Friday, 31 December 2010

Movie Review: American Graffiti (1973)


George Lucas achieves his first mainstream, global success, with a most unlikely small movie. American Graffiti is a slice of teen-age Americana circa 1962: the small-town culture of cars, girls, and the search for the meaning of life.

It's the last night in Modesto, California for a group of high school graduates. In the morning, Steve (Ron Howard) and Curt (Richard Dreyfus) are scheduled to leave for the greener pastures of a big-city college.

The night starts with Curt having second thoughts about leaving; but Steve is sure that he wants out of small-time life, although this means leaving behind his girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams), his car, and his other friend Terry "The Toad" (Charles Martin Smith).  Also being left behind is the town's legendary street-car racing champion John (Paul Le Mat).

Over the course of one night that takes place in and around Mel's Drive-In and the surrounding streets, Steve and Laurie fight and make up more than once, arguing about the future of their relationship. While cruising, Curt catches repeated glimpses of a beautiful blond in a white Thunderbird; he does not know who she is, but she captivates him.  Curt also finds himself entangled with three members of a local street gang, the Pharaohs. The nerd Terry gets the use of Steve's car and soon picks up his antithesis, the blond bombshell Debbie (Candy Clark).

The mismatched Terry and Debbie share numerous misadventures through the night, while the tough and ultra-cool John finds himself with his own version of a polar opposite: Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), barely a teenager, jumps into John's roadster and refuses to leave. John's destiny is to end the night with another street race against his latest rival, the persistent Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford). Morning finally comes with slightly revised destinies for Steve, Curt, Terry and John.

The adventures of the teenagers in American Graffiti play out against the backdrop of a nostalgic, non-stop soundtrack of classic rock 'n' roll music from the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Wolfman Jack is the legendary DJ playing the tunes,and he makes a surprising appearance during Curt's long night.

With producer Francis Ford Copolla's helpful inspiration, George Lucas keeps American Graffiti humming to the music, and conveys a wonderful small-town feel, with great use of streets and cars filled with personality.  He is aided by one of the best young cast of relative unknowns to ever grace a movie.

American Graffiti was the breakout role for Richard Dreyfus, and he establishes his screen persona perfectly as the smart but slightly overwhelmed Curt, rolling along with the events that come his way but keeping his eye on the big picture.  Ron Howard also established his pleasant, falsely over-confident screen personality in American Graffiti, and went on to perfect it for years on television's Happy Days, the adaptation of the movie for the small screen, before turning into one of Hollywood's top directors.  Harrison Ford would re-emerge in a much more prominent role in a future Lucas film.

While Paul Le Mat and Charles Martin Smith did enjoy some film roles after American Graffiti, they both deserved better careers.  Both add immeasurably to the depth of the film, Le Mat infusing the tough John with self-doubt and Smith nailing the nerd desperately, but joyfully, out of his depth for one night.

Cindy Williams also deserved much better than simply being known as Shirley from TV's Laverne and Shirley.  Particularly in the early scenes of American Graffiti, Williams shines as Steve's girlfriend, walking a tightrope between love and defiance in the face of impending separation.

American Graffiti is a film about nothing and everything. Sometimes, driving around in circles is exactly the route needed to figure out the future.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Review are here.


Thursday, 30 December 2010

CD Review: Heaven And Hell, by Black Sabbath (1980)


A new decade, a new vocalist, and a new producer behind the knobs.  Black Sabbath start a new era and find Ronnie James Dio's love of dungeons and dragons a perfect fit for the band's spirit of doom and darkness.  At the controls, Martin Birch brings a new focus and punch to the recording, and as a result Heaven And Hell is a solid start to the life without Ozzy.

Most of the tracks sound fresh, trimmed, and ready for action.  Neon Knights wastes no time slipping into the fast lane and speeding to an appealing finish.

Children Of The Sea revives the old Sabbath spirit of crushing riffs, but now bolted on to Dio's meatier and more dangerous vocals.  While Osbourne always sounded tortured, Dio promises to do the torturing if necessary.

Heaven And Hell is a terrific track, among the best in Sabbath's catalogue, seven minutes of devastating slow doom that announces its intention early and persists until the bitter end.

The other memorable contribution of Heaven and Hell is Die Young, which includes atmospheric use of keyboards giving way to Iommi and Dio holding their first guitar / vocals duel as the song perfectly shifts through the gearbox and finds the sweet spot of various speeds.

Walk Away is a dud, while Lady Evil and Wishing Well are routine; but overall, Black Sabbath find more of heaven and less of hell as they start the second decade of their metal journey


Band:

Tony Iommi - Guitar
Ronnie James Dio - Vocals
Terry "Geezer" Butler - Bass
Bill Ward - Drums

Keyboards by Geoff Nicholls.


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Neon Knights - 8
2. Children Of The Sea - 9
3. Lady Evil - 7
4. Heaven And Hell - 10
5. Wishing Well - 7
6. Die Young - 9
7. Walk Away - 5
8. Lonely Is The Word - 8

Average: 7.88

Produced and Engineered by Martin Birch.

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Movie Review: How The West Was Won (1962)


A well-intentioned flag-waving epic that falls flat and inadvertently heralds the end of the old-fashioned western.  How The West Was Won has all the sophistication of an amateur high school play, with a script devoid of any texture, intelligence or depth. All the characters spout their lines as if they know that they are playing a part in the grand scheme of unfolding history, resulting in an endless succession of overly-dramatic, theatrical, wooden, and sometimes sadly comical scenes.

A series of sketches chronicling the history of America over about 60 years in the heart of the 1800's, How The West Was Won generally follows the adventures of the Prescott family. After tangling with bandits and being saved by mountain man Linus Rawlings (James Stewart), Ma and Pa Prescott are killed in a rafting accident making their way west. Their down-to-earth daughter Eve (Carroll Baker) marries Linus and establishes a homestead at the site where her parents died. The other daughter, free spirited singer / dancer Lily (Debbie Reynolds), continues west, joins a wagon trail to California, and marries compulsive gambler Cleve Van Halen (Gregory Peck).  Lily and Cleve settle in San Francisco where they make and lose many fortunes.

The Civil Wat erupts, Eve's son Zeb (George Peppard) joins the Union army, and is at the right place at the right time to save the life of General Grant. After the war Zeb stays in the army, and attempts to keep the peace between the expanding rail companies and the native tribes whose land is being taken over. Disillusioned with the treatment of the natives, Zeb eventually becomes a Marshall, helping to bring law and order to the wild land.

The elderly but still sparkly Lily finally decides to settle down, and joins her nephew Zeb's growing family.  But Zeb has one last outlaw to bring to justice, and in the climax of the film, he prevents a train heist and kills the bandit Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach) and his gang.

In How The West Was Won the good guys are all-good, the bad guys are all-bad, and good always triumphs over bad.  The film presents a most naive, sugar-coated and earnest view of the old world.

