Thursday, November 07, 2013

Film: "Stoker" [2013]

A while ago I saw this English language film directed by that Korean guy who did Old Boy, Lady Vengeance, and Sympathy for Mr Vengeance. His name is Park Chan-wook. It centres on this odd teenage girl, India Stoker (played by Mia Wasikowska) whose father dies just before the start of the film. An only child, she is now alone in a Southern Gothic setting with her unstable mother (played by Nicole Kidman), until the father's brother shows up at the funeral and moves in with them temporarily. Uncle Charlie (played by Matthew Goode (i.e. Ozymandias in the Watchmen film) then proceeds to ingratiate himself with the mother, who seems only too willing to transfer her affections to this man she has never met before (he has been travelling the world as a writer or something). More creepily, Charlie also seems to be developing an interest in India that goes beyond the paternal. An atmosphere of menace develops.

The film boasts an impressive score from that Clint Mansell fellow who does all kewl music scores these days (with Philip Glass making a guest appearance for a piano piece that Charlie and India play together. It probably has good sound too.

I liked this film, but I have reservations about it. As with Old Boy, it centres on a disturbing revelation in the later part of the film. But I found the denouement a bit disappointing. India does turn against Charlie - and yet she seems sufficiently tainted by him to have lost any real moral compass by the film's end. I am not sure either whether the hinted supernatural element (the suggestion that there is something not quite human about India and Charlie, with vampirism implied, not least by their surname) that is advanced and then retreated from is clever misdirection or an annoying tease. But I would not want to let quibbles think that this was a film I did not enjoy. It is a wonderfully atmospheric piece of work, a dark gothic horror film in a domestic setting, in which we are treated to great performances by the film's principals.

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Monday, November 04, 2013

Film: "Only God Forgives" [2013]

This is another music-heavy film, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. It is set in Bangkok and stars Ryan Gosling, the human corgi. Or rather, he is the best-known actor in it. You could argue that the actual main character is some Thai guy who plays a local detective, but as he is not famous in the West it is Gosling who gets top billing. It also features Kristin Scott Thomas in a stunning performance as the Gosling character's terrifying mother.

The film is driven by murder and revenge but has an abstracted feel that stops the narrative being its main focus. Instead we get a lot of long scenes shot with unusual camera angles while the dark ambient music of Cliff Martinez plays at us. Dream sequences (not featuring dwarfs) merge into or prefigure reality. Cops go to karaoke bars and sing songs. People do not say very much (Gosling utters some 17 lines in the course of the entire film). Acts of horrific violence occur, but often portrayed in a manner that engenders a certain detachment from them.

The Thai cop (played by Vithaya Pansringarm) is the most active character. He is also ambiguous, a man who clearly has a strongly developed sense of justice and honour, but one that is no barrier to his using torture to extract information or to his murdering suspects rather than bringing them before the court system. The Gosling character and his brother are drøg dealers, with the brother committing some misdemeanours that lead to the cop engineering his death. The brother's mother flies in and demands that the Gosling character avenges his brother's death, though he is initially reluctant to do this, explaining to his mother that the brother had it coming.

JULIAN: It's not that simple. He raped and murdered an underage prostitute.

CRYSTAL: Well he must have had his reasons.

In another charming scene the mother explains to Julian's "girlfriend" that Julian was always jealous of his brother because the brother had a bigger cock.

As you can imagine, by the end of the film nearly all the characters are dead. In its horrific violence and obsession with violent retribution it reminded me of one of those great Jacobean tragedies of revenge. The additional element Only God Forgives is the disorienting effect of the cinematography and music. I recommend it highly and have since then derived much enjoyment from the soundtrack album.

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Corgi or Ryan Gosling?

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Saturday, November 02, 2013

The Unthanks "Diversions Vol. 2: The Unthanks With Brighouse And Rastrick Brass Band" (2012)

I picked this up at that Unthanks singing weekend I was at in January. The Diversions series present live recordings of the Unthanks playing stuff a bit away from what you might think of as their standard repertoire. One volume saw them playing tunes written by Antony (of Antony And The Johnsons) and Robert Wyatt, an interesting pairing that ended with me saying "More Robert Wyatt!". Another served up the tunes they played at that concert about the shipyards of Newcastle.

This one, as the title suggests, sees the Unthanks team up with a brass band. I think the deal is that the record boasts new brassy arrangements of some old Unthanks favourites together with a few new tunes. The opening track, 'The King of Rome', begins with a stirring brass fanfare, but afterwards the brass is mostly a colouring for the songs rather than being overly fore-grounded (with an exception of a jazzy big band rearrangement of 'Queen of Hearts', a traditional tune that appeared previously on the Unthanks album Last).

I do not like this album as much as maybe I ought. To some extent, I prefer the Unthanks live rather than on record. But I think maybe the promise of the brass band is not fully realised. Or maybe I just wanted a different type of brass band, as the things that spring to my mind when brass is mentioned are the likes of New Orleans marching bands or the University of Southern California Trojans blasting out 'Tusk'. Though of course neither of these may actually have been suited to the Unthanks vocal style. With this record I can generally admire the tunes without actually liking them.

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