Sunday, 31 July 2011

CD Review: The Last In Line, by Dio (1984)


Dio's second solo effort is standard 1980s power metal fare, a notch or two below the rightfully more celebrated Holy Diver. The Last In Line is enlivened by two excellent tracks, but otherwise suffers from sameness and a limited creative spark. Ronnie and his band are smoothly efficient and professional, but as they are standing at the tail end of that line, they rarely stray into memorable territory.

The title song The Last In Line does take its place among Dio's classic songs, a power-packed, earth-shaking six minute journey through the gates of the afterlife, marching to a colossal Vinny Appice beat, Dio assuring us that We'll know for the first time / If we're evil or divine / We're the last in line.  At the end of the album is the even more ambitious but less brilliant Egypt (The Chains Are On), a seven minute eastern-tinged epic celebrating the majesty and decrying the slavery of that country, with lyrics that Dio could have intended for either ancient or modern history. It's a lumbering track that succeeds despite not exactly shaking off the shackles of predictability.

Otherwise, We Rock is an energetic work-up-the-crowd fist-pumper that jumps around within the limits of its ambitions. The other six tracks come and ago in a celebration of Dio's voice and his salute to basic power metal structures and anthems. The supporting band do their job with minimum fuss, but the stand-out moments are few and far between, The Last In Line never overflowing with inspiration. It's an album that delivers exactly what would have been expected from Dio, none of it bad, most of it good, and sprinkled with a light dusting of admirable.


Band:

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


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. We Rock - 8
2. The Last In Line - 10
3. Breathless - 7
4. I Speed At Night - 6
5. One Night In The City - 7
6. Evil Eyes - 7
7. Mystery - 7
8. Eat Your Heart Out - 7
9. Egypt (The Chains Are On) - 9

Average: 7.56

Produced by Ronnie James Dio.
Engineered by Angelo Arcuri.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Friday, 29 July 2011

CD Review: Balls To Picasso, by Bruce Dickinson (1994)


After the misfire of Tattooed Millionaire, Bruce Dickinson pulls up his socks and delivers a much better second solo effort. Landing just inches on the slightly less heavy side of Iron Maiden, Balls To Picasso is filled with confident, rich and often spectacular metal.

Much of the credit goes to the supporting band. In Roy Z Dickinson found an ace guitarist capable of matching his vocal range and power, and the best material on Balls To Picasso, including album opener Cyclops, features Roy and Bruce complementing each other with the familiarity that usually requires a lifetime of collaboration. Eddie Casillas on bass and David Ingraham on drums prove to be much more than typical session musicians, and add substantial depth to the foundation of the album.

Cyclops is one of the finest metal songs from the 1990s, a crunching epic with brilliant contributions from all the band members. Casillas and Ingraham build a massive sub-structure, onto which Dickinson and Roy Z just soar with a mesmerizingly spooky and heavy tale of surveillance cameras taking over society. Dickinson unloads the chorus of Where are you going? / What are you doing? / Why are you looking at the camera's eye? / Where are you staying? / Why are you leaving? / We watch you breathing / Through the camera's eye, as London is indeed overrun with one-eyed observers, Roy matching him with compelling guitar wizardry, including a most Maidenesque solo.

It would be difficult for any album to match that opening, but Balls To Picasso gives it a good go. Shoot All The Clowns, a hair-down dance metal track that brings fun back to music, is plain irresistible. Laughing In The Hiding Bush is more ambitious, Roy's soulful guitar stretching it's legs and matching one of Dickinson's more emotive vocals. Fire is straightforward crunchy metal, a moderately slow pace demanding a widows-down, high-volume blast while cruising on Main Street. Sacred Cowboys attempts to channel Run To The Hills, and almost succeeds with an up-tempo, beat-heavy structure that peaks with another Roy solo.

Hell No and 1000 Points Of Light are other strong tracks, and the album maintains a uniformly strong quality content, avoiding selections that feel like filler.

Balls To Picasso is a solo artist finding his feet, and proving to himself that there is life after breaking away from a mega-successful and legendary band.


Band:

Bruce Dickinson - Vocals

with supporting musicians:
Roy Z - Guitars
Eddie Casillas - Bass
Dave Ingraham - Drums
Doug Van Booven - Percussion


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Cyclops - 10 *see below*
2. Hell No - 8
3. Gods Of War - 7
4. 1000 Points Of Light - 8
5. Laughing In The Hiding Bush - 8
6. Change Of Heart - 7
7. Shoot All The Clowns - 9
8. Fire - 8
9. Sacred Cowboys - 8
10. Tears Of The Dragon - 7

Average: 8.00

Produced and Mixed by Shay Baby.
Mastered by Greg Fulginiti and Andy Van Dett.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.





CD Review: 4p, by Danzig (1994)


Danzig's fourth and final album with the original line-up finds the band experimenting with a variety of new ideas, mostly involving slowing down and adding emphasis to pacing, build-up and mood rather than raw energy. 4p (also known as just 4) does not veer too far away from the devil worship childishness which appears to be the only topic the band can address, but within the limits of this laughable mission, some of the metal is enjoyable.

Brand New God ploughs forward with confident purpose, John Christ's guitar a mixture of genius and distortion, the pace changing between a brisk gallop and slow sections suitable for pillaging. Bringer Of Death opens with the sound of a chaotic firefight, machine guns overheating, and then settles into a massive groove carved by the bass of Eerie Von.  Son Of The Morning Star is one of Danzig's more experimental tracks, slowing the tempo down to a walking pace as a set-up for a tear-down-the-walls monster riff from Christ.

The final two tracks conclude Danzig's most successful creative period on a reasonably high note, emphasizing thoughtfulness rather than recklessness. Stalker Song is another deliberately paced, controlled song aiming for a gloomy mood with underlying menace. And Danzig scrub all the speed out for album closer Let It Be Captured, a plodding but magnetic track suitable to round-off the depression on really dark and long winter nights.

Although a fair amount of 4p's content is interesting, just as much material is easily dismissible, and the less inspired tracks drag down the value of the album. And for those with a lot of time to kill and a really burning desire to worship Beelzebub, there is a hidden track at number 66 on the CD player track list, but that kind of dedication is best reserved for die-hard fans.

Nothing on 4p will re-write the history of heavy metal music, but as a sign-off from a classic line-up labouring in the weirder corners of the genre, it serves its purpose.

Band:

Glenn Danzig - Vocals
Eerie Von - Bass
John Christ - Guitars
Chuck Biscuits - Drums


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Brand New God - 9
2. Little Whip - 7
3. Cantspeak - 6
4. Going Down To Die - 7
5. Until You Call On The Dark - 7
6. Dominion - 7
7. Bringer Of Death - 8
8. Sadistikal - 6
9. Son Of The Morning Star - 8
10. I Don't Mind The Pain - 7
11. Stalker Song - 8
12. Let It Be Captured - 8

Average: 7.33

Produced by Glenn Danzig and Rick Rubin.
Engineered by Jim Scott. Mastered by Stephen Marcussen.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Excalibur (1981)


There have been many screen versions of the King Arthur legend: none as grand as Excalibur. An epic re-telling of the story, director, producer and co-writer John Boorman creates a lush yet brutal fantasy world, and sets within it an ambitious tale that is as much about love and betrayal as it is about the birth of the modern age.

The story begins with the ambitious and aggressive knight Uther (Gabriel Byrne) battling for control of the land against rival warlords. Successful in battle, Uther enlists the help of Merlin the wizard (Nicol Williamson) to obtain control of the magical sword Excalibur. Uther agrees to a peace deal with the Duke of Cornwall (Colin Redgrave), but when Uther lays his eyes on the Duke's wife Igrayne (Katrine Boorman), he is willing to reignite the war for the pleasure of ravishing her. Uther asks for Merlin's help to find a way to spend a night with Igrayne; Merlin has but one condition: any offspring from the night of passion belongs to Merlin.

