Wednesday, 20 January 2021

Movie Review: Pain And Glory (2019)

A portrait of a once-famous film director navigating enforced retirement, Pain And Glory is a low-key drama exploring a life of struggle and passion.

In Madrid, Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) is a once-famous film director suffering through numerous physical ailments including a bad back. The severe pain prevents him from even thinking of directing again. One of his old films is selected for a retrospective festival, prompting Salvador to reconnect with actor Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia). The two men had a falling out over artistic differences, but now older and supposedly wiser they become friends, Alberto supplying Salvador with heroin to blunt the persistent pain.

Old tensions between the two men re-emerge, and the heroin habit becomes a dependency. But Alberto insists on performing a one-man play based on one of Salvador's short stories, resulting in another unexpected emotive reunion. Meanwhile, in flashbacks, Salvador recalls his difficult upbringing, including the sacrifices of his mother Jacinta (Penélope Cruz) and his earliest awakening to physical attraction.

A semi-autobiographical effort from writer and director Pedro Almodóvar, Pain And Glory goes to the sad place where glamour and applause yield to memories and regrets. This is an intimate portrait of a man who has experienced professional highs but is now flirting with depression caused by loneliness, emptiness, and omnipresent physical pain. It's not exactly exhilarating subject matter, and the film unfolds slowly, with plenty of soul but fitful energy.

With Penélope Cruz in typically vivacious form, Salvador's childhood flashbacks are presented through a romanticized lens, Jacinta an enterprising and resourceful hero insisting her son secures an education despite financial hardship.

But the glory years are entirely missing and only inferred, and this omission handicaps the narrative. Almodóvar demands sympathy for Salvador as a celebrated artist going through a dark period, and Antonio Banderas' delicate, understated performance elicits the necessary autumnal tones. But the missing middle means the poverty of early years and the pain of advancing age bookend unstated achievements and unexplored emotions.

Better are the innovative devices used to recollect various life chapters. The flashbacks are augmented by Alberto's stage performance reliving Salvador's most passionate love affair, then a modern-day reunion marking the passage of time and divergent fortunes. More elaborate is a flashback to a more recent time with Jacinda, and a most elegantly staged fortuitous discovery at an art show.

Pain And Glory is a staid but still eloquent commentary on a life at the crossroads, buckling in agony but leaning on the past to resist surrender.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Assistant (2019)

A day-in-the-life drama, The Assistant explores the troubled office environment of a lowly nobody, as she notices everything but is noticed by no one. 

In New York, Jane (Julia Garner) works as one of many assistants to the powerful boss at a movie production office. Her day starts before dawn, and her duties cover everything from making coffee, answering the phone, picking up litter, booking flights, hotels and limousines, greeting visitors, buying lunch for other assistants, and trying to calm down the boss's irritable wife when she calls.

Jane tolerates the thankless days because she hopes to one day make it as a producer. But when another young female assistant is hired from out-of-town and whisked away to a hotel room for a private liaison with the boss, she feels obligated to take her concerns to a human resources officer. Her day only becomes more complicated.

A sparse, almost experimental 87 minutes from writer and director Kitty Green, The Assistant is loosely inspired by Weinstein-type workplace improprieties, but more broadly observes office operations from the lowest rung of the ladder. This particular workplace is related to movie production, but it could represent any other high-stress, long-hours, traditional male-commanded white collar environment. With no music, barely any structured dialogue and no linear narrative, the film builds curious interest as Jane navigates the ups and downs of her day.

With this assistant having no workplace friends and deemed too unimportant for anyone to talk to, most of the conversations are overheard snippets between other people. Green adopts a passive bystander stance, following Jane around the office, with open doors in the background sometimes revealing offices hosting important meetings where Jane is never welcome. She is confined to the administrative periphery where success is measured by the absence of screw-ups.

But on this day first she says the wrong thing to the boss's wife, then she dares poke her nose into what looks like a power-imbalanced sexual liaison. On both occasions she has to confront the possibility of her employment coming to an early end. And yet to answer why the Janes of the corporate world put up with all the garbage, a one-line email offers a glimmer of a suggestion that there could be light at the end of her tunnel.

Julia Garner is at the center of every scene and carries the film on her shoulders. She conveys resigned sadness mixed with stern determination to whack through the thicket of hard days. Matthew Macfadyen appears in one scene as the HR manager, and the rest of the cast members are essentially glorified extras.

The Assistant lives a familiar reality for many, a balancing act of getting the job done while measuring minute-by-minute whether the emotional toll is worth it.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Movie Review: Le Week-End (2013)

A drama about the twilight of marriage, Le Week-End is limited in scope and unsettled in tone.

Birmingham-based couple Meg and Nick (Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent) arrive in Paris for a weekend trip to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. He is a college professor of philosophy and she is a teacher, both are approaching retirement and money is tight. The tension between them is significant, and Meg is infuriated by the cheap room Nick booked. She instead decides to splurge and checks them into a suite at an expensive hotel.

