Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Movie Review: Analyze This (1999)


A mobster comedy with a sharp wit and two leading actors in their prime having fun bouncing off each other.

Paul Vitti (Robert De Niro) is a New York mobster boss with a problem: he's losing his edge, crying at sappy TV commercials and having panic attacks. He is also the target of other gangsters who want to eliminate Vitti ahead of a large meeting of mob bosses. Vitti turns to psychiatrist Ben Sobel (Billy Crystal) for help. Sobel not only wants nothing to do with a mobster boss who has manhood issues, he's also trying to have a vacation and get married to Laura (Lisa Kudrow).

Vitti nevertheless barges into Sobel's life - repeatedly - to seek therapy, and soon Vitti's allies want Sobel killed because he knows too much, and the FBI want Sobel to betray Vitti.

The clever premise of Analyze This is professionally polished by director Harold Ramis, working with a script full of sharp dialogue, uncontrolled profanity, and a couple of astute references to The Godfather. De Niro and Crystal are never less than entertaining, and the scenes between them are the highlights of the film. Crystal provides a more sane anchor to the proceedings, while De Niro lets loose with a comic version of a mobster in distress. Joe Viterelli as Jelly, Vitti's robust main henchman, emerges as almost the third star of the film.

There are some weaknesses: a promising dysfunctional relationship between Dr. Sobel and his dad is introduced but not followed up on, while the film does not manage to avoid some wild Hollywood excesses, both in terms of flying bullets that seem to hit no one, and the over-cooking of the drama between Vitti and his deceased father.

But Analyze This succeeds where it matters most: two terrific actors analyzing each other and jointly delivering a bright, captivating diagnosis.








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Sunday, 15 August 2010

Book Review: The Assassins, by Bernard Lewis (1967)


Author and historian Bernard Lewis explores the first group in history to use political assassinations as a deliberate long-term tactic to expand power and weaken their enemies.

A branch of the Ismaili sub-sect of Shi'a Islam took root in Iran, and later Syria, around the year 1100. Building a power base centred on a series of impressive mountaintop fortresses, the Ismailis attempted to challenge the traditional Sunni rulers of the Muslim world. In addition to spreading their message through traditional means, the Ismailis used targeted assassinations against their political and military opponents.

Always using poisoned daggers and stealth to eliminate their opponents, and often successful against high profile targets, the Ismailis achieved a fearsome reputation, which grew when the Crusaders brought back tales of the mysterious, ruthless, and self-sacrificing killers back to Europe.

But the Ismaili assassins achieved little else in terms of strategic political gain; in time, the advocates of assassinations were defeated and overrun, and demoted to a footnote in the history of Islam. The Ismailis ultimately reemerged in modern times as peaceful and model citizens of the global community.

Bernard Lewis presents the story of the Ismaili assassins with meticulous research, and succeeds in setting the historical and political context of the time. He also presents a well considered assessment of the effectiveness of assassination as a tool for political gain. The best sections of The Assassins achieve the fluidity of historical thrillers.

But there are also long sections of the book that cannot avoid the lining up of sequential historical facts with a mind-numbing listing of names, dates, and locations, Lewis guilty of cramming too many factoids that would only interest fellow academics, without tying them together into an engaging narrative.

Assassinations have been around for as long as humans have sought power and influence over one another. In most if not all cases, a successful assassination is a tactical victory that obscures a lurking strategic defeat. The main lesson of The Assassins is that even when assassinations are used as formal policy and backed by dogma, they still represent a road to failure for those who launch them.

Subtitled "A Radical Sect In Islam".
140 Pages plus Notes and Index.
2001 hardcover edition published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.





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Saturday, 14 August 2010

Movie Review: The Promotion (2008)


A lacklustre attempted comedy that lurches along, stuck somewhere between neutral and first gear and lost in the outer reaches of an energy-draining, sun-drenched parking lot.

Doug (Seann William Scott) is an Assistant Manager at a suburban Donaldson's supermarket. He spends his time dealing with cranky or insane customers in the store and violent thugs in the parking lot. Doug is told that he's a shoe-in to become the Manager at a new, about-to-open Donaldson's; but Richard (John C. Reilly), is suddenly transferred from Canada as another Assistant, and is equally eager to compete for the Manager position.

