Sunday, 23 June 2019

Movie Review: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

A western about the frontier's evolution towards civility, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance  thoughtfully reflects on the people and events that shaped an emerging nation.

Respected Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) make an unexpected visit to the town of Shinbone. The Senator reveals to the gathering journalists he is in town to attend the funeral of a man called Tom Doniphon and proceeds to recount their history together.

Decades earlier Ransom arrives in Shinbone as an idealistic young lawyer, and is quickly introduced to the ways of the wild west by vicious outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), who robs Ransom and violently beats him up. The lawyer is rescued by rancher Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), the only man with the courage and gun skills to stand up to Liberty.

Tom's presumed bride-to-be Hallie runs the local eatery and helps Ransom recuperate while he teaches her to read and write, and an attraction develops between them. The rugged Tom pragmatically believes in the the ways of the gun, but Ransom wants to use education and the law to help bring outlaws to justice. With tensions in the territories rising, Ransom, Tom and Liberty are drawn into a raucous political conflict over statehood.

A western rich in narrative threads, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance offers a quest for a new form of justice, a tense friendship, a romantic triangle, and the messy birth of political process as an alternative to individual score settling. John Ford directs with a intimate focus on characters and personal events rather than large-scale action, and the film uses individual stories to evoke a mood of inevitable change.

The overarching theme is creeping progress, for better or for worse. Happy to help out in the kitchen and serve at tables, Ransom Stoddard idealistically stands for education (for all), due process, and judgment in a courtroom rather than through the barrel of a gun. And yet he is forced to pick up a weapon and (haplessly) practice his shooting skills in a town still deciding whether to join the future.

Although John Wayne is first billed on the screen and his Tom Doniphon is the hinge around which the film rotates, James Stewart's Ransom Stoddard is the main character and the change agent pushing back against the west's more primitive tendencies to help create a more rational society. Together with Lee Marvin as an excellent title villain, the three men create a strong central triangle representing the past, present and future.

The capable supporting cast also includes Andy Devine as the cowardly and less than useless Marshal Appleyard, Edmond O'Brien as the newspaper editor Peabody, Woody Strode as Tom's loyal ranch hand Pompey, and Lee Van Cleef as one of Liberty's thugs.

Parts of Liberty Valance surrender to Ford's tendencies for rowdy excess. The film meanders to over two hours, and some of the democracy-in-the-making crowd scenes, first in Shinbone and later at the Capitol City, go on for longer than needed with plenty of Capraesque speechifying.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance finds its way to a most ironic and yet fully suitable denouement. The honest man of peace and order is a worthy political representative for the town that adopted him, even if his achievements are obscured by history's mythology.

Newspaper editor to Senator Stoddard: This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

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Saturday, 22 June 2019

Movie Review: Ace In The Hole (1951)

A drama about personal ambition trumping journalistic integrity, Ace In The Hole is a masterful indictment of society's addiction to bad news and the reporters who provide it.

Big city reporter Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) has been fired from every major respectable newspaper for either pushing the truth or acting irresponsibly. He washes up in Albuquerque, and the straitlaced editor of the Sun-Bulletin Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall) offers him an opportunity to rebuild his reputation. A year later Chuck is still stuck in the doldrums, unable to find a big story.

Chuck, seeking a job with Jacob: I've done a lot of lying in my time. I've lied to men who wear belts. I've lied to men who wear suspenders. But I'd never be so stupid as to lie to a man who wears both belt and suspenders.

All that changes when he stumbles upon ancient Indian caves in the remote community of Escudero, where local trading post owner Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) has just been trapped in a cave-in deep inside the unstable mountain. Leo's wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) appears surprisingly composed. Chuck senses an opportunity to place his name back in the spotlight by creating a sensational national story around the rescue attempt. He secures the help of corruptible Sheriff Kretzer (Ray Teal), and proceeds to orchestrate a high publicity circus, unconcerned with the human costs and consequences.

Chuck: It's a good story today. Tomorrow, it'll be yesterday's news and they'll wrap a fish in it.

An uncompromising statement on a journalistic subculture quick to exploit personal tragedies to sell news and trinkets, Ace In The Hole is a bleak perspective on the human condition. Inspired by the real-life event of W. Floyd Collins (mentioned in the film), writer, director and producer Billy Wilder gives free rein to his dark tendencies, eschewing any hints of humour as he draws a picture of naked ambition. Ace In The Hole starts with Chuck's grim determination to climb back up the journalistic ladder by any means, and traces his journey of cold-blooded career reclamation by event manipulation.

