Friday, 31 March 2017

The Movies Of Fredric March

All movies starring Fredric March and reviewed on the Ace Black Blok are linked below:

The Eagle And The Hawk (1933)

A Star Is Born (1937)

The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946)

Executive Suite (1954)

The Desperate Hours (1955)

Inherit The Wind (1960)

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

Thursday, 30 March 2017

The Movies Of George Sanders

All movies starring George Sanders and reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

Rebecca (1940)

Foreign Correspondent (1941)

Sundown (1941)

The Black Swan (1942)

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

All About Eve (1950)

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

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

The Movies Of Peter Lorre

All movies starring Peter Lorre and reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

All Through The Night (1942)

Casablanca (1942)

Passage To Marseille (1944)

Beat The Devil (1953)

Silk Stockings (1957)

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

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Movie Review: The Hurricane (1999)

A boxing, prison and court room drama, The Hurricane is based on the real-life of champion boxer Ruben Carter. Thanks to a potent story, a committed central performance by Denzel Washington and agile directing by Normal Jewison, the film is a dominant viewing experience.

It's the mid 1960s, and Ruben "The Hurricane" Carter is a top ranked middleweight boxer, having risen from a poor childhood including long stints in juvenile detention. With Hurricane at the peak of his abilities and fame, a triple murder is committed in a Paterson, New Jersey bar, with three patrons shot dead. Ruben and a friend happen to be in the area; they are arrested, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Ruben insists that he is innocent and from his cell writes an autobiography.

With Ruben incarcerated a parallel story features Lesra Martin (Vicellous Reon Shannon), a young black man from Brooklyn being raised by a foster family in Toronto. Lesra takes an interest in Ruben after reading his book, and communicates with the boxer first through letters then visits. Eventually Lesra's guardians decide to investigate Ruben's case, and relocate to New Jersey to agitate for a legal review of his conviction.

Many other key characters from Hurricane's story also come to life. Featured prominently are Lesra's foster family Lisa Peters (Deborah Kara Unger), Sam Chaiton (Liev Schreiber) and Terry Swinton (John Hannah); Ruben's lifelong pursuer Detective Sargent Della Pesca (Dan Hedaya), Ruben's wife Mae Thelma (Debbi Morgan) and compassionate prison guard Jimmy Williams (Clancy Brown). Late in the film, David Paymer and Harris Yulin make important contributions as Ruben's long-term lawyers, while Rod Steiger has a short but memorable turn as a judge.

Directed by Norman Jewison as an adaptation of Carter's autobiography and the book by Chaiton and Swinton, The Hurricane is a powerful story about the search for justice. Set partially in the world of boxing and mostly behind prison walls, the film is a carefully crafted experience, covering close to 20 years of Carter's life and charting his unwavering dignity in the face of larger forces of racism, conspiracy and discrimination.

As with many biographical but non-documentary features, The Hurricane does portray Carter in the most favourable light, and his opponents come across as seething villains. The film rises above any such simplifications thanks to the intensity of its central performance. The Hurricane is quite possibly Denzel Washington's finest on-screen moment. He embodies the role and disappears into it, the actor leaving no trace as Ruben Carter comes to life, driven by rage, personal determination and quiet resistance. Whether in the ring or in prison, Washington is superb at finding the man smirking at a system that can defeat his body but never his soul, and expressing his emotions with a combination of lyricism and cutting critique.

The film runs for 145 minutes, but does not feel long. Especially in the first half Jewison keeps the energy level high and jumps across time to capture various episodes from Carter's life. Snippets from childhood through to life in prison are presented out of sequence but nevertheless logically, to establish the full scope of Ruben's life experience. The second half settles down and is more focused on attempts to secure Hurricane's release, and the film finds a new but still compelling groove as an amateur detective story seeking to lift the lid off decades of deception.

The Hurricane encapsulates rage in all its colours: a child's rage to survive, a boxer's rage to win, and a prisoner's rage to secure freedom. And it's the battles fought without weapons and boxing gloves that are ultimately most effective.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Movie Review: Killing Them Softly (2012)

A grim gangster flick, Killing Them Softly has an overabundance of gab, some flair and insufficient substance.

It's 2008, and the great recession is creating economic chaos. Against a backdrop of politicians trying to bail out the financial sector and the looming presidential election campaign, low-level gang boss Johnny "Squirrel" Amato (Vincent Curatola) hires young thugs Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) to rob an illegal large-stakes poker game hosted by mobster Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). Australian Russell is an unreliable heroin addict and dog snatcher, but Squirrel believes that they can get away with the crime because suspicion for organizing the theft will immediately fall on Markie himself, who has admitted masterminding a previous similar heist.