The Promotion is neither funny nor thoughtful, and it is rarely engaging. In the absence of a spark in Director Steven Conrad's script, it is left to the performers to save the movie, but they are not up to the task. Seann William Scott is bland to the point of transparency, and John C. Reilly, without an animated foil to bounce against, never gains traction. Jenna Fischer, as Doug's wife Jen, would have been the most interesting thing in the movie had she not been criminally under-used.

There are some mildly amusing moments in The Promotion, and it does succeed in presenting a befitting version of stale suburbia. But for the most part, the attempts at humour fall flat, and we never get to care about any of the characters, and even less so about who may win the promotion. Had either Doug or Richard been shown to be actually good at their job, we may have believed that one or both are deserving; instead, they are both portrayed as thoroughly incompetent.

Maybe the thugs in the parking lot should be given their chance at managing the new store.



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Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Movie Review: Key Largo (1948)


Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall exchange psychobabble that veers erratically between embarrassing and unconvincing. Edward G. Robinson chews the scenery, chews the cigar, and chews out anyone who looks at him sideways. A lot of henchman stand around in the background, sweating hard and trying harder to find something to do as director John Huston's cameras focus on his stars. A storm rages outside, gaining in intensity as the bad guys gain the upper hand, blowing in the shutters at climactic moments, with the sun bursting forth on cue when the good guys win the day.

Johnny Rocco (Robinson), a deported thug who once ran a criminal empire, washes up with his gang at a Key Largo hotel run by the wheelchair-bound James Temple (Lionel Barrymore) and his daughter-in-law Nora (Bacall). Rocco's gang takes over the hotel as they wait for the arrival of another group of thugs to conclude a money laundering deal.

Arriving just at the wrong moment as far as Rocco is concerned is war hero Frank McCloud (Bogart), and soon after him a massive storm blows in to batter the hotel and its occupants. The heart of the story is the battle of wits, will-power, and survival between Rocco and McCloud, interrupted by the fluttering emotions between Frank and Nora, the bombastic booziness of Rocco's wife (Claire Trevor, neither searching for nor finding nuance), and a hopelessly appended sub-plot about some Indians on the run from the law.

It's all silly, classic fun, stage-bound for sure, none of it really very good, but engrossing nevertheless once the mental war erupts between Bogart and Robinson. Key Largo is highly watchable entertainment, relying almost entirely on the strength of its cast to overpower and beat into submission a contrived story. Sometimes, the performers just are the performance.







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Movie Review: 2012 (2009)


Disaster movies don't come any bigger than the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it, and 2012 imagines this scenario by unleashing modern day cinematic pyrotechnics to full effect.

Some intense solar flares are cooking the Earth's core. In the year 2012, our globe goes into melt-down mode, and it's pretty much the end of civilization. Massive earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis are unleashed throughout the world on mostly unsuspecting earthlings. The continents shift, and the north and south poles relocate. It's all pretty unsettling stuff.

World governments, including the US President (Danny Glover) and a geologist Dr. Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), have had little time to prepare a plan for the survival of the human species. They've nevertheless secretly conjured up massive ark-like vessels secretly built near the Himalayan mountains, to save the lives of selected scientists, politicians, and those who can afford to buy their way on-board.

Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), a limousine driver with a failed marriage and a flamed-out career as a writer, trips over a doomsday merchant (Woody Harrelson, deliciously over the top and appropriately on top of a mountain), stumbles upon the truth, and desperately races to save himself, his former wife (Amanda Peet) and kids.

2012 does not pretend to be anything other than a rollercoaster thrill ride, an epic disaster movie built on a foundation of deliriously effective special effects. Director Robert Emmerich conjures up scenes of destruction on a massive scale, lovingly crafted and demonstrating the state-of-the-art in computer generated visuals.

As a movie, 2012 unfortunately wades straight into Hollywood cliche swampland, with arduous debates about who deserves to be saved, some superfluous characters making the briefest of appearances and mostly just cluttering up the film, and a cringe-inducing climax in which a heroic sacrifice is sacrificed at the altar of guaranteed syrup-heavy happy endings.

With no major stars demanding a huge share of screen time, Cusack and Ejiofor provide a solid tandem to keep the action moving, Cusack from everyman's perspective and Ejiofor from inside the government bunkers. 2012 also offers a throwback to the disaster movies of old where actors well past their best-by date populated minor characters. George Segal and Stephen McHattie stumble past the screen here on their way to a welcome pay-cheque.

If the world is going to end, it may as well be spectacular, and 2012 presents an entertaining-enough vision of God hitting the "reset" button.





