Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Movie Review: Operation Finale (2018)

A recreation of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann's capture by Mossad agents, Operation Finale squanders a good story and stalls on minutiae.

It's 1960, and the Mossad leadership receive intelligence that Eichmann (Ben Kingsley), a principal architect of the Holocaust, is living with his wife Vera (Greta Scacchi) and son Klaus (Joe Alwyn) in Buenos Aires. Eichmann's identity was exposed when Klaus started dating the German-Jewish Sylvia Hermann (Haley Lu Richardson), who alerted her father Lothar (Peter Strauss). Israel's Prime Minister Ben-Gurion authorizes Eichmann's capture and transport to Israel to stand trial, recognizing the historic importance of publicly prosecuting a Nazi leader. 

A team of agents including Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac), interrogator Zvi Aharoni (Michael Aronov) and doctor Hanna Elian (Mélanie Laurent) is dispatched to Argentina. They establish a safe house and conduct surveillance. The agents then abduct Eichmann at night while he is walking back home from his factory job, but extracting him back to Israel will not be straightforward.

An attempt to tap into an Argo-type vibe, Operation Finale stumbles on misdirected focus. Eichmann's globally televised trial is a milestone event in history, so writer Matthew Orton and director Chris Weitz seek nonexistent tension in a battle of wills between the Mossad agents and the captured Eichmann over whether or not he will sign a piece of paper. In an operation in which everything is forged, the coerced signature of a kidnap victim is a simply insufficient central plot device.

With events confined to the safe house for long stretches, other miscalculations abound. After seizing Eichmann, the ten day delay to secure a flight out of Buenos Aires is presented as an unplanned challenge for the Mossad team, and yet is a barely explained piece of operational incompetence. The fate of several characters crucial in the opening act is left hanging. And other than Malkin, the remaining Mossad agents remain essentially undefined.

The performances of Ben Kingsley as Eichmann and Oscar Isaac as Peter Malkin are better than the material, and their scenes together create a crackling duel between a manipulative master of evil and fiery trained assassin suppressing his instincts for revenge. Malkin's family history (he lost his sister and her children to Nazi death squads) provides an undercurrent of sorrow, but is also overplayed.

The just-in-time final act is Hollywoodization at its worst. Despite good source material, Operation Finale boards the wrong flight.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Sunday, 18 July 2021

Movie Review: Eighth Grade (2018)

A coming of age drama-comedy, Eighth Grade explores the tragically funny tortuous paths to adulthood as seen from the perspective of a 14-year-old.

Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) is about to finish eighth grade and graduate from middle school. She is self-conscious, introverted, has no real friends, and voted least talkative in her class. From her bedroom Kayla records and uploads clumsy life-advice videos, but does not attract any views or subscribers. Her father Mark (Josh Hamilton) tries hard, but their relationship is as awkward as the rest of her life.

Kayla decides to listen to her own advice and take more risks. She attends the pool-side birthday party of popular girl Kennedy, although she knows Kennedy does not really like her. At the pool she meets Gabe, who is gawky but affable. Kayla then tries to impress the smug Aiden, a boy she has a crush on. At a high school prep day she shadows the friendly Olivia (Emily Robinson), who introduces the star-struck Kayla to her group of friends, but the more adventurous attitude brings new experiences Kayla may not be ready for.

Written and directed by Bo Burnham in his big-screen debut, Eighth Grade embraces inelegant self-doubt. Adopting a matter-of-fact view encompassing acne, a clueless parent, a hopeless crush, all-domineering social media, and the desperate need to fit in and find friends, this is a movie about the hopes and anxieties of the quiet kid no one notices sitting in the corner. 

But Kayla is very much a person worth knowing, eager to step into her future, aware of the need to find courage and push into uncomfortable situations. Every small forward step leads to small successes, some of them dubious, and also more challenges. Attending Kennedy's party presents a minefield of inglorious interactions, but Gabe is a potential find. Boldly approaching Aiden steers Kayla towards questionable banana interactions (and some of the film's best humour). The absolute thrill of basking in the presence of high schooler Olivia and her cohorts also exposes Kayla to unwanted attention. 

Burnham's exquisite writing is a loving tribute to Kayla's evolving brain on overdrive, running a furious race between where she is and where she wants to be. But some contrived moments do creep in, including a father-daughter talk bordering on cloying and a one-way confrontation in a school hallway offering redundant closure on a non-friendship. 

