Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Movie Review: The Owl And The Pussycat (1970)

A supposed romantic comedy, The Owl And The Pussycat consists of two distinctly unlikable characters screaming at each other for the best part of 95 minutes.

In a New York City apartment building, aspiring author Felix Sherman (George Segal) spots his neighbour Doris (Barbra Streisand) in the middle of a prostitute transaction and gets her evicted. She barges into his unit in the middle of the night and refuses to leave. She professes to be an actress and model and only rarely a hooker, and accuses him of being gay. They argue loudly, and as result of the commotion Felix is also evicted. They both seek refuge at the apartment of his friend Barney, where they continue their incessant verbal sparring.

Some level of cool shock value probably accompanied the transition of The Owl And The Pussycat from stage to screen in 1970, undoubtedly helped by Streisand in a series of risque outfits, but nothing can save the film from a fingernails-on-chalkboard level of awfulness. Being trapped with the meek Felix and insufferable Doris for an hour and a half is a special kind of torture, and director Herbert Ross is unable to salvage any semblance of an engaging narrative to relieve the confined tedium.

Doris is a dimwit gum chewing sex kitten who only stops talking when she starts shouting, Felix is a spineless bookstore clerk pretending to be an author, and the only good thing that can be said about them as a couple is that they deserve to heap misery on each other. However, nothing they say or do is remotely funny, romantic or worth watching.

Ross repeatedly goes to the same few joke attempts (Doris can't sleep! Felix uses big words that Doris does not understand!) before resorting to the marijuana joint, which only briefly interrupts all the yelling. The film ends where it started, the couple still bickering and trading insults and abuse, but now they may also be in love, a case of unconvincing romance blossoming within utter dross.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Big Red One (1980)

A soldier's eye view of World War Two, The Big Red One captures the insane logic of front-line combat with unblinking clarity.

In a prologue set at the end of the first World War, a private (Lee Marvin) lost in the front line mists uses his knife to kill a babbling German soldier. He later learns the war ended four hours prior.

It's November 1942, and now the Sergeant leads a squad of infantrymen as part of the famed "Big Red One" (the First Infantry Division), landing on the beaches of North Africa. The men include Privates Griff (Mark Hamill), Zab (Robert Carradine), Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco) and Ward (Johnson). A chaotic initial encounter with Vichy French soldiers is followed by the squad being literally run over at Kasserine Pass.

Under the Sergeant's quiet leadership the four men grow from raw recruits to experienced survivors, while a succession of replacement soldiers come and go. Griff always finds it difficult to shoot anyone while Zab collects plenty of material for his book, as the men take part in the Sicily campaign, followed by the D-Day landings, the Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of a concentration camp. Along the way they encounter the range of horrors and absurdities inherent in war.

A long-standing passion project for writer and director Samuel Fuller, The Big Red One is inspired by his real-life experiences with the First Infantry Division during the war. Adding further authenticity, star Lee Marvin also served in the Pacific Theater with the Marines. The film salutes the foot soldiers doing the dirty work of combat, with a focus on their absolute ordinariness. A relatively low-budget effort with limited attention to detail, the film is focused and gritty, but without expansive set-pieces or blood-soaked brutality.

The four men under the Sergeant's tutelage never lose a sense of fatalistic cynicism, combined with a ready ability to banter and poke each other. The longer they survive and others don't, the more they attain the surety of a job that needs to be done, another battle to grind through on the way to ending a seemingly endless conflict.

The Sergeant himself is an observant man of few words, leading by example and prompting action at key moments. His mere grizzled presence is enough to inspire, and while the men pull the Sergeant into their repartee, he commands instant respect when needed.

The film's episodic structure ensures a constant flow of energy. Fuller briskly hops from one set-piece to another with sharp editing and no looking back. Generals, politicians and broader strategic contexts have no place in this world. The men often have no real idea where they are or why they are there. They just respond to the next tactical objective, taking out any Germans they encounter and improvising an approximation of survival.

The best episodes reach out and touch war's ridiculous incongruities. The squad bring life to a field of death familiar to the Sergeant, helping a pregnant woman deliver inside a tank. An impromptu food and wine feast breaks out while a young local boy, who helped locate an enemy tank, mourns his decomposing mother. And war mixes with madness, literally, when the Sergeant and his men liberate a monastery being used as a refuge for mental patients, with a lethal resistance fighter pretending to be an inmate. The climax at the concentration camp is the final growing-up lesson for young men defeating tyranny.

