Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Movie Review: American Gangster (2007)

An epic gangster's tale inspired by real events, American Gangster is a potent mix of low key audaciousness. As told by director Ridley Scott, the story of the rise and fall of drug lord Frank Lucas is quietly absorbing without veering into amplified dramatics.

In Harlem of the late 1960s, elderly local crime boss Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson (Clarence Williams III) dies, leaving his loyal driver and assistant Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) in charge of his fledgling operations. In the meantime, New Jersey police detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) makes himself extremely unpopular by turning in one million dollars worth of crime money that he found in the trunk of a criminal's car. With the police department rife with corruption and officers on the take, Richie's actions mean that he is shunned by fellow officers, while his home life is also falling apart.

Frank is ambitious but prefers to keep a low profile compared to the other flashy criminals trying to fill the vacuum created by Bumpy's demise. Frank spots an opportunity to mass import high quality heroin directly from the jungles of Vietnam on board US military cargo planes, and recruits his extended family, including his brother Huey (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to control the preparation and distribution of the drug under the Blue Magic brand. Frank is soon extremely wealthy and in control of the New York drug market, and marries Puerto Rican beauty queen Eva (Lymari Nadal). The higher quality and lower price of his product cause an addiction epidemic, and also antagonize the established Mafia families represented by Dominic Cattano (Armand Assante).

Richie is invited to lead a specialized anti-drug police unit, and assembles a group of unconventional but effective street-wise police detectives who start to investigate the drug kings of New Jersey and New York. With the impending end of the Vietnam War threatening Frank's supply of drugs, Richie gradually uncovers the remarkable extent of Frank's operations, and starts to look for an informer to bring down the drug empire.

A worthy addition to the collection of grand films about crime as a serious family business, American Gangster has a luxurious scope and monumental stamina. Despite a running length of close to 160 minutes, the film never loses momentum, screenwriter Steve Zaillian keeping two stories moving briskly in parallel, both inspired by exceptional real men but with artistic licence exercised to create a movie event.

Frank's surreptitious rise to the top of the New York drug world is an epic tale of the quiet black American man who out-manoeuvred his competition and dominated the market, peddling misery to the masses while enriching his family. Richie is as remarkable for being the straight cop in a sea of corruption, exorcised for doing his job but finding his calling in the pursuit of drug lords. Scott's challenge is that the two men only meet in the final 20 minutes, and this is handsomely overcome by drawing two trajectories that are clearly destined to come together but that are also robust enough to stand alone.

In a film packed with on-location shooting, Scott recreates Harlem and other New York locations of the late 1960s and early 1970s, a rotting apple where drugs, crime, misery and death flourish in the rampant urban decay. Frank heartlessly takes advantage of the downtrodden within the despair, his obsession with dignity standing in stark contrast with the plague that his neatly packaged heroin unleashes on the residents of his crumbling neighbourhoods.

In support of the excellent Washington and Crowe, American Gangster boasts an impressively deep cast, with small but important roles for Ruby Dee as Frank's mother, Josh Brolin as a corrupt New York City police detective, Cuba Gooding Jr. as a nightclub owner distributing Blue Magic, and Idris Elba as Tango, Frank's rival for control of Harlem after Bumpy's death.

The film is driven by the two main characters and has only one traditional cinematic action scene, a raid on a drug lab. Otherwise the menace of drugs seeping into the pores of society poses a greater threat than any number of chases or shoot-outs. Frank has to eliminate one competitor to make a statement, and he later becomes the subject of a mysterious assassination attempt, but otherwise American Gangster succeeds in creating a depressing canvass where death prevails through the mundane business of addiction rather than combat. As men like Frank Lucas know only too well, controlled, self-administered, and wide-spread violence that is unseen and unheard can be the most damaging - and the most lucrative.

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Monday, 30 December 2013

Movie Review: The Mummy (1999)

A rollicking adventure in the style of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, The Mummy ditches any serious pretenses and just focuses on delivering large doses of mindless fun.

In ancient Egypt, High Priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) commits the ultimate betrayal by falling in love with Ankh-sun-Namun (Patricia Velásquez), who belongs solely to the Pharaoh. When the sin is revealed, Namun commits suicide, while Imhotep receives the worst possible fate: he is mummified alive and entombed with flesh eating bugs. They are buried in Hamunaptra, the city of the dead. Imhotep has the powers to dominate the world and resurrect his lover, if he himself is revived with readings from the book of the dead.

