Sunday, November 28, 2010

Reinventing Sherlock

When I find myself in need of a break from watching Asian dramas or simply in search of respite from reading subtitles, I usually look on to the BBC to provide me with alternative entertainment. Most shows take anywhere from 3 to 13 episodes, so like your standard jdorama, it only takes a relatively short time to go through a season. Since I've had a good run with Merlin for three years now, I figured it wouldn't hurt to check out what they can do with another reboot of  a classic character, this time in the form of Sherlock Holmes. I wasn't expecting much from it really, but after watching the first episode, I found myself hooked and loving it. So if you haven't seen it yet, I suggest you go watch it immediately. A definite must-see this year.

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When BBC/PBS announced their intention to create a Sherlock Holmes series set in modern-day London earlier this year, a lot of people couldn't help but question the propriety of updating such a well-loved and iconic character for television. Coming on the heels of the Guy Ritchie adaptation, the public wasn't so sure whether they were ready to see the great detective once again, and in such a short period of time, without his signature fore-and-aft deerstalker cap, inverness cape and curved calabash pipe, solving cases outside of the Victorian period. It didn't seem like such a good idea to rework such a classic figure, especially when actors such as Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett have already left an indelible mark in playing the said character. To do so, was to court disaster; but to do so and get away with it, would simply have to be a work of genius. And that's basically what creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss's Sherlock is---inspired work.

Away from the fog and the gas lit streets of the Victorian era, the Beeb's latest incarnation of Sherlock Holmes is young, dapper and tech-savvy; possessing all the eccentricities and resourcefulness of the Arthur Conan Doyle original, albeit now more pronounced, having been adapted to a contemporary setting.  Meanwhile, Dr. John Watson, who's previously been relegated as the bumbling sidekick in a great many screen adaptations, now gets the respect he deserves, being portrayed as a solid and capable fellow.

The pilot episode, A Study in Pink, recounts how the two first meet and end up solving crimes together, all in the course of taking up residence at 221-B Baker Street. It's an absolutely brilliant episode, penned by series creator Steven Moffat, that's set up to provide sufficient character exposition. It alone gives tremendous insight as to what qualities and attributes that make up for Sherlock and John's odd yet interesting partnership, all the while engaging audiences with this mystery that involves a slew of suicides, the cause of which, the police have trouble figuring out on their own. What makes this episode particularly memorable is that not only does it sparkle with wit and humor, it's also smartly written and paced in a manner that pays homage to Arthur Conan Doyle's works without necessarily censuring itself from introducing enough changes to keep the material fresh and original. With excellent cinematography and wonderful camera work that can rival that of a full-length movie feature, the first episode of this series directed by Paul McGuigan is a certified winner, not to mention a rare piece of television. 

I'm a high-functioning sociopath, do your research.

Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as the 21st century Holmes; he is a delight to watch, as is Martin Freeman, who winsomely plays the great detective's esteemed colleague. They play off each other so well  that it's not hard to imagine why this legendary pairing between an invalided army doctor and a consulting detective in literature is so well-loved.

Cumberbatch's version of Sherlock is by the book, highly intelligent and scientifically inquisitive, peerless and impressive, appallingly obnoxious and more so, painfully exacting in his social ineptitude. In order to demonstrate the character's superior mental acuity for observation and deduction, Cumberbatch delivers some of his lines in a flurry, at times they're even spit out in an exasperated tone---clearly to lay emphasis on the fact that words often fail to coincide with  the speed in which Holmes has assembled  the facts and therefore, everyone else has to pick up their pace to keep score. It's a spot on performance, one that calls attention to both the character's brilliance and underlying compulsion to prove himself  superior. He also does quite well in showing Holmes's occasional fits of lethargy, particularly when the detective finds himself without a case to solve in order to make life a little less boring.

Equally noteworthy in the role of Dr. John Watson is Martin Freeman, whose earnest demeanor and appeal provide a wonderful yet endearing contrast to Cumberbatch's domineering presence as the great Sherlock Holmes. Playing the loyal friend and chronicler, he's the guy who best represents the viewer;  one who's synchronously impressed and baffled by Sherlock's intellect and its "limitations". Proving himself indispensable as the everyman in the course of each adventure, Freeman's Watson is perhaps the one closest to the original---he's strong, reliable and practical, he's the heart and conscience to Sherlock's detached objectivity, the sole anchor that gives the genius a semblance of humanity. 


