Saturday, February 16, 2019

A Movie that Can't Carry Half It's Weight

It's insidious how much easier it is to see movies I kind of want to see than movies I really want to see. That's how I ended up watching 2018's Ant-Man and the Wasp. It was right there, on NetFlix, ready to play. I liked the first Ant-Man but nothing I'd heard made me want to see the sequel. If I'd known then what I know, I definitely wouldn't have bothered. But like Merlin says in Excalibur, you don't know how the cake tastes until you've tasted it. Ant-Man and the Wasp tastes like styrofoam.

Which is not to say I altogether hated it. Michelle Pfeiffer is really good, her natural warmth so refreshing to see again after so long. It's not much of a role, it's certainly nothing compared to her Catwoman. She basically just shows concern and hugs people. But she's one of those people where you can see how star quality is something distinct from acting talent, though she's a good actress--there's just something about her mannerisms and voice that is fundamentally strange and appealing.

Of course, the fact that she's de-aged in many scenes adds another strange layer. Along with Pfeiffer, Michael Douglas and Laurence Fishburne get the de-aging treatment. None of them look quite as convincing as Michael Douglas did in the first film but maybe my eye is just learning to spot the seams. I suppose it's good enough for a full length feature now even if it isn't perfect. The de-aging on Shah Rukh Khan in Fan (the first film to feature a de-aged actor in a main role) wasn't nearly as good as in Ant-Man and the Wasp and I was still able to enjoy it. It's too bad Kirk Douglas' condition would make it impossible to use the effect on him. I wonder how he feels seeing his son de-aged.

The first third of the film is almost unendurable. It reminds me of any run of the mill Disney live action movie from the 90s because of the forced, hackey humour and the little girl who somehow knows much more about life than her goofy dad, Paul Rudd.

There are two little girls in the movie and they never remotely act like real little girls. They're not as annoying as Michael Peña, though, as an Hispanic stereotype. I don't remember him being so annoying in the first film--maybe this is because, according to Wikipedia, the actor improvised more in that film.

The action sequences are creative enough, though. I liked the car chases with shrinking and suddenly enlarging cars tumbling down the always cinematically reliable streets of San Francisco (see Bullitt, Vertigo, or Hulk). Sequences in the climax set in the quantum realm are truly gorgeous, despite the presence of tardigrades.

Tardigrades are so overexposed, they're so over. Let's have another microscopic star for a while, huh? I've always liked planaria.

Walton Goggins is also a bright spot in the movie though his character, a gangster or black market dealer, is completely superfluous. Still, he easily dominates every scene he's in.

The movie's called Ant-Man and the Wasp but it clearly should've been Ant-Man 2 for all Evangeline Lilly does in the movie. Rudd's character has a delicate balance, trying to get friends and family to trust him, changing people's minds about him and while the dialogue feels pretty canned Paul Rudd has some natural charm he lends to a rough around the edges character. Lilly's character, Hope, is basically a default action heroine and her only motive throughout the film is wanting to save her mother. The movie might have been called Ant-Man and Ghost--Hannah John-Kamen as Ghost doesn't get a lot of screen time but she conveys a lot of the pain that must be intrinsic to her daily life as a character who only halfway inhabits corporeal reality. In action scenes, this makes her a perfect foil for Ant-Man and Wasp, as well.

It's not quite as bad as Thor: The Dark World but Ant-Man and the Wasp definitely a below average MCU film.

Twitter Sonnet #1206

A restless tread acquires endless wheels.
Beside the driver sat a weary smoke.
The car this side includes protruding heels.
A feeble kick reproached an empty Coke.
A sense of glowing sight adorned the box.
As steps the finger tips resound to-night.
In time the random ruckus all but talks.
A diff'rent song was writ to now recite.
A row of sour brass imposed a sound.
The air was cut by window grids to cubes.
The long and shaking shadow fell to ground.
The voices mixed were sages, gods, and rubes.
On mirrored rails appeared the other train.
The wood and iron fixed the box's lane.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Everything Happens to Moclans

The Orville's back with another sex issue episode about Moclans who may well be the Issue Species. Written by Star Trek: Enterprise and Family Guy writer David Goodman, "Deflectors" offered some bigotry rearrangement to give us perspective again on how hatred can be just as odious and destructive when it's heterosexual relationships that are out of the ordinary. It works well enough but mainly I enjoyed this episode for Jessica Szohr whose role in the story confirmed for me she's a more than worthy replacement for Halston Sage. This isn't like Dr. Pulaski replacing Dr. Crusher, it's more like Mila Kunis replacing Lacey Chabert as the voice of Meg Griffin.

