Tuesday, 30 October 2012

CD Review: State Of Euphoria, by Anthrax (1988)

Functional thrash from a band emphasizing having fun over stretching towards harder challenges, State Of Euphoria finds Anthrax largely idling in neutral.

The fourth studio album from the New Yorkers is a nine track sets that starts and ends with a bang, but there is a lot of flabby meat in the middle. Be All, End All opens the album in spectacular fashion, a sad Cello melody introducing one of Anthrax's best songs, almost six and half sturdy minutes full of purpose, brawn and frantic talent, underpinned by Charlie Benante's booming drums.

Be All, End All demonstrates energetic thrash ambition and inventiveness that is unfortunately lacking for most of the rest of the record. While Antisocial (a Trust cover) and Who Cares Wins enjoy some bright moments, for the most part State Of Euphoria meanders along in a state of ambivalence, the slightest of ideas turned into songs, with intense repetition often being substituted in for the more difficult work of theme development. There is an undeniable sense of coasting, Anthrax knowing they can get a pass thanks to speed and professional delivery despite the preponderance of half-baked ideas, and so not bothering with finishing the job.

But at least the album ends with an exclamation mark, Finalé shaking off the sideways drift and charging forwards on the back of an unstoppable riff and a willingness to crash into a joyful heap. Finalé is Anthrax in full flow, joyfully losing control of the jalopy to hurtle at speed towards a hairpin curve on the mountain side.

State Of Euphoria does not venture into new territory, Anthrax opting to put their skateboarder shorts on and plough a predominantly familiar field. They find a couple of juicy fruits, but also a lot of common potatoes.


Charlie Benante - Drums
Dan Spitz - Guitar
Joe Belladonna - Vocals
Frank Bello - Bass
Scott Ian - Guitar

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Be All, End All - 10
2. Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind - 7
3. Make Me Laugh - 7
4. Antisocial - 8
5. Who Cares Wins - 8
6. Now It's Dark - 7
7. Schism - 7
8. Misery Loves Company - 7
9. 13 - n/a (short instrumental)
10. Finalé - 10

Average: 7.89

Produced by Anthrax and Mark Dodson.
Engineered by Alex Perialas. Mastered by Greg Calbi.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Movie Review: The Breakfast Club (1985)

A coming-of-age high school dramatic comedy, The Breakfast Club is a sharply defined study of five memorable characters under stress. With the feel of an intimate play and career-defining performances from the young cast, director and writer John Hughes established his reputation as the voice of youth and mentor for a new generation of actors.

It's Saturday in suburban Chicago, and five Shermer High School students have to spend the entire day in detention as punishment for poor behaviour. Andy (Emilio Estevez) is the jock on the school wrestling team, Claire (Molly Ringwald) is the princess primarily interested in shopping and make up, Bender (Judd Nelson) is the psychological bully from a rough home, Brian (Anthony Michael Hall) is the nerd, and Allison (Ally Sheedy) is just weird. The five barely know each other. Under the supervision of assistant principal Richard Vernon (Paul Gleason), they are confined to the library for the day and ordered to write a 1,000 word essay each.  But with Bender as prime catalyst and mood disruptor, they do little writing and plenty of talking.

Initially the conversations are difficult and confrontational, and there is plenty of teasing, insulting and acrimony. But over the course of the day, they get to know each other, including uncovering family backgrounds and the reasons why they all ended up in detention. As they try to stay one step ahead of Vernon's authoritarianism, the green shoots of respect and understanding begin to appear within the group.

Written by Hughes and pulled together as an ensemble piece on essentially a single set, The Breakfast Club delves into the anxieties of teenagers, scraping away the hardened outside shells to find real people inside. As the external postures are stripped away, surprising commonalities are found, emotions are shared and previously unthinkable bonds are allowed to form under the umbrella of shared burdens.

The Breakfast Club is not without its creaky moments. The pacing is episodic, with the emotions and confrontations that are laid bare in one scene frequently all but forgotten in the next. And the ending, with sudden attractions materializing, appears rushed and predetermined for the sake of generating some warm kisses and unconvincing romantic sparks.  And assistant principal Vernon is just too deserving of any trouble that the kids manage to dish out.

