Saturday, 31 March 2012

CD Review: Grand Feast For Vultures, by Blood Tsunami (2009)

Combining new thrash with melodic death metal, Norway's Blood Tsunami deliver an all-energy second album. Grand Feast For Vultures may lack an evolutionary edge, but the album squarely hits what it aim for.

A compact seven selections but 50 terrific minutes, the overall pace on Grand Feast For Vultures oscillates between fast and faster with occasional dipping into frenzied territory. Blood Tsunami construct their music around basic thrash elements dressed up with a death metal spiff, and achieve the best of both worlds without necessarily inventing anything new. The melodies are prominent, the song structures pleasingly complex, the solos brave but perhaps not astounding.

The title track is the shortest and weakest selection. The other six tracks are uniformly impressive without quite soaring. Nothing But Contempt stands out thanks to a simple but dangerous riff leading the charge. The back-end of the track slows down and drops into a marching groove that atomizes the dusty terrain before impressively picking up speed again.

Laid To Waste lives up to its title and band's name, Blood Tsunami unleashing a red mist of devastation that plays up Slayer sensibilities in among Faust's thundering drums. Horsehead Nebula settles down for a 12 minute epic instrumental, a long journey passing through the finest thrash scenery.

Grand Feast For Vultures is a most welcome banquet. The ingredients may be familiar, but Blood Tsunami manage to still make them cleverly memorable.


Peter Michael Kolstad Vegem – Vocals, Guitar
Kristoffer Sørensen – Guitar
Bård "Faust" G. Eithun – Drums
Peter "Bosse" Boström – Bass

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Castle Of Skulls - 8
2. Nothing But Contempt - 9 *see below*
3. Personal Exorcism - 8
4. Laid To Waste - 9
5. Grand Feast For Vultures - 7
6. Horsehead Nebula - 9
7. One Step Closer To The Grave - 8

Average: 8.29

Produced by Blood Tsunami and Oyvind Voldmo Larsen.
Engineered by Oyvind Voldmo Larsen. Mastered by Tim Turan.

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Thursday, 29 March 2012

Movie Review: Born On The Fourth Of July (1989)

The story of Vietnam war veteran turned peace activist Ron Kovic, Born On The Fourth Of July asks all the right questions about a sordid conflict and the reasons for war. Director Oliver Stone carves a compelling human drama that encapsulates the struggle of a nation to understand its role in the world.

Coming of age in the 1960s, Kovic (Tom Cruise) was captivated by President Kennedy's call for youth to serve their country, and entranced by the recruitment Marines (including Tom Berenger in a one-scene role) who swung by his High School in Massapequa, New York. Idealistic and patriotic, Kovic buys the fable about the need to stop the communist threat and enlists at the earliest opportunity.

By 1967 Kovic is on his second tour of duty in Vietnam, where he witnesses US troops slaughtering innocent villagers, and in a chaotic gunfight, he inadvertently kills a fellow marine. Caught in a fire fight on open ground, Kovic is shot through the spine and heroically saved by a fellow soldier under fire. He endures a harrowing recuperation at a filthy veteran's hospital before returning home, permanently paralysed from the waist down.

Emotionally traumatized, Kovic is still initially loudly supportive of the war, and spends time feeling sorry for himself in Mexico, where he meets other disabled veterans including the ornery Charlie (Willem Dafoe). But gradually, and with help from childhood sweetheart Donna (Kyra Sedgwick), the anti-war sentiment begins to resonate, and he embarks on a remarkable transformation into an impassioned leader of the anti-war protest movement.

Tom Cruise gives one of his most accomplished performances as Ron Kovic, carrying the film single-handedly and deservedly earning an Academy Award nomination. From the bright-eyed, short-haired teenager eager to be among the first wave of marines landing on the shores of Vietnam to the jaded, damaged, depressed, angry, long-haired, guilt-stricken and wheelchair-bound anti-war protester, Cruise captures Kovic's evolution and what it means to survive the war but lose part of the body and all of the innocence.

Oliver Stone co-wrote the screenplay with Kovic, and they take their time with the story, Born On The Fourth Of July dragging a bit at 145 minutes. The hospital and Mexico passages overstay their welcome well after making their point, and both could have benefited from sharper editing. Otherwise, Stone is respectful of the strength of the material, and along with cinematographer Robert Richardson paints some beautiful tableaux, both in idyllic Massapequa and the tragedy-laden Vietnamese landscape.

While Kovic's journey is certainly epic, Born On The Fourth Of July as a movie suffers from the lack of any other major counterweight characters. Berenger and Dafoe add little other than curiosity by reuniting with their Platoon director. Sedgwick is game but has the slightest of roles, while the likes of Frank Whaley as Kovic's friend and Raymond J. Barry as Mr. Kovic drift in and out of the story leaving only local impressions.

As much as Born On The Fourth Of July is the story of one man, it is also a reflection of a country undergoing a remarkable transformation in one decade. From a position of invincibility to a humiliating defeat, and from blind patriotism to more thoughtful questioning of foreign policy, Ron Kovic holds up a mirror to the United States, and the view is one of both horror and hope.

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Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Movie Review: Double Indemnity (1944)

A taut film noir, Double Indemnity is a classic tale of lust-fuelled murder. Director Billy Wilder assembles the pieces with slick expertise, and with the help of a terrific cast delivers the story of a deliciously doomed evil plot.

From the moment top insurance agent Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) lays eyes on Mrs. Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), he is overcome by a desire to be with her. The trouble is, Phyllis is married to Mr. Dietrichson, an inattentive husband frequently away on business. Phyllis has rich tastes and craves constant emotional attention, and she seduces Walter into cooking up a plot to murder her husband and make a lot of money. They forge a life insurance policy that pays $100,000 if Mr. Dietrichson dies accidentally, and then proceed to kill him and elaborately make it appear as though he did indeed die by tragically falling from a moving train.

