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Month: November 2016

Life’s Too Long: The Crown (2016)

And now ladies and gentlemen the second episode, that one saw first, not that it made any difference in one’s understanding of the series’ lukewarm plot…

S1E2: Hyde Park Corner

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The King Is Dead

Having replaced her ailing Papa for the Commonwealth Tour, Princess Elizabeth lands in Nairobi, Kenya, and from what one thought was the very first scene the challenging duo she forms with the Duke of Edimburgh is neatly set: she’s already regal and dedicated to do her best as the Crown representative, and her husband is a racist pig. She prounonces her first, mercifully short allocution and then proceeds to do what the Royals do when they grace Africa with their blessed presence: hunt wild animals, in that instance the elephant.

An ominous yet meaningless parallel editing tries to exert tension from two hunting parties, one at Windsor Castle and the other in the savannah. Yes, George VI holds dear to his death wish, getting up early in the morning to smoke cigarettes and shoot his rifle in Princess Margaret’s company. What a bleak life, or lack thereof. Neither hunts prove satisfactory, the King aiming poorly when he coughs and the elephant doing all but charging the Queen to be (“Hold on to my jacket!”). Philip has to lower his rifle and, in a rather ill-advised symbolic scene, bow to superior power: “You are the King”, he tells Tombo. Who he came here to shoot. Anyway.

Then comes the weirdest scene of all: the Royal Sex Tape. One doubts that Buckingham Palace authorised this series after all. Here it goes: King George finds some five to midnight merriment singing by the fire while Margaret plays the piano, kisses his family good night and dies in his sleep, in oh so dignified a way. Princess Margaret looks and acts as if she desperatly wanted to go to the bathroom but can not since England is in mourning. Queen Mom is devastated and the freshly widowed Queen looks more or less like she did the day before, only more clueless. Meanwhile, in Kenya, unaware that destiny just made her Queen of England, Elizabeth films her naked husband lying in bed. Shocking, really.

News have nevertheless to be broken to the Queen; having no idea how to script the scene the writers wisely settle on a deeply charged exchange of looks. For some reason it becomes useful to clarify that Elizabeth is some kind of a McGyver with a string of pearls, having served as a mechanic during the war. The journey home begins, with the fate of a nation hanging on the fact that the maids didn’t pack a black dress; good job, considering the King had cancer and they were supposed to be away for six months. One guesses someone just lost her job.

Apart from Churchill and his wife’s (Harriet Walter) subdued banter (“Then ignore me, it’s probably nothing.”), the best scene of the episode takes place when the new Royals realise they gonna lose their secretary. For a minute they look like babes in the woods and seem vaguely human, then of course the Crown resumes precedence, Elisabeth swiftly hops into a black number and go pay her respects to Papa.

Apart from that, it’s like Downtown Abbey, only worsened without servants. Kenyan servants are allowed to hush the Princess because hippos are hungry, since their language is composed of only two words, “tombo” for elephant and “karibu” for anything else. Oh, and some “unbecoming tittle-tattles” are surfacing about Princess Margaret and Major Townsend. For the time being though, the King is dead, long live the Queen. And by Jove, she will, enough to watch this, which is either a blessing or a curse, depending on Her Majesty’s sense of humour.

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The Slow Disappearance of Meaning and Truth

Answered Prayers

Anytime one visits a Japanese temple, one is confronted with walls of votive tablets hung under little roofs.

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These tablets carry wishes of the faithful for longevity, health, prosperity or luck, as one would expect in any place of worship.

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Sometimes though, the demands can be a bit more on the specific side.

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Ag-ha-ssi (The Handmaiden – 2016)

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The Year Of The Octopus

Slowly worming its way from periphery to center, Chan-wook Park’s latest opus follows Stoker, his Hollywood debut, and, among others, the films for which he’s most reputed, Old Boy and the two previous volumes of what is commonly called The Vengeance Trilogy, not to forget his perturbed vampire flick, Thirst. Considering he’s a Korean film maker and what his previous work has led us to expect, The Handmaiden is at first puzzling for its restraint.

