Friday, 30 September 2011

CD Review: Time, by Mercyful Fate (1994)


Danish black operatic metal masters Mercyful Fate return for their fourth studio album, and their second since the 1992 reunion. Time is an uneven effort, with a stream of upticks and downticks, but the album does contain some terrific moments that help to bolster the band's reputation.

Opener Nightmare Be Thy Name is Mercyful Fate at their best, guitarists Sherman and Denner oozing  intimidatingly menacing riffs all around King Diamond's blind-bat-from-hell vocals. If the gateways to the abyss have a theme song, Nightmare Be Thy Name would be a strong contender.

Also excellent is the title track. Mercyful Fate can surprise themselves when they innovate, and Time slows down the tempo to remarkably good effect. Diamond's "minutes and seconds are passing us by" vocals are controlled and relatively hushed against a bloodcurdling theme appropriate for exploring the most haunted of evil mansions. Enter at your own risk.

More forthright is My Demon, a galloping, high-energy track with all the Mercyful Fate ingredients lined up and polished to a shine. Less impressive are a trio of selections that just waste time: The Preacher moans along on a senseless path to nowhere; Mirror is a succession of chords that refuse to get acquainted; and Castillo Del Mortes is a mess of track that takes more than six minutes to arrive at nowheresville.

Sharlee D'Angelo, later to join Arch Enemy, is a welcome addition on the bass, and overall the band sounds tight, although the dominant sound of King Diamond on vocals does, as usual, get overbearing. Time may pass, but some things just stay the same.


Band:

King Diamond - Vocals, Keyboards
Hank Sherman - Guitars
Michael Denner - Guitars
Sharlee D'Angelo - Bass
Snowy Shaw - Drums


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Nightmare Be Thy Name - 10
2. Angel Of Light - 7
3. Witches' Dance - 8
4. The Mad Arab - 7
5. My Demon - 9
6. Time - 10
7. The Preacher - 5
8. Lady In Black - 8
9. Mirror - 6
10. The Afterlife - 8
11. Castillo Del Mortes - 6

Average: 7.64

Produced by King Diamond and Tim Kimsey.
Mixed by King Diamond, Tim Kimsey and Hank Sherman.
Engineered by Tim Kimsey. Mastered by Eddy Schreyer.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Movie Review: Mystic Pizza (1988)


A small movie with a big heart, Mystic Pizza is most famous as Julia Roberts' earliest prominent role. It also happens to be a charming coming-of-age story with three engaging central performances.

Sisters Kat (Annabeth Gish) and Daisy (Roberts) work at the Mystic Pizza restaurant in the small fishing town of Mystic, Connecticut. Jojo (Lili Taylor) is their co-worker and friend, and the three help the earthy owner Leona (Conchata Ferrell) keep the place going while figuring out their futures.

Kat is the smart sister, and already has an acceptance to Yale. She takes on an extra job as a babysitter, and is soon infatuated by her employer: Tim (William R. Moses) is a hunky architect, much older than Kat, and is all the more attractive because he is perhaps having marital problems.

Daisy has looks to kill, and has therefore never bothered to find out if she is as smart as her sister, cultivating instead a reputation as a bed-hopper. Daisy enters into a relationship with the very rich Charles (Adam Storke), and soon finds out that a lot of money could mean a lot of family problems. Jojo faints at the altar, just before her marriage to Bill (Vincent Phillip D'Onofrio) is about to be made official. Bill is an earnest lobster fisherman, and is eager to get married and settle down. After her fainting incident Jojo is not so sure: she can predict her future with Bill, and wonders if she should strive for more.

Kat, Daisy and Jojo are memorable and well-rounded characters, and the script (a four-way collaboration) gives all three enough screen time to mature into believable people with realistic small-town struggles. Kat is the brainiac goody two-shoes, carrying the burden of being responsible to the point that she never expects herself to do anything impulsive. With her exit out of Mystic and into Yale already secure, Kat's challenge is to step outside of who she is to discover if there are any emotional risks worth taking.

Her sister Daisy is the good-time girl, close to reaching for the title of town slut, and she knows it. Daisy has decided that her physical charms are her ticket out of Mystic, but she has also arrived at the blind alley where being used and being cared for melt into the same puddle.

Jojo is almost sure that her fate is to stay in Mystic, and much as she hates to admit it, she has stumbled onto the true love who will actually make her long term life in the small town tolerable. Jojo has to weigh the benefits of early but true commitment against the unknowns that will erupt with the decision to reject a man who worships the ground she walks on.

While Julia Roberts sparkles as Daisy, her dominant, effervescent personality filling the screen with sass and charisma, Annabeth Gish and Lili Taylor share the spotlight with bravado. Gish finds the quiet uncertainty within Kat as she fights an internal battle against a life consigned to predictable conformity. Taylor is humorously open with Jojo's insecurities, a feisty, talkative fireball made of equal parts doubt and resolve.

Director Donald Petrie brings the best out of his actresses and the small fishing town locations, but does not avoid all the cliches: Kat is a budding astronomer, and there are some unnecessary eye-roll worthy scenes of star gazing and opportunely timed shooting stars. Some bites of Mystic Pizza may be a bit extra cheesy, but overall, the toppings are delectable, spicy and most satisfying.






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Wednesday, 28 September 2011

CD Review: Dance Of Death, by Iron Maiden (2003)


The second Iron Maiden album with the three guitarist line-up continues the good work started on Brave New World (2000). Dance Of Death may have slightly fewer stellar moments, but overall feels more cohesive, Maiden becoming more comfortable with all the tools at their disposal.

Rainmaker rolls back the years: a compact track in the style of Aces High and Where Eagles Dare, perhaps not as manic but nevertheless prefect in combining all of Maiden's strengths: magical guitar melodies, seamless transitions, Dickinson in fine but controlled voice and McBrain laying down the law. Add hypnotic solos and Rainmaker takes its place proudly on the top shelf of Maiden's achievements.

The other memorable tracks on Dance Of Death are all about elaborate, patient story-telling, and if anything, Maiden are guilty of over-complicating the tales of war, carnage and wild zombie parties. The title track builds - and builds - to an epic folk melody as Bruce stumbles across the dead dancing up a storm. Mixing the epic with the ridiculous, the outcome is just pure fun.

More serious is Paschendale, about a meat-grinder of a World War One battle which took place in the second half of 1917 and featured the use of numerous gas attacks, ending with about 700,000 men dead. Maiden give the battle its due with a dark, sombre and complex composition that never quite takes off but always threatens to do so.

Continuing with the theme of bloodshed is Montsegur, the name of a domineering medieval fort in France, and site of an infamous siege that ended with plenty of gore in the 13th century. It is a less lumbering track but also wildly repetitive, an enjoyable romp for those who appreciate stomping around killing fields in blood stained gum boots.

Of the rest, Wildest Dreams and No More Lies are relatively standard modern Maiden tracks, the reduced energy of middle age cohabitating with the efficiency of wisdom to produce fluently enjoyable metal. Gates Of Tomorrow and Age Of Innocence, on the other hand, should have been left in the wilderness where Maiden found them, near those dancing dead folks.

Dance Of Death is a mostly tasty concoction of history, gore, and merriment, mixed into a thick broth by masters of the metal craft.
 

Band:

Bruce Dickinson - Vocals
Steve Harris - Bass
Dave Murray - Guitars
Janick Gers - Guitars
Adrian Smith - Guitars
Nicko McBrain - Drums


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Wildest Dreams - 8
2. Rainmaker - 10
3. No More Lies - 8
4. Montsegur - 8
5. Dance Of Death - 9
6. Gates Of Tomorrow - 6
7. New Frontier - 7
8. Paschendale - 9
9. Face In The Sand - 7
10. Age Of Innocence - 6
11. Journeyman - 7

Average: 7.73

Produced, Recorded and Mixed by Kevin Shirley.
Engineered by Kevin Shirley and Drew Griffiths. Mastered by Tim Young.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Movie Review: Something's Gotta Give (2003)


A romantic comedy for adults, Something's Gotta Give is the equivalent of spending an evening with old friends: the entertainment flows smoothly, enhanced by good humour, great food, and an inevitable happy ending. It may go on for longer than it needs to, but time spent with Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton is always pleasurable.

