Movie Review: Cry Terror! (1958)
Tue, 07 Jul 2020 15:05:00 +0000

A ransom and hostage drama, Cry Terror! has a good cast and a smattering of good ideas, but also distracted focus.

After an airline receives multiple anonymous bomb threats, electronics and detonations expert Jim Molner (James Mason) realizes he was duped into building miniature bombs by ex-army buddy Paul Hoplin (Rod Steiger). Now Hoplin demands a $500,000 ransom from the airline and holds Jim's family hostage, including wife Joan (Inger Stevens) and young daughter Patty.

Paul's gang includes Eileen Kelly (Angie Dickinson), the high-strung Vince (Jack Klugman) and the unstable ex-con Steve (Neville Brand). With the FBI desperately searching for the perpetrators, Joan is dispatched to collect the ransom money, with any wrong move resulting in harm to the family.

Written, produced and directed by Andrew L. Stone with big assists from his wife and editor Virginia, Cry Terror! is filled with intrigue and promise. Stone predicts the coming age of terrorism targeting airlines with difficult-to-find small bombs, built using military-grade explosives and smuggled into either the passenger or luggage compartments. The film starts with the threat of big bangs and mass casualties, only avoided because smooth criminal Paul is less interested in murder and more focused on demanding the coveted half a million dollars.

Unafraid to experiment, Cry Terror! features alternating narration, Joan and Jim taking turns describing their thoughts and emotions as they maneuver through the hostage experience. With Inger Stevens delivering the film's standout performance, Joan stars in the highlight sequence, a stressful time-limited courier ordeal where being late means harm to Jim and Patty. Later, a more disinterested James Mason gets to describe his attempted escape through an elevator shaft, an altogether less logical chapter.

The film's second half goes searching for tense Hitchcockian moments with varying success but at the expense of rational plotting. The supposed evil genius of mastermind Paul Hoplin (with Rod Steiger menacing but restrained) is parked as the script just pauses his plan and waits for Joan, Jim and the FBI to make their moves. Stone is engrossed in the minutiae of specific actions, while the big picture gets quite blurry.

But crisp black and white cinematography, interesting camera placements, extreme close-ups and a variety of sets help overcome the rough moments. Cry Terror! never quite soars, but it does barrel down the runway with engines revving.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Nothing Sacred (1937)
Mon, 06 Jul 2020 13:37:00 +0000

A bland screwball comedy, Nothing Sacred offers cynical commentary about journalism but is otherwise constrained by a thin premise and delivers few good laughs.

New York City newspaperman Wally Cook (Fredric March) needs a good story to repair his damaged reputation. He convinces editor Oliver Stone (Walter Connolly) to send him to the small town of Warsaw, Vermont, to cover a human interest sob story about Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard), a young woman who is apparently dying due to radium poisoning.

Just before meeting Wally, Hazel learns she is fine and healthy, and was just misdiagnosed by Doctor Enoch Downer (Charles Winninger). She hides the good news from Wally and instead accepts his invitation for an all-expenses-paid trip to New York, with Enoch tagging along. The newspaper pumps Hazel into the sad darling of the social scene, but the truth threatens to come out when expert doctors from Europe arrive to examine her.

Despite a running time of just 77 minutes, decent technicolor vibrancy and good shots of the Manhattan skyline, Nothing Sacred runs out of steam early and ends in a mess. The idea of Fredric March and Carole Lombard trading punches must have seemed funny to someone at some point, but it's just a ghastly and desperate ploy to inject life into a moribund plot. 

By the time the supposedly funny climax rolls around, the one-joke premise of Hazel using her fake ailment to milk a good time away from the rural doldrums has run its course, Ben Hecht's script stumbling into repetitiveness (Hazel fakes another illness) and absurdities (a half-hearted phoney suicide attempt). A lukewarm romance between Hazel and Wally is a clunky add-on, director William A. Wellman unable to generate much heat between his two stars.

The better moments poke fun at the culture of journalism willing to take advantage of any story to sell copies, and savvy exploiters happy to turn the tables and dupe the media for personal profit. Nothing Sacred exposes a no-limits culture, in a creatively limited package.

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The Iconic Moment: Apocalypse Now (1979)
Mon, 06 Jul 2020 13:00:00 +0000

Kilgore: I love the smell of napalm in the morning.

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
Cinematography by Vittorio Storaro.
Starring Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall and Marlon Brando.

The full Ace Black Blog review of Apocalypse Now is here.

Movie Review: Dangerous Crossing (1953)
Sun, 05 Jul 2020 17:50:00 +0000

A woman-in-distress drama, Dangerous Crossing is a compact economy thriller, with plenty of spooky style enlivening the story of a troubled bride on a luxury ship.

In New York, newlyweds John and Ruth Bowman (Carl Betz and Jeanne Crain) board a transatlantic ocean liner, seemingly giddy with happiness. They only met a few weeks prior, with John helping heiress Ruth through a difficult patch. But as soon as the ship sails, John promptly disappears. Ruth is frazzled: none of the crew members can remember John coming on board and there is no record of him as a passenger. Ruth starts to question her sanity.

Doctor Paul Manning (Michael Rennie) is in charge of passenger health, and he tries to untangle Ruth's story. She then receives a phone call from John, claiming they are both in danger and she ought to not trust anyone. With the ship sailing through thick fog, Ruth has to decide whether she can confide in Paul, while holding out hope John will reappear with an explanation.

Filmed on a miniscule budget in a matter of days and on sets built for other movies, Dangerous Crossing makes good use of scarce resources. Leo Townsend's script is stripped of any externalities, and director Joseph M. Newman limits the action to 75 minutes, maintaining tight control over a traditional gaslighting plot.

The opening few minutes introduce the happy couple and all the events that will subsequently be questioned as unreal, casting genuine doubt on Ruth's mental health. Newman appropriates black and white to his advantage, and utilizes seaworthy fog, a relentless fog horn, nighttime shadows and mysterious men in trenchcoats (complete with limp and cane) to elevate the sense of conspiratorial dread engulfing Ruth.

Jeanne Crain and Michael Rennie are the film's two main assets, and they quickly embody their characters. Crain glows despite Ruth's predicament as she alternates between frantic, bewildered, vulnerable and determined. Rennie deploys his sturdy presence to try and calm the waters.

The resolution of the mystery is as trim as the rest of the production, Paul finally extracting from Ruth the threads of a conspiracy swirling in the background. Given the constraints, words have to suffice when flashbacks would have enriched the narrative. But Dangerous Crossing is all about doing more with less, cutting through choppy waters with admirable poise.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: North To Alaska (1960)
Sat, 04 Jul 2020 21:52:00 +0000

A comedy western, North To Alaska throws a spiky romance into a rough-and-tumble gold rush.

The setting is the rambunctious town of Nome, Alaska during the 1900 gold rush. Logger-turned-prospector Sam McCord (John Wayne), his friend George Pratt (Stewart Granger) and George's younger brother Billy (Fabian) strike gold, while the conniving Frankie Canon (Ernie Kovacs) is slithering around town looking to get rich without working for it. Sam, who harbours strict anti-marriage opinions, heads to Seattle by boat to purchase mining equipment and escort George's fiancee Jenny back to Alaska.

Sam: Ahh, women! I never met one yet that was half as reliable as a horse!

In Seattle Sam finds Jenny, but she is already married and has forgotten about George. At a swanky nightclub Sam spots French hostess Michelle "Angel" Bonet (Capucine) and invites her to Alaska as a replacement wife for George. She starts to fall in love with Sam, and once in Alaska, Billy also gets infatuated with the sophisticated French beauty. Meanwhile Frankie has a history with Angel, while the region descends into lawlessness with competing cross-claims triggering violence.

