Friday, 5 August 2022

Movie Review: The Adam Project (2022)

A science fiction time travel adventure, The Adam Project offers lukewarm entertainment with the requisite thrills, humour, and tender moments.

In 2050, time travel is a reality. Air force pilot Adam Reed (Ryan Reynolds) steals a fighter jet and travels back to 2022. He reconnects with his 12-year-old self (Walker Scobell), a 6th grader frequently bullied at school. Young Adam is mouthy, and his relationship with his mother Ellie (Jennifer Garner) has been strained ever since his father Louis (Mark Ruffalo) died in a car crash. Louis was a physics researcher who developed theories enabling time travel.

The older Adam is on a personal mission to find his wife Laura Shane (Zoe Saldana), a pilot who traveled back in time to prevent the evil Maya Sorian (Catherine Keener) from taking control of the time travel industry. With Sorian and her goons in hot pursuit, both Adams travel back to 2018 where they will try to convince Louis to stop the science of time travel before it starts.

Directed by Shawn Levy with four writers collaborating on the script, The Adam Project tries to be all things to all people, and the results are unsurprisingly middling. Ryan Reynolds delivers the expected snide comments, familial poignancy underpins the action, and Catherine Keener offers up the stock villain with evil ambitions to rule the world. For the easily impressed and attention-span challenged, CGI-enabled time travel thrills and bloodless combat action show up about every eight minutes. An invade-and-destroy-the-fort climax is a tired exercise in CGI excess.

None of this makes the film bad, just frustratingly manufactured and beset by whizz-bang flakiness. In the quiet moments between mashups of Star Wars, The Terminator, and Back To The Future, themes of loss, love, care, and absenteeism do break through. The cast is sufficiently talented to thrive away from the green screens, and the human-centred relationships between Adam, his parents, and his wife border on excellent. The older Adam imparting wisdom through a heartfelt chat with his unsuspecting mom represents a fine scene. The sacrifice Adam and his wife Laura are forced to confront adds soul to their adventure, hinting at the undefined yet keenly sensed bond of human familiarity transcending time and space. 

The Adam Project is noticeably numb when it mindlessly races to the next round of digital combat, and appreciably better when it pauses to reflect.

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Wednesday, 3 August 2022

Movie Review: Conspiracy Theory (1997)

An semi-serious action thriller, Conspiracy Theory piles on the escapades but skimps on the the foundations.

In New York City, taxi driver Jerry Fletcher (Mel Gibson) is a paranoid conspiracy theorist. He also has a crush on Justice Department lawyer Alice Sutton (Julia Roberts), who is still grieving the murder of her father, a judge. After Jerry publishes his latest conspiracy theory newsletter and mails it to a subscription list of five people, he is suddenly apprehended and tortured by government-type goons led by the mysterious Dr. Jonas (Patrick Stewart). Jerry escapes and connects with Alice for help. She gets caught up in his crazy world and tries to decipher what is going on in his frazzled brain, as multiple assassination attempts are made on his life.

Conspiracy Theory provides jaunty, non-stop entertainment with a glib attitude. It is also frustratingly shallow. Despite a running length of 135 minutes, writer Brian Helgeland take an awful long time to reveal a coherent plot line, and then proceed to bungle it. The main conspiracy apparently swirls around a never-seen dead person, a never-seen defendant, and a never-seen assassin, all linked to a secret defunct government program. Director Richard Donner omits actually showing any of the events that define the plot, and instead Mel Gibson's Jerry blurts out the jumbled details a few minutes before the closing credits.

Otherwise, the movie is a long series of chases and escapes interspersed with Jerry's conspiratorial ramblings. Donner assembles the action scenes with welcome coherence, and injects the right doses of madcap humour to relieve the intensity. The presence of Gibson and Julia Roberts injects star power, but cannot help the lack of narrative discipline. Gibson brings a shifty manic energy to the role, and Roberts does enough to avoid decorative status. Patrick Stewart delivers a prototypical villain with some inspiration from Laurence Olivier

Jerry's trundled flight from a torture chamber while strapped to a wheelchair is a highlight, and other good moments are found in his cramped apartment, a showcase for a runaway mind demanding locks on coffee cans inside a locked refrigerator. It's no surprise but still delightful that Jerry anticipates an intrusion and plans a comprehensive self-destruct procedure. Conspiracy Theory does not dwell on logical impetus, but does enjoy the resultant rational madness. 

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Tuesday, 2 August 2022

Movie Review: The Dig (2021)

An archeological drama, The Dig ignores historical relevance in favour of bland side stories.

