It has been a weird week. My wife's mother just had hip replacement surgery and the original plan was that my wife would be leaving us today to spend time with her mom. This coming week is Spring Break which means my daughter will be out of school. I still have to work and so there was a bit of a conundrum about what to do with the girl. I kind-of, sort-of work from home so we didn't need to find full-time childcare, but we also didn't want her to sit around watching TV all day. Nor would she be interested in running around with me from time to time to check on the job sites. My wife did a great job of contacting friends and making lots of playdates so the daughter could have a good Spring Break and I could still get my work done.
But as the week went on, the threat of the Coronavirus increased on a daily basis. As did my wife's anxiety about going and so last night we decided it would be best for her to stay here with us. This has all led to a Saturday where we've decided to do nothing but stay inside and watch movies. You might say I've been preparing for this all week as we've tried to limit our store shopping and the like. You might say I've been preparing for this my whole life as there are few things I like better than staying home and watching movies.
Whenever I discuss movies with my uncle, the conversation inevitably turns to foreign films and his absolute distaste for them. It isn't so much that they are in a foreign language and thus he'd be forced to read subtitles (though he isn't too fond of that idea either), but rather he feels that foreign films are too obtuse, too complicated, and they don't tell interesting stories. He used to be a Western kind of guy, and though in his old age he's more likely to watch some religious film starring Kirk Cameron, his favorite actor is still John Wayne. And he loves to tell everyone at family gatherings that Star Wars is really just a western set in outer space.
I don't really know what set him off against foreign films. My guess is that he tried to sit through some European art-house fair and found it battling. I wonder what he'd think of Ingmar Bergman or Andrei Tarkovsky. In my meaner moments, I think of inviting him over and forcing him to sit through one of their films. Regular readers of these pages will have heard me talk many times about both directors and this week I watched one film from both directors.
Set in the Russian front during World War II, Ivan's Childhood focuses on a 12-year-old orphan who has unofficially joined the Russian army. His small size and innocent looks allow him to sneak across the river and spy on the Germans. Told in a non-linear fashion, the film makes great use of flashbacks to show Ivan with his family during happier times. This is juxtaposed against the horrors of war he and his compatriots now face on a daily basis.
As always Tarkovsky, along with his regular cinematographer Vadim Yusov, is a master at creating beautiful images. Much of the film is shot in small, war-torn buildings and he makes great use of light and shadow which illuminate and hide his character's faces at different moments. His exteriors are haunting and the entire film has a mystical feeling to it. Storywise, it isn't quite as powerful as Stalker or Andrei Rublev but it is an astonishingly good first film.
Hour of the Wolf
Max Von Sydow died this week and I knew I wanted to watch one of his films. There aren't a lot of them on any streaming service I subscribe to except The Criterion Channel. They have all of his collaborations with Bergman, of course, plus a few others.
I've seen most of the Sydow/Bergman films. I thought about watching The Seventh Seal again, but I wanted to watch something new. I leaned towards Shame, a film I've wanted to see for some time, but that one seemed very heavy and it has been a rough couple of days. So I settled on Hour of the Wolf. A horror film. From Ingmar Bergman one of the great intellectual filmmakers. I figured it ought to be interesting and weird.
It begins with a title card telling us this story comes from some diaries written by Johan (Sydow) an artist, which were given to us by his wife, Alma (Liv Ullmann). While this is displayed, we hear people talking about making the film we are watching. Then we find Alma staring straight at the camera telling us about the diaries.
The main story deals with Johan and Alma living on an isolated island. One day, they are invited to a party by the island's owners who live in a castle. The party is strange and the other guests seem to be both mocking and enthralled with Johan. Before the party, several of the guests seek him out to talk to him. An elderly lady tells Alma to read Johan's diary. A man wanders up to Johan and pesters him about his art. Johan punches him in the face.
The story is told in a series of flashbacks with Alma either reading Johan's diary or him telling her stories from his past during the wee hours of the morning. He seems to be losing his mind. The guests may in fact be ghosts or demons. The film eventually becomes a Lynchian nightmare where it is difficult to know what is real and what comes from his disturbed mind.
