Monday, March 31, 2014

A Major Motion Picture for the Heiress' Scrapbook

Acting isn't as easy as you might think. Kids are particularly bad at it, most of the time. But we live in a post-Dakota Fanning era when the former child actress and her siblings have altered the landscape with surprisingly effective performances. But it wasn't so long ago, 1995, that Alfonso Cuaron directed A Little Princess, a sadly Americanised adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel. That the film possesses some charm in spite of this dubious creative decision is surprising enough. More impressive is that it survived the extraordinarily terrible performance of its lead.

Keen eyes will spot subtle variations in Sara Crewe's facial expressions.

This was Cuaron's first English language film and I suspect he had very little control over it. Sara Crewe was portrayed by Liesel Matthews, now known as Liesel Pritzker Simmons. Her Wikipedia entry lists her current occupation as "heiress to the Hyatt Hotels fortune, and philanthropist." What sort of philanthropy? "Liesel Pritzker is the founder of Young Ambassadors for Opportunity (YAO), a network of young professionals who aim to inspire, educate, and involve others in microfinance and the work of Opportunity International." Microfinance meaning financing small businesses, apparently. She also sued her father over a dispute regarding her trusts and got $280 million dollars as a result. It's wrong to judge from a Wikipedia entry but I don't think I would like Mrs. Simmons very much if I met her.

Maybe she should sue her parents for forcing her into acting at a young age because judging from the enthusiasm on display in A Little Princess I really don't think an acting career was ever her idea.

And I need hardly mention that the American Pritzker has the wrong accent for the English Sara Crewe.

She and her father, portrayed decently enough by future Game of Thrones man Liam Cunningham (looking really strange without a beard), are still supposed to be English in the movie but the Victorian London school of the book becomes a school in 1910 New York, apparently as an ode to a 1939 adaptation of the book starring Shirley Temple. I haven't seen that movie--and I haven't read the book either--but it's bizarre how much the structure of people's lives in the 1995 film feels displaced from Victorian London--the school is in a neighbourhood of terraced houses closer to the British variety than the American equivalent. The school has a staff of servants who work in a basement kitchen, larder, and scullery.

But of course, this is a kid's movie and if you're a kid you're probably not going to know or care about this sort of thing. The fact is, a lot of the supporting staff does a good job of taking this child's world with child's logic seriously, especially Eleanor Bron as the headmistress who manages to make being provoked by a small child and keeping her locket out of spite seem like a credible character.

Cuaron moves the story along briskly but not awkwardly and there's a real beauty to a lot of the production design. He almost overcomes the dead weight of his star.

True Detective Follow Up BONUS ENTRY

Having written my own review yesterday, I started looking at the reviews and analyses other people have written about True Detective. This negative review on io9 of the final episode complains the villain is revealed to be a white trash stereotype, adding, "Then he traipses over to his mansion, speaking in a variety of accents for no discernible reason," forgetting apparently that this is something white trash stereotypes don't do. But more importantly, the author of the article didn't realise the character was putting on just one accent, specifically James Mason's accent--we had seen him watching Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest in which Mason plays the villain. And that movie--and especially the scene the character's watching--is about a man who finds himself in a lot of trouble because the villains presume he is not Roger Thornhill, advertising man, but George Kaplan, secret government agent. It's an identity Thornhill is forced into against his will. Then consider the villain of True Detective's line to Cohle when he's trying to kill him, about Cohle "taking his mask off". But of course, Cohle can't do that because he's a True Detective. It's the villains of True Detective who are hypocrites and phoneys.

Also, in criticising the very end of the episode, the author of the article says the end of David Lynch's Blue Velvet is played for irony. While there is an irony in the pretty, peaceful Lumberton neighbourhood having a lot of disgusting insects underneath, the point of the mechanical bird at the end holding a big insect in its mouth is not to suggest there's a phoniness in Jeffrey and Sandy's happiness at the end. The point is that those two have learned to accept darkness as part of reality and an integral part of the beauty of reality that they love.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Man Pared Down

Not a battle between good and evil but a battle between values and valour--that's True Detective. A show that gave me exactly what I asked for--a series where every episode was written by one person, every episode was directed by one person. It's because of that, I think, the show has such extraordinary narrative coherence. The eight episodes fit together tightly to nicely deliver a story on the conflict between people who handle the treachery of existence in different ways.

Superficially, you could describe the show as a cross between Twin Peaks and The Wicker Man but thematically it's more like Dirty Harry meets the Cthulu cult.

