Archive for September, 2009

Zero 7 – Yeah Ghost

September 24th, 2009 No comments

Finally, the band that this blog owes its name to has finished their fourth studio album: Yeah Ghost is going to be released on Monday.

While the single Everything Up (Zizou) was made available for free download as an appetizer in late July, the band now made the full album available for free online listening. Compared to their earlier works, Yeah Ghost is more upbeat, striking new paths for the band. This is futher emphasized by the absence of the traditional Zero 7 vocalists like Sia Fuller and José González who had a tremendous influence on the band’s sound.

Instead, the new album features the first collaborations with singer Eska Mtungwazi who breezingly shatters the stereotype of the petite female vocalist, so typical for Zero 7’s previous albums. This results in songs abound with a previously untypical vitality, bursting with dominating rhythms pushing them close the edge of being danceable. One would hardly believe that Mr McGee and Ghost sYMboL were recorded by the same band that released The Garden just two years ago.

Those are however just some felicitous exceptions, as Zero 7 is still a downtempo band after all. Everything Up feels so familiar that it could have come right off the B-side of The Garden; Pop Art Blue brilliantly demonstrates the seamless fusion of acoustic instruments, electronic beats and aspirated female vocals that Zero 7 is famous for. Unlike earlier albums though, where a listener unfamiliar with downbeat would risk losing himself in the ocean of consistent sound, Yeah Ghost regularly speeds up with tracks like Sleeper, a fast paced play of electric dissonances backed up by a dominant beat. Only in the concluding three tracks Solastalgia, The Road and All of Us the band casually succumbs to the warm embracement of pure sound.

Overall Yeah Ghost leaves no doubt that the chilly days of Simple Things and When It Falls are ultimately over. Instead the band carefully explores new territory, succesfully avoiding the descent to mere easy-listening. Whether they will be able to find their defining niche like they did in Downbeat only time will tell. For now, they have released an unexpected, but highly enjoyable and promising album.

Track Picks: Everything Up (Zizou), Mr McGee, Solastalgia
Free Online Listening

Categories: Music

Movie Review: Antichrist

September 23rd, 2009 No comments

Woodland Empire

Directed By Lars von Trier
Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Willem Dafoe
Antichrist at the imdb

This review contains spoilers.

Lars von Trier did a horror movie. While his last visit to the genre left the impression of being the legitimate european answer to Twin Peaks, this one utilizes many of the techniques introduced by Lynch’s latest picture. Furthermore the movie caused quite some riot in Cannes due to some very graphic scenes. Let’s get this one straight: If you enter a competition along with Michael Haneke and everyone complains that your movie is too hardcore, you probably messed up.

Antichrist starts off very promising. As usual with von Trier’s movies, it is divided into constituent chapters.  The prologue and epilogue both capture the viewer with an unexpected visual power: Black-and-white imagery, super slow-motion, naked bodies and falling snow. Masterfully balancing on the edge between great art and kitsch, the opening shows the great sense for visuals von Trier has — probably better than any of his former works, except maybe the opening of Riget.

The main chapters are shot in typical Dogma-style with shaky hand-camera and jump-cuts dominating the cinematography. It goes without question that von Trier has mastered this technique like no other and it is a pleasure to watch him demonstrate his skills. The division into chapters is not as strict as in his earlier movies: In Antichrist the chapters actually represent distinct stages of escalation typical to the horror-genre, each culminating in the surreal appearance of a mythical creature representing an aspect of evil itself. Besides that, the division feels rather artificial, but viewers familiar with von Trier’s work will probably expect that anyway. Overall everything works quite well, the level of suspense is well adjusted and a growing sense of horror will spread in the audience. The identification with the characters is adequately close, supported by the undistanced cinematography. The atmosphere is dark and intense, supported by a morbid soundtrack. And then the movie destroys it all with some of the most disgusting scenes in the history of cinema…

The usage of gore is among the most powerful tools in cinematography; if utilized correctly, that is. A fundamental problem of gore is that it stresses the audience. When put under stress, the typical viewer will demand an adequate refund by the movie, or else they will be gravely disappointed. In times when gore has become common in cinema, this proves to be a problem: When using too much gore, the audience will be disgusted and feel repelled by the movie; when using too less, the intended state of shock might not occur at all. The gore level in Antichrist is so over-the-top, it suffices as a mean to Verfremdung. (Which leaves one wondering if von Trier intended this effect, considering some of his recent movies)

One fundamental rule of any visual media is that explicitness is never as powerful as mere indication. Visual explicitness does work if dosed carefully – take the eye-cut of Buñuel’s Chien Andalou as an example. But it becomes unbearable for the viewer when used excessively, as seen in Noé’s Irréversible. If the viewer is left with nothing to imagine, if everything is laid out on the screen, we leave the halls of art and enter the realm of pornography.

