Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Fire in the White Bread

Well, I'd like my final film review in 2015 to be for a good movie but I'm afraid I'm going to have to go ant-climactic here with the rather banal I Smile Back. Glancing at Rotten Tomatoes I see I'm far from alone in regarding this as a remarkable performance from Sarah Silverman in a rigorously unremarkable film.

She plays Laney, a very normal young mother who happens to be addicted to cocaine. Her husband, Bruce (Josh Charles), has apparently made a considerable fortune in his profession selling life insurance because they live with their two children in a massive town home in New York.

For the most part, the movie doesn't do anything wrong, following the dots on stereotypical aspects of addict behaviour--Laney's father abandoned her as a child leaving her with a lifelong feeling that everything she loves will go away and so she's afraid to love. She deals with her inability to indulge in feelings by medicating herself with the coke. She goes to rehab after an embarrassing episode where she collapsed on the bedroom floor, she tantrums a little once there, but she goes through the programme and eventually comes out.

It's all pretty standard stuff but Silverman is very good. It reminds me of some of Bill Murray's less remarkable films where the writing might not be great but he has a sort of smart sparkle that stands above everything. So when Laney's at a dinner party and can't resist making a snide comment about a rich old man's trophy wife, we're with her in chafing at the hypocrisy at the table despite the fact that it's a broadly stereotypical situation.

The last act of the film is pretty dull, run of the mill addict melodrama, including a rather unlikely scene where Laney's drug habit is discovered. But Silverman's performance is so anachronistically raw it holds the viewer's attention and makes one a little more willing to go along with an extraordinarily lazy screenplay.

I remember reading how Kevin Smith originally wanted to cast Silverman as the girlfriend in Clerks II but she turned it down because she didn't want to play The Girlfriend. She said if she'd been offered the role of Randal she'd have taken it. She clearly likes a role that makes demands on her. Hopefully she finds a film that matches her boldness.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Good Old Post Apocalypse

Well, I couldn't resist any longer, especially since Tim gave me a Steam giftcard for Christmas. Above is my Fallout 4 character, Vivian, she of the bony arms and enormous hands. Everyone has big hands and long forearms in this one like a hybrid race of humans and gibbons. Bethesda, the company who's been making the games since Fallout 3, is infamous for making ugly people in these and their Elder Scrolls games. But fortunately they're also well known for their support of the modding community and many of the cosmetic issues will very likely be fixed once Bethesda inevitably releases modding resources. Since the game uses the same engine as Skyrim, I imagine mods will be quickly and easily ported. What I don't understand is why Bethesda doesn't simply hire the people who are evidently much better at this then they are and are already working for free--oh, yeah. Capitalism. Separating the talent from the profit for centuries.

I do like the return to a very open ended character creation system. Choosing the sex for your character in this one means choosing between a man and woman of a married couple and you're able to change even the one you don't choose to use. So I was able to change these two:

Into these two:

The heads in the second picture aren't prefab, I spent time sculpting that creepy couple.

This reflects one of the more significant differences in this game--your character has a backstory and something of a personality in detail more like a Knights of the Old Republic or Mass Effect game than like a Bethesda game which usually takes pains to make your character as anonymous as possible, leaving everything to player interactions with other characters to create a personality for the player character. This time you do get dialogue choices that effect your character's personality but obviously you're working with baggage you don't have in the previous games--you start off in a heterosexual marriage so, if you can marry (even people of the same sex) as you can in Skyrim, this history is likely to have some bearing. Your character also, like in BioWare games, has fully voiced responses in dialogue, unlike in Bethesda games past, and also like the BioWare games the responses you choose tend to be rephrased by the character, an idea BioWare came up with that has always perplexed me. The rephrasings chosen by the character often significantly change the meaning of the dialogue option you choose thereby making the process seem slightly pointless. But I do like the feeling that the character is more part of the game world. It's a sacrifice of gaming freedom for storytelling, a balance that RPG games are always experimenting with.

This is the first Fallout game to begin before the nuclear war that turns the world into the wasteland one explores in the game. We witness firsthand the alternate reality where nuclear power really took off in the 1950s in the way many fantasised about, leading to a modern reality with different configurations of technological advancement and the persistence of 1950s fashions and music.

There are fewer celebrity voices in this game, no Liam Neeson like in Fallout 3 or the many celebrities who appear in Fallout: New Vegas. Ron Perlman returns, of course, but instead of his traditional role of narrator he plays a television news anchorman.

It's fun to compare the world before and after your character goes into the 200 year cryosleep. I appreciated the much broader colour palette for the wasteland than the general brown and grey of Fallout 3.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The War in a Haberdashery

A bunch of nasty, ruthless people, lots of blood and swearing, and gorgeous snowy wilderness outside. Quentin Tarantino has said his 2015 film The Hateful Eight was intended to be a film with "no moral centre". Just a bunch of villains, basically. That's not precisely what we get but instead of the big, splashy eye for an eye moral tales of his four previous films The Hateful Eight is about finding that one tiny sliver of justification, the right jelly bean, if you will, to tip the scales and make it best for some people to die and some people to do the killing. With brilliant performances and a mostly clever closed room plot, this is a very good way to spend three hours.

If you can catch the roadshow version, I recommend it. I talked about this when I talked about the Hateful Eight Comic Con panel. Known for trying to bring back ways in which filmmaking was better in days past than it is now, this time Tarantino is not only shooting on film in an age increasingly dominated by digital but has also resurrected the 70mm lens. This ultra-wide Cinemascope lens was used on William Wyler's Ben-Hur among other epic films of the 50s and 60s and it creates an image much, much wider than it is tall. Hateful Eight uses this width first to show the small, vulnerable stage coach making its way through a huge, white world of blizzard and then the wide lens is employed in a very small space, a cabin where we watch the titular eight and are invited to view many characters at once. In this way, the audience is rarely forced to pay attention to a central character and yet Tarantino skilfully always sets up an object. Though the subject is often tantalisingly vague. With no moral centre, the point of view is also always in question. Everyone in this movie has secrets or potentially has secrets and they're always something pretty nasty.

