Thursday, 24 August 2017

Movie Review: Ladies In Love (1936)

A romantic comedy drama, Ladies In Love features an overpowered cast struggling with an underpowered script.

Three women move into a Budapest apartment as roommates. all looking for a better life. The poor but bright Martha (Janet Gaynor) is trying to get the attention of scientist Rudi (Don Ameche), but he is too preoccupied with his rabbit experiments to notice. Martha turns her attention to worldly magician Sandor (Alan Mowbray). Chorus girl Susie (Loretta Young) is seeking independence but falls under the spell of handsome nobleman Karl (Tyrone Power).

Yoli (Constance Bennett), who is less of a believer in love and is more about seeking riches, is carrying on an apparently loveless affair with John (Paul Lukas), and old but wealthy man. Their relationship gets complicated with the arrival of perky temptress Marie (Simone Simon) to distract John. The women experience ups and downs as they navigate the choppy waters of uncertain relationships.

Twentieth Century Fox threw almost all their stars into one film, and while the talent occasionally sparkles, they are hamstrung by a lacklustre script. Endlessly talky, limited to one theme and eventually tiresome, Ladies In Love explores women's romantic ambitions but fails to find a genuine spark.

The film does deserve credit for demonstrating courage as it conjures up a bittersweet ending. Not all the romances have fairytale endings, and indeed Susie's story takes her to a dark and near-tragic place. But otherwise Ladies In Love is very much stuck in its era. The women have no life outside of their obsession with men. Every scene features the women either trying to snare a man or endlessly talking about the imperative or consequences of succeeding or failing in landing a partner.

The limp screenplay claims to be an adaptation of a play by a Ladislaus Bus-Fekete, one of many pseudonyms for screenwriter Leslie Bush-Fekete. If there ever was a play, it appears to have never been produced. Director Edward H. Griffith adds nothing to the film, and keeps the action largely stage bound. The presumed Budapest setting provides a context for the assembly of exotic target men, but is otherwise wasted.

The talent-rich cast members do their best to pull the film towards respectability, and ensure that although the words are uninspired, they are delivered with conviction. Janet Gaynor in particular shines as the spirited Martha. Loretta Young and Constance Bennett quickly provide clear differentiation in the women's personalities. Tyrone Power, Don Ameche and Alan Mowbray are prominent among the men, and provide distinct shades of male behaviour, ranging from suave to possessive.

Lacking laughs and liveliness, Ladies In Love is largely listless.

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Monday, 21 August 2017

Movie Review: Hancock (2008)

A superhero comedy with a difference, Hancock deserves credit for conjuring up an original perspective on all-powerful heroes, but then clumsily bifurcates into a discordant narrative.

In Los Angeles, Hancock (Will Smith) is an indestructible superhero with a bad attitude. He can fly, stop trains and bullets, and throw any object to a great distance, but he is also surly, destructive, frequently drunk and generally disliked, despite stopping criminals in their tracks. Meanwhile, Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) is a public relations consultant struggling to get his career on track. Married to Mary (Charlize Theron), Ray is finding no takers for his concept of branding corporate charity initiatives.

After Hancock intervenes to save Ray's life at a rail crossing, Ray takes it upon himself to try and improve Hancock's image. The superhero reluctantly agrees and surrenders himself to a stint behind bars as punishment for the carnage he has caused. Hancock is slow to participate in rehabilitation programs, but gradually opens up about his past and the source of his simmering anger. Revealing information about Hancock's background suddenly comes to light from an unexpected source.

At approximately the halfway point of Hancock, the big twist is revealed, and the film heads off in a whole new direction. Which is a pity. The abrupt change of trajectory launches the narrative towards a convoluted origins story where new facts come fast and furious, and none of them are given sufficient air to breathe. A lot is revealed about Hancock and his relationship with another character, but it's a rushed blur of history and science-fiction-made-up-on-the-fly.

It is too much to ask a 92 minute film to adequately tackle two different weighty themes, and Hancock's first part is by far the better. With some excellent laughs and a caustic attitude, director Peter Berg explores the emotional malaise of a reluctant superhero. Hancock is much more comfortable passed out cradling a bottle than rescuing anyone, but rescue he does, often leaving a trail of expensive mayhem in his wake. What causes a superhero to descend into a funk, and possible pathways for him to recover, make for a fun initial ride.

Will Smith and Jason Bateman bounce off each other with contrasting energy levels, Bateman's Ray fully invested in his own can-do pseudo management babble, Smith nailing Hancock's spare-me standoffishness. Charlize Theron gets to do a lot more in the second part of the film, but by then all the emotional momentum of the film's set-up is lost.

Elsewhere Berg mixes in the usual tired CGI effects at regular intervals to satisfy genre fans who just want to see ridiculous pixel-generated action.

Hancock soars when it sets its sights on the future, and stumbles on its own myth when it tries to explain the past.

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Sunday, 20 August 2017

Movie Review: Raintree County (1957)

A misguided attempt to create another Gone With The Wind, Raintree County sometimes looks gorgeous but sets a new benchmark for boredom.

Indiana, 1859. John Wickliff Shawnessey (Montgomery Clift) is a recently graduated young man in love with his sweetheart Nell (Eva Marie Saint). John is also enthralled by his teacher Professor Stiles (Nigel Patrick), and inspired by Stiles' words John goes into the swamplands on a fruitless quest to look for the mythical Raintree that gives the county its name. But John is soon hopelessly distracted by the arrival of the beautiful Susanna Drake (Elizabeth Taylor), a southern belle on a visit. After a brief tryst Susanna announces that she is pregnant, and John does the honourable thing and marries her. But the pregnancy story was a ruse and she was never carrying his child.

