Saturday, 31 December 2011

Movie Review: Country Strong (2010)

A musical drama in the vein of The Rose and A Star Is Born, Country Strong hits a few high notes but also offers up some blank measures containing little that is memorable.

Country music superstar Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow) is released prematurely from her latest stint in rehab. Her husband / manager James (Tim McGraw) is eager to get her back on stage to try and salvage her career and reputation, damaged due to an abortion caused by excessive drinking. To open for Kelly on a quick tour of Texas, James selects up-and-coming Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), a former beauty queen with potential but little experience, and rough-and-ready Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), a down-to-earth singer who prefers the realism of Saturday night performances at the local watering hole to the glamour of performing in packed arenas.

James wants Beau to make sure that Kelly stays away from the bottle to get through the tour, but Beau and Kelly are already entangled in a relationship that prevents them from acting rationally. Beau also thinks little of Chiles' talent, but gradually she proves herself to him. With Kelly struggling to pull herself together, Beau and Chiles emerge as the new darlings of the country music scene, and James has to struggle to save his marriage and source of income.

Country Strong deserves recognition for steering clear of obvious endings. Not much goes right for Kelly Canter throughout the movie, and it would have been most predictable to reward her with a promise of a better future. Similarly, Chiles and Beau find the country music world at their feet and clamouring for more as events unfold, and the requisite denouement is to lavish them with increased grand adulation as the credits roll. Writer and director Shana Feste avoids the facile crowd-pleasing ending, and stretches instead for echoes of the heartbreak that lies at the core of every country music song.

But Country Strong does struggle with a long, saggy middle. Once the four main characters are introduced and established early, the film lurches along re-emphasizing what has already been said. Developments are stunted and slow, and the performances mixed.

Garrett Hedlund leans on Beau to carry the musical component for most of the movie with a series of concert performances mixed in with a pre-set angry-at-the-world stare.  The wait for Gwyneth Paltrow's Kelly to belt out some emotion-filled music is unnecessarily long. Leighton Meester allows Chiles Stanton to go through the film with a coquettish look-at-me-I'm-a-Southern-belle batting of the eyelids, trying to attract the attention of any male in the general vicinity. Tim McGraw's James Canter is only interested in his wife as a source of income, and his eyes carry the desperate intensity of a man frantically trying to milk the last few dollars from a struggling venture.

Country Strong features passable music, and a story that, if not realistic, has reasonable approximations of reality. The film sometimes stumbles, rarely soars, but never falls down either, and most surprisingly impresses with an ending more dour than triumphant.

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Movie Review: The Natural (1984)

The Natural ends with contrived fireworks and a shower of sparks, a case of blatant celebratory self-congratulation that has the potential to cause nausea. But accepted on its terms as an unapologetic baseball fairytale, The Natural is a feel good movie that survives the gallons of sweet syrup dumped onto the screen. The screenplay unfolds like a child's bed-time story, but there is enough talent on display to touch the heart of more mature sensibilities.

It's the 1920s. Young baseball pitcher Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) appears to have superlative talent, and is called for a try-out by the Chicago Cubs. Leaving behind his sweetheart Iris (Glenn Close), Hobbs is seduced on his journey by Harriet Byrd (Barbara Hershey), an unstable woman who shoots and severely wounds him in her hotel room, apparently ending his professional career.

Sixteen years later, now well into his thirties and having converted from pitching to hitting, Hobbs joins the struggling (and fictional) New York Knights after being spotted by a minor league scout. Hobbs struggles to convince coach Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley) and his assistant Red (Richard Farnsworth) that he deserves his shot in the majors. When he is finally given the opportunity, his incredible hitting ability revitalizes the Knights, who go on a winning run. Journalist Max Mercy (Robert Duvall) starts snooping around to uncover Hobbs' past, while team owner The Judge (Robert Prosky) deploys the sultry Memo Paris (Kim Basinger) to distract Hobbs, as The Judge needs the Knights to lose in order for him to gain full control of the team.

The script conjured up by Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry cleans up the harder edges of Bernard Malamud's novel, and strips down the story to the simplest good versus evil narrative, with the King Arthur legend providing the base inspiration. Director Barry Levinson plays along, bathing Glenn Close as the good Iris with white light straight from heaven, with only the singing angels and spiritual harps missing from her scenes. The evildoers, meanwhile, hatch their devious schemes from literally dark caves, Robert Prosky's The Judge refusing to even turn on the lights in his cavernous office, and Levinson just barely managing to resist adding prolonged maniacal laughter to his scenes.

Fortunately, Robert Redford and Robert Duvall are around to add some adult-worthy entertainment. Redford's natural wholesomeness shines through, and at least he is susceptible to the dangerous charms of first Harriet and then Memo, otherwise Roy Hobbs would have been fully expected to walk on water. It is left to Duvall to bring forth the crustiness of the baseball observer, his Max Mercy able to look past Hobbs' heroics and search for the hidden story behind the hits, baseball being nothing if not a sport that values legacy.

Also contributing to The Natural's charm are Wilford Brimley as coach Pop Fisher and Richard Farnsworth as his assistant Red, two baseball men well past their sell-by date and living out the closing days of an abandoned dream. Fisher is so busy lamenting lost opportunities that he needs Red's help to notice Roy Hobbs as the gift from the gods, dropping into his lap for a final drive at glory.

For once three women get crucial roles in a sports movie. Hershey sinks her stinger into a short but unforgettable turn as black widow Harriet Byrd. Kim Basinger is adequate as the resident distraction deployed by The Judge to gain control of the team, while Glenn Close makes the most of the glow that Levinson bequeaths onto her, Iris unwittingly controlling Hobbs' destiny across the years.

The Natural may have surrendered opportunities to deliver a darker, more thoughtful story. But it does achieve its admittedly less ambitious objective: pure mythological escapism centred on the baseball diamond.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

CD Review: Chaotic Beauty, by Eternal Tears Of Sorrow (2000)

The third album from Finland's Eternal Tears Of Sorrow, and the first recorded with the support of a label, Chaotic Beauty features mature melodic symphonic death metal, music that can be imagined in a concert hall, emphasizing melody and tight delivery above all.

Chaotic Beauty is all about well-rounded compositions, with no single element from the band's arsenal dominating: the guitars and keyboards take turns at point and rarely unleash uncontrolled bolts of lightning, while Altti Vetelainen's growl vocals are mixed low and to the rear, emphasizing the doom shadings that make regular and welcome incursions from the dark alleys behind the theatre.

The introduction of overly prominent and melodramatic female vocals courtesy of Kimberly Goss on tracks such as Bride Of The Crimson Sea is unnecessary and distracting from the core strength of the band. Fortunately her segments are generally short and survivable.