In the mid 1920s, adventurer Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser) is part of garrison that stumbles onto the ruins of the now lost city of Hamunaptra, where he is abandoned in battle by the coward Beni (Kevin J. O'Connor). Back in Cairo, spunky librarian and amateur Egyptologist Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) is clumsy enough to wreck a library room, much to the disgust of head librarian Dr Terrence Bay (Erick Avari). Evelyn saves Rick from hanging, and they team up with Evelyn's brother Jonathan (John Hannah) and go in search of the treasures of Hamunaptra. But they are not alone: Beni is leading another expedition to the same city, while a tribe of warriors under the leadership of Ardeth Bay (Oded Fehr) is entrusted with ensuring that no-one revives the mummy.

Rick: Is he supposed to look like that?
Evelyn: No – no, I've never seen a mummy look like this before, he's still – still –
Jonathan and Rick: Juicy.

The Mummy hints at, rather than fleshes out, anything that may get into the way of the non-stop action. The characters of O'Connell, Evelyn and Jonathan are barely provided with any sort of a backstory. O'Connell is the American adventurer, Evelyn the clumsy librarian, and Jonathan the haughty Brit abroad, and that's all that the script, by director Stephen Sommers, is willing to offer. And in Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz (in 1999) and John Hannah, the film is not exactly radiating with star power.

As for the story, it matters even less. A pre-credit sequence introduces Imhotep, his lover Ankh-sun-Namun, and their miserable fate, but that's where the history and science end. Sommers is keen to get to the ancient flesh-eating bugs, the reanimated mummies, and all sorts of dead rising to rumble, leaving the whys, wherefores, and what-abouts for other movies to ponder.

Rick: Well, if it ain't my little buddy Beni! I think I'll kill you.(readies gun)
Beni: Think of my children!
Rick: You don't have any children.
Beni: ... Some day I might.

What The Mummy lacks in star talent, charisma, and story depth, it makes up for in pure effort, a steady stream of sharp humour, and good special effects. There are some excellent one-liners and dialogue exchanges, and the action scenes are delivered with joyful bombast. The Mummy generates a strong, uninterrupted current of kinetic energy, the reservoir of suspended disbelief put to good use in powering two hours of tongue-in-cheek shoot-outs, sword fights, chases, dark magic throughout Egypt, and the obligatory romance-with-rough-beginnings between Evelyn and Rick. The special effects are enjoyable for the era, the revived mummy suitably disgusting, the flesh eating insects yucky, and Imhotep's army of skeletal guards funny in the most rickety way.

Dr. Bey: We are part of an ancient secret society. For over three thousand years we have guarded the City of the Dead. We are sworn at manhood to do any and all in our power to stop the High Priest Imhotep from being reborn into this world.
Ardeth Bay: Now, because of you, we have failed.
Evelyn: And you think this justifies the killing of innocent people?
Dr. Bey: To stop this creature? Let me think...
Ardeth Bay, Dr. Bey: YES!

Fraser dives into the role of Rick O'Connell with no hesitation, all-in to create a more robust, less intellectual Indiana Jones-type character. Weisz struggles a bit to find a line on the resourceful yet clumsy librarian who turns into a desert adventuress, Evelyn written more as a mish-mash from other characters without a defining quality of her own. John Hannah has plenty of fun as Jonathan, and gets to play the role of romance observer, in over his head when it comes to violence but helpful in spite of himself.

Evie: You swear?
Rick: Every damn day.

Lacking a sharp brain but otherwise full of vigour, The Mummy unwraps dollops of amusing silliness.

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Sunday, 29 December 2013

Movie Review: Dark Victory (1939)

A life-in-the-face-of-death drama, Dark Victory is enlivened by a radiant Bette Davis performance but otherwise marches straight ahead to its inevitable conclusion.

Society girl Judith Traherne (Davis) enjoys the Long Island rich life of upper class parties, friends, suitors and business associates, including the wealthy Alec Hamm (Ronald Reagan). Her secretary Ann King (Geraldine Fitzgerald) is also her best friend and close confidant. Even stablehand Michael (Humphrey Bogart) is infatuated with her. When Judith has a riding accident caused by blurred vision and a persistent headache, Ann insists that she consults with a doctor.

Judith's family doctor Parsons (Henry Travers) connects her with brain specialist doctor Frederick Steele (George Brent), who is about to close his practice and move to Vermont to concentrate on the growing field of brain disease research. Steele pushes past Judith's denial and diagnoses her with a brain tumour. He operates and she recovers, but Steele's subsequent diagnosis indicates that the tumour will return and Judith will lose her eyesight and die within a few months. Steele is falling in love with his patient, and decides to not tell her about her fate in an attempt to give her some months of happiness.

