Sunday, 26 February 2017

Movie Review: Hitchcock (2012)

A peak inside the mind and private life of one of cinema's greatest ever directors, Hitchcock is a fictionalized account of the period leading up to his career's greatest triumph.

Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) should be basking in the success of 1959's North By Northwest, but instead he is experiencing anxieties about his age, his weight, and finding his next project. Despite the objections of studio bosses, he decides to adapt the book Psycho by Robert Bloch, a horrific story of murder, mutilation and unburied corpses based on real-life murderer Ed Gein. With the studio refusing to fund what appears to be a salacious horror film, Hitchcock and his wife and frequent collaborator Alma (Helen Mirren) take the biggest risk of their lives by mortgaging their house to self-fund the production.

Alma starts to work on the script, while Hitchcock's loyal assistant Peggy (Toni Collette) leads a campaign to buy every copy of the book to increase the shock value of the film. Alma recommends Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) for the lead, and Hitchcock is smitten with his latest blonde leading lady, much to Alma's disgust. Also cast are Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), who previously disappointed Hitchcock by placing her family first, and a tentative Anthony Perkins (James D'Arcy). The pressure on Hitchcock mounts and affects his health, especially once Alma starts to spend a lot of time with screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston).

Directed by Sacha Gervasi, Hitchcock is compact and tightly focused on the turmoil that often accompanies the creative process. Running at just 98 minutes, the film packs in the ups and downs of the journey from idea to final film, and reveals plenty about the man by zooming in on a short pivotal period in his life.

Remarkably Hitchcock dissects Psycho without showing a single frame of the celebrated film. The boundary-bashing elements of the film are revealed through clashes with the Motion Picture Production Board, while a stellar highlight is achieved as Hitchcock conducts every frame of the shower scene, alone in the empty theatre lobby outside an early screening.

But this is a film as much about the man as the movie. Hitchcock hints strongly at the director's character weaknesses, including an inability to control his appetite. Perhaps related is a blatantly wandering eye, and a lust to dominate women manifested in a search for an idealized vision of a perfect blonde. In Alma Hitchcock has found and married his perfect life partner, but now looks past her and cannot help but flirt shamelessly with younger women while displaying obsessive and manipulative traits.

The film stops short of veering towards anything darker in Hitchcock's observed behaviour towards women. Gervasi instead chooses the more imaginative route, getting into Hitchcock's head for fantasy scenes of interaction with murderer Gein (Michael Wincott), and suggestions that the financial and artistic stresses triggered suppressed thoughts of violence towards the finally fed-up Alma. And her essential role in Hitchcock's success is a key theme of the film, Alma indeed emerging as the rational creative force balancing his arrogance and showmanship.

Anthony Hopkins grows into the role as the film progresses, capturing Hitchcock's well-known mannerisms. Mirren matches Hopkins as the less showy and more grounded Alma. Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel provide adequate support in smallish roles representing different dynamics between Hitchcock and his actresses.

The success of Psycho as a seminal cinematic achievement is now taken for granted. Hitchcock pulls back the shower curtain to reveal the self-doubt, determination and strife holding hands with genius.

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Saturday, 25 February 2017

Movie Review: Parental Guidance (2012)

A family comedy, Parental Guidance offers healthy doses of playfulness and sentimentality as it explores generational shifts in attitudes towards parenting.

The aging Artie Decker (Billy Crystal) is fired from his job as sports commentator for a Fresno minor league baseball team for being behind the times on social media. Artie and his wife Diane (Bette Midler) are soon asked to babysit their grand kids in Atlanta for a week. Artie's daughter Alice (Marisa Tomei) and her husband Phil (Tom Everett Scott) are a busy modern day couple with three kids: daughter Harper (Bailee Madison) is a tightly wound over-achiever, middle son Turner suffers from a stutter, and the youngest son Barker has an imaginary kangaroo friend.

Artie and Diane have a distant relationship with Alice and her family, and Diane seizes on the babysitting opportunity to try and become a better grandparent. But Alice does not trust her parents, and for good reason: Artie bumble his way into disrupting the kids' routine and undoing Alice's careful parenting methods, as his more blunt and old fashioned values clash with more modern touchy-feely upbringing attitudes.

