Sunday, 31 December 2017

Movie Review: Bad Girls (1994)

A western with four cowgirls as the main protagonists, Bad Girls has a potentially intriguing gender-bending concept but nothing else to offer.

In the wild west, Cody (Madeleine Stowe), Anita (Mary Stuart Masterson), Eileen (Andie MacDowell) and Lily (Drew Barrymore) are friends and whores with hearts of gold having fallen on hard times through no fault of their own. When Cody kills a rough customer, the other three girls rescue her from a hanging and all four go on the run with Pinkerton detectives giving chase. Anita believes she may have a land claim in Oregon, and Cody offers to invest her life savings to help start a sawmill business on the property.

But the cash withdrawal transaction is interrupted by a hold-up committed by the outlaw Kid Jarrett (James Russo) and his gang, and he takes off with Cody's money while Eileen is jailed in the ensuing chaos. Cody and Jarrett share a history, and she is intent on tracking him down and reclaiming her money. Stranger Josh McCoy (Dermot Mulroney) is also interested in finding Jarrett for revenge reasons, while Eileen establishes a relationship with land owner William Tucker (James LeGros).

Bad Girls is an obvious attempt to recreate the appeal of 1988's Young Guns, this time with four photogenic women in the lead roles. Whatever the original intent, the production quickly ran into trouble. Original director Tamra Davis was fired a few days into the shoot and replaced by Jonathan Kaplan, the script was rewritten on the fly, and the lack of cohesion is painfully evident on the screen.

Stuck somewhere between a women's buddy movie and misplaced aspirations to mimic The Wild Bunch complete with a Gatling gun making a late appearance, Bad Girls gallops in quicksand: the harder the film tries to be meaningful, the quicker it sinks. The women are plastic characters provided with one-line backstories, and then left alone to look pouty pretty. The villain is straight out of those bad Spaghetti Westerns where the baddie laughs maniacally at...nothing in particular.

The plot has enough holes to make that Gatling gun proud, and the screenwriters are almost visible to the side of the action frantically dreaming up next morning's scene -- which of the woman shall we place in peril next?!

Given the creative carnage around them the four actresses do their best, but they are further handicapped by flawless hair, perfect make-up, flattering clothes and an apparent abundance of soap throughout: they are made to look gorgeous no matter what trouble they are in, undermining any pretensions of realism.

The energetic climactic shootout injects a sudden dose of adrenaline, but it's too late: by then the film's corpse is well and truly cold.

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Movie Review: Dad (1989)

A family drama, Dad tackles issues of aging and the complex dynamics between fathers and sons as well as husbands and wives.

In Los Angeles, elderly couple Bette and Jake Tremont (Olympia Dukakis and Jack Lemmon) are living out their retirement, with Bette controlling every last detail of Jake's life. As a result he is  disengaged, disinterested and utterly dependent. When Bette suffers a heart attack, their son John (Ted Danson) a Wall Street executive, flies in to help his sister Annie (Kathy Baker) and her husband Mario (Kevin Spacey) care for Jake.

John has not seen his parents for a few years and is shocked at Jake's emotional deterioration. With Bette in hospital, he sets about reviving his dad's spirit and love for life. Gradually Jake perks up and starts to take a much more active role in his own well-being. But more changes will impact Jake's promising rejuvenation: Bette returns home; John's wayward son Billy (Ethan Hawke) arrives for an unexpected visit; and an unwelcome health diagnosis will all play a role in the family's happiness.

Directed and written by Gary David Goldberg and based on a book by William Wharton, Dad enjoys a committed Jack Lemmon central performance, but is otherwise emotionally all over the place. With an intimate focus on familial matters the film is not many notches above standard television fare, but Lemmon at least ensures that great big-screen acting resides at the heart of the melodrama.

The film rides a nauseating emotional rollercoaster and crams too many sudden health turnarounds in less than two hours. Jake Tremont goes through about two and a half jarring down and up cycles in his physical and psychological well-being, dragging his small family along as he navigates up the mountain from the depth of despair to the giddiness of seemingly great health only to start another descent that precedes yet another climb. As a result Goldberg loses grip on what the film is intended to convey, with obscure and complex medical and psychological issues barely described before being allowed to run loose.

And Jake's health is far from the only matter of consequence: Dad also tries to explore the dynamic between a domineering wife and a submissive husband, an issue that probably deserved more exposition that it receives in the gaps between Jake's yo-yo health. And with John for the first time experiencing the fragility of his father's health, he reassesses his relationship with his own son Billy, and the film includes some decent side-quest scenes as the next generation attempts to avoid the same mistakes.

Ted Danson provides decent support, but is not helped by a script that never explains how he can suddenly shift gears, mentally and pragmatically, to be away for so long from his high-powered Wall Street job. Danson also struggles when the script demands strong displays of emotion, which are never his forte.

Dad offers some substantive topics, but overburdens its own capabilities.

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Saturday, 30 December 2017

Movie Review: How To Make An American Quilt (1995)

An anthology about women's diverse experiences and perspectives, How To Make An American Quilt weaves a loose narrative about a young woman at the emotional crossroads spending the summer with her great aunt's circle of friends.