The Duke is killed; Merlin arranges for Uther to appear in the guise of the Duke and spend the night with Igrayne; their passion is witnessed by Morgana, the young daughter of the Duke and Igrayne. Nine months later, Arthur is born and Merlin shows up on cue and whisks the young child away. Uther is ambushed and killed, and Excalibur is wedged into a stone, with no knight able to loosen it.

Years later, Arthur (Nigel Terry), now a young and unassuming man, effortlessly removes Excalibur from the stone. He is immediately proclaimed King by some knights, but others are not too sure: he is too young and inexperienced, and battles break out. But Arthur's skills and generous attitude win over his doubters and he is acclaimed as King and leader of the land; indeed, Arthur's miracle is that he is "one with the land", and prosperity reigns over his Kingdom. He marries Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi), builds his elegant castle Camelot and forms the Knights of the Round Table to maintain peace and order, always with Merlin's help.

A mysterious, superlatively skilled warrior named Lancelot (Nicholas Clay) makes his way to Arthur's Kingdom, and he joins the knights, although his attitude is more mercenary. The young and resourceful Perceval (Paul Geoffrey) starts out as Lancelot's assistant, but ends up a knight in his own right, while Lancelot and Guenevere are helplessly attracted to each other. Darkness begins to descend on the land. Another threat emerges in the form of the all-grown Morgana (Helen Mirren), a sorceress and Arthur's half-sister, harbouring thoughts of avenging her parents whose lives were destroyed by Arthur's father and Merlin.

Morgana sharpens her magical skills with Merlin's help, and then turns against him. She also arranges revenge against Arthur, and conceives the unholy son Mordred. As pestilence takes over the kingdom, Arthur dispatches his knights on a desperate quest to find the Holy Grail, believing that this ancient artifact will save his Kingdom. But peace will not be easy to find, as Arthur has to carve out an alliance to save the land.

The central theme of Excalibur is the passing of the fantastic age of sorcery, with humanity transitioning to a less mystical, more accountable time of people being responsible for their actions. King Arthur is Merlin's final creation and contribution, a final hurrah for magicians to meddle in day-to-day affairs. With the passing of Arthur's kingdom and Merlin's dis-empowerment, it is now up to mere mortals like Perceval to find ways to serve the cause of society. With the entire legend of Arthur being shrouded in mystery and folklore, Excalibur draws a loving line between pseudo-history built on the supernatural according to imagination and legend, and actual subsequent events, where magicians are not welcome.

Filmed in Ireland with a mostly Irish cast and crew, Excalibur's set designs are monumental and create a setting that is enticingly attractive and horrifically dangerous. Boorman moves his cameras effortlessly from ancient castles to mist-shrouded plains and dense forests: gorgeous waterfalls, moats, rivers, lakes and scenic bridges provide the backdrop for scenes ranging from tender romance to barbarous, limb-hacking close-quarters combat.


The cast of Irish and British actors fit perfectly into Excalibur's world, and the lack of high-wattage star power is a definite plus. The movie is about legendary events and a suite of memorable characters rather than an overpowering central presence. Boorman purposefully used the name of the sword as the title of his movie, signifying the symbolism of the legend as more important than any of its participants.

The music, by Trevor Jones and using chillingly epic extracts from Orff and Wagner, adds to the monumental atmosphere, as do the heavy duty, heavily metallic knight costumes designed by Bob Ringwood.

Excalibur is 140 minutes of grand storytelling, entertaining mythology on a luxurious scale, and an unforgettable journey into the glorious mists of legend.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Book Review: Confessions Of An Economic Hit Man, by John Perkins (2004)


An Economic Hit Man is the foot soldier of modern-day empire-building in the age of capitalism: his job is to conquer poor countries through economic blackmail. Or such is the story of John Perkins, a former economist  whose conscience eventually riddled him with guilt, compelling him to expose his sordid career. Confessions Of An Economic Hit Man is a story of global dirty tricks, a compelling autobiography, and a sometimes tiresome confessional.

Perkins was an economist wonderboy, and quickly rose through the ranks working for MAIN, a private engineering consulting firm. Most of MAIN's clients were government agencies and international loan banks, and Perkins' assignments were relatively simple: to forecast stunningly optimistic economic growth rates in third world countries, to justify massive bank loans that would effectively bury the receiving countries under a mountain of debt while enriching their corrupt leaders.

Of course, the loans themselves would never help alleviate poverty or improve the local standard of living: the money was always channelled back to the US and earmarked to hire large US engineering and construction firms, such as Bechtel and Halliburton, to design and build massive infrastructure projects to support the incredible growth projections. The men who ran these firms had a continuing tight-knit relationship with the Washington DC power-brokers, and frequently moved back and forth between corporate and political leadership positions.

Meanwhile, the crippling debt would effectively hijack the country to the whims of the Unites States in all matters of foreign affairs and global conflicts.

Perkins was not qualified as an economist, but he was a good researcher and persuasive presenter. His people skills and willingness to create and support fictional growth data catapulted him into a role of astonishing influence, shaping the futures of countries such as Indonesia, Panama, Colombia, and Iran.

The most eye-opening chapters of the book cover the deal struck between the United States and Saudi Arabia after the oil crisis of the early 1970s. In return for guaranteeing the safety and continued dominance of the Al-Saud family, Saudi Arabia guaranteed the supply of cheap oil, and oil money in the form of interest yielded by US government securities purchased by the Saudis was recycled to hire US companies to build-out the Kingdom. It was an ingenious deal that enriched the ruling Saudis and US corporate interests, and Perkins had a significant role in pulling it together.

As much as the book reveals about the inner workings of an empire, it's also a confession by a man who feels the utmost guilt about his role in expanding capitalistic objectives. Due to an unhappy upbringing and what seems to be an utterly dysfunctional relationship with his parents, Perkins admits that he was easy to influence, and indeed the book is littered with people who Perkins admits sharply turned his head this way and that. These include Claudine, the sexy companion apparently retained by MAIN to seduce him while teaching him the role of an Economic Hit Man; Omar Torrijos, the former President of Panama; Paula, a woman he met in Colombia; and locals in Indonesia and Panama who showed him the poverty-riddled streets and exposed him to simmering anti-US sentiment.

Perkins' continued gut-spilling to assuage his guilt gets tiresome, and certainly his take on overall global events comes across as naive in the extreme. His tangential discussions about leader of Al-Qaeda Osama Bin Laden and President of Iraq Saddam Hussein are myopic at best, while his adulation for socialist-leaning leaders such as Torrijos borders on a child's hero worship.

Perkins turned the second part of his life to non-profits and the promotion of ethical practices, and these parts of the book are noticeably less interesting. Ironically for an autobiography, the real power of Confessions Of An Economic Hit Man lies in the revelations about the system, rather than the man who played the role of a glorified pawn.





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Tuesday, 26 July 2011

CD Review: Ninewinged Serpent, by Devian (2007)


The first of two albums from Sweden's Devian contains snippets of rousing moments, but otherwise drowns in a thick soup of indistinguishable sounds. Ninewinged Serpent is death metal that shows promise, but is not often melodic enough.

Most of the best material is stacked at the front end. The intro instrumental Serenade For The Fallen, short as it is, points to a path that most of the rest of the album does not follow: a deliberate pace, brutal power, and massive structure. Dressed In Blood immediately ups the pace and the level of frantic energy, and manages to inject enough of a melancholy melody to augment Legion's gravel-skidding vocals. The best track on the album follows, Heresy locking in on a dangerous rhythm, the guitars of Tomas Nilsson and Joinus competing with Legion to lead the charge towards several satisfying changes in harmony and pace.

Late in the track list, Remnant Song recaptures some of the thoughtfulness that would have benefited the rest of the album: the final 90 seconds of the song are a spine-tingling, headlong descent into utterly compelling hopelessness that, ironically, rescues the track.