Directed by Andy Fickman, Parental Guidance aims for amiable and achieves it. The film stays well within a family-friendly domain, and allows Billy Crystal to do what he does best as a youngish grandpa providing caustic commentary on a world moving away from his level of comfort. The comedy is mild but constant, the emotions do creep towards mushy as everyone goes looking for a happy ending, but overall, the film squarely hits its intended if admittedly modest target.

Without breaking any new ground, Parental Guidance pokes away at some worthwhile themes. The clash between more strict, discipline-oriented parenting and the more modern values-based approach quickly comes to the fore, and the film wisely acknowledges imperfections in both philosophies. The story starts with Alice a continent and a lifetime away from her father, his methods clearly having been less than stellar in establishing a lifelong relationship. But Alice and Phil will also learn some lessons from Artie and Diane, with one week of grand parenting shock therapy sufficient to shake the kids loose from some coddled constraints.

Crystal, Midler and Tomei provide plenty of reliable adult talent, while the kids also deserve credit for achieving realism and avoiding excess cutesiness in favour of embracing the anxieties and pressures that come with growing up in a complex world.

Parental Guidance offers the one truth about parenting: everyone does it wrong, but with a sense of humour, that's alright.

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Movie Review: Nine Months (1995)

A romantic comedy about transitioning from couplehood to parenthood, Nine Months showcases Hugh Grant's emerging talents and achieves big laughs with some slick slap stick.

In San Francisco, child psychologist Sam (Grant) and ballet teacher Becky (Julianne Moore) are in a seemingly perfect long-term relationship. When she announces an unexpected pregnancy, Sam is frazzled and feels unready. His attitude is not helped by constant accidental interactions with the chaotic family of Marty and Gail (Tom Arnold and Joan Cusack), who have three kids and a fourth on the way. Sam's friend Sean (Jeff Goldblum), a struggling yet sophisticated artist, is also not a fan of babyhood, having just broken off a relationship to avoid becoming a father.

As the pregnancy progresses, Becky becomes more committed to the idea of having a child, while all Sam can focus on is the loss of his independence and the fundamental changes to their lifestyle. The couple reach a crisis point, not helped by the seemingly incompetent efforts of Dr. Kosevich (Robin Williams), a recent Russian immigrant with limited vocabulary.

Directed and co-written by Chris Columbus, Nine Months was Hugh Grant's first studio-backed Hollywood production. The film is perhaps overstuffed with Grant's signature mannerisms of rapid blinking, eye-shifting, stuttering and off-handed cynicisms, but overall this is a comedy that benefits from his talent and establishes the Grant screen persona as the likable but boyish urbane man who refuses to grow up.

This is rom-com where the romance eventually takes a back seat to the comedy. Columbus firmly sets his focus on achieving crowning laugh-out-loud moments, and largely delivers. Some of it is pure slapstick, including an encounter with a Barney-type dinosaur at a toy store, but it works. And thanks to Robin Williams committing to the insanity of a veterinarian insecure about his first foray into human medicine, the film's finale is a frantic classic.

In its more serious moments Nine Months preys on the theme of men unwilling to mature. Sam is at the peak of his youth's fantasy, enjoying being in love, an emerging career, a new sports car and a beautiful woman by his side. The concept of abandoning what appears to be perfection to dive into the world of fatherhood is terrifying, and not made any easier by his superficial observations of what appears to be the anarchy of families in the full swing of parenting. His transformation is of course linear and predictable, but Columbus makes the most of a natural and widespread anxiety.

The cast members provide strong support. Moore registers as a woman fully embracing impending motherhood and unafraid to make difficult decisions when needed. Robin Williams has just the two prominent scenes but is unforgettable as Dr. Kosevich, while Jeff Goldblum delivers another version of his superficially smooth expert roles, gradually revealing Sean as a king of nothing.

Nine Months captures the emotional disarray of pregnancy: the gestation period is long, if for no other reason than to allow men to catch up with the drastic changes to come.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Always (1989)

A bland fantasy romance, Always has the wrong cast embarrassingly over-emoting their way through a banal story.

Pete Sandich (Richard Dreyfuss) and his pal Al Yackey (John Goodman) are aerial firefighters, experts in dropping retardant on raging forest fires from converted World War Two era bombers. A risk-taking daredevil in the sky, Pete has a long-term relationship with Dorinda Durston (Holly Hunter), a fellow pilot who works mostly as a dispatcher. She loves him and wants him to stop flying, but he cannot bring himself to express his love and insists that flying is his life.

