Sunday, 25 December 2016

High on Sex and Witchcraft: A Review of Eiichii Yamamoto's 'Belladonna of Sadness' (1973 Anime)

[Content Warning: This review discusses rape; also, spoilers for the entire piece.]

Spoiler warnings are pointless. If you knew every plot point before watching, Belladonna of Sadness would still gobsmack you. More than plot, this film lives through images, images more decadent and luxurious than even the plot description suggests. From equal parts Klimt, Victorian fairy-tale illustration, and Yellow Submarine, Eiichii Yamamoto concocted a delirious feminist fable. A fable, albeit, unable to fully articulate its vision.

Newly-wed peasants, Jean and Jeanne, cannot satisfy the local lord’s taxes. In lieu of gold and cows, the court kicks Jean to the drawbridge, and rape Jeanne. After Jeanne stumbles home, her husband, in a mad rage, almost strangles her to death. Sleeping alone, Jeanne spies a phallic pixie calling himself Satan. In exchange for her submission, Satan will grant her power. She refuses his offer, and his next. Both times Satan rapes her, but grants her worldly power, first financial and sexual. The villagers cohere around her new-found power, which displeases the Lady, wife of the rapist Lord. The Lady bristles that a commoner should have more authority than her. She locks Jeanne a dungeon, under suspicion of witchcraft.  

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Analysis: What's a Few Murders?: The Glass Cell, by Patricia Highsmith (1964)

[Contains spoilers for the entirety of the novel, right to the end.]

Sparing their bleakness, Patricia Highsmith’s novels have an almost playful amorality. Evil goes unpunished, yet the text treats this as neither bad nor good. It treats it as a fact, almost banal. She foreshadows no Damoclean Sword beyond the book’s end hanging over as yet unpunished criminals, criminals like The Glass Cell’s Phillip Carter.  

The plot, in full (spoilers, of course):

Someone framed Phillip Carter for skimming funds off a school building project. It doesn’t who framed him; he’ll suffer six years in jail regardless. As if incarceration isn’t enough, the guards string Carter up by his thumbs, leaving them permanently deformed and throbbing. At least the doctor gives him ample morphine. Carter suspects his lawyer, David Sullivan, has had more success courting Carter’s wife, than securing a retrial or pardon. 

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Letting Die: An Analysis of Yoshihiro Tatsumi's Black Smoke (1969 manga)

[Content Warning: contains discussion of attempted rape; contains illustrated breasts.]

As with most short-stories writers, reading the stories in Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s The Push Man and Other Stories one after another reveals the cloth they all were cut from. If none reflect his life (as he stresses in the afterword-cum-interview), they reflect his concerns circa the late sixties. These early stories focus mainly on disempowered working-class men and, often, the shrewish women in their lives. A few stories diverge from this thematic base (“Projectionist,” “Make-Up,” and “Bedridden” do so in diverse ways). Taken in aggregate, however, Push Man builds a world of dirty neighbourhoods, speechless men, and selfish women, where aspirations, if not crushed, never exist to begin with.

The brevity of these stories (only two exceed eight pages), owes to the stinginess of the magazine Tatsumi wrote for, but such brevity makes his stories fertile and non-laborious to analyse. ‘Fertile’ because Tatsumi’s page-limit forced him to respect Hemingway’s iceberg theory. ‘Easy’ because, unlike with a novel, or a thirty page short-story, a reader can keep all eight pages in mind at once.

Essay: The Prig; or, A Letter to that Prick on the Tram

At five-thirty on a Friday our tram stopped, and one man deemed this an excuse to abandon civility. Tram officers told us the tram would trundle on unburdened, while we were to board the tram behind. I assume all those disembarking were irritated; some gave their irritation words, irritation at this three minute delay. Mere grumbles, of course, as harmless as scratching an insect bite.

One man (whom we shall call Dick) would not restrict himself to scoffs. Under the near thirty-degrees sun, he made his petty pain known. Speaking on behalf of all us passengers, all us ‘good people’, he shrieked at a tram officer. Hunched over the officer, Dick demanded explanation as to why, oh, why he must switch trams. The officer stated he’d no power over the tram lines, and should call the service’s phone number. Ah, but this was insufficient for Dick. How thankful heroes are never dissuaded by common sense and common decency. He jabbed the officer’s shoulder insignia. ‘Authorised Officer,’ Dick spat. ‘Authorised Officer. I’ve tried your phoneline. No one answers. You are here, and you are a representative!’ 