The rest of Ninewinged Serpent is rarely less than competent, but seldom proves to be necessary. Devian would go on to produce one more album, 2008's God To The Illfated, an altogether better effort with a significant increase in melodic emphasis and a massive infusion of sophisticated arrangements. If God To The Illfated was the main meal of a short career, Ninewinged Serpent proved to be the appetizer that didn't quite taste right.


Band:

Legion - Vocals
Tomas Nilsson - Guitars
Joinus - Guitars
Emil Dragutinovic - Drums

Bass by Tomas Nilsson


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Serenade For The Fallen - n/a (short instrumental)
2. Dressed In Blood - 8
3. Heresy - 9
4. Scarred - 7
5. Suffer The Fools - 7
6. Fatalist - 7
7. Gemini Is The Snake - 7
8. Instigator - 6
9. Remnant Song - 8
10. Ninewinged Serpent - 6
11. Burning Daylight - 7
12. Jackal - 7

Average: 7.18

Produced by Rickard Kottelin and Devian.
Engineered by Rickard Kottelin. Mixed by Fredrik Nordstrom.
Mastered by Peter in de Betou.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Movie Review: Vertigo (1958)


A Hitchcockian journey of doomed romance and tragedy, Vertigo is long-winded and meandering, with as many awkward moments as highlights. Stars James Stewart and Kim Novak strangely go through the motions, somewhat overwhelmed by a plot that spirals into a tightening loop of weirdness, and the real star emerges as the City of San Francisco, serving as a stirring backdrop. Hitchcock never claimed any hidden meanings behind Vertigo, but this is one film that works better when it is interpreted beyond its surface storyline.

John "Scottie" Ferguson (Stewart), a San Francisco police detective, suffers from acrophobia (fear of heights) that triggers vertigo. Involved in a rooftop chase, Scottie is left hanging from a ledge and witnesses a fellow police officer fall to his death. Now retired from active duty, Scottie is good friends with Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), a painter and advertising artist. Scottie and Midge were once briefly engaged, a relationship that Midge broke off. Gavin Elster, a long lost college friend, resurfaces and offers Scottie an unusual private investigative opportunity: trail Elster's wife Madeleine (Novak), to find out why she is suddenly entering trance-like states. Elster believes that his wife is possessed by a dead spirit; Scottie is sceptical, but accepts the assignment.

Scottie spends long hours trailing Madeleine, and her behaviour is strange. She seems to have an obsession with her great grandmother, a woman called Carlotta Valdes. Scottie eventually saves Madeleine's life when she attempts to drown herself in San Francisco Bay. Gradually they are attracted to each other and fall in love. Madeleine reveals that she suffers nightmares set in the San Juan Bautista Mission ranch, south of the city. Scottie drives her there to confront her fears; instead she climbs the bell tower and seemingly falls to her death, Scottie unable to follow her to the top of the tower due to his vertigo.

Scottie is devastated and spends a long time in a mental hospital. Upon his release he imagines sightings of Madeleine all over the City, but finally spots Judy (also Kim Novak), a woman who looks incredibly similar to Madeleine. Scottie insists on getting to know Judy, and she agrees, although Judy is in fact hiding a terrible secret. Scottie and Judy anyway fall in love, but eventually Scottie appears to lose his grip on reality and starts to insist that she change her appearance to exactly resemble his recollection of Madeleine.

The straightforward narrative does not serve Vertigo well, with the central romance in particular creaking under the strain of implausibility. Setting aside the age difference between Judy and Scottie, what exactly is it that Scottie does to attract Judy, other than play the sap for her? And what woman will tolerate being molded into the image of another woman, and worse still for Judy, being sculpted into the form of a dead woman? The reality is that Judy would have fled to the furthest corner of the earth to stay away from Scottie, and his obsessive behaviour to transform her into Madeleine should have been enough for her to have him locked-up.

There are other large plot holes that make Vertigo's superficial narrative quite bumpy, and most of these holes have to do with sudden disappearances and one sudden appearance: where does Midge disappear to after Scottie's hospital stay? Central to his character in the first two thirds of the film, she drops out suddenly. Madeleine's disappearing act from her hotel room is never explained. Elster also disappears from the film. Would Elster be careless enough to allow Judy and Scottie, the only two people who can cause him trouble, to reconnect with each other? And finally, where exactly did that miraculously silent nun appear from at the end of the movie?

Vertigo is much more interesting as an exploration of a debilitated mind. In an alternative interpretation, Scottie's affliction is not the fear of heights: it's a deeply broken heart due to the death of Midge, from which he never recovered, and his emotional state has been in a fearsome downward spiral ever since. Scottie hanging from the ledge is a metaphor for his precarious emotional state, and all the events of the movie are occurring in his devastated mind, while he is incarcerated in the hospital.

There are some delicious clues to Midge being a ghost, and the real love of Scottie's life. In this interpretation, she unexpectedly died three weeks into their engagement, crushing him emotionally because he could not save her from committing suicide. Scottie's experiences with Madeleine and then Judy just become elaborate creations in his deeply grieving mind, the image of Madeleine being Scottie's imagination of a perfect Midge, his mind endlessly repeating the same painful arc: an impossible love heroically found and tragically lost in his helpless presence. The only real scene in the movie is therefore his close-to-catatonic stay in the hospital, imagining Midge hovering around him, neatly between the Madeleine and Judy episodes created by his conscience.

This interpretation allows Vertigo's puzzle pieces to fall into place: Scottie is endlessly doomed to re-living the destruction of his love, and rather than a quite hokey and unconvincing love story, Vertigo becomes a psychological tour-de-force about the devastating and everlasting anguish of those who cannot save their lovers.






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Thursday, 21 July 2011

Movie Review: Blue Velvet (1986)


A delectable combination of the weird, the disturbing and the stylish, Blue Velvet is an unforgettable film experience. Director and screenwriter David Lynch dreams up a nightmare of utter human evil lurking just below the surface of normalcy, and ensures that every small quaint town will forever be viewed with suspicion:  heinous people may be hiding in every shadow.

College student Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) returns to his hometown of Lumberton to visit his ailing Dad, who has suffered a stroke. Out on a walk, Jeffrey makes a gruesome discovery: a discarded, severed human ear. Jeffrey alerts Detective Williams, who starts to investigate, while Jeffrey re-connects with Sandy (Laura Dern), the detective's daughter. Sandy informs Jeffrey that sultry local nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), whose signature song is Blue Velvet, is in some kind of trouble and is being investigated by the police.

With Sandy's help, Jeffrey breaks into Dorothy's apartment, but has to hide in the closet and watch in horror as a brute of man called Frank (Dennis Hopper), who inhales an unknown substance through a gas mask, arrives and sexually humiliates and violently abuses Dorothy. Jeffrey surmises that Frank and his men are holding Dorothy's husband Don, the former owner of the severed ear, and her child Donny hostage while Frank regularly forces her to cater to his deviant sexual whims.

Despite all the warning signs, Jeffrey can't stop himself getting involved. He dives into an affair with Dorothy and starts tailing and photographing Frank and his men, uncovering their illegal activities. Frank is soon onto Jeffrey, who gets beaten up after being introduced to Frank's drug and prostitution den, where the beyond creepy Ben (Dean Stockwell) holds court. With the police moving in, Jeffrey finds himself in way over his head, as he tries to save Dorothy from Frank's insanity while the bodies pile up.

The plot of Blue Velvet matters little, and on close examination, makes even less sense. The film is an artistic canvass for Lynch to intricately paint several intertwining themes about the human and societal experience, the most prominent of which is the inevitable transition to adulthood. Jeffrey's insistence on continuously meddling with the criminal underworld appears infuriating: he ignores every opportunity to walk away from trouble. Through Jeffrey's actions, Lynch is emphasizing that there is no choice about growing up and dealing with the difficult and sometimes dangerous problems of adulthood.

A second theme is what lies beneath the surface. Life in Lumberton appears as idyllic as the American dream can get, white picket fences, smiling firemen, and lazy summer days lounging in the yard. It is so surreal that Lynch infuses Lumberton with many 1950s shadings, a decade perceived as more innocent, optimistic and hopeful. Co-existing just below this veneer of perfection are the sordid criminals, and throughout his movie Lynch scatters parallels between Frank and his gang and the ugly insects just below the surface of the manicured lawn introduced in the opening sequence.

