Tuesday, 26 August 2014

CD Review: Time 1, by Wintersun (2012)


A full six years in the making, Time 1 unfortunately crosses the threshold from ambitious to pompous.

What proved to be just the first part of Jari Mäenpää's vanity project under the Wintersun banner features just the five meaningful songs but a length of about 40 minutes. Despite the numerous overlayed recording tracks and infinite computer processing power, the outcome is a lumpy porridge of epic folk progressive metal, often prolonged into endless orchestral meandering, singularly lacking in focus and intensity.

Mäenpää's own Ensiferum managed the same heroic sound with more punch if less polish, and bands extending all the way back to Manowar have dabbled with the same themes, all in a more compact and thoroughly more digestible form.

Mäenpää adopts the longer is better philosophy, and while there are segments that sometimes work well, notably on Sons Of Winter And Stars, most of the material just buckles under the weight of a production that demands every note to be epic. When everything aims to be grand, then nothing stands out, and it all just goes on, riding its own rudderless momentum into the land of no one cares.


Band:

Jari Mäenpää − Vocals, Guitar
Teemu Mäntysaari − Guitar
Jukka Koskinen − Bass
Kai Hahto − Drums


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. When Time Fades Away - 7
2. Sons Of Winter And Stars - 7
3. Land Of Snow And Sorrow - 6
4. Darkness And Frost - 7
5. Time - 7

Average: 6.80

Produced and Mixed by Jari Mäenpää.
Mastered by Jari Mäenpää and Miika Jussila.

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CD Review: Elements, by Atheist (1993)


On their third album, a contractually-obligated effort, Atheist continue their unique quest to marry good jazz to robust metal. The outcome is Elements, a CD that manages that mix as best at it can be managed, but whether the concept is fundamentally a good idea remains highly questionable.

The album was thrown together by Kelly Shaefer to satisfy a label requirement, cobbling together a line-up, writing the material, recording and producing all in about 40 days. Nine of the twelve tracks on Elements have a meaningful length, and all are united by the theme of the earth's basic building blocks, with some of the musical embellishments channeling the subject matter. Air is by far the most potent track, and achieves the most metallic composition while retaining strong jazz shadings. Samba Briza is short but infectiously good, delivering exactly what it says on the can, an irresistible dance tune that demands a hot Caribbean night. Animal settles into a thick groove, possibly benefiting as the most metal and least jazz cut on the album.

Elsewhere the content settles into predictable jazz arrangements bulked up by metallic content, and delivered with the band's customary sparse airiness. Good as it is, it remains more of an interesting experiment than an unqualified success.


Band:

Kelly Shaefer - Guitar and Vocals
Rand Burkey - Guitar
Frank Emmi - Guitar
Tony Choy - Bass
Josh Greenbaum - Drums

Michael Dissantos replaced Greenbaum on drums after recording but prior to release.
Piano by David Smadbeck.


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Green - 7
2. Water - 7
3. Samba Briza - 8
4. Air - 9
5. Displacement - n/a (short instrumental)
6. Animal - 8
7. Mineral - 7
8. Fire - 7
9. Fractal Point - n/a (short instrumental)
10. Earth - 6
11. See You Again - n/a (short instrumental)
12. Elements - 7

Average: 7.33

Produced by Atheist and Mark Pinske.
Engineered by Mike Pinske. Mixed by Mike Pinske and Kelly Shaeffer.

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Book Review: The Big Short, by Michael Lewis (2010)


An entertaining autopsy of the great sub-prime mortgage recession from the perspective of those who saw it coming, Michael Lewis' The Big Short is a fabulously readable and humorous financial disaster story.

Lewis tracks down the individuals inside the Wall Street banks, hedge funds and private investment firms who took the time to spot the growing insanity of money being shovelled to unworthy borrowers, and the subsequent mortgages being packaged and peddled as AAA investments to unsuspecting investors.

