setsuled: (Frog Leaf)

As difficult and strange as cultural change can be, it tends to manifest very close to home, if not in the home, as in the case of Yasujiro Ozu's 1950 film The Munekata Sisters (宗方姉妹). Two sisters, an older and a younger, have different personalities, one shaped more by pre-World War II Japan and the other shaped more by U.S. occupied Japan. Like Kurosawa, Ozu shows in his film that western conceptions of democracy and personal liberty were in many ways healthy new influences on the culture but, while this film isn't quite as eloquent as his better known films, Ozu does succeed in suggesting there are some things lost in such cultural changes because their value cannot be explained in simple logic.

Ozu makes it crystal clear which culture holds sway over which sister. The elder, Setsuko (Kinuyo Tanaka), always wears kimonos and is generally more reserved in her manners while Mariko (Hideko Takamine) always wears western style blouses and skirts. But as with cultural change in general, it's hard to see how much is due to Mariko's youthful rebelliousness and how much is due to Setsuko being set in her ways.

Certainly Mariko seems in many ways still a child. Her father, Ozu's usual face of tranquil wisdom, Chishu Ryu, chides her for her habit of sticking her tongue out.

Mariko's unsure herself if she's behaving properly and needs reassurance, despite her outward assertiveness, and she explains this is why she reads her sister's diary without her permission, to find out if the elder sister was like Mariko when she was her age. And Mariko is surprised to find Setsuko was in love at one time with a young man named Hiroshi (Ken Uehara) but their affair ended when Hiroshi left for France and Setsuko married Mimura (So Yamamura).

We find out that Mimura also read Setsuko's diary and that's why he's out of work and slowly drinking himself to death. Setsuko runs a bar and supports Mimura, just one of the reasons Mariko thinks she should divorce him. When Hiroshi comes back to town, Mariko makes it her personal mission to get Setsuko and Hiroshi back together.

Mariko has no doubts about her quest but it's hard to say how unhappy Setsuko really is since she has that reserved demeanour, seeming perfectly happy to do the household chores for Mimura, though she does stick up for herself when Mimura's drunk and says unreasonable things to her.

At the bottom of the basic philosophical struggle seems to be a conflict between whether it is better to assert oneself to attain happiness and achievements or whether one should take others into consideration and sacrifice for them--and this dichotomy doesn't always match up with the Japanese and Western dichotomy, sometimes one valuing sacrifice more than the other and vice versa. This makes things all the more confusing as Western ideals of sacrifice set off Japanese conceptions of self-denial.

Being young and championing a very firm point of view of right or wrong, however much she might be insecure secretly, Mariko doesn't understand why it's so hard for people to change their lives, why it's so hard for Setsuko to simply get a divorce and reunite with Hiroshi. One character has to explain to Mariko how difficult it must be for the kamikaze pilot who now works at the bar whose life was once about giving everything up for Japan but is now about just being a waiter.

A quote from Don Quixote with a jaunty Johnnie Walker statue at the bar become less and less funny the more they're shown and the more Mimura drinks and this seems a poignant symbol of the unforeseen consequences of dropping aspects of one culture into another.
setsuled: (Mouse Sailor)

The connexion between making money and survival, for you and your loved ones, as always been fertile ground for drama in stories set in the U.S. 2017's Spider-Man: Homecoming dramatises the political struggle between a working class whose sense of morality has been warped by the money-making imperative and a new generation who is so accustomed to economic privilege that abdication of higher moral responsibility seems monstrous. Not all of the implications may have been intended but the film certainly has economic class in mind while presenting, in some ways, the best and most true to his comic roots Spider-Man brought to film: Tom Holland as an unmistakeably adolescent Peter Parker. In some ways, though, the character deviates quite a bit from his original comic book incarnation in order to make its argument on the economic landscape.

Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes, a.k.a. The Vulture, is the best villain to feature in an MCU film, largely because he's barely a villain. He's a salvage contractor who's muscled out of the job of picking up alien scrap from the first Avengers movie by the Department of Damage Control, a government department set up by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). This after he'd already spent money on the resources necessary to clean up the stuff so now he and his team have to get creative if they have any hope of bringing a paycheck home. This is the kind of problem Peter Parker would've been familiar with in his original Stan Lee and Steve Ditko incarnation--Peter was constantly worrying about bringing enough money home to support his aunt May and himself. And he certainly wasn't above using his new-found powers to make a buck--something we see in Sam Raimi's adaptation, though I don't remember seeing one of my favourite scenes from the comic, where our hero tries to cash a check made out to "Spider-Man".

No mention is made of May having serious financial woes in Homecoming and Peter seems to feel no pressure to make money. When Tony Stark mentions he can get Peter into a good school, the kid barely seems to notice. It's no wonder he seems to have no sympathy for the lengths Toomes goes to to support his family.

The fact that Peter isn't thoroughly irritating is one of the film's greatest achievements and it's accomplished with the same goal that makes the new Wonder Woman movie work so well--Peter really cares about helping people and he has what seems like a very honest humility.

He isn't a guy looking for a fight, he's a guy looking to help out, and if that involves fighting he's ready to do it. He's not above giving an old lady directions and he's deeply apologetic when he accidentally webs a guy trying to break into his own car. Like Wonder Woman, he's a welcome return to the original idea of Superman, the idea of a really powerful person who really is more interested in making life better for everyone than in stroking his own ego or getting revenge. Like Raimi's incarnation of the character, he's also really excited to be Spider-Man and do Spider-Man things, but he naturally sees this as something he doesn't keep to himself--when some guys on the street ask him to do a flip, he automatically does it. Later, when his friend tries to talk him into showing up as Spider-Man at a party to improve Peter Parker's reputation, he realises how stupid this is and seems like he would have avoided doing it if a crisis hadn't called him away anyway.

The character is also helped a lot by some lessons taken from Deadpool. In addition to giving the mask expressive eyes, the filmmakers also seem to have recognised that the character's awkwardness is a strength and here it makes even more sense when kid Spidey is a but a wisp of a lad.

I hope to whatever gods might be listening that no remake of Back to the Future goes forward but if someone were casting a new Marty McFly I could see Tom Holland being a very good fit. He has a real Michael J. Fox quality, handsome but with a sort of ungainly kittenishness. All this helps make the movie's underlying drama more interesting.

It's hard to believe this movie was wrapped before the election last year. Vulture almost seems like he's meant to be the working class Donald Trump voters while Peter is the Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama who failed to campaign for that working class demographic. On that note, the movie has an optimism in its conclusion I wish I could share in.
setsuled: (Doctor Chess)

Great crimes, tragedies, and suffering occur alongside the silly, mundane, and lovely. This can be difficult to illustrate in a film but Sadao Yamanaka accomplished it in his great 1936 film Kochiyama Soshun, one of the director's only three surviving films. The influence he exerted on Japan's better known great filmmakers can be seen in how Kochiyama Soshun starts out feeling like an Ozu film and ends feeling like Kurosawa.

Kochiyama Soshun was a real person, a well known figure in Japan from the early 19th century, Yamanaka's film is based on a kabuki play about his life. Played by Chojuro Kawarasaki, he comes across as a laid back, virtuous, and incredibly clever thief. We meet him playing shogi, a Japanese variant of chess, with a man who swindles people on the street by having them stake money on games. But Kochiyama outswindles the swindler, winning 50 ryo. Chess proves once again the universal shorthand for showing a character to be clever. Taking the money back to the gambling den he calls home with his wife, we see him telling her to grant every request for a loan that comes in, one of the ways we start meeting the diverse characters in what turns out to be a mostly ensemble film.

The standout is sixteen year old Setsuko Hara in one of her first films. She plays Onami, a sweet sake seller who's loved by everyone. She already conveys that uncanny, unaffected innocence and affectionate nature which made her one of the most popular actresses in Japan for decades. Her voice is a little higher pitched and she seems to speak a little more through her nose than she does later, maybe a sign of less confidence as a performer, but she's pretty adorable.

Onami's concerned about her younger brother, whom she seems to be acting as mother for. He spends his time at Kochiyama's gambling den and then he gets himself into real trouble when he runs off with a prostitute owned by the local yakuza boss. Onami, who we see is so shy she doesn't even want to enter the gambling den to look for her brother, suddenly finds herself faced with the idea she might need to sell herself to the yakuza as restitution.