A related and more complex theme that Lynch plays with is the contradiction between outward appearance and actual behaviour. Not only does society have inner secrets, every individual may harbour confounding hidden behaviours and motivations. Sandy is the daughter of a police officer, blonde, wholesome and seemingly all good. Yet she doesn't hesitate to tell Jeffrey classified police information that starts him on the road to trouble; she helps him to break into Dorothy's apartment; and she repeatedly ignores her boyfriend Michael as she enjoys the ride that Jeffrey's adventure furnishes for her.

Dorothy is the dark cabaret singer that seemingly represents nothing but trouble. Yet of all the characters in the film she is the one most victimized and in most need of rescuing. Detective Williams is supposed to help but is always giving Jeffrey a suspicious look; and his partner Detective Gordon certainly proves to be much more dangerous than he first appears. Lynch is providing a reminder that for grown-ups, the game of life becomes much more complex, and both people and places are often not what they seem.

Helping Lynch to deliver this kaleidoscope are four actors who have rarely been better. Kyle MacLachlan's movie career never flourished, but as Jeffrey he was perfect, combining innocence with an eagerness to pursue danger to its darkest corners. Laura Dern projects nothing but fresh-faced chastity while she effortlessly behaves in much naughtier ways. Her performance is a magician's sleight of hand, dazzling with a diversionary look while pulling off entirely unexpected actions: in many ways, Sandy is the most interesting and complex character in the movie.

Isabella Rossellini takes on the role of Dorothy with gusto, and her performance is certainly brave: abused, victimized, yet demanding more of the same because that is all she knows, she lives in a world so black that absolute mental darkness is her only comfort zone. And finally, Dennis Hopper brings Frank to life, one of the most vile characters ever placed on the screen. Vicious, abusive, manipulative, intimidating, foul-mouthed, addicted to something through that inhaler, and without a single redeeming feature, Frank is just plain scary. In a career with several highlights, Frank is one of Hopper's stand-out roles.

Blue Velvet is a one-of-a-kind searing bolt of originality that leaves a permanent and most memorable mark.






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Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Movie Review: The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets' Nest (2009)


A reasonably satisfying conclusion to the movie adaptation of Stieg Larsson's book trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets' Nest ties up most of the loose ends. That it requires almost 150 minutes to do so illustrates just how many plot threads needed to be picked up, and some remain scattered at the end regardless (remember the human trafficking and prostitution sub-plot from The Girl Who Played With Fire? It's nowhere to be found).

After the bloody conclusion of the previous episode, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets' Nest opens with both Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) and her father Zalachenko being rushed to hospital. Lisbeth is suffering from three bullet wounds, one to her skull, while Zalachenko is dealing with the nasty effects of an axe swing, courtesy of Lisbeth.

The existence of a secretive pseudo government group called The Section is soon revealed. Formed in the 1970s, The Section was responsible for protecting Zalachenko, the most high level Soviet spy to defect to Sweden. Subsequent governments lost track of The Section and Zalachenko: he became a master criminal, with The Section protecting him from any scrutiny or prosecution. But from his hospital bed, Zalachenko pushes his luck with The Section: they in turn dispatch him once and for all with a bullet to the head. An attempt on Lisbeth's life fails, but with the help of the slimy Dr. Teleborian, a plot is set in motion to put her on trial, declare her insane, and lock her up for good.

Meanwhile investigative reporter Mikael Blomqvist (Michael Nyqvist) has pieced together the story of Lisbeth and Zalachenko, and prepares a major expose of the whole sordid affair, to be published in Millennium magazine. Mikael also remotely helps Lisbeth to document her story from her hospital bed, and he secures the services of his sister Annika as Lisbeth's lawyer. Finally, government investigators get wind of the rogue Section and with Mikael's help, they plan the dismantling of the group. Thanks to his impending news story and his cooperation with the authorities, Mikael and his team receive ever more serious threats to their lives.

When Lisbeth is sufficiently recovered to stand trial, she has to prepare for a final showdown to save her life in court, while the SWAT teams fan out to attempt and round up the Section members.

With both The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets' Nest and The Girl Who Played With Fire, the aftertaste is that of movies stumbling by trying to capture all the book details, the same flaw that so hampered the adaptation of The Da Vinci Code. The reading experience can afford a multitude of characters and interesting sub-quests; the movie experience demands more focus and a much more streamlined narrative, and the screenplay needs to be brave enough to compact the story down to a suitable screen experience, as Angels And Demons more successfully demonstrated.

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets' Nest is the least action-oriented and most talkative of the three movies. This is not a bad thing: it brings the story of Lisbeth down to a real nitty-gritty of hospitalization, treatment, and law courts, and a bit away from any further dramatic rapes, tortures and murders for the poor girl to suffer through. But with so much plot to chew and digest, director Daniel Alfredson has no time for anything else. The stylish coolness and tension of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is long gone, replaced by the most straightforward of narrative driven films, hacking away at the intertwined overgrowth of characters in a sweaty rush to reach the conclusion.





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Monday, 18 July 2011

Book Review: From The Minds Of Madness - The Origins Of Heavy Metal Band Names, by Blair E. Gibson (2011)


A self-published book, From The Minds Of Madness tracks down the name origins of more than 340 heavy metal bands. Author Blair Gibson contacted thousands of heavy metal bands from around the world, requesting the story of how they came up with their name. Although many did not respond, hundreds did, and those responses appear in the book, seemingly verbatim and attributed to the specific band member who provided the response.

This being a non-publishing house effort (lulu.com will print and mail the book once a copy is ordered and paid for), the production values are rudimentary at best, with the Ace Black Blog copy arriving complete with what appears to be a graphics mis-print of the title on the front cover, typos, and the lack of any editorial oversight to improve the professionalism of the project. For example, there is a table of contents, which would have been somewhat helpful had the pages of the book had numbers on them. Band names that start with "The" are listed under "T". This is a home-made labour of love, with all the oddities that come with such initiatives.

As can be expected, better known, well established bands who may have answered the name question in grander settings are less likely to respond, so the majority of the outfits included in the book are the lesser lights and more obscure members of the metal community, the never-quite-made-it groups, the maybe-will-make-it bands, and the still-hoping-against-hope-to-make-it die hards. The more familiar bands that make it into the book include Armored Saint, Galactic Cowboys, Hammerfall, The Haunted, Jag Panzer, My Dying Bride (who also contribute a Foreward), Nightrage, and Raven.

The responses range from six short words (Burning Witch, helpfully informing us that they were "named after the sound of suffering"), to six long paragraphs (Virgin Steele, going on and on - and on - insisting that they are all about opposites).

In browsing through what the bands had to say, a few common themes emerge: being rushed to come up with a name ahead of the first serious concert; using the inspiration from the song of another band to come up with a band name; the old draw-the-name-from-the-hat trick; and the ever popular listing of candidate words and mashing two of them together to create a name. Many bands faced the frustration of having to change their name after discovering that some other even more obscure group already had first call on their initial favourite choice.

Rather than a cover to cover read, From The Minds Of Madness is a book to dip into at any random page for a brief distraction and maybe a smile. It's not a book that the world was actually crying for, but it sheds some fun light into the more obscure corners of the metal world.





138 pages.
Available from www.lulu.com.

All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Movie Review: The Girl Who Played With Fire (2009)


Too much plot and too many loose ends, The Girl Who Played With Fire suffers from the Middle Chapter of the Trilogy Syndrome. Not as fresh as the original and unable to arrive at any conclusions, it's a rickety bridge between the crisp opening and the decisive ending of Stieg Larsson's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series.