Eternal Tears Of Sorrow sprinkle Chaotic Beauty with short catchy tunes that belong either in nightmarish children's fairy tales (the opening of Nocturnal Strains introduces a folk legend that can only end badly), or symphonic flourishes that require an energetic conductor in coattails (the opening of Bhean Sidhe deserves a royal audience). Occasionally the guitars of Puolakanaho and Talala team up for animated but bloodless duels.

The best elements of the band are pulled together on opener Shattered Soul, an up-tempo tune that charges  confidently across the frozen landscape of northern Finland, powered by a relentless but compact riff.

Chaotic Beauty is a lot more beauty than chaos, Eternal Tears Of Sorrow positioned firmly on the more artistic side of melodic death metal.


Altti Vetelainen - Vocals and Bass
Jarmo Puolakanaho - Guitars
Antti Talala - Guitars
Petri Sankala - Drums
Pasi Hiltula - Keyboards

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Shattered Soul - 10 *see below*
2. Blood Of Faith Stains My Hands - 8
3. Autumn's Grief - 9
4. The Seventh Eclipse - 8
5. Bride Of The Crimson Sea - 7
6. Black Tears - 8
7. Tar Of Chaos - 6
8. Bhean Sidhe - 8
9. Nocturnal Strains - 9

Average: 8.11

Produced by Eternal Tears Of Sorrow.
Recorded by Ahti Kortelainen and Mikko Karmila.
Mixed by Mikko Karmila. Mastered by Mika Jussila.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Friday, 30 December 2011

Movie Review: Unknown (2011)

A slick and nimble thriller with all the requisite chases and stunts, Unknown distinguishes itself with a cunning story that gets progressively better as the film peels away the outer layers of characters and events.

American scientist Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) and his wife Liz (January Jones) fly into Berlin to attend a high profile international conference on biotechnology, hosted by Dr. Bressler (Sebastian Koch) and sponsored by Prince Shada (Mido Hamada). Upon arriving at the Hotel Adlon, Martin realizes that he forgot his briefcase at the airport. The ride back to the airport ends in disaster: a multi-vehicle crash launches the taxi off a bridge and into a river. Martin is saved from drowning by the taxi driver Gina (Diane Kruger), but loses consciousness and wakes up in hospital a few days later.

Martin rushes back to the Hotel Adlon and is shocked to find Liz insisting that she does not know him. Furthermore, Liz is with another man (Aidan Quinn) claiming to be Dr. Martin Harris. Thrown out into the street in a foreign city, Martin has to struggle to re-establish his identity, and he seeks the help of Gina as well as local private investigator Herr Jurgen (Bruno Ganz) and colleague Professor Cole (Frank Langella). Before long, Martin also finds himself the target of brutal assassins.

Unknown is a clever, high intensity thriller. It starts out on familiar stranger-in-a-strange-land territory, with many elements borrowed from movies like Frantic. But once the intricate plot behind the case of lost identity starts to reveal itself, Unknown is elevated to that unique sub-set of action movies where all the pieces of the puzzle fall smartly into place, and even the wilder stunt scenes are provided with context.

The script by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwall makes the most of Berlin, with a specific tip of the hat to the history of the city as a Cold War cauldron, as Jurgen openly reveals himself to be a former Stasi agent, a cue for Unknown to take a pleasurable journey that links vintage spy methods with modern-day economic challenges and terrorist threats.

Liam Neeson is excellent in a role that would have been offered to Harrison Ford a decade earlier. Neeson is better at expressing tortured frustration, and conveys Martin's boiling emotions as he doggedly sets out to reclaim his identity. January Jones only needs to be the icy blond and she does it well, while Diane Kruger builds on her role in Inglourious Basterds with an affecting performance as an illegal immigrant who finds herself unwillingly pressed into service as Martin's guardian angel.

As it hurtles to an explosive climax, Unknown nails a most difficult stunt: the thriller that is thoughtful, exciting, and unpredictable.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Anniversary Party (2001)

A fictional peak inside the private lives of Hollywood's elite, co-directors and co-stars Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming invite everyone to have a look at what happens at a house party for the rich and famous. The Anniversary Party has a fine ensemble cast and sizzles in patches, but cannot fully sustain the thrust of its intriguing premise.

Hollywood couple Sally (Leigh) and Joe (Cumming) are throwing a party to celebrate their sixth anniversary, although they only just got back together after Joe's latest rehab stint. Sally is an actress, although her age is beginning to work against her, and Joe is a best selling author who is embarking on his first directing assignment to transform his novel into a film. The tension between them is already high, since Joe selected young emerging starlet Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow) instead of Sally to play the leading role in the film -- and to make matters worse, Joe invited Skye to the party.

Other invitees include neighbours Ryan and Monica, who are not part of the Hollywood social scene but very much a thorn in the side of Sally and Joe due to their complaints about the incessant barking of Joe's dog. Actor Cal (Kevin Kline) and his wife Sophia (Phoebe Cates), director Mac (John C. Reilly) and his wife Clair (Jane Adams), and photographer Gina (Jennifer Beals) are among the many other guests. Cal, an aging actor himself, is Sally's latest co-star and struggling to still be considered for younger roles. Sophia is Sally's best friend and quite content at having abandoned an acting career. Mac is directing Sally's latest movie, and his wife Clair appears to be strung out on something. Gina is Joe's close confidant, and clearly her simmering presence makes Sally uncomfortable.

As the evening unfolds, everyone tries to pretend to be having a good time, but a strong current of tension crackles under the surface. When Skye unpacks Ecstasy tablet for the enjoyment of all, most inhibitions are lost and many hurtful truths are unleashed.

In a nod to the close ties between fact and fiction that permeate through The Anniversary Party, Phoebe Cates pretty much plays herself. She is Leigh's close friend in real life, and like her character Sophia, Cates left the acting industry early and came out of retirement for this role.

The first half of The Anniversary Party provides a glimpse into the social life of Hollywood's rich and famous, and unsurprisingly, they are an unrefined, vacuous, catty and self-obsessed group, which means plenty of fun. Arguments about a dog barking, rehab, and the latest ego-inflating projects dominate the conversation, with some overly pretentious discussion of Russian literature doing nothing to break through the dense superficiality.

Once the Ecstasy comes out, The Anniversary Party loses its way, and the second half of the movie stumbles around looking for a purpose. The attendees scatter into aimless groups and the delicious discomfort of the earlier encounters dissipates. A contrived near-drowning and the search for a missing dog further dilute the remaining energy, although the film does regain its nerve in enough time to allow Leigh and Cumming to enjoy a cleansing shouting match. The final act features an off-camera tragedy that revives the pulse of the movie, but it's a bit late to recapture the emotional momentum.

