Sunday, December 20, 2015

Masterpost: Foreign Television Series

I wanted to change things up a this month. Having posted to this blog for nearly two and a half years on all sorts of foreign films, I thought it was about time to review some television shows. Why? So glad you asked:
  1. I have a personal preference toward TV series as they intrinsically have more time to plumb the depths (I use idioms now) of their created universes. There are of course many instances where cliffhangers and ambiguity can do a story wonders, but I am usually partial to fuller pictures.
  2. They tend to have multiple writers and directors, so each episode has the chance to try on a new pair of shoes. Sure, now and then a particular writer goes way too far off the rails, but change is the spice of life. (Oh man. I'm actually kind of ashamed of that last one.)
  3. Lately, a lot of shows have the same production value as big blockbuster hits.While they have always been able to mix genres more easily than specifically-marketed Hollywood flicks, the increase in budget flow for this art form has allowed the medium to shed almost all remaining constraints.
  4. The characters. This might tie into the fact that shows have such rich scripts and longer, overarching plots, but it's undeniable that if a writer or an actor wants a character to grow and become fully realized, they must turn to a career in television. Audiences invest extra emotion when following a narrative if its characters share an entire journey with them. It's consciousness substitution, up to a certain point. Anyway, if given enough time any member of the cast can become incredibly compelling. And to compel is the main point of storytelling.
  5. Title sequences. This is purely a guilty pleasure. I flippin' love opening credits, from their song selection to their font choice. Brit telly tends to have the best, but many Netflix Originals have awesome ones, as well.
Damn straight I do.

Because there are so many shows out there, I had to give myself some criteria to pare down my choices. Yay! Another list! Each show...
  • could not have coloured mine eyes before I decided to do this post (therefore excluding any I've seen more than three months ago)
  • had to come out of Western Europe, including Scandinavia
    • none should overlap with another show from the same country (spinoffs excluded)
  • could not have English as a first language (sorry UK & Ireland)
    • must be subtitled, not dubbed
  • needed to be available on Netflix for high-quality streaming (promise that I'm not sponsored, I simply did not want to trudge through dodgy stream sites with crappy load times and zero HD options)
Also note that, while some shows have numerous seasons, I only watched the ones on Netflix. Again I plead quality-snobbery, but it also has to do with the amount of time I had before this December deadline.

Let's do this. [The shows are listed in the order that I watched them, savvy?]

Gran Hotel (Spanish, 2011-2013, 3 seasons)
This show is oft described as the Downton Abbey of Spain (just compare their posters), but really it is far more intriguing. I liked the first few seasons of DA just as much as the next American yearning for a taste of early twentieth century England, but holy crap that stuff got dry fast. Gran Hotel, on the other hand, centers around a murder mystery (or two...or ten). It might be the Masterpiece Mystery in my blood, but I was instantly hooked. Sure there are plenty of plot holes (some of which are pretty major), and it's fairly obvious that some parts of series two and three were written on the fly, but—surprisingly—the intricacies are not too knotted so as to be convoluted. Rather, they are a nice leveler between some of the brilliantly built-up action sequences and other, less engaging scenes laden with exposition.

Because it comes out of Spain, there are touches of la telenovela which give the series a nice cultural flair for the dramatic. Highlight: Everyone is super slap-happy, which is FANTASTIC. While there are definitely instances of machismo, the male characters are certainly not afraid to show their emotions, be it hurt confusion or flat-out despair. The series gets major points for that, in my book. Direction: beautiful. Costuming: exquisite. Comedic aspects: on point. Historical awesomeness: pretty awesome—origins of forensic science FTW! Villainy: a tad hokey at times, but not terrible. Romance between our two protagonists: too precious for this world. This is in my top two of the eight series I set out to review. Soap operas (and shows with similar elements) really sink their claws into ya'.

Alicia + Julio 4EVA <3

Salamander (Belgian, 2012-2013, 1 season)
Ho boy. This one is a doozy. Let's start with the good: it's pretty. They sure didn't spare any expense on that camera! It captures crisp, well-coloured shots. Those flashback scenes are certainly distinguishable, what with the sepia filter. Umm...that's about it, unfortunately. A private bank gets robbed, and it turns out that this über secret organization of elites (called Salamander) had a bunch of incriminating evidence stored in numerous safety deposit boxes at said bank. Lead character Inspector Gerardi comes into the picture, and his life goes to shit when he tries to interfere. It simply isn't compelling, especially on a scene-by-scene basis. Every single female is sidelined (sometimes literally) so that Gerardi can play the hardened badass and go head-to-head with the baddies. 'Now it's personal' is a tired concept, to say the least.

As if that were not boring enough, absolutely nothing is left up to interpretation as some of the characters actually sit down and spell things out for the viewer on multiple occasions, playing the unnecessary part of episode recapper. Even the aforementioned flashbacks are both uninteresting and too many. Also, why would anyone store compromising information in a safety deposit box in the first place? Destroy that shit ASAP, foo'! Let's say for argument's sake that they had a good reason. We then have to ask why every flippin' member of Salamander would use the same bloody bank. -_- It is never a good sign when a show's premise is illogical. When at last it turns out that the person who stole from Salamander in the first place did so to settle a personal vendetta, I was already bored to death. Maybe everyone else was, too, and that's is why Netflix has now removed the show from its website.

