Sunday, February 18, 2018
      ( 12:57 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

I didn't honestly think I was going to like 2018's Black Panther. The trailers didn't look good, filled with lousy cgi, and I thought Chadwick Boseman's portrayal of Black Panther was the dullest part of Captain America: Civil War. But the film I saw on Friday was pretty enjoyable, largely due to an excellent supporting cast, particularly Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, and Letitia Wright. The story's central political conflict, though it owes a lot to the first Thor movie, was also engaging and provided an interesting commentary on contemporary American politics.

This is the shot I especially hated in the trailer. It's so clear every grouping of people on all the little outcrops aren't really there. The movie's shots of Wakanda, the fabulous secret high tech city, generally made me long for the gritty realism of Coruscant in the Star Wars prequels. The film would've benefited a lot from some actual African shooting locations.

I really don't understand why this film was shot entirely in Atlanta and South Korea. It wasn't long ago that Mad Max: Fury Road, a film shot largely in Namibia, was a smash success. My guess is Disney's insurance wouldn't cover African locations. The 1950s and 60s were filled with Hollywood films with real African locations, from 1950's amazing King Solomon's Mines to John Huston's classic The African Queen starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Ironically, the period so associated with soundstage exteriors has a more authentic location feel than this 2018 film.

But Black Panther is really a fantasy about the United States. Michael B. Jordan is another excellent member of the supporting cast, playing the villain Killmonger. His rise in the Wakandan government, overthrowing the anointed ruler T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), will remind more than a few people of Donald Trump for Killmonger's ruthlessness and for the way the mechanisms of government and tradition compels people to automatically follow him. In fact, Boseman himself has pointed out similarities to Trump's election. To be fair, though, Killmonger seems like he's more capable of empathy than Trump. I suppose it's a bad sign when a guy named "Killmonger" comes off as more sensitive and altruistic than the U.S. president.

But the resemblance adds an interesting dimension to a plot otherwise strongly reminiscent of Kenneth Branagh's Thor. Arguably, both films are drawing on the Edgar/Edmund subplot from King Lear. One could very naturally give Edmund's "Why bastard?" speech to Killmonger, who is made T'Challa's illegitimate brother for the film:

Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me?
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? With baseness? bastardy? Base, base?
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth within a dull stale tired bed
Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops
Got ’tween asleep and wake?

Oddly, Boseman's uninteresting performance actually makes him seem a bit more like royalty. Listening to his flat line deliveries reminded me of listening to Prince Harry and thinking, "This guy's supposed to be important?" It's also not unlike how Thor was meant to be sort of a good natured but simple minded fellow in the first movie before filmmakers decided to emphasise Chris Hemsworth's comedic talents. When the much better trained and charismatic Killmonger challenges T'Challa, a lot of the tension comes from how difficult it is to see why T'Challa deserves to be king instead of Killmonger. I would have really liked if the film included montages contrasting the upbringing of Killmonger and T'Challa, showing how Jordan struggled on the streets of Oakland before beginning the hard military training that led to him becoming a Navy Seal while T'Challa was doing . . . whatever a Wakandan prince is brought up doing. One suspects it's nowhere near as rough.

Since Wakanda doesn't exist, its isolationism and hoarding of its superior technology and resources as a country that was never colonised makes it more reminiscent of the United States than any African country and Killmonger's plight, coming from an impoverished lower class, gives his conflict with the Wakandan elite a resonance more like the poor working class who voted for Trump as, Michael Moore observed, a "fuck you" gesture to the paralysed Washington political machine.

The first part of Black Panther is a bit tedious, though, concentrating on ceremony and airless banter, like that moment in the trailer where T'Challa insists he doesn't "freeze". This stuff is finally replaced by a fun film when Letitia Wright is introduced as Shuri, T'Challa's sister, a tech genius who provides her brother with gadgets in a role very much like Q in the James Bond films.

Her teasing him drew the first genuine laughter from me. This is followed by the other highlight when Okoye (Danai Gurira), head of Wakanda's female militia, and Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), a spy for Wakanda and T'Challa's love interest, join the Black Panther for his mission to South Korea, their personalities easily eclipsing his. I would so love to see a buddy cop movie starring Gurira and Nyong'o. Throughout the rest of the film, any time none of these three women are onscreen, I found myself impatiently waiting for their return. More than anything else, they're the ones that truly make this movie work.

