Monday, 26 October 2020

Movie Review: Dante's Peak (1997)

A natural disaster drama, Dante's Peak consists of predictable plot elements enlivened by spectacular special effects.

In a prologue set in Colombia, volcanologist Harry Dalton (Pierce Brosnan) loses the love of his life Marianne when their team is too late to pull out of a village and a nearby volcano erupts.

Four years later, Harry is dispatched to the small picturesque town of Dante's Peak in Washington State to check on unusual seismic activity at the long-dormant namesake mountain looming over the town. He connects with Mayor Rachel Wado (Linda Hamilton), a single mom of two kids and owner of a local coffee shop, and meets her ex-mother-in-law Ruth (Elizabeth Hoffman), who lives at the base of the mountain. 

Harry notices enough unusual activity to send for a full US Geological Survey team, including his boss Paul Dreyfus (Charles Hallahan). As a romance blossoms between Harry and Rachel, the team members deploy an array of sensors. Although the data is inconclusive, Harry instinctively senses a disaster is near. Just when Paul concludes no eruption is imminent and plans to pull out, a catastrophic eruption commences. Harry has to race to try and save Rachel's family and his life.

A throwback to the disaster movies of the 1970s, Dante's Peak lines up all the familiar cliches: the one scientist who foresees the disaster, the leaders of a quaint town who choose not to believe him fearful of spooking the businessman investor planning to pump money into the town, instinct and experience clashing with hard data and instrumentation, a romance forged under the stress of impending doom, and assorted annoying family members and pets, some more deserving of their fate than others.

Writer Leslie Bohem does just enough to make the two central characters interesting, the prologue effectively outlining the scar of loss on Harry's psyche, while Rachel is the small town gal done good despite the pain inflicted by a derelict ex-husband. Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton stay within the confines of the material but do elevate the quieter moments above purely derivative fare.

Where Dante's Peak does shine is in the special effects department, and when it's time for disaster to strike, the film is a visual feast. The science may be suspect and many details defy logic, but director Roger Donaldson dedicates the final third of the film to the volcano's angry eruption, and the scenes of carnage are widespread and all-consuming. Excellent digital effects and miniature model work bring to life tremors, earthquakes, lava rivers, fires, acidic lakes, collapsing freeways and bridges, and finally a spectacular pyroclastic cloud released by a blow-the-top-off-the-mountain explosion.

Dante's Peak is about to lose its status as the second most livable town in American (population under 20,000), and it will not go quietly.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

The Iconic Moment: Singin' In The Rain (1952)

Don: I'm singin' in the rain, just singin' in the rain!

Directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly.
Written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
Music by Nacio Herb Brown, Lyrics by Arthur Freed.
Cinematography by Harold Rosson.
Starring Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds.

The full Ace Black Blog review of Singin' In The Rain is here.

Sunday, 25 October 2020

Movie Review: The Prize (1963)

A drama, comedy, romance and spy thriller rolled into one, The Prize is beyond farfetched but nevertheless mindlessly entertaining.

The Nobel Prize winners are announced, and the shock is American author Andrew Craig (Paul Newman) winning for literature. He has not published in five years, his first few books never sold well, and his life now consists of drinking, womanizing, and writing pulp detective novels under a pseudonym. Upon arriving in Stockholm for the grand ceremony, Inger Lisa Andersson (Elke Sommer) of the Swedish Foreign Office is assigned as his handler to keep him out of trouble.

The winners also include American physicist Dr. Max Stratman (Edward G. Robinson), who fled Germany after the war and in Stockholm reunites with his niece Emily (Diane Baker). The medicine prize is shared by American Dr. Garrett (Kevin McCarthy) and Italian Dr. Farelli (Sergio Fantoni), although Garrett believes Farelli stole his work. The chemistry winners are the French husband and wife team of Claude and Denise Marceau (Gerard Oury and Micheline Presle). The passion has dissolved out of their marriage, and Claude's mistress Monique (Jacqueline Beer) accompanies them in Stockholm.

Max Stratman is summarily kidnapped by evil East German agents and replaced by his twin brother Walter (also Robinson), with Emily complicit in the plot. The observant Craig is the only person to suspect something is amiss and starts investigating. His life is soon in danger, but Inger Lisa and others dismiss his concerns as stemming from the imagination of an alcoholic. Nevertheless he persists in trying to save Stratman, and unintentionally also helps the other Nobel winners resolve their issues.

