Saturday, 27 August 2011

Movie Review: The Devil's Own (1997)

A sputtering thriller that plays out in slow motion and suffers from a particularly leaden middle third, The Devil's Own has the benefit of two captivating stars in Brad Pitt and Harrison Ford, whose talents are deployed in full to help navigate the film around many rough patches.

Frankie McGuire is eight years old when he witnesses his father brutally assassinated at the dinner table, setting him on a path of unbridled commitment for the Irish Republican cause. Twenty years later, it's the early 1990s and Frankie (Brad Pitt) is the charismatic leader of a deadly cell in the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and one of the most wanted men by the British authorities in Northern Ireland. An attempt to arrest Frankie turns into a firefight and a debacle for the British agents, who suffer high casualties.

Frankie travel to the United States to finalize a deal for the IRA to purchase Stinger missiles: the ability to shoot down British helicopters would dramatically strengthen the IRA's hands. In the US, a respected judge sympathetic to the Republican cause provides Frankie with a bogus cover job at a construction site, and arranges for him to live with the New Jersey family of Tom O'Meara (Ford). Tom is a highly principled New York cop of Irish ancestry, married with three daughters. He welcomes Frankie into his family, oblivious to his terrorist activities.

Frankie connects with Billy Burke (Treat Williams), an underground arms dealer arranging the sale of the Stingers. The deal goes sour and Burke turns against Frankie; meanwhile, Tom is having troubles of his own with his cop partner Eddie (Ruben Blades), who shoots dead a fleeing but unarmed burglar.Gradually Tom clues in to the true purpose of Frankie's visit to the US, and has to intervene to try and reduce the threat of an ever increasing cycle of violence.

The Devil's Own proved to be veteran director Alan J. Pakula's final film prior to his unfortunate death in a 1998 car crash. Although far from his best work, he does provide the movie with a quality polish. Pakula has the experience to recognize the best assets at his disposal, and he keeps the focus on Pitt and Ford, trusting them with the heavy lifting.

Pitt is the more magnetic of the two stars, and conveys the charisma of a man single-mindedly dedicated to a life of struggle while fully recognizing that his death may lie around every corner. Until he meets that fate, Frankie does not hesitate to push towards his objectives. Ford plays Tom as the moral but perhaps none-too-smart cop, on the final downhill run of his career, overwhelmed by a noisy family life and just hoping to wind down his policing without having to kill anyone.

Having Treat Williams and Ruben Blades in the supporting cast helps to provide additional heft to the production. Neither is asked to stretch, but they do add strong personalities and provide some counterbalance to Pitt and Ford.

The strong cast and focus on characters are the main positives to emerge from The Devil's Own, since the credibility of the action sequences does not stand up to any kind of scrutiny, and the slowish pace throughout nourishes character development much more so than sustained thrills.

The script attempts to elicit some measure of mis-guided sympathy for the IRA's cause; this does not go very far, as the amount of killing and violence triggered by Frankie overwhelms any message about the tactics being justified.

The Devil's Own could have been both better and worse than it is. It lands as a decent vehicle for a veteran craggy actor and an emerging tousled talent, with both men proving the enduring value of star power.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


Friday, 26 August 2011

Movie Review: Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011)

So how exactly did those primates in Planet Of The Apes (1968) take over the planet? 43 years later, Hollywood provides the answer: the humans did themselves in with bad science. In a story of medical experimentation run amok and greedy corporations pushing for the next miracle cure, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes warns that the law of unintended side effects could be the last law that matters as far as humans are concerned.

Scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) is working for the Gen Sys corporation, testing on apes drugs that may treat Alzheimer's disease. The ALZ-112 compound appears to show tremendous promise, but after an ape runs amok in the lab, Will's boss Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) pulls the plug on any further tests.

Undeterred, Will covertly takes one baby ape, named Caesar, home, and persists with testing ALZ-112 on him. Will has a personal motive: his father Charles (John Lithgow) suffers from severe Alzheimer's. When Caesar starts to demonstrate incredible mental abilities, including remarkable sign language proficiency, Will injects Charles with the compound; he is almost immediately free of the disease.

The years pass; Caesar grows into a very bright ape, and Will marries Caroline (Freida Pinto). Charles' immunity system unexpectedly develops antibodies that counter the effects of the treatment, and his Alzheimer's returns with a vengeance, ultimately killing him. Caesar starts to develop an unhappy awareness that he is a unique pet, and his behaviour becomes more hostile. Will pushes on and develops the even more powerful ALZ-113, and sensing the potential for a miracle drug, Steven approves a new round of aggressive, uncontrolled test treatments on a new batch of apes at Gen Sys. Caesar eventually violently attacks a neighbour and is consigned to a primate holding facility.

While in captivity and held under inhumane conditions, Caesar sharpens his awareness, and starts to influence and command the hundreds of other apes held in grimy conditions. He finally leads a rebellion and assembles a formidable army of apes while ALZ-113 proves to have some very nasty side effects on humans.

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is more thoughtful science fiction than thriller, and most of the brisk 105 minute running time is consumed by setting up the science and then the ape evolution towards rebellion. The final act crams in all of the action, most of it on the Golden Gate Bridge, and while the mayhem is appreciated and needed for the plot, it is also the most routine and least inspired part of the movie.

