Saturday, 30 December 2006

FILM: Best of 2006

While I could write something about my favourite TV, games, music, etc. of 2006, it wouldn't really be worth my time or yours as there's not much to say. However, even if I didn't see as many new films as I usually do (and there are still a lot of films I want to see yet to be released in Japan), here's my overview of my cinematic consumption.

Best of 2006
  1. Children of Men
    Breath-taking, gut-wrenching, genre-spanning brilliance; a technical achievement par excellence with both grittiness and soul to match.
  2. Casino Royale
    The best Bond film of the year! But also, one of the very best films of the year. It captures everything that makes Bond great whilst adding a style and sophistication of its own.
  3. Thank You For Smoking
    Sharp and frequently funny satire on the tobacco industry with an excellent central performance from Aaron Eckhart.
  4. Lady Vengeance
    Chan-Wook Park's final entry in his Vengeance trilogy is just as assured, emotional and visually arresting as Oldboy, but with a tone all of its own.
  5. Crank
    Jason Statham finally gets the kickass film he deserves in this ridiculously entertaining action flick - violence, laughs and camera tricks galore.
  6. A Scanner Darkly
    Paranoia-heavy Philip K. Dick adaptation, with engaging rotoscoping techniques and superb support from Robert Downey, Jr., Woody Harrelson and Rory Cochrane.
  7. Slither
    Aliens, mutants, slugs and zombies combine in a real mess of the film, but in the best possible way. A great mix of grue and gags.
  8. A Cock And Bull Story
    Not perfect, but not bad at all either - Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon bend reality and fiction in a comedy that is unconventional, but all the better for it.
  9. Snakes On A Plane
    It may have been subject to a million fan-made videos and t-shirts, but thankfully it didn't buy into it's own hype, and ended up exactly how a film from the director of Final Destination 2 starring Samuel L. Jackson on a plane with a bunch of snakes should end up - stupid fun.
  10. Good Night, and Good Luck
    It's now hard to imagine a time when George Clooney was just 'that guy from E.R. who was in that rubbish Batman film'. A succinct, straightforward and classy tale of journalism versus McCarthyism.
Best Not Released This Year, But Saw For The First Time
  1. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
    Finally capped off the Dollars trilogy with yet another superb Spaghetti Western; not usually a fan of the genre, but it's completely involving from start to finish.
  2. The Crazies
    George A. Romero's dry run for Dawn of the Dead, this is a bleak, ominous tale of a viral outbreak and the chaos that ensues when military, civilians and scientists clash.
  3. Theater of Blood
    Gleefully camp horror - Vincent Price hams it up like nothing else as a demented actor who takes revenge on the critics who killed his career through elaborate murders inspired by the Bard.
  4. Stop Making Sense
    Got round to finishing the Talking Heads live concert filmed by Jonathan Demme. Excellent music and brilliantly staged with compelling onstage theatrics from David Byrne et al.
  5. Howl’s Moving Castle
    Hayao Miyazaki's most recent animated opus might actually be just as good as Spirited Away. Still downright bizarre and nonsensical in places (and the ending is laughably wrapped up), but it's beautifully drawn and has genuine warmth.
And a round-up of some of the rest:

Despite several warnings, I decided to witness the full horror of
House of the Dead, and genuinely regret doing so. Absolutely woeful cack-handed film-making that truly defies logic and taste. In several respects, Wild Zero is something of the Japanese equivalent, but pulls it off thanks to Guitar Wolf and the 'ROCK AND ROLL!" vibe that permeates throughout. Supposed modern classics like Serenity and Superman Returns did little for me, and Anchorman and Dodgeball confirmed my suspicions that fans of the 'Frat Pack' are mostly mindless simpletons akin to Steve Carrell's character in the former (who turned out to be the best thing in either film). Animation was a mixed bunch with the good (Porco Rosso), the baffling (Transformers: The Movie) and the boring (Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence). Out of the 'classics' I finally watched, Badlands, The Wicker Man, The Wild Bunch and The Conversation impressed, but Deliverance wasn't quite the harrowing nightmare I'd been led to believe. In Hell was not half-bad for a Van Damme flick, while Silent Hill's vision of hell was impressive but replaced genuine suspense with silly dialogue and plotting. The Infernal Affairs sequels continued the high standard set by the original with more twisty back-and-forthing before, during and after the first film's events. And finally, the big blockbuster threequels (X-Men: The Last Stand and Mission: Impossible III) turned out as expected, i.e. not very good, and while Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest was convoluted and lacking in fun, it still provided enough rollicking adventure to make At World's End an exciting prospect indeed.

