Sunday, 20 June 2010

Movie Review: The Benchwarmers (2006)


The Benchwarmers is a a limp baseball comedy that starts with a foul ball and ends with play abandoned due to lack of talent.

Rob Schneider, David Spade and Jon Herder are three nerdy adults who were bullied as kids and never had the chance to compete in school sports. Through the intervention of billionaire Jon Lovitz, and a plot devoid of any logic or wit, they form a three-man team and compete against a series of little league teams coached by the guys who used to be the school bullies.

It's all supposed to be a morality tale about the evils of bullying, but unfortunately none of the characters in the movie are remotely realistic or well-rounded enough to carry any sympathy. Every person in this movie is a one-dimensional cartoon spouting witless one-liners. The adults never grew up, and we shudder at the thought of what the kids will be like when they do grow up.

The script by Allen Covert and Nick Swardson is mostly a succession of fart, barf and spit jokes. Director Dennis Dugan is clearly within his zone of effortless comfort operating at the level of this repugnant material. He demonstrates not a single reason why he deserves better material to work with, resorting, in a desperate attempt at showmanship, to clever techniques like split-screen shots that would fail film school projects.

The Benchwarmers was co-produced by Adam Sandler, dabbling in the junkyard of ideas not even good enough for his patchy resume.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Saturday, 19 June 2010

CD Review: Holy Diver, by Dio (1983)


After leaving Black Sabbath, Ronnie James Dio assembled an impressive band featuring Vinnie Appice on drums, Jimmy Bain on bass and keyboards, and Vivian Campbell on guitars.

Holy Diver, Dio's first release, contains two gems: the title track and Rainbow In The Dark. Holy Diver is a truck with massive tires lumbering uphill on an unpaved path in low gear: it's not fast, but nothing is going to stop it, and it's an appropriate signature song for the album. Rainbow In The Dark is a faster track, with a playful yet haunting keyboard riff that helps to permanently pin the song to memory. It became synonymous with Dio, and is one metal's most recognizable tunes.

Don't Talk To Strangers and Shame On The Night are good supporting tracks, with the latter slowing the tempo down again, and trading speed for power. The rest of the CD is filled with solid, if unspectacular, metal that generally serves to highlight Dio's standout showmanship and vocal talent. Unfortunately, the songwriting emerges as the weakest link in the band's creative process, as many tracks border on the routine and lack the inspirational spark needed to ignite.

Holy Diver is a highly regarded album, often considered among the best of the eighties. This reputation is probably more of an appropriate acknowledgment of Dio's vocal talent when fronting his own group, and the greatness of two tracks, rather than a true assessment of the overall album quality. Nevertheless, Holy Diver does represent an important chapter in a career full of outstanding achievement.

Band:

Ronnie James Dio - Vocals
Vivian Campbell - Guitar
Jimmy Bain - Bass, Keyboards
Vinny Appice - Drums


Songlist:

1. Stand Up And Shout - 6
2. Holy Diver - 10
3. Gypsy - 7
4. Caught In The Middle - 7
5. Don't Talk To Strangers - 8
6. Straight Through The Heart - 7
7. Invisible - 7
8. Rainbow In The Dark - 10
9. Shame On The Night - 8

Average: 7.78

Produced by Ronnie James Dio.
Engineered by Angelo Arcuri.
Mastered by George Marino.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Book Review: Fools' Gold, by Brian Hutchinson (1998)


Bre-X was a small Canadian mining exploration company that, in the mid-1990's, appeared to hit the all-time biggest jackpot in mankind's history of searching for gold. Bre-X claimed to have found the biggest gold deposits on earth in the remote Busang region of Indonesia.

As word of Bre-X's ever expanding and increasingly incredible gold discoveries spread, Bre-X went from a penny stock to $250 a share with billions in market capitalization. Market analysts, gold experts, stock promoters, mutual fund managers, other mining companies, high-level politicians and the media fell all over themselves to grab a piece of the dream. Investors large and small staked their future on the company's stock, and many individuals sold all they had to buy a piece of the company.

It was all a fraud. The gold never existed. The core samples extracted from Busang were salted by Bre-X to create the illusion of a massive gold discovery. By the time the fraud was uncovered, lives were destroyed, reputations irrevocably damaged, fortunes vaporized, and several people lay dead; some in the jungles of Busang, others in the urban jungles of the investment world after committing suicide.

In Fools' Gold, Canadian business reporter Brian Hutchinson admirably pulls together all the strings of the Bre-X story. He shines the spotlight on several relevant contextual sub-plots: the pervasive and long-standing history of fraud in mining stocks; the incompetence of so-called analysts; the conflict of interest of stock promoters; the impotence of regulators; and the dirty business of mining when it comes to operating actual mines in countries like Indonesia.

