reservations (2007)

A romance set in the world of chefs, No Reservations features plenty of quail and saffron sauce but the portions are meager.

In New York City, Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is a highly-strung perfectionist chef running her own kitchen at a classy restaurant owned by Paula (Patricia Clarkson). Kate is very much single, obsessive about recipes, runs her life according to a strict set of rules, and her sessions with a therapist (Bob Balaban) are not helping.

Tragedy strikes when Kate's sister perishes in a car crash, and Kate is tasked with looking after her young niece Zoe (Abigail Breslin). At the same time Paula hires opera-loving Nick (Aaron Eckhart) as a new sous-chef, disrupting Kate's kitchen dynamics. Kate has to deal with sudden parental responsibilities, look after Zoe's fragile emotions and learn to deal with Nick's expansive style and his romantic overtures.

Directed by Scott Hicks, No Reservations is as bland and predictable as a boring meal at an unfashionable suburban family restaurant. Despite decent production values, a scenic New York City, plenty of talk about exotic food and endless visuals featuring sumptuous dinners under preparation in Kate's kitchen, when it comes to the actual story, the film falls flat.

The film is devoid of humour and any serious drama, so this is neither a romantic comedy nor a tragedy of any sort. No Reservations features a peripheral romance between Kate and Nick, but Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart fail to generate much chemistry. Eckhart is particularly challenged to portray a romantic leading man in a role more suitable for the likes of Owen Wilson. Zeta-Jones swings too far towards the harried professional aspects of Kate's life, and forgets to let her hair down and slip into something more playful to spark the romance.

The film finds a marginally more appealing focus in Zoe's story, the young girl creating a sudden new domestic focus for Kate, and allowing Nick to display his empathy through acts of kindness towards the child.

The answer to the question of whether Kate will make space for some randomness and disorganization in her life is never in doubt. No Reservations purposefully heads to its predictable conclusion, Kate and Nick almost mechanically navigating around the typical obstacles and misunderstanding thrown at their burgeoning relationship. The film talks the high cuisine talk, but delivers entertainment as fresh as last week's fish.

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Saturday, 9 December 2017

Movie Review: The Prestige (2006)

A battle-of-the-magicians drama, The Prestige delves into the psychology of a personal war between two men, but also outsmarts itself in an ill-conceived search for a final flourish.

The film intercuts events that take place over several time periods. In linear form, the setting is London in the 1890s, and magicians Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) rise to prominence around the same time under the guidance of stage engineer John Cutter (Michael Caine). Initially friends, the relationship between them is severely poisoned when Angier's wife Julia (Piper Perabo) dies in an on-stage mishap that may have been inadvertently caused by Borden.

Both men embark on professional careers. Angier is more aristocratic and has stage showmanship but not as much skill. The working class Borden is technically brilliant but has poor presence. He marries Sarah (Rebecca Hall) and starts a family, and with the help of his engineer Fallon develops an on-stage transportation trick that baffles audiences. Angier, Cutter and assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) are determined to learn the trick behind Borden's success. The rivalry leads to a shooting, kidnapping, espionage and a side-trip to Colorado, where Angier will meet Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) and learn about the amazing possibilities offered by the emerging field of electricity.

Directed and co-written by Christopher Nolan with his brother Jonathan, The Prestige (the title is a reference to the third act in every magic trick) joined The Illusionist in making 2006 the year of the magicians' brief screen revival. Similar to Neil Burger's effort, Nolan creates a reasonably absorbing narrative and visually rich environment, but stumbles in pushing too hard towards illogical territory.

The world of magic is compelling enough without resorting to absolute fantasy. In his final act, Nolan allows his plot to rush headlong into ridiculous science fiction territory, severely undermining plenty of the good work invested in the set-up. There may some cheap enjoyment to be had in watching Tesla's machine releasing crackling sparks of electricity. The byproduct of all the on-stage zapping does not belong in a film about magic, and the film effectively cheats its way to a ridiculous resolution.

Which is a pity, because there is plenty to admire in The Prestige. Despite Nolan's determination to continuously hop back and forth between three time periods, the animosity between Borden and Angier creates a cutting edge, and the ever more dangerous tit-for-tat reprisals in the world of magic tricks are compelling. It is quickly apparent that this being the world of illusion every seemingly genuine action is hiding another more surreptitious intent, and it's relatively easy to pick up on the film's major twist.

Although none of the characters are worthy of much sympathy, the performances are intense, ensuring that Angier, Borden and Cutter and memorable people dedicated to excellence in their profession. Jackman infuses Angier with the fortitude that second best does not mean he will stop trying, while Bale gives Borden the requisite passion to prove himself the greatest despite his humble origins. David Bowie is magnetic in a brief but pivotal role as Nikola Tesla, although a sub-plot about a whole separate rivalry between Tesla and Edison is short-changed into a muddle.

The Prestige mostly delivers on the pledge and the turn, but ironically overreaches in its third and final act.

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Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Movie Review: Flat Top (1952)

A low-budget US Navy propaganda film intended to drum up recruitment during the Korean War, Flat Top (also known as Eagles Of The Fleet) is a stock story peppered with plenty of grainy stock combat footage.

On board an aircraft carrier during the Korean War, Commander Dan Collier (Sterling Hayden) reminisces about his experiences during World War Two. The rest of the film is one long flashback. In the Pacific theatre, Collier, a strict disciplinarian, takes command of a group of newly trained pilots. Young and exuberant Barney Smith (Keith Larsen) is immediately grounded by Collier for disobeying orders during a landing. Executive Officer Lieutenant Joe Rodgers (Richard Carlson) tries to reconcile the inexperienced men with the expectations of their new commander.

The pilots have to fight long days of boredom at sea. Finally they get into the action and gain experience through raids on the enemy fleet, dogfights with enemy aircraft and finally supporting the Philippines invasion. Throughout, Collier is stingy with his praise, but gradually earns the respect of the men.

