Saturday, November 17, 2018

The "Good Parts" Version

It seems strange 1987's The Princess Bride works at all. It's a story that seems to sabotage itself at every step, undercutting its own tension and drama, but it comes off as a remarkably effortless picture. But only sure hands could have pulled it off, the most important being William Goldman, who passed away yesterday. He had decades of experience as a screenwriter, having written Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Marathon Man, among others. Princess Bride was obviously a very different kind of work but it's a story that does something that only somebody with a real intimate familiarity with storytelling could do.

The key is in that the movie's not about saving Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright) or Inigo (Mandy Patinkin) avenging his father. These things are important but only insofar as they're important to the characters. It's not a story about people being kidnapped or the burning desire to exact some retribution for the cruelty of an impudent aristocracy. Anyone who's seen the movie knows this instinctively. The point is in how easily a story can take hold in the heart of a viewer or reader and what a wonderful thing it is.

The score is all synthesiser because of a low budget. The sets and costumes look cheap, just barely convincing as homages to mid-century swashbucklers. The plot about Buttercup's kidnapping being blamed on Florin's rival country is so flimsy you barely notice it despite the fact that it's supposed to be the central motivating factor. I never noticed it at all when I was a kid and watching it when I was older I had to concentrate to piece it together. It had no effect on my enjoyment of the film.

Billy Crystal's extended cameo as Miracle Max might have slowed the momentum of another film but there is no momentum in this film. Fred Savage is sick in bed and he's stuck listening to his grandfather, Peter Falk, read a story instead of playing a video game which is all momentum. The Princess Bride invites the audience to stop and stay in moments. Wesley (Cary Elwes) and Inigo talking about swords and backstories when they should be trying to kill each other is earnest even as it invites us to ignore considerations of plausibility.

It's great to think these two deadly rivals can stop and talk because of some instinctive idea of honour. It's not unlike the sustained fantasy of the film as a whole. It doesn't even feel like a cheat that Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) is left alive at the end. The protagonists' escape from the castle feels more like a group of friends heading home after a pleasant evening at Dungeons and Dragons.

It all seems so easy but The Princess Bride has never been replicated. It seems to be a genre by itself. Maybe The Court Jester is a bit like it. But mostly Goldman just seems to have sat down and casually delivered something extraordinary.

Friday, November 16, 2018

A Ballad of Ballads

A brand new Coen brothers movie, even an inferior one, would be a nice gift for NetFlix to deliver automatically to-day for its customers, but 2018's The Ballad of Buster Scrubbs happens to be the best Coen brothers movie in years. Beautifully shot and featuring a cast that is simultaneously idiosyncratic and extraordinarily credible it's a bittersweet meditation on art and survival.

An anthology film, it consists of two kinds of stories; stories that comment on stories--the Western genre or art in general--and stories that are straight forward Western tales in themselves. The first story, also called "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs", belongs to the first category.

Tim Blake Nelson plays Scruggs, the impossible figure of the singing cowboy, right out of a 50s kids show, seemingly manifested right in the middle of a harder edged, meaner, more modern conception of the old West. But he functions in this world exactly as he was meant to--he's an uncannily fast shot and always keeps his cool, comfortingly addressing the camera to set the viewer at ease with his worldly wisdoms. It's not so much a subversion of old Western serials as the spirit of the Western serials subverting your average subversion. The conclusion of this story proves just how much power remains in this old type.

The second story, "Near Algodones", seems almost like a satire of Sergio Leone's Westerns, particularly Once Upon a Time in the West. It stars James Franco as a would-be bank robber; the vignette opens with a few extended shots of him outside a bank oddly in the middle of nowhere.

If he stands perfectly still, James Franco could be a Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood but once he starts to move and talk he comes off as the average schlub he usually comes off as, which is pretty much the point. Instead of the powerful one man, the lone Byronic hero, this guy is forced into a quick succession of adventures totally out of his control.

The third story, "Meal Ticket", is easily the least funny of the group and the one most directly a rumination on art. It's the story of a quadruple amputee orator (Harry Melling) and his impresario/caregiver (Liam Neeson) as they travel from town to town. Crowds drawn by the "Artist"'s physical abnormality listen to him perform recitations from Percy Shelley, the bible, and Shakespeare. We never see him talk outside his performances, he's a perfect representation of a being suited only for the purposes of his art, while the impresario has business to consider. Some might consider this story misanthropic but anyone with a little real knowledge of the entertainment industry would see a lot of truth in it.