Young and enthusiastic reporter Dag Svensson and his girlfriend Mia are investigating human smuggling and the European prostitution trade. They have an explosive story on their hands, exposing corruption at the highest levels. Dag joins the staff of the investigative Millennium magazine, where the legendary Mikael Blomqvist (Michael Nyqvist) works, to polish off the story and prepare it for publication.

Meanwhile Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) returns to Stockholm from some globe-trotting to reconnect with her lover Miriam Wu (Yasmine Garbi), and to intimidate her state-appointed guardian and former torturer Bjurman. To scare him into promptly filing his reports about her good behaviour, Lisbeth threatens Bjurman with his own gun. But Bjurman is tired of Salander controlling him (she has a blackmail tape), and contacts shady associates to solve his Lisbeth problem.

Before long, Mikael finds both Dag and Mia shot dead; the murder gun belongs to Bjurman and carries Lisbeth's fingerprints, making her the prime suspect in a double murder. She stays hidden, disguised and beyond the clutches of the law, but her case isn't helped when Bjurman also shows up dead. Mikael is convinced that Lisbeth is being set up, and launches his own investigation to help clear her name.

The trail leads to a mysterious man codenamed Zala who appears to be the criminal mastermind responsible for the murders, with the dirty work done by his brutal henchman, the blond and muscular Niedermann. From separate starting points, Mikael and Lisbeth close in on Zala, and gradually it becomes apparent that both Zala and Niedermann are closely intertwined with Lisbeth's painful past.

The performances of Rapace and Nyqvist are the main positives in an otherwise overcrowded and clumsy film. Rapace is all delightful darkness, a woman who long since abandoned trust in the system and invented her rules for survival. Nyqvist as Mikael Blomqvist balances some conformance to society's rules with a natural tendency to do his own thing in his own world weary way.

Beyond these two performances, The Girl Who Played With Fire suffers from a multitude of characters introduced in a hurry and never properly fleshed out, and a runaway plot that features numerous developments trickling in all directions, most of which are left hanging. There is no satisfying resolution to the three murders that propel the action, and the entire human trafficking and prostitution plot is introduced with great enthusiasm and then simply abandoned. Director Daniel Alfredson is unable to even pretend that this episode is anything other than a pass-through to what should be a much better ending to the story.

The movie is also hampered by extremely limited interaction between Lisbeth and Mikael. They exchange a few e-mails and share a single non-communicative scene at the very end: their complex relationship is at the heart of the drama, and the Ulf Ryberg screenplay basically puts it on ice for over two hours.

The Girl Who Played With Fire is an overstuffed meal, too many ingredients competing for attention, and delivering an unsatisfying, bloated and burp inducing experience.





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CD Review: Pyromania, by Def Leppard (1983)


Def Leppard reach the pinnacle of their career, and what a peak it is. One of metal's all-time great albums, Pyromania is an exceptional achievement, an exquisitely produced set of ten songs, more than half of which remain landmarks in metal's history.

Pyromania represents Def Leppard perfecting their genre: surprisingly metallic, high-energy yet accessible music that defined an era. Like the image on what quickly became a classic album cover, the band hit the target with seemingly remarkable ease. However, the depth of the production values, masterminded by John Lange, hint at the amount of work that went into assembling a masterpiece.

Def Leppard's previous album High 'N Dry hinted at the talent and the potential. Pyromania delivers with flair. The opening chords of Rock Rock (Till You Drop) are a promise of what to expect, and when Steve Clark and Phil Collen let loose on the guitars, with Joe Elliot wailing to keep up, the tone of Pyromania is set. Photograph was the most famous and popular single (and video) from the album, overplayed to distraction. Filled with harmonies and a solid enough track, it's runaway fame is unnecessary confirmation that popular opinion counts for little.

At least equally as good and more interesting are Stagefright and Too Late For Love, the former combining manic riffing with haunting harmonies, the latter more-power-than-ballad riding tall on the massive drum sound of Rick Allen.

Pyromania hits its epic stride in the middle of the track list: Die Hard The Hunter is among Def Leppard's most metallic tracks, taking a simple rock and roll foundation and contorting it into an all-metal shape that finally yields to a most spicy instrumental section that demands the volume at 11. Foolin' has also suffered from mass over-exposure through the decades, but it is a formidable track, perhaps the most ambitiously constructed cut on the album, combining soul with plenty of pace changes and driving power when needed.

And then we get to Rock Of Ages, the metal anthem to end all metal anthems. From the audacious opening nonsense of Gunter glieben glauchen globen to the joyous beat laid down by Allen that absolutely commands fist-pumping, to the final menacing laugh, it's a track that defines the absolute fun of metal in the 1980s.

While Comin' Under Fire and Action! Not Words are the only two tracks that fall a bit short of the album's overall quality, Billy's Got A Gun arrives to close out proceedings with a quiet bang, the band revealing a controlled, patient approach that oozes liquid metal confidence.

Not surprisingly, Def Leppard would never again match the perfect balance of Pyromania. After a tumultuous four year gap, the follow-up Hysteria was a huge commercial success, but tilted towards a fluffier, less edgy sound. And soon thereafter the music scene shifted dramatically, consigning Def Leppard's sound strictly to the 1980s. But when they ruled the metal world, Def Leppard made sure that the music rocked hard, and the good times rolled with unbridled energy.


Band:

Joe Elliott - vocals
Steve Clark - Guitars
Phil Collen - Guitars
Rick Savage - Bass
Rick Allen - Drums


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Rock Rock (Till You Drop) - 10
2. Photograph - 8
3. Stagefright - 8
4. Too Late For Love - 8
5. Die Hard The Hunter - 10
6. Foolin' - 9
7. Rock Of Ages - 10
8. Comin' Under Fire - 7
9. Action! Not Words - 7
10. Billy's Got A Gun - 10

Average: 8.70

Produced and Mixed by Robert John "Mutt" Lange.
Engineered by Mike Shipley. Mastered by Bob Ludwig.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.



Saturday, 16 July 2011

CD Review: III - How The Gods Kill, by Danzig (1992)


Glenn Danzig's devil worshipping music alternates between laughably pretentious and just plain hilarious, but when he mixes the proper measures of evil Elvis rock and roll with metallic juice, he is undeniably capable of producing some gems. III - How The Gods Kill contains a good sampling of polished Danzig product, satisfying within the confines of the band's admittedly unique identity.

Heart Of The Devil summarizes the best of what the band is capable of: channeling Elvis-gone-bad vocals and layering it onto a hypnotically straightforward rock and roll structure painted in thick black. Just as good is Do You Wear The Mark, which embraces metal more fully, John Christ taking the lead with a simple but effortlessly effective melody.

Godless alternates between excellent up-tempo galloping metal and painfully slow, self-absorbed vocal wailing. Title track How The Gods Kill also features slow-to-the-point-of-standing-still passages, but gives way to Christ just unloading a most massive guitar riff with exquisite tone, the equivalent of a boulder flattening what was a serene landscaping. When The Dying Calls is a good album closer, with more dark shading of conventional rock themes.

III - How The Gods Kill ploughs familiar territory for fans who want to celebrate the Prince of Darkness, Danzig the band simultaneously demonstrating their proficiency at selling one message and their inability to do much else.

Band:

Glenn Danzig - Vocals and Keyboards
Eerie Vonn - Bass
John Christ - Guitars
Chuck Biscuits - Drums


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Godless - 8
2. Anything - 7
3. Bodies - 7
4. How The Gods Kill- 8
5. Dirty Black Summer - 7
6. Left Hand Black - 7
7. Heart Of The Devil - 9
8. Sistinas - 6
9. Do You Wear The Mark - 9
10. When The Dying Calls - 8

Average: 7.60

Produced by Glenn Danzig.
Recorded by Nick Di Dia. Mixed by Jason Corsaro.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The American (2010)


Self-important and pretty enough to look at, The American layers on the superficialities at a languid pace but cannot hide a cavernous hole that was supposed to be occupied by the plot.

