Saturday, 23 September 2023

Movie Review: Across 110th Street (1972)

Genre: Heist Thriller
Director: Barry Shear
Starring: Anthony Quinn, Yaphet Kotto, Anthony Franciosa 
Running Time: 102 minutes

Synopsis: In Harlem, desperate black robbers Jim, Henry, and Joe (Paul Benjamin, Antonio Fargas, and Ed Bernard) bust into a Mafia hideout and get away with $300,000, leaving behind five dead mobsters and two dead cops. Racist and aging Captain Martinelli (Anthony Quinn) is forced to cede authority on the case to Lieutenant Pope (Yaphet Kotto), while the mob unleashes near-psychotic Nick D'Salvio (Anthony Franciosa) to hunt down the thieves and make examples out of them. Harlem gang leader "Doc" Johnson (Richard Ward) tries to manipulate the situation to his advantage, as Jim, Henry, and Joe find their survival options rapidly dwindling.

What Works Well: This grim crime drama is energized by racial tensions and spiced with hard-hitting violence, delivering a love letter to New York's grimiest period. Rarely has the city's 1970s dereliction been better captured, and the soundtrack echoes with energetic desperation as director Barry Shear triangulates the drama with nervous hand-held cameras. The thieves, the avengers, and the cops are each allocated generous screen time, resulting in a tapestry of memorable characters connected by sleaze. Only Yaphet Kotto's Lieutenant Pope stubbornly adheres to a moral compass, but in this environment, just give him time.

What Does Not Work As Well: Anthony Quinn creeps towards hammy overacting, and a few scenes appear to skip over important details.

Conclusion: An impressively pessimistic depiction of crime-riddled urban and ethical decay.

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Sunday, 17 September 2023

Movie Review: Premium Rush (2012)

Genre: Crime Chase Thriller
Director: David Koepp
Starring: Joseph Gordon Levitt, Michael Shannon
Running Time: 92 minutes

Synopsis: Disenchanted law student Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a speed-loving daredevil bicycle courier in New York City, and having relationship problems with his girlfriend and fellow bike courier Vanessa (Dania Ramirez). Wilee's last job of the day is to rush-deliver a package from Vanessa's roommate Nima (Jamie Chung) to a Chinatown address. The package contains a $50,000 hawala ticket, and Wilee is soon being furiously pursued by corrupt cop Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), who is drowning in gambling debts.

What Works Well: Co-writer and director David Koepp creates a movie with its own power-generating source in the form of reckless biking on New York's wild streets. Every car, truck, pedestrian, stroller, and traffic light is a near-miss opportunity for a bone-breaking or skull-cracking fall, and Mitchell Amundsen's cinematography captures the thrill of a muscle-powered (and in Wilee's case, brakeless) machine carving impossible pathways through the maze of danger.

What Does Not Work As Well: Essentially a roadrunner-inspired bicycle chase movie riding one idea for 90 minutes, the cinematic bag of tricks begins to run out about halfway through. The characters have all the depth of cardboard cutouts, with Michael Shannon leaning towards blatantly cartoonish. The sub-plot of a bike-equipped police officer who develops a particular dislike towards Wilee is under-leveraged.

Conclusion: Plenty of verve, but not much else.

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Movie Review: Operation Daybreak (1975)

Genre: World War Two Drama Thriller
Director: Lewis Gilbert
Starring: Timothy Bottoms, Martin Shaw, Anthony Andrews, Nicola Pagett
Running Time: 118 minutes

Synopsis: In 1941, British-trained Czech partisans Jan (Timothy Bottoms), Jozef (Anthony Andrews), and Karel (Martin Shaw) are selected for a mission to assassinate the ruthless Reich Protector in occupied Prague, Reinhard Heydrich (Anton Diffring). After parachuting into the countryside the trio connect with underground agents, and Jan starts a romance with resistance member Anna (Nicola Pagett). Jan and Jozef struggle to find a suitable opportunity to target the well-guarded Heydrich, and in desperation decide to attempt a high-risk close-range shooting.