Sunday, 4 December 2016

A Queer Take on a Old Play: A Review of Derek Jarman's Edward II (1991 film)

Praise be to the whoever greenlit the pitch ‘Elizabethan tragedy as gay parable.’ Whatever gay subtext was in Marlowe’s original, Derek Jarman makes text. Jarman is no purist, and has no intention of pandering to them. He does not attempt to produce Edward II, per se. He fashions an anti-bigotry parable from the material of Edward II.  

Something’s rotten in the state of England. To the court, it’s buggery; to the audience, it’s bigotry. King Edward II has a favourite, Gaveston, who is more than a favourite. He showers honours, titles, and privileges upon his boyfriend, to the court’s chagrin. The court aims to exile Gaveston, or, failing that, murder him. Will Edward crush this bigotry, or will it crush him? 

Sunday, 27 November 2016

'A Fact Remains a Fact, And Will Not Be Dismissed Without Some Explanation': Analysis of Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita (1967)

Dogma is enemy of truth. To believe reality cannot be so, when reality is so, is delusion; to call this delusion rationalism is parodic. In The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov drops a walking refutation into Moscow, he drops the devil among atheists. Do they accept, or even consider, what their reason and senses should tell them? No, they fall back on dogmatic materialism. The literary establishment will not consider the devil, or God, or magic, or any speck of the old religion. To contrast this denial of truth, Bulgakov gives a model of artistic creation of truth, in the Master’s story.

On an ordinary evening in Soviet Russia, the devil comes to Moscow. Posing as Professor Woland, a scholar of black magic, Satan and his coterie of demons performs a farce, with Soviet literary world his stage and the Muscovite upper-crust his unwitting players. Between these satires, the audience reads the eponymous Master’s unpublished manuscript, a retelling of Christ’s final days, from Pilate’s perspective. 

Sunday, 20 November 2016

I Came for LSD, But Only Got Sugar: A Review of 'Dr Strange' (2016 film)

Dr Strange was never going to be ground-breaking film. Guardians of the Galaxy proved B-list characters could sell, and Inception pre-empted many of Dr Strange’s trippier elements. While not excellent, Dr Strange is decent, with a tad more visual flourish than other MCU movies.  

Self-centred and brilliant Dr Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a neurosurgeon driven more by prestige than altruism. When a car crash cripples his hands, his career ends. After Western medicine fails to save him, he treks to Kathmandu, to Kamar-Taj, an order headed by the mystical Ancient One, said to cure any ailment. While he does not heal, he learns their sorcery. All is not well, though. A renegade pupil, Kaecilius, summons threats from the edge of reality. Dr Strange holds the fate of the world in his hands.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

More Happy and Bashful, than Dopey and Sleepy: A Review of 'Snow White with the Red Hair' Season 1 (2015 anime)

[Contains Spoilers for the First Season]

When Yona of the Dawn soured, Snow White with the Red Hair fell to the bottom of my queue. Shallow as I feel admitting it, Snow White suffered guilt by association, being another medieval fantasy about a red-haired heroine. Shock-horror, however, for Snow White is a competent – nay, a good show. Forgoing the epic ambitions of fantasies such as Yona, Snow White breezes along with small, but well-written, conflicts.

When the vain and lascivious Prince Raji chooses an aspiring herbalist, Shirayuki, as his concubine, she gets the hell out of that country. On her flight she runs into Zen, the second prince of the neighbouring kingdom, who cows Raji into retreat, and whisks Shirayuki to his homeland. In her new home, Shirayuki follows her dream to be herbalist, and develops her friendship with the prince. 

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Hold the Phone, Hacking's How Old?: A Recommendation of Secrets of the Little Blue Box, by Ron Rosenbaum

Sorry! Still busy, so I’ll just leave this quick recommendation.

You may read The Secrets of the Little Blue Box because ‘it inspired Steve Jobs’, but trust me, it's more than its legacy. 

Writing in the 70s, Ron Rosenbaum interviews a group of proto-hackers, whose game is not personal computers, but telephones. You know those high-frequency tones you heard on landlines? Those weren’t just decoration; that was the phone instructing the operating computer. A tone of such-and-such a frequency meant ‘1’, of this-and-that frequency ‘2’, and so on. Some clever clogs realised that if the system responded to these frequencies, then surely it shouldn't matter what the frequencies came from. A whistle, maybe. A programmed blue box.

What follows is an underground society of blind proto-computer whizzes, code names like ‘Captain Crunch’, free phone calls and phone-tapping, and ‘phone phreaks’ sticking it to the Man, AKA the phone company.