Elsie Fisher captivates in the central role and easily rides out the rougher patches, creating in Kayla a joyous bundle of tense jitters. With the end of the school year approaching, the self-awareness of a woman-in-the-making builds, including a better understanding of her vlog's real target audience.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Saturday, 17 July 2021

Movie Review: Sicario: Day Of The Soldado (2018)

A cross-border thriller, Sicario: Day Of The Soldado introduces and abandons multiple story lines before defaulting to a bland survive-and-bond-in-the-desert narrative.

Middle Eastern suicide bombers target civilians after being smuggled into the US by Mexican human traffickers. The CIA's Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) identifies the Carlos Reyes cartel as responsible for large-scale smuggling operations, and Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) provides Matt and his boss Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener) a free hand to disrupt the cartel's activities.

Matt recruits private operative/assassin Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) into the operation, and along with a group of mercenaries they hatch a plan to kidnap Reyes' daughter Isabel (Isabela Merced) and pin the blame on the rival Matamoros cartel. They hope to ignite an inter-cartel war to weaken both gangs, but after abducting Isabel, Matt and Alejandro battle with corrupt Mexican police forces, causing an international incident and compromising the mission.

A sequel to the 2015 original, Day Of The Soldado (also known as Sicario 2: Soldado) arrives without star Emily Blunt and director Denis Villeneuve, and suffers accordingly. Taylor Sheridan returns with a new script, but appears uncertain whether to go bigger or smaller, eventually getting literally caught in no man's land at the border. As a result, and despite the sturdy presence of Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro, director Stefano Sollima does not know which way to target his firepower. 

The introduction is promising enough, connecting human smuggling with terrorist atrocities and the Islamic State menace. But unfocused convolutions quickly seep in with a detour to Somali pirate land accompanied by several logic leaps to pin the blame on Mexican cartel leader Reyes, but this villain will not grace the movie with his presence.

Instead Matt and Alejandro get busy plotting to ignite a war between rival cartels, then proceed to shoot themselves in the foot by transporting Isabel into the United States and announcing the fact to Mexican officials, who are of course utterly incorruptible. Sheridan is either mocking the competence of US-funded intelligence operatives, or writing in a state of desperate distraction.

The war-between-cartels idea is the next one to be discarded, and the film trundles from initially lofty ambitions down to Alejandro and Isabel on the run and tangling with sweaty but nameless and irrelevant goons, complete with the obligatory intervention of sympathetic locals providing refuge. Somewhere in the debris of truncated storylines is a teenager on the US side of the border getting lured into the lucrative life of crime, but his adventure serves mostly to unnecessarily prolong the running time beyond two hours.

A couple of action scenes are well-executed, and the Dariusz Wolski cinematography is full of edgy flair, but this soldado is caught in the open, hobbled by uncertain priorities.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Movie Review: Searching (2018)

A missing person suspense drama, Searching reveals its story through screens within screens, building tension within the reality of a society running on microchips.

All events are viewed through saved or streaming video files, mostly on the home computer of the Kim family, used by dad David (John Cho), mom Pam (Sara Sohn) and their daughter Margot (Michelle La). Pam dies from cancer around the time Margot enters high school. Dad and daughter are immersed in grief and drift apart. David's brother Peter (Joseph Lee) lives nearby and is the only other family member they are in touch with.

One day Margot is late to return home from school after attending a study group the previous night. David attempts to track her down by contacting her friends, but eventually reports her as missing. Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing), a missing persons specialist, jumps onto the case and starts to investigate. David eventually breaks into Margot's laptop and discovers the many secrets she had been keeping from him. Father and detective work together to piece together Margot's story, with many surprises in store.

Enjoying the playfulness of the computer screen sub-genre, Searching combines a clever format with an intriguing-enough case of a missing teenager. Co-produced by Timur Bekmambetov and directed and co-written by Aneesh Chaganty, the film reveals only what David knows and when he knows it, his world shrinking into an increasingly agitated hunt for clues through his daughter's digital world.

Behind the search for Margot is astute commentary on lives now entirely lived, recorded and saved online, one byte leading to another. David traces his daughter's activities on web sites he never knew existed, interacting with "friends" he did not know she had, uncovering numerous contacts, photos and files, all potentially containing critical clues but most just comprising a heap of humdrum digital debris.

Sly humour enlivens the search, the online world's best and worst tendencies to adopt a cause, cash-in, then turn sour playing across David's screens as he tries to cut through the clutter, connect the pixels, and get to the truth. And despite every click creating a record, Margot's anxieties remain hidden from her father until he goes looking. The availability of limitless connectivity is distinct and separate from improving human interaction, and instead provides a cheap refuge from the necessary process of grieving.

The format limits the mystery's scope, and with few defined characters Chaganty's greatest challenge was always going to be finding a satisfactory resolution to the riddle of Margot's disappearance. The chosen path is merely fair, and still requires the significant involvement of a barely sketched-in tertiary presence.