In "All Gold Canyon", Tom Waits plays one of the roles he was born to play; a gold prospector. We watch him wander into the most beautiful valley you ever saw in a movie, singing, alone except for his mule. Waits has more than just the look; he's heartbreakingly good in this, a story that philosophically seems like an ode to American Transcendentalists. I think Emerson and Thoreau would've liked it a lot.

The penultimate tale, "The Gal Who Got Rattled", feels the most like a complete movie unto itself. It's the story of a young woman, Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan), in a wagon train on the way to Oregon. A good, young, pious girl, she's out of her depth when her brother Gilbert dies, and the handsome leader of the train, Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), gradually starts to feel closer to her as he helps her out. You could say it's like a more conservative version of Red River--which feels pretty bold in this day and age. It works terrifically from beginning to end, though, because there are undercurrents much more complicated than the premise while not at all subverting the premise. Zoe Kazan is perfectly cast--pretty but in an ordinary 19th century settler way and Bill Heck, who doesn't even have a Wikipedia entry, is like an old fashion movie star. You notice I didn't say "Near Algodones" was a parody of Spaghetti Westerns, only of Leone films; "The Gal Who Got Rattled" is like an ode to some other Spaghetti Westerns, like Django or The Great Silence.

The final story, "The Mortal Remains", seems to confirm this impression. It's also like a philosophical dialogue parable, mainly consisting of five strangers having a conversation in a stage coach. A trapper (Chelcie Ross) seems to represent a Transcendentalist perspective; a religious woman (Tyne Daly) the puritanical; a Frenchman (Saul Rubinek) the libertine or Royalist, and then the two men sitting opposite them like an audience or like performers, an Englishman and an Irishman (Jonjo O'Neill and Brendan Gleeson) seem to represent what I suspect is the Coen brothers' perspective. Though they seem more like they came out of a Quentin Tarantino film.

It's a peculiarly satisfying movie on emotional and intellectual layers. It has a fantastic look to it and wonderful atmosphere. It would be very pleasant movie for multiple viewings.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Shiny Place

"There's something really sexy about Scrooge McDuck." Now that David Tennant plays Scrooge McDuck this is arguably a reasonable statement but when these immortal words were first spoken by Chloe Sevigny in 1998's The Last Days of Disco they constituted a prime example of the film's understated tragic humour. You couldn't sell a movie like this to-day which is a shame because there's something really sweet and illuminating in this gently acidic satire.

Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale star as Alice Kinnon and Charlotte Pingress, respectively. Two friends who work for a publisher and who frequent an exclusive disco club in their off hours. Alice is quieter but capable of a little more independent thought but both have the same kind of received intelligence most of the characters have in the film, constantly putting forth shallow arguments about mundane things with an odd counterfeit of passion. And every now and then you can catch the furtive glance as someone wonders if their bullshit is really sticking. In these moments are conveyed a simultaneous sense of belief and not belief, as though everyone keeps two consciousnesses running; one that believes the lie and one that has to not believe the lie in order to maintain it. It's like Doublethink from 1984.

"Okay," says Charlotte after a fight with Alice, in another of the film's memorable lines; "Anything that I did that was wrong I apologise for. But anything that I did that was not wrong I do not apologise for." This is a moment of desperation where her mental operations are bare, she's usually a little craftier. Among the loose group of friends who hang out at the club, everyone bullshits but Charlotte and Matt (Josh Neff), are the two who most compulsively define everything; Charlotte to prop up her self esteem, Matt out of some eerie, earnest shallowness. He insists to Alice with a weird passion that he's "easily discouraged" as though it's part of his creed.

It's Charlotte who informs Alice that she ought to casually mention random things are sexy to entice men. In this case, Alice comments on Scrooge McDuck after Tom (Robert Sean Leonard) shows her some of his collection of original Carl Barks art. And he falls for it, along with the rest of her rap. There'd be little harm in it--they're both just looking to get laid--if he didn't have two venereal diseases he wasn't telling her about.

Even then, it's hard to see him as anything more than another cog in this machine of shallow nightlife. Charlotte even tells Alice how great it is reconnecting with ex-boyfriends in the process of informing them she had gonorrhoea. Does she really believe this? Does she really believe anything she says?