Pete dies in an aerial mishap after saving Al's life, and the angel Hap (Audrey Hepburn, as elegant as ever in her final screen role) guides his spirit back to earth. His spectral mission is to be the inspiration for handsome pilot Ted Baker (Brad Johnson), who wants to earn his aerial firefighting wings to win Dorinda's love. Pete finds himself torn between helping his protege and still pining for the love of his life.

A remake of 1943's A Guy Named Joe and one of director Steven Spielberg's rare but comprehensive misfires, Always lands with a dull thud. Nothing works: the jokes are juvenile, the romance is not even close to being convincing, the casting is atrocious, and almost every scene is extended well past its usefulness as the movie lumbers its way to a completely unnecessary running length of over two hours.

Spielberg falls into the trap of wanting every little event to be grand and goes looking for Meaningful Moments at every turn, the John Williams score inflating the emotions to laughable levels. The drama and tension, whether in the sky or back on earth, are contrived and appear targeted towards a child audience.

Resetting the story from the original existential World War Two conflict to the much more mundane territory of fire fighting in the middle of nowhere severely undermines the drama and the characters, with the actors comprehensively defeated by the material and ham-fisted tone. Richard Dreyfus and Holly Hunter are lost for purpose and share no chemistry. Dreyfus turns on full braggart mode, making Pete singularly boring and unattractive. Hunter, a most down-to-earth actress, struggles to play an ethereal inspiration. John Goodman essentially plays a caricature, and Brad Johnson has the screen presence of a white wall.

Always aims for a flighty fantasy, but stalls on the taxiway, belching putrid smoke.

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Movie Review: A Big Hand For The Little Lady (1966)

A comedy western, A Big Hand For The Little Lady is a fun and sweaty adventure that stays well within itself and plays a strong game.

Five rich men, including the gruff Henry P.G. Drummond (Jason Robards), gather in Laredo for their annual high stakes game of poker in the back room of a local saloon. Soon after the game starts, the humble family of Meredith (Henry Fonda), his wife Mary (Joanne Woodward) and their young son Jackie wander into town.

Meredith is a recovering gambling addict and perpetual loser who had promised Mary he will never play again. But the lure of the game draws him in, first to watch, then to join in. Before long Meredith is on a long losing streak, and has risked the family's $4,000 in savings. Things get a lot worse when Meredith collapses at the table while holding the strongest hand of his life. To the horror of Drummond and the other men, Mary takes over.

Produced and directed by Fielder Cook, who was better known for television productions, A Big Hand For The Little Lady is a tightly focused 95 minutes of solid entertainment. With a willing cast enjoying the theatre-like setting of just a couple of key locations, the film builds up its premise, sketches in the main characters with admirable efficiency, and stokes the fire of a family's future riding on a single poker hand.

Most of the action takes place around the poker table, and Fielder makes the most of a confined macho ambiance invaded first by the anxious and clearly emotionally fragile Meredith and then by the incredulous Mary. Meredith has the stamp of a loser on his moist forehead, Mary then has to display grim yet clueless determination to rescue their modest fortune.

Drummond leads the brusque howls of objection as a man who interrupted his daughter's wedding to attend a game now seemingly descending into farce. Meanwhile Habershaw (Kevin McCarthy), another of the rich men around the table, finds Mary attractive and is the only one of the players to extend her some sympathy.

Fonda excels in a relatively small role, exaggerating his worried eyes and luxuriating in gallons of sweat as the losses mount. Woodward is the perfect prim and proper wife, exasperated by her husband's addiction then holding her cards very close to her chest. Secondary characters become prominent as the film progresses, with the town doctor (Burgess Meredeith) then the local banker C.P. Ballinger (Paul Ford), a tycoon who despises poker, finding themselves sucked into the drama.

With plenty of humour and some added spice, A Big Hand For The Little Lady works its way to a moment of realization and growth for the rich men of Laredo. Drummond in particular gains new perspective on what matters in life as he returns to his daughter's wedding, even if the true identity of the sucker at the table remains a mystery.