A straight-ahead weepy drama, Dark Victory builds up to a melodramatic ending on the shoulders of Davis' performance. She dominates the film as Judith comes to terms with her fate, journeying from denial to hope after the first operation, then anger, love and acceptance. Director Edmund Goulding carefully constructs the film around his leading lady, and she sets the emotional tone on the journey to a prolonged, melancholy (and quite blatantly manipulative) denouement designed to release the floodgates of tears, at least for the audiences of the day, not yet exposed to the myriad of disease-of-the-week television productions.

Of the rest of the cast, Fitzgerald as best friend Ann provides a stable point of reference for Judith's ordeal. George Brent is adequate, and provided with reasonable depth as a doctor ready to move away from his practice but finally finding a compelling case and an enthralling patient to delay his career move into research.

Not much else happens in Dark Victory, as the characters of Michael (a gruff Humphrey Bogart on the cusp of stardom) and Alec (Ronald Reagan trying for smooth but achieving awkward) are sketched in but given relatively little to do. There is a minor sub-plot involving Judith and Michael engaging in a running debate about the potential of Challenger, one of Judith's horses, but that story never seems to leave the stable.

Dark Victory establishes modest goals and attains them easily, not as much a stunning victory as a typically polished achievement for Ms. Davis.

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Saturday, 28 December 2013

Movie Review: The Living Daylights (1987)

The launch of the post-Roger Moore era of James Bond adventures is well-intentioned, but nevertheless results in a painful debacle. Timothy Dalton's turn as a more intense and darker Bond is hopelessly undermined by one of the worst plots in the series.

In Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, Soviet General Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé) arranges a defection to the west, facilitated by British agents Bond (Dalton) and Saunders (Thomas Wheatley). Bond's assignment is to neutralize KGB sniper Kara Milovy (Maryam d'Abo), a classical cellist, but he senses that she is a rank amateur in the sniper game and spares her life. During his debriefing with British intelligence Koskov reveals that the KGB's General Leonid Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies) is intent in starting a tit-for-tat assassination duel with the west, and prods the British to eliminate Pushkin first. Assisted by henchman Necros (Andreas Wisniewski), Koskov then arranges his escape from England.

Bond suspects that Koskov is behind the plot to force the British and Soviet intelligence services into an unnecessary war to eliminate Pushkin. Bond tracks down Kara, who turns out to be Koskov's girlfriend, and then goes after Koskov, who is in cahoots with Tangier-based American arms trader Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker) to profit from the sale of advanced weaponry to the Soviet army in Afghanistan. Koskov also wants to profit from a large opium deal, paid for by diamonds, with the Afghan Mujahideen. Bond and Kara team up with guerrilla leader Kamran Shah (Art Malik) to thwart the plan.

Outlandish fake defections, amateur sniper girlfriends, arms trading, illicit diamonds, adversaries conducting opium deals, agent assassinations, and the Afghanistan war: The Living Daylights is all over the place in a plot that grows more incoherent and less relevant by the minute. And in Koskov and Whitaker, the screenplay stumbles upon two bland and buffoonish villains, neither of them remotely intimidating. A sapless title song by one hit wonder Norwegian group a-Ha does not help.

However, in the central role Dalton is a marked improvement over Moore's final few outings. He brings a welcome serious determination to Bond, his personality more brooding, the interactions with M more abrupt and grim. Dalton is also physically much more believable as Bond, and performs many of his stunts to reclaim a sense of personal danger and realism.

But when it comes to actual acting and demonstrating romance, he is stiff and uncomfortable, director John Glen unable to liberate any natural sophistication from his new Bond. The scenes with Dalton and d'Abo stumbling across Europe are excruciatingly uncomfortable, Dalton's attempts at acting suave landing with a thud, and d'Abo coming across like a giddy teenager swept into a school trip with no defined purpose.

The Living Daylights is unique in depriving Bond of any on-screen intimate moments, the sexual coupling at best implied and more than likely awkward. Dalton's dourness and abject lack of charm do not earn the pleasures of a partner in a luxurious king-sized bed.

The action scenes are prolonged way beyond their content and materiality. Bond and Kara escape across the snowy mountains by sledding on her cello case in an interminable chase, while a sort of a climactic battle at a Soviet airbase goes on forever, Bond inexplicably taking off in a cargo plane rigged to explode, only to be followed by an equally tedious fight to the death between Bond and Necros.

Despite getting younger and fitter, The Living Daylights commits an unforgivable Bond sin: it is resoundingly unmemorable.

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Friday, 27 December 2013

Movie Review: Three Little Words (1950)

A biography of the Bert Kalmar - Harry Ruby songwriting team, Three Little Words is an infectiously bubbly celebration of musical creativity and friendship.

