Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Movie Review: Any Given Sunday (1999)


Oliver Stone moves his exploration of brutal conflict from the battlefields of war to the playing fields of gridiron football. Any Given Sunday is a drama-packed thesis on the eternal struggle to win the game, win in business, and win at life through the lens of unforgiving sport.

Tony D'Amato (Al Pacino) is the ageing head coach of the Miami Sharks, a football team with a winning history but now on a three-game losing streak and struggling to make the play-offs. The team's star veteran quarterback Jack Rooney (Dennis Quaid) and his back-up both go down injured in the same game, forcing the untested third-stringer Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx) into action. The team's owner Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz) is busy pressuring politicians to secure a taxpayer-funded new stadium. She doesn't like the losing streak, and clashes with D'Amato. Offensive Coordinator Nick Crozier (Aaron Eckhart) is younger and more technologically savvy, and waiting in the wings to nudge Tony out of the head coach position.

Beamen's athleticism provides a spark to the team for a few games, and he becomes the latest league sensation, but he plays for himself and disrespects both the team ethos and the traditions of the game. Meanwhile, team doctor Dr. Harvey Mandrake (James Woods) turns a blind eye to potentially serious injuries to keep the star players active, horrifying the idealistic new medical intern Dr. "Ollie" Powers (Matthew Modine). As D'Amato battles to save the season, his job and his reputation, Christina runs afoul of the league commissioner (Charlton Heston), Rooney has to decide if his battered body has any football left in it, and Beamen discovers what it takes to find genuine success on the football battlefield.

Stone compacts several seasons worth of drama into a few games, Any Given Sunday not leaving any possible professional sports hot issue unexplored. The overnight sensation, the pummelled veterans, the conniving owner, the cunning but maybe past-it coach, the scheming assistant coach looking to kill the king, the doctor who sold his soul, the idealistic intern, the glory of the team, the hints of racism, the obnoxious sports radio host, the gold-digging women, the sex and drugs, the horrific injuries, the dramatic losses and the incredible wins: if it has ever happened on the pitch or around the owner's board room, it happens in Any Given Sunday.

This much content requires a firm hand at the controls, and Stone delivers with plenty of swagger. At close to 160 minutes, Stone gives himself plenty of time to provide each story with the necessary momentum and a well-defined arch, and the movie never seems neither rushed nor slow. The thunderous on-field action alternates with plenty of scenes to build-up and round-out the key characters, and well before the end credits Tony D'Amato, Jack Rooney, Willie Beamen and Christina Pagniacci have matured into believable and interesting personalities, warts and all.

Stone dives into his large bag of talent and pulls out plenty of flashy style, filled with light tricks, close-ups, silhouettes, and hyper edits, the on-field action only slightly more fast and furious than the world that the athletes, coaches and owners inhabit. In less frantic moments Stone brings the ghosts of football past to life to evoke the spirit of the games' traditions, giving metaphorical meaning to legacy, team spirit and the importance of the collective game over any one individual. And in another memorable scene where Tony and Willie have dinner, the chariot race from Ben Hur plays on Tony's television and embodies the epic struggle of both men.

Throughout the movie, the soundtrack booms out a large number of high energy clips, the music amped up to extra loud and used as a regular jolt of energy in scene transitions. And just as an exclamation point, Stone puts an errant eyeball to use, a literal "you ain't seen nothing yet" statement.

In another of his defining roles, Al Pacino finds the crease where a glorious past meets an uncertain future in the life of a coach. Tony D'Amato is doubted by many, trusted by some, and talked about by all. No one really knows if his best days are behind him or if he still has the necessary magic to turn a group of overpaid individuals into a winning team, and Pacino convincingly conveys Tony's own uncertainty about his ability to cope.

In his first major dramatic outing, Jamie Foxx gets the other dominant role. For long stretches of Any Given Sunday, Foxx's presence is magnetizing, his take on Willie Beamen in keeping with a new breed of athlete in the game for money, girls, parties and personal glory, history and team-mates be damned. Foxx plays Beamen with a bundle of vitality and talent, plus a large axe to grind. His talent comes with his attitude, and his challenge is to find the formula that will transform a short-term phenomenon into long-term success.

Dennis Quaid, Cameron Diaz, James Woods, Aaron Eckhart and Matthew Modine are adequate without setting the screen on fire. Ironically, Diaz's mismatch in acting against Pacino works in her favour, since Christina Pagniacci is struggling to live up to the legacy of her dead father who entrusted her to run the team. LL Cool J and former players Lawrence Taylor and Jim Brown are also in the large cast.

Any Given Sunday is filled with climactic moments on and off the field, justifiably the most famous being Tony delivering an inspirational locker room team talk before a key game. With his own future in doubt and players in turmoil due to internal jealousies and personality conflicts, Tony digs deep to find the core of what it means to be a team.

