Sunday, 24 March 2019

Movie Review: Gloria Bell (2018)

A romantic drama, Gloria Bell explores second chances at love and all the attached luggage weighing down new opportunities.

In Los Angeles, middle-aged Gloria (Julianne Moore) has been divorced for 12 years. She works as an insurance agent and tries to stay involved in the lives of her grown children, son Peter (Michael Cera) and daughter Anne (Caren Pistorius). But most of all Gloria likes to dance at a retro discotheque, where she eventually meets Arnold (John Turturro), who has been divorced for a year.

They start a relationship which quickly turns serious, although Arnold appears to be tethered to his two grown but emotionally immature daughters. An evening that brings Gloria together with her two children and ex-husband Dustin (Brad Garrett) ends badly for Arnold, and threatens Gloria's budding attempt at a new romance.

Chilean director Sebastián Lelio remakes his own 2013 drama Gloria, this time in English and with  Julianne Moore in radiant perfection mode. Devoid of a traditional narrative structure and not free of meandering stretches, the film ambles along, tracing Gloria's ups and downs. Moore at least ensures that even the seemingly mundane scenes of club dancing and car radio singalongs carry the warmth of a genuine and expansive human spirit.

The emotional luggage accumulated by middle age is given a physical representation in the large bag Arnold places in Gloria's trunk. It carries his paintball paraphernalia, but symbolically weighs down their relationship with all his insecurities, mistakes and lingering dependencies. His phone is the rope, a metaphorical strangulation device interrupting the oxygen needed for the romance with Gloria to survive.

She is not without her issues, worrying about daughter Anne falling in love with a wandering Swedish surfer and son Peter already abandoned by his wife and left caring for a newborn infant on his own. Not to mention a colourless job, a hairless cat and a suicidal upstairs neighbour adding plenty of angst to what should be quiet time.

But at least Gloria is open about her life and has a semblance of balance between her personal needs and her family responsibilities. Arnold is falling through the cracks, and Gloria will use every device she knows, from companionship to sex to estrangement, in an attempted emotional rescue.

Gloria Bell features touches of humour to lighten the mood, the persistent hairless cat seeking to adopt Gloria a regular source of brief but welcome distraction. Gloria has to decide whether to allow a damaged man and an ugly cat into her life, as the unexpected challenges of middle age range from profound to bizarre.

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Saturday, 23 March 2019

Movie Review: Sudden Fear (1952)

A woman-in-distress suspense drama, Sudden Fear features stylish tension, playful plotting, and an overabundance of wide-eyed acting.

Myra Hudson (Joan Crawford) is an independently wealthy and successful middle-aged playwright, about to launch her new Broadway show. During rehearsals she insists on firing actor Lester Blaine (Jack Palance), because she does not believe he is handsome enough for the leading role. The show opens and is a great success.

On a train trip back to her hometown of San Francisco, Myra bumps into Lester. He is exceptionally gracious, they spend time together, fall in love and are soon married. Myra is deliriously happy to have found true love and starts planning to update her will to include Lester. Suddenly a woman called Irene (Gloria Grahame) appears in their social circle, and everything changes.

An RKO Pictures production with Crawford a driving force in pulling the project together, Sudden Fear has enough quality to engage. Romance, drama, deception and murder plots gel into a potent Hitchcockian noir package.

A slow and prolonged first half introduces the main characters but plays more like a fluffy romance than any kind of thriller. The suspense elements take off in the second half with a ticking clock, greed, a compromised conspiracy and a convoluted preemptive revenge plan. Director David Miller deploys plenty of panache and large serving of style as he focuses on Myra's predicament to deftly skip past some of the unlikely logic.

With Crawford fully committed to an almost silent movie level of overacting, Miller optimizes what he has. The dialogue all but disappears from the final 30 minutes, the excellent Elmer Bernstein music takes over and genuine tension is generated as despite the preponderance of plotters, nothing goes according to any plan. The twisty and hilly San Francisco locations (with some subbing by Los Angeles) echo the intermingling plots and add plenty of ambience.

