Reviews

Movie Review: Little Women (2019)
Tue, 21 Jan 2020 03:33:00 +0000

An adaptation of the classic Louisa May Alcott book, Little Women is a coming-of-age tale with a focus on women carving out identities while grappling with personal and societal expectations and economic realities.

The film unfolds non-linearly across multiple time zones and locations. In simplified form, the March sisters are from a relatively poor Concord, Massachusetts family and growing up in the shadow of the Civil War. Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is fiercely independent and an aspiring writer. Meg (Emma Watson) loves acting and is a romantic at heart. Amy (Florence Pugh) is a painter and wants to marry well. The youngest Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is a talented pianist. With their father (Bob Odenkirk) serving in the war, Marmee (Laura Dern) instills in the girls a strong sense of service and selflessness.

The Marchs are neighbours of the wealthy and kind Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), whose grandson Theodore (Timothée Chalamet) becomes friends with the sisters and falls in love with Jo. She sets out to seek her fortune as a writer in New York, where she meets publisher Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts) and clashes with academic Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel). Amy heads to Paris for a cultural trip with Aunt March (Meryl Streep). Meg marries a struggling tutor and starts a family. But a sickness will pull the sisters back home to confront unexpected futures.

The sixth cinematic adaptation of Alcott's novel, the 2019 version is a sprawling and ambitious effort infused with a feminist edge. Clocking in at an overlong 135 minutes, writer and director Greta Gerwig takes her time to fully define the four sisters as rounded characters, and chases down their dreams, trials and tribulations on the path to womanhood. Along the way the sisters bicker, fight and support each other, all underpinned by warm foundations of familial love.

Gerwig structures the film as a dizzying jumping exercise, restlessly bouncing between various points of history in the lives of the four sisters. As a result Little Women rarely flows, some scenes spending a matter of seconds in one time and place before the next scene leaps to somewhere else with someone else at a different time.

But the fine work of the talented cast and the investment in characters does pay off in the final third, where the sometimes scattered narrative puzzle pieces start to come together. The film achieves poignant peaks of genuine emotion built on the discrete strengths and weaknesses of the March sisters, and Gerwig presents a satisfyingly wide array of personal achievements mixed with shades of disappointments, all built on honest passion.

While the emphasis on feminism is sometimes speechy and jarring, here it means the freedom to choose a future vision to pursue, and to defend that choice. And while no two dreams are alike, the sisters pragmatically understand their future, like their past, involves compromise and is not meant to be perfect. Gerwig also places admirable emphasis on economics as an essential part of future plans. Balancing the romantic pursuit of love, marriage's role as an economic benefit emerges as a theme.

Little Women enjoys stellar production design, the film recreating interiors and exteriors of the mid to late 1800s with an easy sense of place and time. This is a period piece unafraid to march into the open, as the March sisters stride into a post-war world with every intention to help define it.






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Movie Review: Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood (2019)
Sun, 19 Jan 2020 15:56:00 +0000

A comedy-drama, Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood lovingly recreates a slice of time and place but is also inexcusably flabby and lacking in narrative purpose.

In Hollywood of 1969, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is struggling to find acting work. He used to be a television western series star working with his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), but Rick failed in his attempted transition to big-screen roles. Now he is reduced to guest-starring on television shows, although agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) offers him the chance to star in Rome-filmed Spaghetti Westerns. Rick is also dealing with the ignominy of losing his driver's licence due a drinking problem, with Cliff now driving him everywhere.

Rick is neighbours with celebrated director Roman Polanski and his wife actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). She is enjoying her burgeoning stardom and spends an afternoon at the movies watching one of her recent films. Meanwhile as Rick shoots his latest television guest role, Cliff stumbles upon the hangout of the creepy Charles Manson cult at the isolated ranch of his old buddy George Spahn (Bruce Dern).

Featuring a series of vignettes rather than a cohesive plot, Quentin Tarantino writes and directs an ode to an era. 1969 is an assassination-weary inflection point as hippie idealism transitions to 1970s cynicism, with the horrors perpetuated by the Manson maniacs bringing death to the heart of Hollywood. Tarantino uses the looming threat of murder as a backdrop, but otherwise is more interested in celebrating the friendship between Rick and Cliff.

Their bond is the heart of the film, two men with their best days behind them and now confronting fading career prospects, but doing it together. Rick has good and bad moments filming the television pilot, both disappointing and surprising himself before taking a crack at the Italian movie industry. Cliff stands by his friend through thick and thin, picking up scraps of work but mostly supporting Rick because he has essentially nothing else to lean on.

Rick's struggle to accept his career trajectory is an intermittent theme. His drinking and denial get in the way of any positive initiative for transformation, although sparks of pride and talent point to a potential path towards redefinition.

The Sharon Tate chapter stands alone, and is a bittersweet and mostly dialogue-free tribute to an actress delighted by the prospect of her own success. The Manson cult menace intrudes onto both storylines starting with Cliff's visit to the Spahn Movie Ranch, the film's best scene featuring the stuntman infiltrating a twilight zone occupied by lost souls.

Tarantino prolongs the essentially plotless film to a wholly unnecessary 161 minutes. Most scenes are artificially stretched prompting a dance with tedium, and many sequences (hello Bruce Lee and Steve McQueen) are quite pointless. The quest for grandeur is misguided and frequently deflates the film's momentum.

Visually the film is drenched in stark California sunlight, and the production design is excellent in recreating Los Angeles circa 1969 without relying on digital gimmicks. DiCaprio, Pitt and Robbie occupy their roles with relaxed confidence.

The subversive climax features the usual Tarantino outburst of violence mixed with a mean streak of humour, here slightly less bloody than usual but still featuring dollops of gore. Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood expresses a genuine love for the town where movies live, but the good intentions suffer from fundamental narrative fragmentation and plenty of egotistical oversaturation.






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Movie Review: Chef (2014)
Sat, 18 Jan 2020 21:08:00 +0000

A lighthearted drama, Chef explores new beginnings in the story of a once-celebrated cuisinier rediscovering his touch and reconnecting with family.

In Los Angeles, chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) is being stifled by his restaurant owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman), who wants to keep the menu safe. In his personal life Carl is still on good terms with ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) and tries to spend quality time with his 10 year old son Percy (Emjay Anthony). A scathing review by food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) triggers a social media war of words, and Carl loses his job.

He agrees to join Inez and Percy on a trip to Miami to recharge. The wealthy Marvin (Robert Downey Jr.), Inez's other ex-husband, agrees to bankroll Carl's venture into the food truck business, selling Cuban sandwiches. With the help of his friend and sous-chef Martin (John Leguizamo) and with Percy tagging along, Carl launches the food truck and embarks on a multi-city cross-country trip back to California.

When early career momentum stalls and early promise buzz evolves into middle age compromise, a fork in the road offers alternatives. Writer and director Favreau places his lead character at the decision point and allows him to flounder. With plenty of close-up shots of food being prepared (tantalizing or boring, depending on appetite and food porn tolerance), Chef is a mostly buoyant study of a career reset assisted by friends and family.

Despite the potentially weighty subject matter the film sidesteps excessive displays of dramatic emotion in favour of some comic highlights, mostly stemming from Carl bumbling into a career-ending social media storm. The film otherwise rides a comfortably fun vibe, the better-than-usual relationship between Carl and ex-wife Inez adding a welcome ray of hope that not all failed relationships need to end in acrimony.

The second half is essentially a food truck summer travelogue, Carl reconnecting with Percy as they establish the Cubano business driving from Miami back to Los Angeles. While a few conflict points spark between father and son, again Favreau steers Chef towards genial fare, Carl building a strong bond by passing on his love of cooking to Percy, while the ten year old takes charge of an effective online marketing campaign.

The high-powered but small supporting cast seems to be having a good time. Scarlett Johansson features in the first half as Carl's confidant and the hostess at Riva's restaurant, but then disappears. Dustin Hoffman and Oliver Platt get two scenes each, Robert Downey Jr. just one, and overall Favreau conveys a sense of buddies pulling together to create a small but pleasant movie on both sides of the camera. No doubt they all also enjoyed good food while on set.






