Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Movie Review: Now, Voyager (1942)

An impossible romance set against the psychological drama of a convoluted mother-daughter relationship, Now, Voyager is an opus of grand emotions, elevated by a perfect Bette Davis performance.

In Boston, the wealthy and widowed Mrs. Windle Vale (Gladys Cooper) rules her household with an icy grip, and torments her youngest daughter Charlotte (Bette Davis) into emotional oblivion. Mrs. Vale treats Charlotte like a lowly servant, dictating every detail of her life and preventing her from blossoming into an adult. On the verge of a nervous breakdown, Charlotte is rescued by psychologist Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains), who admits her into his mental treatment facility. After many weeks of therapy Jaquith instills in Charlotte the self-confidence to become her own person.

On a South American cruise to explore her new-found independence, she meets Jeremiah (Jerry) Duvaux Durrance (Paul Henreid), an unhappily married father of two. Jerry and Charlotte spend many days getting to know each other, and endure a memorable taxi mishap on a remote mountain rode in Brazil. They fall deeply in love, but he has to return to his wife and daughters, while the now empowered Charlotte has to return to Boston and establish new rules for the relationship with her mother.

The well-meaning but bland Elliot Livingston (John Loder) soon emerges as a serious suitor for Charlotte's heart, but it will not be easy for her to forget Jerry, who has family troubles of his own, with his young daughter Tina (Janis Wilson) suffering from extremely low self-esteem.

Now, Voyager does go on, the final 30 minutes of the two hour running time stretching into what starts to feel like a serialized, crisis-of-the-week drama, while the ending gropes for a resolution to the doomed but eternal love. By introducing Tina late in the third act, the Casey Robinson script (adapting the book by Olive Higgins Prouty) is keen to show that Charlotte now has the wisdom and confidence to know how a mother is supposed to love, breaking the generational chain of emotional abuse. But in striving for a bittersweet ending, Dr. Jaquith, earlier established as a man of wisdom, is dumbed down and allowed to make some bewildering decisions, releasing Charlotte to secure part, but not all, of what she yearns for.

While imperfect, the ending cannot diminish the overall quality of the film. Director Irving Rapper assembles an engrossing examination of a woman in transition, Charlotte progressing from bullied daughter to hesitant adult and then confident society hostess, guided by Dr. Jaquith's sage advice and the healing power of love. From the lowly status of a blatantly unloved daughter, Charlotte earns her small victories as her emotional health is gradually reconstructed, and the film thrives on the challenges of the long emotional journey to recovery.

Robinson finds the best moments in Charlotte's return to her mother's house, the daughter having to walk the finest possible line between respecting her frail mother and asserting her own independence. Using Dr. Jaquith's techniques, Charlotte avoids the route of angry confrontation and instead explores the area where assertiveness and civilized refinement intersect.

Davis finds all the junctures of inflection in Charlotte's transformation, delivering a flawless performance where emotion is conveyed by fleeting but poignant expressions that pass across her face. Cooper, as Charlotte's crusty mother, is perfectly despicable. A selfish mother feeding her miserly needs by degrading her daughter's mental health, Cooper drips delicious self-absorption and expert manipulation.

Henreid is capable if slightly bland as Jeremiah, but his overall acting is overshadowed by the lighting-two-cigarettes-in-the-mouth trick, a signature move that Jerry develops (and repeats often) to light his and Charlotte's cigarette simultaneously. Henreid's silky execution of the sexy hand-off is all that needs to be remembered about his performance. Rains is reliably good as the well-meaning Dr. Jaquith.

Now, Voyager crosses the oceans in search of the ingredients that can transform Charlotte into a complete human being. Some ports naturally remain just out of reach, but the expedition is a deeply enriching experience.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Movie Review: It's Always Fair Weather (1955)

A half-hearted attempt to recreate the vibe of On The Town, It's Always Fair Weather is only moderately successful. Weak musical numbers and generally lacklustre performances undermine an interesting story of post-war alienation.

It's 1945, and soldiers Ted (Gene Kelly), Doug (Dan Dailey) and Angie (Michael Kidd) survive World War Two and return to New York, promising to remain friends forever. Ted receives news that his pre-war girlfriend has dumped him and married someone else. Nevertheless, the three men commit to meeting at the same watering hole in ten years time to renew their friendship. In the intervening years, Doug, an aspiring artist, gets married, raises a family and settles for a corporate career in advertising. Angie, who has ambitions of becoming a respected chef, only manages to open a suburban burger joint.

But it is Ted who struggles the most, wasting the decade on floozies and gambling. When the men meet again in 1955, they all feel like failures, and they can barely stand each other. Ted is managing the career of a boxer he won at the gambling table and gradually getting embroiled in the corrupt world of boxing fixes. Through Doug's contacts he meets strong willed advertising producer Jackie (Cyd Charisse), and she helps him to re-examine himself, but a reconciliation with Doug and Angie appears unlikely.

It's Always Fair Weather gives the impression of a drama trying to pretend that it is a musical. Had the story been developed to its full potential, it could have easily stood on its own as a compelling peek into the difficult challenges of adjusting to mundane civilian life after surviving the chaos of war, a ten year echo of The Best Years Of Our Lives.

But rather than focus on the narrative strengths, song and dance numbers of widely varying quality are coarsely mounted onto the story, blunting most of the film's power. A few of the musical routines work well: Kelly, Dailey and Kidd dance up a storm with garbage bin lids on their feet; Charisse lights up a boxing gym; and Kelly gets to show his moves on roller skates.

But there are also some pretty unfortunate misfires, Dailey's Situation-Wise descending to the embarrassing farce of lampshade-on-head, and annoying radio show host Dolores Gray over-performing her two numbers into small market touring company territory.