Featuring no shortage of comic mass brawls, a few perfunctory shoot-outs (but no casualties) and plenty of trudging through the muddy streets of a recreated Nome, North To Alaska does not take itself too seriously. This is a western light, John Wayne happy to poke fun at his persona as his character Sam McCord is pulled, pushed and shoved into admitting he can, indeed, fall in love with a woman.

Sam: George, a wonderful thing about Alaska is that matrimony hasn't hit up here yet. Let's keep it a free country!

And Angel, a classy prostitute in all but name, is sure able to send Nome into a tizzy. George, Billy and Frankie take turns trying to win her attention, but she decides early Sam is the only man for her and alternates strategic seduction with patience to help his heart yield.

About five different writers had a hand in developing the script, and filming started with no clear direction where the story was going. Director Henry Hathaway could have trimmed the 2 hours of running time, and the disjointed scattershot approach to ideas is apparent. Many scenes meander aimlessly and take forever to get nowhere, with minor characters checking in, leaving no impression, and quietly checking out. 

The subplot about cross-claims erupting into violence is haphazardly tossed into the pot, mainly to justify one messy shootout and another comic highlight involving Wayne in a runaway cart. A loggers picnic in Seattle is a long and tiresome distraction, but even worse is an endless sequence between young Billy and Angel, as the 17 year old tries to act older and falls flat on his face (literally and figuratively).

Michelle: Are you going to leave me here alone?
Sam: Make yourself at home. Billy's here.
Michelle: Who's Billy?
Sam: George's little kid brother.
Michelle: How little?
Sam: Seventeen. But he's man enough to take care of you!
Michelle: That's what I'm afraid of!

The cast buys into the sense of fun and hams it up appropriately, Capucine emerging with plenty of credit as a self-confident and playful woman in a hostile environment. Ernie Kovacs is another stand-out as the oily Frankie, and the film would have benefited from giving him more screen time.

North To Alaska eventually gets to its destination, covered in mud but with a smile on its face.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Ace Black's List: The 10 Best Movies Of 2014
Fri, 03 Jul 2020 22:35:00 +0000

More than 75 movies from 2014 have been reviewed on the Ace Black Blog. Here are the 10 Best:

Directed by Damien Chazelle.
Starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons and Melissa Benoist.
Talent, training, motivation, ambition, determination and bullying in the drumming world, shining the spotlight on what it takes to succeed, and at what cost. Full review.

Directed by Doug Liman.
Starring Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt and Bill Paxton.
Engrossing science fiction military action with every death a frustrating opportunity for progress within an existential battlefield time loop premise. Full review.

Directed by Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin.
Starring Rosamund Pike, David Tennant, and Billy Connolly.
Familial comedy and drama collide in an exploration of divorce, life, death and tolerance through a hilariously warped lens. Full review.

Directed by Brin Hill.
Starring Michael Stahl-David, Zoe Kazan, and Mark Feuerstein.
A uniquely quirky and innovative romantic fantasy where connections of the heart are strained by mental illness and loneliness. Full review.

Directed by Michaël R. Roskam.
Starring  Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, and James Gandolfini.
An intense, character-rich and gracefully slow-burning crime drama, filled with gangland twists. Full review.

Directed by Bennett Miller.
Starring Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo.
A quietly powerful and somber drama about wrestling and egomania, and the dangers lurking within faulty human connections. Full review.

Directed by David Ayer.
Starring Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, and Logan Lerman.
A stunningly gritty look at men in cramped surroundings fighting through the final days of World War Two in a conflict that simply refuses to end quietly. Full review.

Directed by Clint Eastwood.
Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller and Kyle Gallner.
The far-reaching damage caused by war at the most personal level is explored through the brutally tense experiences of an ace sniper deployed to Iraq. Full review.

Directed by Dan Gilroy.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, and Bill Paxton.
The despicable underbelly of gutter journalism is the milieu for a striking drama tracking a perverse pursuit of riches. Full review.

Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu.
Starring Michael Keaton, Emma Stone and Edward Norton.
A semi-surreal portrayal of an actor's struggle to redeem his reputation in the constant crisis of the theatre world, where the greatest impediments lie within. Full review.

Movie Review: The Best Of Me (2014)
Fri, 03 Jul 2020 18:13:00 +0000

A dramatic romance, The Best Of Me is a story of an enduring love overloaded with tragedy.

An explosion on an oil rig off the Louisiana coast throws worker Dawson Cole (James Marsden) into the ocean, but he miraculously survives and starts to wonder about his destiny. Separately, his former highschool sweetheart Amanda Collier-Reynolds (Michelle Monaghan) is unhappy in a loveless marriage. They are both summoned to settle the estate of Dawson's surrogate father Tuck Hostetler (Gerald McRaney). 

The origins of their romance from 21 years ago are revealed in flashback. In highschool Dawson (Luke Bracey) is the kid from the wrong side of the tracks, regularly abused by his heinous father Tommy (Sean Bridgers). Amanda (Liana Liberato) is a popular girl with ambitions to become a lawyer. Despite the class divide they meet and fall in love. Dawson flees Tommy's violence and finds refuge with the kindly Tuck. The young lovers make plans for an idyllic future, but tragedy strikes, forcing a separation.

Back in the present Dawson and Amanda sort through Tuck's belongings and rekindle their passionate romance, admitting they never stopped loving each other. But she is married, and many other obstacles stand between them.

An adaptation of a 2011 Nicholas Sparks novel, The Best Of Me features an oil rig explosion, child abuse, an inadvertent killing, an infant lost to cancer, alcoholism, a shotgun confrontation, a brutal roughing-up, a sniper rifle shooting, a car crash, and open heart surgery, somehow packed into two hours. And three of these climactic moments arrive in a frenzied final 20 minutes.

Director Michael Hoffman ticks the boxes with impressive efficiency, avoiding any hints of subtlety in a drive for successive emotional highlights. The film is packaged with the visual gloss expected from a Sparks adaptation, water and light deployed to maximum effect, soft sunshine reflected off the lake, kisses in the torrential rain, sweat glistening off coyly exposed beautiful bodies.

But amidst the ridiculously frequent tragic carnage and excessive eye candy, this is actually a love story in two chapters set 21 years apart. Writers Will Fetters and J. Mills Goodloe do not spare the opposites-attract stereotypes: Dawson's family is the dictionary definition of white trash, while Amanda is the perky, smart and adventurous girl, better than her privileged upbringing and out to conquer the world. 

The admittedly sweet couple are brought to life by four decent performances. Michelle Monaghan and James Marsden are adequate bordering on tense as the adult couple now weighed down by the disillusionments of life, but their younger versions played by Liana Liberato and Luke Bracey are more prominent, radiating charisma and oxytocin. 

The Best Of Me never rises above breathlessly predictable, but is also never dull.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Pygmalion (1938)
Wed, 01 Jul 2020 18:10:00 +0000

A romantic drama and comedy, Pygmalion provides sharp commentary on classism and the battle between the sexes.

In London, linguistics professor Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard) encounters poor flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller) at Covent Garden. Her coarse language and unrefined pronunciation agitate his senses. Higgins boasts to his colleague Colonel George Pickering (Scott Sunderland) that with three to six months of training he can pass Eliza off as a duchess.

The next morning she shows up at his doorstep, reluctantly willing to undergo the transformation. Soon her father Alfred (Wilfrid Lawson) appears, looking for a few pounds in return for giving up his daughter. With intensive effort Eliza makes progress, and Higgins introduces her to his mother (Marie Lohr) while local gentleman Freddy (David Tree) falls in love with Eliza at first sight. The big test looms at a gala event hosted by the Ambassador of Transylvania.

