Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Movie Review: The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

A gritty crime drama, The Asphalt Jungle is a brilliant story of greed and deception among a group of desperate men. Director John Huston elicits sympathy for deeply-flawed criminals, and finds the subtle shades of grey that separate the bad from the evil.

Scholarly criminal mastermind "Doc" Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) is released from prison, and immediately sets about meticulously planning a daring heist, which involves breaking into a jewelry store through a sewer tunnel wall. Doc approaches small-time criminal financier Cobby (Marc Lawrence), who in turn brings into the plot respected lawyer Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern) to help provide financing and fencing services. Doc hires Louie (Anthony Caruso) as the safecracker, Gus (James Whitmore), the owner of a local diner, as the getaway driver, and Gus' friend Dix (Sterling Hayden) as the muscle. Dix is a down-on-his-luck dreamer with a gambling addiction, although he is trying to reassemble his life with the help of somewhat girlfriend Doll (Jean Hagen).

Unbeknown to the others, Emmerich is actually in deep financial trouble. He is living beyond his means, partly because he maintains an apartment for his expensive mistress Angela (Marilyn Monroe). With the help of private detective Bob Brannom (Brad Dexter), Emmerich plots to double-cross the others and keep the jewels for himself. The robbery is mostly successful, although one of the men is accidentally shot and the police are in pursuit sooner than expected. When Doc and Dix meet with Emmerich to give him the jewels and collect their money, they realize that Emmerich and Brannom have other plans, and the band of thieves turn on each other. With Police Commissioner Hardy (John McIntire) on their tail, imperfect execution and Emmerich's deceit turn a slick plan into a debacle.

Grim and unforgiving, The Asphalt Jungle is a hard-hitting criminals' view of the world. Working from a script that he co-wrote with Ben Maddow (an adaptation of the W.R. Burnett novel), Huston delves in the grimy world where gangsters have to cooperate with each other and guard against each other in a perpetual dance of mistrust. Huston places Doc, Dix and Emmerich and Cobby in the middle of the story, and unapologetically makes them real people striving to score big.

Cobby is trying to keep his money-lending business afloat despite the unwelcome attention of corrupt cop Ditrich (Barry Kelley) and customers like Dix who don't pay back their debts. Dix's family was victimized by the Great Depression, and he dreams of making enough money to buy back the horse farm that his dad had to sell. But his uncontrollable appetite for betting on horses means that he is unlikely to ever get close to fulfilling his fantasy.

Doc and Emmerich are both elder statesmen of the underworld, but polar opposites. Doc takes pride in his work, is smart, careful and thoughtful, and within the context of the crime world, exceedingly open and honest. Emmerich is deceitful and greedy, a man who has over-stretched his resources to buy the company of women like Angela. Emmerich seemingly has everything that Doc, Dix and Cobby strive for, and yet is in the most amount of trouble.

The absence of any stars in the cast allows each of the four to step forward and reveal their personalities and flaws. Jaffe, Lawrence, Calhern and Hayden exude strained confidence undermined by a deep well of apprehension, contributing to the sense of impending doom that electrifies the film.

The jungle is the domain of male survivors, and the two women in the cast are used primarily to sharpen the definition of Dix and Emmerich. Jean Hagen's Doll is a sounding board for Dix, providing a sympathetic ear as he outlines a future that could revive his past. Marilyn Monroe, in her first major movie role as Angela, goes a long way towards justifying Emmerich's excessive spending habits.

Stylistically The Asphalt Jungle is awash in worry, Huston's black and white images filled with harsh contrasts as the men contemplate futures that are either much better or significantly worse than the present. Huston's cameras are restless, always shifting towards edgy angles as in less than two hours the characters are introduced, the heist planned, the crime committed and the aftermath spirals towards disaster. And in The Asphalt Jungle, there are no soft landing spots.

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Sunday, 25 May 2014

Movie Review: The Lady From Shanghai (1947)

A ponderous film noir, The Lady From Shanghai enjoys some brilliant directorial touches from Orson Welles, but is otherwise saddled with dingy characters and blurry motivations.

In New York City, Michael O'Hara (Welles), a tough but down on his luck and unemployed Irish sailor, rescues the beautiful Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) from some Central Park hoodlums. Elsa and her lawyer husband Arthur (Everett Sloane), who walks on crutches, hire Michael as a seaman on board their yacht for a journey to San Francisco via the Panama Canal. Joining the trip is George Grisby, Arthur's business partner and also a lawyer.

As the journey progresses, the earthy Michael finds the Bannisters and Grisby distasteful and conceited. Nevertheless, Michael and Elsa are soon attracted to each other. But the trip takes a turn towards the bizarre when Grisby asks Michael to help fake his death for an insurance windfall, in return for $5,000. With his lust for Elsa heating up, Michael is unsure who to trust and what his next move should be, especially with private investigator Sidney Broome (Ted de Corsia) nosing around the affairs of the Bannisters.

A rushed production delivered by Welles to Columbia Pictures as part of a financial commitment, The Lady From Shanghai stutters its way through the fog of a poorly defined plot. Despite containing plenty to admire, the film is fundamentally lacking a gravitational focus. Elsa, Arthur and Grisby all seem to be plotting something, but their plans remain opaque for far too long, leaving a group of sordid people behaving badly towards each other and dragging the dim Michael into their wreckage.

Ultimately too much of the over-convoluted plot is explained in a rush through off-screen narration rather than on-screen events, resulting in style asserting too much dominance over substance. Most of the film is occupied with hushed and repetitive conspiratorial conversations overlayed with philosophizing about life, love and death, but coming from the mouth of unlikable characters oozing with unexplained evil intent, the resonance is thin. At the film's centre the character of Michael is just too gullible and unsympathetic, and does not offer anything other than a reckless rush into a criminal swamp and an ill-conceived infatuation with an unavailable woman.