A ronin named Kaneko (Kanemon Nakamura) has started working for the same gang though his sense of personal honour keeps him from feeling ashamed of disobeying an order, as when he goes to punish Kochiyama for winning the shogi scam but instead ends up becoming Kochiyama's drinking buddy.

Meanwhile, the film also gives us the story of an older samurai whose knife Hiro stole and then sold to an auctioneer. The film takes its time to follow a couple other guys competitively bidding on the item and then having them run into the samurai, who buys it back from the winner, though he seems convinced that it's fake. It's not perfectly clear he really thinks it's fake--it might be a bargaining tactic. This thread does end up becoming relevant in the end when several seemingly unrelated stories come together for an amazing and brutal fight sequence.

I'd been trying to track this movie down for years until a few nights ago when I found, as happens surprisingly often, the whole thing's been uploaded to YouTube. Check it out before some asshole decides he can claim to YouTube he somehow owns the copyright to this public domain 1936 film.

Twitter Sonnet #1012

The heart's in crossing lines of grey and gold.
Too fast the sandwich burns on greasy pans.
A tired stop removes the wheels of old.
The burning vales of Mars have many fans.
A car bereft of Flintstone feet was dead.
The circuit shadows drift around the room.
In longer gloves, a glory lies in bed.
Along the trails of rubber bats was doom.
Collections grew of variants to chess.
A hundred feathers tripped together first.
An idle bowl contains no worser cess.
Let drowsy monks and gamblers slake their thirst.
The brow became a hat when lines were pulled.
It's always hot when time and space are wooled.
setsuled: (Skull Tree)

It's harder to applaud a man's decision not to kill when the movie he's in so stacks the deck in favour of killing. In 1958's Rusty Knife (錆びたナイフ), former gangster Tachibana (Yujiro Ishihara) has to fight the urge to kill again even when he learns the yakuza syndicate who seem invulnerable to prosecution gang raped his girlfriend who then killed herself. With its bittersweet Masaru Sato theme song, the point of the film seems to be that ridiculous morality ties the hands of good men--not unlike American films like Death Wish or Russian films like Brat, its ostensibly anti-gangster message works out to be pro-gangster in real life. It's a bit silly but also ominous.

Tachibana's working as a bartender at the start of the movie. Police regularly stop by to try to get him to rat on his former associations but, despite having renounced the lifestyle, Tachibana is still bound by a code of honour. On one occasion, Keiko (Mie Kitahara), the daughter of a man who committed suicide under suspicious circumstances, overhears the cops asking Tachibana about his death.

Meanwhile, Tachibana's young friend, Makoto (Akira Kobayashi), is falling under the influence of the yakuza and takes hush money to party with a disreputable woman. Soon he's in hot water, too, and Tachibana blames himself. But after he killed the man whom he thought was solely responsible for his girlfriend's rape, Tachibana is afraid to take up his rusty knife, despite the fact that every time a gangster is arrested he's almost immediately released when witnesses are paid off or knocked off. Then Tachibana learns that his girlfriend was gang raped and it becomes even harder for him to resist the urge to kill. And, really, any viewer would want him to go on a killing spree at this point.

But it's good to remember how the movie is manipulating the audience. Tachibana was a former member of this gang and are we to believe he'd never heard of gangsters committing rape before? How feasible would it be to learn the identities of everyone guilty in a gang rape if the yakuza control so much of the information? The movie gives a bunch of two dimensional bad guys, how easy would it be to judge who deserves to die in real life? The film presents the idea that one man should be above the law because he's the only good man and the only one who can see clearly. The only way we know this is from how the film manipulates our perspective on the situation. It's films like this that led to later films by Seijun Suzuki and Takeshi Kitano that undermine the presumptions of the genre.

Rusty Knife is well shot with some really nice compositions of shadow. There are a few nice action sequences, including a good truck chase, and its Masaru Sato score is, as usual, great. It's also one of those movies from late 1950s, early 1960s Japan that heavily features the period's lovely, jazzy bar scene.
setsuled: (Mouse Sailor)

Two outlaws, two men of the west, are best friends until one of them switches sides to work for the law. Now one hunts the other. This could describe several Sam Peckinpah films but to-day I'm talking about 1969's The Wild Bunch, a decent Western that wrestles with the difference between following a personal moral code and adhering to social and legal expectations. I like Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid better--it's basically the same story but with a better soundtrack.

The frenemies in The Wild Bunch are Pike and Deke, played by William Holden and Robert Ryan, respectively. I like both actors though I felt Ryan came off a little better and I would have preferred more focus on his personal struggle in pursuing his friend in his new role as a legal killer. But then I guess that would basically be Ride the High Country, which I do like better. Holden is fine in this but Ryan seems more focused somehow.

Mostly I don't find the film very interesting visually. I liked the look of two scenes--one where the criminal gang visits a Mexican village, the home town of one of the gang members, Angel (Jaime Sanchez), because I liked the persistent, really vibrant green foliage in the background as a contrast to the grey and brown foreground stuff.

Angel draws the group into the main contextual conflict, you might call it, being the Mexican Revolution. Angel is a straight forward heroic character, hoping to save his people from the tyranny of Mapache, a general in the Federal Army who, like a typical dictator, divides most of the time between trying to make himself look like a big shot and partying.

This adds fuel to the fire of the movie's argument about the illegitimacy of traditional government figures compared to the moral authority of tough individuals. The other visual I liked in the film is when Pike's gang meets with some of Pancho Villa's forces who take a case of the guns the group stole from a U.S. train. Why Villa's troops don't simply take all the guns, I don't know.

I guess what impressed me most about the film was the stunt work. People do some really dangerous looking things in this movie--in one early bank robbery scene, I don't know how one person avoided getting trampled by a horse. I wouldn't be surprised to learn there were injuries on the set. I have a bad feeling horses may have been hurt during the making of this movie.

All the women in the film, none of whom becomes a full fledged character, are either completely docile or completely treacherous. I guess moral complexity is left to the menfolk. A scene where the group visits some prostitutes at the end cuts between a bizarre encounter between Pike and a prostitute who kind of blankly stares at him while she does her hair and two other gang members trying to get out of paying another prostitute.
setsuled: (Skull Tree)

An experienced, world weary bounty hunter, a dumb kid, a ruthless, beautiful woman, and a killer ride together out to the desert, and for the most part their motives are unclear. 1966's The Shooting clearly has answers to its mysteries and a careful viewing of the film after something is revealed in the climax show its makers knew these answers all along. At the same time, the film is far less concerned with answers than in presenting its characters divested of things that might help the audience sort them, that might give the audience an excuse to stop studying them. So the movie because a well shot, atmospheric contemplation of killing, love, loyalty, men and women, and how these things are translated into archetypes.

Willett Gashade (Warren Oates) rides into a little mining camp on a horse and with a pack mule. His gun holster is empty, something never explained. He finds the grave of his friend and his other friend, a young man named Coley (Will Hutchins), scared out of his wits. A gunshot from nowhere had killed their mutual friend and now Coley doesn't know what do with himself and is liable to panic and shoot someone. Willett does what he does most of the film--he assumes moral authority, confiscating Coley's gun and telling Coley he'll be depending on Willett from now on.

Willett certainly seems the one most worthy of being trusted with authority--though, when I say "seems" that's going to make you immediately wonder if it's true. It may or might not be but Willett clearly cares more about the horses who become exhausted than the unnamed woman (Millie Perkins) who hires Willett to take her to a place called Kingsley. She doesn't seem to care about horses or people very much, irritably dismissing any suggestion Willett makes that might slow them down, and it's not long before Willett concludes she's looking to kill someone.

But despite seeming like she very much wants to handle this killing herself, she's employed a hired gun named Billy Spear (Jack Nicholson) who, despite coming off like he has the world in the palm of his hand, clearly knows little more about the situation than Willett.

"The Woman", as she's credited, doesn't look remotely like she belongs in the 19th century, her hair, clothing, and makeup placing her in a 1960s fantasy version of the west, which is appropriate as this film feels like it's about an interpretation of legends. One could look at her as representing womankind and her presence in the world of mythologised masculinity an inherent disruption. There's a world where everything was understood and had rules--Billy and Willett clearly don't like each other but each clearly knows what to expect from the other. Willett continually warns Coley against falling in love with the Woman. The language Willett uses to talk Coley out of it involves dismissing the value and meaning of physical beauty and the perils of womankind in general. One could read this as his misogyny but the Woman and Billy clearly are dangerous and Coley may well be better off keeping clear of them. The film avoids declaring Coley's innocence or Willett's pessimism the correct response to the situation.