Twitter Sonnet #1085

A line in straw presents the only shield.
The sensors broke upon beholding stars.
The rabbits green dispersed in barley field.
The wind contorts the wheat to drying cars.
A waiting ghost returns the mind to dawn.
A sprinkling starred the darkened forest edge.
Collected hues combine chromatic brawn.
The boulder 'neath the house is called a ledge.
A massive cursor moves the mouse anew.
In shapely time the pear's too like a watch.
Ordained for fast repast the snows accrue.
A dip between the wire hills was notched.
A paper rights itself on inky tracks.
The shelling front prepares for turtle backs.

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Saturday, February 17, 2018
      ( 1:25 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

This past week I watched again two stories featuring UNIT on Doctor Who, the fictional military task force introduced to the series in 1968. I watched the 1989 story Battlefield and the 2008 two parter "The Sontaran Stratagem"/"The Poison Sky". It sure was nice when multiple episodes were unified under one title. Anyway, while I think the 2008 story is better than Battlefield, I found myself wishing the new series had continued with some of the changes to UNIT introduced in Battlefield, which was designed as sort of a reboot to the organisation.

I talked a couple weeks ago about the philosophical conflict that defined much of the Third Doctor era in the early 70s--the Doctor, a character whose preference not to carry or use guns often manifesting in disgust for them, working as a science advisor for a military organisation headed by his friend, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. The most frequently recurring character from throughout the show's long history, the Brigadier was always played by Nicholas Courtney. Introduced in the Second Doctor era, he featured in the majority of the Third Doctor's serials and appeared in a few Fourth and Fifth Doctor serials before making his final appearance in Battlefield.

Battlefield reintroduces that philosophical conflict, centring on legends of King Arthur, established in the serial as having been the result of alien influence. I think. It's a little hard to follow and a lot of the faux archaic dialogue is incredibly stilted. When the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) asks if one young knight (Marcus Gilbert) recognises him he receives the reply, "No, not your aspect, but your manner that betrays you. Do you not ride the ship of time? Does it not deceive the senses being larger within than without?"

The story notably features Jean Marsh as Morgaine, an actress whose history with the show goes all the way back to the First Doctor era but who, in Battlefield, was for all intents and purposes reprising her role as the villain Bavmorda from Ron Howard's film Willow. She recognises and honours the Brigadier as a warrior.

After the Doctor's bluff is called when he threatens to kill Morgaine's son, Mordred (Christopher Bowen), it's up to the Brigadier to use firearms to get things done. This is a story where the argument for the use of weapons wins against the Doctor's preference for avoiding them. By the time of "The Sontaran Strategem", though, the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant), had become even readier to express his disgust for solutions involving military might, perhaps a reference to his recent experiences in the Time War. Guns end up coming in handy in that story but it remains a comfort to watch a series where the central protagonist has such an aversion to something that creates so much pain and sorrow in reality.

The 2008 episode shows a UNIT headed by a kind of wishy washy fellow named Colonel Mace (Rupert Holliday-Evans), who's slightly better than the dull Kate Stewart who has headed the organisation in episodes over the past few seasons. But personally I don't understand why the new Brigadier introduced in Battlefield, Bambera (Angela Bruce), wasn't brought back for the new series.

Don't get me wrong, she's nowhere near as cool as Lethbridge-Stewart. She's kind of over the top with her invariably ornery response to the Doctor trying to help, to people asking for basic information, to the crisis in Battlefield involving a nuclear missile. But the Brigadier should be a bit over the top. Nicholas Courtney is essentially playing a sincere version of Graham Chapman's military characters from Monty Python. That's part of the fun, he's a type but he's not a satire. He's like Roger Livesey in Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, the caricatured old fashioned British military man brought back to reality with affection. It's like sincerity's revenge against irony.

Kate Stewart was introduced in a direct to video, unofficial tie-in movie starring Courtney as the Brigadier, so there is a sort of continuity reason for her to be there. Nonetheless, I hope one of the things incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall does in the upcoming new series is to put someone else in charge of UNIT. Osgood might not be a bad choice, the UNIT scientist introduced in 2013's "The Day of the Doctor". Ingrid Oliver, who plays her, seems to understand that right balance between cartoonish and absolutely on the level.

