Thursday, 24 September 2020

Movie Review: True Confessions (1981)

A neo-noir crime drama, True Confessions lines up the requisite components but misplaces all the potential.

In the early 1960s, Los Angeles police Detective Tom Spellacy (Robert Duvall) visits his brother Monsignor Desmond Spellacy (Robert De Niro) at an isolate parish in the middle of the desert. Desmond announces he is dying from a failing heart. In flashback, the brothers recall a seminal event in their relationship.

In 1947, Desmond is a powerful up-and-coming figure in the church, the right-hand man and fixer for the Cardinal (Cyril Cusack). The church has a long-standing partnership with slimy businessman Jack Amsterdam (Charles Durning), whose construction company benefits from building religious facilities for the expanding city. In his less respectable early days Jack financed a whorehouse managed by Brenda (Rose Gregorio). Now his finances are wobbling, and Desmond is eager to cut ties with Amsterdam to clean-up the church's image.

Meanwhile, Tom is building a reputation as a dogged detective working with his more seasoned partner Detective Frank Crotty (Kenneth McMillan). Tom helps Desmond cover up any scandal from the death of a reverend at Brenda's brothel. The detectives then have to deal with the gory murder of Lois Fazenda (Missy Cleveland), her body found cut in half and drained of blood. Tom's investigation into Lois' background uncovers sordid activities dangerously close to his brother Desmond.

Despite the presence of heavyweight acting talent in the form of Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall, True Confessions is a lost opportunity. The script by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, adapting Dunne's book, is littered with raw material derived from the infamous Black Dahlia case by way of Chinatown, with the added moral complexity of a religious veneer cloaking corruption. But director Ulu Grosbard opts for a talky, slow and often stumbling composition, barely coherent events unfolding through scene after scene of mumbled dialogue drowned by background noise.

Seemingly more interested in frilly and inconsequential style points, at no point does Grosbard come close to achieving momentum or emotional resonance, and the misdeeds supposedly motivating murder are a muddled mess. The reverend's death at the brothel and later the demise of another secondary character are lost investments. A sub-quest involving honest monsignor Fargo (Burgess Meredith) consumes inordinate time. The business dealings between the Cardinal and Jack are explained at sketch level, and the supposedly perilous connections between the very dead Lois, Jack and Desmond are treated with tangential incompetence, robbing the film of any impact.

True Confessions is left with an elegant recreation of 1940s Los Angeles, and the two Roberts delivering understated but uneven performances. De Niro is better served by the Monsignor character, while Duvall's bull-in-a-china-shop antics are another example of a script going to a place because other scripts went there, and not because it makes any sense.

Duvall and De Niro do share thoughtful scenes together, but unfortunately their pregnant pauses best serve to expose the lack of coherent substance.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Movie Review: Changeling (2008)

A missing child crime drama, Changeling recreates an enthralling true mystery, and exposes chapters of deep-seated corruption and horrid treatment of women deemed inconvenient.

Los Angeles, 1928. Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) is a single mom working as a telephone exchange supervisor and raising her nine year old son Walter. Christine returns home one day to find Walter missing. Despite pressure from anti-corruption campaigner Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), it's five months before Captain Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) of the Los Angeles Police Department's Juvenile Division reunites Christine with a child found abandoned in rural Illinois. 

She immediately realizes the boy is not Walter, but is pressured into caring for him under the pretense that five months is a long time and the boy would have changed. Christine keeps the pressure on Jones to find her real son, and eventually goes to the press. The police retaliate by labeling her unstable and dumping her into a psychiatric ward. But when Detective Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly) stumbles upon a heinous multiple child murder scene on the outskirts of the city, Reverend Briegleb and famed lawyer Sammy "S.S." Hahn (Geoff Pierson) team up to support Christine's quest for the truth.

Meticulously researched and written by J. Michael Straczynski, Changeling draws upon historical archives to bring to life an astonishing but true story. Director Clint Eastwood, assisted by a star turn from Angelina Jolie, delivers a devastating film, starting with a tight focus on a single mom and her child, gradually expanding to cover the atrocious mistreatment of women, a police department riddled with mismanagement and incompetence, and finally one of the worst mass-murder cases in California's history.

