Monday, 6 July 2020

Movie Review: Nothing Sacred (1937)

A bland screwball comedy, Nothing Sacred offers cynical commentary about journalism but is otherwise constrained by a thin premise and delivers few good laughs.

New York City newspaperman Wally Cook (Fredric March) needs a good story to repair his damaged reputation. He convinces editor Oliver Stone (Walter Connolly) to send him to the small town of Warsaw, Vermont, to cover a human interest sob story about Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard), a young woman who is apparently dying due to radium poisoning.

Just before meeting Wally, Hazel learns she is fine and healthy, and was just misdiagnosed by Doctor Enoch Downer (Charles Winninger). She hides the good news from Wally and instead accepts his invitation for an all-expenses-paid trip to New York, with Enoch tagging along. The newspaper pumps Hazel into the sad darling of the social scene, but the truth threatens to come out when expert doctors from Europe arrive to examine her.

Despite a running time of just 77 minutes, decent technicolor vibrancy and good shots of the Manhattan skyline, Nothing Sacred runs out of steam early and ends in a mess. The idea of Fredric March and Carole Lombard trading punches must have seemed funny to someone at some point, but it's just a ghastly and desperate ploy to inject life into a moribund plot. 

By the time the supposedly funny climax rolls around, the one-joke premise of Hazel using her fake ailment to milk a good time away from the rural doldrums has run its course, Ben Hecht's script stumbling into repetitiveness (Hazel fakes another illness) and absurdities (a half-hearted phoney suicide attempt). A lukewarm romance between Hazel and Wally is a clunky add-on, director William A. Wellman unable to generate much heat between his two stars.

The better moments poke fun at the culture of journalism willing to take advantage of any story to sell copies, and savvy exploiters happy to turn the tables and dupe the media for personal profit. Nothing Sacred exposes a no-limits culture, in a creatively limited package.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

The Iconic Moment: Apocalypse Now (1979)

Kilgore: I love the smell of napalm in the morning.

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
Cinematography by Vittorio Storaro.
Starring Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall and Marlon Brando.

The full Ace Black Blog review of Apocalypse Now is here.

Sunday, 5 July 2020

Movie Review: Dangerous Crossing (1953)

A woman-in-distress drama, Dangerous Crossing is a compact economy thriller, with plenty of spooky style enlivening the story of a troubled bride on a luxury ship.

In New York, newlyweds John and Ruth Bowman (Carl Betz and Jeanne Crain) board a transatlantic ocean liner, seemingly giddy with happiness. They only met a few weeks prior, with John helping heiress Ruth through a difficult patch. But as soon as the ship sails, John promptly disappears. Ruth is frazzled: none of the crew members can remember John coming on board and there is no record of him as a passenger. Ruth starts to question her sanity.

Doctor Paul Manning (Michael Rennie) is in charge of passenger health, and he tries to untangle Ruth's story. She then receives a phone call from John, claiming they are both in danger and she ought to not trust anyone. With the ship sailing through thick fog, Ruth has to decide whether she can confide in Paul, while holding out hope John will reappear with an explanation.

Filmed on a miniscule budget in a matter of days and on sets built for other movies, Dangerous Crossing makes good use of scarce resources. Leo Townsend's script is stripped of any externalities, and director Joseph M. Newman limits the action to 75 minutes, maintaining tight control over a traditional gaslighting plot.

The opening few minutes introduce the happy couple and all the events that will subsequently be questioned as unreal, casting genuine doubt on Ruth's mental health. Newman appropriates black and white to his advantage, and utilizes seaworthy fog, a relentless fog horn, nighttime shadows and mysterious men in trenchcoats (complete with limp and cane) to elevate the sense of conspiratorial dread engulfing Ruth.

Jeanne Crain and Michael Rennie are the film's two main assets, and they quickly embody their characters. Crain glows despite Ruth's predicament as she alternates between frantic, bewildered, vulnerable and determined. Rennie deploys his sturdy presence to try and calm the waters.

The resolution of the mystery is as trim as the rest of the production, Paul finally extracting from Ruth the threads of a conspiracy swirling in the background. Given the constraints, words have to suffice when flashbacks would have enriched the narrative. But Dangerous Crossing is all about doing more with less, cutting through choppy waters with admirable poise.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 4 July 2020

Movie Review: North To Alaska (1960)

A comedy western, North To Alaska throws a spiky romance into a rough-and-tumble gold rush.

