Sunday, 23 November 2008

Movie Review: Recount (2008)

Can the world's leading superpower be unhinged by a Presidential election that is too close to call?

The United States had to face this scenario in the 2000 election, when the decision between Republican candidate George W. Bush and Democratic Vice President Al Gore came down to literally a handful of votes in Florida.

Recount, an HBO production, re-examines the events that transpired, starting on election night with Gore first conceding and then dramatically un-conceding the election as the vote counting in Florida tightens to a statistical dead heat. The film then follows the two campaigns as they mobilize for a bare-knuckled, old-fashioned political fight involving public opinion, the press, overwhelmed local county officials, the Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris (Laura Dern), the Florida Supreme Court and finally the Supreme Court of the United States.

Bush and Gore are peripheral characters in the movie, mostly appearing as voices over the phone. The story is mainly told from the perspective of Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey), the lawyer who ends up leading the Gore team through the legal battles, and former United States Secretary of State James Baker (Tom Wilkinson), who leads the Republican team. Klain and Baker match wits and strategize against each other throughout the 5 weeks of controversy, and only meet at the end of the movie in a symbolic airport encounter.

The film tilts slightly and apologetically in favour of the Democratic party. The Gore team is portrayed as the more sympathetic scrambly bunch, out-gunned and fighting uphill against a slicker, better organized and better financed Republican team fighting on home turf. Florida's Governor is Jeb Bush, the candidate's brother, and Secretary Harris was the Florida campaign co-chair for the Republicans.

The film does an excellent job of recreating the period of uncertainty that prevailed, and of providing an insider's view of the controlled chaos behind the scenes as two massive campaigns maneuver through uncharted waters to try and claim the ultimate political prize. Given that the outcome is well known, director Jay Roach, and the cast of actors, working from a script by Danny Strong, are able to brilliantly inject emotion and drama as the sequence of events unfold, with each new surprise forcing a re-evaluation of strategy.

There are two notables sub-themes that the movie crystallizes: the first is the portrayal of Katherine Harris as an administrator thrust into a history-defining leadership role that is far beyond her capabilities by events that are far out of her control. The second is the examination of an electoral system that is designed to deal well with large numbers where small errors are irrelevant and tolerable. What happens when such a system is forced to deal with very small numbers where every vote becomes important? In both these sub-themes there are good lessons and topics of discussion about leadership and system design that add significant long-term value to the film.

While Recount for the most part recreates real events and portrays real characters, an understandable amount of artistic licence is also exercised. This really only matters to the few individuals who passionately care about extreme accuracy. For the rest of us, the film is a tight and controlled look into one of the most dramatic political events in the history of the United States.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Movie Review: Swing Vote (2008)

Interesting premise. Horrible execution.

Sometimes, Hollywood just seems to forget what the word "subtle" means, or how powerful it can be to deliver a message with cleverness and gentle prodding. Instead, the brash "in your face" delivery method is unleashed to carpet bomb any trace of soul that tries to poke itself out of the ground.

Swing Vote, directed by Joshua Michael Stern and written by Stern and Jason Richman, has Kevin Costner as the blue collar uneducated beer-loving single dad who is the beneficiary of a computer malfunction and gets to cast his vote again in the US Presidential election. And on his vote rides the outcome of the entire tight election between the Republican incumbent (Kelsey Grammer) and the Democratic challenger (Dennis Hopper). Interesting premise, and a clever idea that could have delivered compelling drama, comedy, or both. But in the hands of Stern and Richman, the film is a pure colour-by-crayons disaster that seems to run backwards into every imaginable cul-de-sac.

The international press descends onto Costner's tiny town and creates a media circus that the film overcooks to a charred crisp. Then both the Republicans and the Democrats wade into the mess in an attempt to win his vote, and proceed to immediately chuck overboard all that they stand for in response to every off-handed remark made by Costner's clueless character. So for example, overnight, the Republicans become pro-environment, the Democrats become pro-life, with the two candidates bowing to every whim of their driven campaign managers.

In the middle of the farce is Costner's idealistic, precocious daughter (Madeline Carroll, the only watchable thing in the movie), who despite having two substance-abusing losers as parents is somehow growing up to be the smartest kid in all of New Mexico. And let's not forget to throw in the ambitious local female TV reporter who wants this story to be her stepping stone to national prominence, and her boss the local station executive who works hard to define the word stereotype.

The film must win recognition for strictly limiting every character to one dimension; not avoiding any cliches; and not delivering a single intelligent, memorable or reflective moment.