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Book Review: Fortune's Warriors, by James R. Davis (2000)


The world of private soldiers-for-hire, and, on a grander scale, for-profit corporations that provide security or wage war on behalf of clients, is examined by James Davis.

A former soldier himself, Davis served in the Canadian Armed Forces and was deployed in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Since leaving the Canadian Army, he has dabbled in the private security business. His observations and analysis are those of an insider, looking to bring some light to the murky and often misunderstood world of mercenaries.

Fortune's Warriors is patchy. The sections of the book (and there are many) where Davis attempts to dissect the world of mercenaries into sub-categories are tediously long. Equally tiresome is a long chapter where Davis proposes, in excruciating detail, a well-intentioned but unlikely United Nations-administered system to regulate the world of private security and combat corporations.

Much better are the chapters that describe the colourful history of mercenaries serving in Europe throughout the ages. Davis also hits his stride in unveiling exactly what happened when Executive Outcomes, the South African mercenary company, delved into the brutal conflicts in Angola and Sierra Leone.

Davis is not shy about revealing his admiration for the skills of the professional soldier, and he sees a role for professionally managed private security firms and even private for-hire armies. He is equally not afraid to reveal his attachment to Sierra Leone, and his heartfelt pain for the brutal tragedy that has befallen that country. Davis cries out for efficient, private sector solutions to dirty wars that suck the life out of a country like Sierra Leone for generations.

Although crisply written, Fortune's Warriors has relatively few points to make, and a limited number of stories to tell. Davis clearly struggles to fill the pages and expand his thoughts into book length. Ultimately, all of Fortune's Warriors is a prelude to the world conditions that allowed a company called Blackwater to flourish in the years after the book was published. As with many initiatives, the initial idea may be from anywhere in the world, but it only goes big when the Americans adopt it.

Subtitled "Private Armies And The New World Order".
222 pages, plus Index.
Published in hardcover by Douglas & McIntyre.






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Sunday, 8 August 2010

Movie Review: Global Metal (2008)


Following on from his 2005 documentary Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, Canadian filmmaker and anthropologist Sam Dunn explores the spread and impact of heavy metal around the globe.

Global Metal visits seven countries not always associated with the world of metal: Brazil, Japan, India, China, Indonesia, Israel and Dubai. Through interviews with local metal band members, fans, and some world-famous bands that have toured around the world, Dunn paints a picture of heavy metal as a common anthem that accompanies personal freedom.

In Brazil, metal exploded to the forefront with the end of oppressive military regimes in the mid-1980's. In China, the past 20 years have seen metal emerge from the shadows as the country opened to the outside world. In Indonesia, metal was a rare - and dangerous - avenue to channel anti-dictatorship sentiment prior to the end of the Suharto regime. In Iran, where personal freedoms are still severely suppressed, Dunn wasn't even allowed into the country: he nevertheless caught up with Iranian metal fans in Dubai.

Global Metal, co-directed by Scot McFayden, offers some memorable footage: a classroom filled with teenagers learning rock guitar in China; Metallica on-stage in Indonesia with wild fires sparked by fan riots just outside the stadium; massive metal concerts in Rio and Dubai; middle-aged fans having a blast singing Deep Purple's Highway Star karaoke style at a tiny club in Japan; and Indian fans emotionally flocking to an Iron Maiden concert in Bangalore, the first ever show by a major metal band in the country.

Including interviews with Metallica's Lars Ulrich, Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson, Tom Araya of Slayer, Max Cavalera (formerly of Brazil's Sepultura) and Marty Friedman (formerly of Megadeth), Global Metal is more balanced and better paced than Headbanger's Journey. It is also a welcome chronicle of the international expansion and influence of heavy metal.








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Movie Review: Zack and Miri Make A Porno (2008)


A romantic comedy that is not nearly as clever or funny as it thinks it is.

Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) are platonic friends and roommates in Pittsburgh. They are also both very broke. They decide to make some money by producing and starring in a porn movie and then selling it to their former classmates. They first attempt to produce a Star Wars themed porn movie, but settle for a typical sex-escapades-in-a-diner flick. Soon enough, the threat of sex with others pushes Zack and Miri to realize that they are more than just roommates.

In 2007 and 2008, Seth Rogen was involved in 15 different projects. He may want to consider placing more emphasis on quality over quantity. Zack And Miri Make A Porno offers up a most convoluted premise for the well-trodden narrative of two people finding out that they care about each other more than they would like to admit.