The good cast contributes to the enjoyment level. With Crawford consuming the sets and her costars with her eyes, Jack Palance provides a robust counterpart as a complex charmer and struggling actor intent on proving just how good he is at romance. Gloria Grahame as Irene introduces a jolt of naked avarice, impatient to grab her undeserved slice of what rich society has to offer. Bruce Bennett and Mike Connors appear as brothers and lawyers Steve and Junior Keaney, the latter also entangled with Irene.

Miller throws in plenty of toys and red herrings to maintain an edge. Technology in the form of a sophisticated (for the day) recording system stands alongside playfulness represented by a wind-up dog gadget to amplify moments of revelation and tension. Any film where a tiny toy dog is transformed into a suspense device is tracking in the right direction.

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Thursday, 21 March 2019

Movie Review: Battle Circus (1953)

A semi-documentary highlighting the difficult work of army medical units under fire, Battle Circus features a tepid romance floundering within a narrative void.

During the Korean War, Major Jed Webbe (Humphrey Bogart) is a battle weary doctor and part of the leadership team for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) unit 8666. Operating out of large tents near the front lines, MASH has to be ready to redeploy frequently and at short notice, and sometimes overnight. New arrivee Lieutenant Ruth McCara (June Allyson) joins the unit as a nurse, and Jed first saves her life during an enemy air raid and then tries to initiate a romance within the confines of a hectic military environment.

In addition to treating wounded soldiers and remobilizing to new locations, Jed and the other unit leaders including Sergeant Orvil Statt (Keenan Wynn) and Lieutenant Colonel Hilary Whalters (Robert Keith) have to deal with columns of displaced civilians requiring treatment, injured prisoners of war, enemy bombing raids, ambushes, foul weather, and the uncertainties of shifting front lines. Ruth initially resists Jed's advances and the other nurses in the unit warn her about him. But eventually a deep love emerges, although he refuses to reveal whether or not he is married.

Before the much more famous (but no better) MASH movie and television series, Battle Circus ventured to the front lines with doctors and nurses given the unenviable task of patching up bodies close to the arena of combat, although this is a field hospital with no visible blood or injuries, and remarkably pain-free and well-behaved patients. Director and co-writer Richard Brooks cobbles up a non-script most interested in featuring men-at-work putting up and taking down large tents, and occasionally dodging unconvincing and quite wayward enemy attacks.

Bolted on to the appreciation of American medical ingenuity under fire is a miserable love story, consisting of Jed lecherously pursuing Ruth. His pushiness to get his hands all over her borders on assault rather than romance. Regardless she falls passionately in love for reasons lost in the muddy terrain between the tents. Bogart and Allyson are far from convincing as medical professionals, and even less so as lovers, sharing no chemistry.

Brief glimpses of human drama poke their helmets out of the foxholes in the form of an injured Korean child who arrives at the field hospital near death, and later a delirious enemy soldier waving a hand grenade. The doctors carry on with their surgeries and disregard the wobbly intruder, just as this film is best ignored.

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Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Movie Review: Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1941)

A suspense fantasy drama, Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde delves into the darkest recesses of the soul, where vile tendencies await an awakening.

In London of the late 1800s, Dr. Jekyll (Spencer Tracy) is a respected physician, engaged to be married to Bea Emery (Lana Turner), although her father Sir Charles (Donald Crisp) has so far refused to set a wedding date. Jekyll is interested in the duality of the soul, and is conducting animal experiments to develop a drug that can separate good from evil.

Jekyll and his colleague Dr. Lanyon (Ian Hunter) rescue barmaid Ivy Pearson (Ingrid Bergman) from an assault, and she triggers his lustful impulses. He completes his research, tests the drug on himself, and is physically and emotionally transformed into Mr. Hyde, an immoral, selfish and violent man. He proceeds to kidnap and assault Ivy. Initially Jekyll is able to control his transformations back and forth into Mr. Hyde, but soon loses control, with his evil side making unwelcome appearances at inopportune moments.