The Big Red One recreates the front lines as a surreal experience where life, death, humour, camaraderie and work objectives still exist, but are contorted into a magnificently warped mosaic.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 10 August 2020

The Iconic Moment: Basic Instinct (1992)

Catherine: Have you ever fucked on cocaine Nick?.......It's nice.

Directed by Paul Verhoeven.
Written by Joe Eszterhas.
Cinematography by Jan de Bont.
Starring Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone.

The full Ace Black Blog review of Basic Instinct is here.

Sunday, 9 August 2020

Movie Review: The Purple Rose Of Cairo (1985)

A fantasy, romance and comedy, The Purple Rose Of Cairo is a bittersweet celebration of movies as essential escapism.

The setting is New Jersey during the Great Depression. Cecilia (Mia Farrow) is trying to hold a job as a waitress while stuck with a useless husband in Monk (Danny Aiello). The movies are her one escape from a drudgerous life, and she studiously follows all the Hollywood gossip and watches every movie multiple times.

The latest show at the local theatre is the adventure romance The Purple Rose Of Cairo, featuring exotic foreign settings and swish Manhattan cocktail parties. Cecilia is impressed by charismatic star Gil Shepard (Jeff Daniels) playing the role of adventurer Tom Baxter. During one showing Tom notices Cecilia's dedication and walks off the screen and into the theater, insisting he wants to break free from the confines of his scripted existence and spend time with her instead. The other characters in his movie are left in limbo waiting for Tom to come back.

While Tom and Cecilia enjoy a whirlwind romance, the film's Hollywood producers and the actor Gil panic and descend on New Jersey, with Gil worried the runaway Tom will ruin his burgeoning reputation. Now Gil and Cecilia explore a romance, but Tom remains intent on winning the girl and finding a happy ending.

Writer and director Woody Allen conjures up a funny, romantic and magical story of the loving relationship between movies and their fans. In a compact 82 minutes, The Purple Rose Of Cairo captures all that cinema can represent in providing a bright spark and sometimes the only source of positivity during the worst of times.

Cecilia's marriage is a cycle of abuse and poverty and her menial job is about to crash with her next dropped dish. With the whole country drowning in an economic abyss, hope for a better future is in short supply. The dark movie theatre and films like The Purple Rose Of Cairo take her away from all that, to mysterious Egypt where a group of handsome rich friends meet dishy archeologist Tom Baxter, and they all come back to the bright lights and nightclubs of the big city. 

While all the joviality may as well be on a different planet from Cecilia's corner of New Jersey, the affordable silver screen images offer the perfect break from her misery.

Of course Hollywood needs Cecilia as much as she needs the entertainment, and once Tom steps off the screen and into her world, Allen embarks on a teasing run to outline the symbiotic relationship. Despite the mutual dependence, bridging the divide between fans in search of fantasy and characters in search of reality is no straightforward matter.

Allen cleverly introduces the complication of actor Gil protecting his reputation from his own creation. An unlikely love triangle takes shape, but when one lover is a fictional character and another is a professional actor pursuing stardom, the heartache risk is substantial.

But in the meantime the humour is persistent, most of it drawn from the stranded characters up on the screen, flummoxed by one of their own walking into the real world and with nothing to do except await his return. Meanwhile Tom Baxter knows only what his character knows, and his naive view of the world includes expecting a fade-out after kissing Cecilia.

And in the central role of Cecilia, Mia Farrow is elegantly soulful, carrying the weight of a depressed nation on her slender shoulders. Farrow sells the film's wild premise with ease, mixing incredulous fun with starstruck fandom while Cecilia's struggle in a grim and inescapable real world casts a long shadow.

Jeff Daniels is engaging in a dual role as an actor and his character. The supporting cast includes Van Johnson as one of the frustrated on-screen co-stars, and Dianne Wiest as a local tart who gets to teach the clueless Tom about brothels.

The Purple Rose Of Cairo is a mischievous love letter to a flicker of light connecting reality with fantasy, sustaining dreams through the darkness.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 8 August 2020

Movie Review: Panic In The Streets (1950)

A crime drama and medical thriller, Panic In The Streets adds the threat of an epidemic and pointed character dynamics to a gritty on-location police investigation.

