Monday, 30 April 2012

Movie Review: The Time Of Your Life (1948)


A whimsical slice of life semi-serious drama, The Time Of Your Life gets lost in flighty side stories about poorly sketched characters. Whatever weight the original play may have carried has long since been lost, and the screen adaptation is almost dumbfounding in its lack of focus.

The events take place over one day at a single location, Nick's Saloon and Entertainment Place on Pacific Street in San Francisco, a reputable establishment on the wrong side of town. Owner Nick (William Bendix) holds court, serving customers and hiring oddball talent, and his regular customers include the inexplicably wealthy and somewhat eccentric Joe (James Cagney), who seems to mostly enjoy getting to know people and helping them with sage advice, while endlessly repeating the same two songs on the jukebox.

Tom (Wayne  Morris) is Joe's sidekick and errand boy, and the customers who drift in and out of Nick's on this day include Kitty Duval (Jeanne Cagney), a girl with a past; Kit Carson (James Barton), a hard drinking old-timer with an endless number of tall tales, Harry the tap dancer, Wesley the pianist, Dudley the heartbroken young man, Willie, a man obsessed with defeating the pinball machine, and the mysterious and clearly evil Blick (Tom Powers).  Before the day is over, Joe is playing matchmaker for a burgeoning romance between Tom and Kitty, and helping to subdue a rampaging Blick.

A Cagney family affair, with producer William joining his siblings James and Jeanne in pulling the film together, The Time Of Your Life is an adaptation of a 1939 William Saroyan play. The movie never gains traction, the characters remaining lamentably bland, with all attempts at tension, drama, and humour evaporating as quickly as Kit Carson drains his beer. The whole exercise descends into a desperate attempt at delightful quirkiness that instead achieves stultifying dullness. Director H. C. Potter does not appear to even try to break the story out of its stage-bound confinement, although he makes decent use of the many nooks within Nick's sprawling establishment.

James Cagney does his best to inject some soul into the proceedings, and the character of Joe doubtless has a fascinating backstory that unfortunately remains a dense mystery. We are left with Joe proclaiming that he just wants to go through life being helpful and without hurting anyone. Being part of a movie this boring may not actually cause hurt, but it comes close.






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Friday, 27 April 2012

CD Review: Sad Wings Of Destiny, by Judas Priest (1976)


With their second studio album, Judas Priest announce their arrival as a commanding heavy metal force. Sad Wings Of Destiny is a classic album, establishing the band's sound and stature among the vanguard of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.

Borrowing elements from Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, and adding large doses of their unique twin-guitar sound and Rob Halford's incredible vocal range, Judas Priest create one of the foundational blueprints of the genre. Complex compositions with multiple signature changes; K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton trading jaw-dropping solos and guitar pyrotechnics; and Halford contributing a voice that covers the range from dangerous to tortured, often on the same track.

Victim Of Changes, at close to eight minutes, opens Sad Wings Of Destiny with an epic journey, taking metal to places new at the time but that Iron Maiden would adopt and make a normal part of their repertoire in years to come. Alternating fast and slow tempos, regular intervals of shredding that crash through previous boundaries, and celebrating Halford as he reaches high pitches never heard before, Victim Of Changes is among metal's greatest early achievements.

Equally stunning is Tyrant, a track ahead of its time, filled with unconstrained intent made more chilling with innovative vocals, the dead eye delivery of the word "Tyrant" behind Halford's prime vocals as brave as it is creepy. Tyrant adds a couple of brilliant guitar segments, the second of which channels Deep Purple's Ritchie Blackmore, magnified by a factor of two as Downing and Tipton join the ranks of metal guitar heroes.

Black Sabbath receive their own salute on the closer Island Of Domination, a track with an energetic vibe that holds its own until the tempo drops off a cliff to introduce a devastatingly mammoth Toni Iommi-style riff that dominates much more that just the island.

Rounding out the terrific tracks on the album is The Ripper, a signature tune for the band, all skulking notes looking for their next victim in the fog-shrouded lanes of London.

Sad Wings Of Destiny is the start of a dynasty, and one of the most influential albums from metal's first decade.


Band:

K.K. Downing - Guitars
Glenn Tipton - Guitars
Robert Halford - Vocals
Ian Hill - Bass
Alan Moore - Drums


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Victim Of Changes - 10
2. The Ripper - 9
3. Dream Deceiver - 7
4. Deceiver - 8
5. Prelude - n/a (short instrumental)
6. Tyrant - 10 *see below*
7. Genocide - 7
8. Epitaph - 5
9. Island Of Domination - 9

Average: 8.13

Produced by Jeffrey Calvert, Max West and Judas Priest.
Engineered by Jeffrey Calvert, Dave Charles and Chris Tsangerides.

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Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Movie Review: Buried (2010)


An exercise in gutsy filmmaking, Buried spends it's entire 94 minutes in a coffin. Director Rodrigo Cortes and star Ryan Reynolds combine to create an epic movie in a box, and an unforgettable experience.

Paul Conroy (Reynolds) wakes up in a dark box. A truck driver for a military logistics company in Iraq, Conroy has been captured after an insurgent ambush on his convoy. His captors have dumped him in a coffin and buried him alive in a shallow dirt grave. Buried with him is a gas lighter, a functioning Blackberry phone, a couple of pens, and a few other trinkets that he will discover near his feet.

Using the phone, Conroy desperately tries to rouse help by establishing contact with his family, the military, the FBI, and his employer. But more chilling are the incoming phone calls from his captors, demanding that he quickly arrange for a large ransom in exchange for freedom. Conroy is finally patched through to Dan Brenner (voice of Robert Paterson), a hostage rescue team leader. Brenner becomes a voice of hope, trying to locate Conroy's whereabouts in a race against time as oxygen and the phone battery both threaten to run out and the earth presses down against the coffin.

