Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Movie Review: The Killer Inside Me (2010)


A disturbing journey into the mind of an abject sociopath, The Killer Inside Me features jolts of cruel violence, but suffers from bland narration and shallow characters.

It's 1952 in a small rural town in Texas. Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) appears to be a normal and dependable part of the town's fabric. When Sheriff Bob Maples (Tom Bower) assigns Lou to drive prostitute Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba) out of town, Lou instead beats her up, which she enjoys. They commence an intense physical relationship, despite Lou being involved with long-time girlfriend Amy (Kate Hudson).

Lou is actually a cold blooded psychotic killer, and he blames the rich Conway family for the long-ago murder of his adopted brother. When Lou learns that Elmer Conway (Jay R. Ferguson) is one of Joyce's regular customers, he plans a revenge plot to inflict pain on Elmer and agony on his father Chester (Ned Beatty), the town's construction magnate. Lou's revenge involves brutal murders arranged to incriminate others followed by pathological lying, prompting an investigation by County District Attorney Howard Hendricks (Simon Baker). Lou may need to kill again to cover his tracks and stay ahead of the law.

Directed by Michael Winterbottom as an adaptation of the 1952 Jim Thompson book, The Killer Inside Me is not for the squeamish. The film includes two shocking scenes of barbarous violence, as Lou unleashes his inner demon in a fury of killer blows. The victims are pummeled into grotesque disfigurement, and Winterbottom allows his cameras to linger, prolonging the scenes to emphasize Lou’s soulless brutality and the pathetic helplessness of his victims.

Lou is responsible for many deaths, but the two victims of his most shocking acts are both women. This elevates the visual horror, and is partially explained by the root causes of Lou’s derangement as the film reveals fragments of childhood that helped to twist his brain into a malfunctioning mess.

But the film falters when it attempts to provide substantive depth. Outside of Lou’s actions, the narrative, context and characterizations are distinctly lacking. Winterbottom regularly fails to properly introduce or develop essential people and plot elements, resulting in a detached and blurry experience. Elmer’s relationship with Joyce; Lou’s suddenly urgent need to impart revenge on the Conways; the barely explained appearance of District Attorney Hendricks; and the even more puzzling late arrival of lawyer Billy Boy Walker (possibly a figment of Lou’s imagination) are all barely sketched in. And the morsels from Lou’s childhood are too abstract to be helpful.

And finally, Lou’s narration, delivered by Affleck in a high pitched, nasally mumbled monotone, may be appropriate for the sound inside a killer’s head, but is fingernails-on-chalkboard aggravating as a film experience.

The performances are no more than average, Affleck unable to do much with a character who has no human feelings, while the other actors struggle with roles defined through the truncated thoughts of a madman. Winterbottom does manage to create a sun-drenched laid-back smoke-filled small-town 1950s ambiance, the kind of place where nothing exciting ever happens until a prostitute sets up shop, a psychopath goes to work and the bodies start piling up.






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Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Movie Review: Spanglish (2004)


A thoughtful exploration of parenting through the immigrant experience prism, Spanglish is a tender comedy brimming with a frothy human spirit.

The film is presented as an essay by Cristina Moreno, as she applies to enter Princeton University. Cristina names her mother Flor as her hero, and the film is a flashback recounting their story. In Mexico, Flor (Paz Vega) was abandoned as a young mother, and took it upon herself to cross illegally into the US with her daughter Cristina to seek a better future. After six years of confining herself to the Los Angeles Hispanic community, Flor still knows no English but strikes out into the world of the white people to try and make more money to better support Cristina (Shelbie Bruce), now almost a teenager. Flor finds employment as a housekeeper and nanny with the Clasky family.

Deborah Clasky (Téa Leoni) immediately takes a liking to Flor, despite having recently been laid off and still suffering through an emotional crisis. Her husband John (Adam Sandler) is a chef with a growing reputation. They have two children, Bernice (Sarah Steele) and George. Bernice is a bit pudgy, a condition that just adds to Deborah's stress levels and to the strain on John and Deborah's marriage. When the family moves into a beachfront home for the summer, they invite Flor and Cristina to stay with them. Deborah starts showering Cristina with affection, much to Flor's consternation, while John and Flor find plenty of emotions in common, despite the difficulty of communicating across a language barrier.

Written and directed by James L. Brooks with an eye to mixing societal commentary with romance and some humour, Spanglish succeeds in its delicate balancing act. The film unfolds with a gentle rhythm, the three main adult characters orbiting each other in search of emotional fulfilment, seeking happiness as parents and craving, in their own way, success for their children.

Flor, Deborah, and John are each facing major challenges, and they will complicate each other’s lives while simultaneously strengthening their dependencies. Deborah’s nervous breakdown reduces her ability to function as a wife and mother, as she is wrapped up in low self-esteem. She also latches on to Cristina as a more perfect surrogate daughter, seemingly smarter than Bernice and not suffering through the weight issues. Flor depends on Deborah for her livelihood, but quickly learns to resent the influence of her employer on Cristina.

Meanwhile, John is trying to survive his wife’s meltdown and the distraction of his growing professional reputation as a leading chef. The connection between Flor and John, both emotionally abandoned, is warm and genuine, and handled with an unusual sensitivity that allows the flame of love to flicker to life at its own magical pace.

The language barrier and the immigrant divide between Flor and the Claskys is used as a clever device for some pointed humour and social observations. Brooks finds a terrific peak in a scene where John and Flor argue while Cristina provides animated translation services. The degree of mutual dependency is emphasized by the need to tolerate the fragmented communication channels, while Flor’s willingness to learn a new language highlights the commitment of newcomers to their children’s success in the new world.

Adam Sandler plays John with a welcome laid back comfort, convincing as a man trying to keep his household together despite a disintegrating wife. Téa Leoni is all-in as Deborah, finding the fine line where stress and functionality rub against each other. Leoni plays Deborah as an often normal woman, but suffering from worrisome episodes of excessive and impulsive behaviour triggered by her emotionally fragile state.

