Saturday, 30 June 2012

Movie Review: Bull Durham (1988)


An adult romantic triangle set against the backdrop of minor league baseball, Bull Durham is about imperfect characters colliding and finding each other despite the most unfavourable of circumstances.

The Durham Bulls of North Carolina toil away in the obscurity of the local minor league circuit, the roster as usual filled with the major league wannabes, never-will-bes, and the once-were-but-are-no-mores. Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) is too old to be a local groupie, but she persists in selecting one Bull each year to be her season-long toy boy. She insists that her annual lover will always have a career-best year and get a chance at the majors.

This year, the Bulls have a promising pitching prospect in Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), a dim wit with a rocket of an arm but nothing between the ears, least of all an ability to control his pitches. The Bulls recruit veteran catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), a career minor-leaguer who had the briefest flirtation with the majors, to help mentor Nuke. Annie is a natural soul mate for Crash, but much to his disappointment, she chooses Nuke to be her lover for the season. Crash needs to help Nuke develop while trying to find a way to wind down his own career with dignity and win Annie's affections.

Crash Davis and Annie Savoy are meant for each other, and the clever attraction of Bull Durham is in engineering a route for them to realize that they both need to abandon their old lives and find permanent solace in each other's arms. Crash is too old for the minor leagues, hanging on to reach a dubious home run record and living on the memories of a 21 day stint in the majors while feeling sorry for himself that he never progressed further. Annie is too old to be sleeping around with young studs, parking her life to one side and living off the dreams of others. Yet they both stubbornly persist, ironically unable to save themselves from their own lives but potentially able to save each other.

Sarandon and Costner bring a charming crustiness to Annie and Crash, two rolling stones with plenty of accumulated mould. If director and co-writer Ron Shelton does err, he lands on the side of both characters being almost too world weary and aware of what matters to them, while at the same time lamenting what might have been. Costner plays Crash perfectly, but he is written to be almost too smart for where he is, a man with all the answers for all the world's questions except his own doggedness in the face of a clearly closed door to the big leagues.

Annie: What do you believe in, then?

Crash: Well, I believe in the soul. The cock, the pussy, the small of a woman's back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing AstroTurf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days. [pause] Goodnight.

Annie: Oh my. Crash...

Crash Davis' glowing confidence in knowing what matters in life cemented Costner's stardom after The Untouchables and No Way Out, while Sarandon launched the second phase of her career as the attractive older woman grappling with the creeping challenges of middle age.

Tim Robbins plays his part as the third point in the triangle, and certainly the one with the dimmest light. Nuke is goofy, with a heart that is warm enough but filled with misplaced self-confidence, and likely to go in life only as far as his pitching arm will take him.

Bull Durham captures the taste and smell of minor league baseball. The awkward local business promotions, the endless bus rides, the tired ball park announcers who have seen it all and wish they haven't, and the difficult conversations between managers and ball players are all here as the atmospheric backdrop to the emerging romance. Bull Durham is about finding the joys of life in unexpected places, a story of unlikely love and baseball discovering again that they belong together.






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Friday, 29 June 2012

CD Review: Difficult To Cure, by Rainbow (1981)


In his continuing search for a more commercial sound and mainstream success, Ritchie Blackmore again jiggles Rainbow's line-up, dumps Graham Bonnet and recruits Joe Lynn Turner for lead vocal duties.  The result is Difficult To Cure, the band's fifth studio album, and it does contain Rainbow's most successful hit in lead track I Surrender.

Rainbow with Turner are a million miles away from Rainbow with Dio. Gone are the dark and mystical lyrics, the long track durations, the swords and dragons. They are replaced by light-hearted, radio-friendly fare, accessible to both genders, Turner's high register pleading for romance and attention. This is a light metal alloy, still sprinkled with Blackmore's magical guitar solos and the occasional terrific keyboard spree from Don Airey, but the band has moved firmly into the sunshine and is shunning the gloomy dark shadows where the heavier stuff resides and thrives.

Three tracks do leave a lasting imprint on metal history. Commercial aspirations aside, I Surrender is a terrific song, Blackmore's simple but melancholy riff riding under Turner's beseeched I Surrenda-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-r! to great effect. The second track Spotlight Kid would be average but for the intervention of an epic duel-of-the-solos between Blackmore and Airey, lasting for a solid 90 seconds, and featuring the most precisely placed Hey! from Turner. Difficult To Cure closes with the instrumental title track, subtitled Beethoven's Ninth, Blackmore creating a modern classic by interpreting the classical symphony with panache.

The other instrumental Vielleicht Das Nachste Mal (Maybe Next Time) is Blackmore at his most emotive, nostalgia dripping from the slow strings on a wet and cool fall evening.

The five remaining tracks on the album walk aimlessly between adequate and lazy as the search continues for broad appeal, the music rarely rising above the crowd, and Freedom Fighter finding itself stuck in the void where cliche meets a black hole instead of ideas.

Difficult To Cure may appeal to the radio for love, but thanks to some surgically precise successes, it nevertheless remains difficult to dislike.


Band:

Ritchie Blackmore - Guitars
Don Airey - Keyboards
Roger Glover - Bass
Bob Rondinelli - Drums
Joe Lynn Turner - Vocals


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. I Surrender - 10 *see below*
2. Spotlight Kid - 10
3. No Release - 7
4. Magic - 7
5. Vielleicht Das Nachste Mal (Maybe Next Time) - 9
6. Can't Happen Here - 7
7. Freedom Fighter - 6
8. Midtown Tunnel Vision - 7
9. Difficult To Cure (Beethoven's Ninth) - 10

Average: 8.11

Produced by Roger Glover.
Recorded and Engineered by Flemming Rasmussen.
Mastered by Greg Calbi.