Tony: We're in hell right now, gentlemen, believe me. And, we can stay here, get the shit kicked out of us, or we can fight our way back into the light. We can climb outta hell, one inch at a time. [...] On this team, we fight for that inch. On this team, we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch. Because we know when we add up all those inches, that's gonna make the fuckin' difference between winnin' and losin'! [...] Now, I can't make you do it. You gotta look at the guy next to you. Look into his eyes! Now I think you're gonna see a guy who will go that inch with ya. You're gonna see a guy who will sacrifice himself for this team because he knows, when it comes down to it, you're gonna do the same for him! That's a team, gentleman! And, either we heal, now, as a team, or we will die as individuals. That's football, guys. That's all it is. Now, what are you gonna do?

Pacino nails the moment with his unique brand of coiled yet wizened intensity. Any Given Sunday does the same: sports as metaphor for life, the reward coming out a direct multiple of the effort going in.






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Monday, 29 April 2013

Movie Review: Marvin's Room (1996)


A drama about the threads that connect siblings across the passing years, Marvin's Room is a weepie with a stellar cast. The performances keep the film afloat, while the story struggles to find a consistent and genuine tone.

In Florida, Bessie (Diane Keaton) has dedicated her life to care for her ailing father Marvin (Hume Cronyn), who is bedridden and hallucinatory. It's been 20 years since Bessie talked with her sister Lee (Meryl Streep), a single mom living in Ohio and struggling to raise two boys: the brooding, angry Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the bookish Charlie (Hal Scardino). Hank's anti-social behaviour descends into arson, and he burns Lee's house to the ground and gets incarcerated in a mental institution for juveniles.

When Dr. Wally (Robert De Niro) diagnoses Bessie with leukaemia, she reconnects with Lee and invites her and the boys to come to Florida to get tested as potential bone marrow donors. As the two sisters get reacquainted their past troubles bubble to the surface, and any potential for new and better relationships between Bessie and her nephews is coloured by Bessie's desperate search for help.

Based on the play by Scott McPherson, Marvin's Room tries hard to find all the right notes. While it's difficult to go wrong with this cast, the emotions rarely strike the desired purity. The behaviours and motivations of Lee, Bessie and Hank are either too crude or change too suddenly, leaving in their wake seemingly entrenched and deeply resentful callow attitudes which nevertheless are subject to head-snapping sharp turns, for no apparent reason except the need to move the script in the general direction of a family reconciliation.

So we get Bessie reaching out to her sister after 20 years of estrangement, Lee responding to Bessie's appeal without a second thought despite being full of anger at her sister, Lee pushing all the obviously wrong buttons in her pitiful attempts at mothering Hank, Bessie immediately finding all the right words to say to her nephew without really trying, and all the family members stumbling into serious attitudinal shifts that sweep away the past with fantastic ease.

Devoid of serious narrative credibility, Marvin's Room is left with an outstanding cast, and any film boasting Keaton, Streep, De Niro and an emerging DiCaprio will pull through. Keaton gets the juiciest part as the woman who has dedicated herself to a dying father now needing help to delay her own death. The shifted reality of Bessie's every move towards Lee and Hank being measured through the lens of Bessie's desperate need for help is a new paradigm for a woman who has always been the one providing the help, rather than asking for it. With measured despair, Keaton walks the fine line between opening her heart to her sister and nephews while withstanding their suspicious scrutiny.

Streep's character is more linear and in many ways easier, Lee the perfect example of clueless mother and selfish sister, and her rather abrupt transformation to a caring human being is one of the incredulous stretches that the script strains to grasp. DiCaprio's role is all about teenage intensity and general rage stemming from an absentee father and disconnected mother, and while Hank undergoes a modest humanization thanks to Bessie's gentle words, it is again an all too amazing change for a deeply angry young man to undergo in a matter of hours. De Niro's inelegant Dr. Wally is a secondary character, mostly deployed for mild comic effect.

With all the acting talent at his disposal director Jerry Zaks, whose experience is mostly on the stage, wisely avoids stylistic distractions and allows the stars to shine. The moderate charms of Marvin's Room reside not as much in the story but in watching master actors performing their craft.






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Saturday, 27 April 2013

Movie Review: Predator (1987)


A man versus monster science fiction war amalgam, Predator is a violence drenched, testosterone fuelled, gore-garnished warriors-in-the-jungle adventure. Arnold Schwarzenegger is perfectly cast as the best that humanity can offer to battle a ruthless alien.

In an unnamed Central American country, a former Green Beret Major who goes by the nickname Dutch (Schwarzenegger) and his squad of five mercenaries are recruited by the CIA's George Dillon (Carl Weathers). Dignitaries have been captured by guerrillas, and Dutch's crew is tasked with penetrating the jungle base of the rebels, rescuing the hostages and getting out. As Dutch and his men sneak up on the guerrilla base, they find evidence that an earlier CIA rescue squad was ambushed and brutally murdered and skinned.

