Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Movie Review: No Reservations (2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Movie Review: The Prestige (2006)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Movie Review: Flat Top (1952)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Movie Review: Suddenly (1954)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Movie Review: Amour (2012)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Movie Review: Too Young To Kiss (1951)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Bride Goes Wild (1948)

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Change-Up (2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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