In a film dominated by the apes and the computer geeks programming their remarkable on-screen appearance and movements, the human acting talent takes the seat at the far back of the van. James Franco is worried about the science, worried about his father, and worried about Caesar. In short, he is worried, and he goes though the film making sure that everything knows that he is worried. Freida Pinto must hope that life after Slumdog Millionaire will consist of roles better than the hastily appended girlfriend / wife who contributes pretty much nothing to the proceedings.

John Lithgow has the showy mental patient role and grills it to carbon, and luckily he does not appear in any of the same scenes as David Oyelowo, otherwise they would be competing for large bites from the same chewable scenery.

But neither director Rupert Wyatt nor screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver pretend that the movie is about acting talent. This is a science story where the apes are both the underdogs and the pre-ordained victors. The apes are therefore entrusted to solicit the sympathy, and this objective is achieved with ease thank to stellar performance capture technology. Caesar and the rest of the apes display subtle changes in emotion with spectacular success, to the point that the apes' expressions effortlessly convey their innermost thoughts.

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes will never be accused of being a classic, but as a technologically superior prequel to a well-loved movie landmark, it serves its purpose.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Movie Review: Life As We Know It (2010)

The biggest challenge for romantic comedy writers is coming up with designs for new hoops to be jumped through by the inevitable lovers, prior to their arrival at the pre-determined happy ending.

Life As We Know It succeeds in reaching for a fairly new premise: Holly and Eric, who initially can't stand each other, are forced to jointly care for a baby under tragic circumstances. Life As We Know It turns a typical couplehood stress point on its head: instead of the pressures of planned parenting rupturing a pre-existing relationship, Holly and Ken are unexpectedly thrown into unwanted parenting roles, and the experience brings them closer.

Holly (Katherine Heigl) and Eric (Josh Duhamel) once went out on a date that turned into an unmitigated disaster. But Katherine is best friends with Alison (Christina Hendricks), and Eric is best buddies with Peter (Hayes MacArthur), and Alison and Peter are a happily married couple. Holly and Eric are therefore the appointed godparents of the newborn Sophie, the first daughter of Alison and Peter. The worst does happen, and Sophie is orphaned. Holly and Eric are suddenly thrust into becoming the parents of a baby, having to deal with overwhelming responsibilities while learning to tolerate each other.

Eric is a hopeless womanizer, and his new role as a parent makes him even more irresistible to a succession of one-night hook-ups. Holly attracts the attention of Sam (Josh Lucas), Sophie's pediatrician. But inevitably, Eric and Holly are drawn together and transition from mutually repelling each other to parents who become lovers. Life for Eric gets complicated again when he gets the career opportunity of a lifetime, but accepting it would mean relocating away from his new roles of an accidental father to Sophie and unexpected partner to Holly.

Watching adults muddle through early parenting responsibilities is funny but well-worn movie territory. Life As We Know It trots out the typical laughs that stem from diaper changes, baby-sitters who are more capable than the parents, and exhausting night-long car drives to sooth the baby. But director Greg Berlanti keeps his eye on ball, and the travails of parenting in Life As We Know It are all about Holly and Eric discovering what they are individually capable of, and seeing in each other as partners something much more than what they were as singles.

The film demonstrates more than the usual bravery in hinging a romantic comedy on a tragedy, and the drama that underpins the narrative ensures that a serious undertone permeates through Life As We Know It, keeping the laughs in control and allowing plenty of time for examining themes of loss and sudden responsibility -- not the typical fare for what is often a light-headed genre. The relatively unique setting of Atlanta, Georgia is another plus -- romantic comedies can exist outside of New York.

Heigl, still struggling to carve out a post-Grey's Anatomy movie career, is a likable female lead, more approachable and earthy than a Jennifer Aniston, and less brash than a Kate Hudson. From the mild and predictable menu of comic, dramatic, attractive, sexy and romantic emotions required in the genre, Heigl is not brilliant at any one thing, but is at least above-average in all of them. Josh Duhamel is only in the movie for his hunky I-think-I'm-so-cool-on-my-motorcycle looks, and not even he appears to be attempting to pretend otherwise. The supporting cast is bland enough to inoffensively deliver the expected sideline quips while barely leaving a mark.

The movie does suffer from a typical fundamental weakness of romantic comedies, in glossing over exactly what triggers the attraction between Holly and Eric. A lot of minutes are invested in highlighting why these two simply do not get along. After episodes of splattered baby poo, diaper changes, and loud arguments, they suddenly fall into each other's arms, just because the running time is dangerously approaching the two hour mark.

The interesting premise of Life As We Know It does not a great movie make, but in this genre, interesting is often quite good enough.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Movie Review: The Karate Kid (1984)

The Karate Kid delivers a strong punch of entertainment with a kick of sly humour. It is a memorable story about the weak kid who learns to defend himself from bullies, thanks to the guidance of a wise old man. It is also a solidly crafted movie, impressively patient in its build-up, allowing its two main characters to grow into well-rounded personalities.

High school student Daniel (Ralph Macchio) and his single mom (Randee Heller) relocate from New Jersey to California, and settle into an apartment building managed by Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki "Pat" Morita). Quick to meet and make new friends, Daniel is soon attracted to the wholesome and friendly Ali (Elisabeth Shue). But Ali's former boyfriend Johnny (William Zabka) is immediately jealous, and along with his friends, Johnny launches a campaign of vicious bullying against Daniel. Johnny and his buddies take karate lessons at a school run by Kreese (Martin Krove), an ex-Special Forces soldier, whose teaching philosophy of merciless violence fuels the bullying behaviour of his students.

