Monday, 30 June 2014

Movie Review: Where Sleeping Dogs Lie (1991)

A bungled suspense thriller about a writer drawing inspiration from a spooky house, Where Sleeping Dogs Lie never finds the right tone and fades into dreary insignificance.

In Los Angeles, Bruce Simmons (Dylan McDermott) is a struggling and broke writer. His agent Serena Black (Sharon Stone) prods him to come up with something original to publish, but Bruce is drawing a blank. As a side job he is asked to help sell a long abandoned Hollywood mansion. But the recently evicted Bruce has a better idea: he takes up residence in the mansion to try and gain some inspiration.

He soon learns that an entire family was murdered in the house, and the crime was never solved. Bruce starts to write his book as the diary of the murderer. This excites Serena, who sees a potential best-seller, as long as the diary can be passed off as the true confession of the killer. To help pay the bills, Bruce welcomes the mysterious and tentative Eddie Hale (Tom Sizemore) as a roommate at the mansion. Gradually Eddie and Bruce become friends, and Eddie starts to contribute ideas for Bruce's book.

Directed by Charles Finch and co-written by Finch and Yolande Turner, Where Sleeping Dogs Lie is filled with derivative and incomplete ideas. The story is weak and very little ever actually happens. Bruce and Eddie are underdeveloped and consequently shallow characters, while Sharon Stone provides plenty of sizzle in her few scenes but her over-sexed, high-fashion book agent defies belief. Serena slumming with Bruce is an incongruous relationship that shines an unfortunate spotlight on a destitute script.

The attempts at moments of suspense are of the childish bumps-in-the-night, blood-on-the-wall variety, and the injection of a layer of religious-driven violence is never adequately explored. Even the supposed big reveal, which occurs way past the point of anyone caring, is yawn-inducing in its predictability. Dylan McDermott and Tom Sizemore struggle manfully against the limp material, but are crushed by the dominating ineptitude.

Where Sleeping Dogs Lie is no mystery: the answer is a dull, fetid corner.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Movie Review: Gandhi (1982)

A grand biography, Gandhi is the epic story of the humble lawyer who changed the course of history through peaceful means.

The film starts with Mohandas Gandhi's assassination in 1948, shot at close range by a lone gunman. The narrative then rewinds to 1893 in South Africa. Gandhi (Ben Kingsley), a young idealistic lawyer educated in England, is thrown off a train for being a coloured man with the temerity to sit in the first class carriage. This sparks in him a desire for justice, but always through non-violent means. To protest against laws discriminating against Indians in South Africa, he helps to organize meetings, marches and worker walk-outs. Despite being arrested and imprisoned for his activism, he finally pressures the authorities to reverse course. His early experiences bring him into contact with Reverend Andrews (Ian Charleson) and American journalist Vince Walker (Martin Sheen).

Returning to India as a hero but with the Great War raging, Gandhi gradually joins the movement to end Britain's rule over India. He embarks on a long journey to visit the far flung corners of his country, and adopts frugal clothing and habits in solidarity with the poor. He meets other home rule activists including Nehru (Roshan Seth), and steers the movement away from violence and towards active non-cooperation with the British. Emotions are inflamed when British General Dyer (Edward Fox) orders his troops to indiscriminately open fire on unarmed civilians, including women and children, at what became known as the Amritsar massacre.

Gandhi is repeatedly arrested, detained and tried, as the British attempt to curtail his influence, all to no avail. He also embarks on a punishing hunger strike to register his disgust when India's independence movement turns violent. Gandhi's quest and inspirational methods attract the attention of the world, and Life magazine's photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White (Candice Bergen) travels to India to bring him wider international exposure. With World War Two straining Britain's resources, a Gandhi inspired India inexorably moves towards independence, but serious religious divides between Hindus and Muslims threaten to derail the country's progress.

Director and producer Richard Attenborough's multi-decade dream project comes to life as an absorbing experience, as close as a film can come to capturing the mystique of a larger than life and yet most humble man. For three hours, Gandhi charts the course of a remarkable journey from obscurity to global admiration, as a new form of peaceful rebellion is invented, perfected and deployed to shake an empire. Attenborough was rewarded with the Best Director Academy Award, and the film was proclaimed Best Picture.

When the subject matter is astounding, the storytelling does not need to be ostentatious, and Attenborough crafts the film with an earnest, low-key tone, avoiding overblown dramatics. The most powerful scenes come at the smallest of scales, Gandhi's small personal acts speaking volumes about the impact of the individual. His quiet anguish at the passing of his life-long wife Kasturba (Rohini Hattangadi), and the ability of a small man wearing a loincloth to influence the behaviour of millions with hunger strikes and symbolic marches, create the most lasting resonance.

As much as Gandhi's achievements are celebrated, Attenborough and screenwriter John Briley don't shy away from the horror of bloody local conflicts arising with the departure of colonialist powers. What Gandhi and Nehru struggled to achieve through an idealistic lens directly resulted in the fracture of India into three countries, and brutal Hindu versus Muslim violence which made its way back to Gandhi's doorstep.

Visually the film does find some spectacular scenes suitable for an epic about the birth of the world's largest democracy. Gandhi features numerous scenes with mammoth crowds, and the funeral recreation is said to have marshalled a record of more than 300,000 extras. Attenborough also makes good use of the photogenic trains that serve as the spine of India's transportation network. The dramatic and painful re-enactments of the Amritsar massacre  and the brutality of imperialist soldiers clubbing peaceful protesters at a salt depot capture key moments where Britain's moral and actual authority slipped away, setting India on an unalterable course towards home rule.