Harry (Nicholson) is a successful businessman in his 60s, dating the much younger Marin (Amanda Peet). Harry makes no secret of wanting to be in the company of younger women: he finds them much simpler to deal with and significantly less demanding. Marin's mother is the divorced Erica (Keaton), a famous Broadway playwright in her late 50s. Harry and Erica meet at her house in the Hamptons and they develop a healthy mutual dislike: she is uptight and judgemental, while he is all self-satisfied smarm.

But Harry suffers an unexpected mild heart attack and Erica finds herself babysitting him. Gradually they begin to care for each other. Marin notices and happily breaks up with Harry to leave the coast clear for her mother to nurture the romance, but Erica's love life gets further complicated when she also attracts the attention of the young and handsome Julian (Keanu Reeves), the doctor looking after Harry's heart health.

As time passes Harry and Erica fall truly in love, but he finds it difficult to commit and she finds it difficult to trust; for the relationship to survive both will need to take risks and venture into previously fenced-off territory.

Nicholson and Keaton slip into their roles with exquisite ease. They both convincingly depict adults blind-sided by love after having been certain that life carried no further surprises. Nicholson's performance starts with some scenery chewing, but gradually dials back as Harry comes to terms with his mortality and his first great romance. Nicholson holds Harry's hand and gently guides him through a transformation to a man overcoming hubris to plead for Erica's trust and companionship.

Keaton's performance is more nuanced, as is the fate of any role opposite Nicholson. Erica has experienced love and hurt, and has rigidly set-up her defences to prevent any future emotional damage. Initially she sees in Harry exactly the type of man she needs to avoid, but as he knocks down her fortifications she gradually recognizes in him an unlikely second opportunity for a grand romance.

Amanda Peet, Keanu Reeves and Frances McDormand (as Erica's sister) round out a formidable cast, but they do get nudged firmly into the shadows once Nicholson and Keaton take centre stage.

Nancy Meyers wrote, produced and directed Something's Gotta Give, the beginning of her journey to explore romance among mature adults which would continue with 2009's equally appealing It's Complicated. The romance of Harry and Erica takes more than two hours to unfold, and a solid 15 minutes could have been trimmed to remove unnecessary fat. But otherwise, the screenplay has the unmistakable focus of a single author's vision, Meyers putting to shame the all-too-common clumsy scripts written by committee.

Something's Gotta Give is playful, witty and memorable. It may carry some weight around the waist, but that is just in keeping with the realism of its central characters.






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Saturday, 24 September 2011

Movie Review: Brothers (2009)


Yes, war is hell, but soldiers who survive the battlefield just trade in one agony for another when they return home. Brothers is an intense story of post-traumatic stress disorder, and the destruction unleashed on the home front when veterans fail to cope with the aftermath of combat shock.

Sam (Tobey Maguire) and Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) are brothers. Sam is a Marine on active duty, a perfect husband for his wife Grace (Natalie Portman), a fun father for his young daughters Isabelle and Maggie, and a model son for his father Hank (Sam Shepard). Tommy has just been released from jail, a loser whose life has so far amounted to exactly nothing.

Sam is deployed to Afghanistan, where his helicopter crashes into a lake. Reported to be dead, Sam is actually captured by the Taliban, tortured, and eventually forced by his captors to beat to death a fellow captive American soldier. Meanwhile, Grace believes that she is a widow, and needs to piece together her life and help Isabelle and Maggie deal with their dad's death. Tommy starts to help Grace in her recovery, and gradually becomes a surrogate father figure for the children. Tommy and Grace are slowly but surely drawn together.

When Sam is rescued and returns home, the new normal in Grace's life is again destroyed. Sam is not the same person who went off to war, and his traumatized mind finds it almost impossible to deal with the reconstituted reality of his domestic home, building to a treacherous crisis with his wife and brother.

To make its point, the Brothers screenplay by David Benioff does push the horror of war. Sam is tipped into the mental darkness after being forced at gun-point to kill a fellow Marine; while dramatic, this is much more than most soldiers who develop PTSD have to endure, but Hollywood is rarely known for choosing pastels when vivids can be manufactured.

Compensating for the excesses in the script, the acting performances and particularly the three main leads elevate Brothers to a delectable, slow-melt drama. Jake Gyllenhaal delivers the most intriguing transformation, as the brother who blooms when life unexpectedly hands him a purpose and a responsibility. Gyllenhaal allows Tommy to even surprise himself, and is most poignant when pushed back out of Grace's life upon Sam's return.

Natalie Portman enhances her reputation as a dramatic actress, in a performance less showy but no less intense than 2010's Black Swan. For the sake of her daughters Grace has to maintain a semblance of normalcy when Sam is reported dead, and then unexpectedly finds it even more difficult to welcome an unhinged husband back into her life. Portman keeps her performance controlled while conveying simmering anguish, and an undercurrent of unease for allowing herself to be happy with Tommy.

Less interesting but still solid is Tobey Maguire, who goes from effective Marine to traumatized veteran without much of a change in expression, although his best acting is physical: Maguire's awkward stance and glassy eyes upon his return home speak volumes without saying a word.

Sam Shepard and Mare Winningham (as Hank's wife) add plenty of earnest supporting talent, and the scenes between Shepard's old-school traditional retired soldier Hank and Gyllenhaal's good-for-nothing Tommy are deliciously uncomfortable.

With an efficient running time of 105 minutes, director Jim Sheridan maintains momentum with scenes of what should be tranquil domesticity regularly disrupted by the nibbling forces of crushed expectations, mis-trust, doubt and jealously. When the shooting stops, the brain damage kicks-in, and the casualties just continue to mount.






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Friday, 23 September 2011

CD Review: Trilogy, by Yngwie J. Malmsteen (1986)


Guitar maestro Yngwie J. Malmsteen's third album as a solo artist is grand, artistic, and self-indulgent. Trilogy is also quite good. That three-headed flying dragon on the CD cover? He doesn't even stand a chance against Malmsteen's wizardry.

Malmsteen's classically-inspired metal guitar is of course front and centre, and it sizzles on a regular basis. Every Trilogy track is constructed to showcase Malmsteen's talent to good effect, and he never disappoints. The standout selection is the album closer Trilogy Suite Op: 5, Mamlsteen leaving no doubt with that title that he imagines himself to be an artist to rival the great classical composers. But arrogance when backed by talent is tolerable, and Malmsteen walks the talk: Trilogy Suite Op: 5 is seven minutes of metal guitar magnificence, Malmsteen combining elaborate classical melodies with breakneck speed and stunningly accurate delivery. The acoustic interlude works as intended, and the track builds to a towering, domineering height rarely achieved by instrumentals.

The other instrumental track is the quietly influential Crying, which starts with the acoustic guitar and elegantly transitions to full metal shredding.

The rest of the album does feature vocals, an element that Malmsteen must have always regarded as an evil necessity rather than a complement to his music. Mark Boals is pressed into microphone duty, his first collaboration with Malmsteen, and Boals puts on the typical performance of a vocalist playing third banana to the axe-man: desperately overloading the limp lyrics with artificially pumped emotion. Boals has range, but the truth is that here he is irrelevant.

Of the seven songs with vocals, Queen In Love works best and brings the beef to the table, Malmsteen slowing down and allowing some crunch to share space with the solos.

Trilogy is Malmsteen at his best, unapologetically brandishing his talent, and when you're this good, it is hard to be humble.


Band:

Yngwie J. Malmsteen - Guitars and Bass.
Mark Boals - Vocals
Jens Johansson - Keyboards
Anders Johansson - Drums


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. You Don't Remember, I'll Never Forget - 8
2. Liar - 8
3. Queen In Love - 9
4. Crying - 9
5. Fury - 6
6. Fire - 8
7. Magic Mirror - 7
8. Dark Ages - 7
9. Trilogy Suite Op: 5 - 10

Average: 8.00

Produced by Yngwie J. Malmsteen.
Engineered by Ricky Delena. Mixed by Ricky Delena and Yngwie J. Malmsteen.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

CD Review: The Triumph Of Steel, by Manowar (1992)


Manowar rip off their shirts, flex their muscles, flex the muscles on their muscles, grab the longest, sharpest swords, invade the nearest, darkest medieval castle, and start hacking away. They land a couple of good blows, but then start lopping off their own limbs in desperate lunges to find any target.

