Movie Review: Dante's Peak (1997)
Mon, 26 Oct 2020 15:58:00 +0000

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.

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The Iconic Moment: Singin' In The Rain (1952)
Mon, 26 Oct 2020 13:00:00 +0000

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.

Movie Review: The Prize (1963)
Sun, 25 Oct 2020 18:28:00 +0000

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.

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Movie Review: Shining Through (1992)
Sat, 24 Oct 2020 23:39:00 +0000

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.

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Movie Review: The Odd Couple (1968)
Fri, 23 Oct 2020 04:24:00 +0000

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.

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Movie Review: Summer Of '42 (1971)
Thu, 22 Oct 2020 14:11:00 +0000

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. 

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Movie Review: The Good Girl (2002)
Thu, 22 Oct 2020 00:41:00 +0000

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.

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Movie Review: The Long Goodbye (1973)
Tue, 20 Oct 2020 13:42:00 +0000

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.

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Movie Review: Madigan (1968)
Mon, 19 Oct 2020 16:27:00 +0000

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.

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The Iconic Moment: The Sixth Sense (1999)
Mon, 19 Oct 2020 13:00:00 +0000

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.

Movie Review: Beirut (2018)
Sat, 17 Oct 2020 23:21:00 +0000

An espionage and terrorism drama thriller, Beirut probes the morass of deadly Middle East power games playing out in Lebanon. Despite decent ambiance, the film flounders on cliches and disingenuity.

In 1972, American diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) is living the good life in Beirut, married to Nadia (Leïla Bekhti) and hosting cocktail parties for the country's elites and visiting dignitaries. The Skiles are good friends with the CIA's Cal Riley (Mark Pellegrino) and his wife Alice (Kate Fleetwood). But Mason's life is upturned when Karim, a 13-year old Palestinian boy who is almost part of Mason's family, is revealed as the brother of a terrorist involved in the attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.

Ten years later Mason is an alcoholic working as a labour negotiator in Boston. The CIA calls him back to Beirut, now destroyed by a civil war. Field officer Sandy (Rosamund Pike) and Ambassador Whalen (Larry Pine) reveal Cal has been abducted and the kidnappers have specifically requested Mason's involvement to negotiate a prisoner swap. Mason is soon embroiled in a dangerous game involving terrorists, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and ghosts from his past, with the integrity of America's regional spy network at stake and Israel itching to invade Lebanon and drive out the PLO.

As a 1980s city lying in ruins but still home to numerous local, regional and international armed factions engaged in endless conflict, Beirut provides fertile terrain for drama. The film (actually shot in Morocco) does take advantage of the context, and director Brad Anderson, working from an occasionally cutting Tony Gilroy script, captures the chaos and danger of armed thugs roaming the streets and manning checkpoints, every neighbourhood controlled by a different militia and the threat of death residing around every corner. Streaking fighter jets and the dull thuds of explosions - distant and sometimes not so distant - provide a suitable soundtrack.

The plot basics are promising and grounded in actual events, including the impenetrable complexities of the civil war, the Palestinian cause, notorious acts of terror, Israel's ambitions to invade the country, American bumbling, and the foreign hostage-taking crisis. But the specifics disappoint, including the utterly exhausted alcoholism angle, an unfortunate camels-on-the-beach shot, and dreadfully misplaced accents. The negotiations to free Riley start strong with a nimble side trip to Israel, but with the clock running down Gilroy and Anderson default to muddled short-cuts and under-developed contrivances.

Jon Hamm allows Mason's perpetual five o'clock shadow and frumpled clothes carrying the stale stench of alcohol to dominate. Rosamund Pike never quite gets a handle on her character, while the rest of the cast stick to basic agitated spy / more agitated militiaman stereotypes. Beirut provides a rich canvass, but the picture fades.

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Movie Review: The Front Runner (2018)
Sat, 17 Oct 2020 18:47:00 +0000

A political drama, The Front Runner tracks the rapid fall of a star candidate who seemed to have it all.

In 1984, charismatic Colorado Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) loses the race to secure the Democratic nomination for President, but increases his name recognition. In the lead-up to the 1988 election, Hart is the acknowledged front runner not only to secure the Democratic nomination, but also to win the Presidency. Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons) leads the energized campaign team, and Hart focuses his messaging on big inspiring policy ideas.