We do meet some pretty decent people but they don't last too long. However, they do provide the movie with a list of the motherfuckers who really deserve killing. Those who might suggest this is the first Tarantino movie since Jackie Brown that is not a revenge fantasy will be wrong.

Set a few decades after the American Civil War, the film uses characters' pride in the Confederacy or Union as a starting point to discuss the subjective nature of the flags everyone fights under. Whether this be of nation, race, sex, or profession. The movie ultimately presents the fragility of such pride and its usefulness to these people extending only so far as their personal motives go. The result is an insight into human nature at its rawest by finding that tiny point of fantasy wish fulfilment.

All of the actors are good, particularly Samuel L. Jackson and Jennifer Jason Leigh, the latter having a very effective musical moment with the folk song "Jim Jones at Botany Bay". This was to be a film with an entirely fresh score by Ennio Morricone, the great composer whose works Tarantino has borrowed from many times. However, while some new Morricone music is in the film The Hateful Eight also makes use of some of Morricone's previous scores, particularly John Carpenter's The Thing, a film that also starred Kurt Russell. It's appropriate for more than that, though, also being a film about a small group of people trapped in a remote, snowbound location facing gory death. The rough cello track "Bestiality" is brilliantly repurposed from extraterrestrial threat to a very human animalistic behaviour.

Twitter Sonnet #825

Guitar caterpillars pile the blame
On butter just for cleaning oil looks
That's beautiful, becoming Buggy Dame,
The one who gets a rep for noodle books.
I felt an iron string falling near
The quickly sketched and wooden stair inside
What looks like mansions made of adult deer
All locked in brainless teeth and old fluoride.
A timely tartan stood back from bamboo
And sauced fortuitous tofu took pepper home
To hold, withstand, and flaunt storied taboo
Wherever mounted antelope heads roam.
Without some milk the cracker gives to us
A snack we can presumably still trust.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Ash vs. Star Wars Sex

Well, I'm glad I finally caught the newest Ash vs. Evil Dead last night, the penultimate episode of the season. It's the first one since the third episode I really didn't want to end.

So many cool moments; Ash and Deadite Ash each trying to prove himself a racist, Ash chopping up his clone and wondering if "one day that'll seem weird." Kelly's story about breaking a stained glass window--this was one of the strongest episodes for female characters with Ruby returning and Lucy Lawless' badass delivery finally carrying weight as she casually dismembers the corpses of Deadites she's killed. And the tension in the climax of the episode really worked.

I wonder if I'm the only one hoping the cute blonde hiker becomes a bigger character. As Pablo says, all we know about her at this point is that she's hot and Ash says that's all we need to know. Of course that's why I want her to stick around but what Ash doesn't know is that pretty girls are a dime a dozen on television, a good TV show looks for a girl with personality.

This brings me to another topic I meant to address regarding Force Awakens--yes, I've still more to say about the new Star Wars movie. This time the topic is sex.

One review I read referred to Finn and Rey's relationship as "chaste". This reviewer had never seen the original trilogy so she probably didn't know what a contrast this was to the relationships between Han and Leia and Luke and Leia. But she's right, aside from Finn asking if she has a boyfriend and maybe grabbing her hand a few times we never get any indication he's attracted to her and we never get even one hint that she's attracted to him. Though her lack of apparent lust for Finn ties in with her character's chief attributes of purity and slight otherworldliness. Her tender kiss of his forehead seemed like the bestowal of spiritual favour while Leia's kiss on Luke's cheek in a moment of peril for luck seemed like her getting carried away with her hormones.

One of the great things about the original trilogy is that the adolescent sexual awkwardness is not one sided. Han is both too smug and quite correct when he says he "must have hit pretty close to the mark to get her all riled up like that," which Leia proves by kissing Luke in retaliation.

Aside from Jar Jar Binks, the biggest failing of the prequel trilogy is in the romance department. I actually think Anakin is an interesting character but the weird, ornamental relationship and stilted dialogue between him and Padme is a far cry from the organic messiness of the original trilogy. How could the same George Lucas who made Episode IV have made the lame, lofty flirting in Episode II? Perhaps this is partly explained by the fact that Lucas had just come off of directing American Graffiti when he made Episode IV and was tapped into the insecurities about pride and identity and need for acceptance tied into adolescent lust.

The impression of vulnerability that came with this group of kids flirting with each other and trying to stay alive made the contrast with the angry, sure, and implacable Empire all the more effective. In Force Awakens the dichotomy is almost reversed with Kylo Ren having all the doubts and internal conflicts and Domhnall Gleeson's over the top, Nazi-esque General Hux coming off as nowhere near as psychologically stable as Grand Moff Tarkin or Admiral Piett. Force Awakens feels less about kids versus the adult world and more about confused twenty somethings against each other.

That still doesn't explain why the characters seem less sexual. Although J.J. Abrams says Disney gave him a free hand I wonder if it was the company's influence that caused him to tone down any hint of lust which, in trying to make a movie that hearkened more to the original trilogy than the prequels, you'd think would be a key component. Abrams had plenty of sex in his Star Trek films with Kirk juggling college babes and even Spock giving in to his feelings for Uhura. Partly I wonder if it's the pressure of political correctness--after the flak he took for showing a beautiful woman in her underwear in Star Trek: Into Darkness it's hard to imagine a golden bikini turning up in his Star Wars film.

