Saturday, September 22, 2018

Getting the Doctor's Leadworth

I really can't say I'd mind ending up in the supposedly boring village featured in the 2010 Doctor Who episode "Amy's Choice". Filmed in a village called Skenfrith in Wales, plenty of beautiful location shots sell the place marvellously, albeit under the fictional name of Upper Leadworth. Watching it again, I was reminded how much the show's aesthetics were upgraded for the Eleventh Doctor era. The story, written by Men Behaving Badly creator Simon Nye, is a satisfying enough dream puzzle with an effective guest appearance from Toby Jones as the "Dream Lord".

Director Catherine Morshead provides a series of lovely shots of surrounding countryside before the reveal of pregnant Amy (Karen Gillan) who's suddenly the picture of traditional domesticity, stirring batter in a kitchen that looks like it came from a department store catalogue.

Sadly, she's married to Rory (Arthur Darvill) whose ponytail is mocked by everyone. Though I would say it's not the ponytail so much as that it's clearly part of a mullet.

He looks like a Saturday morning cartoon version of an 80s rock star. The Dream Lord taunts the three with the possibility that it's really the Doctor (Matt Smith) Amy prefers. Looking back, I find my feelings at the time that she ought to have chosen the Doctor over Rory were spot on. Rory was occasionally cute but, come on, it's the Doctor. Amy choosing to die for Rory may have been the first of the two expressing their love for each other by extreme, fatal means, I can't remember. But that's no way to build a relationship.

She'd have been better off with the Doctor but I can't share his disdain for Upper Leadworth. We should all be so lucky to settle down in that lovely little house with the flower beds and mossy stones. Even with the roving packs of elderly zombies with eye stalks in their mouths.

Not one of the show's more effective monsters but I can see them being pretty unnerving for small children watching.

Twitter Sonnet #1157

Collected leaves infuse the little sea.
In silhouettes success inscribes the page.
The painting shows a heavy cup of tea.
Beneath the ground the roots retrieved an age.
On paper, sheets of clouds convert the skies.
A ticking egg alerts the pan to cool.
A trusty oil cooks or say it fries.
The gen'ral dance completes the deathless duel.
An open book disclosed a glassy case.
In timeless march the figures cut the clay.
Resolving sight discerns a soil base.
The digging plant recused the rainy day.
In layers soot preserves the glossy street.
Correct adjustment lifts the office seat.

Friday, September 21, 2018

The Re-connexion of Faye

An episode of Cowboy Bebop where many would say very little actually happens--no action sequences, murders, bounties, or scores settled--turns out to be one of the more crucial episodes of the series. The loop is finally closed between the past and the present with the former reasserting itself, making it clear that, despite the strange and scrambled surface, the past is always an integral part of the present.

Session Eighteen: Speak Like a Child

The episode begins with an amusing juxtaposition: Faye (Megumi Hayashibara) trying her luck at the horse races intercut with Spike (Koichi Yamadera) trying to catch a fish from the deck of the Bebop. Just as it seems both are about to succeed, both ultimately fail: Faye's horse narrowly loses and Spike's fish breaks free of the line just as he's reeling it in.

At the same time, while hanging up laundry behind Spike, Jet (Unsho Ishizuka) is telling a story to Edward (Aoi Tada), the Japanese folk tale Urashima Taro. This is interesting on a couple levels; here we have Jet, the eldest member of the crew, passing a tale along to the youngest member, Edward, not unlike the way in which folk tales must have been handed down for generations. Then there's the content of the story itself; similar to "Rip Van Winkle", it's about a man who's taken to a fantastic dream palace after saving a turtle and in the process he skips over many years. He's given a strange box called a Tamatebako when he returns home and he's told not to open it. We don't find out what's in the box in the Cowboy Bebop episode but in some versions of the story the box causes the man to transform or instantly age.

In a sense, this is the story of "Speak Like a Child", which ends with Faye finally getting a sense of her past. For the first time she becomes, in a way, the old woman she is. We learned earlier, in "My Funny Valentine", that Faye had been in stasis for decades, that she'd had a life before the hyperspace gate explosion that forever altered the solar system, but she had no memory of that life. Like many episodes in the latter half of Cowboy Bebop, an item from the past turns up and has an important role in this episode, in this case a videotape which turns out to be Faye's own Tamatebako.

