Saturday, October 31, 2020

Sean Connery

He was a great actor but Sean Connery, who passed away yesterday at the age of 90, was more than that. He had the rare combination of talent, charisma, and the strangely indefinable thing called star quality. Like Gene Kelly or Humphrey Bogart, he had strange, seemingly exaggerated physical characteristics that gave the viewer the impression of an extraordinarily clear view of a man's soul.

Those big, dark eyebrows, large eyes, thin but protruding lips--mostly it was the eyebrows, I think. I can imagine he was great onstage--those eyebrows must have been visible from the cheap seats.

I'm not a very big James Bond fan but I very much like From Russia with Love and Connery is certainly my favourite Bond. The role was originally offered to Richard Johnson, who turned it down, and years later had this to say about the part:

Eventually they offered it to Sean Connery, who was completely wrong for the part. But in getting the wrong man they got the right man, because it turned the thing on its head and he made it funny. And that's what propelled it to success.

Bond was supposed to be suave and sophisticated--the template was Cary Grant as he was in Alfred Hitchcock movies. But just as Cary Grant's sophistication appealed mainly because it was a playful guise over a working class upbringing, Connery made the role vulgar in a delightful way. Many of the things he does in movies that would seem reprehensible for most actors to do seemed charming when he did it--he was always inviting us along with him for the fun. He seemed to make an accomplice of everyone. He was wonderfully wicked. And directors immediately recognised it and started to try to take advantage of it. It didn't quite work, at least for me, in Marnie, where Hitchcock made him a little too reptilian. But when Connery deliberately tried playing against his charisma in Straw Woman it couldn't help but be disappointing, however fascinating that movie is.

It made him perfect for his role in The Man Who Would be King--that's one way to make the story of a scoundrel and a conqueror truly tragic. He was perfect in the role of an older Robin Hood in Robin and Marian--he has the apparent canniness of a capable leader and the charming vulgarity of a rogue. He was a good father for Indiana Jones, taking the concept of intellect combined with virility to a different configuration, believably being the same as and different to his son in just the way one might expect father and son to be.

But even when he was in bad movies, it was good just to see him. He was certainly one of the greatest of his profession.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Wear the Right Armour to Fight Dragons

Happy Halloween, everyone, and The Mandolorian is back with a not particularly Halloween-ish episode. Jon Favreau for the first time directs an episode--for both seasons he's written almost every episode but this is his first time directing one. This partly explains why this episode, "The Marshal", is better than the average episode from season one though not nearly as good as the one directed by Taika Waititi.

"The Marshal" has a great premise--the Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) has to get a small mining community on Tatooine to work together with their enemies, the Tusken Raiders, to defeat the Krayt dragon who preys on them both. This is a beast that's been teased since we saw its bones in A New Hope and the design and effects team do a bang up job with the pay-off.

Watching these poor little mortals trying to kill this behemoth, which turns out can spit tides of acid, is like watching something from Mody Dick. Favreau establishes the thing's massive scale really nicely when he shows banthas to be but a bite-sized snack--and we know banthas are the size of elephants. Because the first bantha in Star Wars was an elephant in costume.

Timothy Olyphant guest stars as the titular marshal, really more of a mayor, trying to hold things together in a town that was tyrannised by a mining guild since the Death Star was destroyed. It's nice to see that, in fact, for some innocent people, life did get worse when the Empire could no longer keep order. Real universes are complicated like that. I also like that the Sand People aren't made out to suddenly be pacifist sufferers just because they're indigenous. That wouldn't just break continuity it would be boring.

I still generally get the feeling the show is intended to be like a Spaghetti Western but by people who fundamentally don't understand Spaghetti Westerns. The score is one problem--the absence of any John Williams music continues to feel strange, especially with the opening logo, but it's also oddly understated in a way that's neither Star Wars nor Spaghetti Western. If you listen to the scores of classic Spaghetti Westerns, their most distinctive qualities are that they're experimental and operatic. Not just the ones by Ennio Morricone--they're frequently comprised of strange and often bizarre vocal choruses and rock elements when they're not beautiful, exuberant, symphonic melodies. You could say maybe The Mandalorian is aiming for a different tone than that but, I must say, something closer to those old scores would've perfectly fit the story of fighting an alien dragon on a desert world.