But his marriage to Lee (Vera Farmiga) has been wobbly, and in Miami, Hart meets Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) and they start an affair. He bristles at any press questions about his personal life, and in an interview with A.J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie) of the Washington Post, challenges the media to follow him around. Acting on a tip, Steve Zissis of the Miami Herald surveills Hart's Washington DC townhouse and spots the candidate liaising with Rice. The story explodes, but Hart remains oblivious to the public's unforgiving mood. Lee is understandably furious while Dixon scrambles to salvage the campaign.

Based on a true story, The Front Runner is an inside look at a political campaign initially riding unstoppable momentum, then crashing to a halt when the wheels fall off. Good looking, young and idealistic, Gary Hart galvanized the public and appeared to have a straight shot at the White House. But he failed to grasp the shifting public mood expecting candidates to adhere to strict moral behaviour, and stumbled badly by first entering into an extramarital affair and then fumbling the management of the story.

Director Jason Reitman also co-wrote the script, and derives energy by plugging into the organized chaos of a national campaign driven by young, dedicated, snappy and witty staffers crisscrossing the country, living on fast food in cheap motels. But while sharp and irreverent humour permeates through the film, Reitman does occasionally overplay the glib overlapping sidebar conversations.

Evolving public tolerance levels and critical character flaws emerge as the twin themes combining to knock Hart out of his winning trajectory. While former Presidents enjoyed extramarital liaisons with no press harassment, by 1988 politics and entertainment were converging under the gaze of insatiable television coverage and the rise of gotcha! gutter journalism. Hugh Jackman captures Hart's dour idealism and dogged belief that only his intellect and policy ideas should matter, bristling at suggestions that nebulous definitions of family values could have any bearing on political ambitions. 

With J.K. Simons nailing the unflappable, seen-it-all-before Dixon, Molly Ephraim as Irene Kelly emerges as the most prominent of his team and plays a crucial role in a small but welcome subplot tracking the overlooked fallout of the scandal on Donna Rice. Vera Farmiga shines in a couple of scenes as the long-suffering and wronged-yet-again wife. The rich cast also includes Alfred Molina as The Washington Post's Ben Bradlee and Kaitlyn Dever as Hart's daughter Andrea.

Crackling with the electricity of doomed expectations, The Front Runner enjoys scandalous smarts.

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Movie Review: Mile 22 (2018)
Sat, 17 Oct 2020 14:12:00 +0000

An action thriller, Mile 22 is a non-stop cacophony of slick urban battle scenes, admittedly impressive sound and fury subjugating substance.

James Silva (Mark Wahlberg) is an operative in the secretive Overwatch group led by James Bishop (John Malkovich), sanctioned by the US government to execute covert counter-espionage missions with deadly force. With the help of agents Alice (Lauren Cohan), Sam (former professional wrestler Ronda Rousey) and Douglas (Carlo Alban), the team takes down a Russian FSB safehouse in the United States, killing all the occupants including an 18 year old.

16 months later, Silva and his team are in Indocarr (modeled on Indonesia) seeking missing shipments of the chemical element cesium, which can be used to create radioactive bombs. Local informant Li Noor (Iko Uwais) provides a locked disk with crucial information, but will only reveal the password in return for asylum in the US. Silva is tasked with driving Noor the 22 miles from the embassy to an airfield, a mission complicated by Indocarr's intelligence chief Axel (Sam Medina) and his army of goons, eager to prevent Noor's defection. Meanwhile, a Russian surveillance team takes to the skies to monitor - and perhaps interfere - in the unfolding events.

It's impossible not to admire Mile 22. Director Peter Berg teams up with star Mark Wahlberg for the fourth time, and in just 94 minutes they deliver a sparkling non-stop action movie built on the foundations of a complex story crackling with energy. Based on an original script from Lea Carpenter, this is unpretentious combat entertainment with a maximum body count, a minimum of CGI, plenty of gore, bullets and martial arts sharing screen time, augmented by a veneer of whizz-bang technology and delivered with commendable proficiency.

But the weaknesses are also apparent, mostly in the form of a structure that settles into a series of video-game level set-pieces, and a dizzying editing job often intercutting manic action at multiple locations into barely cohesive snippets. And while the triumphant final twist is well-earned, it does leave behind plenty of retrospective logic holes, some of which were undoubtedly intended to be filled by sequels.

The action is juiced by providing Wahlberg with a slightly different screen persona to chew on. Instead of his typical heroic guy-next-door, here James Silva has a whirring mind operating too quickly for his mouth, and he snaps a rubberband on his wrist to just marginally stay on the sane side of the line. He berates friends and foes alike for not thinking and acting as quickly as he does, but they tolerate him due to his in-field superiority.

The supporting performances and character definitions are as would be expected, superficial and barely existent respectively. Lauren Cohan suffers the most from an inept attempt to introduce a turbulent long-distance family life.