Berman films it with surrealistic undertones, creating all sorts of strange, wild images. His longtime cinematographer Sven Nykvist works wonders with shadows and light. Von Sydow and Ullmann are, as always, magnificent.
It is a difficult film to follow and one of the stranger films I've seen of Bergman's, but like all his films it is well worth watching.
As mentioned two weeks ago, the theme of this month was to be madness. My plan was to watch as many films about people suffering from madness as I could. Partially because that seems like an interesting subject for films, but mostly because I could call it March Movie Madness. I've done ok with that theme, but I do keep getting distracted. Next week, you will surely find me watching films about virus outbreaks. While my wife and I were discussing what films could be included in this theme, we realized that pretty much any of Shakespeare's tragedies would go nicely and so I decided that now was a good time to watch Laurence Olivier's much-heralded adaptation of Hamlet.
I've also come to the conclusion that while there is much to love about Hamlet, and certainly there are a million quotes one can whip out at any time from the play, I really rather prefer Macbeth. Hamlet is too much about the Prince of Denmark's mental state of mind. It is full of internal struggles and questions of sanity, and yes, it is really good, no question, but let's be honest here not that much actually happens until the final scene. Macbeth has plenty of emotional richness, but it also has lots of murder and witches. Witches always win.
But this isn't about Macbeth, it is about one particular version of Hamlet. Made in 1948, Olivier's Hamlet is a marvelously acted film that was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won four of them. It runs for 155 minutes yet it excised nearly half of the play's dialogue and deleted several characters including, famously, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. What's left is the story of Hamlet, a man plagued with lust for revenge and yet filled with doubt. Olivier is fantastic in the title role. As the director, he beautifully shoots each scene making the castle a character in itself. He moves his camera about like a god, moving through walls and floors giving the action a strange, bewildering sense.
I've seen so many versions of Hamlet through the years, both on-screen and on the stage, it is difficult to be surprised by the story, but Shakespeare's words are always astounding and what Olivier does with them if well worth the watching.
I am a great fan of mysteries. Whether it be novels, movies, or television series, there's just something about a mystery that's comfort food to me. I especially love mysteries that use the genre as a means to explore deeper social issues or just create interesting characters. I suppose just about every culture creates its own mysteries as that seems to be a universal genre. Certainly, quite a few places are writing interesting mystery novels and creating interesting mystery television series. Britain has been doing that for about as long as anyone. They are the country of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot after all. Acorn TV has been putting out lots of great British mystery series (and many other genres) for years now. They have a great streaming service as well, and I've subscribed several times.
A while back I saw that my local library was giving its patrons access to Acorn TV and I got pretty excited. But then when I tried to subscribe, it told me it was only a 7-day trial subscription and I'd already used one of those up so I figured I wouldn't be able to do it again. Months went by and I forgot all about it. A few weeks ago I got to looking at it again and realized that the library lets you use a never-ending supply of free trials so that you can always have it. I subscribed via my computer but couldn't figure out how to get it to stream through my Apple Fire TV. Honestly, I didn't try that hard as I was busy with other things and I already have plenty to watch. But this week I finally sat down and figured it out and I've been thoroughly enjoying the service.
They do have lots of British series, but they also have a nice selection of series from other European, Canadian and even Australia channels. They even have a few original series and movies to watch. I'm sure you'll be hearing more about them as the weeks go on.
Wire in the Blood: The Mermaids Singing
Several weeks before my wife and I moved to China, we moved all the furniture out of our apartment. I no longer remember why we moved it out so early, but there we were sitting on lawn chairs and sleeping on a blow-up mattress every night for weeks on end. She had just finished the course work for her Ph.D. and the plan was for her to write her dissertation while overseas. There was no way we could afford to ship all the books she'd need and so we spent our days at the university library scanning everything onto disk and our nights sitting on those junky lawn chairs watching TV. Oh yes, besides the chair and mattress, we also kept our TV and DVD player. The DVDs we packed up and put into storage and so we would often go to the public library and grab a bunch of DVDs to watch on our lonely nights.
