Saturday, 24 August 2019

Movie Review: Going In Style (2017)

A geriatric comedy, Going In Style is a stodgy story about three desperate old men plotting a bank robbery.

In New York City, retirees Joe, Willie and Albert (Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin) are stunned to learn that after a lifetime of blue collar work, their company pension is disappearing due to a corporate takeover and offshore relocation. Facing financial ruin, Joe concocts a plan to rob a bank, inspired by having recently witnessed a hold-up.

Willie reluctantly agrees to participate, but Al, who is pursuing a romance with Annie (Ann-Margret), is unsure and needs more convincing. After a botched training run to steal from a local supermarket, the trio reach out to Joe's connected former son-in-law Murphy and shady pet store owner Jesus (John Ortiz) for help. The three friends proceed with planning and training for the heist, but FBI Agent Hamer (Matt Dillon) will be a challenging foe.

An imminently forgettable remake of a 1979 George Burns film, Going In Style is a flimsy excuse for three veteran actors to parade across the screen. With no laughs and no edge to be found in the Theodore Melfi script, director Zach Braff resorts to basic juvenile and unconvincing antics to try and squeeze some entertainment out of an exhausted premise.

While Caine, Freeman and Arkin are dependable performers, they essentially sleepwalk through the movie by leaning on their pre-established screen personas to compensate for missing character depth. The story meekly attempts and miserably fails to stoke the flames of seething anger against faceless corporations and greedy banks padding their bottom lines at the expense of the little people.

Instead, Going In Style settles for a mundane plot consisting of hapless wannabe crooks bumbling their way to an unconvincing heist against a backdrop of constant bickering to simulate friendship. A serious disease, strained family dynamics and a tentative romance are predictably thrown in as sub-plots to activate when convenient.

Neither smart nor stylish, Going In Style has nothing going for it.

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Movie Review: Runaway Bride (1999)

A middling romantic comedy, Runaway Bride reteams Julia Robert and Richard Gere with surprisingly lacklustre results.

Without any fact checking, New York newspaper columnist Homer "Ike" Graham (Gere) writes a dismissive piece about a woman called Maggie Carpenter who has apparently left a succession of men stranded at the altar. He is fired for sloppy reporting, but a magazine editor offers him a chance to pursue the real story.

Ike travels to the quaint small town of Hale, Maryland, and finds Maggie (Roberts) engaged to be married to football coach Bob Kelly (Christopher Meloni), her fourth attempt to get hitched. Her three previous engagements did indeed end with her fleeing the wedding ceremony. As a result of her romantic misadventures, all caught on video, Maggie is a local punchline, with her family joking about her exploits at every opportunity. After initially resenting Ike's intrusion into her life, a romance blossoms between them, much to Bob's disappointment.

After the success of 1990's Pretty Woman, reconnecting Julia Roberts with Richard Gere in another Garry Marshall-directed romantic comedy must have been considered a fail safe idea. But while the stars provide the necessary energy for Runaway Bride, the sparks just don't fly as may have been expected. The story is competent and strives for some level of originality within the confines of the genre, but overall the film just ambles along in safe and predictable territory.

The blame for the missing fireworks needs to be shared. Roberts marginally overacts her way through the film, never settling down into any kind of comfort zone as a real person. Gere oscillates awkwardly between cavalier newspaperman and dreamy romantic. The script by Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott lacks wit and cutting edge, while Marshall allows the film to bloat to an unnecessary 116 minutes.

The secondary cast members do their best to enliven proceedings. Meloni as Maggie's latest experiment in love, using trite football coaching tactics to help her over the line, is joined by Joan Cusack as Maggie's grounded best friend and Paul Dooley as her frequently inebriated dad. Rita Wilson and Héctor Elizondo lend further depth and talent.

Runaway Bride tries to reach for some weightier conversations about knowing yourself before committing to couplehood, but any profound statements are well beyond the capabilities of all involved. This bride is just content to gallop across nondescript fields.