Directed by Lesley Selander, Flat Top is approximately 45 minutes of original film supplemented by about 40 minutes of footage from World War Two, or at least it feels that way. The actors are edited into the action but it's often painfully evident where the plastic sets stop and the backscreen projections start. Nevertheless, Flat Top was nominated for an editing Academy Award.

The film was produced with the full support of the Navy by low-budget specialists Monogram Pictures, and by the standards of that studio this is a top rate production. The USS Princeton was the main on-location set, the colour cinematography is courtesy of Cinecolor, and Sterling Hayden and Richard Carlson.provide decent name recognition.

But for viewers interested in all the hardware, Selander takes frequent inexcusable shortcuts in cobbling together the action scenes. Characters frequently take off in one aircraft, dogfight in another and land in yet a third type of machine. When a film has to make do with whatever stock footage is available, continuity is an early victim.

The plot is the most standard of military dramas, the stern commander whipping green recruits into shape and his second in command having to bridge the gap between experience and enthusiasm. Hayden and Carlson bring the requisite military stiffness and little else to their roles. Selander tries to give some of the other pilots a bit of personality. But other than the grounded Ensign Smith it's a losing battle, and all the young flyers meld into irrelevance, united by the common thread of contriving to disobey Collier's every instruction.

Flat Top is certainly flat, and not just at the top.

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Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Movie Review: Suddenly (1954)

A low budget B-movie juiced with better than expected performances, Suddenly is a short and sharp assassination and hostage drama.

The small and sleepy town of Suddenly receives the exciting news that an unscheduled train carrying the President of the United States is due to make a quick stop in town. Sheriff Tod Shaw (Sterling Hayden) is the local law, and he pauses his romantic pursuit of war widow Ellen (Nancy Gates) to coordinate security with Secret Service agents led by Dan Carney (Willis Bouchey). Meanwhile, the still-grieving Ellen is trying to shield her young son Pidge (Kim Charney) from any symbols of violence.

Pop Benson (James Gleason) is Ellen's dad and a retired Secret Service agent himself. Pop's house provides a strategic vantage point over the train station. Hitman John Baron (Frank Sinatra) and two accomplices arrive in Suddenly pretending to be FBI agents. They forcefully occupy Pop's house, and hold Tod, Pop, Ellen and Pidge as hostages while they set-up a high powered sniper rifle and await the arrival of the President's train.

In the vein of movies about killers holding innocents hostage including landmarks like The Petrified Forest, Key Largo and The Desperate Hours, Suddenly occupies a curious place for a variety of reasons. After the big budget From Here To Eternity, Sinatra takes quite a left-turn to land in this tiny movie as his next project. Later, he would appear in 1962's The Manchurian Candidate, which again features a slow-burning assassination plot. After the 1963 Kennedy assassination, Sinatra attempted to have Suddenly withdrawn from circulation upon hearing that Lee Harvey Oswald had watched the film before the killing.

In itself this is an intriguing film that builds and maintains a good head of steam. Director Lewis Allen demonstrates a penchant for edgy and noirish perspectives and punches the clock at a no-nonsense 77 minutes. Once the premise is established and Baron's intentions are revealed, most of the action takes place in Pop's house, the action confined to a couple of rooms as Baron awaits the train and Shaw, nursing a bullet wound in his arm, attempts to figure out a way to gain the upper hand.

The set-up opens the door to a decent psychological duel between the sheriff and the hitman. Shaw realizes that Baron is emotionally troubled and gets him talking, allowing Suddenly to venture into interesting territory related to the upbringing and training of an assassin. Frank Sinatra's intense performance as an unhinged cold-hearted killer who feels the world owes him plenty elevates the film well past its humble intentions. Hayden is adequate but quite stiff.

Given the modest budget and B-movie status, there are plot holes and inconsistencies aplenty in the Richard Sale screenplay, and of course the characters behave as the script requires to keep the drama simmering, rather than in accordance with any logic. Nancy Gates and James Gleason provide decent support behind Hayden and Sinatra, but the rest of the cast members read their lines with the awkward intensity of first rehearsal at the local high school play.

A taut countdown thriller peppered with masculine and threat-laden dialogue, Suddenly does not set any new standards in filmmaking, but it's much better than it needed to be.

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Monday, 4 December 2017

Movie Review: Amour (2012)

A drama about love at the end of life, Amour is an unblinking view of the slow descent into the big sleep.

In Paris, firefighters break into a locked apartment and find an elderly woman passed away on the bed, surrounded by flowers. The rest of the film is one long flashback. Georges and Anne (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) are a retired couple living in the apartment, both former piano teachers. Soon after attending a concert by one of Anne former students, she suffers a stroke. An operation to unblock an artery goes wrong and Anne is left paralyzed on one side. Anne makes Georges promise to never take her back to the hospital.

With Anne confined to a wheelchair, Georges becomes her full-time caregiver. Their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) is an occasional visitor, and she struggles to come to terms with what her parents are going through. Anne expresses her wishes to die, but then suffers another stroke and is bedridden, barely able to communicate. Georges seeks the help of in-home nurses, as the physical and emotional burden on him escalates.

While many films look at couples falling in love at the early stages of a relationship, Amour settles down at the other end of couplehood. With their careers behind them and their children now adults,  Georges and Anne are in their darkening twilight, still deeply in love and now having to deal with what it means for life to seep away. This is a deeply affecting film tackling an often ignored subject, at a stage in the human journey where the remaining options are limited and exceptionally challenging.

Director Michael Haneke wrote the film based on personal family experience and does not hurry any of the events or actions. He sets up his cameras in static positions and allows the drama to unfold in exceptionally long takes, saturating the screen with gravity and emotion, most of the film taking place in the spacious Parisian apartment. Time passes slowly in the world of Georges and Anne. Shuffling from room to room is an ordeal, transitioning from wheelchair to chair is an achievement. The cameras watch patiently, intruding onto the couple's privacy without judgment but with inescapable intensity as the bond between Georges and Anne is repeatedly tested.

Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, 82 and 84 years old respectively, deliver stunning performances. Trintignant is all stoic resilience as Georges navigates around the reality that his partner is ebbing away. Riva has a longer journey in her portrayal of Anne, a proud woman sensing the end and doing her best to exert a level of control, but then held captive by her body's sequential failure.

A few events that mark Anne's deterioration happen off-screen, but for the most part, Amour is unflinching. With cold efficiency Haneke invades Anne's most intimate humiliations as she loses the ability to physically look after herself. Her descent into the finality of death is harrowing, and as the end draws near, love is the only survivor.

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Sunday, 3 December 2017

Movie Review: Too Young To Kiss (1951)

An adult-roleplaying-as-a-child romantic comedy, Too Young To Kiss features an edgy June Allyson performance but also veers close to plenty of icky behaviour.

In New York City, Eric Wainwright (Van Johnson) is a womanizing and successful talent promoter besieged by wannabe performers. Cynthia Potter (Allyson) is a frustrated aspiring concert pianist, refusing to give up on her dream but unable to get Wainwright's attention. Her boyfriend John (Gig Young), a newspaperman, urges her to quit, but instead Cynthia gatecrashes a children's audition evening by pretending to be 12 year old Molly, Cynthia's younger sister.

Wainwright is stunned by Molly's precocious talent, and Cynthia cannot bring herself to tell him the truth. Eric books a high-profile concert for Molly and takes over the girl's life, parking her at his country estate and helping her practice to be a success. Cynthia is bitter that Eric thinks the world of Molly but cannot appreciate Cynthia, and proceeds to try and make his life a living hell.

Similar to other woman-having-to-pretend to-be-a-girl efforts from the era such as The Major And The Minor, Too Young Kiss is both more disconcerting and more fractious than the typical rom-com. Whether intentional or not, the film carries a welcome undertone of anger, with June Allyson's Cynthia seething for long stretches at the injustice of an entertainment world where her talent is celebrated as a child and ignored as an adult. Her revenge is to poke away at Eric's comfortable life as a Svengali.

Director Robert Z. Leonard, again perhaps inadvertently, steers towards uncomfortable territory in portraying Eric's dominating behaviour towards Molly. He is frequently leading her by the arm, approaching her too close, tucking her too tight, his actions bordering on a version of kidnapping and culminating in a spanking episode. Cynthia-as-Molly displays her disgust and annoyance, and pushes back with vexatious actions of her own, giving the film a pointy stance.

But this is ultimately a romantic comedy, and inevitably all obstacles and misunderstandings shall be overcome in order for the happy couple to find each other. This being the fourth of five teamings between Allyson and Johnson, their fans expected nothing else, and the script finds its way towards an awkward climax to unite them.

Along the way there are plenty of piano interludes, and Allyson is game in pounding away at the keyboards, never quite in synch with the advanced music. She was 33 at the time of filming, playing a 22 year old character impersonating a 12 year old girl. Her performance as Molly is more than passable, while Johnson stays within himself as suave and confident romantic interest. Gig Young is the unfortunate other man, getting regularly punched for his troubles.

Too Young To Kiss raises issues about the nature of talent, the treatment of women and twists of career fortune. The film may have been intended a flighty teaming of a popular screen couple, but it contains more talking points than expected.

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Movie Review: The Bride Goes Wild (1948)

An unbalanced romantic comedy, The Bride Goes Wild has no idea what it is trying to be and collapses in an inept heap.

Prim and proper schoolteacher Martha Terryton (June Allyson) wins a competition to be the illustrator for the latest children's book by celebrated author "Uncle Bumps", the pen name of Greg Rawlings (Van Johnson). Publisher McGrath (Hume Cronyn) knows that contrary to his reputation, Greg is a womanizing borderline alcoholic, still recovering from a long-ago failed relationship with Tillie (Arlene Dahl).

When Greg clumsily attempts to seduce Martha and plies her with alcohol, McGrath fears a scandal, and concocts a plot to elicit sympathy for Greg by creating a fake sob-story about the author as a single dad raising an unruly child. Young freckled kid Danny (Butch Jenkins) is plucked from an orphanage and asked to play the role of Greg's out-of-control son. Martha starts to fall for Greg, but the reappearance of Tillie complicates matters.

The film is as unstable as the synopsis suggests. The third teaming of Allyson and Johnson is devoid of charisma and chemistry, and frequently veers into obnoxious territory. The character of Greg Rawlings is a singularly irritating predator, and somehow writer Albert Beich doubles down on the loathsome behaviour by contriving the ludicrous introduction of the shin-kicking Danny.

Other than perpetuating the mythology that every bad man just needs a good woman to achieve a remarkable reformation, why a wholesome schoolteacher like Martha would ever fall for a lech like Greg is only explained in the minds of Beich and director Norman Taurog. Matters are made worse when Tillie reappears, clearly a better match for Greg, but yet somehow the romance between Greg and Martha has to blossom among the thorny weeds of bad behaviour.

The Bride Goes Wild (the title has nothing to do with the events in the film) ends with ants overrunning a wedding and then stunningly awful and prolonged scenes of hordes of kids pretending to be Indians. Almost bad enough to be good due to the utter lack of cohesion, the film just settles for a putrid type of awful.

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Movie Review: The Change-Up (2011)

A body-switch bromedy, The Change-Up finds some good laughs but also too frequently wades into vulgarity.

In Atlanta, Dave (Jason Bateman) is climbing the corporate ladder at his law firm, reasonably happily married to Jamie (Leslie Mann) and raising three kids, include newly born twins. His best friend from college days is Mitch (Ryan Reynolds), a weed-smoking generally unemployed actor drifting backwards through life while enjoying wild sexual encounters. Dave wonders if he has missed out on the fun part of being a grown-up by settling down too early, and finds Sabrina (Olivia Wilde), his paralegal at the office, extremely attractive.