Miyagi takes Daniel under his wing, and negotiates a truce with Kreese: Daniel will enter a karate tournament in two months time to take on Johnny and his buddies. In the meantime, as Daniel trains, the bullying stops. For two months, Miyagi teaches Daniel the true philosophy and techniques of karate, and their relationship evolves beyond karate to cover many principles of life. In the meantime, Daniel maintains a stuttering courtship of Ali, and discovers a wide gap between her family's wealthy social status and his humble life.

The tournament arrives, and Daniel has to apply all that he has learned from Miyagi to survive and progress against the hardened students from Kreese's school, with all roads leading to a final showdown against Johnny.

Miyagi: Hai! Wax on, right hand. Wax off, left hand. Wax on, wax off. Breathe in through nose, out of mouth. Wax on, wax off. Don't forget to breathe, very important. Wax on... wax off. Wax on... wax off.
Daniel: Hey where do these old cars come from?
Miyagi: Detroit. 

Other than the obvious revenge-of-the-scrawny-kid attraction, the appeal of The Karate Kid stems from the relationship between the mystical Miyagi and the willing-to-learn Daniel. The strength of the Robert Mark Kamen script lies in the breadth and depth with which the bond between the mentor and mentee is probed. A painful and touching scene, atypical of the feel-good genre, reveals Miyagi's background, and it becomes clear that Miyagi needs Daniel as a surrogate son just as much as Daniel needs Miyagi as a father figure. From then on, the father-son connection achieves the strength of indestructible hardened steel.

Director John G. Avildsen applies all the lessons he learned from the classic underdog tale of Rocky to good effect, and provides The Karate Kid with texture and artistry to elevate it several notches above the routine. The production quality allows the film to overcome a soundtrack filled to the brim with the worst of 1980s pop-rock.
A cast of previously obscure acting talent works in favour of The Karate Kid, which is essentially a story about the success of the nobody. Relative unknown Ralph Macchio is competent as Daniel, rarely straying far from doing exactly what the script asks for, and projecting adequate and joyfully doe-eyed appeal for the target audience of 12 to 14 year old girls. Pat Morita was mostly known for television roles prior to exploding into prominence as Miyagi, a one-man quote machine and a competitor for Yoda's crown as filmdom's ultimate fountain of old-aged wisdom laced with cynicism. The Karate Kid was Elisabeth Shue's movie debut, and despite a perfectly boring and predictable role as Ali, the most stereotypical of girls-next-door, Shue would go on to have arguably the most interesting and varied career from among the cast members.

The Karate Kid does struggle to soften the otherwise blatantly worrying message that fighting back is the only solution to bullying. Miyagi stresses the need for balance, and there is dialogue about fighting as a last resort, learning to fight in order not to have to fight, and karate being a defensive skill. But it is all for naught: the film boils down to meeting force with force, and there are no attempts to promote the engagement of the intellect or diplomatic skills to cleverly sidestep retarded and testosterone-driven conflicts.

The Karate Kid is also not helped by a very sudden ending. As soon as the climactic tournament ends, the film ends. The otherwise relaxed two-hour running length is abruptly rushed to the exits, while the story screams for an extra, thoughtful 10 minutes to wind-down, tidy up Daniel's relationships, allow Johnny and his buddies some moments of reflection and partial redemption, and to emphasize the more useful, less violence-obsessed lessons that could be learned from the experience.

As it stands, The Karate Kid is an easy-to-like feel-good story, providing far-fetched hope for all underdogs: with the wisdom of a strange man from Okinawa, humiliation can be the platform to learn life's long-lasting lessons.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Movie Review: Sahara (1943)

With World War II still raging, director Zoltan Korda and star Humphrey Bogart produce a stirring, against-the-odds story of survival and heroism in the North African desert. Sahara also presciently portrays a world united against the Nazis, with the rag-tag collection of soldiers assembled to fight the Germans coming from the United States, England, Ireland, South Africa, France and even Italy.

The tank commanded by American Sergeant Joe Gunn (Bogart) has barely survived a North African desert battle in which the Allied forces have been routed. With his only two surviving crew members Jimmy (Dan Duryea) and Waco (Bruce Bennett), Gunn's tank limps south, the only direction not cut-off by the Axis. Short on gas and water, Gunn nevertheless collects another group of British and South African Allied soldiers at the remnants of a destroyed field hospital. Soon they cross paths and also pick-up a Sudanese Major Tambul (Rex Ingram), traveling on foot across the desert with an Italian prisoner Giuseppe (J. Carrol Naish).

Increasingly desperate for water, Tambul's desert navigation skills prove crucial and the overloaded tank eventually arrives at a desert well. It is almost dry, but there is enough of a trickle of water to hydrate Gunn and his men before the well is completely depleted. Nearby, a battalion of 500 German troops is also traversing the desert, frantically looking for water. When Gunn realizes that he can distract the enemy from their plans by claiming that his dry well is overflowing with water, he decides to make a stand: he persuades his ragtag group of a dozen soldiers to defend the well against the attacking but dehydrated Germans. It is a suicidal mission against a much larger enemy force, but Gunn's men dig-in and decide to sacrifice themselves for the greater glory of aiding the overall war effort.

Sahara is an early example of what became standard movie material about war heroism: the small band of determined men making a stand against ridiculous odds to serve a purpose larger than themselves. Sahara throws in nature as a third party to the conflict: the desert is more powerful than either the Allies or the Nazis, and will witness - and contribute to - the destruction of many lives on both sides.