British actor Ben Kingsley was plucked from obscurity and catapulted to prominence and a Best Actor Academy Award for his role as Gandhi. Kingsley commands the screen for the full three hours, and grows with Gandhi from a young man to an elderly living legend. Kingsley is effectively in every scene, and finds the comfortable space where an actor becomes the revered subject without resorting to mannerisms of exalted nobility.

To populate the British rulers, judges, lawyers, governors, politicians and officers imposing their foreign will on local populations, Gandhi's large cast includes a who's-who of some of Britain's most distinguished actors, including John Gielgud, Trevor Howard, John Mills, Ian Bannen and Nigel Hawthorne. In an early role, Daniel Day-Lewis has a brief appearance as a youth on the streets of South Africa threatening Gandhi for daring to use the sidewalk. Geraldine James portrays Mirabehn, the English woman adopted by Gandhi as his daughter.

A spellbinding achievement about one of the most inspirational figures of the 20th century, Gandhi is an enduring classic.

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Friday, 27 June 2014

Movie Review: Broken Flowers (2005)

A contemplative drama about lessons in life from lovers of the past, Broken Flowers enjoys an entrancing premise and a serenely tormented Bill Murray performance.

Don Johnston (Murray) is a rich but lonely man, having made his money in the computer industry. On the same morning that his latest girlfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy) dumps him, Don receives an unsigned letter from a woman claiming to have been his lover about 20 years ago. She wants to let Don know that she was pregnant when they broke up, and that Don has a 19 year old son who may be now looking for him.

Next door neighbour Winston (Jeffrey Wright), an amateur detective of sorts, convinces Don to head out on a trip to connect with four former lovers who may have written the letter.  Reluctantly Don agrees, and sequentially reconnects with widowed free spirit Laura (Sharon Stone), married real estate agent Dora (Frances Conroy), animal communicator Carmen (Jessica Lange), and trailer park trash Penny (Tilda Swinton). One of them may be the mother of the son he has never known, but finding out the truth will not be easy.

Directed by Jim Jarmusch with a subtle mix of pathos and humour, Broken Flowers is a wistful look at the what-may-have-beens of life. The film is an astute examination of emotional yearning through a journey to the actual present of the idyllic past. Well written with a hefty dose of sardonic realism, Broken Flowers may occasionally try a bit too hard to be an artistic amalgamation of Lost In Translation's curious style and Groundhog Day's riff on middle aged angst, but overall Jarmusch creates his own attractive life mystery tickling for a resolution.

Don knows that he has deprived himself of something better than a very empty house. What he finds on his trip are four contrasting alternate lives occupied by four women he once loved. Laura has not lost the spark of youth, despite losing a car racer husband in a fiery crash. Laura's daughter Lolita (Alexis Dziena) is doing everything possible to live up to her name in an interlude that reminds Don how old and lonely he is. Never mind his son; he could have had a daughter old enough to seduce men his age by now.

Dora is stiff, miserable, and married to Ron (Christopher McDonald), and the one woman who may still be harbouring feelings for Don. Dora has transformed from a carefree hippie teenager to a soulless adult salesperson, and Don reminds her of a life before conformance. Carmen has not sold out, but has instead veered into the pseudo new age crap of animal communication, and likely a lesbian relationship with her receptionist (Chloë Sevigny). Carmen rebuffs every attempt by Don to rekindle a connection.

And finally Penny is in the abyss, living in the ramshackle muddy middle of nowhere with a hick boyfriend. She simply can't handle any reminders of a past that actually held promise. There is a fifth woman who was also Don's lover from about 20 years ago, by Don has to visit Michelle at the cemetery: she died five years ago and could not have written the letter.

Laura, Dora, Carmen, Penny and Michelle provide a short odyssey of lust, regret, rejection, hate and death. Would Don's life have been better with any of these women? And more importantly, is one of them the mother of his son? As with any journey that seeks a definitive answer, Don returns home with plenty of new questions and the nagging certainty that the solution to the anonymous letter puzzle is just tantalizingly around the next corner. And now every young man takes on the appealing prospect of being, just maybe, his son.

Bill Murray is enormously watchable, remaining well within himself while slowly allowing Don to succumb to the gnawing doubt filling the empty spaces of his soul. The actresses portraying the four former lovers get short shifts, and they all leave an impression. Tilda Swinton, in just her one scene, portrays what it means for a life to disintegrate under the weight of what must have been some truly shocking decision making.

Understated and heartfelt, Broken Flowers is an ode to the mysteries of life's alternative destinies.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Movie Review: Our Man In Havana (1959)

A cold war satirical drama, Our Man In Havana adapts the Graham Greene novel of spy intrigue in pre-revolution Cuba with an emphasis on the more humorous elements. Under the guidance of director Carol Reed, the film is a sharp condemnation of the great game by the foot soldiers pressed into fighting a shadow war.

Havana in the late 1950s. Hawthorne (Noël Coward) of the British Secret Intelligence Service recruits vacuum cleaner salesman James Wormold (Alec Guinness) to be the local operative. Wormold's daughter Milly (Jo Morrow) has expensive tastes, and so he accepts the assignment lured by the easy money and the prospect of joining the prestigious country club. Wormold is friends with Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives), a philosophical larger-than-life German, while Captain Segura (Ernie Kovacs) is the pompous Havana police chief, keeping an eye on all the spooks in town and lusting after Milly.

Pressured by London into actually earning his money by nurturing local sources and uncovering enemy secrets, Wormold invents a fake network of agents reporting to him, and draws imaginative sketches of non-existent massive new weapons systems (inspired by vacuum cleaner parts) uncovered by his spies. Unfortunately his British superiors take it all very seriously, and dispatch Beatrice Severn (Maureen O'Hara) as a secretary to bolster Wormold's Havana station resources. Death threats and dead bodies soon sweep over Havana, with Wormold finding his life in danger as his light-hearted dabbling in the spy world turns deadly serious.