But she runs away from it without seeing it because she can't pay Jet back for the cash on delivery charges. Instead it's Spike and Jet who go on the journey to discover its meaning, to find an antique Betamax that will actually play the thing. After an amusing scene with an antique technology dealer, the two decide to go all the way to Earth, which, when Edward mentions this to Faye, leads Faye the conclusion exactly opposite to the reality--she thinks they've run away from her. As Gren told her in "Jupiter Jazz", she thinks she can lightly run away from this new family of hers but she cares more than she thinks she does. She's indignant and hurt that Spike and Jet have left her so far behind. Little does she know they're doing it for her.

We're not told this directly, likely the men aren't even admitting it to themselves. But when we know they're broke, it seems hardly cost effective to spend fuel going all the way to Earth just to find out what's on a videotape, however valuable it might end up being if they somehow found the right dealer. Nonetheless, when Faye does come back and they finally have a player for the tape, Jet won't let her watch it unless she repays the delivery charges and Faye, once again, assumes she can just walk away from debt she's incurred through no real fault of her own. But she can't resist watching in secret so she sees the extraordinary time capsule she made for herself.

It's not just footage of the girl Faye once was, it's the younger Faye actually speaking to the older Faye. The young Faye asks questions about who her friends will be, what kind of life she'll be leading. She doesn't realise just how vast a gulf of time and memory there'll be between her past and future selves. But that gives her words an unintended, remarkable potency: "I am no longer here. But I'm here to-day and I'll always be cheering for you right here. Cheering for you, my only self." The past is gone but the past is also always present, just like the story of a Tamatebako that inevitably repeats itself.

...

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
Session Ten
Session Eleven
Sessions Twelve and Thirteen
Session Fourteen
Session Fifteen
Session Sixteen
Session Seventeen

Thursday, September 20, 2018

To Film a Predator

For all its problems, 2018's The Predator actually has some ideas to chew on, ideas that are surprisingly against the grain. Badly put together action sequences nerfed by poor cgi aren't improved by a completely forgettable performance from Boyd Holbrook. But the supporting cast, particularly Thomas Jane, Keegan-Michael Key, and Trevante Rhodes, really shines in this story about people and aliens who like to kill.

Like seemingly everyone else in the world, the trailers for this movie didn't impress me, but then I saw the Comic Con panel and I was charmed by the cast's chemistry. Director Shane Black seems like he took care to see that the ensemble actually built a relationship and it comes through in the movie. To the point where even actors I didn't especially like, like Holbrook and Olivia Munn, were a valuable part of the group because of their unlikeable qualities.

It's ironic the film has been in the news because an actor cast in a minor role, Steve Wilder, whose Wikipedia entry is inexplicably marked for deletion, was revealed to have been convicted of trying to "lure a 14-year-old girl into a sexual relationship". Olivia Munn, who shared the now deleted scene with Wilder, has expressed her horror in interviews while Shane Black initially defended his casting of Wilder before finally apologising for it. Munn has stated in interviews that she doesn't know why Black hasn't apologised to her personally which I find rather surprising. She speaks as though she were assaulted but I have to wonder how many of us have bought a coffee from or talked casually to someone who's done time for a felony? It begs the question, in this woke world, how are convicted offenders supposed to be treated? Should they be denied careers or can they be permitted the chance to become productive members of society?

And that's in large part what the movie's about. When McKenna (Holbrook) makes first contact with the Predator, he's framed and shuffled away by the government in a cover up effort and he ends up on a bus with the miscreants who become the film's heroes. They include at least one man, Nebraska (Trevante Rhodes), who's a murderer; he recalls fondly the time he bumped off his C.O. just because he felt like it.