Altogether, something feels off in ways I can't always put my finger on, though I tend to assume it's the show's new special effects technique that allows artificial backgrounds to be created on a sound stage. There's something about shooting on a sound stage that changes the way actors and environment behave that is almost indefinable but unmistakable. Obviously this technique is great for the budget they're operating on but I wonder if it can't be improved. Maybe the the actors should squint more, maybe there should be more dirt, I don't know.

I liked the beginning of the episode with the Gamorrean prize fight though the Mandalorian leaving that guy to be eaten by the mysterious beasts felt a little silly, like it was there just to prove what a tough guy he is. It was reminiscent of Batman Begins and further cemented my impression that the Mandalorian is much more like Batman than a Spaghetti Western hero.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Our Other Halves and Halves and Halves . . .

If people are different depending on who they're with, than each person may be many people over a lifetime. The strange anxiety of encountering a past lover, then, is even stranger when that lover is dead, as in Robert Altman's 1972 film Images. Featuring an incredible performance from Susannah York, this disorienting, scary, and beautiful film is melancholy, wicked, and captivating.

A children's book author called Cathryn (York) holidays at a cottage in beautiful Irish countryside with her husband, Hugh (Rene Auberjonois). She's experiencing extreme anxiety that is either manifesting as or caused by (or both) phone calls she apparently receives from herself and by her husband suddenly transforming into her dead lover, Rene (Marcel Bozzulfi).

There are many wonderfully eerie shots of Cathryn seeing herself across a distance--a tiny figure on a hill or picking her way over stones across a turbulent stream. Another former lover starts to appear and plague her. She starts to figure out they're not real and so using a shotgun or a kitchen knife on either one doesn't seem so dangerous. Of course, we as the audience do not share her confidence--she seems saner when she's terrified.

Altman cited Ingmar Bergman's Persona as an influence and that's certainly apparent. But I was reminded more of another Ingmar Bergman movie, Hour of the Wolf, for the presence of the supernatural and the protagonist's identity as an artist. There's a bit of The Magician in it, too. The music by John Williams and Stomu Yamashita is also reminiscent of Bergman's films. It's one of those times when I find myself reflecting on just how astonishingly influential Bergman is but Images is a great film in its own right.

Images is available on The Criterion Channel.

Twitter Sonnet #1409

A useful thumb could hold a file down.
A knack results in skills at skillet eggs.
Reduce the city stress to panic town.
The best arenas take a million legs.
The rightful duck reclaimed the castle yard.
A year in sabotage refused to blink.
The ginger cookie changed from soft to hard.
Resuming clicks reward the ready link.
A fractured soul regards the flowing falls.
Betwixt the ruddy vines a rock arose.
Beyond the autumn copse a spaniel calls.
Beside the door a smiling flower grows.
Abandoned stones would gather brittle moss.
A city block of bread awaits the sauce.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

McDuck Hospitality

Scrooge McDuck finally reckons with his family's colonial past in "The Curse of Castle McDuck", an October, 1987 episode of DuckTales. Travelling to Scotland to visit his ancestral cottage, he reluctantly admits to the ducklings there's a whole Castle McDuck across the river a few yards away. But it's abandoned because of the cost of upkeep and, oh, yes, a demon hound.

Based loosely on "The Hound of the Wiskervilles", a 1959 Carl Barks comic, the episode makes it fun to watch the ducks exploring the mystery. The enthusiasm Huey, Dewey, and Louie (Russi Taylor) show for investigating the castle is great but most of the episode's best lines belong to Webby (also Russi Taylor).

