Sunday, 30 September 2012

Book Review: The Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton (1969)

A micro-biology techno-thriller, The Andromeda Strain reaches for high-tech thrills but gets bogged down in scientific minutia and fails to sustain its opening momentum.

A secretive military space program designed to gather potential extraterrestrial biological warfare agents from space backfires when a satellite carrying a hitherto unknown lethal bug crash lands in the tiny community of Piedmont, Arizona. Other than an old man and a baby, all the inhabitants are killed. A covert high-tech government lab, code-named Wildfire and built with the sole purpose of researching and neutralizing new biological and chemical threats, is activated.

Scientists Stone, Hall, Leavitt and Burton are the four men tasked with analyzing the new lethal organism, named Andromeda. In a race against time, a range of tests are run to determine the composition and method of infection, and the two Piedmont survivors are probed and examined to determine why they resisted the bug and stayed alive when no one else in Piedmont did. Meanwhile, on the surface, other deaths and suicides are attributed to Andromeda, as the infection takes on strange new characteristics.

The first book that Crichton released under his own name, and written in faux documentary style complete with more than 3 pages of scientific "references", The Andromeda Strain suffers from several tiresome deficiencies. An inordinate amount of descriptive text is invested in describing the endless underground levels of the Wildfire facility, including the security and decontamination procedures between levels. All this is thrown to naught in the novel's frantic ending, in which breaching the levels is achieved in a matter of seconds.

Crichton also fails to provide his four scientists with sufficiently distinctive personalities, and they all generally remain faceless and interchangeable as they toil away in the underground labs. And the underground labs is where most of the action in the novel takes place, as an endless array of experiments are run to determine what Andromeda is and how to possibly stop it. Too little of the puzzle is revealed during the course of the book, Crichton breathlessly shooting all his arrows in the final 20 pages. The tension hardly builds, since the mystery of the first 10 pages remains the same stubborn puzzle 300 pages later, Crichton failing to play with layers of complexity.

The book is, however, comfortable with technology, Crichton convincingly describing the advanced edges of the science of microbiology, and the latest tools (circa 1969) that could be deployed to understand and neutralize the dangers posed by nature's tiniest creatures.

The Andromeda Strain tries for slick and smooth science, but is tripped up by too many bugs.

360 pages.
Published in paperback by Harper.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Movie Review: Murder, My Sweet (1944)

A film noir with a detective hard boiled to dry humour and a femme fatale curved to kill, Murder, My Sweet is a classic and classy example of the genre. The adaptation of Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely maintains a sharp briskness and enough of a grip on coherence to allow style and structure to register a comprehensive triumph.

Private detective Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) is hired by the gigantic but slow Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) to find a long lost girlfriend named Velma Valento, a former performer at a low class dance joint. Although Velma's trail has long since gone cold, Marlowe uncovers unusual attempts to protect her identity. Marlowe is then immediately hired by a distinguished gentleman named Lindsay Marriott for a seemingly unrelated case: helping to pay a ransom for the return of an expensive necklace belonging to rich socialite Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor), the wife of a wealthy - and much older - collector of precious jade.

Marlowe (narrating): It was a nice little front yard. Cozy, okay for the average family. Only you'd need a compass to go to the mailbox. The house was all right, too, but it wasn't as big as Buckingham Palace.

Soon a murder is committed, Marlowe is implicated, and the mysterious Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger) teams up with Moose -- still looking for Velma -- and they both go after Marlowe and the necklace. With the police closing in and Marlowe drugged and pumped for information, the only grounded person in the case appears to be Helen's stepdaughter Ann (Anne Shirley), although even she is not beyond strange antics to grill Marlowe for her own purposes.

Marlowe: Now this is beginning to make sense, in a screwy sort of a way. I get dragged in and get money shoved at me. I get pushed out and get money shoved at me. Everybody pushes me in, everybody pushes me out. Nobody wants me to DO anything. Okay, put a check in the mail. I cost a lot not to do anything. I get restless. Throw in a trip to Mexico. 

Dick Powell is no Humphrey Bogart, but his version of Philip Marlowe is just as good. While Bogart is more bullish, Powell adds a curly sarcasm that invites more vulnerability, humanizing Marlowe in a world full of steely eyed criminals and blundering cops. The plot of Murder, My Sweet requires Marlowe to be repeatedly knocked around and blacked out, not a situation that Bogart would have been good at. Powell plays along, bouncing back up after every bump on the head to further antagonize the humourless perpetrators.

Marriott: How would you like a swift punch on the nose? 
Marlowe: I tremble at the thought of such violence.

Claire Trevor oozes deadly charm and surplus sexuality, tying men into tight knots and flicking them off with emotionless ease. Helen's elderly husband and two almost equally elderly lovers clearly see nothing past her allure, leaving her free to race up the ladder to a life far away from her humble origins. Marlowe of course sees right through her, but that does not mean he doesn't keep her guessing whether his lust or brains will win the battle for control.

Helen: I find men *very* attractive. 
Marlowe: I imagine they meet you halfway.

Anne Shirley is the requisite innocent girl trapped in a world run by sleaze merchants, and her Ann provides Marlowe with a simple lighthouse of morality around which he can navigate. Equally easy to understand is Moose, and professional wrestler Mike Mazurki gives him a perfectly lumbering and slow-witted presence, a man whose fists can almost solve any problem that his limited intellect cannot fathom.

