31 December 2009

Gatehouse Gazette Issue #10

The tenth issue of the online steampunk and dieselpunk newsletter the Gatehouse Gazette was released today!

I wrote a review of the Nintendo DS game Nostalgia by Matrix Software, so be sure to check that out. Also marvel at the wonderful cover by Myke Amend.

From Ottens:
A Happy New Year to all our readers! With 2009 behind us—a year that saw the steampunk community continue to grow and interest in the genre extend to mainstream media—we predict that 2010 will be a dieselpunk year.
We see mid-century influences in modern-day fashion and film and a revival of interest in times past in general, especially in the interwar era as a result of the economic hardships suffered then and today. At several websites and blogs dedicated to dieselpunk, enthusiasts are hard at work building the genre into a movement with its own style and philosophy. The Gatehouse Gazette is no exception in this process. As steampunk is steadily entering the mainstream, we are free to devote all the more energy to promoting dieselpunk. We have begun exploring its potential from the very first issue of this publication onward and will continue to do so by offering a platform for opinion and analysis. Dieselpunk is truly taking off—and therefore this Gatehouse Gazette is “taking to the skies!”
Tying in our aviation theme with the emergence of a dieselpunk mentality, we offer biographies of two heroes: Howard Hughes and Amelia Earhart, written by James Roberts and J. Parkin respectively. Both were pioneers and perhaps a tad eccentric. Both were innovators and adventurers. And both continue to inspire us are we reminiscence about their accomplishments and the seemingly more heroic epoch that was their time. While Earhart was the first aviatrix to crisscross across North America and later, the world, a league of equally daring men attempted to conquer the Arctic by air. Marcus Rauchfuß tells the story of the early twentieth century polar expeditions by airship, balloon and zeppelin. Later on in this issue you will find him interviewing Ms Kaleena Kiff; producer and director of the web series Riese: a steampunkesque adventure that incorporates Norse mythology and dystopian elements seemingly inspired by Piecraftian dieselpunk.
In our literary section is an exclusive preview of Lavie Tidhar’s upcoming steampunk novel The Bookman which should hit the shelves around the time this issue is released. Hilde Heyvaert reviews Philip Reeve’s Larklight trilogy and dedicates her Steampunk Wardrobe column to the aviator look while also reminding us of one of Disney’s most underrated adventures: the movie Treasure Planet. Lastly, Trubetskoy writes an extensive comparative review of The Angel of the Revolution by George Griffith and H.G. Wells’ The War in the Air—another chapter in the history of alternate history fiction that no serious steampunk can afford to skip!
Click here or on the image to go to the Gatehouse and download it now.

29 December 2009

The Third Man - Gatehouse update

So, I've got another post up on Cinema is Cinema proper. This one is all about The Third Man, my favourite film noir. Here's a sample:
The Third Man comes forth as a collaboration of so many greats. Of course, I have to give plenty of credit to [Graham] Greene. It is his writing that, in my opinion, helps set this film apart from other films noir, for the mysteries and themes are complex and deeply woven in the expertly crafted story. Yes, I love film noir for its shadowy aesthetics and ambiguous morality, but that is precisely because it reflects the dark, complex storytelling. Well, sometimes. Not all films noir are the greatest examples of masterful storytelling. I still love it for its look, drama, and suspense, but all those things are heightened to pure excellence when portrayed through a script by a skilled writer like Greene. I cannot state enough how much this makes The Third Man an absolute favourite for me.

Furthermore, keep your eyes peeled for the upcoming release of the tenth issue of the Gatehouse Gazette, which I believe is going to occur on New Year's Day. I've got a review of the Nintendo DS game Nostalgia in it, and there are numerous other wonderful features in store!

14 December 2009

Give Us This Day

As I continue my quest into the world of Icelandic cinema, I would first like to point out an invaluable web resource for anyone else out there interested in this small national cinema: Iceland Cinema Now. ICN is a fantastic resource for the latest news, and it's where I discovered my most recent watch, and one that will be incredible easy for all of you to get access to as well (see the end of the article for the link!)

