Sunday, April 26, 2015

Movie Review: Gone to Earth

Rating: 4/5

Michael Powell frequently made films that pitted his characters against a harsh, but beautiful, natural world. The nuns of Black Narcissus had to contend with living in the remote Himalayas, the simple fishermen in The Edge Of The World were forced to come to terms with their way of life dying out due to their remote surroundings and in I Know Where I'm Going!, English social climber Joan Webster found her well laid plans perpetually delayed by an angry sea. Gone to Earth has a similarly specific sense of place, but here Powell (working again with Emeric Pressburger) sets up the civilized world, rather than the natural world, as the harsh and unyielding force.

Hazel (Jennifer Jones) is a young gypsy woman living with her father in the English countryside in the late 1800's. She keeps a book of spells and charms with her and cares deeply for her pet fox (named, appropriately, Foxy). Unfortunately for Hazel, she attracts the attention of an English nobleman named John Reddin (David Farrar) who desires to take Hazel for his own. Reddin, like many an English noble, hunts foxes for sport. Hazel, of course, finds this abhorrent and wants nothing to do with him.

She does agree to marry, though, for the sake of moving out of her father's house. Hazel swears to the mountain to marry the first man who asks her. So, of course, she does get asked for her hand in marriage: the local reverend, Edward Marston (Cyril Cusack), asks for her hand and she fulfills her vow and agrees. Even after going through with this marriage, Reddin continues his pursuit of Hazel, even though she clearly despises him and everything he stands for.

This curious love triangle sits at the heart of the film. Hazel is a woman who lives in harmony with the natural world around her and both of her suitors are seeking to change her (to trap her) in their own way. The minister is actually kind to Hazel, but he still seeks to domesticate her and, notably, to convert her to Christianity. The nobleman, on the other hand, initially tries to tempt her with material pleasures (telling her that she can have a new dress from London every week were she to live with him). Both views are, of course, at odds with what Hazel actually wants as both men are at odds with the natural world. The minister wants to civilize nature while the noble seeks to crush it under his heel.

This tragic melodrama makes Gone to Earth a powerful and touching film and an underrated entry in the Archers canon. As played by Jennifer Jones, Hazel is not a drab sufferer of injustices but a proud, vibrant woman who seeks only to live her life in peace and happiness with the world around her. But "the world's a big spring trap with us in it," as Hazel herself says and no matter how hard she tries she can't escape that trap.

It would be impossible to write about a Powell & Pressburger film without raving about the cinematography and Gone to Earth boasts some of their most beautiful Technicolor work. The interiors are often glowing and orange by fireplace and the forests shrouded in mist. The colors and compositions effectively make the world appear as Hazel sees it: enchanting and wondrous. The wider shots also establish the diminutive nature of man against nature, with people often framed under sprawling tree branches, skies and rolling green hills.

Hazel's mother once told her that the only thing that comes from marriage is "tears and torment" and the men in the film prove her right. It's unfortunate that Gone to Earth isn't more widely available, as it stands as a beautifully shot and powerfully told fairy tale of a woman, who only wants to keep to herself and live at peace with nature, trapped by marriage and crushed by civilization.

Gone to Earth is available on a region free Korean DVD and a region locked British DVD. It has also, as of this writing, been posted in its entirety on YouTube.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Redemption of Fu Manchu

So odious is the picture of Chinese people presented by the character of Fu Manchu that the US government asked Hollywood to stop making Fu Manchu films before and during World War 2. Every stereotype of the "Yellow Peril" is personified in this one character, his knowledge of exotic ancient secrets, association with opium and criminal elements, and evil designs on the West.
As the villain of over 20 pulp novels, Fu Manchu remains something of a pop culture fixture, despite the character's troubled past and terrible reputation. Still, it should be possible to redeem Fu Manchu as the original evil mastermind while discarding the racist elements.
With that said, the novel itself is explicitly and undeniably racist, containing numerous completely un-ironic references to the “Yellow Peril”, and the protagonist even mocks those who might dismiss such a threat: "The 'Yellow Peril'!" "You scoff, sir, and so do others. We take the proffered right hand of friendship nor inquire if the hidden left holds a knife!"
Still the character of Fu-Manchu is evocative, "Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, ... one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present ... Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man."
He could very well be considered one of the early prototypes of both the arch-nemesis character in action-adventure fiction, the mad scientist character and of the super villain character. The racism of the text overshadows all of this, and the “yellow peril” racism firmly attached to the character filters through popular culture in various forms, which can still be seen today. In comics for example, Detective Comics featured an unapologetic Fu Manchu before Batman ever showed up:

