Cinematic shorthand for genius: Benedict Cumberbatch and Autism?

If you want to give your parents hope that you’re a misunderstood genius, begin separating your peas from your carrots. Instead of minding your p’s and q’s, this might get you a pass into polite society of people hoping to be able to say they knew you when you were misunderstood and unknown genius. It helps if you look like Benedict Cumberbatch.

Besides playing Smaug, perhaps the sexiest thing in the Hobbit (if it weren’t for the inclusion of Orlando Bloom who should be there at all), Cumberbatch has played the young, “high-functioning sociopath” (yes, I know that Holmes is neither a psychopath or a sociopath and they are the same thing) in the British TV series that brings Conan Doyle’s creation to contemporary times in “Sherlock.”  Cumberbatch also portrayed  Julian Assange in “The Fifth Estate” as a bit off due to a childhood in a cult and heavily bleached white hair. He got to play Khan Noonien Singh and thus the number of ethnic Asians in the Star Trek canon decreased by one very significant villain.

Now he plays the British mathematician Alan Turing as socially awkward, a bit compulsive (separating his peas and carrots marks him as odd at his boarding school) and obtuse in understanding social exchanges in the historical drama “The Imitation Game.” Doyle never introduced us to Sherlock Holmes’ parents so we could wonder about his odd upbringing and never get a telling reveal into his psyche and motivations. In Graham Moore’s script, Turing exists outside of the sphere of family and becomes something of another Anglo Superman.

Graham Moore has written a script that essentially calls for Cumberbatch to play a sexless, less aggressive World War II version of his Sherlock and Cumberbatch ably obliges. We don’t have any of the witty zingers and the bewildered Watson is off playing a hobbit, so we only have Keira Knightly as a foil.

Director Morten Tyldum had last helmed a 2011 Norwegian comedy action thriller “Headhunters,” which I haven’t seen. “Headhunters” was the highest-grossing Norwegian film of all time, but this film is sadly lack in humor. Both Tyldum and Moore fail to capture the character of Turing and the collaborative nature of his most famous work and, indeed, the collaborative nature of many scientific endeavors.

The movie opens with an investigation. A middle-aged Turing (Cumberbatch) has his apartment burgled and hesitates to report it. This puzzles Detective Nock (Rory Kinnear) who comes upon something even more curious–Turing’s wartime service records are empty. Turing takes command of the situation, telling the Nock that he must listen and listen carefully to this tale and reveals via flashback Turing’s wartime service. What’s problematic is just how those flashbacks to his teen years at a boarding school within the flashbacks to his time at Bletchley Park work into Turing’s narration to Nock.

In chronological order, Turing (Alex Lawther)  is bullied at boarding school because he separates his carrots and peas. We never seen his older brother John who was likely also at boarding school if not the very same one. Turing is also put under the floorboards and rescued by and upperclass boy, Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon), who becomes his best friend and later introduces him to cryptology. Turing clearly adores Christopher and means to tell him he loves him, but Christopher fails to return to school after vacation and the headmaster summons Turing into his office and breaks the news of Christopher’s death. Turing denies even knowing Christopher.

Fast forward to the outbreak of war and Turing arrogantly informs the military that they need him and they do. Turing has deduced that the military has a secret project: Enigma. Enigma is the German coding device and the British are eager to decode. Turing joins a team under British chess champion Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) and a few German linguists at the Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. Being a loner, Turing works by himself and eventually goes over Alexander’s head becomes the leader of a team who works on this huge contraption that Turing calls Christopher. Turing also innovates in his recruiting efforts by testing people with a crossword puzzle and that brings Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) into his life. Clarke has problems getting permission from her parents and it is there concern about her being away and working with men that eventually leads Turing to propose marriage to her, even though he eventually admits his homosexuality.

Christopher does eventually work, but how well, they can’t reveal and must decide how to keep the news from the German, even if it means sacrificing the lives of some soldiers, including the brother of one of the linguists.

Not all of what happened was true although much of it is. Most problematic for me is the portrayal of Turing as somewhat autistic and that he alone had the vision to innovate and he alone had the courage to go above the military authority.

According to a Slate.com article, “The Imitation Game,” doesn’t only forget to give Polish cryptoanalysts credit for the first version of the decryption machine, the movie also fails to credit mathematician Gordon Welchman who is not mentioned at all. The script’s cursory nod to the Polish cryptologists is to mention that the Polish group managed to steal a copy of the Enigma machine, not that they had developed the first bombe (bomba kryptologiczna) or decoding machine.

Polish Cipher Bureau cryptologist Marian Rejewski designed the machine in 1938. Rejewski and his colleagues presented their results on the Enigma decryption to the French and British intelligence five weeks before the German invasion of Poland in 1939. Bletchley Park was set up in 1938.

*Polish and Jews and the creation of the computer

Rejeweski and other Polish cryptologists fled to France and would eventually end up in Britain after traveling through Spain, Portugal and Gibraltar.  Yet for whatever reason, in Britain, Rejewski wasn’t allowed to work on the Enigma decryption.

While the movie implies that Turing was autistic or suffered from Aspergers Syndrome or autism and unable to understand jokes and implied meanings, according to Slate.com, his biographer Andrew Hodges (“Alan Turing: The Enigma”) describes him as having a good sense of humor and close friends as opposed to no friends except Clarke which is Turing in “The Imitation Game.”

Captain Jerry Roberts who worked with him at Bletchley Park describes Turing as of “middle height, clean shaven” and he was “dressed in a somewhat untidy, brown sports jacket, and rather baggy grey trousers. He was not your typical Achilles figure, not a warrior king this man.” Robert, who “had not contact with him directly” found him modest and quiet.

Mike Woodger who worked closely with Turing post-World War II as an assistant at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, found Turing as impatient, but a “very pleasant companion.”  Woodger described him kind and “a real gentleman” who was generous with is praise.

Slate.com also asserts that Turing did know German and had traveled to Germany before and would do so again after the war.

Turing didn’t name his machine Christopher.