Righteous rage and individual courage are the two interwoven themes permeating through Changeling. At every turn, Eastwood highlights a system designed by men to sweep women's concerns aside. Detective Jones and Doctor Jonathan Steele (Denis O'Hare) at the psychiatric facility manipulate Christine's words and actions to portray her as unfit, uncaring and erratic. With no oversight she is subjected to the horrors of an asylum where women who challenge authority are sent to rot.

But having lost her child Christine has nothing left to lose and therefore will not be silenced. She eventually finds allies in Reverend Briegleb and lawyer Hahn, while the dogged work of detective Ybarra is a spark of hope for the future of policing. Changeling then enters the world of child victimization at an abominable scale through the crimes of Gordon Stewart Northcott (James Butler Harner), and Christine finds herself at the centre of two extraordinary proceedings.

Eastwood recreates a between-the-wars Depression-era Los Angeles with loving care, the set designs, costumes and cars capturing a fragile society on the edge between emerging modernity and economic ruin. The city has undoubted energy and potential, but is also slipping into the grip of greedy men hiding behind respectable suits and uniforms, eager to consume a growing share of an expanding pie.

Into a grim male-dominated world, Changeling shines a thin ray of positive light towards the future, society's genuine advancement only achieved when women are treated as equals, or better.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 21 September 2020

The Iconic Moment: All About Eve (1950)

Karen Richards: We know you. We've seen you like this before. Is it over or is it just beginning?
Margo Channing: Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night.

Directed and written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
Cinematography by Milton R. Krasner.
Starring Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders.

The full Ace Black Blog review of All About Eve is here.

Sunday, 20 September 2020

Movie Review: Without Reservations (1946)

A romantic comedy, Without Reservations invests in a complicated premise but then abandons it in favour of an underdeveloped jealousy ploy.

Author Christopher "Kit" Madden (Claudette Colbert) is the talk of the nation, as her inspiring novel Here Is Tomorrow, a call for post-war nation building, sits for 16 weeks at the top of the bestseller charts. Hollywood producer Henry Baldwin (Thurston Hall) has optioned the book and is eagerly awaiting Kit's arrival in Los Angeles. Just before she boards the train Kit is disappointed to learn Cary Grant has passed on the role of the book's hero Mark Winston. 

But she soon spots Marine Captain "Rusty" Thomas (John Wayne) and his traveling buddy Lieutenant "Dink" Watson (Don DeFore), and decides Rusty would be perfect for the role. On the train ride Kit befriends Rusty and Dink but hides her identity, eager to find out if Rusty shares her passion for large-scale societal and governmental reforms. Although disappointed to find him more down to earth, Kit starts to fall in love with Rusty, but winning his heart will not be easy.

An adaptation of the book Thanks, God! I'll Take It From Here by Jane Allen and Mae Livingston, Without Reservations is directed by Mervyn LeRoy from an Andrew Solt script. The film combines a long and rather tedious road trip with romance and comedy. The original noble intention delves into the post-war national psyche and occupies plenty of screen time, Madden's book seemingly a forward-looking manifesto (disguised as a romance) for overhauling everything from childhood education to land development patterns. 

Discussions of the book are surprisingly the best parts of the movie's first two acts, because Solt and LeRoy are unable to do much else within the confines of the moving train. The humour is choppy, and the supporting characters are dominated by the exceptionally irritating Connie (Anne Triola), appropriately nicknamed Beetle. After switching from one train to another and then into a car, the story meanders along with Kit, Rusty and Dink into a quite bland adventure, the would-be lovers irritating each other before the romance even blossoms.

A long stop at a ranch occupied by the Mexican Ortega immigrant family gives the alluring Dona Drake as Dolores Ortega every opportunity to throw herself at Rusty and inflame Kit's jealousy. Once Kit finally arrives in Los Angeles she returns the favour in a final act running on fumes, the film stumbling into a dry exchange of letters. The story stalls into the gossip columns, the lovers not even sharing the screen together, the movie-casting project and the social commentary entirely discarded.