The always delightfully unpredictable Jennifer Jason Leigh avoids placing herself fully in the middle of her own movie but still emerges with the best performance from a crowded field. Leigh's dark expressions provide ample warning that although Sally starts the party in a bad mood, it's only getting worse as the evening unravels, as both her relationship and career receive rude awakenings before dawn.

As her husband Joe, Alan Cumming absorbs the fakery of Hollywood's fleeting obsession with the latest boy wonder, a man who is today's toast of a town that celebrates recovering heroes while eagerly anticipating their next crash.

The Anniversary Party is a voyeuristic invitation that is difficult to resist. As with most parties, some parts of the evening do drag, but the gathering is certainly worth dropping in on.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Book Review: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

A classic of American literature, The Great Gatsby flows like a mystical dream, author F. Scott Fitzgerald creating unforgettable characters living passionately turbulent lives.

It's early in the summer of 1922, and narrator Nick Carraway moves to New York to train for a job in bond sales, renting a house in the community of West Egg, Long Island. Nick knows few people in the New York area, but visits the radiant and soft-spoken Daisy Buchanan, his second cousin once removed, who lives in the more upscale community of East Egg with her husband Tom, a former athlete. Tom hardly makes a secret of keeping a mistress on the side, a lady named Myrtle Wilson, herself married to garage owner George.

Nick's next door neighbour is the mysterious Gatsby, who lives in a grand mansion and throughout the summer throws the most lavish night-long parties, attended by the elite of New York's society despite few of them knowing what Gatsby looks like and none of them knowing his background. Gradually, Nick befriends Gatsby, and finds out that Gatsby has set himself one mission in life: to regain the love of Daisy, whom he knew before the war. Gatsby's parties are an effort to attract Daisy's attention, and as the summer progresses, Gatsby makes his bold move to pry Daisy away from Tom.

With his depiction of the parties at Gatsby's mansion, and indeed the frolicking lifestyle of Daisy and Tom, Fitzgerald captured the Roaring Twenties among the elite, a world propelled by a booming stock market and illegal smuggling that would eventually crash headlong into the Great Depression. The Gatsbys and Tom Buchanans of this society seem to have no need to work, their wealth streaming in through the market or other undefined self-propelled ventures. While the money lasted, the descriptions provided by Fitzgerald became the template for those who wanted to share in the dream.

With the Roaring Twenties came a new role for women in society, and one of the progressive themes in The Great Gatsby is the shifting balance between men and women. Gatsby, Tom Buchanan and George Wilson are emotionally miserable. Gatsby will measure his success or failure in life based on whether he can win back Daisy's love. Tom is so emotionally lost that he is looking past the beautiful Daisy and seeking emotional fulfilment in Myrtle's coarse arms and George has already lost Myrtle and has few other prospects.

Meanwhile, Daisy is the central object of desire, Myrtle is stomping all over George, and Jordan Baker, Daisy's friend who becomes Nick's companion, is an independent, confident professional golfer. Although the men are the source of financial muscle, it is the women who hold the real power in The Great Gatsby.

Fitzgerald's writing style breezes with rich yet well-toned prose, sometimes pausing to describe at length a single smile, while at other times breathlessly racing to recount life-altering events. In about 170 pages, Fitzgerald creates everlasting portraits of people and places embroiled in a high intensity human drama. Gatsby may forever pine for his great love, but in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald found his great novel.

171 pages.
Published in paperback by Penguin.

All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Movie Review: Eight Men Out (1988)

The story of the 1919 Black Sox, Eight Men Out is a tale of greed and corruption eating away at all that is good in sports. Director and writer John Sayles recreates with considerable flair the world of baseball in the early 20th century, and an ensemble cast has fun portraying the heroes and villains of the sportsworld in more innocent times.

The 1919 baseball season is drawing to a close, and the Chicago White Sox are the dominant team in the league, and considered to be one of the best teams ever assembled. Featuring the likes of pitcher Eddie Cicotte (David Straithairn), "Shoeless" Joe Jackson (D.B. Sweeney) and shortstop Buck Weaver (John Cusack), and coached by Kid Gleason (John Mahoney), the White Sox are expected to easily win the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. But the White Sox players are unhappy with team owner Charles Comiskey (Clifton James): he is tight-fisted and less than generous with perks and bonuses. Resentment festers, and it is ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous criminals looking to make a killing by betting against the Sox.

New York's shadowy master gambler Arnold Rothstein (Michael Lerner) is finally convinced that several players are open to a cash payout in exchange for losing, and he organizes the fix through intermediaries. Players such as Chick Gandil, Swede Risberg and Lefty Williams eagerly go along with the plan and recruit several other Sox. Cicotte is at first hesitant but later joins in, while Jackson goes along but can't read or write, and is unsure what he is agreeing to. Weaver is approached to join the fix but refuses to participate, although he also doesn't alert anyone that trouble is brewing. Gleason can sense that something is wrong with his team, but has no evidence of wrongdoing. Chicago perform poorly and lose the World Series; the players eventually face the consequences, in the court of law, the court of public opinion, and the court of baseball's newly appointed commissioner.

With no single character or actor dominating Eight Men Out, it is David Straithairn's Eddie Cicotte who best represents the mind space of underpaid athletes unable to resist a cash injection worth more than a season's wages to throw a few games. Straithairn portrays Cicotte as never enthusiastic about the fix, but upset enough about his treatment by team owner Charles Comiskey that he is eventually willing to forgo glory for cash.

John Cusack as Buck Weaver is also memorable, a man who rejected the cash and played for the glory of winning, but paid with his career for not bringing the fix to light when he had the opportunity. Charlie Sheen in a small role as player Happy Felsch and Christopher Lloyd as colourful moneyman Bill Burns animate the supporting cast.

Sayles' writing is sharp, the dialogue filled with zingers and deft jibes as reporters, ball players, gamblers, and shadowy criminals circle each other looking for a story, an edge, or a payday.

But Sayles' exceptional achievement in bringing the story to film is his embrace of uncertainty. There are numerous legends and various versions of the truth that swirl around events such as a fixed World Series, and Sayles avoids the temptation of tidying up all the factoids. While Eight Men Out does sometime meander to the outskirts of what appears relevant, the film is brave enough to capture a story without nailing down every last detail.

Hence, the film suggests that the players were unsure if they were throwing a few games or the whole series; Shoeless Joe Jackson, portrayed as quite dim, never seems aware of what he is getting himself into, and appears to play hard despite accepting the cash. Several layers of corrupt money men were involved, from masterminds like Rothstein to local goons, and the dots between them are not cleanly connected; and the players never received all of what they were promised, yet were intimidated enough to continue with the fix, or ironically bound by the code of wanting to finish what they started.