The rebel base is totally destroyed by Dutch and his crew, and they take as prisoner the one insurgent survivor, a woman named Anna (Elpidia Carrillo). But the firefight is just the beginning of the horror in the jungle: as the men struggle to reach the rendezvous point with the extraction chopper, Dutch starts to realize that his men are being stalked by a ruthless, inhuman Predator (Kevin Peter Hall) with tremendous strength and advanced technology, including the ability to camouflage itself by blending into any background. One by one the mercenaries are killed, and it's up to Dutch to face down the alien in an encounter to the death.

The front end of Predator resembles a routine guerrilla war movie, a mission-in-the-jungle carried out by stone-faced men with muscles on their muscles carrying ridiculously large weapons. There are signs here and there of a strange presence amongst the dense trees, but basically the film charts a straight line to a grand, all-guns-blazing prolonged but nevertheless impressive assault on the rebel base, facilitated by machine guns that never run out of ammo and explosions that only hurt the bad guys.

The second half is much better. With betrayals already causing tension between Dutch and Dillon, the military warriors become prey to an efficient killing machine in the form of the ferocious Predator. Director John McTiernan changes gears and delivers a suspense filled hide-and-seek thriller in the dense jungle, as men who are used to dominating their surroundings are suddenly confronted by a much more formidable force.

Inevitably Predator moves to a one man versus one alien climax, as Dutch has to learn new tricks and figure out how to outsmart and hunt down an expert hunter. The final 30 minutes are grand fun and perfectly suited to Schwarzenegger's talents, an almost wordless battle of wits, brutally intense and yet adhering to the rules of mutual respect among well-matched combatants.

McTiernan does not pull back on the gore, constructing Predator as an adult-only zone where gallons of blood and globs of guts soak the jungle floor. The level of violence is both barbarous and necessary to authentically strike fear into the otherwise unconquerable hearts of hardened veterans.

The supporting cast is colourful if not overly talented. Dutch's men are played by the likes of the imposing Bill Duke, future Governor of Minnesota Jesse Ventura, and screenwriter / director Shane Black of Lethal Weapon fame. McTiernan does an honest job of providing each of the men with a basic personality to elevate them past stock characterizations. And while the Predator takes no prisoners and says little, he is provided with the aura of an honourable warrior that would serve the species well in future sequels. Predator may not be an intellectual feast, but as action thrillers go, it has plenty of human and alien brawn to draw upon.





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Friday, 26 April 2013

Movie Review: Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982)


A film noir salute and satire, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid has one trick up its sleeve but wears out its welcome relatively quickly. The splicing of clips from old classic movies into the film's narrative is only a modest success, and too often the story bends awkwardly to accommodate the next available fragment from the past.

Private detective Rigby Reardon (Steve Martin) is hired by the smouldering Juliet Forrest (Rachel Ward) to investigate the mysterious death of her father. A noted scientist and expert cheese maker, John Hay Forrest has apparently died in a car crash, but Juliet believes that he was murdered. Rigby is immediately smitten by Juliet and agrees to help.

His investigation involves interacting with characters played by Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck, Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster among many others from a host of classic noir films. The sleuthing leads Rigby to two lists of names labelled "Friends of Carlotta" and "Enemies of Carlotta", and an evil plot that is costing the lives of many. The mystery involves a cruise ship filled with passengers, a remote island, a new weapon of mass destruction, and remnants of the Nazi regime hoping to reclaim past glories.

Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid is more of an editing workshop than a serious movie. Inserting Martin into classic scenes from noir films including Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Dark Passage maintains a decent amount of interest, but it's all unfortunately at the expense of any absorption in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid itself. The movie settles into a series of virtual interactions with stars from the past, and on its own, generates no momentum.

A story that quickly reaches for the absurd and then purposefully strides towards the inane does not help. A smelly cheese-as-a-weapon narrative boorishly announces itself as a sacrificial lamb at the altar of the editing on display.

Martin and Rachel Ward are likable as a bumbling couple, and both over-act with the enthusiasm of stars who do not need to take the project all that seriously. The script gives them a few, but not many, good moments. Juliet is an expert at a bullet-sucking and Rigby is brilliant at always getting shot in the same spot on his arm, and both jokes run out of steam in a hurry. There are at least as many crass moments as clever ones, an unfortunate failing of the script co-written by Martin and director Carl Reiner.

Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid is a good idea with average execution, a case of a flawed modern film mostly serving to highlight the enduring impact and star power of the classics.





