Friday, 29 November 2013

Movie Review: Dead Reckoning (1947)

A film noir constructed out of mostly recycled content, Dead Reckoning boasts Humphrey Bogart in his prime, but otherwise suffers from a stiff female lead and a plot that convolutes to distraction.

Buddies Captain "Rip" Murdock (Bogart) and Sergeant Johnny Drake (William Prince) finish their World War Two duty on a high, with both nominated for medals. But Johnny seems intent on shunning the limelight, and on the way to the Washington DC ceremonies, he abandons the train and disappears. Stunned, Rip follows his friend to his hometown of Gulf City, where he discovers that Drake's real name was Joseph Preston, and that just before the war he was accused of murdering a man called Chandler in a dispute over Chandler's wife Coral (Lizabeth Scott), a local beauty.

Preston's badly charred body soon turns up at the morgue, reportedly a victim of a car crash. At a nightclub owned by shady businessman Martinelli (Morris Carnovsky), Rip tracks down bartender Louis Ord (George Chandler), who was a witness to the Chandler murder, and also meets Coral. Sparks immediately fly between Rip and Coral, although she seems eager to lose a lot of money at Martinelli's illegal casino. Before Rip can properly talk to Louis, Martinelli and his henchman Krause (Marvin Miller) interfere, framing Rip for murder, and unleashing Lieutenant Kincaid (Charles Cane) onto his tail. Rip has to extricate himself from a murder rap and untangle the web between Coral and Martinelli to try and clear the name of his wartime friend.

There are a few too many borrowed elements from other Bogart movies residing within Dead Reckoning. The intentional loss at a casino is lifted straight from The Big Sleep (1946), and the determination of Bogart's character to make someone pay for the murder of his friend, no matter the personal cost, is swiped from The Maltese Falcon (1941), to the point of almost repeating the same dialogue. Lizabeth Scott herself bears a remarkable resemblance to Lauren Bacall, except that Scott lacks the silky fluidity, replacing it instead with sometimes awkward motions and bland, if husky, line delivery.

But within the overall context of a derivative script, director John Cromwell does a decent job of assembling a competent and brisk film noir. Dead Reckoning hits the ground running, and maintains a determined pace that helps to overcome the shortcomings in originality. The story is told mostly in flashback, with Rip already in trouble from the first frame, bruised and on the run from the cops. He ducks into a church and finds a military chaplain, who becomes a witness to the tale. From there the other characters are quickly introduced, a typical assortment of innocent victims, slick manipulators, snarly goons, flat-footed police officers, and at the centre an alluring femme fatale who may be much more than what she seems.

The film plugs into the energy of an engaged Bogart delivering a smooth performance. Rip Murdock is not a hard boiled private detective and lacks the indestructible snarkiness of a Sam Spade, and this vulnerability allows Bogart to play with character missteps as Rip believably falls hard for Coral's charms, and more than once gets outsmarted by Martinelli.

The plot does get confusing towards the end, too many twists introduced in a stack without enough time for proper digestion, as the story rushes to lay all the blame under one bed. Dead Reckoning plays with a tired deck, but with Bogart in charge of dealing, the film still delivers a decent hand.

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Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Movie Review: The Master (2012)

A rather tiresome study of two characters, The Master is just about saved by the terrific acting of Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, but nevertheless registers as a misfire for director Paul Thomas Anderson.

Freddie Quell (Phoenix) comes out of World War Two as a sex-obsessed alcoholic, brewing toxic drinks, unable to settle down, and drifting from one dead-end job to another. He stumbles into the orbit of Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), a self-proclaimed Master of "The Cause", a pseudo-religious cult based on psychological interviews, mostly feeding on the insecurities of the clueless.

Dodd's entourage includes his wife Peggy (Amy Adams), daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers), son-in-law Clark (Rami Malek), son Val (Jesse Plemons) and benefactor Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern). They try to spread their influence by mingling within social circles and selling Dodd's books. The Master cannot tolerate any dissent, nor can he rationally defend his work when challenged. He does develop a strong bond with Freddie, who proves to be a simpleton but also a staunch defender of The Cause, often physically intimidating any sceptics. But Freddie's inability to quit drinking causes continuous turmoil, with Peggy in particular disgusted by his loutish behaviour, and his standing within The Cause is thrown into question.

The Master suffers from a disjointed script cobbled together from ideas considered surplus for There Will Be Blood, tall stories recounted by actor Jason Robards, the life story of John Steinbeck, and inspiration from the squalors of Scientology. The result is a strangely muted narrative in which very little actually happens, and plenty of time passes with blank stares, pregnant pauses, and strikingly endless repetition of some scenes.

The film may be trying to explore themes of fake dogma and how some poor souls can be easily manipulated, but it's a laborious, painfully obvious and almost pointless exercise. Anderson struggles to generate any sort of momentum, the film slow to the point of standing still, and he is equally unable to create sympathy for either of his two main characters. While Lancaster is an effective salesman of garbage to the easily manipulated, neither he nor Quell are portrayed as anywhere near smart or worth caring about. The lack of likability becomes a heavy anchor tied to the ankle of the movie, and other than the obvious conclusion that they deserve each other, the destinies of oily charlatan Lancaster Dodd and brutish drunkard Freddie Quell are all too easy to file under the "who cares" category.

But The Master does enjoy two memorable acting performances. Phoenix bows his back, twists his face, and develops an awkward, slightly hesitant walk, Freddie a broken shell of a man looking for a reason to live just so that he can drink for another day. Hoffman gives Dodd the authority of a man quite capable of fooling some of the people all of the time, his sense of self-importance barely concealing an intellect that is making up the nonsense of The Cause almost in real time.

In comparison Amy Adams is quite wasted. She gets just the two strong scenes, one asserting her dominance over Lancaster by taking complete control of his manhood, and in the other dressing down Freddie by calling him out for who he is. Otherwise, she fades into the wallpaper. The other supporting actors have little to do except occupy slow moving space.

Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman do provide two masterful reasons to watch the 140 minute film through to its conclusion, but it's nevertheless a slog.

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Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Movie Review: Gangster Squad (2013)

A vivid and violent crime drama, Gangster Squad is gratifying on its own terms as a graphic romp, the strong cast enjoying the freedom to live larger than life, the action a never ending hail of bullets.

It's the late 1940's, and former boxer Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) is a crime boss ruling Los Angeles with an iron fist, paying off the law and scaring off competing cartels with vicious tactics. Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) finally decides to act, and empowers Sergeant John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) to create an off-the-books task force to dismantle Cohen's businesses with force. With help from his wife Connie (Mireille Enos), O'Mara selects veteran sharp-shooter Officer Kennard (Robert Patrick), electronics expert Officer Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), and knife-expert Officer Harris (Anthony Mackie) to join his squad. Officer Ramirez (Michael Pena) tags along as Kennard's side-kick, while O'Mara's colleague and pragmatist Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) is a rather reluctant addition to the team.