This latter emphasis on stories of corruption and environmental destruction by large corporations in the mining sector drags the book down, and should have been more tightly edited. Bre-X, after all, was a junior company that never properly mined anything other than investors' pockets.

Fools' Gold is at its best when Hutchinson focuses tightly on Bre-X, and the three fascinating central characters at the heart of the fraud: Promoter David Walsh; Chief Geologist John Felderhof; and Exploration Manager Michael de Guzman. Hutchinson brings to life these three deeply flawed men who had no history of success; indeed, they all had a history of abject failure. That the world was so ready to believe that these three could all of a sudden be responsible for the most remarkable success story in the history of gold exploration speaks volumes about investors gullibility and the aching need to believe in feel-good miracles.

Fools' Gold is both entertaining and informative, and proof again that if an investment sounds too good to be true, then it is, unfortunately, just that.

Subtitled: The Making Of A Global Market Fraud.
254 pages, plus Bibliography and Index.
Published in hardcover by Knopf Canada.





The Ace Black Blog Book Review Index is here.


CD Review: Machine Head, by Deep Purple (1972)


In a burst of creativity that has rarely been matched by any other band irrespective of genre, Deep Purple were three albums into the classic Mark II lineup when they recorded one of the best and most influential heavy metal albums of all time. Four of the seven tracks are enduring classics that helped define the genre in its formative years.

Machine Head is a landmark album in the history of heavy metal, and one of the best heavy metal albums of any era. It permanently established Deep Purple as masters of the genre, and placed them alongside Back Sabbath and Led Zeppelin as the dominating triumvirate of metal's first decade.

Highway Star was the first and remains among the best examples of a song creating and maintaining a hypnotic fast-paced groove. Smoke On The Water was the first heavy metal anthem, and its riff remains one of the most recognizable in all of music. Lazy became the blueprint for long metal tracks that make use of elaborate intros leading into epic riff-driven energy, and demonstrated that creative keyboards, can, indeed, play a huge role in the genre. And Space Truckin' is an infectious and irresistible journey.

For good measure, Pictures Of Home is an under appreciated and terrifically imaginative track. Never Before and Maybe I'm A Leo are solid, but clearly inferior to the rest of the album.

Machine Head set a high standard for what heavy metal can achieve, and in the 40 years of metal history, it's an album that has rarely been matched.

Band:

Ritchie Blackmore - Guitar
Ian Gillan - Vocals
Jon Lord - Keyboards
Roger Glover - Bass
Ian Paice - Drums


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Highway Star - 10 *See video below*
2. Maybe I'm A Leo - 7
3. Pictures Of Home - 9
4. Never Before - 7
5. Smoke On The Water - 10
6. Lazy - 10
7. Space Truckin' - 10

Average: 9.00

Produced by Deep Purple.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.



Sunday, 13 June 2010

CD Review: High 'N' Dry, by Def Leppard (1981)


High 'N' Dry captures a band on the cusp of greatness. Def Leppard sound raspy and edgy, members still of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, but also clearly demonstrate the catchy song writing talent and performance skills that will take them to the next level of stratospheric superstardom in the hard rock arena.

In the colourful career of Def Leppard, High 'N' Dry is relatively forgotten and generally under-appreciated. It lives in the shadow of the mammoth success achieved by Pyromania and Hysteria later in the mid-Eighties. But High 'N' Dry is a terrific album in its own right, without the over-polished production values of its successors. It is also a more straightforward rock album, less obsessed with radio play and dual-gender appeal.

High 'N' Dry features a collection of riff-driven, melody-centric tracks that straddle the accessible border territory between hard rock and heavy metal. Setting the long-term objective of dominating the mainstream US market, and working for the first time with producer legend John "Mutt" Lange, Def Leppard deliver an irresistible opening trio of Let It Go, Another Hit And Run, and High ' N' Dry (Saturday Night) to open the album. The three tracks successfully unspool almost like one one long song in three distinct parts, with Joe Elliott energetic on vocals, and the duo of Steve Clark and Pete Willis having great fun driving the songs with effective and honest riffs and solos.

The instrumental Switch 625 and the energetic On Through The Night add to the high quality album content, and there are several other strong supporting tracks, including the power ballad Bringin' On The Heartbreak.

High 'N' Dry is a most satisfying snapshot of a band blossoming from the strong roots of metal to a spectacular future in rock.

