Sunday 26 May 2024

Movie Review: Quicksand (2003)


Genre: Thriller  
Director: John MacKenzie  
Starring: Michael Keaton, Michael Caine  
Running Time: 95 minutes  
 
Synopsis: In the South of France, violence erupts between Russian gangsters and corrupt local officials. Separately, New York-based bank auditor Martin Raikes (Michael Keaton) travels to Nice to investigate suspicious transactions being funneled through a movie studio. He meets CFO Lela Forin (Judith Godrèche) and fading actor Jake Mellows (Michael Caine), but the studio otherwise looks suspiciously like a front for nefarious activity. When Martin refuses a bribe to look the other way, he is implicated in an assassination and forced to go on the run.

What Works Well: Some of the South of France locations are attractive.

What Does Not Work As Well: This is a fetid example of tax-credit funded filmmaking with a couple of stars lured into a vacation opportunity. Michael Keaton phones-in a disinterested performance, and he might as well, since the premise of a stiff bank executive suddenly becoming an action hero collapses early. Michael Caine barely features until the final 15 minutes and almost gets away with an in-joke as an actor purely in it for the money. Elsewhere, all the characters are defined by no more than three words: Russian mobster, corrupt cop, clueless CFO, has-been actor, ugly goon. The action sinks into the soullessness of machine-generated scripting, where elaborately framing a boring banker in a JFK conspiracy theory-type assassination is deemed the easiest way to eliminate his threat.

Conclusion: Firmly stuck in the muck.



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Movie Review: Back Roads (2018)


Genre: Drama  
Director: Alex Pettyfer  
Starring: Alex Pettyfer, Jennifer Morrison, Nicola Peltz, Juliette Lewis, Robert Patrick  
Running Time: 101 minutes  

Synopsis: Harley (Alex Pettyfer) is a young man struggling to care for his three younger sisters after their mother Bonnie (Juliette Lewis) was imprisoned for killing her abusive husband. Eldest sister Amber (Nicola Peltz) is now a rebellious teenager and eager to make life miserable for her brother. 12 year-old middle sister Misty is quiet and withdrawn, while the youngest sibling Jody is only six years old. Harley is attracted to older married neighbour Callie (Jennifer Morrison), but as they start an affair, he is increasingly haunted by childhood trauma and overwhelmed by his responsibilities.

What Works Well: Co-writers Adrian Lyne and Tawni O'Dell (adapting her book) create a disturbingly dark portrait of a family wrecked by abuse and violence. In his directorial debut, Alex Pettyfer commands the challenging material and demonstrates maturity to register impact with understatement, his own performance a study in exhausted complexity. He is supported by a trio of bold women: Jennifer Morrison embraces lust that turns into a gateway for danger; Nicola Peltz is a study in misdirected antagonism; and Juliette Lewis shares a devastating scene with Pettyfer across the prison glass. 

What Does Not Work As Well: There is an awful lot going on in this family, and none of it is good. The featureless suburban setting and grim brown tones underline a depressed mood as the plot works hard to snuff out any ambers of hope.

Conclusion: Haunting, blunt, and essential.



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Movie Review: Safe Haven (2013)


Genre: Romantic Drama  
Director: Lasse Hallström  
Starring: Julianne Hough, Josh Duhamel, David Lyons, Cobie Smulders  
Running Time: 115 minutes  

Synopsis: Katie (Julianne Hough) escapes an abusive relationship and attempts to start a new life in the idyllic small community of Southport, North Carolina. She rents a secluded house, befriends her neighbour Jo (Cobie Smulders), and starts a romance with single dad Alex (Josh Duhamel), who lost his wife to cancer. Meanwhile, a Boston police detective (David Lyons) is obsessively hunting Katie down.

What Works Well: This adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel carries the requisite dreamy looks and feel good vibes, combining aesthetic gloss with a romance tinged by life's challenges. Julianne Hough and Josh Duhamel will not win many acting awards but make for an attractive couple, and do enough to register the scars of troubled pasts. The seaside village is a snug location for love to blossom, and a final gentle plot twist adds wistful elegance.

What Does Not Work As Well: Katie's backstory is kept secret for too long, leaving the antagonist to flounder in an altogether separate movie. Meanwhile the romance between Katie and Alex unfolds at a glacial pace, Hallström determined to milk the small town milieu for all its worth. The cliches include the canoe excursion disrupted by a downpour and the ever-so-charming 4th of July festivities. As a result of all the padding, the running time is a good 25 minutes longer than necessary. 

Conclusion: Passable postcard romance with some dark edges.