What Works Well: Based on the actual events of Operation Anthropoid, this is a grimly effective war drama capturing the realities of asymmetrical conflict. With Prague trampled by Nazi soldiers, the partisans are beset by suspicion and paranoid about infiltrators, yet still intent on carrying out an audacious mission. The absence of star names enhances the emphasis on storytelling, and director Lewis Gilbert's pacing is careful and deliberate, making full use of the thick greys and browns of a suffocating occupation. The second-half builds fearsome momentum as the aftermath of the assassination attempt echoes with brutal vengeance, unyielding heroism, and finally unforgettable poignancy.

What Does Not Work As Well: The additional paratroopers sent to support the mission are confined to the deep background, and the romantic sub-plot carries all the clunkiness of an unnecessary add-on.

Conclusion: A classic merger of daring and authenticity.

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Movie Review: Last Chance Harvey (2008)

Genre: Romantic Dramedy
Director: Joel Hopkins
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Kathy Baker, James Brolin
Running Time: 92 minutes

Synopsis: Divorced music composer Harvey Shine (Dustin Hoffman) is struggling to save his career. He travels to London to attend his daughter's wedding, but receives another emotional blow when she selects her stepfather (James Brolin) to walk her down the aisle. Meanwhile British government worker Kate Walker (Emma Thompson) is unlucky in love, and exasperated by her over-attentive mother Maggie (Eileen Atkins). Harvey and Kate meet at the airport, and a romance blossoms.

What Works Well: The later-in-life romance benefits from Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson in fine form, a laid-back attitude, and crisp London locations. Both lead characters are surrounded by plenty of luggage and regrets, Harvey's sense of exclusion from his ex-family and Kate's overbearing mother providing signposts to past missteps. Director Joel Hopkins seeks touches of mild humour, including Harvey's misadventures in a white suit and Maggie's interactions with a next-door Polish neighbour.

What Does Not Work As Well: This is as vanilla and predictable as a romance can get, complete with a de rigueur third act complication. And although Hoffman hides it well, he is still 22 years older than his co-star.

Conclusion: Familiar and borderline bland content is saved by a good cast and tidy production values.

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Movie Review: Charley Varrick (1973)

Genre: Heist Thriller
Director: Don Siegel
Starring: Walter Matthau, Joe Don Baker, Andy Robinson, John Vernon
Running Time: 111 minutes

Synopsis: In New Mexico, Charley Varrick (Walter Matthau) is a crop duster and ex-stunt pilot who robs remote rural banks for small amounts. But his latest job results in multiple casualties, including Charley's wife Nadine. Accomplice Harman (Andy Robinson) escapes with Charley and they are both shocked that their haul included $750,000 in Mafia money. Charley has to elude the authorities and manage the excitable Harman, while corrupt bank boss Maynard Boyle (John Vernon) hires ruthless fixer Molly (Joe Don Baker) to track down the thieves and recover the money. 

What Works Well: The adaptation of John H. Reese's book The Looters is a compact and clever crime drama with a sparkling sheen and a twinkle in the eye. Bad guys attempt to outsmart worse guys in a deadly game of cat and mouse, and in one of his career-best performances, Walter Matthau enjoys keeping Charley just one step ahead of everyone else. He is ably supported by Andy Robinson's intensity and Joe Don Baker's persistence. Pointed small roles also make a big difference, including intriguing contributions by Charley's wife, an expert forger, and an old geezer in a wheel chair. The wide open landscapes under blazing skies add an expansive aesthetic.

What Does Not Work As Well: The police investigation (represented by Norman Fell as Garfinkle) unrealistically never gets going.

Conclusion: A taut thriller with a confident attitude.

