Saturday, 30 October 2010

CD Review: 2112, by Rush (1976)

An album with a well deserved reputation as a ground-breaking achievement, 2112 was a big formative branch in the history of progressive metal. That its reputation, in retrospect, far exceeds its actual content is to be expected: this was 1976, and Canada's Rush, on their third studio album, were breaking new creative ground that now seems routine.

The title track, a 20 minute timeless fairy tale about the struggle of the creative spirit against a totalitarian regime, can only ever be patchy in terms of quality, but is a landmark in the history of storytelling metal. Divided into seven chapters, some are much more engaging than others. The Overture and the second segment, titled The Temples Of Syrinx, are the most accessible and popular components of the elaborate structure.

2112 occupied all of Side A of the original release. The five tracks on Side B set the stage for the rest of Rush's career. Relatively short, concise prog metal tracks with Geddy Lee yelping his high-pitched vocals, Alex Lifeson serviceable rather than outstanding on guitar, and Neal Peart's lyrics always concerned with weighty and worldly matters rather than the typical themes of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

Thanks mainly to the length of the title track, 2112 is a trip and requires a specific mental mood to be fully enjoyed; it is more a foundation stone of its genre than an easily accessible example.


Geddy Lee - Bass, Vocals
Alex Lifeson - Guitar
Neal Peart - Drums


1. 2112 (in seven parts) - 8
2. A Passage To Bangkok - 8
3. The Twilight Zone - 7
4. Lessons - 7
5. Tears - 7
6. Something For Nothing - 8

Average: 7.50

Produced by Rush and Terry Brown.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Last House On The Left (2009)

An uncompromising story of evil and the ability of normal people to slip into violent revenge mode, Last House On The Left is chillingly disturbing, with violent characters and events not far removed from reality.

Soon after arriving at a remote country lodge for some vacation time with her parents, teenager Mari (Sara Paxton) drives into town to visit her friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac). The girls meet Justin (Spencer Treat Clark), a mysterious teenager, and make the unwise choice of accepting his invitation to smoke pot in his hotel room. A big mistake, since Justin's Dad is Krug (Garret Dillahunt) a recently escaped violent criminal. Krug's brother Francis (Aaron Paul) and girlfriend Sadie (Riki Lindhome) are equally sadistic.

Mari and Paige are soon abducted and tortured. When they attempt to escape, Krug rapes Mari and both girls are left for dead in the unforgiving woods. Seeking shelter from an overnight rainstorm, Krug and his gang take a refuge in the first house that they encounter: the remote lodge where Emma (Monica Potter) and her husband John (Tony Goldwyn) are frantically worrying about their daughter Mari.

Wes Craven produced this remake of his 1972 low-budget classic horror film, and the update draws its power from the intense yet disarming evil generated by Krug, Francis and Sadie. We have seen these characters on the more grimy streets of most cities and in most newspaper accounts of vicious murders. Aaron Paul as Francis and Riki Lindhome as Sadie are creepy enough; Garret Dillahunt as Krug is outright terrifying thanks to his understated viciousness, the ability to turn on some smarmy charm, and his belief that the world owes him.

Sara Paxton gives Mari the necessary mix of naivete and strength, and enough personal appeal to ensure that the rape scene is nothing less than harrowing. Less convincing are her parents. The almost instant transformation of a typical husband and wife into a couple capable of contemplating revenge requires a leap of faith, delivered neither by the script nor by Potter and Goldwyn.

Last House On The Left avoids most horror movie cliches, and is gory, bloody and unflinching. But it rises above typical horror movie fare by presenting villains that are depressingly real in their cruelty.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

CD Review: Far Beyond Driven, by Pantera (1994)

Power is one thing, but when it is not properly channeled and controlled, it degenerates into so much unfocused noise, diffused in all different directions and achieving little.

On Far Beyond Driven, Pantera's seventh studio album and the first since the breakthrough Vulgar Display Of Power, the band displays all the signs of a group already running out of ideas and squeezing out an album with relatively little good material.

The three memorable tracks, Strength Beyond Strength, Becoming, and I'm Broken, are tightly packed at the front end of the album, while the remaining nine songs, including a pointless cover of Black Sabbath's Planet Caravan, are just so much crushed glass, noisy and painful without serving any lasting purpose.

A lot of what is on Far Beyond Driven smacks of creating controversy for the sake of exaggerated publicity, from the original banned album cover (a drill impaling an anus) to the non-song that is Good Friends And A Bottle Of Pills, and the many stretches of music that are nothing but repetitive drum pounding or incessant strumming. Pantera seem to be testing what they can get away with by pushing the limits of taste while being lazy about the music. As usually happens, they got away with it once, the afterglow of Vulgar Display Of Power translating to the undeserved commercial success of Far Beyond Driven, but it was pretty much all downhill from there.


Philip Anselmo - Vocals
Dimebag Darrell - Guitar
Vinnie Paul - Drums
Rex - Bass

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Strength Beyond Strength - 9
2. Becoming - 8
3. 5 Minutes Alone - 7
4. I'm Broken - 8
5. Good Friends And A Bottle Of Pills - 4
6. Hard Lines, Sunken Cheeks - 7
7. Slaughtered - 6
8. 25 Years - 5
9. Shedding Skin - 7
10. Use My Third Arm - 7
11. Throes Of Rejection - 7
12. Planet Caravan - 7

Average: 6.83

Produced, Engineered and Mixed by Terry Date and Vinnie Paul.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Movie Review: Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

Woody Allen's exploration of modern romantic misadventures is clever, funny, and filled with engaging characters who are only slightly exaggerated.

The brunette Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is practical and down to earth. She is engaged to be married to Doug (Chris Messina), a nice guy with a reliable job. Her best friend, the blonde Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), is flighty and adventurous. She is looking for something, but only knows that whatever she has found so far is not it.

Vicky and Cristina decide to spend a summer in Barcelona, and soon they both meet and fall under the spell of the passionate artist Juan Antonio Gonzalo (Javier Bardem). Vicky's brief and unexpected fling with Juan Antonio knocks her world off its axis. Cristina enters into a longer term romance with Juan Antonio, but soon find herself the catalyst in the turbulent reconciliation between Juan Antonio and his former wife, the wild Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz).

As usual, Allen's characters speak the way normal people do, with unsure pauses, irony-free hesitancy, and the seemingly inadvertent stepping on each other's sentences. It's the closest that scripts come to pretending to be ad-libbed, and it immediately elevates Allen's characters closer to real people. Allen also avoids any contrived scenes of high drama and climactic emotions or confrontations, preferring as usual to deploy his low key approach that mimics real life instead of life as Hollywood likes to imagine it.

Vicky and Cristina both go through several turbulent transformations in the movie, and both Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson admirably provide the necessary understated depth to portray, with a mixture of sadness and humour, the upheaval that unexpected love can cause. 