Wooters makes an advance on Cohen's girlfriend and etiquette coach Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), seducing her and gaining an ally within Cohen's inner circle. Keeler bugs Cohen's living room, giving O'Mara the ability to listen in on Cohen's operations. O'Mara then achieves varying degrees of success leading the squad in frontal assaults on Cohen's fake business fronts, disrupting the flow of money and shipments of drugs and weapons. When Cohen finally learns the identity of the squad members, he plans an ambush and a counter attack, triggering an all out war for control of Los Angeles.

Mickey Cohen: It's like they say, "All good things must one day be burnt to the ground for the insurance money."

With the freedom of only being loosely inspired by real events, Ruben Fleischer directs Gangster Squad with unabashed exuberance. The film is infused with an over the top comic book quality, a willingness to break through all limits, and an excitement to enjoy the expansive view afforded from loosening the shackles and climbing higher. The violence is extreme, the bravado is turbo-charged machismo, while the sardonic hurtling towards bloody showdowns is unstoppable.

Gangster Squad has no dull moments, as the action picks up from the first scene and never flags. With plenty of sharp dialogue, the film feeds on its own spiral of momentum, all the main characters getting ever more desperate, and therefore so much more brutal with each other. There is little room for nuance or reflection, but within the non-stop turmoil Fleischer does manage to provide O'Mara with a family and a war veteran's inability to adapt to a world without war. With beautiful sets and costumes, bathed in nostalgic golds and reds, the film recreates an era as it is best imagined.

Amidst all the beauty, there are a few blank bullets. The relationship between Jerry and Grace never rings true or catches fire, the two brought together and jumping into bed in a hurry seemingly to continue the better romance ignited by Gosling and Stone in Crazy, Stupid, Love. In Gangster Squad the attraction between them is forced, and settles into an excuse to insert Grace as the only woman playing in a world of violent men. It doesn't help that Gosling delivers one of his less engaged performances, and Stone aims for mysterious but seems plainly bored.

Grace: What's your racket, handsome?
Jerry: I'm a bible salesman.
Grace: Want to take me away from all this and make an honest woman out of me?
Wooters: No ma'am, I was just hoping to take you to bed.

Better is the tug of war for the soul of the city between O'Mara and Cohen. Both men are single-minded, ultra violent, and direct in their head-on quest to achieve their objectives. That they happen to work on opposite sides of the law becomes less important as O'Mara and his squad adopt Cohen's own tactics to target the criminal's businesses and men. The line between right and wrong blurs as O'Mara stops at nothing to shake the foundations of a corrupt empire, and in doing so risks corrupting himself.

Mitch (one of Cohen's men): Mr. Cohen, I swear to God...
Mickey Cohen: You're talkin' to God, Mitch, so you might as well swear to me.

Josh Brolin and Sean Penn take turns chewing the scenery, shouting, shooting and delivering large doses of pain. Brolin is the bull unleashed to tackle Penn's rotten syndicate, and the two deserve each other. Penn strips any humanity out of Cohen, giving him the sole purpose of amplifying his own power at any cost. The Will Beall screenplay misses an opportunity to provide Cohen with a bit of a meatier back story. Other than his history as an uncompromising boxer, there is no crusty context to his unconstrained lust for power and control. O'Mara is also coldly brutal, but does get a pregnant and supportive wife who fears for her man, and the emotional scars of combat experience in a world war.

O'Mara: You lose everything and you win the war - you're a hero. You lose everything and you lose the war - you're just a fool.

Gangster Squad may lack some qualitative weight, but makes up for it with a rainstorm of lead.

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Saturday, 23 November 2013

CD Review: Breathe Fire To The Sun, by Brymir (2011)

A stunning debut from Finland's Brymir, Breathe Fire To The Sun is epic symphonic death metal, filled with highly sophisticated metal forged in the darkest recesses of Scandinavian winters.

Brymir sound like a veteran band that has been together for years, their complex compositions suggesting a maturity far beyond what could be expected on a debut. With an average track length of about 6 minutes, deep symphonic elements courtesy of Janne Bjorkroth's keyboards are combined with the massive drums of Sami Hanninen to create grand mid-tempo melodies, the vocals mostly a deep, background-mixed controlled growl with the very rare clean passage.  The guitar solos may be missing, but Brymir don't go looking for them.

The production quality is excellent, the sound deep and crystal clear thanks to Lari Takala's expansive mix, which brings out the grandeur of the band's sound.

The moody, dreamy Intro drifts into the magnificent Unconquerable, a dazzling celebration of metal most heroic, the keyboards creating an imposing arch doom over the track. In Silence is even more ambitious, a sad melody carried by booming drums into glorious battle, flags shredded by the carnage.

Cycle Of Flame is a rousing theme of destruction, a simple melody upon which Brymir construct a burning, staccato-inspired battle anthem. But the album reaches its peak on Retribution, a most perfect nugget of metal most pure driven by that unfairly glorious combination of keyboards and drums before the guitars of Sean Haslam and Joona Bjorkroth take over the reigns to deliver salvation most soothing.

Withering Past ups the pace while Ragnarok offers a nimble tune filled with energy; both add substantial depth to the album.

A stand-out achievement, Breathe Fire To The Sun generates solar heat with an imperious air.


Viktor Storm Gullichsen - Vocals
Sean Haslam - Guitars
Joona Bjorkroth - Guitars, Clean Vocals
Jarkko Niemi - Bass
Janne Bjorkroth - Keyboards
Sami Hanninen - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Intro - n/a (short instrumental)
2. Unconquerable - 10
3. In Silence - 9
4. A Free Man's Path - 7
5. Burning Within - 7
6. Withering Past - 8
7. Cycle Of Flame - 9
8. Ragnarok - 8
9. Retribution - 10
10. Breathe Fire To The Sun - 7

Average: 8.33

Recorded, Mixed and Engineered by Lari Takala.
Mastered by Mika Jussila.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

CD Review: Decimate The Weak, by Winds Of Plague (2008)

Symphonic melodic deathcore may be out there on the edge of metal sub-genres, but southern California's Winds Of Plague pull it off with aplomb. Their debut Decimate The Weak is full of intent, proudly pushing Matt Fineman's keyboards to the forefront, and emphasizing classically inspired melodies as a foundational element onto which a ton of loud and proud pounding is applied.