An adaptation of the 1913 George Bernard Shaw play, Pygmalion boasts a witty, dynamic script, clashing characters, multiple attractive settings and brisk pacing. The British production is co-directed by Anthony Asquith and star Leslie Howard with an eye on revealing the superficial differences separating England's classes. The film gently mocks both upper class haughtiness and working class contentment, with only Eliza possessing the courage to test the divide.

With class differences rumbling from the first scene, the film's longer arc concerns men and women, and particularly Higgins' brand of narcissistic masculinity blocking his path towards finding love. Howard (looking younger than his 45 years) brings an uncompromising edge to the role of a stubbornly confirmed batchelor refusing any accommodation in his approach to life. Shaw creates a genuinely difficult-to-like character at the middle of a would-be romance, both frustrating narrative conventions and challenging Eliza's commitment.

Her quest becomes doubly difficult: to self-improve and seep into Higgins' expertly defended heart. Wendy Hiller is up to the task in a touching and defiant performance, starting in the gutter and culminating with an understanding of what it really takes to thrive. Eliza's climactic dilemma is to decide on a future path, and the film's final act and tentative ending cannot disguise the hard work required to close the gap between two strong personalities.

Beneath the frequent sparring, Pygmalion carries an admirably gentle spirit, representing Shaw's optimism about British society's essence. Colonel Pickering and Mrs. Higgins are immediately welcoming and respectful towards Eliza, and they both offer a refuge away from the caustic Higgins. Even Freddy looks well past Eliza's rough edges and allows love to consume him.

Shaw co-wrote the Academy Award winning script, which was subsequently the basis for the 1956 musical play My Fair Lady and the lavish 1964 Hollywood treatment. The 1938 version may lack the celebratory musical panache, but the astute words speak for themselves.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Castle Keep (1969)
Tue, 30 Jun 2020 15:37:00 +0000

A surreal World War Two movie, Castle Keep embarks on a philosophical quest to find the intersection of war, art and sex.

It's the winter of 1944. In Belgium, a ramshackle unit of eight US soldiers under the nominal command of Major Abraham Falconer (Burt Lancaster) occupies the Maldorais, an imposing ancient castle filled with artwork. The Count (Jean-Pierre Aumont)) is the castle's owner, married to the much younger Therese (Astrid Heeren). Soon Falconer and Therese are having an open affair, with the approval of the Count, who is impotent but would welcome a son.

Private Benjamin (Al Freeman Jr.), an aspiring writer and the unit's only Black member, chronicles the men's experiences. Captain Beckman (Patrick O'Neal) is an art historian and attempts to educate the other soldiers about the castle's art collection, but they are more interested in the whorehouse at the nearby town. Sergeant Rossi (Peter Falk) finds the local bakery and reverts back to his role as baker and family man. Corporal Clearboy (Scott Wilson) is infatuated with a Volkswagen found on the castle grounds.

Falconer anticipates a German counteroffensive in the area as part of the Battle Of The Bulge. He decides to fortify the castle and make a defensive stand, placing the precious art in harm's way. Both the Count and Beckman are horrified, but Falconer is determined to forge his destiny.

The anti-war sentiment of 1969 is retrospectively applied to World War Two, and Castle Keep plants a distinctive flag as a different kind of war film. Writers Daniel Taradash and David Rayfiel adapted the 1965 William Eastlake novel with a European sensibility laced with dark humour, and director Sydney Pollack creates a stylish, often visually stunning story of war's collision with culture. While occasionally crossing over from philosophical to onerous, the film carves a uniquely cerebral identity. 

War's abhorrent incompatibility with love, art and all things of beauty is teased out through a deceptively simple narrative structure. The castle occupies lush landscaped grounds filled with romantic statues, while the inside walls and ceilings are decorated with masterpieces. Falconer's unit arrives at this abode in a disjointed state, the men disrespectful towards the Major, their dialogue and behaviour atypical for soldiers. The script hints early they may all be dead anyway, representing dreams shattered by the incursion of a destructive global conflict.

Whether alive or expired, the men are beyond jaded about the war and more interested in other pursuits, including women, cars (bordering on a fetish), baking, and writing. For educated men like the Count and Beckman, destroying classic artworks is a crime. But for warriors like Falconer, complete with his eye patch and buffalo mentality, the castle is a perfect defensive fortification. He alone commands a warlike attitude, his one eye firmly focused on military objectives and intentionally blind to collateral damage.

In addition to the Volkswagen echo, the free love of the 1960s shows up in Falconer's quick sexual conquest of the willing Therese with the quiet acquiescence of the Count. Therese is the Count's wife and also his niece; it does not matter: he just wants a son, and will accept Falconer bedding Therese perhaps in return for the castle's treasure being saved.

Adding to the surreal surroundings is another group of hollow-eyed anti-war soldiers wandering through the nearby town led by Lieutenant Bix (Bruce Dern). Instead of calling for an end to the fighting they noisily protest fornication at the popular Reine Rouge whorehouse. The protestors eventually encounter mortar strikes, in what proves to be a short confrontation.

With a primary interest in war as a most barbaric anti-cultural weapon, Pollack does not pull back on the combat scenes. The second half boasts two epic battles. First Falconer's men slow down the advancing Germans with an ambush featuring whores with Molotov cocktails and a tank incursion into a church. The climactic defensive stand at the castle occupies the final 30 minutes, Pollack able to maintain the men's incongruous attitudes even as they put up a spirited defense of their new realm.

Wearing eccentricity as a medal of honour, Castle Keep towers over a landscape of emotions ravaged by endless war.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: El Cid (1961)
Mon, 29 Jun 2020 15:33:00 +0000

A historical epic about a legendary Spanish leader, El Cid is a grand spectacle but leans towards quantity over quality.

It's early in the 11th Century, and Spain is experiencing political divisions. The nation's Muslim Moor tribes are being agitated into rebellion by Ben Yusuf (Herbert Lom), a militaristic Moor leader based in North Africa and intent on conquering Spain in the name of Islam. 

Castilian leader Don Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (Charlton Heston) seeks to unite Christian and Moor tribes in Spain under the banner of King Ferdinand (Ralph Truman). Don Rodrigo earns the title El Cid for his prowess in battle, a strong moral code, and a dedication to justice and Spain's national interest. But he loses the love of Doña Ximena (Sophia Loren) when he kills her father to defend family honour.

After Ferdinand's death El Cid attempts to avoid the fracturing of Spain in a power struggle between the King's sons Sancho (Gary Raymond) and Alfonso (John Fraser). A period of exile allows a reconciliation with Ximena before the Ben Yusuf threat re-emerges and a showdown looms in Valencia.

Produced by Samuel Bronston, directed by Anthony Mann and clocking in at a grandiose three hours, El Cid is a weighty exercise in epic filmmaking. Loosely based on what is known about the El Cid legend, numerous characters and thousand of extras bring to life multiple story lines featuring palace intrigue, religious conflict, personal plotting, political infighting and shifting loyalties over decades, tracing Don Rodrigo's influence on Spain's history. While enough is always going on to maintain a base level of interest, the film is also often slow and lumberous, and rarely emotionally stirring.

El Cid's greatness is portrayed as stemming from unyielding loyalty to the King combined with an unwavering commitment to a vision of a cohesive Spain where Moors and Christians set religious differences aside and unite to build a strong and just nation. Charlton Heston carries the grit and intensity to convey the character's strength, but the surrounding material is not as cogent.