As with many situations requiring uncommon wisdom to stand against the tide, the characters who had the resolve to bet that the mortgage-backed bond industry was a house of cards about to crumble were oddballs and outsiders. Steve Eisman was a caustic lawyer turned equity analyst with a sharp, foul-mouthed attitude that co-workers either loved or hated. Together with friends and colleagues Vincent Daniels and Danny Moses, he founded Front Point Partners. Eisman took a deep dive into researching the sub-prime mortgage world, did not like what he saw, and started betting against it.

Michael Burry was even more of a loner. Fighting a variety of physical ailments including childhood cancer and the loss of one eye, Burry was a doctor before becoming an accidental investment blogger, and then created Scion Capital. He uniquely understood the inherent weakness of junk mortgage bonds labelled as low risk investments, and rapidly growing into a trillion dollar industry built on giving enormous amounts of money to borrowers who could never repay their loans. Burry was the primary instigator behind the invention of the credit default swap for mortgage backed securities, essentially a tool to short (or bet against the viability) of bonds being sold as prime investments.

Greg Lippman was perhaps the one insider who saw the disaster coming. A consummate bond salesman working for Deutche Bank on Wall Street, Lippman took the time to understand what people like Eisman and Burry were saying, and from his vantage position as an insider started the incredible movement towards the large Wall Street firms betting against the very product that they were selling.

And there was the trio of Charlie Ledley, Ben Hockett and Jamie Mai, founders of small time investment firm Cornwall Capital with a talent for betting against whatever Wall Street was peddling. They stumbled into the world of credit default swaps, could not believe the opportunity, and jumped in with two feet.

For every big winner there are also many losers, and Lewis also turns the spotlight to the world of the investment rating agencies being outclassed by the banks, and the clueless CEOs and bond traders who rode the wave of wealth being created from thin air and never took the time to understand their own products or foresee the impending market implosion.

But this is not just a book about who, but also how. Lewis manages the difficult task of transforming the highly complicated and jargon-filled world of finance into a smoothly accessible human-centred story. He does not shy away from the details, but explains the complexities in common language, and repeats the most difficult concepts in various contexts to help the reader grasp the intricacies of an opaque world that set off on a feeding frenzy of money from nothing, and headed towards a cliff at high speed.

And drawing on extensive interviews, Lewis recreates, often with terrific humour, the key meetings, encounters and inner thoughts of the principal players as the disaster detonates, banks disintegrate and the financial markets are shaken to their foundations.

And in the end there is the human toll, as the high-stakes game of betting that trillions of dollars of paper wealth will evaporate causes unimaginable stress, even among the men who made the right call against all the odds and prevailing logic. The Big Short is an incredible true story, and an astoundingly good read.

Subtitled "Inside The Doomsday Machine".
Published in paperback by W.W. Norton & Company.
264 pages, plus Afterword and Index.





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Monday, 25 August 2014

Movie Review: The Charge Of The Light Brigade (1936)


Long on rousing action and short on historical accuracy, The Charge Of The Light Brigade uses the actual battle of 1854 as a climax but constructs an entirely fictitious narrative as a lead up story. The film is nevertheless a wildly entertaining and lavishly produced spectacle.

In the tribal areas of India in the mid-19th century, the 27th Lancers of the British Army under the leadership of Major Geoffrey Vickers (Errol Flynn) are tasked with keeping the peace in the Suristan territory, controlled by local leader Surat Khan (C. Henry Gordon). The nearby British presence is centred on a fort in the remote town of Chukoti. Vickers saves Khan's life during a hunting expedition. But there is unexpected trouble for Geoffrey when he discovers that his fiancée Elsa (Olivia de Havilland) has fallen in love with his younger brother Captain Perry Vickers (Patric Knowles).

With regional tensions rising Khan decides to betray the British and align himself with the Russians, and orders his men to commit a massacre at the Chukoti fort, murdering women and children who were under the protection of the 27th Lancers. Khan repays his debt by sparing Geoffrey's life. War breaks out in the Crimea, and both Vickers brothers are reassigned to augment the British forces waging battle. With Khan's men deployed on the front lines but protected by Russian cannons, Geoffrey spots an opportunity for the Lancers to gain a measure of revenge and turn the tide of the war, but this will involve a daring raid against superior forces.

