22 November 2009

Flag: The Movie

Just finished re-watching the movie version of Flag (which seems only to be available in German-speaking countries), and it is everything that Mind Game is not. I won't pretend to be writing a full review here, as that would hardly be fair with a 100-minute edit of a 13 episode series—and I can hardly assess the edit properly until I've seen the full series. But here's a couple of observations.

Firstly, the mecha elements of the show, which some people find inappropriate. Do we really need to have piloted robots in a UN-based operation set not too far in the future? Maybe not, but the robots here resemble the Tachikomas and Uchikomas of Ghost in the Shell (minus the artificial intelligence) more than they do the giant machines of Mobile Suit Gundam or Neon Genesis Evangelion. The HAVWCs of Flag are presented as if they are plausible developments of military hardware, powerful and maneuverable, but far from indestructible. On one level, they are an attempt to imagine what the conflicts of the near future might look like; on another, they are an attempt to reclaim the whole mecha genre from impossibly huge machines piloted by whining brats.

More importantly, the first person perspective—everything is seen through a lens—is not a gimmick. Flag is about the power of the image, and in particular the photographic image; to be constantly reminded that we are watching images is completely appropriate. In a sense, Flag is coldly objective in its resemblance to a documentary, stripping away (almost) all the usual bombast and noise associated with military drama. But not only that: by showing us what is seen through the viewfinder, rather than just the final product, we're being reminded that photography and film are a process, and at the same time that there is always a person behind the lens who sees.

This representation of photography is also a reference to traditional animation, and perhaps to film itself, which is precisely about using still images to create motion, narrative and meaning. Flag is at once a tribute to the camera, the media, and the operator, both in form and content.

As you might guess, I think that Flag is considerably more subtle that the military-political thriller it appears to be on the surface. Maybe at some point I'll attempt a more comprehensive and coherent review.

20 November 2009

Mind Game, directed by Masaaki Yuasa


Synopsis


Nishi and Myon were shy sweet-hearts at school but haven't met for some years. Nishi visits Myon and her sister Yan, who run a cafe. While there, two thugs turn up looking for Myon and Yan's father, who is in trouble with the local mafia. One of the thugs goes berserk, attacks Myon, and shoots Nishi.

His spirit leaves his body and meets a constantly shape-shifting God, who informs Nishi that he's dead. Not wanting to accept this, Nishi forces his way back to life through sheer determination, and finds himself in the cafe a few seconds before his death. This time he kills the thug, and flees with the two girls. A car chase ensues; just as capture seems inevitable, the trio drive off a suspension bridge and are swallowed by a whale.

Inside the whale they meet an old man who has been stranded there for 30 years; he helps them to survive and encourages them to make the most of the situation.

Finally, they escape.

Review

I like arty and pretentious anime as much as the anyone. I think Neon Genesis Evangelion, whose seemingly innocuous mecha beginnings give way to stream-of-consciousness psychoanalyzing, is a high-water mark. Confusing or confused, it's worth it. And I'm a huge fan of Satoshi Kon's work, all of which pushes the limits of anime. I enjoy the challenging stuff.

So when I read several fairly glowing reviews of Mind Game, I was curious. But I'm not sure if we were all watching the same film. Yes, the art and animation are spectacular, shifting between contrasting styles with grace and ease. It's certainly a visual showcase. Yet none of the reviews mention the aspects I'm going to talk about below; and I'm inclined to think that beyond the artwork, Mind Game is really just art-house by numbers. Fill in the dots between seemingly edgy elements, and you'll have a great piece of cinema. Or not.

Take the characters. Nishi is a wannabe Manga-artist. Fine. Myon wanted to be a swimmer until her breasts got in the way. Um, fine. The old man prepares gourmet dinners and talks to his friends, the dinosaurs. Whatever. And Yan wants to be a performance artist and likes nothing more that taping balloons to her chest, covering herself with paint, and throwing herself at canvas. While trapped inside a whale. Er… what?

