Sunday, 31 January 2010

Book Review: Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach (1970)


A young seagull refuses to conform to his family's traditions and insists on teaching himself to learn flying higher and faster. His skill and experience expose him to a spiritual world where time and space start to become less relevant, and where thought and intent are supreme. He returns as a teacher and mentor to other young seagulls striving for higher achievement.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull walks a tightrope between being a spiritually uplifting experience and a joke. If it strikes the right emotional chord with the reader, it may register as a life-changing experience. And if it doesn't, it becomes laughable.

Seagull is also a landmark that helped define a specific era. The tiny novella of 91 pages, about half of them photos, certainly struck the right note with the generation emerging from the turbulent 60's and wondering what else was out there. The story of reaching for something more, finding spiritual growth, and achieving beyond the ordinary, became a touchstone for maturing hippies who had turned away from the old institutions and were looking for alternatives.

From the modern perspective, Jonathan Livingston Seagull is just simplistic -- it hasn't aged well. Those who believe that the birds and the bees are a good starting point for a discussion about sexuality may find value in a seagull metaphor as a starting point for a discussion about spirituality. Younger readers will immediately cry foul because The Little Engine That Could is being ripped off.

For most others reader, Jonathan Livingston Seagull comes across as a witless and fairly useless exercise, lacking in any literary merits. It succeeds only in exaggerating the naivete of a long gone era.

91 pages.
Published in paperback by Scribner.






All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.


Saturday, 30 January 2010

CD Review: Burning Bridges, by Arch Enemy (1999)


Arch Enemy's third album is a further progression towards complete songwriting and well-defined heavy metal. On Burning Bridges, most of the songs are grounded in coherent structures based on classical-inspired melodies. The lead guitars of Michael and Christopher Amott frequently soar into memorable solos, while the band behind them gels into a tight supporting unit.

Johan Liiva's vocals are confident but still somewhat monotonous, while the bass/drum combo of Sharlee D'Angelo and Daniel Erlandsson is pure unstoppable power.

The eight-track set is well-selected to avoid needless length and padding material. Seed of Hate and Angelclaw are the only two relatively weak tracks. Seed of Hate is simply routine, while Angelclaw wanders in, meanders, and gets lost in a frantic mess.

The other six tracks all display a sharp focus, with Silverwing and Burning Bridges the two standouts. Silverwing is probably the most complete song on Arch Enemy's early albums, with sharp and complex tempo changes that build into a lyrical melody and a magnificent guitar showcase. Burning Bridges is a slow, unstoppable flow of volcanic lava obliterating everything in its path with a beauty that is both glowing and haunting. It's an inspired ending to a powerful album.

The 2009 re-issue of Burning Bridges includes no less than 9 extra tracks. Four are "rare" tracks previously released on the Wages of Sin bonus CD, including an improved version of the terrific Fields of Desolation which corrects the criminal fade-out from Black Earth. The other five are live tracks previously only released in Japan. Altogether, the 2009 re-issue provides some 75 minutes of music.

Band:

Michael Amott - Guitars
Sharlee D'Angelo - Bass
Johan Liiva - Vocals
Christopher Amott - Guitars
Daniel Erlandsson - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. The Immortal - 8 *See Video Below*
2. Dead Inside - 8
3. Pilgrim - 9
4. Silverwing - 10
5. Demonic Science - 8
6. Seed of Hate - 7
7. Angelclaw - 7
8. Burning Bridges - 10

Average: 8.38

Produced by Fredrik Nordstrom and Michael Amott.
Engineered by Fredrik Nordstrom.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.



Movie Review: Star Wars Episode VI - The Return of the Jedi (1983)


And so the saga comes to an end, with a non-stop parade of action that features a memorable tri-headed climax.

On the planet Endor, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) team up with a group of cuddly but strong-willed Ewoks (smallish bear-like creatures perfect for toy merchandising) to storm an Empire station powering the defensive shield of the latest version of the Death Star.

On the Death Star itself, Luke (Mark Hamill) engages with his Dad, Darth Vader, in an epic light saber battle, as well as a battle of competing wills overseen by the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid): Luke wants to draw Vader back to the positive side of the Force, while Vader wants Luke to join him on the Dark Side to jointly govern the galaxy as a father-and-son combo.