Further tension is added when John, a firm pro-Lincoln abolitionist, learns that Susanna supports slavery. On a trip south to her hometown of New Orleans John learns of Susanna's troubled family history, including a tragic house fire that killed her parents and a beloved Negro housekeeper. With Susanna starting to exhibit signs of mental illness, they move back north and start a family. The eruption of the Civil War adds more stress and John eventually has to fulfil his military duty and save his family.

An adaptation of a book by Ross Lockridge, Jr., Raintree County has the ingredients that could have created a rousing epic: a civil war setting, a mismatched romance, a clash of ideas between progressive idealism and prevailing pragmatism, academic discourse, and plenty of melodramatic personal tragedies. The settings are gorgeous and the costumes are lavish.

Somehow, in the hands of director Edward Dmytryk and screenwriter Millard Kaufman, the film never comes close to igniting. With horrid pacing, stiff dialogue and through-the-motions acting, Raintree County is three hours of tortuous boredom.

Whether before or after the car accident that scarred his face and shut down production for months, Montgomery Clift is bland and boring, a black hole sucking energy at the heart of the film. Elizabeth Taylor is poorly served by harsh characterization that destroys all empathy early: Susanna is a woman who lies about a pregnancy and goes to bed with an army of dolls, including a grotesque half-burned figurine. Subtle, coy or clever she is not, and between Susanna's unhinged personality and John's emptiness the film has nothing to latch onto.

Very late in the film John joins the war effort, and in the company of colourful rogue Orville 'Flash' Perkins (an over-animated Lee Marvin) Dmytryk finally finds a faint pulse, but even the battle scenes carry a cheap whiff.

As Clift and Taylor dominate scene after scene, the secondary cast is confined to the far background. Eva Marie Saint is, well, saintly as the long-suffering true love. Rod Taylor drifts in and out of the film on a single note as a politician-in-waiting. Agnes Moorehead and Walter Abel appear lost as John's parents.

A laborious exercise in endurance despite some pretty visuals, Raintree County is a painful slog through waist-high swamp waters.

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Saturday, 19 August 2017

Movie Review: Caligula (1979)

One of the more insane cinematic experiences to ever make it onto the screen, Caligula is a stylized historical epic with a stellar cast and a furtive sideline of hardcore pornography.

In the first century AD, Caligula (Malcolm McDowell) is a prince awaiting his destiny. He frolics with his sister Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy) and is aware that the head of the Praetorian Guard Macro (Guido Mannari) may be a rival for power. Caligula's great uncle, the half-crazed Emperor Tiberius (Peter O'Toole), is left without an ally when his closest confidant Nerva (John Gielgud) commits suicide. Macro soon helps Caligula dispose of the ailing Tiberius and the Prince ascends to Emperor.

Caligula moves quickly to eliminate perceived threats from Macro and his younger step brother Gemellus (Bruno Brive), elevating Chaerea (Paolo Bonacelli ) to the leadership of the Guard and installing Longinus (John Steiner) as his chief of staff. Prevented from marrying his true love Drusilla, Caligula instead selects Caesonia (Helen Mirren) as his bride-to-be provided she can provide him with an heir. Increasingly erratic in his behavior and then wracked by illness and personal loss, Caligula descends into a fog of madness fuelled by violence and debauchery.

An American-Italian co-production independently backed with a huge budget by Bob Guccione and his adult Penthouse magazine empire, Caligula is a grand-scale oddity. Undeniably compelling and gaudily artistic, the film presents a contorted tale of a young man's lust for power and subsequent implosion. Some of the narrative is inspired by history and most of it is imagination, and certainly the skimpy costumes and lavish sets are what a porn czar would want a godless empire to look like. Guccione's sheer audacity in going ahead and creating his vision is laudable.

The film went through a chaotic production cycle featuring multiple dueling visions, and was finally released without a recognized screenwriter, director or editor. It started life with celebrated writer Gore Vidal penning the script, but he clashed with director Tinto Brass and eventually disavowed the project. Brass himself then locked horns with Guccione, with Brass finally reduced to a Principal Photographer credit but only after delivering an initial partial cut. Guccione took control of the rest of the editing, a process credited to "the production".

Most controversially Guccione secretly recruited a few Penthouse pets and smuggled them onto the sets after hours. Along with Giancarlo Lui they filmed several scenes of explicit hardcore sex, and Guccione inserted that footage into the final cut (a hefty 156 minutes). He then proceeded to independently release the film by renting theatres and self-promoting the film, fanning the marketing machine by fighting high profile censorship battles wherever they materialized.

Given the background it is remarkable that the film works at any level. But while the barbaric violence, in-your-face nudity and unsimulated sex will offend many if not most, Caligula holds together enough to register as a controversial art piece. The themes of absolute power corrupting absolutely and the ruling elite of a pagan empire convulsing with conspiracies and corruption are hammered home with manic intensity.

Some of the scenes and visuals are unforgettable. The public wall of death machine is nightmare inducing, as is Caligula interfering in the post-wedding ceremony of an innocent couple. The full-scale indoor Roman vessel at over 50 metres long, 10 metres high and complete with 120 oars adds to the sense of lunacy, especially as a backdrop to a full fledged orgy.

Arriving as it did at the peak of the porno chic era, Caligula perhaps unsurprisingly attracted a cast of top talent. McDowell, O'Toole, Gielgud and Mirren were not aware that Guccione had plans to insert hardcore clips into his epic; they nevertheless signed up for a film produced by Penthouse and featuring full frontal nudity in almost every other scene. McDowell lets loose with a fearless performance that perfectly fits the psychosis milieu. O'Toole has just two early scenes, but they are substantive and pivotal in setting the context.

