Monday, 19 April 2021

The Iconic Moment: The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

Directed by Lewis Gilbert.
Written by Christopher Wood, Richard Maibaum.
Cinematography by Claude Renoir.
Starring Roger Moore, Barbara Bach, Curd Jürgens.

The full Ace Black Movie Blog review of The Spy Who Loved Me is here.

Sunday, 18 April 2021

Movie Review: No Down Payment (1957)

A suburban drama exploring the dissatisfaction churning beneath the pursuit of the American dream, No Down Payment is packed with characters and sub-plots. The chasms between ambition and reality create compelling storylines, but are also frequently over-torqued.

In California, electrical engineer David Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) and his wife Jean (Patricia Owens) move into the Los Angeles suburb of Sunrise Hills. They quickly befriend their neighbours, all similarly aged middle class couples: decorated war veteran Troy Boone (Cameron Mitchell) and his wife Leola (Joanne Woodward); used car salesman Jerry Flagg (Tony Randall) and his wife Isabelle (Sheree North); and store manager Herman Kreitzer (Pat Hingle) and his wife Betty (Barbara Rush).

Through backyard barbecues and community interactions, David and Jean are quickly embroiled in their new neighbours' personal dramas. Troy has limited formal education and desperately wants to become Sunrise Hills' police chief. He is also attracted to sophisticated newcomer Jean, who enjoys flirting, much to David's chagrin. Meanwhile Jerry dreams of becoming wealthy, but the reality of his car salesman job drives him to excessive drinking. Herm and Betty are the most stable couple, although she is a church-goer and he isn't, while his position on the Sunrise Hills council forces him to confront the community's racism. With the four couples' various struggles reaching a boiling point, dangerous emotions erupt into the open.

An exposé of the anxieties and frustrations hiding behind picket fences in the suburban communities sprouting after World War Two, No Down Payment boldly seeks dark corners of discontent. With a lot of ground to cover, Philip Yordan's script gets down to business quickly, introducing eight adults in the first 20 minutes, and director Martin Ritt trusts his cast to embrace the individual differentiators required to create the same-but-different dynamic.

While the couples are similarly aged, white, and reasonably privileged, their contrasts are sharply drawn. David is a cerebral engineer, avoiding a more lucrative career in sales but at the risk of disappointing the ambitious Jean. Troy is an ex-Marine, his psyche forged (and damaged) during intense combat against the Japanese. Jerry's dreams are much broader than his limited talent. Herm is closest to matching expectations with status, and is awakening to the racist boundary lines drawn around parcels of opportunity.

In an ensemble cast lacking obvious star power, Tony Randall, Cameron Mitchell, Jeffrey Hunter and Pat Hingle deliver surprisingly effective performances, well beyond their career personas. The women are all assigned analogous roles as housekeepers with the primary mission of looking after their husbands and children. Leola enjoys the darkest backstory, Joanne Woodward provided the opportunity to shine as her character travels along the bumpiest suburban roads carrying painful luggage.

Filmed in back and white and CinemaScope, the paradoxical setting helps to colour the context. All the homes in Sunrise Hills look alike, and are packed close enough together to eradicate privacy. This is the starter kit for the American dream, affordable home ownership without individuality or seclusion. The residents cannot avoid the grass colour on the other side of the fence, and the status of the Joneses is visible through the bedroom window.

Despite the film's ambition to tackle serious subject matter, several resolutions are half-hearted or lack conviction. The racism sub-plot is left hanging, and several characters undergo incongruous and rapid transformations. Yordan and Ritt eventually meander towards a series of shouting matches and miserable relationship breakdowns, before an assault comprehensively shreds the veneer of suburban utopia. No Down Payment promises the illusion of here-and-now material wealth, but as four couples find out, short-term gain usually also means long-term pain.

All Ace Black Movie Blog Reviews are here.

Saturday, 17 April 2021

Movie Review: The Clovehitch Killer (2018)

A suspense drama, The Clovehitch Killer brings the horrors of a serial killer mystery into a tight-knit family environment. The story tantalizes with provocative possibilities, but the resolution is compromised by a jumble of short-cuts.

In suburban Kentucky, 16 year old Tyler Burnside (Charlie Plummer) is growing up in a devout Christian household headed by his dad Don (Dylan McDermott), the local scout troop leader, and mom Cindy (Samantha Mathis). The family also cares for Don's brother Rudy, who is confined to a wheelchair. Years prior, a serial killer known as Clovehitch (for the distinctive knot used to tie up the victims) murdered 10 women in the community and was never caught. The killings stopped suddenly. 

