Thursday, January 18, 2018
      ( 12:58 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

Transitioning from silent to sound films was a difficult step for a lot of filmmakers. Mikio Naruse's first sound film, 1935's Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts (乙女ごころ三人姉妹), lacks the psychological complexity of his later sound films and the technical proficiency of his silent films. A simplistic, broad melodrama that never quite connects, it does feature some adorable stars.

There are more than three sisters in the family but the film focuses on the three eldest--O-Ren (Chikako Hosokawa), Some (Masako Tsutsumi), and Chieko (Ryuko Umezono). They've each been forced to work since childhood to help support their family--the identity and whereabouts of their father is left unexplained and their mother (Chitose Hayashi) is an "entertainer", presumably a former geisha or prostitute. The three girls bring in meagre earnings as wandering shamisen players. We watch at the beginning as Chieko makes a nuisance of herself more than anything else as she goes from customer to customer in a restaurant asking if anyone would like to hear a song. When someone finally accepts, an irritated waitress turns on the record player.

O-Ren doesn't show up until later in the film. She left home long ago after marrying a seemingly successful young man. Unfortunately he lost his job and now she finds herself in the same situation she was in as a kid, supporting the family by busking. All the sisters are constantly faced with the choice of becoming prostitutes or kept women.

Naruse's lack of experience with sound at this point is constantly in evidence due to odd pauses at the beginning and ending of scenes and bad, tinny sound quality in outdoor scenes. The story itself which might have been fine for a very short silent film is stretched too thin even at only an hour and sixteen minutes. A suddenly tragic ending doesn't feel quite earned but Masako Tsutsumi gives a good performance as Some.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2018
      ( 5:02 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

Sometimes in a really bad storm the only place you can rely on is the creepy house filled with murderers, madmen, and Boris Karloff. 1932's The Old Dark House is a sterling example of one of my favourite kinds of stories--the one where a bunch of people get trapped in an old house or hotel. In this case, director James Whale conjures some breathtakingly spooky atmosphere perfectly balanced by light comedy from a good ensemble cast.

This effective mixture of tones is introduced in the first scene as a car bearing three people pushes through a very convincingly constructed special effects storm. Sheets of rain, cascading mud, and a landslide are all so effectively created it makes it even funnier when Melvyn Douglas, sitting in the backseat, gamely starts singing "Singin' in the Bathtub", much to the irritation of the two newlyweds in the front, Philip (Raymond Massey) and Margaret (Gloria Stuart).

There's more to Douglas' character, Roger, though, than peculiarly steady nerves. We later learn that he's a World War I veteran and offers a slightly glib psychological profile of himself over a glass of gin: "War generation slightly soiled, a study in the bittersweet, the 'man with a twisted smile.' And this, Mr. Femm, is exceedingly good gin."

Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger) is in charge of the titular old dark house, an intensely nervous man who is terrified by the idea that the storm will cause a landslide that destroys the house. His ill tempered sister, Rebecca (Eva Moore), scoffs at her brother's fears, telling him she knows this house better than he does.

She takes Margaret to her bedroom so the young woman can change clothes in a scene of brilliantly, subtly escalating tension. Once in the room, Margaret strips to her underwear without thinking, half listening to the old woman rambling her condemnations of electric light and hedonistic youth. Gradually, though, Margaret realises there's something more than a little threatening about the woman who in her religious fever seems about to attack her. The old woman leaves, though, without harming her--there's still an emotional undercurrent to the scene that builds and explodes when Margaret opens a window without thinking and the room is immediately dominated by the storm.

All the same, it seems rude for her to just leave the room like that and it prompts mixed feelings when the old lady later complains at the state Margaret left the room in without even mentioning it when she came to supper. Margaret is an uninvited guest, after all.

And then Charles Laughton shows up, in his first film role, as a boisterous Welshman named Sir William Porterhouse. He's accompanied by an equally carefree chorus girl named Gladys (Lilian Pond) who's delighted when the handsome Roger helps her change her wet shoes.

