Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Better Call Kim

In last night's new Better Call Saul the MVP was definitely Kim. But the nice new episode had other good scenes having to do with Jimmy though all the drug dealing business still feels like a screensaver.

Spoilers after the screenshot

I can't get myself invested in the Nacho (Michael Mando) plot. I appreciate all the trouble the show goes to to establish his father as this guy who can't countenance his son's business and the attempt at quiet tension in that garage scene where the old man refuses the ill-gotten cash without a word. There's ambition there leaping out of the water but it just falls back in the drink. I guess the actors are okay, the sound design is pretty boring. Maybe it's the latter that leads to the flat feeling of so many scenes of people just hanging around. Though primarily I'd say it's that the characters aren't complex enough.

They suffer by comparison to the Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) plot. The scene where he interviews at the Neff company--nice Double Indemnity reference--is dazzling, first with Jimmy demonstrating his not surprising knowledge of copiers, then in the subtle dialogue where he manoeuvres around discussing why he stopped being a lawyer to make it sound like a really good thing. When the guy says, "What happened?" the response we might expect is, "I'm prohibited from practising for a period but I can assure you my character is . . ." etc, etc. Instead, Jimmy deliberately mischaracterises the motive of the question in a plausible way--he acts like the guy's asking because he doesn't know how useful a lawyer could be in sales. I believed every moment of it, too: Bob Odenkirk sold Jimmy's salesmanship perfectly. And I believed when he sabotaged himself at the end with a misapplication of righteousness.

It's almost like his brother possessed him, a deranged moment of conscience, where Jimmy was right at what he had to know was the wrong time. It's a moment that makes clear the moral tightrope Jimmy compulsively walks, the kind of self flagellation that'll make his inevitable turn feel very credible.

But as I said, this episode goes to Kim (Rhea Seehorn), and not just because I'm impressed her sling matches her blouse. Her confrontation with Howard (Patrick Fabian) was great for two character revelations--of course she's right about Howard, it was selfish of him to tell Jimmy about Chuck's suicide at that moment, but Howard himself probably was unaware of how selfish he was being. He clearly feels even worse than he did before.

The other great revelation in the scene is in how much it shows Kim really loves Jimmy. She is so keyed into him, accurately understanding his feelings and willing to cast his motives in the best possible light, she has no hesitation in going passionately to bat for him.

And this leads to one of the best kisses I've seen on television. When the two are sitting down to watch White Heat neither of them brings up the meeting. But from how they look at each other we know they're both thinking about it. The mildly plaintive look on Jimmy's face is met with just exactly the reassurance he needs in Kim's--we can see, with all the dialogue being about the remote control and Jaws 3D, he knows she went to bat for him and she knows he needed it and they're both aware of just how far she's willing to go to be supportive of him. It's a brilliant, intensely sweet scene. It makes the anxiety of wondering what happened to Kim between now and Breaking Bad all the more poignant, too.

Twitter Sonnet #1144

Remembered cola fills another glass.
Ascending bubbles break another roof.
Descending droppers feed an empty class.
Enlisting void asserts a logic hoof.
A yellow town was buried 'neath the gold.
Refreshments came at cost of salty wells.
Increasing ages never do get old.
A desert spring's but one of many tells.
Inside a cellar stockings fume for ink.
Beside reflections solid matter stood.
Across a line of light's a solar link.
The smaller maybe serves the greater good.
Misplaced and silent kept behind the shield.
Belief in single crops reduced the yield.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Water and Gold Nowhere

You think you're hot now, try crossing Death Valley without any water. That's what a gang of bank robbers do in 1948's Yellow Sky, a magnificently shot Western loosely based on The Tempest.

Gregory Peck is the leader of the gang, called "Stretch", that also includes Richard Widmark as "Dude" and Harry Morgan as "Half Pint". They're all wearing the remains of Union uniforms in this film set a few years after the Civil War, though whether they were ever actually soldiers or acquired the clothes some other way is never made clear. They wander into town and ask about which side the sheriff fought on, though, as they gaze at this peculiar pin-up in the saloon.

Is she falling off the horse or tied to the side? What's going on in this picture? The only question a gang member named Lengthy (John Russell) has is, "What's she going to do after she's done ridin' that horse?" This isn't the last time "riding" will be invoked regarding a woman.