The Triumph Of Steel, the band's seventh studio album, shows clear signs of ambition exceeding ability. The centrepiece of the record is the opening track, Achilles, Agony and Ecstasy in Eight Parts, a retelling of the Trojan War story from Greek mythology, and clocking in at a remarkable 28 minutes. Any piece of music at that length in any genre is only ever going to be patchy, and Achilles fluctuates from brilliant passages to time-filler snoozy segments, including the unwelcome return of the drum solo, a particularly uninspired, rickety effort from Rhino.

Where most Van Halen albums would be ending, The Triumph Of Steel is just getting started: there are seven more tracks after Achilles, and 40 more minutes of music. Metal Warriors is a straightforward celebration of metal, delivering the goods as far as broad-appeal anthems go. Ride The Dragon ups the pace and snorts its way to satisfying guitar solos.

Then the album loses its way and most of its momentum, with unnecessarily long tracks that develop the irritating habit of dropping into almost silent, glacier-speed passages, ostensibly to build mood but only succeeding in interrupting any flow. The ideas and intentions are good on tracks such as Spirit Horse Of The Cherokee and The Power Of Thy Sword; the execution and delivery are suspect, Manowar seemingly more interested in creating movie soundtracks than solid music.

The Triumph Of Steel features epic cover art and a fold-out poster that would impress most young teenage boys. Unfortunately, and as juvenile as it is, the artwork remains enjoyable long after the impact of the music has faded away.


Band:

Eric Adams - Vocals
David Shankle - Guitars
Rhino - Drums
Joey DeMaio - Bass


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Achilles, Agony And Ecstasy In Eight Parts - 8
2. Metal Warriors - 9
3. Ride The Dragon - 8
4. Spirit Horse Of The Cherokee - 7
5. Burning - 6
6. The Power Of Thy Sword - 7
7. The Demon's Whip - 7
8. Master Of The Wind - 7

Average: 7.38

Produced by Manowar.
Engineered by Rich Breen. Recorded by Haus Wanfried.
Mastered by Iron Weinburg.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Book Review: All The Stars In Heaven, by Gary Carey (1981)


All The Stars In Heaven is a brisk, enjoyable romp through early movie-making history, as told through the story of Louis B. Mayer. From his humble beginnings as the son of Jewish immigrants to becoming the most powerful business executive in the United States of the 1930s and 1940s as the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, author Gary Carey paints an entertaining portrait of the man and his remarkable achievements.

Mayer navigated and often heavily influenced the establishment of the studio system, the transformation to the era of sound, early excursions to foreign lands for exotic location-filming, and corporate survival during major historical events such as the Great Depression and World War Two. He also had to make time to massage the egos of his star actors and directors, fight internal corporate battles in the back-rooms, and keep an eye on industry trends to stay in touch with what audiences craved.

Drawing on interviews of Mayer's contemporaries, Carey strikes an excellent balance between the movies, the movie stars, and the corporate politics that defined Mayer's life, and always keeps Mayer the man at the centre of the book: his habits, tricks, personality, and values are the themes that weave the book together.

The stories behind various film productions provide insight into the decision making process during the studio system, and by focusing as much on day-to-day productions as on the blockbusters, Carey provides a sense of the routine hard work that was required to build the most famous studio in the world.

Mayer's critical relationships with key allies and collaborators are given ample coverage, in particular his partnership with Irving Thalberg, the young genius who combined an uncanny ability to predict audience appetites with a passion for quality. As the chief of all movie productions, Thalberg received a lot of the credit as MGM rose to the top of the studio heap, while Mayer played a more political role in the shadowy corporate corridors. Carey gives Thalberg his due, but argues that Mayer's influence in MGM's success was deserving of more credit than it has historically received.

Other big personalities that make prominent appearances in the book as they share movie history with Mayer include media mogul Randolph Hearst, with whom Mayer sometimes cooperated and often sparred politically; Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and Spencer Tracy. Carey also profiles a large number of lesser MGM stars and starlets from the silent era and the golden years of the studio system that Mayer helped to create, whereby actors and directors were contracted to one studio that would mould them into specific screen personas to maximize their box-office potential.

The one persistent weakness in the book is Carey's unabashed defence of any accusation levelled at Mayer's reputation. From his dispute with stars to his battles with political foes and through to his alleged womanizing, Carey does present various viewpoints but invariably ends the discussion firmly entrenched in Mayer's corner, mounting a spirited defence and concluding with an affirmation of Mayer's choices as having been justified. And whenever the historical facts are vague, Carey is quick to fill in the story gaps with the assumptions most favourable to Mayer. The biographer as apologist bleeds away objectivity, and is counterproductive in glossing over the human faults that make every subject all the more fascinating.

As with many visionaries, Mayer gradually lost touch with the times. After the Second World War, the stars began to flex their power and demand more independence, the studio system started a gradual but inevitable decline, and the world that Mayer built evolved and left him behind. The less than illustrious final chapter of his career takes nothing away from his legacy: All The Stars In Heaven is an enjoyable chronicle of an exceptional man and the formative years of a momentous industry.

Subtitled "Louis B. Mayer's M-G-M".
306 pages, plus Bibliography and Index. Includes 18 pages of photos.
Published in hardcover by Robson Books. 






All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

CD Review: Brave New World, by Iron Maiden (2000)


New decade, new century, Bruce Dickinson back on vocals, Adrian Smith back on guitar, a bold experiment to go with three guitarists. Iron Maiden push a massive reset button and launch into a Brave New World and a major rejuvenated phase of their career.

The lyrics are prone to excessive repetition and overt descriptiveness, the in-song transitions are often clunky, and some tracks are assembled from old left-over pieces from the classic Maiden era. There are also a few too many "whoa-ohhh-ohhh" segments that really only ever work in live performances with a younger audience.

But Dickinson never sounded better, the three-guitarist configuration works surprisingly well, and Maiden find and then scale some impressive new peaks. With seven of the ten tracks clocking in at over six minutes, the band take their time to construct elaborate, thoughtful and complex compositions.

Opener The Wicker Man has become the signature song of Maiden's new era, the rousing "Your time will come" chorus surfing the simplest of riffs to glory. Brave New World similarly aces the chorus: while the rest of the song is bland, when Dickinson launches into "A brave new world" with McBrain pounding out the most classic Maiden beat, the Iron just smolders.

Blood Brothers is more of a guitarist showcase, Maiden beginning what would become increasingly more common and generally successful excursions on their modern albums to explore folk metal territory. At the 4:20 mark the main guitar theme kicks in courtesy of Janick Gers, instantly transporting Blood Brothers to inspirational fog-shrouded moors.

And Maiden then land a pulverizing blow of greatness with The Nomad, an eastern-tinged, hypnotizing epic with Dickinson delivering devastating vocals from the top of the highest sand dune while the band behind him mesmerize the palm trees at the oasis with spellbinding melodies.

Brave New World is Maiden's forceful statement of intent to remain relevant in a whole new millennium.


Band:

Bruce Dickinson - Vocals
Dave Murray - Guitars
Adrian Smith - Guitars
Janick Gers - Guitars
Steve Harris - Bass, Keyboards
Nicko McBrain - Drums


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. The Wicker Man -9
2. Ghost Of The Navigator - 7
3. Brave New World - 9
4. Blood Brothers - 9
5. The Mercenary - 7
6. Dream Of Mirrors - 7
7. The Fallen Angel - 7
8. The Nomad - 10
9. Out Of The Silent Planet - 7
10. The Thin Line Between Love and Hate - 6

Average: 7.80

Produced by Kevin Shirley.
Engineered and Mixed by Kevin Shirley. Mastered by George Marino.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Movie Review: Proof Of Life (2000)


A romantic triangle set amidst the drama of a businessman's kidnapping in South America, Proof Of Life is engaging but flawed. A spluttering romance never quite catches fire, and an all-guns-blazing finale undermines the character-centred drama that the film patiently constructs.