The Lady From Shanghai does boast one of Rita Hayworth's most attractive performances. Welles transforms his wife into a short-haired blonde ready to deal in plenty of lust and even more lies, and Hayworth responds with a buzz of understated voltage, allowing Elsa to smoulder with frustration and intent, often in fetching swimwear onboard the Bannister's yacht. Everett Sloane as Bannister and Glenn Anders as Grisby benefit from Welles' close-ups and shadows, filling the screen with a nasty partners' feud heading towards a showdown.

And it's ultimately Welles' trademark camerawork and mastery of shadows that gives the movie its appeal. Most of the scenes that matter in The Lady From Shanghai happen at night, as darkness envelops Michael's world, and Welles plays with light, fire and crisp contrasts. The film ends with a famous gunfight staged in a disorienting funhall of mirrors, Welles adding infinite repetitive reflectivity to his repertoire. Michael O'Hara was not bright enough to steer clear of his shady new acquaintances, and his penance is to see them in a nightmare of multiples, guns blazing.

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Saturday, 24 May 2014

Movie Review: Two Weeks Notice (2002)

A tediously routine romantic comedy, Two Weeks Notice has two attractive stars struggling against a large dose of the mundane.

In New York, Lucy Kelson (Sandra Bullock) is an idealistic lawyer, working for the poor and the disadvantaged and fighting for the conservation of heritage buildings. George Wade (Hugh Grant) is the laid back and philandering chief executive of the Wade Corporation, a large real estate development firm and often the target of Lucy's protests. When Lucy tries to appeal to George to save an old community centre building in her Coney Island neighbourhood, he ends up hiring her instead as his new Chief Counsel.

Lucy's proficiency means that she starts to run every detail of George's life, and he grows totally dependent on her. Although they start to fall in love, Lucy cannot handle George's constant neediness and she submits her notice to resign. As Lucy tries to help hire a replacement, her fledgling relationship with George is further threatened when economic pressures mean that the community centre may fall victim to the wrecking ball after all.

Two Weeks Notice rides a linear rail from start to finish, and rarely finds any memorable moments of distraction or innovation. The progression and outcome of the romance are oh-so-predictable even for the genre. While there are a few laughs to enjoy, mostly delivered by Grant's trademark drollness, the film mostly just counts down the time to its predetermined conclusion.

Grant and Bullock (who also produced) do their best, and they develop a reasonably quirky chemistry. But at 42 and 38 respectively, they are both straining against the relative immaturity that the contrived opposites-attracts romance demands.

The supporting cast is generally weak and contributes little to the film. Alicia Witt does add a bit of a spark when she makes a late appearance as a not-so-innocent applicant to replace Lucy. Otherwise, Dana Ivey and Robert Klein as Lucy's utopian parents and David Haig as George's hard-nosed brother are given precious little to do by director Marc Lawrence's script.

Two Weeks Notice turns out to be too long to hang around. The film is totally forgotten in more like two minutes.

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Thursday, 22 May 2014

Movie Review: The Rock (1996)

A simplistic action film, The Rock piles on the thrills in a story of rogue soldiers threatening San Francisco with chemical weapons, but despite a good cast the film lacks soul and sophistication.

Highly respected and battle hardened General Frank Hummel (Ed Harris) is disgruntled at the lack of proper recognition afforded to Marines who die while on covert missions. He recruits a group of soldiers to break into a military facility and steal several rockets equipped with deadly VX gas. Hummel and his men then storm and occupy Alcatraz, formerly a top security federal prison and now a tourist attraction. They hold tourists as hostages, point the rockets at San Francisco, and Hummel demands a $100 million ransom.

As the negotiations bog down, a Navy Seal team is recruited to infiltrate Alcatraz through the sewer system and end the threat. FBI chemical weapons expert Dr. Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage) is added to the team, as is the mysterious John Mason (Sean Connery), a prisoner in his 60s held by the US government for more than 30 years and the only man to have successfully escaped from Alcatraz. With Commander Anderson (Michael Biehn) in charge the Navy Seals run into a lot of trouble, and it is left up to Goodspeed and Mason to rescue the situation. Goodspeed, who has no combat experience, soon comes to learn that there is a lot more to Mason than initially meets the eye.

Director Michael Bay's second feature film after Bad Boys (1995), The Rock is a routine high-concept action thriller in a big rush to find the next noisy set-piece at the expense of logic, plot, and characters. While the firefights and explosions are handled proficiently and with reasonably good tension, the film is a missed opportunity to do so much more with an excellent cast.

The script takes itself far too seriously and is not up to the task of developing rounded people. Instead Connery, Cage and Harris are reduced to pre-packaged and empty characters. Connery does come off best and tries to hold the film together, and occasionally the glint in his eye is enough to overcome the rather juvenile events unfolding around him. A lame attempt to give Cage a pregnant girlfriend (Vanessa Marcil) to worry about is almost forgotten amidst all the mayhem. Most often The Rock resembles a routine video game adaptation where the heroes have to run, jump, hide, crawl, shoot and overcome ridiculous odds to achieve the next objective, and then repeat.

As far as action thrillers that demand minimal mental engagement go, it's all professionally executed and Bay puts the $75 million budget to good use. The three lead actors are always watchable despite the material, and dutifully execute their assigned roles of hero-gone-rogue (Harris), technician-thrust-into-combat (Cage) and resourceful-prisoner-with-dark-past (Connery). They dodge all the necessary projectiles until the grand finale approaches, complete with an incinerate-everything countdown threat. The Rock is solid entertainment, but as mindlessly dense on the inside as it is spectacular on the surface.

