Monday, 28 February 2011

Book Review: Common Ground In A Liquid City, by Matt Hern (2010)

Can the world's most livable city be even better? From the perspective of urban studies expert and Vancouver resident Matt Hern, the answer is a resounding yes.

While Vancouver routinely tops surveys of the most desirable cities on earth, in Common Ground In A Liquid City Hern points out that the unaffordable real estate, high child poverty levels, and escalating homelessness point to unavoidable problems that need to be tackled for the City to truly thrive. And he strongly advocates a move towards a bottom-up, less regulated, and less capital-driven future, in which residents, communities and neighbourhoods wrest control of the City's agenda away from planners, investors, and developers.

The book is a series of essays, written by Hern through the prism of comparing and contrasting Vancouver's character with other cities from around the world, augmented by interviews with many of Vancouver's urban planning leaders. While Hern frequently acknowledges that Vancouver has done a lot that is right, he is quick to express his dismay at the sterile, pre-packaged, over-designed, over-regulated and market-oriented city that has emerged in the past 20 years. In a world economy in which everything is for sale, Hern finds Vancouver selling its soul to attract international investment, in the process bypassing the organic street-level community growth that needs to occur for a City to be genuinely attractive and livable.

Hern is keenly aware that Vancouver is a young city still creating itself, and that it has experienced tremendous growth and an unequalled building boom in the recent past. It will require time for neighbourhoods to develop and communities to evolve and become entrenched in the newly created spaces. But in parallel with a stagnant world economy, climate change impacts, and the era of peak oil, Hern calls for a radical rejection of developer-driven growth agendas in favour of local empowerment. He envisages a society that happily breaks  meaningless petty municipal regulations while embracing community gardening, co-op housing, dramatically reduced car dependency, and the re-thinking of public spaces.

In many ways, Hern's conclusions are surprisingly consistent with the future described in Jeff Rubin's Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller, although the two books arrive at common ground from two diametrically opposite starting points.

Hern's occasional use of foul language is rarely necessary, and his thoughts not infrequently border on outright socialism of the type that failed miserably elsewhere. But Common Ground In A Liquid City is frequently thoughtful and thought-provoking, and a useful counterpoint to the prevailing and rarely questioned trajectory that the City is riding.

Subtitled "Essays In Defense Of An Urban Future".
Published by AK Press.
214 pages, including photos, plus Bios of people interviewed and Notes.

All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Movie Review: Salvador (1986)

Through the eyes of photojournalists, Oliver Stone tackles the brutal civil war that destroyed El Salvador and killed 75,000 people in the 1980s. Salvador is a small film that dares to ask the big questions, and a smart enough movie to realize that the answers are most elusive.

Richard Boyle (James Woods) makes it his job to take pictures in the world's most violent hotspots, and his experience covers Vietnam, Cambodia, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, in 1980 he is living in a squalid San Francisco apartment, unemployed and broke. His wife abandons him, so he packs his car, grabs his friend Dr. Rock (James Belushi), and drives to El Salvador, a country in the midst of an ugly war between a right-wing ruling junta and a left-wing peasant uprising.

But it's the cold war and no conflict is simple: the rebels are portrayed as heavily armed communists backed by Castro and the Soviets; the army is recast as defenders of freedom and gets the support of Reagan's United States while committing widespread atrocities, operating death squads, and ensuring that "disappearances" occur on a wide scale.

Despite the chaos, Boyle is initially more interested in womanizing, drugs and alcohol, and he soon hooks up with former lover Maria (Elipidia Carrillo) and her family. But he is also desperate to make some money, so he joins forces with fellow photojournalist John Cassady (John Savage, portraying a character loosely based on real-life photojournalist John Hoagland), and together they start capturing the horrors of the conflict: a mass open grave for victims of the death squads; a trip to a rebel camp; and the disappearance and murder of innocent civilians. Boyle also chronicles landmark events of the El Salvador war, including the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, and the rape and murder of four American women missionaries. For Boyle and Cassady, chronicling the ever more violent conflict and staying alive start to become mutually exclusive.

Civil wars in small countries are particularly nasty affairs, and rarely receive much attention. Using straightforward in-your-face filmmaking, Stone whitewashes nothing. Boyle is a sleazy leach, living off others and believing in very little. The right-wing army rulers are despicable, barbarous and heartless. The Americans pulling the strings of the army are obsessed cold-war warriors who see nothing except a global conflict with communism. The local US ambassador is clueless. The rebels are initially portrayed as peasant freedom fighters who have Boyle's sympathy; but his eyes are opened when they, too, start to cold-heartedly assassinate unarmed soldiers.

The only genuinely sympathetic character is Maria, and she stands for the country, victimized from all sides, and left terrified and abandoned even by those with genuine intentions to help.

James Woods gives a trademark performance with intensity cranked up to eleven. A man driven by pumping adrenalin and capable of talking himself into huge amounts of trouble, Woods makes sure that Boyle is a memorable, hugely flawed but ultimately caring man, perfectly suited to surviving the world's worst trouble spots.

Salvador contains no glamour, no fake emotions, no little victories, and no happy endings: a perfect.metaphor for the utter futility and wastefulness of civil wars.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

All Whitesnake CD Reviews

All Ace Black Blog Reviews of Whitesnake CDs are linked below:

Saints and Sinners (1982): 7.00
Slide It In (1984): 6.90
Whitesnake (1987): 6.89
Slip Of The Tongue (1989): 7.40

Average (all reviewed Whitesnake CDs): 7.05

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

CD Review: Slip Of The Tongue, by Whitesnake (1989)

All change again as the revolving door of membership in Whitesnake continues to twirl at a dizzying rate. Steve Vai and Adrian Vandenberg take over guitar duties, although the latter did not participate in recording the album due to injury. Rudy Sarzo is the new bassist and the steady and experienced Tommy Aldridge has a go behind the drum set, the third different drummer in as many albums.

Despite Vandenberg not playing on the album, his influence on the music is significant. He co-writes every song with Coverdale, and the ones that work have a depth, maturity and complexity well beyond the reach of most of Coverdale's earlier efforts.

Coverdale started seriously searching for his inner Zeppelin on Still Of The Night from 1987's Whitesnake. On Slip Of The Tongue, and with Vandenberg's help, he finds it. Two of Whitesnake's all-time best tracks lurk towards the back end of the album, with Judgment Day and Sailing Ships both channeling Led Zeppelin's DNA.

Judgment Day is almost a straightforward reworking of Kashmir. Coverdale and Vandenberg do enough with it, and Vai delivers the guitar goods, to make sure that it works as a powerful and memorable composition. Artistically it's equivalent to Kashmir Part 2, and that is a well-earned compliment. Sailing Ships is more about emotional acoustics exploding into power metal: the Zeppelin origins are more subtle but nevertheless well-entrenched.

Derivation can often be disastrous, but credit to Coverdale and this version of Whitesnake for producing two excellent tracks that demonstrate and celebrate Zeppelin's long shadow over metal's history and evolution.

But this is still Whitesnake, which means the album is undermined with tracks titled Cheap An' Nasty, Kittens Got Claws, and the gag-inducing The Deeper The Love, Coverdale unable to let go of his worst habits. At least on Slip Of The Tongue, the garbage is counterbalanced to an extent by the title track, as well as a recreated Fool For Your Loving (which first appeared on 1980's Ready An' Willing) and Wings Of The Storm.