Our Man In Havana distills the cold war to on-the-ground spies caught up in the absurdity of a conflict that rumbles on in distant capitals but insists on casting a long shadow towards every corner of the world. Wormold is more bemused than upset that his country needs him, and proceeds to milk the opportunity for pure personal gain and then for fun.

Greene, who wrote the script, does not hesitate to reveal the paranoia-driven idiocy of Hawthorne and his bosses in London (including Ralph Richardson as "C"), who can't tell a vacuum cleaner sketch from a real weapons threat. And the other side is not much better, intercepting and believing Wormold's grandiose transmittals and triggering a round of needless violence and bloodletting.

Filmed in Havana months after the communist revolution but set in the pre-revolutionary era, Our Man In Havana captures the sights and sounds of a bustling city full of life, lust, suspicion and chicanery. From bars to night spots, street corners to country clubs, apartments to police stations, Reed fills the screen with activity. Every shot has something going on in the background, adding to the sense of constant motion and potential eavesdropping.

Despite the stark black and white photography and the pervasive literal and metaphorical shadows dominating the city, Reed keeps the mood light and the plot humming along. The emphasis is on Wormold's sardonic view of the world as all those around him appear to be going off one edge or another. Hawthorne is fully invested in the craziness of the spy world, Hasselbacher is suspended between a murky past and a dwindling present, while Segura is prowling the streets of Havana looking for enemies and trying to endear himself to Milly.

It is in the character of Milly that the movie stumbles a bit, her out of control spending and tolerance of Segura never quite explained against her otherwise normal context. And Wormold does undergo an unlikely late transformation from make believe spy to a more professional recruit capable of outsmarting his seasoned foes.

But with Guinness, Kovacs and Ives delivering performances rich in texture and island scheming, Our Man In Havana succeeds thanks to the twinkle in its eye and a barbed attitude.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

CD Review: Circle Regenerated, by Norther (2011)

Norther's sixth and seemingly final studio album is a rather tired, uninspired effort. Circle Regenerated is the band's first without lead singer Petri Lindroos, and his replacement Aleksi Sihvonen doesn't offer much of a reason to get excited. And with too many clean vocals courtesy of Kristian Ranta, the band seems to lose its identity.

The music is warmed over mid-paced melodic death metal, lacking in edge and new ideas. It's all just modestly interesting, and the album never finds a real spark. Circle Regenerated generally just drifts somewhere between second and third gear, unable to break into any kind of groove.

The one track to carve an identity is Believe, which gets boosts of energy and pace and the hints of a dangerously buzzy riff. The rest of the material frequently carries the awkward whiff of Helloween's 1990s sound, just a bit too predictable and safe.

Norther band broke up in 2012, and on this evidence, that's just as well.


Aleksi Sihvonen - Vocals
Kristian Ranta - Guitars, Vocals
Daniel Freyberg - Guitars
Jukka Koskinen - Bass
Heikki Saari - Drums
Tuomas Planman - Keyboards

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Through It All - 7
2. The Hate I Bear - 7
3. Truth - 7
4. Some Day - 7
5. Break Myself Away - 7
6. Believe - 8
7. Falling - 7
8. We Do Not Care - 7
9. The Last Time - 7
10. Closing In - 7

Average: 7.10

Produced by Norther and Anssi Kippo.
Recorded by Anssi Kippo and Joonas Koto.
Mixed and Mastered by Anssi Kippo.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Reader (2008)

A romantic drama set in post-World War Two Germany, The Reader is a passionate story of first love, retribution, and the lingering ghosts of the Holocaust.

Starting in 1995, the movie is told in flashback from the perspective of middle aged German lawyer Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes) who is about to visit with his grown daughter Julia (Hannah Herzsprung). Back in 1958, the teen-aged Michael (David Kross) is struggling home from school, feeling very sick. He almost collapses in a building doorway. Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a tram conductor in her mid thirties who lives in the building, helps him to find his way home. After recovering from a bout of scarlet fever, Michael returns to thank Hanna. They start a passionate affair, despite the difference in age.

Whenever they meet, Hanna asks Michael to read to her from the literature books that he is studying at school, and their relationship revolves around his reading from a variety of texts and episodes of intense sex. But within a few months Michael starts to get distracted by attractive girls more his age at school, and the relationship with Hanna ends abruptly on a sour note.

In 1966, Michael is a law student, studying with Professor Rohl (Bruno Ganz) about the moral responsibilities of German citizens during the Holocaust. As part of the course, Rohl exposes his students to the on-going trial of concentration camp prison guards, accused of enabling the death of hundreds of inmates. The trial courtroom holds a shocking surprise for Michael, as the past, the present and future suddenly collide.

A German - American co-production directed by Stephen Daldry from a screenplay by David Hare based on the book by Bernhard Schlink, The Reader is an intricate examination of the ripple effects of the Holocaust through generations of German society. This is an engrossing, sometimes intense film, distilling a nation's self-reflection down to individuals seeking difficult answers through the thickets of past atrocities and a growing moral outrage.

Hanna was old enough to play a role in the closing years of the war, Michael was born during the war, while for his daughter Julia, the war is just a dark part of history. The struggle to understand how Germany stood still and allowed mass barbarity to unfold echoes down the years. For Hanna it's personal anguish, for Michael it's real and emotional connections with his parents' generation, and for Julia it's about understanding the silent shadows that haunt her father.