Both the family of Alastair Denniston and Hodges were unhappy with the historical inaccuracies as related in an article in the British newspaper The Guardian. The script augments the isolation of Turing by portraying Hugh Alexander (Conel Hugh O’Donel Alexander) as being confrontational and although Turing begins as an underling of Alexander, he ultimately becomes the team leader. This is contrary to the fact. At Bletchley Park, Turing and Alexander were initially on different teams and Alexander was later transferred to Turing’s team. Alexander proved to be a better organizer and their relationship was friendly and respectful.

When Turing was on trial, although he wrote a letter to Joan Clarke, it was Alexander who came and served as a character witness during the trial. In the movie, we don’t see the trial nor do we see Alexander after the war years. We do see Clarke visiting Turing post-trial when he is sickly and much thinner because of the chemical castration (which according to historical accounts actually left him plumper with breasts).

While Turing did live alone at the time of his death, he was not without family or a maid. His mother and older brother were still alive. We never see them in “The Imitation Game.” You wouldn’t even know that they existed from this movie. Instead of seeing the camaraderie and collaboration of Bletchley Park (as we can see on the TV series Bletchley Park on Netflix) and the humorous man who was able to read and expand upon the works of another (Polish) genius and work together with a colleague or colleagues and the excitement of that collaboration as well as potential geek math and chess jokes and rivalries (Turing and Clarke also played chess), we see an Anglo Superman whose kryptonite is his homosexuality and the gross indecency of British law. We have a milder version of Sherlock Holmes leading lesser men at Bletchley Park instead of Baker Street.

What Turing did changed the world, but he didn’t do it alone.

AFI Fest 2014: ‘The Homesman’

“The Homesman” is about despair in the desolate 1850s midwest.  You might be used to the homey warmth of the Little House on the Prairie series, but that has been stripped away by the harsh conditions and isolation in “The Homesman.”  A spinster recruits the titular homesman to help her take three mentally troubled women back to the civilization.

Set around the same time as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” series (Wilder was born in 1867 and her family moved to Wisconsin in 1871. Her stories take place in Kansas and Wisconsin and eventually Minnesota.), you never feel any of the hope and faith. Instead there is desperation.

“The Homesman is also based on a book. Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley Oliver adapted Glendon Swarthout’s 1988 novel of the same name. Tommy Lee Jones directs in a lean, matter-of-fact fashion. There are no frills here. The light is stark and unforgiving.

A homesman is someone, usually a man, who takes on the responsibility of taking immigrants and pioneers back home. The original homesman is a woman, Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank). A former teacher from New York City, she ventured to the Nebraska Territory for opportunity in a small farming town. She has substantial holdings, but it’s not really clear how she gets all the farm work down.

Cuddy has gone courting in her pragmatic way. She cooks a fine meal for her neighbor, a man named Bob Giffen (Evan Jones). She sings to him while pretending to play the piano using a cloth runner with piano keys black and white blocked out. When she lays out practical reasons why Giffen should marry her, she’s bluntly turned down. There may be few women in the territory, but Cuddy is too plain and too bossy.

In this small community, after a particularly harsh winter, three young wives have mental breakdowns. One is inconsolable after losing her children to illness. One, perhaps suffering postpartum depression kills her infant. The third has married unwisely and suffers marital rape, rutted by a man determined to have children. When the sincere preacher of the local church, Reverend Alfred Dowd (John Lithgow) says, “There’s been some trouble about the women hereabouts,” there’s a tinge of bitter irony as so much has changed in American culture.

The isolation prevents consolation as neighbors live out of each other’s sight, even on the flat plains of Nebraska. Instead of being confined to a small cell, the women are imprisoned by the vast plains of hardship. Sometimes one other person is not enough and proximity breeds more than contempt, but boredom and empty routines.

At the church, the decision is made to have these three women (Arabella Sours, Theoline Belknap and Gro Svendsen) taken back East, to a church in Iowa. That means crossing the Missouri River and going through areas where Native Americans, who may be hostile, still roam. The men seem unwilling to go so Cuddy volunteers. She has lived “uncommonly alone” and is stiffly religious, a good Christian with such man-like resolute ways she inspires trust in the preacher.

This might be the wild Midwest, but there are still rules. When men find an outsider, George Briggs (Jones) squatting on another’s land, someone they believe has gone back East, perhaps to acquire a wife. The local men smoke him out and would hang him, but Cuddy decides to take him on because one person minding three crazy women as they cross the plains isn’t wise. Yet perhaps she has other intentions. She does tell Briggs,–a claim jumper and army deserter– “this might be the finest most generous act of your life.”

This is a familiar formula: Prim spinster with rough at the edges confirmed bachelor. Swank gives a brave performance but she’s not as old as Katherine Hepburn was in the 1951 “The African Queen,” the 1975 “Rooster Cogburn” or the 1956 “The Rainmaker.”  Hepburn was only 49 for “The Rainmaker” but 68 for “Rooster Cogburn.”   Swank is 40 this year. Surely if her Cuddy has smiled more men would have been attracted to her or had the isolation of the Midwest territories also rendered them insane?

As with the Hepburn dramas, Briggs is not untouched by his struggles against the elements with Cuddy and instead of suggested romantic feeling, there’s a carnal relief. Still, don’t expect a happy ending for either Briggs or Swank. Loneliness seems to be their fate. Would life in a more settled community brought relief? For Briggs, likely not. He seems uncomfortable when he finally reaches his destination.

While the movie gives us a new appreciation for our current treatment of the mentally ill, rape in marriage and camping in the wild, it doesn’t provide an inspiring female figure. In many ways, it seems to indicate that men are best suited for the hardships of pioneering and that women are best in the civilized environments. One wonders if Cuddy would not have become one of the original cat ladies or just needed a good dog to keep her company. I can’t help writing this because my collies are determined to become cinematic critics (more on that later) and I’m snuggled up on the sofa with a collie.

Still Tommy Lee Jones provides an unsentimental view of pioneers and pioneering, in stark contrast with the beloved “Little House on the Prairie” series. Both bring a certain type of truth to our understanding of history. Go west young man, but where will the lonely old men go and where do women fit in? This is a bitter Western about casualties in the war to win the west.