An early example of a big production action epic loosely inspired by British military history, The Charge Of The Light Brigade is filled with scenes of mounted armies mobilizing, marching and charging. The action is frequent, intense, and enjoyable, as director Michael Curtiz captures what it means to be a hot and sweaty mounted brigade ordered to battle the unforgiving terrain and the hardened local tribes at the far flung edges of empire.

Between the combat scenes, there are plenty of costumes, parties, dances, politicians, impressive sets and a large number of lively extras to provide the context for the battlefield exploits. At almost two hours in length, The Charge Of The Light Brigade maintains breathless momentum, and builds a powerful story of military alliances, betrayal and the intrigue that forces armies into motion.

Less impressive is how far the story veers away from the historical record. The charge itself is stunningly recreated in the final twenty minutes of the film, but all the events leading up to it are manufactured out of the Hollywood dream factory. The outcome is not uninteresting; just an unnecessary divergence to the land of fiction as an alternative to an already compelling reality.

Working with the script that they do have, the stars help to make it all work. This is a film made for Errol Flynn, his charismatic attitude overflowing with panache, and he is always watchable as the confident, determined and professional Major Geoffrey Vickers. Olivia de Havilland is less convincing but still adequate, the role of Elsa underwritten into a box of love and affection for two brothers, but with insufficient meaningful scenes to bring the character to full life. David Niven makes a good impression as Captain Randall, one of Vickers' trusted subordinates. Patric Knowles, C. Henry Gordon, Nigel Bruce, Donald Crisp, and Henry Stephenson provide sturdy support.

The Charge Of The Light Brigade carries an unintended legacy related to animal cruelty. The filming of the raucous battle scenes resulted in the death of dozens of horses injured in falls caused by trip wires. The subsequent outrage reached all the way to the political sphere; horse trip wires were banned and the industry moved towards more humane treatment of animals on film sets.

Galloping full speed ahead and consequences be damned, The Charge Of The Light Brigade kicks up plenty of dust and holds nothing back.





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Sunday, 24 August 2014

Movie Review: Grand Hotel (1932)


A multi-star ensemble drama set entirely at a Berlin hotel, Grand Hotel is a lavish production that takes its time to develop some momentum, but eventually ties some threads together into coherent mini stories.

The lives of several people intersect at the luxurious Grand Hotel. Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo) is a Russian ballerina facing a motivation crisis. Baron Felix von Gaigern (John Barrymore) is a suave thief with significant money problems, pretending to be a distinguished gentleman. General Director Preysing (Wallace Beery) is an industrial magnate trying to conclude a key business deal, but he is distracted by stenographer Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford). Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) is a lowly accountant in Preysing's empire, and has a terminal disease.

Grusinskaya and the Baron meet and fall in love as he is trying to steal her pearls, and she finds her emotional salvation in his affection. Preysing runs into a tough negotiating team and has to bluff his way to a deal. Flaemmchen has to decide whether or not to compromise herself for a shot at glory as Preysing's mistress. And the Baron is the only person displaying genuine affection towards Kringelein. Before they all leave the hotel, their lives will collide with unintended consequences.

Directed by Edmund Goulding for MGM, Grand Hotel is the earliest example of a star-studded cast and multiple interwoven story lines connected primarily by a single location. And the cast of stars is in fine form, although they do all lean towards self-conscious theatricality. With Grusinskaya at her lowest ebb, Garbo gets to say "I want to be alone" and variations thereof three different times in a span of a few minutes, sentiments that would forever jump off the screen and be associated with the actress' general attitude towards life.

Both Barrymores are eminently watchable as they deliver committed performances. Wallace Beery defines "bombastic", and Joan Crawford takes a large step towards stardom as the third-billed star, and gives the film's most affecting performance as the pragmatic Flaemmchen.

