Monday, 31 March 2014

CD Review: Still Life, by Opeth (1999)

Consisting of seven tracks, six of them clocking in at eight minutes or more, Still Life is an exercise in stamina. The fourth studio album from Sweden's Opeth takes progressive metal to the extremes of ambitious journeys intent on meandering, and the outcome is an uneven experience with unpleasant moments easily vanquishing good memories.

Every selection has an intro and an outro longer than the entirety of most metal songs. Tracks like Faces Of Melinda and Benighted noodle for the sake of noodling, interminable exercises in self indulgence and repetition, featuring stretches of acoustic guitars and dreamy vocals that bring back memories of the worst of 1970s misguided rock.

And some tracks simply lack cohesion, with inspiration alone insufficient to sustain the lengths that the band insists on always achieving. Security Painted Death struggles for 9 minutes of mid-tempo mediocrity, exploring half a dozen avenues and several dead ends before getting abandoned literally mid-strum due to a production fail.

Better are the two opening tracks, The Moor displaying some tenacious muscle and a relatively sustained dose of energy, while Godhead's Lament finds a soul and weaves it through an evocative melody.

But the enjoyable music is strangled by unsustainable structures. Still Life succumbs to the disease of progressivitis tiresomous.


Mikael Åkerfeldt − vocals, guitar
Peter Lindgren − guitar
Martin Mendez − bass
Martin Lopez − drums

Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. The Moor - 8
2. Godhead's Lament - 7
3. Benighted - 5
4. Moonlapse Vertigo - 7
5. Face of Melinda - 6
6. Serenity Painted Death - 6
7. White Cluster - 7

Average: 6.57

Produced by Opeth, Mikael Åkerfeldt, and Fredrik Nordström.
Engineered by Fredrik Nordström, Isak Edh, and Opeth.
Mastered by Göran Finnberg.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Movie Review: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

A science fiction masterpiece, Terminator 2: Judgment Day finds star Arnold Schwarzenegger and director James Cameron at their peak, combining astounding action with visionary special effects and a compelling story.

It's 10 years after a T-800 terminator robot was sent from the future by the Skynet computer network machines to try and assassinate Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) to prevent her from giving birth to future human rebel leader John Connor. Sarah is now incarcerated in a mental institution after trying to blow up a computer factory. John (Edward Furlong) is 10 years old, a troubled but resourceful boy living with foster parents.

T-1000 (Robert Patrick), a deadlier, more advanced terminator unit with a liquid metal core is sent by Skynet to try and kill John. In response, the humans send a T-800 unit (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to protect him. As John and T-800 escape from T-1000 and rush to reconnect with Sarah, she is troubled by nightmares of the Skynet-initiated nuclear apocalypse to come, and is busy trying to escape from the mental hospital. Once John, Sarah and T-800 join forces, they arm themselves for the fight to come, and Sarah insists on trying to alter the future by eliminating Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), the computer scientist unknowingly creating the genesis of Skynet.

A sequel that matched and bettered an already terrific original, Terminator 2 ushered in a new era of computer generated special effects. The shape-shifting, self-repairing molecular liquid metal capabilities of the T-1000 are presented in some eye-popping segments, totalling no more than five minutes of screen time but forever changing the science of what is possible in creative movie making. And the effects are only used to serve the story: as Cameron gradually reveals the capabilities of a killer robot engineered out of liquid metal, the indestructibility of the T-1000, as played with lethal iciness by Robert Patrick, looms large over the film, creating a terrifying new and seemingly unstoppable villain.

Every monster needs a hero to battle, and Schwarzenegger steps up to the highest level of action hero superstardom in bringing back the comparatively more rudimentary T-800, this time as a saviour rather than a terminator. Arnold as a robot was always a good match, but here star and character are both ironically humanized by a powerful father-son bond that develops between T-800 and the young John Connor. Cameron was obviously recreating the hugely successful mother-daughter experience between Ripley and Newt from Aliens, and he gets it right again. The T-800 does the heavy lifting in terms of protecting John and Sarah, but John does all the teaching and mentoring, transforming the robot into a humane presence and giving the movie its humorous bite.