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Friday, February 16, 2018
      ( 12:51 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

Maybe one day you'll look around at some of your friends, family, and colleagues and find their eyes have become alien, in some imperceptible way they've become strangers inside. It would be even worse if it happened when you were stranded on an alien planet as in Mario Bava's 1965 film Planet of the Vampires. There are fascinating implications to the transfer of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers concept to an alien world where humanity has, if unintentionally, become the invaders who are overcome by the brain washing aliens. The film is chilling and it's also cool, particularly since the restored print is so pristine, and the dated nature of Bava's style has become captivating.

A clear influence on Ridley Scott's Alien films, the atmosphere evoked by the fog and bizarre rock formations on the world on which two ships are forced to land should be familiar to anyone who's seen 1979's Alien. So, too, would be the great skeletons found on an ancient crashed vessel discovered by the human crew and the unanswered mystery surrounding the skeletons.

In place of the messy, realist feel of the Nostromo crew and ship design, though, Bava gives us a style for the humans somewhere between the eerily clean and sterile ships of 50s American Science Fiction films and the Italian high fashion strongly in evidence in Bava's Danger: Diabolik or Blood and Black Lace. We also learn very little about the crews of the two human ships, the effect of which is to give the film a more stripped down, hypothetical quality, like Plato's Allegory of the Cave. Since the aliens are completely invisible before possessing the bodies of the dead they work even more vividly as a metaphor for ideology than the pod people in Body Snatchers.

Where Body Snatchers worked so well as a nightmare about McCarthyism or the spread of Communism (depending on your point of view), Planet of the Vampires operates as a horror about colonialism. When one of the aliens speaks through a possessed dead man, he doesn't come off as overtly sinister, in fact he seems like he sincerely wants Captain Markary (Barry Sullivan) to understand that what he and his fellow aliens are doing is necessary for their survival. There's a nice ambiguity, though, about who would be the colonists in this reading--you could look at it as humans "going native" in an extreme way, or you could look at it as the aliens colonising the humans, a reading that's facilitated further by the fact that the world isn't the homeworld of the aliens, merely one of a series of worlds to which they've spread and conquered.

The horror is effective in that it plays on guilt for crimes that are seen as necessary for survival, but seen as such for abstract rationalisation than for completely clear reasons. An ideology spreads, insisting that the destruction of its enemies is ultimately necessary for survival, but because this can't be known for sure there's always an underlying anxiety. Planet of the Vampires denies easy answers as much as it denies visuals of comfort on the ships or the inhospitable world.

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Thursday, February 15, 2018
      ( 2:26 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

I usually have Mystery Science Theatre 3000 on while I make dinner. It was good last night to lighten the mood after reading articles and reports about yesterday's school shooting that left 17 dead. Mystery Science Theatre 3000 is a series in which three comedians provide mocking commentary for bad movies, the episode I had on last night, from 1994, featured a 1956 exploitation film called The Violent Years with a screenplay by Ed Wood. Listening to cops and reporters in the movie discuss increasing violent delinquency in youths of the 1950s was odd after the day's news. The film turns into Wood's cheesy sexual fantasy about beautiful girls kidnapping a young man and turning him into their plaything but the concept of teens gone bad was a real anxiety in the 50s as evidenced by the number of such films covered by Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Films such as Teen-Age Crime Wave, Girls Town, and High School Big Shot. I was reminded how claims that one generation is worse than the last are put down to paranoid imagination and sentimentality. However, the escalating numbers in school shootings in the U.S. seem to indicate things really have gotten worse--Wikipedia has a very useful breakdown by decades. There were 15 school shootings in the first decade of the 20th century, 19 in the second, 10 in the 20s, 9 in the 30s, 8 in the 40s, 17 in the 50s, 18 in the 60s, 30 in the 70s, 39 in the 80s, and 62 in the 90s for a total of 226 in the 20th century. In the 21st century there have already been 212, 143 of which have occurred since 2010.

