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."

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Movie Review: District 9

Maybe it does take the name of a Hollywood name like Peter Jackson to catapult a non-Hollywood science fiction movie like District 9 into the awareness of international critics and viewers, but so much the better. This is one movie that deserves the hype that is currently building up around it.

District 9 tells, in mock-documentary style, the story of a middle-management operative, Wikus van der Merwe, who is pushed into the leading role of evacuating over a million aliens from District 9, the shantytown camp near Johannesburg, where the creatures have been held since appearing in a giant derelict space craft some twenty years ago. As Wikus leads the operation with a mixture of bureaucratic correctness and utter despise for the insect-like creatures, he becomes exposed to a chemical substance from the space craft and from then on slowly mutates into one of the creatures himself; whereupon he finds himself being a prisoner of his employer for the very reason that his altered DNA can trigger the alien weapons which a human cannot. What follows is a story told before, of a man who becomes what he despises most, and ends up having to ally with his former enemies against his former allies.

The story, written and directed by South African born Neill Blomkamp, is an obvious allegory of his country's apartheid past, and possibly also a comment on the xenophobic riots from a couple of years ago which left several migrant workers from South Africa's neighbouring countries killed by an angry mob. The use of a pseudo-documentary style is convenient for showing how far ingrained the racism towards the aliens has become in humans, with little or no sympathy being shown for the creatures throughout all the strata of human society. In this, I was reminded of the treatment that Romanian gypsies currently receive in many European countries, where media, right-wing politicians and un-reflected hearsay contribute to a deep but vague feeling of antipathy, accompanied by openly racist legislation in a number of EU countries, towards this 'alien' people right in our midst.

With its tight plotting, the movie manages to generate a feeling of unease that it does not relent throughout most of its duration, although some of it is mitigated through the cathartic shoot-out at the end. Wikus's mutation into an insect-like alien is highly reminiscent of David Cronenberg's The Fly; I found this not the only similarity to Cronenberg's movies - the said sense of unease and the slightly surreal, claustrophobic atmosphere are other common traits.

I also liked the fact the aliens were truly that - alien - for pretty much most of the film. Despite the human names the aliens were given, the creatures shared very few human traits - apart maybe from a certain gluttony. Again, towards the end, a movie-typical father(?)-son relationship ends up humanising the main alien character, as does the apparent bonding between Wikus and the alien. The last half hour of the movie is why I do not give the movie a 5/5 rating: despite being very entertaining (certainly to science fiction fans), the ending lets in a few of the Hollywood stereotypes that the movie was consistent enough to avoid until then. It can be argued that plot devices like the alien father/son subplot or the human/alien bonding help in bringing the movie's message home, but I think that it somewhat reduces the impact of a movie that for the most part remained intense because it remained different.

Finally, it should also be added that the movie's production is of great quality. Peter Jackson's Weta Workshop and Weta Digital companies have created top-notch special effects, and the aliens are certainly some of the best CGI creatures on celluloid. Also, as humans and aliens alike are variously blown or torn to pieces in very graphic detail, the film is not for the squeamish.

In summary, District 9 is one of the best science fiction movies of the last years, and does what sci-fi does best, i.e. use the fantastic and the futuristic to reflect upon human nature in the here and now.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Book Review: The Affinity Bridge, by George Mann

The Affinity Bridge contains everything you come to expect of a steampunk novel: automatons, airships, steam-driven cars and grisly murders in the smog, all this set, of course, in Victorian London. For good measure, author George Mann also throws in zombies and the purported ghosts of dead policemen. The good news is: the mix works.

The novel follows the investigations of Sir Maurice Newbury, an agent in the service of Queen Victoria, and his assistant Veronica Hobbes, as they look first into a series of murders in, yes, Whitechapel; and then into the crash of an airship and the disappearance of its automaton pilot; only to find out that both events are related. Along the way, the investigators come face-to-face with would-be-assassins of various ilk, and both of them have to face their personal demons - an addiction to laudanum for Newbury, a sister in a mental institution for Hobbes.

The characters are engaging, the plot moves along at a fast pace and is highly entertaining. The setting and the time period are well depicted without resorting to gross imitations of pseudo-period talk.

While the story does not really touch on some of the social issues inherent to the steampunk setting (or for that matter, found in the stories of the novelist who inspired the movement, H.G. Wells), i.e. the huge class discrepancies of the Victorian age, Mann does reflect on the not always positive intrusion of scientific progress into the everyday life by playing off Newbury's fondness for new inventions against Hobbe's dislike of the noisy, steamy and awkward new machines.