The passion has seeped out of the marriage, Meg and Nick no longer have sex, and she does not even want him touching her. They bicker and fight but also have some fun as they enjoy the sights and restaurants, sometimes skipping out on paying the check. With Meg's resentment rising, the dynamics of the weekend are altered by a chance meeting with Morgan (Jeff Goldblum), Nick's friend from their Cambridge days and now a celebrated author.

Featuring a tortured central relationship oscillating between cold and frigid with an abundance of awkwardness and just occasional hints of playfulness, Le Week-End offers little to attract. Director Roger Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi lean heavily on the performances of Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent, but forget to create characters worth caring about. Meg displays a particularly acidic brand of meanness, still embracing her rage from a 15-year-old straying incident. Instead of emerging as a couple worth rooting for, this bickering pair is best served by having their gasping union shot behind the shed.

The introduction of Morgan is late in coming, and intended as a dual jolt: one class behind Nick at Cambridge, Morgan is now a successful author surrounded by beautiful people in a fancy Parisian apartment, while Nick is fading into a tainted retirement in Birmingham. And maybe to make matters worse, Morgan treats Nick as his inspiration, which reinforces Nick's insecurities and supports Meg's contention that Nick never fulfilled his potential.

The misery ends with a couple of speeches about failure and love, neither very convincing and both filed under too little and too late. Le Week-End was intended to celebrate an anniversary, but should instead denote the necessary demise of a tiresome marriage.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 18 January 2021

The Iconic Moment: Blade Runner (1982)


Roy Batty: I've...seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams...glitter in the dark near the Tannhouser Gate. All those...moments will be rain. die.

Directed by Ridley Scott.
Written by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples.
Cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth.
Starring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young.

The full Ace Black Movie Blog review of Blade Runner is here.

Saturday, 16 January 2021

Ace Black's List: The 10 Best Movies Of 2017

More than 90 movies from 2017 have been reviewed on the Ace Black Movie Blog. Here are the 10 best:

Directed by Rian Johnson.
Starring Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega and Carrie Fisher.
Writer and director Johnson takes audacious risks and breathes fresh life into an ageing series. The First Order moves in for the kill against the rebels, but scavenger Rey insists on prodding Luke Skywalker into one final epic battle. Full review.

Directed by Edgar Wright.
Starring Ansel Elgort, Lily James and Kevin Spacey.
The story of a young getaway driver is a stylish, artistic and hyperkinetic action film, burning rubber to a thumping soundtrack. Full review.

Directed by Scott Cooper.
Starring Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike and Jesse Plemons.
A soulful and occasionally brutal western combining the traditions of the arduous journey with a lyrical exploration of troubled relations between whites and natives. Full review.

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, and Lesley Manville.
A whimsical romance between a perfectionist fashion designer and his muse, examining mischievous power dynamics churning below the surface. Full review.

Directed by S. Craig Zahler.
Starring Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter and Don Johnson.
A prison drama with a difference, layering on violence, gore, attitude and plot twists in a grindhouse celebration full of surprises - and surprising humanity. Full review.

Directed by Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie.
Starring Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
A crime drama with a mean streak of humourous nihilism about one bad night spiked by an exhilarating determination to do good. Full review.

Directed by Christopher Nolan.
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy.
An epic recreation of an army's survival and rescue ordeal, defeat salvaged from the jaws of catastrophe as seen through the eyes of combatants in three different time frames. Full review.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve.
Starring Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Jared Leto and Ana de Armas.
A magnanimous science fiction epic and a rich quest for private and collective identity, packaged into an absorbing story about the evolution of what is real and what ultimately matters. Full review.

Directed by Greta Gerwig.
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, and Lucas Hedges.
A tender yet bristling coming-of-age drama-comedy glowing with authenticity, and a poignant exploration of the complex bond between mother and daughter. Full review.

Directed by Martin McDonagh.
Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell and Lucas Hedges.
The sharp story about a mother's activist grief and a community confronting uncomfortable shortcomings is thorny, disquieting, emotionally twisty, and laced with acidic acrimony. Full review.

Movie Review: Brawl In Cell Block 99 (2017)

A prison drama with a difference, Brawl In Cell Block 99 layers on violence, gore, attitude and plot twists in a grindhouse celebration.

Physically imposing recovered alcoholic Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) is laid off from his tow-truck driver job, and on the same day discovers his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) having an affair. After he vents his frustration they decide to stick together and try to repair their relationship, and their economic fortunes improve once Bradley starts working as a mule for drug distributor Gil.

