Saturday, 31 August 2013

Movie Review: My Left Foot (1989)

My Left Foot boasts a bravado acting performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, but the biopic of Irish artist Christy Brown is an otherwise laboriously episodic exercise, hampered by often incomprehensible dialogue.

Born to a poor family in Dublin in the early 1930s, Christy Brown (Day-Lewis) suffered from severe cerebral palsy that left him with almost no communication or motor skills. His father Paddy (Ray McAnally) deems him an imbecile, but his mother Bridget (Brenda Fricker) believes that there is a human being trying to function within the tangle of uncontrollable body parts. Christy eventually trains himself to write and express himself with his left foot, the only limb that he can manipulate with some success. Also using only his left foot, he starts to paint.

Always struggling against poverty and discrimination due to his physical condition, Christy finally gets help from therapist Dr. Eileen Cole (Fiona Shaw). She improves the clarity of his speech, spots his painting talent, and helps to introduce him to the art world, where a gallery showcases his work. But there are more troubles to come, as Christy's search for love collides with a combative, often explosive, personality.

Daniel Day-Lewis earned his first Best Actor Academy Award for an intense, physically demanding role. Contorted into impossible postures, squeezed into tight angles, forced to crawl just to move and then thrown into makeshift wheelbarrows because the family is too poor to afford a wheelchair, Day-Lewis delivers a staggering performance, exhausting just to watch.

And for all of the movie he talks like a man afflicted with cerebral palsy, but here My Left Foot starts to run into some trouble. Christy Brown's dialogue is less than fifty percent comprehensible, the combination of speech impediment and Irish accent creating an often impenetrable barrier. Authentic, perhaps, but a difficult and less than engaging movie experience.

My Left Foot also struggles to create any narrative tension or story arc. Once the premise and background contexts are set, the film settles into sequential "episodes from the life", director Jim Sheridan unable to conjure up more than routine biographical instalments. Boredom creeps in, despite the efficient 100 minute running length. There is an attempt to book-end the movie with a now-successful Brown wooing Mary Carr, a nurse tending to his needs at a social function. While this unconventional romance relieves the dreariness of the earlier-life poverty and anguish stories, it does not add momentum.

The supporting performances are sound, Brenda Fricker perhaps surprisingly winning the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her staid turn as Brown's always hopeful mother, while Ray McAnally saturates the screen with old-fashioned Irish paternalism as the naturally gruff but tender-deep-inside father.

With the help of a terrific central performance, My Left Foot does chart the unblinking course of a remarkable man overcoming immense physical challenges. However, the quest for realism also steers the movie towards the dryness of biographical documentaries.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Movie Review: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Sunset Boulevard explores the human wreckage of the Hollywood dream, and uncovers grand tragedy where yesterday's fantasies crumble into today's harsh reality.

Struggling B-movie script writer Joe Gillis (William Holden) is up to his eyeballs in debt, still hoping for a big break in Hollywood but reduced to fending off repossession agents after his car. On the run, he ducks into the mansion of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a faded star of the silent screen, living on past glory with her butler Max (Erich von Stroheim).

Joe: You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.
Norma: I am big. It's the pictures that got small.

Norma still dreams of a big comeback, and commissions Joe to create a script that will turn her into a star once again. She also moves his life into her mansion, showering him with expensive gifts and suffocating him with her growing infatuation. Meanwhile, studio script girl Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) finds a sparkle of a good idea in one of Joe's discarded scripts, and encourages him to develop it. As Joe starts to sneak out on Norma and spend more time with Betty, Norma's delusions boil over.

Norma: There once was a time in this business when I had the eyes of the whole world! But that wasn't good enough for them, oh no! They had to have the ears of the whole world too. So they opened their big mouths and out came talk. Talk! TALK!

A sordid tale of lost souls seeking elusive greatness, Sunset Boulevard shines in its bleakness. At Norma Desmond's dark mansion, success lives in the past, in her warped mind, and in the greedy eyes of a desperate Joe Gillis, eager to grasp any opportunity to finally make money in Hollywood. Fuelled by non-existent fan adoration fanned by Max's conniving, Norma lives in her own mirage of a world, where glory still awaits, great directors want to work with her, and her star will shine again. And as long as the money is good and the wardrobe is snazzy, Joe could care less. Norma's dream world is his real ticket into the Hollywood bright lights.