Michael also has to decide how much he should reach back into history and contribute to his country's grapple with its dark past. He has an opportunity first to influence and then to educate and soothe, and his decisions will have both predictable and unforeseen implications.

The Reader gives voice to Holocaust survivors through the character of Ilana Mather (played by Alexandra Maria Lara as a younger woman in 1966 and Lena Olin as an older woman in 1988). At the trial witnessed by the Michael as a law student, Ilana finds some measure of justice more than 20 years after she was supposed to die. But Michael will realize that while Ilana may have cheated death, the chill in her heart is eternal.

The film draws parallels between literal and metaphorical illiteracy. Is not knowing to read any excuse for not understanding the pages of an unfolding history? Hanna has to decide how much responsibility her generation has to assume for the genocide of millions, in a case of a mammoth collective wrong resulting from an infinite number of seemingly honest individual decisions.

Kate Winslet won the Best Actress Academy Award for her role as Hanna. It's a stunning performance, spanning 30 years in the character's life, and Winslet is as convincing as a bus conductor in her 30s, still burning with passion and unresolved secrets, as she is as an elderly woman in her 60s, having paid her dues and reconciled with her past. The Reader hinges on the twitching internal torture playing out behind Hanna's eyes, and Winslet conveys the agonizing conflict between duty and horror, where once they were the same thing but in the cold light of defeat have formed a scar on the face of humanity.

Thoughtful and provocative, The Reader is an impressive masterpiece.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Movie Review: No Mercy (1986)

A dim policeman's revenge thriller, No Mercy throws two photogenic stars into a swamp without a script.

Chicago police detective Eddie Jillette (Richard Gere) and his partner Joe (Gary Basaraba) pretend to be hitmen for hire to try and entrap the suave Paul Deveneux (Terry Kinney) and his apparent girlfriend Michel (Kim Basinger). Paul wants New Orleans gangster Losado (Jeroen Krabbé) dead, but Losado and his goons strike first, killing Paul with a rocket launcher and knifing Joe to death for good measure. It turns out that Michel is Losado's girl, and she may have led Paul and Joe into a deathtrap.

Eddie swears revenge, and heads to New Orleans. Through Paul's brother Allan (William Atherton) he tracks down Michel and abducts her to use as bait, unleashing Losado's fury. As Paul and Michel flee from Losado's marauding gang and fend off the local cops, they start a steamy romance before a final bloody climax in an empty hotel.

No Mercy has some good location shooting in the New Orleans area, and if anything director Richard Pearce overplays his hand by insisting that every shot feature a garish neon sign, a melancholy trumpet player, or old wooden structures lining picturesque streets.

And that's about all No Mercy has going for it. Richard Gere is most unconvincing as a tough cop bent on revenge. His dreamy eyes and wavy hair suggest a poet rather than a badass, and he never moves past uttering cliches. Basinger is the local beauty who insists that she is not a whore but rather a victim of being sold to Losado at a young age. It really doesn't matter: Michel remains an empty vessel, a blank woman to fight over for no good reason.

And despite a committed performance from Krabbé, Losado is evil just because he is evil, and the limp Jim Carabatsos script barely attempts to explain what kind of criminal activity Losado is involved in deep within the Louisiana bayous.

The action scenes are at the competence level of the Death Wish sequels, where dozens of heavily armed bad guys are routinely outsmarted by the one hero. The problem with No Mercy is that unlike most mindless action movies it actually takes itself seriously, but singularly lacks the talent to be anything other than painfully juvenile drivel.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Movie Review: The Aviator (2004)

The biography of Howard Hughes as he carves his legend in the worlds of film, flight, and business, The Aviator is the grand story of one rich but flawed man's visionary approach to life. Leonardo DiCaprio's performance is inspired, and Martin Scorsese directs with controlled audacity.

After a brief introductory glimpse of Hughes as a young boy being bathed by his mother as she emphasizes disease phobias, the film starts in 1927 with Hughes (DiCaprio) in his early twenties having inherited his family's immense fortune and control of the Houston-based Hughes Tool Company. But Hughes is not interested in running a tool company, and has settled in California to produce and direct the movie Hell's Angels about aviators in the Great War. Hughes hires Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly) as his right hand man, and spares no cost to create an epic and ultimately successful film outside the studio system. Hughes also meets and starts a relationship with Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett).

Hughes translates his love of aviation into an aircraft manufacturing business and pours his resources to push innovations that make planes lighter and faster. He puts himself at risk by insisting on flying prototypes and attempting to set speed records, and is awarded contracts by the US Air Force and fledgling civilian company TWA. But Hughes is also suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, and gradually his behaviour becomes more erratic. He breaks up with Hepburn and soon befriends another star in Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale). With the eruption of World War Two Hughes becomes a major contractor to the defence industry, and starts to develop the Hercules, a gigantic "flying boat" military transport airplane, an ambitious project that consumes inordinate time and resources.

After the war he takes control of TWA and unveils plans to start providing civilian flights across the Atlantic, which puts him in direct competition with Pan American Airways and its powerful chairman Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin). Trippe is well connected politically and calls on his friend Senator Owen Brewster (Alan Alda) to block TWA and to eventually start an intimidation campaign against Hughes. With his mental state worsening, Hughes faces the ultimate political battle to save his business and his legacy.

Despite a length of 170 minutes, The Aviator is a joy to watch and an unconditionally engrossing experience. Martin Scorsese directs John Logan's script with an eye firmly on the man at the centre of the legend, and creates a portrait of a flawed genius carving his own path, creating his own rules, and reshaping history. The Aviator portrays Hughes as a true one of a kind, a headstrong tycoon innovator possessing the courage of his convictions, always willing to create and fund a new reality whenever useless constraints get in the way of his achievements.

