Sunday, 4 June 2023

Movie Review: Stillwater (2021)

Genre: Crime Mystery Drama
Director: Tom McCarthy
Starring: Matt Damon, Camille Cottin, Abigail Breslin
Running Time: 140 minutes

Synopsis: Oil rig worker Bill Baker (Matt Damon), from the small Oklahoma town of Stillwater, travels to Marseille, France, to visit his imprisoned daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin). She is serving a nine year sentence for stabbing to death her college lover Lina, a crime she denies committing. Allison is aware of new hearsay evidence that could exonerate her, but Bill finds the justice system uninterested in reopening the case. He starts his own amateur sleuthing, helped by his hotel room neighbour Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her young daughter Maya.

What Works Well: Director and co-writer Tom McCarthy combines a patient amateur investigation with a character-based drama luxuriating in a stranger abroad premise, spiked with multiple cross-cutting culture clash and stereotype undercurrents. Matt Damon slows down and disappears into the role of a blue collar dimwit aware of his limitations but seeking redemption for past mistakes. The unlikely relationships Bill develops with Virginie and her daughter Maya emit a warm glow within the scrappy multi-ethnic Marseille surroundings.

What Does Not Work As Well: The 140 minute length is inexcusable, and combined with uneven pacing results in a flabby mid-section. The final act is refreshingly untidy, but also rushed. For better or worse, the entire plot works as an unsubtle parable for the follies of American foreign interventionism.

Conclusion: Stillwater runs deep, and long.

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Movie Review: Firepower (1979)

Genre: Crime Action Thriller
Director: Michael Winner
Starring: James Coburn, Sophia Loren, O.J. Simpson, Eli Wallach, Anthony Franciosa
Running Time: 104 minutes

Synopsis: Wealthy New York socialite Adele Tasca (Sophia Loren) seeks revenge when her husband, a medical researcher, is assassinated. Suspicions centre on reclusive criminal billionaire Karl Stegner, believed hiding in Antigua. The FBI's Frank Hull (Vincent Gardenia) leans on shady businessman Sal Hyman (Eli Wallach) to bring fixer Jerry Fanon (James Coburn) out of retirement. Fanon and his colleague Catlett (O.J. Simpson) are hired to find and capture Stegner alive, but their target will prove elusive.

What Works Well: Director Michael Winner delivers action set-pieces, explosions, and chases on land, at sea, and in the air, at regular intervals and in sparkling Caribbean locations. James Coburn is a commanding presence in a role rejected by both Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson. Instead of acting, Sophia Loren settles for posing in a succession of fetching outfits. 

What Does Not Work As Well: The unnecessarily complicated plot lacks any emotional depth and quickly becomes an impossible-to-follow, going-through-the-motions exercise. Useless distractions include Fanon's body-double, the entirety of Eli Wallach's role, Adele randomly switching her affiliation back and forth, and a brother-in-law side-story. The secondary bad guys are uninteresting and the real villain is kept under wraps, robbing the action of a compelling counterpoint.

Conclusion: Noisy, attractive, and empty.


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Movie Review: Force 10 From Navarone (1978)

Genre: World War Two Adventure
Director: Guy Hamilton
Starring: Robert Shaw, Harrison Ford, Edward Fox, Carl Weathers, Franco Nero, Barbara Bach, Richard Kiel
Running Time: 126 minutes

Synopsis: In 1943, the British Army dispatches Major Mallory (Robert Shaw) and explosives expert Sergeant Miller (Edward Fox) to Yugoslavia. Their mission is to terminate a German intelligence officer embedded with the Partisan rebels as Captain Lescovar (Franco Nero). Mallory and Miller join forces with American Lieutenant Colonel Barnsby (Harrison Ford) and his men, who are on a special mission to sabotage a bridge. Not much will go according to plan for either mission.

What Works Well: Despite a tenuous-at-best connection with The Guns Of Navarone, this sequel is a decent-enough old-fashioned against-the-odds World War Two adventure mission. Harrison Ford builds on his breakout success, supported by director Guy Hamilton and fellow Bond series alumni Robert Shaw, Richard Kiel, and Barbara Bach. Enough double-crosses, lies, and mishaps maintain interest in the Yugoslavian countryside, and the final thirty minutes build to a tense climax. The militaristic Ron Goodwin music score provides a charmingly corny accompaniment to the jaunty vibe, and Carl Weathers adds spirit if not talent in the role of a stowaway soldier. 

What Does Not Work As Well: Why is an explosives expert with a briefcase full of clever bombs sent on an assassination mission instead of the sabotage mission? This and many other logic questions undermine any sense of realism, as Robin Chapman's script, loosely inspired by Alistair MacLean's novel, drifts for long stretches. The characters get sidetracked early and often to pad the running time, enabling some the dialogue and acting, particularly by Kiel and Bach, to stretch beyond hammy.

Conclusion: Assembled from recycled but still functional components.

