Thursday, 25 February 2010

Movie Review: District 9 (2009)

A huge spaceship cruises over Johannesburg and comes to a stop. Eventually a large number of aliens, who look like giant prawns on legs, are welcomed to earth. They mainly take up residence in District 9, a cordoned-off ramshackle camp within the city.

Tensions between the humans and aliens grow over time, resulting in an attempt to relocate the residents out of District 9. Things go wrong when human government agent Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is infected by a mysterious substance and starts to morph into an alien. Horrifying for him and his wife, but fascinating for the government, since he can now use the aliens' sophisticated weapon systems.

District 9 is a well-made, sharply-delivered science-fiction film, remarkably similar to Avatar in terms of plot elements, but on one-tenth the budget. It demands sympathy for a strange looking alien race, introduces a human-to-alien transformation as a central plot element, portrays humans as both heavy-handed and under-handed, and quickly trots out something equivalent to the military-industrial complex to be the real evil.

That the first half of District 9 may be a metaphor for the mistreatment of blacks by the ruling white class during South Africa's apartheid era just adds a layer of poignancy.

But District 9 does unravel a bit in its second half, descending almost into a routine and forgettable action movie, with Wikus teaming up with one of the aliens, complete with cute young alien kid, to plan an unlikely escape from District 9 back to the mothership still hovering mysteriously overhead.

Sharlto Copley is the best thing about the film, as the well-meaning and naive government bureaucratic who finds himself turning into an alien. Particularly early in the movie, with Wikus going door-to-door in District 9 requesting the aliens' "consent" to be relocated, he embodies all that is distasteful about blatant government hypocrisy.

This is director Neill Blomkamp's first feature length film, and he puts his documentary storytelling style to good use. The movie effectively takes its time to establish the context, and there is no padding in the running length of under 2 hours.

District 9 is proof that a science fiction movie can be entertaining, thoughtful, and polished without necessarily costing the equivalent of a small country's GDP to make.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Football: Brief History of the World Cup

The history of the World Cup between 1930 and 2014 is summarized in the key facts and figures below.

World Cup Winners, Finalists, and Hosts

The World Cup tournament has been held 20 times, starting in 1930. No tournaments were held during the Second World War.

Winners: Uruguay. Finalists: Argentina. Hosts: Uruguay.

Winners: Italy. Finalists: Czechoslovakia. Hosts: Italy.

Winners: Italy. Finalists: Hungary. Hosts: France.

Winners: Uruguay. Finalists: Brazil*: Hosts: Brazil
*Note: There was no Final game in 1950. The group game between Uruguay and Brazil determined the winner, and was effectively the "Final".

Winners: West Germany. Finalists: Hungary. Hosts: Switzerland.

Winners: Brazil. Finalists: Sweden. Hosts: Sweden.

Winners: Brazil. Finalists: Czechoslovakia. Hosts: Chile

Winners: England. Finalists: West Germany. Hosts: England.

Winners: Brazil. Finalists: Italy. Hosts: Mexico.

Winners: West Germany. Finalists: Holland. Hosts: West Germany.

Winners: Argentina. Finalists: Holland. Hosts: Argentina.

Winners: Italy. Finalists: West Germany. Hosts: Spain.

Winners: Argentina. Finalists: West Germany. Hosts: Mexico.

Winners: Germany. Finalists: Argentina. Hosts: Italy.

Winners: Brazil. Finalists: Italy. Hosts: USA.

Winners: France. Finalists: Brazil. Hosts: France.

Winners: Brazil. Finalists: Germany. Hosts: Japan and South Korea

Winners: Italy. Finalists: France. Hosts: Germany.

Winners: Spain. Finalists: Holland. Hosts: South Africa

Winners: Germany. Finalists: Argentina. Hosts: Brazil.


Eight different countries have won the World Cup:

Brazil: 5 World Cups. 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002
Italy: 4 World Cups. 1934, 1938, 1982, 2006
Germany / West Germany: 4 World Cups: 1954, 1974, 1990, 2014
Uruguay: 2 World Cups: 1930, 1950
Argentina: 2 World Cups: 1978, 1986
England: 1 World Cup: 1966
France: 1 World Cup: 1998
Spain: 1 World Cup: 2010


Eleven countries have made it to at least one World Cup final game. Dates in italics represent victories:

Germany / West Germany: 8 Finals: 1954, 1966, 1974, 1982, 1986, 1990, 2002, 2014
Brazil: 7 Finals. 1950*, 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 1998, 2002
Italy: 6 Finals. 1934, 1938, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006
Argentina: 5 Finals: 1930, 1978, 1986, 1990, 2014
Holland: 3 Finals: 1974, 1978, 2010
Uruguay: 2 Finals: 1930, 1950*
France: 2 Finals: 1998, 2006
Czechoslovakia: 2 Finals: 1934, 1962
Hungary: 2 Finals: 1938, 1954
England: 1 Final: 1966
Sweden: 1 Final: 1958
Spain: 1 Final: 2010

*Note: There was no Final game in 1950. The group game between Uruguay and Brazil determined the winner, and was effectively the "Final".

Tournament Appearances

Only Brazil have appeared in all 20 editions of the World Cup tournament. The following countries have appeared in 10 or more tournaments:

Brazil: 20
Germany / West Germany: 18
Italy: 18
Argentina: 16
Mexico: 15
England: 14
France: 14
Spain: 14
Belgium: 12
Uruguay: 12
Serbia / Yugoslavia: 11
Sweden: 11
Holland: 10
Russia / USSR: 10
Switzerland: 10
USA: 10

Player Records

Most Tournaments Played:
5: Antonio Carbajal (Mexico, 1950 - 1966); Lothar Matthaus (West Germany / Germany, 1982 - 1998); and Gianluigi Buffon (Italy, 1998 - 2014).

