Thursday, 27 February 2014

CD Review: Animals As Leaders, by Animals As Leaders (2009)

Occupying the unnecessary mini-niche of progressive instrumental jazz metal, the self-titled debut by Animals As Leaders is essentially a solo album for guitarist Tosin Abasi.

The album is a slightly more metallic version of the kind of ambient instrumental music made popular by the likes of synthesizer maestro Jean Michael Jarre in the 1970s. Often filled with sounds intended to evoke either space or the ocean, and built on endless repetition but a fundamental lack of purposeful direction, Animals As Leaders fades into the background, about as engaging as bland wallpaper but slightly more annoying for its busy obtrusiveness.

It's difficult to tell one track from another, since they all sound pretty much the same, overlong, filled with noodling for its own sake and micro melodies challenged by a singular inability to hold a theme for longer than a few seconds, often mistaking reiteration for a trajectory.

Trapped in the gap between innovative and inconsequential, Animals As Leaders is just insipid.


Tosin Abasi - guitars, bass guitar
Misha Mansoor - keyboards, drum programming

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Tempting Time - 7
2. Soraya - 7
3. Thoroughly At Home - 7
4. On Impulse - 7
5. Tessiture - n/a (short)
6. Behaving Badly - 7
7. The Price Of Everything And The Value Of Nothing - 7
8. Cafo - 6
9. Inamorata - 6
10. Point To Point - n/a (short)
11. Modern Meat - 5
12. Song Of Solomon - 7

Average: 6.60

Produced by Tosin Abasi and Misha Mansoor.
Engineered by Misha Mansoor.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)

A two-character World War Two drama, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison deftly explores themes of survival, companionship and the potential for impossible love when two strangers find their fate tied together.

It's 1944 in the South Pacific, and after a mission gone bad U.S. Marine Corporal Allison (Robert Mitchum) drifts alone in a raft, washing up at a seemingly abandoned fishing village on a remote island. He finds Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr) all alone, and she explains that the villagers had fled or were forcibly recruited to the Japanese army, while the clergyman who ran the church has recently died.

Allison and Angela explore the island and consider building a raft to sail towards civilization. But these plans are disrupted by a bombing raid followed by the arrival of Japanese troops to set up a weather station. Instead, the nun and the Marine have to confine themselves to a cave to avoid getting captured. When food begins to run short, Allison has to risk a raid into the Japanese camp to find supplies. With the passing days, Allison develops feelings towards Angela, and they discuss her vows and their surprisingly similar devotion to two separate causes. But the war rages on, and they have to face increasing danger from larger concentrations of troops landing on their little island.

Sharing some basic plot elements with The African Queen (1951), director John Huston goes back to the theme of two fundamentally incompatible characters thrust together under extreme stress. The hostile jungle and serpentine river environments are replaced by a more docile South Pacific island, but Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison enjoys more sharply defined characters and career choices to play with.

The conflicts and commonalities between a nun and a Marine make up the heart of the film, and Huston, who co-wrote the script with John Lee Mahin based on the Charles Shaw novel, elegantly probes the cultures that produced Sister Angela and Corporal Allison. Dedication to duty, a strict code of conduct, and unwavering belief in the cause are common to both, and apart from one drunken slip by Allison, the two survive the ordeal thanks to a strict adherence to the principles of their chosen lives.

Huston keeps the movie well balanced between relationship development and the dangers posed by the war. As Angela and Allison negotiate their strange life together, their habitat is constantly evolving. Isolation is followed by bombing, the establishment of a Japanese weather station, a distant naval battle, more isolation, then occupation by a full contingent of Japanese soldiers. The cave becomes a sanctuary, forcing Angela and Allison to become physically closer and challenging their boundaries.

Mitchum and Kerr are both excellent. Effectively in every scene, this is one of Mitchum's more engaging performances, as he displays a range of honest emotions often not required in most of his other roles. Kerr is more secretive as Sister Angela, hidden from head to toe in her habit. Kerr allows Angela to be a sweet but complex puzzle for Allison to assemble, from her unexpected presence on an isolated island to her decision to become a nun.

