Sunday 25 February 2024

Movie Review: No Way Out (1987)


Genre: Thriller  
Director: Roger Donaldson  
Starring: Kevin Costner, Gene Hackman, Sean Young, Will Patton  
Running Time: 114 minutes  

Synopsis: In Washington DC, the US Navy's Lieutenant Commander Tom Farrell (Kevin Costner) is selected for an intelligence assignment by Secretary of Defense David Brice (Gene Hackman). Tom also starts an affair with socialite Susan Atwell (Sean Young), who happens to be Brice's mistress. In a fit of jealousy, Brice accidently kills Susan. His chief assistant Scott Pritchard (Will Patton) concocts a cover-up plan to blame Susan's death on non-existent Soviet spy Yuri. But Tom knows what really happened, and has to prove the truth before he himself gets implicated.

What Works Well: This is a slick thriller combining Cold War intrigue, inter-governmental political machinations, lust, romance, and scandal. Robert Garland's screenplay updates the 1946 novel The Big Clock (by Kenneth Fearing), and director Roger Donaldson keeps the pacing brisk and the tension at elevated levels, mixing cocktail parties for the Washington DC elites with backroom plotting and the occasional chase scene. In a star-making role, Kevin Costner oozes confident charisma as the Navy lieutenant sliding into unexpected convolutions at the Pentagon and in his personal life, while Sean Young adds allure. The final controversial twist demonstrates brain-scratching courage. 

What Does Not Work As Well: Starting with the hastily conceived distraction story to chase invisible spy Yuri, the second half plot holes start to consume all logic, culminating in ridiculous actions including defence officials planting evidence in computer systems and allowing a couple of unscreened civilians full access to every room in the Pentagon (the largest building in the world). The notable dip in quality coincides with Gene Hackman being sidelined into a bystander.

Conclusion: Sparkling with talent and enthusiasm, but perforated by sloppy conveniences.



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Saturday 24 February 2024

Movie Review: The Holdovers (2023)


Genre: Drama  
Director: Alexander Payne  
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, Da'Vine Joy Randolph  
Running Time: 133 minutes  

Synopsis: It's 1970, and Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is a teacher of ancient civilizations at the Barton private high school for boys in New England. Never married, he is strict, smelly, and disliked, including by disruptive student Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa). With Christmas approaching, Paul is assigned to care for the "holdover" students not rejoining their families for the Holidays. Also staying behind is cafeteria manager Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph), who recently lost her son in Vietnam. The group of holdover boys is eventually whittled down to just Tully, forcing teacher and student to learn more about each other.

What Works Well: Reminiscent of movies like Scent Of A Woman (1992) and The Paper Chase (1973), this is a simple story of breaking through exterior preconceptions to uncover a human connection. The 1970s milieu is lovingly recreated, and Paul Giamatti embodies the crusty but fragile teacher, caustically holding on to old-fashioned beliefs because that is all he has. Both Hunham and Tully are headstrong but sensitive, resulting in some sparks on the path to revelations.

What Does Not Work As Well: The running time is much too long for the straightforward story, and director Alexander Payne indulges in slow pacing and plenty of padding. Free of narrative surprises or any twists, the drama crawls towards all the expected outcomes, with some puzzling choices like introducing but then dispatching (to a ski trip) four other holdovers.

Conclusion: Heart-felt and well-staged, but also familiar and laborious. 






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Movie Review: Sisu (2022)


Genre: Action  
Director: Jalmari Helander  
Starring: Jorma Tommila, Aksel Hennie, Jack Doolan  
Running Time: 91 minutes  

Synopsis: It's 1944, and Nazi units are engaged in a scorched earth withdrawal from Finland. In a rural area, Finnish war veteran Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila) abandons civilization and mines for gold with only his horse and dog for company. After excavating a gold vein, he encounters a retreating German company led by tank commander Bruno (Aksel Hennie) and his second-in-command Wolf (Jack Doolan). The Nazis are also transporting and abusing a group of abducted Finnish women. Aatami wants to mind his own business, but is forced into a bloody private war.