Filmed in Spain in just 17 days, Buried is a remarkable achievement. The thought of spending any time trapped in a coffin is horrifying. Cortes drags all his viewers into a small box for an hour and a half, a communal claustrophobic confinement test that reveals the depth of human capacity to survive and adapt to inhumane surroundings.

Cortes keeps his cameras busy, with varying light sources and colours enriching the visual experience. Screenwriter Chris Sparling dreams up a regular stream of surprises and unexpected challenges for Conroy to deal with inside his box, some potentially deadly and others, like an ever flickering flash light, plain exasperating. As the rest of his body in tightly confined, Reynolds is forced to act with just his face, most of the time in close-up, and he delivers a commendable performance of a man suffering through horror, anger, fear, determination and frustration.

If Buried is meant as a metaphor, it's easy to uncover: the United States boxed in by an ill-advised military adventure, suffering and desperate to find a way out but not getting any help from neither locals nor outsiders. It may not be sophisticated, but few metaphors dare be this literal.

An independent art film, a populist anti-war message, and a journey into the horror of extreme incarceration. Buried confines itself to a plain box, but demonstrates soaring ambition.






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Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Movie Review: Horrible Bosses (2011)


An old fashioned ensemble comedy with large dose of modern raunch, Horrible Bosses is a reasonably satisfying revenge fantasy. With almost every role played by a recognizable face, there is enough on-screen talent to overcome the irksome moments when wit is replaced by juvenile antics.

Nick (Jason Bateman), Dale (Charlie Day) and Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) are friends who find themselves stuck dealing with cruel and detestable bosses. Corporate executive Nick is working hard in the hope of securing a promotion to vice president, but his ruthlessly manipulative boss Harken (Kevin Spacey) is just squeezing Nick for all his worth with no intention of rewarding honest effort. Meek dental hygienist Dale works for Dr. Julia Harris (Jennifer Aniston), and she is an unapologetic maneater, eager to have sex with Dale despite his engagement to fiancée Stacy (Lindsay Sloane). Kurt is an amiable mid-level manager at a chemical production company, but when the elderly president (Donald Sutherland) dies suddenly, his good-for-nothing son Bobby (Colin Farrell) takes over. Bobby is a weasel addicted to sex and coke, and proceeds to redirect all profits into his pocket while making Kurt's life intolerable.

With other job opportunities non-existent, the three victims dream-up an ill-conceived and half-baked idea to summarily murder all three of their bosses. Their bumbling efforts lead them to supposed hit-man Dean "Motherf***er" Jones (Jamie Foxx), who doles out suspect advice and quickly proves to be much more trouble than he's worth. Not that there is a plan, but not much goes according to any plan, and before long Nick, Dale and Kurt are in a state of bewilderment and indeed dealing with one dead body, with the police closing in from all sides.

Director Seth Gordon follows up the limp Four Christmases with this effort, and he is progressing. Horrible Bosses has a welcome edge, providing the comedy with sharp elbows to force its way out of trouble. The three bosses are indeed horrible, and Spacey, Aniston and Farrell attack the characters with undisguised relish. Spacey hisses corporate evil, full of classic self-promotion and despicable connivance. Aniston gives Dr. Harris an out of control lust for illicit sex with employees and patients, and a running joke is how, with Aniston as the aggressor, this can that be a bad thing. Farrell goes all 1970s retard for the character of Bobby, a child-man lost in the world of sex, drugs, and bad Kung Fu delusions.

The victims are almost as interesting. Bateman as usual provides the anchor as the most sane of the three, Day plays Dale as overexcitable and immature, while other than work, Kurt has one thing on his mind: how to bed the next attractive woman he meets. The three bounce effectively off each other and for the most part their scenes together work, although sometimes the comedy is stretched too thin.

Almost stealing the show is Jamie Foxx as Dean Jones, a criminal who adopted the name Motherf***er to overcome the prissy persona of the The Love Bug actor. Jones presents a formidable image but underwhelming assistance when it comes to terminating the horrible bosses, pocketing $5,000 and providing advice that could be picked up from any television cop show. His faux menacing scenes are among the funniest in the movie.

In addition to solid comedy, Horrible Bosses provides a great intangible benefit: real-life bosses don't seem so bad, after all.






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Monday, 23 April 2012

Movie Review: Bad Teacher (2011)


An adult comedy of bad manners in the class room, Bad Teacher showcases Cameron Diaz's talent and little else. After establishing the basic premise, the film fizzles into a trite search for whatever passes as a happy ending.

Golddigger Elizabeth Halsey (Diaz) is a middle school teacher, doing the bare minimum for her students while desperately seeking a rich husband. Recently dumped by an affluent fiancée, Elizabeth is broke and desperate to find a man to look after her expensive tastes. Meanwhile, at school, she smokes pot, drinks, and teaches nothing: she just shows her students an endless stream of movies. Fellow teacher Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch) is over-enthusiastic about delivering a good education, and as a result clashes early and often with Elizabeth, while gym teacher Russell (Jason Segel) is interested in dating Elizabeth, but he does not have the wealth that she craves.

New teacher Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake) is spineless but appears to come from a rich family, and is therefore immediately an attractive option. Elizabeth learns that Scott's former girlfriend had large breasts and becomes obsessed with collecting enough money to augment her own. When Elizabeth finds out that there is a financial reward for the best teacher in the county, she hatches a plan to steal the official state test questions to help her students succeed, setting in motion a chain of events that will land both her and Amy in a heap of trouble.

Funny only in patches and unnecessarily crude in parts, Bad Teacher has a thin veneer of talent. Cameron Diaz shines in an over-the-top, brassy and sexy performance, packing into Elizabeth Halsey every imaginable nightmare teacher trait. Diaz allows herself to have fun with a wildly exaggerated comic character, and she gives Bad Teacher its only lift.

