Saturday, 30 March 2013

Movie Review: Identity Thief (2013)

A light-weight comedy, Identity Thief finds a few laugh but spends too much time in unfunny oafish territory.

Sandy Patterson (Jason Bateman) is a lowly financial officer at a large bank in Denver, terrorized by his boss Harold Cornish (Jon Favreau) and barely earning enough to provide for his pregnant wife Trish (Amanda Peet) and two young daughters. Just when he decides to make a promising career move, things get a lot worse when the crude, overweight and overbearing Diana (Melissa McCarthy), who lives in Florida, remotely steals his identity, creates fraudulent copies of all his credit cards, and goes on a wild shopping spree.

With his life and reputation in tatters due to Diana's antics, and stymied by the slow-moving enforcement process, Sandy decides to travel himself to Florida, find Diana, and bring her back to Denver to force a confession. Sandy does find Diana but nothing else unfolds according to plan. Since they are now both called Sandy Patterson, they decide against flying, and instead opt for a slow cross-country drive. And to complicate matters considerably, Diana is also the target of assassins Marisol and Julian (Genesis Rodriguez and T.I.) working for an organized credit card fraud cartel, and no-nonsense bounty hunter Skiptracer (Robert Patrick).

Identity Thief has the considerable propelling power of Melissa McCarthy behind it, but little else. The film oscillates between a few peaks and many valleys according to McCarthy's comic antics. McCarthy stole many parts of Bridesmaids (2011) where her secondary character had plenty of support in delivering the laughs. Here asked to carry the full comic load, she buckles frequently.

On the few occasions when she hits her targets, Identity Thief is a reasonably funny road movie. But when McCarthy veers towards drudging repetition (how many times is punching someone in the neck supposed to be funny) or just low class vulgarity (really tasteless supposedly suggestive dance floor moves followed by a flat sexual ecstasy simulation scene with a stranger), the film stumbles badly.

In comparison, Jason Bateman is a relatively blank slate playing his typical reactive persona where others cause him pain or discomfort. Here Sandy Patterson may be initiating the transportation of Diana from Florida to Denver, but really it is Diana who is calling all the shots and getting the pair of them in and out of trouble. Bateman mostly just plays along, swept up in McCarthy's sizable slipstream.

Director Seth Gordon tries to squeeze some typical road movie journey-of-discovery type lessons, and at a relatively superficial level, Sandy's rage against Diana turns to some sympathy as he learns of her difficult childhood, while Diana develops a bit of a conscience as she comes face to face with one of her victims and his family. It's all rather platitudinous and predictable, as Identity Theft meanders on the highway of reasonable ideas, getting frequently lost.

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Friday, 29 March 2013

Movie Review: The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946)

A sprawling life-after-combat drama, The Best Years Of Our Lives is an engrossing and surprisingly clear-eyed examination of a formidable topic.

It's the end of the Second World War, and three servicemen share a plane ride back to their fictional hometown of Boone City. Fred (Dana Andrews) was an airman specializing in dropping bombs; Al (Fredric March) served in the infantry in the Pacific; and Homer (Harold Russell) was in the navy and lost both hands when his aircraft carrier was destroyed by the Japanese, but he has learned to capably use his prosthetic hooks.

Homer's family welcome him back but with his disability he feels uneasy, unsure if he is surrounded by love or pity, and he finds it difficult to reconnect with pre-war fiancée Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell), although she is still eager to marry him. Al is surprised by how much his two children have grown, particularly daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright). Al's wife Milly (Myrna Loy) tries to help him readjust, and despite an emerging drinking problem, Al is eventually hired as a Vice President at the bank where he used to work before the war, with a mandate to manage loans for returning servicemen. Fred has difficulty finding Marie (Virginia Mayo), the woman he married just before the war, and ends up spending his first evening as a civilian with Al and his family, discovering an instant and shared attraction with Peggy.

As the men struggle to re-adapt to their new old lives, Al runs afoul of the bank's bottom-line oriented procedures and his drinking worsens. Fred cannot find a decent job and ends up as a lowly floor salesperson at the local department store, an income that does not satisfy Marie, allowing Fred's relationship with Peggy to deepen. And Homer withdraws from everyone, embarrassed by his disability and unable to imagine what life with Wilma will be like when he cannot even hug her.