The film is staged exclusively inside the hotel, and the sets are made to look appropriately luxurious. But with a running length of 112 minutes, Goulding does begin to run out of ideas on how to make the various hotel rooms and expansive lobby interesting.

The initial lack of focus on any single person or narrative hampers the opening 45 minutes of the film, as the characters take too long to introduce themselves and the events that landed them at the hotel. The early scenes are all longer than they need to be, and it's only once Grusinskaya and the Baron meet and discover a new spark in their depressed lives that Grand Hotel starts to hum.

As usual conflict helps to fan the flames of drama, and the friction between the haughty Preysing and the humble Kringelein finally emerges to provide Grand Hotel with its central theme of rich and poor, healthy and sick, the cold and the caring, the corporate and the individual intersecting at the same venue. By the time the Baron has made his last attempt to secure the funds that he needs, and Flaemmchen has confronted her ticket out of anonymity, all the stories collide in Preysing's suite. At the Grand Hotel the rich and powerful may try to control the agenda, but all the guests have to pays their bills.





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Saturday, 23 August 2014

Movie Review: Midnight In Paris (2011)


A fantasy romance inspired by the confluence of wistful time and divine place, Midnight In Paris finds Woody Allen at his best, crafting a love letter to a city rich with passion and history.

Successful Hollywood screenwriter Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) still dreams of becoming a respected book author. On vacation in Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams), Gil finds himself inspired by the city's rich heritage and starts to muse about living there permanently, an idea that Inez dismisses. With Inez enjoying sightseeing and partying with pompous professor Paul Bates (Michael Sheen) and his wife Carol (Nina Arianda), Gil starts to take midnight walks on his own.

He stumbles into an alternate reality of Paris in the 1920s, inhabited by the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. They interact with him naturally, inviting him to parties and Stein even offering to review a draft of his novel. Gil moves back and forth between Paris of today with Inez in the daytime and the 1920s on his own after midnight, where he eventually meets Pablo Picasso's lover, the mysteriously attractive Adriana (Marion Cotillard). She is also seeking her true destiny in the company of her contemporaries, and an impossible romance flickers to life.

Midnight In Paris celebrates the city's charming magic, and toys with the nostalgia of the past always glowing brighter than the reality of the present. It is among Woody Allen's best films, finding the sweet spot where his favourite themes intersect: troubled love enriched by an enchanting cityscape prompting an examination of a man's path in life.

The opening montage, showing iconic Parisian scenes, noticeably lingers on for a good minute longer than the usual introduction, Allen sending the message that the city is one of his main characters. And throughout the film, Allen bathes the Paris of the past and the present, whether at night or during the day, with warm, comforting hues dominated by reds and yellows. Even the rainfall feels mild and soothing, while the numerous bistros emit an ever welcoming glow at all hours.

And Gil is drawn into this mystique, finding in the city the perfect match for his romantic soul. Gil is most at home when walking the streets of Paris alone, and he gradually realizes that his connection with the city will define his happiness much more so than his relationship with Inez.

Allen, who also wrote the screenplay, does not bother to explain Gil's frequent sojourns into the past, allowing the time shifts to be as natural as the human imagination. The theme, however, is clear. The glorious past is an inspiration for the present and the future, but pining to live there is an emotional cul-de-sac. The past is always the present for its generation, with the business of living and loving a constant and dominant requirement. Wistful sentimentality is what yesterday feels like, but only from today's vantage point.

Midnight In Paris is populated by a perfect cast, Wilson creating in Gil an articulate man still seeking his place in life. McAdams breaks away from her traditional perkiness to provide Inez with a pushy edge, a modern woman trampling over her man's tender vulnerabilities. Marion Cotillard ghosts into the movie as Gil's muse, his most direct expression of love for the past, and also the signpost for the future.

Michael Sheen, Carla Bruni and Léa Seydoux have small but memorable roles in Paris of the present, while Adrien Brody (Salvador Dali), Kathy Bates (Gertrude Stein), Corey Stoll (Ernest Hemingway) and Tom Hiddleston (F. Scott Fitzgerald) have a ball bringing the past to life. Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Degas, Matisse, T.S. Eliot and Luis Buñuel are other celebrities of previous eras that cross paths in the dreamy mists of the night.

