Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Last of Twelve

It was announced yesterday that Peter Capaldi's upcoming season on Doctor Who will be his last, something I suspected would be the case but I really hoped it wouldn't be. My favourite Doctor of the show since its 2005 relanch, it seems unfair to get him only in the period when Steven Moffat's creative energies seem to have been strained past capacity. I generally didn't like Chris Chibnall's Doctor Who episodes but liked Broadchurch enough to want to see what Capaldi would be like on the show under his stewardship. At the same time, as much as I like Eccleston and Smith, it's only been Tennant and Capaldi that have made me excited to see what projects they might take on next. Before Doctor Who, Capaldi was already well known for The Thick of It and was an important part of the wonderful Local Hero. For a lot of Doctors, no matter how brilliant they are, I kind of don't want to see them in other roles. When Tom Baker shows up as the Bendu on Star Wars Rebels I want him secretly to be the Doctor.

So who should play the Doctor next? If I had to guess who's most likely to be the pick, my money would be on Eddie Redmayne who's publicly expressed the desire to play the Doctor and he's exactly the type the BBC probably want--a handsome young man. And he's a good actor, I'd tune in for his Doctor. But if I had my druthers, I'm one of the people who'd love to see a female Doctor, my favourite candidate, like a lot of people, being Helen Mirren. Though I'd also nominate Lara Pulver, maybe Laura Fraser. Male or female, as much as I like Sylvestor McCoy and Matt Smith, I sort of feel like the Doctor should have a large nose.

It's not going to happen, of course, despite the fact that it seems to be what most of the fans want. Steven Moffat at Comic-Con made it clear it's what he wants but hinted that other forces were preventing it--I read the other forces as being the BBC. Just like everyone wanted a Madame Vastra and Jenny spin-off but we got that stupid Class show instead. The people in charge of Doctor Who seem to be playing for the audience they want to have rather than the audience they have.

Twitter Sonnet #958

A pebble amplified's a rumble note.
Beneath a veil of web the nose was gone.
Too late, the cheese was made from milk of goat.
A hasty sketch'll void a yellow dawn.
An echo doubled int'rest crushed the eye.
Again a speedy tale to bins of fish.
A worried tail appraised the sickened pie.
A silent ring denounced a spoiled dish.
A brick was lead by brick in steady trot.
The dice worn smooth with sweat grew faint and slept.
An eye reduced through space to silver dot.
In velvet songs the seeds of lint are kept.
The quicker 'lectric etching street has logged
A bilious screaming panel through the fog.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Our Peers

I've just gotten home from jury duty--well, I got home over an hour ago but I'm in that sleep deprived state where I only seem able to move very slowly as time rushes by. I only got four hours sleep since I figured I'd need at least three hours to get up, eat, and find the place and parking. But there was a period where I got jury duty summons every two years so once I was in my car this morning instinctive memory took over--I found the same strip mall parking lot I always park in that has reserved spaces for jurors, walked to the courthouse across the street and right through its labyrinth to the metal detector entrance for jurors. I watched the same damned video I watch every time that has 2002 in the credits but judging from the hair styles on the former jurors interviewed to explain the process most of the footage must've originated from before 1990.

The video has a kind of corny segment about the founding fathers and how being a juror is a wonderful part of our democracy and it all seemed terribly quaint and fragile post-Trump. No-one made direct reference to Trump while I was there except the judge for the case I was called to the panel for made a joke about how there was plenty in the news for us to be talking about outside the court house instead of the case.

Of course I was dismissed, as I knew I would be. If only I could mail in to the courthouse a letter explaining, "I'm too weird, you don't want me." Once again, when the prosecuting attorney, it turned out from the D.A., asked if I would consider everyone's testimony the same I was the only one who said, no, I would not consider a layperson's testimony on a subject to have the same authority as an expert on that same subject and I would also judge responses differently based on the witness' emotional state and other factors. Though there was an additional question relating to the specifics of the case which probably ruled me out even more. Or maybe they just didn't like my bow tie.

In the wonderfully 80s jury lounge I somehow managed to concentrate on reading. I finished reading Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart for the second time--a terribly beautiful book, I first read it in 2015 for an African literature class--and then I read part of a biography of Robert Holmes--not the Doctor Who writer but the prominent ship captain in the Restoration Royal Navy.