In New Orleans, a grungy poker game is interrupted when Kochak (Lewis Charles), a recent stowaway arrival in the city, feels sick and departs with his winnings. Gangster Blackie (Jack Palance) is not impressed: he shoots Kochak dead. The dumped body is found the next day, and after the coroner raises the alarm, Lieutenant Commander Clinton Reed (Richard Widmark) of the Public Health Service determines Kochak was suffering from the contagious and deadly pneumonic plague.

Reed teams up with police Captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) to trace the movements of the dead man and inoculate all who came in contact with him. They have 48 hours before an epidemic breaks out and the press release the story. The investigation leads to a port hiring hall, then a freighter, and finally a Greek restaurant. Blackie and his associates Fitch (Zero Mostel) and Poldi (Guy Thomajan) sense heightened police interest in their victim and conclude Kochak was hiding something important.

Filmed on location in New Orleans, Panic In The Streets finds director Elia Kazan delving into stark territory with hard-headed men engaged in uncompromising pursuits. The discovery of an unknown murder victim should barely warrant a mention in a city like New Orleans, but here the dead man becomes the critical victim zero of a potentially catastrophic epidemic, forcing doctor Reed and Captain Warren to begrudgingly work together.

The men are not natural allies, and the film benefits by underlining their contrasts. Reed is dogmatic about the impending crisis, pushing Warren into a skeptical and unimpressed mood. The script by Richard Murphy and Daniel Fuchs gives the conflict time and space to breathe, mutual respect growing slowly and in earned increments.

The film also expands into the home front. Clinton is feeling sorry for himself, stuck in a non-glamorous government job and insufficient income to pay the bills. His wife Nancy (Barbara Bel Geddes) frets about finances while longing for a second child to provide a sibling for their young son Tommy. But in the middle of the evolving crisis Nancy works up the courage to provide a crucial ego boost to her exhausted man, Bel Geddes shining in her designated moment.

The focus on characters helps the film overcome its obvious rough patches. Kazan has fun with sharp shadows and pointed contrasts in grimy locations, but is otherwise caught between a police procedural and a medical thriller. The plot often trips over itself trying to explain why the epidemic will hold off for 48 hours, and how finding Blackie as a crime perpetrator without tracing his contacts is somehow cause to proclaim the end of the crisis.

Richard Widmark adds a high level of intensity, his quick temper matched only by his rapid reach for a syringe to poke antidotes into everyone's arm. In his film debut, Jack Palance casts a tall shadow as a cold-blooded thug.

Despite a few questionable doses, Panic In The Streets wields a pointy needle.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 6 August 2020

Movie Review: Only The Brave (2017)

A drama and tragedy based on real events, Only The Brave captures the courage of firefighters willing to risk their lives on the frontlines of natural disasters.

In Prescott, Arizona, Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) is the supervisor for local wildfire Rescue Crew 7. He believes his unit is good enough to earn a "Hot Shot" designation, which would allow front-line deployment, although it is uncommon for a municipal force to achieve the distinction. Eric is married to horse veterinarian Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), and they are dealing with stress related to his frequent absence and her desire to start a family.

Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller) joins Crew 7 as a rookie, determined to clean up his life after his ex-girlfriend gives birth to a baby girl. With the help of his friend and mentor Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges), Eric finally proves his unit's ability and Crew 7 becomes the Granite Mountain Hot Shots. As Brendan learns what it takes to fight dangerous fires, plenty of challenges await, including an unexpectedly dangerous fire near Yarnell.

Building up to a sorrowful loss, Only The Brave sets out to portray the quiet valour of men (in this unit they are all men) who march towards raging fires and the sacrifices of their long-suffering spouses. Director Joseph Kosinski treats his subjects with respect by remaining grounded. From the superintendent Marsh to the rookie McDonough, Rescue Crew 7 consists of proud, dedicated but far from perfect guys. Battling old demons including addictions, absentee fathers and squandered opportunities, the men can be mean, rude, and experts at placing the rigours of the job ahead of family responsibilities.

The script by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer avoids cheap acts of heroism in favour of highlighting discipline, work ethic, long hours, and the drive to overcome exhaustion. The men are rewarded with an invaluable sense of camaraderie built on banter, and in the middle of nowhere, moments of spectacular natural beauty.

Kosinski deploys to the forest fire front lines sparingly, preferring to focus on people instead of action. At 133 minutes, with limited character evolution and pretty basic personal and familial conflicts, the film is quite a bit longer than it needs to be. The visual effects featuring ravenous fires devouring landscapes do provide effective jolts of dangerous energy.