Director Billy Wilder, who also co-wrote the script, creates an intriguing alternate reality in Norma's cluttered mansion, the house as much a star of the film as Holden and Swanson.  The mansion surrounds Norma with hundreds of pictures of herself; the living room screen projects Norma's own movies from the silent era; and Norma puts on private acting shows to entertain Joe and prove her enduring talent. In Norma's mansion, Norma still dominates the movie world, and under the watchful eyes of the ever-loyal Max, nothing in her reality suggests that she has long since been left on the scrap heap of silent movie history.

The wholesome, optimistic Betty represents the functioning, contemporary Hollywood, and she tugs at Joe to come back to the real world. He tries to have it both ways, benefiting from Norma's largesse while working on an actual script and starting a relationship with Betty. But Norma exists in Norma's world only and therefore so must Joe. His duplicity cannot last, nor can it go unpunished.

Gloria Swanson, a real star of the silent era, delivers a perfectly larger than life performance full of wide eyes, theatrical delivery and exaggerated gestures, filling the screen with the extravagant presence that dominates Norma's mind. Swanson's exceptionally domineering performance makes it possible to understand Norma's striking self-obsession. William Holden brings a dose of scrappy down-to-earthiness, Joe Gillis representing the Hollywood never-will-be opposite Norma's has-been.

Wilder peppers the movie with other insiders. Silent era actor and director von Stroheim earned an academy award nomination as he provides Max with an authoritative aura as the butler who is so much more. Cecil B. DeMille appears as himself, the coveted director Norma wants to work with again.

Sunset Boulevard is where dreams go to die. Joe Gillis arrived there almost sure that his dream was already dead. Norma Desmond's dreams are also over, but she will never know it. No matter. Before the end of her dream, she will demand, and get, one final starring role.

Norma: You see, this is my life! It always will be! Nothing else! Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark!... All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Book Review: Decisive, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (2013)

A practical guide to thinking through decisions, Decisive is filled with readily implementable and real-world techniques.

Brothers Chip and Dan Heath dissect the crucial elements that stand in the way of good decisions, and offer up easy-to-follow solutions. The tactics are offered under a simple four-step framework: Widen Your Options; Reality-Test Your Assumptions; Attain Distance Before Deciding; and Prepare To Be Wrong (conveniently, these are abbreviated as WRAP).

Under each heading, the book is filled with little tricks that can be deployed to work through difficult decisions. Some are more mundane and obvious: seek the wisdom of someone who solved the problem; or pilot-test the solution at a small scale (presented in the book under the unnecessarily cutesy title of ooching).

Others are more intuitive and perhaps less often clearly verbalized: set tripwires in time or resources to limit exposure to loss from solutions worth trying but with uncertain outcomes. And in the chapters on Prepare To Be Wrong, the book excels: the ideas around premortems and preparades are terrific reminders to identify the wide range of future risks that may be associated with today's decisions, as well as the equally dangerous consequences of unexpectedly large successes.

Part of the book's appeal lies in the buffet-style applicability of the advice. The various suggestions can be applied discretely depending on the specific issue at hand, and different decisions can benefit from different individual parts of the WRAP system.

The book is witty, succinct, filled with relevant but non-redundant examples, and punctuated with humour. Each chapter ends with a compact but thorough one-page summary, capturing the key learnings, with reminders of the examples used in the text. While the content of Decisive is not necessarily ground breaking, collectively this is a book of effective and workable tactics, applicable to both personal and professional forks in the road.

Subtitled: How To Make Better Choices In Life And Work.
253 pages, plus additional short example chapters titled Clinics and Overcoming Obstacles, plus Endnotes and Index.
Published in hardcover by Random House Canada.

All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Movie Review: Batman Returns (1992)

A sequel that improves upon its predecessor, Batman Returns sets the Batmobile on a proper path, matched against the twin evils of corporate greed and individual dementia.

