Sunday, 29 July 2012

Movie Review: Network (1976)

A tragi-comic condemnation of the transformation of television news into entertainment, Network is scathing satire at its finest, a talkfest with a lot to say delivered by a cast of performers in peak form.

Veteran news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) of the fictitious UBS network is two weeks away from retirement. Depressed, he has an enraged on-camera meltdown and threatens to kill himself live on the air the following week.

His boss and friend Max Schumacher (William Holden), the head of network news, is horrified, as is Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), the chief representative of CCA, the bottom-line obsessed conglomerate that owns UBS.  Hackett demands that heads should roll, but Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), head of programming, spots an opportunity: Beale can be transformed to an angry modern day messiah, the news broadcast re-imagined as an entertainment spectacle with Beale the centrepiece railing nightly against all the world's injustices.

Walking a fine line between theatrical and genuine madness, Beale delivers another on-air rant with the signature line I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!, galvanizing the viewing public and delivering a huge ratings boost to his new show. Meanwhile, Christensen starts a romantic entanglement with Schumacher, threatening his marriage to wife Louise (Beatrice Straight).

Diane also keeps pushing UBS towards new boundaries of entertainment, insisting on broadcasting a show that celebrates the real-world criminal activities of a far-left group. With Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), the head of CCA, taking a personal interest in Beale's show, events on the air and behind the scenes hurtle out of control, with lives and careers careening towards an unmanageable wreck.

Directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Paddy Chayefsky, Network is a tour de force of smart commentary about the influence of commercialism on television. Built around a series of startling monologues seamlessly intertwined within the story arc of television's descent to the lowest common denominator, Network is a spellbinding experience.

Chayefsky won the Academy Award for original screenplay, and he pinpoints the corporate influence on television as an irresistible force in the wrong direction, the investment of huge dollars demanding a return and driving decisions towards satisfying the basest instincts.

With a new generation of executives exemplified by Faye Dunaway's Diana Christensen much more interested in television news as a money-making show rather than an avenue for the distribution of essential  information, the old school are brushed aside or nonchalantly abused.

Christensen is a most intriguing character, Dunaway winning the Best Actress Academy Award for portraying a charming, driven, passionate, smart, persuasive, impatient and extremely lonely woman. She recognizes her strengths and weaknesses, and matter of factly states that her need to satisfy emotional and physical urges has more in common with men than women. Her relationship with Schumacher is a desperate attempt to bridge generations, both finding in each other everything that they lack and all that they cannot tolerate.

Finch also won the Best Actor Academy Award (posthumously) for the much more showy role of Howard Beale, a man at the centre of the drama but only in the sense of wishing to go out with a bang and being mercilessly used by everyone around him. Schumacher is his only friend, and yet even Max's acquiescence to Howard's requests for continued air-time contribute to Beale's mounting insanity. Certainly Schumacher's liaison with Diana represents sleeping with the ideological enemy.

Robert Duvall and Ned Beatty are extraordinary representations of the new corporate voice dominating programming decisions through ambitious talent like Christensen, and both get to deliver wall-shaking speeches confirming a new world order in which the almighty pursuit of money and ratings trumps all, although when Beatty's Arthur Jensen gets involved, even profit takes a back seat to the on-air glamorizing of the corporate agenda.

The depth of talent and the quality of performances extracted by Lumet extended to Beatrice Straight, who famously won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for the briefest of roles. During her limited screen time she delivers a sharply emotional monologue as Louise Schumacher attempts to decide if her marriage is worth saving.

Network predicted television's demise to a freak-show dominated race to ratings, a condition that continues to paralyse most of the medium. Chayefsky took television's demise to its extreme, forecasting exclamation marks of exploitation and violence that would only come to fruition a couple of generations later.  Network not only shone the spotlight on television's current and future failures, but also brilliantly exposed the human predilection to descend into the soul nullifying pursuit of the wrong objective.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Movie Review: Absence Of Malice (1981)

In the afterglow of the newspaper industry's greatest movie triumph as captured in All The President's Men, the other, darker powers of the press received a grilling in Absence Of Malice. The destructive powers of wayward journalism are examined in a partially muddled film that gets sidetracked too easily and trips over its own attempted cleverness.