Chuck: I can handle big news and little news. And if there's no news, I'll go out and bite a dog.

Kirk Douglas is at his best leading with his considerable chin as the ultimate puppet master, and Wilder surrounds him with other unsavory characters either looking after their self-interest or easily led down the wrong path. With her husband trapped under rubble, Lorraine spots an opportunity to escape the nothingness of Escudero; she is quick to change her mind when the tourist money starts rolling in. The loyalty of Sheriff Kretzer is easy to buy, as all he cares about is reelection and Chuck offers him unprecedented free publicity.

Lorraine, to Chuck: I've met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my time, but you--you're twenty minutes.

The supposed rescue team leader proves to be a hapless follower, his path to a quick rescue derailed by a mountain drilling plan concocted by Chuck to prolong the incident from hours to days. Jacob Q. Boot is the one principled character, and he is confined to the Albuquerque backwater, reduced to stepping stone status and ultimately completely sidelined.

But most depressing is the predictable Pavlovian public reaction to the "human interest" story. Tatum's plan works because he fully understands the public's appetite to exploit a tragic but ultimately irrelevant sob story. Entertainers, buskers, peddlers, families on vacation and national reporters descend on the site in their thousands to be part of an event they have no vested interest in, and where there are crowds there is money to made and celebrity to be pumped.

Chuck: Human interest. You pick up the paper, you read about 84 men or 284, or a million men, like in a Chinese famine. You read it, but it doesn't stay with you. One man's different, you want to know all about him. That's human interest.

The mammoth purpose-built set is an awe-inspiring location, and Wilder builds up the crowds with measured expertise as the desolate desert outpost mushrooms into a chaotic town overwhelmed with parked cars and the cheesiest of carnival scenes.

As Ace In The Hole pushes further towards the tawdriest of human tendencies, events spiral even beyond Chuck's control. But then maybe he was never in control, just the catalyst unleashing the worst tendencies of a society suffering the malaise of misplaced priorities.

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Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Movie Review: The Night Of The Hunter (1955)

A thriller fable about the clash between good and evil, The Night Of The Hunter combines child-level fantasy with religion-tinged intimidation and a majestic visual style.

During the Great Depression, self-appointed Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) roams the rural United States, preying on widowed women, stealing their money and killing them.

Farmer Ben Harper (Peter Graves) kills two men during a robbery and escapes with $10,000 to help feed his family. With the police in hot pursuit, Ben hides the stolen money in a secret location known only to his young children John and Pearl (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) and is then arrested.

Harry serves a short sentence for car theft and meets Ben in prison, learning about the stolen cash. After Ben's execution for murder, Harry charms Ben's wife Willa (Shelley Winters) and soon marries her. He tries to extract information about the money's hiding place from the children, but John and Pearl are resilient and resourceful, and will eventually receive help from the kindly Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish).

In his one and only directorial outing, actor Charles Laughton crafts a creepy children-in-peril thriller packed with noir stylistic elements. Written by James Agee as an adaptation of Davis Grubb's 1953 book which in turn was inspired by real murderer Harry Powers, the film is a visual treat. Many scenes are frame-worthy and look simply gorgeous, with brilliant use of silhouettes and lighting, the background often as important as the foreground, many frames staged with a stunning eye for visual excellence.

With LOVE tattooed on his right fist fingers and HATE on the left, Harry Powell is one of the slimiest and persistent villains to haunt the big screen. Robert Mitchum's laid back style is perfectly matched to the character's lackadaisical manner, as Powell hunts the weakest of the weak, targeting widows and children as they scrape to survive during an economic meltdown. And he does it all while spouting religious drivel both to gain instant societal respect and to intimidate the uninformed.

And yet this is a fairytale, and Laughton pulls back ever so slightly on the menace factor whenever it threatens to become too serious. Nature's quiet observance, represented by the stunning montage of animals overseeing a crystalline boat trip, ensures balance is maintained no matter how desperate the situation appears. The children's conflicted purity proves equal to Reverend Powell's sinister threat, and other forces of good in the form of Rachel Cooper will line up on their side to even out the battle.

Cooper is a genuinely devout woman, and Agee's astute script reveals the two sides of religion. Powell deploys doctrine for manipulation and personal gain, while Rachel dedicates her life to charity and helping others during desperate times.