The only flaw in this movie is the rapidly developed romance between Roger and Gladys. When the two go out to the car for a bottle of whisky, they much too quickly start talking about marriage. The performances from the protagonists which had been so delightfully natural up to this point suddenly take on the worst, stiffest characteristics of silent film acting. But the scene does have an interesting moment where she tells Roger how Sir William won't mind at all about the two of them--William's a widower but, although he likes to sit on Gladys' bed with her telling stories, he's shown no sign that he wants to have sex with her. Gladys even says that Sir William tries to come off as "gay"--it's uncertain if the audience would've picked up on this word as meaning homosexual or if it was intended to. I would argue that Cary Grant's use of the term in 1938's Bringing Up Baby was definitely meant to mean homosexual but it was not known well enough for the censors to have caught it.

If Porterhouse is meant to be homosexual, though, it's nice that he's in no way sinister or a villain in this film. It would fit in, too, with the dialogue establishing both Roger and Gladys as misfits--Roger for his war trauma and Gladys because she's a chorus girl, something she spends a lot of time talking about with a defiant lack of shame. In this context, the moralistic condemnation from the old woman takes on a new significance. As does the name "Femm", the fact that the gender roles between Horace and Rebecca seem reversed, and the fact that the Femm patriarch, Roderick, is played by a woman (Elspeth Dudgeon).

On top of all this, the film has Boris Karloff as the deaf butler, Morgan. Karloff plays him as someone who performs his duties on automatic and is mentally cut off from everyone else, something that becomes really sinister when you see has no sense of guilt about the violence he might inflict.

This film has terrific atmosphere, great performances, and some really intriguing characters. And it already had me with the people trapped in the house concept.

Twitter Sonnet #1075

The plate collates a dozen gobs of rice.
In glowing space the number turned to blue.
The first tomato pulled us homeward twice.
No glancing beam could prove the car was true.
Inverted hooves have pushed a sky to turf.
A hidden stone absorbed a shock to good.
Surprising steps alert the sickened Smurf.
Sapphire gnomes'll always count and should.
A spacious temp'rature unwraps the shoot.
The stars are masks for oxygen above.
A flying tube conveys the human boot.
A mirror hall creates the multi-dove.
The table welcomes butlers, ghosts, and souls.
A storm disrupts the laces, heels, and soles.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2018
      ( 2:13 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

A principle difficulty faced by the aspiring artist or writer is the thorny issue of what constitutes legitimacy in a field where success and failure are attained in a seemingly endless variety of ways. Any course seems to be expensive and have at best a 10% chance of paying off. Add to that the normal difficulties faced by a woman in early to mid 20th century Japan and you can see why the story of author and poet Fumiko Hayashi is so remarkable. Her autobiography was adapted by Mikio Naruse in 1962, a good film called A Wanderer's Notebook (放浪記), with an extraordinary performance from Hideko Takamine as Hayashi.

The first scene of the film is a keen thesis statement for the rest--as a child, Hayashi accompanies her mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) to the police station where her father is being questioned. A street musician, he's accused of panhandling. The cops demand that he sing to prove he's really a musician but the man's so nervous he can't sing well. They conclude he was only pulling a scam--he's fined. The incident reminded me of the story from Alfred Hitchcock's childhood where his father sent him to a police station to be locked in a cell for being "naughty." Much as that incident seems to have inspired Hitchcock to make film after film about people wrongly accused of crimes, the incident from Hayashi's youth makes her keenly aware of the precariousness of an artistic career throughout her life.

In one sense, it makes her a fighter, constantly writing and submitting work to publishers, and in another sense, it gives her crippling low self-esteem. When the cops mistake her for a prostitute and thief later in the film, despite a friend's insistence that she's a writer, she puts up only a half-hearted defence and allows them to take her to the station without complaint.

She takes jobs in factories and bars to support herself and her lovers. She tries to get a job as a secretary but immediately leaves when it's clear her prospective boss expects her to have sex with him for the job. Working as a bar hostess, which in Japan entailed fawning over and chatting with men, she can play along but is less willing to put up with bullshit. In one extraordinary scene she fires off a rapid series of insults at a group of unruly drunks.