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Monday, 11 September 2023

Movie Review: Out Of Life (1991)

Original Title: 
Hors La Vie
Genre: Hostage Drama
Director: Maroun Bagdadi
Starring: Hippolyte Girardot
Running Time: 97 minutes

Synopsis: After covering the brutal chaos of the Lebanese civil war for many years, French photographer Patrick Perrault (Hippolyte Girardot) is abducted in Beirut. He is held hostage in confined and filthy conditions, and often secretly transferred to different locations. His emotions fluctuate from defiance to despair as he interacts with numerous guards and their bosses. 

What Works Well: Inspired by actual events, director and co-writer Maroun Bagdadi navigates a painful journey to the depths of human misery. With all dignity and independence stripped away, Patrick's only meaningful interactions are with his captors, and even these are laced with the danger of the wrong word at the wrong time. His emotional degradation mirrors a city's obliteration: Hippolyte Girardot finds gnawing despondency behind increasingly hollow eyes, while the opening scenes of urban warfare and brief interludes on the ravaged streets of Beirut capture the horrors of endless civil war.

What Does Not Work As Well: Other than the abstract battles between militias, the absence of contextual background places a high burden on the central protagonist. The kidnappers' objectives remain a mystery, and likewise the outside world's reaction to Patrick's plight is ignored. The vacuum surrounding his emotional state slows narrative momentum to a slog.

Conclusion: Singularly grim, but stubbornly focused on the individual.

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Movie Review: The Informant! (2009)

Genre: Biographical Crime Comedy
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Matt Damon, Melanie Lynskey, Scott Bakula
Running Time: 108 minutes

Synopsis: It's the early 1990s, and biochemist Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) is married to Ginger (Melanie Lynskey) and enjoying life as an executive with Illinois-based food processing company ADM. As he works on the formulation for lysine, Mark claims that a Japanese competitor is engaging in sabotage and extortion. The FBI's Agent Shepard (Scott Bakula) starts to investigate, and is further intrigued when Mark alleges that ADM is part of an international price-fixing conspiracy. He becomes an FBI informant taping meetings to gather evidence, but his tendency to trade in half-truths sows confusion.

What Works Well: Writer Scott Z. Burns and director Steven Soderbergh tease out the bizarro elements in the true story of an executive-turned-spy, and deliver a bouncy yet still fascinating story of malfeasance at multiple levels. Whitacre narrates with the off-kilter observations of a mind operating on unique frequencies, and Matt Damon animates the portrait of a complex yet manipulative man blissfully enjoying individual serenity in the eye of the storm.

What Does Not Work As Well: The layers of incomplete facts start to buckle in the third act, and the glib treatment glosses over both the seriousness of any crimes and the causes of Whitacre's challenging relationship with the truth. The supporting cast is underpowered, and the corporate conflicts flounder in the absence of serious counterpoints to Mark's claims.

Conclusion: Industrial espionage delivered with a smile.

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Sunday, 10 September 2023

Movie Review: Copycat (1995)

Genre: Serial Killer Thriller
Director: Jon Amiel
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Holly Hunter, Dermot Mulroney, Harry Connick Jr., Will Patton
Running Time: 123 minutes

Synopsis: In San Francisco, criminal psychologist Dr. Helen Hudson (Sigourney Weaver) is suffering from agoraphobia a year after narrowly surviving a brutal assault by serial killer Daryll Lee Cullum (Harry Connick Jr.). With Callum now in prison, Inspector MJ Monahan (Holly Hunter) and her partner Inspector Reuben Goetz (Dermot Mulroney) seek Helen's help to capture a new serial killer preying on women. Hudson deduces the assailant is copying the methods of famous serial killers from the past, but there is also a more sinister motive behind the killings.

What Works Well: László Kovács' classy cinematography enhances slick production values, and director Jon Amiel keeps the action moving and never far away from the next thrill. The excellent duo of Sigourney Weaver (classy but traumatized) and Holly Hunter (whipsmart but jaded) are complemented by a sinister and unhinged Harry Connick Jr. performance. Dr. Hudson's house is an architectural beauty and almost makes agoraphobia an attractive proposition. 

