Thursday, 28 February 2013

Movie Review: Queen Christina (1933)

At the height of her world-wide popularity as the screen' most enigmatic star, Greta Garbo took on the role of Queen Christina, Sweden's mysterious and unconventional 17th century monarch. Garbo delivers a beguiling performance, elevating the movie to a dreamy, luxurious romance.

When her father the king dies in battle, Christina is elevated to the throne at age six. Demonstrating an independent, antithetic attitude from a young age, Christina grows up to become a popular leader. Still only in her twenties, she negotiates peace from a position of strength and favours reading and promoting the arts and culture rather than warmongering.

Christina resists pressure to marry the heroic warrior Karl Gustav (Reginald Owen), and fends off the attentions of Count Magnus (Ian Keith). Instead she prefers the company of Countess Ebba Sparre (Elizabeth Young) and manly pursuits, including aggressive horseback riding, wearing pants, and handling weapons. Out riding in the countryside to temporarily escape the burdens of the throne, Christina meets and falls in love with Spanish envoy Antonio (John Gilbert). They spend a heavenly night at a secluded inn, before Christina has to return to reality and balance the unexpected romance with the demands of her people to marry a Swede.

The Samuel Behrman script is only loosely based on the actual Christina. The central romance with Antonio is fiction, but here serves to emphasize Christina's strong non-conformist streak. Her refusal to pursue the traditional path of marrying a noble Swede to produce a suitable heir is accurate, but the movie adds the scandalous romance to a Spaniard as an exclamation point.

Greta Garbo's performance is commanding, effortlessly dominating all her scenes with a physical and mystical presence that demands obedience. Christina's only enemies are boredom, the trivialities of governance, and the shackles of tradition. Garbo conveys Christina's dismissiveness of convention with salient eyes, a confident and imperious tone of voice, and physical gestures that hint at both royal lethargy and endless patience with those of lesser intellect.

Garbo embraces the challenges of the character with adroit fluidity, adopting the Queen's male disguise with a glint in her eye and snuggling comfortably with the hints of lesbian tendencies in the relationship with Ebba Sparre.

Director Rouben Mamoulian allows his cameras to worship Garbo, and confirms her regal status in two justifiably celebrated scenes. The first is a stunning three minutes of Garbo memorizing this room as she explores with her fingers, her skin and her soul every object in the room at the inn where her romance with Antonio blossomed. The second is the closing shot, a zoom in on Garbo's face as she stands at the bow of a ship, staring at absolutely nothing and thinking of every future imaginable.

The rest of the cast, including a John Gilbert desperately trying but failing to salvage a career in talkies, simply drown in Garbo's wake, the congregation of men trying in vain to control Christina's life melding into a mess of misplaced machismo.

Without being lavish, Queen Christina is a grand production. The set designs convey a winter-hardened Sweden, a bustling and functional royal palace, and interiors that combine required royal eminence with Swedish pragmatism. Ironically, amidst all the dignified nobility the most famous set is that humble inn where Christina and Antonio spend the night, a roadside stop designed to change the course of life.

Queen Christina delights with the story of a rogue royal, eons ahead of her time and portrayed by an all-time legend.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Movie Review: Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

A classic, low-budget horror film, Night Of The Living Dead introduced the movie world to flesh-eating zombies and the commercial appeal of outright gore. Director George A. Romero, working with effectively no budget and a cast of novices, also pulls together a masterly exploration of ordinary people under sudden, extreme stress.

In rural Pennsylvania, brother and sister Johnny and Barbara (Russell Streiner and Judith O'Dea) visit a secluded cemetery to place flowers on their father's grave with dusk fast approaching. Before they can leave, they are inexplicably attacked by a wandering zombie and Johnny is killed. Barbara escapes and takes shelter in a nearby farmhouse, where she is joined by Ben (Duane Jones), a resourceful black man who fortifies the house in anticipation of a siege. After discovering a rotting corpse inside the house, Barbara goes into shock.

Harry and Helen Cooper (Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman) and another couple emerge from the cellar of the house, where they had barricaded themselves. Harry and Ben immediately clash, Harry believing that all of them should retreat to the cellar while Ben insisting that they should stay on the main level of the house where there are plenty of escape routes. With the house besieged by an increasing number of ravenous zombies, news filters through on the radio and television that the entire state is witnessing mass killings perpetrated by re-animated dead people. The human survivors at the farmhouse have to decide whether to stay and fight or try and flee.