With elite athletes in all sports arenas still on the lookout for illicit methods to get rich almost a hundred years after the Black Sox scandal, Eight Men Out is a sad reminder that the lure of the dollar for personal gain has always been the most corrupting force in professional sports.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Precious (2009)

A story of horrific inner-city abuse, Precious places domestic violence under the magnifying glass but fails to offer a credible narrative for the unexplained heroism of its central character.

Claireece Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is a 16 year old obese girl living in a filthy New York apartment with her domineering mother Mary (Mo'Nique). Claireece is the target of Mary's unrelenting physical and emotional abuse and humiliation, and has already given birth to one child after being raped by Mary's boyfriend.

Claireece quits public school after she becomes pregnant with her second child, after again being raped by the same man, and despite strong opposition by Mary enrols in an alternative school. She joins the class of teacher Blu Rain (Paula Patton), and also starts to meet with social worker Miss Weiss (Mariah Carey), who insists that Claireece disclose her home situation in order to receive welfare checks. The teacher and the social worker provide a steadying influence, but Claireece still faces the challenge of escaping from her mother's house of horror.  

Precious, based on the novel Push by Sapphire (Romona Lofton), was boosted from a small film into a widespread success by the Oprah Winfrey marketing machine, and while there is always the potential for good in publicizing the issues associated with domestic abuse, the film itself struggles to live up to the hype. Precious is a simple story about triumphing, somewhat, over severe social adversity, but precious little is  revealed about how and why Claireece is so strongly motivated and inspired to break free from the suffocating orbit around her mother. A girl brought up on a steady diet of physical, emotional,and sexual abuse needs powerful opposing forces to summon the inner strength and courage to change her destiny, but the Geoffrey Fletcher screenplay offers no clues about what drives Claireece to seek a better future.

This weakness in storytelling does not take away from a chilling performance by Mo'Nique as Mary, an awful and monstrous woman hiding her utter failings by unleashing on her daughter a torrent of devastating negativity wrapped in a thick coating of manufactured guilt.

Gaboury Sidibe, plucked from obscurity for the film, is less successful at giving life to Precious, her performance generally consisting of glaring, shuffling and mumbling.

Mariah Carey (in an inspired piece of casting) and Paula Patton have the easy roles of portraying social workers and teachers in a glowingly positive light. The slightly worrying message is that all an abuse victim needs to do is reach out for help, and larger than life, supremely confident women will ride to the rescue.

Precious is a hopeful, well-made film tackling a most difficult subject. But it is precisely because the issues associated with domestic abuse amidst abject poverty are so complex and serious that Precious stumbles on its own simplicity.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Jerk (1979)

An attempted comedy about an idiot, The Jerk is simply awful. Making fun of a moron is bad enough. Not even succeeding in being funny about it is just distressing. Steve Martin can consider himself most fortunate that his career somehow survived this foul-smelling turkey, a box-office hit that proved the occasional profitability of the braindead denominator.

Navin Johnson (Martin) is a white man, raised by a black family but too much of a simpleton to realize that he must have been adopted. He leaves home to strike it on his own in life, and finds jobs at a gas station and then a travelling carnival. His misadventures include becoming the target of a crazed sniper, the stud lover for a motorcycle stuntwoman, and striking it obscenely rich by inventing a nose support for eyeglasses. He also meets and falls in love with the sweet Marie (Bernadette Peters). Clueless enough to get into all sorts of trouble, Johnson is also oblivious enough to walk out of every conundrum almost unscathed.

The Jerk is not slapstick, it's not witty, it's not tongue in cheek, and it's not satirical. It's simply dumbfounding in its lack of any sharp edge or actual meaningful comedy. Any laughs generated are plain uncomfortable, mostly consisting of laughing at someone rather than with him. Director Carl Reiner gives the film a decrepit look that makes it appear older than its era, and Steve Martin, who co-wrote the screenplay, simply tries too hard at playing the fool and achieves no refinement.

Only Peters emerges with any credit, adequately delivering her persona of breathlessly soft-spoken passion.

The Jerk is an impudent clown re-directing his humour from children to adults, and wondering why the big red nose is somehow not so funny.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Movie Review: The Elephant Man (1980)

The true tragic story of Joseph (John) Merrick, a horribly disfigured man who lived in London of the late 1800s, The Elephant Man is a movie that finds tenderness deep within abomination.

Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) tracks down the frighteningly distorted Elephant Man, a freakshow owned by the brutal Bytes (Freddie Jones). The Elephant Man is actually John Merrick (John Hurt), born with a disease that caused extreme enlargement of his skull, skin outgrowths, a uselessly overgrown right arm, and a mangled spine. After initially examining Merrick purely as a medical exercise, Treves delves deeper and discovers that Merrick is intelligent and can actually talk and read.

London Hospital's Governor (John Gielgud) eventually agrees to make a room available to house and care for Merrick. Gradually London's upper classes, including theatre star Madge Kendal (Anne Bancroft) hear about The Elephant Man and start to visit him, although the hospital's night watchman continues a side-business of profiteering. Bytes has plans to regain control of Merrick as a meal ticket, and Treves has to deal with the guilt of continued exploitation.

Ironically, The Elephant Man was one of the more mainstream films created by director and co-writer David Lynch. Staying close to historical facts, Lynch introduces Merrick with masterful artistry. For the first 30 minutes of the film Merrick is only seen in glimpses, under a shroud or from behind a curtain. Only once the context is set, the locales established, Merrick's suffering outlined, and the characters of Treves and Bytes introduced is Lynch ready to reveal The Elephant Man. It's a mature strategy of patience that works brilliantly in building anticipation and humanizing the subject prior to foisting him upon the screen.

Lynch and cinematographer Freddie Francis make excellent use of the black and white photography to recreate the seedy London back alleys where sleaze thrives, and to capture the earliest days of industrialization and nascent medical progress.

A still svelte Anthony Hopkins gives a complex performance as Dr. Treves, a man who initially just sees in Merrick an opportunity to advance his status. Hopkins allows Treves his pompous moment of bluster in front of his London medical establishment colleagues, but soon steers the character to a much more distinguished role as Merrick's gateway to society. But the doctor's journey not yet over, as Hopkins has to convey Treves' mounting revulsion that he may have only succeeded in helping Merrick move from one freakshow to another, albeit a high class one.

John Hurt performs admirably underneath a mountain of make-up, and projects emotion with physical gestures and through a monstrously disfigured face. It does not take long for Hurt's eyes to channel trauma, joy, pain and longing. Hurt completely overcomes Merrick's deformation and releases the human within.

In the support roles, Freddie Jones, John Gielgud, Anne Bancroft and Wendy Hiller provide serious depth to the outstanding cast.

