Thursday, 31 May 2012

CD Review: Diabolical, by Naglfar (1998)

The second full-length album from Sweden's Naglfar, Diabolical delivers a basic set of nine melodic black metal tracks, competent enough but pointedly limited by the constraints of the genre.

The themes on Diabolical are repetitive and operate within the narrow range of chords that appear in traditional horror films scores. Guitarists Nilsson and Hansson strum away with all the vibrating glory afforded by tremolo picking, and vocalist Ryden pours his souls into the dangers-of-hell vocals. It all melds together within a muddy recording (not a surprise, with no producer credited) that doesn't help to define any hard edges or distinctive features.

The Brimstone Gate refreshingly breaks the black assembly line with a more melodic death metal structure and suddenly a purpose emerges with a defined destination. It is not very well sustained, but on this album, a little bit different is a lot better.  A Departure In Solitude is a soft keyboard-driven instrumental that also break the monotony, but it comes and goes quickly with the wispy lightness of dead leaf falling from a gloomy tree in the dark forest.

Album closer and title track Diabolical ends with tiresome silence and then an unintentionally hilarious appeal to the horned one himself. The trouble with black metal is the unending self-seriousness, and the limited escape routes once all the possible shades of black are exhausted.


Andreas Nilsson - Guitars
MadMorgan Hansson - Guitars
Jens Ryden - Vocals
Mattias Grahn - Drums
Kristoffer W. Olivius - Bass

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Horncrowned Majesty - 7
2. Embracing The Apocalypse - 7
3. 12'th Rising - 7
4. Into The Cold Voids Of Eternity - 7
5. The Brimstone Gate - 8
6. Blades - 7
7. When Autumn Storms Come - 7
8. A Departure In Solitude - 7
9. Diabolical - The Devils Child - 7

Average: 7.11

Recorded and Mixed by Nils Johansson.
Mastered by Pelle Henricsson.

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Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Book Review: Live From The Battlefield, by Peter Arnett (1994)

A journalist who helped to define how the world perceived the Vietnam War and then went on to usher in the era of live television coverage of war-in-progress, Peter Arnett has quite the story to tell. Live From The Battlefield is a romp through the history of hotspots in the second half of the twentieth century, as seen from street level where the bullets are hot and the dead bodies are bloated.

Born in New Zealand, Arnett meandered through South East Asia gaining early experience as a scrappy journalist before landing in Vietnam in the early 1960s. Working for the Associated Press and based in Saigon, he witnessed the American involvement grow from a handful of advisers to hundreds of thousands of troops. For an outside observer like Arnett, the conflict appeared muddled and unwinnable from the earliest days, and his honest reporting made him famous while unleashing the wrath of segments of the American political and military establishments.

Eager to seek out the front lines, Arnett saw first hand the conflict spiralling in unmanageable directions. He witnessed combat and its immediate aftermath, sometimes sharing foxholes with soldiers and often coming under heavy fire. His reporting from Vietnam eventually earned him the 1966 Pulitzer Prize. Arnett made sure to be in Saigon when it finally fell to the North Vietnamese troops, ending a remarkable 13 years of reporting on the war.

Reporting from bloody conflicts in Cyprus and Lebanon followed, before Arnett left AP and joined the fledgling Cable News Network when it was still a joke. But in 1990, the world of television news changed when CNN negotiated with Iraqi authorities to be the only network allowed to broadcast during the early days of the first Gulf War. 

With an international coalition invading Iraq to drive Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait, Arnett found his second destiny, remaining in Baghdad as most other journalist fled and placing CNN on the map by reporting live from Al Rashid hotel as the intense bombing campaign began. Later in the conflict, he was granted an interview with Hussein. Once again by reporting what he witnessed and dispelling the myth of a war without civilian casualties, Arnett was accused by some of siding with the enemy.

Live From The Battlefield is an animated read, Arnett packing into his professional life enough excitement to keep the pages turning quickly. The Vietnam section occupies more than half the book, and there are maybe a few too many descriptions of similar incidents, Arnett seemingly eager to recount every occasion when he went bouncing on dirt roads in search of the latest battle in the Vietnam countryside.

Arnett's recounting of his Baghdad experience is remarkable, providing the inside story of a young network's struggles with new technology, grappling with clunky satellite phones and generators, other reporters bailing at the last minute due to the reality of an intense bombing campaign hitting home, government minders attempting to censor his every word, and finally the exhilaration and terror of reporting live from the city as the bombs start to explode all around him.

The book's last chapter is from Kabul, Afghanistan, Arnett getting a taste of the chaos that ensued after the Soviets withdrew from their own Vietnam-like conflict, the armed Mujaheddin turning their American-supplied weaponry on each other and setting the stage for an echo blast that, unknown to Arnett in 1994, would land in the United States in 2001.

Live From The Battlefield is war experienced in the first person. Arnett is not too concerned with the backroom policies and causes of conflict. He is more concerned with outcomes and consequences, and they are often uglier than anyone cares to admit.

Subtitled: From Vietnam to Baghdad, 35 Years in the World's War Zones.
441 pages, plus Index.
16 pages of black and white photographs.
Published in hardcover by Simon and Schuster.

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Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Movie Review: Sleepers (1996)

An elaborate and dark story of child abuse and calculated revenge, Sleepers is complex, intense and satisfying. Regardless of whether the drama is based on true events, the movie offers a gripping and memorable experience.

On the tough streets of Hell's Kitchen in the 1960s, Lorenzo, Tommy, Michael and Johnny are four young mischievous teenaged boys exploring the world. The influential adults in their lives include Father Bobby Carillo (Robert De Niro) and the local undercover crime boss King Benny (Vittorio Gassman). A prank with a hot dog stand goes terribly wrong, severely injuring a bystander: the four boys are convicted and sentenced to serve time at the Wilkinson Home for Boys, an incarceration and rehabilitation centre.

The four friends are quickly singled out by the Wilkinson guards for special abuse. Sean Nokes (Kevin Bacon), the most ruthless of the guards, embarks on a campaign of emotional, physical and sexual abuse, with several other guards joining in. Father Carillo tries to stay in touch with Michael through regular visits, but the boys withdraw into a cone of silence and refuse to disclose the repulsive abuse that they are suffering.