Whitesnake were creatively never able to join the top league of metal bands; but within the limitations of the Whitesnake catalogue, Slip Of The Tongue is a better effort.


David Coverdale - Vocals
Steve Vai - Guitar
Rudy Sarzo - Bass
Tommy Aldridge - Drums

Note: Adrian Vandenberg (Guitar) credited as a non-playing (due to injury) band member .

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Slip Of The Tongue - 8
2. Cheap An' Nasty - 6
3. Fool For Your Loving - 9
4. Now You're Gone - 6
5. Kittens Got Claws - 6
6. Wings Of The Storm - 8
7. The Deeper The Love - 5
8. Judgment Day - 10
9. Slow Poke Music - 6
10. Sailing Ships - 10

Average: 7.40

Produced, Engineered and Mixed by Mike Clink and Keith Olsen.
Mastered by Greg Fulginiti.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Red Dawn (1984)

World War III starts with Soviet and Cuban soldiers invading the United States and occupying large swaths of the land of the free. But America is also the home of the brave, and in a small rural Colorado town, a group of high school teenagers take refuge in the mountains and wage guerilla warfare against the occupiers.

Red Dawn deserves some credit for imagining an outlier Cold War scenario, and examining the consequences of bringing a foreign war to the United States. The portrayal of citizen resistance against foreign occupiers seems inherently odd when it's American civilians having to fight a large traditional army, since real-world conflicts have never involved Americans in the role of the oppressed. Getting past this fundamental premise is a stretch but could have been worth a view, except that Red Dawn does not help itself with an asinine script courtesy of director John Milius and Kevin Reynolds, the latter most infamous for later drowning Kevin Costner's career in Waterworld.

The occupying Cuban and Soviet forces are generally portrayed as vicious buffoons, despite somehow possessing the skills to pull off a successful invasion to begin with, and the lines of dialogue throughout the movie would make an eighth grader proud. The combat sequences have a lot of bullets flying, mostly serving to perforate any sense of reality with non-survivable wounds.

Red Dawn does earn back some respect by not flinching from the ultimate outcome of a group of teenagers taking on a large army: the good guys are decimated, and victory has to be found within the ashes of annihilation.

The cast is an entertaining gallery to spot many famous, soon-to-be-famous and never-quite-famous faces from the mid-1980s.  Patrick Swayze leads the teenage rebels, joined by his brother Charlie Sheen. C.Thomas Howell, Jennifer Grey and Lea Thompson are also in the group. Powers Boothe joins them briefly as a downed fighter pilot, and Harry Dean Stanton has a single but over-the-top memorable scene as the incarcerated Dad of Swayze and Sheen. Deep into the cast Ben Johnson and William Smith add colour to secondary characters.

Red Dawn's tragedy lies in the lingering impression that with an injection of a little more talent behind the camera, a classic could have been created. As it is, it's a movie that best resembles a comic book for pre-teens.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 25 February 2011

All Ozzy Osbourne CD Reviews

All Ace Black Blog Reviews of Ozzy Osbourne CDs are linked below:

Blizzard Of Ozz, by Ozzy Osbourne (1980): 7.63
Diary Of A Madman, by Ozzy Osbourne (1981): 7.25
Bark At The Moon, by Ozzy Osbourne (1983): 7.78
The Ultimate Sin, by Ozzy Osbourne (1986): 7.00
No Rest For The Wicked, by Ozzy Osbourne (1988): 7.56

Average (all reviewed Ozzy Osbourne CDs): 7.44

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

CD Review: No Rest For The Wicked, by Ozzy Osbourne (1988)

Zakk Wylde joins on guitar, Bob Daisley returns on bass, Randy Castillo finds his mojo behind the drum set, and immediately there is an injection of power and purpose to the band. With a noticeable up-tick in the quality of the songwriting, and Wylde quickly establishing himself as a new guitar hero, No Rest For The Wicked is one of Ozzy Osbourne's stronger outings.

Gone are the aimless compositions that littered so many previous albums. Every song on No Rest For The Wicked establishes a meaningful presence with depth and balanced contributions from all the band members. Ozzy finally seems to be in synch with his band, and comfortable sharing the spotlight. Compared to the limp The Ultimate Sin, the songs on No Rest For The Wicked have variety, interesting structures, and an overall sense of mature and confident metal.

Miracle Man kicks off proceedings with a no-nonsense driving riff to introduce Wylde's immediate impact and stature. It's also a terrific condemnation of snake oil salesman pretending to be television's men of religion. Bloodbath In Paradise, about the Charlie Manson murders, is the other terrific track on the CD, once again Wylde's guitar leading from the front with a fast and accurate assault. Tattooed Dancer provides good support and keeps the accelerator floored as Ozzy gives Zack a lot of room to showcase and have fun.

The other six tracks on the album are not special, but neither are they weak. No Rest For The Wicked is made of solid metal, and while it may not always glitter, it is certainly not dull.


Ozzy Osbourne - Vocals
Zakk Wylde - Guitar
Randy Castillo - Drums
Bob Daisley - Bass

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Miracle Man - 9
2. Devil's Daughter - 7
3. Crazy Babies - 7
4. Breaking All The Rules - 7
5. Bloodbath In Paradise - 9
6. Fire In The Sky - 7
7. Tattooed Dancer - 8
8. Demon Alcohol - 7
9. Hero - 7

Average: 7.56

Produced by Roy Thomas Baker and Keith Olsen.
Mixed by Keith Olsen.  Engineered by Gordon Fondyce and Gerry Napier.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Movie Review: Inception (2010)

A near-future science fiction thriller that is a breath of fresh air in terms of new ideas, writer and director Christopher Nolan demonstrates in Inception that originality is alive and well, and action movies need be neither derivative nor interpretations of obscure comics.

Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) specializes in modern industrial espionage: stealing ideas by invading the dreams of executives. Dom has unresolved emotional issues related to the death of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard); as a result her image frequently appears and disrupts his progress at critical points in his invasive work.

Businessman Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires Dom for a special assignment: conduct an inception by invading the dreams of rival executive Robert Fisher (Cillian Murphy) and planting an idea that will benefit Mr. Saito's business interests. An inception is the opposite of a theft, and is rarely successful, but Cobb assembles a crack team to pull it off. His associates include architecture student Ariadne (Ellen Page), a couple of other expert thieves, and a chemist specializing in dream-related sedation.

The inception operation will require an elaborate dream within a dream within a dream structure, and the whole team may be forever lost in limbo if the plan fails. An extra complication for Dom is dealing once and for all with his emotions surrounding Mal's death.

Inception is both challenging and complex to follow, but in an era of cookie-cutter sequelitis, a movie that demands attention is a good thing. Nolan spent 10 years developing the script, and it shows. Inception has an elaborate structure resembling babushka nesting dolls, with fine threads connecting events happening in several dream dimensions at once. Knowing what is real and what is a dream is a challenge for both the characters and the viewers.

The main heist involves three dream levels, and when things go wrong an unscheduled descent into a fourth dream level becomes necessary. All events in each of the levels are interrelated, and it's not an easy task to keep all the action straight. Nolan pulls this off with a combination of slick editing and sheer bravado, helped by a dedicated Leonardo DiCaprio performance.