But to the sounds of what became the generational anthem Don't You (Forget About Me) by the Simple Minds, the five young actors overcome the weaknesses in the script with outstanding performances, Judd Nelson leading the group. Bender is the troubled kid convinced despite all contrary evidence that he is tougher than his surroundings, and Nelson plays him with a cool eyed intensity that never wavers. He is merciless in picking on Claire, but is smart enough to stop just short of assaulting Vernon when fully afforded the opportunity. Nelson explores the coiled internal tension that only comes from an abusive household, as Bender's restlessness means that he cannot help but stir things up to spread the misery. Hughes explains Bender's attitude but never softens him up into a victim or a potential reformed kid.

Molly Ringwald, just 16 when filming The Breakfast Club, embodies every popular, rich, pretty girl more interested in friends, shopping and hanging out than reaching out or stretching academically. Ringwald brings a tough naiveté to Claire, a privileged girl fully enjoying the entitlement of coasting through high school and not having to deal with neither effort nor kids like Bender. On this Saturday Claire has to share time and space with a group of students that are typically beneath her, and Ringwald conveys vulnerability as an easy target but also a gradual awakening to new realities.

Allison is the most opaque character, and Ally Sheedy nails the dark kid who hovers like a ghostly presence at the back of the room. Allison is the slowest among the group to reveal herself, and she just gets weirder and more interesting the more she opens up, the pieces of her puzzle adding to the confusion rather than assembling into a whole.

Andy and Brian are the relatively straightforward personalities, Emilio Estevez projecting uneasy conflict as he walks the line between being trying to be cool and stepping in to protect Claire from Bender's browbeating. Anthony Michael Hall further develops his screen nerd persona, trying to fit in but always just a little bit clumsy in his social interactions. Andy and Brian find common ground when they both admit to the enormous pressure they feel from their parents to perform, Andy on the wrestling mat and Brian on all his exams.

In baring the souls of five disparate characters, The Breakfast Club shines as a unique examination of the teenager, and as an impossible to forget film experience.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Argo (2012)

The already dramatic story of six American diplomats being smuggled out of Iran after the 1979 revolution is given the Hollywood treatment. Argo is enticing, but unnecessarily undermined by an addiction to cheap thrills.

After the fall of the Shah, Iranian revolutionaries storm the American embassy in Tehran. The visa-issuing section is the only one with street access, and when the main compound falls to the rampaging attackers and the situation becomes clearly dire, six staffers slip out of the back door and take refuge in the home of the Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). All other embassy staff are taken hostage in a drama that will drag on for 15 months.

Back in the United States, CIA agent and extraction expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) is tasked with hatching a cover story to help rescue the six diplomats. He eventually convinces his superiors to back a wild-sounding plan: the six Americans will pretend to be a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science fiction movie called Argo. Mendez turns to producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) to create all the convincing trappings of a fake film, before he travels to Tehran for the serious business of trying to smuggle the Americans out from under the nose of the Iranian revolutionaries.

The Canadian Caper, as it became known, made headlines in January 1980 when the six Americans landed in Zurich after a flight from Tehran, surprising the world and providing the only ray of light in the long 444 day ordeal of the US hostages in Iran. Argo presents the CIA's perspective on the episode, underplaying the role of the Canadians and adding a strong dose of melodrama.

With the latent power that resides in the real story, it is questionable whether the Chris Terrio screenplay really had to resort to a succession of gimmicks to artificially inflate tension in the film's second half.  There are aggressive bazaar encounters, last minute threats of mission cancellation, missing flight reservations, menacing immigration interrogations, and bloated airport runway histrionics, all attempts to inject fake down-to-the-wire drama into the proceedings.

But director Ben Affleck gets everything else right. There is a dangerous, raw and chaotic pattern to the opening scenes of the embassy being stormed on the wings of a revolution, Affleck recreating the 1970s both on the streets and in the film's gritty style. Affleck the actor portrays Mendez as stoic in the face of the people he needs to save but not free from internal doubt about the likelihood of success. With the briefest of back stories involving separation from his wife and child, it's a performance short on visible emotion, but no more expression can be expected from a CIA operative specializing in hiding himself and smuggling others out of the world's most dangerous neighbourhoods.

The scenes in Hollywood are funny and sharp, Argo poking fun at the concept of a fake movie production coming together in the world's most artificial town, John Goodman and Alan Arkin doing their parts to bring Hollywood faux glitz to life. The hideaway embassy workers are given just enough definition to rise above faceless victims.