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Movie Review: Short Term 12 (2013)
Thu, 16 Jan 2020 14:23:00 +0000

A social drama, Short Term 12 explores the world of troubled young adults with mature awareness.

In Los Angeles, Grace (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) are supervisors at the Short Term 12 group home for troubled teenagers, and help rookie supervisor Nate (Rami Malek) settle in. Not much older than the young adults they look after, Grace and Mason are in a relationship, although she has trouble expressing her feelings and talking about her own troubled past. When she finds out she is pregnant, Grace initially schedules an abortion, but later confides in Mason.

The residents include Marcus (Lakeith Stanfield), who is gloomy as he approaches his 18th birthday. Sammy (Alex Calloway) is deeply insecure, has fits of screaming and often attempts to escape. Luis (Kevin Hernandez) is cocky and spends most of his time antagonizing Marcus. 15 year old Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) is a new arrivee with a sour attitude, claiming her dad will take her home for the weekend. Grace tries to reach out and establish a connection with Jayden, as she senses a common background drawing them together.

The continuum between caregiver and care receiver, and the firm tenderness and intelligent empathy required to manage teens going through traumas, are weighty topics for a movie to address. Director and writer Destin Daniel Cretton tackles the difficult terrain with a firm hand and credible sensitivity, and the independently produced Short Term 12 emerges as a remarkably confident and memorable effort. Running an efficient 96 minutes, the film stays within itself as an individual-scaled snapshot of humans in transition.

Cretton draws compelling characters and slowly reveals their internal struggles. Grace emerges as the heart of the film, a woman not far removed from her own agonies, now doing her best to steer teenagers to calmer waters. Brie Larson delivers a breakthrough performance surfacing Grace's dichotomy of a strong desire to help others coexisting with an inability to confront her own past.

Grace is inexorably drawn to provide the support that she never received. She sees a version of herself in Jayden, who at 15 years old is an expert in pushing everyone away as a defence mechanism and is still living in the shadow of an unstated horror. Kaitlyn Dever teases out hints of Jayden's vulnerability while building her sturdy emotional resilience with surly postures.

Cretton is interested in the troubled teenagers as tragic symptoms of multiple social ills. In a heartbreaking scene, Marcus recounts his childhood story and the resultant rage within him through rap lyrics. But here both the kids and the horrors they are escaping hide in plain sight. The film features sparse and realistic sets, capturing a modest and mostly nondescript aesthetic. Short Term 12 is just a large house with multiple rooms, and from the outside most resembles a school campus.

And once they cross the threshold of 18, the kids age out of the system and are essentially on their own, a prospect causing Marcus enormous stress. The number ticks over, but the scars run deep and the vulnerabilities continue well into adulthood, as Grace knows only too well.






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Movie Review: Marriage Story (2019)
Wed, 15 Jan 2020 22:17:00 +0000

A family drama, Marriage Story is a hard look at a divorce case dissolving from amicable to hostile.

The marriage of Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) Barber is falling apart and heading for a divorce. He is the director of a small but well-regarded New York City theatre company. She is his star actress, having give up a possible movie career. They have an 8 year old son Henry, who still prefers a parent to sleep next to him and is late in learning to read.

Nicole now perceives Charlie as self-absorbed and neglectful of her career. She relocates to Los Angeles, taking Henry with her, and starts filming a television pilot. Although they had promised not to use lawyers, Nicole hires the high-powered Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern) and files for divorce. Charlie is shocked, and counters by hiring the laid-back Bert Spitz (Alan Alda). The custody battle hinges on whether the family is based in Los Angeles or New York, and through the legal process all the irritations between the couple come flooding out.

Although Marriage Story is far from original, it is earnest and elevated by sincere performances. Director and writer Noah Baumbach revisits terrain he already traversed in The Squid And The Whale (2005), and earlier made familiar by films like Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and A Cool Dry Place (1998).

The focus this time is on the disruptive and expensive impact of aggressive lawyers in the domestic break-up. From the moment Nora sinks her hooks into Nicole, the divorce trajectory turns from a tentative drift to a swelling avenue of bitterness, with the lawyers the only beneficiaries. Baumach's script allows the depth of Nicole's unhappiness to be revealed in layers, and perhaps her reaching out to Nora was suppressed resentment bursting forth.

The issues generated by Charlie's ego and Nicole's unheralded sacrifice festered for years, and are now exposed in long dialogue scenes. Some work better than others. Nicole revealing the marriage's history to Nora in a long take is simply captivating, with Johansson mesmeric. Later the couple's attempt at civil discourse turns into a emotional shouting match and does not quite land, Driver willing but not quite able to convey the intended anguish.

Laura Dern makes a sharp impression as a barracuda in high heels. Ray Liotta gets a couple of scenes as the legal weapon Charlie considers using for the battle ahead.

A few moments of humour are sprinkled throughout the drama, but Baumbach allows the film to creep to an astonishing 136 minutes. The Los Angeles vs. New York debate drags on for far too long, and a knife incident is a needless distraction. A couple of wholly unnecessary songs add to the tedium.

Sifting through the debris of a once happy union, Marriage Story conveys the unfortunately all-too-common pain and sorrow of breaking up, made much worse by lawyers smelling profit.






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Movie Review: 27 Dresses (2008)
Wed, 15 Jan 2020 18:50:00 +0000

A romantic comedy, 27 Dresses lines up and knocks down all the genre's predictable fundamentals in a story of woman learning to look after her own needs.

In New York City, super-organized Jane Nichols (Katherine Heigl) is always invited to be the maid of honour and efficiently helps her many friends pull together their weddings. Caring and selfless, she helped raise her sister Tess (Malin Åkerman) when their mother died at a young age. Now Jane harbours a secret crush on her clueless boss George (Edward Burns).

While helping out at two different weddings on the same night, Jane meets Kevin Doyle (James Marsden), who covers weddings for the New York Journal but is himself cynical about romance and the institution of marriage. Flirty Tess blows into town and immediately sets her sight on seducing George, while Jane rejects Kevin's overtures to start a relationship.

Writer Aline Brosh McKenna penned the exquisite The Devil Wears Prada, so 27 Dresses is a particular disappointment. This Katherine Heigl vehicle is a strictly formulaic rom-com as Jane stumbles to find herself and prioritize seeking her own happiness.

The moments of humour are bland, with sidekick Casey (the ever dependable Judy Greer) providing the typical caustic comments from the best friend vantage point. The romance elements are cold, Jane pining for a relationship with her boss George when he is clearly not interested, while ignoring Kevin who clearly is.

The contrived conflicts arrive courtesy of the forward Tess, who unlike her sister goes out and gets what she wants. A tangential subplot about Kevin writing a long piece about the always-bridesmaid Jane for his newspaper is used to cause the usual rift between would-be lovers, but is really an excuse for a montage featuring Heigl posing in the titular 27 dresses.

Director Anne Fletcher brings enough polish if not pizazz to the film, Heigl is dependable if vaguely disengaged, and 27 Dresses provides just enough talent to maintain a base level of interest. But a bursting wardrobe does not make a movie, and 27 Dresses needed fewer garments and much more edge.






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Movie Review: Tropic Thunder (2008)
Wed, 15 Jan 2020 04:10:00 +0000

A satire about actors and their rampant self-admiration, Tropic Thunder is vulgar, bloody and hilarious.

Five actors are part of an expensive crew on location to shoot Tropic Thunder, a Vietnam war epic based on the memoirs of veteran Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte).
  • Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is a fading action movie star with one last chance to salvage a career. 
  • Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is a low-brow comedian and heroin addict looking for respect. 
  • Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) is an award-winning method actor who has undergone revolutionary skin darkening surgery to play a black soldier. 
  • Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) is a rapper and energy drink promoter attempting to launch an acting career.  
  • Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) is a relatively new actor, and the only one who has bothered to read the book or the script.
The director is Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), and he has trouble keeping all the egos in check. Cody (Danny McBride) is the explosives expert, and thanks to Cockburn incompetence detonates a massive explosion when the cameras are not rolling. Back in Hollywood, Rick Peck (Matthew McConaughey) is Tugg's agent, keen to ensure his star has what he needs to survive the jungle ordeal, while studio boss Les Grossman (Tom Cruise) is worried about his investment.