Marvel got into the act with the Atlas Era Yellow Claw:
who was, interestingly enough, opposed by the Chinese American detective Jimmy Woo, a rare positive non stereotypical asian character. Because China was allied with America during World War 2, Chinese characters could sometimes escape unscathed as the most vile racism was heaped on the Imperial Japanese. Here’s an example from Captain Marvel 29. These are the Japanese villains that are teaming up with Mr. Mind:
Here are the Chinese soldiers that Captain Marvel interacts with from the same issue:

Marvel seems to have avoided the bright yellow skin and absurdly stereotypical speech patterns normal with such a villain with the Mandarin, who otherwise stuck to the ethnicity, world domination and fiendish arch genius tropes. In more recent times, the Mandarin has kept his “Yellow Peril” name while dropping the Fu Manchu type clothing and facial hair.
The redemption of the Fu Manchu character was begun in a real way by Dennis O’neil in his landmark work on Batman. The character of Ra’s al Ghul embodies many of the characteristics of Fu Manchu, world domination, criminal mastermind, seeming immortality, without the overt racism.
Ra’s al Ghul is still an ethnocentric character, as his “foreignness” assumes a white audience. Whereas Fu Manchu was explicitly associated with China (although he employed all manner of Eastern/non-white people), al ghul is of somewhat ambiguous ethnicity. His foreignness is made clear by his dress, speech patterns and his clearly non-white followers. He is meant to be middle eastern to some extent, but his skin tone is usually very light. Birth of the Demon establishes an origin for him in the middle east sometime during the Crusades, but a definite place of birth is never stated.
Further qualities of Fu Manchu that Ra's al ghul borrowed was the love triangle of sorts between his daughter/subservient Talia al ghul and the hero. Talia is torn between her loyalty to her father and his organization and her love for Batman, just as Kara is torn between her love for Dr. Petrie and her enslavement to Fu Manchu in the original novel.
Things come full circle in Batman Begins, when Ra's al ghul is portrayed by the thoroughly Anglo-Saxon Liam Neeson.

The al ghul of the Nolan films has all the hallmarks of the comic version in a white man. The interesting part of O’neil’s updating of the Fu Manchu character is that the complete removal of all ethnic markers doesn’t completely change the character. A white Fu Manchu would never work, but a white Ra’s al ghul works fine. In Neeson’s Anglo Ra's alghul then, we see the redemption of the Fu Manchu archetype. He is an “other”, a mastermind, a possessor of secret knowledge, but not a racist character.

Thursday, March 13, 2014


Captain Britain tells it like it is. One of Jamie Delano's few forays into the world of super-heroes. Art by the ever skilled Alan Davis.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Best Films and Performances of 2013

First, Two Bad Films I'd Like To Briefly Mock

Man of Steel (Zach Snyder)

I'm an unabashed fan of Superman and the old fashioned and fantastical elements of the character are precisely the things that make him interesting. With that, any attempt to make Superman modern and realistic is inherently misguided and this mars Man of Steel right out of the gate. Even beyond that, Snyder’s film is an overly long and overly serious work of disaster porn that fails at every turn. It's sad news for the Big Blue Boy Scout that this is the direction Warner Brothers apparently wants to go with the character.

The Counselor (Ridley Scott)

It turns out Cormac McCarthy is about as good at writing screenplays as Tommy Wiseau. The Counselor wastes a great cast by filling their mouths with unending dialogue that reaches for profundity and instead lands at hilarity. Though at times an interesting failure, due to some compelling action set pieces staged by director Ridley Scott, The Counselor is an experiment in storytelling that completely and utterly backfires.

Favorite Films of 2013

17.  Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery)

Director David Lowery has crafted a poor man’s Badlands but that’s still a pretty rich man in my book. Buoyed by good performances from Casey Affleck, Ben Foster and Rooney Mara.

