Sunday 14 July 2024

Movie Review: Shelter (2014)

Genre: Romantic Drama  
Director: Paul Bettany  
Starring: Anthony Mackie, Jennifer Connelly, Bruce Altman  
Running Time: 105 minutes  

Synopsis: On the streets of New York City, Tahir (Anthony Mackie) is a homeless illegal immigrant from Nigeria. He meets drug addict Hannah (Jennifer Connelly), who is also living on the streets and suicidal after the collapse of her previous life. They start a friendship that evolves into a romance, and although their fortunes momentarily improve when they secure an apartment, an illness poses another serious challenge.

What Works Well: The desperate daily struggle to find food and shelter is the background context for Paul Bettany's directorial debut. In an unforgiving New York City during the winter, services are scarce and bureaucratic, often leaving Tahir and Hannah on their own and susceptible to external threats and internal demons. Their backstory revelations round them into real people paying a heavy price for character flaws and past decisions, but no less worthy of empathy.

What Does Not Work As Well: The two protagonists are almost too easy to like. Tahir is pious and noble, his transition from a background of violence to a man intent on living honorably presenting a significant narrative gap. Hannah seems to suffer no serious after-effects from a heroin dependency. The scenes of emotional crescendo between them border on contrived, while unsurprisingly, their romance is more transactional than passionate.

Conclusion: Love among the human ruins.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Saturday 13 July 2024

Movie Review: The Iron Curtain (1948)

Genre: Cold War Biographical Espionage Drama  
Director: William A. Wellman  
Starring: Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, June Havoc  
Running Time: 87 minutes  

Synopsis: During World War Two, Soviet military cipher expert Igor Gouzenko (Dana Andrews) is assigned to the Soviet embassy in Ottawa. He is soon joined by his pregnant wife Anna (Gene Tierney), and witnesses the expansion of a spy network under the leadership of "Paul" (Berry Kroeger), a Soviet agent who has infiltrated Canada's parliament. Several Canadian atomic weapons program employees are turned into spies, but the birth of Igor's son changes his perspective. 

What Works Well: Based on actual events that became known as the Gouzenko Affair, this is a straightforward story about the hardening of the Cold War's early front lines. Director William A. Wellman balances spy machinations deep in the embassy bowels with public-facing efforts to exert influence, spread communist ideas, and attract traitors to the cause. The exterior scenes are filmed on location in Ottawa, while the soundtrack is rich with Russian classical music.

What Does Not Work As Well: Despite the short running length, the pacing in the first two thirds is lumbering, Igor an uninteresting and mostly passive observer of the Soviet spy machine kicking into gear. His transition from faithful soldier to defector is handled with clumsy suddenness, while the bumpy storytelling leans on inelegant narration.

Conclusion: The curtain is patchy.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Movie Review: Scoop (2024)

Genre: Biographical Drama  
Director: Philip Martin  
Starring: Billie Piper, Gillian Anderson, Rufus Sewell, Keeley Hawes  
Running Time: 103 minutes  

Synopsis: In 2010, a New York paparazzo snaps a photo of Prince Andrew (Rufus Sewell) with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. In 2019, the Prince's private secretary Amanda Thirsk (Keeley Hawes) is still attempting to rehabilitate his reputation and connects with BBC Newsnight producer Sam McAlister (Billie Piper) to discuss a possible interview. When Epstein is rearrested and then commits suicide in prison, the pressure builds on Andrew to give his side of the story, and he agrees to an interview with Newsnight's host Emily Maitlis (Gillian Anderson).

What Works Well: The interview that ended Prince Andrew's public life is the punctuation mark at the end of a strategic dance between press and palace. With the televised event now a part of journalistic history, director Philip Martin develops tension by exploring the BBC team's anxieties (how does the national broadcaster challenge a Prince?) as well as their star-struck emotions within the monarchy's renowned halls. The screenplay is based on Sam McAlister's book, and here she is portrayed as a misfit doggedly pursuing an unlikely opportunity by forging a bond with Amanda Thirsk. Andrew's loyal assistant is desperate for him to emerge from the shadow of a sordid association, in a classic case of high risk and high reward.

What Does Not Work As Well: The public comeuppance of a largely irrelevant royal is of only so much interest. Here Epstein is a tertiary presence, and his victims barely feature.

Conclusion: A bursting bubble of self-delusion is an impressive spectacle.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Movie Review: Mid90s (2018)

Genre: Coming Of Age Drama  
Director: Jonah Hill  
Starring: Sunny Suljic, Lucas Hedges, Katherine Waterston  
Running Time: 85 minutes  

Synopsis: The setting is a non-descript Los Angeles neighbourhood in the mid-1990s. 13 year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) lives with his abusive older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) and their young single mother (Katherine Waterston). At the local skateboarding shop, he meets a group of older teenagers: Ray hopes to be become a pro skateboarder; his best friend Fuckshit is more interested in partying; Fourth Grade says little and is attached to his digital video camera; while Ruben is closest to Stevie's age and the first to welcome him into the group. As he spends more time with his new friends, Stevie is exposed to the joys and hazards of early adulthood.