I saw someone on Twitter last night point out the assault rifle, like the one used in yesterday's shooting, was introduced into U.S. military service in 1964. I do think this is a clear indication the rifle needs to be made illegal for civilian purchase. In addition to the damage it can inflict at a rapid pace, I suspect its availability is in itself a psychological motivator. A potential shooter who might think twice about trying to carry out a rampage with a handgun might see his chances of successfully committing his crimes as far better when he knows he can get his hands on an assault rifle.

But I think the statistics also make it clear the rifle is not alone responsible for the increase in these killings. I'd rather not venture any opinion on the psychological changes that may be responsible except to say that it seems to me there must more kids now who lack the imagination to see humanity in their fellow students. Looking at pictures of the victims to-day and reading a little about them it's hard to conceive of anyone wanting to cause their deaths.

Once again, like most people, I feel sure no policy changes will be implemented in response to this latest shooting. When Barack Obama spoke in the aftermath of a shooting you sensed his desperation and grief at Washington's inertia on the issue. When Trump addressed the nation on this shooting his speech sounded perfunctory and dim, as though he were thinking about something else. If a president who seemed to care couldn't do anything, I certainly don't expect much from a president who doesn't seem to care.

I was already thinking yesterday about David Bowie's 2013 song "Valentine's Day" which was written in response to school shootings. I wonder why Bowie chose to allude to Valentine's Day in the song. It does make a kind of horrible sense, aside from the connexion to the infamous Saint Valentine's Day Massacre of 1929. There's something about the concept of a day intended to be about love for others being twisted into a day in which someone commits an ultimate act of selfishness.

Twitter Sonnet #1084

A box of wrenches waits where cans are set.
A timely row resolves the stack for pans.
The dice emerged of soot to burn the bet.
In neatly ranged assorted cakes were lands.
The noted pipes permitted smoke to go.
A stack of fragile barks consumed the creek.
A plastic fish obliged the fleet to tow.
A rudder pats a salmon on the cheek.
The music slide would feed pianos first.
Again for shorter time a train arrives.
As shadows grew we slowly gained a thirst.
Again the gravel air in dust revives.
As measures dreamt recede beneath the pall.
As shades in progress mute eclipse the wall.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2018
      ( 12:16 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

I realised recently the sensei America needs right now is Zetsubou Sensei (Zetsubou meaning "despair"). Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei (さよなら絶望先生) was a manga that ran from 2005 to 2012 which was turned into an anime series with three seasons, airing from 2007 to 2010. The anime never saw an official release in the U.S. possibly because it was never a very mainstream success in Japan and its humour may have been deemed too reliant on Japanese politics and media. But watching the first episode again to-day, with its focus on the madness inherent in aggressively imposed interpretation, I can't think of anything that more accurately reflects the American psyche.

I always thought the fundamental conflict between the series' two central protagonists was genius. There are two principle layers to it--on the most superficial layer, Itoshiki-Sensei (Hiroshi Kamiya) is a high school teacher who interprets everything in the most negative way possible and his student, Kafuka (Ai Nonaka), named after Franz Kafka, interprets everything in the most positive way possible. Itoshiki is always trying to commit suicide and Kafuka is always coming up with reasons why there's still hope and life is worth living. But the first scene of the first episode quickly establishes the sinister second layer--Kafuka's rationalisations are so paper thin that they only serve to underline the negative reality. Her choosing to interpret her parents' attempts to hang themselves as attempts to make themselves grow taller only serves to compel the mind to contemplate suicide as the end point of the puzzle Kafuka's madness presents. Kafuka's positive interpretations act as a sort of funnel drawing the mind to a deeper despair.

Itoshiki's negative interpretations are often similarly ridiculous. He talks to the school councillor about his belief that his credit card info is being stolen every time he swipes his subway card, he talks about how the symbol on a baseball cap resembles the kanji for "hair" making it sad that the man wearing the hat is bald. He tells the councillor he feels better after talking about these things. Whenever Kafuka's attempts to save his life inevitably threaten his life worse than his actual suicide attempt, he always says, "What if I had died?" His compulsions to view things negatively are so patently irrational there's no rational solution to them on their own terms--the reality is that they're a form of catharsis for him. He subverts a typical assignment where a teacher asks the students to list a series of hopes for the future by asking them to list only goals they despair of accomplishing. By hitting the negative potential pre-emptively, he can mitigate some of the pain. But the flaw in this technique is highlighted by how Kafuka serves as his foil.