The script by Philip Yordan, Fredric M. Frank, and Ben Barzman is an uneven effort, and appears intent on prolonging running time at the expense of narrative thrust. Scenes of pomp and circumstance and marching armies occupy an inordinate amount of time, and the sappy, unhappy personal drama between El Cid and Ximena sucks the momentum out of the first two hours. Stars Heston and Loren did not get along, and the lack of chemistry is obvious on the screen, Loren in particular confined to a single stone-faced expression.

When it's time to capture either skirmishes or epic battles, the action is surprisingly incoherent. Skipping past both strategic and tactical considerations, Mann appears content to allow extras to charge at each other and then film the logjam. The outcome is a mechanical exercise in many men swinging many swords and falling off many horses.

The final hour set in Valencia finds better focus, El Cid earning his legend with a mythical determination to inspire no matter the personal consequences.

The supporting cast members mostly make up the numbers, the acting fluctuating between adequate and stiff. Geneviève Page as the sister of Alfonso and Sancho shows the most spirit and should have been provided with more to do. Raf Vallone and Michael Hordern (as El Cid's father) appear in relatively small roles.

A test of endurance, El Cid offers a few moments of fulfillment amidst excessive equestrian cavalcades.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

The Iconic Moment: Bonnie And Clyde (1967)
Mon, 29 Jun 2020 13:00:00 +0000

Bonnie: Hey, isn't that Malcolm there?

Directed by Arthur Penn.
Written by David Newman and Robert Benton.
Cinematography by Burnett Guffey.
Starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty.

The full Ace Black Blog review of Bonnie And Clyde is here.

Movie Review: The Spiral Staircase (1946)
Sun, 28 Jun 2020 17:19:00 +0000

A woman-under-threat suspense thriller, The Spiral Staircase boasts impressive visuals and a gloomy milieu.

It's 1906, and a serial killer is terrorizing a small rural New England town. All the victims are women with physical disabilities. Helen (Dorothy McGuire) is mute, and is attending a movie when the killer strikes again, murdering a woman with a limp. With a thunder-and-lightning storm erupting and nighttime approaching, Helen feels threatened that she could be the next victim. The kindly Doctor Parry (Kent Smith) helps her scramble home to the mansion of the bedridden Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore), where Helen is a housekeeper. 

The staff members include the groundskeeper-and-cook couple Mr. and Mrs. Oates (Rhys Williams and Elsa Lanchester) and Nurse Barker (Sara Allgood). Professor Albert Warren (George Brent) is the man of the house, and his stepbrother Steven (Gordon Oliver) is in town for a visit. Steven is romancing Albert's secretary Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), who also lives at the Warren estate. A constable arrives to warn Albert that the killer is in the area, setting up Helen for a long and terrifying night.

A seminal chapter in the suspense-bordering-on-horror genre, The Spiral Staircase helped define the language of violent slasher whodunnits. By 1946 standards the scenes of murder are disturbing if not shocking, director Robert Siodmak somehow getting away with showing flailing limbs as life seeps out of victims.

Other stylistic punctuation marks provide further jolts. A close-up focus on the killer's eye transitions to point-of-view shots, and in one case the killer sees a victim's disability in a clever bit of superimposed mind-of-the-murderer terror. Siodmak makes excellent use of deep shadows and candlelight to heighten the drama in the spooky Warren mansion, the wine cellar - at the bottom of the titular spiral staircase - providing many opportunities for misadventures in the dark. And the thunder, lightning and pouring rain emphasize the siege mentality.

The Mel Dinelli script establishes the killer-is-in-the-house premise early, with Mrs. Warren urging Helen at the start of the evening to pack up and leave, because only bad things can happen if she stays at the estate. The Spiral Staircase then unfolds with some theatrical constraints, all the scenes confined to a few rooms and the pool of candidate murderers limited to the sparse members of the cast.

But a couple of performances rise above the limitations of the material. Dorothy McGuire as the mute Helen builds enormous empathy, conveying emotion without over-acting as Helen struggles against both her affliction and the threat of an unknown murderer. And Ethel Barrymore takes over gargoyle duties as the elderly matron confined to her bed, drifting in and out of consciousness and yet seemingly aware of everything that has happened and is about to happen. Her frequent forebodings add a surreal current of dread.

In a compact 84 minutes and over just one night, The Spiral Staircase packs in psychological trauma, multiple murders, inter-family conflict and a touch of romance, and helps construct the twisty foundations for many thrillers to come.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Movie Review: The Bonfire Of The Vanities (1990)
Sat, 27 Jun 2020 19:27:00 +0000

A satirical comedy-drama about human surrender to avarice, The Bonfire Of The Vanities tackles weighty subjects with a dismissively careless attitude.

Perpetually drunk reporter-turned-author Peter Fallow (Bruce Willis) basks in the glory of his new-found fame as a best-selling author. In flashback, Fallow recounts the past year's events. Sherman McCoy (Tom Hanks) is one of the few "Masters of the Universe", a mega-wealthy Wall Street bond trader raking in millions per deal. Married to Judy (Kim Cattrall), he is carrying on an affair with the equally married airhead Maria Ruskin (Melanie Griffith).

Sherman picks up Maria from the airport and after a wrong turn they end up deep in the Bronx late at night. They tangle with two Black men and in the frantic effort to drive away Maria, now in the driver's seat, accidentally runs over one of the men. Maria convinces Sherman not to report the incident, but with the victim in a coma the outraged South Bronx Black community rises to demand justice and a full investigation of the hit-and-run, with Reverend Bacon (John Hancock) leading the protests.

Ambitious District Attorney Weiss (an uncredited F. Murray Abraham) recognizes the publicity value of the case. Assistant DA Kramer (Saul Rubinek) starts investigating, and Fallow is plucked from obscurity to start pumping newspaper headlines. Soon Sherman's car is identified and his life is forever altered, with a climax in the courtroom of the Black Judge White (Morgan Freeman).

An adaptation of Tom Wolfe's novel, The Bonfire Of The Vanities critiques rampant narcissism with inflated humour. Overcoming a nightmarish production cycle featuring countless casting and miscasting chops and changes, director Brian De Palma nevertheless luxuriates in creating a vivid and hyper-realistic world, whether in McCoy's Manhattan apartment or on the streets of the Bronx. And he layers on the cinematic tricks, glitz and style, including a spectacular opening single tracking shot extending close to five minutes as Farrow arrives at a gala event. 

But the problems run deep, from Farrow's boring and unnecessary narration to the juvenile comedy antics, including McCoy using a shotgun to end a party and Kramer instigating a physical courtroom fracas. And unrefined hyperbole surrounds every distasteful character. In the context of a movie studded with star names, the absence of a single empathetic character becomes a problem script writer Michael Cristofer cannot solve. Fallow has traded his career for the bottle, Maria is an over-sexed and vocabulary-challenged moron, Weiss is a villain in a suit with his eyes solely on the Mayor's chair, and Reverend Bacon is a larger than life thunderous buffoon.

Which leaves Tom Hanks stranded in the central role of Sherman McCoy, a man with apparently no redeeming qualities, making money by trading money and happy to cheat on his wife with a bimbo. Still, the film needs a victim and McCoy is the closest thing to it, but he remains a relative non-entity as the cause of racial justice is co-opted by all around him for selfish causes.

Morgan Freeman's Judge White emerges as the one individual fighting a rearguard action to safeguard some sense of decency amidst the sea of moral bankruptcy. Within a societal sensibility portrayed as rotten to the core and well beyond salvation, his climactic speechifying carries no conviction.

For all its faults, The Bonfire Of The Vanities is nothing if not perceptive. It borders on cartoonish, but the film lays bare the tsunami of materialistic selfishness and greed corroding hearts and minds, a fiery spiral reaching into every corner and always spinning downwards.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Slattery's Hurricane (1949)
Fri, 26 Jun 2020 15:33:00 +0000

A drama, thriller and romance, Slattery's Hurricane packs plenty of incident into a short running length, but adheres to obvious and superficial tones.