It works all the better because of Takamine's performance. I've seen her in a lot of movies but never like this. I suppose it's because she's affecting some of the real Hayashi's dialect and mannerisms--she's a little hunched and has a rolling gait, almost a swagger. She comes off as a tough dame which makes her moments of vulnerability all the more effective--and Takamine seems aware that she needs only subtle changes to achieve a great effect. In one of my favourite scenes, she comes home to find her lover with his mistress who claims to be his wife. She sits down as though nothing's odd and casually explains that she's his wife too--a slightly trembling lip and a few furtive looks are the small, devastating indications of what's happening under her tough exterior.

When her book is published late in the film, people comment on the number of men in her life. As she explains to her mother, she hates men but also can't help loving them. Her roommate early on, played by Daisuke Kato, is a widower who falls head over heels for her and is eager to lend her money whenever she asks. But when she tells him she's not attracted to him, he's disappointed but never pressures her--not for the rest of their lives. His presence in a late scene makes her unwillingness to give money to a writer's charity--"You have to work, it's the only way"--a little more complicated. But Kato's character is an exception among the other men in her life who often seem great at first but end up either casting her aside or abusing her.

Naruse adapted several of Hayashi's books to film so it's natural he would eventually adapt her autobiography. It doesn't have some of the bigger emotional moments and scope of the much better regarded Ukigumo (also starring Takamine) but A Wanderer's Notebook is pretty good.

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Monday, January 15, 2018
      ( 12:41 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day, everyone. It seems appropriate to talk about Star Trek since it's well known that King was a fan--even better that Star Trek Discovery has a black lead. It's only a shame last night's episode, "Bad Wolf"--I mean, "The Wolf Inside"--kind of sucked.

Spoilers after the screenshot

At least Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) had some kind of sexy lingerie though this is perhaps the only area where Discovery is technologically behind the Original Series, at least in the mirror universe.

Meanwhile, back on the Discovery, Saru (Doug Jones) and Tilly (Mary Wiseman) are dealing with the aftermath of Culber's murder, doing a brain analysis of Stamets (Anthony Rapp) for some reason without assistance from the doctor Lorca (Jason Isaacs) had assigned to him in the previous episode.

Tilly really does seem to be doing everything now. She insists she, and she alone, should try her spore drive solution on Stamets because of her experience with the spores. The Discovery medical staff must be notoriously meddlesome jerks, I guess.

Burnham, on the Shenzhou, is trying to figure out how to save a "coalition of hope", a team of rebels to the Terran Empire, while still seeming like she's a perfectly decent psychopath. I did kind of like her internal monologue about having to pretend she's something she's not. Lorca insists she and Tyler (Shazad Latif) beam down to the planet without any mirror universe away team to complicate things.

Oh, look, quarry. Classic.

After being cleared thanks to a mind meld from mirror universe Sarek (James Frain)--who apparently doesn't learn everything about the prime universe the way mirror Spock did when he mind melded with McCoy--Burnham's allowed to ask the rebel leader, Voq (Shazad Latif), how he manages to lead such a diverse group of people. Unfortunately, Burnham turns into Joe Scarborough and turns her question into a really long speech so Voq barely has time to say something vague about honour in response.

I'm not sure what Burnham expected. Being the targets of a murderous Empire seems like it might have a unifying influence on a diverse group. I'm also not sure what Burnham was trying to do in complimenting the stereotypes of every race present. Nice to see the Andorians haven't been changed too much for Discovery though it makes the hairlessness of the Klingons stand out even more.

I guess when Voq was changed into Tyler facial hair was implanted in the process? What was that discussion like? "I want to be a little scruffy. Not a full, thick beard, but like one of those humans who doesn't shave very often, you know what I mean."

And, oh, yeah, Tyler is Voq. What a shock. It's a Voq Shock!