The setting is the rambunctious town of Nome, Alaska during the 1900 gold rush. Logger-turned-prospector Sam McCord (John Wayne), his friend George Pratt (Stewart Granger) and George's younger brother Billy (Fabian) strike gold, while the conniving Frankie Canon (Ernie Kovacs) is slithering around town looking to get rich without working for it. Sam, who harbours strict anti-marriage opinions, heads to Seattle by boat to purchase mining equipment and escort George's fiancee Jenny back to Alaska.

Sam: Ahh, women! I never met one yet that was half as reliable as a horse!

In Seattle Sam finds Jenny, but she is already married and has forgotten about George. At a swanky nightclub Sam spots French hostess Michelle "Angel" Bonet (Capucine) and invites her to Alaska as a replacement wife for George. She starts to fall in love with Sam, and once in Alaska, Billy also gets infatuated with the sophisticated French beauty. Meanwhile Frankie has a history with Angel, while the region descends into lawlessness with competing cross-claims triggering violence.

Featuring no shortage of comic mass brawls, a few perfunctory shoot-outs (but no casualties) and plenty of trudging through the muddy streets of a recreated Nome, North To Alaska does not take itself too seriously. This is a western light, John Wayne happy to poke fun at his persona as his character Sam McCord is pulled, pushed and shoved into admitting he can, indeed, fall in love with a woman.

Sam: George, a wonderful thing about Alaska is that matrimony hasn't hit up here yet. Let's keep it a free country!

And Angel, a classy prostitute in all but name, is sure able to send Nome into a tizzy. George, Billy and Frankie take turns trying to win her attention, but she decides early Sam is the only man for her and alternates strategic seduction with patience to help his heart yield.

About five different writers had a hand in developing the script, and filming started with no clear direction where the story was going. Director Henry Hathaway could have trimmed the 2 hours of running time, and the disjointed scattershot approach to ideas is apparent. Many scenes meander aimlessly and take forever to get nowhere, with minor characters checking in, leaving no impression, and quietly checking out. 

The subplot about cross-claims erupting into violence is haphazardly tossed into the pot, mainly to justify one messy shootout and another comic highlight involving Wayne in a runaway cart. A loggers picnic in Seattle is a long and tiresome distraction, but even worse is an endless sequence between young Billy and Angel, as the 17 year old tries to act older and falls flat on his face (literally and figuratively).

Michelle: Are you going to leave me here alone?
Sam: Make yourself at home. Billy's here.
Michelle: Who's Billy?
Sam: George's little kid brother.
Michelle: How little?
Sam: Seventeen. But he's man enough to take care of you!
Michelle: That's what I'm afraid of!

The cast buys into the sense of fun and hams it up appropriately, Capucine emerging with plenty of credit as a self-confident and playful woman in a hostile environment. Ernie Kovacs is another stand-out as the oily Frankie, and the film would have benefited from giving him more screen time.

North To Alaska eventually gets to its destination, covered in mud but with a smile on its face.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Friday, 3 July 2020

Ace Black's List: The 10 Best Movies Of 2014

More than 75 movies from 2014 have been reviewed on the Ace Black Blog. Here are the 10 Best:

Directed by Damien Chazelle.
Starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons and Melissa Benoist.
Talent, training, motivation, ambition, determination and bullying in the drumming world, shining the spotlight on what it takes to succeed, and at what cost. Full review.

Directed by Doug Liman.
Starring Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt and Bill Paxton.
Engrossing science fiction military action with every death a frustrating opportunity for progress within an existential battlefield time loop premise. Full review.

Directed by Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin.
Starring Rosamund Pike, David Tennant, and Billy Connolly.
Familial comedy and drama collide in an exploration of divorce, life, death and tolerance through a hilariously warped lens. Full review.

Directed by Brin Hill.
Starring Michael Stahl-David, Zoe Kazan, and Mark Feuerstein.
A uniquely quirky and innovative romantic fantasy where connections of the heart are strained by mental illness and loneliness. Full review.

Directed by Michaël R. Roskam.
Starring  Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, and James Gandolfini.
An intense, character-rich and gracefully slow-burning crime drama, filled with gangland twists. Full review.

Directed by Bennett Miller.
Starring Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo.
A quietly powerful and somber drama about wrestling and egomania, and the dangers lurking within faulty human connections. Full review.

