Monday, November 12, 2018

Another Animated Rose

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

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

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

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

And, oh, those backgrounds.

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

Twitter Sonnet #1174

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

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Demons in the Flowers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Highwaymen in Shiny Coats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 09, 2018

A Long Way to See Colour

The surprisingly mild adventures of a time traveller unfold in the new anime series Iroduku: The World in Colours* (色づく世界の明日から). A pretty show about a teenage girl sent from the future to 2018 by her grandmother, it introduces a few ideas for dramatic tension and then rapidly dissolves them into almost a slice-of-life series. The sixth episode airs to-morrow, the first five are available on Amazon Prime.

Hitomi Tsukishiro (Kaori Ishihara) is colour blind and emotionally repressed. She hates magic though she lives in a world where magic is commonplace and her grandmother (Sumi Shimamoto) is a powerful witch. In an effort to perk her up, her grandmother sends her back in time so Hitomi can get to know her grandmother when she was the same age.

After a Miyazaki-ish ride in a magic time travelling bus, Hitomi arrives in the bedroom of a 2018 teenage boy, Yuito Aoi (Shoya Chiba). She's caught on camera leaving the place by a couple of photography students.

The misunderstanding is cleared up pretty quickly and no-one freaks out. Before long, Hitomi has joined the photography club where Yuito is also a member. Yuito's also an artist and for some reason Hitomi can see colour when looking at his tablet paintings. I don't suppose these two could look any more fated for each other if they literally discovered they were tied to two ends of a red thread.

But most of the show is small talk about club activities, cooking, and polite questions about the backgrounds of characters in the club. There is a sweetness to it as Hitomi is encouraged by her friends to be more outgoing though her shyness is very moe, played up for its cuteness. The concept of the grandmother feeling her own past experiences can be therapeutic for her grandmother is kind of interesting, though. And although the animation gets cheap pretty fast and some of the backgrounds are clearly treated photographs it's a really pretty show. Background painters for Japanese series seem to churn out one lush, flowery wilderness after another. The series is set in Nagasaki; I wonder if there are really so many flowers in Nagaski in spring.

*That's the English title, anyway. The Japanese title is Irozuku--there is no "du" sound in Japanese. Why someone thought "du" would suit English speaking audiences better than "zu" I have no idea.

Twitter Sonnet #1173

Horizons dip beneath a greenish sphere.
A verdant brain devolves to perfect curve.
The burning star ignites a little near.
Compelled to cook the sky will surely serve.
A stalwart hull would hardly ever rust.
At waiting stations cars were speeding up.
A fashion carved the final marble bust.
For ice was plastic pieces filled the cup.
Debuts in questioned plaid await the brush.
Disciples burn a careful bag of gum.
Included souls won't hear the heavy hush.
Behind the numbered drapes a velvet sum.
The colours changed to patterns took the coat.
A blurry picture sunk the sharper boat.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

The Enduring Car

Ah, to cruise from London to Brighton in the 50s in a car from the turn of the twentieth century. I wouldn't have been opposed to the idea before but now it seems irresistible thanks to 1953's Genevieve. Not that the central characters of the film seem to appreciate it, constantly arguing and making up and arguing again. But the writers find amusing pretexts for their disagreements and sweet solutions for their coming together again.

The film follows two couples but primarily the married Alan and Wendy McKim (John Gregson and Dinah Sheridan, respectively). She's tired of riding along every year in his 1904 Darracq for a rally held by a veteran car club. The two have a silly argument but she finally gives in when she's discovered he's bought her a new hat for the occasion. Well, it is a nice hat.

Their friend and Alan's rival is the demurely named Ambrose Claverhouse (Kenneth More) who's driving a 1905 Spyker with his girlfriend, Rosalind (Kay Kendall in her breakout role). The two are just a bit snootier than the lovably dysfunctional McKims, except for one odd but entertaining scene where Rosalind gets drunk and plays a trumpet.

There's surprisingly little rear projection for the driving scenes, as evidenced by this shot accidentally incorporating the shadow of a boom microphone:

So there's plenty of footage of London and the countryside from the time. Watching the crowds is fun, too; they don't seem to be hired extras and clearly have their eyes on the film's stars and the camera crew.

It's a pleasant film, the climax surprisingly getting explicit about the otherwise implicit love for the past in a very sweet way. The main plot involves a car chase but I don't recommend watching this movie for the action.

There is a cameo by the TARDIS:

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Real Folks

Carrying over from the previous episode, questions about the real nature of home and family underlie the action in the penultimate episode of Cowboy Bebop.

Session Twenty Five: The Real Folk Blues Part 1

The title comes from the title of the show's end theme which, in turn, comes from the title of Muddy Waters' 1966 compilation album, The Real Folk Blues. The first track of which is "Mannish Boy", an intriguingly unstable concept.

Moving from eggs to alcohol, Spike (Koichi Yamadera) and Jet (Unsho Ishizuka) are still trying to get over the departure of their crewmates. Jet tries to put up a front, saying the others only got in the way, while Spike remains quiet. The uncertainty of how much the crew of the Bebop means to each other makes the character drama especially effective in the last few episodes.