To toughen up the actors Cockburn agrees with Tayback's suggestion to drop them deep in the jungle with no support and film with hidden cameras. But the chosen location is in the Golden Triangle, where the vicious Flaming Gang runs a heroine operation. As the actors wander into the danger zone, Tugg still believes they are filming a movie, but Kirk starts to suspect something is very wrong.

An almost miraculous combination of action, comedy, gore and satire, Tropic Thunder grabs a movie-within-a-movie premise and squeezes hard. Director Ben Stiller wrote the screenplay with Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, and they take direct aim at directors, producers and agents within their own industry, but skewer actors with particular venom.

And the film is a spectacular spoof made successful thanks to relatively sharp writing and a terrific cast in top form. Robert Downey Jr. stands out and deserves credit for taking a potentially disastrous blackface construct and selling it as the epitome of method acting. His Kirk Lazarus stays in characters no matter what is happening in the jungle, spouting inane lines about performance art and scoring the film's biggest laughs.

The other unforgettable role is Tom Cruise as producer Les Grossman, screaming scatalogical threats down phone lines and then pulling off legendary dance movies while concocting an evil plan to turn a turkey into a monetary windfall.

Tropic Thunder also features surprisingly effective action scenes, and in classic war movie fashion these are interspersed with character interactions to build up depth. The conversations are often debates as to whether the stranded actors are in a real or make-believe conflict zone, and the surreal topic provides a suitably ridiculous basis to tease out the various personalities, often wracked with deep-seated insecurities or on the verge of full-out panic.

The humour is a combination of lewd, cringy and disgusting with a large dollop of severed body parts, and remarkably, most of it works.

Equal parts obnoxious and fearless, Tropic Thunder is a preposterous explosion.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.




Ace Black's List: The 10 Best Movies Of 2016
Sun, 12 Jan 2020 23:32:00 +0000

More than 80 movies from 2016 have been reviewed on the Ace Black Blog. Here are the 10 Best:






















Directed by Kenneth Lonergan.
Starring Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler.
A drama about re-engaging with life as ordinary people grapple with private battles in a world of broken families, broken dreams and lives drifting sideways. Full review.























Directed by Mel Gibson.
Starring Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Hugo Weaving and Vince Vaughn.
A war epic based on real events and the stunning story of a conscientious objector who found his purpose on a tortuous field of battle. Presents a harrowing close-up vision of war and its destructive impact on bodies and souls. Full review.

























Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig.
Starring Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Kyra Sedgwick, and Haley Lu Richardson.
A high school drama and comedy deftly exploring the world of teenagers where every emotion is heightened, friendships are sacrosanct, crises escalate quickly and viable options appear limited. Full review.





















Directed by Colm McCarthy.
Starring Sennia Nanua, Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine and Glenn Close.
A zombie apocalypse thriller offering intellectual horror in a dystopian setting, progressing towards thought-provoking but blood-soaked territory and raising questions about who deserves to live, and why. Full review.






















Directed by John Madden.
Starring Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Michael Stuhlbarg.
A spirited political thriller and electrifying talkfest featuring a classic battle for control over one of the most heated issues in politics. Full review.























Directed by David Mackenzie.
Starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Gil Birmingham.
A rural heist drama with plenty of soul exploring an us-versus-them psyche where resentment justifies audacious lawlessness, and both good and evil can knowingly reside in the same hearts. Full review.























Directed by Sean Ellis.
Starring Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan, Charlotte Le Bon, and Anna Geislerová.
A World War Two action drama and a stellar retelling of the assassination attempt on Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich. Exquisitely constructed to capture the characters, emotions and frightful consequences of a seminal yet controversial mission. Full review.
























Directed by Tom Ford.
Starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
A social drama with an embedded crime and revenge thriller, the film features a complex narrative structure effortlessly unfolding through gripping interlinked stories. Full review.






















Directed by Denis Villeneuve.
Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, and Michael Stuhlbarg.
A low-key alien-contact film wielding enormous power, transcending the genre and transforming the mystery of communication into a private and yet monumental journey. Full review.


























Directed by Damien Chazelle.
Starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, and Rosemarie DeWitt.
A loving homage to the classic Hollywood musicals and the town that created them, combining pragmatism with an infusion of magic, grounded in the reality of modern careerism and a city that promises bright lights but at a price. Full review.




Movie Review: Frank And Lola (2016)
Sun, 12 Jan 2020 07:22:00 +0000

A romantic drama, Frank And Lola delves into issues of deep-rooted jealousy, sexual adventurism and the damage of the past catching up with the present.

In Las Vegas, struggling chef Frank Reilly (Michael Shannon) and aspiring fashion designer Lola (Imogen Poots) are involved in a passionate relationship. He has issues of trust, and resents her finding a job at the fashion incubator house owned by the charismatic and rich Keith Winkleman (Justin Long).

Lola confesses to a one night stand, and also reveals a troubled past involving being raped in Paris by a man named Alan. Frank travels to Paris to compete for a new restaurant chef position, and takes the opportunity to track down Alan (Michael Nyqvist). He discovers an unexpectedly complex web of sexual and emotional relationships.

A dark and often disconcerting drama, Frank And Lola confidently strides into the psyche of a disturbed couple. Writer and director Matthew Ross is interested in disrupting conventions and challenging expectations. As Lola and Frank repeatedly disappoint and lie to each other, the character reactions are exceptionally unexpected. An undercurrent of self-hate and low self-esteem permeates the film, which often means a flickering love, no matter how imperfect, is the best available option.

And yet this is a difficult film to enjoy, due to the absence of any notionally likeable or even capable characters. Lola and Frank are not shy about admitting their deep-seated faults, and they are unreliable, mean and prone to atrocious misjudgments. The layered deceptions become tiresome, and eventually almost nothing said can be trusted, the film teetering on a decrepit foundation. The origins and essence of the love between Frank and Lola, fundamental to carry them through the severe turbulence, are missing.

Ross uses quick scene transitions, sleek settings and plenty of night-time filming with intense lighting to explore themes of control, possession and barely contained envy. Frank is older than Lola, and while the sexual chemistry between them is strong, he has trouble tolerating any of her interactions with other men. Her new boss Keith is the target of his initial wrath, but Alan emerges from the past as a formidable opponent. And Frank finds much more than he bargained for once he tracks Alan down, an awakening to how intense and gripping a twisted love can be, fuelled by a whole different relationship paradigm.

Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots are suitably intense and often anguished, hinting at lives struggling to rise above years of unmet expectations and self-destructive behaviour. Michael Nyqvist adds a dash of continental smarm as a man indulging his fantasies but still consumed by a powerful passion. In Frank And Lola commitment comes in different guises, all of them complex.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.




Movie Review: In A Valley Of Violence (2016)
Sat, 11 Jan 2020 23:52:00 +0000

A budget western, In A Valley Of Violence seeks a Spaghetti Western vibe but offers a clunky and feeble script stacked with overly familiar elements.

Mysterious drifter Paul (Ethan Hawke) and his dog Abbie are heading to Mexico to escape a dark past full of violence. They tangle with a drunk preacher (Burn Gorman) before riding into the small and sparsely populated town of Denton. Local hardhead Gilly Martin (James Ransone) resents Paul's presence and earns a humiliating punch in the face for his troubles.

Gilly's fiancee Ellen (Karen Gillan) and her younger sister Mary-Anne (Taissa Farmiga) run the local hotel. The talkative Mary-Anne takes a liking to Paul, but he is mostly silent and brooding. Gilly's father is Marshal Clyde Martin (John Travolta), and he asks Paul to quietly leave town. But the deeply insulted Gilly and three goons catch up with Paul to seek revenge, resulting in plenty of bloodshed.

The opening credit sequence is an effective and nostalgic ode to Spaghetti Westerns enlivened by a Jeff Grace music score. The dog Abbie is exceptionally well trained and steals every scene she is in. But these are just about the only positives offered by In A Valley Of Violence.

Writer and director Ti West appears to be operating with limited resources, the entire film effectively constructed from about a dozen scenes, most of them achingly prolonged well past the point of effectiveness to scratch out a 99 minute feature. The town of Denton consists of 10 residents, background extras an out of reach luxury in this valley.

