Monday, 30 September 2013

Movie Review: Murphy's Romance (1985)


A simple love story, Murphy's Romance delivers vanilla entertainment in a wholesome package that alternates between old-fashioned and trite. Sally Field and James Garner are more about comfort than passion, two pros delivering proficient performances without ever stretching.

Thirty-something single-mom Emma (Field) and her son Jake (Corey Haim) have been buffeted by life, and drive up to a small rural Arizona town to attempt another new start. Resourceful and independent but struggling to secure a bank loan, Emma meets widower Murphy Jones (Garner), nominally the local grocery store owner but also the heart and soul of the town. Full of wisdom and edgy serenity, Murphy lives according to his own rules, and everyone respects him for it.

Murphy, who is much older than Emma but never reveals his age, gives her a helping hand to launch a business caring for horses, and they start to get close. But when Emma's ex-husband Bobby Jack (Brian Kerwin) shows up broke and looking to leech off Emma's fledgling success, Murphy realizes that he has competition in his languid pursuit of Emma's heart.

Murphy's Romance is nothing if not pleasant, an amiable Winter - Summer relationship that builds up at a slow but enjoyable pace. But despite all the personality offered by Field and Garner, there is no hiding how thin the material is. The humour is mild, the drama lukewarm, and for long stretches the movie resembles Norman Rockwell paintings set in slow motion, the polite folks of small town America witnessing a couple falling in love, and not much more.

Director Martin Ritt looks around to find tension but finds little to work with. The introduction of ex-husband Bobby Jack as a disruptive elements is too predictable, and even then the search for feel-good charm wins out: Bobby Jack's more unsavoury traits are balanced out by his earnest efforts to make a good impression. Any potential for a down and dirty fight over Emma's heart is abruptly resolved as Bobby Jack is unceremoniously shuffled out of the movie.

Murphy's Romance is left with two agreeable if unspectacular central performances. Field tones her girl-next-door sweetness in favour of some appreciated world weariness. Garner is easily the best thing in the movie, the character of Murphy Jones having long since sorted what matters from what does not in his life, and Garner is a perfect fit to dispense Murphy's wisdom in small, unobtrusive drops. Murphy's Romance may be a bit dull, but at least Murphy's insight is sharp.






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Friday, 27 September 2013

Movie Review: The American President (1995)


A romance set in the high altitude world of the White House, The American President benefits from a stellar cast and a balanced blend of love and politics, although the idealism does get somewhat mawkish.

Democratic President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas), a widower, is three years into his first term, eyeing reelection, and riding high in approval ratings. His team includes Chief of Staff A.J. (Martin Sheen) and policy advisor Lewis Rothschild (Michael J. Fox). Shepherd's first priority is the passage of a gun control bill, while an environmental initiative calling for carbon emission reductions is also on the agenda. The Global Defence Council, an environmental lobby group, hires Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening) to lobby the President and Congress and ensure that the carbon emission reduction targets are not watered down.

Shepherd is immediately attracted to Wade, and a courtship ensues, sending Washington into a tizzy. While Wade's new cachet helps her to win support for the carbon reduction bill, Republican presidential hopeful Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss) seizes on the President's White House romance to question his character, and starts to mercilessly attack both Shepherd and Wade. The President takes the high road and his popularity starts to plummet, jeopardizing passage of the gun control bill, and forcing Shepherd into some difficult decisions.

Written by Aaron Sorkin, The American President is intellectual, romantic, thoughtful and witty. The film is a rarity in targeting an adult audience, avoiding any boorishness, and finding moments of humour without ever descending to childish behaviour.

But Sorkin cannot avoid veering into the land of idealistic grand gestures, and when the President's love life finally collides head-on with the realities of his political agenda, the resolution is through the sort of noble policy U-turn, delivered with sombre drama in the White House press room, that can only exist in a screenwriter's head. Sorkin would go on to create television's The West Wing as a quasi spin-off from The American President, television a more appropriate venue to peddle simplistic solutions to complex issues.

The more sappy moments of the movie are smoothed over by an excellent cast. Michael Douglas finds the perfect balance portraying the decisive leader of the free world who is also a living, breathing family man with emotions, reservations, and a need to love. Annette Bening is a perfect match, and she triggers some of the funniest moments as Sydney Ellen suffers severe foot-in-mouth during her first few interactions with the President. Once the romance blossoms, Douglas and Bening make an attractive couple, generating believable warmth and as much comfort as a relationship with the President can afford.

Director Rob Reiner provides steady pacing and avoids extremes of emotion or drama, allowing a relatively plausible story to unfold at a relaxed pace. To add colour Reiner calls on an outstanding supporting cast to keep the proceedings lively, with Martin Sheen a steadying influence as the President's long-term friend, confidant, and now Chief of Staff. In contrast, Michael J. Fox is the highly strung, phenomenally smart domestic policy advisor, built and designed to anticipate and worry. Richard Dreyfuss sinks his teeth into the role of the antagonist Senator Rumson, breathing concealed fire while offering nothing of substance in a naked lunge for power.