Edward Dmytryk floods Murder, My Sweet with the colours of black and white, with headlights, lamp lights, fog, shadows, mirrors, glass reflections, and doorways tactically deployed to confound the layered mystery. Moose's entry scene, reflected and magnified to epic proportions in the dark window behind a startled Marlowe, is exquisitely chilling.

Blackmail, sex, lust, illicit affairs, drugs, evil doctors, a missing woman, and a gigantic knucklehead. And of course, Murder, My Sweet. All in a day's work for Philip Marlowe.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Movie Review: The Cowboys (1972)

A coming-of-age-on-horseback story, The Cowboys is a western trail movie about boys becoming men by facing the rigours of a cattle drive. John Wayne, still barking commands from the saddle at age 65, is the ultimate grizzled grandfather figure, guiding a group of teenagers through the one-way canyon connecting children to adulthood.

Cattleman Wil Anderson (Wayne) needs to deliver his large herd 400 miles across rough terrain to market, before the winter sets in. With all the local cowboys preoccupied with the latest gold rush, Anderson has to turn to local 13 to 15 year old schoolboys for help, including Slim Honeycutt (Robert Carradine) and his friends. Another teenager, the sullen Cimarron (A Martinez) is not part of the school group and carries a large chip on his shoulder, but eventually joins the drive.

With the resourceful black cook Jebediah Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Browne) as the only other adult, Anderson leads the young amateur cowboys on a grueling journey, where they will battle the natural elements and tangle with barbarous rustlers led by the deranged Asa Watts (Bruce Dern).

The Cowboys carries a blunt message: the path from child to man passes through suffering, loss, drink, women, revenge and violence. Somewhat metaphorical perhaps, but definitely crude. The screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. adapts the William Dale Jennings book, and any nuance is muffled in the gleeful shooting spree that the kids precipitate to earn their badge of manhood.

Easier to cheer is an enjoyable John Wayne performance. The stunt doubles are obviously doing all the physical work, but the Duke still dominates the screen and most other characters who dare to share his frame. Director Mark Rydell knows where the film's best asset rides, and gives Wayne's character plenty of leeway to throw his authoritarian weight around.

Roscoe Lee Browne adds a large dose of distinguished wisdom as the magnificently named Jebediah Nightlinger, Browne employing his booming voice and mysteriously honourable persona to achieve the almost impossible feat of standing up to Wayne's screen presence. Bruce Dern is western evil personified, a scumbag waste of oxygen not worthy of his horse, but alive long enough to cause substantial misery.

The kid actors are generally fine, although precious little screen time is dedicated to developing individual personalities. Other than the marginal career of Robert Carradine, none would parlay The Cowboys into sustained movie roles. Slim Pickens and Colleen Dewhurst round out the cast with relatively minor contributions.

The Cowboys misses several opportunities to enhance its narrative. A potentially interesting sub-plot about Anderson losing his own kids remains an untended green shoot, while the interesting character of Cimarron is stripped of his dangerous edge soon after joining the drive.

The Cowboys is left with an experienced veteran doing his best to elevate the movie beyond its brusque message. The west may have been a tough place to grow up, but celebrating blood thirst as a passage to manhood is not altogether necessary.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

CD Review: Unquestionable Presence, by Atheist (1991)

Modern jazz meets early death metal in Unquestionable Presence, and it's an uneasy courtship. On their second studio album, Florida's Atheist are not afraid to experiment and fuse together two disparate musical genres, but the relaxed vibe of jazz rubs just the wrong way against metal's aggression.

Unquestionable Presence only rarely pokes its head above the muddle, and then only when the metal elements are allowed to flex. Opening track Mother Man provides enough sense of doom to trigger a happy sense of dread, Steve Flynn's drums all over the walls while the guitars of Shaefer and Burkey shine the flashlight in all the wrong directions. Enthralled In Essence starts with a surrender to a melody that quickly turns out to be a ruse, but there is enough metallic structure for the track to stretch. Album closer And The Psychic Saw starts out as perhaps the closest thing on the record to a full-on celebration of metal, but the track, at close to 5 minutes, proves longer than what the band can handle and it frequently gets lost in aimless meanderings.

The other five tracks bounce between unfocused jazz and manic metal, rarely settling down into any sort of momentum-building rhythm. The technique is sound and the innovation evident, but the journey seems to turn on itself and ends up nowhere in particular. Atheist use fast pacing and a relatively sparse sound with frequent 90-degree turns, and ram the juxtaposition of the two genres at every opportunity in what turns into a demonstration of capable adjacencies rather than true integration.

There is no questioning Atheist's courage in creating odd bedfellows. It's just that on Unquestionable Presence the product is born slightly confused, neither playful enough nor powerful enough, and just a bit paranoid.


Kelly Shaefer: Vocals, Guitar
Randy Burkey: Guitar
Tony Choy: Bass
Steve Flynn: Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Mother Man - 8
2. Unquestionable Presence - 7
3. Retribution - 7
4. Enthralled In Essence - 8
5. An Incarnation's Dream - 7
6. The Formative Years - 7
7. Brains - 7
8. And The Psychic Saw - 8

Average: 7.38

Produced by Scott Burns and Atheist.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Movie Review: Hope Springs (2012)

A semi-comic exploration of marital and sexual tensions deep into a long-lasting marriage, Hope Springs showcases two veteran performers having fun playing their age and representing a generation. Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones expertly juggle comedy with drama, effortlessly drawing on their experience to create two characters memorable for the ordinariness of their domestic struggle.

