Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Bugs and Birds

The return of spring means the return of a lot of bugs and birds. This big fellow was on my balcony screen door (those are my white shirts hanging to dry behind him). He was on the inside of the screen door somehow--probably flew in while I was hanging laundry. My technique for transporting many bugs and spiders is to gently slide an index card under them.

He fortunately accepted this without any fuss.

The birds have actually been more troublesome lately. They start singing every day at exactly 5am. Yesterday had some additional noise thanks to two pigeons who are considering moving into my bathroom.

I awoke to some strange, deep cooing, which I think is pigeon for, "Hey, come take a look at this place." Another pigeon flew in to join the one already inspecting my bathroom. I was afraid of taking many pictures because it meant I had to open the door between my bathroom and the rest of my apartment and I was afraid one or both of them would panic and fly at me and then start wreaking havoc. I thought I'd finally scared them both off yesterday but just this morning I saw one timidly hanging about on the window sill.

The Mayor's Faith

Season three of Buffy the Vampire Slayer starts with a story about adolescent conflict with authority figures and builds on it brilliantly, reaching an apex with the relationship between Faith and the mayor. The final episode ends disappointingly with a bad cgi monster, though perhaps there was no satisfactory way to wrap up the drama between the villains this time.

After Faith (Eliza Dushku) had defected a few episodes earlier, it became clear that a father figure was exactly what she needed. Watching her surreptitiously opening up to the mayor (Harry Groener) about her youthful exploits--showing off to make him proud--is tragically sweet. Her tough girl pose, that caused her to claim to Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) that she didn't care about killing people, slips a little bit to reveal a vulnerable little girl.

The sad irony is that the father figure she finds also truly hardens her to killing and we see her dispatching one human after another. Her and the mayor's relationship is like a dark mirror of Buffy's with Giles (Anthony Head).

I love how Joss Whedon also makes the mayor, supreme madman he may be, genuinely care for Faith. So much so that he drops his hokey exterior to go into a murderous rage when Buffy nearly kills her. Both Harry Groener and Eliza Dushku give just the right performances. Their characters really had enough story potential for at least one more, entire season.

Once again, the season finale represents a leap forward for Joss Whedon in terms of writing quality. I also like the business between Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Oz (Seth Green) and I love the awkward kissing between Wesley (Alexis Denisof) and Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter).

Two people who'd been lusting for each other for half the season discover their total lack of chemistry in this one bit of physical contact. It's particularly funny considering the working relationship the two will later have on Angel which I can finally start watching now . . .

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Keeping It Under Your Hat

Last night I read one of the newly released Sirenia Digests, #174, a short story from Caitlin R. Kiernan called "The Man Who Loved What Was". Speaking as someone who loves What Was myself, the story is an absorbing contemplation of the value of collecting old things in one's brain. Seemingly treating the concept as an actual accumulation and transportation to a separate plane of existence, the story contextualises the act of studying and researching history to make the psychic impact have something like a physical. There's a sadness and eeriness to it.

To-day I've been reading John Milton again. I have the big collected Milton on my kindle but it just wasn't adequate for me--not to mention difficult to jump to specific points in--so I ordered one of the 1952 Encyclopedia Britannica editions from a thrift store on Amazon. All of those are pretty nifty hardbacks, by the way, and I wouldn't mind having the full collection one day. I brought two of them with me to Japan (Boswell and one volume with Jonathan Swift and Laurence Sterne).

The Milton volume has miscellaneous poems--including "Comus", "Lycidas", "L'Allegro", and "Il Penseroso"--as well as Paradise Lost, Samson Agonistes, and Areopagitica, all unabridged. These really are the essentials if you're going to put Milton into such a slender volume. It's strange what a feeling of peace and invigoration Milton can give me, just reading "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity" on the train this morning. None of the millions of Miltonic analyses quite addresses it, probably because words can't. And after all, what's the point of any art if its essence could really be explained?

Twitter Sonnet #1451

The stooges changed atop a skinny hill.
With warnings dire, rocks began to roll.
We waited late but won't receive a bill.
The stain of mustard takes a ketchup toll.
As Stanley built a cue from trees we left.
There's something wrong about a herring bone.
Devised along a needle cut a cleft.
It's knitting, chums, that makes a yarn atone.
We're waiting 'long the wobbly yard for wind.
Let's toss the glass from deck to lofty spar.
I heard the garnet's lately on the mend.
Let's cook a boat of thick and heavy tar.
The sleeping singer sorts a sneeze to song.
Abaft the whales, the chopping keel was strong.