Also lacking is any sense of originality. This is a straightforward revenge western where the bad guys are bad, the good guy is escaping a dark past, and the dog angle is lifted straight from John Wick. The writing is rudimentary, West quick to snatch at unearned epic moments. The humour is welcome and sometimes sharp, but also uneven and as the climax approaches, the attempted laughs clash with the prevailing tone.

Ethan Hawke is decent within the confines of the material despite a scattershot backstory consisting of vaguely defined incidents. John Travolta is unsure what to do with the role of a Marshal with one wooden leg and one dense but dangerous son. James Ransone is shallow as the villain of the piece, and both Karen Gillan and Taissa Farmiga are treated as irritating afterthoughts.

In A Valley Of Violence is the place to find tired western cliches in search of a better project.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.




Movie Review: Primary Colors (1998)
Sat, 11 Jan 2020 20:47:00 +0000

A political drama laced with humour, Primary Colors is an inside look at the raging turmoil within a fledgling election campaign.

Political activist Adrian Lester (Henry Burton) is drawn to the campaign of charismatic candidate Jack Stanton (John Travolta), a governor from an unfancied southern state making an unlikely run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Stanton is a seemingly genuine and idealistic people-person with a love for education reform. He is also a hopeless womanizer with a chequered past.

His wife Susan (Emma Thompson) is involved in the campaign, and Lester joins slobby strategic advisor Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton) and organizer Daisy Green (Maura Tierney) to bring some operational discipline. When allegations of Stanton's past infidelities are made public, the team turns to researcher Libby Holden (Kathy Bates) to investigate and preempt other skeletons in the closet. Meanwhile Governor Fred Picker (Larry Hagman) emerges as an unexpected dark horse opponent in the nomination race.

Inspired by Bill Clinton's campaign that culminated in his winning the United States Presidency in 1992, Primary Colors is half of a good movie. Director Mike Nichols and writer Elaine May adapt the 1996 book by Joe Klein (initially published anonymously), with Lester the fly-on-the-wall not quite aware how he is being sucked into his first presidential campaign. What he finds on the inside is disorganized chaos barely held together by a ramshackle team, but also a candidate radiating winning charm. Nichols excels in setting the context, introducing the characters and conveying the exhausting nature of a nascent campaign, clueless but enthusiastic workers always on the go, fighting fires and snatching sleep in cars, planes and nondescript motel rooms.

The film's second half shifts to the grind of gathering ammunition for the mudslinging wars. The focus moves away from the Stantons and towards Libby Holden, and the film loses most of its momentum. The narrative works its way to an almost quaint dilemma: the Stanton's outward idealism clashing with the ready appeal of dirty politics when Jack is being subjected to an intense smear campaign. His opponent Governor Picker is the convenient test case, and May chooses a too-easy target to aim at. A high price is incurred as Stanton searches for his moral compass, Primary Colors trying hard to have it both ways by leaving victims on the sidelines.

John Travolta imitates Clinton's mannerisms and excels in walking the fine line where it's always perfectly unclear whether the candidate genuinely cares or is just brilliant at pretending. Emma Thompson as his wife Susan is not given enough to do, her juggling act to keep both tolerance and ambition in the air frequently unconvincing. Billy Bob Thornton and Kathy Bates are colourfully dramatic but also almost cartoonish. Burton suffers in the role of a supposed protagonist who does little other than experience what others are instigating.

Primary Colors is never less than vivid. While the packaging sparkles, the inside machinations are not always as pretty.






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Movie Review: Ford v Ferrari (2019)
Tue, 07 Jan 2020 13:45:00 +0000

A motor racing drama, Ford v Ferrari (also known as Le Mans '66) is a story of on-track development and back-room interference as two friends accept the visionary challenge of developing a racing program to compete against the sport's global elite.

It's the 1960s, and CEO Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) is looking for inventive ways to revive the car maker's reputation. Vice President Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) proposes a program to develop a new sports car and compete at the prestigious Le Mans 24 hours endurance race to challenge Ferrari's dominance. Henry sanctions the investment, although Vice President Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) is skeptical.

Iacocca recruits former Le Mans winner Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), now a sports car designer, to lead the nascent racing team. Shelby, who had to quit racing for health reasons, in turn convinces British driver and World War Two veteran Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to join the program as lead test driver. While Shelby and Miles make progress developing the seminal Ford GT40, they encounter numerous setbacks, including layers of corporate meddling.

Based on real events, Ford v Ferrari is an old fashioned underdog story, spiked with a corporate suit as a key antagonist and snooty Europeans as smug on-track opponents. Overall writers Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller neatly line-up good guys Shelby and Miles against a world where broken promises, careerism and out-of-control bureaucracy are obstacles actively working against Ford's self-interest.

Despite the relatively simplistic us-against-them narrative and plenty of mythical hokum about the perfect lap (that speech delivered in the moonlight, no less), director James Mangold delivers a rollicking film. The testing and racing scenes are exquisitely filmed and generate genuine energy, with the climactic Le Mans race featuring breathless and well-constructed racing and interpersonal excitement. The 152 minutes of running time absolutely speed by, often riding on the twin turbo boost of charisma provided by Matt Damon and especially Christian Bale.

Damon's Shelby is the brains of an audacious racing program thrown together with back-of-the-napkin level planning, but it is Bale's Ken Miles who emerges as the emotional core of the film. A mechanic at heart, Miles can read a car's performance like an open book and immediately determine required tweaks to improve lap times. He is also impatient, too honest for his own good and the farthest thing from a slick corporate ambassador.

Miles is provided with a family backstory including feisty wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and a young son. However, all the other characters including Shelby essentially exist only in the context of the racing program, with no added personal depth. The novel concept of replacing the car's entire brake assembly during the race is included, but the film could have invested more time delving into some of the other technical breakthroughs that made Shelby's GT40 a world beater.

And while it is fun portraying Beebe as a nauseating corporate yes-man without an inventive bone in his body but adept at claiming credit for the work of others, the simplification erodes the film's serious drama. On the track it's Ford v Ferrari, but the real challenge turns out to be Ford v Ford.






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Movie Review: Bombshell (2019)
Mon, 06 Jan 2020 06:16:00 +0000

A drama based on the true story of women fighting back against a lecherous media boss, Bombshell features excellent performances but a fragmented narrative.

In 2015 Fox News television star anchor Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) becomes a household name for all the wrong reasons when she tangles with Republican Party presidential nominee Donald Trump. Meanwhile afternoon show host Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is collecting evidence and planning to sue Fox News CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) for sexual harassment after he demotes her to a less favourable viewing spot for refusing his advances.

Young, attractive and ambitious Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) leaves Carlson's team to join the higher profile Bill O'Reilly show, and soon catches Ailes' eye. He subjects her to humiliating harassment with a promise of career advancement. Carlson is finally fired and launches her lawsuit, throwing the network into turmoil. Her legal team is desperate for other women to step forward and share their harassment stories, with Megyn's refusal to publicly support Ailes causing shockwaves.

Roger Ailes' dismissal was an early milestone just in advance of the #metoo era, and Bombshell goes inside the inner sanctum of Fox News to recreate events leading up to his downfall. Writer Charles Randolph and director Jay Roach focus on the courage of three women, real-life anchors Kelly and Carlson, with Kayla representing an amalgamation of other employees.

The film is polished, inspiring and disjointed. The three women barely share any screen time together, their struggles representing loosely connected but quite separate chapters. Their stories ultimately converge to help shine a light on the truth, but this power in numbers remains primarily off-screen.

While Carlson's lawsuit was the trigger event leading to Ailes downfall, her story gets the least amount of screen time, and Kidman is often reduced to a secondary presence. In contrast Charlize Theron is most prominent and coldly efficient as Kelly. Her early clash with Donald Trump and subsequent media storm was an early sign of the candidate's unorthodox and unfiltered approach, but is ultimately tangential to Bombshell's central theme. Theron shines late in the film, as the implications of revealing (or not) Kelly's truth start to weigh on her shoulders.