Romero keeps the goriest scenes of flesh munching fairly brief, but that does not reduce their impact. The ghouls greedily biting into human flesh and bones latch on to the memory and stay entrenched, the rudimentary production values simply enhancing the documentary, surreptitious feel of horrific events being captured on film.

The stark black and white photography, capturing every detail with acute clarity despite the deep darkness of night, and the confinement of most of the film to a single set, add to the sense of sharing the horror of the barricaded survivors as they stumble onto the worst horror imaginable.

With a running time of less than 100 minutes and little time to dedicate to characters, Romero's script (co-written by John A. Russo) efficiently draws distinctions between the three leads. Ben is the natural leader, taking charge, giving orders, thinking ahead, and taking on the responsibility of planning an out. Barbara collapses under the weight of events, and after the death of her brother and the shock of seeing other mutilated bodies, she enters a state of heavy stupor, a burden to others and of no use in the survival battle. Harry is everything that Ben isn't, angry, self-centred, fearful rather than courageous, and blatantly placing his selfish interests ahead of all others.

The tension between the characters never settles down, and Night Of The Living Dead taps into the crackling energy of survivors who should be working together instead weakening their cause with continuous aggressive internal conflict.

Placing a black man as the natural leader within a cast of otherwise white characters was quite unusual for 1968, and while Romero claimed that Duane Jones was simply the best actor for the role of Ben, the racial role reversal provides the film with an added progressive edge. All the cast is entertaining in a generally theatrical milieu, the cramped surroundings of the farmhouse providing the equivalent of a stage set and proving to be a suitable environment for slightly exaggerated performances.

Night Of The Living Dead is the small, almost amateur movie that helped push mainstream film-making into bloodier, more extreme directions. Romero may have never predicted the impact, but the armies of movie zombies stagger on, decades after emerging from those Pennsylvania graveyards.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

CD Review: Fragments Of Form And Function, by Allegaeon (2010)

The debut from Colorado's Allegaeon contains plenty to admire, but also carries some unnecessary weight. Fragment Of Form And Function features impressively well-honed melodic death metal with a strong tilt towards technical mastery. When Allegaeon tighten all the screws, the results are excellent.

The band sounds like Arsis with an extra strong dose of melody. There is plenty going on throughout the album, and every track is a well thought-out composition filled with layered harmonies, technical wizardry, lyrical solos, frantic drumming, and the laid-back but authoritative growl of Ezra Haynes. Allegaeon demonstrate a strong respect for distinct, cohesive melodies, but this never shackles the band from exploring side-streets and scenic routes, usually for the better.

The opening pair of The Cleansing and The Renewal are an admirable introduction to the band, both tracks showing off courage to play with signature changes, sharp precision, and pure joyous head-banging power. The Cleansing offers an almost out-of-control pace that threatens carnage but just manages to stay on the road, while The Renewal soars at the 2:40 mark with a classic riff that beautifully disintegrates into staccato chaos, only to gather itself into a final charge of the valiant.

The album peaks with Biomech, a superbly constructed piece of melodic technical death metal, a deliberate foundational melody allowing the band to add absorbing technical shadings at lightning speed before Ryan Glisan and Greg Burgess take off at the 3:20 mark on 50 seconds of dual guitar magic. The Vals No. 666 back-end of the track is two minutes of acoustical serenity, the calm in the middle of a stormy album.

Elsewhere, The God Particle and Atrophy Of Hippocrates provide solid depth to the album, but the band stumbles on tracks like From Seed To Throne and Point Of Disfigurement, both of which have little to add other than undistinguished sound and fury.

The Fragments Of Form And Function assemble themselves into a surprisingly enjoyable whole, Allegaeon arriving on the scene with polished skills to deliver their sophisticated sound.


Jordan Belfast - Drums
Ryan Glisan - Guitar
Ezra Haynes - Vocals
Greg Burgess - Guitar
Corey Archuleta - Bass

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. The Cleansing - 9
2. The Renewal - 9
3. Across The Folded Line - 7
4. The God Particle - 8
5. Biomech - Vals No. 666 - 10
6. From Seed To Throne - 6
7. Atrophy Of Hippocrates - 8
8. Point Of Disfigurement - 6
9. A Cosmic Question... - 7
10. Accelerated Evolution - 7

Average: 7.70

Produced, Engineered and Mixed by Dave Otero.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Movie Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

A visionary classic, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is a masterpiece that not only redefined science fiction movies, but also gracefully explained human history and presented a dazzling vision of the future.