Asking Scrooge (Alan Young) who the pretty girl is in a portrait in his bedroom, he explains that it's actually a picture of himself. She tells him his skirt is cute but wonders why he was wearing it and he patiently explains it's a kilt. "Well," she says, "whatever you call it, I hope you stayed out of the wind."

Throughout the episode, she has a tendency to say things that seem slightly insulting but with absolute, sincere innocence. When he explains the curse of the hound, she says, "Isn't a hound the same thing as a dog, Uncle Scrooge?" A good line for kids watching who might be wondering. When the boys suggest exploring the castle, Webby also thinks it's a good idea but kindly adds, "Unless you're afraid of the doggie, Uncle Scrooge." A perfectly innocent concern.

"I'd better hold your hand, Uncle Scrooge," she says as they jump on stones to cross the river. Fortunately, Scrooge shows himself to be no coward when he tames the hound with some sausage links he brought along.

The other ducklings have some funny lines, too. When Scrooge proudly changes into his kilt, he says, "All the McDucks used to dress this way." Huey remarks, "No wonder dogs kept chasing them."

Of course, the real culprit ends up being the druids who tell Scrooge how his ancestor built the castle on their sacred stones.

DRUID: "He robbed us of our treasured past, our heritage!"
SCROOGE: "Why would he do such a thing?"
DRUID: "To save money on building costs."

Scrooge concocts a moneymaking solution to benefit himself and the Druids and all's well that ends well.

I'm always surprised how well this show holds up. I keep trying to watch the reboot series--I started watching the Darkwing Duck special episode a few days ago but had to stop about fifteen minutes in. The writing is beyond bad, it's aggressively unfunny. It would be a little better if the characters would be quiet now and then but it's like the writers are contractually obligated to have the characters tell a joke every second. So they all feel really forced and there's so many of them, it's really stifling to watch.

Both DuckTales series are available on Disney+.

The Fox and Bear at Large

It's almost impossible to make an apolitical Robin Hood movie--the basic concept of someone robbing from the rich and giving to the poor leads the mind along all the inevitable topics for political discussion and philosophy--the rights of citizens, the rights of the government, the powers of each, and the permissible times to transgress them. So Disney's own 1973 Robin Hood couldn't avoid the issues as they did with The Aristocats. One wonders if it was reflecting on that film that led the makers of Robin Hood to show economic hardship and oppression so clearly. Yet it never becomes too complicated for a child viewer to appreciate and the film is populated by engaging characters. This film has garnered criticism in recent years for its recycled animation--some of it even from as far back as Snow White--but Robin Hood has plenty of its own material.

I loved this movie when I was a kid. I watched it over and over and sang the songs to the alternating bemusement and irritation of my family. I was too young to know how strange it was for the film to use an American folk country sound for its songs performed by Roger Miller in the role of Alan-a-Dale. Now that I'm older and have seen many films from the 1970s it's easy to see how it would have made sense to the filmmakers. Disney films were generally of their time, musically--the songs in most of their animated films fit with the style of most of the live action musicals produced at the same time. The 1970s saw an increase of a country sound in movies as the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s transformed into something more individualist. Films like Vanishing Point, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and Convoy portrayed misfit, handsome outlaws whose own doomed, illegal bid for personal freedom somehow seemed to liberate those who were in physical or spiritual proximity.

Obviously, Disney was never going to go anywhere nearly as dark as some of those films. A more apt point of comparison may be Smokey and the Bandit, a film whose hero also has a merry temperament--and an oversized comrade to boot.

Phil Harris returns for his third Disney film in a row, this time essentially playing Baloo again, inhabiting the role of Little John. And why not? Sure, it means it was easier for Disney to recycle animation but there's plenty of new material and Harris, his role in Aristocats notwithstanding, has a natural warm, distinctively American charisma that fits well with the emerging loner outlaw archetype.