An adaptation of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson story, the 1941 film version features a superlative and understated Spencer Tracy performance to help bring out the complex shadings of the internal human struggle between good and evil. With a deliberate one hour build-up, Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde invests in its characters and builds to a second half filled with disconcerting behaviour.

In this version Jekyll's virulent tendencies are unleashed by sexual repression. Director Vincent Fleming hints at the burning desire between Jekyll and Bea as they sneak passionate kisses at every opportunity behind Sir Charles' back. Maybe because of Jekyll's audacious nature Charles refuses to set a wedding date, only worsening Jekyll's frustration.

With Ingrid Bergman in full-on seductress mode, the sultry advances of Ivy are the final push. She is available and incessantly flirtatious; he perfects his concoction, drinks the potion and embraces his evil Hyde self. What starts as a mode that can be switched on and off quickly progresses to a powerful and uncontrollable condition, Jekyll unable to determine when and where Hyde appears, evil proving remarkably resilient once given room to breathe and thrive.

Fleming excels in making best use out of brooding sets to recreate 19th century London. Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde comes to life in a foreboding gas lit environment filled with cobbled streets, alleys and isolated park paths. Frequent fog and plenty of shadows complete the aesthetic.

On a couple of occasions Tracy's transformation is handled in real time with basic superimposed imagery and some shifty frame waviness, the effects basic but nevertheless achieving the objective. The actor does the rest, Tracy disappearing into Hyde's dark pool of soullessness with ferocious venom. The film is more unsettling than scary, the emphasis firmly fixed on revealing the ease with which human malevolence can dominate. Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde reside in every person, their eternal conflict often decided by thin margins.

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Monday, 18 March 2019

Movie Review: It All Came True (1940)

A crime comedy musical drama, It All Came True is a weird mixture of gangsters, entertainers and dotty seniors, but gels enough to maintain interest.

Hardened mobster Chips Maguire (Humphrey Bogart) and his naive piano player Tommy Taylor (Jeffrey Lynn) are forced to flee Chips' nightclub in a hurry to avoid arrest when the police stage a raid. During the escape, Chips shoots and kills an informer using a gun he had previously registered in Tommy's name. The two men take refuge at the financially struggling boarding house run by Tommy's mother Nora (Jessie Busley) and her lifelong friend Maggie Ryan (Una O'Connor). Nora is thrilled to welcome back her son, who still believes Chips will help him become a famous musician.

The boarding house guests include the paranoid Miss Flint (ZaSu Pitts), washed-up magician The Great Boldini (Felix Bressart) and his scene-stealing dog, Mr. Salmon (Grant Mitchell), and Mr. Van Diver (Brandon Tynan).

Chips pretends to be a businessman named Grasselli and confines himself to his room, while Tommy reconnects with his childhood sweetheart Sarah Jane (Ann Sheridan), Maggie's daughter and now a feisty singer. Chips starts to go stir crazy, and eventually decides to convert the boarding house into a new nightclub venture with Tommy and Sarah Jane as the main attraction.

Made the year before Bogart's breakout roles in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon, It All Came True is a curiosity. A slow and meandering start and a weak ending dominated by vaudevillian performances bookend the film. But the middle third surprisingly corrals the right amounts of wit, gentle romance, light gangsterism and sweet musical numbers into a decent enough package.

The main theme of a hardened criminal gradually softening in the presence of mother-like care is predictable enough, but Bogart plays along and subjects himself to plenty of self-deprecating humour. His fish-out-of-water presence in a room filled with stuffed animals towers over the film, although Ann Sheridan comes close to matching him in a spirited performance of her own as an entertainer who stands her ground but cannot hold a job. Compared to Bogart and Sheridan, Jeffrey Lynn is unfortunately bland.