Sir John Gielgud infuses a sense of resignation to the inevitable before his character Nerva chooses his own departure time. Mirren, already a respected Shakespearean stage actress, manages to bring a quiet civility to the role of Caesonia while also participating in a softcore threesome with McDowell and Savoy.

A demented landmark, Caligula matches its subject matter in its abject insanity.

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Movie Review: A Dangerous Woman (1993)

A peculiar romance drama, A Dangerous Woman attempts to explore some relatively original territory but fails to coalesce.

Martha (Debra Winger) is a socially and physically awkward and lonely woman, able to function by herself but suffering from some form of mental illness. She lives in a guesthouse next to her aunt Frances (Barbara Hershey), who is carrying on an affair with aspiring politician Steve (John Terry), who in turn is married to the alcoholic and potentially violent Anita (Laurie Metcalf).

Martha is fired from her job at a laundromat, wrongly accused of a petty theft actually committed by sleazy co-worker Getso (David Strathairn). Meanwhile handyman drifter Mackey (Gabriel Byrne) shows up to repair Frances' porch. Hunky but frequently drunk, Mackey forges an unusual bond with Martha, who is having trouble letting go of the injustice perpetuated by Getso.

Directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal (and featuring his kids Jake and Maggie in tiny roles), A Dangerous Woman features a terrific Debra Winger performance and little else. Martha's behaviour often falls just outside the normal range, causing her no end of grief, and Winger immerses herself into the quirky mannerisms of a woman-child who has difficulties engaging in the logic of the adult world. The performance tugs at the heartstrings of sympathy and is almost aching in its sustained intensity.

Everywhere around Winger, the film falls short. An adaptation of a novel by Mary McGarry Morris, the story meanders along irrelevant pathways and fails to set a direction. The entire subplot featuring Frances, the politician Bell and his highly-strung wife Anita drops in and out of the film and goes exactly nowhere. Character depth, motivation and evolution is fundamentally lacking, and time passes very slowly with plenty of repetitive drunken episodes featuring Byrne stumbling about. A late incident of violence is followed by an unsatisfactorily pat resolution.

The film does wade into the thorny territory where the nature of sexual consent can be debated. Multiple impairments come together to give Martha both unexpected pleasure and a downstream conundrum. It's an interesting question but arrives too late and is almost entirely bypassed by the Naomi Foner script.

Stephen Gyllenhaal has spent most of his subsequent directorial career in television territory, and A Dangerous Woman has the small-time look and truncated sophistication of an episode from the third season of tired network series. One woman gives her all, but all else is dangerously stale and familiar.

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Movie Review: Black Widow (1987)

A slick psychological thriller, Black Widow entertains with a dangerous battle of wits between two damaged women.

An alluring woman who may be called Catherine (Theresa Russell) specializes in marrying older rich men and then expertly killing them with undetectable poisons, inheriting their vast wealth. After murdering the prosperous Mr. Peterson and then Dallas toy magnate Ben Dumers (Dennis Hopper), she targets Seattle museum curator William McCrory (Nicol Williamson).

Justice Department Agent Alex Barnes (Debra Winger), a workaholic with no private life, spots the pattern of aging wealthy men unexpectedly dying  after brief marriages, and starts to investigate. She tracks down McCrory but is unable to intervene. Catherine senses that she is being stalked and relocates to Hawaii, setting her sights on hotel tycoon Paul Nuytten (Sami Frey). With the help of scrappy private detective Shin (James Hong), Alex tracks down and befriends Catherine and has to try and find a way to stop the killing spree.

Although relatively lesser known, Black Widow is a welcome entry in the series of glossy and somewhat cerebral crime stories that hit the screen for about a decade starting in the early 1980s. Neo-noir in theme if not always in aesthetics, films like Body Heat, Fatal AttractionBasic Instinct and Jagged Edge played up eroticism as a key ingredient within the evil intent broth. In Black Widow sex and seduction play as much of a role as well-planned murders, and Catherine is a classic femme fatale. Her ability to ensnare a succession of powerful yet emotionally vulnerable men with purring sexuality is central to the premise.

Director Bob Rafelson had previously contributed to the revival of the eroticism-and-murder mix with his version of The Postman Always Rings Twice, and here he delivers a polished drama oozing with sensuality. As written by Ronald Bass, Black Widow skips past the violence, which happens exclusively off-screen, and instead focuses on the simmering emotions of two women circling each other in a lethal game of chess.

Catherine is beyond twisted, and Theresa Russell is excellent in providing a murderess with just the necessary hints of humanity. What may have started for her as a get-rich-quick scheme has evolved into an insatiable lust to conquer and kill. She needs to satisfy an incomprehensible urge for repeated demonstrations of domination, and Catherine herself has a limited understanding of what is driving her.

Alex's issues are relatively more mundane, and Debra Winger grounds the film with a steady performance combining determination with self-doubt. Alex is a magnet for men at the office, but swats them away with careless disdain, choosing instead to pursue Catherine and get under her skin.

Once the two women meet Rafelson injects the film with high-wattage erotic tension, conveniently starting with CPR training at a scuba diving course and an opportunity for mouth-to-mouth contact. Alex has to predict Catherine's thought process and get close enough to threaten the spider without getting herself stung, and the film deliciously hinges on whether she is maintaining or losing control.

Adding to the fun are some interesting secondary characters, most notably James Hong as a bottom-of-the-barrel private detective Shin. The other men surrounding Alex are all clumsily lustful and deserving of her disdain, while Catherine zeroes in on men too focussed on impressing her with money to notice her intent.

With the plot engaging throughout, Rafelson also creates a compelling aesthetic, contrasting with colour, fashion and set design Alex's shabby government-employee world with Catherine's jet-set life of glitz and glamour. Gradually the two meld together, and as Alex is drawn into Catherine's orbit, the style versus substance war plays out to the final scene. The ending is too abrupt, but then again, so is the sting of the Black Widow.

