Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Movie Review: To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)

A classic of American literature is transformed into a brilliant movie, and Gregory Peck delivers in To Kill A Mockingbird the performance of a lifetime as Atticus Finch. The Horton Foote screenplay strips Harper Lee's book to its essence in an exemplary adaptation, allowing director Robert Mulligan to draw overwhelming power from the story of racial tensions in the deep south during the depression.

It's the early 1930s, and the young tomboy Jean Louise "Scout" Finch (Mary Badham) and her brother Jem (Philip Alford) live in Maycomb, Alabama with their father Atticus (Peck). The town is struggling against both the Great Depression and the forces of racism, with blacks confined to second class status. Scout and Jem entertain themselves by annoying the residents at the spooky Radley house down the street, where legend has it that the vicious Boo Radley is chained to the furniture all day and comes out at night to frighten young children.

Atticus, a widower, is the town lawyer and is bringing his children up to be enlightened citizens of the world that they will inhabit as adults, rather than the one they exist in as children. Teaching tolerance and charity, setting the highest example and yet allowing Scout and Jem to explore the world and make their own mistakes, Atticus is Maycomb's beacon of progressiveness.

When Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a gentle black man, is arrested for allegedly raping a white woman from the white trash Ewell clan, Atticus is assigned to defend the accused. The town is mostly aghast that a white man will make the case for the innocence of a black assailant against the word of his white accusers, but Atticus is unperturbed, believing in the power of a colour-blind justice system. The case goes to court, and has far-reaching implications for Tom, the Ewells, Scout and Jem, with even Boo Radley (Robert Duvall) finally and unexpectedly emerging from his house at a most pivotal moment in Scout's life.

The story of Mrs. Dubose is eliminated; neighbours are amalgamated; and the gossiping society ladies are disposed of altogether. As an example of how to focus an adaptation, To Kill A Mockingbird sets the standard. The two hours are dedicated to the interaction with the Radley house and the Tom Robinson story. The two of course come together most unexpectedly at the end, allowing Mulligan to tie the film with a perfect bow.

Gregory Peck's Academy Award winning performance oozes class, wisdom, and quiet pride. A role model father and lawyer, Peck's Finch represents what America will always strive to be, rather than what it necessarily is. That Peck himself was a principled and well-liked humanitarian means that a perfect fit was achieved between actor and role.

Neither Mary Badham nor Philip Alford achieved acting success after To Kill A Mockingbird, although both deserved to. Badham in particular finds the perfect balance of a child transitioning from ramshackle tomboy to an awakening girl gradually gaining awareness of life's long list of injustices.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a rare example of a film matching the brilliance of its source material. The mighty struggle of Atticus to free Tom Robinson soon jumped off the screen and into the streets, the American Civil Rights movement igniting with the march on Washington DC in 1963, and a mere 46 years after the release of the movie, a black man was elected the President of the United States. Many mockingbirds needlessly suffered in the struggle, but larger society eventually caught up with Atticus Finch, the most noble of heroes.  

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Magnolia (1999)

A sprawling epic of interrelated human melodramas, Magnolia maintains interest for most of its astounding 188 minutes of running time, thanks to an engaging cast and mounting certainty that something most unusual will happen to everyone involved.

Television magnate Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) is bed-ridden and close to death. Looking after him is well-meaning nurse Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Earl's much younger wife Linda (Julianne Moore) is racked with guilt: she only married him for the money, but now that Earl is dying, she does not  want to inherit his fortune. Parma discovers that Earl's long-lost son is none other than Frank T. J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), an obnoxious relationship self-help guru and author of Seduce And Destroy, a book guiding men to dominate women for the sole purpose of sex.

One of the longest running television programs produced by Earl is the quiz show What Do Kids Know?, hosted by the veteran Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall). Gator has just learned that he has terminal cancer, and devastated by the guilt of all the sins in his life, is struggling to host the latest episode of the show. One of the contestants is boy genius Stanley (Jeremy Blackman), being mercilessly pushed by his father, who sees in Stanley an opportunity to get rich. Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) was a star of What Do Kids Know? a generation earlier. His winnings from the show were squandered by his parents, and Donnie is now a broken man, having lost most of his intelligence when he was struck by lightning.