Spoilers after the screenshot

Talla (Szohr) develops in the very organic way of being at the centre of an episode that's not about her. Instead, we learn about her through how she reacts to things, most of the development being therefore in Szohr's performance. I liked the moment when she decides to go out with Locar (Kevin Daniels), taking a confident step towards him in the conference room.

There's been little in dialogue so far to distinguish her from Alara (aside from the off-hand mention of her family having a history of military service) but her demeanour speaks volumes about her maturity.

Kevin Daniels as Locar is also really good, all the Moclan actors finding that tricky balance between comically stilted and truly three dimensional. Peter Macon continues to be a bottle of barely repressed emotion. He has a moment where he explodes a little when confronted by Talla. She says he ought to be more open minded because of what happened to his kid. It's easy to see why this hit a nerve--that's something that's probably on his mind every waking minute.

The subplot about Kelly (Adrianne Palicki) breaking up with her boyfriend was okay, I liked it mainly because it was a rare glimpse into Kelly's personal motives. We really need more of those.

I loved the backlot ambiance to the Simulator's version of the 1940s.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Education in Pearls and Watches

Ginger Rogers escapes from a reform school and finds herself accepted into a secret boarding school for pickpockets in the first part of 1946's Heartbeat. This entertaining first act of the film also stars Basil Rathbone as the headmaster of the school who guides his clutch of thieves with a firm but elegant hand. The second and third acts of the film are an entertaining enough romantic comedy, though.

Rogers plays Arlette whose first target when she's out on the streets turns out to be another famously elegant actor, Adolphe Menjou, whose pearl stick pin she nabs somehow by rolling into him on the crowded trolley. I like to think she caught it with her mouth--at any rate, it's the only way I can think of.

But he catches up with her in an amusing scene in a movie theatre where he allows the dialogue from the film currently playing, about a thief being sentenced at court, to do the talking for him. But instead of turning Arlette in to the cops, he enlists her as a pickpocket for his own purposes, to steal a watch from the handsome young Pierre de Roche (Jean-Pierre Aumont).

She poses as the niece of Menjou's colleague and, of course, Arlette winds up stealing more than Pierre's watch. Rogers is sweet and charming as ever, amusingly off-balance yet canny for most of the film, and Jean-Pierre Aumont is handsome with fetchingly quick mannerisms, a worthy romantic lead. But the conflict the writers were obliged to contrive for the two in the middle of the film manifests abruptly and never with any satisfactory explanation, vaguely being put down to Pierre's class consciousness by a supporting character, but Pierre himself never says anything to support this.

Melville Cooper, the Sheriff of Nottingham from the Errol Flynn Robin Hood, also has an amusing supporting role as Pierre's freeloading friend who briefly desires to marry Arlette. I honestly would like to have seen that though, even more, I'd have liked a full movie about Arlette at Basil Rathbone's school for thieves. Heartbeat is available on Amazon Prime.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

By March or Train, by Word or Thought

Choosing a life of unyielding virtue may seem only a matter of choice and dedication, particularly to the young. But as George Eliot demonstrates in her great, 1871 novel Middlemarch, the difficulties involved in such an endeavour entail more than self-denial and resolve. The difficulties consist in shifting goal posts, the nature of virtue as its defined in one's own mind contrasted with its definition in the minds of others, the usefulness of maintaining a reputation to achieve noble ends weighed against an unrelenting dedication to full disclosure and public confession, and the effect certain attitudes and actions may have on one's loved ones. Above all, life is damnably complex in spite of any attempt to apply a simple formula to it.

What an extraordinary variety of subject matter Eliot appropriately draws on to make this point, a point made even more sharply for the fact that this variety of subject matter is confined to one, sparsely populated, rural town in England. Alternating between stories of different local families, stories that periodically connect with one another, Middlemarch is about religious devotion, the complexities of marriage, dedication to scientific advancement, public achievement, and profound cultural shifts prompted by new economic realities. I found myself thinking of mid-20th century Westerns for the book's reference to the impending railway and how it will alter the town--although published in 1871, the story takes place in 1829-30, when railways were just being introduced to parts of England.