Society's response to tragic suffering brings out the best and the worst of human behaviour. The Elephant Man captures the base instinct to stand, stare, and profit, as well as the noble ability to bend down and help. The film leaves no doubt as to which course of action causes civilization to move forward.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

CD Review: The Somberlain, by Dissection (1993)

Dissection's first album, The Somberlain features dark, ambitious and sometimes uneven black metal. Several of the tracks make a lasting impression, but all of them demonstrate a refreshingly high professional quality for a band so young.

Jon Nodtveidt, Dissection's troubled leader, was all of 18 years old when The Somberlain was created, and the album demonstrates the maturity of a mid-career talent rather than a neophyte. The best tracks stand the test of time as prime examples of the powerful forces that could be unleashed by the channelled intensity of black metal.

Black Horizons launches the album and establishes Dissection's sound with over eight minutes of brooding clouds melodically gathering in dark greys and gaining momentum in the distant skies. The guitars of Nodtveidt and fellow axeman John Zwetsloot create an impressively impenetrable wall of sound, supported by Ole Ohman's controlled drums.

The title track The Somberlain continues in the same vein, a thematic sequel of sorts to Black Horizons as the riffs gain energy and the black rain starts to pour down, creating a running stream thick with light-absorbing sludge. In The Colds Winds Of Nowhere brings Peter Palmdahl's bass to the forefront to shake any remaining life signs off the tree as Dissection unfurl a gloomy shroud of sound to obliterate the remaining faint light.

Most interesting is Mistress Of The Bleeding Shadow, which borrows the main theme from Trouble's The Tempter, places it in an abandoned citadel, surrounds it with shuttered windows, padlocked doors and musky furniture, and paints the whole morbid scene in black.

In as far as blackness can shine, The Somberlain occasionally sparkles. 


Jon Nodtveidt - Vocals, Guitars
John Zwetsloot - Guitars
Peter Palmdahl - Bass
Ole Ohman - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Black Horizons - 9
2. The Somberlain - 8
3. Crimson Towers - n/a (short instrumental)
4. A Land Forlorn - 7
5. Heaven's Damnation - 7
6. Frozen - 7
7. Into Infinite Obscurity - n/a (short instrumental)
8. In The Cold Winds Of Nowhere - 8
9. The Grief Prophecy / Shadows Over A Lost Kingdom - 7
10. Mistress Of The Bleeding Sorrow - 9
11. Feathers Fell - n/a (short instrumental)

Average: 7.75

Produced by Dissection.
Engineered by Dan Swano.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Vanilla Sky (2001)

In a remake of the 1997 Spanish film Open Your Eyes, Tom Cruise disfigures his face in a bizarre science fiction romance that alternates between magical moments and utter incoherence. Vanilla Sky ultimately pulls itself together, but cannot fully discard an annoying aura of irritating smugness.

David Aames (Cruise) has inherited the vast riches of his father's publishing empire, and he is enjoying the playboy life of being young, handsome and wealthy in New York. Model Julie Gianni (Cameron Diaz) is David's friend with benefits who wishes that she was more, while author Brian Shelby (Jason Lee) is perhaps David's one true buddy.

Brian shows up at one of David's parties with new acquaintance Sofia Serrano (Penelope Cruz), and a connection immediately takes hold between Sofia and David. They spend the night talking and falling in love with an unfamiliar intensity, but the following morning David gets into Julie's car, and she intentionally drives off a bridge, killing herself and horribly disfiguring David.

The rehabilitation of David involves depression, re-constructive surgery, wearing a face mask, sessions with psychologist Dr. McCabe (Kurt Russell), and the technology of cryonic suspension through the services of the mysterious Life Extension corporation. Although he appears to salvage the relationship with Sofia, David's dejection, guilt and paranoia start to severely affect his mind, and sorting out reality from imagination becomes increasingly difficult.

Director Cameron Crowe leaves behind his normal emphasis on small human moments and overcomplicates Vanilla Sky by mixing David's flashbacks with scenes of his reality and others manufactured by his imagination. While the unhinged structure and highly artistic style maintain interest, the film is a puzzle that gets progressively more annoying rather than challenging. Just when Vanilla Sky threatens to collapse in a heap of fragmented bombast, it is rescued by a solid and emotionally fulfilling final 20 minutes that deciphers David's ordeal in a futuristic package.

Tom Cruise co-produced, and the intention of highlighting his acting talent by hiding behind a hideous facial disfigurement could not have been too far from his mind. Cruise's career will always be remembered more for his looks than his acting, a curse that handsome stars have to live with. He is a more than adequate performer, but his concentration and talent simply cannot compete with his natural charisma and the megawatt smile. His non-disfigured scenes with Cruz generate the genuine warmth of two souls falling in love that no amount of acting behind scars or a mask can match.

Cruz and Diaz bring their attractive personalities to Vanilla Sky, Cruz all coquettish Europeanisms and Diaz brash blondness dancing on the perimeter of the self-destruct button.

Vanilla Sky captivates and enthralls, agitates, bewilders and baffles. The journey is worthwhile, but it is not without some unfortunately befuddling moments.

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Friday, 23 December 2011

Movie Review: To Have And Have Not (1944)

The debut of Lauren Bacall and her first teaming with Humphrey Bogart are the highlights of To Have And Have Not, a story of romance and intrigue during the early days of the Seconds World War. Almost a remake of Casablanca, To Have And Have Not is distinguished and enlivened by the sharp sparring between Bogart and Bacall playing two self-centred characters unable to resist falling in love in a foreign land.

It's 1940, and the French Caribbean island of Martinique is feeling the shockwaves of the war in Europe. The Nazi-friendly Vichy government is in control, and looking for skulking Free France agents. American Harry Morgan (Bogart) minds his own business running a fishing boat while living at the Hotel Martinique, but in one day his neutral life is severely disrupted: Marie Browning (Bacall), a young American travelling alone, arrives in Martinique and moves into the room next door, and Frenchy, the hotel owner, seeks Morgan's help to smuggle some Free France activists.

Morgan calls Marie "Slim", she calls him "Steve". Sparks fly between them. Initially reluctant to help Frenchy, Morgan finally agrees to undertake the smuggling mission, primarily to make enough money to help Slim leave Martinique. But she decides to stay with him and they both become involved in helping Free France agents, as the local authorities close in.

Director Howard Hawks and screenwriters Jules Furthman and William Faulkner did not leave much of Ernest Hemingway's novel intact, which is likely a good thing, Hawks claiming that Hemingway himself said that the book, set in Cuba, was "a bunch of junk" .

Instead, Hawks set out to recreate as much of Casablanca as he could. Fort de France, Martinique is a fine alternative setting for an exotic port city during the war, and most of the other To Have And Have Not plot elements are not-so-subtle imitations of the legendary story of Rick's Cafe Americain. From the busy lounge to the piano player to the French resistance seeking Bogart's help all the way down to the local French lawman's name (Renard as opposed to Renault), To Have And Have Not aims for flattery by close imitation.

