Sunday, 27 September 2009

Film Review: He's Just Not That Into You (2009)

A group of several twenty to thirtysomething friends navigate the treacherous waters of relationships, dating and marriage in the internet age, where a multitude of communication options and modern day stresses only add to the already complicated and veiled signals that couples send to each other.

Sweet and honest Gigi (Ginnifer Goodwin) is desperately looking for a relationship, but seems to find all the wrong men and misinterprets all the signals. She turns to savvy bartender Alex (Justin Long) for advice on how to better understand men. Inevitably, Gigi is drawn to Alex, but is he interested in her or is he just being a friend?

Janine (Jennifer Connelly) thinks that she is happily married to Ben (Bradley Cooper). But in the midst of a home renovation project, he seems to have maybe secretly started to smoke against her strong wishes, and he maybe has also secretly started an affair with hot Anna (Scarlett Johansson). Can this marriage be saved?

Beth (Jennifer Aniston) and Neil (Ben Affleck) are the perfect couple, but they are not married, and he never wants to be, while she is longing to tie the knot. The relationship ruptures over this conflict. Can it be recovered?

Mary (Drew Barrymore), who works in marketing, is embroiled in the electronic dating age, and mostly meets, communicates and breaks up with men through various digital devices. She eventually connects with a client, real estate agent Connor (Kevin Connolly), who was one of the men to dump Gigi, and who is finding professional success by advertising to the gay community. Connor also thought that he could have a serious relationship with Anna, but she just wanted him as a casual friend. Can Mary and Connor hit it off?

Loosely based on the best-selling book by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo, and directed by Kevin Smith, He's Just Not That Into You is an enjoyable examination of age-old adult relationship issues with a modern gloss. The movie plays its cards well and feigns steering straight into pessimistic and cynical territory before turning sharply towards affirmation of some time-honoured values.

Smith finds the fine line where comedy is used to enhance and enrich rather than disrupt the narrative, while the excellent cast get into their characters and appear to park their egos at the studio door. The script by Behrendt and Tuccillo with help from Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein rounds out the characters and generally avoids both annoying cliches and contrived situations.

He's Just Not That Into You is a flighty yet fun film that's easy to get into.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

CD Review: Black Earth, by Arch Enemy (1996)

Swedish melodic death metal band Arch Enemy's debut effort is an impressive mix of the inspired and the naive. While the CD does not contain that one perfect track, there is a uniform quality throughout that is rare for a first album, and almost every song has strong elements.

As a collection of metal songs, Black Earth is not easily accessible -- it takes repeated listenings to gain an appreciation of the complex content. None of the songs are remotely simple, but once they give up their secrets, the package is enjoyable.

Black Earth was apparently all but a solo project by Michael Amott, and he had enough of a vision to package his songwriting and instrument playing into a band framework, allowing him to start building an institution.

And the best things about Black Earth are related to the classical-inspired guitar playing of Michael and Christopher Amott. Almost every track features snippets of brilliance on the guitar, as well as surprisingly complex arrangements and strong melodies. That almost every track also includes featureless uninspired and repetitive passages is proof that this is a debut effort.

Opener Bury Me an Angel and original CD closer Fields of Desolation are the stand-out tracks. Bury Me an Angel unapologetically shines the spotlight on Arch Enemy with a complicated guitar solo introduction that gives way to a classical-fused melody hooked to a massive, powerful and somewhat frantic foundation, and doesn't hesitate to introduce a shocking tempo change that works remarkably well. Confident stuff, for a first song on a first CD.

Fields of Desolation has a thunderous groove layered with a simple but haunting melody that builds to a magnificent solo that is criminally faded out, a summary confirmation of the incredible talent and immaturity simultaneously on display.

The early Arch Enemy sound is undoubtedly held back by Johan Liiva's vocals. His delivery is both monotone and monosyllabic, and more angry punk than metal. There are striking parallels with Iron Maiden's sound not quite fitting Paul Di'Anno's style.

Speaking of Maiden, the 2007 re-issue of Black Earth included covers of The Ides of March and Aces High. Both are serviceable, but neither cover will change the rotation of the earth, and the Arch Enemy version of Ides is particularly lacking an edge to the crucial drum sound.