There are a few negative points to the book: the writing is at times stilted and awkward, resorting too often to stating the obvious; not least in the action scenes in which the narrative is too long-winded to be effective. Some of the dialogues are marred by overly long passages of exposition. My other, minor, point of criticism is that none of the steampunk ingredients are terribly original, all has been done before. The automatons, for example, are highly reminiscent of certain Doctor Who villains, which may not be a coincidence seeing that Mann has written Doctor Who stories in the past. But, as said above, Mann makes the stew of ideas work, which is what matters.

Overall, I give this book a 3.5 out of 5 rating.

Note: George Mann continues the adventures of Newbury and Hobbes in the recently published The Osiris Ritual.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Music Review: Battle for the Sun, by Placebo

It's every rock/pop performer's curse: bring out one master piece, and everyone expects you to repeat that performance over and over again. Placebo's master piece was called Without You I'm Nothing and it came out in 1998, and ever since, it seems, every album was greeted either with derision or with relief that the band hasn't sunk yet.

Battle for the Sun, the trio's latest release (with new drummer Steve Forrest), doesn't sink either - and some even call it a return to form after the last albums. Personally, I think that Meds was better, but while Battle for the Sun is not as good as it could be, it is still better than most fare out there. The group's style hasn't really changed over the years, built as it is around the driving vocals and guitar of front man Brian Molko as well as Stefan Olsdal's churning bass. The sound doesn't really change on the latest album either - even if on some tracks of this album are more mainstream than alternative/punk, and have had brass instruments and strings added. But the group still knows how to rock, and that's the most important thing: the title track, the single For What It's Worth, Bright Lights and Ashtray Heart are all brilliant.

One problem I have with the album are the lyrics on a couple of tracks, such as on Come Undone. As sharp as they are on most tracks, on some they seem to have been put together with the aid of a dictionary in order to find words that rhyme; the result is a bit like silly, clumsy europop poetry.

Battle for the Sun is one of those albums that grows on you the more you hear it, and despite the straightforward seeming sound, there are enough bits and pieces to discover upon repeated hearing.

Overall, I give the album 3.5 (bordering on 4) out of 5.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Book Review: The Cities of the Fantastic series of graphic novels by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters.

The Cities of the Fantastic (or Obscure Cities, as they are unofficially called, based on their original French name, Les Cités Obscures) graphic novels are the works of two Belgians, artists François Schuiten and writer Benoît Peeters. The series is set on a continent vaguely reminiscent of Europe, with cities called Brüsel, Genova, Pahry etc. The world is also often called "counter-Earth", and in several novels, passages between our world and "counter-Earth" are shown to exist.

The novels almost always follow explorers, cartographers or urbanists as they explore the mysteries of cities or buildings, only to be confounded by them. Illusions within illusions, manipulations of the individual for the "greater good" of a city or a regime, the effects of rapid urban and technological change on individuals, all these are recurring themes of the novels.

Schuiten being a trained architect, it is not surprising that architecture, and in particular urban architecture, plays a starring role in the books. The Great Walls of Samaris showcases a city made of shifting scenery, in Fever in Urbicand, a giant cube throws the city of Urbicand (and the life of an urbanist) into chaos. In The Tower, a man explores a city set within one seemingly endless tower. In Brüsel, the authors take up the plight of their real-life hometown, Brussels, and the destruction of its history by all-too-rampant modernisation. The Road to Amiliafeatures a zeppelin ride through much of the continent of the Oscure Cities, showcasing the extravagant architecture of a good many of them.

The stories are always highly complex, and not all their mysteries are resolved in the end. The tone is usually rather bleak, happy endings are rare. The world, and the themes, are in the tradition of Jules Verne and other 19th century science fiction novelists (if the books fit a style at all, it would be steampunk). The books' visual style uses many elements of Art Nouveau, while people's clothing ranges from the 19th century to the 1920s (although time doesn't stand still in counter-Earth: in The Invisible Frontier, which tells the story of a nascent fascist empire swallowing its neighbours, clothing and hair styles progresses to those of the 1930s/1940s).

The style of the illustrations varies: most books are told in sumptuous colours, but others use black and white drawings reminiscent of period etchings; one book, L'enfant penchée, utilises both photographs and drawings. The world is presented in amazing detail: every panel seems to ooze with incredible inventions that make the world come alive, and render the fantastic setting utterly believable. It is no wonder that the novels have spawned a cult movement that debates and dissects every invention and every theory voiced in the books.

The journey into the mysterious Cities of the Fantastic began in 1982 with the publication of The Great Wall of Samaris; the latest outing is the two part La Théorie du grain de sable, published in French in 2008 (and not yet published in English). So far, there are twelve official comics, and a series of spin-offs, such as tourist guides, newspapers and audio plays. Casterman, the French editor, has announced for 2009 a new edition of the outstanding The Archivist, a book consisting entirely of annotated one page spreads depicting various cities. A complete list of publications (in English) can be found under Les Cités Obscures on wikipedia.