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Thursday, 28 June 2012

Movie Review: Legends Of The Fall (1994)


Three rough and rugged frontier brothers falling in love with the same woman, Legends Of The Fall has a compelling concept. The execution is grand and the performances sincere, but the movie tends to occasionally elevate its self importance to pompous levels, egged on by a ridiculously ostentatious James Horner music score that insists on underlining every scene with exaggerated bombast.

Early in the 1900s, Colonel William Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins) leaves the US Army in disgust at the continued mistreatment of the Indians tribes. Ludlow settles at a rural ranch, and raises three sons: the wild, independent and nature-loving Tristan (Brad Pitt), the reserved and business-oriented Alfred (Aidan Quinn) and the likeable easygoing youngest son Samuel (Henry Thomas).

With the clouds of the first World War gathering, Samuel gets engaged to the attractive and lively Susannah (Julia Ormond). She comes to live at the ranch ahead of the wedding, and the war interferes: all three brothers head out to Europe, but not before a dangerous and eternal spark of lust is ignited between Tristan and Susannah. Samuel never makes it back from the war; Tristan does come back carrying a huge load of guilt, and Alfred returns carrying a leg injury. Alfred tries to gain the affection of Susannah, but she decides to wait for Tristan to sort out his life, in what proves to be a long, convoluted and tragic journey that will climax back at the ranch, with the dramatic intervention of the now semi-infirm Colonel Ludlow.

There are no small and intimate moments in this film. Director Edward Zwick assembles Legends Of The Fall in the spirit of an opulent opera. The characters, the scenery, the sacrifice, the love, the lust and the loss are all larger than life. While this is visually and artistically tolerable and in the case of the cinematography often outstanding, the music does grate. Horner and Zwick do not trust the narrative to hold its own power, and insist on layering the soaring music at every opportunity, a childish ploy that gets old within the first 15 minutes of the total 133 minute running time.

Brad Pitt shines in one of his star-making roles. He is undoubtedly magnetic as Tristan, long golden hair flowing in the wind, a tortured and misunderstood soul who can bring a woman to her knees with a single rugged yet tender look. His frequent departures to pursue wild adventures and equally frequent heroic returns to his father's ranch provide Zwick with countless opportunities to stage for Pitt elaborate and theatrical entrances back to the centre of the drama, often on horseback.

The only cast member able to match Pitt's gravity pull is Anthony Hopkins, the veteran dominating the early scenes as the family patron, and later overcoming a stroke to still express his opinion and impose his will with impressive domination. Aidan Quinn and Henry Thomas mostly melt into the shadows of Pitt and Hopkins. Julia Ormond is a rather dormant catalyst, her mere presence enough to ignite either love or lust in all three brothers. Zwick and screenwriters Susan Shilliday and William Wittliff neglect to provide her with much of a personality or memorable backstory to justify the torrent of hormones.

In amongst the unfolding brotherly bitterness, Legends Of The Fall finds time to add to its sprawling narrative a sympathetic portrayal of Indian characters. Colonel Ludlow goes out of his way to rectify the sins of his government by being hospitable and friendly to the natives, with his sons (especially Tristan) following his example.

Legends Of The Fall achieves the desired status of weighty drama and convoluted romance. It is not quite legendary, and the scales are sometimes tipped towards overweight and overbearing. But there is enough muscle and visual appeal to maintain impressive forward momentum.





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Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Movie Review: The Whistleblower (2010)


A story of modern day human sex trafficking based on real events, The Whistleblower is an earnest and harrowing examination of a systemic abuse that the world prefers to ignore. The film perhaps achieves its purpose too well, leaving behind an empty feeling of overwhelming helplessness.

Nebraska police officer Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz) has reached a dead end in her job advancement prospects. To expand her horizons, she joins a United Nations police training mission in Bosnia. The UN has contracted the mission's organization and logistics to a pivate sector company, resulting in limited oversight of what the UN personnel are actually up to. Once in Bosnia, Kathryn proves to be a champion of local women's causes and is promoted to head a department in charge of gender affairs.

She then stumbles across bars employing Ukraininan women held against their will and forced into protitution to pay off supposed debts. Both the local police force and the commanders of the UN mission are aware of the abuse, and indeed some of the UN personnel are active participants in exploiting the girls. When Kathryn tries to help Raya, one of the sex slaves, the attempt backfires and Raya faces even worse abuse from her captors. Kathryn seeks help from advocate Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave) and internal affairs officer Peter Ward (David Strathairn) to blow the whistle on the corruption in the ranks of the UN mission, putting her career and life in jeopardy.

Rachel Weisz delivers a powerful performance as Kathryn, and she is provided with enough of a background story to humanize her beyond the role of warrior for justice. Kathryn is divorced, short on money, and has lost the custody battle for her child. She carries these scars into Bosnia, and Weisz is excellent in portraying a woman fighting a lonely battle against demons from the front, the rear and within.

Vanessa Redgrave and David Strathairn lend weight to The Whistleblower in limited roles. Both appear in just a few scenes representing the officials who bothered to believe Kathryn and tried to help. Monica Bellucci also has a relatively small role as Laura Leviani, a UN official more interested in procedures and keeping the agency's nose clean than getting to the truth of the sex slave scandal.

First time Canadian director Larysa Kondrack keeps the focus on Kathryn but also gives Raya (an affecting Roxana Condurache), her friends and family ample screen time to put a face on the victims as they hurtle towards a harrowing fate.

Kathryn achieves a small victory at a great cost, and The Whistleblower's resonating message is the inability of any small group of individuals to stand in front of the insatiable momentum driving the sex trade across international borders. It's a grim conclusion that unfortunately undermines the movie's value. Kathryn is well-intentioned, but ultimately whistling into a strong wind.






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Monday, 25 June 2012

Movie Review: Dream House (2011)


A case of too much plot almost causes Dream House to fold in on itself, but it is held together by strong performances from Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz. The psychological thriller packs a punch, although some of the later swings are wild.