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Movie Review: Mrs. Miniver (1942)

World War Two through the eyes of a British middle class family, Mrs. Miniver eloquently captures the resiliency of civilians in the face of adversity.

Kay Miniver (Greer Garson) lives with her architect husband Clem (Walter Pidgeon) in the fictional village of Belham, a suburb of London. With the winds of war blowing across Europe, the Minivers carry on a normal suburban life, looking after their two young children Toby and Judy while eldest son Vin (Richard Ney) attends college. When Vin comes home for a visit, he starts a relationship with local girl-next-door Carol Beldon (Teresa Wright), the granddaughter of the haughty Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty).

Britain finally declares war on Germany. Vin joins the Royal Air Force, while Clem helps to organize local civil defence efforts. When the Battle Of Britain erupts Kay and Clem have to spend long nights in their front yard cramped underground shelter, comforting Toby and Judy, listening to the continuous sounds of air raids, bombs, and anti-aircraft guns. Clem is recruited to help in the Dunkirk evacuation, news from Vin is often patchy, and Kay has a harrowing encounter with an unexpected visitor. Still life goes on, the romance between Vin and Carol becomes ever more serious, and Lady Beldon is unhappy to be challenged at the local gardening competition. The war eventually arrives at Belham's doorstep, and the Minivers are not spared their share of carnage.

Conceived as an inspirational film to bring home to an American audience the suffering of the British, Mrs. Miniver started filming before the US joined the war but was released after Pearl Harbour. The film became a rallying call and a symbol of the civilian war experience, families and communities coming together to stand up to a common enemy and support their fighting men. It is also a heartfelt portrait of war's ripple effects on civilians far from the front lines.

A film about war but without any battle scenes, Mrs. Miniver's appeal lies in its astounding normalcy. Director William Wyler takes his time and dedicates the first 30 minutes to life before the war. Kay and Clem are portrayed as a loving but quite ordinary middle class couple, occupied by work, shopping, over-spending, and dealing with the challenges of their children and neighbours. The Minivers are no heroes, but they will need to act heroically when their life is disrupted by a global conflict, and their heroism lies largely in carrying on with life as best as possible.

When death becomes a daily possibility, the war heightens the importance of emotional attachments, as the family gets tightly packed into the confined shelter, and the romance between Vin and Carol gets condensed into a hurried courtship and accelerated talk of marriage. Ironically the war makes the family stronger and more resilient, decisions are made quickly and every moment is enjoyed and celebrated with a mixture of defiance and pathos.

And Wyler gradually brings the strands of society together into a stronger whole. Working class, middle class and upper class come together to create a united home front, the gardening show providing a metaphor not just for life carrying on, but for the blurring of previously divisive lines as a country unites against a common enemy.

Mrs. Miniver deservedly scooped six Academy Awards, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress for Garson, and Best Supporting Actress for Wright. It has stood the test of time, and remains a moving portrayal of what it means to Keep Calm and Carry On.

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Monday, 19 May 2014

CD Review: Confederacy Of Ruined Lives, by Eyehategod (2000)

The fourth studio album from New Orleans' Eyehategod is a masterclass in sludge metal. The appeal of Confederacy Of Ruined Lives starts and ends with tolerance for grand chords built on massive globs of distortion. Eyehategod helped to invent the sub-genre, and Confederacy Of Ruined Lives highlights both the strengths and limitations of the sound.

The album is stacked with slow, powerful, deliberate compositions, muscular in intent and more concerned with fortifying the basement than embellishing the facade. The guitars of Jimmy Bower and Brian Patton lay down a massive wall of noise that is never far from uncontrolled voltage channeled through rusted pipes. Danny Nick on the bass and Joe LaCaze's drums support by fortifying an ever deeper hole, while Mike Williams' vocals sound faraway and encased in concrete.

It's all very dense, and it's also repetitive and somewhat monotonal. There is only so much that can be done with a slow rumbling sound of doom, and while Eyehategod do it well, they eventually crash against impenetrable obstructions, where a lack of nimbleness prevents any one track from distinguishing itself enough to truly soar.  The final two cuts come closest. Both Last Year (She Wanted A Doll House) and Corruption Scheme evoke early Sabbath in their pure dedication to monstrous riffs, while loosening the sludge shackles ever so slightly to allow drops of fresh water to sprinkle over the derelict growing fields.

In contrast, with three minutes of nothing but screeching noise at the front end, .001% is classified as a serious candidate for worst track ever included on a professional heavy metal album.

Confederacy Of Ruined Lives plays by its own rules of aural destruction. The scope to innovate may be limited, but the ruins are often impressive.


Jimmy Bower – Guitar
Mike Williams – Vocals
Joe LaCaze – Drums
Danny Nick – Bass
Brian Patton – Guitar

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Revelation/Revolution - 8
2. Blood Money - 8
3. Jack Ass In The Will Of God - 8
4. Self Medication Blues - 8
5. The Concussion Machine Process - 7
6. Inferior And Full Of Anxiety - 7
7. .001% - 3
8. 99 Miles Of Bad Road - 7
9. Last Year (She Wanted A Doll House) - 9
10. Corruption Scheme - 9

Average: 7.40

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Movie Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

A quirky comedy with a mystical visual style, The Grand Budapest Hotel celebrates the faded glories of the past through a warped satirical lens.