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Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Movie Review: Moulin Rouge! (2001)

A musical comedy drama and romance, Moulin Rouge! adopts a manic ostentatious style and anachronistic music to recreate the avant-garde flair of the famous nightclub.

It's Paris in 1900. Starving writer Christian (Ewan McGregor) falls in with a group of Bohemians including  Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo) and helps them write a musical. They try to pitch the show called Spectacular, Spectacular to Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent), the owner of the Moulin Rouge, the hottest nightclub in town. In the process Christian meets and falls madly in love with Satine (Nicole Kidman), a courtesan and the Moulin's star performer, who is suffering a serious illness.

But wealthy investor The Duke of Monroth (Richard Roxburgh) also sets his eyes on Satine, and will only invest in expanding the club and financing the show if she becomes his own. As preparations for the show progress, an illicit love affair ensues between Satine and Christian behind the Duke's back, but it all comes to a head on opening night.

A deliberate investment in flair over content, Moulin Rouge! is more about the experience than the story. Director and co-writer Baz Luhrmann pushes the cinematic form as close as possible to an overwhelming sensory experience to recreate what it must have been like in Paris' most celebrated social venue. After a slow start the film hits its stride and enjoys strong second and third acts, although every audacious scene dances on the line between triumph disaster, with a few slipping over to the wrong side.

Nothing in Moulin Rouge! looks real, even by the standard of cinematic musicals. Frenzied editing, teeming crowds, disorienting close-ups, restless camerawork and outlandish set designs are both the foundations and unapologetic essence of the movie. Luhrmann drives for a surreal aesthetic on claustrophobic sets over-stuffed with extras, and an overall mischievously playful vibe inspired by troubled dreams.

The theme is as simple as love conquers all, the love triangle between Christian, Satine and the Duke the most basic of plot devices to hang all the jangling accessories on. Subliminal echoes of classic tragic romances such as Camille and La Boheme reverberate within all the theatrics. While the narrative is traditionally familiar, the music riffs on modern material from Madonna to Nirvana passing through Queen and Bowie and whatever else can be stuffed in between, lyrics from various sources often combined to convey a thought.

Kidman is in fine form and fully buys into what Luhrmann is selling, often to exaggerated extremes. She is ably supported by Jim Broadbent as impresario Harold Zidler, joining the ranks of Joel Grey and Gig Young in creating disturbingly memorable movie masters of twisted ceremony. In contrast Ewan McGregor never quite settles down into the role of Christian, and in the performance scenes remains a hesitant presence.

Madly fluctuating between magically joyous and utterly insane, Moulin Rouge! may not bring the house down but earns a standing ovation.

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Monday, 12 August 2019

Movie Review: Bengazi (1955)

A clunky treasure hunt for buried gold combined with a romantic triangle all set in a desert milieu, Bengazi is derivative bottom-of-the-barrel adventurism.

In the Libyan town of Bengazi, surrounded by desert, Inspector Levering (Richard Carlson) represents law and order. He starts to investigate the mysterious theft of a heavy duty transport lorry equipped with a machine gun from a British Army compound, and his suspicions rest on John Gillmore (Richard Conte), a shady businessman and the partner of the jovial Robert Donovan (Victor McLaglan) in running the local canteena.

Gillmore intends to join forces with hardhead ex-convict Selby (Richard Erdman), who claims to know the whereabouts of a gold treasure buried in the desert. Donovan gets in on the deal, but the treasure hunt plans are threatened by the sudden arrival of Donovan's estranged daughter Aileen (Mala Powers), looking to reconnect with her Dad. Both Levering and Gillmore are quickly entranced by the new arrival and make advances to win her heart.

Driven by greed, Gillmore, Selby and Donovan use the stolen lorry and make their way into the desert towards the ruins of a mosque where the treasure may be buried, but then find themselves besieged by hostile tribesmen.

A no-budget remix of Casablanca and The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre directed by John Brahm for RKO Radio Pictures, Bengazi is beset by bargain basement production values and fails at everything it tries to do. Any ambitions to combine a plot about greed with a sweaty romantic triangle are quickly thwarted by derivative and unimaginative scripting and barely enough ideas to occupy the paltry 79 minutes of running time.