The pictures included on this post are from the top level of Horton Plaza a few days ago; some birds and the world's most raggedy pigeon.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Crowded Waters of Complicated Death

A countess is murdered by a man who is also murdered immediately after committing the deed in the opening scene of 1971's A Bay of Blood (Ecologia del delitto. A confusing, darkly funny, violent, and sensationally stylish Giallo film by Mario Bava, the film's puckish nihilism is off-set by a fascinating ingenuity.

After the murder, the film goes to a scene that feels like it comes straight from an Italian James Bond knock-off with handsome Frank Ventura (Chris Avram) and the beautiful Laura (Anna Maria Rosati) prematurely concluding a romantic evening because Frank has to leave on some business, leaving Laura horny and plaintive. Then the movie becomes about a group of teenagers breaking into a house at the titular bay to have sex and be disapproved of by the eyes of a murderer who's identity is not revealed yet.

In between is a scene between an amateur entomologist, Paolo (Leopoldo Trieste) and a man catching squid in the bay, Simon (Claudio Volonte). The two have an argument where Simon rebukes Paolo for killing bugs as a hobby while Simon only hunts squids for food, this dialogue seeming to have a deliberate superficiality while dead people keep turning up throughout the film. One of the teenagers, a beautiful German girl named Brunhilda (Brigitte Skay), comes across one corpse while skinny dipping in the bay.

And then, piled on top of all this, enters a young couple who leave their children in the trailer so they can work on their complicated plot to steal the Countess' inheritance which somehow all of these other plot threads are adding up to. It leads to one of the film's more impressive visuals as the woman, Renata (Claudine Auger), tears the tarp off Simon's boat to reveal a corpse with live squids crawling over it.

Most of the film is set in late afternoon and Bava, who was his own cinematographer, makes excellent use of long shadows and luridly contrasting blue and yellow. His artificial lighting is subtle enough that the actors are well lit when facing the shade without the effect coming off as obtrusively unnatural.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

John Hurt

Where to begin with John Hurt, the great actor whose death was announced yesterday? Here's an actor who enjoyed an extraordinary and long career who was active right to the end. Next month sees the release of three new Doctor Who audio plays starring Hurt as the War Doctor; in all he recorded twelve Doctor Who audio plays. The fact that one of the world's best actors, who appeared in all manner of films, who likely had his pick of any role he liked, took the time to record hours and hours of what many consider to be an obsolete form of storytelling that certainly didn't pay well says a lot about John Hurt.

When Christopher Eccleston didn't want to come back to Doctor Who for the 50th anniversary, Hurt, whose prestige far exceeds any that Eccleston could hope to attain, was delighted to be cast in the role that has pleased fans for over fifty years. It's this love of his art above renown and remuneration that contribute to that prestige. Perhaps he took to heart the lesson from Paul Scoffield's Thomas More when Hurt played Richard Rich in 1966's A Man for All Seasons, which was Hurt's third film:

This was over a decade before the films Hurt's now best known for, David Lynch's The Elephant Man and Ridley Scott's Alien, both films considered among the very best of their respective directors. Hurt plays very different roles in both and yet both succeed for qualities that distinguished Hurt's performances--a sensitivity, a questioning vulnerability. He exudes in both roles a sense of humanity laid bare which contributes to the sense of horror in Alien and a sense of the nobility of Joseph Merrick in Elephant Man who persists in identifying as human despite an entire world that would dehumanise him intentionally as well as without even conscious consideration. Hurt creates a performance in Elephant Man beautiful for its impression of open-heartedness not diminished by any bitterness that would seem very natural for anyone forced to endure what Merrick did all his life.

Hurt also gave my favourite performance as the Fool in King Lear in Laurence Olivier's underrated 1983 television adaptation. I've seen some other fine performances of the role but none seem to as effectively convey the Fool's devastation at Lear's decent into madness, the sense of compassion for the man and the hopelessness of the task of trying to get through to him with jokes and riddles when all other communication has failed.

Twitter Sonnet #957

Surprising trees blockade a lousy Bond.
Remembrance brakes on icy steel for cake.
When falling fast through walls, take up the wand.
If not for chicks for Tyrannosaur's sake.
Perpetual the sunset's Bessy leaves.
The grooves are vertical and green for men.
The boots for ladies weren't on later greaves.
A question pot was mixed with voided yen.
Surprising shapes define the face in dust.
In space, a bed of blackened bone invites
Sir Larry's Fool in whom alone he'd trust.
Without a name his heart's in softened lights.
An egg that's pared to hold the space of crowns
Contains a ceaseless search for human bounds.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Instruments Taken to Heart

I finished watching the first season of Hibike! Euphonium (響け! ユーフォニアム) yesterday and I'm pleased to say I enjoyed the second half of the season as much as the first. The show has some of the pleasure found in the first half of The Red Shoes, watching this group of characters working hard for their art. Although there are main characters they don't dominate the story which is very effectively more focused on the process.