The film takes no easy shortcuts, and finds a gracious ending that leaves room for open questions. Of course, the answer to what happens next is Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

CD Review: War Of Will, by Battlecross (2013)

Mixing new thrash with melodic death metal, Michigan's Battlecross produce a sturdy metal alloy. The good parts of War Of Will, the band's third studio album, mix manic but sharp strumming with buzzy guitar work and cleverly sophisticated melodies.

War Of Will crams ten tracks into 36 minutes, an exercise in efficiency that produces only two songs longer than four minutes. Both the good and average selections come and go with a dizzying intensity. The best tracks, including openers Force Fed Lies and Flesh And Bone, could have sparkled for longer, but the less inspired selections, primarily album closer Never-Ending Night, mercifully don't linger.

Despite the overall short length, there is a sense of diminishing returns as the album pushes on, the final four tracks struggling to generate new ideas and ambling towards well-worn directions.

The guitars of Tony Asta and Hiran Deraniyagala are at the forefront of the Battlecross sound, trading salvos of rapid fire thrash shredding filled with tidy staccato arrangements and explorative variations. The Kyle Gunther melodic death metal vocals alternate between a high and low range, but are always pushed to the back, behind the guitar domination. The mix emphasizes the band's strong attachment to rational but high speed melodies as the basis for all aggression.

The guitar work is at its best in the quite magnificent and ridiculously fast Ghost Alive, Battlecross entering the battlefield with heavy equipment and an intention to level all enemies with a multitude of machineguns. War Of Will proves to be one-sided: Battlecross win handsomely.


Kyle "Gumby" Gunther - Vocals
Tony Asta - Guitar
Hiran Deraniyagala - Guitar
Don Slater - Bass

Guest Drummer - Shannon Lucas

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Force Fed Lies - 10
2. Flesh And Bone - 10
3. Never Coming Back - 8
4. My Vaccine - 7
5. Get Over It - 7
6. Ghost Alive - 10
7. Wage A War - 7
8. The Will To Overcome - 7
9. Beast - 7
10. Never-Ending Night - 6

Average: 7.90

Produced by Mark Lewis and Eyal Levi.
Mixed by Mark Lewis. Mastered by Joey Vera.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Movie Review: Julius Caesar (1953)

A sincere adaptation of the Shakespeare play, Julius Caesar adheres to stage rules but still finds the passion at the heart of the story of intrigue and betrayal among Rome's elite.

After defeating Rome's enemies, Julius Caesar (Louis Calhern) is at the height of his power, and the expectation is that the Senate will offer him the position of Emperor for life. Afraid that Caesar is becoming too ambitious and placing his personal glory ahead that of Rome, a group of noblemen plot an assassination. Cassius (John Gielgud) is the ring leader, and he invites the well respected Brutus (James Mason) to join the conspiracy, appealing to Brutus' love of Rome's ideal model of governance.

After agonizing over the decision, Brutus joins the band of assassins, and Caesar is stabbed to death on the Ides of March. At the insistence of Brutus, and despite Cassius' unease, the killers spare the life of Caesar's loyal companion, the athletic Mark Antony (Marlon Brando). Antony pretends to be resigned to the will of the conspirators, but he uses his charisma and spectacular skills in oration to turn the public against the assassination, triggering a brutal battle for power.

If Shakespeare needs to be filmed, it's likely best to do it this way: a stellar cast, lavish sets, and top production values. This takes away, somewhat, from lingering questions as to why the ancient Romans may choose to speak in 16th Century English. The trouble with Julius Caesar, as with any faithful movie adaptation of classic theatre, is the confines of dialogue written to dominate, where characters don't so much converse as trade volleys of soliloquies. This is forgivable in the cozy setting of the stage, but comes across as exceedingly stiff on the modern and expansive format of film.