Otherwise, there isn't much to celebrate. The script is unable to build on the personality of the central character, and veers into jerky transformations, Elizabeth suddenly eager to deliver a proper education in a desperate attempt to win cash, and even less convincingly discovering a talent for mending young broken hearts and the potential charm of the non-wealthy. Justin Timberlake fails to make an impression, Jason Segel is his usual irritating self, and Lucy Punch has the thankless task of playing Amy as the anti-Elizabeth, although Amy's concealed stress triggers hint at a deliciously damaged personality that deserved more screen time.

Director Jake Kasdan, son of Lawrence, capably demonstrates that he has a long way to go to match his dad's illustrious achievements.

Bad Teacher gets a C for sputtering entertainment mixed with disappointingly lackadaisical effort.





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Saturday, 21 April 2012

Book Review: A World I Loved, by Wadad Makdisi Cortas (2009)


The personal memoir of a Lebanese educator, A World I Loved offers little beyond a clear passion for country and culture. Wadad Makdisi Cortas dedicated her life to the education of young women in Lebanon, and her book summarizes her observations and some of her experiences from 1917 to the late 1970s.

Makdisi Cortas is the mother-in-law of Edward Said, and it is difficult to reach any conclusion other than family connections playing a crucial role in this autobiography getting published. A World I Loved is a personal diary of travel stories and political commentary of interest primarily to immediate friends and family. It's a struggle to imagine anything here of value to a broader audience.

The book alternates stories of travel with a superficial history of Lebanon and the Middle East. The journeys to various cities as recorded by Makdisi Cortas veer into tiresome mini-histories, personal experiences and stories recounted to the author by her father. None of these sections are in least bit interesting.

The observations of politics and history unfolding in the Middle East throughout the 20th century are marginally more engaging, but personal to the point of irrelevance. Makdisi Cortas presents her political views and those of her father and close family circle, lamenting the meddling of colonial powers, the rise of Israel, the fragmentation of the Arab world, and finally the destruction of Lebanon in the Civil War that started in 1975. There is clear emotion behind her writing, but little genuine insight and nothing that is not covered much better elsewhere.

Through her efforts at the Ahliah School for Girls, Makdisi Cortas undoubtedly contributed greatly to the education of Arab women and to the progress of Lebanese society. There may be a story to tell about her impact and legacy on women in the Middle East, but this book is not it.

Subtitled The Story Of An Arab Woman.
192 pages, plus Afterword (by Najla Said), Historical Overview (by Mariam Said), and Notes.
Published by Nation Books.






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Friday, 20 April 2012

Movie Review: A Passage To India (1984)


David Lean's first film after a 14 year hiatus is a luxurious adaptation of E. M. Forster's A Passage To India. An exploration of the British ruling a quietly seething India, Lean succeeds at producing a visually lush experience that moves slowly but with purpose towards condemning an elitist culture.

It's the early 1920s, and Adela Quested (Judy Davis) travels to India with her presumed future mother-in-law Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft). Adela is planning to marry Ronny Heaslop (Nigel Havers), a local magistrate doling out dismissive justice against the local Indian community. Both Adela and Mrs. Moore are horrified by the condescending attitude of the local English rulers towards the Indian population, and seek to reach out and experience the real India.

One Englishman who is doing just that is college teacher Richard Fielding (James Fox), who befriends the locals, including Professor Godbole (Alec Guinness), and treats them with respect. Through Fielding, Adela and Mrs. Moore meet the young Doctor Aziz (Victor Banerjee). Eager to please the English and finding Mrs. Moore particularly pleasant, Aziz plans a day trip for the ladies to the remote and mysterious Marabar Caves. The trip quickly descends from enthralling to catastrophic when something horrible happens to Adela inside one of the caves, and Aziz is accused of attempted rape. His arrest and subsequent trial galvanize the local population, and sets the rulers against the ruled in a test of the true powers of justice.

A Passage To India examines the English flexing their imperial muscles, and finds little to like. Lean himself adapted Forster's book, and the colonialists are portrayed as only superficially polite, and generally pompous, insufferable and openly racist. Other than servants, the Indians are kept out of  "the Club" where the English enjoy their social gatherings, and the locals are generally treated as inconvenient.

And yet. In a display of the local civic infrastructure that the English did construct despite their haughtiness, the otherwise arrogant Heaslop has an Indian magistrate as his deputy, and it is this local judge who is allowed by the English to preside over Dr. Aziz's trial. Fielding is immersed in Indian culture, respectful of the country's people and customs, friends with the eccentric Godbole and quick to warm up to Dr. Aziz. And the film is critical of the English rulers, not the English: both Adela and Mrs. Moore are as resentful of the local rulers as the Indians, and both demonstrate genuine willingness to discover the real India and socialize with the locals. In Adela's case, this comes at the risk of rupturing her relationship with Heaslop.

As with the contradictions among the English, A Passage To India delves into the conflicted Indian psyche. Dr. Aziz and his friends resent being ruled by the English, but at the same time can hide neither their admiration nor appreciation. Eager to please and just as eager to complain, the Indians crave respect and autonomy as much as they fear the unknowns and responsibilities that come with independence. Two cultures, dancing awkwardly towards an uncertain future, neither fully respecting the relationship nor willing to sever it.

Lean captures this complex dynamic with his trademark artistry, every frame a landscaped masterpiece of composition, colour and emotion. At more than 160 minutes, A Passage To India does not move quickly, but rarely does it dawdle. Most scenes have a purpose in moving the narrative forward and providing further depth to the characters, although some sharper editing (again, by Lean) would have been welcome.

Within the narrow confines of expected proper English behaviour, Davis, Ashcroft and Fox have to display emotions through the slightest of gestures. The barely noticeable narrowing of the eyes and tightening of the mouth are sufficient for all three to successfully portray feelings ranging from astonishment to anguish. Banerjee's character allows him to be more animated, his portrayal of Dr. Aziz representing India's subservience, disillusionment and emergence into a more confident identity.