The many breakdowns may be a trifle uninspired and the guitar work from the two Nicks Piunno and Eash is more about control rather than inspiration, but when Winds Of Plague pull all their dispersed elements together, including Johnny Plague alternating between growling and spitting out his vocals, the results are awe inspiring.

The opening duo of instrumental A Cold Day In Hell melding into Anthems Of Apocalypse throw everything at the well, and most of it immediately sticks. Haunting keyboards, endless energy, massive melody tied together by the roaring drums of Jeff Tenney, and a classic is born. The Impaler is almost as good, a determined eastern tinge providing a solid backdrop to the mayhem.

Title track Decimate The Weak throws boiling oil at the unwashed hordes attempting a feeble assault on the fortress, and after a massive drum artillery barrage, at 1:09 the band break into a chugging, spine-tingling old-fashioned metal riff, before ending with no less than a lyrical, thoughtful guitar solo. Angels Of Debauchery is the other notable track, more muscular and complex, and brimming with mature symphonic shadings.

The back end of the CD dips noticeably into less exhilarating territory, although the basic quality never falters. Decimate The Weak does annihilate the weaklings, and anyone who gets in the way for good measure.


Johnny Plague - Vocals
Nick Piunno - Guitar
Nick Eash - Guitar
Jeff Tenney - Drums
Andrew Glover - Bass
Matt Fineman - Keyboards

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. A Cold Day In Hell - n/a (short instrumental)
2. Anthems Of Apocalypse - 10
3. The Impaler - 9
4. Decimate The Weak - 10
5. Origins And Endings - 7
6. Angels Of Debauchery - 8
7. Reloaded - 7
8. Unbreakable - 7
9. One Body Too Many - 7
10. Legions - 7

Average: 8.00

Produced by Daniel Castleman and Winds Of Plague.
Engineered by Daniel Castleman. Mixed and Mastered by Tue Madsen.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Movie Review: Broken City (2013)

An attempt to recreate the magic of Chinatown in modern day New York, Broken City serves up some tasty deviousness among the power elite, but the simplistic story of corruption sags under the weight of its own ambition.

New York City cop Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) is acquitted of murdering an accused rapist, but is nevertheless asked to resign from the police force by Mayor Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe). Seven years later, the Mayor is running for re-election and facing a serious challenge from charismatic Councillor Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper). Hostetler hires Taggart, now a private investigator, to confirm that the Mayor's wife Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is having an affair. Meanwhile, Hostetler signs a high profile real estate deal for the City to sell a large social housing site to a private development company. The sale will save the City from a mountain of debt, but also places low-income families at risk.

Taggart's home life with girlfriend Natalie (Natalie Martinez) starts to fall apart when he can't handle her burgeoning career as an actress. But with help from his assistant Katy (Alona Tal), Taggart gathers evidence that Cathleen is indeed seeing a man called Paul Andrews (Kyle Chandler), who is closely connected to Valliant's campaign team. But there is lot more going on than a simple affair. Soon there are bodies in the street, serious allegations of corruption, and just when Taggart thinks that he has collected all the pieces of an ugly puzzle, his past comes back to haunt him.

The secret at the heart of Broken City is lame, a signature on a paper that must be a matter of public record, and that would never require any secretive skulking around to uncover. The Brian Tucker script also suffers from a tough to believe amount of violence unleashed by politicians in the immediate run-up to an election, the streets of New York suddenly turning into killing grounds as guns-for-hire do the dirty work for the corrupt men in suits.

These are unfortunate weaknesses at the film's core, because otherwise Broken City offers decent entertainment, delivered at a brisk pace by director Allen Hughes (working this time without his brother Albert). Stylishly filmed and benefiting from a strong cast, Broken City explores the familiar territory of corrupt land deals and a private investigator stumbling onto secrets much darker than what he was hired for. But the film also stays away from some tempting, often overused Chinatown derivatives. That Broken City avoids the topics of incest, rape and old men manipulating events from distant mansions is a welcome sign of self-control.

Russell Crowe and Mark Wahlberg are always engaging, and here they do not disappoint, although equally they do not set the screen on fire. Wahlberg, who also co-produced, has the larger role, and gives Taggart the sad energy of a man knocked out of the orbit of his natural life despite ridding the City of an acknowledged if unconvicted menace. Crowe is edgier and flashier, but also more predictable, his take on Mayor Nicholas Hostetler filled with the smugness of politicians who believe that laws apply only to other people. Catherine Zeta-Jones gets third billing, but relatively very few minutes on the screen.

Broken City promises more than the story can deliver, and although the film is not broken, it is regrettably bent a bit.

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Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Movie Review: The Interpreter (2005)

A political thriller set at the United Nations, The Interpreter draws good inspiration from the real world of dictators engaged in dirty diplomacy, but also stumbles on too many overlapping coincidences.

Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) is an interpreter working at the General Assembly of the United Nations. One late night, she inadvertently overhears a whispered conversation apparently discussing the impending assassination of a world leader. She soon determines that the target is likely to be Edmond Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), the brutal dictator of the war-torn African nation Matobo. Zuwanie is being accused of committing war crimes, but is travelling to New York and wants to address the UN to argue his innocence. Silvia alerts the Secret Service, although ironically she herself is originally from Matobo, and in her past participated in movements to oust Zuwanie.

Agents Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) and Dot Woods (Catherine Keener) are assigned to the case, and Tobin is immediately suspicious of Silvia, her background, and her motives. Tobin is dealing with his own recent loss, and it emerges that Silvia has also suffered family tragedy as a result of Zuwanie's repressive regime. Zuwanie's chief of security arrives in town and starts to intimidate Silvia, while outspoken opponents of the Zuwanie regime start to meet untimely deaths. A huge security operation is mounted to protect the dictator, and Tobin races against time to prevent an assassination and uncover Silvia's real motives.

The Interpreter is a smarter than average thriller, with a narrative that echoes real-world turmoil, Zimbabwe and President Mugabe providing the closest parallels to the fictional Matobo and President Zuwanie. And for long stretches Sydney Pollack, directing what would prove to be his final film, generates satisfying tension from the threat of an assassination, the murky history of Silvia, and the unease between her and Tobin, while avoiding the mindless action that bedevils most thrillers.

But gradually the chases and explosions creep into the second half of the movie, as the intelligent ideas run out and the script (co-written in some part by up to six writers) defaults to layering plenty of incredible coincidences. Not only is Silvia from Matobo, she is also a victim of Zuwanie's violence, a political activist against his regime, a freedom fighter, her brother is equally involved with opponents of the President, and she just happens to be at the scene when one of Zuwanie's opponents is assassinated. Nicole Kidman does her best, but the character just descends into a spiral of inconceivability, Silvia's iciness most attributable to not knowing which revelation from her past will next become public, rather than any sense of mystery.

