Sunday, 29 January 2023

Movie Review: Heartburn (1986)


Genre: Romantic Drama
Director: Mike Nichols
Starring: Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson
Running Time: 109 minutes

Synopsis: Food writer Rachel Samstat (Meryl Streep) falls in love with political columnist Mark Forman (Jack Nicholson), despite his reputation as a hopeless womanizer. They get married, move into a Washington DC house in need of extensive renovations, and start a family. Rachel is enjoying a blissfully happy life until she realizes Mark is cheating on her.

What Works Well: Nora Ephron adapted her own semi-autobiographical book for the screen, and the dream duo of Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson ensure an eminently watchable experience. Director Mike Nichols adopts a patient stance with long uninterrupted takes to develop a sense of couplehood familiarity. The mix of chuckles and acrimony is true to life, and the supporting cast (featuring Stockard Channing, Jeff Daniels, Catherine O'Hara, Maureen Stapleton, and Kevin Spacey in an early role) is full of talent.

What Does Not Work As Well: Several scenes appear improvised and hint at lazy writing. The story is only interested in Rachel's perspective, and ultimately she is the less interesting character. With Mark never afforded an opportunity to reveal his inner demons, Nichols abandons the philanderer instead of probing essential motivations, resulting in a superficial rather than insightful exploration of a failed marriage.

Conclusion: Acting talent salvages shallow plotting.



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Saturday, 28 January 2023

Movie Review: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019)


Genre: Biographical Crime Drama
Director: Joe Berlinger
Starring: Zac Efron, Lily Collins
Running Time: 108 minutes

Synopsis: In Seattle of 1969, college student and single mother Liz Kendall (Lily Collins) falls in love with the charismatic Ted Bundy (Zac Efron), an aspiring law student. They move in together and over the next few years Liz pays scant attention to news reports of women being brutally murdered. She is surprised when Ted is arrested in Utah and charged with aggravated kidnapping. He professes innocence and Liz wants to believe him, but murder charges follow in Colorado then Florida. Ted faces a series of trials and attempts several escapes, as Liz's confidence in the man she loves slowly erodes.

What Works Well: The adaptation of Kendall's book reveals just how blind love can be, and the ability of murderous psychopaths to hide in plain sight. Zac Efron blows past his lightweight screen persona to reveal a cogent dark side, and Lily Collins is steady as a woman struggling against looming truths that threaten to destroy all her conceptions. The 1970s are recreated with convincing brown-dominated wardrobes, hairstyles, and aesthetics.

What Does Not Work As Well: Bundy's victims are abstract afterthoughts (until a list in the credits), and director Joe Berlinger errs on the side of demonstrating a killer's magnetism at the expense of his brutality (expressed in the title, but barely present in the movie). The imbalance buttresses Liz's incredulity, but ignores half the story. In any event, as the film evolves into a courtroom farce with Ted defending himself, Liz fades into the background.

Conclusion: A quiet affirmation of disbelief, but narrative blindspots degrade the drama's impact.



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Sunday, 22 January 2023

Movie Review: Peyton Place (1957)


Genre: Small Town Drama
Director: Mark Robson
Starring: Lana Turner, Lee Philips, Hope Lange, Diane Varsi, Arthur Kennedy, Lloyd Nolan, Russ Tamblyn
Running Time: 157 minutes

Synopsis: The setting is 1941 in the New England town of Peyton Place. Emotionally cold widow Constance MacKenzie (Lana Turner) is raising her 18 year old daughter Allison (Diane Varsi), who has her eye on quiet classmate Norman (Russ Tamblyn). Allison's best friend Selena (Hope Lange) is suffering abuse from her alcoholic stepfather Lucas (Arthur Kennedy). Batchelor Michael Rossi (Lee Philips) is the new school principal, and attempts to romance Constance. Businessman Harrington (Leon Ames) runs the local garment factory and does not approve of his son Rodney dating the school's sauciest girl Betty (Terry Moore). The level-headed Dr. Swain (Lloyd Nolan) knows everyone in town, and faces his biggest dilemma when a violent death shocks the community.

What Works Well: Director Mark Robson and writer John Michael Hayes deftly wrestle the Grace Metalious book into an era-suitable screen epic revealing secrets behind well-kept lawns. The characters are efficiently introduced, and Robson quickly teases out intertwined themes related to parenting, generational gaps, family secrets, abuse, and love and lust at life's various stages. The narrative threads are held together by the collective psychology of a one-industry small town, a great place to leave for any young person with ambition. Although billed in secondary roles, Hope Lange and Diane Varsi carry the dramatic load and excel in surfacing the complexities of growing into adulthood. 

What Does Not Work As Well: The running time is marginally excessive, padded by an unnecessarily long Labour Day country fair segment. Plucked into a major production for his first role, newcomer Lee Philips does his best but is far from bringing any heft or charisma to a starring role. Some of the climactic courtroom procedures appear to break basic justice system tenets.

Conclusion: Engrossing behind-the-curtain peak at the myriad personal challenges that constitute a perfectly flawed community.



