Monday, 31 December 2012

Movie Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)

A tense and disturbing family drama, We Need To Talk About Kevin delves into the back story of a teenager gone bad. Tilda Swinton is captivating as the mother left to wallow in the shattered debris of what used to be her domestic life.

Constructed non-linearly by director Lynne Ramsey, We Need To Talk About Kevin follows two basic time lines. The first occurs in the present, with Eva Khatchadourian (Swinton) living alone and depressed in a small ramshackle house by the rail tracks and trying to get on with life. Her house is targeted with paint bombs, and her neighbours greet her with angry stares, angry words and sometimes outright violence. Eva secures a job beneath her abilities at a dingy strip-mall travel agency, where her co-workers shun her. She visits her son Kevin (Ezra Miller) in prison, but the visits are silent.

The second timeline occurs in flashback, with Eva reminiscing about her family life. Husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) is never less than loving, but from the moment their child Kevin is born, the bond between mother and son is dysfunctional. As an infant Kevin never stops crying while in the company of Eva. As a toddler he is late to start talking and even later in getting toilet trained. But the worst of his anger and anti-social misbehaviour always appears to be targeted at his mother. As a teenager, Kevin is particularly sullen with Eva, while his father encourages him to excel at archery, the one sport that seems to make him happy. Finally Kevin's behaviour starts to turn menacingly violent, with his young sister Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich) the first to be vulnerable to his increasingly harmful actions.

Presenting a scenario in answer to the beseeching question of what goes on in the family lives of middle-class kids who prove to be really damaged, We Need To Talk About Kevin is unrelenting in portraying a mother's quiet nightmare. Kevin is the teenager who may well be perceived as well-adjusted and typical by everyone else, but in Eva's recollection, something was wrong from the beginning, with persistent signs of some undiagnosed damage, ill-will towards her, and anger boiling beneath the surface. Kevin is just a normal kid as far as his father and everyone else is concerned, but Eva's experience dances on the seam between blaming herself for lacking a mother's instinct and being convinced that her child is evil.

The one weakness in the script by Ramsey and Roy Stewart Kinnear, based on the Lionel Shriver book of  the same name, is the almost incessant portrayal of Kevin as a bad seed in all of Eva's memories. There is no attempt to balance whatever good moments there may have been between mother and child: it's a uniformly grim experience. The one joyful moment recollected by Eva involves Kevin suddenly feeling close to her when she reads a Robin Hood adventure to him. It emerges that Kevin was actually switched on by the subject matter of archery, rather than any affection towards his mother.

Tilda Swinton dominates the movie, and her portrayal of Eva is a stunning portrait of a woman victimized first by her son and then by society, and yet she can never shake the lingering doubts that the tragedy unleashed by Kevin is somehow her fault. In each of her memories interacting with Kevin, Swinton is perfect in planting those tiny yet precise seeds of imperfection in how a mother handled her son, from the way she held him, to the games she played with him, and her methods of discipline. Swinton silently conveys the eternal question that will dominate the rest of Eva's life: if she had only done everything just a little bit differently, would the outcome still have been the same.

Ezra Miller as the teenaged Kevin is chillingly calculating and manipulative, an adolescent already occupying a different world compared to his mother, emotionally dominant, physically brooding, and plotting seemingly several steps ahead to make her life a misery.

In demanding a conversation about the most disastrous of family unit failures We Need To Talk About Kevin does not arrive at any tidy answers, but simply a myriad of doubts, suspicions and what ifs, affirmation that when the problem is complex, any simple explanations are simply wrong.

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Sunday, 30 December 2012

Movie Review: Django Unchained (2012)

Quentin Tarantino takes on the Western and creates a bloody feast. Django Unchained marries Tarantino's love of excessive violence with the outlandish sensibilities of Spaghetti Westerns to exact sweet revenge on slavery's brutality.

Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) is a German bounty hunter criss-crossing the deep American south just before the Civil War. He seeks the services of the slave Django (Jamie Foxx), who helps Schultz to identify and eliminate three wanted criminals on the ranch of "Big Daddy" Bennett (Don Johnson). Schultz gives Django his freedom, and the two men become partners, hunting down wanted men and cashing in large bounties. Django also hones his shooting skills and becomes an ace deadly marksman.

The two men then embark on a mission to find and free Django's wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). They track her down to the sprawling plantation of megalomaniac Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Pretending to be interested in purchasing slave fighters to attract Candie's attention, Django assumes the distasteful role of a black slaver advising Schultz, and the two men spend an evening as Candie's dinner guests negotiating a deal. When Candie's loyal head slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) begins to suspect that Schultz and Django have no real interest in slave fighters and are really only after Broomhilda's freedom, the evening's civilities disintegrate rapidly.

With liberal use of the "n" word, Django Unchained wastes no time in establishing its purpose as a reminder of the time when slavery in the South was part of the social fabric, less than seven generations ago. Much as Inglourious Basterds was a dream Jewish revenge story, Django Unchained is a fairy tale of vicious black revenge on the evil white men who propagated the worst excesses of slavery.

Tarantino is not satisfied with the generalities of slavery as an evil concept. He builds from mere inhumane men-in-chains treatment to abhorrent whippings, burning with irons, punishment in underground cells, and then delves into the depraved world of slave fighting. The entire slave fighter sub-plot is unnecessary for the film's narrative, but used as an exclamation mark to the brutality of an era that had to end.

The movie layers on the abominations to justify the essential bloodbath that Tarantino predictably unleashes on the screen in the final 30 minutes. And when the blood finally flows, it gushes, Tarantino literally painting the walls, ceilings and floors red with a series of wild massacres, spiritually cleansing perhaps but nevertheless almost incomprehensibly messy.

Apart from the violence, the other Spaghetti Western echoes are strong, including the music, scenery, humour, camera angles, and prevailing unbathed look of the numerous extras. At a mammoth 165 minutes in length, Django Unchained aims more for the duration of epics like The Good The Bad And The Ugly, but past the slavery context carries a much simpler revenge tale more suitable for a significantly tighter running length. The padding is occasionally exposed, an entirely superfluous raid by "Big Daddy" and his men turning to a mildly unfortunate comedy routine.