Sean Penn does not stretch too much. His character is packaged with a basic level of personal anguish to give extra emphasis to the grimace on his face, but the role is almost too easy for Penn, his routine scowl sufficient for most of his scenes. Some emotion is generated between Silvia and Tobin, but it's more of a steady low voltage undercurrent than an actual spark.

Filmed at the United Nations and in New York City, The Interpreter enjoys appealing locations and an air of heightened sophistication. While the premise is grounded in familiar headlines, the final execution loses something in translation.


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Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Movie Review: Switching Channels (1988)

A lame remake of The Front Page and His Girl Friday, Switching Channels is dull, uninspired, and singularly lacking in wit and chemistry.

Christy Colleran (Kathleen Turner) is the star anchor at the Chicago-based Satellite News Network, where her ex-husband John "Sully" Sullivan (Burt Reynolds) is the station director. When an overworked Christy finally reaches the point of exhaustion, she is packed off on a forced vacation, where she meets and falls in love with smooth businessman Blaine Bingham (Christopher Reeve). Christy returns to Chicago on a high, announcing that she is quitting the news business and marrying Blaine.

Sully does not want to lose his star on-air talent, and he still harbours hopes of winning back Christy. He proceeds to conjure up every possible obstacle to place in the way of Blaine, while tempting Christy back to her career by getting her to interview Ike Roscoe (Henry Gibson), a death-row inmate about to be executed for killing a drug-dealing cop, in the hopes that the exposure will force the Governor to issue a pardon. Meanwhile, Attorney General  Roy Ridnitz (Ned Beatty) is himself running for Governor, and wants to make sure that Roscoe fries to further his own tough-on-crime credentials.

The fourth big screen version of the Broadway comedy The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, Switching Channels is as unnecessary as it is awful. With pedestrian direction by Ted Kotcheff and a juvenile Jonathan Reynolds script, the film attempts to modernize the premise to the world of television, but has a dreadful time trying to find laughs, and fails miserably at every opportunity.

Burt Reynolds' performance is simply annoying, while Kathleen Turner is off the mark, seemingly over-acting in desperation to appear either witty or ditzy, but instead coming across as fatally bland. Reynolds and Turner together never threaten to display any sign of a spark, and indeed are reported to have clashed throughout filming. Christopher Reeve suffers the most, his Blaine Bingham a phantom personality, stood up as an easy cardboard target for Sully's darts.

The film ends with that time-trampled old favourite from the films of yesteryear, herds of men running in groups in and out of rooms and across hallways, lowest common denominator comedy that pre-teens may find funny, but really just serving as an embarrassing confirmation that some comic elements are best left in their own era.

Switching Channels clumsily fumbles with the dials, but only manages to find aggravating static.

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Saturday, 16 November 2013

Movie Review: Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Steven Spielberg delivers the definitive World War Two film. Through the simple story of the search for a lowly private in the immediate aftermath of the D-Day Normandy invasion, Saving Private Ryan encapsulates the scope of a global conflict, and defines the destiny of the post-war years.

On D-Day, battle veteran Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) leads his group of Army Rangers as part of the first wave landing on Omaha Beach. Miller's troops include Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore), Private Rieben (Edward Burns), Private Caparzo (Vin Diesel), sharpshooter Private Jackson (Barry Pepper), the proudly Jewish Private Mellish (Adam Goldberg) and the medic Wade (Giovanni Ribisi). After a long, brutal, and gory battle on the dunes of Omaha beach in which many Allied troops are slaughtered, Miller and his men overcome stiff German defences and help to establish a secure beachhead. The many battles and many lost men start to take their toll on Miller: his right hand develops an intermittent, uncontrollable tremor.

In the following days, the American military command learns that three brothers from the Ryan family have been killed in recent combat action. General George Marshall orders that the fourth brother, Private James Francis Ryan of the 101st Airborne, be found, extracted from the war and flown back home to safety. Miller and his unit are tasked with finding Private Ryan, although the 101st is scattered all over the French countryside behind German lines, and no one knows where Ryan is. Miller adds the multilingual but barely trained cartographer Timothy Upham (Jeremy Davies) to his unit, and the eight men head out on a dangerous mission to find one man among thousands of soldiers.

The search takes Miller through an active war zone, as the disorganized but determined most forward Allied units try to hold on and fortify inland gains before German reinforcements arrive. Miller encounters Sergeant Hill (Paul Giamatti) and his men embroiled in a close-quarters pitched battle in the middle of destroyed town, then gets assistance from Captain Hamill (Ted Danson). A countryside detour to destroy a German radar installation causes extreme tension within Miller's small group, as losses mount and the surviving men, particularly Rieben, openly question the purpose of the mission and Miller's leadership.Finally, Ryan (Matt Damon) is located, having joined a ragtag collection of paratroopers, digging in to protect a strategically vital bridge in the town of Ramelle. With German tank units moving in, Miller informs Ryan that his involvement in the war is over, but Ryan has other ideas.

The opening 27 minutes of Saving Private Ryan, featuring the landings and battle at Omaha beach, are legendary. Possibly the most realistic and painful depiction of warfare ever filmed, Spielberg recreates a literal bloodbath, as Allied soldiers are slaughtered by German heavy machine gun fire on the open beaches, and yet the sheer numbers of the invaders and their determination eventually turn the tide of battle. Spielberg's cameras take a ground-level, soldier's eye view, dodging bullets and explosions, moving within the chaos, the smoke, the death and the dismemberment as confusion reigns, bodies pile up, the water turns red and the future of the war hangs in the balance. The depiction of the battle is full of gore, misery, cowardice, heroism and the atrocities of war, a soul-shaking experience rarely equalled in the history of film.

Even within the chaos of the opening battle, Spielberg demonstrates genius in introducing several of the major characters and their key attributes. Miller, with his shaky hand and vulnerability for shell-shock, is nevertheless an effective leader, keeping calm, rallying his men and formulating the plan necessary to punch through the German lines. Horvath is his loyal second in command, and Jackson is the deeply religious sharpshooter, whose skills are frequently essential. By the time the beach battle ends, Miller is an established presence, gathering Normandy sand in a small canister to add to too many other canisters holding earth from too many other recent battles.

It's a lot to ask for any film to maintain the momentum of that opening, but Spielberg pulls it off by zooming in. The rest of the movie is about the actions of individual men, not the movements of a massive army, and Saving Private Ryan transitions from the domain of liberating a continent to the story of saving one man. And with Spielberg having demonstrated no fear of portraying shocking and sudden death on the beaches, the threat of sudden demise lurks around every corner of the French countryside as Miller and his men make their way cautiously inland. And consistent with the realism established early in the movie, death proves to be a constant companion. Saving Private Ryan forces heroism and sacrifice to walk hand in hand in a prolonged, agonizing courtship.

