Monday, January 31, 2005

Title: A Hole In My Heart [Ett Hål I Mitt Hjärta]
Cast: Björn Almroth, Sanna Bråding, Thorsten Flinck, Goran Marjanovic
Director: Lukas Moodysson

How on earth do you explain A Hole In My Heart? Not satisfied with the effect of Lilja 4-Ever on the viewing public, Lukas Moodysson returns with A Hole In My Heart, a firm example of cinema as assault. Something which it achieves on every level - content, narrative structure, and sound.

Plot wise A Hole In My Heart is set within the confines of one flat, and features 4 characters. A teenage boy sits in the dark, listens to experimental music, and doesn’t go out much. Which is cause for concern to his father, who has raised him alone since the age of four. Of course most other summaries will dwell on the fact the father is a pornographer, and the other two characters are the stars of his latest homemade porn films.

A Hole In My Heart is a traumatic experience, filled with the degrading lifestyle of it’s characters, mixed in with random blasts of footage of genital surgery, sex scenes, and simulated sex scenes. Which is why the film will no doubt see many people walking out from screenings - certainly there were more people walked out of the screening that I attended than made it the whole way through; though given how many of them walked in late, one wonders if they knew what they were getting into in the first place.

Despite all the jump cuts, gore footage, and extremes of A Hole In My Heart there is more to it than shock tactics. Thematically there is a certain connection with Lilja 4-Ever, the ideas of sex and exploitation. With at least one scene where the audience is faced with the question of whether something really bad is about to happen - the aftermath of which almost mirrors a portion of Lilja 4-Ever.

Through all this we are also given insight into the lives of the four characters. The tragedies, the abuses, the false hopes and dreams that have made them who they are, that have brought them to this flat at this time. Mentions of big brother, and aspirations for fame. Dreams of UFO’s and whole other lives. The strange existence of a former Swedish metal star, who supported American rock bands like Hanoi Rocks and Motley Crue.

A Hole In My Heart is baffling and intense. The sort of the film that leaves you thinking afterwards. The sort of film that leaves you wondering whether you really wanted to see it, and what the chances are that you will ever want to see it again. On the other hand, it challenges the viewer and as you reflect on it you start to piece together the kind of techniques and narratives that make Moodysson such a renowned and acclaimed director. Again he gets strong performances from his cast, and what there is to be gained from watching A Hole In My Heart comes from their presence. With each film Moodyson creates a greater stir and trumps fellow Scandinavian directors like Lars von Trier with the sheer intensity and controversy of something like A Hole In My Heart. Still it isn’t the kind of film that I would suggest as a starting point for his work - material like Fucking Amal (aka Show Me Love) or Lilja 4-Ever being the must see films by the Swedish director Lukas Moodysson.

Lukas Moodysson - The Guardian's interview with the director to coincide with the UK release of A Hole In My Heart.

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Title: Team America
Cast: Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Kristen Miller, Daran Norris, Phil Hendrie
Director: Trey Parker

Team America could be described as the South Park remix of Thunderbirds. The creators of South Park going all Gerry Anderson on us, as they take a crack at America and it’s position in the world today. Attacking the strong arm bully boy tactics as much as the loud mouthed left wing celebrity spokes models that criticise.

Team America are an elite anti-terrorist force, who recruit an actor to infiltrate enemy organisations. In the process they reveal an axis of evil that threatens the world, but in doing so they leave their own trail of destruction, which makes them less than popular around the world.

From the start, Team America is way over the top, making crude and excessive jokes from the get go. For all the politics and world events this film still comes from those South Park boys, and it shows, dick jokes reign supreme. Which is to say that Team America is wonderfully offensive throughout.

With the way that Team America attacks all sides it manages to cancel itself out politically, to some degree. But within all that Team America is actually also a clever spoof of cinema itself. The dialogue parodies romantic drama, the stunts provide commentary on action films, the song “Montage” focuses on narrative technique, while “Pearl Harbour Sucked” tells us that the film Pearl Harbour sucked!
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Title: Creep
Cast: Franka Potente, Sean Harris, Vas Blackwood, Jeremy Sheffield, Paul Rattray, Kelly Scott
Director: Christopher Smith

This British horror has had something of a problematic start. Trailers did the rounds some time last year. With an initial release date given as October 15th of 2004, the non-appearance suggested that it had received a limited release and had disappeared without trace. Instead it was put back, finally getting the release date of January 28th 2005. Of course the fact that the initial listing was given a tentative certificate of 15 and the final listing said TBA, with the release given an 18 on appearance in the cinema, may go some way to explaining the delay in Creep’s distribution.

As a film it is a low budget affair, set in the London underground. While it is in some ways clichéd and by the book, Creep still has something to offer as a half decent b-movie. Demonstrating the kind of unremitting violence and nastiness that no doubt accounts for the upgrading of the certificate, and brings back memories of last year’s release of the film Saw.

Franka Potente (Run, Lola, Run; Princess And The Warrior; Anatomy; Blow; The Bourne Identity) plays Kate, a German woman in London, who falls asleep on the platform of an underground station on the way home from a party. Just as she is about to be raped by a man who has followed her from that party, he is pulled off her and murdered by an unseen killer. This starts the slaughter, various train workers and homeless people being killed round each corner. Potente flashes back to Run, Lola, Run, which made her name in her native Germany, though in this case as she runs through corridors, tunnels, and eventually the sewers, she is trying to save her own life rather than someone else’s. A role which she plays to it’s fullest, though it perhaps would have been nice if the budget could have stretched to a decent dress, since she has been plonked in a yellow, floral piece of hideous cloth.

Some of that budget has no doubt gone on the effects for the “creep” though. The creep being one of the more effective mutated/deformed, knife-wielding dweller of darkness. His first appearance is actually a particularly nice piece of cinema - given that in a theatre you are pretty much guaranteed a reaction from this scene. Past the tick box appearance of the foetus in a jar and the jangly little kid’s toy, there is a certain vague attempt to provide a back-story. Interestingly these references are under stated, suggesting an origin story without belabouring the point. Overstating the point often being one of those points open to plot holes and losing the audience’s interest.

The setting makes a change from the more traditional haunted house or dark wood. Though apparently there was a film in the early 1970’s, Deathline, which was also set in the London underground - a film held with mixed regard all these years later. Then there is Kontrol, a Hungarian film with a serial killer stalking the underground system - which I hope to see at some point in the near future.

Visually and sonically (soundtrack provided by The Insects) Creep creates a suitable atmosphere, providing a decent enough example of the genre. Particularly with it’s almost charismatic psychotic.
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Title: Napoleon Dynamite
Cast: Jon Heder, Jon Gries, Aaron Ruell, Efren Ramirez, Diedrich Bader, Tina Majorino, Sandy Martin, Haylie Duff
Director: Jared Hess

Napoleon Dynamite has all the trademarks of the teen/high school comedy from America – the underdogs, the school dance, and election of school president. But the whole approach is a lot more raw and indie looking than we would usually get – even if the film is being put about by MTV.

None of the characters are particularly likeable, and there is little to relate to – this slice of America is particularly alien to a European like me. As a result Napoleon Dynamite is something of a mixed bag. At times people are laughing at what happens they are mocking those who are less than they are, which doesn’t make me entirely comfortable. On the other hand there are scenes which are more genuinely funny in a traditional manner, at least on some slapstick level.

Napoleon Dynamite seems to have been pretty well received and comes to a degree with a certain amount of hype around it, even if there is almost no actual publicity – I hadn’t seen a single trailer for it in the month it was showing before I decided to give it a go. However it is really quite an average film, which while it has it’s moments, it is some way from being all that – especially with a history of darker more subversive high school movies like Rushmore, Election or Saved! to compare it with.

Title: Elektra
Cast: Jennifer Garner, Goran Visnjic, Kirsten Prout, Will Yun Lee, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Terence Stamp, Natassia Malthe
Director: Rob Bowman

Elektra was a scantily clad assassin who appeared in the Daredevil comics. Over the years she has established a certain popularity, growing from repeat cameos, periodic graphic novels and her own title. Which is the same kind of set up with the film, Elektra being a character who appeared in the Daredevil film, spinning out into her own film - although this was a transition that was no doubt planned from the start. These are no doubt the kind of parallels, which lead to incessant comparisons to last year’s Catwoman film - though the clearest difference is that based on the trailers I didn’t go and see Catwoman, while I did go and see Elektra.

Already Elektra has had something of a negative reception, but it is too easy to dismiss films like this. Within the genre of superhero/action films, especially after frontline examples like Spider Man and X-Men, Elektra is actually a decent outing. Compared to Daredevil which was distinctly under whelming, or the Hulk, which was an over ambitious mess. Big budget, big effects, and well over the top delivery, makes Elektra something of a fun romp. Fitting in well the whole Blade sequence of films - so if you enjoyed those, you will likely enjoy this as well.