Samuel Goldwyn recognized the importance of a topic that remains relevant generations later, and commissioned a screenplay. Robert Sherwood eventually adapted MacKinlay Kantor's resulting novella, and the script confronts head-on the difficulties of integration back into civilian life. The Best Years Of Our Lives contains no sugarcoating. It's a movie filled with small awkward moments that ring true, men fighting to find their role in a now foreign environment and having nowhere to turn for help, their women equally ill-prepared and clumsily trying to prop-up their returning heroes.

The performances are more stoic than nuanced. Fredric March and Dana Andrews carry most of the load with broad-shouldered resignation and recognition that integration is a battle without a plan. March authentically finds refuge in a bottle and the camaraderie of bar-hopping, quickly forgetting his surroundings and defaulting to the military's definition of relaxation. And once Al is back at his banking job, March effectively conveys the unease of a man used to instinctive decisions having to conform to the discipline of the corporate world.

Andrews as Fred represents the other end of the scale, unable despite his best efforts to find any meaningful job to satisfy the rich tastes of his opportunistic wife. Andrews is able to mix a realistic military attitude with an underlying questioning of everything that was once important, Fred's evolving but difficult relationship with Peggy presenting tantalizing opportunities to rediscover happiness in post-war life.

Non-actor and real-life Army amputee Harold Russell delivers a most natural performance as Homer, bringing to the role the deep discomfort of a man who just wants to get on with life, but is paralyzed by the acute awareness that the world is watching his every move with pity. The physical nature of his struggle renders Homer the most visible victim of the war, but Russell makes it clear that the bigger battle even for him is the mental discomfort.

The ladies provide good support and a refreshingly expansive representation of the home front. Most interesting is Teresa Wright's Peggy, among the vanguard of young women released into the workforce due to the war, and now equipped with the confidence to chart their own path. Myrna Loy as her mother and Al's wife is the more traditional woman, the wife willing to support, tolerate and help her husband's difficult return.

Virginia Mayo as Marie has no patience for integration or anything else. Fred must have had an off-day when he married her just before heading off to war, and now she is only interested in the good life. Peggy offers a much better match, a fact that eventually both Fred and Marie will recognize. Finally Cathy O'Donnell as Wilma offers the innocence of the young woman fully in love with the troubled Homer, but clueless as to how she can help.

At almost three hours in length, director William Wyler maintains excellent pacing and interest in the stories of the three men. The film is rich in relevant details, creating realistic surroundings for each of the men, and taking the time to allow the stories to unfold in a relaxed manner. The result is a movie that avoids over-dramatizations and gains strength from a sense of authenticity.

Despite ending on the high note of a marriage, The Best Years Of Our Lives purposefully leaves all its stories open ended, with the men aware that there is more work to be done. It's a realistic conclusion for an endeavour that could last a lifetime.

Celebrated with seven Academy Awards, The Best Years Of Our Lives is a film both of its time and ahead of its time, a deglamourization of the battle after the battle, when hard-earned victories can yet yield shattered lives and collateral family damage.

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Movie Review: Whistle Stop (1946)

A faltering film noir of sorts, Whistle Stop stretches to reach for some of the right ingredients but does not get the mix quite right.

After two years in Chicago, Mary (Ava Gardner) returns to her humble small hometown of Ashbury located by the rail tracks. Two men immediately vie for Mary's attention: Kenny (George Raft) is Mary's old lover, an altogether unimpressive and unemployed loser who spends most of his time playing cards. Lew (Tom Conway) is Kenny's rival and a successful businessman who runs the local hotel and bar. Gitlo (Victor McLaglen) is the popular bartender who works for Lew but is good friends with Kenny.

With Mary attracted both to Kenny's genuineness and Lew's riches, Gitlo tries to get Kenny involved in a plot to get Lew out of the way and steal some of his money, using the annual town fair as cover. But Lew has dark plans of his own to disrupt any chance that Kenny has to find happiness with Mary.