Peter Bowman (David Morse) is an American construction manager, supervising a dam project in the fictional South American country of Tecala. His wife Alice (Meg Ryan) is having a hard time adjusting to life in Tecala, resulting in significant tension within the marriage. The day after a big argument, Peter is kidnapped by guerrillas belonging to the Liberation Army of Tecala (ELT) and marched at gunpoint deep into the inhospitable mountains. Terry Thorne (Russell Crowe) works for a British consulting firm that specializes in negotiating hostage releases. Assigned to Peter's case, Terry meets Alice but is called back to London due to Peter's company having no kidnap insurance coverage. But Terry's brief encounter with Alice caused a connection, and he decides to return and help her on a freelance basis.

Over several months Terry conducts arduous negotiations to agree on a price for the release of Peter, while a strong attraction evolves between Terry and Alice. Terry also meets up with other hostage consultants working in Tecala, including the fiery Dino (David Caruso). Peter, meanwhile, struggles to stay alive and sane in a remote ramshackle jungle camp, where some of the guerrillas are looking for any opportunity to physically harm him while others see his value as a healthy hostage. Despite Terry's best efforts, the negotiations break down, Peter's life is thrown into jeopardy, and Terry and Dino need to decide if more drastic action is warranted, in the form of a military rescue attempt.

Director Taylor Hackford has a resume filled with flawed gems, including Against All Odds, White Nights and Everybody's All-American. Proof Of Life is littered with question marks that perforate the credibility of Tony Gilroy's script. Central to the movie's purpose, Terry's motivation for coming back to help Alice is never convincingly dealt with; the coincidence that helps Terry to identify the ELT negotiator is wild-eyed; and late in the proceeding, the reasons for the ELT sparing Peter's life on the jungle mountainside are vague. The sudden transformation of Terry from a suave negotiator to a mercenary joining a group of suddenly heavily-armed westerners launching a hastily planned jungle raid in a foreign land is also quite jarring.

Helping to traverse the rocky patches in the longish running time of 135 minute are three strong central performances. Meg Ryan in particular shines as Alice, finding the dilemma zone between fear, frustration, worry for the fate of a missing husband and growing affection for the man now in control of her life. Russell Crowe is comfortably confident as a man who rarely encounters any situation that he cannot control to his advantage. David Morse has the difficult task of playing the missing third point in the triangle, and he does well as a man who grabs onto the thought and image of his wife to maintain sanity in prolonged captivity. In an ironic example of life somewhat imitating art, the filming of Proof Of Life sparked a real-life relationship between Ryan and Crowe, destroying Ryan's marriage to Dennis Quaid.

Proof Of Life does benefit from some intentional loose ends related to the future happiness of the main characters. This is a welcome change from routine happy endings, and consistent with a common theme in Hackford's films: relationships are difficult, messy, and not always cheerful.

Proof Of Life's greatest strength is its relatively unique setting and stressful backdrop, exploring the rich territory of romance flourishing in times of extreme tension, when the normalcy of life is overturned and the well-established rules of day-to-day living are forcefully abandoned. Falling in love is one proof of life when there appears to be little to live for.






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Sunday, 18 September 2011

Movie Review: Platoon (1986)


An intense front-line view of a most muddled conflict, Platoon is a close-up examination of the human damage caused by war, and also one of the best war movies ever made. Director Oliver Stone wrote the story based on his personal experiences in Vietnam, and his narrative is unblinking in its portrayal of all that is wrong with war, from politicians sacrificing the lower classes to the resultant irreparable emotional devastation of those who do the killing.

Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) is a college student who has willingly enlisted in the army, and he arrives for combat duty in Vietnam of 1967. Oppressive heat, low morale, disgruntled troops, ineffective jungle patrols and clueless commanders are just some of the challenges that he immediately faces, and this is before any enemy encounters.

Chris learns that two fearless sergeants are the de facto leaders of his Bravo Company: Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) stands up for his men and encourages a loose attitude and plenty of camaraderie. Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger) is all intensity, having long since adopted a kill'em all individualistic attitude. The men of Bravo Company are divided, with some supporting Elias and others idolizing Barnes. Elias and Barnes are on an inevitable collision course, and after Barnes loses all discipline during a raid on a Vietnamese village, they become mortal enemies.

Chris witnesses the intensifying conflict between the men and survives skirmishes of ever increasing ferocity with the North Vietnamese Army, culminating in a massive gory and desperate battle, during which Chris has to apply all that he has learned from both Elias and Barnes just to try and live for another day.

Stone enriches Platoon by not glossing over the little details that dominate a soldier's experience: the insatiable bugs feeding on human flesh; the endless marching in the impenetrable jungle; digging trenches in the energy-sapping heat; the devastating fatigue causing soldiers to fall asleep at critical moments; and the endless, tense waiting for encounters with the enemy.

And when these enemy encounters do occur, Stone, cinematographer Robert Richardson, and editor Claire Simpson emphasize the overwhelming chaos and confusion. Platoon's battle scenes play out in limited light, the enemy mostly seen as shadows, tactics and strategies utterly lost in the anarchy of the battlefield.

The central theme of Platoon is the contrast in the education of Chris at the hands of Elias and Barnes. Both are exceptional warriors, but while Elias has retained his humanity and is still killing for a greater purpose, Barnes has adopted killing for the sake of killing and no longer cares to delve into the subtleties of when should the killing be justified.

Both men have their followers, and Platoon poses the question as to which form of soldier is needed to win a war. At the personal level, Stone ends the film with Chris standing at the most important fork in his life, having absorbed and internalized characteristics from both Elias and Barnes. Whether he becomes more like Elias or more like Barnes will determine which part of Chris will die, and when.

Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe lead the testosterone drenched cast, both diving into their roles as jungle combatants with stone-faced relish. Charlie Sheen, with a successful future career still in his hands should he choose not to snort it, finds the balance between the bewilderment of the new recruit thrown into battle and the grim determination of a smart soldier willing to learn and survive. A large supporting cast of at-the-time relative unknowns includes the likes of Forest Whitaker, Johnny Depp and Kevin Dillon.

Platoon condemns war by staring at its horror, a reminder that while the dead represent the tragedy, the survivors and those who do the killing are plunged into the same universe of infernal misery.






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Saturday, 17 September 2011

Movie Review: Four Christmases (2008)


A mild relationship comedy that has all the flavour of left-over Christmas turkey three days into January, Four Christmases has an entertaining secondary cast but little else to recommend it.

Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon) are a happily unmarried loving couple, never planning to tie the knot and certainly avoiding ever having children. Both products of broken homes, Brad and Kate spend their vacations avoiding their families at all costs, concocting tall tales about doing charity work while flying off to exotic vacation resorts in places like Fiji.

When an unexpected storm grounds their Christmas vacation flight and a local television crew beams their interview as stranded travellers across San Francisco, they are exposed and forced to visit all four of their parents on a single day leading up to Christmas Eve. For the first time obligated to interact with their parents as a couple, Brad and Kate discover that they really know very little about each other, and that their seemingly perfect life may actually be quite vacuous.

With the easily dismissable attempts at humour including Brad being gang-tackled by his brutish brothers (more than once) and baby projectile vomit soiling the landscape (more than once), the main joy of watching Four Christmases comes from spotting rarely-seen and once-distinguished old pros contributing short performances. In their prime Robert Duvall (Brad's dad), Jon Voight (Kate's dad), Mary Steenburgen (Kate's mom) and Sissy Spacek (Brad's mom) would not have been caught within miles of a generally witless movie, but here they become the distraction that salvages some entertainment from the limp main event.