But Searching remains a remarkably absorbing experience, a fly-in-the-machine view of every parent's worst nightmare.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Friday, 16 July 2021

Movie Review: Serenity (2019)

A film noir drama, Serenity is ambitious but deeply flawed, with a dumbfounding plot twist undermining the narrative into fatal irrelevance.

In the fictional Caribbean-like enclave of Plymouth Island, where everyone appears to know everything about everyone else, Iraq War veteran Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) operates the Serenity as a tourist fishing boat. But instead of looking after his customers he is obsessed with catching an elusive big tuna, and he can barely afford to pay his loyal second-in-command Duke (Djimon Hounsou). Dill provides sexual favours to Constance (Diane Lane) in return for desperately needed cash.

Dill's ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) arrives unexpectedly and offers him $10 million to kill her current abusive husband Frank (Jason Clarke). She urges him to commit the murder for the sake of their son Patrick, who is suffering in an abusive household. In the meantime tweedy sales rep Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong), incongruously dressed in a suit and tie, offers Dill a fish tracking device to help him snag the big tuna. Dill starts to suspect all is not what it seems.

Written and directed by Steven Knight, Serenity ought to be applauded at some level for trying something new. But unfortunately, the second half is unsalvageable, veering into weird waters and blowing a hole in its own hull. Once Knight starts to pull back the curtain on the story he really wants to tell, no worthwhile emotional investment can be justified in the characters or events.

The opening half is a decent enough modern noir mixing reasonably engaging ingredients. Dill is a sweaty and deeply flawed protagonist hiding out in an exotic locale, chasing his unattainable fish, lamenting separation from his son, and never expecting to achieve anything beyond selfish survival and control over his boat. Karen arrives with a tolerable approximation of a femme fatale, offering breathy remorse and unimaginable money in exchange for the small matter of murder. Intended victim Frank oozes slimy evil, a perfect shark food candidate if ever there was one.

Dill agonizes over Karen's offer, and the early involvement of fish-out-of-water sales agent Reid Miller is an initially edgy angle. But then all the promising metaphors and moral dilemmas dissolve into something much more obtuse and remarkably uninteresting. Serenity lists, then just sinks.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Wednesday, 14 July 2021

Movie Review: Pieces Of A Woman (2020)

A drama about infant loss, Pieces Of A Woman traces a mother's attempt to pick up life's shattered fragments after unspeakable trauma.

In Boston, office worker Martha Weiss (Vanessa Kirby) is expecting her first child with her partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf), a bridge construction foreman. They are planning a home birth, but when Martha goes into labour her midwife Barbara is occupied with another delivery. Back-up midwife Eva (Molly Parker) arrives to help. After a difficult labour the baby is born, but dies in Martha's arms within minutes.

The anguish of losing the child impacts the relationship between Martha and Sean, who cope in different ways. Martha's wealthy and strong-willed mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) exerts her influence and further drives a wedge between the couple. Meanwhile Eve faces criminal charges, with Martha's cousin Suzanne (Sarah Snook) prosecuting, but Martha appears uninterested in redress through the courts.

An adaptation of the play by Kornél Mundruczó and Kata Wéber, who wrote from their experience after a miscarriage, Pieces Of A Woman visits places of disorienting emotional pain. Wéber wrote the screenplay and Mundruczó takes on directing duties, and together they create every parent's nightmare, a one-way trip to sudden, destroyed expectations.

The film salutes its stage origins without falling victim to them. In the indoor scenes Mundruczó deploys long, fluid takes with elegant camera motion. The birth sequence is a remarkable continuous shot lasting 24 minutes, starting with Martha's increasingly painful contractions and ending with the arrival of the ambulance, underlining the unidirectional nature of the childbirth experience. Once the process starts Martha and Sean have no exit ramps away from whatever outcome awaits.

The emotional focus is on Martha, and the stabs of agony she experiences every time she spots a child, or worse, a young child with a parent. But her deeply personal experience is also shaped by those closest to her. After the baby's death, Martha and Sean can agree on little. She wants to donate the baby to science; he is not so sure. He wants to pursue a civil court case; she is not convinced. She grieves in silence; he is more talkative. He resorts to drinking; she develops a fascination with apple seeds. And finally the physical intimacy seeps out the marriage, and Sean goes looking for someone else and somewhere else. Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf create a relatable ordinary couple thrust into a dark new reality they are ill equipped to navigate.