"But come, you didn't mean any harm. Somebody told you the railroad was a bad thing. That was a lie. It may do a bit of harm here and there, to this and to that; and so does the sun in heaven. But the railway's a good thing."

"Aw! good for the big folks to make money out on," said old Timothy Cooper, who had stayed behind turning his hay while the others had been gone on their spree;—"I'n seen lots o' things turn up sin' I war a young un—the war an' the peace, and the canells, an' the oald King George, an' the Regen', an' the new King George, an' the new un as has got a new ne-ame—an' it's been all aloike to the poor mon. What's the canells been t' him? They'n brought him neyther me-at nor be-acon, nor wage to lay by, if he didn't save it wi' clemmin' his own inside. Times ha' got wusser for him sin' I war a young un. An' so it'll be wi' the railroads. They'll on'y leave the poor mon furder behind. But them are fools as meddle, and so I told the chaps here. This is the big folks's world, this is. But yo're for the big folks, Muster Garth, yo are."

Timothy was a wiry old laborer, of a type lingering in those times—who had his savings in a stocking-foot, lived in a lone cottage, and was not to be wrought on by any oratory, having as little of the feudal spirit, and believing as little, as if he had not been totally unacquainted with the Age of Reason and the Rights of Man. Caleb was in a difficulty known to any person attempting in dark times and unassisted by miracle to reason with rustics who are in possession of an undeniable truth which they know through a hard process of feeling, and can let it fall like a giant's club on your neatly carved argument for a social benefit which they do not feel.

Caleb Garth, a farmer and land agent, is not a very well educated man himself but has a sort of automatic faith in the progress promised by the railroad. But there's a continual conflict in the book between what has been reasoned out by one party and what has been instinctively felt by another, and then this conflict varies in the degree to which one party is capable of reasoning and the other is capable of feeling.

At roughly the centre of the first part of the book is a young woman named Dorothea who is passionate about Puritanical ideals of self-sacrifice and public good. Eliot obtrusively draws many connexions between Dorothea and 17th century religious philosophy as it was perceived in the 19th century. Dorothea's veneration of John Milton is coloured by the ideas regarding Milton's personal life current in the 1800s.

"Could I not be preparing myself now to be more useful?" said Dorothea to him, one morning, early in the time of courtship; "could I not learn to read Latin and Greek aloud to you, as Milton's daughters did to their father, without understanding what they read?"

Personally, I think it unlikely that Milton's daughters would be very useful readers to him if they didn't understand what they were reading, and I think it less likely they could learn to read Latin and Greek without picking up any meaning at all. But maybe this is a view Eliot shared but was reluctant to state directly in the face of the prevailing opinion at the time.

[Dorothea] began to work at once, and her hand did not tremble; on the contrary, in writing out the quotations which had been given to her the day before, she felt that she was forming her letters beautifully, and it seemed to her that she saw the construction of the Latin she was copying, and which she was beginning to understand, more clearly than usual.

In the spirit of self sacrifice and devotion, Dorothea marries a reverend named Casaubon much older than her, a private man with a lifelong devotion to a book he's been researching and writing on mythology, his ego too sensitive to allow him to admit it's a book he's not really qualified to write. Eliot makes this clear as she does the disastrous nature of the marriage between the two which is, on both sides, founded on ideals that can never answer the true emotional needs of either one of them. Dorothea reminds me a lot of Margaret Fuller, the American feminist writer, who died twenty years before Middlemarch was published. Fuller also loved Milton, expressing her love in passionate terms not unlike Dorothea's ideal of devotion to a man. In a review of some of Milton's collected works, Fuller wrote; "We love hero-worship, where the hero is, indeed, worthy the honours of a demi-god. And, if Milton be not absolutely the greatest of human beings, it is hard to name one who combines so many features of God's own image, ideal grandeur, a life of spotless virtue, heroic endeavour and constancy, with such richness of gifts." Yet one of the works that seems to have most strong influenced Fuller's opinion on Milton is his pamphlets on divorce, which are extraordinary in part for how they emphasise the mutual well being of husband and wife rather than framing his argument on the devotion of the latter to the former. This would certainly have been a good lesson for Dorothea and Casaubon.