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Movie Review: The Russia House (1990)


Genre: Espionage Drama Romance  
Director: Fred Schepisi  
Starring: Sean Connery, Michelle Pfeiffer, Klaus Maria Brandauer, James Fox, Roy Scheider, J.T. Walsh, John Mahoney  
Running Time: 122 minutes  

Synopsis: Go-between widow Katya Orlova (Michelle Pfeiffer) transmits notebooks filled with USSR nuclear weapons secrets to British book publisher "Barley" Scott Blair (Sean Connery), an admirer of Russian culture. As British and American security agencies probe the veracity of the intelligence, Barley suspects the notebooks originated from a literary acquaintance known only as Dante (Klaus Maria Brandauer). MI6 agent Ned (James Fox) presses Barley into service as an amateur spy to connect with Katya and uncover Dante's identity and motives.

What Works Well: Filmed predominantly in Russia, this adaptation of John le Carré's book enjoys lavish institutional scenery and methodical pacing. The absence of overt threats reflects the end of the Cold War era and the impact of glasnost and perestroika. Despite frequent time and location jumps, the plot remains accessible and largely coherent. Michelle Pfeiffer masters a Russian accent, and Sean Connery transitions from inebriated and frumpy to polished and intrepid. Klaus Maria Brandauer adds the soulful notes of a romantic trapped within militarized science.

What Does Not Work As Well: The 28 year difference between Connery and Pfeiffer obliviates any screen chemistry despite the script insisting on a languid romance. An interchangeable army of British and American intelligence officers portrayed by the likes of James Fox, Roy Scheider, J.T. Walsh, and John Mahoney frequently gathers to listen-in on wiretaps and await intelligence updates, but adds precious little in terms of value. The absence of any visible antagonist or potential for jeopardy defangs the drama into grey irrelevance.

Conclusion: Distinguished but stodgy.



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Movie Review: The Menu (2022)


Genre: Satirical Mystery Drama  
Director: Mark Mylod  
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, John Leguizamo, Janet McTeer  
Running Time: 107 minutes  

Synopsis: Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and his date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) travel to a small island for an invitation-only dinner at Hawthorn, the restaurant of celebrated Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). Tyler is a wannabe foodie, but Margot is less than impressed with the whole event. The other dinner guests this evening include food critic Lillian (Janet McTeer), a fading movie star (John Leguizamo), a married couple, and three obnoxious business bros. The evening of set-menu courses starts normally enough with Slowik introducing each plate, but events turn weird in a hurry.

What Works Well: This is a humorously acidic descent into an unexpected nightmare, augmented by attentive service and thoughtful wine pairings. Writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy line up a range of targets including a dictionary-mining food critic, crass corporate types, a clumsy foodie with his nose pressed-up against the sophistication window, and an undeserving celebrity. Their horror chamber is a chic evening out where director Mark Mylod unleashes fury from the kitchen in the form of class warfare spiced with Agatha Christie. Ralph Fiennes is chillingly effective, Nicholas Hoult has rarely been better, and Anya Taylor-Joy is the only guest packing streetwise scrappiness.

What Does Not Work As Well: Despite the controlled duration, padding creeps in with some irrelevant interludes, including a hide-and-seek excursion. The time could have been more meaningfully invested in deeper dinner guest definitions.

Conclusion: Societal pretension, personal retribution, and a side of psychosis.



All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Monday 20 May 2024

Movie Review: Swerve (2011)


Genre: Neo-Noir Crime Thriller  
Director: Craig Lahiff  
Starring: Jason Clarke, Emma Booth, David Lyons  
Running Time: 87 minutes  

Synopsis: In rural Australia, Colin (David Lyons) is on a long drive to a job interview when he comes across a road accident involving one dead man, a briefcase full of cash, and the uninjured Jina (Emma Booth). Colin drives Jina back to her home in the small town of Neverest and hands the briefcase to local law officer Frank (Jason Clarke), who also happens to be Jina's husband. Colin is drawn into a web of intrigue involving the troubled couple, ruthless criminal Charlie (Travis McMahon), and Jina's boss Sam (Vince Colosimo).

What Works Well: This is a self-aware neo-noir with a conniving femme fatale, an ill-gotten prize, traces of humour, and complicated love-lust-violence relationships ensnaring characters stifled in the middle of nowhere. Dark histories of malevolence and less complicated present-day greed fuel the plot, while director Craig Lahiff makes excellent use of sun soaked desert vistas and efficiently concludes proceedings within a snappy running time.

What Does Not Work As Well: Most of the plot twists and character actions serve the convenience of the script at the expense of logic. Characters wake up from the dead and escape the inescapable, while multiple murders are uninvestigated and cars fix themselves. By the halfway mark, an anything-goes attitude starts to dominate, threatening fundamental underpinnings.

Conclusion: The curves are crafty but also contrived.



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Friday 17 May 2024

Movie Review: Not Without My Daughter (1991)


Genre: Drama Thriller  
Director: Brian Gilbert  
Starring: Sally Field, Alfred Molina  
Running Time: 116 minutes  

Synopsis: In 1984, American Betty Mahmoody (Sally Field) is living in Michigan with her Iranian-born husband Moody (Alfred Molina) and their young daughter Mahtob. Although Betty feels Iran is unsafe, Moody is desperate to visit his relatives and they embark on a two week trip. They find Moody's family consumed by zealotry, but Moody anyway announces his intentions to stay permanently in Iran, effectively abducting his wife and daughter. Betty desperately seeks to flee the clutches of her increasingly fanatical husband, but insists on not leaving her daughter behind.