Christoph Waltz delivers his usual smoothly hypnotic performance, a German ironically - and rightfully -  acting all superior to the barbarous southerners, holding all the answers and sure of the direction in which American society must evolve. Jamie Foxx is less showy as the film's centre of gravity, a man seizing a most unexpected opportunity to gain freedom and then unleash justice in the name of love. In the tradition of many Western heroes before him, Foxx allows others to do most of the talking while communicating mostly with a multitude of guns and a hail of bullets - explosives optional but always helpful.

Leonardo DiCaprio takes the role of Calvin Candie and sinks his teeth into it with relish, Candie a brute in gentleman's clothing, preferring to be addressed as Monsieur Candie but not understanding a word of French. When Candie's anger is unleashed, DiCaprio lets loose in a terrifying rage, having fun filling the screen with Southern bravado.

In addition to Don Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson living up larger-than-life roles, Tarantino finds space for the likes of Dennis Christopher, James Remar, Bruce Dern, Jonah Hill and Robert Carradine. And Franco Nero, the one and only original Django, has one scene, passing the bullet-riddled Western torch across 46 years of movie making.

Django Unchained is stylish exuberance, amplifying a sub-genre that celebrates parody to construct an exaggerated revenge tale, painted in gory red.

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Friday, 28 December 2012

Movie Review: Les Misérables (2012)

The adaptation to the screen of a most enduring stage musical is a resounding triumph. Director Tom Hooper succeeds in adding the necessary intimacy that a film demands without losing the grandeur of the production. Les Misérables on screen is a ravishingly refreshed, yet comfortably familiar, experience.

It's the early 1800s in a France wracked by widespread poverty and misery, and convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) has just finished serving 19 years of hard labour for stealing a loaf of bread. Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) believes in the supreme rule of law, and is intent on keeping an eye on Valjean, who possesses enormous physical strength but is now on probation for life. With a record as an ex-convict, Valjean has trouble supporting himself with any means of employment. In desperation he steals silverware from a Bishop and is promptly caught. When the Bishop forgives Valjean and allows him to keep the silver, Valjean commits to changing his life for the better.

Eight years layer, Valjean has become a kind and respected factory owner, employer of hundreds, and a local town mayor. With Javert once again pursuing him for breaking probation, Valjean takes pity on Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a desperate and dying prostitute, and commits to looking after her young daughter Cosette. He buys Cosette's freedom from despicable innkeepers the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) and brings her up as his own daughter.

Nine years later, the grown Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) falls in love with revolutionary student Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a romance facilitated by Eponine (Samantha Barks), the daughter of the Thénardiers and herself harbouring an unrequited crush on Marius. With Javert still hoping to capture Valjean, a violent but short-lived student revolt erupts on the streets of Paris, with Valjean an unwilling participant trying to save Marius' life for the sake of Cosette's future happiness.

The film is a faithful adaptation of the stage musical, a generous 160 minutes on a steep emotional roller coaster. The Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg show is based on Victor Hugo's classic novel and designed to expertly tug at the most tender of heart strings. With powerful source material, Hooper's challenge was to expand the visuals of Les Misérables without losing its impassioned strength. The inspired decision to have the actors perform the songs live while filming, rather than relying on dubbing, results in a raw, almost devastatingly emotional experience.

Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway in particular make the most of the immediacy of the material, and deliver heartbreaking performances. Valjean's Soliloquy, after his reprieve by the Bishop, is one man questioning all he knows about life, and reorienting his future in a new direction. Hathaway's overwhelming I Dreamed A Dream is delivered in one exceptional take, a woman in close-up plundered by life and left with nothing but despair and a memory of long-lost hope. It's a career-defining highlight for Hathaway, and a rare moment when an actress radiates by tenderly baring her soul.

Seyfried, Baron Cohen, Bonham Carter, and Barks deliver their songs with plenty of heart if not as much conviction, and it is Eddie Redmayne who emerges as the third powerful voice in Les Misérables, providing Marius with a romantic vitality that resonates with a struggle for a better future. Aaron Tveit as the student leader Enjolras, makes an enthusiastic impression with a small but committed role. Russell Crowe noticeably struggles with the singing in the key role of Javert, although his imposing physical presence helps to compensate. His singing does improve as the movie progresses, either as a function of improved delivery or reduced expectations.

The set-design and visual style of Les Misérables recreate a Paris darkened by grime, oppression, and anguish. There is no middle-class, no in-between the rich and the poor, the oppressed and oppressors. Cinematographer Danny Cohen translates Hooper's vision into an extraordinarily dynamic environment, bringing to life the streets, the taverns, and the dingiest corners of a city wallowing in damp and aphotic misery.  More so than the stage could ever do, the film is a reminder of how Hugo came up with his title. And when necessary, Cohen's cameras move in to capture the intimate gestures, expressions and details of the destitute, a reminder that misery only exists through the reflection of its victims.

Despite the pervasive gloom, Les Misérables is ultimately a story of love, hope and redemption. The screen version is a celebration of the human spirit's unrelenting resolve to rise above the mire and into a better future.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Thursday, 27 December 2012

Movie Review: Blade Runner (1982)

A triumph of visual style over narrative substance, Blade Runner is a magnificent sensory achievement. Director Ridley Scott creates a sombre future Los Angeles that is all too believable, and the stunning images enrich the otherwise standard story of a hunt for rogue replicants.

In 2019, the world's cities are polluted and overpopulated, and many humans live and work on other planets.  Human-like robots, known as replicants, are manufactured by the dominant Tyrell Corporation to help perform specific functions, but the powerful Nexus-6 models, built with a four-year limit on their life, are specifically prohibited from Earth due to violent tendencies. Retired Los Angeles police officer Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a "Blade Runner", a specialist in tracking down and "retiring" rogue replicants. With the help of the mysteriously dark Gaff (Edward James Olmos), police chief Harry Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh) recalls Deckard to help in finding and eliminating four Nexus-6 models who have arrived illegally on Earth.