A story running parallel to that of Dorothea's is of a doctor named Lydgate who earns Dorothea's admiration for his ideals of improving medical care in Middlemarch with recent scientific advances as well as new ideas of medical practice. But Lydgate also finds his marriage an impediment as his wife, the shallow Rosamond, turns out not to be the expected pleasant, pretty, and subservient companion. Instead, Lydgate's marriage becomes the difficult process of acquainting an immature, spoiled woman with the realities of life--though Eliot never vilifies Rosamond any more than she vilifies Casaubon.

Lydgate's devotion to his ideals has also ill prepared him for financial necessity and the two fall into debt as much from his lack of concern over their spending as her compulsion to spend. So he finds himself in a position where he continually has to reassess his principles, distracting him from his idealistic endeavours.

Whereas, again and again, in his time of freedom, he had denounced the perversion of pathological doubt into moral doubt and had said—"the purest experiment in treatment may still be conscientious: my business is to take care of life, and to do the best I can think of for it. Science is properly more scrupulous than dogma. Dogma gives a charter to mistake, but the very breath of science is a contest with mistake, and must keep the conscience alive." Alas! the scientific conscience had got into the debasing company of money obligation and selfish respects.

The last portion of the novel deals with a scandal involving Lydgate and the town's wealthy banker, Bulstrode, and Bulstrode's attempts to conceal aspects of his past from the public. The novel's keen psychological nature is wonderful throughout but becomes especially haunting in the tangle of moral preoccupation on display as fiercely moral people find themselves forced to examine an increasingly ambiguous border between self-interest, self-sacrifice, vanity, and moral purity. As gossip threatens to destroy Lydgate, Eliot continually brings attention to how unproven crimes can bring incredible damage to the alleged criminal precisely because the crime can't be proved, thereby compelling people to continually examine the allegations. "They are just the suspicions that cling the most obstinately, because they lie in people's inclination and can never be disproved," Lydgate says at one point. Earlier, Eliot describes how the scandal first spread:

But this vague conviction of indeterminable guilt, which was enough to keep up much head-shaking and biting innuendo even among substantial professional seniors, had for the general mind all the superior power of mystery over fact. Everybody liked better to conjecture how the thing was, than simply to know it; for conjecture soon became more confident than knowledge, and had a more liberal allowance for the incompatible. Even the more definite scandal . . . was, for some minds, melted into the mass of mystery, as so much lively metal to be poured out in dialogue, and to take such fantastic shapes as heaven pleased.

Eliot's attention to psychological detail is evident throughout the book. More than this, the book is a delight to read, the characters just as often entertaining and fascinating as they are intellectually compelling.

Twitter Sonnet #1205

Between the framing storms was silent coal.
A still restrains the clouds in frozen grey.
The blackened rock's in truth an empty bowl.
A swirling thought was slowing down to-day.
A soulless pop repeats in darkened stores.
Expensive lamps were cold between the walls.
A furtive wight has picked the frozen doors.
Alarms in echoed cry alert the halls.
In threaded beams the treasure path constricts.
The keys to cases lost are cold in dust.
A foot that's hot to slip egress restricts.
A spinning light reveals the heist is bust.
The ghostly cuffs provoke a stifled plea.
The parting shades reveal there's naught to see.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Satan's Junk Mail

Some Devil worshippers have no personality; some Devil cults are pretty lame. That seems to be the gist of the criticisms cited in the Wikipedia entry for 1961's The Devil's Hand, and it's true enough, the characters are strangely lacking in motivation and, aside from voodoo dolls, cult activities don't seem to amount to much more than sitting around watching a couple dancers. There's enough intriguing about the film, though, that I found the lack of stimuli kind of stimulating in itself. Like the inscrutability of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odysssey.

Mind you, the movie's nowhere near as good as 2001, it's ultimately a pretty simple morality exploitation film about a man, Rick (Robert Alda, father of Alan), who strays from his pure hearted fiancée, Donna (Ariadna Welter), to dally with a beautiful witch named Bianca (Linda Christian). The two women, who happened to be sisters in real life, were both stars in Mexico and Linda Christian had a few English language film credits, including the first adaptation of Casino Royale. Both give good performances, particularly Christian--it's easy to see why Rick likes her so much.