 

 

 

 

AFI Fest 2014: ‘A Most Violent Year’

Last year’s Robert Redford flick “All Is Lost” illustrated a different take on silent films and how writer/director J.C. Chandor knew how to use silence. There’s plenty of silence in “A Most Violent Year” and even a lesson in how to use silence to your advantage. the movie itself, starring Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales, uses silence to contrast the moments of graphic violence and he constructs a meditative movie about morality and violence.

There must be some meaning to the name Abel Morales. Morales means morals (la moral o moralidad which is different from the moral or message–moraleja) in Spanish. Abel makes me think of the Biblical Cain and Abel, but also what seems to be the theme of this movie: Is one able to keep one’s morals in the face of violence. For those non-Christians who aren’t familiar with the story, Abel means “breathing spirit” and he was a shepherd who was killed by his brother Cain out of jealousy. Abel had offered a lamb to God while Cain had offered the fruits of the earth. Of these two sons of Adam and Eve, Cain becomes the first murderer and Abel becomes the first murder victim, a martyr to some. Although Chandor’s story isn’t biblical, I couldn’t help but wonder, What kind of blood offering does Abel give?

Chandor takes us back to New York City in the winter of 1981, what is, we are told, the most historically violent year in the city’s history. The camera follows a man running through what looks to be a warehouse district. We see few people, but a lot of grafitti. There’s a man wearing a pale yellow coat, Abel (Oscar Isaac), walking resolutely. He’s making a deal and paying cash. He confident when he talks to a pale blond woman whom we later learn is his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain).  Abel is making a deal with some Orthodox Jews to buy property on the waterfront. This is a deposit and the rest must be paid in 30 days or Abel will lose the deposit–his life savings.

Of course, now that we had a deadline, we also have obstacles. Someone is carjacking the new green vehicles that Abel’s company uses to transport oil. The carjackings are violent. Two men attack one driver, Julian (Elyes Gabel) and leave him collapsed and half-conscious on the street. Abel visits the hospitalized Julian.

The police find the vehicles emptied of the oil. Abel’s company is losing thousands of dollars. Yet that isn’t the end of Abel’s woes. He’s moving into a big new house in the country. Someone tries to break in at night. Is this man and the carjacking/oil theft related?  As if that weren’t enough, the police are investigating Abel’s company, one that he took over from his father-in-law. His wife is the company’s accountant and she assures Abel that everything is as is the generally accepted practice. Is that legal? Is that ethical? And does it involve guns?

Abel is against the drivers using guns to defend themselves but others are not. When a nervous Julian returns to work, he’s again the victim of an attempted carjacking but this time gunshots are exchanged. The two carjackers run as does Julian. Abel’s company come under great police scrutiny and his bank loan falls through.

As Abel attempts to find out who is targeting his company and he also must re-negotiate his deal and arrange some creative financing. He finds out some things about his wife and the nature of his business.

Alex Ebert’s score simmers between a dirge and a heroic ballad as Abel struggles to keep on course, avoid violence and not lose his business. In the background we hear TV and radio reports about violent altercations. When Abel chases a suspect on to a subway car, the graffiti signals the impotence of the common people and the public works against the unseen outlaws.

Chandor allows us to relax and uses some slight of the hand to lull us into peaceful expectations before betraying us with a random act of violence. Eventually, even the quiet moments are coiled with expectations and apprehensions; a sense of wariness dominates.  Chandor constructs a masterful tension by punctuating silence with violence instead of bombarding the audience with chaotic, non-stop violence. What does an honest man do when face with violence? When does one declare war?

“A Most Violent Year” won Best Film, Best Actor (Oscar Isaac in a tie with Michael Keaton for “Birdman”) and Best Supporting Actress (Jessica Chastain), an New York Film Critics Award. Chastain has been nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe. “A Most Violent Year” made its world premiere at AFI Fest 2014 (6 November 2014) and opens in the USA on 31 December.

 

 

Interpreting Isao Takahata’s ‘The Tale of Princess Kaguya’

Interpreting “The Tale of Princess Kaguya”

There was a moment, when I was returning home after watching “The Tale of Princess Kaguya”  that I thought, “Ah, ha!” If I was Buddhist, I would have called it satori—a moment of enlightenment. Suddenly, I wanted to see the movie again.

At my moment of cinematic satori, I was remembering the playful segment between the princess as a toddler and a frog. She imitates the frog and eventually catches it after frightening her adoptive father.

In Japanese the word for frog is “kaeru” (蛙)、but kaeru is also a homophone for the dictionary form of the verb meaning to return home, “kaeru” (帰る). Toward the end of the movie, that is what the princess must do. She must return to her people and to her own kind. From the very beginning, even for those unfamiliar with the tale of Kaguya, this is poetically foreshadowed during this delightful frog passage.

This foreshadowing of the princess’ return to her own world is only one reason why the frog is significant. There’s also a Japanese saying “Kaeru no ko wa kaeru” (蛙の子は蛙)or even a frog’s babies are still frogs (no matter the appearance). And so is the case with the princess. The saying means to assert that one is what one is born to be and at one time was meant to reinforce the class system.

As I have discussed previously, kaeru is also a homophone for kaeru (変える) meaning to change or transform such as transform something into something else and this is very much a part of the story as well.

The movie “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” is filled with poetic references to time and seasons, but it is also about responsibility and the conflict between duty and love (giri and aijō) with a Buddhist twist. The giri-aijō conflict is a common device in Japanese literature. The movie made me consider the difference between a country like America that doesn’t have princesses and a country like Japan which has a constitutional monarchy and thus has an emperor, empress, princes and princesses.

The story of the bamboo cutter and Princess Kaguya is old, References are made to it in the oldest Japanese poetry anthology, the “Manyōshū” (circa 759 AD). The bamboo cutter Okina (翁 meaning old man)discovers a small doll-like girl in a bamboo stalk. When we first see her in the movie, she resembles a doll from a Hina-Matsuri arrangement, then she become a regular almost-human infant (During Hina-matsuri, girls set out their dolls which represent the full Imperial court). She’s just one that grows as fast as a bamboo.