Just when it seems that all has gone according to plan, Walter is confronted by the sharp investigative instincts of his boss Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), who leaves no stone unturned to ensure that the insurance payment is legitimate. Also causing unexpected complications are Lola (Jean Heather), Phyllis' daughter in law, and her shady boyfriend Nino (Byron Barr). Walter begins to realize that smart as he is, he may have been as much of a victim as Mr. Dietrichson.

With two of the sharpest noir minds in the business behind the story, Double Indemnity was bound to bask in the glory of a nefarious sex-and-money plot gone bad. James M. Cain wrote the book, and Raymond Chandler co-wrote the script with Wilder. The movie crackles with edgy dialogue, sophisticated glances, and high intellects being upstaged by their own uncontrolled libidos.

Wilder directs with an energetic economy that keeps the tension building as the story of greed unfolds. The events are recounted in flashback as a confession by Walter, and Double Indemnity starts with him already shot and bleeding badly. Walter's astounding lack of judgement becomes the central theme of the film, and MacMurray is perfect as the man who had a stellar reputation and the full trust of his employer, and threw it all away. Wilder uses shadows, contrasts and particularly blinds to enhance the downward spiral of Walter's drama, with every frame masterfully assembled.

Crucially, despite his career success Walter does not have a woman in his life, and Phyllis is so sexually overpowering that Walter succumbs with barely a second thought. Wilder extracts from Stanwyck a performance charged with doe-eyed seductiveness, a woman with a dark past who always gets her way, and plans about five moves ahead of her men in the chess game of financial short cuts.

Edward G. Robinson enjoys portraying Barton Keys as the only character with the depth of thinking to match wits with Phyllis. Always craving a cigar but never finding a lighter, Barton relies on instinct and his acute physical reaction to deception in order to reassemble the truth from the mess of lies that surround him, and gets close enough to the real story to rattle the cage of the co-conspirators and disrupt their road to riches.

Double Indemnity pays out handsomely on a policy of hard-boiled noir entertainment.

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Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Book Review: Moscow Sting, by Alex Dryden (2010)

A pedestrian attempt at a spy vs. spy novel, Moscow Sting never gains traction and quickly loses the big picture while getting tangled in details.

A former British MI6 agent named Finn has been killed by the Russians. Finn and his wife, former KGB agent Anna, had been the main contacts with Mikhail, a senior level Russian traitor within Putin's inner circle. Now Anna's on the run, the MI6 want revenge for the death of Finn, the CIA want to find Anna to get to Mikhail, and the KGB want to get to Anna to make sure that no one gets to Mikhail.

Logan, a disgraced former CIA agent, tracks Anna down in France, and sells her whereabouts to the quickest bidder, who proves to be Burt, another former CIA agent now running his own large and successful private spy and security agency. Burt needs to extract information about Mikhail from Anna, while she tries to angle for her freedom.

Moscow Sting features a wild shoot-out between assorted Russian spooks in the heart of Arlington, leaving several dead and wounded. That spies careful enough to commit an untraceable assassination using sophisticated poisons earlier in the novel resort to the gunfight at the Arlington Corral is a good summary of author Alex Dryden's desperation to find any sort of energy to his otherwise listless story.

Elsewhere, tens of pages are invested in the story of Lars, an ace sniper carefully killing wealthy Russian businessmen. It spoils nothing to say that the story of Lars is an add-on that leads exactly nowhere, Dryden seemingly padding the skimpy book with a distracting sub-plot made of pure lard.

What is left is the story of Anna, which mainly consists of planning and holding endless meetings in restaurants and cafes, with everyone listening in on everyone else and all the spies speaking in the same unimaginative style. Dryden is able to provide splashy colour to just the one early character, a French intelligence buffoon. Otherwise, the Russians, Americans and British all carry on with the same grim seriousness that only fictional spies possess.

Meanwhile, the supposed core of the book, the valuable Russian agent Mikhail, slowly dissolves into a McGuffin, adding nothing to the story except as the abstract objective of all those meetings. Mikhail makes a hasty exit as soon as he is finally introduced.

Moscow Sting floats like an anvil and stings like a butterfly.

356 pages.
Published in hardcover by Harper Collins.

All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Movie Review: The Deer Hunter (1978)

A grand Vietnam War nightmare, The Deer Hunter strides fearlessly towards bombastic audaciousness. Michael Cimino fulfills the film's promise to poke at the most tender open wound of America's psyche, and The Deer Hunter stands as a landmark cinematic achievement.

A 180 minute tragedy in three acts, the first hour introduces the small, working class steel mill town of Clairton, Pennsylvania in 1968. Friends Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage) are about to join the military and be deployed to Vietnam, leaving behind the rest of their hunting buddies Stanley (John Cazale), John and Axel. Before leaving Clairton, Steven marries the pregnant Angela (Rutanya Alda), while Nick commits to marrying girlfriend Linda (Meryl Streep) once he return from the war. After Steven's wedding, the guys take one final hunting trip.

In Vietnam, Michael, Nick and Steven witness gruesome action before being captured by a Vietcong unit, with a deranged commander who tortures prisoners by forcing them to participate in Russian roulette as a gambling game, with Steven held in a rat-infested underwater cage.

After a harrowing helicopter rescue is only partially successful, Michael survives the war traumatized but without physical damage and returns to Clairton. His buddies are not quite so fortunate, each introduced to a unique new hell. Michael has to try to pick up the pieces of his life, including trying to find and reconnect with his friends, and he will discover that surviving the battlefield does not always mean surviving the war.