A period drama set in a vast mansion during the Japanese occupation of the 1920, the plot revolves (several times, as it happens) around the titular handmaiden, not so bright (or is she?) Sookee (Tae-ri Kim), placed by a crook, pretend Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha, great) at the service of wealthy and unhinged Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim, Adjaniesque), niece of a wealthy book collector (Jin-woong Jo). Uncle Kouzuki, a Japanese noble at heart, holds society in contempt and plans to marry his niece to consolidate the family fortune after his wife hung herself to a blossoming cherry tree. The Count’s project is, with Sookie’s help as a confidante, to substract Hideko from her uncle’s influence, marry her, steal her money and have her interned in a mental hospital.

Everything goes according to plan in the first third of the movie, following Sookie’s somehow half-hearted attempts to reach the Count’s goal, before the plot brutally twists us back to the beginning for a second version, this time Lady Hideko’s point of view. There was much more to see than what met the eye in the first act, we discover as another layer of deceit is peeled off the plot. And then it happens again during the third act, from the Count’s point of view, interspersed with scenes between the two girls he can not witness, but visualises as a brutal encounter with Uncle Kouzuki seals both their fate.

Positing at its center The Fisher’s Wife, Hokusai’s print of a woman copulating with two octopuses, The Handmaiden has an obvious origin in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (remade by Hollywood with Sharon Stone and, weirdly, Isabelle Adjani), so anyone having seen one of these two movies won’t have any major difficulty finding one’s way among the plot intricacies. But as they say, it’s the journey, not the destination, and the way The Handmaiden brings us almost full circle to what we did or didn’t expect is the mark of a superior film maker. The only thing that could be objected to Chan-wook Park is his weird choice of filter for the exterior scenes, although even that must have a meaning in the director’s vision.

The movie is undiluted eye candy, the virtuoso camera glossing over somptuous decor and costumes, but there is more to it than lavishness. The first act is as coy as the second is crude and the third is brutal, each perspective reflecting its pivotal character’s point of view. Abstract humour springs out of the (abundant) woodwork in a hanging scene or another one involving sliding doors and suitcases. Refined erotica is given centerstage during “lectures” given by Uncle Kousaki to a clique of noble Japanese gentlemen, his library/dungeon transforming into a No theater where a poised Lady Hideko performs various fetichistic rituals, on herself or on the guests. “Pain”, she reads, “is a cloth.”.

And then, still progressing from periphery to center, there is “the basement”, first a threat, than a place to be explored and finally a torture chamber where a huge octopus is confined in a small aquarium, and where both the male characters get their comeuppance. In Korea’s macho culture, men die with their dick attached to their body, even though they have been deprived of much anything else in the course of their attempt at owning woman’s beauty. The dialogue insists on statements like “she has a fine bone structure for a Korean woman”, or that Korea is a redneck country. Whatever the cultural gap though, poor and greedy Korea and sickly sophisticated Japan find a way to unite in some form of devious happy ending.

At 145′ the movie might seem like a challenge for the unacustomed viewer. Take the first act with patience, as what you see is far from being what you get in the end. It is exquisite cinema, in the perversion of its writing as in the beauty of its filming. Viewing advised.

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Life’s Too Long: The Crown (2016)

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Honni Soit Qui Mal Y Pense

Beyond money, loneliness, fear and time, there’s always boredom. So, even one is not a subject of Her Royal Majesty, one felt compelled to suffer not one, but two episodes of Her apocryphal biopic, uncertain that it has been aprooved by Buckingham Palace. But surely it should have been, considering how innocuous it is? Anyway, one watched the second episode first by mistake, and it was as good as a debut such an unsurprising hagiography should have. Discovering one’s mistake demanded to watch the first episode altogether. And boy, was that a bad idea. Anyway, long live the Queen, and here we go.

 

S1E1: Wolferton Splash

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The King Is Dying

“There was a spot of blood when I coughed this morning, should I be bothered?” asks George VI (Jared Harris, in too brief a role for his talent) to his butler after his doctors have left him in the dark about his condition. There is indeed a spot of bother, Your Majesty, considering they have to take away one of your lungs in what appears to be Buckingham Palace’s grand ball room, but you still cough heavily. So why not shoot ducks by a freezing morning and keep on smoking heavily? It’s not exactly as if the Windsors were the Einsteins, but what the fuss is all about during this very long and very stiff episode if not one’s duty to the Crown? The King would be wishing – heaven forbids! – for an emergency exit that he wouldn’t act otherwise. Fortunately Princess Elisabeth (Claire Foy, properly ordinary) is ready to assume the Commonwealth Tour with her newlywed husband Consort Prince Phillip (Matt Smith, dubiously cast), so why not to focus on the destruction of his other lung?