Sunday, May 09, 2021

The Game's Break

"Hustlers of the world," William S. Burroughs once wrote, "there is one Mark you cannot beat; the Mark inside." I don't know if the makers of 1961's The Hustler had this quote in mind but it's certainly hard not to think of it when watching the film. Paul Newman and Piper Laurie star as two people on the brink of self-destruction in this surprisingly contemplative and sad film about a pool shark.

"Fast" Eddie (Newman) is a brilliant pool player and a small time hustler who wants to make it into the big time by beating a famous player called Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). He comes close but ultimately he's defeated not by lack of talent but for being a "born loser", at least according to an interested gangster named Bert (George C. Scott).

Now broke and depressed, Eddie stops for breakfast in a bus station where he meets Sarah Packard played by Piper Laurie. She has the air of doom about her, a perpetual grim smile, and a gaze that's steady not from confidence but from hopelessness. But it's kind of the shadow of confidence or pride. She pleads with Eddie not to beg for money in one crucial scene--in an earlier one, she's reluctant to take him in because, she says, he's "too hungry."

The two have an interesting relationship. You can see why she would be both initially repulsed by and ultimately enamoured with Eddie's personality. There's a scene between Eddie and Bert where Bert elaborates on his impression of Eddie's personality. Throughout the rest of the film, the viewer joins Eddie in wondering at its accuracy. Is Eddie playing against himself, are his losses due to something inside him that wants to lose, that sees loss as the only realistic outcome?

If he has a compulsion to lose, he has another compulsion to achieve the high of great play. He describes the feeling of playing to Sarah in one scene, the ecstasy of just somehow knowing how the balls on the table or going to move based on a visceral sense of the table surface, the balls, and the pool cue. You can see why her eyes shine in an unaccustomed way while she watches him talk.

It's a brilliantly shot film with terrific performances, particularly by Newman and Laurie.

The Hustler is available on The Criterion Channel.

Saturday, May 08, 2021

Dangerous Forms in the Ice

What makes a good horror movie? May as well ask what makes a good movie of any kind. But we know quality when we see it, except when we don't, as in the case of 1982's The Thing, a movie that was critically panned and unpopular in its initial release. I think part of the reason for that is it's just so damned good. Sometimes things are better than they have a right to be. The trailers for The Thing probably made it look like a cheap knockoff of Alien. And, certainly, the Alien influence is there. Some would argue that it's a matter of The Thing and Alien having had the same influences, but the fact is a whole crop of movies were greenlit entirely because of the success of Alien. But more than any of the rest of such movies from the period or, really, since, The Thing took the effective qualities of Alien and pushed them harder.

The Thing is based on a novella from 1938 that had been adapted to film before by Howard Hawks. Both of those earlier versions are very much about paranoia, the sort of wartime thriller about not knowing the true nature of the people you work and live with. And that's certainly present in John Carpenter's 1982 film but it arguably draws quite a lot from H.P. Lovecraft as well. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, with its setting in Antarctica, was possibly an influence on the original novella, too, but Carpenter's film successfully channels the kind of horror Lovecraft's book excelled at--of encountering alien shapes disturbing not merely for how strange they are but for how they reconfigure normalcy.

Compared with Alien, I think what The Thing has is a very successful sequence of rising tension based on changing rules. We have this very normal, day to day world of humans established in this terribly remote location. People so used to a precarious existence they've become comfortable with it. Then it becomes more precarious as unpredictable things happen. The aliens in both Alien and The Thing, importantly, don't operate by completely arbitrary rules--you sense an underlying logic to how they live and act even if you don't know what those rules are. First it's a dog, then it's some kind of squid plant, then it could be anyone and everyone you know. It doesn't make sense and yet it kind of does, just like humans living comfortably in Antarctica.

And just as I can say these things are what make Alien and The Thing great horror films, it's still no easier for filmmakers to produce a reliable formula for making great horror films. The nature of formula is, in itself, deadly. It certainly killed the xenomorph and Ridley Scott was right to leave it out of Prometheus, the most successful horror film in the Alien franchise since the first film (Prometheus was another film that was better than it had a right to be).