Claudette Colbert and John Wayne are game but share little chemistry, and the supporting cast is thin, although Cary Grant pops us as himself in an uncredited cameo. Without Reservations spends a long time on the train, but gets comprehensively sidetracked.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 19 September 2020

Movie Review: Manhattan (1979)

An intellectual romantic comedy, Manhattan is writer-director Woody Allen's love letter to his borough. Multiple overlapping romantic entanglements among a small group of friends provide rich reflections on a complex city. 

Twice-divorced 42 year old Isaac Davis (Allen) lives in Manhattan and works as a writer for a low-brow live-audience television show. His current girlfriend is 17 year old student Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), and she is more invested in their relationship. Isaac's best friend Yale (Michael Murphy), a teacher, is married but having an affair with writer and editor Mary (Diane Keaton). Isaac and Mary initially clash, but gradually build a friendship.

Isaac learns his ex-wife Jill (Meryl Streep, on the cusp of stardom), who is now in a lesbian relationship, is writing a tell-all book exposing the sordid details of their marriage. He also has a meltdown at work and is forced to look for a new apartment. Then Yale breaks off the affair with Mary and Tracy secures a student position in London, clearing the way for Isaac and Mary to start a serious relationship, but their previous liaisons will linger.

Filmed in wispy black and white, Manhattan opens with a montage of New York cityscapes and Isaac narrating various iterations of self-definition through his impressions of the city. Allen (who co-wrote the script with Marshall Brickman) identifies his main character through the prism of the town's strengths and frustrations, and the film proceeds to tightly focus on a small group of friends navigating emotional ups and downs.

Many hookups and breakups occur during the course of 96 minutes, but Manhattan's beauty resides in the cloud-like narrative progression. Allen weaves the stories into a seamless fabric devoid of melodrama, milestones noted almost in passing through engrossing scenes of dialogue, the city an ever-present backdrop observer.

Allen's trademark neurotic self-obsession here extends to almost all the main characters (Tracy is the most grounded), and a layer of deprecating self-awareness is added to the pulsing anxiety. Isaac admits his problems are small in the overall global context, but personal angst is potentially manageable while the world's crises are not. Both Isaac and Mary are seeing shrinks, although her shrink may need his own better therapist. 

The lovers carry their emotional luggage, accumulated from previous broken marriages, in plain sight, and honesty is close to the surface throughout. Isaac is blunt with Tracy that their relationship has a short shelf life, while both Yale and Mary are mindful their affair is ridiculous and doomed to fail, and yet they are caught in a web of illicit love.

The group of friends exist in an isolated bubble of upper middle class bourgeois writers seemingly oblivious to any other social constructs. With rapidfire elite cultural references to the likes of Flaubert, Freud, Zelda Fitzgerald, Noel Coward, August Strindberg, Fellini, and Bergman, Allen rides a fine line between humour and altogether alienating a large chunk of his audience.

But Manhattan ultimately draws down the curtain on 1970s portrayals of New York. The dangerous, dirty and downbeat city of the past cinematic decade is eased out, replaced with art galleries and museums, a safe Central Park, the Russian Tea Room, elite cocktail gatherings and the glorious Queensboro Bridge at sunrise. Inspired by the optimistic tunes of George Gershwin, the city is set to reinvent itself for a new decade, marked by the red heart of those who choose to love it.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 18 September 2020

Movie Review: You Can't Get Away With Murder (1939)

A straightforward morality tale, You Can't Get Away With Murder is a prison-set drama as obvious as its title suggests.

In New York City, bubbly Madge Stone (Gale Page) and her boyfriend Fred Burke (Harvey Stephens), a security guard, excitedly make plans to get married and relocate to Boston. But Madge's younger brother Johnny (Billy Halop) is falling in with the wrong crowd, idolizing small-time criminal Frank Wilson (Humphrey Bogart). Frank and Johnny hold-up a gas station, then Johnny steals Burke's gun and Frank leaves it at the scene of a pawn shop murder when the next robbery goes wrong. 