In a remote Swedish forest, the mysterious Jack (George Clooney) and his lover Ingrid take a walk, and immediately become the target for a mysterious sniper. Jack kills the sniper, and for good measure drops Ingrid with a bullet to the head at close range. He then makes his way to Rome, and contacts his mysterious handler Pavel, whose instructions are for Jack to hide out in the countryside and wait for further instructions.

Jack drives to the town of Castel del Monte and pretends to be a photographer. He meets the local priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), and gets cozy with Carla (Violante Placido), a local prostitute. The instructions for his next mission soon arrive: he is to manufacture a sniper's weapon and bullets for the mysterious Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), an assassin whose target is a mystery. Jack sets up a workshop in his room and goes to work manufacturing the high-tech weapon, while fending off assassination attempts from other mysterious hit-men. As Jack gets close to finishing the rifle for Mathilde, his relationship with Carla gets serious, and he gets a mysterious feeling that his enemies are closing in on him.

An ironic title for a film seeking a most European flavour, The American hides all the relevant details of its main character then desperately pleads for sympathy. It doesn't work, and Jack (and we're not even sure what the man's real name is) can take as many scenic but seemingly dangerous walks and drives through medieval Italian towns as he likes; unless he reveals something about himself, whether he lives, loves, kills, or dies is quite irrelevant.

Clooney has a relatively easy time portraying the stone-faced Jack, looking determined and just slightly pissed-off throughout, although he never shares quite why. Is he angry at himself? at his boss? is he fed up with his job? what is exactly is his job? do organizations that arrange assassinations in this day and age really require home-made, hand-crafted guns and bullets? Jack never reveals what is behind his stare, let alone why he is acting the way he does, and without any sort of openness, he becomes just another shady character living at the edge.

Violante Placido gets to play the most honest character as Clara the prostitute, but maybe she just appears sincere because she is naked most of the time. Regardless, other than Jack's suspicions of her motives, her behaviour is at least easy to fathom: a whore who spots in Jack's lust an opportunity to move up in the world.

Paolo Bonacelli as Father Benedetto has the pleasure of spouting what are supposed to be profound statements, mostly to assure Jack that he is fooling no one by pretending to be a photographer. Benedetto joins Mathilde and Pavel as fragments of characters whose backstory and relative importance can be found in other films, but not this one.

The American makes use of attractive Italian countryside locations, and eventually it settles down to being a long, sluggish tourism advertisement. When the characters are abandoned, the countryside has to fill in the colour.






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Movie Review: Arthur (1981)


A perpetually drunk ultra rich playboy who never grew up has to decide, through the fog of alcohol, whether to follow love or money. Arthur is funny and poignant, with memorable performances by Dudley Moore and John Gielgud, and it makes no apologies for a central message promoting drunken oblivion as an alternative that is just a bit better than stuffy conformity.

New York-based playboy Arthur Bach (Moore) has all the money in the world, but his only friend is his butler Hobson (Gielgud). Arthur squanders his time on continuous drinking and picking up prostitutes, as he escapes from the inevitable demands of his family: his father and grandmother insist that he marry the sweet, rich but uninteresting Susan (Jill Eikenberry), otherwise they will cut him off from his fortune.

While shopping for clothes at a ritzy store, Arthur notices a shoplifter: Linda Marolla (Liza Minnelli) is a poor waitress who lives with her Dad, and Arthur is immediately attracted to her, saving her from being prosecuted. Arthur's marriage plans to Susan are proceeding as he is falling in love with Linda, while Hobson is serving his master while battling an increasingly serious illness. Choosing Linda over Susan means that Arthur will alienate his family and be forever poor, but with alcohol fuelling his decision making, everything will surely work out.

Dudley Moore had a few good years of stardom in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and Arthur was his defining role, and certainly his most celebrated. He goes though most of the movie acting intoxicated, speech slurred, walk askew, laughing hysterically and spewing jokes that are funny only to him. Arthur is an endearing character in a way that a helpless, lost pet evokes sympathy, and it is to Moore's credit that both Susan and Linda's attraction to Arthur is believable.

John Gielgud, at 77 years old, won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Hobson, the butler who is quite certain that he in fact runs the life of his master. As stiff and proper as Arthur is lubricated, the prickly friendship between Arthur and Hobson is at the core of the film. That Hobson is the only person in the world that Arthur can communicate with summarizes Arthur's sad state, and as illness takes Hobson away, it is only natural that Arthur is attracted to the down-to-earth Linda (a waitress) to fill the vacuum.

Liza Minnelli as Linda gets somewhat lost in the acting shuffle, unable to move too far away from just being a slightly subdued Liza Minnelli.

Arthur contributed a terrific song to the cultural landscape, Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do) by Christopher Cross easily entering the hall of classic movie contributions to music, with it's catch line "when you get caught between the Moon and New York City" perfectly capturing Arthur's dilemma.

Arthur may not be a practically helpful guide for how to go about achieving success in life, but if being in the company of a drunk is necessary, he may as well be lovable.



 

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Friday, 15 July 2011

All Bon Jovi CD Reviews










All Ace Black Blog Reviews of Bon Jovi CDs are linked below:




Average (all reviewed Bon Jovi CDs): 7.46


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Thursday, 14 July 2011

CD Review: Praises To The War Machine, by Warrel Dane (2008)


Warrel Dane's first solo album is unfortunately pointless. The lead singer from Nevermore is only able to prove that most vocalists need a strong supporting band to create good metal, and this is certainly true of Dane. His often operatic, always theatrical style can get tiresome quickly, and without the support of a guitar wizard to provide relief, Praises To The War Machine is difficult to digest.

Dane collaborates with Peter Wickers on much of the songwriting, and Wickers also plays the guitar on many of the tracks, in addition to producing, recording and co-mixing the album. A jack of all trades, perhaps, but clearly not much of a master in any one area. The songwriting in particular sorely fails to make a compelling case for the album to exist. Nothing here sounds better, more interesting, or more unique than Nevermore, and the album generally comes across as a collection of tracks that were not good enough for the most recent Nevermore records.

When We Pray is the only exception, Dane opening the album with the one track that combines a melody strong enough to complement his vocals, and an interesting, complex structure that augments the emotional delivery.

The rest of the tracks are very much ho-hum, and before long they all meld together into an indistinguishable drone, vocals to the forefront, everything else missing in action as the war machine rumbles on.

Band:

Warrel Dane - Vocals

with:
Peter Wickers - Guitars
Matt Wicklund - Guitars
Dirk Verbeuren - Drums


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. When We Pray - 8
2. Messenger - 7
3. Obey - 7
4. Lucretia My Reflection - 7
5. Let You Down - 7
6. August - 7
7. Your Chosen Misery - 6
8. The Day The Rats Went To War - 7
9. Brother - 7
10. Patterns - 7
11. This Old Man - 7
12. Equilibrium - 7

Average: 7.00

Produced and Recorded by Peter Wickers.
Mixed by Mattias Nilsson and Peter Wickers.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.


Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Movie Review: It's Complicated (2009)


A romantic comedy for adults, It's Complicated proves that love, lust and laughs can live on well past age 40. Brightened by sparkling performances from Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin, creating what must be one of the oldest love triangles in Hollywood history, It's Complicated is breezy, funny and remarkably fresh.

Jane (Streep) and Jack (Baldwin) divorced a decade ago. Now both in their late fifties with their three children all grown up, they maintain a civilized relationship. Jack is married to the much younger Agness (Lake Bell), with whom he cheated while married to Jane, although Agness also managed bring into her marriage to Jack a brat of a boy from another short-lived relationship.

Jane is over the divorce, still single and moving on with her life, helping to run the bakery that she owns, and planning home renovations with the help of Adam (Steve Martin), a more recently divorced architect. But when Jane and Jack (without Agness) meet in New York to attend the college graduation of their youngest son, they have dinner, drink a lot, dance like teens and end up in bed. This sparks a passionate desire in Jack to get back together with Jane, all the more so since his relationship with Agness has deteriorated into fertility clinic visits and scheduled sex to maximize the likelihood of conception.