The Night Of The Hunter stands unique as a dark story of disguised evil unleashed on the unsuspecting land, both a parable about economic devastation and a reaffirmation of the good and bad dichotomy within the human condition.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Movie Review: The Passage (1979)

A World War Two escape thriller, The Passage features a stellar but poorly utilized cast struggling against a feeble script and the stench of a low budget production.

With France under Nazi occupation, hardy Basque sheep farmer (Anthony Quinn) is reluctantly recruited by the French resistance for a dangerous mission to smuggle American scientist Professor Bergson (James Mason) across the Pyrenees and into Spain.

Bergston is hiding in Toulouse, and the Basque is shocked to learn that the frail Mrs. Bergson (Patricia Neal) and the couple's two grown children (Kay Lenz and Paul Clemens) are accompanying their father. Meanwhile, sadistic SS Captain Von Berkow (Malcolm McDowell) is intent on hunting down the Professor. After receiving help from a gypsy leader (Christopher Lee), the escape party start their perilous journey across the snow-covered mountains, with Von Berkow in hot pursuit.

A British production directed by veteran J. Lee Thompson, The Passage collects an impressive cast and aims for a old-fashioned but smaller-scaled World War Two adventure in the vein of Thompson's The Guns Of Navarone from 1961. With a decent premise and impressive mountainous scenery supplementing the stars, the raw ingredients are promising.

But The Passage suffers from production values that appear cheap and hurried, and the script (by Bruce Nicolayson, adapting his own book) ignores everything related to backstories and personal dynamics. Most of the characters are hardly afforded a name, let alone rounded into individuals, with James Mason's Professor Bergson the primary victim. All of the dialogue is of the plastic variety, while Thompson's directing is muddled, his handling of the action scenes bordering on inept.

The void of quality is filled with shock value, and The Passage is notorious for all the wrong reasons. The main eye-popping excuse to watch the film is a misplaced Malcolm McDowell performance. His full-on British accent unexplained and unconstrained, McDowell mushes Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange with Caligula and enters World War Two with ridiculous madness. His Captain Von Berkow is an all-time over-the-top experience, a star running amok with no guidance from his director.

And Von Berkow steers The Passage to a second claim to infamy as an exercise in excess violence and gore. The SS Captain perpetuates on-screen rape, torture, immolation and mass murder, and on a couple of occasions punctuates his atrocities with pantomime-level outfits. His articulated chef chop-chop scene is admittedly compelling as an indecorous horror-comedy routine.

The Passage is thankfully a mostly forgotten curiosity, a lost opportunity buried in the jagged mountains.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Movie Review: Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

An adaptation of the David Mamet play, Glengarry Glen Ross examines the psyche of frenzied men in an ultra competitive business environment.

In New York, a group of salesmen work at a realty office, using unscrupulous tactics to peddle properties in Florida and Arizona to investors. Williamson (Kevin Spacey) is the office manager and hands out precious leads about potential buyers to the agents.

Roma (Al Pacino) has recently been achieving the best sales figures, and is now wearing down his latest client Lingk (Jonathan Pryce). In contrast the elderly Shelley (Jack Lemmon) is on a long losing streak and getting increasingly desperate, with family health issues adding to his stress. Moss (Ed Harris) is ambitious but unhappy at work, while George (Alan Arkin) feels he is losing his edge.

Blake (Alec Baldwin) arrives from head office and berates the salesmen for their recent poor performance, announcing that most of them will be fired if they don't immediately close more deals.  With Williamson safeguarding a deck of treasured new leads at the office, the men have just a few hours to prove themselves. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and an office break-in adds a new layer of tension to the already strained dynamics between the men.

Featuring a superlative all-male cast and a Mamet script, Glengarry Glen Ross (the title refers to two developments being peddled by the agents) is a profanity-filled high-energy talkfest. The film takes place over just a couple of days, but captures the trauma of alpha males growling at each other to gain every advantage and survive until the next batch of leads are distributed.

All the men are experts at deceit and underhanded sales tactics, and effortlessly flip between smooth talk, pleading and ultra aggressive put-downs depending on the immediate objective. And they are all also pathetic, Glengarry Glen Ross a study of manhood lost to the pursuit of shady profit by victimizing others.

Most of the film takes place at the office and the Chinese restaurant across the street. The theatrical origins are obvious, and some of the overclocked gestures translate poorly to the screen. But director James Foley keeps his focus on the talent-rich cast, often in close-up, and with most of the conversations walking on the edge of hostility, the film rides out the rough patches with ease.