Paz Vega steals the film as Flor, the heroine of the story and the central focus of Cristina's life. Vega learned her English along with her character on the set of the movie, and conjures up a performance of resolute courage. Cloris Leachman adds a dose of comic relief as Deborah’s mom and a former music pop star, abandoning her drinking when it’s time to become a parent again.

Warm and heartfelt, Spanglish is a treat in any language.






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Monday, 28 July 2014

Movie Review: Crash (2004)


An ensemble multi-story drama about race relations in Los Angeles, Crash sizzles first with the tension generated by fear, and then the warmth of the irrevocable interdependencies required for a complex society to function.

The film consists of several loosely connected stories. Detective Graham Waters (Don Cheadle) and his partner Ria (Jennifer Esposito) are involved in a car crash as they arrive at a crime scene by the side of the highway, where a dead body has been discovered. Events from the previous 24 hours are then recounted, including:
  • Persian shop owner Farhad (Shaun Toub) insists on buying a handgun to protect his store from break-ins, despite the protestations of his daughter Dorri (Bahar Soomekh). 
  • District Attorney Rick Cabot (Brendan Fraser) and his wife Jean (Sandra Bullock) are victims of a carjacking, perpetrated by black hoodlums Anthony (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) and Peter (Larenz Tate). 
  • Police officer John Ryan (Matt Dillon) is resentful of blacks, and takes an opportunity to pull-over and humiliate a successful black couple, television director Cameron (Terrence Howard) and his wife Christine (Thandie Newton). 
  • Ryan's partner Officer Tom Hansen (Ryan Phillippe) is horrified by Ryan's behaviour and demands a different partner, while Christine is furious with Cameron's inaction in the face of Ryan molesting her.
  • Meanwhile, Ryan is trying to care for his ailing father, but finds his health insurance provider agent Shaniqua (Loretta Devine) difficult to deal with.
  • Hispanic locksmith Daniel Ruiz (Michael Peña) re-keys the Cabot's household, and replaces the lock on the store of Farhad's door. Jean suspects Daniel of being a gang member, while Farhad is furious when Daniel informs him that the ill-fitting door, not the lock, is the security problem. Daniel's young daughter is afraid of stray bullets, and he comforts her by placing an invisible magical cloak around her shoulders.
  • Waters and Ria start to investigate a shooting in which a white police detective killed a black detective, seemingly in self defence. Waters also tries to take care of his mother, a helpless abuser of hard drugs. In her brief lucid moments, she insists that he find his brother, who is in trouble with the law.
As the hours tick back towards that dead body by the side of the highway, the lives of these characters intertwine, collide, and veer off again in different and unexpected directions.

A brilliant exploration of the human propensity to first mistrust and then learn through the pain of mistakes, Crash is a magnetic achievement. Directed, co-written and co-produced by Paul Haggis, The film unfolds as a low key series of unfortunate events, all revolving around overt or covert clashes between people of difference races. In a Los Angeles filled with desperate people looking for evidence of the American dream or just trying to survive its wreckage, skin colour is an immediate reason for knee-jerk hostility and either passive or naked aggression.

Racism's ugly face appears in different disguises. Police officer John Ryan and street thug Anthony harbour resentments as a result of deep-seated convictions and personal experience. Poor shop owner Farhad and rich housewife Jean both turn on locksmith Daniel due to ignorance and superficial stereotypes. And in other cases, racist actions are triggered for all the wrong reasons. In complaining about Ryan, officer Tom Hansen gets no relief from the black police chief who refuses to rock the boat against a white officer. And Waters has to face a twisted inquiry into a trigger-happy white detective with an apparent vendetta against black cops, where the facts about his latest black victim may matter less than the need to mop up the mess as conveniently as possible.

Crash emerges as a masterpiece rather than a message movie by delving into the intricate, interdependent wiring that holds a society together, despite the worst of human intentions. Before the 24 hours are out, all the key characters will experience how much they depend on others of a different colour to simply function, for better or for worse and whether they want to or not.

Some of the dependencies are blatant and spectacular, such as Ryan and Christine meeting again at a crash site. Others, as in Jean and her Hispanic housekeeper, are more subtle, relationships that sustain the soul through sheer presence and loyalty. And when the altruistic police officer Tom Hansen finds himself in the same car with the happy go lucky criminal Peter, they face a most unlikely outcome, far removed from their best intentions.

Most of the mini-stories featured in the film end with open questions and unresolved issues, Haggis resisting any pressure to tidy up the narrative with pat conclusions. Crash is an observer of jarring human encounters between strangers, and after the angry release of energy, the flying pieces can land anywhere.






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Saturday, 26 July 2014

CD Review: Conspiracy, by King Diamond (1989)


The fourth studio album from Denmark's King Diamond, Conspiracy is a sequel of sorts to the long-winded story that started on 1988's "Them". As concept albums go Conspiracy is average, generally constrained by the band's well-defined sound but containing a couple of gems that hint at more talent than the band care to typically unleash.

King Diamond's albums ironically tend to suffer from too much King Diamond, the man's alternating falsetto and basic vocals certainly unique and just as certainly tiresome as he wails away about his latest spooky house fable. Conspiracy's best tracks come at the beginning and the end, and both benefit from more emphasis on the music and less on Diamond.

At almost 9 minutes, opener At The Graves is an impressive epic, the band finding a rich vein of inspiration and riding Andy La Rocque's muscular riffing to new territory where the hooks are more important than Diamond's vocals. Album closer Cremation also stands out, mainly because it's almost an instrumental. La Rocque takes centre stage with a busy satellite frequency riff, exploring what the band is capable of when not dominated by theatrical vocals.

The rest of Conspiracy is functional and exactly what can be expected: polished delivery, clean production, and plenty of vocals suitable for a midnight stage in the basement of the scariest house on the block; but otherwise not much variety or new creativity.