An adaptation of the Irving Wallace book, The Prize oscillates between the heights of an intellectual gathering of the world's smartest people to the lows of bumbling agents unable to eliminate the threat of an alcoholic author playing at amateur detective. Along the way Ernest Lehman's script features no shortage of plot holes as director Mark Robson chases, with patchy success, the Hitchcockian vibe of North By Northwest (also written by Lehman).

At 134 minutes, the film is padded and longer than it needs to be. Some of the scenes are just too obviously derivative and unnecessarily prolonged. Running for his life, Andrew Craig stumbles into a nudists' meeting and makes a fool of himself to get arrested, an homage bordering on rip-off of Cary Grant at the auction. A foot chase through the streets of Stockholm and a nighttime visit to a hospital both provide a limited return on investment. And on a couple of occasions the jumps in continuity are jarring.

But with suspension of disbelief set to high, fun can be found. Elke Sommer sparkles whether pouty or seductive, and the slow-cooked romance between Craig and Inger Lisa sizzles. Character introductions are one area where Robson does invest time to good effect, and the travails of the other award winners emerge as worthwhile sub-quests, cleverly tied together by Craig's inadvertent investigation. The dialogue crackles with wit, and the international cast finds the right groove between humour and spy action, with Leo G. Carroll hovering on the edges to underline the Hitchcock connection.

The Prize does not win plausibility points, but earns plaudits for perky playfulness.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 24 October 2020

Movie Review: Shining Through (1992)

A World War Two spy drama and romance, Shining Through enjoys sterling production values but suffers from wonky plot elements.

An elderly Linda Voss (Melanie Griffith) is being interviewed by the BBC about her experiences during World War Two. In flashback, she recounts her story starting in 1940. Half-Jewish, raised by working class parents in Queens, fluent in German, and a big fan of movies about war and espionage, Linda secures a secretarial job in Manhattan. She is assigned to assist undercover intelligence officer Ed Leland (Michael Douglas) as he questions German immigrants about the locations of factories and rail lines in their homeland. 

They fall in love, but Linda and Ed's romance is interrupted when the US joins the war and he is deployed behind enemy lines. When he re-emerges she volunteers for a dangerous spy mission to infiltrate a Nazi commander's home and steal bomb-manufacturing secrets. In Berlin Linda connects with Allied spies Friedrichs (John Gielgud) and the alluring Margrete von Eberstein (Joely Richardson). After some mishaps she secures employment as a domestic worker for General Franz-Otto Dietrich (Liam Neeson), and attempts to track down Jewish relatives who may be hiding from the Nazis.

An adaptation of the Susan Isaacs novel written and directed by David Seltzer, Shining Through exudes quality thanks to a polished look. The 1940s are recreated in fine detail, both in the United States and especially in Germany under the Nazis. With filming locations in eastern Germany just after unification, Seltzer captures picturesque streetscapes, buildings, offices, mansions, uniforms, cars, trams and trains from the era. Nazi symbols dominate, Germany on a full war footing but also starting to experience the sting of Allied bombing raids.

But while the visuals are rich, the story is handicapped by a higher than usual level of clunkiness, the plot holes threatening to swallow the entire adventure. Ed is a master spy frequently operating in enemy territory but cannot speak a word of German. He agrees to deploy the untrained and half-Jewish Linda into the field for a crucial mission. The seemingly well-connected and rich Dietrich hires Linda to live in his home and look after his children without the most basic confirmation of her background. She then hustles his young but observant children around on buses and into a fishmonger's store run by an Allied spy.

The action scenes are equally improbable, including a confrontation with a double agent and a climax at a border crossing, both veering towards death-defying over-the-top melodramatics.

Melanie Griffith helps navigate the rough patches with a seductively gutsy performance. Michael Douglas is surprisingly stone faced, and as a result the romance between Ed and Linda operates at only lukewarm temperatures. Liam Neeson hints at a complex character residing within Dietrich, and deserved more screen time.

Peppered with references to 1940s World War Two movies, Shining Through rides an innocent and old fashioned attitude all the way to a pat ending, but the feel-good intentions are forced to shine through perforated logic.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 22 October 2020

Movie Review: The Odd Couple (1968)

A comedy about a friendship tested at close quarters, The Odd Couple sparkles with witty dialogue and two excellent performances.