Fourteen years after being released, Tommy (Billy Crudup) and Johnny (Ron Eldard) are gun-toting criminals. They stumble across Nokes, extract their revenge, and land in court, facing prolonged jail time if convicted. But in a twist of fate, Michael (Brad Pitt), now an Assistant District Attorney, is appointed to prosecute the case, while King Benny arranges for incompetent lawyer Danny Snyder (Dustin Hoffman) to represent Tommy and Johnny. Michael's involvement, with Lorenzo (Jason Patric) acting as a go-between, creates the opportunity for the Wilkinson facility abusers to be surreptitiously exposed in court as Michael tries to manipulate all proceedings to his advantage, but he will need the help of Father Carillo one last time.

Lorenzo Carcaterra wrote the book, and claims that the story is true. This has been disputed by various official sources who claim no records exist for the events described in the book. The controversy doesn't detract from the movie. Director Barry Levinson wrote the screenplay for Sleepers and delivers a moving, well-paced and refined film, neatly split into three thirds: the innocent context, the horrifying abuse, and the cold revenge. Each part has its own attraction, Levinson nurturing the drama from Hell's Kitchen through the torture chambers of Wikinson and finally to the court rooms of justice.

A superlative cast studded with stars elevates interest in the latter half of an already engrossing viewing exprience. Robert De Niro's Father Carillo is the only adult who interacts with Lorenzo, Tommy, Michael and John from childhood to the trial verdict, and at every stage he is instrumental in trying to help. Initially, his guidance meets with only partial success: Carillo tries to steer the boys onto the right path but they anyway fall foul of the law; once the boys are at Wilkinson, he tries to get them to talk about the reality of their incarceration, but they are unwilling to speak up. At the third try, Father Carillo is asked to make a phenomenally painful decision in the witness chair, and the destiny of the boys once again rests in his hands.

De Niro's performance is perfect, from a young priest all too personally familiar with the troubles that youth can get themselves into, to the old mentor handed the power to help his friends but at a significant personal cost.

Kevin Bacon is simply chilling as Sean Nokes. Arrogant, smug and heartless, Bacon gives Nokes an invincible aura of self-confidence that psychologically devastates his young victims. Hoffman revels in the stuttering eccentricity of Snyder as a man at peace with having been well-beaten by life. Snyder is Nokes' polar opposite, a has-been lawyer well past his sell-by date, not able to do much beyond reading the questions written for him by others. Brad Pitt rounds out the excellent cast as the adult Michael, a lawyer taking on the risk of his professional life to persecute his friends, generating the perception of wanting to win while plotting his own revenge agenda.

Jason Patric and Minnie Driver are less impressive, Patric struggling to find a place for the adult Lorenzo in the unfolding court drama, while Driver's Carol character seems to exist solely to provide some female relief to the otherwise all-male cast.

Revenge is a dish best served cold; Sleepers gets both the revenge content and the delivery temperature right.

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Monday, 28 May 2012

Movie Review: Dragnet (1987)

An attempted comedy that falters early, Dragnet never gains the necessary thrust and spirals ever downwards in a torrent of bad jokes and predictable set-ups. Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks do their best to maintain watchability, but they are just about flattened by the coarse material.

Sergeant Joe Friday (Aykroyd) holds his job with the Los Angeles Police Department in the highest regard, and is extremely proud of the City, its citizens, the police force, and the rule of law. Robotic in his mannerisms and strictly by-the-book in his actions, Aykroyd has to break in a new partner, Detective Pep Streebek (Hanks). Soon they are assigned to investigate a series of bizarre crimes perpetrated by a gang calling itself P.A.G.A.N., including the theft of the entire run of the latest edition of Bait magazine, owned by porn publisher Jerry Caesar (Dabney Coleman).

Friday and Streebek infiltrate the People Against Goodness And Normalcy and find a community of anarchists engaging in ritual human sacrifices. They rescue a virgin, Connie Swail (Alexandra Paul), who recognizes the reverend Jonathan Whirley (Christopher Plummer) as the evil cult leader. Friday loses his job due to over-enthusiasm in arresting the well-respected Whirley, leaving Streebek to find a way to rescue his partner's career and stop Whirley's nefarious plot to control both smut and godliness.

Intended as either a homage or a satire of the famous television series, Dragnet works as neither. The movie struggles against a pervasive stiff dumbness that no amount of star power can remedy, the script (on which four writers laboured, including Aykroyd) failing to generate any spark or wit. The entire exercise is meant to showcase Joe Friday's by-the-book method as a source of laughter, but instead of glittering Friday locks up all the entertainment into his cement personality, leaving the movie with an icy core.

Rather than saving the day and overcoming the lack of central warmth, Tom Hanks as Streebek is given little to do, since it's difficult to play the foil for a frozen cube. In the meantime, all the events are contrived to the point of abject boredom, as director Tom Mankiewicz lurches from one unfunny set piece to the next, with humour that would not get past most eight year olds.

The few good moments are provided by the smallest roles, Christopher Plummer chewing on juicy religious connivance, Dabney Coleman enjoying a Hugh Hefner-inspired bathrobe role and Alexandra Paul spraying her lack of talent all over the screen but nevertheless having fun with a wide-eyed performance as The Virgin Connie Swail.

Dragnet conclusively thumps its head against the bottom of the barrel with a dumbfounding showdown in which an army of bad guys suddenly wield machine guns and engage S.W.A.T. teams in a massive fire fight that would make Rambo proud. The superfluous battle, utterly not in keeping with all that came before it, is just the final admission that while Dragnet may have been seeking just the facts, what it found was a floundering debacle.

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Sunday, 27 May 2012

Movie Review: Delta Force 2: The Colombian Connection (1990)

Probably all that needs to be said about the quality of Delta Force 2: The Colombia Connection is that Colombia has nothing to do with the movie. Instead, this routine Chuck Norris action flick is set in the fictional country of San Carlos. It would not matter if the setting was a retirement home for the deaf in a suburb of Topeka: at the end of any Norris movie, Norris will blow up whatever the main set happens to be.

Drug lord Ramon Cota (Billy Drago) pretty much runs San Carlos, aided by the country's chief general and a weak president happy to turn a blind eye. Cota exports large quantities of drugs into the United States, and runs circles around the efforts of the Drug Enforcement Agency to put a stop to his activities. The DEA turns to Delta Force for assistance, allowing Major Bobby Chavez (Paul Perri) and Colonel Scott McCoy (Norris) to extract Cota into the US. He is promptly released on bail and immediately unleashes a vicious revenge on Chavez and his family, and takes a few DEA agents as hostages for good measure.