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Movie Review: The Sandpiper (1965)

A romantic drama, The Sandpiper sets out to examine the mid 1960s generational divide but is excessively talky, stodgy and melodramatic.

In the Big Sur coastal area of California, Laura Reynolds (Elizabeth Taylor) is a free-spirited artist and single mom homeschooling her 9 year old son Danny. When Danny's innocent mischievousness gets him into trouble with the law, Judge Thompson (Torin Thatcher) orders him into a religious boarding school run by Dr. Edward Hewitt (Richard Burton) and his wife Claire (Eva Marie Saint), despite Laura's protests.

Edward and Laura immediately clash about morals, values and perspectives on life, but gradually an attraction develops. Edward starts to find excuses to pass by Laura's beachside house, where he tangles with her friend the outspoken sculptor Cos Erickson (Charles Bronson). A full fledged passionate extramarital affair blossoms between Edward and Laura, causing him enormous feelings of guilt. The reemergence of Ward Hendricks (Robert Webber), one of Laura's former lovers, further complicates matters.

Featuring the celebrity couple of the era at the peak of their fame, The Sandpiper has good intentions to explore the shifting sands of society. Director Vincente Minnelli and a team of writers including Dalton Trumbo deserve credit for attempting to craft a cerebral love story, where the dialogue skips past the inane and engages weightier topics of guilt, personal freedom, and the movement away from traditional, religiously-dictated values and towards personally-defined beliefs.

But the problems are many and start with Taylor and Burton unable to convince in their roles or help the premise succeed. Taylor as a hippie who has turned her back on societal norms just does not wash. The actress is too glamorous for the role, and apart from delivering the lines written for her she never captures what it means to be a free spirit, neither in mannerisms nor looks. Too often Taylor appears in stunning outfits, hair made-up, full make-up on, hat sitting just so, a superstar awkwardly playing at being a hippie.

Meanwhile Burton is reserved and one-dimensional, Edward professing his love for Laura through clenched teeth. As a real life couple rocking the world with their love affair, it is remarkable how little of that chemistry makes it to the screen.

Charles Bronson as a beach artist is miscast, and Eva Marie Saint as the suffering wife is underused.

Minnelli does well to capture the jagged beauty of Big Sur, but otherwise allows the film to drag on for two hours. The plot, from a story written specifically for Taylor and Burton by producer Martin Ransohoff, is simply not strong enough to sustain the running length, and scene after scene of endless gab slow the drama down to a sleepwalking pace. Ironically the film perks up the most in a scene unrelated to the romance, when Edward confronts his professional life and admits that he is a sell-out who has strayed far from his principles.

The Sandpiper is a love story without the requisite passion, the momentum of the ocean crashing onto rocks far surpassing the energy of the central romance.

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Monday, 14 August 2017

Movie Review: Erin Brockovich (2000)

Based on a true story, Erin Brockovich is a stirring drama about two struggles: one woman fights to redefine herself, and one suffering community takes on a big corporate polluter.

In the Los Angeles area, Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts) is twice divorced and trying to raise three kids on her own. Desperate to find employment, she finally lands a filing clerk position at the ramshackle office of lawyer Edward Masry (Albert Finney) after he fails to secure compensation for her in a car accident case. At Masry's office Erin stumbles onto files related to the Pacific Gas and Electric Company and the small community of Hinkley. PG&E is attempting to quietly purchase the houses of many residents who appear to be suffering from various serious health ailments.

Erin takes it upon herself to personally investigate the case, and meets Donna Jensen (Marg Helgenberger) and her family to better understand their plight. She spends days digging up records at the local water authority office, and pieces together a soil and water contamination cover-up involving the dangerous chemical hexavalent chromium. Erin's personal, down-to-earth approach allows her to connect with more than 600 potential victims as the ramifications of the case grow into hundreds of millions of dollars, but all the hours at work are taking a toll on Erin's children and her latest boyfriend, next-door biker George (Aaron Eckhart).

Directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Susannah Grant, Erin Brockovich is a classic David versus Goliath story multiplied by two. Erin bulldozing her way into a respectable career against all odds plays out next to her efforts to win compensation for a tiny community from a behemoth corporation. Soderbergh makes both stories work in an engaging narrative that balances the deeply personal aspects of Erin's story with a high-stakes investigative drama about environmental maleficence.

The character of Erin is a huge part of the film's charm. Clobbered by life ever since she won a local beauty pageant, Erin has reached the stage of fighting back, and loudly. Unloading with profanity-laced tirades whenever she senses her rights being wronged, Erin is at once irrepressible, approachable and thorny. Insisting at all times on big hair, small skirts, uncomfortably high heels and either tight or transparent cleavage-revealing tops, the one thing she now refuses to do is fade away. Her scrappy attitude, persistence and street smarts make for a potent combination.

Julia Roberts brings Erin to life in an Academy Award winning performance. Roberts is not about one highlight scene or revealing profound depths of character. Rather, over the two hours of running time her portrayal focuses on capturing a real and uncompromising woman with all her faults, fears, strengths, and spirit. She dominates the film and never dips into sentimentality or victimhood.

Albert Finney provides the perfect foil as the veteran lawyer Edward Masry. Finney allows Masry to be Erin's opposing force, absorbing plenty of her flack and firing back with no shortage of his own understated venom. The two gradually work their way to becoming a formidable duo, her energy and his experience gelling into a powerful team.

The investigation into the soil and water contamination mystery remains admirably grounded in facts and legal process. Erin's truth-seeking efforts consist of unglamorous digging through files in government offices coupled with finding then talking to the victims to learn their affecting stories of disease and suffering. Gradually insiders and informers also step forward to provide key puzzle pieces. Soderbergh constructs the process of connecting the dots with a welcome pragmatism and avoids needless theatrics.

