Thursday, 31 January 2013

Movie Review: Housesitter (1992)

An average romantic comedy with a mellow mix of mild laughs and middling passion, Housesitter neither agitates nor excites. Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn are both a tad too old for their roles, but quickly settle into pleasant-enough whimsical jousting.

Davis (Martin) is a strait-laced but creative Boston-based architect, madly in love with Becky (Dana Delany). He tries to convince her to marry him by designing and building a huge house in his idyllic hometown of Dobbs Mill. She turns him down. Three months later, a still-depressed Davis has a one-night stand with flighty waitress Gwen (Hawn), pouring his heart out to her about the still-empty house and his broken heart. When Gwen wakes up alone, she treks to Dobbs Mill, finds the house, establishes it as her residence, and convinces all the townsfolk, including Becky and Davis' mother and father (Julie Harris and Donald Moffat), that she is now married to Davis.

One lie leads to many more, and soon Davis arrives and joins in the treachery. Realizing that Becky is suffering pangs of jealousy and is much more interested in him now that he is found attractive by another woman, he prolongs the charade of pretending to be married to attract Becky's increased attentions. Gwen also sets about improving Davis' stature at his architecture firm by schmoozing his boss with another mountain of lies. But while Davis is naively using Gwen to win Becky's heart, Gwen harbours desires to turn the sham marriage into a real relationship.

Martin and Hawn, both at 46 years old, should really be beyond this material. Hawn tries hard to fit into younger clothes, but all the leotards and short skirts are a tight and awkward fit, sacrificing elegance for finagled sexiness. And at this age, Gwen's personality of the free-spirited ditzy blonde who can't stop manufacturing elaborate lies is a sign of at least severe immaturity and more likely mental illness, neither attributes that should be attractive to a staid architect.

Martin's Davis is also difficult to explain, shown to be a good and competent architect, yet labouring at a drafting table more suitable for a recent graduate, and not yet in possession of basic business skills such as not insulting the boss in a moment of glory.

In other words, the Mark Stein script not only telegraphs every intention in bold letters, it is fundamentally contrived to play-up the screen personas of the two leads, regardless of the passage of time. But experienced pros that they are, Martin and Hawn make the most of it. In as much as characters in a story all about lying can pretend to be convincing, they have fun without ever needing to stretch as a couple hating to fall in love with each other through a thicket of falsehoods, and they uncork decent chemistry as two misfits slipping into something resembling love.

And while it is easy to see how Davis would eventually get enamoured by a resourceful woman who brings out the best in him, it's a bit more challenging to uncover how she hopes to benefit from the relationship, other than by living in a big house with a boring and somewhat dim husband.

Director Frank Oz maintains breezy pacing and captures plenty of small town New England charm, Concord, Massachusetts among the settings providing a scenic backdrop for the complex romance.

Housesitter is unremarkable and inoffensive, with enough chuckles and well-intended syrup to liven up the party at a large, airy house.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Movie Review: Cold Sweat (1970)

A botched thriller that sputters in fits and starts, Cold Sweat never gets anywhere. A capable cast is wasted in a mediocre script that rarely convinces, although one prolonged car chase momentarily relieves the tedium.

In the south of France, former American serviceman Joe Moran (Charles Bronson) lives a quiet life running a fishing boat for tourists. Moran has a dark past that he has kept hidden even from his wife Fabienne (Liv Ullman). But his history as an escaped convict from a military prison catches up with him when the men he abandoned during his getaway show up for revenge. Captain Ross (James Mason), Katanga (Jean Topart) and Vermont (Michel Constantin) served a long stint behind bars in Germany after Moran sped off in their escape vehicle, and now they want payback including transportation on Moran's boat to conclude a shady drug deal.

Ross has also arranged for a woman called Moira (Jill Ireland) to be the mule carrying a large amount of money needed for the drug exchange. Moran is able to gain an advantage over Ross by seizing Moira and stashing her in a secluded shack, but in return Ross grabs Fabienne and her young daughter as hostages to force Moran's cooperation. With tensions brewing between Ross and Katanga, the bullets fly as Moran tries to save his family and terminate the evil doers.