Cimino does not waste any opportunity to amplify the impact of The Deer Hunter. From the brassy 51 minutes dedicated to the wedding, to the insane intensity of the Russian roulette nightmare, to the incredible prolongation and extension of scenes that would otherwise pass unnoticed (a side-of-the-road piss on the hunting trip becomes an excuse for an endless frat boy joke), Cimino goes intentionally overboard.

Amazingly, he achieves the desired impact. The Deer Hunter is an unforgettable and haunting journey, normal men torn away from the mundane American heartland and thrown into a faraway and surreal war zone. The relaxed time that Cimino dedicates to tell their story serves to deeply humanize Michael, Nick, Steven and their community, maximizing the impact of the permanent post-war damage that all will suffer.

A cast of current and future Hollywood royalty add to the lustre of The Deer Hunter. Robert De Niro, standing at the peak of his career, holds the core of the film together, and represents the men who were never the same, but suffered an almost manageable impact from the war. Michael is a mountain man, a killer rifle shot, and the most well equipped of his friends to survive the horrors of war. His economy of words gives way to fanatical persuasive powers when survival is at stake.

Christopher Walken won the Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Nick, a man forever intoxicated by the dance with death. Representing the men who either never came back from the war or who suffered such severe mental damage that they wished they hadn't, Walken gives Nick a facade of ruggedness over a personality susceptible to unforeseen emotional sides-wipes. John Savage's openly vulnerable screen persona is perfect for the role of Steven, doomed to agony from the moment Angela fatefully spills those almost unnoticeable drops of red wine on her white wedding dress.

After her brief debut in Julia, The Deer Hunter was Meryl Streep's first meaningful role and she makes an immediate impact as Linda, resourceful on the home front, hopeful for the return of her man, and then adapting to the emotional realities of a new post-war world. Streep was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for a complex performance that mixes playfulness, strength, hope and resignation.

Cazale was already diagnosed with terminal cancer before filming started, and died several months before the film was released. His final performance as Stanley is a perfect summary of his career, a man naturally marginalized and ever so slightly unhinged for reasons that are never quite clear.

The cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond paints Clairton with almost loveable industrial grime, while the Vietnam scenes receive hellish red and yellow hues. The Stanley Myers guitar piece Cavatina, played by John Williams, provides an exceptionally haunting musical backdrop to the unravelling human lives

The Deer Hunter ends with a hopeful rendition of God Bless America, the small community of Michael's friends beginning what will be a long healing process. It's a perfectly bittersweet and poignant ending to an exalted drama.

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Saturday, 24 March 2012

Movie Review: Ghostbusters (1984)

The irreverent comedy of the 1980s, Ghostbusters celebrates its lack of meaning and amps up the nonsense. With Bill Murray cresting his narcissistically-jaded-to-the-point-of-barely-conscious persona, the film is a bombastic romp through urban absurdity.

New York parapsychologist Professor Peter Venkman (Murray) has the sketchiest of credentials, and spends his campus time performing shallow experiments as a guise to lust after attractive blond students. Summarily fired, he teams up with two fellow paranormal academics Dr. Raymond Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) and Dr. Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) to create Ghostbusters, a squad to capture troublesome spirits on the loose.

Venkman: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together - mass hysteria.

Just in time: a building along Central Park is the designated gateway for the return of the demonic spirit Zuul and the god of destruction Gozer, and the advance party consists of all forms of mischievous ghosts causing havoc throughout the city, providing the Ghostbusters with brisk business and celebrity status.

Venkman: We came, we saw, we kicked its ASS!

Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) lives in the building and, upon seeing spirits in her fridge, becomes a Ghostbusters client. Venkman is initially more interested in bedding Dana than helping her, but when both she and her tweedy neighbour Louis (Rick Moranis) are possessed to prepare for Gozer's return, the Ghostbusters have a real fight on their hands to save the city from rampaging spirits.

Venkman: Let's show this prehistoric bitch how we do things downtown.

With special effects that appear campy even for the mid 1980s, Ghostbusters distances itself from any accusation of trying to be serious. Director Ivan Reitman just allows Murray to do his thing, the droopy eye-lids and expressionless face not concealing a brain overheating to find the next low key ironic comment on the unfolding carnage. Aykroyd and Ramis wrote the script, and park themselves deferentially to the side or behind Murray's antics.

Venkman: We've been going about this all wrong, this Mr. Stay Puft's okay, he's a sailor, he's in New York, we get this guy laid we won't have any trouble.

Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis get into the swing and provide utterly cartoonish support. Weaver plays her possessed role with undisguised relish, Reitman making the most of the air blower, Weaver's wild hair and flowing red, and slit-up-to-there, dress to create a lasting image.

Venkman: Nobody steps on a church in my town!

Ghostbusters celebrates a resurgent New York City, the only place where the sudden appearance of an army of ghosts is not that surprising, and a city that seeks and craves heroes, the wackier the better.

Venkman, upon seeing Dana turn into Demon: ...OK, so?..she's a dog...

The commercial success of the film was further boosted by the runaway hit theme song, Ghostbusters by Ray Parker Jr. exploding as a global anthem, Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters! and I ain't afraid of no ghost! becoming all-time pop culture touchstones, despite not even being part of the movie's script.

Ghostbusters strikes a major chord of cool fun, a dizzy comedy packed with an energetic and positive spirit.

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Friday, 23 March 2012

Movie Review: Ray (2004)

The early life and times of Ray Charles, from a childhood of abject poverty in the 1930s to international success in the mid-1960s. Ray is a stylish biography, benefiting from gifted subject matter and an excellent Jamie Foxx performance.