A sense of disturbing unevenness runs through the film, stemming from a strained relationship between co-directors Stanley Donen and Kelly, and some poor editing decisions. Kelly co-starring with Charisse and yet not sharing a dance sequence with her is a phenomenally weird decision. Somehow, the finished product has much more of the crass Gray than the stunning Charisse, a truly horrific miscalculation, while Kidd's solo number was left on the cutting floor, resulting in a fundamental imbalance in the film's core triangle of friendship.

While the performances are competent, none of the leads sustains a sparkle. Charisse comes closest, but she is given so little to do that it does not matter. Kelly, Dailey and Kidd never convince as war-time buddies, the script by Betty Comden and Adolph Green lacking the necessary wit and warmth to delve into what makes a deep friendship.

It's Always Fair Weather does end on a high of sorts, a well-choreographed brawl on live television reminding the friends why they liked each other to begin with. After all, there is nothing like a mindless fight to bring back the good memories of war.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Movie Review: Red River (1948)

A cattle drive as a metaphor for life, Red River is a stirring western adventure benefitting from stubborn characters battling against each other as they carve new trails across the west.

Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) is a determined cattleman and expert quick-draw, and along with loyal companion Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan) carves out his own territory to raise cattle in Texas. After an Indian attack destroys a wagon convoy, Dunson takes in a young Matthew Garth under his wing. Over many years Dunson grows his empire from one cow and one bull to a herd numbering more than ten thousand, while Matthew (Montgomery Clift) matures into a capable cowboy, and a fast gunman in his own right. The Civil War destroys the market for beef in the south, forcing Dunson to embark on an epic thousand mile cattle drive to Missouri, where he can sell his herd.

Dunson, Matthew and Groot assemble a large team of cowboys including quick draw Cherry Valance (John Ireland), and they set out on the long and difficult journey across the Red River and against the elements, Indians, marauding cattle thieves and the risk of stampedes. Dunson drives his men hard and resentment starts to build against his authoritarian leadership, especially when Dunson refuses to change course despite word filtering through that by using the Chisholm Trail, Kansas may be a shorter and easier destination than Missouri. When Dunson's behaviour turns from difficult to dangerously irrational, Matthew has to decide if he can stand up to his lifelong father figure.

The first western directed by Howard Hawks, Red River is a visually impressive achievement and an engaging exploration of some classic themes. Filmed in black and white, Hawks and cinematographer Russell Harlan create arresting images of a massive cattle drive across open terrain, the land creating both the opportunity and the challenge for Dunson and his men. The script by Borden Chase and Charles Schnee provides plenty of nighttime pauses for the personalities of the men to emerge from under the hats, leading to the human conflicts that enrich the film.

The evolution of Matthew from boy to man is a central story line, as the protege has to finally come out of his mentor's shadow and establish his own authority to earn his place in the world. Another running thread explores the limits of determined leadership, the same headstrong and violent tactics that allowed Dunson as a young man to become a great cattleman work against him when the time comes for managing his men on the arduous journey. And the role of women in the lives of their men receives a twinkled if marginal nod, Dunson losing an early love (Coleen Gray) who could have moderated his personality, and later both Matthew and Dunson tangling with the resourceful Tess Millay (Joanne Dru) when she lands in the middle of their brewing dispute.

In a complex role that includes plenty of unpleasantry, John Wayne brings Dunson to life without hiding the ferocity of will required to survive in the west. Dunson is rarely a cuddly man, and Wayne plays the role with a swagger that makes Dunson's darker side more menacing. Montgomery Clift, in his first movie role, represents through Matthew the next generation, still resolute but more alert to the need to listen and accommodate rather than command and control. Both Clift and Matthew are clear-eyed, energetic and with the future at their feet.

Driven by the vigorous flow of life's essential ingredients, Red River runs strong and deep.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Movie Review: The Thin Man (1934)

A sharp murder mystery wrapped in a celebration of couplehood, The Thin Man crackles with wit and offbeat energy.

Inventor Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis) suddenly disappears, leaving behind distraught daughter Dorothy (Maureen O'Sullivan), ex-wife Mimi (Minna Gombell), recent lover Julia (Natalie Moorhead), and confused business partner Herbert (Porter Hall).

Retired police detective Nick Charles (William Powell) has known Dorothy since she was a child, and is eventually persuaded by his wife Nora (Myrna Loy) to help investigate Clyde's disappearance. This soon turns into a multiple-murder investigation with Clyde as the prime suspect, as Lieutenant John Guild (Nat Pendleton) closes in on solving the case. But all is not what it seems, and Nick's intervention turns the case on its head, with Clyde himself a victim and the real murderer well-hidden among a large number of suspects.

The Thin Man derives most of its appeal from the interplay between Nick and Nora. He is happily retired from policing, happy to drink at all hours, and happy to live a glib life of languorous socializing, yet his detective brain never stops working. She patiently matches his intelligence but combines it with sly prodding towards doing something useful in life, like helping to solve a murder. The repartee between them adds a shimmering gloss to The Thin Man, elevating it from a whodunnit to a pointy cerebral puzzle.

The mystery elements of the film are absorbing, the screenplay by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich packing three murders and a dozen disparate characters into 93 minutes. The dichotomy between Nick's love for the life of leisure and the sudden acts of evil conniving generates entertaining tension, as director W. S. (Woody) Van Dyke gradually but inevitably moves Nick to the centre of the mayhem, culminating in a droll all-suspects dinner invitation.