The movie does suffer from some routine, prolonged, and unconvincing shoot-out sequences, as Dom's team unexpectedly encounter heavily armed defenders in the dreams of Robert Fisher. The sequences revealing Dom's history with his wife Mal are better, and that is where the film finds it's emotional high points.

Inception is a showcase for some incredible modern movie special effects, but in addition to being justified as part of various dream worlds, they are placed at the service of a fascinating story and engaging characters. Demonstrating an appreciation for old-school film elements, Nolan also brings in Michael Caine for a few scenes to add acting depth as DiCaprio's father-in-law.

Inception inspires awe and head-scratching in equal measures, and the best proof of its impact is that it demands to be viewed again, as soon as it ends.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

CD Review: Whitesnake, by Whitesnake (1987)

More personnel changes as Jon Lord and Cozy Powell quickly disappear from Whitesnake's line-up, and Aynsley Dunbar takes over behind the drum kit. David Coverdale and John Sykes stay as the main creative talent behind the band, which means that the overall tone and quality are largely unchanged. Not that this new line-up lasted very long: Coverdale fired them all soon after Whitesnake was released.

Compared to Slide It In (1984), the better songs are a bit stronger and the weaker songs are bit worse on Whitesnake, but the overall package is just as dragged down by too many throw-away, make-weight tracks.

Whitesnake does contain three tracks worth holding on to: opener Crying In The Rain is an honest enough slow tempo rocker, featuring an attractive chugging guitar structure. Still Of The Night is Whitesnake doing some sort of Zeppelin impression. It's not bad and features more energetic work from Sykes on the guitar, but it mostly serves to emphasize the gulf in talent between the bands.

The best thing on Whitesnake is Here I Go Again, a new, beefed-up version of Coverdale's signature song that first appeared on Saints And Sinners (1982). It is an undoubtedly effective metal track, built around a confident melody and perfectly suited to Coverdale's voice. Adrian Vandenberg provided guest solo guitar work on the 1987 version, and he would soon replace Sykes altogether as the band's guitarist.

The other six tracks on Whitesnake are a familiar and forgettable story, simple anthems lacking in ambition, pregnant with false emotion and defining everything that is wrong with poodle power rock, standing outside in the cold but with its nose pressed against the metal window.


David Coverdale - Vocals
John Sykes - Guitar
Neil Murray - Bass
Aynsley Dunbar - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Crying In The Rain - 8
2. Bad Boys - 6
3. Still Of The Night - 8
4. Here I Go Again - 9
5. Give Me All Your Love - 6
6. Is This Love - 7
7. Children Of The Night - 6
8. Straight From The Heart - 6
9. Don't Turn Away - 6

Average: 6.89

Produced by Mike Stone and Keith Olsen.
Mastered by Greg Fulginiti.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Movie Review: Body Of Evidence (1993)

Body Of Evidence may or may not be the worst film of the 1990s: it certainly presents a compelling example of a project gone pear shaped to the point of being interesting for all the wrong reasons.

Producer Dino De Laurentiis, king of the derivatives, must have thought that he was onto a no-lose proposition: mash together lawyer-falls-for-suspect from Jagged Edge (1985) with sex-as-act-of-murder from Basic Instinct (1992), add an all-star cast, drop in the sizzle of Madonna as an often naked seductress, and stir vigorously. That despite all these ingredients he ended up with a squashed turkey says a lot about the awfulness of this film.

Body Of Evidence would have had a better chance of success with a half-decent script and a half-decent director. Instead Brad Mirman wrote a screenplay that gets lamer the harder it tries for eroticism, and once promising director Uli Edel used Body Of Evidence to prove his inability to deliver quality movies, spending most of the rest of his tattered career in TV land.

And the hole at the centre of this donut is Madonna, flapping her eyelids in a desperate attempt to prove that she belongs on the big screen, and utterly failing to convince. Madonna's lightweight presence at the heart of Body Of Evidence tilts the whole enterprise towards farce. Next to her on the screen, Willem Dafoe, Joe Mantegna, Anne Archer, Julianne Moore, Frank Langella and Jurgen Prochnow hang on for dear life as they realize that their careers may be drowning in a sea of ineptitude.

As for the plot, old man Andrew Marsh is found dead in his bed. Rebecca Carlson (Madonna) is his much younger lover, and she is soon arrested for having induced Marsh's death by intentionally straining his heart with ever more kinky sex. Rebecca's lawyer is Frank Dulaney (Dafoe), and although he is happily married to Sharon (Julianne Moore), Rebecca is soon tying him up, straddling him naked, and dripping hot wax on his chest in what is meant to be an erotic lovemaking session. Better is yet to come when they have sex in a dank parkade as shards of glass tear through his skin.

Nevertheless, Prosecutor Robert Garrett (Mategna) wants to deprive the world of Rebecca's unique skill set by throwing her in jail for murder, and he thinks he has a strong case, particularly as Rebecca stands to inherit Marsh's fortune. Marsh's secretary Joanne (Archer) is ready to testify that Rebecca shoved cocaine up March's nose; a former lover is uncovered and he testifies that Rebecca also tried to push his heart over the edge with too much sex, and Marsh's doctor Alan (Prochnow) confesses that Rebecca found out from him that Marsh had a weak heart.

All these witnesses eventually implode into a spectacular mess in the farcical courtroom, as Rebecca and Frank are able to discredit them with ever more ludicrous revelations, all without any research, support staff, or actual work to interrupt the hot sex sessions in Rebecca's floating house with flowing curtains. Rebecca walks, and Frank has to confront her when he is shocked -- shocked! -- that she was, actually and after all, behind the murder of Andrew Marsh.

Body Of Evidence is not bad enough to be funny, just bad enough to make for compelling viewing as several careers suffer nasty damage in a most unfortunate screen wreck.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

CD Review: The Ultimate Sin, by Ozzy Osbourne (1986)

After the relative artistic success of Bark At The Moon, Ozzy Osbourne falls back to utmost mediocrity on The Ultimate Sin. This is a listless, uninspired album, with the band sounding like so many session musicians forced to work together in the complete absence of any buzz, vibe or creativity.

The CD offer two worthwhile tracks out of nine. Opener The Ultimate Sin has at least some oomph and the pretense of purpose, while closer Shot In The Dark is the closest thing on the album to a respectable metal composition, with the band given some room to breathe and a fetching melody to work with.

The other seven tracks demonstrate the occasional flashes of engagement, but in general exist in a fog of disinterest that shrouds every note. A particular low point is the opening keyboard melody on Fool Like You, lifted straight from Santana's Black Magic Woman.

If the ultimate sin is going through the motions to release dull metal, then Osbourne certainly committed it.


Ozzy Osbourne - Vocals
Jack E. Lee - Guitar
Phil Soussan - Bass
Randy Castillo - Drums

Keyboards - Mike Moran

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. The Ultimate Sin - 8
2. Secret Loser - 7
3. Never Know Why - 7
4. Thank God For The Bomb - 7
5. Never - 6
6. Lightning Strikes - 6
7. Killer Of Giants - 7
8. Fool Like You - 6
9. Shot In The Dark - 9

Average: 7.00

Produced and Engineered by Ron Nevison.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

CD Review: Slide It In, by Whitesnake (1984)

Cobbling together a group from members of other famous bands may have looked like a promising move for David Coverdale and Whitesnake. In came John Sykes (Thin Lizzy), Jon Lord (Deep Purple) and Cozy Powell (Rainbow and The Michael Schenker Group). Alas, Whitesnake was never more than a one trick pony. The pony is Coverdale and the trick is crass innuendo that starts with the band's title, soars to ridiculous levels with tracks titled Slide It In and Spit It Out, and crash lands with three tracks out of ten having Love in the title, as if anything that comes out of Coverdale's mouth can convey serious emotion.