At only fifty or so pages, it’s a worthwhile diversion. If you want to learn about the surprisingly old origins of hacking, check it out.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

What an Attractive (Rhetorical) Figure: A Recommendation of Farnsworth's Book of Classical English Rhetoric, by Ward Farnsworth (2011)

As I've been busy this week, I'll post a quick recommendation.

'A book on rhetoric' sounds like a tome you'd find at the back of a library, a foot thick, and in five-point font. Farnsworth to the rescue. He provides a concise guide to rhetorical techniques (or 'figures'). He illustrates each type and sub-type with multiple quotations, from Shakespeare to G. K. Chesterton to 18th-century politicians.

Half of this book's pleasure is recognition. Every other day we'll use a few of these figures, most of the time without thinking about it. That shows good rhetoric is not a fusty contortion of language better left in 19th-century classrooms. Good rhetoric is what we naturally recognise as good communication. But while we all can unwittingly dash out an epistrophe, it helps to know what an epistrophe is. Know rhetorical figures so you can strategically deploy them, rather than instinctually drop them. Know what they do, and where best to use them.

To anyone with an interest in expressing themselves well, or recognising good expression in others, I recommend this book.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Welcome to Our Drug-Tripped Wonderland: A Review of Flip Flappers Ep. 1 (2016 anime)

Flip Flappers resembles Utena with a sugar rush. I don’t mean this in terms of plot or aesthetic, but how Flip Flappers heightens reality. Like Utena, it has a post-modern umph, which, nevertheless, does not eradicate sincerity. Even putting aside its thematic dimensions, Flips Flappers is giddy fun.

Cocona cannot decide which mock exams to take. Papika is a manic pixie secret agent. Papika meteors into Cocona’s her school life, and hurls into the world of Pure Illusion. Who is Papika? Why is she here? How are these girls connected? Whether or not the show will answer these questions, this first episode sprints forward.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Who's that Girl, Up in the Sky, with Diamonds?: Review of Shade the Changing Girl #1 by Cecil Castellucci and Marley Zarcone (2016 comic)

[Spoilers for this issue]

In every rendition, Shade’s a weird series; Shade the Changing Girl carries that torch. And like its predecessors, weird is not merely weird; Shade views the world askance. Where Peter Milligan woke us to the American Scream, Castellucci opens our eyes to back-stabbing teen girls.

Avian-alien Loma idolizes Rac Shade – the Rac Shade, poet, shade agent, wearer of the madness vest. She also loves earth from afar, though earth culture was a passing fad on her planet. Stewing in adolescent aimlessness, she follows her idol’s example; she steals the madness vest, and goes walkabout on earth. She hitches a ride in the body of braindead schoolgirl, whose friends and family would prefer she remain braindead. Loma only intends to live the earthling schoolgirl life for a bit, but can she control the madness that long. 

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Weird is the New Punk: A Review of Doom Patrol #1 by Gerard Way and Nick Derington (2016 comic)

[Spoilers for this issue.]

The Anxiety of Influence is strong in this one. Here we have Gerard Way, an enthusiast and descendent of Grant Morrison’s oeuvre, writing a series Morrison defined. Leaving your mentor’s shadow is difficult enough, even when you don’t cover their songs. But have no fear, Doom Patrol #1 promises hipness and weirdness enough to rival Morrison, without aping Morrison.

No overall plot presents itself, yet. The vines have sprouted separately, but will, likely, intertwine as they grow. Our focal character, Casey Brink, bursts onto the page, swerving an ambulance. Her partner contemplates universes living in his gyro. A cyborg trudges across an alien desert. Extra-terrestrials run fast food. And what’s going on with Niles Caulder?

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Yona of the Yawn: Review of Yona of the Dawn Ep. 13-24 (2014-5 anime)

[Spoilers for the whole of Yona of the Dawn.]

I overestimated Yona of the Dawn. Watching the first half, I saw potential. Yes, the plot plodded, the character dynamics had yet to bloom, and the show lacked conflict, but the pieces were there. Alas, the writers never assembled the pieces. All they’ve given us are flat characters in emotionally leaden scenes.

As Yona has found two of the four Dragons, she is halfway to martialling a force against Soo-Won, her former-friend/betrayer. While searching for the remaining Dragons, Yona uncovers a human trafficking operation. With the help of some pirates, and a new friend, she must defeat the slavers. Meanwhile, Soo-Won visits the down-on-it’s-luck Earth Clan. 

Sunday, 25 September 2016

When Bambi Saw the Heart of Darkness: Review of Ringing Bell (1978 anime)

People think so little of children’s minds. When talking of children’s movies, any tone bleaker than perpetual cheer is ‘dark’. Into the Woods is ‘dark’. The NeverEnding Story is ‘dark’. How fragile do they think children are? No, Ringing Bell is dark. Not dark like Pixar – dark like Animal Farm. With a childlike style the movie explores the cruelty of nature.

