Friday, 29 May 2009

Movie Review: Angels and Demons (2009)

The Vatican has a few problems. The Pope has just died. Four of the Church's most senior Cardinals, the group from which the Pope's successor will emerge, have been kidnapped, and are threatened with death within hours. And an anti-matter bomb with the capability of flattening a large part of Rome is ticking away, somewhere in the Vatican, about to explode at midnight. Who're you gonna call?

Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), the symbolist who was very much a thorn in the side of the Church while unravelling The Da Vinci Code.

The Vatican calls upon Langdon since the evil forces behind the kidnappings, the death threats and the ticking bomb appear to be a re-emergent Illuminati, a science-loving fraternity that locked horns with the Church centuries ago. The Vatican had brutally repressed the Illuminati, who appear to be back to extract a gruesome and final revenge.

The Illuminati demonstrate their cleverness by hiding clues to their intentions using riddles, and by revealing seemingly incredible ambigrams -- perfect terrain for the skills of Langdon. He needs to race against time to follow hidden religious clues to try and rescue the kidnapped Cardinals before they are sequentially and brutally eliminated, while at the same time trying to find the hidden bomb, and uncover the whole evil plot behind one very bad night.

Although novelist Dan Brown wrote Angels and Demons before The Da Vinci Code, director Ron Howard and writers David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman cleverly transform it into a sequel movie. Hanks returns as a thinner and less dour Langdon. Ewan McGregor is the Camerlengo, the stand-in papal authority dealing with the threats while a new Pope is chosen. And the token female scientist is Ayelet Zurer, who mostly rolls across the movie doing a good impersonation of a fifth wheel.

Angels and Demons is much more crisp and sharp than the mess of the movie that Howard managed to mangle out of The Da Vinci Code. Although this is helped by a more straightforward original story, the real improvements were achieved by being brave enough to streamline the movie compared to the book, eliminating characters and scenes and improving several plot twists.

The result is that Angels and Demons works just as well as a movie as it did as a book, despite being less faithful to the original story, while The Da Vinci Code was a disastrous movie trying to be too faithful to a brilliant book.

Angels and Demons will not win any prizes, but it is an entertaining Rome-set thriller, complete with modern pseudo-science, historical gobbly-gook, gruesome deaths, and a story that effectively fights its way through the Rome traffic snarls and the gathering crowds in St. Peter's Square.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Movie Review: State of Play (2009)

State of Play cannot quite decide what it wants to be: a glorification of the newspaper industry; a reality-based political murder-and-scandal thriller; or an investigative whodunnit. It ends up being an interesting enough hybrid meal that samples several cuisines without effectively proving to be totally competent in any. Not a surprise, since there are five names on the writing credits of the movie, a perfect recipe for a somewhat bland concoction.

Russell Crowe is Cal McAffrey, an old-style slob of a journalist working for the Washington Globe, which (of course) has just been taken over by a faceless multi-national and profit-driven corporation. McAffrey starts investigating an apparently drug-related double-shooting on the streets of DC, while his young blogger colleague at the Internet edition of the Globe, Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), start poking around the apparent suicide of an aid for the rising young Senator Steven Collins (Ben Affleck).

It turns out that the death of the Senator's aid and the street-level shootings are related (of course), and Collins joins forces with Frye (cue the yawningly expected young / old; traditional / digital; ink / blog tensions) to unravel the evil behind the deaths.

Senator Collins was (of course) having an affair with his aid before she died. He also happens to have been the college roommate of McAffrey. Collins is also just about to open investigative hearings into an evil Blackwater-style mercenary conglomorate. And Collins' wife (Robin Wright Penn) once slept with McAffrey. And the Globe's editor (Helen Mirren) is torn between the need to deliver good journalism and the need to satisfy the new owners' lust for profit.

In other words, there are enough contrived layers of connective tissue between the characters' personal lives and today's real headlines to keep the plot moving, generally in a forward direction.

Let's not ask to look too much at the details of the movie, where the journalists are significantly more competent at crime-solving than the police, and professional assassins are outsmarted by over-weight journalists, and particularly let's not look too closely at the muddled ending, where the plot desperately tries to add one more sharp twist, but can only conjure up a damp tissue.

What keeps State of Play on the safe side of over-cooked is the talent on display. Crowe, Affleck, Mirren, McAdams, and Wright Penn are very watchable, and all do their bit to round out their characters. Even Jason Bateman and Jeff Daniels make an appearance and are effective in relatively small roles.

Kevin MacDonald, best known for The Last King of Scotland, directs with a slightly jittery hand-held style, enough to maintain an edge without being too annoying.