The robbery is committed, and the Mob uses Driver (Richard Jenkins) as a go-between to hire hitman Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to dish out revenge. At first it appears as through Markie is indeed considered the principle suspect, but news filters back to Cogan about the involvement of Squirrel, Frankie and Russell. Cogan recruits fellow assassin Mickey (James Gandolfini) for extra firepower, but Mickey has issues of his own.

Written and directed by Andrew Dominik, Killing Them Softly aims for a hip Tarantino-like vibe, and generally fails. The mixture of long conversations, incessant profanity and short scenes of gory action is fundamentally unbalanced. The characters never come close to achieving the requisite level of likability to make the film work, and the tension remains at a flaccid level.

The one element that does intermittently relieve the tedium is the film's visual style. In-between all the talking Dominik and his cinematogapher Greig Fraser compose some memorable scenes, using sharp framing and ominous urban decay as a visual representation of the collapsing financial sector. The background soundtrack includes a steady stream of sound clips from President Bush reacting to the crisis and candidate Barack Obama electioneering. Their words serve as jolting reminders of how close the world's economy came to the brink and how effectively Obama's idyllic promises of a new hope lifted spirits. Nevertheless, the connection to the film's story of criminals living in a world of their own is both too obvious and completely irrelevant.

The scenes of violence are few, but are executed with panache, a cold detachment and an excess of blood and broken bones. With the f-bomb dropped every other word, Dominik confuses excess with impact.

Brad Pitt cruises through the film with a general sense of disinterest, Jackie Cogan bordering on a secondary presence. Frankie and Russell are the two most prominent characters and both hoodlums are far from capable of carrying this or any other film.

James Gandolfini suffers most from the film's lack of punch: hitman Mickey burns up an inordinate amount of time, most of it invested in exceedingly tedious stories as he drinks and whores his way to inconsequence. Much like the movie itself, Mickey is overinflated with boring talk and can't deliver when it matters.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Movie Review: Side Effects (2013)

A neo-noir psychological crime drama, Side Effects enjoys a twisty tale but mediocre execution.

Young wife Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is suffering from depression as she awaits the release of her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) from prison. The couple's lavish lifestyle had come to a crashing halt when Martin was arrested and locked up for financial fraud. Martin is freed after finishing his sentence and starts planning to reconstitute their life, but Emily is suicidal; she tries to kill herself by driving head-on into a wall.

She survives, and psychologist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) takes her on as a patient, eventually prescribing Ablixa, an experimental new anti-depressant drug. In researching Emily's background, Jonathan also connects with Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who had previously tried to help Emily. Ablixa appears to improve Emily's mood, but the side effects include sleep walking. Suddenly, a violent crime is committed, and Jonathan finds his life turning upside down and his career threatened with ruin.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh, Side Effects holds promise as an unexpected murder mystery laced with illicit passion, a devious conspiracy, and potentially a lot to say about the pharmaceutical industry, mental health and financial wrong doing. While the twists and turns maintain a decent level of engagement, the film's plot points start tumbling into each other. This is a movie that bites off large chunks and then refuses to chew.

At 106 minutes, the film is shorter than it needs to be for the amount of plot and characters packed in. Soderbergh may be aiming for the compact noir style of no scene longer than it needs to be and absolutely no unnecessary scenes, but he sells the narrative short. As the final third hurtles towards a conclusion, counter conspiracies unfurl at a pace too frantic to generate the appropriate level of appreciation. The rest of the noir elements are more about content than visual style. The story contains almost every foundational plank from crime to sex passing through the manipulation of a clueless man, but the aesthetics are relatively free of the more obvious noir stunts.

The film is hampered by an abrupt change of perspective. The first half is Emily's story, but about halfway through she is effectively marginalized and Side Effects becomes a lot more about Jonathan. While both characters are interesting, neither is provided with enough time or context to become truly rounded.

The cast is solid, with Jude Law controlling his more rascal-like tendencies and delivering an inviting performance despite the limitations of the material. Rooney Mara is the most memorable part of the movie, and Side Effects suffers as her prominence fades. Catherine Zeta-Jones is victimized the most by the film's too-sharp editing. Dr. Victoria Siebert could have been a fascinating character, but here she is reduced to a cartoon schemetress.