Kayla depicts every enthusiastic young woman caught in shark-infested waters without a sturdy raft. With Margot Robbie in sensational form, she emerges as the heart and soul of the film, the next generation of women paying the price for debauchers maintaining their hold on power for far too long.

Roach paints a vivid picture of rampant sexism at Fox News, where women were routinely objectified and pressured into wearing leg-revealing outfits. Rumours of "leg cameras", transparent anchor tables as a tactic to attract gawking viewers, and private elevators to Ailes' office swirled through the hallways.

The downfall of men who sexually exploited women was an overdue workplace revolution, and Bombshell is a genuine if not cinematically spectacular salute to the brave women who helped make it happen.






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Movie Review: Knives Out (2019)
Sat, 04 Jan 2020 20:22:00 +0000

A whodunnit crime mystery spiced with humour, Knives Out features an ensemble cast having fun in a convoluted Clue-like milieu.

In Massachusetts, celebrated and wealthy crime mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead by apparent suicide, after the family had gathered at his mansion to celebrate his 85th birthday. Police detectives interrogate the family members, while private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is anonymously hired to investigate whether a murder was committed.

Potential motives for murder are soon revealed. Harlan was about to expose the extramarital affair of his son-in-law Richard Drysdale (Don Johnson), husband of Harlan's daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis). He was also terminating financial support for daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette); cutting entitled grandson Ransom (Chris Evans) out of his will; and firing his son Walt (Michael Shannon) as head of his publishing company.

But Benoit takes greatest interest in Harlan's quiet nurse and close confidant Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas). The daughter of an illegal immigrant, she is well liked by all the family members and incapable of lying, and Benoit trusts her to help connect the dots.

A throwback to old-fashioned Agatha Christie-type mysteries, Knives Out presents a rich cast of characters, plenty of reasons to suspect everyone, layers of lying, and clever detective work. Writer and director Rian Johnson assembles the puzzle with a light touch, the film never taking itself too seriously. A few good touches of well-placed humour help to keep the mood airy.

The first two thirds of the film, mostly confined to the mansion, are excellent. Johnson expeditiously introduces all the characters, gives most of them reasons to kill, and recreates snippets of the evening before the death when Harlan was clearly cleaning house and putting his affairs in order, threatening the economic future of many heirs in the process.

The final act unravels with the late introduction of Chris Evans' Ransom characters followed by an ill-advised and poorly executed blackmail sub-plot, the film hitting the road and losing its assured footing in the process.

Within the labyrinth of greed and backstabbing fueling the mystery, Johnson does include snide contemporary social commentary. Marta is an immigrant and the one seemingly pure soul, her work ethic placing her at the center of the family and yet outside it. Harlan's will upturns everyone's expectations, forcing a fundamental reassessment of the economic power dynamic.

With a star name is almost every role each performer gets the one scene to shine, and they are all adequate with a hint of theatricality. Daniel Craig works hard with limited success at an exotic accent to project a vaguely foreign detective. Ana de Armas delivers by far the film's best performance as the conscientious nurse Marta, combining sly panicked comic timing with an ability to say plenty by not saying anything at all. When everyone else is busy revealing sordid secrets, it's wise to listen more and talk less.






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Movie Review: Paterson (2016)
Thu, 02 Jan 2020 18:08:00 +0000

An idiosyncratic low-key slice-of-life drama and romance with some humour, Paterson looks for artistry in absolute normality.

The film takes place over the course of one week in the nondescript suburb of Paterson, New Jersey. Born and raised in the community, Paterson (Adam Driver) is an amateur poet and transit bus driver. He lives a quiet routine-based life with his partner Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), a stay-at-home decorator (everything in black and white) and cupcake baking aficionado, and their bulldog Marvin.

Every day Paterson wakes up at the same time, has the same breakfast and drives the same route. He overhears snippets of conversations between bus passengers, and ends the day by taking Marvin for a walk and stopping for a beer at the local pub, where he interacts with the bartender and a few regulars. During work breaks he fills his notebook with poetry.

In their relationship Laura does most of the talking, encouraging him to safeguard his poetry by photocopying his notebook, expressing her dreams of becoming a country singer, and planning for a weekend bake sale.

Inspired by the poetry of William Carlos Williams, who was from Paterson, and with additional poetry by Ron Padgett, director and writer Jim Jarmusch creates a serene portrait of talent lurking underneath the thicket of ordinariness as an average couple from a working class neighbourhood navigate their way through a settled routine.

Barely anything noteworthy happens over the seven weeks. The height of excitement in Paterson's life is a minor bus mishap, and then a brief drama at the bar. And yet the flickers of potential and joy nurturing his existence are everywhere. This is a bus driver who loves to both read and write poetry, his creativity hiding behind his introspective nature and bus driver's uniform. And Laura is a loving and supportive wife with dual streaks of business and creative ambition.

And Jarmusch playfully inserts coincidences all around Paterson hinting at his potential or destiny. Laura mentions dreaming about the couple having twins and suddenly Paterson is noticing twins all around his community. And two of the strangers he meets during the week are amateur poets who also write their poetry in private notebooks: a young girl waiting to be picked up by her mom, and in the film's most poignant moment, a Japanese tourist who intervenes when Paterson is at his lowest ebb. Unspoken but unmistakable mutual inspiration crackles in both encounters.

Adam Driver stays within himself as a quiet man content with his well-defined routine, never even hinting at a willingness to seek any level of commotion. Golshifteh Farahani provides most of the film's warmth with a genuine performance, portraying Laura as equally at peace but still seeking her progression in life. The bulldog Marvin is the essential third member of the family, an adorable feisty but low-rumble presence.

Paterson the place and the person are every place and every person. For the vast majority life is a routine, but delicate, essential and loving individual virtuosity resides in every corner.






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Movie Review: Harry Brown (2009)
Wed, 01 Jan 2020 19:51:00 +0000

A vigilante thriller, Harry Brown introduces an elderly protagonist but otherwise plunders well-worn material with an overreliance on gore.

In London, pensioner and ex-Marine Harry Brown (Michael Caine) lives in a derelict estate terrorized by violent drug-dealing thugs led by Noel (Ben Drew). The gang members hang out in a nearby pedestrian underpass and do business at the pub run by Sid (Liam Cunningham). Brown's sick wife dies in hospital, then his only friend Len (David Bradley) tangles with the goons and is murdered.

Detective Inspector Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer) starts to investigate Len's killing, but her interrogations are futile. With nothing to live for Harry takes matters into his own hands. He stabs one of the gang members to repulse a mugging then infiltrates a hideout on the pretext of buying a gun and confronts two drug-addicted goons. But his real target is Noel, who will be difficult to track down.

A relatively straightforward reimagining of Death Wish and all its imitators, Harry Brown adds the original but questionable spin of a pensioner pushed to the point of not caring. Harry dusts off his military skills and goes a-killing, but he suffers from emphysema, can barely run and has to rely on some guile to compensate. This could be Bryan Mills' father now displaying his special skills, but the concept is understandably starting to fray.

Michael Caine provides the only source of depth, and conveys a sense of pain, suffering, and disenchantment with a world where criminals rule the streets. But otherwise director Daniel Barber and writer Gary Young resort to stock characters not defined beyond "soulless thug" and "police officer". Similarly no social context or perceptive commentary is provided for the milieu of anarchy in London, where youth are terrorizing a neighbourhood with no consequence.

Stylistically Barber takes his time with a few of the scenes, Brown's visit to the den of two drug-crazed criminals a gradual reveal of a horror house, including a large pot grow-op, a young woman overdosing, and no shortage of guns for sale. The grim aesthetics, pervasive vulgarity and occasional displays of spurting blood wash over the movie to create an overbearing sense of bleak nihilism.

Harry Brown is an old man forced into action, but unfortunately his quest for vengeance is an all too familiar cinematic mission.






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Movie Review: My Cousin Vinny (1992)
Wed, 01 Jan 2020 03:00:00 +0000

A courtroom comedy, My Cousin Vinny finds good laughs in the story of a scrappy Brooklyn lawyer rising up to the challenge of defending his wrongly accused cousin in the deep south.