Band:

King Diamond - Vocals
Andy La Rocque - Guitars
Pete Blakk - Guitars
Hal Patino - Bass

Drums - Mikkey Dee
Keyboards - Roberto Falcao


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. At The Graves - 9
2. Sleepless Nights - 7
3. Lies - 7
4. A Visit From The Dead - 7
5. The Wedding Dream - 7
6. "Amon" Belongs To "Them" - 7
7. Something Weird - n/a (short instrumental)
8. Victimized - 7
9. Let It Be Done - n/a (short track)
10. Cremation - 8

Average: 7.38

Produced by Roberto Falcao, King Diamond, and Andy La Rocque.
Engineered by Roberto Falcao. Mixed by Chris Tsangarides, Roberto Falcao and King Diamond.

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Friday, 25 July 2014

Movie Review: The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)


A powerful psychological drama about love and obsession among the idle rich, The Talented Mr. Ripley is a gorgeous journey through the darkest corners of the human psyche.

Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) is a conniving and talented young man living a lonely life in 1950s New York. A confidence artist and an expert at impersonations and forging signatures, Tom is mistaken for a Princeton graduate by boat tycoon Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn). Herbert takes an immediate liking to Tom, and hires him to travel to Italy to convince Herbert's son Dickie (Jude Law) to give up an aimless life of decadent pleasure and return to the US. Upon arrival in Italy, Tom meets and befriends fellow traveler Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchett), and starts to explore the possibilities of his impersonation talents by introducing himself to her as Dickie Greenleaf.

Tom then tracks down Dickie, finding him living at a waterfront villa with girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow), and discovers that Dickie is not only a philanderer, but that he also has an expansive and magnetic personality. Tom becomes Dickie's constant companion to the mild annoyance of Marge, and meets Dickie's friend Freddie Miles (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who senses Tom's lack of genuine sophistication.

Tom all but abandons the job that Herbert assigned to him, and instead grows increasingly fond of the carefree lifestyle while becoming quite obsessed with Dickie, believing that they should be lovers. His misplaced infatuation results in violence and bloodshed, and a game of hide and seek across Italy that will put all of Tom Ripley's talents to the test.

An adaptation of the 1955 Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name, The Talented Mr. Ripley is a feast for the eyes and the mind. Working with a terrific cast, director Anthony Minghella captures a decadent, sun-bathed 1950s Italy where rich foreigners gather to enjoy a life of doing nothing. The exteriors are alive with a sense of constant frolicking, while the interiors inhabited by the likes of Dickie, Marge and Freddie are flush with carefree spending.  Minghella finds a particular highlight in an evening at a jazz club, Tom utterly drowning in the pool of Dickie’s charisma as a club teaming with revelers parties into the night.

The opening hour is a study of the insidious charm of evil obsession. Smart as Tom Ripley is, he finds Dickie’s personality and life irresistible, and ultimately, Tom cannot bear the thought of not being a special member of Dickie’s inner circle. The journey from strangers to potential lovers occurs in Tom’s mind, while for Dickie, Tom is just another interesting character to have fun with when convenient and discard when bored.

Tom’s violent tendencies are sparked by the heat of his growing attraction to Dickie, and once he crosses the threshold from subservient and insidious to dangerously proactive, Tom creates the canvass to put his skills to the ultimate test. His ability to mislead, confuse and obfuscate friends and strangers alike carrying him far towards his dream of joining the rich and idle set.

The second half of the film becomes more frantic but ironically loses momentum. Once Tom embarks on a path of fooling all the people all of the time, the movie takes on a breathless chase and deceit posture, and as a result loses the rich focus on character depth. While it is fun to watch Tom weave a complex web of interdependent subterfuge to try and outsmart the Italian authorities and Dickie’s acquaintances, the film shifts from uniquely intellectual to simply clever.

Matt Damon is mesmerizing as Tom Ripley, his eyes always just hinting at a lot more going on in his head than he really wants to lets on. The rest of the cast is stellar, Gwyneth Paltrow traveling furthest from content girlfriend to accusing victim, while Philip Seymour Hoffman lands a delicious and all-too-brief turn as Freddie Miles, the one man to see through Ripley and call him on it with layers of unspoken sarcasm.

Sucked into a life of luxury and seduction, The Talented Mr. Ripley is devious and deadly.






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Thursday, 24 July 2014

Movie Review: The Back-Up Plan (2010)


An average romantic comedy, The Back-Up Plan is lifted by an interesting enough premise and a committed Jennifer Lopez performance.

Zoe (Lopez) is a former corporate ladder climber who now owns a pet store in New York City. Single and giving up hope that she will ever find the perfect Mr. Right, Zoe decides to try and have a baby through artificial insemination. On her way out of the clinic she bumps into the dreamy Stan (Alex O'Loughlin), when they both try to hail the same cab. Stan is a goat farmer who sells cheese at a farmer's market, and is attending night school to try and secure an economics degree.

They start a relationship, only for Zoe to find out soon afterwards that the insemination worked: she is pregnant. Zoe joins a support group for single mothers, headed by Carol (Melissa McCarthy), but with the romance growing serious and Stan proving to be very much the man of her dreams, Zoe has to decide if and how to break the pregnancy news to him. Stan is still getting used to the idea of having a serious girlfriend, and the possibility of immediately becoming a father could understandably compromise his commitment.


The Back-Up Plan adheres to the standard rules of the rom-com genre, but finds a new twist in the form of a successful and unrelated pregnancy arriving ahead of the romance. It’s an intriguing complication to throw into a new relationship, and Zoe, who finds the man she’s looking for as soon as she stops looking, has the challenge of too many things going right at the same time. The second half of the film thrusts the fledgling couple into pregnancy mode, in a significant test of responsibility for both.

