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.