It'd been more than twenty years since I saw The Thing when I noticed it was added to The Criterion Channel on May 1. I'll always love Alien but The Thing had the advantage of being a little fresher. It was much easier to be in the moment with MacReady (Kurt Russell) and the rest. I didn't remember who were going to be aliens when MacReady devised that test with the wire and the blood samples so I was entirely in sympathy with the shock of the outcome.

The very fact that the movie sets up a man who operates on gut instinct as the hero in contrast with helpless but diligent scientists is another part of the horror, too. It's too easy to second guess instinct, and sometimes instincts can be at war with each other. When instincts take charge while the doctor is getting his arms bitten off by a gut wound with teeth, it's frightening even when the instinct saves your life. When you start to rely on instincts, it means you have to be constantly on guard, never relying on a system to tell you what's going to happen next--those things constructed by the human capacity for abstract thought. The horror of relying on instinct is the horror of being reduced to an animal state. But we are all animals . . .

The Thing is available on The Criterion Channel.

Friday, May 07, 2021

The Dad Batch

Just two days later and there's already another episode of The Bad Batch, this one directed by Clone Wars veteran Steward Lee and written by newcomer Gursimran Sandru. A decent episode though perhaps not the sort of thing one might expect from a show about a team of misfit clone troopers--but definitely the sort of thing I almost invariably expect from Disney.

Hunter (Dee Bradley Baker) along with the rest of the Bad Batch wind up on Saleucami. There they meet up with one of the few friendly faces they can count on--Cut Lawquane, the clone deserter turned farmer, introduced all the way back in 2010 in Clone Wars season 2.

That was long before The Bad Batch were part of the show and it's never mentioned how Cut knows any of them, especially since Rex promised to keep Cut's existence a secret. But it's plausible, I don't think I need an explanation right way. What certainly needs an explanation is how Cut wasn't affected by Order 66--something no-one even thinks to ask. Maybe he just never heard someone say the triggering phrase, "Execute Order 66"?

But this episode is really about a little girl, Omega (Michelle Ang), finding herself far from home for the first time and emotionally adjusting to it. The animation and the performance by Michelle Ang make it work though her bonding with Hunter, and her decision not to stay with Cut's family, feels a little premature. She only just met the Bad Batch, this episode might have made more sense later in the series. I think the idea here was to show a softer side of Hunter, though. He was obviously modelled on Rambo and I found myself thinking of Sylvester Stallone holding his girlfriend in a glittering pool thanks to Jack Cardiff's cinematography in Rambo II.

The episode is less impressive when it comes to tactical logistics. Tech and Echo execute a plan involving getting their ship impounded without even informing Hunter or checking to see if anyone else--like Omega--is aboard.

It compared especially badly to the season two Clone Wars episode, which I rewatched after the Bad Batch episode. More than anything else, the show had a better sense of pacing and more dynamic blocking when George Lucas was the producer. Shots just flow into each other more organically and dialogue comes at a more natural pace. Whatever you may think of George Lucas as a director, he apparently had a knack for guiding other directors, as both Lucas and Dave Filoni have talked about extensively in interviews. Also, Cut's wife, Suu (voiced by Better Call Saul's Cara Pifko), had a much sexier outfit in 2010.

Sure, it's not the most realistic thing for a woman on a farm taking care of two kids. But it was nice to see and outfits like this are almost completely absent from Star Wars under Disney. I'm reminded of how Carrie Fisher had to demand "space bling" from Rian Johnson after she'd been dressed like a gas station attendant in Force Awakens.

The Bad Batch episode was written by Gursimran Sandhu, a relatively new writer whose most prominent credit is that she was assistant to Benioff and Weiss on Game of Thrones--and was a staff writer in the final season. She promotes her connexion to Game of Thrones prominently on her web site. I think a lot of people would consider having anything to do with writing the final season of Game of Thrones more of a liability than an accomplishment. But it's nice to see The Bad Batch is looking for writers outside of the Rebels/Resistance pool.

The Bad Batch is available on Disney+.