Bardem as Juan Antonio is the eye of the hurricane, and therefore does not have to emotionally move very much as chaos reigns around him. Penelope Cruz gets the showiest role as Maria Elena, a joyfully unrestrained force of nature that splatters anyone that surrounds her with a torrent of emotions, raised to the Spanish power.

Allen directs with his usual mix of subdued artistry, allowing the actors to take centre stage while never failing to find the interesting camera angle to remind us of his talent.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is both enjoyable and captivating, and in the often unimaginative world of manufactured romantic comedies, it's a breath of fresh Mediterranean air.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

CD Review: Heal, by Sacred Reich (1996)

Squeezing thrash for all its worth at a time when the genre was all but commercially dead, Heal fell on a generation of deaf ears looking for anything but metal, and the album never received the recognition that it probably deserved.

Eleven years into their career and on their seventh and final studio album, Sacred Reich, from Phoenix, produce enough energy on Heal to light up a small city. The collection of tracks maintains strong interest with unrelenting in-your-face power, clever melodies, clean delivery and cute embellishments.

The album certainly does not overstay its welcome: the longest track clocks in at just over 4 minutes, and the entire CD is done and dusted in just over 30 minutes.

While no tracks shine with absolute majesty, the highlights include opener Blue Suit, Brown Shirt and I Don't Care, both of which latch onto a thick groove and ride it to glory. I Don't Care even manages to throw in a terrific elongated solo that almost makes up for the lack of memorable lead guitar prominence elsewhere on the album. Title track Heal, Don't, Seen Through My Eyes, and album closer The Power Of The Written Word provide strong support.

With the barren landscape of metal in the mid-1990's, Heal reveals a band that is intent on doing its own thing, going out in a blaze of glory, consequences and commercial success be damned.


Phil Rind - Bass and Vocals
Wiley Arnett - Lead Guitar
Jason Rainey - Guitar
Dave McClain - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Blue Suit, Brown Shirt - 9
2. Heal - 8
3. Break Through - 7
4. Low - 7
5. Don't - 8
6. Jason's Idea - n/a (short interlude)
7. Ask Ed - 6
8. Who Do You Want to Be? - 7
9. Seen Through My Eyes - 8
10. I Don't Care - 9
11. The Power Of The Written Word - 8

Average: 7.70

Produced by Bill Metoyer and Sacred Reich.
Engineered and Mixed by Bill Metoyer.
Mastered by Eddy Schreyer.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

CD Review: Power Of The Night, by Savatage (1985)

The excellent opening track Power Of The Night is counter-balanced by the terrible Washed Out. The rest of Power Of The Night suffers from a severe absence of personality.

On the third Savatage album, the Oliva brothers John and Criss along with their bandmates Keith Collins and Steve Wacholz try hard and have their hearts in the right place, but it is arguable whether Savatage ever brought anything really new to the party. Their songwriting, solos, melodies, power, speed, and technical skills are always very much middle-of-the-pack. After the opening track, which promises much, the music on Power Of The Night quickly drops to functional, adequate and mostly derivative.

With a total absence of anything that can be remotely mistaken for inspiration or innovation, Power Of The Night is an album that can only offer reasons to be played in the absence of anything better, and unfortunately for Savatage but fortunately for metal, there are plenty of better albums out there.


John Oliva - Vocals, Keyboards
Criss Oliva - Guitar
Keith Collins - Bass
Steve Wacholz - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Power Of The Night - 9
2. Unusual - 7
3. Warriors - 7
4. Necrophilia - 7
5. Washed Out - 5
6. Hard For Love - 7
7. Fountain Of Youth - 7
8. Skull Session - 8
9. Stuck On You - 7
10. In The Dream - 7

Average: 7.10

Produced and Engineered by Max Norman.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

CD Review: Beneath The Remains, by Sepultura (1989)

Sepultura's Beneath The Remains is full of power, speed and fury, stuck firmly in a single dimension.

There is no arguing with the technical skill of the four boys from Brazil on their third studio album. But they are limited to the same tone, the same manic beats per minute, and the same key for all nine songs, which become effectively indistinguishable.

Yes, there are excellent moments on each track, and just as equally, there are aimless and painfully amateurish segments on each track. Most unfortunately Sepultura does not display the maturity to play with, tease out, and develop strong unifying themes to stamp a unique personality on their song. They are too busy bashing away on their instruments as frantically as possible, with Max Cavalera spitting out the lyrics in a monotonous no-more-than-two-words-at-a-time delivery that never varies.

The music is a bit dangerous, generally sharp, and for 1989, a bit ahead of its time. It's just not very interesting.


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

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Beneath The Remains - 7
2. Inner Self - 7
3. Stronger Than Hate - 7
4. Mass Hypnosis - 7
5. Sarcastic Existence - 7
6. Slaves Of Pain - 7
7. Lobotomy - 7
8. Hungry - 7
9. Primitive Future - 7

Average: 7.00

Produced by Scott Burns and Sepultura.
Engineered by Scott Burns.
Mixed by Scott Burns, Tom Morris and Max Cavalera.
Mastered by Mike Fuller.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

CD Review: Open Up And Say...Ahh!, by Poison (1988)

If a case needs to be made that grunge was necessary to sweep away the most ridiculous excesses of what some sub-genres of metal had grotesquely evolved to, then Exhibit One may well be the music of Poison.

That this group of talentless so-called musicians achieved success at the peak of the glam-metal scene of the 1980's can be taken as a sign that the apocalypse was necessary. If grunge did nothing else but put an end to grown men dressed as women achieving great success despite delivering moronic anthems while possessing a talent level equivalent to the local high school band, then grunge was a good thing.

Open Up And Say...Ahh! was Poison's second album, and featured 10 tracks that redefine the lowest common denominator in terms of dim-witted drunk-time rock 'n' roll. And proving that you can get rich by dramatically lowering the standards of public taste, it sold 8 million copies, with many insta-fans attracted by the schmaltzy ballad Every Rose Has Its Thorn (oh really?). That this tepid track is actually better that most of the other mindless tripe on the album is beyond pathetic.

Glam in general and Poison in particular represent one of the deceptively successful but ultimately diseased branches sprouted by the metal tree. Fortunately, nature corrected course, sawed-off the poisoned limb, and metal regrouped and ultimately thrived in other directions, leaving glam as nothing but a contemptible - and bad - memory.