Jane is not so sure that getting back with her ex-husband is a good idea, but she decides to enjoy the courtship and the suddenly enjoyable sex with Jack, as he tries to convince her that the second time can be a charm. In the meantime their children, who were traumatized by the divorce, are very confused, and Adam is getting all sorts of mixed signals about the potential for a serious relationship with Jane.

It's Complicated sometimes dips into swampy self-help territory, although it never gets bogged down. There is also a sequence with Jane and Adam getting stoned that crosses from funny to contrived. But otherwise, the film is a joyous celebration of the fun and turmoil of relationships later in life.

Meryl Streep, at age 60, gives one of her most alluring performances, conveying the courage, confidence and calm but not quite carefree attitude that only comes with the wisdom of age. Alec Baldwin is a bit more brash as Jack, but he does succeed in capturing a man looking for an anchor in his life and naturally drifting to the safety of the familiar harbour.

Both Streep and Baldwin demonstrate a deft comic touch, familiar territory to Martin, who subdues his natural scenery-eating tendencies and instead infuses Adam with effectively comic pathos. John Krasinki, as the fiance of Jack and Jane's eldest daughter, provides fine comic support as the first family member to stumble upon the weirdly re-emerging relationship between the formerly married couple.

Nancy Meyers herself around 60, directed, wrote and co-produced It's Complicated. She finds the right mix of comedy and sharp observations about divorce, growing old, and eternal insecurities, and maintains an agile pace.

It's Complicated is a strange and rare Hollywood experience: intelligent fun with adults.




All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.



Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Movie Review: Blow (2001)


Based on a true story, Blow recounts the life of George Jung, an American who finagled his way into the burgeoning cocaine importing industry at the height of the Medellin Cartel's infamy. Despite what he may have thought, Jung himself was a small-scale player in a global business, and he was relatively quickly shuffled out of the deck of drug kingpins, landing repeatedly in jail. Blow relies on style and flair to make up for the limited talents of its central character, and Johnny Depp emits irresistible star magnetism.

George Jung (Depp) was born and raised in a working class Massachusetts family, and he has a strong attachment to his dad Fred (Ray Liotta). Fred's strong work ethic does not compensate for the lack of good business skills, and the family ends up bankrupt. In the mid 1960s George moves to California and vows to never be poor or want for anything. He establishes himself as the local beach marijuana supplier for local distributor Derek (Paul Reubens), and quickly graduates to supplying weed to New England campuses, transporting it from California in the unscrutinized luggage of airline stewardesses, including Barbara (Franka Potente), whom he married.

But the law is onto George, and he soon lands in prison, and Barbara succumbs to cancer. George meets Diego behind bars, who convinces him to graduate to cocaine trafficking. Upon his release George travels to Colombia where Diego arranges a meeting with Pablo Escobar, the brutal leader of the Medellin Cartel, emerging as the most powerful drug syndicate in the world. George becomes an importer funnelling Escobar's drugs into the hands of Derek for distribution in the US. But his downfall is already in the works.

Despite a central character who is more a go-between than an instigator, Blow is never less than interesting thanks to Depp's icy but engagingly charismatic performance, and solid support work from the rest of the cast.

Director Ted Demme, working from a script by Nick Cassavetes and David McKenna, amps up the flash factor but also keeps an eye on the human drama by maintaining a running interest in the evolving relationship between George and his father Fred. The massive wealth that George accumulates from the drug trade appears at first to be the son exceeding the father's achievements, only to become a harsh lesson emphasizing the values that Fred tried to impart to his son at an early age, values that George contrived to understand way too late in life.

The film is lacking even a passing reference to the victims of drug addiction who are the end users of George's cocaine business. Blow treats illegal drugs as any other commodity except with a more complex supply chain. If George ever gave a second thought to the misery that he was helping to create in the world, Blow isn't interested to know.

In one of life's many ironies, Demme died in 2002 at age 38, less than a year after Blow was released, of a heart-attack likely aggravated by the cocaine found in his system.






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Monday, 11 July 2011

Movie Review: Enter The Dragon (1973)


A low budget classic, Enter The Dragon was Bruce Lee's final complete movie before his untimely death, and a milestone in Hollywood's brief flirtation with martial arts action thrillers. Enter The Dragon cost $850,000 and is estimated to have earned more than $90 Million world-wide. Lee's death would put an untimely end to any mainstreaming of a martial arts movie star until the arrival of Jackie Chan (who briefly appears in Enter The Dragon) half a generation later.

Lee (Bruce Lee) is an exceptional martial arts student at the Shaolin temple. He is selected by mysterious Hong Kong government-types to infiltrate the island base of the evil Han (Shih Kien), a former Shaolin student who has sullied the name of the temple by turning to crime: he specializes in drugs, human trafficking and prostitution. Lee is given an added incentive to seek personal revenge: in flashback it is revealed that Han and his bodyguard O'Hara (Robert Wall) were responsible for the death of Lee's sister.

Lee travels to the island pretending to be a contestant in a martial arts competition hosted by Han, and along the way he meets fellow contestants Roper (John Saxon), a gambler in trouble with loan sharks, and Williams (Jim Kelly), who is on the run from the cops. After the three are offered their choice of female companionship, Lee kills O'Hara and starts snooping around the island, Williams is killed by Han, and Roper kills Han's most fearsome fighter, Bolo.

When the prisoners on the island are released and take on Han's numerous henchmen, the hordes of chaos are unleashed and it's everyone against everyone. It is left up to Lee to chase down Han and force a final, memorable confrontation to the death.

Influential and frequently imitated in the same vein as A Fistful Of Dollars, Enter The Dragon made Bruce Lee an international star, despite his mysterious death. He dominates the film with a brooding, wiry physique made of highly-strung and finely toned muscles. Lee choreographed the fight sequences, and they are the undoubted highlights of the film, ballet with undisguised brutal power.

The rest of the performances by a cast aspiring to Grade B status, and the pedestrian directing by Robert Clouse, are fully consistent with a low budget action movie hoping for nothing better than left-over James Bond fans. Instead, the likes of John Saxon and Jim Kelly gained screen immortality by playing their role in an accidental, and ridiculously enjoyable, classic.





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Sunday, 10 July 2011

CD Review: These Days, by Bon Jovi (1995)


Bon Jovi turn the soft dial to the fluffiest setting, and emerge with a collection of depressed and depressing songs about despair, love lost, love abandoned, guitars crying, and breaking hearts. Most of These Days is music to dance slowly to, but only after giving up all hope of happiness and clutching at the straw that snatches of time in proximity to another human are always better than being totally and utterly alone.

It's all good if misery loves company, but none of this makes for enjoyable heavy metal, not even for the poppy sub-genre that Bon Jovi used to dominate. It's only ten years since Bon Jovi were all about the good times of Slippery When Wet, and what a difference a decade makes.

A miserly two tracks, out of twelve, remind us that this band once dabbled in interesting metallic sounds. Opener Hey God is head and shoulders above everything else on the album, a sliding, snarling riff underpinning a beseeching story about almost giving up hope. Jon Bon Jovi is more screaming than singing, but Richie Sambora's guitar takes centre stage on this one, letting loose and having fun despite the downbeat theme. And on Damned there is more guitar goodness in an up-tempo but gloomy song about a tortured relationship.

The rest of the album consists of slow song after slow song after slow song, the pace often coming to a stand-still, the energy seeping out of multiple holes of depression, the emotions alternating between disheartened, discouraged and desolate. These Days just reminds us how much fun those good old days were.


Band:

Tico Torres - Drums
Jon Bon Jovi - Vocals
David Bryan - Keyboards
Richie Sambora - Guitar

Bass by Hugh McDonald.