The all-star cast is a deception.  John Wayne's role is a cameo, Henry Fonda's participation not much more.  Gregory Peck and James Stewart play their parts with little conviction and an ever-present smirk.  Debbie Reynolds and George Peppard have the most prominent roles, and they are far from capable of holding the film together.  John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall directed the various segments, further preventing any coherent vision from permeating through the movie.

How The West Was Won does achieve some reasonable highlights: the Civil War scenes of sequential canons firing are impressive; also memorable are the natives unleashing a buffalo stampede against the rail companies.  The stunt work during the final train heist also deserves recognition.

But overall, How The West Was Won fails to resonate, and has a ghastly ending that suddenly jumps to the present and trumpets American freeways, interchanges and concrete jungles as the most prominent signs of triumph.  The times have indeed changed.






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Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Movie Review: Bullitt (1968)


Bullitt has quite a few things going for it: the coolness of Steve McQueen, the eye-candy of Jacqueline Bisset, the attractive locations of San Francisco, the muscle of a Ford Mustang, and the thrills of prolonged, legendary car chase.  Yet somehow, all the pieces of the jigsaw do not make a complete picture.

San Francisco Police Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (McQueen) is personally selected by sleazy politician Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) to protect Senate Sub-Committee witness Johnny Ross, who is stashed in a dumpy motel waiting to give testimony that will damage a Chicago criminal syndicate. Bullitt and his team are too easily penetrated; Ross and a member of the police protection team are severely wounded. Bullitt soon realizes that all is not what it seems, and that the real Johnny Ross has no intention of testifying and may be faking his own demise to escape once and for all from his criminal ex-partners. With two innocent people dead and two assassins blown up at the end of a car chase, Bullitt tracks down the real Ross for a final confrontation.

Director Peter Yates struggles with a lightweight script that relies too much on style at the expense of any character and dialogue sharpness. Sure, McQueen and Bisset look great, but they really have almost as much to say as the Mustang and the streets of San Francisco -- that is, very little.

Not having much character-driven drama to work with, Yates does the next best thing by keeping the camera work and framing interesting and highly kinetic. He delivers the rightfully highly-regarded car chase between McQueen's Mustang and the bad guys in a Dodge Charger. A total of 16 cylinders and more than 700 horsepower roar around - and often fly over - the insanely steep streets of San Francisco, burning rubber and smoking tires in a scene that set the standard for all future serious movie car chases.

And Yates ends the film by taking the action to San Francisco Airport for an elongated and almost dialogue-free climax, including Bullitt and Ross crossing active runways and mingling with giant jets getting ready for take-off.

But even by thriller movie standards, Bullitt has massive plot holes. Why do the assassins not finish-off the fake Ross and his protection detail at the motel? Why do the assassins decide to run from Bullitt to instigate the car chase -- when they were the ones tailing him? How exactly does Bullitt uncover the destination of the phone calls that were made from a phone booth? Just by going to the same phone booth? At the climax, why does Ross give away his location in the airport ditch by firing at a very distant Bullitt? And why is there a massive line-up and ticket-check to leave the airport? And can Bisset's character really be that clueless about the life of a police lieutenant? Does she not go to the movies?

Bullitt also suffers from the "unkonwn villain" syndrome, where the focus of the chase continuously shifts and finally lands on an unknown henchman from Chicago. Since the movie gives us very little reason to know or despise the mysterious Johnny Ross, a lot of the tension steadily seeps out of the film's final 30 minutes.

Ultimately, Bullitt is all about the visuals, but beneath the admittedly shiny surface, there is little substance.






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CD Review: Never Say Die!, by Black Sabbath (1978)



Never Say Die! is a complex album that finally combines well-earned maturity with the powerful essence of Black Sabbath.  Like a moribund patient receiving a final large shot of steroids, the original Sabbath line-up jolts to life for one final hurrah.  Compared to the disaster of Technical Ecstasy, the band delivers a much improved eighth and farewell studio album.

Never Say Die! proved to be true fighting words.  The title track, along with Johnny Blade, Junior's Eyes, and Shock Wave brought back a sharp edge that had been feared lost forever.  Never Say Die starts the album with defiant energy and a combination of beefy riffs and melancholy melodies that are admitting the end, but on the band's own terms.  Johnny Blade places Don Airey's keyboards front and center, and adds another incessant, high speed and teasing melody.  Junior's Eyes goes on a walk starting with a hypnotic jazzy beat before taking a dramatic turn and jumping onto a driving, classic riff.  Shock Wave combines the vitality of straight-ahead metal with some thoughtful acoustics and welcome melodic variations, Ozzy reminding us that we can't escape our fate. Breakout and Swinging The Chain provide good support and depth to the album.

If there had to be an end to the original edition of the band, Never Say Die! is a satisfying one.
 
Ozzy Osbourne would go on to launch a prolific solo career before becoming the resident heavy metal buffoon, thanks to reality TV.  Black Sabbath the band would find new life and continue with a revolving membership door, starting with Ronnie James Dio on vocals.

The eight studio albums that Tony Iommi, Ozzy Osbourne, Geezer Butler, and Bill Ward together released from 1970 to 1978 changed music forever, and created the rock solid foundation for all the metal that followed.


Band:

Tony Iommi - Lead Guitar
Ozzy Osbourne - Vocals
Terry "Geezer" Butler - Bass Guitar
Bill Ward - Drums

Keyboards - Don Airey


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Never Say Die - 9
2. Johnny Blade - 9
3. Junior's Eyes - 9
4. A Hard Road - 6
5. Shock Wave - 9
6. Air Dance - 6
7. Over To You - 7
8. Breakout - 8
9. Swinging The Chain - 8

Average:  7.89

Produced by Black Sabbath.
Engineered by Dave Harris.

All Ace Black Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

CD Review: Technical Ecstasy, by Black Sabbath (1976)


Bill Ward on vocals for It's Alright?

Aimless, gutless tracks that meander with all the purpose of an autumn leaf swirling in the wind?

Nothing but cow bells and lyrics that are simply inane on Rock 'N' Roll Doctor?

The band plagiarizing itself when the Dirty Women riff finally kicks in, and it's heart is stolen from N.I.B.?

The original line-up of Black Sabbath hits the bottom of the barrel with a sickening thud.  The once proud leaders of metal innovation are reduced to a ridiculous album almost devoid of any original ideas.  Technical Ecstasy is instantly forgettable, as the band searches with increasing desperation both for any spark of inspiration and for any reason to stay together.

Back Street Kids, You Won't Change Me and the soulful ballad She's Gone show a pulse, but it's all a far cry from what the band was once capable of.  The other five tracks alternate between bland and embarrassing.

Osbourne left the band soon after the album was released.  He briefly rejoined for one last record, Never Say Die!, before the original four members parted ways for good.  They were still together in name for Technical Ecstasy, but they had mentally and emotionally long since checked out.


