Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Projected Curtain

Alfred Hitchcock was often at his best when his camera inhabited the perspective of a character. In two of my favourite Hitchcock films, Suspicion and Notorious, that character is a woman for almost the entire film. So it's a little frustrating contemplating what a missed opportunity was his 1966 film Torn Curtain--according to Wikipedia, its screenwriter, Brian Moore, was hired because he was good at writing from the perspective of female characters and the novel on which Torn Curtain is based is told from the point of view of a female character. The film starts off well enough with Julie Andrews as that character but profound changes to the story a third of the way through and an over-reliance on studio shooting drain the life from this film almost completely.

Hitchcock preferred to work in the studio because he liked to have complete control over the environment but I suspect he relied more on rear projection here than even he would have liked due to the rushed production. Then again, a particularly egregious use of rear projected background, when Andrews and costar Paul Newman are at lunch, isn't so different from a rear projected background cafe scene from Notorious that worked perfectly fine.

Of course, it helped that Notorious was in black and white. I would have thought Hitchcock would know better than to do something like this with a colour film--you don't see shots like this in North by Northwest or Vertigo or To Catch a Thief. Those movies all have a much greater feeling of scope and place while Torn Curtain barely feels larger than a television production.

Andrews is very good as the worried wife who's trying to read her husband, played by Paul Newman, who does an excellent job at playing a good hearted but inept spy. He's a mathematician who's motivated by principle. I think Hitchcock in a better frame of mind could've gotten a lot more traction out of Andrews trying to figure out whether or not her husband had really defected to East Germany but the movie lets the cat out of the bag early on in order to switch to Newman's point of view, after which Andrews feels pretty superfluous.

East Germany certainly doesn't seem remotely accurately rendered, either, when I compare it to German films I've seen made in and about it--the East German film Spur der Steine also made in 1966 shows the far more Spartan reality in contrast to the portrayal in Torn Curtain that doesn't look particularly different from wealthy capitalist European countries of the time.

This was the first movie Hitchcock released without a Bernard Herrmann score, he and the composer acrimoniously parting ways during production. The finished score by John Addison, despite Hitchcock's supposed dissatisfaction with Herrmann, comes off as a Herrmann imitation and a very weak one at that, combining with the cheap quality of the studio footage to give the film an overwhelmingly third rate feel.

There's an amusing and eccentric appearance by Lila Kedrova late in the film but in the context of everything else there's a too flattering quality about it; the focus on the woman's plight, caught in East Germany, comes off more as a vanity clip for Kedrova than an effective portrayal of a character.

About the only truly effective scene in the film is Newman struggling with an officer who'd been shadowing him. The messy and awkward business of Newman and a farm woman (Carolyn Conwell) trying to kill a man has the sort of genuine contemplation of murder about it that so often gives Hitchcock's films a wicked appeal.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Detecting True

I'm feeling a bit better about the next Star Trek movie now that I've seen its director's work on a couple True Detective episodes. Before this, all I knew about Justin Lin was that he'd directed at least one of the Fast and Furious movies, none of which I've seen. But I think the second episode of this second season of True Detective shines more for its performances.

I appreciated Colin Farrell's generosity as a performer. He's really subtle in this episode and his best moments are when he creates moments for other characters, like when McAdams asks him how "contaminated" he is and he just stares at her. And somehow that communicates everything, to us and to her.

On the other end of the spectrum but also, and surprisingly, good is Ritchie Coster chewing more scenery than Pac-Man as the sinister mayor with subtly bizarre physical mannerisms.

The standard detective show format of detectives continually interviewing new people is unavoidable and being creative with these scenes tends to mean trying to make the interviewee interesting, someone that compels you to study and read them along with the cops. So far Lin and Pizzolatto are succeeding this season, with the mayor as well as with a numb faced spa/clinic/rehab owner, and of course David Morse as Antigone's father.

Taylor Kitsch continues to make his character eerily committed and walled off. He's bad at communicating with his girlfriend, his mother seems to be coming on to him, and it's suggested he's repressing homosexuality with overt homophobia. Which doesn't seem as weird as what I'd hope for though I did enjoy his exchange with the slightly sleazy detective, Teague (W. Earl Brown*), from Velcoro's (Farrell) department. His calling the younger man's story about wanting to punch a gay man a "dynamite anecdote" is Raymond Chandler-ish needling, subtle mockery with a more modern sensibility.

But mostly the episode seemed to be treading water to me. The scene of Antigone surfing a porn site seemed like kind of a non sequitur. I guess this further establishes her hypocrisy in busting her sister over the web cam thing but I'm not really sure if Pizzolatto can make worthwhile hay from this. Along with Paul's repressed homosexuality, it seems like Pizzolatto is constructing a portrait of how people's sexuality may be more varied and untraditional than they're ready to admit to themselves. Which . . . is okay. I don't know. I guess I wasn't particularly into Woody Harrelson's marital problems in season one, either. The mundane stuff isn't really where True Detective shines. But by the way, I'd like Velcoro to be a little badder.