A mystery that fails to be mysterious is the worst. Snore...

Spiral (AKA Engrenages, French, 2005-2014, 5 seasons).
Sweet baby J, please put the fifth season on Netflix! [+ the sixth whenever it comes out] This series and its cast feel so real, something which I attribute to great scripts and excellent acting. As a criminal investigation show I did not expect much from Spiral, but it manages to be infinitely interesting in that it follows not only a Parisian police force but the barristers and judges who then deal with the criminal element after they have been processed. It is gritty at times, refusing to shy away from darker human elements without getting hung up on tropey after-school-special storylines. All recurring characters play a major role in the unfolding of events with each thread leading to suspenseful, oftentimes heartbreaking conclusions. Another bonus is that the series has an explicit French vibe—an important cultural link which Salamander lacks. Not much else to say other than get your marathonin' chair ready, 'cause you won't be able to stop watching once you start.

Complex relationships help make Spiral feel authentic.
Also, Tintin is such a bae.

Rita (Danish, 2012-2015, 3 seasons)
Following the life of the eponymous school teacher with a rebel attitude, I found this show kinda meh. Subject matter and even the way it is filmed yo-yos between light/fluffy and the extreme/somber, including bits on drug abuse, teen pregnancy and abortion, gay pride v. harassment, et cetera. Oddly, though, the series merely wets its toes with those topics rather than delving beneath the surface and emerging with any serious commentary. That said, it is still wholly enjoyable for what it is even if the viewer can see the plot coming a mile away.

There are a few inconsistencies, too, such as Rita's family—a huge part of both seasons one and two—all but disappearing off the face of the earth in season three with no explanation as to why. This sort of thing would not normally irk me, only Rita's relationship with her kids is integral to her character. Dunno though. Perhaps I am just bitter that my grade school did not have a huge pile of bean bags in the common room, but I like to think that I would hold the American school system rather than a fictional series accountable for such an oversight. At any rate, Rita is crazy popular in Denmark—enough so that it has a Dutch remake called Tessa that began airing last month. Think I'll skip it.

Not much character growth, despite claims otherwise.

Hjørdis (Danish, 2015, 1 season)
Since Rita is fairly short, I decided to give its spinoff a bash. One word: regrets. D'you remember the Friends spinoff, Joey? The creators took a fan-favourite character and gave him a show of his own...which utterly tanked. While some characters do great in the background, that does not give them an automatic license to come to the forefront and do even better. Hjørdis is the same way. Sweet, awkwardly funny Hjørdis takes on a troupe of quirky loner kids to help them put on a play, facing down a group of bullies and bureaucracy from on high. There are corny slow-motions scenes, eyeroll-worthy montages, and a strange theme of 'special kids' that, for whatever reason, was also present in Rita. 'cause, you know, only unique kids deserve a teacher's full attention. Anyway, this spinoff is as awful as it sounds. (Worse, even.) Luckily, there are only four episodes, each one shorter than those in the original series...praise be to Cthulhu.

Uffe, Hjørdis' beau, is another character who just up & vanishes.

Hinterland (Welsh, 2014-2015, 2 seasons)
OK, so I cheated. The spoken language in Hinterland is technically English, but those Welsh accents are so darn difficult to understand at times that you practically require subtitles to get through an entire episode. (I jest! I simply wanted to watch this series. ;P) That aside, this show is pretty good. It has that austere, British murder mystery feel to it that I love to pieces. It actually reminds me a lot of Broadchurch. For starters, each of them are set in a picturesquely pastoral/coastal place that is prone to hiding dark secrets and grisly homicides. They also both star broody, male protagonists who are attempting to atone for something in their murky pasts while their slightly-more-plucky right hand women struggle to keep them on the straight and narrow.

The main difference between the two (apart from a distinct lack of David Tennant) is that Hinterland has about half the number of episodes per season (though their runtime is slightly longer). More importantly, they consist of multiple investigations rather than just one overarching story. This series also works at a much slower pace—something I found reminiscent of Branagh's Wallander. This is especially true when considering the long shots of the surrounding countryside and cliff faces. Foregoing comparison to other shows, though, Hinterland features a building narrative, multilayered characters, and some batshit crazy culprits. Again I beg Netflix to add the most recent season sooner than later.

Gorgeous direction paired with an eerie atmosphere equates to one winning formula.
Picspam captured by me.

Generation War (AKA Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter, German, 2013, 1 season)
Go figure that one of the only German-made television show I could find on Netflix has to do with WWII. >_> Anyhow, Generation War follows the lives of five young friends from the beginning to the end of the Great War as told from 'the other side'. One is a Jew (again, go figure), another his girlfriend who remains in Germany and struggles on the home front. The third becomes a nurse while the last two are brothers who head to the front line and end up fighting against the Soviet Union. Firstly, let me say that there are soooo many films about this period in history that they all take on a relatively similar cadence. It can be difficult to generate a fresh take: I get it, that's totally fine. Also note that, in the interest of political correctness and an attempt to gain sympathy for those who fought, this show is hardly historically accurate. Eh, that's also fine, since every other piece on the subject—German or American or whatever else—does the same thing. That does not excuse the level of cheese I had to wade through whilst watching this, though.