Whistle Stop suffers from the absence of any sympathetic characters to ground the turgid drama. Mary is the catalyst but she is unfortunately sidelined for the second half of the movie as the men engage in a distasteful battle of wills to assert dominance. While Kenny is supposed to be the anti-hero worth cheering for, his character seems quite beneath Mary, while Lew is boorishly unlikable. Mary seems best off with neither of them, and yet the film hinges on the battle for her affection between two unworthy men. When Kenny and Lew start plotting against each other, the only conclusion is that they both deserve to lose.

Russian - French director Léonide Moguy never quite made it in Hollywood, but here he does create some limited ambience in a rather depressing small town where evil thoughts can find the desperation to grow. Ava Gardner's presence and performance are several notches above the material, although she suffers from dubious character motivations. Why Mary left Chicago is never explained, and what she could possibly see in a loser like Kenny is even more difficult to fathom. George Raft, Tom Conway and Victor McLaglen do what they can, but the shallow script constrains all the performances.

The soundtrack by Dimitri Tiomkin adds some much needed class to the film, but Whistle Stop is simply drowned out by roaring indifference.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985)

The first sequel to the 1984 slasher flick immediately drops into routine territory and bland execution. A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge is neither scary nor fun, just pointless.

Five years after the events of the original film, the oblivious Walsh family has moved into the house where a teenager was terrorized by deadly nightmares featuring Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund). High school teenager Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton) now starts to experience horrific dreams, Freddy coming to him and insisting that Jesse needs to kill in real life at Freddy's behest. Jesse's parents Ken and Cheryl (Clu Gulager and Hope Lange) don't believe him, and initially, neither do his friends Lisa (Kim Meyers) and Ron (Robert Rusler).

People around Jesse start to die, including his abusive athletics coach Schneider (Marshall Bell). Freddy is able to take control of Jesse's body to commit gruesome acts, and both Ron and Lisa are endangered. Lisa tries to help by exploring the old power plant where Freddy used to work, and Freddy then crashes Lisa's pool party, leading to a final confrontation where Lisa tries to help Jesse regain control of his body and evict Freddy.

A desperate mishmash of ideas leading nowhere, Freddy's Revenge lacks any style and innovation, and suffers from a brain-dead script by David Chaskin and awful performances by an inept cast. Allowing Freddy to leap into the waking world through Jesse's body undermines the whole premise of the first movie. Some of the targets that Freddy chooses to harm, such as Schneider, are also incomprehensible if Freddy's intent is to avenge the community of parents who originally burned him to a crisp by killing off their kids.

Youngsters Patton, Myers and Rusler read their lines with studied amateurishness, while Gulager (13 years on from The Last Picture Show) and Lange get to discover how low Hollywood's career ladder can descend. Director Jack Sholder can't come close to matching Wes Craven's relative artistry, and instead delivers rehashed scenes that fail to generate any sense of suspense.

Stretching to a tiresome 91 minutes, A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge is a dish served bored.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Movie Review: Natural Born Killers (1994)

An orgy of violence intended as a condemnation of society's glorification of criminals and their crimes, Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers is a brave effort that unfortunately falls short. Despite an eye-dazzling style, the script deteriorates just when the message becomes important, the film losing its nerve and diving deeper into blood bath territory.

Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) are on a murderous crime spree in rural New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada. Both abused as children, they fell in love as soon as they set eyes on each other, and Mickey self-administered their marriage after killing Mallory's abusive father (Rodney Dangerfield) and submissive mother. Now running wild and killing for fun, their victims include a woman they held hostage to watch them have sex, a gas station attendant seduced by Mallory, and patrons at an isolated roadhouse. As the murder count clicks up to 52, television show host Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.) leads the media in glamorizing the couple and they garner a cult following while on the run.

The pair get lost in the desert and are rescued by a mystical Navajo Indian (Russell Means) who recognizes a demon within Mickey. For the first time the murderers feel some remorse, and detective Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore), himself prone to extreme violence, catches up with them. Held in a maximum security prison where slimy Warden Dwight McClusky (Tommy Lee Jones) is in charge, Mickey and Mallory are targeted in a duplicitous plan to further the careers of McClusky, Scagnetti and Gale.

