Movie Review: Belle (2013)
Sun, 28 Feb 2021 18:53:00 +0000

A costume drama and romance, Belle courageously addresses discrimination issues through the lens of a unique young woman seeking her place in a disciplined social structure.

In England of the late 1700s, Navy Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) entrusts his half-Black daughter Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) to the care of his uncle William Murray (Tom Wilkinson), Earl of Mansfield and the country's Lord Chief Justice, and his wife (Emily Watson). Belle's Black mother died young, and Sir John soon dies at sea, leaving Belle with a good inheritance.

She grows up surrounded by luxury but segregated by her colour, forbidden from joining formal dinners but otherwise enjoying life at the lavish Murray estate. Belle forms a strong bond of sisterhood with the Earl's other grand niece Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon).

Belle is intrigued by the Zong slave ship legal case involving the intentional killing of slaves by drowning. The resultant cargo insurance dispute is being adjudicated by her great uncle, with the country awaiting his decision. Belle also attracts the romantic attention of the passionate John Davinier (Sam Reid), the son of a vicar and an aspiring lawyer interested in a more just society. But another suitor complicates Belle's life, as she challenges a multitude of societal rules.

Based on a true story but with plenty of artistic licence to fill in facts lost to history, Belle is intelligent, engrossing and uplifting. Inspired by the actual 1779 painting of Belle and her cousin Elizabeth by artist David Martin, director Amma Asante and writer Misan Sagay create a multi-dimensional tableau of upper-echelon society in the Georgian era, where every action is strictly defined by classism and protocol. 

In this world Belle is an intriguing misfit, a half-Black independently wealthy product of an illegitimate union, and a blood descendant of one of the country's most powerful men. The context of intersecting currents colliding to shake loose kernels of societal awakening provides rich grounds for a rewarding narrative, and Asante quickly gets to work, teasing out threads of understated conflict. 

Within the Earl of Mansfield's house Belle faces contradictions, afforded a privileged upbringing but banished from the dinner table. As young women ready to be introduced to London's society in search of suitors, Belle and Elizabeth (penniless after being abandoned by her father) face different challenges and prejudices ranging from snootiness to racism. John Davinier is the disruptive presence, looked down upon as merely a vicar's son, but nevertheless intent on leaving his mark both on Belle's heart and his country.

Far from content with traditional costume drama conflicts and affairs of the heart, the film strides into the history of slavery in Great Britain, and Sagay's script demonstrates a deft touch to introduce the Zong incident, featuring mass murder, slaves-as-cargo, on-board disease, allegations of a water shortage, and an insurance dispute, in remarkably comprehensible morsels. The Earl of Mansfield is the rock around which all the waters churn, and Tom Wilkinson expertly hints at sparks of humanity shining through the gruff exterior of the Lord Chief Justice, tied to laws but with the power to change them.

The third act brings Belle's personal story to the crossroads of her nation's history. Even in a most regimented society, willing provocateurs ensure change is a constant.

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Movie Review: Homefront (2013)
Sun, 28 Feb 2021 05:39:00 +0000

A basic action drama about an ex-government agent tangling with small-town drug pushers, Homefront brawls through predictably satisfactory territory. 

In a messy operation, New Orleans-based Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) undercover officer Phil Broker (Jason Statham) disrupts the methamphetamine lab of gangster Danny T (Chuck Zito). Disillusioned with unnecessary bloodshed, Phil retires to the small rural Louisiana town of Rayville to raise his young daughter Maddy (Izabela Vidovic) in peace.

Maddy tangles with the school bully, and Broker humiliates the bully's parents Cassie and Jimmy Klum (Kate Bosworth and Marcus Hester). Cassie turns to her brother and local meth manufacturer "Gator" Bodine (James Franco) to settle scores. Gator and his girlfriend Sheryl Marie (Winona Ryder) uncover Broker's background and conspire with the imprisoned Danny T to cause more trouble for Broker and Maddy.

A solid, unspectacular, and eminently calculable drama, Homefront delivers exactly what should be expected from a film starring Jason Statham with a screenplay by Sylvester Stallone. Regardless of the plot's progress, about every 10 minutes Broker gets to display his superior combat skills, taking on one or many foes with a near-certain outcome: Broker standing tall, everyone else crumpled in a heap. It's an almost comforting level of normalcy in action film making.

Stallone adds enough notes of humanity between Broker and his daughter Maddy to surround the skull bashing with familial warmth. And the character of drug addicted redneck mama bear Cassie, with Kate Bosworth in excellent form, injects a welcome variability.

But otherwise director Gary Fleder manages to bungle many of the action scene with barely rational angles and lazy editing, while the plot fills several cliche bingo cards: father and daughter lamenting the loss of the idyllic wife/mother, the horse-riding child placed in harms way, the pet in peril, the Black sidekick (Omar Benson Miller), the corrupt local cop (Clancy Brown), and the hints of a romance between the tough protagonist and the perky school psychologist (Rachelle Lefevre, way too perky for this backwater of a little town). 

Star charisma helps navigate the routine terrain, Jason Statham's stoic heroism and Dave Franco's slimy villainy creating worthy adversaries. Winona Ryder is too good for the fast-fried role of a trashy errand girl on the cusp of finding a conscience. Homefront wins no awards for originality, but is too busy breaking bones to care.

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Movie Review: Northern Borders (2013)
Sat, 27 Feb 2021 23:04:00 +0000

A coming-of-age drama, Northern Borders features two veteran actors in grumpy roles, but otherwise struggles to justify itself.

It's the 1950s, and young Austen Kittredge II (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) arrives to stay at the rural Vermont home of his grandparents Austen Sr. and Abiah (Bruce Dern and Geneviève Bujold). The boy discovers a household devoid of love and grandparents who barely talk to each other. Austen Sr. enjoys hunting, reading and puttering around his workshop. Abiah looks after the house and her garden, and is attached to Egyptian mementos.

Austen Sr. reveals to his grandson the story of his first and long-lost love. The young Austen starts a friendship with schoolmate Theresa Dubois (Jacqueline Birgitte Hennessy) and meets his three aunts, including the black sheep Liz (Jessica Hecht), who may or may not have once robbed a bank. When electricity arrives in the area, Austen Sr. is eager to connect his workshop to the grid, but Abiah is worried about the impact to her orchard.

An adaptation of the Howard Frank Mosher book, Northern Borders is a small independent production, seemingly pulled together with funding from many private donors and with the participation of local students. Writer and director Jay Craven does make good use of rustic rural locations and secures big screen legends Bruce Dern and Geneviève Bujold for the two central roles. They add plenty of talent and serious presence, but cannot rescue an aimless script.

The film is made up of a collection of loose threads that may work well as book chapters, but struggle to define a narrative direction on the screen. The reasons why young Austen is sent to live with his grandparents remain a mystery. His friendship with Theresa is barely scratched. The enigmatic Liz exists in a void separate from all around her. Abiah's attachment to Egyptian artefacts surfaces at regular intervals but never contributes. Austen Sr.'s first and only love is an interesting backstory, but hardly justifies the lifelong silent mistreatment of Abiah, the mother of his three daughters (the sex must have been invigorating).