In suburban Omaha, Kay Soames (Streep) is desperately unhappy in her marriage to Arnold (Jones). 31 years into their union, they sleep in separate bedrooms, never have sex, and Arnold, an accountant with an addiction to golf instructional videos, appears to hardly ever notice that she even exists. Out of desperation, Kay books one week of intensive couples therapy in the picturesque town of Hope Springs, Maine, with Dr. Bernie Feld (Steve Carell).

Arnold is a most unwilling participant, and in a series of difficult sessions Bernie faces an arduous task to help the couple peel back the layers of mutual antagonism that have built up over the years. Kay and Arnold both have to come to terms with unpleasant realities as they attempt to rediscover the love that their marriage is built on.

Hope Springs does take a few short-cuts, including veering too far from reality in a movie theatre scene where Kay attempts to overcome an aversion to sexual experimentation. Towards the end, the Vanessa Taylor script stumbles over a couple of fundamental hiccups in the relationship between Kay and Arnold, leaving some issues dangling in a rush towards the predictable happy ending.

But along the way, Hope Springs unblinkingly and methodically places under a harsh light all the gnarly issues that build up in a long marriage, and deliciously turns them over for a full examination. It's all here, from couples taking each other for granted, to the disappearing sexual spark, to unfulfilled sexual fantasies, to the minor habits that become major irritants, and most tellingly the inability of life-long partners to honestly communicate.

Streep and Jones joyfully step into their roles, both plump with the excess weight of too many years spent not caring about appearance. Jones has never been craggier, his face weathered from too many routine tax forms and too few nights of youth-rejuvenating excitement. Streep delivers another magical performance, Kay a woman overflowing with sad emotions but never finding the courage to form the words needed to express them. She mostly communicates with sad eyes, a tense smile, and a posture hoping for a happy surprise but all too ready to settle for the next disappointment.

In a controlled performance, Steve Carell provides strong support as a catalyst, the only avenue towards salvation that Kay and Arnold have, and then only if they choose to communicate in his presence. Carell infuses Dr. Feld with a few idiosyncrasies, but mostly plays him helpfully straight, firmly pushing on the right relationship pressure points at all the appropriate times.

Director David Frankel, who worked with Streep on The Devil Wears Prada, intentionally lands the resort town setting on the wrong side of frilly tourist trap. Arnold feels trapped in the therapy sessions, Kay feels trapped in a dead-end marriage, and Hope Springs is the perfect metaphor as a location that's supposed to be prefect, but is perhaps trying too hard to silently hide all the messy organic parts that may not be pretty, but are essential to sustain meaningful life.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Movie Review: Fail-Safe (1964)

A foreboding Cold War thriller, Fail-Safe is a stark black and white warning of the potential for an unintended nuclear war triggered by technological failure. Directed by Sidney Lumet in theatrical style and a continuous tightening of-the-screw pacing, Fail-Safe is a sweat-inducing feast of building tension.

It's the height of the Cold War, with the United States and the Soviet Union harbouring deep mutual suspicions and guarding against a surprise first strike. At the United States Strategic Air Command facility in Omaha, a routine VIP tour is under way, the large electronic map of the world revealing the depth to which technology is being used to facilitate control over the war machinery. When an unidentified aircraft is spotted over the United States, strategic bomber squadrons equipped with nuclear warheads are scrambled to "fail-safe" locations to await further orders.

The unidentified plane turns out to be no threat, but something goes very wrong when the bombers are recalled from their fail-safe positions: one squadron receives the wrong code and is set on a course to drop its nuclear bomb cargo on Moscow. When efforts to recall the bombers fail, partially due to successful Soviet jamming devices, the US President (Henry Fonda) and his translator (Larry Hagman) start communicating with the Soviet Chairman and his staff, hoping to avert a counter-strike that would spell the end of humanity. Meantime, the hawkish Professor Groeteschele (Walter Matthau), a civilian advisor to the Pentagon, urges the launch of a full scale nuclear assault to take advantage of the unintended techno-glitch.

After some awkward introductory scenes mainly related to Brigadier General Warren Black (Dan O'Herlihy) trying to decipher the meaning of his recurring nightmare at the start of what would prove to be a very long day, Fail-Safe primarily takes place in three rooms: the Strategic Air Command control room; a Pentagon conference room; and a tiny communications room deep in the bowels of the White House from where the President attempts to avert the end of the world. As the minute of doom approaches, Lumet makes the world ever smaller, just the President, a clumsy phone, and the distant voice of the Soviet Chairman standing between human survival and total destruction.

In an ironic condemnation of the Cold War, the non-military men are the most memorable characters in the movie. Henry Fonda gives the President his unique, deeply caring persona, a man who quickly comes to terms with the situation, immediately eschews useless reactions such as anger, blame and rage, and gets down to the business of making the right decisions. Fonda's performance is perfection in a single room, even more physically confined that 12 Angry Men, once again saving souls but this time with many more lives riding on his judgement.

Although they never meet in person throughout Fail-Safe, Walter Matthau's Professor Groeteschele is a perfect counterpoint to the President. Heartless, purely theoretical and never far away from the calculus of economics, power and ideology, Groeteschele gleefully knows all about the cold facts but nothing about warm human emotions. He represents the human form of computer, possessing all the answers but incapable of understanding the human suffering represented by all the numbers.