Claudia (Melora Walters) is Jimmy Gator's daughter. Estranged from her father and addicted to drugs and very loud music, Claudia meets police officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), who is lonely and deeply religious but otherwise polite and considerate. They have a most awkward first date, disrupted by Claudia's insecurities.

After the success of Boogie Nights (1997), director Paul Thomas Anderson was given free rein. He wrote and directed Magnolia, and what he lacked in discipline he more than made up for in ambition. Magnolia runs on the unconstrained adrenaline of its overcharged characters. There are few subtle displays of emotion: all the knobs are turned to maximum expression, and the actors bite greedily into the meaty license to just let loose.

Cruise is quite memorable as T. J. Mackey, an intolerable self-help snake oil artist on hyperdrive, preaching to men about the need to reclaim their masculinity and dominate women in the most brazen terms. Of course Mackey is using all the bombast to get back at his father, but this does not make him any less fascinating to watch. Moore, Robards (in his final role), Walters, Hall and Macy do their own share of furniture chewing, and most scenes in Magnolia feature someone erupting, hissing, shouting, crying or collapsing.

Several themes tie all the stories of Magnolia together, the most prominent being abandonment, abuse, disappointment and betrayal. The nurse Parma and the police officer Kurring are the least damaged and most positive forces for good in the movie. All the other characters are struggling, often with limited success, against evil intentions, bleak childhoods, substances controlling their actions, and grand disillusionment with the way life turned out.

The ending is more weird than successful. The film threatens to elegantly come together, but instead takes a trip to an outlandish final 20 minutes that, while mystifying, throws away a lot of the good work that was constructed so carefully. While Magnolia falls short of delivering the sweetest smell, it remains an impressive bouquet.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Mystic River (2003)

The story of a grisly murder that reawakens a horrific childhood calamity, Mystic River is a grand tragedy and a spectacular film. Clint Eastwood directs the drama with the ever simmering tension of unfinished business, and a magnetic and exceptionally deep cast delivers excellent performances.

In a working class Boston neighbourhood, three boys playing street hockey are interrupted by a predator who drives up their street, pretending to be a police officer. Two of the boys, the tough Jimmy and street smart Sean, talk their way out of trouble; the more innocent Dave is bundled into the car, abducted, held captive and sexually abused for four days before finally escaping.

Twenty five years later Dave (Tim Robbins) is married to Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) and has a young boy of his own. Dave has a lumbering, uncomfortable personality, still very much carrying the scars of the abuse he suffered as a child. Jimmy (Sean Penn) appears to have put a life of crime behind him and is now married to Annabeth (Laura Linney). Sean (Kevin Bacon) is the only one of the three to have moved out of the old neighbourhood, and he is now a police detective, recently and inexplicably abandoned by his wife.

Jimmy's teenage daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum) is shot and then killed by mysterious assailants; on the same night Dave returns home soaked with blood and claiming that he had to kill a potential mugger. Sean and his partner Detective Powers (Laurence Fishburne) are assigned to solve Katie's murder. But the grieving Jimmy is not waiting for the police investigation; he calls on his old underworld buddies to uncover the identity of his daughter's murderer. With Sean and Powers applying pressure, Celeste is not sure which part of her husband's story to believe. Their world once again shattered, Jimmy, Sean and Dave hurtle towards another life-changing encounter with the strange forces of destiny.

Sean Penn (Best Actor) and Tim Robbins (Best Supporting Actor) won the Academy Awards, but all the cast members deliver outstanding performances, filled with nuance, flickers of understated emotion, and smoldering anger, agony or rage. As secrets of the past threaten to break into the open, the characters often say what they need to in order to actually hide what they are thinking. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland, adapting Dennis Lehane's book, creates tough personalities that are frighteningly real in their behaviour, with traits that are only gradually revealed as the present collides with the past and fate comes calling.

Towards the end of Mystic River, the unseen power that women hold over their men surfaces, as both Celeste and Annabeth step out of the shadows to play pivotal roles in their husbands' fortunes. Linney as Annabeth has just the one key scene, but it's unforgettable as she chillingly reassembles her husband's self-worth and pride, readying him to fight on, as he has always had to.