Led by Batty (Rutger Hauer), Leon (Brion James), Pris (Daryl Hannah) and Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) are searching for a way to overcome their four-year life limit. Deckard meets Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) the main designer of the replicants, and Batty's primary target. Tyrell's latest experiment is Rachael (Sean Young), a replicant unaware of her status and injected with fake memories to help her believe that she is human. As a romance develops between Deckard and Rachael, Deckard tracks down first Zhora then Leon, but Batty and Pris find their way to J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson), a genetic designer who can lead them to Tyrell.

Based on the Philip K. Dick short story Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, Blade Runner is working with limited source material, effectively a glorified but quite linear detective chase. Scott successfully fuses together a depressingly bleak future with basic film noir characteristics to create a memorably artistic tableau, rendering the actual plot quite secondary.

Blade Runner's dazzling achievement is a rich extrapolation of the present into a credible but horrendous future recreation of a large Earth city. The Los Angeles of 2019 is an overpopulated urban nightmare bathed in constant darkness, never-ending rain, persistently rising steam from unidentified cavities, and washed with the sickly glow of incessant, oversized neon corporate advertising. Mammoth, super-dense buildings dominate the cityscape, the population is mostly Asian, every inch of sidewalk is congested, and the police presence is pervasive in hovering "spinner" vehicles, their yellow beams of light adding to the suffocating environment. Every external scene in Blade Runner re-emphasizes this grim future, Scott making use of shadows and light to create a hallucinatory, recalibrated but frighteningly believable reality.

The film plays with several themes related to the essence of being human. The replicants are struggling against their unalterable built-in four-year life span, expressing the hopelessness of an existence that is certain of a termination date. Humans of course suffer the same certainty of death, but without knowledge of the expiration time, and the screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples questions the fairness of human-like creations, designed to express human emotions, but sabotaged in their ability to hope and dream, that most essential of human attributes. There are also puzzles related to Deckard (is he human or a replicant), and, ultimately, what does the future hold when the line between natural and man-made humans is blurred beyond obvious recognition.

With the film's appearance dominating the plot and characters, the performances are understandably subdued. Harrison Ford, looking to expand from the Star Wars universe, has little to work with, Deckard hard boiled enough but without the edge or wit afforded to classic film noir investigators. Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty emerges as the most dominant character, physically and emotionally imposing, a replicant who understands his role and fallibilities all too well. Sean Young wears the same sad and puzzled expression throughout, a not-so-fatale femme, Young as unassured about her performance as Rachael is about her humanity. Daryl Hannah, Joanna Cassidy, Brion James, William Sanderson and Edward James Olmos are colourfully good fits for their bizarre surroundings, but in limited roles none can benefit from any character evolution.

Blade Runner set a new standard for what a serious science fiction film could look like, in a universe where reality is not so much newly constructed as imaginatively stretched from the more austere elements of the present. It's an enduring cinematic achievement, the routine story compensated for by a dazzling package.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Movie Review: Dan Candy's Law (1974)

A Canadian western barely a notch or two above an amateur student production, Dan Candy's Law tries for a few artistic touches in recounting a long-winded tale of pursuit in the Great White North. There is just too much vacuum where characters and plot are supposed to reside, and the film is eventually sucked into a black hole of uninteresting nothingness.

It's the 1800s, and Dan Candy (Donald Sutherland) is a member of the Northwest Mounted Police in frigid northern Canada. The Mounties keep an eye on a nearby community of Cree Indians, and when Almighty Voice (Gordon Tootoosis), a member of the Cree tribe, kills a government-owned cow without permission, he is imprisoned.

Almighty Voice escapes and kills Mountie Malcolm Grant (Kevin McCarthy), Candy's partner. Despite receiving no support from his supervisor Inspector Brisebois (Jean Duceppe) and no help from local tribal leader Sounding Sky (Chief Dan George), Candy insists on going after Almighty Voice, although the hunter and the hunted sometimes switch roles before a final showdown.

Inspired by apparently true events, the movie is also, incomprehensibly, known as Alien Thunder, a title astonishingly more stupefying than the content. The atrocious audio and video quality of some surviving prints in circulation do not help, but Dan Candy's Law was unlikely a pleasurable experience even in pristine condition. Director Claude Fournier, filming a script by George Malko, spends no time on character development or context setting. With choppy editing and clumsy, sometimes jarring transitions, the film simply offers an Indian who inexplicably kills a Mountie, with the dead man's partner launching a one-man year-long hunt for justice.

Despite displaying a could-not-care-less attitude for the duration of the long chase, Candy's superiors suddenly show up with an entire cavalry at the movie's climax, complete with artillery pieces to counter one holed-up Indian with a shotgun. To add to the confusion, Candy's character just as suddenly transitions from blood thirsty avenger to a champion for justice, abruptly demanding that Almighty Voice be captured and brought to trial rather than killed.

Donald Sutherland lends his talent to a home country project, but while he is grim with determination and grimy from the unforgiven terrain, the thin material gives him next to nothing to work with, and the few acting scenes, mostly Candy arguing with his superior, are theatrically stiff.

With a glacial pace suggesting a mammoth struggle to stretch out the material to 90 minutes, Dan Candy's Law frequently occupies itself with shots of snowy scenery from the Saskatchewan locations and close-ups of etched faces, attempting, and failing, to find meaning in almost static imagery.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Movie Review: Play Misty For Me (1971)

Clint Eastwood's directorial debut, Play Misty For Me just gets better with the passing years. The Hitchcockian psychological suspense thriller features one of Eastwood's better acting performances, and mounting tension in a journey to the depths of destructive obsession.