The cast resides in dour manly territory, where scowls often replace conversation. Josh Brolin is suitably stone-faced, his features forged by the heat of countless blazes, his pride in his men equally fiery. Miles Teller accepts a more subdued role, the behavioural dynamics of a fire crew seen through his rookie eyes. Jeff Bridges is given relatively little to do. As the one woman given prominence, Jennifer Connelly represents wives carving out some definition of marriage in the absence of husbands but with the everpresent spectre of death.

An encounter with a snake forever alters the trajectory of McDonough's life. After earning his rightful place as a member of the Hot Shots, he will learn about the various forms of bravery necessary to carry on.


All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 3 August 2020

The Iconic Moment: On The Waterfront (1954)

Terry: You don't understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.

Directed by Elia Kazan.
Written by Budd Schulberg.
Cinematography by Boris Kaufman.
Starring Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb.

The Ace Black Blog review of On The Waterfront is here.

Sunday, 2 August 2020

Movie Review: Thoroughbreds (2017)

A drama and dark comedy with crime thriller elements, Thoroughbreds seeks to subvert superficial expectations while poking at scars of emotional detachment. 

In suburban Connecticut, teenagers and former grade school classmates Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) resume a friendship after a period of estrangement. Amanda admits to not feeling any emotions and is undergoing psychological assessments for harming a thoroughbred horse. Lily is pampered and comes from an exceptionally rich family, but hates her stepdad Mark. Lily is also keeping some secrets to herself.

Amanda suggests to Lily that maybe she should consider killing Mark. After initially recoiling, Lily warms up to the idea. The girls approach their acquaintance and petty drug dealer Tim (Anton Yelchin) to do the dirty deed, but not surprisingly, their half-baked plans will go sideways.

Exploring themes of friendship, the class divide, and most acutely the hidden damage within teenagers, Thoroughbreds is captivating and disquieting. Writer and director Cory Finley imports Hitchcockian touches (notably from Strangers On A Train) into a Generation Z world presented as over-analyzed, over-medicated and empathy-deficient, and adds mean streaks of humour and disorienting unpredictability.

The two girls are currents of turmoil beneath a calm surface. Amanda speaks her mind with dumbfounding directness, is always one mental step ahead of everyone else, and never hesitates to reveal her smarts. Lily hides behind the prim and proper facade of the elite. Both harbour violent tendencies born out of life's disillusionments and absentee fathers. Amanda openly embraces her weirdness while Lily is more coiled, circumspect and perhaps repressed. Despite their combined psyches inching towards malevolence, their rebuilt friendship also emits a warm glow of authenticity.

Other than a typically edgy Anton Yelchin assist (in one of his final roles), the film is essentially a two-character drama and rides entirely on the shoulders of Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke. Both actresses deliver less-is-more performances of understated efficiency, finding the manipulative gaps between truth and lies to advance individual versions of deception deployed for survival.

The film buzzes with style thanks to an unhinging mood, playful sound effects and camera work alternating between curiously gliding and passively observant. However, Finley's shortcuts are sometimes severe, and the film cries out for more than the 92 minutes of running time. All the key events in the lives of the two girls happen off-screen, and stepdad Mark is too quickly consigned to the evil category. The mothers of the girls appear in ultimately meaningless snippets.

Thoroughbreds races on a new course of its own creation, original and stark if not quite perfect.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 1 August 2020

Movie Review: The Star Chamber (1983)

A drama and thriller, The Star Chamber explores the broken justice system from the vantage point of the judge's chair.

In Los Angeles, relatively young Superior Court Judge Steven Hardin (Michael Douglas) starts to get disillusioned with loopholes in the law allowing seemingly guilty defendants to walk free from his courtroom. First an alleged serial murderer is released due to an illegal garbage truck search, then accused child pornographers walk away because of an unlawful traffic stop. 

Dr. Harold Lewin (James Sikking) is the father of one of the victims of the pornography ring, and his trauma haunts Hardin. Meanwhile Detective Harry Lowes (Yaphet Kotto) and his police officers are exposed to the anguish of stumbling upon young murder victims compounded by the court's revolving door. 

Hardin is invited by his mentor Judge Benjamin Caulfield (Hal Holbrook) to join a secret chamber of nine judges who review cases where the law's technicalities interfere with the quest justice. The judges then render their own sentence and dole out vigilante justice through contract killers. Hardin reluctantly joins the group, but is quickly exposed to the pitfalls of the extrajudicial experiment.