Will Atenton (Craig), his wife Libby (Weisz) and their two young daughters have recently moved to a large house in a quiet residential suburban neighbourhood. Soon they start to spot a stranger repeatedly looking in on them through the windows, and Will discovers a group of goth teenagers partying in the basement. Ann Patterson (Naomi Watts), the neighbour across the street, and her husband shoot nervous and suspicious looks at Will.

Finally, he learns the truth: the house was previously occupied by Peter Ward and his family, before Peter's wife Elizabeth and two daughters were brutally murdered inside the house. Peter was accused of the murder but acquitted due to a lack of evidence. After spending time in a mental institution, Peter has been recently released. Will is now convinced that Peter is the man appearing outside the windows to torment and possibly murder the family occupying his former house.

Dream House was a troubled production, with studio interference and creative differences causing director Jim Sheridan to almost abandon the project, and stars Craig and Weisz refusing to help publicize the film. A botched studio-created marketing campaign made matters worse by revealing one of the main twists.

Nevertheless, Dream House delivers some excellent moments. The house that witnessed a mass murder turns into a much more dangerous place for Will Atenton than he initially imagined, and once the central premise of the movie is established, it sets in motion a journey of personal anguish and healing that Daniel Craig excels at. Will is a man fighting forces more dominating than he anticipated, and the need to rescue himself and his family is a challenge that Craig accepts with dogged determination, expressing first resiliency and then a resignation to make the best out of an almost impossible situation.

Rachel Weisz has a natural chemistry with Craig that resulted in a real-life marriage, and on-screen they convincingly click as a couple brought closer together by their children and willing to take on the unexpected challenge of a house with an unwanted history. Once Will realizes just how much danger Libby is in, the real risk that he may lose her adds a sharp poignancy to Dream House.

Unfortunately, Dream House is also saddled with a significant load of awkwardness. Most of the important parts of Naomi Watts' character Ann Patterson seem to have been lost either on the margins of the script or in a botched editing job. Patterson drifts in and out of the movie with a seemingly important contribution to make, but every time she comes close to adding value Watts is unconvincingly hooked from the screen, leaving behind a bungled trail of poor character development.

And as the end draws near, a jumbled murder conspiracy driven by greed and complicated by navigational incompetence and the late addition of a hitherto unknown gunman attaches like a clamp to Dream House, shaking the movie from its foundations. A final possible twist in the tale is left unripened, adding to the frantic feel of the film's ending.

An uneven case of good design ruined somewhat by a poor finish, Dream House has good curb appeal but an unkempt backyard.






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Sunday, 24 June 2012

Book Review: Eccentrics, by Dr. David Weeks and Jamie James (1995)


A study of people who thrive on the fringes of acceptable social behaviour, Eccentrics provides some interesting tidbits but is otherwise short on meaningful content and long on tiresome examples.

Scotland-based neuropsychologist Dr. David Weeks oversaw the first known large-scale study of eccentrics in history. With no medical definition for the condition, the research consisted of asking for people who thought of themselves as eccentrics to step forward and be subjected to extensive interviews. From the results, Weeks and his team compiled common characteristics and behaviours that unify the trait. At the same time, eccentrics throughout history were studied based on their writings or the writings of their contemporaries.

The results are summarized in the book, and vary from the obvious to the mildly interesting. Eccentrics turn out to be generally happy, creative, curious, intelligent and non-conforming. How surprising these results are may define the level of enjoyment to be found reading the book, which, for the most part, gets busy stating the rather obvious.

Too many pages are occupied with describing the eccentric behaviour of too many eccentrics past and present, a case of strange actions becoming irritating when overexposed, never more so than when the eccentrics' own pompous, non-linear or fragmented words are used -- there are good reasons most eccentrics are best avoided. Whether some individuals are eccentric, mentally sick, just plain weird, or seeking attention is open to debate, but in any event Weeks does not probe the reasons why we may care.

There are chapters in Eccentrics dedicated to women (under-represented in historical terms); sexuality (understandably, eccentrics tend to be loners, limiting the scope of this particular chapter) and health (eccentrics are happy because they have generally shed societal pressures to conform). At the end of the book, the value that it offers remains narrow.

Eccentrics may have worked better as a 15 page magazine article. As a book, it struggles for material and relevance.

Subtitled "A Study Of Sanity And Strangeness".
255 pages, plus Bibliography and Index.
Published in hardcover by Villard Books.





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Saturday, 23 June 2012

Movie Review: Colombiana (2011)


A stylish but ultimately routine revenge action thriller, Colombiana has enough human drama to rise above the bottom drawer, but not by much.

In Colombia, hit-man Fabio wants out of the evil drug empire of Don Sandoval. But no one leaves the Don and lives to talk about it, and so henchman Marco and a team of goons are dispatched to eliminate Fabio and his entire family. This they do, with the exception of Fabio's young daughter Cataleya, who escapes and eventually makes her way to the United States where she is sheltered by the underground Colombian community in Chicago.

Years later Cataleya (Zoe Saldana) is a professional assassin, killing for money while on the side hunting down Marco and the still-powerful Don Sandoval empire to extract her revenge. Her mission is somewhat complicated by the CIA sheltering the bad guys, but she finally tracks them down, setting up an explosives-packed showdown to the death.

Zoe Saldana may well be the only reason to watch Colombiana, and she elevates the material with a reasonably affecting performance. In the character of Cataleya she combines athleticism with emotion, and determination with self-doubt. She does methodically mow down all enemies with ruthlessness and far-fetched ingenuity, but there are enough scenes of reflection, detached romance and reaching out to an FBI agent for Saldana to demonstrate talent beyond firing deadly ordnance.

Director Olivier Megaton is an expert in these story-thin, bullet-rich, stunt-filled movies, and attempts to keep a reasonable balance between wanton destruction and Cataleya's character development, although when in doubt, his will always throw in one more stunt. Megaton bathes Colombiana in rich, vivid colours, all the better to bring out the sweat beads of desperate men and the fiery red and orange of exploding missiles and grenades.