Directed by Alan Poul, The Back-Up Plan finds the right mix of love, humour, some drama and attractive New York locations. The film invests in Zoe’s character, creating a well-rounded and self-confident woman who is nevertheless struggling against trust issues. Zoe also has a circle of friends, a pregnancy support group, co-workers, and family to provide the requisite barbs and support. She also enjoys the company of a cute dog with mobility challenges. Lopez delivers a bright and cheerful performance, never threatening to surpass the material but certainly adequate enough for the purpose.

The character of Stan does unintentionally dull the film’s edge, in that he is almost too perfect. Sensitive, funny, caring, operating an eco-friendly business and striving for self-improvement, it’s a small miracle that he is single and available to fall into Zoe’s cab.

Entertaining and innocuous, The Back-Up Plan carries modest aspirations and delivers accordingly.






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Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Movie Review: The Lake House (2006)


A romantic time-shifting fantasy, The Lake House finds a magical dose of whimsy in the story of lonely lovers communicating across a two year gap in time.

Early in 2006, Dr. Kate Foster (Sandra Bullock) moves out of a beautiful rural lake house and into a new apartment complex closer to her job in Chicago. She leaves a note in the lake house mailbox for the next tenant to forward her mail. On Valentine's Day of 2006, Kate witnesses a car crash outside the hospital where she works, and a pedestrian victim of the accident dies in her arms. Meanwhile her mailbox note is picked up by home builder Alex Wyler (Keanu Reeves), who is just moving into the lake house in 2004, before Kate ever moved in. Kate (living in 2006) and Alex (living in 2004) soon realize that the mailbox is a time portal, and they start to communicate with each other through a series of notes and letters. Despite being separated by two years they gradually fall in love.

The lovers try to arrange points in time and place to meet, and on a couple of occasions Alex catches up with Kate's 2004 life, but only he knows of their relationship, and he gets to meet Kate's fiancé of the time Morgan Price (Dylan Walsh). When they arrange to meet for dinner in Kate's timeline, Alex does not show up. Meanwhile, Alex is having a difficult time communicating with his aloof father, famous architect Simon J. Wyler (Christopher Plummer), the designer of the lake house. With Kate growing despondent about the likelihood that she will ever get to meet Alex, it becomes apparent that an extraordinary intervention will be required for their fates to align.

Directed by Alejandro Agresti as an adaptation of the South Korean film Il Mare (2000), The Lake House is a brain-bending exercise in surrendering to the sweet imagination of the incredible. Once past the fantastic premise, this is an honest love story where the obstacle to happiness is misaligned time, and the David Auburn screenplay playfully enjoys the teasing game where Kate and Alex can communicate but not be together.

The time gap raises as many paradoxes as possibilities between Kate and Alex, but the film just accepts it for what it is: a challenge to be overcome by true love. And just as the lovers need to patiently figure out what is going on and how to deal with it, The Lake House is a patient film, unfolding at a mature pace, allowing Agresti to build complex characters worth knowing and caring about without resorting to gimmicks and cliches. As far as movie romances go, this is a film where originality is embraced, and everything from the setting to the characters backgrounds is offered from a fresh angle. Alex is the family black sheep, just now re-entering the life of his father and brother, and trying to carve out his career away from the shadow of a domineering and egocentric dad. Kate is starting to establish her career, moving to a major hospital and fighting the loneliness that comes with big city blues. The strands of the people and places are drawn together, as The Lake House acknowledges and then celebrates the inexorable links between who we are and where we are.

Large portions of the film unfold in the form of Kate and Alex reading out their written words to each other, allowing Bullock and Reeves to do some fine voice acting, their conversations bringing them close to each other even if their bodies are separated by a gulf in time. Bullock and Reeves, reunited 12 years after their success in Speed, share a quiet melancholia, their characters outwardly successful but still struggling to find their exact place in life. Chicago's architecturally commanding scenery, and a beautiful soundtrack highlighted by Paul McCartney's This Never Happened Before, perfectly enhance the mood.

The mailbox, the lake house itself and the dog Jack (who befriends both Kate and Alex) are symbols of time, space and unity, hinting that the impossible is possible as long as new dimensions are embraced. The Lake House majestically stands on the water, suggesting by its mere presence that all sorts of other miracles can follow.






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Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Movie Review: Never Been Kissed (1999)


A back-to-high-school comedy of sorts, Never Been Kissed is a tedious non-event, attempting to sail on the charms of star Drew Barrymore but crashing on the shores of an infantile script.

Straitlaced and single, 25-year-old Josie Geller (Barrymore) is a copy editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, with ambitions to be a journalist. Her boss Gus (John C. Reilly) does not think she has what it takes, but the newspaper's eccentric editor-in-chief Rigfort (Garry Marshall) anyway assigns her to go back to her high school as a fake student and prepare an exposé about modern teenagers.

Josie returns to South Glen High School and is soon reliving the nightmare she experienced in her real life senior year, when she was a gawky unpopular girl. Just as awkward and clumsy this time round, Josie is shunned by the cool clique of girls consisting of Gibby (Jordan Ladd), Kirsten (Jessica Alba), and Kristen (Marley Shelton) but befriended by the nerds, including Aldys (Leelee Sobieski). When her naturally cool brother Rob (David Arquette) also re-enlists at the high school, he helps Josie turn the corner and become popular. As the prom approaches, the pressure increases on Josie to file her story, and she finds herself attracting the attention of handsome student Guy (Jeremy Jordan) and dishy English teacher Sam (Michael Vartan).

Never Been Kissed was the first feature film co-produced by Barrymore's Flower Films, an inauspicious if commercially successful start. It's difficult to understand what the film is trying to achieve. It does not work as a look back at a different era, since Josie is not so far out of high school for much to have changed. It does not work as a romance, with the relationship between Josie and Sam remaining tepid at best, and the film unwilling to delve into the complex waters of lust between teacher and student.

It does not work as a comedy or a parody. Scenes of Josie tripping over herself and spilling milk on her dress are painfully contrived rather than funny. And it certainly does not work as any form of exposé of high school life, the film losing all credibility by stretching it's already thin premise to have Josie's brother Rob also re-enlists in the same high school with the no one the wiser, the equivalent of doubling down on a clearly losing hand.