Twitter Sonnet #1450: Pizza Edition

The first they shared a pizza cheese was met.
The second pizza danced her eyes across.
The third occasion pizza fixed a set.
And fourth the lovers swam in pizza sauce.
No sandwich swapped for pizza ever served.
The pizza love replenished hope and bread.
For pizza crusts are soft and warmly curved.
So pizza dough can fill a lonely head.
Researchers wait in snow for pizza men.
Suspicious dogs deny the pizza facts.
To burn a pizza's sure accounted sin.
For breaking pizza fast, a mouth retracts.
Returning carbs with love, the pizza formed.
So triumph came and pizza hearts were warmed.

The Sea and the Hobby Horse

It's a rainy day here again and seems like a good time to talk about books I'm reading. I feel like it's been a while anyway. Currently I'm reading A Ship of the Line, the second Horatio Hornblower novel by C.S. Forester, and I've also been rereading Moby Dick. It's a pretty instructive contrast for ways to approach stories of seafaring. The Hornblower novel is like an extraordinarily good sandwich while Moby Dick is like a terrific feast prepared by a master chef over the course of a month utilising ultra-rare ingredients. But the stylistic difference could be described in other ways besides quality. A Ship of the Line is plot driven, compulsively readable. Forester does paint a picture but it's so much more about what happens next. Melville, with Moby Dick, is so much more about establishing mood and sensation.

But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted. Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant. Ever and anon a bright, but, alas, deceptive idea would dart you through.—It’s the Black Sea in a midnight gale.—It’s the unnatural combat of the four primal elements.—It’s a blasted heath.—It’s a Hyperborean winter scene.—It’s the breaking-up of the icebound stream of Time. But at last all these fancies yielded to that one portentous something in the picture’s midst. That once found out, and all the rest were plain. But stop; does it not bear a faint resemblance to a gigantic fish? even the great leviathan himself?

That's the kind of writing that couldn't be taught in a million years. Only instinct could show a writer how to so effectively move from simple descriptive prose to presumptions of instant mental associations, from traditionally composed renderings to colloquial, conversational injections. It has the peculiar sensation of a narrated film in which the pictures and sound are somehow embedded in the words.

Oh, I'm also still reading Tristram Shandy. I guess I've been slowly working my way through it for over a year. That's the real polar opposite of A Ship of the Line. Where the Forester novel is all momentum, Tristram Shandy is a deliberate project against momentum. And I do sort of admire that. Every time I pick the book up I laugh at something but, strangely, however funny it is, it never makes me want to pick it back up. I guess this is the surest sign it is postmodern before postmodernism was codified. When I set out to read what were formerly considered the four great, essential novels of the 18th century--Pamela, Tom Jones, Roderick Random, and Tristram Shandy--I'd never have imagined the last would be the one that would slow me down the most, possible because, of all four, Tristram Shandy was the only one for which I've actually spoken to or heard of currently living admirers.

I have been kind of getting more into it lately. I'm just over halfway through and the protagonist has finally emerged from his mother's womb. An argument has ensued about the accident of him being baptised "Tristram"--his father wanted "Trismegistus" but the housemaid who was supposed to communicate this to the priest forgot the full name by the time she reached Mrs. Shandy's bedchamber. There's also some hints that the boy's nose may have been crushed by experimental forceps. My pace at reading has picked up a little bit lately now that I've started to suspect the author, Laurence Sterne, basically decided to role play as a man who has no penis. The fundamental joke of the novel is that it presents the symptoms, preoccupations, and desires of an intelligent author writing in such a condition. He never explicitly invites the reader to contemplate the possibility that he has no penis, but he does talk a lot about his Uncle Toby whose genitals were crushed by shrapnel from cannonfire and who, for the rest of his life, has a "hobbyhorisical" fixation on diverting all conversations to the subject of battlefield artillery or fortifications. Shandy, the fictional author, meanwhile, devotes whole chapters to button holes and an embarrassing accident with a chestnut and then separate chapters justifying the others. I feel like I get the joke and the intricacy of its execution is fascinating but, even so, I feel like I could zip through a dozen Hornblower novels before I finally finish Tristram Shandy.

Thursday, May 06, 2021

The Hills are Still Alive

If you can watch 1965's The Sound of Music without wanting to visit Salzburg you might be made of stone. Or maybe you live in Salzburg. Anyway, it's hard to imagine a lovelier blend of great locations with great cinematography. The songs and performances certainly don't hurt, either.