Bret Michaels - Vocals
Rikki Rockett - Drums
Bobby Dall - Bass
C.C. Deville - Guitars

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Love On The Rocks - 5
2. Nothin' But A Good Time - 6
3. Back To The Rocking Horse - 7
4. Good Love - 5
5. Tearin' Down The Walls - 6
6. Look But You Can't Touch - 5
7. Fallen Angel - 6
8. Every Rose Has Its Thorn - 7
9. Your Mama Don't Dance - 6
10. Bad To Be Good - 6

Average: 5.90

Produced by Tom Werman. Engineered by Duane Baron.
Mixed by Duane Baron, John Purdell and Tom Werman.
Mastered by Chris Bellman.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Major Dundee (1965)

A sprawling western that suffers from a lot of meaningless meandering, ill-advised side-trips and a severe lack of focus, Major Dundee was one of the films that Sam Peckinpah likely had to make before he could create The Wild Bunch in 1969.

Stories abound of Peckinpah being frequently drunk and incoherent on the set of Major Dundee, with star Charlton Heston having to step into the director's chair to keep the production on track. The resulting mess included a legendary, never-seen version of the movie that extended for 4 hours and 30 minutes. The released version is just over two hours, although it sometimes feels like four hours.

Major Dundee is a work of fiction, but very loosely inspired by some real-life skirmishes where Confederate prisoners joined Union soldiers in Texas to battle Indians. In the movie, as the American Civil War draws to a close, a group of Apaches under the leadership of Chief Charriba mount a series of raids and massacres against both Union and Confederate troops in and around New Mexico. The Union's Major Dundee (Heston) has accumulated a patchy war leadership record, and is assigned the somewhat demeaning command of a jail near the Mexico border. He takes it upon himself to assemble a rag-tag force of prison guards (including black soldiers) and prisoners, including his bitter Confederate rival Captain Tyreen (Richard Harris), to go after Chief Charriba and his men.

Rather than focusing on their mission, Dundee's soldiers spend a lot of time threatening to kill each other as tensions between North and South, black and white, and jailer and jailed simmer and sometimes boil over. With Dundee mounting an unconvincing pursuit, the Apaches soon take refuge in Mexico, where the French Army has assembled troops, setting up a triangular climactic conflict between Dundee's men, the Apaches and the French.

While there is enough going among all the galloping horses to maintain a rudimentary level of viewer attentiveness, the characters in Major Dundee are neither interesting nor sympathetic enough to ignite the movie. The conflict between Dundee and Tyreen, which should have given the film its centre of gravity, is drawn in crayons. Charlton Heston gives Dundee the same over-the-top higher calling that powers his biblical roles, while Harris looks like he just stepped out of a movie about those magnificent men in their flying machines. James Coburn wanders in and out of the movie in an under-used role as Sam Potts, a one-armed half-breed who helps Dundee track the Apaches.

Santa Berger all of a sudden shows up in the unlikely role of a stunningly gorgeous European woman stranded in a tiny Mexican village. She further clogs up the progress of the movie by batting her eyelashes and contriving a romance with Dundee that mostly serves to prove her poor judgement and the ease with which he gets distracted.

The action scenes are a mixture of the sloppy, the bloody, and the confusing, with Peckinpah clearly still looking, and not yet finding, the artistry that he would bring to The Wild Bunch.

Major Dundee is interesting in the same way that a car crash cannot help but draw some attention, but ultimately, its best to move along rather quickly.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

CD Review: The Blackening, by Machine Head (2007)

The one word that best describes The Blackening is "ambitious". The album is full of long multi-melody-dominated tracks that generally clock in at 8 minutes or more, with numerous themes, tempo variations, and side-quests, all propelled by boundless energy.

When Machine Head pull it all together and ensure that all the pieces of the song fit together to form a meaningful and cohesive picture, the results are spectacular, as on opener Clenching The Fists Of Dissent, and Slanderous. The first two minutes and a 15 seconds of Clenching The Fists Of Dissent earn a place among the best metal intros of all time, and the rest of the track builds on that success. Slanderous, with another terrific intro, creates and maintains a dazzling, epic and mostly high speed guitar showcase powerful enough to slay all assembled monsters.

Although The Blackening maintains an impressive base level of quality in the songwriting and performance, sometimes the tracks become a lining up of segments sitting relatively uncomfortably next to each other, with many good, sometimes great ideas lined up next to other good and sometimes great, but unrelated ideas. When unifying themes are not maintained or nurtured over long and complex tracks, the music remains interesting but buckles under the weight of over-exuberant variety.

The bonus tracks, covers of Iron Maiden's Hallowed Be Thy Name and Metallica's Battery, are faithful and respectful to the originals, but Robb Flynn's mid-growl vocal style does not necessarily align well with traditional power or early thrash metal.

Despite not being perfect, Machine Head's ambition and willingness to take risks and create richly textured, almost orchestral music on The Blackening results in a most absorbing album.


Robb Flynn - Vocals, Guitars
Dave McClain - Drums
Adam Duce - Bass, Vocals
Phil Demmel - Guitars

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Clenching The Fists Of Dissent - 10
2. Beautiful Mourning - 7
3. Aesthetics Of Hate - 8
4. Now I Lay Thee Down - 7
5. Slanderous - 10 *see below*
6. Halo - 8
7. Wolves - 7
8. A Farewell To Arms - 7
9. Hallowed Be Thy Name - 8
10. Battery - 8

Average: 8.00

Produced by Robb Flynn. Engineered by Mark Keaton.
Mixed by Colin Richardson. Mastered by Eddy Schreyer.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Movie Review: Unforgiven (1992)

An artistic and visually appealing western, Unforgiven is a metaphor for the death of the old west, and a last hurrah for both the genre and the men who made it famous.

The Town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, in the late 1800's: a prostitute at a brothel is slashed repeatedly across the face by two knife-wielding cowboys. The local law, represented by sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), demands that the cowboys provide horses as compensation, but otherwise the crime goes unpunished. The prostitutes band together and place a $1,000 bounty on the head of the two assailants, much to the dismay of Little Bill, who does not appreciate greedy bounty-hunters from all corners riding into his town.

Will Munny (Clint Eastwood) and Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) are two grizzled outlaws who have long since left their criminal days behind to settle into domesticity. They come out of retirement and team up with The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), a brash young gunfighter, for one final job to kill the two cowboys and claim the $1,000 reward. They are soon on a bloody collision course with the sheriff and his men.

Unforgiven is beautifully photographed, deliberately paced, and benefits from a dream cast with Eastwood, Freeman and Hackman at its core. It does suffer from a lack of any truly memorable scenes, an absence of wit, and a relatively forgettable music score by Lenny Niehaus.

Director Clint Eastwood dedicated the film to Sergio Leone (A Fistful Of Dollars, A Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly) and Don Siegel (Two Mules For Sister Sara, The Beguiled), the men whose westerns launched Eastwood's career.

