Sunday, 19 March 2023

Movie Review: Broken Arrow (1950)

Genre: Western
Director: Delmer Daves
Starring: James Stewart, Jeff Chandler, Debra Paget
Running Time: 93 minutes

Synopsis: In Arizona of the 1870s, ex-Union Army scout Tom Jeffords (James Stewart) heals an Apache youth, earning a reputation for compassion. Despite the vicious war raging between the Apache tribe and settlers, Tom reaches out to Apache leader Cochise (Jeff Chandler) to negotiate safe passage for mail carriers. Tom also falls in love with young Apache woman Sonseeahray (Debra Paget). But with deep suspicions on both sides, building a lasting peace will remain a challenge.

What Works Well: Inspired by Jeffords' actual life adventures as chronicled in Elliot Arnold's book Blood Brother, Broken Arrow treats the Apache with notable sympathy. The Albert Maltz screenplay never hedges: the natives are defending their land and families from aggressive invaders, and most of the irredeemable white characters treat the Apache with subhuman disdain; the quest for peace is consequently challenged by both sides. Director Delmer Daves invests plenty of time appreciating tribal culture (doubtless Hollywoodized), including touching wedding vows. Ernest Palmer's cinematography makes excellent use of Arizona locations, and the tendency for thoughtfulness does not preclude traditional Western action set-pieces.

What Does Not Work As Well: The final chapter crams personal and epochal resolutions into a rushed few minutes. Consistent with the cinematic era, the main Native American characters are played by white actors with tan makeup, although Cochise's rival Geronimo is portrayed by Indigenous Canadian Jay Silverheels. The romantic subplot is tender, but partners 16-year-old Debra Paget with the 41-year-old Stewart.

Conclusion: An impressive leap forward in the depiction of a defining culture clash.

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Saturday, 18 March 2023

Movie Review: French Exit (2020)

Genre: Dramedy
Director: Azazel Jacobs
Starring: Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, Imogen Poots
Running Time: 110 minutes

Synopsis: Independent-minded New York socialite Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer) has been running out of money ever since her husband died, and is now forced to sell all her remaining belongings. Along with her grown son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and the family cat, Frances retreats to the Paris apartment of a friend, with Malcolm leaving behind girlfriend Susan (Imogen Poots). In Paris, an uneasy circle of thorny friends and acquaintances forms around Frances, as she grapples with the past and plots her future.

What Works Well: The wacky Frances is one-of-a-kind, entitled, unpleasant, but fascinating nonetheless. Michelle Pfeiffer shines without stretching as Frances luxuriates in a singular zone of quietly standing up to a world unappreciative of individuality. The cat's emergence as a central catalyst underlines an off-centre sensibility, director Jacobs and writer Patrick deWitt merrily introducing bizarre elements into the dreamy Parisian milieu. A psychic, a lonely expatriate, a private investigator, and the new boyfriend of the ex-girlfriend contribute to a motley crew of supporting characters.

What Does Not Work As Well: Everyone here stays close to original definitions, with hints of smug knowingness in the mostly low-key performances. The sober entwinement of supernatural elements could be off-putting in an otherwise grounded narrative.

Conclusion: When fierce self-defined autonomy is the only goal, weird is normal.

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Saturday, 11 March 2023

Movie Review: All Quiet On The Western Front (2022)

Genre: War
Director: Edward Berger
Starring: Felix Kammerer, Daniel Brühl
Running Time: 147 minutes

Synopsis: Two years into the Great War, the trench warfare between Germany and France is extracting a huge human toll. Nevertheless, German teenager Paul (Felix Kammerer) is excited to enlist with his group of friends. At the front, their misconceptions about a quick glorious victory are soon replaced by the grinding agony of death in the muck, but Paul finds a mentor in veteran soldier "Kat" (Albrecht Schuch). As the war drags on, Paul tries to cling to his humanity while politicians and generals dawdle.