After several quick flashbacks within flashbacks, it's the late 1960s and the unidentified Author as a Young Man (Jude Law) is seeking inspiration by spending time at the picturesque mountaintop Grand Budapest Hotel, now well past its best days, in the mythical country of Zubrowka. He meets the legendary owner of the hotel Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), and over dinner the elderly Moustafa recounts the story of how he came to own the hotel.

The main story is set in the 1930's with the hotel in its prime. The young Zero (Tony Revolori) secures a job as a lobby boy, and the hotel's concierge Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) takes Zero under his wing. Gustave effectively runs every detail of the hotel's operation. He also looks after the sexual and emotional satisfaction of many rich and elderly women who come to the hotel specifically to seek Gustave's services, including Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe-und-Taxis, or Madame D. for short (Tilda Swinton). The only contact with the hotel's reclusive owner is through a lawyer known as Deputy Vilmos Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum).

With the winds of war blowing through Zubrowska, grim faced soldiers, including a group led by Inspector Henckels (Edward Norton), begin to stomp their authority through the land, and the era of luxurious living starts to draw to a close. Madame D. mysteriously dies, and her complicated will assigns to Gustave the precious painting Boy With Apple, much to the surprise and disgust of her son Dmitri (Adrien Brody). Gustave finds himself accused of murder and imprisoned, and it's up to Zero and his girlfriend Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) to help Gustave escape and avoid Dmitri's savage assassin J.G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe). A madcap chase across the mountains ends back at the hotel, where Zero's destiny will be decided.

Director Wes Anderson adopts a purely whimsical style, and recounts the story with an exaggerated flair that mimics animation's acute symmetry. The film often looks like a hand-drawn fairytale for adults, with the hotel as the centrepiece awash in vivid reds, purples and yellows, but almost every other location, from Madame D.'s mansion to a remote monastery, is staged with bombast.

Anderson populates his vision with a pretty wild array of characters, almost every role (including some extras) occupied by a star, and all the performers given free reign to rise to the fustian surroundings. Other than Gustave, there is no attempt to convey nuance. Norton, Brody and Dafoe jump at the screen with inflated menace, while Revolori and Ronan are wide-eyed and fairly quiet pure goodness. Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Tom Wilkinson and Bob Balaban are among those who make brief appearances.

Ralph Fiennes as Gustave does the heavy lifting, representing the essence of a fading era and his general disgust at the changing times. Anderson gives his unlikely hero a progressive shine in his kind treatment of the immigrant outsider Zero, but otherwise Gustave represents a societal class that will not survive what looks like a fascist takeover of the country, where the hotel's opulence will be subverted by the state's heavy boot. Fiennes gives a spirited performance, brushing against the film's extravagance but keeping Gustave as the most relatable member of a dimming era.

The sprawling story takes a backseat to the nostalgic theme of beautiful times coming to an end. With the abundant acting talent at his disposal, Anderson weaves a complex narrative that is frequently witty with lament, but that also sometimes slips into the unnecessarily ridiculous. It's a fine balance to bemoan bygone times with clever wit, and episodes of wild chases down mountain slopes disrupt the film's generally tender tone.

The Grand Budapest Hotel may be a bit too unwieldy to allow every corner to remain exquisitely maintained, but it is definitely worth a stay.

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Sunday, 18 May 2014

Movie Review: Wedding Crashers (2005)

A raucous comedy, Wedding Crashers thrives within a clever premise that feeds themes of friendship, growing up, and meeting your match.

In Washington DC, John and Jeremy (Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn) are best friends and colleagues at work, where they mediate between married couples going through nasty divorces. Well into adulthood but still acting like college fratboys, they get their kicks by crashing weddings, enjoying unlimited food and drink, dancing the night away and picking up women revved-up by the idea of idyllic romance for hot one-night stands.

After a hectic season of wedding crashing, John begins to question the juvenile lifestyle. But Jeremy insists on one last wedding: the daughter of William Cleary (Christopher Walken), the very wealthy Secretary of the Treasury, is getting married. Despite John's protestations they crash the wedding and a subsequent Cleary family weekend, and unexpectedly get entangled in complex relationships with two of Cleary's daughters. John falls in love with the free spirited Claire (Rachel McAdams), who is already in a relationship with the insufferable Sack Lodge (Bradley Cooper). Jeremy seduces the wild youngest daughter Gloria (Isla Fisher), not knowing exactly how much trouble he is getting into: she is more lustful than he is, and plays him like a cheap fiddle. Meanwhile, Cleary's wife Kathleen "Kitty Kat" (Jane Seymour) is prowling all available men to get her cougarish kicks.

Wedding Crashers is often hilarious. Director David Dobkin quickly establishes the unique yet rational premise, and allows his two lead actors to let loose. John and Jeremy behave like teenagers who have found the magical key to a life of unlimited partying and casual sex with beautiful women. But the film succeeds well beyond its title. After the initial montage of wild crashing, the story settles down to what's next for the two men, and the challenge of finding their way out of unevolved and circular habits to launch into something resembling adulthood.

Vaughn and Wilson make for a terrific pair of underdeveloped men, John and Jeremy unwilling to let go of their youth despite John's growing doubt that they should really be beyond immature antics. Wilson gets the more thoughtful role, and imparts sensitivity to go along with fading boyishness. Vaughn is more driven to hang on to the past, Jeremy living his life according to an arcane code of caveman behaviour developed by the legendary Chazz (Will Ferrell, who makes a late, uncredited appearance).

John is therefore more open to fundamental change and once he sets eyes on Claire he can start to see his way to a different and better future. Jeremy is generally blind to any life that compromises his instinctive need to have uncontrolled fun, and it takes a large wallop to the side of the head in the form of Gloria to knock him off his default path. The shifting dynamics between the two men is at the heart of the movie, as their deep friendship is tested by diverging expectations.