While Unforgiven is a visually absorbing experience, the morally suspect message is distracting. The film appears eager to celebrate the lawlessness of the old west, and is dismissive of early attempts to prevent gun crimes and solve violent conflicts by means other than death. The slow pacing provides many opportunities for the characters of Will Munny and Ned Logan to reflect on the demise of their era, but ultimately they are portrayed as heroic for killing men who are attempting to introduce a modern justice system, flawed as it may be.

Eastwood therefore positions Unforgiven apart from the westerns of Leone. The Dollars trilogy presented a range of characters all with highly suspect value systems, but there is never any doubt that Leone always parked his sympathies with the least despicable of the lot.

In his eagerness to bid farewell to the old West, Eastwood appears to have unsatisfactorily papered over the reasons why it was good thing when men stopped resolving all disputes with six-shooter battles to the death.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

CD Review: Rage Against The Machine, by Rage Against The Machine (1992)

Four guys from Los Angeles explode onto the music scene by fusing the best of rap with monstrous metal and demanding nothing short of a revolution.

The self-titled debut of Rage Against The Machine wastes no time in positioning the band at the forefront of any leftist, anti-establishment, anti-corporate movement that chose to adopt them. And out of the box, the music was massive enough to support the ambitious message.

Bombtrack, Killing In The Name, and Know Your Enemy have stood the test of time remarkably well, and sound as vital today as they did in 1992. Opener Bombtrack is a stunning career introduction, with a simple riff that is a most dangerous combination of languid and brutal. Killing In The Name is best known for its repetitive "f**k you I won't do what you tell me" in-your-face ending that immediately ensured the status of Rage Against The Machine as anti-authoritarian symbols; but preceding that climax is a hypnotic, unstoppable metal machine of a song chewing up the landscape of indifference. And the opening power riff of Know Your Enemy is enough to pulverize a hole in any concrete structure. Bullet In The Head is only slightly behind in terms of impact.

The other tracks are generally fair to middling, but are always enlivened by the innovative sounds that Tom Morello coaxes out of his guitar as Zack De La Rocha spits out the lyrics.

Rage Against The Machine introduced a new band; established a new sound; and achieved the rare feat of wrapping a purposeful lyrical message in an impressive metal music package.


Zack De La Rocha - Vocals
Timmy C. - Bass
Brad Wilk - Drums
Tom Morello - Guitars

Songlist (ratings out 10):

1. Bombtrack - 10
2. Killing In The Name - 10
3. Take The Power Back - 7
4. Settle For Nothing - 6
5. Bullet In The Head - 8
6. Know Your Enemy - 10
7. Wake Up - 7
8. Fistful Of Steel - 7
9. Township Rebellion - 7
10. Freedom - 7

Average: 7.90

Produced by Rage Against The Machine and GGGarth.
Mixed by Andy Wallace. Recorded by Stan Katayama and GGGarth.
Mastered by Bob Ludwig.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

CD Review: Rainbow, by Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow (1975)

Ritchie Blackmore leaves Deep Purple and takes over the band previously known as Elf. He kicks-out the unfortunate guitarist, renames the outfit as Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow, and establishes a strong song-writing partnership with one Ronnie James Dio on vocals.

Their debut album Rainbow is an uneven effort. It features excellent slower to mid-tempo tracks like Man On The Silver Mountain, Catch The Rainbow and The Temple Of The King, on which Blackmore's lyrical guitar matches up perfectly with Dio's mythical and medieval lyrics and image.

But Blackmore's search for radio-friendly commercial success has already begun, and the less powerful tracks like Self Portrait, Black Sheep Of The Family, and If You Don't Like Rock 'N' Roll are either cheesily aimless or outright failures.

Thankfully, right at the end of the album Blackmore signs off with a smile, thanks to the instrumental ironically titled Still I'm Sad: surely the ultimate metal salute to the cow bell, and a terrific track for good measure.

After the release of this album all the band members except Blackmore and Dio were fired or left: a new, more stable line-up would appear for Rainbow's follow-up, as the band moved steadily towards metal super-stardom and wider fan appeal.


Ritchie Blackmore - Guitar
Ronnie James Dio - Vocals
Gary Driscoll - Drums
Craig Gruber - Bass
Mickey Lee Soule - Keyboards

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Man On The Silver Mountain - 8
2. Self Portrait - 6
3. Black Sheep Of The Family - 5
4. Catch The Rainbow - 9
5. Snake Charmer - 7
6. The Temple Of The King - 10
7. If You Don't Like Rock 'N' Roll - 6
8. Sixteenth Century Greensleeves - 7
9. Still I'm Sad - 10

Average: 7.56

Produced by Ritchie Blackmore, Martin Birch, Ronnie James Dio.
Mixed by Martin Birch.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Movie Review: Amreeka (2009)

Is jumping from one seemingly miserable existence to another worthwhile? What happens when life hands us conclusive proof that the grass is most definitely not greener on the other side of the fence? What do immigrants have to put up with in their new chosen worlds, and why do they do it? In the independent movie Amreeka, first time director Cherien Dabis examines these pervasive issues with humour, poignancy, realism and a warm heart.

Single mom Muna (Nisreen Faour) is struggling to make ends meet, living with her teen-aged son Fadi (Melkar Muallem) in Bethlehem under the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. When they unexpectedly receive an opportunity to immigrate to the United States, Muna is hesitant but Fadi convinces his mom that the chance to start a new life is too good to pass up. They arrive in suburban Chicago circa 2003, to live with Muna's sister Raghda (Hiam Abbas), her husband Nabeel (Yussuf Abu Warda), and their three daughters.

Having jumped out of the frying pan, Muna and Fadi find themselves squarely in the fire. The Unites States has just invaded Iraq, and anti-Arab sentiment is rife among the ignorant. Nabeel, an established and well-respected doctor, is losing patients as his clients abandon him. His marriage to Raghda is strained with serious financial worries, not helped by having to sustain Muna and Fadi, and compounded by anonymous threats of violence directed at the family.

Meanwhile, despite ten years of experience working in a bank, the best Muna can do is find a humiliating job flipping burgers at the local White Castle. And Fadi is quickly the target of anti-Arab bullying at his new school, and gets sucked into drug use and petty confrontations.

Muna and Fadi have to face the reality that their new life has at least as many challenges as the life they left behind; and they have to decide if the new difficulties are worth overcoming.

At the centre of the movie, Nisreen Faour shines as the self-consciously overweight, dedicated mother who will try anything and sacrifice everything for her son, only to quickly lose him to a new culture. She never abandons her sense of humour, poise or can-do, positive attitude.

Another of the movie's assets is a mean streak of humour that shines through the darkest moments. Director Dabis also wrote Amreeka, and she demonstrates a keen ear for the sharp wit that sustains immigrants as they struggle to adapt to their surroundings and carve out some space and dignity in a new world.