It's the early 1900s, and Bert Kalmar (Fred Astaire) forms a successful vaudeville dance partnership with Jessie Brown (Vera-Ellen). Kalmar is full of show business ideas and ambition, and wants to also prove himself as a magician. Harry Ruby (Red Skelton) is a piano plugger, wannabe baseball player, and struggling to get his music writing noticed. The two have a disastrous first encounter, with Harry inadvertently wrecking Bert's magic show.

A backstage accident injures Bert's knee, forcing him to temporarily retire from dancing. Another fortuitous meeting with Harry results in their writing a hit song, Bert providing the lyrics to Harry's music. A series of hit songs follow, and the partnership grows to include stage shows and movie soundtracks. The men also develop a deep friendship, Harry helping Bert and Jessie to reconnect and get married, while Bert and Jessie together save Harry from a series of disastrous relationships before he finally settles down with screen star Eileen Percy (Arlene Dahl). But every friendship has its rough spots, and Bert and Harry have disagreements that seriously threaten their partnership.

A perfectly constructed film, Three Little Words is one of the more underrated classic musicals. Finding an impeccable balance between dancing, singing, comedy and story, the movie just simply works as a seamless whole. Within the packed 100 minute running length, director Richard Thorpe gives each element of the film its proper due, and the result is an experience with just the right ingredients mixed in just the appropriate amounts.

Astaire and Vera-Ellen are a formidable dance team. She is full of balletic energy and fluid leggy seductiveness as she partners Astaire in the classic Where Did You Get That Girl? and the much more modern and thoroughly delightful Mr. and Mrs. Hoofer At Home. She then goes it alone with Come On, Papa before they team up again the the beautifully dreamy Thinking Of You.

The songs are just as good, and Three Little Words explores that always mystical and sometime frustrating process of creating a successful song. Sometimes every word is a struggle, while at other times inspiration just descends in the middle of the night. My Sunny TennesseeSo Long, OO-LongWho's Sorry Now? (sung by Gloria DeHaven), Nevertheless (I'm in Love with You), and I Wanna Be Loved by You (featuring one of Debbie Reynolds' earliest performances as the boop-boop-a-doop girl Helen Kane) are all featured. And the film's running joke is Bert's long-term inability to find lyrics to a simple Harry tune, which finally ends up being Three Little Words.

The George Wells screenplay effortlessly weaves the song and dance numbers into the story, and keeps them short and sharp. The result is that rare movie in which the music only enhances the narrative, without unnecessarily interrupting or delaying it. At its heart Three Little Words never forgets that this is a story about a friendship and a partnership between two real people, and the relationship is portrayed with all the magic moments and troubled patches that emerge when two men work closely together over the decades.

The presence of Skelton adds a natural dose of comedy, Harry portrayed as a well-meaning, positive personality, but susceptible to getting himself into trouble. Astaire gets to dance, sing and act in one his most well-rounded performances, while Keenan Wynn provides his reliable support as Bert's agent Charlie Kope.

Greatness arrives in modest packages. The words may be little, but the success is large.

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Thursday, 26 December 2013

Movie Review: Forbidden Planet (1956)

A psychological interplanetary science fiction adventure, Forbidden Planet is an impressive romp through the galaxies, briskly paced without fully avoiding all the space debris.

In the distant future, humanity has conquered travel at multiples of light speed and colonized deep space. Commander John J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen) captains United Planets Cruiser C57-D towards Altair IV, a distant desert-like planet but with an atmosphere than can sustain life. Adams' mission is to discover the fate of the Bellerophon expedition that landed on Altair twenty years prior, but subsequently lost contact with Earth. Approaching the planet, Adams makes contact with Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), a language expert and apparently the only survivor from the Bellerophon. Morbius warns Adams to stay away from Altair, but the commander insists on landing anyway.

Once on the ground, Adams and his crew meet the resourceful Robby the Robot, who escorts them to Morbius' compound. The scientist explains that an unknown force killed all the other members of the Bellerophon expedition, but spared Morbius and his wife, who subsequently died of natural causes. Morbius now lives alone on the planet with his daughter Alta (Anne Francis). The innocent Alta and her skimpy outfits cause havoc among Adams' companionship-starved crewmen. When C57-D is mysteriously vandalized, Morbius explains that he is studying the scripts and inventions left behind by the Krell, a vastly superior and technologically advanced ancient race, now extinct, that used to inhabit Altair. With Alta falling in love with Adams, a rampaging, indestructible and invisible monster attacks C57-D and its crew, forcing Adams to untangle the secrets of Morbius and the Krell.

An entertaining gallop to the inner recesses of space and the human mind, Forbidden Planet boasts good special effects for the era, and a combination of wonder, science and mental sparring. Director Fred M. Wilcox, working from Cyril Hume's script, does struggle to find the right balance in amongst all the pieces of the puzzle. Once C57-D lands on Altair, too much time is invested in sex-deprived men lusting after Alta. The scenes featuring Adams and his Lieutenant "Doc" Ostrow (Warren Stevens) clumsily wooing Alta or castigating her for wearing what she likes are creaky in the extreme and have not aged well.