A Passage To India is a fitting ending to Lean's career. A grand, assured and memorable canvass, signed by a master of elegant film-making.






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Thursday, 19 April 2012

Movie Review: Bus Stop (1956)


A romantic dramedy and an early cinematic expression of the rising tide of feminism, Bus Stop just says no to male chauvinism while celebrating perhaps Marilyn Monroe's finest acting performance.

Bo Decker (Don Murray) is a naive young rancher from Montana, travelling by bus with his older and wiser buddy Virgil (Arthur O'Connell) to a rodeo event in Phoenix. One of the regular stops along the way is at Grace's Diner, where bus driver Carl (Robert Bray) has hopes of developing a relationship with owner Grace (Betty Field). Instead, Grace is immediately attracted to the guitar strumming Virgil.

In Phoenix, Bo falls under the spell of lounge singer Cherie (Monroe), insisting that she marry him and relocate her life to Montana. Flattered by the attention but also flustered, Cherie has ambitions to go to Hollywood, and Bo somewhat ruins his expressions of undying love by treating her like a head of cattle. He eventually gets her on the bus for the return trip to Montana, but a snow storm strands the bus at Grace's Diner, where Cherie makes her stand with the help of Virgil and Carl, and Bo learns a thing or two about the difference between women and ranch animals.

Based on plays by William Inge, Bus Stop is necessarily blunt in its messaging. There is nothing sophisticated about Bo's behaviour, his boorishness superficially chalked up to youth and ranch isolation but clearly representing men's more general willingness to mistreat women. More bravely, Cherie's character is no angel, and she has the courage to confess her chequered history to Bo. The script, co-written by Inge and George Axelrod, makes the statement that women don't have to perfect to be treated well, and there is no excuse for abusive behaviour. Interestingly, it is the older generation of men represented by Virgil and Carl that eventually comes to Cherie's rescue, experience trumping youth and overcoming traditional outlooks to encourage the emancipation of women.

Director Joshua Logan makes good use of the limited number of sets: the bus, Grace's Diner, the lounge in Phoenix and the rodeo grounds are the locations for most of Bus Stop's scenes, and Logan maintains momentum by keeping his cameras dynamic, sly and occupied.

Monroe sparkles, the camera loving her as she captures all eyes whenever she is in the frame. She gets to sing one song, and in a mostly dramatic role with only hints of humour, she provides Cherie with a tentative backbone. Monroe succeeds in giving life to a vulnerable and complex character at a cross-roads, torn between the opportunity to escape her horrid life, the fear of losing her Hollywood dream, the enticement of finding a husband and the horror that he may be a Neanderthal when it comes to treating women.

The supporting cast is more interesting than celebrated. Don Murray is game as the energetic Bo, oblivious to the world of societal decorum, but Murray was not able to translate the high profile role into a meaningful big screen career, eventually defaulting to a standard presence in mostly forgettable TV movies. O'Connell, Bray and Field have the cozy feel of characters happy in the shadows while Monroe monopolizes the spotlight.

Bus Stop both entertains and heralds a changing dynamic in the relationship between men and women, and adds the bonus of a captivating performance from one of Hollywood's most glamorous tragic heroines.






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Wednesday, 18 April 2012

CD Review: Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son, by Iron Maiden (1988)


An album that has grown in stature over the years, Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son stands unique in Iron Maiden's catalogue. Their first and only concept record, Maiden's seventh (!) album also hints at the band's ultimate evolution into progressive metal. The full transformation would take shape more than 15 years later, but the kernels make their initial appearance here.

The concept itself is vague at best and has something to do with the magical powers of the seventh son of a seventh son, battles between good and evil, life and death. At the time of its release, Seventh Son suffered in comparison to Queensryche's brilliant Operation: Mindcrime, released in the same year and probably metal's all-time best concept album, featuring a more straightforward and cinematic concept.

But Seventh Son yields its secrets slowly and on repeated listens. While it's true that the creative muse plays hard to get with the band, and they fail to nail a perfect track, they do work hard to assemble thoughtful metal. The result is a compact set of high quality, sophisticated tracks that conquer frequent peaks and rarely disappoint.

The Prophecy is the only clear mis-hit, a meandering theme that circles the drain and drips none too soon. At the opposite end of the spectrum the best tracks are confident, charge-ahead metal, The Evil That Men Do galloping with purpose, and Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son scoring 10 minutes of epic glory, blemished only by a slow portion ripped straight from Rime Of The Ancient Mariner.

The Clairvoyant soars with its chorus, by far Bruce Dickinson's finest moment on the album: There's a time to live and a time to die / When it's time to meet the maker / There's a time to live but isn't it strange / That as soon as you're born you're dying.  He almost recreates the magic on the closer Only The Good Die Young, but yields more readily to some classic guitar duelling between Dave Murray and Adrian Smith.

Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son achieved great commercial success in Europe but landed with a dull thud in North America, the peak of hair metal obscuring Maiden's attempt at a more sophisticated sound. Smith left the band soon thereafter, breaking up for 12 years the most celebrated guitar duo in metal.

Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son was never Maiden at their absolute best, but it did introduce the depth of the band's talent and the breadth of their ambition.


Band:

Bruce Dickinson - Vocals
Steve Harris - Bass
Nicko McBrain - Drums
Dave Murray - Guitars
Adrian Smith - Guitars


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Moonchild - 8
2. Infinite Dreams - 8
3. Can I Play With Madness - 8
4. The Evil That Men Do - 9
5. Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son - 9
6. The Prophecy - 6
7. The Clairvoyant - 9 *see below*
8. Only The Good Die Young - 9

Average: 8.25

Produced, Engineered and Mixed by Martin Birch.
Mastered by George Marino.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.




Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Movie Review: Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004)


Weird and thought-provoking, The Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind explores the intertwining destiny and meaning of relationships through a warped mirror. From the uniquely creative mind of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, the film lingers in the memory long after the credits fade.

The movie is told in a non-linear format, with the added challenge of intermingling conscious and subconscious scenes. The editing, by Iceland's Valdís Óskarsdóttir, consists of an intentional and almost random jumbling of sequence and reality. The end result works brilliantly as a puzzle, but The Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind is a movie to be experienced and untangled, rather than simply viewed.

Introverted and awkward Joel (Jim Carrey) does not seem to have anything going for him in life until he meets and falls in love with free-spirited Clementine (Kate Winslet). Although initially they seem perfect for each other, the relationship sours over time, and they grow frustrated with each other. On a whim, Clementine retains the services of a dodgy agency named Lacuna Inc. and erases Joel from her memory, leaving him devastated.

Run by Howard (Tim Wilkinson) with the assistance of technicians Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Patrick (Elijah Wood) and receptionist Mary (Kirsten Dunst), Lacuna specializes in targeted memory elimination to remove the pain of broken hearts. Joel decides to erase Clementine from his memory, but under heavy sedation during the night-long procedure, he has second thoughts, and attempts to save precious memories of Clementine. Meanwhile, Patrick is lusting after Clementine, Stan is frolicking with Mary instead of paying attention to Joel's procedure, and Mary discovers an unwelcome secret about Howard.

Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey are unforgettable as Clementine and Joel, a couple either meant to be together  or doomed to heap misery on each other. Winslet gives Clementine by far the more dominant personality, shooting determination from searing eyes and expressing her mood with ever-changing, never subtle hair colours. Carrey demonstrates his latent talent beyond slapstick comedy, his subdued Joel an insecure man beaten down by an unfulfilling life and surrendering to forces that he has long since abandoned any expectation of controlling.

The foursome of Wilkinson, Ruffalo, Wood and Dunst ensure that Lacuna Inc. is a most inadvertently unprofessional organization purporting to provide quasi-medical services, while providing Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind with an entertaining secondary cast.

Where Kaufman could have done better is in providing more of a backstory for Joel and Clementine. The two central characters are only introduced in the context of their relationship, and precious little else is revealed about their backgrounds. For all their travails, they remain vaguely detached as characters deserving of empathy: without each other, Kaufman provides few reasons to care for them.

Director Michel Gondry, with deep roots in the music video and commercial industries, has the perfect experience to perfectly balance Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind between charming and unhinged. Most of the film thrives on an unending barrage of quick cuts and dizzying visual effects, but Gondry assembles it in a manner that recalls the matter-of-factness of a dream, where incredible events are just normal.

The film asks whether emotion-packed relationships can ever be truly left behind, and whether to love and experience deep hurt is better or worse than never loving at all. In the most roundabout way, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind presents the argument that although the pain is sometimes unbearable, the great loves of life are indeed eternal.






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Monday, 16 April 2012

Movie Review: The Mask Of Zorro (1998)


A grand, old-fashioned swashbuckling adventure, The Mask Of Zorro entertains with a smile on its face. With a steamy chemistry between Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and the sage presence of Anthony Hopkins, this is an enjoyable romp in which the characters matter at least as much as the hyper-kinetic stunts.

With revolution sweeping across Mexico and California against the ruling Spanish, the evil governor Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson) plans his escape. He bequeaths all the California properties to powerful land barons, and makes one final attempt to capture Zorro, the legendary acrobatic master swordsman and masked hero of the people. Montero uncovers Zorro's true identity as Don Diego de la Vega (Anthony Hopkins), imprisons him and abducts de la Vega's infant daughter Elena to raise as his own.

Twenty years later, Montero returns to California to ferment a movement for independence, while de la Vega finally escapes from prison. Montero's dirty work is carried out by the ruthless Captain Love (Matt Letscher), who in cleaning up the territory brutally kills one of two brothers.  The surviving brother Alejandro (Antonio Banderas) teams up with de la Vega to plot joint revenge: de la Vega against Montero and Alejandro against Love. de la Vega trains Alejandro to become the new Zorro, but before they can achieve justice, they need to reconnect with Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), now a stunning 20 year old, raised by Montero and oblivious that de la Vega is her real father.

Lavishly produced with Steven Spielberg among the backers, The Mask Of Zorro is carefully constructed to appear effortless. While there are clearly some borrowed elements from legends of the past, notably The Count of Monte Cristo and Star WarsThe Mask Of Zorro gleams with a fun attitude, a smooth cast, and an old-school emphasis on fundamentals: revolution, adventure, suffering, revenge, love, and clear battle lines between good and evil.

Director Martin Campbell twice rescued the James Bond franchise with GoldenEye and Casino Royale, and he inserts many superhero staples into The Mask Of Zorro, including training with the old master, self-depreciating humour, immediate appeal to the opposite sex, and countless escapes from impossible situations.

Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones enjoy an instant chemistry that ignites the screen with mischievous passion. They make the most of it first in a pointy sword fight then in a smoldering dance sequence, the sparks flying on both occasions.

But the centre of gravity of The Mask Of Zorro is Anthony Hopkins, all other characters and all the film's events revolving around the original Zorro. At 60 years old, Hopkins delivers an essential performance filled with mature self satisfaction and an appreciation for the role of weathered wisdom in the sweep of revolutionary history. The younger actors may have all the right moves, but they need the old guard to point them in the right direction.






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Friday, 13 April 2012

Movie Review: Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982)


A high school sex farce that set new standards for raunchiness, Fast Times At Ridgemont High is a bold comedy with the added credibility of being based on screenwriter Cameron Crowe's undercover observations at a real high school. A fresh cast of newcomers would spawn several future super stars, enhancing the movie's legendary status.