The black and white photography in the desert is haunting, with Korda and cinematographer Rudolph Mate capturing a terrain that is quietly menacing in its endless expanse, and suddenly lethal when the sand storms kick-up. Man's helplessness in the face of the desert's dry and scorching heat becomes the catalyst for battle, particularly for the Germans, whose need for water drives them off course and becomes much more important than ideology or the war's greater objectives.

In a film with a 100 percent male cast (to compensate, Gunn always treats his tank like a lady, and is most upset when she is belittled), Bogart's persona of toughness combined with a searing understanding of the right thing to do dominates. His Sergeant Joe Gunn is a natural leader, quickly taking the tough decisions, believing in the mission, following orders, consulting when needed, and most crucially, not afraid to reverse a decision once he realizes a mistake, as when he stops the tank to save Giuseppe's life after having abandoned him in the desert.

Sahara keeps a good balance between scenes of warfare and character development, and even in the climactic final 30 minutes, with the outnumbered allies stubbornly defending the well, there are well-timed pauses to delve into the personalities of the men sacrificing everything for a seemingly hopeless mission.

Sahara is everything that a great war movie needs to be: inspirational, sad, exciting, entertaining, astute and memorable.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Movie Review: High Sierra (1941)

More a character study than a heist movie, High Sierra marked Humphrey Bogart's step-up into leading roles. It is a surprisingly thoughtful examination of a gangster discovering his caring side as he hurtles towards a single, certain fate.

Hardened convict Roy Earle (Bogart) receives an unexpected pardon and is released from prison after serving eight years. Aging master criminal Big Mac did the work behind the scenes to secure Earle's release: the ailing Mac needs Earle to pull-off a final major heist out west. On his drive to California, Earle meets a farming family also driving to the coast. Their attractive granddaughter Velma (Joan Leslie) has a club foot, and her condition tugs at Earle's heart.

At an out-of-the-way California motel he connects with the rest of the gang, consisting of small-time hoods Red (Arthur Kennedy) and Babe (Alan Curtis). The inexperienced criminals have brought along Marie (Ida Lupino), a desperate woman who wants to escape a drunken father, and for whom becoming a gangster's moll represents major progress. Earle finds himself unexpectedly attracted to Marie, who is eager to become part of his life. Earle is also befriended by the cute but abandoned dog Pard: all of Pard's previous owners have met untimely deaths.

The plan is for Earle, Red and Babe to rob the safety deposit boxes of a swanky resort at the foot of the Sierra mountains, filled with rich customers and their jewellery. Mendoza (Cornel Wilde) is the resort's night manager and the heist's inside-man: the robbery will take place when Mendoza sends the word that the safety deposit boxes are full. As Earle waits for the right time to commit the biggest job of his life, he generously funds the operation to repair Velma's foot. He asks her to marry him, but she rejects him. Earle is crushed, but is then free to more fully enjoy the attentions of Marie.

The robbery goes badly, many men die, Earle is forced to do his share of killing and the newspapers nickname him "Mad Dog". He goes into hiding with the jewellery but has to wait for the opportunity to cash-in. As the police close in on him, Earle splits from Marie and escapes high into the mountains, where he makes a final dramatic stand against an army of law enforcement agents.

Although he received second billing behind Lupino, Bogart is the undoubted star of High Sierra, appearing in every scene and dominating as a man surprising himself by displaying unanticipated sensitivity. It is doubtful that the pre-prison Earle would have cared much for Velma's condition; or that he would have allowed Marie to hang around and distract him; or that he would have tolerated the cutesy presence of Pard. The post-prison Earle does all that, and clearly his actions are no longer consistent with that of a hardened criminal.

Caught between who he was and who he is becoming, Roy Earle cannot straddle the wide contradictory crack developing in his life and falls into the fate that even he does not find surprising. Bogart conveys a man wistfully hoping for a better future, over-reaching to Velma, settling for the comfort of Marie, forced to live up to his tough guy image with Red and Babe, and ultimately deciding that freedom is what he values most.

Raoul Walsh directs the script (co-written by John Huston and author W.R. Burnett) with patience, allowing Earle's character plenty of time to develop on the way to meeting destiny. High Sierra only turns into an action film in its final third, and even then Earle's dilemmas and decision points overshadow the gun-play. However, Walsh does put onto the screen one of the earliest highly dynamic car chases, as Earle attempts to escape into the mountains on tortuously winding roads hotly pursued by the authorities riding an assortment of motorcycles and vehicles.

Up in the mountains of High Sierra, a criminal chooses his fate with no regrets, and an actor becomes one of the brightest stars of the movies.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Europe's Top 20 All-Time Most Successful Football Clubs

The Top 20 All-Time Most Successful European Football Clubs

Last updated: May 2018, after Real Madrid won the Champions League, defeating Liverpool, and Atletico Madrid won the Europa League, defeating Marseilles.

Ranked by 1. Champions League / European Cup wins, 2. Europa League / UEFA Cup wins, 3. Cup Winners Cup wins, 4. Inter-Cities Fairs Cup wins, 5. Champions League / European Cup runners-up, 6. Europa League / UEFA Cup runners-up, 7. Cup Winners' Cup runners-up, 8. Inter-Cities Fairs Cup runners-up.