True Detective's director, Cary Joji Fukunaga, said, "I always ask, how did David Lynch do 'Twin Peaks'? Did they do it episodically, did they take breaks?" Well, certainly David Lynch took breaks. Of the thirty episodes of Twin Peaks, David Lynch directed only six. Two of those episodes were two hours long and he directed Fire Walk With Me, the prequel movie that followed the series, so he provided around ten hours of Twin Peaks compared to the eight True Detective episodes Fukunaga made. But in being broken up by episodes from a series of directors with more commonplace faculties of imagination, Lynch was forced to work around dumb ideas, some of them outright undoing some of his initial work, such as his characterisation of the relationship between Agents Cooper and Rosenfield which goes from charmingly weird to dully contentious. It's part of Cooper's descent from an amoral lover of life to fussy, boring do-gooder.

True Detective begins with a murder scene not unlike the one from Twin Peaks--a young beautiful woman is found tied up having been raped and murdered. But instead of seeing her discovery by a civilian portrayed by an actor with a performance as distinctive as Jack Nance's, we start with the detectives already at the crime scene. And her body is not covered by plastic and we don't see her face or learn her identity for some time.

Masks and the fundamentally illusory nature of identity are a major part of the story. The series title, True Detective, is very appropriate because its protagonists, police detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson), demonstrate how they are fundamentally detectives by nature. Even when they aren't officially employed in that capacity, even when they have every reason in the world not to go on with their work, they keep going, almost like an addiction.

Incidentally, I'd like to thank Jameson Irish Whiskey for being the most conspicuous whiskey on the show and so presumably being the most generous sponsor. We see Captain Morgan and Jim Beam and Macallan but Cohle and Hart have a very clear favourite.

Going back to the first murder victim for a moment, the only real complaint I have about the series is its attitude towards women. Aside from Hart's wife and daughters, a woman he cheats on his wife with, and a woman confessing to infanticide, every woman on the show is a prostitute or stripper with no characterisation beyond that. Hart's mistress gets no characterisation beyond the fact that she's kinky and has no illusions about a lasting relationship with Hart. And Hart's wife, Maggie (Michelle Monaghan), comes from the Don Siegel cop movie tradition of the woman who's not much more than a thorn in the side of the male protagonist. Though at least in this case Maggie seems quite reasonable in being angry with her adulterous husband and she provides some genuine insight into his character by explaining that his actions come from the fact that he never really figured out who he was.

Detective Hart is kind of the fulcrum of the story and, as the episodes progress, his choice between going in with Cohle's camp and going in with the hollowness of Christianity in the American south is the main but subtle method the show uses to get its ideas across.

Cohle is much further down the road, the death of his child and his subsequent divorce have left him a self-described "pessimist"--he sees no salvation, he rests everything on his own resolve and integrity, things which only waver due to the sinister temptation of a woman's body. The villains of the series seem to use a form of pagan ritual to reveal the full nature of women to be the sexuality of their bodies. If it weren't for the aforementioned insight Maggie demonstrates early on it would almost seem like series writer Nic Pizzolatto agrees with the villains on that point.

Hart finds Cohle's secularism vulgar and offensive. His hypocrisy at the beginning of the series echoes the larger hypocrisy of the network of Christian administrators throughout the southern states whose conspiracy hides a culture of ritual sacrifice.

The performances of the leads on this show are crucial so it's good that talents as renowned as McConaughey and Harrelson were drawn to it. There are special effects, there are action sequences, there's gore, but one of the things I loved most about this series is how much of it is portrayed through Cohle's and Hart's reactions. Because a special effect, however good it is, is always going to be a special effect. The emotional reality of Hart's reaction to a video tape he's shown--which we don't see--is always going to be more effective. And I would put that down to the H.P. Lovecraft influence on the show. So much of the sense of cold, vast, dangerous reality is conveyed by the impression of the characters' continuous consciousness of it.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Death is What Happens When You're Looking

Anime series, like most shows, used to be around 24 episodes per season but gradually that number has shrunk to twelve episodes or less. In anime, this is largely due to over-saturation and widespread undeniable mediocrity leading to loss of audience interest and therefore shrinking budgets. However, the first and perhaps only season of Kill la Kill has just concluded at 24 episodes. And, sadly, it ought to have stopped at around 12.

Even by twelve, the show had lost a lot of the creative vigour that made the first few episodes so interesting and was settling into a dull "fight of the week" format. But the plot ending with a berserker Ryuko facing her father's killer would have been a nice enough cap to a series that was mostly wonderfully surprising. After this, the show settles into a repetitive series of shifting allegiances in the character factions that both basically give us the same reveal again and again but, even worse, all but completely obliterate character distinctions.