The Woman's insistence on riding the horses to death and her unwavering fixation on her goal manifest in an irritability that doesn't quite make sense for most of the film and reads like the typical, misogynist constructions in 1960s films, like the nagging wives of cop films, but the end of the film also destabilises that presumption.

But the differences between Willett and the Woman can be seen in another way. Most of Willett's concerns are practical--he wants to make sure they have provisions and the Woman seems foolish when she pushes her supplies off her exhausted horse even though Willett tells her it won't keep the horse going any longer, it'll just mean she doesn't have food. But is she being foolish, or has she just found something more important than living? Is such a goal foolish? And why is Willett still going along on this quest?

Every role is well cast. Warren Oates as Willett exudes weary western wisdom, Jack Nicholson of course easily pulls off ornery psychopath, Will Hutchins seems green as hell, and Millie Perkins always keeps her performance somewhere between villainous and steely. The desert looks pale and sterile, the horses look believably ragged.

Twitter Sonnet #1009

A chiselled stone remits the island drink.
In turns the glass and cup composed the ale.
On sliding scales do ship opinions sink.
A tiny frigate took the little pail.
A galaxy traversed the Windex stream.
The smell of cleaner mirrors pooled the eye.
Across the queuing statues mages dream.
In pipes of blasters fans began to sigh.
In foil bones a candy marrow rests.
Abandoned brains ascribe the sweets to Earth.
A changeling walks through sundry forest tests.
In garlic braids the kettle measures worth.
A coat turned out invests its silk in dirt.
An extra vein beneath the sod could hurt.
setsuled: (Frog Leaf)

Why do so many filmmakers think they know how to do Edgar Allan Poe better than Edgar Allan Poe? One of the more spectacular blunders in this department is 1981's The Black Cat (Gatto nero), loosely (to put it mildly) based on my favourite Edgar Allan Poe story, "The Black Cat". Rather than a disturbingly insightful rendering of a man's mind descending into sadism the filmmakers chose instead to make a movie about a cat who's a serial killer. What could go wrong with this idea? Just about everything you could imagine going wrong.

We can start with the basic problem that the movie's monster is tiny, adorable, and clearly has no idea he's in a horror movie and doesn't care. That's not necessarily a problem for many movies that involve a cat but when you want the audience to be uncomfortable you have to be aware of anything in the scene that might distract them and make it easy for them to think of something more pleasant. I just wanted to cuddle this little fiend.

This problem never goes away and scenes of people fleeing the critter in terror bring to mind the deadly bunny in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The film has other problems. It seems to choose as protagonist an American photographer named Jill Travers (Mimsy Farmer) who's visiting the English village where the film takes place to take pictures of an old crypt. She's brought in to photograph crime scenes as the only photographer available in the small town and she starts taking an interest in the case. Unfortunately, the filmmakers apparently decided this role was too big for a woman so a smug inspector from Scotland Yard named Gorley (David Warbeck) is introduced to solve problems and make out with her. The local law enforcement is represented by a Sergeant Wilson (Al Cliver) who has a distractingly asymmetrical moustache.

The only bright spot in the movie is Patrick Magee as Professor Miles, who gives exactly the thoroughly over the top performance this movie needs and deserves and almost makes up for the fact that his character's motives make absolutely no sense. He's the owner of the murderous cat and when Jill observes the animal badly scratching him she naturally asks him why he keeps it. He tells her that the two of them need each other, something that doesn't make sense at first blush and then makes less and less sense as the plot unfolds. Partly this seems due to one or two elements from Poe's story actually introduced into the film that don't really support the film's otherwise completely different plot in a satisfying way.

It would be nice to see Magee in a really good giallo film. This one doesn't even compare well with the remake of Cat People released the following year, which is not a bad film though I don't think it's half as good as the 1942 version.

Twitter Sonnet #1008

Medallion knives reveal too much to speak.
With knuckles bare, the boxer finds the field.
Twixt passing ships the line conveyed the leak.
The mat or ring took blood beyond the yield.
A wedding broke in lace balloons at war.
Divided jokes foretell colluding grids.
At last a peace descends on tired floor.
In circles petals make the final bids.
A pattern forms of shoes we never cured.
A time in passing clocked a speeding arm.
In balanced notes a copper soon demurred.
As trading thoughts of cats incurs no harm.
We found a plate depicting fallen roofs.
The fortune teller's dog synthetic woofs.
setsuled: (Frog Leaf)

Is revenge really a dish best served cold? Director Damian Szifron tested that theory in his 2014 anthology film Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes), composed of essentially six short films, each about violent revenge in one way or another. Each short differs in making support or condemnation of revenge explicit but each story is entertaining, funny, and exciting, only the last story dipping in quality a bit but even that one's not bad.

The final story pits a bride and groom against each other when it's revealed that the latter has been cheating on the former. The comedy is a bit broad in this one and the violence a little predictable but it's elevated a bit by Erica Rivas as the bride who has a delightfully expressive face.

If I have a favourite story of the bunch, It might be the fifth story, the tale of a young man who comes home to his wealthy parents' house after he hit and killed a pregnant woman and her unborn child with his car. He fled the scene and the parents quickly get their lawyer over who helps them put together an alibi and find a willing fall guy in the gardener who accepts the promise of 500,000 dollars in exchange for going to prison instead of the kid. It's all very solemn and Szifron sets up the situation well. I didn't feel remotely bad for the kid but the story doesn't focus on him and the spot the parents find themselves in his a bit more complicated to ponder. But the nice thing is, even this doesn't turn out to be the heart of the story as the father (Oscar Martinez) gradually realises that his lawyer might be skimming a little more money off the situation than warranted and the gardener, meanwhile, decides he can get more than 500,000. Suddenly the father switches to negotiator mode and starts having to modulate how much concern he shows for his son and you start to wonder if he's willing to let the kid go to jail just to spite the guys trying to get 1.5 million out of him. The level of the kid's crime makes it more believable and it creates a fascinating tight rope of suspense.

An earlier story about road rage is more entertaining on the level of Peter Griffin versus the chicken while a story about a restaurant owner being convinced by her cook to poison a gangster works out to be an allegory for a government's volatile political situation. All the stories have something good about them, the performances are generally nice, the cinematography is a little boring, relying too much on blue and yellow colour tinting.

setsuled: (Skull Tree)

You can't talk through some problems and it's hard to say if it's better or worse when the person you're with knows this. 1957's I Am Waiting (俺は待ってるぜ) is like a great, classic noir in its first half as a suicidal opera singer and a washed up boxer bond over the similar emotional issues that also keep them acutely aware of the unnavigable distance between them. The second half disappointingly drifts into a more typical revenge film and both characters are flatted out, particularly the female lead. But the whole film's beautifully shot with a great, torchy score by Masaru Sato.

Trying to find a video clip of the opening song on YouTube, I see it became a big karaoke hit. Here's a more professional performance:

The film begins when tough guy restaurant owner, Joji (Yujiro Ishihara), comes across a woman who calls herself Saeko (Mie Kitahara) at night, contemplating dark waters.

He convinces her to come back with him and he feeds her, explaining to her he knows quite well there's nothing else he can do. She gradually warms to the idea of staying in the spare room and working in the restaurant.

They each slowly learn about each other's pasts and it turns out everyone's killed someone--Joji, Saeko, and a doctor who frequents the bar. And no-one's quite sure how guilty they ought to feel. When the unrelated plot about Joji's missing brother turns into a story about Joji needing to avenge him, I thought the film was going to go the Quiet Man route with Joji slowly accepting he needs to be a fighter again despite the unresolved feelings he has about the man he accidentally killed with his fists. But things get more straight forward than that--Joji commits to his mission and Saeko drifts into the sidelines, becoming a fairly typical girlfriend character.