Yes, the action sequences, direction, and post-production work surpass even that of Band of Brothers. Yes, for the most part the acting is superb, but painting a picture that casts all five leads in the best light possible is, quite frankly, dishonest. For example, the creators somehow thought that it would be a smart move to create tension between Viktor and the Polish resistance by portraying the latter as a band of ultra violent, anti-semitic assholes. What? It's about war, it's going to be depressing, and perhaps I was not in the right frame of mind when I started this miniseries, but I can definitely understand why there has been some controversy around it even when abstaining from the nonsensical view of 'it's German | they're German | they were the bad guys | how dare they | 'murica fuck yeaaaa'. It will always be a tad difficult with semi-nonfictive works to take them for what they are: glossified entertainment. There is nothing inherently wrong with that; I simply find it inauthentic and corny.

War. War never changes.
(Fallout 4 was just released, so I kind of had to.)

Wallander (Swedish, 2005-2013, 3 seasons)
It was mentioned earlier that I really like Kenneth Branagh's version of Wallander based on the lately deceased Henning Mankell's series of novels of the same name. Though I ashamedly have not read any of the books, I still appreciate the severely depressed protagonist and the small, coastal town where he carries out his work as an investigative police officer. While Branagh's show has an all-English cast, it is still convincingly set in the town of Ystad and does not, in fact, feel super British. There are actually two Swedish portrayals of the same character (both of which preceded the BBC drama), so I chose to watch Krister Henriksson's more recent adaptation. Much to my annoyance, Netflix only carries seasons two and three, but because of that very fact there is not a lot of overlap between the mysteries I had already seen, so it worked out well enough.

Both variations have a similar episode length, melodramatic scenes, strong female characters, and—of course—the same obsessive detective. The similarities diverge after that. Henriksson plays a moody Kurt Wallander, one who does not get along too well with his colleagues. Those colleagues, however, get a lot more airtime and play a larger part than those in Branagh's which seems to be focused much more sharply on Kurt himself. Both versions of the man have pretty crappy personal lives, but that emotion seems rawer when Branagh plays the part. The direction is stark, though still scenic and beautiful, and it gives a sense of human psychology that is oftentimes not present in Henriksson's interpretation...although it is worth mentioning that his gives the audience a better sense of resolution at the end of each episode (something that helps the viewer to cope with all the dark shit that went on throughout and lends enough strength to watch the following installment). It is Nordic Noir, so ya gotta expect things to be bleak—it comes with the territory. After watching the available episodes, I still prefer Branagh's but am very glad that I watched Henriksson's for his stimulating take on such a great character and, obviously, the 'new' mysteries.

The actors even look alike.

Because of my 'no overlap' rule, I did not get a chance to watch other foreign shows like Borgen, The BridgeRomanzo CriminaleThe KillingBraquoThe Eagle, et cetera. I reeeeeally wanted to, though! Who knows—I may write future posts on those if I ever manage to reach them on my intimidatingly long 'to-be-watched' list. Touching on series from other parts of the world would be cool, too. Until then, I hope you enjoyed this rather lengthy post. Let me know in the comments below if you have watched or plan on watching any of these series, as I would love to hear your take on them. Cheers!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Storytelling: Léolo

"Awaking from the kingdom of dreams is brutal. I'm an early riser."
Leo Lauzon

I recently visited Niagara Falls & Toronto and thought that it would be cool to do a post on a Canadian-made film. It was going to be The Sweet Hereafter, but since it takes place in a fictional New York community, I decided to go for a more locally-flavoured film...which is why I landed on Léolo. Spoilers: this movie is CRAZY. Like, legitimately coo-coo banana pants. Made in 1992 by writer/director Jean-Claude Lauzon (the Frenchiest of French-Canadian names!), the story centers around Leo Lauzon: a young, linguistically talented boy living in the "squalid Montreal tenement" of Mile End with his lunatic family. The film deals largely with escapism and the thinly etched border between genius and insanity. That sounds all well and good, sure, but the directorial choices and narrative decisions make Léolo one bizarre tale.

No official rating, so I recommend 'R' as it contains plenty of adult material.

To deal with his family and their less-than-sane tendencies, Leo places himself into a fiction of his own creation. In it, he is the son of an Italian tomato farmer rather than a working-class industrialist who obsesses over bowel movements; he is a deep-sea treasure hunter instead of the victim of an attempted drowning at the hands of his grandfather; he is brother to an insectile queen, not a little girl fascinated with bugs. Leo—or, as he prefers to be called, Léolo—writes down all of his adventures before crumpling them up and tossing them away. They are all inevitably retrieved by the 'Word Tamer', i.e., an elderly acquaintance who the young boy rather tellingly sees as a reincarnated Don Quixote. In reality, Word Tamer is little more than an innocent voyeur who collects people's trash, reads their letters, and looks at their photographs in order to 'keep them alive' before burning the remains.