Another nice thing about it is that, unlike nearly all anime and American movies and television, it doesn't focus on "chosen ones" or people who are better at something that anyone else in the world. These are just kids in a school band and yet the show celebrates how hard they work at it and how passionate they are about it. More impressively, it shows what happens when a student works really hard at something and fails.

I love the attention to detail on all the musical instruments. One of the main story threads of the season's latter half involves an audition competition between Reina (Chika Anzai) and Kaori (Minori Chihara) for the part of solo trumpet. Yuko (Yuri Yamaoka), who is infatuated with Kaori, becomes bitterly angry when Reina is chosen for the role and a second audition is called after it's revealed that the teacher, Taki (Takahiro Sakurai), and Reina had known each other before he'd become a music teacher at the school. Taki maintains his habitual understated and gentle but firm demeanour and instead of arguing about the accusation of favouritism simply calls the second audition.

I'm no music expert but even I could tell the difference of quality between how Kaori plays and how Reina plays. Reina shades her notes with more deliberate rising and falling while Kaori seems to be adhering simply to the written music. And she doesn't sound bad, which was nice--the competition feels credible even though the point of the scene is that Reina is obviously better. We can still believe that Kaori has worked very hard for this.

The final couple episodes shift focus back to Kumiko (Tomoyo Kurosawa) who is having trouble playing a portion of the music on her euphonium and is in danger of losing her place if she can't get it right. So we see her practising over and over and still not getting there. All the while, we know that even if she does finally accomplish this, she still won't be the star Reina is. That doesn't make any less effective a scene where Kumiko runs across a bridge and shouts into the night that she wants to improve.

I found myself wondering if she was maybe practising too much. Which is a sign the show is really working, it makes me think about these kids as people with real strategies that might be right or wrong. This is helped a lot by subtle dialogue scenes with effective subtext. When Kaori is practising for the second audition, she asks Asuka (Minako Kotobuki), a charismatic and cavalier character who is seen as an authority by the other students, if she sounds better. Asuka gives Kaori encouraging words while skilfully avoiding giving her a direct answer. The voice actress is also very effective in not projecting anything about an intention to hide her true feeling, trusting the dialogue to establish the tone of the scene.

After the eighth episode, there's little focus on romance. The show has some obvious fan service, like several shots of the girls orgasmically drinking from water bottles, and there's something about the whole hearted devotion to their musical instruments that suggests sublimated sexual desire. Unlike a lot of fan service in anime, it feels organic and part of the story. I was hoping for more of a directly lesbian relationship between Kumiko and Reina but after the eighth episode the story hints that Reina might end up with Taki, the romance between a male teacher and a female student being often romanticised in Japanese fiction like it never is in the U.S. (see Maison Ikkoku). But it's kept low key enough that those of us fantasising about Reina and Kumiko going beyond a casual yuri encounter can easily do so.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

A Cushing to Remember

Throughout his career, Peter Cushing has been under-appreciated. Even as far back as 1955's The End of the Affair, Deborah Kerr cheats on him with a petulant, blundering Van Johnson. But the film is nicely shot and a broadly melodramatic plot leads to a surprising commentary on religious faith.

Johnson plays Maurice Bendrix, an American writer in London during World War II. At a party at the home of MP Henry Miles (Cushing) he first meets Kerr's character, Sarah, Henry's wife. He catches a glimpse of her kissing another man on the lips which provokes Maurice to try it himself later when the two get a drink together.

The movie doesn't make it clear right away why Sarah is so comfortable with cheating on Henry. Maurice knows he's not her first affair and he's able to tease her about it at first but becomes vehemently possessive before long. We see their relationship advance through a few scenes without getting a concrete idea of how much time is passing so maybe the deepening of Maurice's feelings is more realistic than it seems. But it can't help but come off as a bit silly when Sarah's reaction generally seems to be stunned incredulity with a mild hint of impatience. That's how it seems, anyway.