There's an obvious parallel set up between these humans who kill for their own satisfaction and this alien who's on Earth to hunt humans for fun. There's also a thread about biological improvements being mistaken for disorders: McKenna's son is autistic which, in usual movie logic, makes him able to understand and manipulate alien technology and there's a line from Munn, who plays a biologist, about how some speculate autism represents a next stage in evolution. That's what the movie's glossy version certainly seems like but I'm not sure it's really constructive. Maybe if it sways some anti-vaxxers we can say some good came out of it. But saying autistic kids should be able to solve complex equations in an alien typography puts a lot of pressure on kids.

What the movie needed more of is Thomas Jane. His character's Tourette's is played for laughs but in a credible way, the way it would be among a bunch of lower class guys busting each other's balls. Jane infuses the performance with a natural, anxious, and oddly contented sadness. The relationship between his and Keegan-Michael Key's character as two fucked-up survivors who support each other is pretty sweet.

A lot of the story is really predictable and the Super CGI Predator lacks all the live action weight of the original. But it's a pleasure watching this cast play off one another.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Caesar in Dreams

All arguments between advocates for republics and enforcers of tyranny may be moot if all is controlled by capricious supernatural elements. The best part of Stuart Burge's 1970 adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is its sense of the dreamlike and the fantastic, the very palpable influence the stars really do have on mortal faults. But it's got a great cast, too, and despite cutting too much from the text I really don't think this one deserves its bad reputation.

Calpurnia's (Jill Bennett) dream sequence is terrific, for one thing, with pulsing fade ins and outs of footage of mobs, Caesar's bust actually bleeding in a dark void, and Christopher Lee as Artemidorus intoning his warning for Caesar about the conspirators. He never actually gets a chance to speak his warning in waking life in this version but it works a lot better as part of the dream. The echo effect on his voice and the soothsayer's ("Beware the Ides of March . . .!") reminds me of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland in a very positive way.

It really emphasises the incredible number of portents in this play where soothsayers, birds, the weather, and dreams are constantly trying to talk to the characters. If, as Cassius (Richard Johnson) says, the fault really is "not in our stars but in ourselves," it's not for lack of the stars trying.

That famous line is rarely quoted in full, "The fault (dear Brutus) is not in our Stars but in our Selves, that we are underlings." The reason Cassius is typically portrayed as a villain is that he, unlike Brutus, is motivated at least partially by his pride but he really doesn't deserve to be played like Snidely Whiplash, which Richard Johnson kind of does here. A lot of what he says makes sense in light of the fact that Caesar is becoming a dictator in what has long been a proud republic.

Why should that name be sounded more then yours
Write them together: Yours, is as faire a Name:
Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well:
Weigh them, it is as heauy: Coniure with 'em,
Brutus will start a Spirit as soone as Caesar.
Now in the names of all the Gods at once,
Vpon what meate doth this our Caesar feede,
That he is growne so great? Age, thou art sham'd.
Rome, thou hast lost the breed of Noble Bloods.
When went there by an Age, since the great Flood,
But it was fam'd with more then with one man?

There's a television production with Peter Cushing as Cassius I'd dearly like to get my hands on.

There are several Hammer regulars in this production too, though. In addition to Christopher Lee, Andre Morell, my favourite Quatermass, plays Cicero, though if you blink you'll miss him. All of his dialogue was cut, you just see him walk past the screen in one shot, his role reduced to a curiously overcast cameo. In the play, he has dialogue with Casca about the weather, maybe Burge felt the storm effects worked well enough on their own. But Cicero's line, "But men may construe things after their fashion, clean from the purpose of the things themselves," is a nice thing to keep in mind while watching the play. It speaks to the conflicting motives of the conspirators which itself reflects the potential faults in decisions made by a group of people against a single clear vision like a Caesar's. The famous scene where Mark Antony sways the crowd after Brutus has spoken over Caesar's corpse shows just how much readier a crowd is to believe in a person than a principle.

Which makes Brutus' faith in a Roman love for republic so tragic. You might say it should've been obvious Antony would win the crowd over when the spectacle of Caesar's corpse is right there in front of them, but it only goes to show how much belief Brutus has in his own reasons and the capacity for other people to reason. He forgets how people might "construe things after their fashion".