Most impressive is the movie's focus on the real-world human experience, good and bad. There are no angels, no heroes and no perfect characters or relationships in Amreeka. Just flawed humans with big hearts, doing the best they can, and learning life's lessons mostly by committing every mistake in the book.

Amreeka ends not by wrapping up the story of Muna and Fadi in a neat package, but by celebrating the joy that comes in finding life's little pleasures, unexpected helping hands and sympathetic ears hidden within the messy daily trek that we call living.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Book Review: The Maze Of Cadiz, by Aly Monroe (2008)

There is a fine line between rich descriptive prose and tiresome meaningless text. The Maze Of Cadiz gallops across this line in ignorant bliss and lands deep in drivel territory.

An uninspired little spy story that could have been told in 20 pages is stretched out into 292 almost unreadable pages with endless descriptions of the trite and the meaningless, as author Aly Monroe attempts to recreate the languid pace of life in Spain in book form. The snail's pace and detailed descriptions of every street corner, every building facade, every corner store and every meal in Cadiz suck what life, soul and emotion may ever have been present in the book.

As soon as the novel reveals its style, and it becomes apparent that the incessant details are completely irrelevant to the progress of the story, reading The Maze Of Cadiz is transformed into a huge struggle with a magnetic temptation to skip over huge chunks of deadweight text.

The story that tries to survive the stultifying pace involves British spy Peter Cotton being sent to the seafront outpost of Cadiz in Spain in 1944, as the tide of World War Two is turning strongly in favour of the Allies and the brutal Franco regime is claiming neutrality. Cotton's mission is to arrest another British agent by the name of May, who has apparently gone rogue with unexplained expenses. Cotton arrives in Cadiz to find May dead, and local detective Ramirez is immediately crawling all over Cotton trying to piece together how and why May died.

By the time Monroe, in her debut, reveals just a bit about what happened to agent May, about 200 pages into the book, all possible interest in the simplistic non-adventure has shriveled and died, abandoned in the jungle of overburdened writing.

Published in paperback by John Murray.
292 pages.

The Ace Black Blog Book Review Index is here.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Movie Review: Hard Times (1975)

The directorial debut of Walter Hill is a period piece set in the Louisiana of the Great Depression, as desperate men engage in bare-knuckled fist fights to earn betting money. Given the subject matter, Hard Times is a surprisingly graceful and engrossing portrait of survival in miserable conditions.

The story is a relatively straightforward updating of the "mysterious stranger with a gun who rides into town" western narrative. Instead of a gun, Chaney (Charles Bronson) has his fists, and they are faster and stronger than any other fighter earning a living on the streets. He arrives on a slow moving train instead of a galloping horse, reveals little about his motives and even less about his background.

The locals are an assortment of low-lifes scratching for a living. Speed Weed (James Coburn) is the gambling-addicted fight promoter who discovers Chaney, and recognizes in him the opportunity to defeat all-comers and earn enough to repay his numerous debts -- except that Speed has the gift of gambling away money faster than even Chaney can earn it.

Poe (Strother Martin) is a medical school drop-out addicted to opium who helps Speed and Chaney, and Lucy (Jill Ireland) is the married woman with a husband in jail desperately looking for a man to be a provider to avoid abject poverty. The rich folks in Hard Times range from brutal loan sharks to cold-hearted business owners.

In short, when times are really tough, it's difficult to find anyone with a charitable soul. Walter Hill's cameras capture the poverty in every corner, from the desolate streets to the depressing eateries and the miserable room with its pathetic furniture that Chaney rents in New Orleans.

Bronson and Coburn play roles that perfectly fit their screen personas. Bronson is just Bronson, a presence more than an actor, speaking much more loudly with actions than words. Coburn is a lot more animated, sweet-talking his way to survival and making up for Bronson by talking too much in all circumstances.

Hard Times is a compact film that maintains its focus on a well-defined tableaux of hardship, and presents it with satisfying colour and texture.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

CD Review: Blizzard Of Ozz, by Ozzy Osbourne (1980)

Ozzy Osbourne leaves Black Sabbath behind and starts his solo career by unearthing a guitar genius in the ill-fated Randy Rhodes, and unleashing him on a set of tracks that mix the marvelous with the mediocre.

Clocking in at a compact 39 minutes, Blizzard Of Ozz features a range of styles and speeds from ballads to up-tempo metal, with Osbourne's vocals very much to the forefront throughout but giving way for Rhodes to let loose at least for a short passage on each track.

With solid support from Bob Daisley and Lee Kerslake, Osbourne made sure that the bass and drums respectively were not over-run.

Out of eight meaningful tracks, two are unfortunately duds. Suicide Solution, regardless of the lyrics controversy, is a poor song, equalled by the particularly annoying No Bone Movies.

These two aside, Blizzard Of Ozz contains some of Osbourne's best work as a solo artist. Crazy Train and Mr. Crowley are both terrific metal tracks that showcase Osbourne's songwriting and Rhodes guitar talent. Both the guitar riff and the insane vocals on Crazy Train are legendary, while Mr. Crowley brilliantly combines Osbourne's vocals with a haunting, slower, more powerful guitar driven melody.

The underrated Revelation (Mother Earth) ends with a long, beautiful keyboard-inspired instrumental passage that cleverly transitions from lyrical to powerful. Although not listed as a member of the band, Don Airy does the job on keyboards, part of a career that has encompassed most legendary metal bands. The other three tracks, energetic opener I Don't Know, ballad Goodbye To Romance and closer Steal Away (The Night), are good without being spectacular.

Ozzy Osbourne as a solo artist was never going to change the music world the way Black Sabbath did; but with Rhodes blazing a memorable trail and a couple of timeless classics, Blizzard Of Ozz does contribute its own bit of magic to metal's history.


Ozzy Osbourne - Vocals
Randy Rhoads - Guitars
Bob Daisley - Bass
Lee Kerslake - Drums

Keyboards by Don Airey

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. I Don't Know - 8
2. Crazy Train - 10
3. Goodbye To Romance - 7
4. Dee - n/a (short instrumental)
5. Suicide Solution - 5
6. Mr. Crowley - 10
7. No Bone Movies - 5
8. Revelation (Mother Earth) - 9
9. Steal Away (The Night) - 7

Average: 7.63

Produced by Ozzy Osbourne, Bob Daisley, Lee Kerslake and Randy Rhoads.
Engineered by Max Norman.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Movie Review: Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (2008)

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist is a teen romantic comedy that has a lot going for it, including two appealing leads in Michael Cera and Kat Dennings, and a vibe that welcomes moments of awkwardness and avoids over-saturation with fake irony.