Most World Cups Won:
3: Pele (Brazil, 1958, 1962, 1970)

Most Matches Played:
25: Lothar Matthaus (West Germany / Germany)

Most Goals Scored, All-Time:
16: Miroslav Klose (Germany)
15: Ronaldo (Brazil)
14: Gerd Muller (West Germany)
13: Just Fontaine (France)
12: Pele (Brazil)
11: Jurgen Klinsmann (Germany / West Germany)
11: Sandor Kocsis (Hungary)
10: Thomas Muller (Germany)
10: Gabriel Batistuta (Argentina)
10: Teofilo Cubillas (Peru)
10: Grzegorz Lato (Poland)
10: Gary Lineker (England)
10: Helmut Rahn (West Germany)

Most Goals Scored in One Tournament:
13: Just Fontaine (France, 1958)
11: Sandor Kocsis (Hungary, 1954)
10: Gerd Muller (West Germany, 1970)
9: Eusebio (Portugal, 1966)
8: Ademir (Brazil, 1950)
8: Ronaldo (Brazil, 2002)
8: Guillermo Stabile (Argentine, 1930)

Most Goals Scored in One Match:
5: Oleg Salenko (For Russia vs. Cameroon, 1994)

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Football: 13 Great World Cup Moments

13 Great World Cup Moments

Here is a look back at some defining and ever-lasting World Cup memories. The first World Cup tournament was played in 1930, and in total, 18 World Cup Final tournaments have been held, resulting in numerous memorable moments. The terrific memories described below are from the more recent World Cups, starting in 1966. These moments capture the drama, controversy, heroism, and moments of sublime skill that define the World Cup.

1966: Hurst's Hat-Trick -- or Was It?!
Considered the first modern World Cup tournament thanks to extensive television coverage, and held in football's birthplace, the 1966 tournament in England will forever be remembered for a dramatic Final. Hosts England faced West Germany, and England's Geoff Hurst scored a hat-trick, still the only player to ever do so, as England triumphed 4-2 after extra time. The Final also featured a dramatic late equalizer in normal time by the Germans, and a still-disputed goal which proved to be the winner: Hurst's second goal, giving England the 3-2 lead in extra time, smashed against the underside of the bar and dropped down -- but was the ball ever fully behind the line? The linesman said yes, and the debate has never ended. The video below captures  the disputed goal. In or out?

1970: Brazil's Perfect Goal The Brazil side that won the 1970 World Cup in Mexico is often cited as the most perfect team to ever lift the trophy. Playing stylish, attacking football, and featuring an unrivalled collection of gifted players like Pele, Jairzinho, Gerson, Tostao and Rivelino, Brazil often seemed to be on a different level altogether compared to their opponents. It was no surprise that they brushed aside Italy 4-1 in the Final. Brazil's fourth goal, scored in the 86th minute by captain Carlos Alberto, epitomized Brazil's brand of football. A flowing end-to-end and flank-to-flank move featuring seven Brazilian players, a combination of individual skill and teamplay, and finished with gusto by the overlapping Alberto's unstoppable shot into the corner of the net. See the perfect goal in the video below.


1974: Holland's Total Football Four years after Brazil set the standard, Holland burst onto the scene and re-invented the game with the Total Football concept. Based on contiuous player movement, fluid exchange of positions, maintaining ball control through intricate passing, and anchored by sublime individual skills, Holland introduced the world to a new game and strode majestically to the Final, with maestro Johan Cruyff as the main conductor of the orchestra. In the video below, watch for the chipped passes, quick pass exchanges, frequent through balls, continuous player movement and change of direction, individual skill, and the non-stop movement of the ball from flank to flank. Watch also for the opposing players, international players who often seem simply mesmerized and unable to read the play.

1978: Peru's Capitulation Argentina, the host country and governed by a brutal military dictatorship, needed to beat Peru by four clear goals in their final second stage group game to qualify for the Final ahead of long-time rivals Brazil. The schedule very much suited the hosts, since their game kicked off several hours after Brazil's game against Poland, which meant that Argentina knew exactly what they needed to do to reach the Final. Peru were one of the better teams at the tournament, having played well and made it through to the second Group stage. Argentina won the game 6-0 in what appeared to be scandalous fashion, and fingers were pointed to Peru's keeper Ramon Quiroga, who was actually born in Rosario, Argentina. The hosts went on to defeat Holland 3-1 after extra time in the Final, and claim their first World Cup victory. Do Argentina's goals against Peru look too easy? Judge for yourself from the video below.


1982: Rossi's Hat-Trick Brazil were the class of the 1982 World Cup, held in Spain. With players like Zico, Socrates and Falcao, Brazil played fluid, attacking football that enchanted the world. Through their first four games they brushed aside opponents with dismissive ease, winning all four by a combined margin of 13-3. Meeting Italy in their final second stage group game, Brazil just needed a draw to advance to the Semi-Final. Italy had scraped through the first group stage, luckily qualifying for the second round despite only drawing their opening three games. In a remarkable upset, Italy beat Brazil 3-2, with diminutive striker Paolo Rossi scoring all three of Italy's goals. Prior to the game many were questioning why Rossi was in the Italian side, having been involved in a betting scandal in his native Italy prior to the tournament, and not having looked sharp in any of Italy's first four games. Both Italy and Rossi caught fire at the right time, and went on win the World Cup with Rossi scoring a total of 6 goals in three games. For a lesson in clinical finishing by a real goal poacher when it mattered most, see the video below.