Despite his polluted genes, Léolo does not see himself as insane. Rather, he distances himself from his family and uses his written words as a sort of soft cushion between his understanding of the world and its grim realities. He wishes to be in a different place, so he puts himself there in his mind's eye. For example, whenever the object of his boyish desire—beautiful neighbor Bianca—sings, he imagines a door opening into a sunny Italian city. He is able to experience this metaphysical transportation, too, whenever he scribbles down his thoughts...though, as time goes on, he finds the act more and more difficult to achieve as he runs into the insurmountable dilemma of diminishing returns.

Looking out onto an imagined landscape of Tuscan villas.

Sometimes the audience is not kept abreast of when the story takes a turn toward the theoretical. In once instance, the narrator tells us that "My family had become characters in a fiction," and later proceeds to relate how his older brother, Fernand, changed from a scrawny, bullied kid into a muscle-builder. This transformation does actually take place (maybe) and occurs in a single revolving shot, showing Fernand working out with weights before magically turning into a suspiciously uncanny lookalike of the model on the cover of his prized fitness magazines. It is entirely possible that this all has to do with perception, since Léolo wants to believe that "So tall I will be on my brother's shoulders." The strength aspect is purely physical, though, as Fernand is much too cowardly to take on his bully even with the added brawn. It is at this point that Léolo's admiration for his brother extinguishes. This in turn makes it more difficult for him to place faith in his own stories.

Another reason as to why the audience should be
slightly incredulous concerning Fernand's sudden beefiness:
Léolo does not visibly age from the beginning to the end of the metamorphosis.

As Léolo's life starts to take its toll and—as mentioned earlier—he can no longer easily meet the solitude of his dreams, things begin to take a dark turn. No one knows about his talent apart from the Word Tamer who tries to advocate for the child by talking to his teachers (alas, to no avail). Limited by circumstance and blaming his sick grandfather for his fate, little Léolo tries to assuage his frustration by attempting to murder the old man. Things...backfire. Understandably, the boy's number one fear is being placed in the institution where nearly all of his family member are forced to reside, so he begins to contemplate a more fitting end.

Being a kid is confusing enough without having to deal with a turkey in the bathtub, so Léolo's decision to commit suicide makes a certain amount of sense. Disagree? Listen: One day when he was helping his brother collect recyclables to sell at the local plant, Léolo stumbled across a broken record. He knew it would never play again, but he kept it anyway because he loved the image on the sleeve. Later, toward the end of his life, he finds a sliver of record that perfectly matches the missing chunk. Finally, he would be able to hear the music—to make the record whole., he couldn't. Even though he had all the parts, the object had still been broken beyond repair. He could not very well glue something like that back into place and expect it to work just like new. It was already too late. [Obvious metaphor is obvious.]

Léolo occupies the scene of the crime in a last-ditch attempt to climb his way out of his life.

Jeez. That's dark. Maybe there is a happier ending, though. Léolo's nightmare is realized when he fails to kill himself, instead simply going into a catatonic state and winding up as a vegetable in the sanitorium. "Fuck me sideways, Rachel! That's not any bloody happier!" Hmm, well, maybe not based solely upon outward appearances. Léolo has a mantra: "Because I dream, I am not." This is based on L'Avalée des avalés by Quebec-based playwright/novelist Réjean Ducharme, who is best known for early works that involve themes relating to the "rejection of the adult world by children." In the film, Léolo stumbles across a copy of 'The Swallower Swallowed' and forms a fixation upon it despite the fact that the words reach well beyond his level of comprehension. With this in mind, it cannot be too far fetched to imagine that Léolo is able to achieve peace when locked inside his own mind. Without any awareness of the mad world around him he is free to explore the annals of his unconscious being. It's better than being dead, in some views.

The Word Tamer left his copy of the book at Léolo's home, unwittingly affecting the boy's future.

For further information:

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Mythology in Movies: Cronos

It's October, and we all know what that means—☠ spook-tacular ☠ moooooovies! (Ugh. No. That is awful. Let's forget I just used that term and move on.)

Man oh man! *slaps knee* Can you believe that it's been an entire year since this post on The Devil's Backbone? Whew! Where did the time go? That's actually a fairly pertinent question given this post's topic: Guillermo del Toro's Cronos, or, more specifically, imagery in the film that symbolizes time and what that has to do with myth-telling. The story friggin' starts with a chiming clock and leads into an XCU of grinding gears so, yeah, I would say we've got a solid base.


Rated R for horror violence and for language.

What's in a name? (I'm in the mood for terribly clichéd phrases today. Hopefully it passes.) 'Cronos', also spelled as 'Chronos' from the Greek, is the ancient philosophical personification of time. He is usually portrayed as an old man with a beard. This description parallels that of lead character Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi, Dr. Casares in TDB), who is an elderly antique dealer with a 'stache white as snow (nope—still clichén' it up in here). In some creation myths, the god and his serpent companion circled the world egg with their coils, cracking it apart to form a more orderly form of the universe. Also of note is that, according Orphism, Chronos is said to have produced a big, silvery egg in the Aether. From this egg emerged Phanes, the deity of procreation who made the cosmos and birthed all first gen. gods. No biggie. I bring this up because eggs are another symbol closely tied to time in Cronos.

Eggs in little silver holders can be seen on the fridge door.
The white bandage around Gris's hand is held together with similar silver clips.