With a singular focus on expending the most ammunition in the least amount of time, Mile 22 covers the distance.

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Movie Review: Under Fire (1983)
Wed, 14 Oct 2020 17:45:00 +0000

A tense drama set within Nicaragua's civil war, Under Fire captures the bracing chaos faced by journalists trying to make sense of a revolution in progress.

After covering the civil war in Chad, photojournalist Russell Price (Nick Nolte), and reporters Claire (Joanna Cassidy) and Alex (Gene Hackman) relocate to Nicaragua, where a leftist revolution is threatening to overthrow the US-backed regime of President Anastasio Somoza (René Enríquez). Alex then returns to the US to accept a job as anchor, breaking off a strained relationship with Claire and allowing her to pursue a passionate romance with Russell.

The Nicaraguan rebels, inspired by reclusive leader Rafael, are quickly advancing through the countryside and capturing key towns. Russell meets well-connected French businessman/spy Jazy (Jean-Louis Trintignant), as well as mercenary Oates (Ed Harris). American public relations expert Hub Kittle (Richard Masur) tries to burnish the President's reputation, despite Somoza's infatuation with Miss Panama (Jenny Gago) while the country burns. When rumours of Rafael's death threaten the rebels' progress, Russell and Claire are forced to make decisions that could alter the war's trajectory.

Filmed in Mexico, Under Fire recreates a country convulsing under the pressure of a Cold War fueled revolution. The script by Clayton Frohman and Ron Shelton lends sympathy to the rebels at the expense of the Somoza dictatorship, but is also under no illusions. Frenchman Jazy, at the point of losing everything, is blunt in his assessment of the country's prospects, under any regime.

Meanwhile director Roger Spottiswoode brilliantly evokes the horrific sights and smells of a furious conflict consuming the country. Under Fire captures the disorienting reality of deserted streets littered with destroyed equipment and abandoned dead bodies, civilians sheltering from the horror, the warring factions barely in control of opposite sides of small towns, the combatants themselves unsure where the front lines are. In one scene Russell and Claire, desperate to find a path to safety, encounter two rebels stationed at a street corner who just shrug in disinterested ignorance when asked whether the revolutionaries control that neighbourhood.

As the death count rises, Russell and Claire witness increasing atrocities. Their objectivity erodes and they enter the danger zone where the appeal of taking sides rises. With his cameras and photographs emerging as potent weapons, Russell's exhausted psyche is put to the test, seemingly in a position to wield power but also unaware of his status as a pawn. Alex's unexpected return to Nicaragua threatens to elevate all of Russell's risks into disasters, but just like the endless neighbourhood mazes, more twists await. 

At a running length of 128 minutes, Spottiswoode allows the drama to breathe with adequate time and space afforded for both character development and taut on-the-street action. Nolte, Cassidy and Hackman are provided enough context to round their characters into believable war correspondents, although the romantic entanglements are predictably clunky. Ed Harris as the mercenary Oates has a small but chilling role, the misery of nations providing gainful employment for men happy to kill for a living.

Unblinking, harrowing and riveting, Under Fire radiates with the intensity of infernal combat and impossible dilemmas.

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The Iconic Moment: Soylent Green (1973)
Mon, 12 Oct 2020 13:00:00 +0000

Thorn: You tell everybody. Listen to me, Hatcher. You've gotta tell them! SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE!!! We've gotta stop'em...somehow!

Directed by Richard Fleischer.
Written by Stanley R. Greenberg.
Cinematography by Richard H. Kline.
Starring Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Joseph Cotten.

The full Ace Black Blog Review of Soylent Green is here.

Movie Review: What They Had (2018)
Sun, 11 Oct 2020 17:20:00 +0000

A routine family drama, What They Had features earnest discussions about difficulties faced by middle-aged adults dealing with aging parents and college-aged children, but introduces little that is new. 

In Chicago, the elderly Ruth Everhardt (Blythe Danner) is suffering from worsening dementia and wanders away from home in the middle of the night during a snowstorm. She is found safe, much to the relief of her husband of 60 years Bert (Robert Forster). But the incident is the last straw for her son Nicky (Michael Shannon), a bar owner who now insists Ruth should live in a care facility. Bert, who has a heart condition, disagrees and wants Ruth to stay home and in his care.

Nicky's sister Bitty (Hilary Swank) flies in from California with her 20 year old daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga). Bitty is caught between Nicky's eagerness to place Ruth in care and Bert's resistance to any change. The trip also prompt Bitty to reassess her life, including addressing Emma's disinterest in attending college and confronting dissatisfaction within her own marriage to husband Eddie (Josh Lucas).