Vince Vaughn arduously avoids any stretching and plays the part of Vince Vaughn, essentially the same role that he plays in all his movies: modern man struggling mightily to control the base instincts of jungle man. In Four Christmases his family is still in the jungle, white trash spewing unrefined DNA all over the dirty carpet, leaving open the question of how Brad ever escaped his family's gutter. Vaughn will do well to expand the range of his on-screen persona, as he currently resides solidly on the lazy side of the judgement line.

Reese Witherspoon seems to know that she's stuck in a production at least two notches below her talent level, and Kate's building sadness in the movie may be equally attributed to losing faith in her relationship with Brad and to Witherspoon realizing that Four Christmases will really not look good on a resume that includes Walk The Line. That she co-produced the movie would not have helped to cheer her up.

Five producers (including both Vaughn and Witherspoon) and four writers shared the apparently heavy lifting to assemble this lightweight 88 minutes of easily forgettable entertainment. Next time, they may all want to focus less time on convincing veterans to appear in semi-cameos, and more time in finding something a bit more original to put on the screen.






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Movie Review: Single White Female (1992)


A psychological thriller that brushes against Hitchcockian levels of ever increasing menacing tension, Single White Female is a compelling descent into the turmoil caused by a deeply disturbed mind.

Allie Jones (Bridget Fonda) is a struggling New York software designer, deeply in love with live-in boyfriend Sam (Steven Weber), and friends with upstairs neighbour Graham (Peter Friedman). Allie's love life collapses when she discovers that Sam cheated on her with his ex-wife. She kicks him out, advertises for a room-mate, and soon Hedy Carlson (Jennifer Jason Leigh) moves in. Although a bit frumpy, Hedy at first appears sensitive and caring, but she gradually reveals obsessive tendencies towards Allie. Hedy adopts Allie's style in fashion and hair, and starts to take liberties with Allie's mail, voice messages and personal belongings.

Things go from uncomfortable to creepy when Allie and Sam reconcile, and Hedy feels like an unwelcome guest in her own apartment. She starts to actively sabotage the relationship between Allie and Sam, and finally turns outright hostile against all the foundations of Allie's life.

Neither Bridget Fonda nor Jennifer Jason Leigh ever made it to Grade A stardom levels; but both actresses are at their best, and possibly their career peaks, in Single White Female. Fonda oozes confident trendiness mixed with the vulnerability that comes from the ground shifting and the walls closing in, the quintessential wannabe career woman unable to break a sequence of body-blow betrayals: her former business partner; her current boyfriend; and now her room-mate.

Leigh's role is darker, more transformational, and ultimately chilling. Initially appearing normal but marching mercilessly into a dance on the edge of madness, Leigh embraces the role of catalyst, aggressor and severely damaged victim.

Barbet Schroeder gets the best out of his two lead actresses, and he imaginatively introduces the New York building that houses Allie's apartment as a menacing co-star. The sturdy, imposing art nouveau structure can't help but seep impending evil, and Schroeder finds all the internal and external perspectives to maximize the sense of doom.

At its climax, Single White Female probably turns the screw twice more than necessary, dropping into cliched and well-stripped "not dead yet" territory. The drama and engagement reside in the journey more than the resolution, and Single White Female has a patient and delectably ominous slide towards its final acts of madness.






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Friday, 16 September 2011

Movie Review: The War Wagon (1967)


A tongue-in-cheek western with a streak of dry humour, The War Wagon allows two screen veterans to have fun without totally abandoning the pillars of the genre. The movie has plenty of horses, gun-play, bare-knuckle fist fights and Indians, but scrubs-off any edge of seriousness and replaces it with a wink and a smile.

Crooked but powerful businessman Frank Pierce (Bruce Cabot) has taken over the ranch of Taw Jackson (John Wayne), kicking Jackson off his land by framing him for a crime and consigning him to a jail sentence. Pierce seized control of Jackson's land after discovering that the ranch sits on gold deposits. Now he is growing richer mining the gold and transferring his treasure and money to and from the rail station in an impressively armoured wagon, protected by more than 30 men on horseback. A turret-mounted Gatling gun is the latest enhancement to ward off attacks on the War Wagon.

Released on parole, Jackson is back in town and looking to reclaim what is his. Rightfully predicting the worst, Pierce tries to hire ace gunman Lomax (Kirk Douglas) to kill Jackson. But Jackson gets to Lomax first, and recruits him to help execute a daring heist of the War Wagon. Assisted by the Indian Levi (Howard Keel), the perpetually drunk explosives expert Billy Hyatt (Robert Walker Jr.), and inside-man and old geezer Catlin (Keenan Wynn), Jackson and Lomax hatch a plan to destroy the War Wagon and take off with a large supply of gold.

Lomax and Jackson simultaneously shoot and kill two bad guys:
Lomax: Mine hit the ground first.
Jackson: Mine was taller.

John Wayne and Kirk Douglas ride through The War Wagon with the effortlessness of grizzled old-timers who have seen it all and done it all multiple times, trading barbs, planning their robbery and guarding against each other with obvious delight. Director Burt Kennedy fully realizes that his two stars are much bigger than the routine story, and provides Wayne and Douglas with every opportunity to dominate the screen, which they do with understated relish. Kennedy also makes good use of monument valley scenery to polish the classic western credentials of the movie.

The supporting cast features a host of Western veterans shooting their guns straight and earnestly reciting their lines to counterbalance the levity of the two stars. There is also a brief but memorable appearance by Bruce Dern: he is one of the two bad guys who are shot to prompt the classic "mine was taller" exchange of dialogue.

The portrayal of Indians is generally unenlightened, even for 1967, although they do emerge as beneficiaries of the sting in the tale. This is the only major quibble in Clair Huffaker's script that otherwise features an epic everyone-against-anyone saloon fist-fight, and misadventures with nitroglycerin, a welcome departure from the standard over-dependence on dynamite in most Westerns.

The War Wagon is an entertaining farewell wave to a genre that was otherwise fast galloping towards the canyon's dead-end.





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Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Movie Review: She's Out Of My League (2010)


A brash attempt at combining the overt boorishness of gross-out farces with the more dainty elements of romantic comedies fails on all counts. She's Out Of My League is rarely funny, never romantic, and always aggravating.

Twentysomething Kirk (Jay Baruchel) and his buddies work at a Pittsburgh Airport security screening station. Kirk is geeky, angular, and has been comprehensively dumped by Marnie (Lindsay Sloane). In fact, Kirk is such a doormat that Marnie and her new boyfriend Roy are good friends with Kirk's parents, and rub their relationship in Kirk's face at every opportunity in his own home.

Molly (Alice Eve) is a stunning blonde with supermodel looks. She catches Kirk's eye as she passes through airport security, and because she is bored with good looking but plastic guys, he also catches her attention. They start a relationship, despite the attempted intervention of Molly's former boyfriend Cam (Geoff Stults) and the suddenly insanely jealous Marnie. But the biggest hurdle that Kirk needs to overcome is gaining belief that a dolt like him is worthy of a gorgeous girlfriend.

The humour in She's Out Of My League is crass and predictable, the romance uneven and never the least bit believable. Jay Baruchel may have some comic talent but it is not yet sufficiently developed to save a limp script. Alice Eve does not even try to find any meaning in a dream doll role that only exists in the imagination of unimaginative screenwriters. The supporting cast works hard to ensure obscurity by mimicking overly familiar characters from numerous better movies, while Kirk's white trash family seal the deal on eliminating all potential for clever or understated humour.

This is the first feature length film directed by Britain's Jim Field Smith, and unless he quickly graduates to better material, it could also be among his last. Molly may be several leagues above Kirk, but this cast and crew are also several leagues below the level required for good movie making.






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Tuesday, 13 September 2011

CD Review: Since The Day It All Came Down, by Insomnium (2004)


Insomnium specialize in melodic death metal that eagerly seeks the empty space in every glass to optimize life's pessimism. The cover art of Since The Day It All Came Down, the band's second album, contributes to the bleakness: shadowy remote woods with any potential for joy washed out of by the grim weather. Insomnium's second studio recording is less inspired than their debut, but still offers some good music within the band's well-defined scope.