Band:

Tony Iommi - Lead Guitar
Ozzy Osbourne - Vocals
Terry "Geezer" Butler - Bass Guitar
Bill Ward - Drums

Keyboards by Gerald Woodruffe


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Back Street Kids - 8
2. You Won't Change Me - 8
3. It's Alright - 6
4. Gypsy - 7
5. All Moving Parts (Stand Still) - 7
6. Rock 'N' Roll Doctor - 6
7. She's Gone - 8
8. Dirty Women - 7

Average: 7.13

Produced by Black Sabbath.
Engineered by Robin Black.  Mixed by Tony Iommi and Robin Black.
Mastered by Tony Iommi and Bob Hata.

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Movie Review: Ben Hur (1959)


A colossal film that dwarfs most other epics, Ben Hur is a towering cinematic achievement that has held its power and impact for decades.

The fictional story of Judah Ben Hur (Charlton Heston) takes place against the background of Jesus Christ emerging as a young man to spread his message of love among the Jews in Judea.  Ben Hur is a wealthy and influential Jerusalem merchant, living with his mother and sister, and suppressing his desire for a relationship with his servant's daughter Esther (Haya Harareet).

Ben Hur's boyhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) has fully accepted Rome's domination of the world, and after rising through the ranks of the Empire, Messala returns to command the Roman garrison in Jerusalem.  The two men soon have a falling out: Ben Hur refusing to help Messala identify influential Jews who may be plotting against Rome's rule in Judea.  To establish his authority among the population, Messala takes the first opportunity to arrest Ben Hur, while his mother and sister are thrown into the dungeon and left to rot.

The prisoner Ben Hur is marched in the desert. Passing through Nazareth, he collapses but is revived when a stranger, who is actually Jesus, ignores the Roman guards and gives him water.  The mysterious encounter galvanizes Ben Hur, but as he serves for years as a galley slave on a Roman ship, he is single-mindedly filled with hate for Messala.

During a horrific naval battle against a Macedonian fleet, the slave Ben Hur saves the life of the Roman commander Quintus Arrius ( Jack Hawkins).  Arrius frees Ben Hur and takes him to Rome, adopts him as his son, and trains him as an expert charioteer.  Once again wealthy and powerful, Ben Hur travels back to Judea to learn the fate of his mother and sister and to seek revenge against Messala.  On his journey back he meets Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith), an Arab horse breeder who offers his horses to Ben Hur should he choose to race against Messala.  Back in Jerusalem, Ben Hur reconnects with Esther, and confronts Messala in an epic and brutal chariot race in Jerusalem.

Ben Hur remains full of anger against the Romans when he learns that his mother and sister are still alive but surviving in atrocious conditions. With Jesus spreading his message of love, Esther struggles to help Ben Hur turn away from hate and towards finding inner peace.

The glamorous MGM studio bet its entire future on Ben Hur.  A budget of $15 Million was staggering for a film in the 1950s, to finance 300 sets (including the largest movie set of all time for the chariot race scene), 15,000 extras, new widescreen technology, and a running length of three and a half hours.  The gamble paid off: the result was a massive achievement that garnered $90 Million in revenue, and a record eleven Academy Awards.

Working from a script by Karl Tunberg based on the best-selling novel by Lew Wallace, director William Wyler expertly keeps the movie in control, and maintains a good focus on the human scale.  As grand events are unfolding, the personalities of Judah Ben Hur, Messala, Quintus Arrius, Esther, and Sheik Ilderim allow history to be experienced through the perspective of Christ's fictional contemporaries.  Wyler is helped by a cast strong enough to shoulder the weight of the movie.  While neither Heston and Boyd demonstrate too much emotional depth, they both bring the necessary stoic strength to handle history's drama.

Despite the film's length, Wyler never allows interest to wane, using the time wisely to add depth to his characters and events.  He steers Ben Hur to three shattering climaxes: the naval battle, the chariot race, and the crucifixion.  The first two are gloriously enthralling action sequences, with the chariot race in particular unmatched in its captivating drama as two men wage an individual battle in the grandest arena ever put on the screen.  The crucifixion scene packs a thunderous emotional punch as Ben Hur demonstrates the courage needed for man's less refined instincts to come to terms with humanity's spiritual potential.

Ben Hur is one of the brightest highlights in the history of the movies, an example of extraordinary storytelling through the prism of a remarkable character.






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Monday, 27 December 2010

CD Review: Sabotage, by Black Sabbath (1975)



Sabotage is the sound of a band damaged, perhaps beyond repair, by success, substance abuse and internal conflict.  The album is a self-aware examination of an unhappy condition, resulting in mostly dark, depressed music, with only flashes of the brilliance that Black Sabbath had effortlessly delivered on past albums.

Hole In The Sky and Symptom Of The Universe are the only links to the past; both contain ample power and energy, and compare favorably with the material on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.  Hole In The Sky opens the album mid-groove, similar to Sweet Leaf on Master Of Reality, and maintains a beefy presence pregnant with significant promise.  Symptom Of The Universe is sometimes called the first thrash metal track, and the intent of this title is well-earned.  A fast, incessant riff with epic solo work by Tony Iommi and some of Bill Ward's most prominent and energetic drumming grace the first half of the track, which gives way to a thoughtful acoustic second half.

Unfortunately, the rest of Sabotage provides the pleasure of a dull, familiar but persistent headache.  The second half of Megalomania saves the track, but then the entire back-end of the album is beyond salvation: devoid of any fun, punch or vitality, it slows down to a crawl of relatively tame ideas.  It is still Sabbath, so outright disasters are avoided, but so are any moments of truly worthwhile music.

Sabotage is the sad beginning of the creative end for one of the greatest line-ups in heavy metal music history.



Band:

Tony Iommi - Lead Guitar
Ozzy Osbourne - Vocals
Terry "Geezer" Butler - Bass Guitar
Bill Ward - Drums


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Hole In The Sky - 9
2. Don't Start (Too Late) - n/a (short instrumental)
3. Symptom Of The Universe - 10
4. Megalomania - 8
5. The Thrill Of It All - 7
6. Supertzar - 7
7. Am I Going Insane (Radio) - 7
8. The Writ - 7

Average: 7.86

Produced by Black Sabbath with Mike Butcher.
Engineered by Mike Butcher and Robin Black.


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Movie Review: The Runaways (2010)


The story of two girls from the wrong side of the tracks who briefly made it to the top of the music mountain, The Runaways is a wistful look back at a groundbreaking band that paved the way for a new era of women in rock.

Directed and written by Floria Sigismondi, based on the book Neon Angel: A Memoir Of a Runaway by Cherie Currie, The Runaways places the focus on guitarist Joan Jett and vocalist Currie, and does not shy away from the dysfunctional family origins, destructive drugs and sheer naivete that conspired to destroy the band.