The opening Dawn Of Man sequence has no dialogue, and takes place among the man-ape predecessors of humans. Various tribes struggle for survival and compete for territory on a hostile ancient earth. A strange, smooth black monolith suddenly appears near one of the tribes, and soon a member of that clan discovers that bones of dead animals can be used as tools, and more importantly, weapons. After the first ever raid in which weapons are used and the enemy tribe is comprehensively vanquished, the victorious man-ape throws a bone into the air, and it is match-cut to a satellite orbiting Earth in 2001. Millions of years of evolution and innovation emanating from that bone discovery are covered in one of the most famous split seconds in movie history.

The second part takes place in 2001. Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) journeys to Clavius Base, a US outpost on the moon. He is there to take a first hand look at a remarkable discovery that is being treated as top secret: a strange, smooth, black monolith has been excavated. Scientists estimate that it was deliberately buried around four million years ago. As Floyd and his team are taking photographs in front of the monolith, it emits a piercingly loud signal.

The next chapter of the movie takes place eighteen months later. As a result of the monolith discovery, American spaceship Discovery One is on a mission to Jupiter, commanded by Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) while other scientists are kept in hibernation. HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain) is the on-board supercomputer, apparently infallible and controlling every aspect of the mission. Communications with Earth are difficult and suffer a long time lag.

When HAL raises the alarm about an imminent equipment failure, Bowman and Lockwood are forced to undertake a dangerous retrieval job outside the spaceship using the EVA pod. Diagnostic tests hint that HAL was maybe wrong. With Jupiter fast approaching, Bowman and Poole have to prepare for an unimaginable situation: the computer controlling the entire mission may be faulty. The final, surreal 20 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey unfold near Jupiter, and again have no dialogue. The monolith reappears and Bowman is drawn into a new, stunning evolutionary reality.

Working with author Arthur C. Clarke, Kubrick created the first grand space drama. The final frontier was no longer the domain of goofy aliens, overgrown monsters and aggressive invaders. In the vision presented by Kubrick and Clarke, exploration of the vast and empty space beyond the borders of the Earth and its Moon defined the next massive step in human advancement, a most logical concept and a most astonishing challenge.

2001: A Space Odyssey is a feast of visuals and music. Most of the movie has no dialogue, and when characters do talk in the middle segments, as Floyd makes his way to the moon and then Bowman and Poole travel to Jupiter, the interactions are stiff and almost robotic. In contrast, HAL has by far the most expressive and emotional role. Douglas Rain provides a tender, almost embracing tone, a jarring contradiction with the harsh lens and red pilot light representing HAL's omnipresence throughout Discovery One. And when the battle of intellect erupts between HAL and Bowman, it is Bowman who is completely silent, operating with machine-like intensity, while HAL cannot stop talking as he tries to make his case for survival - and therefore domination.

Kubrick leaves it to visuals filled with astonishing special effects to leave the deepest impression. From the realistic ape-men scenes, to space ships and satellites streaking through space and the futuristic controls and furnishings within them, to elegant, complex docking manoeuvres, and finally men and women operating in zero gravity conditions, 2001: A Space Odyssey never ceases to enthral. Among the items and gadgets predicted by the movie are personal headrest screens, wireless audio-video computer phones, and tablet computers.

And then Kubrick demonstrates true genius with a brilliant music score, setting the exploration of space to classical music, providing a grandiose backdrop to mankind's quest. Kubrick forgoes anything futuristic and magically links the past, the present and the future through the brilliantly anticipatory opening of  Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra and then Johann Strauss' light-footed On the Beautiful Blue Danube, the waltz becoming a metaphor for sophisticated machinery performing an elegant coupling in space.

The monolith links all the chapters of the film, the large, foreboding, finely machined slab of blackness triggering fundamental changes in the journey of man. Kubrick leaves the movie wide open to interpretation, and the monolith can represent external, extra-terrestrial intelligence or internal, intrinsic drive.

Either way the irresistible force of change powers man to ever broader expansion of abilities and horizons, with a startling ending where one phase of human evolution ends, only to signal a rebirth into a seemingly much more powerful form of being to continue an expedition beyond known boundaries.