Rachel McAdams is her usual appealing girl next door, although in this case a very rich girl next door, and McAdams tends to smile too much throughout the film. More fiery is Isla Fisher who creates in Gloria a borderline nymphomaniac, an impulsive, uninhibited, and fun-loving woman, the kind who can singe Jeremy with her own afterburners.

The script by Steve Faber and Bob Fisher populates the Cleary family with weird and wonderful members, including an uncensored grandmother (Ellen Albertini Dow), a creepy artist son (Keir O'Donnell), the lustful Kitty Kat and, most troublesome for John's pursuit of Claire, her intended beau Sack Lodge. In a pre-stardom role, Bradley Cooper goes all out to make Sack a loathsome rich jock full of self-entitlement and just enough social talent to fool many people most of the time. They combine to create a madcap family with enough pitfalls to trip up the best that John and Jeremy can offer in terms of infiltrative deceit and subterfuge.

The Wedding Crashers are definitely uninvited, but prove to be spectacularly funny and successful guests.

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Saturday, 17 May 2014

Movie Review: The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938)

One of Hollywood's best swashbuckling adventures and the first in glorious Technicolor, The Adventures Of Robin Hood is a non-stop thrill fest with plenty of romance, swordplay, archery stunts and general joviality.

With King Richard the Lionheart held hostage in Austria, his evil brother Prince John (Claude Rains) makes his move to seize power in England by fermenting the divide between Normans and Saxons, helped by Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone). The charismatic Sir Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn), an ace archer and soon to be known as Robin Hood, is loyal to Richard and launches a rebellion, using the dense Sherwood Forest in Nottingham as his base. Robin collects a merry band of men including Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles), Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette) and Little John (Alan Hale Sr.), and they take to ambushing Prince John's tax convoys, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.

As he mercilessly taunts his enemies, Robin meets Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland), a beautiful member of the royal court. Marion and Robin fall in love, after she learns about his cause and believes it to be just. When Robin competes in an archery tournament and is finally captured by his enemies, Marion has to find a way to save him, but her betrayal of John lands her in trouble. As Prince John gets ever closer to the throne, Robin has to return the favour and save Marion, while the unexpected return of a King again threatens to tilt the balance of power.

Directed by Michael Curtiz and William Keighley for Warner Bros., The Adventures Of Robin Hood is a dazzling kaleidoscope of vivid colours, lively characters and lavish sets. Packed into 102 minutes, the film moves at an agile pace, finding action set-pieces at regular intervals and still taking the time to recount an involving and character-rich story of revolution and romance.

The characters are admittedly coloured in pretty basic black or white, either all good or all bad, and some of the combat scenes, particularly a major ambush in the forest, are stiffly staged by modern standards. But the film rides Errol Flynn's irresistible magnetism through any rough spots, and the fluid cinematography makes the most of the expansive sets. The final sword fight between Robin and Sir Guy is brilliantly choreographed and oozes energetic athleticism, setting the gold standard for climactic duels.

At his commercial peak, Flynn makes for a dashing Robin Hood, filled with confidence and deploying a mischievous grin and loud laugh to rally support and woo Marion. In relative terms Olivia de Havilland gets the most complex role, as Maid Marion is the only character faced with choices and divided loyalties. de Havilland revived her flagging career by giving Marion plenty of moxie, transitioning from a sharp tongued ally of the evil plotters to a secret weapon for the revolutionaries. This was de Havilland's third teaming with Flynn, and their natural on-screen chemistry and the film's success launched a further five collaborations.

The supporting cast members have plenty of fun, Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains creating a worthy one-two punch of evil as they plot their takeover of the crown. They are backed by the likes of Montagu Love as the Bishop of the Black Canons, while Ian Hunter makes a late but crucial intervention. Hundreds of extras populate many of the scenes, to enliven sumptuous royal feasts, large scale forest battles and bring to life the villages and taverns of twelfth century England.

The Adventures Of Robin Hood is one of modern Hollywood's crucial early milestones, a grand action-packed and fast-paced adventure with a dashing hero and a damsel in distress, the perfect template for ridiculously enjoyable fun.

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Friday, 16 May 2014

Movie Review: The Shootist (1976)

John Wayne's last film, The Shootist is a glittering final curtain on a gigantic career. The story of a terminally ill but still grizzly gunslinger planning for his own death provides impeccable closure to the man and his epoch.

It's 1901, and Queen Victoria has just died. Aging gunslinger J.B. Brooks (Wayne) has killed 30 men in his lifetime, and claims that they all deserved it. Suffering from severe and continuous back pain, he arrives in Carson City, Nevada to be examined by his old friend "Doc" Hostetler (Jimmy Stewart). The doctor diagnoses terminal cancer. Brooks has at most two months to live, and his very final days will be exceedingly painful.

To prepare for his demise Brooks rents a room at the boarding house managed by the widow Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall) and her teenage son Gillom (Ron Howard). Once Rogers realizes who her new guest is, she wants him gone, but he refuses. Marshal Walter J. Thibido (Harry Morgan) also tries and fails to convince Brooks to depart. Vultures like the local newspaper man (Rick Lenz), an old lover (Sheree North), and the local undertaker (John Carradine) try to figure out ways to profit from Brooks' impending death. But Brooks is making plans of his own. He can't cheat death, but he will face it according to his own code.

The Shootist unfolds over just a few days, as Brooks comes to terms with the certainty of his end, ties up loose ends and turns out the lights with dignity. He finds in Bond and Gillom suitable companions to accompany and tolerate him on his final days, and director Don Siegel allows the movie to flourish as Brooks opens his soul for the first and last time to a widow and her fatherless teenager. Siegel centres the film on Brooks and deploys the pace of a smooth character study, a few scenes of jolting action and witty humour punctuating the journey to the final climax.