Most of the ponderous action takes place in the desert ruins with the main characters surrounded by unseen enemies. This makeshift compound is undefended on three sides, and all that needs to be said about the dreadful script is that the hostile forces only ever choose to attack from the fourth side which happens to be fortified by a machine gun.

Meanwhile, Richard Conte and Richard Carlson, in addition to looking too similar, struggle mightily on four fronts: crummy material, limited acting talent, undefined characters and unexplained accents. Bengazi never decides on a central character to park its loyalties with, and so Aileen appears to fall in love with both men for no reason and in next to no time, creating a most unconvincing love triangle.

The dead are buried under the stars and love flourishes amidst the corpses, but nothing saves Bengazi from being hopelessly swallowed by the shifting sand dunes.

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Sunday, 11 August 2019

Movie Review: Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)

A cross-dressing comedy, Mrs. Doubtfire showcases the talents of Robin Williams but otherwise relies on obvious humour and simplistic emotional hot buttons.

In San Francisco, Daniel Hillard (Robin Williams) is a fun-loving actor married to interior designer Miranda (Sally Field). Daniel adores his three kids, teenagers Lydia (Lisa Jakub) and Chris (Matthew Lawrence) and the younger Natalie (Mara Wilson). After a raucous birthday party all but wrecks the house, Miranda decides she can no longer tolerate Daniel's juvenile antics and initiates divorce proceedings. He loses child custody and is heartbroken.

When Miranda advertises for an after-school housekeeper Daniel adopts the elaborate disguise of an elderly British nanny, calls himself Mrs. Doubtfire and secures the job, gaining the opportunity to see his kids a few hours each day. Ironically, Mrs. Doubtfire is tidy and responsible, and both Miranda and the kids are thrilled with her presence and homely advice. But life gets more complicated when Miranda starts to explore a romance with rich client Stu Dunmeyer (Pierce Brosnan), and Daniel pursues a real career opportunity as a children's television show host.

A comedy tailor made to unleash Robin Williams' comic excesses, Mrs. Doubtfire is two hours of accents, impersonations, and unconstrained and barely filtered jokiness. Most of it is funny, but little of it is sophisticated. Director Chris Columbus is happy to allow Williams to run loose, and makes no attempt to rein in his star.

The result is a broad and vivid comedy riding on the coattails of a simple concept, Williams in drag pretending to be a prim and proper English nanny. The plot evolves marginally to Daniel's determined efforts to disrupt ex-wife Miranda's new romance while scrambling to land a real job. Without ever getting serious about anything other than a father's love for his children, the film waves in passing at several themes including the devastating impact of divorce and the evolving nature of couplehood.

It all comes to a climax at a restaurant scene where Daniel has to be in both his real and adopted personas at the same time, and Columbus rumbles through this interminable sequence with the elegance of a dancing bear.

Nevertheless, there is no questioning Williams' talent to extract laughs out of any situation, nor his commitment to the role. He disappears under layers of clothes and makeup to bring Mrs. Doubtfire to life, and once he inhabits her bodysuit, wig and face, Williams creates and sustains a memorable and convincing dotty housekeeper. But despite all the juvenile physical humour and flapping of arms, the running time is too long, and the primary gag of Daniel having to frantically change clothes in short order to fool the right people at the right time is overused.

Mrs. Doubtfire sets the energy level at eleven, but it flares in all the obvious directions.

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Movie Review: The Aftermath (2019)

A drama and romance set in the immediate aftermath of World War Two, The Aftermath explores the fresh scars of war at a personal level against the backdrop of wide scale destruction.

A few months after the Allied victory, Rachael Morgan (Keira Knightley) joins her husband Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) of the British Army in Hamburg, where he is stationed to help in the rebuilding process of an essentially destroyed city. They take over the intact suburban mansion of local architect and arts lover Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) and his daughter Freda. Lewis invites the Luberts to stay and live in the attic rather than sending them to a camp.