Enough being enough, McCoy and a small Delta Force contingent, with the help of the eccentric General Taylor (John P. Ryan) commanding a single helicopter, infiltrate San Carlos on a mission to raze the drug plantation fields, destroy Cota's mountaintop headquarters and rescue the hostages.

Arriving at the end of the era of mindless B-movie action shooters churned out by Cannon Films, and costing the lives of five crewmen in a tragic on-set helicopter crash, the sequel to The Delta Force is less ambitious, more routine and certainly more predictable. But the film does manage a couple of things well: Ramon Cota is a suitably abhorrent evil character, well portrayed by Billy Drago, and the Lee Reynolds script takes the necessary time to build him up into an enemy worth eliminating. As well, there are a couple of terrific martial arts sequences, the best a showdown between McCoy and Cota's chief henchman Carlos (played by Rick Prieto with a severe case of bad haircut).

But everywhere else Delta Force 2: The Colombian Connection lives down to the minimalist expectations, and then stoops even lower. Director Aaron Norris ensures that the helicopters never run out of rocket ammunition and that the same bad guy extras die a dozen times each; and captures dialogue straight from the school of monosyllabic muscular tough guys. The supporting actors are plucked from the "where are they know" files and the "hire anyone with a pulse willing to appear on film for next-to-nothing" system of casting. There is also a badly handled sub-story about a local woman who loses her husband and child to Cota's atrocities, but her long quest for revenge ends with an anticlimactic fizzle.

Topping off the list of absurdities is an astonishingly bad performance from John P. Ryan, who appears to have wandered onto the set thinking that this was an outright comedy. His General Taylor alternates between touch-feely, goofy and just plain deranged, and in another script he would be the bare-assed asylum escapee pretending to be a military man. Depending on the definition of entertainment, John P. Ryan as General Taylor is almost reason enough to watch Delta Force 2.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Movie Review: Papillon (1973)

A true story of prison escape and the dogged pursuit of freedom, Papillon is both rousing and inspiring, enriched by an engaging Steve McQueen performance.

The film recounts the true story of Henri Charrier, a Frenchman convicted in the 1930s of murdering a pimp and shipped to serve his time in the grim Devil's Island prison off the coast of French Guiana. Charrier, nicknamed Papillon because of the large butterfly tattoo on his chest, always claimed his innocence, and immediately starts to plan his escape. Recognizing that access to money is essential to bribe guards and buy influence, Papillon befriends fellow prisoner Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman), a forgery expert with large reserves of cash.

But an aggressive attitude and the hostile environment thwart his many escape attempts and land Papillon in deeper trouble, including a long stint in solitary confinement that almost kills him. Undeterred, he regains his health and again escapes, this time making it to a leper colony and onto a stretch of freedom with a native tribe, before being recaptured and confined to another long stint in solitary confinement. Despite his advancing years, Papillon is a man who never gives up on freedom and yet again starts to plan another daring escape.

The lack of a back story is the one weakness in the film: Charrier is only introduced as a convict, a man thirsting for freedom to right an injustice. With a running time of 150 minutes, the character deserved a comprehensive background to deepen empathy and strengthen the bond of caring. Otherwise, Papillon gets everything else right.

McQueen made his name as the most famous prisoner in The Great Escape, another fact-based prison drama. Here, he takes the prison life and the love of freedom to another level, the Papillon character challenging common sense to repeatedly defy the odds and seek all possible ways to break the shackles. McQueen combines his typical tough and cool persona with increased humanity, and his latter scenes as the aged Charrier, bowed but not beaten and still seeking a seemingly impossible escape, are particularly touching and memorable.

Dustin Hoffman leaves less of an impression, the role of Louis Dega apparently bulked up for the sake of the movie, leaving Hoffman somewhat struggling for purpose and ultimately almost reduced to the role of tottering comic side-kick.

Director Franklin J. Schaffner adapted Charrier's 1969 best-seller with respectful elegance, the movie taking the necessary time to reveal the intense emotional and physical suffering beneath the bedraggled prison garb, and brimming with impressive scenery at once beautiful and oppressive.

The jungles of Devil's Island are a spectacular prison, and the confinement buildings are epic examples of monuments constructed to ensure the suffering of tough men. Schaffner finds the perfect setting of daunting rock bluffs and churning water for Papillon's final, death-defying escape attempt, and as an exclamation point allows McQueen to perform an eye-popping stunt.

A defiant and invincible spirit refusing to settle for anything short of absolute freedom and willing to suffer through any pain to achieve it, Papillon is proof that although it may take years, when there is a strong-enough will, there is usually a way.

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Friday, 25 May 2012

Movie Review: A Genius, Two Partners And A Dupe (1975)

Arriving right at the end of the spaghetti western era, A Genius, Two Partners And A Dupe contains elements from both the best and the worst of the genre. The last western that Sergio Leone was involved on, he hated the final product and pulled his name from the movie. A Genius, Two Partners And A Dupe is not all that bad, but it could have been so much better.

Joe Thanks (Terence Hill), a creative quick-draw, teams up with the half-breed bandit Steam Engine Bill (Robert Charlebois) and Steam Engine's girlfriend Lucy (Miou-Miou) to steal $300,000 from the evil and racist Major Cabot (Patrick McGoohan). Not much goes according to plan, forcing Joe to constantly update his strategy to outwit the Major.

Leone directed the opening scene, a brilliantly sly echo of the magical pre-credit sequence in Once Upon A Time In The West, and also co-produced the movie. Otherwise he entrusted Damiano Damiani to deliver what should have been another epic of greed, betrayal, and larger-than-life drama.

Unfortunately, A Genius, Two Partners And A Dupe frequently loses its identity in the quest for laughs to suit the Terence Hill persona. Joe Thanks veers too far towards comedy and audience winks, undermining the serious business of trying to construct a memorably weighty western. The result is a disjointed experience, some epic moments paralyzed by awfully misdirected attempts at slapstick.

Two examples summarize the film shooting itself in the foot: a gun-fight between Joe Thanks and Doc Foster (Klaus Kinski, in a brief role to satisfy the German financial backers of the film) is provided with a long, clever, and intense build-up, only for the scene to be destroyed by a climax not even worthy of the local amateur circus act. Later in the movie, Thanks is captured by Major Cabot and held prisoner at a remote fort, oozing with possibilities. However, the escape scene deserves to be in a Benny Hill skit rather than a serious motion picture.