With glamorous Washington DC settings providing an enchanting backdrop, The American President glides to success, perhaps not in a landslide but with a comfortable majority.






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Thursday, 26 September 2013

Movie Review: Daylight (1996)


A throwback to old-fashioned disaster movies, Daylight faithfully follows a well-established formula. Almost devoid of new ideas, the movie makes up for it with good intentions and professional execution.

An industrial company illegally transports highly explosive waste material by truck through the Holland Tunnel linking Manhattan with New Jersey. At the same time a group of low-life thieves speed through the tunnel in a getaway car, eventually triggering a multi-car crash, a massive explosion, and a fireball that incinerates many cars and collapses large sections of the tunnel. A few survivors are trapped in an air pocket, including tunnel security officer George (Stan Shaw), struggling writer Madelyne (Amy Brenneman), celebrity extreme sportsman Roy Nord (Viggo Mortensen), a group of in-transit convicts, the Crighton family consisting of dad Steve, mom Sarah and daughter Ashley, and an elderly couple with a dog.

Disgraced former emergency responder Kit Latura (Sylvester Stallone) happens to be near the tunnel when the explosion occurs, and takes the initiative. Activating a limited-time emergency stop mechanism on the massive ventilation fans, he finds his way through air vents to the air pocket. But some of the survivors are unsure if they can trust Latura due his chequered past. With the weakened tunnel about to give way under the weight of the river and the fire spreading, Latura desperately tries to find a way to help the survivors to safety.

Evoking the memory of early 1970s disaster dramas like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, Daylight traps a few people in a confined place between fire and water, with rescue by others far away or all but impossible. The survivors have to overcome personality conflicts and work together to survive, and not all of them will make it.

Apart from tiredness, there is nothing too wrong with the premise. The collection of characters trapped in the tunnel is the typical variety of the young, the middle aged, and the elderly, plus one pet. In the opening 15 minutes their backstories are sketched-in with just enough definition to provide some vague interest, but Daylight will never be mistaken for a character-driven film. The tension stems from the tunnel gradually destroying itself, the air pocket growing ever smaller, with both the water and the desperation levels creeping higher.

For a Stallone movie, Daylight provides the hero with plenty of welcome humanity. The Leslie Bohem script moves far away from any over-confident macho heroism for Kit Latura. He is instead presented as unsure, realistic, and doing the best he can in catastrophic circumstances. His past as a man responsible for the death of a rescue crew is a constant companion, and Latura is unsure if this test is a chance at redemption or an opportunity for an even more disastrous outcome. As far as Stallone goes, this is among his better acting efforts.

The supporting cast is mostly television-calibre, and they don't offer much to suggest otherwise. Viggo Mortensen is the exception, but his charismatic Roy Nord, a Richard Branson-type personality, proves to be too fearless given the circumstances, and he is among the unfortunate early departures.

Director Rob Cohen, also with roots deep in television land, scrupulously follows the predictable steps of a disaster movie, but does delivers an outstanding sequence to capture the moment of disaster. When the explosion rocks the tunnel, the firestorm and car destruction that follow are a well-orchestrated symphony of carnage.

Daylight entertains within its well-defined limits. The tunnel has a familiar alignment, and no unexpected curves.






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Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Movie Review: The Specialist (1994)


A galumphing revenge drama aiming for a cool vibe but for the most part stumbling on a puerile script, The Specialist teams Stallone with Stone and the results are predictable: plenty of well-toned body parts and a tone-deaf absence of plausibility.

Explosives specialists Ray Quick (Stallone) and Ned Trent (James Woods) used to be partners in the CIA, conducting covert operations to blow up drug barons in South America. After a bitter dispute over civilian casualties, both of their CIA careers come to an end and Ray becomes a reclusive explosives-expert-for-hire. Ned blames Ray for ruining his career, and joins a brutal Miami criminal cartel, led by the father and son team of Joe and Tomas Leon (Rod Steiger and Eric Roberts).

The sultry May Munro (Stone) repeatedly contacts Ray, imploring him to accept an assignment to kill Tomas and two of his henchmen. May was a young girl when Tomas killed her parents in cold blood; now she wants revenge, and she instigates a romantic affair with Tomas to get close to him. After initially refusing to help, Ray accepts the job and starts blowing up Tomas' inner ring. Joe gives Ned the task of uncovering the identity of the bomber. May's revenge plan will flush Ray into the open, where Ned will be waiting to pounce.

The Specialist starts with plenty of style and few explosions. It ends with plenty of explosions and no style. Director Luis Llosa appears to be fully aware that the material is quite thin, and initially he makes up for it with a brooding vibe, Stallone's Ray angry at the world and coming out of hiding only to play with his tech gadgets and blow bad guys up, Stone's May angry at the world and coming out of hiding in ever shorter mini dresses or just staying indoors mostly naked. It's the type of film that attempts to shift focus from the nonsense actions of the main characters to the coolness coefficient of the characters themselves, and Llosa gets away with it for about 30 minutes or so.