Give Us This Day (Íslands þúsand ár, 1997) by Erlendur Sveinsson is what I would call a "period documentary" about fishers in Iceland. It is a documentary of a culture gradually becoming forgotten in the seas of time. In this it reminds me of a documentary made 40 years earlier called The Hunters about the Bushmen of the Kalahari. While this culture was still present at the time of shooting, it was already rapidly modernizing. Thus, the film's attempt to portray the way the bushmen hunted was not, in fact, how the bushmen in the film actually hunted. Rather, these men were acting out for the camera the way their ancestors had once hunted, committed to celluloid in a last minute attempt to preserve knowledge of this disappearing culture.

So too does Give Us This Day preserve a culture killed off by the grand globalization of the modern world. However, while The Hunters tried its best to hide the fact that it was, in fact, largely staged, Give Us This Day remains somewhat more honest in this regard. One of the central themes of the work is its claim that, despite the grizzled fishermen's connection with nature and their ability to feel out the changes to come in the sea, the weather, and the locations of fish, they cannot sense that the thousand year tradition of fishing is also on the brink of change. The entire documentary, from its protrayal of religion and magical superstition to its attention to detail on the life of a man at sea, is always focused on this desire to preserve a dying culture. While we are never explicitly told what is to come, the sense is always looming that this small Icelandic fishing boat with its simple men and their meager catches will soon be replaced by massive corporate trawlers and a practice that is now overfishing the cod populations.

The film, I think, works well in creating a somewhat unbiased view of this rural society. On one hand, it shows a certain sense of praise and love for these nobel fishermen, but it does so without casting a judging eye on what is to follow. It does not seem to suggest that this life was better, that the future is wrong. It recognizes their strength and courage without suggesting that we have truly lost it. Rather, it presents an attitude that this too shall pass. That this life is one of the past, and that it was a life of strong caste systems and many hardships, but that there is something important to it as well, something that we must remember.

Give Us This Day is currently streaming for free over at Poppoli Pictures. If you have an hour to kill, I think it's worth checking out.

12 December 2009

Cold Fever

Now that I'm free from the schedules of academia, I'm able to begin to fully explore some avenues of cinema I've been interested in studying further, namely Icelandic cinema.

Over the course of the semester, I read an incredibly well-detailed thesis on Icelandic cinema by Björn Nordfjord, an Icelandic film scholar I intend on contacting soon to express my interest in pursuing the topic in grad school and as a professor. Iceland is a culture I have found myself strangely drawn towards throughout my life and it's cinema has a bizarre appeal to me.

However, Icelandic films are, ostensibly, difficult to obtain. This is an issue I have been slowly remedying through DVDs imported from various regions.

Tonight, I watched Friðrik Þór Friðriksson's Cold Fever (Á köldum klaka, 1995). I may talk more later on my father's impression of the film, as he watched it with me and seemed to enjoy it. Certainly, this film is a clear example of Icelandic cinema's transnational approach. The film centers on a young Japanese businessman, Hirata, visiting Iceland to perform a rite for his deceased parents, who passed away in an accident at a remote Icelandic river. In addition to Hirata, the film also features brief appearances from Germans and a section in which Hirata picks up American hitch hikers. Thus, while Iceland is spoken, it is always between Icelanders, supporting characters to the Japanese Hirata. Hirata speaks in his native tongue in the brief introduction that takes place in Japan or when he is alone and talking only to himself. All these moments are subtitled, but the bulk of the film occurs in English. English is, after all, the closest thing to a universal language. As Nordfjord points out, when Hirata is first greeted on the plane to Iceland, he is asked, "Do you speak English? You're going to like it here in Iceland," but this also acts to introduce the audience to the film.

The film asks as a sort of introductory course into the peculiarities of Icelandic culture. Everything from brennivín and sheep's head to the local music scene is paraded out for the foreign viewer. Here is Iceland, packaged up for global consumption.