In New York City, writer Felix Ungar (Jack Lemmon) is thrown out of the house by his wife after 12 years of marriage. Despondent and contemplating suicide, he eventually makes his way to the home of his best friend Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau), a sports reporter who has also experienced divorce. 

Oscar invites Felix to live with him, but the two men are very different: Felix is a cleanliness and tidiness freak and a proud chef. Oscar is a slob living on rotting food and proud of it. They soon start irritating each other, but the living arrangement is most severely tested when Oscar invites a couple of ladies over for a fun evening and Felix ruins the jovial mood with excessive sentimentality.

With Neil Simon adapting his own play and Gene Saks directing, The Odd Couple is a playful exploration of a friendship under pressure. How far the bond between the two men will bend before it breaks becomes a battle of wills, patience and empathy caught in the crossfire between diametrically opposed domestic expectations. While the film is mostly confined to Oscar's apartment and does not stray far from the stage origins, the humour is sustained, and Lemmon and Matthau bounce off each other to great effect. 

The tension and laughs are derived from two endearing characters. Felix is vulnerable and still absorbing the shock of his marriage coming to an abrupt end. He takes refuge in obsessive compulsive behaviour, driving Oscar and their poker buddies to distraction with exquisite housekeeping. Felix wants to be accommodating, but starts to suffer under Oscar's increasingly regimented expectations. Two men on divergent wavelengths under the same roof are soon mimicking the behaviour of a married couple in crisis.

Simon's dialogue is razor sharp, the repartee between the two men filled with barbs, sarcasm and throwaway remarks. Saks keeps his cameras moving within the confines of the apartment, and the catchy Neal Hefti theme music is deployed in good doses.

But the film's success resides with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and they bring to life two unforgettable men. Lemmon delivers Felix's nervous mannerisms with perfectly annoying accuracy, while Matthau's slouch and grumpy exasperated expression define the prototypical divorced slob.

The supporting cast members add plenty of brio. The loud and sweaty poker group includes Herb Edelman and John Fiedler arguing about chips, snacks, and humidity. Monica Evans and Carole Shelley are the sisters Cecily and Gwendolyn Pigeon (or is it the other way around), a brilliantly giggly transplanted English pair looking for a good time but unknowingly landing in the ever widening crevasse between Felix and Oscar.

Cranky and candid, The Odd Couple endure complicated cohabitation.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Summer Of '42 (1971)

A coming-of-age drama and romance, Summer Of '42 is a wistful look back at friendship and first love.

In 1942, 15 year old Hermie (Gary Grimes) is vacationing with his family on Nantucket island. He spends the long and empty days on the beach with his best friend Oscy (Jerry Houser) and the slightly younger Bengie (Oliver Conant). The boys' hormones are in overdrive and they mostly obsess about feeling up girls and getting laid, fuelled by a big book about sex Bengie finds on his parents' bookshelf.

Hermie is immediately infatuated by Dorothy (Jennifer O'Neill), a beautiful married woman living at a secluded beach house. After her airman husband ships out to join the war, Hermie helps Dorothy with errands and develops a serious crush. Meanwhile Oscy and Hermie are also frolicing with two girls their age, the playful Miriam (Christopher Norris) and more cerebral Aggie (Katherine Allentuck). Before the summer is over, the boys' sexual yearnings will evolve into different realities, testing their friendship.

Written by Herman Raucher and based on his childhood experiences (also novelized after the movie was filmed), Summer Of '42 strikes chords of nostalgia for a generation that came of age in the shadow of a global war. The Michel Legrand soundtrack leans on the dreamy song The Summer Knows, and director Robert Mulligan does the rest with scenic beaches, rugged sand dunes, crashing waves, glorious sunsets, houses on stilts and the prototypical cute main street.

It's all a perfect setting for two teenagers to test their friendship and tip toe into adulthood. Oscy is more brash and solely interested in gaining knowledge and courage towards physical fulfillment. Hermie is more sensitive and instinctively aware of the role of emotions, and the boys' different attitudes cause a growing rift. 

Although he holds his own with just some awkwardness, Hermie is utterly beguiled during and after his encounters with Dorothy, her kindness and allure sending him into raptures where intimacy means much more than lust. She is lonely but stops short of leading him on, Raucher capturing a fine balance where Hermie's racing mind conjures a one-sided romance wild enough to fill a beach house otherwise resonating with innocence.