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Saturday, 20 April 2013

CD Review: Black Rivers Flow, by Lazarus A.D. (2011)


As much as the debut effort from new thrash flag bearers Lazarus A.D. was full of promise, the second CD is an unfortunate disappointment. Black Rivers Flow is repetitive and uninspired, the band hitting quite the brick wall on just their second time out.

With a sound most resembling beefed-up Anthrax, the songwriting is simply poor to average, the tracks often resorting to the most basic of thrash elements, lining them up next to each other and hoping for the best. Most of the time nothing happens except boring monotony. Far too many of the selections collapse into simplistic, sometimes endless repetition of rudimentary riffs and blah solos, leaving behind nothing but habitual disappointment. The Strong Prevail and Casting Forward are the worst offenders in an overall weak set.

The highlights are few and not so high. The Ultimate Sacrifice brings a decent amount of aggression and complexity to the party, but it's the best of a mediocre bunch, and even it dissolves into predictable repetition. Title track Black Rivers Flow introduces a thoughtful melody with a modicum of interesting lyricism, but average development.

There are some useful intros thrown into the mix of mundaneness, notably the start of opener American Dream, Black Rivers Flow, Light A City (Up In Smoke), and Through Your Eyes, but even when the initial impression is strong, the follow-up fails to build on the promise. Final track Eternal Vengeance sums up the album: it ends with more than a minute of brain-dead repetition, the same dull theme bludgeoned into the dirt. On this evidence, Lazarus A.D. are spinning hopelessly down that black river, without a paddle.


Band:

Jeff Paulick - Bass, Vocals
Dan Gapen - Guitar
Alex Lackner - Guitar
Ryan Shutler - Drums


Songlist (rating out of 10):

1. American Dreams - 7
2. The Ultimate Sacrifice - 8
3. The Strong Prevail - 6
4. Black Rivers Flow - 8
5. Casting Forward - 6
6. Light A City (Up In Smoke)  - 7
7. Through Your Eyes - 7
8. Beneath The Waves Of Hatred - 7
9. Eternal Vengeance - 7

Average: 7.00

Produced by Lazarus A.D. and Chris Wisco.
Recorded and Engineered by Chris Wisco.
Mixed and Mastered by James Murphy.

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Thursday, 18 April 2013

Movie Review: Seven Notes In Black (1977)


An eerie giallo film, Seven Notes In Black (also known as The Psychic) gets most of the creepy elements right. The tale of a clairvoyant dealing with mysterious visions of death travels along a tightening spiral of enticing tension.

When Virginia was a child, she had a vision of her mother throwing herself off a cliff in a gory suicide. Years later, the adult Virginia (Jennifer O'Neill) is a clairvoyant and newly married to Italian industrialist Francesco (Gianni Garko). While driving on her own, she has a disjointed and disturbing vision of a skeleton hidden in the wall of a mysterious room, an old woman dying in a bloody mess, a broken mirror, an unknown assailant, the photo of an attractive young woman on a magazine cover, a precious painting, a man with a limp, and blackness interrupted by a haunting seven note tune.

As a surprise gift, Virginia decides to redecorate an old and long-abandoned farmhouse belonging to Francesco's family. Sure enough, at the farmhouse she finds the room from her vision, breaks through the wall and uncovers a skeleton. Francesco is promptly arrested for the murder of a young woman reported missing years ago. But Virginia is intent on proving her husband's innocence, and her investigation leads her to art museum curator Emilio (Gabriele Ferzetti), who seems to have something to hide. But as more clues emerge to explain her vision, Virginia begins to realize that what she saw may not have been a recreation of the past, but something much more sinister.

Seven Notes In Black does flub its lines late in the proceedings. A critical explanation of a theft that became a murder is presented through the garbled dialogue of a sedated man in a hospital bed, and the impact of his story is lost in the laboured mumbling.

But otherwise, director Lucio Fulci presents a foreboding puzzle and plays with it to good effect. Virginia's vision is a rich tapestry of fragmented images that promise much pain, and Fulci unveils the meaning behind each piece with flare. Along the way he drops tantalizing hints that the assembled pieces do not quite fit, and something is dangerously amiss from the working assumption that Virginia saw a past event. The true meaning of her vision breathlessly arrives as events catch up with theories to shed a stark new light on Virginia's waking nightmare.

Fulci uses gore sparingly, wringing tension from the adroit sequencing of events rather than sudden shocks. His gets good help from Jennifer O'Neill, who carries the film in a central role and does a lot of work with her eyes to convey the controlled determination of a woman bedeviled with a gift compelling her to pursue an interpretation of a reality that no one else perceives. Gianni Garko as Francesco and Gabriele Ferzetti are a bit more predictable and have less character transformation to navigate. Marc Porel has a small role as a psychiatrist Virginia confides in.