Alec Baldwin's one scene performance as the slick downtown executive berating the sales agents for poor performance and goading them by comparing his success to their pathetic lives has entered into cinematic legend. Mamet added this scene to help extend the short play into feature film length, and while Baldwin's insults are never less than over the top, his unconstrained contempt perfectly sets the stage for the mood of desperation.

In a world where integrity and basic ethics are notably absent, Jack Lemmon shines as yesterday's man, surrendering Shelley to wounded melancholia living on past glories as he frantically seeks to catch a break by any foul means, unaware the sun has set on his career and sales tactics.

Glengarry Glen Ross is where life's dreams of success go to die, submerged in fast talking, subterfuge and self-imposed delusions.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Movie Review: Rocketman (2019)

A musical biographical drama with fantasy elements, Rocketman captures Elton John's artistry and the gap between massive public acclaim and dark personal demons.

Dressed in an outlandish devil/angel combo performance outfit, Elton John (Taron Egerton) enters a treatment centre therapy group and admits to being an alcoholic and addicted to drugs, sex and shopping. In flashback Reggie Dwight's life story is revealed, starting with a childhood in England where he felt unloved by his cold father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and disinterested mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard), but supported by grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones).

Reggie's talent on the piano grants him entry to the Royal Academy of Music, and he eventually backs-up touring artists from the US. He adopts the name Elton John and gradually accepts he is gay. A record company executive connects Elton with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and their music writing partnership leads to unimagined global success. John starts a romance with business manager John Reid (Richard Madden), but as the singer desperately searches for true love and personal fulfillment, he falls into a miserable life of empty excess.

On-stage flamboyance is a cloak to hide deep-seated insecurity, and untold riches, fame, fortune and debauchery are no replacement for true love. Such is the story Sir Elton John wants to tell, and he gets to shape his legacy as the film's executive producer. Written by Lee Hall and directed by Dexter Fletcher, Rocketman is a vivid biography using John's music in no particular sequence to underline his emotional state of mind at key milestones, and adding effective fantasy elements to convey the insanity of the pop star life.

Taron Egerton takes on both acting and singing duties, and is sparkling in both contexts. Fletcher keeps the songs short and in service of the plot, and the editing is rational and coherent, with some excellent long and fluid takes to capture the dynamism of the accompanying dancers and crowds.

In adopting the eternal search for love and belonging as a central theme, Hall does not hold back in conveying John's parents as a nightmare of uncomfortable incompatibility with a child's need for affection. And so Elton goes looking for partners of either sex to fill the gap in his soul. Taupin emerges as his spiritual brother and creative partner, while Reid is the passionate but manipulative devil-lover in a business suit offering false fondness.

Meanwhile Elton's vulnerability goes hiding behind increasingly extravagant outfits, the performer wowing the crowd on the outside as he privately sinks deeper into despair.

Once John performs his first Los Angeles show Rocketman zooms quickly through the artist's upward trajectory, and then spends a hefty portion of its two hours wallowing in the unhappy and filthy rich life consumed by the decadence of sex, drugs, and booze. Fletcher almost trips towards self-pitying drama, but Taupin's timely interventions in John's life always help move things along towards more promising outcomes.

Rocketman chronicles the quest for love on and off the stage, a journey where misery accompanied artistic triumph on a most tempestuous journey.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 8 June 2019

Movie Review: Beasts Of No Nation (2015)

A heartbreaking war drama, Beasts Of No Nation is the story of a child who becomes a soldier amidst the savage disintegration of his country.

In an unnamed African nation (with Sierra Leone probably serving as the closest inspiration), a civil war is raging with multiple rival militias vying for power and peacekeeping forces caught in the middle. Agu (Abraham Attah) is a resourceful young boy living with his family in a designated buffer zone, but merciless combatants eventually arrive at his village. His mother and younger sister are bundled off to the relative safety of the capital, and Agu is soon separated from his father and older brother.

In the jungle he is captured by a scrappy battalion of rebel fighters under the leadership of the Commandant (Idris Elba). Gradually Agu gets to know the other fighters, including 2-IC, Strika, Preacher, and Tripod. Exposed to the Commandant's rhetoric and abuse, Agu graduates from ammunition carrier to child soldier, participating in battles and fuelled by drugs. The rebels appear to make progress towards victory, but the Commandant has ambitions of his own.