Then it all gets really silly, May embroiling herself in a distasteful romance with the abusive Tomas, and Ray falling in love with a voice over the phone, while James Woods as Ned accelerates the rate of his angry-man one-liners. Woods becomes the most watchable thing in the movie, and not in a good way. Ridiculously inserted overnight by Joe into the senior ranks of local enforcement authorities, Ned spends most of the movie either throwing tirades or chasing one step behind Ray and providing dry commentary on his explosive handiwork. It's an over-the-top performance that serves as a reminder of how absurd the whole plot really is.

Rod Steiger cruises through the movie wondering when other characters inspired by faint recollections of The Godfather will make an appearance, while Eric Roberts as Tomas suddenly seems to be about the same age as Sharon Stone's May, although he is supposed to be a good 15 years older in order for the revenge plot to make any sense. After May switches sides from good to evil and back enough times to make sure that it really does not matter, The Specialist ends with Stallone unleashing his explosive fury on an entire city block. When the ideas run out (and in this case, a long time afterwards), just blow everything up.






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Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Movie Review: Aliens (1986)


In director James Cameron's hands, Aliens is a spectacular, tension-filled, adrenaline-drenched, combat-rich sequel that matches the original for tension, and far outmuscles it for action.

After drifting for 57 years in hypersleep, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is rescued and transported back to Earth. During her long journey, planet LV-426, where her cargo ship the Nostromo picked up the deadly alien, has been inhabited by a small human colony working to transform the atmosphere to make the planet inhabitable. Ripley's employer, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, is bankrolling the work. Ripley is suffering from nightmares, and her tale of killer creatures on LV-426 is met with extreme scepticism, until contact with the colony is lost.

After some convincing, Ripley joins company man Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) and the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen) as civilians accompanying a group of Colonial Marines sent to LV-426 to investigate the fate of the workers. The Marines include the thoughtful Hicks (Michael Biehn), the loudmouth Hudson (Bill Paxton), the super confident Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) and their useless commander Gorman (William Hope). They find the human colony devastated and only one survivor, a young girl called Newt (Carrie Henn). Soon the Marines encounter a large number of aliens, and the battle commences.

Aliens is a well-crafted masterpiece. Particularly in the Special Edition, which features 17 extra minutes and the reinstatement of several scenes, Cameron dedicates the first hour fully to fleshing out the premise. Ripley is provided with a backstory as a mother who has now outlived the daughter that she never returned to see. She suffers from recurring nightmares, and is victimized by the money-driven executives of Weyland-Yutani. Carter Burke provides a human face to the company, despite his underlying smarm.

On the long trip through space, the Marines are introduced, and Cameron provides quick but effectively distinct sketches for the key soldiers who will be shouldering the brunt of the battle. When the shooting starts these Marines will matter, and creating people out of soldiers proves to be a worthwhile investment. Meanwhile, the Special Edition also brings to life the small human colony on LV-426. Humans, including Newt's parents, are on a hostile planet and getting on with the work of creating a new, breathable atmosphere, until that abandoned spaceship is once again discovered, and a facehugger makes an appearance.

Rarely has an action movie invested in such a long introduction with virtually no action, but the pay-off is immense, and the final 90 minutes of combat action are outstanding and simply breathless. Ripley and several of the Marines are people worth caring about, and having been introduced to the loss of Ripley's daughter and the fate of Newt's parents, the relationship between Ripley and Newt becomes intensely poignant. Several of the rugged Marines are afforded personalities, to ensure that every injury and fatality is meaningful, as Aliens delivers its action with a pounding heart.

While Alien was an uneven and terrorizing fight between unarmed cargo ship crew members and an advanced killing machine intent on spawning and multiplying, Aliens attempts to create a more level battlefield. Now the humans are trained combatants fully equipped with sophisticated heavy weaponry, cocky and confident, arriving on the planet to kick butt and take no alien prisoners. Cameron still populates the war with moments of building tension and creeping terror, but once the shooting starts, it's a full-on war, and the emphasis is on unstoppable, breathtaking action with a rarely seen level of kinetic energy. The aliens prove to be a formidable foe, using the force of numbers and capable of changing tactics to defeat the best that the Marines can throw at them.

The first encounter between the Marines and the aliens proves just how great the alien advantage is, the human soldiers transformed from arrogant cockiness to traumatized victims after just the one engagement, Ripley the first to realize just how much trouble they are all in. Offense becomes defence, then defence becomes survival. As the humans stumble onto more of the aliens' ecosystem, the terrifying nature of the creatures become clearer, until the mammoth, hideous alien queen herself makes an appearance.