1982: The Epic Semi-Final France met West Germany in the 1982 Semi-Final, with France inspired by the brilliant Michel Platini and industrious Alain Giresse, while West Germany featured tricky winger Pierre Littbarski and forward Klaus Fischer, but hobbled with injury to their star striker Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, who was consigned to the substitute bench. An epic game of immense drama ensued, with West Germany taking the lead but France equalizing through a penalty. German keeper Harald Schumacher then violently body-checked France's Patrick Battiston, knocking him unconscious. Schumacher somehow escaped any punishment from the referee. The game was tied 1-1 at full time and went into 30 minutes of extra-time, during which France took a 3-1 lead and looked certain to advance to the Final. But Rummenigge came off the bench and inspired his team to a remarkable comeback. Rummenigge scored to make it 3-2 and Fisher notched the equalizer with a spectacular overhead kick. For the first time in modern World Cup history a hugely important game would be decided on penalty kicks, and even then the score was tied after the first five kicks for each side. West Germany finally triumphed when French player Max Bossis missed his side's sixth kick. An exhausted West German team went on to meekly lose the Final to Italy. All the drama from the epic semi-final is in the video below.

1986: The Hand of God England met Argentina in the 1986 Quarter Finals in Mexico, just four years after the countries had fought the Falklands War. With the game tied at 0-0, a badly sliced defensive clearance seemed to be an easy save for England's goalkeeper Peter Shilton, but as he jumped to punch the ball clear, Argentine's Diego Maradona jumped in front of him and fisted the ball over Shilton and into the net. Amazingly, the referee and the linesmen allowed the goal to stand. Argentina went on to win the game 2-1. Maradona later said that the goal was assisted by the Hand of God, giving an appropriate label to one of the most famous events in World Cup history. Have a look at the most controversial goal in football history in the video below.

1986: Goal of the Century It is rare enough for a game to produce one eternal memory; all the more surreal when one game produces two all-time legendary goals. Three minutes after the Hand of God goal, Maradona picked up the ball just inside his own half, and proceeded on a fast and mazy 10-second dribble in which he beat four England players before slotting the ball past Peter Shilton. The goal was later voted Goal of the Century in a 2002 poll. Argentina, inspired by Maradona, went on to brush aside Belgium in the semi-finals and defeated West Germany in an enthralling final to claim their second World Cup. Have a look at the Goal of the Century in the video below.


1990: Milla's Flag Dance In the 1990 World Cup hosted by Italy, Cameroon made history by becoming the first African nation to qualify for the second round. There they met a strong Colombian side, tipped as one of the favourites to win the tournament. The Colombian keeper, Rene Higuita, was trying to single-handedly invent a new style of goalkeeping where he played almost as an extra defender, regularly involving himself in passes among the outfield players and leaving his net dangerously exposed. Higuita did not count on Roger Milla, the wily veteran Cameroon striker. Thought to be 38 years old at the time but likely a bit older, he came on as a substitute. In the second half of extra time with the game scoreless, Milla powered in a goal to give his side the lead. For good measure, three minutes later Milla embarrassed Higuita by dispossessing him and burying the ball in the unguarded net to give Cameroon the win. He celebrated each of his goals by racing to the corner flag for an emotional dance, capturing the world's imagination. Have a look at a veteran footballer
making history in the video below.


1994: Baggio's Balloon The 1994 World Cup final, held in the USA, was between Brazil and Italy. What was expected to be an entertaining affair with Romario and Bebeto leading the Brazilian attack and Roberto Baggio inspiring the Italians turned into a drab and scoreless game. Brazil missed the better chances, but the game ended up being the first Final to be decided on penalties. With Brazil leading 3-2 after four kicks each, Baggio stepped up to take Italy's fifth penalty, needing to score to prolong the final. He ballooned the ball so high over the net that the ball still hasn't landed. The man whose mystical midfield skills had carried Italy all the way to the Final will forever be remembered for one of the worst ever World Cup penalty kicks. The entire penalty shoot-out of the '94 Final is in the video below.


1998: Ronaldo's Meltdown The Brazilian striker Ronaldo, at 22 years old, was already the world's most famous footballer and most clinical goal scorer. With the world watching his every move and the hopes of Brazil on his shoulders, the pressure was immense. Brazil stuttered through the tournament unconvincingly, winning by narrow margins against inferior opposition, but they made it through to the Final, with Ronaldo scoring an adequate but not shattering four times in six games. Hosts France were Brazil's opposition in the Final, but all the drama happened before the kick-off: first Brazil submitted a starting line-up that shockingly excluded Ronaldo; then they changed it and included him. What happened in the hours before kick-off remains shrouded in mystery and confusion, but it transpired that Ronaldo suffered a panic attack severe enough to require hospitalization. Another subject of debate is how much sponsor influence was exerted to re-insert him into the starting line up, regardless of his physical condition. In the end, France, inspired by Zinedine Zidane, convincingly triumphed 3-0, with a shell-shocked Brazil never threatening and Ronaldo largley ineffectual. Ronaldo did come back to help Brazil win the trophy in 2002, and scored enough goals in the 2006 tournament to become the all-time leading scorer in the World Cup. The highlights of the 1998 Final are in the video below.