Newspaper journalist Megan Carter (Sally Field) gets an inside scoop about the investigation into missing union boss Joey Diaz: the police task force is focusing on Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman), the son of a notorious underworld crime boss, as a possible suspect. Carter runs with the story, naming Gallagher despite no evidence linking him to the Diaz disappearance. With union bosses refusing to deal with him while he is under a cloud, Gallagher's legitimate business is ruined.

Intent on finding out how she got her story, Gallagher pursues Carter, but she refuses to reveal her sources. Gallagher's friend Teresa Peron (Melinda Dillon) steps forward to reveal that she can vouch for Gallagher's innocence, but a tragedy is triggered when her story is made public, further straining the relationship between Michael and Megan. Nevertheless they embark on a romance, while Gallagher hatches a plan to turn the tables on the press, the Diaz case investigators, and the District Attorney's office.

Absence Of Malice raises a few good points, grappling with serious questions as to when and why does a story become fair game, the merits of the public good against the rights to privacy, and the bumpy relationship between criminal investigations and the press.

But the film also suffers from self-inflicted wounds, director Sydney Pollack uncharacteristically allowing many distractions to reduce the overall impact. Cramming an awkward romance, lazy journalism, a Hoffa-style missing union boss mystery, a scandalous abortion, a press-triggered suicide, sprinkles of commentary about feminism, and finally a clumsy turning-of-the-tables sting results in a narrative that spreads in all directions, none of them effective.

There are long scenes of dialogue between Michael and Megan that start nowhere and spiral only downwards, with their romance artificially sparking regardless of the lack of wit and their continuous bickering. Newman and Field never find anything resembling chemistry, and that the stuttering affair between them ends up occupying the most amount of screen time is evidence of the film's lost focus.

Newman is stony-faced but at least convincing as a private man thrust into the unwanted public limelight. Field struggles throughout, simply lame as a journalist who turns opportunities into mistakes, demonstrating poor judgement at every turn. Field is equally implausible as a romantic partner for Newman, doing absolutely nothing to gain his affection after brutalizing his life.

The Absence Of Malice supporting cast is strong and helps to carry the film through its rougher patches. A highlight is Wilford Brimley as an Assistant Attorney General and designated mess cleaner, memorably bursting into the story in the final 15 minutes with a formidable energy. Melinda Dillon has a short but effectively melodramatic role, a woman with all the doors in her life already closed and the final window about to be slammed shut. Bob Balaban as the Diaz task force leader and Don Hood as the District Attorney add single-mindedness and some self-righteous sleaze.

Absence Of Malice tries to be an important film about serious topics. It succeeds sporadically, but bites off more than it can chew and chokes on some of the essential nutrients.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 27 July 2012

CD Review: Dead Harvest by This Ending (2009)

The second studio album from Sweden's This Ending, Dead Harvest carves out an intriguing blend of melodic death metal, heavy on controlled double bass pounding, haunting melodies, and Martin Hansen vocals that scratch against abandoned gravel surfaces.

This Ending solidify their identity with an oft-used drum sound best resembling a wooden shutter flapping in a ferocious wind storm. It's an unmistakable signature sound for the band and Fredrik Andersson deploys it on almost every track. Meanwhile, Jesper Lofgren's bass is an aging bulldozer powering its way out of a mud field, using a singularly impressive gear.

This Ending's guitar sounds, courtesy of the Linus Nirbart / Leo Pignon tandem, play on the edge of death metal and its cheerier melodic cousin, finding a level of comfort where some showmanship is required but dark consistency is more valued.

Dead Harvest strikes precious metallic gold on four tracks, Parasites, Army Of The Dying Sun, Dead Harvest and Tools Of Demise reaching impressive peaks of magnificence. Combining the perfect medium-fast tempo with doom laden melodies, thunderous drums and judicious use of those ever-threatening double bass beats, the four tracks pack a suitcase of invaluable metal cargo.