The movie intercuts scenes from Charles' childhood with his career journey as a blind musician. The childhood scenes are set in Florida, with Ray, fatherless and around ten years old, witnessing his younger brother's drowning death and blaming himself for it. Subsequently he contracts the degenerative eye disease that would leave him blind, but his mother instills in him a strong sense of dignity and a refusal to accept the role of victim.

The main narrative follows Charles starting out as a young adult, leaving home to pursue life as a musician. A brilliant piano player, Ray joins a succession of rhythm and blues bands struggling on the endless bus tour circuit, building his reputation and crossing paths with a myriad dubious characters always eager to try and take advantage of a blind man. A raging thirst for sex and a monstrous heroin addiction are constant companions and threats to his well-being. Ray is eventually signed by Atlantic Records, where he breaks through to become a sensation by scandalously combining gospel music with rhythm and blues. Ray's appeal finally extends beyond black audiences as he is embraced by white teenagers, helping to spark the civil rights movement.

Ray is all about Jamie Foxx, as the talented actor and singer transforms himself into Ray Charles and delivers an absorbing and committed performance, deservedly nabbing the Best Actor Academy Award. Foxx is in almost every scene, and captures Charles' transformation from young man to struggling artist to superstar with a severe drug problem. Charles' mannerisms, quirks and movements are brought to life by Foxx in startling detail.

Director Taylor Hackford combines three elements to construct an engrossing 150 minute human drama. The childhood scenes appear at regular intervals to reveal the backstory in sepia-toned colours and melancholy hues. The career and personal struggles make up the bulk of Ray, but are punctuated with the terrific music of the man, seamlessly woven into the storytelling. The songs are variously performed in seedy bars, recording studios, performance halls, and sometimes simply in Charles' house as his compositions come to life. The quality and depth of the music are a reminder of the genius of Ray Charles, and constantly energize the film.

Ray's weakness is the lack of anything memorable in the movie other than the man and his music. The marriage, countless relationships with jealous women, brief studio battles, and unscrupulous low lifes come and go with little impression, neither the supporting cast nor the peripheral stories able to even notionally compete with the central role and performance.

Ray is a fitting tribute to a remarkable talent, a man who overcame physical and social odds stacked against him to prove the limitless potential of determination coupled to talent.

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Thursday, 22 March 2012

Movie Review: Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

An emotional family drama, Kramer vs. Kramer explores the wreckage of a broken relationship and the collateral damage on a victimized child. In addition to three memorable acting performances, the film marks a turning point in the cultural perception of a father's role in child upbringing.

New York advertising executive and workaholic Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) arrives home to find his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) all packed up and saying good-bye: she is fed up with their life and is leaving him and their six year old child Billy (Justin Henry). Ted is initially shocked and is quick to accuse their neighbour and Joanna's friend Margaret (Jane Alexander) of prodding Joanna to leave him. But his most important priority is to take care of Billy: Ted has to learn the basics of physical and emotional parenting, starting from scratch.

Gradually, Ted learns to become a dad, and forms a deep bond with Billy. He comes to terms with Joanna's absence and even forges a friendship with Margaret. But Ted's work performance suffers due to his conflicting parenting duties, and the worst is yet to come: 15 months after abandoning her family, Joanna returns, seeking custody of Billy.

Robert Benton directed Kramer vs. Kramer and co-wrote the screenplay with Avery Corman, the book's author. Benton's loyalties and affection clearly lie with Ted's father character, and Kramer vs. Kramer helped to reorient societal perspectives on parenting duties. If a dad can be just as good a parent as a mom, why the default to granting the mother custody? And should a mother be punished forever for leaving her child to regain her sense of self-worth? The film exposes difficult questions, and the starkness of the circumstances demand that the debate be engaged.

Hoffman (Best Actor), Streep (Best Supporting Actress) and Henry (the youngest ever Best Supporting Actor nominee) were all nominated for Academy Awards, with Hoffman and Streep winning their categories. Kramer vs. Kramer is an acting showcase, and the three performances enhance each other in a self-nurturing cycle with Hoffman as the fulcrum.

The scenes between Hoffman and Henry are the emotional core of the film, as Ted learns on-the-job how to be a dad, starting with a series of failures and ever so slowly discovering the deep bond that ties father to son. Hoffman portrays Ted as all energy, a man who never met a challenge that could not be overcome by working hard, staying on the move and talking excessively. Fatherhood requires different skills, and Ted will learn most of them the hard way.

Just seven years old, Henry delivers a most memorable child performance, a boy whose most important human bond is severed when Joanna walks out the door. Overnight, Billy has to learn what it means to be cared for by a distracted dad, while mourning the absence of his mother. Benton extracts out of Henry a raw, touching performance, capturing both the trauma and resilience of a child going through a life-altering transition.

Benefiting from the misfortune of Kate Jackson, who had to turn down the role, Meryl Streep launched her stardom as Joanna. She bookends the film, departing to start and re-emerging at the end, and in both cases her actions impose catastrophic consequences on the lives of Ted and Billy. Streep's performance is the most delicate of glass, Joanna a woman so close to shattering at the beginning of the film that she abandons the one meaningful relationship in her life, and much more vulnerable than she believes 15 months later when she re-enters the life of her family. Streep's eyes search for meaning in a life gone sideways, and reveal gnawing self-doubt as she judges herself even more harshly than those whose expectations she has destroyed.

Kramer vs. Kramer is a film about conflict within a single, small family, with stellar performances highlighting the difficult, often painful choices and sacrifices that universally challenge the parenting task.

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Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Movie Review: Sixteen Candles (1984)

A wistful coming-of-age high school comedy, Sixteen Candles was the first in a series of landmark John Hughes films exploring teen angst, and his first collaboration with Molly Ringwald. The film easily swims in the turbulent waters of the teen world, where the briefest of glances between boy and girl can carry the most exaggerated of meanings.