For those who enjoy good acting talent, State of Play is watchable, if not terribly memorable.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

CD Review: The Oncoming Storm, by Unearth (2004)

The second CD from Massachusetts' Unearth reveals clear glimpses of the band's potential, mixed in with some still basic song composition and lack of sophistication.

On The Oncoming Storm, Unearth generate a lot of consistent, positive and well-channeled power. Unfortunately, a lot of it emerges in the form of heat, instead of light. Almost every song has an above-average (and sometimes brilliant) passage or nugget of melodic metal; but very few of the songs manage to hold together an integrated narrative from beginning to end, and the transitions within the songs are often jarring. The result is an always interesting but also always patchy CD.

However, there is no mistaking the emerging talent. The band sounds tight: Trevor Phipps' mid-range growl meshes perfectly with the guitar work delivered by duo McGrath and Susi, who on occasion channel the best of Iron Maiden with deft subtlety. The drums of Mike Justian and bass of John Maggard are prominent without being overpowering. Overall, the mix of the CD by Adam Dutkiewicz (of Killswitch Engage) is spot-on.

All the tracks emphasize control, precision and interesting melodies, and on the best tracks like CD openers The Great Dividers and Failure, the epic-titled Zombie Autopilot and showcase Predetermined Sky, Unearth clearly demonstrate confident strides towards a bright and mature future.

Special mention should go to the guitar solo work on Predetermined Sky, with its jaw-dropping simplicity, structure and brilliance. It says everything about the CD that the solo seems to just drop into the song, and barely ties into the rest of the track on either end.


Trevor Phipps - Vocals
Buz McGrath - Guitar
Ken Susi - Guitar
John "Slo" Maggard - Bass
Mike Justian - Drums

Songlist (Ratings out of 10):

1. The Great Dividers - 8
2. Failure - 8
3. This Lying World - 6
4. Black Hearts Now Reign - 7
5. Zombie Autopilot - 8
6. Bloodlust Of The Human Condition - 6
7. Lie To Purify - 7
8. Endless - 7
9. Aries - 7
10. Predetermined Sky - 8
11. False Idols - 7

Average: 7.18

Produced, Engineered, and Mixed by Adam Dutkiewicz.
Mastered by Alan Douches.

The Oncoming Storm at the Ace Black Store.
The Ace Black Blog CD Review No. 30.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.

Book Review Index: The Ace Black Blog

Last updated August 26 2014: added The Big Short, by Michael Lewis (2010).

Below is a hyperlinked listing of all books reviewed on the Ace Black Blog.

Non-Fiction: GeoPolitics and World Affairs (8 books)
Drinking The Sea At Gaza, by Amira Hass (1996)
The End Of Days, by Gershom Gorenberg (2000)
How To Stage A Military Coup, by David Hebditch and Ken Connor (2005)
The Devil We Know, by Robert Baer (2008)
The Post American World, by Fareed Zakaria (2008)

Non-Fiction: History (8 books)
The Assassins, by Bernard Lewis (1967)
What Went Wrong? by Bernard Lewis (2002)
Non-Fiction: Economics (4 books)
Economics In One Lesson, by Henry Hazlitt (1979)
The Lexus And The Olive Tree, by Thomas Friedman (1999)

Non-Fiction: Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism (7 books)
The Age Of Sacred Terror, by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon (2002)
Against All Enemies, by Richard A. Clarke (2004)
The Third Terrorist, by Jayna Davis (2004)
Loss Of Faith, by Kim Bolan (2005)
Perfect Soldiers, by Terry McDermott (2005)
The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright (2006)
Ghost - Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent, by Fred Burton (2008)

Non-Fiction: Biographies (4 books)
All The Stars In Heaven, by Gary Carey (1981)
Steve McQueen, by Penina Spiegel (1986)

Non-Fiction: Society (13 books)
Eccentrics, by Dr. David Weeks and Jamie James (1995)
The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell (2000)
Fargo Rock City, by Chuck Klosterman (2000)
Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell (2005)
Under The Bridge, by Rebecca Godfrey (2005)
Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell (2008)
Traffic, by Tom Vanderbilt (2008)
Spent, by Geoffrey Miller (2009)
Think Smart, by Richard Restak (2009)
The Essential Engineer, by Henry Petroski (2010)
Common Ground In A Liquid City, by Matt Hern (2010)
From The Minds Of Madness - The Origins Of Heavy Metal Band Names, by Blair E. Gibson (2011)
David And Goliath, by Malcolm Gladwell (2013)