And finally, out in space, Lando Carlissian (Billy Dee Williams) and Chewbacca on board the Millennium Falcon lead a group of rebel fighters in their assault on the Death Star. Carlissian needs Solo to de-activitate the shield station on Endor before he can launch his final assault, and also needs Luke to end his duel and clear out of the Death Star before it is blown up into so much space dust.

It all ends well for the good guys, of course, but credit to Director Richard Marquand for effectively converting the entire second half of the movie into one long, breathless climax, and kudos also to writers George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan for dreaming up a satisfying ending to a grand series.

Return of the Jedi does also unfortunately include a long-winded opening where Leia, Luke and Carlissian save the carbonated Han from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt. This sequence is way too long - the only good thing thing about it is Carrie Fisher in that amazing golden metallic bikini - and there are way too many creatures in rubber costumes hanging out in Jabba's cave. In contrast, when Solo resumes his childishly-written romance with Leia, it is a relief.

There is also time for Luke to pay another visit to the planet Dagobah where Yoda finally decides that he is way too old to remain among the living; and for Luke and Leia to realize that they are brother and sister, clearing the way for Han to win Leia's heart.

At the end of a grand epic, Return of the Jedi is a well-executed exclamation mark.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Book Review: Always Looking Up, by Michael J. Fox (2009)


Sub-titled "The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist", Michael J. Fox's second book is a journey through the last 10 years, his life after show business.

After wrapping up Spin City in 2000 and effectively closing the curtain on a highly successful movie and TV career as an actor and executive, Fox embarked on a new phase in life heading the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. The Foundation quickly became one of the most successful and prominent centres for funding medical research, and this profile naturally, and almost unwittingly, landed Fox in the middle of the political stem cell research debate that raged during the George W. Bush Presidency.

Although not chronological, the book traces Fox's journey from 2000 to 2009, starting with Spin City wrapping up, and symbolically ending almost a decade later with President Obama flinging open the gates for federal funding of stem cell research. Fox's journey in these relatively few years is a remarkable transformation, from the heights of an acting career being jeopardized by the ravages of Parkinson's to the eye of the storm where medical research and politics collide.

He writes in an engaging, humorous, and self-depreciating style, and his eternally positive attitude and optimism shine through. Whenever he describes his painful daily battles with Parkinson's, he brings forward his comic - and sometimes hilarious - touch to great effect.

Fox provides crisp and vivid descriptions of his encounters with other celebrities who publicly fought vicious diseases, including Lance Armstrong, Muhammad Ali and Christopher Reeve. He also takes us into political town hall meetings, TV studios, high-society fundraising dinners, and into his family home.

There are passages in the book which do seem to be straining to pad the book's length towards 300 pages, but overall, the continuing adventures of the kid from Burnaby are well worth sharing.

276 pages.
Published in hardcover by Hyperion.





Ace Black Blog Book Review No. 28.
All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Music: All-Time Best Selling Heavy Metal Bands


The All-Time Best Selling Heavy Metal Bands

Updated December 5 2014.

Worldwide certified album sales for heavy metal bands complied from a variety of on-line sources are summarized below. Music sales figures are notoriously unreliable, and the numbers should be considered indicative only. The Certified Sales List is much more accurate than the wildly inflated and unsubstantiated claims often manufactured by record companies and perpetuated by fans (and sometime band members). Older bands from the seventies and early eighties tend to have less accurate and overall lower certified sales figures.

All sales are worldwide unless noted as US only. Depending on the band, certified US sales typically account for between 55% and 95% of worldwide certified sales. Bands like Bon Jovi, Nirvana and AC/DC have a more global reach with strong sales in markets like Japan, the UK, Canada, Germany and Australia. The likes of Motley Crue and Van Halen are much more US-centric.

Please email links to better or newer certified data, or to data for additional bands that should be researched and included, to aceblackblog@gmail.com.