Contrary to some popular myths, when filming The Shootist Wayne was not yet diagnosed with the cancer that eventually killed him in 1979. He also did not intend The Shootist to be his final screen performance. That this proved to be his final film and foreshadowed his ultimate struggle with terminal cancer was a turn of fate, an exclamation mark on a career that started in 1926 and ended exactly 50 years later.

And what a performance to end on. Wayne portrays J. B. Brooks as singularly uncompromising, his intentions and methods stringent, his values untouched. Brooks may be dying, but he will define the day, time, place and method, and Wayne closes his filmography with a towering show of inner strength, Brooks' resolve undermined only by his failing health.

And it's not just J.B. Books who is dying. As represented by the death of Queen Victoria and the turn of the century, his whole era is coming to an end, the world is moving on, and gunslingers who live by a rigid and ruthless code are turning into fossils from the past.

By now the glorious era of Westerns was also a distant memory, Spaghetti Westerns had come and gone and spoofed the genre into the ground. Violence-drenched odes to the old men of the west like The Wild Bunch (1969) had pushed the genre to its limit, and there was little new territory to explore. The Shootist writes the final chapter with more reflection than violence, allowing the hero who symbolized an era and the genre to exit on his own terms.

James Stewart (in a relatively small role) and Lauren Bacall join Wayne as stalwarts from a bygone era. Ron Howard's Gillom represents the next generation, and he is the only character thrilled to have Books around. Gillom overlooks all of Books' lethal tendencies and simply considers him a legend, a man to admire and emulate, in an apt metaphor of how the present views the Western past. In addition to John Carradine, there are key appearances by the likes of Richard Boone, Hugh O'Brian and Scatman Crothers.

Not many acting careers end at the top. In The Shootist John Wayne was able to ride off into the sunset with his head held high, unbowed by the changing times and still in charge of his destiny.

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Movie Review: Violent City (1970)

A revenge thriller set in the murky world of professional assassins, Violent City is a competent Charles Bronson vehicle, combining sharp action with a dark plot and fatalistic outlook.

Assassin-for-hire Jeff Heston (Bronson) is vacationing in the Virgin Islands with glamorous girlfriend Vanessa (Jill Ireland). They are suddenly pursued by assassins in a prolonged car chase, which ends with Heston shot and left for dead by Coogan, a former business partner. To add insult to Jeff's open wounds, Vanessa flees the scene with Coogan.

Jeff recovers and endures a stint in a grimy prison after being framed for murder. Once released, he sets out to seek revenge on Coogan, an amateur racing driver, but Heston is then blackmailed by New Orleans crime boss Al Weber (Telly Savalas), and Vanessa surprisingly pops up again as Weber's wife. Weber wants Jeff to work for him, but Jeff has other ideas, and the city is about to become a lot more violent with the control of a criminal empire at stake.

Directed by Spaghetti Western director Sergio Sollima and with a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone, Violent City (also known as The Family) is a European production which mixes Hollywood-style action with the higher continental tolerance for cerebral reflection. Call it a Spaghetti Urban, and the results are mixed. There is an occasional whiff of an econo-thriller trying hard to be bigger than the budget and talent involved, but the overall package delivers most of the required hard edged entertainment.

With Steve McQueen having set the standard for modern car chases two years earlier in Bullitt (1968), Bronson gets his own Mustang to play with, and damn if the opening supercharged chase sequence doesn't hold its own in the all-time tire squealing stakes. Gunning down the twisty narrow streets of a Caribbean island at ridiculous speeds, Bronson leads his pursuers on a breathless race that climaxes with a dazzling climb up a long, steep set of stairs.

The other action scenes are all quite good. Jeff carefully hunting down Coogan on the race track is a well-crafted exercise in patience and imperfection, while the climax featuring an outdoor elevator brings the Spaghetti Western love of drama in death to the fore.

With Bronson effectively delivering his typical stone-faced persona, Jill Ireland supports her husband with plenty of sexy sass, Vanessa emerging as a much more complex character than the initial playmate-on-a-yacht scenes suggest. As the film progresses Sollima mixes in film noir elements, Jeff gradually realizing that the forces aligned against him are much larger than he thought, and that his heart is parked in the wrong place. Vanessa's ever-shifting allegiances and Weber's attempt to recruit Heston evoke the spirit of Out Of The Past (1947). Telly Savalas adds smarmy polish as Weber.

In the traditions of the morally ambiguous Spaghetti Westerns, there are no heroes or well-meaning characters in Violent City. The objectives are all about seizing power, gaining control and eliminating your enemies, and in a city this violent, every well-executed revenge killing is just a prelude to the next death.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

CD Review: Cocked And Loaded, by L.A. Guns (1989)

Arriving late to the glam metal party and lacking the edge or talent to transition towards anything better, L.A. Guns' most commercially successful album has aged quite poorly.

Cocked And Loaded is filled with routine, unimaginative hard rock that contributes nothing to metal's evolution. The band is bland, the lyrics banal, the compositions childishly simplistic and the overall sound generic even for the era. With no memorable solos and no distinctive vocals, L.A. Guns were always the poor cousins of a talentless sub genre that was born brain dead, and Cocked And Loaded now contains nothing except the whiff of sadistic nostalgia for alcohol-drenched second-rate late 1980s Sunset Strip glam.