We've got good ol' Father Time. We've got eggs with shiny bits. We've got a dressed hand that was recently bloodied by the Cronos device, which is itself a sort of egg containing a weird...bug...thing. What is going to emerge from Gris's injury? His lust for life, it would seem. Some things remain unclear—ambiguity is something viewers love in Del Toro's works. Is Gris actually transformed into a vampire, or is he is some other kind of undead creature? One thing is definitely apparent, though: the dude needs blood to survive. Luckily for him, De la Guardia and his nephew Angel provide more than enough of the sanguineous stuff.

Put that last thought on hold for a sec, because the lesson in allegorical theory isn't over yet. (Trust me, it will all tie together. Just hang in there.) Chronos is oftentimes confused with the Greek Titan Cronus/Kronos, though—today—some argue that the two were once thought to be one in the same. At any rate, "Cronus represented the destructive ravages of time which consumed all things," something which is made obvious by the consumption of his children (the young being ravaged by the old, for those failing to grasp the metaphorical implication). In the film, Angel loathes his uncle and eventually deals the life-sucking scoundrel the killing blow, saying, "You've made me wait long enough." I posit that this mimics the Olympians overthrowing their father during the Titanomachy. Once freed from his stomach by their brother Zeus, they all took Cronus down much like he did his own father. In most versions, his is an unhappy fate.

See? We got through it. Together! ;-)

Further 'proof' that the two gods are actually one lies in Cronus' main symbols, namely the sickle and the scythe. Father Time—whom I mentioned earlier—is inextricably bound to Death, and both are usually pictured with a reaping tool. Our concept of Papa Past-Present-Future stems from none other than Chronos.

Gris passes behind some dude dressed up as a clock at a New Year's Eve party.
Subtility is for chumps, right Del Toro?

Almost all portrayals of immortality in both age-old fables and modern-day fiction are pessimistic. Sure, it sounds great in the short-run: you never die and—usually—get to stay young forever. The catch? Everyone around you fades away. They grow old while you are forced to watch them and the rest of the world wither away into nothingness. If you're a vampire or something similar, you might have a coven (Underworld) or a biker gang (The Lost Boys) or even some schoolgirls to take as possum-eating brides (The Monster Squad), but you've still got to drink the blood of others to survive, and that kinda sucks (bad puns as well as clichés, yikes). If you're a zombie, you're not really you so much as brain-dead. Angels are tossers, demons don't have souls, and...hey! A lot of these guys can actually be killed, be it with wooden stakes, machetes, exorcism, et cetera. Point being, immortality is not all it's cracked up to be. Del Toro's take on it in Cronos is no exception. There is something organic powering the Cronos device just as humans are living, breathing time bombs. You can keep things ticking only for so long before the consequences begin to outweigh the benefits.

Yeah, you can live forever, but what kind of existence would that be?
No one wants to live like organ-missing, drug-pumped De la Gaurdia in his isolated factory.

Back to eggs for a moment...there are some crazy things out there about egg myths. One I remember in particular has to do with the French folktale Bluebeard by one of this blog's favourite authors, Charles Perrault! If you want a nice (and humorous) summarization of the story, check out fable expert Dael Kingsmill's Bloody Bluebeard video on YouTube that she posted last Halloween. Anyway, toward the end of a variation of the story called Fitcher's Bird, big bad Bluebeard tells his wife never to go into this one particular room in their castle. Before he goes on some errand or another, he gives her an egg to hold onto whilst he's away. Seems like a dandy request, so she agrees to carry it around. Once he leaves, she of course enters the forbidden chamber, and what she sees inside shocks her so much that she drops the egg onto the floor. It gets completely coated in blood. Insert somewhat tired observation about the whiteness of eggs representing virginity and how the blood in turn symbolizes a break from said purity, blah blah blah blah...oh! Look! A screencap from Cronos highlighting my point in a slightly-vague-though-not-totally-far-fetched way!

The marble floor looks like a cracked egg, you say?
Why yes...yes it does, doesn't it?
You could say the same of Gris's second skin, all soft and the colour of alabaster.

Perrault seems to have influenced Del Toro on more than just one flick. Gris's granddaughter, Aurora (Tamara Shanath), is oftentimes seen wearing red clothing (her rain jacket even has a red hood). Given that she is Miss Creepy McCreepster, I am definitely not as convinced of her innocence as I am of Little Red Riding Hood's...but she is still a child and the driving force behind Gris's grisly actions. Del Toro would certainly want to draw attention to these facts, and did so—at least in part—through very deliberate choices in costume design.

Possibly the most psychologically scarred little girl on the planet.

This onion just keeps on a'peelin', but I will draw this post to a close. Viewing Del Toro's fairy tale/horror trilogy last to first was a grand adventure; it is one that will continue to give me nightmares for years to come. *cough*paleman*cough* Hopefully you learned something new from this jumble—feel free to leave a comment if you have any insights to share! Happy Halloween, and suo tempore.

Gris falls from grace in front of a giant clock face. *whispers* Suuuuubtleeeetyyy!

For further information:

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Foreign v. Hollywood: Memoirs of a Geisha

My friend Maggie leant me her copy of Memoirs of a Geisha a couple of months ago—a book I have been looking forward to reading since a guest presenter gave a lecture on geisha for a Japan-centric HUM course during my final semester at Alverno. What sparked my interest was that, while it is a historical novel based on research and interviews, MoaG is also a work of fiction written by an American author (Arthur Golden).