The seven notes of the title, used years later by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill Vol. 1, gain increasingly macabre prominence as the film progresses, and their association with a bleak black screen in Virginia's vision only heightens apprehension that she is racing to uncover a sombre fate. The notes form a simple tune both melancholy and threatening, and associated only with fortune most dark.






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Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Movie Review: Rocky (1976)


The embodiment of the American Dream where every underdog can strive for glory, Rocky is a well-constructed romance wrapped into a boxing drama. The film carries added poignancy for rocketing Sylvester Stallone into instantaneous superstardom, the dream coming true in real life through a rich work of fiction.

In Philadelphia, Rocky Balboa (Stallone) is a mediocre boxer. Having never dedicated himself to the sport, Rocky is not quite giving up on his dream but gradually realizing that at 30 years old, he may be getting too old to succeed. He makes ends meet by accepting muscleman assignments from loan shark Tony Gazzo (Joe Spinnell). Rocky is good friends with the bearish Paulie (Burt Young), a butcher who works in the freezer of a large meat processing plant. Rocky is also trying to attract the attention of Paulie's painfully shy sister Adrian (Talia Shire), a clerk at the local pet store.

To celebrate America's bicentennial, world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) and promoter George Jergens (Thayer David) decide to give an unknown fighter a shot at the title, and they choose Balboa. With just five weeks to train, Rocky dedicates himself to get in shape and embarks on a gruelling fitness regime with the help of his old manager Mickey (Burgess Meredith). With the fight approaching, romance blossoms between Rocky and Adrian, while strains develop in the friendship with Paulie.

Sylvester Stallone has rarely been better as an actor. Rocky is the role he wrote and was born to play, and in his first incarnation as the down-and-almost-out boxer, Stallone is a mix of realism, resignation and remote hope. Finding physical mannerisms to convey inner edginess, Stallone has Rocky looking back at what may have been a better career and looking forward to what may be a once in a lifetime opportunity. But to the credit of Stallone the writer, Rocky spends most of his time in the present making a big effort to nurture a romance with Adrian, Rocky intrinsically becoming aware that until he finds personal happiness not much is going to matter in his boxing career.

Director John G. Avildsen gives Rocky's world a forlorn look, the dank and derelict corners of Philadelphia playing a prominent role in portraying a life at the crossroads. The bleak one-room apartment that counts as Rocky's home is not any better than what lies outside, while the slightly larger unit occupied by Adrian and Paulie is only marginally more liveable. It's clear what kind of life awaits Rocky if his current trajectory continues; only he can make the commitment to try a change for the better.

Talia Shire is almost silent as Adrian, her shyness hindering her just as much as Rocky's lack of focus has burdened his potential. Shire speaks volumes without saying much, and her early scenes are a beautiful study of a tormented introvert as she can't even make eye contact with Rocky, let alone carry on a meaningful conversation.

Burt Young provides a forcefully brusque counterpoint to Rocky, a man unhappy with his lot and waiting for things to happen and others to help, instead of taking any sort of initiative. And when Rocky does begin to turn his life around, Paulie can mostly just offer resentment.

The Gonna Fly Now theme by Bill Conti is the simplest of inspirational anthems, but it's unassuming candour has allowed it to thrive through the ages. Avildsen finds the film's best moments in the climactic training montage set to the music, Rocky finally unleashing his potential and transforming the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art into the stairway to heaven.

Rocky is the story of life through dedication, and it's among the rare films that get the priorities straight: the determination needed to love is much more important than the grit required to fight.






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Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Movie Review: Good Neighbor Sam (1964)


A romantic farce about neighbours swapping spouses, Good Neighbor Sam stretches a single joke almost to the breaking point. An engaging cast provides just enough momentum to avoid disconcertion.

In San Francisco, Sam Bissell (Jack Lemmon) is a lowly employee at a large advertising firm, but a dedicated husband to wife Minerva (Dorothy Provine) and an attentive father to their daughters. Minerva reconnects with friend Janet (Romy Schneider), who takes up residence as the new next-door neighbour of the Bissells. At the company where Sam works, trouble is brewing when big-shot but old-fashioned client Simon Nurdlinger (Edward G. Robinson) threatens to pull his large account due to the lack of family values among the firm's executive team members. The company turns to the dependable Bissell to save the day, handing him responsibility for the Nurdlinger account and an instant promotion. It works: Nurdlinger takes a liking to Sam, believing him to be a true family man.

Janet suddenly finds out that she is about to inherit $15 million, but she will only receive her inheritance if she can prove that she is happily married. In fact, she is in the midst of divorcing husband Howard (Mike Connors). Desperate to fool snooping relatives who are trying to muscle in on her new millions, Janet frantically recruits Sam to be her pretend happy husband. The charade unfolds in front of Nurdlinger, who believes Janet to be Sam's wife, triggering a prolonged case of mistaken identity and obfuscation which only gets more complicated when Howard shows up to regain the love of his wife.