What Works Well: Jonah Hill's directorial debut is an edgy look back at a sun-drenched and unglamorous corner of Los Angeles, where kids without a functional home create their own within the burgeoning skateboard culture. Hill draws outstanding natural performances from a young cast, led by Sunny Suljic as a young teen receiving a crash course in peer pressure, independence, acceptance, group dynamics, challenging authority, and girls. Anguish and humour mix into moments of magic as unkempt foul-mouthed street kids are transformed into genuine people worth caring for, carrying their own version of hopes and dreams.

What Does Not Work As Well: The "leave them wanting more ethos" is marginally overplayed: Stevie and his friends are hitting their stride when the credits roll. 

Conclusion: Friends as alternative family.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Movie Review: Assignment - Paris (1952)

Also Known As: Assignment: Paris; Assignment - Paris!  
Genre: Cold War Espionage Drama  
Director: Robert Parrish  
Starring: Dana Andrews, Marta Toren, George Sanders, Audrey Totter  
Running Time: 84 minutes  

Synopsis: Nick Strang (George Sanders) runs the Paris desk of the Herald Tribune newspaper. His reporters Jimmy Race (Dana Andrews) and Jeanne Moray (Marta Toren) start a romance while covering the story of an American imprisoned in Budapest on spying charges. With Jeanne on the trail of an even bigger story about the Hungarian Prime Minister plotting a break from Russia, Jimmy is assigned to Budapest, while Hungarian communist officials eager to root out dissidents keep a close eye on both reporters.

What Works Well: This Cold War drama peeks behind the Iron Curtain and is unafraid to cram a complex plot within a short running time. Romance, ambassadorial machinations, spies, dissidents, investigative reporters, and prime ministerial secret plots all find a niche in William Bowers' screenplay (adapting a book by Paul and Pauline Gallico). Director Robert Parrish rounds the intrigue by affording many scenes to the Hungarian communist antagonists, and finds some innovative camera angles to supplement the tension.

What Does Not Work As Well: Too much is going on for the 84 minutes of running time, and some storylines (including the romance and the initial American imprisoned in Hungary) are all but abandoned despite considerable early investment. The need to hustle the plot along forces plenty of logic shortcuts.

Conclusion: An effective but over-ambitious assignment.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Movie Review: Eddie The Eagle (2015)

Genre: Biographical Sports Drama  
Director: Dexter Fletcher  
Starring: Taron Egerton, Hugh Jackman, Christopher Walken  
Running Time: 106 minutes  

Synopsis: Despite physical ailments and no natural talent, Englishman Michael "Eddie" Edwards (Taron Egerton) grows up dreaming of becoming an Olympic athlete. His mother is sympathetic, but his blue collar father scoffs at his ambition. With the 1988 Calgary winter games looming, Eddie stumbles upon ski jumping and realizes Britain has no athletes in the sport. He relocates to a training facility in Germany, where he encounters the scorn of other jumpers, but also meets former US Olympian Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), who never fulfilled his potential but may now be able to coach Eddie.

What Works Well: This is a traditional and impossible-to-dislike feel-good sports biography, celebrating the spirit of participation and the journey of determination as much more important than results. Taron Egerton brings a naive likeability to the role of Eddie, and director Dexter Fletcher deploys self-deprecating humour to acknowledge the more bizarre aspects of an unlikely quest. The ski jumping scenes convey the dramatic thrill of a gravity-defying sport. 

What Does Not Work As Well: The complete absence of any original or unexpected content underlines the embrace of safe and old-fashioned storytelling, with Hugh Jackman exceptionally familiar as a natural talent who swerved away from success and into the bottle. A faux triumphant music score does not help, nor does the gnawing sense that the celebration of loophole-exploiting mediocrity is simply undeserved pomp.

Conclusion: The spirit of an eagle, the achievements of a warbler.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Wednesday 10 July 2024

Movie Review: Escape From Zahrain (1962)

Genre: Action Adventure  
Director: Ronald Neame  
Starring: Yul Brynner, Jack Warden, Sal Mineo, James Mason, Madlyn Rhue  
Running Time: 93 minutes  

Synopsis: American companies are exploiting the oil wealth of the (fictional) Arab country Zahrain. Imprisoned inspirational revolutionary leader Sharif (Yul Brynner) is freed in a daring rescue mission led by idealistic university student Ahmed (Sal Mineo). American embezzler Huston (Jack Warden) and maniacal murderer Tahar (Anthony Caruso) are accidental beneficiaries of the breakout. To escape across the desert, the group steals an ambulance and take nurse Laila (Madlyn Rhue) hostage, but army troops are in hot pursuit.