Non-Fiction: Business and Leadership (6 books)
The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey (1989)
Fools' Gold, by Brian Hutchinson (1998)
Who Moved My Cheese?, by Spencer Johnson (1999)
The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, by John C. Maxwell (2007)
Persuasion, by Arlene Dickinson (2011)
Decisive, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (2013)
Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg (2013)

Non-Fiction: Sports (3 books)
How Soccer Explains The World, by Franklin Foer (2005)
Once In A Lifetime, by Gavin Newsham (2006)
The Fix, by Declan Hill (2008)

Fiction (29 books):
The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas (1845)
Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett (1930)
The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler (1939)
The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint Exupery (1943)
Animal Farm, by George Orwell (1945)
1984, by George Orwell (1949)
The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger (1951)
The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway (1952)
To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1960)
The Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton (1969)
Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach (1970)
The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood (1985)
The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho (1988)
Deception Point, by Dan Brown (2001)
The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold (2002)
The Last Templar, by Raymond Khoury (2005)
DeNiro's Game, by Rawi Hage (2006)
Cell, by Stephen King (2006)
A Most Wanted Man, by John Le Carre (2008)
Cockroach, by Rawi Hage (2008)

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Book Review: I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell, by Tucker Max (2006)

Before saying anything else (and there is plenty to be said about this book), I will confirm that I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell is the funniest book that I have ever read, and I have read a lot of books. A good half-a-dozen times, I was laughing so hard that my stomach muscles were starting to hurt. Tucker Max has the gift of writing, and he is able to recreate his life's many misadventures with genuinely comic delivery and a deft touch for conveying the characters, events, mood, and language of the moment. For any adults looking for comic relief, this book will deliver.

Tucker Max is an Internet celebrity of sorts, and his main claim to fame is that he has decided to live his adult life (so far) as irresponsibly as possible. For Max, this means the regular consumption of large amounts of alcohol, in order to find the courage to be at the centre of attention and to have the excuse to say anything to anyone (the more rude the better), and to have sex with as many women as possible. He reminds us several times that he's into the triple digits in terms of the number of women that he has had sex with.

For those men who define success in terms of the amount of alcohol consumed and the number of sexual conquests, Tucker Max is the poster child. For women who crave sex with anyone remotely famous, he is irresistible. In summary, he is the role model of the worst that humanity can represent: dull your brain with alcohol, fornicate like animals, and celebrate the legend that is in your own mind.

Life has a way of providing plenty of hints that you are on the wrong path. For Max, the hints are bold and many: he is so drunk that he soils a hotel lobby with his excrement; he is so drunk that he dances with his mirror image in a bar without knowing what he is doing; he is so drunk that he wakes up in a park covered with his own vomit and with dog poop dried onto his hair; he is so drunk that he parks a car inside a donut shop; he has so many sexual partners that two women end up in his room at the same time, one with cervical cancer (Max wonders why; she is only 20), the other a whore who has just had a late-term abortion.

Are these stories funny? Yes. Is life trying to tell Max that perhaps he is on the wrong track? Yes. Can he take a hint? Yes -- see the book's title. Will he ever actually grow up? Time will tell.

Wasted lives like this do not happen by accident. I read the book looking for the origins of the disaster, and sure enough, there it was on page 104:

I recalled a childhood colored by parental instability, multiple divorces, remarriages (seven between my biological parents), step-parents, constant relocation, loneliness and emotional pain.

That's all Max gives us about his upbringing, and it's enough. Does anyone want to argue about the lasting damage caused to kids by selfish "parents"?

Then on page 152:

At 21, I was possibly the worst person in existence. I had no regard for the feelings of others, I was narcissistic and self-absorbed to the point of psychotic delusion, and I saw other people only as a means to my happiness and not as humans worthy of respect and consideration.

There are hints in the book that Max does recognize the direct line connecting the miserable non-parenting that he received with the disastrous adult that he developed into, that he does understand that his alcohol addiction is to drown the self-hate that is caused by feeling worthless, and that the sex addiction is a futile substitute for meaningful human interaction. Just hints, but not yet enough maturity to act upon them.

In the absence of the alcohol over-consumption and the endless meaningless sex, Max will need to unlearn hating himself and learn to confront the agony that was heaped upon him by his parents, and he will need to learn to connect with women in a meaningful way, something that he was clearly never exposed to as a child. These are extremely difficulty lessons to learn for an adult, but hopefully, Tucker Max will get there one day.

He does have a terrific gift of writing that is worth nurturing and developing, and the sooner he grows up, the better he is going to get at it. He will then discover that the true joys of life are not found at the bottom of the bottle, although many funny but ultimately empty stories do reside there.

319 pages plus Appendices.

Published in Paperback by Citadel Press.