And if the first 110 minutes were not bad enough, the film out-does itself in the last 10 minutes. All of sudden, Costner gets a brain, and starts to care; a character who could not stop thinking about beer suddenly contrives to deliver a painful monologue about the importance of being a good citizen, working hard, contributing to society, and voting. The two candidates just as suddenly seem to find a conscience, although even this transformation is hopelessly flubbed in the case of the Democrat, who needs a full-face whacking from his wife to rediscover his values (did we mention the lack of subtlety?).

Swing Vote is witless, boring and simply awful, for its entire overblown length.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

CD Review: Sacrament, by Lamb of God (2006)

Lamb Of God finally find a vase of melodic groove and thoughtful compositions into which they pour their unique sound of power and fury. The result is a dramatic leap in quality, with Sacrament representing by far their best CD to date.

Sacrament provides a unique triple-header of terrific songs straight from the start. Walk With Me In Hell opens with a thunderous wall of sound that almost feels as if we are joining the song mid-stream, and quickly settles into a powerful groove that sets the scene for the rest of the CD. Again We Rise follows with a simple and catchy guitar riff embellishing a crunching foundation. And then Redneck crashes through any remaining closed doors with a slightly faster tempo but without losing the strong emphasis on melody. The three songs together are a startling combination and re-announcement of the band to the world.

It would be impossible for the rest of the CD to maintain that standard, and it doesn't, although Pathetic almost makes it a quartet of brilliance.

Randall Blythe sounds sharper and more comprehensible than any previous Lamb of God outing, all the better to properly hear the unrelenting stream of foul language on some of the tracks, particularly the memorable ending to Again We Rise and the colourful invitation on Redneck.

The rest of the band effectively harness all their energy and power into a synchronized and cohesive unit, delivering heavy metal that is equally driven by all the instruments and not reliant on too many lead guitar solos.

A bit unfortunately, the CD goes on for longer than needed, and the last couple of tracks are good but not at the same standard as rest of the collection. More Time To Kill and Beating on Death's Door both meander a bit aimlessly.

That quibble aside, Sacrament is strong proof that a band can mature from the instrument bashing that was the hallmark of their early efforts to an entirely higher league of achievement without losing their core identity.


John Campbell - Bass
Willie Adler - Guitars
D. Randall Blythe - Vocals
Mark Morton - Guitars
Chris Adler - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Walk With Me In Hell - 10 *See Video Below*
2. Again We Rise - 10
3. Redneck - 10
4. Pathetic - 9
5. Foot To The Throat - 8
6. Descending - 7
7. Blacken The Cursed Sun - 8
8. Forgotten (Lost Angels) - 8
9. Requiem - 8
10. More Time To Kill - 7
11. Beating On Death's Door - 7

Average: 8.36

Produced and Mixed by Machine.
Mastered by Brian Gardner.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

CD Review: Above The Weeping World, by Insomnium (2006)

Insomnium's predominant style is to throw up a thick wall of melodic sound with crunchy rhythm guitars, and provide colour in the form of restrained lead guitars and intermittent growly vocals. It's a distinctive approach, but one where the overall sound dominates and memorable tunes or showcase solos are relatively absent. As a result the songs tend to meld into each other and there is not much to remember at the end of the journey.

There is nothing technically wrong with Above The Weeping World, the band's third studio CD. Insomnium deliver a melancholy collection of relatively slow to mid-tempo heavy metal songs with a prevailing mood of persistent darkness drawn straight from the long winters of northern Finland. The compositions are strong and create a steady musical flow. The band is in fine form, with accurate and coordinated delivery. The CD just lacks that defining moment or performance that would have lifted it into orbit.

The stronger tracks are instrumental opener The Gale, which appropriately sets the wet and dark scene, and the closing two tracks, Devoid of Caring and In The Groves of Death, which provide the most interesting melodies and tempo changes, and seal the deal on the gloomy atmosphere. Otherwise, there are no weak tracks, just good and very good songs. Above The Weeping World delivers that most strange kind of heavy metal CD: one that can be played in the background, mostly to create a mood.


Ville Friman - Guitars
Ville Vanni - Guitars
Markus Hirvonen - Drums
Niilo Sevanen - Vocals, Bass

Songlist (Ratings out of 10):

1. The Gale - 9
2. Mortal Share - 8 *See Video Below*
3. Drawn To Black - 7
4. Change Of Heart - 8
5. At The Gates Of Sleep - 7
6. The Killjoy - 8
7. Last Statement - 8
8. Devoid Of Caring - 9
9. In The Groves Of Death - 9

Average: 8.11

Recorded and Mixed by Samu Oittinen
Mastered by Minerva Pappi

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

CD Review: Iron, by Ensiferum (2004)

As an example of how good folk metal can be, it is difficult to find a much better album than Iron by Ensiferum. On just their second studio CD, Finland's masters of the folk metal genre pull all the elements together to deliver a masterful collection of songs that will likely always be held up as a benchmark.