Certified Sales List

3 Million (US only)
Dio

4 Million (US only)
Slayer

6 Million (US only)
Marilyn Manson

8 Million (US only)
Megadeth

9.7 Million
Soundgarden

10.4 Million
System Of A Down

10.5 Million (US only)
Alice Cooper

10.5 Million
Deep Purple

10.5 Million (US only)
Nine Inch Nails

12 Million (US only)
Alice In Chains

12.1 Million
Judas Priest

12.5 Million (US only)
Whitesnake

14 Million (US only)
Ted Nugent

14.5 Million (US only)
Poison

15 Million (US only)
Black Sabbath

16.5 Million (US only)
Korn

16.5 Million (US only)
Limp Bizkit

16.6 Million
Iron Maiden

18.9 Million
Scorpions

20 Million (US only)
Linkin Park

23.5 Million (US only)
Jimi Hendrix

23.5 Million (US only)
Kid Rock

25 Million (US only)
Rush

25 Million (US only)
ZZ Top

26.8 Million
Kiss

27.1 Million
Motley Crue

28 Million (US only)
Lynyrd Skynyrd

28.8 Million (US only)
Ozzy Osbourne

41.4 Million
Def Leppard

43.3 Million
Nirvana

63.8 Million
Van Halen

68.8 Million
Guns N' Roses

74.5 Million
Bon Jovi

83 Million
Aerosmith

90.1 Million
Metallica

109.5 Million
AC/DC

138.5 Million
Led Zeppelin


Bands still being researched:

Machine Head
Audioslave
Twisted Sister
Payable On Death (P.O.D.)
Tool
Anthrax
Cinderella
Disturbed
Saxon
Staind
Rob Zombie
Rage Against The Machine
Ratt
Europe
Godsmack
Papa Roach
Queensryche
Skid Row
Slipknot
Pantera
Motörhead
Sepultura


CD Review: Jugulator, by Judas Priest (1997)


After the departure of Rob Halford, both the face and the sound of Judas Priest for 20 years, the remaining band members pluck the unknown Tim "Ripper" Owens from the obscurity of the tribute band British Steel and hand him the lead vocal duties for the Jugulator CD. This was the band's first studio recording since Painkiller in 1990, and the fairytale of Ripper Owens both inspires the Rock Star movie storyline, and results in a very good heavy metal album.

There is no doubting Owens' impressive range, and he does an admirable job replicating Halford's attitude and distinctive high pitch. For all but serious fans of the band, it is difficult to tell Owens apart from Halford.

Despite being separated from Painkiller by seven years, Jugulator follows a similar formula. Priest sound heavier, tighter, and more controlled than their commercial glory days of the 1970's and 1980's. A lot of the credit goes to the booming power drumming of Scott Travis, and the surprisingly prominent bass of Ian Hill. Both add a depth to the Priest sound that was so often missing. Twin guitarists K. K. Downing and Glenn Tipton show a controlled maturity, with the solos mostly enhancing each song rather than wildly spinning out of control.

Jugulator is death obsessed and dives headlong into a long list of meaty topics, from prisoners on death row to brain dead patients. It's a welcome departure from the decades of mostly simplistic lyrics that handicapped a lot of Priest's earlier material.

The stronger songs include Brain Dead, Death Row, and Abductor, all three emphasizing power over speed and achieving strong momentum. Bullet Train is effective with a quicker pace, although it doesn't go quite as fast as its title suggests.

But Jugulator is most notable for the opening title track, and the closer Cathedral Spires. While Jugulator is a clear but respectful echo of the title track on Painkiller, Cathedral Spires instantly takes its place among heavy metal's all-time epic tracks, 9 minutes and 15 seconds of a rampaging Gothic monster that just keeps devouring the landscape and casting a gigantic and inescapable pitch black shadow. Cathedral Spires ends with the spine tingling doom-filled deep choir refrain

oh! we're so tired / watching the world expire / time that we retired / up in cathedral spires

over which Owens lets rip his falsetto to end the CD on a chillingly effective note.

Band:

Ripper Owens - Vocals
Glenn Tipton - Guitars
K. K. Downing - Guitars
Ian Hill - Bass
Scott Travis - Drums


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Jugulator - 10 *see below*
2. Blood Stained - 7
3. Dead Meat - 7
4. Death Row - 9
5. Decapitate - 6
6. Burn In Hell - 8
7. Brain Dead - 9
8. Abductors - 8
9. Bullet Train - 8
10. Cathedral Spires - 10

Average: 8.20

Produced by Glenn Tipton, K.K. Downing, and Sean Lynch.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.




Movie Review: Star Wars Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980)


Three years after Star Wars stunned the world of movie-making, the first sequel arrived, and George Lucas shocked everyone again by announcing The Empire Strikes Back as "Episode V". He revealed his vision for a nine-part epic, with the original Star Wars now re-named "Episode IV" and marking the beginning of just the middle trilogy.