2001: A Space Odyssey is artistically and intellectually one of the most ambitious films ever made, and a resounding, timeless triumph.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Movie Review: Bowfinger (1999)

A boisterous comedy that surpasses a modest premise, Bowfinger brings out the best from two legendary comedians. Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy team up and deliver the quality chuckles in a story of Hollywood ingenuity on a shoestring.

Producer Bobby Bowfinger (Martin) lives off the scraps that bottom-feeders leave behind. Broke and desperate to manufacture a hit, he latches on to a ludicrous alien invasion script called Chubby Rain by accountant Afrim (Adam Alexi-Malle). Bowfinger uses about $2,000 that he collected as a child to finance the project, and hires illegal migrants as his crew and the straight-off-the-bus Daisy (Heather Graham) as his leading lady.  He also dreams up the idea of surreptitiously filming scenes with action superstar Kit Ramsey (Murphy) and inserting them into the film, thereby creating a star vehicle without having to secure or pay for a star.

Ramsey has an irrational fear of conspiracy theories and alien abduction scenarios, and uses the services of MindHead (a Scientology-like institution) and its head Terry (Terence Stamp) to barely keep his life together. Meanwhile, Bowfinger hires Kit's younger and slower brother Jefferson (also Murphy) to use as a stunt-double. When Bowfinger's actors start hovering around Kit and incomprehensibly interacting with him for the benefit of hidden cameras, Kit's paranoia spirals out of control, but Bowfinger is undeterred in his quest to secure his movie.

Bowfinger clearly defines its targets and squarely hits every one. Making a good movie about the making of a bad movie is not easy, and credit goes to Martin's barbed script, which combines sharp industry satire with broad humour. Director Frank Oz shoots over the shoulder of the fake production, exaggerating with a sharp outline everything in Bowfinger's film that makes cheap productions cheap, from poor acting to rudimentary special effects and unlicensed use of locations.

The character of Bowfinger is ridiculously resourceful, and Martin clearly had a grand time creating a producer who can get things done on next to no budget. From swiping a fashionable jacket to deploying his dog to create scary footstep noises, Bowfinger is never out of ideas on how to get the next scene into the can and Kit Ramsey into his movie without spending a dime. Martin keeps his acting relatively understated, allowing the ingenuity of the character to emerge unhindered by physical histrionics.

Murphy delivers astute comic timing in both his roles. Kit Ramsey is filled with loud bravado but also wracked by the insecurities of an undeservedly wealthy star, and Murphy switches between authoritative and submissive with delightful precision. His performance as Jefferson is even more arresting, the younger brother making up for the lack of intellect with an ever-present smile, even more heart, and wide-eyed enthusiasm for being anywhere near a Hollywood production.

Heather Graham adds to the fun by riffing on her Boogie Nights persona. Daisy treats sex like cold currency, and methodically sleeps her way to better information and better exposure. Even on lousy Bobby Bowfinger productions there are benefits for a starlet to sleep her way to the top, despite the top still being the bottom. Terence Stamp occupies the deep dark centre of MindHead, Martin's script taking the time to aim purposeful jabs at the manufactured nonsense of money-milking psychobabble duping conceited stars while masquerading as religion.

Christine Baranski as a has-been actress trying to reclaim old glories, and Robert Downey Jr. as a successful director occupying a diametrically opposite world to Bowfinger but sitting at the next table, complete the cast.

Bowfinger is bright and breezy, and in less than 100 minutes exposes the other side of movie-making glamour, where the mixture of misplaced ambition and deep-seated desperation creates rich territory for plenty of laughter.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Movie Review: The Moment To Kill (1968)

A largely forgettable Spaghetti Western, The Moment To Kill offers little that is new and comes up short in both style and substance.

Gunslingers Lord and Bull (George Hilton and Walter Barnes) are looking for $500,000 in lost Confederate gold. Judge Warren (Rudolf Sch√ľndler) is an old timer who provides clues to the whereabouts of the treasure before being killed by men working for the evil Jason Forester (Horst Frank). Jason is rich, temperamental, and also looking for the gold along with his father (Carlo Alighiero).