Even though Cushing plays one point on the film's central love triangle, he gets fourth billing, behind John Mills who puts on a cockney accent to play a detective's assistant in only a couple of scenes. When we learn Sarah's real motivation for wanting to put some space between herself and Maurice, her lack of consideration for Henry becomes even more inexplicable. This was before Cushing's breakout role in Hammer's version of Frankenstein which explains the billing and the unusual casting. There's nothing of Victor Frankenstein, Abraham Van Helsing, Sherlock Holmes, or Grand Moff Tarkin in Henry Miles whose gentle nature is only the tip of the iceberg. Despite his prominent government position, he's a man with deep emotional vulnerability who seems genuinely devoted to Sarah.

When she refers to love she shares with Maurice as more "human", one can only think she can't tolerate fidelity to Henry because of a lack of physical gratification--dialogue makes it clear without saying it directly that he's sterile and they probably never have sex. One can understand why Sarah would be sexually dissatisfied but, still, it's not exactly poor Henry's fault. I found the plot actually made a lot more sense if read as a coded homosexual relationship, where Kerr's character must indulge in a same sex relationship in secret while maintaining a heterosexual marriage for the sake of her reputation. Otherwise it's very hard to see her relationship with Maurice as more than a cruel cosmic joke on Henry.

The film becomes an interesting if not terribly sophisticated dialogue on faith as Sarah begins visiting with a Catholic priest and an atheist separately to try to figure out the meaning in making a promise to God. The argument becomes pretty shallow when the stakes are so obviously contrived even before taking into account that Van Johnson is thoroughly unappealing. But Deborah Kerr gives a great performance as always and I found myself captivated when the film switched to her point of view. Still, how could she think of leaving Peter Cushing?

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Second Dimension

Since the election, I've looked in on Breitbart News now and then, the alt-right site previously run by Steve Bannon, Donald Trump's Senior Counsellor. Partly because I want to understand the perspective of people who buy into Trump's propaganda, partly because I simply want to know what page they're on. For example, when Trump's people say he won't release his tax returns because "people don't care," that seems pretty credible if all you were looking at was Breitbart which apparently doesn't deem it worthy of mention. The top story when I looked on the site this morning was this one: "Director Joss Whedon Calls Ivanka Trump a Dog". The article refers this photo tweeted by Whedon:

Whedon's caption reads:

"Hey, keep your eyes on this fucking prize too. He's a Voldemort in training, & unlike the Pekingese he married under, can play the long game"

The article, at least as of now and at the time I first read it, makes no mention of the possibility that the "Pekingese" Whedon refers to is Donald and not Ivanka. Which one looks more like a Pekingese to you?

Considering the picture Whedon posted shows only Jared Kushner and Donald Trump, and Whedon says "married under", I would have assumed he was referring to Donald Trump. But okay, this is par for the course in tabloid media. Huffington Post is often enough guilty of this kind of flimsy, deliberate slant. One of the major differences, though, is that such Huffington Post articles are usually filled with comments arguing with or just pointing out the error. Not one commenter, last I checked, seems to have understood Whedon was talking about Donald Trump, it's just a series of comments calling Whedon a cuckold, his wife a man, and asserting that Ivanka is hot.

One of the most ironic things about it is that a lot of the rhetoric on the site is about how Social Justice Warriors are too sensitive and take things out of context. I also noticed the site tends to focus on things that don't seem especially newsworthy to right or left, like this one about a random radio station in Texas banning Madonna because of comments she made during the women's march:

"Yes, I’m angry. Yes, I’m outraged. Yes, I have thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House, but I know that this won’t change anything."

I copied this quote in full from the article. Despite that it seems clearly to be Madonna saying that blowing up the White House is a bad idea, the story has since been picked up by other media and Madonna has had to respond. I would have thought Madonna being banned from a radio station in Texas was old news twenty years ago but supposedly it's important to-day.

I mentioned the story to someone I know who likes the alt-right and he said usually Trump supporters are the ones who get banned, like Milo. "Who's Milo?" I asked and he was surprised. I guess Milo Yiannopoulos, who it turns out is a Greek/British contributor to Breitbart, is something of a celebrity amongst alt-righters for getting banned from Twitter following his harassment of Leslie Jones. He's openly gay so is a walking counterargument to those who say the alt-right are inherently homophobic or anti-gay. I think this comes from a naivete from many who identify as alt-right without wanting to be associated with the Nazis who also use the term. Looking through articles like the one on Whedon, I was often reminded of working as a teaching assistant in a lower division rhetoric class last year and being surprised at how dimly many of the students understood layers of meaning and intention in articles. There was often a tendency to accept things on face value.