Of course, the two are drawn together out of a need for action and adventure, and The Blind Banker, finds the two of them officially turning into a crime-fighting duo and settling down into their respective roles. The second installment to the said series comes off more as a routine episode, as Sherlock and John find themselves at odds with a Chinese smuggling syndicate, after being asked to investigate a mysterious break-in at an investment firm. Writer Stephen Thompson works with a locked-room mystery and delineates the case with a certain level of detail and difficulty, making it an episode worthy of the attention of Sherlock Holmes.

The third episode, The Great Game, packs a mean wallop as writer-creator Mark Gatiss fills up the show's 90-minutes with bite-size mysteries to set up the first appearance of Sherlock's archnemesis, Moriarty. It's an ambitious episode that plays on a heightened sense of danger; it's fast-paced and dense with information, leaving audiences hanging on to every word and breathless with the onset of action. It  also beautifully tracks the development of the relationship between its two main characters, with particular emphasis on Sherlock's tendency to obsess over certain matters. The whole endeavor ends on a nail-biting cliffhanger that's certain to keep audiences eager and hungry for its next season. In sum, the BBC series, Sherlock, is a remarkable piece of television programming. It's probably one of the best, if not the best to come out from across the pond this year. Those looking for quality entertainment should definitely consider putting this on their watchlist---not only is it worth every minute of your time, but you'd be hard pressed to find another pairing with such charm and chemistry.    
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Sunday, November 07, 2010

Osamu Tezuka's MW

I don't normally read manga because I don't have the time and patience to leaf through volumes of an ongoing series generally designed to entertain people half my age, but I decided to give this one a shot seeing that  there's an official one-volume release in english by VERTICAL and because not being the type to leave well enough alone, I had a few issues to sort out after seeing its big screen adaptation. It's the first of three mangas by Osamu Tezuka that I managed to finish, and while I found the overall experience to be fairly entertaining, what really captured my fancy was the author's layered attempt at making a socio-political statement in  the midst of creating something superciliously controversial and "shocking" to meet public demand for more serious and dark, adult-oriented material... in other words, something different from what they would normally expect from him.

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Osamu Tezuka's well-known for his contribution to the world of manga with enduring classics like Astroboy, Phoenix and Black Jack forming an integral part of his legacy, but as any certified manga buff would  attest to, his body of work was by no means limited to producing wholesome, kiddie fare, as the man dubbed as the kamisama of manga was apparently competitive enough to submit a few entries in response to the gekiga movement that gained popularity in the 70s.

MW is the story of a psychopathic killer, a priest and the former's obsession with finding a chemical warfare agent, which happens to be the subject of an intergovernmental conspiracy. From page one, the reader is brought in the thick of the action, where a frantic father is seen delivering ransom money to a designated pick-up point, only to discover his beloved son dead, ruthlessly murdered by the kidnapper. The criminal successfully evades the authorities through the aid of a priest, who is apparently conflicted and wracked with guilt but is somehow unable to bring this evil man to justice. What follows then is an account of how the two meet-- of how banker Yuki Michio and Father Garai Iwao shared a history, a secret which they hide away from society-- being the only survivors to a deadly gas leak which killed the inhabitants of an island, ultimately, dictated the way they lived and  inevitably bound them together to suffer a dysfunctional yet enduring relationship. And so begins this convoluted tale of madness, forbidden love and violence, as two boys who once held each other in a dark cave find themselves at odds with each other a decade or so later, but still unable to completely withdraw from each other.

Considered by most to be Tezuka's darkest work, MW provides an interesting examination on the nature of evil, the value of sacrifice, the commission of sin and man's continuous search for redemption in a world that can't be expected to pay attention to one thing, let alone have faith in something. Serialized in 1976-78, the manga contains undeniable references to particular places and events; characters are drawn in a certain fashion, firmly grounding the story's setting to a specific period, in effect providing a good measure of social commentary and political intrigue, almost enough to justify its more gratuitous and salacious content.

From the heart-stopping suspense, unabashed melodramatic elements that at times can come off as rather cheesy, to the more sensational and latent points of controversy, Tezuka's MW unabashedly tackles sex,  murder, homosexuality, political activism and terrorism with relative aplomb and mediocrity. There's a certain liberality as to how the story's villain is portrayed;  Yuki, being an amoral being, is shown to kidnap, extort, rape and murder at will in order to bring his diabolical plan to fruition. No person is spared  and nothing  is sacred, as Tezuka repeatedly displays the said character's penchant for cruelty; allowing him to perform heinous crimes with glee. MW paints a dark and sinister world where children are collateral damage, women are sexually abused and discarded, and mass murder can be committed without any thought or consequence, to the extent that the perpetrator goes scot-free. It's a place where the few who seek the truth are rewarded with their own brutal and untimely death; where faith and religion shine a dim light, and man's base desires weaken one's resolve and dominate over one's conscience.