Created by Luc Besson's EuropaCorp film company, with Besson co-producing and co-writing the script, Colombiana aims low, but hits its target. That the target explodes goes without saying.





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Friday, 22 June 2012

Movie Review: Shelter (2010)


Starting with psychology and ending with horror, Shelter loses its identity quickly and muddles along the wrecks of ideas past. Julianne Moore tries to appear concerned about all the spirited mumbo jumbo, but she is probably just worried about what this mess of a film will do to her career.

Psychologist Cara Harding (Moore) does not believe in split personality disorder. Her father Dr. Harding (Jeffrey DeMunn) is also a psychologist, and he introduces Cara to a new patient (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who definitely appears to be housing two personalities: the meek, wheelchair bound David, and the more aggressive, fully fit Adam.

Cara is still skeptical, and delves into Adam's background. She uncovers the story of the real David, a teenager confined to a wheelchair after an accident, and later found tortured and killed. Cara believes that Adam takes on the personality of David as an escape from his unsavoury life. But soon enough, the personality of Wes, a dead music band member, also appears within Adam, complicating Cara's life and diagnosis. As she continues to try and understand how Adam came to be so many people at once, Cara stumbles onto an ancient mystery, a community hiding the secret of soul sheltering, and a maniac of an evil-doer who has been hunting down people for centuries.

Shelter does provide a sprinkling of adequate chills, mostly with Cara searching for clues to Adam's origins deep in the inhospitable rural woods and among houses that should be condemned but are occupied by either people or corpses. Moore generates enough magnetism to maintain a vague interest in the proceedings, even as the script detours to the rubbishy neighbourhood of soul collecting and blind old women pulling organs out of patients to cure them of evil. And Jonathan Rhys Meyers does bring a creepy intensity to Adam, a man with plenty to worry about on the inside.

Unfortunately, once Shelter abandons psychology and bumps down the road of gruesome murder most foul wrapped up in pseudo religious dogma and an ancient battle against rampant disease, the script by Michael Cooney just lies down and dies. It should be self evident that switching genres halfway through the movie and then half-baking the fundamental premise is a recipe for deflation, but Cooney falls for every trap in the book of over eager imaginations. Co-directors Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein do little except throw all the old horror camera angles at the screen, and hope that something spooky takes hold.  It never does.

The ending of Shelter cannot come soon enough, as Adam chases after Cara and her daughter Sam in the rural hinterland, the all-conquering, centuries-spanning evil presence reduced to the ignominy of a cheap chase-the-girls-in-the-woods climax. It's a fittingly disappointing resolution to a film that had some ideas, and promptly scattered them into the winds of confusion.






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CD Review: Cosmogenesis, by Obscura (2009)


There is plenty going on all over Cosmogenesis, the second studio album from Germany's Obscura. A lot of the music is good, some of it is great, and there are also unfortunate bits that should have never seen the inside of a recording studio.

Overall, Steffen Kummerer and his buddies deliver a unique and highly listenable hybrid of progressive, technical and melodic death metal. When Obscura clicks, as on Cosmogenesis opener The Anticosmic Overload, the sound is sharp, pregnant with possibilities, and full of pleasant surprises. The energy level is high and the better tracks like Universe Momentum and Infinite Rotation spark momentous revolutions.

Obscura challenge the premise of belonging to a single sub-genre, stubbornly carving out an individual identity. The album reaches a high point with the very melodic death metal-like Incarnated, a track enhanced with creeping prog elements but emphasizing a heroically doomed melody above all, riding on a clever bouncy riff. The instrumental Orbital Elements is an enchanting intergalactic journey, again placing the melody on the pointy end of the rocket, with modern jazz elements added to the fuel. Centric Fuel closes the album, and while the first five minutes of the track are merely acceptable, the final 2.5 minutes are variations on a majestic melodic metal theme that would not have been out of place on an Arch Enemy album.

But sometimes things do go wrong. Choir Of Spirits is an experiment that quickly turns into an oozing mess, and title track Cosmogenesis has too many ideas trampling each other in a hectic competition for breathing space.

Cosmogenesis is never lacking for innovation, with hits and misses sprinkled across time and space waiting to unleash a cosmic treat or trick.


Band:

Steffen Kummerer - Guitars and Vocals
Jeroen Paul Thesseling  - Bass
Christian Muenzner - Guitars
Hannes Grossman - Drums


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. The Anticosmic Overload - 9
2. Choir Of Spirits - 5
3. Universe Momentum - 8
4. Incarnated - 10
5. Orbital Elements - 8
6. Desolate Spheres - 7
7. Infinite Rotation - 8
8. Noospheres - 7
9. Cosmogenesis - 6
10. Centric Flow - 8

Average: 7.60

Produced by Obscura and V. Santura.
Recorded, Mixed and Mastered by V. Santura.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.


Thursday, 21 June 2012

Movie Review: Casino Jack (2010)


Based on the true story of uber lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Casino Jack is an eye-popping look at the money that greases the gears in Washington DC. Both those who give and those who receive are exposed in the startling tale of money, influence and blatant vote-buying.

It's the 1990s, and Abramoff (Kevin Spacey) buys and sells influence in Congress. By raising cash conceivably for election and re-election campaigns, Abramoff and his partner Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper) can push for any cause willing to pay the right price. With close ties to influential Republican Tom DeLay (Spencer Garrett) and the Bush family, Abramoff can pick up the phone and swing votes in the desired direction.