Philip Lewis' vocals are a mix of strained and emotionally fake, while Tracii Guns' guitar work is much more perfunctory than inspired. The drumming of Steve Riley is monotonal in the extreme. The bass is anonymous until it rips off Iron Maiden's Wrathchild on the short instrumental I'm Addicted, ironically the most energetic cut on the album.

There must have been a time, when oh-so-ordinary tracks like Slap In The Face, Rip And TearSleazy Come Easy Go and Never Enough sounded exciting to those who completely missed the best of Def Leppard about half a decade earlier, but today these are just the most tolerable of a poor set. Worse are cut and paste selections like Give A Little, 17 Crash and Wheels Of Fire as the back half of the album disintegrates into self-derivative mush.

It may pretend to be Cocked And Loaded, but it just fires blanks.


Tracii Guns - Guitar
Mick Cripps - Guitar
Kelly Nickels - Bass
Steve Riley - Drums
Philip Lewis - Vocals

Songlist (rating out of 10):

1. Letting Go - n/a (short track)
2. Slap In The Face - 7
3. Rip And Tear - 7
4. Sleazy Come Easy Go - 7
5. Never Enough - 7
6. Malaria - 7
7. The Ballad Of Jayne - 7
8. Magdalaine - 7
9. Give A Little - 5
10. I'm Addicted - n/a (short instrumental)
11. 17 Crash - 6
12. Showdown (Riot On Sunset) - 7
13. Wheels Of Fire - 6

Average: 6.64

Produced by Duane Baron, John Purdell and Tom Werman.
Engineered by Duane Baron and John Purdell.
Mastered by Howie Weinberg.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Movie Review: Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Based on a true story, Dog Day Afternoon is about a low-key bank robbery that goes wrong and turns into a media circus. It's a sizzling cinematic achievement, and among the finest of the New York based dramas of the 1970s.

Former bank employee Sonny (Al Pacino), the highly stressed Sal (John Cazale), and the hesitant Stevie (Gary Springer) walk into a bank with a vague idea of how to rob it. Stevie immediately finds the pressure too much and bails. Sonny realizes he chose to rob a bank that has barely any money: the vault deposits were transported out earlier in the day. As Sonny and Sal scramble to empty the cashier tills and then needlessly converse with the bank manager Mulvaney (Sully Boyar) and the team of cashiers, precious minutes are wasted. By the time Sonny and Sal are ready to leave, the small bank is surrounded by hundreds of cops. Sonny and Sal are now besieged hostage takers.

As a large crowd gathers and the media descends onto the scene, Sergeant Moretti (Charles Durning) tries to negotiate with Sonny, but Moretti is as incompetent as the robbers, the negotiations go nowhere, and the assembled crowd start to cheer on Sonny's anti-authoritarian rhetoric. As the hours pass, the robbery takes a bizarre turn when Sonny's motives for the theft are revealed, and his complex private life becomes suddenly very public. With Sal losing patience and everyone sweltering in the heat and humidity, FBI Agents Sheldon and Murphy (James Broderick and Lance Henriksen) take over the site, determined to bring down the curtain on the spiralling spectacle.

A small story that takes on epic proportions, Dog Day Afternoon is about losers lost in an uncaring world. Director Sidney Lumet crafts the film around a hopelessly out of his depth Sonny, and creates a tragedy around a man with modest criminal ambitions but who finds every facet of his misadventure falling apart. One accomplice flees, the other is a dangerous combination of dim and murderous, the money isn't there, his own mother and wife can't tolerate him, his hostages keep falling ill, and the heat grows ever more intense literally and figuratively in the form of half the New York police department waiting to pounce.

Although Sonny's afternoon starts badly and just gets worse, Dog Day Afternoon is also about the emerging culture of throwaway fame, Sonny getting a few hours of publicity and becoming a temporary hero to the massed crowd by whipping up anti-police sentiments. It's a small victory in a miserable afternoon, but it feels good to Sonny while it lasts. When it emerges that Sonny's private life is a sideshow all onto itself, the bank robbery almost gets pushed to the background as his bizarre personal relationships unleash a second wave of supporters and opponents shouting each other down.

Working from a Frank Pierson script that celebrates peculiarities and makes them normal, Lumet keeps the movie agile and hot despite most of the two hours taking place at the bank and its immediate surroundings. Lumet colours the bank's small corner of Brooklyn with shades of yellows and browns to emphasize the unrelenting heat. When the lights and air conditioning are turned off late in the proceedings to increase the pressure on the hostage takers, Sonny's sweat spills off the screen, while Sal just broods darker and refuses to ever take off his jacket.

Al Pacino gives an intense yet powerfully sympathetic performance as Sonny, the robber quickly becoming human, filled with self doubt and forced to try and think his way out of a much stickier situation than he ever bargained for. It is one of Pacino's most perfect performance, controlled aggression and real doubt filling his eyes and dominating his actions.

John Cazale supports with few words but plenty of menace, Sal carrying a potent rifle, and unlike Sonny, seemingly ready to use it. More fatalistic than Sonny and ready to sacrifice rather than negotiate, Cazale allows Sal's coiled frustration to emerge as the wildcard of the afternoon. Chris Sarandon as a member of Sonny's family has a small but key role, while Carol Kane appears as one of the tellers held hostage.

Dog Day Afternoon chronicles a farcical situation where no one was in control, where anything could have happened, and the crackling heat was the only certainty.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Movie Review: They Drive By Night (1940)

A rough and tumble story about independent truckers that morphs into a film noir, They Drive By Night is always engaging but suffers from some lack of cohesion.

