Saturday, March 28, 2015
      ( 5:22 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

It seems the New Year's resolution for Big Finish Doctor Who audio plays in 2003 was, "Include more gruesome violence." The first two audio plays of 2003, Jubilee and Nekromanteia, see the Doctor physically mutilated, even beheaded in one case. The third of the three I listened to this past week, The Dark Flame, was also, as the title implies, pretty dark. All three were good but Jubilee was by far the stand out.

Written by Robert Shearman, the story so impressed Russell T. Davies he had Shearman rewrite it for a Ninth Doctor television episode which came to be "Dalek", the episode that marked the first appearance of a Dalek in the revived series. Certainly I prefer the Ninth Doctor over the Sixth Doctor, who starred in Jubilee, but nonetheless I found Jubilee to be a much superior work. There are just too many ways in which the greater length--over twice as long--of the audio play allows the story to breathe much better than the television episode.

The best scene in "Dalek" is the one where the Doctor sees the chained Dalek for the first time and Eccleston channels the Doctor's layers of issues with his old enemy. There's nothing like this in Jubilee though his companion, Evelyn, is shocked by how happy the Doctor is to see the captive Dalek tortured and killed, despite the fact that Evelyn had encountered Daleks previously, unlike Rose. In fact, Evelyn had encountered Daleks in The Apocalypse Element, a story about a Dalek attempt at destroying Gallifrey, which Russell T. Davies has said was a part of the Time War. So Evelyn has almost as much reason to hate the Daleks as the Doctor which makes her more gradually developed relationship with the Dalek more interesting than Rose's immediate naivete.

As good as Eccleston is in the episode and the scene where he first confronts the Dalek, he also explicitly barks things at the captive that are developed more organically and impressively in the audio play, about how the Dalek is alone as the last survivor and the difficulty the hardwired soldier has in doing anything without orders--an issue which, come to think of it, was part of the blueprint of the Twelfth Doctor's first season.

Both stories also feature the Doctor being tortured but what happens in Jubilee is much more involved, becoming one of the ways in which parallels are drawn between the Doctor and the Daleks as we're first led to believe Davros, creator of the Daleks, is being held in the Tower of London. Instead, it becomes a pretty horrifying contemplation of an alternate reality where the Doctor's luck runs out in an ominously simple way.

Jubilee also features a distorted time plot, beginning with the Doctor and Evelyn seemingly arriving in both 1903 and 2003 simultaneously before settling in 2003 where they encounter a history of a war between humans and Daleks that's become almost a legend. We hear an over the top action film with a handsome, gun toting Doctor and a bombshell Evelyn foiling Daleks who amusingly yell, "Scarper!" at the sight of them. No-one suspects a living Dalek is being held by the English Empire and the Doctor has a rather nice speech at one point about the trivialising of evil, how the costumed Daleks he encounters singing songs are a reflection of the human arrogance that is making humans more like Daleks.

Jubilee would be just about perfect if only someone other than Colin Baker were playing the Doctor.

The subsequent two audio plays, Nekromanteia and The Dark Flame, a Fifth Doctor story and a Seventh Doctor story, respectively, were both fine. Nekromanteia has a particularly grim feel, featuring a group of cannibalistic, space faring witches who reminded me of the Reavers from Firefly. Erimem, the Egyptian princess companion, continues to be interesting when she asserts her personality as reflecting her history. She's much quicker to accept ritual sacrifice than the Doctor and Peri.

Aside from a scene where Peri is stripped naked by the witches as they attempt to induct her into their coven, I'm finding the experience of the audio plays often times more enjoyable than the television series for allowing so much to be created in the mind. It's more atmospheric and obviously the special effects are much better.


Friday, March 27, 2015
      ( 1:40 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

My Second Life avatar is dressed like Audrey Horne from Twin Peaks to-day because the monthly fashion event called Collabor88 has hosted a Twin Peaks theme for March. Every month, clothing and furniture designers throughout Second Life create products to a different theme, usually the holiday of whatever month it happens to be. So I was quite surprised to see an event dedicated to a television series from 1990. I could tell many of the designers had never heard of the show but I mostly liked items made by those who knew what it was about.

The "Sherilyn" hair is by Clawtooth, the sweater, pencil skirt, and shoes are by Tres Blah. For some reason, though many shops featured images of saddle shoes, no-one made Audrey's distinctive inverted saddle shoes with white toe.