The cast is mostly stuck in 1950s earnest stiffness, Leslie Nielsen failing to add any sort of nuance to Commander Adams and his crewmates playing their role straight out of a World War Two naval deployment. In contrast Walter Pidgeon dominates his surroundings with a towering, almost theatrical performance as a scientist engrossed in studying superior works, and now with a mental capacity far ahead of his race.

Better are the interactions with the eternally cute Robby the Robot, created by Morbius thanks to his learnings from the Krell. A cinematic legend, the resourceful Robby becomes an essential member of the cast, his legacy living on with the film's stature.

The film's hits its peak with the introduction of the Krell technology, Morbius unveiling the massive machinery, inexhaustible power supply, and intelligence-enhancing inventions left behind by the ancient race. The battle with the monster as it attacks the spaceship is another highlight, the special effects team creating a virtual rampaging presence, able to withstand everything that Adams' defensive batteries can throw at it.

The final explanation linking the monster, the Krell and Morbius is rushed, perhaps to avoid any unnecessary scrutiny as unconstrained scientific achievements collide with the in-built frailties of both the Krell and human minds. The climax is satisfying nonetheless, Forbidden Planet ending with a literal and figurative bang. Traveling in space is dangerous, but the dark secrets of the brain could be as treacherous as any intergalactic expedition.

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Wednesday, 25 December 2013

CD Review: Built To Destroy, by The Michael Schenker Group (1983)

The fourth album from Michael Schenker's band of frequently re-assembled components, Built To Destroy reunites vocalist Gary Barden with the group, and adds Andy Nye as a full-time keyboardist. Chris Glen and Ted McKenna keep their place on bass and drums respectively, not that either of them gets a prominent role.

Other than the impressively destructive cover, the centrepiece of the album, and really the main reason for it to exist, is the brilliant I'm Gonna Make You Mine. The band pulls together a tight, muscular track, Barden's vocals finally straining towards an edge, and Schenker unleashing glory with a short but stunning solo, all backed by Nye's steady work on the keyboards.

Rock My Nights Away is a bouncy enough opener, but kicking off with poppy keyboards is not exactly aiming for the heart of metal. Captain Nemo is a creditable instrumental, Schenker shaking loose and leading from the front across the wide open skies with some soulful melodies. And album closer Rock Will Never Die (Walk The Stage) demonstrates some inspired spirit.

The album otherwise consists of average pop-rock-metal hybrid tracks occasionally enlivened by signature solos, but the compositions are generally bland and uninspired. And some selections emit the atrocious stench of filler, including the seriously awful Still Love That Little Devil. This being the group's fourth album in four years, there is writing fatigue evident throughout the album, and indeed it would prove to be the final studio record under the Michael Schenker Group brand until 1996.

Built To Destroy has one impressive spike, but is a rather whimpery end to one of the many phases in Schenker's career.


Gary Barden - vocals
Michael Schenker - guitar
Chris Glen - bass
Andy Nye - keyboards
Ted McKenna - drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Rock My Nights Away - 8
2. I'm Gonna Make You Mine - 10
3. The Dogs Of War - 7
4. Systems Failing - 7
5. Captain Nemo - 8
6. Still Love That Little Devil - 5
7. Red Sky - 7
8. Time Waits (For No One) - 6
9. Rock Will Never Die (Walk The Stage) - 8

Average: 7.33

Produced and Mixed by The Michael Schenker Group and Louis Austin.
Engineered by Louis Austin.

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Movie Review: Never Say Never Again (1983)

An independently produced but big-budget James Bond adventure, Never Say Never Again has Sean Connery returning for the last time to the role of Bond after a 12 year absence. He enjoys poking gentle fun at his image in an otherwise unnecessary remake of Thunderball.

While at a health clinic to get back into shape, Bond (Connery) notices a nervous patient called Jack Petachi (Gavan O'Herlihy), an airforce pilot, undergoing a retinal procedure and being tended to by the luscious Fatima Blush (Barbara Carrera) a SPECTRE agent pretending to be a nurse. Bond survives an assassination attempt, then Petachi uses his fake eye to help SPECTRE steal two nuclear warheads from NATO before being killed by Blush. The plot is the brainchild of Maximillian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer), a senior SPECTRE operative who now wants to blackmail the world.