An independent low-key production, What They Had enjoys a stellar cast in fine form, but otherwise rarely rises above conventional fare. Falling somewhere between television-level movie-of-the-week familiarity and a small-cast stage show with the drama confined to just a couple of sets, the film replays many of the notes already heard with various intensities in films like Away From Her, The Leisure Seeker, Amour, and Still Alice.

Writer and director Elizabeth Chomko gradually shifts focus from Ruth to Bitty, and What They Had is ultimately the story of a woman stuck in the doldrums: feeling guilty about being separated from her ailing parents, trapped in a frigid marriage, unsatisfied in her career, unable to communicate with her daughter, and always bickering - or loudly arguing - with her expletives-loving brother. It's a big load for one character to carry in a 101 minute movie, and despite Hilary Swank's best efforts, most of the resolutions are flash fried.

Humour derived from Ruth's dotty behaviour adds the occasional spark, and the film is nothing if not honest in its fidelity to the dilemmas, frustrations, and the is-this-all-there-is questions thrust into the face of the sandwich generation. But What They Had tries too hard to evoke nostalgia through fading and jerky 8mm film recreations of Bert and Ruth's glory years, the soulful past unable to compensate for the present gaps in creativity.

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Movie Review: The Day Of The Jackal (1973)
Sat, 10 Oct 2020 20:24:00 +0000

An assassination thriller, The Day Of The Jackal derives superb tension from meticulous mission preparations and dogged detective work.

The setting is France in the early 1960s. The terrorist Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS) opposes the plans of President General Charles de Gaulle to withdraw from Algeria. An assassination attempt targeting the President fails and the OAS leadership is decimated, but the remaining members reconvene first in Vienna then in Rome. They hire a foreign professional hitman known only as the Jackal (Edward Fox) to assassinate de Gaulle.

The Jackal scrupulously prepares for his mission, carefully selecting a method, time and place. He orders a custom-designed sniper rifle from a Genoa-based gunsmith and fake identification documents from a master forger, and selects a sniper's nest location overlooking a Parisian public square. In the meantime, through surveillance and a brutal interrogation, French authorities get wind of the plot, but have few clues to pursue. Deputy Commissioner Claude Lebel (Michael Lonsdale) is tasked with identifying and finding the assassin before he can strike.

An adaptation of the Frederick Forsyth bestseller, The Day Of The Jackal is an expertly assembled thriller. Director Fred Zinnemann, working from a script by Kenneth Ross, maintains focus on the detailed mechanics of planning an audacious assassination. By disclosing just a few tantalizing clues about The Jackal's plans, the film gains momentum from his methodical step-by-step process to target a well-protected head of state, where every detail has to be considered and looked after.

Enough is revealed about the context and objectives of the OAS to set the stage, but beyond the basic political backdrop the film deliberately bypasses character depth to focus on actions. Countering the Jackal's preparations, the frumpy Lebel is called in by his French political masters for an ostensibly even more difficult task: find a hitman with no name and no image. Lebel's round-the-clock detective work receives help from Scotland Yard, and the French and British services combine to gradually reveal a possible identity for the assassin.

Of course there are surprises and setbacks along the way for both sides. The OAS plant a mole (Olga Georges-Picot) deep within the French state apparatus to keep tabs on the investigation's progress. The Jackal has to take lethal action to snuff out emerging threats. And he does make mission-compromising mistakes and has to improvise liaisons (including with a sophisticated woman played by Delphine Seyrig) to evade the tightening net. Meanwhile, Lebel is battling the need for utmost secrecy, which stymies his ability to quickly action new intelligence.

Zinnemann wrings tension from long periods of silence, the dialogue limited to essential exchanges, the music absent. The European locations are more grey and looming than bright and picturesque. Edward Fox and Michael Lonsdale are comfortable in subdued roles requiring intellectual focus rather than brazen charisma. The two men exist deep in the shadows, The Jackal and the Deputy Commissioner locked in a gripping race against time and against each other, the fate of a nation hanging in the balance.

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Movie Review: The Naked Spur (1953)
Fri, 09 Oct 2020 17:42:00 +0000

A taut western, The Naked Spur gets under the skin of five distinct characters engaged in a lethal battle of wits.

Rancher turned bounty hunter Howard Kemp (James Stewart) teams up with veteran gold prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) to track down fugitive Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan), wanted dead or alive for murder. Disgraced ex-soldier Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) joins Howard and Jesse, and the trio capture Ben and his girlfriend Lina (Janet Leigh).