Embroidered with delicate humour, Midnight In Paris is a whimsical masterpiece.





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Thursday, 21 August 2014

Movie Review: The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947)


A clunky damsel-in-distress drama, The Two Mrs. Carrolls is hampered by wild over-acting and ham-fisted directing.

While on a trip to Scotland, painter Geoffrey Carroll (Humphrey Bogart) meets and falls in love with Sally Morton (Barbara Stanwyck). But she is then shocked to find out that he is married and has a young daughter Beatrice (Ann Carter). Geoffrey claims that his wife is an invalid, and she soon dies. About two years later, Geoffrey is seemingly happily married to Sally and living in a quaint village in England.

With Geoffrey suffering through a drought of inspiration, Sally's former boyfriend Charles "Penny" Pennington (Patrick O'Moore) reappears in her life, along with his friends the haughty Mrs. Latham (Isobel Elsom) and her seductive daughter Cecily (Alexis Smith). Geoffrey and Cecily are quickly embroiled in an affair, and Sally starts to feel threatened.

Completed in 1945 but only released in 1947, The Two Mrs. Carrolls follows in the footsteps of movies like Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), and Gaslight (1944), and with Bogart and Stanwyck in the lead roles, the elements are there to create a compelling mystery. And there are brief snippets of a potentially interesting movie hiding somewhere inside the head of a philandering artist who can only paint when he is plotting murder.

But this may be one of Bogart's worst performances, and most disappointing films. His portrayal of Geoffrey Carroll often crosses the line into unrestrained wide-eyed madness more suitable for the local theatre. In a story that demands subtlety in pursuit of tension, Bogart delivers sledgehammer psychosis. Stanwyck is better, but only marginally. Her Sally hides behind naiveté, but when the time comes to display worry and fear, she also climbs over the top.

The directing by Peter Godfrey is generally inept. He is unable to find any threads of empathy or nuanced character evolution to tie the drama together, and from the bombastic music to the plodding plot points, The Two Mrs. Carrolls reeks of clumsy execution.

Child actress Ann Carter is victimized by some of the most ridiculously adult-sounding lines of dialogue ever spouted on the screen by a young performer, and her theatrical delivery, obviously not helped by the tone-deaf Godfrey, is off-putting. Alexis Smith is underused, but provides the one performance that matches the intended tone of the material, her Cecily an insidious presence worming her way into the Carrolls' marriage.

The film stumbles its way through the familiar territory of Sally's infatuation turning to concern and then panic as she discovers that her husband is troubled and hiding many dangerous secrets. Even in 1947 it's all been done before, and much more stylishly.





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Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Movie Review: Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)


A raunchy sex comedy with some romance elements, Forgetting Sarah Marshall finds humour in breakups, new beginnings, and revenge sex in the alternate reality of a picture-perfect Hawaiian resort.

Peter (Jason Segel), the creator of music for television shows, is unceremoniously dumped by girlfriend Sarah (Kristen Bell), the glamorous sex-symbol star of a CSI-style series. Unable to get over the breakup, Peter seeks to mend his broken heart at a Hawaiian resort only to find Sarah also vacationing there with new boyfriend Aldous (Russell Brand), a global pop music star.

As Peter and Sarah do their best to avoid each other and regularly fail to do so, Peter meets the resort's receptionist Rachel (Mila Kunis), and they start a tentative relationship. Surrounded by assorted other guests and resort employees stumbling through their own issues, Peter, Sarah, Rachel and Aldous need to untangle their lives, which suddenly become more complicated when Sarah receives unwelcome news.

Co-produced by Judd Apatow, directed by Nicholas Stoller and written by Segel, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a rare example of an adult sex comedy that actually works, and without resorting to toilet humour. The film's success resides with Segel's witty script, which in addition to a continuous stream of raunchy situations creates a large number of memorable and often hilarious characters, even in the smallest roles, and sets them loose to do their thing.