Deciding to have a look at some of Yiannopoulos' writing, I looked through articles he'd written for Breitbart, trying to find one that told me why he's well regarded, trying to find one where he really shows his skill at showing up the deficiencies of liberals. And I'm certainly not one to argue myself for the flawlessness of liberals. I know some Social Justice Warriors--and I use the term knowing they use it themselves--and while I'd generally rather be on their side than someone who thinks a wall on the U.S./Mexican border is a sensible idea, they can show lapses in judgement, like one who claimed Benjamin Franklin's endorsement of moderation was part of a Puritan conspiracy against fat people. Still, no Social Justice Warrior I've met has suggested censoring scientists.

But Yiannopoulos' articles, while they do throw out jabs at the left, generally seem to be about himself. Several of his recent articles begin with a caption: "My name is Milo Yiannopoulos, the supervillain of the Internet." You'd think I'd have heard of him. He has several posts where he just rehashes fan mail and his jabs at the left tend not to have any citations or links. In this post where he discusses the fake news of the left, he posts an image of a tweet from Nancy Sinatra replying to a CNN tweet. CNN's tweet says that Sinatra was not happy with Trump using her father's song at his inauguration, to which she replies "That's not true. I never said that. Why do you lie, CNN?" What Yiannopoulos does not mention is the reason he had to use his screenshot rather than linking directly to the tweet--Sinatra had deleted it after CNN posted this article that quotes another tweet of hers after she was asked what she thought of "My Way" being performed at the inauguration; "Just remember the first line of the song." The first line being, "And now the end is near."

Ironically, Yiannopoulos follows up his screenshot with a commentary on the focus on fake news:

"What could be more delicious than the media’s decision, when trust in their institution was at an all-time low, to make 'Fake News' the narrative of the day after Trump’s election? I mean, what did they think was going to happen? Throughout the campaign, the media threw lie after lie and smear after smear at Donald Trump, blissfully unaware that with every outrageous story they ran, public trust in their profession sank a little lower."

Yiannopoulos himself demonstrates how apparently easy it is to garner trust while sacrificing integrity. He also seems unable to quote any of these lies or evidence that they are lies. But I guess people don't care about Trump's tax returns.

Twitter Sonnet #956

The tapered pressure seen in tunnel towns
Compacts the moving brains they've clustered on
The cable roads entwined to cancel clowns
Whose signals strained of tannin dry and gone
To calcified imploding crops the wheat
In choking spoons aligns along the roads,
A grid of barren scalps of earth too fleet
Too roiled static now to move, it goads
A brainless toad, its blinking eyes pull in
The rain that comes in sideways sparks for weeks
Of colder seeds, the growing petal moon tin
Alights in forms resembling Grace who sneaks
Across a grassy vault, o'erflowing slugs,
The ears receive the echos of their bugs.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Always lurking behind human institutions, relationships, and priorities is the idea that it could all be meaningless, all just a pose, and our attachments are nothing more than sentimental constructs. This is the horror inherent in 1973's The Exorcist, a film with a demoniac antagonist whose persistent mission is to mock and undermine everything from a mother's relationship with her daughter to the configuration of the human body. It's a film put together with really effective sensitivity to atmosphere and character.

I've heard people say you need to be religious, preferably Catholic, to appreciate The Exorcist. Maybe that's why atheist Stanley Kubrick turned down the opportunity to direct it. Maybe that's why the first time I saw it, almost twenty years ago, it had no effect on me at all, I'm sad to say. And I was able to see it in a theatre because it was a re-release for the director's cut. I've become more receptive to horror as I've grown older and my imagination has broadened to appreciate more of the emotional undercurrents. I still consider myself an agnostic as I always have but I think I've also benefited from not seeing religion as ridiculous as I used to.

But I still find the first half of the movie better than the second half, though I like the second half. My favourite segment is the first, where we meet Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) taking part in an archaeological excavation in northern Iraq. I love the subtle signs of a demoniac presence presenting themselves to Merrin. The movie connects to Merrin as the point of view character with almost no dialogue, just reaction shots as he goes from reacting to slightly strange findings in a dig to menacing hints of what to come. The film becomes sensitive to sounds which are played up abrasively in jump cuts; an oddly malicious looking old woman rides a coach that nearly runs Merrin off the road. There's that fantastic, grotesque statue.