18 months later Bradley and Lauren have graduated to a nice house, Lauren is pregnant and Gil leans on Bradley to help establish a partnership with a Mexican cartel. But a pickup operation goes wrong, Bradley is involved in a shootout with police, arrested and sentenced to seven years at a medium security prison. Lauren vows to wait for him, but Bradley is soon visited by a Placid Man (Udo Kier) and realizes his troubles are only just beginning.

As bad as things are when Bradley initially loses his freedom, it is sufficient to note things will get a lot worse, and not in accordance with any familiar prison drama conventions. Not much more should be revealed about the plot of Brawl In Cell Block 99, because writer and director S. Craig Zahler uses the basic premise as a jumping off point to a mazy, often startling prison-set thriller where genre expectations are teased then stomped. Zahler's follow-up to the excellent Bone Tomahawk is equally brilliant, with punctuations of humour and gobs of jaw-dropping violence sparring with a deeply human core.

The character of Bradley (not Brad) is a memorable creation, brought to life by an almost unrecognizable Vince Vaughn achieving an unlikely career highlight. Zahler contrives to amplify Bradley's dimensions to giant bruiser levels, and an early man-versus-car battles establishes his credentials at tolerating pain and inflicting damage.

Demonstrating patience in deploying violence, the first half concentrates on build-up and feints disinterest in confrontations, Bradley almost going out of his way to avoid harming others. But driven by the imperative of protecting family, base instincts are unleashed behind prison walls. Carnage on the human body is doled out with relish, made just about tolerable by a cartoonish embrace.

The grim aesthetics enhance Bradley's ordeal. The early scenes are saturated in depressing blues and greys as Bradley accepts bad luck as the only luck he will ever have, then dank browns and oranges take over as he falls ever deeper into prison system hell. The relatively sparse cast includes Don Johnson having great fun as a cigar-chomping prison warden seasoned in separating vicious men from their freedom.

Surprising, wicked and proudly brutal, Brawl In Cell Block 99 pulls no punches.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Friday, 15 January 2021

Movie Review: The Iceman (2012)

A crime drama based on actual events, The Iceman recounts the remarkable story of a mob enforcer who killed dozens of victims. While the events portrayed are astonishing, the central character remains necessarily aloof.

In New Jersey of 1964, brooding, large-framed and quiet Ritchie Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) marries the winsome and innocent Deborah (Winona Ryder). He holds a lowly job dubbing underground porn films, and commits a murder to avenge a petty insult. Local mobster Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta) is impressed with Ritchie's coolness under pressure and hires him as an enforcer. Over the next ten years Ritchie proves to be ruthlessly efficient at eliminating Roy's enemies.

Killing is his business, business is good, and the money rolls in. The family moves to a large house and Ritchie enrolls his two daughters in private school as they grow up clueless about their father's criminal endeavours. The good times are threatened when first Ritchie refuses to kill an innocent witness, then rival mobster Leonard Marks (Robert Davi) pressures Roy to clean house after a botched drug deal. Ritchie's income is cut off, forcing him to team up with independent assassin-for-hire Pronge (Chris Evans), who operates out of an ice cream truck.

An adaptation of a book by Anthony Bruno with a screenplay by Morgan Land and director Ariel Vromen, The Iceman is a trip to the dark business of transactional death among gangsters. Beautifully recreating the 1960s/1970s era, the film almost, but not quite, succeeds in humanizing a man capable of snuffing out life with startling ease. And while Kuklinski's story is nothing short of extraordinary, his soulless responsibility for countless abhorrent acts in a repugnant underworld envelops the narrative.

Vromen seeks hints of normalcy on the home front, and the separation between family and "work" provides moments of relief from all the gangland atrocities. Wife Deborah and daughters Betsy and Annabelle go through life with Kuklinski blissfully unaware of his profession. With Winona Ryder confined to a thankless role, Deborah's naivete reflects poorly on a woman simpleminded enough to never delve into her husband's reality (he easily sells her the fiction of being a currency trader). 

A few morsels of background are offered to explain the psychology of a taciturn assassin. Vromen uses one scene of Ritchie visiting his incarcerated brother to briefly expose the abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of a Polish immigrant father. Otherwise, it is left to Michael Shannon to occasionally express anguished love for his family with theatrical emotional outbursts.

The final act is an almost incomprehensible jumble of death. Ritchie is surrounded by threats from all sides, allies become double-crossing foes, and every scene features someone expiring. The carnage may accurately represent Ritchie's violent life, but as a cinematic experience, the impact is numbing.

The Iceman kills with metronomic regularity, his heart forever frigid.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Tuesday, 12 January 2021

Movie Review: Stuck In Love (2012)

A romance with wry humour and low-key drama, Stuck In Love is a clever look at multiple emotional entanglements within one family. 

It's been two years, but published writer Bill Borgens (Greg Kinnear) is still not over the break-up of his marriage to Erica (Jennifer Connelly), who has moved on and remarried. Bill's two children are both aspiring writers: Samantha (Lily Collins) is in college and about to have her first book published, while high schooler Rusty (Nat Wolff) is big fan of Stephen King.