Band:

Joe Elliott - Vocals
Steve Clark - Guitar
Pete Willis - Guitar
Rick Savage - Bass
Rick Allen - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Let It Go - 9 *See Video Below*
2. Another Hit And Run - 9
3. High 'N' Dry (Saturday Night) - 9
4. Bringin' On The Heartbreak - 8
5. Switch 625 - 10
6. You Got Me Runnin' - 7
7. Lady Strange - 8
8. On Through The Night - 9
9. Mirror, Mirror (Look Into My Eyes) - 8
10. No No No - 6

Average: 8.30

Produced by John "Mutt" Lange.
Engineered by Mike Shipley.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.


Tuesday, 8 June 2010

CD Review: Believe, by Disturbed (2002)


A strong break-out album that starts with a bang, features a series of solid tracks but goes on for far too long and loses momentum.

Disturbed's brand of solo-free metal is loaded with crunch-heavy power but is relatively simplistic. Don't look here for complex arrangements and virtuoso individual performances. The rare melody changes sound forced and clumsy, well outside the band's comfort zone.

Instead, Believe offers honest, straight-forward up-tempo metal, with the drums and bass amped-up to the front and the lead guitar taking a back seat. Dave Draiman's mid-range, powerful and occasionally slightly raspy vocals, alternating between staccato and fluid delivery, are the most pronounced and unique sound that Disturbed offers.

Prayer stands out as the exceptional track on the CD, a terrific opener that pulls together all that is good about Disturbed into a tight and confident package. The rest of the CD, without ever reaching the same heights, has its enjoyable moments, with the energetic and refreshingly imaginative Rise the best of the rest of the tracks.

Eventually, however, the 12-track length exposes the band's limitations, perhaps exemplified by the single-word track titles, and the sameness of the sound on Believe starts to become irritating.

Believe showcases a band with potential, but also a band that needs to expand into new directions while tightening track selection to avoid suffocating in a single dimension.

Band:

David Draiman - Vocals
Dan Donegan - Guitars, Keyboards
Mike Wengren - Drums
Fuzz - Bass


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Prayer - 10
2. Liberate - 8
3. Awaken - 7
4. Believe - 8
5. Remember - 8
6. Intoxication - 8
7. Rise - 9
8. Mistress - 7
9. Breathe - 8
10. Bound - 7
11. Devour - 7
12. Darkness - 6

Average: 7.75

Produced by Johnny K and Disturbed.
Mixed by Andy Wallace.
Mastered by Howie Weinberg.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.


Monday, 7 June 2010

CD Review: Wintersun, by Wintersun (2004)


Jari Maenpaa can never be accused of a lack of ambition. He started Wintersun as a side project while still with Ensiferum; he subsequently wrote all the songs, played all the instruments except the drums, and delivered the vocals on this debut CD. And he also produced.

The scope of his ambition is reflected in each of his compositions: every track aims to be a long, sprawling epic. Maenpaa has nothing that can be described as short, sharp and focused. Intros and outros last for minutes apiece, various melodies come and go, the guitars and keyboards intertwine in endless exchanges, and various shredding solos get dropped almost nonchalantly and at will.

Remarkably, a lot of it works. What Wintersun gives up in immediate catchiness it gains back in creativity, complexity and inventiveness. Each track is an adventure to be experienced and a new world to be savoured and explored. But it is also true that most of the tracks mix in good moments with bland interludes; even on the best tracks like Winter Madness and Beautiful Death, brilliant passages are too often diluted with many forgettable minutes. It's the price that Wintersun pays for eschewing the simple.

It is all delivered with accuracy and at a powerful and confident mid-tempo speed. There is a most appropriate feeling of heroic despair throughout the CD: Maenpaa will do things his way, and will sometimes fail and at other times succeed, either way on his own terms.

Band:

Jari Maenpaa - Guitar, Bass, Vocals
Kai Hahto - Drums


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Beyond The Dark Sun - 8
2. Winter Madness - 9
3. Sleeping Stars - 7
4. Battle Against Time - 8
5. Death And The Healing - 7
6. Starchild - 7
7. Beautiful Death - 9
8. Sadness And Hate - 8

Average: 7.88

Produced by Jari Maenpaa.
Recorded by Ahti Kortelainen and Tuomo Valtonen.
Mixed by Nino Laurenne. Mastered by Mika Jussila.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Book Review: The Seventeen Traditions, by Ralph Nader (2007)


Consumer advocate, presidential candidate and author Ralph Nader reflects on the traditions that shaped his life as a child of Lebanese immigrants, growing up in small town Connecticut. In The Seventeen Traditions, Nader reveals his parents' philosophy towards child-rearing, covering everything from table manners, civic responsibility, helping with chores, appreciating charity, reading, nurturing a positive, can-do attitude, and encouraging an inquisitive, ever questioning mind.