Directed by David Ayer.
Starring Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, and Logan Lerman.
A stunningly gritty look at men in cramped surroundings fighting through the final days of World War Two in a conflict that simply refuses to end quietly. Full review.

Directed by Clint Eastwood.
Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller and Kyle Gallner.
The far-reaching damage caused by war at the most personal level is explored through the brutally tense experiences of an ace sniper deployed to Iraq. Full review.

Directed by Dan Gilroy.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, and Bill Paxton.
The despicable underbelly of gutter journalism is the milieu for a striking drama tracking a perverse pursuit of riches. Full review.

Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu.
Starring Michael Keaton, Emma Stone and Edward Norton.
A semi-surreal portrayal of an actor's struggle to redeem his reputation in the constant crisis of the theatre world, where the greatest impediments lie within. Full review.

Movie Review: The Best Of Me (2014)

A dramatic romance, The Best Of Me is a story of an enduring love overloaded with tragedy.

An explosion on an oil rig off the Louisiana coast throws worker Dawson Cole (James Marsden) into the ocean, but he miraculously survives and starts to wonder about his destiny. Separately, his former highschool sweetheart Amanda Collier-Reynolds (Michelle Monaghan) is unhappy in a loveless marriage. They are both summoned to settle the estate of Dawson's surrogate father Tuck Hostetler (Gerald McRaney). 

The origins of their romance from 21 years ago are revealed in flashback. In highschool Dawson (Luke Bracey) is the kid from the wrong side of the tracks, regularly abused by his heinous father Tommy (Sean Bridgers). Amanda (Liana Liberato) is a popular girl with ambitions to become a lawyer. Despite the class divide they meet and fall in love. Dawson flees Tommy's violence and finds refuge with the kindly Tuck. The young lovers make plans for an idyllic future, but tragedy strikes, forcing a separation.

Back in the present Dawson and Amanda sort through Tuck's belongings and rekindle their passionate romance, admitting they never stopped loving each other. But she is married, and many other obstacles stand between them.

An adaptation of a 2011 Nicholas Sparks novel, The Best Of Me features an oil rig explosion, child abuse, an inadvertent killing, an infant lost to cancer, alcoholism, a shotgun confrontation, a brutal roughing-up, a sniper rifle shooting, a car crash, and open heart surgery, somehow packed into two hours. And three of these climactic moments arrive in a frenzied final 20 minutes.

Director Michael Hoffman ticks the boxes with impressive efficiency, avoiding any hints of subtlety in a drive for successive emotional highlights. The film is packaged with the visual gloss expected from a Sparks adaptation, water and light deployed to maximum effect, soft sunshine reflected off the lake, kisses in the torrential rain, sweat glistening off coyly exposed beautiful bodies.

But amidst the ridiculously frequent tragic carnage and excessive eye candy, this is actually a love story in two chapters set 21 years apart. Writers Will Fetters and J. Mills Goodloe do not spare the opposites-attract stereotypes: Dawson's family is the dictionary definition of white trash, while Amanda is the perky, smart and adventurous girl, better than her privileged upbringing and out to conquer the world. 

The admittedly sweet couple are brought to life by four decent performances. Michelle Monaghan and James Marsden are adequate bordering on tense as the adult couple now weighed down by the disillusionments of life, but their younger versions played by Liana Liberato and Luke Bracey are more prominent, radiating charisma and oxytocin. 

The Best Of Me never rises above breathlessly predictable, but is also never dull.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Movie Review: Pygmalion (1938)

A romantic drama and comedy, Pygmalion provides sharp commentary on classism and the battle between the sexes.

In London, linguistics professor Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard) encounters poor flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller) at Covent Garden. Her coarse language and unrefined pronunciation agitate his senses. Higgins boasts to his colleague Colonel George Pickering (Scott Sunderland) that with three to six months of training he can pass Eliza off as a duchess.

The next morning she shows up at his doorstep, reluctantly willing to undergo the transformation. Soon her father Alfred (Wilfrid Lawson) appears, looking for a few pounds in return for giving up his daughter. With intensive effort Eliza makes progress, and Higgins introduces her to his mother (Marie Lohr) while local gentleman Freddy (David Tree) falls in love with Eliza at first sight. The big test looms at a gala event hosted by the Ambassador of Transylvania.