We're clearly picking from the idea in the first season where Rust said the world needs bad men like him to keep the others in check (not that Rust was especially bad himself) and we have Velcoro's wife directly calling him a bad man in this episode. Beating up a kid's father in front of him in retaliation for the kid bullying Velcoro's son seems certainly seems like improper procedure. But just like Velcoro killing his wife's rapist, whom we never see, the show doesn't take any steps to show us exactly what's morally ambiguous about Velcoro's actions. When all we know about his victims are that they rape people or have brought up bullies, there's not much separating Velcoro from the protagonist of a bad Clint Eastwood movie or a movie like Death Wish. Velcoro getting tough with his own son in the first episode was a good step but to make the challenging proposition that Velcoro is a genuinely bad man we nevertheless need I'd like to see him do something genuinely, definitely bad.

My favourite part of the second episode's writing was the dialogue about the fictional town of Vinci--I love that Pizzolatto decided to give the place character, telling us about how rich capitalists exploited the place, how it produces extraordinary amounts of toxic waste, and Antigone's observation that the place only has something like 93 official residents yet thousands of people seem to be coming in every day going to who knows where.

*Who played the villain in season one, a guy who liked to do impressions. Are they meant to be related? Or the same man reincarnated by Carcosa?

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Dark, Grey, Grim Life, Repeat

I wouldn't normally recommend what amounts to surveillance footage of the dullest people who ever lived and it's not whole-heartedly that I recommend 2011's The Turin Horse. Intended by its director, Bela Tarr, to be about the "heaviness of human existence" it really doesn't come across that way. The film's three characters are too peculiar for their experiences to be a universal statement but their soul crushing lack of imagination is certainly a trap into which any human beings might, and often do, fall prey.

The film essentially consists entirely of a series of long takes--I've spoken to a few people who believe that the recent Oscar winner Bird Man was the first to do this but I can point as far back at least as Alfred Hitchcock's Rope. Since here everything we see consists of the remarkably unremarkable daily lives of a cart driver (Janos Derzsi) and his daughter (Erika Bok) it gives the film the surveillance video quality I mentioned except for the fact that the shots are carefully, fluidly, and beautifully composed.

Which ironically makes their boredom seem all the stranger--how can they be so bored when everything's so beautiful? The film really has three characters, the third, the horse of the title, is introduced in the film's gorgeous opening crane shot as the beast trudges home through fierce winds pulling its daily burden, man and his cart.

The idea for the film was prompted by Friedrich Nietzsche's mental breakdown at which time it's said that Nietzsche spontaneously embraced and wept for an uncooperative cart horse being whipped in the street. The horse depicted in the film is apparently meant to be this same horse and the filmmakers do a pretty credible job of rendering the sort of existence led by the horse to evoke Nietzsche's horrified and affectionate empathy for it (Nietzsche wouldn't have liked me to use the word "pity").

Animals do get depressed. I've personally witnessed my aunt's cat stop eating when apparently suffering distress at the death of another of my aunt's cats so the horse's grim existence causing it to stop eating is entirely plausible to me. The man and his daughter's inability to diagnose the horse's refusal to eat is an interesting mirror of their own lack of self awareness. They keep going through their daily routine, rarely speaking--only to give basic instructions and once the man remarks on a slight difference in the sounds he hears at night while lying in bed. Entertainment for them seems to consist entirely of now and then stopping, sitting in a chair, and staring motionless out the window.

They themselves seem to lose interest in food, every day the daughter boils potatoes for the two of them which for some reason they never wait for to cool and never manage to finish eating. Everything's done in single long takes, as I said, so we actually watch the actors make the potatoes, peel them, and eat them in real time. All this would probably be unendurable if it weren't for the compositions Tarr and his cinematographer Fred Kelemen come up with. I'm almost hesitant to call it a movie. It's relaxing, sort of hypnotic. It's like the most sophisticated screen saver ever made.

Twitter Sonnet #764

Magpie voivodeships shuttle pitless eyes.
Bento Benito M. makes murder rice.
Hell hath no sitcom worse than Family Ties.
Sorrow's clay commends all the snakeskin mice.
Softer chins challenge giant collars.
Double basket calcium crackles milk.
Clearer wedges gestate sparkle dollars.
Randomised roads array responsive silk.
Delilah lassos summon Samson steers.
Eyeless otherwise ostriches chew earth.
Fortune's troubled tabard bears brazen beers.
Kali questions a yellow crayon's worth.
Crow feather foundation and eye liner
Confounds Neil Young's discerning gold miner.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Ends of the Worlds

I keep finding myself amazed by the writing quality on some of the Doctor Who audio plays--I listened to two nice Eighth Doctor audios this past week, Faith Stealer and The Last, both from 2004. I'm not sure I have a favourite of the two, they're both good in very different ways, both go in new directions with relatively standard Doctor Who premises.