The coolest dude in the Ridgemont High School community is surfer Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn). He is constantly stoned, mellow beyond caring, but probably the smartest kid in school, if he would ever clear his head to find out. Around him swirls a tornado of uncontrolled hormones. 15-year-old Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who works at the coolest food outlet in the local hang-out mall, has yet to have any sexual encounters, but is eager to start. Her best friend Linda (Phoebe Cates) is encouraging her to go ahead and experiment, although Linda's claims to be sexually experienced sound more like bravado than reality.


Mark "Rat" Ratner (Brian Backer) is an usher at the mall movie theatre and is interested in Stacy, but despite the sage advice of his smooth friend Mike Damone (Robert Romanus), Mark is unsure and hesitant, leaving Stacy cold. Her rush to find physical intimacy ends with unsatisfactory sex, first with an older student and then unexpectedly with Damone; the result is an unwanted surprise. Meanwhile, Stacy's older brother Brad (Judge Reinhold) is bouncing between jobs trying to make enough money to pay for his car while plotting a break-up with his girlfriend and lusting after Linda.

Cameron Crowe was a freelance writer who went undercover at a San Diego high school and wrote the book on which the movie is based. This was the start of Crowe's film career, and artistic exaggerations aside, his script reflects the reality of the way teens talk, behave, and think.

Remarkably, Fast Times At Ridgemont High was Amy Heckerling's directing debut. Recognizing the depth of talent at her disposal, she quickly settles on an almost documentary style, her cameras simply recording teens living their misadventures. Crowe and Heckerling maintain sparkle and momentum by rotating scenes among their main characters.


Fast Times At Ridgemont High was Sean Penn's second screen role and his breakout performance. Dominating with utter ambivalence, Spicoli is the type of character who can either become a future corporate leader or an unidentified dead body in the gutter. Penn leaves us guessing, Spicoli operating in a constant fog of weed but demonstrating flashes of social and intellectual brilliance that hint at his potential.

Jennifer Jason Leigh, 20 years old but convincingly playing 15, is the centre of the film's exploration of teen sex. Curious, impressionable, eager, disappointed, then shocked, Stacy's finds the most difficult path to contentment, Crowe summarizing in Stacy the casual recklessness of youth. It's not necessarily a pretty picture of considered behaviour, but Leigh's natural performance shines with a non-judgemental honesty. Crowe and Heckerling throw Stacy on the screen as a mirror to reality. Her behaviour may be shocking for some, but rings true for many in her generation.

Phoebe Cates became best friends with Leigh in real life, and they are best friends here on the screen. Cates has less to do as Linda, but her stunning fantasy scene, dropping her red bikini top after emerging from the pool, catapulted her overnight to the front row of sex symbols for adolescent boys. In her other scenes, Cates gives Linda an appealing coyness, as her confident advice to Stacy begins to leak, possibly due to manufactured personal experience.


The boys chasing sex and companionship also do well, Brian Backer, Robert Romanus and Judge Reinhold creating memorable characters. Reinhold's Brad defines the well-meaning goof, Romanus gives Damone a slick veneer of cool that proves all to easy to puncture, while Backer's portrayal of Rat is an early example of the nerd who succeeds by being slow and steady.


In a rare strike of fortune for teen comedies, Fast Times At Ridgemont High proved to be a true training ground for fine future acting talent. Lurking deep in the cast list are future Academy Award winners Nicolas Cage (credited as Nicolas Coppola) and Forest Whitaker, as well as Anthony Edwards and Eric Stoltz.

The teens of Fast Times At Ridgemont High can't help misbehaving, and are nevertheless undoubtedly endearing, ensuring an everlasting mark in the history of high school comedies.






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Thursday, 12 April 2012

Movie Review: Philadelphia (1993)


A landmark film in the portrayal of homosexuals, AIDS, and homophobia on film, Philadelphia crashes through long-established barriers and puts a human and heroic face to the long-suffering gay community.

Lawyer Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) is a young rising star at his Philadelphia-based law firm. He is also gay and HIV positive, conditions that he withholds from his employer, including respected head of the firm Charles Wheeler (Jason Robards). When the signs of AIDS become unmistakable, Beckett is fired, purportedly for botching his preparations for a crucial case.

With no reputable attorney willing to help him, Beckett turns to ambulance-chasing lawyer Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) to represent him in a wrongful dismissal case. Initially reluctant and himself suffering from homophobic tendencies, Miller gradually moves past the labels and gets to know Becket's circle of family and friends, including lover Miguel (Antonio Banderas) and mother Sarah (Joanne Woodward). During court testimony, and with Beckett's health failing badly, Wheeler's lawyer (Mary Steenburgen) argues that Beckett was fired for growing incompetence, while Miller presents the dismissal as a pure case of discrimination against Beckett's sexual orientation.

Loosely based on a true story, Philadelphia informs without preaching, Ron Nyswaner's script focusing on the characters and not shying away from portraying the harsh but typical slurs that gays routinely endure. The movie keeps its eyes wide open in chronicling the horrors of AIDS, and succeeds in presenting snippets of gay life as routine and mundane. Miller and his wife even get to attend a gay party at Beckett's house, and the event is no more or less interesting than any other party.

Tom Hanks won a deserved Academy Award for his portrayal of Andrew Beckett. In a surprisingly physical role, Hanks frightfully wastes away from an energetic lawyer into a gaunt, diseased AIDS victim, dangerously thin, with hollow eyes and pasty skin. Washington's Joe Miller represents the era's pervasive man-in-the-street attitude towards gays, at best insecure and more commonly mistrustful and ill-at-ease. Washington injects plenty of soul into the film's main journey, as Miller treads carefully into a previously mysterious world and matures into a champion of anti-discrimination.