Rank 20
Steaua Bucharest (Romania)
Champions League / European Cup Winners: 1, Runners Up: 1
Europa League / UEFA Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 0
Cup Winners' Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 0 
Inter-Cities Fairs Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 0

Rank 19
Celtic (Scotland)
Champions League / European Cup Winners: 1, Runners Up: 1
Europa League / UEFA Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 1
Cup Winners' Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 0 
Inter-Cities Fairs Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 0
Rank 18
Olympique de Marseille (France)
Champions League / European Cup Winners: 1, Runners Up: 1
Europa League / UEFA Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 3
Cup Winners' Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 0 
Inter-Cities Fairs Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 0

Rank 17
Hamburger SV (Germany)
Champions League / European Cup Winners: 1, Runners Up: 1
Europa League / UEFA Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 1
Cup Winners' Cup Winners: 1, Runners Up: 1 
Inter-Cities Fairs Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 0

Rank 16
Borussia Dortmund (Germany)
Champions League / European Cup Winners: 1, Runners Up: 1
Europa League / UEFA Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 2
Cup Winners' Cup Winners: 1, Runners Up: 0 
Inter-Cities Fairs Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 0

Rank 15
PSV Eindhoven (Holland)
Champions League / European Cup Winners: 1, Runners Up: 0
Europa League / UEFA Cup Winners: 1, Runners Up: 0
Cup Winners' Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 0 
Inter-Cities Fairs Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 0

Rank 14
Chelsea (England)
Champions League / European Cup Winners: 1, Runners Up: 1
Europa League / UEFA Cup Winners: 1, Runners Up: 0
Cup Winners' Cup Winners: 2, Runners Up: 0 
Inter-Cities Fairs Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 0

Rank 13
Feyenoord (Holland)
Champions League / European Cup Winners: 1, Runners Up: 0
Europa League / UEFA Cup Winners: 2, Runners Up: 0
Cup Winners' Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 0 
Inter-Cities Fairs Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 0

Rank 12
Nottingham Forest (England)
Champions League / European Cup Winners: 2, Runners Up: 0
Europa League / UEFA Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 0
Cup Winners' Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 0 
Inter-Cities Fairs Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 0

Rank 11
Benfica (Portugal)
Champions League / European Cup Winners: 2, Runners Up: 5
Europa League / UEFA Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 3
Cup Winners' Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 0 
Inter-Cities Fairs Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 0

Rank 10
FC Porto (Portugal)
Champions League / European Cup Winners: 2, Runners Up: 0
Europa League / UEFA Cup Winners: 2, Runners Up: 0
Cup Winners' Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 1 
Inter-Cities Fairs Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 0

Rank 9
Juventus (Italy)
Champions League / European Cup Winners: 2, Runners Up: 7
Europa League / UEFA Cup Winners: 3, Runners Up: 1
Cup Winners' Cup Winners: 1, Runners Up: 0 
Inter-Cities Fairs Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 2

Rank 8
Manchester United (England)
Champions League / European Cup Winners: 3, Runners Up: 2
Europa League / UEFA Cup Winners: 1, Runners Up: 0
Cup Winners' Cup Winners: 1, Runners Up: 0 
Inter-Cities Fairs Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 0

Rank 7
Inter Milan (Italy)
Champions League / European Cup Winners: 3, Runners Up: 2
Europa League / UEFA Cup Winners: 3, Runners Up: 1
Cup Winners' Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 0 
Inter-Cities Fairs Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 0

Rank 6
Ajax Amsterdam (Holland)
Champions League / European Cup Winners: 4, Runners Up: 2
Europa League / UEFA Cup Winners: 1, Runners Up: 1
Cup Winners' Cup Winners: 1, Runners Up: 1 
Inter-Cities Fairs Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 0
Rank 5
Barcelona (Spain)
Champions League / European Cup Winners: 5, Runners Up: 3
Europa League / UEFA Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 0
Cup Winners' Cup Winners: 4, Runners Up: 2 
Inter-Cities Fairs Cup Winners: 3, Runners Up: 1

Rank 4
Bayern Munich (Germany)
Champions League / European Cup Winners: 5, Runners Up: 5
Europa League / UEFA Cup Winners: 1, Runners Up: 0
Cup Winners' Cup Winners: 1, Runners Up: 0 
Inter-Cities Fairs Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 0

Rank 3
Liverpool (England)
Champions League / European Cup Winners: 5, Runners Up: 3
Europa League / UEFA Cup Winners: 3, Runners Up: 1
Cup Winners' Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 1 
Inter-Cities Fairs Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 0

Rank 2
AC Milan (Italy)
Champions League / European Cup Winners: 7, Runners Up: 4
Europa League / UEFA Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 0
Cup Winners' Cup Winners: 2, Runners Up: 1 
Inter-Cities Fairs Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 0

Rank 1
Real Madrid (Spain)
Champions League / European Cup Winners: 13, Runners Up: 3
Europa League / UEFA Cup Winners: 2, Runners Up: 0
Cup Winners' Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 2 
Inter-Cities Fairs Cup Winners: 0, Runners Up: 0

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Movie Review: The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948)

A classic tale of greed and the influence of sudden great wealth on those ill-equipped to handle it, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre is a marvellous achievement. Director John Huston crafts an epic exploration of human nature, Humphrey Bogart is spellbinding in a transformational performance, and Walter Huston, lovingly directed by his son, delivers a career-defining performance.

Dobbs (Bogart) is an American drifter, scratching out a living in a small Mexican town in the 1920s. He meets Curtin (Tim Holt), a younger American in much the same situation. The two men appear to meet some good fortune when they are hired for a few days of well-paid labour by the businessman McCormick, but he cheats them out of their wages. Reduced to sleeping in a shelter, Dobbs and Curtin meet Howard (Walter Huston), a grizzled gold prospector who has found and lost several fortunes. His talk of heading to the hills and striking gold strikes a chord.

