Thursday, December 31, 2020

2020 and the Television

Happy eighth day of Christmas and Happy New Year, everyone. This is the time of year when I usually rank the movies I saw from the previous year. Unfortunately, in 2020 I saw hardly any. Kimetsu no Yaiba was the only movie I saw in a movie theatre, So, since the line between television and film is blurring in western countries, I've decided to mix movies and television series in my list. It's still a short list, partly because I'm not among those who can afford a binge watching habit.

8. Doctor Who, Series Twelve

Generally regarded as one of the weakest seasons in the show's long history, I would still say it's a marginal improvement over the Thirteenth Doctor's first season. Still, it suffers from unimaginative, overly expository writing. I disagree with policies of enforced representation quotas but I can recognise great propaganda even if it has ideas I don't agree with--the films of Eisenstein, for instance--but this was poorly made, plain and simple.

7. Birds of Prey

An amusing first third and another charismatic performance from Margot Robbie can't quite make up for the run of the mill final act.

6. Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Season Seven

The absence of George Lucas is clear in the diminished quality of the writing in the final arc but the animation is still fantastic and some of the writing early on still has that classic Clone Wars feel.

5. Nakitai Watashi wa Neko wo Kaburu (泣きたい私は猫をかぶる)

A lovely film drawing clear influence from Hayao Miyazaki and Makoto Shinkai, it presents a sweet story of a girl who makes the mistake of trying to attract the boy she likes by turning into a cat.

4. Kimetsu no Yaiba: Infinity Train (劇場版「鬼滅の刃」 無限列車編)

Very much like a longer episode of the television series, the Kimetsu no Yaiba movie surprisingly doesn't do much to upgrade its animation quality for its feature length debut. But the film didn't achieve status as Japan's highest box office hit in history for no reason. Amusing and exciting vignettes on the haunted train are followed by an emotionally gripping showdown that I would argue takes a page from Seven Samurai.

3. The Mandalorian, Season Two

A vast improvement on season one, this show would rank high for the Robert Rodriguez episode alone. But in general, the writing feels less hamstrung by moral considerations and contains something of the movie serial excitement that distinguishes the best Star Wars stories. It still feels a little rushed with stories of bigger scope crammed needlessly into single episodes. This particularly becomes a problem near the end as character motivations become less and less clear.

2. Dracula

I only wrote about the first episode of this three part series. That's a shame because the third ended up being one of the most brilliant Dracula pastiches I've ever seen, featuring Steven Moffat's fascinating analysis of the story in the form of a funny and intelligent reconfiguration.

1. Better Call Saul, Season Five

Every time I think this show has hit the high water mark and must begin to sink into something more ordinary it surprises me. The slow progress of Saul losing his soul to a corrupt and violent world is told with a keen eye to human nature and complex, sensitive performances, with Bob Odenkirk being the stand out. I've said before I think this show might be better than Breaking Bad, I feel I can say it with a lot more confidence now.

Twitter Sonnet #1429

The frigid Twitter changed the bird to blue.
The boring trailer changed the film to mush.
The broken boot requires heaps of glue.
A team of mice were playing round the bush.
A sudden snow surprised the freezing air.
A freezer stashed the cake and radish spark.
It seemed the book could turn the outward care.
Electric light submerged in nature's dark.
A year began behind a pleasant doze.
The air was soft as mochi cooked in flame.
As people watched the oxen slowly rose.
The plastic ponders what's the city's name.
Another eye divides the dreams for good.
Another branch enlarged the endless wood.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Happy Mochi

Happy seventh day of Christmas everyone and, also, New Year's Eve. Since New Year is much more important in Japan than Christmas, I thought I'd share something new I'd discovered relating to the holiday. For weeks, I've been seeing these funny little things in all the grocery stores:

They were all pretty cheap, usually between 128 and 200 yen (just under two dollars) so I bought one. It's a plastic container--the orange is plastic, too--and inside I found two rock hard mochi--mochi being a kind of rice cake.

Most of the mochi I've had is soft and pillowy so I didn't know what to do with this. So I put it in the microwave which turned into a gooey mess. An interesting, yet unsatisfying, snack. I mentioned it to some students and they informed me what I had was Kagami mochi and the right way to cook it is to either boil it or grill it. When you boil it, it expands quite a bit and absorbs. Boiled kagami mochi can be had in miso soup. I tried it, it was good.

I next tried grilling in the little toaster oven that came with my conro stove. I cut the mochi into four parts first and they came out looking like toasted marshmallows. They're not as sweet but they're much heartier. I ate them with zenzai, one of their traditional New Year's companions, a very sweet soup made from azuki beans.

Very tasty, a bit like hot cocoa. A nice thing to have in cold weather.

I still don't know why some of the kagami mochi has a little cow on top instead of an orange.