This is followed by the nicely established relationship between Regan (Linda Blair) and her mother, Chris (Ellen Burstyn). Already we're shown evidence that people are aware of how arbitrary human personae and relationships are. Chris is a famous actress and we see her affecting a passionate official speaking to a crowded of protesters who speak with equally affected passion. She and Regan talk about Chris' recent divorce from Regan's father and the foundation for love people have for each other if bonds can be broken so easily. This is where being Catholic would probably help in getting a feeling of dread.

But you don't need to be Catholic to feel the horror of this little girl and her mother as their lives are completely upended by the child's condition. Director William Friedkin brilliantly uses sound effects in medical examination sequences which I was surprised to learn weren't in the original cut of the film. One might think the procedure involved in what I think is a spinal tap would be uninteresting next to the acts of a demon but the great, noisy machines bearing down over a restrained and crying Regan, together with the sense of uncertainty that motivated the procedure, are really about as menacing and contribute to the underlying horror of human existence robbed of its preferred modes of existence. I wonder if Regan was named after King Lear's daughter who, when she asked her father why he needed the retinue and trappings of his title, he replied;

O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life is cheap as beast's.

Father Merrin says something similar later when he and Father Karras (Jason Miller) wonder what the devil wants. Merrin suggests, "I think the point is to make us despair . . . To see our selves as . . . animal and ugly . . . To reject the possibility that God could love us."

The film misses an opportunity to ask why God permits a demon to do something like it does to Regan. But there is something in the horror inherent in this question when the solution seems to be effected entirely by human beings rather than an exterior divine intervention. Is this a sign that the noble actions of humans are the manifestations of God's grace or evidence of God's absence?

The build up in the first half with its use of sounds and character development are better than the spectacle of the second half but the second half is still good. For the relatively brief time Max von Sydow spends on screen he's very effective--impressive when he's flinging holy water on the kid and he contributes to the fear of human fallibility with his inescapable physical frailty.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Unexpected Vampirism

Usually people who become vampires are young, attractive, and adventurous, which is part of the reason vampirism is often interpreted as a metaphor for the long term results of misspent youth. One of the things I like about Guillermo del Toro's 1993 film Cronos is that the character who becomes a vampire is a kindly old grandfather, a man who seems quite past the wild temptations of youth. The film also, of course, features Del Toro's brilliant visual style.

Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi) is an antique dealer who lives with his young granddaughter, Aurora (Tamara Shanath), who almost never speaks. She watches in solemn silence while Jesus cleans antiques or deals with customers.

They find the Cronos device hidden in a little statue. Resembling a golden egg, Jesus is alarmed when it sprouts needle-like legs that dig into his flesh.

Jesus becomes dependent on it but the story nicely avoids becoming an allegory for drug addiction. In a charming scene, Aurora hides the device from Jesus who tells her that when he was a kid it didn't stop him from smoking cigarettes when his father hid them from him and such tactics would do no good now. Jesus thinks it's like a drug addiction, or at least it's the closest thing he can think of from his experience. Most drugs don't bring people back from the dead, though.

A dying old man, Dieter de la Guardia (Claudio Brook) and his nephew (Ron Perlman) are after the device, too, and unfortunately for Jesus becoming a vampire in this universe has all the drawbacks--weakness to sunlight and stakes through the heart--with almost none of the benefits--no super strength, no shape-shifting ability. He gets eternal life and starts to look more and more like a creature from a Hammer horror film.

This goes to the real heart of the story. By the latter half of the film, Jesus looks completely different from the man he was at the start. Along with this is a dissolution of his identity. Where is the kindly old antique dealer? Where is the grandfather? His granddaughter remains his accomplice, the only person from before he became a vampire he seems able to resume his relationship with. This seems a reflection of the greater adaptability of children but the way in which his new identity is reflected in his altered relationship with her is part of the fundamental horror of his experience.

Del Toro is very careful to establish Jesus as a particular kind of character at the beginning that makes his transformation all the more effective. First there's the surprise from his wife, Mercedes (Margarita Isabel), when he shaves his moustache and seems to have the the vigour of youth again. This escalates to a point where he becomes almost totally alienated from the world of the living.