Good Neighbor Sam twists itself into a tight knot in search of hard-earned laughs. Two unlikely narratives are set in motion and allowed to collide to set up the film's premise. Both Nurdlinger's sudden interest in the morality of the company's executives and Janet's sudden inheritance of $15 million stretch the bounds of  movie reality. Even then, the intervention of another contrived plot device is required to set the humour in motion, in the form of Janet's relatives blatantly invading her privacy, forcing her to hurriedly find a surrogate husband.

Once the film arrives in comedy territory, it is pleasant enough and draws some sharp laughs. Lemmon is dependably good, the role of Sam perfectly suited to his screen persona of the meek everyman manipulated by others and plunged into situations larger than he can handle. Here his eccentricities are coloured-in, Sam provided with a hobby as a junk sculptor, as well as two quacky ducks as household pets.

The ladies provide hearty support, Romy Schneider effervescent and radiating understated euro-chic, while Dorothy Provine provides pragmatic All American balance with sturdy and only slightly malicious resolve. Edward G. Robinson get just a few scenes but is memorable as the crusty Simon Nurdlinger, chewing out anyone who disagrees with his version of morality.

Good Neighbor Sam does stumble in its final 20 minutes, Sam and Janet racing unconvincingly around town all night to erase evidence of their fake union. Director David Swift is unable to resist an onerous city tour, and bloats the buffoonery to billboard size as the search for happy endings all round gets a bit desperate. Sam may be a good neighbour, but he is not as good in recognizing the limits of a single joke.






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Movie Review: The Wizard Of Oz (1939)


A colourful musical celebration, The Wizard Of Oz is a vivid children's fantasy. The film has many moments that are now cringe-worthy, but also enough innocence and good intentions to create a few warm memories.

Young Dorothy (Judy Garland) and her dog Toto live on a Kansas farm, with Aunt Em (Clara Blandick), Uncle Henry (Charley Grapewin), and a few friendly farmhands (Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr). Humourless neighbour Almira Gulch (Margaret Hamilton) does not appreciate Toto's behaviour, and threatens to take the dog away, traumatizing Dorothy. A twister moves in and causes havoc, transporting Dorothy, Toto and their farmhouse to a crash landing in the land of Oz.

In Oz, Dorothy meets small people known as the Munchkins, and with the help of Glinda the Good Witch of the North (Billie Burke) sets off along a yellow brick road on a journey to Emerald City to visit the Wizard of Oz, who can get her back to Kansas. Along the way she meets a Scarecrow (Bolger) who needs a brain, a Tin Man (Haley) who wants a heart, and a Cowardly Lion (Lahr) who seeks courage. With her three new friends, Dorothy has to fend off the evil Wicked Witch Of The West (Hamilton) and secure an audience with the reclusive Wizard.

With over-the-top performances, The Wizard Of Oz often resembles a kids' show at the local theatre company. The heroic cuteness provided by Garland and Toto is appealing to the young, while the ugly Wicked Witch and her bizarre flying monkeys are good for many nightmares among the impressionable.

Some aspects of the film have aged quite poorly. The entire sequence with the Munchkins is a lot more vexatious than fun, the annoying voices of the little people and their stiff presence reeking of a local production drifting towards catastrophe. The costumes and make-up of the Scarecrow and particularly the Cowardly Lion are pure vaudeville.

But there is an innocent sense of adventure and humour permeating throughout the film, and with the use of colour in its infancy, director Victor Fleming plays with the new medium to make the land of Oz positively pop. The Kansas scenes are filmed in sepia-toned black and white, while Oz is animated in brilliant colours, from the yellow of the brick road to the dominating green of Emerald City, and all the costumes in-between. As can be expected when new technology is still being unpacked, Fleming also takes things too far, a horse continuously changing colours crossing the border from amusing to ludicrous.

In terms of the music, Over The Rainbow is just over two minutes of movie bliss, delivered by Garland from the farm and into legend. The rest of the songs and dances are short and mostly aimed at the very young or those who find clumsy walking, tripping and skipping down an artificial pathway amusing.

The message of self-reliance and believing in personal abilities is clear, but L. Frank Baum, who wrote the book on which the movie is based, always claimed that the story carried no deeply hidden meanings. However, the search for Oz as the salvation for all that ails Dorothy and her friends remains a strong metaphor for seeking help by blindly turning to the imperiously imagined powers of religion. Oz is hiding behind all sorts of sound and fury, but his truth is revealed to be much more basic, and Dorothy and her friends find elucidation within themselves. Whether intended or not, for adults The Wizard Of Oz is more enjoyable as a sharp criticism of blind belief in ill-defined higher powers, and a reminder to find the remedies within while checking behind the curtain of any dubious saviours.