Black Earth proudly announces the arrival of an influential new band on the metal landscape, one that starts off strong and would only get better.


Michael Amott - Guitars
Johan Liiva - Bass / Vocals
Christopher Amott - Guitars
Daniel Erlandsson - Drums

Songlist (Ratings out of 10):

1. Bury Me An Angel - 8
2. Dark Insanity - 7
3. Eureka - 7
4. Idolatress -7
5. Cosmic Retribution - 8
6. Demoniality - n/a (short instrumental)
7. Transmigration Macabre - 7
8. Time Capsule - n/a (short instrumental)
9. Fields of Desolation - 9
10. Losing Faith - 7
11. The Ides of March - 7
12. Aces High -8

Average: 7.50

Produced by Fredrik Nordstrom with Michael Amott.
Engineered by Frederik Nordstrom.
Mixed by Frederik Nordstrom and Michael Amott.

Black Earth at the Ace Black Store.
The Ace Black Blog CD Review No. 39.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Movie Review: Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)

I still have my paperback copy of The Golden Turkey Awards (1980), the terrific little book by Harry and Michael Medved. The book awarded Plan 9 From Outer Space, an attempt at combining horror and science fiction, the glorious title of Grand Prize Winner for Worst Film Ever Made. This was based on a survey of movie fans, and was a remarkable achievement when one considers that audiences usually have a bias for their more contemporary experiences.

Having recently had the pleasure of enjoying Plan 9 From Outer Space, it is indeed stupefyingly bad. It is difficult to imagine that this was not a joke -- that this was a serious attempt a movie-making. The plot, the sets, the script, the acting, the directing -- are all worse than what one expects from a high school play conceived by 16 year olds.

It is also difficult to imagine that this film was pulled together in 1959. It comes across more like something out of the early, pre-1920's silent era of movie-making. But Plan 9 is, incredibly, a contemporary of films like Ben Hur, Some Like It Hot, and North by Northwest.

So there it is, on film, wooden actors keeping a straight face while spouting the most inane lines of dialogue and avoiding plastic sets that look like they were assembled after a salvage trip to the local landfill. Director Edward D. Wood Jr. has achieved legendary status for this effort. I suppose if you are going to be a bad director, you may as well be really bad.

The plot? Aliens who look exactly like humans have concocted a remarkable plan to kill-off humanity. They want to destroy the world in order to save the rest of the universe from the stupidity of earthlings. You see, war-loving humans are on a path to destroy the sun. The aliens are here to save this village by destroying it.

The aliens will wake up the dead from the local cemetery, who will then stumble around with outstretched arms killing other humans. This is the ninth plan that these aliens, who may be low on budget but are obviously not short of good ideas, have come up with. We still eagerly await the films that reveal what the first eight plans were like.

For rather unclear reasons, probably related to the resource limitations, the aliens are only able to resurrect about three dead folks, including a remarkably thin Vampira and the counterweight Tor Johnson. It is left up to a bland airline pilot who lives on the edge of the cemetery and an inept army General, who looks like a satire of every other movie army general but does not know it, to team up and stop the evil aliens in their tracks. The final battle apparently takes place inside the lead flying saucer, which looks like a typical office that was only half-furnished. It takes one small pistol, a few punches, and good old American bravado and the aliens, for all their technology and ability to raise the dead, are terminated.

Most of the action takes place in and around the cemetery, with headstones that sway when actors run past them. Stock footage of intense army manoeuvres is trotted out at one point, apparently to demonstrate the army battling some other band of evil aliens. Plastic plates - presumably flying saucers - are shown rotating menacingly over earth.

Somewhere in there, director Wood throws in unrelated scenes featuring the once famous Bela Legusi, who apparently shot some scenes with Woods for a whole other film and then died.

Plan 9 From Outer Space, while funny and entertaining in ways that were never intended, is ultimately also a bit sad: there is genuine sympathy for the stunning all-round lack of talent and lack of resources that are mercilessly on permanent display.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Theatre Review: Shear Madness, at the Charles Playhouse Stage II (Boston)

Shear Madness opened at the Charles Playhouse in Boston in January 1980. I saw the play in the early 1980's, and again in July of this year. Same theatre, same single set, still good entertainment value, and now an institution in Boston and several other cities.

