Friday, June 30, 2017
( 3:33 PM ) posted by Setsuled
Why do so many filmmakers think they know how to do Edgar Allan Poe better than Edgar Allan Poe? One of the more spectacular blunders in this department is 1981's The Black Cat (Gatto nero), loosely (to put it mildly) based on my favourite Edgar Allan Poe story, "The Black Cat". Rather than a disturbingly insightful rendering of a man's mind descending into sadism the filmmakers chose instead to make a movie about a cat who's a serial killer. What could go wrong with this idea? Just about everything you could imagine going wrong.
We can start with the basic problem that the movie's monster is tiny, adorable, and clearly has no idea he's in a horror movie and doesn't care. That's not necessarily a problem for many movies that involve a cat but when you want the audience to be uncomfortable you have to be aware of anything in the scene that might distract them and make it easy for them to think of something more pleasant. I just wanted to cuddle this little fiend.
This problem never goes away and scenes of people fleeing the critter in terror bring to mind the deadly bunny in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
The film has other problems. It seems to choose as protagonist an American photographer named Jill Travers (Mimsy Farmer) who's visiting the English village where the film takes place to take pictures of an old crypt. She's brought in to photograph crime scenes as the only photographer available in the small town and she starts taking an interest in the case. Unfortunately, the filmmakers apparently decided this role was too big for a woman so a smug inspector from Scotland Yard named Gorley (David Warbeck) is introduced to solve problems and make out with her. The local law enforcement is represented by a Sergeant Wilson (Al Cliver) who has a distractingly asymmetrical moustache.
The only bright spot in the movie is Patrick Magee as Professor Miles, who gives exactly the thoroughly over the top performance this movie needs and deserves and almost makes up for the fact that his character's motives make absolutely no sense. He's the owner of the murderous cat and when Jill observes the animal badly scratching him she naturally asks him why he keeps it. He tells her that the two of them need each other, something that doesn't make sense at first blush and then makes less and less sense as the plot unfolds. Partly this seems due to one or two elements from Poe's story actually introduced into the film that don't really support the film's otherwise completely different plot in a satisfying way.
It would be nice to see Magee in a really good giallo film. This one doesn't even compare well with the remake of Cat People released the following year, which is not a bad film though I don't think it's half as good as the 1942 version.
Twitter Sonnet #1008
Medallion knives reveal too much to speak.
Thursday, June 29, 2017
( 4:48 PM ) posted by Setsuled
Is revenge really a dish best served cold? Director Damian Szifron tested that theory in his 2014 anthology film Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes), composed of essentially six short films, each about violent revenge in one way or another. Each short differs in making support or condemnation of revenge explicit but each story is entertaining, funny, and exciting, only the last story dipping in quality a bit but even that one's not bad.
The final story pits a bride and groom against each other when it's revealed that the latter has been cheating on the former. The comedy is a bit broad in this one and the violence a little predictable but it's elevated a bit by Erica Rivas as the bride who has a delightfully expressive face.
If I have a favourite story of the bunch, It might be the fifth story, the tale of a young man who comes home to his wealthy parents' house after he hit and killed a pregnant woman and her unborn child with his car. He fled the scene and the parents quickly get their lawyer over who helps them put together an alibi and find a willing fall guy in the gardener who accepts the promise of 500,000 dollars in exchange for going to prison instead of the kid. It's all very solemn and Szifron sets up the situation well. I didn't feel remotely bad for the kid but the story doesn't focus on him and the spot the parents find themselves in his a bit more complicated to ponder. But the nice thing is, even this doesn't turn out to be the heart of the story as the father (Oscar Martinez) gradually realises that his lawyer might be skimming a little more money off the situation than warranted and the gardener, meanwhile, decides he can get more than 500,000. Suddenly the father switches to negotiator mode and starts having to modulate how much concern he shows for his son and you start to wonder if he's willing to let the kid go to jail just to spite the guys trying to get 1.5 million out of him. The level of the kid's crime makes it more believable and it creates a fascinating tight rope of suspense.
