Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Amphibious and Amorphous

Reinterpreting classic monster stories as sympathetic portrayals of misfits is nothing new but Guillermo del Toro reaches new heights with 2017's The Shape of Water. An unabashed ode to Creature from the Black Lagoon and, to a lesser extent, King Kong, The Shape of Water teases out the hints of erotic and romantic subtext in those films into a lovely, full blown fantasy romance film.

Arguably Del Toro's most political film, even more than The Devil's Backbone or Pan's Labyrinth, the action is set in 1962, rather than Black Lagoon's 1954. The civil rights movement, the Red Scare, and the Cold War are all integral aspects of the film's backdrop and occasionally its plot. The film's two central protagonists are a mute--but not deaf--woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and a gay man named Giles (Richard Jenkins). Their thematic connexion to the "Amphibian Man" (Doug Jones), trapped in a lab by the white, Christian, heterosexual men of the U.S. government is not ambiguous. Giles agrees to help Elisa rescue the creature after he's cruelly rejected, in an effectively brutal scene, by a man in a cafe. He understands then why Elisa might feel some camaraderie with the beast.

Thankfully, the movie doesn't simply render the monster a thoroughly safe and passive version of the Gill Man from Creature of the Black Lagoon. One scene that will be especially unpleasant to cat lovers shows the Amphibian Man is, like the Gill Man, a wild animal capable of killing with little discrimination. I also liked that Giles was surprisingly understanding about it. Jenkins is very good in the film as the often put upon and mildly exasperated voice of reason.

Creature from the Black Lagoon is already a film that puts much more blame on human arrogance than on any ideas the monster might have. The true villain of the 1954 film is arguably the one scientist who wants to kill or capture the creature for his own glory. The other humans are pretty vocal about not wanting to kill it and wanting to allow it to remain in its natural habitat. I watched Creature from the Black Lagoon again last night and I was surprised how many little things Del Toro references in Shape of Water. Even the odd idea that study of the Gill Man can somehow be utilised for space travel. Like the male protagonist of Black Lagoon, a Russian spy working under the name of Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) in Shape of Water voices the assertion that it would be more valuable to study the creature alive than dead. His adversary is Colonel Strickland played by Stuhlbarg's Boardwalk Empire co-star Michael Shannon.

Shannon's great talent for playing violent men is further emphasised by two severed figures that were reattached early in the film. They become more and more discoloured over the course of the film and work nicely both to add to tension and to add the sense that the colonel himself is becoming monstrous.

Doug Jones is fantastic as usual as the Amphibian Man and his make-up and costume pay homage to the great Gill Man costume with the addition of more expressive eyes. But it's Sally Hawkins as Elisa at the heart of the film.

Quite fearless in scenes depicting her masturbating in the bath, Hawkins helps the film express fully the erotic undertones of Black Lagoon by providing more intimacy with the female protagonist's internal motives and needs. Her vulnerability and determination in her identification with the monster are also beautifully expressed resulting in a surprising, and surprisingly effective, musical number.

Octavia Spencer plays a kind of a stock character as Elisa's friend and coworker. Spencer's comedic timing is nice enough but Colonel Stickland's casual racism talking to her doesn't quite make up for her unimaginative character. Her and Elisa being the cleaning women adds kind of a nice remark on classism, though.

It almost goes without saying, but really, it's worth repeating--the film is visually stunning.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Terra Surprise

There was a time when a Doctor Who Cybermen serial was just about our heroes trying to stop those dastardly, emotionless cyborgs from conquering Earth. I finished watching through Earthshock again this week, a 1982 Doctor Who serial featuring Peter Davison as the Doctor. As is often the case when rewatching episodes, I liked Earthshock even more this time.

Spoilers after the screenshot

The first episode doesn't even feature Cybermen until the end. Earthshock is one of those serials where I feel like plans were changed significantly from one episode to the next. The first two episodes feature some creepy, skinny androids we never see again battling against some Earth soldiers in a network of caves, at some point in the future.

Tension is nicely created by having the Doctor and his companions turning up elsewhere in the caves, focused entirely on their own internal drama as Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) has announced his intention to somehow find a way back to his hope in the alternate universe, E-Space, from the Fourth Doctor's final season.

Earthshock features two instances where the Doctor's captured and assumed to be the enemy before the actual enemy manifests to prove they hate the Doctor just as much as anyone else. The first is the more effective of the two as it ends with a nicely constructed scene of the Doctor and Adric dismantling a bomb. This is also reflected in the climax of the final story when Adric is forced to diffuse a much bigger bomb by himself.