The setting is 1939 in Suffolk, England. War against Germany appears to be a certainty when widowed landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) hires unconventional archeological digger Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to excavate mysterious mounds on her estate. Brown has no formal training but a lifetime of hands-on experience. He gets to work, and bonds with Edith's young son Robert. Edith also recruits her cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn) to help.

Brown soon makes a stunning discovery: he uncovers a ship from the Anglo-Saxon era, with a burial chamber containing treasure. Officials from the British Museum led by Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) arrive, declaring the discovery of national importance and sidelining Brown. Stuart Piggott (Ben Chaplin) and his wife Peggy (Lily James) are among the professional archeologists brought in to work the site. All is not well in the Piggott marriage, and Peggy is soon attracted to Rory.

The true story of the discoveries at Sutton Hoo deserve cinematic treatment, but The Dig wastes a good opportunity. Writer Moira Buffini deems the artefacts of minimal interest, and barely invests any time explaining the history, relevance, or science. Instead, the narrative is quickly distracted by dreary tidbits: Edith's illness, Robert's obsession with comics and astronomy, huffy museum types attempting to derail the dig, and the snobbery of elitist professionals dismissing Brown's contribution.

With Buffini and director Simon Stone demonstrating no confidence in the ability of the actual subject matter to command interest, the second half is comprehensively derailed by a tepid love affair between Peggy as the bored wife of an archeologist (her husband Charles is presented as gay) and Rory as the cousin of the land owner. Two tertiary characters, barely relevant to the story, are allowed to subsume one of Britain's most important archeological discoveries. 

Mike Eley's rural cinematography is evocatively drenched in countryside browns, and the background snippets of a country slipping into a world war are effective in conveying a time and place. Carey Mulligan and Basil Brown are suitably restrained, but The Dig is nevertheless mired in its own tripe.

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Monday, 1 August 2022

Movie Review: Heaven Without People (2017)

A Lebanese family drama and comedy, Heaven Without People (original title Ghada El Eid, meaning Festive Lunch) seeks awkward fissures below the surface of domesticity.

In Beirut, a Christian family gathers for lunch to celebrate Easter at the home of Josephine and Sarkis. Their adult children include opinionated daughter Rita and her philosophical husband Rabih, son Serge and his new girlfriend Leila, and another daughter Christine, who is married to Elias and mother to two young children with a third on the way. Josephine's sister Noha is also in attendance, along with her teenaged son Sami. Zoufan, from Sri Lanka, is the live-in housekeeper.

The conversation around the dinner table is initially a mix of pleasantries, politics, mild arguments, and plenty of good natured ribbing and humour. But then Josephine makes a shocking discovery, followed by Leila revealing some inconvenient truths, while tensions erupt between Sami and his mom Christine. What was supposed to be a joyous gathering disintegrates into chaos.

Featuring an ensemble cast of mostly amateur performers and filmed in the single apartment location (and predominantly around the dinner table), Heaven Without People is written and directed by Lucien Bourjeily. The hand-held camera work, casual perspectives, and long, uninterrupted takes establish an intimate, fly-on-the-wall tone. The less essential dialogue appears improvised, resulting in natural conversation exchanges typical of family gatherings over celebratory meals.

The relationships around the table are allowed to surface through interactions rather than intentional introductions, resulting in a some disorientation. It takes a while for Bourjeily to start injecting pointed commentary, but gradually, edges and wedges are revealed. Topics of religion and political factions invade the table, the imperatives of maintaining civility and respect for the elders start to fray, and before long financial pressures, factionalism, corruption, immigration, and the status of women cause a full blown detonation. The final act is an impressive - and loud - contrast to the happy-faced opening.

The limited budget and modest production values are noticeable through some barely-audible whispered dialogue in a few scenes, and when tempers flare, over-the-top theatricality is allowed to dominate. But in the best moments, Bourjeily excels in capturing internally-consistent characters and conversational rhythms, where reactions are often as important as verbal cues, and the person saying the least may be communicating loudest. Heaven Without People works as a metaphor for the Lebanese finding reasons to tear their country apart, and also as a candid exposition of what makes every family a family.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Sunday, 31 July 2022

Movie Review: Lean On Me (1989)

A high school biographical drama, Lean On Me is the story of one educator doggedly determined to make a positive difference.

In a prologue set in the late 1960s, Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey is a well-respected school. But idealistic teacher Joe Louis Clark (Morgan Freeman), also known as Crazy Joe, quits in disgust when accountants start influencing academic decisions.