Faith Stealer is a genuinely funny commentary on religion, or rather on political attitudes toward religion and degrees of tolerance. The Doctor and his companions Charley and C'rizz find themselves in a sort of year round religion convention, a community where a vast variety of religions are represented, including one that worships a hymn that must be continually sung and, my favourite, a religion that worships accidents. Their deity is called "Whoops" and they compulsively say, "Whoops be praised!" whenever someone makes a mistake. As funny as it is, the story makes a rather daring statement when one of the religions becomes a threat to people's lives and is allowed to grow stronger due to an unwavering commitment to tolerance from the administration. All in all, Faith Stealer may be the most strident condemnation and parody of religion from Doctor Who before the return of the television series, the latest season of which has had a curious and disappointing pull towards embracing religion with even a Dalek glimpsing "divinity".

The Last seems at first like it's going to be pretty run of the mill with the Doctor and his companions showing up on a world with despotic leader and a discontent populace. Only this time the Doctor arrives well past the point where he could have made a difference--the population has been almost completely wiped out except for the leader and around a hundred of her supporters. She's introduced practising a victory speech because her top advisers have misled her about the extent of damage caused by the war. There's a genuinely eerie quality to the story, particularly when C'rizz encounters a ghost and one of the people in the bunker, one of the leader's top advisers, seems to have appeared in the bunker after the end of the war.

Friday, June 26, 2015

An Improvement

This is the concluding paragraph of the United States Supreme Court's majority opinion to-day--you can read the whole thing in this pdf. It's an excellent thing, an example of government behaving as it should, insuring the right to individual freedom is unobstructed. As the court expresses earlier in the document, the Constitution's fourteenth amendment recognises liberty "to certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy, including intimate choices that define personal identity and beliefs."

The Supreme Court's basic purpose is to interpret the Constitution with respect to legal cases brought before them. The relevant part of the fourteenth amendment upon which the Court's decision is based states:

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

After the majority opinion, the released court document also contains opinions of four dissenters. The essays written by Roberts, Alito, Scallia, and Thomas are quite long--I only read Roberts' and Thomas'. Just a few days ago I read an article about how Roberts' decisions were becoming increasingly liberal but here he offers a thoroughly bullshit pedantic argument. In the face of the majority opinion which covers just about every base--from the mutable definition of marriage throughout history to citing specific examples of how the inability to marry threatens the peace of mind of same sex couples--Roberts can do nothing more than argue that the court oversteps its jurisdiction and, incredibly, bring up the old argument that marriage ought to be about procreation and providing a stable environment for children. This latter seems particularly ludicrous in light of the majority's example of a same sex couple whose legal custody of three children is threatened by their inability to marry. Not to mention that enforcing a particular definition of marriage would seem to contradict his initial argument that the court has no right to do so.

I was more curious about Thomas' argument because I'd heard it contains a bizarre reference to slavery. His argument is also almost entirely pedantic, holding forth at length, citing John Locke extensively, to insist that the word "liberty" in the Constitution could only refer to physical movement from place to place, apparently forgetting the clause also uses the words "privileges" and "immunities". But this argument makes rather hilarious another one he uses:

"Aside from undermining the political processes that protect our liberty, the majority's decision threatens the religious liberty our Nation has long sought to protect."

What do you mean? Religious people are still allowed to move around all the want.

In fact, though the thesis Thomas starts with is that the current ruling will inevitably damage other freedoms, he not only cannot offer a specific example of it doing so, he can't even think of a hypothetical situation of it doing so, in rather sharp contrast to the copious examples presented in the majority opinion.

His argument about slavery isn't quite as bizarre as I thought it was going to be, resting more on the word "dignity" and the wording of the majority opinion that it was granting dignity to same sex couples. Thomas says:

". . . human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them."

He goes on to say, "The majority’s musings are thus deeply misguided, but at least those musings can have no effect on the dignity of the persons the majority demeans." So it's possible for the court to demean people but not to affect their dignity. Again, we're in pedantry, and it's impossible for Thomas to demonstrate how the majority decision makes things worse rather than alleviating wrongs perpetrated against people.

And so, America, I'm afraid you'll just have to face the very slight possibility of a gradual, imperceptible population decrease. You'll have to face a country where some people can do more things that you might not want to do and have absolutely nothing to do with you. Most terrifying of all, the paths to happiness and self-fulfilment now have greater legally recognised variety. Good luck.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Shadow Never Glimpsed

Does suppressed empathy imply a suppressed identity? When issues of self-preservation make it dangerous to care, a particularly successful survivor buries his concern completely but where does it go? In 1976's Monsieur Klein the title character discovers there's someone else living in the same city with the same name. A worrying fact considering the city is Paris in 1942 and the other Robert Klein is Jewish and wanted by the police. At one level a Wrong Man film worthy of Hitchcock, the film is also a fascinating and beautifully shot portrait of basic human fear and compulsion.

Alain Delon plays the Catholic Klein, a well dressed and handsome art dealer who isn't especially political, happy to buy art from desperate Jews fleeing the country but not apparently feeling anything in particular for their plight. One day he discovers a Jewish newspaper has been mistakenly delivered to him--he immediately reports it to the police in the hopes of heading off any suspicion but his actions backfire, his reporting to the police actually arousing their suspicions.