What Works Well: This revenge adventure thrives on silence, vistas, gore, and humour. Metaphorically representing a national ethos of dogged no-surrender, writer and director Jalmari Helander crafts a blood-soaked yet still fun tale of one man taking on an army, with the outcome never in doubt. The sparse dialogue matches the rugged and featureless terrain, and the elegantly staged action set-pieces arrive at regular intervals. Highlights include a minefield excursion, an excruciating hanging, and a hunted-becomes-the-hunter turning of the tables. Jorma Tommila adds the pained mythological presence of a man weathered by too many battles.

What Does Not Work As Well: With the action already at over-the-top Roadrunner cartoon levels, the final act soars to a whole new altitude of outrageous.

Conclusion: Armored quantity is no match for fervent quality.



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Movie Review: Dumb Money (2023)


Genre: Comedy Drama  
Director: Craig Gillespie  
Starring: Paul Dano, Shailene Woodley, Seth Rogen, Vincent D'Onofrio  
Running Time: 104 minutes  

Synopsis: During the Covid pandemic, YouTuber Keith Gill (Paul Dano), better known as Roaring Kitty, spots what he believes is the undervalued stock of the company GameSpot, which is heavily shorted by Wall Street experts including hedge fund manager Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen). Keith invests more than $50,000 and shares the tip with his followers, who start to buy the stock. Communicating on Reddit forums and trading commission-free on the Robinhood app, retail investors drive up the stock price in a buying frenzy. Keith is suddenly very wealthy, and everyone awaits his next move.

What Works Well: This true David versus Goliath story highlights seismic shifts in stock market dynamics, as social media and the breaking down of barriers-to-entry allow small investors to challenge traditional wisdom. The story carries it's own power, deploying doses of humour, never lingering in one place for too long, and using multiple perspectives to convey chaotic ripple effects during surreal lockdown times. Shailene Woodley as Keith's wife adds pragmatism from the sidelines. 

What Does Not Work As Well: Both the soundtrack and the dialogue opt for vulgarity over wit, dramatically cheapening the storytelling. By chasing after many small stories (a couple of college students, a nurse, a GameSpot store employee, Keith's brother and parents, the Robinhood entrepreneurs, and several Wall Street types are all wedged in), none of the characters are afforded much depth and the overarching narrative is lost in the cacophony. The celebratory premise is ambushed in the financial canyon of an artificially inflated stock price, where retail investors experience a pyrrhic victory in the mad dash to the exit.

Conclusion: Plenty of zest undermined by inelegant execution.



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Movie Review: You Hurt My Feelings (2023)


Genre: Comedy Drama  
Director: Nicole Holofcener  
Starring: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tobias Menzies, Michaela Watkins, Owen Teague  
Running Time: 93 minutes  

Synopsis: In New York City, Beth and Don (Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tobias Menzies) are a long-term happily married middle-class couple. She's a moderately successful writer working on her latest book, and he's a therapist. Their son Eliot (Owen Teague) works at a pot store and is writing a play. Beth is close with her sister Sarah (Michaela Watkins), an interior decorator, and her husband Mark (Arian Moayed), a struggling theatre actor. When Beth inadvertently overhears Don's real opinion about her latest book, she wonders if she can ever trust him again.

What Works Well: This seemingly simple slice-of-life story carries sly sophistication, as writer and director Nicole Holofcener smoothly works her way to exploring the glue that binds relationships. The blurry lines between encouragement, lies, love, expectation, and frustration emerge as omnipresent trip hazards, both within a love-filled marriage and between parents and their offspring. All the main characters carry endearingly realistic warts, and are afforded the depth to engage in adult conversations. In the central role Julia Louis-Dreyfus shines as the quietly insecure writer and mother, trying just a bit too hard on both fronts. 

What Does Not Work As Well: All the consternation is caused by uniformly first world problems.