It's 1975 in Los Angeles and Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) has an unladylike ambition to play the electric guitar in an all-girl rock band.  She meets producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), who connects her with drummer Sandy West.  Fowley then goes looking for a lead singer, and finds 15 year old Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) hanging out at a club.  The group eventually includes lead guitarist Lita Ford, and are named The Runaways.  Fowley helps to tutor them and co-writes their hit song Cherry Bomb.

Fronted by the dangerously under-aged sex-appeal of Currie and anchored by Jett's drive, The Runaways enjoy a meteoric rise, international success, and with drugs and jealousies taking their toll, a descent to destruction that is just as spectacular and rapid.  The band dissolved in 1979, having enjoyed success for all of three years between 1976 and 1978.

Dakota Fanning, just 15 herself when The Runaways was filmed, and Kristen Stewart, taking a welcome break from the vampires and werewolves of the Twilight series, produce impressive performances that mix equal doses of toughness, uncertainty and vulnerability.  Fanning portrays Currie as fighting a losing battle to survive while out of her depth in a hostile environment that she knows little about, but also desperate to escape her depressing home, with an alcoholic father and a mother who has abandoned the family.  Stewart captures the steely-eyed Jett, older than Currie, better equipped to deal with stardom and more success-oriented.  Jett went on to independently achieve massive success as a solo artist.

Michael Shannon is also memorable as the conniving Fowley, a key contributor to both the creation and destruction of the band.

Sigismondi allows Fanning and Stewart to shine, and keeps her cameras tilted at interesting angles to match the soundtrack of rock music, and the energy of a group of young women attempting to take over the rock world.  And ever so briefly, they succeeded.





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Movie Review: Eight Legged Freaks (2002)


The premise of Eight Legged Freaks is way behind the starting line: escaped spiders get mixed-up with toxic waste and grow to a gigantic size, attacking and devouring the inhabitants of a small town.  The challenge for director Ellory Elkayem, working with co-scriptwriter Jesse Alexander, is to take this tired horror film concept and deliver something fresh, and they almost pull it off.

With a streak of sometimes vicious humour, Eight Legged Freaks never takes itself seriously.  The battle between the massive spiders and the humans plays out almost as a comedy; this helps the entertainment quotient, but also undermines, almost totally, the supposed horror aspects of the film.

Eight Legged Freaks also benefits from some surprisingly good computer-generated images as the gigantic spiders wage war on the town, and a cast that includes video-game favourite Kari Wuhrer and a young Scarlett Johansson, just before her breakthrough.

The strange old man who lives at the edge of the mining town of Prosperity, Arizona, keeps hundreds of dangerous spiders as pets.  Nearby, the river is contaminated with toxic waste, as the town's corrupt Mayor is running a scheme of storing toxic barrels deep in the under-performing mine.  Soon enough, the spiders escape and thanks to the cocktail of toxins, grow to a massive size.  The spiders are of course very hungry, and soon the pets, then the livestock, and finally the humans of Prosperity become their meals of choice.

Leading the battle for Prosperity's survival is Sheriff Sam Parker (Wuhrer), her rebellious daughter Ashley (Johansson) and younger son Mike (Scott Terra), who, of course, is an expert on all things spider-related.  Also in the fight are Chris McCormick (David Arquette), who is the long-lost son of the mine's owner.  Chris is interested in keeping the mine operational, and even more interested in romancing Sam.  An assortment of townfolk, including the hapless deputy sheriff, Ashley's boyfriend Brett, and the local radio DJ and conspiracy theorist, add colour and depth, and provide opportunities for endless horror movie cliches to be trotted out, always with a knowing wink.

The horror-in-a-doomed-mine premise of Eight Legged Freaks is almost identical to My Bloody Valentine.  Small towns built around mines now have to guard against both maniac killers swinging large pick-axes and hordes of toxin-charged Buick-sized man-eating spiders, in addition to mining accidents and the economic viability of their mines.  It's almost enough of an argument to ditch all that small-town charm for the safety of those nasty, big cities.





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Sunday, 26 December 2010

CD Review: Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, by Black Sabbath (1973)


The last great Black Sabbath album, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath recovers from the relative mis-fire of Vol. 4, as the original members conjure up another four magical tracks to add to their already impressive repertoire.

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, A National Acrobat, Sabbra Cadabra, and Killing Yourself To Live may represent the most mature songwriting from the founding members of Black Sabbath.  Now combining Tony Iommi's wizard riffs with more complex song structures, interesting variations, and more soulful, almost anguished vocal delivery from Ozzy Osbourne, Sabbath combine power with purpose to great effect on these four tracks.

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath opens proceedings with a driving, prodding riff that gives way to acoustic variations, establishing the richness of the album.  A National Acrobat rides on a take-no-prisoners, ground churning tank of a riff that moves at the speed of high density sludge and covers up the landscape with blackness.  Sabbra Cadabra is lighter, faster, but no less impressive, Sabbath demonstrating a fleetness of foot and an ability to deliver a searching hook.   The foursome ends with Killing Yourself To Live, a journey of the spirit that combines a slide guitar-inspired road trip with a riff that drops to the heavy bottom as Ozzy's vocals soar to the top, before taking a side-trip to the suburbs of psychedelia.

The other four tracks on the album are similarly thoughtful, but generally more depressed and slower, lacking the necessary energy and creative spark.  Who Are You?, Looking For Today and Spiral Architect unfortunately point to the direction that Black Sabbath would wander along on their next two albums, Sabotage and Technical Ecstasy.

Half of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is a glorious sign-off to the band's past; the other half points to a more troubled future.


Band:

Tony Iommi - Lead Guitar
Ozzy Osbourne - Vocals
Terry "Geezer" Butler - Bass Guitar
Bill Ward - Drums


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath - 10
2. A National Acrobat - 10
3. Fluff - 7
4. Sabbra Cadabra - 10
5. Killing Yourself To Live - 10
6. Who Are You? - 7
7. Looking For Today - 7
8. Spiral Architect - 7

Average: 8.50

Produced by Black Sabbath.
Engineered by Mike Butcher.

All Ace Black Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.


Friday, 24 December 2010

CD Review: Master Of Reality, by Black Sabbath (1971)


On their third album, Black Sabbath come as close to metal perfection as any record is every likely to get.

The dreamy Solitude is all that stands in the way of the album striking gold from end to end.  And maybe that little blemish is the way it should be, just for Black Sabbath to remain human and somewhat fallible.

Otherwise, a deal with the devil to sell their souls in return for endless access to stellar metal inspiration and world domination would have been confirmed.

Deep in the caves that contain metal's foundation rocks, Master Of Reality stands as a massive boulder.  Full of powerful riffs emanating from Tony Iommi's guitar, the album clears it's throat literally then crashes into Sweet Leaf, starting out mid-groove where most other songs would be climaxing.  There is no pause for breath: After Forever just picks up the pace with a challenging riff and an endless stream of questions that should be the basis for graduate-level religious psychology course curricula.