Finn (Winona Ryder) is in her mid-twenties, struggling to finish her Master's thesis and engaged to be married to carpenter Sam (Dermot Mulroney). She spends the summer at the country home of her great aunt Glady (Anne Bancroft), who is part of a quilting group led by housekeeper Anna (Maya Angelou). As the lazy days unfold and the friends gets to work on a wedding quilt for Finn, she learns their personal stories.
  • Finn's grandmother Hy (Ellen Burstyn) has a strained relationship with her sister Glady, stemming from a moment of weakness when Hy's husband was on his deathbed.
  • Sophia (Lois Smith) is now cranky and bitter. As a young woman (played by Samantha Mathis) she was a sublime diver who fell in love and married geologist Preston (Loren Dean), but her married life did not unfold as she expected.
  • Em (Jean Simmons) is married to artist Dean (Derrick O'Connor), who has always had a wandering eye.
  • Constance (Kate Nelligan) first lost her dog and then her husband; her subsequent behaviour means that she is now a bit of a misfit in the group.
  • As a young black servant Anna was seduced by her boss' son Beck (Jared Leto); during the resulting pregnancy she became close with Glady.
  • Anna's daughter Marianna (Alfre Woodard) is a sophisticated free spirit who refused to commit to any man, but she carries one regret.
  • Finn's mother Anna (Kate Capshaw) has long been divorced, but she arrives late in the summer with a new surprise.
During the summer Finn also meets the extremely hunky Leon (Johnathon Schaech), and has to decide how much the potential long term commitment to Sam means to her.

An adaptation of the Whitney Otto book directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, How To Make An American Quilt enjoys relaxed pacing and a soulful perspective. Breathing deeply from the almost resigned stance of older women looking back, often with plenty of regret, the film offers plenty of themes and talking points. The Jane Anderson script avoids pat answers and easy resolutions; this is a compendium of several lives, women defined by their decisions as life's surprises rarely align with expectations.

The film's compilation structure is both its strength and its weakness. How To Make An American Quilt never lingers in one place for too long, as no fewer than eight stories share less than two hours of screen time. Proving that every person has a good tale to tell, Moorhouse gives equal due to each vignette, and the chapters creates and hold individual mystique.

At the same time the patchwork composition is what it is: sequential short stories told with expediency, tending to emphasize melodrama to quickly get to the point. It's not a stretch to imagine all eight stories as potential material for good full length features, but here only the headlines are on display.

The performances are uniformly good from a dream cast featuring veterans Burstyn, Bancroft, Simmons, and Nelligan, as well as poet and civil rights activist Angelou. Ryder holds her own, her relative lack of subtlety finding an understandable home as an emotive young woman a generation removed from all her companions.

Ultimately the convergent narrative is the collective wisdom that Finn will take away from her summer, and How To Make An American Quilt hits a solid target with an emphasis on the unconventional. The beauty of a quilt knitted by many hands is in its lack of coherent precision, the emotions seeping across the borders achieving imperfect perfection.

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Friday, 29 December 2017

Movie Review: The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

A dinosaurs-on-the-loose monster movie, The Lost World: Jurassic Park offers good special effects and very little else.

Chaos theorist Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) is hired by John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) to observe and document dinosaurs in their natural habitat on the fictional Isla Nublar. Hammond created the dinosaurs on that island before moving them to the park that was the subject of the first movie. Malcolm travels with photographer Nick (Vince Vaughn) and field equipment manager Eddie (Richard Schiff) and on the island they team up with Malcolm's girlfriend behavioral paleontologist Dr. Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore).

At the same time, Hammond's nephew Peter Ludlow (Arliss Howard) is taking over the business and sends his own large and heavily equipped group, including big game hunter Roland Tembo (Pete Postlethwaite) to capture some of the dinosaurs and restart the business of commercializing the animals. The two teams initially clash but eventually have to team up to survive as the dinosaurs resent the multiple intrusions on their territory.

The first sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, The Lost World is again directed by Steven Spielberg and serves mainly to showcase the advances in technology over the four years. Good as the creatures were in the original, they are much better here, with more fluid movements and more detailed textures.

And that's far as any enjoyment goes in The Lost World. Beyond ogling the dinosaurs, this is a fundamentally deficient film where the characters are of the immediately forgettable plastic variety, the plot, dialogue, events and set-pieces are contrived, familiar and far from scary, the action and violence is mainly bloodless, and everyone acts as stupidly as possible at every decision point in order to unleash and prolong the rampage.

The David Koepp screenplay, adapting Michael Crichton's follow-up book, does not even appear to try and create anything intelligent. The action rushes to humans idiotically unlocking the cages of pissed-off dinosaurs as quickly as possible, and then compounding the lunacy by smuggling a baby dino away from its parents and into a trailer. Then the supposedly intelligent protagonists stand around and wonder why the dinosaurs are sort of upset and wrecking the place.

And just to emphasize the prevailing asininity, how about the heavily armed guard whose job it is to protect others, except that he is always wearing headphones to enjoy his music and drown out, you know, all cries for help or the sounds of approaching prehistoric predators.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park looks gorgeous, but is otherwise a vacuous piece of cretin-dominated silliness.

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Movie Review: Anger Management (2003)

A lukewarm comedy, Anger Management has half of a good idea and not enough creative talent to expand the concept into a film.

Emotionally scarred by the bullying he received as a child, Dave (Adam Sandler) is a meek man, taken advantage of by his boss and unwilling to display public affection towards his long-term girlfriend Linda (Marisa Tomei). Despite Dave's calm demeanour, an incident onboard a plane spirals out of control, Dave grabs a flight attendant by the arm and finds himself in court, sentenced to anger management classes.