Born hideously deformed, a baby boy is thrown alive into Gotham City's sewer system. 33 years later, that baby has grown into The Penguin (Danny DeVito), an embittered, ugly and stubby man who has collected an army of mutants. His minions unleash a campaign of terror on Gotham, keeping Batman (Michael Keaton) busy trying to maintain peace and order. The Penguin claims to want nothing more than to search for the identity of his parents. Bruce Wayne (Keaton) is suspicious, and believes that The Penguin wants access to the city archives for other reasons. Meanwhile, wealthy businessman Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) tries to gain Wayne's support for a new power plant, but Wayne realizes that Shreck is up to no good. The real plot is for the new plant to secretly suck power out of Gotham's grid, giving Shreck control over the City.

When lonely secretary Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) stumbles upon the conspiracy, Shreck attempts to kill her but she is revived by a large group of alley cats and transformed into Catwoman, an agile warrior seeking revenge. Batman starts to encounter Catwoman dishing out her version of street justice, while Wayne finds himself strangely attracted to Selina. With The Penguin, now identified as Oswald Cobblepot, seeking to destroy the city that dumped him into the sewer, and Shreck plotting to overthrow the Mayor standing in the way of his power plant, the businessman and the mutant join forces, and Batman has to save Gotham from another major disaster.

In his second and final outing in charge of a Batman movie, director Tim Burton makes some amends to improve on the relatively disappointing original. Batman Returns is a darker, more intense, more adult and more engaging film. The Penguin is a villain both frenzied and pathetic, a combination that Danny DeVito exploits with a tender nuance missing from Jack Nicholson's overbearing Joker. Michael Keaton appears more comfortable as Bruce Wayne and more fluid as Batman, doubtless helped by a lighter suit. And in this sequel, the Daniel Waters scripting is tight, the evil plots and motivations intact, and the film's visual style complements a sturdy plot, rather than overwhelming it.

Christopher Walken lends an aristocratic presence of nefariousness, creating in Max Shreck a suave businessman killer perfectly capable of partnering with someone as hideous as The Penguin to achieve his repugnant objectives. And Batman Returns rounds out its rich set of characters with Michelle Pfeiffer's deliciously over the top performance as Catwoman, a catalyst for a torrent of sexually charged and often not so opaque dialogue exchanges. Pfeiffer seems to be having almost too much fun wedged into Catwoman's suit of dangerous shiny latex, purring and prancing her way around Gotham City and into film legend.

Burton does not get everything right. Some of the elements intended to be freakish come across as childish, and the search for a large audience and boffo box office means that the violence is toned down to tepid levels. The Penguin's army of terrorists seem to be more carnival clowns than scary sociopaths, and indeed Max Shreck's insidious charm appears more dangerous than anything concocted by Oswald. And as good as Keaton is, Batman Returns studiously avoids revealing any new insight about the man inside the batsuit, the film devoid of texture-enhancing or emotionally engaging scenes.

But Batman Returns does provide the requisite entertainment, a visually rich experience filled with flair and flamboyance, a vulnerable hero thrown into a battle against demented villains in a city drowning in dark misfortune. Overall, a perfect setting for a black cat.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

CD Review: Amok, by Sentenced (1995)

The third studio album from Finland's Sentenced captures a band hitting its stride. Amok is filled with melodic death metal played in an optimistic tone, the pace upbeat and the compositions moving towards a mature complexity.

Amok is a proper group effort, Sentenced avoiding moments of individual showmanship in favour of all the band members rowing in the same direction. The gravelly vocals of Taneli Jarva complement the steady guitar work of Sami Lopakka and Miika Tenkula, producing weighty, melody-powered metal.

When Sentenced find the perfect groove, the results are brilliant. The stellar track on Amok is Nepenthe, a confident display of grand instrument arrangements featuring acoustic and electric guitars, an inescapable but restrained hook and imaginative backing vocals. Funeral Spring delivers a devastating riff with the density of osmium, just slightly let down by limited development of the man theme.

There are a few weak spots on the album, including some flat backing vocals on Forever Lost, mixed, probably intentionally, way to the back, while Dance On The Graves (lil' siztah) may have had good intentions but sounds a lot like a throwaway track.

But the good overcomes the poor, and the album features strong bookends, opening with the middle-of-the-battlefield The War Ain't Over!, a high tempo sonic assault built on tight delivery, and ending with the relaxed instrumental The Golden Stream Of Lapland, where some harmonious guitar solo work finally comes to the fore. Far from running Amok, the album is a controlled display of good metal from early adapters of the melodic death genre.