Some of the Monument Valley scenery is breathtaking, and the score by Ennio Morricone is a definite plus, reaching a breathtaking climax on the superlative Cavalcata. Morricone magically melds Beethoven's Fur Elise with his traditional spaghetti western themes in an act of musical wizardry, as Steam Engine takes control of a team of horses on a runaway wagon and Joe Thanks gives chase.

Leone intended the film to be a recreation of the magical quirkiness of the 1974 French movie Les Valseuse, which featured Miou-Miou with two competing outlaw lovers. But ultimately, A Genius, Two Partners And A Dupe in more of an attempt to bolt the grandness of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly with the coarse comedy of the Trinity movies.  It doesn't quite work, but there is some fun to be had in the trying.

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Thursday, 24 May 2012

CD Review: Too Fast For Love, by Motley Crue (1981)

Three young guys and one older dude get together in Los Angeles, dress up as women, mash together an album called Too Fast For Love and go on to help create the scuzzy and doomed glam chapter in the history of heavy metal.

Motley Crue did not know much about playing instruments or creating good metal, but they knew how to party and convey a wild sense of living for the moment, to hell with the future. Fuelled by large amounts of drugs and alcohol, the raunchy image and imbecilic lyrics connected with a lost Sunset Strip generation looking for any rebellious heroes to worship, talent optional.

Initially released by the band in1981 (all of 900 copies), Too Fast For Love was re-sequenced, re-mixed and re-released in 1982 after the band was signed by Elektra Records. It doesn't really matter: Motley Crue offer energy and willingness, but little else. Descendants of the Kiss school of all image and limited ability, the band bash away to no great effect, creating instantly forgettable music suffocated by lyrics that induce acute cringing.

Tracks like Come On And Dance reveal a band barely out of the garage stage, with some of the most awkward use of cowbells ever to make it onto a metal album emphasizing embarrassingly juvenile song-writing. Piece Of Your Action only sounds good because it entirely rips off the Scorpions' riff from Coast To Coast. The better tracks like Live Wire and Take Me To The Top distinguish themselves by avoiding the threshold of extreme irritation.

Too Fast For Love marks the beginning of an era when alcoholic sex and drugs left metal far behind, the sordid benefits of music celebrated before being earned.


Vince Neil - Vocals
Mick Mars - Guitar
Tommy Lee - Drums
Nikki Sixx - Bass

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Live Wire - 7
2. Come On And Dance - 5
3. Public Enemy #1 - 6
4. Merry-Go-Round - 6
5. Take Me To The Top - 7
6. Piece Of Your Action - 7
7. Starry Eyes - 6
8. Too Fast For Love - 7
9. On With The Show - 6

Average: 6.33

Produced by Motley Crue.
Engineered by Gleen Felt, Azi Kipper, Robert Battaglia.
Mixed by Gordon Fordyce.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Alfred Hitchcock remakes his 1934 thriller into a lush, widescreen adventure. The Man Who Knew Too Much makes excellent use of exotic settings, playful chemistry between Doris Day and James Stewart, and the brisk story of an average man sucked into an international assassination plot.

Dr. Ben McKenna (Stewart), his wife Jo (Day) and their young son Hank are Americans on vacation in Marrakesh when they encounter the mysterious businessman Louis Bernard (Daniel Gelin). Louis asks a lot of questions and answers few, but nevertheless suspiciously cozies up to the McKennas. Also on vacation and staying at the same hotel are fellow tourists Lucy and Edward Drayton (Brenda De Banzie and Bernard Miles).

While touring a market, the McKennas witness Bernard being chased and assassinated with a knife to the back. With his dying breath, Bernard whispers to Ben clues to an assassination plot about to unfold in London. To make a bad day worse, while Ben and Jo attempt to explain themselves to the local police, Hank is inexplicably kidnapped. The McKennas need to travel to London, uncover the true identity of the Draytons, disrupt the assassination, and rescue their son.

It is irrelevant that the plot details of The Man Who Knew Too Much do not stand up to too much scrutiny. Hitchcock's focus is on planting an average couple already in a strange land into an extraordinary situation, and watching them try to wriggle their way out of trouble. Central to the movie is the relationship between Ben and Jo, and James Stewart and Doris Day excel in portraying a loving, sometimes bickering, and realistically resourceful couple. Neither Ben nor Jo turn into superheroes, and they make plenty of mistakes. Their support and trust for each other are the only weapons that they can rely on, and their ordinariness is what makes the movie special.

Stewart delivers his typical laid-back but thoughtful everyman persona, while Day is radiant in perhaps her most nuanced screen role. Loyal to her husband to the point of abandoning a glamorous stage career to raise a family in Indianapolis, there is nevertheless a steely no nonsense core of determination to Jo, and a sharp instinct that allows her to smell the trouble surrounding Louis Bernard long before Ben recognizes the danger. The rest of the cast is made up of character actors who do not detract from the stars, and neither do they get in the way of the film as a spectacle.

The film is as much a feast for the eyes as it is for ears. In addition to vivid colours delivered by cinematographer Robert Burks, The Man Who Knew Too Much may be the closest that Hitchcock came to a musical thriller. Day's character is a semi-retired musical stage performer, and the song Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be), winner of the Best Song Academy Award, is performed twice and plays an integral part in bringing to life Jo's deep connection with Hank. The film's tense climax includes a long scene at the Royal Albert Hall, with 12 minutes of no dialogue as the assassination plot unfolds and the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bernard Herrman, plays Arthur Benjamin's cantata Storm Clouds, an apt metaphor for the turmoil being endured by the McKennas.

Before the camera tricks, the moments of outright terror and the screeching musical effects, The Man Who Knew Too Much demonstrated that Hitchcock was also the master of the thoroughly polished suspense thriller.

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Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Movie Review: Massacre At Grand Canyon (1964)

An American-style western made by Italians and filmed in Yugoslavia, Massacre At Grand Canyon has neither the original earnest spirit of the genre nor the stylistic panache of the soon-to-be-rampant spaghetti westerns. It is just an unfortunately bad film, lost between cultures.

After being away for two years to avenge the death of his father, Wes Evans (James Mitchum) returns home to find a brewing battle between two powerful families. The Whitmores and the Dancers are ready to kill each other over a land dispute, and to make matters worse, Wes' former sweetheart Nancy (Milla Sannoner, billed as Jill Powers) has gone and married Tully (George Ardisson), the meanest of the Dancers.