The presenter was a little vague about why he personally did not like this particular work, but he did make it clear that "geisha are performers, not prostitutes." Consider my interest piqued. I had very little previous knowledge of geisha—or even of Japan during & after the Meiji period—but neither had I thought to equate them with workers in the sex industry. It was then that I added MoaG to my summer reading list and have since found that it is a well-written story that offers some accurate historical insight into the lifestyle of geisha during the early to mid-1900s despite the fact that it is written from a western perspective.

This is not a book review, though. No matter my feelings about the novel's (albeit somewhat limited) usefulness in the understanding and analysis of a foreign social culture—or indeed the many challenges made to particular 'creative' assertions made by Golden after his work was published—the movie needs to be seen in its own light. My major reason? Memoirs of a Geisha is an American movie, filmed mostly on American soil using Hollywood sets. It was based on an American screenplay which was then shot by an American director and produced by a bunch of, you guessed it: Americans. Also, for whatever reason, the casting crew thought that it was a brilliant idea to have Chinese actresses take on the three lead female roles. Like nobody would notice. 'murica.

Does that mean it is not worth anybody's time to watch? Surprisingly, no.

Rated PG-13 for mature subject matter and some sexual content.

There are a few differences between the book and the film, as always. For instance, the latter did not go in-depth into Chiyo's childhood, the loss of her virginity/mizuage, or the immediate aftermath of the Baron's molestation. Also, Chiyo's transformation into a full-blown geisha was literally montage'd. Apart from those things (and a lot of skimming through Japanese history and tradition not directly related to geisha), the film did a fairly decent job relating the original story. Still, keep in mind that this is Hollywood, where things are made to look both glitzy and sensational. America is rather odd when it comes to censorship, i.e., violence generally seems to be okay while nudity and sex—the tasteful variety—have been viewed with negative bias until more recent years.

As I just mentioned, certain scenes of a more sexual nature were glossed over completely on-screen. This is definitely not so in the book where geisha like Hatsumomo are made to look promiscuous, and Sayuri is instructed to put her body on offer should she or her onesan deem it necessary. In the movie, Hatsumomo's liaisons with the local lads are made to look a bit more heartwarming ("She loved once. She hoped once.") and Sayuri is shown as a victim of her circumstances—perhaps justly so—rather than as an engaged player. Her written counterpart, however, comes off as being a bit more wise to the world and is less at the mercy of the men in her life due to long-term scheming and subtle emotional manipulation. 

Mameha teaching Chiyo/Sayuri a traditional fan dance.

There is obviously more to the movie than how it differentiates from the novel. It is important to look at the accuracy of both given their popularity, meaning that they "likely shaped western perspectives." Also note, however, that the film especially can be useful as a teaching tool because it reached such a wide audience—likely one much larger than the book's readership. Such works obviously have to be viewed with caution, as they are often confined to showing a single perspective and sometimes have to leave out out important contextual material. All the same, I personally found it helpful to view the film. Coming from the U.S., it was challenging to picture a few things mentioned in the the book, such as time-honoured tea ceremonies, ritualistic dances, foreign musical instruments, et cetera. (This was after I had already taken several courses in Eastern culture throughout my academic career.) Coming equipped to see this film with some background information and a general understanding of the impact of global perspectives, I felt secure in my appreciation of what MoaG had to offer.

Mother and Mameha discussing business over tea.

In the end, so long as the audience is armed with some preliminary info. about Japanese culture around the time of WWII and can figure out that one movie does not represent the singular truth (esp. when it is a fictive autobiography), then there is no reason as to why MoaG cannot be an advantageous viewing experience. Unfortunately, the above criteria is not usually taken into account, as it is rare that people go out to the cinema for its historical acuity. Even then, though, MoaG is not so blatantly wrong that viewers going in with absolutely no familiarity with the subject matter would be somehow irrevocably mislead or 'damaged' by watching it. All told, the film features an impactful story with some beautiful choices in direction (dance scene, Imma lookin' at'choo!). It gets a solid recommendation from this viewer.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Colour & Mixed Media: Hector and the Search for Happiness

Based on French novelist François Lelord's work entitled Le voyage d'Hector ou la recherche de bonheur, this film follows the life of an unfulfilled psychiatrist as he travels the world (well, a few countries) in search ofyou guessed ithappiness. While I am a huge fan of Simon Pegg (who takes on the titular lead), the story itself lacks a lasting emotional impact while the characters are stereotypical to the point of distraction. The latter qualm could be explained away via an argument for the 'clever' incorporation of archetypes, but such a move—if even it was the intention—simply did not hit home. The entire thing felt a bit too much like a whimsical version of Eat, Pray, Love...a novel which I detest that obviously did not improve my estimation. Still, as with any movie, this one has its merits. The usage of colour caught my attention from the very beginning when the opening shot displays a bright yellow bi-plane soaring through a sky filled with puffy, white clouds. This plane represents happiness in its purest form and, as various forces bring the plane down, so too do obstacles get in the way of Hector's ability to achieve that dream.