Howard had intended to use the $5,000 bounty on Ben's heads to repurchase the ranch he lost when his ex-lover betrayed him. Jesse and Roy now want their share of the reward money, and as the tense group make their way to Abilene, the resourceful Ben sets about exploiting the tensions between his three captors. An encounter with Blackfoot tribals adds further complications.

A journey driven by greed, complicated by uneasy alliances, and stirred by a charismatic fugitive desperate to save his neck from the hangman's noose, The Naked Spur is a dark, complex western. Carrying worthy echoes of The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, the script by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom presents five flawed character with disparate personal aspirations, and director Anthony Mann conjures up delectable moral dilemmas and psychological gamesmanship.

The third western collaboration between director Mann and star Stewart, The Naked Spur provides Stewart with one of his most intriguing characters, immediately placing the drama on dangerous ground. Howard Kemp is no stand-up hero looking to do the right thing. Instead he is deeply damaged by a love gone wrong, and has now defaulted to a stance of personal greed seeking to redress a sense of deep injustice. Indeed, the script hints Kemp chose Ben as his prey because he is the easiest target compared to genuine hardened outlaws.

While Kemp does his best to dissuade Jesse and Roy from claiming a share of the reward, they have their own issues to deal with. The aging Jesse has dedicated a lifetime to the futile pursuit of gold, a fading dream Ben can easily exploit. And the roguish Roy is on the run and desperate for the additional firepower a group can provide. 

Further intrigue is introduced by Lina and her spiky relationship with all the men. She immediately senses both Howard and Roy making moves towards her; and is shocked when the ever enterprising Ben encourages her to lead them both on, introducing a romantic duel as another potential crack to weaken the already rickety alliance against him.

With just the five speaking parts, Mann is able to delve deep into his characters, the fascinating multi-dimensional conflicts playing out against a lush landscape of forests, cliffs, caves and roaring rivers along the slow but dangerous trail to Abilene. As tensions run high, acts of betrayal and unexpected heroism converge towards moments of truth. With trust in short supply and no unity of purpose, few objectives are fulfilled, The Naked Spur a harsh exposition of the difference between superficial desires and soulful needs.

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Movie Review: Peppermint (2018)
Thu, 08 Oct 2020 22:05:00 +0000

A routine vigilante thriller, Peppermint features shallow characterizations, a high body count and stratospheric levels of implausibility.

At the Los Angeles Christmas fairgrounds, Riley North (Jennifer Garner) witnesses the murder of her husband Chris and daughter Carly by goons working for drug lord Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba). A traumatized Riley identifies the shooters, but Garcia's intimidation extends into the justice system and the perpetrators walk free. Detectives Beltran (John Ortiz) and Carmichael (John Gallagher Jr.) are helpless, and Riley disappears.

After five years of weapons and martial arts training, Riley returns to Los Angeles and lives in a van parked on skid row. She initiates a murderous clean-up campaign targeting Garcia's organization and corrupt justice officials. FBI agent Lisa Inman (Annie Ilonzeh) joins Beltran and Carmichael in trying to stop the rampage, but Riley becomes a vigilante star on social media.

An elemental Death Wish knock-off, Peppermint does not bother with too much context or depth. Director Pierre Morel gets down to the business of killing from the opening scene, and within a couple of days Riley North proceeds to wipe out dozens of goons, gang leaders and assorted hangers-on, not to mention corrupt judges and lawyers. A few buildings are reduced to rubble, and one admittedly ramshackle neighbourhood destroyed.

Despite some suspect editing the action scenes are generally well executed, and Morel provides a glossy sheen as the bullets fly and blood flows. Chad St. John's script is humourless and witless, with most of the dialogue at cheap television show levels, but character evolution is the most glaring void. Riley transforms from anti-violence mom to a well-oiled killing machine, but the five intervening years are entirely skipped over. 

With a physically committed performance Jennifer Garner does her best to fill in the blanks, but Riley's sheer blood lust is beyond the reach of easy comprehension. The secondary characters are unimaginative stock creations, matched by an underpowered supporting cast. Peppermint is the flavour of ice cream young Carly orders just before she is killed, and most of it just melts into an unseemly puddle.

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Movie Review: Thank You For Your Service (2017)
Thu, 08 Oct 2020 00:11:00 +0000

A drama about soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Thank You For Your Service is an unblinking exploration of the battle to survive after the shooting stops.