In anticipation of the killing to come, both families assemble a large number of allies, with the Dancers also hiring mercenaries in the form of the evil Mason brothers. Initially reluctant to become involved, Wes eventually inserts himself into the fracas, but ultimately cannot stop an all-out meat grinder of a battle at a canyon bottleneck.

Co-directed by Sergio Corbucci (credited as Stanley Corbett) and Albert Band, Massacre At Grand Canyon was re-released in 1965 in an to attempt and cash-in on the snowballing interest in Italian-made westerns generated by A Fistful of Dollars. But no amount of re-branding was going to save this self-doubting wreck from deserved oblivion.

The film retains some obscure interest due to Corbucci's subsequent success in delivering some of the better non-Leone spaghetti westerns, but he has claimed that his participation on Massacre At Grand Canyon has been exaggerated, and his contributions were limited to a few scenes. No one can blame him for trying to distance himself from this mess. A horrible script, wooden acting, a dire music score, and several scenes of hilariously inept fist-fighting add up to a dull, cheap experience. The muddled climax features a massive cliff-to-cliff shooting spree between four groups, with scores of horses, hundreds of shooters, and thousands of bullets, all filmed with zero flair.

James Mitchum, Robert's son, sleepwalks through the movie with a singular bemused expression on his face, doubtless wondering if this whole acting thing is really for him. As lacking as Mitchum is in talent, he is by far the most interesting thing to watch in the movie, the rest of the actors delivering hopelessly amplified performances worthy of the silent era and barely registering even in the lower reaches of future spaghetti western acting lists.

Massacre At Grand Canyon should have been kept buried in the forests of Yugoslavia, far from the eyes of innocent viewers.

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Monday, 21 May 2012

Movie Review: This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

A rock mockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap is comedy at its sharpest. Poking loving fun at the world of heavy metal, director Rob Reiner and his cast of willing ad libbers cut a swath of biting satire that spares no target in the crazy music and touring world.

Documentary director Marty DiBergi (Reiner) sets out to capture an inside-look at the latest North American tour of British heavy metal legends Spinal Tap. Childhood friends Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) and David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) created the band in the 1960s, with Nigel the guitar wizard and David the guitarist / vocalist. Along with bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) they form the core of the band, while a succession of drummers have come and gone, most of them meeting inexplicably violent endings (including self-combustion). The band is trying to revive their fortunes in North America with a tour to coincide with the release of their latest album, Smell The Glove.

[Nigel is playing a soft piece on the piano] 
Marty DiBergi: It's very pretty. 
Nigel Tufnel: Yeah, I've been fooling around with it for a few months. 
Marty DiBergi: It's a bit of a departure from what you normally play. 
Nigel Tufnel: It's part of a trilogy, a musical trilogy I'm working on in D minor which is the saddest of all keys, I find. People weep instantly when they hear it, and I don't know why. 
Marty DiBergi: It's very nice. 
Nigel Tufnel: You know, just simple lines intertwining, you know, very much like - I'm really influenced by Mozart and Bach, and it's sort of in between those, really. It's like a Mach piece, really. It's sort of... 
Marty DiBergi: What do you call this? 
Nigel Tufnel: Well, this piece is called "Lick My Love Pump". 

With manager Ian Faith (Tony Hendra) doing his best, the tour starts in New York and moves west, and it is soon apparent that all is not well. Dates are cancelled due to low attendance, the release of the album is delayed amidst a row with the record label about the cover art, and tensions start to tear the band apart. These intensify when David's girlfriend Jeanine (June Chadwick) joins the tour, antagonizing both Nigel and Ian. With DiBergi's cameras capturing a band in freefall, the venues become smaller and stage mishaps become commonplace, including a malfunctioning futuristic pod trapping Derek and a wrongly-sized Stonehenge monument transforming the band into a laughing stock.

Guest and McKean create memorable rock stars, capturing the posturing, fake arrogance, and blankness behind the attempts at intelligence that only come from simple blokes achieving overwhelming success in an artificial world, and not quite knowing what to do with it. Their acting is brilliant, never less so than when they reminisce about the band's early years and start humming their earliest famous tunes, with genuine looks of joyful nostalgia.

Nigel Tufnel: The numbers all go to eleven. Look, right across the board, eleven, eleven, eleven and... 
Marty DiBergi: Oh, I see. And most amps go up to ten? 
Nigel Tufnel: Exactly. 
Marty DiBergi: Does that mean it's louder? Is it any louder? 
Nigel Tufnel: Well, it's one louder, isn't it? It's not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You're on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you're on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where? 
Marty DiBergi: I don't know. 
Nigel Tufnel: Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do? 
Marty DiBergi: Put it up to eleven. 
Nigel Tufnel: Eleven. Exactly. One louder. 
Marty DiBergi: Why don't you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder? 
Nigel Tufnel: [pause] These go to eleven.

Reiner assembles the movie with the loving care of a documentary filmmaker, mixing live performances with the band's mounting on-stage and off-stage disasters, interviews with the band members, backstage and hotel room arguments and terrific black and white footage of Spinal Tap's earliest television appearances. In the process Spinal Tap becomes an incredibly real band, and This Is Spinal Tap is elevated from satirizing the subject matter to a brilliant satire of the documentary genre itself.

The comedy in This Is Spinal Tap is legendary. Nigel describing the speakers with volume knobs that go to eleven; Nigel having trouble with the platter of cold cuts and small bread squares; Derek performing an entire song trapped in a pod while a technician frantically attempts to pry it open; the band getting lost on their way from dressing room to stage; the elves dancing around the Stonehenge monument; and the ever worsening tour venues, including an Air Force base and finally an amusement park.

David St. Hubbins: I do not, for one, think that the problem was that the band was down. I think that the problem may have been, that there was a Stonehenge monument on the stage that was in danger of being crushed by a dwarf. Alright? That tended to understate the hugeness of the object. 
Ian Faith: I really think you're just making much too big a thing out of it. 
Derek Smalls: Making a big thing out of it would have been a good idea.

It's all perfectly delivered with a straight face, both the subjects and makers of the documentary caught in the moment, putting the bravest face on events spiralling ever downwards. And farcical as it sounds, most real bands can fully identify with many of the film's most inventive moments.