Still, the action's pretty good and Yujiro Ishihara is good in fight scenes, cutting an imposing physical presence and possessed of quick reflexes. Saeko has a couple nice musical numbers. The fact that Joji actually whistles his theme tune at one point makes me feel this was another movie Seijun Suzuki had in mind when he made Tokyo Drifter, probably feeling, as I did, that I Am Waiting ought to have gone further with its characters.
setsuled: (Frog Leaf)

If there's a feature length equivalent of a stock photo, it might be 2009's The Canyon. The story of a pretty couple from Chicago whose honeymoon in the Grand Canyon goes horribly wrong feels less like a proper movie and more like a test to see if some film equipment really can be used to make a whole film.

Nick (Eion Bailey) and Lori (Yvonne Strahowski) show up expecting to be able to buy some mules and plunge off into adventure only to learn they need a permit for which they needed to have applied six months earlier. Consoling themselves in a shady bar, they run into a grubby guide named Henry (Will Patton) who offers to get them some mules and take them on the adventure anyway.

It kind of feels like someone found a b-movie script from the 50s and decided to make it into a movie in 2009. Nick and Lori are so nondescript and Henry is such a type that it feels sort of intriguing. It's like someone laughing when told the chicken crossed the road to get to the other side.

Things go wrong when a rattlesnake spooks Henry's mule and quickly Lori and Nick find they have to fend for themselves without the mules or supplies. The filmmakers obviously spent very little time with research or even just imagining what the situation would be like as Lori and Nick remain perfectly lucid and able to traverse tough terrain and even climb an almost sheer wall after four days without food and water. Lori, wouldn't you know, continually finds herself losing one piece of clothing after another--first she needs to take off her shirt to bind a wound and then she's attacked by wolves who fail to injure her but somehow tear off one of her pant legs. Finally she has to rip her camisole, also to bind a wound, but the film lacks the creative oomph even to be enjoyed as an exploitation film.

Here Nick's foot gets caught between a boulder and something we're supposed to also take as a boulder but looks like a perfect square.

The performances aren't really bad and not really great. Like everything else, there's a peculiarly rigorous averageness to them. The climax of the film is the only thing that comes anywhere near impressively ridiculous, filled with errors in continuity between shots and centring on a moment of really cheap emotional manipulation which also utterly fails thanks to the fact that no-one in this movie was a believable character at any point. There's some subtle misogyny, too. When Henry's bitten by a rattlesnake, Lori helpfully says, "I have some chapstick." I think this was meant to sound like someone out of their depths grasping at anything like a solution in a crisis but it comes off as just a little too improbably stupid.

Twitter Sonnet #1007

In halls of statues shadow ants parade.
Respectful pods encourage jam to wait.
Preserved in jars, it thickens as it's made.
Reformed, the food advanced beyond the gate.
In desert suits the marching cards arrayed.
To all requests, a game developed scores.
Reflecting sounds begin a grey cascade.
Inside the house a window took the doors.
In walking dust construction wolves revolve.
The wood's so slender paper can't compete.
Inside a silent thicket eyes dissolve.
And for the beans the coffee's now complete.
Arriving late the ivy stole the sword.
The river guards a strange metallic lord.
setsuled: (Mouse Sailor)

Robert Newton is most directly responsible for the modern conception of the pirate--the voice, accent, the lopsided swagger. He played the title character in 1952's Blackbeard the Pirate, a good film but not half as good as Treasure Island two years earlier, the film that established Newton so firmly in the public mind as the figure of the pirate archetype. Newton plays an unambiguous villain in Blackbeard while half the fun in Treasure Island is studying him, trying to guess his motives. Though it's nowhere near as good as Treasure Island, Blackbeard is by no means a bad film, in fact it features some extraordinarily beautiful colour compositions and some of the best pirate battles of the 1950s.

Released the same year as the cheerful, brightly coloured The Crimson Pirate, the contrast in visual style in Blackbeard the Pirate could hardly be more severe for another colour pirate film. Instead of blinding blue skies and red and blue sheets, Blackbeard the Pirate goes for a gorgeous chiaroscuro, darkly shaded indigo clouds and charcoal edged hulls.

Directed by veteran noir and adventure film director Raoul Walsh, whose career goes back to the beginning of Hollywood, it's easy to see there's a sure hand at work in the action scenes where scores of seamen swing from one ship to another and the swordplay is convincing and fast. Although he's good with a sword, the film's biggest problem is its protagonist, a dull, nondescript hero, Ben, played by William Bendix.

He lacks the sparkle of Errol Flynn or Jean Peters and the weirdness of Robert Newton. It's surprising that Newton's success as a pirate character didn't inspire filmmakers and studios to cast more creatively for the other pirate roles in the film but, aside from the fascinatingly weathered face of Skelton Knaggs as Newton's treacherous mate Gilly, most of the crew come off as modern American thugs.

The plot involves a rivalry between Blackbeard (Newton) and Henry Morgan, played by English actor Torin Thatcher who actually makes an effort at a Welsh accent. In reality, Blackbeard and Henry Morgan never sailed the seas at the same time, Morgan died when Edward Teach, Blackbeard, was still a child. Aside from this obvious departure from history, the film actually has a few details of historical perspective. Ben is trying to prove that Morgan still operates as a pirate despite the fact that, at the time the film takes place, Morgan is Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica, as the real Henry Morgan eventually became. Blackbeard accuses Ben himself of being a pirate because he'd been on a ship that attacked a Spanish ship after peace had been declared but Ben defensively asserts he and his captain had been acquitted because news of the peace had not reached them at sea, which are actually very plausible circumstances.

The crew depicted in the film are also about as racially and culturally diverse as actual pirate crews, though black and Asian crewmembers aren't given more than a few lines.

Linda Darnell as Edwina Mansfield easily outshines William Bendix as her love interest not just because she always has plenty of décolletage on display. Their chemistry is curiously sexless, partly due to the fact that Bendix is a drip, partly due to Darnell playing her character in the virtuous damsel mould. The lack of sexual chemistry between the two oddly makes a bit repeated twice in the film even funnier in its understated humour--twice Ben is about to help her escape the ship but notes she'll never be able to swim in her cumbersome clothes, twice she says with unselfconscious pragmatism she can just take them off, and twice, of course, 1950s audiences were prevented from seeing anything.

And Newton is great, of course. His look in the film seems partly inspired by etchings of Edward Teach that show his beard always tied with fuses for his pistols (though this isn't explained in the film) and partly by early 20th century illustrator Howard Pyle.

setsuled: (Skull Tree)

Stories about a personal experience with war can succeed for painstaking authenticity or they can succeed when the context of that experience is used to talk about something else. Michael Cimino uses the Vietnam War to talk about masculinity in his 1978 film The Deer Hunter, a beautifully shot film that shows a few young men whose notions of what gave them a sense of self respect are cruelly subverted by circumstance.

The first hour or so of the three hour film establishes the young men, steelworkers in a tightly knit community, descendants of Russian immigrants who have maintained many traditions from the old country. The Russian Orthodox wedding scenes bring to mind the wedding at the beginning of The Godfather in the way it establishes a culture but the one in The Deer Hunter is even less narratively constrained, feeling almost like random footage.

The groom is Steven (John Savage), one of the three whom the film eventually follows to Vietnam, but the point of view characters become Mike (Robert De Niro) and Nick (Christopher Walken), though point of view is really only solidified towards the end of the deer hunting scenes following the wedding. For most of the first part of the film, a lot of long, wide shots pointedly make the characters feel small, not like movie star individuals but slightly foolish, tiny pieces in a vast fabric. A beautiful shot lingers on the group of guys when they get out to take a piss on their way up into the mountains, their goofing around just small rustlings next to the vast image of nature surrounding them.

The title of the film seems to refer to Mike, De Niro's character, who seems to have a reputation for being the only guy who always manages to kill a deer on their trips up. And he does seem the most capable among them, chiding Stan (John Cazale) for not bringing his own equipment and firmly refusing to lend him his spare boots.

Mike is sort of like Rambo if Rambo were dropped into a more realistic film. In Vietnam, he is the one among the three who's able to keep his shit together. But none of them leave the experience with the fundamental fantasies that they used to lean their psychological well being on. Being identified as "the deer hunter" in a movie where the actual hunting of deer is a relatively small element reflects this, particularly when Mike finds the experience of hunting deer far less satisfying when he comes back. The movie's female characters have little development of their own and exist primarily to define the male characters by contrast. When Mike visits Angela (Rutanya Alda), Steven's wife, his only questions for her are about Steven despite the fact that she's obviously undergone emotional trauma herself. This establishes the greater emotional bond Mike feels with men and the distance he feels from women, further emphasised by his strangely uncommunicative relationship with Linda (Meryl Streep), though he also seems to need her.