2002: South Korea's Journey In a demonstration of how far team spirit can go, South Korea, the co-hosts with Japan of the 2002 World Cup Finals, made it all the way to the Semi-Final. A combination of hard work, good fortune, tremendous fan support, and a series of controversial decisions saw the South Koreans go further than any other Asian team in the history of the World Cup. South Korea convincingly won their group, ahead of more heralded teams like Portugal. In Round 2, Italy were sensationally defeated 2-1 in extra time, the South Koreans equalizing in the 88th minute and scoring the golden goal winner in the 117th minute. In the Quarter Finals, South Korea controversially defeated Spain on penalties, after Spain had two apparently good goals disallowed. The South Korean dream run ended with a 1-0 defeat to the Germans in the Semi Finals, but not before proving that team spirit can go a long way towards remarkable success. The video below captures South Korea's journey at the 2002 World Cup.


2006: Zidane's Moment of Madness With the Final between Italy and France in Germany finely poised at 1-1, the game entered extra time. The Italians were visibly tiring and the French, inspired by Zinedine Zidane, were beginning to boss the game and looked the more likely to score. Zidane came close to giving France the lead, powering a thunderous header on the Italian net, but Italy's goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon pulled off a magnificent flying save. Minutes later, Zidane used his head again, but this time to deliver a devastating head-butt into the chest of Italian defender Marco Materazzi. Zidane was duly sent-off, France lost the initiative, and Italy won the game on penalty kicks. It later emerged that Zidane reacted to a Materazzi insult about his sister. His moment of madness may well have cost his country a second World Cup triumph. The first video below shows Zidane using his head the right way to force the magnificent Buffon save. The second video is the moment of madness.


Wednesday, 17 February 2010

CD Review: Screaming For Vengeance, by Judas Priest (1982)

With their eighth studio album, Judas Priest achieve widespread popular appeal, radio play, and multi-platinum status. They also take several steps away from innovative metal and move towards some non-threatening and fairly boring music. The guitar solos are routine, Rob Halford's vocals generally subdued, the songs simple and often descending into the simplistic. There are few strong melodies and no complex compositions, just straight-ahead songs aiming primarily for popular appeal.

However, Screaming For Vengeance does deliver some gems: Electric Eye introduces a hypnotic riff that carries joyful high speed. Title track Screaming For Vengeance is refreshingly dangerous and equally fast, and finally allows guitarists Tipton and Downing to let rip, radio be damned. Fever provides an interesting and effective slower and more deliberate tempo.

The album has more than its fair share of mediocrity. Bloodstone is somewhat repetitive and boring. (Take These) Chains is much more pop than metal, attempting to reach the mass market. Pain And Pleasure has a strong chorus surrounded by a lazy song. Commercial hit You've Got Another Thing Comin' summarizes all that is poor here: a shallow, simplistic, fist-pumping track aimed at a non-metal audience. The utterly forgettable Devil's Child defines "filler".

The band's typical lack of sound depth is once again evident, with Ian Hill's bass non-existent, while on drums, often Priest's weakness, Dave Holland labours away to no great effect.

The album is sloppily produced by Tom Allom. The sound is neither raw nor polished, just bland and undistinguished.

Screaming For Vengeance has its strong points, but it is more likely to be appreciated by fans of the simple rather than the sublime.


Glenn Tipton - Guitar
K. K. Downing - Guitar
Rob Halford - Vocals
Ian Hill - Bass
Dave Holland - Drums

Songlist - Rating out of 10:

1. The Hellion - n/a (short instrumental)
2. Electric Eye - 10
3. Riding On The Wind - 8
4. Bloodstone - 7
5. (Take These) Chains - 6
6. Pain And Pleasure - 7
7. Screaming For Vengeance - 9
8. You've Got Another Thing Comin' - 6
9. Fever - 8
10. Devil's Child - 5

Average: 7.33

Produced by Tom Allom.

The Ace Black Blog CD Review No. 67.
All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Book Review: The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright (2006)

In the flood of books written after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower claims a place near the top of the heap in terms of depth, importance, thoroughness, and readability. It joins The Age of Sacred Terror (2002), by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, as an essential book on the topic.

Subtitled Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, The Looming Tower deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction. It is a rich historical narrative that traces the emergence of Islamic extremism from its roots in the early 1900's to the fateful fall of 2001.

Author Lawrence Wright, a staff writer for The New Yorker and a fellow at the Center on Law and Security at New York University, combines exhaustive research with a wonderful writing style. His research is evidenced by a list of more than 500 people interviewed in preparing this book; a 12 page Bibliography listing more than 200 reference books and documents; and more than 50 pages of Notes. This is as close to an academic study of the events leading up to the attacks of 9/11 as we are likely going to get.

Wright's key challenge is packaging the research into a cohesive and engaging story, and this he achieves brilliantly. The lives of Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual father of modern Islamic extremism; Osama Bin Laden, founder of Al-Qaeda; and Ayman al-Zawihiri, founder of al-Jihad and ultimately Bin Laden's partner, emerge out of the shadows and into full colour. We get to know not only these men, but their homes, parents, wives, children, associates, influences, and evolving motivations.

Key transformational events that lead to the radicalization of Islam's fringes and Al-Qaeda's emergence are revealed. Wright takes us into the key towns, meetings, battles, prisons, interrogation rooms and training camps as critical events unfold over several decades. The environment that surrounded each man and event is brought to life to provide a rich context, and the result is a most well-rounded description of the path to radicalization.

The final one third of the book places Al-Qaeda somewhat in the background, and brings to the forefront the story of the key FBI, CIA, and National Security Council agents who had the best opportunity to stop the attacks of 9/11. Wright excels again by providing a gripping account of the brutal inter-agency battles that prevented the dots from being connected.