Jason's cousin Regina (Loni von Friedl) is wheelchair bound, but may unknowingly hold the critical piece of information needed to find the hidden fortune. Trent (Renato Romano) is Regina's trusted caregiver, and teams up with Lord and Bull to help Regina and fight-off Jason. But there are many personal agendas at work, and Lord and Bull will discover that all is not what it seems in the quest for riches against the Forester clan.

Lord and Bull are precursors of sorts to the Trinity (Terence Hill) and Bambino (Bud Spencer) partnership from the Trinity series that kicked off in 1970. In creating a dynamic that is only vaguely successful, Lord is the smarter and faster one, while Bull is slower but deadlier, with an ever-present smile and a dedication to offing bad guys with his trusty shot-gun. Hill and Spencer brought significantly more charisma and rapport to their roles compared to the expressively challenged Hilton and the artistically limited Barnes, who barely register a synergistic spark.

Horst Frank delivers his usual intensely engaging performance as the scion suffering a severe case of impatience, while Loni von Friedl enjoys playing Regina as physically vulnerable but holding the power of essential information. Regina is subjected to disturbing abuse at the hands of Jason's unruly men, making their ultimate comeuppance at the hands of Lord and Bull all the more deserved.

The Moment To Kill has several prolonged action scenes, and they tend to liven the proceedings despite rudimentary execution. The energy suffers during several scenes that take place in the dark, and the borderline dull shoot-outs descend into an incomprehensible and uninteresting game of shadows with characters indistinguishable from each other taking cover and trading fire for what seems like eternity.

But the action scenes are the best thing that director Giuliano Carnimeo can deliver, since the dialogue and plot advancement sequences are pedestrian in the extreme. Despite the involvement of Enzo G. Castellari in the script and concept development, Carnimeo simply has nothing to add to countless westerns that have come and gone before. The photography, camera angles, music, and plot of The Moment To Kill are strictly derivative, and quickly become tiresome.

The Moment To Kill is filled with moments of boredom, and not enough moments that deliver.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Book Review: Economics In One Lesson, by Henry Hazlitt (1979)

Originally written in 1946 and updated in 1962 and 1979, Economics In One Lesson is a call to unfettered free-market capitalism. American economist Henry Hazlitt argues forcefully that short-term, single-issue thinking is the path to economic ruin.

A supporter of the Austrian School, Hazlitt introduces his lesson early: ignoring the long-term, broader societal implications of economic policies invariably leads to inefficiencies, misplaced resources, and a drag on the economy. While the appeal of introducing subsidies, tariffs, protectionist measures and cost controls may be strong and clearly beneficial to one sector, the overall results always lead to less efficient producers being propped up, and consumers being asked to pay more than necessary for lesser goods.

Hazlitt makes his points with cold precision. Rescuing a failing industry may temporarily save jobs but represents a colossal waste of tax dollars that could otherwise be deployed to support other, more successful producers. Rent controls may artificially allow low-income families to live in homes larger than they can afford, but the artificial prices devastate the rent-supply industry and ultimately hurt the very people that the rent controls are supposed to help. And national protectionist measures that aim to prop-up a local industry and penalize foreign competitors simply reduce the opportunity for export growth by artificially truncating the competitive exchange of currency.

Hazlitt approaches the global economy as one seamless self-regulating machine, where government intervention can never be more efficient than the fluid laws of supply and demand. Winners and losers should be determined according to the skill and talent of producers and their ability to attract consumers, and interference in the purity of the marketplace serves to only distort the appropriate allocation of capital.

Written in accessible language and structured into short chapters that efficiently make their point and move on, Economics In One Lesson also presents persuasive arguments against practices that promote inflation or artificially increase the money supply, tracing the destructive ripple effects of inequitable increased costs through the economic system.

Hazlitt's lesson is undoubtedly theoretically sound and just as assuredly harsh. Free-market governments have to assess the political math as well as the economic consequence, and when elections loom at predictable cycles it is a brave government (and soon to be ex-government) that patiently stands-by and waits for market forces to re-absorb masses of the unemployed. The reality is that while the longer and greater economic good is all fine, voters think of the here and now, and politicians are therefore conditioned to act accordingly.

The real achievement is to deftly control the economic levers within the confines of a political reality, and here economists may need to look for a second lesson to build a practical layer onto the theoretical fundamentals.

Subtitled "The Shortest And Surest Way To Understand Basic Economics."
211 pages plus A Note On Books and Index.
Published in soft cover by Three Rivers Press.

All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...