Argo is a story that deserved to be told, and the movie captures the comical but deadly current of an almost ridiculous but true mission impossible. But when the drama is inherent, fake externalities are annoyingly superfluous.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Movie Review: River Of No Return (1954)

River Of No Return overcomes a forgettable plot thanks to stunning natural scenery and a vibrantly grounded Marilyn Monroe performance. The action is worse than routine and the conflicts fully contrived, but the story fades into the background against the massive mountains and roaring rivers, and Monroe's spirited tussle with frontier survival.

Mild mannered farmer Matt Calder (Robert Mitchum), who has just finished serving a prison sentence, reunites with his ten-year-old son Mark (Tommy Rettig) at a sprawling rough-and-tumble tent city supporting the latest gold rush. Kay (Monroe) is providing the sultry singing entertainment in the saloon tent, but she is convinced by the conniving Harry Weston (Rory Calhoun) to join him on a dangerous raft journey to Council City, where Harry wants to file a gold claim he won in a poker game.

Along the way they float by Matt's cabin, and Harry's evil tendencies take over: he steals Matt's horse and rifle, knocks him out and rides away. With violent Indians threatening to overrun the farm, Matt, Mark and Kay take to the raft and make their escape, with Matt bent on revenge against Harry, Kay hoping to prevent further violence, and Mark about to learn about the figurative and literal difficult waters that adults need to navigate.

River Of No Return is one of Monroe's less celebrated but perhaps most pragmatic roles. Despite an apparently strained relationship with director Otto Preminger, Monroe delivers a performance that is at once down-to-earth, physical and alluring. Whether entertaining gold prospectors in a ramshackle tent or navigating down the river, she projects a combination of resolve and resignation to fate, and her song numbers are staged with panache and performed with commitment.

With Mitchum doing just enough to step above sleepwalking through the movie, and a clumsy story tripping over itself to place characters on a raft, Monroe has little to compete with other than the scenery. And the Canadian vistas are spectacular, with the areas around Jasper and Banff providing a dramatic backdrop to the river journey. Filming in CinemaScope, Preminger realizes that his landscape is much more impressive than the plebian script by Frank Fenton. Along with cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, Preminger fills the screen with nature's grandeur, often reducing the characters to specks on a raft, all the better to conceal the faces of the stunt doubles risking the spray.

River Of No Return comprehensively shoots itself in the foot on a couple of occasions. The treatment of the Indians as both mindlessly vicious and plain stupid is difficult to digest, while Matt's attack and clumsy attempted rape of Kay is out of character for him and implausibly dismissed by her.

But at least there is genuine warmth in the performance of Tommy Rettig as Mark, and the young boy not only becomes central to the story with his journey into the world of manhood, but also develops palpable rapport with both Monroe and Mitchum. Rory Calhoun's villain insists on digging ever deeper until he solidly strikes his comeuppance.

With a star shining in the rough and gorgeous scenery dominating with overwhelming presence, River Of No Return floats past the jagged rocks and makes it to shore, a bit wet but otherwise functional.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Vow (2012)

A sincere romance, The Vow fulfils its objective but never risks much excitement. The story of crash-induced amnesia threatening an ideal marriage is inspired by real events and told with heart, but there is no zing to energize the purposeful march towards a predictable resolution.

In Chicago, Paige (Rachel McAdams) and Leo (Channing Tatum) meet, fall in love, and get married. She's an artist and he owns a music studio, and together they are the definition of a perfect couple.  Their lives are shattered when Paige is knocked unconscious in a car crash. When she recovers from a medically induced coma, the past five years of her life are lost from her memory. Leo is a stranger, and Paige is more comfortable with her parents (Sam Neill and Jessica Lange) and still in love with former boyfriend Jeremy (Scott Speedman).

Paige and Leo gingerly try to re-establish their previous relationship, but while Leo is still madly in love, she is cool and detached, unable to find any passion in her work, and incapable of resisting the pull of her rich parents and Jeremy's re-ignited attentions. Leo does his best, but some clumsy missteps result in Paige moving back in with her parents, and the marriage teetering on the edge of extinction.

There is nothing not to like in The Vow, with a story of a fervent match made in heaven and a devoted husband fighting to re-earn the love of his wife. McAdams and Tatum have reasonable chemistry, the familial conflicts are never over-exaggerated, and Chicago provides steady support. Even the best friend characters are relatively normal rather than excessively animated. The film may lack a hot spark, but in being reasonably faithful to the essence of a true story, it probably wasn't looking for one.