The big event of the week is Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage. The former is first glimpsed with crossed arms, waiting with a touch of impatience that the latter is deprived of his foreign titles in order to receive proper British ones including, of course, The Duchy of Edimburgh, via some kind of a Gotha Extreme Makeover ceremony. Poor Philip is expecting an obedient wife and has to be gently slapped on the wrist a couple of times in order to understand who’s wearing the pants, or should one more aptly says the crown, in their holy matrimony.

But, he objects, are we gonna leave the children (Charles and Ann, in a suddden plot rush, are already 7 and 5)? “The children are too young, they won’t notice we are away for months”, comes the reply. Ah Britain, Britain, Britain… it is very difficult for the educated viewer not to interpolate Little Britain lines in all the undertatement taking place, the Duke of Edimburgh’s pecs and glutes being the only diversion from endless, hushed dialogue about the elephant in the room.

Apart from Philip’s athletic prowess, the best thing on display here is John Lithgow’s turn as Winston Churchill. Octogenarian but relentless, the Father of the Nation is a more than welcome respite from stiff upper lips, even though his dialogue seems lifted up from the Churchill Cliff Notes, greatest hits included. Jeremy Northam is not bad either as Anthony Eden, who has the ambition but not the shoulders for the Prime Minister job.

Episode 1 is shooting a sitting duck, really. Queen Elizabeth (George’s wife, yeah, it’s confusing) is a non-entity, which comes as an – admitedly mild – surprise since she’s to become Queen Mum (Victoria Hamilton has a great name to play the Queen of England but not much else). Queen Mary (Eileen Atkins, who else?) Is an exemple of the contrary, stealing the few scenes she has as Queen Mary (Queen Mum before she reincarnated in an ocean liner, very confusing indeed). Hold your horses,, this is only the beginning. Life, as art, is long, sometimes oh so very very long…

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American Horror Story S6E9

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The Elephant In The Room

Not the best episode by far, this one leaves us wondering how could this season, however spectacular it has been, could possibly end satisfyingly. Make no mistake, one has the utmost respect for what has been tried, and mostly proved, so far. But there is more than a touch of disarray this week, which seems forcing Lee’s survival down our throats. Not that she doesn’t deserve it, the poor soul. But some distant torches don’t really make it for a threat, and for the first time this year some dialogue feels a tad cheap. “No, I Ubered”, can pass a vagrant scan; “Going viral is totally worth it!” doesn’t, because this is not Scream Queens.

So, as expected, there’s a third level of “reality” in the Roanoke reality TV show, namely a guerrilla crew led by Tessa Farmiga, another regular punching the clock, being there for some reason and discovering horrors piled on horrors, to the point of said crew is being impaled in front of the haunted house, one of the few body desecrations we didn’t have the privilege to witness so far. There is also some disembowelment if the Cannibal Holocaust reference had escaped you. This is all good for a found footage thesaurus, this season certainly leaves no milestone unturned. Yet.

The elephant in the room here, blame it on a cursed political agenda, is Lee’s role this season. Heaven knows some AHS characters have done much worse then she did, but it was all for our viewer’s merriment, in fantasy universes. Here we pretend to “reality”, and we have a murderous addict for a final girl, coldly dispatching her re-enactor, who happens to be Angela Bassett, and once and for all this blog has a zero tolerance regarding Miss Bassett’s careless death. But really, Lee. Who’s that girl? What is the writers agenda in presenting her as such?

We do not either commend the excess of shaky-cam, or the frustrating way Audrey’s character is being dispatched. This whole third crew idea could have worked but here it feels like too much of a gratuitous convenience. If this short review sounds annoyed (but in truth there is not much to review this week…), it’s because that’s exactly how one felt, to one’s utter disapointment.

One episode to go, Please, pretty please, do not make a mess of your excellent first eight episodes, leaving us with just the meagre pleasure of a murderous black final girl. OK it would be kind of a first, but what’s the point? What’s the message?

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Westworld (1973)

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I Shot The Sheriff
One was tempted to revisit the first movie to be directed by Michael Crichton, adapted from his eponymous novel, now that it’s given the TV series prestige treatment by HBO (more on that later). It’s one of those flicks you see when you’re a kid, which leaves an enduring trace on a young mind, its high concept being novel at the time. It’s also a movie best left in one’s attic, covered in the dust it so rightfully accumulated now that the idea of androids serving the base pleasures of not very interesting specimen of humanity is as antiquated as reel-to-reel computers and colour-coded golf carts.