Now Tyler stumbles upon bondage magazines stashed away by his dad, and a Polaroid photo linked to a Clovehitch victim. With no one to turn to, he eventually confides in schoolmate Kassi (Madisen Beaty), a non-religious misfit known for writing school reports about Clovehitch. Kassi initially does not believe Don could be the killer, but with Tyler making new discoveries pointing to his family's involvement, the tension mounts.

A teenager's gnawing doubt about the true identity of his father is turned into a simmering conundrum by director Duncan Skiles, working from a Christopher Ford script. Family secrets, religious fervour, community identity and the travails of adolescence merge into a dangerous puzzle, Skiles capturing small-town dynamics while demonstrating assured pacing and avoiding gimmickry, at least for the first two thirds.

The plot draws strength from a young man forced to start thinking independently. Evil may lurk anywhere, including behind the walls of church-going, Christ-loving, community-leading families raising their children according to strict moral codes. And precisely because Tyler is brought up in the tight confines of absolute rights-and-wrongs, finding the courage to question the identity of his father is a monumental emotional mountain.

In domestic terms, all hell breaks loose in an incongruous if still intriguing final act. Ford deploys one late-in-the-day not-bad narrative trick to innovatively fill in some of the blanks, but the ending stumbles and falls on too many ideas competing for attention, resulting in an unworthy, logic-riddled stalemate.

The performances are proficient, young Charlie Plummer navigating the ups and downs of creeping mistrust, Dylan McDermott a sturdy, potentially two-faced presence. The two actors complement each other well as the father-son bond starts to buckle, the veneer of normalcy suddenly brittle.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Thursday, 15 April 2021

Movie Review: Before The Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)

A crime-gone-wrong drama, Before The Devil Knows You're Dead enjoys a startling premise and sparkling cast, but the follow-through is only middling.

The movie jumps back and forth in time. Chronologically, brothers Andy and Hank Hanson (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) both have serious financial problems. The younger and more irresponsible Hank cannot keep up with alimony payments to his ex-wife Martha (Amy Ryan). Andy enjoys a managerial job but has an expensive drug habit and is pilfering money from his employer, with a looming audit about to expose his theft. Andy is married to Gina (Marisa Tomei), but behind his back she is having an affair with Hank.

Andy talks Hank into robbing the suburban jewellery store of their parents Charles and Nanette (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris). With the insurance covering the losses and no one getting hurt, it's supposed to be a victimless crime to make some quick money. But absolutely nothing will go according to plan, and both Andy and Hank will find themselves sinking deeper into trouble of their own making.

Carrying a Coen Brothers vibe but lacking the icy streaks of dark comedy, Before The Devil Knows You're Dead traces a series of brotherly missteps leading to disaster. The well-labelled time jumps in Kelly Masterson's script are unnecessary but nevertheless boost the engagement value, while Sidney Lumet directs with an eye for the little details. The film's opening is strong, before the second act deflates and the climax unravels.

At its core this is a story of two losers stuck in a hole but never grasping the imperative to stop digging. Andy's drug use is sabotaging his career and marriage as he allows the resentment at being his father's second favourite son consume him. Hank has coasted through life on now-fading boyish looks while taking little responsibility for anything. He is now broke, short-changing his ex-wife and pursuing an affair with his sister-in-law.

Masterson and Lumet enjoy piling on the agony for the two dimwits, but the film suffers in the absence of any sympathetic, or even just smart, characters. Events spiral out of control and the brothers descend from twilight into absolute darkness, but since they author their own predicaments, their fate registers somewhere between well-deserved and who cares.

Their dad Charles is the closest thing to an innocent victim who deserves better, but most of his scenes are wasted on a truncated bang-your-head-against-the-wall subplot involving police indifference. Another frustratingly careless script dead-end involves Hank's misadventures with a rental car.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney and an underused but frequently disrobed Marisa Tomei paper over most of the weaknesses with dedicated performances. Hoffman stands out as a brooding, coiled, and near-the-edge presence. As the plot lurches towards untidy conclusions, Michael Shannon appears late and livens up the post-robbery narrative in a couple of pivotal scenes as another lowlife dabbling in crimes he should avoid.