His appointed therapist Dr. Buddy Rydell (Jack Nicholson), who happens to have been sitting next to Dave on that flight, has unconventional methods, and when Dave has another physical altercation with a blind man and a restaurant server resulting in a more severe sentence, Buddy takes full control of Dave's life. The therapist moves in with Dave and repeatedly pushes his buttons to try and snap him out of his docile passive-aggressive emotions.

Directed by Peter Segal, Anger Management is an attempted buddy comedy. That the career trajectories of Jack Nicholson and Adam Sandler would ever meet is astounding, but unfortunately the results veer much closer to Sandler's typical output: unrefined, silly, immature and underdeveloped.

Sandler himself is actually fine, playing a man keeping his emotions in check and too sequestered in his head for his own good. The problems with Anger Management reside in an exceptionally weak script by David S. Dorfman. The story never recovers from setting the therapist Rydell totally loose on Dave's life with ridiculously unprofessional conduct, including Rydell moving into Dave's apartment and straight into his bed. The narrative crosses the line from witty to lazy early and often, and never recovers.

Which is a pity, because the film does contain the germ of a decent comedy. In better hands and with intelligent development, the challenge of overcoming excessive passiveness to get on with life carries promise. Only flashes of what could have been interesting make it into Anger Management, mainly in scenes where Dave's emotional detachment land him in as much trouble as any actual release of anger.

But otherwise Sandler fans would be much the happier, particularly as Segal has no control over Nicholson. He surrenders to his worst tendencies of overacting and scenery chewing, effectively Nicholson playing Nicholson at the lowest common denominator. Tomei is wasted in a token role, and the rest of the cast includes John Turturro, January Jones and Krista Allen as Rydell's patients, and an uncredited Heather Graham in a single scene as Dave's seductive test.

Anger Management settles down expectantly on the therapist's couch, but receives incompetent treatment.

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Thursday, 28 December 2017

Movie Review: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

A science fiction fantasy drama with humour and soul, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is the heartwarming story of pure friendship between a lonely boy and a marooned alien.

In a California suburb, a spacecraft carrying inquisitive and gentle extra-terrestrials arrives in a forested area for some floral exploration. But with humans closing in the aliens take off in a hurry, inadvertently leaving one member of the expedition behind. The stranded and scared visitor eventually makes contact with ten year old Elliott (Henry Thomas), a lonely boy who lives in a nearby suburb with his mom Mary (Dee Wallace), older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and young sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore). Elliott is struggling to come to terms with his parents' divorce, and his father is absent and in Mexico with a new girlfriend.

Elliott is the only member of the family to notice unusual activity in the shed. At first startled, he patiently guides the extra-terrestrial into his room to care for it, then introduces the alien to Michael and Gertie. Elliott and the extra-terrestrial form a symbiotic bond where they share feelings and physical experiences, while. E.T. demonstrates extraordinary abilities to manipulate items, learn and communicate. With the adult world moving in and the health of both Elliott and the alien starting to deteriorate, E.T. has to find a way to call home and summon a rescue party with the help of Elliott, his siblings and their friends.

Directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Melissa Mathison, E.T. is a family-friendly classic about love prevailing despite all barriers. Unfolding from a child's height and perspective, and with no adults in any role of consequence, this is a story of a lonely boy finding elusive friendship with a most unlikely companion. Spielberg created a creature with looks that can only be admired by its own mother, and turned the expressive alien into one of the most loved and best known characters in movie history.

In 1977's Close Encounters Of The Third Kind Spielberg explored the mysterious forces that attract ordinary humans to extraterrestrials despite seemingly impossible distances and communication challenges. Close Encounters ended with the arrival of the aliens; E.T. starts with a much more modest landing, and but continues to explore the inherent kinship among beings.

Several themes course through the film. Fundamentally E.T. is about the ties that bind all living things, with children more open to perceiving the purity of love's natural power. An almost instantaneous and effortless sensory bond is forged between Elliott and E.T., and just as the alien has a life-boosting connection with nature, Elliott is compelled to free the frogs in his school science class. And with belief and togetherness all things are possible, as E.T. helps Elliott literally soar over his troubles.

Another forceful theme is the hesitancy of adults to believe in the unusual, and indeed their inability to see the obvious if it does not fit into preconceived notions. When young Gertie tries to introduce E.T. to her mom, Mary adult cannot pause long enough to notice the alien right in her kitchen. And late in the film when government-types in moonsuits (including Peter Coyote as the barely defined "keys" man) move in, they are next to useless in salvaging the situation, and just add to the the trauma of Elliott and E.T.

Spielberg weaves the concepts together in a package filled with wonder, curiosity, hope, humour, intelligence and plenty of tears activated by both sadness and triumph. He also creates images and catchphrases that are among the most well known and best loved, including the unforgettable flying bicycle across the gigantic moon and the heart wrenching quest of E.T. phone home.

The Extra-Terrestrial thrives in its home environment, but this friendship with earthlings will live in hearts and minds forever.

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Movie Review: Back To The Future Part III (1990)

The final chapter in the time travel Back To The Future trilogy, Part III settles down to a wild west comedy adventure with a bonus romance, and conjures up a richly satisfying conclusion.

The film opens in 1955, with teenager Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) reconnecting with eccentric inventor Doc (Christopher Lloyd) after receiving a telegram sent by Doc from 1885, where he was accidentally sent by lighting at the end of Part II. Marty and Doc unearth the DeLorean time travel machine, as well as information that suggests the 1885 Doc is in imminent danger of being killed by the outlaw Buford "Mad Dog" Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson).