Sigourney Weaver proves that smart actresses can be terrific action movie heroines. She takes centre stage for the final 45 minutes in a display of wild courage and steely determination, but without ever losing Ripley's soul and vulnerability. Aliens ends with Ripley deploying brawn and brains in a final epic battle for survival. Regardless of the species, beware the wrath of a wronged mother, intent on avenging her young.






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Saturday, 21 September 2013

CD Review: Battalions Of Fear, by Blind Guardian (1988)


Arriving relatively late to the 1980s metal party, Germany's Blind Guardian deliver a debut with some promise. Battalions Of Fear is fast, accurate and influenced by both the power metal of the first half of the decade and the more recent thrash sound.

The album does suffer from a notable lack of uniqueness. Almost everything comes from somewhere else, whether derived from the early catalogues of Scorpions, Helloween, Accept, Malmsteen and plenty of Iron Maiden harmonies, or inspired by the more fundamental Metallica riffs. Blind Guardian prove themselves promising students of what has gone before, but they do not yet demonstrate a capability to stamp their own identity. Battalions Of Fear also suffers from limited sonic variety. Most of tracks share the same frantic tempo, key and structure. It's all good, but far from adventurous or ground breaking.

Consisting of only six full-fledged tracks plus three shortish instrumentals, Battalions Of Fear edges precariously close to EP territory. Trial By The Archon is really an intro for Wizard's Crown, while the album ends with two not-bad instrumentals that mainly serve to pad the album length by another 5 minutes.

The best track is opener Majesty, which provides more focus on melody and a vocal by Hansi Kürsch that is less strained and more in his comfort range. But even on the other more routine selections, the twin guitar riffing by André Olbrich and Marcus Siepen is intense, and the solos are short but sweet. The pure energy of the band is a spark that overcomes the shortcomings in complexity and songwriting.

Battalions Of Fear is basic metal, never threatening to dominate but offering moments that point to better things that may come.


Band:

Hansi Kürsch – Vocals, Bass
André Olbrich – Guitar
Marcus Siepen – Guitar
Thomas Stauch – Drums


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Majesty - 8
2. Guardian Of The Blind - 6
3. Trial By The Archon - 8
4. Wizard's Crown - 7
5. Run For The Night - 7
6. The Martyr - 7
7. Battalions Of Fear - 7
8. By The Gates Of Moria - 7
9. Gandalf's Rebirth - 7

Average: 7.11

Produced, Recorded and Mixed by Kalle Trapp.

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Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Movie Review: The Impossible (2012)


The true story of a family's fight for survival in Thailand amidst the horror of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, The Impossible is a heartfelt drama elevated by Naomi Watts' dauntless performance.

Maria (Watts) and Henry Bennett (Ewan McGregor) travel to the scenic coastal resort of Khao Lak, Thailand, for a Christmas vacation with their three sons, 12 year old Lucas (Tom Holland) and youngsters Thomas and Simon. After enjoying the sights for a couple of days, the tsunami hits unexpectedly, and with overwhelming force. The resort, along with the entire coast, is destroyed.

The rushing debris-filled waters sweep away Maria and Lucas, but they manage to stay near each other. Injured, dazed and confused, they eventually make it to unsubmerged land, where local villagers find them and drag them to a nearby hospital, with Maria suffering a deep gash on her leg. In the chaos of the hospital, Maria and Lucas are separated.

Miraculously, Henry, Thomas and Simon also survive the tsunami, and take refuge in the destroyed resort, with Henry insisting on searching for Maria and Lucas along the flooded coastline. Eventually Henry takes the wrenching decision to send young Thomas and Simon to a mountain aid camp, while he stays behind to continue the search. With Maria on her own, losing strength and requiring surgery, the family is splintered in a foreign land overwhelmed by an unimaginable natural disaster.

Based on the true story of Maria Belon's family, the Bennetts of The Impossible are intentionally not provided with a nationality, and they represent all vacationers whose lives were forever altered by the tsunami. The film provides a human and personal face to a tragedy that took more than 230,000 lives, admittedly with a focus on the foreigners.

There is a drawback in allowing the family to fade too much into generic territory. There is a minor squabble between the brothers, and a short conversation about Henry possibly having to look for a new job. But the family's background is otherwise left as a blank, and this does reduce the impact of the film, since only so much empathy can be generated towards relative strangers.

When it comes to recreating the tsunami, Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona captures the horrifying power of the surging waves, and succeeds in explaining the big by focusing on the small: Maria's body being twirled like a small doll, colliding with large pieces of debris, personalizes the agony. By minimizing the use of CGI and instead throwing his actors into water tanks for a gruelling shoot, Bayona gives The Impossible an authentic look. When Watts and Holland emerge from the water bewildered and covered in bruises and blood, the damage to their bodies looks genuinely painful, and in The Impossible, there is no miraculous healing in the next scene.