16.  Prince Avalanche (David Gordon Green)

Hopefully this means David Gordon Green has given up on making dumb stoner comedies with his friends as Prince Avalanche seems to mark a return to form. Well acted by Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd, the film is a charmingly low key and melancholy little comedy about two guys working on a rural highway with nothing to do but talk back and forth about their lives.

15.  Pain & Gain (Michael Bay)

It's Michael Bay! While I couldn’t possibly care less about his Giant Robot Movies, Pain & Gain is a darkly funny and gleefully violent satire about the American Dream that is a hell of a lot fun to watch. The Rock’s performance as a haplessly naive criminal is a highlight as well.

14. The Spectacular Now (James Ponsoldt)

I don’t care too much for coming of age stories but The Spectacular Now works precisely because it sidesteps all the cliches and stereotypes normally found in those types of films. It also helps that the film is grounded by two great lead performances from Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller.

13.  Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)

Polley has shown herself to be an adept and versatile chronicler of romantic relationships; in particular the ways in which they crumble apart and then ripple outwards to affect others. Much better than a documentary about one’s own family has a right to be (please don’t try that at home, anyone, ever) Stories We Tell explores the various meanings we attach to familial lineage while also commenting on the documentary form itself and the nature of storytelling.

12.  Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)

Greta Gerwig plays another Greta Gerwig style character, i.e. a woman-child struggling to grow up. It’s a good thing she has the presence, the charm and the vulnerability to make these types of characters feel real and lived in instead of cliched. Frances Ha looks great in black and white while alternating between being both hilarious and sad. As an aspiring creative person of sorts it definitely cut a little close to home, but the film speaks more broadly to anyone who feels like they haven’t figured out what to do with their life even though everyone else apparently has.

11.  Only God Forgives (Nicholas Winding Refn)

An ultra violent and leisurely paced neon tinged nightmare about guilt and retribution. Many joked that this was Refn’s and Gosling’s unofficial sequel to Drive but it has much more in common with the director’s earlier film, Valhalla Rising, in its eschewing of plot and character in favor of tone. Gosling and his co-lead Vithaya Pansringarm aren't asked to do much other than glower and hurt people but Kristen Scott Thomas gives a memorable performance as a horrifying momager running a Bangkok drug ring.

10.  Blue Is The Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche)

The best comic book adaptation of the year! As I mentioned before, I don’t normally care for coming of age stories but Blue is so honest and so well acted it immediately won me over. Kechiche chooses to focus his camera squarely on his lead actress’ face throughout most of the film and we watch her weep and yell and scream and dance and be nervous and have sex and get angry and on and on as her character discovers not just a sexual identity but comes into her own as an adult.

9.  Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)

What happens to a beautiful love story when the honeymoon phase ends and the whispering of sweet nothings is replaced by arguments about who has to pick up the kids from soccer practice? Before Midnight shows us a couple of young romantics who aren’t quite so young anymore as the cracks begin to show in their relationship. As this is a Before film, they naturally, beautifully, wonderfully, wander around and talk it out. Here’s to hoping Linklater, Hawke and Delpy keep giving us new installments in this series as long as they are able.

8.  The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg)

Dark, sad and completely engrossing, The Hunt shows a community of people morphing from loving neighbors to vicious monsters due to fast spreading rumors and an off the cuff remark springing from a child’s imagination. Mads Mikkelson’s lead performance makes the film all the more heartbreaking as he refuses to lose control or give into bitterness and despair.

7.  Upstream Color (Shane Carruth)

A beautiful mood piece. The plot of Shane Carruth’s second film ostensibly involves worms with mind control powers but it’s really just an excuse to ask questions about the nature of human existence, love and the inter-connectedness of all living things.

6.  To The Wonder (Terrence Malick)

Another beautiful mood piece, To The Wonder is a rumination on the experience of falling in and out of love. Malick has clearly entered the ‘for-fans-only’ phase of his career but I’ll gladly drink that Kool-Aid all day.

5.  The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)

Scorsese comes roaring back in vintage form; Wolf of Wall Street contains a plethora of slow motion, long tracking shots, montages and, in the tradition of the best Scorsese films, people behaving badly and going completely unpunished. Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter use comedy to draw us into the world of bullshit artist Jordan Belfort and, though it seems fun at first, the closing shot of the film shows that the joke was on us the whole time.