At the same time, for those familiar with Icelandic culture, the local audience, there are plenty of sly "insider jokes." For one, the entire sense of an "introduction to Iceland" is played up sarcastically. We can sit back and laugh at the Icelanders portrayed in the film that excitedly promote that "Iceland has the most writers per capita" or "Iceland has very beautiful women. We had two of the last six Miss World." Not to mention some obscure jokes, like a tourist angrily calling the radically anti-fascist punk band Þeyr "Nazis" because the radio won't turn off and he doesn't want to hear the music.

Overall, the film is essentially a "road movie," tracking Hirata's arduous quest to finally do something for his parents. It's also a comedy, though perhaps its most comedic elements are more directed towards its local audience, while foreigners will look more to its European art cinema elements and Jarmusch-style cinematography.

01 December 2009

More delays

Bare with me for a few more days while I finish out the semester here. Then I'll have some free time to really dig in and start watching and writing about films.

26 November 2009

Posting to soon resume

Yes, I'm done with my essay. I'd publish it here, but I hope to publish it in a scholastic journal of sorts should I get the chance, so I'll give them first dibs on it.

I'd be working on it right now, but there's all thse Thanksgiving festivities. First of two Thanksgivings, more tomorrow. I'll try to find time in here sometime...

19 November 2009

An explanation for my lack of posts

As you may have noticed, nothing has gone up on the Gatehouse in a little while. I have tried to remain somewhat steady here, so you may think, "Is he giving up on one blog in favour of another?" I assure you that this is not the case.

Rather, I am currently working on a research paper into the issue of German collective guilt in Andrzej Munk's Passenger. This is, for better or worse, taking up the majority of my intellectual faculties. When I'm sitting down to write extensively about a film, I'm working on this rather than posts. Hopefully, Thanksgiving will provide me with a break, as will the weeks that follow, and I may be able to step up the posts to a much more frequent level.

18 November 2009

Forman, Majidi, and Kenka Bancho

In the interim here, I've watched:

Milos Forman's The Firemen's Ball
Another Czech comedy, rife with sarcasm and satire. This one has a more political sense to the hidden meanings and the ending is a little more comic than tragic as opposed to his other film, Loves of a Blonde. I'd recommend Loves first, but if you want some colour and less of a "now I feel kinda bad for laughing" feeling at the end, go with this one. Still, my favorite Czech comedy so far has been Closely Watched Trains. The film focuses on a ball put on by the inept local fire department, and was seen as many as a parody of the Soviet government in Czechoslovakia.

Majid Majidi's The Colour of Paradise
Ebert said of this film, "Because they do not condescend to young audiences, Majidi's films of course are absorbing for adults as well, and there is a lesson here: Any family film not good enough for grownups is certainly not good enough for children." I couldn't agree more. This film had me on the brink of tears and could certainly work to spring some debates about the search for god. The film is moving and powerful. It centres on a blind boy who wants to see God and his father who wishes God had never given him such a difficult child to raise.

And a brief note on things beyond film:
I recently acquired a copy of Kenka Bancho: Badass Rumble and it's fantastically addictive. I'll likely comment on it when I finish it, which won't take long as it's a short game. The biggest thing you need to know is that they captured the spirit of "badass delinquents" perfectly. And I don't just mean the writing. The game let's you be a delinquent within its own gameplay. Of course, the obvious goal is to be the biggest badass, but you don't have to do any of that. You could spend the game just hanging out with your friends and attending the school events (which you can also skip), or you could run around like an idiot and do nothing but stare down innocent civilians, or you could just stand in one spot for all seven days (there's a time limit) and be such a badass that you don't even bother with this stupid game! Seriously, though, there's a basic plot and framework there, but you can do as much or as little of it as you damn well want. And when the whole point of it is being a badass punk, that's the way it should be, goddammit!

Well, it's off to class again. Today we're watching Divided we fall by Jan Hrebejk.

13 November 2009

The Good and the Bad

Watched two movies today of note. First, the good:

Drunken Angel (1948) by Akira Kurosawa. An early film from post-war Kurosawa, marked by the first appearance of Toshiro Mifune in one of his films. Mifune would, of course, go on to become a major star of Japanese cinema and would star as well-known characters in many of Kurosawa's films such as Tajomaru in Rashomon (1950), Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai (1954), Koichi Nishi in The Bad Sleep Well (1960), the wandering samurai in Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962), and Red Beard in Red Beard (1965).