In keeping with the film's focus on reality, most of the tension comes from Erin trying to hold her personal life together as the case consumes every waking hour. Her relationship with her children suffers, and boyfriend George is reduced to an unhappy babysitter. Balancing kids, career and partner becomes a daring juggling act.

Erin Brockovich is a compelling drama about the individual and the collective, engaged in a common fight for recognition and respect.

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Sunday, 13 August 2017

Movie Review: How Do You Know (2010)

An insipid romance, How Do You Know is a torturous two hours of nothingness.

At 31 years old Lisa Jorgenson (Reese Witherspoon) is cut from the US national baseball team. She starts dating two men: professional baseball star Matty Reynolds (Owen Wilson) and businessman George Madison (Paul Rudd). Matty is rich, handsome and superficial, but starts to genuinely care about Lisa. George is head of a large corporation, but he is facing a serious fraud investigation related to falsifying tax records. George's pregnant personal assistant Annie (Kathryn Hahn) is loyal, but his domineering father Charles (Jack Nicholson) appears to be behind all that is bad in George's life.

Lisa moves into Matty's swanky apartment, but he misbehaves just enough to push here away and into the waiting arms of George. Meanwhile, Charles is trying to find a way to stay out of trouble with regulators by pushing George deeper into the hole.

Written, directed and co-produced by James L. Brooks, How Do You Know may be the moment a once great filmmaker finally hit the wall with a dull thud. From the uninspired title to the stultifying pacing and abject lack of content, How Do You Know is devoid of laughs, drama or genuine emotion of any kind. The film rolls over and dies early, with neither Brooks nor the cast able to generate even the faintest of pulses.

The one interesting element in the plot would have been Lisa dealing with the rejection of being summarily cut from the sport she loved. Witherspoon tries hard in a couple of scenes to convey the trauma of dealing with the emptiness that resides on the other side of the dream, but Brooks soon loses interest and resumes the ping pong between Matty and George. Witherspoon is reduced to hauling her luggage back and forth between the two men, by buses and taxis, in an unbelievable display of bankrupt writing.

Meanwhile the two men stay at the most superficial level, Matty the playboy athlete and George the honest businessman. Neither progress an inch from their starting positions, and two hours into the movie Matty is still being a dork and George is still all innocent puppy admiration. In a desperate attempt to stretch the proceedings to two hours, Brooks introduces several scenes in which the characters agree to not talk, and then proceed to not communicate, thereby setting up more excruciating scenes to cover the same ground.

How Do You Know is sad late career misfire for Brooks as director and Nicholson as a film star, and they both took a long, possibly permanent hiatus after this debacle.

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Saturday, 12 August 2017

Movie Review: In Your Eyes (2014)

A romance fantasy, In Your Eyes delves into what makes two people connect while touching on issues of mental illness and loneliness.

As a child, Dylan Kershaw physically experienced a sledding accident through the eyes of Rebecca Porter, who crashed into a tree. More than twenty years later Dylan (Michael Stahl-David) is on parole having just been released from a stint in prison for theft. He lives in a ramshackle mobile home in rural New Mexico. Suddenly he mentally connects with Rebecca (Zoe Kazan), who is in New Hampshire and married to Phillip (Mark Feuerstein), a respected doctor.

Through telepathy Dylan and Rebecca can talk and physically share experiences. They realize that they have been sharing experiences throughout their lives. They start to regularly chat and get to know each other, behaviour which leads to a blossoming romance and accusations of mental illness. Rebecca tries to help Dylan survive a date with local girl Donna (Nikki Reed), as he fends off pressure from his past criminal associates. Meanwhile he learns that Rebecca has a history of mental trauma, with the career-driven Phillip playing the complex role of saviour, lover and protector.

Written by Joss Whedon and directed by Brin Hill, In Your Eyes offers a hypnotically original perspective on romance. Echoing other together-but-apart efforts such as The Lake House, In Your Eyes goes further, toying with the external symptoms of schizophrenia, and asking what crazy in love actually means when two people connect at the deepest level and effectively become one.

It's a mesmerizing premise, and Hill paces the film with great beauty. The connection is established early, allowing the theme to develop first with intrigue, then with depth, followed by romance and physical intimacy (think phone sex without the phone), and then jealousy and even the lovers' quarrel. All the time Dylan and Rebecca are dealing with the outside world observing their increasingly bizarre behaviour as they talk to themselves with increasing comfort.

In order to work the film requires fully committed performances, and both Zoe Kazan and Michael Stahl-David deliver. Acting opposite each other but alone, they smoothly slip into the mindspace occupied by somewhere else and believably function within two realities. Kazan, in particular, is captivating as she gradually reveals Rebecca's anguish, her physical mannerisms always hinting at a woman struggling against something not quite right despite being surrounded by all the modern trappings of success.

The ending could have gone in many different directions, and the choice made is perhaps slightly less brave than the rest of the film. But In Your Eyes is a gem of a romance, a subtle and gentle exploration of infatuation and the magical bonds that merge two into one.

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Friday, 11 August 2017

Movie Review: The Big Wedding (2013)

A feeble comedy, The Big Wedding is a an underwritten and mostly unfunny attempt at farce.

In suburban Connecticut, Don Griffin (Robert De Niro), his ex-wife Ellie (Diane Keaton) and his current partner Bebe (Susan Sarandon) are set to host the wedding of Don and Ellie's adopted son Alejandro (Ben Barnes) to Missy O'Connor (Amanda Seyfried). The other Griffin children are Jared (Topher Grace), a hunky doctor still seeking his first sexual experience, and Lyla (Katherine Heigl), who has recently separated from her husband. Ahead of the wedding Alejandro and Missy seek the advice of Father Moinighan (Robin Williams), who is a recovering alcoholic like Don.