But he is also sick and undiagnosed, and DiCaprio is at his best as Hughes starts to lose the grip on his mind and his ability to practically function. Hughes' fear of germs consumes his life, and his increasingly damaged mind starts to freeze into endless sentence loops, behaviour that compromises Hughes' ability to lead and inspire. There is a thin line between genius and debilitation, and Hughes often crosses into the dark territory of an outstanding intellect misfiring badly. DiCaprio takes Hughes to the highest peaks of achievement and the lowest depths of self-imposed isolation in a driven performance deservedly nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award.

The Aviator is filled with moments that count as supreme brilliance, extreme folly and plain obsession all at once. Hughes micromanages Hell's Angels, hiring a meteorologist to predict the cloud formations that Hughes demands as the perfect backdrop to the aerial combat scenes. He then shoots endless reels and oversees a mammoth editing process, but the end result is a masterpiece. Hughes' fight with Trippe and Pan American is Quixotic, one man tilting at the windmills of an establishment backed by impressive political forces. And Hughes' tenacity in the face of all the technical impossibilities of the Hercules sums up his ever-strengthening resolve in the face of a seemingly never ending list of challenges. The Aviator is a study of the science of making the impossible possible, granted through a man with the resources to buy his way towards new solutions.

Scorsese eschews CGA and uses scale models to recreate the world of Hughes' aircrafts, from World War One fighters to military spy planes and finally the mammoth Spruce Goose, as the Hercules became known. The use of models gives the film a rich, old fashioned texture, and avoids the distraction created by the inevitable transition between real and digital screen images.

The rich supporting cast is full of first class talent, and Cate Blanchett won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her turn as Katharine Hepburn. Blanchett initially plays Hepburn as Hughes' female equivalent, an independent woman changing the rules of her industry, but a fateful trip to her family home in New England is telling: Hughes does nothing to try and fit in, and instead exposes the hypocrisy of rich people touting socialism as a viable political solution. Hepburn, for all her public independence, blends in with her family. Their relationship is never the same again.

In one of her best career roles, Kate Beckinsale also does an excellent job as Ava Gardner, as strong as Hepburn in dealing with her man but with fewer outward revolutionary airs. Gardner plays a crucial role in bringing Hughes back to his feet when he most needs a boost. Alec Baldwin and Alan Alda create a formidable duo in opposition to Hughes, the embodiment of industrial / political entangled sleaze corrupting the system. Jude Law and Willem Dafoe have small but sharp single scene roles, Law as Errol Flynn and Dafoe as a journalist possessing compromising photos of Hepburn with her new lover Spencer Tracy.

A magical union between talented filmmakers and an outstanding subject, The Aviator simply soars.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Movie Review: A Perfect Murder (1998)

A rich businessman plots to kill his cheating wife in A Perfect Murder, a contemporary re-imagining of Hitchcock's 1954 Dial M For Murder.

In New York City, married and independently wealthy socialite Emily Taylor (Gwyneth Paltrow) is having a hot affair with artist David Shaw (Viggo Mortensen). Emily's husband Steven (Michael Douglas), a businessman facing huge losses due to bad bets in the currency markets, knows about the affair and exposes David as a con man with a record of fleecing rich women. Steven confronts David and offers him $500,000 to kill Emily, with the murder to be staged as a botched home invasion.

David agrees, and Steven leaves Emily home alone for one evening, and arranges for David to enter via the servants' door. However, the struggle between Emily and the intruder does not go as planned, leaving Steven with new and unexpected problems: a dead body in his kitchen, detective Mohamed Karaman (David Suchet) on his tail, and blackmail on his growing list of problems to contend with.

A Perfect Murder maintains tension at an enjoyably elevated level, and the Patrick Smith Kelly script generates a steady current of mistrust and betrayal to build up the thriller elements. The pacing is brisk, and the film packs plenty of incident into its relatively compact 108 minutes of running time.

However, A Perfect Murder modernizes Dial M For Murder without coming close to matching it. The exquisite wit and joviality of Hitchcock's original is lost, replaced by pervasive glumness. Steven and Emily are an unhappy, stressed couple, David is a con man pretending to be a hot adulterer, and none of them emerge as sympathetic characters worth caring about. Even detective Karaman is morose, although giving him an Arab ethnicity is a welcome touch.

The plan for the murder is superficial rather than thoughtful, and the cascading subsequent events move away from a cerebral battle to crass blackmail, scratchy tape recordings and hissing threats. The film ends with an explosion of messy violence far removed from the original intent of a finely crafted crime.

Director Andrew Davis does give the movie an impressive shine, and A Perfect Murder is visually appealing. The settings are glitzy, the Taylors living in a luxurious apartment and circulating among New York's elite. Emily works at the United Nations, Steven works in a high-tech office filled with monitors displaying impressive data, and they attend the poshest parties. Paltrow's short and very blonde hairdo lights up any room she enters, in a nod to Hitchcock's love of blonde bombshells.

The performances are adequate, the trio of Douglas, Paltrow and Mortensen going about their business with commendable efficiency, although there is little character depth for them to explore. Douglas is all angry businessman putting on a good face, Paltrow is the abandoned wife oozing demure sexuality, and Mortensen is the fake passionate artist having perfected his schtick to attract bored rich women.

A Perfect Murder is far from the perfect film, but rather a passable foray into the murderous minds of the rich and desperate.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

CD Review: Counting Our Scars, by Desultory (2010)

After a hiatus of no less than 14 years, Sweden's death metal pioneers return with their fourth studio album Counting Our Scars, released by Singapore-based Pulverised Records.

Featuring polished melodic death metal played at a higher tempo, the album is consistently good. There may be few exceptional highlights to cause pause, but equally few weak moments.