I like to ask the kids at the junior high schools where I work what movies they've watched lately. Since network television is still dominant in Japan, often many of the kids have watched the same thing. One channel has a regular Friday night movie--imagine my surprise when last week it was The Sound of Music the kids were talking about.

Just let that sink in. The kids at the junior high were all abuzz about The Sound of Music. From 1965. Because most of them saw it on TV. I felt a little weak in the knees. Have I mentioned lately how much I love this country?

Streaming is gaining ground here and I think a lot of them saw it because it's also on Disney+ worldwide. That's how I watched it (I still don't own a TV). I don't remember the image being so crisp and beautiful--I must not have ever seen the 2010 restoration. My god, those mountains, those streets and buildings. The interiors, too, are amazing, many of them also filmed in Salzburg, including this absurdly ornate ballroom.

This was clearly built in a time when rich people had taste.

The scenes filmed in studio also benefited from Ted D. McCord's cinematography. I love the lush, saturated lighting in the gazebo scenes, mixed with nuanced shadows deftly enough to avoid it looking like a Star Trek set. It looks unreal, like a delirious dream.

And the songs, of course. I love the oddly anxious quality of "My Favourite Things". Even a fairly sappy song like "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" works because McCord and director Robert Wise decided to drench the Mother Abbess in darkness.

Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer are both fantastic though I find myself liking the Baroness played by Eleanor Parker more than Maria. Maybe if Maria were played by someone younger than Andrews I could feel benevolent to her petulance but as it is the suffering of the Baroness along with the complexity of her grace and understanding make her seem a fitter mate for Captain Von Trapp. But I can't knock Andrews' singing voice.

The Sound of Music is available on Disney+.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

The Mild Batch

Happy Cinco de Mayo, everyone, or Children's Day, if you're in Japan like me. It's more like The Children's Hour in film and television these days and last night brought the premiere of The Bad Batch, another new Disney Star Wars series seemingly designed to privilege the temperament of three or four year old viewers. It's a sad irony that the series it follows directly on from, The Clone Wars, was excellent for most of its run for featuring storytelling complex and mature enough to please viewers of any age--the irony deepens when you consider The Bad Batch is supposed to be about a military unit. The showrunner for The Bad Batch is Jennifer Corbett who, despite having a few credits to her name, has no Wikipedia entry. Probably because her most distinguished credit so far is Star Wars: Resistance and among the four or five fans of that series it's likely none is a Wikipedia editor. It might not make sense to you or me for Disney to hire anyone from Resistance for another Star Wars series, but I would argue that the infantilisation that has dragged down so much Star Wars media under Disney has more to do with rigid studio policy regarding story content than it does with the talent they hire. There's a reason so many of the great directors and screenwriters to-day refuse to work with Disney--not to mention their increasingly publicised petty dramas with the directors, actors, and writers who are willing to work with them. Just imagine all the things we don't hear about.

But the first episode of The Bad Batch isn't all bad. For one thing, they clearly had a better budget for visuals than Rebels or Resistance.

The show opens on some pretty gorgeous snowy forest. We meet some clone troopers and a Jedi General, Depa Billaba (voiced by the lovely Archie Panjabi), fighting one of the last skirmishes of the Clone Wars. The general's padawan runs up, a bright eyed boy of eleven or twelve whose voice sounds like he's 45. That's because he's voiced by Freddie Prinzzz11!!@ Jr. and he's supposed to be a young Kanan, one of the dullest characters from Rebels.

The episode has three credited directors--Steward Lee, Saul Ruiz, and Nathaniel Villanueva. Whichever one directed this first segment has no instinct for action sequences. Once Kanan (called Caleb at this age) jumps in the fox hole with Depa and some troopers (Dee Bradley Baker) the camera switches to boring head shots in which the tension of a battle sequence is totally absent from sound effects or the actors' performances.

They all sound like they're in a cool, quiet, recording studio.

The Bad Batch shows up to save the day and they've had an addition to their group since we last saw them on Clone Wars--the regular clone, Echo, who's now part man and mostly droid. The episode even quotes from Return of the Jedi when one character calls him "More machine now than man." I was happy to see him because I thought his story was one of the creepiest, most fascinating parts of Clone Wars, and certainly a bright spot in that final season. And I do like the concept of the Bad Batch itself, the idea of these genetic misfits having specialities beyond the scope of their regular kin.