The Doctor's insistence at putting only himself in danger in the first episode might have been an influence on Adric when he stays behind on the ship plummeting to Earth even when he doesn't have to (unbeknownst to him). One wonders if Steven Moffat had this in mind when coming up with Clara's departure in the Twelfth Doctor's second season. Of course, that works much better because I like Clara, despite the convoluted, protracted explanation as to how she's actually still alive with Maisie Williams. I suppose Adric's death in Earthshock would have a much bigger impact on me if I liked him. But Tegan (Janet Fielding) crying in shock at the end, met with the Doctor's stunned silence, is pretty effective.

Both Tegan and Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) have oddly small roles in Earthshock as the Earth soldiers that tag along following the first episode take a lot of plot space normally occupied by companions. I suspect the odd moment when Tegan swaps clothes with an archaeologist (Clare Clifford), for some reason deemed a necessity for her to accompany the other soldiers outside the TARDIS, is an indicator that Tegan was originally meant to stay behind and have all the dialogue with Nyssa that ended up with the archaeologist.

By that point, I'd forgotten the whole reason the soldiers were in the caves was that the archaeologist had stumbled across the androids during a dig. Which reminds me, the first episode does have a nice moment for Tegan and Nyssa as the Doctor discusses with them some dinosaur fossils they come across.

This is some slightly obvious foreshadowing to Adric causing the impact which led to the extinction of the dinosaurs but it works nicely.

I really like the command crew of the freighter, two older women played by Beryl Reid and June Bland. Despite what some apparently think, Doctor Who had often by this point shown women in positions of authority and expertise without making a fuss about it. Beryl Reid was an interesting choice for the role because she seems almost like a sitcom-ish matriarch with that hair piled up. But she has plenty of credible steel when she's determined to get paid for delivering cargo despite mounting dangers. It's less clear why everyone on the bridge lets the Doctor and Adric roam about relatively unfettered when they're suspected of murdering some of the other crew but this is one of the things that makes me suspect writer Eric Saward and director Peter Grimwade were having to make some course corrections mid-serial. Whatever was going on behind the scenes, though, Earthshock turned out pretty good.

Twitter Sonnet #1069

In glassy glimpses wine decants to hares.
Triangle rows disguise a purple fate.
Throughout the crystal woods a spirit stares.
Fluorescent lanterns burn the living slate.
Between the slices cut the lettuce waits.
Umbrellas wake to let us watch the rain.
In Ella's wake a song'll sow the dates.
Inside her ship's the isle so's the main.
Electric fans behind the paper gave.
The late trick bands rewind the newest tapes.
Remind us at the fatal hour's grave.
The kettle's sour with fermented grapes.
Soufflés arise across the metal hill.
Surprise accrues in orbit like a meal.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Extreme Correspondence

Nothing brings two people together like swapping bodies now and then. 2016's Your Name (君の名は) is a visually stunning and very sweet romantic comedy anime film about two cute teenagers who meet in a very strange way.

Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi) and Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki) live in a small rural town and Tokyo, respectively. They're total strangers until one morning each is surprised to wake up in the other's body. They're both teenagers, and Taki's a boy while Mitsuha's a girl, so there's plenty of little funny moments that made it no surprise when I learned director Makoto Shinkai took inspiration from the great gender swapping series Ranma 1/2.

The two slowly get to know each other through notes and diary entries. Taki's work life improves after Mitsuha stitches a tear in a beautiful coworker's skirt and Mitsuha gets some attention at school when she suddenly becomes a more aggressive basketball player.

In a lot of ways, the movie is more typical of anime than westerners who are used only to Hayao Miyazaki films might expect so the film's success with western critics has been somewhat surprising. The contemporary Japanese setting is realistic if beautifully idealised and the teenage romance features some of the stock behaviour normally seen in shonen series, like girls who respond with over the top anger at the suggestion that they might actually be attracted to boys and boys who are too shy to confess their feelings. At the same time, the supernatural romantic comedy angle of the film would be familiar to many fans of 90s and early 00s American and British films like Serendipity or Groundhog Day.

That's not something you should ever write on your face, by the way.

It stands as a sterling example for genres. Its backgrounds are intensely detailed and the animation is fluid and creative in its expressiveness. The plot unfolds with great instinct and even the many musical montages aren't tedious--they mostly help the viewer to relish the moments of tension.