Marty travels back to 1885, meets his ancestors Maggie and Seamus (Lea Thompson and Fox) and finds Doc established as a blacksmith. Doc saves the life of newly arrived teacher Clara Clayton (Mary Steenburgen), and they immediately fall in love. Meanwhile Mad Dog is threatening Doc's life due to a dispute over $80. With the DeLorean's fuel system damaged, Doc and Marty have to improvise a method to use steam engine power to travel back to the future, while Marty has to negate Mad Dog's threat and Doc has to decide whether to pursue an impossible love-across-time with Clara.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis, Part III pulls the trilogy together after the wayward Part II, and tidies up the story into a neat package. The final chapter benefits from the introduction of the series' first romantic subplot, with Doc finding his soulmate in 1885. Clara loves science and the imaginative books of Jules Verne just as much as Doc does, and she forces Doc to think, for the first time, about his own personal fate and the implications of all the time traveling on his happiness.

Another plus is Part III's focus on one time period. Just as the original invested its energy in 1955, Part III settles down in 1885, and is able to breathe deeply from the wild west origins of Hill Valley. The clock tower building is under construction, the town features the usual tensions between rough outlaw elements and settlers, and Marty adopts the name and ultimately cool persona of Clint Eastwood to navigate his way through the local conflicts. Combining steam engine technology with the DeLorean to cobble together enough speed for the requisite return to the future provides another worthy scientific challenge for Doc to overcome.

On a thematic level, Part III also resolves Marty's character arcs. The dangling threads related to his future are tied up with an evolved understanding of how to interact with lamebrained idiots, while despite all the time traveling, Doc raises Marty's awareness about the real beauty of the future.

Christopher Lloyd delivers likely his best performance in the series, and almost steals the movie entirely. His interaction with Michael J. Fox remains smooth, but Part III is more Doc's movie than Marty's. Mary Steenburgen finally provides a substantive female counterweight, while Lea Thompson has some fun opposite Fox in representing Marty's immigrant ancestors. Thomas F. Wilson spreads his wings and evolves the abrasive Biff persona to the wild west, where the boorish behaviour ironically fits better.

While the originality of the first chapter can never be matched, Back To The Future Part III provides rewarding closure to a lovable trilogy.

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Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Movie Review: Back To The Future Part II (1989)

The first sequel to 1985's beloved Back To The Future time travel adventure comedy, Part II offers plenty of amusing time hopping but lacks focus and suffers from middle chapter syndrome.

After returning from 1955 to 1985 at the end of the first film's events, eccentric inventor Emmett "Doc" Brown (Christopher Lloyd) immediately whisks teenager Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and his girlfriend Jennifer (Elisabeth Shue) off in the DeLorean time machine to 2015. Doc needs Marty to intervene and prevent Marty's son Jr. (also Fox) from getting involved in illegal activity with Biff's grandson Griff (Thomas F. Wilson plays both Biff and Griff).

Marty does prevent Jr. from getting into trouble, but in the process realizes that Marty grew up to be a weak man due to his inability to walk away from an insult. Worse still, in 2015 the elderly Biff gets his hands on an almanac covering the score of every sports event from 1950 to 2000. He steals the DeLorean, travels back in time and passes the knowledge to the young Biff. When Doc and Marty arrive back in 1985, they find a hell-on-earth created by a mega-rich and all-powerful Biff. Doc and Marty have to again travel to 1955 to prevent the almanac from falling into young Biff's hands.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis and executive produced by Steven Spielberg, Part II is more manic than cerebral. The film undoubtedly enjoys a high amount of madcap energy, and has fun imagining the future in 2015 and an alternate present in 1985, warped by Biff's evil. But this segment of the story is very much a bridge from the original episode to the trilogy's conclusion, and there is no hiding the sense of sideways drift.

Other than the imaginative portrayal of Hill Valley in 2015, the entire future-set sequence appears half-baked, leaving a lot more questions than answers as Doc and Marty quickly abandon the future and zip back first to 1985 and then 1955. The women in the story also suffer from neglect. Jennifer appears set to join the adventure before being summarily knocked-out for the duration, and mom Lorraine (Lea Thompson) is reduced to a caricature in a distasteful portrayal of the McFlys in 2015.

And the central quest to retrieve a sports almanac is fundamentally not that interesting, this chapter reduced to a classic McGuffin set-up devoid of human-centred emotion and compelling drama.

Still, there is enough adventure and imagination in the film to maintain interest, thanks in large part to Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd reprising their roles and fine-tuning their unlikely duo dynamics. The gutsy teenager and wacky inventor are a formidable team, and convey a sense of problem solving ingenuity that powers over the bumpy aspects of the script.

Back To The Future Part II is a necessary elaboration, in itself an incomplete and vaguely unsatisfying work but nevertheless part of a lively journey.

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Monday, 25 December 2017

Movie Review: Zoolander (2001)

A sharp no holds barred satire of the fashion world, Zoolander is a wild ride through a haughty industry.

When Malaysia's newly elected President promises reforms to end cheap child labour in the garment industry, the evil barons of the fashion world are sent into a panic. Top designer Mugatu (Will Ferrell) is tasked with plotting an assassination of the President. He identifies none-too-bright top fashion model Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller), who works for a model agency run by Maury Ballstein (Jerry Stiller), as the perfect sap to be unwittingly recruited as an assassin.