Taneli Jarva - Vocals and Bass
Miika Tenkula - Guitar
Sami Lopakka - Guitar
Vesa Ranta - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. The War Ain't Over! - 8
2. Phenix - 7
3. New Age Messiah - 7
4. Forever Lost - 7
5. Funeral Spring - 9
6. Nepenthe - 10
7. Dance On The Graves (lil' siztah) - 6
8. Moon Magick - 7
9. The Golden Stream Of Lapland - 8

Average: 7.67

Recorded and Mixed by Ahti Kortelainen.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Conan The Destroyer (1984)

Less violent and more campy than its predecessor, Conan The Destroyer is a light-hearted romp through the land of swords and sorcery. Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan leads a motley crew of characters on a quest for an ancient artifact that serves as an excuse for cheesy showdowns with assorted unconvincing evildoers.

Conan (Schwarzenegger) and his loyal friend Malak the Thief (Tracey Walter) are recruited by Queen Taramis (Sarah Douglas) for a special mission. She wants Conan to escort her niece Princess Jhenna (Olivia D'Abo) on a dangerous quest to retrieve a magical horn that will awaken the evil god Dagoth. In return, Taramis promises to bring back to life Valeria, Conan's deceased soul mate. Taramis appoints her captain of the guard, the mammoth Bombaata (Wilt Chamberlain), to keep an eye on the group, with instructions to kill Conan as soon as the horn is secured. Jhenna herself will be the sacrificial virgin once Dagoth is awakened.

Conan augments his team with the wizard Akiro (Mako) and the warrior Zula (Grace Jones). The group makes its way to the icy castle of the sorcerer Toth-Amon, who has to be defeated before Jhenna can retrieve a jewel key. With the innocent Princess beginning to fall for the charms of Conan, they move onto an ancient hidden temple where the horn is located. With the help of his friends, Conan has to overcome the brute strength of Bombaata and the treachery of Taramis, while saving Jhenna and preventing Dagoth from reawakening and plunging the world into darkness.

Eager to create an even bigger box-office success than the original, producer Dino De Laurentiis (through daughter Raffaella) aimed for a PG, rather than R, rating for the second movie instalment of the Conan legend. Director Richard Fleischer eliminated the sex, toned down the hacking of limbs, and injected plenty of magic and jokes, and a generally buoyant mood. Conan The Destroyer is Conan Lite, a movie almost aimed at children in its juvenile attitude and sense of wonderment.

Schwarzenegger is a bit more confident, more talkative, and as massively bulky as ever. For most of the movie, Fleischer did not bother to put any kind of shirt on his star, leaving the incomprehensible muscles to glisten in the Mexican sun. Schwarzenegger does not need to act as much as grimace on cue as he engages in one titanic battle after another, and his presence alone is what makes the movie tolerable.

With acting talent an option rather than a necessity amidst all the scenes of combat and magic, the secondary cast is made up of newcomers, teenagers and celebrities from other fields altogether. D'Abo was all of 15 when the film was made, and she grows into the role, evolving from mildly irritating to somewhat satisfactory. Basketball superstar Wilt Chamberlain made his only movie appearance in Conan The Destroyer, and his 7 foot 1 inch frame is an inspired physical presence to put up against Schwarzenegger. Singer Grace Jones had a more meaningful go at an acting career, and here she is perfect as a sour-faced thief and warrior woman, proficient with a spear that Conan calls a toothpick.

Tracey Walter as the scrappy sidekick and thief Malak gets all the humorous one-liners, some of which work, while Sarah Douglas comes off worst as Queen Taramis, as she appears on the verge of breaking out into hysterical laughter in all her scenes.

The action scenes are better when they feature old fashioned sword to sword combat, and begin to suffer when monsters, magic, and special effects are required, with some scenes barely rising above man-in-a-costume schtick.

Schwarzenegger would quickly realize that his ambitions exceeded what De Laurentiis could offer, and there would never be a third Conan movie with Arnold. Incredibly, The Destroyer, for all his might, would prove to be just a lowly stepping stone for a global superstar in the making.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Movie Review: Cliffhanger (1993)

Over the top stunts and excessive violence in a mountain setting, Cliffhanger delivers what can be expected from a Sylvester Stallone action thriller. Most of the movie is derivative, but it is packaged in slick enough wrapping.