Most of The Impossible is taken up not by the destruction but by the aftermath, and the movie finds plenty of opportunities for emotional moments. Survival, unexpected separation, loss, reunion, desperation, abandoned children, and the kindness of strangers: the Sergio Sanchez script keeps the tears flowing.

And holding the film together is Watts, as she throws herself into a role that drains the body and the mind. Watts spends most of The Impossible either trudging through muck or on her back in makeshift hospital rooms awaiting treatment, and in every scene she is either wet, bloodied, swollen, or pale enough to kiss death, or any combination thereof. Yet Watts is convincing as a woman who refuses to give up or panic, and who insists that others also be helped whenever possible.

The Impossible is a testament to the human spirit, taking everything that nature can throw at it, accepting enormous losses, but never abandoning the burning desire to stay alive and thrive.






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Monday, 16 September 2013

Book Review: Inferno, by Dan Brown (2013)


Symbologist Robert Langdon is back for a fourth race-against-time adventure in Inferno, and Dan Brown's highly successful formula of grand conspiracies linked to historical art still works but shows clear signs of strain.

Langdon wakes up in a Florence hospital with short-term memory loss thanks to a would-be assassin's bullet that grazed his head. Langdon is suffering from horrific visions that seem to represent the impending end of the world. While he does not remember why he is in Italy, the danger is immediate, as the assassin arrives at the hospital to try and finish the job. The intervention of quick thinking young doctor Sienna Brooks saves his life, and soon Langdon is on the run with Sienna, trying to solve a riddle hidden in a modified version of Botticelli's Map of Hell, inspired by Dante's vision of hell, as described in the Inferno portion of the Divine Comedy.

Meanwhile, a shadowy and dangerous private organization called the Consortium, led by a man known as the Provost, is chasing after Langdon, while agents for the World Health Organization, including its leader Elizabeth Sinskey, also seem to be deployed in large numbers to try and avert a public health catastrophe. As Langdon and Sienna chase after clues hidden in the artwork and ancient museums of Florence, Venice, and Istanbul, they uncover a nefarious plot by Bertrand Zobrist, a genius genetics scientist. Zobrist has already committed suicide, but not before instigating a terrible chain of events that could result in mass death. Langdon has limited time to help avert a disaster, but he will be surprised by many twists and turns before the world meets its fate.

There is an undoubtedly high readability factor to Inferno. The writing is simple, the pages turn at maximum velocity, and the need-to-know-what-happens-next could not be higher. Even when Brown gets bogged down in a few too many superfluous architectural and historical descriptions, these paragraphs can be easily skipped. The context of the world facing calamity due to overpopulation is interesting but debatable, and it is surprising that at no time does Brown present any counterarguments to the doomsday scenario espoused by Zobrist and his disciples.

Inferno's drawback resides in rehashing many of the same elements that are now almost too familiar from the other Robert Langdon adventures. The smart and athletic woman who appears out of nowhere to help, and who may be much more involved in the plot than she lets on. The lone assassin hunting down the good guys. The third party retained to help broker the evil-doing of the real evil-doers. And always the race against the clock, and the frenzied rush from one historical artifact to another.

In an attempt to refresh some of these elements Brown introduces the always dubious plot device of amnesia, and several remarkable plot twists that involve characters changing sides or changing identities. These do get tiresome and are mainly pulled off by leading the reader to the wrong conclusion using grade school gotcha tactics. One particular cheap 180 degree turn, involving a character who is apparently being drugged and forcibly held in the rear seat of a car, is explained away with a most unconvincing mouthful of babble.

Fun but highly derivative, Inferno may be the last Langdon sequelitis adventure that Brown will get away with. A major tweak to the formula or a reboot is now required. The lectures are getting stale, and the professor needs some new material.






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Sunday, 15 September 2013

Movie Review: Alien (1979)


A suspense and gore horror movie set in deepest space, Alien is genre-melding classic that redefined the limits of science fiction, launched the career of Sigourney Weaver, and hatched a long-running franchise.

The commercial freighter Nostromo is heading back to Earth on a months-long journey, carrying 20 million tons of ore mined on distant planets. The crew of seven consists of Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt), Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm), Warrant Officer Ripley (Weaver), Navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), Chief Engineer Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Engineering Technician Brett (Harry Dean Stanton). They are supposed to sleep through most of the journey, but halfway to Earth they are unexpectedly awakened by Mother, the on-board master computer, when Nostromo receives what appears to be a distress signal from a nearby planet.

Dallas, Kane and Lambert descend to the surface of the mysterious planet and discover the remains of a mammoth alien space ship, and deep within it large organic pods harbouring a form of alien life. When Kane gets too close to one of the pods, a small slimy alien being jumps out and attaches itself to his face, crashing through his helmet. Although Ripley insists that the immobilized Kane should be quarantined, Ash ignores her and allows him back on board with the alien still attached. Although Kane appears to make a remarkable recovery, the horror is just beginning, and the Nostromo is soon infected with an ugly, highly intelligent, fast moving, viciously lethal, rapidly growing alien, intent on killing off the crew.