One could describe the film as North by Northwest meets The Rules of the Game. Like the Renoir film, there's a society depicted whose insulated world of parties and love making seems cut off from the world around them. There's a peculiarly ritual quality to Delon's Klein's relationship with his girlfriend, Jeanine (Juliet Berto). He commands her to stay in bed most of the day where she petulantly reads from the books he has stacked nearby. When she asks him about Moby Dick, he insists she read something else.

Perhaps the tale of Captain Ahab hits too close to home as his continued search for the Jewish Robert Klein gradually seems less motivated by a desire to clear his name and more by an obsessive desire to meet the man. The father of Delon's character, when asked, is offended and alarmed by the very idea that anyone named Klein could be Jewish, angrily insisting that their history goes back to Louis XIV. Despite the apparent political ambivalence of Delon's character, there's a sense that his obsession, his attraction to the other Klein, is fuelled by repulsion. Even when he gets close, he more than once tells someone who inquires about his search, "It has nothing to do with me!"

An image of the Jewish Klein never seems to get clearer as Delon tracks him to a decrepit little apartment and to a high society gathering in a country manor where a rich Jewish woman played by Jeanne Moreau seems just as happy seducing one Robert Klein as the other.

Since he doesn't seem repulsed by her, the nature of the shadow Delon chases seems less to do with Jews and more generally to do with a sense of ugly reality. The impression I had at times was that the film really portrays two sides of a single man, that Delon's character isn't really whole. He seems an embodiment of a kind of cultural schizophrenia caused by state terror and at the same time the story works as a very personal rendering of an extraordinarily and dangerously compartmentalised psyche. The compulsion of the chase implies a fundamental terror of the two Kleins being two separate people.

Twitter Sonnet #763

Oblong glove torrents reconfigure hands.
North of vacation age lies limber tea.
Broadcast capers to the right colour bands.
A burning turtle takes war to the sea.
Turquoise tambourine rampage pillows fall.
Fortresses swallow little treacle pills.
Hamshakes order etiquette puking pall.
Trial Rasputin torches challenge wills.
Barley bicycle sickles carry gold.
Tree skirt moments memorise ghostly blinks.
Devil copper princes seize young and old.
Unseeing soap dish dice bet all the sinks.
Vacuum spider pedestrians adhere.
Feather forks'll find the devilled egg pier.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Injection of Evil!

So few palaeoanthropologists look for evidence of pure evil in fossils. Peter Cushing as Dr. Emmanuel Hildern is one exception in 1973's The Creeping Flesh, a brashly absurd story with a extremely hazy concept of science, perhaps somewhat explained by the possibility that it's all the ravings of a madman. Regardless, it's a lot of fun and surprisingly beautifully shot, directed by Freddie Francis who would go on to be cinematographer on three David Lynch movies.

Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing are brothers this time around, both more or less men of science--While the favourite child Emmanuel was off making new discoveries in his field, James (Lee) nursed resentment as chief administrator of an asylum where Emmanuel's crazy wife has been locked up for years, unbeknownst to Emmanual's daughter, Penelope (Lorna Heilbron).

Emmanuel has told Penelope that her mother is dead, keeping the woman's room locked and forbidding Penelope to enter, fearful the girl will grow up to inherit the madness. Flashbacks tell us the madness basically consisted of sleeping around a lot.

Meanwhile, Emmanuel has dug up a bizarre skeleton, pointing to the layers of sediment to assert that it pre-dates Neanderthal but doesn't remark on the fact that it's not fossils but a fully articulated skeleton that he and his assistant are able to lift without worrying about it coming apart. He is somewhat surprised when he finds any part of it that's exposed to water ends up regrowing flesh.

Taking a blood sample from the finger, he beholds what appear to be black blood cells with little tentacles. He almost immediately identifies the blood as the essence of pure evil, like any good scientist, and after mixing it with some normal human blood and watching the red blood cells seem to triumph, he makes a vaccine, hoping in this way to rid the world of evil.

I won't spoil the pretty wildly absurd turns of plot that occur from there but the film's definition of evil is somewhat problematic, mainly insinuating that it makes women want to jump around and tease men without actually having sex with them. I can only speculate on the particular axe the screenwriter had to grind.

Lee gets first billing but this is definitely Cushing's movie. His character is more credulous and enthusiastic than he normally played, it's interesting seeing him bring this energy to a performance. Lee, meanwhile, as the bitterly jealous brother, looks cool and devilish.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Space, Sea, Magic, Aliens, and Awe

Is James Horner dead? the Guardian says so, so I guess it must be true. When I go to Google and search under the news category, though, all the articles that come up are still only reporting that a plane registered to Horner crashed and an as yet unidentified pilot died. The story is no longer on the front page of the Guardian and it seems to have been pushed off the main pages of every news site, I'm not sure how much this is due to the story being somewhat unconfirmed or a reflection of perceived public interest in the topic. I'm certainly interested.