To the point where the villain, Satsuki, becomes Ryuko's ally, then Ryuko becomes the villain, then they're allies again. It reminded me of Final Fantasy VIII where roles inhabited by characters would just wildly change from one chapter to the next with little regard for what happened before. Things seemed to be ruled by character designs and the idle thought, "Wouldn't it be cool to see this character doing this?"

But, although there's some cheap place-holder art presumably to be replaced when the episodes appear on DVD and Blu-Ray, the animation never stopped being extraordinary and far more exciting than most anime series even seem to know the concept of. And the artists never seemed to stop having fun. I didn't spot half the detail in this screenshot when I was watching the show.

Why is there a giant football? Why is someone dressed as an origami crane? It's never explained.

Twitter Sonnet #610

Wax edges melt into the sleeping mouth.
Black dishes slide over the pulled table.
Wet records break on breezes from the south.
Clouds fading like pictures become stable.
Chic bonobos pause for foreign cameras.
The cluster of tortoises are waiting.
A shadow suggests things to the zebras.
The macaw finds everything too grating.
Drafts littering the dragon's back blacken.
Smoke recalling cockatoos cries dryly.
Grey Skaro's leaves're easily broken.
Eyes process the darkest soil daily.
Ties dancing under striped chins lash the dew.
The loose-knit strait jackets wax a red hue.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Gorillas and Tortoises Contain Energy

I saw this snail at school yesterday wearing a blade of grass for a hat.

After school, I had to go to the zoo for a project on primates that was due in my anthropology class to-day. I had to write down my observations on the behaviours of three individuals of any primate species over the course of five minutes--and yes, the instructor remembered to specify that humans didn't count. I chose the gorillas.

There were two males and one female. This was the female. She came over the hill in the centre of the enclosure with her boyfriend and then sat munching leaves, watching the humans placidly, while the boyfriend, a big silverback, sat close to the glass, facing down the humans.

I swear this zebra was following me.

This ourang-outang seemed to love attention. She also rolled around on her back for the children.

Here's a leaping wolf's guenon:

But I think the most energetic animals I saw at the zoo were the turtles and tortoises. Relatively speaking. These cerro azul tortoises almost started to fight.

For some reason most of the sierra negra tortoises were clustered near the front of their enclosure.

Inside the reptile house, I had a better view of the alligator snapping turtle than I had last time I was there.

My hand for scale.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

One for the Plants

My identity crisis dinner from a couple nights ago--turnip fries and udon boiled with broccoli and onion seasoned with basil and oregano. It was pretty good--the turnip fries were nice and tender.

Last night I dreamt I was photographing some kind of face plant. It looked sort of like a cactus with thick limbs sprouting from its round, thick base but it had little, dark rusty joints. Most of it was a pale green. The faces were only on one side and were dark holes that looked like comedy and tragedy masks. I had to wait until sunset for the plant to bare the face side--it stood up then and kept the face side away from the sun. While I was waiting for it, I took photos of a bunch of girls dancing nearby in poodle skirts.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Only Lust in Town

One problem with firm belief is that it can create a narrow tunnel of reality, leading one seemingly inexorably to terrible things. In 1634, when an entire convent of nuns became obsessed with a priest who refused to take charge of the convent, their extreme, emotional reactions could only be interpreted as demonic possession. 1961's Mother Joan of the Angels (Matka Joanna od Aniołów) depicts the aftermath, after the priest who was the object of the nuns' desire was burned at the stake for witchcraft and another, consummately pious priest, is sent to the convent in an effort to exorcise the women. The narrow, dark path down which his beliefs lead him is beautifully and eerily rendered with stark black and white compositions of jagged shadows and minimalist, flaring whites.

It's unclear how much the nuns buy their own story. Most of them have no dialogue in the film, seen running, crying, or dancing chaotically behind their abbess, Mother Joan (Lucyna Winnicka), who mentions the several devils who possess her by name.

The film features a lot of shots directly from the perspective of Father Jozef (Mieczyslaw Voit) with the people he's speaking to looking directly at the camera. This has a remarkably eerie effect, particularly in one early scene where Joan, after concluding a seemingly normal conversation, suddenly turns and stares directly at us with a wicked grin.

Jozef quickly is overcome by anxiety. He flagellates himself; when he eats, he carefully slices his bread very thin, somehow believing large slices reflect gluttony. He doesn't go halfway, he believes in the demons completely. Desperate to find any means of removing them from the women, he consults with a local rabbi, also played by Mieczyslaw Voit.