Julius Caesar overcomes these challenges as best at it could, thanks to Brando, Mason and Gielgud all delivering committed performances. Mason finds all of Brutus' intellectual self-doubt and higher purpose in defending Rome's reputation even at the cost of the ultimate betrayal. Gielgud is pure conspiratorial evil, his brooding Cassius the head of the plot but smart enough to acknowledge the importance of bringing Brutus into the fold. And Brando enjoys his one mammoth scene, roaring with rage to shake Romans out of their slumber and spark the civil war to oust the conspirators.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz directs with appropriate reverence to the source material, packing the play into a tidy 121 minutes, and finding impressive-looking sets to stage the action. However, some of the dialogue is delivered breathlessly quickly, which does not help to convince that the characters are actually thinking before reciting their prose.

Almost totally wasted are Deborah Kerr as Brutus' wife Portia, and Greer Garson as Caesar's wife Calpurnia. MGM likely wanted a star in every key role, but Kerr and Garson each get exactly one relevant scene, and then they both comprehensively disappear from the action, leaving the men behind to battle over the soul of Rome.

Which is maybe just as well, as women are less likely to ever justify or condone the sordid backstabbing at the heart of the story. Riding the quality of the epic source material all the way to a bloody conclusion filled with perforated peers, Julius Caesar is a potent parable of power and politics.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Movie Review: Father Of The Bride (1950)

A heart-warming comedy, Father Of The Bride pokes fun at a father's befuddled emotions, with Spencer Tracy in top form and Elizabeth Taylor blossoming into adulthood.

Kay Banks (Taylor) suddenly announces to her parents Stan and Ellie (Tracy and Joan Bennett) that she will be marrying boyfriend Buckley Dunstan (Don Taylor). The news that his only daughter is about to fly the nest comes as a complete shock to Stan, who does not even know who Buckley is, let alone what he does for a living, how he will support Kay, and who his parents are.

After overcoming the initial shock, Stan meets Buckley and then his parents Doris and Herbert, and the family starts planning for the wedding. Although everyone desires a small ceremony and reception, the event quickly grows into a major and expensive event, complete with a snooty wedding planner. And just as the big day approaches, Kay and Buckley encounter a crisis.

Capturing every father's frazzled feelings when he realizes that his baby girl is about to belong to another man, Father Of The Bride is a bittersweet comedy. The film strikes all the perfect tones, as Stan progresses through the shock of receiving the news, anxiety about his future son-in-law, pride in his daughter, financial panic as the wedding arrangements threaten to get out of hand, and finally sweet resignation to just go with the flow. Spencer Tracy brings plenty of sincerity to the role, allowing the comedy to remain soft and grounded in genuine emotion.

All of the humour comes from the disconnect between Stan's bluster and his actual actions, as he misses every opportunity to actually get to know Buckley and his parents. Stan is of course clueless that he is the architect of his own angst. And when the wedding arrangements move into high gear, his natural inclination to want to solve problems collides with the expensive reality of professional event planning, and he is eventually sidelined into one role: paying the mounting bills.

At the heart of the movie is the tender relationship between father and daughter. The king loves his princess beyond what he can ever convey, and the idea of her heart being tied to another man is agonizing. Yet Stan cannot help but be proud of his role in the woman that Kay has become, and Tracy's performance finds that line between personal loss and unbridled joy.

Joan Bennett and Elizabeth Taylor are more physically busy than Tracy as the wedding day approaches, director Vincente Minnelli placing dad at the centre of the storm and therefore the point around which everything else revolves. Bennett and Taylor effectively portray women caught up in one of the biggest events of their lives, Ellie and Kay finally marginalizing Stan into an observer, ironically the perfect vantage point to come to terms with his emotions.

With wit and pathos hand in hand, Father Of The Bride walks down the aisle with pride.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Movie Review: Scent Of A Woman (1992)

A combination coming-of-age and life crisis drama that unfolds with spirited zeal, Scent Of A Woman rides the monstrous engine of a bravura Al Pacino performance.