Nocturne is a radiantly sad opening instrumental melding into the epic title track, The Day It All Came Down easily standing out as the best selection on the album, Insomnium borrowing a classic Iron Maiden riff and marinating it in melancholy sauce to great effect. Daughter Of The Moon brings a gutsy folk melody into the celebration of sorrow, while Bereavement is the closest that metal will come to brightening a funeral procession. Closing Words is surprisingly up-tempo, and the lyrics almost sound like a remote cause for optimism.

Insomnium's sleepier and less motivated moments can put all the critters of the animal kingdom in a silent trance, and both The Moment Of Reckoning and Disengagement are excellent at eliciting yawns of boredom.

Insomnium always sound perfectly professional, and they deliver their distinctive brand of despairing metal with as much life as despondent music can handle. Guitarists Friman and Hirvonen never showboat when simple excellence will do, and Niilo Sevanen delivers his low range growly vocals with appropriate respect for the foreboding sense of gloom that the band creates and thrives in. Listening to Since The Day It All Came Down ensures that mass celebrations erupt when a ray of sunshine subsequently appears, no matter how meekly it breaks through gloomy clouds.


Band:

Niilo Sevanen - Vocals and Bass
Ville Friman - Guitars
Markus Hirvonen - Drums
Ville Vanni - Guitars


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Nocturne - 8
2. The Day It All Came Down - 10
3. Daughter Of The Moon - 9
4. The Moment Of Reckoning - 6
5. Bereavement - 9
6. Under The Plaintive Sky - 7
7. Resonance - 7
8. Death Walked The Earth - 7
9. Disengagement - 6
10. Closing Words - 8
11. Song Of The Forlorn Son - 7

Average: 7.64

Produced by Insomnium and Jone Vaananen.
Recorded and Mixed by Jone Vaananen. Mastered by Mika Jussila.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.



Sunday, 11 September 2011

Movie Review: Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958)


The film adaptation of Tennessee Willliams' play is both compelling and enchanting, with stunningly multi-dimensional characters peeling away layers of civility in excruciatingly delicious slow motion. Cat On A Hot Tin Roof provided Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor and Burl Ives the opportunity to deliver stellar and unforgettable career-defining roles.

The extended Pollitt family is gathering to celebrate the birthday of rich patriarch Big Daddy (Ives), who owns a plantation and hundreds of acres of land. Big Daddy's health is beginning to fail, shining the spotlight on issues of inheritance. His son Brick (Newman) is depressed, drinking heavily, and has just managed to break his ankle in a drunken attempt to run a midnight steeple chase at the local high school track.

Brick's wife Maggie (Taylor), nicknamed Cat, is at least partially the cause of her husband's angst, but Maggie also sees Brick's brother Cooper (Jack Carson) trying to nudge Brick out of the inheritance picture, with Cooper's wife and baby factory Mae (Madeleine Sherwood) giving her husband plenty of encouragement to shove Brick and Maggie aside. In a series of difficult and tense confrontations over the course of a stormy evening, Maggie, Brick and Big Daddy gradually come to terms with difficult past issues that are still dictating their present behaviour.

Elizabeth Taylor is a magnetic presence as Maggie "the Cat", with an unnerving ability to dominate any frame, even on the rare occasions when she is the secondary observer on the edge of the drama. Taylor pulls off a masterful performance combining guilt, ambition and tenacity to fight for her marriage and to ensure that her husband secures his rightful share of Big Daddy's inheritance. More than just a cat on hit tin roof, Maggie is also a cat walking through a minefield of complex familial relations and tragic legacies. Taylor's performance is all the more remarkable as she started filming three weeks after the death of her husband Mike Todd when his plane crashed, killing all on-board. Taylor was supposed to have been on the plane.

Paul Newman spends the first two thirds of the movie brooding and drinking, but comes alive in the final third, breaking through years of crusty barriers to confront the pain inflicted on him by his wife and by his father, and most painfully, the agony that he has inflicted on himself. For an actor whose career was built on cool detachment, Brick's emotional breakthrough represents some of Newman's most animated career screen time.

Big Daddy: What's that smell in this room? Didn't you notice it, Brick? Didn't you notice a powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity in this room?... There ain't nothin' more powerful than the odor of mendacity... You can smell it. It smells like death.

Burl Ives acted in movies for five decades, but his performance as Big Daddy ranks among his most memorable screen appearances. With subtle twitches of the mouth and eyebrows, Ives, who was reprising his role from the Broadway stage production, conveys various degrees of irritation with his mostly insufferable family, while inexorably moving towards a mammoth confrontation with Brick in which both men will at least recognize their devastating weaknesses without necessarily rectifying them.

Director Richard Brooks co-wrote the screenplay with an eye to achieving modest break-outs from the theatrical trappings of the original material. He succeeds in moving the action from room to room relatively seamlessly, but there is no doubting that Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is an adaptation of a stage-bound play. The characters are the dominant element of the experience; the settings are interesting but very much secondary.

To comply with the censorship codes and public tolerances of the day, the movie adaptation strips out the homosexual sub-texts in the story. The MGM studio was perhaps marginally behind the times in pushing boundaries, but the screen version provides the space for Maggie to emerge as the forerunner of the sexual and feminist revolution of the 1960s. Maggie starts the day unloved by her husband and being eased out of Big Daddy's fortune; she ends the evening as a dazzling example of what an empowered woman is capable of.

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is a celebration of the cleansing after-effects of soul-baring. If that is what it takes to to get the cats agitated enough to upset the status quo, then hot days and tin roofs in combination have excellent unintended side-effects.






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CD Review: The Time Of The Oath, by Helloween (1996)


Inspired by tales of Nostradamus, fortune telling, and the more mundane business of warfare, The Time Of The Oath is Helloween at close to their best, having perhaps lost the exuberance and innocence of youth but found the benefits of experience and improved proficiency in writing and delivery. Playful CD booklet art featuring animated pumpkins adds to the sense of a band comfortable in their identity and having plenty of fun.

Few of the songs are perfect, but almost all of them have excellent passages. Title track The Time Of The Oath closes off the album with a masterful bang, Helloween stitching together all the power elements with a monstrous bass and drum-heavy mid-pace melody onto which the vocals of Andi Deris just soar.

Earlier in the tracklist, Power is more traditional and less epic, but the souful lead guitar work nevertheless lifts it to an impressive peak. Before The War is distinguished by a magnificent instrumental section starting at the two minute mark that out-Irons the mighty Maiden, and lays a claim to be considered among the best 90 seconds in 1990s metal.  Mission Motherland, at more than 9 minutes, holds itself together remarkably well, and at the 3:30 mark detonates a bulldozer riff capable of excavating a monstrous hole to the core of planet metal, depending on the volume.

We Burn, Wake Up The Mountain and A Million To One offer more excellent metal forged in the highest quality foundries. What is lacking in innovation is made up for in professionalism and sparkle.

By the mid-1990s traditional power metal had to be perfectly seasoned to avoid being hokey, and The Time Of The Oath adds enough of the right spices to emerge as a leading example of the genre from that era.

Band:

Michael Weikath - Guitars
Uli Kusch - Drums
Andi Deris - Vocals
Roland Grapow - Guitars
Markus Grosskopf - Bass

Keyboards - Jorn Ellerbrock and Tommy Hansen.


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. We Burn - 8
2. Steel Tormentor - 7
3. Wake Up The Mountain - 8
4. Power - 9
5. Forever And One (Neverland) - 7
6. Before The War - 9 *see below*
7. A Million To One - 8
8. Anything My Mama Don't Like - 7
9. Kings Will Be Kings - 7
10. Mission Motherland - 9
11. If I Knew - 6
12. The Time Of The Oath - 10

Average: 7.92

Produced and Mixed by Tommy Hansen.
Engineered by Michael Tibes. Mastered by Ian Cooper.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.






Saturday, 10 September 2011

Movie Review: The Pelican Brief (1993)


A political conspiracy thriller that makes little sense as a story, The Pelican Brief survives as entertainment thanks to charismatic stars who glide above the increasingly ridiculous events erupting all around them.