Side Effects promises forward momentum, but too often moves sideways.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Movie Review: Premonition (2007)

A supernatural psychological drama, Premonition offers an intriguing premise but is handicapped by sloppy attempts at sappiness.

The marriage of Linda and Jim Hanson (Sandra Bullock and Julian McMahon) has hit the doldrums. The passion has seeped out despite a seemingly idyllic life, two young daughters and a large house in the suburbs. Things get much worse when Linda learns that Jim has died in a fiery car crash on the highway while on a business trip. Linda's mother Joanne (Kate Nelligan) and friend Annie (Nia Long) arrive to offer comfort.

But the next day Linda wakes up and Jim is still alive. Dumbfounded, she starts to question her sanity. Other scary incidents over the coming days include one of her daughters smashing through a glass door, and a gory encounter with a dead crow. Not knowing what each new day may bring and confused over the health of her marriage and the sequence of events in her life, Linda reaches out to psychologist Dr. Norman Roth (Peter Stormare), but he may be more of a hindrance than a help.

Directed by Mennan Yapo and written by Bill Kelly, Premonition plays with the idea of a mind under stress mimicking a marriage spiralling in all the wrong directions. The film offers a puzzle built on jumbled time, and once the framework is set, all sorts of possibilities emerge. Premonition in this case is a vivid experience which may have either already happened or could still be prevented, and with the failing dynamic between Linda and Jim, she has interesting choices to make.

The theme of preordained destiny or a future potentially shaped by human decisions bubbles to the surface, and Premonition deserves credit for presenting an eternal debate through a fresh lens. The final third of the film veers towards some maudlin moments, and Linda's last-ditch attempts to save her marriage are less than convincing.

Brief but effective horror moments punctuate the film and add to the sense of unease. The encounters with the glass sliding door and the dead crow provide opportunities for gory and sharp shocks, signposts that all is clearly not well in Linda's week.

Sandra Bullock capably carries the weight of the film, mixing incredulity with determination while handling the time shifts with increasing confidence. The rest of the cast members are given relatively little to do, with Julian McMahon operating at a particularly bland television movie level.

Premonition offers decent quality and thought-provoking entertainment without necessarily reinventing the wheels of time.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Movie Review: Get Out (2017)

A psychological horror film with some elements of humour, Get Out builds some fine tension but then surrenders to a rushed and bloody climax.

Aspiring photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is black, his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) is white, and they are about to embark on a weekend trip to visit her parent for the first time as a couple. Dean and Missy Armitage (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) live out in the suburbs and espouse liberal views, but Chris notices the strange, subdued behaviour of their black groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) and black maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel).

Missy is a hypnotist and offers to help Chris quit smoking. He reveals his childhood trauma surrounding his mother's death in a hit and run accident and Missy tricks Chris into an an unsettling experience in the hypnosis chair. Dean and Missy host a weekend gathering for their friends, who all appear to be elderly white people with health problems, including blind arts supporter Jim Hudson (Stephen Root). The one black guest at the party is Logan King (LaKeith Stanfield), whose strange demeanor adds to Chris' anxiety that something is very wrong in this idyllic suburb.

Written and directed by Jordan Peele, Get Out is a compact exercise in peeling away superficial layers of civility to expose evil at play. Riffing on themes from The Stepford Wives but with the extra specter of insidious racism, Get Out enjoys a strong ramp-up, Peele focussing on building cerebral and creepy tension as Chris stumbles onto a not-quite-right world of large homes, white owners and creepy black people. Once the conspiracy takes flight, the film flips to a more gory mode, and the final third is more routine and less interesting.

Get Out works as a metaphor for the dangers of liberal views disconnected from actions, where the soothing spoken words are a cover for dangerous intentions. The film also fits as a summary of the black experience in America, Chris journeying from his supposedly wild urban habitat to the seemingly more cultured suburbs, only to find unimaginable mistreatment hidden within the pretense of advanced civility.

Aesthetically Peele makes frequent and unsettling use of some extreme close-ups, both Catherine Keener as Missy and especially Betty Gabriel as Georgina enjoying some mammoth zoom-ins to loom large over Chris' psyche. Caleb Landry Jones as Rose's slightly unhinged brother Jeremy contributes to the sense of dread.

Daniel Kaluuya is sturdy as Chris, and the horror unfolds through his eyes, expanding from eerie encounters with Georgina to more shocking episodes of mind control and unwanted surgery. The rest of the cast does not stray from the conventional, and Peele flicks a switch rather suddenly to turn the environment and characters from scheming to outright demonic.