There is a growing desire to see sexual fantasy kept separate from other kinds of fantasy. Spider-Woman can't be shown in a sexually provocative manner as we learned after a vociferous reaction to a cover by erotic artist Milo Manara. Charges that the cover image showed Spider-Woman in a submissive position unlike any Spider-Man had ever been shown in were rebuked by quickly furnished evidence of Spider-Man in similar poses though the momentum against fetishisation of fantasy characters had too much strength for the counterargument to have much effect. Of course, there's a difference between portraying a character to be sexually attractive to the audience and portraying characters as being susceptible to influence from their own sexual urges. But the distinction between the two may have seemed too nebulous and hazardous.

To put it another way, filmmakers and audiences to-day are much, much more sexually conservative than filmmakers and audiences of the 1970s. Sex has become something more mysterious and frightening. A woman portrayed in a sexually suggestive manner might be a threat to women and it's the uncertainty more than the real knowledge that provokes the backlash. Showing two characters actually motivated by sexual urges is a mine field if you don't know what you're doing and I'm not sure modern filmmakers do. I was surprised how few people complained about the fetishisation of the rape scene in Zack Snyder's adaptation of Watchmen compared to the much more effectively conceived and ugly scene in the comic. The average artists of to-day are losing touch with the ability to effectively portray human libido and when they try you get a surprisingly adolescent product rather than an adolescent character. An adult like Snyder lovingly moving his camera over Carla Gugino's hip because he's filming a sex scene and therefore assumes it needs to appeal to him, not realising that he's locking the audience into the subjective perspective of the Comedian. Taking the perspective of a rapist in a work of art might be valid if that is your intention for one reason or another but is rather embarrassing when it's not your intention.

So possibly to avoid any potential pitfalls but more likely--I think--because it simply happens to be where people are now in terms of sexual maturity, Rey and Finn will, at most, hug in Abrams' film. There really is an extraordinary amount of hugging in Force Awakens. It feels to me like a reflection of the modern audience, I think hugging is as far as most young people prefer to go nowadays.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Was that the End?

Between all the sneezing I've been doing to-day and all the chess I've been playing and David Bowie albums I've been listening to the day's completely gotten away from me. I didn't even make time to watch the new Ash vs. Evil Dead so I may as well talk about Owarimonogatari (終わり物語), the latest and perhaps final television iteration of the now pretty long running Monogatari series which concluded a couple weeks ago. "Owari" means "end" and "monogatari" means "story" so it would make sense if this is the last one. Then again, it could be because the two stories which make up the twelve episode series (six episodes per story) are both about ending relationships, or bringing closure to relationships that had been left unresolved for some time.

Maybe the surprising thing is that those relationships aren't romantic relationships with Araragi (Hiroshi Kamiya), the protagonist of most of the Monogatari series. The first six episodes deal with a former classmate of Araragi's from Japan's version of junior high who has suddenly started attending his high school. Sodachi (Marina Inoue) now seems to deeply hate Araragi and he doesn't know why since the only memories he has of her are her happily tutoring him in mathematics at an apparently abandoned house and, later, an experience that damaged Araragi's faith in humanity where Sodachi led an investigation into who cheated on a test.

This first story works as a nice detective story and clues that are left throughout come together in a satisfying way, more so because it ends up not being a case of another girl falling for the male protagonist. The great original Bakemonogatari had enough love interests for Araragi to make it an example of a "harem anime" but there was always a nice self-consciousness about it and it was offset by intelligent stories. Later Monogatari series tended to be just cheap ego baths for the male viewer. So it was nice seeing a story where a girl has reasons to hate him that have nothing to do with her repressed love for him.

The second story goes back to the topic of how everyone loves Araragi but it rather amusingly, though awkwardly, tries to categorise his relationships to make it seem as though he's perfectly faithful to his official girlfriend, Senjougahara (Chiwa Saitou). Hanakawa (Yui Horie) is just his good friend, Kanburu (Miyuki Sawashiro) is Senjougahara's number one fan who obsesses over Araragi as a favour to her, and Shinobu (Maaya Sakamoto) is his lolicon fetish fixation and the main subject of the second story.

She's a centuries old vampire who used to have an adult body until Araragi defeated her in a story that has yet to be shown in the anime (it will be the subject of an upcoming movie). Somehow the defeat put her in a child's body and trapped her in Araragi's shadow, the two of them forming an intimate psychic bond. I thought hers was an interesting concept early on, especially when she was mute and seemed to turn up when Araragi needed power, manifesting as some physical incarnation of his guilt or lust. Over time, she's become more of a straight forward lolicon character, especially after she was freed from his shadow. This story involves a former lover of hers whom she essentially abandoned centuries ago who now wants to fight Araragi over her.

The story depends on Shinobu's loyalty to Araragi as something pretty vaguely defined now. Her final confrontation with her former lover is a bit effectively sad, especially for seinen anime which rarely diverts its attention from a central male character and even more rarely depicts a woman actually breaking up with a man.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Surgeons of Christmas

Even at this late stage, does the Doctor know River and does River know the Doctor? Well, that's been kind of the recurring theme with River Song on Doctor Who, every time they meet, one of them, usually the Doctor, spends the whole time being shocked by the other. That's part of why I don't feel their relationship really works--it's all chorus no verse, or all concept no development. And yesterday's Christmas special, while a fun, slightly too giddy romp, was a return to form, proving the age difference between the actors wasn't the reason they never had chemistry.

Spoilers ahead for the 2015 Doctor Who Christmas special.

For more than half the episode she doesn't even know it's him so once again an opportunity for us to watch them spending time together is benched in favour of more Concept. The running gag of her not recognising him is very funny, he being surprised that she's even more amoral than he thought is kind of funny. Peter Capaldi is, once again, the most effective part of the episode, though, and at the end I did believe in his feelings for her but it still felt like a wall was between them, a gap of gimmick that had never truly been crossed. His effective portrayal of affection came off like his effective, lonely battle in "Heaven Sent" and seeing him bid two farewells in a row like this makes him seem especially like a tragic loner. Though they tried to soften the blow a bit with the twenty year night thing though all that really did is make their story more trite and make River's behaviour in "Forest of the Dead"/"Silence in the Library" make less sense. With the line about the Doctor's new haircut coming at the beginning of the Christmas episode, it doesn't make much sense for her to say he'd gotten a new haircut the last time she saw him. Even if he got another one at the end of the twenty four years, it would be like Nancy Reagan saying that the last time she saw Ronald Reagan he became president. Not to mention River clearly knows it's their last time together.