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Saturday, 21 January 2023

Movie Review: Johnny Guitar (1954)


Genre: Western
Director: Nicholas Ray
Starring: Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge
Running Time: 110 minutes

Synopsis: Tough saloon owner Vienna (Joan Crawford) stands to make a good profit by selling her property to the rail company. The mysterious Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) arrives in town just in time to find Vienna locked in a feud with Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) and cattle baron McIvers (Ward Bond). Emma is also Vienna's rival for the affections of the slick Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady), who leads an outlaw gang. Johnny has to decide where to park his loyalties as Vienna is given a deadline to leave town or face the consequences.

What Works Well: This is cerebral western with acidic dialogue exchanges oscillating between icy and steamy, and only rarely interrupted by bursts of action and violence. All the drama is propelled by the ambitions and passions of two headstrong women. Director Nicholas Ray uses patient sequences to delve behind character facades and uncover simmering secrets and psychological hang-ups. Scene staging and framing are often superb, with clever character placements enhanced by vivid colours to underline emotional turmoil. An exuberant Joan Crawford delivers a domineering, larger-than-life performance, which Sterling Hayden counterbalances with a perfectly lackadaisical attitude. John Carradine and Ernest Borgnine further enrich the supporting cast.

What Does Not Work As Well: Even at just 110 minutes, a trim would have sharpened the pacing. The lack of an escape route out of town, presumably due to rock blasting, is far-fetched.

Conclusion: A uniquely compelling western, riveting in both style and content.



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Movie Review: The Man With The Golden Arm (1955)


Genre: Addiction Drama
Director: Otto Preminger
Starring: Frank Sinatra, Eleanor Parker, Kim Novak
Running Time: 119 minutes

Synopsis: Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra) returns to his old neighbourhood after a six month addiction treatment stint. An ace card dealer for back-alley poker games, he now wants to stay clean and become a jazz drummer. His bitter and clingy wife Sophia (Eleanor Parker) is confined to a wheelchair and hiding a secret, but Frankie has a warmer relationship with his downstairs neighbour Molly (Kim Novak). Frankie finds it difficult to resist bad influences and is soon pressured back into old habits.

What Works Well: Screenwriter Walter Newman and director Otto Preminger create a hypnotic down-and-out litter-strewn neighbourhood corner dominated by the local bar and neon signs for gaudy nightclubs. This is not an environment for kicking an addiction habit, and unsurprisingly Frankie's good intentions are threatened by well-entrenched sleazoids, from his wife to the local drug peddler (Darren McGavin) and the poker game organizer (Robert Strauss). Frank Sinatra finds a career peak, throwing himself into an addition ordeal with admirable zest. Elmer Bernstein's music and Saul Bass' opening credit sequence are both iconic.

What Does Not Work As Well: The outdoor set is clearly studio-bound on the RKO lot, and Frankie's up-and-down cycles are a bit repetitive.

Conclusion: A gritty and compelling humanization of addiction's stranglehold.



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Movie Review: Guilty As Sin (1993)


Genre: Crime Mystery Courtroom Drama
Director: Sidney Lumet
Starring: Don Johnson, Rebecca De Mornay, Jack Warden
Running Time: 107 minutes

Synopsis: After winning her latest case, fast-rising Chicago-based defence lawyer Jennifer Haines (Rebecca De Mornay) accepts wealthy gigolo David Greenhill (Don Johnson) as a new client. He is accused of murdering his rich wife, but claims she committed suicide and arranged to frame him. Jennifer is at first intrigued by David, but he soon reveals his dangerously twisted and obsessive character, intruding into her private life and placing her at risk.

What Works Well: Larry Cohen's script contains nuggets of a mostly unexploited psychological nightmare. Rebecca De Mornay's performance is inconsistent, but she does enjoy a few good moments as Jennifer experiences an emotional rollercoaster. Jack Warden bings veteran frumpiness into a welcome supporting role as Jennifer's investigator, while the final tussle is of the so-bad-it's-good variety. 

What Does Not Work As Well: Director Sidney Lumet is unable to generate neither eroticism nor suspense, and the production settles into mechanical and uninspired beats, the plot succumbing to preposterous twists. Don Johnson overplays the villain role, taking quick refuge in smarminess. His character's meticulous care gives way to literal bludgeoning, and police investigations of the mounting crime count are conspicuously absent. The courtroom scenes are frequently edited into microclips, failing to generate the requisite drama.

Conclusion: Case dismissed due to flimsy plotting and slipshod execution.



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Monday, 16 January 2023

Movie Review: Coda (2019)


Genre: Drama, Romance
Director: Claude Lalonde
Starring: Patrick Stewart, Katie Holmes
Running Time: 96 minutes

Synopsis: Celebrated concert pianist Sir Henry Cole (Patrick Stewart) makes a triumphant return to performances after a break of several years due to his wife's death. But Henry's anxieties are eroding his confidence, despite pep talks from his agent Paul (Giancarlo Esposito). New Yorker writer Helen (Katie Holmes) wants to interview Henry for a piece she is preparing, and eventually he agrees. A deep friendship develops between them before everything changes again.