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Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Movie Review: The Call Of The Wild (1935)

A gold rush adventure story, The Call Of The Wild features spirited settings and characters but only elemental human drama.

The bustling frontier town of Skagway, Alaska in 1900 at the height of the gold rush. Prospector and gambler Jack Thornton (Clark Gable) meets Shorty Hoolihan (Jack Oakie), who has recently been released from prison after serving time for mail theft. Shorty claims to have seen a map indicating the location of a gold-rich plot of land. Jack and Shorty team up to find the fortune, and soon tangle with the pompous Mr. Smith (Reginald Owen), a rich prospector on his own quest. Jack purchases Buck, a fierce and powerful St. Bernard, to be part of his sled-pulling dog team.

Once in the wild, Jack and Shorty stumble upon Claire Blake (Loretta Young), who is on a similar expedition to find the gold. With her husband missing, Claire is at first unwilling but then joins them on their journey to Dawson City in the Yukon. The trio then set off by raft to follow the path indicated on the map. As they near their destination, Jack and Claire start to fall in love, but others are also closing in on the precious riverside land.

A partial adaptation of the Jack London classic novel, The Call Of The Wild is a rough and ready adventure directed by William A. Wellman. The emphasis is on recreating the chaos and greed that fuel a gold rush, and Gable and Oakie do a fine job bringing to life two prospectors chasing the dream and perhaps enjoying the expedition more than the outcome.

From taming Buck the dog to subjugating Claire to their will, Jack and Shorty are not here to be nice. They are intent on conquering the land, the animals and the women all in search of riches, as long as their is fun to be had along the way. Wellman recreates a quite impressively anarchic Skagway and a Dawson City consumed by greed, both filled with the wannabe rich and those who leach upon them. And the film also spends plenty of time in the wilderness enjoying the outdoors and capturing the dangerous beauty of remote winters in a rugged land.

The film does get bogged down in too many dog-related chapters and not enough character development. Although the book is primarily about Buck, on the screen this becomes a weakness. Too many scenes feature the antics of Buck, and the dog emerges as the most animated and dominant character in the film, to the detriment of the humans. Some interesting parallels are drawn between the pull of the wild on Buck's instincts and men reverting to primordial behaviour to survive the conditions, but these themes are underdeveloped.

Jack, Shorty and Claire are just about the same from start to end, and little new is learned about them during the 89 minutes of running time. Claire suffers the most, showing hardly any grief due to the separation from her husband, and falling in love with Jack just because the script seems to demand it.

Featuring an energetic spirit but riding on a thin layer of snow, The Call Of The Wild has plenty of dog but limited bite.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 20 February 2017

The Movies Of Sally Kirkland

All movies starring Sally Kirkland and reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

The Way We Were (1973)

The Sting (1973)

Bite The Bullet (1975)

A Star Is Born (1976)

JFK (1991)

EDtv (1999)

Bruce Almighty (2003)

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

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Movie Review: The Return Of Frank James (1940)

A colourful western with a nuanced revenge theme, The Return Of Frank James is a proficient adventure with a balanced mix of action and dilemmas for the central character to grapple with.

With a huge reward on his head set by the railway company, notorious outlaw Jesse James is shot in the back and killed by the Ford brothers Bob (John Carradine) and Charlie (Charles Tannen). Upon hearing that the Fords were pardoned, Jesse's brother Frank (Henry Fonda) decides to emerge from his peaceful life as a farmer to seek justice for his brother. Along with his young sidekick Clem (Jackie Cooper) they go looking for the Fords, leaving loyal farmhand Pinky (Ernest Whitman) behind.

Frank is intrinsically a peaceful man who eschews violence, and yet has to find a way to avenge his brother while himself avoiding the long arm of the law. He robs a railway company office to raise money for his quest, a heist that ends with him being wrongly accused of murder. He uses naive reporter Eleanor Stone (Gene Tierney) to spread false rumours of his death while continuing to track down the Fords. But then Pinky is arrested and Frank develops feelings for Eleanor, forcing him to his reassess his priorities.