Dobbs and Curtin catch up with McCormick, force him to pay them their wages, and pool their resources with Howard to buy the necessary supplies and the three men head off on a prospecting adventure. As the remote, unexplored terrain gets harder, the older Howard is in his element, and the younger but inexperienced Dobbs and Curtin struggle to keep up. Eventually, Howard hits the bulls eye, and leads them to a rich deposit of gold deep in the mountains.

As soon as they start mining the gold, Dobbs' real personality emerges, causing deep divisions and mistrust. The three men paper over the tensions among them and keep on mining. A fourth American prospector, Cody (Bruce Bennett), shows up uninvited and offers to help extract the gold in exchange for a slice of the treasure; but trouble in the form of Mexican bandits is not far behind.

Huston directed and wrote the screenplay, based on the book of the same name by the mysterious B. Traven. The narrative of the film cleverly moves Howard, Dobbs, and Curtin to their chosen destinies, although they will not arrive at their destinations by the path that they selected: the treasure of the Sierra Madre proves to be a passageway but not an objective. Howard, of course, knows this already, and whether he is rich or not makes no difference to him, although in this case the chase for gold will help him arrive to a restful retirement.

It's a different story for Dobbs and Curtin, who are new at the prospecting game: they will both discover for the first time who they really are, as the gold accelerates their rush to meet their true destinies.

Huston composes every frame with artistic flare, finding camera angles that contribute to the story telling and add to the growing tension. The initial scenes of interaction between Dobbs, Curtin and Howard are brilliant examples of a master director's unobtrusive hand: Dobbs and Curtin and always in the frame together, facing Howard: he is the third point of the triangle, the catalyst who will help them understand their true selves.

Humphrey Bogart is captivating as he embarks on a dark descent into Dobbs' soul. Bogart keeps Dobbs' anxieties well hidden until the discovery of the gold, then expertly and gradually delves into the corners of the psyche where self-destructive evil thoughts are harboured. Bogart leads Dobbs to his appropriate fate in one of his most complex and satisfying screen roles.

Walter Huston as Howard is the heart of the movie, an old man who has long since learned the impact of gold on weak personalities. Huston conveys the thrill of looking for and finding treasure; for Howard, what happens afterwards is a lot less entertaining, and he is just as happy losing a fortune in order to start the process of finding the next one.

Tim Holt, who spent most of his career in western movies, plays an earnest Curtin, and emerges as the perfect counterbalance to Bogart's Dobbs. Younger and less saddled with life's disappointments, Curtin is the innocent subject of Dobbs' growing lack of trust that deforms into violence. Curtin has to first find and then hold onto his principles, and the gold adventure leads him to his dream but along a most convoluted path.

The ultimate lesson of The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre is that gold does not glitter for everyone, and individual decisions are much more powerful in influencing life's progress than a pocketful of treasure.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Movie Review: Lucky (2010)

What happens to the winners of large lottery prizes? After the celebratory photos with the oversized cheques and the newspaper stories about huge payouts, how do the lives of the winners change?

In Lucky, documentary film-maker Jeffrey Blitz sets out to explore lives altered by huge injections of cash, and in chronicling the story of five state lottery winners, he finds experiences ranging from the rational to the tragic.

A calm mathematics professor is best equipped to manage his new-found wealth. Although his marriage crumbles, he finds a new love, takes up singing lessons, and uses his money to create educational opportunities for others. Similarly, a Vietnamese immigrant puts his new fortune to good use by providing better housing for his extended family, both in the US and in Vietnam.

Other winners have more mixed fortunes. A middle class couple jump up the societal ladder to the company of elites, lose all their old friends, struggle to redefine themselves, and eventually move to Florida to start a new life in a neighbourhood of similarly rich folks. An old man wins the lottery with effectively his last dollar. Having lived the decrepit life of a hobo, and with clearly limited intellectual abilities, he is careful with his newly found wealth, but at least upgrades to living in a seedy motel room.

Most dramatically, an old geezer who won the lottery after saving a child from a burning building has no wealth management skills whatsoever. He fritters away his winnings as quickly as he can, withstands assassination plots from his own family members, and before long returns to a life of simple poverty.

Lucky is entertaining without being outstanding. Blitz intercuts the five stories to keep the film interesting, and holds back a few surprises that are revealed as stings in the tail, effectively building up the human drama. He also spices up the documentary with sometimes humorous factoids about lotteries in the United States.

But ultimately there is nothing flashy or pretentious about Lucky: Blitz allows the characters and events to tell their own tale with a minimum of fuss, and the film achieves it's objective of confirming that a large amount of unexpected money is more likely to enhance rather than change individual characteristics.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Skyline (2010)

A monster movie with plenty of special effects and little else, it's only the shiny technology that raises Skyline above made-for-TV fare. A B-movie cast spouts B-movie lines while scary aliens terrorize mankind, but thanks to enormous computer processing power, some of the imagery is striking.

Jarred (Eric Balfour), a struggling artist, and his newly pregnant girlfriend Elaine (Scottie Thompson) are on a visit to Los Angeles. Eric is reconnecting with his rich friend Terry (Donald Faison), and after enjoying a wild birthday bash, Jarred and Elaine sleep in the guest room of Terry's swanky apartment. During the night, mysterious blue light beams are unleashed onto Los Angeles. Any human who looks at the blue light is mesmerized, deformed and sucked up into the spaceships of hideous aliens resembling the descendants of the creature from the black lagoon, operating vessels that look like overgrown bottom-feeding ocean beasts.