Written and Directed by Kevin Smith, the script is what a tired and poorly-programmed computer would generate when asked for a story combining "romantic comedy" with "porn movie". The production has a rushed student project quality to it, and we never get to find out why Zack and Miri are so financially broke when they are so clearly creative in coming up with their porno project, and persuasive in convincing all sorts of people join them on their film-making adventure.

Rogen goes through the movie looking for the next one-liner. Elizabeth Banks provides a bit more depth, but has limited material to work with, and none that is original. The secondary characters are all graduates of the school of stereotypes, and few industries contain worse stereotypes than the world of porn movies.

If the porno that Zack and Miri made was as limp as this movie, their financial troubles would be far from over.







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Movie Review: Young People F***ing (2007)



Let's get past the controversy-seeking title and refer to this movie by its alternate name of Y.P.F. There is limited nudity and much less sex than the title would imply: this is a romantic, couples-oriented comedy hiding behind a raunchy title.

Y.P.F. is a humorous exploration of modern love and relationship issues through five unrelated stories featuring couples (and one threesome) in their 20s and 30s, before, during and after one sex-driven encounter. The five vignettes, each about 18 minutes long, are inter-cut and broken down into titled chapters: Prelude, Foreplay, Sex, Interlude, Orgasm, and Afterglow. For one night, we share the lives of:

The Best Friends: Matt (Aaron Abrams) and Kristen (Carly Pope) have been friends for a long time; they decide to have one night of meaningless sex.

The Couple: Andrew (Josh Dean) and Abby (Kristin Booth) have been married for a few years; the spark seems to have gone missing from their sex life.

The Exes: Mia (Sonja Bennett) and Eric (Josh Cooke) used to be a couple but broke up. They get back together for a date that extends into sleeping together.

The First Date: Jamie (Diora Baird) and Ken (Callum Blue) work together; he is the office womanizer, looking to complete the set of sleeping with every co-worker.

The Roommates: Gord (Enis Esmer) and Inez (Natalie Lisinska) are a couple: Gord asks his roommate Dave (Peter Oldring) to have sex with Inez while he watches.

The Best Friends, The Couple and The Exes provide the best developed and involving narratives. The Best Friends struggle to switch to lovers' mode, and their stereo seems to conspire against their quest to keep the encounter meaningless. The Couple delve into the uncomfortable territory of discussing sexual intimacy in a long term marriage. And the Exes keep trying to believe, against their instincts, that they are over each other. The First Date and the Roommates are not bad, but they seem to have received less attention and emotional investment.

The common theme is the transformational powers of intimacy. At the end of the night, all five relationships have evolved, and in certain cases the evolutions are radical, unexpected, and not always welcome.

The cast of mostly Canadian actors, working from the brisk script by Abrams and director Martin Gero, do very well to quickly establish their individual characters and then the details of their relationship. The dialogue is sharp and rings true as far as comedies go, and only rarely descends into exchanges that are too witty or emotionally pregnant.

The coarse title thrust this Canadian movie into the middle of a high profile political debate about government funding of the arts; while the controversy undoubtedly increased the profile of Y.P.F., a more nuanced title would likely have captured a larger audience. After all, providing a hint and leaving the rest to the imagination is always more seductive.






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Saturday, 7 August 2010

Movie Review: A Fish Called Wanda (1988)


One of the best comedies ever put to film, A Fish Called Wanda represents the apex of John Cleese's career. The comic genius co-wrote, produced and of course stars in the film, a mad caper about four crooks back-stabbing each other in search of stolen diamonds in London, and the pompous English lawyer who unwittingly gets caught up in the plot.

George (Tom Georgeson) is the British criminal plot mastermind; Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) his American lover and co-plotter; Otto (Kevin Kline) is the weapons man pretending to be Wanda's brother but he's her real lover; and Ken (Michael Palin) is the animal-loving Englishman with a brutal stutter, loyal to George but easily manipulated by all.

After pulling off the diamond theft and stashing the loot in a safe, Wanda and Otto double-cross George and get him arrested. Wanda is about to double-cross Otto and flee with the diamonds when she realizes that George has outwitted them and re-located the jewels. Much to Otto's horror, Wanda develops a plan to seduce George's lawyer Archie (Cleese) to try and learn where the diamonds are hidden, while from behind bars George sends Ken on a mission to eliminate the elderly lady whose testimony is crucial to convicting George.