The Empire Strikes Back itself is interesting in several respects. Lucas left the screenwriting duties to Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, and brought in Irvin Kershner as Director. Lucas focused his efforts on developing the special effects, further pushing the boundaries of visual achievement and again raising the benchmark of expectation.

The Empire Strikes Back is also different in not offering any sort of climactic grand action finale. The film instead has the essential but unglamorous task of developing its characters and filling in concepts that were only outlined in the original movie.

Thus a large part of Empire is occupied with Luke traveling to the planet Dagobah to meet the ancient Jedi Master Yoda and embark on his training as a Jedi. Through the slow and purposeful training scenes, both Luke and the viewer get to know a lot more about the Force and the ways of the Jedi. These scenes also serve as Luke's transition into adulthood and his understanding of the world and his role in it.

Meanwhile, Princess Leia and Han Solo find time to develop a clunky romance based on horribly cheesy dialogue as the rebels are routed out of their hideout on the icy planet Hoth. Thankfully Leia and Han soon need to focus on more important matters as they fall into the clutches of Darth Vader in Cloud City, a mining planet run by Lando Calrissian, an old shifty acquaintance of Solo.

Han ends up getting the worst of Calrissian's double-cross, while the closest thing that passes for a climax is a Luke and Darth Vader light saber duel that ends in a relative stalemate, notwithstanding Luke losing an arm, but not before a revelation that represents one of the more memorable and iconic moments in movie history.

Mark Hamill as the more mature and confident Luke does well and carries the main weight of Empire, while Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher need to contend with plastic lines and the worst of cliches as they fall in love based on...nothing much, really.

Visually, Lucas delivers the AT-AT Walkers as a stunning tank-as-massive-camel weapon for the Empire in the battle on Hoth, and then tops himself with the wire-trip trick that the rebels use to fell the lethal metal monsters. The AT-ATs quickly joined the long list of striking Star Wars symbols instantly recognizable beyond the movie world.

The Empire Strikes Back does not deliver the thrills of some of the other entries in the Star Wars saga, and it very much feels like the middle of the story with no sharp edges at either end, but it does fulfill its mission in providing significant depth to the Star Wars galaxy and its inhabitants.







All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Book Review: The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway (1952)


Sometimes astounding victories are quickly followed by bitter defeat. At other times, a devastating failure masks a remarkable success. And on a very few occasions, life challenges us to overcome fearsome physical obstacles in order to achieve huge but less visible gains in spiritual and emotional growth.

The true meanings of success and failure, victory and defeat, and life itself, are explored by Ernest Hemingway in this simple novella that won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize, and was a major factor in Hemingway winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954.

The Old Man and the Sea is the story of an old, down-on-his-luck baseball-loving Cuban fisherman names Santiago, who goes far out to sea in an attempt to break a long losing streak. He hooks a gigantic marlin that gives him a much bigger fight than he bargained for. The struggle of an old man alone to defeat a fish larger than his boat, and the unexpected fightback from nature, are the core of the book.

The story, short as it is, has three characters: the old man Santiago, the young boy who used to go out fishing with him, and the marlin. The boy only appears at the beginning and end of the book, and the fish is a silent but essential participant. We are left with Santiago as our vocal companion, with his thoughts, memories, motivations, manhood, endurance, self-doubt, dreams, growing attachment and respect for his foe, and his continuous plotting to nevertheless capture the fish and bring it home.

Hemingway elegantly combines the tactical battle between man and fish with the grander strategic tension between man and nature, and gently raises questions about all our struggles for growth and achievement, both internal and external.

Hemingway brings us onto the boat and into the old man's thoughts in short and sharp descriptive sentences, with an economy that packs every word with added significance. He strives for, and achieves, pure clarity in describing events both on the water and inside the old man's head.

The Old Man and the Sea was the last book published during Hemingway's life, and it is a fitting and moving tribute to a master writer.

127 pages.
Published in paperback by Scribner.






All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.



Monday, 18 January 2010

Movie Review: Star Wars Episode IV - A New Hope (1977)


In 1977, George Lucas reinvented all the rules of movie-making, relaunched the special effects industry, re-calibrated audience expectations and re-imagined the potential for film profitability.

Star Wars, as it was simply known upon its release, is one of those rare films that stands as a gigantic landmark in the history of cinema.

In terms of movie franchises, science fiction, special effects, sprawling epic stories, and movie merchandising, there are two eras: before Star Wars, and after Star Wars.

