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 √Čric 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.