It is rare enough for a movie to create one memorable comic evil character; in A Fish Called Wanda, Cleese creates a trio of distinctly memorable characters. Dubious as it is to make fun of a disability, Palin's stuttering Ken is one of the funniest characters ever to grace a movie. Some of his scenes are hilarious to the point of hysteria. Curtis is perfect as Wanda, alternating between schemer and seductress, with one unique character flaw: sudden extreme arousal at the sound of foreign languages.

Good as Palin and Curtis are, Kline is on another level of brilliance entirely. He unleashes Otto as a force of nature, an American criminal barging his way through London with a devastating combination of combat skills and colossal stupidity. While comedies rarely receive any Academy Award recognition, even the stodgy Academy got it right this time and recognized Kline with the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Having done the hard work of creating these characters and putting them in the hands of the terrific cast, Cleese has the relatively easy task of bringing to life Archie as the typical English lawyer, stuck in a loveless marriage and trying to maintain his composure while being seduced by Wanda and targeted by Otto.

In addition to being a straight-out comedy feeding off outstanding characters, A Fish Called Wanda also finds the time to poke fun at Americans, the English, and the relationship between the two countries. None of it is too serious, but Wanda and Otto do represent the freedom and aggression that the United States exports, and Archie has the typical political character of England: too easily seduced by America as represented by Wanda; while finding Otto's quick propensity for violence rather distasteful.

When creating an intellectual farce, it is too easy to lose balance and sink into either absurdity or self-importance. A Fish Called Wanda cuts through the water in a display of perfect harmony between hilarity and intelligence.






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Movie Review: Waltz With Bashir (2008)


Waltz With Bashir is an animated documentary that explores the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon from the perspective of Israeli soldiers. A story of war with a strong anti-war sentiment, Waltz With Bashir hinges on the role of Israel in the devastating massacre of Palestinians that occurred towards the end of the war.

History has proven the 1982 invasion of Lebanon to be a massive strategic defeat hiding in a tactical victory. While the Israeli army had relatively little difficulty in routing the Palestinian Liberation Organization and its allies, and forcing the PLO's exit from Lebanon, the invasion triggered a long and demoralizing occupation of Lebanon's south that eventually resulted in the rise and empowerment of the Hezbollah movement, and the ignominious withdrawal of Israel out of Lebanon in 2000.

But most of all, the invasion is stained by the massacre of Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in September 1982. Israel allowed Christian militants to enter the camps and embark on a wild killing spree. No matter what gains were made in the invasion, the massacre cast a long shadow on Israel's actions and ability to hold the high moral ground in the region.

The Bashir of the title is Bashir Gemayel, Israel's ally and the leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces militia. His assassination prior to being sworn in as President of Lebanon at the end of the invasion was the first clear sign of the strategic unraveling of the objectives of the invasion.

Mainly a stylish but moody recounting of stories drawn from the personal experiences of writer and director Ari Folman, Waltz With Bashir focuses on the calm individual insanity that becomes commonplace in the madness of war. It reaches a horrific climax in recounting the massacre, with a large amount of guilt hanging over the soldiers and finger-pointing towards Israel's leadership.

Waltz With Bashir joins 1991's Cup Final as an excellent, emotion-packed examination of a most unfortunate and exceptionally horrible war.







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Movie Review: Eagle Eye (2008)


Largely forgettable and uninspired, Eagle Eye in a techno-thriller that reaches for the left-overs deep in the fridge and rehashes a story previously told better at least four times in films such as Failsafe (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Wargames (1983) and The Terminator series.

There is an attempt to update the story of the big computer turning on its makers for the era of global terrorism. In Eagle Eye, the super-secret, super-computer ARIIA being developed by the Department of Defence, gets totally pissed because its recommendation against a strike on a group of terrorists is over-ruled, resulting in the loss of American life.

This is enough for ARIIA to set-off the most convoluted plot ever to topple the current Administration. The computer recruits two seemingly innocent and clueless citizens, Jerry (Shia LaBeouf) and Rachel (Michelle Monaghan), taking control of their lives, throwing them together and using them to trigger regime change in the United States. The evil plot reaches absurd levels of complexity when it draws in Rachel's young son and his school band, as well as highly secret explosives that need to be hidden in brass instruments.