After a heist, they cross Death Valley--actually shot on location in Death Valley--and find themselves at an abandoned prospecting town named Yellow Sky. There they run into the local gun totting Miranda, called Mike, played by Anne Baxter in my favourite of her roles.

I guess she could be a combination of Miranda and Ariel. The Prospero here, played by James Barton, is her grandfather instead of her father and he's established a useful friendship with the local Apaches, who may collectively be taken as the film's Caliban.

The displays of lust in this film certainly push the Hays envelope. Director William A. Wellman made several films, like Safe in Hell, a lot more explicit than this before the Hays Code was enforced but the group of proven scoundrels just eyeing Mike as she takes water from the spring is loaded enough. They all want her but of course Gregory Peck is the front runner. He encounters her alone one evening and when he finally talks her into lowering her gun he tackles her.

Lads, just because she's not pointing a gun at you doesn't mean she's up for wrestling. But as Stretch tells her, he and his men are used to taking what they want without permission. Gregory Peck is primarily known nowadays for his saintly roles but he's quite good as someone a little more volatile. Though of course he ends up being more of a gentleman than he might seem at first.

The movie's filled with tension as we're compelled to watch these guys along with Mike and her Grandfather and try to figure out if they're any good or just a threat. They're stuck with each other, in any case, so it's an opportunity to explore a nice, precarious situation of human relations.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Long Lives of Mistakes

William Shakespeare's Cymbeline isn't just a play where most people's plans go awry, it's a play where most people's plans go awry without them even knowing. It's a play not only about misinterpretation but the gruelling emotional journeys people embark on initiated by misinterpretation. It has the logic typically found in Shakespeare's comedies but with exceptionally gruesome effects (though Midsummer Night's Dream is certainly not as innocent as many people think). One of the highlights of the 1982 BBC Television Shakespeare adaptation is Helen Mirren as Imogen, waking up next to the headless corpse of a man she mistakes for her husband.

She doesn't hold back on any of the grief and horror you'd expect from such a circumstance. "Where is thy head? where's that? Ay me! where's that?" She infuses these simple lines with such pain. The full soliloquy is filled with misinterpretation and meditation on misinterpretation.

. . . I hope I dream;
For so I thought I was a cave-keeper,
And cook to honest creatures: but 'tis not so;
'Twas but a bolt of nothing, shot at nothing,
Which the brain makes of fumes: our very eyes
Are sometimes like our judgments, blind. Good faith,
I tremble stiff with fear: but if there be
Yet left in heaven as small a drop of pity
As a wren's eye, fear'd gods, a part of it!
The dream's here still: even when I wake, it is
Without me, as within me; not imagined, felt.
A headless man! The garments of Posthumus!
I know the shape of's leg: this is his hand;
His foot Mercurial; his Martial thigh;
The brawns of Hercules: but his Jovial face
Murder in heaven?--How!--'Tis gone.

Even the certainty she feels in recognising his remaining body parts is misinterpretation. But who would think clearly in such a moment?

The play is filled with very improbable things; long lost princes living in poverty, a poison requested being replaced by a sleeping potion, that same sleeping potion mistakenly thought a medicine then mistakenly thought a poison; a princess taken to be a young man (Helen Mirren also crossed dressed in As You Like It for BBC Television Shakespeare), that same princess believed by her husband to have been unfaithful; faithful servants mistaken for killers, a scoundrel taken to be an honourable man when he lies about a woman's honour--all of these incredible mistakes nonetheless create credible story of how the human mind works, how quickly it'll take hold on an interpretation and then ride it in a straight line of doom.

This is one of the most beautiful plays from BBC Television Shakespeare, its director, opera director Elijah Moshinsky, consciously modelling its look on Rembrandt and other painters from the Dutch golden age.

The costumes are 17th century, too, in spite of the fact that the play is set in Britain during the lifetime of Christ. This seems to have been a holdover from the previous season which was produced by Jonathan Miller who felt all the productions ought to have costuming contemporary to Shakespeare regardless of when the plays were set. Miller thought this was the only way the plays make sense since even the period plays make several references to Shakespeare's time. I prefer the plays be set in the time Shakespeare intended but there's certainly a lot of sense in that idea.