Directed by Fritz Lang and only loosely inspired by real events, The Return Of Frank James is an entertaining sequel to 1939's Jesse James. Filmed in rich colour and featuring Henry Fonda in fine form and Gene Tierney's screen debut, the film draws its energy from a conflicted central character seeking vengeance but also uncomfortable with violence. The Sam Hellman script perhaps tilts too far towards sanitizing Frank's character, but Fonda does the most with the role, building his screen persona as the morally upright man who nevertheless wants to ensure justice is served.

The Return Of Frank James sets itself apart from many westerns by having Frank stop and pause at a couple of key junctures. He is initially content to let the justice system deal with the Fords, and only after they are pardoned does he struggle with the decision to abandon his quiet life as a farmer. Later Frank reaches another crossroads and has to decide whether to continue his pursuit or rescue Pinky from an undeserved fate and explore a potential relationship with Eleanor. Fonda excels at exploiting such predicaments, elevating the film from the routine towards the cerebral.

Lang and Hellman do a good job of demonizing the Fords with subtle jabs, as the brothers aim to profit from their infamy by staging a cheesy play twisting their assassination of Jesse into fictional heroics. Further colour is added around the edges with Eleanor fighting to gain the respect of her father (a Denver newspaper owner).

The film's final chapter includes plenty of attempts at humour as the action shifts to the court room (this part of the story very much inspired by real events), as Frank defends himself against accusations of robbery and murder.

The Return Of Frank James is a pleasingly textured western, finding the gloss of human conflict in the legendary stories of outlaws and villains.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Movie Review: Here On Earth (2000)

A stultifyingly atrocious teen romantic triangle drama, Here On Earth is a stinking miracle of rehashed ideas mixed with bad writing and lousy acting.

Rich teenager Kelley (Chris Klein) is about to graduate as the class valedictorian from a prestigious private college located near a working class suburb of Boston. Demonstrating ridiculously poor judgment on the eve of graduation, Chris goes for a wild joy ride in a brand new Mercedes, antagonizes local blue collar teen Jasper (Josh Hartnett), and makes a move for Jasper's long-time girlfriend Samantha (Leelee Sobieski). The evening ends with an old fashioned car chase and the two boys wreck the local (but fortunately empty) diner in an impressive fireball.

Kelley and Jasper get away with a light sentence that requires them to rebuild the diner, with Kelley forced to stay with Jasper's parents over the summer. The boys spend their days sneering at each other at the construction site, while Sam starts openly flirting with Kelley. They fall in love, but a devastating disease is waiting to dramatically enter the story.

Possibly one of the worst written movies to somehow receive respectable financing and a studio release, Here On Earth was scripted by Michael Seitzman and directed by Mark Piznarski with a reported $15 million budget. While some moments of adequate cinematography and lush scenery are pleasing to the eye, it is otherwise difficult to see how this turkey could have consumed millions in production dollars.

The black hole at the heart of the drama is a script devoid of any genuine emotion, sympathy or believable characters. Kelley and Samantha emerge as the romantic leads, and both are distinctly unlikable and incomprehensible characters, their on-screen behaviour totally inconsistent with their background. Kelley is supposed to be the class valedictorian yet spends the first 30 minutes of the film behaving like a total jerk, and then somehow he has to become the heart of the story. Seitzman throws in an oh-so-original stern dad and dead mom to justify Kelley's actions, and so he's not such a bad kid after all.

Meanwhile Samantha discards a life-long friendship with Jasper to chase after the kid who destroyed her family's business. Desperate to make his heroine more appealing, Seitzman hatches a serious ailment for the young lovers to contend with. They may be a dreadful couple, but they have tragic issues to deal with.

Klein, Hartnett and Sobieski read their lines with dead looks in their eyes, with Klein and Hartnett breaking out into shirtless macho fights at regular intervals. The supporting cast features actors who should know better than to appear as the parents of these kids, including Michael Rooker, Bruce Greenwood and Annette O'Toole.

Somehow in amongst the dross there are dreamy lines of dialogue about what heaven must be like. Never mind that, Here On Earth is cinematic hell, unearthed.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Movie Review: Big Jake (1971)

A routine late-era John Wayne western, Big Jake tries to adjust to the cinematic times but defaults to an inconsistent mishmash of gore and camp.