As so often happens when five screenwriters are credited, the weaknesses in the foundation of Eagle Eye are blatant, and can best be summarized in a few questions: given everything that ARIIA is seen to be capable of in the film, which seems to include controlling every single civilian and military electric, computer, digital and information network in the world, would it not have been easier to, say, knock Air Force One out of the sky? Launch a missile or two at the White House? We are asked to believe that ARIIA needs Jerry to unlock some system that prevented ARIIA from going rogue: actually, ARIIA is shown to be capable of mass mayhem on a grand and national scale, without any of Jerry's help, thank you very much.

And as another question, did the genius egg-heads who created ARIIA never watch any of these other movies about computers going bad? Did they not think to include, say, an "off" switch that was out of the computer's control?

In the absence of basic intelligence, the best that Eagle Eye can come up with is trying to hide its plot for a good two thirds of the movie. For a long time we are not told how and why the lives of Jerry and Rachel have been taken over, and we're just asked to sit back and enjoy the admittedly slick sequence of events that drives them to a rendezvous with the President's State of the Union address.

LaBeouf and Monaghan do their best, but mainly they just need to act confused and irritated with each other. Billy Bob Thornton, as an FBI Agent trying to figure out what Jerry is up to, seems to think he's remaking The Fugitive. Director D.J. Caruso does provide a nice polish to the movie, so at least all the nonsense looks good.

Eagle Eye is the equivalent of a locked-up computer: time to hit Ctrl-Alt-Delete.



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Friday, 6 August 2010

Movie Review: City Slickers (1991)


Three friends hit middle age in various stages of crisis: Mitch (Billy Crystal) is stuck in a dead-end job; Ed (Bruno Kirby) has never resolved issues related to his father; and Phil (Daniel Stern) hates his wife and is having an affair. The three head-off to a cattle-drive vacation in the southwest. The trio evolve from hapless city folks to hardened cowboys and are unexpectedly forced to take charge of delivering the cattle.

A comedy that mostly strikes a fine balance between laughs and exploring the meaning of life, City Slickers works thanks to the appeal of the three lead actors, and a sharp cameo from 73 year old Jack Palance, in an Oscar-winning role as Curly, the lead cowboy on the cattle drive. Curly is tough as nails but helps Mitch to rediscover what matters in life.

The film doesn't escape some poor cliches, including an over-the-top raging river scene, secondary characters that are firmly trapped in a single dimension, and simplistic syrupy resolutions to major challenges in the lives of the three men.

But the screenplay (Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel) and Ron Underwood's directing maintain a decent amount of forward momentum, the laughs are plentiful, and some of the cinematography revisits the vistas of the grand classic westerns.

Along with 1989's When Harry Met Sally, City Slickers helped to establish Billy Crystal as one of the comic stars of the early 1990's. He nails the jaded Mr. Everyman who has long since lost his spark, and he delivers an endless stream of clever one-liners with understated finesse. Daniel Stern and Bruno Kirby are good in support, but less well-rounded.

City Slickers has a few stray heads of cattle, but the herd generally moves confidently in the right direction.







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Movie Review: Paranormal Activity (2009)


Filmed for $15,000 and grossing more than $190 million, Paranormal Activity is the creation of Director, Writer, Cinematographer and Editor Oren Peli. The movie was filmed entirely in Peli's house, and actor Micah Sloat did much of the camera work.

Cute couple Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Sloat) have moved into a two-level house. A demon spirit starts tormenting them, and it turns out that Katie has been the target of this demon all her life. Micah invests in a video camera to capture what is going on in the house while they sleep. Gradually, the demon's nightly intrusions intensify. The couple get the help of a psychic and Micah uses an Ouija board to try and contact the demon. Nothing seems to help, and the demon's attack become more brazen.

In the spirit of The Blair Witch Project, the movie is presented entirely from the perspective of the camera used by Micah to capture the strange events in the house. We only see what the camera captures. Paranormal Activity immediately draws us into the life of Katie and Micah, and we are also ironically better informed than they are, as the camera witnesses the activities of the demon while they sleep. It is an effective technique to build up the tension.

And Paranormal Activity is cleverly mostly about the tension. Not much that is violent or shocking happens for most of the film; the tension is derived from the threat of unknown evil that preys on the minds of Katie, who is quick to understand the potential danger; Micah, initially skeptical but gradually victimized; and of course the audience.