With Los Angeles in carnage, the US military attempts a meek fight-back against the overwhelming strength and advanced technology of the aliens. Jarred, Elaine, Terry, and a few others who survived the initial assault have to decide between hiding and attempting to flee as the aliens start brutally efficient house-house searches to capture the few remaining humans.

Continuing in the recent tradition of movies such as Cloverfield, Skyline takes the perspective of the inconsequential, easily squished victims of rampaging monsters. The grand plan of the alien invasion remains elusive, and the US military fightback is a noisy but tangential backdrop to the tribulations of powerless civilians witnessing the literal end of their world.

Greg and Colin Strause (billing themselves as the brothers Strause) directed and co-produced with a strict focus on technology. The monsters and the spaceships are the stars of the show, supported by impressive vistas of Los Angeles being summarily destroyed. Shortchanged in this vision is any emphasis on the human drama, and Skyline is hampered by TV-level actors appropriately matched to an inane script that struggles to find a single original idea or innovative line of dialogue.

Skyline is a strict showcase of computer programming capabilities, with a heart as cold as the hardware.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Book Review: The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho (1988)

In the vein of The Little Prince, The Alchemist is a fable by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho about destiny and the purpose of life. What it lacks in subtlety it makes up for with good intentions and a sharply drawn narrative.

Santiago is a curious and broad-minded Spanish shepherd boy (known simply as "the boy") from the Andalusia region. A recurring dream about treasure awaiting him near the pyramids in Egypt sets him off on an adventure across North Africa, from Tangier to an oasis in the middle of the desert and finally to the pyramids. Along the way he encounters a wise old king, a crystal merchant, an Englishman looking for the alchemy secrets of turning lead into gold, a desert girl who immediately becomes the love of his life, and finally the larger than life character of the Alchemist, a desert warrior of enormous strength and wisdom.

The Alchemist is all about the individual pursuit of destiny and a specific purpose in life. The story successfully highlights the personal initiative essential to fulfill life's goals, the many decision forks on the path of life, and the calculated risks required to advance. The story also links the personal with the spiritual, weaving with strong thread the unifying relationship between humans, nature, and the oneness of the world.

Coelho does not have much time for metaphors and innuendo: he spells out concepts like Personal Legend; the Language of the World, and the Soul of the World in Capital Letters to emphasize that This Is An Important Concept. As a result The Alchemist emits the heavy thud of a snorting rhinoceros rather than the intriguing thoughtfulness of a softly hooting owl. The lack of a light touch continues to a finale that befits a special-effects laden Hollywood spectacle, along with a matching joyfully happy ending just before the credits roll.

The translation by Alan R. Clarke keeps the story moving briskly, with simple language that ensures accessibility to younger readers who may benefit most from the book's message.

The Alchemist is a reminder not to surrender to a mundane life without at least checking to see if destiny offers a more intriguing option.

167 pages.
Published in paperback by HarperFlamingo.

All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.

CD Review: Keeper Of The Seven Keys Part I, by Helloween (1987)

The breakout album from Germany's Helloween, Keeper Of The Seven Keys Part I marries Scorpions to Iron Maiden and conceives some excellent continental power metal. At just six meaningful tracks, it's a relatively lightweight CD, but with one track, Halloween, clocking in at an epic 13 minutes, there is still plenty to chew on.

Working for the first time with vocalist Michael Kiske, allowing Kai Hansen to concentrate on guitar duties, Helloween now sound like a serious band. Kiske's high-pitch and extensive range meshes the sounds of Halford and Meine, and despite some straining problems, he complements the guitars of Hansen and Weikath, while the ultimately doomed Ingo Schwichtenberg is superbly animated behind the drum set.

I'm Alive sets the pace with purposefully growly guitars leading into a galloping melody full of metallic celebration. Twilight Of The Gods is an innovative track full of pace changes, competing harmonics and some terrific guitar solos. Halloween itself is a high-paced journey of endless innovation, rarely flagging as it meanders on a winding path paved with metal. Given its length, the track holds its theme together surprisingly well, maintaining interest and avoiding padding. Not all the segments hit their mark, but the more expressive instrumental passages more than make-up for the less stellar moments.

A Little Time, A Tale That Wasn't Right and Future World remind us that this is a young band still learning the trade of writing and delivering good metal.

Keeper Of The Seven Keys Part I is raw energy captured in a sorcerer's orb, whetting the appetite for future potions from the same spell.


Markus Grobkopf - Bass
Kai Hansen - Guitar
Michael Kiske - Vocals
Michael Weikath - Guitar
Ingo Schwichtenberg - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Initiation - n/a (short instrumental)
2. I'm Alive - 8
3.A Little Time - 6
4. Twilight Of The Gods - 9
5. A Tale That Wasn't Right - 7
6. Future World - 7
7. Halloween - 9
8. Follow The Sign - n/a (short instrumental)

Average: 7.67

Produced by Tommy Newton.
Engineered by Tommy Hansen and Tommy Newton. Mixed by Tommy Hansen.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

CD Review: Use Your Illusion I, by Guns N' Roses (1991)

Notwithstanding the G N' R Lies EP released in 1988, it was a long wait between the ground breaking Appetite For Destruction in 1987 and Guns N' Roses next full-length studio record of new original material. When it arrived in 1991, Use Your Illusion had spilled over onto two over-burdened disks, now labelled Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II. The biggest band on the globe was at its peak, taking the rock world by storm, re-writing the rules and sowing the seeds of their own self-destruction, as chronicled in the book Slash.