This episode introduces another one, a girl called Omega (Michelle Ang). I kind of like her--when I saw her in trailers, I thought, "Oh, no, not another whiny kid," though I'm actually kind of an advocate for whiny kid characters. Luke was one, so was Ahsoka, and starting them off as petulant little dweebs is nice if you're going to watch them mature. Of course, when they go the route of Ezra Bridger and just leave him a whiny kid for the entire run of a series, it can be really frustrating. But two dimensional characters usually are, if they're supposed to be leads, which I'll come back to in a minute.

It's kind of refreshing that Omega just seems to be a sweetheart, though. And I like the idea of the Kaminoans making a female version of the Jango Fett clone. It takes way too long for the other characters to figure out what she is, though. When Tech, the brains of the Bad Batch, finally points it out and says he "thought it was obvious"--I mean, it really was. Excruciatingly.

The main character conflict is between Hunter and Crosshair, the leader and the sniper of the group, respectively. Crosshair is the only one for whom Order 66 registered in his programming and sadly it makes him a boring, flat, villain character, so obviously and consistently doing dastardly things the other members of the Batch look like idiots for not questioning it.

Tarkin (Stephen Stanton) shows up to be another disappointing example of Disney thinking the way to write villains is to make them all like Boris and Natasha. Tarkin tests the Bad Batch and is impressed with their abilities but instead of strategising about ways to utilise them he sends them off to a distant planet to kill a bunch of kids. It might have been more reasonable for Tarkin to have instructed them to kill Saw Gerrera (Andrew Kishino) who is among the refugees with the kids.

Saw is made to look a bit like a blend between his Clone Wars appearance and his appearance as Forest Whitaker in Rogue One. That's kind of nice but I wish the Batch and Gerrera didn't so quickly end up talking peacefully. But all of this makes Tarkin's argument that the clones should be replaced by conscripted, normal citizens even less sensible. If you don't want troops that are going to be susceptible independent thought, it seems logical you would stick with the programmable army you already have. Tarkin cites budgetary issues, but the risks of defecting units seems a bigger liability, not to mention the whole reason the clones were created in the first place, that the Republic didn't have the means to raise an army. The Empire might create a new military infrastructure from the ground up but it would take time and money.

I was actually more interested in the question of why the clones were replaced by stormtroopers than I was by the Bad Batch themselves. It would be nice if the show ends up having a more interesting final answer. The biggest problem, though, is this show needs more graphic violence.

The Bad Batch is available on Disney+.

Twitter Sonnet #1449

Distracted ghosts descend on painted stones.
The oil burned before the clock could strike.
The scratching sound denotes the moving bones.
Despoiled gates were crowned with spear and pike.
The loyal eyes discovered mists and pearls.
A clutching vine disrupts the tile path.
A marble face's hid behind its curls.
A written song was left describing wrath.
The voices never hidden march at dusk.
Amidst the ev'ning shrugs were quiet eyes.
The stone was watching wheels disrupt the dust.
A banner flew beneath the cloudy skies.
The waiting fae became a quiet rock.
Yet answered she the long awaited knock.

The Weakest Man in Greece

1997's Hercules would be one of the least memorable Disney animated films, and one of the least memorable Hercules movies, if it weren't riding the wave of the Disney Renaissance. As it is, you could say this is when the heart of the Renaissance stopped beating while a few interesting vital fluids continued flowing through its veins. The Hunchback of Notre Dame soured the company on risk so there was clearly a desire to go back to something simpler and closer to the Little Mermaid formula. At the same time, composer Alan Menken's fatigue caused by writing the same songs over and over seems to have caused the film to borrow from his celebrated musical adaptation of Little Shop of Horrors. The end result is a film with a few decent qualities that overall fails to be really bad or really good. It's Spam--vaguely familiar meat-like substance in a can.

This version of Hercules probably owes more the TV series starring Kevin Sorbo than to the original Greek or Roman myths. The shlocky Italian movies from the '50s and '60s, with the likes of Steve Reeves and Alan Steel, are actually, tonally, not too distant from the original stories in their aim to please the audience on a more visceral, carnal level than on a moral level.

I don't think art should be morally prescriptive but I think me pointing to Disney's Hercules as an example of why morally prescriptive art is bad is a bit like people pointing to Pocahontas to say cultural appropriation is bad. It's a strawman. A more honest adaptation of Greek mythology would be fantastic because of the amorality involved but I would never except a Disney movie to be that bold (though Frozen nearly was). The trouble with Hercules is that it doesn't feel like there's much love in it.