Thursday, 28 December 2006

CD: Halfby - Green Hours

I first became aware of Kyoto DJ/artist Halfby aka Takahiro Takahashi when I saw the Groovisions video for his track Rodeo Machine at onedotzero's 2006 digital film festival in London. The Airside-esque visuals and funky upbeat tune won me over, and I'm pleased to report that the rest of the album the track was taken from is similarly bright and buoyant.

Green Hours is cut-and-paste sample beats and pieces designed for the simple purpose of making you dance, smile and just plain enjoy yourself. Much of Halfby's work seems inspired by 70s happy-go-lucky records favoured by The Go! Team, with an element of Fatboy Slim mixy tricks - and amongst the dozen tracks on Green Hours, there are some that can certainly sit alongside the best such company have to offer. The rap mash-mixathon of Bring it Back is an early highlight, Man&Air and Coro Coro Sound System are grin-inducing heel-kicking celebratory anthems, and the soothing super-cool Bathrobe and album closer Soulful Lover Puppy ensure that Green Hours kicks rump throughout.

Best track though would have to be Flicker Song, a blissful carefree masterpiece that would suit an early evening trip to the seaside or an Amazonian boat-trip as much as it would a montage of a 70s all-female crime-fighting trio taking time out from busting perps for a shopping trip.

There's a childish playfulness to Halfby's music (as also shown in the wildlife-centric videos and album art) that make it so endearing, but at the same time it also results in the album's only two clangers. Admittedly, West Jungle March is quite cute and brief, but it breaks up the flow and feels a little unnecessary. However, Girls at Bass School's embarassing reworking of This Old Man is so 'down wid da kidz', it's inexcusable. But even if these two pour a little pee in the party punch, they are bunched together and easily skippable.

Overall, Halfby is a DJ that requests your utmost attention and Green Hours is provides a near-perfect soundtrack to any party. And now that I have seen him live in action, my appreciation of the album has increased and I will be sure to check out his other work when I have the chance.


> > > Second Royal Records

Wednesday, 27 December 2006

FILM: Casino Royale

While Casino Royale has been labelled as being as necessary a rebooting of a franchise as Batman Begins was to Batman and Robin, I always thought that was somewhat unfair on the previous entry. Despite Die Another Day's excesses and cartoonish absurdities, I saw it as a celebration of Bond to mark the 20th film and the 40th anniversary, and it was therefore allowed to go a bit loopy. Clearly the producers thought a change of tact was in order, and it has certainly been a controversial process. From Pierce Brosnan's pay disputes, dropping him altogether, the search for a new Bond, the eventual selection of Daniel Craig, taking the character back to his roots by using the original novel (an idea Quentin Tarantino had also proposed when he offered to make an R-rated Bond film with Brosnan)...the path to Bond 21 has been littered with bumps and knocks. So it's pretty amazing that something so good came out at the end.

I never understood the whole brouhaha surrounding the choice of Craig as Bond, in that he's been excellent in pretty much everything I've seen him in. That he has already achieved such an impressive bank of work demonstrated that he was to approach the character of James Bond with all the attention a role such as this requires. And he does absolute wonders, flitting from brutal coldness to lady charmer to razor wit with genuine ease. In terms of the Bonds that have gone before, you could perhaps say he's most like Connery but it would be unfair to suggest that there's an element of mimicry going on, as Craig's Bond is his own and totally believable. He even displays character development - though that's as much to do with the writing and this being the 'genesis' of the Bond character as much as anything.

Indeed, where the film genuinely succeeds is in how the Bond traditions are present and correct but they all have a logic and a purpose behind them that feels genuinely embedded in reality. Of course, there are the occasional flights of fancy but they still feel wholly grounded. Similarly, the dialogue rarely strays into Carry On... innuendo clangers, remaining snappy and sharp throughout.