Star Wars turned out to be the fourth episode in what would become a multi-part movie series that spanned decades, and generated countless books, video games, TV series, and an entire collectible toy sub-industry. Star Wars also launched the career of Harrison Ford, who went on to become one of the biggest Hollywood stars, and re-ignited interest in space-related movies and television series.

The impact on culture was to be equally deep and long-lasting. The Force, warp-speed, holograms, Jedi Knights, the Death Star, Darth Vader, R2-D2, C-3PO, light sabres, and the term "Star Wars" itself all became integrated into everyday life and far transcended their humble movie origins.

The success of Star Wars is rooted in the creation of a vast, original, and complex galaxy (both figurative and literal), but weaving onto it a simple story of a farm-boy who must rise to fulfill his destiny in a strange world.

The farm-boy is of course Luke Skywalker, who stumbles onto a holographic message hidden within the robot R2-D2 by Princess Leia. The Princess is aiding the fledgling rebellion against the evil Empire, and she needs the help of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Luke soon finds Obi-Wan, and they team up with the smuggler Han Solo and his side-kick Chewbacca, a Wookiee, to rescue the Princess, who is in the clutches of Darth Vader.

Luke and Han free Leia while Vader duels with Obi-Wan. Although Vader wins the light sabre battle, Obi-Wan becomes "one with the Force" and gains the ability to help Luke from the beyond. And help will be needed as the rebels and Luke attack the fearsome Death Star in an epic space battle.

In addition to spectacular visual and sound effects and the majestic John Williams music score, Star Wars included several scenes of astounding originality that became instant movie classics. Among them the cantina scene on the planet Tatooine, the garbage compactor trap, the Millennium Falcon jumping to warp-speed, and the final attack on the Death Star.

And in the character of Darth Vader, Star Wars introduced one of the most fearsome and menacing movie villains, and also one of the most famous and loved film icons.

In front of the screen, Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Mark Hamill as Luke and Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia are all watchable and engaging, and they benefit from relatively sharp and witty dialogue that Lucas would unfortunately not match again in future entries. Star Wars is helped enormously by the sheer presence of Sir Alec Guinness who sparkles as Obi-Wan Kenobi and lends substantial weight to the story and the unfolding action.

Star Wars only gets better with age, and now that future parts of the story have been told, it shines ever more brightly as the foundational chapter in the most remarkable space epic ever put to film.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Saturday, 9 January 2010

Book Review: Animal Farm, by George Orwell (1945)


All Animals Are Created Equal
But Some Are More Equal Than Others


Orwell's novella about a popular revolution on a farm in England, where the long-suffering animals overthrow the farmer and take over the running of the farm, is a devastatingly insightful commentary on Communism.

Written in the shadow of the emergent dominance of the Soviet Empire over Europe in the 1940's, Orwell teases out the hypocrisy and in-built self-destruct buttons of populist revolutions, whereby the oppressed are doomed to remain oppressed, and one set of brutal and unpopular rulers is simply replaced by another.

Orwell skillfully includes all the colourful characters that play a role in a revolution; the intellectuals, the profiteers, the power-hungry, the spin doctors, the workers, the thugs, the revolution exporters, the poets, the easily influenced, the cynics, and the the elites who flee the shifting the political landscape -- they are all in Animal Farm as squabbling pigs, horses, cats, sheep, ravens, chickens, donkeys, and dogs, all with distinct personalities, packed into 140 pages of fast-moving revolution.

Orwell is thrifty in his prose, laser-like in his focus and makes every word count: the animals plot the take-over, carry out the revolution, organize themselves to run the farm, defeat a counter-attack, and then are helpless as the promised utopia of Communism slowly but surely devolves back into oppression.

Many of the ideas in Orwell's 1984 about state oppression, manipulation and propaganda have their seed in Animal Farm. It's a novella with an impact disproportionately more powerful than its length.





141 pages.
Published in paperback by Signet Classics.


Animal Farm at the Ace Black Store.
Ace Black Blog Book Review No. 26.

All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Movie Review: Star Wars Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005)


By far the darkest and strongest film in the prequel trilogy of the Star Wars saga, Revenge of the Sith plunges Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) into an impossible conflict: as the war rages between the Separatists and the Republic, the evil Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid as Darth Sidious) recruits Anakin to be a spy on the Jedi Council. The Council are equally suspicious of the Chancellor and want Anakin to report on him.