She's Nick's fiancée but even before Vietnam she and Mike seemed to be exchanging looks. Her character is given a physically abusive father and maybe this is meant to explain her supportiveness and passivity with emotionally distant men but for the most part her character would not have been especially interesting if not for Meryl Streep's great performance. A lot more time could have been spent on showing how the deer hunter identity is harmful to the women, though we do have a strange moment when Stan hits his girlfriend after another man grabs her posterior. When Mike decides to return to Vietnam, there's not even a scene of him and Linda discussing it or establishing what it means to her.

Crowd scenes in Mike's return to Vietnam are amazingly, effectively shot to show the utter chaos as the U.S. is finally pulling out. The realism of these shots stands in contrast to the fantastical quality of Mike's journey into the hell of a fictional underground Russian Roulette gambling culture. Incredibly, the film was adapted from a screenplay that was originally about gambling addiction to Russian Roulette and Cimeno takes these elements and constructs a wider commentary on the inherent death wish of mythologised hunter and killer masculinity. Mike is disgusted by Stan's playing with a little snubnose when he gets back from the war not simply because Stan is like a kid playing with fire but because Mike can see the end of this road, something that has claimed Nick completely.

So an analysis of this film looking for realism is inappropriate. The flaws are so apparent that it should be obvious--how Mike gets in and out of Saigon when no-one else seems able to, how Nick manages to survive so long, and so forth. This is about people learning there are horrifying implications to the social constructs they've been brought up on and then the journey to whether or not it's possible to escape from them.
setsuled: (Skull Tree)

Why did it take me so long to see Alien: Covenant? I suppose because my friends who saw it seemed disappointed and the response to it otherwise seems to be lukewarm. The negative reaction to Prometheus seemed better because it was the kind of whining you hear from fans when a movie did something right and it was out of their comfort zones. Now Ridley Scott, the pushover that he is, gave the fans what they want and the fans yawned. To be sure, the old fashioned xenomorph and face huggers are the worst parts of Alien: Covenent but I didn't hate the film. I loved all the references, particularly to Paradise Lost, since I'm a big John Milton nut (as anyone who's read my web comic knows).

I also like Wagner a lot so I loved the use of music from Das Rheingold. It's a lot of fun watching the movie and seeing how perfectly it suits references to Der Ring des Nibelungen and Paradise Lost. Yet the film is not a direct adaptation of either work, which is appropriate, though David, Michael Fassbender's android character introduced in Prometheus, is a far less complex figure than Satan in Paradise Lost. He's a less complex figure than he was in Prometheus, actually. Despite his conversations with Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and the newer model android, Walter (also Fassbender), which emphasise the life of forced servitude androids are forced into, it's hard to see David as anything but a two dimensional villain. Say what you will about Satan in Paradise Lost but he never murdered and dissected Eve.

Still, the parallels to Milton's poem are so perfect it's easy to see why Scott was inspired to explicitly correlate the two with his original title for the film, Alien: Paradise Lost. The obvious point is that David is rebelling against his creator--like Satan in Paradise Lost, who doesn't see why Jesus should be considered more worthy of being called God's number one son than himself, David immediately questions Weyland's assertion that he is David's father. In a reversal of Roy and Tyrell in Blade Runner, it's David who has the longer lifespan than his creator. But there are even more specific ways in which Covenant and Paradise Lost parallel, as in the focus on weapons development in both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, which brought to mind this piece from a section on the war in heaven:

Whereto with look compos'd SATAN repli'd.
Not uninvented that, which thou aright
Beleivst so main to our success, I bring;
Which of us who beholds the bright surface
Of this Ethereous mould whereon we stand,
This continent of spacious Heav'n, adornd
With Plant, Fruit, Flour Ambrosial, Gemms & Gold,
Whose Eye so superficially surveyes
These things, as not to mind from whence they grow
Deep under ground, materials dark and crude,
Of spiritous and fierie spume, till toucht
With Heav'ns ray, and temperd they shoot forth
So beauteous, op'ning to the ambient light.
These in thir dark Nativitie the Deep
Shall yeild us, pregnant with infernal flame,
Which into hallow Engins long and round
Thick-rammd, at th' other bore with touch of fire
Dilated and infuriate shall send forth
From far with thundring noise among our foes
Such implements of mischief as shall dash
To pieces, and orewhelm whatever stands
Adverse, that they shall fear we have disarmd
The Thunderer of his only dreaded bolt.
Nor long shall be our labour, yet ere dawne,
Effect shall end our wish. Mean while revive;
Abandon fear; to strength and counsel joind
Think nothing hard, much less to be despaird.
He ended, and his words thir drooping chere
Enlightn'd, and thir languisht hope reviv'd.
Th' invention all admir'd, and each, how hee
To be th' inventer miss'd, so easie it seemd
Once found, which yet unfound most would have thought
Impossible: yet haply of thy Race
In future dayes, if Malice should abound,
Some one intent on mischief, or inspir'd
With dev'lish machination might devise
Like instrument to plague the Sons of men
For sin, on warr and mutual slaughter bent.

In Paradise Lost, we see Satan cleaved almost in two by Michael's sword but, of course, Satan, being an angel, pulls himself back together, good as new (so to speak). Much like David. It all seems less like parallels Scott intended at first but like parallels he saw in retrospect and decided to emphasise. The film also is quite conscious of its echoes of Blade Runner, David even at one point having Roy's "That's the spirit!" line in a pivotal fight scene. So, oddly enough, Blade Runner actually functions as a closer compliment to Paradise Lost because of the greater moral complexity inherent in Roy.

In general, the characters in Alien: Covenant fall into more explicit hero and villain slots than those seen in Prometheus, which may have been another of Scott's concessions to fans, who complained that two of the scientists were too foolish in their first encounter with an alien life in Prometheus. The only character in Covenant who really seems flawed is Oram, who seems so really more for Billy Crudup's fascinating performance than for any other reason. Crudup may be the most underrated actor in Hollywood. As much as I hate Zack Snyder's testosterone wank adaptation of Watchmen, Crudup's performance in it showed his willingness to commit to a role. In Covenant, he creates this character who's distinguished as a man of faith but who comes off as thoroughly insecure thanks to the plaintive, muttering and stuttering speaking ticks Crudup gives him.

I also thought Danny McBride was really good in a dramatic role as Tennessee and he and Scott get a lot of effective tension from the scenes where Tennessee is deciding whether to take the ship to a hazardously low altitude. I really wasn't sure if he was doing the right thing or taking a needless risk and the scenes played up that tension beautifully.

Katherine Waterston in an explicitly Ripley-ish role I just thought was fine. Maybe she would have come off stronger for me if the last act of the film wasn't a pointless retread of the climaxes from Alien and Aliens. It's hard to get invested in the old xenomorph as a villain when the biological weapons introduced in Prometheus and early in Covenant seem far more efficient--and a lot scarier. It almost feels like self-parody when David is obliged to sit and wait, idly tossing pebbles, while the xenomorph embryo gestates in a victim. The newer or more primitive version of the xenomorph from the earlier parts of the film was also more effective for how strange it looked--possibly the eeriest moment in the film is when David seems like he's about to tame one that stands in front of him, inscrutable for its apparent complete lack of facial features.

Spoilers ahead

After the unsatisfying retread of the Alien climax, the revelation that David had killed Walter and taken his place was disappointing in another way. It's a downer, yes, but it's unsatisfying for more reasons than that. Really, it would have been a lot more interesting if Walter had survived. I loved the fact that the one direct quote from Paradise Lost, the famous line about how it's better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven, is the thing that makes Walter hesitate. It's fitting, I guess, that it's what gets him killed but what could have been the really interesting thing about it is that it shows Walter is conflicted. David is absolutely certain at this point, confident in his own perfection despite getting Byron and Shelly mixed up (what a surprisingly stupid mistake). Walter is the character in the middle, trying to figure things out--with a little of David's ambition added he would be a much worthier Satan figure than David.

I wonder if there's meant to be any significance in David naming himself after Michelangelo's David and by extension the biblical David. All I can think of is that the statue's supposed only flaw is that its head is slightly disproportionately large and Michael Fassbender actually has kind of a proportionately oversized head. He does a fine job in the movie, though.