An earlier story about road rage is more entertaining on the level of Peter Griffin versus the chicken while a story about a restaurant owner being convinced by her cook to poison a gangster works out to be an allegory for a government's volatile political situation. All the stories have something good about them, the performances are generally nice, the cinematography is a little boring, relying too much on blue and yellow colour tinting.
Wednesday, June 28, 2017
( 4:55 PM ) posted by Setsuled
You can't talk through some problems and it's hard to say if it's better or worse when the person you're with knows this. 1957's I Am Waiting (俺は待ってるぜ) is like a great, classic noir in its first half as a suicidal opera singer and a washed up boxer bond over the similar emotional issues that also keep them acutely aware of the unnavigable distance between them. The second half disappointingly drifts into a more typical revenge film and both characters are flatted out, particularly the female lead. But the whole film's beautifully shot with a great, torchy score by Masaru Sato.
Trying to find a video clip of the opening song on YouTube, I see it became a big karaoke hit. Here's a more professional performance:
The film begins when tough guy restaurant owner, Joji (Yujiro Ishihara), comes across a woman who calls herself Saeko (Mie Kitahara) at night, contemplating dark waters.
He convinces her to come back with him and he feeds her, explaining to her he knows quite well there's nothing else he can do. She gradually warms to the idea of staying in the spare room and working in the restaurant.
They each slowly learn about each other's pasts and it turns out everyone's killed someone--Joji, Saeko, and a doctor who frequents the bar. And no-one's quite sure how guilty they ought to feel. When the unrelated plot about Joji's missing brother turns into a story about Joji needing to avenge him, I thought the film was going to go the Quiet Man route with Joji slowly accepting he needs to be a fighter again despite the unresolved feelings he has about the man he accidentally killed with his fists. But things get more straight forward than that--Joji commits to his mission and Saeko drifts into the sidelines, becoming a fairly typical girlfriend character.
Still, the action's pretty good and Yujiro Ishihara is good in fight scenes, cutting an imposing physical presence and possessed of quick reflexes. Saeko has a couple nice musical numbers. The fact that Joji actually whistles his theme tune at one point makes me feel this was another movie Seijun Suzuki had in mind when he made Tokyo Drifter, probably feeling, as I did, that I Am Waiting ought to have gone further with its characters.#
Tuesday, June 27, 2017
( 2:15 PM ) posted by Setsuled
If there's a feature length equivalent of a stock photo, it might be 2009's The Canyon. The story of a pretty couple from Chicago whose honeymoon in the Grand Canyon goes horribly wrong feels less like a proper movie and more like a test to see if some film equipment really can be used to make a whole film.
Nick (Eion Bailey) and Lori (Yvonne Strahowski) show up expecting to be able to buy some mules and plunge off into adventure only to learn they need a permit for which they needed to have applied six months earlier. Consoling themselves in a shady bar, they run into a grubby guide named Henry (Will Patton) who offers to get them some mules and take them on the adventure anyway.
It kind of feels like someone found a b-movie script from the 50s and decided to make it into a movie in 2009. Nick and Lori are so nondescript and Henry is such a type that it feels sort of intriguing. It's like someone laughing when told the chicken crossed the road to get to the other side.
Things go wrong when a rattlesnake spooks Henry's mule and quickly Lori and Nick find they have to fend for themselves without the mules or supplies. The filmmakers obviously spent very little time with research or even just imagining what the situation would be like as Lori and Nick remain perfectly lucid and able to traverse tough terrain and even climb an almost sheer wall after four days without food and water. Lori, wouldn't you know, continually finds herself losing one piece of clothing after another--first she needs to take off her shirt to bind a wound and then she's attacked by wolves who fail to injure her but somehow tear off one of her pant legs. Finally she has to rip her camisole, also to bind a wound, but the film lacks the creative oomph even to be enjoyed as an exploitation film.
Here Nick's foot gets caught between a boulder and something we're supposed to also take as a boulder but looks like a perfect square.
The performances aren't really bad and not really great. Like everything else, there's a peculiarly rigorous averageness to them. The climax of the film is the only thing that comes anywhere near impressively ridiculous, filled with errors in continuity between shots and centring on a moment of really cheap emotional manipulation which also utterly fails thanks to the fact that no-one in this movie was a believable character at any point. There's some subtle misogyny, too. When Henry's bitten by a rattlesnake, Lori helpfully says, "I have some chapstick." I think this was meant to sound like someone out of their depths grasping at anything like a solution in a crisis but it comes off as just a little too improbably stupid.