A show only runs for 30 years if it has a lot going for it, and Shear Madness has quite a bit. A small, intimate and relaxed bar-style theatre, colourful characters, dynamic audience participation, and a humourous script that allows for continuous updating and impromptu throw-in lines drawn from current events. The show feels remarkably fresh, which does not say much for the evolution of real-world hair salon interior design over the past 30 years.

An assortment of customers, including an aging socialite and a shady businessman, gather at a rather tacky hair salon, run by Tony and his assistant Barbara. Upstairs is an annoying landlady, a has-been concert pianist, who is heard on the piano but never seen. The characters gathered at the salon, all of whom seem to have a motive to dislike the landlady, find excuses to wander in and out of the salon, and the pianist is finally killed off-stage. It turns out that two of the hair salon customers are undercover detectives, and one of the other characters is the murderer -- but which one?

The detectives seek the participation of the audience to sort through the motivations and actions of the suspects, and the play has multiple endings depending on the audience input.

It is all good, light-hearted fun, with a shortish running time of about 80 minutes, and an energetic pace. The performers are dedicated but never take any of it too seriously, stressing entertainment over art. Most of the comedy works, the laughs arrive at a steady stream, and the interaction with the audience is well-managed.

With Shear Madness now more of a landmark than a show, the production can probably carry on for another 30 years or so -- assuming the rickety Charles Playhouse building remains fit for occupancy.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Book Review: Spent, by Geoffrey Miller (2009)

It is somewhat irritating for a book to camouflage itself as an examination of consumer behaviour when it is really an academic's view of human personality analysis. Sub-titled "Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behaviour", Geoffrey Miller's Spent is actually about none of these things. This mislabeling does not make the book any less interesting, just annoyingly misleading.

The book is, instead, primarily about understanding and explaining all human characteristics through the prism of personalities, and specifically what Miller terms the Central Six personality traits: General Intelligence, Openness, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Stability, and Extraversion. Miller is passionate about these Six, and his argument is that we need not look beyond them to explain all human actions, including consumer behaviour.

Miller is an evolutionary psychologist and believes that our personalities and behaviours have evolved over the generations according to a straightforward "survival of the fittest" path, where the personalities and behaviours that persist today are the ones needed for the human species to survive and thrive. It's a simple premise, and Miller makes it work.

He explains how all our buying decisions and day-to-day societal actions stem from our need to demonstrate our fitness (both physical and material) and suitability as mates to pro-create. Spent does an excellent job explaining four of the six personality traits, and these chapters are thought- provoking and rich with ideas and good observations of human behaviour.

However, Miller, a professor at the University of New Mexico, mixes a humourous but naive and underdeveloped writing style with needless academic haughtiness in taking unnecessary shots at other academic theories. 59 pages into the book, Miller is still telling us what the book will be about. And often, the chapters come across as compiled lecture notes.

But Miller very much saves the worst parts of the book until the end, where we read, apparently seriously, about ideas such as labeling our personality traits on our forehead, companies in a free market intentionally limiting the sale of their products to people who meet specific personality characteristics (as saved in databases), and in a most ghastly idea, encouraging segregated neighbourhoods where only people with similar personalities are allowed in. One would think that even the University of New Mexico should be able to do better.

Spent is a useful read, but in addition to crystallizing the role of evolution in the routine decisions of modern-day society, it confirms that academics can be stunningly ridiculous.

329 pages plus Index.
Published in hardcover by Viking.

Spent at the Ace Black Store.
Ace Black Blog Book Review No. 22.

All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.

CD Review: Versus The World, by Amon Amarth (2002)

There isn't much that is blatantly wrong on Versus The World, the fifth label-released CD from Sweden's Amon Amarth.

Unfortunately, there is not much that is memorable, either.

The CD is aiming for an epic viking metal feel of grand and epic battles, but instead manages to deliver a depressingly sludgy wall of sound that resoundingly crushes any forward momentum.

The majority of the songs sound exactly the same: in the same key, featuring the same speed, the same tiresome style of rapid guitar strumming, the same monotone low-pitched growly vocals (mostly delivered in one or two-word increments), the same limited range of notes, the same uninspired drum work, and the same lack of solos.