While on a road trip through Alabama, friends Bill Gambini (Ralph Macchio) and Stan Rothenstein (Mitchell Whitfield) are caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and arrested as prime suspects in the murder of a convenience store clerk. Bill recruits his Brooklyn-based cousin and fledgling lawyer Vinny (Joe Pesci) as his defence lawyer. He arrives in town with long-suffering fiancee Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei), and admits to have never been involved in a murder case nor even appeared in court.

Nevertheless Vinny convinces Judge Chamberlain Haller (Fred Gwynne) of his qualifications by bending several truths. Up against prosecutor Jim Trotter (Lane Smith), Vinny appears out of his depth and is repeatedly jailed for contempt, with Mona Lisa bailing him out every time. With several witnesses claiming to have seen Bill and Stan flee the murder scene, proving their innocence will be Vinny's challenge of a lifetime.

The initial plot construct required to land Bill and Stan in a heap of trouble is contrived in the extreme. But once the script by writer and co-producer Dale Launer gets past the required set-up and director Jonathan Lynn unleashes the duo of Vinny and Mona Lisa on the small fictional town of Wazoo, Alabama, the fun starts in earnest.

Bill and Stan are essentially sidelined for the entire second half, Vinny and Mona Lisa take over, and the strength of the movie resides in the partnership between the long-engaged bickering couple. He is the fast-thinking ambulance chasing injury lawyer about to pretend he knows something about murder cases. She is sarcastic, bored and under-appreciated, and a sight to behold in a succession of over-the-top outfits and hairdos. Together they banter in broad Brooklyn accents, with an undercurrent of love and mutual appreciation holding them together - barely.

To build up tension for the climactic court battle Launer colours in plenty of local character. Vinny and Mona Lisa tangle with the locals, but more memorably cannot find a place to sleep that is not interrupted by one calamity or another before the crack of each dawn.

Once the action moves to the courtroom My Cousin Vinny soars in both drama and comedy. While maintaining a light touch and accessible arguments, the film is lauded (and used as an educational tool and reference point) for accurately representing the tactics and nimble thinking required to engage on evidence and expert witnesses.

And to Launer's immense credit the story contains no evil antagonists. Judge Haller, prosecutor Trotter and sheriff Farley (Bruce McGill) are all simply doing their jobs. Vinny is the disruptive fish out of water, and he is just trying to do his best.

With the case balanced on a knife's edge Mona Lisa finally gets her moment to shine, and Marisa Tomei delivers triumphantly unexpected testimony from the witness stand, grabbing the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award in the process. My Cousin Vinny claims the title credit, but it's the woman in his life who deservedly steals the spotlight.






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Movie Review: Across The Universe (2007)
Tue, 31 Dec 2019 18:41:00 +0000

A jukebox musical drama and romance featuring the music of The Beatles, Across The Universe is a multifaceted but simple story inspired by the 1960s and the majesty of timeless songs.

It's the 1960s, and in Liverpool aspiring artist Jude (Jim Sturgess) leaves his shipyard job and girlfriend behind and heads to the United States for a life adventure. At the Princeton University campus, he meets free-spirited student Max (Joe Anderson), then finds his father, a World War Two veteran who abandoned Jude's mother when she was pregnant. Jude becomes friends with Max and also meets his more grounded sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). She has a boyfriend who has already been drafted into the army.

Max quits college and with Jude they relocate to New York's Greenwich Village, where they meet aspiring singer Sadie (Dana Fuchs) and guitarist Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy), who fled a Detroit beset by race riots. They are soon joined by Lucy, as well as Prudence (T.V. Carpio), a young woman from Ohio. Jude and Lucy start an intense romance, while Max receives his draft papers conscripting him into the army. Lucy joins an anti-war activist group led by Paco (Logan Marshall-Green), and eventually her idealistic dedication to peace protests strains the relationship with Jude.

An experimental fantasy anchored to the music and events of the 1960s, Across The Universe is reasonably successful in casting a unique spell. Director Julie Taymor and screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais squeeze in more than 30 Beatles tunes into 133 minutes of running time. Helped by key characters carrying names straight from The Beatles' songs (Jude, Prudence, Lucy, Jo-Jo, Max), the songs are performed by the cast members and often seamlessly weave into the film.

The movie is an undoubted salute to the eternal genius of the band and a reminder of their catalogue depth. But bloat does creep in, and a more disciplined edit would have resulted in a sharper end product.

Taymor ties the music to often fantastical imagery, allowing the film to work as a feast for the eyes as well as the ears. The visuals are hit and miss, a combination of alluring, perplexing and trippy. For better or for worse, Across The Universe often evokes the 1960s as imagined through the prism of substance-enhanced nostalgia.

Within the swirling artsiness it's remarkable the film contains as much plot and history as it does, and these elements not only work but provide necessary cohesion. Social turmoil, protests, riots, hippie-inspired attitudes towards love and a burgeoning peace movement grappling with tactics are all here under the ever-present spectre of a worsening Vietnam War. The cultural references are enhanced by Sadie and Jo-Jo channeling Janis Joplin and Jimmy Hendrix respectively.

The story of Jude's father is a reminder these are the children of the World War Two generation, while the scenes back in Liverpool create a grim port city with a future fading into nondescript and depressing narrow alleyways. Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood delve into their roles as star-crossed lovers with appropriate solemnity, the cast playing it straight to provide necessary ballast.

A rich multi-sensory experience, Across The Universe is courageous artistry on film.






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Movie Review: Pineapple Express (2008)
Mon, 30 Dec 2019 23:33:00 +0000

A stoner buddy comedy, Pineapple Express is an uneven effort, with lightweight comedy, vulgarity and over-the-top bloody action uncomfortably rubbing shoulders.

Stoner Dale Denton (Seth Rogen) has a job serving court-issued subpoenas, but spends his time smoking pot he buys from dealer Saul Silver (James Franco) and hovering around his much younger girlfriend Angie (Amber Heard), who is still in high school. Dale witnesses a murder at the home of Ted Jones (Gary Cole), the master supplier of drugs in the area. Complicating matters is corrupt police officer Carol Brazier (Rosie Perez), who is on Ted's payroll.

Hitmen Budlofsky (Kevin Corrigan) and Matheson (Craig Robinson) are soon attempting to eliminate Dale and Saul. They seek refuge with drug dealer Red (Danny McBride), but he gets his supply from Ted, and so has divided loyalties. Dale and Saul have to save their lives and their friendship while finding a way to stop Ted's evil plot.

Pineapple Express opens with a black and white prelude set in 1937 at a secret facility, featuring the US military trialing a marijuana joint on a test subject and concluding pot should absolutely be illegal.

The rest of the film is a humorous call to decriminalization, the screenplay by Rogen and Evan Goldberg portraying pot users and dealers as laidback and harmless bros. Meanwhile the criminal underworld profits, the supply controlled by evildoers like Ted Jones who is not only corrupting enforcement officers but also engaged in a violent turf battle with a heavily armed asian gang.

Beyond its basic message Pineapple Express is stuck in a field of mediocrity. The plot is a bedraggled affair mainly serving to stitch together outlandish low-brow humour. Many scenes drag on well beyond what is necessary, director David Gordon Green prolonging the flimsy film to 112 minutes. The final gunfight battle is particularly endless, and earlier Dale's first visit to Saul's apartment also overstays its welcome, with a lot of their dialogue carrying the whiff of improv.

The better sequences feature a three-way brawl at Red's apartment, a most awkward intrusion onto a family dinner at girlfriend Angie's house, and a not-bad manic car chase.

Pineapple Express serves up a few sweet laughs, but has trouble cutting through all the surface roughness.






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Movie Review: The Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants (2005)
Sun, 29 Dec 2019 21:38:00 +0000

A coming-of-age teen drama centred around four close friends, The Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants tackles serious issues with a tender touch. Excellent performances from the young cast enhance the film's quality.

Friends since birth, four 17 year old teen girls are preparing for their first summer apart. While out shopping together, they find a pair of jeans that remarkably fits them all perfectly. They vow to share the jeans throughout the summer, mailing it to each other along with updates about their summer adventures.