To make matters worse Elizabeth never really liked Sean, and now starts manipulating him to poke at her perceptions of Martha's weaknesses. Ellen Burstyn shines as a grandmother channelling her grief into anger and a determination to pin the blame on Eve, because someone simply must be responsible for her hurt.

A speechy ending reaches for a tidy resolution to an untidy tragedy. But Pieces Of A Woman succeeds in portraying with honest sensitivity the shock of death crashing through the door when only a new life was expected.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Saturday, 10 July 2021

Movie Review: Outside The Wire (2021)

A near-future war action movie, Outside The Wire dabbles in many themes and delivers on none of them.

In 2036, US military forces are deployed as peacekeepers in Ukraine as Russian-backed insurgents under the command of mysterious warlord Victor Koval (Pilou Asbæk) battle against local ragtag resistance fighters. Drone pilot Lieutenant Thomas Harp (Damson Idris) disobeys an order, and as penance is deployed to the front lines. His is teamed with Captain Leo (Anthony Mackie), a near-indestructible android military officer. 

Leo and Harp quickly embark on a mission to deliver vaccines to a stranded civilian hospital and to gather intelligence on Koval's whereabouts. Leo suspects Koval is close to seizing control of Cold War-era nuclear warhead launch sites and intends to target western cities. Harp has to quickly acclimatize to war at close quarters, and starts to realize Leo not only possesses exceptional combat skills, but operates according to different rules.

Outside The Wire cannot decide what story it wants to tell. Is it about joystick soldiers getting a taste of real combat and experiencing the implications of their bombs? Is it about averting the threat of rogue terrorist armies (somehow muddling Ukrainian and Balkan politics) getting their hands on nukes? Is it about the rise of the machines and the dangers of allowing robot soldiers - clunky and otherwise - onto the battlefield? Is it a plea for militant pacifism through a taste-of-your-own-medicine intervention hiding in a ragged burn-the-village-to-save it cloak?

The screenplay by Rob Yescombe and Rowan Athale pauses every ten minutes and tries to reinvent itself, but gets hopelessly entangled in its own bewildering focus shifts. Meanwhile director Mikael Håfström delivers a succession of action set-pieces that, while competently staged, start to resemble beads without a thread.

The massive plot holes don't help, a futuristic techno-thriller somehow hinging on an old-fashioned chase for a chunky box of nuclear codes, and the locations of Cold War silo sites still a secret - but known to a scrappy arms dealer.

Anthony Mackie glides above the incompetent material with respectable swagger, but Damson Idris is right there in the muck, rarely overcoming elemental deer-in-the-headlights status and not helped by some inane lines of dialogue. Outside The Wire ventures beyond the perimeter fence and gets comprehensively lost.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Woman In The Window (2021)

A psychological suspense drama with horror elements, The Woman In The Window weaves a decent but logic-challenged mystery involving grief, loneliness, hallucinations, and crime.

In Manhattan, Dr. Anna Fox (Amy Adams), a child psychologist, suffers from agoraphobia and refuses to leave her house. She is separated from her husband Edward (Anthony Mackie), who looks after their eight year old daughter. Anna has a shaky friendship with her basement tenant David Winter (Wyatt Russell), a singer/songwriter/handyman, and holds weekly sessions with her therapist Karl Landy (Tracy Letts), who is tinkering with her medications. But she spends most of her days snooping on neighbours through her windows.

She quickly gets involved in the lives of new neighbours the Russells and meets their awkward teenaged son Ethan (Fred Hechinger), then his vivacious mother Jane (Julianne Moore) comes for a visit, and finally Ethan's mysterious father Alistair (Gary Oldman) briefly drops by. Anna's world in thrown into turmoil when she witnesses what appears to be a murder at the Russell house, but all may not be what it seems.

Directed by Joe Wright and written by Letts, The Woman In The Window carries ambitions to salute Hitchcock's Rear Window. And equipped with a housebound protagonist and a camera for better zoom and focus, it's a not-bad effort. Anna's fragile mental state creates a milieu where anything is possible as either reality or imagination, and Wright exploits her dark and empty house as a solid foundation for appropriate spookiness.

Anna is lonely, suicidal, mixing alcohol with medication, and watching too many old movies. The people closest to her are a good mix of slightly creepy (David) and slightly smarmy (Landy), but then the Russells arrive and give her a jolt of excitement. Anna's motherly instincts and child psychologist training immediately kick in with the troubled Ethan. Then a fun session of wine and talk appears to offer the potential for friendship with Jane, but the stern Alistair remains cold and aloof.