Obviously I'm a film fan and I have been all my life. I was born in 1979 so my first impressions of film are of the 1980s which was a very important decade for film scores. John Williams' scores for Star Wars and Indiana Jones radically changed the game, dazzling everyone with the concept of using full orchestra and Wagnerian themes even for a space movie. Almost all film scores sounded different afterwards--even Williams himself had had a relatively unremarkable career for decades before Star Wars, he effectively became another kind of composer after Star Wars and so did a lot of other composers. Williams couldn't score every movie so you had a number of other composers tasked with fitting this new mould--Alan Silvestri, Jerry Goldsmith, and a few others distinguished themselves particularly well but maybe the best at adapting to this new era was James Horner.

Horner's themes for Star Trek II fully eclipsed those written by Jerry Goldsmith for the first film to be most popularly associated with the original series crew in films. Goldsmith's score wasn't bad and came to be associated with Star Trek The Next Generation and a lot of the stronger association people have with Horner's score with Kirk's crew is probably related to the fact that Star Trek II is simply a better film. But certainly what Horner accomplished is part of that, managing to capture an awe of boundless ether and an echo of seagoing adventure to fit with Nicholas Meyer's vision of the film as Horatio Hornblower in space. It bears the marks of homage to Erich Wolfgang Korngold's score to the 1940 film The Sea Hawk but mostly it's unmistakeably Horner. A comparable score was one of the most noticeable absences in J.J. Abrams' remake.

Horner reworked some of his Star Trek score when he was called in late into production to score James Cameron's Aliens in 1986, once again a sequel to a film that had been scored by Jerry Goldsmith.

Like Goldsmith before him, Horner quotes the worried strings from Gayene, a ballet by Aram Khachaturian which was used for exterior spaceship shots in Kubrick's 2001, and uses them for lonely visions of vessels drifting through cold vastness. But Horner's score is best remembered for the percussion, tight military drums foiled by alarming cymbals and elephantine brass. Cues from the film were used in movie trailers long afterwards and it's no surprise that Cameron would choose to work with Horner time and time again, including for his last two enormously successful films, Titanic and Avatar. It's for Titanic in particular that Horner is widely recognised, its score's Celtic quality bearing a strong resemblance to a film Horner had worked on previously, Braveheart.

But to trace the recurring motifs of Horner's work back further, it's been said that his work of the late 90s and early 2000s mostly began with his most Wagnerian score from the most Wagnerian era of film scores.

Willow as a film may not have aged terribly well but I really want it to work mostly because of Horner's soundtrack. I'm still hoping to find the right level of intoxication to make it work for me one night but I need no amount of alcohol to enjoy Horner's score. So the man's gone now but he left us with quite a lot. Well, assuming he really is gone, I hope this story gets straightened out.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Heart Over the Badge

Last night I dreamt there was a very tiny, about half the size of my pinkie fingernail, orange piranha making a web in my apartment. I had a big fish tank in my dream so I decided to see what would happen if I put it in the water. I couldn't tell what happened when I did because I'd forgotten to clean the tank for a few months so the water was all cloudy.

Was this inspired by last night's season première of True Detective? Is Colin Farrell the piranha and is the city the dirty fish tank? Maybe the piranha is Vince Vaughan's character. It was a good show in any case, I think I actually like this episode better than the season one première. The characters seem more complex to me and I like the variety, though season two carries over the first season's basic theme that the "true detective" is one who performs the role of detective with consummate, spiritual focus, in spite of and often because of all failings in the detective's personal life.

A detective in showrunner Nic Pizzolatto's mythology is like a knight undergoing trials and crises that serve to illuminate the purity of his heart even when he fails. Colin Farrell's character, Detective Ray Velcoro, savagely beats the father of the kid who bullied Velcoro's son, who may not be his biological son but the result of his ex-wife having been raped. There's quite a list here of marks of Velcoro's dedication--to a woman who's no longer his wife, to her child who isn't genetically his, to exacting revenge even though it's way outside the bounds of the law. In the process he even traumatises the boy he means to avenge, so angry at the little boy for shrinking from seeing justice done he grabs him roughly and yells at him. He's Percival in search of the holy grail, a spiritual thing instead of a physical object, and while the details matter enough for him to feel guilty later, nothing shakes his focus.

Where last season, women were relegated to victim, foil, and eye candy roles, Rachel McAdams in the new season gets to be one of those on the holy quest. We watch her character, Detective Antigone Bezzerides (that's a name that says a lot) attempt to bust a house where women are recording themselves masturbating for webcams despite the fact that she has no legal authority to do so. We find one of the women in the house is her sister and Antigone seems primarily motived by the desire to straighten out her sister though, as her sister and father point out, it's only Antigone's morality that the sister is in conflict with. There's perhaps meant to be hypocrisy hinted at when Antigone is first introduced and an embarrassed young man she'd been in bed with alludes to an extreme sex act Antigone had wanted him to perform (the show doesn't specify what).