The disconnect between the protagonists becomes somewhat reminiscent of the difference in age between the protagonists of Shintai's previous film, The Garden of Words, but Your Name goes for a much more impassioned tone. These two characters are each desperate to make each other happy and you root for them. It's a very satisfying film.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

On the War Clock

Hans Zimmer's score for 2017's Dunkirk is clearly meant to evoke a ticking clock. Which is fitting since the film's emphasis on time is second only to Memento in Christopher Nolan's filmography. A surprisingly restrained film after the emotional effusion of Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises, Dunkirk is a pleasant experience.

Nolan cuts between three different stories over the course of the film with three different time frames--a story beginning on the beaches of Dunkirk set over the course of a week, a story set on a small civilian boat over the course of a day, and a story about two spitfires set over the course of an hour. As the stories each draw closer and closer to intersecting, Nolan gives a nice impression of how the different moving gears of what might be called the grand war clock all move separately and in relation to each other.

Many war films spend time establishing back stories for their characters but most of the people in Dunkirk are almost anonymous. We learn next to nothing about Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), the protagonist of the first story. The effect is almost like a video game--he becomes a cursor to convey an almost purely sensory experience as a point of view for the audience. It creates a colder experience than many films, which I didn't mind for the most part. It only seemed odd when the large groups of soldiers gathered on the beaches were shown maintaining complete silence.

Quite an introspective bunch.

Slightly warmer is the second story, the one about a civilian boat captain, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), and the two teenage boys who accompany him after civilian craft are drafted into service to help evacuate British troops from Dunkirk. Dawson is a nice fellow to watch, he speaks to the boys with a real sense of authority and knowledge without intrusive ego, just the sort of fellow you'd like to be in charge in a situation like this. He questions himself in one scene but it doesn't make his resolve seem foolish.

The hour story features Tom Hardy as an RAF spitfire about whom we learn even less, if possible, than Tommy. In this circumstance his story becomes very much about Hardy's performance and watching as he reacts to dogfights and the struggles in the sea below. Everything he is is told mostly in Hardy's reactions since he has hardly any dialogue. It's a very subtle experience.

Visually, the film is nice, despite featuring the all too common blue and orange colour corrected cinematography. Also featuring Kenneth Branagh and James D'Arcy as some officers in charge of the evacuation and Cillian Murphy as a shell shocked survivor, the film is pleasing to watch.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Claws versus Slow Death

I finally got around to watching 2017's Logan a few days ago. I'm glad I did--I have my complaints but in the main I think it's the first X-Men film to live up to the potential of the first two Bryan Singer films--mind you, I haven't seen the Brett Ratner movie or the first two solo Wolverine movies but I feel relatively comfortable making that claim. It's pretty common now for films and television series to draw inspiration from classic Westerns but Logan nails the Western feel better than most.

The film's middle portion, where Logan (Hugh Jackman), Charles (Patrick Stewart), and Laura (Dafne Keen) briefly stay with a family of farmers is the best part of the film. It brings in a surprising sense of credibility with the corporate corn farm muscling in on the family--I really liked how the trouble starts because there's no water to clean the dinner dishes. But it's also very Spaghetti western--it's not unlike the McBanes getting slaughtered at the beginning of Once Upon a Time in the West after Logan and patriarch of the farm, Will (Eriq La Salle), are met by a gang when they try to repair the sabotaged water pipes.

This is nicely paralleled by and tied to Richard E. Grant's character trying to turn mutants into a profit industry.

I only wish James Mangold had made the film a bit slower. My main complaint is that shots tend not to linger nearly as long as they should, nothing feels like it has time to settle in. But the film does work in spite of this.

Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart are both really good and the relationship between the two characters feels like a real evolution from the two as we saw in the Singer films. Where once Professor X was gently encouraging a cynical and world weary Wolverine to accept the hope promised by the mutant school we now see a world that's become much more like one that matches Logan's worldview. This is made so much more effectively painful by Stewart's performance as his Charles insists on treating young Laura and Logan with patience and gentleness even as his manner clearly shows he knows just how hopeless things have become. And he bears the weight of his own horrible mistakes.

The climax is good and it's great seeing Wolverine finally able to use his claws in a rated R film. Still, I don't blame Hugh Jackman for deciding to retire from the role after this, I can't imagine a better note to go out on.