What Works Well: This B-movie ambulance desert trek carries echoes of Ice Cold In Alex and Sahara, while the Robin Estridge script, adapting a Michael Barnett book, offers basic but still perceptive commentary about foreign power resource exploitation in the Middle East. Director Ronald Neame pauses only briefly for conversations, preferring to keep the ambulance on the move and pointed towards trouble, including skirmishes with ground and air enemy forces, dwindling water and fuel supplies, unforgiving terrain, and internal group tensions. The talent-rich cast is allowed to dwindle in size as the hazards multiply, with James Mason stealing his one scene in an uncredited appearance.

What Does Not Work As Well: Character depth is lacking, some of the locales are painfully studio-set, and after a promising prologue, Sharif's enemies dissolve into a mirage of hardware operated by tactless troops.

Conclusion: Dusty, gritty, and a bit sunburnt.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Movie Review: All Is Lost (2013)

Genre: Survival Drama  
Director: J.C. Chandor  
Starring: Robert Redford  
Running Time: 105 minutes  

Synopsis: In the Indian Ocean, a solo sailor (Robert Redford) faces an immediate crisis when a stray container smashes into his yacht, puncturing the hull and damaging all his control and communication equipment. To have any chance of staying alive, he has to complete makeshift repairs, survive ocean storms, ration his provisions, learn celestial navigation, and hope to catch the attention of a passing vessel.

What Works Well: The one-man battle against ocean hazards is a heroic representation of the human survival instinct, and Robert Redford carries the acting and physical load with grizzled determination. The storm scenes are satisfyingly exhausting, while in the quieter moments between howling gales and dwindling options, director J.C. Chandor finds beauty in the vastness of solitude.

What Does Not Work As Well: Nothing is revealed about the sailor's life, lessening the impact of his ordeal. For non-boaters, and in the absence of narration, much of the survival exertions are just so much toil, from this side of the boat to that, and from down to up and back again. The running time becomes a grueling exercise in maintaining concentration, and a good 15 minutes could have been deleted with no loss of impact.

Conclusion: Navigates both flotsam and jetsam.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Movie Review: Best In Show (2000)

Genre: Mockumentary  
Director: Christopher Guest  
Starring: Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Parker Posey  
Running Time: 90 minutes  

Synopsis: Dog owners across the United States are getting ready for the annual Mayflower Dog Show in Philadelphia. Leading contenders include dogs owned by Florida couple Gerry and Cookie (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara), stressed-out yuppies Meg and Hamilton (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock), trophy wife Sheri Ann and her dog handler Christy (Jennifer Coolidge and Jane Lynch), gay partners Scott and Stefan (John Michael Higgins and Michael McKean), and fishing aficionado/aspiring ventriloquist Harlan Pepper (Christopher Guest). Once the competition starts, anxiety levels rise as the contestants navigate unexpected mishaps.

What Works Well: This faux documentary takes aim at the bizarre world of dog shows, and delivers a slice of Americana drawn from society's arcane corners. From Harlan's swamp to Sheri Ann's mansion, dogs are the equalizers in a competition without non-subjective rules. The scattershot comedy approach occasionally hits the intended targets, with cluelessly dysfunctional couple Meg and Hamilton generating the most effective chuckles.

What Does Not Work As Well: With the dogs sidelined into bewildered observers of their owners' eccentricities, the humour bounces along at average levels in a futile search for stand-out moments. An over-emphasis on sex is a diminishing reservoir for laughs, as exemplified by Cookie's over-played history of vigorous coupling. In the final act, the show's master of ceremonies overindulges in uninformed boorishness.

Conclusion: Both the dogs and their owners put on a show, but the dogs are much more dignified.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Monday 1 July 2024

Movie Review: The Wonder (2022)

Genre: Drama  
Director: Sebastian Lelio  
Starring: Florence Pugh, Tom Burke, Kila Lord Cassidy  
Running Time: 103 minutes  

Synopsis: It's the 1860s, and English nurse Elizabeth Wright (Florence Pugh) accepts a two-week assignment in rural Ireland to keep watch over Anna O'Donnell (Kila Lord Cassidy), a girl who is healthy despite apparently not eating for months. Elizabeth is to report her findings to a group of community men, including a local doctor (Toby Jones) and a religious leader. Elizabeth is a young widow herself coping with trauma, and finds the O'Donnell family deeply religious. As she starts to uncover Anna's secrets, newspaper man William Byrne (Tom Burke) arrives to cover the story.

What Works Well: This compelling mystery is wrapped in rustic blankets of uneducated religious fervor, muddy rural isolation, patriarchal incompetence, and fallout from loss and sin. Director Sebastian Lelio and his co-writer Emma Donoghue (the screenplay is based on her book) maintain a brisk rhythm of revelations, the trudgerous terrain and grim candlelit interiors adding toil to Elizabeth's adventure. Florence Pugh excels in casting a caustic eye at shrouded cultural norms, and Kila Lord Cassidy surfaces a young girl's tortured strength.

What Does Not Work As Well: The book-end scenes intended to underline the universality of storytelling are unnecessary and fall flat. Elizabeth's back-story is only partially leveraged, and plenty of incidents are crammed into a rushed ending.

Conclusion: Weighty in substance, agile in delivery.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.