Meanwhile, Anakin is plagued by nightmares of Padme (Natalie Portman) dying during childbirth. The Chancellor exploits Anakin's fear of losing Padme (as he lost his mother in Episode II) by promising that the Dark Side of the force can defy death.

Darth Sidious, exposed and about to be killed by Master Jedi Mace Windu (Samuel Jackson), finally turns Anakin to his side, disposes of Windu and activates his plot to destroy all the Jedi and take full control of the galaxy.

A final epic confrontation between Anakin and his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), set against an impressive backdrop of an entire planet being destroyed by a volcanic eruption, ends with Anakin functionally destroyed but alive enough for Darth Sidious to reconstitute him as Darth Vader.

Padme anyway dies giving birth to twins, Luke and Leia, who are spirited away to different destinations. Obi-Wan and Yoda, the two surviving Jedi, go into hiding, and the stage is set for Episode IV - a New Hope, to pick up the story once Luke becomes an 18 year old.

The transformation of the prequel trilogy from the child-friendly Phantom Menace to Revenge of the Sith, where children are massacred and limbs are severed with wild abandon, is both remarkable and welcome. Revenge of the Sith is an admirable achievement, weaving together all the threads of a story told over six films and almost two decades from 1977 to 2005.

Episode III benefits from a marginally improved performance by Hayden Christensen, who, while still one dimensional in his acting, at least finds his feet and some flow as a conflicted Anakin. Natalie Portman is unfortunately boring as the pregnant Padme, all the spunk from Episode II knocked out of her. Ewan McGregor shines as Obi-Wan, now able to supply some weight to the role as an experienced Jedi.

George Lucas' writing still cannot get past obvious and stiff dialogue, with very little wit or sparkle. But the film looks gorgeous, and moves quickly through its 140 minute length without getting bogged down in any over-elaborate set-pieces. Episode III also introduces the colourful and fearsome cyborg General Grievous, who takes over as the leader of the Separatists after Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) is disposed of early; just watch the menacing Grievous go with four light sabres!

It remains to be seen whether or not any more Star Wars films will ever be made. Either way, Revenge of the Sith is a satisfying farewell to the most influential of space sagas.











All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Movie Review: Star Wars Episode II - Attack of the Clones (2002)


George Lucas is well known for his vision in creating the Star Wars saga, and his willingness to push the boundaries of cinematic special effects.

His skills in portraying human emotions are a lot less developed.

The middle part of any trilogy is always the trickiest, needing to bridge the introduction with the climax. To further complicate matters for Lucas, Attack of the Clones is very much an emotional bridge: the maturing of Anakin Skywalker and his training as a Jedi coincide with the battle for his soul between good and evil. His inability to control anger, and his willingness to fall in love in violation of the Jedi code, are key triggers to his downfall.

It's all heady human development stuff that would be a challenge to writers and directors who are experienced in story-telling at the human scale. In the hands of Lucas the writer and director, most of the emotional drama falls flat.

The scenes of the developing romantic relationship between Anakin (Hayden Christensen) and Padme (Natalie Portman) are by far the most painful to endure in the entire six-part series. The dialogue is hollow and laughable, the performances stiff, the chemistry toxic. The romantic scenes that Lucas conjures up reek with cliches (they actually roll on top of each other in a green field at one stage) and betray an utter lack of imagination, which is a dismal failure for Lucas.

He is not helped by Christensen, as the teenaged Anakin, delivering what must be one of the worst acting performances of the decade. He appears to be reading his lines in a boring monotone off the nearest wall, and is unable to project any genuine emotion or internal conflict.

The plot revolves around the rapidly deteriorating security situation in the Republic, as Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who is actually the evil Darth Sidious, continues to secretly fan the flames of war to justify the suspension of democracy. Helping him is Count Dooku (Christopher Lee, delivering a suitably understated and elegant performance), a former Jedi, who has aligned with the Trade Federation and is leading a separatist movement against the Republic.

An assassination attempt against Senator Padme Amidala of Naboo (Portman) results in Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi (a much improved Ewan McGregor) and his apprentice Anakin (Christensen) splitting up: Obi-Wan pursues Padme's attacker and uncovers a massive army of clones being readied for a massive escalation of the war.