It is clear that producer Flemming Rasmussen, who worked on CDs such as Metallica's Master of Puppets and ...And Justice For All, provided Ensiferum with a professional polish that significantly raises the quality of the material.

Track 9, the appropriately titled LAI LAI HEI (yes, all in CAPS) encapsulates all that is good with the band and the CD. A mixture of slow and fast tempos, a majestically and memorably haunting melody that develops into numerous variations, gradually building to an epic chorus. No matter the sub-genre, melodic heavy metal does not get much better than this.

Most other songs on the CD achieve similar lofty heights. Opener Ferrum Aeternum is a shortish but weighty instrumental that casts Ennio Morricone in metal. Title track Iron introduces a battle-ready anthem that recalls the best of Manowar. Lost In Despair demonstrates the beautiful power that Ensiferum can deliver at a slow tempo -- a terrific sign of maturity. And Into Battle introduces a galloping pace and a good build-up that seems to be content until it explodes into an extended jaw-dropping sonic solo that entirely redefines just how good the song is.

Unfortunately, someone saw fit to throw in the un-listenable Tears into this CD, in a stunningly misguided attempt to introduce smarmy vocals and a lame ballad into the mix. It is a miserable failure, made all the more apparent due to the overwhelmingly good material throughout the rest of the CD.

At least the 2008 re-release version of the CD removes the bad taste by including Track 11 as a Bonus Track, a cover of Metallica's Battery. There is little that anyone can do to reduce the impact of this song, and Ensiferum respectfully give it a faithful and slightly amped-up treatment that hits the spot -- just like the rest of Iron.


Jari Maenpaa - Vocals, Guitars
Markus Toivonen - Guitars
Oliver Fokin - Drums
Jukka-Pekka Miettinen - Bass
Meijo Enho - Keyboards

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Ferrum Aeternum - 9
2. Iron - 9 *See Audio Clip Below*
3. Sword Chant - 8
4. Mourning Heart - Interlude (no rating, short interlude)
5. Tale of Revenge - 8
6. Lost In Despair - 9
7. Slayer Of Light - 8
8. Into Battle - 9
9. LAI LAI HEI - 10
10. Tears - 4
11. Battery - 10

Average: 8.40

Produced by Ensiferum and Flemming Rasmussen
Mastered by Mika Jussila

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Book Review: Cockroach, by Rawi Hage (2008)

Life at the edge of society, in the dark fringes that are intentionally overlooked by the majority. The focus of Rawi Hage's second book is immigrants in Montreal, their stories, background and day-to-day struggle to escape the past and survive the present. The book is written in the first person, with the main character -- who remains unnamed, likely very intentionally so -- an immigrant from Lebanon where he witnessed regular brutality. He has lost at least part of his humanity and is now comfortable thinking of himself as part human and part cockroach, and he appears to be most at peace when he imagines himself to be the latter, scurrying through the cracks of society.

Unlike Hage's brilliant DeNiro's Game (2006), where the violence was random and the country was on fire, the violence in Cockroach is much more personal. Our narrator's mother and sister are victims of regular beatings, and he has tried to hang himself in a Montreal park. Several of the immigrants from Iran that we meet in Montreal are escaping personal stories of rape and torture.

Cockroach is not as much story-driven as an excuse to introduce several small portraits of a small circle of immigrants, all shifty, tortured souls trying to keep the past buried while creating a future in a new, strange land. There is Reza the musician, Shohreh the love interest, a cranky Professor spending his days in a cafe recreating fake glories, and the regimented owner of an Iranian restaurant where our narrator finds a job and the book finds a climax. Hage does an excellent job bringing these characters to life against a backdrop of an uncaring, cold environment. The Canadians in the book are all portrayed as out of touch, naive in the true ways of an unkind world, or just plain vacant and self-absorbed.

Most of the background story of the main character is recalled in conversations with Genvieve, his government-assigned therapist trying to find the cause of his attempted suicide. These passages are beautifully written, and present a powerful metaphor of forced communication between two worlds that, at the human level, know little about one another.

Cockroach is not going to challenge the status of DeNiro's Game as one of the best books ever written. But as a follow-up effort, Hage has delivered a suitably entertaining and memorable literary experience.

305 pages.

Published in hardcover by House of Anansi Press.

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