One night after drinks Dave and Mitch pee into a park statue as they express mutual wishes to experience each other's lives, and they wake up the next morning with their bodies switched. They try to explain the situation to Jamie but she thinks it's a prank. With the fountain in the process of being moved and misplaced by the city, Mitch has to deal with a high stakes deal at the law firm and learning to be a domesticated dad and husband, while Dave has to adjust to having all the time in the world to catch up on all he has missed.

Directed by David Dobkin, The Change-Up applies the tried and tested formula of opposite characters experiencing life from the other side. The grass always looks greener over the fence, and here a family-and-career man changes places with a carefree live-for-the-moment guy, and the results are funny if predictable.

Dobkin and screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore manage to squeeze plenty of laughs along the way. Mitch (in Dave's body) having to deal with the duties of a father with young twin babies gives rise to excellent comic moments. Mitch also wades into the corridors of power at the law firm with a cluelessness that invites farce. Dave (in Mitch's body) has less to do in experiencing life as a jovial bachelor. His encounters with a sex-crazed woman (hiding a secret) and the sleazy underbelly of the acting industry quickly cross over into crude rather than fun territory.

And while The Change-Up eventually reaches the expected moments of reckoning and self-reflection, both men finding out about themselves by standing outside and experiencing what their social circle sees. But on the way to resolution, the prevailing obsession with crude humour is grinding. Dave and Mitch, in any combination of body residencies, often appear unable to converse about anything other than crass sex, intercourse and genitalia.

Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds have a blast in their respective roles, slipping into opposing personas and playing off each other with ease. Leslie Mann holds the domestic fort as the wife running out of patience with an inattentive husband, then having to navigate around the bewildering behaviour of Mitch in Dave's body. Alan Arkin gets a small role as Mitch's frequently re-marrying dad.

The Change-Up inhabits familiar territory, with the hearty laughs and tiresome juvenile antics co-existing in equal doses.

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Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Movie Review: Runner Runner (2013)

A drama thriller set in the world of gambling, Runner Runner deals a potentially intriguing hand but folds early.

Richie Furst (geddit? played by Justin Timberlake) is a financially struggling mature student at Princeton. Richie was on the fast track to Wall Street wealth when the 2008 financial crisis destroyed his prospects. Now he makes money on the side by channeling fellow Princeton students to online gambling sites. Threatened with expulsion, Richie tries to win his entire tuition playing online poker on the Midnight Black site. He loses everything, but not before spotting signs of a sophisticated cheating scam.

Richie travels to Costa Rica and confronts Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), the charismatic head of the Midnight Black online gambling empire, with proof of the scam. Impressed, Ivan offers Richie a job, and the money starts pouring in. Richie meets and starts a relationship with Rebecca (Gemma Arterton), one of Ivan's associates, but also starts to get exposure to the dark underbelly of Ivan's business, including massive extortion of local Costa Rican officials and dodging threats from FBI Agent Shavers (Anthony Mackie).

Directed by Brad Furman, Runner Runner has the kernels of a good story, even carrying echoes of no less a classic than Gilda. The film looks slick, capturing the vivid decadence of life with the super rich operating marginally legal but massively profitable gambling businesses from off shore havens. Furman mixes glitz and glamour with earthy Costa Rican surroundings, and Runner Runner is nothing if not a colourful and visually immersive experience.

Furman also deserves credit for avoiding the temptation to suddenly turn Furst into any kind of action hero. Runner Runner remains reasonably grounded in reality, and the thriller elements are drawn from a battle of wits and influence, rather than the more typical surge into cheap action.

But little else works. Timberlake offers bored and unnecessary narration, and the story only starts off with promise. It is quickly apparent that little will actually be explained, and so the nature of Furst's job with Block is incoherent, the relationship between Rebecca and Ivan is barely sketched in, and Richie has a couple of buddies who seem to be essential to the story but hardly register. Richie's father (John Head) pokes his head into the margins of the story, seemingly from a whole other movie.

The deeper the film gets into the sub-plot of grafting local politicos, FBI Agent Shavers' hissing agenda, and the inner workings of Ivan's business and his grand plan, the less useful information is provided. By the time the third act arrives and true colours start to be revealed, it's impossible to care about any of the characters.

The performances are predictably stoic. Timberlake maintains the same tone throughout, Affleck mails in an easy turn as the slick mover and shaker, and Arterton is never quite sure what her role in the movie really is.

Runner Runner starts with a decent sprint but quickly runs out of steam.

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Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Movie Review: Less Than Zero (1987)

A coming-of-age drugs-and-sex morality tales, Less Than Zero oozes style but reeks of plastic music-video superficiality.

Classmates Clay (Andrew McCarthy), his girlfriend Blair (Jami Gertz) and Julian (Robert Downey Jr.) were best friends from wealthy families at their Los Angeles high school. After graduation Clay heads out to college, Blair stays in LA to pursue a modeling career and Julian dreams of successful business investment ventures using his father's money. At Thanksgiving Clay discovers that Blair and Julian are sleeping together, and at Christmas he returns home for another visit at Blair's request.

Clay finds Julian broke, addicted and descending into a spiral of hard drugs supplied by slick dealer Rip (James Spader). Julian is still charismatic and dreaming of his next big venture, but running on empty, and owing Rip a lot of money. Clay reconnects with Blair and they rekindle their relationship as they try to help Julian break out of his destructive cycle.

A loose adaptation of  Bret Easton Ellis' celebrated book about life among LA's decadent teens, Less Than Zero is loud but exceedingly tedious. Self-consciously directed by Marek Kanievska, the film looks sumptuous, with every frame an attempted work of art, Kanievska particularly fond of symmetrical framing and glitzy hyperactive lights puncturing the LA nights. The music, for better or for worse, is the other notable achievement, Less Than Zero featuring a nonstop soundtrack of what passed for cool rock and party tunes in the mid to late 1980s.