The high-revving car chase scene has Moran paradoxically rushing to get a doctor to the aid of one of the bad guys who has been shot and is bleeding to death. The bright red Opel Commodore GS gets to flex plenty of muscles screeching its way on (and off) the country roads of southern France, chased by a couple of French motorcycle policemen.

Good as the chase is, and director Terence Young puts all his James Bond-honed skills into capturing barely contained kinetic energy, it too is ultimately bungled. Moran pulls off remarkable stunts to theoretically gain huge advantages in time and space over his pursuers, but no matter what he does, the two motorcycles serenely and effortlessly remain on his tail, undermining the credibility of the entire chase.

But Cold Sweat has much deeper problems, including James Mason sporting a ridiculous accent, Jill Ireland gate-crashing the movie primarily because she is the real-life Mrs. Bronson, and an unfathomable stand-off between Ross and Katanga that takes the focus away from Moran and completely disorients the narrative. Three screenwriters could not wrangle a cohesive script out of the Richard Matheson book Ride The Nightmare. The large, unexplained logic gaps include a Turkish drug boat that seems to wait on the open seas for eternity, and some remarkably quick recoveries by bad guys supposedly incapacitated by Moran.

There are some pretty shots of the French countryside, and Young does extract some early tension as Moran's life starts to unravel with the arrival of unwelcome visitors from his past. Charles Bronson does his best to create an engaging central character, and Liv Ullman is several notches above the material, but finally, and sadly, neither can do much to save the movie. Cold Sweat leaves behind an unsightly damp stain.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 28 January 2013

CD Review: Long Live Heavy Metal, by 3 Inches Of Blood (2012)

Combining Blackmore-inspired solos, Maiden-style harmonies, high-pitched Priest-evoking vocals, Manowar themes, and a honest work ethic all of their own, Canada's 3 Inches Of Blood continue their quest to create the unique by imitating the familiar.

Long Live Heavy Metal, their fifth studio album, is exactly what it says on the can: marginally sophisticated, melody-heavy anthems celebrating metal's glory, not necessarily presenting much that is new but certainly waving the flag for the best of traditions.

Long Live Heavy Metal continues the good work started on 3 Inches Of Blood's two previous releases Fire Up The Blades (2005) and Here Waits Thy Doom (2009), with 10 full compositions plus 2 instrumentals (Chief And The Blade and One For The Ditch) all carrying their weight and often more. The mostly fast-tempo songs offer up a noticeably improved level of professionalism and maturity, including clever solos, interesting transitions, and dynamic delivery, always propelled by Cam Pipes' impassioned vocals.

Three tracks stand out from the rest of the set. Leather Lord is a straight-ahead metal buzz-saw, staccato riff slicing the way for a manic expression of metaldome's majesty, a slow-down preceding a rich instrumental section with full-on Ritchie Blackmore solo shadings followed by an explosion of a finale with Ash Pearson giving his drum set a massive wake-up call.

Dark Messenger is closest to Maiden's sound, a tight coupling of sweet melody with runaway harmonies delivered at a dangerously break-neck yet irresistible speed. Meanwhile Look Out is a commanding tribute to Ronnie James Dio, and features an exuberant 140 seconds of joyously coordinated shredding that demonstrate how far the band has progressed in confident songwriting. The instrumental passage of Look Out is the most prominent, but almost every track on Long Live Heavy Metal features a punchy solo section where Pipes allows guitarists Hagberg and Clark to duel with competing axes.

3 Inches Of Blood also find the time to proudly wave the Canadian flag on tracks like Leave It On The Ice (all about battles in hockey) and Storming Juno (the code name for the beach assigned to the Canadians on D-Day).