A big part of this film's effectiveness is how much the actors commit to it. Sevigny and Beckinsale are so sincere; even when you laugh you also feel bad for these hapless travellers.

Twitter Sonnet #1175

Impressions made of dots became the page.
In mutant science pens became a chance.
An X and Hulks conclude a vivid age.
In autumn wind the broken web would dance.
Banana cubes are feeding future men.
The bony wrist became a bony watch.
A thousand rings curtail the perfect zen.
A million knives could cut the jagged blotch.
The solemn flaps could cure and wash the car.
Exchanges led to ice replacing glass.
A trebuchet can only sling so far.
There's something round we call the giant mass.
Tamale dreams were hidden 'neath the husk.
Across the sea the walrus stretched his tusk.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Last Real Folk

In the final episode of Cowboy Bebop we suddenly find ourselves in a very long story established in a very brief space of time. There were hints to and reflections of it throughout the series but all those elements come together finally in a single piece presenting a completion in the final episode simultaneously terribly sad and strangely, deeply satisfying.

Session Twenty Six: The Real Folk Blues Part 2

"Everyone has lost sense of where they want to be . . . Just like kites with no strings." Annie (Miyuki Ichijo), a character reintroduced in this episode, someone from Spike's (Koichi Yamadera) past, says this in reference to Spike's old society of friends and colleagues in the syndicate, but she could as well be talking about Faye (Megumi Hayashibara). Despite Spike's positioning as the central figure, Faye has surprisingly become the closest to being the show's main character by the end.

Jet (Unsho Ishizuka), as usual, is having trouble acknowledging the love he has for his shipmates, telling Faye angrily it's Spike's business if he goes off on his own. But he finally asks her what kind of woman Julia (Gara Takashima) was. And what Faye tells him has enormous meaning now for Faye; "A normal woman . . ." she says; "普通の女よ." . . . "A beautiful, dangerous but normal woman that you can't leave alone . . ." The last thing Faye is is a normal woman. At one time, she didn't mind so much. Her "Lesson" she gave us in "Toy is in the Attic", that nothing good ever happened when she trusted someone, is not something she could say now so glibly. She tells Spike in this episode that she's recovered her lost memories from the time when she was a different person but they've done her no good. She's learned the value of attachment but all of her adult life has made her a person adapted only to avoiding and occasionally exploiting attachment.

Seeking attachment is arguably anti-Buddhist as much as anti-post-modern. We return to religious imagery as Faye describes Julia as a devilish angel or an angelic demon. The worst thing about her is how compellingly normal and, oddly, innocent she is.

Spike adapts the idea to a fable when he meets when Jet for the last time, telling him about a couple cats who meet, fall in love, grow old and die together. But now that Julia's been killed by a stray shot that's not a story Spike can buy into. Or could he?

Spike and Faye's last meeting is brief but potent. She tells him the Bebop is the only place she can go back to after her desperate attempt to find the place where she used to belong. Can't this be Spike's new dream too? He tells her why it can't be and she responds, afraid; "Don't tell me things like that. You never told me anything about yourself. Don't tell me stuff like that now." Spike's old story is a new one to Faye and it's another thing that disrupts her attempt to see the Bebop as familiar, as home. More than that, it creates an arc with a foreseeable end. Like a noir, there's ambiguity about whether Spike has any choice. He talks again about how he has one artificial eye which was implanted after an "accident" years ago; "Since then, I have been seeing the past in one eye and the present in the other. I had believed that what I saw was not all of reality."

He feels himself forced into a permanently unstable state, ironically making his experience similar to Faye's, but while here's has led her to seek a new home his has compelled him to return to his past. He could never truly cast off old attachment or embrace new attachment because he was always aware of not seeing a concrete picture. Now he's going off to die for Julia and it's natural he tells Faye he's doing the opposite; "I'm not going there to die. I'm going there to see if I really am alive." Making this his story might mean his death, but at least it will mean something. That way it's heroic. But it could be tragic if you consider he might have been able to build something else with Faye. He's advised people before to forget the past; maybe therefore on some level he wishes he could.

Naturally, fans have wanted new episodes of Cowboy Bebop for years but this is one of the few classics in Japan or the U.S. that hasn't gotten a reboot or revival. I suspect largely because of how perfect the ending is--it's hard to imagine anything that wouldn't do it a disservice. But there's so much life in every episode of the series it stands as a continually rewarding closed loop, an elegant statement on change and stasis, of destruction and creation, and the complicated and tortuously ambiguous ways in which these manifest in people's lives.