Despite the protestations of his wife Pam (Kelly Preston), Abramoff is always blurring the line between personal self-interest and clients' pet projects. Not satisfied with arguing for slave labour practices in the Mariana Islands and cashing large cheques from several Indian tribes to protect their casino interests, he embarks on an ill-advised adventure of his own to invest in an ailing Miami-based cruise ship casino business with the unsavoury Adam Kidan (Jon Lovitz). Soon personal threats are escalating into a gangland-style hit. Meanwhile, Scanlon's persistent womanizing turns his fiancée Emily (Rachelle Lefevre) against him. Eventually Abramoff faces the frigid shoulder of a Washington DC abandoning him and his toxic dealings.

Casino Jack paints an ugly picture of a political system with a veneer of respectability rotting at the core. Abramoff the individual is almost irrelevant. A lot more depressing is a structure that allows the Abramoffs of the world to thrive by channeling money to the right jacket pockets and requesting key votes in return.

Kevin Spacey dominates Casino Jack with a performance filled with slick bravado. Oozing an attitude of superiority and unbridled greed, Spacey gives Abramoff an insatiable urge to chase after ever increasing dollars to fund self-aggrandizing projects. Restaurants and schools become pet businesses, Abramoff eager to see his name in print as a respectable businessman, perhaps to cover the sordid truth about his distasteful real lobbying career.

Jon Lovitz delivers his usual slippery persona as the way-over-the-edge-of-corruption and equally way-past-caring Adam Kidan, adding the certainty of a bad ending and comedy in equal parts to Abramoff's adventure.The rest of the supporting cast is distinctly low key.

George Hickenlooper directs with enough panache to elevate Casino Jack above a cable television production, but sometimes it's a struggle.  It's not easy to create a compelling cinematic experience out of men in suits seeking the next stuffed envelope, but Hickenlooper leans heavily on Spacey to humanize Abramoff and drag the movie through the bumpy parts. Although Abramoff the man is beyond ever being likable, the Norman Snider script keeps him engaging in the way a large trapped insect can be highly watchable just before it gets squished.

Casino Jack is what happens when a lobbyist firmly shakes hands with corruption. His grim destiny is surely just the prelude for the doomed collapse of the system that spawned him.






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Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Movie Review: Hope And Glory (1987)


A child's view of World War Two, Hope And Glory has an innocent tenderness that is impossible not to like. John Boorman's childhood memories of the London Blitz are translated to a film where young spirits thrive while the terror of war grips a nation.

In a London suburb, 10 year old Bill (Sebastian Rice-Edwards) hears the adults talk of impending war. His older sister Dawn (Sammi Davis) is discovering boys and sex, while his father Clive (David Hayman) is eager to join the war effort despite his advancing years. When the shooting starts, it is left to the mother of the family Grace (Sarah Miles) to look after Bill, Dawn and their younger sister Sue.

Grace tries but cannot bring herself to ship her children to relatives in Australia, so the family buckles down to survive the aerial assault on London. As the neighbourhood is gradually destroyed by unrelenting waves  of German bombing, homes are lost and neighbours die, but Billy and his friends discover a world of freedom to do as they please, rampaging through the rubble to discover new adventures and create their own wars. In the meantime Dawn falls in love with a Canadian soldier, and the conditions of war just heighten the strain between her and Grace.

Structured more as vignettes from a life disrupted by war than a traditional narrative, Hope And Glory highlights the natural resiliency of children to make the best out of every situation. With an existential war raging around him, Billy still finds the opportunities to observe and learn, question and debate, and scrap his way into the neighbourhood gaggle of boys enjoying the rule vacuum created by the war. The older Dawn is already tugging at the edges of rebellion before the shooting starts. The war accelerates her journey from child to woman, with experiences that are both exhilarating and embarrassing.

Boorman captures the air of surreal optimism that ensures survival in the face of daily brushes with death.  Hope And Glory is true to its name, both hope and glory thriving on the home front while the grim business of war churns away. Boorman coaxes a winning performance out of a young Rice-Edwards, a non-actor helped by his lack of pretensions, easily slipping into the role of a child more amazed than scared by the world suddenly crumbling around him. Miles nails the frazzled mother having to look after her brood during a prolonged crisis, and Davis adds a measure of unpredictable wildness to the family, more worried about her love life than the irritating detail of a world at war.

Late in the movie a crusty Ian Bannen makes an appearance as the animated Grandfather, as Grace takes the family to the countryside for a belated reprieve from the fires of a burning London. Hope And Glory increases the comic dose as Bannen effortlessly swallows the scenery, and embroils himself in an epic confrontation with a rat. Meanwhile, an errant German bomber still chases Billy to the country, unknowingly exposing him to new and highly economical fishing techniques.

In Hope And Glory, as the adults fret about the war the children simply go about the business of growing up, discovering new playgrounds and amidst the suspension of all the rules, building everlasting memories.






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Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Movie Review: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)


The first English language screen adaptation of James M. Cain's steamy tale of sex and betrayal, The Postman Always Rings Twice benefits from Lana Turner on fire. She ignites the initial noir plot of passion and murder, but once the story takes a turn for the manic, the plot spirals out of control, loses its taut focus and not even Turner can save it.

It's the depression, and drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) finds casual employment at the rural roadside diner operated by Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway) and his much younger and clearly dissatisfied wife Cora (Turner). Frank and Cora are immediately attracted to each other, and their mutual desire invariably leads to thoughts of getting rid of Nick. An initial attempt to bump him off in the shower fails. A subsequent staged car crash succeeds, but it only signals the beginning of trouble with the law for Frank and Cora, and their headaches multiply when first Frank strays and then they are both blackmailed.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is two thirds of a good film. The immensely watchable first hour is filled with longing, attraction, lust, and the delectable scheming of a desperate couple. Frank and Cora cannot help but imagine a better life, and all they need to do is stage a by murder. But after Nick is killed, the zing is lost. But while the narrative requires everything to go sideways because that's what the murderers deserve, the execution is simply frantic. Once Cora and Frank turn on each other, the court proceedings race past in a muddle, and the sub-plots related to Cora's mother, Frank's infidelity, and the half-baked blackmail scheme are all rushed and soulless.