That's when I first discovered The West Wing amongst many other things. One of those things was Wire in the Blood, a British crime thriller. We watched the first few seasons of Wire in the Blood during that period and whenever I see the series on a shelf or a streaming service (or hear that utterly terrifying theme music), I'm immediately taken back to that apartment and those old chairs and that uncomfortable air mattress.
The Mermaids Singing is pretty standard detective television from the early 2000s. it stars Hermione Norris as a police detective and Robson Green as the psychiatrist who helps her catch a sadistic serial killer. This one is using medieval torture devices to brutally murder young gay men. It is a little more gruesome than most American shows made at the same time, but it follows pretty closely to the serial killer plotlines of countless other similar shows. But it is well made and the two leads are quite good. Robson Green, especially, gives his character plenty of ticks and quirks. I don't know if it holds up well enough for me to watch them all over again, but it was fun to revisit for this episode.
Another Five Things
Last week got ahead of me and I neglected to write this article. So this week I thought instead of just having a singular "and..." I'd do another five things. Enjoy.
Doctor Who: Frontier in Space
In the 26th Century, humans have become a galactic power, colonizing planets throughout space. After a massive war, they have brokered a thin peace with their most powerful rivals, the Draconians, which has lasted for nearly two decades. But lately, both parties seem to be invading each other's spaces and pirating cargo ships. The Doctor and his companion Jo Grant, after nearly crashing into an Earth ship, materialize into it. Soon after, the ship is boarded by mercenary Ogrons. Strangely, the humans seem to think the Ogrons are Dragonians, and later they see The Doctor and Jo as Draconians as well.
Somebody, it seems, has created a device making anyone who hears its strange tone see what they most fear. This, it also seems, is being used to create a war between Earthlings and the Draconians. Anyone who has seen the cover of the DVD box knows that someone is The Master, but it takes him a while to appear.
For most of the six episodes, Frontier in Space works as a nice metaphor for the Cold War and how difficult it is to maintain peace between two giant empires, especially when factions within both want nothing more than to obliterate the others. Each side suspects the Doctor of working for the other side and there is a nice bit where he is pushed back and forth between the two sides with no one believing him about anything.
With a run time at over two hours, there is both far too much padding and way too many ideas trying to be crammed in. There is a whole episode that takes place on a penal colony on the moon, there is some business about a small Peace Party working to overthrow the government, and in the last episode, a new villain is thrown in for good measure. Had they thrown out about half the plot and cut out a couple of episodes I suspect Frontier in Space would be considered a stone-cold classic. As it is, it feels a bit bloated, but overall is quite a fun watch.
James M. Cain's novel The Postman Always Rings Twice with its plot full of love, lust, greed, revenge, and murder is perfect for cinematic adaptations. It has been made into at least seven films in five different languages, including twice by Hollywood. The first one of these, and probably the best known, was made in 1946 and stars John Garfield and Lana Turner. It is one of the great film noirs. It is also a movie of its time which means much of the novel's sexuality is toned down. There was plenty of that in the 1981 remake starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, but it loses pretty much everything else that makes the 1946 version special.
German director Christian Petzold loosely adapted the story for this film but he made enough changes to keep it interesting. Set in the East Germany town from which the title gets its names, this one stars Benno Fürmann as Thomas a man recently discharged from the military. As the film begins, his wife has just died and some gangsters have taken every penny he owns to settle some gambling debts.
While walking home one day he sees a local businessman, Ali (Hilmi Sözer), drive his car into a lake. The man has been drinking and Thomas gives him a hand. When the cops stop by, Thomas lies and says he was driving. Later, Ali gives Thomas a job making deliveries for him. If you know this story at all, then you know Ali has a beautiful wife. Here, she's named Laura (Nina Hoss) and the two of them fall quickly into each other's arms. You'll also know it doesn't end well for anybody.