With two surly characters occupying the grandparent roles, the film settles down to a slow-paced study of long-term passive aggressiveness, young Austen pressed into service as a conversational go-between for two adults who should know better. With the same piece of music looping incessantly on the soundtrack and the film engaging in a spot of dumbfounding self-censorship, Northern Borders strays out of bounds.

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Movie Review: Regression (2015)
Sat, 27 Feb 2021 22:12:00 +0000

A dramatic thriller with horror elements, Regression enjoys an engaged cast and creepy visuals, but awkwardly shifts tones before stalling altogether. 

It's 1990 in the small (fictional) town of Hoyer, Minnesota. With unsubstantiated stories of evil satanic rituals making the news in various communities, detective Bruce Kenner (Ethan Hawke) investigates allegations by Angela Gray (Emma Watson) that she was sexually abused by her father John (David Dencik). He admits to the crime but has no recollection of specific events.

Professor Kenneth Raines (David Thewlis) suggests hypnosis to trigger "regression" and stimulate memory recall. The resultant interrogations ensnare police officer George Nesbitt (Aaron Ashmore) as part of a satanic cult holding sacrifice rituals. Angela's brother Roy (Devon Bostick), her grandmother Rose (Dale Dickey) and Reverend Murray (Lothaire Bluteau) may all be keeping secrets, and in his quest for the truth Bruce starts to experience disturbing nightmares and possible threats.

Regression is inspired by the wave of panic about satanic cults that obsessed an excitable corner of the news cycle in the 1980s and 1990s. With Ethan Hawke in a determined mood (although both Detective Kenner and Professor Raines appear out of place in a rural backwater), writer and director Alejandro Amenábar creates a suitable aesthetic, the grey small town providing a susceptible venue for spooky things. But Amenábar cannot quite decide on what story he wants to tell, the limited to non-existent character development and wayward narrative execution undermining any good intentions.

So the film starts with allegations of sexual abuse within a family, expanding to include the involvement of a police officer, and then descriptions of a (very) large number of Satan worshippers wearing dark robes and white make-up, gathering around various beds or in eerie sheds to kill animals and babies. At some point the number of cultists appears to exceed the town's entire population. But then Regression abandons the investigation and becomes more of a horror flick, Bruce succumbing to a series of scary incidents (real or imagined) and getting sucked into a mentally fragile state.

The final act snaps back sharply to a different place entirely, a rational if cinematically sterile resolution condemning multiple characters. Regression exposes multiple overlapping agendas, most of them devilishly misguided.

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Movie Review: The Numbers Station (2013)
Fri, 26 Feb 2021 02:08:00 +0000

A dramatic siege thriller, The Numbers Station leans on a decent cast and a single labyrinthine set but is undone by stereotypes and a flimsy plot. 

Jaded CIA assassin Emerson Kent (John Cusack) is losing the cold blooded ability to kill innocent witnesses. His boss Michael Grey (Liam Cunningham) reassigns him to an out-of-the-way job in Suffolk, England to protect a remote "numbers station", a secret facility broadcasting coded shortwave instructions to field agents, an old-fashioned but impenetrable communications system.

The job entails long 70 hour shifts inside the secured station, with only civilian broadcaster Katherine (Malin Åkerman) for company. After two months of tedium Emerson and Katherine arrive for their shift and find the station compromised, mysterious killers having infiltrated the facility for nefarious purposes. Awaiting rescue, Emerson and Katherine have to stay alive and find a way to block the unfolding conspiracy. 

Featuring some similarities with 2012's Safe House, The Numbers Station has enough quality to rise above straight-to-DVD fare, but it's a fine margin. A modest sense of claustrophobic space is created at the remote setting, and the spooky cyphers, both spoken and flashed on the screen, generate as much intrigue as can be expected from random numbers. In an easy role John Cusack lends basic star power with the expected level of internal dissidence to round Emerson into another iteration of an assassin developing a conscience and crawling into a bottle.

Malin Åkerman suffers frequent blood loss and Liam Cunningham oozes cold blooded aloofness, but otherwise they are both under-used. Danish director Kasper Barfoed busies himself exploring the various rooms and hallways of the secret facility, discovering a potentially suitable locale for a dark and moody shredding of a killer's soul. But terrible trouble resides in F. Scott Frazier's elemental script, with neither the overall conspiracy nor the details properly developed or explained, leaving gaping logic holes to swallow the basic dialogue exchanges and muddled action scenes.

The intruders are smart enough to infiltrate the station then dumb enough to find themselves on the outside looking to get back in. They have the resources to compromise a secret CIA operation (including the support network) but send a grand total of three goons to do the dirty work. Even Emerson suffers infuriating brain fades, including leaving the door wide open to facilitate bad guy re-entry. And whatever seditious objectives are behind the facility invasion, they are not worthy of explanation, denying the film any sense of importance or tension.

Despite a few flashes of artistry, The Numbers Station resorts to painting by numbers.

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Movie Review: In A World...(2013)
Wed, 24 Feb 2021 05:47:00 +0000

A canny comedy, In A World... finds sharp laughs in an irreverent story tucked into a quirky corner of the movie industry.

In Los Angeles, Carol (Lake Bell) is a vocal coach struggling to break into the male-dominated movie trailer voice-over business. Her father Sam (Fred Melamed), a leading voice-over talent, is looking to pass the torch to the younger Gustav Warner (Ken Marino). Recently deceased Don LaFontaine had popularized the iconic "In a world..." trailer introduction, and the industry is now eagerly anticipating the selection of his heir for the upcoming Amazon Games movie quadrology.

Sam's younger girlfriend Jamie (Alexandra Holden) moves in with him, displacing Carol to the apartment of her sister Dani (Michaela Watkins) and her husband Moe (Rob Corddry), who have a wobbly marriage. Carol gets some career breaks and is suddenly in the running for the coveted Amazon Games assignment. She also gets sexually entangled with Gustav, while hesitant studio technician Louis (Demetri Martin) tries to attract her attention.

Written, directed and co-produced by Bell, In A World... is an independent production with a breezy, free-wheeling structure. The laughs are derived from characters and situations, Bell demonstrating an ear for the messiness of real conversations and acknowledged individual imperfections. Occupying the uncelebrated, arcane and tiny profession of trailer voice-overs, all her characters are hustling for something better, trampling over each other into an often hilarious jumble.

With gentle pokes at a variety of topics, the film is about nothing and everything, most reminiscent of an extended Seinfeld episode. Bell highlights women's under-representation in a male dominated profession, while acknowledging up front that a grand total of five people make money in the trailer voice-over business. The problems in the union between Dani and Moe have little to do with the central plot, and yet Carol uses her accent sleuthing skills and ever-present small tape recorder to help. 

Carol's love-and-sex adventures add a funky layer of complications, including a wild encounter with Gustav triggering internecine back-stabbing plots, followed by awkward wooing from Louis. 

It's not all supposed to hang together but In A World... simply clicks, Bell smoothing the disparate chapters of Carol's life into a cohesive whole and finding humour in the absurdities of brave career and romance misadventures. Even the dangers of tokenism in the battle for gender rights receive a firm jab in the ribs.

In a world where astute comedies are hard to find, In A World... is the must-see event of the season.

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Movie Review: The Book Thief (2013)
Tue, 23 Feb 2021 03:10:00 +0000

A coming of age story set against a World War Two backdrop, The Book Thief is earnest, beautiful and unremarkable.