Unfortunately, Zoolander, despite his famous Blue Steel "look" and miniature cell phone, is plunged into a personal crisis of confidence when reporter Matilda (Christine Taylor) publishes an unflattering profile in Time magazine and then he loses his model-of-the-year crown to the much-too-cool Hansel (Owen Wilson). This does not stop Mugatu and his top henchwoman Katinka Ingabogovinanana (Milla Jovovich) from launching their plan to brainwash Zoolander and turn him into a martial arts assassin to the tune of Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood.

Co-written and directed by Ben Stiller, Zoolander is successful at drawing good and sustained laughs out of abject stupidity. Stiller sharpens his knives and does not try to be respectful. This is an all out assault on stupid models, corrupt business owners, and laughable designers, and the film mercilessly pokes away at the parties, the prancing, and the attitudes. The only rational character in the entire movie is the reporter Matilda, and she acts as the outside observer lifting the lid on the vacuous, corrupt and exploitive underpinnings of the industry.

The highlights are many. Zoolander and Hansel engage in a walk-off duel, a melange of boxing bout and showdown at high noon judged by none other than David Bowie. The brainwashing scene featuring psychedelic Mugatu images is a classic riff on The Manchurian Candidate. And the conspiratorial contribution of hand model Prewett (David Duchovny) gives the assassination plot and the broader fictional history of the fashion industry's involvement in high profile deaths pop culture legitimacy. Stiller even finds time within the 89 minutes of running length for a "going home" sojourn to the "coal mines of New Jersey", where Stiller reconnects with his roots including dad Larry (Jon Voight).

Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson and Will Ferrell find the perfect material to complement their madcap brand of improvisation-rich comedy, and they all deliver. Stiller infuses enough naive self-doubt into the Zoolander character to make him an appealing central figure, while Hansel's effortless ability to exude chill domination is flawlessly matched to Wilson's persona.

Ferrell is liberated by wild makeup and lets loose as the out-there designer Mugatu. His launch of the homeless-inspired Derelicte line is not only a sharp jab at the fashion world's lack of ethics, but also sadly inspired by a real campaign. Zoolander spots the weaknesses in its target trade, and attacks with ferocity and a devious smile.

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Movie Review: The Ten Commandments (1956)

A religious epic, The Ten Commandments is the story of Moses recounted on an impressively massive scale.

In ancient Egypt, the Hebrews are enslaved people, used primarily for the arduous task of constructing massive monuments and new cities. The Pharaoh hears of prophecies that a newborn will grow up to lead the slaves to freedom, and orders the death of all male Hebrew babies. Slave Yochabel (Martha Scott) packs her infant son in a basket and sets him adrift on the Nile to spare him from death. He is picked up and adopted by the Pharaoh's daughter Bithiah (Nina Foch), and she names the baby Moses. Only Bithiah's servant Memnet (Judith Anderson) knows that the baby is the son of Hebrew slaves.

Moses (Charlton Heston) grows up vying with Rameses (Yul Brynner) for the right to succeed Pharoah Sethi (Cedric Hardwicke) to the throne, a prize that comes with marriage to the ambitious Nefretiri (Anne Baxter). Rameses recruits the services of Hebrew collaborator Dathan (Edward G. Robinson) to try and uncover the identity of the Deliverer who will free the slaves.

Moses is more capable and more resourceful than Rameses, and also more empathetic to the plight of the Hebrews. He demonstrates mercy to stonecutter Joshua (John Derek) and Joshua's love interest and water carrier Lilia (Debra Paget). But before Moses ascends to the throne, Memnet intervenes, forcing Moses to face his true destiny. Spared from death, he marries Bedouin shepherd's daughter Sephora (Yvonne De Carlo) before embarking on a monumental battle of wills with Rameses.

Producer and director Cecil B. DeMille's crowning achievement (and his second crack at the story after a 1923 silent version), The Ten Commandments is three hours and 40 minutes of grand storytelling, old-fashioned Hollywood at its extravagant best. The cast features a galaxy of stars, the extras in some scenes number in the thousands, the sets are numerous and impressively crafted, and the film bursts with the colours of abundant and imaginative costumes.

The popular Moses and Exodus stories are probably amalgams of people and events composed from legends, fractured oral histories and religious texts. To his credit DeMille cites several books as sources for the film, and benefits by steering away from Bible-in-pictures territory. The long story unfolds in four manageable parts: Moses' rise to prominence as a military leader, city builder and potential future Pharoah; his awakening to his true origins and acceptance of his destiny; the struggle to free the Hebrews; and finally the arduous Exodus out of Egypt and towards the new challenges beyond.

The narrative is punctuated by several memorable setpieces. The scenes of mass motion and human activity feature outstanding choreographed artistry, and DeMille always maintains a strong hold on what his cameras are capturing. The city-building, rock-making and Exodus sequences make use of extras in every corner of the VistaVision screen, conveying a profound sense of open space, ongoing industry and masses on the move.

The latter parts of the film scale some unforgettable heights. Moses and his close allies sheltering during the haunting passover night is a quiet but immensely powerful moment in the shadow of creeping horror. The pillar of fire halting an army, the extraordinary parting of the Red Sea, and the Ten Commandments being carved in stone by mystical flames are innovative visual achievements representing the era's state of the art.