The weaker parts of the movie have director Lewis Seiler surrendering arduous stretches to the  boarding house guests gibbering away about not much or performing versions of poetry readings and magic shows decades past their best-by date. The film's title is a reference to the imaginative tall tales spun by Mrs. Taylor, and many scenes have a static theatrical feel as the residents natter. Happily, the little bits of interaction with law enforcement and Chip's gangland colleagues push back with doses of energy.

As the nutty fluctuations in tone, subject matter and quality develop a charm of their own, It All Came True is neither good nor bad, just quirky.

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Sunday, 17 March 2019

Movie Review: Isn't It Romantic (2019)

A satirical romantic comedy, Isn't It Romantic tries to poke lame holes at an already self-perforated genre.

In New York City, Natalie (Rebel Wilson) grew up not believing in romance, and is particularly disdainful of the fairytale representations of love in traditional Hollywood romantic comedies. She works as an architect, allows her co-workers to take advantage of her, and is blind to interest from colleague Josh (Adam DeVine). Rich and dishy client Blake (Liam Hemsworth) does not even notice her.

Natalie tangles with a mugger, is knocked out and wakes up in an alternative rom-com reality where the city is pristine, everyone looks beautiful, her apartment is idyllic and Blake is immediately smitten. She plays along and starts a relationship with him, while Josh starts dating model Isabella (Priyanka Chopra) after a meet-cute moment. But Natalie learns that all the fluffy romance is not the answer to her problems.

Making fun of romantic comedies is just too easy, as the genre never represents itself as anything other than modern-day retellings of boy-meets-girl lightweight fairytales with the absolute promise of a happily-ever-after ending. Isn't It Romantic loudly proclaims all the genre's formulaic faults before proceeding to replicate them, as the second half in particular fizzles out into boring predictability.

Natalie's frumpy and imperfect life, seen at the start and end, offers some organic opportunities to celebrate fresh perspectives on modern single living, but the script decides to spend most of its time in the sanitized fantasy of immaculate streetscapes and handsome happy people, and simply does not offer enough of a satirical edge. And so for a long stretch Natalie is stuck in a world overloaded with cliches, as is the film.

Todd Strauss-Schulson directs with little panache, and star Rebel Wilson as Natalie is caught between mocking romance and succumbing to the imperative of finding a happy ending, satisfying no one in the process.

Isn't It Romantic desperately does not want to be what it ultimately is.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Movie Review: Invisible Stripes (1939)

A gangster drama, Invisible Stripes examines the lingering stigma of prison and the ever attractive shortcuts to riches offered by crime.

Cliff Taylor (George Raft) and Charles Martin (Humphrey Bogart) are released from New York's Sing Sing prison on the same day. Cliff still has a year on parole, but regrets his criminal past and is intent on living a straight life. Charles has a more jaundiced view of society and quickly seeks out his old mobster buddies and reenters the crime world.

Cliff reconnects with his mother (Flora Robson) and younger brother Tim (William Holden), a car mechanic who is engaged to Peggy (Jane Bryan). Tim is financially struggling, hot headed and eager to live the good life. Cliff has to talk him down from thinking about crime as a quick pathway to riches, but Cliff himself finds life as a parolee difficult, as employers are unwilling to trust him. The option of joining Charles' criminal exploits becomes more difficult to dismiss.

The title refers to the stench of prison garb enduring upon release, and what Invisible Stripes lacks in originality it more than makes up for in polish. This is Warner Bros. studio at their absolute sweet spot, director Lloyd Bacon delivering a straightforward and compact crime drama with a mix of established and future stars. Morality, repentance, family, social barriers, bank hold-ups, shootouts and the eternal dilemma between good and evil are wrapped into a tidy 80 minute package.