The likability of actress Katie Featherston is central to the success of the movie. The focus of Micah's camera whenever the couple are awake, Featherston is convincing as the student-next-door gradually realizing that she is living an inescapable nightmare.

In an era of mindless horror and large stacks of corpses and body parts, Peli deserves a lot of credit for creating a refreshing film that evokes Hitchcock and deliciously teases the audience with what might happen rather what is actually happening.







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Monday, 2 August 2010

Movie Review: Destination: Infestation (2007)


Ants On A Plane.

Without Samuel L. Jackson.

Without the sly humour.

And on a TV movie budget.

Anyone choosing to sit through Destination: Infestation (also known as Swarm) will get what they deserve: a dim-witted, cheapo rip-off of a concept that was dodgy to begin with.

A plane full of every stereotype imaginable is infected by mutated killer ants. It just so happens that Dr. Carolyn Ross (Jessalyn Gilsig), an entomologist, is on board , and of course she is an attractive widow and ready to be seduced by the hunky air marshal Ethan Hart (Antonio Sabato Jr.). Ross and Hart have to combat the ants and ensure a safe landing. Meanwhile, sinister government types are plotting to ensure that everyone on-board, whether ants or humans, perish in order to avoid having to deal with the mutated bugs.

It is all played in all seriousness without a trace of humour, irony or wit. We are treated to endless shots of ants scurrying in and out of miscellaneous vents, or marching menacingly all over electric wires.

Meanwhile, the disposable passengers act out their cardboard characters with all the skill of a high school play matinee performance: the drunk young man constantly demanding drinks and the obnoxious fiance proving himself a coward. The more serious characters find time for long-winded psychoanalytical discussions, while Dr. Ross and Marshal Hart get all romantic in the cargo hold, ankle-deep in jet fuel and with killer ants swarming them.

And in a moment that will haunt screenwriter Mary Weinstein for the rest of her life, the plane is saved when Dr. Ross takes a wild swing with a large hammer at a random pipe to release the flow of fuel to the engines.

Somewhere in Canada, some executive gave the green light to this infantile project. Forget the plane: if only we can release the killer ants in that particular executive's office.








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Movie Review: Winter's Bone (2010)


Ree, a 17 year old teenager in the heavily rural Ozark region of Missouri is the sole caretaker for her two younger siblings. Faced with losing the ramshackle farm that they live on with her incapacitated mother, Ree needs to find her missing father. This sets her on a journey to discover his dark world, and it's a lot more sordid and sinister than she could imagine.

Winter's Bone is an independent film exploration of an America that few know about and even fewer experience. Redefining "rural", the film is set in an isolated, forested, and bitterly cold environment that may well be in the third world. It's a hidden, bleak landscape of poverty, crime, violence, in-breeding, and feuds that last for generations. The laws of civilization are unwelcome and stay on the periphery: residents of this world thrive or wither according to locally-defined codes of conduct.

Directed by Debra Granik from her own screenplay, Winter's Bone creates and maintains a slow, deliberate mood layering menace with humanity in the same characters. The relatives and neighbours encountered by Ree as she searches for her father are fighting their various battles for survival, with an immediately revealed outside crust thick enough to fend-off the harrowing elements but a more hidden essence that points to smoldering compassion.

Jennifer Lawrence as Ree delivers an excellent performance and provides a powerful central focus to the film, combining a strong inner core with vulnerability as she explores in more depth than she would like the world that extends outside her family's property, and uncovers ominous secrets about her father that will force her to grow up in even more of a hurry.

Winter's Bone does not attempt to do more than examine a hidden and ignored corner of America through the lens of a simple story. Within those limits, it succeeds with chilling effectiveness.







All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Book Review: The End Of Days (2000)


On a relatively small site in Jerusalem, the three major religions of humanity come together. The Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque are among Islam's most holy sites; the Western Wall is one of Judaism's most holy sites; and for some Evangelical Christians, the Third Temple needs to be built on this site to facilitate the return of Jesus Christ and prompt the End of Days. For some Jews, the Third Temple also needs to be built for the final redemption to take place.

The mixture of religion, history, prophecies, and anticipation of cataclysmic events is a highly combustible recipe, particularly when placed in disputed territory at the heart of the intractable Israeli - Palestinian conflict.