Long Live Heavy Metal is the modernization of a loud salute, music unashamedly screaming from the rooftops with the inherent joy of its own genre.


Cam Pipes - Vocals
Justin Hagberg - Guitars
Shane Clark - Guitars
Ash Pearson - Drums
Byron Stroud - Bass (joined after the album was recorded)

Bass on the album by Shustin Hagblark

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Metal Woman - 8
2. My Sword Will Not Sleep - 7
3. Leather Lord - 9
4. Chief And The Blade - 7
5. Dark Messenger - 9
6. Look Out - 9
7. 4000 Torches - 7
8. Leave It On The Ice - 7
9. Die For Gold (Upon The Boiling Sea IV) - 7
10. Storming Juno - 7
11. Men Of Fortune - 8
12. One For The Ditch - 8

Average: 7.75

Produced by Sho Murray and 3 Inches Of Blood.
Engineered by Sho Murray. Mixed and Mastered by Greg Reely.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Movie Review: The Stranger's Gundown (1969)

A revenge-from-beyond-the-grave Spaghetti Western, The Stranger's Gundown (also known as Django The Bastard) is a spookily stylish effort benefiting from artistic Sergio Garrone directing and a moody Anthony Steffen lead performance.

A mysterious man named Django (Steffen) shows up in town unexpectedly, dressed in a black poncho and a black hat low over his eyes, and carrying a cross bearing the name of his next victim and the date of death. Astoundingly fast with a gun, Django seems to be more of a spirit than a man, moving with the shadows and appearing and disappearing almost at will. He kills several men as he closes on his real target, the powerful Rod Murdock (Paolo Gozlino).

It transpires that Django was a Confederate soldier serving in Murdock's unit, when a group of officers including Murdock conspired to betray their own troops. Django either miraculously survived the subsequent onslaught by Union soldiers, or he is now a ghost. Either way, revenge is the only thing on his mind. Murdock is protected by a cadre of gunmen and mercenaries, including his half-crazed brother Jack (Luciano Rossi, doing his best Klaus Kinski impression). Jack's wife Alida (Rada Rassimov) seems to have married him purely for the money, and is eager to find a way out of the family. Rod establishes a thick ring of defence, but the undeterred Django sets about killing his way through, one man at a time.

Unrelated to the original Django (1966), The Stranger's Gundown proved to be the inspiration for Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter (1973). But Garrone has a much better handle on the genre, and infuses The Stranger's Gundown with a Gothic, doom-laden vibe that elevates the material to sometimes poetic levels of artistry. Django's black-shrouded image is an unforgettable icon, and Garrone finds the unique camera angles, starting from the majestic opening scene of Django walking into a deserted town, to inject chills of death as the victims face their grim reaper.

Steffen, who co-produced and co-wrote (with Garrone), does his part: the methodical walk, deliberate long strides unperturbed and unrushed by the need to kill, keeps the man-or-ghost puzzle alive until late in the film. And Django's sudden conjuring of crosses readied in anticipation of the next death is a master-stroke of image-rich horror film-making. The English dubbing of Steffen's voice is a passable impression of Eastwood's laid-back delivery.

Luciano Rossi emerges as the most animated secondary character, creating in Jack a rather insane and highly-strung man living under the shadow of his brother and lucky to possess a trophy wife. The shock of white hair and over-the-topic antics can only channel Kinski, and Rossi does well to create a nervy counter-point to Django's overflowing volume of cool.

The original music by Vasili Kojucharov and Elsio Mancuso is an interesting hybrid of James Bond bouncy synth and Ennio Morricone genre standards. It's not a mix that is supposed to work, but it does succeed surprisingly well.

Django may straddle the vague line between avenging ghost and master gunslinger, but The Stranger's Gundown leaves no doubt: justice will be served, with ostentatious panache.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Movie Review: Between God, The Devil And A Winchester (1968)

A lively adaptation of Treasure Island as a Spaghetti Western, Between God, The Devil And A Winchester (also known by the more literal translation of its Italian title God Was Once In The West) never reaches any remarkable heights, but remains reasonably true to the genre and the source material.