Ultimately this is a film about death and how much of a person's life is a manifestation of the collective impressions others have of him. It's more than a starchy theory about psychology when when you watch how truly painful it is one someone realises they're permanently losing a loved one by it.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Sword of Sabine

Sabine's training as some kind of half-Jedi began on "Trials of the Darksaber", last night's new Star Wars Rebels written by Dave Filoni. A story that mostly worked if you don't think too hard about some of it, it introduced some nice conceptual points about Jedi and Mandalore while going some ways to finally developing Sabine as a character.

We learn her reluctance to go home is related to a backstory not dissimilar to the one between Jyn Erso and her father, though reversed. Of course, there could be another, far more interesting reason for Sabine's family rejecting her. Like, what if she's into droids? And I mean, really into droids.

Here Sabine casually caresses the Ghost's resident droid, Chopper, who shivers with apparent pleasure in response.

So . . . that was surprising. What was that? Oh, how I want Sabine and Chopper to be lovers. What a lovely can of worms that would be. Of course, I know that's not what's going on here but, egad, how happy I am to construe it that way. What's actually going on here, I'd say, is a further attempt to establish Sabine as a bona fide Disney princess.

In "Ghosts of Geonosis" she had her Tinker Bell moment, now she's having her Snow White/Cinderella/Aurora moment. The way those princesses seemed to have a perfectly innocent physical rapport with deer, mice, owls, and dwarfs, Sabine has it with Chopper. And now that we know she is a daughter in a major Mandalorian house with the potential to become leader of all Mandalorians thanks to inheritance, she's literally a princess.

The other major influence on the episode seems to've been Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. While Kanan and Ezra train her to use a lightsabre, the music turns to mostly percussion similar to the soundtrack during Crouching Tiger's fight scenes. I remember Ang Lee talking about how in Wuxia movies character emotional conflict can manifest in fight scenes and I think that was the idea behind the climax where Sabine suddenly seems to get really good with a sword as she starts to divulge her past and open up with her emotional issues. This isn't how the fight scenes manifested emotional issues in Ang Lee's film but since the animation and fight choreography, probably for budget reasons, don't seem to be more complicated on Rebels than repeated hacking gestures, maybe this was the best they could do.

Of course, lost in all this is the Jedi belief in restraining negative emotions. Back when it was Anakin and Obi-Wan bickering all the time, I used to wonder, "Is this the anger that leads to the dark side? Does it count? Why isn't anyone worried about this?" So I can't blame Rebels entirely for apparently completely neglecting this concept. Harder to take, though, was Hera encouraging Kanan to let Sabine train with the actual lightsabre before Kanan thinks it's safe to. Kanan says he's afraid she'll hurt herself, Hera says her emotional damage from not getting the chance hurts Sabine even worse. I thought, tell that to Sabine after she accidentally chops off a few of her own toes or when she fails to block Ezra when he takes a swing at her arm.

We were being told a lot that Kanan was being too impatient with Sabine rather than seeing it. Practising with wooden swords before switching to something that can burn through a metal door sounds pretty sensible to me, call me crazy. But I did like the idea about Jedi becoming spiritually connected to their sabres the more they use them. And I'd be happy with Sabine trying to fill the Ahsoka sized hole in the animated Star Wars universe, though her dull voice actress kind of sabotages this, particularly when the noise of Ezra is constantly intruding.

Twitter Sonnet #955

The ball he's on a little more than Sam.
To track a blow the nerves are tried for speed.
The simple ways and country morgues be damned.
In tested love or peace forensics heed.
There's frail invisible glass autumn leaves.
The pigment drained from ink in ancient shirts.
With rain and storm, the ground on trouble heaves.
A cracking asphalt sifts through shifting dirts.
A tipping ruddy bird adorned himself.
The finest plastic jewels were melted down.
In moulds, a sleeve of armour graced the shelf.
Throughout the glass he thought we saw a town.
A spectral orchestra outflanked the bog.
All human warmth rejects the bloodless hog.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Rise of the Mara

Through a low brow, tacky reality show arises a malevolent force that reduces a powerful industrial civilisation to primitive clans of religious zealots. The 2010 Doctor Who audio play The Cradle of the Snake finds the Fifth Doctor and his companions encountering the Mara once again, the possessing spirit who menaced the group in the television serials Kinda and Snakedance. The Cradle of the Snake is a good story that nicely blends a more modern sensibility for this 1980s cast of characters while also credibly developing the relationships between them in a nicely natural way.