It's the sixteenth birthday of Samantha Baker (Ringwald), but none of her family members are even aware of her big day. Mom (Carlin Glynn) and Dad (Paul Dooley) are preoccupied with the upcoming wedding of Sam's older sister Ginny (Blanche Baker). To make matters worse, Sam is kicked out of her bedroom to make room for the arrival of two sets of annoying grandparents, while her younger brother (Justin Henry, of Kramer vs. Kramer fame) insults her for sport. And somehow, a Chinese exchange student by the name of Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe) also arrives to stay at the Baker's house.

But Sam's real problems are at school. She covets the attention of hunky Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling), although she is convinced (wrongly) that he does not even know that she exists. Jake's trophy girlfriend Caroline (Haviland Morris) is proving to be a major pain, while the obnoxiously sweet Ted, better known as just Geek (Anthony Michael Hall) is doing all he can to gain Sam's attention, mainly to win bets with his friends (including a young John Cusack).

Hughes fills every frame of Sixteen Candles with manic activity, and there is always something going on in the background and in every corner of what the camera casually captures. As much as Hughes understands and reflects the conversations, hopes, fears and embarrassments of teens, it's the entire overwhelming teen experience of life flooding in to clear out the security blanket of childhood misconceptions that he nails, from the highs to the lows and everything in between.

Ringwald, in her breakout role, provides an affecting performance as Sam, her eyes and mouth conniving to create a victimized pout that can't quite succeed in hiding a slightly mischievous character. Understated, vulnerable, sassy and resigned to thrashing her way through the turbulence of high school crushes, Ringwald's Samantha  radiates the natural and awkward charm of a girl opening her eyes to the chaos of adulthood, coveting the attention of her parents while beginning to carve her niche in the world.

Michael Schoeffling did not have much to work with, the handsome yet sensitive personality of Jake almost too good to be true, although the character became a durable legendary ideal for teen girls. His only problem is his girlfriend, and Caroline is all too easy to dispose of after a few drinks. Anthony Michael Hall leaves a stronger impression as the Geek, a uniquely self-aware personality struggling to make a breakthrough with girls while adhering to the confines of nerdiness. Hall used this springboard for several further collaborations with Hughes and a brief reign as the most likable brainy persona in the movies. Cusack, as one of the Geek's even more geeky friends, emerged from the supporting cast to enjoy a stellar career.

Sixteen Candles is funny, thoughtful, heartfelt, and sometimes chaotic -- a good metaphor for what being sixteen is all about.

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Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Movie Review: A Cry In The Dark (1988)

The infamous story of the baby abducted by a dingo, A Cry In The Dark rises strongly above movie-of-the-week status thanks to a stellar Meryl Streep performance and the calm hand of director Fred Schepisi.

It's 1980, and Michael Chamberlain (Sam Neill) is a Queensland pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. With wife Lindy (Streep), two sons and infant daughter Azaria, the Chamberlains set out for a camping vacation at the monumental Ayers Rock (now known as Uluru) in the Northern Territories. At the camp site Lindy puts Azaria to sleep alone in the tent and joins her husband and other campers for dinner. A cry is heard from the tent; Lindy rushes back to glimpse a dingo with possibly something in its mouth, exiting the tent and running into the wilderness. A massive search uncovers only some of Azaria's tattered and bloodied clothes, and no body.

The Chamberlains make themselves fully and repeatedly available to the media, and gradually a frenzy builds around the case throughout Australia. With the physical evidence seemingly not supporting a dingo attack, suspicion turns towards Lindy, and eventually she is placed on trial for the murder of her daughter Azaria. The Chamberlains have to defend their innocence as the details of the case become fuel for a raging fire of incessant gossip.

Meryl Streep nails the accent and portrays Lindy as a most intriguing, unflappable character. She rarely, if ever, loses her nerve, maintaining her composure in the face of constant public and media scrutiny. Lindy's calm demeanour slips into an abstract coldness, and this ironically encourages those who suspect her of gruesomely slaughtering her daughter. Streep's complex portrayal of the woman at the centre of a national storm provides A Cry In The Dark with a rich centre of gravity, elevating the film to an expedition into the soul of an extraordinary woman staring down seemingly crushing events.

Sam Neill is solid as Michael Chamberlain, a man of deep religious belief whose faith is tested to the limit. Both his understanding of God and his relationship with his wife are frayed and almost severed. Neill wears his worry on his face, sensitively capturing Michael's slide into confusion as he gradually loses touch with what he knows to be true, the weight of doubt overcoming the natural order of his life.

Schepisi presents the story, adapted from the book Evil Angels by John Bryson, in a straightforward and non-sensational manner, tilting the benefit of the doubt towards Lindy's version and questioning the efficacy of the justice system. Schepisi adds panache to the otherwise mostly grim proceedings by injecting regular interludes of gossip, showing the typical reactions, debates, and arguments that gripped Australia around dinner tables at home and over drinks at the watering hole as the "dingo's got my baby" story made its way from family tragedy to courtroom drama.

A Cry In The Dark is a story of justice fumbling its way in pursuit of a shadowy dingo, and trampling all over a family in the process. It's also a showcase for an extraordinary talent, an actress who elevates the material and her fellow performers to heights as captivating as Ayers Rock.

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Movie Review: Chariots Of Fire (1981)

A majestic film inspired by the true story of youth seeking Olympic glory, Chariots Of Fire captures the single-minded determination required to grasp gold. The stories of Scotsman Eric Liddell and Englishman Harold Abrahams are entry points to a journey celebrating the athletic spirit as it strives for the ultimate goal.