Parasites is the most commanding, the guitars combining machine gun efficiency with the drum-delivered artillery to produce an irresistible force. Army Of The Dying Sun opens with threatening snare drums reminiscent of Scorpions' classic Crossfire, and builds up to a melody caught in two minds between dominance and annihilation. Title track Dead Harvest riffs on the most playfully brooding melody on the album, a dance of death kicking up a loud party at the graveyard. Tools Of Demise is a domineering march down main street, This Ending taking over the city and imposing a 24 hour curfew of dread.

The rest of Dead Harvest is never less than polished but not nearly as memorable. It matters little: there can be no complaints when the bull's eye is punctured on four tries out of ten.


Martin Hansen - Vocals
Linus Nirbrant - Guitar
Leo Pignon - Guitar
Fredrik Andersson - Drums
Jesper Lofgren - Bass

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Trace Of Sin - 7
2. Parasites - 10 *see below*
3. Machinery - 7
4. Instigator Of Dead Flesh - 7
5. Delussionists - 7
6. Army Of The Dying Sun - 10
7. Dead Harvest - 10
8. Tools Of Demise - 10
9. Deathtrade - 7
10. The Asylum - 7

Average: 8.20

Produced, Engineered and Mixed by Linus Nirbrant and This Ending.
Mastered by Bjorn Engelmann.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Movie Review: The Patriot (2000)

After fighting the English on behalf of Scotland in Braveheart, Mel Gibson moves forward a few centuries and re-engages the same enemy. In The Patriot he battles on behalf of a free America in the War of Independence. The era may be different, but the story is the same: an initially reluctant man is drawn into the middle of a violent conflict to serve the cause of freedom, and helps to define the course of history.

It's 1776, and the American Revolution is boiling. Benjamin Martin (Gibson) is a plantation owner in South Carolina, initially reluctant to join the cause for the sake of staying with his young family. His boys are more eager to fight, and his eldest son Gabriel (Heath Ledger) joins the revolution despite his father's protestations. When Gabriel is injured and younger son Thomas is killed in cold blood by the brutal English Colonel William Tavington (Jason Isaacs) of the Green Dragoons, who burns the Martin household for good measure, Benjamin joins the fight.

A seasoned warrior and veteran of the French and Indian War, Martin joins forces with Gabriel and they organize a militia including the French soldier Jean Villeneuve (Tcheky Karyo) and Reverend Oliver (Rene Auberjonois). While Martin's friend Colonel Harry Burwell (Chris Cooper) commands the more conventional Continental Army, Martin and his men adopt effective hit-and-run, guerrilla-style ambush tactics against the English, targeting officers and disrupting supply lines. Martin ears the nickname "the Ghost" for striking and disappearing without a trace. As his reputation grows, Tavington and Lord Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson), the General in charge of the British Army, decide to target the families of Martin's militia members to flush him out of hiding.

Although several characters are inspired by real historical figures, with Benjamin Martin a composite of American revolutionaries including Francis Marion and Colonel Tavington drawing on Banastre Tarleton, The Patriot does not pretend to be based on true events. The War of Independence featured no fewer atrocities than any other war, but The Patriot does push the limits of credibility with some excessive brutalities by Tavington, including a difficult-to-watch massacre of unarmed civilian accused of assisting the revolutionaries.

Mel Gibson delivers his charismatic, reluctant hero persona with smooth ease and the well-practised polish, a man pushed into action, carrying both a violent history and a dangerous skill set. The combination with Ledger is a classic older and wiser man / younger and more attractive guy pairing designed to appeal to a wide demographic, and it works well. Ledger's Gabriel is as idealistic as he is handsome, in many ways a younger Gibson, Gabriel carving his way through the carnage of a brutal war the way Gibson navigated the post-apocalyptic future of the Mad Max movies.

Jason Isaac as Colonel Tavington and Tom Wilkinson as Lord Cornwallis are both hungry for the spoils of war, but for the most part represent diametric opposites of the war rules spectrum. Cornwallis is old-fashioned and more likely to demand that battles follow the rules of chivalry. The detestable Tavington makes for quite the villain, Isaac conveying his icy enjoyment of killing and elevating him to an enemy worthy of Benjamin Martin's most virulent wrath.