Co-written by Stone from an original story by Quentin Tarantino, Natural Born Killers is constructed in a brash and vibrant style, filmed with animated quick edits, lighting stunts, crazy camera angles and black and white shots, often juxtaposed within seconds. Stone's intent is to diffuse the violence with an outlandishly cartoonish ethic, and this part of the film works. Mickey and Mallory inflict a lot of damage, but it's presented at the edge of tongue-in-cheek, Stone daring his audience to be shocked when kids are allowed to watch the carnage of Tom and Jerry as harmless entertainment. The soundtrack uses mini-clips from a large selection of bellicose rock tracks to fuel the murderous onslaught.

The intended focus is therefore not the violence but the public reaction to it, and Natural Born Killers races to show the public falling in love with the romanticism of two wild killers on the loose, and the media machine milking the criminals for all the ratings that they are worth. But Stone can't escape being part of the culture that he is criticizing, since Natural Born Killers presents Mickey and Mallory as the only central characters worth caring about.

Their horrific backgrounds and upbringing are sympathetically presented to justify their antisocial behaviour, and all the secondary characters other than Navajo man are much less appealing. With attractive, vivacious performances from Harrelson and Lewis, the criminals are presented in the best possible light, amplifying all the reasons for cultural obsession with outcasts who leave a mark. Jones, Downey Jr. and Sizemore do their jobs in portraying establishment and media characters as two-faced and corrupt, making it easy to cheer-on Mickey and Mallory as they rage against the machine.

Natural Born Killers ultimately has nowhere to go, and so Stone catapults the climax into outright hysteria. Detective Scagnetti clumsily attempts to seduce Mallory, reporter Wayne Gale loses his grip on reality and gets possessed by the very same violence he pretends to be outraged about, inmates turn into blood-thirsty maniacs, and an entire prison is drenched in blood. The mayhem drowns out any opportunity to make a point, and the killers remain icons of a society that meekly settles for the easiest of grotesque entertainment fixes.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Movie Review: Taxi Driver (1976)

A descent-into-hell psychological drama, Taxi Driver slowly drives along the path towards emotional carnage. It's a hypnotic journey, where one veteran's disgust with modern society methodically spirals downwards into an uncontrollable need to violently lash out.

Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is a former Marine now living alone in New York City. Unable to sleep, he takes a job driving a taxi on the night shift. Unlike other drivers, Bickle accepts fares to the most dangerous corners of a decaying, crime-infested New York. Already disgusted with the scum that crawls on the sidewalks, his nightly exposure to the pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers and gangs intensifies his sense of social isolation. His only acquaintances are other taxi drivers, including the larger-than-life "Wizard" (Peter Boyle).

As he drives around the city, Bickle spots Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a beautiful political aide working on the presidential campaign of Senator Palantine, and fending off the unsophisticated advances of fellow worker Tom (Albert Brooks). Bickle's attempts to get to know Betsy are promising at first, but the relationship collapses on a movie date when he takes her to the wrong type of theatre. Bickle also builds an unlikely interest in Iris (Jodie Foster), a very young prostitute who goes by the street name "Easy" and is fully controlled by her pimp "Sport" (Harvey Keitel). Bickle buys several illegal guns and spends time on target practice. His emotional isolation turns to quiet rage, and his painfully twisted brain conjures up plenty of possible targets.

Today it is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but screenwriter Paul Schrader wrote Taxi Driver before the label existed, and there has rarely been a more powerful screen examination of a mind spinning away, ever so slightly and imperceptibly to others, from its normal orbit towards the darkest of dead-ends.

Travis Bickle never stops functioning in society, does not reveal himself as blatantly mad or potentially violent towards others, keeps on working and almost normally interacting with others. Meanwhile he gathers a lethal arsenal and convinces himself that people need to die, to serve some purpose that only his damaged brain can fathom. It's his relative social normalcy prior to his emotional disintegration that is the disturbing core of his story.

Director Martin Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman bathe New York with the sickly light of all-pervasive neon cutting through the night, with Bickle's yellow taxi adding to the garish surroundings and propagating the artificial glow. The daytime scenes, primarily portraying Betsy's world, are mostly filmed in bright sunlight, the New York of normal people oblivious to the infestations that take hold at night. Bickle's small and lonely apartment is a depressing place, the ramshackle furniture and claustrophobic walls doing nothing to improve his mood.