Even when disregarding this bold allegation, one crucial fact undisputably remains: Verfremdung does not mix with horror. That is where the movie fails miserably. From the moment Charlotte Gainsbourgh picks up those rusty scissors, the viewer is put in a state of pure disgust and revulsion. Any identification with the characters is lost, any immersion built up to that point vanishes and the movie starts to feel utterly flat and unappealing. Antichrist never manages to redeem from this shock and in effect completely ruins the (otherwise very promising) ending. This coherence is not unknown to the general horror-afficionado: It is exactly the same effect that characterizes the experience of trash-splatter.

Undoubtedly Antichrist has a lot more to offer than your average B-horror. The subtext and symbolism presented are deep and probably rewarding for a considerate viewer — but that drops back behind the fact, that the viewer will simply not want to think about the movie after it is over, considering that he is still busy being grossed out.

Conclusion: Despite its ambitious approaches and visual magnificence, Antichrist is to be considered a bad movie. The unrestrained portrayal of gore causes the movie to become completely unwatchable by a common audience. From a film scientific point of view, it remains an interesting experience, and cinephile viewers are encouraged to form an opinion on their own, but that won’t change the fact that, in the end, the movie is unable to deliver its message — a fact that can not be excused.

Especially considering, that this is caused exclusively by imprudent attempts of provocation.

Categories: Movies

Movie Review: 9

September 18th, 2009 No comments

Little Big Wasteland

Directed By Shane Acker
Voice Acting Elijah Wood, Crispin Glover, Jennifer Connelly
9 at the imdb

In 2005, young artist Shane Acker released 9, an ten minute animated film about a rag doll fighting against a mechanical monster in a desolate post-human environment. Its unique character design and inspiring mood caused the film to become quite popular and eventually resulted in an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short.

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Based on his short film, Acker was given the opportunity to direct a feature-length film of the same name, patronized by producer Tim Burton. 9 expands the motives of the original movie into a rich background story, but still preserves the melancholic mood of the short. The movie’s main character is the final of nine mechanical rag dolls, who are the last remnants of human civilization. In a destroyed city haunted by nightmarish robotic beasts, they fight for their survival. With the arrival of number 9 and the strange device he carries, their fate is going to change forever.

Tim Burton seems to be a perfect match as producer, since many themes of 9 could have originated from one of Burton’s early movies. When 9 awakes in an laboratory, unable to speak because his creator died before finishing him, one inevitably thinks of Edward Scissorhands. The contribution of Danny Elfman to the soundtrack further amplifies this impression. This also gives a hint on how to anticipate the movie: 9 works best when watched as a post-apocalyptic fairy tale.

Not unlike the original short, 9 draws large parts of its fascination from the loving character design. Not only were the characters animated with much more detail than in the 2005 version, they also have very distinct personalities attached to them: There is the greyed tribal chief, the autist twins, the brave warrior princess and the simple-minded sword-swinging giant. Each of the nine represents a distinct aspect of the human soul, which leads to some complex tensions between the characters. Thanks to the dedicated voice actors, the little rag dolls develop some quite interesting characteristics.

One very inspiring aspect in the production design arises from the fact, that the rag dolls are only about a foot in height. From their perspective, many everyday items gain a sad and lost tone, which further enhances the impression of a world-that-was.

The screenplay by Pamela Pettler (Corpse Bride, Monster House) is solid, but not spectacular. It seems that a lot of the potentially profound scenario was sacrificed favouring a shallow, digestible plot. Fortunately, the script withstands the urge to overexplain the story background, so a demanding viewer won’t be discouraged too much. What really keeps the story alive in the end are the numerous details: When the giant number 8 succumbs to the addictive waves of a small magnet he always carries with him; when the alienated number 7 hides her fears behind the animal skull she wears as a mask; when 5 discovers the the crushed hat of his friend 2 and remembers their first encounter — These are the memorable moments when 9 truly shows its capabilities. And it’s these moments when it displays the potential to become a true classic.

Conclusion: 9 is certainly one of this year’s highlights concerning animated films. With its unique, memorable characters and the fabulous storyline, it easily conceals minor weaknesses in the script and animation, providing an overall worthwile movie experience. Consider it the charming low-budget equivalent to this year’s major animated pictures, Coraline and Up.

Though it is certainly too scary for the youngest children, 9 clearly aims at youths and is suitable for a younger audience.

Categories: Movies

Symphonic Fantasies 2009

September 16th, 2009 No comments

Over the last few years, concerts of video game music have become increasingly popular in Germany. Besides the traditional opening concerts at the Gewandhaus inaugurating the Games Convention in Leipzig in earlier years, followed by a gig of Video Games Live in 2008, there has been last year’s Symphonic Shades concert, dedicated exclusively to the work of german composer Chris Hülsbeck. Due to the overwhelming success, the team of Symphonic Shades decided to reprise their success with Symphonic Fantasies, a concert dedicated to the soundtracks of the games by japanese manufacturer Square Enix.