As fiction in the U.S. becomes increasingly focused on alternate interpretations and what these interpretations suggest about the interpretor, Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei is well ahead of us. Now that the U.S. has a cruel, post-modernist joke occupying the office of president, madness has become the reality so it's become mad to adhere to prior forms of realism. We can try to find solutions by setting up large, negative interpretations, conduct witch hunts with no foreseeable rational solutions under the delusion that by keeping busy we're making a form of progress. Or we can subscribe to superstitions, like Kafuka interprets a hikikomori (shut-in) student as being a Zashiki Warashi, a household spirit, because a psychological condition like that of the hikikomori couldn't possibly exist within Kafuka's social circle.

Just as Trump can deny global warming by talking about extremely cold temperatures despite scientists having said that climate change could result in colder winters. It's not that people don't have the capacity to understand the more complicated reality behind the name "global warming", it's that Trump and others rely on the superficiality of words themselves to create the perceived reality. A version of reality so paper thin it only highlights how bad things really are.

There are many flavours of madness and so Itoshiki sensei has an entire classroom of students, each with his or her own method of altering reality. Chiri (Marina Inoue) demands strict, measurable reality so when she's decided to slice a cake to evenly divide it among classmates she loses herself in increasingly complex computations as more students enter the room. Meru (various voice actresses) is typically too shy to speak but frequently spreads abusive e-mails and online comments. Each student in his or her way tries the limits of Itoshiki's negative outlook. Sometimes the humour on the show falls flat but for the most part it's become more and more insightful as time has gone by.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2018
      ( 1:41 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

Caitlin R. Kiernan fans got a special treat in to-day's new Sirenia Digest--a previously unpublished story called "Chevy Swamp" from 1987, from well before Kiernan had become an established name in weird fiction. In the introduction to this month's Digest, Kiernan talks about how the story reflects her inexperience at that point in her life as a writer and expresses dislike for the story's obvious resemblance to Stephen King's It, which had been published not long before "Chevy Swamp" was written. This might seem a strange thing to complain about to-day when Stranger Things has garnered so much praise for its obvious modelling on It and other fantasy and horror fiction from the 1980s centred on groups of kids. For anyone looking for more stories like that now, "Chevy Swamp" is certain to satisfy, particularly for anyone looking for such a story told from the perspective of a female character.

A first person narrative told by a character named Mary, the story concerns her and her two friends, Arnie and Rusty, and their relationship with the swamp of the title. All of them are around eleven years old and there's a nice description of a biology class project followed by an encounter with a bully named Ellroy. There's some allusion to the psychological causes of bullying behaviour, of cycles of abuse, but the story takes it in a weird direction as Mary and her two friends form a nicely understated, weird love/hate bond with the swamp and a strange creature that may or may not exist within. In a very effective creative decision, Kiernan avoids bringing the creature explicitly into the story--it manifests in dreams, suspicions, and mutilated bodies. This makes the creature menacing and mysterious while also providing a tortuous ambiguity for the protagonists who are compelled to wonder how much responsibility their bear for the creature's behaviour.

The resemblance to It is certainly clear but Kiernan creates characters who are very much her own, particularly Mary, to inhabit this It pastiche world. It's a nice addition to what is becoming a vibrant genre again.

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Monday, February 12, 2018
      ( 3:06 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

Star Trek: Discovery has been many things over the course of its 15 episode run. Finally becoming a stoner and sex comedy in last night's season finale, it really felt like the creative team got together and said, well, we might as well have a party. And it was fun.

Spoilers after the screenshot

This is more like the Klingons I know and love. Klingons having fun being fucking brutal. I even liked Ash (Shazad Latif) better when he was letting his hair down and speaking Klingon. Though, on that note, they really need to do something about the Klingons' hair, or lack thereof.

The Klingons get a big redesign but for some reason the Orions are still basically humans with green skin? Well, okay, it's fine. I just wish the camera had stayed on the strippers longer and there'd been more of an effort made to make them titillating. I know Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) would agree.