Very poor in terms of story or character development, Westworld retains marginal interest in that he sets two templates. The resort/simulation park based on poorly controlled technology was exploited with alarming prolixity by Crichton in his seemingly neverending Jurassic Park franchise. The Gunslinger played by Yul Brynner predated by at least five years the unkillable killer of Halloween, Friday the 13th and countless other slasher movies, not to mention The Terminator himself, 11 years down the line.

The movie is indeed Crichtonian in its focus on process, even though that process is far from being as foolproofed as it was in the writer’s first screenplay, The Andromeda Strain, which was all process and almost no movie, and for that reason stands the test of time much better than Westworld. Starting with a commercial stating without irony that the guests lucky enough to fork out 1000$ a day (before inflation) will interact with “scientifically programmed robots”, the movie then becomes a very chaste buddy movie with malfunctioning machines, a clueless technical team exchanging cryptic dialogue when they’re not ordering waffles, and enough incoherences to make to viewer suspect they forgot the screenplay was printed recto verso and only filmed half of it.

The two buddies (Richard Benjamin and Josh Brolin, if this is of any importance) enter the town saloon as first timers a gay bath, overplaying the macho stance but clutching their towel hard in fear of what might happens. They are right away hit on by the Gunslinger, all clad in black and calling the slim guy with a moustache “boy”. This is as funny as it will get, the Gunslinger being the only bad guy in town, so he’s killed repeatedly until he won’t take it anymore, because of some glitch no one is able to explain. The ineffectuousness of that particular team of scientists is truly something to behold, Crichton having a total disinterest for logic and continuity.

To proof: the robots emit no heat even though they are used as sex toys (one couldn’t help but giggle at how the bacchanalian Roman World was glossed over, or how intercourse with a robot prostitute was filmed as passionate love-making).The night repair crews operate in plain sight and under bright lights when everyone is asleep and the robots disconnected (so much for wild resort nights, do they actually drug the guests?). Scientist deliver lines like “We don’t know exactly how they work” or “Is there anything working around here?”. The Medieval World’s (yes, there is one) only activity seems to be banquetting with wenches, waiting in line to bang the unfaithful Queen (yes, there is one, too). The robots run on two hour batteries except when they’re not, and their vintage 1860 rifles endlessly recharge… It is really a great movie for kids.

Still, Westworld‘s best scene has to be when the technical crew dies asphixied in the control room after they shut down power, which has the weird effect of locking the electric doors AND making impossible to restart power. Congratulations for the writing, Mr Crichton, this is worthy of a Darwin Award.

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Life’s Too Short: Westworld (2016 -)

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Have You Ever Questioned Your Taste In Series?

The 1973 Westworld was not a good movie by any means, yet its promise of an exclusive resort where guests are allowed to unleash their dark side on a population of androids retained its suggestive power for more than four decades and here we are again, now than technological progress has enabled the writers to deal a bit more credibly with the engineering such a sophisticated project implies. So we get 3D printing, to be short, and it makes for a deft title sequence.

This title sequence lists an impressive casting, including Ed Harris (yeah!) and Sir Anthony Hopkins (hmm, yeah). Evan Rachel Woods plays the lead, and James Marsden looks hot in cowboy gear. So far so good, but. There is a trifecta of talents at work on the creation of this series: Michael Crichton (obviously), JJ Abrams and Jonathan Nolan, brother of Christopher and writer of many things, unfortunately including Interstellar. It’s very hard to think than anything other that vastly frustrating will emerge from this particular conjunction, and the first line of dialogue sends a shiver down your spine: “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?”. Oh dear God, here they go again. And then again.

It starts much better than the movie in a sense that we are directly projected into Westworld, without an inanimate guest processing prologue. We all know that there are guests and there are hosts, but who’s who is not immediately obvious and one guesses the following episodes will rely heavily on that. The big difference is hosts can’t hurt the newcomers, as they call the guests, who can do all they want to the hosts. One suspects Donald Trump has invested in this resort, sounds like a sure winner.

