Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Passing the Time and the Marriage

September's almost over but there's still time for a mildly diverting tryst with Brigitte Bardot in 1967's Two Weeks in September (À coeur joie). Never quite finding much to say beyond its basic premise and lacking chemistry between its stars, there's nonetheless a pleasant vibe to the meandering film with its cool, xylophone heavy score that would probably be quite nice to relax with after a few drinks.

Cecile (Bardot) is a model married to an older man named Philippe (Jean Rochefort). She's childishly dependant on his guidance and naively believes he wouldn't mind too much if she cheats on him. Her work requires her to spend some time in London and, despite her pleas, Philippe decides not to accompany her.

It's in London she unhesitatingly responds to flirtations from the young and handsome Vincent (Laurent Terzieff) who looks to me like a cross between Cillian Murphy and Willem Defoe.

So he wins on looks but as an actor Terzieff seems generally disconnected from his scenes while Bardot plays Cecile with such a generalised zest you get the impression the two end up together just because they happen to be standing next to each other.

A lot of time is spent on Cecile's photo shoots in the first half of the film which makes it feel like a behind the scenes documentary on Bardot's modelling career. In the second half, Cecille and Vincent hop into a car and spontaneously drive to Scotland where their car breaks down. Fortunately a conveniently fluent in French Scotsman, complete with a kilt, happens by and takes them to his ancestral castle.

There are some pretty shots of the nearby cliffs. I appreciated shots of Bardot gazing out at the sea cut with footage of birds hovering in the wind blasting the cliff face.

The idea is for us to see Cecile's dilemma as she finds Philippe isn't the only man in the world after all but the characters and relationships are never developed enough to explore any of the issues. It's mostly just pretty people hanging out in pretty places.

Twitter Sonnet #1158

An offered drink contains the walls and floor.
An amber space permits the ghosts of drakes.
A bottle took the fine constructed door.
A lattice weaves between the piled rakes.
Rotations spill the bath before the plug.
Rotundas top collective cases spent.
A brace of suits retire hardly snug.
Confetti graced the nervous, breathing vent.
Beside the speaking leaves the people pass.
The boulders under earth return to guts.
A piece of hill and mountain made a mass.
The ploughing stones en route created ruts.
The later oats resort to cakes and spice.
Ingredients were hidden, even rice.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Life in Old Ships Yet

After five episodes focusing on other crew members, Cowboy Bebop gets back to an episode built more around Spike that also the reveals more about his ship, the Swordfish. Some exciting and amusing space battles take place and once again an artefact from Earth's past plays a major role.

Session Nineteen: Wild Horses

Sadly, this is an artefact that dates the show; the NASA Space Shuttle Columbia was destroyed five years after Cowboy Bebop originally aired. Those of us who watched the show before the disaster can remember just being amused that the ship Doohan (Takeshi Aono) has been retrofitting as a hobby is so old it's real.

Now it's bittersweet, of course, but this still a fine episode. Doohan, whose name is presumably an ode to James Doohan, the actor who played Scottie on Star Trek, is the one who gave Spike (Koichi Yamadera) his signature spacecraft, the Swordfish, and it's to Doohan Spike takes the ship to be overhauled in this episode. This is after he's stranded in the desert with the thing, out of fuel, a sequence that features some nice images of Spike smoking in the shadow of the fuselage.

We get some lovely details when Doohan's assistant, Miles (Yoku Shioya), presumably named for Miles Davis, takes Spike back to Doohan's hanger.

Meanwhile, Jet (Unsho Ishizuka) and Faye (Megumi Hayashibara) are trying to capture a group of starship pirates who use a computer virus to hijack ships. Much to the chagrin of the Bebop crew, they also fall prey to the virus; even the combined computer talents of Ed (Aoi Tada) and Ein are no match for it. This is where Spike comes in.