Chirin’s mother warns him about the wolf. Chirin must never cross their pasture’s fence, for the wolf would gobble up a little lamb like him. True to his promise, Chirin stays within the pasture, but for nothing. The wolf breaks into their barn at night, slaughtering Chirin’s mother, before stealing away. Chirin vows he will train under the wolf, so, one day, he may escape the law of nature which decrees lambs must die. 

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Review: Yona of the Dawn Ep. 1-12 (2014-5 anime)

Yona of the Dawn does not prioritise excitement, nor intrigue, nor even adventure, but the show holds the viewer’s attention. The series front-loads the action and kingdom-rending politics, but those high-stakes keep to the background in the second act. Yona focuses on its growing party of adventurers and their internal struggles, at least for the first half of the series.

Yona is princess of the Kingdom of Kouka. Her two closest friends are her bodyguard, Hak, and her childhood friend, Soo-Won. Sheltered since birth, she is shattered by a coup. Soo-Won kills the King, her father, for the throne. Yona and Hak escape with their lives. To retake the kingdom, they search the Kingdom for four dragon warriors, the reincarnations of their Kingdom’s mythological founders.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Review: Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine (2012 anime)

[I will spoil large portions of the series, right up to the end.]

From the first scene where a geriatric cult-leader intoxicates his congregation by shedding white petals from his skin, we know we’re in for a weird ride. Fujiko Mine is pulp, but not trash; trippy, but not unhinged; 1970s infused, but not regressive.

We follow Fujiko Mine, cat-burglar, whose tools are deception and seduction, and whose only master is herself. Or is she? She disguises herself as a cult-leader’s wife, as mafia don’s best girl, as the governess for a royal family, as a teacher in an all-girls boarding school, but beneath these masks is there a face, or another mask? A mask not even Fujiko knows of? And who are these gentlemen in owl masks?

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Review: The Handmaiden (2016 Film)

[This review will spoil the entirety of the film. The book is fourteen years old, though.]

Sook-Hee is a Korean handmaiden to a Japanese heiress. Sook-Hee is a thief who aims to lock an heiress in an asylum to steal her fortune. Sook-Hee is the heiress’ lover. Lady Hideko is a blushing heiress, set to marry her adoptive uncle. Lady Hideko is known for her live readings of high-class pornography. Lady Hideko is an unwitting victim to a thief. Lady Hideko would put her lover in an asylum. They hide themselves from each other and from the audience.

I warned of spoilers, but spoilers couldn’t spoil this film. The enemy of most twisting narratives is foreknowledge. If the audience knows every twist, the string unknots, and all that’s left are dead shocks. Not so here. Tension in The Handmaiden comes from dramatic irony, the audience knowing more than the characters. As the audience learns each characters’ secrets, old scenes acquire new subtext. On first viewing, the audience knows Sook-Hee is fattening a sheltered heiress for the slaughter; on second viewing, the audience knows Hideko plays the ingénue to fatten Sook-Hee. Far from spoiling the film, foreknowledge increases the dramatic irony, thus the tension. 

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Review: Sweet Blue Flowers (2009 Anime)

‘Gentle’, ‘soft’, ‘tender’ – all apt words to describe Sweet Blue Flowers, yet imperfect ones. They make the show sound tepid. While this show may not boil with emotional intensity, while it may not even simmer with latent passion, one cannot say it’s tepid. It is warm, but not luk-warm. Its characters are gentle. They neither yell, nor spite each other, but not for lack of strong emotions. Its music and visuals are soft, but not saccharine. All relationships are tender, but not mawkish. This is a story about the symbiosis of half-false-loves and half-false-selves. It is slow-moving drama about characters too mature to misunderstand or despise one another. Sweet Blue Flowers trembles with empathy.

Our ensemble coming-of-age story begins with Fumi discovering her cousin is marrying a man. She feigns sickness to avoid the wedding. Fumi’s cousin, her first lover, has abandoned her love. Still-standing, but aimless, Fumi crushes on a Princely girl, Sugimoto; and Sugimoto seems to reciprocate. But just as Fumi’s heartbreak guides her lovelorn grasping, so too does Sugimoto’s. 