The film is based on a novel by real-life warden Lewis E. Lawes, a proponent of prison reform, and Invisible Stripes invests well-meaning effort in exploring the tricky seam between good intentions and societal barriers. Both the warden and Cliff's parole officer are on his side and want him to succeed, but trust for an ex-con is in short supply among business owners, factory workers and yard bosses. Despite Cliff's best intentions and notwithstanding the Taylor brothers' short tempers, he is more pushed back rather than pulled into the orbit of crime in order to survive.

The cast members easily fit into the material. George Raft is in his element and immediately convincing, while Humphrey Bogart generates his own electricity fuelled by abrasive resentment. In his second major role, William Holden is relatively bland and superficial compared to his more weathered co-stars. Jane Bryan as his generic girl gets one scene to shine, bumping up against the dreams and reality of rich society.

On a sour casting note, Flora Robson is asked to play Raft's mother despite being six months younger, and there is an ickiness to the excessive nuzzling between mother and son.

The stripes are invisible, but the film's overall slick proficiency is on clear display.

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Thursday, 14 March 2019

Movie Review: 3 Days To Kill (2014)

An action thriller combined with a light-hearted family drama, 3 Days To Kill suffers from a significant identity crisis.

Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner) is a CIA operative combating fatigue and a persistent cough, and his mission in Belgrade to terminate the international arms dealers known as Albino and Wolf does not go well. Ethan is then diagnosed with terminal cancer, given months to live and released from duty. He decides to reconnect with his Paris-based estranged family, and reaches out to ex-wife Christine (Connie Nielsen) and teenaged daughter Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld).

But Ethan's attempted return to domestic life is interrupted by the CIA's Vivi (Amber Heard), who entices him back to action by promising an experimental drug that may cure his disease. Vivi is determined to track down Albino and Wolf, and needs Ethan's efficient assassination skills by her side. Ethan juggles his renewed commitment to family life with bouts of surveillance and violence, and tangles with terrorist associate Mitat, a family man who could lead him to the mobsters.

Co-funded by European production money, 3 Days To Kill features the usual collection of vacationing American actors enjoying travelogue-like locales to boost tourism in the old continent. The talent surrounding the project does hold promise, with none other than Luc Besson conceiving the story and co-writing the script, and one-time action movie darling McG accepting directorial duties.

However, the premise is too similar to Besson's Léon: The Professional (1994), except that the budding fatherly relationship between the killer Ethan and his daughter Zooey never comes close to the requisite levels of tenderness. Instead 3 Days To Kill inserts decent action scenes within long stretches of boredom as Ethan plays hapless dad and makes very slow progress towards connecting with Zooey's life.

Elsewhere, flashes of comedy search for their appropriate place between the family drama and the action mayhem, while the quest to liquidate Albino and Wolf takes the far back seat in the family van, lurching forward in awkward bursts as the villains are reduced to props trotted out whenever some shooting is needed.

Kevin Costner and Hailee Steinfeld occupy the centre of the film and ensure a basic level of competence. Connie Nielsen disappears for long stretches, while Amber Heard wanders in as a superhero movie character demonstrating chill abilities to outdrive anyone and arrive at any scene at just the right moment, her icy quips deadlier than any weapon. In her element within all the Euroglitz, Vivi can just about kill with her attitude and shouldn't really need help to eradicate any targets.

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Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Movie Review: The Comedian (2016)

A romantic comedy and drama, The Comedian is frequently foul mouthed but rarely funny or romantic.

In New York City, Jackie Burke (Robert De Niro) is an aging and caustic stand-up comic, well past his prime and best known for starring in the sitcom Eddie's Home from 30 years ago. His agent Miller (Edie Falco) struggles to find him work, and things get much worse when he assaults a heckler at a nostalgia night performance and is sentenced to 30 days in jail and 100 hours of community service. Upon his release Jackie is forced to borrow money from his brother Jimmy (Danny DeVito), whose wife Flo (Patti LuPone) cannot stand Jackie.