The wedding arrangement are rocked when Alejandro announces that his biological mother Madonna (Patricia Rae), who is arriving from Colombia, is a strict Catholic and he has never told her that his adopted parents are divorced. Don and Ellie agree to pretend that they are still married, much to Bebe's disgust. Meanwhile Alejandro's biological sister Nuria (Ana Ayora) immediately sets her sights on Jared. A messy situation gets worse when passion seems to reignite between Don and Ellie, and secrets are revealed involving Missy's parents Muffin (Christine Ebersole) and Barry (David Rasche).

A case of throwing as many recognizable names as possible at the screen and hoping for the best, The Big Wedding is a colossal waste of talent. Directed and written by Justin Zackham, the film sputters and stumbles in search of any meaningful traction, and mostly settles for an endless stream of juvenile sexual jokes involving adults who should know better.

Zackham litters the script with references to oral sex, out-of-wedlock affairs from long ago, lesbian encounters, extended orgasms, handjobs, loud coupling and the size of specific body parts. The material is what would be expected in a raunchy low-budget teen comedy aimed at the undiscriminating market. But here it is applied to a cast featuring multiple Academy Award winners in search of an easy pay cheque.

Worse still, most of the attempted comedy is in the form of lazy verbal sparring rather than actually creating funny situations. By the second half of the film it is clear that anyone can say anything about anyone, everyone is guilty of some sexual proclivity or other, but none of it matters because it's all talk and the film is heading to the same bland conclusions no matter what.

De Niro cannot help but stand out as much better than the material, and Katherine Heigl is the only other cast member who appears to be trying. The others mail in performances that are way too easy, with Williams a particularly lazy culprit.

Despite the stellar invitation list, The Big Wedding is as enjoyable as a bed wetting.

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Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Movie Review: National Lampoon's Vacation (1983)

A road trip comedy, National Lampoon's Vacation concocts a hit-and-miss subversive mix of dark humour with seemingly innocent family fun.

The eternally optimistic Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) insists on taking his family on a long road trip from Chicago to the Walley World theme park in Los Angeles. His wife Ellen (Beverly D'Angelo) and kids Rusty and Audrey (Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron) are less enthusiastic but pack into the newly acquired garish green Wagon Queen Family Truckster station wagon to embark on the trip.

Along the way they stop in Kansas to visit Ellen's country bumpkin cousin Catherine (Miriam Flynn), her husband Eddie (Randy Quaid) and their numerous children. Ellen and Eddie foist Phoenix-bound Aunt Edna (Imogene Coca) and her gnarly dog onto the Griswolds. The adventurous episodes continue, including an unscheduled sojourn into the desert and frequent encounters with a beautiful woman (Christie Brinkley) driving a red Ferrari.

Trendsetting for its time, National Lampoon's Vacation was written by John Hughes (based on his short story for National Lampoon magazine), and directed by Harold Ramis. The film features coarse language spouted in front of children, mild nudity, animal cruelty, sudden death, a theme of middle-aged lust, and unhinged behaviour that tips into armed threats. But it's all presented in the context of an uproariously fun family road trip with a cheerful father egging his brood to have a good time.

The film's dual personality is what gives it a sharp edge, because otherwise this is an episodic and fairly sparse comedy singularly lacking in narrative arcs or character depth. Beyond Clark's insistence that the family ought to have fun no matter how little fun they are having, the film trundles on from one set piece to another, fully dependent on abject stupidity to land the Griswolds in their next mess.

Clark's other journey is that of a middle aged man lusting after a mythical sexy girl driving a super sportscar. The reality is that no Christie Brinkley would ever cast a second glance at a doofus like Clark Griswold as he lugs his family around in a ridiculous station wagon, and this is part of Hughes' perverted take on comedy.

Chevy Chase's screen persona of the straight man with a much higher opinion of himself than merited is perfectly deployed to create Griswold, and he arrows through the film on a downward trajectory towards total humiliation. Other funny men appear in small roles, including Eugene Levy as a car salesman and John Candy as a security guard at Walley World.

National Lampoon's Vacation travels the bumpy road of comedy, delivering some laughs, some bewilderment and plenty of silliness.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Movie Review: A Farewell To Arms (1957)

A grand romantic drama set against the backdrop of war, A Farewell To Arms enjoys some salient moments but also gets bogged down in arduous prolonged on-location padding.

The setting is the Great War, in northern Italy. Frederick Henry (Rock Hudson) is a well-liked American who has volunteered as an ambulance driver in the Italian Army. His close friend Major Alessandro Rinaldi (Vittorio De Sica) introduces him to the newly arrived British nurse Catherine Barkley (Jennifer Jones). Frederick and Catherine immediately hit it off, but their nascent relationship is interrupted when the Italian Army starts an offensive across the Alps and Frederick is called into action.

He sustains a knee injury which necessitates a long period of rehabilitation at an American-run hospital, and an opportunity to resume the illicit affair with Catherine and cultivate a deep love, culminating in pregnancy. They discuss getting married, but that would force Catherine back to Britain as married nurses are not allowed to serve. When Frederick is sufficiently healed, grouchy nurse Van Campen (Mercedes McCambridge) releases him back into service, forcing another separation. This time the Italian Army is routed, and Frederick experiences the worst horrors of war.

An adaptation of the Ernest Hemingway novel directed by Charles Vidor, A Farewell To Arms was producer David O. Selznick's final attempt to create an epic at the success scale of Gone With The Wind. Hollywood's second kick at the story after a 1932 effort starring Gary Cooper and Helen Hates, this version is a sometimes plodding CinemaScope affair, inordinately self-satisfied with scenery and location shooting. Working from a Ben Hecht script, Vidor (who replaced John Huston) botches the pacing, and long stretches of the film's 152 minutes appear to be little more than an excuse for adding yet more European vistas.