Cymbeline has an amazing cast that in addition to Mirren also includes Claire Bloom, Michael Gough, and Marius Goring, the last only appearing briefly during the appearance of Jupiter, played by Michael Hordern. Direct evidence of divine guidance only serves to underline the chaos of most of what we see, as does the incredibly improbable happy ending which somehow augments the feeling of anxiety at the apparently totally arbitrary efficacy of human endeavour. There's more cut from the text of the play than I'd like but at least 90% of it is in tact and this is still a very good production.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Smorgasbord of the Doctor

There are a lot of reasons The Two Doctors is significant for Doctor Who canon, but the three parter doesn't really get to the meat, so to speak, of the story until the third episode. This is where writer Robert Holmes really leaned into trying to convince the audience to go vegetarian while convincing the Doctor in the process. I doubt he actually converted many, if any, viewers but the attempt is entertainingly grotesque.

This is the first time two incarnations of the Doctor, Six (Colin Baker) and Two (Patrick Troughton) met without it being an anniversary episode and it's the first time the show shot on location in Spain. Like City of Death and Arc of Infinity (shot in Paris and Amsterdam, respectively), The Two Doctors makes use of the beautiful scenery. Which is always really refreshing for a show typically shot on cheap plywood sets.

I wonder what the locals made of this trio. Colin Baker was coaxed out of his coat by the incredible heat in Seville and Jamie's (Frazer Hines) removed a black coat that had initially accompanied this costume. I rather wish Jamie had actually dressed like that all the time during his original tenure on the show. He almost looks like the character he inspired on Outlander.

Meanwhile, Peri (Nicola Bryant), of course, was already showing plenty of skin. The Sixth Doctor's companion for most of his run, Peri is notorious for being weakly performed and written, her character concept apparently being primarily about her physical beauty. But, yeah, she's a knock out. Those gams . . .

And Robert Holmes was eager to use every asset to push his message. The second episode cliffhanger is Peri being straddled by Shockeye (John Stratton) with a point of view shot from her of him leering down at her with grasping hands saying, "Pretty, pretty." It looks like he's about to rape her and that's likely the intended impression. But, no, of course he simply wants to chop her up, cook her and eat her. The strategy here is to transfer the horror of one crime to another and maybe also for the young viewer, lusting after Peri, to be horrified at what a colossally ugly waste it would be for her to be slaughtered beyond recognition.

Later, Jamie, the Second Doctor's companion, receives a similar threat as Shockeye is busy "tenderising" the meat unconscious on the table. Also in Holmes' arsenal are scenes of Shockeye and Two arm in arm like a couple Mr. Hydes on the town in top hats, eager to sample all kinds of cuisine.

Of course, if this kind of thing really turned people into vegetarians, no-one who's ever seen Cannibal Holocaust would think of touching meat again. Activist vegetarians so often think that meat eaters haven't made the connexion mentally between the food on their plate and the happy little calf bounding about in the field but that's not true. People are quite conscious of compartmentalising and they have no qualms about it, some even relish in it (again, see Cannibal Holocaust. Or rather, don't). Even as a vegetarian myself, I can't help but laugh watching Two and Shockeye grinning at the waiter and the waiter misunderstanding when Shockeye asks, "Do you serve humans?"

The serial also features Jacqueline Pearce as the chief villain, an Androgam like Shockeye, but one who's been genetically altered to stabilise her appetite. Despite his apparent disgust for Androgams, the Second Doctor very amusingly points out how stupid it is to go to the trouble of modifying one species to behave like another.

Six does not benefit from being placed beside Two, of course. It's hard to say exactly what it is but somehow when Two says, "Come along, Peri," it's with infinitely more gentle understanding, even if Two, like all the Doctors, is supposed to be a bit self absorbed. Something about Colin Baker's performance is just so tinny and disconnected in a way that's difficult to describe.

Twitter Sonnet #1143

The cutlery across the kitchen moved.
Accord asserted by the forks awoke.
As nothing filled the spoon could prove.
A story cut is not in full revoked.
Continued stars inflame the worlds below.
A watch the size of pockets ticked apace.
A row of silent daisies think, "Hello."
An army brought an ant for just in case.
A cycle starts again but in a car.
An amber motor's gone without a sound.
Elab'rate hats adorn the taller tsar.
His cap was set too high to see the ground.
The hedges hid an empty plot of grass.
A cloud of wasps became a pretty mass.