With a hurricane rapidly approaching Miami, retired Navy man Will Slattery (Richard Widmark) steals a plane and flies towards the storm. In flashback, he recalls recent events with regret.

Both Slattery and his girlfriend Dolores (Veronica Lake) are employed by chocolate importing tycoon R.J. Milne (Walter Kingsford), Slattery as a pilot and Dolores as a secretary, and they both turn a blind eye to their employer's drug-running side-business. Slattery bumps into his old buddy Hobson (John Russell), who now flies for the Navy's weather monitoring service. Slattery quickly rekindles a passion for Hobson's wife Aggie (Linda Darnell), who was Slattery's old flame.

By pursuing a torrid affair with Aggie Slattery betrays both Hobson and Dolores, and his life is further complicated when he gets inadvertently involved in a drug run. The Navy reconnects with Slattery to right an old wrong, and as Dolores slips away from him, he recommits to fixing his life.

Filmed with the cooperation of the Navy and the Weather Bureau, Slattery's Hurricane wraps a gritty story of illicit romance, betrayal, crime and atonement around a salute to the men flying dangerous missions to track hurricane trajectories. Despite a running length of just 83 minutes, many scenes feature actors bouncing inside fake cockpits and airplanes flying through clouds. Director Andre DeToth adopts a direct, no-nonsense approach to storytelling, colouring the characters with blunt crayons, breathlessly bringing the Herman Wouk story to life with rapidfire intensity but minimal depth.

As a result, only Slattery emerges as a somewhat rounded individual, and even he borders on incredulous. Richard Widmark is in fine uncompromising form portraying Slattery as an egocentric man with several chips on his shoulder. He is sore at the Navy for ignoring his heroics and never emotionally recovered from Aggie abandoning him (after he repeatedly ignored her). And so Slattery's me-first mentality is impressively dismissive of both Dolores and Hobson as he selfishlessly maneuvers to win back Aggie. His late-in-the-day attempts at redemption are sudden and seemingly inconsistent with his core.

The other major characters barely rise above cursory. Dolores is plain, Veronica Lake (also Mrs. DeToth at the time) missing her trademark hairdo and unable to reignite her career. She was shortchanged once the script ran afoul of the Production Code, DeToth forced to punt a subplot about Dolores' ailment. Aggie and Hobson remain empty vessels for Slattery to take advantage of, and the villains are barely defined.

Despite the shortcomings Slattery's Hurricane boasts undeniably engaging fury, the stormy rains and winds combining with Slattery's bulldozer attitude to create incessant forward momentum. The duration is brief, but the passion palpable.

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Movie Review: Shattered Glass (2003)
Fri, 26 Jun 2020 01:52:00 +0000

A biographical drama, Shattered Glass explores the high-stress world of deadline-driven journalism and the perils of hyper-charisma.

It's 1998 in Washington DC, and Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen) is a cocky young reporter at the prestigious New Republic magazine. He is an invited celebrity guest at a college journalism class, advising starry-eyed students on career success. Affable and good natured, Stephen is popular among his work colleagues, including fact checkers Caitlin (Chloë Sevigny) and Amy (Melanie Lynskey), and well-liked by respected editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria).

But Glass has a tense relationship with Charles Lane (Peter Sarsgaard), who takes over as editor when Kelly is fired. Glass then writes an entertaining piece about the antics of a young hacker at a recent convention. Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn), a reporter at fledgling online publication Forbes Digital, wonders how he missed the event and starts fact checking, finding many holes in Glass' story. The errors are brought to Lane's attention, who initiates his own probing and starts to doubt Stephen's credibility.

The unveiling of Stephen Glass as a fraudster with a flair for writing fiction and passing it off as journalism shook the haughty world of the esteemed but small-circulation New Republic (established: 1914), a photo-free publication targeting world leaders and fully invested in the power of truthful words. His downfall was also an early reputational boost for start-up online publications, and exposed the hazards of relying on easily fabricated "reporter's notes" for fact checking. 

With misinformation at the core of the Glass controversy, director and writer Billy Ray meticulously researched the facts and assembled Shattered Glass as a close-to-the-truth drama, with fairness to actual people a prime objective. Ray resists the temptation to delve into Glass' childhood and upbringing in search of character-shaping clues. While the context is notably absent, the young man is presented as others saw him, a charming, full of life, natural storyteller and entertainer garnering immediate likeability. He is also an expert at self-deprecation and cleverly positions himself as a victim when needed to elicit sympathy and support.

The film gains strength from the contrast with Charles Lane. Dour, humourless and saddled with taking over as editor from the popular Michael Kelly, the relatively inexperienced Lane finds a potentially explosive controversy ticking in his lap when the Forbes Digital journalists start asking questions Glass cannot answer. Gradually Lane takes over the heart of the film and Ray deftly steers the narrative towards a reluctant and unpopular leader grappling with a toxic crisis.

Hayden Christensen is adequate in the showy lead role but stays close to the few notes between seeking the centre of attention and whining when challenged. Peter Sarsgaard is more stoic, his performance appropriately subdued but with gathering strength behind watchful eyes.

Within the remarkably efficient 94 minutes Ray creates an energetic milieu, the timeline-driven vigorous magazine culture providing a crackling, always-on-the-move dynamism. Despite the high pressure job Glass also insists on pursuing a law degree, the burn-both-ends-of-the-candle mentality either an excuse for sloppiness or a corroboration of recklessness. Unchecked and misdirected, the zest of youth can upend legacies.

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Movie Review: The Cooler (2003)
Wed, 24 Jun 2020 15:54:00 +0000

A slick drama and romance, The Cooler explores luck and happiness through the fortunes of interdependent characters in a pathetically glitzy environment.

In Las Vegas, Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) is employed as a "cooler" at the Shangri La casino operated by his lifelong friend Shelly (Alec Baldwin). A recovered gambling addict, Bernie only ever experiences bad luck and spreads it to anyone near him. He is deployed near hot streak gamblers to turn the tide back in the casino's favour.

Having worked for years to pay a debt he owed Shelly, Bernie is now ready to quit and leave town. Meanwhile owner representative Larry Sokolov (Ron Livingston) considers Shelly's old-fashioned management style incompatible with the new family-friendly Vegas. Bernie embarks on an unlikely passionate relationship with cocktail waitress Natalie (Maria Bello). But his personal happiness impacts his luck and he becomes useless as a cooler, multiplying Shelly's problems.

Filled with fluid camera work, a nighttime aesthetic and playful symbolism, and drenched in garrish Vegas neon and sickly casino lights, The Cooler explores the ecosystem under the rocks where desperate characters live. And in the script co-written by director Wayne Kramer and Frank Hannah, all the characters are desperately on edge, staring at forthcoming foundational changes and unsure they like what they see.

Bernie functions as a doormat for Shelly and is drowning so deep in a life of misfortune he is actually grateful Shelly busted his knee with a baseball bat to cure his gambling addiction. Natalie is living with her own ghosts of regret and shattered dreams. And Shelly is watching the city pass him by and evolving into a family playground, his hardcore boiler room intimidation tactics and crooner entertainment shows no longer appealing to owners and audiences.

A sharp shaft of light breaks into this grime in the form of an unlikely love between Bernie and Natalie, and suddenly the long-established status quo is disrupted. Neither Bernie nor Natalie could imagine finding a meaningful relationship and don't quite know what to do with it; Bernie's happiness translates to good luck and his value as a cooler plummets; the losses mount for Shelly just as he is trying to fend off Larry's modernization. The Cooler embraces the unhinging of three lives and tracks the ensuing out-of-control trajectories to fitting conclusions.