William Powell and Myrna Loy create the roles for which they became most famous, an odd couple with genuine warmth. The subtle moments in the film when Powell and Loy cut through both the drama and the comedy to display genuine caring between Nick and Nora are the foundations of their screen magic. Powell brings self-depreciating haughtiness to Nick, and Loy, dressed in a succession of stunning outfits, plays Nora as the woman who knows that she is her husband's source of both monetary and emotional wealth, but wields her power with tender subtlety. Their relationship is under constant observation by their pet dog Asta, a source of understated comic relief.

Successful to the point of spawning five sequels over the next 13 years, The Thin Man helped create the template for classy screen crime mysteries built on the chemistry of a crafty couple.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Movie Review: August: Osage County (2013)

The convoluted tribulations of the ultimate dysfunctional family, August: Osage County is a melodrama of social wreckage enhanced by stellar acting performances.

During a long hot summer in Oklahoma, Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), a professor, poet and alcoholic, finally walks away from his long-time wife Violet (Meryl Streep), an overbearing woman addicted to prescription drugs. Beverly's disappearance, soon confirmed as a suicide, causes a family crisis, and Violet's family members converge at her large house for the funeral and to pick up the pieces.

Violet's sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charles (Chris Cooper) arrive first, followed by Violet's daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), who also lives in Oklahoma. Arriving from out of town are Violet's daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) with her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and 14 year old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). A third daughter Karen (Juliette Lewis) arrives with flamboyant fiancé Steve (Dermot Mulroney). Last to arrive by bus is "Little" Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), the grown son of Mattie Fae and Charles.

Zonked out on her drugs, Violet sets about pouring salt in all the open wounds of her family. Barbara and Bill are on the verge of a divorce, and the brooding Jean is already using marijuana. Ivy is unmarried and resents being the only daughter left behind to look after her mother. Karen is self-obsessed and has long since stopped caring about anyone other than herself. Meanwhile Steve, already twice divorced, immediately unleashes his slime on Jean. Little Charles lacks confidence and is still treated like an incompetent child by his mother. As Violet mercilessly pounces on every weakness that she sees, Barbara has to decide on what action to take to knock her mother back into a reasonable orbit.

Designed to make every other family appear normal, August: Osage County exhausts all possible miseries that one family can possibly endure. Prescription drug abuse, recreational drugs, generations of emotional abuse, alcohol dependency, suicide, separation, parental smothering and layers of guilt, and this is before the really juicy secrets are spilled in the final third.

The entire film is based on dialogue and confrontation, and Tracy Letts does well to adapt his play into a measured movie with ever more complex issues revealed in layers. Every character is damaged to various degrees, dealing with emotional losses and lost opportunities. And each one of Violet's relatives has a reason to lay blame on another family member for their perceived misfortune, resulting in an intricate web of recrimination and castigation.

Presented on a knife's edge between tense comedy and overwrought drama, the film maintains its balance thanks to a superb cast. Meryl Streep is given the freedom of the open Oklahoma plains to let loose, and she does deliver a memorable performance as Violet, a woman long past caring about what others think about her outrageous opinions. With Violet's social senses dulled by years of prescription drug abuse and a battle with cancer, Streep has the excuse to go over the top, and she does so in a showcase of emotional overload backed-up by a victim card. With Streep on the screen, which is often, the film crackles with the intensity of a woman who thrives on domination because she has nothing else to fall back on.

Julia Roberts is more restrained, her performance in many ways more intense and loaded with realism. Barbara is in the classical generational sandwich, her marriage falling apart as she is squeezed between her unbearable mother and a rebellious daughter. Roberts conveys the struggles of a woman quietly terrified of following in the footsteps of her mother, Barbara livid at Violet's dependencies and insensitivities mostly because they represent potential signposts in her own life.

The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, director John Wells doing well to gradually introduce the many family members as they gather at Violet's house, each character getting a few dedicated minutes of relative normalcy to establish a presence before the secrets start oozing.

For all the humour generated by adults mistreating each other, the film does singularly focus on the prevailing bleakness. Letts and Wells allow their characters very few opportunities to genuinely laugh and live, the obsession with anguish coming at the expense of exploring more realistic lives. In August: Osage County, if it isn't dispiriting, it isn't happening, but all the snaky negativity is undoubtedly engrossing.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Movie Review: Guys And Dolls (1955)

A colourful musical hampered by odd casting choices, Guys And Dolls stretches a minimalist plot to a remarkable 150 minutes, but maintains interest with a steady drizzle of highlights.

In New York, a group of small-time con men addicted to gambling entrust organizer Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra) with finding a location for an illegal craps game, despite the close attentions of Lieutenant Brannigan (Robert Keith). Nathan is also under pressure from Miss Adelaide (Vivian Blaine), a stage performer and his fiancée of 14 years, to finally get married. Looking for a quick $1,000 to secure a gambling venue, Nathan makes a bet with the laid back Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando): Sky will win the bet and $1,000 if he manages to take Sister Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons), leader of the Save A Soul Mission, to Havana for dinner. Otherwise, he will have to pay $1,000 to Nathan.

Sky moves quickly to court Sarah, who is struggling to attract anyone to her Mission. Meanwhile, the pressure on Nathan grows with the arrival of Chicago mobster Big Jule (B.S. Pully) in town, looking for some gambling action, while Miss Adelaide runs out of patience with Nathan's gambling obsession. Sky does indeed get Sarah to Havana, but their budding relationship is damaged when her Mission is used as a venue for gambling. With Big Jule looking for big winnings, all the gamblers meet in the sewer for a high stakes game, while Sky has to find a way to win back Sarah without falling into Brannigan's clutches.

With a story built almost entirely around the flimsy premise of finding a location for craps and a fairly basic bet-motivated romance, Guys And Dolls scrambles around for sub-plots and themes to hang some content on. To a certain extent the film finds humour and irony in the clash between a group of rough gamblers and a Mission intent on saving the souls of any and all sinners. The script by director Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Ben Hecht, based on the 1950 Broadway show, makes the most of small situations, but there is no escaping the overall slow pace and long waits between meaningful story developments.