I don't care now that her being made captain doesn't make any sense, this lady is fun. She's almost Kirk. Well, Kirk was a lot more complex, which would've been nice for Mirror Georgiou. Her immediate attempt to control language on the Discovery bridge was interesting, though. The tactic is a classic one designed to reinforce hierarchy in war, to dehumanise the enemy to make it easier for them to kill. This is why Winston Churchill banned The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, because it portrayed Germans sympathetically despite it being unambiguously a pro-British film. It's a conversation worth having--does the population need to be sold on a simpler version of reality so they're more comfortable with killing?

Context is for kings, Lorca told us early in the season--Lorca, who only gets a brief mention in this episode, and only from Mirror Georgiou. This flies in the face of the idea that the Federation is a perfectly functioning socialist utopia. So this naturally leads to Burnham (Soneque Martin-Green) confronting Cornwell (Jayne Brook) in full view of the bridge crew. Was this meant to be the moment where Burnham shows she's finally learned the lesson that Lorca was wrong, that someone taking matters into her own hands is always the wrong thing to do? Her calling on support from the bridge crew would seem to support this idea. "A year ago, I stood alone," Burnham says, "I believed that our survival was more important than our principles. I was wrong." Ah, case closed, guess context is for everyone, not just for kings so--

"Do we need a mutiny to-day? To prove who we are?"

Oh. So don't take matters into your own hands, unless you really want to. I guess it's a bit like "Only a Sith speaks in absolutes" being in itself an absolute.

Later, the soft hearted Sarek (James Frain) gets emotional talking about how he'd given into the idea that destroying the Klingon homeworld was the only way. I thought the Vulcans being portrayed as open with their emotions was a result of sloppy writing but now I think it was a conscious creative decision. I don't recall any mention of the Vulcan philosophy of emotional suppression, or of how strong emotions once tore Vulcan apart before they came up with this way of life. Maybe the creators felt this didn't look good in the face of the popular pseudo-scientific metric of "emotional intelligence".

In all the discussion of what Burnham did wrong back at the beginning of the series, though, no-one mentions that she was following Sarek's advice, that apparently the Vulcans kept the peace with Klingons by always firing on Klingons first, the so called "Vulcan hello". In other words, what Burnham was ultimately trying to do by getting the Shenzhou to fire on the Klingons was to keep the peace in a language the Klingons understand. Which makes what she did at the end of the series . . . pretty much exactly like what she did at the beginning of the series. So it looks like Lorca was right, it's just that Burnham is more suited to a leadership role than Cornwell. Context really is for kings.

It really is odd how we don't have any reactions to Lorca's absence. This crew had served under him for some time. We saw him save at least one planet under attack by Klingons and Burnham seemed really pleased when he praised her decision making in "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad". Shouldn't we see some people dealing with the fact that this man they respected and served is dead and gone? Aren't they upset at all? I would have thought dealing with these kinds of issues would've been the whole point of having him being secretly from the mirror universe. It really feels like the makers of the show somehow didn't realise he was the best character on it.

Meanwhile, Tilly (Mary Wiseman) encounters Clint Howard who seems to be playing Cheech Marin in this episode. Wiseman is really funny getting high off volcano vapour.

Twitter Sonnet #1083

Banana leaves at ease confirm the beat.
The shadow lines demure 'neath candy sun.
A Lazy Susan brings to odds a heat.
And back to kitchens baked into the bun.
A shoulder shape suspends the weather sky.
A hardly felt interpreting returns.
In giving pins the ball obtains a try.
To bowl in clouds we flew asleep in turns.
In times of gummy air the moth'll rest.
Beside the bark of choc'ate ash it grew.
To shape a pigment east of scarlet crest.
A hopping bead revealed the cup of true.
An eager recipe ignites the stove.
Electric glass compels the brain to rove.

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Sunday, February 11, 2018
      ( 12:36 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

Films noir are, in part, reflections of the psychological impact of the horrors of World War II. Few films noir show this more explicitly than 1947's They Made Me a Fugitive in which a former RAF pilot and prisoner of war turns to a life of crime. Constantly finding himself getting more than he bargained for and being punished for crimes worse than he's committed, Clem finds himself in a painfully murky realm. Reflected in great visuals of drenched, grimy stone alleyways, the sense of being trapped by new realisations of the human capacity for cruelty is reasserted again and again. This effective film also spends a great deal of time focusing on how women fit into this world as victims and as perpetrators of crime.