In Germany of 1938, young Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) is adopted by Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson), a couple suffering economically because they refuse to join the Nazi party. Hans is kind and teaches Liesel to read. Rosa is stern, worn down by the responsibilities of keeping the family fed.

Liesel grows up with a love of books and inherits her adopted father's compassion. She develops a friendship with classmate and neighbour Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch), a budding sprinter. The household tension increases when Hans and Rosa provide refuge to Max, a young Jewish man. Liesel witnesses her neighbourhood change as the war drags on, her reading hobby fuelled by an unlikely bond with Ilsa Hermann (Barbara Auer), the mayor's wife.

An adaptation of the book by Markus Zusak, The Book Thief is filled with honest intentions to present war from a child's viewpoint, and from behind the windows of a German anti-Nazi household as the storm clouds of a global conflict gather then erupt. Director Brian Percival creates luscious visuals within an idyllic small town (really one cobble-stoned street) where everyone knows everyone, and the regime's iron grip is represented by the Nazi flag draped on every building and an increasing number of uniforms and troop-carrying trucks.

But behind the pretty pictures and purity of perspective, Michael Petroni's script struggles to find a narrative thrust. The Book Thief is episodic, Liesel too young to influence meaningful events and generally swept along according to decisions made by others. The book thievery elements become a minor sideshow to the major incidents rocking the town, the war emerging as the most important character, everyone else a relatively meaningless pawn in the unfolding scope of history.

Which is of course true and probably works well in book format, but other than Liesel's growth from a young girl to a less young girl, the movie lacks requisite character arcs to build drama. Narration by a heaven-occupying voice of death is an interesting addition, but only serves to further underline human insignificance.

The performances are uniformly good but all remain close to pre-established single notes. Young Canadian actress Sophie Nelisse conveys appropriate levels of apprehension, wonder, and growing determination in a world gone mad.

Solemn but emotionally staid, The Book Thief steals sporadic moments of satisfaction.

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The Iconic Moment: The Breakfast Club (1985)
Mon, 22 Feb 2021 14:00:00 +0000


Soundtrack: Don't You (Forget About Me), by The Simple Minds.

Brian Johnson, closing narration: Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. But we think you're crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us - in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain...
Andrew Clark: ...and an athlete...
Allison Reynolds: ...and a basket case...
Claire Standish: ...a princess...
John Bender: ...and a criminal...
Brian Johnson: Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club.

Directed and Written by John Hughes.
Cinematography by Thomas Del Ruth.
Starring Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy, Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall.

The full Ace Black Movie Blog review of The Breakfast Club is here.

Movie Review: Sliding Doors (1998)
Sun, 21 Feb 2021 02:27:00 +0000

A romantic comedy-drama with parallel "what if" narratives, Sliding Doors offers two stories and not unexpectedly shortchanges both.

In London, Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow) is fired from her public relations job. On her way back home, two alternative realities are presented: Helen either just makes it onto a subway train before the sliding doors close, or doesn't.

In the scenario where she makes the train, Helen walks in on her boyfriend Gerry (John Lynch) having sex with his secret lover Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn). Distraught, she relocates to the apartment of her best friend Anna (Zara Turner) and makes a new start: with a fresh hairdo she launches her own PR firm. She also meets and starts to fall in love with James (John Hannah), who works hard to win her heart but has personal issues of his own.

In the alternative where Helen misses the train, she survives a near-mugging and only finds inconclusive evidence of Gerry's infidelity. She picks up two part-time jobs to make ends meet as Gerry pretends to work on his novel while juggling both Helen and Lydia in his life. But Lydia demands a commitment and starts to sabotage Gerry's secrecy to force the issue.

Presenting two completely different outcomes triggered by a split-second fateful encounter with sliding train doors is a potentially worthwhile gimmick to enliven an otherwise standard rom-com. Writer/director Peter Howitt visually helps to clarify which parallel universe each scene is in, first with a small band-aid (the result of that attempted mugging) then a new hairdo. But otherwise and beyond the obvious you'll-never-know-how-things-could-have-turned-out lessons, Sliding Doors trips over the limitations of its own construction and yields two half-baked stories.

Overall, too much of Helen's life in both universes is dedicated to obsessing about men. The miss-the-train narrative is particularly weak and underdeveloped. Helen exhausts herself with two part-time jobs, and the attention switches to horrid boyfriend Gerry, by far the worst character in the movie, and his increasingly desperate attempts to keep his two lovers apart. Helen becomes a static observer and sorry victim in her own movie.

The make-the-train story is marginally better, allowing Helen to deal with her grief and attempt a fresh start, but new and too-good-to-be-true love interest James keeps a secret for the sole and contrived purpose of introducing predictable late drama.

The London locations are quaint without drifting into touristy terrain, and the music soundtrack is discerning. The performances are seviceable but never memorable, Paltrow content with doe-eyed mannerisms. John Lynch and Josh Hannah are undistinctive, and Jeanne Tripplehorn is frequently over-agitated. Zara Turner as Helen's best friend Anna adds welcome feistiness.

Despite the possibilities, both sides of Sliding Doors lack polish.

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Movie Review: Don't Make Waves (1967)
Sat, 20 Feb 2021 21:27:00 +0000

A comedy with plenty of romantic entanglements, Don't Make Waves is frivolous and rarely funny.

Carlo Cofield (Tony Curtis) is driving across the United States to a new start in California. On the outskirts of Los Angeles he accidentally tangles with aspiring artist Laura (Claudia Cardinale) and loses all his possessions. Out of pity she invites him to sleep at her beach house, where Carlo finds out Laura is the mistress of swimming pool company executive Rod Prescott (Robert Webber).

An enterprising type, Carlo quickly finagles a job with Prescott and meets his wife Diane (Joanna Barnes). He mingles with the beach community of muscle heads and beach bunnies, and is immediately smitten by Malibu (Sharon Tate), a sky diver and the girlfriend of bodybuilder Harry (David Draper). Carlo also secures a suspiciously cheap dream beach house of his own and a Rolls Royce as he sets out to win Malibu's heart, but much trouble lies ahead.

A flimsy celebration and satire of the Los Angeles beach community, Don't Make Waves features plenty of talent engaged in embarrassing antics. Tony Curtis, Claudia Cardinale and director Alexander Mackendrick are all much better than this dross, and they don't come close to saving an inert script (somehow three writers are involved) adapting the Ira Wallach book Muscle Beach.

The attempts at humour include the excitable Laura frequently breaking into frantic Italian, and Carlo demonstrating a remarkable ability to sell swimming pools to whoever does not need one. But he is still dumb enough to swim among a gaggle of surf boards, earning a deserved bonk on the head, and he does not think to ask any questions when an idyllic house falls into his lap at seemingly no cost (the house later reveals its faults in a non sequitur climax).

Meanwhile Sharon Tate, in the first of her films to be released, is reduced to a bikini-clad sex pot with hardly any lines of dialogue. Mackendrick repeatedly lingers on her body in a distasteful display of juvenile salaciousness, although almost everyone here is shirtless for long stretches.

Rod is possessive of Laura, who imagines a romance with Carlo, who lusts after Malibu and uses an astrologer to convince her dim boyfriend Harry sex is bad for his bodybuilding. And with this level of ineptitude, Don't Make Waves sinks without a trace.