This is all meant to be psychedelic and avant-garde, I suppose. Subtle it isn't. For example: Nishi tells Myon a story about space explorers for whom the only source of food on the planet they were stranded on was alien excrement. But then it turns out that the space explorers were actually on a cell in Myon's body, and they grew larger until being flushed out of her system. You can imagine the details, I'm sure. This charming tale has the inexplicable effect of seducing Myon; I can only suppose that her eyes were so clouded with love that saw in it the unrestrained imagination of her beau, and that the story was meant to have the same effect on the viewer. Personally, I just thought it was tasteless.

Duly seduced, Myon and Nishi have sex. Fortunately, there isn't any nudity, as their bodies dissolve into a kaleidoscope of lines, colours and images. Unfortunately, this sequence resembles nothing so much as a 1969 sketch by Monty Python: trains entering tunnels and then crashing, waves lashing against the shore, that sort of thing. Only in the sketch, we ultimately pan away to reveal an inept guy playing the film to his increasingly frustrated girlfriend. See, the Python sketch is a parody. Which says a lot for the sequence in Mind Game.

It's as if the whole thing is trying too hard to be different, to be absurd, to be psychedelic. Towards the end all four of the main cast pool their resources to escape, rowing as hard as they can through the water-filled stomach of the whale—until their boat is broken. With only the momentum to carry them forward, they use whatever comes their way as leverage to propel them forwards: bits of wood... fish... a fly... Onwards they run, as the whale swallows successively large objects: a ship, an airplane (which explodes behind them), an office block, which Nishi has to navigate his way through, leaping over tables and through windows…

Then finally we see a almost identical stream of images to those which opened the movie, only with slight differences; so whereas at the start Myon caught her foot in the door of an underground train, now she doesn't. This is art-house by numbers again: repeat the same four minutes of footage with minor changes and in so doing give 'meaning' to the changes. What it actually means is not actually the issue; the fact that it's meaningful is all that's important.

In the end, Mind Game is a hodgepodge of highbrow and lowbrow; of comments about breast size and toilet jokes combined with literary references and pseudo-symbolism. Perhaps it wants to exploit the contrast in a kind of cinematic magical realism; but in my view it fails completely. Nothing represents the film better than Yan's paint dancing: it wants to be art, but it's mired in vulgarity.

Bought, watched, and offered for sale on amazon marketplace before I'd even finished it.
__________
Verdict: Weak; I wish I'd done something better with my time. It's merits are few and far between.

(Review also available at MyAnimeList; cover image taken from there).

12 August 2009

Aufbrüch! (2009)

 - Aufbrüche! Die Umsonst & Draussen Festivals 1975-1978An impressive collection, no question about it. The box set includes the four original Umsonst & Draussen releases in re-mastered form, accompanied by a booklet containing articles and photos (most of which are available on the official release site). You can also download the albums individually from iTunes (the German store, at least).

Most of the music is in the kraut-funk style of mid-to-late 70's Embyro, which is no surprise since they were involved in setting up the festival in the first place. The first album contains perhaps the most krautrock-orientated pieces, but is unfortunately marred by the mastering being done from an LP release (the original tapes were missing). The sound improves considerably with the second album, and although the music is more focused on kraut-funk, it makes for a more consistent listen. The third and fourth releases are both double-albums, over 90 minutes each, and diversify the range of music somewhat. That's good in one way, but certainly makes them feel more like compilations that the second album.

Very few of the recordings are available elsewhere (Embryo's 'Wir sind alle politische Gefangene' was released on the re-master of Apo-Calypso as 'Prisioneri Politici'), and most of the bands are pretty obscure. That said, a large proportion of the bands involve musicians from better-know bands; some 67 minutes of the 4 1/2 hours of music feature Missus Beastly and various off-shoots, for example. Six tracks (from four bands) involve Marlon Klein of Dissidenten, who also is responsible for the re-mastering of the albums. And that's quite aside from the various Embryo-related projects. Obscure some of these formations may be, but there's no lack of musicianship.