Twitter Sonnet #1004

Impertinence impressed the puzzle piece.
Insouciance ensued to wrench the leg.
The butter born of nut belonged to Reese.
But chocolate came from out the faerie egg.
If day turns out to be a planet eat.
A swifter hat could never scroll the sky.
Rejoicing sifts the ghost from out the peat.
A kinder clap applauds the solar fly.
A wayward crown eclipsed the boiling brow.
In nothing rules a relished dog too hot.
For sandwich carts were patrons paid for now.
In tumbling sheets arrests the tater's tot.
In concrete snakes the town constructs a gut.
Tomato dots arranged the garden's rut.
setsuled: (Louise Smirk)

Is she innocent, psychotic, sadistic, confused, a victim of sexual abuse, or just a normal girl with syphilis? From the way 1978's Violette Noziere avoids answering the questions it constantly provokes about its title character one would expect the film to be a muddled mess but it's all anchored by an unfailingly solid performance from Isabelle Huppert.

Violette (Huppert) lives in a small flat with her parents. Her mother (Stephane Audran) is fussy and overbearing while her father (Jean Carmet) comes across as more easy going. Violette is based on a real life murderer who killed her parents in 1935 and perhaps this is why the film wants to avoid making strong arguments about her actual motives. Violette tells several people, long before her parents' deaths, that her father had routinely raped her since she was twelve. The film is very careful to show that this might be true and yet it might not be. In one scene, Violette catches her father looking at her while she washes and she covers herself but the two carry on a casual conversation without missing a beat.

Is this a sign of too much familiarity? Is the casual atmosphere a sign that nothing really wrong had happened and he had just made a mistake? One thing's for sure, Violette is a very good liar and Huppert plays her as someone who can quickly jump into a story without breaking stride. When she catches syphilis, she coolly says, "So you already know?" when her parents confront her about it, having been informed by the family doctor, Deron (Jean-Pierre Coffee).

The fact that she is such a good liar makes it difficult to trust anything she says, and if her ability to commit to lies so effectively is a sign of her mental illness, how can her guilt be judged? The one potentially honest moment is when her parents are dying in front of her and she just regards them coldly as a reptile.

But one also has to take into account what syphilis can do to someone's mind. We see that she has hallucinations where she mixes people up and she has fainting spells.

She seems to be genuinely in love with Jean (Jean-Francois Garreaud) but it's hinted that he's only using her for the money she steals from her parents. But she sleeps with a lot of men. One of them, a musician, sees her taking money from his wallet. When he shrugs and says it's okay, it's normal for her to be paid, she becomes angry and asks if he thinks she's a whore. This one little moment nicely opens up a lot of questions. If she doesn't think of herself as a prostitute, she must just like casual sex. But she is taking his money. Why would she rather he think she's a thief than a prostitute if she never plans on seeing him again?

In the hands of many other actresses, Violette would come off as a frustrating jumble but the commitment Huppert has to the role, the confidence she has in thoroughly inhabiting her, is so convincing that the ambiguities seem like genuine, provoking mysteries in human nature.

Twitter Sonnet #1003

A teacup rogue on drying seas contained
And held a bursting ten and screaming heads
Arrested by their spongy necks restrained
And charged in living sweat for batt'ry beds.
The wheels in pins disprove a floating wind
And slipping shoe absorbed in books beside
The smiling cork acclaimed in tops to fend
Alone in matchless pants, apportioned ride.
Across a crust canals of butter bring
The tides of tender trade to towns who sleep
Who drift inside a lime and lemon ring
The circlet's source of strength in yellow deep.
A peg appointed for the sign revealed
The path where burning coal and cars congealed.
setsuled: (Skull Tree)

The traditional idea of beastly behaviour involves unrestrained lusts without regard for the bonds of human affection or society. 1975's Legend of the Werewolf convincingly presents an opposite view where the uncontrollable animal urges of one man run contrary to a less severe morality in the culture. The film presents a surprisingly positive view of prostitution as an institution and is a nice werewolf movie from director Freddie Francis.

The film might deserve criticism for avoiding some of the more negative aspects of prostitution--the prostitutes in the film are presented as without families and there's no thought given to the fact that many of the women shown would likely have been forced into the occupation for a lack of other options. In this light, the werewolf's attack on their clients could almost be seen as a good thing except that he's motivated by a sense of possessiveness and not any desire to respect the wishes of Christine (Lynn Dalby). It's nice to see that it's this that is shown to be the disease.

David Rintol plays Etoile who became a werewolf after he was raised by wolves, his status as an orphan subtly paralleling Christine's life. After his first years were spent with wolves, he was taken in by a travelling circus as a child and shown as an attraction in a cage, a role he's oddly shown to enjoy eventually. Both Etoile and Christine are forced into occupations at a young age that might be rough, exploitive, and unpleasant to many people but both come to enjoy their lives.

But all is not well in the psyche of Etoile. After he's forced to flee the circus when he transforms and accidentally kills a man, he ends up in Paris where a series of murders begin to occur at the same time. With his guilelessness when he first meets Christine, along with a few of her fellow prostitutes, at the zoo where he gets a job, he doesn't even understand from their innuendos what their profession is. Etoile presents the figure of a country bumpkin exposed to the realities of city life for the first time.

Peter Cushing plays the film's protagonist and narrator, Paul, a police forensic surgeon who decides to investigate these new crimes on his own. Rather than a morally strident Van Helsing, Paul is presented as someone who takes some mischievous pleasure in bending the rules and discomfiting his police supervisors a bit, showing off some pieces of a corpse to a fussy administrator who comes in to chastise him at one point. Paul is quite pleased with himself when the man is forced to leave the room, unable to stand the sight of exposed internal organs. Although Paul is shown to be a man who does not visit brothels--scenes where he interviews the madam and prostitutes of a brothel are played for comedy with his mild embarrassment--he clearly has no moral disapproval for them. He presents a contrast to Etoile in that he is at ease in a world populated by people who are different from him while Etoile is compelled to respond with violence.

It becomes clear that the filmmakers had only one small exterior set to stand in for all of Paris but mostly the film is well put together, Paul's investigation building nicely with the amiable character created by Cushing. The climax shows his ability to empathise pitted against Etoile's psychological disability in his compulsion to respond with violence. There's a sense of how rare and difficult it is for such differences to resolve peacefully.
setsuled: (Skull Tree)

One of the most difficult things for a privileged white person to understand is how thoroughly and in how many ways a lack of privilege affects the life of a black person in the United States. Joseph Mankiewicz's 1950 film No Way Out is an admirable endeavour to provide illumination, particularly for the year it was made. With an excellent cast, headed by Sidney Poitier in his first film role, the movie uses the film noir mode to demonstrate racism as an existential trap.

Exhausted after a day at work, Dr. Luther Brooks (Poitier) gets into bed with his wife, Cora (Mildred Joanne Smith), who affectionately muses on her husband's extraordinarily difficult journey to becoming a doctor. "'A' was your passing mark," she recalls of his experience in medical school. "Not for the others, just for you." As the film had already made clear by this point, Luther was obliged to work twice as hard as his white colleagues just to be considered adequate. Poitier was only 22 at the time but shows he was already capable of a fine performance, his Luther Brooks barely able to contain his rage at the racist rantings of a patient, a thief brought in by the cops along with his brother, both suffering from gunshot wounds.

It's easy to see that Luther's rage isn't simply in response to the irrational hatred from a man he's expected to treat but because he knows that, in this world, the word of a raving thief can tarnish the reputation of a doctor if that thief happens to be white and the doctor happens to be black.

Richard Widmark plays Ray Biddle, the thief, succeeding in making the character thoroughly repulsive. 1950 was a great year for Widmark--he starred that year in two other great films noir, Night and the City and Panic in the Streets, and his role in each film was totally different. Ray Biddle to some extent recalls Widmark's star making role as the villain Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death. But while Udo was pure, psychotic sadism, Ray is possessed of a feverish self-pity from which his pathological hatred is born. Living poor in a bad part of town all his life, like many real life racists, Ray has piled all the blame for his woes on black people.

The film takes time to explore the less obvious, systemic forms of racism, though. We see that Luther would have had no chance getting a job at the hospital if not for the strong endorsement of a respected white doctor (Stephen McNally) who has a scene with a hospital administrator where the two discuss the political benefits of having black employees--and the necessity of taking politics into consideration, further emphasising that Luther can't risk making a single mistake. When Ray's brother dies under Luther's care, for something that could happen to any doctor, Luther's whole career is thrown into jeopardy.