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Movie Review: Edge Of Darkness (1943)
Sat, 20 Feb 2021 19:31:00 +0000

A World War Two drama, Edge Of Darkness is a stirring tale of resistance in a small Norwegian village.

In the occupied Norwegian fishing community of Trollness, all the residents and all the stationed German troops are found dead. The events of the prior week are revealed in flashback. 

The German commander Koenig (Helmut Dantine) maintains order through intimidation, and his soldiers keep close tabs on the restless villagers, including resistance sympathizers Gunnar Brogge (Errol Flynn), a fisher, and his lover Karen Stensgard (Ann Sheridan). But not all the residents are hostile. Cannery owner Kaspar Torgersen (Charles Dingle) is a German collaborator. Karen's father Martin (Walter Huston) is the village's only doctor and stays neutral, while his wife Anna (Ruth Gordon) is borderline delusional. The innkeeper Gerd Bjarnesen (Judith Anderson) lost her husband to the war and is fending off a German soldier's unwanted romantic advances. 

Gunnar and Karen learn the Allies will drop off a weapons cache from the sea. The villagers are only able to communicate at secret meetings, and have to decide whether to unite, organize and take up arms against the occupiers while guarding against the threat of informers.

An adaptation of the book by William Woods, Edge Of Darkness is an engrossing multi-character drama. The Robert Rossen screenplay patiently explores the tensions simmering among residents chafing under the Nazi occupation, and director Lewis Milestone keeps the story moving, using most of the two hours to delve into the challenge of uniting a group towards a common purpose as the fuse is lit for a raucous climax.

From the opening sequence showing dead bodies strewn all across the village, Edge Of Darkness sets itself apart as a grim and uncompromising view of war. Despite propaganda objectives to rally anti-Nazi support when the war's outcome was very much in doubt, the story rises above shallow pedagogy by avoiding crass emotions and histrionics. Instead Milestone gets down to the pragmatic business of occupiers and the occupied engaged in a deadly game of mental and physical manoeuvring for intimidation and control.

The underlying theme is strength in unity, and despite the presence of stars Errol Flynn and Ann Sheridan, they have relatively limited roles. Gunnar and Karen are just two of the many villagers making up a community with diverse viewpoints on how to deal with a well-armed occupying force. And while businessman and factory owner Torgersen is easy to dislike as an all-in collaborator, the grey middle zone of uncertainty is most compelling. 

Doctor Stensgard, his mentally suffering wife Anna, and the church pastor are among prominent citizens unsure whether carrying guns and charging at the Germans is the wisest course of action, while elderly and retired school teacher Andersen (Morris Carnovsky) seeks an independent method of resistance.

In addition to debates between here-and-now action and pick-the-right moment strategy, an undercover agent adds intrigue, while the weaponization of sex features in the story of Polish captive Katja (Nancy Coleman) and a harrowing rape incident. The narrative depth extends to commander Koenig's own ambitions and disillusionment with his superiors.

When the time comes for the bullets to fly, Milestone and cinematographer Sid Hickox deploy gliding camera work to capture a village turning into a battlefield. Filled with human-centred intrigue, Edge Of Darkness is a sharp moment of reckoning.

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Movie Review: Crypto (2019)
Wed, 17 Feb 2021 15:23:00 +0000

A banking conspiracy thriller, Crypto throws too many rows into one spreadsheet. The execution is decent, but the plot is overloaded with attempted buzziness.

In Manhattan, Omnicorp Bank anti-money laundering analyst Marty Duran (Beau Knapp) does his job too well and runs afoul of the bigwigs. His sympathetic boss Robin Whiting (Jill Hennessy) reassigns him to the small branch in Elba, upstate New York, which happens to be Marty's home town. His father Marty Sr. (Kurt Russell) is a stubborn potato farmer threatened with foreclosure, and his brother Caleb (Luke Hemsworth) is an Iraq War veteran struggling to adjust. Neither is happy to see Marty again.

Marty reconnects with his high school buddy Earl (Jeremie Harris), who is engrossed in cryptocurrency trading. At work, Marty uncovers irregularities in the bank's transactions with the art gallery run by maneater Penelope (Malaya Rivera Drew) and her accountant/sex partner Ted Patterson (Vincent Kartheiser). Marty starts a friendship with gallery employee Katie (Alexis Bedel), but as he digs deeper into the books and Earl delves into unusual crypto transactions, the threads of a dangerous conspiracy emerge.

A melange of hot-button issues compete for attention in the Crypto screenplay by Carlyle Eubank and David Frigerio. Muddled by a rainstorm of acronyms, the evil conspiracy is never quite defined but includes illicit cryptocurrency trading, the dark web, market manipulation, cross-border money laundering, the Russian mafia, corrupt bank officials, shell companies, stone-faced assassins mopping up witnesses, and of the course the old standby, micro chips containing top secrets.

But director John Stalberg Jr. also has to contend with a whole other storyline, involving a bedraggled potato farm and Marty having to mend fences with his father and brother. Kurt Russell's craggy presence provides Crypto with some of its best moments, while Luke Hemsworth deftly avoids any scenes which don't require him to be on the verge of breaking something or someone.

Despite the overflowing agenda, room can still be found for a tepid relationship to evolve between Marty and Katie. He is quite functional but on the spectrum, as evidenced by wearing his work suit and office shoes on their scenic hike.

Stalberg maintains narrative zip and finds enough return-of-the-prodigal-son notes to achieve reasonable momentum, blissfully ignoring the ever expanding plot holes. But when the rescue cavalry arrives in a final flourish corresponding with the bad guys suddenly discovering their incompetent side, all the MNEs, AMLs, ATMs, ICOs, TRACs and BSAs finally dissolve into a hearty alphabet soup.

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Movie Review: The Young Lions (1958)
Mon, 15 Feb 2021 22:34:00 +0000

An epic World War Two drama spiked with notable action, The Young Lions explores the intense personal and military experiences of three memorable characters, one German and two Americans.

On New Year's Eve of 1938, German ski instructor and shoemaker Christian Diestl (Marlon Brando), an idealist seeking a better future, romances American vacationer Margaret Freemantle (Barbara Rush). She is repulsed by the growing wave of German expansionism and returns to the United States and her boyfriend Michael Whiteacre (Dean Martin), a Broadway entertainer. 

When America enters the war, Michael meets store clerk Noah Ackerman (Montgomery Clift) at the Army draft office. Michael labels himself a coward and tries to avoid service, but Noah, a Jew, calmly accepts conscription. Michael introduces Noah to Brooklyn girl Hope Plowman (Hope Lange). Their courtship starts with a commuting odyssey, then Noah has to win over her father (Vaughn Taylor), who had previously never met a Jew. 

Christian becomes a Lieutenant in the German army occupying Paris under the command of the merciless Captain Hardenberg (Maximilian Schell). He meets Parisienne Francoise (Liliane Montevecchi), then has a torrid encounter with Hardenberg's wife Gretchen (May Britt). Both Christian and Hardenberg are reassigned to the North African front lines. Meanwhile Michael and Noah go through basic training together, and Noah is exposed to bullying.

Once the liberation of Europe starts, Michael has to decide if being a coward is what he really wants, Noah will experience the chaos of combat, and Christian's idealism will be severely tested.