Amid the chaos, the blinkered critics of the day were quick to fawn all over Use Your Illusion I and II. The reality is that Use Your Illusion I is filled to the brim with an incredibly high number of forgettable and sometimes outright filler songs, and of the 16 tracks, a grand total of five are worth remembering. It's a poor return on investment, the band shovelling large quantities of mud cakes onto the CD, over-producing the sound into artificiality, and for the most part completely losing the raw sense of danger and anger that made Appetite For Destruction so compelling.

Right Next Door To Hell starts with forceful promise that is rarely fulfilled, while Live And Let Die, a cover of the Wings classic, is the best thing on the album: a rare example of an interpretive version casting a strong shadow on the original, thanks to Axl Rose injecting high-strung energy into the vocals and Slash soaring on the guitar. Don't Cry succeeds at channelling a reasonable level of emotions, but it is only Back Off Bitch that manages to live up to the Guns N' Roses reputation: a raucous, out of control rock of hurtling metal, splintering in all directions as it joyfully fragments at melting temperatures. November Rain is a self-obsessed ballad that secures a state of crushing boredom prior to being saved by Slash letting loose an epic solo.

The pattern of anything good on Use Your Illusion I coming from Slash's guitar on the rare occasions when it is unshackled is established early and confirmed often.

Bad Obsession, The Garden, and particularly You Ain't The First are padding unbecoming of a group dominating metal across the globe, and many other tracks, while not as poor, are functional at best. Use Your Illusion I represents a band unsure of how to deal with mass success, throwing a lot of stuff at the wall, and as usually happens, little of it sticks.


Matt Sorum - Drums
Duff McKagan- Bass
Izzy Stradlin - Guitar
Axl Rose - Vocals
Slash - Guitar

Keyboards - Dizzy Reed

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Right Next Door To Hell - 8
2. Dust N' Bones - 7
3. Live And Let Die - 10
4. Don't Cry (Original) - 8
5. Perfect Crime - 7
6. You Ain't The First - 5
7. Bad Obsession - 6
8. Back Off Bitch - 10
9. Double Talkin' Jive - 7
10. November Rain - 8
11. The Garden - 6
12. Garden Of Eden - 7
13. Don't Damn Me - 7
14. Bad Apples - 7
15. Dead Horse - 7
16. Coma - 7

Average: 7.31

Produced by Mike Clink and Guns N' Roses.
Engineered by Mike Clink. Mixed by Bill Price. Mastered by George Marino.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

CD Review: III Sides To Every Story, by Extreme (1992)

An album of bamboozling ambition, III Sides To Every Story represents the peak of Nuno Bettencourt's creativity. Unfortunately, the over-riding view from that peak is of an overbloated effort that is stunning for just one third and otherwise mostly self-absorbed.

Broken down into three chapters labelled "Yours", "Mine" and "The Truth", the first six tracks make up the first side of the story, and collectively they are breathtakingly brilliant. Rarely have six consecutive songs sounded better on any metal album.

From Warheads to Peacemaker Die, Bettencourt constructs 33 minutes of complex metal at its most mesmerizing, using his guitar to paint an epic canvass of everything that is wrong with a war-obsessed world. With Paul Geary providing confident support on the drum kit and Gary Cherone respectfully allowing the vocals to play a supporting role, Bettencourt takes centre stage in both creating majestic metal and embellishing it. Warheads is the best of an excellent set, rocketing to a supersonic speed and effortlessly maintaining a breakneck pace.

Rest In Peace introduces hypnotic, layered Beatlesque harmonies, Bettencourt never far from leading but allowing rich compositions to breathe on their own when needed. On Color Me Blind and Peacemaker Die, Extreme effectively marry expressive harmonies to uncompromising metal, and deliver a unique, unforgettable sound.

Unfortunately, there are two more sides to this story, with eight additional tracks and more than 40 minutes of meandering music. The "Mine" and "The Truth" sets can best be described as pretentious, with Extreme abandoning energy and initiative in favour of orchestration and dreamy acoustics that can only be enjoyed with the right-coloured mushrooms.  The content is intriguing as a psychology case study but not necessarily as enjoyable music, and by the time Who Cares drags its obese form over the finish line in an exhausted state, its title captures the prevailing mood of anyone still listening.

There may be III Sides To Every Story, but sometimes just one version is all that is worth recounting.


Patrick Badger - Bass
Nuno Bettencourt - Guitars
Gary Cherone - Vocals
Paul Geary - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Warheads - 10
2. Rest In Peace - 9
3. Politicalamity - 8
4. Color Me Blind - 9
5. Cupid's Dead - 8
6. Peacemaker Die - 9

7. Seven Sundays - 7
8. Tragic Comic - 8
9. Our Father - 7
10. Stop The World - 7
11. God Isn't Dead? - 7

and The Truth
Everything Under The Sun
12. I. Rise 'n Shine - 7
13. II. Am I Ever Gonna Change - 7
14. III. Who Cares - 7

Average: 7.86

Produced by Nuno Bettencourt.
Engineered by Bob St. John. Mastered by Bob Ludwig.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

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