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Monday, 22 May 2023

Movie Review: Too Big To Fail (2011)

Genre: Drama
Director: Curtis Hanson
Starring: William Hurt, Billy Crudup, Paul Giamatti, James Woods, Cynthia Nixon, Bill Pullman
Running Time: 98 minutes

Synopsis: In 2008, US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson (William Hurt) and his team are thrust into an unfolding economic crisis when major investment banks start incurring huge losses due to mortgage defaults. A deal is arranged to bail out Bear Stearns, then investors turn on Lehman Brothers, where CEO Dick Fuld (James Woods) is slow to react. Paulson has to assess how far the government can intervene, with insurance giant AIG starting to wobble and international credit drying up.

What Works Well: Based on actual events, Andrew Ross Sorkin's book is adapted into a gripping behind-the-scenes drama, capturing the world's most influential bankers grappling with existential dilemmas as the global economy teeters on the brink of collapse. Director Curtis Hanson maintains compact control with a chiseled running length and clear but brief explanations of the crisis causes and status. A dream cast (also featuring Topher Grace, Kathy Baker, Tony Shalhoub, John Heard, and Edward Asner as Warren Buffet) ensures quality in every role.

What Does Not Work As Well: A parade of middle-aged (mostly) white men conversing in meetings and phone calls is the limit of this drama, and beyond the most key characters, keeping track of the blizzard of individual and corporate names is next to impossible.

Conclusion: Bankers rescuing bankers can generate surprising cinematic tension.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Friday, 19 May 2023

Movie Review: Best Sellers (2021)

Genre: Dramedy
Director: Lina Roessler
Starring: Michael Caine, Aubrey Plaza, Scott Speedman, Ellen Wong, Cary Elwes
Running Time: 102 minutes

Synopsis: Lucy Stanbridge (Aubrey Plaza) is running the book publishing house made famous by her father. In financial difficulty and desperate for a best-seller, she turns to crusty retired author Harris Shaw (Michael Caine), whose one and only book was published by Stanbridge 50 years prior. Shaw reluctantly agrees to publish his latest manuscript and go on a promotional tour, but he is more interested in drinking and swearing than promoting anything.

What Works Well: Working from an Anthony Grieco script, director Lina Roessler crafts a heartfelt story about the past influencing the present, both Harris and Lucy dealing with the burden of legacies and expectations. After a lighter introduction, the second half is more sorrowful, as Harris confronts his regrets and Lucy grapples with defining her own future. Aubrey Plaza and Michael Caine shine in their key moments, while Harris' foul-mouthed crankiness provides a reliable source of social media-ready humour.

What Does Not Work As Well: The material is slight and Roessler stretches it thin to clamber over the 100 minute mark. Internal inconsistencies arise once Harris' past insecurities clash with his present literary resonance. Meanwhile, Scott Speedman as a rival publisher and Cary Elwes as a haughty book critic are both marginally underused. Ellen Wong enjoys a strong start as Lucy's assistant but also fades.

Conclusion: Modest and modestly enjoyable reflection on life's jumbled epilogues and prologues.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Thursday, 18 May 2023

Movie Review: Emily The Criminal (2022)

Genre: Crime Drama Thriller
Director: John Patton Ford
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossi
Running Time: 93 minutes

Synopsis: In Los Angeles, Emily (Aubrey Plaza) has a menial job as a food delivery courier. She carries $70,000 in student debt but is blocked from pursuing an advertising career by a chequered criminal history. A colleague connects her with a seemingly risk-free credit card scam operation run by Youcef (Theo Rossi) and his extended family. Desperate to make money, Emily expands her criminal activity and starts a romance with Youcef, but in this line of work small mistakes can lead to big trouble.

What Works Well: Writer and director John Patton Ford surrounds a steely story core with an understated edge, providing stunning commentary on a sequential shift into an unexpected career fueled by economic hardship. Seemingly unable to catch a break but also contributing plenty of all-in venom, Emily is memorably complex and grimly determined, her journey charted by a textured Aubrey Plaza performance. The editing (by Harrison Atkins) is laser sharp, every scene trimmed to the limit, yielding taut, tense, and tidy storytelling.

What Does Not Work As Well: More could have been revealed about Youcef's uncompromising associates.

Conclusion: For the right person, the wrong turn can be the right move.

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Movie Review: The Butterfly Effect (2004)

Genre: Fantasy Drama
Directors: Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber
Starring: Ashton Kutcher, Amy Smart, Eric Stoltz
Running Time: 113 minutes

Synopsis: At seven-years-old, Evan learns that his incarcerated father possesses special powers. Evan then starts suffering blackouts, including during an episode of child abuse instigated by the father (Eric Stoltz) of his friend Kayleigh and her brother Tommy. At 13, blackouts accompany a prank that goes tragically wrong and a violent incident involving a dog. As a 20-year-old college student, Evan (Ashton Kutcher) reunites with an unhappy Kayleigh (Amy Smart), and realizes that through his journals he may hold the power to alter destiny's trajectory.