Ironically for a role in which he portrays a driver, Robert De Niro delivers the performance of a passive passenger unable to change the destructive course that his brain is on. Never outwardly animated, most of what Bickle is suffering occurs behind De Niro's eyes, with the building lunacy only beginning to ooze out when he is alone, most notably in the quietly disconcerting "You talkin' to me?" sequence in front of his mirror.

The other inhabitants of Bickle's world are quite distant, with Betsy and Iris existing in opposite corners of his universe. Betsy is completely out of Travis' league, the only surprise being how long it takes her to realize that the thrill of hanging out with a mildly charming taxi driver has an extremely limited shelf life. Shepherd gives Betsy a bored urban career girl vibe, a wickedly attractive woman who can have any man she likes and is therefore impulsively attracted to the unknown represented by an infatuated loner.

Iris has no idea that she is already at the bottom of life's barrel, Foster filled with wide-eyed innocence, and the film reaches a mortifying highlight when she slowly dances with Keitel's pimp, fully believing that he is her protector and that their relationship represents love.

Bernard Herrman's melancholy jazz score seeps loneliness from every pore, providing a mesmerizing, even encouraging, companion in the exploration of gloomy physical and emotional places best left alone. It was Herrman's final movie soundtrack, and Scorsese dedicated the film to the composer.

Taxi Driver responds to the call, picks up on time, and triumphantly drives to a cinematically resplendent destination.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Book Review: A Thousand Farewells, by Nahlah Ayed (2012)

Part personal family memoir and part recent street-level history, in A Thousand Farewell journalist Nahlah Ayed recounts her strange childhood and subsequent experiences reporting from various Middle East hotspots, culminating in her witnessing the turmoil of the Arab Spring.

Ayed was born in Winnipeg, to Palestinian parents who had immigrated to Canada via Jordan and Germany. The first part of the book goes into some unnecessary details about Ayed's ancestors, of interest only to direct family members. But then there is an unexpected detour. When Ayed was a young girl of six her parents took the strange decision to abandon a relatively comfortable life in Canada, uproot the family and relocate to a derelict Palestinian refugee camp in a suburb of Amman.

It reads like a misguided, and ultimately failed, attempt to immerse Nahlah and her siblings in a defeatist and regressive culture that they had little time for. Nevertheless, it opened young Nahlah's eyes to the pervasive pessimism and misery in the Arab world, and if she never did quite embrace the region and its people, she at least gained valuable insights into the mood and motivations of the Arab populace.

This would be put to good use starting around 2002, when Ayed, now a burgeoning journalist, more or less settled in the region as a result of a series of small decisions rather than a stated intent to spend ten years away from home. The second half of the book consists of Ayed's experiences as a somewhat reluctant on-the-ground reporter witnessing events shaping a new Middle East.

Working mostly for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, she covered the American invasion of Iraq and subsequent sectarian war, narrowly escaping from a rampaging mob enraged by a massive car bomb. She then covered the turmoil of Lebanon at the time of the assassination of former Prime Minister Hariri (Ayed's apartment was within a few hundred metres of the explosion site) and the subsequent Cedar Revolution. Finally, a much more seasoned Ayed covered the full-fledged popular revolutions that engulfed Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, including experiencing the magical bedlam of Cairo's Tahrir Square in full revolution mode.

While Ayed's prose is easy, honest and straightforward, her analysis of causes, consequences, and long-term implications is strictly rudimentary and limited to material already well chewed-over in the general media. There is little in A Thousand Farewells that would surprise even a casual observer of recent events in the region.

A tolerable book, A Thousand Farewells does not break any new ground but provides an early and sure-to-be-superseded chronicle of the latest convulsions in a turbulent region.

Subtitled: A Reporter's Journey from Refugee Camp to the Arab Spring.
339 pages, plus Index.
Published in hardcover by Viking.