New Jersey senior high school student Nick (Michael Cera) has long since been dumped by his cheating self-absorbed girlfriend Tris (Alexis Dzeina), but he is far from over her. He phones her and records long-winded messages that she automatically deletes, and he gifts her CD mixes of his favourite music, which she promptly tosses in the garbage. Down-to-earth classmate Norah (Kat Dennings) shares Nick's music taste and retrieves and enjoys his CDs once Tris discards them.

Nick plays bass in his otherwise all-gay band. Over one long and frantic night in New York that starts with a concert by Nick's band and ends early the next morning with a concert by the hip but elusive band Where's Fluffy, a romance finally ignites between Nick and Norah, as he finally gets over Tris and she fends off a creepy "friend with benefits".

Complementing Cera and Dennings, the third star of the movie is New York City at night. Director Peter Sollett avoids most cinematic cliches and captures a city that never sleeps in all its quirkiness, focusing on tiny corner restaurants, ethnic groceries, grimy bus depots, and clubs half-full of people not sure why they are there.

The movie does not fully avoid all the genre's cliches, and after a most tender off-camera orgasm is enjoyed by Norah, there is an unnecessary confrontation between Nick, Norah and their exes as the film appears to muddle the sequence of its concluding scenes to contrive some needless conflict.

But in general, the movie hits most of the right notes, and there is enough going on around the blossoming romance to add welcome texture to the film. Norah's friend Caroline (Ari Graynor) is drunk about 15 minutes into the movie, and spends her night staggering through New York creating her own natural disaster, including some terrific moments involving her chewing gum and a toilet seat. The search for the mysterious Where's Fluffy is a useful plot device to emphasize the focus on music and keep everyone racing around New York. And Nick's yellow Yugo, mistaken for a taxi to great effect, is an extra character in the film, as is the lumbering van used by Nick's band.

In a genre too often beset by yawning predictability, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist offers some refreshingly original tunes.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 15 October 2010

CD Review: The Politics Of Ecstasy, by Nevermore (1996)

When Nevermore pull all their pieces together, they can create exhilarating metal. But their high levels of ambition on The Politics Of Ecstasy also result in glorious failures that blemish the experience somewhat.

The Seven Tongues Of God is a spectacular opener for the Seattle band's second album, announcing the band's uncompromising complexity, power, speed, accuracy and technical mastery. With its unstoppable tractor sound churning up the landscape, This Sacrament stands proudly among the best metal songs ever written. And the title track starts out as an ugly tune that can only be loved by its mother; by the time it finishes, The Politics Of Ecstasy has pummeled its way to the front of the line of barely flawed metal epics.

On the other end of the scale are tracks like Next In Line and Lost, which are pale and aimless in comparison with Nevermore at their best. And The Learning is long, complex, over-ambitious, and just too sprawling to work effectively.

With his work on lead guitar, Jeff Loomis establishes himself at the forefront of metal guitar masters, certainly in the 1990's. With Pat O'Brien in support, the Nevermore guitar sound is layered, rich, and alternating between emotional anguish, joyful brilliance,machine gun speed and laser accuracy.

Warrel Dane's unique vocals define Nevermore's sound, and he manages to teeter on the edge of theatrical overkill for the entire length of the album. Jim Sheppard on bass and Van Williams on drums create the industrial strength undercarriage that propels the Nevermore sound over all terrain types.

The Politics Of Ecstasy is far from perfect, but it is never less than interesting.


Warrel Dane - Vocals
Jim Sheppard - Bass
Jeff Loomis - Guitars
Pat O'Brien - Guitars
Van Williams - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. The Seven Tongues Of God - 10
2. This Sacrament - 10
3. Next In Line - 6
4. Passenger - 8
5. The Politics Of Ecstasy - 9
6. Lost - 6
7. The Tiananmen Man - 8
8. Precognition - n/a (short instrumental)
9. 42147 - 7
10. The Learning - 7

Average: 7.89

Produced, Recorded and Mixed by Neil Hernon.
Mastered by Joe Gastwirt.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Sugarland Express (1974)

For his first big-screen motion picture, director Steven Spielberg celebrates the wide open spaces and endless back roads of rural Texas, and flexes his artistic muscles by painting grand canvasses filled with the impressive sight of an endless number of police cars cutting through the countryside.

Based on a true story, The Sugarland Express also foreshadows the era of celebrity criminals, and indeed the OJ Simpson slow speed police chase of 1994 bears a passing resemblance to scenes from the movie.

Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) is released from a Texas prison only to find that her baby has been permanently given over to foster parents. Distraught, she forces her husband Clovis (William Atherton), a prisoner himself, to flee a pre-release detention centre to help drive her to the town of Sugarland and forcibly retrieve her child.

Lou Jean and Clovis soon kidnap a police officer (Michael Sacks) and commandeer his squad car to speed up their quest. With one of their own kidnapped and at gun point, seemingly every police officer and police vehicle in the state of Texas under the leadership of Captain Tanner (Ben Johnson) is soon on the tail of Lou Jean and Clovis. As they make their way through small towns on the way to Sugarland and with a mounting media frenzy, the Poplins begin to achieve local celebrity status.

The Sugarland Express has some creaky and awkward moments. A scene in which Lou Jean and Clovis stare at each other and giggle doesn't work, and some of the celebrations as the Poplins drive through small towns appear to be pure Hollywood overkill.

But for the most part, Spielberg uses the Texas scenery to create some wondrous vistas, and the movie benefits enormously from a tireless and appealing Goldie Hawn performance. In the character of Lou Jean she combines childlike immaturity, desperation, single-mindedness and sweetness to drive the movie forward from its opening scene to its conclusion, wrapping the hapless Clovis around her finger and fending off, until the bitter end, all the police power that Texas throws at her.

Atherton is convincing as the slightly dim Clovis, and Johnson effectively portrays Captain Tanner as he grapples with a chaotic situation that inexorably appears to be turning into a circus heading towards calamity.

The Sugarland Express is at least equal measures style and substance, and this is a rare case where these proportions represent the perfect blend.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

CD Review: Don't Break The Oath, by Mercyful Fate (1984)

Don't Break The Oath is best described as disjointed. On their second studio album, Denmark's Mercyful Fate certainly create good sounding music segments; unfortunately, they rarely put them together into cohesive song structures.

Other than the magnificent opener A Dangerous Meeting, most of the the tracks on Don't Break The Oath represent a poorly catalogued inventory of uncoordinated metal fragments. Each set of chords sounds great for 10 seconds before the next set takes over, with no logical extension from one set to the next and no strongly defined song structure.

There is no disputing the band's dedication and passion for delivering relatively high speed, high energy metal that tries to sound dangerous, always with interesting attempts at tempo changes. King Diamond wails away in falsetto about his love for the devil, while Hank Sherman and Michael Denner are serviceable on guitar without ever blazing a clear trail through the noise. Gypsy and Come To The Sabbath hold together better than most of the other material, but overall, Don't Break The Oath is a cheap buffet with too much to eat, the good foods come in small portions, and the result is guaranteed indigestion.