Rachael and Lewis' relationship has been strained since the death of their young son Michael during the Blitz. Equally, Stefan and Freda are grieving the loss of his wife, who died in the 1943 firebombing of Hamburg. With Lewis frequently away chasing down Hitler's last loyalists, Rachael and Stefan develop a mutual attraction and start a torrid affair. Meanwhile Freda falls in with a group of youth intent on continuing the war with hit-and-run strikes on Allied targets.

The Aftermath is old-fashioned in a generally admirable way, and looks gorgeous in creating a sense of time and place. A bombed-out Hamburg populated by hollow-eyed and near-starving war survivors put to work clearing up the rubble is juxtaposed with the eloquent Lubert mansion, decorated with the latest architectural delights available to the upper echelons of 1940s German society.

But the film's weakness is also strongly associated with its sense of nostalgia. Absent a couple steamy sex scenes, The Aftermath could have been produced by the Hollywood of the late 1940s or early 1950s. The pacing is slow, the dialogue repressed, and the emotions, once they emerge, are theatrically overclocked. Director James Kent is unable to tease out much narrative sophistication from the Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse adaptation of Rhidian Brook's novel.

The story is just about strong enough to stand on its own, the sense of personal loss within both families echoing the greater calamity of a world war that left entire cities in rubble. Flashes of victor's triumphalism and the resoluteness of the vanquished are evident, but quickly confined to the shadows of a greater common tragedy.

Kent does find a few scenes with palpable resonance, one highlight featuring the piano as a unifying instrument of soulful loss bringing Rachael and Freda closer together.

The romance elements combine classic misery-loves-company and neglected wife themes, with Keira Knightley better than Alexander Skarsgård at finding and selling the internal emptiness, in her case stemming from a husband who took refuge in emotional neglect rather than face the loss of his son.

As elegant as it is predictable, The Aftermath laments the intimate and immense carnage of a devastating conflict.

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Movie Review: Stockholm (2018)

A crime drama, Stockholm recreates the bank robbery at the origin of the condition known as the Stockholm Syndrome.

It's 1973, and an armed man who might be Kaj Hansson (Ethan Hawke) storms a large bank in central Stockholm. He takes a few hostages including tellers Bianca (Noomi Rapace) and Klara (Bea Santos), and demands the release of his friend Gunnar Sorensson (Mark Strong) from prison, a Mustang and $1 million. Police Chief Mattsson (Christopher Heyerdahl) handles the negotiations, and with widespread live television coverage, the event becomes a national crisis.

Bianca, a married mother of two children, establishes an unusual connection with Kaj. She tries to keep him calm and he promises not to kill her, despite his uttered threats to Mattsson. Gunnar is delivered to the bank to appease Kaj and potentially help in the negotiations. Prime Minister Olof Palme (Shanti Roney) insists the hostages be freed before the criminals are allowed to leave the bank, further inflaming the crisis, but the bond between the bank robber and Bianca only grows stronger.

The Stockholm Syndrome refers to hostages gaining sympathy for their aggressors, a phenomenon that first came to light due to the widespread media coverage of the 1973 bank hold-up. Loosely based on the actual event, Stockholm treads lightly into the terrain of psychology as assailants and hostages are placed under duress. Canadian director Robert Budreau orchestrates an uneasy melange of tension, humour and provocative romance, all fuelled by the unstable but undoubtedly charismatic bank robber.

Budreau's script brings the dynamics between Kaj and Bianca to the fore, and finds the seeds of affinity germinating in their humanity. She is an even-tempered employee, wife and mother, desperate to survive the ordeal and see her children again (her husband, not so much). He carries the weapons without really ever being in control of the situation, but senses her strength. The hostage-taking drags on for several days, allowing their relationship to evolve from survival codependency to something more.

But for a story about people more than events, Stockholm is limited in scope to what happens in the bank. Although a few scenes of dialogue attempt to invest in background depth, the characters' actions are undermined by insufficient definition. Ironically Bianca emerges as the slightly better rounded person, Noomi Rapace grabbing hold of Bianca's spirit and personal frustrations in a phenomenal scene where she gives cooking instructions to her wobbly husband. Ethan Hawke has less to work with, and resorts to stock nervous gunman mannerisms.