In the small town of Carmel, California, Dave Garver (Eastwood) is the overnight jazz disc jockey. A bachelor and ladies man, Dave has a regular mysterious caller who always requests that he play Erroll Garner's jazz classic Misty for her. Dave meets Evelyn (Jessica Walter) at the local bar, realizes that she is the regular caller, and they have a one-night stand.

Dave wants to try and settle down with former girlfriend Tobie (Donna Mills), an artist who has returned to town after a few months away. But Evelyn has other ideas. She starts to stalk Dave, showing up unannounced, demanding that he spend time with her, gradually becoming more persistent and less rational. When Dave rebuffs Evelyn and makes it clear that he has no interest in her, she turns to more serious threats and outright violence.

Delivered for a budget of less than $800,000, Play Misty For Me established Eastwood's reputation as an efficient director who wrapped up productions ahead of time without sacrificing quality. The film does, however, contains perhaps a few too many showy moments, Eastwood the director having almost too much fun with the new toys available to him behind the camera. Making the most of the Carmel locations (Eastwood's home town), there are scenic sunsets, large waves, and walks along lush trails and on the idyllic beach, all stylishly captured. Indoors, once the horror kicks in there is plenty of screaming, and many tight shots of horrified or crazed eyes.

In other examples of marginal over-enthusiasm, there is a jazz festival sequence cleverly filmed in documentary style but almost out of place in this film, while the romantic montage scene featuring Dave and Tobie falling in love again to Roberta Flack's The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face is a beautifully shot interlude which intentionally diffuses the tension and manages to disrupt the rhythm of the movie. The overall impact is of an undoubtedly talented director injecting plenty of interesting touches but leaning towards showcasing his own emerging talent.

The two lead performances are excellent. Dave Garver is one of Eastwood's few role in which he is a non-violent man and primarily a victim. Suddenly, Eastwood has to act, and he surprises by capturing a confident man quite helpless as his world disintegrates. Evelyn's psychological overload overwhelms Dave's defences and he succumbs to her pleas and threats, taking Eastwood to emotionally vulnerable places that he rarely visited on film before or since.

In a role that defined her career, Jessica Walter created a memorably disturbed woman. Evelyn is convinced that she has to win Dave's unwavering affection or life is not worth living for either of them, and that warped lens firmly frames her actions. In several scenes Walter is terrifyingly unstable as she switches from dangerous aggressor to pleading lover without breaking her stride, transformations that point to a sick mind frantically seeking any form of remedy.

Sixteen years later, Fatal Attraction essentially remade the same story and became a global phenomenon. Play Misty For Me is a less glamorous movie, but also a more organic and intimately threatening experience.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Movie Review: Goldfinger (1964)

The first sharp turn towards overkill, Goldfinger is one of the most influential entries in the James Bond series. Introducing many of the over-the-top elements that would create fertile ground for parody lasting generations, the movie for the most part still finds the right balance between fun and danger, but there are unmistakable errors towards bloat, and sloppy plotting at the service of hyperbolic showcases.

Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe) is an international businessman obsessed with gold. He uses his legitimate businesses as cover to illegally smuggle gold, increase his wealth and distort the metal's value, bringing him to the attention of MI6. Assigned to investigate, agent James Bond (Sean Connery) succeeds in antagonizing Goldfinger first by seducing his assistant Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton) in Miami, and then by beating him in a game of golf. Goldfinger's murderous Korean assistant Oddjob (Harold Sakata) takes revenge on Jill and places Bond in his sights.

Tailing Goldfinger to Switzerland, Bond uncovers one of the methods by which gold is being illegally transported, and then stumbles onto a major new plot being hatched under the codename Operation Grand Slam. Goldfinger and his stunning private pilot Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) capture Bond and transport him to Goldfinger's stud farm in Kentucky, where an audacious assault involving the release of nerve gas to storm and contaminate the US gold reserves at Fort Knox is in the final planning stages.

Despite its global success, Goldfinger suffers from several weaknesses which undermine the second half of the movie. Bond is reduced to an imprisoned observer for much of the latter part of the film, an inexcusable dis-empowerment of the hero that leaves a disorienting emptiness. Sean Connery is stranded in helpless confinement, shuttled back and forth from his cell, suffering the ignominy of getting in the way of the plot instead of driving events.

Director Guy Hamilton, in his first of four outing in charge of Bond, mishandles several scenes and leaves behind gaping logic holes. The attack on Fort Knox is poorly staged, the soldiers at the base melodramatically dropping quicker than the proverbial flies before the nerve gas even has a chance to travel near ground level. And the plot hinges on Pussy Galore doing the right thing once seduced by Bond, but in retrospect, rather than the theatrical climax allowing Goldfinger to get near the gold, decidedly simpler if less cinematic solutions were available to the CIA once alerted to the plot.

The strength of the movie resides in the personality of Goldfinger, the first non-SPECTRE evil mastermind and a Bond villain finally provided with considerable latitude to express himself and establish a presence. Gert Frobe fills the screen with his hefty physique and confident financial power, a worthy adversary if only Bond wasn't mostly in shackles.

Harold Sakata's Oddjob becomes the first of many colourful and near-indestructible ruthless killers doing the dirty work for the principle depraved plotter, and Sakata establishes a high standard for sidekicks to follow. Oddjob with his lethal hat is silent, powerful, intimidating, merciless and funny.

Pussy Galore wins the award for the best worst Bond girl name, and she also becomes the first lesbian conquered by Bond, a status which only slightly delays him. But otherwise Honor Blackman's role is limited and unremarkable, while Shirley Eaton and Tania Mallet as Jill and Tilly Masterson are consigned to even shorter careers in Bond's presence.

However, Eaton does get the privilege of being the victim of one of Bond's most iconic images, Jill Masterson laying nude and dead on Bond's bed, killed by skin suffocation after being painted gold for betraying Goldfinger. The movie also boasts another of the series' most memorable and much parodied scenes, Bond tied down on a table, legs apart with a steel-cutting laser beam burning its way slowly towards his sensitive parts.