At the heart of all the traditions is a close knit family that emphasizes direct, hands-on parenting and engagement between the parents and their children. Another common thread is an appreciation of familial and cultural history, and the passing on of family values both by living them and evoking them as needed.

The book could have be equally been titled "The Seventeen Habits of Highly Successful Families". Nader draws straight lines between his remarkable career achievements and the life lessons that he learned at home. The achievements of his three siblings are no less impressive.

Nader clearly has a deep appreciation and immense affection for the way his parents handled his upbringing, and is more than happy to hold them up as a stellar example to be followed.

There are a couple of flaws in this book: an extremely tedious 31 page introduction in which Nader describes every lake, river, flower, tree and rock that surrounded his childhood home; and a persistent "dem were the de good old days" sentiment that grows tiresome and demonstrates very little appreciation of any child engagement product beyond traditional toy building blocks.

But even in the 21st century, there is much that society can re-learn from the deceptively simple but powerful traditions that so benefited Nader's upbringing.

150 pages, including illustrations.
Published in hardcover by HarperCollins.





The Ace Black Blog Book Review Index is here.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

CD Review: 12 Guage, by Kalmah (2010)


For their sixth studio CD, Kalmah produce a dense, sludgy and melodic concoction that emphasizes immense power. While the nine tracks on 12 Gauge may lack the immediate catchiness of Kalmah's earliest CDs, they are all well-constructed and meticulously complex mid to high tempo compositions.

On the three standout tracks, Swampwar, Hook The Monster, and Sacramentum, Kalmah's sound evokes a knee-deep trudging through an overwhelming swamp: the power of nature sucking humanity into an irresistible danger. The guitars of Pekka and Antti Kokko combine with the intermittent double bass assault of Janne Kusmin's drums to produce melodies that survive and then thrive under Pekka's low range growl. Controlled solos are combined with strong harmonies for the good of the song, rather than for individual glory.

Better Not To Tell is a bit of a disappointment, but the remaining tracks offer a refreshingly uniform level of high quality metal.

It is rare for a band to sustain innovation and forward progression this deep into their catalogue. If proof is further needed, 12 Gauge confirms Kalmah's status among the elite bands of melodic death metal.

Band:

Pekka Kokko - Vocals, Rhythm Guitars
Antti Kokko - Lead Guitars
Timo Lehtinen - Bass
Janne Kusmin - Drums
Marco Sneck - Keyboards


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Rust Never Sleeps - 8
2. One Of Fail - 8
3. Bullets Are Blind - 8
4. Swampwar - 9
5. Better Not To Tell - 7
6. Hook The Monster - 9
7. Godeye - 8
8. 12 Gauge - 8 *see video below*
9. Sacramentum - 9

Average: 8.22

Produced by Kalmah.
Recorded by Ahti Kortelainen. Mastered by Hakan Akesson.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.


Saturday, 5 June 2010

CD Review: From Afar, by Ensiferum (2009)


Ensiferum have polished their folk metal skills to a glittering shine: but while the performance and professionalism is on full display, the spark of creativity needed to ignite the package is sadly missing.

From Afar, the 4th full-length studio album from the Finnish outfit, never descends into filler material and maintains a good standard of metal throughout. But it is dragged down by a mis-firing epic in two parts. Heathen Throne and its sequel The Longest Journey each clock in at over 11 minutes. The ambition and length are quite inconsistent with the quality, as both tracks meander endlessly, never gain traction, and mostly just amble along looking for a direction. The 23 total minutes that get chewed up put a damp and slightly icky cloth over the rest of the CD.

It is left to the energetic Twilight Tavern to pick up the pace and inject much needed purpose. Stone Cold Metal is an undisguised and fun homage to Ennio Morricone's spaghetti western themes, while Smoking Ruins and the title track From Afar prove that Ensiferum can still shine when the funky spirits of the forest moves them. Unfortunately, the inspiration is in relatively limited supply on this CD.

