Saturday, February 27, 2010

Movie Review: Amphetamine 安非他命

When director Scud introduced his movie Amphetamine before its screening at the Berlinale film festival, he said, „maybe one day I’ll make happy movies, but for now I can’t.“ He was referring to the loss of friends to drugs in his recent past. As the title of the movie already suggests, that is precisely what Amphetamine is about. However, as Scud went on to explain, the Chinese characters making up the word 'amphetamine' literally mean 'is this not his fate?’, and thus the movie is also about fate and about love.
In short, Amphetamine is the doomed love affair between a Hong Kong finance manager Daniel (played by Thomas Price) and fitness trainer and martial arts aficionado Kafka (Byron Pang). The former is gay, and the later is straight. Kafka is desperate for love and, having just split from his girl friend, gives in to the overtures lavished upon him by Daniel. The two embark on a passionate love affair which is intimate but not sexual as Kafka cannot get himself to have sex with a man. Daniel, who is at ease with this part of their relationship, grows increasingly frustrated with Kafka’s worsening addiction to the drug amphetamine, whose destructive influence on Kafka interferes more and more with their relationship. Fuelled by the drug, the ghosts of Kafka's past come to haunt him, and he ends up craving for and at the same time rejecting the love offered to him by Daniel – in essence, reacting to love in the same way he reacts to the drug.
Amphetamine is a brilliant movie on many levels. It is beautifully shot and cleverly edited, mixing various levels - past, present, future as well as drug related visions – into a cohesive whole. Starting with the opening scene of a winged, angel-like Kafka hovering above the roofs of Honk Kong to the underwater scenes towards the end of the movie, it includes greatly imaginative, highly symbolic imagery which is a joy to watch. The actors are top-notch despite this being their first feature film (Thomas Price is a DJ and Byron Pang a model). The movie is highly erotic and features plenty of nudity of members of both sexes, which has led other reviewers to label the movie a soft porn (a fact which, I think, says more about the reviewer than about the movie).
Where I believe the movie fails is to tell the story convincingly. The negative turns of fate piled upon poor Kafka (a no-good drug dealing brother, poverty, the father’s early death, and the mother’s prolonged illness and eventual death; and even a gang rape, the trauma responsible for Kafka's unwillingness to have sex with Daniel) are over the top, creating more drama than need be. The dramatic ending is maybe unavoidable in the logic of this scenario, but ends up leaving a bitter after-taste – a feeling of 'too much’ (this is a very Western way of looking at it, obviously – quite possibly, a Chinese or Asian viewer may not be struck in a negative way by this kind of story telling). My other problem with the scenario is the premise - is a love affair like this (a passionate, non-sexual but intimate relationship between a gay man and a straight man) even likely to happen? Whether or not you are able to suspend your disbelief is crucial to whether you like or dislike the movie.
Personally, I like the movie a lot, and while it is not perfect, I wholly recommend it, for its technical and artistic brilliance, for the actors and for the raw emotions on display - even if I could have done with a little less drama.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

More information can be found at the movie's official site.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Book Review: The Third God, by Ricardo Pinto