Charlie Simms (Chris O'Donnell) is a low key student at the preppy Baird School for boys in New England. With the Thanksgiving long weekend approaching, Charlie witnesses his friends and fellow students pulling off a prank that destroys the new Jaguar of the school's stiff headmaster, Mr. Trask (James Rebhorn). An inquiry is called for after the weekend, with Charlie likely to be in a lot of trouble if he does not reveal the identify of the pranksters.

Carrying this burden, Charlie takes what he believes to be a simple weekend housesitting job to look after the blind retired Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade (Al Pacino), a loudmouthed, opinionated and bitter man. But Frank has plans for a final hurrah in life: he sweeps Charlie along and they set out to spend a lavish weekend of luxurious eating, drinking and womanizing in New York City. As the weekend progresses, a tentative father-son relationship starts to evolve between the veteran and the student. Charlie slowly starts to realize that he is going to have a key role in Frank's weekend, while Frank learns about Charlie's troubles back at Baird.

Scent Of A Woman is built for the highlight reel, and offers several outstanding moments. The first meeting between Frank and Charlie is a spectacularly unfair collision between an uncertain young man and a grizzled army veteran, the master sizing up the student for an adventure that Charlie does not even know about. The tango sequence, from set-up to denouement, is a genuine all-time classic movie scene, bundling the meaning of life into all of about six minutes, Frank demonstrating what it means to seize the right opportunity, trust true instincts and enjoy the moment.

Also memorable but starting to veer into the melodramatic are the twin climax moments, first Charlie saving Frank from his lowest ebb, paving the way for the "I'm in the dark here!" roar, then Frank returning the favour and standing up for Charlie at the formal school inquiry. That entire ending is overcooked to a carbonated mess, but there is no doubting the power in Pacino's delivery of the seminal "If I were the man I was five years ago, I'd take a FLAMETHROWER to this place!"

For a movie that is essentially a study of two characters, the running time of 157 minutes is quite excessive. Nevertheless, director Martin Brest keeps the drama ticking along nicely, driven by an unapologetically over the top Pacino performance that finally won him the Best Actor Academy Award. Frank is an exaggerated character, and Pacino takes that leeway and runs with it all over New York. Ironically, the best acting happens in the most quiet moments, but it is the bombast that dominates the movie.

Chris O'Donnell holds his own and gradually grows into the role of Charlie. O'Donnell finds the uncertainty of a seventeen year old thrust into an early test of adulthood, and while he stays very much in Pacino's shadow, O'Donnell does rise to the few scenes where he finally has to take the initiative rather than react. The supporting cast includes small roles for Gabrielle Anwar as Pacino's tango partner, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as a fellow student at Baird.

Trading nuance for impact, Scent Of A Woman fills the room with excessive but still rousing human drama.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Movie Review: Across The Pacific (1942)

A World War Two adventure conceived before the attack on Pearl Harbor and hurriedly re-written afterwards, Across The Pacific is a would-be classic, unfortunately let down by a poor ending.

It's 1941, World War Two is well underway, and Japan is making aggressive gestures towards the US. In the Panama Canal Captain Rick Leland (Humphrey Bogart) is unceremoniously drummed out of the US Coast Artillery after being caught stealing money. He travels to Halifax but even the Canadian Army refuses to recruit him. He boards the Japanese ship Genoa Maru, intending to travel to Asia via New York and the Panama Canal, to join Chiang Kai-shek's army.

But it's all a ruse. Rick is working for US intelligence, with a mission to cozy up to the wealthy Dr. Lorenz (Sydney Greenstreet), a Philippines-based professor traveling back to Asia on the Genoa Maru. Dr. Lorenz has strong ties to Japan, and may harbour treacherous plans. Also on board is Canadian girl Alberta Marlow (Mary Astor), and Rick immediately tries to get close to her, as it becomes evident that her story of being a small-town girl from Medicine Hat does not ring true. As they steam to New York and then approach the Canal, the trip becomes hazardous when Rick thwarts an assassination attempt and uncovers Dr. Lorenz's true intentions.