Abrahams (Ben Cross) joins Cambridge University in 1919. A Jew who senses an undercurrent of prejudice wherever he goes, Abrahams carries an intense desire to prove himself and runs for personal glory. He makes friends with other athletes at Cambridge, including Lord Lindsay (Nigel Havers) and starts a relationship with opera singer Sybil Gordon (Alice Krige), before seeking the next level of performance by hiring legendary professional trainer Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm). His abandonment of the pure amateur ethic earns the wrath of the Cambridge Deans (John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson).

Meanwhile, Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) turns his attention from the Scottish national rugby team to competitive running. A devoutly religious man from a family of missionaries, Liddell believes that his incredible running abilities are a gift from God. This sets him on a collision course with his sister Jennie (Cheryl Campbell), who resents Eric spending time training and away from his religious calling.

Both Abrahams and Liddell qualify for Great Britain's team sent to contest the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. To earn their victories, they will have to overcome self-doubt and the strong American track team led by Charlie Paddock (Dennis Christopher) and Jackson Scholz (Brad Davis).

Director Hugh Hudson allows his cameras to soak in the lush locations depicting Cambridge (actually filmed at Eton College), the Scottish countryside, and Paris (filmed at the Oval in Merseyside). Chariots Of Fire is a period piece not afraid to breathe the fresh air by placing many scenes outdoors. Most famously, Hudson starts and ends the movie with the Great Britain team, including Abrahams and Liddell, on a beach training run filmed at St. Andrews, set to the magical music of Vangelis.

Hudson took a significant risk in his decision to use a modern synthesizer-driven soundtrack for events set in the 1920s, and the gamble paid off handsomely. The mixing of the old and the new allowed the story of athletes from a bygone era to span the generations and resonate with a modern audience, confirming the timeless appeal of the quest for sports glory.

The decision to cast relative unknowns in the lead roles also proved to be a success, with Ben Cross and Ian Charleson masterful as Abrahams and Liddell. The lack of star power removes distractions and re-emphasizes the amateur milieu. Veterans Gielgud and Holm add heft to the supporting roles.

Chariots Of Fire is perfectly paced, the competition scenes injecting regular punctuation marks to the more stately character-building interludes, and Hudson uses era-appropriate newspaper headlines to invoke the impact that the exploits of Abrahams and Liddell were having on society at large.

Traveling on different paths, and striving for different objectives, Abrahams and Liddell arrived at their moments of truth. As is often the case, the journey and motivations are more fascinating than the outcomes. Chariots Of Fire is a remarkable combination of grand spectacle and touching humanity.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 19 March 2012

CD Review: Echoes Of The Fallen, by Anterior (2011)

Anterior's follow up to the terrific debut This Age Of Silence, Echoes Of The Fallen catches plenty of lightning, but rarely traps it into a bottle of brilliance. Echoes Of The Fallen offers a lot of music to admire in a compact and consistent package, but the lack of variety and heroic creativity is noticeable. All the material is enjoyable; little of it is ground-breaking.

The second track Blood In The Throne Room is distinguished by some magnificent guitar sweeps, elevating it just a notch above the rest of the album. Otherwise, the Anterior formula of sharply defined melodic death metal, professionally delivered with a strong emphasis on mid-tempo melodies, permeates through all the selections, with solos punctuating each song but not as prominently as on This Age Of Silence. Echoes Of The Fallen is nothing if not dependably homogeneous, a trait difficult to criticize due to the high quality.

But the consistency does meld into predictably, with a single tone dominating, and the melodies, good as they are, rarely soar.

By early 2012, Anterior announced that they were unfortunately calling it a day. Wales have had few heavy metal bands as good, and sadly, Echoes Of The Fallen unintentionally lives up to its name by providing reverberating memories of a band that deserved better.


Luke Davies - Vocals
Leon Kemp - Guitars
Steven Nixon - Guitars
James Britton - Bass
James Cook - Drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. To Live Not Remain - 8
2. Blood In The Throne Room - 9 *see below*
3. Tyranny - 8
4. Of Gods And Men - 8
5. By Horror Haunted - 8
6. Echoes Of The Fallen - n/a (short track)
7. The Evangelist - 8
8. Sleep Soundly No More - 8
9. Venomous - 8
10. Senora De Las Sombras - 8

Average: 8.11

Produced, Mixed and Mastered by Scott Atkins.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Movie Review: Donnie Brasco (1997)

Based on the true story of legendary mob infiltrator Joseph Pistone, Donnie Brasco is a gritty journey into the belly of the Mafia. Al Pacino and Johnny Depp are captivating as the entrails of an organization at war with itself are revealed in bloody detail.

Posing as a shady jewel trader in the grimy New York City of the 1970s, FBI agent Pistone, operating under the alias Donnie Brasco (Depp), attracts the attention of Ben "Lefty" Ruggiero (Pacino). A low level but respected hit-man in the crew commanded by Dominick "Sonny Black" Napolitano (Michael Madsen), Lefty has always been passed over for promotions within the mob's hierarchy. With his own son a drug addicted failure, Lefty takes Donnie under his wing, introducing him to the family as a trusted associate.

Donnie gains the confidence of the various mob operatives in Sonny Black's crew, including Nicky Santora (Bruno Kirby). But as Pistone burrows deeper into the Mafia, his personal life begins to feel the strain, with his wife Maggie (Anne Heche) effectively leading the life of a widow, never knowing where her husband is.  Meanwhile, Sonny Black gives Donnie increasing responsibilities, including running a club in Miami, and Lefty realizes with growing resentment that his protege has surpassed him in influence. When an internal mob war erupts, Donnie finds himself at the hot end of the hostilities, and his FBI handlers have to find a way to pull him out before he kills or gets killed.