Director Ridley Scott creates an unglamourous, utilitarian environment on board the Nostromo, dominated by endless dank corridors, large industrial equipment, finicky strobe lights, grease stains, oozing leaks, and endless places to hide. Awash in dark murky colours, space exploration is no longer an exciting adventure with lightsabers, laser guns and wars between the planets; it's just mundane soul-destroying blue collar work, and the crew are essentially long distance truck drivers doing their job, bickering, complaining about work conditions and arguing about their pay and bonus.

Within this routine Scott drops in an intruder species that has evolved to survive and kill with maximum efficiency, and Alien draws enormous strength from the lack of symmetry in the ensuing conflict. The crew are beset by infighting and lack of mutual respect, and are definitely not equipped to defend themselves. The alien is nimble, brutal, and soon, very large. It's not a fair fight, there is no help on the way, and nowhere to escape. The suspense is immediate, and Scott makes the most of it. As Dallas orders his team to fan out and hunt down the alien within the grim bowels of the ship, it is painfully apparent that the hunters are the prey, and they know it.

While Alien is dominated by long periods of building suspense, it is punctuated by short, sharp, often gory punctuation marks, Scott sprinkling into his movie several highly effective and memorable scenes of horror that are forever embedded into the cultural landscape. The alien latching itself onto Kane's head is just the beginning. There is a creature birth, a pesky cat, a robot meltdown, and a final confrontation where horror and suspense come together at close quarters, human and alien facing off both knowing that only one can survive.

Scott enhances the impact of the film by quickly establishing a distinct character for every crew member, the opening 45 minutes both setting the context and defining the essential traits of the seven-person team. Dallas is decisive but mostly concerned about steering the ship back to Earth. Kane is thoughtful, Ash scientifically inquisitive and not beyond breaching protocol to satisfy his curiosity. Lambert is a follower while Ripley understands the importance of respecting well-established regulations and not afraid of standing up for what she believes is right. Parker and Brett are resourceful around the ship's mechanical components, but see themselves as separate and a class below the other five. When confronted by a determined common enemy, the individuality of the crew members heightens the sense of dread.

Sigourney Weaver's Ripley starts on the periphery and gradually moves to the centre of the movie, and by the end Ripley emerges as the unlikely crew leader, willing to sacrifice the mission to ensure some measure of survival. She would return in future episodes to confront her demons, as of course would many aliens. Alien is an irresistible start to a conflict between the species, the Nostromo a ship that stumbled onto humanity's most formidable enemy.






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Movie Review: Shame (2011)


A stark examination of sexual addiction, Shame lays bare the overwhelming internal forces that can take absolute control of human behaviour, leaving nothing but emotional destruction in their wake.

Brandon (Michael Fassbender) lives alone in New York, suffering from severe sex addiction. He chases strangers looking for quick anonymous sex, regularly pays for the services of prostitutes, cannot help but masturbate at the office, and surfs for on-line pornography during work hours as a matter of course, causing his office computer to be seized due to the proliferation of viruses. His boss David (James Badge Dale) is a married womanizer who gets his kicks by attempting to seduce every woman he sees. Brandon does not care for seduction; he just needs the sex, and cannot handle neither courtship nor emotional investment.

Brandon's sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) washes up at his apartment. A drug-addicted fledgling lounge singer, Sissy's life is one sailing away from a total ship wreck. David immediately makes a move on Sissy, to the disgust of Brandon, and he is unable to help his sister deal with any of her issues. Brandon realizes that he needs help, and attempts a normal date with co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie). But overcoming the disease controlling his every action is much more difficult than just throwing away his porn collection.

Director Steve McQueen delivers a harrowing journey into the life of a man gradually disintegrating due to a malfunctioning mind. Shame has no moments of levity, humour or relief; the film sets up permanent camp where Brandon is, a hell where the constant need for sex dominates every other aspect of life. McQueen, who co-wrote the script with Abi Morgan, is immediately able to de-eroticize Brandon's version of sex. An itch that needs constant scratching delivers pain rather than pleasure, and Brandon is in a state of constant agony, descending towards bleak non-functionality.

The film is awash in darkness and sickly grays and greens, the aesthetic as gloomy as Brandon's outlook. McQueen allows his camera to linger on faces and expressions, and most of the dialogue in Brandon's life is awkward small talk, human interaction being an inconvenience to be overcome between fixes. The date between Brandon and Marianne, as he forces himself into a few hours of male-female interaction that comes routinely to others, is a luscious study of the uncomfortable, Brandon possessing all the hesitant skills of a young teenager when it comes to sustaining adult conversations.