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead dances with misdeeds, turning up the temperature but lacking emotional warmth.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Movie Review: White Oleander (2002)

A mother-daughter drama, White Oleander is full of spiky surprises, excellent performances, and heartache.

In New York, budding artist Astrid Magnussen (Alison Lohman) recalls her childhood in flashback. She never knew her father, and was raised in California by her fiercely independent mother Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer), a somewhat famous visual artist. Astrid is just 15 years old when Ingrid is arrested and convicted for the murder of her lover. 

Astrid becomes a ward of the state and lives in foster homes with stints at the McKinney Children's Centre. Her character is shaped by foster mothers including Jesus-loving former stripper Starr (Robin Wright), fading actress Claire (Renée Zellweger), and Russian thrift market hustler Rena. Throughout, Astrid keeps visiting Ingrid in prison, and gradually starts to understand the level of control and manipulation her mother is capable of.

An adaptation of the Janet Fitch book, White Oleander weaves an impressive tapestry of complex human interactions. The screenplay by Mary Agnes Donoghue does at times strike the episodic tones of book chapters, but director Peter Kosminsky charts a course towards a cohesive narrative packed with the painful but also realistic travails of an adolescent dangerously close to falling through the cracks.

The film's strength is derived from the gradual unveiling of Ingrid's core, and the corresponding impact on Astrid. Ingrid starts as a role model for the liberated and successful single mom raising her daughter to be just as strong. Her arrest for murder arrives early and is just the first of many shocks to rock Astrid's life. Subsequently, and despite the prison walls separating them, Ingrid's remarkable character traits are exposed through the eyes of her daughter. Astrid develops a distaste towards the dark side of individualism and starts to question, rather than simply accept, her mother's uncompromising and self-centred actions. Eventually, themes of loneliness, betrayal, narcissism, and despondency merge into a complex definition of a woman determined to confront the world on her own terms.

Meanwhile Astrid evolves under the influence of foster mothers. She discovers the power of her own sexuality, and in Starr and Claire finds common traits of superficial domesticity obscuring churning dissatisfaction. Love lost or sought is always part of the fuel mix driving the mothers' behaviour, and the exceptional power of love to cause hurt and initiate healing emerges as an overarching arc.

With men a sideshow, the women-dominated cast is excellent with two stand-out performances. From her prison courtyard Michelle Pfeiffer radiates chilling levels of emotional domination and an immense capacity to scorch the earth around her daughter's life. And in her breakthrough role Alison Lohman is a revelation, navigating Astrid's frequently tragic journey with convincing transitions towards adulthood and assertiveness. Robin Wright and Renée Zellweger provide memorable support, but their different-but-the-same foster mothers are more predictable.

Emotive without descending into sentimentality, White Oleander seeks the tenacious pursuit of individual growth despite life's lurking poisons.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Monday, 12 April 2021

The Iconic Moment: Fargo (1996)

Marge Gunderson: Hey heads-up! Police!

Directed and written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen.
Cinematography by Roger Deakins.
Starring Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi.

The full Ace Black Movie Blog review of Fargo is here.

Sunday, 11 April 2021

Movie Review: Ma (2019)

A suspense and horror thriller, Ma attempts an old/new twist on the teenagers-in-peril cliche. But the film meanders for too long in psychological damage territory before cramming incongruous violence into the final act.

After a divorce, Erica Thompson (Juliette Lewis) and her teenage daughter Maggie (Diana Silvers) move back to Erica's small Ohio hometown. She secures a job as a server at the local casino, while Maggie joins an easy-going group of high school buddies including the lively Haley (McKaley Miller) and dishy Andy (Corey Fogelmanis).

Looking for an adult to buy them alcohol, Maggie and her new friends meet Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer), a lonely veterinarian's assistant. Sue Ann recognizes the kids as the children of her classmates from her own dorky high school days, when she had a crush on Andy's father Ben (Luke Evans) but was mercilessly bullied. She embraces the nickname Ma and opens up her basement for the kids to party, while hiding a secret and plotting a dangerous revenge.

All the gory and icky horror moments explode onto the screen in the final 20 minutes, starting with Ma unceremoniously taking care of Ben's latest girlfriend before turning her attention to the fun-loving teenagers she has lured into her basement. Up until the maniacal climax, Ma lingers in rather undistinctive Hansel And Gretel territory by way of the Pied Piper, here the sinister adult enticing youngsters into the woods with the promise of alcohol-fuelled parties.