I asked some students and they seemed a little baffled. One of them suggested it's because 2021 is year of the ox. It's a cute little toy, in any case.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Another Psycho Heroine

Happy sixth day of Christmas, everyone. I'm trying to catch up a little on 2020 movies so I thought I'd give Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn a chance. I had no intention of seeing the movie because the trailers look like they took the delightfully sadistic skank and turned her into hippie who bears a positive message of empowerment. But then a friend of mine said it was actually pretty good. Thirty minutes into the film, I was ready to admit the trailer had left me with the wrong impression--here, at last, was the delightful psychopath we were promised in the original Suicide Squad trailer who didn't appear in the Suicide Squad film. Unfortunately, after those first thirty minutes, Birds of Prey gradually sinks back into being the indistinct, colourful gruel that has distinguished most of the DC cinematic universe so far.

The filmmakers handle a lack of desire to work with Jared Leto by giving us an animated prologue detailing Harley's (Margot Robbie) breakup with the Clown Prince of Crime. This works just fine and I enjoyed watching Harley live it up with booze and mayhem, filtered through her disjointed narrative, culminating in her theft of a pet hyena from a man she brutally murders.

There's also an amusing scene involving her favourite breakfast--the greasiest, most heart-clogging, cheap configuration of cheese, egg, and bacon you can imagine. It was at this point I thought the film was a bit like watching Jodie Foster's character in Taxi Driver become a supervillain.

Things start to go south when the film tries to justify the "Birds of Prey" title. Black Canary and Huntress are somewhat awkwardly worked into the story--Canary a little more naturally than Huntress. She works as a singer and driver for the film's villain, Black Mask, played by Ewan McGregor who succeeds in making the character thoroughly repulsive.

Jurnee Smollett-Bell delivers an unremarkable performance as Black Canary, slowly persuaded to fight for justice despite a world that's continually abused her and her loved ones. Rosie Perez plays a cop (a character from the great animated Batman series) whose use of movie cop cliches is directly referred to by Harley in the narration, I suppose under the theory that all cliches are forgivable if the film demonstrates awareness of them.

Huntress, meanwhile, is played by the usually good but, here, dreadfully miscast Mary Elizabeth Winstead whose running gag is her attempt to get people to actually call her Huntress, like Peter Quill tries to get people to call him Star Lord. Just when I think comic book movies have gotten past insecurities about their basic nature we land right back in the same joke X-Men used when Wolverine called Professor X "Wheels". It's ironic since the film's climax wants us to accept an extended fight sequence in an impossibly labyrinthine abandoned circus.

The fight choreography is pretty good and, like the fight scenes in Batman v Superman, looked like they were taken directly from Arkham Asylum. Some of the ideas in the fight scenes, though, ones likely originating in the script, are unsatisfyingly implausible while not being funny enough to justify their implausibility, like when Harley lights a guy's beard on fire when he's in the act of strangling her. I liked a scene later in the film where she's on roller skates, something that's used for a few good kick ideas, but then she takes the skates off for no reason when it seems like they'd be very useful in the climax.

It's a better movie than the first Suicide Squad but not by much.

Birds of Prey is available on Netflix in Japan.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Serial Killers Ruin Christmas

Happy fifth day of Christmas, everyone. As bad as this year was, at least you can probably say you weren't in a sorority being menaced by a serial killer hidden in the attic. 1974's Black Christmas, a classic of the slasher genre, pits a group of attractive, and surprisingly eccentric, college girls against a maniac. Directed by Bob Clark with terrific cinematography by Reginald H. Morris, this is a story that expertly builds tension simply by portraying the characters dealing the gradually increasing horror of their circumstances.

Is it weird I want to live in his house? It's weird, isn't it? I can't help it. The combination of the classic, dark chocolate wood panelling with goofy and lively decoration is put together in a way too beautiful to be truly realistic.

But sometimes realism's overrated.

The house is so noisy, as a sorority house might legitimately be, no-one hears the screams of the first victim. And when she's noticed missing the next day, it occurs to no-one her body might be right there in the same house (and when I say noisy I don't mean the curtains).

Some might say it's implausible but, if you really think about it, with how busy everyone is with their own issues, it actually feels very authentic. And the house lady is a boozy old dame (Marian Waldman), not exactly an eagle eyed matron--I love this shot of her with a picture of a baby seal discreetly placed in the corner of the screen.

John Saxon plays the police detective who finally takes the girls seriously. Here's another nice composition:

He's got the American flag like an old fashioned hero but, like everything else in the film, the shot's burnished in shadow. And that flag is small, on the same framing layer as a jumble of pencils.

Margot Kidder and Olivia Hussey star as the two most prominent girls in the sorority. Kidder's really great as the unabashed, extravagant sexpot, telling a clueless cop at the desk their phone number begins with "Fellatio".