Rachel McAdams is sweetness personified, her glowing personality carrying The Vow whether as the devoted wife or the confused victim of amnesia. The perkiness factor is never in doubt with McAdams, and the camera absolutely adores her, but doubts remain about the available depth behind the vivacious girl-next-door persona, and The Vow does little to challenge her.

Channing Tatum is lumpy, with a performance that is far from convincing enough to confirm his credentials as a leading man. His portrayal of the sensitive husband struggling with a fractured life is full of doe-eyed sadness, but he never threatens to dominate the screen with emotion or anguish.

Stalwarts Sam Neill and Jessica Lange provide straight-back support as Paige's parents, and Lange is afforded one dramatic scene to try and cook a stiff stand-by-your-man story. Neill never wavers from a stern Dad role straight out of the first chapter of the screenwriting handbook.

Director Michael Sucsy, in his big-screen debut, rides with the flow, wisely relying on McAdams to smooth out the rougher patches, erring on the side of over-exposing Chicago's landmarks, and generally doing little to either get in the way or enhance the narrative.

The Vow neither disappoints nor surprises, it just marches stoically down a well-worn aisle, delivering the requisite gentle tears and warm laughs.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Book Review: The 500, by Matthew Quirk (2012)

A novel that starts smart but quickly rides a death spiral filled with over-the-top dumb action, The 500 frustrates due to unfulfilled potential. Matthew Quirk's debut flatters to deceive, establishing a promising context before throwing it all away into a pile of carnage.

Michael Ford comes from a scrappy background, his father a small-time con man who has spent years in jail. Nevertheless, Michael is blessed with a phenomenal work ethic and chooses the straight life, working his way through Harvard Law School, and landing a dream job with the Davies Group, the most powerful and secretive lobby firm in Washington DC. Michael's mentor at Davies is Marcus, an ex-CIA agent who combines persuasion with thinly veiled threats of violence. Michael is a quick study in the ways of high stakes lobbying, where every man has his price, and proves his abilities to both Marcus and firm founder Henry Davies, the puppet master with desires to control all of the 500 most powerful people in DC.

Michael is quickly promoted and has everything going for him, including a promising relationship with Annie, another rising star at the firm. Davies even helps secure parole for Michael's Dad. But Michael is then assigned to help influence the extradition case of first-class thug Rado, who may just be a blood-thirsty Serbian war criminal. The Rado case involves a luscious daughter Irin, an incorruptible Supreme Court justice, and long-lost secrets related to the Henry Davies' earliest dirty tricks. As people start getting killed, Michael finds himself in the middle of a maelstrom with links back to his own family history.

The first third of The 500 has a witty edge as Quirk delights in combining Michael Ford's con-artist sensibilities with a peeling back of Washington DC's inner secrets. Michael's early encounters with Henry Davies and the intriguing details of his first case at the firm, uncovering the pressure points needed to influence trade policy, are engaging and come across as an only slightly spiced-up version of what could be the truth.

But when Quirk amps up the wanton violence and abandons the intellect, the book runs into trouble from which it never recovers. Break-ins, multiple murders and torture take over the story, with ever increasing doses of incredulity. Quirk attempts to justify Michael's ability to thrive despite the sudden plunge into a world of brutality by having him fall back repeatedly on the tricks of the con-man's trade, but it doesn't wash. Nor does the hands-on approach that Marcus and Henry Davies deploy in spilling blood hold up to any serious scrutiny.

The 500 ends with dead bodies literally piled high in Washington DC, a laughable climax that would be fun as satire. Instead, it's a sad ending to a wasted effort.

326 pages.
Published in hardcover by Little, Brown and Company.

All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

CD Review: Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, by AC/DC (1976)

AC/DC's third album from their local Australian days, belatedly re-released world-wide after the massive success of Back In Black, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap showcases a band having fun and loving it. Simple yet infectious songs about sex and...well mostly about sex, with nods towards the thrill of rocking out and living the life, hoping to make it big. The ethic is the local pub, but the message for scruffy teens is global.

Angus Young's heavy rock guitar playing is magnificently raw, his solos on tracks like Problem Child and There's Gonna Be Some Rockin' just pure shredding pleasure. Bon Scott personifies the band's attitude, delivering the lyrics like he means them today having experienced them last night, although his exact recollection might be a bit hazy through the bottom of the bottle.