An adaptation of Irwin Shaw's novel, The Young Lions earns its 167 minute length with a focus on rich character development as well as a few scenes of short and sharp war action. The Edward Anhalt script is eloquent, ably maintaining control of multiple story lines from late 1938 to the end of the war in Europe. Edward Dmytryk keeps the scenes relatively short and the pacing brisk, pausing when necessary but never dragging. The result is a gourmet cinematic experience.

With abundant content comes a few weaknesses, and The Young Lions is not immune. A plausible argument can made that each of Brando, Clift and Martin (at 34, 38 and 41 years old respectively) are older than their "young" characters, with Clift perhaps visually least convincing as a budding man. Martin's character Michael Whiteacre is prominent early and late, but disappears for long stretches in the middle and is afforded relatively few scenes to navigate his arc. And a motorcycle escape sequence is kneecapped by rudimentary rear projection and flirts with unintended comedy.

But in the context of the film's scope, these are quibbles. The Young Lions soars to majestic heights of dramatic involvement by investing in people from different backgrounds, the war shaping who they are and what they stand for, the three central characters evolving into compelling men through complex growth journeys. 

Christian starts with a vision of a more equitable Europe where shoemakers can break free from the shackles of classism. His disillusionment rises as he awakens to the evils of the Nazi party and the brutal tactics employed by men like Hardenberg. Noah has the most to fight for, starting in Brooklyn where a Jew is treated with suspicion, then at training camp where survival means confronting bullying. And Michael is a man of music and cocktail parties, perhaps capable of pulling a few strings to secure a cozy desk assignment but aware of the implications to his sense of self.

Anhalt and Dmytryk are not satisfied with just the central stories and extend their focus to other fascinating characters surrounding the three men. Captain Haldenberg rides his rigid adherence to the principles of an implacable invading army from the highs of photo opportunities in Paris to unimaginable lows. And while Margaret and Hope are relatively static, Hardenberg's wife Gretchen, in just a couple of scenes, emerges as an unforgettable representative of the elite and decadent Berlin set, her behaviour and fate mirroring that of her Captain. In occupied Paris, the feisty Francoise is torn between fury at the German invaders, fear of fraternizing with the enemy, and the enticing prospects of a European project with men like the attractive Christian at the helm.

The cast sparkles with acting talent. A blond Marlon Brando brings a German accent to his sometimes mumbled internally anguished introspection. Montgomery Clift is committed as the outsider used to coping with a lowly status, instinctively aware a world war can change all societal dynamics. In one of his earliest dramatic roles Dean Martin is not in the same talent class, but is never less than serviceable. Maximilian Schell, in his first Hollywood feature, remarkably matches Brando with a dominant portrayal of regime loyalty.

The action scenes inject well-timed jolts of energy and allow the characters to further define their psyches and earn battlefield legacies. The best is a commando attack in North Africa demonstrating the double sword of ingenuity and cruelty.

Monumentally ambitious and grandly substantive, The Young Lions is an impressive roar.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

The Iconic Moment: Lawrence Of Arabia (1962)
Mon, 15 Feb 2021 14:00:00 +0000

Sherif Ali: He is dead.
Lawrence: Yes... why?
Sherif Ali: This is my well.
Lawrence: I have drunk from it.
Sherif Ali: You are welcome.

Directed by David Lean.
Written by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson.
Cinematography by Freddie Young.
Starring Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness.

The full Ace Black Movie Blog review of Lawrence Of Arabia is here.

Movie Review: Lonely Are The Brave (1962)
Mon, 15 Feb 2021 00:52:00 +0000

A contemporary western eulogy, Lonely Are The Brave explores the loss of a way of life through the story of a good-natured cowboy playing by the old rules.

In New Mexico, Korean War veteran Jack Burns (Kirk Douglas) and his horse Whiskey still crave the open frontier cowboy lifestyle. Jack laments the fences, property lines and roads infringing on his freedom to move wherever he pleases. When he learns his buddy Paul (Michael Kane) is in prison for helping illegal immigrants, he visits Paul's wife Jerry (Gena Rowlands) and commits to help.

Jack: Have you ever noticed how many fences there're getting to be? And the signs they got on them: no hunting, no hiking, no admission, no trespassing, private property, closed area, start moving, go away, get lost, drop dead!

Jack welcomes a bar fight then instigates a scuffle with police to get himself arrested and thrown into the same cell as Paul. He tangles with prison guard Gutierrez (George Kennedy) before offering Paul an opportunity to escape by sawing through the prison bars. But while Paul has a wife and child to consider, Jack lives for himself and for today, and with Whiskey makes a run for the mountains. Sheriff Morey Johnson (Walter Matthau) organizes a pursuit.

Desk sergeant: Look, cowboy, you can't go around with no identification. It's against the law. How are people going to know who you are?
Jack: I don't need a card to figure out who I am. I already know.

A lyrical western, Lonely Are The Brave carries honest intentions and a clear-eyed distinction between past and present. Dalton Trumbo's script sets out to bid a fond farewell to men like Jack, and despite the bittersweet sense of loss, even Jack is under no illusions. He knows his time has come and gone, and so does everyone else, but nothing will stop him from trying to wind the clock back.

The other men have moved on and are now more circumspect than freewheeling. Jack's good buddy and rival for Jerry's heart Paul is no longer interested in jail break escapades. Sheriff Johnson brings a resigned approach to his job, recognizing men like Jack are capable of disappearing into the wilderness, and maybe that's not a bad outcome. Meanwhile Jerry is exasperated not just with Jack's carefree attitude, but with men's general dense-headed and cavalier disregard towards the benefits of domesticity. 

Jerry: Believe you me, if it didn't take men to make babies I wouldn't have anything to do with any of you!

David Miller directs with a relaxed stance, the black and white cinematography harkening back to an earlier era where only mountain ranges interrupted the landscape. And Kirk Douglas brings his impish smile and an open, approachable demeanour to the fore, convinced every fence can be cut and every problem has a straightforward common-sense solution.

Jerry: Maybe you'd be better off if they caught you.
Jack: Maybe, but I'd like to put it off for as long as possible.

Jack's escape destination is a mountain ridge easiest to cross alone and on foot, but his tradition demands a man look after his horse, despite Whiskey's intransigence. Some of the scenes featuring the horse being forced up the steep terrain make for difficult viewing, but the old west was not for the faint of heart. Of course on the other side of the mountain is another barrier, even more difficult for Jack and Whiskey. No matter, they will carry on, intent on finding a sunset now obscured by the headlights of busy traffic.

Jerry: Jack, I'm going to tell you something. The world that you and Paul live in doesn't exist. Maybe it never did. Out there is a real world. And it's got real borders and real fences, real laws and real trouble. And you either go by the rules or you lose. You lose everything.
Jack: You can always keep something.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Rack (1956)
Sun, 14 Feb 2021 19:10:00 +0000

A military courtroom drama, The Rack has good intentions to explore mental torture, but is snagged by an unimaginative narrative.