Chris' adventure ends with bloody violence and plenty of corpses. The black man did not start this mess, but doubtless he will be held accountable for the resulting carnage.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Movie Review: Hidden Figures (2016)

A feel-good drama recognizing the scientific contributions of three black women, Hidden Figures has an inspirational story to tell but is also packed with over-amplified melodrama.

It's 1961, and three black women work as "computers" on the nascent NASA space program in Virginia. Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) is a mathematical genius whose potential has not yet been recognized; Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is being held back from a supervisory position she richly deserves, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) has ambitions to be an engineer but faces obstacles due to segregation laws. With the Soviet Union comprehensively winning the space race, director of the Space Task Group (STG) Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and his head engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) are under increasing pressure to place a man into space.

Katherine is recruited into the STG and starts to prove her worth despite entrenched racist attitudes. Dorothy spots the emergence of computers as a key new technology and takes the initiative to teach herself and her team computer programming. Mary refuses to take no for an answer, and pushes to get accepted into the courses she needs for an engineering degree. As the countdown continues to John Glen's maiden flight, the three women play an increasingly prominent role.

An adaptation of the Margot Lee Shetterly book directed by Theodore Melfi, Hidden Figures shines a light on the previously unheralded contributions of three remarkable women who toiled against both gender and racial discrimination. Their story is irresistibly uplifting, and the film is a celebration of quiet dignity, persistence and strength of character against seemingly impossible odds.

The film does several things well. The challenge of developing the science of safely launching objects and people into orbit is tackled at regular intervals. The language may be simplified, but the hard work of inventing the math of space exploration is captured. And Melfi recreates the cerebral workplaces of the era to good effect. White men in white shirts dominate the hallowed halls of science, a pale background of uniformity against which Katherine, Dorothy and Mary literally stand out as coloured invaders.

But this being Hollywood, Hidden Figures also takes every opportunity to push a quiet story to over-saturated levels. While there is no expectation of documentary-levels of realism, the film ironically cheapens the women's achievements by adding large doses of mediocre mythology. Black women earning respect in a white male dominated world should generate sufficient drama; here the real accomplishments are obscured by superficial incidents of racial discrimination that are either fully made up or over exaggerated.

Melfi, who also co-wrote the film, invests too much time on Katherine running back and forth to the coloured ladies room, a case of first inventing a crisis and then not knowing when to let go. Dorothy's leadership of her team is elevated to a military style, invade-the-computer room heroics. Mary's courtroom highlight scene is another long stretch of the truth. The climax is most egregious, offending the space program with contrived last-minute panics.

The three lead actresses rise above the material and are uniformly excellent, with Taraji P. Henson shining brightest. Kevin Costner is his steady self, while the supporting cast includes telling contributions from Mahershala Ali as Katherine's romantic interest and Kirsten Dunst as a prim supervisor hiding behind passive racist attitudes.

Hidden Figures is stirring story partially compromised by suspect storytelling.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Movie Review: Death Of A Gunfighter (1969)

A second-rate Western, Death Of A Gunfighter strives for earnest intensity but lacks the talent, skill or depth to deliver.

The setting is the town of Cottonwood Springs, Texas, in the early 1900s. Progress is coming, the railroad has arrived in town, horseless carriages are starting to appear on the road, and the city elders want to attract more business. Standing in the way is Marshal Frank Patch (Richard Widmark), who has had the job for 20 years and knows all the town's dirty secrets and scandals. Patch still settles disputes the old way, and proceeds to shoot dead a drunk and depressed man, albeit in self defence.

City council members and business leaders, including Mayor Chester Sayre (Larry Gates) and the smarmy Lester Locke (Carroll O'Connor), try to convince Patch to quit on his own terms, but he is too stubborn and too proud to listen. County Sheriff Lou Trinidad (John Saxon) arrives in town to try and arrest Patch, but is rebuffed and bloodied by the Marshal. The town elders have to decide whether or not to resort to more violent methods to end the reign of their long-term protector.

The first film credited to non-existent director Alan Smithee, Death Of A Gunfighter started under Robert Totten and finished under Don Siegel, after Totten had a falling out with star Richard Widmark. Totten was mostly a television director, and Death Of A Gunfighter has the plastic, staged look and feel of a slightly glorified TV movie. The premise of the passing of the old west is simple and stale, the execution ponderous, and with the ending given away in the title, precious little drama is generated.