Slide It In has one excellent track, Slow An' Easy rising several notches above the dross with a complex construction, a purposeful beat laid down by Powell's drum set, a more engaging than usual Coverdale vocal delivery, and an infectious if corny chorus.

The rest of the material falls in the cracks between hoping-for-a-radio-hit and desperate-to-appeal, with all nine tracks aiming for the utterly simplistic and hitting the target squarely. The better tracks are handsome in a bland manner, and the weaker tracks are altogether faceless.

Whitesnake may have many star names in the line-up for Slide It In, but the stars of inspiration are badly out of alignment.


David Coverdale - Vocals
Jon Lord - Keyboards
Mel Galley - Guitar
John Sykes - Guitar
Neil Murray - Bass
Cozy Powell - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Slide It In - 7
2. Slow An' Easy - 9
3. Love Ain't No Stranger - 7
4. All Or Nothing - 7
5. Gambler - 7
6. Guilty Of Love - 6
7. Hungry For Love - 6
8. Give Me More Time - 7
9. Spit It Out - 6
10. Standing In The Shadow - 7

Average: 6.90

Produced by Martin Birch.
Mixed by Keith Olsen. Mastered by Greg Fulginiti.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Movie Review: Toy Story 3 (2010)

A full fifteen years after the original Toy Story was released, and eleven years after the first sequel, Pixar and Disney release the third episode in the animated story of the toys Woody, Buzz, and their friends. It's a worthy installment, mixing humour with honest sentiment, and a message of friendship, trust, and eternal hope for a better future.

Andy, the owner of Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and other favourite toys like Mr.and Mrs. Potato Head, Jessie the cowgirl, Rex the dinosaur, Hamm the Pig and Slinky Dog, is now 17 years old and on his way to college. The toys know that the old days of Andy playing with them are long gone; they are worried that they might be thrown out, and the best that they can hope for is retirement in the attic. Through a series of unfortunate events the toys find themselves donated to a daycare, where a toy bear (Ned Beatty) and his goons have established rigid rules, insisting that the newcomers play with toddlers too young to treat them with care. Woody has to help his friends escape from the abuse at the daycare, and in the course of the madcap adventure he also stumbles upon a solution to their long-term future.

Toy Story 3 is made more poignant since the core child audience of the original 1995 movie, who purchased the Woody and Buzz merchandise at the time, have grown up and outgrown the toys just as Andy has. The film poses questions about loyalty, kindness and friendship in terms simple enough for a new generation of young kids to ponder, within the framework of a story enjoyable by the teenagers of today and the parents of both generations.

The animation technology gets ever better, and now the toys look rigid only because they are toys, and not through the limits of technology. The fluid motion, light and shadows, and background details are perfected to the point where the animation is almost forgotten, a scary yet brilliant achievement.

Lee Unkrich, who co-directed Toy Story 2 with John Lasseter, takes over full directing duties this time while Lasseter keeps an eye on things as Executive Producer. Unkrich finds all the interesting angles to film the misadventures of the toys, and he is helped by the appropriately over the top voice acting performances of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen.

Toy Story 3 is a visit from old friends for one more round of laughs and tears, and a realization that while times may change, true friendships are forever.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Social Network (2010)

A compelling drama about the creation of Facebook, The Social Network is the first internet era business movie classic.

It's 2003, and Harvard freshman and computer wizard Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is smart, conceited, and has no friends. His girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara) dumps him, and in that same drunken evening he hacks into various Harvard student club databases and creates FaceMash: a website where guys can rate the photos of campus girls. By 4am the popularity of the site crashes the Harvard network.

Mark gains instant campus notoriety, and is soon approached by twin brothers Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, also Harvard students, but from a rich, well-connected family. The twins invite Mark to help them implement a new website for Harvard students to connect with each other. Mark agrees to work with the twins, but doesn't follow through. Instead, a month later, he launches The Facebook, his own web site for social interaction. Mark appoints his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) as his 30 percent partner and Chief Financial Officer, in exchange for a $1,000 investment.

The Facebook takes off, and is soon the coolest new web site on campus. Eduardo pushes for its quick commercialization; Mark resists, wanting to keep the site free of advertising until he knows what it can become. Meanwhile, the Winklevoss twins are sure that The Facebook is based on their idea; eventually, they decide to sue for damages.

Mark and Eduardo meet Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the notorious and charismatic founder of Napster, the illegal music file-sharing website. Sean sees the huge potential in The Facebook (and recommends that the name be changed to just Facebook). Mark falls under Sean's spell, but Eduardo is repulsed by Sean's blatant narcissism. Mark follows Sean's advice and moves to Silicon Valley; Facebook explodes into an international sensation, and venture capital pours in with Sean's help. Eduardo is now out of his depth and out of tune with Facebook's potential. As the site reaches the one million user milestone, Mark and Sean force Eduardo out of the company by diluting his shares down to nothing in an underhanded deal. Eduardo launches his own legal action against his former best friend. All the lawsuits are a minor nuisance to Mark: he becomes the world's youngest billionaire.

The Social Network is a two-hour talkathon, and writer Aaron Sorkin delivers a screenplay that is more than capable of propelling the drama. Although the script is disappointingly silent about Zuckerberg's life before the fall of 2003, it is otherwise a masterpiece of storytelling through dialogue, and avoids all melodramatic cliches. Inter-cutting scenes at Harvard and San Francisco as Facebook is created with scenes of legal discovery as the lawsuits unfold, Sorkin creates drama through intellect rather than histrionics, and maximizes the sense of brainy realism that the film is built upon.

Working from the terrific script, the actors do their part. Jesse Eisenberg successfully projects a sense of inflated cockiness, single-mindedness, impatience with lower intellects, and the almost total absence of empathy. From the supporting cast Justin Timberlake is irresistibly fluid as the magnetic but uncontrollable Sean Parker. Director David Fincher is steady and unobtrusive, allowing the actors and dialogue to take centre stage.

The Social Network is the story of the modern economy, where on-line success can be achieved in hours, a global multi-billion dollar business is launched from a dorm room in a matter of days, and value is measured by coolness rather than widgets. But somethings never change: a cut-throat attitude and unwavering self-belief remain more than useful attributes for success.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

CD Review: Bark At The Moon, by Ozzy Osbourne (1983)

More sophisticated, more complete, and more thoughtful, Ozzy Osbourne picks himself up after the tragic death of Randy Rhoads and returns with a much improved effort on his third solo album. The cause is helped by Ozzy finding another talented guitarist in Jack E. Lee, formerly of Ratt.

The compositions on Bark At The Moon now sound like band efforts rather than the simplistic, fragmented songs designed to showcase individuals that populated Diary Of A Madman. The melodies feature cultivated variations, sharp hooks, and astute enhancements. The ballads You're No Different and So Tired pack genuine emotion, with the band providing strong support to Ozzy's honest vocals.