There are some references to events in the Daredevil film, explaining something of how Elektra became an expert assassin. Who can penetrate any defences with a supernatural ease. But when she is given the job of killing a teenage girl, she sees too many parallels with her own life, and instead opts to protect the girl. Of course the bad guys still want the girl dead, and it isn’t long before a group of super powered assassins are sent to kill Elektra and the girl.

Plenty of ninja from the Hand, the baddies of the piece. The steady presence of Stick, the blind sensei who taught Elektra. Typhoid Mary as one of the powered team of assassins. All references which link back to the Daredevil and Elektra comics. With this film it is interesting to see how Garner has adapted to the part, having not really fitted the role in the Daredevil movie. The straightening of her hair, and a greater presence of the trademark red clothing both help. She perhaps still isn’t exactly like the comic book image, but then as an image brought to life in live action cinema that would bring a certain absurdity. So in this context, Garner fits the part well. Terrence Stamp appears as Stick, and seems to be close enough to my hazed recollection of the character - though I recall him more from some of the classic Frank Millar Daredevil comics. The appearance of Typhoid Mary is curious, in some ways as depicted in the film the character is totally different from the one in the comics. On that basis I am reminded of Sabretooth in the first X-Men film, which was badly handled. Yet there is something to the character in the film, which, while verging on cliché, has a certain something.

Visually Elektra is interesting. The advances in technology obviously allowing the creators to do so much more with this type of film than they could with the Spider-Man films of the 1980’s or the Batman films of the 1990’s. technology now allows more scope for the demonstration and expression of super powers. Elektra’s powers are limited, through martial arts techniques she can see a little way into the future. But in her case, effects are mainly used to crank up the fight scenes; one fight scene being particularly reminiscent of something like House Of Flying Daggers, as a group of ninja appear from the trees. So it is really the villains that shine in terms of effects. A couple of scenes with Typhoid Mary seeing the director demonstrate a more artistic bent. Taking the time to slow the film down and delve into the moment.

Elektra manages to convert comic book material into a decent action film. Slick, polished and accomplishing something that those that made the likes of Daredevil or Punisher failed to do.
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Saturday, January 29, 2005

Title: Nad Spiro’s Fightclubbing
Artist: Nad Spiro
Label: Geometrik and Mess/Age

Nad Spiro’s Fightclubbing is obviously influenced by Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, a fact clear from the album’s title as much as the list of influences on the inside sleeve. Nad Spiro is the recording name of Barcelona based Rosa Arruti. This her second solo release is presented as a collaboration between the Geometrik and Mess/Age labels; Geometrik perhaps being most well for releases of Spanish industrialists Esplendor Geometrico, though this release sounds nothing like them.

For an album called Fightclubbing, this is a surprisingly restrained release, though throughout there is a certain charge that informs the album’s atmosphere. Which makes it one of those albums that when you stop and listen to it, try to pin it down, then it’s attraction is an elusive thing to quantify, yet it remains memorable, something that one keeps coming back to listen again.

As an album there are changes across the 11 tracks, with the album starting at Mrs Cranium Lectures On Phrenology and the more buzzing and humming composition, which gives a laid back and atmospheric feel, mixing in tenuous hints of speech. As the album progresses the pieces gain more density, more pulses and blips which form percussive lines, with strumming elements that suggest the presence of guitar. This brings us to the mid-point of the album and Spirotechnics, which is the first of the tracks that are particularly upbeat and bare more of a resemblance to a strong structure. Filled with a steady beat, and a more vibrant , streaming buzz of bass toned guitar. The voices are more prominent here, through a rough computer toned filter – making them more distorted and threatening than the ghost voices that went before. From there the next landmark is the title track itself.

The couple of tracks between being more stripped down than either Spirotechnics or Fightclubbing, though they have a certain mix of swirling electronic squeals and esoteric vocal mumblings that make them more pronounced than the first section of the album. Again Fightclubbing has something of a song structure, describing a certain defiance, a low slung punk potential. Which provides a slice of retro influence at the core, contrasted by the squeals and layers of breaking glass. The remaining 3 tracks are pretty much where the album is at it’s weakest, the two parts of Motorschiff seem a little too directionless and uninspired, and while Enigmo Helix picks it up again, it isn’t enough of a return to form.

Listening to Nad Spiro’s Fightclubbing one tends to remember strange atmospheres. Imbued with mysterious voices in a mix of curious sparse tones. That congeal into distinct soundscapes, with occasional hints of a more pop potential hidden inside.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Title: A Very Long Engagement
Cast: Audrey Tautou, Gaspard Ulliel, Jean-Pierre Becker, Dominique Bettenfeld, Clovis Cornillac, Marion Cotillard, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Julie Depardieu, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Ticky Holgado, Tchéky Karyo, Chantal Neuwirth, Dominique Pinon, Elina Löwensohn, Jodie Foster
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet

In 1917, five French soldiers were court marshalled and put over the top, into no-man’s land – where they would be picked off by the Germans or starve to death. As A Very Long Engagement opens we are introduced to these 5 men, given potted histories, who they were, how they were different, yet all cam to the same end. The first world war was a muddy hell, soldiers living in trenches, fighting in the waste land between – millions died. Caught in this, each of these men reached the end of the line, a point where they could go no further. With this each found a way to injure a hand, hoping an injury would have them sent home. Instead they were found guilty of self-mutilation and sentenced to death.

The youngest of these men was Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), barely 20, and leaving his fiancé Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) behind. But even by 1920, with the war done, and no news of Manech’s survival, Mathilde remains convinced that somehow he is still alive. A Very Long Engagement is about true love, the way Manech broke through the walls Mathilde had built up after suffering from polio, till they were inseparable. Holding on to hope Mathilde sets out to discover what happened that day in 1917 and whether any of the men survived – chasing ghosts and rumour.

This sets up a journey, a puzzle piecing together events through letters, second hand accounts and tracking down the people that were there. So that the film flashes back and forth between 1917’s war, and the horror that goes with that, to 1920 and the hope of one woman driven by love. In this process we meet a range of characters, which is as much about where Jeunet shines as he does with his highly distinctive visuals.

As with Amelie before, Audrey Tautou brings Mathilde to life. Spirited and full of the resolve that drives the film, even with the physical addition to the performance the history of polio adds. Something which she plays on, in a manner that leads to at least one scene reminiscent of the UK comedy Little Britain. After the success of Amelie, Tautou has been haunted by that part – such that everything she has done since is held up unfairly to that film. With Mathilde she is given a much more intense and exacting role, and she again shines under Jeunet’s direction.

A Very Long Engagement is something of a departure for Jean-Pierre Jeunet. But then having established a certain style with his first two films Delicatessen and City Of Lost Children, everything since has been something different, regardless of how they still demonstrated his touch. A trip to Hollywood gave us Alien Resurrection, followed by his biggest hit and most light-hearted outing Amelie. Of course with a success like Amelie, the question is what next? Amelie 2 was never a real consideration, even if something some would have liked. Apparently he turned down a chance to do Harry Potter and The Order Of The Phoenix, and while he was interested in Yann Martel’s The Life Of Pi, he couldn’t find enough space to express himself in the context.

Jeunet had a strong interest in the first world war, which no doubt has a particular resonance in France given how the signs of the conflict on French soil last to this day. From that interest he read Sebastien Japristo’s novel A Very Long Engagement, and part of him had always been interested in making it into a film. With that he delivers a fine balancing act between a love story and an indictment of war, with his touch evident throughout. So that there are as many scenes in A Very Long Engagement that will stay with the audience to the same degree as the characters.

All of this despite various problems. Because of the involvement of American companies in the film production there was a move to disown it as a French film – preventing it from receiving funding that would go to French films, or French awards. With that Jeunet has run up against similar problems to someone like Zhang Yimou, with House Of Flying Daggers/Hero, in that there is criticism of how he represents his country and history. But with that Jeunet is one of those directors who transcends his peers, creating a field of his own.

Title: In My Darkest Hour
Writer/Artist: Wilfred Santiago
Publisher: Fantagraphic books

Isn’t it funny how Y2K and the millennium seem so long ago? That is the thought, which to some degree, is at the back of my mind as I start to read Wilfred Santiago’s graphic novel In My Darkest Hour. This is the story of Omar, a story of our times.

Omar has hit one of those periods in life, where he doesn’t really know what he is doing with himself. His relationship with Lucinda isn’t going too well, she is younger than him, full of conviction about what her future holds, and she seems embarrassed to be seen with him. In a fatalistic manner he is flirting with other women – the even younger daughter of his boss, the girl in the Chinese laundrette across from where he works, and another student where Lucinda studies.

As the book goes on we get a certain insight into Omar’s views on pleasure and pain. There are suggestions of mental problems, an indication that despite his protests Omar may be bipolar. Which in this contest serves to provide an extra intensity to the story’s emotions. And perhaps also informing the colour of Omar’s nightmares, as the book is interspersed with dark, twisted and haunting images.