Okina (Takeo Chii) and his wife Ōna (媼 meaning old woman or mother) raise her as best they can. The peasant kids call her “Little Bamboo” while her adoptive father Okina calls her princess.  An older boy Suteru (Kengo Kora) attempts to protect her and they are fond of each other.

In the bamboo forest, Okina finds gold and fine silks. He rejoices, knowing that the divine spirits mean for him to raise her as a princess. He takes her to the capital of Kyoto where she is schooled in court etiquette by Lady Sagami (Atsuko Takahata).

Eventually, she attracts numerous suitors. Five of them, she gives impossible tasks. The men all fail and one of the men dies during his quest. This saddens her, but it doesn’t stop the Emperor for attempting to force his attentions on her. Notice when in a close up of the emperor behind him the Chinese character for negation (not) is framed behind his head (不不).  The emperor is also not worthy of this princess, even if, as according to myth, he is supposed to be a direct descendant of the sun goddess.

Of course, this princess longs for Sutemaru and to see him and her childhood home again.

I wonder if the Disney princess is as popular in Japan as in the United States. The fate of the princesses in Japan has been the topic of much sympathetic talk. While American audiences are quite familiar with the travails of the British royalty, they are not with the Japanese monarchy and aristocrats.

Whatever one might say about the Emperor Hirohito, now called Emperor Showa, he did stubbornly refuse to take courtesans in order to produce a male heir to the throne.  His wife had already given birth to four girls (three of whom survived into adulthood). Then in 1933, his wife Empress Kōjun, produced Akihito and two years later, his brother Prince Hitachi. Their last child would be a daughter.

When Akihito was the crown prince he fell in love with the eldest daughter of an industrialist (flour milling), Michiko Shōda. Her family was Catholic, which is unusual for Japan, and she attended Christian schools. Christianity had been outlawed until the Meiji era and thus was practiced secretly for a while, but by the time of Akihito and Michiko, Christianity, including Catholicism were practiced in the open in Japan.

Not only was Michiko not Buddhist or Shinto, she was also a commoner and the first commoner to marry into the Japanese Imperial Family. Empress Kōjun opposed the union.  The psychological pressure on Michiko was so intense, she was unable to speak, once in the 1960s and once in the 1990s.

The current crown prince of Japan, Naruhito, has commented that in comparison the Royals of Great Britain are more relaxed because Queen Elizabeth can pour her own tea and serve sandwiches to her guests. His future-wife attended the top university in Japan, Tokyo, and went on to study in England. She, Masako, like her mother-in-law suffered similar psychological stress.  In Japan, being a princess, particularly a crown princess is not something to be envied.

Students of Japanese might easily relate to Empress Michiko’s speechlessness when they try to deal with the complexities of keigo or polite speech. When do you use verbs mairu or irrasharu instead of kuru (to come)  or iku (to go)? In Japanese, levels of formality are one of the most important factors in sentence construction. The kind of formal speech you might use in an office is different still from the verbs and noun phrases used by the emperor and his court.

For speakers of Japanese, you can hear the change in verb inflections and in the word usage in “Kaguya.” We see Kaguya as not only a child becoming an adult, but she is also becoming a princess. Her stifled spirit might somewhat reflect the reality of Empress Michiko and Crown Princess Masako but Kaguya lives in ancient times.

Unlike Empress Michiko and the Crown Princess Masako, Kaguya is under the social customs of a different era. During the Heian period (794 to 1185 C.E.) daughters became tools for political power. The Fujiwara family rose to power by marrying its daughters into the Imperial family (Fujiwara period was 900 to 1200 AD). However, the political power rarely resided with the women so women without men to support them lived precarious lives. Who would protect Kaguya after her adoptive parents died? Who would feed her? Who would cloth her? Noble women would fall into poverty without a male relative to support them.

So because Kaguya is a princess and because she is an alien or supernatural being, she could not find love with Sutemaru. In Japanese, a frog won’t turn into a prince (although there is one old folk tale where a frog does turn into a man but not into a prince). In “Kaguya,” a frog is still a frog. Kaguya is still a princess, even on earth. Her adoptive parents are still peasants despite the money they have found. Sutemaru is still a peasant.

Moreover, a speaker of Japanese would instantly know their love was ill-fated—not only because of their different worlds and class, but also because of his name. His name means to throw away (suteru捨てる). Maru or maro was once often added on to male given names. He is going to be discarded.

Our wish for Sutemaru and Kaguya to be together is romantic, but hardly practical. He was so poor, he resorted to thievery. He was beaten. You have to wonder if his child was his first or if others had died due to malnutrition and poverty. While a samurai might make an appeal in another era as in “HaraKiri” which took place during the Tokugawa period (1603-1867), a peasant had few rights and few opportunities unless they could marry up.

Sutemaru wasn’t going to turn into a prince and while Kaguya had refused to marry, he had not. He had a family. He had a child. He was not free.

So because of the Heian era custom of political marriage and the general powerlessness of the peasants, it should come as no surprise that the father wishes to marry Kaguya into a well-to-do family. The suitors may or may not be sincere and men were allowed dalliances and courtesans. Consider “The Tale of Genji” or how the famous Heian poet Ariwara no Narihira is generally the object of honor, even after deserting one of his loves, but famous female Heian poet Ono no Komachi is portrayed in later literature as lonely beggar woman.

By the Heian period, Buddhism had been introduced into Japan and would eventually combine with Shinto in many aspects of the culture. The concept of kū 空(emptiness or voidness) became the ideal. Romantic love and lust are attachment to the physical world.

While in human form, Kaguya sees the value of love, she has felt suffering and she feels regret. Yet in order to enter the world of the Buddha, you have to leave the concerns of the world behind. She is offered a crown and a robe. Once she puts on the robe she will forget the impurities of earth. The special robe is a common theme in Japanese folklore where heavenly spirits (sometimes translated as angels) come to earth and if their robe is stolen, they cannot return to their world.