Director and co-writer Tate Taylor introduces Sue Ann's tragic high school story in snippets, the cruel bullying of an introverted Black young woman causing permanent damage and a pathetic yearning to belong undermined by a thirst for barbarous revenge. Another victim adds further intrigue, Sue Ann's impaired psyche translating to vile over-protection. All the pop-psychology is passable as far as horror movie root causes go, and Octavia Spencer works hard to sell the premise.

The teenaged victims-to-be are stock and interchangeable characters, the script's uninspired character definition wasting dedicated work by Diana Silvers and McKaley Miller to try and carve out identities. Juliette Lewis ramps up to a few mama bear moments, but the ending is rushed into an unsatisfying blur. Ma wants to party then kill, but never overcomes the awkwardness of an adult dancing to the wrong music.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Movie Review: La Bamba (1987)

A biography of rock 'n' roll pioneer and teen-aged heart-throb Ritchie Valens, La Bamba is a well-constructed if old-fashioned recounting of a young man's rapid rise from humble beginnings to fleeting fame.

In 1958, 16 year old music-loving Richard Valenzuela (Lou Diamond Phillips) helps his mother Connie (Rosanna DeSoto) on fruit-picking crews in northern California. Richard's always-in-trouble older half-brother Bob (Esai Morales) reappears after a stint in prison, and quickly claims Richard's crush Rosie (Elizabeth Peña) as his own before resuming his drug peddling activities. 

But Bob does provide the money for Connie and Richard to settle in Los Angeles, and at high school Richard is infatuated with classmate Donna (Danielle von Zerneck). He joins local garage band The Silhouettes, but his charisma, confidence, and guitar talent set him apart. President of Del-Fi records Bob Keane (Joe Pantoliano) spots Richard at a solo show and invites him to a studio recording. Several hits follow under the name Ritchie Valens, but tragedy awaits the burgeoning star.

From obscurity to the cusp of superstardom, the story of Ritchie Valens spanned a mere eight months. Writer and director Luis Valdez does his subject justice, but also expands the biography into a story of two brothers, Bob featuring heavily and sometimes threatening to dominate. With Esai Morales unforgettable as the black sheep of the family oscillating between supporting his brother and envying his talent and success, the combustible Bob provides a stark contrast to the exemplary Ritchie, and becomes the film's second pillar.

As for Ritchie's journey, La Bamba traces three arcs. His obsession with a death-in-the-sky is a prominent theme, the young teenager haunted by a bizarre aviation tragedy that claimed a childhood friend. Ritchie's infatuation with classmate Donna despite her obstructionist father is a key source of inspiration for a famous hit. And finally the drive for success is fuelled by the enduring bond of love and support between mother and son.

In his first notable screen performance, Lou Diamond Phillips bursts onto the cinematic scene to bring Ritchie to life in a performance full of laid-back charisma, self-confidence and star-power, but also overarching humility.

With Los Lobos performing the key tunes and Carlos Santana contributing to the sountrack, Valdez judiciously weaves in the music, Valens' three most famous hits appropriately receiving the most prominence. Come On, Let's Go reveals the rigours of a first studio recording for a budding artist, while Donna laments a seemingly impossible love and is appropriately delivered from a cramped payphone. Title track La Bamba is the showstopper, announcing the full potential of rock 'n' roll to transform music into a source of unconstrained energy for the suddenly blossoming Baby Boomers.

Ritchie Valens streaked across the musical skies for a brief but bright moment, and La Bamba is a worthy, toe-tapping tribute.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 10 April 2021

Movie Review: The Ottoman Lieutenant (2017)

A romantic drama set on the eastern front of World War One, The Ottoman Lieutenant is a clunky and stale story assembled from expired components.

It's 1914. In Philadelphia, 23 year old idealistic nurse Lillie Rowe (Hera Hilmar) meets Doctor Jude Gresham (Josh Hartnett), who is fund raising for his hospital mission in the village of Van near the east border of the Ottoman Empire. Lillie decides to donate a truck loaded with medical supplies and travels to Istanbul, where dashing Lieutenant Ismail Veli (Michiel Huisman) of the Ottoman Army is assigned to accompany her to Von. With war approaching, Ismail is also tasked with keeping tabs on local rebel activities.