Michael Fassbender oozes pain as Brandon, using his lanky gait to display total lack of social comfort, his eyes evoking lust and pain simultaneously. It's a brave yet dominating performance of physical distress resulting from having to conceal ongoing emotional anguish. In an equally raw performance, Carey Mulligan allows Sissy to be the mirror that Brandon does not want to see. Like her brother Sissy is also an addict, but more willing to talk about it, forcing Brandon to either confront his demons or kick her out. Mulligan also strikes one of the emotional peaks in the movie, her one-take rendition of New York, New York more a yearning for what will never be rather than a self-assured commitment to strive for glory.

Towards the end of Shame, Brandon's uncontrolled quest for sex hurtles him into an unplanned sexual encounter in a club, followed by a rush into a threesome, neither pleasurable, both excruciating calls for help in search of relief that is only ever temporary. The spiral tightens, the options narrow, and without help, Brandon's future is ever darkening.






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Saturday, 14 September 2013

Movie Review: My Week With Marilyn (2011)


Another sacrifice at the altar of Marilyn Monroe obsession, My Week With Marilyn offers a captivating Michelle Williams performance, but not much else of interest.

It's 1957, and Marilyn Monroe (Williams), the biggest movie star in the world, arrives in London to film what would become The Prince And The Showgirl, a lightweight comedy with Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) and Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench). Amidst the predictable media storm, young Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) lands a job as Third Assistant Director on the production, essentially an errand boy to satisfy Olivier's whims. Clark is eager and enthusiastic, and starts a tentative relationship with wardrobe assistant Lucy (Emma Watson). Meanwhile, his position on the set provides him with a front row seat as the production stutters to a start.

Monroe is with her newly minted third husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), but their relationship appears cold. She is much more dependent on her acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker), whose role is to protect Monroe's fragile self esteem. Olivier's wife Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond) is gracious enough but keeps a wary eye on her husband. With filming in turmoil and Monroe's frequent late arrivals to the set infuriating Olivier, Miller abruptly abandons his new wife and heads back to the US. Monroe turns to Clark for comfort, the superstar and the third assistant director raising eyebrows as they start to spend time together, despite the objections of Monroe's business partner Milton H. Greene (Dominic Cooper).

My Week With Marilyn is based on two (!) books by Colin Clark chronicling his limited interaction with Monroe, and the movie cannot shake the nagging sentiment that this is one temporarily starstruck man milking a short experience for all its worth. And while there may be an interesting story here about the ease with which hypercharisma can distort reality, director Simon Curtis does not help by portraying the time that Marilyn and Clark spent together as an almost mystical ideal romance.

This may have been how a mesmerised Clark remembered events; it simply comes across as one man emotionally drowning within the allure of an incredibly beautiful but deeply troubled woman, and mistaking her ability to influence all men for something resembling a whirlwind relationship. More pointedly exploring the difference between what Clark felt and what actually happened would have made for a much more interesting movie.

Instead we get a princess and the pauper fairy tale, complete with the prolonged montage sequence of the couple touring Windsor Castle and Eton College, and then skinny dipping. At best Monroe was furious that her husband abandoned her, desperate for company, irrational due to constant pill popping, and found the most naive sap to baby sit her ego. But the Adrian Hodges script treats the week as a magical coming together of two souls, and the saccharine taste just doesn't convince.

Stretching the shallow events of one week to a respectable movie length means that every detail is prolonged past its reasonable level of importance. Ironically, the scenes revealing the struggles of filming a movie with an erratic Marilyn are more interesting, Curtis capturing the continuous tension created by an unstable star, frequently late to the set and trying to pretend that the role requires great insight and preparation, while in fact she sleeps off her latest fistful of pills.

My Week With Marilyn does offer an affecting Michelle Williams turn as Monroe, or at least she nails the mannerisms of Monroe's public persona. Williams immediately erases the line between actress and subject, and dances along all the octaves of a highly strung, enormously talented, and incredibly famous woman, struggling with self confidence at one end of the scale and effortlessly deploying her irresistible sex-drenched charms at the other.

Branagh is less successful as Olivier, never appearing at ease in the role and unable to shed the act and find the actor. Judi Dench brings plenty of class as Sybil Thorndike, but she effectively disappears halfway through the film. Redmayne is firmly stuck in family theatre territory, where the fact that he is acting - almost always with a smile! - overshadows everything else that he is trying to convey.

Williams alone makes the film worth watching, and her performance raises the production from cheap television movie to a tolerable film experience. Never mind My Week With Marilyn; the 100 minutes with Michelle are what matter.





All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Movie Review: Mad Max (1979)


An exceptional car chase thriller filled with spectacular destruction, Mad Max launched the careers of star Mel Gibson and director George Miller, and proved that Australian cinema is capable of high-energy, violence-drenched action dramas.

In Australia of the near future, civilization is showing sign of breaking apart at the seams. Wild criminal Nightrider escapes from prison, steals a police car and roars down the highway. After a destructive chase, Nightrider is stopped dead in his tracks by the ace pursuit officer on the force, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson). Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and Bubba Zanetti (Geoff Parry), take over the leadership of Nightrider's motorbike gang. When the bikers terrorizes a small town, Max and his partner Goose (Steve Bisley) arrive on the scene and arrest gang member Johnny The Boy (Tim Burns).