I can highly recommend these graphic novels to anyone interested in steampunk, in intelligent comics and in discovering utterly believable "strange new worlds" while being thoroughly entertained.

Rating: 5 of 5.

Official website: (in French).

Monday, July 20, 2009

Movie Review: Brüno

The title of Sasha Baron Cohen's 2006 movie, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, at least indicated at a plotline carrying that movie. His latest outing, Brüno: Delicious Journeys Through America for the Purpose of Making Heterosexual Males Visibly Uncomfortable in the Presence of a Gay Foreigner in a Mesh T-Shirt, points to just what the movie is: a series of skits designed to expose the homophobia in much of American culture. Along the way he also showcases parents willing to expose their toddlers to about anything in order to get them into show business; charity PR consultants who don't know the first thing about current world affairs; and celebrities who, when asked to sit on people, are more concerned with their image than with the 'chair people' they sit on. All this is not always done in the best of taste, but it is hilariously funny. Brüno may just be the funniest comedy since, well, Borat.

The movie also leaves you admiring Cohen's courage as you see him chased by an angry mob in Jerusalem, or thrown at with metal chairs while making out with another man in a pit fighter cage.

For me there are two main items where the movie falls short (apart from the minor issue of a missing plot): Cohen doesn't know when to finish a joke - some scenes carry on well beyond their punch line and thus lose much of their momentum. The other criticism that can be levelled at the movie is that Cohen went looking for homophobia where he would predictably find it: in the army, with redneck hunters and conservative Christian preachers. Borat gained much of its social relevance by exposing racism and antisemitism in average people. This type of more subtle observation is missing in Brüno.

Ahead of the movie's opening, the media made much of the fact that in their view, Brüno's antics did more to enforce gay stereotypes than to expose homophobia. Time magazine ran an article on how negative comments on Twitter by the gay community caused the ratings to fall dramatically within two days of the movie's opening in the US. Personally, I have heard very few negative comments by the gay community, and even Germany's usually übercritical Spiegel magazine carried an article that the gay & lesbian organisations in Europe had a generally favourable view of the movie.

Granted, there were a couple of clichés the movie could have done without - such as the various sex devices and gimmicks. However, given the hyperbole dished out by Cohen, I fail to see how people could take Brüno's antics as a real representation of a gay man. And if there are some people who do, well, quite frankly, then the joke is on them.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Book Review: Extraordinary Engines, by Nick Gevers (editor)

Steampuk is a movement that has been generating more and more buzz over the last years. What started out as a literary genre had now branched out into other arts, crafts and lifestyle in general. For those not in the know: steampunk is basically Victorian science fiction by modern authors, much in the vein of 19th century authors like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, i.e. authors of what was then called scientific romances.

Michael Moorcock is generally credited with having written the first modern steampunk with his A Nomad of the Time Streams trilogy of books. The movement gained momentum, and its name, when cyberpunk icons like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling (authors of the defining The Difference Engine) and K.W. Jeter (credited with coining the term) started turning to the 19th century.

These pioneer steampunk authors not only picked up on the gimmicks invented by their 19th century counterparts (airships, submarines, steamdriven automatons, early computers as the one thought up in real-life by Charles Babbage), but also continued the themes dear to the likes of H.G. Wells: the ever-growing chasm between the classes, the colonisation of pretty much the rest of the world by a few European superpowers, the arms race and the extreme nationalism prevalent at the time, as well as the nascent feminist movement; the underlying message generally being that science mostly serves those in power.

2008 saw the publication of two comprehensive anthologies of steampunk fiction: Extraordinary Engines: The Definitive Steampunk Anthology, edited by Nick Gevers; and Steampunk, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. I will review the latter work at a later date, this article concerns therefore only Extraordinary Engines.

Nick Gevers has assembled in his collection a series of original fiction by some of the genre's most renowned authors, showcasing what the genre has evolved to over the years. The plots have branched out into adventure, swashbuckling yarns and detective fiction; the social message is not necessarily as prevalent as it one was (i.e. the punk ingredient has somewhat left steampunk). All this is reflected in the stories at hand. The most poignant one, Fixing Hanover, by Jeff VanderMeer still picks up on the themes of H.G. Wells as he shows the effects that the arms race and colonisation has on individuals involved in it and those who fall victim to it. Other works include espionage stories on submarines (Speed, Speed the Cable, by Kage Baker), a steam-driven boxing automaton who becomes a working-class hero (in the strong opening story, Steampunch, by James Lovegrove), a satirical take on early feminism (Lady Witherspoon's Solution, by James Morrow); as well as stories set in the future where steam still reigns; the latter sub-genre providing the only true steam-meets-cyberpunk story, The Lollygang Save the World on Accident by Jay Lake. Not all stories are set in Great Britain: Machine Maid by Margo Lanagan is set in Australia and a couple off stories are set in the USA.