Friday, August 10, 2018

The Changing Life of the Stopped Watch

Jet Black is the polar opposite of Edward so it makes sense that the episode of Cowboy Bebop that follows Edward's introduction focuses on Jet. Another unusual character for an anime series, Jet was probably most closely modelled on Jigen from Lupin III. He has a similar beard and both have a somewhat paternal role in relationship to the group but there are plenty of things that make Jet distinct.

Session Ten: Ganymede Elegy

He's basically the dad figure and in some ways resembles characters like Genma on Ranma 1/2, the primary difference being that the show takes him seriously as a lead. How many anime series, particularly nowadays, focus sincerely on a man who's lost his hair?

Among the Bebop crew, Jet (Unsho Ishizuka) is at one end of the spectrum while Edward (Aoi Tada) is at the other. Edward is female, Jet is male; Edward is the youngest member of the Bebop crew, Jet is the oldest. But the most significant opposition between the two is that Edward seems to have no attachments while Jet is almost entirely defined by his past, by loyalty, and by dedication. We learn that his nickname when he was a cop on Ganymede was the "Black Dog" who never lets go once he's bitten. We know, and find out more later, that his mechanical arm represents something significant from his past. He fills his life with work and hobbies that require discipline and long term dedication--he cares for bonsai trees and is the owner ("captain" doesn't seem appropriate) of the Bebop and as such is responsible for its upkeep and customisation. He also performs maintenance on Spike (Koichi Yamadera) and Faye's (Megumi Hayashibara) ships, even after routinely insisting he owes them nothing. He just can't help himself, he has to see things through.

Ganymede Elegy is about his past with a plot that resembles a lot of classic films, most significantly Casablanca. Jet runs into the love of his life, Alisa (Mika Doi), who now is in love with a man named Rhint (Kappei Yamaguchi) who's on the run. Alisa has moved on but Jet of course hasn't, as symbolised by a broken pocket watch he carries.

With fifteen hours, presumably because that's how hours are divided on Ganymede. It's a nice detail and another thing that ties Jet to the past. As usual, this episode is filled with nice little off-hand bits of imagery that speak volumes. I love the shots of Spike trying to track down Rhint, especially this one where he's blocking traffic with his ship so he can question some guy on the street.

Faye spends the episode doing fan service. She decides to sunbathe on the Bebop--I love how she doesn't stir when Spike flies by overhead. Along with a delicate leg chain, the tiny, barely audible grumble from Megumi Hayashibara gives the viewer a sense of very close physical intimacy.

Meanwhile, Edward is fishing and we see on Ganymede the local fish have developed means of thwarting capture.

The character design for Alisa is a little disappointing, she looks basically like a default mature anime lady.

The climax of the episode involves a stare down where Jet essentially challenges Alisa to prove that she's completely let go of all attachment to him. There's a sociological element to their relationship--Alisa talks about how being with Jet basically meant doing what he said and looking up to him as almost a fatherly figure. Her relationship with Rhint is almost the opposite--she's clearly the one in charge and Rhint, who can't control his panic, seems like a child. Of course, Jet and Alisa don't end up getting back together so this seems to be one thing Jet is finally able to walk away from. But maybe he achieves some satisfaction in finally knowing he still meant something to her.

This is the first episode where we delve into Jet's backstory much at all and it's ten episodes in. But it's completely appropriate coming at this point, partly because of the shift in perspective that grows as the series progresses, from one that presents chaos to one that presents reverence for consistency, but also because it allows us to get to know Jet on the terms of his present actions and decisions without being defined by who he was. Though in Jet's case, that's of course integral to his present.

...

This entry is part of a series of entries I’m writing on Cowboy Bebop for its 20th anniversary. I’m reviewing each episode individually. My previous episode reviews can be found here:

Session One
Session Two
Session Three
Session Four
Session Five
Session Six
Session Seven
Session Eight
Session Nine

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Children in the Ruins

Among the many difficult jobs Allied forces faced after World War II was reuniting families separated by the Nazis. 1948's The Search is about the small children found in concentration camps and the efforts to find their parents, who were often dead. Shot on location in the ruins of post war Germany, there's an astonishing feeling of authenticity to the film but also an extremely effective, bittersweet drama between its leads, Ivan Jandl and Montgomery Clift.