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Saturday, 13 April 2013

CD Review: Stained, by Imperanon (2004)


What turned out to be a one-off project, Finland's short-lived Imperanon left behind a single but impressive album in Stained. Melodic death metal packed with classical influences, the album has some rough patches  but contains several gems.

Sounding a lot like Children Of Bodom but with a sturdier group tone, more precision, and less solo wizardry, Imperanon allow Aleksi Virta's keyboards to play a prominent role, complementing the guitar work of Aleksi Sihvonen and Lauri Koskenniemi. The best tracks are stacked at the front end of the album, the triple header of Blade, Memories To Dust and Stained demonstrating the band's full potential, speed, melody and aggression coming together in a muscular package. Later in the set, Sold and Rhythm Of Pain are almost as good.

Unfortunately the album is let-down somewhat by the ambitious but predictably misfiring decision to venture towards balladry and female clean vocals that serve only to aggravate. Hollow Man and Shadowsouls fall into this trap, while including the final Finnish track Jos Jotain Yrittaa may have seemed like a good-for-laugh decision at some point, but it's unfortunately a poor sign-off.

The Imperanon band members, all relatively young when Stained was created, scattered quickly, and some ended up in other recording bands such as Wintersun, Finntroll, and Norther. Imperanon came and went in a flash, gone but not forgotten.


Band:

Aleksi Sihvonen - Guitars and Vocals
Jaakko Nylund - Drums
Lauri Koskenniemi - Guitars
Aleksi Virta - Keyboards
Eki Nurmikari - Bass

Additional vocals: Leonna Aho and Pasi Rantanen.


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Blade - 10  *see below*
2. Memories To Dust - 10
3. Stained - 10
4. Prisoner In Me - 7
5. Sold - 9
6. Hollow Man - 6
7. Rhythm Of Pain - 9
8. Shadowsouls - 6
9. Vein (I Bleed) - 8
10. The End - 7
11. Jos Jotain Yrittaa (Harva Meista On Rautaa) - 6

Average: 8.00

Produced by Titus Hjelm.
Recorded and Engineered by Nino Laurenne.
Mixed by Mikko Karmila. Mastered by Mika Jussila.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.





The Movies Of Lee Van Cleef
















All Lee Van Cleef movies reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

High Noon (1952)





Gunfight At The O.K. Corral (1957)





How The West Was Won (1962, uncredited)





For A Few Dollars More (1965)





The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly (1966)





Commandos (1968)





Captain Apache (1971)





The Grand Duel (1972)





Escape From New York (1981)





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



Thursday, 11 April 2013

Movie Review: One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1975)


A classic story of institutional madness, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is a rapturous celebration of anti-authoritarianism. The harrowing exploration of life in a mental hospital condemns the system and its guardians, and cheers on individual quirkiness.

Convicted of the statutory rape of a 15 year old and serving time in a penitentiary, Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) has been behaving erratically. With no one quite sure if he is actually mentally sick or just acting mad, McMurphy is admitted to a mental institution to undergo an assessment. As he settles into the ward run with stern authoritarianism by Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), McMurphy meets some of the other mental patients, including the tentative and stuttering Billy (Brad Dourif), the extremely insecure Martini (Danny DeVito), the gigantic but silent Chief (Will Sampson), the intensely hysterical Taber (Christopher Lloyd) and the highly-strung and self-obsessed Harding (William Redfield).

Whether he intends to make a good impression or not, McMurphy can't seem to help himself. He immediately sets about to challenge all of Nurse Ratched's rules. He insists that the inmates should be able to watch the World Series on television, before organizing a chaotic and unsanctioned fishing excursion for all the patients. He also makes friends with Chief, gradually cajoling him out of his shell. But McMurphy's misbehaviour progresses from irritating to dangerous, pushing Nurse Ratched to the limit. A dispute over cigarettes escalates to bedlam, and McMurphy is subjected to medieval treatment. But the worst is still to come, as McMurphy's plan to escape from the institution by taking advantage of the night watchman (Scatman Crothers) takes a dark turn.

Based on Ken Kesey's book from the early 1960s, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest challenges the definition of madness. The cold and constrained environment of the hospital, and the seemingly heartless Nurse Ratched, are presented as more maddening than helpful. The sanity of a system operating on the basis of dehumanization is questioned, while the personal, fun-loving approach of McMurphy towards the patients is celebrated.

But deeper down, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest also ponders the risks and rewards of short term benefits and long term impacts. The staid, uneventful and generally soulless approach personified by Ratched works to keep the patients calm and safe. They may not be having much fun, but neither are they harming themselves or each other. McMurphy seeks opportunities to introduce excitement and animation to people who may or may not be able to handle it. Sure, there is short-term enjoyment and relief, but the longer-term consequences are much more questionable and potentially hazardous.