Lillie and Ismail bond during the journey, and upon arrival at Jude's hospital she volunteers as a nurse and meets the mission's founder Doctor Garrett Woodruff (Ben Kingsley). Ismail and Jude both pursue Lillie's heart, but romance becomes more complicated when war erupts and tensions rise between the army and the Christian Armenian population.

A Turkish funded retort to 2016's The Promise, The Ottoman Lieutenant aims for epic overtones in presenting a more sympathetic view of Ottoman actions during the Great War. Here Armenian rebels side with invading Russian forces, and although atrocities against the Armenian population are on display, they are presented within a context of an army stamping out a wartime threat. And of course, Ismail as the heroic Ottoman lieutenant abhors unnecessary bloodshed and risks everything to prevent violence against civilians.

Politics aside, The Ottoman Lieutenant is a bore and would have been considered uninspired back in the 1960s. When it's not plain silly, Jeff Stockwell's script is full of predictable and bland dialogue spouted by dull characters and devoid of any originality or bright sparks. The cast members are in over their heads, none more so than unfortunate Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar, who never convinces as a spirited American woman, her line delivery and narration inflicting physical pain. Reduced to caricature representations of the elegant soldier and utopian doctor respectively, Michiel Huisman and Josh Hartnett are far from the required level to create a compelling romantic triangle. Ben Kingsley appears to wander in from another, darker movie.

Director Joseph Ruben does capture some excellent vistas in the rugged terrain, almost compensating for a stupefyingly antiquated and repetitive Geoff Zanelli music score. Abandoned and incomplete subplots, including guns hidden at the hospital mission and Dr. Woodruff's background and physical ailments, litter the pretty scenery.

The Ottoman Lieutenant attempts to improve the image of a defunct empire, but is defeated by cinematic ineptitude on all sides of the camera.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Movie Review: Stand-In (1937)

A satire and romance set in Hollywood, Stand-In pokes good fun at the movie-making culture but stumbles on unsteady tones.

Colossal Pictures is a badly managed and financially struggling Hollywood movie studio. When unscrupulous corporate raider Ivor Nassau (C. Henry Gordon) submits a low-ball purchase offer, New York bank executive and mathematical wizard Atterbury Dodd (Leslie Howard) is dispatched to assess the situation at the studio.

In Hollywood he bumps into helpful stand-in and former child star Lester Plum (Joan Blondell), who helps him uncover a wasteful culture exemplified by imperious director Koslofski (Alan Mowbray), fading star Thelma Cheri (Marla Shelton), and fast-talking publicity manager Tom Potts (Jack Carson). Producer Doug Quintain (Humphrey Bogart) wants to do the right thing but is hampered by his lingering love for Thelma. Dodd has to find a way to turn the studio around, but remains oblivious to Lester's attention as she falls in love with him.

Directed by Tay Garnett, Stand-In offers plenty to admire. A story of intentional corporate devaluation and shady business transactions evolves into a tasty behind-the-scenes look at big-budget movie making. The accompanying wastefulness and narcissism are laid bare, director Koslofski and star Thelma Cheri indulging in the endless shoot for Sex And Satan, a movie that will either save the studio or comprehensively sink it.

Along the way, the haughtiness of celebrities is contrasted with the down-to-earth attitude of Lester Plum. She had her moment of glory as a child star but is now on filmmaking's margins, reduced to sweating in the lights as scenes are prepped for Thelma's appearance. Joan Blondell as Lester is Stand-In's spark, her sass, energy and precise comic timing repeatedly injecting spirit. She perfectly complements Leslie Howard's Atterbury Dodd, a genius at numbers but otherwise sexless and devoid of empathy, treating people as units until his eyes are opened by the industry's madness.

In a refreshingly different role, Humphrey Bogart offers sturdy support as Quintain, although in an example of Stand-In's wayward focus his self-hating venom for still loving Thelma appears to belong in a different movie. Garnett dawdles for too long on some scenes, only to lurch from satire to romance to slapstick to jealousy to meltdowns. The film's most spectacular stumble arrives in the final act, abandoning all the previous sub-plots in favour of an ill-fitting "we the workers" climax, and the clunky script does not even bother to ride out the final curve. 

Either the ideas or the budget ran out, but along the way Stand-In offers decent jabs into the ribcage of its own culture.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.