What Works Well: This German production adapts the Erich Maria Remarque novel into a gruesome, close-up view of an impassive war machine consuming young men. The combat scenes are harrowing, director Edward Berger using long takes to capture the breathless randomness of some men succumbing while others survive to run another yard. The overarching theme of destructive futility is underlined by generals dispatching troops to their death from the safety of palatial offices. Good work by Felix Kammarer highlights a young man transforming into a battle-hardened soldier, enhanced by excellent makeup, a menacing soundtrack, and expansive cinematography.

What Does Not Work As Well: Although this is part of the point, the battle scenes eventually become wearily repetitive. Paul entering the conflict as a naïve young man is also integral to the story's essence, but this remains cinematically troublesome as he is broadly uninteresting. The running length is overlong, and many scenes would have benefitted from a trim. Apart from Paul and Kat, most of the rest of the soldiers meld into obscurity.

Conclusion: War in sodden trenches is a special kind of hell.

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Movie Review: Blonde (2022)

Genre: Biographical Drama
Director: Andrew Dominik
Starring: Ana de Armas, Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale, Julianne Nicholson
Running Time: 166 minutes

Synopsis: In Los Angeles of the 1930s, a young Norma Jean Baker grows up without a father. She is raised by her unstable mother Gladys (Julianne Nicholson), who is eventually institutionalized. By the 1950s, Norma Jean is finding some success under the name Marilyn Monroe as a magazine model and in minor movie roles. Stunningly beautiful, she is soon elevated to a leading actress and becomes a sex symbol, and in her private life embarks on a polyamorous relationship. Fame, fortune, and a couple of high profile marriages follow, but Norma Jean is unprepared for the celebrity life, and is always haunted by her traumatic childhood.

What Works Well: The mélange of facts and imaginations does not hold back, writer and director Andrew Dominik (adapting the Joyce Carol Oates book) mixing oodles of style with an often harrowing story of loneliness, self-doubt, loss, and abuse. The mix of aspect ratios and colour/black and white cinematography achieves a hypnotic representation of a tumultuous life. Ana de Armas fully invests in the role, recreating some of Monroe's most famous celebrity moments for a lost-in-Hollywood portrait where screen personas consume reality.

What Does Not Work Well: Monroe's fixation on her missing father is allowed to dominate, and eventually becomes a tiresome device. The running time is inexcusably long, and despite the bloat, several characters emerge suddenly around Marilyn with neither an introduction nor context. Bobby Cannavale (as Joe DiMaggio) and Adrien Brody (as Arthur Miller) are reduced to stock representations, joining all other supporting characters in failing to leave a sustained imprint.

Conclusion: A suitably messy depiction of one fragile woman forced to deal with inhumane pressure unleashed by public lust.

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Sunday, 5 March 2023

Movie Review: Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

Genre: Action Drama
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jennifer Connelly, Miles Teller, Val Kilmer, Jon Hamm, Ed Harris
Running Time: 130 minutes

Synopsis: More than 30 years after graduating, Captain Pete "Maverick" Mitchell (Tom Cruise) returns to the Navy's Top Gun academy. He is tasked with preparing a group of ace pilots for a dangerous mission to destroy an enemy facility in mountainous terrain. The trainees include "Rooster" (Miles Teller), who is the son of Maverick's old buddy Goose, as well as "Hangman" (Glen Powell) and "Phoenix" (Monica Barbaro). Maverick reunites with his old rival "Iceman" (Val Kilmer), now an Admiral, reignites a romance with Penny (Jennifer Connelly), and clashes with Vice Admiral "Cyclone" (Jon Hamm). 

What Works Well: After a 36 year wait, the mix of nostalgia and action is potent. The Ray-Bans, the motorcycle, the irresistible boyish grin, some of the music, and all of the non-conformist attitude return with vigor, this time with an added dash of self-deprecating humour. The echoes of Maverick's past carry strong resonance, while the flight sequences, starring F/A-18 Super Hornets, feature real hardware and minimal CGI. Director John Kosinski pays homage to Tony Scott's legendary aerial aesthetics for a mission:impossible requiring canyon flying, gravity-defying climbs and dives, and precision targeting. The final 40 minutes are a non-stop old-fashioned action thrill ride.