And despite all the theatricality on display, The Ten Commandments generally avoids the pitfall of overstated reverence. This is a movie that tries hard to represent real people, and naked ambition, conspiracy, sensuality, doubt, and human emotions and fallibilities are on display. The script does not try to sound as if every spoken word needs to be enshrined on a hallowed wall.

A story this big needs sturdy acting shoulders to stand on, and DeMille assembled an impressive cast, with the luxurious length affording substantive screen time for several performers. Charlton Heston rises to the challenge of portraying Moses with plenty of authoritative presence, whether as a strapping young man earning his way towards the Pharoah's chair or as the grizzled prophet leading his people to freedom with supernatural winds in his sails.

Heston needed a robust foil to shine, and Yul Brynner delivers as Rameses, Moses' rival for leadership and subsequently his existential foe in the struggle to free the Hebrows. Until late in the film Brynner remains a strong presence representing the Egyptian viewpoint. Edward G. Robinson, Anne Baxter, John Derek, Nina Foch, Martha Scott, Yvonne DeCarlo, Debra Paget and Cedric Hardwicke all provide sustained and animated support, DeMille wisely introducing most of the key characters early in the story and then coming back to them repeatedly in different contexts as Moses' life evolves.

Bold and grandiose in breadth and scope, The Ten Commandments is a domineering and engrossing cinematic achievement.

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Saturday, 23 December 2017

Movie Review: Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby (2006)

A sports satire, Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby skewers the world of NASCAR racing with a rusted tie rod.

Ricky Bobby is born in the backseat of a car to semi-professional racer and heavy pot user Reece Bobby (Gary Cole), a mostly absentee father, and his wife Lucy (Jane Lynch). Ricky grows up idolizing his Dad, and adopts Reece's throwaway line "if you ain't first, you're last" as his life's mantra. A grown up Ricky (Will Ferrell) finds work as a NASCAR pit crew member on the circuit's worst team owned by Larry Dennit Sr. (Pat Hingle) and his son Jr. (Greg Germann). When the Dennit driver goes AWOL, Ricky jumps into the car and achieves third place.

Ricky quickly establishes himself as the best driver in the field and starts accumulating wins and championships. He forms a formidable "Shake 'n Bake" partnership with his teammate and childhood friend Cal Naughton Jr. (John C. Reilly), although Ricky never lets Cal win. Ricky gains immense wealth, a trophy wife in Carley (Leslie Bibb), and two bratty young boys. But when ex-Formula One champion and openly gay Frenchman Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen) invades NASCAR, Ricky's life starts to fall apart.

The world of racing where the cars only ever turn left in big circles may be an easy target, but director Adam McKay, who co-wrote the film with Ferrell, bites into it with venom. Talladega Nights features none-too bright drivers married to buxom gold-digging beauties doing battle for dimwitted owners married to perpetually tipsy wives in a modern version of chariot racing dominated by sponsors. While the laughs are plenty and the characters goofy if not stupid, McKay and Ferrell also handle the subject with enough affection to avoid outright meanness.

McKay wisely stays away from too many actual racing scenes, the sport a primarily boring exercise in going round and round until someone crashes. When Talladega Nights does go to the track, it is to generate over-exaggerated crashes and big laughs, including Ricky's infamous mental meltdown prompting a stripdown to his undies. It's a wild enough sequence that deserves the encore that duly arrives, as the film's second half focuses on Ricky's long road to redemption.

Off the track the film circles back to Ricky's family, and to McKay's credit the story gets better when dad Reece and mom Lucy re-enter Ricky's life. What the young boy lacked in proper upbringing he will receive from his parents through the pixelated lens of an already warped adulthood, and the film motors its way to a satisfying conclusion where men stumble upon their improved selves.

Will Ferrell has rarely been better in a straight comedy, with the strong material allowing him to ride the story without appearing to try too hard. The characters of Cal Naughton Jr and Jean Girard are the catalysts who steer events in Ricky's life, and both John C. Reilly and Sacha Baron Cohen are perfect in providing support. Reilly ensures that Naughton is the perfect side-idiot, while Baron Cohen somehow keeps a straight face playing the arrogant Frenchman sipping macchiatos inside the racing car while waiting for someone - anyone - to challenge him at the front.

The three lead actors engage in plenty of sharp improvisation, and the lines of dialogue frequently veer wildly off-topic, prolonging some scenes beyond what is necessary but adding to the satirical wackiness.

Amy Adams gets a small role but makes a big impression as Ricky's mousy assistant who turns into a tiger helping Ricky fight his demons. Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby burns rubber with enthusiasm, but of course it's the big career wreck and subsequent recovery that grabs all the attention.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 22 December 2017

Movie Review: The Sound Of Music (1965)

An epic musical drama and romance, The Sound Of Music is a flawlessly executed old-fashioned celebration of love and hope blossoming in the most unexpected places.

It's the 1930s and free-spirited music-loving Maria (Julie Andrews) is struggling to fit in as a nun-in-training at an abbey on the outskirts of Salzburg. The Mother Abbess (Peggy Wood) asks Maria to try life as a governess instead, helping the family of widower and distinguished navy veteran Captain Georg von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) and his seven children.

A staunch Austrian nationalist living in an impressively grand mansion, the Captain is a strict disciplinarian who fires governesses for fun. Maria has to work hard to introduce affection and joy through music to the lives of his children. They vary in age from 16 to five, with the eldest Liesl (Charmian Carr) starting an amorous relationship with telegram delivery boy Rolfe (Daniel Truhitte).