It's less clear why she's so interested in him. I kept thinking of a William S. Burroughs quote; "Any old soul is worth saving, at least to a priest, but not every soul is worth buying. So you can take the offer as a compliment." I'm not sure why Rick's is so worth buying, but who am I to judge?

At first he seems concerned that Donna suddenly suffers from a heart condition after a visit to the weird doll shop. At the same time, he seems like he really wants to join the cult instead of infiltrating it to figure out how to help Donna. He comes across as such a blank that the things that happen to him, and the way people react to him, automatically seem more significant as our only means of deducing any information about him.

The best part of the film is the beginning when Rick is having dreams of Bianca despite never having met her. Christian dancing around against a cloudy background, as beautiful as she is, is more confusing than seductive. It doesn't seem so much like Rick is complicit with the forces of evil as Rick and the forces of evil are helplessly pulled along together through events as they compulsively perform acts expected of them.

There's a dreamlike quality to the whole film I found intriguing. It's available on Amazon Prime.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Pink Room Detected

We got at least one big revelation in last night's new episode of True Detective, "Hunters in the Dark", and we got some hint as to the disagreement that fractured Wayne and Roland's friendship. But my favourite thing continues to be the relationship between Wayne and Amelia.

Spoilers after the screenshot

In one of the increasingly scarce 1981 segments, Amelia (Carmen Ejogo) compulsively starts to explain to Wayne (Mahershala Ali) that she's not normally so easy once they've slept together. But Wayne calmly tells her he's not judging her, and, of course, he wouldn't. If we've learned one thing, Wayne is guy who prefers straight answers.

Possibly this is what makes him so good at aggressive interrogations. But not quite as aggressive as Tom (Scoot McNairy) who, unsurprisingly, does not seem to be guilty as Julie seemed to indicate from her phone call. When Wayne and Roland confronted him about that call, the simmering sense of betrayal on Roland's face was good, actor Stephen Dorff going with something nicely subtle when a lot of actors would've been wolfing down the scenery.

It's Tom who beats the crap out of another informant. It would make sense that Tom would be a little more desperate to find answers now that he's implicated as a suspect. And so he finds the "Pink Room" we've been hearing about.

"The Pink Room" is also the title of a track on the Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me soundtrack, by the way. I doubt it's related, but with all of the hidden clues and references in season one, who knows? Julie's confusion about her father's identity is certainly reminiscent of Laura Palmer's relationship with her father.

It's a bit of a drag the killer was unmasked in the same episode that introduced him. I guess I should be happy it didn't turn out to be the priest or something equally hackneyed. I hope this guy's motives end up being more interesting that paedophilia, too.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

When Dalek Meets Cyberman

I seem to appreciate the Russell T. Davies era of Doctor Who a lot more than I did the first time I watched through it. I always liked it, though I generally disliked the season finales. But last night I watched the end of the Tenth Doctor's first season, "Army of Ghosts"/"Doomsday" from 2006, and loved it. Ten and Rose are so good together and I love seeing the Daleks wipe the floor with the revival era Cybermen.

Generally I prefer the classic series where the romantic chemistry between Doctor and Companion is understated if it's there at all but I've really grown to appreciate what Davies did. The revival era has often felt like commentary on the old series, something halfway between fanfiction and reinterpretation. There's much more focus on the Doctor as a character with him becoming almost a Christ figure in the Davies era while at the same time bearing the weight of his own sins. That's the kind of extreme focus you might expect from fanfiction. At the same time, Davies brings in the "domestic", an interpretation of what Doctor Who, the series, meant to a regular kid watching it growing up, and successfully transmutes it into meaningful experiences for the characters on the show.

By which I mean, it's not like the Doctor pulls clips from old episodes and asks companions to comment, or even nods and winks at the audience. Rose trying to explain to her mother how great it is to be flying around the universe instead of working in the shop is a moment that touches directly on what I mean.