I should start this review by acknowledging that it took me three attempts to finish Ricardo Pinto's fantasy novel The Third God. This fact reflects the dilemna I had with the book: too slow and problem-fraught to keep me interested over a longer period, yet captivating enough to make me come back to it again and again.
The Third God is the third and last installment in the highly original fantasy trilogy The Stone Dance of the Chameleon by the Scottish writer (of Portuguese descent) Ricardo Pinto. There are a number of factors which make this series stand out among contemporary fantasy. The prime reason is that the books present a highly original, fully fleshed out world unlike most fantasy worlds - it is not based on Medieval Europe (the artwork suggests an Aztec influence) and is one of the most original and most alien ones I've come across. The center of this world is Osrakum and the society of the Masters, the ruling class of the Commonwealth. Theirs is a world full of complex rules, rites and symbolisms; a world based on strict, unyielding hierarchy, where even seeing the face of a member of a higher caste usually means being blinded, if not killed. It is the Masters' cruel and merciless laws, and their utter disregard for life and for those on a lower social level, which constitute the essence of this world - and is also at the root of the problems befalling the world, and driving the narrative along. 
The narrative itself also departs from regular Tolkienesque fantasy: the story is told solely through the eyes and the mind of one central character, Carnelian. The first volume, The Chosen, sees Carnelian and his father return from exile to the court of Osrakum, where his father is supposed to oversee the election of a new God Emperor. Carnelian is thus introduced to the highly regulated and hierarchised society of the 'Masters', the rulers of the Guarded Land (the land surrounding the forbidden city of Osrakum) and the Commonwealth. There he meets and falls in love with Osidian, one of the twin sons of the dying God Emperor (and thus a likely candidate for the throne), who becomes his lover. The end of the first book sees the two youths being taken prisoner. In the second volume, The Standing Dead, Carnelian and Osidian are being smuggled out of the Guarded Land, and are eventually rescued by the Ochre, a tribe of 'barbarians'. They taken to the tribe's home in the Earthsky, a stretch of wild fertile lands bordering the Guarded Land. While Carnelian tries to integrate himself into the tribe, Osidian sows strife, allying himself with the Marula, a warrior tribe, and even adopting their god and their religious practices. In the end, Osidian and the Marulis massacre the Ochre tribe. Carnelian's plans to kill Osidian, but must then put his plan on hold and ally himself with his former lover when a Master arrives with his troops (which include huge dinosaurs equipped with flame-throwers) to seek out and destroy the two of them.
The Third Good sees Osidian and Carnelian leading a rag-tag army into the Guarded Land, taking the fight back to the nobles in their homeland. Osidian's tactics eventually sees them victorious, bringing him closer to his goal of usurping the God Emperor's throne from his brother. Carnelian meanwhile unleashes a force that eventually threatens to destroy the whole of the Guarded Land and the Masters with it.
There is much to love about the book. Pinto's prose is top notch, and the attention given to the description of the world down to the smallest, most intricate details is remarkable. It is the latter, however, which in my view also constitutes one of the book's biggest problems: the details slow the narrative down to a crawl for large parts of the book - it's really only in the last two hundred pages or so that the pace quickens. These last chapters, however, make up for a lot of the shortcomings of the book's beginnings. As the armies clash and horror after horror is unleashed in the wake of the battles, Pinto's terse prose and the realistic descriptions of the horrors of mass killings makes for very gripping, if not exactly joyful, reading.
As said above, the books are told solely through the eyes of Carnelian, and it is with his attitudes that the narrative stands and falls. The character is attaching and the love/hate relationship between him and Osidian is one of the book's driving forces; however, his indecisiveness and inaction in the first part of The Third God is infuriating. This indecisiveness has believable causes: as someone who grew up outside the closed world of the Masters, he is beset by moral doubts that none of his fellow nobles, and certainly not Osidian, display; but he also knows that he can only guarantee his own survival and those of the people he loves (his patchwork family of sorts) if he plays along with Osidian. But again, Pinto draws out Carnelian's moral quandaries a tad too long, and they stop being convincing. Another less convincing aspect of the narrative is Carnelian's interaction with one of the other characters, the Ochre warrior Fern, who eventually becomes Carnelian's new object of desire, and who seems in equal measure attracted to and repulsed by the young Master. This relationship, which takes center stage in the second half of The Third God, is less grounded than the relationship between Carnelian and Osidian, even if the eventual happy end does provide some solace after all the horrors visited upon the readers in the book's closing chapters.
In summary, The Third Good is, despite its shortcomings, a very satisfactory conclusion to one of the most outstanding fantasy trilogies of the past decade; not as good as it could be, but still high above the average, and confirming Ricardo Pinto's standing as one of Britain's best young authors.
Rating: 4 out of 5.
The Third God is published by Transworld. The paperback edition will be out on 4 March, 2010.
Ricardo Pinto's website contains a fair amount of background material on the world of The Stone Dance, and shows to what lengths he went to invent this world. He also provides synopses for the first two books of the trilogy, and the discussions provide some interesting insights into the author's ideas underlying the books.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Movie Review: Battlestar Galactica: The Plan

First things first: if you are not a Battlestar Galactica fan, or if you haven't seen the series, then this straight-to-DVD movie is not for you. Battlestar Galactica: The Plan assumes that you have seen the series from beginning to end, that you know the characters and pretty much remember the main events.

The movie basically retells the events of the first two seasons from the perspective of the cylons. The central character is Father Cavil (a.k.a. Model One), or rather two Father Cavil's (one on Galactica, the other one on Caprica), as they plot the destruction of those humans who survived the cylon's nuclear attack on the planets of the twelve colonies. One subplot thus follows the schemings of Cavil on Galactica and on the other remaining ships of the human fleet, as he cleverly manipulates those cylons that have infiltrated the fleet to take actions against the humans, even if this is against their will: he talks a reluctant Boomer into killing Adama, and attempts to convince an unwilling Simon to blow up the ship on which his wife and stepdaughter live. Various Sixes turn up, too, in various guises and with varying inclinations to help Cavil.