Ace Black Blog Book Review No. 20.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Book Review: Merchant of Death, by Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun (2007)

As long as there is war, there are arms merchants. Viktor Bout is a modern-day arms merchant, emerging from Russia in the post cold-war era of the early 1990's and assembling and operating a large fleet of aging and rickety Russian aircraft to supply weapons to whoever was willing to pay for his services.

Tin-pot dictators, Marxist revolutionaries, Islamic militants, and the United States government; Bout did not really care who was using his services and for what purposes -- he just delivered, and often to both sides in the same conflict.

Creating a dizzying number of air cargo companies with ever-changing names, operating from out-of-the-way airports and rudimentary landing strips in the middle-east, central Europe, and darkest Africa, and mastering the art of aircraft concealment and fake documentation, Bout stayed out of the spotlight but very much in the middle of the action.

He helped to feed the endless need for weapons and ammunition in the brutal wars of Sierra Leone, Congo, Angola, Afghanistan, and finally, and ironically, shipping weapons and supplies for the US Army in Iraq. His services to the US government were flourishing at the same time as US government efforts were supposedly being ratcheted up to close down his operations.

Journalists Farah (formerly with the Washington Post) and Braun (Los Angeles Times) take on the always difficult task of writing about an uncooperative subject. They do an admirable job of collecting all the facts and figures and presenting them in a somewhat readable form, but they fail miserably on a couple of fronts: they never find a human centre to the book, and they never properly tackle the strategic aspects of the international trade in weapons, to provide perspective.

Without any emotional core, the book is unfortunately a dry, witless line-up of facts, completely lacking a narrative thread or interesting arch. It represents the effort of journalists who are far removed from having any book-writing talent.

The book is not helped by the introduction of an endless assortment of United States and European government and security officials and researchers who tried over the years to track and put a stop to Bout's activities. None are presented with any human dimension, and they remain interchangeable names that poke their heads in and out of the thick bushel of facts.

The book would have been helped enormously had it provided as background and context the strategic reality of global arms trading. The five members of the United Nations Security Council are by far the world's largest manufacturers of weapons. Significant sectors of their economies are dependent on maintaining a fire under global conflicts in order to continuously profit from selling weapons.

The large economies of the world need men like Viktor Bout to do the dirty work of trading with the men who have blood on their hands. In breathlessly lamenting the lack of global action against Bout over the past 20 years, Farah and Braun appear naively oblivious to the larger realities of the world in which weapons technology and manufacturing are actively promoted and endlessly funded by the supposed guardians of global law and order.

Bout himself is irrelevant and replaceable. His function is not, and that is what matters to the world's superpowers.

Sub-titled: Money, Guns, Planes and the Man Who Makes War Possible
Paperback published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

261 pages, plus Notes and Index.

Ace Black Blog Book Review No. 19.

Friday, 8 May 2009

CD Review: Avenged Sevenfold, by Avenged Sevenfold (2007)

This is probably the heavy metal album with the highest ever WTF factor. There is so much going on here, and so many attempts at mind-boggling genre bending and wing spreading, that only one word can best describe the outcome: circus! In this corner -- a child singing the ending of Unbound! And in the middle of the arena, a woman singing along to A Little Piece of Heaven! And may I point your attention to the eastern twinge at the start of Brompton Cocktail! And check out the distorted vocals on Lost! Where did the kitchen sink land?! It was thrown in here somewhere!

Which is not to say that Avenged Sevenfold is all bad. CD opener Critical Acclaim is a brilliant piece of sophisticated heavy metal that would have fit nicely into the excellent City of Evil (2005). Gunslinger successfully creates a western mood, and Dear God is a ballad that carries surprising power and ends with a great solo.

And then we have A Little Bit of Heaven, a song that just nails the circus theme, and is certainly both interesting and compelling. It is not totally successful, but perhaps comes closest to achieving the manic feel of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody than any other metal song.

There are no poor songs on the CD. The majority are solidly original without being memorable. And that perhaps is the biggest failing of the CD -- there is no faulting the innovation, but for all the effort, the end result appears to be a cul-de-sac mostly filled with relatively boring tunes.

Overall, the band is clearly distancing themselves from a purely metal sound while maintaining a guitar-based edge to most of their music. Whether or not they are seeking massive mainstream success, the CD's legacy falls in no man's land where it's probably too crunchy for the masses and way too timid for serious metal fans.

Those who like to look for clues of aspirations to match other achievements will have a field-day with Avenged Sevenfold. The all-white cover and self-title strongly evoke Metallica's black album. The over-produced songs complete with orchestra (horns! strings! choir!), and M.Shadows' singing style all echo Guns 'n' Roses Use Your Illusion.