All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Movie Review: Olympus Has Fallen (2013)

An unapologetic, all-out action movie, Olympus Has Fallen updates the Die Hard premise for the modern, nothing-is-impossible age of terrorism, and succeeds in delivering a slick thrill ride.

Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is a Secret Service agent in charge of protecting United States President Ben Asher (Aaron Eckhart) and his family. Banning and Asher share a long-standing friendship and mutual respect, and the President's son Connor idolizes the Secret Service man. But when an unexpected snow storm near Camp David triggers a severe road accident that devastates the presidential motorcade, Banning saves the life of the President but is unable to rescue the First Lady (Ashley Judd). Emotionally crushed, he is reassigned away from the White House and to a menial position at the Treasury Department.

Eighteen months later, and during a visit of the South Korean Prime Minister, hordes of North Korean terrorists storm the White House in an audacious attack, overcoming all the building's defences in a rudimentary but effective aerial and ground assault. From the nearby Treasury building Banning witnesses the attack unfolding and manages to fight his way into the building. The terrorists seize Asher and members of his cabinet as hostages in the White House bunker. The ruthless terrorist leader Kang (Rick Yune) methodically starts to kill his hostages and makes far-reaching demands on Interim President and Speaker of the House Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman), while extracting crucial nuclear warhead codes from the captive cabinet members. Totally isolated but intimately familiar with the White House layout, Banning begins a stealthy one-man counter-attack that may prove to be the only hope for rescuing the President and avoiding a major global war.

Olympus Has Fallen is loud, ultra-violent, hyper-kinetic, and filled with colourful expletives. Director Antoine Fuqua (most famous for 2001's Training Day) sets the pace early with the motorcade accident set piece, and never lifts his foot off the accelerator. The prolonged attack sequence, with the terrorists unleashing one surprise after another to systemically overpower the defences of the White House, is breathlessly exciting. And it is only far-fetched in a world where it would be absolutely impossible for terrorists to, say, knock-down two World Trade Centre buildings and destroy a large part of the Pentagon on the same morning.

Even once the movie settles into the familiar Die Hard rhythm, with the isolated Banning gathering the pieces and finding ways to gain the psychological edge on the terrorists, Olympus Has Fallen maintains its manic intensity. There are never more than a fistful of minutes between each neck-cracking encounter or bullet-rich battle, as the rugged Butler proves a more than capable and charismatic echo of Bruce Willis, cracking one-liners when needed but mostly just using his wits to try and overcome an overwhelming numerical and logistical disadvantage.

Eckhart makes for a believable if standard President, while Melissa Leo gets to be not only the first female  Secretary of Defence, but also the first Secretary of Defence tortured by terrorists in the White House bunker. Rick Yune is perfectly calculating and quite despicable as Kang, a man who never quite got over the death of his mother and wants the whole world to pay in spectacular fashion.

With the White House half in ruins and fully in enemy hands, over at the Pentagon Angela Bassett as the head of the Secret Service and Robert Forster as an Army General join Freeman's reluctant Interim President to create a weighty table of panic. They are generally helpless as Kang turns the screws with outlandish but deadly serious demands to immediately withdraw US forces from South Korea. The strong supporting cast enhances Olympus Has Fallen with continued interest in every corner, and provides Butler with capable relief, allowing Fuqua to train his cameras in other directions with confidence.

Olympus Has Fallen defines its clear and honest objective to provide an overdose of spectacular action, and delivers with a comprehensive bang.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

The Movies Of Martin Balsam

All Martin Balsam movies reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

On The Waterfront (1954, uncredited)

12 Angry Men (1957)

Psycho (1960)

Breakfast At Tiffany's (1961)

Cape Fear (1962)

Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)

The Anderson Tapes (1971)

The Stone Killer (1973)

The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

Murder On The Orient Express (1974)

All The President's Men (1976)

St. Elmo's Fire (1985)

The Delta Force (1986)

Cape Fear (1991)

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.
The Index of Movie Stars is here.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

CD Review: Thrash Metal, by Blood Tsunami (2007)

Norway's Blood Tsunami burst onto the new thrash scene with a ridiculously good debut. The simply titled Thrash Metal is packed with barely contained energy, the band unleashing a combustible mixture of thrash ethos laced with melodic death metal elements.