Two shops ran with the "fish in the percolator" line from the second episode of the series. The fish in this one by Schadenfreude endlessly swims in circles;

Then there's one by Intrigue who also made a replica of the Double R diner sign. It looks good but I can't imagine they sold many.

Some of the best stuff was by Yummy, including a coffee, pie, and log charm necklace. Sadly, the actual log was not available for purchase:

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Thursday, March 26, 2015
      ( 6:39 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

I guess by now you've seen this controversial Batgirl variant cover. Well, maybe I shouldn't assume because I just came from a comic book shop where I had a long talk with the young woman behind the counter who'd yet to see the cover. This in spite of the fact that she was unmistakably a hardcore comics reader--when I told her most of my exposure to mainstream comics was through high profile collections of Alan Moore and Frank Miller as well as reprints of early Marvel runs (mostly Spider-Man), she eagerly launched into a detailed oration on the current DC chronology and how it fits in older plots--like how a new Batgirl story in a rebooted chronology can still reference events in The Killing Joke, a comic written in the 80s, etc.

She told me she'd had the controversial cover described to her and didn't understand what the fuss was about. Of course the Joker was evil and he did shoot Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) in The Killing Joke, paralysing her from the waist down. She didn't mention that the Joker stripped Barbara naked, took pictures of her, and possibly raped her. Perhaps the young woman I was speaking to considered it irrelevant. Her main complaint with the current Batgirl run is that Barbara Gordon was more interesting as Oracle, the identity she assumed when bound to a wheelchair when her primary means of fighting crime was through software engineering and hacking.

Of course, much of the controversy over the cover variant stems from perceived differences between male and female readers as superhero comics in the west are currently enjoying a growing female readership. One side of the argument is made up of people who claim the female readership would largely be too disturbed by the image while others argue that the trauma is an integral part of Batgirl's character and that the Joker ought to be as frightening as he is depicted in the image. In the latter camp is the author of this blog entry which I saw linked to by Caitlin Kiernan on Facebook this morning. Written by a woman named Dangrrr Doll, the blog entry discusses a personal history in a relationship with a sociopath man and advocates fiction that discusses the issue, crucially arguing for the importance of portraying fear in Batgirl's face as a sign of the humanity repressed in the psyche of Harley-Quinn.

An example of the other side of the argument can be found here in an article by Rob Bricken for io9. Among other things, Bricken says the variant cover is "incredibly sexist — I would hope even the most bitter of woman-hating male comic fans surely have to agree that a male superhero, unless he was a child, would never be drawn crying while held hostage by a supervillain."

Doing a Google image search for "Superman tied up" I came across this:

I guess he's not crying but he certainly looks distressed. Maybe a more appropriate analogy would be Robin who has been depicted gruesomely beaten, in extreme distress, and held captive numerous times on both covers and interiors. And I think it's important to note that there's more that separates Batman and Batgirl than sex, which is the flaw in the reasoning that what's good for the goose superhero is good for the gander superhero. Even Batman and Batwoman are pretty dissimilar in a lot of ways, as I was told at length after I asked the woman behind the counter to-day.

As it happens, I was at another comic book shop yesterday where I talked to another female comic book fan--and mind you, I consider it pretty unscientific to take even two samples and hold them as signifying the whole. Which I might not even need to say since I don't know exactly how the woman yesterday felt about the cover. She'd seen the cover and was aware of the issue but seemed as though she were waiting to hear my opinion before expressing one of her own. Since I didn't express mine--as I was interested in hearing hers with as little tailoring as possible--she passively expressed both opinions, saying, "It's a homage to The Killing Joke and people are saying, 'Why bring that up now?'" and also, smiling and shrugging vaguely, "People get angry." Maybe she feared I would launch into a tirade on how wrong she was for feeling whichever way she actually felt.

So how do I feel? Well, the reason I was at comic books shops yesterday and to-day was to pick up issues of this Batgirl run, wanting to get the issue that was to have had the now retracted variant cover, not realising the issue in question, #41, won't be released for a while. I did pick up #40 and if the Joker cover had been for #40 it would have been more than appropriate--meaning, it would have elevated the content of the issue.