While on a tour of duty in Iraq, Sergeant Adam Schumann (Miles Teller) leads his men into an ambush, resulting in a severe injury to soldier Emory (Scott Haze). Another incident results in the death of Sergeant Doster (Brad Beyer). Schumann and his buddies Specialist Tausolo Aieti (Beulah Koale) and Private Billy Waller (Joe Cole) return home suffering from PTSD.

Schumann has support from his wife Saskia (Haley Bennett) but still finds it difficult to talk about his war experience. Aieti is prevented from re-enlisting for another tour due to memory loss issues, while his wife Alea (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is eager to start a family. Waller is unable to cope when he learns his girlfriend has abandoned him. Schumann and Aieti realize they need help and reach out to the Veterans Administration, but an underfunded system is slow to provide support, leaving the men vulnerable.

Inspired by a true story covered in David Finkel's book, Thank You For Your Service ventures into the difficult terrain of mental trauma, exposing a system designed to care for visible injuries but inept at supporting troops suffering from psychological damage. Jason Hall wrote the script and directs with admirable honesty, carrying echoes of movies like Brothers and Stop-Loss but delving deeper into the mechanics of a misfiring bureaucracy.

Schumann, Aieti and Waller are soldiers trained to kill and possess a natural aversion to even acknowledge the need for help. They also have varying degrees of family support, providing Hall with latitude to explore connections between family backing and extent of suffering. Waller arrives home to an empty house, his girlfriend having dumped him without the courtesy of a note. Aieti has a partner but she is  preoccupied with starting a family. Schumann has a loving wife and two kids, and Saskia is not only strong and available to help, but unambiguously verbalizes her support.

The quest for help builds to a depressing lowlight: Schumann and Aieti come face to face with an overburdened VA system offering, with a straight face, months-long waiting periods to soldiers on the verge of blowing their brains out. Ill-equipped family members have to bear the brunt of propping up wounded warriors, or watch in horror as they disintegrate and threaten to harm the ones they love.

Adam Schumann and Beulah Koale effectively convey the poignancy of proud young men groping in the unfamiliar darkness and disorientation within. In a well-written role, Haley Bennett is the stand-out performer, her Saskia not short of frustration but full of awareness and fortitude to navigate her husband's churn.

Thank You For Your Service never sparkles or surprises, nor does it intend to. The mission is a blunt and straightforward exposé of post-combat agony and systemic failure, accomplished with grim proficiency.

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Movie Review: Battle Of Britain (1969)
Tue, 06 Oct 2020 21:45:00 +0000

A World War Two historical drama, Battle Of Britain recreates epic dogfights and bombing raids, but fails to generate any sense of narrative engagement.

It's 1940, and with France's capitulation to the advancing armies of Nazi Germany looking assured, Britain's Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding (Laurence Olivier) concludes all air force resources should be consolidated at home for the upcoming defence effort. After the Allies are defeated and evacuated from Dunkirk, the United Kingdom stands alone and braces for an invasion.

Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe Hermann Göring (Hein Riess) is confident an air force bombing campaign can quickly gain command of the skies. But the British rally, aided by the superior maneuverability of the Spitfire compared to the German Messerschmitt Bf 109. In months of aerial combat including the bombing of cities, both sides endure heavy losses.

A Harry Saltzman production directed by Guy Hamilton, Battle Of Britain features numerous sequences of painstakingly staged combat in the skies. Most of the budget was invested in authentic scenes of Spitfires intercepting German bombers and engaging with Messeschmitts, as the Luftwaffe attempts to knock out radar installations and airfields before targeting London in retaliation for the British bombing of Berlin. In return the Royal Air Force musters every available fighter plane and pilot to mount a spirited defence, taking advantage of German hubris and strategic mistakes to inflict heavy losses on the attackers and Göring's pride.

Unsurprisingly the combat scenes grow quite repetitive. Scenes of planes catching fire, exploding in mid-air or hurtling to the ground become tiresome with incessant recurrence, as do the visuals of pilots killed in cockpits or air crews attempting to bail out of flaming bombers.

And outside the combat scenes, Battle Of Britain stutters and stalls. Despite an overlong running time of 132 minutes, the strategic, tactical and personal contexts are either sketched at rudimentary levels or missing altogether. The on-the-ground interludes are haphazardly assembled with no regard for flow. In a case of quantity over quality, a cast featuring a who's who of British acting talent fails to create a single memorable character or worthwhile storyline. Michael Caine, Robert Shaw, Christopher Plummer, Trevor Howard, Harry Andrews, Michael Redgrave, Patrick Wymark and Ralph Richardson (among many others) get a few glib lines each in poorly defined roles as airmen, squadron leaders or commanders, all to no effect. And as pilots masked and belted into their cramped cockpits, all the actors are essentially undifferentiated.