It's not unlike Luke turning off the targeting computer in Star Wars, really. There's a lot more to what happens in the climax of the episode but Spike essentially survives thanks to his manual manoeuvring and the assistance of Doohan's ancient craft. Now the past isn't just making itself more apparent, it's coming to the rescue. This episode also marks sort of a reappearance of Spike's martial arts philosophy. His technique, modelled on Bruce Lee's advice to flow like water, seems reflected in a line Spike memorably says in moments of crisis here; "Whatever happens, happens."

...

This entry is part of a series of entries I’m writing on Cowboy Bebop for its 20th anniversary. I’m reviewing 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

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Gods Over the City

Charles George Gordon was a British officer whose list of seemingly impossible exploits occurred all over the world. He earned the commendation of the Emperor of China for putting down a rebellion and the love of the people in the Sudan for disrupting the slave trade. It all makes the events of 1966's Khartoum seem preposterous but I was surprised to read later how much of it was true. That said, the film has a lot of faults, generally coming off as a poor man's Lawrence of Arabia with its overuse of process shots, clear evidence of poor research, and some improbable plot contrivances. But the cast is great, including Charlton Heston as Gordon and Laurence Olivier as his opponent, the Mahdi, and Ralph Richardson is perfectly cast as a somewhat idealised version of the British Prime Minister William Gladstone.

In this version of history, Gladstone is secretly a strong supporter of Gordon's. Why he should keep it a secret when the public and Queen Victoria are passionately on Gordon's side is put down to the Parliament not liking the cost of Gordon's plan to defend the Sudanese town Khartoum; the Siege of Khartoum is the central subject of the story.

There are some terrific battle sequences in the film, though far from the best I've seen. There are too many shots of guys clutching their chests and falling over theatrically and too many times where the camera is misplaced, as when the front line of the Mahdi's troops rush directly at the camera moving backwards--the men run with obvious restraint to avoid colliding with the thing. But the biggest problem is that the film's stars, Charlton Heston and Laurence Olivier, clearly spent very little time on location. We almost never see the latter--and almost always on soundstages when we do--and the former is lamely inserted with process shots that are particularly obtrusive in a night battle.

The film has two scenes where Gordon and the Mahdi meet in the Mahdi's tent; both scenes are somewhat preposterous poetic license and the idea that Gordon can safely drop in on the Mahdi is ridiculous even as the film makes a point of having characters remark on how dangerous it is. But apparently Gordon and the Mahdi really did correspond and the idea of having Heston and Olivier share scenes must have been too good to pass up, especially since the relationship between the two men ends up being the best part of the film.

It turns out, each sees something in the other similar to himself; each believes himself a key figure in the service of God. To the point where the implications of Gordon's defeat are troubling even to the Mahdi. The film spends a lot of time building up Gordon the point where you start to wonder if it's all to flatter Charlton Heston but it pays off in the end, giving the viewer an idea of what it's like when people have so much spiritual investment in their belief in one man.

There's a lot of brown-face in the film, really more than there needs to be, though personally I don't mind when its obviously someone as singular as Laurence Olivier. But the dozens of white actors playing Sudanese men shows just how little the production was willing to work with the location. Meanwhile, Charlton Heston's English accent seems almost okay in some scenes and then is completely absent in others. But otherwise he's good in the role and the film has some great visuals shot in Ultra Panavision.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Getting the Doctor's Leadworth

I really can't say I'd mind ending up in the supposedly boring village featured in the 2010 Doctor Who episode "Amy's Choice". Filmed in a village called Skenfrith in Wales, plenty of beautiful location shots sell the place marvellously, albeit under the fictional name of Upper Leadworth. Watching it again, I was reminded how much the show's aesthetics were upgraded for the Eleventh Doctor era. The story, written by Men Behaving Badly creator Simon Nye, is a satisfying enough dream puzzle with an effective guest appearance from Toby Jones as the "Dream Lord".