An adaptation of the 2005 novel by Uzodinma Iweala, Beasts Of No Nation also bears a striking resemblance to the true story chronicled in Ishmael Beah's 2007 autobiography A Long Way Gone. The film was one of Netflix's earliest critical hits, and helped launch the debate on appropriate distribution channels for worthwhile films.

The plight of children in war-torn countries is bad enough. Methodically turning boys into murderous drug-dependent soldiers subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse is nothing short of horrifying. Beasts Of No Nation is never less than compelling, but also an undoubtedly challenging film to watch. The scenes of violence often convey barbaric cruelty, and plenty of blood is spilled on screen, stopping just short of excess.

Director Cary Joji Fukunaga also wrote the script, and invests the necessary time in the first act to bring Agu to life as a fun-loving and enterprising kid, surrounded by family and friends. Because he is well-rounded into his own person, his subsequent descent into a soldier on the ugly battlefields of a chaotic civil war becomes all the more harrowing.

The other main character is the Commandant, and Idris Elba brings to life a chilling military man totally invested in the world of war, adept at saying just the right thing at the right time to inspire, indoctrinate, gain respect and demand obedience from the men and boys in his battalion. Elba's larger than life performance remarkably ensures he is also human, and Fukunaga crafts a scene of mad battlefield brilliance featuring the Commandant inspiring his troops into a difficult battle to seize a bridge.

In dirty civil wars there are no winners, just various categories of losers, victims and survivors. All are devoured immediately or over time by the insatiable internal and external beasts that thrive on conflict.

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Movie Review: Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)

A spy thriller, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation packs in impressive amounts of glossy action but almost overloads its own plot.

After intercepting a shipment of chemical weapons in Minsk, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) of the Impossible Mission Force travels to London and comes face to face with his nemesis Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), the leader of The Syndicate, an evil global terrorist group. With the unexpected help of undercover British operative Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), Hunt escapes Lane's clutches.  Meanwhile CIA Director Hunley (Alec Baldwin) shuts down IMF, much to the disappointment of Hunt's boss Brandt (Jeremy Renner).

Ethan reemerges six months later, calling on his IMF colleague Benji (Simon Pegg) to join him in Vienna where they attempt to prevent an assassination at the Opera House, which leads to a reteaming with Ilsa in Casablanca. The hobbled IMF has to disrupt Lane's nefarious plans to secure access to billions in illicit funds, but Lane always seems to be several steps ahead of his pursuers.

After the spectacular success of 2011's Ghost Protocol, the Mission: Impossible series returns with the still slick but slightly bloated Rogue Nation. Frequent Tom Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie writes and directs this fifth chapter, and delivers the expected non-stop thrills, humour, country-hopping and wild stunt scenes expected of the series. More than ever a James Bond influence creeps in, certainly jazzed up but evident in a rather harried plot and underlined by a knowing emerge-from-the-water-in-a-bikini moment.

At 131 minutes, Rogue Nation does go on. The mandatory MacGuffin in this case has something to do with a triple encrypted digital file stored in a fortified bunker, but overall the story gets more convoluted, less interesting and increasingly blurry by the minute. Better to acknowledge the plot as the flimsiest of excuses to justify the set-pieces, and when it matters McQuarrie and Cruise deliver with eye-popping expertise.

A stand out sequence involve a quadrangular wild motorcycle and car chase, the Mission: Impossible series yet again proving new life can be found in one of the oldest action movie cliches, the rational editing adding immensely to the enjoyment level. Even better is an underwater infiltration to swap a computer card involving exceptional physical exertion laced with humour and late heroics.

The character of Ilsa Faust injects the series with feminine clout and provides Ethan Hunt with a worthwhile counterpart, ally and rival. With Rebecca Ferguson providing plenty of resolute oomph, Ilsa plays a more prominent role than most of the IMF members, with Ving Rhames as Luther Stickell suffering the most notable relegation to the background.

Never pretending to be weighty, Rogue Nation is a fast paced and agile romp through the world of high octane thrills.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Movie Review: Remember (2015)

A Holocaust personal revenge drama, Remember is an intellectual thriller set in the world of old men settling old scores.

Zev Guttman (Christopher Plummer) survived World War Two and is now in his 90s, suffering from dementia and unable to process the recent loss of his wife Ruth. Auschwitz survivor Max Rosenbaum (Martin Landau) is a wheelchair-bound patient at the New York City care home where Ruth passed away. Max supplies Zev with detailed written instructions to help Zev fulfil a promise to track down and kill a former Auschwitz headguard named Otto Wallisch.