End Doctor Who spoilers

Guess what I saw again to-day? Yep, Force Awakens, this time with my parents, sister, and brother in law, all of whom liked it. Another sold out show and we found most seats reserved already in theatres where you could reserve seats for a week in advance.

Last time I wondered why they called her General Leia instead of General Organa but this time I noticed that Poe did call her General Organa and you never hear her called anything else but "General", "Leia", or "Princess" for the rest of the movie and in the opening crawl she's called "General Leia Organa". I wondered if I was going crazy, I could have sworn I heard her called "General Leia". I googled "General Leia" and noticed she's called that in nearly every article and interview about the film so I guess that explains it.

Twitter Sonnet #824

The poison poinsettias dry under stone.
Telephone cords flutt'ring caught hold the sleigh.
The stars behold a coat as cold as bone.
A goblin spirit stands with cane away.
Fish hook free jingles from safety spirals
A growing ornament reflected the glass.
The colour red exceeded Christ's murals.
Santa cannot give a bathroom pass.
Repeated metronome announcements ping
Arrested cranium noses for spoons.
A billion ornaments descend to sing
Of insulted early red pantaloons.
Too much of cheese is jalapeno weight.
A case, a D, y'know too much to eat.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Think of the Devil To-day

Happy Christmas (Eve), everyone. My present to you on the day before the supposed day of Christ's birth is a pair of devils--my new comic is finally online:

Here's the description I wrote for DriveThru Comics:

Some who rebel against their monarchs are put to death, some are exiled, some are forgotten, while some are paradoxically rewarded. It's a confusing world, whether you're a West African princess like Dekpa or the daughter of a famous traitor to the English crown like Deborah. The two young women are soon to learn there's not much they can depend on apart from themselves and so a cutthroat quest for wealth and glory begins.

I first committed to this comic in January so you're seeing a culmination of a year of research and planning. The first eight pages available on the site were completed in June but I'd like to take a moment to thank Professor Peter Herman from San Diego State University for providing me with further info on John Milton in the autumn and for reading the first eight pages and making sure I didn't say something completely stupid about the author of Paradise Lost.

So enjoy.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

There's Everything Around

This cat approached me on the last day of school last week, seen here clearly puzzling over the fact that I didn't manage to get her completely in frame. She's always watched me from a distance but that day she came over to be pet like it was the most normal thing in the world.

Here's a hawk and a crow taking turns chasing each other from that same day:

Here are some doodles from this semester's notebooks:

Twitter Sonnet #823

Drums casually walk past concessions.
Good spiders busily will pop the maize.
White painted eyes will watch conquest sessions.
Drape breezes smoke to night time's later phase.
Biscotti decoy brain blizzards settle
A score divided wrong between the games
And wars misdiagnosed for kid's mettle
Who's always gluing drones to lion's manes.
Untested rains glimpsed via bank hammers
Quiet dissent throughout the hat shop's door
Founded solidly on errant spammers
Performing live on the bottom floor.
The hand of all the ghosts pushed us down.
A voice golem's sealed in an iron gown.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Goddess of Star Wars

I still want to know more about these two. If these were the old Extended Universe days, we could expect at least one short story about them in an anthology. Maybe now they'll have a comic or even a cgi cartoon. Yeah, I think Disney's going to make back all the money it gave to Lucas and then some.

I saw Force Awakens again last night with my friend Tim who hadn't seen it yet. I had two free tickets thanks to my bag being temporarily confiscated last time. I was able to use them at another Regal owned cinema, which was good because when we went to the first one the 3:20pm showing we'd planned on seeing had sold out. 3:20pm on a Monday. Oh, yes, Disney is making its money.

I saw an article to-day linked to by my friend Iain on Facebook called "The Force Awakens is the Least Interesting Star Wars Yet". I do actually agree that the prequels are more interesting, certainly bolder. Though it's also more interesting and bolder when someone shits in the middle of your rug than if someone doesn't. Though I don't think Lucas was mean spirited and as I said in my initial review there are still a lot of things I admire more about the prequels compared to Force Awakens, in particular I think Revenge of the Sith is a better film. Despite the flaws of the prequels, I find the story of someone's fall to the Dark Side in the midst of a morally ambiguous environment fundamentally more provoking than a couple good kids against the Nazis. But in fact, Kylo Ren borrows quite a page from the Book of Anakin, and the struggle with pain and complexity that Ren alludes to is pretty much exactly what Anakin was going through, though more explicitly.

Ren is a more complex character than the protagonists of Force Awakens which is not a bad thing. It reminds me of the great 1940 Thief of Bagdad, a tremendously influential film on the great American filmmakers of the 1970s. The villain played by Conrad Veidt in that film was far more nuanced and complex than the protagonists who were more archetype than character.

People complaining about Rey's lack of complexity are, I think, out of touch with a certain kind of storytelling. I said I can see how Rey might be called a Mary Sue the other day, though she really doesn't strike me as an avatar for Abrams or Kasdan. I think what people mean when they use the term "Mary Sue", putting aside people who use it as a sexist pejorative, is a character who is simplistic and beloved to an extent that's annoying. Which is slightly different from how the term was originally defined to refer to an author's vehicle for wish fulfilment and self gratification, though the two could overlap, certainly.