The faster tracks are also generally much improved, anchored by the title track. Bark At The Moon opens the CD, and it is one of Ozzy's finest pure metal compositions, finally demonstrating a full understanding of the necessary interplay between vocals and guitars, with Lee's solo work outstanding. Centre Of Eternity and Slow Down provide good support, both featuring mature, integrated melodies.

The cover art has Ozzy embracing his demented persona, and this time the music backs up the powers of his madness.


Ozzy Osbourne - Vocals
Jack E. Lee - Guitars
Bob Daisley - Bass
Tommy Aldridge - Drums
Don Airey - Keyboards

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Bark At The Moon - 10
2. You're No Different - 8
3. Now You See It (Now You Don't ) - 7
4. Rock 'N' Roll Rebel - 7
5. Centre Of Eternity - 8
6. So Tired - 8
7. Slow Down - 8
8. Waiting For Darkness - 7
9. Spiders In The Night - 7

Average: 7.78

Produced by Ozzy Osbourne, Bob Daisley, and Max Norman.
Mixed by Tony Bongiovi.

All Ace Black Blog CD Reviews are here.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

CD Review: Shogun, by Trivium (2008)

Trivium bring a lot of steak to Shogun. They are just a bit short on the sizzle.

Demonstrating remarkable consistency, Trivium pack the special edition CD with 14 tracks, and almost all of them are made of solid metal. Now all of 23 years old and already onto his fourth studio album, Matthew Heafy leads Trivium to a welcome recovery from the misstep of The Crusade (2006). Shogun is several levels higher up the quality ladder, with confident songwriting, powerful delivery and a mature, rich sound.

Trivium do lack the killer touch to turn the many very good tracks on Shogun into excellent classics, and there is an element of sameness to the song construction. Relying more on Travis Smith's beefy drums and Heafy's vocals alternating between clean and growly rather than a genuinely memorable guitar contribution, the darts land all around the middle of the board but just fail to hit the bull's eye. The melodies do make their presence felt and are used intelligently to ensure that every track is coherent; but they are supportive rather than spectacular.

Shogun continues the Trivium tradition of incredibly complex and long song titles, and jumbled CD packaging. The bonus album features a booklet that contains nothing but artwork; a bland sleeve that covers the more interesting CD cover, and a track list that only appears on the sleeve.

Of Prometheus And The Crucifix and Like Castillo To A Star In Heaven come closest to breaking out from great to amazing. Both tracks feature an injection of pace, more pronounced, searching melodies, and more adventurous guitar solos. Prometheus in particular has a mouth-watering guitar solo passage that hints at the possibilities that lie within Trivium if they were to show more confidence in letting loose with more shredding.  The cover of Iron Maiden, the third of three bonus tracks, manages to add a true thrash ethic to the classic Maiden signature track. All the other songs are substantial and earn their space on the record; Shogun is a rare but welcome example of a band delivering a large quantity without shortchanging good quality.


Matthew Heafy - Vocals, Guitars
Travis Smith - Drums
Corey Beaulieu - Guitars
Paolo Gregoletto - Bass

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Kirisute Gomen - 8
2. Torn Between Scylla and Charybdis - 8
3. Down From The Sky - 8
4. Into The Mouth Of Hell We March - 8
5. Throes Of Perdition - 8
6. Insurrection - 8
7. The Calamity - 7
8. He Who Spawned The Furies - 7
9. Of Prometheus And The Crucifix - 9 *see below*
10. Like Callisto To A Star In Heaven - 9
11. Shogun - 8
12. Poison, The Knife Or The Noose - 7
13. Upon The Shores - 8
14. Iron Maiden - 10

Average: 8.07

Produced by Nick Raskulinecz.
Mixed by Colin Richardson.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

CD Review: Diary Of A Madman, by Ozzy Osbourne (1981)

More of a lost soul wandering the wilderness abandoned by creativity than a madman, Ozzy Osbourne's second solo album finds him floundering to latch on to meaningful compositions. Diary Of A Madman is the second and final Ozzy Osbourne studio album to feature guitarist Randy Rhoads, who would die at age 25 in a light aircraft crash four months after the release of the record.

With an ace guitarist at his disposal but no seasoned band members providing complementary songwriting depth, Ozzy unfortunately comes up for the most part dry in the inspiration department.

S.A.T.O. (most likely referring to Sail Across The Ocean) is the exception, the one track with complexity, energy and intensity. Interestingly, it is also the track where Ozzy pauses for a long instrumental passage in the heart of the song, allowing Rhoads to showcase his talent in the centre circle rather than at the end with a meek fade-out.

Over The Mountain is a muscular opener, full of intent and the promise of purpose and power that is rarely delivered in the rest of the album. Closer and title track Diary Of A Madman is saved by a harrowing ending that does indeed take us to an asylum in the midst of a takeover by the lunatics.

The rest of the album has a lot of Ozzy emotion overburdening flimsy melodies that simply cannot take the weight, and end up crushed into a tangle of indifference.


Ozzy Osbourne - Vocals
Randy Rhoads - Guitar
Robert Daisley - Bass
Lee Kerslake - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Over The Mountain - 9
2. Flying High Again - 6
3. You Can't Kill Rock And Roll - 7
4. Believer - 6
5. Little Dolls - 6
6. Tonight - 6
7. S.A.T.O. - 10
8. Diary Of A Madman - 8

Average: 7.25

Produced by Max Norman, Ozzy Osbourne and Randy Rhoads.
Engineered by Max Norman.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Movie Review: Milk (2008)

The film biography of gay rights activist Harvey Milk is an inspirational story of one man's courage, strength and tenacity in the face of seemingly overwhelming forces.

Picking up the story when Harvey turns 40 years old having achieved nothing in life, Milk recounts the years between 1970, when Harvey moved from New York to San Francisco, and 1978, when he was assassinated along with the Mayor at City Hall.

Upon arrival in San Francisco Harvey and his partner Scott Smith (James Franco) settle in the Castro neighbourhood, which quickly morphs into the magnetic focal point of gays from around the world. Harvey's outspokenness for gay rights and the rights of all minorities soon elevates him to the status of unofficial mayor of Castro, and he gathers around him a group of dedicated activists. He also meets and mentors Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), who would go on to become a prominent campaigner for the rights of AIDS victims.

Harvey takes a run at public office on several occasions, and repeatedly fails to get elected; the constant electioneering takes its toll on his private life, and Smith leaves him. Anti-gay sentiment is meanwhile sweeping across America, with local laws protecting the rights of gays being defeated in many jurisdictions. In 1977 Harvey finally wins a seat as a San Francisco Supervisor, and becomes the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States.

In the last year of his life, Harvey Milk faces his three biggest battles: Proposition 6 is on the California ballot, and if passed it will force the firing of all gay teachers in the state; Harvey's partner Jack is becoming increasingly unstable and difficult to manage; and Supervisor Jack White is a political rival who becomes ever more erratic. One of these challenges ends in a great triumph: the other two in utmost tragedy.

Sean Penn delivers a tour-de-force performance as Harvey Milk, capturing a man publicly confident about his position in life, embracing the leadership role that history selected for him, while privately tortured by the consequences of failure.

Through the struggles of Harvey's life director Gus Van Sant seamlessly presents the broader story of the early battles that gays had to fight to gain equality and basic human rights. It's an eye-opening, sometimes sickening tale of wide-scale high-level fear-mongering, abuse and dehumanization taking place in a supposedly enlightened United States.