Two United States supreme court justices are shockingly assassinated. In New Orleans, law student Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts) conducts some solo research and hypothesizes that the murders are linked to a court case related to big oil drilling in pristine wildlife habitats. The bombshell is that the tycoon behind the oil corporation has strong connections with the President (Robert Culp).

Shaw writes up her theory, which becomes known as The Pelican Brief, and provides a copy to her teacher and lover Thomas Callahan (Sam Shepard). Callahan is intrigued enough to forward the document to his friend Gavin Verheek (John Heard), a lawyer who works at the FBI. The report makes its way to the director of the FBI and then the White House. What was an interesting theory turns out to be painfully close to the truth, and soon people start dying, including Callahan, who is blown up, and Verheek, killed in a hotel room.

Running for her life, Shaw turns to Washington Herald journalist Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington), who is poking around the justice assassination story. Shaw and Grantham team up and have to duck bullets and avoid explosions as they attempt to uncover the conspiracy behind the murders.

The script by director Alan J. Pakula, adapting the John Grisham book, has a yawning black hole at the middle of it. Darby Shaw is of no consequence to the events that she uncovered: her report consists of conjecture inspired from matters of public record, and she herself witnessed nothing and holds no evidence that is otherwise unavailable. For Shaw to become an assassination target once her report is circulating throughout Washington DC is disingenuous and nothing but a cheap plot device to place a damsel in distress, and even at a superficial level of scrutiny The Pelican Brief suffers for it.

Moving past the unjustified histrionics, the movie is never enthralling but always engaging thanks to a stellar cast, with weighty performers in most of the meaningful roles. Julia Roberts, still refreshingly eager to please and not yet the diva, is appealing as Darby Shaw, despite remaining surprisingly sane as the bodies pile up around her. Denzel Washington is equally in his energetic prime, and provides the most solid core to the movie as investigative reporter Gray Grantham.

In support, the likes of Sam Shepard, John Heard, Robert Culp, John Lithgow and Hume Cronyn ensure that the secondary characters add plenty of colour to the proceedings, providing enough distraction from the progressively more improbable drama to maintain interest.

Pakula, directing what proved to be his penultimate film, is deep in his All The President's Men comfort zone of Washington DC-based thrillers revolving around political conspiracies, with journalists stunningly more competent than law enforcement authorities. Pakula's directing is effortless and polished, and he makes the best use of his stars and locations.

Like the pelican itself, The Pelican Brief is curiously noble and occasionally does fly, but it's far from the most streamlined of birds.



 


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


Significantly better than the co-released Use Your Illusion I, the second volume contain a higher proportion of sharper, memorable material. The bloat factor is still there, however, and a good three to four tracks could have been easily eliminated to elevate the enjoyment quotient of Use Your Illusion II.

The useless tracks include the tepid Yesterdays, the lazy Shotgun Blues, and the endless Breakdown, jammed in neutral. 14 Years, So Fine and Estranged are better but offer little that can be celebrated. All six tracks are devoid of any edge or sense of achievement; they just float atop the band's celebrity name.

Much better are the two centrepiece tracks: Civil War and Knockin' On Heaven's Door. Civil War is likely the best eight minutes on the entire two-volume set. The opening features the classic "what we've got here is...failure to communicate" speech from Cool Hand Luke melding into an Ennio Morricone-style whistled melody, while the rest of the song is a rare example of Axl and Slash hitting their peak on the same composition. Equally memorable is Knockin' On Heaven's Door, Guns N' Roses transforming the Bob Dylan classic into a fine power metal ballad, with a stirring Axl at his emotively nasal best.

Use Your Illusion II gets its additional bite from a solidly enjoyable series of compact high energy tunes. The maniacal Get In The Ring, once it gets going, all of a sudden re-inserts insane danger as the band's middle name; Pretty Tied Up features fine experimentation with an alluring eastern tinge; Locomotive lives up to its name with a chugging riff that is all power and fury thundering down a single track. And You Could Be Mine again unites an inspired Slash with Axl at his sleazy best.

Use Your Illusion I and II contain a grand total of 30 tracks, a mammoth simultaneous output equivalent to two old-fashioned double albums. Unfortunately only about half the material is worth remembering, and Guns N' Roses' inability to distinguish the good from the boring was symptomatic of a band descending into fragmented chaos just as quickly as it shot to unexpected superstardom.

Band:

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

Keyboards - Dizzy Reed


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Civil War - 10
2. 14 Years - 7
3. Yesterdays - 6
4. Knockin' On Heaven's Door - 10
5. Get In The Ring - 9
6. Shotgun Blues - 6
7. Breakdown - 6
8. Pretty Tied Up - 8
9. Locomotive - 9
10. So Fine - 7
11. Estranged - 7
12. You Could Be Mine - 9
13. Don't Cry (Alt. Lyrics) - 8
14. My World - n/a (short track)

Average: 7.85

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.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

CD Review: In The Halls Of Awaiting, by Insomnium (2002)


Insomnium's first full-length album release establishes the identity of the band: melancholy mid-tempo melodic death metal, acoustic interludes, folk shadings, more moody and mystical than flashy and flagrant. In The Halls Of Awaiting is a solid debut, containing a couple of gems and good depth in the supporting material.

Twin guitarists Friman and Vanni are all about setting a grand landscape scene appropriate for the bitter cold of Finland's remote woods, while vocalist Niilo Sevanen narrates in a low, almost whispered growl. The lyrical content is heavily focused on mixing forces of nature with gloomy emotions.

The Bitter End and Journey Unknown arrive late in the tracklist, and demonstrate Insomnium's true potential. The Bitter End cradles a thoughtful folk-inspired melody from a slow start and catapults it into a monumentally memorable faster pace. The well-constructed tempo changes, all built against a mammoth signature wall of noise, denote surprising maturity. Journey Unknown continues in the same vein, the tandem guitars leading a deceptively coy melody on an ambitious journey to domination.

There are mis-steps, notably Song Of The Storm, which pedals hard and gets nowhere. But overall, the quality is admirable. Ill-Starred Son, Dying Chant, and Black Waters confirm that Insomnium are already far advanced in their metallic craft, while In The Halls Of Awaiting, 11 minutes of an epic folk tale, is a grand closing track and speaks to no lack of brazenness.

The halls may be for awaiting, but the music being piped-in makes the wait well worthwhile.


Band:

Niilo Sevanen - Vocals and Bass
Markus Hirvonen - Drums
Ville Friman - Guitars
Ville Vanni - Guitars


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Ill-Starred Son - 8
2. Song Of The Storm - 6
3. Medeia - 7
4. Dying Chant - 8
5. The Elder - 7
6. Black Waters - 8
7. Shades Of Deep Green - 7
8. The Bitter End - 10
9. Journey Unknown - 10
10. In The Halls Of Awaiting - 8

Average: 7.90

Mixed by Anssi Kippo. Mastered by Mika Jussila.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Movie Review: Dumb And Dumber (1994)


A celebration of idiocy, Dumb And Dumber actively seeks and happily steers onto every low road. Some moments are funny, but many are just too stupid to be enjoyable.

Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) is a confirmed idiot, and his roommate and buddy Harry (Jeff Daniels) is equally dense. Working briefly as a limousine driver in Providence, Rhode Island, Lloyd gets to deliver Mary (Lauren Holly) to the airport. Mary is rich and beautiful, and Lloyd is immediately smitten. At the airport, Lloyd notices that Mary has abandoned a briefcase; he retrieves it but not in time to return it to Mary, who has boarded her flight to Aspen.

Unbeknownst to Lloyd, Mary was actually making a drop: the briefcase was a ransom payment intended for criminals Joe (Mike Starr) and J.P. (Karen Duffy), who have kidnapped her husband. Lloyd convinces Harry to embark with him on a long road trip from Providence to Aspen, and they are soon hotly pursued by Joe and J.P. on a journey that rapidly degenerates from misinformed to chaotic. Once they make it to Aspen, Lloyd and Harry need to find Mary and return the briefcase, but with two idiots in control of a lot of money and kidnappers in control of a high society member, all hell can be expected to break loose in the Aspen snow.