We live in an increasingly atheistic culture, which may be a good thing, and maybe the lack of trust in government over the past fifty years has had something to do with it but people no longer respect stories about a character who is not us, who is distant and greater than us. We occasionally get Rey's POV--when she's deciding not to sell BB-8, maybe when she mind tricks the cameoing Daniel Craig. But mostly we watch her, usually from Finn's perspective, sometimes from Han's. When Han marvels at her ability with machines (which is perfectly legitimate, by the way, despite criticism. She has to know her way around all the ships she scavenges and she has to know what she's picking up) we marvel with him rather than join in her glee because his confusion is more like us than her knowledge. When Finn watches her fend off her attackers, we're learning with Finn about her while we never regard Finn from Rey's perspective in the same way.

Oh, by the way, I'm going to get into spoilers now.


Hercules was born super strong. He didn't have to train. That doesn't make stories about Hercules bad stories. Rey was apparently born with abilities in the Force far greater than Luke. She has better self control than Luke did at her age. That doesn't make hers a bad story. Just a different story. And in this way, yes, the movie does not ape the original trilogy.

Personally, I tend to prefer Luke's story, just like I tend to prefer Spider-Man to Superman. But I respect and like Rey's story. It's not unlike what works really well about H.P. Lovecraft. The menace he describes is effective because of how strange and powerful and distant it is from us and Rey's heroism works the same way. Her vision when she holds the lightsabre is not like Luke's vision in the cave in Empire Strikes Back. Luke made a crucial decision going in to face the darkness. He brought weapons despite Yoda telling him he didn't need them. He chose to ignite his lightsabre and fight when he confronted the vision of Vader. The only substantial decision Rey really makes in regards to her vision is try to back away from her destiny afterwards. She wants to go home and wait for her parents to come back rather than confront the scary, weird future. But that's a comparatively superficial reaction and pales in comparison to the great abilities she's already shown. Mostly the operative reactions we have to Rey are awe and adoration. Like a goddess. We're never going to see her embarrassed for her hubris like Luke because she doesn't have hubris. We're not likely to see her exhibit sexual attraction to Finn the way we saw Luke and Han dealing with their attraction to Leia--or Leia dealing with her attraction to Luke and Han. We're never going to see her struggle with the moral complexities of the universe like Ren and Finn because she's always motivated by the desire to take care of people despite her initial reluctance to take in BB-8.

That's why she's able to beat Ren so easily. For the men in Force Awakens, life is confusion and questions about pride. But Rey embodies justice so she doesn't have to question it, she just needs to pluck up her courage a couple times. She's Our Lady of Graces.

We could even see it as a progression. From Anakin's struggle for morality, to Luke's struggle with himself, to Rey's embodiment of neuroses free nature.

A couple observations form my second viewing:

I like the device of the sun going out, explicitly made a sign of doom and then coinciding with Ren's decision to kill his father.

I'm pretty sure the guy holding Rey's hand in her vision flashback is the guy selling portions and from whom she stole the Millennium Falcon.

I'm really digging the mediaeval knight vibe with Kylo Ren.

Where are the TIE Interceptors, the TIE Bombers, the Y-Wings, B-Wings, and A-Wings? Where are the Resistance capital ships?

Luke looks oddly like Warwick Davis in Willow at the end of the movie to me.

Why is she called General Leia instead of General Organa or General Solo? Did people call the first U.S. president General George?

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Harsh Light in the Faithless Dark

Where does pride come from? The kind of pride that makes a person a bundle of nerves all his life, always on the bottom of a hill the top of which is self-worth and it's an unending mad scramble in the soft soil. No wire is more live than Kirk Douglas in 1949's The Champion, a very noir film noir about a boxer who goes from nowhere and poverty to become the champion. It's a great film of moral problems and black shadows.

Midge (Douglas) and his brother Connie (Arthur Kennedy) travel across country to L.A. where they think they've bought part ownership of a diner only to find out when they get there they've been swindled. I don't know what to make of the fact that both men have women's names but they both fall for the same girl, Emma (Ruth Roman), waitress at the diner and daughter of the actual owner, Lew (Harry Shannon). She doesn't call him Dad, she calls him Lew, and it's clear he wants to get rid of her so he forces her and Midge to marry as soon as he catches them making out.

The Hays Code demanded the institution of marriage be respected in film but this movie rather slyly shows how many problems there are in sticking dogmatically to that. When Midge falls for a beautiful sculptor later, the movie clearly implies that it would wrong for Midge to abandon her even though they're both married to someone else. Connie throws around the morality in the film and yet there's something wrong with almost everything he lays on Midge. He criticises Midge for firing his loyal manager for a more influential one and suggests that it's only a matter of time before Midge throws Connie out yet we've seen no evidence of this. Only that pride is really important to Midge and some kind of vague ideal about family is important to Connie.

But Midge really does trample people on his way to the top. Another woman--three fall for him in this movie--essentially sells herself to him, talking about how "expensive" she is and how she'll only go with him if he's pulling in a lot of money. When he decides to leave her for "a real lady", the sculptor, she threatens him with blackmail and he threatens to put her in the hospital. And that ends that. It's a nasty business on all sides.

Every time opportunity for mutual affection comes his way, whether it's his brother, a lover, or his manager, Midge is forced into a decision between his pride and the people he loves but two thirds of the time it's the people he loves who force him into this ultimatum. At the end of the day, is it any wonder he starts to feel he can only count on himself?

I can't stress enough how perfect Kirk Douglas is in this movie. He's all tension and nerve, few other actors could convey that so well.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Ash vs. Hand and Yet More Star Wars

Ash's old foe returns--his own hand--in last night's Ash vs. Evil Dead as everyone goes back to the original Evil Dead cabin. The show itself improves in the episode from bad shit going down. Just when characters are starting to feel dull or awkward, someone dies and the feeling of no limits being places on the Evil is reinforced and Ash's battle with himself is both goofy and nightmarish.