Missing from Milk is any meaningful portrayal of the first 40 years of Harvey's life. We just gets his assertion that he achieved nothing to that point. Some understanding of his upbringing and the events that shaped him into the man that he became would have provided better character rounding.

The chronicle of Harvey Milk is ultimately the story of those rare men who embrace a unique role to define and shape the course of history through peaceful means against impossible odds, often at great personal cost. In an age when seeking instant personal gratification is the rule and violence is celebrated, it is a tale not told often enough.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

CD Review: Nine Lives, by Aerosmith (1997)

Lavishly produced and spotlessly delivered, Nine Lives is a great example of perfect professionalism losing its soul. The 12th studio album from Aerosmith, a full 24 years into their recording career, is too long, contains too many lacklustre tracks, and too few winners.

But Nine Lives also avoids any major missteps, as it unspools one highly polished song after another, all chasing wide appeal, radio success, and slick videos. There is little that is wrong with the grand orchestral arrangements and the loudly energetic horns; there is also little that is innovative, dangerous, or groundbreaking.

Two tracks stand out from the rest. Falling In Love (Is Hard On The Knees) grasps the amped-up bouncy background and places it squarely at centre stage, where the horns and persuasive guitar line do the rest. Pink is an in-your-face encounter with Steven Tyler's personality, propelled by a harmonica that tries for soulful without disguising lecherous. It drips faux emotion and creates an irresistible puddle.

As for the rest, Nine Lives, Taste Of India, Something's Gotta Give and Crash are solidly entertaining and confident tracks, but then there are seven more songs on the CD grasping for an argument to exist and not finding much of an audience.

Nine Lives would have benefited from restricting itself to nine tracks, but much like the cat that is surviving for the sake of survival, even that would have meant the album overstaying its welcome.


Steven Tyler - Vocals
Joe Perry - Guitar
Brad Whitford - Guitar
Tom Hamilton - Bass
Joey Kramer - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Nine Lives - 8
2. Falling In Love (Is Hard On The Knees) - 9
3. Hole In My Soul - 7
4. Taste Of India - 8
5. Full Circle - 7
6. Something's Gotta Give - 8
7. Ain't That A Bitch - 7
8. The Farm - 7
9. Crash - 8
10. Kiss Your Past Good-bye - 7
11. Pink - 9
12. Attitude Adjustment - 6
13. Fallen Angels - 6

Average: 7.46

Produced, Recorded and Mixed by Kevin Shirley.
Mastered by Leon Zervos.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Movie Review: Serpico (1973)

One rotten apple can spoil the whole bunch, but what happens to one good apple in a barrel full of rotten apples? New York cop Frank Serpico found out the hard way. Based on a true story as documented in the book by Peter Maas, Serpico is one of the defining films of 1970s cinema, combining one of the decade's biggest stars with the decade's most compelling city.

An honest cop who found corruption around every corner and in every precinct, Serpico could not get the leaders of the police force to pay any attention to him. Castigated and ostracized by his fellow officers for refusing to join them on the take, Serpico eventually went public with his revelations. He was shot in the face during a drug bust, in circumstances that strongly suggest other officers at the very least did nothing to help him, and at worst set him up. He survived the shooting, and his story finally forced a public inquiry into police corruption, in which he testified.

Al Pacino is hypnotic as Frank Serpico, defining the often imitated and now standard look of the ruffled, messy, frequently disguised undercover cop who refuses to play by the rules. Pacino's performance combines determination with the doubt and despair of a man confronted by an overwhelmingly powerful and established system yet refusing to yield to it.

New York City has never looked more depressing and doomed than in Serpico, Sidney Lumet keeping his cameras well away from any attractive features and focusing on run-down neighborhoods, miserable buildings, and grimy streets. Lumet's New York is filled with shadowy criminals on every corner, some dressed the part and others dressed as police officers.

As an adequate metaphor for Serpico's story, there is not much of a supporting cast around Pacino. The likes of John Randolph and M. Emmet Walsh are very much faceless and in the background, although Tony Roberts makes a bit of a mark as one of the few senior officers who tried to help through his connections to the Mayor's office. Barbara Eda-Young and Cornelia Sharpe as two of the women in Serpico's life both failed to translate their roles into serious movie careers.

The original music score by Mikis Theodorakis is full of emotion, but perhaps unnecessarily overused early in the film.

Serpico is a study of a principled man up against a rotten system in a dilapidating city, a trio that is most compelling to watch.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

CD Review: Toys In The Attic, by Aerosmith (1975)

With Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Deep Purple all hailing from Britain, Aerosmith made their claim for inclusion among America's first wave of serious heavy metal bands with Toys In The Attic, their third studio album. Influenced by the blues but unmistakably leaning towards the harder edges that meld into metal, Toys In The Attic established the boys from Boston in the main pack of metal's early creators, and included their greatest ever hit.

Walk This Way contains a lot of metal's early DNA: a concentrated dose of energy, cow bells, a terrific guitar riff, guitar solos, and vocals alternating between manic and fun-loving. It's also an early example of how danceable metal could be, the song's beat requiring a lot more physical activity than just walking.

In support, Toys In The Attic offers several strong tracks that helped to establish the band's legacy. Sweet Emotion is a deceptively powerful track, the stretched vocals and generally languid pace hiding a surprisingly heavy guitar and drum foundation. The title track opens the album with a hyperactive pace full of intent, while the CD closes out with two more solid tracks: Round And Round is the most dense and distant song on the album, and also one of the heaviest. The ballad You See Me Crying is an appropriate closer, and reveals a slower, soulful side to the band, with elaborate orchestral arrangement.

The only clear mis-step on the album is Uncle Salty, an aggravating track that starts poorly and never recovers. The famous Big Ten Inch Record isn't a great song, but it is great innuendo.

Toys In The Attic has proved to be a durable record, and a cornerstone of metal's early years in America. Rather than being forgotten, the toys in the attic have provided years of playtime fun.


Steven Tyler - Vocals
Joe Perry - Guitars
Brad Whitford - Guitars
Tom Hamilton - Bass
Joey Kramer - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Toys In The Attic - 8
2. Uncle Salty - 6
3. Adam's Apple - 7
4. Walk This Way - 10
5. Big Ten Inch Record - 7
6. Sweet Emotion - 8
7. No More No More - 7
8. Round And Round - 8
9. You See Me Crying - 8

Average: 7.67

Produced by Jack Douglas.  Engineered by Jay Messina.
Mastered by Doug Sax.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Movie Review: 3000 Miles To Graceland (2001)

A vivid, over-blown, way over-the-top heist drama, 3000 Miles To Graceland is a stylish rough diamond, waiting to be rediscovered as a cult classic.

It's Elvis impersonator week in Las Vegas, with countless versions of the King livening up the Strip. Michael (Kurt Russell) has just been released from prison and at a small desert town outside Vegas, he meets and falls into bed with Cybil (Couteney Cox), who has a brat of a young son Jesse. Michael then joins a gang headed by Murphy (Kevin Costner), a vicious criminal with an unhealthy Elvis obsession. Michael, Murphy, and three heavily-armed members of Murphy's group all dress up as Elvis impersonators, and in a fiasco of a robbery, they hit a Las Vegas casino all bullets flying. They cause mayhem but escape with casualties and a lot of stolen money.