Overall, the stories range from good to very good; not one is disappointing; and the collection certainly works as a stepping stone in exploring the steampunk in the works of the authors assembled in this anthology.

Extraordinary Engines: The Definitive Steampunk Anthology, edited by Nick Gevers, is published by Solaris.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

CD Review: UTP_ by Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto with Ensemble Modern

UTP_ is a new album by Japanese composer/musician Ryuichi Sakamoto and German electronic sound artist Alva Noto, a.k.a. Carsten Nicolai. This, their fourth collaboration, was instigated when the city of Mannheim invited the two artists to create an audio-visual performance together with the group Ensemble Modern, one of the leading chamber ensembles performing contemporary classical music.

The result is unlike any of the preceding albums by the duo: their minimalist music rests here on a resonant sound provided by Ensemble Modern's classic instruments. These instruments in turn form a counterpoint to the electronics (such as in the very strong opener attack/transition) or melt with them by adding layers of intricacy, such as on particle 1. The sound is thus richer and more organic than the previous Alva Noto/Ryuichi Sakamoto releases. Overall this is a very satisfying piece of music, not least for the intricate texture that has been constructed here and which reveals its secrets only upon repeated listening.

UTP_ is in some ways reminiscent of Ryuichi Sakamoto's latest solo album, Out of Noise, which was released earlier this year in Japan. Probably recorded after UTP_, it picks up on some of the themes of this album, most notably in the way that chamber music and electronics were mixed.

I stumbled upon UTP_ by accident on iTunes, and googling it returns remarkably few results. I wonder why the release of such a potentially major work of art was treated so low-key by both artists?

Personally, I like the album a lot and can recommend it to anyone interested in electronic and/or contemporary classical music.

UTP_ by Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto with Ensemble Modern is a Raster-Noton release.

Out of Noise by Ryuichi Sakamoto has been released in Japan by commons.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Movie Review: Terminator Salvation

Yesterday I finally got around to seeing the new Terminator movie. I've been putting it off, mostly due to the bad reviews the movie has been getting in the US and over here. So last night, I expected the worst and came out having quite enjoyed the movie. This left me musing all day why I liked the movie and the critics didn't. I didn't find an answer, but left me with enough arguments to write my own review. So here it goes.

Here's what I liked in the movie: having moved the franchise to the much vaunted Days of Reckoning, the movie does a good job of conjuring up an apocalyptic mood. Rendered in almost colourless hues, with impressive CGI backdrops of bombed out cities, and with the constant threat of machines out to grab the last humans, the mood of despair and paranoia couldn't be better visualised. The action scenes are well orchestrated, and despite what one may fear, not as drawn out as they could be (but it is an action movie nonetheless). They leave enough room for character development, story telling and of course for repeating the message underlying the first Terminator movies (i.e., men and the rise of the machines etc.).

The cast is very strong, lead by the central character of the half-human/half-machine Marcus, played to great tragic effect by Sam Worthington, with great support from Moon Bloodgood, Anton Yelchin, Helena Bonham-Carter and others. The movie, to me, felt more like an ensemble film than did the previous movies, which I thought was a good thing as it did not rely on the "lone hero" cliché.

This brings me to the negative points in the movie. I see two main ones. One is that the director and/or writers obviously felt like kids in a candy store and came up with any machine possible for the CGI guys to implement. Was there really a need for sentient motor bikes, transformers, flying saucers and even machine kraken (though I liked those)? Less would have been more, and might have helped to focus the action on the sinister, skull-headed terminator models, who got pretty much side-lined but were the most impressive of the lot.

The other weak point of the movie: a totally underwritten, bland John Connor. The character which was supposed to take centre stage stays on the side-line, mostly because the writers did not provide him with a background (unlike Marcus, who gets an origin story of sorts). There is no link back to the boy of the previous movies; there is a vague attempt at continuity provided by the voice of Linda Hamilton on tape, but this doesn't really do the job of filling in the holes. There are some good ideas (the prophet who isn't believed, the good soldier who learns to disobey), but overall the John Connor storyline feels rushed and incomplete.

The pregnant wife that the writers plant at his side is treated even worse: she's there, she's pregnant, she utters a few lines - but we do not know where she comes from, how they met etc. etc. . The movie's makers could have created a more credible story line by developing a boy-meets-girl around John Connor, in parallel to the budding Marcus-Blair romance. This would have gone a long way of making the character more approachable.

So, in the end, the movie is carried by Sam Worthington, and while this makes the movie less than perfect, it doesn't make it anywhere near awful. The film delivers intelligent entertainment, and if the writers learn from their mistakes and concentrate more on developing John Connor, then the planned next two instalments should really work.

If this was a starred review, I'd give Terminator Salvation 4 out of 5.