Jackie, Rose's mother, is offended--"I worked in a shop, what's wrong with that?" She never had the opportunity Rose had. And Rose's point isn't that there's something wrong with a person working in shop, but there's also no sense kidding ourselves any one of us wouldn't be off in a TARDIS if we could. Admitting that is, inevitably, to admit life is fundamentally disappointing. So disappointing that most people don't want to acknowledge it. But the kind of kids who watched Doctor Who would think that way.

I felt bad for Jackie watching the episode again last night. She's so sure the ghost appearing in her flat is her deceased father. She even believes she can smell his cigars. She even taunts the Doctor a little, pleased for once to think she knows something he doesn't, but it turns out that's still not the case.

"Army of Ghosts" also has a nice moment referencing the Doctor's dislike for guns. Rose tries to stop him from leaving the TARDIS to confront a group of soldiers with rifles pointed at him:

ROSE: Doctor, they've got guns.

DOCTOR: And I haven't. Which makes me the better person, don't you think? They can shoot me dead but the moral high ground is mine.

I respect the Doctor a lot more for following his philosophy knowing full well it's impractical than in the recent season where circumstances around the Doctor are improbably rearranged to make the idea flawless. Though, in the instance in "Army of Ghosts", it is actually practical, if he has to go out and confront the soldiers at all--he'd never be able to gun them all down before they got him, the only reasonable course is to demonstrate they have no reason to shoot him.

It's strange how far the show has strayed from romance since the Davies era. Like I said, I like the classic series with its smaller focus on romance, but it's clearly a key part of what brought massive ratings to the show in the Davies era. It seems strange the show would be reverted in this regard to the format it was in when it was cancelled in 1989. Well, look, I've supplied you with another explanation for the show's decline in ratings. I suspect it's this much more than the Doctor being a woman now.

It's so bittersweet seeing Ten and Rose separated. David Tennant plays a young Doctor but you can always see the layer of experience underneath while Rose, as the dialogue about working in a shop demonstrates, feels very much like a young person feeling out her place in the universe for the first time. The 50th anniversary episode's interpretation of the Doctor becoming externally younger makes sense as a sort of psychiatric self-treatment, and his preference for younger companions would seem part of that, but it is nice watching him gradually realise there's something more genuine between him and Rose.

Twitter Sonnet #1204

Compared potatoes turn the tot to trust.
A timer burned the fries beyond the pan.
The larger spuds were painted gold and rust.
The stowaway turned out to be a yam.
Intimation surged in fortune's purse.
A slow deserving court remained to talk.
In better sleds the paintings still rehearse.
On harder snow the patients simply walk.
Encouraged stars repeat in storied lines.
As pearly dots emboss the books of sky.
A burning Braille becomes the harder signs.
The hand of God gave phones a second try.
Collected pegs create a cleat retreat.
Assorted socks will let the feet compete.

Saturday, February 09, 2019

The Big Cats are Also Watching

The fence is good because it has meat on it. This lioness is one of several lions, tigers, and bears I saw yesterday at Lions, Tigers, and Bears, an exotic rescue animal sanctuary located near my sister's house in Alpine, California. She and I visited the beautiful sanctuary yesterday.

We immediately saw three white lions, two females and one male named Lou, when we drove up. Lou rolled around on his back for us.

The enclosures for most of the animals were spacious and beautiful. Our guide, Michelle, took us around with a few other visitors as she fed the animals, a time of day when an appreciable amount of personality comes out in the creatures. Michelle also told us a bit about the abusive former owners of some of the animals, which ranged from deliberately cruel treatment to simple neglect. It was amazing to hear how often some asshole buys a bear or tiger cub without considering the expense and difficulty of caring for an adult.

This bear was unable to walk when he was brought to the sanctuary due to a lifetime of malnutrition. He can walk now after rehabilitation but he can't run or stand.

We watched all the bears being fed with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which they seemed very happy to receive. All of the big cats got meat.

So did the little bobcats.

We also saw pumas, leopards, and tigers. This was the healthiest looking tiger we saw, Maverick, named after Tom Cruise's character in Top Gun:

But my favourites were definitely the lions. Watching them being fed, seeing them growl and bare their teeth so close, was extraordinary. I took some video--the big male lion, Hank, was mesmerising:

The sanctuary spends a lot of money caring for and rescuing these animals and can use all the help they can get. You can donate at their web site here.