It's 1909, and the West is slowly modernizing with the arrival of automobiles and motorcycles. Nevertheless, lawlessness abounds, and a gang of nine thugs under the leadership of John Fain (Richard Boone) pillages the McCandles ranch, killing several people and kidnapping Little Jake (Ethan Wayne) for a $1 million ransom. Little Jake's grandmother Martha (Maureen O'Hara) survives the raid, and calls on her estranged husband Big Jake (John Wayne) to handle the ransom payment and free the young boy.

Big Jake is a crusty frontiersman who walked out on the family years prior for vague reasons. He has an uneasy relationship with his sons, but nevertheless teams up with James (Patrick Wayne) and Michael (Christopher Mitchum). Along with Indian scout Sam (Bruce Cabot) they go after the kidnappers, who are lying in wait across the border in Mexico.

With 1969's The Wild Bunch popularizing the death of the old west and redefining the allowable gore quotient in Westerns, John Wayne attempts to align his persona with the modern on-screen times. Big Jake features plenty of bright red squibs to simulate gun shots, and many references to the changing landscape, with civilization creeping in from the east. But a John Wayne western is also required to meet the expectations of long-time fans, and by 1971 this means an abundance of unnecessary slapstick, frequent superfluous fist fights, and a jerky tone as the unevenly applied visual violence sits uneasily next to more old fashioned sensibilities.

At least Wayne is not beyond poking fun at himself. Jake's age, declining abilities and fading eyesight are frequent points of reference. He tries to use more brains than brawn to try and outsmart his younger opponents. Jake also meets his match and loses a bare knuckled fight, although that may be an intentional distraction.

More disappointing is a trite story of pursuit and revenge, punctuated by unconvincing tension between Big Jake and his sons. The script is tired, with the dialogue exchanges often descending into the same macho posturing on a loop. The bad guys make key mistakes at critical times, never pull the trigger when they can, and always allow Jake and his sons time to weasel out of tight spots. The entire premise of the story is also suspect: a trunk containing $1 million is apparently right there at the McCandles ranch, and with minimal effort the Fain gang could have escaped with the cash rather than the kid.

On the more positive side, director George Sherman, delivering his final film, captures impressive and satisfyingly rich vistas. The action sequences are adequate, and the final showdown is a reasonably enjoyable and prolonged climax featuring a mix of close up and long range combat.

The supporting cast is filled with B-movie talent pushed by nepotism into prominent roles, Wayne's son Patrick and Robert Mitchum's son Christopher given more screen time than their talent deserves. Richard Boone emerges as the one weighty presence, but he is underused.

Maureen O'Hara only features in the opening 20 minutes or so, and Big Jake represents the last of her five on-screen teamings with Wayne. As the traditional west is erased by the sands of time, both the stars and partnerships of old fade into mediocre movies.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Movie Review: Unfaithful (2002)

A story of lust and betrayal in an idyllic middle class suburban household, Unfaithful unfortunately abandons an ambitious exploration of human instincts and veers towards more routine and much less interesting fare.

In a tony suburb of New York City, business owner Edward Sumner (Richard Gere) lives with his wife Connie (Diane Lane) and eight year old son Charlie. The marriage appears healthy and the couple are comfortably moving into middle age. On a visit to the city on a windswept day, Connie literally bumps into handsome book dealer Paul Martel (Olivier Martinez), a much younger and irresistibly attractive man.

Unable to control her impulses, Connie arranges several follow-up meetings and soon she is carrying on a hot affair with Paul, with frequent sex sessions at his apartment. Her lies catch up to her, Edward suspects that something is wrong and hires a private detective to tail his wife. But the threat to their marriage takes an even worse turn when Edward reacts badly upon confronting Paul.

Directed by Adrian Lyne, Unfaithful boasts a promising start but a rapidly disintegrating second half. The film sets out to explore the forces that shape infidelity, and the emotional and psychological toll imposed by all the lying and deception. There is a tremendous story to be told about why a seemingly content wife decides to stray, and for a while, Unfaithful steps forward into the rich terrain of a marriage under threat of insidious erosion, with parenting as collateral damage.

Then Lyne and his screenwriters Alvin Sargent and William Broyles Jr. (adapting a Claude Chabrol film) take a left turn towards Hitchcockian suspense territory, and Unfaithful never recovers. A carpet is used to warp a body, a moody elevator breaks down just at the wrong moment, a corpse is stuffed in a car trunk then a landfill, and all the carefully built up subtle domestic tension seeps out of the screen in favour of more blatant and over-familiar thriller elements.