Ironically the movie becomes more plodding as events spiral out of control, in a case of too much drama yielding diminishing returns. Towards the end there is little director Tay Garnett can do except perform traffic control duties, the characters not given time to properly digest and react to the flurry of calamities thrown their way.

Like the film, Lana Turner and John Garfield are better when they are lusting after each other and plotting different ways to get rid of Nick.Tuner sizzles as she openly invites first adultery and then murder, Cora far too ambitious for the boring and penny-pinching life that Nick provides. Cora never gives the impression of actually genuinely caring for Frank beyond him being the most convenient tool to help her get rid of Nick, and conveniently being available to scratch a physical itch while he happens to be around.

Garfield is less memorable, Jack Nicholson's performance in the 1981 version defining the role of Frank and leaving Garfield's turn in the shadow. While functional, there is a disconnect between Garfield's non intimidating screen presence and the character's fundamental shady scrappiness and depression-era resourcefulness.

Hume Cronyn is notable as the sharp lawyer with unconventional methods who petrifies Cora before representing her in court.

The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Frank and Cora always make all the wrong decisions for all the wrong reasons. When they are propelled by lust and botching their lives, they are fun to watch, but when they are miserable and misguided, the ringing is just hollow.






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Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Movie Review: Rope (1948)


A gutsy experiment in film-making and a conversation-opener about the controversial art of murder, Alfred Hitchcock's Rope sparkles with wit and technique.

In a New York apartment, college graduates Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) use a rope to strangle David, a former classmate, to death. They stuff his body in a large chest and get ready for the dinner party that they are about to host. Invited are David's parents and his fiancee Janet (Joan Chandler). Also attending are Kenneth (Douglas Dick), who is both Brandon's friend and Janet's former boyfriend, and Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), the prep school headmaster and main influence in the life of Brandon and his friends.

Phillip is immediately wracked by guilt, but Brandon is very much enjoying himself, convinced that he has committed the perfect murder and emboldened by his twisted interpretation of the philosophical argument that murder can be justified when superior men choose inferior victims to kill. The dinner guests are clueless as to David's whereabouts, except for Rupert. His sharp observations of Brandon's words and actions lead him to believe that something is very wrong, and he starts to probe Brandon and Phillip to find out what happened to David, and why.

Based on a 1929 play of the same name which in turn was inspired by a real-life 1924 murder committed by University of Chicago students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, Rope takes place on one set, almost in real time, and in a series of long takes. Hitchcock succeeds in fully immersing the audience in the dinner party, with no distractions to take away from the drama.

Rope opens midway through the only act of violence, and the movie is thereafter a battle of wits and willpower between Brandon and everyone else. Brandon has to overcome Phillip's guilt, the mounting anxiety of David's family and friends, and Rupert's creeping suspicion that something untoward has taken place.

The majesty of Rope's story arc is Brandon's supreme pride in having committed the perfect murder to satisfy his arrogance, undermined by his narcissistic inability to control his desire to tell the world about it. Brandon drops hints early to Kenneth that he now has less competition for Janet's attention, and throughout the evening he flaunts his misdeed, starting with congregating the party around the chest with David's body in it, and going as far as using the murder rope to tie books together for David's dad.

And in a journey to the contradictory destination where ruinous confession mixes with aggrandized boastfulness seeking validation for murder, Rupert feels compelled to invite Rupert to the party, knowing full well that Rupert is the only one capable of seeing through Brandon and deciphering what happened to David.

Hitchcock boldly experimented with transporting the stage experience to the screen, assembling Rope in a grand total of 10 takes spanning the running length of 80 minutes, with the action unfolding effectively in real time. Several of the cuts between takes are seamless, further elongating the sense of true presence. The long uninterrupted sequences were achieved with exquisitely fluid camera work, the equipment gliding around the actors within the highly malleable apartment set.

James Stewart creates in Rupert a more assured character than his typical screen persona. Rupert is observant, inquisitive, confident, and aware of the dangers associated with the arrogance of youth. His foe is his mentee, Brandon seeking to confirm his self-perceived superiority by impressing the main father figure in his life. John Dall oozes a nauseating confidence as Brandon, a man so full of himself that he leaves no space for considering the emotions of anyone else.

An exploration of a psyche damaged by excessive hubris, Rope is a chillingly taut experience.






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Sunday, 10 June 2012

Movie Review: Braddock: Missing In Action III (1988)


This time, it's about the kids. Braddock's third and mercifully final adventure takes him back into Vietnam to rescue a bunch of Amerasian kids, including his son. No matter; Braddock: Missing In Action III is as bad as can be expected.

During the chaotic final hours of the war, with Saigon in the throes of falling to the communists, Colonel James Braddock (Norris) tries to find and evacuate his Vietnamese wife Lin (Miki Kim). But in a case of mistaken identity, he is led to believe that she died in a mortar strike, while in reality she has survived and is left behind. Unbeknownst to him, she is also pregnant.

Many years later, Braddock is visited by Reverend Polanski (Yehuda Efroni), who insists that Lin and their son Van Tan Cang (Roland Harrah III) are alive but destitute, living near Polanski's mission in Ho Chi Minh City. Despite the usual warnings from the faceless CIA suits, Braddock travels to Thailand and prepares for yet another adventure to invade Vietnam, re-fight the war, and attempt to rescue his family along with a large number of Amerasian children who are being mistreated by the Vietnamese.

This is rudimentary movie making by the misguided made for the enjoyment of the feeble-minded. In a summary of the intellect behind the script assembled in crayons by no less than four people, the Vietnamese officials all hiss with evil intent and clearly enjoy torturing adults and kids alike. Braddock is the only person who knows wrong from right and is ready to kick butt throughout Southeast Asia to prove it. And when it comes to surviving an onslaught, Braddock can drive a bus full of children through the Vietnamese countryside while avoiding countless helicopter-launched missiles aimed straight at him.