In terms of the supporting cast, Judi Dench appears to relish the chance to put Bond in his place now he's reverted back to a fresh-faced whipper-snapper of a 00 agent. She clearly doesn't like Bond but there's a mutual respect that their brief exchanges absolutely convey. Mads Mikkelsen is superb as Le Chiffre, who is more human than any of the pantomime villains that usually parade around their massive lairs. He's certainly unpleasant but there's a sense of tragedy behind his bleeding eye that make his scenes with Bond electrifyingly tense. But it's Eva Green as Vesper Lynd who's the biggest revelation. The dialogue between her and Craig sparks with wonderful zings and one-upmanship, and the sensitive relationship that develops between them provides the emotional core to the kind of film that rarely has one.

I've spent most of this review blabbing on about acting, dialogue and character development, yet I haven't even touched on the action sequences that Bond films are best remembered for. It's not to say they aren't spectacular (the bathroom beating, the parkour chase, the airport bomb plot), but they seem somewhat muted compared to what are actually the film's finest scenes - the actual poker game central to the plot (and its interruptions) and the perfectly-pitched torture scene, which balances the pain/humour element thanks to some great Bond quippery.

If there are flaws, they do little to upset the overall impression of the film. There's a little bit of unnecessary jet-setting (Bond's spur of the moment trip to Miami moves the plot along a fraction and has some good stunts, but seems more like an excuse to stick in a Richard Branson cameo and take a trip to Gunther von Hagens' Bodyworks exhibition) and there's the odd dodgy CG backdrop. And despite having successfully rebooted the Bond franchise twice, I still don't think Martin Campbell's all that great a director. That this film looks and feels so radically different to GoldenEye either suggests he's upped his game or just does what the writers, editors and producers tell him - maybe it's just because he looks like Karl Pilkington.

Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether the tone can be maintained to successive Bond films. But for now, Casino Royale has proved that Bond is as exciting now as ever. This isn't just a great Bond film, but it's a great film in it's own right. The film's good. Very good.


> > > Official Site, IMDb

Monday, 11 December 2006

FILM: Children of Men

Based on the novel by P.D. James, Children of Men takes place in London in the not-too-distant future, in which the world is infertile, the youngest human on the planet has just died, all immigrants are locked-up without question and terrorist attacks are all too frequent. As society breaks down, government pen-pusher Theo Faron's (Clive Owen) only refuge is the countryside home of old friend Jasper (Michael Caine). But when his ex-wife, and activist group leader, Julian (Julianne Moore) turns up seeking his assistance to ensure safe passage for refugee Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), the importance of the mission is matched only by the danger they risk in achieving it.

While dystopian visions of the future appear on the silver screen with seemingly the same frequency as computer-generated family films with wise-cracking animals, director Alfonso Cuarón's take on anarchy in the UK is perhaps the most realistically realised for many a moon. Perhaps it's different for someone who has never lived in London, but it doesn't take too great a stretch of the imagination to believe in what Cuarón and his skilled production team have created. London may very well look as it does here in 20 years time - assuming the problems affecting mankind are the same, of course.

Indeed, as compelling and involving as the story is (and it most certainly is), the technical achievements are what truly stand out. In particular, two sequences conducted in one long extended take each are breath-taking in their execution - and I'm not talking simple dialogue scenes, but full-blown action set-pieces. And the wonderful cinematography creates a picture of Britain that hasn't looked so beautifully bleak since Witchfinder General. When Children of Men essentially steps-up into chase film mode, the gritty handheld camerawork matches the frenetic panic of the pursuit, generating moments of visceral intensity akin to that of a war documentary.

Children of Men has been unfairly criticised in some quarters for its lack of exposition and explanation, but that's what made it so refreshing. Do we really need everyone's backstory? Do we really need a full historical explanation of how Britain came to be this way or the exact step-by-step motives of all the characters? Do we need people saying "Do you realise how important this is?" every five minutes? No - the audience is clever enough to fill in the gaps for themselves. A trickle of details gives the impression of a richer world in which the story is set (the do-it-yourself suicide kit Quietus and Theo's natty old London 2012 jumper are particularly vivid examples) and the significance of what's at stake is clear to all concerned.