Essentially this is a story about relationships, but with that comes a cultural snapshot. In the background there is often a TV or a radio, contextualizing the narrative with news stories. Which is where the impact and irony of the story comes from. Omar has been through his dark times, and is starting to take stock of the pieces, just as the world goes mad. The period from the millennium to September 2001 sums up the bulk of the book, then from September 2001 to November 2002 we flash past in a few pages, where Santiago’s art embodies the darkest days.

While writing I come up with the thought that that In My Darkest Hour has comparisons to Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye Berlin, which was written in the Germany of the 1930’s showing the rise of events, which led to world war 2. In this context we have the rise of bush, of anti-globalisations, and the first mutterings of assaulting Iraq – all warning flags for current events.

My first contact with Wilfred was when his art caught my eye on the Pop Life collaboration with Ho Che Anderson. In My Darkest Hour has some parallels with Pop Life, the idea of people and their relationships, and of course Wilfred’s art. But, this is Wilfred’s project, and no doubt more personal with that. As such, the art shows more of his range. The front cover a stripped, featureless figure in a bedroom, the back a dingy wall with peeling wallpaper, and a framed, blurred picture of a two headed man, which I take to be Omar and an expression of his two sides. Inside the bulk of the art has Wilfred’s recognisable style – warm, rounded illustrations, built from a knowledge of how people really look. In the course of the book we see some of the photographs Omar takes as photos, or some of the backgrounds are photos with characters drawn over them. Then of course there are the nightmares I talked about earlier, a mix of disturbing artworks and distorted collages – describing on one level the characters nightmares, before transcending to those of the world.

Being a graphic novel is also a different form from a text novel, in the way that text can be played with – integrated into the art, into the flow. Which Wilfred does, turning mantras into spiral texts, adding the news in the backgrounds, letters from characters in different handwriting. So that altogether In My Darkest Hour is a dense, multi layered work, that is as striking a piece of art as it is the story of one man’s life in our world.

Title: The Mammoth Book Of Best New SF 15
Editor: Gardner Dozois
Publisher: Robinson

The Mammoth Book Of Best New SF is something I’ve been picking up for a number of years now. For me it is one of the best ways of supporting the SF short story scene, while also gaining access to a good sample of the best material that is published each year. Without fail each volume is a strong collection, barring one or two pieces in each volume, Gardner Dozois consistently proving himself as a reliable judge. Admittedly I’ve got a little behind in reading these collections, partly because of their size, but I’ve bought them regardless, and gradually catch up a story at a time.

The publication of this collection each year is a curious thing, particularly in the UK, which is out of synch with the original American edition. Especially given that the numbering of editions seems to be a handful ahead with the US edition. Regardless this is volume 15, which is the best SF short stories from 2001. Which would have been published at the start of 2002, before being reprinted in this UK edition towards the end of that year, and then probably picked up by myself at the start of 2003. Such that the latest edition, which has been published recently in the UK, is volume 17 and is a collection of the best stories from 2003. Which is something I will pick up soon, and I have already made a start on volume 16 in an attempt to close the gap that I allowed to open.

New Light On The Drake Equation by Ian R. MacLeod, following an aging scientists obsession with the equation which calculates the chances of finding other life in the universe. Mixed in with that is the idea of how the world has changed, almost becoming alien itself while he obsessed, which includes reflection on how he lost his chance at true love.

More Adventures On Other Planets by Michael Cassutt is a curious little story, which contrasts life on another planet through the eyes of remote robots, and life on our planet through the eyes of the people who operate those robots.

Dan Simmons’ On K2 With Kanakaredes is a story about climbing K2 and how tough it is, especially when the climbers find themselves joined by the son of an alien ambassador. How does climbing a mountain change for a group of men when joined by an alien which is something like a giant ant?

When The World Is All On Fire sees William Sanders explore a post-apocalyptic vision, where the Native Americans patrol the reservation borders against the infraction of squatters and refugees.

Computer Virus by Nancy Kress reminds of the film Panic Room, though instead of the house locking down because of robbers, the specially designed house locks down because something got into the system before cutting the house and it’s inhabitants off from the rest of the world.

Have Not Have is Geoff Ryman’s story about a remote village, the last village to be added to the world wide web, a system which is thrust upon them whether they want it or not and how the status quo is torn apart by the arrival of this all encompassing system.

Lobsters is one of the stories I had read before reading this collection, the short by Charles Stross follows the character Manfred Manx, who is a brilliant thinker, and works freelance on the bleeding edge of the zeitgeist to change the world and help the people he meets. Painfully hip and clever and damn well worth reading.

The Dog Said Bow-Wow is Michael Swanwick’s story about a post-internet generated apocalypse, which sees a conman join with an engineered and intelligent dog to set up an elaborate ruse against the British monarchy.

Neutrino Drag by Paul di Filippo is about street racing in 1950’s America, and how the local team ignored alien the latest addition to their team was when his peculiar car helped them win every race they entered.

Glacial fits into the novels of Alistair Reynolds, where characters from one of his books flee Earth and the war that has been raging there. When they come across an ice bound planet they land expecting to be the first humans to have ever been here, instead they find the remains of a colony and what might well be a murder mystery.

Allen M. Steele asks a pertinent question with The Days Between, what happens to someone who wakes up from deep freeze 3 months into a 270 year flight, finding himself alone and with no way back to sleep he somehow has to live as best he can.

Moby Quilt wasn’t really what I expected when I started to read it, the story by Eleanor Arnason sees a location scout for the film industry take a trip on a boat on an alien planet. The great Kraken like beast that swims alongside the ship however is on their side, and communicates with her through AI links. Giving the story a couple of view points when the ship does run up against something even more alien.

Robert Reed does something a little different from his novels with Raven Dream, presenting a world, which is a square bordered by day/night and summer/winter. The story follows Raven as he grows from a child to a new man, one of the few remaining People in the world, hiding from the demons that invade the Land.

Undone is James Patrick Kelly’s story about time travel, which sees a woman fighting for a rebel force prevented from taking a step back in time. With the result that she ends up in the far future, where there is no trace of her allies or the people they were fighting. So she sets out to find out how her past could have been undone.

The Real Thing is another time travel story and is a really good piece by Carolyn Ives Gilman. A woman volunteers for an experimental process, waking up to a future even more information driven than our present, where she has been caught up in a struggle for copyright and media access.

Interview: On Any Given Day is presented as a series of hyperlinked interview by Maureen F. McHugh. At the centre are the conversations with teenagers, which encapsulate the changes in technology, and to a degree how those fit into the perennial battle between parents and children. Alongside that there is also the issue of rejuvenation, and how the old made young fit into that picture, something which flags up a parallel with Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire.

Into Greenwood sees Jim Grimsley go into the dark woods on an alien planet as a woman meets up with her brother for the first time since he became a hybrid. A symbiotic interpreter for a tree in the vast sentient Greenwood.

Know How, Can Do is perhaps a story about so-called frankenscience, Michael Blumlein presenting the case of the worm with a human brain. Following the worm from initial consciousness through increasing levels of intelligence, the language of this piece struck me, being particularly poetic.

Russian Vine is the second of the stories here that I had read previously, the story by Simon Ings sees Earth conquered by aliens. Aliens who have taken steps to destroy language in the belief that it will prevent resistance to their occupation.

The Two Dicks isn’t quite what the title might suggest, Paul McAuley offering an alternate reality story featuring America’s greatest novelist – Philip K. Dick. A man who suspects there is something going on around him, and isn’t very happy to find that someone has stolen a draft copy of “The Man In The High Castle” and bootlegged it, especially given that kind of pulp-SF could harm his career as a serious novelist.

Brenda W. Clough’s May Be Some Time is another time travel story, which has parallel’s The Real Thing as someone from the past travels to the future. But in this case the time traveller is not a volunteer and has something of a rude awakening. The body of arctic explorer Titus Oates was never found, perhaps because it was spirited away to 2045?

Marcher by Chris Beckett is a story about immigration and the people that police the borders. Except in this case the borders aren’t national, they are spatial.

The Human Front is the last story in the collection and the last of the 3 that I had read before reading this volume. Ken MacLeod’s story of a boy becoming a man, and the political growth that goes with that, and the resulting fall out that goes with that is not what it seems.

Most of the stories are pretty good, though I found that I wasn’t particularly inspired by Andy Duncan’s Chief Designer, which took long to go anywhere for a short story, and Ian R. MacLeod’s Isabel Of The Fall which was trying to be too clever in it’s reinterpretation of legend that it put me off pretty quickly with it’s continual backtracking and reconditioning of phrases. From this collection my favourite stories are those by Nancy Kress, Charles Stross, Eleanor Arnason, Robert Reed, Carolyn Ives Gilman, Michael Blumlein and Paul McAuley.