At an isolated wagon stop, the gruff Colonel Bob Ford (Folco Lolli) books into a room at the inn run by Uncle Pink (Roberto Camardiel) and his young nephew Tony. Violent strangers soon show up looking for Ford and the secret treasure map that is generating excitement among local outlaws. Pretty barmaid Marta (Dominique Boschero) is killed, Ford winds up dead, and the inn is set on fire, but Tony retrieves the precious map from its hiding place.

Wagon master Juan Chasquisdo (Gilbert Roland), peaceful plain clothes clergyman Father Pat Jordan (Richard Harrison), Uncle Pink and Tony team up to cross the dangerous desert and find the cave where the treasure is buried. Close behind is a group of bandits intent on killing Tony and his group and securing the treasure for themselves. The resourceful Chasquisdo emerges as the linchpin in the quest for gold, shifting his allegiances according to circumstance to ensure his survival and increase the odds of getting his own hands on the treasure riches. An unlikely bond also develops between Chasquisdo and Tony, altering the destiny of all the men.

The desert replaces the ocean, wagons replace ships, caves replace the island, bandits replace pirates, and most of the characters are tweaked, but Between God, The Devil And A Winchester is an essentially faithful recreation of Treasure Island, transporting the adventure to a grimy terra firma. Fans of the book will likely enjoy the western re-imaginings, but otherwise some of the plot elements may seem somewhat bewildering.

In a movie filled with the typical spaghetti-stained sweaty and smelly characters, veteran Gilbert Roland, at 63 years old, delivers by far the most memorable performance. In the Long John Silver role, Chasquisdo is a cool master manipulator, getting everyone to trust him long enough for him to plan the next move, which almost always involves a betrayal. Tony helps Chasquisdo find a bit of a soul, but his long term prospects remain suitably uncertain.

Less impressive is Richard Harrison, blessed with good looks but nothing else, who wanders into the movie about thirty minutes late and sleeps his way through the uninteresting (and unexplained) role of the non-violent (but more than handy with a gun) man of religion.

Director Marino Girolami finds a good balance between the inherent violence demanded by Spaghetti Westerns and what is essentially a children's adventure, helped by the fact that Treasure Island was always on the more brutal side of young adult literature. Still, Between God, The Devil And A Winchester errs on the side of more dialogue and less graphic killing, although plenty of characters do meet an untimely and sometimes cruel end.

With a more than decent Mexican-inspired music score and some impressive cinematography in the unforgiving desert, Between God, The Devil And A Winchester strides forward with sensibly assured steps in search of buried treasure, a trip that yields predictable death for many, increased wisdom for some, and extreme riches for a very few.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Movie Review: Woman Of The Year (1942)

A prescient romance several generations ahead of its time, Woman Of The Year is as relevant today as it was in the year it was made. The exploration of gender politics and the role of women in modern society foreshadowed an upheaval that would only begin two decades later, with the movie uncovering power shift implications that still remain unresolved.

Woman Of The Year was also the first teaming of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, a legendary pairing that would spark a lifetime off-screen romance, and a total of nine on-screen collaborations.

At the New York Chronicle newspaper, Sam Craig (Tracy) is the sports reporter while Tess Harding (Hepburn) is an international affairs columnist. Craig is a crusty man of the people, generally oblivious to the raging Second World War and just focusing on covering the next ball game. Harding socializes with the political and intellectual leaders of the world, is on a first-name basis with presidents of foreign countries, and frequently travels to far-flung world capitals. And yet, once they meet, Craig and Harding fall in love, enjoy a whirlwind romance, and then quickly get married.

As a couple, things are a lot more complicated. Harding's obligations to keep up with global newsmakers means that she has little time for Craig. He is somewhat patient but also resentful, finding his wife often absent and clueless about what it means to be a housewife. Finally, too many references to Mr. Harding and the sudden introduction of a new family member cause a severe strain on the relationship. Sam makes a stand, and Tess confronts a difficult dilemma.