Despite slow pacing, Mulligan's sometimes ponderous staging, and wooden but mercifully limited narration (an uncredited Mulligan as the adult Hermie), the highlights are plenty. Hermie's first encounter with a hot cup of black coffee offered by Dorothy is a mini-suspense movie, while his attempt to purchase condoms at the town's one convenience story is an epic rite of passage. And when Hermie and Oscy go to the movies with Miriam and Aggie, the grappling and counter-grappling to get a feel for new body parts upstages Now, Voyager, playing on the screen.

Sentimental without being schmaltzy, The Summer Of '42 is when the heartaches of adulthood start to nudge childhood innocence into the past. 

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Movie Review: The Good Girl (2002)

A drama with dry humour, The Good Girl is a small but astute story of a working class woman trying to break out of a rut.

In a small Texas town, Justine (Jennifer Aniston) is 30 years old and stuck in an emotionless marriage to perpetually stoned house painter Phil (John C. Reilly). She also hates her sales job at the non-descript big-box Retail Rodeo store. But her passions are aroused by new employee Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal), a moody 22 year old modeling himself on Holden Caulfield of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher In The Rye.

Justine and Holden start an affair, but as her guilt grows, so does his need for control. Meanwhile Phil is undergoing fertility tests, and Justine's co-worker Gwen (Deborah Rush) suffers a medical mishap. As gossip about Justine's infidelity spreads, the opportunities to change her life start to narrow.

A tidy story with an idiosyncratic attitude, The Good Girl takes itself seriously enough but still finds time for jabs of humour at life's ridiculous twists. Director Miguel Arteta and writer Mike White create the blandest of tableaus for Justine to sink deeper into her depression, this grey corner of Texas notable for exactly nothing. The community revolves around the neon drenched Retail Rodeo sitting in the middle of an enormous parking lot, and Justine's cramped house offers no refuge: Phil and his work colleague Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson) are the immovable joint-smoking occupants of her living room sofa, and the bedroom television set does not work.

That Justine goes looking for a bolt of excitement is no surprise, but her fling with the troubled Holden turns into a field of misadventure. She tries a dead-end turn towards religion, but frantic lies emerge as a better alternative to salvage some semblance of stability. Ironically, while an infatuation-fueled Holden evolves into a potential nightmare, it only takes small nudges to make some progress with husband Phil (the television gets repaired).

Despite a worrisome mortality rate among Retail Rodeo employees, Arteta still finds chuckles through an animated set of supporting characters hatched by their environment. These include store manager Jack (a perfectly even-tempered John Carroll Lynch), the surreptitiously incendiary sales associate Cheryl (Zooey Deschanel), the God-loving beady-eyed security guard Corny (Mike White), and the observant but emotionally dependent Bubba.

In an early role Jake Gyllenhaal mixes equal parts brooding charisma and lurking danger. But Jennifer Aniston shines brightest as the morose Justine, shuffling rather than walking towards outcomes she despises but cannot avoid, increasingly befuddled as her every action somehow makes things worse. As she discovers the pitfalls of boldly striving for better, The Good Girl does well.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Movie Review: The Long Goodbye (1973)

A private detective neo-noir crime drama, The Long Goodbye dives into a sordid mess of murder and deceit among the rich and decadent.

Los Angeles private detective Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) helps his friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) cross the border into Tijuana. Terry is soon revealed as the prime suspect in the murder of his rich wife Sylvia, but the case is closed when he apparently commits suicide in a small Mexican town.

Marlowe is next hired by Terry's neighbour Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt) to find her missing husband Roger (Sterling Hayden), a celebrated but frequently drunk author. Marlowe locates Roger in the dubious care of a Doctor Verringer (Henry Gibson). Eileen is curiously interested in the Lennox case, while her marriage to Roger is clearly disintegrating.

Vicious criminal Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) and his goons accuse Philip of hiding money Terry allegedly stole from Marty. Marlowe also learns the Wade marriage is perforated with accusations of infidelity and Roger owes money to both Doctor Verringer and Marty. Untangling all the crooked motives will require sleuthing on both sides of the border.

An adaptation of Raymond Chandler's 1953 novel with a script by Leigh Brackett, The Long Goodbye takes liberties with the source material but successfully updates the famously cynical detective into the early 1970s. With director Robert Altman maximizing the use of windows, mirrors, and reflections, in this Los Angeles peeking into the lives of others is easy, but everyone is too self-obsessed to care. From the gaggle of frequently topless yoga-practicing nubile neighbours to the one-way mirror at the police station and the Wades' glass-enclosed beach house, the visual barriers are for show, and flaunting is now the vogue.