Just as the real incident was a messy and often bewildering affair, Stockholm enjoys ups and downs as a small group of people are forced into a vault, trigger fingers at the ready but with plenty of haphazard planning and wayward targeting.

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Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Movie Review: Stakeout (1987)

A police buddy comedy with action and romance, Stakeout benefits from star charisma but remains a shallow exercise in lightweight entertainment.

Violent criminal Richard "Stick" Montgomery (Aidan Quinn) breaks out of prison with help from his cousin Caylor Reese (Ian Tracey). In Seattle, police detectives Chris Lecce (Richard Dreyfuss) and Bill Reimers (Emilio Estevez) are assigned to stake out the house of Montgomery's ex-girlfriend Maria McGuire (Madeleine Stowe) on the chance he may try to reconnect with her.

Chris and Bill try to fight off boredom by trading juvenile pranks with fellow stakeout detectives Pismo (Forest Whitaker) and Coldshank (Dan Lauria). With his wife having just left him, Chris starts to get attracted to Maria, and finds excuses to get into her house pretending to be a phone repair technician. They start a romantic relationship without Maria knowing who Chris really is. Meanwhile, Montgomery evades law enforcement and makes his way ever closer to Seattle.

A prototypical 1980s high concept blockbuster, Stakeout relies much more on glitz and magnetism than plot and logic. Written by Jim Kouf and directed by John Badham, the film sketches in characters and events with the broadest brushes, then relies on Richard Dreyfuss and to a lesser extent Emilio Estevez to deliver the laughs and thrills.

The premise of spying on an available beautiful woman then falling in love with her is a young boy's voyeuristic dream scenario, and Badham is happy to exploit the juvenile opportunities on offer. Maria undresses and showers on cue as demanded by prying eyes, and falls in love quickly with the mysterious telephone repair man who appears at exactly the right moments.

The villain Montgomery is the extreme definition of ruthlessly one-dimensional, and as such a good catalyst for danger to coalesce around him. When it comes time for action Badham delivers the requisite jolts of adrenaline, including a couple of over-the-top car chases and a climax at a lumber processing plant with lethal machinery at work.

Despite the dreadful soundtrack filled with lame 1980s pop rock, the movie is delivered with slick proficiency augmented by banter and comic touches courtesy of inter-police prankterism. And at the middle of Stakeout is Dreyfuss, a long way from his classic roles but infusing much needed doses of quality. Neither the actor nor the movie aim for much beyond basic fun, and both do enough to maintain active surveillance.

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Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Movie Review: The Great Santini (1979)

A social drama about life with a military man, The Great Santini explores the creeping agony of a warrior without a war struggling to fill the void in his life.

It's 1962, and Lieutenant Colonel Wilbur "Bull" Meechum (Robert Duvall), also known as The Great Santini, is a proud ace fighter pilot with the Marines. After completing a training mission in Spain he returns to the US and relocates his wife Lillian (Blythe Danner) and four kids, including eldest son Ben (Michael O'Keefe), to his next assignment at the Beaufort, South Carolina military base. Although he is often loving and supportive, Meechum treats his family as an extension of his career and demands authoritarian respect and strict military discipline at home.

The children are used to a life of annual uprooting, and Ben soon makes the basketball varsity team at his new school and befriends the family housekeeper's son Toomer (Stan Shaw), who stutters and suffers racist slurs from local goon Red Petus (David Keith). Meanwhile Meechum grows frustrated with the years passing him by and no war to call his own. He turns increasingly surly and violent, poisoning the family dynamic.

The Great Santini delves into the dangers of living life by a single code and no differentiation between career success and home serenity. Author Pat Conroy wrote the book partially inspired by personal experience with his own father, and director Lewis John Carlino (who also penned the screenplay) creates a reasonably engaging character study but with uneven patches.