An adaptation of the 1913 George Bernard Shaw play, Pygmalion boasts a witty, dynamic script, clashing characters, multiple attractive settings and brisk pacing. The British production is co-directed by Anthony Asquith and star Leslie Howard with an eye on revealing the superficial differences separating England's classes. The film gently mocks both upper class haughtiness and working class contentment, with only Eliza possessing the courage to test the divide.

With class differences rumbling from the first scene, the film's longer arc concerns men and women, and particularly Higgins' brand of narcissistic masculinity blocking his path towards finding love. Howard (looking younger than his 45 years) brings an uncompromising edge to the role of a stubbornly confirmed batchelor refusing any accommodation in his approach to life. Shaw creates a genuinely difficult-to-like character at the middle of a would-be romance, both frustrating narrative conventions and challenging Eliza's commitment.

Her quest becomes doubly difficult: to self-improve and seep into Higgins' expertly defended heart. Wendy Hiller is up to the task in a touching and defiant performance, starting in the gutter and culminating with an understanding of what it really takes to thrive. Eliza's climactic dilemma is to decide on a future path, and the film's final act and tentative ending cannot disguise the hard work required to close the gap between two strong personalities.

Beneath the frequent sparring, Pygmalion carries an admirably gentle spirit, representing Shaw's optimism about British society's essence. Colonel Pickering and Mrs. Higgins are immediately welcoming and respectful towards Eliza, and they both offer a refuge away from the caustic Higgins. Even Freddy looks well past Eliza's rough edges and allows love to consume him.

Shaw co-wrote the Academy Award winning script, which was subsequently the basis for the 1956 musical play My Fair Lady and the lavish 1964 Hollywood treatment. The 1938 version may lack the celebratory musical panache, but the astute words speak for themselves.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Movie Review: Castle Keep (1969)

A surreal World War Two movie, Castle Keep embarks on a philosophical quest to find the intersection of war, art and sex.

It's the winter of 1944. In Belgium, a ramshackle unit of eight US soldiers under the nominal command of Major Abraham Falconer (Burt Lancaster) occupies the Maldorais, an imposing ancient castle filled with artwork. The Count (Jean-Pierre Aumont)) is the castle's owner, married to the much younger Therese (Astrid Heeren). Soon Falconer and Therese are having an open affair, with the approval of the Count, who is impotent but would welcome a son.

Private Benjamin (Al Freeman Jr.), an aspiring writer and the unit's only Black member, chronicles the men's experiences. Captain Beckman (Patrick O'Neal) is an art historian and attempts to educate the other soldiers about the castle's art collection, but they are more interested in the whorehouse at the nearby town. Sergeant Rossi (Peter Falk) finds the local bakery and reverts back to his role as baker and family man. Corporal Clearboy (Scott Wilson) is infatuated with a Volkswagen found on the castle grounds.

Falconer anticipates a German counteroffensive in the area as part of the Battle Of The Bulge. He decides to fortify the castle and make a defensive stand, placing the precious art in harm's way. Both the Count and Beckman are horrified, but Falconer is determined to forge his destiny.

The anti-war sentiment of 1969 is retrospectively applied to World War Two, and Castle Keep plants a distinctive flag as a different kind of war film. Writers Daniel Taradash and David Rayfiel adapted the 1965 William Eastlake novel with a European sensibility laced with dark humour, and director Sydney Pollack creates a stylish, often visually stunning story of war's collision with culture. While occasionally crossing over from philosophical to onerous, the film carves a uniquely cerebral identity. 

War's abhorrent incompatibility with love, art and all things of beauty is teased out through a deceptively simple narrative structure. The castle occupies lush landscaped grounds filled with romantic statues, while the inside walls and ceilings are decorated with masterpieces. Falconer's unit arrives at this abode in a disjointed state, the men disrespectful towards the Major, their dialogue and behaviour atypical for soldiers. The script hints early they may all be dead anyway, representing dreams shattered by the incursion of a destructive global conflict.

Whether alive or expired, the men are beyond jaded about the war and more interested in other pursuits, including women, cars (bordering on a fetish), baking, and writing. For educated men like the Count and Beckman, destroying classic artworks is a crime. But for warriors like Falconer, complete with his eye patch and buffalo mentality, the castle is a perfect defensive fortification. He alone commands a warlike attitude, his one eye firmly focused on military objectives and intentionally blind to collateral damage.

In addition to the Volkswagen echo, the free love of the 1960s shows up in Falconer's quick sexual conquest of the willing Therese with the quiet acquiescence of the Count. Therese is the Count's wife and also his niece; it does not matter: he just wants a son, and will accept Falconer bedding Therese perhaps in return for the castle's treasure being saved.