In this film, Mifune plays a yakuza named Matsunaga, who is diagnosed with tuberculosis. He is diagnosed by the rash, alcoholic doctor Sanada, played by Takashi Shimura. Shimura himself was also well utilized by Kurosawa, from his directorial debut Sanshiro Sugata (1943) all the way through to Kagemusha (1980).

The power of the film rests strongly on the interactions of these two characters. Both are "unsympathetic" in their own ways, and thus allowed to come off as extremely humanistic characters. Neither are perfect characters. Matsunaga is a yakuza gangster, who often places the perhaps "dated" concepts of feudal loyalty and honour above his own life. Sanada is a rough drunkard of a doctor, who is prone to anger.

In his Something like an Autobiography (1982), Kurosawa writes that the drunken doctor was the last piece of the puzzle in writing the script. The basic premise was already constructed and laid out, but the perfect humanitarian doctor was bland and lifeless. Then, in talks with a real life doctor akin to the one portrayed on the screen, he hit the final breakthrough: to reduce the doctor to the same level of imperfection as the yakuza. He made them so alike that the two would inevitably butt heads. From there, everything fell into place.

The film is certainly one of the greats of that early era of Kurosawa, notably the pre-Rashomon films. It was Rashomon that catapulted Kurosawa and his favoured actors to internationally stardom, and that cemented his image as a director of jidaigeki (Japanese period films/notably samurai epics). These pre-Rashomon films certainly have a bit of a rawer feel than his later works. His style was not quite as sure and experienced, though still excellent nonetheless. Of course, he would continue to direct films placed in contemporary Japan as well after this period, but for most of his career he would be chiefly known thereafter for his portrayal of feudal Japan.

Like most of his films, Drunken Angel is well worth the watch. However, for those of you who have yet to see anything by the masterful director, I would recommend to first view one of the following:
Rashomon (1950) or Seven Samurai (1954) for his samurai epics; Yojimbo (1961) for his black comedy; or Ikiru (1952) for one set in contemporary Japan. All four are beautiful masterpieces that you best be prepared to fall in love with.

On the bad side of things, I also watched Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus with Dan and Alex. Okay, so it wasn't bad because it was with friends, and if you're looking for something uproariously terrible for bad movie night, this is it. I was expecting something on par with the SciFi exclusive Sharks in Venice. This movie proved it is possible to do something even worse. The amount of repeated footage in this movie is mind-boggling. Every 3D rendered scene is reused 3 to 20 times depending on how generic it is. Don't think pivotal scenes with specific action are exempt from this. I don't want to give away any surprise plot points, but the octopus is maimed twice by the shark. Both occasions involve the exact same footage, except the image is flipped horizontally the second time. And if it's something simple like a submarine running from the shark? Expect to see that once every two minutes.

Also, live action shots are repeated with surprising frequency. I believe we see a tracking shot of a soldier walking past another soldier into an army base at least three separate times. These aren't flashbacks or anything, mind you. These are all separate events in the story. And then there's the flashback scenes...

Speaking of flashes, they seem to like randomly flashing colours at the screen and slowing/speeding up action for split moments all the time. I suppose it's trying to mimic that CSI "action montage" style that's pretty bad to begin with, but they seem to throw it in at entirely inappropriate times and transitions. And speaking of transitions, I'm not sure the editor really understood how those things work. The acting was horrible and I don't think I need to tell you that the writing in a movie which has as its main premise a fight between a colossal shark and a gargantuan octopus is going to be about at the level of Twilight fanfic.

Of course, all this atrociousness just lead to the three of us laughing so hard we missed half the dialogue, and becoming overly excited about the "fight scenes," cheering and pumping our arms in the air, screaming things like, "DAT'S MAH MAIN MAN GIANT OCTOPUS!" To clarify, we all placed bets on who would win the fight. Alex put his 5¢ on Mega Shark. I rooted for Giant Octopus. Dan took the route of Mankind. I'd tell you who won the 15¢ pot, but I don't want to ruin the ending. (Hint: We all lost. When you watch Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, there are no winners.)