The casting choices of producer Samuel Goldwyn had more to do with cashing in on Brando's skyrocketing popularity after the success of On The Waterfront than suitability for the role. Despite the prevailing spirit of fun throughout Guys And Dolls, Brando, Simmons and Sinatra all seem marginally uncomfortable. Brando is no singer, and while he does his best, his warbling is laboured. Simmons isn't a singer either, but she is asked to do less of it, and when she does deliver her highlight If I Were a Bell, she belts it out with some conviction. Sinatra, meanwhile, is given relatively little singing to do, and he just comes across as too smooth and too inherently good for the hustling character of Nathan Detroit.

Mankiewicz' direction is often static and unimaginative. He does relatively little to add motion picture dynamism, and many scenes carry the unmistakable whiff of a stage show being unimaginatively filmed. The sets are always animated with stacks of extras, but also obviously studio bound and lacking the authentic air of a real city.

Guys And Dolls does find some excellent moments. The scenes between Brando and Simmons gradually gain heat, and reach a fine boil in the prolonged Havana sequence, by far the best stretch of the movie. Surrounded by a night full of Latin sensuality, Sky melts away Sarah's stiff inhibitions to reveal the steamy woman within. Also good is the climactic craps game in the sewer, Mankiewicz finally finding some energy with a lively dance number and then a couple of all-or-nothing duels involving Nathan, Big Jule and Sky.

And the film wins plenty of style points, the set designs exploding with a vivid intensity, matched by slick men's outfits featuring a wide variety of colours, with Sky's sense of cool standing out in his love of variations on black.

A celebration of the simple pleasures that occupy men who should know better, Guys And Dolls is an undemanding roll of the dice.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Movies: Oscar 2014 Predictions

The Ace Black Blog's predictions for the winners of the 2014 Academy Awards in the eight major categories are presented below. In each category, each nominee is assigned a percentage score to indicate the likelihood of winning, according to The Ace Black Blog. The awards ceremony is on
March 2 2014.

Post Awards Update: The favourites predicted by the Ace Black Blog below were successful in seven out of the eight categories. The winner in each category is now noted.

Best Picture

12 Years A Slave: 50% (winner)
American Hustle: 35%
Gravity: 10%
The Wolf Of Wall Street: 5%
Dallas Buyers Club: 0%
Her: 0%
Captain Phillips: 0%
Philomena: 0%
Nebraska: 0%

Best Picture is a two-way race between 12 Years A Slave and American Hustle. The weighty seriousness of 12 Years A Slave should give it the edge. Gravity and The Wolf Of Wall Street are outsiders, and the rest are excellent movies but not in serious contention.

Best Director

Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity: 40% (winner)
David O. Russell, American Hustle: 30%
Steve McQueen, 12 Years A Slave: 25%
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf Of Wall Street: 5%
Alexander Payne, Nebraska: 0%

A close three way race, Gravity's remarkable multi-sensory experience should give Cuarón the Oscar. Russell and McQueen are the other two serious contenders, and either could emerge as the winner if Gravity is perceived as more of a technical rather than artistic achievement.

Best Actor

Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club: 40% (winner)
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf Of Wall Street: 30%
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years A Slave: 25%
Bruce Dern, Nebraska: 5%
Christian Bale, American Hustle: 0%

McConaughey is the leading contender, and Oscar has a long tradition of loving performances that battle disease or disability. DiCaprio and Ejiofor are the other two strong candidates, but they both benefit from momentous stories, while McConaughey is Dallas Buyers Club. Dern will get the seniors' vote, but not enough to threaten.

Best Actress

Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine: 45% (winner)
Amy Adams, American Hustle: 30%
Sandra Bullock, Gravity: 25%
Judi Dench, Philomena: 0%
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County: 0%

Blanchett has been the favourite ever since Blue Jasmine was released. Both Adams and Bullock were excellent, but with American Hustle more of an ensemble piece and the predominance of space spectacle over acting in Gravity, they are unlikely to cause an upset.

Best Supporting Actor

Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club: 100% (winner)
Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips: 0%
Jonah Hill, The Wolf Of Wall Street: 0%
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years A Slave: 0%
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle: 0%

This one is not a contest. Leto will win for his transgendered supporting role in Dallas Buyers Club. The others were all good, but not in the same league.

Best Supporting Actress

Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle: 50%
Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years A Slave: 40% (winner)
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County: 10%
Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine: 0%
June Squibb, Nebraska: 0%

Lawrence is Hollywood's "It" girl of the moment, and this will give her the edge over newcomer Nyong'o. The "It" girl of a generation ago, Julia Roberts may get some outside nostalgic consideration.

Best Original Screenplay

Her: 45% (winner)
American Hustle: 35%
Blue Jasmine: 10%
Dallas Buyers Club: 5%
Nebraska: 5%

A toss-up between Her and American Hustle. Spike Jonze may get the nod for innovation over Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell's recreation of the 1970s, but the result could be reversed if American Hustle has a strong night. Woody Allen will always get some consideration, but is unlikely to cause an upset.

Best Adapted Screenplay

12 Years A Slave: 45% (winner)
The Wolf Of Wall Street: 30%
Before Midnight: 15%
Captain Phillips: 5%
Philomena: 5%

John Ridley's 12 Years A Slave should get the nod ahead of Terence Winter's The Wolf Of Wall Street. The constant stream of F-bombs in The Wolf Of Wall Street and the potential to misconstrue the film's intent as a glorification of greed in the post-recession era will work against it. Before Midnight is a dark horse if the Academy is looking to acknowledge the trilogy.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

CD Review: Bullet In Your Head, by Made Of Hate (2008)

Changing their name from Archeon, Poland's Made Of Hate come back with Bullet In Your Head, a stripped down melodic death metal album full of eagerness to please and boundless energy, but also occasionally veering close to simplistic.