Across The Pacific is four-fifths of an excellent film. Director John Huston headed off to the real war before the ending was wrapped, apparently taking the script with him. An uncredited Vincent Sherman was left to find and film any sort of an ending, and it's miserable B-movie botch of a job. The final 15 minutes almost undo all the preceding good work, and leave a bitter taste in the mouth.

But up until all the main characters find themselves at the Morton Plantation in Panama, Across The Pacific (despite being set entirely in the Atlantic) is a sassy and clever espionage caper, benefiting from three intriguing characters playing a game of cat and mouse on board a tense ship in the shadow of a war that is about to get a lot worse. Across The Pacific is fast-paced, with sharp dialogue (by Robert Garson and Richard Macaulay) and edgy direction. Rick, Dr. Lorenz and Alberta rarely say what they mean or reveal their true intentions, creating a delightful dance of duplicity balanced on a knife's edge.

Huston, Bogart, Astor and Greenstreet reunite from The Maltese Falcon (1941), and the chemistry is immediately evident. Huston transforms the Genoa Maru into a veritable maze of spies and a den of love, Rick and Dr. Lorenz engaged in dangerous deceit while Rick makes a separate play for Alberta. Of course she is hiding secrets of her own, setting up a triangle of saucy secrets on the high seas. Grim-faced Japanese crewmen who seem to eavesdrop on all conversations add to the mounting tension.

But then the climax arrives, a horribly staged, childishly simplistic and brain dead resolution. Across The Pacific is a seductive journey that flounders badly at the final port of call.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Book Review: David And Goliath, by Malcolm Gladwell (2013)

A commentary on the often faulty perceptions of strengths and weaknesses, Malcolm Gladwell's David And Goliath is a breezy romp through the world of metaphoric giant killers.

The book starts with a slow motion blow-by-blow re-examination of the Biblical battle between David and Goliath, and by the time Gladwell has finished his replay, there is no doubt that to the trained eye, David was the one who carried a great advantage into that battle, while Goliath was always the more vulnerable combatant. The rest of the book is, as ever, filled with engaging and thoughtful observations on life as told through stories, this time centred around the themes of turning apparent disadvantages to actual advantages, and underdogs who found innovative ways to even the playing field.

Examples include the basketball coach who deployed unconventional tactics to create an unlikely winning team out of a hapless group of girls, the civil rights leaders in the southern United States who goaded their opponents into self-defeating violence, lawyers and leaders of industry who compensated for dyslexia and emerged stronger, and the cancer researcher who used a rough childhood to develop a streak of stubbornness that proved crucial to the development of chemotherapy.

Gladwell finds the common threads, where seemingly obvious strengths are actually weaknesses, deficiencies turn to trump cards, and longshots become sure things. Smaller class sizes are good, but classes that are too small prove to be a disadvantage. Top tier universities are supposed to be better, but could prove to be overwhelming and disheartening to otherwise bright students. And a disproportionate number of national leaders lost a parent early in life. With the right tactical approach, a setback can be turned to an asset, and an apparent position of weakness can prevail.

As usual, Gladwell peppers his book with just enough data and science to prove his points while avoiding any descents into dry patches.

Good as the book is, Gladwell is developing some irritating writing habits. David And Goliath is filled with self-interruption and stories embedded within other stories. By the time Gladwell returns to the story he left dangling ten pages earlier, all the initial context has been lost, forcing frantic backpedalling and flipping back. In a slight book of 275 small pages, there is no need for this type unnecessary structural complexity.

David And Goliath forces a re-examination of traditional definitions of favourites and underdogs, and makes a strong case to be most wary when the outcome of the impending battle appears most obvious.

Subtitled: Underdogs, Misfits and The Art Of Battling Giants.
275 pages, plus Notes and Index.
Published in hardcover by Little, Brown.

All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Movie Review: In The Name Of The Father (1993)

Based on a true story, In The Name Of The Father delves into the Northern Ireland conflict, and through the story of one struggling family finds frightening failures that threaten the essence of the justice system.