And finally the "be yourself and be happy" message, delivered without irony, falls flat within the pervasive confirmation that the traditional high school ecosystem, consisting of cool kids, nerds, jocks and in-betweens, is what it has always been, and is unlikely to change.

Director Raja Gosnell is left with the charisma of his star to trade on, and Barrymore gives it all she has, which is not nearly enough to save the movie. Barrymore does not convince neither as a stiff copy editor nor as a clumsy teenager, and is worse still in the over-the-top flashbacks to Josie's real high school senior year, where she portrays a ridiculous walking disaster built on out-of-date fashion and immature behaviour. John C. Reilly over-acts to distraction, while James Franco and Jessica Alba appear in fairly minor early career roles.

Stuck in the neutral gear of irrelevance, Never Been Kissed simply never gets going.






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Saturday, 19 July 2014

CD Review: Born Again, by Black Sabbath (1983)


Black Sabbath self-administer a lobotomy, and the outcome is a shockingly bad album called Born Again.

After the departure of Ronnie James Dio, former Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan joins Sabbath, and it's an uncomfortable fit. Gillan's brand of blues inspired wailing has no place in Sabbath's doom-laden sound. But on Born Again, the material is so awful that no combination of musicians could possibly have saved it. The band is creatively bankrupt in a sad and spectacular fashion.

The album consists of seven meaningful tracks, of which only one, opener Trashed, is anywhere near to being worthy of a second listen, and then only because it rips off the Paranoid riff. The other six songs range from rubbish (Digital Bitch) to annoying nonsense (Hot Line, Zero The Hero, Disturbing The Priest) to the tolerably average (Born Again, Keep It Warm). Most of the tracks smell of quickie writing jobs to rush out a product, and the album's production values are amateurish, even for the early 1980s era.

Gillan squeals, screams, screeches and laughs hysterically, all to no avail. No amount of vocal pyrotechnics can hide the horrid content. Born Again dies a quick, miserable, and well-deserved death.


Band:

Tony Iommi - Guitars
Ian Gillan - Vocals
Geezer Butler - Bass
Bill Ward - Drums

Keyboards - Geoff Nicholls


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Trashed - 8
2. Stonehenge - n/a (short instrumental)
3. Disturbing The Priest - 6
4. The Dark - n/a (short sound effects)
5. Zero The Hero - 6
6. Digital Bitch - 5
7. Born Again - 7
8. Hot Line - 6
9. Keep It Warm - 7

Average: 6.43

Produced by Robin Black and Black Sabbath.
Engineered by Robin Black.

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CD Review: Chaos A.D., by Sepultura (1993)


A monotonal misfire, Chaos A.D. finds Brazil's Sepultura banging away with plenty of power, but it's all heading in the same bland direction, devoid of flair or variety.

Only two tracks rise above the tedium. The energetic opener Refuse / Resist points the direction to Roots Bloody Roots from the next album, and injects plenty of jungle fever. The Hunt presents an intriguing New Model Army cover, and coming late in the album provides a sudden reminder how sadly the rest of the album is lacking in songwriting sophistication.

Elsewhere interchangeable angry metal is interminably bashed out on track after track. Biotech Is Godzilla reaches a mercifully short low point of pointless shoutiness, and Manifest is a meandering mess.

The band's commitment to the cause is never in doubt, but the absence of inspiration is mind numbing.


Band:

Max Cavalera - Vocals, Guitar
Andreas Kisser - Guitar
Paulo Jr. - Bass
Igor Cavalera - Drums


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Refuse / Resist - 8
2. Territory - 7
3. Slave New World - 7
4. Amen - 7
5. Kaiowas - 7 (instrumental)
6. Propaganda - 7
7. Biotech Is Godzilla - 5
8. Nomad - 7
9. We Who Are Not As Others - 7
10. Manifest - 6
11. The Hunt - 8
12. Clenched Fist - 7

Average: 6.92

Produced, Mixed, and Recorded by Andy Wallace.

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CD Review: Existence Is Futile, by Revocation (2009)


The second studio album from Boston's Revocation, Existence Is Futile is a mixed bag, the quality featuring as much variety as the broad stylistic range the band is known for.

Pushing deep into a mix of technical melodic death metal infused with plenty of jazz and thrash influences, Existence Is Futile is nevertheless often repetitive and underwhelming. On some tracks there is so much wizardry going on that the whole is much less than the sum of the parts, like a circus show with a juggler, clown or elephant in every corner but no one holding down the middle. Title track Existence Is Futile and The Brain Scramblers suffer the most from the loss of focus.

When Revocation do galvanize and deliver, it is often David Davidson's guitar work that leads from the front with melody-rich themes. The best selections are the two instrumental tracks, opener Enter The Hall an epic 2:27 intro full of muscular promise and stunning if straightforward guitar sweeps from Davidson. The back half of the track breaks into a galloping rhythm, crashing into the hall on the wings of thrash strumming at illegal speeds.

Across Forests And Fjords is longer and more expansive, breathing deeply from terrain that sustains metal, Davidson playing the role of point man and chief scout, his guitar work darting all over the landscape. The soaring solo break at the three minute mark salutes the best of Arch Enemy.

Anthem Of The Betrayed is the best track with vocals, the chugging strumming coming back to anchor one of the longer and more complex compositions on the album.

Existence Is Futile contains tasteful hints of what the band is capable of, but also plenty of examples of good talent squandered in over-ambitious directions.


Band:

David Davidson - Guitar, Vocals
Phil Dubois-Coyne - Drums
Anthony Buda - Bass, Vocals


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Enter The Hall - 10 (instrumental)
2. Pestilence Reigns - 7
3. Deathonomics - 7
4. Existence Is Futile - 6
5. The Brain Scramblers - 6
6. Across Forests And Fjords - 8 (instrumental)
7. Re-Animaniac - 7
8. Dismantle The Dictator - 7
9. Anthem Of The Betrayed - 8
10. Leviathan Awaits - 7
11. The Tragedy Of Modern Ages - 7

Average: 7.27

Produced by Pete Rutcho and Revocation.
Recorded, Mixed and Mastered by Pete Rutcho.