It's an extraordinary scene consisting of alternating shots of the same actor in different costume, hair, and makeup, looking directly at the camera. Appropriately, the conversation sends Jozef in a conceptual loop as the rabbi asks him how Satan can possess anyone unless God wills it. But he begins the conversation by casually mentioning the behaviour of the nuns could simply be human nature--Jozef as a rabbi represents a reflection, conclusions drawn somewhere in his mind where he's afraid to look.

The rabbi tells him the story of a man whose soul possessed a girl who loved him after he died.

The only other nun in the movie with dialogue is the young and innocent Sister Malgorzata (Anna Ciepielewska) who alone in the convent seems untouched by the demons. Perhaps simply because she's not hip to the story the other nuns agreed on. Certainly Malgorzata's innocence doesn't lead her anywhere good.

Twitter Sonnet #609

The anamorphic limb held an actor.
Gold clarity brushed the shadow jungle.
Blue will-o'-the-wisps control the sector.
Bones beneath tell the wealth of Kris Kringle.
A television with three legs pops noise.
Wry goddesses behold red recliners.
An iPad glows Martian on anxious poise.
Chipped lenses irk telescope aligners.
Bananas behold a baleful horse near.
Organic misnomers mar the basin.
Ice crushes the hammer on the bad pier.
Expletives boil in the mute mason.
Cries resound from distant prosimians.
Green crayons denied on meridians.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Brief Martian Orbit

I saw a good episode of Veronica Mars in a movie theatre a few days ago. This new movie, famously funded by its fans through Kickstater, was directed by series creator Rob Thomas (not the Matchbox 20 guy, different Rob Thomas) and is filled almost entirely with two shots of people engaged in dialogue, feeling very much like a TV show in this era where TV shows are starting to feel like movies. But the dialogue was good and, as a fan of the series, I enjoyed seeing the characters again.

I saw it with my sister with whom I used to watch the series before it was cancelled in 2007 after its third season. We saw the movie at the nearby AMC where they have really amazing red upholstered recliner seats and a bar--I had a double Glenlivet, neat, which I had to remind the bartender meant without ice. But the seats alone made the experience nicer than staying at home where we could have watched the movie since it was released On Demand the same day it was released in theatres. I guess since fans were footing the bill, Warners decided this would be a good opportunity to experiment. The jury, from what I hear, is still out on whether or not this was successful.

But that means I can take screenshots, not that there are many interesting ones since, as I said, the film mostly seems to be two-shots. The virtue of Veronica Mars was always the dialogue and the character development. And the whodunits which were usually clever enough, and the movie features a decent murder mystery. Kristen Bell returns as Veronica and she's as good as ever though somehow I didn't feel as anchored in her point of view as I did when watching the show. The character, in the show and movie, gives voice over narration in homage to the classic noir style and for a series clearly aimed at teenagers it managed a nice enough ode to Raymond Chandler.

The first season, as a lot of shows seem to be doing lately, also took a great deal of inspiration from Twin Peaks--the season which also featured individual, one episode mysteries, featured a season-long mystery revolving around the murder of Veronica's friend Lilly played by Amanda Seyfried in flashbacks. Like Laura Palmer, Lilly was revealed to be a character beloved by and connected to many while also being caught up in something dark and terrible. As much as I like Amanda Seyfried (see Chloe), the flashbacks in the first season mainly served to instruct the viewer on why Twin Peaks was wise in avoiding flashbacks to the murder victim--the one time we see a flashback to Laura Palmer, in the second episode, directed by Duwayne Dunham, it came off really badly. But more importantly, it's hard to miss a character who won't go away.

The great thing about Veronica Mars was how strong the voice of Veronica was. She had plot and trope stuff attached to her--she had been raped by a mystery assailant, she was a girl detective. Bell and Thomas successfully made these aspects of a human life rather than cheap fodder for a young adult drama.

Veronica in the movie seemed like she needed a few more episodes to find her footing again. In the show, she had plenty of catty dialogue with people that was often compared to the work of Joss Whedon (who appeared in a cameo on the series). Her comebacks in the movie were a bit weak--like when one douchy, shirtless guy asks her if she had a breast job (Kirsten Bell has gotten noticeably and not unflatteringly curvier since the series) to which she lamely replies, "No, have you?" to the guy who appears to be in perfect shape.

But there are plenty of fun moments in the movie, like when Veronica gains access to a suspect's home by pretending to be a movie location scout or when her love interest, Logan (Jason Dohring), very obviously hides a camera in a Free Hugs hat.

There are a few nice celebrity cameos. James Franco plays himself--essentially the Hollywood egomaniac version of himself he played in This is the End.

But this really needed to be the premiere of a new season for the series rather than a movie. Even with sequels, I suspect Thomas and Bell won't be able to generate the narrative momentum necessary. Still, it was nice to see Veronica again.