When the blood splatters and carnage is unleashed, the narrative initially remains strong. Anna is forced to confront her troubled life and reexamine everything she thinks she knows, Amy Adams delivering another stunningly engaging performance as a woman trying to stumble out of a mental fog. But the final act is disappointing, resorting to unworthy slasher cliches, stabbing holes in plenty of the preceding build-up and attempting to have it both ways, Anna both right and wrong on all counts.

The Woman In The Window peeks at the tantalizing world outside, but can't quite confidently stride out.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Ace Black's List: The 10 Best Movies Of 2013

More than 80 movies from 2013 have been reviewed on the Ace Black Movie Blog. Here are the 10 best:

Directed by Ryan Coogler.
Starring Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, and Octavia Spencer.
Humanity's fragile threads revealed through the heartaching recreation of Oscar Grant's final day before the young Black man was needlessly shot dead by San Francisco transit police officers. Full review.

Directed by Jason Reitman.
Starring Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, and Gattlin Griffith.
A quiet, tender story of two damaged souls connecting and an unlikely love blossoming under remarkable circumstances. Full review.

Directed by Ron Howard.
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, and Olivia Wilde.
An intense rivalry between two very different yet similarly driven men yields an epic Formula 1 championship season, recreated with controlled passion. Full review.

Directed by Spike Jonze.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson (voice), and Amy Adams.
A subdued yet dazzling commentary on a near-future with ever more technological dependency, and a further blurring of emotional ties between people and artificial intelligence. Full review.

Directed by Steve McQueen.
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o, and Michael Fassbender.
The story of slavery through the deeply moving experience of one man is a necessarily distressing exploration of humanity's inhumane capacity for brutality. Full review.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mélanie Laurent, and Sarah Gadon.
An unnerving psychological drama about a man who meets his physical copy, and the subsequent emotional struggle for self-identity. Full review.

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron.
Starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.
A visually stunning lost-in-space epic exploring survival, loneliness, and emptiness at the most primordial level. Full review.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve.
Starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Paul Dano. 
A harrowing child abduction drama filled with unpredictable dread, exploring human coping limits where wrong can become so right. Full review.

Directed by Bong Joon-ho.
Starring Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, and Ed Harris.
A dystopian and ridiculously entertaining science fiction thriller capturing the primal struggle for control between surviving haves and have-nots as the planet takes a break from sustaining life. Full review.

Directed by Martin Scorsese.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, and Margot Robbie.
A vivid dissection of the scummy men running the world's profit-obsessed economic system, finding wild humour where unconstrained depravity and limitless greed collide. Full review.

Wednesday, 7 July 2021

Movie Review: Night Moves (2013)

A crime drama, Night Moves accompanies young environmentalists as they veer towards an act of terrorism as a protest against corporate greed and disregard for nature.

In Oregon, activist Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) volunteers on an organic produce farm. His friend Dena (Dakota Fanning) works at a spa, and they join forces with ex-Marine Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) to plan an eco-terrorist attack on a hydroelectric dam. Their objective is to raise awareness about climate change and the harmful impacts of dams on wild fish habitats, without causing casualties.

Dena comes from a rich family and provides the cash to buy a motorboat. The trio then have to purchase enough ammonium nitrate fertilizer, a controlled substance, to create the bomb. Despite careful attention to detail in planning the nighttime explosion, not everything will go according to plan, resulting in serious rifts between the three conspirators.

Moody, dark and slow, Night Moves explores misguided idealism. Director Kelly Reichardt co-wrote the script with Jonathan Raymond, and adopts a tight focus on three people, allowing the greater issues to simply exist as background context. With deliberate pacing and sparse content, the film feeds on the intensity of deluded adults meandering into a major crime. The Pacific Northwest milieu is suitably moist and dour, but while the rain forest is the source of beauty, the film's low budget is also exposed, particularly in an embarrassingly static driving scene.  

The mostly off-the-grid existence of Josh, Dena and Harmon is devoid of grand speeches or debates. They function either alone or within a close-knit community of like-minded individuals, and have crossed the line from living sustainably to a yearning for dramatic yet misguided action to wake up the world. 

For the more susceptible and fragile Josh and Dena, the absence of parents and family members is notable, while Harmon's military background affords him greater swagger. Night Moves is most compelling in the lead-up to the attack as a tense dynamic develops between the three conspirators, Dena improvising with tenacity to secure the bomb material, the trio then forced to smooth out an unexpected wrinkle on the night of the bombing.

Energy seeps out of the final act. Reichardt is only interested in the aftermath of the crime from the perspective of the criminals themselves, and Night Moves traces grim disintegrations at the individual and friendship levels. The physical consequences of the terror attack are described in abstract terms, and the subsequent investigation plays no part in the narrative. When disparate coping limits inflict internal depletions, external interventions are superfluous.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.