Jim Carrey is suitably farcical and by far the best thing about Dumb And Dumber, elevating an otherwise potentially irksome film into reasonable entertainment. But Lloyd Christmas is among Carrey's most forgettable characters. Yes, he gets himself into continuous trouble that is occasionally funny, but stupid is also predictable, and predictability kills comedy. Once it is established that Lloyd will make the stupidest decision available at every turn, he is rarely capable of springing genuinely amusing surprises.

Jeff Daniels plays Harry as just slightly more world-weary and a lot shaggier than Lloyd, but he also is entertaining just in patches, his dumbness eventually blanketing any sparks of originality. Harry's excessive dogmobile ride is a good indication of the film's ability to deal in subtleties.

Mary spends plenty of time humoring Lloyd and Harry because the script demands it, but Lauren Holly does little to answer the question as to why Mary would tolerate the dimwits for any longer than it would take to slam the door in their face. Holly at least got something out of the film: she became Mrs. Jim Carrey in 1996, a union that lasted for all of two years.

Brothers Peter and Bobby Farrelly keep the cameras pointing at Carrey's face to maximize use of their main asset, but the shallowness of the character eventually makes even his mug tiresome. Dumb And Dumber recalls the days of lowest common denominator, Laurel and Hardy style slapstick comedy. Yes, morons are funny, but some sharp wit would have been appreciated, if for no other reason than to demonstrate acknowledgement of screen comedy evolution.







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Monday, 5 September 2011

Movie Review: Field Of Dreams (1989)


A lyrical fable about the meaning of life, Field Of Dreams embraces a loveable eccentricity as it meanders down the path of answering the big questions. Mixing the rich mythologies of baseball and the cultural earthquake of the 1960s, the film celebrates life as the sum total of poignant outside influences and deeply personal decisions.

Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) never properly resolved his relationship with his late father John, a bit-part minor league baseball player. Ray experienced the turbulent 1960s, married Annie (Amy Madigan), and finally settled down as a corn farmer in Iowa. Walking his fields one day, Ray hears a Voice repeatedly telling him  "if you build it, he will come". After seeing a vision, Ray goes ahead and flattens a patch of his corn field, and builds a baseball diamond, complete with floodlights. Soon, Shoeless Joe Jackson, John Kinsella's hero, appears from the wall of corn surrounding the diamond; he and Ray talk, and Ray pitches to Jackson for some practice hitting. Other members of the 1919 Black Sox scandal soon start joining Jackson on the field, but only Ray, Annie and their daughter Karin can see them.

There are more instructions from The Voice, and these lead Ray to take a road trip and connect with Terence Mann (James Earl Jones), a once influential 1960s author now reduced to a crusty, angry and reclusive curmudgeon; and to Archibald "Moonlight" Graham (Burt Lancaster), a baseball player from the 1920s, who fielded half an inning in one game and never had an at-bat. Graham went on to become a well-respected doctor, and although he died in the early 1970s, Graham first appears to Ray in his elderly "Doc" persona, and then as a youthful and eager ball player.

Congregating back at the baseball field on Ray's farm, now busy with many players from bygone eras, the young Archie Graham gets a chance to fulfill his ambition of one major league at-bat before his ball career gets interrupted again; and Terence receives an invitation to rediscover his magic in the corn field. There is one more visitor to Ray's field of dreams, and a final lesson about appreciating what life has to offer.

In one of Kevin Costner's defining roles, he plays Ray Kinsella as a man embarking on an incredible yet needed journey, guided by forces that he does not understand to connect the dots of his life. Costner conveys anchored bewilderment to perfection. Amy Madigan defines the spunky and fully supportive wife, and shines in the one scene at the school PTA meeting where she demonstrates what she contributed to Ray's life. James Earl Jones and Burt Lancaster appear to have enormous but controlled fun lending their domineering authority to the roles of Terence Man and Doc "Moonlight" Graham.

There are many hidden and interweaving meanings and themes running through Field Of Dreams. Most apparent is the value of listening to the inner voice when making decisions, although in this case instinct is crystallized as a clear outer voice. Ray does not fully understand where The Voice will lead him, but he trusts the instructions and never regrets doing so.

Celebrating life as the accumulation of past legacies and key individual decisions is the overall theme of the movie. Baseball played a large part in Ray's heritage and childhood; the 1960s defined who he was, and led him to his wife; she in turn influenced his decision to relocate to a farm in Iowa. These elements are mixed in a rich broth, represented by Joe Jackson and Terence Mann, to awaken Ray to the treasure of his life's accomplishments.

The character of Moonlight Graham serves to reconnect Ray with his father's achievements, as well as his own lack of success on the baseball diamond: just like John and Ray Kinsella, Graham never made it in the Big Leagues; but Graham vividly demonstrates to Ray the value of contributions made by failed baseball players. There indeed is a rich purpose to the life of those not quite good enough to hit, pitch or catch a baseball.

Phil Alden Robinson directed his own screenplay, adapted from W.P. Kinsella's book Shoeless Joe. Robinson allows the magic to flow with a tinge of humour and a shading of pathos, the story never pretending to be anchored in anything other than the enchantment of the soul.

Field Of Dreams succeeds due to its unadulterated joy of the incredible, the film a surrender to a pleasant self-aware dream. From the early moments of The Voice talking to Ray to the long series of ghosts starring in time-shifted events, Field Of Dreams takes place in an alternate reality where the fantastic is acceptable, and a diverse set of miracles work together towards a common, human-centred and very down-to-earth conclusion. Sometimes, the spirits just enjoy the freedom of providing guidance using their own curious methods.






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Movie Review: Must Love Dogs (2005)


The romantic comedy meets on-line dating for an exploratory coffee, with results that mix pleasant small talk with a sweet-enough hug and kiss on the cheek at the end of the night as a strong cast helps push Must Love Dogs towards watchable territory.

Sarah (Diane Lane), an elementary schoolteacher in her early forties, is in a prolonged post-divorce slump, frumpy and semi-depressed despite the best attempts of her sister Carol (Elizabeth Perkins) to get her back into a relationship. Sarah's mood is not improved when she realizes that her widowed dad Bill (Christopher Plummer) is enjoying the single life with a succession of dates and overlapping relationships. Sarah is attracted to the hunky but shifty Bob (Dermot Mulroney), the parent of one of her students, but this does not stop Carol signing up Sarah to an on-line dating service, including in her profile that her suitors "must love dogs". Sarah immediately gets responses from 18 interested men, but most turn into the usual first-date disasters.

Jake (John Cusack) builds classic wooden canoes that nobody wants to buy, and his divorce has just been finalized. A hopeless romantic addicted to repeated viewings of Doctor Zhivago, Jake's divorce reinforces his view of love being doomed to tragic failure. His lawyer friend Charlie (Ben Shenkman) eventually convinces him to respond to on-line dating ads, where he ends up as one of Sarah's dates. Although their initial meetings are just short of disastrous, Sarah and Jake ignite enough of a spark to persist with building a relationship that eventually flourishes, pushing Sarah to decide between Jake's sensitivity and Bob's ruggedness.

John Cusack and Diane Lane make an engaging couple, mixing comic awkwardness with the warmth of damaged hearts looking to believe in love again. They are surrounded by a better than usual supporting cast, led by the indefatigable Christopher Plummer as Bill, marching ever onwards in his career and not hesitating to pursue companionship and romance as Sarah's sprightly dad. Stockard Channing adds colour as the earthy Dolly, one of Bill's more durable arm ornaments. Elizabeth Perkins, Dermot Mulroney and Ben Shenkman contribute welcome depth to the talent level.

Director Gary David Goldberg translates the quality of his television productions Family Ties and Spin City to the screen, keeping the comedy understated and allowing his stars to shine unencumbered by boorish behaviour or larger-than-life episodes.

On-line dating quickly transitioned from novelty to mainstream, and Must Love Dogs dates itself as an exploration of romance enabled by technology that was only new for a short period. Nevertheless, the film survives because as this genre never fails to remind us, true love triumphs over all adversity.







All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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