Twitter Sonnet #1068

The trees absconded with the golden stars.
Atop the growing ornament was light.
Abeam the racing hooves a row of bars.
And all the walking fish were bade g'night.
The passing hand revealed a waiting ghost.
The hours hemmed in red and gold repair.
Mechanic routes ordained the normal toast.
The river webs announced the strange affair.
We saw the sun behind the skinny tree.
Reminders posted paint a shadow face.
The watch is running past the cup of tea.
A tablecloth askew, the only trace.
At lunch a cart ascends a thorny hill.
The garden turns for time's lethargic bill.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Twice Upon a Revisionist History

I find myself not especially eager to discuss yesterday's Doctor Who Christmas special. There were moments I did enjoy but, speaking as someone who feels Steven Moffat doesn't deserve half the hate he gets, the special left me feeling very glad he's stepping down as showrunner.

Spoilers after the screenshot

I would have assumed Moffat would have devoted a little extra time to writing his final episode as showrunner. But my complaints about "Twice Upon a Time" can be summed up in much the way I'd sum up a review of most of his episodes from the past couple seasons--there are some very good ideas delivered in frustratingly bad ways. Often whether or not one of his episodes succeeds depends on how much stronger the ideas are than their deployment. In this episode, while I experienced some of the intended emotional highs, it wasn't quite enough to compensate for weak foundation.

1. Having the Twelfth Doctor meet with the First Doctor to provide perspective during a psychological crisis over regeneration--good idea. Making the First Doctor more sexist than he actually was to make this point--bad idea.

My friend Brian on Facebook, who's rewatched the classic series more times than I have, remembered that the First Doctor actually did have that "Smacked bottom" line in Invasion of the Daleks. And, as Brian pointed out, the difference in context is crucial.

Susan is his granddaughter, not a random young woman he's just met. One could argue that striking a child is never a good parenting technique but that's not the issue Moffat is trying to discuss in "Twice Upon a Time". Certainly there's never anything in the classic series like the nasty laugh David Bradley's First Doctor shares with Mark Gatiss over the idea that all women are "made of glass."

The fundamental problem here is even more depressing, though. Moffat has often, by some of the more unreasonable voices on the Internet, been accused of sexism himself, based on more and more impressively contorted logic. But it obviously affects him because he's constantly doing things trying to placate the implacable--the premiere of the Twelfth Doctor's second season went for almost twenty minutes without sight of a male character, giving us a scene featuring an entirely female UNIT staff dealing with Clara and Missy--that's female protagonist and villain with female support characters, all without any rationalisation about it being an alternate Woman dimension or something. I could list other examples, I've written about this before--but I mention it now just to say the fact that he's re-imagining the First Doctor is a depressing sign that he's trying so hard to quell an outrage that, like any outrage not based on actual evidence, can never be satisfied. So it's not strange that in doing so Moffat has to manufacture evidence that didn't exist.

One might argue that by making the sexism more apparent it provides a method for more plainly discussing institutionalised sexism in the 1960s. But one of the great things about the audio plays is hearing the Fourth through Eighth Doctors visiting the 2000s--the Doctor is a time traveller, after all. So why make the Doctor more dated than he ever actually was? Of course, it's a reflection of inaccurate perceptions of the past.

The twentieth anniversary episode, "The Five Doctors", featured a scene where the Fifth Doctor is embarrassed when he has to apologise for the First Doctor casually telling a woman to make tea. It's a moment created with much the same intention as the similar moments in "Twice Upon a Time" and it similarly feels like an inappropriate amount of self-loathing that forgets moments like the Third Doctor sharing a bitter laugh with Liz over an officer's sexism in The Silurians--that was just four years after William Hartnell left the show. There's no reason any Doctor can't be a hero in a story about sexism.

2. Using the World War I Christmas Armistice for a Doctor Who Christmas special--good idea. Having the Doctor alter time to save Captain Lethbridge-Stewart's life by moving him in time to the day of the Christmas Armistice--bad idea.

The whole episode had been about how the Captain needed to die at that point, otherwise it screws everything up. Given that we learn he's none other than the father of the Doctor's friend, the Brigadier, it makes the integrity of his part of the timeline presumably even more crucial since, as the Doctor makes clear at the beginning of the episode, a disruption in his time stream could have particularly bad consequences. But maybe the Brigadier's father was always meant to survive--that still clashes with the whole reason Testimony needed him to die at that point.

I felt good watching soldiers from the two sides in that bitter war shaking hands. The Doctor talks about how it's his job to create the fairy tale, something which is entirely undermined by the arbitrary way he got there. It doesn't seem so much the Doctor's doing as the teleplay's.