Some of the attempts to create human stories are laughably inept, including a clunky marital tiff between Plummer and Susannah York. Ian McShane receives what should have been the one good moment involving family sacrifice, but his chapter drops in and out with no meaningful setup or follow-through, losing all impact.

Battle Of Britain is all about flying hardware, hearts and souls forgotten on the ground.

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Movie Review: Hostiles (2017)
Tue, 06 Oct 2020 04:43:00 +0000

A soulful western, Hostiles combines the traditions of the arduous journey with a lyrical exploration of troubled relations between whites and natives.

In 1892 at Fort Berringer in New Mexico, Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) is selected to escort ailing Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) to his ancestral lands in Montana. Blocker is close to retirement, and has built a fearsome reputation as a merciless fighter and killer of natives. He resents having to be civil to Yellow Hawk, who has a similar record of brutal killing, including scalping several of Blocker's colleagues.

Blocker recruits a few trusted soldiers for the mission, including long-term friends Sergeant Metz (Rory Cochrane), who is also nearing retirement, and Corporal Woodson (Jonathan Majors), as well as West Point graduate Lieutenant Kidder (Jesse Plemons) and raw recruit Private Dejardin (Timothée Chalamet). Yellow Hawk is accompanied by his son Black Hawk (Adam Beach), daughter, daughter-in-law and grand-daughter.

Soon after embarking on the trip they encounter settler Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike) in shock having just lost her entire family, including three children, to a vicious raid by a Cherokee war party. Rosalee joins Blocker's group, with many dangers to come on the long trail to Montana.

With chapters of brutal violence committed by all sides, some shown on screen and others described in hushed tones, Hostiles stares at the blood-drenched legacy of the west. After each bout of blood-letting director and writer Scott Cooper takes the time to include reverent burials, settlers, soldiers, natives, adults and children laid to rest in mounting numbers, often in unmarked graves, the hard soil of a nation-in-progress nourished by death. 

At 133 minutes, the film is long but Cooper sustains the intensity. Having established the barbarous context, Hostiles searches for what may emerge after the visceral need to kill subsides. Men like Blocker, Metz and Yellow Hawk are retiring or dying and understand they are too damaged to evolve. The next generation, personified by Lieutenant Kidder and Black Hawk and his family, may be a lot less blood thirsty, with fewer scores to settle and more capacity to achieve reconciliation, but only if they survive to forge a better future.

And Cooper ensures the moral dilemmas leave no room for black and white resolutions, only gray dilemmas. Some horrific killings are justified as part of the job, other rampages are denounced as murder and punished by hanging. Violence in the name of protecting land is either noble or ignominious, depending on who is making the claim, and when. On such vagaries men live, die and judge themselves and others.

Although some chapters stumble and hints of repetitiveness set in, the film weaves an always unsettling sombre mood. Max Richter's music score adds poignant tones, and often stunning Masanobu Takayanagi cinematography captures majestic landscapes of untamed and unforgiving terrain.

Christian Bale delivers a performance of sometimes frightening intensity and stoic masculinity, conveying with his eyes the horrors of a life spent killing etched firmly on his psyche. But Bale also captures the irresistible forces of change in his humane approach to helping Mrs. Quaid and a gradual willingness to understand Yellow Hawk's world. The rest of the cast is suitably detached, and includes Ben Foster as an army soldier turned prisoner and Scott Wilson as an uncompromising landowner.

Dark, humourless and thought-provoking, Hostiles confronts all enemies, especially those lurking within.

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The Iconic Moment: The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Mon, 05 Oct 2020 13:00:00 +0000

Detective Polhaus: Heavy. What is it?
Sam Spade: The uh....stuff that dreams are made of.

Directed by John Huston.
Written by John Huston.
Cinematography by Arthur Edeson.
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet.

The full Ace Black Blog review of The Maltese Falcon is here.

Movie Review: Far From The Madding Crowd (1967)
Mon, 05 Oct 2020 00:00:00 +0000

An adaptation of the classic Thomas Hardy romance, Far From The Madding Crowd is visually pleasing but overlong and overinvested in folk culture.

Rural England in the 1860s. Spirited farmgirl Bathsheba Everdene (Julie Christie) rejects a marriage proposal from her neighbour, humble shepherd Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates). Instead she moves to the larger farm of her uncle, who soon dies and leaves her in charge. Gabriel loses his flock and his forced to seek employment, and is eventually hired by Bathsheba. He continues to love her from afar.