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Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Movie Review: Courage Under Fire (1996)


An intense, character-driven war drama, Courage Under Fire examines the damage that war inflicts on soldiers, and the rush to proclaim heroes as an easier alternative to confronting the fallibility of those who fight.

During a chaotic nighttime battle in the 1990/91 Gulf War, tank battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Serling (Denzel Washington) mistakenly opens fire on one of his own tanks, killing his friend Captain Boylar. After the war the error is hushed up by the army, but Serling is traumatized by the incident, growing detached from his family and turning to drink. As an easy and apparently straightforward assignment to help his recovery, Serling is appointed to investigate the potential posthumous award of a Medal of Honor to medical helicopter pilot Captain Karen Walden (Meg Ryan). She saved the crew of a downed chopper by destroying an enemy tank, but her own helicopter then crashed. Walden and her crew held out against enemy fire overnight, but she eventually died, seemingly heroically, before a rescue could be completed.

Serling sets out to find and talk to Walden's surviving crew members, including the injured Warrant Officer Rady (Tim Guinee), the withdrawn medical Specialist Ilario (Matt Damon), the macho Staff Sergeant Monfriez (Lou Diamond Phillips), and the very sick crew chief Sergeant Altameyer (Seth Gilliam). Their stories differ in small but key details, forcing Serling to delve deeper into what happened when Walden and her crew were pinned down overnight by enemy fire. With pressure mounting on Serling to finish his report and the nightmares from the friendly fire incident growing more intense, Serling finds that once again, the truth may be more difficult to handle than anyone cares to admit.

Courage Under Fire presents an intriguing battlefield mystery, with a tortured hero as the investigator trying to piece together the fragments of a disjointed story. Director Edward Zwick intertwines two key threads, as Serling pushes against his demons while tracking down each of Walden’s crew members to secure their version of a hellish night stranded in the Iraqi desert.

Every version is recreated on-screen, Zwick turning up the volume on an admittedly gripping drama of explosions, gunfire, and soldiers under extreme stress outnumbered and surrounded by the enemy. The variations in the story initially appear small and irrelevant, but some of the jigsaw pieces simply don't fit to Serling’s satisfaction, and he doggedly pursues a more complete picture of Karen Walden’s actions on that fateful night. When the truth finally emerges, it is both a victory and a defeat for the army, and a much messier and more complex narrative than the simple premise of a heroic pilot saving lives.

For all the noisy scenes of warfare, Courage Under Fire works because it’s the story of two compelling people. Serling exists in the present and is haunted by the past, Walden exists in the past and is being investigated in the present. The interaction between two perceived heroes who never met but are yet dropped into the same cauldron of convenient lies and easy labels forms the throbbing heart of the film.

The ending is less effective. Zwick and screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan opt for a crescendo of unrestrained positive emotion wrapped in the flag, the equivalent of an unnecessary sugar overdose.

Denzel Washington is magnetic as the army man tormented by the mistruths that the army is happily peddling on his behalf. Washington maintains a deliberate, controlled stance as Serling, never resorting to dramatics and remaining true to a good commanding officer’s convictions.  Ryan’s performance is predominantly limited to the one showcase scene repeated several times from different perspectives. Limited as it is, Karen Walden is a refreshing change from Ryan’s typical lightweight romance roles. Matt Damon, in one of his early noticeable screen appearances, is frighteningly emaciated as Specialist Ilario, a man wasting away from the stress of hiding more than his soul can bear. Scott Glenn has a small role as a nosy journalist.

Courage Under Fire packs plenty of impressive firepower, both on the battlefield and in the battle’s echo.






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Movie Review: Prelude To A Kiss (1992)


A romantic drama with fantastical elements, Prelude To A Kiss cleverly delves into intriguing topics, but ultimately falls short of its mystical targets.

In Chicago, Peter Hoskins (Alec Baldwin), a manager at a publishing house, meets and falls in love with Rita Boyle, a free-spirited bartender. Peter experienced a rough childhood but maintains a positive outlook on life. By contrast Rita had a loving upbringing but is an abject pessimist despite a bubbly personality. Although she finds happiness with Peter, Rita never wants to have children because the world is an ugly place. Peter meets Rita's parents Dr. and Mrs. Boyle (Ned Beatty and Patty Duke), and soon thereafter Peter and Rita get married.

At the wedding ceremony, an uninvited old man called Julius (Sydney Walker) asks Rita for a kiss. She obliges, and he kisses her deeply. As the newlyweds start their honeymoon in Jamaica, Peter notices that his bride is suddenly behaving very strangely. Indeed, she appears to be a completely different person than the woman he fell in love with. Upon returning to Chicago, the marriage is already in trouble, and Peter connects with Julius, to try and understand what has happened to his Rita.

Craig Lucas adapted his own play to the screen, and the film version succeeds in liberating the story out of stage confines. Directed by Norman René, Prelude To A Kiss is a refreshingly different romance, introducing two likeable leads and using their genuine love to ask some big questions. Peter is challenged to face up to what it means to be in a devoted lifelong marriage, and his commitment to the vows stated so easily during the ceremony is tested early.  The bond between physical presence and the essence of the human soul becomes a central question for Peter to grapple with and resolve.

These are not easy themes to delve into, and Prelude To A Kiss inevitably gets in too deep, despite the best of intentions. The film surrenders to the fantasy elements that are an essential if metaphorical gateway to the ideas at the core of the story, and in doing so detaches itself too far from reality to achieve any emotional resonance. The film becomes an interesting vehicle to spark conversation, but without itself leaving any form of a lasting impression.