Children Of The Grave gallops in to usher in Ozzy's generation, charging to take over the world, and Lord Of This World points to who they need to overturn to start their rule.  But all fades into insignificance when Into The Void explodes it's opening riff onto an unsuspecting planet earth.  The world ends, a new beginning launches.

What happened before does not matter; what comes after will forever worship at the altar of the Masters of Metal.


Band:

Tony Iommi - Lead Guitar
Ozzy Osbourne - Vocals
Terry "Geezer" Butler - Bass Guitar
Bill Ward - Drums


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Sweet Leaf - 10
2. After Forever - 10
3. Embryo - n/a (short instrumental)
4. Children Of The Grave - 10
5. Orchid - n/a (short instrumental)
6. Lord Of This World - 10
7. Solitude - 6
8. Into The Void - 10 *see below*

Average: 9.33

Produced by Rodger Bain.

All Ace Black Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.




CD Review: Paranoid, by Black Sabbath (1970)


An album recorded and rushed into the hands of the eager public just four months after the debut of Black Sabbath signaled the start of a new music era, Paranoid is famous as the mainstream breakout album for Black Sabbath, but it is not as good as its fame suggests.

The song Paranoid, a quickie written in a matter of minutes to pad the album, became an unlikely singles chart hit.  It is a serviceable song, but it's difficult to get too excited about the monotone, simplistic riff and journeyman solo.

The real gold on Paranoid resides with two epics, the anti-war anthem War Pigs, and the apocalyptic Iron Man.  Both are all-time metal classics, dense, unstoppable, and wielding enough packed power to pulverize massive structures.  On both tracks Iommi's riffs just dominate with a rare, hypnotic intensity, and the band follows in his wicked slipstream.

Rat Salad provides welcome energy, but the rest of the material on Paranoid comes across as rushed and lacking the sharp edge of inspiration.  Planet Caravan, Electric Funeral, Hand Of Doom and album closer Jack The Stripper / Fairies Wear Boots all stray into slowly-getting-stoned territory, with plodding speeds inadequately substituting for limited substance.

Paranoid catapulted Black Sabbath to the top of the charts, and despite no radio play, it announced to the world that something called heavy metal is here to stay.  In that respect, it's cultural value is more important than the patchy quality of its content.


Band:

Tony Iommi - Lead Guitar
Ozzy Osbourne - Vocals
Terry "Geezer" Butler - Bass Guitar
Bill Ward - Drums


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. War Pigs / Luke's Wall - 10
2. Paranoid - 7
3. Planet Caravan - 6
4. Iron Man - 10
5. Electric Funeral - 7
6. Hand Of Doom - 7
7. Rat Salad - 8
8. Jack The Stripper / Fairies Wear Boots - 7

Average: 7.75

Produced by Rodger Bain.
Engineered by Tom "Tony" Allom and Brian Humphries.

All Ace Black Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.



CD Review: Black Sabbath, by Black Sabbath (1970)


Out of the gloomy Birmingham darkness, a new music genre is born.

With one of the all-time spookiest album covers and music to match, Black Sabbath distort all that came before them to create something new called heavy metal.  Suddenly the guitar is as important as the vocals, and the package is delivered with the energy, power and danger of an explosion with blinding light. Music would never again be the same.

Black Sabbath holds its power decades after it crept out of the shadows.  Lyrics obsessed with evil and the supernatural, with Ozzy Osbourne sounding tortured on vocals and amplifying the sense of dread with his harmonica.  Tony Iommi deciding that the electric guitar can be played with more prominence than anyone thought possible, and starting his journey of inventing a seemingly endless stream of legendary riffs.  Geezer Butler taking the bass out of the shadows and making it an essential part of the music. Bill Ward frequently muscling his drum set to the forefront.

Black Sabbath is an appropriately messy collection of music that the band was playing live, placed on record in one day, most of it in one take.  It doesn't take much to capture genius.  

The Wizard, N.I.B., and Wicked World demonstrate Back Sabbath's range and courage in immediately exploring the rapidly diverging avenues of the sound that they are inventing.

But there could be no better introduction to metal than the opening rainstorm, the bell tolling in the distance, followed by Iommi's thunderous opening riff of the title track Black Sabbath.  Right there, you're in or you're out for life.  Welcome to the opening steps in the journey of metal.


Band:

Tony Iommi - Lead Guitar
Ozzy Osbourne - Vocals
Terry "Geezer" Butler - Bass Guitar
Bill Ward - Drums


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Black Sabbath - 10
2. The Wizard - 9
3. Wasp / Behind The Wall Of Sleep - 8
4. Bassically - n/a (short instrumental)
5. N.I.B. - 10
6. Wicked World - 9
7. A Bit Of Finger / Sleeping Village / Warning - 7

Average:  8.83

Produced by Rodger Bain.
Engineered by Tom Allom and Barry Sheffield.

All Ace Black Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Book Review: Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller, by Jeff Rubin (2009)


A barrel of oil at $200.  $2 for a litre at Canadian gas stations; $7 for a gallon at US stations.  No new new easy sources of oil supply.  Demand for oil increasing in the developing economies of China, India, South America and the Middle East.  The increasing cost of freight effectively rolling back years of manufacturing efficiency gains from trade tariff reductions.  Carbon pricing further adding to the cost of burning oil.  Higher inflation rates and effectively bankrupt countries, having already spent their reserves and future credit propping up obsolete industries.

Jeff Rubin, formerly the Chief Economist at the Canadian Imperial Bank Of Commerce, looks into the near future and sees the end of the era of cheap energy, the driving force for the world's prosperity since the end of the Second World War.

Without cheap oil and with viable alternatives still years and possibly decades in the future, Rubin predicts a return of manufacturing jobs to industrialized countries as lower overseas wages are rendered irrelevant due to higher transportation costs.  Agriculture also makes a return, as suburbs are abandoned, fertile land is reclaimed, and proximity to market becomes a critical factor in the successful distribution of food.

With the price of oil dramatically reducing the affordability of driving, Rubin expects a surge in demand for improved public transit across North America.  The piling of recent stimulus dollars into road building projects and the bail-outs of the auto industry will be seen as a colossal waste of resources, as the road system empties out and cars become associated with energy waste.  Air travel will once again be seen as a privilege that only the rich can afford.

Even more worrisome, after the end of cheap energy Rubin expects bankrupt governments to dramatically curtail social programs.  Community-based support systems in education and health will make a comeback.

What Rubin describes is the reversal of globalization, the last 70 years on  rewind. It's generally a pretty grim outlook.  Some parts of the book are loaded with a sense of doom only marginally removed from humanity returning to live in the disease-infested tattered tents of the Middle Ages, huddled around open fire pits and fending off savages and scavengers roaming the scorched landscape.  

Hyperbole aside, Rubin does stress that the end of cheap energy will not all be bad, and the return to a more local economy may hold rich benefits at the community level.  He also leaves the door open for innovation to find solutions not easily predicted today.