Twitter Sonnet #1007
In halls of statues shadow ants parade.
Monday, June 26, 2017
( 4:04 PM ) posted by Setsuled
Where to begin with last night's Twin Peaks? I watch a lot of movies and it's only a few times I can remember walking away from something so brilliant I felt like I didn't want to see or hear anything else for a good while afterwards. I achieved that beautiful afterglow last night. I wondered if I'd ever get anything done ever again. But to-day I'm ready to talk about it, another sign of a great work of art, and to be sure lots of people have been talking about it, opinions generally divided between assertions that it's totally baffling and assertions that its meanings are very, very clear. Judging from most of the broad strokes of interpretations, I'd have to go with the latter assertion, which is a good thing. Art is about communication not obfuscation, it should be clear. Often times when people say a great work is confusing, generally the impression I get is those people are too uncomfortable with the message they've received to admit they understand it, which is definitely the impression I have here. This is one of those times where the few negative opinions are an additional sign that a work of art has succeeded well beyond measure. And, oh, wow, has it.
Spoilers after the screenshot
I'm going to see if I can add some interpretation without repeating too much what other people have said. Plenty have pointed out that the episode ties the birth of Bob, and the malevolent supernatural forces of Twin Peaks, with the first atomic bomb detonation, thereby making the loss of innocence portrayed on Twin Peaks a reflection of the greater loss of innocence of the U.S. as a whole. Now, of course, one can point out that the U.S. and humanity in general have done plenty of bad things before the atom bomb. Lynch isn't arguing humanity was perfect before the atom bomb, he's using it as a symbol to tell a uniquely American story about love versus corruption.
A lot of people have pointed out that the Woodsman at the end who violently commandeers a radio station was played by an Abraham Lincoln impersonator named Robert Broski and then tied this to the image of Lincoln on the penny picked up by the little girl (Tikaeni Faircrest).
I didn't think of Abraham Lincoln when I saw the Woodsman but this makes sense with a lot of other things I saw going on in the episode. It's better to take Lincoln as a symbol than for any of the other nuances we'd consider when pondering him as a human being. Think about what Lincoln means to these profoundly innocent American kids--he's a symbol of what's great about the American spirit. He's seen as being the figure most directly responsible for fighting against another of the country's greatest sins, slavery, so to a kid in the fifties he's a symbol that the true spirit of the country is one that celebrates freedom and happiness for everyone and the strength to fight against anything that would curtail those rights. So the Woodsman taking the form of Abraham Lincoln would be an especially potent form of corruption.
The movie--I mean episode of Twin Peaks--is very much about symbol or rather media, both for good and bad. The spell cast by the Woodsman over the air waves, "This is the water and this is the well, drink full and ascend," seems to be commentary on the hazards of addiction to junk, meaningless media. Real art doesn't need to tell you it's the water and the well but this promise lulls listeners to sleep and renders them susceptible to Bob's control. One could say a corruption of a Republican president as a symbol that reflects a deep spiritual problem is a particularly potent story right now though I doubt Lynch was consciously making an argument about Trump. Though, who knows, maybe he was. Certainly misuse of the media has been a critical issue in this mess. "This is the water and this is the well," probably counts as fake news.
It's even more effective because a moment before, when the radio was playing "My Prayer" performed by The Platters, the medium was providing its listeners with a real well of spiritual sustenance. Like the image of Lincoln, the Woodsman has hijacked a genuine piece of art. The message about the horse I'm less certain of, though I my mind immediately associates it with the white horse Sarah Palmer had visions of and which appeared in the Black Lodge earlier this season.
When the Giant (Carl Struycken) reviews the events of the atom bomb detonation and what it caused, he's not simply viewing security footage, he's viewing the same footage we saw, in other words Lynch's film. This is emphasised by the fact that the Giant is viewing the footage in a movie theatre, Lynch is showing us how art can show us a truth which we can then act upon. The Giant then hovers and then reclines as though sleeping and from his head, like a dream or like the strange stuff that emerged from the dead child a few episodes ago, comes a gold substance producing a golden orb with the image of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) inside.