Despite the tight sound and professional delivery, the band stubbornly remains first and foremost a vehicle for Mike Kostrzynski's lead guitar wizardry. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it can get one dimensional. Kostrzynski loves little classical interludes and plenty of cutesy jingles, but his guitar is often ahead of what else the band is capable of delivering. His own vocals are weak and mixed in the distant background, while the drumming is routine and the bass barely noticeable.

The compositions are basic, strongly reliant on good melodies, and delivered with an almost disco like bounciness. There is limited complexity or theme development in evidence, and samey tones and lengths prevail, with all nine tracks clocking in at between 4 and 5 minutes, and all delivered at an identical medium-fast tempo.

A couple of stand out tracks rise to the top. Bullet In Your Head is the most sophisticated cut, getting into an immediate groove with a clever riff bolted onto loads of determination. My Last Breath dispenses with the niceties and just reaches for the beef, Kostrzynski slowing the tempo and deciding to chug rather than shred, a welcome change of pace that allows the more traditional solo to sparkle.

Bullet In Your Head is an undemanding listen, firing away in celebration of the genre's fundamentals without necessarily finding any new skulls to puncture.


Mike Kostrzynski - Guitar, Vocals
Radek Polrolniczak - Guitar
Tomek Grochowski - Drums
Jarek Kajszczak - Bass

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Bullet In Your Head - 10
2. An Eye For An Eye - 8
3. On The Edge - 7
4. My Last Breath - 9
5. Mirror Of Sins - 7
6. Hidden - 7
7. Judgement - 7
8. Deadend - 8
9. Fallout - 7

Average: 7.78

Produced by Made Of Hate.
Recorded, Mixed and Mastered by Tomasz Zalewski.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Sleuth (1972)

A battle of wits between two determined men, Sleuth adapts Anthony Shaffer's play to the screen, with twists and turns galore and two bravura performances from Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine.

Andrew Wyke (Olivier) is a rich and playful author of murder mysteries. A lover of games and puzzles, Andrew lives in a large and isolated estate in rural England. He invites Milo Tindle (Caine) for a visit and a chat. Milo is carrying on an affair with Andrew's wife Marguerite, and Andrew would like to discuss the matter. Milo is from an immigrant family and owns a couple of fledgling hairdressing salons as he tries to scrap his way up England's social ladder. Andrew can barely conceal his disdain for Milo's unworthiness as a rival for Marguerite's affection.

Nevertheless, Andrew convinces Milo that while he would be pleased to have Marguerite out of his hair, she has expensive tastes, and both men can benefit by staging a fake break-in and robbery. Milo would steal Andrew's expensive collection of jewelry valued at £250,000, and Andrew would claim the insurance money. Milo buys into the plot, putting on a clown outfit, breaking in and stealing the jewels in a fake heist orchestrated by Andrew. But Andrew's plan has an unexpected twist, and soon Inspector Doppler arrives at Andrew's estate, investigating Milo's sudden disappearance.

Sleuth is an enjoyable cerebral romp, as Andrew and Milo engage in a thrust and counter-thrust battle to settle an individual contest and also to score points in the greater battle of the classes. There are plenty of surprises as the games get ever more dangerous, and each man has to guard against the next block and sly counter-attack. But the film does stretch credibility, both in the robustness of each individual prank and then in attempting to layer too many antics. Men as smart as Andrew and Milo should not be falling for some of the more obvious deceptions, and for all the haughtiness on display, the film over-invests in its own wit.

Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, working from Shaffer's own adaptation, does not try too hard to release the film out of its stage origins. Other than the opening introduction in the front yard maze and a few other scenes at Andrew's front door, most of the movie takes place inside Andrew's palatial playhouse. The action does move within a few rooms, but this is very much a stage-bound film for its 138 minute duration.

Mankiewicz does add some cinematic energy by interjecting frequent quick cuts of the many colourful mechanical automatons who witness, sometimes noisily, the intellectual struggle between Andrew and Milo. An interesting device, it gets rather old with over-use.

The acting from Olivier and Caine is superb, but also clearly theatrical. Olivier in particular frequently falls back on over-the-top, stage-appropriate mannerisms, his loud voice, arm waving, and at times, panicked running around perfect for the context but not exactly subtle.

Caine is more subdued, and more than holds his own against his illustrious co-star. With a more controlled performance to convey Milo as a man struggling against Britain's rigid class structure, Caine registers a strong impact when he does finally unleash seething anger and frustration, Milo seeking a measure of revenge against the invisible attitudes that hold immigrants back. That Laurence comes from British acting royalty while Caine is the combative cockney kid adds a distinctive sub-context to the film.

Sleuth is a grand contest between egos, where stylish humiliation is the objective, and the game does not end until that final, sharp sting.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Movie Review: Her (2013)

A dazzling commentary on the ever more complex human dependence on computers, Her projects into the near future and finds the emotional lines between people and machines blurring into new realities.

In Los Angeles, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a creative writer of love letters on behalf of customers who can't be bothered to express their own feelings, is ironically introverted, lonely, and suffering through the final stages of a painful divorce from Catherine (Rooney Mara), his lifelong sweetheart. Theodore's neighbour and aspiring documentary film-maker Amy (Amy Adams) is one of the few people he is comfortable talking to. When he installs a new, interactive and intuitive computer operating system who calls herself Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johansson), she becomes his constant companion, organizing his life, responding to his emotions, and helping him talk through his issues.