"Yellow...[is] associated with joy, happiness, intellect, and energy."
Color Wheel Pro

A photograph of Hector hugging his ex-girlfriend, Agnes (Toni Collette).
Agnes wears yellow; Hector believes that she is his only true source of happiness.

Hector sits opposite his current girlfriend, Clara (Rosamund Pike).
The vase of yellow flowers acts as a barrier between them.

A yellow train passes through a town someplace in Africa,
a place the film paints as shot through with only transient moments of happiness.

As I kept note of other instances of yellow when watching Hector and the Search for Happiness, I also noticed the periodic injections of mixed mediasomething which was more than welcome given the combination of the storybook theme and the part played by the art journal Hector uses to track his progress.

Hector leaves a Buddhist temple in China.
The dog—a dead pet—crops up from time to time...the symbolism is a tad vague.

Lots of plane trips!
I'd probably be happier if I could afford to fly off to multiple continents on a whim. -_-

Cute lil' globe-trotter, a home movie, and a purposefully crude collage.
(Yes, I now possess the power to gif. Mwahaha!)

Much like the home movie effect in the previous image,
this screencap displays a decoupage filter that gives off an air of nostalgia.

Line art of Hector's 'dog of the mind'. Beatific. :P

OK, so the movie wasn't terrible. The art director saved it by introducing a few elements of visual creativity that serve to capture the audience's attention long enough to carry them scene-to-scene. Still, I cannot recommend HatSfH in good conscience, even with my limitless love for Pegg. Sorry, bae. </3

Friday, July 10, 2015

Coming soon...

Keep an eye out for these future posts!

July 2015: I'm taking a vacation!
The first since I started this blog. ;-)
Real-life work is a bit hectic, so I thought it was a good month to go on a short hiatus.
See you in August!

August 2015: Hector and the Search for Happiness

September 2015: Memoirs of a Geisha

October 2015: Cronos

November 2015: open to suggestions

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Costuming & Makeup: Nosferatu

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (or, Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror) was a silent horror film made by German director F.W. Murnau in 1922. Based on Bram Stoker's Dracula, the story goes as follows: This creepy, bald antagonist named Count Orlok is kind of moping about the place with his, ahem, 'interesting' fashion sense and overly long, talon-like fingers when he decides to get his stalk on for Ellen, the wife of real estate agent Hutter. Not cool, dude. Hutter was just trying to secure a home for yo' pasty white ass and you had the gall to be all up on his girl like the blood-sucking, undead vampire you are. -_- What a dude.

Clearly, Orlok photographs just as beautifully as I do.

To portray such a vile creature, producer/production designer Albin Grau had his work cut out for him...or did he? According to one (albeit unknown) source, Max Shreck—the actor who portrayed Nosferatu—had an "innate gaunt and emaciated frame...[he] has the suitably hungry and predatory appearance that one might expect of a vampire." While Grau was the one to dream up the elongated fingers and popping eyes, back in the day most silent film actors had to apply their own makeup. It is possible that Shreck himself placed his own bald cap, applied putty around the nose, added ear extensions and fangs, used spirit gum to incorporate tufts of hair around gangly eyebrows, and utilized grease paint to give himself a deathly pale sheen.

"You raaaaaang...?"

Costuming is also important, especially since visual elements mean so much in silent films; they affect the entire mood of the piece. Orlok is a count, and his fancy coat not only marks his station but lends a certain 'gravedigger-esque' appeal. (It was very in that season, I assure you.) The slightly raised shoulder pads promote a vision of rigor mortis while the buttons down the front are reminiscent of spikes in a coffin. Orlok is also a master of disguise, as evidenced below.

Nailed it.

Ellen, played by gothic beauty Greta Schröder, is also pretty stylin'. Dark ringlets frame her face; an incredibly classical look that, somehow, she manages to pull off without looking anything like Shirly Tample.

Such a sensible hairstyle holds up even on blustery days.

She also displays theatrical makeup, which is understandable given the time period. The most obvious alteration has to do with Schröder's eyes. They look deep—almost like skull cavities—thanks to heavy swaths of eyeshadow. It is a look for which the actress is well known even to this day.

The fainting femme dressed in virginal white, as per usual.

Do not think for one moment that such a shrinking violet could hope to steal the fashion show, though: Orlok is the trend-setter who can rock a ruffled turban, after all.

Orlokalways one to appreciate an ascotrealizes that Hutter is quite the dandy.

I apologize for the somewhat late/rushed post. Google applications have been acting up over the last few days, and I thought of covering Nosferatu only recently after a discussion with my friend Michelle. Hope you enjoyed it all the same! ^,.,^

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Framing: Ida

This 2013 Polish/Danish film directed by Pawel Pawlikowski follows the life of a young, orphaned novice about to take her vows at a convent in the early 1960s. She discovers the existence of an aunt and, together, they go in search of answers concerning what happened to their Jewish family during the Second World War and years of Nazi occupation.

My friend Jackie recommended this film to me a few weeks ago and, since it was on Netflix, I decided to watch it and decide whether or not I wanted to feature it on the blog. From the very first shot of this film I knew that I would have do a piece on framing. Every single scene is set and captured as though they were works of fine art. What follows are some of the best examples of how shot compositions can enhance a story and lend insight into characters and their states of mind. [Heavy spoilers ahead.]