The Captain comes back from a trip to Vienna with his wife-to-be, the very rich Baroness Elsa von Schraeder (Eleanor Parker), as well as family friend and musical talent spotter Max Detweiler (Richard Haydn). Despite frequent verbal sparring the Captain and Maria start to fall in love, much to the consternation of the Baroness. But then the dark shadow of Nazi Germany, as represented by local collaborator Herr Zeller (Ben Wright), starts to descend on Austria, threatening the family's new-found happiness.

An adaptation of the 1959 Broadway show with music by Richard Rogers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, the film is directed by Robert Wise with an eye to perfect framing and glossy postcard-style visuals. The story is loosely based on the adventures of the real-life von Trapp family as recounted in a book written by one of the daughters, and carries enough stranger-than-fiction drama to propel the film's 174 minutes. Despite musical repetition creeping into the last hour, The Sound Of Music never drags and effortlessly breezes by.

With a voice carrying immense range and crystalline beauty, Julie Andrews unleashes inexhaustible energy as Maria. Her wide-eyed, pragmatic and stand-your-ground portrayal of a young woman venturing into a new world of marble columns and grand estate rooms is a large part of the film's appeal. Maria cannot help but speak her mind, a trait she is keenly aware of, and as it turns out her outspokenness is exactly what is needed to puncture Captain von Trapp's aloofness. Christopher Plummer has a lot less to do as the Captain, but creates the cold canvass on which Andrews pours her warmth.

Despite the story, the acting, the sweet children and the menacing Nazis, The Sound Of Music is first and foremost all about the music, and the soundtrack is one of the all-time classics in the history of cinema. Yes, the tunes and lyrics are simplistic, cutesy, hummable and laser-targeted at parents and their younger children. But songs like Do-Re-Me, Sixteen Going On Seventeen and My Favorite Things are undeniably catchy and adorable, and immediately evoke Wise's lush visuals of the breathtaking Austrian countryside and Salzberg's idyllic appeal. And Wise does find some exquisite emotional highlights through the music. The Captain's rendition of Edelweiss to his family is an affecting moment, while the Something Good duet is a pure expression of mutual love.

The Sound Of Music casts a family-friendly magic spell, and the film's sense of pure enchantment is easy to love.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Movie Review: Ghost (1990)

A fantasy romance mystery drama with a touch of humour, Ghost hits all the right notes in the story of love's endurance despite death's interruption.

In New York City, Wall Street banker Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze) and pottery artist Molly Jensen (Demi Moore) are deeply in love and thinking of getting married. Carl Bruner (Tony Goldwyn) is a friend of the couple and Sam's colleague at work. One night after a theatre performance, Sam and Molly are confronted by a mugger, and Sam is shot and killed in the confrontation. But he is not ready to fully depart to the afterlife: he hangs around as a ghost, able to observe everything but unable to communicate.

Sam's ghost is shocked when the mugger Willie Lopez (Rick Aviles) returns to Molly's apartment for an attempted theft. He realizes that the mugging was actually a murder related to money laundering at the bank, and Molly is still in grave danger. Sam connects with psychic Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg) and she becomes his means of communication, but convincing Molly that Sam's ghost is still hovering and looking after her well-being will not be easy.

Directed by Jerry Zucker and written by Bruce Joel Rubin, Ghost is a perfectly conceived and exquisitely constructed film. Finding an impeccable combination of romance, mystery, and spectral interaction with a complementary dusting of comedy, the film weaves an irresistible two-hour magic spell filled with tears and laughs.

The romance elements are the powerful magnetic force at the core of the film. Ghost is first and foremost a love story about the bond connecting two people across multiple dimensions. The pottery scene set to the tune of the Righteous Brothers' Unchained Melody is the most heartfelt expression of the passion between Sam and Molly, and one of cinema's most famous romance moments. But Zucker also fills the film with wistful moments, as the lovers frequently sense each other without quite being together.

Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze are both at the peak of their star power and find instantaneous chemistry. Neither will ever be accused of achieving acting greatness, but they both deliver what Ghost needs in terms of an attractive, confident couple who nevertheless have some difficulties expressing what sometimes needs to be said. Swayze of course gets several shirtless scenes, and Moore's practical yet stylish haircut is one of the most prominent symbols of the end of the 1980s.

The humour arrives courtesy of the Oda Mae Brown character, Whoopi Goldberg's finest big screen role. Oda Mae is a fraud psychic when Sam first meets her, but his presence awakens her genuine ability to communicate with the dead, very much a case of be careful what you wish for. Oda Mae's shock at her newly discovered powers opens the door to plenty of comic moments, none more so than when her small but suddenly popular Brooklyn store is overrun by both grieving family members and the recently deceased.

An angry ghost who haunts New York's subway cars and takes umbrage at Sam's intrusiveness injects a few more laughs of the more dangerous kind.

The special effects are decent for the era, but more impressive is Zucker inserting Sam into most scenes and allowing the other characters to carry while ignoring his presence. Most of the film plays out in two dimensions at once, the real world oblivious to the presence of spirits, and yet observed by a present ghost desperate to communicate but unable to. When Sam learns the art of interacting with physical objects, the more traditional noisy apparition is suddenly explained.

The money laundering conspiracy story at Sam's workplace adds an edge to Ghost, introducing nefarious antagonists and giving Sam his reason to hang around and meddle in the world of the living until the real reason for his death is uncovered and Molly is safe. Zucker also has fun showing an alternative to the bright-light-upon-death, for those whose actions mean they go down rather up at the end.