Philadelphia's supporting cast is stacked with talent. Antonio Banderas is the passionate lover, Jason Robards the crusty old fox of a lawyer, Mary Steenburgen the icy defence counsel, and Joanne Woodward is marginally underused as Beckett's mother. They collectively make sure that Hanks and Washington have worthy foils and sharp sparring partners in every scene.

Director Jonathan Demme pays equal attention to Beckett's professional legal and personal survival battles, the common thread in both being the struggle for dignity and acceptance. While the overall pace is brisk, late on Demme does get bogged into a few prolonged scenes designed for the sole purpose of inducing tears. These overly melodramatic moments take away from the essential matter-of-factness that successfully drives the film, as well as unnecessarily dragging the running time past the two hour mark.

With his first ever song written for a movie, Bruce Springsteen also picked up an Academy Award, Streets Of Philadelphia an appropriately haunting and melancholy tune. Philadelphia may not be cinematically perfect, but it nevertheless a powerful achievement, and a milestone on the essential road to a more inclusive and more mature society.






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Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Movie Review: Harvey (1950)


An invitation to explore the joys of eccentricity, Harvey is a curious mix of the charming and the frivolous.

Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) is a middle-aged, easy-going, always smiling peculiar man, who enjoys a drink -- many drinks -- in the company of an ever-present large, invisible rabbit he calls Harvey. Elwood insists on introducing Harvey to everyone he meets, effectively scaring away most friends and relatives with what appears to be unhinged behaviour, and driving his sister Veta (Josephine Hull) and niece Myrtle (Victoria Horne) to distraction. Elwood also extends a dinner invitation to every stranger, barfly and bum that he bumps into, finally convincing Veta that he needs to be institutionalized.

At the mental hospital operated by the stuffy Dr. Chumley (Cecil Kellaway), the attending physician Dr. Sanderson (Charles Drake) initially insists on locking up Veta and releasing Elwood. Eventually  Elwood is institutionalized, but oblivious to his situation, he wanders away from the clinic and back to the bars, with Veta, Myrtle, Dr. Sanderson, the nurse Miss Kelly (Peggy Dow) and the asylum attendant Wilson (Jesse White) in pursuit. Amidst the bedlam, Elwood gets the chance to explain to Sanderson and Kelly how he met Harvey, and how the rabbit makes his life an always pleasant and positive experience. Veta and Dr. Chumley finally have to decide on the value of keeping Harvey as a part of Elwood's life, and the lives of others.

Although it's heart is firmly in the right place, Harvey is more intriguing than funny, and the obvious attempts at humour have not necessarily aged well. The message is obscured by behaviour that frequently borders on silly, and the film at times feels most appropriate as a crude parable most suitable for children.

James Stewart ambles through Harvey as a man clearly enjoying his own world in the company of his large invisible rabbit, although what lies behind his ridiculously rosy disposition is never fully explained. The screenplay (co-written by Mary Chase and based on her award-winning play) is happy to have Elwood just meander through life spreading his version of good cheer to the general irritation of everyone else, and Stewart plays along, although the shtick gets repetitive and tiresome sooner than expected.

The supporting cast is tied to the land of theatre comedy. Josephine Hull earned an Academy Award for her portrayal of the flustered but determined Veta, although her performance, like the rest of the characters surrounding Elwood, belongs more on the constrained and artificial stage than the more liberating screen.

Without making too much use of the black and white contrasts, director Henry Koster is functional while avoiding distractions and artistic flourishes. He does cleverly create the space for the vaporous presence of Harvey, allowing his cameras to share the belief that the big rabbit is right there next to Stewart.

Harvey is both whimsical and heavy-handed. It's message promoting tolerance for eccentricity is welcome, but the film offers little in terms of thoughtful nuance. The rabbit, after all, is 6' 3.5" tall.






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Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Movie Review: Agatha (1979)


A stylish thriller filling a mysterious gap in Agatha Christie's life with a fictional tale inspired by her devious writing, Agatha blossoms into an engaging story of unlikely love emerging from the desolation of depression.

It's 1926, and the marriage of famous author Agatha Christie (Vanessa Redgrave) is falling apart.  Her husband Colonel Archibald Christie (Timothy Dalton) is having an almost open affair with his secretary Nancy Neele (Celia Gregory), and demands a divorce. Upon learning that Neele is spending a few days at a posh countryside health spa in Harrogate, Agatha checks into the same spa under an assumed identity and without leaving a trace as to her whereabouts.

Chasing after Agatha is London-based American reporter Wally Stanton (Dustin Hoffman), and through clever sleuthing he is able to track her down. The two begin a tentative relationship, and Stanton suspects that behind the obvious sadness Agatha is up to something nefarious: she displays a keen interest in the electronic equipment used to power a therapeutic chair at the spa. Despite Agatha and Stanton falling in love, her personal demons drive her towards an act of desperate destruction involving Ms. Neele.

The real Agatha Christie did disappear for eleven days in 1926 following the collapse of her marriage, and evidence suggests that did check into a Harrogate spa under a fake name. From there, screenwriters Kathleen Tynan and Arthur Hopcraft take over and construct an elaborate puzzle to fill in the gaps, adding a twist in the tail worthy of Christie's thrillers.

Redgrave portrays Agatha as utterly haunted by the failure of her personal life, rendering her professional success meaningless. Redgrave effectively conveys a mixture of detachment, despair and manipulation, Agatha allowing her mind to construct a solution to her personal problems using the methods of her fictional thrillers.

In a turning of the tables, Hoffman slightly overplays the role of the suave American reporter, neither the nationality nor the profession being particularly well known for the height of sophistication. Nevertheless, Hoffman remains steely eyed in his determination to find Christie and then win her heart, and he demonstrates a deft touch with the ever-present cigarette, and more impressively, cigarette smoke.

The height difference between Hoffman (5' 5") and Redgrave (5' 11" plus heels) is unfortunately awkward. She towers over him in a few scenes, stripping away some of the authority that Stanton is supposed to project.