Title: Closer
Cast: Jude Law, Clive Owen, Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman
Director: Mike Nichols

I think there is something about what you take from Closer that says something who you are and how you see things. at the core of Closer there are 4 characters – 2 men, Dan (Jude Law) and Larry (Clive Owen), and 2 women, Alice (Natalie Portman) and Anna (Julia Roberts). The specific combinations between them are mutable, hazy – like the stream of the narrative, which is constructed from nodes of time. Each scene separate relationship bubbles, which see shifts forward with each new node. Closer is based on a play, which shows from not only the dialogue (the usual give away), but also from this manner in which time shifts, the dialogue at the start of each new scene indicating how much time has passed, and giving some shadowing of what happened in the mean time.

To a degree this underlines a certain weakness in Closer, there is so much more to the story than what we see. But we are reliant on how much we get from the dialogue, and what that says about how a character behaves. One character describes another character as evil, but we don’t necessarily actually see what caused this accusation to be made. By the same degree characters are telling the truth or telling lies, but again we are given to make certain assumptions. Which is part of who you are comes into it, do you buy the lies when you hear them, or do you see through them? How do you see the differences between two men, one who is harsh while the other is tender, one who would hit a woman while the other wouldn’t?

Dan is a writer of obituaries for a newspaper, when he meets Alice, an American recently arrived in London. The two quickly form a relationship, and in the process Dan is inspired to write a book. When he is getting a photograph taken for the sleeve he meets Anna, a photographer who he becomes obsessed with, even if he still loves Alice. Thanks to Dan’s machinations, Anna meets Larry and the pair make a connection. But Dan isn’t content to let that happen and determines to stir thing, and the path shifts on from there, getting messier in the process.

It is curious how Clive Owen and Natalie Portman have just won Golden Globes for supporting actors for Closer. At times all 4 characters are really leads, though on balance I would perhaps say that the film really splits into the story of the two male leads. With each new scene determined by how they relate to the two women at any given time. The fact that Owen and Portman have received acclaim for their roles is telling though, given that they both play the parts informed by anger and get to play up. Roberts is interesting, because it is something of a change of role for her, though originally the part was to be played by Cate Blanchett and Roberts was a last minute switch. Increasingly Law is someone who I find annoying on screen, his recent levels of cinematic saturation certainly haven’t helped – but he does well enough here, particularly as the film reaches it’s later stages and Dan starts to realise just how much of a mess things have become.

Patrick Marber graduated from being a comic writer for programmes like Brass Eye with his writing of the play Closer, a title that comes from his love of the Joy Division album of the same name. With the success of the play in the theatre there had been some previous interest in turning it into a film. But it wasn’t until the approach by director Mike Nichols that Marber was happy for the project to go ahead. The end result is flawed, as mentioned earlier there are too many gaps where you are reliant on a phrase like “you evil bitch” to base a character on, where some off the cuff references substitute for back story. At times this can lead some to the conclusion that all we are seeing is people swearing at each other, rather than conducting real relationships. But what we are provided is with an intense film, which is striking, the level of the performances and the significance of each scene being enough to generate a certain amount of steam to propel the story as best it can. So that while we can see some of the flaws, they aren’t necessarily such a problem that they incapacitate the narrative. In the end, I quite thoroughly enjoyed Closer.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Title: Dark Water
Cast: Hitomi Kuroki, Rio Kanno, Mirei Oguchi, Asami Mizukawa, Fumiyo Kohinata, Yu Tokui, Isao Yatsu, Shigemitsu Ogi
Director: Hideo Nakata

A woman and her daughter move into a decrepit apartment building. She is involved in a divorce, which includes a custody battle for the girl. At the same time she finds herself having to work for the first time since her daughter was born. Which puts her under enough stress without the expanding damp patch on the ceiling, something that comes from the seemingly abandoned flat upstairs.

As a child she was neglected by her own mother and is keen hat her own daughter has a better upbringing. But is concerned that history is repeating itself. As the film goes on, it becomes clear that girl about the same age as the daughter has gone missing. A girl that went to the same nursery school and lived in the flat upstairs. This is mixed with manifestations and hauntings – the kind of thing that has become a standard of the genre since the success of The Ring.

For me The Ring was hit and miss, partly because of the hype and the fact that the things people kept saying were scary really didn’t bother me too much. For me Dark Water is the most successful film I have seen from Hideo to date. The metaphor of the missing girl, and the associated fear and horror, for mother’s fear of losing or letting down her own daughter is striking – providing a different kind of theme from the more usual moral play. also based on a novel by Kenji Suzuki like the first Ring film, and like The Ring an American version is in the pipeline and due for release this year.

Title: The Behindlings
Author: Nicola Barker
Publisher: Ecco

The Behindlings is a curious novel, something of an over written non-event in some ways from Nicola Barker, selected as one of Granta's top young British novelists the year this was published. As a narrative The Behindlings doesn't really provide a start or an ending. Rather it arrives in the current events of the Behindlings and follows them for a couple of

On the surface level the Behindlings is about Wesley. Wesley is an anti-star
in some ways, rejecting modern culture to live on the land and by his own
rules. A notorious prankster, his run ins with the law have created a reputation for him. This has led to him gaining a fan base, people following him like he is something special, some kind of leader of people. With contempt Wesley refers to these followers as the Behindlings, though it is a title they embrace, even calling the site which they use to coordinate the following www.thebehindlings.co.uk.

Within the context of this novel though the Behindlings could more accurately be described as being about the village of Canvey, where the events of this period take place. Or it could be described as being about the people that follow, the people that become involved and the things that motivate them and have gone into making them who they are now. Wesley had a book published about his travels a couple of years ago, in which he repeated a piece of local gossip found in the village of Canvey. Now he returns to reek havoc once more.

By degrees, like the new novel, Clear, which follows the stunt by David Blaine in London, recently released by Barker, The Behindlings is about celebrity and the cult that surrounds that. The ups and downs of what people are looking for from famous and how those that receive that focus either embrace or abuse that ideal. The weekend followers versus the full time followers, and how it all fits together.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Title: 2046
Cast: Tony Leung, Li Gong, Takuya Kimura, Faye Wong, Ziyi Zhang, Carina Lau, Ping Lam Siu
Director: Wong Kar Wai

2046 is a sequel to Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love; probably the Hong Kong director’s most successful film to date. Set in the 1960’s, In The Mood For Love followed two couples staying in the spare rooms of neighbouring families. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung’s characters keep bumping into each other, while their other halves are notably absent. Lushly moody, In The Mood For Love explores the pair’s realisation that their partners are actually having an affair. In the process the two find feelings for each other, but time has passed since then and Tony Leung is now on his own, even if he is caught in those past events.

2046 is an episodic series of events following Leung’s life over a number of years, and particularly how he interacts with women. At times there are flash backs, and the feel of the cuts can at times lead to a certain level of confusion. Basically, Leung went to Singapore to get away after the events of In The Mood For Love. While there he started to gamble, which puts him in a difficult position when he wants to return to Hong Kong. But return he does thanks to the first of 2046’s three women, a female gambler who lends a hand.

Once back on Hong Kong he ends up in a hotel, with the room number 2046 reminding him of when he was holed up in room 2046 in another hotel with Cheung trying to write martial arts stories. Moving into this hotel he wants to live in 2046, but instead gets 2047. From where he starts to write science fiction stories set in the year 2046, or a place called 2046, where people go to find memories they have lost, since nothing changes in 2046. Which is where the various flashes to an imaginary future come into the film. Contrasting the densely textured slice of 1960’s Hong Kong with the almost intangible and shiny feel of a heavily CGI generated futurescape.

While living in this hotel and writing for the local newspaper to make a living, Leung has become an inveterate partier and ladies man. During his time in this hotel the other two significant women in the story come into his life. Ziyi Zhang plays Bai Ling, who to some degree is the female equivalent of Leung - always bringing someone different back to room 2046. The pair start to play around each other, initially as friends, but this grows till it becomes a relationship, though a difficult one. Zhang gets the most put upon role in 2046, embodying the character of unrequited love - a familiar role in Wong Kar Wai’s films. She flirts and teases, plays hard to get, but falls for Leung. Which creates such an aching passion, as he plays the archetypal bastard to her unrequited love.

The third woman is the hotel owner’s daughter, who actually appears before Ziyi Zhang, but doesn’t get to play out her core story till later. Faye Wong takes on this role, coming to Leung’s attention as she hangs out in room 2046 while it is vacant, practising Japanese. She has tensions with her father because she has fallen for a Japanese businessman, which her father can’t allow, recalling the things the Japanese did to his family during the war. She disappears for a while, but returns later, still involved with the Japanese man. Which is when Leung gets involved, becoming a go between and witness. In this relationship Leung sees something of what he had in In The Mood For Love, Wong reminding him of Cheung, especially when the two start to write together. To a degree this is where the SF part becomes most focussed, Leung setting out to write a story for Wong. Trying to illustrate her situation via the interaction between a Japanese man leaving 2046 on an endless train journey and the android hostess he falls for.