The performances from Baldwin and Ryan are appealing, and they generate an amiable chemistry. Baldwin is sincere and manages to hold the centre of the film together as realism takes a back seat to an alternative and supernatural world. Ryan is her typical slightly over-bubbly self, the dream girlfriend with a potentially tiresome habit of over emoting. Despite her excessive bright-eyed expressions, the film does suffer when Ryan is absent for a prolonged segment in the second half.

Stage actor Sydney Walker delivers a moving performance as the old man seeking an unconventional new lease on life, and his scenes with Baldwin critically find the right tone, preventing the film from descending into tripe. Stanley Tucci and Kathy Bates appear in smallish roles.

Prelude To A Kiss thoughtfully explores the magic of romance, without necessarily creating magically romantic moments.





All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Movie Review: This Property Is Condemned (1966)


A tale of southern desperation inspired by a Tennessee Williams one-act play, This Property Is Condemned simmers on steady heat but never quite sizzles.

The story unfolds as one long flashback from the perspective of a young woman called Willie (Mary Badham). It's the middle of the Great Depression in the small fictional town of Dodson, Mississippi, where the railroad provides the only employment. The mysterious, quiet and extremely handsome Owen Legate (Robert Redford) arrives in town and meets Willie, her older sister Alva (Natalie Wood), and their mother Hazel (Kate Reid), who operates a boarding house. Hazel has been abandoned by her husband, and tough railway man J.J. Nichols (Charles Bronson) pretends to be interested in filling the void while barely concealing his lust for Alva, the town's sex pot. Meanwhile, Hazel exploits Alva's sexuality to snare potential meal tickets, the latest being Mr. Johnson (John Harding).

Alva is attracted to Owen the moment she sees him, but he is initially not impressed with her fanciful imagination and the way she toys with men at the behest of her mother. But gradually their relationship develops into a romance, which gets complicated when Owen's motive for coming to Dodson is revealed. With Hazel growing increasingly desperate for Alva to show some love for Johnson, J.J. willing to risk everything for a chance to be with Alva, and Owen quickly becoming the most hated man in town, emotions reach a boiling point.

The second movie directed by Sydney Pollack, This Property Is Condemned is a talkative piece of Americana, steeped in the south at a time when desperation was every adult's middle name. There are no sympathetic characters in Dodson, and this both elevates and hampers the film. The men and women of the derelict railway town outdo each other in meanness and narcissism as they trample over each other to try and escape the economic quagmire, oblivious that their collective stampede is only succeeding in digging a deeper hole of desolation.

Hazel, J.J., Alva and Mr. Johnson really do deserve each other, and certainly don't deserve any better. It is questionable whether outsider Owen is an improvement over the townsfolk, and certainly his chosen profession denotes a cold heart, a comfort with others' agony and an inability to settle down. The cocktail of insensitive characters makes for trainwreck style entertainment, ironic in the context of a railway town, and it's clear early on that most of the residents of Dodson are unlikely to be clever enough to stumble onto happy endings.

The lack of any displayed empathy also means that This Property Is Condemned remains a relatively detached exercise. It is difficult to care about Alva despite her miserable dilemmas: she is simply too self-obsessed and too far gone into her fantastical stories and flirtatious games to generate genuine warmth. And it's equally difficult to invest in the unlikely relationship between her and Owen, who never moves beyond the observant interloper. Hazel and J.J. are there to wallow in an ugly existence of their own making, their levels of desperation having long since pushed them to the darkest corners of selfishness.

A vivacious Natalie Wood brings Alva to full life as a woman who knows that she is too beautiful for her surroundings, and who is as trapped by her irresistible looks as she is by her depressed town. Mary Badham, of To Kill A Mockingbird fame, is excellent as the counterpoint younger sister, and the only character in the film young enough to not quite yet be consumed by the rampant despondency. Charles Bronson, Robert Redford and Kate Reid are good, but stick to variations on a single note. Robert Blake and Dabney Coleman have small roles.

The screenplay (co-written by Francis Ford Coppola) does pick up steam in the final third as the characters talk less and hurtle purposefully towards their fate, with Pollack making excellent use of a very wet New Orleans as the action moves to the big city. In the opening scene Hazel's boarding house is presented as abandoned, the building condemned. The movie works its way to an outcome of compounded misery, the result of an economic disaster and egotistical floundering.






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Saturday, 12 July 2014

Movie Review: The Searchers (1956)


A visually spectacular and contextually challenging western, The Searchers is a grim saga of a years-long search for a white girl abducted by Indians. It is also a journey through the lost soul of the man obsessed with finding her for all the wrong reasons.

Three years after the end of the Civil War, confederate soldier Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) unexpectedly returns to the secluded Texas home of his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) and his family: wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan), daughters Debbie and Lucy, and son Ben. But soon after arriving, Ethan leaves again to join a posse organized by the Reverend Captain Samuel Johnson Clayton (Ward Bond) to chase after Indian cattle rustlers. It’s a ruse. With the posse away, the Indians attack the household, killing Aaron, Martha and Ben, and abducting daughters Debbie and Lucy.

Ethan commits to finding the girls. He is joined by Lucy’s fiancé Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey, Jr.) and Debbie’s adopted brother Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter). Lucy is soon found dead, and Brad is blinded by rage and dies in a suicidal one-man assault against the Indians. With Debbie still missing, the trail runs cold. Ethan and Martin will be searching for years, putting a strain on Martin’s relationship with sweetheart Laurie (Vera Miles), while Debbie (Natalie Wood) grows up as part of the Comanche tribe of a Chief known as Scar (Henry Brandon).

One of the most commanding collaborations between director John Ford and star John Wayne, The Searchers is an inflection point in the history of the genre. The film introduces a central character of dubious moral standing and compromised ethics, the type of man much more likely to have tamed the west compared to the scrubbed white hat of the genre's mythology. Ethan Edwards is an unsavoury hero with a murky and less than stellar past. He drifts in and out of the lives of his family members with nary a thought for their feelings, and is either hostile or condescending to friend and foe alike.