12 November 2009

YouTube clips on Closely Watched Trains

Further proof of why I love Alton Brown:

If there was one TV personality I would want to be friends with, it would be him.

And here's those first moments of the movie, found on YouTube. Unfortunately, the clip's title lies, as the English subtitles are entirely absent. But perhaps after reading them in the previous post and keeping them in mind while watching this, some of the humour will come through better:

And lastly, a trailer:

11 November 2009

Closely Watched Trains

In class today, we watched yet another Czech film (the last of the three countries we are looking at as part of Central European cinema). The film was Jiří Menzel's Closely Watched Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky, 1966).

The film was, as most Czech films seem to be, a mixture of comedy and tragedy. This "Czech sense of humour" is generally described as dealing with serious topics in a joking manner and is often called bitter and sarcastic. I can see a similarity between this sense of humour and what I would consider the Icelandic sense of humour. Certainly, there are differences, but there is a certain mending of humour and horror that occurs in both. I think in particular of the humour in films by Dagur Kári and comics by Hugleikur Dagsson. As far as the later is concerned, it's interesting to note that when his comics were translated into English for an American audience, the book was renamed from the Icelandic title of Forðist okkur (Avoid us)—a collection of the three previous works Elskið okkur (Love us), Drepið okkur (Kill us), and Ríðið okkur (Fuck us)—to the English title Should you be laughing at this?. Most of his subsequent books in Icelandic continued the trend of "[Verb] us," while their English translations have been Is this supposed to be funny? and Is this some kind of a joke?. The English titles presumably act as a means of preceding American reactions of Hugleikur's comedy (which is on the darker side even for Icelandic tastes).

I seem to have diverged from the original topic a bit, but I assure you it is to prove a point. That is that there is certainly a level of "nationality" to any work of a particular language. Despite what translations may suggest, languages aren't all just "different ways of saying the same thing." Each language will suggest its own nuances of thought. For example, in my studies into Icelandic, I have found it to be a bit more metaphorically inclined than English (perhaps in part because of the prevalence of kenning in Old Norse poetry). The language seems to lend itself to more of an intellectual and abstract mindset than English, and in my discussions with Icelanders I have noticed this trend in their own thoughts. Of course, if we were to instead compare English to Chinese, we would see even great examples of different processes of thought, but as I know next to nothing in that language, I cannot speak from experience.

That said, perhaps the hardest thing to translate is humour. Even British humour is regarded in America as something "different." When you add in another language, with its own wordplays, modes of thinking, and so forth, this can only exacerbate the situation.

Certainly, in viewing Closely Watched Trains, I was able to catch a lot of the humour, and much of the class was caught laughing and some particularly easy-to-catch jokes. I did feel like some of them fell flat for the audience, though. Since I felt a bit closer to the comedic style of this film due to my experience in Icelandic comedy, it seemed I would sometimes pick up on jokes that many of the others in class simply didn't catch, leaving the professor Marek and I some of the only ones letting out a chuckle.

I don't want to dissuade anyone from Czech comedy, though, and make them feel like they just won't "get it," because I still think there is a lot to appreciate and laugh about in them. They certainly do involve a bit of a sensitivity to bitter sarcasm and dry delivery, though, so those of you prone to extremely slapstick based humour may be less thrilled.