The script by Paul Attanasio, adapting Pistone's book, takes some artistic liberties, but in general Donnie Brasco recaptures the grim reality of the FBI's most successful mob infiltration. The six years that Pistone spent undercover resulted in over 100 convictions, and the film provides an immersive lesson on life within a criminal enterprise. While some drag creeps into the second half of the story, with a vaguely unsatisfying  highlight reel composition taking hold, the raw power of the events and the central performances help pull the movie through.

The New York City of the 1970s is always fertile ground for rampant criminality wedded to resignation, and director Mike Newell ensures that the clothes, cars, locales and dialogue do nothing to alleviate the overbearing sense of crime as routine business. "Fogettaboutit" is the most common phrase exchanged within Lefty's circles, and as Donnie explains in one humorous scene, it can mean anything, depending on the exact pronunciation.

Al Pacino and Johnny Depp both deliver hypnotic performances. Pacino's Lefty is a man looking in the rear view mirror at what might have been, holding on to a bit of pride but fully aware that his chance at glory, if he ever had one, has long since passed. With an economy of movement but a defiant face ready to switch from aggressive to aggrieved in an instant, Pacino effortlessly succeeds in making a multiple killer sympathetic.

Depp matches Pacino, as Donnie walks a tightrope between outwardly respecting Lefty while he comprehensively betrays him. Depp exudes a cool confidence mixed with just enough of a propensity for violence for Donnie to gain the confidence of Lefty and then Sonny Black, as he worms his way into the mob's business and ever deeper into an alternate reality. Depp's achievement is a masterful portrayal of a man whose mind is always racing ahead of the events surrounding him, since he is only ever one mistake away from death.

Donnie Brasco is a worthy addition to the long list of mob crime dramas, with the added shine of real people and events serving as the basis for a gripping narrative. Fogettaboutit? Not likely.

All Ace Black Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Movie Review: The Witches Of Eastwick (1987)

A metaphor for big trouble in romance land, The Witches Of Eastwick is a devilish romp through the New England countryside. Carrying echoes of the Salem witch trials, the adaptation of John Updike's novel is superficially about the devil seducing three lonely women, but is really about three women and one man getting a seemingly ideal opportunity to live the perfect romance, and learning to regret it.

In the quaint town of Eastwick, three women friends have to survive after being abandoned by the men in their lives. Alex (Cher) is an artist and single mother; Jane (Susan Sarandon) is an uptight and childless music teacher; and Sukie (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a journalist with six kids. Over a not insubstantial amount of wine, the women describe their ideal man, and wish him into existence: the suave, mysterious, and apparently very rich Daryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson) suddenly materializes in Eastwick, purchases the most expensive property, and proceeds to knock the town on its ear.

Van Horne has little trouble seducing the three women by preying on their emotional needs and desires, and soon he is sleeping with all three -- simultaneously. But Daryl is immediately identified as evil by Felicia (Veronica Cartwright), the wife of Eastwick's newspaper owner Clyde (Richard Jenkins). Felicia's ranting turns the town against the amorous quartet, transforming Alex, Jane and Sukie into social outcasts. The ladies have to find a way to reclaim a semblance of a normal life, and preferably make Daryl disappear as effectively as they conjured him up.

The Witches Of Eastwick is a comic commentary about relationships that are too good to be true, the danger of wishes becoming reality, and the societal stresses on unusual romances. Setting aside the supernatural frills, Alex, Jane and Sukie stumble upon the man of their dreams, but he turns out to be bad for their broader social lives. To survive, the women have to first shun Daryl and then try to destroy him. From his perspective Daryl works his way into a coveted male fantasy, a simultaneous romance with three willing and gorgeous women. And yet his failure to convince society at large of his good intentions proves to be his undoing.

Nicholson may have three ladies lined up against him, but they are no match for his presence. Daryl Van Horne provides Nicholson with another perfect character to unleash his intense madness, and he dominates as the smooth Lothario able to talk his way into the heart of any woman while barely bothering to conceal his egotistical intentions. Nicholson is at his best with characters who could not care less what anyone else thinks, and Van Horne needs no excuse and no permission to use an entire town for his selfish needs. Director George Miller knows that with Nicholson at his peak there is little point in providing competition, and in most of his scenes Nicholson as Van Horne sucks all attention away from anything and anyone else appearing in the frame.

Cher, Pfeiffer and Sarandon have to share time opposite Nicholson, and while none of them disappoint, the need to distribute screen minutes damages the opportunity to shine. Sarandon makes the best impression with her transformation from mousy music teacher to a raven-haired, free-spirited seductress. Cher and Pfeiffer are functional without being memorable.

The Witches Of Eastwick loses control towards the end, with a brief but still unnecessary orgy of special effects detracting from the characters and the drama. Just like the subject matter of men, women, and relationships, The Witches Of Eastwick does not have all the right answers, but it nonetheless has fun trying to find them.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Movie Review: Grease (1978)

One of the rare Hollywood moments when all the stars align to create a classic, Grease is the perfect musical. With a soundtrack that struck the cultural bulls-eye, two stars easing into stardom, a love story that combined purity with sass, and a director who captured the teen spirit, Grease effortlessly made the leap from memorable to magical.

As the summer of 1958 draws to a close, local teen Danny Zuko (John Travolta) and Australian tourist Sandy Olsson (Olivia Newton-John) have to end their summer romance as she prepares to return to Australia. At Rydell High School, Danny is a greaser and leads his band of friends known as the T-Birds, including Kenickie (Jeff Conaway). Betty Rizzo (Stockard Channing) is his female counterpart, and heads the group known as the Pink Ladies.