What Does Not Work As Well: The inter-character dynamics, rivalries, and dialogue are from the 1980s school of elemental emotions.

Conclusion: The second trip to the danger zone is just as good.

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Movie Review: Sirocco (1951)

Genre: War Drama
Director: Curtis Bernhardt
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Lee J. Cobb, Märta Torén 
Running Time: 98 minutes

Synopsis: In Damascus of 1925, local rebels are fighting for independence from French colonialists. French General LaSalle (Everett Sloane) accepts advice from his head of intelligence Colonel Feroud (Lee J. Cobb) to try and negotiate a truce. Caught in the middle is shady American businessman Harry Smith (Humphrey Bogart), who is secretly selling weapons to the Syrian rebels. Harry's troubles multiply when he sets his eyes on Feroud's lover Violetta (Märta Torén), who is eager to escape the war and find passage to Cairo.

What Works Well: Produced by Bogart's Santana Productions, Sirocco has clear intentions to mimic Casablanca. Some aspects are reasonably successful: despite the studio-bound sets, director Curtis Bernhardt does create an effective war-torn milieu, with society humming along in dark alleys and behind black curtains as the sounds of battle rage outside. LaSalle is caught in a dilemma between using brute force and offering to negotiate, and Lee J. Cobb adds nuance to the role of a military man tired of killing. The secondary cast is animated by the sweaty presence of Zero Mostel and Nick Dennis.

What Does Not Work As Well: The story belongs more to Cobb's Feroud than Bogart's Smith, and the attempts to force the gunrunner into the spotlight are awkward. Violetta's involvement never gains traction, Märta Torén unable to generate neither heat nor chemistry. The local Syrian rebel leaders barely feature, and the script falls into prominent logic holes.

Conclusion: Serviceable foreign intrigue adventure, but quite a few guns short of a full shipment.

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Saturday, 4 March 2023

Movie Review: The Banshees Of Inisherin (2022)

Genre: Drama
Director: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, Barry Keoghan
Running Time: 114 minutes

Synopsis: The setting is the small island of Inisherin off the Irish coast, in 1923. Pádraic (Colin Farrell), a dairy farmer, is stunned when his longtime drinking buddy Colm (Brenda Gleeson), a fiddler, suddenly ends their friendship. Colm now finds Pádraic incredibly dull and wants to focus on composing music. To fill the gap in his life Colm turns to his sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon) and the dim Dominic (Barry Keoghan), who is being abused by his father. But Pádraic also persists in pestering Colm, with grim consequences.

What Works Well: The rugged Irish scenery is suitably windswept, and the sense of community isolation on an inconsequential island runs deep. With dashes of subtle humour, writer and director Martin McDonagh toys with themes of loneliness, mental health, and men looking for a purpose. The sudden breakdown of a bond between allies echoes the ongoing Irish Civil War, and although confined within narrow ranges, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleason are dependable.

What Does Not Work As Well: The pacing is ponderous, exposing thin and repetitious narrative content. The escalation in violence is more bizarre than impactful, and predictably, an ultimately silly dispute between two none-too-bright bumpkins can only generate limited momentum. 

Conclusion: The stellar scenery subjugates the slight story.

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Movie Review: The Fabelmans (2022)

Genre: Coming Of Age Drama
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Gabriel LaBelle
Running Time: 151 minutes

Synopsis: In 1952, married couple Mitzi and Burt Fabelman (Michelle Williams and Paul Dano) are raising their family in New Jersey. Mitzi sacrificed a piano career for her family, while Burt is a computer design engineer. Both are close friends with Burt's work colleague Bennie (Seth Rogen). Their young son Sammy is dazzled by movie making, and Mitzi encourages his passion. Burt gets a new job and the family moves to Phoenix, where teenaged Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) joins the boy scouts and develops his amateur moviemaking skills. Through the camera lens Sammy awakens to his parents as people, and another family move, this time to California, beckons.