After Theodore's evening with a blind date (Olivia Wilde) goes sideways, Samantha starts to gain self-awareness and human-like passion, and the relationship between her and Theodore evolves into love. Amy also goes through a relationship break-up, and befriends her new operating system. As Theodore works through finalizing his divorce, complications in the relationship between man and operating system introduce a new layer of unexpected challenges.

Her is a subtle but brilliant extrapolation of the human-machine interface. Director and writer Spike Jonze takes a Siri-like presence and infuses her with the next level of emotional intelligence, able to read and interpret emotions, and react to them with empathy. Samantha becomes a companion, then a friend, then a lover, engaging in spectacular VOIP sex that Jonze turns into a masterpiece of visual simplicity to emphasize the rich vocal connection.

Samantha's self awareness creates a presence that allows Theodore to invest genuine emotions into a machine, Jonze tracing the human affinity for attachment to its logical next evolutionary step. Her opens up the question of what is love's true nature, and explores the potential for love to thrive in the absence of physical presence, although Samantha does not stop trying to find innovative ways to manifest herself as a physical, human presence in Theodore's life.

The film moves towards a reawakening hidden inside a relationship breakdown, Samantha proving to be much more astute than even Theodore could imagine. The operating system's mandate is to help, and Samantha not only uncovers Theodore's need to feel again but provides his emotional rescue, reigniting his passion for life.

Joaquin Phoenix is the singular visual focus of the film, most scenes consisting of Theodore conversing with Samantha, many in close-up with minimal movement. Phoenix conveys the sadness of a life at an ebb, stiff in his motions, uncomfortable in his skin, desperately pining for Catherine, his better half and lifelong companion. Jonze makes the most of Phoenix's craggy face, embellished with a robust moustache. Scarlett Johansson provides a voice to get lost in, her performance a rare example of an actress leaving a lasting impression without her character ever appearing on the screen. Amy Adams gets a small but crucial role, providing the parallel clues that other operating systems are busy helping their owners recover from loss in a variety of intricate ways.

With the quirkiness of the near future replacing Japan's cultural uniqueness Her achieves the tender, wistful feel of Lost In Translation, Johansson again playing one part of the essential, soul-saving relationship that can never be. Unconventional and thought-provoking, Her is a love story with byte.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Movie Review: Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954)

A silly but lovable B-grade monster movie, Creature From The Black Lagoon is a man in a rubber suit, but he's entertaining enough if approached in a spirit of fun.

Deep in the Amazon jungle, Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) and his archaeological expedition uncover a strange skeletal hand with webbing between the fingers, fossilized in a mountainside. Excited at the discovery, Maia travels back to Brazil and joins forces with a group including fellow scientist Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson), his girlfriend and researcher Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams), and Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning), and they create a new expedition to find the rest of the skeleton. Meanwhile, back at Maia's base camp, a hideous creature emerges from a nearby lake and kills the two workers assigned to guard the site.

With rustic captain Lucas (Nestor Paiva) at the helm, the expedition travels by boat to the excavation site. There is an undercurrent of friction between David, who cares more about science, and Mark, who is more interested in financial gain and fame. Mark also has his eye on Kay. After failing to find any more pieces of the skeleton, the expedition travels downriver to a lagoon, where they hope to find fossilized deposits. Instead, the half-man, half-fish amphibious and monstrous creature makes its presence known, and a deadly confrontation starts, with the creature trying to kidnap Kay and kill all the men of the expedition.

Creature From The Black Lagoon has limited ambition, and accepted on its own terms as a no-frills monster movie with second tier (at best) talent all around the camera, it delivers campy entertainment.

The film features plenty of impressively clear underwater photography, Universal International and director Jack Arnold eager to show off the emerging capability of filming beneath the waves, as a complement to the original 3-D format of the film. But with the entire movie running for 79 minutes, around 20 of those minutes are invested in mostly languid shots of David, Mark, Kay and the creature swimming in the lagoon, leaving about an hour for the meaningful action. The fact that all the elements of the story fit comfortably within 60 minutes is a good summary of how thin the material is.

The creature outfit has a rather dorky fish head, a scaly body, and an overabundance of rubber. It looks hefty, and more clumsy than scary. Ben Chapman plays the creature, fondly known as Gill-man, on land, where he mostly stumbles around slowly and awkwardly, while Ricou Browning takes over the creature swimming duties, appearing much more lithe and dangerous. By far the best scene in the movie has Kay swimming on the surface and the creature shadowing her from below, parallelling her swim patterns without her knowing, the scene achieving a beauty and the beast balletic elegance.

With the creature itself not too scary, Arnold over-uses to distraction a screechy music score to announce the monster's every intent, in a perfect example of how to reveal desperation in the absence of good new ideas.

The film superficially dabbles in some science versus commerce debates, and more obviously wades into traditional woman-as-the-prize territory as David, Mark and Gill-man form an ungainly triangle of lust around Kay. What exactly the monster would do with Kay should he win her is left to the imagination, but it can't be too good. The sprightly Julie Adams finds every excuse to be in swimsuits or shorts, injecting a healthy promise of sex appeal into the otherwise ominous events at the lagoon.

Part man, part fish, Creature From The Black Lagoon is all kitsch.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Movie Review: Casino Royale (2006)

The most significant reboot in the history of the James Bond franchise, Casino Royale takes the series back to its origins and emerges with one of the best entries in the storied adventures of the British spy. With Daniel Craig taking over the role by the scruff of the neck, Casino Royale is serious, violent, involving, action-packed and emotional.