Where The Jungle Book was about finding a community for a young boy in a world that, like 1960s western culture, was destabilised and filled with people eager to experiment, Robin Hood is more about a very old, established community temporarily under the rule of a corrupt, illegitimate king. Figures of established, traditional authority like Friar Tuck (Andy Devine) and Lady Kluck (Carole Shelley), speak with knowing wisdom about the eternal qualities of human nature. Prince John is portrayed as ridiculously self-absorbed and showing a tendency to lapse into comically childish behaviour. He, and his companion, Sir Hiss, are the biggest stars to the film, being voiced by Peter Ustinov and Terry-Thomas, respectively.

One of Ustinov's best known roles was that of Emperor Nero in Quo Vadis while Terry-Thomas was a famous character actor known for a long string of ridiculous, uppercrust Englishman roles, excelling at portraying such a pure example of selfish decadence that he was always a particular delight to see getting knocked down.

He and Ustinov have a comedic chemistry that is easily one of the film's greatest assets. Ustinov dives into his character's ludicrous hubris without restraint and Terry-Thomas is a consummate sycophant. He can barely suppress irritation at his master's unwise behaviour in being fooled again and again by Robin's disguises yet he is devoted without hesitation, seeming truly heartbroken when John orders him out of the box during the archery tournament.

Whether or not these two were in any way conscious parodies of Nixon and is administration isn't clear. Perhaps by this time lampooning the ridiculous state leader had simply become instinctive.

Robin Hood stories can't avoid being political but tying an existing political faction or philosophy to him can be illuminatingly difficult. Redistributing wealth seems obviously socialist but rebelling against draconian tax policies is a classic of the right wing. Then we had the fact that, while Robin may speak treason "fluently", as the famous line from the Errol Flynn version goes, he usually only does so because of his persistent loyalty to the rightful king. His political motives are strikingly clear at the same time that they are ambiguous enough to make him a suitable champion for either side. This may be the inevitable result of his folklore origins in which his character was crafted more as a response to the hearts of the peasant audience looking to be entertained by imagined transgression than by theorists looking to prescribe solutions to social ills.

The 1938 version, filmed and released during the Great Depression, features Robin Hood providing shelter in Sherwood Forest for the sick and destitute. The Disney version has Robin Hood delivering his reappropriated money directly to the homes of Nottingham citizens.

There's no reason the characters shouldn't sound American since American cultural heritage is in large part identical to the modern English person's if we go as far back as the twelfth century. But even so, one wants Robin Hood at least to sound English so Disney wisely cast an Englishman in the role. Brian Bedford is appropriately merry and dashing and his performance is complemented by nimble, acrobatic animation.

Maid Marian (Moniva Evans) is also English and also a fox and the two have a nice chemistry. Their dialogue is amusingly giddy during the melee at the archery tournament. In this version, Robin and Marian had been acquainted and had fallen in love long before the events of the film and their romance only awaits the formality of a kiss and marriage.

The reason for the film to take this route has to do with the brilliantly animated child characters through whom we're introduced to Maid Marian. Led by a small rabbit boy, the children also already idolise Robin Hood and they listen attentively as Marian as she tells them a little about the great man. She gamely plays herself in a role play with the rabbit boy playing Robin Hood, even going so far as to kiss him, much to his chagrin.

Despite the scenes of Nottingham citizens in debtors' prison or suffering at home, Marian is as tranquil as Robin is confident and merry, as though the both of them are already living in a time when their adventures are in the distant past. They're living legends.

The helpless, drifting mortals of Easy Rider or The Jungle Book are replaced by a need for the certain, if disenfranchised, hero. Instead of creating a new way of life, or new government, now stories reassure audiences that there is an older truth that will save the day. The problem isn't the old authority but new authority masquerading as old authority.

Prince John and Sir Hiss are amusing and sometimes even threatening, as when John actually does see through Robin's disguise, but the Sheriff of Nottingham is genuinely disturbing. He may not have been intended to be but he's introduced casually strolling through town and collecting taxes with such a lazy, self-assured manner that he essentially takes the place of Robin Hood, not of Prince John. In the first scene, Robin Hood and Little Jon are able to pilfer Prince John so easily because they're confident and smart. Now we see the Sheriff with similar confidence and smugness as he finds coins hidden in the cast of a dog's broken leg.