But it's not just any image of Laura Palmer or a new image of Sheryl Lee. It's that same prom queen photo we've seen again and again. Like the image of Lincoln on the coin, this is less about Laura than about what she symbolised for the community of Twin Peaks. I've been listening lately to the recently released audiobook of Laura Palmer's diary performed by Sheryl Lee--and she deserves big praise for it. She does not compromise on mining emotional trauma for her performance. Much of the book has to do with Laura's anxiety about her persona, and the responsibility it confers on her, and the contrast with Bob who isn't just abusing her physically but is conducting a lifelong campaign to make her feel ashamed of her sexuality.
This is something very much at play on the show as well. Just as at the beginning of season three the young couple are engaging in innocent, casual sex and are murdered for it, we see two kids in last night's episode who are even more innocent, their shared first kiss as adorable as anything I've ever seen (I wouldn't be surprised if the little boy ended up being a young Gordon Cole). We're seeing corruption and fall from the Garden of Eden and instead of Eve eating a fruit she swallows a newborn Bob who looks like a frog with cockroach wings.
I doubt Lynch was thinking about Paradise Lost, though maybe he had been--Milton had a huge influence on American 19th century literature and was, in praising him, called by Margaret Fuller a great example of a Puritan-- the moral conflict shown on Twin Peaks seems clearly a descendent of American Puritanism. When seeing Bob's early form when he invades the little girl in her sleep, it's hard not to think of Milton's description of Satan when he's manipulating the dream of a slumbering Eve:
him there they found
I loved the pacing and imagery of last night's episode. All this interpretation does nothing to convey the wonder in the pure experience of watching the episode.
The perspective on the atom bomb explosion starts out making it look strange even before the camera pulls into a 2001 homage. Like Kubrick, Lynch was here using a barrage of strange and violent sensory stimuli to impress upon us how perfectly strange the experience is for the human mind, rendering clearly how a barrier between two worlds is being violently torn down. Many people are speculating that the strange being shown vomiting is the same being who murdered the couple back at the beginning of the season, which would make a lot of sense. Looking at the screenshot now, I just realised that her hand is backwards--the thumb is on the wrong side:
Much like everyone speaks backwards in the other world. I'd love it if we found out eventually it was Alice's looking-glass world all along.
Also, I enjoyed the performance by Nine Inch Nails. As with "My Prayer", the lyrics to the song nicely complimented and expanded on what we were seeing.
Sunday, June 25, 2017
( 7:44 PM ) posted by Setsuled
Robert Newton is most directly responsible for the modern conception of the pirate--the voice, accent, the lopsided swagger. He played the title character in 1952's Blackbeard the Pirate, a good film but not half as good as Treasure Island two years earlier, the film that established Newton so firmly in the public mind as the figure of the pirate archetype. Newton plays an unambiguous villain in Blackbeard while half the fun in Treasure Island is studying him, trying to guess his motives. Though it's nowhere near as good as Treasure Island, Blackbeard is by no means a bad film, in fact it features some extraordinarily beautiful colour compositions and some of the best pirate battles of the 1950s.
Released the same year as the cheerful, brightly coloured The Crimson Pirate, the contrast in visual style in Blackbeard the Pirate could hardly be more severe for another colour pirate film. Instead of blinding blue skies and red and blue sheets, Blackbeard the Pirate goes for a gorgeous chiaroscuro, darkly shaded indigo clouds and charcoal edged hulls.
Directed by veteran noir and adventure film director Raoul Walsh, whose career goes back to the beginning of Hollywood, it's easy to see there's a sure hand at work in the action scenes where scores of seamen swing from one ship to another and the swordplay is convincing and fast. Although he's good with a sword, the film's biggest problem is its protagonist, a dull, nondescript hero, Ben, played by William Bendix.
He lacks the sparkle of Errol Flynn or Jean Peters and the weirdness of Robert Newton. It's surprising that Newton's success as a pirate character didn't inspire filmmakers and studios to cast more creatively for the other pirate roles in the film but, aside from the fascinatingly weathered face of Skelton Knaggs as Newton's treacherous mate Gilly, most of the crew come off as modern American thugs.