Frank and Johnny are arrested for the gas station job and incarcerated at Sing Sing prison. Burke is wrongly convicted of the pawn shop murder based on circumstantial evidence and sentenced to die. Johnny knows the truth but struggles with his conscious while serving his sentence, caught between ratting out Frank or letting Burke die. Elderly prisoner Pop (Henry Travers), in charge of the prison library, tries to help Johnny sort through right and wrong.

A standard Warner Bros. crime and punishment film, You Can't Get Away With Murder is only 79 minutes long but feels much longer. Once Frank and Johnny land behind the walls of Sing Sing and Burke is convicted of murder, director Lewis Seiler has another 40 minutes or so to burn, and the film drops into a tiresome and repetitive loop. With Johnny stuck agonizing over his predicament, all other characters and events freeze at the same note until the final climax.

The script by Jonathan Finn and Lewis E. Lawes (adapting Lawes' play Chalked Out) attempts to add vibrancy through the assorted characters populating the prison system. The most prominent is Henry Travers as Pop, a sick and aging seen-it-all prisoner who senses Johnny's conflict and attempts to nudge him to the side of light. The rest of the riffraff is less successful, including a prisoner who loudly recites recipes (?) and another who runs a gig betting on death row inmates.

The acting is of the grim straight-ahead variety, with Bogart stuck in another thankless reinterpretation of the sharp-tongued small time criminal. Gale Page is overly theatrical, Harvey Stephens is bland, but Billy Halop effectively evolves his Dead End Kids persona.

The photography is slick and Seiler creates a viable prison environment, but You Can't Get Away With Murder gives away its message in the banner, then makes hard work of trudging to the waiting cell.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 17 September 2020

Movie Review: Marty (1955)

A genial romance, Marty is a small-scale search-for-love story with a big heart.  

In the Bronx, Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine) works at a butcher shop. A batchelor at 34 years old with a stocky build and not blessed with good looks, Marty still lives with his mother (Esther Minciotti). He is good-natured and popular among his pals, including best friend Angie (Joe Mantell), but as the only one of six siblings not yet wedded, Marty is constantly pressured to find a girl and get married.

Reluctantly spending a Saturday night at the local dance hall where singles go to mix, Marty meets 29 year old school teacher Clara (Betsy Blair). She believes herself plain looking, but after spending the evening dancing and talking, both Marty and Clara start to believe they can still find love.

Produced by Burt Lancaster and Harold Hecht, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Delbert Mann, Marty is one of Hollywood's earliest flirtations with low-budget, well-produced, small-scale arthouse projects focusing on a human-scaled story without the distraction of star power. The film draws its strength from street level neighbourhood locations, bona fide characters, and an intimate quest for companionship over one weekend.

With Ernest Borgnine finding the role of a lifetime, Marty is an unforgettable character. Helpful, sensitive, family oriented and self-aware, he is everyone's ideal next-door neighbour. But a somewhat portly butcher is not a natural magnet for the ladies, and for all the pressure directed his way to get married, Marty is starting to believe he will remain a batchelor. His surprise at finding Clara translates into a long night where he cannot stop talking, propelled by the exciting potential of a different future.

Chayefsky animates Marty's family and neighbourhood with people and places emitting genuine familiarity. A major sub-plot features Marty's cousin Tommy (Jerry Paris) and his wife Virginia (Karen Steele) as new parents suffocating under the same roof as Tommy's mother Aunt Catherine (Augusta Ciolli). The difficult process of convincing Catherine to relocate and live with her sister Mrs. Piletti is a trigger for serious conversations about mothers' dedication to their families and the painful process of separating from grown children.

Outside the house, Marty's social life is also portrayed with realism drawn from the suburban setting, where guys get together and waste away the night indifferently debating their mundane options to waste away the night.

Marty has to reconcile his feelings towards Clara with all the incoming signals from his mother (Clara is not Italian) and his friends (Clara is not a beauty). The butcher has to separate the gristle from the meat, and measure his optimal cut.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Movie Review: Easy Living (1949)

A sports drama, Easy Living is a grim story about the thin line between glamour and obscurity on and off the field.

