Reviews

Black Book (Zwartboek)

Kate Williams

While the film begins with the familiar tagline of “Inspired by true events” Black Book is best approached through the lens of the classic pulp thriller.


Black Book (Zwartboek)

Director: Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Carice van Houten, Thom Hoffman, Halina Reijn, Sebastian Koch, Christian Berkel, Waldemar Kobus, Michiel Huisman, Derek de Lint, Peter Blok
Distributor: Sony
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
First date: 2006
UK DVD Release Date: 2007-09-25
Website
Trailer

More than 20 years have passed since director Paul Verhoeven has made a film in his native Netherlands. Encouraged by the international success (and fury) of his early films, such as Turkish Delight, Soldier of Orange, and Spetters, Verhoeven set sail from Amsterdam in the mid-'80s for the new world of Hollywood and seemingly never looked back.

Any pretense of an elevated European sensibility with regard to art and craft was quickly forgotten as Verhoeven took the directorial helm on such movies as Total Recall, RoboCop, Basic Instinct, and most (in)famously, Showgirls. His natural audacity seemed perfectly suited for Hollywood’s favorite export of high-octane thrillers and overly slick action flicks, which blossomed in the hedonistic glow of the '80s and early '90s.

So it may come as a bit of surprise that after more than two decades in Hollywood, Verhoeven is able to stage a cinematic homecoming that is simultaneously emboldened by his tacky American success yet, also, refreshingly liberated from its strict commercial demands. With Black Book, he has crafted together a thoroughly entertaining World War II drama that faithfully hits all of the genre’s conventional plot points while still indulging in the vulgar, cheeky nature its director is so famed for.

Black Book is set late in 1944 during the final months of Germany’s occupation of Holland. Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), a young Jewish woman, has found refuge from the Nazis in the Dutch countryside and is hiding away with the help of a devout Christian family. After the family’s farmhouse is bombed by American fighter pilots, Rachel is forced to return to Amsterdam and seek passage out of Holland by other means. With the help of her family’s lawyer, Rachel secures a ticket on a river barge and soon sets sail (with her own family miraculously reunited and onboard) for safety outside the country.

The wealthy Jewish refugees soon learn that their river passage is nothing more than a death trap as they promptly come under gunfire from awaiting SS officers. Rachel, the only survivor of the assault, is left shocked, saddened, and deeply angry. Upon returning to the city she joins up with a group of local Resistance fighters. Her smarts, determination, and, most importantly, her good looks ,quickly usher Rachel into the operational heart of the group.

Armed with a fresh, sexy blonde look and an unassuming new name (the thoroughly Dutch/ Christian-sounding ‘Ellis de Vries’) Rachel finds her rightful place among the more brazen members of the group. An unexpected incident on one of her first undercover missions tests Rachel’s mettle as she comes face-to-face with the chief of the local Gestapo, Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch). Fully in command of her womanly powers of deference and flirtation, Rachel easily seduces the harm out of the officer.

Senior members of the Resistance group quickly recognize the value of Müntze’s interest in Rachel, and she is assigned the task of bedding the Nazi in the hope of uncovering secrets. She complies and finds a place not only in Müntze’s bed but, also, in the secretarial pool of the local Gestapo headquarters. As Müntze slowly reveals his humanity and love for Rachel, their relationship evolves from that of pure physical attraction to one of genuine emotional connectedness.

By now you may be fearing that Black Book is a sudsy World War II soap opera with nice and cuddly SS officers who fall hopelessly in love with sexy, resourceful Jewish girls. Where are the bad guys? Where’s the action? Where’s the sweet vindication of witnessing Nazis receive their karmic comeuppance? Fear not, for this is a Paul Verhoeven picture and he gleefully supplies his audience with all the cinematic candy and popcorn we have come to expect from his movies.

Employed along side the relatively decent Müntze at the local headquarters is another (thoroughly evil) Nazi officer named Guenther Franken (Waldemar Kobus). Dripping with brutal, piggish lechery, Franken is an opportunistic bloodhound whose superior malice and heightened sense of distrust place Rachel, and eventually Müntze, in danger. Her troubles are further compounded when several of her fellow Resistance members are captured by the Nazis and imprisoned at the offices where she is a spy.

Germany’s grip on power may be quickly fading and the cautious relief and anticipation of incoming Allied forces is palpable throughout the streets of Amsterdam. Rachel, however, finds little comfort in the prospect of peace as she simultaneously tries to maintain her cover and rescue her friends. And, the unremitting danger persists as Rachel pieces together the links between Nazi officers and a band of complicit Dutch fighters in the extortion and murder of wealthy Jewish citizens.

Surprisingly, the incredibly dense storyline and intricate plotting of Black Book never feels tiresome. The film is enthusiastically paced and propelled along through sheer frenetic energy and constant dramatic tension. Truth be told, this film really shouldn’t work and it certainly shouldn’t be as entertaining as it is. As a director, Verhoeven has never been accused of subtlety and Black Book certainly employs his characteristic disregard for narrative restraint.

While the film begins with the familiar tagline of “Inspired by true events” Black Book is best approached through the lens of the classic pulp thriller. A ridiculous, booming musical score leaves no ear untouched when highlighting the love, danger, and drama of any one particular scene. The old-fashioned, almost amateurish, action sequences border the comical. And, the director’s blatant disregard in mixing realism with cartoonish oversimplification (not to mention the undercurrent of misogyny laced throughout the film) should spell disaster.

Yet, with sharp performances -- especially from the captivating van Houten (in a star-making turn) and the lovely Koch (lately seen in the wonderful German film, The Lives of Others ) -- Black Book succeeds as both first-rate entertainment and a compelling war drama. With its recent release on DVD (issued with the standard, underwhelming extras of “Behind the Scenes” featurette and commentary) one can only hope that a larger audience will find its way to this enjoyable thriller.

6

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.


In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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