Anakin is tasked with protecting Padme, but they instead fall in love and take a side trip to Tatooine, where Anakin must confront the destiny of his mother and face the ultimate anger management test -- which he fails miserably.

The action reaches a crescendo with Obi-Wan, Anakin, Padme, and a number of Jedi including Mace Windu and Yoda confronting Count Dooku and the large separatist army on the planet Geonosis. The Jedi are in trouble until the massive Clone army, now commanded by the Chancellor, intervenes and turns the tide of the battle in favour of the Republic, but Dooku survives to fight another day. Anakin and Padme decide to carry on with their illicit relationship, and Anakin begins to realize that he certainly does have a dark side.

The climactic battle on Geonosis is one of the highlights of the Star Wars opera. It is an all-out epic war sequence, and combines massed troops with impressive light sabre duels. Yoda's confrontation with Dooku is also well done. In all, the final third of the film goes some way towards making up for the clumsy middle.

Other than Christensen's hopeless performance, the cast are actually quite good. McGregor is much more confident as Obi-Wan, and Portman shines as the blossoming, athletic and resourceful Padme. Attack of the Clones is Portman's best moment in the Star Wars trilogy, slotting in between her child Queen role in Episode I and her pregnant-wife-in-panic mode of Episode III. Jackson and Lee add a good dose of gravitas to the proceedings.

A more adult-oriented, darker and more serious film compared to The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones did not mark a return to the greatness of hyperspace, but did place the series back on the right spaceship.







All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Movie Review: Star Wars Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999)


The first Star Wars movie in 16 years had to carry a large load: The expectations of an entire generation, as well as the foundations of the entire story.

On both counts, The Phantom Menace was a relative disappointment. Director and series creator George Lucas makes several critical decisions: he decides to start the story with Anakin Skywalker (the future Darth Vader) at age nine; Lucas then places Anakin at the centre of the action; and in a heroic role.

With these decisions, and intentionally or not, Lucas ends up creating what is a primarily a kid-oriented movie, and he shuts the door on any escape path by introducing the character of Jar Jar Binks as a cartoonish (although incomprehensible) sidekick.

Star Wars for kids does not work too well, particularly when coupled with awkward puppy love between Anakin and Queen Padme; and Lucas' uninspired dialogue.

Too many scenes take too long. Instead of the quick and sharp scenes that characterized episodes four to six, here we get an endless pod racing sequence that, from introduction to conclusion, seems to occupy half the movie and two thirds the budget.

Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn is by far the most watchable thing about the movie, and he stands tall among the otherwise unremarkable cast. Natalie Portman as Queen Padme and Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi are both stiff, and both would only get better in future episodes. Samuel Jackson as Mace Windu is the best of the supporting cast.

As for the story: Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are two Jedi Knights sent to the planet Naboo to help resolve what appears to be a minor economic dispute initiated by the Trade Federation. They are soon caught in an unexpected all out invasion of Naboo, and the Jedi help the young Queen Padme Amidala flee. En route to Coruscant where Padme will appeal to the Republic Senate for help, they stop at planet Tatooine for supplies and repairs, and there the Jedi and the Queen meet young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a slave boy.

Qui-Gon senses that the Force is enormously strong in Anakin, and after the interminable pod race, Qui-Gon takes Anakin into his care and nominates him for training as a Jedi. Crucially, Qui-Gon cannot also gain the freedom of Anakin's mother, and she is left behind as a slave on Tatooine. Nine year old Anakin is soon developing an icky crush on the not-much-older Queen.

Unbeknown to all, Senator Palpatine of Naboo (Ian McDiarmid), who is actually the Dark Sith Lord Darth Sidious, is behind the scenes manipulating the conflict with the Trade Federation, and he succeeds in using the dispute to get appointed as the Supreme Chancellor of the Senate, moving him a step closer to his evil plan to take full control of the galaxy.

The movie ends with Queen Padme leading the Naboo forces in a battle for freedom from the Trade Federation, and young Anakin unwittingly plays a key role in the battle outcome, while Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan square off against the cool Darth Maul, Palpatine's partner in evil.

Throughout, the imbecile Jar Jar Binks plays the fool, providing what is supposed to be comic relief, but for any viewer over 10 years old, he succeeds only in being irritating in the extreme.

There is plenty of action, blaster fights, and light sabre duels, and for all its faults the movie does maintain interest. But ultimately, it is adequate only as a kids' movie, and that's just not good enough for this franchise.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Movie Review: Reverse Angle (2009)


Made-for-TV movies get a lot of leeway to be awful -- but not this awful.