Despite lacking in freshness, fortunately this retelling of essentially the same story does stand strongly on its own thanks to the talent involved, and the strength of the one main original component: the relationship between Bogart's Captain Morgan and Bacall's Slim. Bogart was 44 at the time of filming, Bacall was 19, and remarkably, Slim became the first female screen character to equal the cool arrogance and inexhaustible self-belief of the Bogart persona, and Bacall the first actress to match Bogart's sheer captivating screen presence.

The two were made for each other on and off the screen, and in To Have And Have Not, it does not take their characters long to find this out. The film sparkles during the many scenes in which Morgan and Slim match wits, as they jointly arrive at the conclusion that they belong to each other despite both possessing forceful streaks of individualism.

The rest of To Have And Have Not gallops along with a well-rehearsed agility, Bogart's magnetism overcoming secondary characters that are game but not as sharply defined or as memorable as their Casablanca counterparts. There is too much of Walter Brennan's drink-obsessed Eddie and not enough of Dan Seymour's sturdy Renard, nor does Dolores Moran get enough to do, several of her scenes apparently excised in favour of shining a brighter spotlight on Bacall, despite Moran carrying on an affair with Hawks during filming.

To Have And Have Not is Casablanca through a just slightly distorted mirror, but emerging through the smoke and on the screen is a simmering love story between a young ingenue and a grizzled legend, with a passion that both overshadows and elevates the film that spawned it.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

CD Review: The Sound Of Perseverance, by Death (1998)

The seventh and final studio album by Florida's death metal pioneers Death threatens to catch fire on a few occasions, but ignites just once. To Forgive Is To Suffer arrives late in The Sound Of Perseverance songlist, and ties up all the loose ends with a harrowing melody that serves as the theme for the next black night of evil, riffs pregnant with menace to harm most painfully.

At under six minutes, To Forgive Is To Suffer is among the shorter tracks on the album, and more of the selections could have benefited from trimming. Spirit Crusher stretches itself to almost seven minutes, but would have been sharper with a couple of minutes lopped off. An awkward start and a meandering middle section dilute some terrific power and fury. Similarly Flesh And The Power It Holds (8+ minutes) and Moment Of Clarity (7+) include catchy segments featuring the assured guitar work of Chuck Schuldiner and Shannon Hamm, but suffer from not insignificant stretches of wilderness.

The bonus track cover of Judas Priests' Painkiller does everything right and adds a soulfully interesting wrinkle to one of the solos, Death paying tribute to one of metal's transformational tracks.

After The Sound Of Perseverance band founder and main influence Schuldiner suspended Death and evolved his sound under the name Control Denied, but he soon passed away from brain cancer at the end of 2001. The Sound Of Perseverance may not be a masterpiece, but it's a good testimonial to Schuldiner's essential contribution to metal.


Shannon Hamm - Guitar
Chuck Schuldiner - Guitars, Vocals
Scott Clendenin - Bass
Richard Christy - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Scavenger Of Human Sorrow - 7
2. Bite The Pain - 6
3. Spirit Crusher - 8
4. Story To Tell - 7
5. Flesh And The Power It Holds - 8
6. Voice Of The Soul - 7
7. To Forgive Is To Suffer - 10
8. Moment Of Clarity - 8
9. Painkiller - 10 (bonus track)

Average: 7.89

Produced by Jim Morris and Chuck Schuldiner.
Engineered, Mixed and Mastered by Jim Morris.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Adaptation (2002)

A film about the struggles of writing the script for the film is a desperate attempt to break through a severe case of writer's block with flashes of genius. Adaptation sparkles in parts, infuriates in others, until it loses its nerve and fizzles meekly into contrived skulking around the swamps.

Writer Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) has been commissioned to create a screenplay out of The Orchid Thief, a book by Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) chronicling the adventures of John Laroche (Chris Cooper), a maverick Floridian involved in the collection of rare orchids with Seminole Indians.

Charlie finds it impossible to squeeze a screenplay out of Orlean's book, which mostly consists of lyrical statements about the beauty of flowers. Not helping matters is Donald Kaufman (again Nicolas Cage), Charlie's twin brother, who is also a screenwriter and crashing at Charlie's apartment. Donald gets on a roll writing a routine serial killer screenplay, inspired after attending a seminar by screenwriting guru Robert McKee (Brian Cox).

Donald's completed script is immediately snapped up for a large sum, heaping more pressure on Charlie. He finally succumbs and seeks the help of McKee, and together Charlie and Donald make contact with Orlean to try and understand her motivations for writing the book. The brothers uncover much more to the story of the orchid thief than what Orlean included in her best seller, leading to a messy confrontation in Florida.

Charlie Kaufman, Susan Orlean, John Laroche, and Robert McKee are all real people, and The Orchid Thief is a real book. Donald Kaufman and the convoluted post-book relationship between Orlean and Laroche are not real. Kaufman inserts himself into his own adaptation, and vigorously mixes reality with fiction to produce an intriguing if disorienting narrative.

As a story of the heavy emptiness that can crush a writer struggling to create, Adaptation is a welcome homage to the art of finding the right words to convey less obvious experiences. Cage provides a voice-over as Charlie Kaufman's thoughts race in all directions except the useful one, and his stream of jumbled ideas often reflects what has already transpired on the screen.

Adaptation does lose its way in the final half hour, chucking most of the writer's-block discourse overboard and careening into a climax that involves drugs, infidelity, shotguns, swamp chases, car crashes and alligators. It may be Kaufman's attempt to sharply poke Hollywood's insistence on inserting empty thriller elements into even the most cerebral of films, but the phony action just undermines most of what preceded it.

The weak conclusion does not, however, diminish from three terrific central performances, four when accounting for Cage's incredible double role. Cage appears to effortlessly gives Charlie and Donald separate yet linked personas, Charlie a borderline neurotic but still trying to be more responsible than the carefree and almost reckless Donald. In most of Cage's scenes he acts opposite himself, convincingly enough that the gimmicky aspects of the dual role are quickly forgotten and replaced by sheer admiration.

Streep's performance is powered by a mischievous undercurrent of barely concealed sensuality that hints early and often that there is a lot more going on in her life than just flowers. The Orlean character is victimized by the film's ending, but Streep survives the muddle. Cooper won the Supporting Actor Academy Award for a long-haired, gap-toothed performance as John Laroche, a man comfortably at ease with his outside-the-lines path in life.