Conclusion: A clever tracing of the path to heightened self-awareness.



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Movie Review: The Burial (2023)


Genre: Courtroom Drama  
Director: Maggie Betts  
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Tommy Lee Jones, Jurnee Smollett, Bill Camp, Alan Ruck, Pamela Reed  
Running Time: 126 minutes  

Synopsis: In Mississippi, Jeremiah "Jerry" O'Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones) runs a family-owned funeral home business, while in Florida, Willie E. Gray (Jamie Foxx) is a celebrated personal injury lawyer. To raise much needed cash, Jerry offers to sell part of his business to Vancouver-based Raymond Loewen (Bill Camp), who owns an expanding funeral home empire. The contract takes too long to close, and Jerry sues Loewen for reneging on the deal. He hires Willie to lead the case, while Loewen turns to Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett) to mount a defence.

What Works Well: The story of a decent family man taking on a greedy corporate behemoth carries all the attributes of typical feel-good underdog dramas. Through scenes with family members and discussions of personal histories, director Maggie Betts invests the time to round Jerry and Willie into worthwhile characters. Stars Jamie Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones have equal opportunities to shine, and bring the necessary depth to their roles as well as credibility to the unlikely friendship that evolves between the two men. 

What Does Not Work As Well: Once Willie accepts the case and aims for big money, it's never quite clear why or how a simple contract dispute was ever allowed to spiral into a gong show. The courtroom scenes suffer as a result, defaulting to simplistic and one-sided good-versus-evil representations. The unwieldy commentary about racism and slavery hits a sudden wall with the truncation of closing arguments, leaving the lingering echo of a rush to cheerleading at the expense of thoughtfulness.

Conclusion: Celebrates an uphill battle by the little guy, but not deft enough to avoid dubious intentions.






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Monday 19 February 2024

Movie Review: Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret (2023)


Genre: Comedy Drama  
Director: Kelly Fremon Craig  
Starring: Rachel McAdams, Abby Ryder Fortson, Kathy Bates, Benny Safdie  
Running Time: 106 minutes  

Synopsis: In 1970, 11-year-old Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson) is upset when her parents Barbara and Herb (Rachel McAdams and Benny Safdie) relocate the family from Manhattan to New Jersey. Herb's mom Sylvia (Kathy Bates) stays behind in New York. At her new school, Margaret is befriended by classmate Nancy (Elle Graham), who rules over a small clique. While maintaining short conversations with God, Margaret navigates pre-teen topics including her first kiss, first crush, first period, and first bra. She also stumbles upon a religion-driven dispute involving Barbara's long-estranged parents.

What Works Well: The adaptation of Judy Blume's young adult book sparkles with the humorous awkwardness inherent in the maze of burgeoning womanhood. In the expansive suburbs Margaret finds a bigger world opening up, where relationships with others, discovering more about herself, and sharpening her own opinions become imperatives in the complex growing up process. Peer pressure, physical changes, and understanding parents as people all add to the challenge. Director and writer Kelly Fremon Craig uses breezy pacing to sprint across a lot of ground, helped immensely by a wonderful Abby Ryder Forston performance as Margaret. Rachel McAdams contributes to the warm glow of an anchored mother-daughter relationship. 

What Does Not Work As Well: While not all of Margaret's questions are answered, the beautifully executed ending is just another step in the journey, and perfectly consistent with the reality of life's untidy corners.

Conclusion: Growing up can be hard, weird, and oh so funny.



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Saturday 17 February 2024

Movie Review: Run This Town (2019)


Genre: Drama  
Director: Ricky Tollman  
Starring: Ben Platt, Mena Massoud, Nina Dobrev, Scott Speedman, Jennifer Ehle  
Running Time: 99 minutes  

Synopsis: In Toronto of 2012, Kamal (Mena Massoud) and Ashley (Nina Dobrev) are staffers for Mayor Rob Ford (Damian Lewis). Their boss works hard, but is also frequently drunk and abusive, and enjoys partying with gangsters. Young local reporter Bram (Ben Platt) is offered a sensational scoop: an alleged video of the Mayor smoking crack cocaine in the company of gang members. Bram has to convince his bosses (Scott Speedman and Jennifer Ehle) to let him pursue the story, while Kamal and Ashley confront Ford's increasingly unsavory behaviour.