It was nice to see Michelle Yeoh back at the end and I look forward to some hopefully juicy scenes between her and Burnham. She's the Emperor, it seems. Not the Empress? I'd have never thought the Terran Empire would be so politically correct.

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Sunday, January 14, 2018
      ( 2:14 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

A man returns to his hometown in Bavaria after years spent growing up in England, the years during and after World War II. He identifies as English now and doesn't think he cares that much about his German father until he finds a weirdly tangled mystery around him in 1963's The Man Who Finally Died. Based on a television serial I suspect made a lot more sense than the muddled plot of this film, it's still entertaining with some nice performances and cinematography.

Stanley Baker as the protagonist, Joe, bears a weirdly strong resemblance to Morrissey, a not unpleasant distraction (apparently I'm not the first person to notice this). And he does a decent job as the point of view character, undermined a bit by the soundtrack's tendency to give a big menacing sting for every revelation in this mystery.

Joe thought his father had died years earlier until he received a phone call in England from a man claiming to be his father and claiming to be in need of help. Arriving in the small Bavarian town, he discovers his father had apparently died weeks before the phone call was made and inhabiting the family manor now is a perfectly pleasant, slightly sinister, and quite delightful couple played by Peter Cushing and Mai Zetterling.

No, no, nothing suspicious here. I only wish these two were in the movie more.

Joe uncovers one odd detail after another--his Protestant father was apparently taken to a Catholic church, there's an insurance agent apparently stalking Joe, and there's a grave where the name seems to have been swapped with another. The movie throws out more weird clues, in fact, than are quite supported by the solution given in the climax but there is some fun getting there.

Also in the film are Eric Portman as an irritable police inspector and an adorable Georgina Ward whose dead father may or may not have been swapped with Joe's dead father. It's not really clear why she starts wanting to help Joe, who's a bit of a jerk to her. Maybe it was clearer in the serial.

Twitter Sonnet #1074

Distracting squares arrive to spin the board.
Arranged on kitchen shelves were tiny trees.
A sudden cable stopped the breaking cord.
A face emerged composed of cheddar cheese.
On legs as thin as bars the metal stood.
In webs of ceiling fans the Shadow knows.
In hearts of lacing root and branches wood
The source of cloud and lightning slowly grows.
The moon's mistaken on the line of thugs.
In twisting flame a cherry vine awaits.
The lesser candy's sold for gummy pugs.
The tide of sour hooves at dawn abates.
Forgotten cushions hold a mess of pins.
Confusion tables list bouquets of sins.

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Saturday, January 13, 2018
      ( 4:48 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

Let us turn again to the story of Kylo, the troubled young man of royal blood who adopted a new name and evil persona after he was betrayed, choosing also to wear a sinister metal mask. His telekinetic powers aid him in the ongoing intergalactic war. Yes, it's the 2012 Doctor Who audio play The Acheron Pulse. I'm still assuming his resemblance to Kylo Ren is a coincidence. Surely it must be.

The Acheron Pulse isn't bad, though nowhere nearly as good as the story it's a sequel to, The Burning Prince, a Fifth Doctor story released the previous month. Acheron Pulse has the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) returning to the Drashani Empire decades after the events of the previous story. The best part of this one is seeing how the events in the previous story have been interpreted and digested by the Drashani culture. Now going by the name of Tenebris (James Wilby), Kylo has returned to take vengeance on the whole Empire for his horrible experiences in the first story. The Doctor's task of preventing this is difficult because the Empress (Kirsty Besterman) has been brought up on stories about the beautiful romance between Kylo and the princess Aliona.

The climax of the story involves a non-corporeal purgatory, something that probably plays better in audio format, but writer Rick Briggs doesn't seem well adapted to audio, the script featuring many awkward instances of characters unnaturally describing what they're seeing. But for the most part it's a fun, if fairly average, Doctor Who adventure in the Peladon mould. Come to think of it, I always thought Star Wars owed a thing or two to The Monster of Peladon . . .