On the (slightly) negative side, the CDs don't exactly follow the original releases—there's no way the third and fourth albums would fit onto single CDs. So all the albums (except the first) are split across at least two CDs, which breaks whatever continuity the originals had. It's better than leaving tracks off, and at least you can import the tracks into iTunes (or whatever) and make your own playlists. Also, the promotional artwork that you might see around is slightly misleading: in my edition at least, the cardboard sleeves containing the CDs are generic and do not show the original album art. That's slightly disappointing in an otherwise well-made box set.

All in all, this is a set which is greater than the sum of its parts, or at least than the individual songs it includes. Perhaps one more for the fans (of Embryo and later Missus Beastly in particular) than the casual listener, it's nevertheless a great overview of the alternative festival scene in Germany at the time.
__________

Verdict: Very good, especially for anyone interested in mid-70's krautrock.

[Review also posted on rateyoumusic]

14 June 2009

Jethro Tull @ Festung Mark, Magdeburg

I've been a Jethro Tull fan almost as long as I've been a music fan—practically speaking, that's since the late '80s, when I heard 'Living In The Past' while camping out in a tent in the garden. Since then their output has dwindled, releasing only four albums of original recordings, although singer and flautist Ian Anderson has also released four solo albums in the same period, often including songs in the Tull set-list. That was not the case last night (13 June) when the band played the Festung Mark in Magdeburg; celebrating a 40-year anniversary, the vast majority of songs were from the very earliest part of their career.

By 'vast majority' I mean that 11 of the 17 songs in the set were from the first two albums, 1968's 'This Was' and 1969's 'Stand Up'—eight songs from the latter album alone. Maybe the band had just become fed up with playing the set-list they've been touring since March, or maybe they knew that the Magdeburg crowd would be, shall we say, unresponsive at best, but this seems to have been a fairly unique move. Gone were 'Cross-Eyed Mary', 'Sweet Dream', 'Mother Goose' and 'Living in The Past', replaced by minor songs such as 'We Used To Know' and 'Back To The Family', which Anderson described as being the worst song he'd ever written, but great fun to play live. There were grumblings in the crowd, as this wasn't the greatest hits package they wanted—after the show I heard people comment that they could have just come for the last couple of songs (the obligatory 'Aqualung' and 'Locomotive Breath').

I was having fun, though. After seeing a somewhat lacklustre performance by Deep Purple last year, I really didn't want a band reminding me of how great they once were, but aren't any more. By playing so many minor songs it was possible to just listen to Jethro Tull, rather than comparing the latest live performance of a classic to the original and countless other recordings that have been made over the years. The band were clearly playing songs they wanted to play, and having fun doing so—and that was what I wanted to see them doing. Hits be damned.

Anderson's voice has clearly lost something over the years, but it never had as much to lose as, say, Ian Gillian, so the effect is less disturbing; and his flute playing is still excellent in any case. Martin Barre remains one of the most underrated guitarists in rock; and Doanne Perry may have only been with the band for 25 years, but his drumming is as as solid as ever. Then there were two other guys who I've not seen or heard of before. They did what they needed to and no more, which was also fine, as I'm really at a Tull concert to see Anderson and Barre anyway.

In the end, a somewhat controversial performance, which I can say that I enjoyed while understanding the frustration of others. And 'Stand Up'—a great album in any case—has acquired a new level of meaning for me. I saw it played live, after all.

18 May 2009

A Chronology of Asterix

Wikipedia helpfully lists all of the Asterix books in the correct chronological order, rather than the one imposed by the publishers. That's good, because there is a clear development in the visual style of the books, and sometimes even the story. For example, the Gauls venture further and further afield over the course of the first few books; in Asterix and the Golden Sickle, Lutetia (Paris) is considered a long and difficult journey—but if you've been reading according to the publisher's order, they have already visited Egypt and Rome by that point. In the same book, Getafix is planning to visit the annual conference of the druids; the next book, Asterix and the Goths, is concerned with his kidnapping at that conference. The publisher's order inserts a volume between those two books, thus breaking the story continuity.