I really loved Peter Capaldi as the Doctor, and I look forward to seeing what Jodie Whittaker does with the role. Her first words, "Oh, brilliant!" weren't, well, brilliant, but maybe stepping back from overly clever lines is a good direction for the show. For most awkward line in the show's history I would like to nominate, "You're the very first Dalek that ever got naked for me." Maybe it's not such a good idea to always try to think of something clever to say.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Falstaff, the Birth of Science, and Deborah Milton

Happy Christmas, everyone. My gift to you is not one but two new chapters of my infrequently updated web comic, Dekpa and Deborah. That's for a total of seventeen new full colour pages. They're set in November 1674 but there's plenty of snow to give it a Christmasy feel. Also, there's a cameo from a merry old fat man with a white beard. Enjoy!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Merry Skull

Happy Christmas Eve, everyone. This seems like a good time to talk about all the shows this year that had a humanoid with a deer skull for a head as a protagonist. Really, that's only one show, Production I.G.'s beautiful The Ancient Magus Bride (魔法使いの嫁), which concluded its first season yesterday. Consistently strong production quality on every level--animation, music, design, backgrounds--assist in making this sweet story about lovers with communication problems truly memorable.

The setup in the first few episodes gives us a variation on Beauty and the Beast--the fellow with the deer skull head, Elias (Ryota Takeuchi), purchases the shy red headed Japanese girl, Chise (Atsumi Tanezaki), at an auction. Elias is a magician and he intends for Chise to be both his apprentice and his bride.

As in most versions of Beauty and the Beast, the story quickly finds ways to push against the inequality inherent in this setup. Elias seems to think nothing of taking off Chise's clothes to bathe her--he seems neither lustful or sadistic, and her self esteem is so low she doesn't make any objection. But a visit to a witch friend of Elias' in the second episode, Angelica (Yuuko Kaida), provides an opportunity for a character to voice exactly the objections to the scenario most viewers would be thinking. Angelica, a young mother, wastes no time rebuking Elias for his presumptions. As with Beauty and the Beast, though, it's not surprising Elias doesn't see a more effective way of getting a bride, given his physical appearance.

But the characters' psychological issues become far more pertinent than physical appearance as the series progresses. Elias and Chise find their instincts to express affection for each other blocked by bad self image, cognisance of the strangeness in their artificially arranged relationship, and a fundamental inability to access emotions. The middle episodes of the series introduce a series of stories that reflect disconnected relationship dynamics in different ways--a man who loses his soul trying to save his sick wife without regarding her wishes on the subject; Chise's dog familiar, Ruth (Koki Uchiyama), and his inability to connect with his dead former mistress; and, the most amusing of the lot, an elderly gardener who doesn't know he's the object of affection for an invisible succubus.

Chise's past is only hinted at--her parents abandoned her and her shyness and the suspicious readiness with which she accepts offered affection and the semblance of family are ascribed to her abandonment issues. Elias' past is shown in more detail in the season's penultimate episode and we see how, like Frankenstein's monster, he was met by hatred and suspicion from villagers. Hatred and suspicion that may not be unwarranted.

Elias tells his mentor, Lindel (Daisuke Namikawa), with only mild concern, about how everyone else seems so distant and he has trouble understanding connexion. His concern is scarcely greater when we divulges he may have done some truly monstrous things which aren't left ambiguous.

There's effective tension in all the issues presented--a lot of fantasy anime handles the monster-guilt love story with too many caveats, usually amounting to the "monster" never having done anything truly wrong, resulting in a very simplistic world of justice. This series effectively creates the tension in ambiguous questions about how much monstrosity is someone responsible for, about how much suffering and restriction one truly deserves, and about whether or not affection needs to be justified. It's all effectively couched in a lovely fantasy world with side stories about dragons turning into trees and communities of cats that give the characters further opportunities to show how their instincts are reflected in an outside world. A very good series.

Twitter Sonnet #1067

A rising lake returns the boots at last.
A footless fish's late return unmarked.
To miss a lucky fin condemned to fast.
It had no hand to hold nor ear to hark.
A bleeding candy stripe obscures the red.
In turning holly scarlet leaves're sharp.
A fitting cider wet the waiting sled.
The giggling aether taunts a ghostly harp.
A stocking rain for feet bestowed the gift.
In needle trees a time ignites the wick.
For rodent's rest the dog creates a rift.
The ducks of mice return as clocks'll tick.
A desert fleece confers a snowy thought.
The boiling peppermint stirs in the pot.