James Bond (Craig) earns his double-0 licence to kill designation by eliminating a British traitor in Prague. His next assignment is in Madagascar, where he chases a suicide bomb-maker all the way into a foreign embassy, causing an embarrassing diplomatic incident. Despite protestations of outrage from M (Judi Dench), Bond tracks down clues retrieved from the bomb-maker's cell phone to Bahamas-based criminal Alex Dimitrios (Simon Abkarian), who does the dirty work for terrorist master banker Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen). Bond seduces Dimitrios' wife Solange (Caterina Murino) and extracts information allowing him to thwart another bomber targeting Miami airport.

Bond's interference causes the terrorist financial empire to wobble, so Le Chiffre arranges a high-stakes, $100 million poker game at Casino Royale in Montenegro. Bond is inserted into the game with the purpose of bankrupting Le Chiffre, and teams up with Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a Treasury Department agent safeguarding the $10 million entry fee. Local contact Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) and the CIA's Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) are also at the game. Bond and Vesper gradually fall in love, while Le Chiffre proves to be a formidable poker opponent. But as the game unfolds even Le Chiffre is being threatened by his terrorist clients, while Bond has to guard against murder attempts and potential betrayals from all sources.

Bond: You worry you won't be taken seriously.
Vesper: Which one can say of any attractive woman with half a brain.
Bond: True. But this one overcompensates by wearing slightly masculine clothing. Being more aggressive than her female colleagues. Which gives her a somewhat prickly demeanor, and ironically enough, makes it less likely for her to be accepted and promoted by her male superiors, who mistake her insecurities for arrogance. Now, I'd have normally gone with "only child," but, umm, you see, by the way you ignored the quip about your parents...I'm going to have to go with "orphan."
Vesper: All the cut of your suit, you went to Oxford or wherever. Naturally you think human beings dress like that. But you wear it with such disdain, my guess is you didn't come from money, and your school friends never let you forget it. Which means that you were at that school by the grace of someone else's charity: hence that chip on your shoulder. And since you're first thought about me ran to "orphan," that's what I'd say you are.

A reasonably close adaptation of Ian Fleming's book of the same name, Casino Royale introduces Bond as a rookie killer, and quite enjoying his first few tastes of dishing out death. He attitude is bullish, his methods messy, and his longevity prospects are dim. Daniel Craig gives the role its roughest treatment yet, his Bond primarily physical, brazen and committed.

Bond: Vodka martini.
Bartender: Shaken or stirred?
Bond: Do I look like I give a damn?

Casino Royale's one fault is stretching out some scenes to a length beyond what is absolutely necessary. The chase in Madagascar, admittedly featuring terrific parkour stunts, and the action sequence at Miami airport could both have used a trim. And the interlude between the end of the confrontation with Le Chiffre and the climax in Venice does meander through a few too many romantic travelogue shots. The result is a 144 minute film that could have been tightened up by shedding about 15 minutes.

But overall, New Zealand director Martin Campbell delivers a tough-as-nails, violent and edgy film, fed by an undercurrent of Bond's still unrefined rage, a new found lust to kill, and an unexpected romance. The opening credit sequence sets the tone by losing the naked lady silhouettes, and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Audioslave fame contributes the uncompromising theme song You Know My Name, with lyrics that confront Bond's profession like never before:

Arm yourself because no one else here will save you
The odds will betray you and I will replace you
You can't deny the prize it may never fulfill you
It longs to kill you, are you willin' to die?
The coldest blood runs through my veins
You know my name

The song brilliantly find its echo in the film's final line of dialogue, a piece of audaciously symmetrical, and historically fulfilling film making.

Throughout the film, and in no uncertain terms, Campbell and screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis announce the end of Bond's long-standing frolic with fluff. All the recent excesses of the series are dispensed with. The lame jokes and one-liners are gone, there are no tech gimmicks or ridiculous gizmos, the CGI effects are kept in control, the principal villain is quietly dangerous without any bombast, even the product placements are manageable, while the dialogue is uniquely sharp for a Bond adventure

M: You don't trust anyone, do you, James?
Bond: No.
M: Then you've learnt your lesson. Get back as soon as you can. We need you.
Bond: Will do.
M: If you do need time...
Bond: Why should I need more time? The job's done..and the bitch is dead.

Casino Royale kicks up the violence to explicit levels that the series has rarely encountered, with many of the deaths preceded by prolonged struggles to emphasize how difficult it is to kill an opponent. A quite horrific torture scene, Bond strapped naked to a chair with the seat hollowed out, receiving repeated blows from a knotted rope to the most tender part of his body, erases all remaining vestiges of the old, harmless Bond adventures.

And what most defines Casino Royale is the affecting romance between Bond and Vesper, the spy learning some eternal lessons about his heart, his life, his profession and his destiny from the first serious love of his life. Eva Green deserves enormous credit for bringing to life Vesper as a sparring partner who earns the right to be loved by Bond, their scene together in the shower perhaps the single most emotionally captive moment in the history of the Bond series.

Mr. White (a powerful and mysterious terrorist organizer): Hello?
Bond: Mr. White? We need to talk.
Mr. White: Who is this?
[White is suddenly shot in the leg. He screams in pain. He drags himself toward the house. He looks up to see Bond with an assault weapon]
Bond: The name's Bond. James Bond.

Dealing from a new deck and not afraid to go all in, Casino Royale is a straight flush.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Movie Review: Affair In Trinidad (1952)

An average conspiracy thriller, Affair In Trinidad reunites Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford from Gilda (1946), but a sophomoric "evil lurks here" plot limits the film's effectiveness.

In the sultry Caribbean British colony outpost of Trinidad, fledgling American artist Neil Emery is found dead in a small boat. It is left to local Inspector Smythe (Torin Thatcher) and American diplomat Anderson (Howard Wendell) to break the news to Neil's wife Chris (Hayworth), a nightclub performer. There are indications that Neil may have committed suicide, but Smythe suspects that mysterious local tycoon Max Fabian (Alexander Scourby) had something to do with the death. Smythe recruits Chris to secretly infiltrate Max's circle and investigate, a task made easier by Max's infatuation with Chris.