Avenged Sevenfold is nothing if not interesting, and credit to the band for being brave and experimental. But for the most part, the effort invested -- both in creating and listening - is not terribly well rewarded.


M. Shadows: Vocals
Synyster Gates: Lead Guitar
Zacky Vengeance: Guitar
Johnny Christ: Bass
The Rev: Drums

Songlist (Ratings out of 10):

1. Critical Acclaim - 10
2. Almost Easy - 7
3. Scream -7
4. Afterlife - 7
5. Gunslinger - 8
6. Unbound (The Wild Ride) - 7
7. Brompton Cocktail - 7
8. Lost - 7
9. A Little Piece Of Heaven - 8
10. Dear God - 8

Average: 7.60

Produced by Avenged Sevenfold. Mixed by Andy Wallace.
Engineered by Fred Archambault and Dave Schiffman.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Movie Review: Revolutionary Road (2008)

An examination of life behind the facade of 1950's suburban normalcy, Revolutionary Road's strength and weakness lies in the performances of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. Both deliver passionate and committed performances, but both exhibit continuously dramatic love/hate neck-breaking changes in emotion that are often unexplained. While the emotional roller-coaster drives the drama forward, it all rings hollow as a believable narrative.

April (Winslet) and Frank Wheeler (DiCaprio) have settled into a seemingly typical suburban marriage, where she has given up on an acting career to raise two kids (who seem to conveniently disappear from the latter part of the movie) and he has settled into a typical corporate job. Looking to re-ignite a passion for life, April proposes that they leave American suburbia behind and move to Paris -- quite the radical thought for the 1950's. A relatively quick downward spiral in their fortune ensues when Frank receives the opportunity for an unexpected promotion, and April receives an unwanted surprise.

Revolutionary Road creates a 1950's world where no one is very pleasant. April and Frank are mostly argumentative. Frank's co-workers and bosses are not exactly role models. The neighbours are just there to be tolerated, with the added attraction of the adult son of the local realtor, who is on leave from the local mental institution, which gives him licence to say exactly what is on his mind. It's a useful but rudimentary plot device to explicitly expose what may be going on inside the minds of April and Frank.

Do these two love each other or hate each other? Do they share the same dreams or are they just being polite while using each other? Why do they sexually betray each other with seemingly not a second thought? And is one of them actually insane? The movie just raises these questions and leaves them hanging, which would be fine if the behaviour on display is half-way believable, but when both the questions being asked and the wild swings in affection are blatantly over-the-top, it's difficult to feel much empathy for the couple.

The movie, based on the book by Richard Yates, feels quite theatrical and stage-bound, and there is not much imagination shown in filming locations outside the Wheeler's house. The performances of Winslet and DiCaprio do rise above the material, as they both demonstrate commitment to the turbulence of life.

Revolutionary Road is a companion piece to Director Sam Mendes' award winning American Pie (1999), which tackles the same themes in a contemporary setting. Mendes appears drawn to the death of individual dreams within crumbling suburban marriages. The debris from crumbled aspirations is interesting, but it's always better to build a sturdier structure before tearing it down.

All Ace Black Blog Movies Reviews are here.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Movie Review: Yes Man (2008)

Yes Man occupies the harmless terrain at the intersection of comedy, romance, and lessons-in-life-as-taught-by-Hollywood. It gives Jim Carrey ample opportunities to display his comedic talent, and thankfully he stays relatively in control.

Carl Allen (Carrey) is a loan approval officer at a local bank. Since his wife left him he has become negative and depressed, avoiding all social interactions and life experiences. After he skips out on his friend's engagement party, he is convinced to attend a self-help Yes! seminar where he commits to turning his life around by saying Yes to every single opportunity that comes his way.

This of course leads to a boy-meets-girl, boy-loves-girl, boy almost-loses girl convoluted romance with a sweet artist (Zooey Deschanel); convulted success at work; and mis-adventures involving learning the Korean language; a mail-order bride from Iran; an unplanned trip to Nebraska and unwanted attention from the FBI.

The film, directed by Peyton Reed and loosely based on a true story, moves briskly, and never dwells too much after making its funny point in every scene. Carrey and the supporting cast are game, with good comic timing and general avoidance of excess. Rhys Darby as Carl's boss at the bank particularly stands out, playing a seemingly happy character with his own personality issues.

There is nothing dramatically surprising or overwhelming about Yes Man. The comedy is moderate, the romance is mellow, and the characters are refreshingly almost normal as far as movies like this go. For fans of light vanilla ice-cream with just a light dusting of chocolate sprinkles, Yes Man is satisfying.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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