Bond tracks down Largo to a yacht in the Bahamas, where he meets Domino Petachi (Kim Basinger), held by Largo as a combination hostage and lover, and as a lever to control her brother Jack. Bond and Largo duel over an elaborate video game, then Bond attempts to turn Domino into an ally by informing her of her brother's death. After a stop in Nice where Bond tangles with Blush, Bond has to try and rescue Domino while stopping Largo from proceeding with plans to bury one of the warheads below the oilfields of the Middle East.

Co-produced by Kevin McClory as part of his long-running claim to elements of Ian Fleming's Thunderball story, Never Say Never Again enjoys a reasonably brisk opening 45 minutes. Connery quickly gets back into the groove, not shying away from plenty of comments about his age, and criticisms about his abilities from M (Edward Fox). At 53 years old Connery looks passably fit and reasonably believable as a secret agent, and he brings enough intensity and his trademark confidence to generate satisfactory dynamism.

The scenes at the health clinic, the video duel with Largo, and the tango dance with Domino are sharply executed and classy, and carry enough of a dangerous edge to build up adequate momentum. But the film then stalls quite noticeably, with the second half drifting into slow moving non-event. Largo's yacht seems to take forever to reach its final destination. A detour to an encounter with Arab slave traders proves to be a perfunctory excuse to tie a half-dressed Domino to the stake and surround her with medieval tribesmen foaming at the mouth, as a hackneyed set-up for an unconvincing rescue. Rowan Atkinson does not help matters with a comic relief appearance as a Foreign Office representative in the Bahamas, neither do ridiculous remote-controlled live sharks.

Only a motorcycle chase between Bond and Fatima Blush livens things up, the maniacal assassin proving to be a colourful and demented adversary. Barbara Carrera has plenty of fun in the role, her wild costumes and supreme self-confidence creating a combustible combination. In contrast, Basinger is given next to nothing to do, her early dance with Connery the only highlight as she gradually disappears into a passive non-entity. Her late commitment to avenge her brother's death is unconvincing. Brandauer gets plenty of screentime but is nevertheless one of the less memorable Bond villains, while Max Von Sydow appears briefly as a Blofeld.

Director Irvin Kershner sleepily steers the action towards a limp climax, a shoot-out in an underwater cave where Largo's men are clumsily attempting to place the warhead just so, giving Bond and the CIA's Felix Leiter (Bernie Casey) plenty of time to mount an offensive. Never Say Never Again uncovers just enough of the old Connery magic to justify the effort, but although never is a long time, even he can now say enough is enough.

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Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Movie Review: Grand Prix (1966)

An ambitious journey into the soul of elite motor racing, Grand Prix finds the heartbeat of Formula 1 deep within the majesty of the roaring machinery.

Four drivers are among the front runners for the 1966 Formula 1 title. American Pete Aron (James Garner) of the BRM team (and formerly with Ferrari) is fast but prone to mistakes. At the Monaco race, Aron's refusal to give way causes a serious collision with his teammate Englishman Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford). Stoddard, who races in the shadow of his deceased brother, is injured and misses several races, His headstrong wife Pat (Jessica Walter) is fed-up with loving a man living on the edge and leaves him while he is still in hospital. Meanwhile, Aron is fired from the BRM team for reckless driving.

The Ferrari team are BRM's closest challengers. Veteran driver and two-time champion Frenchman Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand) is still the fastest man on most days, but he is starting to lose his motivation. Sarti is stuck in a loveless, distant marriage with businesswoman Monique (Genvieve Page), and starts a relationship with American journalist Louise (Eva Marie Saint). Sarti's team mate is young Italian Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato), who lives the fast life on and off the track.

Aron hooks up with Pat, is hired by the fledgling Yamura team financed by tycoon Izo Yamura (Toshiro Mifune), and finally finds his winning form. Stoddard returns to racing despite the pain of his injuries, and more determined than ever, goes on a winning streak. With Sarti and Barlini also picking up victories, all four men enter the final race of the season in the hunt for the coveted championship.

Director John Frankenheimer creates a three hour masterpiece that celebrates both the men and the machines involved in the international pinnacle of motor racing. Large segments of Grand Prix consist of racing action from races at the legendary street circuit of Monaco, the dangerously fast and incredibly scenic Spa in Belgium, Zandvoort in Holland, Clermont Ferrand in France, Silverstone in England and the final showdown at the imposing Monza in Italy, with its intimidating steeply banked corners.

Other than playing with split-screen imagery, Frankenheimer uses no tricks, and just mounts his cameras at every possible angle on the cars, capturing the pure raw speed, incredible danger and classic beauty of racing in the mid 1960s. This was the era of rudimentary safety protocols, with drivers facing the risk of serious crashes, injury and death at every corner. The visuals are stunning, with the cars blasting at top speed past unprotected poles, trees, spectators and structures.