The story in #40 deals with a villainous computer programme, a haywire version of one created by Barbara Gordon when she was still Oracle. The programme is like a repository of all the anger and desire to take violent revenge on the criminal world that manifested in Barbara after she was assaulted by the Joker in The Killing Joke. The programme wants to cross all the hot button Batman lines--she wants mass surveillance of Gotham's citizens and wants to exterminate everyone who might become a criminal. I use the word "exterminate" for a reason--the solution to the problem ends up being the same one the Doctor uses on the Daleks in the 2003 audio play Jubilee which I intend to talk about on Saturday. Anyway, I won't spoil either one for you. But I wonder if this was a coincidence.

The thing is, in the comic itself you only get Barbara's fury, the desire to eradicate any possibility of what happened to her happening again to anyone. It's only the variant cover that touches back on the feelings that brought Barbara to that point. Without that cover, the programme version is little more than another psychopath villain. With the cover, it becomes part of a very Batman-ish arc.

I reread The Killing Joke a few weeks ago. It's a very influential comic in all incarnations of Batman and the Joker now and with good reason. It taps into the fundamental dichotomy between Batman and the Joker that's so interesting--Batman, who wants there to be rules and who wants people to be afraid, the Joker, who wants to show that rules are lies and feelings are meaningless in this world. I think that's crucial--what the Joker did to Barbara wasn't to make her afraid, it was part of a larger plot to demonstrate to Batman and Barbara's father that the universe is fundamentally meaningless. Batgirl's story allows us to see this dichotomy from another angle where the Joker's treatment of her as something meaningless is rebuked by Barbara's assertion of an identity. Batgirl #40 is a nice discussion on the difference between her identity being based entirely on the wrong done to her and her identity being based on a broader, more creative idea of wanting to help other people.


Wednesday, March 25, 2015
      ( 6:31 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

In 1943, the British dropped a cadaver in the ocean off the coast of Spain as part of Operation Mincemeat. Dressed as a fictitious soldier named William Martin, the cadaver carried forged correspondence which successfully misled the Axis powers as to the location of a planned British assault in the Mediterranean. In 1956, a movie was made about it called The Man Who Never Was, an entertaining though not particularly impressive film, its inventions for the sake of drama being mild but still stretching the interesting historical operation slightly too thin.

Clifton Webb and Gloria Grahame get top billing and are the only people in the movie with American accents, which is particularly incongruous for Webb as he plays Ewen Montagu, the real life English Naval officer who conceived Operation Mincemeat. Grahame plays the flatmate of Montagu's secretary and I suppose she could have been American though the role feels like it was written for someone English. Oh, and look who she's dating:

That's William Russell, a.k.a. Ian Chesteron, one of the Doctor's first companions on Doctor Who. He's looking so smug here because he got to kiss Gloria Grahame, the lucky bastard.

Grahame's character, Lucy, uses her real feelings about Russell's character to help her flatmate write phoney letters to the fictional William Martin. Despite sharing top billing with Webb, Grahame is hardly in the film at all, having really only two meaningful scenes. The second comes in the film's entirely invented final act where a German agent pretending to be an Irishman visits the flat shared by the two women and Grahame has to convince him of Martin's reality without actually knowing anything about the classified Operation Mincemeat--she thought she'd been helping her flatmate write a short story.

But most of the movie is a straight forward procedural as we follow Montagu and his subordinates going through the--many faithfully adapted from life--steps needed to procure a body, convincing documents, and personal effects, and deliver it all to the Axis without making it look like they were delivering it all to the Axis. Aside from Webb's distracting accent, this is fascinating to watch, almost like a dramatised documentary.


Tuesday, March 24, 2015
      ( 3:20 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

I first really started watching movies seriously in the 90s so maybe that's why it feels kind of remarkable to me now that I can view a movie as a typically 90s art house film. But that's how I'd describe 1998's Left Luggage, a film about Jewish communities in Antwerp in 1974. Devices I would have thought so unobtrusive in the 90s are largely what overwhelm this film in lieu of any real life. It does work in a few places, mostly due to performances by Laura Fraser and Isabella Rossellini, but as a whole it slips under waters of formula and passionlessness.

You might recognise Fraser from Neverwhere or Breaking Bad. The film follows her character's, Chaya's, point of view as a young woman whose chaotic lifestyle is partly a reaction against her parents' endlessly dwelling on their experiences as refuges in World War II. The title, Left Luggage, refers both to her father's (Maximilian Schell) obsession with finding a suit case he buried somewhere during the war and with Chaya's disconnect from her heritage and community.