Director Michael Apted is in his element confidently steering a character-driven mystery to its conclusion, the efficient running length of under 100 minutes ensuring a welcome nimbleness of execution. Apted and cinematographer Vittoro Storaro bathe Agatha in luxurious pale greys, browns and blues, creating the impression of a gracefully aged sepia toned picture befitting the exuberant 1920s setting.

Agatha is engaging without being completely immersive, the movie a good metaphor for Christie's books: clever and entertaining, but perhaps just lacking the necessary depth to brush perfection.






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Monday, 9 April 2012

Movie Review: The Silence Of The Lambs (1991)


A journey into the darkest recesses of grotesque human behaviour, The Silence Of The Lambs is a devastating psychological terror ride. Dr. Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling are two unforgettable and uniquely compelling characters, brought to life by defining performances from Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster.

FBI trainee Agent Clarice Starling (Foster) is assigned by her supervisor Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) of the Behavioral Science Unit to talk to prisoner Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins), a deeply troubled genius psychologist incarcerated for cannibalistic murders. Crawford would like Lecter to help develop the profile of a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill, who is murdering and skinning young women. Lecter has refused to cooperate with the FBI, but Crawford believes that Starling can connect with him.

The Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane is supervised by the sleazy Dr. Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald), who immediately makes an uninvited and covetous advance on Starling. It does not take long for Lecter, who equally despises Chilton, to analyze Starling to her core, and from a position of total psychological dominance he decides to help her by gradually providing clues that may lead to Buffalo Bill's identity. As Starling starts to close in on the serial killer, Lecter plots his next bloody escapade.

Based on the book by Thomas Harris, The Silence Of The Lambs is unrelenting in its dive to the depths of depravity. The Ted Tally screenplay provides no relief, no comic moments, no hope that there is anywhere near enough good in the world to balance the mounting horror uncovered by Starling.

At best, characters like Jack Crawford are neutral, and even his motives and judgement in throwing a trainee into Lecter's cage have to be suspect. Otherwise, Dr. Chilton, Dr. Lecter and Buffalo Bill just represent ever increasing levels of deeply damaged humanity, and the other prisoners in Lecter's dungeon, given the chance, would keep pushing the scale south.

That Anthony Hopkins humanizes Lecter is astonishing, his performance bone chilling in its portrayal of a ravenous monster with the dangerous facade of a smiling human. The combination of extreme intelligence, searing insight into the psyche of any foe, and utmost disregard for societal norms is the visible layer of Lecter's hideous tendencies to eat his way through victims. Director Jonathan Demme frequently fills the screen with Hopkins squarely addressing the camera, forcing viewers to share Starling's nightmare as it comes to life.

Jodie Foster is no less impressive as Clarice Starling. Lecter's offensive weapons are well honed to destroy powerful enemies. Clarice's obvious fragility and almost immediate willingness - through lack of choice - to be vulnerable allow her to sneak into Lecter's tiny capacity to be relatively compassionate. Foster is unforgettable as she guides Starling into the literal and metaphorical darkness, a character out of her depth in terms of professional experience but quickly realizing that in dealing with extreme outliers, her lack of mastery of traditional methods is likely a good thing, if not the only thing that will help her penetrate a world of unimaginable evil.


Tak Fujimoto's cinematography matches the subject matter, with The Silence Of The Lamb bathed in grim dark yellows and browns, and shot with limited light to emphasize the absence of optimism in the corners of humanity occupied by the likes of Lecter. The music score by Howard Shore is a classic of richly understated mounting horror.

The Silence Of The Lamb stares into the face of the beast that man is capable of becoming. In it's manipulative connivance, the vision is even more terrifying than the concept.






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Sunday, 8 April 2012

Movie Review: Clue (1985)


A madcap whodunit comedy, Clue has a large cast breathlessly running around a spooky mansion for 90 minutes. The film runs out of steam and ideas long before the convoluted plot ties itself into an unfathomable knot.

On a stormy night at an isolated mansion, the butler Wadsworth (Tim Curry), the maid Yvette (Colleen Camp) and the Cook (Kellye Nakahara) prepare dinner. Six strangers are invited, and they have been instructed to use colourful pseudonyms: Mrs. Peacock (Eileen Brennan), Mrs. White (Madeline Kahn),  Professor Plum (Christopher Lloyd), Mr. Green (Michael McKean), Colonel Mustard (Martin Mull) and Miss Scarlet (Lesley Ann Warren). The apparent dinner host also shows up: Mr. Boddy (Lee Ving) claims to be blackmailing all the guests. He is soon mysteriously killed, as is the Cook.

Wadsworth leads the guests on an investigative quest to search the mansion and unmask the killer, but a stream of apparently uninvited strangers keep on ringing the door bell and also getting themselves killed, including a lost Motorist, an off-duty Cop, and a Singing Telegram Girl. All the dinner party guests have  motives, and it's up to Wadsworth to untangle everyone's movements and reveal the truth.

Based on the popular board game, Clue stumbles on a most cluttered plot, and disintegrates as the bodies pile up and the invited guests dart aimlessly from room to room. Director Jonathan Lynn, who co-wrote the script with the usually sharper John Landis, never finds neither the humour nor the focus necessary to build an engaging narrative. By the time Wadsworth runs through (literally) what happened (and there are three variations to the ending), the only thing that matters is that he gets it over with as quickly as possible to end the tedium.

Tim Curry does enliven the proceedings somewhat with his sheer energy and willingness to ham it up, but the rest of the decidedly B-list cast members are quickly lost among the furniture and interrupted by the continuously ringing doorbell introducing yet another nondescript victim. That the ample cleavages on display by Colleen Camp and Lesley Ann Warren are the most memorable performances says plenty.

Sad to say, but Clue does not have a clue.





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