This Is Spinal Tap is clever and witty in both form and content, an admirable blurring of fiction and reality in a sly musical package.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

CD Review: Killing Is My Business...And Business Is Good!, by Megadeth (1985)

Recently fired from Metallica and eager to prove that he is faster, badder and louder, 23 year-old Dave Mustaine quickly cobbled together a new band, scrounged a few dollars from independent record label Combat Records, blew most of the money on drugs, and recorded Megadeth's debut. Killing Is My Business...And Business Is Good! is a foundational album in the history of thrash, with two blazingly brilliant tracks, an incredible amount of difficult-to-grasp speed, and plenty of underdeveloped ideas.

The first two tracks together showcase a band intent on reshaping the metal landscape, with a unique combination of fearless energy and mature song-writing. Last Rites / Loved To Deth starts with an unforgettable evolution of Bach before exploding into a furious riff careening down rusty rail tracks with only one possible outcome: legendary status. The combination of speed and rage is stupendous, and rarely has a band announced an arrival with a more devastating album opener. Killing Is My Business...And Business Is Good! pulls back ever so slightly on the speed in favour of power, but once it ignites, it also shoots into a barely comprehensible trajectory of excellence.

The rest of the album was always going to struggle to maintain the quality of the first eight minutes, and while the material is good, it is constrained by a truncated development. Tracks such as Rattlehead and Chosen Ones have kernels of solid ideas, but they remain relatively uncultivated. Mechanix is better, Mustaine's composition from pre-Metallica days showing the benefits of nurturing rather than rushing.

The album closes with a cover of These Boots, with altered lyrics. It eventually gained notoriety for the dispute with original composer Lee Hazlewood, who termed Mustaine's version "vile and offensive", resulting in its deletions from some re-issues, and bleeping of the altered lyrics on the 2002 CD re-release. The controversy is more interesting than both the original and the cover.

Killing Is My Business...And Business Is Good! in many ways foreshadowed Megadeth's defining album characteristic: a few superlative tracks combined with many routine compositions, undermining the value of the overall package.


Dave Mustaine – vocals, guitar
Chris Poland – guitar
Dave Ellefson – bass
Gar Samuelson – drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Last Rites / Loved To Deth - 10 *see below*
2. Killing Is My Business...And Business Is Good! - 10
3. The Skull Beneath The Skin - 7
4. Rattlehead - 7
5. Chosen Ones - 7
6. Looking Down The Cross - 7
7. Mechanix - 9
8. These Boots - 7

Average: 8.00

Produced by Dave Mustaine and Karat Faye.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Movie Review: Missing In Action 2: The Beginning (1985)

One of Cannon Films' cheaper efforts in a catalogue full of cheap movies, Missing In Action 2: The Beginning stumbles around in the jungle for 100 minutes, looking for reasons to portray the Vietnamese as increasingly evil torturers and the American captives as innocent victims. When Chuck Norris as Colonel Braddock decides that he has had enough, he kills everyone, blows up the place and moves on to the next mindless action movie.

The prequel to Missing In Action is a single-set, single-idea movie: Braddock and a group of other American prisoners of war are held for years at a Vietnamese prison camp ruled by the vicious commander Colonel Yin (Soon-Tek Oh). In a battle of wills deep in the jungle, Yin wants Braddock to admit that he committed war crimes, and Braddock will endure all sorts of suffering and not do so.

Spotting a helicopter re-supply plane as the opportunity to escape, Braddock finally wages a one-man war on the camp, eliminating all guards, forcing a final confrontation with Yin, and bundling the few surviving POWs onto the chopper for a flight to freedom.

The only positive aspect of Missing In Action 2: The Beginning is that it demonstrates admirable restraint: the all-out fire-fights, explosions, and mass killings are only unleashed in the final 25 minutes. The core of the movie is a deliberate ratcheting up of hate towards Colonel Yin and his guards. Yin enjoys torture, and subjects Braddock and his fellow prisoners to everything from fake Russian roulette to hanging them upside down by the ankles (and as an added extra for Braddock, with a canvass bag tied around his head and occupied by a hungry rat).

The main question that remains unanswered, not that it really matters, is how Braddock remains so bulked-up and physically resilient after years of living on prison rations. The impossibilities of one man killing hundreds of guards, seemingly by being in several locations at once, and rigging the entire place with explosives without being noticed, are not questions that need to be raised for this category of film-making.

Filled with actors who never belonged on the large screen and directed by Lance Hool (previously an actor and usually a producer, but in this class of movies, you save money where you can), Missing In Action 2: The Beginning fully deserved to remain locked up in the jungle.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Thursday, 17 May 2012

Movie Review: The 'Burbs (1989)

A promising first half fizzles badly in the second half. The 'Burb is half of a good film, succeeding in painting a typically eccentric picture of life in the suburbs before disintegrating into a muddled mass murder mess.

In a seemingly quiet suburb, Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks) is on vacation. Much to the disgust of his wife Carol (Carrie Fisher), he decides to spend his time off lounging around the house, watching television and snooping on the goings on in the neighbourhood. His neighbours include Mark (Bruce Dern), who is still fighting the Vietnam war; Art (Rick Ducommun), who has too many conspiracies and not enough good sense; and the young Ricky (Corey Feldman), who seems to be in the movie just to attract the younger demographic and whose absentee parents are never quite explained.

Ray is most intrigued by the reclusive new owners of the decrepit house immediately next to his. Loud noises and strange lights are emitted from their basement in the middle of the night. When they are spotted, the owners look like escapees from a 1920s lunatic asylum. And it doesn't help that they appear to be digging up their yard past midnight to either bury or retrieve dead bodies. Ray, Mark and Art start poking their nose deeper into the affairs of the house horrors.

Director Jo Dante can do little with the Dana Olsen script that starts brightly but fades without warning. The opening 45 minutes of The 'Burbs is an entertaining introduction to the lives that live behind every hedge, exaggerated for effect but nevertheless recognizable enough from any real-world subdivision. Tom Hanks is effective as everyman, not quite aware of a creeping mid-life crisis, bored with life but content to burn his vacation by chilling out in his suburban haven. Bruce Dern is over-animated but quite funny as Mark, highly strung but coping with it thanks to the distracting charms of his wife Bonnie (Wendy Schaal). Rick Ducommun's Art is the annoying neighbour, with an answer for everything and knowledge of nothing.

The back-end of The 'Burbs unfortunately throws away most of the good work and becomes a faux horror journey into the bowels of a creepy house, complete with hints of macabre medical experimentations, basement cremations, and human bones in the back yard. None of it is explained, as Olsen and Dante throw all logic out with the trash and surrender to juvenile instincts. As every suburbanite knows, manicuring the front lawn while abandoning the back yard to a pile of junk fools no one.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Movie Review: Gypsy (1962)

A musical biography, Gypsy is all about Rose Hovick, the mother of celebrated stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, rather than the story of Gypsy herself. A tad self-indulgent, the film nevertheless hits many high notes.