Larry Hagman makes a big impression in a relatively small role as Buck the translator encouraged by the President to convey much more than just words: he is to also interpret, understand and explain the emotions in the voice of the Soviet chairman. It's a master-stroke summary of the President's understanding of the human condition, capturing his ability to quickly trust Buck, and his emphasis on understanding and reacting to the psyche of his Soviet counterpart.

Lumet and cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld make excellent use of close-ups to enhance the black and white decisions facing the generals, commanders and the President. Once the bombers are on their way to Moscow, every decision carries enormous consequences, and once theoretical debates are turned into actions that could save or destroy millions of lives.

The tricked-out Strategic Air Command war room, filled with massive electronic wall maps, satellite feeds, boxy computer servers, and dazzling flashing lights is a stark contrast to the small, bare room where the President has just a phone and a translator to save the world. Walter Bernstein fills the Fail-Safe script with references to the dangers of over-reliance on technology. He drives the point home with the generals and all their technology rendered helpless, and the President armed only with a phone frantically trying to find a human solution for a tragic worst-case scenario. The computers may have all the blazing speed and brute power, but nothing can compete with the human ability of rational reasoning in the face of a horrifyingly unexpected disaster.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

All-Time Best 20 Actresses In Movie History

Updated March 4 2018, after the 90th Academy Awards, presented for achievements in 2017.

The all-time best 20 film actresses are presented below, according to points awarded as follows:

4 points for a Best Actress Award;
3 points for a Best Actress nomination;
2 points for a Best Supporting Actress Award; and,
1 point for a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

Ties are broken by a count-back according to the above sequence. Years shown are the film release dates (the Academy Awards are presented the following year).

Rank 15 (tie)
Susan Sarandon
16 points

1981: Nominated, Best Actress, Atlantic City
1991: Nominated, Best Actress, Thelma And Louise
1992: Nominated, Best Actress, Lorenzo's Oil
1994: Nominated, Best Actress, The Client
1995: Winner, Best Actress, Dead Man Walking

Rank 15 (tie)
Shirley MacLaine
16 points

1958: Nominated, Best Actress, Some Came Running
1960: Nominated, Best Actress, The Apartment
1963: Nominated, Best Actress, Irma La Douce
1977: Nominated, Best Actress, The Turning Point
1983: Winner, Best Actress, Terms Of Endearment

Rank 15 (tie)
Audrey Hepburn
16 points

1953: Winner, Best Actress, Roman Holiday
1954: Nominated, Best Actress, Sabrina
1959: Nominated, Best Actress, The Nun's Story
1961: Nominated, Best Actress, Breakfast At Tiffany's
1967: Nominated, Best Actress, Wait Until Dark

Rank 15 (tie)
Susan Hayward
16 points

1947: Nominated, Best Actress, Smash Up - The Story Of A Woman
1949: Nominated, Best Actress, My Foolish Heart
1952: Nominated, Best Actress, With A Song In My Heart
1955: Nominated, Best Actress, I'll Cry Tomorrow
1958: Winner, Best Actress, I Want To Live!

Rank 15 (tie)
Anne Bancroft
16 points

1962: Winner, Best Actress, The Miracle Worker
1964: Nominated, Best Actress, The Pumpkin Eater
1967: Nominated, Best Actress, The Graduate
1977: Nominated, Best Actress, The Turning Point
1985: Nominated, Best Actress, Agnes Of God

Rank 15 (tie)
Norma Shearer
16 points

1929/30: Winner, Best Actress, The Divorcee (also Nominated for Their Own Desire)
1931: Nominated, Best Actress, A Free Soul
1934: Nominated, Best Actress, The Barretts Of Wimpole Street
1936: Nominated, Best Actress, Romeo And Juliet
1938: Nominated, Best Actress, Marie Antoinette

Rank 14
Geraldine Page
17 points

1953: Nominated, Best Supporting Actress, Hondo
1961: Nominated, Best Actress, Summer And Smoke
1962: Nominated, Best Actress, Sweet Bird Of Youth
1966: Nominated, Best Supporting Actress, You're A Big Boy Now
1972: Nominated, Best Supporting Actress, Pete 'N' Tillie
1978: Nominated, Best Actress, Interiors
1984: Nominated, Best Supporting Actress, The Pope Of Greenwich Village
1986: Winner, Best Actress, The Trip To Bountiful

Rank 13
Cate Blanchett
17 points

1998: Nominated, Best Actress, Elizabeth
2004: Winner, Best Supporting Actress, The Aviator
2006: Nominated, Best Supporting Actress, Notes On A Scandal
2007: Nominated, Best Actress, Elizabeth: The Golden Age
2007: Nominated, Best Supporting Actress, I'm Not There
2013: Winner, Best Actress, Blue Jasmine
2015: Nominated, Best Actress, Carol

Rank 12
Ellen Burstyn
17 points

1971: Nominated, Best Supporting Actress, The Last Picture Show
1973: Nominated, Best Actress, The Exorcist
1974: Winner, Best Actress, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
1978: Nominated, Best Actress, Same Time, Next Year
1980: Nominated, Best Actress, Resurrection
2000: Nominated, Best Actress, Requiem For A Dream

Rank 11
Elizabeth Taylor
17 points

1957: Nominated, Best Actress, Raintree County
1958: Nominated, Best Actress, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof
1959: Nominated, Best Actress, Suddenly, Last Summer
1960: Winner, Best Actress, Butterfield 8
1966: Winner, Best Actress, Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?