Other sub-plots enrich the film, although the relatively short 101 minutes of running time limit their depth. Bernie's good-for-nothing son Mikey (Shawn Hatosy) and a pregnant girlfriend Charlotte (Estella Warren) show up looking for handouts and layering additional guilt onto Bernie. Shelly, in his own unique way, is loyal to drug addicted entertainer (Paul Sorvino) long past his sell-by date.

Although the 17 year age difference is grating, William H. Macy and Maria Bello glow at the heart of the film, both creating characters living on dying embers of hope. Alec Baldwin enjoys himself as Shelly, hiding his uncompromising tendencies and dead soul behind expensive suits.

Stylish, engaging, and unpredictable, The Cooler rolls a natural.

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Movie Review: The Story Of G.I. Joe (1945)
Wed, 24 Jun 2020 01:27:00 +0000

A poignant view of war from the perspective of lowly infantrymen, The Story Of G.I. Joe is a glamour-free chronicle of the ravages of war. 

It's 1943, and war correspondent Ernie Pyle (Burgess Meredith) joins the raw recruits of the US Army's C Company, 18th Infantry, as they truck their way to the front lines in North Africa. Lieutenant Bill Walker (Robert Mitchum) is aware his men lack experience, and not surprisingly their first test ends in defeat at Kasserine Pass.

Months later Pyle rejoins C Company, now making their way through Italy. Walker has been promoted to Captain, and the men have become expert killing machines, efficiently dislodging German defenders from a church bell tower. But after endless days of marching and combat, the increasingly exhausted and jaded soldiers get bogged down at Monte Cassino, where fortified German positions pin them down into a muddy battle of attrition.

Ernie Pyle was a celebrated World War Two correspondent, his newspaper columns bringing the war home through stories of sons and husbands fighting and dying in distant lands. With a cast combining professional actors and actual servicemen, The Story Of G.I. Joe is based on Pyle's witnessed accounts and newspaper columns, although details were understandably simplified. Remarkable for the 1945 context, the movie is devoid of any propaganda or jingoism. 

Instead, this is the grim realism of war, men trudging for endless miles on foot, in the mud and rain, sleeping rough, combating fatigue, boredom, depression and desperation, and longing for home. Director William Wellman zooms in close and uses silence to great effect, capturing the transformation of raw recruits to battle hardened but increasingly soul-dead professional soldiers. The few scenes of combat are tense and sharply choreographed, while away from the front lines the incessant dull thud of artillery serves as a constant reminder of the unfolding destruction.

Pyle was in his forties, and in relative terms an old man in the eyes of the infantrymen. Yet he earned respect by sharing every step of their experience, and the unlikely warm bond between soldiers and journalist forms the heart of the film.

While the group's humanity is revealed through their concerted caring for a small dog, Wellman is able to define a few of the men as individuals, although their background stories and personalities are shrouded in the collective experience. Murphy (John R. Reilly) had his heart set on the glamour of the Air Force but was deemed too tall. Dondaro (Wally Cassell) is a rampant womanizer and seeks female companionship in every bombed out corner. Warnicki (Freddie Steele) is a quiet family man, and spends the Italian campaign desperately searching for a phonograph to try and listen to a voice recording of his young son. And Mew (William Murphy) has no family, and has to decide who to name as beneficiaries on his life insurance policy.

Walker is their leader, but unable to prevent the pain of war from extinguishing the spark in his eyes. In his first leading role Robert Mitchum does more with less in portraying a steady presence, until a searing scene unleashes the pain and guilt accumulated from marching an endless succession of young men into the arena of death.

The Story Of G.I. Joe distills the war experience to exhausted drudgery amidst physical destruction, an inescapable nightmare where nothing thrives except death.

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Movie Review: The Comancheros (1961)
Tue, 23 Jun 2020 00:31:00 +0000

A rowdy but relatively routine Western with a streak of understated humour, The Comancheros is competently traditional.

It's 1843 in New Orleans. Professional gambler Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman) wins a pistols-at-dawn duel, but because his victim was the son of a judge Paul is deemed a fugitive wanted for murder. While gambling on a Texas-bound riverboat he meets and falls in love with the mysterious and independent-minded Pilar Graile (Ina Balin). Texas Ranger Jake Cutter (John Wayne) interrupts the romance, catching up with Paul and arresting him.

A grudging respect develops between Paul, who repeatedly escapes, and Jake, who repeatedly recaptures him. Meanwhile the Rangers become aware of outlaws calling themselves Comancheros running an illegal large-scale operation to smuggle stolen rifles to the Comanche native tribe. Jake pretends to be a gun trader to connect with middleman Tully Crow (Lee Marvin), then with Paul's help attempts to uncover the secret location of the gang's well-guarded headquarters.

An adaptation of a 1952 novel by Paul I. Wellman, The Comancheros is the last movie directed by veteran Michael Curtiz. In an uncredited assist, Wayne took over the director's chair when Curtiz fell ill. The resulting film is a middling effort, with the two intersecting narrative arcs maintaining decent interest through the efficient 107 minutes. Paul Regret's determination to escape his grim fate merges with the search for the rifle-smuggling bandits, and eventually Pilar emerges as a critical nexus in both quests.

In addition to beautiful scenery and rugged landscapes filmed in Utah and Arizona, the best moments are derived from the thorny friendship between Paul and Jake. The gentleman gambler and the grizzled Ranger come from two different worlds, Regret representing the urbanizing east and Jake a product of the frontier. From tolerating each other to developing a mutual dependence, their barbed bond keeps The Comancheros grounded amidst all the otherwise stock elements.

And most of the rest of the movie is pretty basic. The Comanches are archaically depicted as savages without any context or voice. Background snippets that could have rounded out Jake's character are tantalizingly introduced then summarily abandoned. And the titular outlaws, represented by a wheelchair-bound leader (Nehemiah Persoff), threaten to become intriguing but are reduced to a kill-hungry encampment.

John Wayne is in relaxed form and Stuart Whitman provides a spry counterpoint. Lee Marvin enjoys a relatively brief but impactful and animated role as a forcefully drunk, semi-scalped dangerous scoundrel. Michael Ansara is suitably intimidating as the most brutal of the bad guys, and the cast also features a who's who of veterans in small roles, including Jack Elam, Bruce Cabot, Edgar Buchanan and Henry Daniell. 

Hints of potential collide with limited ambition, and The Comancheros settles down somewhere between almost forgettable and vaguely memorable.

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Movie Review: Leave Her To Heaven (1945)
Sun, 21 Jun 2020 16:03:00 +0000

A colourful drama with noir shadings, Leave Her To Heaven explores a seemingly perfect marriage undermined by ruinous jealousy.

Author Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) meets beautiful rich socialite Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) on a train. She claims he closely resembles her recently deceased father, and break off her engagement with lawyer Russell Quinton (Vincent Price) to marry Richard.

Richard is devoted to the the wellbeing of his brother Danny (Darryl Hickman) who is slowly recovering from leg injuries. But Ellen is exceptionally possessive and starts to resent Danny's intrusion on her marriage. She is also jealous of her adopted sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain) who develops a deep friendship and perhaps a crush on Richard. As the newly married couple vacation with Danny at an idyllic lake, Ellen's emotional avarice takes a dark turn.

Sometimes designated the first film noir in colour, Leave Her To Heaven is more of an overdone mishmash. While Ellen Berent is certainly a memorable femme fatale, director John M. Stahl is less concerned with noir elements and more interested in showcasing his Technicolor crayons with sparkling scenes of lakefront living. The film more often resembles an overheated melodrama, Ellen admitting early to an excessive demand for devotion and an inability to share attention, creating a sturdy but predictable foundation for misdeeds to come.