The acting is of a uniformly high standard, Owen's ex-radical turned world-weary bureaucrat turned defender of the future is truly believable and newcomer Ashitey is simply wonderful (and just so happens to be coming to study at SOAS next year). Plus, there is fine support from Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Peter Mullan. All contribute to a film that packs a powerful emotional punch, by turns thrilling but also humourous (indeed, one of my favourite scenes jokes about the potentially Messianic overtones of the situation that this film does well to avoid dwelling on - although being released in the US on Christmas Day probably doesn't help). By the time Jarvis Cocker's Running the World plays over the credits, Children of Men had earned its place as my favourite film of the year thus far...and as I'll probably only get a chance to see one more new release before 2007 begins, it'll probably stay that way (bring on Casino Royale)!


> > > IMDb, Official Site

Monday, 27 November 2006

CD: YMCK - Family Music

While the likes of DJ Scotch Egg and Germlin use cut and paste 8 bit noises to create their sounds, Japanese chiptune outfit YMCK go one step further, using the old game console sound chips as simple replacement for genuine instruments to create bouncy jazzy pop melodies. It's not a scrambled remix of video game music, but more akin to traditional music that just so happens to use video game-esque equipment to produce the sound. It's what Mario would listen to on his walkman.

What stands out is that they rarely sample the games they reference. The title of their 2004 debut album Family Music of course puts you in the frame of mind of the Famicom (Family Computer - the original Japanese Nintendo Entertainment System). But apart from the odd blip and sound effect (and a quick riff of the Super Mario Bros. theme on SOCOPOGOGO (YMCK Version)), they are pretty much all original compositions. Even Tetrominon ~From Russia with Blocks~ resists the temptation to crack out the classic Game Boy Tetris tune, but at least there's some great lyrics:
From Russia are falling down
to make your brain messed up with mysteries
It's hard to perceive, easy to destroy
like your life itself

The blocks from Russia are falling down
You got to put into a box
gathering and eliminating a piece of Tetrominon
And while that's all well and good, YMCK seemed to forget to make the music in anyway interesting or stimulating.

The tracks are easy to enjoy individually and in small doses as a quirky novelty, but listening to the whole album is a tiresome feat. As you can imagine, there's little variety with the sound and content, and with some tracks stretching beyond the four and a half minute mark, it's hard to be patient enough to keep yourself from skipping onwards. But all that's waiting is another sugary dose of unexciting blip music. The high-pitched hushed vocals from lady band member Midori render every track more or less identical and the tunes would have perhaps benefitted without her listless half-whisper.

It all reinforces the view that video game music is primarily designed to be listened to while playing video games (no, really?) and the only reason certain tracks can be enjoyed at any other time is for nostalgia value. There are a couple of instances where it does gel together (the tiny opening Fanfare and Interlude tracks, plus the closing Your Quest Is Over is pretty), but overall it's somewhat lacking.

Family Music is an album in dire need of some spark and excitement. There is no doubting the technical accomplishment on display, but it all feels like a demonstration of their skills rather than a CD you want to listen to again and again. And while you may level some of these arguments against the likes of Plus-Tech Squeeze Box and the Adaadat noise merchants, I'd rather have a mashed-up joywreck assualt on the ears than this. Not bad every now and again, but it's just too much and not enough at the same time.


> > > YMCK (Official Site - English), Usagi-Chang Records

Sunday, 19 November 2006

CD: Cornelius - Sensuous

Cornelius aka Keigo Oyamada has widely been regarded as one of the most important figures in contemporary Japanese music, whose innovative albums have gained something on an international, as well as a domestic, following. So, it is only natural that his first album of new material in five years should require one's avid attention. However, it seems that little progress has been made since 2001's Point.