The tension between the technicalities of the law, the desire for justice, and society's craving for retribution is fertile territory for compelling drama. While 1973's Magnum Force introduced a vigilante ring of disgruntled police officers, The Star Chamber elevates the rage all the way to the guardians of justice. Individual privacy protections are appropriated in the courtroom into fig leaves allowing criminals to escape their due punishment, and although repetitive and somewhat obvious, the visceral exasperation jumps off the screen. 

Director and co-writer Peter Hyams develops the idea into a decent film, although the plot eventually tries to have it all ways and ends up stranded in routine thriller territory. The stronger first half features courtroom jousts where clever defence lawyers exploit loopholes. Victims' families, the media, police officers, prosecutors and Hardin himself are left to ponder the efficacy of a system where essential evidence is thrown out for the flimsiest of reasons, and even confessions count for nothing.

Once Hardin joins the chamber of august judges, Hyams loses his way. The extrajudicial procedures are presented with incomplete blandness and no second-guessing or genuine debate. The Star Chamber then takes a couple of questionable turns. The gap from sentencing to execution is left unexplained, and after all the effort to fan the flames of rage, Hyams is quick to u-turn his protagonist and throws Hardin into an undignified street level cat-and-mouse game. Other missteps include an early suicide left dangling, an underused role for Sharon Gless as Mrs. Hardin, and a quite useless parkade car chase.

The film looks sleek and glossy, the world of judges presented with ostentatious grandeur while the alleged criminals, whether convicted or not, live on the greasy edge. The gathering of judges carries weight, but some of it is dropped.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 30 July 2020

Movie Review: The Lady Eve (1941)

A screwball comedy and romance, The Lady Eve rides the energy of a dynamic Barbara Stanwyck performance but is an otherwise sputtering effort.

On a cross-ocean voyage returning to the United States, snake scientist Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), who just completed a year of research deep in the Amazon jungle, is a magnet for the ladies. He stands to inherit his family's brewing fortune, but Charles is a clumsy and socially timid introvert. Professional card sharps Colonel Harrington and his daughter Jean (Charles Coburn and Stanwyck) target Charles for a big score, and they lure him towards a substantial loss at their gambling table.

But Jean and Charles start to genuinely fall in love, and she tries to convince her more ruthless father to back off. Before she can be honest with Charles he uncovers the Harringtons as scammers and the burgeoning romance ends badly. Back on land, Jean does not forgive nor forget and plots an elaborate ruse involving impersonating a British aristocrat to achieve revenge, love or both.

Carrying strong echoes of 1938's Bringing Up Baby complete with the socially inept scientist and his wild animal fixation, The Lady Eve checks off screwball fundamentals. Writer and director Preston Sturges builds his narrative around the talented, seductive, determined, smart and edgy character of Jean Harrington, and Barbara Stanwyck responds with a glowing performance, radiating heat and connivance and easily dominating the film's core. Henry Fonda's bumbling victim is likeable enough, but borders on a spineless non-entity, an almost too-easy target for swindlers and cheap laughs.  

The first half on the luxurious ship is an enjoyable and breezy mix of comedy, romance and collusion. Sturges nurtures a light seafaring mood and allows Charles' well-dressed ineptitude to bounce off the Harrington's buzzsaw machinations. Jean's shoe-change seduction, followed by her breathy and handsy recovery from a snake encounter, are both timeless highlights.

But the second half stumbles both in intention and execution. Jean's follow-up pursuit of Charles' heart and money is a muddled combination of humiliation and outlandish hide-in-plain-sight subterfuge. Her haughty yet jovial British "Lady Eve" persona tries too hard and talks too much, and the bumpy tone is made worse by an overabundance of physical slapstick moments featuring Charles making a fool of himself every five minutes.

The climactic confrontation on a train is initially funny but Sturges stretches the one joke too far and the scene buckles under both unwieldy length and heavy-handed symbolism.

The supporting cast is strong, with Charles Coburn delightful as a veteran con artist. The film is notably poorer when he disappears and Eugene Pallette steps forth in the less interesting role of the Pike patriarch. William Demarest has a more constant presence as Charles' frequently flustered guardian.

Mixing winning and losing hands, The Lady Eve rides choppy seas.  

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.
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