Bill enjoys casual sex with married neighbour Tricia (Kristen Bell) but continues to hope Erica will come back to him. Samantha is deeply hurt by her parents' divorce and not on speaking terms with her mother, but her cynical attitude towards romance is tested when she meets classmate Louis (Logan Lerman). Meanwhile, Rusty is encouraged by his father to take more emotional risks and pursues a relationship with troubled classmate Kate (Liana Liberato).

In a compact 96 minutes, writer and director Josh Boone weaves three romances into one pleasing narrative. Stuck In Love avoids all the cliches associated with traditional romantic comedies, and instead focuses on well-rounded characters, emotional risk-taking, the healthy pursuit of sex, and perilous pathways to the pleasures of love. The agile pacing is augmented by bright dialogue and good balance between humour and poignancy.

Bill Borgens raised his two children to be writers, and Boone anchors his three protagonists in a literary milieu. Combined with a twee musical selection, Stuck In Love sometimes overreaches into excessively arty terrain. But Bill, Samantha and Rusty are likeable and authentic characters defined by pragmatic foibles, and their roller-coaster love lives swoosh past the script's weaknesses.

Daring to venture towards unfamiliar feelings is the underlying theme unifying the three stories. After witnessing the disintegration of her parents' marriage, Samantha has withdrawn into a hard shell, seeking only shallow sexual gratification and studiously avoiding any meaningful relationships. Louis keeps knocking on her heart until she yields to the potential for caring. Rusty is prodded by his Dad to enrich his life experiences, and is soon throwing a deserved punch and winning the heart of the popular but troubled Kate. And Bill himself has to decide if two years is long enough to wait for Erica as he tiptoes into the world of on-line dating with help from the cheeky Tricia.

In a radiant performance Lily Collins exudes confidence and fragility as Samantha's core beliefs are challenged. Greg Kinnear as the family head teases out the complexities of a husband coping with his own grief and a father barely keeping up with his children's needs. The other cast members all leave an impression and grasp their moments to shine.

The resolutions lean towards over-tidy, but Stuck In Love delivers three-for-one charm.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Monday, 11 January 2021

Movie Review: Serena (2014)

A drama and romance with psychological suspense undertones, Serena enjoys a ramshackle rural aesthetic and an ominously beautiful ambience, but catastrophically fails to build emotional resonance. 

In 1929, George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) runs a timber operation in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. His key men include administrator Buchanan (David Dencik) and expert tracker Galloway (Rhys Ifans). The Great Depression is impacting the economy and plans for a national park supported by Sheriff McDowell (Toby Jones) threaten George's business, but he vows to continue tree-cutting operations. In his spare time George enjoys big game hunting and tracks a mythical panther.

On a trip to Boston, George meets and quickly marries Serena (Jennifer Lawrence). Her family used to own a major timber operation in Colorado, and as a 12 year old she miraculously survived a devastating fire. Now she joins George at the Smoky Mountain site and proves herself a capable leader. But a series of mishaps and betrayals place a strain on the newlyweds, while the presence of George's previous lover Rachel (Ana Ularu) and her son inflames Serena's jealousy.

An adaptation of the 2008 novel by Ron Rash, Serena promises an evocative dramatic romance and a descent into tragic turmoil. But despite the presence of enigmatic stars Cooper and Lawrence and some chillingly beautiful cinematography courtesy of Morten Søborg, the film is undermined by a fundamentally unbalanced script by Christopher Kyle. Director Susanne Bier struggles to create any sort of rhythm or empathy, and the second half sinks into a calamitous swamp of flat mishaps.

At 110 minutes, Serena is overrun by an unrelenting checklist of events unsupported by character depth, and becomes a rare example of a film crying out to be longer. The dialogue is sparse, banal, or non-existent, stranding George and Serena into a marriage after barely exchanging 10 words. Scenes of passionate lovemaking fail to compensate, and the couple's central bond remains exceptionally brittle.

Other potentially interesting characters suffer worse. Galloway is teasingly presented as possessing mystical qualities before being abandoned into stock henchman territory, while Rachel barely says a meaningful word, her mere presence having to suffice as a cause for Serena's anger.

The morose music is maddeningly repetitive, as close-ups and hysterics are trotted out instead of substance. Serena promises much, but is quickly lost in the fog-shrouded forests.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

The Iconic Moment: Apollo 13 (1995)


NASA Director: This could be the worst disaster NASA's ever experienced.
Gene Kranz: With all due respect, sir, I believe this is gonna be our finest hour.

Directed by Ron Howard.
Written by William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert.
Cinematography by Dean Cundey.
Starring Tom Hanks, Ed Harris, Kevin Bacon.

The full Ace Black Movie Blog review of Apollo 13 is here.