Pete Wilson (Victor Mature) is the star quarterback of the Chiefs professional football team. Marketed as "King Football", he is the league's MVP and the face of the franchise. Pete is married to the ambitious Liza (Lizabeth Scott), who wants to capitalize on her status to launch an interior design business. She cozies up to wealthy businessman Howard Vollmer (Art Baker) as a potential client.

After feeling unwell, Pete is privately diagnosed with a heart condition. Fearful this could spell the end of his career, he keeps his ailment a secret from both Liza and the team's ruthless owner Lenahan (Lloyd Nolan). Meanwhile Lenahan's secretary and widowed daughter-in-law Anne (Lucille Ball) harbours a secret crush on Pete. After being passed-up for a coaching role and with his on-field performances in decline, Pete is confronted with the real possibility of losing everything.

One of the earliest movies set in the world of professional football, Easy Living features a complex, multi-faceted narrative. A relatively low-budget production from RKO Pictures clocking in at just 77 minutes, the adaptation of Irwin Shaw's Education Of The Heart overachieves with a story about the lure of social status, the fragile careers of elite athletes, and the difficult trade-offs between health and glory.

Easy Living offers a rare peek into the early era of high-stakes professional sports. Train and bus rides for the players, finances dominating decisions, slipshod medical oversight, and repeated assertions this is a bushiness like any other, players pumped into stars or dumped onto the scrapheap as best befits the bottom line. As a star attraction Pete thrives in this milieu; Liza is much less interested, preferring to spend her evenings at posh parties schmoozing with the literati.

Director Jacques Tourneur, working from Charles Schnee's compact script, packs in people and incidents around the central couple. The film buzzes with secondary characters, including Pete's best friend and teammate Tim (Sonny Tufts) and his grounded wife Penny (Miss Jeff Donnell), as well as reporters, marketing agents, coaches, old timers, and a whole ecosystem of social climbers gathered around affluent sleazeball Vollmer. 

Most poignant is the subplot featuring Holloran (Gordon Jones), an aging lineman now past his best-by date and about to be unceremoniously dumped by the team, providing Pete with an unwanted preview of his potential fate. Meanwhile, up-and-coming model Billy Duane (June Bright) decorates Liza's glitzy social circle, but she too will wave an unexpected caution flag. 

The intertwined threads of risk and ambition reside at the heart of the film, Pete and Liza mostly in love with the idea of who they are but unable to imagine what their union means if the fundamentals change. Pete is an on-field icon but off the field he is unsure how to handle failing health and a showcase marriage. Liza is undoubtedly heartless in her exploitation of only one acceptable image of Pete, but her ambition is conjoined with villainy, her pursuit of Vollmer the personification of greed's outer limits. 

While Liza earns any pot-holes created by her single-purposed exploitive agenda, her arc ends with exceptionally crude treatment. Despite that foul, Easy Living scores an unlikely touchdown.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Jack Reacher (2012)

A clever action thriller, Jack Reacher unleashes an irresistible crime investigator onto a convoluted conspiracy.

In Pittsburgh, five innocent civilians are killed in a seemingly random sniper attack. Physical evidence leads Detective Emerson (David Oyelowo) to ex-army sniper and Iraq war veteran Barr (Joseph Sikora), who is summarily arrested. A stunned Barr requests help from Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise), a crime investigator who served with him in the army and now lives a nomadic off-the-grid existence.

Jack teams up with Barr's lawyer Helen (Rosamund Pike), who is also the daughter of District Attorney Rodin (Richard Jenkins). Jack is aware of Barr's unhinged behaviour in the army, but his investigation into the Pittsburgh killings suggests Barr was the fall guy for a larger conspiracy. Both Jack and Helen are soon targets of the ruthless criminal enterprise behind a sinister plot.

An adaptation of the book One Shot by Lee Child, Jack Reacher is a slick and relatively grounded crime thriller. Director Christopher McQuarrie and star Tom Cruise combine to deliver quick paced and special effects-free action with a dash of biting humour. Rational editing, glistening night-time cinematography, an involving plot, and a cheeky attitude elevate the entertainment value.