...

This entry is the final in a series of entries I’ve written on Cowboy Bebop for its 20th anniversary. I reviewed 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
Session Eighteen
Session Nineteen
Session Twenty
Session Twenty One
Session Twenty Two
Knockin' on Heaven's Door
Session Twenty Three
Session Twenty Four
Session Twenty Five

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

A Bit About Stan Lee

Stan Lee passed away yesterday. Many celebrities and artists and critics are saying things about his work, many of them fairly accurate, like how he is largely responsible for creating the more "down to Earth" superhero of Marvel in contrast to DC's more godlike beings. It's all been said before, really. But it's true.

I've been a fan of Spider-Man since I was a little kid. As a kid, the cool factor impressed me--the web shooters, the wall crawling. It's as we get older that we start to appreciate our superheroes being more human, I think. Spider-Man had that covered too.

None of the movies or TV shows have quite captured the tone of the original comic. Maybe the Tom Holland version comes closest but the films are all a bit too operatic. I still dearly love this moment from 1963:

Even after Uncle Ben has died and he's learned what a responsibility he has--he still has to make money. And he's clumsy and a little unethical about it sometimes but always really innocent, really like a kid. I suppose, in addition to providing kids with an entertaining escape he also made them feel better about making mistakes; big mistakes and also dumb little mistakes, making it a little easier for readers to look at themselves honestly, forgive themselves, and move on. He was a superhero whose life was messy in ways that weren't necessarily glamorous.

I guess there's no danger of Stan Lee being forgotten any time soon. I'm glad.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Another Animated Rose

I've been keen on anime lately and 18th century Europe. If only there were a way I could combine the two. But there is! I've watched three episodes now of one of the most influential shojo anime series of a all time, 1979's The Rose of Versailles (ベルサイユのばら), a show I've wanted to see for a long time because of its influence on one of my favourite series, Revolutionary Girl Utena. The similarities so far seem mainly to be in aesthetic choices and in a cross dressing female protagonist. What a joy Rose of Versailles has been so far, featuring some of the best backgrounds I've seen in a 70s anime and demonstrating greater knowledge of history than I'm used to in European fantasy from Japan.

The series follows Oscar (Reiko Tajima), the daughter of a French nobleman. Like many other fantasy stories about tomboys, the nobleman wanted a son so he raised his daughter like a boy. She grows into a young woman who excels in disciplines traditionally reserved for men like fencing. She's so good, in fact, the King ends up wanting her for the Royal Guard and, after some reluctance to accept this post in the first episode, she becomes head of the retinue guarding the young Marie Antoinette in her journey from Austria to France.

Introduced as an innocent and shallow girl chasing a butterfly around a fountain, she generally seems to fit the typical, popular impression of the historical Marie Antoinette. It's hard to say so far where the series is philosophically--obviously it indulges in the fantasy of aristocracy but Oscar is also portrayed as someone with little patience for the excesses of the court. Most of the plot has involved melodramatic contrivances, including a young man who temporarily takes Antoinette's place as part of scam Oscar manages to foil in the second episode.

The animation in the sword fights is about as good as you can expect from a 70s television anime--not great--but director Tadao Nagahama finds engaging ways to compose and juxtapose shots of flashing swords. I was frequently impressed by how animated elements are layered over the backgrounds, too.

And, oh, those backgrounds.

The opening titles are also very cool, engaging in some of the rose heavy surrealistic imagery familiar to viewers of Revolutionary Girl Utena. I'm looking forward to having this series to watch every morning.

Twitter Sonnet #1174

The handle fell for twine to pull the cart.
A scattered grain collects between the boards.
An errant wheel returns for journey's start.
A thought balloon was straining 'gainst the cords.
A ship was waiting far from any dream.
The tub was plugged with letters lost at sea.
The woods were thin as leaves were never seen.
The space was held by one impostor tree.
There's something bouncing round the hollow egg.
As flakes of gold mislead the waiting coach.
The journey takes a strange and diff'rent leg.
The mass of hares was more than traps could poach.
The bones against the cotton call the air.
The stones along the hill have made a stair.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Demons in the Flowers

Ah, Spain, standing in ably for so many countries for so many movies and shows. It stood in for Pakistan on to-day's new Doctor Who, "Demons of the Punjab". Spain had previously appeared as America in the 11th Doctor episode "A Town Called Mercy" and as itself in the Sixth and Second Doctor serial The Two Doctors. But it never looked as beautiful on Doctor Who as it does in "Demons of the Punjab".