Incidentally, it's here that we see she's the only one still drinking Jameson which was omnipresent in season one. Farrell's character is seen drinking Jim Beam and Johnnie Walker which I'm guessing means the show has unsurprisingly picked up a few more sponsors.

The third policeman isn't a detective but a motorcycle cop who takes pills instead of alcohol, Taylor Kitsch as Paul Woodrugh, but he shows plenty of the fanatic's sense of purpose.

After failing to take a bribe from a rich, wealthy, and attractive woman who attempts to offer him sex when he pulls her over for reckless driving (one of the less flattering female stock character types that the show still produces) she later gets him suspended after he fails to accept her "trade". He speaks of a spiritual bond with his motorcycle and being suspended puts him into such an existential crisis we watch him speeding at night on his privately owned bike without the headlamp on. And like a show of courage and commitment to God, a leap of faith, it leads him right back to his destined path.

The fourth major character is an interesting anomaly, Vince Vaughn as a gangster named Frank Semyon. He owns Velcoro's loyalty for giving the detective the name and address of his wife's rapist. Semyon seems originally to have been motivated at least partially by a sense of justice and there's an impression that he's not merely looking out for himself. As he explains to an underling, the organisation to which he belongs is supported by "codependent interests". He may be an example of an idealised gangster which isn't so different a thing from Pizzolatto's detectives--like Vito Corleone, he functions as an enforcer of rough justice rather than simplistic opportunism. I'll be interested to see how this plays out, how his independent sense of justice interacts with and potentially supplements the justice of the detectives.

Twitter Sonnet #762

Colonel Loris leveraged a tiny face.
Cookie duster cavalry relish lips.
Sad eyed primates shave at a slower pace.
But larger moustaches thwart speedy sips.
Unspecified volume laps ear drumless.
No planes have plots for raindrop marathons.
Elbow solar systems seem so sunless.
Deckard always lost all the decathlons.
Juiceless grapefruit jackboot bling seances
Dribble baseless acid for citrus dreams.
Autumn rind umbrage uplifts finances.
Tepid politic lymph nodes poll the seams.
Mummy maudlin lampshade pressbook berates
Knowledge leftover from foundry debates.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Vodka In Your Juice Box

Happy Father's Day, Darth Vader, last night James Earl Jones returned to the role for the season première of Star Wars Rebels. Not a lot of people seem to be talking about it, possibly a reflection on Rebels' mediocre first season--the casting of Jones couldn't have been cheap so this could be a sign of Disney throwing money at the problem. The problem that really needed fixing was writing and fundamental series concept. Did the season première learn from the first season's mistakes? Partially.

Buzz on this season première is so weak that as I'm writing this the Wikipedia entry and the imdb entry for the episode still don't name the writer or director, I had to go to my recording of the episode and check the end credits. One definite sign of improvement is that it's written by easily the best writer from the first season, Henry Gilroy, instead of being given to a high profile hack like Simon Kinberg. There's still a basic problem of the Empire being a little too easy to handle for the heroes but Gilroy constructs a satisfyingly surprising plot with much better dialogue--like when Kanan proposes a plan and Hera says, "Are you crazy?" and Kanan replies, "Does anyone ever say yes to that?"

Kanan and Ezra were substantially less annoying but were still frustrating for being at the fore because it meant side-lining Ahsoka Tano, the other big draw for this episode. Anakin Skywalker's apprentice from The Clone Wars, the prospect of her meeting Darth Vader presents a lot of exciting possibilities and the episode does tease it well in a scene where the Imperial side actually gets to look pretty deadly for once as Vader single handedly decimates half a Rebel fleet.

An earlier scene, which feels like it was forcibly pulled back a bit by worried Disney producers, has Vader ordering the destruction of a refugee village. The villagers are "taken captive", though this isn't seen, Ezra somehow intuits it from the blackened structures. Disney is presumably still selling copies to children of the movies where Anakin slaughters men, women, and children, is this sanitation really necessary?

But it says a lot for James Earl Jones that his cool delivery when he orders the burning of the village still makes it seem pretty horrid. Hopefully, when season two resumes in a few months, the show will gradually move to the kind of wide ranging narrative that characterised Clone Wars and jump from one group of Rebels to another instead of focusing on the generic brand version of the original trilogy crew. When you have Ahsoka and Vader, you don't need Freddie Prinze (with a Z!) and Aladdin. I could also do without the vaudevillian take on an indie artist called Sabine.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Rebirth of a Blank

There's a rumour that Joivan Wade, the actor who played Rigsy in last season's Doctor Who episode "Flatline", will be joining the show full time as a companion. He's definitely going to be in at least one upcoming episode, maybe it'll give him more personality. Based on my second viewing a couple nights ago of "Flatline" I'd say this guy as a companion would be the new series answer to Adric. He has it all--the numb face, the overemphasised line delivery, and youthful precocity that somehow appeals to everyone on the show but no-one at home, setting up a grating dissonance.