Director Catherine Morshead provides a series of lovely shots of surrounding countryside before the reveal of pregnant Amy (Karen Gillan) who's suddenly the picture of traditional domesticity, stirring batter in a kitchen that looks like it came from a department store catalogue.

Sadly, she's married to Rory (Arthur Darvill) whose ponytail is mocked by everyone. Though I would say it's not the ponytail so much as that it's clearly part of a mullet.

He looks like a Saturday morning cartoon version of an 80s rock star. The Dream Lord taunts the three with the possibility that it's really the Doctor (Matt Smith) Amy prefers. Looking back, I find my feelings at the time that she ought to have chosen the Doctor over Rory were spot on. Rory was occasionally cute but, come on, it's the Doctor. Amy choosing to die for Rory may have been the first of the two expressing their love for each other by extreme, fatal means, I can't remember. But that's no way to build a relationship.

She'd have been better off with the Doctor but I can't share his disdain for Upper Leadworth. We should all be so lucky to settle down in that lovely little house with the flower beds and mossy stones. Even with the roving packs of elderly zombies with eye stalks in their mouths.

Not one of the show's more effective monsters but I can see them being pretty unnerving for small children watching.

Twitter Sonnet #1157

Collected leaves infuse the little sea.
In silhouettes success inscribes the page.
The painting shows a heavy cup of tea.
Beneath the ground the roots retrieved an age.
On paper, sheets of clouds convert the skies.
A ticking egg alerts the pan to cool.
A trusty oil cooks or say it fries.
The gen'ral dance completes the deathless duel.
An open book disclosed a glassy case.
In timeless march the figures cut the clay.
Resolving sight discerns a soil base.
The digging plant recused the rainy day.
In layers soot preserves the glossy street.
Correct adjustment lifts the office seat.

Friday, September 21, 2018

The Re-connexion of Faye

An episode of Cowboy Bebop where many would say very little actually happens--no action sequences, murders, bounties, or scores settled--turns out to be one of the more crucial episodes of the series. The loop is finally closed between the past and the present with the former reasserting itself, making it clear that, despite the strange and scrambled surface, the past is always an integral part of the present.

Session Eighteen: Speak Like a Child

The episode begins with an amusing juxtaposition: Faye (Megumi Hayashibara) trying her luck at the horse races intercut with Spike (Koichi Yamadera) trying to catch a fish from the deck of the Bebop. Just as it seems both are about to succeed, both ultimately fail: Faye's horse narrowly loses and Spike's fish breaks free of the line just as he's reeling it in.

At the same time, while hanging up laundry behind Spike, Jet (Unsho Ishizuka) is telling a story to Edward (Aoi Tada), the Japanese folk tale Urashima Taro. This is interesting on a couple levels; here we have Jet, the eldest member of the crew, passing a tale along to the youngest member, Edward, not unlike the way in which folk tales must have been handed down for generations. Then there's the content of the story itself; similar to "Rip Van Winkle", it's about a man who's taken to a fantastic dream palace after saving a turtle and in the process he skips over many years. He's given a strange box called a Tamatebako when he returns home and he's told not to open it. We don't find out what's in the box in the Cowboy Bebop episode but in some versions of the story the box causes the man to transform or instantly age.

In a sense, this is the story of "Speak Like a Child", which ends with Faye finally getting a sense of her past. For the first time she becomes, in a way, the old woman she is. We learned earlier, in "My Funny Valentine", that Faye had been in stasis for decades, that she'd had a life before the hyperspace gate explosion that forever altered the solar system, but she had no memory of that life. Like many episodes in the latter half of Cowboy Bebop, an item from the past turns up and has an important role in this episode, in this case a videotape which turns out to be Faye's own Tamatebako.