Brothers Joe and Paul Fabrini (George Raft and Humphrey Bogart) operate an independent long-haul truck on the west coast, scrapping for jobs, driving for dangerously long hours, and always running the risk of being jipped out of their pay by unscrupulous shippers. Paul is married to Pearl (Gale Page), but their domestic bliss is threatened by Paul's frequent long absences. Joe meets sassy waitress Cassie (Ann Sheridan) and they start a friendship that turns into romance.

Just when it seems that the brothers are getting ahead and paying off their debts, a disaster on the highway interferes with their progress, forcing Joe to park his ambition and accept a more secure management job with the trucking company of jovial tycoon Ed J. Carlsen (Alan Hale). But Carlsen's wife Lana (Ida Lupino) is bored with her marriage and has her lecherous eyes on Joe. When Lana realizes that Joe is serious about Cassie, an evil murder plan is conceived.

They Drive By Night is two almost distinct stories wrapped into one film. The first part is a relatively unique look at the world of truckers living a life on the road, pushing to find and make the next delivery, and stopping only to drink enough coffee to keep themselves awake. It's a greasy, dark, and desperate occupation, as men like Joe and Paul chase the next paycheque, and dream of owning their own truck and expanding the business beyond the limits of their drooping eyelids, all while staying barely one step ahead of the bill collectors.

The second half of the film shift gears and heads purposefully towards frantic but less kinetic film noir territory, quickly piling on unrequited lust, jealousy, murder, a conniving femme fatale losing touch with reality and finally a courtroom showdown. It's an abbreviated crime drama, captivating enough by itself, but not sufficiently connected to the truckers' life established in the first 45 minutes. Director Raoul Walsh ensures that the quality never flags and delivers both sides of the film with verve, but there is a definite sense of truncated business, the script (by Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay) perhaps running out of ideas to properly feed the initial on-the-road story of Joe and Paul.

With Raft at his peak and Bogart rapidly climbing towards the top, They Drive By Night enjoys two tough men in fine form. Raft takes the lead and is sympathetic as a well-meaning and ambitious man striving to better his lot. Bogart supports with a more conflicted personality, Paul torn between loyalty to his brother and trying to appease his worried wife.

The leading ladies put on a strong showing as well, Ida Lupino dominating the second half of the film with her turn as the bored and jealous Lana, a role that starts flirty, passes through steely determination and then slides towards destructive irrationality. Ann Sheridan is more prominent in the opening half, her Cassie tough enough to fend off hordes of leering truck drivers but sweet enough to melt into a relationship with Joe once she gets to know him.

They Drive By Night finds two different roads to navigate, and despite the rather abrupt transition, the drive is enjoyable on both.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Movie Review: The Philadelphia Story (1940)

An overrated high society romantic comedy, The Philadelphia Story is contrived and stagey, but maintains a certain allure thanks to a committed cast.

At her lavish family estate, Philadelphia socialite Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is about to get married to the stuffy George Kittredge (John Howard). Tracy's former husband  C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) shows up uninvited hoping to win his former wife back, as do two gossip reporters Macaulay "Mike" Connor (James Stewart), a frustrated author, and Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) a photographer with a crush on Mike. Tracy's young sister Dinah (Virginia Weidler) would like Tracy to reconcile with Dexter, although that marriage ended quite badly. Tracy's estranged father Seth (John Halliday) also suddenly shows up, adding to the pre-wedding stress.

As the big day approaches, Tracy finds herself becoming attracted to the down-to-earth Mike, and she starts to question her commitment to George. Dexter takes every opportunity to remind Tracy that she is a cold, perfect goddess who demands to be worshipped, and that she cannot tolerate any imperfections in her men. George and Mike pile on the pressure by also pointing out to Tracy all her haughty faults. To deal with her mounting confusion Tracy drinks to excess at the pre-wedding party, which only causes more romantic chaos among the three men now after her heart.

The Broadway play is translated to the screen with stellar casting. Hepburn financially backed the stage production and starred in it, and the movie helped restore her to the front ranks of Hollywood stars. With the suave Grant and ordinary-man Stewart playing to their strengths, The Philadelphia Story never lacks in charisma and star power. The dialogue is passably witty, while Virginia Weidler as Dinah and Ruth Hussey as Elizabeth offer grounded support.

But director George Cukor is never able to break free of the stage, and the film often bogs down in long-winded, talky scenes which play well on the stage but suffer from lack of energy and animation on the screen. The three leads all deliver their lines with a knowing twinkle in their eye, undermining any cinematic coherence, and the camera placement and actor movements all contribute to the sense of filmed theatre.

The material is too thin and laboured to fully make up for the lack of energy. The story may have played well to the upper classes of the day, but it has aged quite poorly, both as a romance and a comedy. The character's motivations and conversations never come close to being realistic. The fundamental premise of series of guests showing up uninvited, hanging around the bride for hours on end, and unabashedly criticizing her values and behaviour to force an entire personality reassessment hours before the big wedding, just rings hollow. Matters are entirely not helped by an over-dependence on the consumption of gallons alcohol as a transformational plot device.

The 1956 musical remake as High Society dramatically increased the colourful glamour quotient, dispensed with most of the introspection, and allowed the music to unlock the more timeless whimsical ingredients. Although it does glow with star wattage, The Philadelphia Story is unfortunately stuck in time, and on the stage.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

The Movies Of Scarlett Johansson

All movies starring Scarlett Johansson and reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

Eight Legged Freaks (2002)

Lost In Translation (2003)

In Good Company (2004)

The Black Dahlia (2006)

The Prestige (2006)

The Nanny Diaries (2007)

The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

He's Just Not That Into You (2009)

Hitchcock (2012)

Under The Skin (2013)

Her (2013, voice only)

Lucy (2014)

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

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