What Works Well: The topics of anxiety, mourning, and aging are handled with understated elegance, underlining the fragile humanity at the heart of perceived stardom. Patrick Stewart slips gracefully into a role etched with more questions than answers, and the bond between concert pianist and respectful writer evolves in measured steps. The soundtrack of classical piano music adds melancholic lyricism.

What Doesn't Work As Well: The pacing is ponderous, and the running time is padded with passing scenery interludes. Many scenes suffer from lack of clarity in terms of timeline and setting - is this Europe, the US, or the UK? The 38 year age difference between Stewart and Holmes - he could be her grandfather - introduces itchiness around suggestions of a burgeoning romance. Some of the dialogue aims for profound but only achieves superficiality.

Conclusion: A relaxed twilight-of-life character portrait celebrating music's healing qualities.



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Sunday, 15 January 2023

Movie Review: Unhinged (2020)


Genre: Action Thriller
Director: Derrick Borte
Starring: Russell Crowe, Karen Pistorius
Running Time: 93 minutes

Synopsis: Disgruntled and depressed after losing his job and marriage, middle-aged Tom Cooper (Russell Crowe) kills his ex-wife and her new husband and sets their house on fire. Separately, Rachel Flynn (Caren Pistorius) is a harried mother to young teen Kyle (Gabriel Bateman), and going through a divorce of her own. Late to drop off Kyle at school, Rachel honks at Tom at a traffic light, and refuses to apologize. He is triggered into a violent rage, determined to make Rachel's life a living hell.

What Works Well: A mash-up of Falling Down, Duel, and The Hitcher, Unhinged is disturbingly good. Russell Crowe embodies the role with creepy menace, and director Derrick Borte captures a man monster at the end of his rope, ready to unleash his anger on an uncaring society, consequences be damned. Rachel's honk and unapologetic attitude break him loose from any remaining anchors, and the road rage triggered carnage builds impressive momentum. Borte mixes well-staged high energy road chase scenes with more personal violence directed at Rachel's life, with Caren Pistorius excellent as the much-less-than-perfect mom forced to become the ultimate mama bear.

What Does Not Work As Well: The traffic is conveniently gridlocked or free-flowing, according to the whims of the script, and Rachel bounces back from substantive blows delivered by a much bigger brute.

Conclusion: Disconcertingly easy to imagine, Unhinged forcefully exposes cracks threatening civility's foundations.



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Saturday, 14 January 2023

Movie Review: Perfect Stranger (2007)


Genre: Crime Investigation Thriller
Director: James Foley
Starring: Halle Berry, Bruce Willis, Giovanni Ribisi
Running Time: 109 minutes

Synopsis: New York-based investigative reporter Rowena Price (Halle Berry) is frustrated when her story exposing a politician is killed. She receives a tip from thorny acquaintance Grace to pursue the affairs of womanizing marketing executive Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis). When Grace turns up dead, Rowena teams up with her work colleague and computer wizard Miles (Giovanni Ribisi) to infiltrate Harrison's company pretending to be a temp. Harrison soon sets his eyes on Rowena, but his secrets are closely guarded.

What Works Well: The avant garde artwork at Harrison Hill's marketing firm looks good, and some of Halle Berry's outfits are stellar.

What Does Not Work As Well: The Todd Komarnicki script is an unsalvageable inert mess, never generating any momentum or meaningful sympathy for the key characters. The murder victim Grace is a one-scene non-entity, her case never triggers any police investigation, and Rowena's amateur investigation consists of snaring Harrison with good looks augmented by juvenile flirting in 1990s chat rooms. Everyone seems to have big secrets to hide, the case details are a mix of the untidy and the bizarre, and the rushed ending is a befuddling disaster.

Conclusion: Perfectly awful.



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Movie Review: Freedomland (2006)


Genre: Crime Investigation Psychological Mystery
Director: Joe Roth
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Julianne Moore, Edie Falco
Running Time: 113 minutes

Synopsis: Detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) keeps a sympathetic eye on the low-income Armstrong complex in the black community of Dempsey, New Jersey. Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore), a troubled white woman from the adjacent community of Gannon, claims she was car-jacked near Armstrong with her four year old child in the car. Although Lorenzo does not fully believe Brenda, police swarm Armstrong to flush out a suspect, igniting racial tensions. Lorenzo tries to keep a lid on the situation, and receives help from Karen (Edie Falco), who heads a parent group dedicated to finding missing children.

What Works Well: The crackdown of white police officers on black residents is depicted with unblinking fury. Despite wayward character definition, Julianne Moore's acting is often sublime, and Edie Falco also shines in a grounded supporting role.

What Does Not Work As Well: Richard Price's script, based on his book, is embroiled in an identity crisis. This is a crime mystery where no one seems interested in collecting evidence or investigating the crime, and a psychological conundrum where lies clash with assertions but no professional assessment is deployed. The far-fetched racism flashpoint is thrown in almost out of context. Unsurprisingly the actors appear uncertain how their words and actions fit into any cohesive flow. The resolution, once revealed, is underwhelming and trapped in a tell-but-don't-show package.

Conclusion: Competing ideas flounder in a muddled structure.






All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.