What Does Not Work As Well: Most of the plot details do not withstand retrospective scrutiny, the killer's identity is at first vague then irrelevant, and a side-plot involving MJ's ex-romantic interest Inspector Nicoletti (Will Patton) is only irritating. Given the narrative intentions, the psychotic Daryll Lee Callum deserved much more visible involvement.

Conclusion: Superficially attractive but substantively lacking a cutting edge.

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Movie Review: Missing (2023)

Genre: Screenlife Thriller
Directors: Will Merrick and Nick Johnson
Starring: Storm Reid, Nia Long, Amy Landecker
Running Time: 111 minutes

Synopsis: In Los Angeles, 18-year-old June (Storm Reid) has had a fractured relationship with her over-protective mother Grace (Nia Long) ever since her father died from cancer. When Grace and her new boyfriend Kevin (Ken Leung) fail to return from a vacation in Colombia, June suspects her mother has been abducted. She reports the case to the US Embassy's Agent Park, and seeks help from Grace's friend and attorney Heather (Amy Landecker) and local Colombia gig worker Javier. Once she hacks into the on-line profiles of the missing couple, June starts to uncover surprising personal histories and sinister intentions.

What Works Well: This clever anthology sequel to 2018's Searching uses the same everything-through-a-screen format to unveil a fast-moving story of deceit layered upon family secrets. New revelations arrive in rapid cascades, suspicions spread like a computer virus, and for every explanation there is an equal and opposite rebuttal. Storm Reid navigates the avalanche of windows, tabs, apps, cameras, and websites with aplomb, and a thread of biting humour weaves through the organized clutter.

What Does Not Work As Well: Once the mystery launches, the pacing spikes to a frenzied level and never lets up. Every twist is rapidly chased by a turn, eventually inducing narrative dizziness. 

Conclusion: High resolution, technology-enabled mayhem.

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Movie Review: Town Without Pity (1961)

Genre: Legal Drama
Director: Gottfried Reinhardt
Starring: Kirk Douglas, E.G. Marshall, Barbara Rütting, Christine Kaufmann
Running Time: 105 minutes

Synopsis: Four US soldiers stationed in Germany get drunk and rape 16-year-old Karin (Christine Kaufmann), a respected banker's daughter. The rapists, including meek Corporal Larkin (Robert Blake), are soon arrested. Outraged local village residents demand the stiffest penalty, and prosecutor Lieutenant Colonel Pakenham (E.G. Marshall) agrees to hold an open court and seek the death penalty. Defence attorney Major Garrett (Kirk Douglas) has to brush off intrusions by reporter Inge Koerner (Barbara Rütting), and realizes he may have to destroy Karin's reputation to save the accused men from death.

What Works Well: An uncredited Dalton Trumbo helped adapt the novel by Manfred Gregor, and director Gottfried Reinhardt confidently strides into controversial - and often incendiary - territory. Rape, the sexual appetite of a young woman (before she was assaulted, Karin's lust was frustrated by her 19-year-old boyfriend), victim-blaming, exhibitionism and voyeurism, town gossip, and pride over truth are all thrust into the courtroom. The combustible mix is layered onto a foreign army's propensity to ravage, and Kirk Douglas cuts through the luggage with sharp-eyed - and heartless - clarity.

What Does Not Work As Well: The crime consequences push in many directions at once, and the sloppy handling of court procedures adds confusion to any intended narrative sympathies. The "lawyers are scummy but conflicted" and "in some court cases everyone loses" themes register, but Reinhardt muddles his intentions by abandoning one character to a horrid fate with inadequate reflection. Dimitri Tiomkin's music is both dissonant and over-used, while the Gene Pitney theme song is a melodic mess.

Conclusion: Groundbreaking, but also suffering from ethical disarray. 

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.