Once the conflict is established between Marshal Patch and the townsfolk, the script stalls. There are rudimentary attempts to create a dynamic between Patch and a young man who hero worships the Marshal, and a lukewarm long-term romantic relationship with local woman Claire Quintana (Lena Horne, in a rare dramatic role) stutters in the background. Another father-son pairing enters and exits the fray with only the outlines of a relationship sketched in. None of the subtexts move past the perfunctory.

Meanwhile, Richard Widmark tries too hard to carry the weight of the film, grimacing fiercely at the injustice of it all and allowing Patch's increasingly irrational stubbornness to dominate. John Saxon wanders in from a whole other movie only to get beaten up by Patch in short order, but Saxon does enough with the character to suggest that the film would have only been better with a bigger role for Lou Trinidad. Other than Carroll O'Connor ensuring that baddie Lester Locke drips mean connivance, the other conspirators against Patch remain poorly defined.

Death Of A Gunfighter is a lightweight exercise in bundling old genre themes into an unfortunately bland rehash.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: El Dorado (1966)

A robust Western, El Dorado gallops on familiar grounds but does so with veteran respect.

Gun-for-hire Cole Thornton (John Wayne) has a long friendly rivalry with El Dorado's Sheriff J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum). Not wanting to tangle with J.P., Cole turns down a job offer from greedy businessman Bart Jason (Ed Asner) to drive peaceful landowner Kevin MacDonald (R.G. Armstrong) and his family off their water-rich land. But in self defence, Cole kills one of MacDonald's sons and is then himself shot and wounded by MacDonald's daughter Josephine (Michele Carey).

On a trip away from El Dorado, Cole strikes up a friendship with young Mississippi (James Caan), an expert knifesman who spent two years avenging his friend's death. Cole also runs across notorious gunslinger Nelse McLeod (Christopher George) and his gang. Cole and Mississippi return to town and find J.P. a full-fledged drunk, having been dumped by a woman. Cole has to dry out J.P., and along with help from Mississippi and old timer Bull (Arthur Hunnicutt), they face-off against McLeod and his men, who have now been hired by Jason to finish off the MacDonalds.

The penultimate film directed by veteran Howard Hawks, El Dorado is an almost straightforward retelling of Rio Bravo. Hawks and Wayne recreate every essential element with just a few new shadings, and deliver a surprisingly enjoyable and polished experience. Particularly in its later scenes, El Dorado injects elements of humour, mainly of the self-deprecating poke-fun-at-the- elderly-walking-wounded kind, and does open up the locations to include more incidents away from the town.

The film is almost from another era, and that's a good thing. By this stage in the 1960s many Wayne movies were becoming parodies of the man and the image, overly reliant on slapstick and lowest common denominator, feed-the-fans-what they-want fodder. El Dorado strikes a mostly earnest tone, giving the story enough respect to anchor the narrative and celebrate traditional western staples of friendship, loyalty, and doing what is right despite the risk of harm.

The film is enhanced by the grey moral zone occupied by Cole Thornton. His flaws come to the fore early, from his profession as a gun for hire, to killing MacDonald's son, and then falling victim to Joey's ambush. Meanwhile the action scenes come at regular intervals but are only as long as they need to be, punctuation marks enhancing rather than sapping the strength of the story.

Helping El Dorado stand up to the long shadows of classic westerns is a terrific cast surrounding John Wayne. Robert Mitchum as J.P. Harrah takes on the Dean Martin role and makes it his own, Mitchum shedding most of his usual lackadaisical mannerisms and appearing much more engaged than usual. A young James Caan shines in the role of Mississippi, and is a notable upgrade on Ricky Nelson. Catherine Holt creates the role of Maudie, a more subdued long-term romantic interest for Cole, while Michele Carey provides the female firepower, literally, as the shotgun-toting Joey MacDonald.

The depth of talent continues. Christopher George as dangerous gun-for-hire Nelse McLeod comes with plenty of confident menace, while Arthur Hunnicutt, R G. Armstrong and Ed Asner provide plenty of grizzled veteran presence.

El Dorado is a welcome echo from the past, a good story deserving of a second telling, any lack of novelty overcome by the traditional strength of material.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 17 March 2017

The Movies Of Kristen Stewart

All movies starring Kristen Stewart and reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

Panic Room (2002)

Adventureland (2009)

The Runaways (2010)

Clouds Of Sils Maria (2014)

Still Alice (2014)

American Ultra (2015)

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

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