The depth of enjoyment within the ranks of the secondary characters is quite remarkable. The list covers Russell Brand as Aldous Snow, Jonah Hill as Matthew the waiter with stardom aspirations, Paul Rudd as Kunu the surf dude with memory issues, Jack McBrayer and Maria Thayer as the newlyweds with wildly diverging sex drives, Bill Hader as Peter's stepbrother and even William Baldwin and Jason Bateman doing their best David Caruso impressions in promo snippets as Sarah's co-stars.

In most other comedies these secondary and tertiary roles would be sketched in and played by nobodies. Here they are recurring and sustained, carrying their own comic momentum and delivered by actors keen to leave an impression. Brand, in particular, delivers a performance so cool and laid back as the superstar who stole Sarah's heart, that it's impossible not to fall under his magnetic spell.

And in the three main roles, Segel, Bell and Kunis shine as the three awkward points of the love triangle. Segel has rarely been better in a restrained performance that emphasizes pathos over doofiness. Bell is perfectly cast as Sarah, an ice cold and self-assured television star who will unexpectedly meet her own vulnerabilities once she hits a crisis point. And in a breakout role, Kunis dazzles with a fresh spray of girl-next-door appeal.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall is firmly aimed at adults, and the unrated version does not shy away from nudity (mostly Segel's) and several scenes of couples energetically and loudly coupling for comic effect. The film wastes no time in setting up the premise, surrounding it by anarchy and then vigorously milking it for all its worth over the course of 110 frantic minutes. While most of the jokes do work, the approach here is that the next good gag is only as far as the next minute.

With talent in peak form delivering the laughs, Forgetting Sarah Marshall will be no easy task.





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Monday, 18 August 2014

Movie Review: Silverado (1985)


A valiant attempt to revitalize the Western, Silverado packs in all the genre elements but lacks the required subtlety and sophistication to craft a memorable experience.

In the wild west, Emmett (Scott Glenn) shoots dead four assailant trying to kill him. He then saves the life of Paden (Kevin Kline), who had been left to die in the desert, and the two men join forces and make their way to the town of Turley. Emmett helps his brother Jake (Kevin Costner) escape from the clutches of sheriff Langston (John Cleese), while Paden renews acquaintances with Cobb (Brian Dennehy), his former riding partner. Emmett, Paden and Jake then team up with Mal (Danny Glover), a black cowboy and expert marksman who was driven out of Turley.

The four men head to the town of Silverado, and on the way rescue a wagon train of settlers from bandits. Hannah (Rosanna Arquette), a member of the wagon train, is soon widowed and catches the eye of both Paden and Emmet. In Silverado Emmet and his new friends walk into the middle of a land dispute where Emmett's past will catch up with him, a professional gambler (Jeff Goldblum) will complicate matters, Paden will have to confront Cobb again, Mal reconnects with his father and sister, old scores are settled, and new lives are started.

Despite featuring a dream cast and boasting Kevin Costner's breakthrough role, Silverado is merely competent. The film's fundamental weakness is a simplistic good versus evil narrative that, while enjoyable as a straightforward romp, recalls the genre's earliest era, where characters were all good or all bad with no place for shadows of complexity. Silverado pretends that the 1960s and 1970s never happened when it comes to the genre's evolution, maybe in an attempt to reach out to a younger 1980s audience just looking to cheer on the good guys without straining any mental muscles.

Also contributing to Silverado's problems is a sprawling script, written by director Lawrence Kasdan and his brother Mark, that attempts to cover too much territory. The film bounces from one set-piece to another searching for all the traditional genre elements and squeezing them in, whether they belong or not, and extending the running length to a wholly unnecessary 133 minutes.

Thrown into the mix are the strangers who become allies, the canyon ambush, the wagon train in danger, the land dispute with ruthless cattlemen, the revenge story across generations, the black cowboy fighting racism, the father/son bonding, the saloon confrontation, the good girl forced to become a whore, the corrupt law officers, the expert marksman and the quick draw, the mysterious gambler, and the final shootout on the dusty main street. Silverado lines them all up and ticks them off a master checklist in what becomes an eye rolling exercise in unfocussed and soulless filmmaking.