Roland Emmerich directs with an eye on balancing characters with action for the duration of nearly three hours, and he succeeds in alternating scenes of meaningful human interaction with many interludes of intense, gory action. The Patriot allows both Benjamin and Gabriel to discover romance and find love with worthy women (Joely Richardson and Lisa Brenner respectively), and a large cast of supporting characters are allowed the space to make their mark between the deadly musket fire and flying limbs of the battlefields.

The Patriot is an old fashioned, grand spectacle of war for a cause. It makes up for some lack of originality with star power and an unflinching presentation of battle carnage.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Review are here.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Movie Review: Rules Of Engagement (2000)

A military martial court drama, Rules Of Engagement assembles pieces from other, better movies and serves them at lukewarm temperature. The soldier on trial for doing what he thought was his duty. The underdog old lawyer with a past and a drinking problem. The smarmy politicians eager for a scapegoat. And the jingoistic celebration of misplaced American patriotism and bravery in the face of hordes of enemies.  Rules Of Engagement is almost embarrassingly oblivious to the countless movies that have been there, and done that.

Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson) and Lawrence Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones) fought together in Vietnam of 1968, Childers ultimately saving Hodges' life in a bloody encounter that psychologically damaged Hodges to the point that he abandoned combat service and became a military lawyer. Fast forward to 1996, and Childers is now a hardened Colonel, selected to lead a Marine airborne unit on a mission to evacuate the US ambassador in Yemen, besieged in his own embassy and surrounded by a demonstration turning hostile.

The Ambassador is evacuated, but the Marines come under fire. Eventually, Childers orders them to fire back, and at the end of the carnage, 83 Yemeni civilians are dead, and America's reputation in the region is taking a pounding. The politicians run for cover, Childers is charged with murder, and he requests that Hodges lead his defence, with the central question being whether there was hostile fire coming from the demonstrators, or did Childers order the killing of unarmed civilians.

A film that artificially hides its central fact is always in trouble, and Rules Of Engagement ridiculously conceals the basic information related to what Childers saw before he ordered his men to return fire. But the problems in the Stephan Gaghan screenplay run deeper, exemplified by a stupifying bare-knuckled punching fight between Childers and Hodges, Jackson and Jones appearing genuinely embarrassed by the scene. Some fundamental questions are barely asked and never answered, such as even if Childers believed the demonstrators to be armed and hostile, why did he not resort to tear gas, stun grenades, or even warning shots prior to unloading live ammunition into the heart of the dense crowd.

It is difficult to understand what director William Friedkin, Jackson and Jones are doing in this movie, but their combined efforts at least result in a basic level of competence. Friedkin is much more comfortable with the early action scenes, first in Vietnam and then Yemen, injecting the latter with good tension and capturing the chaos in the eye of a hostile situation. He is much less interested in the courtroom scenes, and once Rules Of Engagement settles down to a predictable courtroom drama, the sizzle seeps out.

Jones and Jackson are stuck with predictable military characters, Hodges the stereotypical bag of damaged goods and Childers the all-action soldier hero misunderstood by the world. Ben Kingsley has a brief role as the Ambassador, cowering under his desk and then participating in the political cover up to hang the mess on Childers. Anne Archer gets an even smaller role as the Ambassador's wife, and Philip Baker Hall is superfluous as Hodges' father.

Whether in the battlefields or the courtrooms, the rules here are bent and broken.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Movie Review: The Mosquito Coast (1986)

More interesting than good, The Mosquito Coast tackles a descent into insanity and throws in a few opinions about the eternal battle between religion and science. The film occasionally engages the brain but never the heart.

Allie Fox (Harrison Ford) is a barely employed inventor specializing in innovative refrigeration devices, and convinced that the United States is headed for a rapid and catastrophic decline. Allie packs up his wife (Helen Mirren, referred to only as "Mother") and four kids, including young teenager Charlie (River Phoenix), and they board a boat headed to Belize. On the journey they meet Reverend Spellgood (Andre Gregory), a missionary also heading to Belize with his family, including daughter Emily (Martha Plimpton). Allie immediately despises the Reverend, but Emily has eyes for Charlie.