But she runs away from it without seeing it because she can't pay Jet back for the cash on delivery charges. Instead it's Spike and Jet who go on the journey to discover its meaning, to find an antique Betamax that will actually play the thing. After an amusing scene with an antique technology dealer, the two decide to go all the way to Earth, which, when Edward mentions this to Faye, leads Faye the conclusion exactly opposite to the reality--she thinks they've run away from her. As Gren told her in "Jupiter Jazz", she thinks she can lightly run away from this new family of hers but she cares more than she thinks she does. She's indignant and hurt that Spike and Jet have left her so far behind. Little does she know they're doing it for her.

We're not told this directly, likely the men aren't even admitting it to themselves. But when we know they're broke, it seems hardly cost effective to spend fuel going all the way to Earth just to find out what's on a videotape, however valuable it might end up being if they somehow found the right dealer. Nonetheless, when Faye does come back and they finally have a player for the tape, Jet won't let her watch it unless she repays the delivery charges and Faye, once again, assumes she can just walk away from debt she's incurred through no real fault of her own. But she can't resist watching in secret so she sees the extraordinary time capsule she made for herself.

It's not just footage of the girl Faye once was, it's the younger Faye actually speaking to the older Faye. The young Faye asks questions about who her friends will be, what kind of life she'll be leading. She doesn't realise just how vast a gulf of time and memory there'll be between her past and future selves. But that gives her words an unintended, remarkable potency: "I am no longer here. But I'm here to-day and I'll always be cheering for you right here. Cheering for you, my only self." The past is gone but the past is also always present, just like the story of a Tamatebako that inevitably repeats itself.

...

This entry is part of a series of entries I’m writing on Cowboy Bebop for its 20th anniversary. I’m reviewing 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

Thursday, September 20, 2018

To Film a Predator

For all its problems, 2018's The Predator actually has some ideas to chew on, ideas that are surprisingly against the grain. Badly put together action sequences nerfed by poor cgi aren't improved by a completely forgettable performance from Boyd Holbrook. But the supporting cast, particularly Thomas Jane, Keegan-Michael Key, and Trevante Rhodes, really shines in this story about people and aliens who like to kill.

Like seemingly everyone else in the world, the trailers for this movie didn't impress me, but then I saw the Comic Con panel and I was charmed by the cast's chemistry. Director Shane Black seems like he took care to see that the ensemble actually built a relationship and it comes through in the movie. To the point where even actors I didn't especially like, like Holbrook and Olivia Munn, were a valuable part of the group because of their unlikeable qualities.

It's ironic the film has been in the news because an actor cast in a minor role, Steve Wilder, whose Wikipedia entry is inexplicably marked for deletion, was revealed to have been convicted of trying to "lure a 14-year-old girl into a sexual relationship". Olivia Munn, who shared the now deleted scene with Wilder, has expressed her horror in interviews while Shane Black initially defended his casting of Wilder before finally apologising for it. Munn has stated in interviews that she doesn't know why Black hasn't apologised to her personally which I find rather surprising. She speaks as though she were assaulted but I have to wonder how many of us have bought a coffee from or talked casually to someone who's done time for a felony? It begs the question, in this woke world, how are convicted offenders supposed to be treated? Should they be denied careers or can they be permitted the chance to become productive members of society?

And that's in large part what the movie's about. When McKenna (Holbrook) makes first contact with the Predator, he's framed and shuffled away by the government in a cover up effort and he ends up on a bus with the miscreants who become the film's heroes. They include at least one man, Nebraska (Trevante Rhodes), who's a murderer; he recalls fondly the time he bumped off his C.O. just because he felt like it.

There's an obvious parallel set up between these humans who kill for their own satisfaction and this alien who's on Earth to hunt humans for fun. There's also a thread about biological improvements being mistaken for disorders: McKenna's son is autistic which, in usual movie logic, makes him able to understand and manipulate alien technology and there's a line from Munn, who plays a biologist, about how some speculate autism represents a next stage in evolution. That's what the movie's glossy version certainly seems like but I'm not sure it's really constructive. Maybe if it sways some anti-vaxxers we can say some good came out of it. But saying autistic kids should be able to solve complex equations in an alien typography puts a lot of pressure on kids.