The vocals of Klas Morberg are a deep, low growl, mixed almost into the background. The band creates an impressive wall of sound in front of him, and in the absence of solos what Desultory lacks in inspiration they make up for in pure heft.

The better tracks find a sharper edge in terms of hooks and playful melodies. Ready To Bleed serves up a clever riff and bolts it on to an immense buzz. The Moment Is Gone is the longest (at just under 6 minutes) and most epic-oriented track on the album, slowing the pace down in search of a heroic quest.

The album's production values are noticeably rudimentary. The sound is muffled and condensed, handicapping the band's complex execution. Desultory overcome what sounds like a low budget and remain sturdy for the full count.


Klas Morberg - vocals and guitar
Håkan Morberg - guitar
Jojje Bohlin - bass
Thomas Johnson - drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. In A Cage - 8
2. Counting Our Scars - 7
3. Ready To Bleed - 9
4. This Broken Halo - 7
5. The Moment Is Gone - 9
6. Uneven Numbers - 6
7. Dead Ends - 7
8. Leeching Life - 8
9. A Crippling Heritage - 8

Average: 7.67

Engineered, Mixed and Mastered by Tore Stjerna.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Movie Review: Raid On Rommel (1971)

A derivative second-rate World War Two action adventure, Raid On Rommel arrives late in the cycle of films about the global conflict, and offers nothing new.

It's 1943 and in North Africa the bitter conflict drags on. Rommel's tanks have just seized the strategic port city of Tobruk. In the open desert, Captain Heinz Schroeder (Karl-Otto Alberty) is in charge of a small German platoon that has captured some British prisoners of war. The POWs including a medical unit headed by Major Hugh Tarkington (Clinton Greyn), and a few undercover commandos including Sergeant Allan MacKenzie (John Colicos). Schroeder is also reluctantly escorting the fiery Vivianne Gagliardo (Danielle De Metz), the girlfriend of an Italian general.

British Commando Captain Alex Foster (Richard Burton) allows himself to be captured by Schroeder, and with the help of MacKenzie and the other prisoners they overpower their captors. The British soldiers disguise themselves as Germans and drive behind enemy lines, with a mission to destroy German guns protecting Tobruk from a naval assault. On the way, they stumble upon Rommel himself (Wolfgang Preiss) and two tank divisions resting at a fueling depot, and Foster spots an opportunity to cripple German armour by attacking the secret fuel supplies.

Directed by Henry Hathaway, Raid On Rommel started life as a made-for-television project to re-use footage from 1967's Tobruk. With talent like Hathaway and Burton involved, the film found its way to cinematic release, but despite some reasonably exciting set-pieces, it is a relatively poor effort. The plot borrows heavily from both Tobruk and 1961's The Guns Of Navarone, as Richard M. Bluel's script struggles to find original ideas. The best that he can come up with is a smouldering Italian woman somehow traveling with German troops in the middle of the North African desert. Danielle De Metz sweats a lot and raises the men's temperature, but is then sedated into irrelevance.

Exciting as they are, the patched-on borrowed action scenes from Tobruk are easy to spot, and the rest of the material is generally limp. The same piece of music is looped endlessly, there are interminable scenes of transport trucks rumbling through the desert. Burton is dependable if rather tired, while the other performances are routine. Wolfgang Preiss emerges with some credit as an intellectual Rommel interested in debating stamp collections.

Hathaway inserts some weird psychedelic voice-over and flashback snippets late on, perhaps in an incomprehensible attempt to introduce some anti-war depth. This adds to the film's curiosity quotient but for the most part Raid On Rommel is running on empty.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Movie Review: The Misfits (1961)

A long-winded contemporary western drama, The Misfits sadly proved to be the last film for both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. It is an almost insufferable exercise in navel gazing, a sorry story about lonely people looking for solace in all the wrong places.

In Reno, Nevada, Roslyn (Monroe) finalizes her divorce, with the emotional support of Isabelle (Thelma Ritter). They then meet truck driver Guido (Eli Wallach), and through him his friend Gay Langland (Gable), an old fashioned cowboy. Isabelle tries to get Guido's romantic attention, but he is immediately smitten by the beautiful Roslyn, who in turn is both fascinated and repulsed by Gay's blatant machismo.

Guido offers Roslyn his secluded desert home to de-stress from her divorce, after which Gay and Guido invite Roslyn to join them as they attempt to round up wild Mustang horses in the desert wilderness. On the way they meet Gay's old friend Perce Howland (Montgomery Clift), a penniless rodeo cowboy. As Roslyn finds herself attracting the attention of all three men, the group joins Perce as he competes at a local rodeo event, before heading to a dry lake to try and corral some horses.

Written by Arthur Miller (Monroe's soon to be ex-husband) and directed by John Huston (apparently hard on the bottle), The Misfits is a project that just did not work. Miller's script is talky, dreamy and exceedingly laborious. Roslyn, Guido, Gay and Perce are uninteresting and unintelligent, all the behaviour on display conveying boring people too quick to express shallow emotions and waves of anger. The attractions are inexplicable except as acts of desperation, never a good basis for attempted romance. And the love/hate attitude that Roslyn displays towards Gay is simply irrational. Either she enjoys his alpha male persona or she does not, and Miller can't decide what kind of man his leading lady craves.

Huston's directing is stale. Scenes go on for too long, the story never finds an arc to hold on to, and the climactic but endless Mustang chase in the desert is filled with cowboys-never-change hokum.