And from the start, it bugs. There are pokes taken to a new programme called “Reverie” (will you let go of Inception already?), there is some corporate mumbo jumbo, some leering at violence, a herd of sheep used as a metaphor for a love story and a lesbian curtly stating that “a hooker with hidden depths is every man’s dream”. Well said, lady, should we go explore this unchartered abyss?

One’s suspicion is that a mix of The Truman Show and Groundhog Day is not very auspicious a departure point for a TV series. It’s like time travel and parallel universes combined and as everyone knows by now, those are a disaster in the making. On top of that, the androids are obviously acquiring a conscience, escaping the clutch of their masters, so the God issue is looming around the corner. Add to that a warehouse full of decommissioned robots vaguely reminiscent of a concentration camp, except that said robots have been repaired to pristine condition before being stocked there, and you seriously start to question Westworld‘s business model. One means, those things must cost a lot, right?

There is a cool massacre scene set on a catching Paint It Black cover, because why not, now that HBO and Mick Jagger are best buddies. Otherwise, if Westworld demonstrates anything, it’s that stock dialogue always work and that Sir Anthony Hopkins can be Shakespearian in a morgue. But you know, life’s too short for watching an MPG without playing it.

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I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House (2016)

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The Figure In The Carpet

Braving the awkward title of Oz Perkins’ second movie is rewarding in a slow burn, delicate way reminiscent of Henry James’ ghost stories, meaning that gore hounds will be vastly disapointed: evil and dread are not conveyed by blood splatter here (are they ever?), but by mold and rot, two phenomena that take time to set and crawl up on anything, first and foremost the human soul.

The patient viewer will also have to brave a gorgeous opening, more Venice Biennale video installation then title sequence, featuring a girl in period dress slowly walking backwards, her face unstable and her shadow reluctant to follow her. She’s evidently a ghost and she will show up a few times during the course of the movie, scaring the main character to death in its climax, even though it is far from being its spookiest scene. This walking backwards is actually chilling, and reminded one of a line in James’ The Wings Of A Dove when the heroin “turns her face to the wall” and decides to let herself die. There is no moving forwards for ghosts: they stay stuck where they die and, says the voice-over, “you never buy or rent a house when there was a death, you borrow it from the ghost” rotting there somewhere dark, more hiding place than shallow grave.

Following the opening there is a curious scene that could have been lifted from a pinhole photography version of Paranormal Activity, then we get to meet our heroin, Lily (Ruth Wilson, excellent in a role very different from her serial killer turn in the Luther TV series, her broad forehead and crual mouth somehow reminiscent of Nicole Kidman). She’s a hospice nurse and is hired to take care of Iris Blum, an ailing crime writer (Paula Prentiss, spooky as hell in a role initially written for Debbie Harry) who wishes to die in the Shaker house in which she wrote all her books, including her most successful one, The Lady In The Walls. Lily is “an easily scared girl” and only takes a peek to the first pages of the book before putting it down, but ‘that it’s curiosity that kills the cat, and even this innocent foray into a book sold at train stations and airports seals her doom. If it doesn’t seem very suspenseful to you, you are mistaking: what Oz Perkins achieves with some noise, a mold stain on a wall, a phone cord and the corner of a carpet is amazingly disquieting.

When Lily arrives she’s obviously devoted to her job and willing to blend in as much as possible, to the point she’s actually color-coordinated to the window dressing. The Grateful Dead (natch) t-shirt she wears at night however betrays her as an intruder. Soon enough Miss Blum calls her Polly and chastises her not to have visited for much too long. In the lone scene she actually talks to her nurse, what she has to say is both discomfiting and dreadful: “It’s a terrible thing to look at oneself and all the while see nothing”. The ghost story author is the ghost of herself, missing the ghostly companion who inspired her best work.

Old crooner songs float across the spotless interior of the house (including one sung by Anthony Perkins, Oz’s father), alternating with Harold Budd-like piano music. A fuzzy TV screen become a witch’s black mirror. Meticulously composed images unnervingly frame a chair hung to the kitchen wall or a door, painted black, from which a non-agressive version of Evil corrodes the core of Lily’s existence. She founds musty old letters and once again curiosity gets the best of her. All the while, an oppressive sound design nurtures apprehension, all dripping water, buzzing meat flies or white noise atmospherics. When Lily concludes her voice-over, her voice cracks like an old record. She’s still the pretty thing in the house, even though she doesn’t quite lives there anymore, not as we humanly understand it. Viewing advised.

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