With an accessible, entertaining and clear writing style, Rubin successfully distills the world's greatest economic challenge to its fundamentals. His message is convincing, challenging, thought-provoking, and most difficult to ignore.





Published in paperback by Vintage Canada.
300 pages, plus Notes and Index.


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Movie Review: The Untouchables (1987)


Written by Dave Mamet, directed by Brian De Palma, music by Ennio Morricone, and starring Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Robert De Niro and Andy Garcia; The Untouchables is a stellar crime drama with talent to spare on both sides of the camera.

Only loosely inspired by real events, The Untouchables is set in the Chicago of the early 1930s: Al Capone (Robert De Niro) effectively runs the town, his empire drawing enormous wealth from control of the illegal alcohol trade and destroying any and all opponents with an iron fist wrapped around a Tommy Gun.

With all local officials and the police force on Capone's payroll, Federal Treasury Agent Elliott Ness (Costner) is dispatched to Chicago on a mission to put an end to Capone's reign.  He teams up with beat cop Jim Malone (Connery), trainee sharp shooter George Stone (Garcia) and federal accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith). After initial set-backs, the foursome succeed in disrupting Capone's operations, capturing or killing many of his men and seizing illegal alcohol shipments. Attempts to corrupt Ness and his team fail, and they earn the reputation as untouchable. With his empire threatened, Capone fights back.

The Untouchables is a high speed trip through the wild streets of a lovingly recreated and crime-infested Chicago.  With a streak of mean humour embedded deep within all the violence, Mamet's script never lags, and reaches several breathtaking highlights, artistically delivered by De Palma: Ness and his men raiding an illegal alcohol deal at the Canadian border, with Malone subsequently torturing a corpse for good effect; Malone attempting to fend-off assassins at his apartment earned Connery the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor; Ness and Stone capturing Capone's well-guarded bookkeeper at the epic Union Station shoot-out is an all-time classic scene. And the final rooftop confrontation between Ness and Frank Nitti, Capone's most lethal henchman, is a satisfying end to the carnage.

With The Untouchables setting its sight firmly on capturing the spirit rather than the reality of an era, Connery and De Niro deliver the flashy performances while Costner and Garcia anchor the rest of the cast. All the actors are to varying degrees over-the-top, but in the context of a movie brimming with kinetic energy, exaggerated performances are what was needed to avoid being overwhelmed.

Morricone weaves his spaghetti western themes with a 1930s mood to provide an evocative soundtrack to the proceedings.

Elliott Ness memorably got his man; The Untouchables stylishly got all the necessary details right.






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Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Movie Review: The Damned United (2009)


The wrong person, for the wrong job, at the wrong time.  The outcome is one the shortest management tenures in English football history, as Brian Clough was hired and then fired 44 days later by Leeds United in 1974.

The Damned United benefits from Michael Sheen's engrossing performance as Clough, and director Tom Hooper captures the essence of English football that drives managers, coaches, and owners to sacrifice any semblance of normal life for a shot at potential glory on muddy pitches under gloomy skies every Saturday afternoon.  Based on the book by David Peace, the film peeks into the football boardrooms, dressing rooms, and training fields where the roots of success or failure are planted.

The Damned United alternates between Clough's time at Leeds in 1974 with the story of his earlier, incredible success at Derby County between 1967 and 1973.  With his assistant Peter Taylor, Clough took Derby from the bottom of the Second Division to the English League First Division title and the semi-final of the European Cup.  The Damned United provides glimpses of what made the Clough / Taylor partnership so effective: Clough identifying exactly what type of player the team lacks; Taylor going out and finding the perfect player who would be the missing piece in the jigsaw; Clough finding a way to sign the player, often by going behind the wishes of his Chairman.

The film portrays Clough's success at Derby, perhaps simplistically, as driven by an obsession to prove himself better that Leeds manager Don Revie, and a hatred for everything that Leeds stood for. Revie had built Leeds into an all-conquering dynasty as the most successful, arrogant and brutally physical club side in England.

The Damned United also emphasizes Clough's personality and ego at the expense of demonstrating his footballing genius. There are plenty of scenes where he shoots off his mouth and leaves no doubt about how highly he thinks of himself; there are hardly any scenes revealing how he brought the best out of his players, or tactically outwitted his opponents.

Clough's big mouth and massive ego ensure that he burns all his bridges at Derby, and he temporarily also manages to destroy his relationship with Taylor. This does not stop Leeds from approaching Clough to replace Revie when the latter accepts the job as manager of England. Clough takes control at the club that he has always hated, and proceeds to say and do everything in absolutely the wrong way, immediately alienating his star-studded squad and undermining the team's playing style and spirit. After a miserable start to the 1974-75 season, Clough is unceremoniously dumped by the Leeds Board of Directors.

Clough's time at Leeds United was the chastening he needed to sort out his faults, re-group, and proceed to his subsequent greatest success, taking Nottingham Forest from the Second Division to double European Cup champions between 1975 and 1980, after he learned some humility and repaired his relationship with Taylor. Brian Clough may have failed at Leeds, but in his damnation lay the seeds of his greatest triumphs.






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Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Movie Review: Chinatown (1974)


From the pen of screenwriter Robert Towne and the vision of director Roman Polanski comes a modern film noir that brings back to life the glory days of dark, complex and slow-boiling detective stories filled with seedy and shady characters, all of whom are more dangerous and desperate than smart.


Los Angeles, 1937. Private investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), who formerly worked for the police department in Chinatown, is hired to confirm the infidelity of Hollis Mulwray, the Chief Engineer with the city's water company.  Los Angeles is in the middle of a drought; there is a pressure to build a new dam; Mulwray is uncovering a midnight plot to inexplicably dump large amounts of water from the city's reservoir; Jake snaps photos of Mulwray with a young woman; and soon Mulwray is very dead.

As Jake noses around one of the city's water reservoirs to untangle the web of Mulwray's murder, his nose is sliced open by a knife-wielding thug hired to scare him off. In next to no time Jake finds himself unwittingly drawn into a large complex conspiracy involving a simulated water crisis being played out for a few powerful individuals to gain control over huge amounts of real-estate and shape the future of the city.

Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), the widow of Hollis, is caught in the middle between her late husband's legacy and her powerful father's pure evil, and turns to Jake for help. As another murder is committed, the police, including Jake's former partner in Chinatown, start to crawl all over Jake, and he slowly becomes aware that Evelyn is hiding a devastating secret that threatens to destroy her and anyone standing too close.

For Chinatown, Polanski re-creates a depressed Los Angeles as a small town filled with the thin veneer of respectability, but with a rotten core almost punching through to the surface. Jack Nicholson portrays Jake Gittes as a smart mouth happy to make a good living cruising through the underbelly of LA, who nevertheless soon realizes that he is facing events much bigger than he can handle. Faye Dunaway oozes, in turn, power, mystery, danger, seductiveness, and ultimately sheer vulnerability as she loses her husband and finds her life hurtling towards sudden destruction.