I was reminded a little of watching 1977's House again yesterday, the great Japanese horror film that's an exercise in delirium. House sets up a number of so over the top, sweet protagonists that things feel uneven and disturbing right away. Ash's lightning quick development with Amanda felt a bit like that and having it answered by horror felt oddly right.

I liked the stereotypical group of tourist hikers in the woods, all with convenient New Zealand accents.

Let's see, do I have anything else to say about Star Wars . . . Well, I've been listening to the soundtrack, which I bought yesterday on CD at Best Buy. But Disney has uploaded the whole thing to YouTube. Here's my favourite track:

John Williams still has so much vitality. Maybe it's all second nature now, though. I love the cool, clear quality of Rey's theme. It's simple innocence and solutions, a desire for love but with patience. That's definitely her. I saw Christa Faust on Facebook mention that people've been calling Rey a Mary Sue. I can see that. The word I would use is moe. I would like to see more character flaws in the next film but there's nothing wrong with admiring a beautiful, perfectly sweet girl. The movie is definitely more from John Boyega's perspective than hers, though. He watches her beat up those guys in the market, he watches her making her escape in the Jedi fortress. He has secrets we know that he keeps from her, we only find out her secrets when other characters do and those secrets don't make her look in any way silly. To put it another way, she's a DC character in classic form and Finn is a Marvel character. People forget what was really important about Superman originally, that he was something greater than us for us to look up to. Marvel superheroes were always more like us. That's why you don't have any Robins or Jimmy Olsens in Marvel, there's no need for an audience avatar to look up to the superhero because we are the superhero. But I think it's a mistake to say it's wrong to love a character for being greater or more adorable than us.

It does make her different from Luke. Luke, who was whiny in an unattractive way, who went recklessly after the sand people just because he was curious and wanted adventure, who went to Cloud City against Yoda's advice and paid a big price.

I notice Williams has moved away from the use of choirs which seemed to distinguish the prequel scores from the original trilogy. In this way it seems to be a continuation from the original trilogy. I also like that he didn't use the "Imperial March" for the New Order though the New Order's theme sounds a bit like the Trade Federation theme to me.

Twitter Sonnet #822

A pilot Poe prevails with nature's charm.
Inventive desert dishes serve a start.
Kathleen, Ahsoka, Rey divide the farm.
King L. bequeathed to daughters three his heart.
The best of toys go at six portions rate.
To sled on sand is easy here of course.
Don't shoot your eye out, kid, with BB-8.
When French horns sound Clarence becomes the Force.
A sabre cross will light the holy land.
He goes skywalking to the Star of Death.
The tread of wisdom's machines part in sand.
The wood of snow has drawn its final breath.
A soup inflates for desert women now.
A helmet waits to sink the smuggler's scow.

Saturday, December 19, 2015


Well, it's Doctor Who Day but I still want to talk about Star Wars. I was lucky to get a ticket for December 17th, the day before the official opening day. I bought one the moment it was announced tickets were going on presale so I managed to get a ticket for an 8:20pm showing at Parkway Plaza mall, a place where I've gone to see many other big event movies, including The Fellowship of the Ring way back in 2001. It worked the same on Thursday as it did fourteen years ago--the theatres showing the film were on the second storey in the cinema in the middle of the mall so people were put in queues in a long, broad corridor normally used for freight loading. I showed up two hours before the movie time on Thursday but the people for my theatre had already been let in. All the middle seats were taken but I was happy getting a seat at the very back of the room, on the side but distance from the screen meant that the image wouldn't be distorted.

I brought my purse with me--really a laptop case I use to carry odds and ends. I thought maybe I shouldn't because of all the scary things that have gone down in movie theatres lately and me carrying a bag might look suspicious. But on the other hand, if I was going to be sitting there for two hours before the movie I wanted to have at least a book and a bottle of water, awkward things to carry by themselves and I wasn't about to buy an overpriced and salted Dasani.

Well, things went fine for those two hours. I read from a paperback book I had with me (Pirates of New Spain, recommended to me by my pre-colonial and colonial Latin America professor) and from books on my Kindle, some of Thomas Malory's L'Morte d'Arthur, John Milton's De Doctrina Christiana, and a pulp novel from the 50s by Ann Bannon about lesbians called Odd Girl Out. I don't normally switch books so much in one sitting but my lack of sleep most nights this week due to school finals made me oddly restless. When Maria Menounos came onscreen to peddle bullshit USA series I couldn't concentrate on reading at all.

When this first round of cheap trailers ended and the the real trailers started at 8:20, a woman suddenly sat down next to me. Wearing black with a gold name tag, she told me I looked like a perfectly reasonable gentlemen and she wasn't afraid of me but, she said, several people had reported me and she felt it was necessary to take my bag. Either that or I was welcome to take the bag to my car and I would be readmitted and would be reimbursed for having missed the trailers.

Okay, as I told her, I fully understand why people would be apprehensive in this day and age of multiple shootings in movie theatres. I get it. What I don't get was why I wasn't approached in the two hours before the trailers started, time when I could have taken my bag to my car and have come back without missing the trailers. Well, I decided to let her take my bag but I asked her if I could keep my Kindle with me. She said this was fine and pointed a flashlight into my bag--incidentally seeing everything I had in there--while I rummaged around for it.

She assured me again that I struck her as a completely decent person. Though I couldn't help thinking about the fact that multiple people had reported me. It's true, I was wearing a lot of black--black slacks, black frock coat, black fedora, black waistcoat with pocket watch. I was wearing my black and white spectator shoes, white shirt, and red plaid bow tie, though, and I think some part of me thought, "Mass shooters never wear bow ties." These mass shooters actually, to be honest, always dress like shit. Even the guys who thought they were the Joker couldn't dress as nice as the Joker.

So I did get to see the trailers, one for some entertaining CGI movie about sloths working at a DMV, an unremarkable looking Harry Potter spin-off movie that nonetheless drew a lot of applause, the X-Men: Apocolypse trailer I saw online a few days ago. I must have seen at least one other trailer but I can't remember it now.