Murphy quickly turns on all his fellow gang members, killing them all except Michael who is saved by a bullet proof vest. Murphy's plan is temporarily derailed when he crashes his car in the desert, allowing Michael to grab all the loot and escape with Cybil and Jesse. With Murphy in pursuit, and federal agents picking up Murphy's trail, Michael makes his way to a prearranged meeting with money launderer Peterson (Jon Lovitz) in Idaho. Meanwhile, Cybil has her own intentions to grab all the money, complicating Michael's life. With SWAT teams closing in, Michael needs to save Jesse, while Murphy makes an epic stand to seal his destiny.

Director and co-writer Demian Lichtenstein has just one thing in mind: a massive sensory over-load experience. 3000 Miles To Graceland is all about colours that are too sharp, bullets that are too numerous, characters that are too desperate to care, and an Elvis story that is too incredible. Lichtenstein makes it work, injecting boundless energy and never even locating the pause button as the film hurtles towards a manic conclusion. The cinematography and editing are all geared towards achieving maximum style points, and capture Vegas, the desert, and the carnage in glorious constant motion.

3000 Miles To Graceland benefits from three performances with enough power to light up the Vegas strip. Kevin Costner is chilling as a man handed a really bum deal in life, and determined to make the worst of it. Kurt Russell anchors the film while chaos reigns around him, and Courteney Cox delivers a spunky performance in one of her few memorable movie roles. Lovitz as the money launderer Peterson cranks up the doomed smarminess in his short on-screen time.

If the life of Elvis was all about excess, 3000 Miles To Graceland may be the perfect metaphorical homage to the King.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 11 February 2011

CD Review: Counterparts, by Rush (1993)

Probably the saddest thing about Counterparts is the reminder of unfulfilled promise. Album opener Animate is a gloriously unexpected track that serves as an example of what Rush was capable of, on the rare occasions when the band took the time and effort to inject energy, life, and interesting melodies into their music.

Other than Leave That Thing Alone, the latest in a long line of engaging Rush instrumentals, Counterparts is a disaster of uninspired music. The better songs are just average; and the rest moan along at devastatingly low levels of energy, with a stunning lack of dedication and seemingly minimal effort. The band reach a new low with The Speed Of Love, a track so hideously annoying it deserves a place in music's all-time hall of shame. For an established act to contrive to place such a wretched bucket of entrails on an album is a travesty.

The music on Counterparts is appropriate for dark rooms, lava lamp in the corner, the smell of incense wafting in, and droopy, tired eyes. Anyone actually seeking interesting and engaging music will find that the screw will not fit into that washer.


Geddy Lee - Bass, Vocals, Synthesizers
Alex Lifeson - Guitars
Neil Peart - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Animate - 9
2. Stick It Out - 6
3. Cut To The Chase - 6
4. Nobody's Hero - 7
5. Between Sun And Moon - 7
6. Alien Shore - 5
7. The Speed Of Love - 4
8. Double Agent - 6
9. Leave That Thing Alone - 8
10. Cold Fire - 6
11. Everyday Glory - 6

Average: 6.36

Produced by Peter Collins and Rush.
Recorded by Kevin Shirley. Mixed by Michael Letho.
Mastered by Bob Ludwig.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Blob (1988)

A remake of a Steve McQueen movie from thirty years earlier, the 1988 version of The Blob boasts some gruesome special effects but otherwise finds it hard to justify its existence.

What looks like a meteor crash-lands into a forested area outside the small town of Arborville, California. A red gooey substance oozes out of the pod and starts to devour the local residents. Brian (Kevin Dillon), the local long-haired teenager from the wrong side of the tracks, teams up with wholesome cheerleader Meg (Shawnee Smith) to battle the blob, save their friends and family, and try to stop the carnage.

Soon machine-gun wielding government men in hazard suits descend on the town to quarantine everyone, obtain samples from the blob, and hush-up the fiasco: the meteor was in fact a secret military satellite containing experimental germ warfare material, and the whole situation is a military screw-up. Brian and Meg have to not only battle the blob, but expose the conspiracy as well.

Despite some hints of wit and a few comic winks, The Blob plays most of its cards seriously. So the film attempts, and generally fails, to create genuine tension from oozing Jello that seems to change properties, size, and speed depending on the scene, and that can kill by suffocating, dismembering, or mangling, just for variety. Director Chuck Russell delivers a reasonably professional movie with tight pacing and standard thrills, but he gets little traction from characters firmly entrenched in a single dimension, with all expressions, lines and personalities borrowed from other movies. Brian and Meg are generally unappealing main characters, both Kevin Dillon and Shawnee Smith operating within a narrow range of acting talent.

The best moments are reserved for Meg' young brother Kevin, who against his mother's wishes conspires to watch a horror movie with his best friend Eddie on the night that the blob makes its grand entrance to the town's main street. We only see snippets of it, but the movie that Kevin and Eddie attend appeared to offer better entertainment than The Blob.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Movie Review: Charlie's Angels (2000)

The television series was a showcase for models trying to pretend that they were actresses representing women's emerging empowerment. The movie does away with any pretenses. Essentially a 98 minute music video that finds every excuse to fill the frame with the cleavage, rear-ends, and blowing hair of its leading ladies, Charlie's Angels is almost tolerable mainly because this film is honest about its intentions. Director McG also earns some points for stylish action sequences that effectively use slow-motion to highlight the depth of the stunts in the many one-on-one hand combat scenes.

The plot matters about as much as it would in a slickly produced rock video. Natalie (Cameron Diaz), Dylan (Drew Barrymore), and Alex (Lucy Liu) are detectives working for an agency run by the mysterious and rich Charlie. Their handler and only contact with Charlie is the hapless Bosley (Bill Murray). The Angels are retained by Vivian Wood (Kelly Lynch) to rescue her business partner and software wizard Eric Knox (Sam Rockwell), who has apparently been kidnapped by rival computer magnate Roger Corwin (Tim Curry). But the Angels soon realize that neither Vivian nor Eric are what they seem, and the hunters become the hunted as Charlie himself is threatened with violent and permanent retirement.

Diaz, Barrymore (who also helped to produce the movie) and Liu go through the film with a knowing smile and glint in their eye, confirming that they are not at all taking any of the silliness seriously, and they have fun flirting shamelessly with the cameras. Charlie's Angels hustles along from one contrived set-piece to the next, never losing sight of the prime objective, which is to place the Angels in as many figure-hugging outfits as possible before the bad guys are finally terminated.

Charlie's Angels is the equivalent of browsing a fashion magazine with a model staring out of every page: an icky mixture of the glossy and the vacuous.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: GoodFellas (1990)

Based on the true story of New York mafia gangster Henry Hill, GoodFellas is a sprawling, entertaining epic that covers three decades in the lives of colourful criminals.  While GoodFellas lacks the gravitas of The Godfather, it makes up for it with irresistible personality.

It's 1955, and teenager Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) is growing up in Brooklyn, living in an apartment across the street from a taxi office that in reality is a front for mob boss Paulie (Paul Sorvino). Henry is excited by the prestige and wealth of the mobsters, and over the years he graduates from doing odd-jobs for Paulie's crew to participating in crimes, and grows into the role of a wise guy in Paulie's inner circle. Other criminals with emerging reputations rotating around Paulie include Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). Jimmy is smooth, calm, and viscous when needed. Tommy is loud, unhinged and volatile, capable of switching from funny to deadly in an instant.