Look at all those flowers. I love it. Now we're really getting value for the new camera equipment. It's only a shame Jamie Childs doesn't seem to be much of a director, giving us a confusing moment at the beginning where I think we're meant to think the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her companions are almost run over by a cart.

The music continues to be bad. I guess I didn't really appreciate Murray Gold until he was gone. But damn. I think this one may have just been a string of vocal moans and drums from a stock "India or Pakistan" stinger box.

The writing was uneven. The guest aliens were really impressive looking and I'm glad there ended up being a reason these supposed ultimate assassins seemed to be having trouble with four unarmed opponents. But them being watchers made them feel pretty superfluous, especially given one of the biggest problems with the episodes script, one that kept manifesting in different ways--no-one seemed adequately freaked out by these very legit looking demons.

Yaz's grandmother wants the Doctor to get rid of the unsightly demon repellent because she thinks it won't look good at the wedding! Personally, if I have reason to believe there are demon assassins around, I just might want to put up with some unsightly demon repellent. These people should be terrified out of their minds but they treat the teleporting Scarran-looking creatures like a mildly interesting detail.

I did like the idea of family tension regarding the partitioning of India being used to develop the story. Maybe it feels as ignorant to Pakistanis and Indians as "Rosa" felt to me as an American but at least "Demons of the Punjab" had actual characters with motivations, even if they didn't make sense sometimes. Anyway, the episode had some great location shots, that counts for a lot with me.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Highwaymen in Shiny Coats

Why aren't there more movies based on picaresques? In 1999, Ridley Scott's son Jake Scott attempted to bring the original "loveable rogue" genre to film with Plunkett & Macleane, an original story but set in the same year my favourite picaresque, Roderick Random, was published, 1748. It bears many similarities to Roderick Random--it centres a man who can pass as a gentleman who borrows money from his servant so he can furnish himself with the clothing and lifestyle of a gentleman in order to woo a wealthy woman, a plot that occupies about 15% of Roderick Random. But Plunkett & Macleane is too moral to be a genuine picaresque and inserts a distinctively Hollywood love story arc. Still, it's an entertaining film despite some unfortunate cinematography. Stars Robert Carlyle, Jonny Lee Miller, and Liv Tyler seem to be having a good time and they're fun to watch.

There are a couple of shots that seem to be borrowed directly from Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of a picaresque by Thackeray. I only wish Jake Scott and his cinematographer, John Mathieson, had borrowed more from Kubrick. I don't expect the movie to have Kubrick's painstaking representation of candle lighting but Plunkett & Macleane is so unnaturally dark at times it's frustrating; often I found myself struggling to make out facial expressions on characters I really didn't think were meant to be obscured.

Macleane (Jonny Lee Miller) begins the film in a very dark prison with a flood lit exterior. A confusing escape by a couple thieves nearby ends with one thief dead and the other, Plunkett, more or less befriending Macleane. They're sent to Newgate prison together, a location familiar to fans of Moll Flanders, another great picaresque.

Macleane improbably secures their release with the help of a ruby Plunkett had ingested and the two launch their scheme, utilising Plunkett's stolen capital.

Party scenes feature too many closeups and, with the lighting, frustrated me in my desire to have a good look at full rooms and crowds, but maybe this was a reflection of the low budget. Macleane's one successful attempt to seduce a wealthy woman ends up in failure and no profit so the two soon take to highway robbery. Then Lady Rebecca Gibson (Liv Tyler) steals Macleane's heart, ruining everything, as far as Plunkett's concerned, and there's tension as to whether Plunkett will leave for America without Macleane.

Tyler is good in a simple supporting role--she looks fantastic in the period attire. Her father, played by Michael Gambon, is a nicely pusillanimous politician. Alan Cumming steals scenes as Lord Rochester, Macleane's friend, an amalgam of charismatic and witty picaresque fops like Roderick Random's friends Banter and Wagtail.

The last act of the film is a bit disappointing with a somewhat standard climax and the film's villain (Ken Stott) never comes off as convincingly motivated. But in all, the film's a nice bit of rogue fantasy.