And in a majestic nod to the golden era of film noir, John Huston makes an appearance as Noah Cross, the mastermind behind the plot to regain the power he once held over the entire City. In 1942, Huston wrote the screenplay and directed The Maltese Falcon, one of the foundation stones of the noir style.

Towne's Chinatown script allows the film to gather the dust of depression and doom as the story unfolds. Every time Jake learns more about Hollis, Evelyn, or Noah, he realizes how little he knows about what is going on, and how much bigger the conspiracy unfolding around him really is.

With Jake trying but unable to control the overwhelming forces conspiring around him and Evelyn, the film slowly but surely edges towards a grim ending, inevitably in Jake's old Chinatown turf. In the aftermath, with no part of Jake's plan having worked out, Towne nails down in movie history the film's defeatist final line: "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown."

Jake will not forget the events of that night, just as Chinatown is a brilliantly unforgettable experience.






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Movie Review: Apollo 13 (1995)


It's 1970, and public interest in the Apollo missions to the Moon is fading fast. America has beaten the Soviet Union to place a man on the Moon, and further missions are seen as either routine or a waste of resources.

Against this backdrop, astronauts Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) take off in Apollo 13.  Lovell had previously traveled to the Moon on Apollo 8, but the Apollo 13 mission would be his final opportunity to fulfill his dream of landing and walking on the lunar surface. Swigert is a late replacement for Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise), who is believed to be sick.

On the way to the Moon and soon after the crew transmit an ignored television broadcast from space, an oxygen tank explodes on-board Apollo 13, causing severe damage to the Odyssey Command Module, as well as a loss of power and oxygen.  Odyssey is powered down and the three-man crew take refuge in the Lunar Module Aquarius, designed to sustain two people for a matter of hours while they hop onto the Moon's surface. For the next several days, the exhausted, sleep-deprived crew, working with the engineers at Mission Control and Flight Director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) in Houston, have to maintain their composure and frantically improvise a way to get back safely to Earth using stricken equipment and hardly any power. The grounded and quite healthy Mattingly is hastily recruited to Houston to work on the simulator and help develop solutions to the chronic power shortage on-board Apollo 13.

In recreating an epic true-life drama, director Ron Howard expertly triangulates the Apollo 13 story. The film alternates between the astronauts on-board the stricken spacecraft struggling to survive; the NASA ground control team scrambling to find solutions to a succession of never-anticipated problems; and Lovell's wife Marilyn (Kathleen Quinlan) dealing with the trauma of waiting to learn from the suddenly interested TV broadcasts if her husband will live or die.

The script by William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert, adapting Lovell's book, delivers a triple lesson in essential leadership skills from each of the three story angles: Lovell has to hold his crew together in the face of desperately dark prospects; Kranz has to squeeze every drop of innovation and ingenuity under enormous time pressures from the brightest engineers that America has to offer; and Marilyn has to keep her family, including Jim's almost senile mother, relatively sane under the glare of the media circus that suddenly descends upon them.

Apollo 13 is a technical marvel, with the Houston Command Centre, the spaceship controls and interiors, and the astronaut suits recreated to the last detail, and the in-flight scenes filmed in actual zero gravity. Ed Harris is an unforgettable presence as Gene Kranz and emerges as a true hero, but the entire cast is comfortably flawless.

A perfect canvas for Ron Howard's talent of delivering emotionally powerful tales that focus on the exceptional abilities of the human spirit, Apollo 13 is an accomplished and rousing example of how some great triumphs are initially camouflaged as blatant disasters.






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Monday, 20 December 2010

CD Review: Dreams Of Endless War, by Norther (2002)


A robust and compact package of melodic death metal with plenty of folk and classical garnishing, Norther deliver an energetic, purposeful, and confident debut.

Perhaps less inspired but also less frantic than the best of Children Of Bodom, the compositions on Dreams Of Endless War feature catchy and powerful hooks, a prominent but integrated role for the keyboards, and a great assortment of battlefield-inspired melodies.  Pete Lindroos and Kristian Ranta deliver satisfying solos with emphasis on technique and timing without pushing outside their zone of comfort.  The vocals from Lindroos are high pitched and controlled.

Opener Darkest Hour sets the stage with a mature galloping riff, and an energy sustained for more than six minutes to announce the band's arrival. Endless War and Victorious One are the other CD stand-outs, both well over five minutes and built on soaring, medieval hooks.  There is no weak material on the album, and the restraint shown by the band to limit the length to eight full-length tracks is admirable and definitely welcomed.

A terrific death metal cover of Europe's Final Countdown closes the album; a fitting ending to a memorable career launch.


Band:

Toni Hallio - Drums
Jukka Koskinen - Bass
Pete Lindroos - Lead Guitars, Vocals
Tuomas Planman - Synthesizer
Kristian Ranta - Lead Guitars


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Darkest Time - 9
2. Last Breath - 7
3. Released - 8
4. Endless War - 10
5. Dream - 8
6. Victorious One - 9
7. Nothing Left - 8
8. The Last Night - n/a (short instrumental) 
9. Final Countdown - 10

Average: 8.63

Recorded by Tuomo Valtonen.  Mixed by Mikko Karmila.
Mastered by Mika Jussila.


All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Conversation (1974)


A character study revolving around a surveillance expert and a conversation that he surreptitiously records between two lovers, The Conversation resonated in 1974 due to the paranoia of secret recordings related to the Watergate scandal; the film retains its value thanks to a sterling examination of the end of privacy, as well as for a defining performance from Gene Hackman and Francis Ford Copolla's edgy directing.

Harry Caul is a San Francisco expert in secretly recording other people's conversations, and is often hired by powerful forces interested in eavesdropping on their opponents.   With the help of his team, including assistant Stan (John Cazale), Caul pulls off a difficult assignment, recording a conversation between lovers (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest) meeting at lunch.  Realizing that they may be followed, the couple spend their lunch hour walking around Union Square. Caul records their conversation anyway, using the latest technology and multiple static and mobile microphones.

Upon piecing together the recorded conversation, Caul begins to suspect that the couple may be the targets of a murder plot.  He tries to prevent the recording from falling into the hands of the client who commissioned it, a mysterious Director (Robert Duvall), who has an equally sinister Assistant (Harrison Ford), but Caul is in over his head.  Soon events unfold in unexpected directions and his secretive life is shattered.

Coppola, working from his own script, mixes a deliciously simmering plot with a detailed character study.  Hackman's portrayal of a careful loner intentionally detached from society and who is yet a recognized expert in his field is one of the performances of the 1970s.  A man attempting to maintain a calm exterior but aware that his insecurities are too close to the surface, his buttons are pushed too easily. When his carefully constructed world begins to unravel, he does not appear to be too surprised.