The script, written by Cameron and William Wisher Jr., achieves an impeccable balance between stunning action and character development. The pace is unrelenting, but there are a surprising number of scenes where Sarah, John and T-800 advance the story through personal growth. Sarah has to confront her justifiable rage, John has to grow from child to future leader, Sarah has to let him achieve that growth, and T-800 has to remain true to his orders and his master while learning about some uniquely human attributes.

All this takes place against a backdrop of T-1000 incessantly hunting John down, and Sarah insisting on hunting down Dyson to re-write human destiny. The chase scenes and stunts are plentiful and simply breathtaking, edited with grace to maintain clarity amidst brilliant mayhem. And when the machine guns, Gatling guns and grenade launchers come into play, which is often, Cameron does not spare any bullets or explosions.

Linda Hamilton transforms Sarah Connor from the innocent victim of the original film to a lean, angry and muscular fighting machine, Cameron again inspired by Aliens to place a strong and kick-ass woman near the centre of an action movie. Edward Furlong, making a dream debut and all of twelve at the time of filming, gives a touching performance as the young and scrappy John Connor, quickly getting to grips with his destiny after realizing that the wild stories of his mother were true after all. Unfortunately, Furlong's promising career was subsequently derailed by substance abuse.

Packed with memorable characters, tremendous action, visionary creativity, and many enduring little moments of humour and humanity, this is the perfect action-oriented science fiction film. After a rollicking climax, Terminator 2 proceeds to find an elegant ending, as good things come to an end to prevent worse things from coming to mad fruition.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Batman Forever (1995)

A limp entry into the tiresome superhero comic book adaptation genre, Batman Forever offers nothing new beyond the usual ridiculous chases and over the top characters spouting warmed-over dialogue.

In Gotham City, Harvey Dent, better known as Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones), is the latest villain terrorizing the populace and trying to lure Batman (Val Kilmer) into a trap. Two-Face has a split personality and a split physical appearance, normal on one side and hideous on the other, the result of an acid attack. Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman) arrives in town to help analyze Two-Face's motivation. It does not take long for Chase to fall in love with the mysterious Batman.

Meanwhile, Edward Nygma (Jim Carrey) is a lowly employee at Wayne Enterprises, but also a mad genius. Feeling slighted by Bruce Wayne's dismissal of his brain wave capture invention disguised as a television image enhancer, Nygma is driven insane. He takes on the persona of The Riddler, and teams up with Two-Face to spread his evil device throughout Gotham, sucking power from everyone's brain.

When Two-Face attacks the circus in an attempt to lure Batman, young trapeze artist Dick Grayson (Chris O'Donnell) is the only family member to survive. Wayne takes Grayson under his wing, and gradually Grayson takes on the superhero persona of Robin, but still seeking to kill Two-Face despite Batman's advice that revenge solves nothing. With Chase falling for both Batman and Wayne, Batman grudgingly teams up with Robin as they try to put a stop to the evil reign of Two-Face and The Riddler.

Batman Forever suffers from a severe case of retread. Two-Face is a rehash of The Joker from Batman, all maniacal laughter and no substance. The villain as a physically and emotionally scarred man monster is none too inventive for the series. The Riddler suffers from being an amalgamation of Jim Carrey's other, better characters from other, better movies. And Nicole Kidman follows in the footsteps of blonde sisters Kim Basinger and Michelle Pfeiffer, except that Chase Meridian is not that interesting.

Director Joel Schumacher takes over the reigns from Tim Burton, and steers the series into a lighter, more comical direction, stripping the foreboding darkness that worked well in Batman Returns. This time around, Carrey does get to deliver some clever one-liners, but the prevailing lack of seriousness, characterized by The Riddler's machine looking like a goofy juicer, hinders Batman Forever as it tries to latch on to anything beyond obvious set-pieces and stale chases.

Val Kilmer steps into the batsuit and offers little, the Bruce Wayne scenes in particular suffering from a lack of intensity as Kilmer appears generally disinterested. The script offers half-hearted attempts to revisit Wayne's childhood, but the film seems to abandon any notions of character development as too serious for the target tone.

Jones laughs a lot and does little else, while Kidman's Chase limits the scope of her psychological investigation to determining whether Batman or Wayne would make for a better boyfriend. The introduction of Robin into Batman's life becomes the most interesting sub-plot to the movie, Chris O'Donnell finally injecting some emotion and human conflict as he weighs revenge against destiny.