Despite the mounting evidence from the brazen attacks on the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the attack on the USS Cole, the lack of cooperation between the FBI and CIA allows Al-Qaeda to proceed virtually unimpeded with the planning and execution of the attacks on US soil. Wright neatly describes all the dots that were available, and reveals the reasons why the connecting lines were never drawn.

FBI agent John O'Neill was one of the few to understand the gravity of the Al-Qaeda threat, and he most ironically died at the World Trade Centre after having retired from the FBI mere days before the attack. He takes centre stage in the story of the counter-terrorism intelligence efforts. Wright succeeds in painting a full portrait of O'Neill's larger-than-life personality, and a career spent battling large bureaucracies, personal enemies and internal demons.

The Looming Tower is a rare achievement: an essential, well-written, multi-dimensional history of critical events spanning several decades and occurring across the globe.

421 pages, plus Principle Characters, Notes, Bibliography, and Index.
Published in softcover by Vintage Books, a division of Random House.

Ace Black Blog Book Review No. 32.
All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Metal - A Headbanger's Journey (2005)

Anthropology and heavy metal music are two subjects that rarely make it into the same sentence; but this does not deter anthropologist, heavy metal fan and documentary film-maker Sam Dunn. He sets out on a journey to better understand the history, evolution and global reach of his favourite music.

The result is an entertaining, well-made and thoughtful examination of heavy metal.

Dunn, from Victoria, British Columbia, traces metal's origins and its branching out into the numerous sub-genres exemplified by countless bands. Through interviews with band members old and new and fans world-wide, he examines metal's cultural influence, social and gender issues, battles with censorship, and links to satanism and violence. A particular highlight, unfortunately short, is Dunn's exploration of the direct links between classical music and heavy metal.

The first half of Metal - A Headbanger's Journey is crisp, sharp and funny. The second half gets lost in a couple of segments that are too long, in particular an unnecessarily drawn-out journey to Norway to explore criminals linked to extreme metal bands.

The highlights are undoubtedly the elegantly edited interviews with metal icons. The interviews with Dee Snider of Twisted Sister and Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead are both smart and entertaining, and the DVD includes a second disc with extended interviews that did not make it into the documentary.

Dunn is not afraid to insert himself straight into the culture that he's documenting -- his continued obsession with metal forms an endearing thread throughout the movie, to the point that we sympathize with his awkwardness when he sits down to interview Bruce Dickinson, his boyhood idol. We also laugh with him as he reveals his boyhood enthrallment with cartoonish blood-soaked lyrics.

Metal - A Headbanger's Journey is a clever examination of a cultural phenomenon that is as powerful as it is misunderstood.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Movie Review: Friday the 13th (2009)

As if time had stood still, the 2009 version of Friday the 13th adds absolutely nothing to the original 1980 horror classic.

This remake is a cinematic paint by numbers of the gagging kind. The true horror on display is the ineptness of the project: everything from the nauseatingly stereotypical multi-cultural mix of teenagers lined up for slaughter, through the various methods of killing, to the oh-so-tired final "shock", is wooden, recycled from the discarded remains of countless other movies, and delivered with all the flair of concrete shoes.

There is exactly one memorable moment in the movie, about 3 seconds in duration, a good one-liner about a hockey stick being a suitable accessory to mass murderer Jason's outfit.

The majority of the victims of Jason's latest rampage through Crystal Lake (which, somehow, required two screenwriters and three "story" credits) are obnoxious, stupid and aggravating to the point that they can't die soon enough or with enough brutality. Cheering for Jason may have been the purpose here all along, and he's certainly among the more sympathetic characters, acting like a useful terminator of hyper-sexed teens who are otherwise too inept to deserve oxygen.

Michael Bay either reveals the true depth of his lack of talent or remarkable lack of judgement by being associated with this mess as a Producer. The rest of the cast and crew are unknown, and on this evidence, likely to remain so.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Yes, it's all fun and games and lots of Nazis get killed; but does the world really need a World War II fairy tale?

A conflict that engulfed the globe for six years surely has enough incredible stories that are real, close-to-real, or capable of inspiring sensational but still reality-based fiction, and over the years Hollywood has generated no shortage of World War II movies that cover all these various dimensions of reality, from the extremely serious to the wildly gung-ho.

Still, a revenge fairy-tale in which all high-ranking Nazis, including Hitler himself, congregate at a dingy Parisian cinema only to get slaughtered and burnt to death by the combination of a rag-tag commando unit and a Jewish girl? Is this what scraping the bottom of the intellectual barrel looks like when it is packaged and polished by a high profile director with a respectable ensemble cast?

From the mis-spelled movie title to some clearly derivative scenes, Quentin Tarantino is clearly not taking any of this seriously, yet the movie never quite places itself as a satire. The result is a general mis-match between intent and execution, with too many scenes played straight and asking for an emotional investment, only for the overall story arch to be just slightly short of farce.

Christoph Waltz as the Jew hunter Hans Landa emerges from the chaos with a priceless performance that will long survive the memory of the movie. He is all sleazy charm effortlessly combined with ruthless fascism. His scenes have a deliciously uneasy edge and deserve to be wrapped into an entirely better and more serious film.

Brad Pitt appears unsure if he is re-making The Dirty Dozen or an arts film. The rest of the cast stick closely to the first of one dimensions.