And in a further neck twisting change of gears, Unfaithful converts to a brooding study of a damaged couple jointly coping with cascading crises of conscience. The sharp changes in tone are disorienting, and the film appears to work extra hard to undermine its own effectiveness in any one key.

Visually Unfaithful is enriched with touches of class, and stylistically Lyne still loves to create steamy and artistic sex scenes, Olivier Martinez and Diane Lane obliging with several window-fogging private and public romps. Lane owns the first part of the film and creates a complex portrait of a happy wife and lust-seeking lover, before Gere takes over in the second and weaker half.

Unfaithful is part of a very good film, before treacherous narrative missteps betray the good intentions.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Movie Review: Come To The Stable (1949)

A religious drama and comedy, Come To The Stable celebrates the impenetrable power of faith with a wink and a smile.

New England, shortly after the end of World War Two. French nuns Sister Margaret (Loretta Young) and Sister Scholastica (Celeste Holm) arrive to the small town of Bethlehem in search of land and money to build a children's hospital. Margaret made a promise to build the facility after American troops avoided damaging the French hospital where she worked during the Normandy landings.

The nuns take up residence at the simple home of dotty religious artist Amelia Potts (Elsa Lanchester), but face numerous obstacles to their plans. The idyllic hill top parcel the nuns set their eyes on is owned by New York City mobster Luigi Rossi (Thomas Gomez). Local land owner and celebrated songwriter Robert Masen (Hugh Marlowe) at first appears supportive but becomes opposed to having a hospital in his quiet neighbourhood. Even the local Bishop (Basil Ruysdael) is skeptical. But Sisters Margaret and Scholastica are nothing if not persistent, and they set about to make their far-fetched dream a reality.

Directed by Henry Koster and inspired by a true story, Come To The Stable finds the right tone for its message. Delivering an affirmation of belief with a light touch, the film provides a steady drip of self-deprecatory humour to keep the more dramatic moments in check. The outcome is an experience that undoubtedly salutes good religious intentions, but within a pragmatic context.

Koster achieves a couple of memorable highlights. Margaret and Scholastica blithely march into the headquarters of crime boss Luigi Rossi in New York City, and persevere despite the dismissiveness of first his henchmen and then Rossi himself. The French nuns and the Italian-American gangster finally break the barriers between them by finding an unexpected common bond. The theme is cleverly amplified with songwriter Robert Masen. Initially helpful but gradually more resistant to the nuns' project, Masen will also awaken to the unlikely connection between his music and the battlefields of Europe.

The performances match the film's attitude. Loretta Young stays within herself and allows the mission to march ahead of the character. Celeste Holm is even more reserved but gets a wacky moment to shine on the tennis courts. Hugh Marlowe leads a steady supporting cast, with Koster animating the local community with plenty of life and avoiding most of the obvious maudlin traps.

Come To The Stable wraps up in an efficient 94 minutes, the French nuns' perfectly executed friendly invasion of New England a small but worthwhile echo of a distant war.

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Saturday, 11 February 2017

Movie Review: Where The Sidewalk Ends (1950)

A film noir focusing on a flawed detective, Where The Sidewalk Ends hits many of the right dark notes but falls just short of perfect sharpness.

In New York City, police detective Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews) is warned about his violent methods. Too quick with his fists, Dixon's hatred of hoodlums stems from wanting to distance himself from the memory of his father, an infamous thief. Dixon and his partner Klein (Bert Freed) investigate the murder of Texas businessman Morrison, stabbed to death by abusive low life Ken Paine at an illegal gambling joint run by notorious criminal Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill).

Dixon tracks down Paine and accidentally kills him with a punch. In a cold panic, Dixon decides to cover up his role in Paine's death, and works to implicate Scalise for the murders of both Morrison and Paine. In the meantime Dixon also starts to fall in love with Paine's estranged wife Morgan (Gene Tierney). But when Morgan's father Jiggs (Tom Tully) becomes the chief suspect in Paine's murder, Dixon finds his troubles multiplying.