Twenty years later, Eastside is a graffiti-covered hellhole of an inner city school beset by indiscipline and crime, with a high failure rate on state exams. Fearing political heat, Mayor Don Bottman (Alan North) reluctantly agrees with school superintendent Dr. Frank Napier (Robert Guillaume) to bring back Clark as Principal, with a mandate to improve academic performance.

Confident in his methods and deploying unbridled energy, Clark imposes a strict regime of discipline, kicking out all students involved in crime. He chains the side doors to prevent unauthorized entry, and demands unwavering adherence to the school's traditions and a focus on academic achievement. He gradually makes progress, but his uncompromising style antagonizes some parents and teachers, including Vice Principal Mrs. Joan Levias (Beverly Todd) and English teacher Mr. Darnell (Michael Beach). With the state exams rapidly approaching, a campaign to oust Clark gathers steam.

There is a lot of shouting in Lean On Me. The prologue hints at what is to come, with Clark expressing fury at the creeping reach of bean counters. But the volume only increases when he returns to Eastside High 20 years later, bullhorn in hand, and lets loose a demonstration of continuous hollering. Seeking results rather than admiration, Clark's leadership style is uncompromising, sparing no ears: students, teachers, parents, administrators, and politicians are all on the receiving end of his badgering. Some respond well, others buckle, and a few seeth.

Writer Michael Schiffer uses Clark's loud presence to push back against a seemingly hopeless situation. The principal's rescue mission appears impossible, but this is an underdog story, a specialty of director John G. Avildsen. As Clark gradually turns the school around and earns begrudging respect, Avildsen steers towards an unnecessary Hollywood ending, complete with dastardly villains and a large cheering crowd. The crowd-pleasing antics are juvenile and a disservice to the drama.

But thankfully, the story's underlying spirit rises above the embellishments, and the social subtext is powerful. With only a couple of exceptions Schiffer focuses on the collective rather than individual students, allowing Clark's achievements to carry far-reaching influence. Clark's man-on-a-mission intensity is fueled by an understanding of racial math. He uses society's low expectations to urge his underprivileged students (most of them Blacks or Hispanics) to rise above and give themselves a fighting chance for a better future in the world outside the school's walls. 

The enduring image of Lean On Me is of Morgan Freeman standing tall, bossing the halls, and dragging a once proud institution back to relevance by force of will. One man can make a difference - a bullhorn just makes the job easier.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here. 

Saturday, 30 July 2022

Movie Review: 5 Fingers (1952)

A spy drama based on actual events, 5 Fingers is a gripping story of treason motivated by personal gain.

In 1944, Turkey is neutral territory during World War Two and a hub for spies and diplomats. Albanian-born Ulysses Diello (James Mason) is the British Ambassador's valet. He approaches German embassy attaché Moyzisch and offers to sell Allied secrets for £20,000 per film roll. The Germans are stunned but agree, giving Diello the codename Cicero and dispatching Colonel von Richter to become his primary contact.

Diello has access to the British embassy safe and on a weekly basis photographs top secret documents and sells them to von Richter for cash. He uses the home of near-bankrupt Polish Countess Anna Staviska (Danielle Darrieux) for cover. With Operation Overlord looming and the stakes getting higher, the British suspect a spy is operating out of Turkey and send counterintelligence agent Colin Travers (Michael Rennie) to investigate.

An adaptation of the book by Moyzisch, 5 Fingers achieves superlative engagement by respecting all the key characters. Within an efficient and thoughtful storytelling framework combining glamorous diplomatic parties, skulking in the shadows, and just-in-time thrills, writer Michael Wilson and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz demonstrate care for multiple perspectives and avoid labels of heroism, treachery, good, or evil. Instead they seek motivations, reactions, and consequences, and produce a well-rounded exposition of a startling spy incident.

The constraints of the British class system come under scrutiny. Diello believes himself better than a valet, but his Albanian origins limit opportunities for advancement. Entranced by the vision of the rich expatriate enjoying the Rio playground, he sets his sights on achieving a personal goal. James Mason gives the role a shiny gloss, revealing a confident man of quick intellect, ironically creating in Diello the closest thing to a protagonist.

But smarts alone are not enough in the spy game, and the drama is enhanced by a complicated dynamic between Diello and the Countess (a made-up character for the movie). Diello's vision includes a glamorous woman by his side, but his valet status re-emerges as an obstacle. Despite being penniless and desperate for a sponsor, the Countess still has standards and may not so readily accept affections from a member of the servant class.