But what Wikipedia doesn't include are the various short stories—compiled in Asterix and the Class Act—in a chronology with the main books, which would be useful for anyone wishing to read the everything in the original order. So here's one, correct as far as I can make out from both the English and French Wikipedia sites. Short stories are shown in italics; books are shown in bold.
1. Asterix the Gaul (1959-60)
2. Asterix and the Golden Sickle (1960-61)
3. Asterix and the Goths (1961-62)
4. Asterix the Gladiator (1962)
- i. Birth of an Idea (1962)
- ii. Obelix's Family Tree (1963)
5. Asterix and the Banquet (1963)
6. Asterix and Cleopatra (1963-64)
- iii. Press Conference (1964)
7. Asterix and the Big Fight (1964-65)
- iv. How Obelix Fell into the Magic Potion When he was a Little Boy (1965)
8. Asterix in Britain (1965-66)
- v. Springtime In Gaul (1966)
9. Asterix and the Normans (1966)
- vi. Asterix and the Class Act (1966)
10. Asterix the Legionary (1966-67)
11. Asterix and the Chieftain's Shield (1967)
- vii. For Gaul Lang Syne (1967)
12. Asterix at the Olympic Games (1968)
- ix. The Mascot (1968)
13. Asterix and the Cauldron (1968-69)
14. Asterix in Spain (1969)
- x. Asterix as you've never seen him (1969)
15. Asterix and the Roman Agent (1970)
16. Asterix in Switzerland (1970)
17. The Mansions of the Gods (1971)
18. Asterix and the Laurel Wreath (1971-72)
- xi. Mini Midi Maxi (1971)
19. Asterix and the Soothsayer (1972)
- xii. Latinamania (1973)
20. Asterix in Corsica (1973)
21. Asterix and Caesar's Gift (1974)
22. Asterix and the Great Crossing (1975)
23. Obelix and Co. (1976)
- xiii. In 50 BC (1977)
24. Asterix in Belgium (1979)
25. Asterix and the Great Divide (1980)
26. Asterix and the Black Gold (1981)
27. Asterix and Son (1983)
- xiv. The Lutetia Olympics (1986)
28. Asterix and the Magic Carpet (1987)
29. Asterix and the Secret Weapon (1991)
- xv. Birth of Asterix (1994)
30. Asterix and Obelix All at Sea (1996)
31. Asterix and the Actress (2001)
[32. Asterix and the Class Act (2003)]
- xvi. Chanticleerix (2003)
- xvii. Obelix: As Simple as ABC (2004)
33. Asterix and the Falling Sky (2005)
NOTES:
  • Dates are according to first publication; for books 1 to 20, the date is based on the serialisation in Pilote.
  • It seems that Obelix's Family Tree was published in parallel with Asterix and the Banquet.
  • The text of How Obelix Fell into the Magic Potion When he was a Little Boy was originally published in Pilote in 1965; the book currently available was first published in 1989 and includes new artwork.
  • The story Obelix: As Simple as ABC is included in some newer editions of Asterix and the Class Act compilation volume.
Well, I think that's everything...

09 April 2009

The Bunny Boy Video Series

*Contains spoilers*

I watched the first few episodes of The Bunny Boy Video Series by The Residents when they were originally released, but failed to keep up with them during the move to Magdeburg. Yesterday I listened to The Bunny Boy album on the way to work and decided to see what had happened to the Video Series when I got home, only to find that it had coincidentally just ended two days before, on 6 April 2009. So last night I downloaded the whole lot and sat down to watch.