Something that might be leaning show producers in Wade's direction is the fact that, according to his Wikipedia entry, he's a "YouTube sensation". The first episode of his series, Mandem On the Wall, does have over a million views:

It's kind of cute but it works on a completely different level from Doctor Who. I can see a big part of its appeal is the amateurish quality of the performances; we're meant to see the actor through the character. These are descendants of Jimmy Fallon laughing at his own jokes on Saturday Night Live. But Jimmy Fallon isn't this shrill. Wade would look very natural in a TARDIS occupied by the Sixth Doctor, Peri, Adric, and Mel. They could pair off Mel and Rigsy and promote it as "The most unbelievable romance in the galaxy!"

I listened to three audio plays this past week, all from 2004, The Harvest, The Roof of the World, and Medicinal Purposes. The Harvest was the best of the three though Medicinal Purposes was interesting and not only because the Sixth Doctor in it is upstaged by none other than David Tennant, who plays Daft Jamie. He gets to use his natural Scottish accent, the accent and his name reminding the Doctor of his companion, Jamie McCrimmon, and you might recall that in "Tooth and Claw" the Tenth Doctor took the name James McCrimmon. But Daft Jamie is an actual person from history, figuring in with the Burke and Hare murders. An Irish doctor and his servant in mid nineteenth century Edinburgh who first snatched already dead bodies and then escalated their activities to murder, all in the name of medical research. The audio features the Doctor simultaneously admiring and disliking the pair, even telling his companion Evelyn that there's no such thing as good and evil men, that there are always shades of grey. Which is fascinating considering half the other audio plays feature the Doctor talking about the absolute, verifiable existence of purely evil men.

Tennant plays Jamie as mentally impaired and I can imagine the character being pretty over the top and badly conceived to painful effect in other hands.

But the better play was The Harvest, a Seventh Doctor story which features he and Ace infiltrating the ranks of a hospital where some very strange things are happening. There's great atmosphere aided by Sophie Aldred's natural delivery when posing as an employee, chatting with the almost equally effective Philip Oliver as Hex, a new companion. I'm now reflecting on what a breath of fresh air Aldred was as a companion after Mel and and Peri. I wonder how long we'd have to wait for the new series' Ace after the new series' Adric.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Memories of Burning Clouds

It's amazing how quickly and thoroughly human beings can push cognisance of horrible events to a distance. Arguably the single most destructive act perpetrated by human beings against other human beings, the dropping of atomic bombs by the United States on civilian Japanese cities, was an event in many ways quickly buried beneath myriad propaganda by both nations. Of course, artists from both nations nevertheless discussed the event in their works of the 1950s but when Akira Kurosawa made his 1991 film Rhapsody In August (八月の狂詩曲) about the continuing legacy of the bombs he made a film that was largely about how the horror was still being buried and trivialised. A much more domestic film than is normally associated with him, it's a fairly quiet, rather simple rumination with some haunting imagery.

Kurosawa had made another film directly about the cultural impact of the bombs, 1955's I Live In Fear (生きものの記録) about an elderly man terrified by the possibility of another nuclear attack on Japan. Considered irrational by his friends and family, he's legally stripped of the power to move his family to Brazil in an effort to escape a perceived immanent destruction. Already the film was about people denying the reality of the bombs, simultaneously making the fear of something that had actually happened seem like insanity. Real life could only be interrupted by many as the dreams of a lunatic.

Rhapsody In August is less about fear and more about an unreachable past, awareness of a continuity that was prematurely cut off.

Four children go to stay in Nagasaki with their grandmother, Kane (Sachiko Murase), while their parents are in Hawaii meeting some American relatives. Wandering town like tourists, they're confronted by memorials to the bomb victims beginning with the especially potent visual of a twisted jungle gym surrounded by flowers.

Kurosawa contrasts the awe and horror felt by the children with casual attitudes of other tourists at the site who seem to regard the artefacts and statues as mildly interesting trivia to be viewed on holiday. The children find themselves more personally affected as their grandmother tells them stories of family and friends she knew before Nagasaki was destroyed.

In my favourite segment of the film, the grandmother tells them the story of her brother who had eloped with a young woman and had gone to live with her on the other side of a hill. According to Kane's story, the young woman had chosen to live next to a pair of strangely twisted trees because she imagined they looked like desperate lovers, clinging to each other. Two of the children go out the next day to see if they can find the trees, venturing through dark woods and finding they prefer to speak in whispers. Then they find the trees and Kurosawa constructs a fantastic image.

The improbably surviving trees look like victims of destruction themselves, like preserved Pompeii victims, the flowers at their feet resemble a pool of blood and the corridor of dark trees both resemble curtains and a diminishing perspective to convey a foreboding distance from the event.

Kurosawa is clearly still indulging in dreamlike imagery he explored more fully in his three previous films. There are a few other potent dream images Kurosawa uses to convey the feelings surrounding the issue. Mostly, though, the film reminded me of One Wonderful Sunday or No Regrets for Our Youth, two of Kurosawa's films immediately following World War II he was more or less commissioned to make as part of a propaganda effort to ease the transition into the American occupation. Both were rare films for Kurosawa about relatively normal people and their families.