It's the 1920s, and Rose (Rosalind Russell) is the prototypical stage mother, desperate for her young blonde daughter June to achieve success on the vaudeville circuit. Older daughter Louise is less talented and apparently not suitable for life as a star. Rose was never herself successful, but teams up with minor show business promoter Herbie Sommers (Karl Malden) and stops at nothing to place June in the middle of a tacky show that achieves modest success, with Louise very much on the sidelines.

June grows into a teenager but Rose, terrified of ever growing old, still treats her like a child. June reacts by suddenly getting married and fleeing her domineering mother. Rose is left with no choice but to turn all her attention to Louise (Natalie Wood). An unexpected detour into a cheap burlesque theatre in Kansas exposes Louise to the art of stripping: to her mother's horror, Louise finds something that she is good at. She adopts the stage name of Gypsy Rose Lee and her career as a stripper takes off.

Gypsy is 143 minutes long, and it's highly questionable whether there is enough story to fill almost two and half hours of screen time. Director Mervyn LeRoy, adapting the book based on the stage play inspired by a book, instead packs the movie with songs, most of them sung by Russell, and too many of them the same: the theme of never giving up, battling the odds, striving for success, and wanting it all is repeated in various guises, and once Rose's resolute persona is set, her songs become predictable and teeter on tiresome.

But Rose is a such a powerful personality that the film gets away with it. The role model for any mother wanting to trample all over her children's lives to fill the void in her own, Rose is overbearing and relentless. She dupes her own father, drags her children across the country, insists on treating the teen-aged June like a baby, reacts to losing June by setting up Louise as a straight swap regardless of the gap in talent, leaves Herbie hanging for years without committing to him, and is finally resentful rather than happy when Louise achieves success. Rose's destructive blind ambition is such that any mother watching Gypsy would instantly feel better about herself.

Natalie Wood has relatively little to do but does it well. It is only in the final quarter of the film that the persona of Gypsy Rose Lee emerges from the wreckage of Louise's psyche, and Wood as Gypsy immediately brightens the movie. Finally a star in her own right and not because of her mother's incessant pushing, Gypsy shines on stage and quickly graduates from tacky to glamorous locales. That after all the years of struggle Rose sees nothing in Gypsy's success except her own left-behind agony is confirmation of her abject self-obsession.

As Herbie, Karl Malden has the thankless role of being drawn to Rose's thorny personality and holding out for the day when she will see in him more than just another stage enabler. Herbie is patient and resilient, and Rose takes full advantage.

LeRoy manages to sufficiently break Gypsy out of its stage confines, although it remains very much an artificial set-bound production. The gloss of the meticulous sets overpowers the attempts at recreating the grim reality of struggle on the second rate vaudeville tour scene.

The musical numbers are plentiful and serviceable but rarely soar. They are also generally short, so although the interruptions are plenty, they do not overstay their welcome.

Gypsy is a grand celebration of a larger than life mother, with destiny delivering a distorted realization of a dream. Yes, one of her daughters achieves stardom, but Rose never anticipated neither the art form nor the emptiness that remains when the success of others fails to conceal the failure of her own life.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Movie Review: St. Ives (1976)

An attempt to create an ultra-complicated blackmail story in the style of The Big Sleep, St. Ives stumbles early and often, quickly becoming incomprehensible. There is nowhere near enough style or magnetism to rescue the hopelessly convoluted script, and despite some reasonable moments, the film eventually melts into a puddle of irrelevance.

Abner Procane (John Houseman) is old, rich, playful, and in trouble. Someone has stolen some of his important documents, and is demanding $100,000 for their return. Procane hires struggling crime writer Raymond St. Ives (Charles Bronson) as the go-between to handle the pay-out, but what was to be a straightforward swap of cash-for-documents goes immediately wrong, with a dead body twirling inside a laundromat drying machine and police officers Deal (Harry Guardino) and Oller (Harris Yulin) crawling all over St. Ives as their main suspect.

As St. Ives attempts to find the killers and uncover the importance of the missing documents, he delves deeper into Procane's business, and finds the mysterious Janet Whistler (Jacqueline Bisset) and the creepy Doctor Constable (Maximilian Schell) constantly hovering around Procane, seemingly up to no good. From then on, the body count rises, with St. Ives always arriving at the scene of each successive murder in time to be embroiled further into the growing mess.

Although Bronson never looks comfortable trying to portray a man up unwittingly up to his knees in dead bodies and dense conspiracies, he is nevertheless the best thing that St. Ives has going for it. He moves smoothly enough through the carnage while rarely being fully convincing.

Jacqueline Bisset seems fully aware that her role is "the striking beauty with something to hide", and that's all she has to go on. If Janet Whistler's actual relationship to Procane and the missing documents was ever clarified, it came too late in the knotty narrative to matter, mush less register. John Houseman and Maximilian Schell go through St. Ives trying hard to remember which characters from other movies they should be channelling, and generally failing.

Of interest are the brief appearances of Jeff Goldblum and Robert Englund (the future Freddy Kruger) as hoods hired to hunt down and murder St. Ives.

Director J. Lee Thompson, a long way removed from the glory days of The Guns Of Navarone, comes nowhere close to creating the necessary air of mystery or finding a suitable style for the movie. Thompson and Bronson would go on to collaborate eight more times, cranking out increasingly dim-witted and routine action sludge.

St. Ives is left with a few moments of Bronson charm to remind us that he is better than the material, and a reasonable tag line: He's clean. He's mean. He's the go-between. Clever, but it's always dangerous when the poster is better than the film it's trying to promote.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 14 May 2012

CD Review: Led Zeppelin III, by Led Zeppelin (1970)

Two classic tracks, and a lot of forgettable acoustic noodling.

Released almost exactly a year after Led Zeppelin II, and the group's third album in 22 months, Led Zeppelin III finds the band clearly running short of meaningful inspired ideas, the initial burst of creativity having run its course. Led Zeppelin III does feature Immigrant Song and Since I've Been Loving You, both brilliant examples of Led Zeppelin's genius. The rest of the album is a misguided detour to the land of dreamy fairies, where insomnia goes to find a cure.