Due to the amazing feedback on Symphonic Shades, the WDR decided to move the event from the Funkhaus in Cologne to the much bigger Philharmonie. Despite the gain in scale, tickets soon became rare, so a second gig was announced in Oberhausen, a city 70 kilometers north of Cologne. I attended the concert in Cologne last saturday.

The Philharmonie was quite crowded: With all tickets sold out, there were around 2000 people attending the concert in Cologne, with the average age being well below thirty. The organizers managed to fly in all four performed composers to the event: Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts), Hiroki Kikuta (Secret of Mana), Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger) and Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy) were not only in the audience on both concerts, but were also available for an autograph session.

Thanks to the smart placing of the autograph tables in the foyer of the Philharmonie, curious attendants were able to have a good look at the composers even if they did not get in line for an autograph. The actual concert was divided into four parts (à 20 minutes) plus encore (10 minutes), seperated by an intermission after the second part.

The Kingdom Hearts Segment

Kingdom Hearts was the most recent title in the program. For this segment, the WDR Rundfunkorchester under conductor Arnie Roth was joined by german pianist Benyamin Nuss. Due to its setting, the Kingdom Hearts soundtrack is largely dominated by themes from the classic animated Disney movies, which were omitted in this performance. Instead, the arrangement concentrated on the signature opening ‘Dearly Beloved‘ and the memorable ‘Hand in Hand‘, which build the central theme of the segment. The arrangement was mostly dominated by the piano, which did an excellent job at catching the melancholy of the original composition. Probably the most quiet segment of the evening, garnished with some nice highlights by the piano and violin. All in all, a wonderful opening segment, even for people who dislike the sometimes childish character of the Kingdom Hearts franchise.

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The Secret of Mana Segment

While I do like the Secret of Mana game, I consider its soundtrack to be comparably weak. Imho it lacks the memorable themes that carried the other compositions, so I was sceptic whether this segment would be able to convince me. Fortunately, my fears were in vain.

Joined by the choir of the WDR Rundfunkchor, the orchestra performed the most creative segment of the evening. Thanks to colorful arrangements and unexpected sound effects, the greyed themes from the 16-bit era felt as fresh as never before. A huge credit goes to orchestrator Jonne Valtonnen, whose reconstruction of memorable in-game scenes through original sound effects was one of the most enjoyable experiences of the evening.

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The Chrono Trigger Segment

Of the four featured soundtracks, Chrono Trigger is probably the least known in Germany, since it was not released until the Nintendo DS remake in 2008. This was the reason why, despite the concise original compositions, I considered this to be the most difficult segment of the evening.

After the intermission, the orchestra was joined by percussionist Rony Barrak, who presented a breathtaking performance on the traditional Darbouka. Thanks to his participation, the melodic themes of Chrono Trigger gained a tremendous rhythmic quality unknown from the original composition. Like Secret of Mana, this segment was able to convince with creative arrangements and further achieved to masterfully merge the various incisive motives into an harmonic piece. Arguably the artistic highlight of the evening.

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The Final Fantasy Segment

The last segment was probably the most anticipated: All-time fan favourite Final Fantasy, with the emphasis on parts six and seven of the series. The compositions are very well-known in Germany, in both the original synthesizer and rearranged orchestral form.

Once again, the choir joined the orchestra for this segment, starting with a wonderful, dreamy arrangement of the famous ‘Prelude’. Next was an interpretation of the battle theme from Final Fantasy 7, which had been previously arranged in both orchestral form and as a highly dynamic piano piece for the Advent Children movie. The arrangement here was conveyed mainly by the choir, which added an interesting facet to the piece. A personal highlight for me was the ‘Phantom Forest’ theme from Final Fantasy 6, which had been previously arranged for the Grande Finale concert, but is otherwise a rather rarely played piece. Fan-service was provided by the lighthearted ‘Chocobo’-theme and the repeated occurence of a few notes from the ‘One Winged Angel’. The overall very powerful and massive arrangement was supported by the participation of the philharmony’s large organ, which further emphasized the mountainous tone of the segment.

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Encore: Boss Medley

Since, apart from a few notes, the ‘One Winged Angel’ had been omitted so far, there was little doubt that there would be an encore. After some serious ovations the orchester rejoined with the choir and Rony Barrak for the great finale, consisting of the boss themes from all four games. As was to be expected, this segment easily exceeded the Final Fantasy segment in terms of epical grandeur. From the swelling crescendo of the choir to a remarkable drum-solo by Rony Barrak, this segment proved to be a worthy finale for a marvelous concert.