In Belize, Allie purchases the rights to a tiny village called Jeronimo buried deep in the jungle area known as the Mosquito Coast. He sets about building a new society from scratch and improving the infrastructure to the bewildered delight of the locals. As his crowning achievement, Allie builds a massive ice-making machine, which changes the fortunes of Jeronimo, introducing food storage capability and an ice export industry. But Allie's opinion of himself is rapidly expanding, and his hubris ultimately triggers a downturn in his fortune and that of Jeronimo. As madness creeps in, Allie starts to endanger all that he has worked to build, including the trust of his family, and he hurtles towards another unplanned confrontation with the Reverend.

Paul Schrader adapted the Paul Theroux novel, but was unable to conjure up any sympathetic characters to hang the story on. Allie Fox is brilliantly inventive but also cranky, whiny, and self-absorbed, never pausing to consider the implications of his impulsive actions on his perpetually suffering family. His downward spiral towards arrogance-driven self-destruction evokes no sympathy, just confirmation of the obviously predictable. Harrison Ford is fully engaged with the character and works well with what he has, but fails to generate the warm connection necessary to trigger caring.

Helen Mirren and River Phoenix have little to do except be victimized by Allie's erratic actions, and the roles of Mother and Charlie barely evolve throughout the movie. Both take forever to decide on any sort of a stand against the massive disruption to their lives caused by Allie, almost to the point of deserving their fate.

Director Peter Weir creates a hectic and dense jungle environment for The Mosquito Coast, the external surroundings mirroring the endangered beauty inside Allie Fox's head. Weir's pacing is slow and deliberate, in a story where ultimately relatively little happens.

The tension between science and religion is exposed sparingly, and this is an area that The Mosquito Coast could have exploited more fully to prod the drama along. The intellectual conflict between Allie and Reverend Spellgood sparkles in the few scenes where the issue bubbles to the surface, but unfortunately the debate and its implications are never sufficiently sustained.

It's not easy capturing a mind stepping over the boundary of rationality and into the incomprehensible quicksand of madness. Weir works well with Harrison to make the most of it, but in The Mosquito Coast the abnormal behaviour is relatively obvious from the start and trips up any opportunity for empathy: the characters take just a bit too long to recognize the obvious.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Movie Review: The Fugitive (1993)

The classic television series is turned into a taut big screen thriller. The Fugitive is the story of a doctor wrongly accused of murdering his wife, and the movie is injected with a large dose of sweet adrenaline thanks to Tommy Lee Jones' legendary portrayal of the relentless US Marshal Gerard.

Doctor Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) arrives at his Chicago home to find an intruder with a prosthetic arm killing his alluring wife (Sela Ward). In the tussle that follows, the killer escapes, and Kimble is convicted of murder and sentenced to death. In a stroke of fortune, the bus transporting him to the federal prison facility is involved in a botched escape attempt instigated by other inmates, causing a horrific crash. Kimble finds himself miraculously free and on the run in the wilderness. Uncompromising Federal Marshal Samuel Gerard (Jones) and his team coordinate the manhunt for Kimble, now considered an escaped felon.

Kimble is barely able to stay one step ahead of Gerard, but in a brief encounter he insists that he is innocent of killing his wife. Hotly pursued, Kimble takes a risk by returning to Chicago. He seeks the help of former colleagues including Doctor Charles Nichols (Jeroen Krabbe), and then takes it upon himself to investigate hospital records to identify the man with the prosthetic arm. He also finds time to save the life of a patient under the care of Doctor Anne Eastman (Julianne Moore). As Gerard closes in on him, Kimble uncovers the conspiracy behind his wife's murder, and Gerard has to confront the new reality that the man he has been chasing may have been wrongly convicted.

The Fugitive is not perfect. The plot involving the falsification of test results for a new drug to benefit greedy pharmaceutical corporations and their sleazy doctor friends is half-baked, and the resultant attempt at explaining the connivance behind Helen Kimble's murder is a rushed mishmash of confusion. But in The Fugitive, the evil behind the murder is very much a secondary concern, well behind the thrill of the chase and the battle of wits behind two equally determined men. And director Andrew Davis nails all the elements related to the central chess game between Kimble and Gerard.