4.  Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron)

A tour de force of sound and image and a visceral cinematic experience. Sure, some of the dialogue is a bit clunky, but cinema is a visual medium and the film would have still worked even if Sandra Bullock and George Clooney were speaking Esperanto.

3.  Her (Spike Jonze)

A beautifully melancholy love story. In the best tradition of science fiction stories, Jonze depicts a plausible future to comment on the present. A lesser filmmaker might have fallen into the trap of mocking our addiction to technology or playing the premise for laughs at the protagonist's expense, but Her always remains a sympathetic and relatable film.

2.  12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen)

The reason why 12 Years A Slave is such a remarkable film about American slavery is that McQueen refuses to let his audience off the hook. There are (largely) no sympathetic white characters and no concessions given to the audience’s comfort. Some complained that 12 Years was a difficult film to watch, but a film about human beings enslaving each other at pain of death should be difficult to watch. McQueen clearly understands this and his long unbroken shots do a fantastic and unsettling job of portraying the unending horror and brutality of slavery.

1.  Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen Bros.)

There are a number of different ways you can approach thinking about Inside Llewyn Davis. You can talk about the music, of course, or the Academy Award nominated cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel or you could discuss the film’s place in the Coen Brothers’ increasingly legendary canon. The thing that’s the most striking about this film to me, though, was the lead performance of Oscar Isaac.

Isaac gives Llewyn a hang dog world weariness that permeates every frame. He’s a melancholy loser who isn’t talented enough to succeed as a singer but too much of a fuck-up to hold down a real job. When he picks up a guitar, his guard comes down and all the hurt and longing and sadness comes out. Singing isn’t a joyous expression of the soul for Llewyn, as a supporting character suggests in the film, but instead an outlet for his weary spirit.

In his tired eyes and the way he keeps clutching at his coat to keep out the cold, Isaac makes Llewyn a sad and sympathetic character even when he’s angrily lashing out at the people around him.

Favorite Male Performances:

Oscar Isaac - Inside Llewyn Davis

I raved about Isaac above but this is a beautiful, haunting and career defining performance from him. Look no further for proof than the sad and restrained way he informs John Goodman’s character, Roland Turner, about why he separated from his former singing partner (and the way Isaac lets the reason for that separation seep into his face in every other scene in the film).

Christian Bale - Out Of The Furnace

In American Hustle, Bale gives the kind of big, showy ‘movie-stars-playing-dress-up’ style of performance that the Academy eats up with a spoon. He’s much better here, in a subtle and reserved portrayal of man whose life keeps slipping further and further down into the pits of despair. No screaming matches or big monologues to be found and none needed either; the way he undersells the line, “I miss you so much” to a former lover played by Zoe Saldana will completely break your heart.

Joaquin Phoenix - Her

Part of the reason why Her never descends into stupid parody or overly broad social commentary is because of Phoenix. He plays Theodore Twombly as a melancholy and lonely man but in a subtle and sympathetic way that makes him always relatable and never pathetic. A man falling in love with an operating system could certainly be played with the sledgehammer broadness of an SNL sketch, but Phoenix plays it straight and plays it small. We root for the romance rather than laugh at it because we feel for him and genuinely want him to find happiness.

Favorite Female Performances:

Adele Exarchopoulos - Blue is the Warmest Color

Apparently the director of Blue shot b-roll of his lead actress’ face as she napped, as she ate and as she rode the train to set. Not a lot of performers could make such footage compelling but Exarchopoulos has a truly mesmerizing screen presence. As I mentioned above, so much of the film plays out in close ups of her face and she effortlessly propels the movie forward with her nonverbal acting. A favorite scene of mine is when her character enters a lesbian bar for the first time and, without saying a thing, we can see her try to figure out if this is a place where she can feel at home; she feels out the space, skittishly walking through it and furtively glancing back and forth. Her body language says more in that scene, and so many others, than a million monologues could. Which, of course, isn’t to say she can’t sell dialogue driven scenes: there’s a conversation late in the film where her character meets up for a drink with a former lover and Exarchopoulos fills her character’s every word with such longing and such profound sadness that the exchange is completely heart rending.