Otherwise this is a story about teenagers attending parties and dabbling in unconstrained sex, drugs and rock'n'roll dreams, but unfortunately the film drops to the vacuous level of its protagonists. Clay and Blair attend party after party, usually looking for Julian as he struggles through his latest drug-induced haze, only to restart the same cycle the next day. Kanievska may have intended the endless succession of parties with throbbing music and stroboscopic lights to meld into one long 98 minutes as a metaphor for lives being wasted on indistinguishable highs, but as a viewing experience, the film dances up a sweat in one place and gets nowhere fast.

Apart from the insatiable appetite for all-night parties featuring flickering mountains of monitors as the decor object of choice, the film struggles to reconcile the main character interactions with their age. Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz, Robert Downey Jr. and James Spader represent core and loose affiliates of the Brat Pack, and here they fail to convince as 19 year olds six months out of high school. The actors range in age from 22 (Gertz) to 27 (Spader), and the dialogue, courtesy of a Harley Peyton script, suggests thirtysomethings rather than spoiled teenagers. McCarthy comes off worst in his perpetual dreamlike state. Downey Jr. and Spader are suitably intense and slimy respectively, while Gertz is adequate.

With plenty of throbbing ostentation, Less Than Zero is not wholly negative, but it is less than meets the eye.

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Monday, 27 November 2017

Movie Review: I Ought To Be In Pictures (1982)

A comedy-drama stage adaptation, I Ought To Be In Pictures tackles father-daughter issues and comes up empty.

19 year old Libby Tucker (Dinah Manoff) travels from New York to Los Angeles to reconnect with her father Herbert (Walter Matthau), a writer who abandoned the family when Libby was three. Libby dreams of a career in acting and imagines Herbert to be a powerful Hollywood big shot, but instead finds him to be a washed-up gambling addict, unemployed and suffering from writer's block. His girlfriend is movie studio hairdresser Steffy (Ann-Margaret), who tolerates Walter but is growing weary of his lack of ambition.

Libby and Walter immediately clash, as he finds it difficult to connect with his headstrong and talkative daughter and she is unable to forgive his past sins. But gradually they warm up to each other, she moves into his apartment, and they construct a functional relationship. But Libby will not find it easy to carve out a new life.

An adaptation of the Neil Simon play directed by Herbert Ross, I Ought To Be In Pictures is smothered by over-embroidered prose dancing between cringe-worthy, needlessly profound and just plain embarrassing. Ross also directed the Broadway show and does not try too hard to transform it into a film experience. As is often the case, what works well on the stage appears ridiculously ceremonial on the screen, and the phrases coming out of the mouth of Libby and Herbert rarely carry a genuine warmth.

The movie is very much a two character study, and scene after scene feature Libby and Herbert carrying on long conversations, typically at his apartment. Ross throws in perfunctory excursions to the baseball park and the racetrack in half-hearted attempts to ventilate the claustrophobic setting. The topics of conversation range from her improbable career aspirations to his unforgivable abandonment of the family, and finally no less than the most awkward father-daughter non-talk about the emotions of sexual experiences. Simon's writing is undoubtedly clever, but when every other line has to be a zinger, the unrealistic quantity competes unfavourably with quality.

Dinah Manoff was the one stage performer allowed to recreate her character for the film, and she receives no help from Ross in modulating. The character of Libby is borderline irritating at the best of times as the talk-non-stop Quixotic daughter on a quest to conquer her father and the acting world, and Manoff's shout-it-to-the-rafters delivery does not help. Matthau is much better, and carries the film as the stooped writer long past caring in a town run by younger men. Ann-Margret is fine in a supporting role, although she is never able to properly explain why the seemingly smart Steffy is hanging out with an indebted has-been like Herbert.

Despite the many weaknesses the film does find a few highlights, and most of these arrive in the final act. Once father and daughter make the adjustments to accommodate each other, Ross finally finds a few poignant scenes. The shouting and recriminations are replaced by hushed, tender, and cinematic conversations, and finally emotions seep through. It's all too little and too late, the film having been well and truly pulverized by all the theatrical antics.

Despite the title, I Ought To Be In Pictures ought to stay on the stage.

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Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Movie Review: Reap The Wild Wind (1942)

A colourful maritime epic, Reap The Wild Wind has a bit of everything but not much of anything.

It's the 1840s, and Key West, Florida is a key marine gateway to the United States. Vessels frequently wreck in the rough seas, and salvage operators rush to rescue sailors and retrieve cargo. Rough and ready Loxie Claiborne (Paulette Goddard) runs a legitimate salvage company, while her rivals King Cutler (Raymond Massey) and his brother Dan (Robert Preston) are more interested in causing wrecks for profits. As a further complication, Dan is secretly in love with Loxie's cousin Drusilla (Susan Hayward).

The Cutlers' chicanery causes the ship captained by Jack Stuart (John Wayne) to wreck. Loxie rescues Jack and they fall in love. He dreams of captaining the Southern Cross, a modern steam boat owned by shipping tycoon Commodore Devereaux. Loxie travels to Charleston and flirts with Steven Tolliver (Ray Milland), Stuart's rival and Deveroux's influential second-in-command, to try and secure the Southern Cross command for Stuart. Instead, Tolliver falls in love with Loxie. Tolliver travels to Key West to investigate the Cutlers, heating up the love triangle but also forcing Tolliver and Stuart to cooperate to try and stop the escalating series of shipwrecks.

Produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille, Reap The Wild Wind is a bright, boisterous, and busy adventure. The story hops between the hustling port of Key West and the much more refined and civilized Charleston, with frequent sailings out to sea to experience the world of cargo ships in rough waters and the salvage crews who either provide assistance or prey on misfortune. The production values are high, the screen pops with colour, the costumes are lavish, hordes of extras populate every corner of the screen, and the sets and special effects are state of the art for the era.

With no shortage of characters and events, the film breezes through the two hours of running time, and DeMille somehow contrives to end his epic with a dangerous underwater dive featuring a massive angry squid, but only after the film takes a substantive detour into courtroom drama territory.

