Sunday 3 December 2023

Movie Review: May December (2023)

Genre: Psychological Drama
Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Julianne Moore, Natalie Portman, Charles Melton
Running Time: 117 minutes

Synopsis: Actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) arrives in Savannah, Georgia to spend time with Gracie Atherton-Yu (Julianne Moore) and her much younger husband Joe (Charles Melton). Elizabeth is due to play Gracie in an upcoming movie exploring her sensational story: Gracie and Joe fell in love when she was 36 and he was 13. She had his children in prison, and they were married upon her release. Now Gracie is close to 60 and Joe is 36 and their twin children are about to graduate from high school. Elizabeth is more than just curious, and starts to add turmoil to Gracie's family dynamics.

What Works Well: Loosely inspired by the life of Mary Kay Letourneau, director Todd Haynes and writer Samy Burch craft a sly human drama searching for the impulses behind notoriety. Revealing secrets through Elizabeth's not-purely-neutral outsider's perspective, the layers of complexity residing within Gracie are gradually peeled away, but there is always another shell protecting the core, perhaps even from Gracie herself. Meanwhile Elizabeth is quick to assess the relatively simple men in Gracie's life, with Joe not even aware of the multiple webs surrounding him. The intriguing contest between notorious woman and ambitious actress allows both Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman to exquisitely hint at quiet reservoirs of turmoil mixed with inner strength, accompanied by a playfully tense music score.

What Does Not Work As Well: The scars inflicted on Gracie's children are introduced in tantalizing doses, and could have benefited from broader exposition.

Conclusion: Life's real dramas reside well away from the headlines.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Saturday 2 December 2023

Movie Review: Sam & Kate (2022)

Genre: Romantic Dramedy
Director: Darren Le Gallo
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Sissy Spacek, Jake Hoffman, Schuyler Fisk
Running Time: 110 minutes

Synopsis: Sam (Jake Hoffman) never fulfilled his potential as an artist and now lives with his elderly and widowed father Bill (Jake's real-life dad Dustin Hoffman). Sam spots bookstore owner Kate (Schuyler Fisk) and attempts to initiate a romance, but she remains distant. Kate is caring for her aging mother Tina (Schuyler's real-life mom Sissy Spacek), who has her own embarrassing secret. Sam persists in trying to impress Kate, while Bill asks Tina out for a date.

What Works Well: Veterans Dustin Hoffman and Sissy Spacek bring the necessary crustiness and vulnerability to their late-in-life roles, and the parent-offspring casting radiates some natural warmth.

What Does Not Work As Well: Bogged down by largely uninteresting characters who are in turn stalled by their own failures, Darren Le Gallo's directorial debut is overlong by a good 20 minutes. The humour is low key to the point of not registering, and the romance never ignites beyond perfunctory. Meanwhile, the drama flounders on unspoken but obvious secrets (Kate's past, Tina's fondness for clutter); and adult communications defaulting to half-sentences and quick anger instead of delving into substance. 

Conclusion: Inescapably bland. 

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Movie Review: 7500 (2019)

Genre: Hijack Drama Thriller
Director: Patrick Vollrath
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Running Time: 92 minutes

Synopsis: On a Berlin to Paris nighttime flight, Tobias Ellis (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the First Officer while his partner G√∂kce (Aylin Tezel) is one of the flight attendants. Once airborne, murderous hijackers storm the cockpit and incapacitate the Captain (Carlo Kitzlinger), but the injured Tobias regains control and locks the hijackers out of the flight deck. As he struggles to land the plane and keep the passengers safe, he notices that 18-year-old hijacker Vedat (Omid Memar) may not be as fanatical as his colleagues.

What Works Well: German director Patrick Vollrath's feature film debut is almost entirely set in the cockpit and unfolds in close-to-real-time, resulting in a tense, claustrophobic, and effective thriller. Focusing on realism, the human actions are filled with missteps, injuries matter, heroism is accidental, and routine movements like pulling levers or using microphones are hampered by pain or lack of knowledge. The interactions between Tobias and Vedat reveal a complex web of emotions within panic, anchored by a level-headed Joseph Gordon-Levitt performance.

What Does Not Work As Well: The film's strengths are also its limitations: nothing matters beyond the confines of the cockpit; and in striving for authenticity, repetition and prolongation creep in.

Conclusion: A crisis confined to close quarters.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Americanization Of Emily (1964)

Genre: War Drama Comedy Romance
Director: Arthur Hiller
Running Time: 115 minutes

Synopsis: In London of 1944, D-Day preparations are underway. The US Navy's Lieutenant Charlie Madison (James Garner) manages logistics for Admiral Jessup (Melvyn Douglas), who is concerned that the Navy's war efforts are underappreciated. A charming womanizer and admitted coward, Charlie starts a romance with Emily Barham (Julie Andrews), a military pool driver who believes in notions of honour and sacrifice. When the ailing Jessup demands a propaganda film of the Normandy invasion, Charlie and his colleague Lieutenant "Bus" Cummings (James Coburn) are thrust uncomfortably close to the front lines.