After Jet gets shot in the leg, Spike calls Faye (Megumi Hayashibara), demanding she come back to help out. Faye is indignant, pointing out there's no reason for her not to go off on her own if she decides to. When she does come back, Spike spots her hesitating at his door, and presumes she wants money for information. There's a back and forth with both characters, one moment instinctively reaching for the crew as a family, the next moment treating their relationship as casual and opportunistic as the terms on which it had been introduced. They've grown fond of each other but, lacking the confirmation of traditional expressions and labels of affection and family, their relationship is unstable. Anyone could just walk out any time like Edward did.

This is underlined by two chance encounters Faye has when she's wandering alone. When she's at a space port, she happens to overhear a conversation between a man and his mother--he's trying to convince his mother that he really wants to live with her and help her out in her old age, though she feels guilty for imposing on him. The man turns out to be none other than Punch (Tsutomu Tareki), one of the hosts of the hyper, post-modern TV show Big Shot. A show that provided information on bounties for bounty hunters, it featured Punch and Judy (Miki Nagasawa), named for the traditional European puppet show, dressed in ridiculous, stagey cowboy attire. We'd seen the show cancelled two episodes earlier, in "Brain Scratch", and now Faye is understandably taken aback to see this zany fellow has a normal family. Much more normal than hers, as we know from her vain attempt in the previous episode to reconnect with the home on Earth she grew up in.

The other chance encounter Faye has is with Julia (Gara Takashima), the love of Spike's life, who finally has a speaking role in this episode. Faye doesn't even know who she is when she instinctively decides to help her fend off some black suited syndicate gunmen. It's a nice car chase, with Faye carefully firing off single shots to pop their pursuers' tyres instead of randomly blasting away.

This is another sudden physical manifestation of a reality behind a story, though Faye at least had some idea of who Julia is from Spike's few words on the subject. Everything's coming to the surface now. Meanwhile, Vicious (Norio Wakamoto) is taking over the syndicate, Spike's old family, and Spike finds he has one ally there in Shin (Nobuyuki Hiyama), the brother of Lin, who'd died in "Jupiter Jazz". Another sudden reappearance representing a family. All of these things forcing the characters to evaluate their places and their relationships move events into the final episode.

...

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
Session Nineteen
Session Twenty
Session Twenty One
Session Twenty Two
Knockin' on Heaven's Door
Session Twenty Three
Session Twenty Four

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Art in the Noise

"No machine ever produced as much as it consumed," says one character in Orson Welles' 2018 film The Other Side of the Wind. Considering the decades since principal photography was completed on the film and the money expended in legal battles in the effort to get it finished and released, the quote may well apply to the film itself. But you can't really measure great art against quantitative things like time or money, to paraphrase William S. Burroughs on the subject of souls*. Certainly the soul of Orson Welles is in this film; bitter and critical about himself, filmmaking, and the culture of filmmakers and the people who surround them. It's a movie about movies about movies--better than that, it's the story about an artist lost in a world where people insist on foisting their interpretations on his art to elevate or flatter themselves.

At the centre of the film is a director, Jake Hannaford, modelled on a particular kind of 20th century macho auteur with John Huston perfectly cast in the role, gamely playing up the man's casual, easy going cruelty. Welles claimed Ernest Hemmingway primarily as the model. It's a character that resembles Welles less than most people would say, though Hannaford is a lot like Welles' character in Touch of Evil, particularly when he shares the screen with a Marlene Dietrich-ish character played by Lilli Palmer, who, like Dietrich in Touch of Evil, sadly and coolly makes pronouncements on Hannaford's self-destructiveness.

But as a character, he's better suited to making a point Welles makes with the film about the divide between the artist and the people in his or her orbit. Mostly the film follows Hannaford and a host of friends, collaborators, and journalists at the man's seventieth birthday party, a party for which he has the ulterior motive of securing funding for his film also called The Other Side of the Wind. To questions and opinions about himself and his work he's cagey, mean, funny, and charming--all ways of diverting people from their attempts of reducing him to something easy to print, some juicy interpretation that they can make hay from while conveniently obscuring his actual intent.

Susan Strasberg plays a character purportedly based on Pauline Kael but she misinterprets Hannaford's work in much the way Laura Mulvey misinterpreted Vertigo, assuming a story about a flawed man is meant to degrade women. The film within a film, which is intended as a parody of Antonioni and New Wave filmmaking in general, includes, as being a rough cut, audio of Hannaford gleefully instructing his leading actress (Oja Kodar) to enact castration fantasies.

It may have been meant as a parody of Antonioni but the film within a film is still remarkably beautiful, indeed capturing some of the kind of sharp edged, sepulchral beauty Antonioni excelled at. Much of it consisting of the naked woman wandering a desert and the dilapidated MGM backlot--where Welles and his crew apparently shot covertly without permission.