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Review: Claudine at School, by Colette (1900)

‘Yes, they used to tell me, when I was little, that I had a grown-up person’s eyes; later it was eyes that were “not quite respectable”: you can’t please everyone and yourself as well. I prefer to please myself first of all…’ 
-pg. 254

How quaint to see what was once considered mischief. Time has outpaced the shock accompanying Claudine’s first publishing. The worst ‘crimes’, ‘excesses’, or ‘indecencies’ within the novel peak at insolence, physical torment, and a bite of bisexuality. The modern eye smirks, it smiles, but it does not recoil in scandal. To be fair, however, I doubt Colette aimed to write sensationalism. 

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Review: Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002 Film)

[Slight spoiler warning: vague references to events after the midpoint.]

Ryu is a deaf-mute and fired factory-worker living with his sister. She needs a kidney which he cannot donate. Finding an advertisement in a public toilet, he pays for a kidney on the black market with his severance package, and his own incompatible kidney. Now that the hospitable has miraculously acquired a kidney, Ryu finds he has no money left to pay for the transfer. He and his girlfriend concoct an obvious plan-B: They will kidnap his old boss’s daughter for twenty-six million won.

Looking at my Madman/Eastern Eye DVD after watching, it amuses me how misleading it is.

Look at that. A man strangling another, about to stab him in the face, overlaid with a scratched-metal title design. ‘Hard boiled,’ raves Uncut. ‘Bites your head off,’ screams Screen International. They advertise the film as a grimy splatter-fest, where bloody bodies stab and bludgeon other bloody bodies in for rip-roaring revenge. And, yes, the film is violent, and dark, with visceral moments – but most often it’s blackly deadpan. A tragedy told as absurdist comedy.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson (1962)

[Light spoilers ahead. All page references from the Popular Penguin edition.]

‘I am walking on their bodies, I thought, we are having lunch in the garden and Uncle Julian is wearing his shawl.’
-pg. 10

Shirley Jackson cut a rare gem with We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Gothic and modern in style and content, the novella is a unique aesthetic and psychological object which does not stumble in its progression. Written with simple diction and syntax, the prose is like a dark pond, seen in just the right light, such that the waters seem infinitely deep. Our narrator, viewing the world through Grimm eyes, covers us in her skin.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Review: Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936 Film)

Spoiler Warning: Half-way comes a twist which both changes the film’s genre, and also, in my opinion, makes the film worth watching. In order to say what I liked and what I didn’t I will have to reveal the second act twist. You have been warned. 

Mr Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) is a simple and eccentric man. Never has he left his home of Mandrake Falls. He writes poetry for greeting cards, and plays the tuba while thinking. When his uncle’s attorney drops an inheritance worth millions into his lap, Mr Deeds is rushed to New York. As soon as he arrives vultures descend, jealous relatives, greedy attorneys, snobbish opera managers, and all the gilded scum the Big City spawns. But his greatest enemy may just be a gal reporter (Jean Arthur), determined to get the scoop on this wide-eyed millionaire.

Comedy has the shelf-life of a sliced apple. After 80 years browning, Mr Deeds Goes to Town is at most edible. Nowadays the film doesn’t play as a romantic comedy; it’s more a light-hearted romance. Drama, for whatever reason, endures. Halfway through the film the genre shifts to drama, and, so doing, safeguards its longevity.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Review: The Scarlet Empress (1934 Film)

[Warning, general, but not specific, spoilers ahead. This is history, though. Not very accurate history, but history.]

Sofia Frederica (Marlene Dietrich), an aristocratic ingénue, is manipulated into marrying the Grand Duke of Russia (Sam Jaffe), a madman beholden to his dictatorial mother, Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser). In Sofia the Empress sees only a vessel to serve Russian civilisation and culture. She forces Sofia to throw away her past life, and take on Russian ways. She changes Sofia’s name to the Russian ‘Catherine’, converts her to the Russian Orthodox Church, and commands her to bear a Russian son. But from her ruin she will become Catherine the Great.

From its first scenes the film luxuriates in the macabre and themes of lost innocence. As a child Sofia (Maria Riva) is read Russia’s bloody history as a bedtime tale. Cut to a rapid montage of governmental carnage. Smash cut to a now adult Sofia on a garden swing, kicking into the camera. 

Monday, 11 January 2016

Review: Farewell, My Queen (2012 Film)

Three days before the ancien regime’s fall, Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux) acts as the personal reader of Marie-Antoinette (Diane Kruger). Although a servant, her life at Versailles is comfortable, and offers her intimacy with her beloved Queen. In the following days she witnesses Versailles’ foundations devoured by the Revolution.

This is a story of the French Revolution, but it does not focus on violence. It foreshadows death and destruction, of course. The aristocrats know the populace want their heads, and they fear the Third Estate may well get their desire. But this death and destruction lays in the future, beyond the three day scope of this film. At most, violence erupts off-screen.