The film adapts the novel by Ben Ames Williams with hints of underdeveloped storylines hampered by the cinematic constraints of the era. Ellen's relationship with her deceased father is described in a few different vague terms but never confronted for what it may have been. Less excusable is the rather tepid depiction of the bond between Richard and Ruth, a source of much of Ellen's wrath but otherwise poorly defined. And finally Ellen as a potential victim of a mental disorder is never posited as a narrative avenue. Her venom towards others (and herself) is portrayed as simple evil, denying the film texture.

The final act suddenly transforms into amateur hour at the courthouse. In a ridiculous display of theatrics, Vincent Price takes centre stage as lead prosecutor and the Jo Swerling script demonstrates a childish disdain for basic court proceedings.

The cast members are surprisingly stiff, with only Gene Tierney glowing within the colourful aesthetic. Cornel Wilde is mechanical and Jeanne Crain underutilized.

Instead of a deft touch, sinister nuance, and shades of grey, Leave Her To Heaven opts for brash and bold.

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Movie Review: Leave No Trace (2018)
Sat, 20 Jun 2020 20:02:00 +0000

A drama about mental health and cross-generational impacts, Leave No Trace probes difficult subject matter with warm tenderness.

In Oregon, army veteran Will (Ben Foster) lives with his 13 year old daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) deep in a wooded public park outside Portland. Suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Will cannot properly function around people, indoors or in typical civilized surroundings. However he treats Tom well, and she is adjusted to living rough.

Park rangers uncover and arrest the pair. After an evaluation by social workers they are provided with a modest home on the property of a tree farmer. Will tries to adapt to living indoors and working on the farm, while Tom starts the process of making friends. However, Will soon insists they break free again and head to another distant park. But now Tom has a treasured glimpse of the potential for a better life, and is not as willing to be homeless with her father.

Leave No Trace features a minimal amount of dialogue, and the few spoken words are delivered with calm hesitation. Director Debra Granik co-wrote the script with Anne Rosellini, adapting the book My Abandonment by Peter Rock, with an emphasis on mood, quiet emotion and a sense of place. The film nevertheless builds up power and momentum from an overwhelming sense of emotional distance. Will is in a mental place others cannot reach, and he only finds solace in physical space others cannot find.

Trudging through the muddy woods, in the rain, far away from prying eyes, is where he feels safe. He keeps his daughter secure and educated, and mostly warm and fed, but in social isolation. The nature of home (and home as nature), the misery and loneliness caused by untreated mental trauma, and the potential transference of psychological damage to the next generation are underlying themes within the thick foliage. 

The slow pacing and relative lack of incident demand two engrossing performances. Ben Foster speaks volumes by saying little, his haunted eyes hinting at plenty that needs to be said and the certainty none of it will be understood. New Zealander Thomasin McKenzie matches him by capturing a young teen transforming to an adult, her brief interactions with others creating daylight between the expectations of daughter and father, although he still represents the loving anchor in her life.

With quiet courage, Leave No Trace actively seeks the often ignored pain hidden on the edges of society. The causes are clear, but the solutions remain as slippery as the wet Northwestern rainforest.

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Movie Review: The Perfect Furlough (1958)
Fri, 19 Jun 2020 15:12:00 +0000

A romantic comedy about a dream vacation turning to farce, The Perfect Furlough (also known as Strictly For Pleasure) delivers flighty entertainment.

Army psychologist Lieutenant Vicki Loren (Janet Leigh) conceives of a vacation competition for one soldier to boost the morale of all 104 batchelors stationed for a long year at a remote army base in the Arctic. After some clever scheming and fast talking Corporal Paul Hodges (Tony Curtis) wins the draw to enjoy three weeks in Paris with Argentinian Hollywood actress Sandra Roca (Linda Cristal), who was convinced to participate by her agent Harvey Franklin (Keenan Wynn). 

Hodges is a rampant womanizer, and even before they arrive in Paris he sets his sights on seducing Sandra. With the army terrified of bad publicity Vicki clamps down, placing Hodges under guard and denying him opportunities to engage in romance. He does not stop trying, leading to unintended escapades with both Sandra and Vicki.

A standard romance-in-the-military comedy, The Perfect Furlough has modest ambitions and rides the magnetism of star Tony Curtis to expected laughs. The Stanley Shapiro script draws predictable lines around a stuffy and somewhat incompetent military establishment clashing with fun-loving sex-starved troops, and Blake Edwards hustles the action along with a combination of deadpan humour and wide-eyed farce.

Despite the CinemaScope production The Perfect Furlough does not exude high budget aspirations. Many of the scenes in Paris are painfully flat backscreen jobs, and most of the action is confined to multiple hotel rooms, complete with the usual window ledge escapades.

Edwards builds his way up to farce-level misunderstandings and packs in a French magistrate, a doctor, an elderly winemaker, his more elderly father, and a few surprise revelations into the mix. And recognizing the delicately thin extent of the premise, all the antics are wrapped up in 93 minutes.

The film treats a woman in military leadership with surprising matter-of-fact respect, but without fully avoiding moments of sexism. Janet Leigh owns the pioneering role and walks a fine line between exerting authority and melting into romance on cue. Curtis aces his lothario persona, bending but not quite breaking the rules and not beyond manhandling a superior to prove a point. Linda Cristal is full of vitality as the exotic Hollywood beauty wringing exposure from the army publicity machine but also hiding a few secrets.

Colourful and charismatic, The Perfect Furlough is frivolous fun.

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Movie Review: Nightmare Alley (1947)
Fri, 19 Jun 2020 01:22:00 +0000

A dark story of unconstrained ambition, Nightmare Alley is a richly textured drama exploring the limits of human desire fueled by greed and delusion.

Stan Carlisle (Tyrone Power) works with a scrappy traveling carnival, helping mentalist Zeena (Joan Blondell) with her show. She used to have a classy revue with Pete (Ian Keith) using a language code to pretend to read minds. Now Pete is reduced to a state of perpetual drunkenness.

Stan is an orphan, abandoned by his family at an early age and eventually raised in a convent. An ambitious risk-taker with a gift of oral communication, he seduces Zeena into teaching him the code, while romancing fellow carny Molly (Coleen Gray). He marries Molly and together they leave the carnival and use Zeena's code to establish a popular mentalist act at big city nightclubs.

But Stan wants more. He meets equally ambitious psychologist Lilith (Helen Walker), and her confidential audio recordings of patient sessions provide an opportunity to target the wealthy. Now encroaching into fraud, deception and profiting from private information, Stan creates a moral quandary for Molly.

A captivating character study, Nightmare Alley accompanies one man on a journey from the squalor of a cheap traveling carnival to the bright lights of swish big city and back again. Jules Furthman adapted the William Lindsay Gresham book into a powerful and purposeful script, packing poignant moments alongside performance highlights to track Stan's trajectory. Edmund Goulding directs with a firm hand and a noir spirit, maintaining control of a sprawling, multi-chapter story full of surprises.

Some moments reach exceptional heights of subtle emotion. In a long scene, the inebriated and quickly fading Pete demonstrates just how easy it is to create a beguiling illusion. Ever the quick study, Stan later puts this lesson to good use in distracting a Marshal intent on shutting down the carnival. Most profound is a stunning exchange between Molly and Stan, as she finally draws a line in the sand and confronts his out of control hubris.

Nightmare Alley is elevated by featuring three strong women characters. The seasoned Zeena has been around the block of fame and gives Stan his break after falling under his spell. Molly is the great love of his life and is devoted to her man, including any unconventional action needed to save him. And Lilith is his intellectual equivalent from the posh side of the tracks, and the one woman potentially as conniving as he is.