A lazy, swaggering authority, he's more competent than Jackie Gleason in Smokey and the Bandit or Dom DeLuise in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Fear and suspicion of the cop would seem to outweigh fear and suspicion of the head of state, possibly because a cop is someone people are more likely to directly encounter. So the wolf may be scarier than the lion.

One of the most immediately noticeable differences in this movie compared to its predecessors is a depiction of a world of animals behaving as humans. The advantage this grants the animators, who often complained about the tedium of drawing realistic humans, is clear. It also allows for a number of gags, particularly with Sir Hiss, who can easily be stuffed into a barrel or a balloon to become a makeshift helicopter.

Yet films of this kind remained uncommon afterwards. Maybe because animals can simply never be as attractive as humans. Unless you're a Furry, it's not really appealing to imagine a romance with a fox.

The most disappointing thing about Robin Hood is its background art which finally seems to have caught up to the xerox animation process with its own mediocrity. Well, they're not so bad, really. It's just that they're not gorgeous like they were in every Disney movie that preceded Robin Hood, excepting portions of 101 Dalmatians and The Sword in the Stone. Things definitely seemed to be getting worse.

My love for the movie as a child was related to my love for Robin Hood in general. Somehow I never had a chance to see the 1938 film until I was in my 20s. Having now seen several films and television series based on Robin Hood, I can say the 1938 film is definitely the best, but the Disney version will always be my first.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

A Candidate Too Clever by Half

It's election time and Columbo has to solve a murder close to a senate candidate played by Jackie Cooper. "Candidate for Crime", a 1973 episode of Columbo, makes things more complicated when the candidate himself turns out to be a murderer. His scheme is pretty clever, too, and Columbo untangles it with appreciable credibility. But the best part of this episode is watching Columbo going about his business.

He shows up to the crowded crime scene and has trouble paying attention to the top brass, continually getting distracted by this or that thing and by asking questions of the beat cops. The scene ends nicely with Columbo (Peter Falk) probably looking incompetent to everyone in the vicinity while in fact being the only competent person present, having collected all the actually relevant forensics.

Later he's pulled over by some cops who are concerned by the sight of his famously dishevelled automobile. He takes it into the shop and doesn't have enough cash to pay for the repairs. He tells the mechanic he's a cop. "Are you undercover?" asks the mechanic. "Underpaid," says Columbo. He had a way with words.

Hayward (Jackie Cooper) kills his advisor with a clever set up to make it look like one of the loonies who normally send death threats to political candidates accidentally shot him. Hayward wants him dead because he knows about Hayward's affair with his wife's secretary. Why would Hayward cheat when his wife wears this perfectly 1970s sensible gown?

And it turns out she's none other than Joanne Linville, the Romulan commander from "The Enterprise Incident", an episode of the original Star Trek. Some guys just don't know how good they have it.

Twitter Sonnet #1408

Repeat electrics sting the sleepy eye.
A silent place was kept in shrinking sleeves.
The sliding switch replaced a fabric sky.
Connected cable does the job of eaves.
In seven waves the image blips a swan.
Resorting last to sugar, something ate.
A calloused hand would push the lonely pawn.
A shaking line divides from seven eight.
The slowest colours drip along the flame.
In fire, words appear to swallow time.
Another mind remembered someone's name.
A subtle lemon slipped the club a lime.
The time to colour slips beside the stream.
The question put recounts the latest dream.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Qui-Gon but Not Forgotten

A holy triumvirate of the Force was introduced in a three part Clone Wars story in 2011. Based on a concept outlined in detail by George Lucas himself, according to an interview with Dave Filoni, the episode finds Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Ahsoka shipwrecked on a strange world occupied by three superpowerful Force-wielders--The Father, the Son, and the Daughter, their names conspicuously reminiscent of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost of Catholic theology. The episodes are fascinating for the glimpse they offer into Lucas' conception of the Force from a different angle.