The anthemic title track nails the album's message of letting loose to enjoy the shady life, making the illicit acceptable by emphasizing the buzz. Problem Child is the most sophisticated selection on the album, an early indicator of where the band will go on future records, developing the simple rock and roll foundation towards more metallic structures filled with dangerous density. It's almost impossible to listen to Problem Child without maximizing the volume, as the opening riff drives a rusty steel pipe into the ground and Scott takes it from there, building a foundry until Angus returns with not one, but two manic crazy guitar segments, closing out the track with 90 seconds of manic destruction.

Big Balls summarizes where the band's heads (both) are at, a low-brow, high society celebration of balling, Scott mimicking with elevated mockery an upper class accent while insisting that his ballsy celebrations are the biggest. The most ridiculous aspect of Big Balls is that it actually works. Ride On suddenly slows the pace down and injects soul, AC/DC allowing surprisingly mature thoughtfulness to break through, but Angus still managing to add quietly hypnotic guitar shadings.

It's quickly back to form on album closer Squealer, as we head back to another celebratory chapter from Scott's lust life, Angus providing the guitar-drenched musical accompaniment. There is very little that is legal going on with Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and that's just how AC/DC like it.


Bon Scott: Vocals
Angus Young: Guitar
Malcolm Young: Guitar
Mark Evans: Bass
Phil Rudd: Drums


1. Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap - 10
2. Love At First Feel - 6
3. Big Balls - 8
4. Rocker - 7
5. Problem Child - 10
6. There's Gonna Be Some Rockin' - 7
7. Ain't No Fun (Waiting Round To Be A Millionaire) - 7
8. Ride On - 8
9. Squealer - 8

Average: 7.89

Produced by Vanda and Young.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Movie Review: East Of Eden (1955)

Smouldering sibling rivalry and clandestine family secrets collide to rearrange destinies in the loose adaptation of John Steinbeck's East Of Eden. James Dean's first major screen role establishes his persona as the troubled but thoughtful outsider influencing others while trying to define his place in the world.

With the Great War raging in Europe, Adam Trask (Raymond Massey), an innovative California farmer, is dabbling with inventions including refrigeration to try and expand the market for his vegetables. His two sons are Aron (Richard Davalos), who seems to have everything going for him including dedicated girlfriend Abra (Julie Harris), and the outcast Cal (Dean), who doesn't seem to fit anywhere and regularly gets himself into trouble. Aron is the apple of his father's eye, while Cal and Adam can hardly have a civilized conversation.

The mother of the two boys is supposed to have died a long time ago, but Cal suspects something different: he regularly travels on top of the train to the nearby coastal town of Monterey, where the popular local brothel is owned by Kate (Jo Van Fleet). Cal has figured out that Kate is his mother, having walked out on the family. Ironically, once Cal's suspicions about his mother are confirmed, his relationship with his Dad improves, and he takes on more responsibility running the farm, and starts his own side business profiting from the rising price of beans due to the war. Cal and Abra also find themselves attracted to each other, and the changing dynamics start to tear the family apart.

A story of the tense undercurrents that threaten tenuous family ties, East of Eden sizzles with the taut anticipation posed by the emotional dangers lurking in Adam Trask's household. Cal is going to cause damage one way or another, and the superb variation on the ordinary is the harm caused by his unexpected transformation to relative conformity. Once Cal sorts through the issue of his mother, he finds an internal peace, but still can't avoid shaking the family's stability.

James Dean introduces the movie world to the dangerous teenager persona, caught between dependence and adulthood, clumsily questioning his surroundings and causing discomfort wherever he goes. Dean dominates the screen whenever he is on it, his presence intensely enigmatic despite a relative scarcity of words. His scenes opposite Massey, the young and the old clashing despite themselves, serve up luscious discomfort.

Julie Harris as Abra is Dean's counterpoint, and demonstrates the undeniable attraction that Cal generates. Not only does East Of Eden herald the arrival of the troubled teenager, it anticipates just how magnetic he will be: despite herself, Abra gradually detaches from the strait-laced Aron and finds common ground with Cal, the rough edges of the black sheep's mystery proving irresistible compared to the predictability of the favoured son. Harris teases out the quiet mischief in Abra with a fine performance.