Goldfinger also introduces the legendary Aston Martin DB5, all tricked out with defensive and offensive weaponry. But typical of the unevenness of the movie, for all the car's flash, it can't rescue Bond from capture.

Goldfinger should be both celebrated and blamed. It pointed the franchise in a direction of exaggerated fun, but while Goldfinger itself largely holds the line with reasonable quality, future entries would struggle to find the same balance.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

All Def Leppard CD Reviews

All Ace Black Blog Reviews of Def Leppard CDs are linked

On Through The Night (1980): 7.36
High 'N' Dry (1981): 8.30
Pyromania (1983): 8.70
Hysteria (1987): 7.67
Adrenalize (1992): 6.90

Average (all reviewed Def Leppard CDs): 7.79

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

All Rainbow CD Reviews

All Ace Black Blog Reviews of Rainbow CDs are linked

Rainbow (1975): 7.56*
Rising (1976): 8.50*
Long Live Rock 'N' Roll (1978): 7.50*
Down To Earth (1979): 7.00*
Difficult To Cure (1981): 8.11*
Straight Between The Eyes (1982): 6.89

Average (all reviewed Rainbow CDs): 7.59
*Average (best five reviewed Rainbow CDs): 7.73

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

CD Review: Straight Between The Eyes, by Rainbow (1982)

After the artistic success of 1981's Difficult To Cure, Ritchie Blackmore kept Rainbow's line-up largely intact, with the only change on keyboards where David Rosenthal replaced Don Airey.

But then Rainbow go ahead and ruin everything by releasing Straight Between The Eyes, three acceptable songs surrounded by no less than six tracks that can only charitably be called filler.

On garbage exquisitely titled Tite Squeeze, and asinine tracks Power, MISS Mistreated and Rock Fever, Rainbow go through the motions of the worst type of moronic rock, gratuitous themes repeated in childlike manner, no signs of skill, talent or innovation. It is unclear what target audience could possible exist for this rubbish, and it's sad to think that Blackmore and bassist / producer Roger Glover would go ahead and fill half an album with trash unworthy of their name.

Two of the three substantial tracks open the album, Death Alley Driver thriving on an accelerator jammed near the floor. At the 2:05 mark Blackmore lets loose with a stirring one minute solo to prove that the soul is still there when the imagination allows, before giving way to Rosenthal, who enjoys his own moment of keyboard glory. Stone Cold follows with a polished radio-friendly slow-tempo rock ballad, perfectly suited to Turner's voice.

After the next six forgettable tracks come and go not soon enough, the record closes on a bit of a high, Eyes Of Fire a throwback to the Ronnie James Dio era of demons and darkness, an eastern theme attempting a bit of a Kashmir vibe but suffering a mild case of one-dimensionalitis. It is nevertheless a masterpiece compared to the material preceding it.

And yes, the horror of how far Rainbow have steered off-course does hurt like a migraine exploding Straight Between The Eyes.


Ritchie Blackmore - Guitars
Roger Glover - Bass
Bobby Rondinelli - Drums
Joe Lynn Turner - Vocals
David Rosenthal - Keyboards

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Death Alley Driver - 9
2. Stone Cold - 8
3. Bring On The Night (Dream Chaser) - 7
4. Tite Squeeze - 5
5. Tearin' Out My Heart - 7
6. Power - 6
7. MISS Mistreated - 6
8. Rock Fever - 6
9. Eyes Of Fire - 8

Average: 6.89

Produced by Roger Glover.
Engineered by Nick Blagona.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Harper (1966)

An attempted homage to 1940s detective movies, Harper falls quite flat. Despite the presence of Paul Newman and Lauren Bacall, the convoluted story and the derivative characters never come close to their intended target, while stylistically the film is simply bland.

Private detective Lew Harper (Newman), struggling to reunite with his wife Susan (Janet Leigh), is summoned to the house of wealthy socialite Elaine Sampson (Bacall). She hires him to find her missing husband Ralph, although Elaine seems unperturbed that Ralph is missing and would be quite pleased if he were to turn up dead so that she could outlive him. The characters swirling around Elaine include free-spirited daughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin), her boyfriend and the Sampsons' private pilot Allan Taggert (Robert Wagner), and the family lawyer and Harper's friend Albert Graves (Arthur Hill).

Harper follows a trail that leads to an assortment of distasteful characters: Ralph Sampson's possible lover, overweight former starlet Fay Estabrook (Shelley Winters); her husband Dwight Troy (Robert Webber); drug-addicted lounge singer Betty Fraley (Julie Harris); and phony cult leader Claude (Strother Martin). Harper uncovers multiple tangled plots involving kidnapping, blackmail, illicit affairs, unrequited love, the smuggling of illegal immigrants and bad guys turning on each other. With $500,000 in ransom money at stake and Ralph Sampson still missing, Harper is frequently at gun-point or being beaten-up as the body count begins to mount.

Trying to borrow heavily from the plot of The Big Sleep, even Bacall's resonant presence cannot liven up the William Goldman screenplay (an adaptation of the Ross MacDonald book A Moving Target, with Lew Archer changed to Harper). A significant shortfall is the lack of any charm, charisma or genuine evil among the large assortment of unsavoury plotters scheming to profit from Ralph Sampson's disappearance. They all come across as low level riff-raff, more likely to intimidate each other than to harm their intended victims, lowering the movie down to an uninteresting level of scuzziness.

Director Jack Smight fails to add any panache to the battle of the low lifes, the film's look and style pedestrian at best.

With Bacall's role marginally above the level of a cameo, it is left to Newman to grapple with the inferior material. While he enjoys a few solid wisecracks, for the most part Newman appears ill-suited to the role of a private investigator bumbling around the lives of the rich and poking at the scum gathered in the corners. Newman almost comically overacts his more puzzled moments, and when it's time to stop chewing and kick ass, he simply does not bring enough intensity. The overriding theme of the movie is of Newman being heavily pushed around by others, not a good premise to hang any film on.