Hannaford may only be vainly attempting to stay relevant yet, even if that's true, he still creates something more beautiful and rewarding than the swarm of hangers on at the party, even if that party consumes ten times the raw material.

The Other Side of the Wind is on Netflix.

Twitter Sonnet #1172

In purchased rounds the ghosts deliver drinks.
Across the bar a heavy hand's at rest.
In saving time the hour slowly sinks.
A later start to-day is surely best.
The sky of strings combine to make an Earth.
Tomato kits illume the garden's seed.
Against legumes a bread has measured worth.
The wild flowers watched a fateful deed.
A water picture backs against the card.
The tiny trees became a closet nail.
A thousand bulbs collect a single shard.
In sordid seas the cake became a whale.
Accosted wind replays the storied hair.
A space of years confirmed the movie rare.

*There are no honourable bargains
Involving exchange
Of qualitative merchandise
Like souls
For quantitative merchandise
Like time and money.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Crossing the Old Bridge

In light of the frighteningly polarised political landscape in the U.S. to-day, it's strange to think there's a movie from 1984 called Once Upon a Time in America that starred Robert De Niro and James Woods as best friends. In 2018, De Niro has been targeted by a mail bomber for publicly denouncing President Trump and Woods' support of Trump has seen him reposting right wing conspiracy theories on Twitter, including a claim that the bombs were hoaxes. But that's not all that makes the film a freshly compelling commentary on America. Director Sergio Leone made a beautiful picture, visually and thematically; it's a subtle tragedy about the American love for independence gone wrong.

The story of a group of poor kids in New York who become gangsters feels in some ways like an extended version of the flashbacks in The Godfather Part II. Instead of Vito Corleone, Robert De Niro plays David "Noodles" Aaronson--Noodles is played by an intense kid named Scott Tiler when he's younger. Tiler looks a bit more like Al Pacino, if you ask me.

The film is surprisingly frank about the formative sexual experiences of Noodles and his friends. There's a girl named Peggy (Julie Cohen) who trades sexual favours with the boys for pastries. The scene where she's introduced, when Noodles leaves the door unlocked on purpose while he's on the toilet and she walks in, effectively establishes the curiosity and insecurity of both kids. A later scene, where Noodles and Max catch a cop in a compromising situation with a prostitute, shows neither boy can perform sexually in a way that matches up with his bragging.

Max is the character played by Woods in the scenes where he's older--young Max is played by Rusty Jacobs with visible acne; a nice touch, I thought, to establish Woods' pock marks. In any case, with the uniform perfect skin in movies to-day, it's always nice to check in with the reality in 70s and early 80s films.

Max is slightly older, or at any rate taller, and more ambitious than Noodles. Woods has banner art from Once Upon a Time in America on his Twitter page now making me wonder if he feels Max's involvement with unions and eventual success in politics fits the model of a modern Democrat. One could as easily compare him to Trump, though--really, more easily, as Trump's real estate schemes and courting of blue collar votes combine to make him look especially like a gangster--his tacky personal style sealing the deal.

Noodles is accused by Max of having too much of the street in him--Noodles is happy to stay out of politics. Since most of the movie is from his point of view, he's relatively quiet, and he wants to stay small time, the viewer feels naturally compelled to see him as a moral centre but Leone's telling a more complicated story than that. Noodles assaults men and women to get his way. We understand why he is the way he is well enough to empathise with him--when he goes too far, it's saddening more than repulsive. We understand what motivates him, we see how his simple understanding of the world came together on the streets, learning from petty crimes and peep holes to get what he wants quick. The only question is if he really has any choice and this question is generally posed in scenes between Noodles and Deborah.

Played by Jennifer Connelly as a kid and Elizabeth McGovern as an adult, she seems to present an ideal in contrast to the childish operations of the kid gangsters. He watches her through a peep hole but it's to watch her dance ballet. Not that she's a prude--when she invites him to study the bible with her it turns out she wants to read from "Song of Solomon" with him. But she's no Peggy and when Max calls him away she makes it clear he's choosing between two worlds. Will he choose a path that forces him to consider others or a path where he forces everyone to defer to him?

I love all the apples and pears behind her in the scene.

Leone rather brilliantly evokes old New York in his shots, exploiting locations well.

Ennio Morricone's beautiful score has some of the grand wistfulness of the one he composed for Once Upon a Time in the West, his main theme playing at times that at first seem inappropriate. But the big, sweeping melody playing over a kid compulsively eating the éclair he'd bought for Peggy and that same melody playing over the aftermath of a rape scene later in the film unify the commonplace with the horrific. There are all these stupid, silly, terrible, beautiful, and ugly pieces under this same melody. The exact same recording in one scene that seems to celebrate what is will in another scene lament what has been lost. The story’s not linear—we get shots of older Noodles in the 70s at the beginning of the film and scenes from the 20s and 30s mixed with the 10s and 70s throughout. What’s lost becomes suddenly present again and then lost again in a moment with a closeup of De Nero’s eyes.