The sequence of the film then flashes back to the start and fleshes out the role of the female gambler, as played by Gong Li. In the process completing the story of the 3 women - each reflecting a different facet of relationships and potential, with Leung in the centre, to a degree still caught up in the aftermath of In The Mood For Love. Ziyi Zhang has fallen for him, but he won’t give in return. Faye Wong has something which he recalls, a reminder of the past and the happiness that was there. While Gong Li provides the most blatant reminder of Maggie Cheung and in the process actually provides a sliver of hope.

It is during the flashback to Singapore that I get a flashback of my own, something about a certain scene has such a resonance with the film Days Of Being Wild that I start to wonder whether it fits into the picture. Days Of Being Wild was one of Wong Kar Wai’s early films, which I haven’t seen in some years. But checking some details, the character played by Maggie Cheung in all three films is the same one. Which would suggest that 2046 is actually the third film in an ongoing sequence.

With that, 2046 is an anticipated and troubled film. Wong Kar Wai has attained a certain status that means a big new project creates interest. Coming from the success of In The Mood For Love, and trickling through the festival circuit raises that further. Acclaimed at Cannes, but the submission wasn’t to Wong Kar Wai’s satisfaction. Which saw a retraction, withdrawal from prominent place in the Edinburgh International Film Festival where it would have had it’s UK premier in the same way as In the Mood For Love had done previously. There was talk of re-editing, even re-shooting some scenes. Which prompted the story that Tony Leung had shaved off his moustache in an order to discourage re-filming. Generating the question of when the scene with Leung having half a moustache was filmed; in at least one scene I was trying to decide whether his moustache had been drawn on. In the end some might find that 2046 still doesn’t satisfy in this final version, even while admitting the sumptuous visuals.

But then Wong Kar Wai has always had a particularly disjoined narrative approach - think of the disparate stories of Chungking Express of Fallen Angels as examples of that. Regardless the degree to which 2046 recreates the look and feel of In The Mood For Love is striking - making use of the clothes, hairstyles, the whole texture of the piece. Of course Leung reprising his role helps, and there are also quick token flashes recalling Maggie Cheung, but there is also the re-appearance of the cheeky-chappy sidekick character of Ping. Even with how close 2046 is to the pervious film, 2046 is definitely a different film. For one it makes more use of dialogue, In The Mood For Love relying on the atmosphere to a greater degree. In some ways that may disappoint fans of In The Mood For Love, but for me part of what makes his films stand out has always been the charm of the dialogue. Something which particularly comes through in the interaction between Tony Leung and Ziyi Zhang’s characters - which for me is the most affecting and memorable portion of 2046.

2046 sees Wong Kar Wai work with man of Hong Kong’s top actors, many of whom he has worked with before. Tony Leung has been in In The Mood For Love, Happy Together, The Ashes Of Time and Chungking Express. Faye Wong was also in Chungking Express, while Carina Lau was in The Ashes Of Time. While Chen Chang was in Happy Together and Ping Lam Siu made his acting debut in In The Mood For Love. As for Maggie Cheung she was also in The Ashes Of Time, as well as 2046’s predecessors Days Of Being Wild and In The Mood For Love. Of course many of these actors have been seen in other recent prominent Chinese films like Infernal Affairs, House Of Flying Daggers and Hero.

An odd hybrid film, 2046 sees Wong Kar Wai explore new territories. Though for all the differences it remains essential Wong Kar Wai.
 Posted by Hello

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Title: Different Trains
Composer: Steve Reich
Presented by: BBC 2

On tonight’s The Culture Show on BBC 2 there was a feature on Steve Reich, talking about Different Trains. The minimalist composer originally wrote this piece of music in 1987, which was reflecting his childhood in the 1930’s with world events. The idea being that at the same time he was in America, taking different trains back and forth between his separated parents, there were people in Europe taking different trains to Auschwitz. The piece makes use of the voices of holocaust survivors, and as such it is being used as part of the holocaust memorial season on BBC2. Tonight’s feature on The Culture Show can be seen again on BBC2 Friday night, 11.35 pm, where he talks about the piece, and we hear some parts of Different Trains played by The Smith Quartet. This new performance is part of “Holocaust: A Music Memorial Film From Auschwitz”, which can be seen on BBC 2 on Saturday night at 9pm.

Title: The Zap Gun
Author: Philip K Dick
Publisher: Granada

It is 2004 and the cold war is still going strong – the arms race demanding ever more powerful and threatening weapons with which to intimidate the enemy. Except that at the end of the second world war the powers that be were so appalled by the power of the nuclear bomb that they swore “never again!” Over the years the East and West have negotiated a deal, where the stand off is maintained to the satisfaction of both sides. Society is split in two, the cogs and pursaps, the cognoscenti know what the real deal is and are in control, while the pure saps are kept happy with the fabrication.

To this end, each side has a “weapons fashion designer”, who makes up threatening weapons, which are demonstrated to the public thanks to special effects. Things are fine like this, the whole process driving new technology and finding every day usage. But then a satellite appears in the sky, which apparently doesn’t belong to either side, and is soon joined by others and attacking the Earth. And this is it, the Earth stands defenceless, making it a race to create a weapon before the aliens have zapped all our cities.

Prime Dick, taking the environment of the 1960’s, when this novel was written, and extending. Sure there is the arrival of the aliens, a dose of time travel, and the fact that the weapons fashion design involves a trance state that transports the designer to “another dimension”. But most of that is actually background detail, The Zap Gun having more to do with East vs West, those in the know vs those kept in the dark, and on one level men and women.

One thing I am particularly reminded of reading The Zap Gun is Alan Moore’s The Watchmen. A multi-layered graphic novel which at it’s core had a similar theme of cold war tension and paranoia, extending from the 1980’s rather than 1960’s. Ironically, one of the sub themes of The Zap Gun is the discovery of a comic book series, which makes use of the imaginary weapons. A comic referenced within a novel, something else with particular resonance to The Watchmen.

One has this image of Philip K. Dick as a science fiction writer, and the clichés that go with that. This kind of thinking particularly comes from the cinematic interpretation of his work. But each time I read another of his novels I am reminded how unique his work really is, how for all the trimmings that make this science fiction it is the human stories which make his work so remarkable.

Title: Stamping Butterflies
Author: John Courtenay Grimwood

At last! Orion books have got some sense and put together a website, having had a franly appalling web presence before. With that, John Courtenay Grimwood publishes his eighth novel Stamping Butterflies through the publisher - which will hopefully see some more consistency in printing than his previous publisher Simon & Schuster demonstrated with the Arabesk trilogy (each volume saw a total design change of the series). The Orion website has an extract available for download as a PDF file. Described as the story of two dreamers - one a would be assassin in Marrakech, the other a Chinese emperor. Currently available in hardback.

Title: Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events
Cast: Jim Carrey, Emily Browning, Liam Aiken, Meryl Streep, Billy Connolly, Timothy Spall, Kara/Shelby Hoffman
Director:Brad Silberling

The series of Unfortunate Events is what could likely be the first of a series of films based on what I believe are 11 novels so far by Lemony Snicket. This film taking in parts from the first 3 of those novels. Coming from 3 novels might explain why the film has a certain episodic feel, something which some people have picked up on. But for me, even taking that on board, the film does manage to flow reasonably well as a whole.

The Baudelaire children have had a lovely upbringing. Which has allowed Violet to dabble and experiment as an inventor. For Klaus to access an ample library, from which he can remember any fact he has ever read. As for Sunny, the youngest of the three, well biting is her thing. But when the first of the series of unfortunate events comes about, their lives are turned around. One day their home is burned down while they are out, killing their parents and destroying everything.

Which sees them put into the custody of an uncle they have never met. The evil Count Olaf, a self indulgent and manipulative man, who aspires to be an actor, and is only interested in the children for the large inheritance associated with them. Life under his guardianship is indeed unfortunate, which forces the children to seek an alternate situation. Though as they manage this, they are plagued by an ongoing series of unfortunate events, with Count Olaf and his machinations stalking their lives.

Jim Carey takes on the part of Count Olaf, and does so with his most over the top manner. Carey is an actor who has made his career from being over the top. Though ironically his best roles have been the more toned down and serious parts – The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind being the obvious examples. The more over the top material is the kind that splits the audience, generally for me I am not a fan. However in the context of the role of Count Olaf, Carey actually pulls over the top off in a way that works – the fact that the character has the desire to be an actor, and is allowed to go through extensive a makeovers for each new plot of course helps.

The rest of the cast sees the introduction of young actors Emily Browning and Liam Aiken, who on the basis of this film are likely to become names to watch – Browning in particular is creating a buzz, and there is something about her that reminds me of Christina Ricci in her early roles. The third of the children is played by Kara and Shelby Hoffman, a part which is enhanced by subtitles, and computer graphics (the scene with the snake perhaps being a little too blatantly CGI). Other than Carey, the other guardians are played by Meryl Streep a bumbling old woman who is afraid of everything, and Billy Connolly a great adventurer who is obsessed with snakes.