Clint Eastwood approaches the peak of his directing career, knitting together a story that connects two tragedies across a span of a generation. His style is calm in the midst of emotional storms, the cameras discretely capturing a proud neighbourhood filled with strong characters in heart wrenching turmoil. In addition to co-producing, Eastwood also contributed an evocative music score.

Mystic River meanders expertly past the often untold stories of pain and suffering that hide behind many nondescript windows, a searing reminder that life can offer up challenging choices at any time, and the smallest decisions can have the most devastating of consequences.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

CD Review: "The Spaghetti Incident?", by Guns N' Roses (1993)

With original material slow in coming, Guns N' Roses attempt another cash-grab with an album of covers. This proved to be the band's final studio offering prior to the original line-up fragmenting entirely.

As is typical with cover albums, "The Spaghetti Incident?" is a mixed bag of the good, the unusual and the filler. By far the best thing on the CD is Hair Of The Dog, G N' R ever so briefly rediscovering their sleazy soul to give the Nazareth classic an appreciated edge, Slash leading the charge with an effortless rendition of the killer riff.

A trio of more aggressive and piss-filled punk tunes add some quality to the album. The U.K. Subs' Down On The Farm allows Axl to relive the bleak days of his childhood, and he gives the song plenty of personality while Slash wails away with a skill that the punk pioneers could have only dreamed of. Ain't It Fun, originally by American punk outfit The Dead Boys, builds effectively to a satisfying cacophony of noise, Matt Sorum delivering one of his more pronounced performances behind the drum kit. And finally the medley of Buick Makane (Big Dumb Sex) cleverly combines T. Rex with Soundgarden to good effect.

Most of the other tracks on "The Spaghetti Incident?" vary between interesting and mundane, with value limited by weak source material, uninspired interpretation, listless delivery or all three.

Hidden at the end of the album is a cover of Charles Manson's I Don't Care About You, Axl insisting on including it, doubtless to cash in on the controversy of interpreting the music of a notorious criminal. It's a sad ending to the recording career of a band that could have been a contender, but proved to be mostly a flash in the pan.


Matt Sorum - Drums
Duff McKagan - Bass
Gilby Clarke - Guitar
Axl Rose - Vocals
Slash - Guitar
Dizzy Reed -Keyboards

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Since I Don't Have You - 7
2. New Rose - 7
3. Down On The Farm - 9
4. Human Being - 7
5. Raw Power - 7
6. Ain't It Fun - 9
7. Buick Makane - 9
8. Hair Of The Dog - 10
9. Attitude - 6
10. Black Leather - 8
11. You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory - 6
12. I Don't Care About You - 7

Average: 7.67

Produced by Mike Clink and Guns N' Roses.
Mixed by Bill Price. Mastered by George Marino.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

CD Review: Forget Me Not, by Dark Lunacy (2003)

For their second studio album, Italy's Dark Lunacy continue developing their elaborate sound, marrying classical string quartet music with melodic death metal. Forget Me Not may not reach the same astounding heights as their debut Devoid, but it still provides a spectacular experience.

Forget Me Not is filled with complex, satisfying and intricate compositions, the band fully exploring their trade secret of spanning the musical centuries, nurturing metal's deep relationship with its spiritual roots. The classical tunes are embedded more deeply and most naturally within the metal frameworks, with often marvelous results.

Dark Lunacy take their time with their music, allowing the tracks to evolve and blossom to a full bloom. Six of the selections clock in at more than six minutes, and it's almost always a pity when they come to an end, an indication of the richness of talent.

The highlight of the album is Serenity, a magical creation that perfects the eternal union between the ancient and the new. A haunting piano theme holds Serenity together, opening the door for molten metal from the guitar of Enomys onto which Mike Lunacy stamps his threatening low growl. Frequent but cohesive changes in pace, with the violin quartet ghosting in and out with melancholy interludes, lift the track to the rank of timeless classic.

Almost as good is Lunacyrcus, a seven minute journey on an invisible carpet into the mythical atmospheric layer where elegant violins and thunderous metal drums embrace.

Dark Lunacy need not fear: Forget Me Not is an unforgettable album.