The film's many failures are quite the pity, because the acting talent is clearly abundant. Despite any end-of-life issues facing Gable and Monroe, they both effortlessly dominate the screen. Gable is his usual uncompromising presence, filling his scenes with larger than life male bravado and living proudly according to his code. Monroe is a wispy, breathy presence, displaying nothing but vulnerability in what is either a terrific acting performance or simply by placing herself on the screen. Wallach, Clift and Ritter lend plenty of talent in support, all three conveying lives bereft of purpose and drifting towards a great emptiness.

Gable died within two weeks of the end of filming after suffering a heart attack. Monroe died within 18 months, having never completed another film. The Misfits is unfortunately more of a final crooked memorial for two enduring legends, rather than a successful movie.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Movie Review: A Room With A View (1985)

An adaptation of the E.M. Forster novel about a young British woman falling in love with a free-spirited man, A Room With A View is a gorgeous coffee-table movie, with beautiful costumes, scenery and performances making up for a thin plot and slow pacing.

It's the early 1900s. On a trip to Florence with her chaperon and older cousin Charlotte (Maggie Smith), the young and curious Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter) meets fellow British vacationer George Emerson (Julian Sands), a rather strange and passionate young man traveling with his talkative father Mr. Emerson (Denholm Elliott). Lucy and George witness a scuffle between two local men that turns into a murder, and George comes to Lucy's assistance when she faints from the excitement. They are gradually attracted to each other, and on a subsequent trip to the Italian countryside they share a spontaneous and sexy kiss, much to Charlotte's horror.

Upon returning home to the English countryside, Lucy has a suitor waiting in the stuffy form of Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis). Lucy is content to go down the road of marrying Cecil, until fate intervenes and the Emersons move in as tenants at a nearby house in Lucy's neighbourhood, reigniting the potential for romance between Lucy and George.

One of the biggest successes for the duo of director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant, A Room With A View is a lush exercise in visually rich romance. Ivory makes almost every scene an idyllic painting to remember, with opulent colours, breathtaking views and lavish costumes. From the plazas of Florence to the fields of rural Italy and onto the English countryside, A Room With A View is as much an artistic feast for the eyes as it is a narrative for the heart.

The plot itself is slight, and unfolds at a leisurely pace. The romance between Lucy and George is based on little except coincidence and the thrill of the illicit, and there is nothing in the script by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala to explain why the feisty Lucy and the rather distracted George should actually enjoy each other's company.

More interesting are the three secondary characters. Charlotte carries a look of perpetual mild panic, unable to control Lucy and witnessing an eruption of lust. The senior Mr. Emerson always has something to say and is never shy about saying it, occupying the centre of every conversation. And Cecil Vyse is the definition of stuffiness, the antithesis of Lucy and an easy man to discard in the chase for adventurous romance.

With an undercurrent of dry humour, A Room With A View pokes fun at Victorian attitudes towards morality lingering in the early part of the 20th century. Lucy and Charlotte agree to never mention the kiss between Lucy and George, no so much to protect Lucy's character but rather Charlotte's reputation for allowing the kiss to happen. And the film outlines British haughtiness towards Italians, who are perceived by Charlotte and her fellow older aged travellers as little better than wild natives.

The performances are note perfect, Helena Bonham Carter providing a bright spark of rebellion for Lucy to play with, while Maggie Smith finds every possible expression of worry, given that Charlotte needs them all. Judi Dench makes a relatively brief appearance as English author Eleanor Lavish, touring Italy for inspiration.

A Room With A View is distinguished entertainment, making up with decorum what it lacks in excitement.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Movie Review: The Stranger (1946)

A sparkling film noir about the hunt for an elusive Nazi hiding in plain sight, The Stranger is a dazzling Orson Welles achievement, combining small town innocence with international intrigue.

At the United Nations War Crimes Commission, Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) authorizes the release of tweedy small-time Nazi prisoner Meinike (Konstantin Shayne). Wilson is hoping that Meinike will lead him to the wanted war criminal Franz Kindler (Welles), who has erased all evidence of his previous life and created a new identity. The plan works: with Wilson in pursuit, Meinike makes his way to the idyllic small town of Harper, Connecticut, where Kindler has assumed the persona of school teacher Charles Rankin, and is just about to marry the sweet Mary (Loretta Young), daughter of a Supreme Court Justice.

Meinike has a brief meeting with Mary, but Kindler is most unhappy that the little man has potentially revealed his whereabouts, and so Meinike pays the price. With Wilson closing in on his prey, Kindler is on guard to keep his real identity a secret, and the dangerous business of uncovering a Nazi in hiding will require Mary to question her judgement about the man who is now her husband.

A powerful study of opposing forces, The Stranger creates a tight triangle between the hunter, the hunted and the victims caught in the middle. Wilson and Kindler are similar men, determined, smart and resourceful, and their games of accusation and denial, hide and seek grow ever more serious. Robinson and Welles are worthy on-screen adversaries, two heavyweight actors facing off in a mighty battle of wills.

Meinike, Mary and her little town are the collateral damage, Meinike selfishly used by Wilson, Mary recruited by Kindler to complete his assimilation, and Harper unknowingly serving as a post-war battleground. Wilson's interaction with the townsfolk brings out the character of Harper, with the local grocer and jack of all trades Mr. Potter (Billy House) at the hub of everything including gossipy innocence. The church gradually emerges as the central node where good and evil will have a final confrontation, Kindler's obsession with fixing clocks the one part of his past that he is unable to delete.

Welles packs The Stranger with shadows, close-ups, dangerous camera angles and stark contrasts, creating the perfect film noir aesthetic. And he infects Harper with a spreading evil in the form of Kindler, a man quickly establishing himself as a teacher of children and son-in-law of a Supreme Court judge. It does not take long for villainy to take hold, and Kindler represents the threat posed to an open society by a tenacious enemy with a dark but now erased past.