When Johnny is released due to the absence of witnesses, he gets into an altercation with Goose, who becomes a prime target for Toecutter and his goons. Max feels the stress getting to him, so his boss Fifi (Roger Ward) affords him a vacation. Max sets off to the country with his wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel) and young son, but Toecutter is lurking.

Miller achieves a vision of a society teetering on the brink of breakdown, but not quite there yet. Mad Max is set in the transition zone where marauders are about to confirm their rule of the road, but the police have just enough about them to still make a fight of it. Meantime, in the small towns that dot the roads, law and order are very much losing the battle to anarchy and mayhem.

As such, Mad Max occupies an inventive space where Max and Jessie can still try to carry on a normal family life, Fifi will try to hold together a police force, and Goose believes that he is indestructible, but also a space where the violent methods of the likes of Nightrider, Toecutter and Bubba Zanetti are slowly but surely taking over and erasing the vestiges of a once normal society.

Made on a shoestring budget of $400,000 but achieving the slick look of a movie costing at least ten times as much, Mad Max thrives on its underground cult ethos. Cinematographer David Eggby fills the screen with roaring kinetic energy, placing his cameras nose to nose with angry engines to capture the beauty of unconstrained horsepower. The chase scenes are lucid art in motion, punctuated by hair-raising stunt work. And on the rare occasion when the choppy editing betrays the budget, Mad Max just wears with pride its medal for exceptionally honest effort .

Mel Gibson, at 23 years old, has few words to say but makes a big impact. Demonstrating coolness as a policeman and warmth as a family man, Gibson's appeal is unmistakable. By providing him with a job, boss, colleagues, wife and child, the role immediately allows his persona to go beyond the traditional mysterious silent stranger. Max is a normal human being with a full life, and if he is going to get mad, it's going to be for some damn good reasons.

Joanne Samuel's surprisingly central performance as Jessie is packed with the treasures of couplehood, and she represents everything that is about to be lost as civilization gives way to creeping nihilism. According to this trajectory, in the future loving wives and doting mothers will have no role to play, and Samuel, who stepped into the role at the last minute, provides Jessie with the genuine sensuality that keeps Max sane while the world of policing exposes him to the non-stop cavalcade of insanity.

Mad Max is a classic high-octane adventure, a one-way ticket to a future where crushing pessimism is only exceeded by the glory of horsepower.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Wednesday, 11 September 2013

CD Review: America's Volume Dealer, by Corrosion Of Conformity (2000)


The sixth album from Corrosion Of Conformity, America's Volume Dealer finds a tired band struggling to dredge up the enthusiasm necessary to awaken their creative juices.

Too much of the album sounds like material that has gone through the laundry cycle one time too many. The area where light metal meets southern-tinged heavy rock is filled with ripe and squishy fruit, and America's Volume Dealer dangerously skids towards well trodden bayou paths. The delivery is tight and the album production values are high, but the wait between original or exciting ideas is long, and many of the tracks disappear into the forgettable background where overly familiar tunes reside.

As examples of the many frustrations polluting the album, Take What You Want fades away just as it starts to become interesting, while the limp single Congratulations Song is too happy with a repetitive structure as exciting as a bucket of vanilla ice cream left out in the southern sun for a couple of hours. Gittin' It On awfully recreates the worst attitude of talentless 1980s glam rock. Including such a throwaway track on an album is a sad sign of a band that has lost direction.

Within the disappointing meandering, there are some good moments. Album opener Over Me is easily the most inspired metal-leaning selection, dangerous strumming filling the track with muscular intent, Pepper Keenan giving the lyrics his all. On Zippo, Keenan and Woodroe Weatherman trade crunchy riffs and channel Peter Frampton's talk box, while the otherwise ordinary Who's Got The Fire enjoys a terrific solo. And on Sleeping Martyr, the band prove that when they dig deep they can enliven established ideas with a boost of adrenaline, here the power ballad injected with plenty of juice, allowing the soft passages to gain impetus. 13 Angels aims for the same impact but misses the mark and settles for ordinary.

America's Volume Dealer sounds robust, but is also peddling music too close to the bland mainstream.  


Band:

Pepper Keenan - Vocals, Guitar
Woodroe Weatherman - Guitar
Mike Dean - Bass
Reed Mullin - Drums


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Over Me - 9
2. Congratulations Song - 6
3. Stare Too Long - 7
4. Diablo Blvd. - 7
5. Doublewide - 7
6. Zippo - 8
7. Who's Got The Fire - 8
8. Sleeping Martyr - 9
9. Take What You Want - 7
10. 13 Angels - 7
11. Gittin' It On - 5

Average: 7.27

Produced and Mixed by John Custer.
Engineered by Jonathan Lowry. Mastered by Seva.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.


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