Trevor Howard, especially bitter and dishevelled, plays Clem, whom we meet after the gang who recruits him. Led by an unambiguous psychopath who goes by Narcy (Griffith Jones), short for Narcissus, they use a phoney mortuary to move stolen goods in coffins. Narcy brings in Clem because he says they need someone with class, something he says Clem was born into.

This statement is immediately brought to the ironic turn of Clem's introduction where we see him completely sauced at a tavern with his girlfriend and partner in crime, Ellie (Eve Ashley). He sobers up for the job, though, so he has the wherewithal to argue about the first of many things he doesn't like--the stolen goods turn out to be drugs.

Before long, he's framed for murdering a cop and Narcy's stolen his girlfriend. In prison he meets Sally, played by Sally Gray who's billed before Howard in the credits. She's really good--beautiful, cool, and with a constantly simmering edge. She visits Clem, claiming to the guards to be his sister, despite knowing him only by reputation. She's connected to Narcy's gang through her friend Cora (Rene Ray), girlfriend of the man who killed the cop Clem took the fall for. It's not really clear why Sally's so fascinated with Clem except she's the only one who knows how Clem's been railroaded without having a reason to feel thankful for it.

Unsurprisingly, Clem doesn't really believe she's trying to help him. With all the bad breaks he's had, it's no wonder he doesn't trust anyone and Howard conveys this bitter, well-earned pessimism convincingly with a perpetual harsh grin. All this distrust doesn't prevent him from running afoul of another murder frame, this time from a woman (Vida Hope) who rightly observes she can easily pin crimes on a guy the world already has pegged as a killer. This is nicely juxtaposed with him telling her about how his role was defined for him when he wore a uniform. Now he finds himself being drafted into the role of killer but more blame put on his head for it.

Sally and Cora both suffer a lot of abuse and both, Cora in particular, have to bear a burden of knowing they hurt someone and feeling responsible even if the alternative was taking a beating. The film makes its point pretty sharply before concluding with a fantastic, messy fight sequence in the mortuary. Involving several people, it's wonderfully edited with seamless shifting from one point of view shot to another establishing who's lost a gun, who's reaching for a gun without someone else noticing, who's exposed to potential gunshots or punches. No-one in the scene fights like Superman, the fist fights dissolve almost to tumbling that's never ridiculous because an atmosphere is kept up reminding you how deadly serious it all is and how precariously everyone's perched on the edge of doom.

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Saturday, February 10, 2018
      ( 4:02 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

Alexander Siddig guest stars as the Sultan in the entertaining 2012 Doctor Who anthology audio play 1001 Nights. Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) takes the role of Scheherazade as the Sultan, directly citing the story of Scheherazade as a model, forces her to tell stories to save her life and the Doctor's (Peter Davison) in a manner similar to the woman in the famous compilation of Arabian folk tales.

For the first hour, this concept works as a framing device for shorter stories about Nyssa and the Doctor as she simply tells the Sultan of some of their past adventures. Although each story is written by a different author, they all in some way resemble the framing story.

The first, My Brother's Keeper by Gordon Rennie is a nice rumination on function subsuming spirit as the Doctor and Nyssa encounter a prisoner and his warden on an asteroid, neither of them certain as to what the prisoner did or why they're there. The second story, The Interplanetarian by Jonathan Barnes, is an oddly coy riff on The Exorcist in which the Doctor has strangely stiff, polite conversation with a Victorian woman in whose house and care he's placed Nyssa while she's possessed by a demon. The third story, Smuggling Tales by Catherine Harvey, sees the Doctor and Nyssa finding themselves on a planet where stories are traded as currency. After the Doctor and Nyssa hastily improvise a story based on some of their previous experiences in order to pay for food and a room at an inn, Smuggling Tales becomes about a couple of thieves who attempt to kidnap the Doctor and Nyssa for their stories. It's amusing hearing about just how difficult and impractical it is to rob this form of currency.

After this, the framing story becomes an hour long tale in its own right written by Emma Beeby. Siddig's role as the Sultan ends up calling for some versatility on the actor's part. When the Doctor, escaping the dungeon, encounters him there's an effectively eerie moment and Beeby plays off the themes introduced in My Brother's Keeper as she destabilises the presumptions made about characters and their roles. It actually reminded me quite a bit of the television story Mawdryn Undead, which was a little more effective for its subtlety, but Siddig's performance here is well worth listening to.