What Works Well: Co-directors and co-writers Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber craft an intricate, elaborate, and brilliantly thoughtful drama about little actions making a big difference. As Evan experiments with destiny's alternatives, the certainty of finding no easy pathways and always stumbling on unintended consequences plays out with magnificent suddenness, life's violence and humour often rubbing shoulders. With confident execution, Bress and Gruber maintain a strong hold on the intellectually sprawling material, allowing Ashton Kutcher to find a career highlight in an unlikely role.

What Does Not Work As Well: As a minor quibble, Evan's mother Andrea (Melora Walters) has a strong initial influence, but fades in the second half.

Conclusion: The vagaries of fate revealed with wicked cleverness.

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Movie Review: The Cape Town Affair (1967)

Genre: Cold War Spy Thriller
Director: Robert D. Webb
Running Time: 100 minutes

Synopsis: On a crowded bus in Cape Town, South Africa, pick-pocket Skip McCoy (James Brolin) steals the wallet of courier Candy (Jacqueline Bisset). He is unaware that she is under surveillance by government agents, and that the wallet contains a top secret microfiche coveted by communist spies. The authorities turn to professional snitch Sam (Claire Trevor) to track Skip down, as he pursues a romance with the increasingly desperate Candy.

What Works Well: This remake of 1953's Pickup On South Street benefits from bright Cape Town locations, two attractive stars in Jacqueline Bisset and James Brolin (both in early career performances), and a flamboyant Claire Trevor. The jazzy Joe Kentridge music score is not bad.

What Does Not Work As Well: Although Samuel Fuller is still credited as a writer, director Robert D. Webb strips out all the noir grittiness, and Brolin offers superficial style rather than gnarly substance. The result is artistically bland tedium, the focus on small characters (a pickpocket and a courier) flailing within skimpy plot details. The apartheid-era South African production portrays a whites-only society, and beyond the three stars, the supporting actors are wooden at best.

Conclusion: Adds nothing to the original, but subtracts plenty.

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Movie Review: Mass (2021)

Genre: Drama
Director: Fran Kranz
Starring: Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, Reed Birney
Running Time: 110 minutes

Synopsis: Two couples participate in an arranged meeting: Richard and Linda (Reed Birney and Ann Dowd) are the parents of a young man responsible for a school mass shooting in which Jay and Gail (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton) lost their son. Over the course of the meeting, the two couples trade frustrations, anger, and guilt.

What Works Well: This is a theatrically stark, one-room, four-people drama focused on a tragedy's aftermath. Writer and director Fran Kranz explores the mass shooting topic from multiple angles, including guns, mental health, upbringing, interventions, violent video games, bullying, shame, and pure evil. With impeccable acting from the four leads, rage emerges through unmitigated sorrow and the longing for accountability and answers.

What Does Not Work As Well: For all the talking and passion, the search for understanding remains stranded in the wilderness of a damaged society. The script is never too far away from melodrama and dutifully plods to the most obvious outcome. The content is better suited to a 90 minute duration, Kranz padding proceedings with an unnecessarily long prepare-the-room introduction. 

Conclusion: A committed but also obvious dissertation on an essential topic.

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Sunday, 14 May 2023

Movie Review: The Sea Wolves (1980)

Genre: War Adventure
Director: Andrew V. McLaglen
Starring: Gregory Peck, Roger Moore, David Niven, Trevor Howard, Barbara Kellerman
Running Time: 120 minutes

Synopsis: In British India of 1943, Lieutenant-Colonel Lewis Pugh (Gregory Peck) and Captain Gavin Stewart (Roger Moore) uncover a German transmission station located on a ship anchored in the Portuguese-controlled port of Goa. Unable to mount a military operation in neutral territory, Pugh and Stewart turn to Colonel Grice (David Niven) and his aging Calcutta Light Horse volunteers to coordinate a raid. Meanwhile, Stewart initiates a romance with the alluring widow Mrs. Agnes Cromwell (Barbara Kellerman).

What Works Well: Inspired by the actual events of Operation Creek (chronicled in James Leasor's 1978 novel Boarding Party), this is an old-fashioned World War Two adventure featuring clever allies outfoxing evil Nazis, with a bit of suave sleuthing and dangerous dalliance on the side. The on-location filming ensures plenty of organic local texture, and the climactic raid is decently engaging.

What Does Not Work As Well: Director Andrew V. McLaglen is caught between delivering a spy caper (leveraging Roger Moore's Bond charisma) or a throwback to World War Two movies from the 1950s and 1960s (reuniting Gregory Peck and David Niven). Unsurprisingly the movie falls into the yawning gap. Shallow characterizations and careless inattention to the hairstyles and wardrobes of the 1940s do not help, and the over-long duration succumbs to tedium well before the action finally starts.

Conclusion: These wolves are more bark than bite.

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