Rank 10
Judi Dench
18 points

1997: Nominated, Best Actress, Mrs. Brown
1998: Winner, Best Supporting Actress, Shakespeare In Love
2000: Nominated, Best Supporting Actress, Chocolat
2001: Nominated, Best Actress, Iris
2005: Nominated, Best Actress, Mrs. Henderson Presents
2006: Nominated, Best Actress, Notes On A Scandal
2013: Nominated, Best Actress, Philomena

Rank 9
Deborah Kerr
18 points

1949: Nominated, Best Actress, Edward, My Son
1953: Nominated, Best Actress, From Here To Eternity
1956: Nominated, Best Actress, The King And I
1957: Nominated, Best Actress, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison
1958: Nominated, Best Actress, Separate Tables
1960: Nominated, Best Actress, The Sundowners

Rank 8
Jessica Lange
18 points

1982: Winner, Best Supporting Actress, Tootsie
1982: Nominated, Best Actress, Frances
1984: Nominated, Best Actress, Country
1985: Nominated, Best Actress, Sweet Dreams
1989: Nominated, Best Actress, Music Box
1994: Winner, Best Actress, Blue Sky

Rank 7
Sissy Spacek
19 points

1976: Nominated, Best Actress, Carrie
1980: Winner, Best Actress, Coal Miner's Daughter
1982: Nominated, Best Actress, Missing
1984: Nominated, Best Actress, The River
1986: Nominated, Best Actress, Crimes Of The Heart
2001: Nominated, Best Actress, In The Bedroom

Rank 6
Jane Fonda
21 points

1969: Nominated, Best Actress, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
1971: Winner, Best Actress, Klute
1977: Nominated, Best Actress, Julia
1978: Winner, Best Actress, Coming Home
1979: Nominated, Best Actress, The China Syndrome
1981: Nominated, Best Supporting Actress, On Golden Pond
1986: Nominated, Best Actress, The Morning After

Rank 5
Greer Garson
22 points

1939: Nominated, Best Actress, Goodbye, Mr. Chips
1941: Nominated, Best Actress, Blossoms In The Dust
1942: Winner, Best Actress, Mrs. Miniver
1943: Nominated, Best Actress, Madame Curie
1944: Nominated, Best Actress, Mrs. Parkington
1945: Nominated, Best Actress, The Valley Of Decision
1960: Nominated, Best Actress, Sunrise At Campobello

Rank 4
Ingrid Bergman
22 points

1943: Nominated, Best Actress, For Whom The Bell Tolls
1944: Winner, Best Actress, Gaslight
1945: Nominated, Best Actress, The Bells Of St. Mary's
1948: Nominated, Best Actress, Joan Of Arc
1956: Winner, Best Actress, Anastasia
1974: Winner, Best Supporting Actress, Murder On The Orient Express
1978: Nominated, Best Actress, Autumn Sonata

Rank 3
Bette Davis
32 points

1935: Winner, Best Actress, Dangerous
1938: Winner, Best Actress, Jezebel
1939: Nominated, Best Actress, Dark Victory
1940: Nominated, Best Actress, The Letter
1941: Nominated, Best Actress, The Little Foxes
1942: Nominated, Best Actress, Now, Voyager
1944: Nominated, Best Actress, Mr. Skeffington
1950: Nominated, Best Actress, All About Eve
1952: Nominated, Best Actress, The Star
1962: Nominated, Best Actress, What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?
Note: Davis was also a write-in Best Actress nominee for 1934's Of Human Bondage.

Rank 2
Katharine Hepburn
40 points

1933: Winner, Best Actress, Morning Glory
1935: Nominated, Best Actress, Alice Adams
1940: Nominated, Best Actress, The Philadelphia Story
1942: Nominated, Best Actress, Woman Of The Year
1951: Nominated, Best Actress, The African Queen
1955: Nominated, Best Actress, Summertime
1956: Nominated, Best Actress, The Rainmaker
1959: Nominated, Best Actress, Suddenly, Last Summer
1962: Nominated, Best Actress, Long Day's Journey Into The Night
1967: Winner, Best Actress, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner
1968: Winner, Best Actress, The Lion In Winter
1981: Winner, Best Actress, On Golden Pond

Rank 1
Meryl Streep
58 points

1978: Nominated, Best Supporting Actress, The Deer Hunter
1979: Winner, Best Supporting Actress, Kramer vs. Kramer
1981: Nominated, Best Actress, The French Lieutenant's Woman
1982: Winner, Best Actress, Sophie's Choice
1983: Nominated, Best Actress, Silkwood
1985: Nominated, Best Actress, Out Of Africa
1987: Nominated, Best Actress, Ironweed
1988: Nominated, Best Actress, A Cry In The Dark
1990: Nominated, Best Actress, Postcards From The Edge
1995: Nominated, Best Actress, The Bridges Of Madison County
1998: Nominated, Best Actress, One True Thing
1999: Nominated, Best Actress, Music Of The Heart
2002: Nominated, Best Supporting Actress, Adaptation
2006: Nominated, Best Actress, The Devil Wears Prada
2008: Nominated, Best Actress, Doubt
2009: Nominated, Best Actress, Julie And Julia
2011: Winner, Best Actress, The Iron Lady
2013: Nominated, Best Actress, August: Osage County
2014: Nominated, Best Supporting Actress, Into The Woods
2016: Nominated, Best Actress, Florence Foster Jenkins
2017: Nominated, Best Actress, The Post

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.
The Index of Movie Stars is here.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Movie Review: The Band Wagon (1953)

An old fashioned musical with plenty to celebrate but also some prolonged stretches of mediocre inspiration, The Band Wagon is worth jumping on but parts of the ride are bruising.

Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) is an ageing Hollywood entertainer, written-off by the critics. With no new movie projects coming his way, he accepts an invitation by his east coast friends, married couple Lester and Lily Marton (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray), to appear in a stage musical. The celebrated and egotistical Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) is chosen to direct the show, and after convincing ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) to play the female lead opposite Hunter, Cordova transforms the production from a light-hearted musical to a dark Faustian drama.

Hunter and Gerard get off on the wrong foot and stay there for a long time. She thinks that he is too old; he believes her to be a stuck-up ballerina. They make up just in time for the new show to premiere, and the colossal failure of Cordova's vision forces Hunter to take charge in an attempt to rescue the production by re-capturing the original fun-oriented spectacle.  

The Band Wagon has three magical moments. The introduction of the song That's Entertainment into movie folklore is the liveliest sequence in the film's rather trudging first hour. The second pulse elevator features Astaire and Charisse finally making peace with each other and dancing through Central Park in white after a harmonious horse carriage ride. The final highlight is part of the finale, the quite brilliant Girl Hunt Ballet, a slick film noir sequence one generation ahead of its time and which would go on to inspire the new school of dancers and choreographers, not least Michael Jackson and his series of slick 1980s videos.

These scenes give the movie a huge boost, but the rest of the experience is somewhat of a let-down. The other songs are distinctly unmemorable, the overrated Triplets sequence is a lot more creepy than pleasant, and overall, there is too little of Charisse, her charisma, dancing skills and knock-out legs muffled under a clumsy storyline that takes forever to shift out of first gear. Oscar Levant and the energetic Nanette Fabray come across as tired and underutilized respectively.

Regardless of the deficiencies, director Vincente Minnelli adds gloss and many arresting visual touches. The Band Wagon is always a colourful feast, whether in recreating New York's theatre district for Shine On Your Shoes, or in the grand Cordova mansion, where the many doors are used to good humorous effect as Jeffrey gives a hyper animated summary of the Faustian play to a group of enthralled financial backers.

As can be expected from the genre, The Band Wagon largely abandons swaths of plot and logic as it progresses towards an all-singing, all-dancing climax, and leaves unanswered questions related to Cordova's sudden loss of self-admiration and the never-fully-coloured-in relationship between Gerard and choreographer Paul Byrd (James Mitchell).

The road is sometimes rough, but star power and strong production values help to pull The Band Wagon through the muddy patches.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Movie Review: The Sting (1973)

A slick caper movie, The Sting brings together a stellar cast, a clever premise and an inspired music score. The result is an all-time classic, one of the few magical moments where all the elements required to create an exceptional cinematic experience come together in a perfect package.

It's the 1930s, the Great Depression is lingering, and small-time grifter Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) operates in the Chicago suburbs with his friend and mentor Luther (Robert Earl Jones). Unintentionally, Hooker and Luther swindle ten thousand dollars from ruthless big-time crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). Not used to being challenged, Lonnegan has Luther killed, while Hooker finds himself pursued both by corrupt cop Snyder (Charles Durning) and a team of assassins.

Hooker takes refuge in Chicago proper and teams up with legendary con man Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman). Having fallen foul of federal authorities, Gondorff is depressed and inactive, hanging out in a brothel run by Billie (Eileen Brennan). But the opportunity to outwit Lonnegan and seek revenge for Luther's death revitalizes Gondorff, and he assembles a large crew of friends and con men to lay an elaborate, high-stakes trap for Lonnegan centred on illegal horse race gambling.

Despite the subject matter of con men conning other con men, The Sting is brimming with class. The clothes, the sets, and the confidence with which the characters carry themselves create a fashionable environment where the underworld celebrates its existence in a parallel universe away from the mundanely legitimate world. The alternate yet grim reality gives The Sting an invincible and surreal aura, a setting where the rules of life and death are set by men whose main obsession is to separate marks from their money as cleverly as possible.

The undercurrent of The Sting is that in the world of con men no one wins, and there will always be a more clever ruse to fall for. It's only the most recent score that matters, because neither the money nor the satisfaction will last. Hooker manages to lose his surprising initial windfall faster than he ever obtained it, and Gondorff is long past believing that any score will fill the emptiness left by a lost friend. In this world the details of the plan and the friendships made along the journey are the victory; the outcome a fleeting moment to justify starting the next devious adventure.

Robert Redford and Paul Newman play along, creating in Hooker and Gondorff two enduring characters applying all their smarts and charm to all the wrong pursuits. Redford was nominated for his only acting Academy Award, his portrayal of Hooker combining boyish enthusiasm, street smarts, and determination to seek justice. He is the one character in The Sting to face complex dilemmas, including keeping the assassins a secret from Gondorff, playing a dangerous game with the FBI, and chancing a delicate romance with the new cashier at the local eatery. Newman's role is more straightforward, Gondorff weathered by the stresses of a life spent conning others, but still in command of all the necessary tricks and an army of contacts to organize a final gambit.