Tess Harding is one of the most memorable women to grace a movie, and her arrival on the screen as a feminist role model 20 years before the movement seeped into common consciousness is a remarkable achievement. Loving her job, excellent at what she does and enjoying every moment of her high-flying life, she still has the self-confidence to allow herself to fall in love with a man from a different world. Tess is also happily hopeless about housekeeping, openly condescending about sports, and doesn't even pause to think about the emotional needs of the man in her life.

Katharine Hepburn, who in real life was setting her own standards while dismissing the traditional behaviours and wardrobe of women, used the clout of her comeback success in The Philadelphia Story to develop Woman Of The Year. Hepburn selected the screenwriters and director George Stevens before taking the project to MGM. She brings Tess to life in one the best roles of her career, a woman with an intellect operating at twice the speed of all those around her, deploying wit, humour and seduction to help win all her battles in a man-dominated world.

Tracy gets the more grounded role as the down-to-earth Sam Craig, emotionally swept up by Tess but otherwise standing aside and allowing the joyous typhoon of her life to carry on without him. Tracy creates in Sam the bemused observer of an unfolding social revolution, a man loving a new type of woman but also crushed by what it may mean to his idea of domestic bliss. Hepburn and Tracy enjoy an almost immediate and natural chemistry, two souls meant for each other and quickly finding comfort in their togetherness.

The supporting cast is edgy and contributes to both the drama and comedy. Gerald (Dan Tobin) is Tess' secretary, happy to cater to every need of his female boss, and happier still to make Sam's life as miserable as possible. Mr. William Harding (Minor Watson) is Tess' father, proud of his daughter and fully aware of what Sam is going through but nevertheless enjoying his torment. Ellen (Fay Bainter) is close friends with William and also an aunt to Tess, representing the enduring values of a much more traditional woman. William Bendix gets the outright comic relief role, a former boxer turned bar owner who cannot help but recount long-winded stories about his tiresome bouts.

George Stevens directs with brisk pacing and energy to match Tess Harding's life, with something always going on, the phone ringing, unexpected guests at the door, and all events unfolding against the backdrop of the continuous clatter of the news wire machines. From the initial encounters between Tess and Sam to the romance, marriage, and increasingly difficult life as a couple, Woman Of The Year barely pauses, Tess never the sort of woman to take a break and Sam having to adjust to the new reality that comes with the woman in his life.

Men and women will spend eternity trying to understand and accommodate each other. Woman Of The Year brings the journey into the modern age, and makes it at once more challenging and much more invigorating.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Movie Review: Commandos (1968)

An Italian World War Two action drama, Commandos struggles against an atrocious script filled with tin-eared dialogue, but does enjoy some brisk scenes of combat and a few memorable character definition moments.

Sergeant Sullivan (Lee Van Cleef) is in charge of an American commando unit, tasked with parachuting into North Africa to seize and hold a strategic water supply site at a desert oasis. Sullivan and his men are to eliminate the Italian squad defending the well, and fool the nearby German units until the full American invasion force arrives to relieve the pressure.

Sullivan immediately clashes with Captain Valli (Jack Kelly), an inexperienced officer assigned to lead the operation. Sullivan had previously narrowly survived a mission on Bataan, a harrowing experience that haunts him in flashback, and he blames that fiasco on incompetent leadership. The North Africa mission initially unfolds relatively smoothly, except that Valli refuses to kill all the Italian defenders, taking some as prisoners instead. The ruse to convince the Germans that all is well at the oasis hits some rough spots when a German engineering unit makes an unexpected appearance at the well, and the mission ultimately begins to unravel when the Italian prisoners take the initiative.