Back to back, the 66 episodes (67 if you count the two-parter) take about two-and-a-half hours to watch. The episodes themselves are more like video diaries, shot from a hand-held camera by the Bunny Boy himself—who we learn is called Roger—although he eventually enlists help from a Russian friend named Igor. Most videos are single takes; cuts do creep into later episodes along with the occasional special effect (and glove puppets!), serving to undermine the impression that the videos are 'real', although I suspect that this was the intention in any case. The sleeve notes to the album state that the videos—supposedly posted to The Residents on a DVD—were the inspiration for their musical retelling, but the question of which came first is actually irrelevant. The videos describe events occurring after the release of the album, such as the Bunny Boy being persuaded to accompany the band on tour and seeking sponsorship for the show. The two approaches, video and album, essentially tell the same story through different media, rather like the stories which accompanied 2005's Animal Lover complimented the music.

The premise of the story is that Roger's brother Harvey has gone missing; not knowing where to begin searching for him, Roger records these short videos and posts them on YouTube in the hope that somebody will notice his plight and be able to offer help. Eventually clues start to come in, both from 'viewers' and by examining Harvey's belongings, and Roger is drawn to the small village of Patmos, Arkansaw. But this plot is more or less a Macguffin—Harvey is never actually found, and the only glimpses we have of him are torn up photographs. Indeed, it is never really clear whether Roger and Harvey are actually different people.

We learn that Roger went on holiday with Harvey's family to the Greek island of Patmos, where the Book of Revelation was written, and suffered a breakdown—to begin with he is unable to remember anything from the trip and is confused by a shadowy figure (himself) lurking in the family photographs. Harvey and his wife Hilda apparently became estranged after the failure of a dotcom company which Harvey attempted to launch, but Roger is still living in a 'secret room' in the basement of their house, surrounded with all sorts of paraphernalia.

Many of the scenes build on these ambiguities and can be viewed from the perspective either that Roger and Harvey are the same person, or that they are not. At one point, for example, Roger asks Harvey's daughter to make a plea for help on one of the videos, but she's too uncomfortable to do so; it isn't clear whether she's uncomfortable with recording the video for the voyeuristic public or whether the problem is rather that she finds it difficult to play along with Roger's delusions. One morning Roger wakes to discover a stack of boxes left outside his door by Hilda, apparently containing drawings and notes by Harvey; but again, we can't be sure whether Hilda passed on the notes to help Roger with his search or to snap him out of it.

But even this question is something of a Macguffin. I'm not sure that it really matters whether Roger and Harvey are the same person or not, and the lack of definitive clues seems to support this. What's important is how Roger sees the situation: that he really does have a lost brother, that signs seem to be pointing an Apocalypse which only he and Harvey can prevent, despite being consumed with doubt. If it's all a delusional fantasy, then it is still one which seems real to Roger, and all we can do is follow him. He may not actually fight the Beast in the cellar of a chicken farm, and it may all be a confrontation of himself; but then what matters is how Roger constructs his narrative.

Appropriately enough, social media such as YouTube and Twitter form an underlying critical theme in the series, as Roger attempts to get his message heard. To begin with he receives mostly spam; sympathy and criticism, when they come, are naturally from complete strangers, and both seem misplaced. He begins to don a rabbit costume when a viewer comments on his clothing, at first taking offence but quickly settling into the role. His 'viewers' become 'fans', both in his mind and in reality; in the end he receives sponsorship, with the unscrupulous Residents (!) selling the rights to his character (The Bunny Boy) and his predicament. The final episode gives us a taste of things to come, as an anonymous media company launches The All New Adventures of The Bunny Boy. What started out as a genuine plea for help is trivialised, sensationalised and commercialised: Roger is unable to keep himself separate, and his story becomes shaped by the media it adopts. This bitterness runs throughout the series: Roger is alone, occasionally indulged by those near to him, misunderstood and manipulated by those further away. The internet and social media do not really offer a solution, just more and greater disappointment.

All of this is, of course, purely interpretative. It's just what the Video Series meant to me. Others might see more in it, or less. But it's well worth watching.

The Bunny Boy Video Series can be downloaded from http://www.residents.com/bunnyboy/.