On the positive side there is plenty of adventurous material on display to generate intrigue and controversy. The film takes on some difficult topics, including sex and pregnancy outside of marriage circa 1917, defeated armies turning upon themselves, and the silent tragedy of both civilians and soldiers exposed to war's brutality. Vidor does not shy away from gore, and his best sequence is a mammoth, near-silent retreat, as defeated, exhausted and emotionally spent men, women and children trudge through the mud to escape death or welcome it. And through the character of Major Rinaldi, a grizzled army veteran, the mind-bending mental strain of the conflict is also explored.

And some of the wide-screen scenery is a joy to behold. The sight of the Italian Army columns on the move along the steep switchbacks of the Alps towards the Austrian front lines is fine cinematic craftsmanship.

While these highlights are welcome and often sparkle, the central romance eventually dominates the film entirely. Long stretches of the second half are exclusively centered on Frederick and Catherine, either joyously in love or confronting the consequences of their actions. Both the war and all the secondary characters disappear, and the two lovers predictably wilt under the pressure of carrying an epic.

Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones are passable without ever setting the screen alight. Hudson operates within a fairly narrow range on either side of bland. Jones is more interesting, and allows hints of her character's fragility to sneak out through sheer insistence on being a perfect, almost subservient partner.

Ambitious but unbalanced, A Farewell To Arms has love leaving war behind, but unfortunately also losing its edge in the process.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Movie Review: Notting Hill (1999)

A romantic comedy, Notting Hill is heavy on star power and ambiance, with enough moments of humour to help navigate an overlong running time.

International movie star Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) is in London to promote her latest film. She visits the bookstore owned and operated by the divorced Will Thacker (Hugh Grant) in the Notting Hill neighbourhood. After another accidental sidewalk encounter involving spilled orange juice, Anna and Will share a kiss and start a tentative low-key relationship. Will's eccentric roommate Spike (Rhys Ifans), his friends Max (Tim McInnerny) and Bella (Gina McKee), and his starstruck sister Honey (Emma Chambers) can barely believe what Will is up to.

But soon reality intervenes in the form of Anna's Hollywood boyfriend Jeff King (an uncredited Alec Baldwin), and Will gets on with his life. But Anna suddenly reappears at his apartment, seeking refuge from an exploding scandal involving pre-stardom nude pictures. Will has to decide whether a relationship with one of the most famous women in the world is worth the trouble.

With Roberts and Grant both close to their peak wattage as big screen stars, Notting Hill benefits from an endless supply of photogenic opportunities. Director Roger Michell adopts languid pacing, allowing the romance to blossom at a measured, almost hesitant speed, but more importantly always lingering on the attractive faces of his two leads for just a bit longer than each scene should allow.

The other star of the film is the community of Notting Hill, the film setting up in a trendy corner of London and making best use of a location less obstructed by tourist traps and enlivened by natural street activity and charming architecture.

The Roger Curtis script avoids many of the genre's worst traps. Will's competition for Anna's heart is not another man or a series of contrived misunderstandings. Rather, her status as one of the planet's most admired women sits uneasily with his reality as a modest store owner with quirky friends who sit around the table arguing about who has the saddest life. Straddling the divide between the manufactured glitz of Hollywood and the authenticity of everyday life is the challenge facing this romance.

Julia Roberts essentially plays herself and does a fine job. She generates plenty of apparently genuine down-to-earth emotion, but always allows room for the character of Anna to be in potentially acting mode. Hugh Grant reins in his roguish tendencies and stays well within himself while allowing the sensitivity of an often disappointed man to shine through.

After a couple of unnecessary machinations that push the running time past two hours, Notting Hill does end with the perfunctory madcap race-against-time for the two lovers to have their final encounter. It's a better-than-most romantic comedy, but it's still a romantic comedy.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Doom (2005)

An adaptation of the revolutionary first person shooter computer game, Doom is mess of muddled action and bad science.

It's the year 2046, and there is trouble on a Mars research facility accessed through an "Ark" portal in Nevada. A group of Marines led by Sarge (Dwayne Johnson) and including Reaper (Karl Urban) are dispatched to investigate reports of carnage. At the research centre they team up with Reaper's twin sister Samantha (Rosamund Pike), who is one of the scientists conducting genetic experiments to replicate superhuman powers apparently perfected by an ancient but defunct civilization.

The Marines fan out and soon stumble upon murderous monsters with super strength. As the Marines sustain casualties, tensions mount and it becomes apparent that the infected dead can rise again and cause havoc. Sarge is determined to annihilate all living things before evil is transported back to Earth, but Reaper and Samantha want to be more careful about who to kill and who to protect.

The videogame Doom and its sequels reimagined what gaming can be, and became a worldwide phenomenon. Adapting a visceral first-person experience to the more staid movie screen was always going to be tricky, and the project predictably fails. Despite a fair effort from director Andrzej Bartkowiak, Doom the movie is often too dark, the action an incomprehensible blur, the monsters poorly defined. Too many minutes are burned with images of marines pointing their rifles and searching nondescript and poorly lit rooms, waiting for the next beast to emerge from the shadows.

Still there are flashes of promise. The film hints at an interesting backstory involving the parents of Reaper and Samantha. And placing siblings rather than an awkward attempt at a romance close to the centre of the story is a welcome touch. The discussion of genetics, chromosomes and pathways of evolution would have generated more curiosity in better hands, while the conflict between the follow-orders Sarge and the more conflicted Reaper does build up nicely.