To make sure that Braddock: Missing In Action III finds its worldwide target audience, Braddock's key weapon in his latest one-man battle against the Vietnamese army is a massive machine gun equipped with a multi-grenade launcher and a bayonet. Apparently custom-made for the movie, it is a perfect prop to get the testosterone of the easily impressed pumping hard enough to mask the horrid entertainment on display.

Creating this brain-dead celebration of explosions unfortunately cost the lives of four people in a helicopter crash in the Philippines, and a couple of years later director Aaron Norris would also be in charge of Delta Force 2, in which five more people were killed in another helicopter crash during filming. The era of Cannon Films' low-budget action movies thankfully drew to a close before any more lives were lost in pursuit of unleashing additional atrocities on the senses.






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Movie Review: Bringing Up Baby (1938)


A classic screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby throws dinosaur bones, two leopards, one dog, cross-dressing, torn cocktail clothes, a million dollar grant, and an unlikely romance onto the screen, and makes it all work.

Paleontologist Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant) is slightly eccentric and a bit stiff, but he is about to get married to his assistant Alice. David's crowning achievement is almost complete: he has reassembled a massive Brontosaurus skeleton, and receives the good news that the final missing bone has been uncovered at an archeological dig and is being delivered. He is also anxious to seal a commitment for a $1 million grant to his museum, which requires him to play a round of golf with the donor's lawyer.

On the golf course, David's life changes in an instant: he crosses paths with Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) a fast-talking, strong-willed, and single-minded woman. Not only is the golf game disrupted, but Susan makes sure that all of David's plans are spun out of orbit: the chances of securing the donation, the impending marriage, and the precious bone become casualties of the Susan storm, which includes first one and then two leopards on the loose and one feisty dog that loves large bones. As David transitions from indignation to resignation, Susan has her eyes set on the unlikely goal of winning his heart.

Howard Hawks directs with the accelerator firmly on the floor, the action and comedy simply hectic. Once Susan makes her appearance, Bringing Up Baby is caught in the tornado of a woman quite willing to throw all of David's life up in the air in order to rearrange the cards in her favour. The contrast between Susan's courage to create and thrive in chaos and David's cautiously scientific approach to life is at the centre of their tumultuous relationship.

Hepburn brings Susan to life as a woman who talks at a hundred miles a minute, thinks even faster, and leaves David trailing in her wake and with no choice except to follow. Grant creates in David a scientist comfortable only within the confines of his museum, and even then just barely. Everywhere else David is ever so slightly hesitant, with signs of absent mindedness and lack of confidence, and the knack of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. In short, a man most in need of a strong woman in his life, but who does not yet know it.

The supporting cast is steady without being stellar. Mary Robson is Mrs. Random, the wealthy woman looking to make a $1 million donation who unexpectedly appears when David is least ready for her. George Irving is her lawyer Peabody, left stranded on more than one occasion by David's bumbling attempts to keep up with Susan. And Charles Ruggles appears as the bombastic Major Applegate, a big game hunter and a man exactly opposite in personality to David.

The fun with the two leopards, one the friendly Baby of the title and the other a lot less cuddly, is comedy at its finest, building to a quite hilarious frenzy involving the police, zoo keepers, and a crowded jail house.

Bringing Up Baby is a sharp comedy of opposites attracting, and while leopards can't change their spots, they can certainly help to spot an unlikely romance.






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Saturday, 9 June 2012

Movie Review: The Wedding Singer (1998)


A romantic comedy that finds the often elusive magical balance between love and laughs, The Wedding Singer is a lot of fun. Adam Sandler has rarely been better, and Drew Barrymore consolidated her comeback and relaunched her career with the approachable girl-next-door persona.

It's 1985, and in a smallish New Jersey town Robbie Hart (Sandler) is the go-to wedding singer, invited with his band to perform cheesy favourites and keep the merriment on an even keel as the nuptial celebrations get going. While performing at a wedding, Robbie meets sweet waitress Julia Sullivan (Barrymore), and they become friends. Kind hearted and sensitive, Robbie is devastated when he is stood-up at his own wedding. His bride-to-be Linda (Angela Featherstone), a rock chick who never grew up, decides that he is too boring and leaves him standing at the altar.

Julia is engaged to be married to the very wealthy Glenn Gulia (Matthew Glave). As a broken-hearted Robbie helps her with the wedding preparations, he realizes that her future name of Julia Gulia is just one problem. Robbie uncovers Glenn as a first class egotistical sleazoid who does not hesitate to cheat on his fiancée, and with no plans to stop his womanizing after marriage. In the meantime Robbie and Julia and beginning to fall in love, which is further complicated by the sudden re-emergence of Linda looking to win Robbie's heart back.

Tim Herlihy's screenplay is razor sharp and witty. Full of references to the more cringe-worthy cultural artifacts of the 1980s, The Wedding Singer is a love letter to the decade of Culture Club, Madonna-inspired fashion, Van Halen in their prime, a snarling Billy Idol, and Kajagoogoo. The soundtrack is brimming with favourites from the era, a perfectly awkward backdrop to the sweetly irresistible corn of obvious romance. Frequent Sandler director Frank Coraci sets an uptempo pace and otherwise keeps a light touch at the controls, yielding to the inherent power of a budding romance between two appealing leads.

The Wedding Singer mercifully abandons Sandler's more juvenile and crude tendencies. Here he is relatively subdued, mostly calm and intelligently funny, a character that is actually likable as an adult. Barrymore is cute, perky and adorable almost to a fault, and the chemistry with Sandler is almost instantaneous. The secondary cast does lack some punch. The supporting characters include Julia's cousin and Madonna wannabe Holly (Christine Taylor), and Robbie's best friend and local limousine-driver-for-hire Sammy (Allen Covert). Jon Lovitz and Steve Buscemi make uncredited cameos, and both shine bright in very brief appearances.