Director Elia Kazan and cinematographer Ted D. McCord add plenty of visual grandeur to East Of Eden, with California's landscapes, farmland, and train transportation allowed to flourish in CinemaScope. The openness of the land is held in contrast to the fragile intimacy of the threads holding Adam's family together.

Familial relationships are born to evolve, and can be damaged, destroyed, or repaired. All three take place in East Of Eden, and pain or agony invariably accompany the redefinition of the ties that bind.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Class warfare, love, lust, longing, prostitution, mental illness and rape: A Streetcar Named Desire crams a bucketful of drama into an incendiary two hours of fascinating entertainment.

Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) travels to New Orleans to visit her sister Stella (Kim Hunter), who is married to Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando). Blanche and Stella are from rich southern heritage, but Stanley is a rough and tumble Polish immigrant, and the Kowalskis live in a cramped, cluttered  apartment in a noisy part of town. Nevertheless, Stella and Stanley make room for Blanche, who puts on airs of superiority and haughtiness that immediately set her on a collision course with the no-nonsense Stanley.

It does not take the brutish but sharp Stanley long to unmask Blanche's faults and insecurities, despite her pretend snobbishness. She is a desperate almost-alcoholic, a woman on the run from her history, her misery and maybe more. Meanwhile, Blanche starts a relationship with the lonely Harold (Karl Malden), one of Stanley's co-workers and poker buddies. Harold is initially easy prey for Blanche's charms, and his infatuation threatens the friendship with Stanley. But it is the marriage between Stanley and Stella that is most at risk, and Blanche's prolonged stay in New Orleans starts to shake the foundation of their love.

Tennessee Williams and Oscar Saul adapted Williams' play for the screen, and Elia Kazan directs with an eye to creating an ever-simmering pot of red sauce punctuated by shocking outbursts from Brando as Stanley Kowalski. His performance is intensity in a pressurized bottle.

Whether expressing his anguished love for Stella or exploding in the face of Blanche, Stanley is raw manhood made all the more fascinating by the speed and certainty with which he climbs down from his paroxysms. Stanley "clearing" his side of the dinner table and then asking if he should help clear the rest is shocking cinematic excellence. In only his second film appearance, Brando was nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award, but lost to Humphrey Bogart's Charlie Allnut in The African Queen.

Vivien Leigh is equally brilliant as the sadly pathetic Blanche, a woman able to fool a few of people part of the time. With fading looks, lost landholdings, dead former lovers and other hidden unsavoury scraps dominating her fate, Vivien finds the desperation in a woman clutching at any remaining thin streams of light that could illuminate a better future, and finding in Harold one last possible path to salvation.

Blanche's theatrical act of supremacy is diametrically opposite to Stanley's pride in his animalistic instincts, and throwing the two together in a small apartment is no different than lighting a short fuse on a stick of dynamite.

Cinematographer Harry Stradling creates dark and claustrophobic settings all around Blanche as the world closes in on her and her options narrow. Whatever space she has left is often invaded by Stanley's brooding presence, ready to puncture her despairing self-delusion.

A Streetcar Names Desire ends with shattered illusions and lives left in tatters, the Kowalski apartment witness to a scene of unforgettable emotional wreckage. Not all desires can be satisfied, and even when they are, the outcome can often be unexpectedly devastating.

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Thursday, 18 October 2012

CD Review: Symbolic, by Death (1995)

Death's sixth and penultimate studio album is filled with worthwhile musical innovation, but on each individual track the whole is often less than the sum of the parts. Symbolic is packed with segments of thoughtful melodic death metal delivered with purpose, but overarching themes to hold the pieces together are more often than not frustratingly missing. Pieces of good music hold hands but lack intimacy, awkwardly failing to make a connection.

The Symbolic line-up assembled by Chuck Schuldiner features Gene Hoglan on drums, the former Dark Angel and future Devin Townsend skinsman adding substantial heft to the album's foundation. Bobby Koelble as the second guitarist and Kelly Conlon on bass complete an accomplished line-up, and the production sounds pleasingly rich and professional under the guidance of producer Jim Morris. Schuldiner as usual leads from the front, his semi-growl vocals surprisingly close to coherent.

Title track and album opener Symbolic, the strongest selection on the record, opens with a massive riff made of hardened steel, and escalates to a high tempo race into a storm. Empty Words desperately searches for a groove, and around its halfway point finally settles onto an evocative theme worth celebrating. Crystal Mountain is more accessible with a melody more persistent than most of what the rest of the album offers.