Contemporary domestic films were never Kurosawa's strong point and for the most part he hadn't seemed to improve much at them in between those two post war films and Rhapsody In August. The latter portion of the film features Richard Gere as the American son of one of Kane's many brothers and he comes to Japan to show his respect for the family and what happened in Nagasaki. Many people new to Kurosawa films are struck by the intentionally broad, artificiality of many of the performances which were influenced by Kabuki. It's interesting, then, to see Gere's typical American movie star performance in this context and to see how absolutely phoney he comes off in comparison.

It's possible in casting the star Kurosawa didn't have a real instinct for American performance styles. But I also wonder if the cheap smarminess of Gere was something intentionally included by Kurosawa in the film to show a shallow, sentimental acknowledgement of the horrific event was no more useful than the trivialising and ignoring of it. The film ends with a rather powerful image that implies that nothing really has been resolved and nothing probably ever will be. The most that might happen is that the horror seeps further into the ground soil of imagination.

Twitter Sonnet #761

Radiation redacts the roots of trees.
Autumn's atomic egg summer removed.
Chips of acrylic laments dust the knees.
The skies of dampened chalk are deemed improved.
Metal cases synchronise nourishment.
Columns limit molecules to the line.
Sycamore malcontents treat banishment.
Curling locks conceal somnambulist’s brine.
Copper cheekbone burnished green by sandstorm.
Absent syllable liquor cascades burn.
Branches of peace wither with shade and form.
Scissors silence the magnet's threaded turn.
Ratt'ling lumbar broken balance beam heads.
Violent verdure shakes off vertical reds.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Believe In the Lion

What is the intrinsic value of faith? Forget about any particular faith, but just the concept of firmly and passionately believing in something you'll never have concrete evidence for. A Roman Captain who worships Diana and a Christian woman each finds the other's commitment seductive in 1952's Androcles and the Lion based on George Bernard Shaw's 1912 play of the same name. I haven't read the play but I can believe when I read that the film is rather faithful to the source from the scene where the Captain and the Christian express their mutual admiration--it's an unusual scene to say the least in a 1950s sand and sandal film. Nonetheless, the film does have plenty of the grating Christian smugness normal in films like this of the period and is diminished also by a poorly cast Alan Young as Androcles. A lot of the comedy doesn't work but the unconventional story and good performances from Jean Simmons, Robert Newton, and Victor Mature make the film enjoyable.

Androcles is introduced as a pacifist animal lover to the point of saintly idiocy. He's a Christian so when his wife hears about Christians being rounded up to be fed to the lions she badgers him until he finally agrees to flee with her. Elsa Lanchester plays his wife, named Megaera (Shaw seems to have chosen mythologically significant names) and I think we're meant to take her as an unbearable nag. Am I weird for finding her intensely attractive?

I can always use more Elsa Lanchester in my life.

But she doesn't stick around long, running away in terror never to be seen again when Androcles befriends a lion with a thorn in his paw.

A lot of trick photography and in some cases a man dressed as a lion are used but there are a few shots where Alan Young is obviously in frame with a real lion. So I have to hand that much to him but his performance as the guileless Androcles is grating as hell. Young is and always has been the voice of Scrooge McDuck--even to-day at the age of 95--and I've always liked his work as the character. It turns out a talent for playing a crotchety old Scotsman does not indicate equal skill as naive holy fool.

He's soon captured and taken into custody by the Captain (Victor Mature) and his men. Among his fellow captives are a noblewoman named Lavinia who spontaneously steps in among the Christian prisoners of her own accord and a burly proselytiser named Ferrovius.

Robert Newton plays Ferrovius like Long John Silver but with slightly better diction. Considering how uninteresting his performance was in 1936's Jamaica Inn, I wouldn't blame him for essentially just playing Long John Silver in every film after he gave the definitive performance in the role in 1950's Treasure Island. Ferrovius has a violent temper for which reason he's sworn himself to pacifism, something which leads to a subtly blasphemous statement at the end of the film.

Lavinia is played by Jean Simmons.

If you've seen at least two sand and sandal films of the 50s you've seen Jean Simmons who was for some reason in almost all of them. Here she falls for Mature's character and as dubious as I find the philosophy of loving faith for faith's sake there's something really sexy about how much she loves the fact that he worships Diana and he loves the fact that she worships Christ and neither wants to convert. I guess it's religious opposites attract. I don't know, there's something about the mutual tension and compulsion I find rather endearing. It's helped by the fact that Mature tackles his role with respect for the character's belief. Among the other Romans, he's particularly calm and clear-sighted.

Simmons is great as Lavinia, too, playing a woman who committed herself on a lark but nevertheless with fervency. One could read this as a person who had lost faith in everything so she grabbed onto the first thing and held tight. Maybe that's why she's particularly beautiful in this film.