Karel (Jandl) is among a group of children found in various concentration camps before ending up at a UN transit camp. Karel was in Auschwitz and has a more difficult time mustering the courage to speak than the other children but all of them are traumatised. As we're told in voice over by Mrs. Murray (Aline MacMahon) the children are conditioned to fear adults, especially adults in uniform.

The voice-over and the authentic locations give the film a documentary feel but it becomes more of a story when the children escape from an ambulance and scatter through the ruins. Karel, believed by the UN workers to have drowned, ends up meeting an American soldier named Steve (Clift) who takes him in.

Clift and Jandl are so good in this movie. Unhappy with the dialogue, Clift also contributed to the screenplay and his performance has all the naturalism you'd expect from a method actor as well as Clift's natural warmth. Steve's been eager to get home but he quickly forms a bond with Karel--who he calls Jim--and wants to stay and care for him.

Jandl won an Oscar for his role but because his native Czechoslovakia had become communist he was not permitted to travel to the U.S. to accept the award. According to Wikipedia, he didn't know any English during the making of the film and learned all his lines phonetically. If true, that's amazing because he gives such a natural, emotive performance. This may be due partly to Fred Zinnemann's direction and I would suspect having someone as natural as Clift to play off of helped as well. The kid has naturally sad eyes, too.

But all this makes it hard to account for the adorably excited reaction he has when Steve gives him a new pair of shoes--"My shoes!" he cries immediately. Not just in individual moments but over the course of the film he gives a performance with a clear progression. From withdrawn and emotionally paralysed by trauma to a kid who's responded to the comparative normalcy of an affable anchor like Steve with some of the normal energy and curiosity of a child. I found myself getting caught up in the relationship between these two characters and I felt really happy for every good thing that happened and terribly anxious even at some of the most obviously manipulative moments.

These real war torn locations along with the performances give the film an Italian Neorealist feel and I thought of Bicycle Thieves and Rome, Open City. But it's a very good film in its own right.

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

True Love or the Currency of Debt

You don't need to be Machiavelli to see that the realms of politics and business are filled with opportunists, people who use the language of friendship and loyalty merely for their own gain. But now and then I suppose there must be a poor sucker who believes everything courtiers say and such a one is Shakespeare's Timon of Athens. Written by Shakespeare probably in collaboration with Thomas Middleton, I don't hate it but it's not one of my favourite plays, and maybe that's why I don't mind Jonathan Miller's direction in the 1981 BBC production. It's certainly helped a lot by a performance from Jonathan Pryce in the title role. An actor who's uniquely talented at coming off as simultaneously elegant and foolish, he sells this production's interpretation of Timon as a man who goes from an extreme, fervent love for humanity to an extreme, absolute misanthropy.

This is the only production from the BBC Television Shakespeare I've seen so far to have padding--a very long sequence where we watch Timon's dinner guests happily eating without audible dialogue helps to stretch this very short play to almost two hours. It's a very simple story, it feels rather like one aspect of King Lear stripped of all the others--Timon is a wealthy nobleman who gives away all his wealth and then, when no-one lends him money when he's exhausted his resources, he becomes a ragged hermit who spends his days bewailing the fundamental greed and cruelty of all humanity. Timon then becomes a less plausible figure than Lear and his circumstances lack the dimensions of family and character development for the potential betrayers.

But Timon's simplicity allows it to more comfortably support a diversity of interpretations. In the play's introduction to the Norton Shakespeare, Katharine Eisaman Maus points out that Timon's boundless generosity is a means of glorifying himself; "Timon's generosity is entangled with a desire for mastery. By always giving, never receiving, Timon attempts to force his beneficiaries into an endlessly grateful and therefore subordinate role." This seems to agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson's interpretation of the character--Wikipedia quotes from one of his essays; "This giving is flat usurpation, and therefore when the beneficiary is ungrateful, as all beneficiaries hate all Timons … I rather sympathize with the beneficiary, than with the anger of my lord Timon." Well, that's Emerson, for you.