Surrounding the Buddha-like figure who is seen as being yellow are what looked like Kannon, the goddess of mercy, as well as bodisattvas. A bodisattva is someone who has reached enlightenment, but in order to help others find the path delays entering Nirvana.

Isao Takahata’s movie deals with issues of spirituality, class and the restriction on women in a manner that is both poetic and nebulous. We see images and references to the seasons in the flowers. We see a contrast between the beauty of women in the Heian times—the round face of Lady Sagami and the more modern visage of Kaguya. The life of peasants and aristocrats are both tragic; poverty prevents love and the restrictions of class prevent Kaguya from enjoying her life.

Takahata’s movie doesn’t have any clear-cut message about family or environment like one finds in Hayao Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke” or “Spirited Away.” There is no happy ending, no resolution, no well-defined message about the class system or gender roles.

For women, the movie shows the restrictions women were once under and the now absurd notions of beauty can be, yet we know things aren’t so different now, even outside of Japan.  An Australian news anchor Karl Stefanovic wore the same suit every day for nearly a year in response to the criticism his co-anchor, a woman, received. No one noticed. (http://www.people.com/article/karl-stefanovoc-wears-same-suit-year-sexism)

At a universal level, the movie deals with the call of adulthood and responsibility. Kaguya escaped from her world to the world of humans just like Prince Hal escapes to the kingdom of Falstaff and ignores responsibilities of being crown prince in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part 1.”

In some respects, the movie reminded me on my adventures studying abroad. There’s a lot of freedom when you’re in a country where you have no relatives and thus no family obligations and you’re not held to the confines of a culture since you are an outsider. Yet if you stay too long, if you become too much part of the culture or if you want to join the society, particularly by marriage, then you give up a lot of freedom. A year studying abroad can be liberating and life-changing, because I’ve heard the same sentiment from Japanese women studying in the U.S.

In this tale of a princess and a frog, “The Tale of Princess Kaguya,”  even the beautiful princess from the moon has responsibilities that she was born to and eventually must return. A frog is still a frog. A princess is still a princess and the court and its duties await. Everyone must grow up and live within the restrictions of their society.

“The Tale of Princess Kaguya” was nominated for Japan Academy Prize for Animation of the Year, it won the Animation Film Award at the Mainichi Film Awards and the Audience Award at the Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX.

Peter Jackson’s bloated saga ends with ‘Five Armies’

You might want to brush up on your Hobbit knowledge because director Peter Jackson (who wrote the movie with (Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro) plunges you right into the action in “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.”  This bloated last film of the Hobbit trilogy gives plenty of time to 1) admire the hair extensions and wigs of the characters in windblown closeups and 2) wonder about the psychology of greed (“Dragon sickness”) and why it should infect dragons (what exactly to they buy).

The first movie, “An Unexpected Journey” took a while to get rolling, beginning as the soon-to-be 111 Bilbo Baggins sits down to write the story of his great adventure and in flashbacks we are introduced to the great gold-hoarding dragon Smaug  (obscured glimpses) who drives the Dwarf king Thror out of the Lonely Mountain and we also meet Thror’s grandson Thorin who survives the battle with a bitter memory of how King Thranduil and his Wood Elf army stood by and watched their defeat. No word if they wood elves and the dwarves had reciprocal treaties. 

Now Bilbo (Martin Freeman as the middle-aged Bilbo) joins the Lone Mountain dwarves (Thorin, Balin, Dwalin, Fíli, Kíli, Dori, Nori, Ori, Óin, Glóin, Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur) through wizard Gandalf the Grey’s intervention as a burglar. The group meet and escape from trolls, goblins and orcs with the help of Gandalf, (Ian McKellen)  and his friend and fellow wizard Radagast (Sylvester McCoy). Bilbo also bumps into Gollum and finds the ever precious ring.

At this point, we haven’t seen Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). The big reveal is saved for the second movie, “The Desolation of Smaug.”

A whole year has passed since Bilbo left his home. Before we meet Smaug, the company gets a dose of arachnophobia, meet a shapeshifter (Mikael Persbrandt) who sometimes take the form of a bear and become the prisoners of Thranduil. (Lee Pace).  Jackson’s script added to the complicated interspecies socialization with a romance between Thranduil’s son Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and fellow elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) but also the forbidden attraction between Tauriel and Kili (Aidan Turner) flickers to life as the children audience focus dies.

The dwarves and Bilbo are then taken into Esgaroth by a bowman named Bard (Luke Evans).  At Laketown the company learns that Bard is the descendant of the last ruler of Dale and has the only arrow that can kill Smaug. Thorin promises a share of the treasure in Lonely Mountain and then the dwarves and company travel on to Lonely Mountain. Bilbo finds a secret entrance and while attempting to find the Arkenstone, the hobbit awakens the dragon. The dwarves and Bilbo attempt to kill Smug with molten gold, but when this fails the dragon flies off to destroy Lake-town with the dwarves watching.

So at the beginning of “The Battle of Five Armies,” the dwarves are at Lonely Mountain and Smaug isn’t exactly the toast of Lake-town, but he is toasting the town. Bard has been imprisoned and now must escape and find his family and kill Smaug. That’s a demanding to-do list.

Smaug does die and that gets us to the Five Armies. Thorin contracts dragon sickness and refuses to honor his agreement with the Lake-town people under Bard.  Besides the Bard and his rabble, the beautifully armored wood elves arrive as the king, Thranduil wants to reclaim some jewels.  That’s three armies and each has problems within the ranks. The dwarves are worried about Thorin’s increasingly irrational and almost paranoid behavior. Thranduil must deal with his rebellious son Legolas and his son’s love interest Tauriel.  Bard has a greedy, cravenly dude with bad teeth to worry about. This is all padding, even more padding than the dental-nightmare dude eventually dons when he goes drag queen.