Lena (Alexis Bledel) is the thoughtful introvert of the group, and a budding artist. In Greece to spend the summer with her grandparents she meets dishy fisher Kostas (Michael Rady), but finds it difficult to open up to his overtures. Long-held family feuds also get in the way.

Tibby (Amber Tamblyn) wants to be a documentary filmmaker but is downbeat about having to stay behind in dull Maryland working at the local discount department store. Her sarcastic outlook on life is challenged when she meets the cheerful and precocious 12 year old Bailey (Jenna Boyd).

Carmen (America Ferrera) is half Puerto Rican and being raised by her divorced mom Christina (Rachel Ticotin). She is excited to visit her dad Al (Bradley Whitford) in Charleston. But Carmen is shocked to find him living with the very WASPy Lydia (Nancy Travis) and her two teen kids. Al and Lydia are about to get married and he makes no time for Carmen.

Bridget (Blake Lively) lost her mother to suicide. Vivacious, driven and a budding soccer superstar, Bridget heads to a soccer summer camp in Mexico, where she immediately sets out to seduce dishy coach Eric (Mike Vogel).

An adaptation of the Ann Brashares novel with a screenplay by Delia Ephron and Elizabeth Chandler, The Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants streamlines the book into a cohesive screen package. With an emphasis on personal growth and confronting real world difficulties, director Ken Kwapis displays a deft touch to juggle four stories and still maintain focus on the central friendship theme.

With four mini chapters to get through, Kwapis never lingers in one place for too long, and the film creates a sense of welcome energy. The main narrative challenge of nurturing the core bond between the women as they are off on their own separate adventures is achieved through the letters accompanying the mailed pants and unexpected turns during the summer forcing some early reunions.

With the traveling pants a useful plot device to instigate the boost of transitional courage needed in adulthood, the four friends step out of their cocoons and out of their comfort zones. Growing up involves confronting emotional pain, the spectre of death, unexpected disappointments, burgeoning sexuality and forbidden zones established by others, then deciding how to fit into the cycle of turmoil called life. Most of all, The Sisterhood is about the budding women better understanding why they behave the way they do, and their individual and collective power to change.

Not surprisingly given the target audience, some of the events are painted in broad brushes. Carmen's father Al is portrayed as a first class doofus, and the romance between Lena and Kostas has gooey moments. Young Bailey's emotional intellect is just too perfectly sophisticated, and Bridget's relentless pursuit of Eric borders on stalking.

But the four friends are brought to life by bright performances from the talented cast, and they help to smooth over the rough spots. Beldel, Tamblyn, Ferrera and Lively are all provided individual opportunities to shine and collective scenes of friendship, but they are first and foremost convincing as grounded teenagers with distinct personalities awakening to the imperfect world of adults and their evolving position within it.

The Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants contains sprinklings of magic dust discovered by close friends, but available to all.






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Movie Review: Tears Of The Sun (2003)
Sun, 29 Dec 2019 16:13:00 +0000

A war action movie, Tears Of The Sun has noble intentions to increase awareness of atrocities in Africa, but a feeble script never strikes the right tones.

A civil war erupts in Nigeria with the overthrow of democratically elected President Azuka by a brutal rebel army. The United States Navy conducts dangerous missions to extract foreign nationals from the unfolding chaos. Lieutenant Waters (Bruce Willis) of the Navy SEALs and his small unit of elite soldiers are tasked by Captain Rhodes (Tom Skerritt) to rescue Dr. Lena Kendricks (Monica Bellucci) from a remote medical mission.

With the rebel army closing in Waters and his men locate Kendricks, but she insists her patients also be rescued. Waters reluctantly agrees and leads a large group of civilians towards the rendezvous site with the extraction helicopters, evading rebel patrols along the way. But both the Lieutenant and the doctor are keeping secrets from each other, and an already hazardous mission gets much more complicated when Waters starts to care about the plight of civilians and gets his squadron involved in the conflict.

Co-produced by Willis, Tears Of The Sun delves into the dirty wars of the dark continent with eyes wide open. Director Antoine Fuqua leaves no doubt the film is intended as a shocking wake-up call to the brutalities that often go unreported, and the film stops and lingers as villagers are slaughtered, raped and set on fire, child soldiers are pressed into service and mothers are maimed and their infants killed.

While Willis and his men (including stock turns by Cole Hauser, Eamonn Walker and Nick Chinlund) are supposed to be the jaded veterans jolted into taking a stand by what they are witnessing, the script by Alex Lasker and Patrick Cirillo falls far short. With no character depth whatsoever, the film delivers plastic and prepackaged emotions and flat drama. Neither Waters nor Doctor Kendricks are provided any context or compelling intensity, and the Africans are all reduced to horribly shallow and stereotypical representations of helpless locals awaiting rescue by mostly white American men.

Stylistically Fuqua does better in portraying an eternally wet jungle aesthetic, and the few but fierce action scenes almost save the movie. One sequence features the SEALs stealthily moving against murderous rebels terrorizing a village, while the final battle is a climactic backs-against-the-wall, few-against-many epic showdown. The action is vivid, including relatively accurate portrayals of battlefield tactics.

But unfortunately Tears Of The Sun ends with a gag-inducing stand-and-cheer (literally) celebration of the all-conquering US military by ever grateful black locals, the film collapsing far from its intentions and into the most crass version of a recruitment tool targeting the easily influenced.






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Movie Review: The Babadook (2014)
Sat, 28 Dec 2019 00:09:00 +0000

A horror film about a damaged mother-son relationship, The Babadook offers a few potent scares but mostly settles for familiar psych territory.

Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mom struggling to raise her six year old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) while working as an attendant at a seniors' care home. Her husband Oskar died in a car accident while driving her to the hospital to give birth, and Samuel is all too familiar with the story of his dad's death. Obsessed with monsters and often unable to sleep, Sam is traumatized his mother may also die and vows to protect her. His difficult behaviour gets him into trouble at school.

One night Samuel chooses Mister Babadook as a nighttime story book for his mom to read to him, and Amelia is horrified to find it filled with violent pop-up imagery featuring the monstrous Mr. Babadook, as well as taunts and threats of death. The story heightens Samuel's agitation, and despite Amelia's efforts to hide then destroy the book, The Babadook invades their house. A mother's already difficult life descends to a new level of horror.

An independent Australian production written and directed by Jennifer Kent, The Babadook features a strong start and middling resolution. The opening packs a strong punch thanks to a child-in-peril premise, young Samuel clearly disturbed and reaching a point of physical agitation preventing him from functioning in society. Jennifer paints Samuel's condition and the tension between mother and child with bold and uncompromising strokes, creating an impressive sense of mounting dread.

Once The Babadook monster starts knocking on the door and invading Amelia's life, the film loses much of its menace. The second half is notionally about a monster causing havoc in an already strained household, but defaults to a quite obvious metaphor about the corrosiveness of unexpressed grief and the often suppressed travails of motherhood. Amelia is a less interesting cinematic horror antagonist than Samuel, and The Babadook plays itself out along familiar lines, including overuse of bump-in-the-night type cheap tricks.

Although a few secondary characters exist around the margins of Amelia's life, the film is essentially a two person drama. Essie Davis delivers a committed physical performance, but again she is more effective as the overwhelmed and utterly exhausted mother in the film's first half. Kent draws a good performance out of young Noah Wiseman, who gets to scream an awful lot.

While The Babadook introduces a potentially frightening, insistent and insidious shadowy presence, as usual the real monster resides deep within.






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Movie Review: Sense And Sensibility (1995)
Fri, 27 Dec 2019 17:53:00 +0000

A romantic drama with hints of humour, Sense And Sensibility adapts Jane Austen's novel with a breezy attitude and polished aesthetic.

It's late in the 18th century in England, and the death of Mr. Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) leaves his second wife Mrs. Dashwood (Gemma Jones) and her daughters Elinor (Emma Thompson), Marianne (Kate Winslet) and young Margaret on a much reduced income. The two older sisters are close friends but opposites in personality. Elinor is thoughtful, circumspect and getting dangerously close to being designated a spinster. Marianne is passionate, extroverted and believes in true love.