Hussey, meanwhile, is all innocent virtue, despite her main plot involving her desire to get an abortion. Somewhere in the back of any viewer's mind is how the girls' respective sins might make them vulnerable to a bloody demise at the hands of fate. The answer may surprise you, or maybe it won't. It's a good movie in any case.

Black Christmas is available on The Criterion Channel.

Twitter Sonnet #1428

The shiny ice reflects another cube.
The water face dissolves for endless rain.
Around the world, the numbers ride the tube.
An easy path provides a waiting train.
The Christmas lights revealed the broken stairs.
A cam'ra flirts behind a veil of snow.
The antlers drew to wives unconscious stares.
Beneath the ice the wires faintly glow.
The fleshy stilts were really ankle deep.
No wonder pinged connexions dropped a fly.
And so, the doubts and lashes batly creep.
A flaky crust constructs the perfect pie.
A million dollar jam rejects the sauce.
A jelly doughnut built a pastry boss.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

You Can't Keep a Good Siren Down

Happy fourth day of Christmas, everyone. A few days ago brought the happy return of The Sirenia Digest with two new issues featuring new stories by Caitlin R. Kiernan.

"THE WOMAN WHO BLEW DOWN HOUSES" features a pair of lovers engaged in a routine bondage session. The dom of the two recounts a traumatic childhood memory involving tornadoes. With her discussion of the awe inspired by the event, the dom gives it almost the quality of a sermon. The relationship between dom and sub in the story, in any case, has something of a religious quality or something like the relationship between an artist and audience.

"Threnody for Those Who Die December Deaths" also has a faintly religious quality, again dwelling on the literally awesome. I like both stories but this one is a bit better. The description of an accidental recording of angel voices is given through a layer of narrative that places nicely with the narrator's scepticism. The end is a particularly nice, subtle turn on the language in the story. And it's all quite lovely.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Who Needs Christmas

Happy third day of Christmas, everyone. I trust you're all celebrating in your own way. I remembered when Doctor Who celebrated Christmas annually with a Christmas special. Nowadays I suppose the show's too secular though, considering I now I live in a country where Christmas is popular despite only one percent of the population being Christian, that seems a bit silly. But I could say that about most of the robot brained decisions of the new seasons.

Anyway. Five short years ago, the Doctor Who Christmas special was also the last to feature the character of River Song (Alex Kingston), whose first episode it was with the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi). Amusingly, she doesn't recognise him, despite carrying pictures of all the other Doctors with her because, as she said back when she met the Eleventh Doctor, she needed a "spotter's guide". Intriguingly, she has no pictures of the hundreds of Doctors prior to Hartnell who we were told about in the latest season, I suppose because no-one thought we'd have a piece of massively revisionist canon presented as the whole raison d'etre of a season finale instead of character or story. It sure is hard to talk about an older episode without being reminded how dumb the new episodes are.

Which is not to say the older series is perfect. "The Husbands of River Song", the episode I'm talking about, definitely feels like it came from writer Steven Moffat's pen when he was massively overworked. It's a cobbled together, zany mess of big ideas--flying saucer, intergalactic king with detachable head, luxury space cruise for mass murderers--it's all a bit like a fever dream you might have after reading Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Yet the episode is my second favourite River Song story, after her first story ("Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead") entirely because Alex Kingston and Peter Capaldi have all the chemistry she and Matt Smith never had.

I love how her not recognising him goes from funny to a bit sad, entirely due to Capaldi's reactions. He could convey so much with so little. I also love the big Christmas arbour he has for her at the end of the episode.

I wish so much wasn't explained in their final dialogue, though. It doesn't quite gel with what we know happens later. But it's sweet watching them together. There's a sense of epiphany about it, like this is the first time River truly meets the Doctor.

Friday, December 25, 2020

A Soldier for France, or, at Least, of France

Happy Saint Stephen's Day, everyone. For the first day of Christmas, I decided to watch something on The Criterion Channel I hadn't seen before. I was particularly in the mood for French fantasy but I just searched for "Christmas". Criterion needs to improve their search algorithm because the movie I watched, 1952's Fanfan la Tulipe, had nothing at all to do with Christmas. But it was still pretty good--in fact a great swashbuckler with two brilliant leads in Gerard Philipe and Gina Lollobrigida.

I can see why Philipe is such a legend in Europe. He's a scrappier, more carnal version of a young Errol Flynn. Not the best swordsman but he makes up for it with speed and vitality.

As the titular Fanfan, he's a roving scoundrel until he enlists in the army to avoid marrying a peasant girl he deflowered. In the process, he catches the eye of his commander's daughter, Adeline (Lollobrigida) who, posing as a gypsy, says he's destined to marry the King's daughter.

It's all a ploy to get him to enlist but fate swiftly has him rescuing both the Princess Henriette and Madame de Pompadour. Played by Sylvie Pelayo and Genevieve Page, respectively, they join Lollobrigida in forming a triumvirate of impossibly gorgeous knock-outs. It's hard for any lady to compete with Lollobrigida, though.