Pamela Tiffin almost saves the day with a dazzling portrayal of Miranda as the spoiled 1960s rich girl, certain that she could not care less about her father but almost oblivious to the carnage that her mere presence is causing among the crooks around her. While Janet Leigh is underused in an interesting role, Robert Wagner, Arthur Hill, Robert Webber, Shelley Winters, Julie Harris and Strother Martin are an example of quantity over quality resulting in so much wasted talent, limited and poorly defined roles sinking Harper ever faster with each additional unconvincing snarl.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Movie Review: The Great Escape (1963)

One of the all-time epic World War Two adventures, The Great Escape is based on an actual 1944 mass prison break from a German prisoner of war camp. Director and Producer John Sturges decides to just go big, with an all-star cast and a running length close to three hours, and succeeds in delivering a stirring spectacle.

Tired of repeated and disruptive escapes by Allied prisoners, the German Luftwaffe build a new, theoretically escape-proof prison to hold captured Allied air men. But by concentrating all the escape artists in one location, the Germans create a dream team of the best breakout men. Dedicated to tying up enemy forces by causing the biggest possible distraction, the prisoners organize themselves under the leadership of master escape plotter Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), who devises a bold plan to liberate 250 prisoners by digging three tunnels (codenamed Tom, Dick and Harry) under the prison camp's fences and into the forest beyond.

Bartlett does not just want the men to escape, he wants to supply them with civilian uniforms and forged documents to give them the best chance of melding into the landscape and avoiding recapture, thus creating the need for a large German man-hunt that diverts critical resources from the front lines. His key escape team members include scrounger Hendley (James Garner), tunnel king Danny (Charles Bronson), master document forger Blythe (Donald Pleasence), manufacturer Sedgwick (James Coburn) and dispersal expert Ashley-Pitt (David McCallum). They get to work under the noses of the Germans guards, collecting the necessary equipment, digging three mammoth tunnels, and manufacturing, stealing or forging the necessary clothes, identity documents and maps to survive on the outside.

Also at the prison camp is brash American Captain Hilts (Steve McQueen), who independently insists on trying various solo escapes, all of which end in his recapture and incarceration in the solitary confinement "cooler", where he kills time bouncing a baseball off the wall. With the Germans beginning to suspect that something is up and then discovering one of the tunnels, Bartlett finally recruits Hilts to help in the great escape plan, as the men target a moonless night for the mass break-out.

Based on the 1950 book by Paul Brickhill, who lived through the real event at Stalag Luft III, The Great Escape faithfully recreates the escape details while creating composite characters inspired by actual escapees. Sturges dedicates the first two hours to life at the prison camp and the gradual development and implementation of the escape plan. The deliberate pacing provides plenty of time for character development and delving into the breakout details.

From the gallery of superstars, Donald Pleasence as Colin Blythe emerges as the most memorable, a tweedy intelligence officer who chose to board the wrong flight and ended up as a prisoner of war, now entrusted with creating forged documents for 250 escapees. Blythe starts to lose his eyesight, and in one of many examples of poignant human-scale stories triumphing in a grand film, James Garner's Bob Hendley takes Blythe under his wing as the escape approaches its climax.

Hendley himself is a memorably smooth prisoner, able to scrounge up the most difficult of items (including a camera) mostly by getting the psychological upper hand over the prison guards. Charles Bronson gets one of the other leading roles as Danny the tunnel king, a grimly determined expert tunnel digger dedicated to the hard physical labour until confronted by sudden claustrophobia after one too many cave-ins.

Steve McQueen adds undoubted star power and charisma, plus he gets the showy and prolonged motorcycle chase scenes and one of the most famous motorcycle jumps in movie history, courtesy of stuntman Bud Ekins. But there is equally little doubt that McQueen's role as Hilts is almost artificially appended to inject a dose of cool for American audiences. The actual escape was a predominantly British, Canadian and Australian affair, with limited involvement by any Americans.

The final one third of the movie is dedicated to the escape and its aftermath, and while the drama and tension increase to exquisite levels, here Sturges and the screenwriters (James Clavell and W.R. Burnett are credited, but others also contributed) also expand on the liberties. In addition to Hilts' mythical motorcycle chase, another fictional embellishment has Hendley and Blythe taking to the skies in a light aircraft. But the movie does gather up the strands of reality in portraying the number of escapees who actually made it all the way to freedom, as well as the tragedy that befell many others.

Adding immeasurably to the impact of the film is the iconic Elmer Bernstein theme music, addictive in its nimble military march simplicity and setting an enduring standard for war movie soundtracks. The Great Escape is great movie-making, Hollywood at its best celebrating history with just a dash of artificial horsepower.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Movie Review: Inside Daisy Clover (1965)

A cautionary tale about Hollywood eating its young, Inside Daisy Clover has a limited message and takes forever to deliver it. A running time of over two hours strangles momentum as characters lurch from one overblown crisis to another, the childish innocence of the main character not helping to fill the central emotional void.

It's the 1930s, and fifteen year old Daisy Clover (Natalie Wood) is from the wrong side of the California dream, a tomboy who loves to sing but is stuck forging star signatures and living with her eccentric mother (Ruth Gordon) in a dilapidated seaside mobile home. Daisy comes to the attention of arrogant Hollywood producer Raymond Swan (Christopher Plummer), who sees enough potential and adopts her into his star-making machine, but also insists that her mother be committed to a mental institution.

The pressures of stardom both enthral and unbalance Daisy, and she soon falls under the spell of Wade Lewis (Robert Redford), another manufactured star in the Swan stable. Despite her young age a stuttering romance develops between Daisy and Wade under Swan's watchful eyes. But Daisy has plenty to learn, and the mental pressure mounts with revelations involving Wade's sexuality, her mother's forced incarceration, Swan's wife Melora (Katharine Bard), and Swan's malevolent intentions.