What Works Well: Steven Spielberg's semi-autobiographical story, co-written with Tony Kushner, uses humour and pathos to chart a heartwarming journey into adulthood. A trio of personal discoveries nurture the softly glowing narrative: an awakening to the love of filmmaking, here portrayed with a wacky mix of talent and bravado; the realization that parents are fault-filled adults but no less capable of pure love; and the transformative yet understated power of astute storytelling, underlined in a third act that thrives almost as a film within a film. Spielberg sustains remarkable consistency by ensuring Sammy's experiences are tightly wound around the family unit. Michelle Williams shines as the mother hiding an ocean of unmet expectations, and newcomer Gabriel LaBelle delivers a winning performance as the budding young man. Judd Hirsch's short but wall-shaking appearance as the legendary Uncle Boris is unforgettable.

What Does Not Work As Well: As a minor quibble, Sammy's sisters could have been afforded more prominence.

Conclusion: An epic yet easily accessible achievement, projecting deeply personal episodes into universal experiences.

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Sunday, 26 February 2023

Movie Review: Tár (2022)

Genre: Drama
Director: Todd Field
Starring: Cate Blanchett
Running Time: 158 minutes

Synopsis: Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) is one of the world's most admired orchestra conductors, now in charge of the Berlin Philharmonic. Her orbit includes wife and first violin Sharon (Nina Hoss), daughter Petra, personal assistant and aspiring conductor Francesca (Noémie Merlant), assistant conductor Sebastian, and investment banker and amateur conductor Eliot (Mark Strong). Lydia is arrogant, confident, blunt, ruthless, and manipulative, with an eye for spotting - and perhaps romantically pursuing - young talent. In an era of heightened political correctness and new behavioural norms, cracks start to appear in her perfect life.

What Works Well: Writer, director and co-producer Todd Field explores the dizzying heights and dangerous pitfalls of upper crust modern celebrity culture. The gay female protagonist ticks many qualification boxes for universal adoration, but her hard driving smugness carries the seeds of ruin when accusations equal guilt. The script embraces translucency, hinting at rather than defining Tár's darker elements. Cate Blanchett delivers a bravado performance, with only occasional forays into theatricality, while cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister uses fluid, long takes to supplement the intellectual milieu.

What Does Not Work As Well: Indigestible levels of pretentiousness are tested with the front-loaded credits, the verbose and haughty dialogue filled with arcane references, and the ridiculous length cluttered with inconsequential scenes.

Conclusion: A curated study of character and culture, infused with pomposity.

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Saturday, 25 February 2023

Movie Review: Girl (2020)

Genre: Thriller
Director: Chad Faust
Starring: Bella Thorne, Mickey Rourke, Chad Faust
Running Time: 92 minutes

Synopsis: A young woman (Bella Thorne), referred to only as Girl, heads into a small rural community armed with a hatchet. She intends to kill her estranged father, who abandoned the family when Girl she was a child, leaving her mother with a bad back and financially destitute. Once she locates her father's house, Girl is shocked to find him recently murdered by someone else. She tangles with the local Sheriff (Mickey Rourke) and his ironically nicknamed half-brother Charmer (Chad Faust), and starts to uncover sordid family secrets.

What Work Well: Director, writer, and co-star Chad Faust delivers a neatly packaged story of revenge, revelation, and hidden loot. The damp, decrepit, and isolated setting provides an impressively depressing grey aesthetic, perfect for challenging Girl's deeply held convictions. Bella Thorne delivers a moody and dark performance, while Mickey Rourke (oily) and director Faust (smiley) make a great pair of brotherly villains, fine specimens from generations of in-breeding.

What Does Not Work Well: Budget limitations are on display in a sparse cast (the town's population appears to be in the single digits), and some of the chase scenes are awkwardly mounted. The final familial confrontation is rather listless.

Conclusion: The ambience is ramshackle, but the menace carries an edge. 

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.