Batman Forever is a sequel looking for a purpose, and finding none it flaps clumsily into the night, labelled easily forgettable.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Movie Review: Inherit The Wind (1960)

A courtroom drama fictionalizing the real trial of a schoolteacher who dared teach the theory of evolution in a rural and deeply religious community, Inherit The Wind is an engrossing battle of wits between entrenched traditional beliefs and the relentless forces of progress.

It's the 1920s in the small southern farming town of Hillsboro, and young school teacher Bertram T. Cates (Dick York) is arrested and charged for violating a law prohibiting the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution. The town leaders insist that the Bible's Book of Genesis is the only true description of man's creation, and Darwin's scientific theory about the evolution of species contravenes the word of God.

Three time presidential candidate and celebrated Biblical scholar Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March) volunteers his services to prosecute the case, and he receives a hero's welcome in Hillsboro. Much less warmly received is the controversial Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy), a strong believer in the power of independent thought and scientific exploration, who arrives to defend Cates. Also arriving in town to join the growing circus and report on the trial is journalist E. K. Hornbeck (Gene Kelly) of the Baltimore Herald.

Bible salesman: Are you an evolutionist? An infidel? A sinner?
E. K. Hornbeck: The worst kind, I write for a newspaper.

To compound Cates' misery, his girlfriend is Rachel (Donna Anderson), who happens to be the daughter of Hillsboro's local religious leader Reverend Jeremiah Brown (Claude Akins). Brown whips the locals into a frenzy against Cates and Drummond, surprising even Brady with his venom. As the temperature rises literally and figuratively, the trial commences with Judge Mel Coffey (Harry Morgan) presiding, and Drummond facing a hostile gallery and the seemingly impossible task of defending Cates against deeply held but simplistic beliefs.

Drummond: An idea is a greater monument than a cathedral. And the advance of man's knowledge is a greater miracle than all the sticks turned to snakes or the parting of the waters.

As potent today as it was in 1960, Inherit The Wind is based on the 1955 play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, written at the height of the McCarthy communist witch hunt. The play's intent was to use the real 1925 trial of schoolteacher John Scopes, in what became known as the Scopes "Monkey" Trial, as a parable on the need to vigorously defend the right to think, discuss, and debate, without fear from stifling laws and lawmakers.

The film takes artistic liberties with some of the facts of the trial, but keeps the essence intact. And it is astounding that Inherit The Wind remains relevant today not as a historical artifact, but as social commentary on attitudes that persist in the 21st century. Inherit The Wind shines the spotlight on the frustrating intransigence that results when literal, simplistic solutions are applied to complex issues. The film also highlights the ease with which ignorance can be enshrined in law, effectively legislating intellectual atrophy from one generation to the next.

Stanley Kramer creates all the trappings of a dangerous media circus in the fictional little town of Hillsboro, the real Scopes trial apparently instigated with at least the partial intent of placing Dayton, Tennessee on the map. Kramer then delights in teasing out the fine line between exuberant religious belief and the creeping spectre of mob violence, the townsfolk often slipping into threats, and Reverend Brown completely swallowed up by his own zeal in wishing for his daughter's destruction.

The complex relationship between Drummond and Brady is at the heart of the movie. Spencer and March bring the two grizzled men to life as aging veterans of many a political battle, often fought side-by-side, but this time fate has landed them on opposite ends of a polarizing religious and social divide. Despite the bluster, anger, and emotion, Drummond and Brady never lose respect for each other, and the scene where they share quiet words in rocking chairs on the front porch of their hotel is pure movie magic.

Brady: Why is it, my old friend, that you've moved so far away from me?
Drummond: All motion is relative, Matt. Maybe it's you who've moved away by standing still.

When the two men engage in the climactic battle of wills after Drummond places Brady on the witness chair, Kramer unleashes the fireworks in extreme close-up, dogma and independent thought clashing with breathtaking intensity.

Brady: We must not abandon faith! Faith is the most important thing!
Drummond: Then why did God plague us with the capacity to think? Mr. Brady, why do you deny the one faculty of man that raises him above the other creatures of the earth? The power of his brain to reason. What other merit have we? The elephant is larger; the horse is swifter and stronger; the butterfly is far more beautiful; the mosquito is more prolific. Even the simple sponge is more durable. But does a sponge think?