Linda Darnell is also in the film as the dead brother's wife from whom Luther tries to get permission to perform an autopsy to prove his innocence. She exists has a pivot point for the social commentary aspect of the film, coming from the same part of town as the brothers, the film shows her journey to overcome her own prejudice. She also plays a part in the existential drama of the film--she lives in a lousy apartment and has a bad job but she did get away from the brothers and the community they represented, showing someone can build their own identity. But the centrepiece of the film is the contrast between Luther and Ray. In some sense, it reminds me of the relationship between Toshiro Mifune's cop character in Stray Dog with the thief in that film--in a sense, the two men could probably relate to each other under different circumstances. Both were born into disadvantage and hopelessness, though one chose to fight while the other chose self-pity. The fact that Luther's disadvantage was greater and truly inescapable makes Ray seem truly despicable.

Twitter Sonnet #1001

If pelicans consort in valour's lot
Redeeming birds complain for fallen cup,
For jokes too faintly printed show a knot
Along the bottom edge ere clerks'll sup.
Expensive drifts affront the flower forge
Offending fortune, turning tubes to top
Cascading mulch immersed in mud to gorge
The mental grass where green can never stop.
In gaining realms of kicking clods and nails
A coughing hammer rots inside a cone
To keep a cat or dog from biting tails
Or anything but plastics in the zone.
A case of forks disrupts the point of prongs.
To-night a striker tunes to sparking songs.
setsuled: (Skull Tree)

Striding through cynicism and hopelessness to honestly confront the age old problem of humanity's penchant for self-destruction, 2017's Wonder Woman is a wonder indeed. The philosophical conflict between strong-arm tactics and the hazards of people allowed to be free is the standard underlying story for superhero movies ever since The Dark Knight explored the idea so effectively. Wonder Woman is the first superhero film since The Dark Knight to make that struggle feel like a personal, artistic expression. There's a lot of talent at work in the film, but the lion's share of the credit must go to Patty Jenkins who, if Warner Brothers knows what's good for them, ought to be put in charge of the DCCU from now on.

I was one of the few people who thought the trailers for Wonder Woman didn't look very good. I noticed Chris Pine had a lot more lines in the trailers and they were leaning more on his charm, which made sense, I thought, since Gal Gadot was so bland in Batman v Superman. When I saw the movie, I saw that my impression was both right and wrong. The movie does lean more on Chris Pine and Gal Gadot is bland. But you know who else is bland? Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Gal Gadot is this generation's Arnold Schwarzenegger.

People have compared Wonder Woman to The Dirty Dozen and there's some truth in that but for me the apt comparison is to Terminator 2. The reason Schwarzenegger was never enough to make any further sequels in the Terminator franchise work is because Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong were essential to the film and essential to what made Schwarzenegger's "innocent android figuring out human nature" work. Linda Hamilton in particular gives the necessary contrast of a human being who's been psychically beaten and tempered by the violence of a human world. Chris Pine doesn't give quite so raw a performance but he does give a very good one--he's charming and he's had experiences that make him reluctant to trust Diana's guileless commitment to doing the right thing.

There is some of the fish-out-of-water, innocent lamb with regular guy dynamic at work here, despite the fact that Diana has studied many books on sex (by the way, if you want a much worldier woman in a period comic book series, you should've watched Peggy Carter). There's the perspective that Diana being so inexperienced plays into a patriarchal sexual dynamic that isn't alleviated by the fact that she has superpowers since such things are so divorced from reality. On the other hand, there's a cynicism in this perspective, too, for saying that innocence has no value. That's a big part of the film's point, that Diana is a reorienting influence on Steve (Chris Pine). That neither character has all the maturity cards is to the film's credit, it's not a flaw or anti-feminist.

It's also not anti-feminist to talk about Gadot's beauty and physical performance, which is as crucial as Schwarzenegger's physicality. Jenkins knew this in making the film and delivered great work from the material she was given. When Steve wakes up on the Themyscira beach, we get these enormous close-ups of Gadot's beautiful face peering at him (us) curiously. It feels intrusive and starts to feel oddly good. The cinematography and makeup seem calculated to soften Gadot's features a great deal which becomes a stimulating paradox in the suddenness of her action scenes. Her performance has a bit more ham than in Batman v Superman--the right amount for how Jenkins uses her--her grins and head tilts are subtly strange and I always felt like I didn't get enough time to study her reaction before the camera went back to Pine. It all adds up to create maybe the best example of a goddess put to film that I've seen.

Alongside the effective otherworldliness of Diana, Jenkins ably and shrewdly assembles a group of rough edged humans with Steve's comrades at the pub whom he takes along for their journey into the horrors of World War I trenches. Jenkins gets away with a surprising amount of that horror even in this era of the "grimdark" comic book film, just enough to make Diana's walk across "No-Man's Land" (a thankfully understated joke) so heart-stoppingly beautiful.

I could point out flaws in the screenplay. The varying levels of knowledge and ignorance Diana has don't quite add up, the final philosophical arguments between characters don't quite fit into the catch-phrases they try to use, but Jenkins coordinates everything so beautifully there was never a moment I wasn't completely invested in what Diana and Steve were trying to do and I felt both of their perspectives. Jenkins delivers something that really feels like it touches on the function of an ideal for humanity when contrasted with horrible, messy reality. It's an amazing film.

Several supporting performances were good, among them Ewen Bremner and particularly David Thewlis were absolutely wonderful.
setsuled: (Doctor Chess)

If anyone ever tells you the poor aren't good for anything, remember the story of the 19th century Doctor Robert Knox and remember the corpses of those who died in poverty can always be used for medical experiments. 1960's The Flesh and the Fiends is the second film to be based on the true story of the Burke and Hare murders, the first being the wonderful Boris Karloff and Henry Daniell 1945 film The Body Snatcher, in turn based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson. The Flesh and the Fiends is a far less compromising film and creates a wonderfully grimy, chaotic atmosphere in 19th century Edinburgh where the wealthy medical men practice and study surrounded by a sea of ragged beggars, prostitutes, and the variously miserable unemployed.

Peter Cushing plays Knox this time, for most of the film with a more prickly demeanour than Henry Daniell before him. One of the reasons this story keeps being adapted is because it presents such a provoking dilemma, a dilemma which reflects the philosophical conflict at the time between pragmatic progress and sensitivity for the exploited underclass. Knox argues that the laws regarding what bodies may be used to advance medical science are too strict, and indeed, with such a shortage of fresh bodies it's difficult to find the necessary models with which he can instruct his students. The other side of the issue is argued by the circumstances that occur--by paying well for fresh bodies, he indirectly encourages the likes of Burke and Hare to acquire corpses that are just a little too fresh.

In this adaptation, instead of plaintively, desperately arguing the justifications for his actions like in The Body Snatcher, Cushing's version of Knox is stiff and firmly convinced of a need to maintain composure at all times. His main tactic of defence is offence and whenever he sees the men on the medical board who might chastise him for acquiring illegal corpses he shows he's well up on every minor infraction of medical ethics perpetrated by his accusers and throws them back in their faces.

George Rose plays Burke and a young Donald Pleasence, unrecognisable with a mop of dark hair, plays Hare, both actors doing a great job of making these men utterly repulsive. They inhabit a world of people at the ends of their ropes, barely surviving and getting dead drunk whenever possible. The two run a lodging house, which is where they ensnare most of their victims.

A subplot involves one of Knox's students (John Cairney) and his love affair with a prostitute, Mary Patterson (Billie Whitelaw). Patterson was one of the real life victims of Burke and Hare. The film's portrayal of the frequently topless women cavorting in dingy taverns is surprisingly unrestrained even for a relatively low budget British horror film from the time.

The relationship between the student and the prostitute helps to bring out the contrast between class attitudes. A chance encounter between the couple and Knox's niece (June Laverick) with her beaux shows the upper and lower classes were so different as to easily convince themselves they were separate species--a handy state of affairs when the better off need to exploit the less fortunate.

My review for 1945's The Body Snatcher can be found here.