It is somewhat ironic, though, considering it was sex that was the catalyst for the Disney Renaissance (as it usually is for births, come to think of it). Jessica Rabbit and Ariel showed how a sexy lead could propel a film above the likes of Oliver and Company and The Fox and the Hound. Hercules (Tate Donovan) and Meg (Susan Egan) are attractive and Meg is even sexy but not quite sexy in the right way. A Greek myth needs a bombshell, not a cynical comedienne. I say this despite thinking, like most people, that she and Hades (James Woods) are the strongest aspects of the film.

This would have been the right movie for a pin-up along the lines of Glen Keane's Pocahontas--it's notable that Glen Keane didn't work on Hercules or Mulan but he did work on Tarzan, a film with a pulse far more noticeable than Hercules' or Mulan's.

Like Little Shop of Horrors, Hercules features an R&B chorus of black women who have no apparent relationship to the characters and, like Little Shop of Horrors, the film features a number of seemingly Jewish characters, signified by the use of Yiddish by characters voiced by Danny DeVito and Wayne Knight. Unlike Little Shop of Horrors, neither of these elements fit the mise en scene. Along with a number of modern pop culture references, they do less to establish a sense of a people and place as to destablise the whole thing, as postmodernism, at its worst, so often does.

The sort of streetwise comedy antics would be more natural on the streets of New York, too, though James Woods' ad-libbed take on Hades is certainly a delight in itself. Conceptually, the character's not too far from Ratigan in The Great Mouse Detective or even Cruella de Vil. But Woods brings a typically magnetic performance to the role. It's a shame his almost invariably terrific performances are so often featured in inferior films. Maybe in a Mel Brooks take on Hercules, he and Meg would have been right at home, but as it is, their ironic tone butts against the film's sincerity. Or they might have worked had the story been set in 20th century New York, as Little Shop of Horrors successfully combined tragedy and acerbic comedy.

But this is a movie with the most rote and tired "I Want" song, Hercules' "Go the Distance". The best song in the film is the one that parts most from formula, Meg's "I Won't Say (I'm in Love)", which notably was a late replacement for another song that had been cut from the film. Unexpected circumstances forced Alan Menken and lyricist David Zippel to think on their feet, thereby achieving something more organic than the rest of the film. Even so, it's no "A Whole New World" or even "Kiss the Girl".

Hercules is available on Disney+.


This is part of a series of posts I'm writing on the Disney animated canon.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Saludos Amigos
The Three Caballeros
Make Mine Music
Fun and Fancy Free
Melody Time
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
Alice in Wonderland
Peter Pan
Lady and the Tramp
Sleeping Beauty
101 Dalmatians
The Sword in the Stone
The Jungle Book
The Aristocats
Robin Hood
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
The Rescuers
The Fox and the Hound
The Black Cauldron
The Great Mouse Detective
Oliver & Company
The Little Mermaid
The Rescuers Down Under
Beauty and the Beast
The Lion King
The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Sunday, May 02, 2021

Clearly Spring

There are so many flowers around here right now. It seems like there are acres of wildflowers and then there are all kinds of carefully tended plots and planters everywhere.

And, of course, there are lots of turtles.

It's been getting a lot warmer, too.

I mostly see turtles in the many canals and rivers all over the place.

The mystery of abandoned shoes continues.

These are some of the carp streamers I'm also seeing all over the place lately:

There was a strong wind that day and a thunderstorm.

The streamers are decorations for Children's Day, which is May 5. It's part of Golden Week, a series of holidays in early May. To-day, May 3, is Constitution Day.

Twitter Sonnet #1448

The cactus curtain lifts before the horse.
A story drove the roving knife to drink.
The shifting sand diverts the sheriff's course.
A border town defines the crater's brink.
The pushing cloud induced the mill to grind.
In rigs of barley, scattered film was fixed.
The night restored a liquid dream to mind.
The leader danced, their swords were hardly mixed.
A shadow worm was lime and lemon work.
Authentic horses wait beyond the edge.
The money builds an angel's eye of murk.
Receptive flowers crowd along the hedge.
A million tombs beneath the flowers lie.
The ardent breeze inspires fish to fly.