Needless to say, Tezuka succeeds in making something close to a gekiga by packing MW with contentious material to meet a certain criteria; there are sections in it that were obviously designed more to alarm and shock readers than to nudge the story forward but that much was expected of the medium at that time. As a result, the manga panders and detours to include insignificant plot devices and side stories, giving it the illusion of greater depth and complexity, when all it needed was a more convincing ending, a better wrap up to the grandiose storyline that it  managed to establish. The great thing about it though is that while it's severely hampered by the trappings of its genre, there's nothing in it that's offensively explicit or graphic that will turn off a first-time reader. It might not have the epic scale and holistic finish  of Ode to Kirihito nor does it have the same trippy visuals and psycho-sexual pondering of Apollo's Song; but what sets it apart from his other works is that it's rather evocative of its time and unmistakably forthright of its stand on certain issues as competently discussed by Kristy Valenti in her piece entitled In Defense of Tezuka's MW. Like it or not, the man behind this controversial manga was a prolific storyteller. His artwork might be garishly cartoonish by today's standards, but a good number of his works do remain relevant and readable. From telling the tale of a robot boy who's more human than his inventors, to recounting the adventures of a samurai intent to retrieve his body parts from 48 demons, there's going to be at least one or two of his works that will speak even to the most hardened reader because he never failed to infuse his works with some food for thought.
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Friday, November 05, 2010

Off a Bridge, Into the Mist

"It must be exciting to be a fighter, to be totally free." 

Stuck in a hotel room out of town, without a laptop and any internet access, I ended  up watching a  documentary on cable entitled The Art of Action: Martial Arts in Motion Picture. Filmed in 2002, the said documentary provided a general overview of the martial arts genre-- tracing its origins and influence  back to the Peking Opera, citing iconic figures and films of note, showcasing clips of classic and modern movies, along with various interviews of directors and artists.

At that time, the genre was at the height of its popularity, it figured prominently in Hollywood movies, and slowly found itself a new audience, one used to the high-octane action and the colorful frenzy offered by MTV. Jacky Chan was on his way into becoming a household name in the West, wire-fu was in vogue and of course,  Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, being one of the most celebrated films from the East, became a frequently discussed topic.

Impressing both critics and audiences worldwide, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, represented the best of Chinese cinema, and therefore it was no surprise that the documentary singled out this movie for its breathtaking images, gravity-defying fight sequences and most of all, its tragic love story. The movie in itself might not have had the same success and recognition it enjoyed in the United States as in its native country, but Ang Lee's first entry into the wuxia genre certainly made quite an impression on the industry and the  general viewing public. Everyone had their own take on the film and basically everyone had their own personal reason for loving [or hating] it. And while Chinese audiences initially shunned the overly romanticized elements of it and treated the martial arts sequences as standard fare for such films, the fact that it took home an Oscar and became an acclaimed box office hit abroad made a lot of people sit up and take notice.

Director Tsui Hark attributed the film's success to its story and how the issues confronting its characters, specifically that of a rebellious teen, remain relevant in contemporary society; Donnie Yen, on the other hand, effusively praised the poetry of specific scenes; critics and film analysts adjudged it to be a prime example of how arthouse cinema successfully crossed over to mainstream; and just about any martial artist/actor/stunt man harped on Yuen Woo-Ping's unparalleled skill in choreographing fight scenes that matched a  film's aesthetic.

"Whatever path you decide to take in this life... be true to yourself."  

There's certainly much to appreciate about this movie, for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon appealed to everyone's sensibilities, providing a potent mix of action, romance, political intrigue, and social commentary in one beautiful period piece. To some, it's a love story of epic proportions, to others it's a carefully crafted tale about three women's struggle for identity and honor in a male-dominated society steep with stifling conventions and outmoded traditions. Within a decade of its release, numerous interpretations have been made regarding the movie's underlying theme(s), fans and netizens have come up with their own theories, but very few really focused on tying everything up with the movie's ending.