The romantic triangle and underhanded business alliances crackle away as DeMille alternates between affairs of the heart and cut-throat underhanded double-crosses. It's all happening all the time, not a surprise given that Reap The Wild Wind is based on a newspaper serialization. The film benefits from the brisk fun factor, and also suffers from the consequent lack of depth and any sense of lasting substance.

Loxie is in the middle of everything, an irrepressible independent woman well ahead of her time in a man's world. and Goddard injects the necessary energy to allow Loxie to drive the film ever forward. The men are more troublesome and less worthy, rendering the romance moments more irritating than engaging. Ray Milland as Tolliver is foppish, bland and abusive, and worst of all attached to silly dog ventriloquist tricks. John Wayne as Stuart is sturdy but maybe none too bright, and the fistfights between the two men erupt all too predictably.

Reap The Wild Wind is undoubtedly entertaining, and just as definitely sailing in shallow waters.

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Monday, 20 November 2017

Movie Review: Loving Vincent (2017)

An animated drama, Loving Vincent explores the artist's legacy through the mystery of his death. The film is a stylistic feast but struggles dramatically.

All the characters are represented by animated paintings of the actors. One year after the suicide death of Vincent van Gogh (voice and likeness of Robert Gulaczyk), family friend Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) is tasked by his father, postman Roulin (Chris O'Dowd), to deliver Vincent's final letter to his brother Theo. After learning that Theo is also dead, Armand travels to the village of  Auvers-sur-Oise, where Vincent lived his final years and created most of his artwork.

Armand investigates Vincent's final days and meets the people who knew the artist, many of whom appeared in his paintings. Innkeeper's daughter Adeline Ravoux (Eleanor Tomlinson) remembered Vincent as a troubled but kind man who had a turbulent relationship with his physician Dr Gachet (Jerome Flynn). A local paint supplies salesman, a boatkeeper (Aidan Turner), another physician, Gachet's daughter Marguerite (Saoirse Ronan) and the doctor's stern housekeeper all have different perspectives on the man, his life and death.

A Polish production co-directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, Loving Vincent is a partially crowd-funded labour of love. Approximately 125 classically trained painters created the 65,000 paintings used in the film. The scenes featuring Armand's search for the truth are all inspired by Van Gogh's actual paintings, animated in colour using his distinctive oil painting style. The flashbacks to Vincent's days in Auvers are in sharper black and white.

The film's dual aesthetic tonality carries echoes of the artist becoming famous only after his suicide. Van Gogh dedicated his art to capturing life's bursts of beauty, but was ridiculed and ignored while alive. He figuratively burst into life after he died, and the film stylistically echoes his tragic trajectory, a stark black and white when alive, erupting in rich colours after death.

Loving Vincent's visual achievement is certainly a thunderbolt of originality in the animation world. Sequentially, the imagery is first distracting, then fulfilling, and finally somewhat tiresome. The endless stream of animated images inspired by Van Gogh begins to feel like a gimmick. Meanwhile, the actors and their acting is lost within the post-impressionist style, and the film's emotions are stunted into whatever can be conveyed by the voiceovers. These feature a bewildering array of pronounced accents, mostly British and Irish, but certainly neither French nor Dutch.

The relatively limp story does not help. The letter is an obvious McGuffin, and Armand's search for the truth becomes a Sherlock-lite mystery where every witness offers a different version of events and the truth is somewhere between all the conflicting accounts. It's painfully clear that the details of Van Gogh's death are of limited significance long before the hard drinking and overly intense Armand labouriously reaches the same conclusion.

Undoubtedly imaginative, Loving Vincent deserves recognition for immense creativity, but it's also an experiment where an excess of art subdues substance.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Movie Review: Lady Bird (2017)

A coming-of-age drama-comedy, Lady Bird is a poignant and irresistible exploration of the awkward transformation into adulthood, with two tremendous central performances.

Sacramento, 2002. Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is in her final year of high school and struggling to define herself while navigating a tumultuous relationship with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who is perpetually stressed about money. Christine insists that she be called Lady Bird, while at her Catholic school she carries the burden of coming from a poor family and has a limited number of friends, including Julie (Beanie Feldstein).

Determined to escape from Sacramento and seek a college education at a respectable east coast university, Christine has to face the reality that money is tight, her father Larry (Tracy Letts) is unemployed, and her grades are not quite good enough. She joins the drama club and finds her first boyfriend in Danny (Lucas Hedges). She also tries to fit in with a new set of friends, including rich girl Jenna (Odeya Rush) and cool band member Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), but growing up and striking out will not come easy.

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird is a tender look at the mother-daughter relationship during the clumsy final steps on the journey from girl to woman. Gerwig infuses her film with plenty of humour while holding irony firmly in check, Lady Bird avoiding smart-alecky moments and just focusing on the small tears and joys that naturally flow through family life. The film is energetically edited by Nick Houy, some scenes lasting for just a few seconds, the pace conveying the blurry commotion of life's hectic high school chapter drawing to a close.

The film contains plenty of painfully real moments that dance between the playfulness and agony of a teenager exhibiting childlike behaviour in the service of budding adulthood. Christine is embarrassed by her family, her relative poverty and her city, and is beginning to find the tools of independence to help influence major life-altering decisions. At the same time, the final stages of high school carry less fear of disciplinary consequences, and Christine and her friends let loose. Previously hidden antics bubble to the surface, none more entertaining than Christine finding her voice during an anti-abortion lecture. She also participates in a prank involving the head nun as revenge for years of institutionalized paternalism.

But when Christine engineers the disappearance of a crucial math course grading book in a too-smart attempt to get into better colleges, the math teacher calls out her honour. The flash on Christine's face, brilliantly captured by Ronan, is the responsible adult starting to push aside the unaccountable child.