Six of the nine songs here are effectively interchangeable and meld into one another with no distinctive features. There are hardly any passages that capture the attention.

The exceptions are opener Death in Fire, which achieves a strong mood with a purposeful melody that is full of good promise. Thousand Years of Oppression breaks free from the monotony with a change of pace towards a slower and more interesting and varied tempo. And closer ...And Soon The World Will Cease To Be introduces some life with a soulful melody.

And while none of the songs are bad or poorly delivered, Versus The World as a whole is as uninspired as its name suggests.


Johan Hegg - Vocals
Olavi Mikkonen - Guiar
Johan Goderberg - Guitar
Ted Lundstrom - Bass
Fredrik Andersson - Drums

Songlist (Ratings out of 10):

1. Death in Fire - 9
2. For the Stabwounds in our Backs - 7
3. Where Silent Gods Stand Guard - 7
4. vs. the World - 7
5. Across the Rainbow Bridge -7
6. Down the Slopes of Death - 7
7. Thousand Years of Oppression - 8
8. Bloodshed - 7
9. ...And Soon the World Will Cease To Be - 8

Average: 7.44

Produced by Amon Amarth and Berno Paulsson.
Engineered by Berno Paulsson.
Mixed and Mastered by Henrik Larsson.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

CD Review: Wages of Sin, by Arch Enemy (2002)

For their fourth CD, Sweden's Arch Enemy ventured into territory where few heavy metal bands had gone before by recruiting Angela Gossow to front a death metal band. While it is at first jarring to hear that powerful low-pitched growl from an attractive woman, once the shock subsides, it is clear that Gassow perfectly complements the masterful twin-lead guitar attack of brothers Michael and Christopher Amott.

Wages of Sin represents a band at the peak of creative song-writing. The tracks are uniformly excellent, featuring complex yet tight structures, tempo changes that flow with a smoothness that only comes when talent is combined with inspiration. Memorable melodies are perfectly supported by stunning guitar solos, a drum sound that shakes the walls, and Gossow's vocals.

Wages of Sin opens with a double-barreled statement of intent. Enemy Within is a thunderous opener that announces the new band line-up with dazzling melodic guitar work, drums that boom across the terrain, and aggressively controlled vocals. Burning Angel follows with a haunting lyrical melody that can only be foreshadowing an impending doom, coupled with searing solos. Together, Enemy Within and Burning Angel deliver a majestic one-two punch that sets up this CD as a classic.

The slower and more straightforward Heart of Darkness showcases Gossow's voice. Ravenous re-establishes a faster tempo and is playful with one inquisitive riff. Savage Messiah delivers a gothic inspired slow and haunting melody, demonstrating the band's terrific versatility and confidence. Dead Bury Their Dead is a showcase of guitar virtuosity.

Which all leads to another brilliant track in Web of Lies, a beautiful melody driven by a mind-blowing combination of pulsing and searing guitars, supported by a massive drum sound. And speaking of punishing the drum set, The First Deadly Sin is all about combining speed and a light touch on the guitar with pure drum power. Behind the Smile is that rare heavy metal track that is slow, soulful, powerful, melodic and monstrous at the same time, while Shadows and Dust is a relatively simple yet terrifically effective melody driven by galloping guitar work.

Wages of Sin is one of the best heavy metal CDs ever, and proof that good things can happen when bands do the unexpected.


Angela Gossow - Vocals
Michael Amott - Lead Guitar
Christopher Amott - Lead Guitar
Sharlee D'Angelo - Bass
Daniel Erlandsson - Drums

Songlist (Ratings out of 10):

1. Enemy Within - 10
2. Burning Angel - 10 *See Video Below*
3. Heart of Darkness - 7
4. Ravenous - 10
5. Savage Messiah - 7
6. Dead Bury Their Dead - 9
7. Web of Lies - 10
8. The First Deadly Sin - 7
9. Behind the Smile - 9
10. Snow Bound - n/a (short instrumental)
11. Shadows and Dust - 10

Average: 8.90

Produced by Frederik Nordstrom and Michael Sneap.
Mixed by Andy Sneap.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.

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