The story begins with Tegan (Janet Fielding) once again being possessed by the snake demon, considered the source of all evil on the planet Manussa. In an effort to help rid Tegan of the creature, the Doctor (Peter Davison) takes the TARDIS back to that world, but thousands of years earlier than when they were there last, apparently on accident. The ancestors of the forest tribe they'd met in the television episode live in a crowded, futuristic metropolis complete with cell phones and a reality television series starring a man who reads people's destinies via strange crystals.

Turlough (Mark Strickson), who hadn't joined the show yet for the television episodes about the Mara, has to be told what it is. The Mara tries to recruit him as a lackey but is surprised to find him more resistant than expected. It would have been nice to hear Turlough being a little more temped. He and Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) meet a police officer played by American actress Madeleine Potter. Taking place in an alien civilisation, it's kind of strange hearing one person with an inexplicable American accent. Maybe it signifies that she comes from another country. It's never addressed at any rate.

A strange, effectively creepy side effect of the crystals on the reality show is that they create dreamlike animals in the real world, including snakes. Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey plays the callous reality show host who doesn't seem especially interested in the fact that he's altering the fabric of reality so long as he's getting ratings.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Not Yet

As war comes and goes, as houses fall and are rebuilt, a group of people throughout their lives find themselves focused on a simple hearted professor whose biggest trauma seems to be the loss of his cat. 1993's Madadayo (まあだだよ), the final film of Akira Kurosawa, is a gentle and beautiful story of death and compassion.

Based on the life of Hyakken Uchida, a professor and author, Madadayo begins with Uchida's (Tatsuo Matsumura) retirement as a professor of German. His students, who all seem to adore and idolise him, visit him every year. They have an annual party and eventually the students bring their children and grand children. On each occasion, the students together ask him if he is ready, implicitly to die, and he replies, "Madadayo!" or "Not yet!" and drinks an enormous glass of beer in one go.

Why do the students love him so much? Uchida, obviously a respected professional, is also strangely childlike. After he moves into a large new home and hears there are burglars in the neighbourhood, his students are delighted to find he's constructed a special "burglar's entrance" and has left some food out for them. When the house is destroyed by bombing during World War II, Uchida and his wife (Kyoko Kagawa) are forced to live in a tiny shack but he seems to take it all in stride.

The biggest source of tension in the film is the loss of a stray cat named Nora after Uchida and his wife have moved into a new home. The initial scene involving the cat shows that at this late date Kurosawa had lost none of his virtuosity. Like the long opening scene of High and Low, it appears to have been one long take shot with multiple cameras. The cat wanders among a group of the students as they visit Uchida in his home. During this, visitors come to the door--a group of cutthroat property developers--the sort Kurosawa made villains in The Bad Sleep Well or Ikiru--and the owner of the lot next door. This owner, despite not knowing Professor Uchida very well, suddenly finds it unthinkable to sell the property to these men who talk about constructing tall buildings that will block the view from Uchida's garden. All the while, the continuity of the cat wandering about shows clearly that Kurosawa is using a single take. And every shot has the characteristic flattened perspective quality of the telephoto lenses Kurosawa loved to use.

It's only when the cat disappears that Uchida seems to experience deep emotional pain. He does everything trying to find the cat--handing out flyers and putting notices in the newspaper and the viewer can't help being drawn in. Somehow with this story Kurosawa manages to distil the basic sense of compassion between living things to a pure level. When one thinks about a Kurosawa film about death, one is more likely to think of his great 1952 film Ikiru, which is a much more energetic film about fighting and asserting for oneself a meaningful existence in the face of impending death. It's a much younger man's film for this and it stands in contrast to Ozu's great film Tokyo Story released the following year which is an acknowledgement of the inescapably unfair nature of death and how the dead inevitably pass totally from the lives of their loved ones. In his last films, Kursawa's style became more like Ozu or Naruse but the perspective on death in Madadayo is much more hopeful than what Ozu offered.

In a story of a professor loved by his students and their descendants, one is compelled to think of Kurosawa's despair in the 70s when he attempted suicide partly because of the lack of respect and love he felt in Japan from the new generation of filmmakers. Maybe one can never have their emotional needs fully met but by the early 90s Kurosawa seems to have found some consolation in crafting a beautiful fantasy.