Yet news has spread about the liberation of all that gold, even without the Internet and social media, cellphones or landlines. Our small dwarf troop rejoices at the arrival of an army of their cousins. But the men, dwarves and elves have a mutual enemy coming as well. Azog leads an Orc army and Bolg leads an army of the goblins, bats and wargs. The five armies are then 1) dwarves, 2) Lake-town men 3) wood elves 4) eagles and 5) orcs. In addition the eagles, and the shape-shifting bear come near the end.

We know how this ends because Bilbo survives to write a book and set his nephew off on a more serious adventure.  Ian and I made a bet who would die Kili or Tauriel. He was wrong. I won’t give spoilers here. Jackson gives us long, windblown takes of tresses and meaningful gazes between the beautiful people during the rough and tumble of the battle scene which is like having perfume commercials or glam-rock shots interspersed within a computer war game. We argued if Thranduil wasn’t unfairly portrayed as cold and pragmatic and if Tolkien used the eagles as a deus ex machina or as he termed it eucatastrophe (think of it as catastrophe avoidance device), Jackson’s script explains the eagles (which may or may not be one of the armies) he also adds a one-time appearance creature to help out the orcs.

According to Amazon, the book “The Hobbit” is for ages 12 years and up (7th grade) and the paperback edition is 300 pages. In comparison, the first book of “The Lord of the Rings” is 432 pages, “The Two Towers” is 352 pages and “The Return of the King” is 432 pages. That’s a total of 1,216 pages that became three movies compared to “The Hobbit” which is only 300 and became, three movies. I heard on the radio that it takes longer to watch the three Hobbit movies by Peter Jackson than it does to read the book.

The book has its flaws such as the reliance on deus ex machina and while Jackson attempts to explain them, he also adds more conveniences (the worms), Hollywood hooks (e.g. romantic triangle) and padding (e.g. Thorin’s death scene and the windblown hairography) and embraces CGI excess to the detriment of character development and a tighter story line and few movies. “The Hobbit” is a children’s book, but Jackson drags it into the young adult arena with uneasy tonal shifts. Bilbo was a modest and sensible burglar and Freeman portrays as such, but his movie saga is anything but.

Have an Inconceivably Fun ‘Princess Bride’ Holiday; Win Free Tickets

Saturday, 20 December 2014, Cary Elwes will be at the historic Downtown Los Angeles Palace Theatre to signs his new best-selling memoir, “As You Wish” and share stories about the making of the movie. A lucky reader can win a pair of free tickets. See instructions below.

The Princess Bride w crown

Many of Hollywood’s entertainment icons have been on the stage of the Palace Theatre : W.C. Fields, The Marx Brothers and even Harry Houdini.

The evening begins with an “As You Wish” book signing by author Cary Elwes to be followed by a 20 minutes Q&A with Elwes. At 8:30 p.m. the screening of “The Princess Bride” will begin. Tickets run from $16 to $25 (food and parking not included).

SCHEDULE:
6:00 p.m.: Doors Open
6:00 p.m-7:45 p.m: “As You Wish Book” Signing with Cary Elwes
8:00p.m-8:20 p.m: Q&A with Cary Elwes
8:30 p.m: “The Princess Bride” screening
The historic Palace Theater is located in downtown Los Angeles at 620 S. Broadway. Everyone will receive a free “Naughty or Nice” certificate and evaluation from our hilarious elves before partaking in our nostalgic bouncy-ball singalong by Rankin/Bass. You can indulge in a glass of wine or beer from one of three bars then hit the gourmet chef stations.
You can have a variety of holiday-inspired flavors, sweet treats and savory snacks, including
* Gourmet popcorn from Dakota’s POP Parlor (chef Dakota Weiss) featuring yummy flavors like Curried Pig, Pumpkin Hatch, Perk N’ Pop and more!
* Holiday and movie themed sausages from Adam Gertler and Dog Haus featuring holiday favorites like the pastrami dog, turduken dog and the pig and the fig.
* Delicious desserts, warm chestnuts and more!
Tickets:
VIP $25 (premier seating) 
General $20
Children 12 and under $16
 
Historic Palace Theater (downtown Los Angeles)
620 S. Broadway
 
Seating is first come, first serve. No outside food or beverage permitted. Parking is not included.  Visit www.StreetFoodCinema.com for more information.
With its beautifully preserved architecture and decor modeled after the opera houses of 17th Century Europe, the Palace Theatre is one of the most grand, historical movie theaters in Los Angeles.Built in 1911, The Palace Theatre was originally known as the Orpheum, the third Los Angeles home of the Orpheum Vaudeville circuit, and featured the very best in vaudeville including such luminaries as Harry Houdini, the Marx Brothers, Sarah Bernhart, Al Jolson, Jack Benny and W. C. Fields. Renamed the Palace Theatre in 1926, it became one of several movie palaces in downtown Los Angeles during the Golden Age of Hollywood. In 2011, the Palace Theatre celebrated its 100th birthday, following a $1 million restoration, preserving and restoring the original architecture and décor.  It is the oldest remaining Orpheum theatre in the country.
You can win a pair of free tickets by writing a few lines below about your most romantic or funniest meal or inconceivably funniest romantic meal. If you recall, the first time Buttercup sits down to a table with the Dread Pirate Roberts, She’s with the Sicilian Vizzini and blindfolded. On the table are two wine goblets, bread, cheese and two apples. And then there was the matter of the iocane powder. That was “The Princess Bride,” so well us what was your inconceivable moment? Did you fall victim to “one of the classic blunders, the most famous of which is ‘never get involved in a land war in Asia,’ but only slightly less well known is this: ‘Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!'”
First place prize is: Two tickets to “The Princess Bride” screening
Second place prize is: DVD of “The Hundred-Foot Journey.”

Being a bit naughty can be ‘Wicked’ fun

This may be the season when everyone is trying to get on Santa’s good list, but take time off of your daily good deeds for a bit of  “Wicked” fun at the Pantages. “Wicked” has blown into Los Angeles, opening on 11 December 2014 and staying until  15 March 2015.  That’s right! This popular show is just in time for a holiday indulgence, holiday gift giving and potential Valentine’s Day gifting.