But unfortunately the better moments are overtaken by repetitive forgettable firefights generating plenty of noise but clumsy, grainy visuals, and only the half-crazed Corporal Dean Portman (played with wild-eyed intensity by Richard Brake) registers from among the supporting cast of disposable Marines. Dwayne Johnson (credited under his wrestling name The Rock) and Karl Urban are all about muscular grimness, while Rosamund Pike, three years after her Bond girl debut, finds herself ankle deep in gore.

Late on, Bartkowiak captures the spirit of the game with a fun first person perspective sequence in which Reaper finally gets mad and embarks on a wild monster killing spree. Otherwise, Doom is dour, dreary, and dank.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Accepted (2006)

A high school comedy, Accepted has one bright idea but then fails to do anything of substance with a story of oddballs launching their own place of higher learning.

In suburban Ohio, Bartleby Gaines (Justin Long) graduates from high school, fails to get accepted into any college, and equally fails to get noticed by beautiful classmate Monica (Blake Lively). Wilting under the pressure of his disappointed parents, Bartleby teams up with fellow misfits, including brainy Rory (Maria Thayer) and athletic "Hands" (Columbus Short), and creates an acceptance letter from the fake South Harmon Institute of Technology. Bartleby's best friend Sherman (Jonah Hill), who does have an acceptance to the real Harmon College, helps out by creating a functional website for the fake Institute.

Using $10,000 from his parents Bartleby and his friends leases and refurbishes an abandoned mental hospital. Soon they are flooded with underperforming students, as Sherman had programmed the website to issue one-click acceptances. While Sherman struggles with demeaning fraternity initiating rights, Bartleby is faced with the challenge of actually creating a functional college, winning Monica's heart, and fending off the evil ambitions of Harmon College's Dean Richard Van Horne (Anthony Heald).

A one-joke teen comedy, on a few occasions Accepted threatens to create a few laughs. But the film, mechanically directed by Steve Pink and featuring an obnoxious soundtrack of obvious rock tracks, quickly exhausts its premise and spends most of its 92 minutes killing time until a tired climactic speech exalting the virtues of individuality, nonconformity and yes, acceptance.

The talent in front of the camera almost makes the experience watchable. Justin Long, Jonah Hill and Blake Lively and the bright Maria Thayer are committed enough to deserve better material, but they cannot save Accepted from sinking in its sea of bland predictability.

Their characters are borrowed from ancient and much better movies including Animal House and all its imitators. After creating the clever-but-lazy Bartleby and his brainstorm of inventing his own college, the team of three writers forgets to insert anything resembling actual laughs or original content. The Institute's abbreviation appears to be their proudest achievement. The result is a tired movie that sits by the pool, ogles girls in bikinis, attends parties and waits for the end credits.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Movie Review: Crimson Tide (1995)

A post-Cold War submarine thriller, Crimson Tide expertly explores a tense scenario involving a high-stakes conflict among commanders.

Hunter (Denzel Washington) is the new Executive Officer (XO) on the USS Alabama, a submarine armed with nuclear missiles and commanded by Captain Ramsey (Gene Hackman). Ramsey is a cigar-chomping old school leader who creates his own rules but is respected by his men. Hunter is younger, more cerebral and willing to think through situations before pulling the trigger. When a rebel faction of the Russian army takes control of a nuclear facility and threatens to launch nukes at the United States, the Alabama sets sail in readiness for a potential war. The boat's officers include Zimmer (Matt Craven), Cob (George Dzundza), Weps (Viggo Mortensen) and Dougherty (James Gandolfini).

Hunter and Ramsey clash frequently as the sub approaches waters off Asia. Then an enemy sub is spotted, and at the same time orders are received to prepare for the launch of nuclear weapons against Russian targets. But after the Alabama sustains damage, including a breakdown of the communications system, another incomplete message is received, potentially canceling the missile launch orders. Ramsey insists on pressing ahead with the potentially world-altering launch of nukes, but Hunter demands a delay to verify the orders. A tense stand-off ensues, testing the loyalty of the the men on board.

Directed by Tony Scott and produced by the Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer power duo, Crimson Tide is a better example of what the glitzy 1990s could deliver in terms of cerebral-oriented thrillers. Mostly aiming for tension, mental strain and building drama instead of cheap thrillers and explosions, Scott makes good use of an original Michael Schiffer screenplay, and Crimson Tide is a fine example of the submarine war drama sub-genre, carrying echoes of classic command conflict dramas such as Run Silent, Run Deep and The Caine Mutiny.

The film's premise worms its way into a real but unlikely scenario. United States nuclear submarine commanders used to have a certain level of autonomy to launch nukes independent of final confirmation from the President. And the on-board situation conjured up by Schiffer was theoretically possible: both Hunter and Ramsey were correct in their opposing positions. With communications lost Ramsey was justified in following the last received orders and unleashing a holocaust. Hunter had enough reason to refuse to second that command. It's a compelling set-up and cleverly exploits the generational gap between the scar-tested Ramsey and the more circumspect Hunter.

But this is a Tony Scott film, and after a careful build-up the balance occasionally tips towards contrived thrills. Opposing forces are formed, guns are drawn, threats are made, there is a frantic race to fix damaged equipment and of course an artificial countdown clock provides a backdrop to a just-in-time climax.

The weaker moments are more than tolerable thanks to the fine form of the two leading stars. Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman are perfectly cast and expertly play off each other, Hackman comfortable as the seen-it-all crusty veteran confident in his own judgement, and Washington nailing the newcomer who has to tiptoe his way into a pre-established delicate dynamic between Captain and crew. When the two clash head to head, the screen positively sizzles. The supporting cast is disciplined, and Jason Robards makes an uncredited late appearance back on shore.

Crimson Tide streaks through the ocean on a mission to deliver taut entertainment, and the torpedoes mostly register satisfying hits.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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