Greta Gerwig - Frances Ha

Gerwig can be both effortlessly hilarious and dramatic, not only in the same film but sometimes in the same scene. Like with Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, she’s able to ground a character that, in lesser hands, could come off as pathetic or obnoxious.

Amy Adams - American Hustle

I didn’t care much for this movie but Adams is phenomenal in it. She is oftentimes as broad as the rest of cast but is always able to make her character feel real and grounded and vulnerable. She’s also able to compellingly play a character who is sometimes playing a character themselves, while, again, staying grounded and vulnerable and sympathetic. Adams also puts in a great turn as a supporting character in Her.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014


There’s clearly a market for graphic memoirs, as the things have never been more numerous, but I have to admit the genre has always left me a bit cold. They seem especially vulnerable to a few things in comics that irk me; over use of narration and a penchant for inertia-less navelgazing in particular.

I bought Susceptible at Autoptic, a biannual small press comics festival in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The cartoonist, Genevieve Castree, was there to sign copies so I picked one up without knowing too much about it (I liked the cover art because it gave me the impression, for some reason, that it was about sailing). When I cracked it open and started reading I was initially a bit bummed to discover that it was an auto-bio comic. I kept reading, though, and finished the thing in one sitting, finding it to be a powerful and assured comic (which isn’t about sailing, sadly).

The book presents the memories of a childhood, told in chronological order but with a minimum of connective tissue. Rather than try to force a narrative on her recollections, Castree is content to unspool her memories as they are recalled. Of course, there are overarching commonalities through the book (her mother’s drinking and mental health, teenage rebellion, an absent father) and it avoids feeling aimless through a sense of immediacy and honesty. The main character, Goglu, is a stand in for Castree, though it’s obviously impossible to know how much is true and how much is dramatic invention (not that it really matters, I would say).

Castree draws with a thin line, creating rounded figures shaded in grey with expressive faces. Her work almost has a childlike quality, which is by no means an insult. It strikes one while reading that this quality in the cartooning makes the book feel like you’re experiencing unfiltered memories from a childhood, being depicted exactly how they felt. Memories frozen in amber and presented to a reader and not filtered through the artistic sensibility of an adult. That they obviously were filtered through the artistic sensibilities of an adult is a testament to the vibrancy of the work.

Additionally, Castree uses a large number of moment to moment transitions inside six and nine panel symmetrical grids to allow these moments to breath. The danger in creating a graphic novel without a strong driving plot is that these memories run the danger of just becoming a series of greatest hits; this happened, then this happened, then this happened and so on. But by allowing these scenes to breath a bit they become real lived in moments.

Here is perhaps my favorite page from the whole book, where the protagonist Goglu watches her father through a bedroom window as a small child.

Her father, Tete d’Oeul, fidgets on his motorcycle as the seconds tick by before driving off. A child’s logic connects her father leaving to her father’s friend and then to the father’s friend’s dog who once bit her. It’s an important moment in Goglu’s life depicted as how a child would have perceived it.

Another thing that struck me about Susceptible is how honest it feels. This isn’t an adult reflecting on past experiences and drawing out hard earned wisdoms, but rather a warts and all retelling. No scene expresses this more clearly than the one where Goglu, ah... goes number 2 in the bed as a young girl. This scene doesn’t add much to an overall narrative but it does shade in another detail of a vulnerable and difficult adolescence.

Logically, the book ends when she turns 18. Some childhoods are lived and treasured; Goglu escapes into adulthood, left to wonder about what kind of person she is. The opening few pages ponder this in narration:

I often think about what is innate and what is acquired. are our genes ever a valid excuse? I wonder if it is possible for a sadness to be passed from one generation to the other… if my depressions could be caused by emotions accumulated by me, but also by my parents, my ancestors even. or if those difficult moments are simply provoked by what falls onto me. maybe it is just my core that is rotten… maybe my internal fauna and flora are too fragile, unbalanced. That is possible.

Susceptible is a great comic book and I would recommend it highly even if, like me, you don’t necessarily get excited at the idea of another autobiographical graphic memoir. Here are a  few more nice pages and the little doodle Genevieve made when she signed my copy.