King Diamond - Vocals
Hank Sherman - Guitar
Michael Denner - Guitar
Timi G. Hansen - Bass
Kim Ruzz - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. A Dangerous Meeting - 10
2. Nightmare - 7
3. Desecration Of Souls - 7
4. Night Of The Unborn - 6
5. The Oath - 7
6. Gypsy - 8
7. Welcome Princess Of Hell - 6
8. To One Far Away - n/a (short instrumental)
9. Come To The Sabbath - 8

Average: 7.38

Produced by Henrik Lund.
Engineered by Henrik Lund and Niels Erik Otto.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Movie Review: Body Heat (1981)

About 30 years after the film noir era was supposed to have ended, writer and director Lawrence Kasdan conjures up what may be the best example of the genre.

Body Heat is memorably dominated by oppressive heat: the debilitating heat wave that mother nature has unleashed on Florida; the sensual heat of bodies rubbing against each other; the evil heat of fires caused by arson; and the suffocating heat of the ever-present cigarettes that most of the characters cannot stop smoking. Kasdan grabs control of the temperature dial, cranks to the right, and never relents.

In the middle of this heat, Ned Racine (William Hurt) is a small town lawyer in Florida. He's not a good lawyer, but that does not seem to bother Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner), a rich and unhappily married woman who meets Ned and seduces him with all the lust and sex that he can handle. Matty soon has Ned convinced that they need to murder Matty's husband Edmund (Richard Crenna) so that they can together inherit his massive fortune.

They pull off the murder, and Ned's life quickly starts to unravel, as he realizes that Matty is not exactly what she appears to be, and that he may have unwittingly stepped into an elaborate scheme way more complex than he can handle.

Body Heat catapulted both William Hurt and Kathleen Turner into super-stardom, and both are outstanding. Hurt portrays the sleazy and dim-witted Racine as both realistic and sympathetic. Turner, in her film debut, is outstanding as the lethal seductress, attracting and ensnaring Racine with passionate heat that is nothing but camouflage as she coldly manipulates him to serve her plot.

The quirky supporting cast adds to the enjoyment. Ted Danson as the only other lawyer in town and J.A. Preston as the local police detective undergo interesting transformations, from being friends with Racine to suspecting him of murder. Richard Crenna and Mickey Rourke add great depth to the film in minor but critical roles.

Kasdan's script includes many memorable lines and exchanges of dialogue, from Matty telling Ned "You're not too smart, are you? I like that in a man", to Ned telling Matty "You shouldn't wear that body". It's all clever, adult, and dangerous, perhaps too witty to apply to all the characters in this movie, but hugely successful as entertainment.

In all its elements, Body Heat simply crackles.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

CD Review: Silver, by Moist (1994)

In the 1994 era of we-are-alt-something-but-definitely-don't-call-us-metal, Vancouver's Moist came close to bolting a metal ethic to the radio-popular sounds of the day. Call it vocals-based mellow metal if you like, but Silver, the band's biggest success, does not shy away from distinctive metal shadings, and sounds all the better for it.

While never straying too far from songs that could safely be played in front of parents, Moist demonstrate a welcome guitar-driven energy and willingness to let rip - in segments - on tracks like Freaky Be Beautiful and Machine Punch Through.

It's too bad that the most clearly metallic track on the CD, This Shrieking Love, does not demonstrate superior song writing or structural composition, because it is a preview for a more dangerous side of the band that would have merited further exploration.

As it is, Silver is mostly about showcasing David Usher's interesting tone and range, and in an era when sound-alike moaners dominated, Usher is cleverly distinctive and upbeat. Mark Makowy provides strong support on guitars and sneaks in the occasional solo. Kevin Young's keyboards are given a good workout, and Moist do demonstrate the effectiveness of integrating intelligent keyboards into metal-oriented compositions.

Silver didn't exactly rescue metal, but it did prove that metal was discreetly still able to influence the music of the day, as it awaited its revival.


David Usher - Vocals
Mark Makowy - Guitar
Kevin Young - Keyboards
Jeff Pearce - Bass
Paul Wilcox - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Push - 9
2. Believe Me - 7
3. Kill For You - 8
4. Silver - 9
5. Freaky Be Beautiful - 9
6. Break Her Down - 7
7. Into Everything - 7
8. Picture Elvis - 7
9. Machine Punch Through - 9
10. This Shrieking Love - 7
11. Low Low Low - 6

Average: 7.73

Produced by Kevin Hamilton and Moist.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

CD Review: Nevermind, by Nirvana (1991)

An album that is most singularly associated with the end of one era and the beginning of another, Nirvana's Nevermind gave a voice to Generation X as the disillusioned youth of the early 1990's.

Tired of their baby boomer parents dictating cultural norms and their older siblings rocking out to vacuous hair metal without a care in a seemingly decaying world, Gen X did not much appreciate the leftover morsels that the world seemed intent on handing down to them. Kurt Cobain almost overnight became their prophet, and Smells Like Teen Spirit their anthem.

Plaid shirts, short hair, and an attitude laced with pessimism and self-hate took over, and Grunge was born, soon to spawn countless imitators and derivatives. Fun was out. Feeling depressed and moaning about it was the new normal, under the name of alternative-something. Glam and its excess died from sudden lack of oxygen; metal survived only in patchy underground circles, and it was years before it was reborn as a healthy and relevant movement.

It's quite a seismic shift in culture and music that has its epicenter with Nevermind. Which is really ironic because musically at least, Nevermind has a large part of its soul immersed in metal, with crunchy guitar chords, extreme vocals, driving bass, booming drums, and high energy delivery. In addition to Smells Like Teen Spirit, tracks like Breed and Territorial Pissings possibly represent metal's simultaneous height and death at the beginning of the 1990's.

Throughout Nevermind, Cobain never fails to impressively convey anguished emotion, whether on the more complex tracks or the slower, more deliberate songs. There isn't a single poor track on the album, and each can stand proudly as part of Cobain's commentary on his world. Chris Novoselic and David Grohl set the standard for bass and drums respectively with a sound that is neither timid nor domineering.

Nirvana moved a bit further away from metal on their follow-up In Utero, and by then the whole grunge and alt movements had turned their backs on most things metal. But if Nevermind was the seed that grew into a movement, the soil in which it was planted was rich in heavy metals.