Philipe and Lollobrigida have fantastic chemistry as their phenomenal, singular charms match each eachother point for point. Who wouldn't grin when Fanfan, looking down at her from a rooftop, praises the view of the lovely valley between two hills?

The editing is as energetic as Fanfan himself and director Christian-Jaque tells a clear story at a breakneck pace. On top of this, the stuntwork is amazing. There are so many shots of people leaping on running horses or other clearly dangerous things, like falling backwards between coach horses. And all of it so quickly. Fanfan more than earns his tulip, I can tell you that.

Fanfan la Tulipe is available on The Criterion Channel.

Twitter Sonnet #1427

A numbered vest adorns the bishop piece.
Researches late deserved another dime.
On coinage row the dancers served in Greece.
The final thought was first beyond the Rhein.
The understanding moon was floating past.
The slowly winding sky was glowing bright.
In ev'ry star there dwells a stage's cast.
In ev'ry cup of joe's a moonless night.
Revolving sleighs deliver goods to brick.
The warming hat was red and fluffy white.
The fog about the cherry nose was thick.
The cheery dots were leaves of needle light.
Reluctant organs built a walking man.
Assorted cookies burned across the pan.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

The Coveted Glimpse of Impossible Horror

And Merry Christmas, everyone. I've been hungry for ghost stories lately so, since ghost stories, and M.R. James stories in particular, were once traditional on Christmas, I read his story "Count Magnus" this morning.

Once again, I find James is a master at layering narratives. In this case, the first person narrator begins by telling us how he can't describe the manner in which he came across another account he quotes from and paraphrases throughout. And this second layer is the notes of a researcher called Wraxall who mostly talks about interviews and examinations of relics--most significantly a coffin and yet another eerie painting.

The tale builds steam as the notes start to evince the nervousness of the researcher and of impossible things he's not quite ready to admit he's seen. Lovely stuff, a bit like what I was looking for, I suppose. Here's the story read by Michael Hordern.

More Christmas Birds

Happy Christmas Eve, everyone. Here are some crows I saw gathering ominously near Kashihara Jingu Nishiguchi station.

Who knows what secrets they keep?

Here's a more festive bird I saw on another day:

Is he a kind of duck? He was with a group and they were all very squeaky. They kind of remind me of mudhens.

I've been walking a lot more lately, trying to take the train less. It still looks more like autumn than winter.

I saw this little marshmallow of a cat when I was walking with my friend. I was sorry I didn't have my cat treats that day.

Looks like he lost part of an ear. The cats are tough around here.

And the mystery of abandoned gloves continues:

I sure love the trees around here.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

An, or the, English Family

How do you capture the essence of a family in one film? This is one problem faced by propagandists in wartime and it was faced by David Lean and Noel Coward in 1944's This Happy Breed. Filmed in crisp Technicolor, its nature as a document of its time is often more interesting than its plot but performances by Robert Newton and Celia Johnson are full of effective emotion.

The film begins with a marvellous crane shot, diving into the terraced house gardens of post World War I London to find its place in one home where the Gibbons family are just moving in.

We follow the family over the course of twenty years, the years between the two wars. The film is based on a play by Noel Coward who endeavours to paint a unified portrait of England by having the son, Reg (John Blythe), be a belligerent Communist and the daughter, Queenie (Kay Walsh), a girl who dreams of wealth and privilege. The family patriarch, Frank (Newton), calmly presides over all, sometimes agreeing with one side, sometimes another, and frequently soliloquising sagely about "good old England". Newton, who was six years from his best known role as the definitive Long John Silver, was rough enough around the edges to drain some potential smarminess from the character.

Even so, Celia Johnson is far more interesting, her talent for conveying vulnerability as Ethel, the matriarch, adding tremendous impact to the feud between her and Queenie.

As far as World War II British propaganda films go, This Happy Breed is more in line with what the government wanted than the Archers' Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. The film Winston Churchill famously wanted banned made the mistake of appealing to the audience intellectually as well as emotionally. This Happy Breed, being far less complex and with more direct messaging, suits the purpose of crystalising the world into moral extremes.

This Happy Breed is available on The Criterion Channel.

Twitter Sonnet #1426

A shifting star reports an empty sun.
The bowling pins were loudly struck apart.
Across the yellow pages fingers run.
Beneath the scalp and brain we kept a heart.
The oldest dragon's new in certain plots.
Another garden's set for happy scones.
A cup of milk reminds the tea of pots.
The turning gear reminds the flesh of bones.
Reminders flew on leather wings to Mars.
We never hid the keys to make a house.
The baby rams were building empty cars.
A hundred hands would push the broken mouse.
The working light creates a colour page.
The sweatless tree belies its hoary age.