After she quits her latest job washing dishes at a cockroach infested restaurant, her friend, a laid back middle aged scholarly fellow played by Chaim Topol, refers her to a nanny job for an Hassidic family after she complains to him she's so sick of Jews. Do you think someone's about to learn an important lesson?

The family is the film's director, Jeroen Krabbe, as the taciturn and strict Mr. Kalman, Rosselini as his only slightly less strict wife, and three prepubescent boys and baby twins. One of the little boys, Simcha, for some reason never speaks. What are the odds that this nanny who wears miniskirts who comes in and shakes up their world will get their little kid to talk? I mean, how unlikely would that be?

In the Kalman's building is the most anti-Semitic concierge in Antwerp played by David Bradley whom Chaya continually butts heads with, finding herself sympathising with her Hassidic employers more and more as a result. Once again, she's asserting herself by reacting against something, an issue the film doesn't address and I don't think the filmmakers were conscious of or considered important.

This film by a male writer and male director mostly about women feels disconnected from its characters by lazy traditional perceptions of women. There's a scene where Chaya enters the kitchen and sees Mrs. Kalman burst into tears. When I see Isabella Rossellini cry like that I think, "Dennis Hopper has assaulted her or she wants Kyle MacLachlan to assault her." But it turns out to be a Lucy Ricardo crying fit, the kind we're supposed to react to with bemusement at the frailty that is woman.

In another scene, a confrontation between Chaya and Mr. Kalman which ends in him impressing upon her the horror he suffered during the war abruptly cuts to a full frontal nude shot of Chaya and her friend jumping backward into a lake. I didn't mind this so much, although it doesn't exactly make sense. I guess Krabbe was drawing a contrast between the formal lifestyle of the Kalmans and the still carefree and hedonistic lifestyle of Chaya, but it was an odd moment for it. Still, who knows, maybe Chaya and her friend like to go skinny dipping, people do, I guess.

This is the second movie in a row I've watched with a somewhat inexplicable nude women group bathing scene. I'm not exactly complaining, but when it's probably the best moment in a movie about a young woman learning to connect with the suffering her parents experienced and honour their traditions, something might be wrong.

I won't spoil the ending for you but it makes a lot less sense than the skinny dipping and is a much bigger issue since it was designed to rip your heart out. It's incredibly cheap and makes you resent the movie.

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Monday, March 23, 2015
      ( 7:13 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

If you don't know what a Gryphon cake is just look at the picture. Yes, that's a cake, made of modelling chocolate and wafer paper. Well, what did you think Gryphon cake would be made of (I'm making Alice In Wonderland jokes here, Philistines). I went to the grocery store yesterday in a small mall in La Jolla and unexpectedly found myself at a cake contest. Join me as I narrate my pictures.

Here's an actually Alice in Wonderland cake, based on the 1951 Disney film. Disney was well represented, mainly by Little Mermaid cakes for some reason. But my favourite was this Maleficent:

And a close-up:

I like to think it's the 1958 version. It's rolled fondant and gum paste.

I don't think this topless body builder mermaid was meant to be the Disney version. Also rolled fondant.

I wonder if Disney sponsored this one. There were posters for the live action Cinderella in front of the AMC in the background. When I walked past this theatre a few weeks ago, there was a long line of people slowly being fed into it. I asked a guy what it was for and he said it was for an advance screening of Focus. In response to my blank look he said excitedly, "The new Will Smith movie!"

"Ah," I said, trying vainly to sound impressed.

Now this was a little more impressive--this Van Gogh cake was made by a twelve year old. There were several cakes based on classic art.

Klimt cake, anyone?

I don't understand why an actual apple wasn't used for this.

The Escher cake looks so good I don't know where it begins.

Is this some kind of bust? Yes, it's very nice (okay, I'll forgive you for not getting the Police Squad joke).

Another mermaid. Many sea themed cakes.

Also freshwater:

I like the fish on the bottom.

Aquatic cakes were outnumbered by bird and flower cakes, though.

Maybe I shouldn't be too harsh since this one was made by an eight year old but it looked really out of place.

Finally, my top three, in descending order:


Sunday, March 22, 2015
      ( 5:41 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

Was having sex the most dangerous thing you could do in Europe during World War II? In my inexpert opinion I would say no but that's the argument made by 1960's Five Branded Women, a film that attracted me with its impressive and unlikely cast but it has a story that's almost as interestingly absurd as an exploitation film but without the really fun bits of an exploitation film. Maybe worst of all is that what seem like the beginnings of arguments against sexually oppressive hypocrisy wind up being endorsements of that hypocrisy.