In a final ironic acknowledgement of Adaptation's successful blurring of the lines between reality and fiction, both Charlie and Donald are credited as screenwriters, and the film is dedicated to Donald. The script was nominated for an Academy Award, making Donald Kaufman the first fully fictitious person nominated for an Oscar.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Movie Review: Mildred Pierce (1945)

A classic film noir, Mildred Pierce ensures that after endless struggles, happy endings are hard to find. Fortunes are squandered, loyalties betrayed, businesses ruined, love lost, and shots fired in a delicious cocktail centred around all-too-human failures. Joan Crawford in the title role dominates a cast of characters dripping with barely disguised devious self-interest.

The film starts with the murder of Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), shot multiple times by an unseen assailant at a beach house. Monte's wife, Mildred Pierce Beragon (Joan Crawford) tries to frame long-time friend and frustrated suitor Wally Fay (Jack Carson) for the murder, but the police don't buy it: they arrest Mildred's first husband Albert Pierce (Bruce Bennett) and accuse him of being the shooter, motivated by jealousy. Upon hearing this, Mildred claims to have murdered Beragon herself, and recounts her story in flashback.

Mildred's marriage to Albert fell on hard times when he lost his job, and they separated. Mildred struggles to make something out of her life, and sacrifices everything for the pleasure of her daughters Veda (Ann Blyth), a spoiled teenager who wants the best of everything and thinks her mother classless, and 10-year old tomboy Kay. Mildred works her way up from a lowly waitress to a restaurant tycoon, with help from Wally's business acumen and the management know-how of friend Ida (Eve Arden).

Calamity befalls Kay, but nothing is good enough for Veda. Mildred's troubles escalate when she falls for useless philanderer Monte Beragon, eventually marrying him for reasons other than love. But Veda is self-obsessed, mean-spirited, and insists that all planets revolve around her, resulting in a descent to tragedy.

After more than twenty years at MGM, Joan Crawford's career seemed to be on an irreversible downward trajectory. Mildred Pierce was her first movie for Warner Bros, and her captivating performance was rewarded with the Academy Award for Best Actress. Crawford infuses Pierce with steely determination undermined by the fatal flaw of smothering her daughter with a love of unchecked materialism, launching Veda into an orbit of doom. Mildred is a perfect tragic heroine, doing everything in her power to serve her daughter and being rewarded with a succession of disasters.

Ann Blyth is every parent's worst nightmare as Veda, a rotten apple fallen at the base of the tree and as evil as a manipulative teenager can get. Veda learns all the wrong lessons from her mother, filtering out the love and sacrifice and only internalizing an ever-growing need for status. Blyth's ability to switch from hateful schemer to tearful victim is all too chilling. Among the men, Jack Carson delivers an honest performance as Wally Fay, a man who always makes it clear where he stands, open about his relentless pursuit of Pierce and trading sharp banter with Ida.

The screenplay (co-written by William Faulkner) simplifies the James M. Cain novel in a classic example of edgy adaptation that breaks past the need to include every detail from the book. Director Michael Curtiz keeps Mildred Pierce moving at a brisk pace, making effective use of his trademark artistry with shadows and contrasts.

Mildred Pierce is a cautionary tale about the blind spot that parental love can cause. The monster that feeds on devotion grotesquely decomposed into materialism just grows bigger with every meal.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Parallax View (1974)

With the high-profile assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in the previous dozen years, the attempt on the life of Governor George Wallace in 1972, corruption oozing out of the Nixon White House and deep mistrust of the government over the Vietnam War, conspiracy theories were mainstream in the early 1970s. The Parallax View is a botched attempt to confirm that, indeed, government-sponsored assassin teams are crawling all over the landscape killing people to serve some unstated but clearly evil purpose.

Newspaper reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) is covering Independence Day celebrations at the Seattle Space Needle when Senator Charles Carroll is assassinated. A judicial commission concludes that the gunman acted alone. Three years later fellow reporter Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss) visits Frady and insists that her life is in danger: six other people who were also present at the Space Needle have since mysteriously died. Soon enough, Carter herself is dead.

Frady, a former alcoholic, starts to investigate despite the misgivings of his editor Bill Rintels (Hume Cronyn), and travels to the small town of Salmontail, where a judge who witnessed the Carroll assassination supposedly drowned while fishing. After tangling with the local sheriff's department Frady uncovers evidence of something called The Parallax Corporation, seemingly a recruitment organization for assassins. As Frady delves further into the events surrounding the Carroll murders and Parallax, he becomes a target until he fakes his death and applies to Parallax himself under an assumed identity.

The Parallax View stumbles badly and early as any semblance of an intellectual approach is quickly ditched in favour of abject and random mayhem completely at odds with the film's premise. Supposedly surgically precise killing teams get sloppy in a hurry. Explosions become common: both a boat and an airplane are destroyed by messy bombs that don't seem to raise any interest from police authorities. A plot to murder Frady is hatched and clumsily bungled at a remote dam site. And The Parallax View suffers from reporter-becomes-superhero syndrome: Frady can out-punch a sheriff's deputy, drown the sheriff, tail a professional assassin all around town without being noticed, and survive three separate attempts on his life, almost comically reappearing unscathed at the office of his newspaper editor after every brush with death.

The film does not even begin to offer theories on what is motivating all the killing. A lot of screen time is invested working up the six other murders related to Senator Carroll's assassination, but no explanation is ever provided for any of the actual or attempted killings. This is a likely intentional underlining of the all-powerful-dark-forces-getting-away-with-anything premise, but it also smacks of lazy film-making: allow the bad guys to kill at their leisure without the burden of explaining themselves.

In amid the dropping bodies and gaping plot holes, Warren Beatty meanders through the film attempting to act cool but appearing mostly disinterested. His lack of emotional reaction to all the violence comes across as a robotic detachment from the evil supposedly surrounding him, and combined with his remarkable survival skills make Joe Frady a character that can only exist on paper.

Director Alan J. Pakula and cinematographer Gordon Willis almost succeed in keeping the film interesting with some excellent framing, dynamic angles and some terrific camera placements, the scenes at the Seattle Space Needle, on-board the threatened airliner and at the auditorium where the film climaxes being particular highlights.

Conspiracies only work when less is known about them. The Parallax View attempts to keep the shrouds dark, dusty and menacing. Instead, it stumbles on cheap carpet and falls flat into the harsh light.

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Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Movie Review: Johnny English (2003)

Rowan Atkinson throws Mr. Bean, James Bond and Inspector Clouseau in a blender to create Johnny English, a secret agent comedy with extremely familiar ingredients but mixed in the right proportions.

Incompetent British secret service agent Johnny English (Atkinson) is inadvertently responsible for the death of England's top spy, Agent One. English then flubs his security assignment at Agent One's funeral, allowing a bomb to kill most of MI7's other top spies. As one of the few surviving agents, English is pressed into field service to investigate a plot to steal the Crown Jewels.