Gabe Walker (Stallone) is an expert mountain ranger, haunted by his inability to save Sarah (Michelle Joyner), a stranded and inexperienced climber, from plunging to her death. Gabe walks away from his mountain climbing career, leaving behind his girlfriend and rescue helicopter pilot Jessie (Janine Turner), fellow ranger and the late Sarah's boyfriend Hal Tucker (Michael Rooker), and veteran rescue team member Frank (Ralph Waite).

Eight months later, crooked US Treasury Agent Richard Travers (Rex Linn) attempts a dramatic mid-air robbery of $100 million in untraceable bank notes, with the help of master criminal Eric Qualen (John Lithgow) and his gang of thugs. The botched caper results in a crash landing, briefcases full of cash lost in the Rockies, and a pack of heavily armed criminals stranded in the mountains. Not knowing who they are dealing with, Jessie presses Gabe back into service to help Hal reach the survivors, but the rescuers become prisoners as Travers and Qualen force Gabe and Hal at gunpoint to help find the missing briefcases.

Cliffhanger does look magnificent. Filmed mostly in the Italian Alps, cinematographer Alex Thomson finds the grandeur in the imposing mountains, and plenty of sheer cliffs, ledges, and impressive rock formations to stage the action against. The opening scene, featuring Gabe's desperate attempt to rescue Sarah followed by her harrowing demise, is a stunner. It's a shock to see Stallone's heroic persona fail in spectacular fashion, and that initial jolt creates an unmistakeable halo deep into the movie. And while director Renny Harlin demonstrates little interest in character development, he does deliver the pacing to match the intensity of the action. From that opening scene onwards, Cliffhanger is strapped into a high speed thrill ride, with no break to catch a breath or lose momentum.

But rather unfortunately, Cliffhanger does settles into a predictable series of incredible mountaineering stunts, interrupted by scenes of extreme violence. Stallone and his stunt doubles contort themselves to climb, jump, slide, and rappel across the mountains in highly improbable displays of astonishing muscularity and gravity-defying feats. Meanwhile, Qualen and his gang try to find ever more sadistic ways to beat, kick, torture, shoot and blow-up Gabe and Hal in their single-minded quest to find the mission millions. Cliffhanger offers great breathless action but not much else, as it settles for a celebration of old-fashioned masculinity.

There are obvious attempts to create a Die Hard In The Mountains vibe, but the screenplay by Michael France and Stallone falls short in finding the necessary sharpness. The villains are more boring than entertaining, Lithgow's Qualen veering into comic buffoon territory despite all the attempted evil hissing in an English accent. And Stallone's Gabe is lacking in charisma, delivering instead a dour mass of moping muscle. The supporting actors, particularly Janine Turner and Ralph Waite, never rise much beyond their television roots.

Cliffhanger is undemanding entertainment. The backpack is filled with high-altitude action, but when it comes to realism and thoughtfulness, the movie hangs by a thin thread.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 12 August 2013

The Movies Of Faye Dunaway

All movies starring Faye Dunaway and reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

Bonnie And Clyde (1967)

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

Chinatown (1974)

The Towering Inferno (1974)

Network (1976)

Eyes Of Laura Mars (1978)

Mommie Dearest (1981)

The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

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

The Movies Of Jennifer Jason Leigh

All Jennifer Jason Leigh movies reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982)

Backdraft (1991)

Single White Female (1992)

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

The Anniversary Party (2001)

In The Cut (2003)

The Spectacular Now (2013)

The Hateful Eight (2015)

Morgan (2016)

White Boy Rick (2018)

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

The Movies Of Harvey Keitel

All movies starring Harvey Keitel and reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

Reflections In A Golden Eye (1967, uncredited)

Mean Streets (1973)

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974)

Taxi Driver (1976)

Thelma And Louise (1991)

Bugsy (1991)

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Point Of No Return (1993)

Rising Sun (1993)

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Get Shorty (1995, cameo, as himself)

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

Cop Land (1997)

National Treasure (2004)

Inglourious Basterds (2009, voice only, uncredited)

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

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

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...