Of course with Reacher quickly established as the epitome of cool heroism, some suspension of disbelief is required to ride out his antics. Reacher can outfight any number of goons, even when he literally finds himself with only a knife in the middle of a gunfight. He out-thinks friends and enemies alike, connecting barely visible conspiracy dots with remarkable prescience. And on close inspection, the central evil plot carries the whiff of bad guys choosing the most complicated route towards achieving their objective.

But the highlights are plenty. McQuarrie stages a one-against-many street fight with panache, and follows it up with a hilarious confined quarters brawl. The car chase scene is an epic two-chases-in-one combo delivered with exceptional control. And the final showdown is suitably orchestrated at an isolated quarry, with caustic humour sustained to the bitter end.

In addition to his radiant charisma, Cruise adds to the sense of realism by performing all his own stunts, and struts through the film with brilliant arrogance. Pike struggles to match him in a marginally frantic performance. Robert Duvall rolls back the years in a crusty role as the operator of a shooting range reluctantly drawn into the mayhem, while Jenkins and Oyelowo contribute robust support. Celebrated director Werner Herzog adds cold menace in a small acting role.

Discarding gadgets and over-the-top imagery in favour of polished grit, Jack Reacher is a welcome embrace of brainy basics.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Movie Review: The Last Emperor (1987)

A historical epic, The Last Emperor is the biography of the last man to occupy an extravagant but obsolete role during turbulent times.

In 1950, former Emperor Puyi (John Lone) is a prisoner of the Chinese government, accused of collaborating with the Japanese enemy. He arrives for interrogation at a prison in Manchuria, and his life story is recounted in flashbacks.

In 1908, Puyi is not yet three years old when he is summoned to the Forbidden City and appointed Emperor by the dying Empress Dowager Cixi. Eunuch servants look after his every need, but by the time he reaches his teenage years, China is a republic and the young Emperor is a disempowered and forgotten presence strictly confined to the Forbidden City.

Reginald Johnston (Peter O'Toole) arrives from Britain as a tutor, and Puyi attempts some reforms by clamping down on corruption among the eunuchs. He also selects a wife Wanrong (Joan Chen) and a mistress. In the mid-1920s he is evicted from the Forbidden City and relocates to the coastal city of Tientsin. He lives the playboy life and gradually falls under the influence of the Japanese imperialist regime, which is harbouring ambitions to militarily and economically dominate China, starting with Manchuria.

Independently produced by Jeremy Thomas, The Last Emperor was provided with unique access by the Chinese government to film on-location in the Forbidden City. Director Bernardo Bertolucci creates a visually beautiful, immersive and often stunning tapestry of an isolated time and place existing outside the realm of concurrent events. While the mammoth 163 minutes offer no shortage of artistry, the subject matter is unworthy.

At best, Puyi naively allowed his title and presence to be exploited by the Japanese. At worst, he collaborated with a murderous expansionist regime against his own country. Either way, he lived an entitled life utterly detached from his people, until his capture, imprisonment and reprogramming. None of this is the fault of a child plucked from his mother and appointed Emperor before he was potty trained, but an unsympathetic character who achieved little of note makes for a poor choice at the centre of an epic.

Meanwhile, history passes by on the margins of the film. Mammoth events shaping China are barely noted and largely unexplained, leaving the film bereft of both a rewarding core presence and meaningful context. The pacing is predictably ponderous, and the first hour is particularly laborious, essentially consisting of Bertolucci's cameras chasing a toddler around. As a travelogue of a hidden China the film always offers something to look at, but it's a struggle for any semblance of a plot to emerge.

The final two acts are much better. Bertolucci sets aside the fascination with the Forbidden City and the film moves on to the adventures of a young man surrounded by a useless entourage, living a lavish lifestyle and creating an almost too-good-to-be-true target for the Japanese to influence. The interrogation scenes also build momentum, starting with an intimidating search for the truth by Puyi's captors but navigating towards a surprisingly nuanced attitude towards rehabilitation as defined by the state.

A fine artistic creation at a grand scale, The Last Emperor paints with loving detail on an exotic canvass, but this Emperor really had no clothes.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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