Robert Shaw makes for a worthy adversary, hissing through an Irish accent as Lonnegan manages his empire of corruption with a ruthless streak. Charles Durning is the perfect flatfoot, a Lieutenant not even trying to hide the grime of corruption clinging to his trench coat.

George Roy Hill directs with a nimble touch, revealing enough of the plot to maintain clarity as the complex sting unfolds, but holding back a few  surprises to expertly prolong the deliciously building crescendo. Dividing the movie into chapters complete with title cards, Hill evokes old-fashioned film-making, eschewing awkward transitions in favour of neat announcements. The script, a debut effort from David S. Ward, wastes no scenes, keeping the momentum with the convoluted plot, and slipping in character development in precise increments.

Marvin Hamlisch adapted Scott Joplin's ragtime tunes for The Sting, particularly The Entertainer, and in the process of creating one of the most famous movie soundtracks revitalized interest in Joplin's repertoire. The music is a perfect match for the light-hearted yet melancholy mood of the film, men like Hooker and Gondorff enjoying flirtations with success but recognizing the overall bleakness of fate in the depressed underground world that they occupy. When the only certainty is that one game will follow another, it's ultimately the elegance of the play rather than the prize that matters most.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

All-Time Best 20 Actors in Movie History

Last updated on March 4 2018, after the 90th Academy Awards presented for achievements in 2017.

The all-time best 20 film actors are presented below, according to points awarded as follows:

4 points for a Best Actor Award;
3 points for a Best Actor nomination;
2 points for a Best Supporting Actor Award; and,
1 point for a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

Ties are broken by a count-back according to the above sequence.  Years shown are the film release dates (the Academy Awards are presented the following year).

Rank 18 (tie)
James Stewart
16 points

1939: Nominated, Best Actor, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington
1940: Winner, Best Actor, The Philadelphia Story
1946: Nominated, Best Actor, It's A Wonderful Life
1950: Nominated, Best Actor, Harvey
1959: Nominated, Best Actor, Anatomy Of A Murder

Rank 18 (tie)
Gregory Peck
16 points

1945: Nominated, Best Actor, The Keys Of The Kingdom
1946: Nominated, Best Actor, The Yearling
1947: Nominated, Best Actor, Gentleman's Agreement
1949: Nominated, Best Actor, Twelve O'Clock High
1962: Winner, Best Actor, To Kill A Mockingbird

Rank 18 (tie)
Paul Muni
16 points

1929: Nominated, Best Actor, The Valiant
1932: Nominated, Best Actor, I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang
1936: Winner, Best Actor, The Story Of Louis Pasteur
1937: Nominated, Best Actor, The Life Of Emile Zola
1959: Nominated, Best Actor, The Last Angry Man
Note: Muni was not nominated as Best Actor for 1935's Black Fury, but came in second based on write-in voting.

Rank 14 (tie)
Sean Penn
17 points

1995: Nominated, Best Actor, Dead Man Walking
1999: Nominated, Best Actor, Sweet And Lowdown
2001: Nominated, Best Actor, I Am Sam
2003: Winner, Best Actor, Mystic River
2008: Winner, Best Actor, Milk

Rank 14 (tie)
Fredric March
17 points

1930: Nominated, Best Actor, The Royal Family Of Broadway
1931: Winner, Best Actor, Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde
1937: Nominated, Best Actor, A Star Is Born
1946: Winner, Best Actor, The Best Years Of Our Lives
1951: Nominated, Best Actor, Death Of A Salesman

Rank 14 (tie)
Tom Hanks
17 points

1988: Nominated, Best Actor, Big
1993: Winner, Best Actor, Philadelphia
1994: Winner, Best Actor, Forrest Gump
1998: Nominated, Best Actor, Saving Private Ryan
2000: Nominated, Best Actor, Cast Away

Rank 14 (tie)
Gary Cooper
17 points

1936: Nominated, Best Actor, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town
1941: Winner, Best Actor, Sergeant York
1942: Nominated, Best Actor, The Pride Of The Yankees
1943: Nominated, Best Actor, For Whom The Bell Tolls
1952: Winner, Best Actor, High Noon

Rank 13
Richard Burton
19 points

1952: Nominated, Best Supporting Actor, My Cousin Rachel
1953: Nominated, Best Actor, The Robe
1964: Nominated, Best Actor, Becket
1965: Nominated, Best Actor, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold
1966: Nominated, Best Actor, Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf ?
1969: Nominated, Best Actor, Anne Of The Thousand Days
1977: Nominated, Best Actor, Equus

Rank 12
Al Pacino
19 points

1972: Nominated, Best Supporting Actor, The Godfather
1973: Nominated, Best Actor, Serpico
1974: Nominated, Best Actor, The Godfather Part II
1975: Nominated, Best Actor, Dog Day Afternoon
1979: Nominated, Best Actor, ...And Justice For All
1990: Nominated, Best Supporting Actor, Dick Tracy
1992: Nominated, Best Supporting Actor, Glengarry Glen Ross
1992: Winner, Best Actor, Scent Of A Woman

Rank 11
Robert De Niro
19 points

1974: Winner, Best Supporting Actor, The Godfather Part II
1976: Nominated, Best Actor, Taxi Driver
1978: Nominated, Best Actor, The Deer Hunter
1980: Winner, Best Actor, Raging Bull
1990: Nominated, Best Actor, Awakenings
1991: Nominated, Best Actor, Cape Fear
2012: Nominated, Best Supporting Actor, Silver Linings Playbook