As a hard-drinking, prankster-loving but revered pilot, Meechum comes across as a personification of Jekyll and Hyde in his home environment. The jarring transitions from loving husband and father to a man who loses all sense of perspective when beaten by his son at basketball induce whiplash, Carlino resorting to binary good or evil modes and unable to introduce nuance.

The theme of a proud man trained and educated for war struggling to thrive in a time of peace (the events are set before the Vietnam War ramp-up) is worthwhile. The military machine produces hard and cocky men like Meechum to fight and win battles, and in the absence of a real war, the home front becomes a proxy battleground.

In addition to imposing rigid expectations about his son's future in the military, Meechum is hardwired to find trouble and come out ahead. From the opening scenes he instigates chaos to disrupt the calm of diners at a swanky restaurant in Spain, and later at the Beaufort base he abuses one soldier and physically tussles with a commander.

Robert Duvall dominates the film and makes the most of what he has to work with in terms of Meechum's definition. A few too many scenes portray him succumbing to alcohol and suffering the consequences. Better are his conflicts with Ben and Lillian stemming from his declining influence and lessened ability to exert authority. Ben's subplots featuring advances into adulthood and the friendship with Toomer are cinematically flat and often appear to belong in another lesser movie.

Caught between a higher purpose and a mundane reality, The Great Santini erratically fluctuates between good and awkward.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 3 August 2019

Movie Review: Captain Fantastic (2016)

A drama about alternative fatherhood, Captain Fantastic enjoys moments of familial grit and humour, but backs away from challenging discourse.

Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) is the middle-aged father of six children, living off the grid in a forest, home schooling the kids while teaching them wilderness survival skills and espousing a left-wing, anti-establishment life philosophy. The gangly and socially awkward eldest son Bodevan (George MacKay) is accepted to top colleges but hesitant to broach the topic with his dad.

Ben's wife Leslie is bipolar and commits suicide in the hospital. Another son, Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton) blames his father for her death and is least convinced by his parents' lifestyle choice. Leslie's parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) do not want Ben at the funeral, but he decides to crash the event anyway, setting out on an epic road trip with the kids on the family bus.

Carrying an echo from 1986's Mosquito Coast, Captain Fantastic explores the value of disassociating with what society has to offer and reverting back to an organic, waste-free, close-to-nature upbringing. Director and writer Matt Ross explores the fragility of fatherhood and creates an intriguing dynamic featuring a mostly close-knit family, a sensitive and ironically modern approach to parenting in rough surroundings, and children arriving at crossroads and forced to start making independent choices.

For the most part, Ross plays fair. This is neither a celebration nor condemnation of Ben's approach to life. In so much as his kids are better educated, physically fit and able to live off the land, they are also social misfits and deprived of interaction with friends. The eldest Bo is tongue-tied in front of girls, and in a funny sequence, disintegrates when an attractive girl flirts with him at an RV park during the road trip.

Along the way to the funeral Ross draws stark contrasts with a more traditional family as Ben makes a stop at the house of his sister Harper (Kathryn Hahn), her husband Dave (Steve Zahn) and their two kids. The two families may as well be from different planets, as neither the adults nor the children are able to communicate and function as an extended family.

The clash of cultures reaches a zenith with the deceased Leslie's parents, her wealthy father Jack in particular representing everything Ben stands against. The grieving father now wants his revenge by banishing the widowed husband, but Ben's peacefully rebellious psyche means he will not back down easily.

For all the good work created in establishing the premise, Captain Fantastic takes the wrong turn in its final act. Just when Ross appears to have built a sturdy foundation for a soul-searching conclusion, he takes the easy way out, completely jettisons two characters, and goes looking for a pat feel-good finale that avoids all difficult conversations.

Viggo Mortensen holds the film together in an understate performance, conveying the quiet anguish of loss and the creeping self-doubt as seemingly for the first time, Ben starts to witness the potential negative ramifications of his core beliefs. As he walks a fine line between hero and villain to his kids, Captain Fantastic is different in his approach but grappling with conflicts familiar to most dads.

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