Mankiewicz enriches the tension by peeling back the curtain on the German reaction to Cicero's emergence. They are cautious, suspicious, careful, but tempted. The debate resonates in Berlin, and von Richter arrives in Turkey to take charge. The tension and disagreements between Berlin officials and the German Ambassador demonstrate the film's cerebral qualities. On the other side, counterintelligence agent Travers starts his sleuthing for the British, and now Diello has to guard against professional eyes right within his home embassy.

The energy intensifies as 5 Fingers works its way to multiple delicious twists in the final act. When the risks and rewards escalate, the outcomes can be most unpredictable.

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Friday, 29 July 2022

Movie Review: Thunder Road (1958)

A drama and crime thriller about the moonshine business, Thunder Road overcomes budget limitations with star power, a sympathetic perspective, and gritty action.

In rural Harlan County, Kentucky, Luke Doolin (Robert Mitchum) is a Korean War veteran now working as a transporter, delivering hidden moonshine shipments to Memphis. Luke drives souped-up vehicles prepared by his brother Robin (James Mitchum, Robert's son) to stay ahead of government enforcement efforts led by agent Troy Barrett (Gene Barry). Local girl Roxanne (Sandra Knight) and Memphis chanteuse Francie (Keely Smith) are the two women in Luke's life.

Crooked businessman Kogan (Jacques Aubuchon) moves into the area and tries to intimidate all the Harlan County moonshiners into working for him. When they refuse Kogan resorts to violence. Barrett reaches out to Luke, offering to work together to stop Kogan, but Luke does not like making deals with anyone.

Based on Robert Mitchum's story idea, Thunder Road benefits from the star's magnetic presence. As Luke Doolin, Mitchum cruises through the action with irresistible anti-authoritarian cool and a trademark dangling cigarette. He effortlessly dominates the screen whether racing down the highway, confronting government agents, standing up to Kogan and his goons, showing other transporters who's boss, or belittling the assorted riffraff on the edges of his high speed profession. And of course, he casually keeps both Roxanne and Francie interested without commiting.

But Luke also knows his fast life has significant risks and limits, and his only soft spot is for younger brother Robin. Luke will never allow Robin to follow in his footsteps, and director Arthur Ripley ensures this humanity seeps deep into the character's psyche. The script by James Atlee Phillips and Walter Wise alternates action with plot and character development, and cleverly maneuvers towards aligning the moonshiners (just making a living) with the government agents (just doing their jobs) on the same side against Kogan's pure evil (killing in the name of business).

This is a low-budget, drive-in ready production, and for a movie all about roaring down country roads with the throttle fully open, the rear-projection scenes are plentiful and painfully cringey. Thankfully, the exterior shots are much better. Luke's Ma and Pa are stock country bumpkins comfortable in the company of the other secondary one-dimensional characters. The supporting performances are varied: Gene Barry, Jacques Aubuchon, and Sandra Knight are passable; Keely Smith and James Mitchum struggle to overcome stiffness.

Despite some bumps, Thunder Road carries no pretensions or apologies, and delivers the requisite energy in a cloud of country road dust.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Movie Review: Assassination (1987)

A rudimentary action movie, Assassination is a low-budget excuse for Charles Bronson to side-step a few explosions and cause a few of his own.

In Washington DC, senior Secret Service agent Jay Killian (Bronson) returns to work after some sick leave. With a new President about to the sworn in, Killian is disappointed to learn he is tasked with protecting the First Lady Lara Craig (Jill Ireland). Nevertheless, he gets down to work with his partner agent Charlotte Chang (Jan Gan Boyd).

Lara is opinionated and refuses to follow Killian's security advice. They clash frequently, but then a series of dangerous incidents convince Killian that Lara's life is being targeted. Her unusual relationship with the President also raises questions. Soon Lara and Killian are on the run, evading several attempts on her life.

Produced by Cannon Films and featuring the penultimate Jill Ireland screen performance, Assassination does a few (very few) things right. The spiky dynamic between the husband and wife pairing of Bronson and Ireland is easygoing and fairly enjoyable. The if it moves, it explodes scientific principle is staunchly applied. The explosions are never necessary, but always three times as big as they need to be. And the casting of Jan Gan Boyd as Killian's feisty partner (in more ways than one) is progressive, although she never comes close to convincing as a Secret Service agent.

Otherwise, the plot is beyond ridiculous, character definitions are non-existent, the wooden supporting actors are laughably inept, the villains are barely identified, the editing is often painfully amateurish, and the directing by Peter Hunt is distracted. Once Killian and Lara go on the run (in planes, trains, and automobiles, plus motorbikes), the film unravels into an endless series of escapes and near-misses strung together with no context. The movie becomes a boring playground for stunt performers and the pyrotechnic crew.