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Friday, January 12, 2018
      ( 2:43 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

I'm not sure I understand the title of 1964's Woman of Straw. Maybe it refers to a "straw man" which, in a sense, the lead character played by Gina Lollobrigida becomes in the latter half of the film. It could also be an ironic description for the strength inherent in her extraordinary kindness caring for the sadistic and belligerent character played by Ralph Richardson. The film's partly a thoughtful rumination on the place of dominance in human relationships and partly a fairly effective crime thriller.

Ralph Richardson's performance as the cruel and abusive wheelchair-bound Charles Richmand is crucial. The character is so intensely and consistently mean that he could have been boring in any character study but Richardson breathes a lot of life into him. We get a hint of the real human anxieties and compulsions that make someone behave in this manner.

Working as his nurse is a problem from the beginning for Maria (Lollobrigida). He objects to her being a foreigner, particularly one from southern Italy, though it's clear if he didn't have racial abuse he would have found some other way to verbally attack her. He crudely manipulates perspectives on situations to give himself excuses to berate--he orders servants to turn off music so that he can complain about the music being turned off. The obviousness of these manipulations functions as another level of aggression in itself--he's saying to everyone that he has the privilege of being obvious about it. But he's not lacking for racist behaviour--later Maria watches in horror as Charles forces two of his black servants to play leap frog in the pretext of teaching his dogs to do it by example.

And lest you make any mistake about it, Charles casually explains how he believes black people are naturally meant to be servants. Later, Maria asks Thomas (Johnny Sekka), one of the servants, why he and his brother put up with this kind of treatment and he tells her a story that might be familiar to many impoverished immigrants, that he has a poor family back home he needs the money to to support. In this case, the economic hold Charles has on him is even tighter because he controls the copper mine in Thomas' town. So in a sense, Charles could be seen as a personification of some of the worst aspects of colonialism.

But thankfully the character's more than a personification of a concept though perhaps that's all he'd like to be. A conversation between him and Maria on his yacht reveals something about the self-image he's constructed for himself.

CHARLES: "They thought of him as a bore, Beethoven. A gross, clumsy, vulgar, oaf. No sense of humour, no social graces, kept people at arm's length. You think of me as a monster, don't you?"

MARIA: "Only when you try to intimidate me."

CHARLES: "People like to be intimidated, people feel comforted by strength. They complain but they feel serene somehow."

The rise to power of strong men based on populist support throughout history lends some support to Charles' argument. Why doesn't he seem satisfied that he has a clearly defined, even traditional role in human society, though? Why does he feel the need to justify himself to Maria of all people? He tells her about his exceptionally kind, loving wife who died some years before.

CHARLES: "She was exceptional . . . she died in great pain. A kind nature is no defence against sickness and death so what's the point of it?"

When Maria's alone with Tony (Sean Connery), Charles' nephew, the younger man dismisses the small amount of sympathy she's starting to feel for the old man by telling her what Charles said to his wife when she was on her deathbed: "You gave me everything and you took nothing. You were a very stupid woman." Tony urges her not to fall prey to sentimentality--but it's Tony who suggests to Maria that she marry Charles.

Charles plans to leave all his money to charities and give almost nothing to Tony. He proposes that he help manipulate Charles into marrying Maria on the agreement that Tony receives a significant percentage of the inheritance. Charles is very ill at the start of the movie and Maria knows well he couldn't have long to live.

Ironically, it's Charles' own penchant for crude manipulation that makes him particularly easy for Tony to manipulate--all Tony has to do is act like he likes Maria and Charles will rebuke him with the opposite opinion. But there's more than contrariness to Charles' attitude. When she forces Charles to come ashore to bring her back to the yacht, you can see he's having a harder time concealing a growing respect for her, a respect that seems attached to a strange, real affection. When he believes everyone else acts based on his dominance, naturally the only person whose words he can trust is someone whose will he can't dominate. The logic here is of course based on a false presumption--we know Tony isn't really cowed by the old man's thunder and the servants have economic reasons that have nothing to do with natural servility. This has the odd effect of making Charles seem vulnerable.