Kimble is a bewildered victim pushed to the limit by events greater than himself, but always retaining his humanity as he embarks on a mighty struggle to prove his innocence. It is one of Ford's better career roles, combining desperate thinking on the fly with interludes of well-oiled tension and sprinkles of unconstrained action.

As good as Harrison is, Jones runs away with the movie. The Jeb Stuart and David Twohy screenplay insists on making The Fugitive a chase propelled by two engines, and they build-up Gerard's personality into a cool, aggressive, and deadly law man, ferocious in the chase, attentive to details, a hard task master, three steps ahead of his team, eloquently egotistical, and quick with the witty remark. Jones deservedly won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award, and the role helped to revitalize his movie career.

Sela Ward does not get much to do. She is mostly seen in flashbacks and then in various reinterpretations of Helen Kimble's death scene. Julianne Moore inexplicably receives a high billing but has less than five minutes of screen time as a harried doctor who encounters Kimble as he snoops around the hospital.

But when action is needed, Davis delivers, starting with a most impressive bus/train crash sequence, full of squealing, trundling metal and featuring the narrowest of escapes, giving Kimble his shot of freedom at the expense of having to deal with Gerard.

In The Fugitive not only is the chase better than the catch, the hunter and the prey are equally captivating.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Movie Review: Bruce Almighty (2003)

A clever comedy with a strong cast, Bruce Almighty delivers laughs while probing issues of free will and the natural human proclivity to look out for self-interest prior to appreciating the benefits of the greater good.

Baltimore TV reporter Bruce Nolan (Jim Carrey) is desperate to land the position of news anchor. Instead, the station is happy to keep assigning him feel-good community stories to make use of his natural comic talent, and the anchor position goes to his nemesis Evan Baxter (Steve Carell). Feeling extremely sorry for himself and upset at what he perceives to be God's lack of attention to his needs, Bruce is fired for an on-camera melt-down and has a huge fight with his girlfriend Grace (Jennifer Aniston).

Bruce receives a mysterious phone number on his pager, and it leads him to an encounter with God (Morgan Freeman) at an abandoned but remarkably well polished building. God gives Bruce a chance to do better at managing life's affairs by providing him with divine powers. Bruce wastes no time in selfishly using these powers to seduce Grace and embarrass Evan, while enhancing his own reporter credentials by uncovering Jimmy Hoffa's grave site. But when it comes to meaningfully helping himself and others, Bruce discovers how difficult it is to fulfill the simplest of human aspirations, even with all the powers of God at his disposal.

Bruce Almighty has plenty of bravado, screenwriters Steve Koren, Mark O'Keefe,and Steve Oedekerk not satisfied at portraying God but going further and finding plenty of comic material in exploring what happens to mere mortals when provided with God-like powers. The comic elements mesh well with the message of taking personal responsibility before whining about divine failure. Director Tom Shadyac uses a light touch to mix the ingredients, the comedy remaining brisk and the lessons inferred rather than hammered.

Jim Carrey co-produced Bruce Almighty, and plays Bruce with just a touch of hysterical God-blame, enough to provide leeway for some classic moments of Carrey physical comedy. And when he does obtain God's powers, Bruce defaults to the expected behaviour from a man with a large chip on his shoulder, fixing what he perceives to be the wrongs in his life prior to even noticing what anyone else may need.

In support, Steve Carell, in one of earliest screen roles, demonstrates plenty of the comic potential that would catapult him into his own starring roles. Jennifer Aniston is confined to the typical, underdeveloped cute girlfriend role, Grace never explaining why she is hanging out with a Bruce who is initially so filled with negative hate towards his life.

There is no more distinguished and capable actor to play God than Morgan Freeman, and he adds plenty of class to Bruce Almighty with a performance emphasizing benevolence with just a hint of mischievousness.

Bruce Almighty has the power to entertain, and uses it wisely.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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