Kurt Cobain - Vocals and Guitars
David Grohl - Drums and Vocals
Chris Novoselic - Bass and Vocals

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Smells Like Teen Spirit - 10
2. In Bloom - 8
3. Come As You Are - 8
4. Breed - 10 *see below*
5. Lithium - 9
6. Polly - 7
7. Territorial Pissings - 10
8. Drain You - 8
9. Lounge Act - 8
10. Stay Away - 8
11. On A Plain - 7
12. Something In The Way - 7

Average: 8.33

Produced and Engineered by Butch Vig and Nirvana.
Mixed by Andy Wallace.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Movie Review: The Valachi Papers (1972)

It's not The Godfather, but The Valachi Papers is nevertheless a worthwhile and eye-opening look into the organized criminal underworld. Never one to shy away from a challenge, producer Dino De Laurentiis spotted the success of Francis Coppola's mafia book adaptation and quickly recruited Terence Young, famous as a James Bond director, to create his own mobster epic. Or, as often was the case with De Laurentiis, something close enough.

Based on the true events recounted in the book of the same name by Peter Maas, this is the story of Joseph Valachi (Charles Bronson), who became the first man to betray the mafia and name names to the justice authorities in the United States, in return for protection for him and his family.

Told mostly in flashback, the film traces Valachi's career from the 1930's to the 1960's, as he rose from a small time New York hood to the driver and confidant of some of the Mafia's most notorious bosses of the era, including Salvatore Maranzano (Joseph Wiseman) and Vito Genovese (Lino Ventura). Valachi's role is that of an observer, enforcer, participant and enabler, rather than a plotter, which gives The Valachi Papers more of a street-level, gritty front-line view of organized crime compared to the rarefied air of the Corleones.

There is no shortage of blood and gore as numerous mafia types are gunned down in a hail of bullets for a full two hours. As an added touch, we are treated to one memorable and quite painful castration, prior to the poor victim being gunned down anyway. There is also no shortage of production snafus, not the least of which is the appearance of the ill-fated Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in 1930's New York.

The Valachi Papers features one of Charles Bronson's less stereotypical performances, in a role that sees him more animated that usual, and in the center of the action but, unusually for him, not in control of events. Jill Ireland, in real life Mrs. Bronson, shows up as, well, Mrs. Bronson. The rest of the cast, a mixture of forgettable American character actors and lesser known Italians, stick strictly to one dimension.

Much like its topic, The Valachi Papers is in turns intriguing, engaging, and quite messy.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Valentine (2001)

A slasher flick that stumbles around looking for a new idea - any new idea - to contribute to the genre. Finding absolutely none, it dies a painfully boring death on the field of bankrupt inspiration.

Rather that describe yet another collection of deserve-to-die drama queens getting unimaginatively slaughtered because years earlier they were mean to their 6th grade class dork, it is much more interesting to examine some related career trajectories. Proving without a doubt that being a Bond girl is no guarantee of success, Denise Richards nosedives from co-starring with Bond in The World Is Not Enough (1999) to Valentine two short years later.

This does not discourage director Jamie Blanks from finding all possible reasons to point his cameras at Richards (a) in profile, as that is how her breast curves are best revealed, (b) in a totally superfluous sex foreplay scene in which she leaves a lecherous would-be boyfriend tied-up and naked, only for the script to completely forget about the poor guy from that point on; and (c) in a bikini and wet, before killing her anyway.

Heading in the other direction in terms of relative career success, Valentine strangely proved itself to be a training ground for two future Grey's Anatomy actresses. Katherine Heigl is the first victim to be slaughtered in the movie, and in the spookiest achievement of the film, she is a medical student! Let's not dwell on the fact that Heigl's brief scenes, which open Valentine, appear to be almost wholly unrelated to the rest of the movie.

Jessica Capshaw gets the role with the Miss Piggy big-boned psychological trauma overtones; she complains in Valentine that she never got the hunky guys; years later she emerged as a lesbian doctor on Grey's Anatomy

The rest of the cast members simply strengthened their grip on obscurity after Valentine, a fate that the film itself fully earns.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Movie Review: A Beautiful Mind (2001)

A celebration of both the mind and the heart, A Beautiful Mind is based on the true story of Nobel Prize winning mathematician John Nash. It is a towering achievement that affirms the amazing power of shining intellect when supported by brilliant love.

Nash (Russell Crowe) arrives at Princeton University just after the end of the Second World War as a graduate student in mathematics, already recognized for his prodigious talent and social ineptness. He ignores his classes and all traditional learning methods to focus on finding a new breakthrough theory that would catapult him to prominence. His best friend is his room-mate Charles Herman (Paul Bettany), a free spirit more interested in beer and pizza than learning.

Nash appears to be on the road to nowhere at Princeton until he finally develops the theory of governing dynamics, a significant enhancement to mathematical economics. He indeed emerges as the best in his class, and gets his pick of distinguished careers.

Nash gets established as a senior mathematics professor working out of a military-associated lab at MIT. Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), one of his students, takes all the initiative to break through Nash's social incompetence, and they eventually get married.

As part of his work Nash is occasionally called to the Pentagon to help break codes related to national security. He meets William Parcher (Ed Harris), a tough, no-nonsense government agent, who becomes a dominant presence. Nash is soon consumed by complex code-breaking work assigned by Parcher, and is drawn into what appears to be a dangerous international conspiracy, with Russian agents after him. He shuts out Alicia and his behaviour goes from eccentric to dangerously erratic.

However, Nash is suffering an illness and will need radical medical intervention under the supervision of psychiatrist Dr. Rosen (Christopher Plummer). Over many years of struggle with the disease, Alicia's love, selfless dedication, and bravery are central to Nash's survival, and his road to any potential rehabilitation will be long and unsteady.

A Beautiful Mind is majestically constructed by director Ron Howard and his stellar cast. Howard manages to penetrate into Nash's mind, taking the audience on a wonderful journey that reveals the thin line between genius and madness.

Russell Crowe gives one of the all-time greatest acting performances in the history of the movies. He embodies Nash from the young adult at Princeton to the distinguished but wounded scholar receiving the Nobel Prize, and despite plenty of temptations, never succumbs to over-the-top histrionics that could so easily accompany a role centred on mental illness.  

Jennifer Connelly delivers the role of her career as Alicia. The second half of the movie belongs to her, as she transitions from an almost incidental part of Nash's life to become the only person that can rescue him. Connelly needs to convince us - and Nash - that her love is at least as important as his intellect, and she succeeds magnificently. Thanks to Connelly, A Beautiful Mind becomes a stunning example of the true meaning of marriage.

A supporting cast deep in talent provides a rich texture to the film. Ed Harris gives the tough-as-nails Parcher a real menace, a counterpoint to Paul Bettany's always available sympathetic ear. Christopher Plummer and Judd Hirsch ensure that even relatively minor roles are memorably delivered.

A Beautiful Mind is a rare achievement, an emotional tour de force that finds its impact by remaining under-stated, controlled, and in touch with the true inner humanity of its characters.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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