The opening shot of Ida.
The eponymous girl, who originally goes by the name of Anna,
is repairing what appears to be the face of a statue.
It is later revealed to be an effigy of Jesus Christ.

Many scenes are filmed with the subjects placed off-center or in the lower corners of the frame. More on this to follow.

In the first image, Ida helps her sisters erect the statue in front of the convent.
In the second, Ida leaves to join her aunt.

Notice that the statue is far behind the girl as she walks away in the cold.

By drawing focus away from the people in these scenes, Pawlikowski effectively casts aside their importance in the greater scheme of things (in this case, the Christian Church, or God).

Ida is told that she must go and see her aunt before she can take her vows.

She is placed with her back to the door, sitting in contemplation. In another few moments she will stand and leave. Stairs lead up to the door, symbolizing that whatever lies beyond is a place of higher understanding. Still, she must open the door and take the subsequent journey of her own volition.

Wanda Gruz meets her niece.

Bars, chains, and other barriers are a common sight throughout this film. They symbolize different things at different times but, generally, they make apparent a disconnection between people, the world around them, and their understanding of both these things. They can also represent being trapped in the past—in pain.

Wanda watches Ida from the exterior of a bus station,
deciding whether or not she wants to take her back home.

Another wall placed between two characters. This one is familial and generational.

A photograph of Ida as a baby with her mother, Ŕoża.

The shot is askew, the table worn, stained, and dirty. This reflects Wanda's lifestyle just as well as it does Ida's lack of identity.

Before her aunt comes to fetch her back home,
Ida sits by herself on the bus to the station, turned away from her fellow man
as she rides far from her recently discovered past.

Ida stands alone in quite a few scenes.

She resides in a place above others due to her devout nature and holiness, but she is also shut off from them because of it.

Wanda is lonely, too.

The barrier symbolism presents itself over and over again. Here, as Wanda pounds shots at a bar, the old and the new merge in the background (the car v. the horsedrawn wagon). This is another prominent theme in the film. Once known as Red Wanda, the woman worked to rid Poland of 'enemies of the people', AKA anti-socialists. This gave her purpose after the near extinction of her entire family. She is struggling with multiple losses—including her own obsolescence—before Ida even dreams of entering into her life.

The two protagonists are not all that different from one another as they initially believed.

Wanda is framed just perfectly in this shot as it aligns her with the religious piece hanging on the wall. Her similarity to the woman in the painting foreshadows the fact that she is a mother and, perhaps, a woman who once possessed faith in the Almighty.

The two women find comfort in each other's company.

Note the two lamps, the two glasses, and their parallels.

The journey to find the truth, though difficult, is important to both Ida and Wanda.

When the camera is placed to frame a greater portion of the space above the main subjects rather than the subjects themselves, it is possible that Pawlikowski wanted to incorporate the importance of the heavens and their effect on—or, perhaps, their grandeur in comparison to—the people who exist below.

CU on Wanda washing up after she confronts the man whom she believes murdered her son.
A view of extreme grief which the audience is forced to watch up close and personal.

A powerful shot of Feliks, the man who killed Ida and Wanda's family.
He sits in their grave, desiring forgiveness from God.

Wanda walks away, her son's remains in her arms.
Ida stays to collect her parents and discover the final truth of their murder.

The exposed grave lies at her feet just out of shot.

Neither of their faces are shown—in fact, they are cut off from the neck up. The women have succeeded in the mission and, while they are closer because of it, they are also somehow estranged. There exists a chasm between the two of them that is impossible to cross due to the cruelties of the past.

Driving away. From everything.

This is one of the best scenes in the film and is greatly aided by the soundtrack. Wanda drives her car out of the wood where her sister, step-brother, and son were all killed and buried. The path opens up into a field. Sunlight leaks through the branches of trees as the vehicle propels itself forward into the world, an obvious light at the end of the widening tunnel.

After Ida returns to the convent, Wanda jumps from the window of her flat.
The cumulative effect of a life spent in pain.

There are bars above the window; she views it as an escape. The two lamps that were lit when Ida shared the apartment have been switched off.

Ida discovers a new part of herself after everything that has passed.
Perhaps it is not her, though. Rather, it's a reflection of a person she could choose to be.

These frames show the progression of Ida's relationship with Lis, the jazz saxophonist.

She first views him as an outsider, enjoying his world but not taking part. They develop a friendship, but there is still the restriction of her way of life (more symbolic bars, this time as in a cage). When at last a resolution to her parent's deaths is in sight, she begins to open up to the possibility of a more open and romantic relationship with the man (fewer bars with wider gaps surrounded by lights). Be aware that Ida's placement in front of the bars instead of remaining behind them is an important transition.

The recently de-habited Ida listens as Lis plays with his band in a club.

The two lamps are back, possibly signifying the beginning of a new bond.

Ida is a tragic story of identity crisis, fallible faith, personal loss, and cultural devastation, but it also features the strength of familial love, the joys of self discovery, and the importance of closure. I highly recommend watching this artistic drama even if only to appreciate the talents of newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska and veteran actress Agata Kulesza.

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