Roger Ebert considered Jason Robards as Brutus to be a big weak point in the film, calling him "wooden". He's really no better or worse than he is in Once Upon a Time in the West or Melvin and Howard; I think the woodenness Ebert talks about is Robards' deliberate decision to make Brutus seem dispassionate. Here's a man who would murder a man he loves for a principle. The contrast between his performance and the others', though, may have a lot to do with the fact that he's an American in an otherwise almost entirely British cast who deliver their lines with the creativity of inflection and love of the language characteristic of traditional British stage actors. But there are other Americans in the cast who fit in better, including Robert Vaughn as Casca and Charlton Heston as Mark Antony.

While Robert Johnson maintains a straightforwardly villainous portrayal of Cassius, Heston takes the opportunity of playing Antony to deliver a more morally ambiguous character than he often had chance to at this stage of his career. His grief is sincere on beholding Caesar's corpse but he also luxuriates in an opulent picnic on the battlefield. It's one of those things that makes Antony seem like Charles II and Brutus like Oliver Cromwell by contrast and, indeed, I found myself thinking of the movie Cromwell which was released the same year. Alec Guinness' portrayal of Charles I is pretty restrained and Richard Harris is more more fiery than Robards here but obviously the story has a lot of philosophical similarities.

The cast of this Julius Caesar also includes Diana Rigg who's very memorable in a brief appearance as Portia; Michael Gough as one of the conspirators, making the most of only a couple lines; and John Gielgud plays Caesar himself, solid as always.

Twitter Sonnet #1156

In crimson steam the chain redeemed an eye.
For climbing rocks the newt awards a bike.
In circuits placid tigers eat the pie.
Through cloudy paints will thinner lightning strike.
A hollow hit resounds from golden bells.
But lucky storms return the ship to port.
An octopus contrives galactic Hells.
The snow returns to take the hidden fort.
The only legs support the speckled fawn.
Beneath the candy screen a movie plays.
Enchanted keys collect the doughnut dawn.
The bobbing frigate cleanly missed her stays.
A sinking flag was winking over waves.
The ocean rears a canny brace of knaves.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Calling for Months

Better Call Saul took some surprisingly big leaps forward last night, bringing it much closer to Breaking Bad. But the leaps were done in such a way that writer Alison Tatlock and director Deborah Chow clearly showed evolutions in character relationships to make the tipping points very effective.

Spoilers after the screenshot

The months pass in split screen and we see Kim (Rhea Seehorn) and Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) diverge in careers and lifestyle even as they continue to live and sleep together. It's nicely done, like watching Kane and his wife gradually sitting further apart at the breakfast table in Citizen Kane. Jimmy goes from putting the paste on Kim's toothbrush to not even eating with her.

So then it makes sense that there's suddenly a culture clash between them. They grew apart so gradually that Jimmy springing the news that he'd been selling drop phones is a severe shock. I love how uncomfortable Kim looks in that scene, you can tell she's absolutely repulsed and wants to be a million miles away from Jimmy.

Who'd have thought Huell (Lavel Crawford) would have such an important role. The scene where he hits that cop over the head with a bag of sandwiches is just the right mixture of sad, funny, and credible. And then, against all odds, Kim does find a point of interest in the case; it seems Huell is facing "unequal justice", the prosecutor aiming for an unusual amount of jail time, the implication being that institutional racism is at work. The episode ends with a tease that Kim has cooked up something clever but the real axe hanging over the episode is the sense that, rather than drawing Jimmy and Kim back together, it'll be the final wake-up call that drives them apart. It's a testament to how well done this show is that you understand both points of view--Kim wanting to help people and have a stable career and Jimmy wanting respect and a job that challenges him. These two simple differences in motive are exacerbated by the characters belonging to two different cultures now, as highlighted in the office party at the beginning where Jimmy embarrasses Kim.

And he has business cards now that rhyme "call" with "Saul", an omen of the fate the show's promised from the beginning. The inevitability nicely plays off the complexity of the characters so that you feel how deeply sad it is that Jimmy is trapped.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Don't Cross the Lumberjack

When it comes to revenge fantasies, it pays to go big. 2018's Mandy casts Nicolas Cage as its bloody avenger, putting him in a handsomely realised fantasy version of north American wilderness populated by psychotic biker orcs on LSD, vigilante lumberjacks, a dangerous Christian cult, and at least one tiger. The influences are clearer than any real vision on the part of its director and Cage completely overwhelms the film in its second half. But it's a nice, gratuitous ride.