Where The Sidewalk Ends reunites director Otto Preminger with stars Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney, the talent trio responsible for 1944's Laura. And with a script by Ben Hecht, Where The Sidewalk Ends gets many things right. The black and white photography is rich with bright light sources cutting through imposing shadows, heavy coats, glistening streets, neon signs and an abundance of hooligans. Mark Dixon as the central protagonist is a deeply damaged man, fighting internal demons with a career rumbling in reverse gear. And the plot is filled with just enough complexity and coincidence to highlight the ironies of life without slipping into irrational territory.

The film's texture is enhanced by several nice touches. Mobster Scalise is smooth as silk, Gary Merrill perfecting a condescending smarm and augmenting it with constant sniffing of an unknown substance to keep his airways clean and his brain in overdrive. Dixon's partner Klein is also hard headed but has it under control, and gets a moment to shine with his wife when Dixon comes calling for financial help. And an assortment of secondary characters including a taxi driver, a dotty neighbour, a caustic diner waitress, an ex-convict on parole and numerous hissing musclemen add animation at every turn. Karl Malden shows up as the newly minted Lieutenant at Dixon's precinct.

While Dana Andrews does well and has plenty to bite into as the emotionally distressed Dixon, the character of Morgan is less successful. Gene Tierney is generally unable to do much with the underwritten role of a too-good woman with poor judgement in men.  And while Hecht's writing is sturdy, it lacks a cutting edge in dialogue exchanges that sound appropriately belligerent but lack in wit.

Where The Sidewalk Ends is worthwhile place to visit, one detective finally running out of fist room in the confrontation with the ghost of his father's legacy.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 10 February 2017

The Movies Of Jessica Biel

All movies starring Jessica Biel and reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

The Illusionist (2006)

Next (2007)

Valentine's Day (2010)

New Year's Eve (2011)

Total Recall (2012)

Hitchcock (2012)

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

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Movie Review: McLintock! (1963)

A comedy Western, McLintock! is a tedious exercise in atrocious low brow humour.

George Washington "G.W." McLintock (John Wayne) is a tough but fair cattle baron who owns most of the land and businesses in the town that carries his family's name. The arrival of settlers creates some tension among the local cattle ranchers, as do Indians who show up to welcome incoming Chiefs. McLintock offers a job to Devlin Warren (Patrick Wayne), an enthusiastic young man, and also takes in Devlin's mother Louise (Yvonne De Carlo) as the new household cook.

G.W.'s ill-tempered wife Katherine (Maureen O'Hara) shows up after a long separation, demanding a divorce and insisting that she will scoop their daughter Becky (Stefanie Powers) back east. G.W. refuses to agree to any of her demands, and their relationship remains toxic. Meanwhile Devlin sets his eyes on Becky, while Louise is also on the prowl for a partner to take the place of her deceased husband.

Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen from a script developed by John Wayne but credited to James Edward Grant, McLintock! is an adaptation of sorts of Shakespeare's The Taming Of The Shrew. The film wallows in infantile slapstick humour, and surrenders to misogynistic and racist tendencies. Women's bottoms are spanked with coal shovels, Indians are generally treated as whiskey-loving caricatures, and the humour is anchored by increasingly tiresome and seemingly endless fistfights, people sliding into water pits and drunks tumbling down the stairs. Three times, just to make the point.

With the genre clearly reaching its nadir in terms of ideas, creativity and energy, dross like McLintock! explains the emergence of the Spaghetti Western, Sergio Leone and his cohorts grabbing the Western by the boot spurs and injecting a large dose of stylistic steroids to reinvigorate its potential.

McLintock! extends to an agonizing 127 minutes, McLaglen seemingly clueless about how to try and sharpen the focus onto any of the loose threads that attempt to pass as plot. The film just throws ideas at the screen and does exactly nothing with any of them. Cattle ranchers against settlers, incompetent politicians, Indians fighting for respect, several unconvincing romances and finally a Comanche raid during a 4th of July celebration. All of it comes and goes with barren soullessness, and the story lines disintegrate into interludes that mainly serve to interrupt Wayne's awkward soliloquies espousing his philosophies on life.

Not even the central conflict between Katherine and G.W. is given its due. She is bitter and angry, he is uncaring, and so it stays for the best part of two hours until Katherine gets her humiliating comeuppance.

Far from funny, McLintock! is boring, imbecilic, and grotesquely dated.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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