As I have always preferred Fantasma, his third solo album, it's something of a disappointment that the absurdity and upbeat nonsense that made Fantasma so unique is largely absent. Instead, it is largely another batch of experimental pop incorporating electronic tones, everyday noises and Oyamada's restrained vocals. And while it is true that no-one else makes music in quite the same style, the end result lacks the uniqueness that made Fantasma so damn enjoyable. Nevertheless, it is perhaps unfair to dwell to much on past efforts for comparison, as while this album may not be Cornelius' best, there is still much to gleam from the dozen tunes on offer here.

It seems that Cornelius must love wind and love the sound of tinkling, as windchimes bookend Sensuous. You could probably split the album in two between the more ambient soundscapes (such as Omstart and Like a Rolling Stone) and the guitar-licked beats of Breezin' and Fit Song, yet both kinds have an airy, drifting quality. While it is nice to have something of a running theme, it also makes the tracks all seem to run together, with few that properly stand out and others that can only really be considered filler material. However, the ones that do stand out are certainly worth the effort.

The only track that sees Cornelius properly rocking out is the fast-paced Gum, filled with charging guitars and cymbal crashes as voice samples echo back and forth from all angles. It's as close to Free Fall as one gets this time round, but it's satisfying enough. Upcoming single Beep It is not especially clever but has a neat beat and manages to be pretty funky. The aforementioned Like a Rolling Stone is soothing and dreamy, as is his cover of Ratpack standard Sleep Warm. It's just a shame that his brilliant cover of YMO's exquisite Cue that appeared on the Breezin' single release doesn't appear here.

But perhaps the best track on Sensuous is barely a song at all. At just over a minute and a half long, Toner seems to be Cornelius at his most pure, using piano and electronic blips and sound effects to turn the menial task of printing out a sheet of paper into something more playful . It's like listening to someone remix Microsoft Windows start-up noises, but much better than that sounds.

As a result, Sensuous is something of a frustrating experience, feeling a little soulless and hollow at times, but with just enough flashes of brilliance to leave me sure that Cornelius has plenty more imagination and creativity to offer. I just hope that next time, his talent takes a more refreshing direction. And that we don't have to wait another five years.


> > > Cornelius (Official Site)

Friday, 17 November 2006

CD: Polysics - You-You-You

I am not one for buying singles, particularly considering how expensive they are in Japan, but this latest release from Polysics was an essential purchase, as it came with a DVD featuring four of their tracks from their last live show in the UK at London's 93 Feet East on Monday 1st May 2006. And I was there! Ergo, you can see me and my buddies jumping up and down like big sweaty sillies screaming "KAJA KAJA GOO!". The actual tunes on the single aren't half bad either.

In fact, the title track is perhaps their best air-punching pop-punk techno-laced anthem since Black Out Fall Out, which is high praise indeed. With its infectious synth hook, punchy drumfills and Hiroyuki Hayashi's rooftop calls, it's upbeat stuff. As the chorus breaks, a robot voice sings "You You You" - perhaps in response to Now Is The Time!'s I My Me Mine - and the synth soars, before launching into a winning guitar solo. Hopefully it will become a crowd favourite and a cornerstone of future setlists (I'll be smiling if it pops up when I see them play in Nagoya on December 9th).

The quality doesn't dip too far with the following track, むすんでひらいて (Musunde Hiraite - something about tying up and opening), but this is an all-together different beast. Here, Hayashi's high-pitched squeaks and screeches are matched by a deeper moodier voice, as blips and pops play over grimy guitar. It feels like a trip to the funfair, as it flits between ghost trains, wurlitzers and carousels while stuffing its face with candy floss and marshmallows. It is perhaps a little too bizarre to fit on a future album (even for Polysics), but works perfectly as an individual wacky track.

Finally, there's a remix of Walky Talky by Holger Czukay, former bassist with German 'krautrock' band Can (Wikipedia knows all). It seems like pretty standard stuff at first (a different beat here, a new sample there), but it launches into an uncharacteristic ambient interval. When it comes out the other side, it drags remnants of ethereality with it that smother the rest of the track (pretentious? Moi?). It's an unusual effort and more interesting than your typical end-of-a-single mix, for sure.

Dare I say it, but You-You-You may be better than any of the tracks from Now Is The Time!, and if it is indicative of what is to come from Polysics' next album, then I will buy it the day it is released. Promise!


> > > Polysics (Official Site), Sony Music