Decorated Captain Ed Hall Jr. (Paul Newman) was held prisoner by the enemy for many months during the Korean War, while his brother Pete was killed in combat. Now Ed returns to the United States and spends time recovering at a military hospital, but has difficulty reconnecting with his father Ed Sr. (Walter Pidgeon) and sister-in-law (Pete's widow) Aggie (Anne Francis). At the hospital, Captain John Miller (Lee Marvin), another recuperating soldier who was also held captive by the enemy, hangs a "traitor" sign around Ed's neck.

Once Ed makes it home, he is charged with collaborating with the enemy. Major Sam Moulton (Wendell Corey) is the reluctant lead court-martial prosecutor, and Lieutenant Colonel Frank Wasnick (Edmond O'Brien) is assigned as the defence lawyer. What happened to Ed in the prison camp will be revealed at the trial.

Written by Stewart Stern and based on a Rod Serling story, The Rack's origins are as an hour-long television drama, and it shows. Director Arnold Laven is unable to evolve the narrative much past small screen confines, and requires a contrived structure of unnecessarily holding back information to extend the running length to 100 minutes.

The objectives of exposing new forms of psychological warfare and the impact on soldiers subjected to non-physical torture are admirable, and the better parts of The Rack work as a lightweight precursor to 1962's The Manchurian Candidate. Paul Vogel's black and white cinematography is suitably stark for the institutional hospital and courtroom settings, and an intense but still sympathetic Paul Newman, in his third role, adequately conveys the damage caused by guilt and intense mistreatment.

But after a prolonged build-up towards explaining exactly what happened in the Korean prison camp, The Rack falls well short. Laven is all about tell, don't show, and the revelations from the witness chair related to Ed Hall's mental state, his relationship with his father, broader societal and military responsibilities and whether or not Ed reached an emotional breaking point all land with a confused thud. A father-son moment of attempted reconciliation is more awkward than rewarding.

The supporting cast is strong, Walter Pidgeon, Wendell Corey, Edmond O'Brien and Lee Marvin lending robust if static support. Anne Francis is also stoic, but Aggie's role and function between Ed Sr. and Ed Jr. never quite latches.

The Rack attempts to interrogate with passion, but is often overruled.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Movie Review: Four Weddings And A Funeral (1994)
Sat, 13 Feb 2021 23:37:00 +0000

A romantic comedy poking fun at Britain's upper middle class, Four Weddings And A Funeral establishes a clever premise but focuses more on peripherals, neglecting the central romance.

In London, Charles (Hugh Grant) is the perpetually late best man at a series of weddings. In addition to his flatmate Scarlett (Charlotte Coleman), his confirmed single friends include Tom (James Fleet), Gareth (Simon Callow), Matthew (John Hannah) and Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas), all of them invited to the same events on the social calendar.

At the first wedding Charles meets and falls in love at first sight with American guest Carrie (Andie MacDowell). After circling each other all day they eventually sleep together that night, but she immediately heads back to the United States. At the second wedding a few months later, they meet again and Carrie reveals she is engaged to be married to wealthy Scotsman Hamish (Corin Redgrave). Through two more weddings and one funeral, Charles and Carrie have to chart a complicated path to happiness.

Chronicling a rollercoaster of a romance through a succession of weddings and one funeral is an initially appealing structure for a rom-com. But Four Weddings And A Funeral does succumb to repetition, the choppy composition demanding five separate gatherings to start and stop, and not enough character evolution bridging the gaps in between.

However, some comic touches are undoubtedly sharp, including the nervous priest (Rowan Atkinson), the horrid best-man toasts, the awkward meetings with ex-girlfriends, and sexual repulsion turning to attraction as the night progresses with increasing drunkenness and desperation. But eventually both the humour and the romance downshift towards fair to middling, and long stretches are devoid of both.

In his breakout role, Hugh Grant works hard and keeps Four Weddings And A Funeral afloat. His take on Charles as a lovable, womanizing screw-up, combining hesitant confidence with a predictable ability to promise much and disappoint more, is roguishly likeable.

The rest of the cast members share the screen time and remain firmly in secondary roles, and this unfortunately extends to Andie MacDowell as Carrie. Charles simply melts in her presence, and Richard Curtis' script confines Carrie to an image of the sophisticated American muse, barely existing as a person separate from Charles' infatuation.

With the central romance avoiding materiality in favour of jumping into bed at every opportunity, director Mike Newell turns his focus to the margins in search of substance and poignancy in the colourful lives of Tom, Gareth, Matthew, Fiona and others. Here unrequited love, secret relationships and quiet frustrations are hidden behind a jovial British facade, waiting for opportunities to emerge between the pews, at the reception tables and during the drunken parties.

Four Weddings And A Funeral is a packed agenda, but the trimmings overshadow the essence.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Movie Review: Somewhere In Time (1980)
Sat, 13 Feb 2021 19:39:00 +0000

A romantic drama and fantasy, Somewhere In Time aims for old fashioned passion but bungles both the pacing and the central romance.

In 1972, budding playwright Richard Collier (Christopher Reeve) has a surreal encounter with an old woman, who thrusts a pocket watch into his hands and whispers "come back to me".

In 1980, Collier checks into the Grand Hotel to try and overcome a case of writer's block. He is mesmerized by a displayed photo of theatrical actress Elise McKenna (Jane Seymour), who was a rising star of the stage in the early 1900s. He visits Elise's former housekeeper Laura Roberts (Teresa Wright), and learns Elise's career was managed by the Svengali-like William Robinson (Christopher Plummer), and she performed at the Grand for one night in 1912.

Hopelessly in love with a picture, Collier uses a hypnosis technique and transports himself back to 1912 and the day of the performance. Despite Robinson's interference, he meets Elise and they fall in love, but sustaining a romance across time will prove a challenge.

Richard Matheson adapts his own book Bid Time Return into a screenplay, but unfortunately, and in the hands of director Jeannot Szwarc, Somewhere In Time is both languid and lacking. 

With a hackneyed time-travel-through-hypnosis premise providing a rickety foundation, the only hope for salvation resides in igniting the flame of romance between the attractive couple of Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. But somehow Szwarc contrives to keep them apart for more than an hour, the groundwork to transport Richard from the present to the past and then into the arms of Elise ballooning into a laborious odyssey with numerous irrelevant side quests.

And once the lovers are near each other, Christopher Plummer's blocking becomes the most prominent theme, again robbing the movie of any momentum. Which may be all to camouflage Matheson's inability to transform Elise from a mythical image into a real person. Jane Seymour is barely provided the opportunity to say any meaningful lines, her mere visage supposed to suffice as an object of entrancement.

The period settings and costumes are charming, the Grand Hotel exudes vintage class, and Reeve brings a welcome vulnerability mixed with nothing-to-lose determination. But with Rachmaninoff's 18th variation of Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini endlessly occupying the soundtrack, Somewhere In Time is a dull loop.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Movie Review: Galveston (2018)
Sat, 13 Feb 2021 18:19:00 +0000

A slow-burning drama, Galveston is a character study about the faint glimmers of purpose at life's dead ends.

In New Orleans of 1988, chain-smoking Roy Cady (Ben Foster), an enforcer for underground gangster and textile merchant Stan Ptitko (Beau Bridges), has a lung disease but refuses to seek treatment. In a simmering dispute over Carmen (María Valverde), Stan sends Roy into an ambush hoping to get rid of him. But Roy not only survives, he grabs evidence incriminating Stan and rescues professional escort Rocky (Elle Fanning), who was caught in the shootout.