Doubts about why eight men should risk their lives to save one private eat away at Miller's soldiers. When thousands of men are dying daily, what is the life of one private worth? Through the course of the 170 minute running length, Spielberg and writer Robert Rodat reveal their answer in subtle hints, as personal actions gain prominence, seemingly small choices have compounded outcomes, and a single soldier's decision carries far-reaching implications. The mission may have been about saving one man, but within that inordinately high valuation of the individual lies the purpose of the war, and the destiny of the post-war years.

Cinematographer Janusz Kamiński used relatively washed-out, almost sepia-toned colours to give Saving Private Ryan a more historic feel, and the film is widely admired for the attention to detail and historical authenticity in portraying the uniforms, equipment, weapons and armaments of the day. And from within the realms of unfolding history, Tom Hanks gives the war its human face. Captain Miller is a civilian pressed into service, his pre-war career a closely held secret from his men. He does the best that he can, but this is not a blood-thirsty soldier living for war. Rather, the war has interrupted his living, and he longs to finish each successive mission as a another stepping stone on the long journey to return to his wife.

Both deeply melancholy and fabulously inspirational, Saving Private Ryan questions the cost of war by celebrating the courage of the men forced to fight, and die, in battles large and small.

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Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Movie Review: 12 Years A Slave (2013)

Based on a true story, 12 Years A Slave is a deeply moving exploration of the brutality of slavery in the American South, prior to the Civil War. Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a masterful performance as Solomon Northup, a free man kidnapped into a nightmare of evil.

It's 1841, and Solomon is an educated  free black man living in Saratoga, New York with his wife and two children. A talented fiddler, Solomon is a respected member of society. When the rest of his family is away for a short trip, Solomon is lured to Washington DC by the promise of some extra money for performing in a travelling circus. Instead, after a night of too much celebratory drinking he wakes up in shackles, having been sold to slavers.

Illicitly transferred down river to the South, Solomon is handed to slave agent Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti), and eventually sold to land owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). While Ford is a relatively reasonable master, Solomon runs afoul of his foremen and is re-sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a cotton plantation owner. Epps is slightly insane and whip-happy, and infatuated with Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) his most productive slave, triggering the fury of his wife Mary (Sarah Paulson). As Solomon does what he needs to in order to survive as a slave, he never stops trying to regain his freedom, despite the brutality of life under Epps. A chance encounter with Canadian labourer Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt) offers an opportunity to once again change the course of his life.

12 Years A Slave captures the history of all slavery through the story of one man. Solomon is an individual whose relatively small story of survival summarizes the awful arc of the mammoth slave trade in America. While Solomon endured 12 years in captivity and forced labour, his race suffered more than 150 years of abuse, and Solomon's story brings the horror down to the most painful scale of one man being deprived of his freedom and all his dignity for no other reason than the colour of his skin.

Director Steve McQueen weaves an epic tale of an honourable family man subjected to the worst atrocities that humans can conjure. McQueen never loses the man at the heart of the tragedy, and avoids the trap of abandoning Solomon as a pure victim at the mercy of events that he cannot control. Throughout 12 Years A Slave, Solomon remains the protagonist who must continuously calibrate his behaviour to maintain any hope of one day regaining his freedom. The strength of the movie comes from Solomon's adaptation to new, abhorrent surroundings, and navigating his way through an unwanted but potentially crushing reality.

The film contains some extraordinarily disturbing, almost unwatchable scenes, McQueen taking an unblinking look at human cruelty that is too easy to dismiss within the simplification of the word "slave". Solomon endures a hanging while Patsey experiences a severe whipping, and in both scenes McQueen parks the camera and keeps it running, then edits the abuse into long takes that magnify the injustice into a long, twisted shadow across the face of history.

The two central performances are both outstanding, particularly in drawing the contrasts between the humane and the vile. Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers an immense performance packed with controlled courage, determination and vulnerability. With subtle understatement, Ejiofor conveys barely concealed fear, quiet rage, and a never ending search for a justice-based end to an all-too-real nightmare. Michael Fassbender turns Edwin Epps into a villain repulsive in his languorous normalcy. Fassbender draws power from an economy of emotions and actions, turning Epps into a more hateful character by his aggravating self-conviction in the security of his position and his sheer lack of concern for anything except lusting after Patsey, his slaves physically victimized while his wife is wrecked with emotional hostility.

12 Years A Slave is a grand achievement on a human scale, a story for the ages delivered with raw passion and a heart filled with plenty of pain and eternal hope.

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Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Movie Review: Wanderlust (2012)

A comedy about a stressed married couple trying out life in a quirky commune, Wanderlust has as many sharp moments as dull ones.

George and Linda (Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston) are a New York couple about to purchase their first, very tiny and very expensive, apartment. No sooner have they moved in than Paul loses his job. With Linda getting nowhere with her latest career as documentary filmmaker, the couple abandon New York and accept an offer from George's brother Rick (Ken Marino) to relocate to Atlanta. On the long drive south, George and Linda snipe at each other but then stay for one magical night at a ramshackle bed and breakfast called Elysium, where they meet permanent residents living an idyllic, carefree life, including the hunky Seth (Justin Theroux) and slightly senile owner and original founder Carvin (Alan Alda).

Finding life intolerable with the loutish Rick and his seemingly perpetually medicated wife Marisa (Michaela Watkins), George and Linda escape back to Elysium and attempt life as part of the commune, where there are no doors, no boundaries, and everything is supposed to be shared. Seth comes on to Linda, Eva (Malin Åkerman) wants to have sex with George, the perpetually nude Wayne (Joe Lo Truglio) cannot stop talking about his wine and his novel, and Rodney (Jordan Peele) lands George's car in the middle of the lake. And with the relationship between George and Linda stressed to near breaking, developers show up, attempting to evict the commune and turn the land of Elysium into a casino.

Co-produced by Judd Apatow, Wanderlust plays on the post-recession turmoil of stressed families struggling to cope financially, and finds its best moments in contrasting a hectic New York City life with the languid, let-it-all-literally-hang-out pace at Elysium. The laid back lifestyle at the commune looks good after everything that could go wrong does go wrong for George and Linda. Somewhere in the dark corner of the happiness scale is Rick, full of himself for successfully peddling port-a-potties, blissfully unaware that his home life is in tatters while he boasts about his business savvy.