In The End Of Days, author Gershom Gorenberg, a senior editor with the Jerusalem Post, does well to shine the spotlight on the lunatic fringe obsessed with temples old, current, and still to come. His thesis is that while lunatics are often harmless and best ignored, when it comes to the incendiary Temple Mount, the lunatic fringe needs to be taken seriously because it can easily trigger mayhem and war on a mass scale.

Indeed, many lunatics may be actively trying to do just that, to speed-up their twisted version of the end of the world. Gorenberg links various extremist acts, such as the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin and the Hebron massacre of Palestinian worshipers perpetuated by Baruch Goldstein, with the over-heated rhetoric associated, however remotely, with the Temple.

For some fundamentalist Christians and Jews, the destruction of the Dome of the Rock is a necessity to build the Third Temple or to fulfill the destiny of the Jews. For them, Israel's failure to do so soon after occupying all of Jerusalem in 1967 is a betrayal of history. For some Muslims, any moves that are remotely considered hostile towards the Dome of the Rock or Al-Aqsa Mosque are a cause for the immediate ratcheting up of tensions and accusations towards Israel. The Dome is central to the symbol of a future Palestinian capital.

There is no shortage of lost souls, from the clueless bedraggled to the conniving politicians, who can take advantage of the overflowing emotions.

The weakness of The End Of Days is that once the central point is made, there is little else that Gorenberg has to say. He struggles mightily to fill the pages, but cannot hide the fact that the book is essentially a chronicle of a series of interviews he held with a diverse group of people who hold strong views about the Temple Mount. Some advocate violence, others do not, and most are hopelessly lost in their own hypocrisy, ignorance and hate. They meld into one another, and Gorenberg soon has trouble maintaining interest or introducing anything new.

The nut-cases may think that they are working against each other; but nuts are nuts: they belong in the same dish and they all line up together against the rational world.

Subtitled "Fundamentalism And The Struggle For The Temple Mount"
250 pages, plus Notes and Index.
Published in hardcover by Free Press.





The Ace Black Blog Book Review Index is here.


Movie Review: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)


During the Great Depression of the 1930's, drifter Frank Chambers (Jack Nicholson) enters the life of Nick (John Colicos) and his much younger wife Cora (Jessica Lange). Nick and Cora run a restaurant / gas station in rural California. Nick is a hard-working Greek immigrant; Cora is very bored; very trapped in a dead-end life; and very over-sexed. She meets her match in Frank, a small-time hustler with suitably small-time intelligence.

As soon as Nick turns his back, Cora and Frank are doing the horizontal mambo with animalistic passion on the kitchen table, after sweeping away some good-looking fresh bread and dough. Their uncontrolled lust soon drives them to thoughts of murdering Nick. They need two cracks at it, the first very botched and the second almost botched. When they do succeed in eliminating Nick, the law is quickly onto them. A legal battle, betrayal, acquittal, death in the family, pregnancy, another betrayal and a blackmail plot follow in rapid succession, before Frank learns that no matter what he does, his life will always be miserable.

This second Hollywood adaptation of James M. Cain's depression-era novel is most famous for its steamy sex scenes between Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange. It does have a few other good points: the movie creates an excellent mood of poverty, drift and a desperate society scraping-by; the dialogue in David Mamet's screenplay is sharp; and Jessica Lange delivers a stunning performance of simmering passion knocking the lid off what is supposed to be the traditional wife's role. Michael Lerner as the lawyer Katz and Anjelica Huston as Frank's brief fling have fun and are entertaining with smallish roles.

But The Postman Always Rings Twice is also deeply flawed. The final third of the movie, after Nick is finally eliminated, careens out of control. This may be an intentional metaphor for the life of the illicit lovers, but from the trial of Cora to the ending, too many events are crammed into 45 minutes, and none are provided adequate time to breathe.

In contrast to the earlier, appreciatively slower development of the relationship between Nick, Frank and Cora, seemingly critical characters suddenly emerge out of nowhere and have a huge influence on the story: a complicated insurance company deal is given a quick hard boil; a mysterious stranger arrives unannounced and prompts Cora to leave Frank and visit her previously not mentioned but critically sick mother; Frank betrays Cora twice yet we don't understand why she forgives him; and a blackmail plot is scrambled together and resolved in a matter of minutes.

The timing of the movie goes off, leaving behind a lingering "what now" mood that reduces our level of caring for Frank and Cora, and urges an end - any end - to the ordeal.

The postman may always ring twice; but he would have been more welcome had he carried a less clumsy mailbag.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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