The plot involves a rivalry between Blackbeard (Newton) and Henry Morgan, played by English actor Torin Thatcher who actually makes an effort at a Welsh accent. In reality, Blackbeard and Henry Morgan never sailed the seas at the same time, Morgan died when Edward Teach, Blackbeard, was still a child. Aside from this obvious departure from history, the film actually has a few details of historical perspective. Ben is trying to prove that Morgan still operates as a pirate despite the fact that, at the time the film takes place, Morgan is Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica, as the real Henry Morgan eventually became. Blackbeard accuses Ben himself of being a pirate because he'd been on a ship that attacked a Spanish ship after peace had been declared but Ben defensively asserts he and his captain had been acquitted because news of the peace had not reached them at sea, which are actually very plausible circumstances.
The crew depicted in the film are also about as racially and culturally diverse as actual pirate crews, though black and Asian crewmembers aren't given more than a few lines.
Linda Darnell as Edwina Mansfield easily outshines William Bendix as her love interest not just because she always has plenty of décolletage on display. Their chemistry is curiously sexless, partly due to the fact that Bendix is a drip, partly due to Darnell playing her character in the virtuous damsel mould. The lack of sexual chemistry between the two oddly makes a bit repeated twice in the film even funnier in its understated humour--twice Ben is about to help her escape the ship but notes she'll never be able to swim in her cumbersome clothes, twice she says with unselfconscious pragmatism she can just take them off, and twice, of course, 1950s audiences were prevented from seeing anything.
And Newton is great, of course. His look in the film seems partly inspired by etchings of Edward Teach that show his beard always tied with fuses for his pistols (though this isn't explained in the film) and partly by early 20th century illustrator Howard Pyle.
Saturday, June 24, 2017
( 6:23 PM ) posted by Setsuled
I really enjoyed "World Enough and Time", to-day's new episode of Doctor Who, though it certainly wasn't the most cheerful episode and one could argue there's not much that's new about it. But sometimes that's a good thing.
Spoilers after the screenshot
I'm so happy to see a return to the original design for the Cybermen. I've always said it's so much creepier. I wrote in 2011:
The two part Cybermen episode of Doctor Who--"Rise of the Cybermen" and "Age of Steel"--is the first one to really disappoint me from David Tennant's tenure. Although I don't really hate the full armour, alternate universe design for the Cybermen, I do hope it remains alternate universe. Somehow I doubt I'll get my wish. For me, the original Cyberman look from The Tenth Planet is the creepiest.
And in 2016 I wrote:
The Cybermen on Doctor Who really haven't been menacing to me since the Second Doctor era. The black and white helped enhance the creep factor of their scary doll faces, though they were even better in The Tenth Planet when it was just a cloth mask. Just imagine how much creepier they'd be than in their current Power Rangers getup if their masks were a thin material barely concealing rotting flesh? Somehow vulnerability is scary, I suppose because it reflects mortality. Think of the Mummy or Dracula in his coffin. Or the lady in the bathtub in Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining.
Really, "World Enough and Time" is the first proper Cybermen story on the television series since the Second Doctor's The Invasion. They weren't seen at all during the Third Doctor era and when they reappeared in the Fourth Doctor's first season they'd become just another conquering alien race, their main difference from the Daleks being that they were less distinct (and vulnerable to gold). Not that the stories they were in were always bad--I particularly appreciate Earthshock for killing Adric--they just weren't really about the Cybermen.
It's fitting Peter Capaldi's ending his last season with a Cybermen story since that's how his first season ended. "Dark Water"/"Death in Heaven" did feature a return to themes of death and desperate attempts to prolong life that are integral to the original Cybermen concept but it's with "World Enough and Time" that the story actually goes to the idea of surgery, the idea that the Cybermen have their emotions wiped because otherwise they'd be in constant pain and terror, something established in a memorably horrific moment in The Invasion. It's not unlike Spare Parts, the best Cybermen story since the Second Doctor era. Spare Parts is a 2002 Fifth Doctor audio play which, like "World Enough and Time", shows a Mondasian society forced to rely more and more on surgery to stay alive, a far more horrifying story than the more vanity oriented obsession in "Rise of the Cybermen"/"Age of Steel". Spare Parts creates a world where the suffering population seem slowly creeping to a painful doom. That's the real difference between the Daleks and the Cybermen--the Daleks became what they are through a drive to become better conquerors, the Cybermen started out just wanting to live.