The other Model One has attached itself to the struggling rebel group surrounding that other cylon, Sam, on occupied Caprica. This Cavil ends up developing sympathy for the humans - a plot point that seems contrived as it goes wholly against the grain of that character, even more so as his 'conversion' comes from a rather silly remark made by Sam concerning the nature of love.

The movie opens with both Model Ones being marched to the airlock, then flashes back to the destruction of the colonies (shown in starkly eerie details), then follows key plots from the first two seasons as the cylons keep sabotaging the fleet from within and attacking from outside; and ends with the truce proposed by the cylons to the humans and the demise of the two Cavils.

Using the rather odious character of Father Cavil as the central figure was a bit risky, but it works, mostly for the charisma of actor Dean Stockwell, even if he has a tendency to over-act at times. It's also nice to see the Simon character (Rick Worthy) getting a bit more screen-time, as this character was shamefully under-used in the series.

The movie uses a large amount of footage from the series and cleverly injects the cyclon subplots into them. Edward James Olmos' direction is fluid, the editing crisp, and the plotting faultness. As said above, this is more an exercise in style (or as some cynics claim, a last attempt to milk the hit sci-fi series now that it has run its course) than a movie that can be valued on its own merits, but it still amounts to almost two hours of good entertainment for those who have enjoyed the series.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Music Review: Out of Noise / Playing the Piano, by Ryuichi Sakamoto

Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto’s work keeps moving in an area delimited by electronic and accoustic avant-garde, Debussy-esque romanticism and outright commercialism. The latter style is used for high profile movie soundtracks or television ads, while the former two are reflected both in his studio albums and in soundtracks for smaller, independent movies. On the 2005 album Chasm, Sakamoto tried to reconcile his different composition techniques, resulting in an electronic, tension laden piece of work, his best in years. His latest solo studio album, Out of Noise, published in Japan in February of this year, and now also available in Europe (coinciding with his European tour underway right now), was created using different approach. Gone are the tensions, instead the music adopts a simplicity that Sakamoto calls "white music" (in the 2009 Playing the Piano_Out of Noise Japan tour book); while he likens his composing style to ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement - adding and removing "branches" of sounds until the result felt right.

The album opens on a piano piece, Hibari, a hypnotic, repetitive piece akin to the works of Morton Feldman and Éric Satie. The next two pieces, Hwit and Still Life, are performed on viols, played by the group Fretwork, and a shoh; a traditional Japanese wind instrument. They are a prime example of the above mentioned ikabena-style arrangements, resulting in meditative music made up of multi-layered simplicity. The same approach is then used for the next pieces, which are mostly electronic with sparse acoustic parts. Mixed in are field recordings, some from his adopted home town of New York, others from a trip to Greenland which he undertook in 2008 as part of the Cape Farewell Project, a journey which has had a large influence on him, and on this album. Three of the album’s highlights, Disko, Ice and Glacier, are directly related to the Greenland experience and reflect Sakamoto’s endeavours in support of the ecology.

The final piece, Composition 0919, departs from the simplicity of the album’s other pieces and is a highly charges piano piece on which chords bounce off each other in a liberating frenzy.

In Europe, Out of Noise comes bundled with the CD Playing the Piano, which is also available separately. This is a compilation of two recordings released in 2004 and 2005, and are solo piano pieces. Included are the tracks which made Sakamoto a household name in the West, namely his soundtracks for the Berardo Bertolucci films The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky; and of course Nagisha Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, for which he wrote one of the most iconic title tunes of all times, and which has become something of his signature tune. The renderings of these pieces on this album are intense, brooding even. Other highlights include two pieces taken from his early 1980s electronic albums, Riot in Lagos and Thousand Knives; and Bolerish, a piece inspired by Maurice Ravel’s Bolero and composed for Brian de Palma's film Femme Fatale.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Book Review: Fall of Thanes, by Brian Ruckley

Fall of Thanes is the third and final instalment in Scottish writer Brian Ruckley's formidable Godless World trilogy. Set in a low-fantasy medieval world whose forbidding climate and hierarchical clan structure is to a large degree reminiscent of the Scottish highlands. This world is inhabited not only by humans but also by other non-human races, such as the feral, elf-line Kyrinin and the Anain, who seem to be some form of nature elementals. There is no real magic in this world; however, the na'kyrim, who are the mixed-blood offspring of humans and Kyrinin, possess psychic powers akin to magic.