Mike Lunacy - Vocals
Enomys - Guitars and Piano
Imer - Bass
Baijkal - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. The Dirge - n/a (short instrumental)
2. Lunacyrcus - 9
3. Fragile Caress - 8
4. Through The Non-Time - 8
5. Defaced - 8
6. Serenity - 10 *see below*
7. My Dying Pathway - 8
8. Fiamm - 8
9. Lacryma - 7
10. Die To Reborn - 8
11. Forget Me Not - 8

Average: 8.20

Produced and Engineered by Enomys.
Mixed by Enomis and Sygo. Mastered by Alberto Cutolo.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Movie Review: Poseidon (2006)

A film about a big boat without the big boat, Poseidon is what happens when computer technology is allowed to replace good film-making. While the thrills are there, a lot of what happens in Poseidon is hopelessly contrived, and the few external shots are entirely manufactured from bits and bytes.

Aboard the luxury cruise ship Poseidon carrying thousands of passengers, professional gambler Dylan Johns (Josh Lucas) meets New York's former Mayor Robert Ramsey (Kurt Russell), a retired firefighter. Also on the grand boat as New Year's Eve approaches are Robert's daughter Jennifer (Emmy Rossum) and her boyfriend Christian (Mike Vogel); the gay Richard Nelson (Richard Dreyfuss), who was recently dumped by his partner; stowaway Elena (Mia Maestro); and single mother Maggie (Jacinda Barrett) and her son Connor (Jimmy Bennett).

As the midnight celebrations die down, a giant rogue wave strikes the Poseidon, killing hundreds and turning the boat upside down in the water. The main banquet hall holds a giant air pocket and that is where most of the survivors are urged to stay. But a small group led by Dylan and Robert correctly believe the air pocket to be a death trap, and decide to venture upwards towards the bottom of the ship, now the only part that is above the water. They have to navigate numerous dangers to try and make it.

A questionable remake of 1972's The Poseidon Adventure, Poseidon is unfortunately not much more than an elaborate and mostly claustrophobic obstacle course, with the cast members shepherded along from one physical challenge to the next like mice in an upside down maze. Director Wolfgang Petersen is a master of squeezing tension out of confined wet spaces, and Poseidon completes his trilogy of peril-in-the-water movies that started with Das Boot (1981) and continued with The Perfect Storm (2000). The perils of Poseidon are undeniably exciting and well executed, and Peterson keeps tightening the tension screws with ever more creative puzzles that need to be solved for the survivors to make progress on their desperate journey through the bowels of the stricken boat.

But precious little time is allowed for any true human emotion to develop or connections to grow. The opening few minutes of the movie are almost as ridiculously scripted as the weekly guest star introductions on the Love Boat television series, and all that is revealed about the main characters is crammed into a few stiff scenes. Once the boat is upside down, the survivors stick to strictly predefined boundaries of behaviour, and eventually fade into the insignificant background behind the heartbreaking glory of a ship dying a slow death on its back. Destroyed grandeur, explosions, fire, floods, large falling obstacles, and floating dead bodies dominate the visual experience, and all the actors may as well be extras.

Josh Lucas gets it quickly and displays all the depth of an anonymous extra, trying but failing miserably to channel a Matthew McConaughy type persona. Kurt Russell and Richard Dreyfuss add some talent but generally appear to be wondering how they ended up playing second fiddle to a rack of computers. Jacinda Barrett, Emmy Rossum, and Mia Maestro are largely wasted among the hardware, software and flood of masculinity required to lead the survivors to safety.

For all the complex and heart-pounding death traps that have to be negotiated, Poseidon is disappointingly mechanical, the actors swallowed up by the spectacle, and the spectacle devoured by enough processing power to sink a large ship.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Film Review: Scrooged (1988)

Another retelling of Charles Dickins' A Christmas Carol, Scrooged is a straightforward Bill Murray vehicle, as funny as it is predictable. Beyond the steady barrage of one-liners, many of which do solidly hit the mark, there is little to lift this version of the classic tale beyond the average but unnecessary.

The Ghost of Christmas Present (Carol Kane, an insufferably hovering angel) punches Frank.
Frank Cross (Bill Murray): My jaw!
Ghost of Christmas Present: Sometimes the truth is painful, Frank.
She slaps his face.
Ghost of Christmas Present: But it's made your cheeks rosy and your eyes bright!
Frank: If you TOUCH ME AGAlN, I'll rip your goddamned wings off! Okay?
Ghost of Christmas Present: You know I like the rough stuff, don't you, Frank?