Forming an uneasy alliance, Roy and Rocky go on the run and drive into Texas. They pass through her hometown of Orange, where she picks up her much younger sister Tiffany. The trio then hunker down at a seedy motel in Galveston. Roy has to find a way to survive, while Rocky is unsure how far she can trust her rescuer to stick around and is tempted to resume her sex trade.

An adaptation of the Nic Pizzolatto novel, Galveston is willing to take some risks. Working from Jim Hammet's patient script, director Mélanie Laurent studiously avoids familiar arcs and instead seeks the depths of emotional bleakness. The pacing is slow, the aesthetics gloomy and often downtrodden, and the overall ambience carries the weight of economic desperation, Roy and Rocky hiding out in corners forgotten by prosperity. 

In another fine and understated performance, Ben Foster's shifty stance, haunted eyes and tortured psyche drive the narrative through the slower patches. Elle Fanning finds matching intensity but is confined to a variation of the desperate hooker with a heart of gold cliche.

From his inability to even discuss his lung diagnosis in the opening scene and his insistence on smoking continuously, Roy is unsure about the point of carrying on. Instincts take over and he survives the ambush, and suddenly Rocky then Tiffany are all but dependant on him to live another day. This is not what Roy asked for, and with Stan surely in pursuit his options remain severely limited. The temptation to dig a deeper hole emerge in the form of sleazy motel room occupant and amateur thief Tray (Robert Aramayo) offering a cut from his next job.

Underpinning the drama is Roy recognizing, with no small amount of anguish, that he represents the best hope of survival for two defenceless victims. His bond with Rocky first cracks then strengthens as he awakens to her nightmare and Tiffany's vulnerability, providing him with a reason to try and survive. And here Galveston charts a unique course, Laurent demonstrating directorial flair with an impressive one-shot scene of escape then a worthy climax of revelation as a hurricane moves in. 

Galveston invests in the eerily quiet edges of the storm, where dread thrives and outcomes are uncertain.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Bank Job (2008)
Wed, 10 Feb 2021 01:45:00 +0000

A bank heist thriller, The Bank Job is a slick, polished and multi-dimensional crime adventure.

It's the early 1970s in London. British intelligence services are eager to steal scandalous pictures harmful to the royal family from Black activist leader and criminal Michael X (Peter de Jersey). Intelligence agent Gale Benson (Hattie Morahan) infiltrates the gangster's inner circle, and model Martine Love (Saffron Burrows) is recruited to help plan a bank heist targeting the safe deposit box where the pictures are stashed.

Martine turns to ex-boyfriend Terry Leather (Jason Statham), a petty criminal and struggling used car dealer. He forms a break-in team including buddies Kevin (Stephen Campbell Moore) and Dave (Daniel Mays) as well as a tunneling expert and a suave front man. But a bank vault contains many secrets, and soon Terry finds himself in the middle of a mess involving violent pornographers, corrupt police officers, and compromised politicians.

Remarkably based on real events, The Bank Job boasts a cool vibe and quality execution. Without scaling any superlative heights, director Roger Donaldson weaves an excellent story featuring overlapping sordid secrets and shady lowlifes up to no good. The character-rich script co-written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais develops multiple people and story lines with smooth, almost effortless, efficiency within a bouncy early 1970s London aesthetic.

The careful set-up pays off when all the nefarious agendas collide. Despite being generally clueless in the science and art of bank heists, small-time hood Terry Leather and his motley crew break into the Lloyds Bank on the corner of Baker Street and Marylebone Road, but not before a ham radio operator picks up the thieves' walkie-talkie transmissions all but describing every step of their crime. 

Terry and his men only want the money and jewellery, Martine is just interested in the compromising photos, but their haul also happens to include evidence of deep-rooted police corruption and politicians behaving really badly, setting in motion a manic final 30 minutes. A classic mop-up operation swings into action, endangering some lives and forever changing others, with Terry walking a tightrope to find an exit.

Jason Statham as Terry manages to maintain the calmest head when mayhem erupts, and benefits from a thin but adequate family backstory to subdue his screen persona's more outlandish attributes. Saffron Burrows is less comfortable as a made-up character awkwardly connecting intelligence services with scrappy hoods. The rest of the cast is filled with character actors getting on with the job, David Suchet most prominent as nightclub owner/gangland boss Lew Vogel, inspired by Bernie Silver.

Sassy and swift, The Bank Job is a successful swindle.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Movie Review: Porky's (1981)
Tue, 09 Feb 2021 17:48:00 +0000

A high school sex comedy, Porky's is rude, crude, essentially plotless, and hilarious.

The setting is Florida in Eisenhower's 1950s. A group of friends navigate South Beach High School, and they only have sexual high jinx in mind. Pee Wee (Dan Monahan) is desperate to lose his virginity, and his friends including Tommy (Wyatt Knight), Billy (Mark Herrier), Mickey (Roger Wilson), and Meat (Tony Ganios) are eager to help him. Looking for a good time, they head out across the county line to the rough and tumble Porky's redneck club, but only find trouble and humiliation at the hands of Porky (Chuck Mitchell) himself. Back at the school, the boys have to be satisfied spying into the girls' shower room.

Meanwhile Tim (Cyril O'Reilly) comes from a rough household and is being abused by his no-good father (Wayne Maunder). He releases his frustration on Brian (Scott Colomby), the Jewish kid in school, and the outcome is unexpected. Elsewhere, basketball coach Brackett (Boyd Gaines) is eager to seduce cheerleader coach Honeywell (Kim Cattrall), and wonders why she is nicknamed Lassie. The dour Coach Balbricker (Nancy Parsons) stands in their way.

With Mickey earning himself several more beatings at Porky's, the friends decide they have had enough and plot a revenge.

Episodic, choppy, featuring a cast of unknowns and almost no redeeming features, Porky's has all the makings of a crass low-budget disaster. It is crass and low-budget, but it clicks into a classic. A Canadian production from American writer, co-producer and director Bob Clark, Porky's expels Animal House from college back to high school and creates a new sub-genre concerned only with horny young men and their pursuit of women, often ending in disaster.

Clark demonstrates a talent for stretching every joke well past what appears to be funny, only to blow the lid off and find more laughs. The lowlights are the highlights, and they are many. The peephole scene has several sub-episodes just within the shower room, then Clark relocates it to the principal's office for a coup de gras featuring rib-cracking humour, the actors straining to keep a straight face. Brackett discovering exactly why Honeywell earned the nickname Lassie is another entry into the comedy Hall of Fame. And in a prank involving Cherry Forever (Susan Clark) teasing her services, Porky's extends bad taste to offer equal opportunity male and female nudity. 

The search for any underlying warm and fuzzy themes uncovers only the flimsiest of material. Standing up to abuse, overcoming ethnic prejudice, friends looking out for each other and finding non-violent (albeit destructive) solutions are some of the extenuating concepts barely crawling out of the mayhem.

Otherwise the language is coarse and insensitive, the humour is almost always at the expense of someone's physical or emotional pain, and all the women are entirely defined as objects of lust or revulsion. In setting a new standard for low brow humour, Porky's is ridiculously successful.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

The Iconic Moment: The Matrix (1999)
Mon, 08 Feb 2021 14:00:00 +0000


Morpheus: This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill - the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill - you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

Directed and Written by The Wachowski Brothers.
Cinematography by Bill Pope.
Starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Ann Moss.