The first book of the trilogy, Winterbirth, sees warriors of the Black Road (the descendants of exiled clans, followers of a very nihilistic religion), invade the lands of the True Bloods, i.e. the clans of their original homeland. The plot focuses on Orisian, next in line to be thane (leader) of a minor True Blood clan, as he is forced to flee his land after it gets invaded by the ruthless Black Road warriors; and on Aeglyss, a young na'kyrim half-breed initially fighting for and then betrayed by the Black Road leaders, who develops immense psychic powers with which he learns to control those around him.

Tome Two, Bloodheir, follows the fate of Orisian and three other young men who have been pushed into the role of clan- and/or war leaders, and are ill prepared for it. The alliances are falling apart: the Black Road warriors fight among themselves as more and more of them become followers of Aeglyss whose power and influence on the Black Road - and the world - is constantly growing; while the True Blood clans' alliance falls apart as the result of old and new grievances born out of centuries old power struggles and the vanity of the clans' rulers.

Fall of Thanes then sees the world literally falling apart: Aeglyss is growing mad and so is the world. The halfbreed's power is now so strong that it perverts the feelings of each and everyone, doing away with all restraints and moral inhibitions so that people turn upon each other and kill for the slightest of reasons, Aeglyss has thus become, in a sense, the embodiment of the spirit of war. Orisian, whose character has been side-stepped largely in the second tome, gradually moves back to centre stage, together with Kanin, the dispossessed Black Road thane; as both move in on Aeglyss in order to kill him and end the spook. The ending is surprising and not the kind often found in fantasy books. The dénouement may be a bit ambiguous, but that is in the nature of these tales: if you create a villain with god-like powers, it is very hard to find a believable way to kill him/her/it off at the end.

Brian Ruckley's trilogy is outstanding for several reasons: its taut description of the ravages visited on civilians and solders by a ruthless war, and its general theme of the all-pervading effects of war as it brings out the worst in most people; the ease with which the author unfolds his bleak world and makes it accessible to the reader; and above all the books' relative brevity and clarity of plot. The page count of each tome is below 500 pages, an unusual feat in the post-Harry-Potter world of fantasy publishing. The number of characters and of sub-plots is reasonable, and the fact that the action takes place within a relatively limited space and time means that Ruckly does not need to have his characters traipsing around the world for a countless number of pages without making real progress. The writing is impeccable: fluid, clear and terse. Ruckley does not waste words, and his descriptions of fight scenes are among some of the best I have recently read. The plotting is mostly very good. There are very few idle passages - those there are appear mostly in the second volume - and the books are basically what you call 'page-turners'. It is, however, the intense, to-the-point descriptions of the horrors of war and the desolation it leaves behind that remain the most memorable of the books' achievements.

The work is not without its flaws: the Kyrinin are too close to the stereotypical 'noble savages' to be truly alien and interesting, and the two Kyrinin characters who accompany Orisian on his quest stay one-dimensional throughout. But these are minor quibbles, and do not take away from the fact that the Godless World trilogy is one of the major new fantasy series of the last years, and Fall of Thanes its more than brilliant conclusion.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Brian Ruckley's website can be found here. An interview with him can be found here.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Movie Review: Los abrazos rotos (Broken Embraces), by Pedro Almodóvar.

Broken Embraces has, by all accounts, all the ingredients that have made the recent string of Almodóvar movies great: women and men on the verge of a nervous break-down, passion, drama, death and Penélope Cruz. This time around, 'though, the mix doesn't ignite: the movie ends up making for a boring two hours.

The plot involves Mateo (Lluís Homar), a blind script writer and former movie director who reveals to his young collaborator the story of how, some 14 years ago, he was involved in a passionate love affair with Lena (Penélope Cruz), the actress in his last movie and also the girl friend of the rich old tycoon producing the movie. The love story turns into drama when the tycoon finds out about their affair, leading eventually to a death and to the loss of Mateo's eye sight.