Adding to the surreal surroundings is another group of hollow-eyed anti-war soldiers wandering through the nearby town led by Lieutenant Bix (Bruce Dern). Instead of calling for an end to the fighting they noisily protest fornication at the popular Reine Rouge whorehouse. The protestors eventually encounter mortar strikes, in what proves to be a short confrontation.

With a primary interest in war as a most barbaric anti-cultural weapon, Pollack does not pull back on the combat scenes. The second half boasts two epic battles. First Falconer's men slow down the advancing Germans with an ambush featuring whores with Molotov cocktails and a tank incursion into a church. The climactic defensive stand at the castle occupies the final 30 minutes, Pollack able to maintain the men's incongruous attitudes even as they put up a spirited defense of their new realm.

Wearing eccentricity as a medal of honour, Castle Keep towers over a landscape of emotions ravaged by endless war.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 29 June 2020

Movie Review: El Cid (1961)

A historical epic about a legendary Spanish leader, El Cid is a grand spectacle but leans towards quantity over quality.

It's early in the 11th Century, and Spain is experiencing political divisions. The nation's Muslim Moor tribes are being agitated into rebellion by Ben Yusuf (Herbert Lom), a militaristic Moor leader based in North Africa and intent on conquering Spain in the name of Islam. 

Castilian leader Don Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (Charlton Heston) seeks to unite Christian and Moor tribes in Spain under the banner of King Ferdinand (Ralph Truman). Don Rodrigo earns the title El Cid for his prowess in battle, a strong moral code, and a dedication to justice and Spain's national interest. But he loses the love of Doña Ximena (Sophia Loren) when he kills her father to defend family honour.

After Ferdinand's death El Cid attempts to avoid the fracturing of Spain in a power struggle between the King's sons Sancho (Gary Raymond) and Alfonso (John Fraser). A period of exile allows a reconciliation with Ximena before the Ben Yusuf threat re-emerges and a showdown looms in Valencia.

Produced by Samuel Bronston, directed by Anthony Mann and clocking in at a grandiose three hours, El Cid is a weighty exercise in epic filmmaking. Loosely based on what is known about the El Cid legend, numerous characters and thousand of extras bring to life multiple story lines featuring palace intrigue, religious conflict, personal plotting, political infighting and shifting loyalties over decades, tracing Don Rodrigo's influence on Spain's history. While enough is always going on to maintain a base level of interest, the film is also often slow and lumberous, and rarely emotionally stirring.

El Cid's greatness is portrayed as stemming from unyielding loyalty to the King combined with an unwavering commitment to a vision of a cohesive Spain where Moors and Christians set religious differences aside and unite to build a strong and just nation. Charlton Heston carries the grit and intensity to convey the character's strength, but the surrounding material is not as cogent.

The script by Philip Yordan, Fredric M. Frank, and Ben Barzman is an uneven effort, and appears intent on prolonging running time at the expense of narrative thrust. Scenes of pomp and circumstance and marching armies occupy an inordinate amount of time, and the sappy, unhappy personal drama between El Cid and Ximena sucks the momentum out of the first two hours. Stars Heston and Loren did not get along, and the lack of chemistry is obvious on the screen, Loren in particular confined to a single stone-faced expression.

When it's time to capture either skirmishes or epic battles, the action is surprisingly incoherent. Skipping past both strategic and tactical considerations, Mann appears content to allow extras to charge at each other and then film the logjam. The outcome is a mechanical exercise in many men swinging many swords and falling off many horses.

The final hour set in Valencia finds better focus, El Cid earning his legend with a mythical determination to inspire no matter the personal consequences.

The supporting cast members mostly make up the numbers, the acting fluctuating between adequate and stiff. Geneviève Page as the sister of Alfonso and Sancho shows the most spirit and should have been provided with more to do. Raf Vallone and Michael Hordern (as El Cid's father) appear in relatively small roles.

A test of endurance, El Cid offers a few moments of fulfillment amidst excessive equestrian cavalcades.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

The Iconic Moment: Bonnie And Clyde (1967)

Bonnie: Hey, isn't that Malcolm there?

Directed by Arthur Penn.
Written by David Newman and Robert Benton.
Cinematography by Burnett Guffey.
Starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty.

The full Ace Black Blog review of Bonnie And Clyde is here.

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