Looking at Brad Silberling’s, the director of the film, past record, one can’t say there is much worth remarking on – the remake of Win Wenders City Of Angels and some TV stuff. The look and feel of Lemony Snicket’s Series Of Unfortunate Events has garnered comparisons to the work of director Tim Burton. With Siberling having apparently worked as a junior to Burton at some earlier point in his career, then perhaps that comparison makes sense. For me, Burton is a director who is often raved about with regard to his distinctive visual style, while that style is at the expense of actual content and substance. With that in mind, Siberling seems to surpass Burton in that there is a definite and particular visual style, which gives the film a sense of vibrancy, but there is also a certain amount of substance that comes across from the work, at least on a first viewing.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Title: B Monkey
Cast: Asia Argento, Jared Harris, Rupert Everett, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers
Director:Michael Radford

B Monkey is a British crime film from 1998, which was on the TV a while ago. I taped it then, and never got round to watching it till a week or two ago. Which in a typical manner means that is on the TV again this week – so for those in the UK, B Monkey with Asia Argento is on ITV Friday night.

Beatrice (Argento) is an Italian woman living in London, a graffiti artist and criminal – thanks to her size and ability she has gained the nickname B Monkey for her ability to get in and out of places. But hanging around with the boss (Rupert Everett) and his young lover (Jonathan Rhys-Meyer) is getting old, the group becoming increasingly reckless. So she wants to turn over a new leaf, trying to wash the bright red colouring from her hair and get an office job. In this process she meets a man, Alan (Jared Harris), who has also reached a turning point in his life – that where he is starting to realise he is not living his dreams. Rather than becoming a Jazz musician like he has always wanted he becomes a primary school teacher. The nearest he gets to living Jazz is as an evening/night DJ on hospital radio.

Beatrice is surprised when Alan approaches her, sure that he has connections with the underworld and wants something from her. But once they get past that they start to form a strange little relationship. The particularly striking scenes coming in response to his talk of the Jazz scene in Paris in the 1920s, resulting in their journey to revisit the past. Which feels like a particularly Hobanesque moment, a number of Russell Hoban’s novels featuring a similar kind of voyage. A similar feel, on reflection, can be found in the relationship itself. The relationship has its ups and downs, Beatrice’s resistance to the mundanity of regular life versus her unwillingness to help those who would prevent her from leaving the criminal lifestyle.

B Monkey isn’t a particularly brilliant film, but it is a decent little romantic drama with an element of grit and the appeals of Asia Argento.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Title: The Tube
Cast:Doo-Na Bae, Seok-Hoon Kim, Sang-Min Park
Director:Woon-Hak Baek

The Tube is a Korean thriller, which didn’t get a cinema release here, but is available on DVD. Filled with clichés and little details that remind of various blockbusters - like Speed, Lethal Weapon or the Bourne Identity - to some degree. With that Tube isn’t particularly an original piece of work. But within the context it does what it does reasonable well in a tight and consistent manner.

Take one renegade cop, who has been going a bit off the rails. Take shadowy villain who has some grudge to bear against the city. Give the two a certain level of history, gunfights and confrontations. Add a street kid, a cute teen girl who has something of a crush on the cop, and gets a little Chungking Express in the process. Then add the city underground - the Tube of the title - and a speeding train filled with explosives.

The girl has got close enough to the cop to realise that he is obsessed with the shadowy villain. So when she sees the shadowy villain she starts to follow him, but is soon spotted. Although she did manage to get a message to the cop to let him know where she was and what she had seen before becoming a hostage on a death train. From there the film is filled with showdowns, shoot outs, explosions, and maniac on a speeding train filled with hostages.

The Tube at times feels more silly than thrilling, but that is often the case with many comparable films. The silliest part coming towards the end - which might be considered a spoiler, but is so out of nowhere that it is an absurdity - where it is revealed that the train is on a collision course with a nuclear power station and could wipe out the whole city! A power station that wasn’t mentioned previously and has an underground train link aimed right at it!

DVD extras include the American trailer, which is one of those ones with the big over the top American voice over, and has been cut in such a way that it looks like an entirely different film. Which is something which always strikes me as a bad idea, because it creates a culture where people no longer trust trailers. Other than that it also has a making of feature and a pop video to go with the film, although there is no sign of the band/singer involved and instead it is just an extended trailer for the film.

Regardless take it for what it is and The Tube is fun. It is also good to see Doo-na Bae as the street kid, a Korean actress who has probably appeared in more of the Korean films that have hit the UK in the last couple of years than any other - having had parts in the wildly different Take Care Of My Cat and Sympathy For Mr Vengeance.

 Posted by Hello

Title: Naked Weapon
Cast: Maggie Q, Almen Wong, Daniel Wu, Anya, Jewel Lee, Cheng Pei Pei
Director:Siu-Tung Ching

Naked Weapon is one of the new breed of action films to come out from Asia, the Hong Kong film is a slick globe trotting film which has a post-Matrix feel. In the opening sequence we have a CIA investigation caught in an explosive moment. They have been following a criminal organisation led by a woman known as Madame M. Her sexy female assassin penetrates the bedrooms of the rich and criminal and then assassinates the target. However in this sequence the assassin is killed, as are a couple of the CIA agents in the ensuing fire fight.

With the assassin dead, there are no more hits from Madame M, but there are a series of abductions/disappearances of 12-13 year old girls from all round the world. With the only obvious link between them all being that they excelled in martial arts or sports. At which point the film changes pace and plot, switching to an island where the missing girls are being held against their will and are trained to become the next generation of assassin. This sequence is where we are introduced to Maggie Q as Charlene, one of the missing girls who goes on to be that new assassin.

In some ways the film feels like a number of set pieces, chapters strung together to make up the whole. Flitting from the opening assassination gone wrong, recruiting the next generation, the graduation of the new assassin, and the glamorous lifestyle of a globe trotting killer. This does curious things to the pacing of the film, but also allows for a certain degree of depth that a more straightforward structure would prohibit.

The film is filled with over the top action sequences, the sort of thing that was accounted for in the Matrix by reality not being real, or in Crouching Tiger by years of careful training. To that degree the theory is Maggie Q’s character has been in training for 6 years, even so the final fight sequence is way over the top. Which no doubt some folk will hate, but it is really just good fun, big daft action. Something which is done better here than many of the average American action thrillers that get knocked out, or many of the knocked out Hong Kong films for that matter.

One obvious criticism of Naked Weapon is perhaps that there isn’t enough made of the other characters that crop up in the film - with too much of the focus on Maggie Q, it would have been nice to see more of her friend Katherine (Anya). Another niggle is the fact that the authority figures in a film from Hong Kong are the CIA - not entirely sure what the role of the CIA is, but it would seem more likely that an investigation of this nature might be handled by a more international or local bureau. Apart from which, the cast also sees an appearance by Cheng Pei Pei as Charlene’s mother, who I didn’t spot the first time I watched this DVD, but played Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger. Maggie Q herself has had a reasonably lead role in Gen-X Cops II prior to Naked Weapon, with appearances in Rush Hour 2 and Jackie Chan’s Around The World In 80 Days. Danny Wu who plays the CIA agent also has a Jackie Chan connection since he was in the first Gen-X Cops, which was promoted by Chan.

The DVD version that I got claims to be a Special Collector’s Edition - probably because of the digitally re-mastered version and the quality of the sound, the film working equally well in Cantonese and English version. Other than that there is a commentary track with Maggie Q, and a pile of trailers for the production company, not including one for the film itself. There is also a token which allows you to buy a second disc for a small amount of money - turning this DVD version into what I guess must be the Special Special Collector’s Edition which came out in the shops some time after the version I bought.  Posted by Hello

Friday, January 14, 2005

Webcomic: adventures of pudding

Adventures of Pudding looks to be a webcomic with some potential that has just started this month. Described as a “graphical depiction of the (extremely) bizarre life of an (extremely) pale and lazy Singoporean flight stewardess”. Particularly interesting is the use of blogger as the base website, coupled with the complimentary hello software, which allows for the posting and hosting off images. Something I myself had been thinking of as being a particularly useful tool for doing webcomics. That aside the character design/story so far both look interesting, and if the initial teething problems in terms of layout of the blog can be addressed, I suspect that Adventures Of Pudding could be one to watch.
 Posted by Hello

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Title: White Noise
Cast: Michael Keaton, Chandra West, Deborah Kara Unger, Ian McNeice, Sarah Strange
Director: Geoffrey Sax

E.V.P. Electronic Voice Phenomena. According to the introduction of the film White Noise there have been scientific investigation into this phenomena since 1939. There has been at least one CD released of recordings claimed to be examples of EVP. It was something which cropped up in William Gibson’s most recent novel Pattern Recognition.