The Ace Black Movie Blog review of The Matrix is here.

Movie Review: Madame X (1966)
Sun, 07 Feb 2021 19:25:00 +0000

A melodrama about one woman's downfall, Madame X sinks into a churning sea of sentimentality. 

Clay Anderson (John Forsythe) is the scion of an influential Connecticut family, living with his mother Estelle (Constance Bennett) in their grand ancestral home. He marries San Francisco shopgirl Holly Parker (Lana Turner) and they have a child. Clay travels constantly in pursuit of a diplomatic career, and Holly succumbs to loneliness and seeks comfort with suave bachelor Phil Benton (Ricardo Montalban).

Clay's sudden return from a long trip and Phil's unexpected demise threaten a tragic scandal. The vindictive Estelle is eager to preserve the family reputation and pressures Holly into faking her death and disappearing forever from the lives of the Andersons. Initially relocating to Europe and meeting charming musician Christian Torben (John van Dreelen), her life spirals downwards. In Mexico she falls into the clutches of serial swindler Dan Sullivan (Burgess Meredith) as fate conspires to reunite her with the Andersons and her now grown son Clay Jr. (Keir Dullea).

Another Hollywood remake of the 1908 French play by Alexandre Bisson, the 1966 version is colourful, glossy, and crushingly boring. Producer Ross Hunter aims for the glory years of Douglas Sirk social melodramas, but 10 years later and in the uninspired hands of television director David Lowell Rich, Madame X is a glorified small screen soap opera, lacking in context, depth and thematic commentary.

The problems start with the casting of John Forsythe (48 years old) and Lana Turner (44 years old) as newlyweds, creating a disorienting 15 year narrative shift. Not surprisingly, both are unconvincing. With his wealth and family connections Forsythe's Clay should be well further ahead in his career, while Turner struggles to settle in the role of a naive bride unaware what she married into. However, her performance improves with her character's age and Turner commendably embraces a dowdy and deglamourized image as Holly's fortunes nosedive. Constance Bennett, in her final film appearance, adds a welcome spark as the conniving mother-in-law .

The Jean Holloway script lacks subtlety, and the second half is one mother's neverending farewell to a tormented life. The final 45 minutes surrender to various levels of physical, mental and emotional agony, Holly often on her back in bed and flirting with death. The wallowing is made much worse by a syrupy and unrelenting Frank Skinner music score designed to emphasize all the weepy moments.

The climax arrives in a courtroom filled with far-fetched coincidences and characters floundering in oblivion. Madame X is destined for a hard life, and her film is equally dire.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Movie Review: Extraction (2020)
Sun, 07 Feb 2021 02:51:00 +0000

A superlative action movie, Extraction surpasses genre expectations and delivers a non-stop thrill ride infused with on-location artistry.

In India, Ovi (Rudhraksh Jaiswal) is the young son of jailed drug lord Mahajan (Pankaj Tripathi). Ovi is kidnapped by goons working for rival mobster Amir (Priyanshu Painyuli) and held for ransom in Dhaka, Bangladesh. From behind bars Mahajan pressures his ally Saju (Randeep Hooda) to mount a rescue.

Saju is short of money but hires the mercenary team led by Australian special forces veteran Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) and his business partner Nik (Golshifteh Farahani). Tyler overpowers Amir's men and grabs Ovi, but when hidden agendas are revealed, what started as a straightforward extraction quickly runs into major problems.

The plot is essentially in the one-word title, but Extraction constructs a magnificent experience upon the simple premise. Director Sam Hargrave, the stunt coordinator for many Marvel films, creates an exhilarating, hard-hitting and violent mercenary adventure, drawing strength from chaotic street locations (filmed in India and Thailand) and camerawork wizardry. 

The entire running length of 117 minutes is captivating, the energy level rarely flagging. But a 12 minute single-shot sequence bookended by two explosions is simply superb. Meticulously executed, the breathtaking achievement features a wild car chase, door-to-door search, bone jarring close quarters combat, several astounding stunt jumps, and a truck pursuit. Hargrave hides the seams with mezmerizing camera work celebrating fluidity, the action choreographed with balletic elegance devoted to visual continuity.

On either side of this highlight is a taut thriller, the Joe Russo script tapping a prosperous rhythm by alternating scenes of urban combat with background depth. In the middle of both the flying bullets and the self-reflection pauses is star Chris Hemsworth. He has rarely been better, here injecting a stock character with a large dose of humanity and passion to create a throbbing heart. Tyler's backstory is rudimentary, but he does develop a meaningful bond with Ovi.

Several other characters are also rounded beyond genre expectations. Saju has a family to protect, and Amir gets several scenes to highlight his ruthlessness and ability to inspire the next generation, the introduction of a protege flagging susceptibility caused by impoverishment. David Harbour gets a small role as another mercenary called into the arena.

With spirit and ingenuity, Extraction polishes familiar elements into elegant brilliance.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

Movie Review: Ava (2020)
Sat, 06 Feb 2021 15:07:00 +0000

A routine action thriller, Ava boasts an impressive cast but mostly recycles tired professional assassin sub-genre cliches. 

Highly trained killer Ava (Jessica Chastain) works for a mysterious organisation and eliminates her latest target in France, but not before breaking protocol and conversing with her victim. She returns to Boston and reconnects with her sister Judy (Jess Weixler) and mother Bobbi (Geena Davis), as well as Michael (Common), who used to be Ava's lover but is now with Judy. Eight years prior Ava was an addict and abruptly abandoned Michael and her family when she discovered her father's infidelity. 

Now Ava is displaying signs of stress but her handler Duke (John Malkovich) maintains his trust and sends her on a new mission to Riyadh. Through no fault of her own this assignment ends in chaos, with Ava barely getting out alive. Duke's boss Simon (Colin Farrell) loses faith in Ava, unleashing a wave of violence.

Ava zips between several international destinations and always looks slick, director Tate Taylor never lingering in any one place for too long and often finding interesting camera angles. The above-average cast maintains interest without ever being challenged, Jessica Chastain (who also co-produced) suitably dour and ably supported by John Malkovich and Colin Farrell.

But the film's problems run deep. The Matthew Newton script adds little to the well-worn travails-of-the-assassin canon, and features a tediously high number of samey prolonged physical combat scenes. All are clumsily edited into incoherence and end with Ava just a bit bruised and bloodied despite receiving a barrage of heavy blows. The parade of bone crushing melds into a continuous stunt performer exhibition, the impact dwindling with each brawl.

Away from the action, and in a rare case of too much character depth, Ava is surrounded by a daytime soap opera family. Geena Davis is a welcome screen presence, but mom Bobbi is both a drama queen and a heart attack victim. Sister Judy is a highly strung musician quick to erupt into tirades, and Michael is moving from one sister to the next without leaving his gambling addiction behind. Dad was a philanderer and Ava herself is a recovering alcoholic, rounding off an all-in dysfunctional family. 

The domestic scenes exist in a separate, almost dumbfounding movie, and the attempt to bring Ava's two worlds together at a gambling den showdown exposes the script's fundamental brittleness.

Ava looks cool, but gets iced by mediocrity.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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