Ghost is unabashedly fanciful, unapologetically romantic, and indisputably a classic.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Movie Review: Road House (1989)

An action film set in the rough and tumble world of bouncers, Road House is a good bad film.

Bar owner Frank Tilghman (Kevin Tighe) hires professional "cooler" Dalton (Patrick Swayze) to help clean up the rough environment at the Double Deuce club in a small rural Missouri town. Dalton, an expert martial arts fighter, is considered the best in the business, and quickly sets about getting rid of corruption and rowdy behaviour. Gradually the Double Deuce is elevated to a respectable establishment. Dalton also starts a relationship with local doctor Elizabeth Clay (Kelly Lynch) and a friendship with band leader and ace guitarist Cody (Jeff Healey).

Dalton: Pain don't hurt.

Dalton's progress is not appreciated by corrupt rich businessman Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara), who runs the town with an iron fist and demands protection money from all businesses. Wesley's goons start to pressure Dalton to leave town, leading to violent confrontations. Dalton calls on his old buddy Wade Garrett (Sam Elliott) for back-up.

Garrett, referring to Elizabeth: That gal's got entirely too many brains to have an ass like that.

Directed by Rowdy Herrington and produced by action film master Joel Silver, Road House is one bad movie that is undeniably entertaining. Filled with cringe-inducing dialogue, superfluous nudity, ridiculous and frequent fight scenes and a total detachment from reality, Road House is nevertheless enjoyable for its sheer bravado as it luxuriates in its awfulness.

Dalton, instructing the other Double Deuce bouncers: I want you to be nice...until it's not be nice.

The plot borrows heavily from that most basic western cliche, the mysterious stranger with one name, a dark past and few words who cleans up a town run by baddies and frees the long-suffering local residents. The Road House script adds bone crunching and bloody violence, nudity and foul language to meet the expectations of the low-brow market in 1989. And just because this is a Joel Silver film, somehow an impromptu and utterly needless striptease makes its way onto the screen.

Making it all worthwhile is Patrick Swayze, displaying star magnetism through sheer looks, flowy hair, a singular expression and coiled energy in his frequently shirtless body. Dalton drivers a Mercedes instead of riding a horse, and is supposed to have a philosophy degree from NYU. Through screen presence alone, Swayze almost makes that achievement believable.

Dalton: Nobody ever wins a fight.

Musician Jeff Healey somehow ends up in this cluttered mess, and adds to a soundtrack rocking out to energetic country blues. Best of all is Sam Elliott as Dalton's mentor, wandering in for the sole purpose of kicking ass with the wisdom of an older man who built his life's purpose on ass kicking.

Tilghman: It's a good night. Nobody died.
Dalton: It'll get worse before it gets better.

Road House is an unpretentious exercise in lowest common denominator action filmmaking, where star charisma, familiar plot elements, and the hot button of simplistic justice are served on a chipped plate with a greasy spoon.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Movie Review: Kate And Leopold (2001)

A fantasy romance, Kate And Leopold trades on the appeal of stars Meg Ryan and Hugh Jackman, but is an otherwise frivolous and easily forgettable exercise.

New York City, 1876. The Duke of Albany Leopold Mountbatten (Jackman) has little patience for social niceties and is dabbling with an invention that looks like a scale model of an elevator. At an upper crust party Leopold spots and chases weird intruder Stuart Besser (Liev Schreiber), who is from the future. Stuart leads Leopold to a time portal accessed by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge into the East River.

They land in New York of 2001, where Stuart has just broken up with his downstairs neighbour Kate McKay (Ryan). When Stuart is waylaid after an elevator shaft mishap, Kate and Leopold start spending time together. She is initially sceptical of his story but gradually a romance blossoms. Kate is a marketing executive chasing a promotion and being sexually harassed by her boss J.J. (Bradley Whitford). Leopold gets involved in filming her latest advertisement, and his chivalrous and uncompromising integrity prove attractive as he defends Kate's honour at every turn.

Directed and co-written by James Mangold, Kate And Leopold is an old school and utterly predictable romance. With just shadings of humour and lacking any cutting edge, the film rides on lush production values and a fantasy romance-across-time premise, and even then soft pedals the concept. Leopold is quick to adjust to his new surroundings, and before long the film defaults to a New York City travelogue through the eyes of any other visitor.

At over two hours the film is unnecessarily long and the padding is obvious. Once Leopold makes the jump to the present Mangold has to kill 90 minutes of running time to get to his rather tame climax, and the paucity of material is painfully obvious. The film surrenders to subplots and distractions, including a long-winded chase of a purse snatcher through central park and Kate's slow-motion harassment by her lecherous boss, hiding in a suit and wielding his power to attempt sexual conquest.

It's all in the name of creating opportunities for Leopold to ride to the rescue on a white horse, literally in the case of the purse snatcher, and forcing Kate to consider giving up her modern life and career to be with her knight in shining armour. In better hands this would have been an interesting dilemma to debate, but in this world of fantasy romance, the push and pull between women's empowerment and the perceived chivalry of four generations past is treated with utmost simplicity.

Meg Ryan and Hugh Jackman do what is asked, looking disarmingly great for the cameras and representing all-good characters just waiting for the right love to come along. Kate And Leopold is a sanguine reverie, and disappears as quickly as a lightweight dream.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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