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Hey God - 10
2. Something For The Pain - 6
3. This Ain't A Love Song - 7
4. These Days - 7
5. Lie To Me - 7
6. Damned - 8
7. My Guitar Lies Bleeding In My Arms - 7
8. (It's Hard) Letting You Go - 5
9. Hearts Breaking Even - 6
10. Something To Believe In - 7
11. If That's What It Takes - 7
12. Diamond Ring - 6

Average: 6.92

Produced by Peter Collins, Jon Bon Jovi, Richie Sambora
Engineered by David Thoener, Obie O'brien.
Mixed by Bob Clearmountain.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

CD Review: The Cult, by The Cult (1994)


The Cult's sixth and final album before a breakup lasting seven years, The Cult features a collection of mature, sophisticated songs and some of the band's best work. The album is filled with interesting melodies delivered with zest and crunch, the faster tunes rocking with abandon and the slower ones tugging at the right emotional strings.

Vocalist Ian Astbury delivers a balanced mix of power, despair and anguish, while Billy Duffy's guitar provides the metallic backdrop and maintains The Cult's trademark sparsity of sound. A foursome for this album, Craig Adams on bass is satisfyingly prominent on several tracks, most notably Naturally High, while Scott Garrett's drums shine unobtrusively and remain true to the band's avoidance of an overbearing wall of noise.

The five song sequence at the heart of the album, from Naturally High at track 5 to Be Free at track 9, is a spectacular sequence. Naturally High has a fat bass line that challenges most speakers, and escalates to a soaring chorus delivered passionately by Astbury. Joy is assembled around a hovering keyboards tune bolted onto an aggressive Duffy guitar riff. Star effortlessly drops into an infectious dance groove, Garrett's drums pleasingly to the forefront, setting an in-your-face beat which culminates with a great cow bell. Sacred Life slows down the pace with a touching, melancholy melody chronicling tragic young deaths. The quintet is rounded off with the high energy Be Free, Duffy and Garrett again combining to create a celebratory dance metal tune.

Elsewhere on the album Real Grrrl and Saints Are Down further enhance the quality of the music, the latter an appropriately haunting slow ending to the band's pre-breakup era.

In the post-grunge, call-it-alt-something confused music scene of 1994, The Cult never found an audience, helping to hasten the band's demise as a viable commercial entity. At least when Astbury and Duffy called it quits, their music and songwriting were on a natural high.


Band:

Ian Astbury - Vocals
Billy Duffy - Guitar
Craig Adams - Bass
Scott Garrett - Drums


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Gone - 7
2. Coming Down (Drug Tongue) - 8
3. Real Grrrl - 8
4. Black Sun - 7
5. Naturally High - 9
6. Joy - 9
7. Star - 10
8. Sacred Life - 9
9. Be Free - 10 *see below*
10. Universal You - 7
11. Emperor's New Horse - 7
12. Saints Are Down - 8

Average: 8.25

Produced by Bob Rock.
Mixed by Mario Caldato. Mastered by George Marino.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.




Saturday, 9 July 2011

CD Review: Relentless Reckless Forever, by Children Of Bodom (2011)


Children Of Bodom's seventh studio album of original material is unfortunately further confirmation that the inspiration has run out. Although Relentless Reckless Forever is marginally better than 2008's Blooddrunk, both albums are perilously inferior to the band's best work.

The manageable length of Relentless Reckless Forever is appreciated: nine tracks are appropriate for any CD, and the lack of padding helps to achieve an acknowledged briskness. Sadly, only three of the tracks come close to delivering Children Of Bodom's signature combination of keyboard-infused melodic death metal with stunning guitar solos.

Opener Not My Funeral starts proceedings with a lot of promise, riding a menacing riff and threatening guitar work from Alexi Laiho, with a delicious tone reminiscent of the classic Slaughter Of The Soul sound.  Roundtrip To Hell And Back slows down the pace, something Bodom don't do often enough, and immediately the sound is sharper, the band is tighter, and the music more in control. Laiho and Janne Warman share the spotlight, bouncing the melody back and forth between them to good effect. Was It Worth It? is the other track worth mentioning, an aggressive fuzz-heavy riff leading into a chorus with epic overtones.

The rest of the material fails to connect, generally sounding like warmed-over fragments of ideas that never fully developed into a respectable meal. Pussyfoot Miss Suicide is particularly frantic in search of a useful thought that proves elusive.

Relentless Reckless Forever is actually Intermittent Sputtering Sometimes.


Band:

Alexi Laiho - Guitars, Vocals
Janne Warman - Keyboards
Roope Latvala - Guitars
Jaska Raatikainen - Drums
Henkka Blacksmith - Bass


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Not My Funeral - 9
2. Shovel Knockout - 7
3. Roundtrip To Hell And Back - 9
4. Pussyfoot Miss Suicide - 6
5. Relentless Reckless Forever - 7
6. Ugly - 7
7. Cry Of The Nihilist - 7
8. Was It Worth It? - 8
9. Northpole Throwdown - 7

Average: 7.44

Produced by Matt Hyde and Children Of Bodom.
Mastered by Tom Baker.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.


Thursday, 7 July 2011

Movie Review: Smokey And The Bandit (1977)


With the real United States grappling with the 1973 oil embargo, high prices at the pump, and lower speed limits on the freeways, and with Detroit down-tuning the power out of previously muscular cars, Hollywood and television hatched a sub-genre of comic highway escapism: a fantasy world where there are no traffic jams, the road is empty, winding and just waiting to be driven at top speed, the hero has no worries about the price of gas, cars and trucks have unlimited power, complete amazing stunts, and are wrecked with wild abandon -- and no one gets hurt.

Gone In 60 Seconds (1974), Smokey And The Bandit plus all its sequels; Convoy (1978); The Blues Brothers (1980); The Cannonball Run (1981) and its sequel all followed the same formula, while on television, the The Dukes of Hazzard and B.J. and the Bear made sure that the car chases continued at home.

The movies made a lot of money and established Burt Reynolds as a star of mindless action fare. Smokey And The Bandit may have been among the better examples of the relatively short-lived trend, but that is definitely not saying much. Reynolds is the Bandit, a legendary driver hired to mastermind an illegal high speed beer run across state lines in the deep South. Bandit elects to pilot a black Pontiac Trans Am with gold trim, as a "blocking" car for the cargo truck to be driven by his friend Snowman (Jerry Reed), which means that Bandit attracts the police cars and distracts them from pulling over and inspecting the illegal cargo of the speeding truck behind him.

All seems to be going well until Bandit picks up the runaway bride Carrie (Sally Field). Unfortunately, her never-to-be father-in-law is the buffoonish Texas Sheriff  Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), or Smokey as all police officers are called by truckers. The chase is on, with Smokey and his idiot son driving after the Bandit and Carrie for mile after endless mile, not caring about the illegal beer shipment, just wanting to rescue the family's honour from the disgrace brought upon them by Carrie, now nicknamed Frog by Bandit and his pals on CB Radio.

Smokey And The Bandit was directed by Hal Needham, who also helped to create the story. Needham was a former Hollywood stuntman, and all of Smokey And The Bandit is an excuse to engineer and execute a variety of car and truck stunts, including a famous leap by the Trans Am across a destroyed bridge. Pontiac donated the vehicles used for the movie, knowing full well that Trans Am sales would skyrocket if the movie was a success, which it was.

The movie is undoubtedly kinetic and entertaining, and the cinematography featuring photogenic vehicles carving up highways and dirt roads is hypnotically watchable. The real stars of the movie are the cars and trucks rather than humans: Reynolds barely acts, coasting through the movie with a series of bland expressions under his cowboy hat and behind his moustache. Gleason's Sheriff Justice is a spluttering comic book character on par with the sophistication of Elmer Fudd. Sally Field is the only acting bright spot in the movie, bringing to Frog a pleasantly spunky spark that survives the careening steel and squealing tires all around her.

The soundtrack of 1970s country and western music provides immediate reminders about the worst of both the decade and the genre, although the hit song Eastbound and Down, written and performed by Reed, has an undeniable charm to it.

Smokey And The Bandit has its foot on the floor and its brain on idle. As long as that combination is acceptable, entertainment is served.





All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.



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