Inglourious Basterds is not short of entertainment. It is just glouriously unnecessary.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Hurt Locker (2008)

No so much a traditional movie as a series of tension-packed set-pieces, The Hurt Locker succeeds in re-creating the extreme and continuous pressure faced by the army units responsible for deactivating and disposing of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). And with IEDs being by far the weapon of choice of insurgents in Iraq, the men responsible for neutralizing them are effectively the front line.

Jeremy Renner as Sergeant William James brings life and personality as the bomb disposal expert, freaking out his unit on a regular basis with his unconventional and apparently risky methods. It's a polished but still stereotypical portrayal of the war hero who thrives by ignoring all the rules. The rest of the characters in The Hurt Locker are routine in the extreme and exchangeable with any number of soldiers who have populated war movies for the past 70 years or so.

The movie builds all of its drama around a series of well constructed exclamation points, as bombs (and in one case, snipers) are discovered and the unit needs to swing into action to understand and eliminate the threat. The ticking bomb is one of the oldest movie tricks in the repertoire, but Director Kathryn Bigelow manages to maintain a high stress level mainly by injecting uncertainty everywhere: are the Iraqis on the balconies curious on-lookers or about to detonate the bombs? Are the civilians wandering near the bomb disposal unit naive innocents or themselves a danger?

The tight rope that the soldiers must walk between protecting themselves and not harming innocent locals is at the heart of The Hurt Locker. There is a clumsy attempt to introduce the story of a local Iraqi boy who befriends Sergeant James, but whenever The Hurt Locker veers away from scenes that focus on immediate threats, it loses its way.

The war in Iraq will no doubt inspire a new generation of war movies. The Hurt Locker is unlikely to be the best of them, but it deserves credit for shining a unique spotlight on one of the war's most thankless and dangerous jobs.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Movie Review: I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell (2009)

And so Tucker Max becomes one of the early internet age faux-celebrities with a great career behind him.

His book of the same name, reviewed here, was very funny in the most juvenile way, and turned him into a hero in the drunken eyes of losers everywhere, and created a legend in his own mind. It takes a special lack of cinematic talent to take such a funny series of adventures and turn them into a stultifyingly boring movie, but the cast and crew assembled here pull it off.

While the book offers a non-stop sequence of genuinely funny short stories from Tucker's life, the movie manages to provide just one partially memorable scene, that being the now infamous race through the hotel lobby in a panicked search for a bathroom.

The rest of this disaster is a bland, humourless non-story about Tucker ruining his friend's bachelor party by dragging him to a supposedly hot strip joint. That's it. No, really.

It ends, not soon enough, with a smarmy apology scene that fools no one.

Director Bob Gosse displays a set of skills appropriate for a daytime soap-opera episode, while a set of mostly unknown actors, including Matt Czuchry and Jesse Bradford, work hard to make sure that they remain largely unknown.

The movie flamed out at the box office before the first batch of popcorn even popped. Tucker Max blamed its failure on poor marketing. Trust me on this one, no amount of marketing would have saved this piece of garbage -- it smells just as bad as that hotel lobby.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Movie Review: Avatar (2009)

Watching Avatar in 3-D, the word that comes to mind is: game-changer.

In terms of technical achievement, Avatar redefines the benchmarks. Here is a whole new lush planet, Pandora, that comes to life at a level of detail that is orders of magnitude beyond anything seen in the Star Wars movies. Here also is a new virtual species, the Na'vi, who start out looking strange at 10 feet tall, blue and with tails, but end the movie as more familiar and more human than the earthlings.

And most of all, here is gorgeous 3-D technology being put to use to create life without gimmicks, without gizmos, and without spears or rocks being thrown at the audience. The 3-D is simply and brilliantly used to draw the audience into the movie and create a level of involvement never experienced before. Avatar is not a movie watched; it is movie experienced.

After his achievements with Terminator, Titanic, and now Avatar, director and writer James Cameron has cemented his place among the all-time giants of the movies.

The story of Avatar is powerful enough, but will certainly not win any awards for originality. It is a modern, science-driven take on the often-told narrative of invaders with a heavy foot trampling over a pristine land and disrupting the lives of locals. Substitute Pandora for North America and the Na'vi for natives; or allow the whole movie to represent US foreign policy in the Middle East -- it's all been done before.

The details here revolve around mining for the precious mineral called Unobtanium (clever name), which is only found on Pandora. The humans have established a joint scientific / military base to extract the stuff, but unfortunately the Na'vi keep getting in the way. The Na'vi combine ferocious but basic fighting skills with stealth, speed and oneness with nature to create a formidable obstacle in the way of the heavily armed but blunt human troops.

The science team (led by Sigourney Weaver as Dr. Grace Augustine) develops avatars in the shape of the Na'vi, to allow humans to take on native form and appearance. The objective is to better understand what it will take to move the Na'vi out of the way of the biggest Unobtanium deposit.

Jack Sully (Sam Worthington), a paralyzed marine who gains full mobility in his avatar, quickly becomes the focal point for both the scientists and the soldiers, as he is accepted by the Na'vi -- and falls in love with the daughter (Zoe Saldana) of the Na'vi chief. The ensuing conflicts that erupt between duty and love, aliens and natives, scientists and soldiers, science and nature, the physical and the spiritual, are all familiar, but are treated on an impressively grand and deeply satisfying scale.

Avatar is an immersive, breathtaking experience, and claims an undeniable place among the most major of milestones in movie history.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Book Review: 747, by Joe Sutter (2006)

Joe Sutter was the head of the team that developed the 747 Jumbo Jet at Boeing, in the late 1960's and early 1970's. As the first twin-aisle widebody jet, the 747 revolutionized both passenger travel and air freight shipments around the globe. The 747 spawned a host of variants and derivatives, customized for specific uses, and remains in production today.