With Americans pretending to be Italians holding actual Italians as prisoners and pretending to be allies of the Germans while everyone speaks in English, Commandos quite quickly gets stuck knee deep in the desert sands, trying but failing to draw out the distinction between enemies. Other than the overstressed personality of Sergeant Sullivan, everyone else here is predominantly bland and interchangeable.

An army of writers (including Menahem Golan) get all their pencils crossed trying to conjure up meaningful dialogue, but all they are able to produce are tired, sometimes cringe-inducing exchanges. The outcome is wooden actors spouting stock lines scraped from the bottom of countless combat boots.

Leave it to an Italian production to find an excuse to insert a luscious whore into the barren desert, Marilu Tolo getting the dubious privilege of portraying a live-in hooker who still gets paid, despite having apparently no option to say no and nowhere obvious to spend her hard-earned cash. Unfortunately, she somehow disappears partway through the movie.

In amongst the dross, Van Cleef does get to hiss, between clenched teeth, his version of what it takes to knife a man to death, his beady eyes shooting daggers at the overmatched Jack Kelly. Watching Van Cleef emotionally dominate Kelly is an unfair fight, like a spider devouring a small insect hopelessly captured in its web.

Commandos does come to life when the shooting starts, the bazookas swing into action, and the bodies start to dramatically fall. Although director Armando Crispino never quite seems to get the pacing and editing right, the cuts jarring as the scenes switch from the shooter to the shot, there are enough flying bullets, rumbling tanks and grim faced men exchanging chaotic fire to inject the film with a reasonably satisfying boost of action. Otherwise, the tension is confined to plenty of skulking around in the murky dark, not helped by a buzzy monotonal soundtrack (with the tone often inexplicably jumping with the edits) that serves only to annoy.

Commandos does find a unique and memorable ending, a quiet anti-war moment forcing reflection on the wastes of war. The desert is where bad dialogue goes to die, but there is still time for the sands of time to reassert their message.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 21 January 2013

CD Review: Seasons In The Abyss, by Slayer (1990)

Seasons In The Abyss continues to evolve the melody-heavy, more deliberately paced sound that Slayer introduced on South Of Heaven. The band's fifth album may lack killer tracks, but it offers ten selections of uniformly admirable thrash metal.

Tom Araya's vocals are more measured, leaning towards tortured rather than threatening. The guitars of Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King are still spitting fire, but without ever quite finding that flash of genius to elevate a track to legendary status. Dave Lombardo, in the final round of his initial stint with the band, is as ever thunderous but doesn't quite shake the walls with the same intensity. Overall, the sound of Seasons In The Abyss is finely polished, but the song-writing, while pleasingly evolutionary, struggles to find new aces.

Producer Rick Rubin works with the band to add subtle depth and texture, revealed on some ghostly backing vocals, notably the unsettling voices of children towards the end of Dead Skin Mask. Two distinct Araya vocal tracks are heard on Temptation, Rubin and the band deciding to overdub two separate takes.

Title track and album closer Seasons In The Abyss is by far the longest track at over six minutes, and starts with a foreboding intro that slows the pace right down, a traditional horror walk through the dark on the way to extreme unpleasantness. When Araya's vocals arrive riding on a galloping riff, they are unusually melodic and higher pitched, the departure from his traditional aggressive monotone contributing to a pervasive parallel between the abyss and a hellish asylum. As it turns out, on the way South Of Heaven, Slayer took a turn to an even more sinister destination.


Tom Araya: Bass, Vocals
Jeff Hanneman: Guitars
Kerry King: Guitars
Dave Lombardo: Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. War Ensemble - 8
2. Blood Red - 8
3. Spirit In Black - 7
4. Expendable Youth - 8
5. Dead Skin Mask - 7
6. Hallowed Point - 8
7. Skeletons Of Society - 8
8. Temptation - 8
9. Born Of Fire - 7
10. Seasons In The Abyss - 9

Average: 7.80

Produced by Rick Rubin.
Engineered and Mixed by Andy Wallace.
Mastered by Howie Weinberg.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

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