Petzold is careful to give each character of this love triangle depth. Ali has an explosive temper but he's also tender and kind. His jealousy towards his competitors and wife makes him unsympathetic but his kindness towards Thomas and Nina gives him a softness. We naturally root for Thomas and Nina, but they too are given darker pasts. The ending is changed from the source material, giving it a different meaning and perhaps a larger commentary on the world at large.
The Criterion Channel was running it on their service, but I think its time just ended. If you can find it, it well worth seeking out.
One of the things that made The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel about a totalitarian, ultra-religious society so ridiculously good and terrifying, was that it was told from a singular perspective. That perspective is Offred, a young woman who has essentially been forced into sexual slavery by a regime that treats all women like cattle. Atwood created this fascinating, horrible world but we only see what Offred sees, we only know what Offred knows. We only get glimpses of life in this society outside of her purview. We are forced to fill in the gaps. That limited perspective makes this world feel more real and both of our time and completely timeless.
The sequel, like most sequels that try to broaden the world of what was originally very narrowly defined, is problematic. Giving us the details, naturally lessens their power. The Testaments, like the title suggests, gives us the stories of multiple people. Three, in fact. One is a rebellious teenage girl from Canada, another a slightly older young woman who is the daughter of one of the Commanders in Gilead. Lastly, we hear the story of Aunt Lydia, a character we read about in the previous novel. We learn quite a bit more about how Gilead came into existence and its organizational structure. Atwood is too good of a writer to completely screw this up, but it does lessen the impact of The Handmaid's Tale.
Here's the thing: The Testaments is a completely unnecessary book. After reading The Handmaid's Tale, I absolutely wanted to know more about this world and that story, but I didn't need to know. Sometimes not knowing is better. The Testaments fills in some of those gaps, but it doesn't make it better. It scratches an itch but somehow makes The Handmaid's Tale seem lesser for it.
Here's the other thing: I really like The Testaments. It is a very different book than The Handmaid's Tale. Honestly, by its end, it reads more like a thriller than a prophetic dystopian future. I didn't need to know the details it tells me, but I really liked learning them.
This is especially true of Aunt Lydia's story. Turns out she isn't a true believer. She was a judge before Gilead came into being. When things went down, she made a choice for survival. There were times when The Testaments made me feel sympathetic towards her. She did what she had to do I'd think. Then I'd remember what she did and realize, no, she did what she did to survive but she didn't have to do those things. Doing horrible, terrible, awful things to other people is not acceptable, even if it is the only way to live. But I love that the book made me question that idea.
I guess that's a mixed review. This is a book that doesn't need to exist. It is a book that in some ways lessens the power of the original book. Yet it is also a really good read with some interesting things to say.
Norah Jones - "I'm Alive"
Norah Jones has a new album, Pick Me Up Off the Floor, coming out May 8. I'm a big fan of the singer/songwriter. I'm also the sort-of fan that thinks her first three albums are her best, and that Not Too Late is one of the greatest albums ever made. After that one, she started drifting from her sexy, soulful piano jazz material and moved into more electric pop. I like those albums too, but my heart always belongs to her earlier stuff.
She's just dropped the first single from the new album. It is called "I'm Alive" and it feels like a nice mixture between her old and new sounds to my ears. There's some nice soft jazz piano going on, but a cool shuffling beat to back it up (with Jeff Tweedy on guitar). Norah's voice is as smooth as ever and melts me as always.
I finally got to watch this Oscar winner a couple of weeks ago. It is every bit as good as they say it is. I somehow managed to avoid all spoilers for the film even though Twitter has been talking about it for ages. Actually, I managed to go into it without any knowledge as to what it is about whatsoever. I loved that. I love going into a movie knowing nothing and being completely knocked out by it.
I won't spoil any of it here but I will say director Bong Joon-ho has created a thrilling feat of cinema with some fascinating twists and social commentary that feels completely relevant but never preachy.