At 28 years old, Natalie Wood, who's own real life story had a few parallels with Daisy, does her best to play a starstruck 15 year old, but there is never any doubt that Daisy is portrayed by a much older actress interpreting what it meant to be young and poor in the Depression. Wood rolls her eyes, wrinkles her nose, and pulls-off some teenage tomboy mannerisms, but the performance represents capable acting at its most basic, and the lack of depth at the movie's core compromises any potential engagement.

The rest of the cast take their roles and run to extremes. Christopher Plummer is the obnoxiously self-obsessed studio head, and to him actors are money machines to be exploited until empty, at which point it's time to activate another machine. He does not fail to give Daisy the encouragement that she needs to launch into stardom, but is also quick to exploit and dispose of his stars as necessary.

Robert Redford wanders into the movie spouting mostly incomprehensible psychology, seduces Daisy, waltzes off again before re-emerging as one of Hollywood's first relatively sympathetic bisexual characters. Wade Lewis never sticks around long enough for his character to be anything other than an intermittent stir-stick. Meanwhile, it's not clear what the character of Melora Swan was really doing in the movie, other than to drive home the point that Hollywood is filled with concealed victims.

Ruth Gordon was nominated for an Academy Award (and won the Golden Globe) for her turn as Daisy's happily halfway-demented mother, and the accolades surely had a lot more to do with welcoming Gordon back to the screen after a 22 year absence than any genuine bedazzlement by a stock portrayal of an eccentric character.

Director Robert Mulligan pulls out one terrific scene, Daisy reaching a tipping point trying to dub over her own singing voice in a sound booth. But otherwise the movie offers little in the form of stylistic interest to tide over its interminable length. Inside Daisy Clover covers a mildly interesting two year period in a young starlet's life, and appears to last as long.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Movie Review: From Russia With Love (1963)

James Bond's second adventure is also one of his best. With a more realistic and well-paced plot, Sean Connery in the groove, a genuine life and death struggle, and Daniela Bianchi actually succeeding in creating a believable person as the main Bond girl, From Russia With Love delivers all that is good about the series.

To avenge the death of Dr. No, SPECTRE hatch a plot to kill Bond while sparking tension between east and west and making money as a bonus. The evil plot is masterminded by chess grandmaster Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal) and implemented by Soviet defector Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya). They recruit lowly clerk Tatiana Romanova (Bianchi) at the Soviet Embassy in Istanbul to lure the British by offering to facilitate the theft of a coveted Lektor cryptograph. To ensnare Bond, the plot requires Tatiana to insist that she will only deal with him, with Kronsteen's plan calling for Bond to be killed and the Lektor sold back to the Soviets once the deed is done.

MI6 gets the message from Tatiana, and despite sensing a trap Bond travels to Istanbul, where he joins forces with resourceful local station intelligence chief Ali Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendariz). SPECTRE assassin Red Grant (Robert Shaw) is soon shadowing Bond and stoking tensions between the British and the Soviets. Tatiana makes contact with Bond, seduces him but also falls in love with him, while the arrangement is made for Bond and Kerim Bey to seize the Lektor. The escape route is via a long train ride on the Orient Express, where Bond has to fend off a Soviet agent and a ruthless Grant, out to seize the Lektor and eliminate Bond.

In a case where less is more, From Russia With Love has a single gadget (a tricked-out briefcase), one main foreign location (Turkey), one prominent and effective ally (Kerim Bey), and one main romantic interest (Tatiana). The bad guys are given plenty of time to explain and plan their plot, and the theft of a cryptograph machine is more consistent with actual spy missions than the outlandish objectives of most other Bond villains. In the form of Kronsteen, Klebb and Grant, Bond faces a triple threat of smart and ruthless enemies, with Lotte Lenya giving Klebb, in particular, nightmarish qualities of ugly but undisguised evil.

Tatiana Romanova, with a mercifully normal name, is a star-struck secretary, thrust into Bond's orbit and quickly falling for him. But believing that she has been recruited by the Soviet state, Tatiana is still loyal to her mission as she seduces Bond. Rarely has the series thrown up a girl as interesting as Tatiana, and despite her voice being dubbed, Daniela Bianchi makes for a memorable Bond girl.

Connery's Bond is witty and dangerous, aware that the odds are stacked against him in hostile territory but enjoying the game all the same. Connery is just as comfortable playing the rabbit as he is playing the fox, poking foes while parrying their thrusts in a performance that oozes confidence.

Revenge against Bond, and the central demand that he be killed, is another unique attribute permeating throughout From Russia With Love. Bond is both the hunter and the hunted, going into a trap eyes wide open, but nevertheless unable to resist the opportunity to grab a piece of essential Cold War hardware.

As the tip of the spear aimed at Bond's heart, Robert Shaw creates in Red Grant a formidable killing machine, ironically helping to keep Bond alive until the theft is done, and then moving in for the final kill.

The climactic fight to the death between Bond and Grant in the tight confines of a train cabin is brilliantly filmed by director Terence Young, and edited with crunching intensity by Peter Hunt. In a troubled production beset by cost over-runs, script challenges, and scary on-location accidents, Young and Hunt produce a miracle of streamlined and smart action film-making, an early quality standard for the rest of the series to aspire towards.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Movie Review: Marnie (1964)

A psychological thriller about kleptomania and sexual frigidity, Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie enjoys moments of sophisticated suspense, but also struggles through barren stretches searching for a purpose.

Marnie (Tippi Hedren) is beautiful, blonde, and a cold-hearted serial thief, gaining the trust of businesses by taking secretarial positions and then walking off with substantial amounts of cash at the earliest opportunity. Marnie uses the money to buy gifts for her mother Bernice (Louise Latham), but Bernice, who has embedded in Marnie a severe mistrust of men, wants nothing to do with her daughter, and emotionally shuts her out. Continuing her crime wave, Marnie pushes her luck by getting a job and planning her next theft at Rutlands, where owner Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) is already suspicious of her exploits, having spotted her at a previously victimized company.