That exchange sums up the movie, and the kind of night that television executive Frank Cross (Murray) is having. A heartless boor, Cross pushes his team around with malicious insensitivity, firing an underling just before Christmas, forcing his assistant (Alfre Woodard) to abandon her family on Christmas eve, handing out the cheapest of gifts, berating ex-girlfriend Claire (Karen Allen) for helping the disadvantaged, and producing a garish live version of the Scrooge story.

Cross is a prime candidate for a visit from some ghosts, and soon enough the Ghost of Christmas Past (David Johansen) takes him on a tour of a miserable childhood, followed by the Ghost of Christmas Present (Kane) opening his eyes to his current victims. By the time a grim reaper of a Ghost of Christmas Future shows up, the Mitch Glazer and Michael O'Donoghue script is well and truly running on empty, climaxing with a limp live-on-TV emotional awakening by Frank.

Director Richard Donner squeezes out all the comedy that he can out of Murray, and generates a good amount of laughs, mostly unrelated to the well-trodden story. The support for Murray is pretty meek. Allen is barely animated as Claire, coasting through the movie with wide eyed expectation, unrealistically tolerating Frank and improbably waiting for his heart to turn from stone to gold. John Forsyth and Robert Mitchum drift in and out of the movie chiseling away at wooden lines, stiff foils for Murray's humour. It's left to Carol Kane as the cleverly annoying Ghost of Christmas Present to stand up to Cross with words and actions sharper than even he could handle, although by the time she appears, the movie has firmly settled down into a metronomic release of one liners.

Scrooged is funny enough, but Bill Murray was better than this category of material, and his future roles would leave Scrooged as a ghostly performance of the distant past.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Movie Review: Little Caesar (1931)

The story of the spectacular rise and hasty fall of a vicious criminal, Little Caesar was one of the most influential early gangster movies and retains considerable power today. It catapulted Edward G. Robinson into stardom and helped to establish the template for the the tough talking, ruthless screen villain.

Common criminals and friends Caesar "Rico" Bandello (Robinson) and Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) are on diverging career paths. Massara wants to give up the life of crime and become a dancer, while Rico is brutal, ambitious and wants be a major crime boss. They move to Chicago, where Massara settles down with dance partner Olga (Glenda Farrell) and starts to build a career in the performing world. Rico joins the the gang of Sam Vettori, and makes a name for himself by gunning down crime commissioner Alvin McClure, a shooting witnessed by Massara.

Rico's bravado and quick trigger finger launch him up the gang world ladder, and he draws the attention of the police and particularly Sergeant Flaherty. When Massara insists that he wants nothing more to do with a life of crime, Rico decides to kill him, afraid that Massara can link him to the McClure shooting. But Rico cannot bring himself to shoot his old friend, and this starts his downfall, which is even quicker and more comprehensive than his meteoric rise.

Arriving during the transitional era from silent to talking movies, Little Caesar retains a few full screen text boards to help move the action along. But it is otherwise a remarkably modern film, tautly scripted, sharply edited and well acted. Clocking in at just 79 minutes, director Mervyn LeRoy cuts out all distractions and keeps a tight focus on Rico. Edward G. Robinson quickly perfects the permanent sour scowl and sharp tongue that would define his screen persona, a man who will fearlessly obliterate any obstacle until destiny confronts him with an appropriately powerful opposing emotional force.

Few actors could have matched Robinson for intensity and magnetic screen presence, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is comparatively bland as Massara, a character who points the way to a better future built on redemption, while Rico is only interested in the shortcuts of life that can be afforded with the barrel of a gun. Glenda Farrell is markedly influential as Olga, and it is she who injects Massara with the backbone to stand up to Rico, a early model for assertive women movie characters.

"Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?" is the deservedly famous last line of Little Caesar. Rico's story was always going to end badly, but Little Caesar was one of the key starting points for the modern era of film-making.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Movie Review: Amadeus (1984)

One of the grandest and most lavish movies ever created, Amadeus is a riveting story of artistic intrigue set in the suddenly captivating world of classical music.