With so much going on the characters remain superficial, the heroes and bad guys defined as such and growing only in the most predictable directions, as the film rushes to the next derivative climax. Some of the characters, including Rosanna Arquette's Hannah and Jeff Goldblum's Calvin, are quite poorly underwritten.

On the positive side, Silverado projects and maintains a jovial attitude thanks mainly to Kevin Kline's performance. Without veering into comic territory, Kline injects just enough dry humour to ensure that the film avoids taking itself too seriously. Scott Glenn, in a rare but welcome starring role, provides the counterbalance as quieter, more intense presence. Costner is a bundle of barely controlled youthful energy in a vivacious performance that launched him on a charisma-fuelled career.

Kasdan and cinematographer John Bailey bathe the film in bright yellows to create an upbeat, sun-drenched visual aesthetic, and the sets recreating Western towns are intricate if a little too polished. And the air of good intentions and professional delivery permeates the movie, with the galaxy of stars clearly having fun but also doing a fine job of bringing the disparate characters to life, Brian Dennehy a standout as the gruff Sheriff Cobb profiting from the business of being the law.

In pursuing a long-shot resurrection of a much loved genre, Silverado is difficult to dislike but also infuriatingly naive.





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Sunday, 17 August 2014

Movie Review: Ronin (1998)


A high energy action thriller about a group of mercenaries on the hunt for a mysterious briefcase, Ronin is non-stop rollercoaster ride with showcase car chase scenes and many ruthless guns for hire looking out for their own interests.

In France, Irish revolutionary Deirdre (Natascha McElhone) assembles a group of mercenaries to forcibly seize a heavily protected briefcase from a group of criminals looking to sell it. The patchwork team include the American Sam (Robert De Niro), the Frenchman Vincent (Jean Reno), low-key wheelman Larry (Skipp Suduth), former KGB agent Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård) and the tightly wound Spence (Sean Bean).

Despite being outnumbered, Deirdre's group prepare an ambush and strike hard. But there is a mole in their midst who will betray them, forcing Sam and Vincent to team up and try to salvage the operation while avoiding ruthless Russian terrorists, while Deirdre's boss Seamus O'Rourke (Jonathan Pryce) is forced out of hiding to try and mop up the mess with extreme measures.

Ronin, which is the Japanese term for disgraced Samurai wandering the land in search of a cause, is a surprisingly good film about not much. The story is patchy at best. The briefcase is the most MacGuffiny of MacGuffins, an undefined, never explained target, and the groups competing for its ownership are faceless shadows, labelled simply as "The Irish" and "The Russians".

John Frankenheimer focusses instead on the dynamic within the group of mercenaries, where trust is in short supply, and hired guns conceivably working for the same cause could turn out to be the most lethal of enemies. For an action movie this requires superlative performances to highlight diverse personalities, and Ronin is blessed with an abundance of subtle acting talent. De Niro and Reno hold the centre of the film together with understated steel, while McElhone, Skarsgård and Pryce provide animated support dripping with the self-serving juice that powers the dark profession.

And within the context of desperate mercenaries unsure of any cause except their own, Ronin unleashes an elated celebration of the car chase, Frankenheimer delivering not one, but two prolonged scenes of choreographed vehicular carnage through the narrow, twisty streets of France. Directed by Frankenheimer himself on a mix of rural roads, busy freeways, and congested city streets, and featuring jaw-dropping stunts, no special effects and rational editing, the car chases are there to be celebrated as among the most kinetically thrilling ever put to film.

And as if to prove that he can also create drama out of almost static scenes, Frankenheimer also throws in an extended bullet extraction sequence not for the faint of heart.

Ronin ends with a few too many characters rising up after being shot, and a rather contrived climax around an ice skating rink to give unnecessary profile to Olympic champion Katarina Witt. But this film is never about what is happening, just how stylishly it can be done.





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