It's the early 1970s, and Northern Ireland is gripped by sectarian violence. Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a petty thief in Belfast, but his brushes with the law have the unintended consequences of unleashing British Army fury on Catholic strongholds. Gerry's father Giuseppe (Pete Postlethwaite) has to rescue his son from IRA retaliation. Eventually Gerry and his friend Paul Hill (John Lynch) relocate to London, falling in and then falling out with a group of squatting hippies.

With Gerry and Paul close to homeless, the IRA bomb a popular pub in Guildford, killing five people. The politicians use the public anger to ram through powers of detention without charge, and both Gerry and Paul are picked up and harshly interrogated for days before agreeing to sign whatever statements are placed in front of him. Not only is Gerry convicted of the bombing, but Giuseppe and several other family members are also found guilty of enabling the bombing. Gerry and Giuseppe are left to rot in prison, until finally British solicitor Gareth Peirce (Emma Thompson) starts to probe the case.

A lesson on how quickly a democracy can fall into the traps of a police state, In The Name Of The Father shines the spotlight on police officers desperate to show results in the face of public outrage, and resorting to intimidating interrogations to wrest confessions out of the innocent. The film is at its best when the forces of authority are at their worst, and Gerry as an individual is all but crushed by the weight of an angry nation desperate for a conviction.

In The Name Of The Father does, however, suffer from an excessive length. Once Gerry and Giuseppe land in prison, the pacing slows down, and director Jim Sheridan looks for ways to pass the time. The plodding scenes do convey the stillness of life wasting away behind bars, but a running time of 133 minutes is a long time to invest in the story.

But the first and final acts are excellent. The early scenes in a tense Belfast and then London, as a shiftless Gerry heads towards a wasted life, capture a youth spiralling into the nothingness of the socially depressed 1970s, and then caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. The climax of the film, with Pierce delving into the case, uncovering the flawed police tactics and powerfully presenting them in court, rebuilds momentum and achieves the desired emotional peak.

The two central performances are both magnetic. Daniel Day-Lewis brings his profound intensity to the role of Gerry, although the character only steps out to carve his own space late in the narrative. Even more impressive is Pete Postlethwaite in one of his most prominent screen roles. Giuseppe is caught between protecting his son and protecting his family, a balancing act that fails spectacularly and threatens his very existence. Postlethwaite brings to the role the calm presence of a man who never expects to be understood by his wayward son, but who nevertheless will soldier on to do his best for all the family. Both Day-Lewis and Postlethwaite received Academy Award nominations.

Emma Thompson is underutilized, Gareth Peirce only becoming relevant in the final twenty minutes. While Thompson displays passionate conviction in the courtroom scenes, her Academy Award nomination has to be classified as a surprise.

In The Name Of The Father is a cry to protect the principles of justice at the darkest of times, a fundamental concept that is all too regularly ignored.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

The Movies Of Ava Gardner

All movies starring Ava Gardner and reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

Whistle Stop (1946)

The Killers (1946)

The Hucksters (1947)

The Snows Of Kilimanjaro (1952)

The Band Wagon (1953, cameo)

Mogambo (1953)

The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

55 Days At Peking (1963)

The Bible: In The Beginning...(1966)

The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean (1972)

Earthquake (1974)

The Cassandra Crossing (1976)

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.
The Index of Movie Stars is here.

The Movies Of Daniel Craig

All movies starring Daniel Craig and reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

Elizabeth (1998)

Munich (2005)

Casino Royale (2006)

Quantum Of Solace (2008)

Dream House (2011)

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Skyfall (2012)

Spectre (2015)

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015, uncredited cameo)

Logan Lucky (2017)

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.
The Index of Movie Stars is here.

The Movies Of John Gielgud

All movies starring John Gielgud and reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

Julius Caesar (1953)

Murder On The Orient Express (1974)

Caligula (1979)

The Elephant Man (1980)

Chariots Of Fire (1981)

Arthur (1981)

Gandhi (1982)

First Knight (1995)

Elizabeth (1998)

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.
The Index of Movie Stars is here.

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