EVP is described as the occurrence of voices captured on an electronic medium, voices which are allegedly those of the dead. The first recordings were made using tapes, though White Noise extends the idea to video, and couples it with computer software to enhance recordings. Like many proposed ways of contracting the dead, EVP is met with some scepticism. Bringing about the accusation that much of the “evidence” for EVP has in fact been faked.

Though in the context of White Noise is taken as fact. Michael Keaton plays a man who loses his wife in an accident. Struggling to come to terms with her death, he is approached by a man claiming to have received messages from his wife. Initially he drives the man away, but is soon being introduced to the idea of EVP. From there it isn’t much of a leap before he is making his own recordings in an obsessive fashion. Keaton spends hours recording blank audio and video tapes and listening to the playback for voices, watching recordings of static for the faces of the dead. He carries this on despite warnings that he is meddling with forces he doesn’t understand, an idea which gains ground as the messages he receives take on a dark edge.

As a film White Noise is something of a mixed bag. The tension is understated, with much of the film plodding along. Such that at times White Noise feels like it is dragging. On the other hand that provides a certain emphasis for the “fright” moments, as they feel more like they came out of nowhere. These moments in particular make it worth while seeing White Noise in the cinema – the joy of other people – a couple sit to my right, the girl says at the start how she’ll be scared, only for her boyfriend to jump out of his skin on cue.

Recently the East is where the best chillers are coming from, a fact evidenced by the American remake of The Ring, with clips of the American versions of Ring 2 and Dark Water circulating or release this year, and The Eye supposedly in the works. In White Noise we have what may be the first original American film to take this influence on board. Most obviously the images that lunge from the TV’s static in a way particularly reminiscent of The Ring.

Clear comparisons can also be made with the recent British thriller Trauma. To some degree both have similar visual techniques and thematic undercurrents. In both films the lead male character is mourning the death of their wife. There is also the celebrity aspect, and how the media reacts to the death/disappearances in question. Visually Trauma made use of CCTV footage and little associated twitches to create a level of atmosphere, with the use of blue tinted static/CCTV effect segues from scene to scene in White Noise.

Some negatives stem from Keaton’s performance, though I’ve never particularly been a fan of his, he doesn’t seem especially emotional. When he has EVP explained and demonstrated for him, he doesn’t seem especially impressed or interested, yet goes from there to total obsession. Though to be fair he does seem to pull off obsessive better than other emotions he attempts.

On the other hand, I found it interesting that the plot didn’t try to explain everything. One thing to remember is that mysteries can be good, and it is also harder to poke holes in a film if you don’t try too hard to explain. With that the repeated image of 3 figures works well, unexplained and building a strength in symbolism as a result.

Like the film on the whole, the ending comes with mixed results. There is a point where the film could have finished and didn’t – okay, it would have annoyed a lot of people, but would have had more impact. Instead White Noise opts for a tidier conclusion.

On the whole perhaps not a brilliant film, the pacing issues really do count against it, but still a decent piece.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Title: Antwerp
Author: Nicholas Royle
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail

When was the last time you read a novel set in Belgium? Written by a man from Manchester? I have to say it isn’t something I’ve read too many times. Nicholas Royle sets this curious novel primarily in the Belgian city of Antwerp, though his characters are prone to go a wandering round the rest of the country. The novel is filled with cultural references, covering Belgian artists, directors, and web writers – a couple of which actually appear as characters in the text, which is no doubt a curious experience for them!

The novel starts with Johnny Vos, an American who can trace his family back to Belgium, though that is beside the point. As a 17 year old Vos is gearing up to visit a prostitute, only to find her dead of an overdose. She died while listening to a record by Bauhaus. That is how it starts, Vos grows up to become a film maker, and is in Antwerp to make his second film. A film based on the life of the surrealist painter Paul Delvaux, the sleeve of that particular Bauhaus record being one of his paintings. Unfortunately with only one scene shot, one of the girls from the red light district who he is using as extras is found murdered. With a second girl, who was going to appear in his next scene murdered shortly after. Vos is an obvious suspect, but then both girls also knew Danuta, a girl who works in a voyeuristic house open to the internet, then there is the fact that both girls bodies were found with a copy of one of Belgian film-maker Harry Kumel’s films.

Frank Warner is a British film critic, who has come to Antwerp to interview Vos about his Delvaux film. With the sudden surge of interest in the project, he finds himself also assigned to file a story on the murders. While there he receives a surprise visit from his girlfriend Sian, who has decided to come out and join him in Antwerp in the hope that they can solve some of the problems they have been having. However Warner finds himself taking on a more active role in events when Sian goes missing after she has met Vos by herself. From which point we have the makings of a taut thriller, one that we will have seen in the cinema numerous times, but I have less experience of in the novel.

Antwerp can be difficult to get into at times, Royle changing the narrative voice regularly – going through third person for the bulk of the book, then switching to first person for a character who appears under the chapter heading “the narrator”, and then second person as we enter into the mind of the killer. This interrupts the pacing of the work initially. Having established the characters of Vos, Danuta and Warner we are gaining a certain speed, only to flip into a totally different pace as the narrator and owner of the internet house that Danuta works in describes his life in England, and how those led him to return home to Belgium. This in turn shifts again as we switch to the killers mind, piecing together his life style, then his actions, with some suggestions of how he came to be.

Throughout Royle supplies cultural references. When Sian arrives in Antwerp, there is mention of the local fashion designers. Vos reflects on Delvaux’s contemporaries, as well as those other film makers who have tackled the subject. Or the band 48 Cameras, who have been recommended to Vos as possibly being suitable for the soundtrack to his film. The history of Harry Kumel’s film work is explored. Then there is also a thread about abandoned places, and how the Belgian attitude is different to other countries as demonstrated by the abandoned-places.com website. There are also other references, which are probably more coincidental than deliberate – one of the early chapters being called Dark Entries, which is the name of a Belgian music festival, or another called Frames A Second, which is obviously a film reference, but also the name of a Belgian band, then there is Trans-Europ Express, which is another film reference, though also the title of one of Kraftwerk’s most well known songs.

All of which combines to make Antwerp a particularly curious novel, one which is far from the run of the mill thriller some might expect from the initial premise. Even the technique of changing view points switches from being a little off putting to being compulsive – as the novel progresses, and he starts to mix the threads, at points from paragraph to paragraph, you find yourself drawn in a lot more. This technique also creates an extra level of tension, as we watch and judge to what degree the separate strands match up, and just how much time that leaves before someone else dies.

Title: Soul Corporation
Author: Robert Collins
Publisher: William Heinemann

Soul Corporation is the debut novel by Robert Collins, which is something of a near future commentary on media and the corporate. Fitting nicely with a certain strata of contemporary science fiction writing, which is definitely science fiction, but keeps a feeling of something attainable.

Esh was raised from a mundane background to excel via a series of fast-tracking schemes. The brightest of the bright is seems that her entire life has fallen into place, and as a 19 year old she is ready to take her anticipated job with the Bank. However there things are twisted, at the last minute the Bank let her go, and before she can work out what this means, she is approached instead by the Corporation. The Corporation have a new product, the biggest product ever, and only someone like Esh can possibly be the front person for the campaign. Before she knows it, she has been made an offer of overwhelming financial returns, and is jetting from London to LA to represent a top-secret product. So what if it means cutting herself off from the net and having her identity erased?

Soul Corporation follows Esh as she is offered the world, only to find out that at each step she is increasingly restricted and controlled. Thus it seems that she has sold her soul to the Corporation, though with the existence of the Team, who the Corporation describe as the enemy is there a suggestion of a way out?

In some ways Soul Corporation could be a straight thriller, dealing with the ideas of corporate and product and how we are tied up into that. From the ideas of the must-have product, to the manner in which things are marketed, and with that how an individual can get so caught up in the programme. Esh is cast as corporate spokes model, and in being so she is valuable to the people who have invested in her. In reality celebrities are prone to scandal, something which is touched on here, and part of the principal is the extent to which the money people will protect their investment. The science fiction aspects come in more in a projective sense – huge billboard adverts floating in space, bombarding the earth with their message; the extension of the cult of mac, which sees all the new technology given an “i” prefix; the way in which people plug into the network via chips and software.

One slight downside with Soul Corporation is the way that Esh doesn’t always live up to her promise. She is presented as ultra-bright, and yet the length of time it takes her to put key ideas together is a little worrying. Apart from that Soul Corporation is an easy read, one I steamed through in the course of one day. Reasonably fun, with plenty of the sort of ideas that are relevant and interesting, mixed in a science fiction/thriller mould.