Neil's brother Steve (Ford) arrives in Trinidad in response to a letter that Neil wrote before his death, and is shocked to find his brother dead and his sister-in-law already sidling up to Max. Although Steve and Chris are attracted to each other, she has to keep her distance in order to seduce Max and poke around his mansion for clues of wrong-doing. With Steve uncovering his own evidence that Max is up to no good, Chris stumbles onto a dangerous international plot being orchestrated by Max, and involving a ragged group of traitors.

Affair In Trinidad has some noirish elements, but it is more earnest than cynical. Max and his plotters come across as a bunch of Nazi outcasts forming an amateur science club in his garden shed, and Steve steams through the movie with a boiling temper unbefitting of a thoughtful saviour. The movie is more of a Hayworth comeback role, and she is the central focus not as a femme fatale but rather a widow and victim clumsily thrust into a conspiratorial world. Her two musical numbers are a mish mash of the seductive and the ungainly, Hayworth stomping around rather than gliding on the dance floor, her moves more aggressive than graceful.

Director Vincent Sherman does conjure up a good mood. The nightclub and the parties at Max's mansion evoke a carefree yet tense island lifestyle where the rich and the riffraff all have something to hide and the heat helps to elevate the levels of agitation. The love quadrangle, with Chris struggling with feelings towards the hot-headed Steve, the smooth-tongued Max, and the deceased Neil, creates a flow of bubbling emotions.

The three central performances are also steady. There is no faulting Hayworth's commitment in the central role, her presence magnetic with shades of conflict, although despite many fetching gowns she never fully catches fire. Ford and Scourby play opposite characters and both deliver, Ford full of pent-up anger as Steve and Scourby full of himself as Max.

With Max's rag tag villains more bumbling than menacing, ultimately the rather inane plot undermines any momentum that Affair In Trinidad may have generated. The film ends in a rush and with an exceptional number of loose ends flailing in the Caribbean wind, waiting to be picked up by more polished movies.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Movie Review: The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013)

Based on the autobiography of convicted stockbroker Jordan Belfort, The Wolf Of Wall Street is concurrently an exuberant celebration and a devastating condemnation of the greed-addicted lifestyle lurking behind the stock market's promise of unimaginable riches.

In the late 1980s, a young Jordan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is introduced to the real business of trading stocks on Wall Street by his first boss Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey). The name of the game is not helping clients make money, but rather closing sales to earn commissions. When a downturn costs Jordan his promising job, he joins a scuzzy penny-stock trading firm on Long Island, and quickly establishes a reputation as a consummate salesman, peddling junk stocks and earning huge commissions. He gets rich, teams up with Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), and creates his own firm Stratton Oakmont, hiring scrappy low-lifes and training them to close sales.

Jordan's rise into a Wall Street superstar is meteoric, and his firm's aggressive sales tactics earn him the title Wolf Of Wall Street by Forbes magazine, which only enhances his reputation. His lifestyle becomes one of non-stop drug abuse and sexual debauchery. He meets and marries glamorous model Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie), casually dumping first wife Teresa (Cristin Milioti) in the process. While enjoying his huge mansion of a house, a luxurious yacht, non-stop parties and never ending quantities of drugs, Jordan and Donnie steer Stratton Oakmont into the lucrative Initial Public Offering game, launching the stock of hot footwear brand Steve Madden. With Jordan using every illegal trick in the book to enrich himself ever more, FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) starts sniffing around, and eventually Jordan has to decide to either fight or cooperate with the serious criminal investigations into his business.

Martin Scorsese creates a three hour masterpiece of depravity, exposing the corruption at the heart of Wall Street and the morally unconstrained race to unmitigated greed. The Wolf Of Wall Street is a horrifying yet seductive examination of the men who control much of the world's economic activity, and while the film itself avoids preaching and dwelling on the societal damage, the conclusions are obvious: the system is at the mercy of soulless maggots, and its long term prospects can only be gruesome.

The Wolf Of Wall Street is also magnificently hypnotic, Scorsese packing the movie with the glitzy trappings of immense wealth, as enjoyed by the morally void. Wild parties, nude girls, raunchy sex everywhere, the fastest cars, the most unique drugs, the most exclusive yachts, the largest mansions, and the most expensive threads: any material thing that money can buy, Jordan gets, and Scorsese vividly displays on the screen in overwhelming colour, volume, and size.

And yet Jordan wants more, upset that his average weekly take is less than $1 million, and seeking Swiss banks to hide his wealth and "ratholes" in the form of friends who hold stock for him to benefit from insider trading, understanding nothing of life except what his addictive personality continuously demands. The Wolf Of Wall Street becomes a study of a classic obsessive character as Jordan chases the next high, the next girl, the next million, and the next deal to scratch itches that will never be satisfied.

Leonardo DiCaprio dominates the screen, portraying Jordan with a single-minded zeal to worship ill-gotten wealth with not a single principled bone in his body. The supporting cast trails in his wake, Jonah Hill as Donnie representing the many flim flam type characters who benefitted from Jordan's ability to sell garbage to easily duped investors. Margot Robbie slips comfortably into the role of the trophy wife, perhaps the one person never fooled by Jordan, and a woman as superficial as her man in her life's desires. Matthew McConaughey has a one-scene but eternally memorable role, teaching Jordan what it means to be a man governed by the most base instincts.

The Wolf Of Wall Street is a breathless display of life on hyper fast forward, where everything serves the bottom line in a race to the lowest form of achievement: hawking rubbish.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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