Meanwhile, rich landowner William Boldwood (Peter Finch) is infatuated with Bathsheba and proposes repeatedly, but she cannot commit to him. Instead she falls in love with soldier Frank Troy (Terence Stamp), a scoundrel who jilted his true love Fanny (Prunella Ransome) because she was late to their wedding ceremony. Bathsheba and Troy get married, but he soon reveals his true colours.

Hardy's novel is a celebration of rural farming culture, and director John Schlesinger, working from Frederic Raphael's script, is respectful of the story's cultural grounding. The film is immersed in the mud and soil of farm grounds and the people who toil the land. The secondary characters stay in the background but add salt-of-the-earth colours, and the sights and (almost) smells of hay, corn, markets, sheep, chickens, geese and pigs pleasantly emanate from the screen.

Unfortunately, the salute to rural England extends to plenty of scenes featuring folk songs and harvest hymns being belted out, and Far From The Madding Crowd starts to strain and sag as characters with bad teeth and bad breath warble away under the influence of bad alcohol. The film extends to a numbing 169 minutes, and rarely does Schlesinger build any momentum, the chapters coming and going with natural beauty but little emotional resonance. As a further example of indisciplined editing and the pursuit of padding, a circus skit is included in its entirety.

The source material's narrative weaknesses further contribute to the fatigue. Bathsheba possess the courage to run a farm and order rough men around, but she is unfortunately inept in her assessment and treatment of suitors. She melts in front of Troy's uniform and juvenile sword play, disregarding the stench of his reputation and obvious social climbing agenda. She strings along the long-suffering Boldwood with a series of non-answers, and worst of all, she routinely mistreats Gabriel, oblivious to their natural compatibility.

In the central role Julie Christie is adequate but errs on the side of 1960s good-natured chic rather than authentic 1860s caked-on toil. Alan Bates, Peter Finch and Terence Stamp stick to single notes as the three men in her life, Stamp registering the best impression by emphasizing Troy's smarminess.

Far From The Madding Crowd is a slow walk in the beautiful countryside, with plenty of potholes on the muddy trail.

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Movie Review: Kodachrome (2017)
Sat, 03 Oct 2020 22:39:00 +0000

A father-son road trip, Kodachrome is confined to expected frames but benefits from a grizzled Ed Harris performance.

Record label talent agent Matt Ryder (Jason Sudeikis) is barely hanging on to his job when he learns his estranged father, celebrated photographer Ben Ryder (Harris), has three months to live. Matt has not seen his dad for 10 years, and is resentful Ben abandoned the family when Matt was a child. Ben's nurse Zooey (Elizabeth Olsen) and business manager Larry (Dennis Haysbert) nevertheless convince Matt to accompany Ben on a road trip to Parsons, Kansas, where the last store processing Kodachrome film is about to close. Ben wants to process four old but recently found rolls of film before dying.

Ben's caustic personality makes for a fraught trip, with Zooey trying to create a truce between father and son. They take a side trip to Cleveland to visit Ben's brother Dean (Bruce Greenwood) and his wife Sarah (Wendy Crewson), who helped raise Matt. At another stop in Chicago Matt attempts to save his career by poaching an up-and-coming band from a rival label. A romance develops between Matt and Zooey, but achieving a thaw between Matt and his increasingly frail dad will be difficult.

Inspired by an A.G. Sulzberger magazine article about the end of the photo development era, Kodachrome defaults to a routine journey of re-acquaintance between a father and son. Barely able to sustain a civil conversation, the two men spar for long periods, Matt's lingering threads of discontent and sense of abandonment obscuring any pathway towards rapprochement.

The script by Jonathan Tropper rarely offers any fresh perspectives on the well-worn themes of broken communication channels across generations and perceptions of failed fatherhood. But director Mark Raso has an ace up his sleeve in the form of Ed Harris enjoying himself as the abrasive dying man who never cared for others to begin with, and now cares even less. Channeling the fatalism of great artists, Ben Ryder classifies himself as a chronicler of human history, and Harris relishes the character's freedom to push all available rankle buttons, secure in his own legacy.

The rest of the plot is familiar in the extreme. The stuttering romance between Matt and Zooey is feeble, and the four film rolls are an obvious and painfully predictable MacGuffin. The patched-on music industry subtext provides the opportunity for some moany soundtrack songs and generic rock band conversations before turning scratchy.

Some sharp dialogue and moments of soft humour do enliven Kodachrome, but this road trip is only saved by one veteran photographer seeking a final exposure.

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