You know, it's a good thing J.J. Abrams was granted autonomy by Disney. I listened to him interviewed on the The Howard Stern Show recently and he talked about how wonderfully hands off the Disney execs were. If anyone's wondering what the movie would have looked like otherwise, I'd say you'd need to look no further than Star Wars: Rebels, which is basically the homogenised version of A New Hope that some critics are accusing Force Awakens of being. If you really want to see the dime store version of Luke Skywalker, see Ezra Bridger in Rebels.

I'm looking forward to seeing how Rian Johnson handles Rey in Episode VIII. Even after the outrage at the lack of Princess Leia toys and the fact that Ahsoka Tano was the most popular character from Clone Wars, Disney still didn't take the hint--people want female protagonists. From sheer popular momentum, Rey had already 40% succeeded. Abrams took it the rest of the way.

It occurred to me, hearing how sort of wistful and sad George Lucas has sounded in interviews lately, Lucas kind of has what we might call King Lear Syndrome. I guess the "daughters" would be Kathleen Kennedy, Rey, and Ahsoka Tano. Since Ahsoka has been kind of sidelined--and she was actually created by Lucas and inspired by his daughter--she would be Cordelia. I'd really like to hear what his plans were for the sequel trilogy one day.

I also heard Quentin Tarantino on The Howard Stern Show. At the end of the interview he brought up, sounding genuinely upset, how Disney had extorted the Cinarama Dome in Los Angeles into breaking a contract with Tarantino's company in order to not show The Hateful 8, to show Force Awakens instead. Originally Force Awakens was to have played at the Dome for several days and then The Hateful 8 would play there. Now Disney has pushed Hateful 8 out, which sounds like a pretty shitty move, as Tarantino pointed out, considering it's not like Star Wars is exactly hurting for ticket sales. Tarantino stressed he had nothing against Abrams for whom he worked on several episodes of Alias. Stern, whose friendship with Abrams goes back to Felicity, said he would speak to Abrams himself, and Bob Igor, head of Disney. So far there's been no public comment from Disney or Abrams on the subject.

See, I was colouring comics pages this past week so I had time to do a lot of listening, Howard Stern and, yes, I did listen to a Doctor Who audio play, an Eighth Doctor story from 2006 called Time Works. It's a story about a world that parcels out time like currency, its rulers living in some kind of time locked citadel and using "tick tock men" as enforcers. A solid, classic feeling Who story with a lot of elements that, as is so often the case, feel like they inspired later episodes of the television series.

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Force is Woken Up

I liked it. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I mean. It was good. I didn't like it as much as a lot of people did. I think in some ways the prequels, certainly Episode III, are better films, even though Episode VII has much, much better dialogue than any of the prequels. I'll give you a spoiler free review and then at the end of the post I'll have some spoiler related comments (preceded by ample warning).

The first half of the film is the best half and has all of my favourite components, all of which had to do with excellent chemistry between the actors and characters. Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) have wonderful chemistry, Finn and Rey (Daisy Ridley) have almost as good chemistry, and the best chemistry is between Rey and Han (you know who). Rey and Han geeking out together is so delightful you want a whole trilogy about just these two. Well, three, Han and Chewie have great chemistry, too, and Harrison Ford shows again what always made him so good in Sci-Fi and Fantasy movies, his ability to react to a strange world and an incomprehensible wookiee as if they were normal and had layers of meaning to him, not all of which he's expressing on the surface.

The return to practical effects for many (though not all) of the aliens is nice and one marvels at the creativity gone into their designs and construction. It looks like there was a very conscious effort to emulate classic Jim Henson puppets, many of them look like they walked right off the set of Labyrinth.

As I said, the first half is the best. One of the things I appreciated most was Abrams' decision to start small and intimate. I loved following Rey on her routine as a scavenger and I loved the detail of her putting together a humble meal.

Adam Driver gives a very good performance and I found myself wondering what it would have been like if he'd played Anakin Skywalker in the prequels. Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma does quite a lot with what turned out to be very little screentime. She's much more effective than vitriolic Domhnall Gleeson or Andy Serkis as Snoke. She and Driver seemed to have a better idea of how to play villains--as people who don't see themselves as villains.

This is the best J.J. Abrams movie I've seen, it's certainly better than his Star Trek films, and even better than Super 8, my previous favourite. And it actually has a lot in common with Super 8. Both begin strong and falter in their final acts, both impress the viewer with an affection for a style of cinematic story telling native to the 1980s that manages to be genuine and nostalgic at the same time. Both do a good job of establishing characters and both seem to lose the threads of the characters in the end.

Actually, a better comparison might be to Abrams' television series Felicity, a show about a charismatic young woman who follows her heart. Rey is in many ways the new Felicity and she has some of the same problems. Where Felicity became dull as all of her conflicts began to come entirely from external sources, so is Rey made uninteresting by her infallible purity. She's a far cry from Anakin or Luke whose stories are paved with their own youthful errors. Rey doesn't really make mistakes and there's much less a sense of someone maturing on a journey, tempered or traumatised by experimentation, being forced to deal with the folly of her own recklessness. In this way Finn is more interesting, though the big mistake he makes is a little silly and broad. I'm hoping Poe gets a bigger role in the next films because he more than any of the other new characters feels like he's stepped right out of the original trilogy; a cocky, awkward, but talented young man who shrugs off his errors under a veneer of bravado.

For all the weaknesses the prequels had with their dialogue, they had a focus that Force Awakens lacks. There's nothing in the new movie nearly as interesting as the relationship between Anakin and Obi-Wan, or an arch as interesting as Anakin's fall to the Dark Side. All of the conflicts characters have in Force Awakens are external rather than internal. It has the effective dynamic of bickering young people from IV and V but little sense of the insecurities behind them. Driver maybe comes closest but so little time is given to his story.