Mark is a widower, and that does not stop his former sister-in-law Lil (Diane Baker), now blossoming into full womanhood, from eyeing him as a prize. Mark is not romantically interested in Lil but is quite curious about Marnie, and they share a kiss during a thunderstorm. Once Marnie empties his safe, he is waiting to trap her, and forces her to choose between marrying him and prison. They get married, but she predictably refuses to consummate the marriage. Mark sticks with his wife trying to untangle her emotional knot and release the guilt, shame and fear that drive her damaged behaviour.

The psychological analysis and breakthrough are handled at an amateurish level, Mark Rutland's motivations and actions are less than convincing, and at 130 minutes, Marnie is a good 20 minutes too long. But despite the limitations of the material, Hitchcock extracts uniformly excellent performances from his cast. Sean Connery, in an early post-Bond-stardom role, demonstrates charisma, versatility, and a dangerously selfish undercurrent to boldly signal that he can be much more than a suave secret-agent. Tippi Hedren gets perhaps the iciest of Hitchcock's icy blonde roles as Marnie, a gorgeous woman trapped into her own damaged mind and forced into a life of proactive crime that she can't explain due to reasons she can't remember.

The character of Marnie is the central puzzle of the film, and she is certainly a fascinating psychological case. But by leaving the entire solution key to the very end, the Jay Presson Allen screenplay (based on the Winston Graham book) strings both Marnie and the audience along, both victims of impenetrable intentions.

Apart from Rutland and Marnie, Hitchcock has fun with a couple of key supporting characters. Diane Baker's Lil is a charge of sexual lightning, almost the diametric opposite of Marnie, openly lusting after her brother-in-law and seeking flirtatious adventurism. And over on the much colder edge, Louise Latham as Bernice, Marnie's mother, is a picture of a motherhood train wreck, happier babysitting the neighbours' child than conversing with her daughter, all the time spouting man-hating rhetoric that acts as a wrecking ball on Marnie's ability to function. Much like Robert Duvall in To Kill A Mockingbird, Bruce Dern makes a really late, but quite pivotal, contribution.

Two Hitchcockian moments come in the form of a silently delivered theft scene, Marnie breaking into a safe while the janitorial staff unwittingly close in on her, and then a disturbing rape scene in which no violence is shown except for the burning eyes of a man driven to the crazed edge of having to force himself onto a frigid woman. In the other notable touch, Hitchcock frequently uses a literal red mist to denote the triggers that unsettle Marnie, inexplicably paralyzing her emotionally and physically.

Marnie ends with an emotional wallop, the past finally unveiled to decipher the present. The psychological damage is extensive and yes, coloured red, but at least the debris is now visible for those interested in picking up the pieces.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Book Review: Our Kind Of Traitor, by John le Carré (2010)

John le Carré's 22nd novel is a modern-day spy tale of international money laundering, Russian oligarchs, and the multifarious ties between Britain's big banks and government officials. But since this is le Carré, Our Kind Of Traitor is really about characters bleakly struggling to fulfil their role in an increasingly complex world, with desperation often comprehensively winning over well-intentioned determination.

While on vacation Antigua, British university lecturer and amateur tennis player Perry Makepiece and his almost-fiancée Gail Perkins meet Dima, a colourful, loud and close-to-obnoxious Russian banker and esteemed money launderer. Whether by design or simply seizing the opportunity, Dima, whose protégé has just been murdered in Moscow, cozies up to Perry, and requests that Perry make contact with British intelligence to arrange asylum in England for Dima's entire family. In return, Dima will provide proof of close ties between members of Britain's ruling elite and Russian mobsters.

Back in London, Perry, a left-leaning idealist with lingering belief in the glory of Britain, and Gail, a more grounded lawyer, make contact and are debriefed by British intelligence agents Luke and Yvonne and their fixer Ollie. Luke's boss Hector, a renegade intelligence officer with a chequered history, eventually takes over. With Dima insisting on dealing with Perry, Hector deploys Perry and Gail into the field to help Luke and Ollie arrange Dima's extraction in a tense spy dance that starts in Paris and glides to Switzerland. But Hector has his own battles to fight, with the leaders of Britain's intelligence services and their political masters dubious about the value of Dima's revelations, or otherwise eager to keep certain secrets quite secret.

Le Carré presents most of the story through the eyes of his main characters, with Gail and Luke the most prominent commentators. Our Kind Of Traitor is not bereft of action, with the final 100 pages picking up the chase, but the focus is firmly on the actors. Gail struggles with Perry's opaque stiffness but nevertheless loves him deeply and never loses sight of his many positive attribute. Having blotted his copybook in a botched South American misadventure, Luke is a damaged agent and eager to do well for Hector, who rescued Luke's career from administration hell.

In addition to Perry, Gail, Luke, Yvonne, Ollie, Hector, and Dima, all of whom are fully humanized,Our Kind Of Traitor is brimming with secondary characters fleshed out by le Carré in lovingly mysterious detail. Dima has a large entourage of family members, bodyguards and hangers-on, all given prominence and a few later contributing crucial moments of drama to the unfolding escapade. Hector's bosses are career-oriented spy masters now more interested in profiting from a dirty world and settling personal scores than confronting the world's endless stream of evil.

And as the plot develops, le Carré layers on the British and European puppet masters, ex-intelligence chiefs, politicians, lawyers, and deal makers unconcerned with national interests or the source of their ill-gotten wealth, and demonstrating allegiance only to their pocket book.

Keeping track of who's who and individual motivations is of course the challenge and the fun in a le Carré book, but he keeps the main threads of the plot visible within the sometimes dense personal stories of ultimately small people entangled in a ruthless race of global profiteering. Our Kind Of Traitor ends with the kind of treachery that makes money-laundering appear quaint, le Carré having lost neither his ability to weave intricate tapestries out of shadowy international games, nor his abject pessimism that any amount of clever heroism will ever make a difference.

306 pages.
Published in harcover by Viking Canada.

All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.

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