Henry ultimately proves his value by helping to plan and flawlessly execute the theft of a large amount of money from an Air France office. He moves into the big time of flashy cars and slick clothes, gets married to Karen (Lorraine Bracco), and is quickly cheating on her with barely discreet mistresses.

While the life of crime seems to have few downsides, trouble is lurking. Tommy's temper is out of control, and in 1970 he kills a made man, usually considered untouchable, from the Gambino family. And when a shakedown in Florida goes wrong, Henry is sent to jail. Upon his release and with his lifestyle threatened, he becomes a full-fledged drug dealer, despite Paulie's warning not to. With drug money rolling in and now himself an addict, Henry is quickly back to the big time.

In 1978 Jimmy, Tommy, Henry and many other men from Paulie's crew pull-off a multi-million dollar robbery of a Lufthansa office, but the enormous amounts of money cause stress between the men, and they turn on each other. Jimmy starts a clean-up operation, eliminating most of the participants in the Lufthansa heist. Tommy is killed in a hit arranged by the Gambinos. And in 1980 anti-narcotics agents finally catch up with Henry's drug operations, forcing him to make a choice between certain death and full disclosure.

While The Godfather series focused on the upper echelons of mobster families, GoodFellas takes us to the street level, and to the lives of the wannabe men who do the dirty work while wearing expensive clothes. It's an engrossing movie, filled with rich characters, memorable scenes, comedy, drama and violence in perfect balance.

Despite being based on real people, the three main characters in GoodFellas are all larger than life. Relatively unknown at the time of filming, Ray Liotta captures the centre of the film with an affecting performance as Henry Hill, on a remarkable journey from wide-eyed hanger-on to a wild-eyed, drug-addicted desperate mobster. Robert De Niro is surprisingly and effectively controlled as the scheming Jimmy, who emerges as the most calculating member of Paulie's gang. And Joe Pesci gives a most memorably stunning performance as Tommy, a hypnotic package of dynamite that may explode at anyone, anytime and for any reason. It's impossible to ignore Pesci when he's on the screen, as in every scene he's either already in the centre of the action or about to make sure that he creates a maelstrom around him.

Scorsese directs with an emphasis on continuous kinetic energy, and his use of freeze-frames is terrific, but unfortunately limited to the earlier scenes. His screenplay, co-written with Nicolas Pileggi and based on Pileggi's book, keeps the action humming for 146 minutes of running time, while squeezing in as many F-bombs as possible.

Despite lives drenched in crime, GoodFellas succeeds in presenting Henry, Jimmy and Tommy as characters who would be thoroughly entertaining to invite for dinner. Whether anyone lives to finish the meal would be entirely up to Tommy.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Movie Review: True Grit (2010)

Ethan and Joel Coen turn their attention to a classic Western tale of justice served as seen through the doggedly determined eyes of a young woman. In True Grit, the triple Coen signatures of grand cinematography, dangerous humour and bursts of sudden violence flourish with the help of a stellar cast.

Precocious 14 year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) arrives in the rough frontier town of Fort Smith. Her father has been killed by the outlaw Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), and no one seems to care: Chaney has fled into the wild territories, and the law cannot be bothered to chase after him.

Mattie wants to bring Chaney to justice. Through an effective combination of persistence, badgering, pleading and financial reward, Mattie joins forces with US Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and Texas Ranger Laboef (Matt Damon) and they set off to find Chaney. Cogburn is an aging, hard-drinking law man known for having true grit and for killing more often than capturing outlaws. Laboef has been on Chaney's trail for a long time: Chaney has apparently also killed a Texas senator.

Cogburn and Laboef do not get along, and soon Mattie is having trouble keeping the group together. Eventually they do catch up with Chaney as he rides with the gang of Lucky Ned Pepper. Cogburn and Laboef are outnumbered, out-gunned, and uncoordinated, but with Mattie's help they need to take the initiative and hand out frontier justice.

The story of True Grit is built on the shoulders of young Mattie Ross, and the film is carried by a remarkable performance from newcomer Hailee Steinfeld. Selected after an open casting call attracted 15,000 applicants, Steinfeld demonstrates the maturity of a veteran as the sharp, unwavering Mattie. She steps into centre stage with a calm confidence that dominates the movie and propels the actions of all the other characters.

Jeff Bridges has a lot of fun mumbling his way through mostly incomprehensible dialogue while consuming enough alcohol to flood the west. His eye-patched Rooster Cogburn is a philosophical storyteller who is violent when he needs to be, which is as often as he can manage to turn every threatening situation into bedlam. Matt Damon is lost beneath the facial hair of a Texas Ranger drowning in long-winded pontifications, and most of what he says gets on the nerves of Cogburn, whose return insults are shorter and sharper. Bridges, Damon and Steinfeld make for an entertainingly strained trio who all need each other more than they care to admit.

The Coens alternate between the characters developing and the violent events unfolding, all filmed with eloquence and a respectful admiration for a western landscape as harsh and honest as the people who inhabit it.

In a genre as enduring as the Western, it's difficult to bring too much originality to a film like True Grit. It may not smell overwhelmingly fresh, but what is more important is the comfortable mix of worn leather, cheap liquor, rolled tobacco and gun powder in just the right quantities.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Movie Review: Blue Valentine (2010)

A study of the ups and mostly downs of a couple, Blue Valentine is a bleak relationship study, not helped by the generally unappealing two main characters. Ryan Gosling as Dean and Michelle Williams as Cindy give terrific performances; but Dean and Cindy don't do much to endear themselves.

Blue Valentine is set in Brooklyn and Pennsylvania working class neighbourhoods, and switches between scenes of the present with the marriage is falling apart, and the past when Dean and Cindy met. As a young man Dean is not doing much to improve his lot in life. He appears to have charm and musical talent, but he never finishes high school and settles for a job with a moving company. There is barely a backstory to round out his character and personality.

We know a bit more about Cindy. Despite a loveless household and a short-tempered, verbally-abusive father, she has aspirations to become a doctor, but she's also not helping her cause: sexually active at 13; 20 or more partners as a young woman; and a jerk of a boyfriend. She meets Dean, and is soon pregnant. It's never clear if Dean is the dad, but he marries her anyway.

A few years later Cindy and Dean are struggling through a marriage without joy. Living in a rural, isolated setting, Dean never stops drinking and smoking, and his job as a painter means that his clothes and skin are perpetually paint-stained. Cindy is an ultrasound technician, commuting two hours each way to her job at a small clinic. They are both good to their young daughter Frankie, but she seems to be the only common bond. The sudden added stress of the family dog getting lost and killed does not help, and an ill-conceived supposedly romantic getaway at a sordid motel pushes the relationship over the edge.

Director Derek Cianfrance, who also co-wrote the script, maintains a low-key, close to documentary style, and despite the simmering tension he keeps most of the emotional histrionics almost in control. Gosling and Williams are absorbing, and despite the questionable choices made by Dean and Cindy, the performances generate lasting empathy.

Ultimately Blue Valentine has too few moments that anchor the relationship. Early in their courtship they share a magical moment with Dean playing a toy guitar while Cindy dances on the street; and there is another bonding experience at an abortion clinic. Otherwise, the film wallows in a lot of dark clouds with too few silver linings. Without a strong foundation, it is no surprise that a marriage will crumble, and Cindy and Dean ultimately face the reality that their union best resembles a house of cards.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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