Exceptionally well defined, all three women remain true to who they are and abide by their principles, unmoved by Stan's fluctuating fortunes. They are brought to life by stellar performances from Joan Blondell (wary), Coleen Gray (ardent) and Helen Walker (icy).

Meanwhile Tyrone Power delivers what is probably the best performance of his career. Personable, irresistible, capable, dangerous, seductive, scheming and rapacious but never exaggerated, Power finds space for all of Stan's complexities in an astounding milestone.

Uncompromising and meticulously crafted, Nightmare Alley is a dream achievement.

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Movie Review: Blood On The Sun (1945)
Thu, 18 Jun 2020 04:59:00 +0000

An anti-Japan propaganda spy adventure, Blood On The Sun never rises above rudimentary ambitions.

It's the 1930s in Tokyo, and Nick Condon (James Cagney) is the rambunctious managing editor of the English-language Tokyo Chronicle newspaper, owned by Arthur Bickett (Porter Hall). Nick antagonizes the Imperialist regime by publishing rumours of Japan's intentions to attack the United States. Reporter Ollie Miller (Wallace Ford) gets involved in a plot to smuggle incriminating documents out of Japan and is killed for his troubles, but the secret papers go missing.

Premier Giichi Tanaka (John Emery) leans on Nick to retrieve the memorandum, and deploys spy Iris Hilliard (Sylvia Sidney) to cozy up to Nick. She is half-Chinese and her real loyalties reside with China. As romance blossoms between Nick and Iris, the Japanese authorities grow more desperate to retrieve the missing documents, and lives are placed in danger.

A crude attempt to whip-up anti-Japanese sentiment towards the end of World War Two, Blood On The Sun has a clumsy plot and bumbling execution. With white actors in all the Asian roles, a dreary MacGuffin in the form of barely-defined "papers", and the evil Japanese officials always giving Nick plenty of leeway and every opportunity to get away with whatever he is hatching, director Frank Lloyd fails to generate meaningful drama or tension.

Star James Cagney makes matters worse. Although never less than energetic and committed, his bull-in-a-Tokyo-shop persona, standing up to high-level Japanese officials with empty threats and squaring off in Judo confrontations with local goons, is almost comically misplaced.

The better moments of the script by Garrett Fort and Lester Cole expose the misinformation and fact-twisting expertise of militaristic regimes, and the film at least makes an attempt to delve into pre-war pan-Asian complexities through the characters of Iris and journalist Joseph Cassell (Rhys Williams), a recent arrivee from Shanghai.

The final third of Blood On The Sun unapologetically attempts to pilfer a Casablanca vibe, but just lurches towards the ending of a dreadful star slip.

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Movie Review: The Bravados (1958)
Wed, 17 Jun 2020 04:51:00 +0000

A routine western exploring a quest for revenge blinded by rage, The Bravados mixes beautiful scenery and dogged convictions in a bowl of genre cliches.

Jim Douglas (Gregory Peck) rides into the small border town of Rio Arriba to witness the hanging of four men (played by Stephen Boyd, Lee Van Cleef, Henry Silva and Albert Salmi) who have been convicted of a violent bank robbery. Douglas has been tracking the criminals for six months, believing they raped and killed his wife. In town he rekindles a relationship with his ex-lover Josefa Velarde (Joan Collins), and meets banker Gus, his daughter Emma and local Sheriff Sanchez.

On the evening before the hanging most of the townfolk congregate at a church service, and the four criminals make their escape, taking Emma with them as a hostage. A posse is organized and Jim emerges as a leader in tracking the bandits. As he corners each of the criminals individually they all plead ignorance about his wife's murder, but he anyway doles out his version of frontier justice.

With most of the action consisting of Douglas and the posse hunting down the escapees, the filming locations in Mexico infuse The Bravados with a cinematic majesty. The CinemaScope production features stunning landscapes, director Henry King and cinematographer Leon Shamroy capturing imposing vistas of waterfalls, gorges, cliffs, trails and impressive plains.

The alluring imagery and visual splendour compensate for an ordinary story and stiff performances. The stock stranger-seeking-justice narrative remains exceptionally shallow, the Philip Yordan script deploying awkward silence instead of providing context. Gregory Peck aims for stoic but is surprisingly awkward in the central role, and the supporting characters on the good side of the law are featureless.

But with the help of good casting, the four criminals add zesty colour. Boyd, Van Cleef, Salmi and especially Henry Silva provide a welcome edge and emerge as the more interesting group compared to the bland justice-seekers.

The story serves as an obtuse beware-of-assumptions critique of McCarthyism, with religion playing an intentionally exaggerated role as an alternative moral compass. The dusty small town of Rio Arriba boasts an ostentatious church more appropriate for a city ten times the size, complete with a heavenly all-boys choir. The divine gloss reorients Jim's perspective, from an initial reluctance to enter the church doors to a final moment of reckoning when the church is the only place he can turn to.

With a decent twist in the tail, The Bravados follows a crooked but still largely familiar trail.

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Movie Review: Kiss Of Death (1947)
Mon, 15 Jun 2020 15:39:00 +0000

A character profile focusing on the dilemma of an informer, Kiss Of Death is an intense crime drama heightened by an unforgettable Richard Widmark performance. 

It's Christmas time in New York City. Ex-convict Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) joins three hoodlums to rob a jewelry story at the Empire State Building, but he is the only one caught. Assistant District Attorney Louis D'Angelo (Brian Donlevy) offers leniency in return for the names of the other gang members, but Nick refuses to squeal and is sentenced to a long stint behind bars.

Three years later, Nick learns his wife has committed suicide, and his two daughters are in an orphanage. His ex-neighbour Nettie (Coleen Gray) visits him in prison and reveals that Rizzo, one of Nick's former associates, may have mistreated his wife before her death. Nick now strikes a deal with D'Angelo, naming names to earn visits with his daughters. Soon Nick is released on parole and settles down with Nettie, but D'Angelo wants his help to nab the dangerous Tommy Udo (Widmark), a psychotic killer.

In one of the more memorable big screen debuts, Richard Widmark announces his arrival with an incendiary performance. When he is on screen as the cackling, unhinged Udo, nothing else matters. He commands his scenes with a murderous edge of barely contained psychosis, creating one of the screen's most noteworthy villains.

When Widmark is not dominating, the screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer is primarily interested in Nick's soul searching as he struggles to decide whether the criminal code of silence is worth the impact on his family. Despite a robust and heartfelt Victor Mature central performance, the narrative is sometimes bogged down wondering if Nick can be a good man at heart. 

But director Henry Hathaway also punctuates Kiss Of Death with short and sharp moments of extreme violence, including allowing Udo to earn his place in cinematic infamy in a scene involving a wheelchair and a staircase.

Some elements proved too troublesome for the censors and audiences of the day, leaving Nick's story somewhat muddled. His wife's death, and the role of the criminal Rizzo, were truncated to the edge of incomprehension. The romance between Nick and Nettie proceeds at jarring speed, and the climactic showdown is too far fetched, even for the standards of hardboiled men.

But Hathaway also produces some moments of noir-infused brilliance to compensate for the rough spots. In a couple of sequences, time slows down to a crawl to build unbearable tension. The endlessly long elevator descent from the opening scene of the crime to the lobby of the Empire State Building allows Nick plenty of time to reflect on his life's downward trajectory. And later, Udo's emergence from behind a curtain at an Italian restaurant is prolonged to an epic noir moment.

On either side of the prison walls, Kiss Of Death offers only dark paths to redemption.

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