Away from the high jinx, Gerwig's story is about a mother who has sacrificed everything to make her family financially viable, and along the way forgot that expressed compassion and words of encouragement are more important than a tidy bedroom. The film's sustained emotional intelligence resides in Lady Bird being aware of  how much her mother loves her, despite the continuous barrage of incoming grief. Christine can sometimes handle the turmoil, but is also forced to invest plenty of time navigating around Marion's hardened emotions.

Gerwig needed two strong central performances to make the film work, and gets them from Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf. Ronan at 23 can still convincingly pull off 17, and plays Christine with the delicious slyness of a teenager beginning to believe she can outsmart the world of adults. Metcalf delivers a career defining role, conveying the harried life of a mother measuring life in dollars and cents, and yet somewhere deep in her heart still harbouring a deep if complicated love for her daughter.

Lady Bird glows with warm authenticity, the universal story of a fledgling adult seeking to fly away from a nest that will only start to look cozy from a distance.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Grandma (2015)

A drama-comedy character study, Grandma is an engaging story enhanced by provocative characters and excellent performances.

Elle (Lily Tomlin) is a fifty year old (or so she claims) grandmother, ex-poet, unemployed academic, lesbian and staunch feminist. Following the death of her long-time partner, Elle is now breaking up with the much younger Olivia (Judy Greer) after a four month relationship. Elle's granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) shows up unexpectedly seeking help: she needs more than $600 to pay for an abortion scheduled later that day.

Elle is also broke, but she decides to help by trying to collect money from a variety of sources. The pair visit Sage's boyfriend Cam (Nat Wolff), Elle's bookstore owner friend Carla (Elizabeth Peña), tattoo artist Deathy (Laverne Cox) and Elle's lover from a long time ago Karl (Sam Elliott). Finally, Elle and Sage have to gather up their courage to also seek help from Elle's daughter and Sage's mother Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), a perpetually high-strung businesswoman.

Written and directed by Paul Weitz, Grandma is a compact 79 minutes delving into the world of a fading scholar. The film is a showcase for 76 year old Lily Tomlin, who dominates the screen with a caustic performance as Elle. This grandma is bitter, foul-mouthed and proud of it, her life reduced to no debt, no apologies, and not accepting nonsense from anyone, and Tomlin brings her to life with gallons of bravado.

With no wasted scenes, the story is small and personal but also elaborate enough to explore relevant themes for Elle's generation, from the abortion question to the status of feminism and exactly where the battles for women's rights have landed. Weitz steers a delicate course, avoiding any sense of moral high ground or preachiness. Elle may have lived on her own terms, but her life is cluttered with the wreckage of her decisions, including an unfulfilled career and, closer to home, broken relationships with daughter Judy and former lover Karl. Elle achieved independence, but far from triumphantly.

The film cruises through the interactions Elle initiates in her quest to find the money Sage needs, and  grandma's world is revealed through the eyes of the granddaughter, oscillating between resigned, panicked and horrified by grandma's behaviour. Weitz challenges the millennial to assess whether the paths paved for her by the warrior women of the 1960s and 1980s are worth following. Julia Garner is excellent portraying a young woman forced to understand, all too closely, where she came from, but still inquisitively looking for her own trajectory.

Sharp and feisty, Grandma is worth knowing and does not overstay her welcome.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Movie Review: San Andreas (2015)

A disaster epic, San Andreas is saturated with special effects and little else.

Los Angeles Fire Department Air Rescue Pilot Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson) is a devoted father to his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) but going through a divorce from his wife Emma (Carla Gugino). Ray and Emma's marriage never recovered from the drowning death of their other daughter Mallory in a rafting accident. Now Emma is moving in with her new boyfriend, architect Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffudd).

A massive earthquake destroys the Hoover Dam, where California Institute of Technology Professor Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti), testing his earthquake prediction algorithms, barely escapes with his life. Soon major earthquakes start to hit the coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Dr. Hayes does his best to warn people to flee the cities. Ray attempts to rescue his wife in Los Angeles, and then tries to find and rescue Blake, who is stranded in San Francisco with two brothers from England, Ben and Ollie Taylor (Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Art Parkinson).

Directed by Brad Peyton, San Andreas delivers exactly what it promises: mindless, methodical destruction on a grand scale, in many ways a re-do of 1974's Earthquake but with fewer characters and victims. Dams, bridges and buildings are knocked down with mind-numbing regularity, the CGI techs working overtime to create stunning graphics, equal parts awe-inspiring and science-defying. A narrow escape clocks in every ten minutes or so, and our hero Ray, his massive muscles flexing in synch with the earth shaking, does just the right thing at just the right second time and time again.

While watching computer-simulated scenes of devastation is fun, with the tsunami scenes particularly effective San Andreas is aggravating in every other way. Ray appears to forget about his profession entirely and focuses singularly on saving his wife and daughter. A brief perfunctory scene where Ray waves random people to the relative safety of a stadium wall is thrown in just to remind us that the man's job is supposed to be about helping others, not steal helicopters, cars and boats to save family members.

Worse still is the almost complete absence of suffering and mention of casualties. This is a film about the largest quakes in recorded history devastating two crowded cities. Yet hardly anyone dies, and the post-quake streets often appear to be conveniently deserted: plenty of debris and collapsed buildings, yet no bodies, no deaths, and only the most superficial of injuries. When the entirety of the Hoover Dam collapses, the event is shrugged off with a few "too bad" comments. No mention of casualties, and no follow-up related to the impacts of downstream flooding.

Added to the to-be-expected shallow characterizations and stiff acting, San Andreas' bloodless aesthetic enhances a level of plastic artificiality that is difficult to stomach. This is destruction as pure tourism, the equivalent of advertising-saturated glossy magazine imagery to ogle at, free from any meaningful exploration of repercussions.

San Andreas is superficial computer artistry devoid of emotional payoff, a childlike knocking-down of toys with no consequence.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Movie Review: Beau Geste (1939)

An epic military adventure about brotherhood and sacrifice, Beau Geste is an absorbing and richly rewarding drama.