Immigrant Song opens the album and lasts all of 2.5 minutes, Plant wailing away with naked intent as John Bonham and John Paul Jones carve a mammoth ravine with an unstoppable drums / bass combo assault.

Since I've Been Loving You is a startling 7.5 minute marriage of blues and metal, richly orchestrated to a cavernous depth of sound to back-up Plant's agonized vocal delivery, while at 3:40 Jimmy Page launches into mystical guitar solo that weeps with torment. Throughout the duration of this epic, Bonham bashes out a thunderous slow beat on the drums to shatter any possible thoughts of distraction.

There is little else here worth remembering. Mostly acoustic, all of it meandering, and none of it purposeful, it's the band at their most experimental. The material demands patience and an open mind, and still frustrates more than entertains. Yes, it's Zeppelin so it's always interesting, but the remaining eight tracks are conspicuous by their ultimate ordinariness, sometimes dipping into bland self-absorption.

Led Zeppelin III will never be accused of being the band's highpoint. But the two worthwhile tracks do take their place among Zeppelin's long catalogue of absolute gems.


Jimmy Page - Guitar
Robert Plant - Vocals
John Bonham - Drums
John Paul Jones - Bass

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Immigrant Song - 10
2. Friends - 7
3. Celebration Day - 7
4. Since I've Been Loving You - 10
5. Out On The Tiles - 6
6. Gallows Pole - 7
7. Tangerine - 7
8. That's The Way - 6
9. Bron-Y-Aur Stomp - 7
10. Hats Off To (Roy) Harper - 6

Average: 7.30

Produced by Jimmy Page.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Movie Review: Moneyball (2011)

Interesting, but not that interesting. The evolution of baseball into a sport that makes use of advanced player analytics, spearheaded by the 2002 Oakland Athletics, receives a marginally engaging but overblown treatment in Moneyball. The result is a sputtering, bloated film that sparkles intermittently but succeeds in largely suffocating its subject matter.

The Oakland Athletics have an unexpectedly successful 2001 season but fall short in the play-offs. General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is then helpless as all his star free agents are snapped up by higher profile, bigger-market teams that are able to offer large salaries. Convinced that the Athletics need to try a new approach to rebuild and remain competitive on a small budget, Beane recruits statistical whiz-kid Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) as his new Assistant. Brand's philosophy in recruiting players is to ignore all intangibles that make up baseball's rich folklore and focus purely on the most relevant player statistics to look for undervalued, cheap-to-sign players.

Against the wishes of his senior scouts and much to the disgust of team manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Beane and Brand assemble a motley crew of overlooked, over-the-hill, and under-the-radar players. The 2002 season starts horribly, but eventually the Athletics gel and go on an impressive win streak to get back into contention for post-season play.

Based on the Michael Lewis book, this story did not require 133 minutes of screen time to be told. A good 25 to 35 minutes needed to be trimmed from Moneyball to keep the focus on the essentials. But Director Bennett Miller and screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin are in love with their own work, and they layer on the padding to no great purpose. Attempts to round out Billy Beane by showcasing scenes with his daughter and adding flashbacks from his time as a fringe professional player clumsily get in the way of the core story, tripping up the main message.

And despite the long length, Moneyball loses its own narrative: were the 2002 Athletics ultimately better than than the 2001 team, in terms of on-field achievement? Halfway through the 2002 season Beane is shown instinctively ditching players recruited according to Brand's methods, and engaging in old school wheeling and dealing. The Athletics' season is subsequently transformed, throwing into doubt the efficacy of the premise.

And what was the lasting legacy of what Beane and Brand introduced? The closing screens inform us that the Boston Red Sox adopted the player assessment techniques introduced by Oakland and won the 2004 World Series, so is the conclusion that rich teams are now even stronger, combining wealth with a strong understanding of the statistical analysis needed to assemble a winning team? Are baseball's small market teams therefore any further ahead?

Brad Pitt delivers his usual magnetism, but goes through the movie looking for more meaning than the material offers. More interesting is Jonah Hill's Peter Brand, but he is given much less to do. Where the film would have benefited from some character depth and background, none is provided for Brand, clearly an interesting outsider to baseball's arcane culture.

Moneyball's best moments are the inside perspectives on the workings of the major league ball club, from the scout meetings to the dressing room shenanigans, and the sometimes hard conversations that need to be had between players, coaches and managers. The on-field scenes are handled well, with radio and television commentary used to good effect to describe the importance of the unfolding action.

In a case of ambition stretching the material too thin, a smaller and more compact treatment would have been so much more satisfying. Moneyball drives awkwardly for the fences, but settles for a stumbling double.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Movie Review: Singin' In The Rain (1952)

A celebration of song, dance, and Hollywood history, Singin' In The Rain has an infectious positive energy, and a young, celebratory attitude.

In the late 1920's, Hollywood is transitioning from silent to talking movies. Screen couple Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are the biggest stars of the silent era, and they face contrasting fortunes. Lockwood has the talent to continue his career, but Lamont's screechy voice is a deathblow to her future as a movie star. In the meantime, Lamont believes the studio hype that she and Lockwood have a real-life relationship; in reality, he is falling in love with young struggling actress Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds).

With the latest Lockwood and Lamont film release facing financial disaster unless it can be quickly turned into a talkie, Lockwood's sidekick Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor) comes up with the idea of having Selden provide the voice-over for Lamont. Lockwood builds on this and converts the film into an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza. But the jealousies between Lamont and Selden threaten to side-swipe all their careers.

The plot is funny, interesting and romantic, but it is just a side-show. Singin' In The Rain is a collection of terrific, innovative song and dance numbers, transitioning the Hollywood musical into a new era, and in many ways setting the stage for what would become the high-energy music video in decades to come. Gene Kelly, who co-directed with Stanley Donen, projects a self-depreciating persona while infusing the dance numbers with unbridled joy and enthusiasm. He finds the perfect partners in the impossibly rubbery and quick-witted O'Connor, as well as the spunky and willing Reynolds.

Make 'Em Laugh, Singin' In The Rain, and Good Morning are just some of the classics re-imagined and revived in vivid colours and with creative props, Kelly, O'Connor and Reynolds attacking physically demanding numbers with conviction and a smile. Late in the movie, Kelly inserts the long Broadway Melody Ballet scene, with Cyd Charisse putting her endless legs to excellent use, in a sequence which has nothing to do with the plot but that at the same summarizes everything about Singin' In The Rain: brash, modern, and vivacious.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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