Sutter's book provides excellent insight into the aviation industry, and although the story of the 747 is the central focus of the book, Sutter nicely places his career in perspective with several childhood stories that establish his early love for aviation engineering. He grew up a stone's throw away from Boeing's airfields in Seattle, and during his childhood observed the latest innovations in airline design, both successful and not so successful, taking off, landing (or sometimes crashing), and being tested literally at his doorstep.

He also provides insight into his experience in World War II, and his role as a young engineer on many of the significant jets that were developed at Boeing prior to the 747, such as the 707 and the 727. From his earlier experiences he highlights the critical lessons learned in people management skills as well as in overcoming some of the most difficult aeronautical challenges of the jet age.

Sutter manages the difficult task of describing highly technical issues in language that is accessible but that remains respectful of the engineering involved. He also excels in telling the specific story of the 747's development, recounting the corporate, technical, and personal challenges that had to be patiently overcome, and explaining how some of the most critical decisions came about. Highlights include deciding to develop a widebody instead of the widely expected double-decker, and the challenge of building one of the largest, most complex and most successful jets ever while actually being perceived as the distant third priority at Boeing -- a company which happened to be at the brink of bankruptcy.

Sutter was obviously a brilliant engineer and a highly effective team leader and problem solver. In his eighties when he put this story on paper, the book is written in a functional engineer's style, and although Jay Spenser is credited as a co-writer, 747 the book would have benefited from a lot more editing to add the artistic storytelling flavour that is clearly not Sutter's strength -- and to eliminate some endless repetition. The story of the 747's development is filled with larger-than-life secondary characters (including the heads of Boeing and Pan American Airlines) and critical, tense events that are unfortunately portrayed in the book for the most part with a bland dryness that can only be conjured up by an engineer.

Sutter's story is an embodiment of many of the principles described in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. The confluence of events that resulted in him being placed at the helm of the 747 program, from his date and place of birth to the experience that he gained on the earliest Boeing jet airliners, ensured that he was in charge of a remarkable achievement and delivered an extraordinarily successful airplane that positively affected the lives of millions around the globe.

Subtitled: Creating The World's First Jumbo Jet And Other Adventures From A Life In Aviation. 265 pages plus Index. Published in paperback by Smithsonian Books - Collins.

Ace Black Blog Book Review No. 31.
All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

CD Review: Sin After Sin, by Judas Priest (1977)

The third album from Britain's Judas Priest confirmed their status as leaders of the emerging New Wave of British Heavy Metal. At a time when Punk was dominating England, Priest go very much their own way and come up with a record that is one of the heaviest non-Sabbath albums of the 1970's.

Produced by Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover, and sounding very much a product of a relatively limited studio budget, Sin After Sin combines the more blues-oriented metal sounds of Purple with heavier Sabbath tones stirred with two guitarists, to push the genre forward towards territory that Iron Maiden would soon conquer.

The album marks an early crossroads in Priest's career: it is split almost equally between heavier, longer tracks and shorter, more commercial (and slightly more radio-friendly) music.

From the tight set of eight tracks, three are terrific. Sinner, Let Us Prey and Call For The Priest / Raw Deal are long, complex, dense and smart compositions, featuring engaging and varied melodies, solid solos, and Halford's signature oscillation between octaves reaching a manic high falsetto. If Priest had continued to develop along the lines suggested by these three tracks, they would have found a richer, although admittedly less commercial, sound in their future.

Unfortunately, on the long series of albums that followed, Priest elected to chase down the path signaled by tracks like Diamonds and Rust and Starbreaker: functional, simpler, more mundane and more widely approachable. Songs which are not bad; just much less interesting than what the band was clearly capable of.

Sin After Sin is a notable milepost in the history of metal, coming at a time when little else sounded similar and laying the groundwork for a lot of what was to come.


Rob Halford - Vocals
Glenn Tipton - Guitars
K. K. Downing - Guitars
Ian Hill - Bass

Note: Simon Phillips played the Drums, but not officially as a member of the band.

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Sinner - 10 *See Video Below*
2. Diamonds And Rust - 7
3. Starbreaker - 7
4. Last Rose Of Summer - 7
5. Let Us Prey - 10
6. Call For The Priest / Raw Deal - 10
7. Here Come The Tears - 8
8. Dissident Aggressor - 7

Average: 8.25

Produced by Roger Glover and Judas Priest.
Engineered by Mark Dodson.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Movie Review: Invictus (2009)

More a movie about a powerful person and a powerful event than a powerful movie. Invictus suffers from a larger than life, legendary central character that by definition dominates his surroundings; compounded by a real-life fairy-tale sports story of the caliber that reminds us why sports events can pack so much power.

Morgan Freeman portrays Nelson Mandela, upon taking power in 1994 and immediately reaching out to the white South African community in several displays of reconciliation. In addition to retaining white staff members in his office and trusting white security personnel to join his team of personal guards, he controversially insists on maintaining the name and colours of the Springboks national rugby team, despite their strong associations with the minority white population and their lack of popularity among the newly empowered blacks.

Mandela develops a strong interest in the sport and the struggling South African squad, and spots the upcoming 1995 Rugby World Cup, to be held in South Africa, as an opportunity for national healing.

Mandela reaches out to the team's under-pressure captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), and inspires him and his predominantly white teammates to greatness, as the country comes together in a way that would have otherwise been unimaginable.