It's the middle of the Sahara desert, and a French Foreign Legion relief column, responding to reports of Arabian tribal attacks, arrives at Fort Zinderneuf and finds no signs of life. All the men inside the fort are dead but positioned at their parapet firing stations with rifles pointed at a departed enemy. Only two men lie dead in more natural positions, one of them killed by a sword and holding  a note confessing to the theft of "Blue Water", a precious gem.

Fifteen years earlier, the Geste brothers Beau (Gary Cooper), Digby (Robert Preston) and John (Ray Milland) are adopted orphans being raised by the kindly Lady Patricia Brandon (Heather Thatcher). The brothers are close friends and dream of joining the French Foreign Legion. Patricia is running into money problems, and her one remaining precious asset is Blue Water, a massive sapphire worth a fortune but also legendary for bringing bad luck to its owner.

The boys grow up into upstanding young men, and John falls in love with his childhood sweetheart Isobel (Susan Hayward). One evening Lady Patricia and her adopted sons are admiring Blue Water when the lights go out and the jewel disappears. No one confesses to the theft. Soon after, the three men do join the Foreign Legion and undergo training at the hands of the brutal Sergeant Markoff (Brian Donlevy). Digby is separated from his brothers before circumstances lead to a reunion at Fort Zinderneuf.

A remake of the 1926 silent film and making use of the same sets, the 1939 version of Beau Geste is a lavish adaptation of the classic P.C. Wren novel. Director William A. Wellman and his excellent cast weave the intricate story with confidence, delivering in under two hours a deeply satisfying adventure touching on themes of military honour, family bonds, companionship, and sacrifice.

The narrative arc is supremely elegant. The opening scene at an isolated fort filled with dead soldiers is unforgettable, setting a sweeping mood of anticipatory dread. It is followed by a flashback to events 15 years prior with the Geste brothers as young boys, Wellman and screenwriter Robert Carson cleverly unveiling the brothers' personalities and future legacies. Both scenes boast details that will echo back in amplified tones close to 100 minutes later, when the events at the fort are finally revealed.

A large part of the film's appeal lies in the complexity of the characters. None of the Gestes are presented as impeccable heroes, lending weight to the mystery of the missing Blue Water gem. And the ambitious and brutal General Markoff, the closest thing to the villain of the piece, gets plenty of time to demonstrate his qualities when the going gets tough. Brian Donlevy's chilling turn as Markoff, bordering on psychotic but finding an arena where psychosis may be a good thing, was deservedly nominated for an Academy Award.

The rest of the cast members share the screen time, with Gary Cooper, Ray Milland and Robert Preston getting their individual moments without dominating. In one of her earliest roles, Susan Hayward gets a relatively few scenes. The rest of the supporting cast is filled with sturdy character actors, including J. Carrol Naish, Albert Dekker, and Broderick Crawford.

Beau Geste is packed with plot, and all the pieces come together in the rousing final act. Once the action moves into the fort for the final third of the film the mystery of the missing jewel intermingles with a brewing mutiny and an external threat to the troops. At the middle of it all are brothers looking out for each other. Wellman never loses sight of the heart of his story, and proceeds to deliver one of the screen's most poignant farewells. Whether in the comfortable surroundings of home or in an unforgiving desert surrounded by death, gallant gestures matter.

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Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Movie Review: The Eagle And The Hawk (1933)

A World War One aerial combat drama, The Eagle And The Hawk is a contemplative anti-war film exploring the psychological damage caused by prolonged exposure to death.

From their base in England, American volunteer pilots Lt. Jerry Young (Fredric March) and his buddy Lt. Mike Richards (Jack Oakie) are redeployed to an airbase near the front lines in France. Young blocks the deployment of the brash Lt. Henry Crocker (Cary Grant), who is an undependable  pilot but an ace gunner.

Young and Richards are tasked with missions to take photographs of enemy positions, and they frequently skirmish with enemy aircraft with plenty of casualties on both sides. Young proves to be a brilliant pilot, but many of his gunners are killed, and the deaths start to take an emotional toll. Crocker is finally called-up to the front lines and becomes Young's gunner, although the two men never get along. Young is celebrated as a role model and receives plenty of accolades, but finds it increasingly difficult to cope with the pressure.

Directed by Stuart Walker, The Eagle And The Hawk packs plenty of heartfelt emotion into 68 minutes of running time. The film is based on the book Death in the Morning by American author John Monk Saunders, who was a member of the Air Services during the Great War but was deeply frustrated by his lack of front-line service and committed suicide at age 42 after battling poor health. 

By elevating Young to the status of a revered ace pilot with the military world at his feet, the story earns the freedom to have its say about battle consequences through the eyes of a hero. The screenplay by Seton I. Miller and Bogart Rogers fully embraces a downbeat, depressing view of war and its ramifications. Young views war as a ridiculous premise where inexperienced men are sent to die, and the celebrations, salutes, songs, medals and glorification are all part of a perverted deception to camouflage the unacceptable as gallant.

The film needs a strong central performance to work, and Fredric March is intense in his portrayal of a thoughtful man celebrated as an exemplary role model for killing other men. He is unable to cope both with the death of his own gunners and with the fiery destruction he inflicts on the enemy. As the victims become younger, Young's descent into the emotional wreckage today defined as post-traumatic stress disorder is convincing and difficult to watch.

Less impressive is Cary Grant, still learning his craft, and never quite striking the right tone. His Henry Crocker oscillates between aloof and hot-headed, and Grant doesn't get a grip on the character. Carole Lombard has one extended scene and makes an impression as the mysterious woman offering Young a temporary distraction.

Many of the aerial dog fight scenes are generally muddled and pilfered from other productions, and other than a few harrowing moments in the sky, the film is better when the actors are grounded. The Eagle And The Hawk is less about combat with the enemy, and more about the fight against the soulless private demons unleashed by war.

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