What Works Well: Based on actual events as chronicled in Betty Mahmoody's book, this is a tense real-life thriller driven by fervor, a version of kidnapping, and a cacophonic culture clash. Director Brian Gilbert recreates the chaos of street-level Tehran as a fully animated and disorienting milieu, and Sally Field embraces the challenge of portraying a woman discovering inner strength after her life is stolen. Equally effective, Alfred Molina embarks on a brooding descent into cultural backwardness. 

What Does Not Work As Well: The running time could have been trimmed or rebalanced to avoid repetitive notes within Betty's ordeal. Almost all the secondary Iranian characters are wooden cut-outs: neither the angry extremists nor the kind helpers are defined or justified in any meaningful way.

Conclusion: Prisons without bars may be the most difficult to escape from.



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Movie Review: Red Lights (2012)


Genre: Investigative Thriller  
Director: Rodrigo Cortés  
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Cillian Murphy, Robert De Niro, Elizabeth Olsen, Toby Jones  
Running Time: 114 minutes  

Synopsis: Academic physicists Dr. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and Dr. Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) run a side-business debunking psychics and paranormal advocates. Margaret's student Sally (Elizabeth Olsen) joins their investigations and starts a romance with Tom. When celebrity blind psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) surprisingly comes out of retirement, Tom is eager to expose him as a fraud, but Margaret is more careful.

What Works Well: The first act introduces interesting characters and adds depth to Dr. Matheson through a side story involving her son, while the debunking sessions and academic sparring with rival physicist Dr. Shackleton (Toby Jones) are sharp. The cast members battle valiantly to prop-up the disintegrating script.

What Does Not Work As Well: Writer and director Rodrigo Cortés clumsily steers into a bewildering narrative turn about halfway through, and the drama never recovers. The remainder of the film is a toothless exercise in silly special effects, the gritted-teeth obsession with a touring entertainer never close to supporting the weight of unfolding carnage. Another attempt at a late twist arrives with the never-good sudden introduction of narration and carries all the impact of a wet noodle.

Conclusion: Accelerates with promise, but then stops dead.



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Movie Review: Con Air (1997)


Genre: Action Thriller  
Director: Simon West  
Starring: Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, Monica Potter  
Running Time: 115 minutes  

Synopsis: Former Army Ranger Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage) kills a man in self defence and serves eight years in prison. Granted parole and eager to reunite with his wife Tricia (Monica Potter) and their young daughter, Cameron's final journey to freedom is on a US Marshals flight carrying hardened convicts. Career criminal Cyrus "The Virus" Grissom (John Malkovich) leads a violent hijacking, assisted by Nathan "Diamond Dog" Jones (Ving Rhames). Cameron has to help guard Sally Bishop (Rachel Ticotin) and other transportees stay alive while secretly working with Marshal Vince Larkin (John Cusack) to end the ordeal.

What Works Well: Embracing a go big or go home ethos, this is a bold, brash, loud, and often very funny commitment to entertainment. The action is peppered by one-liners delivered with deadpan accuracy by Nicolas Cage, while the quality cast ensures animation in every role. Director Simon West delivers an action set-piece about every ten minutes, and rounds Cameron Poe into enough of a heroic family man to ensure a human heart beats inside the carnage. On the other side of the madness divide, John Malkovich and Steve Buscemi contribute memorable villains.

What Does Not Work As Well: "Over the top" does not begin to describe the flight path of the final 30 minutes. The climax leaves any semblance of reality behind and surrenders to cartoon levels of excess.

Conclusion: The non-stop turbulence is severe, intentional, and wildly enjoyable.



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Movie Review: The Kate Logan Affair (2010)


Genre: Crime Drama  
Director: Noël Mitrani  
Starring: Alexis Bledel, Laurent Lucas  
Running Time: 86 minutes  

Synopsis: In a small Canadian town, married French insurance businessman Benoît Gando (Laurent Lucas) is attending a conference. He is briefly and wrongfully detained by young and inexperienced police officer Kate Logan (Alexis Bledel). Her apology extends to drinks, then passionate sex, before a mishap with her service revolver upturns Benoît's trip.

What Works Well: The scenic quaint setting provides an attractive milieu for a far-from-home affair. Given the narrative context, the awkward performances by Laurent Lucas and Alexis Bledel are surprisingly suitable, setting up one effective jolt of violence.

What Does Not Work As Well: The plot lacks momentum and meanders along an uninspiring path, while the production never threatens to rise above television movie-of-the-week standards. Benoît takes every wrong decision at every opportunity, while Kate's distressed mental state deserved better depth. The RCMP's investigative efforts into potential wrong-doing are unencumbered by analyzing evidence and talking to witnesses.

Conclusion: Arrested but released due to insufficient engagement.



All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.