What Works Well: The behind-the-scenes City Hall machinations carry some interest, and director Ricky Tollman injects dynamism with frequent use of split screens.

What Does Not Work As Well: Tollman the writer stumbles with a wayward script that starts with an awful context-free talky scene and never recovers. Lacking a rational anchor or meaningful perspective, what should have been a compelling true scandal story is fumbled into unfocused observations about millennial angst. Consumed by a urine-soaked colour palette, Kamal, Ashley, and Bram are saddled with dialogue that is much less clever than it thinks it is and remain far from worthwhile characters. Actor Damian Lewis suffers a worse fate inside a hideous fat suit. Ultimately resolving nothing, the hard-stop ending is merciful relief.

Conclusion: A scandalous waste of a juicy story.



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Movie Review: Where'd You Go, Bernadette (2019)


Genre: Comedy Drama  
Director: Richard Linklater  
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, Laurence Fishburne, Judy Greer  
Running Time: 109 minutes  

Synopsis: In Seattle, Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett) lives in a fixer-upper mansion with her husband Elgie (Billy Crudup), a Microsoft executive, and their teenaged daughter Bee. Bernadette was once a rising star in the world of architecture, but stopped working after a series of set-backs. She now avoids socializing, relying on an India-based digital assistant for most tasks, and particularly dislikes her intrusive neighbour Audrey (Kristen Wiig). When Bee proposes a family trip to Antarctica, Bernadette's stress levels spike.

What Works Well: The first two thirds offer a razor-sharp comic-dramatic portrait of a strong-willed woman in emotional trouble. With Cate Blanchett in fine form, director and co-writer Richard Linklater adapts Maria Semple's book with an emphasis on Bernadette gliding through life using a caustic attitude to avoid confronting depression. Laughs combine with revelations, all anchored by a warm mother-daughter relationship offering an escape route from the doldrums.

What Does Not Work As Well: The final act is a bland let-down, descending into a schmalzy combination of glacier scenery and simple solutions suddenly available in the remotest corner of the planet. Some characters, including a therapist (Judy Greer) and an FBI agent, enter with a flourish but are then summarily abandoned. 

Conclusion: Bernadette sparkles when restless in Seattle, but slips when surrounded by ice.



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Movie Review: The Parts You Lose (2019)


Genre: Drama  
Director: Christopher Cantwell  
Starring: Aaron Paul, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Scoot McNairy, Danny Murphy  
Running Time: 94 minutes  

Synopsis: In rural North Dakota, ten-year-old Wesley (Danny Murphy) is a deaf child living on a farm with his mother Gail (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Wesley is regularly bullied at school, while his gruff father Ronnie (Scoot McNairy) can barely conceal his disdain towards his son. After a violent shooting at a nearby town, Wesley stumbles upon a wounded criminal (Aaron Paul). He hides him in the barn and helps him recover. As a bond develops between the stranger and Wesley, the law closes in, and Ronnie's violent tendencies emerge. 

What Works Well: The wide-open snow-covered plains create a sense of isolation, and director Christopher Cantwell leverages the setting to create a tense and slow-burning drama. Men as a source of danger surround young Wesley, the dad in the house no better than the wounded criminal in the barn. Young Danny Murphy is terrific as a kid navigating an already tough environment with a hearing disability, while Aaron Paul and Scoot McNairy bring suitable menace to the adult roles.

What Does Not Work As Well: The content is both familiar and thin, barely sustaining the 94 minutes of running time. Considerable suspension of disbelief is required to allow for Wesley missing school and avoiding his mother's attention for the long periods he spends with the stranger.

Conclusion: Effectively moody but also close to mundane.



All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.