As a sample of Czech humour, I will reproduce for you here the very first lines spoken in the film, in which the main character describes his family history:
My name is Milós Hrma. They often laughed at my name.* But otherwise, we were a happy family. Our great-grandfather Lukas, as a tambour, fought on the Charles Bridge of Prague, and when the students threw cobblestones at the soldiers, they hit great-grandfather with such aim that he was getting a pension ever since. One gulden per day. He didn't do anything after that, except buy a bottle of rum and a pack of tobacco every day. My grandfather William was a hypnotist and the whole town believed his hypnotism was prompted by a desire to go through life without any effort. My father, an engine driver, has been retired since the age of forty-eight, and people are mad with envy since dad is healthy and will draw out his pension for twenty, maybe thirty years... without doing a thing. Great-grandfather Lukas bought a bottle of rum and two packs of tobacco every day. Instead of staying home, he went to see the workers and made fun of the hard-working men. So every year, grandpa Lukas would get beaten somewhere. And in 1930, great-grandfather boasted in front of stone cutters whose quarry had just been closed, and they beat him so badly he died. And when the Germans crossed the frontiers in March and proceeded towards Prague, grandfather William decided to face the Germans on his own with hypnosis and stop the advancing tanks by the force of his thoughts. With outstretched hands and eyes glued to the Germans, he tried to get them to turn around and go back. Actually, the first tank stopped and the entire army stopped, but then the tank started forward again and grandfather wouldn't move—so the tank went right over him, cutting off his head and nothing more stood in the way of the Reich's army. And I went through a preparation course and I'm going to be a train-dispatcher, and the entire town knows I want to be a train-dispatcher for the simple reason that I don't want to do anything, just like my ancestors, except to stand on the platform with a signal disc and avoid any hard work, while others have to drudge and toil.

*His name can be translated as "pubic hair"
I hope that made you laugh as much as it did me.

P.S. Apparently, the Netflix Streaming Disc is on the way. Expect the horrors of Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus sometime this weekend...

10 November 2009

Taxi Driver posted, comments on Ju Dou

First order of business, my comments of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver
are now up over at the Gatehouse. Here's a snippet from that article:
While perhaps not as widely referenced as Casablanca, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) is a classic in its own right. Certainly, this is a different era of filmmaking altogether. A lot of time has passed; new techniques, technologies, and styles have developed, flourished, and sometimes faded; this is a new generation of directors.
It was a pleasure watching and writing about this film, and I hope for those who have seen it, you will enjoy my comments. For those who haven't, well, maybe it will make you think it's about time you did.

Secondly, I just returned from one of my film studies classes. This week we watched Ju Dou (1990) by Chinese director Zhang Yimou. The film was beautiful shot and certainly interesting. Personally, while I loved the characters, I found the story perhaps too "drama" for my tastes, though certainly one better than generic melodrama.

What follows is a free flow list of thoughts after viewing:
Color symbolism. Taoist use of blue/red applies to Ju Dou's clothing, but yellow? What does yellow mean in this movie? Is the child a continuation of the old man's power? Something new? Significance of funeral tradition may be lost. Would be interested in Wes's comments on the film, as he may understand some of the cultural significance more.
That may not make sense to most of you, but maybe it has you curious to find out what the hell I'm talking about. Good movie, though not one of my favorites so far.

09 November 2009

Buh-whuh? Another blog?

Yes, I know I already have a blog over at ottens.co.uk called Cinema is Cinema, and I've so far been lackluster in updating it as frequently as intended. I'm hoping to remedy that, but this may also help a little. Why would starting a new blog help? Well, think of this one as a companion. I'll make quick notes on movies as I see them, and try to make mention of every one after viewing.

I'd like to think that this one will be a lot more relaxed and low key. My blog over at the Gatehouse is already geared towards a large audience on a well-run and elegant website, so I end up with the pressure to be professional. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as I'm looking to pursue film studies professionally and that blog gives me experience speaking intellectually about films on a regular basis. However, it does mean that writing a post because a much more daunting task than simply spewing out a few comments on film. Again, this is very good in that it pushes me to improve, but makes it harder to keep up with it in the midst of all sorts of coursework, etc.

If I keep this one much more light and informal, I think it'll free me up to get quick ideas out first that I can refine later for the blog proper.

Also, this one will be more suited to movies I watch that would seem hardly worth noting in Cinema is Cinema proper. For example, perhaps I'll do a little write-up on such horrors of cinema as Gamer and Diatron 5 (a.k.a. Space Transformers) and eventually, when I watch it with Dan and Alex, Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus.

So here's my list of movies I currently plan on writing about for Cinema is Cinema proper:

Taxi Driver
The Third Man
Wild Strawberries
The Cranes are Flying
Picnic at Hanging Rock
The Shop on High Street
Loves of a Blonde

Of course, some may be cut as I consider the list and as it grows larger as the days pass.