The movie is told in flashback, with an old Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abrham) in a mental hospital recounting his tale to a visiting priest. Salieri was the resident court composer for Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones) in the thriving Vienna of the late 1700s. Competent but relatively uninspired, Salieri was living his dream of being the most respected composer in the land until a young and playful Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart arrived from Salzburg and caused a storm in the music world.

Salieri is torn between absolute admiration for Mozart's sheer brilliance and abject despair at the gulf in talent between them. Salieri perceives Mozart as God's instrument to personally mock him, and turning away from religion he commits to destroying the young composer's career and life. Mozart marries Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge) and despite producing magnificent music struggles to make a living, with Salieri using his considerable influence to block every opportunity that Mozart has for success. Mozart also suffers through a difficult relationship with his demanding father Leopold (Roy Dotrice). In poor health and descending into grovelling poverty, Mozart is susceptible to Salieri's growing evil intentions.

The story is of course far-fetched legend, with no historian actually believing that Salieri was anything other than a contemporary rival of Mozart. Fiction Amadeus may be, but director Milos Forman adapts the Peter Shaffer play with sumptuous grandeur, recreating 18th century Vienna as a cradle of music and the arts. With a soundtrack filled with standout Mozart selections, every scene and setting is a feast for the eyes and ears, from the royal palace to the majestic performing theatres, and even Mozart's relatively humble apartment is posh. Many scenes were filmed in Prague, notably at the restored Count Nostitz Theatre where Mozart's actual operas launched.

F. Murray Abraham delivers a performance of immense intensity as Antonio Salieri, a man who believes that God is toying with him by demonstrating his failings through Mozart's effortless genius. As the old Salieri in the hospital recounting his story, Abraham dances on the edge of insanity as he finds his mediocrity ultimately amusing. In the flashbacks Salieri is the king of his music domain, having to react to a sudden threat from an unlikely source. Abraham allows the manipulative scheming to register above his ears, smiling as he hatches a plot to counter pure talent with concealed evil.

Tom Hulce brings Mozart to life as a man-child, fully aware of his prodigious talent but unable to make the leap into adult behaviour. With a high-pitched childish laugh, Hulce's Mozart is hyperactive, presumptuous and insolent, and like many geniuses unable to comprehend the limitations of mere mortals. Elizabeth Berridge, a very late replacement for Meg Tilly as Constanze, struggles somewhat to rise to her surroundings, but enjoys a few appealing coquettish moments when she pauses from her incessant demands for Mozart to make more money.

Amadeus is ultimately about the power of music, and Forman on several occasions touches sublime heights in describing the spell of perfect compositions, with Abraham entering infectious trance-like states in describing Salieri's overwhelming awe at experiencing Mozart's compositions. Another scene captures the agony and ecstasy of the creative process, Mozart and Salieri collaborating to write music, Mozart a fountain of stunningly original ideas, Salieri desperately capturing them before they slip away.

Amadeus deservedly dominated the Academy Awards, winning in eight categories including Best Film, Best Actor (Abraham) and Best Director. Much like the music of Mozart, Amadeus effortlessly entertains, educates, and mesmerises with a flawless artistic touch of magic.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Colors (1988)

A drive through a Los Angeles in the grips of gang warfare resembling civil war, Colors is a fragmented police drama that grinds the gears but can never quite achieve cruising speeds.

Officer Bob Hodges (Robert Duvall), a veteran member of the Los Angeles anti-gang unit, gets a new partner: officer Danny McGavin (Sean Penn) is young, aggressive and arrogant. The police force is unable to control a wave of extreme gang violence gripping the city. The gang members are heavily armed, and frequent drive-by shootings and revenge killings litter the streets with bullets and bodies.

Hodges' style is to try and establish a rapport with gang members, turning a blind eye to minor offences to gain informants in an attempt to stop more violent acts. McGavin is less patient and more prone to breaking bones and taking prisoners. He also develops a romantic relationship with waitress Louisa Gomez (Maria Conchita Alonso), whose family members are involved with the gangs.

Outnumbered and out-gunned, and despite endless patrol duty, neither Hodges nor McGavin are able to stop the violence from escalating. With gang leader Rocket (Don Cheadle) busy preparing retribution, the blood-letting will continue.