What the movie needed more of is Thomas Jane. His character's Tourette's is played for laughs but in a credible way, the way it would be among a bunch of lower class guys busting each other's balls. Jane infuses the performance with a natural, anxious, and oddly contented sadness. The relationship between his and Keegan-Michael Key's character as two fucked-up survivors who support each other is pretty sweet.

A lot of the story is really predictable and the Super CGI Predator lacks all the live action weight of the original. But it's a pleasure watching this cast play off one another.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Caesar in Dreams

All arguments between advocates for republics and enforcers of tyranny may be moot if all is controlled by capricious supernatural elements. The best part of Stuart Burge's 1970 adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is its sense of the dreamlike and the fantastic, the very palpable influence the stars really do have on mortal faults. But it's got a great cast, too, and despite cutting too much from the text I really don't think this one deserves its bad reputation.

Calpurnia's (Jill Bennett) dream sequence is terrific, for one thing, with pulsing fade ins and outs of footage of mobs, Caesar's bust actually bleeding in a dark void, and Christopher Lee as Artemidorus intoning his warning for Caesar about the conspirators. He never actually gets a chance to speak his warning in waking life in this version but it works a lot better as part of the dream. The echo effect on his voice and the soothsayer's ("Beware the Ides of March . . .!") reminds me of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland in a very positive way.

It really emphasises the incredible number of portents in this play where soothsayers, birds, the weather, and dreams are constantly trying to talk to the characters. If, as Cassius (Richard Johnson) says, the fault really is "not in our stars but in ourselves," it's not for lack of the stars trying.

That famous line is rarely quoted in full, "The fault (dear Brutus) is not in our Stars but in our Selves, that we are underlings." The reason Cassius is typically portrayed as a villain is that he, unlike Brutus, is motivated at least partially by his pride but he really doesn't deserve to be played like Snidely Whiplash, which Richard Johnson kind of does here. A lot of what he says makes sense in light of the fact that Caesar is becoming a dictator in what has long been a proud republic.

Why should that name be sounded more then yours
Write them together: Yours, is as faire a Name:
Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well:
Weigh them, it is as heauy: Coniure with 'em,
Brutus will start a Spirit as soone as Caesar.
Now in the names of all the Gods at once,
Vpon what meate doth this our Caesar feede,
That he is growne so great? Age, thou art sham'd.
Rome, thou hast lost the breed of Noble Bloods.
When went there by an Age, since the great Flood,
But it was fam'd with more then with one man?

There's a television production with Peter Cushing as Cassius I'd dearly like to get my hands on.

There are several Hammer regulars in this production too, though. In addition to Christopher Lee, Andre Morell, my favourite Quatermass, plays Cicero, though if you blink you'll miss him. All of his dialogue was cut, you just see him walk past the screen in one shot, his role reduced to a curiously overcast cameo. In the play, he has dialogue with Casca about the weather, maybe Burge felt the storm effects worked well enough on their own. But Cicero's line, "But men may construe things after their fashion, clean from the purpose of the things themselves," is a nice thing to keep in mind while watching the play. It speaks to the conflicting motives of the conspirators which itself reflects the potential faults in decisions made by a group of people against a single clear vision like a Caesar's. The famous scene where Mark Antony sways the crowd after Brutus has spoken over Caesar's corpse shows just how much readier a crowd is to believe in a person than a principle.

Which makes Brutus' faith in a Roman love for republic so tragic. You might say it should've been obvious Antony would win the crowd over when the spectacle of Caesar's corpse is right there in front of them, but it only goes to show how much belief Brutus has in his own reasons and the capacity for other people to reason. He forgets how people might "construe things after their fashion".