What Works Well: The Paddy Chayefsky adaptation of William Bradford Huie's novel is full of sharp intellectual debate, delivered with cynical conviction by characters navigating the turmoil of World War Two. Themes include the contrast between the American and English perspectives on the war; the value and exploitation of service and honor as opposed to practical individual survival objectives; and the preoccupation with optics and finance plaguing the military's leadership. In a sexually liberated milieu, Julie Andrews as Emily is a bright light amidst the uniforms, representing British resilience in the face of personal loss and an American cultural invasion.

What Does Not Work As Well: The multiple competing narrative ambitions result in plot threads being abandoned for long stretches. The tonal shifts between romance, philosophizing, and outright cynicism are often jarring, with several characters recalibrating beliefs according to the whims of the script. Some of the dialogue exchanges are theatrically wordy. 

Conclusion: A whip-smart and well-rounded commentary on war's conundrums.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Movie Review: Ice Station Zebra (1968)

Genre: Cold War Espionage Thriller
Directors: John Sturges
Starring: Rock Hudson, Ernest Borgnine, Patrick McGoohan, Jim Brown
Running Time: 149 minutes

Synopsis: After a spy satellite carrying a coveted capsule falls back to Earth, the US Navy's submarine Commander James Ferraday (Rock Hudson) is dispatched to Ice Station Zebra in the Arctic. On board the sub is British spy Jones (Patrick McGoohan) on a secret mission, joined by Russian double-agent Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine) and US Marines Captain Anders (Jim Brown). The dangerous journey below the ice includes an attempted sabotage, but the extent of Ferraday's challenge only becomes apparent when the group arrives at their frigid destination.

What Works Well: The under-the-ice cinematography is excellent, and the best moments celebrate Cold War hardware: submarine, satellites, and planes. The sabotage sequence carries decent tension.

What Does Not Work As Well: The adaptation of Alistair MacLean's novel is overlong and remarkably dull. Essential plot drivers are kept hidden for the best part of two hours, and when finally revealed, none of the details pass even the most cursory logic inspection. The characters are cardboard cutouts with no background or personality, and the final climax is a ridiculous showdown on an unconvincing set.

Conclusion: A sloppy combination of senseless plotting and slack execution.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Movie Review: Rogue Agent (2022)

Genre: Crime Drama
Directors: Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn
Starring: James Norton, Gemma Arterton
Running Time: 116 minutes

Synopsis: In Britain of 1993, bartender Robert (James Norton) claims to be an undercover MI5 agent and recruits three college students to spy on suspected IRA activists. He then wraps up the mission in a rush and extracts the informants out of college. Nine years later, Robert is working at a luxury car dealership and starts a romance with corporate lawyer Alice Archer (Gemma Arterton). She falls for his charms, but then starts to suspect he may not be entirely truthful.

What Works Well: A British production inspired by the true story of Robert Freegard, Rogue Agent underlines the powers of deception and malevolent subterfuge. Working with no-nonsense grey weather colours and grounded perspectives, directors Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn (along with their co-writer Michael Bronner) portray with emotional detachment seemingly smart people falling prey to the methodical plotting of a charming psychopath. James Norton's smarmy smile and ready explanation for every question is a chilling portrayal of mendacity.

What Does Not Work As Well: The pacing is slow, particularly in the evolving romance between Robert and Alice. In contrast, the investigative elements in the final third are sloppy and far-fetched, leading to a fortuitous climax. Ultimately, little is revealed about the inner-workings of a twisted mind.

Conclusion: A cautionary but cold probe of cruelty.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Saturday 25 November 2023

Movie Review: The Old Man And The Sea (1958)

Genre: Adventure Drama
Director: John Sturges
Starring: Spencer Tracy
Running Time: 87 minutes

Synopsis: In a Havana fishing village, "The Old Man" Santiago (Spencer Tracy) is a fisherman on a long streak of bad luck: he has not caught a fish for 84 days. His only friend is the young boy Manolin, who used to fish with the Old Man but switched to another, luckier boat. On the 85th day, the Old Man goes further away from shore and hooks a huge marlin. For days the powerful big fish pulls the Old Man out to sea, but despite his age and ailments Santiago is determined to win this battle. 

What Works Well: The almost unfilmable Ernest Hemingway novella is turned into a soulful cinematic experience by surrendering to the book's simplicity. Relying more on narration than dialogue and leaning heavily on a weathered Spencer Tracy performance, director John Sturges easily succeeds in surfacing Hemingway's potent man versus nature themes. The Old Man's battle with the marlin is about minutes, hours, and days, but represents humanity's eternal refusal to succumb to nature's might, even as age creeps up on ability. 