As with all Pantages productions, the production values are high (love the dragon that watchers over the action) and Emmy Raver-Lampman as Elphaba (aka the Wicked Witch of the West) and Chandra Lee Schwartz as Glinda are girls on the go with glorious voices.

“Wicked” was in Los Angeles in 2005 and then came back in 2007 for an engagement that ran for two years–one of the longest-running Broadway musicals in Los Angeles history. The musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Winnie Holzman is based on Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.” Making its Broadway debut in 2003, the original show starred Idina Menzel as Elphaba and Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda (with Joel Grey as the Wizard) and won a Tony for Menzel.

Menzel and Chenoweth have both become more famous to the general public via the TV series “Glee,” so Glee fans might wonder what their interpretations might have looked like, especially with Chenoweth being so petite. We already know the twosome were nixed as being too old for the movie that has been in development hell since 2003, but is likely to open in 2016.

Schwartz is as tall as Raver-Lampman and Raver-Lampman is a sturdy looking woman–not lean and hungry as Menzel seems in person. Yet these actresses are also triple threats. They can act, dance and sing.

Schwartz played Glinda on the first national tour (August 2009 through April 2011). She’s a local girl, from San Diego, CA and moved to New York City at 19 and appeared in her first Broadway show at 21. Raver-Lampman was the Elphaba standby on the 2005 National Tour and also the replacement. She is not the first black woman to show that it’s hard being green. That honor goes to Saycon Sengbloh, but Raver-Lampman is one of six who have taken on the role.

Nick Adams makes a swoon-worthy Fiyero, the love interest of both Glinda and Elphaba.

“Wicked” begins with the famous death by water of the Wicked Witch of the West by Dorothy. We never really see Dorothy or Toto. Instead, we flashback to the real story of the Wicked Witch before she was dubbed Wicked. As the citizens of Oz rejoice at her death, Glinda takes us back to the past when the Munchkin governor’s wife has an affair with a stranger selling a green potion. The affair results in a green-skinned girl (a lesson in don’t drink strange stuff when you’re pregnant) who is unloved by a guilty mother and a suspicious father (Okay, the musical doesn’t make him suspicious of being a cuckold, but wouldn’t you be?). The mother dies after giving birth to the lovely but physically handicapped Nessarose. Nessarose is spoiled by her father and Elphaba plays nursemaid, pushing around her sister’s wheelchair until they enter Shiz University where the headmistress Madame Morrible (Kim Zimmer)vtakes over the care of Nessarose and a misunderstanding leads the vain and vacuous Galinda to becoming roommates with Elphaba.

Glinda is blond, giggly and popular. Elphaba wears unflattering dark clothes and her hair severely pulled back in a light braid. She doesn’t fit in, but she finds friendship with another misfit. At Old Shiz, there is one professor, Doctor Dillamond, who is literally an animal, an old goat. The animals in Oz once all talked, but some mysterious illness is causing them to lose their power of speech. Despite having the power to speak English, the good goat doctor can’t pronounce Galinda, and Galinda decides to change her name to honor him.

At first, Galinda is the popular mean girl, but she soon decides to be friends with Elphaba. The friendship is complicated when a bad boy, often expelled Fiyero hits the scene.  And Elphaba and the re-named Glinda also compete for the approval of the great Wizard. Yet they also learn that the Wizard is behind the prejudice against the animals of Oz.

This is a fun show with catchy tunes that, not unlike “Peter Pan,” will make you want to defy gravity, but you’ll have to choose between a broom and a bubble.

Somehow, this show really belongs in the ornate Pantages that makes it almost seem as if we are in some far off, magical land like Emerald City. This is a case where the venue really makes the experience better (as compared to the more modern and less fussy Ahmanson).  Raver-Lampman is a credible as a girl who matures into a strong-willed independent women and local girl Schwartz convincingly transforms from the silly social butterfly to a responsible woman. Schwartz’s physicality in her role gets a lot of the laughs.

Two-time Tony Award-winning director Joe Mantello (“Take Me Out” in 2003 and “Assassins” in 2004), and Musical staging Tony Award winner Wayne Cilento (for “The Who’s Tommy” in 1993) give us a good balance between sentiment and pathos, comedy and a lightly dealt message about social awareness and women being the sources of leadership.

This is a family musical with a lesson for those over the age of 8. No one under 5 will be admitted into the theater although I’m unclear on how they will make that determination. While in the first act we learn that “No One Mourns the Wicked” and one should be “Dancing through Life” and being “Popular” has its perks, by the second act we learn that besides “Defying Gravity” sometimes one should defy authority “For Good” and to help others. Both Elphaba and Glinda grow wiser, but only one of them gets the guy.

So cast off your daily cares, and start “Dancing through Life” because there’s “No Good Deed” better than taking time for your family and friends so spend money “For Good” times at the Pantages.  Even Santa knows that being a bit “Wicked” can still be nice.

“Wicked” continues at the Pantages until Sunday, 15 March 2015. Day-of-performance lottery for a limited number of $25 orchestra seats is held for each performance. Entries are accepted at the box office two and a half hours to each performance for up to two tickets. Names are drawn at random; cash only. Winners must be present at the time of the drawing and must show valid ID for purchase. One entry per person and two tickets per winner. Tickets are subject to availability.

The regular schedule is Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sundays 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. For the week of 22-28 December: Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday, at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. For 29 December to 4 January, the schedule is Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

Ticket prices begin at $25. For tickets and more information, visit the Hollywood Pantages Theatre website at www.HollywoodPantages.com.

Press release: James Gunn signing for ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ Blu-ray

WHAT: In celebration of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy debuting on Blu-ray™ 3D Combo Pack, Blu-ray, DVD and On-Demand December 9th, there will be a signing event for the first 200 people to purchase it at Amoeba Hollywood on Blu-ray, 3D Blu-ray or DVD beginning December 9th. 
 

WHO: Director and Co-Writer James Gunn (Super, Slither and The Specials)

 
WHERE: 
Amoeba Music 

6400 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028

 
WHEN:
Friday, December 12th 5:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m. 