Cage plays a lumberjack named Red who goes home to his pretty young wife, Mandy, played by Andrea Riseborough in one of the few roles I've seen her in where she doesn't come off as the heroine in a romance novel. Mandy prefers to read fourth rate Lovecraftian prose and she reads aloud in narration a ham-fisted description of a fantastic landscape.

As though reality is paying tribute to her literary tastes, the backgrounds seem to get stranger and stranger as Cage gets to work avenging her. He even forges an incredibly cheesy, useless looking battle axe.

It's all so very metal and the filmmakers seem like nice people you'd want to have a beer or headbang with. But the film is more of a nice piece of Mad Max fan fiction than a comparably effective fantasy in itself. Nicolas Cage gives a base level Nicolas Cage performance. The screams of remorse and rage he gives in to in a strange sunflower papered bathroom could've been sampled from any number of Nicolas Cage films. The villain is a really cheesy, pathetic Christian guru and Riseborough's best moment in the film is when she laughs at his intensely ridiculous sales pitch of his godliness. He's a skinny little twerp, he's not half the crazy eyed walking god Nicolas Cage is with his crossbow he calls "Reaper".

The elaborate fonts in the chapter titles and the synthesiser score by the late Johann Johannson sometimes make Mandy feel like The Theme from Stranger Things: The Motion Picture and one suspects this film getting made had a lot to do with the 80s horror nostalgia Stranger Things instigated. The dialogue is spare and not great in the first half of the film but it's well worth watching for the Frazetta and Heavy Metal homage imagery and Nicolas Cage flexing his crazy face in an appropriate setting.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

God in the Senseless

What could a Catholic priest have to say to a Communist woman in a Nazi occupied French town? What kind of answers can he give her in light of that kind of trouble? 1961's Leon Morin, Priest (Léon Morin, prêtre) avoids nearly all the answers you might except and yet feels remarkably natural. With a gorgeously textured cinematography and perfect performances, it's a lovely film about someone's conception of reality being completely altered, or rather, someone whose intellectual conception of reality is brought into harmony with her instinctive conception of it.

Barny (Emmanuelle Riva) is a young widow with a little girl. She's worried about her child because of the occupation. In an early scene, she meets with Jewish mothers and other Communists to discuss ideas on how to deal with the town being occupied. Many decide to get their children baptised. At this point, a simple solution like this seems workable because the Italians who initially occupy the town wear silly feathered hats and are more congenial than the Germans who show up later. At that point, some of the men take to living in the woods as an arm of the Resistance and Barny decides to send her little girl to live with two old women in the countryside.

Barny's sexually frustrated and starts to fall in love with a Jewish woman in the office named Sabine (Nicole Mirel). Leon (Jean-Paul Belmondo) tells Barny it's just because she hasn't been around men in a while and, it's true, there are few male characters in the film. Aside from Leon, there's only one other named male character, Edelman (Marco Behar), her Jewish boss who flees the town at some point.

She meets Leon in the confessional, to throw "Religion is the opiate of the masses" in his face. But her instincts had led her to him because she was already starting to feel the inadequacy of this maxim. Certainly faith is a lot more traumatic in this film than sedatives tend to be.

In Roger Ebert's review of the film he says that the director, Jean-Pierre Melville, "cleverly plays with our expectations." The expectations Ebert refers to are expectations of cinema, stories, or popular ideas. We expect some kind of confrontation with Sabine, with Barny either scandalously falling for her or find the attraction part of a terrible downfall but neither occurs. When Barny has a brief physical fight with a woman in the office who turns out to be a collaborator, ending with Barny slapping her, the woman unexpectedly kisses her.

And Leon doesn't seem to proselytise very stridently. He even admires the self-denial Communism as fostered in Barny's lifestyle. He doesn't blink when she frankly tells him how she uses a stick to masturbate.