It's almost as if Reverse Angle is desperately trying to cram in as many lame cliches as is possible in two hours: the sassy, ambitious and attractive news reporter; the boss who is holding her back; the cameraman who longs for her attention; the meninblack assassins driving a black SUV; the car chase scene on a lonely rural road with our heroine forced off the road; the unlikely romance between two foes; the big corporate conspiracy to eliminate a new alternative source of energy; and the sudden appearance of many police officers and squad cars -- out of nowhere -- at the critical moment in the climactic scene.

And worse of all, one of the lamest tricks in the big book of bad movies -- the convenient memory loss that underpins the whole plot, with the many sudden "oh I remember now!" moments that are conveniently unbottled to hustle the action along.

I searched for a single, solitary original idea, but could not find one.

With Emmanuelle Vaugier as the reporter and Anthony Lemke as a fake motivational speaker who becomes the stiff romantic interest, Reverse Angle isn't bursting with talent. But while Canadian Vaugier (CSI:NY) may not be the world's best actress, even she deserves better than this. Perhaps, to start with, she needs a better agent.







All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Movie Review: Mr. Woodcock (2007)


What is Susan Sarandon doing in this movie?

That is only one of many unfathomable questions thrown up by the horrible Mr. Woodcock. Other questions include:

Did screenwriters Michael Carnes and Josh Gilbert really think that the 12th "woodcock" joke in the movie would still be funny? (they probably did).

How likely is it that a wimpy preppy author would defeat a robust and macho gym teacher at wrestling? (only in the imagination of Grade Z writers like Carnes and Gilbert).

Is small-time Director Craig Gillespie capable of handling actors like Sarandon and Billy Bob Thornton? (no).

As for the plot: John Farley (Seann William Scott) is a young and successful self-help author who goes back to his hometown in rural Nebraska to accept an award, only to find out that, to his horror, his mother Beverly (Sarandon) is in a romantic relationship with Mr. Woodstock (Thornton), the sadistic high school gym teacher. Farley proceeds to do his best to destroy his mother's happiness.

Once the plot elements are in place, Mr. Woodcock offers very little that is unpredictable, including Farley's slob of a former high school friend and the bright-eyed girl that he had a crush on.

And it says a lot about the failure of the film that Woodcock is an immediately more likable character than the bland Farley, although the film even manages to flub the basic old values / fake values premise that would have at least provided some weight to the proceedings.

Mr. Woodcock may have been trying to comment on the gullibility of self-help consumers, but given the smarts that he displays, it is also a real stretch to believe that Farley could have written down a sandwich order, let alone a best-seller about "letting go".

The only watchable thing in this wooden flop is Amy Poehler in a small role as Farley's driven but boozy publicist -- she steals every scene that she's in, but she's in too few scenes to save this one-joke bore.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Movie Review: My Best Friend's Girl (2008)


My Best Friend's Girl stinks like a pair of sweaty unwashed socks that have been forgotten for a week in the corner of the room.

Characters that are both unlikable and unrealistic. Events that are contrived and unbelievable. And a romance that is unlikely and underwhelming in its emotional impact.

It's all directed in ham-handed style by Howard Deutch, whose last good film was likely 1987's Some Kind of Wonderful.

Tank (Dane Cook) runs a one-man business of sorts where he specializes in taking women out on dates of the most horrible kind, so that they go running back to their previous, just-dumped boyfriends.

Tank shares his apartment with Dustin (Jason Biggs), who is madly in love with Alexis (Kate Hudson); but she's not interested. Dustin asks Tank to take out Alexis for a horror date, but to no one's surprise, Alexis actually falls for Tank, setting up that most fresh of movie premises: two guys after the same girl.

Now here's the thing -- does anyone care about a girl who is foolish enough to fall for a jerk like Tank?

Worse still, when Tank's personality turns on a dime and he starts behaving like a nice enough guy, does anyone believe the transformation?

The answers are no and no, and when the two characters at the core of the movie are both incredibly stupid and unbelievable, the movie is hopelessly beyond salvation

My Best Friend's Girl offers up some raunchy attempts at comedy, but it's much more rude than funny, and the whole film collapses in a heap of misdirected ambition, lack of chemistry, and limited talent.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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