Caul's story is told through a plot that starts starts out in black density, as hardly any of the words of the central conversation can be heard during the recording process.  Only when Caul uses his technology to piece together the words does the premise slowly start to be unveiled, but even as Coppola peels back many of the layers, the relationships and motivations that will threaten Caul's life are never fully made clear, adding to the sense of menacing behind-the-scenes forces that could choose to seep into any life.

The Conversation is dark, humorless and unexpectedly intense.  It ushers in the era of justifiable paranoia and lost privacy, and accurately predicts the gloomy implications for both the taped and the tapers.






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Sunday, 19 December 2010

Movie Review: The World Is Not Enough (1999)


The strongest Bond chapter with Pierce Brosnan in the role, The World Is Not Enough benefits from locales that are gritty rather than glamorous, two suitably dangerous villains, and a plot that, within Bond's context, remains grounded and actually makes some sense.

Directed by veteran Michael Apted, The World Is Not Enough features brisk but controlled pacing, rational editing and a complex, multi-faceted conspiracy.  Sir Robert King, an oil tycoon and a friend of M (Judi Dench), is assassinated right inside the MI6 headquarters in London.  Bond heads out to the oil fields of Central Asia to protect King's daughter Elektra (Sophie Marceau), who has inherited his empire and may be the next victim.  Elektra had already survived a kidnapping masterminded by Soviet terrorist Menard (Robert Carlyle), but that does not stop her from becoming Bond's latest bed companion, although it's not clear in this case if he is the seducer or the seduced.

Bond soon uncovers a Menard plot to steal a nuclear bomb with the intention of triggering an explosion that disrupts global oil supplies. As M gets personally involved, Elektra is revealed to be not all that she seems, and Bond needs to save his boss, eliminate two evil masterminds, and stop the destruction of a major oil pipeline node.

The venturing of M into the danger zone, and her kidnapping as the drama unfolds, provides Judi Dench with her biggest role yet in a Bond movie.  While this is welcome from the film's perspective, it is highly unlikely that the head of MI6 would ever get anywhere near as personally involved.

Denise Richards as Dr. Christmas Jones, a nuclear physicist who helps Bond, is unfortunate at so many levels.  Richards as an actress is never more than eye candy, and stuffing her into tight shorts and mid-riff baring tank tops at every opportunity does nothing to dispel the theory that casting her in a ultra-brainy role was a joke that missed its target.

The World Is Not Enough survives these less than perfect moments thanks to the unusual real-world intensity of the unfolding drama and the effective, seductive menace that Marceau brings to her role as Elektra King.  Bond has rarely had to tangle with women as strategically powerful, evil, and conniving as Elektra, and she is a welcome upgrade compared to the interchangeable men that typically pull the strings of the nefarious plots.

The World Is Not Enough is Bond at his best, one of the rare instances where the series pulls together its best elements, dumps most of the diversions, and delivers hard-nosed entertainment.






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Saturday, 18 December 2010

Movie Review: Die Another Day (2002)


Just like it did in Moonraker in 1979, the James Bond series takes a very wrong turn towards the outer reaches of technological boundaries, stretching what is already an incredible premise into the realm of the ridiculous.

Die Another Day, the 20th Bond movie adventure, features human recreation using DNA technology; an invisible car; a battle between two cars packed with enough missiles to obliterate a small country; a killer satellite capable of zapping earth with laser weapons; and a most awful computer-generated Bond escape involving surfing with a parachute. Bond is always expected to be outlandish; Die Another Day unintentionally crosses into the territory of cheesy science fiction, and the cheese does not smell so good.

In Pierce Brosnan's fourth and final outing as Bond, he is captured, held prisoner and tortured in North Korea.  Exchanged for another spy, Bond is deactivated by MI6 and strikes out on his own to seek revenge on those who betrayed him.

His quest leads him from London to Cuba and then on to Iceland and back to North Korea, all on the trail of Sir Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), a mysterious and wealthy diamond baron intricately connected to bad guys from the secretive North Korean regime.  MI6 agent Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike) has already infiltrated Graves' organization and is working with M (Judi Dench) using less lethal tactics than Bond.  Also pursuing Graves is the agent known as Jinx (Halle Berry), who both hinders and helps Bond before she finally teams up with him to bring down Graves. Jinx and Frost take turns sharing Bond's bed, as he wastes no time making up for the female deprivation he suffered during his time as a guest of North Korea's prison system.

Graves as a villain is exaggerated to comic book proportions.  The dialogue exchanges between Bond and Jinx are embarrassingly sophomoric.  And Frost is one of the blandest ladies ever to catch Bond's attention.  Director Lee Tamahori brings a couple of interesting artistic touches with effective use of brief slow motion tactics, but mostly he seems to be lost among all the outrageous technology.  And both the opening sequence and the title song, by Madonna, are weak.

Die Another Day forced another reboot of the series with an new lead actor and a back-to-basics ethic in  Casino Royale (2006).  Some of the films in the series may be duds, but Agent 007 always lives to fight another day.






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Movie Review: The Guns Of Navarone (1961)


The fictional World War Two story of an Allied commando mission to blow up two massive and entrenched German canons on the Greek island of Navarone, Alistair MacLean's novel receives a rich, expansive screen treatment, more than two and half hours of engrossing film-making, mixing equal measures human drama with sometimes harrowing, always tense action.

A flotilla of Allied ships needs to rescue 2,000 stranded men from the island of Keros.  The German guns will decimate the naval rescue mission unless they are first knocked out by Captain Mallory (Gregory Peck), a rock climbing expert, leading a team that includes explosives ace Corporal Miller (David Niven) and Greek Army Colonel Stavros (Anthony Quinn).

The commandos have to land unnoticed on Navarone; scale vertical cliffs; infiltrate the island with the help of the Greek resistance; survive the treachery of a traitor; gain access to the fortress above the gun emplacement; and find a way to destroy the guns; all in a limited time-frame and despite the presence of German troops throughout the island.

With the never ending challenges of the mission more than capable of overwhelming any exploration of men at war, The Guns Of Navarone succeeds because the central characters are equally as strong as the surrounding events.  What could otherwise have been a routine war movie is dramatically enhanced with a rounding out of the tension in two relationships: The mission-focused Captain Mallory clashes with the war-weary Corporal Miller; and Mallory also has an unfortunate and lingering history with the family of Colonel Stavros.

All three men emerge from behind the uniforms as human beings, and producer Carl Foreman's script gives each enough screen time to become a person rather than a role.  Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn grab the opportunity to shine, and are helped by a more than capable supporting cast including Stanley Baker, Anthony Quayle and Irene Papas, with Richard Harris in a small role.

The Guns Of Navarone is one of the brightest moments in director J. Lee Thompson's otherwise checkered career.  He allows the action to breathe and the characters to develop, with long stretches of the movie proceeding without dialogue, demonstrating confidence in the unfolding story and the strong cast to drive the narrative.

The Guns Of Navarone is old-fashioned war film-making at its best, entertaining, thoughtful, respectful, and classy.






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