Rank 10
Daniel Day-Lewis
21 points

1989: Winner, Best Actor, My Left Foot
1993: Nominated, Best Actor, In The Name Of The Father
2002: Nominated, Best Actor, Gangs Of New York
2007: Winner, Best Actor, There Will Be Blood
2012: Winner, Best Actor, Lincoln
2017: Nominated, Best Actor, Phantom Thread

Rank 9
Denzel Washington
22 points

1987: Nominated, Best Supporting Actor, Cry Freedom
1989: Winner, Best Supporting Actor, Glory
1992: Nominated, Best Actor, Malcolm X
1999: Nominated, Best Actor, The Hurricane
2001: Winner, Best Actor, Training Day
2012: Nominated, Best Actor, Flight
2016: Nominated, Best Actor, Fences
2017: Nominated, Best Actor, Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Rank 8
Dustin Hoffman
23 points

1967: Nominated, Best Actor, The Graduate
1969: Nominated, Best Actor, Midnight Cowboy
1974: Nominated, Best Actor, Lenny
1979: Winner, Best Actor, Kramer vs. Kramer
1982: Nominated, Best Actor, Tootsie
1988: Winner, Best Actor, Rain Man
1997: Nominated, Best Actor, Wag The Dog

Rank 7
Peter O'Toole
24 points

1962: Nominated, Best Actor, Lawrence Of Arabia
1964: Nominated, Best Actor, Becket
1968: Nominated, Best Actor, The Lion In Winter
1969: Nominated, Best Actor, Goodbye Mr. Chips
1972: Nominated, Best Actor, The Ruling Class
1980: Nominated, Best Actor, The Stunt Man
1982: Nominated, Best Actor, My Favorite Year
2006: Nominated, Best Actor, Venus

Rank 6
Jack Lemmon
24 points

1955: Winner, Best Supporting Actor, Mister Roberts
1959: Nominated, Best Actor, Some Like It Hot
1960: Nominated, Best Actor, The Apartment
1962: Nominated, Best Actor, Days Of Wine And Roses
1973: Winner, Best Actor, Save The Tiger
1979: Nominated, Best Actor, The China Syndrome
1980: Nominated, Best Actor, Tribute
1982: Nominated, Best Actor, Missing

Rank 5
Marlon Brando
24 points

1951: Nominated, Best Actor, A Streetcar Named Desire
1952: Nominated, Best Actor, Viva Zapata!
1953: Nominated, Best Actor, Julius Caesar
1954: Winner, Best Actor, On The Waterfront
1957: Nominated, Best Actor, Sayonara
1972: Winner, Best Actor, The Godfather
1973: Nominated, Best Actor, Last Tango In Paris
1989: Nominated, Best Supporting Actor, A Dry White Season

Rank 4
Paul Newman
26 points

1958: Nominated, Best Actor, Cat On a Hot Tin Roof
1961: Nominated, Best Actor, The Hustler
1963: Nominated, Best Actor, Hud
1967: Nominated, Best Actor, Cool Hand Luke
1981: Nominated, Best Actor, Absence Of Malice
1982: Nominated, Best Actor, The Verdict
1986: Winner, Best Actor, The Color Of Money
1994: Nominated, Best Actor, Nobody's Fool
2002: Nominated: Best Supporting Actor, Road To Perdition

Rank 3
Laurence Olivier
29 points

1939: Nominated, Best Actor, Wuthering Heights
1940: Nominated, Best Actor, Rebecca
1946: Nominated, Best Actor, Henry V
1948: Winner, Best Actor, Hamlet
1956: Nominated, Best Actor, Richard III
1960: Nominated, Best Actor, The Entertainer
1965: Nominated, Best Actor, Othello
1972: Nominated, Best Actor, Sleuth
1976: Nominated, Best Supporting Actor, Marathon Man
1978: Nominated, Best Actor, The Boys From Brazil

Rank 2
Spencer Tracy
29 points

1936: Nominated, Best Actor, San Francisco
1937: Winner, Best Actor, Captain Courageous
1938: Winner, Best Actor, Boys Town
1950: Nominated, Best Actor, Father Of The Bride
1955: Nominated, Best Actor, Bad Day At Black Rock
1958: Nominated, Best Actor, The Old Man And The Sea
1960: Nominated, Best Actor, Inherit The Wind
1961: Nominated, Best Actor, Judgement At Nuremberg
1967: Nominated, Best Actor, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner

Rank 1
Jack Nicholson
31 points

1969: Nominated, Best Supporting Actor, Easy Rider
1970: Nominated, Best Actor, Five Easy Pieces
1973: Nominated, Best Actor, The Last Detail
1974: Nominated, Best Actor, Chinatown
1975: Winner, Best Actor, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
1981: Nominated, Best Supporting Actor, Reds
1983: Winner, Best Supporting Actor, Terms Of Endearment
1985: Nominated, Best Actor, Prizzi's Honor
1987: Nominated, Best Actor, Ironweed
1992: Nominated, Best Supporting Actor, A Few Good Men
1997: Winner, Best Actor, As Good As It Gets
2002: Nominated, Best Actor, About Schmidt

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.
The Index of Movie Stars is here.

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