Danny is surprised when Sandy shows up as the new kid in the school, after her family changed plans. Their relationship is threatened when Danny's cool persona is undermined by the presence of the excessively sweet Sandy. Rizzo has eyes for Danny, and seduces Kenickie in an attempt to make Danny jealous. Gradually Danny and Sandy grow close again, but their friendship is disrupted when an old flame teams up with Danny to compete at a nationally televised dance event. With Danny pre-occupied with preparations for a drag race against the obnoxious Scorpions, Rizzo is shocked by an unexpected surprise and Sandy has to find a way to get Danny's permanent attention.

The Grease soundtrack captures the joyfully horny spirit of the movie with a mix consisting of highly kinetic raunchiness (Summer Nights; Greased Lightning; You're The One That I Want), ballads (Hopelessly Devoted To You; Sandy; There Are Worse Things That I Could Do), and nonsensical whimsy (Beauty School Drop Out; Look At Me, I'm Sandra Dee). The album is among the all-time best selling soundtracks, and most of the songs became radio hits, propelling Grease from a movie to a cultural milestone.

The stars quickly overcome the pothole of being much older than their characters, John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John making a most appealing on-screen couple. Fresh from his breakout success in Saturday Night Fever, Travolta demonstrates a flair for comedy, cheesy drama, and humorously creaky vocals, and simply shines in the dance numbers. In Greased Lightning and the school dance competition sequence, Travolta dominates with his flowing movement, graceful feet, and masculine power.

Newton-John made the leap from emerging singer to international superstar with her performance as Sandy. Not as comfortable as an actress, this worked in her favour as the hesitant Sandy, but it was her transformation into the uninhibited, leather-clad, frizzy-haired, over-sexed aggressor in the final scene that is most remembered. Notwithstanding the barely concealed message (you need to become a bit of a slut to get the guy), Newton-John translated that image into a successful career mixing positive empowerment with brazen sexuality.

The supporting cast members do their part to keep the comedy and music hopping, with Stockard Channing (Rizzo), Jeff Conaway (Kenickie) and Didi Conn (Frenchy) most prominent. The minor roles are stocked with character actors from the golden age of Hollywood.

Director Randal Kleiser achieves seamless success in adapting the musical stage show to the screen, and brilliantly magnifies the impact of the stars and the music with wonderfully fluid camera work. The dancers are mostly seen in full-length shots, there is always something happening in every corner of the screen, and most delightfully, dancing couples effortlessly float into and out of the gliding frame, injecting continuous energy into the grand performance scenes.

Grease is a perfectly lubricated movie, all the parts moving in smooth synchronicity to deliver a timeless and magnetic experience.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Movie Review: Casino (1995)

Inspired by true events and real-life characters, Casino celebrates Vegas before it was scrubbed clean and gentrified. Martin Scorsese delivers another intense, if not perfect, journey into the intriguing and violent world of Crime Inc.

Expert handicapper Sam "Ace" Rothstein (Robert De Niro) always possessed a talent for making money from gambling. In the early 1970s his mid-west Mafia associates, backed by the Teamsters, reward him by giving him his own Las Vegas casino, Tangiers, to run. Ace operates a tight joint, weeding out the lower class criminals, disposing of cheats, and maximizing profits, becoming a well-respected man about town, in as far as Vegas respects any man.

Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) was Ace's extremely violent sidekick on their way up in the shadow of the criminal world, and Ace is not thrilled when Nicky also relocates to Vegas. Ace meets and marries professional hustler Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), a gorgeous but money-hungry gold digger with an unhealthy attachment to small time hustler Lester Diamond (James Woods). Eventually Ace's life begins to unravel: he insults the wrong local power brokers and runs afoul of Vegas' licensing requirements; Nicky's violent methods reflect badly on Ace's business; and Ginger looks to rob him blind and make off with their daughter.

Further developing the visual style of GoodFellas, Scorsese directs the front end of Casino with plenty of colour, movement, and panache, the intermittent narration by De Niro and especially Pesci adding sharp humour and plenty of personality. Scorsese recognizes in the sights, sounds, underlying sleaze and unbridled greed of Vegas the perfect playground for criminals looking for a veneer of respectability as they rake in the easy profits.

The last third of Casino slows down to a lumbering pace, the disintegrating relationship between Ace and Ginger sucking the life out of the movie. The crime and casino elements take a back seat to the interminable melodrama of Ginger betraying Ace at every opportunity, his refusal to decisively kick her out of his life a blot against his otherwise sharp judgement.

Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci play against each other with ease born from intense professional familiarity. After Raging Bull and GoodFellas, Casino represents their third collaboration with Scorsese, and once again the characters of Ace and Nicky share a destructively dependent relationship. They need each other yet manage to also repeatedly trade biting insults and hurtful betrayals. Casino lives off the energy of De Niro and Pesci, the former eager to transition from a life of crime to the appearance of respectability, the latter more interested in maximizing profit in a city that rewards abject criminality.

Ginger probably represents the pinnacle of Sharon Stone's acting career, and she deserves credit for holding her own opposite De Niro and Pesci. Ginger embodies the single weak spot that Ace has, and Stone grabs the role with relish, earning herself a nomination for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award. Ginger's obsession with materialistic wealth and ability to manipulate men perfectly fits Stone's screen persona, with the added spice of Ginger having a blind spot of her own in the shape of Lester Diamond. The relationship between Ginger and Diamond adds undeniable tension to Casino, but it's non-development also represents a lost opportunity.

At nearly three hours, Casino does overreach the scope of the available material. But the better moments leave a lasting impression, and while the movie does not deal a royal flush, it delivers a full house.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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