Great as the racing sequences are, the Robert Alan Aurthur script goes looking for the lives and loves of the men inside the cars, and finds a cross-section of drivers at various career stages. The most prominent role goes to Montand as Jean-Pierre Sarti, the ex-champion who has won it all, and who has learned to close his heart to the agony of others as he drives even faster to take advantage of serious crashes on the track. Louise awakens in Sarti emotions that he had forgotten actually mattered, accelerating his demotivation from the sport, although he can't help being better than most other drivers anyway.

James Garner as Pete Aron takes centre stage early in the film, a driver seemingly heading backwards in his career. Aron used to know how to win at Ferrari but is struggling at BRM, unsatisfied with the machinery and unable to cope with a faster teammate. Bounced out of the sport and rejected by Ferrari, Aron has nothing left to lose by joining the unproven Yamura, where he discovers an unlikely mentor to reignite his passion.

Stoddard's story is the most compelling, the driven Englishman trying to live up to the legend of his brother, racing against a dead ghost rather than his modern competitors. Stoddard overcomes his injuries, the loss of Pat, and his own demons to make a winning return to the track, an encapsulation of the mental strength required to dance with death at every corner. Barlini is at the opposite end of the curve from Sarti, young, care-free and indestructible, enjoying the jet-setting single life with no second thoughts.

The women of Formula 1 learn quickly not to care too much about what happens to their men. Monique is an absentee wife, living her own high-flying life and perceiving Sarti as one element in her business empire. Pat's reaction to Stoddard's crash is one of selfish detachment, and she abandons him in his hour of greatest need, jumping into the arms of Aron. Only Louise, a newcomer to the circus, falls into the dangerous territory of a serious and committed relationship with Sarti.

The Formula 1 world is rounded out with rich secondary characters played by Adolfo Celi as the Ferrari team boss, Mifune representing the new breed of Japanese industrialists bent on conquering the world with technology, and Jack Watson as the BRM team manager.

Frankenheimer finds the right balance between the racing scenes and character development, and as the season heads to a climax at the monstrous Monza, the four leading drivers all have reasons to win and plenty to lose.

Grand Prix is an exhilarating celebration of the men addicted to the thrill of racing with an unknown destiny, speeding into magnificent madness.

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Sunday, 22 December 2013

Movie Review: Moonraker (1979)

With Star Wars all the rage, James Bond gets his own space opera. Moonraker is extremely silly and immensely entertaining, one of the most over-the-top and bombastic entries in the series.

A Moonraker space shuttle is hijacked off the back of an RAF transport 747. Finishing a mission, James Bond (Roger Moore) survives a free-fall from an airplane and fends off an assassination attempt by Jaws (Richard Kiel), his foe from The Spy Who Loved Me. Bond is then assigned the task of finding out what happened to Moonraker. He visits the sprawling California compound of Drax Industries, the company that builds the shuttle, and meets the mysterious and extremely wealthy Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale). Bond receives help from Drax's helicopter pilot Corinne (Corinne Clery), meets on-loan NASA scientist Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles), and tangles with Drax's assassin, martial arts expert Chang (Toshiro Suga).

The trail leads to a glass manufacturing operation in Venice, where Bond uncovers a nerve gas, deadly to humans but harmless to animals, being packaged into vials and special spheres. He dispatches Chang and forms an uneasy alliance with Goodhead, revealed to be a CIA agent also investigating Drax. The next stop is Rio de Janeiro, where Jaws makes a reappearance, now working for Drax as a replacement for Chang. Finally Bond tracks down the plot deep into the Amazon jungle, where Drax has readied six Moonrakers to transport a group of perfect human beings to an orbiting space station, from where the nerve gas spheres will be dropped onto Earth, annihilating humanity.

Moonraker was rushed past the previously planned For Your Eyes Only to cash in on the surge in popularity of science fiction movies ignited by Star Wars and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Pushing the successful formula of The Spy Who Love Me beyond the limit, Moonraker often errs on the side of campy humour, an attitude that risks diminishing the adventure to farcical levels. Even by Bond standards, the plot, a rehash of Spy but set in space rather under the ocean, does not survive any level of scrutiny.

But the film's weaknesses have more to do with too much Jaws, too many blatant product placements, and some extremely limp chase sequences. Two separate boat action sequences sink without a trace, a particularly insipid gondola chase in Venice is played for cheap laughs, while a motorboat chase in the Amazon is mind numbingly predictable. That Jaws finally changes sides and falls in love summarizes how hard Moonraker was trying to appeal to the inner child within the audience.