Director David Wain keeps the film compact at under 100 minutes, and does find some sweet funny spots, the lack of doorways at the commune providing an opportunity for humour to walk in, while naked Wayne dangles all over the place, stomping on grapes and talking about his book. Much less funny is George seeking his vulgar side and getting all tongue twisted trying to motivate himself to have sex with Eva. The sub-plot about the casino development is also quite weak.

Jennifer Aniston does not stretch much beyond her usual persona of the girl next door, embarking on her next slightly ditzy adventure, fighting to be a bit of a rebel against her better judgement, and always a natural magnet for men. Paul Rudd is a lightweight, very much a bland second fiddle to Aniston and the cast of misfits at the commune.

Wanderlust is neither wonderful nor woeful, just willingly wacky.

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Sunday, 10 November 2013

Movie Review: The Black Dahlia (2006)

A laborious neo-noir film, The Black Dahlia aims for a mysterious, smoke-heavy mood but is severely undermined by inferior performances, lack of chemistry and an incomprehensible plot.

Dwight 'Bucky' Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) are two Los Angeles police officers in the mid-1940s. Both are former boxers who never quite made it to the top, and the police department squeezes some publicity and public support by staging a bout between them. They subsequently become partners and friends, both enjoying the company of Lee's girlfriend Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). But for unclear reasons, Lee starts to get agitated when he learns that criminal Bobby DeWitt, a bank robber and Kay's former boyfriend, is about to be released from prison.

Los Angeles is gripped by the brutal murder of starlet Elizabeth Ann Short (Mia Kirshner), whose body is found carved in half, the blood drained from her torso, her organs missing, and her face mutilated. Short was involved in making underground porn films, and Bucky tracks down Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), one of her co-stars. Madeleine comes from a rich and influential family, and she becomes Bucky's lover in exchange for keeping her name out of the news. As he tries to uncover the murderer, Bucky eventually meets Madeleine's strange parents Emmett (John Kavanagh) and Ramona (Fiona Shaw), but the DeWitt case suddenly explodes and consumes Lee's life.

Based on the book by James Ellroy, The Black Dahlia aims to duplicate the success achieved by the 1997 adaptation of Ellroy's L.A. Confidential. But while director Brian De Palma does succeed in creating a grim, corrupt and depressed environment crawling with characters motivated by pure self-interest, that's as far as The Black Dahlia goes. After a tedious and ultimately meaningless intro focused on the irrelevant boxing showdown, the plot careens off a cliff and into swampy territory where everyone has an incredible secret to hide, and every surprise has to one-up the one that preceded it.

By the time The Black Dahlia reveals all its convoluted plot twists, every possible sordid sauce in the pantry has been consumed. The femme fatale, the porn movies, the blackmail plot, the deranged woman, the corrupt cop, the missing cash, the gruesome murder, the illegitimate child, hints of a threesome, and stronger hints of incest. But in a case of quantity overwhelming quality, the film jumps from one jumbled reveal to another with hardly any emotional impact, the plot clumsily bent out of shape rather than enhanced by the shocks.

The impenetrable narrative is further weighed down by a sub-par and uncharismatic cast, lacking chemistry and delivering lacklustre performances. Josh Hartnett is stiffer than a plank, speaking with a despondent mumble, his narration aiming for a dark vibe but sounding like bubbles from the bottom of the swimming pool. Aaron Eckhart goes a bit nuts early on, jumping from acting to overacting, for reasons that the movie chooses to hide for one of the many later twists. And Scarlett Johansson has too many stop-and-stare moments, her hesitant communication conveying uncertainty about the material rather than genuine immersion.

Hilary Swank does a bit better, getting into the spirit of the accumulating absurdities, her performance a combination of sultry seductiveness and a twinkle in the eye. Mia Kirshner is seen only on films within the film, mostly being auditioned for her porn flicks, and ironically she radiates more life and charisma than the other, living characters.

Too dense for its own good, The Black Dahlia tries to get by on an abundance of style but ultimately folds itself into a black hole.

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Saturday, 9 November 2013

Movie Review: For Your Eyes Only (1981)

A relatively down-to-earth James Bond adventure, For Your Eyes Only stacks the predictable stunt scenes into a rather tired sequence, but manages to find some good moments in a Cold War story of lost missile launch codes.

After dispatching an evil villain who looks a lot like Ernst Blofeld, British Secret Service agent James Bond (Roger Moore) is tasked with finding a missing and highly coveted Automatic Targeting Attack Communicator (ATAC). The submarine missile launch control unit was lost when the British spy ship St Georges struck a mine and sank off the coast of Greece. The British hire Sir Timothy Havelock to help locate and secure the wreck, but Havelock and his wife are killed by Cuban hitman Hector Gonzales, working on behalf of a mysterious middleman attempting to secure the ATAC unit for the KGB.

Bond tracks down Gonzalez, but finds company in the form of Melina Havelock (Carole Bouquet), seeking revenge for her father's death. In Italy, Bond meets Greek businessman Aristotle Kristatos (Julian Glover), who suspects that his former partner and co-smuggler Milos Columbo (Chaim Topol) hired and funded Gonzalez. After resisting the charms of young figure skater Bibi Dahl (Lynn-Holly Johnson) and escaping from a clutch of assassination attempts led by the stone-faced Erich Kriegler (John Wyman), Bond and Melina travel to Greece for a final confrontation with the bad guys at a secluded mountaintop monastery.

After the grand, world-ending excesses of The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, Bond comes back to a more intimate, old-fashioned assignment. For Your Eyes Only starts with Bond visiting the grave of his slain wife Tracy, an immediate clue that this is a more human, less technology-dependent episode. And the toned-down mood is sustained by director John Glen, helming his first Bond instalment. The requisite car chase places Bond and Melina in a clunky Citroën 2CV, after Bond's Lotus blows itself up, and for once there are no high-tech gizmos and gadgets to play with. With plenty of self-deprecating but low-key humour, this is a playful, grounded Bond.

However, and despite the emphasis on people rather than spectacle, too much of For Your Eyes Only plays like a succession of stunt scenes barely held together by plot. Helicopter stunts, car stunts, ski stunts, deep-diving stunts and boating stunts parade across the screen in an almost mechanical check-listing of essential, but relatively soulless, ingredients.

For Your Eyes Only does pick itself up for a satisfying climax featuring the mountain climbing drama at the impressive Greek monastery. Again abandoning the bombastic army-scale finales of recent outings, here Bond leads a small group on an impossible vertical climb to infiltrate a small hideout. Glen creates the film's best moment of tension when a guard uncovers Bond's rope and methodically breaks loose the ties securing Bond to the mountain, leaving the spy helplessly dangling from a great height.