The interview linked to above is also interesting because it's another thing that shows Dave Filoni's role on Clone Wars was much smaller than is generally thought nowadays. He describes walking into the writers' room and finding George Lucas and the writers already well into their discussions of the episode's concepts. Filoni's main contribution, according to his interview, was apparently in getting Liam Neeson to reprise his role as Qui-Gon Jinn. And he credits Lucasfilm employee Lynne Hale with actually sealing the deal. It was Hale's idea to bring in not only Neeson but also Pernilla August to reprise her role as Anakin's mother, Shmi.

That's exciting for those of us who remember August from Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander.

Both Anakin and Obi-Wan have visions of Qui-Gon while only Anakin sees Shmi--and it clearly seems not to actually be Shmi but the wicked Son posing as her. Ahsoka has a similar deceptive vision, a vision of herself when she's older, looking much more like an older Ahsoka than did her terrible design on Rebels.

But Qui-Gon seems to really be Qui-Gon. It was always fascinating for me that Neeson appeared in these episodes--Episodes II and III seemed to be setting up an appearance by Qui-Gon's ghost but he never appeared and I assumed at the time that Neeson declined the invitation to reprise his role for whatever reason. In recent interviews he's spoken fondly of Episode I so maybe by 2011 his attitude toward the role had softened. Qui-Gon doesn't actually say much of substance, though, in the three parter, basically just reiterating his belief that Anakin is the Chosen One.

The most fascinating thing about the episode for me, though, is that Anakin briefly turns to the Dark Side because the Son shows him a vision of himself becoming Darth Vader. In order to prevent such a terrible fate, Anakin seeks the power of the Dark Side. So to avoid becoming Darth Vader . . . he becomes Darth Vader. Knowledge never seemed to be that guy's friend. Maybe he'd have been better off on Tatooine for the rest of his life.

Clone Wars is available on Disney+.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Don't Fear the Screen

Is the nightmare of technology really about the technology or is it us? You can guess the stance taken by the 2016 Doctor Who audio play, "Technophobia", from its title. The first Tenth Doctor audio play, it begins with appropriate gusto and carries something of the fast paced charm of Ten's television run throughout. It benefits from featuring my favourite of Ten's companions, Donna, and maintains a good balance of humour and strangeness.

Centring on an Apple-like company in the midst of introducing some new gadget with the media fanfare that used to be typical when Steve Jobs was around, people find their love of technology rapidly turning into fear as they fail to understand it. Soon people are confounded by lifts and even pencils, leading to quite a few amusing moments. The Doctor (David Tennant) is introduced sharing in the enthusiasm for the latest product. Donna (Catherine Tate) is a bit more hesitant.

It turns out that people who are uninterested in technology are the least affected, down to a train operator who seems totally immune. Donna as a number of amusing lines in which she admires his biceps made ten times funnier by Catherine Tate's delivery. But the lines in which the Steve Jobs surrogate argues with Siri before forgetting how a pencil works are pretty funny too.

"Technophobia" is available from Big Finish.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Infinite Spiders

Since the last time I posted about the dramatic increase in spiders around here I've been seeing even more spiders. And they're beautiful.

It's hard to believe Halloween is a relatively recent import to Japan. This place was made for it.

How's this for the Sistine Chapel?

These two were hanging from power lines far above.

I'm also enjoying just how autumnal it looks around here.

I've been walking through this park every day after work.

Twitter Sonnet #1407

A shiny cape decides the luncheon joint.
Receding doors awoke to rooms of gold.
We drew a dim decree from any point.
With something plastic never growing old.
Escaping sky, the cloud began a tour.
Resorting soon to candy, masks were worn.
In pixel terms we fought a metal war.
The errant cob produced the strangest corn.
The English word was written half in French.
The crazy bat resumed a sleepy flight.
Incumbent crowds reserved the tiny bench.
The diamond flares converged in brilliant light.
The brittle, briny moon will never wane.
The leeward laundry dries in heavy rain.