"World Enough and Time" is a title that comes from Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress". One could read "Mistress" as "Missy" here and see the poem's argument, about how life is too short not to love each other now, being somewhat ironic when the Doctor and Missy (Michelle Gomez) have known each other for thousands of years (well, depending on how their timelines match up). Missy's flippant remarks at the beginning take on graver connotations when this is considered--only Time Lords can be friends of Time Lords because species like humans are too short lived. There's some support for this idea in the fact that the Doctor's justification for wanting to redeem Missy is that Missy is more like the Doctor than anyone else he's ever met.
Poor Bill (Pearl Mackie), her life looked like it was going to be even shorter than expected. She's been so good this season, her getting shot emphasises how unfair it seems that her tenure on the show is to be so brief. I do hope there's still some chance of her coming back for Chibnall's first season but I suspect the BBC wants next season to start as cleanly as possible. I still strongly suspect it's someone with more authority at the BBC that's against the idea of a female Doctor, not Steven Moffat. If Moffat haters could calm down for just a moment, I would point out that Moffat has thoroughly laid the canonical groundwork for a female Doctor. Too often nowadays, people respond to people who disagree with them with a "Fuck you," directly or ironically expressed, but if we remember the substantial number of Doctor Who fans who still don't want to see a female Doctor, think of all the things Moffat has done to slowly change their minds, not only showing a Time Lord change sex last season but even making the Master a woman--I'd argue, in fact, the best incarnation of the Master. And "World and Time Enough" establishes that the Doctor might even have been a woman at one point. This suggests the First Doctor may not, in fact, be the First. Moffat has pointed out, in an interview about the War Doctor, that the Doctor doesn't label his incarnations with numbers the way we viewers do, though I do feel like I've heard him do that before. Maybe just in audio plays, the canonicity of which has been flexible.
"World and Time Enough" is so much like Spare Parts, in fact, I hope it doesn't establish Spare Parts as being outside canon. I suppose one could say there were two independent geneses for the Cybermen--on the colony ship by the black hole and actually on Mondas.
John Simm's incarnation of the Master may in fact be my least favourite. I don't love to hate him--he was just plain annoying in his episodes with Tennant. But I guess he's not so bad in "World and Time Enough", though even if I hadn't known about him being in this season I would have wondered why that guy had all the makeup and the phony accent. It seems really clear that whoever was in charged of promotion for Doctor Who this season fucked up in spoiling Simm's role--it would have been more satisfying to be surprised. Even so, I think it would have been better to go subtler with the makeup and maybe avoid the accent, it looks too much like a disguise.
What a bastard he is for making Bill love him in a relationship they apparently developed over years. Again, poor Bill. I hope something happens in part 2 that makes her end on the show not quite so miserable. Now the Doctor's seen the Brigadier and a companion turned into Cybermen. I guess it's not unlike Oswin getting turned into a Dalek. The Doctor's having to face more and more there's worse things that can happen to his companions than death. But we can't very well have the Doctor travelling without a companion, can we? He really shouldn't be alone but that's always going to be a point for drama, hopefully one that doesn't get exhausted--there needs to be some more companions who simply decide to leave, it's not going to look good if every companion gets killed or locked in a cursed dimension/time zone. If it keeps happening, the Doctor's going to look like an asshole for letting anyone travel with him.
If this regeneration at the beginning is only a tease, it would be the second one this season, which leads me to think it's not. I'm more impressed with Capaldi's hair, though, which almost looks full Pertwee. It's appropriate we see him using Venusian Aikido in this episode. I also liked the Doctor calling out Bill for moralising while eating a ham sandwich, perhaps confirming that one of the few things I liked about the Sixth Doctor era, the Doctor becoming a vegetarian, is still true.
Twitter Sonnet #1006
Redeeming soups absorb reversal bread.