In a genre with few surprises and predetermined endings, The Wedding Singer deserves a toast for getting everything else right.






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Movie Review: The Last Picture Show (1971)


The lives and loves of the residents of a small Texas town in the early 1950s, The Last Picture Show is monumentally winsome. Peter Bogdanovich creates a memorable set of complex characters who take a life of their own, and live on in movie folklore despite the irreversible fading away of their town.

High school seniors and friends Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges) are facing an uncertain future. Sonny is sensitive and caring, and always looks after the mute Billy the street sweeper (Sam Bottoms). Duane is brash and confident, and more aggressively seeks a path to a better life. Their town of Anarene is dusty, windy, and exists solely to support nearby oil fields. The town's unofficial leader is Sam "the Lion" (Ben Johnson), who attempts to be a positive influence on the lives of the local teenagers and owns the movie theatre, pool hall, and cafe, where waitress Genevieve (Eileen Brennan) works.

Sonny does not much care for his girlfriend, and is soon having an affair with the much older Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), with the semi-tacit approval of her husband, the High School athletics coach. Duane very much likes his girlfriend, town beauty Jacy Farrow (Cybil Shepherd). But Jacy's mother Lois (Ellen Burstyn) thinks that Duane is not worthy of her daughter. Lois herself is not satisfied with her husband and seeks the affection of oilman Abilene (Clu Gulager).

Jacy uses Duane to lose her virginity and dumps him, turning her attention to older men and richer boys, including the oleaginous Lester (Randy Quaid). A shock awaits Sonny and Duane when they return from an impromptu trip to Mexico, and their lives are set on a nasty collision path involving Jacy. The teenagers need to become men in a hurry, as the destiny of the movie theatre and Anarene itself look ever more bleak.

Bogdanovich co-wrote the screenplay with Marty McMurtry, the author of the semi-autobiographical book, and filmed The Last Picture Show in brilliant black and white. The stark contrasts enhance the film's overall mood of an era of innocence ending, and a town crawling to a dusty death. Bogdanovich cajoles mature performances from a relatively inexperienced cast, Bottoms, Bridges and Shepherd creating characters desperately seeking better futures while struggling through a mundane present.

Timothy Bottoms gives Sonny a somewhat resigned persona as someone who makes the most out of opportunities that come to him rather than creating his own path in life. Sonny's relationship with Ruth is arranged by the coach; he unexpectedly inherits a business; and his relationship with Jacy is very much instigated at her initiative. Meanwhile Bridges portrays Duane as a scrapper who will have to fight for everything in life, and who will therefore lose most of what he values and hurt those who care for him.

Cybill Shepherd effortlessly provides Jacy with a dangerous innocence that becomes increasingly formidable the more she listens to her mother. Openly using sex as a siren to lure men, Jacy's means of escaping the drudgery of life in Anarene is to test drive lovers, with her mother's encouragement, until she finds the one who offers the best chance of easier riches. Jacy and Lois are a daunting mother / daughter couple and make for compelling viewing while representing a harsh indictment of some women's mores in small town Texas.

The countryside is wide open, the roads narrow and bumpy, the cars and trucks are battered, the paint on the walls is peeling, the old men are weathered, and the adults wear an expression of being in a constant battle for economic survival. And the ever present howling wind blows incessantly through Anarene, almost insisting that the town be blown off the map. Only Billy the street sweeper appears to have the optimism to fight on for the future of the town, tirelessly sweeping the streets, until he too is forced to give up. The Last Picture Show is never more poignant than when the last cheerful light is turned off.






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Movie Review: Boot Hill (1969)


A mixture of Italian artistry with western grime, Boot Hill sparkles in patches with clever editing and brash juxtapositions. A muddled story and rather limp climax take some of the shine off.

The mysterious Cat Stevens (Terence Hill) is pursued by a large posse intent on killing him for reasons never made clear. Wounded in a gunfight, he escapes and takes refuge with a travelling circus run by Mamy (Lionel Stander) and featuring trapeze acrobat Thomas (Woody Strode). When Thomas' son is killed by Cat's pursuers, Thomas and Cat team up and join forces with Hutch Bessy (Bud Spencer), Cat's partner from adventures past. The three men come to the aid of a community of miners being bullied by a corrupt tycoon and his brutal henchmen.

The third instalment in the loose trilogy that started with God Forgives...I Don't! (1967) and continued with Ace High (1968), Boot Hill was later re-released and falsely marketed as part of the more famous (and less gritty) Trinity series. In Boot Hill, Terence Hill and Bud Spencer still have an edge, with violence and ruthlessness to the fore and any attempts at comedy kept well in control. The result is more serious and closer to the original Spaghetti Western ethic.

Director Guiseppe Colizzi injects Boot Hill with sometimes stunning visual flair. Making the most out of the organized chaos that surrounds Mamy's travelling circus, complete with dwarfs, heavily made-up faces and dancing girls, Colizzi creates Boot Hill's best scenes by intercutting desperately joyous circus performance shots from inside the tent with life-and-death gunfights erupting on the dusty town streets. The results are brilliantly jarring.

Otherwise, Boot Hill has relatively little to offer in terms of drama and compelling plot. The entire miners-under-threat narrative is hurriedly dropped into the film and bungled in terms of building any tension, resulting in a climax that fails to captivate.

Terence Hill provides a reminder that he was quite effective, if less popular, as a serious and dangerous western persona. Bud Spencer makes a late appearance and leaves hardly any impact, while Woody Strode shines in a relatively rare opportunity as an almost leading man. Strode's dominating physical presence was generally underutilized in the movies, and Boot Hill benefits from unleashing him to cause some serious damage.

Boot Hill climbs about halfway up the hill, enjoys a reasonable view, but is held back by some clumsy boots.






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