Director Dennis Hopper finds the corners of Los Angeles that rival third-world slums, and sets the world of Colors deep within the grime. The aesthetics of the film are its greatest achievement. Hodges and McGavin patrol decrepit streets, depressed businesses, and dilapidated neighbourhoods, with gang graffiti on every wall, household debris cluttering every back lane and hoodlums hanging out on every corner, looking for trouble. It's as far from the American dream as a US city can get, and a most logical place for the breakdown of law and order and the emergence of the reign of chaos.

In the face of a hopeless environment driving young men to violence, the cops are ridiculously ill-equipped to  maintain some semblance of civility, and Hodges knows this. Too wise to pick a fight with every punk, Duvall gives a performance filled with resigned caring. Hodges is not cynical or hopeless, just a realist trying to find the thin streams of humanity among the mounting garbage. McGavin still believes he can make the world better by kicking it around, but all he succeeds in doing is spilling more junk onto the already filthy streets. Penn plays McGavin with belligerence but also a basic willingness to learn, slowly, from Hodges.

Beyond the setting and the two main protagonists, Colors sputters, falling into repetitive patterns, gang members hissing at each other, routine car chases, repetitive drive-by shootings, and basic male behaviour uninfluenced by centuries of evolution. Some parts of the movie feel like a documentary, and attempts to capture the thread of a story or to humanize secondary characters fall short.

Colors mixes vivids with pastels and oil with water. Some patches of the canvass reveal talent, but the overall product is a bit of an unseemly hodgepodge.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Psycho (1960)

A masterpiece of horror film-making, Alfred Hitchcock invents the spooky slasher genre and packages it with lust, larceny, and the mother of all personality disorders. Psycho is disturbing, terrifying and unforgettable.

Secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is having a steamy affair with married man Sam Loomis (John Gavin). Desperate for money, she steals $40,000 in cash from her Phoenix-based employer and heads for the highway towards California. After an unwelcome encounter with a highway patrol officer, Marion takes the back roads and finally stops for the night at the isolated Bates Motel. She is the only guest at the 12 room facility, while owner Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) lives with his reclusive mother in the large mansion overlooking the motel.

Over dinner, Norman takes an unhealthy interest in Marion, while she notices that Norman's shrill mother seems to still have an unusually stringent hold on him. After dinner, Marion is attacked and brutally knifed to death while taking a shower. A private investigator (Martin Balsam), Marion's sister Lila (Vera Miles) and Loomis are soon snooping around the Bates Motel and the adjoining mansion, trying to uncover what happened to Marion.

Hitchcock starts Psycho with illicit love, progresses to theft, marches into multiple murders, and ends with an examination of the damage that severe psychosis can cause. As the film progresses, the unfolding criminal acts gain in intensity and damage, until Hitchcock finally takes us into the murderous mind, busy constructing its own reality and capable of unimaginable horror.

The shower murder is rightfully one of the most celebrated scenes in the history of the movies. With rapid editing heightened by Bernard Herrman's shrieking music score, the knife is never shown to make contact with Marion, and only the killer's stabbing arm is ever revealed. By showing less yet willing the eye to imagine more, Hitchcock creates terror more with what is imagined that what is actually seen.

The Bates family mansion, brooding on the hill above the motel, is a classic setting for resident evil. The dark and mysterious house, with Norman's mother holding court in the upstairs window, oozes unadulterated malice, and Hitchcock maximizes its impact by keeping most of the action in its shadow. Few scenes in Psycho take place inside the house: most of the dastardly deeds, from murders schemed and committed to bodies dumped in the swamp, take place under the mansion's approving gaze.

Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh create roles that became forever intertwined with their names. Perkins is simply chilling as Norman Bates, a character pretending hard to be normal but clearly afflicted with an odd behavioural disorder that just cannot be properly pinpointed.

Leigh is superb in portraying a conflicted Marion, easily seducing a married man but unable herself to resist the temptation of easy money. Marion regrets her actions when a seemingly straightforward road journey starts to unravel. She eventually makes the decision to return to Phoenix and make things right, but her criminal act has already condemned her to a grotesque destiny.

Psycho is an encounter with a deeply unhinged individual skulking in the most ominous of locales. The genius of Hitchcock lies in making Norman Bates a compelling character worth conversing with, and the Bates Motel an instantly recognizable, must-visit destination to shower in.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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