The battle between McMurphy and Ratched follows the time-honoured pattern of a clash between an independent spirit and the established rule of authority. Only able to mount an asymmetrical campaign, McMurphy looks for Ratched's weak points and incessantly hammers away at them with a variety of tactics. He just does not let go on his overt attempt to have the television tuned to the World Series, and then deploys stealth to sneak the inmates to the fishing trip. McMurphy continues to alternate between noisy confrontations and secretive plots, driving Ratched to increasingly harsh retaliations. Finally McMurphy creates a mess that even he cannot control, and Ratched resorts to extreme countermeasures, with casualties everywhere.

Both Nicholson and Fletcher deservedly received Academy Awards for their roles. Nicholson's performance astutely introduces self-doubt about his own sanity. He initially seems to be healthy compared to the other patients, but his behaviour pattern appears to be uncontrollably self-defeating. And even once he is aware of the damage he is causing, he cannot change his attitude. He may ultimately be the most sick of the patients, but Nicholson ensures that he is also the least visibly sick.

Fletcher portrays an entrenched command and control ruling authority with chilling efficiency. Her fixed plastic smile does nothing to soften ice cold eyes, while her perfect hairdo and humourless demeanour scream of brutal rationality. Fletcher would never get a better role in her career, but here she matched wits and held her own in a ferocious engagement with Nicholson.

The colourful supporting cast featured stars-to-be DeVito, Lloyd and particularly Brad Dourif, the latter successfully creating in Billy the most vulnerable of patients. Will Sampson does not have much acting to do, but his massive presence as Chief leaves a lasting impression.

Director Milos Forman keeps the focus tight and close on the actors, emphasizing the internal confinement inherent in mental illness. Forman often fills the screen with the actors contorting themselves in agony as the mental patients try to deal with a seemingly mundane situation. One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is bathed in institutional whites and sickly yellows, nature's greens and blues mostly absent from an environment filled with artificial docility waiting to be agitated by McMurphy. He will disturb the nest, causing eggs to crack, some cuckoos to flap, and others to just treasure memories of unexpected turmoil.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.



Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Movie Review: Don't Torture A Duckling (1972)


An effective Italian giallo film, Don't Torture A Duckling slowly works its way to disturbing territory. The story of a mysterious child killer terrorizing a small town gains momentum from effectively creepy characters simmering in a gratifyingly unhealthy mix of religion and sexuality.

In the remote village of Accendura, dominated by an imposing elevated freeway, a group of young boys pass the time peeping at sexual escapades in a ramshackle forest and making fun of local recluse Maciara (Florinda Bolkan). The local community includes village idiot Giuseppe (Vito Passeri), football-loving priest Don Alberto (Marc Porel) who tries to keep the boys out of trouble, his grim mother Dona Aurelia (Irene Papas) who cares for a much younger girl with learning disabilities, and party girl with a sordid past Patrizia (Barbara Bouchet).

One by one, the boys disappear and are found dead, gruesomely killed by a mysterious murderer. There is no shortage of suspects, with Giuseppe and then Maciara hauled in for questioning, and both possessing motives for hating the boys. Newspaper journalist Andrea Martelli (Tomas Milian) arrives to report on the story, and with the police bamboozled, Martelli teams up with Patrizia, herself a possible suspect, to try and track down the killer.

Director Lucio Fulci builds up the tension with plenty of clever patience and interesting characters, gradually ramping-up Don't Torture A Duckling into a full-fledged horror show. By the time the villagers start to turn on each other, forming lynch mobs and then dishing out vigilante justice, Fulci spreads his wings with plenty of verve and dollops of gore.

With a community in turmoil, Tomas Milian as the only outsider maintains the coolest stance but almost slips into mechanical motion as the reporter intent on breaking the case.Without really acting much, Barbara Bouchet as Patrizia gets to play a source of naked corruption for the boys, the village playgirl, a murder suspect, and a co-investigator with Milian, her presence brightening the movie if not blessing it with acting talent.

The rest of the cast all err on the side of one-dimensional theatrical over-dramatization. There are no nuances or evolutions on display. The characters exist as victims, suspects or killers, and once labelled proceed to energetically milk simmering emotion out of their roles. Irene Papas maintains a mute, grim presence, a seemingly judgemental woman who probably knows more than she should but won't talk about it.

Fulci gives the film a dark "evil lurks here" polish, the village of Accendura literally being passed by the rest of the world, the mammoth freeway offering a tantalizing vision of progress that will remain out of reach for the local residents. Instead, religion, sex, gossip, suspicion and superstition are mixed to create the combustible community fuel, and from the toxic fumes murder will emerge to punish deviancy.

It's all basic and earthy, wrong-doing thriving where nothing else will. When a community is dying of stagnation, ducklings along with many others will suffer.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


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