Title: Perdido Street Station
Author: China Miéville
Publisher: William Pan Macmillan

Perdido Street Station is the first in what has become a loose trilogy set in China Miéville’s New Crobuzon. For some time I had been put off Perdido Street Station, partly because of its sheer size, and partly the impressions I’d gotten of it as an unwieldy read. However it is one of those books that consistently comes up as being particularly worth reading. So while Miéville was doing a promotional tour for the third volume, Iron Council, I decided to go along and check him out. From which I walked away with a signed copy of Perdido Street Station and the admission that I might as well give it a proper go.

Just as well to, as it turns out that Perdido Street Station isn’t really the novel I was expecting it to be at all, and rather than unwieldy I found it to be quite an easy read, even at its 800 odd page length. China’s second novel, he admits he became caught up in the idea of having managed to get his first novel published, and as a result tried to cram as many ideas as he could into his second novel. Which shows, from its length and from the way it weaves back and forth with ever multiplying layers of characters, history and detail.

New Crobuzon is a sprawling city, intended in some ways to be a fantasy equivalent of London. The city houses a number of races, and exists on a cusp point of technology represented by steam engines. The city is run by a notorious mayor and his harsh secret police. Which is contrasted by a bohemian culture – artists, experimental scientists, and an underground which provides illegal magazines that criticize the establishment.

At this centre of all of this we have the two characters Isaac and Lin. Isaac is a human scientist who has a certain reputation, partly because of the mad science he is involved in, and partly because he never managed to fit in at the university. Lin is a Kepri, an insectoid race, which is represented by scuttling beetles in male form and insect/human hybrids in female. Lin is an artist who is pushing the boundaries of Kepri art while rejecting the Kepri social structures. While cross-species relationships are not unheard of, there is still something illicit in their relationship - particularly for Isaac who has to maintain some level of respectability for funding and the like.

In the first half of the book we have more of an impression of the cultural and avant-garde lifestyle that these characters live. Both find themselves with challenging commissions, which fill them with excitement and push them to excel. The two commissions are unconnected, but have parallels, as they deal with the nature of the physical, and the ideas of the boundaries as they meet and construct this hybrid environment. In Isaac’s case he is given the task of understanding and creating flight. While Lin is presented with the most perverted remade – criminals are punished by having their bodies warped – something the city’s top criminal has pushed to it’s limits and now wants immortalised in art.

This is the half of Perdido Street Station that I found particularly enjoyable. The characters and their lives, the way those fit together and were part of this sprawling vibrant city. To a degree this is all set up, and an effective way of establishing the base before adding the big plot, that which drives the whole. In the background of the first half we can piece together things as they go wrong. The results of which is that some monster is released into the city, a winged, shifting thing which starts to hunt and terrorise the entire city – something from which no one is safe.

The second half becomes the big adventure, which is perhaps what most readers will expect. The thing is lose, various forces that have been plot tendrils in the first half come to the fore as either being complicit or willing to join together to fight the good fight. Which is also where Miéville accelerates his mix of ideas, with a dose of madness at play.

Despite it’s length and the sheer density of material that is implicit in that, Perdido Street Station is a much easier read than I expected. One which the reader can tear through quite happily, with plenty going on to keep you turning the pages, even through the sections of the book that can be considered to be the set up of background and the foreshadowing of the big plot.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Title: Peryt Shou
Artist: Turbund Surmwerk/Inade
Label: LOKI Foundation

Reality is a funny thing. I read and write. I read while I write. While I listen. I decide to write about Peryt Shou now, and in doing so I am reading Marcher. Marcher is a short story by Chris Beckett about multiple realities and those who travel between them - for whom they use the symbol of Yggrdrasil the world tree, shortening it to Igga. Peryt Shou is LOKI Foundation's follow up to the Saturn Gnosis compilation, with tracks by Turbund Sturmwerk and Inade. Turbund Sturmwerk's track is called Iggrdrasil, a clear reference to the world tree, and an uncanny parallel to Igga. Reality is a funny thing...

Peryt Shou like Saturn Gnosis before it is a special edition vinyl release, which revolves around esoteric and mystical themes. Where Saturn Gnosis featured eight artists across two 10"s, Peryt Shou takes only two of the artists which appeared there, giving them a side each on this 12". Like Saturn Gnosis, Peryt Shou comes in a cm thick card box, with illustrated booklet filled with German text.

With Turbund Sturmwerk a low, melodic drone rises to start Iggrdrasil, warm with a certain sigh, that becomes transformed in a sonorous fashion as it becomes a sequence of notes. Coming up beneath this is a higher toned, shimmering drone layer, complimenting the first layer as it gains an increasing presence. Sigh, dup, and thicken as a woman starts to speak in German. As she talks the sound balances the shifting drones with a suggestion of medieval vibrance, which continues once she is done.

From a brief lull past 7-minutes, we have the introduction of deep, sparse piano notes, which tilt the atmosphere towards something more pronounced. Building into a grander piece, the melody comes together, with filtered echoes and organic washes. A section which lasts for about 5 minutes before fading. The melody starts to build through bass notes, with the woman's voice returning - layered and cut up and providing a pattern within the diaphanous soundscape. A mutteringly esoteric phase, that, for me, is the strongest of the piece.

Kwa-non-seh by Inade ripples out in bass splashes, thick pooling sounds. Metal whispers, sheer calls in the froth, beneath the rumble and thunder crack. Terse bass notes build, providing a certain melodic coalescence. A man's voices peaks, his words echoing off after each German phrase, layering and playing with the bass ripples. Creating bustling impressions, details weaving into a mounting and atmospheric ensemble. At points streaming into this burgeoning drone work, full of texture.

As it progresses there is more percussion, then a stormy turn of phrase that shifts the mood into something more turbulent and wind swept. Before calming into a sparser waste, hollow bass sighs and groans. Blossoming in conclusion, dawn's edge creeping in to contrast the darkness as Kwa-non-she reaches an end.

Title: Consolamentum
Artist: Herbst 9
Label: LOKI Foundation

Consolamentum is a vinyl EP from Herbst 9 on LOKI Foundation, the two tracks showing Herbst 9 at his best, and offering a nice solid and compact dose of his ritualistic dark ambient works.

The first side is Blood Moon Ritual, which starts with a beat sequence - 1-2-3 - with greater depth being added in each step. Slow gong strikes and echoes, then those 3 beats repeat. Developing the ritualistic space through the atmosphere created. The sound of monks singing can be heard in the background darkness. Metal sounds saw as slight detail to accompany the bass wash.

Past 3 minutes the drumming starts, steady skin rhythm, strikes for the rise of the blood moon. Surrounding and thickening beats join with the raised voices. Additional drummers fill the spaces between beats, developing overlapping patterns.

This form stays consistent towards the 9-minute mark, when the chanting and beats fall off, leaving waves of bass drones. The whitened tips of this wash comprised of glints and chimes. Glimpses of a ridge, something throwing ripples by it's motion. Eventually slow voice calls layer into the weave, along with the sound of a single drummer, striking wooden rim rather than skin. Slow drift, stripping to conclusion.

The second side is the 11-minute title track Consolatmentum, where deep bass groans up, strokes playing a periodic jangled rattle. The groan layers, an open abyss, crackled rip and drone. Wooden lines flick in a percussive suggestion, played off wire brush strokes. The groans shifting, an equilibrium between vocal and spatial, describing the present body of the piece. Other details are shimmering and transitory motions. Ritualistic creep comes in past 8-minutes, slow wooden drums. With that comes a muffled vocal bass hum, contrasted by the trails of passing things, liquid surface strokes.

Title: Restitution Of Decayed Intelligence
Artist: Coil
Label: Beta Lactem Ring

Restitution Of Decayed Intelligence would be one of the last releases by Coil before the sad death of John Balance in 2004. Balance being one of the two core and originating members along with Peter Christopherson. The limited edition 10" was released as part of the series of vinyl EPs from the Beta Lactem Ring label. An invocation of the more chaotic side of Coil, which perhaps suggests more of an influence of a label like Mego than the traditional material (Coil having played along side several Mego artists the one time I saw them live, at ATP 2003).

Bleeps establish Restitution Of Decayed Intelligence I, an electric bass triggered swirl, dotting the shifting coils. Stuttering trash detail, reminding more of Constant Shallowness Leads To Evil than Musick To Play In The Dark. Dark drawn out chatter, communicated in fractured sequence. Squealing, high streams flare, bringing a see saw rhythm in it's wake. Signifying an increasing sense of disorder, a chaotic sludge. An impression that mounts with the motion of these disparate building blocks. One of those pieces that doesn't necessarily make a lot of sense on first listen, but clicks with repeated play - particularly as the last 5 minutes of the 15 minute piece provide a certain level of coherence - the last couple of minutes even inducing flash backs to an earlier Coil influence.

There is a certain continuity with the start of Restitution Of Decayed Intelligence I and II initially, bringing the concluding the elements of the first together, extruding an electrically flecked stream. Voices fade in and out, filtered to give a computerised sheen of distortion. Plink and blip, whir and chatter - providing a more consistent and tighter construction.

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