For the most part, I think this is a better film than Phantom Menace. Yet I'm not entirely sure. Certainly there's no extravagant miscalculation like Jar Jar Binks but there's less of a sense of a universe with striking and bizarre visual design--all of the locations in Force Awakens are completely echoes, not just of Star Wars but all the many things Star Wars influenced. Jakku isn't Tatooine but it looks like Tatooine; they go to a planet that isn't Yavin but it looks like Yavin, including the architecture; the new Death Star isn't a Death Star but, really . . . is the Death Star.

The sabre battle between Darth Maul, Qui-Gon Jinn, and Obi-Wan Kenobi is superior to the climactic battle in Force Awakens and it's hard to say exactly why. Darth Maul has, I think, two lines in the whole movie, he's essentially all visual and vague malice, but I guess you could say that about Darth Vader in Episode IV. Well, to really discuss this I need to switch over to

Spoiler Territory.

Spoilers Ahead!

You've been warned!

So, yes, I was wrong in my predictions. I guess the mistake I and a lot of other people made in coming up with theories about Luke's absence from the trailers was assuming that Luke was absent for an interesting reason. No, it turns out he really was just hard to find and he's not in the movie much. It was kind of a drag actually and now I guess we won't get to see him reunite with Han.

And that's the big, big spoiler, I guess, if you've decided to read this without seeing the movie anyway. I guess Ford finally got his wish--he wanted Han to die in Return of the Jedi because he didn't think Han had anything interesting to do in the third film. And that's somewhat true though they might have found something better for him than dying. His death fits even more oddly in Force Awakens, though. A big part of the problem in killing Han in any movie is that he's already had one of the best death scenes in cinema history when he was frozen in carbonite in Empire Strikes Back, a just about impossible act to follow. Particularly now that he and Leia, particularly Leia, have mellowed out almost to the point of flat lining already. Poor Leia in this film is little more than an extra. She's even duller than she was in Return of the Jedi. I remember Carrie Fisher mocking their dialogue in the Return of the Jedi DVD commentary, concluding, "It was better when we were fighting." More than that, the two of them in Empire Strikes Back were duelling vulnerabilities. In Force Awakens, their relationship is even more decaffeinated. They hug! They don't even kiss. I understand there's a lot of water under the bridge, but we didn't get to see any of this water, which leads us to the main problem with Kylo Ren.

For all Driver puts into the part, the final confrontation between him and his father, Han Solo, is a complete misfire on several levels. It doesn't make sense that Han would throw so much caution to the wind and Ren's duplicity is so obvious that Han just looks like a sucker. With Finn and Rey witnessing the death, and Han having been set up as Rey's father figure (and lest that's too subtle, Ren essentially says to Rey, "He's your father figure!") obviously seems to indicate this is a parallel to Obi-Wan's death in Episode IV--though it comes off as more like Qui-Gon's death in Episode I. But at least Qui-Gon lost in an honest fight. And Obi-Wan's reaction to it, and Luke's reaction to Obi-Wan's death, was satisfyingly intense. Rey's reaction to Han's Death is blended with Finn's and both are sidelined by Chewbacca's reaction. We never have a moment where we see Rey really reacting to Han's death since, after all the action, she's caught up in worrying over the injured Finn. As much as I liked him before, I kind of hated him in that moment for stealing Han's thunder. Finn was run through with a lightsabre, so was Han. Finn survived, Han didn't. How the fuck did Finn survive? It looked like Ren severed his spine!

I did really start to want to see Ren taken down and I felt really good when Rey started to beat on him. Though it was a little too easy. With absolutely no training, she's easily able to beat the trained and experienced Ren in a duel. We didn't see Luke in a real sabre fight until the second movie and he lost. As a consequence, Rey as a character feels rushed and vague by the end of the film. So Han's death sabotages things in at least two ways--Harrison Ford was one of the best things about the film and then he's gone, his and Rey's chemistry was another one of the best things and now it's rendered meaningless.

So, overall, not a bad film, containing many charming elements but having some deep flaws. Also, Max Von Sydow should've had a bigger part.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Brief Tale of a Small Tail

If Akira Kurosawa had ever made a television series it might have been something like his 1945 film The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (虎の尾を踏む男達 ). This early film is only an hour long and shot largely on soundstages. A jidaigeki, a film set in Japan's feudal past, it's light and entertaining and contains several shades of his future films.

Masayuki Mori and Takashi Shimura, big stars in the 1950s, have very small roles here as two of the seven samurai disguised as monks, trying to sneak over enemy lines. Right there you have two things that remind you of Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress.

The centrepiece of the film is one of the samurai, played by Denjiro Okochi, trying to convince an enemy official, played by the hero of Kurosawa's Sanshiro Sugata movies, Susumu Fujita, that they're really monks. Most of the emotional impact of this comes from Kenichi Enomoto who plays a porter who joins up with them and makes brilliantly timed comic faces of panic or boastfulness when the situation calls.

It's like Seven Samurai and Weary Willie. Of course he also reminded me of the Fool character, Kyoami, in Ran.

The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail is no masterpiece but it's a nice little episode, Denjiro Okochi performance is nicely subtle and it's fun watching him to see if he'll crack and then to have the tension released with a sudden scene about overindulging in sake.

Twitter Sonnet #821

The balding drum reveals the king of hides.
Impertinent the gold clawed up Peru.
Across the water white bovines took brides.
Misplaced Moroccan wives a Brahman grew.
Absolutist centipede syrup serves.
Conglomerates of halibuts condense.
Any unicycle kills at the curbs.
The theories spun of gallons grew immense.
The lime portion of Prince's drink was gone.
No-one looked when pogo diamonds darkened.
Spatial warps can reroute the darts to lawn.
A song from moons the Moche has hearkened.
The red untested spider drew a scan.
The answer questioned cats regarding man.