Such an interpretation has to deal with Timon's expressed desire at the feast, "I have often wished myself poorer, that I might come nearer to you: we are born to do benefits. And what better or properer can we call our own than the riches of our friends?" Of course, Timon has basically purchased the right to sermonise so--few, aside from the Cynic Apemantus (Norman Rodway), would dare argue with him at this point. Interpretations could be equally justified in choosing to portray Timon as aware or unaware of this fact even as he speaks.

Miller's production definitely seems to subscribe to the latter point of view, which I think is better, and Jonathan Pryce speaks of his love for his fellows with an almost frighting fervour. With his wide eyes, odd bashfulness, and suppressed nervous energy, he seems as though he's at a banquet where he's to be married to everyone else in the room.

This madness makes the first part of the play fit well with the scenes where Timon has lost everything and greets every human being with loud anger and suspicion. This guy has only two settings and it's Pryce's ability that prevents him from being merely a tedious joke--I felt bad for him even as his wailing hit absurd heights.

One of my favourite actresses, Diana Dors, turns up briefly as one of the prostitutes Timon meets. He delivers to her and her colleague his impressively malicious speech extolling venereal disease:

. . . down with the nose,
Down with it flat; take the bridge quite away
Of him that, his particular to foresee,
Smells from the general weal: make curl'd-pate
ruffians bald;
And let the unscarr'd braggarts of the war
Derive some pain from you: plague all . . .

It's too bad she never appeared in a larger role in one of the BBC Television Shakespeare productions. She would've been a good Mistress Quickly or even Lady Macbeth.

Twitter Sonnet #1142

A vetted new surprise emerged at last.
Confetti lives as colours worms're dyed.
For future vigour eat a great repast.
In truth to sleep we down have never 'lied.'
In pools of Listerine the teeth'll bathe.
The dentist kept away the apples killed.
Incomp'rable the orange emerged unscathed.
Brazil a brave and new Miranda willed.
Foreshadowed dirk dispersed at owl's call.
The only cooling spot won't win the day.
A fleet of embers flew to light the fall.
A cart of folded rugs'll pave the way.
In plenty, coin ennobles blazing sand.
The banks of grains reform a sun's demand.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

The Return of Saul

Last night's première of Better Call Saul's fourth season was a lot like the third season première--not a lot of dialogue, not a lot of plot, just the feeling of a stage being set. Sometimes I like this deliberate slow down, sometimes it does feel stretched a bit too thin.

Spoilers after the screenshot

Once again I feel like the makers of the show overestimate how interesting Mike (Jonathan Banks) is. In this episode we see that Mike quits his job at a toll booth, plays with his granddaughter while she gardens, gets a cheque from Madrigal, then goes in and infiltrates their front company like he really is a security consultant. And that's it. I like the idea of a procedural and I like what it says about Mike's worth ethic that he just can't sit still with the ten grand--he's more comfortable doing the job. But I don't know that we needed to see Mike slowly leaving the toll booth for the last time, giving up his windbreaker--I don't know that we needed to spend so much time watching Mike prowling the offices with a clipboard.

Maybe I'm a hypocrite for loving all the slow burn stuff on the new season of Twin Peaks but it seemed like Lynch's silent spaces are so much fuller. Even the long sequence of the guy sweeping the floor at the Roadhouse. Oddly the fact that it was essentially pointless makes it seem like it had more of a point to it than Mike going through the trash in the warehouse.

The scenes with Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) were better. That opening sequence set in the present day did a great job playing with suspense, showing just how precarious his life is now. He may be wearing a big moustache but he used to be on TV--running into anyone from Albuquerque has a chance of blowing his cover. So that long stare from the cab driver was filled with tension.

I'm a little worried the show won't pick up the slack in the absence of Chuck, though. The drama between the McGill brothers was amazing and vastly overshadowed everything else in the previous seasons. They're almost going to have to start from scratch. But I did think the final scene was great where Howard (Patrick Fabian) revealed he does have a conscience and breaks down over what he did to Chuck. Jimmy, completely callous, letting him keep that guilt, is both completely nasty and completely understandable after all he's been through on top of his brother's death knocking him off balance. So I do think the writers could be on to something.