But Moonraker also offers up grand, big-budget fun. The opening free-fall battle for a parachute stunt is ridiculously audacious, and the fight between Bond and Chang in the Venetian glass showroom is a gem. Also clever is Bond outsmarting Drax's sniper with a hunting rifle. Bond gets to bed a succession of women, Corinne, Holly and Brazilian contact Manuela (Emily Bolton) all succumbing to his seduction, while the final I think he's attempting re-entry, sir double entendre is simply classic. Moore is in fine form, if just on the wrong side of the required physical fitness.

When the plot moves to space, scenes alternate between satisfying and clunky. The film preceded any actual space shuttle launches, and deserves high marks for reasonably accurately portraying what would become routine only several years later. The space travel special effects are good for the era, and Drax's space station is an impressive, fantastical creation. While the laser battle in space is botched into incoherence, Gilbert reliably delivers the requisite high energy climactic action within the space station.

Moonraker is breathless and sometimes out of breath, Bond's most inflated adventure with too much of everything, quantity overpowering quality but doing enough to maintain the momentum of the series into a new decade.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Movie Review: Cape Fear (1991)

A tense journey into unyielding terror, Cape Fear is an exceptional drama. Martin Scorsese creates an epic nightmare as one family's life is ravaged by an ex-convict hell bent on revenge.

Max Cady (Robert De Niro) is released from prison after serving 14 years for viciously raping a teenager. He immediately goes to the quaint town of New Essex, North Carolina, where lawyer Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) lives with his wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) and 15 year old daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis). Sam was the Georgia public defendant tasked with representing Max. Convinced that Max was guilty, Sam buried an investigative report that could have helped to acquit his client. In prison, Max not only worked on achieving supreme physical fitness, but also educated himself and uncovered Sam's unethical behaviour. He now wants revenge for the lost years of his life.

Sam's marriage to Leigh is already in trouble, with Sam's eyes wandering towards court clerk Lori (Illeana Douglas), while Danielle is in rebellion against her parents. But Sam's troubles multiply when Max starts to stalk the family's every move. Leigh's dog dies suspiciously, and Lori is brutally raped by Max, but refuses to testify for fear that her relationship with Sam may be revealed. Max becomes more brazen, arranging to meet Danielle alone, showering her with flattery and attempting to turn her against her parents. Sam receives no help from the police, and in desperation turns to private investigator Claude Kersek (Joe Don Baker) for help. Kersek arranges for Max to receive a back alley beating, but the attempt at thuggery fails. Sam finds his house under siege, his family threatened, and no way to turn back a man obsessed with his own twisted brand of justice.

A remake of the 1962 film starring Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck, Scorsese infuses his version with psycho-sexual and religious overtones that amplify the creepiness factor. Cady is not only evil and physically indestructible, he is a sexual predator on the hunt for new young victims, with Danielle his ideal target. He is also a philosopher fuelled by deviant religious fervour gained from devouring the Bible while in prison. Scorsese turns Cady into a heinous force of nature rather than a man, De Niro responding with wiry performance filled with barely restrained intensity.

Cape Fear builds tension surely and steadily. The film offers no relief, no humour, and no respite. With every scene, Scorsese nudges Sam Bowden's life closer towards the precipice, Cady's presence nibbling away at any security and comfort not already damaged by the simmering resentment between Sam and Leigh. By the time Sam packs up his family and starts the long drive to Cape Fear, fear is ironically the only thing holding Sam, Leigh and Danielle together.

The film is filled with memorable moments, including the dark alley fight with Cady taking on three goons hired by Kersek to solve Sam's problem, the game of stealth that ends with sheer bloody horror as Kersek attempts to lay a trap for Cady at Sam's house, and Cady's unique method of transportation to Cape Fear.

But the film's most hypnotizing scene is the encounter between Max and Danielle at the empty theatre, a meeting of Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf in man's clothing. It's a long scene, filmed by Scorsese with acute patience, as Max psychologically wraps Danielle around his figurative finger by preying on her burgeoning independence, and then literally uses his finger to dominate her by triggering her latent sexuality. It's a terrifying, asymmetrical confrontation, a demonstration of how much damage Max can deliver without even resorting to violence. Both De Niro and Lewis received deserved Academy Award acting nominations.

While Nick Nolte's Sam is more of a passive victim, Jessica Lange gives Leigh a full role in the mounting horror. Lange makes the most of the unresolved issues of betrayal harboured by Leigh towards Sam, and shines when it's time to defend her daughter at all costs, the only time that any character comes close to penetrating Cady's formidable psychological defences. Elsewhere in the cast, small roles for Peck, Mitchum and Martin Balsam provide a strong linkage back to the 1962 original.

With the blunders of the past re-emerging to haunt an imperfect present, Cape Fear is a classy experience in relentless horror.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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