What Does Not Work As Well: With many scenes filmed in a studio tub, the composite visuals are patchy and distracting. The open water, special effects, and third-party sequences come with varying levels of colour saturation, light, and granularity, and are awkwardly pasted around Tracy's performance.

Conclusion: "Man is not made for defeat. Man can be destroyed, but not defeated."

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Trip To Bountiful (1985)

Genre: Road Trip Drama
Director: Peter Masterson
Starring: Geraldine Page, John Heard, Carlin Glynn, Rebecca De Mornay, Richard Bradford
Running Time: 108 minutes

Synopsis: In Houston of the late 1940s, the elderly Mrs. Watts (Geraldine Page) is living in a cramped two-room apartment with her son Ludie (John Heard) and daughter-in-law Jessie May (Carlin Glynn). The two women barely get along, and Mrs. Watts longs to escape the apartment and visit her tiny hometown of Bountiful one last time. With Ludie reluctant to accompany her, Mrs. Watts takes the initiative and sets off on her own, embarking on a bus ride full of memories and anticipation.

What Works Well: Horton Foote adapts his own play for the screen, and director Peter Masterson delivers a small, intimate story of nostalgia with an eye for picturesque middle-of-nowhere bus stops. An acting showcase for Geraldine Page, this warm and lyrical road trip contrasts sweet memories of home as a refuge from present hard compromises and discomforts. Rebecca De Mornay (as a fellow traveler) and Richard Bradford (as a helpful Sheriff) make small appearances.

What Does Not Work As Well: The theatrical origins are obvious, the narrative is singularly lacking in surprises, and the pacing succumbs to repetitive reminiscing about the good old days. John Heard's Ludie gets one late moment to shine, but it arrives out of nowhere. 

Conclusion: A sweet but largely inconsequential ode to the past.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Miracle Worker (1962)

Genre: Biographical Drama
Director: Arthur Penn
Starring: Anne Bancroft, Patty Duke
Running Time: 106 minutes

Synopsis: The setting is Alabama in the 1880s, where seven-year-old Helen Keller (Patty Duke) is blind, deaf, and resistant to parenting. Boston's Perkins School For The Blind dispatches recently graduated and near-blind teacher Anne Sullivan (Anne Bancroft) to become Helen's live-in personal instructor. Anne has to teach Helen basic methods of communication and appropriate behaviour, while overcoming her parents' well-intentioned but damagingly tolerant attitudes.

What Works Well: William Gibson's adaptation of his hit Broadway play (based on Keller's autobiography) is a stunning showcase of committed physical acting. Patty Duke's Keller starts out as a feral child, and Anne Bancroft as Sullivan never yields in what becomes a battle of wills and wits between determined teacher and unwilling student. Sullivan's valiant attempt to teach Keller basic table manners is an exhilarating and exhausting sequence, director Arthur Penn converting the dining room into a showdown of bruising moves and countermoves. Anne's own backstory of childhood hardship adds rich context as the fuel igniting her fire to succeed.

What Does Not Work As Well: The dominant two central performances push all the supporting characters (mainly Helen's parents and older brother) into the bumpkin background.

Conclusion: The seemingly impossible becomes possible with unshakeable resolve. 

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Movie Review: Quo Vadis (1951)

Genre: Historical Epic
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Starring: Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, Peter Ustinov, Leo Genn
Running Time: 171 minutes

Synopsis: In Rome circa 62 AD, victorious military commander Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor) returns from a successful campaign to find Emperor Nero (Peter Ustinov) increasingly unstable. Marcus falls in love with the initially reluctant hostage Lygia (Deborah Kerr), and she introduces him to Christian teachings being spread by disciples Paul (Abraham Sofaer) and Peter (Finlay Currie). Marcus' Uncle Petronius (Leo Genn) is within Nero's inner circle, but the Emperor's second wife Poppaea (Patricia Laffan) also exerts influence. When Nero burns Rome for artistic inspiration and then blames the Christians, Marcus and Lygia are caught in the violent consequences.

What Works Well: Massive crowd scenes, lavish sets and costumes, an ambitious scope encompassing Christianity's early days, strong-willed characters, an ardent romance, and a mammoth running time combine to create a grand spectacle. Director Mervyn LeRoy demonstrates agility and control over all the narrative threads and achieves some legendary highlights: the burning of Rome features impressive destruction and large-scale panic, while the scenes of Christians being fed to the lions and burned at the cross are potent and painful. Towering over all the dramatic sprawl is Peter Ustinov's performance as a ridiculous, pathetic, and unforgettable Nero.

What Does Not Work As Well: The opening hour is slow, some of the speechifying is self-consciously solemn, and Robert Taylor only rarely finds the necessary tones.

Conclusion: A fine feast of Hollywoodized history. 

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.