While fulfilling his community service hours Jackie meets Harmony Schiltz (Leslie Mann), who is also serving a community sentence for assaulting her cheating husband. They start a tentative friendship, she accompanies him to his niece's wedding, and he meets her overbearing father Mac (Harvey Keitel). But Harmony relocates to Florida, and Jackie is invited by his longtime rival Dick D'Angelo (Charles Grodin) to perform at an appreciation event for comedy legend May Conner (Cloris Leachman), where further surprises await.

At a running time of two hours, The Comedian is a solid 30 minutes too long. And most of these minutes are consumed by Jackie unspooling stand-up routines, most of them impromptu, but all of them exceptionally vulgar. Jackie is a deserved has-been, and his brand of humour is to insult as many people as possible as quickly as possible. Instead of making the point once and moving on, director Taylor Hackford repeatedly surrenders the microphone to De Niro as Jackie, and he proceeds to hurl an endless stream of bathroom and body function "jokes", consigning the film to the same gutter as the lead character.

Elsewhere four different script writers could not conjure up much of a story. This is bland older-man-meets-younger-woman-and-quickly-loses-her territory. The presence of stalwarts from the 1970s and 1980s in almost every role threatens to rescue patches of the film, but the combined talent of Harvey Keitel, Cloris Leachman, Danny DeVito and Charles Grodin is ultimately insufficient and they too run aground on the rocks of the mostly witless material.

Given the film's bloated length, it's remarkable how little is revealed about Jackie and Harmony, other than they are both short-tempered refugees from broken relationships and enjoy a full-throated screaming match. Perhaps they deserve each other, but these two abrasive characters cannot sustain much of a movie.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Fracture (2007)

A legal crime drama, Fracture boasts an intriguing mystery and two worthy opponents squaring off on opposite sides of the law, although the plot is not as smart as it wants to be.

In Los Angeles, aeronautical safety expert Ted Crawford (Anthony Hopkins) is aware that his wife Jennifer (Embeth Davidtz) is having an affair with police detective Rob Nunally (Billy Burke). He waits for her to return home, shoots her in the head, and calmly surrenders to Nunally, confessing to being the shooter.

Hotshot deputy district attorney Willy Beachum (Ryan Gosling) is assigned the case by his boss Joe Lobruto (David Strathairn). Beachum is about to make a big money career move into the private sector to practice corporate law, and is already flirting with his boss-to-be Nikki Gardner (Rosamund Pike). The Crawford shooting appears to be a straightforward conviction, but Ted has meticulously planned his crime, and Willy will get sucked into a much more complicated case than he bargained for.

A cerebral chess game between a humiliated husband out for blood and a cocky prosecutor with one eye firmly on careerism, Fracture is a sharp and polished duel, benefitting enormously from the two lead actors. The showdown between veteran Anthony Hopkins and upstart Ryan Gosling is epic, and they are both at the top of their game. Hopkins is all about almost imperceptible eyebrow movements, knowing glances and shadows of smiles. Gosling is the confident steel of youth, riding his record of courtroom victories towards the dangerous land of arrogance.

But unfortunately the Daniel Pyne script cannot rise to the quality of the actors. Once Crawford's crime is committed and his intention to engage in a battle of wits revealed, Fracture stalls. Willy is quickly placed into a corner by Crawford's pre-planning, and director Gregory Hoblit is left stranded outside the courtroom and having to consume about 45 minutes of screen time without many plot developments. The lazy interval is half-heatedly invested in a side quest relationship between Willy and Nikki that sucks energy out of the main story without adding much relevant content.

The mechanisms available for Willy to eventually try and turn the tables are not difficult to guess, and the film's late reveals are not as clever as Pyne wishes them to be. However, there is some character depth along the way, particularly for Willy. Through his humbling encounter with a twisted but ingenious man, the deputy district attorney is provided the opportunity to reassess the legend in his own mind and redefine what matters most.

Although the acting aces the writing, Fracture is nevertheless an enjoyably discerning joust.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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