Compact and compelling, The Stranger is a devious fugitive and an impeccable movie.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Movie Reviews: The V.I.P.s (1963)

An ensemble cast multi-story drama set in and around a London airport, The V.I.P.s maintains a steady level of interest thanks to the numerous stars on display, but never manages to properly take off.

A group of rich travellers gather at a London airport in preparation for a flight to New York. Frances Andros (Elizabeth Taylor) is dropped off at the airport by her preoccupied businessman husband Paul (Richard Burton) to travel to a presumed vacation, but she is secretly planning to abandon her marriage and elope with international gigolo Marc Champselle (Louis Jourdan). Australian businessman Les Mangrum (Rod Taylor) is financially stretched to the limit, and must make it to a meeting in New York to salvage his business. He is accompanied by his loyal assistant Miss Mead (Maggie Smith). Pompous actor Max Buda (Orson Welles) must make it out of Britain by midnight, or otherwise face a hefty tax bill. He is accompanied by aspiring starlet Gloria Gritti (Elsa Martinelli). And the Duchess of Brighton (Margaret Rutherford) carries a big title but has no financial means to keep up her estate. She is hoping to land a job in Florida to help pay the bills.

When thick fog descends on the airport and delays the flight, the travellers have to face their crises. Things get worse when they are forced to stay overnight at an airport hotel. Frances is torn between Paul, who pays her little attention but is passionate in his love, and Marc, who seems to love her but may be an opportunist. Les risks everything by authorizing a bad cheque while remaining oblivious to Miss Mead's feeling towards him, and Max's accountant has to come up with an innovative, but awkward, solution to his client's tax problems.

Directed by Anthony Asquith and written by Terence Rattigan, The V.I.P.s has an intriguing premise, tapping into the growing fascination with the emerging jet set of rich people worried about money and relationships within their world of privilege. Adding real-life couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor into the mix helped to make the film a commercial success, despite rather pedestrian execution.

Asquith brings to life an airport buzzing with activity, the V.I.P. lounge a crossroads of the rich and powerful acting all rich and powerful, and fawned upon by dedicated airport staff. When the drama moves to the hotel the film loses steam and becomes more stagebound, as what is essentially a talkfest is deprived of the surrounding energy generated by a major transportation hub.

Understandably focussing on Paul and Frances Andros, The V.I.P.s spends a long time on Frances' dilemma, and as a result the frivolity of both Paul and Frances is exposed. Frances can't decide whether to give Paul another chance to demonstrate genuine affection, or abandon him and tie her fate to a recognized playboy. Her hesitation becomes tedious, and is not helped by Paul running around with a handgun and a short temper fuse, and Marc oozing smarm from every pore.

A bit more interesting is Maggie Smith as Miss Mead, the phenomenally efficient and equally devoted assistant to the jovial Les Mangrum. In just her fourth screen role, Smith combines secretarial capability with secretly held love and delivers the film's most sensitive performance. At the other end of the scale are Welles, Martinelli and Rutherford, who grab onto the broadest definition of their characters and delve no further. Rutherford somehow won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for a monotonal and ill-defined turn as the dotty Duchess of Brighton.

The V.I.P.s are reasonably engaging characters, but their stories include some bothersome turbulence.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Movie Review: Million Dollar Arm (2014)

Based on the true story of the first two men from India to be signed to Major League Baseball contracts, Million Dollar Arm is vanilla filmmaking at its most flavourless.

In Los Angeles, J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) is a sports agent struggling to find new clients. His business partner Ash (Aasif Mandvi), a big fan of cricket, is growing despondent about J.B.'s chances of achieving success. J.B. rents out his garden lodge to medical student Brenda (Lake Bell) but has no desire to pursue a romance with her: he is more interested in airheaded models. Close to reaching the end of his financial rope, J.B. decides to run a "Million Dollar Arm" talent search in India to find cricket bowlers who can be converted to baseball pitchers.

He travels to India and along with crusty scout Ray (Alan Arkin) tours the country for months in search of talent. They finally find two strong-armed prospects in Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal), as well as aspiring baseball coach Amit (Pitobash Tripathy). Upon returning to the US, Rinku and Dinesh are sent to work with respected coach Tom House (Bill Paxton) in preparation for a major league tryout, but converting two Indian villagers into top tier pitching prospects will be no easy task.

Produced by Disney Studios, Million Dollar Arm is a well-meaning but strictly linear story, blandly produced, targeted at a family audience and containing little that is memorable. The Tom McCarthy script tries to wring some drama out of a true life underdog story, but the film just lands with the dull thud of vapidity. Everything that happens on the screen can be foreseen well in advance, and the occasional tense moments are of the strictly contrived variety.

Director Craig Gillespie runs through the usual scenes of India as a crowded, smelly, chaotic and yet majestically charming place, and back in Los Angeles he predictably finds a discouraging low point for J.B., Rinku and Dinesh before steering the film towards an exaggerated climax of success. Jon Hamm does his best as the main character to provide some depth to J.B.. The sports agent goes through an evolution from slick operator to caring big brother, and although it's all too sudden as a realistic change of direction, Hamm is able to convey some empathy and grow into a more rounded human being by the film's end. Sharma and Tripathy are likeable as the young Indian men transported from obscurity to a shot at the majors, but Lake Bell is merely adequate as the literal girl next door Brenda who eventually points J.B. in the right direction. Alan Arkin plays a cartoonish variant of the grizzled baseball talent scout, and Bill Paxton is in too few scenes for too short a time to matter.

Million Dollar Arm is wholesome entertainment, but it is also strictly minor league.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

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