SDAFF 2014: ‘Uzumasa Limelight’

There’s an art to wearing a kimono and other traditional clothing that are from a time before double-knit and spandex. Most Japanese men and women don’t know how to wear kimonos and few men are comfortable enough in the traditional Edo period clothes to be able to walk in them. Yet for jidaigeki (period pieces), actors need to do more than just walk. Some of them need to fight with sword and while there might a handful of name actors in a movie, you also need a lot of extras to fight and to die. “Uzumasa Limelight” is about those extras and is currently screening at the Laemmle.

According to the introductory sequence of this movie, there were men who specialized graceful samurai deaths were called the kirare yaku and lived in Uzumasa (Kyoto). At one times, this was considered the Hollywood of Japan.

Yet tastes come and go. When the westerns weren’t popular many American cowboy actors hung up their boots and sold their saddles. Likewise in Japan, when the jidaigeki (period) movies and TV shows declined and the golden age of chanbara (sword-fighting dramas) was over, these workers have to find other jobs. Yet what were they skilled for in this modern world?

Most of the background actors in any country don’t become part of the movie industry to be and remain an extra. “Uzumasa Limelight”  deals with one particular kirare yaku, Kamiyama (Seizō Fukumoto), who has made a living by dying spectacularly. At his age, he would not have been able to go on much longer anyways and yet he feels he hasn’t done enough.

By chance, he meets a young girl, Satsuki (Chihiro Yamamoto), who becomes his disciple. He trains her in this dying art of dying, and she brings renewed attention to the chanbara genre and becomes what Kamiyama was never able to become–a star.

The movie takes its title from a quote from Charlie Chaplin: “The glamour of limelight from which age must pass as youth enters.”

Crisply directed by Ken Ochiai, this nostalgic movie deals with traditions, economic survival and those damned kids at theme parks. The movie won a Best Feature Cheval Noir award for the director and a Jury Prize for Best Actor (Seizō Fukumoto) at the Fantasia Film Festival. The movie is currently at the Laemmle. In Japanese with English subtitles.

UZUMASA LIMELIGHT director Ken Ochiai and producer Ko Mori will participate in Q&A’s after the 4:20 and 9:50 screenings at the Royal on Friday, December 5; after the 9:50 screening at the Royal on Saturday, December 6; and after the 4:50 screenings at the Playhouse on Saturday and Sunday, December 6 and 7.

‘The King and the Mockingbird': French masterpiece finally screening in the U.S.

Take a nostalgic trip back to the 1950s and watch a French masterpiece that gives nods to other masters–from painters to master story teller Hans Christian Andersen. “The King and the Mockingbird” is currently at the Laemmle, and kudos to them for finally bringing this animated feature to the U.S. via Rialto Pictures.

Begun in 1948, this traditionally animated French feature “The King and the Mockingbird” (“Le Roi et l’oiseau” or “The King and the Bird”) has only recently become available in English and that’s unfortunate because Japanese directors Hayao Miyazaki (“My Neighbor Totoro” and “The Wind Rises”) and Isao Takahata (“The Tale of Princess Kaguya”) consider this film a masterpiece and cited it as influential to their own work.

Although director Paul Grimault (23 March 1905-29 March 1994) began this feature film in 1948 with French poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert (4 February 1900-11 April 1977) the film was released without the approval of either man by the producer in 1952. Grimault was able to obtain the rights and complete the film three decades later and release it in 1980.

The film has gone under various English names and the 1952 version has Peter Ustinov narrating and voicing the role of the titular bird.

“The King of the Mockingbird” draws from a Hans Christian Andersen story, “The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep” but enlarges it on to cityscapes inspired by surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico and director Fritz Lang (“Metropolis”). Prévert’s friend, Yves Tanguy’s paintings are also influential and you’ll even see a bit of Pointilism in a garden and not  a park that might remind you of Georges Seurat. Watch for men in black derby hats with their black umbrellas (right out of Rene Magritte) meet with Georges Remi (“The Adventures of Tintin”) and a group of men in black with fancy starched white ruffled collars (Rembrandt‘s “Syndics of the Drapers Guild”?).

There was no king in the Andersen story, but in this movie, the titular king is the self-involved Charles V + III = VIII + VIII = XVI who is the ruler of Takicardia. He has no friends and we never see his family. His servants live in fear of being sent to the dungeon. The king’s favorite pastimes are hunting and having portraits and statues done of himself.

Like many unskilled but wealthy hunters, he prefers canned hunts since he is cross-eyed and can’t hit a still target. One of his stray bullets did kill the wife of the Mockingbird. Yet the Mockingbird isn’t out for revenge. Instead, he saves his son from the canned hunt and becomes an ally to the young lovers attempting to escape from the king.

The young lovers are the Shepherdess and a Chimney Sweep. In Andersen’s tale they were ceramic figures and there was no king. Here, they are portraits on the wall next to each other. At night, they come to life as do the other art pieces. The real king is in love with the Shepherdess as is the king from the latest portrait. To escape the painting’s king, the two lovers slip away from their frames and run. The painting’s king first disposes of the real king and then takes his place in pursuit.

In their pursuit, they will meet a blind man who will save the Chimney Sweep from lions and the two lovers will have to face a great robot. Love will triumph but only after the king has been destroyed and other works of art have been referenced including the many portrayals of Daniel in the Lions den and Rodin’s “The Thinker.”

Unlike the toys in Disney’s “Toy Story,” the painted images once escaped from their frames becomes human and don’t have to return to their frames or become 2D or frozen when in the presence of humans and daylight has no effect on them. There is no feeling of calculated merchandising through cute characters ready to spring into plush creations (animaux en peluche). Miyazaki and Takahata felt this film was important enough to have the Studio Ghibli release it in Japan as King and Bird (王と鳥 Ō to tori)  in 2006. 

That means the United States is behind the times although the Ustinov version is now public domain and can be viewed for free. As always, I prefer the undubbed version and the de Chirico cityscapes do call for a large screen so don’t miss this opportunity to see a moving masterpiece of animation at the Laemmle. In French with English subtitles.

 

 

 

 

 

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