Connery is good in the film as a character who in some ways resembles James Bond while in others is a polar opposite. I wasn't sure about Lollobrigida at first but she gets better as the movie goes on. She's a good point of view character and helps highlight the intriguing questions about natural human sympathy--it's not entirely clear if marrying Charles is all about his money. There is something strangely pitiable about a tyrant. The crime thriller of the latter portion of the film has some interesting, surprisingly well constructed intricacy but it's a little disappointing how Maria's role is reduced in the finale. But it's a good movie that introduces so many provoking questions while also being a satisfying mystery.

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Thursday, January 11, 2018
      ( 5:37 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

I'm a big fan of Diana Dors but she was in few really good films--and many are nearly impossible to get ahold of. This morning I watched 1956's Yield to the Night again, widely considered one of her best, if not her very best. A British film released a year after the last female criminal was put to death in England, it can seem like an odd mix of pulp and gritty realism but it feels less pulpy the more I think about it, especially when considering the ways it resembles the real life of Ruth Ellis, the woman who was put to death.

Based on a book written a year before Ellis committed murder, the similarities are largely coincidental, except that the book and the murder both took place in a country where the death penalty was increasingly being called into question. According to Wikipedia, Ellis murdered her longtime lover, David Blakely, apparently because he completely ignored her on the street. Dors' character in Yield to the Night, Mary, murdered a woman named Lucy after Jim (Michael Craig), the object of Mary's obsessive love, killed himself when Lucy ignored him.

It almost feels like two films spliced together--we see Mary's increasingly troubled relationship with Jim portrayed almost like the splashy films noir Dors regularly starred in, complete with her platinum blonde hair and glamorous clothing. This is shown in scattered flashbacks while the "other film", as it were, is Mary in prison, awaiting death.

These segments, set in the "now", are startling for their relative sense of realism. Dors apparently wears no makeup in these scenes and the dark roots are clearly advancing through the platinum. Yvonne Mitchell plays MacFarlane, one of Mary's guards who chat realistically about mundane things like food and the weather. One might take the flashbacks as a propaganda that shores up sympathy for Mary, but on the other hand, since they're all told through her mind's eye, they could be seen as a slightly distorted version of reality through her passions. It's interesting that we never get a very clear look at Lucy. We see her hand, covered with rings, at a hearing, callously discussing Jim's suicide.

Realistically, does Lucy bear blame for Jim's suicide? One might as well ask if Blakely deserved to die because he ignored Ellis. The filmmakers seemed conscious that the fundamental issue was how much culpability people bear for inspiring feelings and actions in others. When Mary is faced with death, she finds herself unable to frame the question in any way other than a reflection on her essential nature. At one point she can't help screaming at the guards that they're all in league against her, plotting to kill her.

"I never asked to be born," she says to MacFarlane after she once again finds that she doesn't feel sorry for her crime. Dors is very good in this film, subtly displaying the escalating panic in her predicament as one indistinct day after another passes, surrounded by bricks and bars. She's trapped both by the system and the consciousness that she remains constant in her feelings--what else can she conclude than that she really is what they claim she is? This is one of the extraordinarily effective things about the film's argument--most death penalty films feature either a repentant criminal or someone who's been wrongly accused. This movie shows us someone who did the crime and who's never sorry and still forces us to wonder if her death is justified.

Twitter Sonnet #1073

Attendant eyes encase the arm and leg.
Important paper bracelets lit for booze.
They find the manifold but hardened egg.
Too like the grains for spacious sand to choose.
As diamonds drop to glassy tums digest.
The knowing blanched beside the walking duck.
However skies may blankly stride abreast.
The fairest cloud consumed for rainy luck.
The leather trees command a view of wool.
A timeless gear corrects the ferns afoot.
The rounding book deploys the orb to school.
The feet were found for steps they tracked of soot.
The tangled word was tracked to garbled Earth.
The eyes were deemed as glassy screens are worth.

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