The Dashwoods have to give up their lavish home and most of their servants, and they relocate to the snug cottage of the kindly Mr. and Mrs. Middleton. In the process Elinor meets and starts to fall in "like" with the potentially wealthy but profession-less Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant). However, events conspire against their budding relationship.

Marianne's fortunes start to look up when she meets Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman), who may be interested in her, but before he can act she is literally swept off her feet by the dashing John Willoughby (Greg Wise). But with money, class, long-held promises and family expectations at least as important as love, the path to marital happiness for the Dashwood sisters is nothing if not complicated.

First-time script writer Emma Thompson and producer Lindsay Doran wrestled with Austen's prose and simplified the book into cinematic cohesion. With foreign director Ang Lee providing an agile perspective, the trio produced a surprisingly accessible package. While the story remains largely obsessed with women finding husbands and not a single character appears to have a vocation worth mentioning, Sense And Sensibility creates a thriller out of mysteries of the heart.

The multiple and often overlapping possible love matches for Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are surprisingly engaging, and of course not a single relationship comes without layers of complexity. The affable Edward appears to be prevented from fully pursuing Elinor because she is penniless and his mother won't allow it, but a much deeper secret will be revealed to Elinor, shaking the very premise of their bond.

Marianne suffers deeper cuts. Her two suitors could not be more different. Colonel Brandon is calm, collected and almost too easy to overlook as unsuitably serene for her disposition. Willoughby by comparison is a romantic wild heart, and once he enters her life she can see no one else. However, both men have stunning backstories to be revealed at the appropriate time, and only after Marianne's young heart is exposed to the dangers of intense love and her health compromised.

And the warm core of the story is a tender relationship between Elinor and Marianne built on sisterly love, support and respect. With the men frequently absent to build up the mystery around their motivations, Elinor and Marianne harbour the one genuine, constant and palpable bond.

Thompson and Winslet bring the two sisters to life with superlative performances. Thompson internalizes the fortitude expected of an older sister but still shines in the few scenes where Elinor's emotional defences finally break. At just 19 years old and in one of her earliest roles, Winslet finds the unabashed expression of an arts-loving young woman willing to challenge the social conventions of her day.

Director Lee ensures the men do more by staying within themselves, both Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant conveying polite but complex characters with more going on in their lives than first meets the eye. Although most of the drama occurs indoors and through scenes of dialogue, Lee does include plenty of beautiful English scenery, and a few pivotal scenes are staged on stormy moors with Marianne's impulsive passions landing her in physical predicaments and in need of rescue.

Thompson's script measures out the reveals at appropriate intervals to keep the drama simmering, and enough secondary characters populate the margins to provide a base level of caustic humour and social commentary. The labyrinthian love entanglements provide avenues to expose gender, class and economic divides buffeting the pursuit of happiness.

For the Dashwood girls finding a suitable man is almost the easy part. Not immune from being victimized, the sisters will build their true character by deftly navigating around societal expectations, using Sense And Sensibility to expose true intentions.






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Movie Review: Inch'Allah (2012)
Thu, 26 Dec 2019 18:56:00 +0000

A drama about emotional torment caused by unyielding despair, Inch'Allah struggles to establish narrative momentum but gains focus in the final third.

Chloé (Évelyne Brochu) is a Canadian doctor living in Israel but crossing daily into the occupied West Bank to work in a Palestinian refugee camp, where the pregnant Rand (Sabrina Ouazani) is one of her patients. Chloé's best friend is Israeli army conscript Ava (Sivan Levy), who hates being stationed at the often chaotic crossing point.

Gradually Chloé gets to know Rand's family, including brother Faysal (Yousef Sweid) who runs a print shop for posters of Palestinians killed in violent clashes. Rand and other destitute Palestinians spend their days sorting through heaps of trash in the shadow of the wall separating Israel from the West Bank. Chloé is increasingly tormented by exposure to misery, and the contrast with comfortable life in Israel. When Rand goes into labour and Chloé is late to arrive, her life starts to unravel.

A Canadian production, Inch'Allah (meaning "God willing" in Arabic) takes time to delve into the context of two adjoining realities. Through the eyes of outsider Chloé, writer and director Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette uses hand-held cameras, close-up focus and languid pacing to introduce a hopeless Palestinian existence in the filthy shadow of the border wall. This is a place where dreams of a homeland are crushed, and minor and strategically insignificant military acts against Israeli settlements are the only cause for celebration.

The prevailing despair grinds down Chloé's psyche, her depression deepened by a seemingly oblivious attitude in Israel, where she can always have a good time in Ava's company. Her outsider status also means she is never really welcome on either side of the wall, and a single wrong action or comment can erode all trust.

Cinematically Chloé's emotional journey is a slow and disjointed affair, Barbeau-Lavalette unable to rise much above an observational stance. The film's first two acts are achingly plodding and thematically repetitive, snippets of life more appropriate for documentary packaging. Brochu's often blank and unconvincing representation of a doctor does not help.

The energy picks up considerably once Rand's pregnancy reaches the delivery stage, a cordoned-off hospital and Chloé's sojourn to Tel Aviv combining to finally create compelling drama. From there Barbeau-Lavalette steers the film to a poignant denouement, the violence previously confined to the background finally intruding into Chloé's life in a most profound way. When perceived injustices are stacked in suffocating layers, any twinkle of hope struggles to survive.






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Movie Review: Home Alone (1990)
Thu, 26 Dec 2019 06:31:00 +0000

A family Christmas comedy, Home Alone strikes all the right tones in a tale of a kid forgotten behind at the most magical time of year.

In a Chicago suburb, the McCallister family prepares for a Christmas vacation trip to Paris. Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) is the smart but exasperating eight year old youngest son, generally overlooked by his parents Kate and Peter (Catherine O'Hara and John Heard) and tormented by his siblings. With the family chaotically extended by the presence of Kevin's ornery uncle and his brood, no one notices burglar Harry Lyme (Joe Pesci) disguised as a police officer scoping the soon-to-be-empty house.

In the travel day rush the family bundles off to the airport and then onto the plane with Kevin forgotten home alone. He has to fend for himself, keeping a wary eye on spooky neighbour Marly (Roberts Blossom), and gradually realizes Harry and his partner Marv (Daniel Stern) are intent on burglarizing the house. On the plane Kate awakens to her blunder, and once in Paris immediately starts the long trip back. But unscheduled travel arrangements during the Holidays will prove a challenge.

Writer and producer John Hughes turns his attention away from teenagers and towards the younger kids. Maintaining his sharp wit and ear to the ground, Hughes conjures up a Christmas classic in a story where be-careful-what-you-wish-for applies to both the kids and adults.

In the lead up to the Paris trip Kevin makes a nuisance of himself by just being a kid, but his unintended mess results in hot emotions and sharp words. Kate banishes him to the attic, out of sight and out of mind, and Kevin wishes his whole family would just disappear already. Both their wishes come true, as the next morning the family is free of Kevin's presence and he awakens to an empty house, sure he was responsible for everyone's disappearance.

With director Chris Columbus capably translating Hughes' vision to the screen, what follows is a journey of redemption for Kate, and she has to overcome every conceivable travel nightmare to make it back to her son as soon as possible. Her trip will include a travel leg in a U-Haul van with John Candy's legendary (sort of) polka band, Hughes elegantly tying Home Alone with 1987's Planes, Trains And Automobiles.

Meantime Kevin is growing up in a hurry, confronting fears including the boiler in the basement and the mysterious neighbour-with-the-shovel. But worse is to come, the bumbling burglar duo of Harry and Marv absolutely intent on hitting the prized McCallister house (Hughes never quite explains how this family came to live in a luxurious mansion). Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern are admirably dedicated to the doofus antagonists roles, and add immeasurably to the film's madcap physical humour.

Home Alone reaches a quite hilarious climax with Kevin concocting a defence of the house to thwart and humiliate the robbers at every turn, in the hope help will arrive in a true Christmas miracle. Here Hughes even manages a nod to the intervention by the misunderstood next-door presence from To Kill A Mockingbird territory.

With Columbus cajoling a superlative and ridiculously appealing performance out of young Macaulay Culkin, Home Alone ticks along in perfect harmony with the spirit of personal growth through family appreciation, laughing all the way.






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