Otto is known to have assumed the name Rudy Kurlander to escape from Germany to North America at the end of the war, and Max has identified four men with that name in the United States and Canada. Struggling with a frequently failing memory, Zev follows Max's meticulous instructions and starts his cross-country journey to sequentially find and interrogate every Rudy Kurlander.

The long shadows cast by the horrors of the Holocaust are the inspiration for an intriguing story conjured up by scriptwriter Benjamin August and brought to the screen by director Atom Egoyan. With an emphasis on life drawing to a close for a generation of men who survived the war, Remember explores the stress imposed by failing physical and mental health, and the unrelenting thirst for human vengeance, even when nature is close to achieving the same ultimate objective.

At a running time of 94 minutes, the film's pacing is efficient and measured. The fairly complex premise is presented in an admirably streamlined format, Egoyan quickly launching Zev off onto his quest and then gradually revealing the context at appropriate intervals. The individual interactions that follow are all well staged, but an exquisitely tense encounter with an Idaho State Trooper, an angry dog, and a roomful of memorabilia at an isolated farmhouse deserves special praise. 

As with all good road movies, Zev's trip is as much about self-discovery as it is about finding the right man. Along the way he learns about his fears, tolerances, the fortitude within, and unwelcome truths. The climax features a good although foreseeable twist, but is also relatively rushed.

Christopher Plummer carries the weight of the film and is an exemplary presence in a performance filled with the anguish of failing mental capacity and the unyielding strain of physical and emotional exertion. In addition to Landau, the supporting cast also includes stalwarts Bruno Ganz and J├╝rgen Prochnow.

Cerebral and engrossing, Remember asks how long is too long in the pursuit of war criminals, and whether appropriating justice into the hands of individuals bent on revenge by any means is ever justified. Because while memories slip away, for some old men the trauma never fades.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 2 June 2019

Movie Review: Ricki And The Flash (2015)

A family drama with comic touches and plenty of music, Ricki And The Flash offers commentary on family responsibility double standards between women and men, but is an otherwise routine story about the pursuit of individual passions.

Linda (Meryl Streep) is well into middle age and still chasing her rock star dream. Adopting the stage name Ricki Rendazzo she performs cover tunes with the band The Flash at a nondescript Los Angeles-area pub. Lead guitarist Greg (Rick Springfield) has a crush on her, but she is not sure why. Perpetually broke and on the edge of bankruptcy, Linda also works as a supermarket checkout cashier to try and make ends meet.

Her wealthy ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) calls from Indianapolis, requesting Linda's help to care for their grown daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep's real-life daughter) who is deeply depressed after her husband abandoned her for another woman. Linda makes the trip and improves Julie's mood, but her history of abandoning the family does not sit well with her two grown sons Joshua (Sebastian Stan) and Adam (Nick Westrate), nor Pete's wife Maureen (Audra McDonald).

Independent-minded women are judged more harshly than men when they walk out on family responsibilities and strike out to fulfil their ambitions. This is the core message from writer Diablo Cody embedded within Ricki And The Flash, and in the hands of Meryl Streep, Linda is an honest, uncompromising voice for women all too aware of their faults and the whispers of others just behind their backs.

Although well-intentioned, Ricki And The Flash is also emotionally limited by its protagonist. Despite flashes of happiness with ex-husband Pete, recovering daughter Julie and potential lover Greg, the film constructs an earthy reality of what a dead-end life looks like. Linda comes alive on stage, but an out-of-the-way pub with a few regulars is the extent of her stardom, and she does not care. This is what she has decided to offer the world, and the narrative loops back to a rather corny wedding climax with Linda gifting her brood the only thing she possesses.

The comic moments are better and build on the unwelcome mom awkwardly trying to catch up to her children's lives. A dinner scene at a swanky restaurant where every wrong thing is expressed in absolutely the wrong way is irresistibly delicious.

But in his final outing director Jonathan Demme struggles to fill out the 100 minutes of running time, and too many songs are performed in their entirety to pad the film. The quite incredible Streep, at age 66, has fun rocking out, convincingly doing her own live singing and guitar playing, but the film does sag as it searches for content.

Without ignoring the price to be paid and the sacrifices made, Ricki And The Flash salutes women carving an unconventional path, but the applause is more polite than raucous.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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