The five women of the title are played by Silvana Mangano, Jeanne Moreau, Vera Miles, Barbara Bel Geddes, and Carla Gravina. Only Gravina arguably had no star power--Miles and Bel Geddes both had successful careers in the U.S., both had been in Hitchcock films. Moreau is known for New Wave films in the 60s and it was sort of odd seeing her in such a conventional movie of the period instead of something ten years ahead of its time.

But the movie mainly follows Mangano as Jovanka, though all five of them are "branded"--their heads shaven--for sleeping with a Nazi officer in a small town in Nazi occupied Yugoslavia. This branding is done at the command of Velko (Van Heflin) who's in charge of Yugoslav partisan fighters.

When the women refuse to tell the Nazis who cut their hair, they're banished from the town. The Nazis don't want to execute them because their main crime was against the partisans, not the Nazis, but they don't want them to stay around because it makes the Nazis look weak. It's implied the partisans castrated the German officer the women had been sleeping with.

For some reason, of all five women not one of them mentions having any family in town that they're leaving behind and none of them mentions having any family out of town. Instead, practically the first thing we see them do in exile is take a bath. Together. Leaving no one on guard.

Naturally there ends up being a really skeevy guy peeping on them, one of the partisans with whom the women finally team up when the writers finally give up on creating a story with just female characters. It then focuses on a romance between Moreau's character and a captive Nazi played by Richard Baseheart and a somehow much ickier love/hate thing between Velka and Jovanka. Yes, the same guy who had her head shaved. I'm not sure which of the two is more obnoxious--Velka forbidding any love among the partisans or Jovanka arguing that Yugoslavs should be allowed to love Nazis.

Barbara Bel Geddes is the most underused actress in the film. After some initial dialogue about how she's always wanted to have a baby she hardly says a word for the rest of the film. Vera Miles is the squeaky wheel who causes everyone trouble by panicking all the time.

The performances are nice and there's some charm in the wackiness of the concepts. What this movie really needed was some hardcore sex scenes.

The whole movie is available on YouTube. Unfortunately I couldn't find it in widescreen from any source.


Saturday, March 21, 2015
      ( 5:15 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

Here's the double daddy long leg fantasy going on in the corner of my apartment to-day.

I listened to two Doctor Who audio plays this past week, from the last two months of 2002, both good--a Fifth Doctor story called The Church and the Crown and a Seventh Doctor story called Bang-Bang-a-Boom!. I liked The Church and the Crown a bit better, the second one I've heard now with the Egyptian princess companion Erimem who here easily inserts herself into the court of seventeenth century France. It's pretty funny, she sounds like an ideal agent for the Doctor until she starts wanting to execute people.

Most of the story is an ode to The Three Musketeers and Davison gets some fun Errol Flynn-ish dialogue and a bit of sword play like I would have liked to have seen more of in his television run. Certainly a sword fight in audio form lacks a key ingredient but Davison manages to bring to it the right kind of charm to paint a picture. The story also features Peri, who I guess is bound to appear in all of the ones that feature Erimem to keep with the television show continuity unless she leaves temporarily the way Tegan did. In this story, the Queen of France is revealed to be identical to Peri, allowing Nicola Bryant to use her native English accent for once and she proves to be a slightly better actress with it.

Bang-Bang-a-Boom! is another parody story from the same pair of writers who wrote The One Doctor, Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman, which I enjoyed in spite of myself, in spite of not looking for parodies in these monthly releases and in spite of the fact I hate all of Gareth Roberts' teleplays for the Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth Doctors. Maybe he's just not suited to drama because Bang-Bang-a-Boom!, set on station "Dark Space Eight" is not only a nice parody of Doctor Who but also a parody of 90s Star Trek and Eurovision. I liked how Sylvester McCoy plays the Doctor in this one more like he did in his first season--slightly more manic and silly and the writers give him the mixed up proverbs I loved so much from Time and the Rani. "Softly, softly catches the worm, eh, Mel?" "Unlike you, Mel, I won't spill my beans until I know how many of them make five."

There's a Dr. Harcourt who constantly hits on the Doctor who's somehow a perfect parody of 90s Star Trek. I loved the mention of an anomaly that made everyone on the station make out with each other until someone figured out a solution that needed to be piped through the air conditioning.

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