Along the way, Almodóvar offers us a string of cinematic gimmicks such as movies-in-movies and, in Lena, countless references to classic divas and film roles, from Audrey Hepburn to Kim Novak. The styling is perfect as ever, and Penélope Cruz a joy to watch. There are also the type of surreal scenes that Almodóvar excels in, such as when a lip reader reads back to the tycoon the none-too-flattering remarks about him spoken by Lena on a surveillance tape.

Where the movie goes wrong, 'though, is in the plotting. Too much time is wasted in unimportant details in the present-tense story line, leaving too little room for the supposedly passionate love story in the flashback scenes. The illicit affair is jumped into with hardly any build-up; and apart from two or three scenes where we see the couple involved in passionate kissing, the passion is mostly talked about (and talked about and talked about) or happens offstage, behind closed doors.

Broken Embraces thus never lives up to its potential, ending up as a movie that talks about passion but fails to deliver it. The most disappointing of Almodóvar's movies since High Heels.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Music Review: Manafon, by David Sylvian

In order to appreciate David Sylvian's new album Manafon (or to at least understand where it's coming from), one shouldn't attribute to it the labels usually attached to Sylvian, or to his co-musicians on this album. Alternative, rock, pop, free jazz, electronica: all these categories don't fit. In a recent interview, David Sylvian explained that he wanted to create music chamber. And that is exactly what Manafon is: contemporary classical chamber music.

Conceived as a sequel or a companion piece to 2003's Blemish, the album on which Sylvian broke the most radically with his pop/rock-past, Manafon is built around improvised music recorded in three sessions held in Vienna (with, among others, Christian Fennesz and the members of the contemporary classical music group Polwechsel), Tokyo and London. Sylvian then wrote and added the lyrics to the music over a span of a few hours, without doing a lot of refining or reworking - his style of improvisation, as he puts it in this interview.

The album opens with its most accessible piece, Small Metal Gods (the only track likely to get some radio airplay); but is followed immediately by The Rabbit Skinner, which is arguably the most inaccessible track on the album. On this track, as on the next, Random Acts of Senseless Violence, the discordant nature of the music is heightened by Sylvian's vocals going not with, but against, the instrumental improvisations. On other pieces this is not the case: here the vocals are woven into the instrumental tapestry and become a part of it, such as on Snow White in Appalachia or the title track - although, when vocals and instruments do come together, it feels more like a chance meeting than a deliberate one. Apart from Sylvian's voice, the one constant factor in the instrumental set-up is Christian Fennesz's guitar and his harsh-sounding, but very organic-feeling, electronic effects. These effects create a structure which holds the various pieces together in much the same way that Sylvian's voice does, by adding a very rewarding resonance to the discordant electronic or acoustic sounds of the other musicians.

Small Metal Gods is the only piece told in the first person, and thus, most likely, the most auto-biographical, featuring lines like "Small metal gods /From a casting line / From a factory in Mumbai / [...] Cheap souvenirs / You’ve abandoned me for sure / I’m dumping you, my childish things / I’m evening up the score" which leave me wondering to what degree the song is a refutation of the Hinduist/Buddhist philosophies that Sylvian has embraced over the last decade or more.

The remaining eight tracks are basically short stories or narrative poems told in the third person - something of a departure from deeply auto-biographical works such as Blemish. Although this form of lyrics was already present on some of the tracks of the Nine Horses album Snow Borne Sorrow, such as on its masterpiece, Atom and Cell, the lyrics here are less focused, more meandering and more mysterious - a consequence no doubt of the quasi-improvisational manner in which they were written. The lyrics are, much like the music, a reflection on the creative process in times of disillusionment. As Sylvian puts it in an introduction to the album, “Maybe I’m attracted to the stories of individuals who search for meaning on their own terms.” A meaning found in creativity outside the beaten paths, as illustrated in the title piece, about Welsh poet, nationalist and clergyman R.S. Thomas (Manafon being the Welsh town where Thomas was rector).

In summary, then, Manafon is what David Sylvian intended it to be, chamber music full of the discordant, atonal sounds in which some people only hear noise, and in which others find a different kind of beauty; music and lyrics who may be lost on some but end up rewarding and satisfying to others, especially those who take the time to listen and re-listen to it.

My rating: 5 out of 5.

Manafon is published by Samadhi Sound, both as a regular CD and a deluxe edition which also includes a DVD with the documentary “Amplified Gesture” (Note: the deluxe edition seems to be sold out already).

The website includes interviews, track excerpts, a trailer for “Amplified Gesture” and a video for "Small Metal Gods."