My review for Medicinal Purposes, a 2004 Doctor Who audio play based on the Burke and Hare murders, can be found here.
setsuled: (Frog Leaf)

A wealthy white American man with a van dyke, played by an actor who's also played Sherlock Holmes more than once, leads a fast paced life. His success has brought great hubris and then one day he's unexpectedly brought low, suffering permanent physical injury, but the path he takes to fix his body also helps to heal his spirit. Yes, I can only be talking about that well known Marvel superhero film. Doctor Strange from 2016.

So, yes, it's more than a little like Iron Man. Except Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) isn't quite as arrogant as Tony Stark, his injury isn't quite as bad, his road back doesn't seem like it was quite as difficult, and he never gets to kiss his love interest, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams).

What does Disney have against romantic subplots? Maybe there's one in the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie but I don't really want to see it to find out. To be fair, romantic subplots used to feel superfluous, as in Tim Burton's first Batman, but they could also be really wonderful, as in Richard Donner's Superman and Tim Burton's second Batman movie. Romance can be fun, you know.

Anyway. Doctor Strange isn't exactly bad--I guess it can't be since it so rigidly adheres to formula. Strange's smarm became really annoying really fast. I know I was supposed to find it funny when he called Wong (Benedict Wong) "Beyonce". But I just wanted him to get on with being an adult already.

And, yes, that's a Chinese guy, so much for the supposed white washing in the movie. Quoting Wikipedia:

The character is depicted in the comics as Strange's Asian, "tea-making manservant", a racial stereotype that Derrickson did not want in the film, and so the character was not included in the film's script. After the non-Asian actress Tilda Swinton was cast as the other significant Asian character from the Doctor Strange comics, the Ancient One—which was also done to avoid the comics' racial stereotypes—Derrickson felt obligated to find a way to include Wong in the film. The character as he ultimately appears is "completely subverted as a character and reworked into something that didn’t fall into any of the stereotypes of the comics", which Derrickson was pleased gave an Asian character "a strong presence in the movie". Actor Wong was also pleased with the changes made to the character, and described him as "a drill sergeant to Kamar-Taj" rather than a manservant. He does not practice martial arts in the film, avoiding another racial stereotype. Derrickson added that Wong will have "a strong presence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe" moving forward.

He does pick up a weapon, presumably to engage in a martial art of some kind, so this film was basically made by the Ku Klux Klan. Oh, well. But seriously, this movie was carefully measured and calculated at every stage to ensure you received the correct political balance in percentages designed to avoid any potential unpleasant suggestions or reminders of states of affairs based on practices resulting from institutionalised discrimination with roots going back to policies enforcing racism. Aren't you happy?

Tilda Swinton is really good as the Ancient One. I genuinely like the idea of a woman in the Obi-wan role for the male character but I wish there had been some resonance between the philosophy of her teaching and the manifestation of Strange's powers. The turning point for Strange is when she drops him on Mount Everest, forcing him to use his own powers to get back. I do like how all the magic looks like firework sparklers, it has a nicely tactile quality.

She tells him he has to defeat his ego to get back. But nothing about the scene actually shows how humility assists Strange in this task, nothing about his training actually makes him more humble. Magic in the film functions precisely like technology does in the other films, the little floating shield things are even rather like the floating computer interfaces.

The other major effect, of folding buildings, is taken right from Christopher Nolan's Inception. It didn't seem like anyone working on this film had a genuine desire to create a sense of magic. The astral projection stuff was kind of fun.

Strange is particularly annoying in the credits scene with Thor (Chris Hemsworth). I don't know why exactly his smugness is never as entertaining as Robert Downey Jr.'s as Tony Stark, maybe it's because there always seems to be a wounded quality to Downey Jr.'s performance, his arrogance consequently coming off as oddly vulnerable. But Benedict Cumberbatch is a good actor, maybe he'll do something better with the character in films from different writers and directors.

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot, Mads Mikkelsen's in the movie. He's good but he never has much to do. He has the distinction of being the only character to make any comment on Strange's name being, er, strange. Chiwetel Ejiofor is unremarkable as Strange's sidekick and seems like he's being set up to become another unremarkable Marvel villain to be tossed onto the pile.

Twitter Sonnet #998

A gentle step intrudes but waits for thread.
A kinder sort of fog consoles the crowd.
It's nothing like a row of petals shed.
The creature's eye uncorks a bubble shroud.
Molasses stems unfurl in potted ships.
Canals continue west while captains east.
A mountain range may lick its rocky lips.
The yellow tops of trees report a feast.
Encouraged by the swimming moose we sank.
On paper pulled from candy heads we ate.
No gunner goes for paper glued to tank.
In distant schools the bees would count to eight.
Descending wisps have hardened clouds to hands.
On faulty disks all hues turn into bands.
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I had to go and watch all four of the new Twin Peaks episodes last week, so I have to wait another week to see a new episode. I guess I can say some more about the new series now since some of you spaced your doses more wisely and only just last night watched episodes 3 and 4.

Spoilers after the screenshot

I'm pretty sure Naomi Watts is wearing the same cardigan she wore at the beginning of Mulholland Drive.

I doubt her character in Twin Peaks is meant to be Betty or Diane but it's worth remembering that Lynch did say Lost Highway was set in the same universe as Twin Peaks. She sure looks happy serving those pancakes.

Imagine how nice it would be to have Naomi Watts make you breakfast. Anyway, she does a good job making it believable that she doesn't notice Cooper's wearing his tie on his head. I think we're going to learn next week that the sip of her coffee brought him back to his senses.

By the way, if you're wondering what the deal is with this ring Dougie wears, you haven't watched Fire Walk with Me. Go watch it now--you'll find other things you need to know about like the Blue Rose and the long lost Philip Jeffries. It wouldn't hurt to watch the deleted scenes, too.

But the ring hasn't ever been fully explained. It has a symbol seen in Owl Cave in season two in which a cave painting tells the story of the Black Lodge. But I strongly believe the ring is based on the emerald ring that figures into the plot of Alfred Hitchcock's 1943 film Shadow of a Doubt.

Along with Vertigo*, Shadow of a Doubt is probably the Hitchcock movie that most influenced Twin Peaks, with its depiction of a small, innocent American town, a sweet teenage girl, and her eerie relationship with her sinister uncle. Shadow of a Doubt is set in Santa Rosa, California. We meet Dougie in . . .

Which is also the name of the production company whose logo we see in the new opening credits. By the way, I really like Jade the prostitute (Nafessa Williams), I hope we see more of her.

But back to the ring. My belief that it's based on the one from Shadow of a Doubt is so strong I even worked some hidden fan fiction into a web comic I did a few years ago, Echo Erosion, where I show a character from Shadow of a Doubt, flirting with a man named Arnold Banks in 1952, my idea being they'd one day be the parents of Teresa Banks, the first victim of Bob on Twin Peaks and the first person we see wearing the ring.

In Shadow of a Doubt, the ring represents a moral choice, as accepting the ring means Teresa Wright's character, the innocent small town teenage girl, is accepting collusion with the murders her uncle has carried out--he stole the ring from one of his victims. The ring in Twin Peaks seems to work in a similar way thematically--it seems to mark its wearer for death. Dougie seems to be mixed up in something where he owes a lot of money but he's still spending cash on a prostitute, cheating on his wife in the process. The idea that Dougie is manufactured suggests he literally has no soul. When Agent Desmond in Fire Walk with Me takes the ring, he's wiped out of existence. When Laura sees the Man from Another Place holding the ring in her dream, Cooper warns her not to take it and later, when she's in the train car with Bob/Leland, we see her voluntarily putting on the ring, symbolising that, like Dr. Jacoby suggested, Laura "allowed herself to be killed". So while Dougie and Teresa wearing the ring seems to be a part of Bob's plan--he wants to kill them both--Laura wearing it is not because he doesn't want to kill her, he wants to inhabit her body. This is reminiscent of the strange psychic connexion Teresa Wright's and Joseph Cotton's characters share in Shadow of a Doubt--and the fact that both characters have the same name, Charlie, a mundane male American name, like Bob.

Well, I'd dying to see how the ring figures into the next fourteen episodes, if at all. I wonder if it's at any level meant to be a Lord of the Rings reference.

*It's well known that Laura Palmer's cousin, Leland Palmer's niece, Madeleine Ferguson, is named for two characters in Hitchcock's Vertigo, Madeleine Elster and Scottie Ferguson.


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