As Marlowe delves deeper into the trouble swirling around his supposedly dead friend Terry Lennox, the emerging themes are edacity and narcissism, the privileged succumbing to the pursuit of lust, wealth, and reclamation of fading glory, eradicating anything and anyone standing in the way. Lennox, the Wades, Verringer, and Rydell all reside on the same side of the coin, without a single sympathetic character among them, and if nothing else, all deserving of their propagating miseries.

Altman maintains good pacing and combines the investigative elements with plenty of character definition, ambience and acidic humour. Memorable context-setting scenes include the opening adventures with Marlowe's cat (representing all this is uppity about Los Angeles) and a couple of chilling encounters with the borderline unhinged Augustine involving a Coke bottle and a parade of shirtlessness (with a brief uncredited appearance by unknown actor Arnold Schwarzenegger).

Elliott Gould dissolves into an endearingly wisecracking Marlowe, the only person still smoking in Los Angeles but always ready with a quip for every predicament and enough inner steel to keep fending off lies until the truth comes out. Sterling Hayden chews the scenery in a Hemingwayesque turn, while Henry Gibson as Doctor Verringer and Mark Rydell as Augustine inject large doses of nauseating menace.

Nina van Pallandt does not quite register the requisite mystery, and not unexpectedly with a Chandler story, a few ends may be either loose or simply scattered into an impossible puzzle. But with Marlowe growing increasingly annoyed with the rampant egotism, the The Long Goodbye emerges as an expedient cure for those who seek it.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 19 October 2020

Movie Review: Madigan (1968)

A tough police procedural, Madigan tackles multiple storylines but is more successful as a television series template than a cohesive film.

In New York City, detectives Daniel Madigan (Richard Widmark) and Rocco Bonaro (Harry Guardino) are humiliated when fugitive Barney Benesch (Steve Ihnay) slips from their grasp and steals their guns during what should have been a routine arrest. They set out to make amends, contacting Benesch's known associates to track him down. 

Meanwhile Police Commissioner Anthony Russell (Henry Fonda) has other problems: he receives proof his long time friend and deputy Chief Inspector Charles Kane (James Whitmore) is on the take, while the distinguished Dr. Taylor (Raymond St. Jacques) is accusing the police department of harassing his Black son.

Madigan is finding it increasingly difficult to manage the expectations of his wife Julia (Inger Stevens), who resents his frequent absences and low salary. Russell is single, but is having an affair with the married Tricia (Susan Clark). Through bookie Castiglione (Michael Dunn) and then part-time pimp Hughie (Don Stroud), Madigan and Bonaro close in on Benesch, but he is determined to evade arrest.

An adaptation of Richard Dougherty's book The Commissioner with a script by Howard Rodman and Abraham Polonsky, Madigan deserves credit for attempting to round the two principal characters into people who have private lives and frustrations beyond solving the crime at hand. And the concurrent stories add a dose of realism, a Commissioner like Russell not afforded the luxury of solving one problem at a time. 

While the change in title from book to film suggests an increased focus on top-billed Richard Widmark's detective, director Don Siegel still tilts the screen time more towards Henry Fonda's commissioner. In this case, this is not necessarily a good thing, Fonda appearing dour and vaguely disinterested throughout. His multiple worries surrounding the evidence against Inspector Kane, Dr. Taylor's allegations of brutality and racism, and his illicit relationship with Tricia spread the movie too thin. Madigan threatens to drop to the level of a television pilot where future episodes will pick up the many loose threads (a short-lived network series did follow).

Siegel does better foreshadowing 1970s urban grittiness and loose-cannon detectives. Madigan deglamourizes New York City into yellows and browns, the action playing out in back alleys, narrow hallways and nondescript motel rooms. And with Widmark relishing his character's joy at operating just slightly over the line, the film starts and ends with short and sharp bangs, taut encounters with the dangerous Benesch making up for some of the flab in the middle. The police officers may have romantic partners to appease and cocktail parties to attend, but nothing replaces the thrill of the chase.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

The Iconic Moment: The Sixth Sense (1999)

Cole: I see dead people.

Directed and written by M. Night Shyamalan.
Cinematography by Tak Fujimoto.
Starring Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette.

The full Ace Black Blog review of The Sixth Sense is here.