In a dramatic yet humourous role, Gene Kelly is a surprising success as the sharp-tongued Baltimore journalist E. K. Hornbeck, playing the role of the big city observer not mincing words when it comes to the backwardness of Hillsboro and its people. Kelly gets the film's best one-liners, but also serves as a serious sounding board to Drummond in the raging insanity of the farcical trial.

Townswoman: You're the stranger, ain'tcha? Are you looking for a nice, clean place to stay?
E. K. Hornbeck: Madam, I had a nice clean place to stay... and I left it, to come here.

An epic film about ideas and the essence of being human, Inherit The Wind delivers its message with plenty of punch and a wry smile.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Movie Review: Non-Stop (2014)

A terror-in-the-air action film, Non-Stop draws upon the jitters created on September 11, 2001 to create a potent but flawed mix of in-flight hijacking and murder with psychological overtones.

Air Marshall William Marks (Liam Neeson) is suffering from the aftermath of a personal tragedy, and is emotionally all but down and out. Drinking heavily, smoking and barely able to focus, he starts his latest assignment on a seemingly routine flight from New York to London. He makes small talk with passenger Jen (Julianne Moore) in the seat next to him.

Mid-flight, Marks snaps to attention when he starts receiving unauthorized text messages. The sender claims to be on the plane, and threatens to kill one person on the flight every 20 minutes unless $150 million is deposited into a specified bank account. When the threats incredibly start to come true, Marks finds himself identified as a hijacking suspect, with a plane load of trouble and no one to trust.

A French-American co-production, Non-Stop is a tense, single-set thrill-ride, with an innovative premise and deft execution, but the mounting tension and threat levels were always likely to be better than the details and the resolution. Not unexpectedly, the plot does suffer from plenty of logic gaps, while the rushed climax and awkward denouement cannot live up to the expectations generated by the cranked dial of lethal drama.

Within the limitations of the adrenaline-fuelled action genre, Non-Stop does many things well. Director Jaume Collet-Serra packs plenty of visual panache into his carry-on baggage and unleashes it within the tight confines of the plane. The floating text messages are an excellent touch, and Collet-Serra expertly conveys the sense of claustrophobic confinement and confusion with one demented murderer hidden among 150 passengers 30,000 feet above the Atlantic ocean.

Among the performers, Liam Neeson carries the film on his shoulders, and is given plenty to work with. Marks embarks on the flight way behind the starting line in terms of mental readiness, and Neeson allows all of Marks' psychological flaws to ooze out as the Marshall first doubts himself and then find everybody doubting him.

Julianne Moore's role seems to have been only half thought out, while Michelle Dockery and Lupita Nyong'o play the two flight attendants trying to maintain sanity as the flight lurches from one crisis to the next. Some of the passengers are coloured in just enough to become interesting, Corey Stoll as a New York cop and Omar Metwally as a Muslim doctor among the more prominent.

When all is explained and the final act starts, the film hits its patch of turbulence. Too many of the conspiracy elements twist in the winds of good fortune, and the climactic struggle to save the passengers alternates between moldy 1970s disaster movie heroics and too-obvious character wrap-ups. Non-Stop is a smooth flight somewhat ruined by a rough landing.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

The Movies Of Bob Gunton

All movies starring Bob Gunton and reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

Glory (1989)

Born On The Fourth Of July (1989)

JFK (1991)

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Broken Arrow (1996)

The Perfect Storm (2000)

Rendition (2007)

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)

Argo (2012)

Runner Runner (2013)

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

The Movies Of Nicole Kidman

All movies starring Nicole Kidman and reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

Days Of Thunder (1990)

Billy Bathgate (1991)

Malice (1993)

Batman Forever (1995)

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

The Others (2001)

Panic Room (2002, voice, uncredited)

The Hours (2002)

Cold Mountain (2003)

The Interpreter (2005)

Bewitched (2005)

Rabbit Hole (2010)

Trespass (2011)

Lion (2016)

The Beguiled (2017)

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

The Movies Of Robert Patrick

All movies starring Robert Patrick and reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

Die Hard 2 (1990)

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Wayne's World (1992, cameo)

Striptease (1996)

Cop Land (1997)

Charlie' Angels: Full Throttle (2003)
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