English teams up with Agent Blough (Ben Miller) to investigate flamboyant French prison magnate Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich), who appears to have a nefarious plan to take control of England. Interpol Agent Lorna Campbell (Natalie Imbruglia) eventually joins forces with English and Blough as they race between England and France to stop Sauvage having himself appointed King and turning all of England into a prison.

Almost every set-piece scene in Johnny English is derived from another movie. The car chase, the cocktail party, the high-rise break-in, and the mansion infiltration are basic components of the genre, and director Peter Howitt lines them up and methodically checks them off, often with just enough of a funny twist to maintain the comic momentum. With three screenwriters sharing the credit, hard work went into punching up the script, but it still defaults to exactly what can be expected if Mr. Bean takes a run at James Bond.

Satirizing a series that rarely takes itself seriously is a risky business, but Atkinson makes the better moments of Johnny English work well, milking his ability to fake authority and project unconvincing confidence for all its worth, as he falls into every possible car-sized pothole on his way to becoming a national hero. Ben Miller gets the dubious privilege of playing the straight man to English's bumbling fool, and Natalie Imbruglia does her best impression of Barbara Bach in The Spy Who Loved Me as the exotic agent who teams up with English.

John Malkovich enjoys the compounded pleasure of letting loose with bucketfuls of villainy while portraying the French as the slimiest enemies of England in a performance that is all hair and dismissive European uppityness.

What Johnny English lacks in originality it makes up for in well-intentioned laughs and sharp delivery. English never figures out how to fire his handgun, but he nevertheless hits most of the intended targets.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Movie Review: The Muppets (2011)

A wafer thin exercise in nostalgia, The Muppets celebrates the frantically positive attitude of the 1970s critters, but fails to add anything new or worthwhile to remember.

Walter, a muppet, and Gary (Jason Segel) are brothers growing up in Smalltown. When Gary and his long-term fiancée Mary (Amy Adams) invite Walter along for a trip to Los Angeles, he is thrilled to finally have a chance to visit the Muppet Theater. But when they get there, they find the place abandoned and decrepit, and Walter overhears a plan by evil developer Mr. Richman (Chris Cooper) to buy the place, raze it to the ground, and drill for oil.

Walter races to find Kermit and convinces him to reunite the old gang, put on a Muppet Show telethon, and raise the required $10 Million to buy back the Muppet Theater. A road trip follows, and Kermit tracks down the likes of Fozzie Bear in a Reno dive struggling as a stand-up comic, Gonzo as a successful plumbing tycoon, drummer Animal undergoing anger management therapy in a group that includes Jack Black, and Miss Piggy as a fashion magazine editor in Paris.

The reunited muppets convince television executive Veronica (Rashida Jones) to broadcast the telethon. As preparations for the show get underway, Kermit and Miss Piggy try to sort out their feelings for each other, Walter struggles with his destiny, Gary has to decide if The Muppets or Mary are more important in his life, and The Muppets have to overcome Mr. Richman's attempts to disrupt their efforts.

While it's always great to enjoy time with Kermit and the gang, the generally forgettable songs and production numbers are directed at the very young, and the script (co-written by Segel) is utterly predictable and lacking in anything that can be construed as wit or genuine laughs. There are some self-depreciating moments, but they smack more of desperation than confidence.

Jason Segel channels Dick Van Dyke at his least convincing, an actor not able to move beyond portraying the role as anything more than entertainment at a party for six year olds. Amy Adams goes through The Muppets almost openly wondering what on earth she is doing.

A long list of names make cameo appearances, including Whoopi Goldberg, Alan Arkin, Emily Blunt, Neil Patrick Harris, Selena Gomez, Mickey Rooney and Judd Hirsch, in a case of too many well-wishers suffocating the party.

The Muppets is a reunion with long-lost friends: some warm memories are shared, but ultimately the experience does emphasize that yes, the world has firmly moved on.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Movie Review: Simone (2002)

A satirical look at the rampant power of movie stars and the diminished emphasis on artistic creativity and directors with vision, Simone (also known as S1m0ne) is engaging without ever rising above its basic premise.

The latest project of film director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) is falling apart: his leading lady Nicola Anders (Winona Ryder) throws a fit and quits the movie prior to completion. For his failed efforts, Taransky is fired by studio head Elaine Christian (Catherine Keener), who also happens to be his ex-wife. Hank (Elias Koteas), a trenchcoated creepy tech geek about to lose a battle with cancer, provides Taransky with sophisticated software that can create a lifelike virtual movie star. Taransky puts it to use, creates an alluring actress that he calls Simone (Rachel Roberts), a short form of Simulation One, and inserts her into his film in place of Nicola. No one notices that Simone is not real; the film is a huge success, and Simone becomes the newest movie superstar, albeit a rarely seen one.

Taransky's reputation is restored and he proceeds to place Simone in several movies, her popularity growing to international levels despite her rare public appearances, always remotely and tightly controlled and manipulated from behind the screen and keyboard by Taransky. Elaine rediscovers a sudden romantic interest in her ex-husband, and develops an insane jealously of the non-existent Simone. Eventually all the lies make Taransky's life as miserable as dealing with the likes of Nicola, but he finds that extinguishing Simone's career is much more complex than he could have imagined.

Although technologically Simone was quickly surpassed with the rapid evolution of sophisticated animation in real movies, its two messages do continue to resonate: fantasy may be easier to deal with than reality, and beware the most idealistic dream: it may just become real.

Taransky's initial intolerance of diva behaviour is understandable, and his virtual creation appears to satisfy all his wishes: Simone is perfectly compliant, and says only what is on Taransky's mind. Fantasy has its immediate attractions, and as much as director and writer Andy Niccol is applying this concept to dealing with stars carrying overinflated egos, the same is true for society as a whole, most notably in the escapism provided by the movies themselves as well the world of hide-behind-the-screen digital entertainment.

Also true is the power of creations to take over the world of their creators. In a story as old as (Victor) Frankenstein's monster, Simone eventually dominates Viktor Taransky's life to an extent that no self-obsessed human actress could have managed. It proves easier to unleash the fantasy than control its impact, and the virtual Simone creates overwhelmingly real trouble for Taransky.

Al Pacino does not need to stretch to bring Taranski to life, filled with faux victimization and grandiose ideals of his artistic merits. Simone carries a biting undertone of self-directed satire: Viktor is as insufferable as the stars that he complains about. Evan Rachel Wood as his daughter does well to ride the line between pleasantly precocious and annoyingly perfect, while Winona Ryder gets just two scenes, but is captivating in both.

The rest of the supporting cast is relatively bland, Catherine Keener's studio executive sticking close to stereotype and Rachel Roberts understandably remaining mostly a pretty face with a pixilated smile.

Simone entertains and poses interesting questions about the impact of virtual reality, but does not necessarily always find the most interesting of real-world answers.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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