Roger Ebert considered Jason Robards as Brutus to be a big weak point in the film, calling him "wooden". He's really no better or worse than he is in Once Upon a Time in the West or Melvin and Howard; I think the woodenness Ebert talks about is Robards' deliberate decision to make Brutus seem dispassionate. Here's a man who would murder a man he loves for a principle. The contrast between his performance and the others', though, may have a lot to do with the fact that he's an American in an otherwise almost entirely British cast who deliver their lines with the creativity of inflection and love of the language characteristic of traditional British stage actors. But there are other Americans in the cast who fit in better, including Robert Vaughn as Casca and Charlton Heston as Mark Antony.

While Robert Johnson maintains a straightforwardly villainous portrayal of Cassius, Heston takes the opportunity of playing Antony to deliver a more morally ambiguous character than he often had chance to at this stage of his career. His grief is sincere on beholding Caesar's corpse but he also luxuriates in an opulent picnic on the battlefield. It's one of those things that makes Antony seem like Charles II and Brutus like Oliver Cromwell by contrast and, indeed, I found myself thinking of the movie Cromwell which was released the same year. Alec Guinness' portrayal of Charles I is pretty restrained and Richard Harris is more more fiery than Robards here but obviously the story has a lot of philosophical similarities.

The cast of this Julius Caesar also includes Diana Rigg who's very memorable in a brief appearance as Portia; Michael Gough as one of the conspirators, making the most of only a couple lines; and John Gielgud plays Caesar himself, solid as always.

Twitter Sonnet #1156

In crimson steam the chain redeemed an eye.
For climbing rocks the newt awards a bike.
In circuits placid tigers eat the pie.
Through cloudy paints will thinner lightning strike.
A hollow hit resounds from golden bells.
But lucky storms return the ship to port.
An octopus contrives galactic Hells.
The snow returns to take the hidden fort.
The only legs support the speckled fawn.
Beneath the candy screen a movie plays.
Enchanted keys collect the doughnut dawn.
The bobbing frigate cleanly missed her stays.
A sinking flag was winking over waves.
The ocean rears a canny brace of knaves.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Calling for Months

Better Call Saul took some surprisingly big leaps forward last night, bringing it much closer to Breaking Bad. But the leaps were done in such a way that writer Alison Tatlock and director Deborah Chow clearly showed evolutions in character relationships to make the tipping points very effective.

Spoilers after the screenshot

The months pass in split screen and we see Kim (Rhea Seehorn) and Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) diverge in careers and lifestyle even as they continue to live and sleep together. It's nicely done, like watching Kane and his wife gradually sitting further apart at the breakfast table in Citizen Kane. Jimmy goes from putting the paste on Kim's toothbrush to not even eating with her.

So then it makes sense that there's suddenly a culture clash between them. They grew apart so gradually that Jimmy springing the news that he'd been selling drop phones is a severe shock. I love how uncomfortable Kim looks in that scene, you can tell she's absolutely repulsed and wants to be a million miles away from Jimmy.

Who'd have thought Huell (Lavel Crawford) would have such an important role. The scene where he hits that cop over the head with a bag of sandwiches is just the right mixture of sad, funny, and credible. And then, against all odds, Kim does find a point of interest in the case; it seems Huell is facing "unequal justice", the prosecutor aiming for an unusual amount of jail time, the implication being that institutional racism is at work. The episode ends with a tease that Kim has cooked up something clever but the real axe hanging over the episode is the sense that, rather than drawing Jimmy and Kim back together, it'll be the final wake-up call that drives them apart. It's a testament to how well done this show is that you understand both points of view--Kim wanting to help people and have a stable career and Jimmy wanting respect and a job that challenges him. These two simple differences in motive are exacerbated by the characters belonging to two different cultures now, as highlighted in the office party at the beginning where Jimmy embarrasses Kim.

And he has business cards now that rhyme "call" with "Saul", an omen of the fate the show's promised from the beginning. The inevitability nicely plays off the complexity of the characters so that you feel how deeply sad it is that Jimmy is trapped.