Assassination has no shortage of big bangs, but fizzles into a whimper.

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Thursday, 28 July 2022

Movie Review: Black Crab (2022)

A secret mission war movie, Black Crab enjoys strong visuals in a frigid setting, but the sketch story is too vague to register.

In a prologue, the security situation in Sweden is disintegrating. Caroline Edh (Noomi Rapace) is caught up in murderous street violence and her daughter Vanja is abducted by armed men.

The main setting is a few years later, in a desperate and almost defeated Sweden ravaged by war. Now a soldier, Caroline is recruited by base commander Colonel Raad for a dangerous mission: to skate over hundreds of miles across a frozen archipelago to the town of Odo, where a devastating blow can be delivered against the enemy. Raad further motivates Caroline by revealing that Vanja has been found in Odo. 

Caroline is joined by a small team of soldiers, including the mysterious Nylund, the young Granvik, the veteran Malik, and the erratic Karimi. The journey is hazardous, the enemy is always close, and the group suffers casualties. But Caroline is eager to reunite with her daughter, even after discovering the true implications of her mission.

Black Crab is almost a good film, but does not quite make it. The Swedish production imagines a devastating war and creates grim aesthetics to match. Once the trek across the ice gets going, director Adam Berg (who also co-wrote the script) captures some majestic scenes of soldiers skating at night across an endless landscape. Noomi Rapace lends conviction, providing Caroline with the admirable determination of a soldier with not much left to lose but harbouring hope of a miraculous reunion.

Unfortunately, almost everything else is a let down. The script is just too loose, and does not bother to cover the basics. Providing no context for war to focus on a soldier's jaded viewpoint may be acceptable; it's less excusable to skip over fundamentals of the central mission. What exactly is expected of Caroline and her colleagues once they arrive at their destination is curiously elusive. Even after the contents of their secret capsules are revealed, essential mission execution tactics are missing.

Other shortcomings are simply lazy. An early interaction between Caroline and Nylund ends badly, and his suspicious behaviour remains unexplained. In the final act, the previously scrappy good guys are suddenly in control of a massive military base complete with a complex research laboratory, although Caroline and her colleagues were supposedly dispatched deep behind enemy lines. The infiltrate-the-castle climax forgets about the war and borrows from Bond movies dating back to the 1960s.

Instead of securing the fundamentals, Berg leans on Caroline's fixation to find her daughter. As presented, the mother-daughter bond is simply not strong enough to carry the drama's weight. 

The narrative faults are more painful because the potential for a high quality war movie is evident. Black Crab packs promise, but carelessly drops it through the ice.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Movie Review: Blacklight (2022)

An action thriller, Blacklight rehashes tired ideas with plastic production values and an inane script.

In Washington DC, political nominee Sofia Flores is murdered in a staged hit-and-run. Meanwhile the FBI's off-the-books fixer Travis Block (Liam Neeson) extracts an undercover agent after her identity is revealed by a violent white nationalist group. Despite suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder, Travis has been quietly helping FBI Director Gabriel Robinson (Aidan Quinn) for years, but now wants to slow down and spend more time with his granddaughter.

But his plans to drift into retirement are disrupted when disgruntled FBI agent Dusty Crane approaches reporter Mira Jones (Emmy Raver-Lampman) with shocking revelations about Flores' death and a secret program run by Robinson targeting civilians. Travis attempts to bring Dusty under control, but assassins are soon in pursuit.

The plot becomes more ludicrous with every passing scene, the car chases are boring, the shoot-outs are muddled and over-the-top, the production design is flat, and the dialogue is at the first-draft level. Other than Neeson, the acting sinks to daytime television levels. Blacklight is an embarrassment all around, director and co-writer Mark Williams somehow frittering a production budget of $40 million on a witless and instantly forgettable debacle.

The levels of ineptitude are staggering. The hit-and-run death of a popular political candidate in Washington DC is shrugged off. Dusty exposes himself to exceptional risks arranging in-person meetings to provide information he could have sent in an email. An FBI agent is gunned down on the street and no one bothers to investigate. An enormous gunfight takes place at the home of the FBI Director, leaving about a dozen dead bodies littered on the premises, and not one siren is heard in the distance. And family members are being placed in a witness protection program.

Neeson cruises through Blacklight seemingly oblivious to the surrounding dross. At 70 he is far too old for the role, but at least his grandfather label is the only plot element that rings true.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.