Consisting of a compact eight tracks, Thrash Metal never lets up. The tempo oscillates between fast and faster, the strumming at controlled manic pace, the delivery astonishingly precise. And when Blood Tsunami introduce their staccato riffs, the tone is gloriously devastating.

The solos may lack the stunning level of proficiency of thrash's glory days, and this is where Blood Tsunami focus more on melodic death metal's all-rounded package approach rather than traditional thrash's aim-for-the-stars moments. None of the tracks on Thrash Metal sound like ordinary fluff surrounding a magnificent solo; every song exists in its entirety for its own complete and satisfying purpose.

Pete Evil's growl-on-gravel vocals are mixed to the background, allowing the driving melodies and guitars to dominate. And it's the domineering guitars of Evil and Dor Amazon that define Thrash Metal, the album a 42 minute celebration of guitars-at-speed generating cool mayhem.

The front end of the album contains the slightly stronger material. Opener Evil Unleashed detonates in under three minutes, the band signing their calling card with exuberant whiplash. Let Blood Rain delivers the most hypnotic tones on the album while mixing Iron Maiden's gallop with At The Gates' sinister riffs. At over six minutes Rampage Of Revenge takes its time to eliminate all witnesses with an aural assault straight out of a medieval battlefield, while Infernal Final Carnage rides a simple riff into an imposing iron mountain.

Despite the limited number of tracks, a slight tinge of monotony creeps in towards the back of a continuous album listen, with the instrumental Godbeater rather over-long at 10 minutes, although the quality of each individual song is always excellent.

Blood Tsunami waste no time in commanding attention, and Thrash Metal waves the flag high for the revival of one of metal's most enduring sub-genres.


Pete Evil - Guitars and Vocals
Dor Amazon - Guitars
Bosse - Bass
Faust - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Evil Unleashed - 10
2. Let Blood Rain - 9
3. Rampage Of Revenge - 9
4. Infernal Final Carnage - 9
5. Devoured By Flames - 8
6. Torn Apart - 8
7. Godbeater - 8
8. Killing Spree - 8

Average: 8.63

Recorded and mixed by Oyvind Voldmo Larsen.
Mastered by Espen Berg.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Movie Review: The Anderson Tapes (1971)

More weird than good, The Anderson Tapes mixes under-cooked caper with poorly defined conspiracy and yet the result is oddly pleasing.

Safe cracker John "Duke" Anderson (Sean Connery) is released from prison and immediately makes his way to New York City and into the arms of Ingrid (Dyan Cannon), his former mistress. She now lives in a swanky apartment building, and the gears in Duke's head start to turn: all the units in the relatively quiet building look rich and relatively easy to break into. Oblivious to the watchful lenses of a multitude of surveillance cameras belonging to various government and private agencies scattered throughout the city, Anderson starts assembling a team.

The Kid (Christopher Walken) is an electronics expert who was in prison with Duke; Tommy Haskins (Martin Balsam) is an antique dealer who can help identify and then sell the valuable items in each apartment; and Jimmy (Paul Benjamin) is the driver. Finally, the tottering "Pop" (Stan Gottlieb) will impersonate the doorman to keep watch in the lobby. The plan will be financed by mobster Pat Angelo (Alan King), but he insists on an unexpected twist that causes disarray: tough guy "Socks" Parelli (Val Avery) has to be part of the team.

The Anderson Tapes was among the earliest films to introduce an undercurrent of unease due to all-pervasive surveillance running amok in modern society, and as Anderson and his crew plan the robbery, their every move is surreptitiously tracked by various unnamed government agencies using audio and film recordings. None of the g-men appear to be talking to each other and the Frank Pierson script works hard to make the point that all the technological snooping amounts to naught: none of the dots are connected, the robbery plan isn't disrupted, and the in-progress police response is triggered by a paraplegic boy using a ham radio connected through Hawaii. Capturing volumes of information and putting it to good use are two different things, a lesson that has only increased in value over the decades.

While the surveillance angle would become ever more interesting in 1973 with the uncovering of the secret White House tapes as part of the Watergate scandal, in the context of the film, all the conspiratorial recordings start nowhere and lead to the same place. That may be the plan, but it leaves The Anderson Tapes with a rather shallow premise: ex-con plans new job, executes badly.