It's hard to imagine any two other actors in these roles; Emmanuelle Riva is so clear eyed and honest in her spiritual quest while Jean-Paul Belmondo musters his cool, angry grace perfectly in this context. He's respectful of Barny but also kind of brutish in his abrupt manner, he even, without apology, pushes her when she blocks a doorway. When they talk about the existence of God, he stresses that logically proving God's existence misses the point. And the film subtly bears this out by continually presenting contradictions that wouldn't fit in a philosophy as unyielding as Communism. Contradictions presented subtly by the film but there for the viewer, and certainly Barny, to see; there's the fact that Leon, a Catholic priest, is helping the resistance and hiding Jews. There's the American soldier who tries to extort sex from her, humiliating her in the street, and the Nazi officer who's kind to her daughter. There's Barny's budding friendship with the collaborator and how the two argue frankly their points of view with each other while still remaining friends. All of this could be interpreted as absurd, chaotic human behaviour, but then again, it fits with what Leon tells her about how God even loves heretics.

Beautifully shot with fascinating editing choices that include abrupt fades seemingly almost in the middle of scenes, Leon Morin, Priest showcases Melville's unique command of cinematic language. He makes this a strikingly effective story.

Twitter Sonnet #1155

Expectant turtles wait upon the cloud.
Below, the sort of citrus towns evolve.
A set of glowing toys were disallowed.
The pages reckon now what books involve.
In choosing rooms the crown decides a head.
Ignoble lights illume the flashing sign.
A thousand feet protrude from 'neath the bed.
The growing maze consumes the mental twine.
A cool and wary eye regards from fur.
Above the fan a danger waits for air.
Through smaller fans computers always purr.
An offered fruit was very much a dare.
A second coat of paint repaired the house.
A cheese foundation pleased the local mouse.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

False Illumination

I remember seeing a lot of people wearing Rose Tyler's outfit from "The Idiot's Lantern" at Comic Con. A Tenth Doctor Doctor Who episode written by Mark Gatiss, it'd be hard to understand why young women would choose a costume that could really be a generic 50s outfit if you haven't seen the episode or were generally acquainted with this era of Doctor Who. Watching it again last night for the first time in years, I was struck by the unusual chemistry between Doctor and Companion. They're just so into each other, it's adorable.

She's so excited to be wearing that 50s dress; he's so excited she's so excited. She's so excited he's so excited that she's so excited. Who in their right minds would mistake this for a platonic relationship? Four and Romana were kind of like this sometimes but never to this extreme. Because David Tennant and Billie Piper are so charismatic and both are particularly good at showing unvarnished enthusiasm--without being even slightly obnoxious--their mutual appreciation is a real vicarious kick for the viewer.

He's just so dang happy to be in 1953, wow. That grin is going to split him it two.

Normally I'm not much of a fan of episodes written by Mark Gatiss but this one generally avoids his problem of writing scripts that make absolutely no sense. And the concept of televisions stealing faces from people works really well. I also like the sub-plot about the father who brags about fighting fascism in World War II only to be overbearing in his own home. The scene where his son tells him off is satisfying; "You fought against fascism, remember? People telling you how to live, who you could be friends with, who you could fall in love with. Who could live and who had to die. Don't you get it? You were fighting so that little twerps like me could do what we want, say what we want. Now you've become just like them."

Although the term "Idiot's Lantern" obviously refers to the television--apparently coming from a term writer Gareth Roberts remembers his father using--the idea of an electronic device in everyone's home that turns them into anonymous collaborators in a censorious mob certainly seems relevant to-day.

Another difference in the Russell T. Davies era from Steven Moffat's is how much more frequently people died. The episode features Ron Cook guest starring as assistant to the main villain--I'd just seen him recently playing Richard III in the great BBC Television Shakespeare series from the 80s. His role is relatively small here but I like how he's established as someone at the end of his rope financially and therefore easy prey for the malevolent spirit onscreen. Repenting near the end can't save him in the Davies era, though, however sad it might be. I also like how that fascist dad ends up not being painted as someone who deserves to be thrown away and forgotten.

Why couldn't Gatiss maintain this quality in his writing? Maybe Davies, as showrunner, generously edited the script to "Idiot's Lantern". Whoever's responsible, it's a good episode.