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Friday, February 09, 2018
      ( 12:40 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

If you want to spend over two hours basking in the glory of some of the most beautiful kimonos ever made you should watch 1983's The Makioka Sisters (細雪, "light snowfall"). This beautiful Kon Ichikawa film is also a very fine, delicate satire that seems to poke fun at pre-World War II Japanese society more out of affection than anything else. It is a criticism of old social class but seems to come from a place that beholds errors in human systems tenderly and relishes in the beauty that arose from them.

There are four Makioka sisters, the Makioka family having been a prominent merchant family that once dealt in kimonos. The sisters now live off the inheritance and status of their deceased parents, most of them hoping to continue the lifestyles of aristocrats, avoiding having to do work for a living. This, though, turns out to be a big job as the eldest two sisters, Tsuruko (Keiko Kishi) and Sachiko (Yoshiko Sakuma) are increasingly frustrated in their efforts to find a husband for the third daughter, Yukiko (Sayuri Yoshinaga).

The youngest sister, Taeko (Yuko Kotegawa), wants no part of this old fashioned nonsense. According to tradition, she can't marry until all of her elder sisters are married but she's already tried to elope with one young man, something that resulted in scandal when the two were caught together in a hotel. She wants to be given her dowry now so she can finance her dollmaking business, desiring not to be dependent on her family name or fortune.

Taeko makes it even more difficult for the elder sisters to find a respectable husband for Yukiko, especially since the newspaper that had originally reported on the scandal had accidentally printed Yukiko's name in place of Taeko's. Yukiko is as well behaved as Taeko is rebellious but matchmaking efforts are continually, sometimes amusingly frustrated. In one of my favourite scenes, Sachiko, Yukiko, and Sachiko's husband, Teinosuke (Koji Ishizaka), meet with a potential suitor who works in a government office that regulates taxes on fisheries.

The palpable anxiety of the Makiokas is broken during lunch when, after what seemed like small talk about different kinds of fish, the suitor abruptly mentions his knowledge of the newspaper article that reported on Taeko's attempted elopement--but he does so entirely to make a point on the importance of recognising the distinctions between different kinds of fish.

Watching Sachiko's and Yukiko's faces subtly fall as they realise this man is much, much too weird to be suitable is one of the keenest examples of this film's humour. Another good example is a running gag involving the servants. The ideal of the almost invisible helper who fetches things and answers phones is replaced here by the reality of having total strangers in the home. Virtually every time one of the Makiokas does or says something potentially embarrassing she's bound to suddenly notice a slack jawed servant unabashedly gaping at her in shock.

This also serves to defuse normal sources of dramatic tension in really funny ways. In one scene, Sachiko quickly rushes down the hall after seeing her husband getting a little too physically intimate with Yukiko. After stumbling over a stool in the kitchen (another running gag) Sachiko grabs a kiwi and crushes it in one fist, only noticing a servant frozen in astonishment when she starts furiously munching on the green pulp from between her fingers.

The imagery of this scene, as well as the curiously understated, unselfconsciously sexual play between Yukiko and Teinosuke would have made the scene fascinating enough. Capping the moment with the slightly broader comedy of the servant somehow seems to punctuate the subtle, kind of adorable madness of the household, especially as Sachiko's final word is to sincerely upbraid the servant for buying the wrong kind of onions.

This film would be worth watching for its visual beauty, alone, though. The gorgeous actresses are dressed in one stunning kimono after another, a visual cue of the Makioka family legacy. They inhabit scenes of perfect colour coordination and it's a pleasure just watching them wait in perfectly decorated rooms or walk under trees.

Twitter Sonnet #1082

The bread invented last announced the wheat.
It's passing grain beyond the temple crown.
A place for seeds to find a fertile seat.
The stony island walls conceal the town.
A finished boot's within a shrinking tent.
The sign denotes a bar designed for life.
Specific taverns built to break a Lent.
A bottle goddess builds a boozy wife.
Unanswered phones assemble 'long the bay.
The sand produced a ship that never sailed.
From side to side the crabs'll cede the way.
And all imprisoned seas cannot be bailed.
The squeaky sheen disrupts a wooden bell.
But verdant branches grace the forest well.

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