Prone to extreme violence, and harbouring deep-seated racist attitudes towards Indians, his quest is not so much a rescue mission as an opportunity for revenge, and Ethan does not hide his motives. Most relaxed when he is inflicting maximum damage on the Indians, he kills their buffalo out of spite, continues to shoot at a group of Indians when they are in full retreat, and desecrates a dead Indian's corpse just to torture his soul.

The Searchers finally finds the darkest corner of Ethan's psyche when it becomes clear that he actually may just rather destroy Debbie, his search over many years twisted in his mind into a mercy killing mission. To him, she has become one of them, and "living with the Comanche ain't living." Blinded by his racism, Ethan may believe that the best way to rescue Debbie is to violently release her from the only adult world that she has known.

Ethan's heroic attributes are his courage, doggedness and willingness to act; his attitudes, methods and chosen causes are a lot less heroic. Wayne plays Ethan with an honesty towards the material. This is not a film where the hero will see the light and change his ways, and Wayne's performance remains consistent in playing a man tolerated for his toughness but little else. In creating a most dubious protagonist, Ford and Wayne prepare the template that Leone and Eastwood will exploit in the coming decade.

And to add to the shifting psychological sands and further set the stage for the anti-hero out for personal gain, Ethan's self-assigned mission may be a lot more personal than at first appears. There is an undercurrent of eerily silent tension between Ethan, Aaron and Martha, and the soft gestures and unspoken words between Ethan and Martha suggest intriguing possibilities about who exactly is Debbie's father.

Ford filmed The Searchers in Monument Valley, and the VistaVision colour cinematography by Winton C. Hoch is wondrous, with almost every frame a landscape masterpiece. With the rock formations and wide open vistas serving as a backdrop, Ford plays with silhouettes, framing and juxtaposes the small human scale with the magnificence of imposing terrain.

Stunning in its style, depth, and audacious willingness to seek new territory, The Searchers is one of the all-time great westerns.





All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Movie Review: Giant (1956)


A sprawling Texas family epic set in the first half of the 20th Century, Giant tackles a myriad of social issues but suffers from a meandering second half.

Jordan “Bick” Benedict Jr. (Rock Hudson) is a wealthy Texas cattle rancher, and an owner of an enormous acreage. He travels to Maryland to buy War Winds, an expensive horse belonging to the Lynnton family. Bick not only buys War Winds, but he also falls in love and marries the Lynntons’ daughter Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor).

Upon returning to Texas, Leslie immediately clashes with Bick’s unmarried sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge), who runs the Benedict household and is threatened by Leslie’s presence.  Luz dies after being thrown by War Winds. In her inheritance she leaves a small parcel of land to Jett Rink (James Dean), a loner ranch hand who maintains a tense relationship with Bick. Jett develops a crush on Leslie, and refuses to sell his newly inherited property despite a seemingly generous offer from Bick.

Leslie proves herself to be tough, independent, and outspoken, and forces Bick to confront sexism and racism issues in his social circle. Leslie shows unusual compassion to Mexican peasants living in a nearby village, and displays disgust when Bick attempts to exclude her from business conversations. Meanwhile, Jett strikes oil on his land, and starts to build enormous wealth. Despite some tough times, the marriage between Bick and Leslie endures; they raise three children, and have to deal with the trials of parenting and unmet expectations as the oil boom brings unimagined riches and World War Two erupts.

Based on the Edna Ferber book, the first half of Giant is a compelling story of the sophisticated but headstrong Leslie carving out space for herself in the new and strange world of rural Texas. The narrative generates a steady current of topical issues, including attitudinal differences towards the hired help, racial sensitivities, and the status of women. Hudson, Taylor, McCambridge and Dean sparkle as they challenge the prevailing limits, Taylor reveling in the role of Leslie as a change catalyst, upsetting a status quo that already featured simmering and unresolved issues swirling around Jett’s mysterious charisma.

Director George Stevens explores these themes against a backdrop of the wide-open plains of Texas. This is country where the personalities have to be big to match the endless terrain. The film is filled with impressive and sometimes breathtaking widescreen shots that convey the scale of both the expansive outdoors and the lavish indoors, and Stevens then adds the vertical element as an army of oil derricks sprouts out of the earth and reaches for the sky, pumping black gold.

There is enough drama for a complete film in the story of Bick and Leslie meeting and establishing their life together. But Giant is an ambitious, 201 minute effort, and the second half inevitably starts to drag. Bick and Leslie's kids grow up and introduce a new dynamic, and the film starts to stutter from one bland familial conflict to another, rehashing themes already chewed on in the first 100 minutes. Jett Rink evolves into a surly oil tycoon, providing James Dean, in his final film role, with the opportunity to indulge in the worst excesses of method mumbling.

Giant also suffers from some simply awful makeup effects, when it comes to the aging of Bick, Leslie, and Jett.  Hudson, Taylor, and Dean are provided with ridiculous mops of silver blue hair to denote middle age, but otherwise appear to suffer no wrinkles, weight gain or change in posture. The effect is amateurish in the extreme, and becomes an unfortunate distraction in the film’s latter stages.

The large cast helps to maintain interest. Carroll Baker does her best to enliven the second generation as Luz Benedict II, the daughter of Bick and Leslie. Jett’s unsavoury pursuit of the younger Luz is the most interesting sub-plot in the latter stages, as he tries to fill the void of the friendship he had with the older Luz and his unrequited love for her mother Leslie. Dennis Hopper, Sal Mineo and Rod Taylor also contribute small supporting roles.

Giant boasts a mammoth scale, and although the achievement does not fully match the intent, the result is impressively grand in scope and ambition.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Thursday, 10 July 2014

The Movies Of Judy Garland






















All movies starring Judy Garland and reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

The Wizard Of Oz (1939)





Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)





Easter Parade (1948)





Summer Stock (1950)





A Star Is Born (1954)





Judgment At Nuremberg (1961)





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


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