Clint Eastwood directs with an unusual directness and a lack of of any distinctive style, letting Mandela's personality and the World Cup games take centre stage. Freeman is terrific as Mandela, but it is difficult to distinguish the greatness of the performance from the greatness of the man. Damon as Pienaar is very much a supporting role and never gains traction. He mostly appears lost and overwhelmed by events around him.

Ironically, the most interesting narrative thread in the movie defaults to Mandela's personal security guards, where black agents fiercely loyal to the President need to come to terms with accommodating and trusting white agents added by Mandela to the team. Eastwood succeeds in encapsulating the drama of the country within the evolving dynamics between the agents.

Invictus delivers the necessary drama and emotional highs, but it all comes across as a workmanlike, relatively uninspired and straightforward re-telling of important historical milestones. Invictus portrays memorable personalities and events, but despite good intentions on both sides of the camera, fails to register as a distinctive movie.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Book Review: To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1960)

A story of growing up in the deep American south in the early 1930's, with racial discrimination rampant and the Great Depression casting a heavy shadow on the economic well-being of an entire nation, To Kill A Mockingbird gets better with the passing years. Told from the perspective of Scout (real name: Jean Louise) Finch, a pre-teen tomboy, and taking place over three summers, the book recounts three distinct yet seamless childhood adventures that, combined, paint a vivid picture of transition from child to young adult in a turbulent world equally grappling with major upheavals.

The first adventure has Scout, her brother Jem (Jeremy) and their friend Dill causing mischief by trying to penetrate the scary mystery of Boo Radley, the neighbour who never leaves his house. The second adventure revolves around the elderly and intolerable Mrs. Dubose, another neighbour who gets her clutches into Scout and Jem and forces them to unwittingly help her.

The third and by far the most prominent storyline places the spotlight on Atticus Finch, the idealistic and progressive father of Scout and Jem. A caring lawyer way ahead of his time in terms of bringing up his children and understanding the trends of history, he is assigned to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Given that the word of a black man in the South of the 1930's is worth next to nothing, Atticus knows that this case is lost before it starts, but that the battle that he and his family will fight is much greater than the individual court case.

The drama of the courthouse, and the ripple effect that it causes in the life of the community at large and more specifically on the life of Scout and Jem, bring To Kill A Mockingbird to a climax that is simply shattering in its pure, raw, emotional impact.

Harper Lee's prose majestically uses the language of the south to express the innocence and honesty of a young girl describing the world around her with equal amounts delight and bewilderment. A large number of secondary characters revolve around the life of Scout, Jem, and Atticus, and their colourful descriptions and sometimes crucial interventions bring the community of Maycomb, Alabama to life. Lee weaves into the book searing commentary on race, class, religion, community, family, upbringing and a society that will need to change or die, without ever allowing the focus to shift away from Scout's experience of the world.

From the perspective of the year 2010 with a black President in the White House, To Kill A Mockingbird gains a further level of poignancy and meaning. The incredible world brought to life by Harper Lee is both a million long years and a remarkable seventy short years removed from today.

323 pages.
Published in paperback by Harper Perennial.

Ace Black Blog Book Review No. 30.
All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Movie Review: Up In The Air (2009)

Up In The Air is a touching exploration of human relationships and the meaning of caring. Set against the backdrop of a deep recession and the job losses that tear apart the security blanket of families, director Jason Reitman captures both the agony of economic hardship among white collar workers, and the layered complexity of human interaction.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is ruthlessly efficient at the most heartless of jobs: he flies around the country as a consultant hired to professionally terminate the employment of workers at companies in the midst of large-scale downsizing. And in a recession, business is good.

In addition to being brilliant at his job, Bingham loves the time that he spends at airports and on-board airplanes, and dreads being at his bland hotel-like apartment. He has organized his world to enjoy the life of the road warrior, and this includes absolute detachment from any meaningful personal human interaction. His main goal in life is to maximize the collection of frequent flier miles.

Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) is a young graduate who joins Bingham's firm, and is assigned to shadow him on termination trips to gain field experience before implementing a radical on-line remote termination system that would spell the end of Bingham's cherished non-stop travel lifestyle.

Bingham reluctantly but effectively mentors Keener while developing a seemingly casual relationship with Alex (Vera Farmiga), another road warrior and his female mirror image.

Up In The Air draws its strength from contrasting Bingham's apparent lack of human warmth with his insistence on face-to-face meetings with the people that he's about to fire, and his stunning ability to comfort terminated employees at their moment of worst vulnerability. Keener represents the young generation, hopelessly devoted to the technology that adds distance to essential human interaction yet much more vulnerable and open to the pitfalls of emotional investments. Alex is one last emotional risk that Bingham is willing to take, to either confirm or properly question his lifestyle choice.

The three characters are well rounded by screenwriter Reitman and Sheldon Turner, working from Walter Kirn's book. Clooney was born to play Bingham, perfectly mixing icy coldness with searing sensitivity. Kendrick is his perfect foil as the young and idealistic Natalie Keener, all wide eyes, misguided overconfidence and good intentions. Farmiga is perfect as the female version of Bingham, offering him a tantalizing yet dangerous departure from the emotionally blank personal life that he has so carefully cultivated.

Up In The Air is also populated with interesting, multi-dimensional secondary characters revolving around Bingham and dealing with their own relationship issues. Jason Bateman is his boss, Amy Morton is the older sister, Melanie Lynskey is Bingham's younger sister Julie, and Danny McBride is excellent as Julie's husband-to-be.

The film maintains a firm grip on characters and events as it confidently flies towards an appropriate resolution. Up In The Air tenderly captures a slice of life and wraps it with clever deference to the complexity of personal relationships.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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