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Thanks to the surprisingly creative arrangements and the masterful execution, Symphonic Fantasies proved to be the undisputed highlight in terms of game music concerts in Germany so far. A commercial release on audio cd is very likely, so keep your eyes peeled.

Without question, it would be highly desirable if the producers decided to rejoin for a new Symphonic * event in 2010. I will certainly keep my fingers crossed.

Categories: Games, Music

Movie Review: The Descent: Part 2

September 16th, 2009 No comments

Horribly wrong

The Descent: Part 2
Directed By Jon Harris
Starring Shauna MacDonald, Natalie Jackson Mendoza
The Descent: Part 2 at the imdb

Watched at the Fantasy Filmfest 2009 in Munich.

It is a well-known and despised law of the horror genre that any succesful, innovative representative of the genre will inevitably be followed by one or more incredibly dull, uninspired sequels.

When The Descent appeared in cinemas in 2005 it was considered by many as one of the best horror movies in years. Writer/director Neil Marshal managed to find just the right mixture of suspense, mystery and trash to hit the viewer’s nerves: A group of  six young women is trapped underground during a cave expedition trip. While searching for an exit, they are attacked by wild humanoid beasts who have been living in the caves for centuries. Although Marshal’s movie had a quite definite ending, editor Jon Harris now delivers his debut as a director with the sequel.

If you hoped that Harris might have learned a thing or two while working with Marshal, you will be gravely disappointed. Not only does The Descent 2 never reach the level of sophistication set by its predecessor, it also fails to recognize the foundation established by the first movie. Apart from being played by the same actresses, the recurring characters have nothing in common with their counterparts from the original film.

There were several good reasons for avoiding a sequel to The Descent alltogether. The first half of the original movie, which is considered by many as the better, only works because the audience is unaware of the dangers lurking in the cave. Although Harris tries to cheat around this problem (producing quite some plot holes in the process), his movie lacks any of the psychologically tense moments that dominated the mood of the first film. Instead he does not lose much time before the monsters appear and start attacking the group. Actually, he does not lose any time at all, since he almost completely omits any character exposition. ‘Almost completely’ here means, that there is exactly one character on which we get some background info. Now, I wonder who’s gonna be the final girl in this movie…

While we are at it, anyone familiar with the conventions of the genre will be bored to death by the script. If you happen to be a film student looking for a complete list of all cheesy cliché story-twists typical for the horror genre, just take a look at Descent 2, it’s all there. Also, one could think that it should be obvious for a movie that uses cheap startle effects in about every second scene, it might actually be a stupid idea to announce every single of those by inconspicuously muting the sound-track. And don’t you even dare expecting the least amount of suspense. The Descent 2 follows ‘Monster Movie 101’ by the book, but it follows the book so closely that it becomes completely predictable. A viewer familiar with the genre can literally forecast the events of the following scene without the slightest effort. Where Marshal’s movie deliberately played on the viewer’s expectation to surprise and astound the audience, the sequel is just dull and annoying.

One of the biggest insults of the plot is how it tries to expand the events of the original movie. While the role of Sarah as mentally unstable tempo-amnesiac undeniably has its problems, the return of Juno as Lara-Croftian amazon is so ridiculous, it will irrevocably destroy any respect the viewer might have left for the movie at that point. This mischief is only excelled by the uninspired and completely random ending.

“Well now”, you might think, “this does not sound too bad, I was expecting a trash-movie anyway”. But The Descent 2 does not work that way either! While there are numerous ridiculous moments, they all lack the level of exaggeration required for an enjoyable trash-experience. When Harris does stupid things, he does it in such a dull and sluggish fashion, that you just cannot help but be bored.

At least the hardcore-gorehounds might have some fun, as the movie is a lot more explicit than the first part. Unfortunately, more often than not Harris resorts to simple disgust-effects which are not only executed badly, but also unfitting for the general tone of the movie. All in all, not nearly enough to justify the giant mess surrounding the occasional splatter…

Conclusion: This movie sucks. It actually sucks so bad, I’m tempted to call it the worst horror-movie of the decade. Especially when put into relation with the original movie, The Descent 2 feels like a rude insult, the cheapest of all thinkable attempts to squeeze money out of a succesful franchise: The plot is ridiculous and horribly poor executed from start to finish; the director neither knows the difference between scare and startle, nor how to achieve any of the two; the effects are too cheap to be called good, but not cheap enough to be enjoyable for their trash quality; the acting is almost as bad as the script; and there is not a single scene in the whole movie that won’t make you feel that both the money paid for the ticket and the time spend watching the movie were wasted in a most futile way.

There is currently no known release date for The Descent: Part 2 in Germany. You should pray that there never will be.

Categories: Movies