The central robbery as conceived by Duke Anderson is such a sure-fire disaster that some moments start to unintentionally descend to Pink Panther farcical territory. The robbery unfolds at a pace slow enough to make the tortoise look good, and the bungling burglars wear masks yet call each other by name in front of witnesses while shuttling up and down the building bundled into a slow moving elevator. With half of the New York police force assembled in the street waiting for Anderson and his crew to conclude their plodding work, the robbery becomes a predictably calamitous train-wreck unfolding in slow motion.

With Quincy Jones providing a jazzy music score, Director Sidney Lumet makes good use of the acting talent at his disposal. Sean Connery puts in a good shift trying to distance himself from the Bond persona, and notably makes no attempt to hide the thinning hair. Anderson is a jailed criminal when the movie opens and works hard to confirm himself as a failed criminal throughout, his unsophisticated methods as far as imaginable from Bond's suave assuredness.

In support, Dyan Cannon provides Anderson with a professionally opportunistic bed partner, Christopher Walken makes his studio film debut as the mop-haired electronics expert (and, in a further example of a bad plan going awry, somehow becomes a safe-cracker during the course of the robbery), and Martin Balsam plays the gay antique trader with a barely concealed smile. But the real over-the-top performances come from Val Avery as the always-about-to-boil-over henchman Socks and Ralph Meeker arriving late as puff-chested police Captain Delaney.

By the time Meeker starts issuing bizarre orders to his men and Avery starts punching victims up and down the building in a perfect example of how to cause an unnecessary ruckus at the worst of times, The Anderson Tapes has made its point: criminals will find ways to eventually shoot themselves squarely in the foot, regardless of how many cameras and microphones are recording their every dense move.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Movie Review: Fistful Of Lead (1970)

Also known as I Am Sartana, Trade Your Guns For A Coffin (and various variations thereof), Fistful Of Lead is a semi-official entry in the Sartana Spaghetti Western franchise. Under any name, the movie is well below average in all respects.

Bounty hunter Sartana (George Hilton) stumbles upon a robbery of a transport wagon presumably carrying gold. But once the bandits are done killing all the guards, they attempt to blow up the wagon without looting the cargo. Sartana stops the explosion and discovers that the wagon was carrying nothing but sand. He decides to investigate an apparent con whereby hard working miners are being cheated out of their income with staged robberies.

Sartana follow the trail to businessman Samuel Spencer (Piero Lulli) and his main assistant Baxter (Carlo Gaddi). Spencer is stealing the gold for himself and arranging fake robberies with the bandit Mantas (Nello Pazzafini) to cover his tracks. Local madame Trixie (Erika Blanc) wants in on some action, while a mysterious and flamboyant gunman named Sabbath (Charles Southwood) shows up to either protect or steal the gold, depending on the opportunity.

Nothing about Fistful Of Lead really works. George Hilton as Sartana lacks charisma and carries little menace. His ability to gun down opponents in sets of threes even when they get the draw on him is over-used to distraction and becomes tedious in the extreme, both for the blatant dumbness of the bad guys and Sartana's seemingly extraordinary ability to invisibly reach across time and space when it suits him. The loaves of bread and boiled eggs are quirky traits of limited effectiveness.

Spencer and Baxter as the evil plotters are lightweight villains, while the entire scheme of repeatedly stealing gold from under the noses of miners and faking violent hold-ups to avoid paying them would only ever succeed in the script of a dreadfully lacking western. And it's never quite clear what Erika Blanc's character is exactly doing in the movie other than providing perfunctory eye candy.

While Sabbath's appearance a good 50 minutes into the film, complete with parasol, marginally livens proceeding, director Giuliano Carnimeo and writer Tito Carpi do not help themselves by steering Fistful Of Lead to an exceedingly complicated final chapter filled with convoluted antics and double-crosses. There simply isn't enough substance on show to justify attentiveness to all the over-elaborate conniving.

With a Francesco De Masi music score that only rarely rises above the routine, Fistful Of Lead is mildly irritating and wholly unnecessary.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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