Artistically rendered with care to the very last frame, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon admittedly gives way to a bittersweet ending-- Jen (Zhang Ziyi) tells Lo (Chang Chen) to recall the legend that he told her in the desert about how a faithful heart makes wishes come true. She then asks him to make a wish before slowly falling off the bridge of Wudan, descending into the mist; in calm surrender, in atonement for her sins. It  seemed like a fitting end to a tempestuous maiden who deprived two people of a chance at happiness but speculation soon surfaced as to whether or not the legend in the film held special meaning... was it merely a device inherent to the genre or was there actually a message behind it?

So Jen gracefully disappears into the mist on account of a legend, with the intention to right past misdeeds, leaving the audience wondering about the reason behind her actions and Shu Lien's reminder, "to thine own self be true".

Watching the documentary made me think about this part of the film, particularly when Ang Lee only gave a statement about how it was a dream of his to film a female character drift serenely into the clouds, without so much as a word on what he meant by giving Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon such an ending. I've read quite a few reviews over the past years and have encountered countless musings on the movie's source material, its connection to Eastern philosophy and how characters' names corresponded to the title of the movie, but none of them captured my imagination as Matthew Levine's thought-provoking article in Bright Lights Film Journal-- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Art Film Hidden Inside the Chop-Socky Flick -- which argued for the presence of strong feminist themes with the fearless postulate that Jen, in all humility, did not only seek redemption by throwing herself over that bridge; she also wished with all heart to be reborn, to be free. When I first read this article, I couldn't believe how much this single line of thought changed the way I viewed this movie. It shifted my attention away from Li Mubai and Shu Lien's love story and permanently drew  my thoughts toward Jen and her dilemma; and there it stayed indefinitely. Five years later, I'd still catch myself thinking about Levine's thesis, others might have reservations about it, but every time I see a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon clip, I can't help but feel sad for Jen and a part of me would always wonder whether she got her wish.

Special thanks goes to patrick at for the beautiful screencaps that accompany this entry.  
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Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Bloody Backlog

Oh my poor neglected blog. Who would've thought that blogging would require so much work? It's rather hard to keep up when the world is so full of distractions... Guess it's high time I get my act together and finish all those pending reviews. Been working on bits and pieces without managing to focus  long enough on just one to bring it to completion. And  of course, September rolled in and I had to follow my weekly dose of Dexter and Merlin, which screwed up my one blog entry a week tenet (yeah right, wishful thinking) and by  the time October came, I had to finish my long overdue assignment of typesetting episodes of Sukeban Deka for SkewedStudios Fansubs and Scanlations (sigh*). So to make a long story short, I suck at multi-tasking, hence the sorry state of this blog.

Given that I haven't published anything in over a month, I decided to make an extra effort to get this thing updated. The gameplan was to take care of all my backlogged entries this November (or at least try to cut them down to half)  and abstain from starting on another series till I'm done working on my current line-up. Sounds simple enough, right?

Well, I could not have been more wrong. True to form, I already violated the said rule when I spent the past weekend sloughing through the mess that  my sister laughingly referred to as Buraddi Mandei. And here I thought Security Police had the over-the-top-anti-terrorist-scenario-trophy in the bag but it appears that Falcon and a bumbling counter-terrorist division known as Third-i, along with a bunch of misguided kids would have to take home the award. Which reminds me, our copy of Bloody Monday 1 & 2 is now up for adoption.

This drama has a virtual menagerie of birds and insects, sloppy assassins who can't even be bothered to use a silencer (let alone be expected to tie their rebonded hair), an incompetent government agency with an acronym that fails to command respect (PSST!), and children of a cult leader who like to go by a certain letter in the alphabet. Furthermore, pretty boys and seductive girls are abound, plus the clickity-clack of the computer keyboard's there to signify that the earth....errrr world... is safe and sound.

What more can you ask for? It's just twenty or so hours of non-stop plot twists that defy logic and explanation, apparently, the whole thing is too complex and only a mathematical genius can map out the equation... NOT! But who cares about such trivial things when people are searching for a cure to a virus and  life as we know it is threatened by a nuclear explosion? Right? RIGHT? Anyway, if there's anyone out there who would like to give this drama a shot, I'd be more than happy to leave the darned thing inside a toilet tank under lock and key. Details as to the stall number and the location of the public toilet where the said package can be picked up will be texted to you as soon as you pour your heart out online and pledge to join my army to restructure Japan and whatnot. Go save the earth, why dontcha? Reduce, reuse and recycle.
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