Band:

Markus Toivonen - Guitar
Sami Hinkka - Bass
Petri Linoroos - Guitar, Vocals
Emmi Silvennoinen - Keyboards
Janne Parviainen - Drums


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. By The Dividing Stream - 7
2. From Afar - 8
3. Twilight Tavern - 9
4. Heathen Throne - 7
5. Elusive Reaches - 7
6. Stone Cold Metal - 8
7. Smoking Ruins - 8
8. Tumman Virran Taa - n/a (short track)
9. The Longest Journey (Heathen Throne Part II) - 7

Average: 7.63

Produced by Ensiferum, Janne Joutsenniemi, Tero Kinnunen.
Engineered by Tero Kinnunen, Janne Joutsenniemi.
Mixed by Hiili Hiilesmaa. Mastered by Svante Forsback.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Book Review: A Long Way Gone, by Ishmael Beah (2007)


A story of brutal survival amidst a vicious civil war, A Long Way Gone humanizes the agony of the countless and nameless child soldiers caught in conflict.

Ishmael Beah recounts his story as a 12 year old in rural Sierra Leone. Displaced from his village when the civil war erupts in early 1993 between the Revolutionary United Front and government forces, he loses his family and for a while survives on his own in the bush before being recruited into the government army as a child soldier.

Provided with rudimentary training and an endless supply of drugs, for two years he becomes an active participant in a hellishly bloody kill-or-be-killed hit-and-run conflict. Scouting missions, ambushes, fire-fights in the jungle, hand-to-hand combat, and cold-blooded throat slitting: this became the life of Ismael Beah at 13 years old. Killing becomes routine, death becomes meaningless, and his entire world is covered with blood and corpses.

Beah is eventually sent to a United Nations camp for the rehabilitation of child soldiers, and slowly regains a semblance of a normal life. He eventually travels to New York to represent Sierra Leone at a UN conference on children in war zones. But upon his return to Sierra Leone, his plight is not over: the civil war catches up with his new life, and he once again needs to flee to avoid the brutality of war.

Beah manages to always remind us that this is a story of a child. Despite the never-ending blood-letting and narrow escapes from death, he constantly refers to the tears, migraines, loneliness, a desperate longing for family, and the constant search for opportunities to act like a child who enjoys music and dancing.

A Long Way Gone is a harrowing tale, the equivalent of shining a flashlight on a festering, infected open wound. Beah is exposed to the worst that the evil in mankind can come up with; that he survives and maintains his humanity despite the hell that engulfs him is testament to the ultimate strength of the human spirit.

Subtitled "Memoirs Of A Boy Soldier".
218 pages plus a Chronology.

Published in hardcover by Douglas & McIntyre.






The Ace Black Blog Book Review Index is here.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Movie Review: The Godfather Part II (1974)


It's seven years later. Michael (Al Pacino) is struggling to fend-off the latest enemies rounding on the Corleone family's new power base in Nevada, including the slithery Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) and congressional leaders looking for kick-backs and holding hearings to investigate mobsters. As Michael fights to keep his business together and himself out of jail, his grip on the family weakens: his wife Kay (Diane Keaton) despises him; his mother passes away; and someone close fatefully betrays him.

In a series of interspersed flashbacks, we also learn the story of the early years of his dad Vito (Robert De Niro), from his days as a young boy (and soon to be orphan) in Sicily to his emergence as an influential mobster in the New York of the 1920's.

The Godfather Part II puts on a mighty effort for 3 hours and 20 minutes to match the brilliance of the original Godfather; it falls just short, and a sense of quantity over quality begins to creep in.

To be sure, the scenes with young Vito in turn-of-the-century New York are brilliant; and De Niro is spookily magnificent in channeling Marlon Brando's mannerisms.

But Michael's story in Part II is simply no match for the original. The convoluted dealings with Hyman Roth fail to ever properly catch fire, probably because Roth is portrayed as more unassuming and sick than evil. If the intent was to show the disguises that evil can hide behind, it does not work. The sequel sorely misses James Caan's violent energy, and while Pacino's controlled performance is powerful, it does not carry the same menace that Brando delivered.

There are attempts at mirroring history that instead serve to emphasize how brilliant The Godfather was. The long wedding scene from the original is mimicked with a long First Communion celebration that opens the sequel. The multiple-assassination climax to the original also finds a much weaker parallel in Part II.

A detour to a Havana on the brink of revolution is interesting but appears uncomfortably contrived. Michael V. Gazzo as Frankie Petangeli exhibits classic syndromes of a character actor attempting too hard to steal every scene he's in with a wildly over-the-top performance. And there is no match in Part II for Michael's epic transformational journey that defined the original.

Francis Ford Copolla's direction in Part II is much more mechanical and functional than artistic. Other than the scenes in New York, gone are the breathtaking frames that made the original a directing showcase. And the haunting theme music cannot remain fresh for 200 minutes; overuse starts to erode its impact.

None of these are huge flaws; but they add up to a less satisfying experience. The Godfather Part II is still a hugely entertaining film, it just lives in the shadow of a towering original achievement.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here


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