Moore looks good for a 54 year old, and benefits from the more manageable scale of the film, but has far less screen time than his stuntmen. The supporting cast is the usual assortment of allies and enemies. Glover is devious without being menacing, while Topol offers plenty of Mediterranean spirit and energy. Carole Bouquet is almost too sophisticated to be a Bond girl, her dreamy eyes and shampoo commercial hair enough to hypnotize any secret agent, but she is a bit less than convincing as a cross-bow wielding assassin bent on revenge. In a series first, Bond throws the willing Bibi out of his bed, either because she is too young or just too easy. Sheena Easton's theme song is a welcome addition to the catalogue of Bond title songs, although it is also lyrically vapid.

For Your Eyes Only was a necessary step back from the more extravagant excesses of the series. The compact scale is not automatically better, just more rational.

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CD Review: Blessing In Disguise, by Metal Church (1989)

The third album from Metal Church is a sprawling mess. Blessing In Disguise drops into boring, mid-tempo progressive territory, and most of the album is singularly lacking in focus and intensity.

Five of the nine tracks unnecessarily go on for longer than six minutes, extending to a yawn-inducing 9:30 on Anthem To The Estranged, and none of them really have much to say. The record sounds like an uncertain step towards barnacle-filled Rush territory, Mike Howe's vocals often at an unimpressive high range, the rest of the band trying to rock out but usually just getting lost in pursuit of length.

The back half of the album really sinks into the dross, Badlands, Cannot Tell A Lie and The Powers That Be examples of defanged purposeless metal, but The Spell Can't Be Broken takes the prize for being both poor and annoying.

All of which makes the excellent album opener Fake Healer stand out as a lost song on the wrong album. Unlike anything else on Blessing In Disguise, Fake Healer easily finds oodles of power and direction, the drums of Kirk Arrington and the bass of Duke Ellington clearing the impure debris, and Howe pouring his soul into the impassioned vocals. One song does not an album make, and the rest of the CD is a lot more fake than healer.


Craig Wells - Guitar
John Marshall - Guitar
Mike Howe - Vocals
Kirk Arrington - Drums
Duke Erickson - Bass

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Fake Healer - 10
2. Rest In Pieces (April 15, 1912) - 7
3. Of Unsound Mind - 7
4. Anthem To The Estranged - 7
5. Badlands - 6
6. The Spell Can't Be Broken - 5
7. It's A Secret - 7
8. Cannot Tell A Lie - 6
9. The Powers That Be - 6

Average: 6.78

Produced by Terry Date.
Mixed and Engineered by Terry Date and Joe Alexander. Mastered by Howie Weinberg.

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Thursday, 7 November 2013

Movie Review: The Island (1980)

A ludicrous modern day pirate story, The Island scoops the sludge from the bottom of the horror-at-sea barrel.

Thousands of vessels are disappearing in the Bermuda Triangle, and journalist Blair Maynard (Michael Caine) decides to travel to the area to investigate, taking with him his young sullen teenaged son Justin (Jeffrey Frank). In the Caribbean, Blair meets Windsor (Frank Middlemass), an ex-patriot living in a house filled with strange artifacts and renting out pleasure boats. Blair and Justin head out in a small boat, and are soon attacked by vicious, seemingly crazed pirates. Blair manages to kill one of the invaders before being overpowered and taken prisoner to the pirates' base on an uncharted island.

Blair and Justin meet the pirate leader Nau (David Warner), who spares Blair's life so that he can impregnate Beth (Angela Punch McGregor), the wife of the pirate killed in the raid. Meanwhile, Justin is brainwashed and trained to become a killer, before eventually being adopted by Nau. Blair repeatedly tries to escape but is recaptured every time, although gradually his relationship with Beth warms up. When Windsor unexpectedly shows up on the island, the incredible story of the pirates becomes clear, but Blair's fate appears doomed.

The third movie to be adapted from a Peter Benchley book (after Jaws and The Deep), The Island, with a screenplay written by Benchley, finds the author flailing around for any sort of an original story to create terror in the water. Finding none, he conjures up a truly awful tale of an enclave of descendants from 17th century pirates, hanging out undetected in the Caribbean for about 300 or so years, and responsible for years of mass murder on the open ocean.

The first 30 minutes of the movie are reasonably tolerable, director Michael Ritchie creating a fair amount of tension with a series of silent and deadly attacks on small boats. But The Island takes a sharp turn towards farcical territory when the pirates and their island are introduced, the movie rapidly disintegrating into a bargain-basement pantomime that almost beggars belief. The lunacy peaks with a pirate raid on a coast guard vessel, followed by a blood-thirsty climax with a machine gun that can be aimed to destroy its own vessel.

Michael Caine sleepwalks through the movie, finding a new gear in his level of disinterest, his droopy eyes fixed only on the paycheque waiting at the end of filming. David Warner seems unsure whether the whole pirate thing, complete with ridiculous clothes, ramshackle housing and inbred idiots for cohorts, is for real. The pirates can neither be taken seriously nor are they meant to be funny, and as a result The Island sinks without a trace.

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Movie Review: Beetlejuice (1988)

An afterlife comedy, Beetlejuice takes the side of a ghostly couple haunting their own home, and the new perspective generates plenty of clever laughs.

Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) are spending an idyllic vacation in their gorgeous but slightly spooky Victorian New England home. An unfortunate car accident leaves them both dead. They return to haunt their home, but their placid ghostly existence is disrupted by new owners. Bickering couple Delia and Charles Deetz (Catherine O'Hara and Jeffrey Jones) and their daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder) are an annoying presence, and Adam and Barbara start the process of learning how to create enough of a nuisance to drive away the new arrivals.

Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton) is a hyper-kinetic rogue ghost, and he offers his services to the Maitlands as a specialist in scaring off the living. Delia starts to redecorate the place with the help of her insufferable interior designer Otho (Glenn Shadix), while Charles just wants to be left alone to relax. Lydia despises her parents and is into the dark scene, and this allows her to see and befriend Adam and Barbara. With scare tactics not really working, Adam and Barbara have to decide whether Beetlejuice is more of an asset or a liability, while Lydia has to accommodate two friendly ghosts into her lonely life.

Beetlejuice is briskly paced, funny, and with just enough self depreciation to maintain a light-hearted mood. Director Tim Burton creates a vivid alternative reality where ghosts are the rightful tenants and the living are the intruders, the ghosts experiencing their own sense of entrapment with massive earthworms preventing their leaving. Adam and Barbara also discover that the world of impenetrable user manuals and bureaucracy follows them to the afterlife, with the most imaginative scenes unveiling the world of the dead clogged with paperwork, bored secretaries, overburdened case workers and crowded waiting rooms experiencing long wait times.

Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis make for a cute couple, and their transition into ghosts is handled with a dry matter-of-factness. Winona Ryder steals the film as the dark, curious goth teen, her willingness to explore new dimensions allowing her to see spirits invisible to others. Ryder acts with eyes that are defiant, questioning and brave, and she gives Lydia the inner steel needed to tolerate her parents. Compared to the aggravating Charles and Delia, a couple of ghosts are easy.

Michael Keaton lets loose with a high energy, berserk role as Beetlejuice, a wound-up ghost covered with layers of decaying make-up and powered by the uniquely irritating sensibility of a desperate used car salesman. Beetlejuice's antics are the driving force behind most of the special effects in the film, state of the art for 1988 and still impressive in a modern context. A gigantic snake headed by Beetlejuice is the slithery highlight. He may be a loudmouthed and unmannered boor of a ghost, but Beetlejuice knows how to have fun among the living.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Movie Review: Poltergeist (1982)

A ghost story from the imagination of Steven Spielberg, Poltergeist delivers family oriented frights. The story of a haunted house and angry spirits abducting children alternates shocks with fun and adds a sprinkling of humour.

Steven and Diane Freeling (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams) seem to have an ideal California suburban life. Steven works for the development company that built the sprawling subdivision, while Diane raises their their three kids: teenagers Dana (Dominique Dunne) and Robbie (Oliver Robins) and the younger Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke). Everything appears to be normal until Carol Anne starts to exhibit a strange fascination with television static, seemingly communicating with invisible forces within.

As a series of thunderstorm move in on the area, the spirits invade the Freeling house, at first exhibiting childlike, playful behaviour. But matters soon take a serious turn, and Carol Anne is abducted, sucked into her closet by tornado-like forces and vanishing. Carol-Anne is still able to communicate with her mother through the television set in eerie tones. The Freelings turn to Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) and her team, and later the mystic Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein), to try and retrieve their daughter and reclaim control of their home, while Steven uncovers the dirty secret that may be prompting all the paranormal activity.

Spielberg is credited as producer, co-screenwriter and originator of the story. On-set mythology suggests that he was also the de facto director, but prevented from claiming that role due to E.T.-related studio-imposed limitations. Tobe Hooper, of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame, received the director credit, and at least helped translate Spielberg's vision into an entertaining movie with some razor sharp edges.

Poltergeist does have a few genuinely scary moments that would certainly challenge younger members of the target family audience. The concept of ghosts knowing and deploying what already scares the individual members of the Freeling family is effective. Robbie's close encounter with a tree abduction is disturbing, as are his encounters with the notoriously hideous toy clown. And towards the end, ghosts previously portrayed as invisible and playful take on evil, menacing forms. Diane has to fend off groaning skeletons, while demon-shapes make a climactic appearance to scare the family away once and for all and lay claim to the house.

But the movie also has long stretches of family-friendly fare, the opening 30 minutes dedicated to a reasonably tranquil life in the suburbs, interrupted only by Carol Anne's fascination with television static. And when the spirits make their initial presence felt, they creatively rearrange the kitchen furniture in benign and humorous interactions with the family.

Poltergeist does suffer from a rather draggy midsection. The scientific intervention by Dr. Lesh and her team, and the subsequent meddling by the medium Tangina Barrons, are generally played for rather cheap laughs, and ultimately their contributions amount to little. Other than giving an opportunity for Beatrice Straight and Zelda Rubinstein to ham it up, the outsiders just get in the way of the family confronting the invading spirits on their own terms.

The performances are memorable, JoBeth Williams a particular highlight as Diane transitions from lively suburban housewife to a suffering, befuddled mom, and finally a mother bear fed-up with the forces gnawing at her children. The ill-fated Heather O'Rourke gets to deliver the film's most famous line, "they're heeeere!" announcing to the world that Spielberg's imagination has its dark corners.

Much like the subject ghosts, Poltergeist is a movie that makes most of the right moves and many impressive noises.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Movie Review: Rumble Fish (1983)

A stylistic exploration of lost youth, Rumble Fish searches for a reason to exist but finds none. The central characters are only mildly interesting, and there is hardly anything going on to create a narrative hook.

Rusty James (Matt Dillon) is a tough kid and the leader of his pack, consisting of Steve (Vincent Spano) and Smokey (Nicolas Cage), among others. Rusty harkens back to mythical old days when gangs ruled the streets, and idolizes his absentee brother Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke), a former gang leader. With Rusty trying to hang on to Patty (Diane Lane) as a girlfriend of sorts despite her disapproval of his rough life, Motorcycle Boy suddenly returns to town after a trip to California.

In a rumble with an opposing gang, Rusty is injured, while police officer Patterson (William Smith) keeps a suspicious eye on Motorcycle Boy, disapproving of his return and believing him to be nothing but trouble. Both Rusty and Motorcycle Boy have to put up with a drunk of a father (Dennis Hopper), who wastes his life downing bottles of alcohol. After a few more violent skirmishes, the two brothers meet at a pet store selling colourful fish, and decide to cause some mischief in the name of freedom.

Francis Ford Coppola collaborated with author S.E. Hinton to create a screenplay out of Hinton's book, and Coppola filmed Rumble Fish immediately after the moderately more successful The Outsiders. Filmed by Coppola in crisp black and white with plenty of smoke, theatrical sets and flashy camera angles, Rumble Fish tries to be about something meaningful, but the artistry of presentation fails to mask the lack of substance.

Rusty James, Motorcycle Boy, and the rest of their cohorts have nothing new to offer. They are supposed to elicit sympathy just because they are who they are, their father is a drunk and their mother has fled. But the film stalls within a few minutes, trying too hard to make heroes out of outcasts, never giving the characters the chance to earn their place as people worth caring about. They rumble, they argue, they chase girls, and they lament their miserable parents. It's all too trite, territory that has been covered too many time in too many films dating back 30 years and more.

Coppola's directing calls attention to itself at every turn, a reasonably welcome distraction from the non-event of the plot, but creating an all too obvious case of all packaging and no package. A few small fish in an aquarium contribute the only splash of colour, and the freedom of the fish is supposed to represent Something Important. By the time Rusty James and Motorcycle Boy decide to heroically Free the Fish, any climactic cause is acceptable just to bring proceedings to a close.

The young ensemble cast of Dillon, Lane, Cage and Spano are pure intensity but no real humanity. Rourke smirks through the movie in one of his exceedingly annoying I'm-bored-so-I'll-pretend-to-smile-as-if-I'm-hiding-something-but-really-I'm-not performances. Hopper hides behind a bottle and Williams hides behind his shades, two veteran performers sticking closely to stereotypes.

Rumble Fish may look tasty, but it emits the unmistakable odour of a spoilt catch.

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