While Misanthrope is noticeably the weakest track, the other five cuts are competent, aggressive, melodic, and jumbled. With longish song lengths hovering around five minutes and often longer, Schuldiner is keen to explore a diversity of ideas, but regularly starves them of the necessary development time and playfulness needed to tease out a cohesive whole. Too many abbreviated and frantic moments interrupt the album's potential.

Not short of inspiration but lacking in streamlined assembly, Symbolic is a case of too many elements crowding each other out of the room.


Chuck Schuldiner: Guitar, Vocals
Bobby Koelble: Guitar
Gene Hoglan: Drums
Kelly Conlon: Bass

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Symbolic - 9
2. Zero Tolerance - 7
3. Empty Words - 8
4. Sacred Serenity - 7
5. 1,000 Eyes - 7
6. Without Judgement - 7
7. Crystal Mountain - 8
8. Misanthrope - 6
9. Perennial Quest - 7

Average: 7.33

Produced, Engineered and Mixed by Jim Morris.
Mastered by George Marino.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Movie Review: Dark Passage (1947)

A film noir in intent but more grey in execution, Dark Passage cruises in patches and sputters in others. The third teaming of Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart radiates comfortable heat, but the overall story is limp, filled with far-fetched coincidences, and generally beneath the acting talent.

Vincent Parry (Bogart) has been wrongly convicted of killing his wife. Serving his time in Alcatraz, he escapes on the back of a truck, then attempts to hitch a ride to San Francisco with a passing motorist named Baker (Clifton Young). When Baker becomes suspicious, Parry knocks-him out, just as landscape artist Irene Jansen (Bacall) comes driving by to offer Parry a refuge. She stashes him in her apartment, where he learns that she attended his trial and always believed him to be innocent. Irene's annoying friend Madge (Agnes Moorehead) also has a history with Parry: he had rejected her as a lover and her testimony helped to convict him.

With the police out in force looking for Parry, sympathetic cab driver Sam (Tom D'Andrea) connects him with back-lane plastic surgeon Dr. Coley (Houseley Stevenson), who changes Parry's appearance. Parry's friend George Fellsinger (Rory Mallinson) also offers to help, but he soon runs into trouble, and Parry is accused of another serious crime. With his choices narrowing by the hour, Parry has to decide who to trust, and untangle what plans Irene, Madge and Baker have in store for him.

Dark Passage deploys a crafty first-person perspective for its first half, with all the action viewed from Parry's perspective, Bogart narrating the action but never seen. After the plastic surgery Parry is shown with his head fully bandaged, and it's only when the bandages come off a full 65 minutes into the movie, that Bogart finally makes his full appearance. It's a clever device, sharply delivered by writer/director Delmer Daves. Not only does the perspective add dramatic flair, it immediately generates sympathy for Parry by giving the audience his eyes. Daves also makes good use of San Francisco's dramatic streets and vistas, the city proving effective as the backdrop to the drama and third star of the movie.

With Bogart off-screen for a large portion of the film, it's left to Bacall to interact with the camera, and she has the magnetism to pull it off. Irene is a strong willed and independent woman not afraid to harbour a fugitive, a role that Bacall nails from her first scene, picking Parry up from the side of the road and smuggling him into her apartment.

Unfortunately, the rest of Dark Passage lacks the intensity and intellect to match the innovative visual style and available star charisma. The story is disappointingly pedestrian, limited to personal jealousies, jilted domestic lovers and opportunistic low-life crooks, a far cry from the kind of intrigue that the Bogart and Bacall personas are more used to dealing with. There are no evil minds in Dark Passage that are worth Bogart's time, and indeed once Parry sorts out who's who, he slaps the necessary undesirables around and wraps things up within minutes.

To compound the lack of compelling characters, Dark Passage is built on a series of fantastic coincidences, starting with Irene just happening to drive by Baker's car; Madge inexplicably being friends with Irene; Sam being the one cab driver in San Francisco to have an illegal plastic surgeon as a friend; and Baker being just the kind of guy to try and exploit Parry's misfortune. Even Parry's tense encounter with an eagle-eyed cop at a midnight diner smacks of a script assembling events too tidily in favour of amplifying its own drama.

The stars shine bright, but Dark Passage needed a few more glowing lights to fully find its way.

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