Monday, November 30, 2020

The Deceived Eye and the Ear

Language is only one of a myriad of issues that may stand in the way of effective communication. Most of the time, the failure to communicate may be of no great consequence but all too often it can also be a catastrophe. 2014's Listen, a short film about a Muslim woman trying to tell Danish police about her abusive husband, demonstrates this succinctly. Yet, even at twelve minutes, it might be slightly longer than it needs to be.

The film mostly consists of close-ups and the first portion borrows a technique from Ingmar Bergman's Persona. The woman (Zeinab Rahal) tells the two officers and their interpreter about how her husband hits her and about the terror she feels at the idea of going back home to him. We see her telling the story in tight close-up, then we hear the audio repeated but this time with a tight close-up on the interpreter's face. As in the Bergman film, the point is to show us how the impact and impression of the text is altered depending on whether we're looking at the face of the speaker or the listener. In this case, I think the point may have been as well served by a two-shot. But it's nice to see a Bergman reference.

It seems like it ought to be simple enough to walk into a police station and report a crime. But the issue of language here is only the first obstacle that leads to others; there's the alien culture of the Danish police to deal with and then there's the interpreter (Amira Helene Larsen), another Muslim, who, despite being a woman herself, is not disposed to look favourably on a woman being disobedient to her husband.

In twelve minutes, tension and tragedy are both effectively ramped up and the point becomes very clear. Some problems, you can't anticipate, you'll never even guess they exist, until you experience them, or until you see a film like this.

Listen is available on The Criterion Channel.

Twitter Sonnet #1418

Reminders stir the egg between the dough.
The dancing eye contained a partner tear.
The arrow turned around its twisted bow.
The line was knotted round the rusty gear.
Successive shows'll sort the questions slow.
It timing pale, the gloomy day resumed.
And then the silver pen began to glow.
The steady time in gulps was fast consumed.
The closing show reopened stagey eyes.
In time for snacks the flashing light was shown.
We chose between the cakes and fluffy pies.
We ate between the meat and healthy bone.
A softened ball of rice was sweet to taste.
A fax to Elder Gods your time will waste.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Doctor Sends in a Little Bill

I'd forgotten how much I liked the first episode of the Twelfth Doctor's final season. Considering how bad Thirteenth's run has been, I'm sure there are many who consider Twelve's last as the last proper season of Doctor Who. For all that, its first episode is intriguingly low key. How many times did Steven Moffat have to reestablish the show? With "The Eleventh Hour" and "Deep Breath", of course. But also "The Snowmen" and the beginning of Eleven's second season are grandly toned introductions to the show. Sometimes that's great but it's refreshing just watching an opening scene where the new companion, Bill (Pearl Mackie), quietly walks into the Doctor's university office and all the tokens of his personality and past are shown without fanfare.

I love the collection of sonic screwdrivers, putting the final nail in the coffin of the idea that he'd been permanently deprived of the tool in The Visitation.

It seemed a damned shame at the time that Bill was only getting one season. Knowing now what was to come, it seems even more of a shame. Here was a young actress who could actually act. Some of her lines are a bit too clever in the way Steven Moffat's could be but mostly he and Mackie do a good job establishing her as a normal girl working at a chip shop. I love that the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is intrigued by her because she smiles instead of frowns when she doesn't understand something. She's not enrolled in the university so she is hesitant to accept when he offers to be her tutor. There's no mention of financial trouble but, given her job, it's kind of implied. There's a subtle point being made about the value of actually being engaged with the material of a college course instead of just collecting the credits to make a credential.

I also liked the love interest/villain. The scene where Bill hears someone in the shower is really effectively tense, nicely balanced with a little relationship humour.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Ahsoka, All Grown Up and Live Action

So, twelve years after meeting her in animated form, we were finally introduced to a live action Ahsoka Tano last night on the new episode of The Mandalorian. Played now by Rosario Dawson, one of the most gifted actresses of her generation, the episode features her in a relatively minor role, saving all its emotional impact for the Mandalorian himself and the baby Yoda who was given a name, finally, along with a bit of history. Cinematography was very nice on the episode. The writing wasn't especially great but it was unobtrusive, allowing the episode to centre more on visuals and performances.

Written and directed by Clone Wars supervising director Dave Filoni, the heart of the story is the recognition of a father/son relationship between Din (Pedro Pascal) and Grogu, a.k.a. "Baby Yoda". Considering the first Star Wars series Filoni created, Star Wars: Rebels, centred on a foster father and son relationship, this does seem to be Filoni's zone. Performances by Pascal and Dawson were nice and subtle in the scenes where Ahsoka tests Grogu. I like the moment where Din nods his head discreetly to reinforce a request Ahsoka makes for the kid to move a rock. The two really do have an attachment, which naturally leads Ahsoka to be concerned about the kid turning the Dark Side. Grogu's predilection for eggs established earlier in the season looks a bit more ominous in retrospect. This will add a nice bit of tension going forward and now there's something more interesting about Grogu beyond his intense cuteness.

Michael Biehn also guest starred as a gunslinger named Lang and he and Din have a nice showdown in a very spaghetti western moment. But the more memorable visuals in the episode look more like samurai films, including the nice shot of Ahsoka walking down a windy street that definitely looks like something from Yojimbo.

If only Ahsoka were as well written as Sanjuro. It really bugs me that Dave Filoni is asserting himself as the custodian of Ahsoka and fandom seems eager to go along with it. I looked at Ahsoka's Wikipedia entry to-day for the first time in a while and I noticed that Filoni's name was added to George Lucas' under the "created by" credit. This revision, with no cited source, was made on April 11, 2018 and looks like it was typed by a drunkard:

Edits to the article since then have done nothing to substantiate this credit, only neatening up the grammar and arrangement. This is despite the fact that the main body of the article only mentions George Lucas as coming up with the idea of a female padawan for Anakin and naming her Ahsoka. I've been looking for an interview this morning in which Filoni directly claims he created Ahsoka and I can't find one. The best I can find is a Vanity Fair article from earlier this year where he says he was drawing Ahsoka very early on when he came to work on Clone Wars. But he wasn't the only character designer on Clone Wars and if that were enough to establish him as a creator then all the concept artists for the Star Wars movies should be listed as co-creators. Certainly the concept artist for Shakti, the first togruta character, Ahsoka's species, would deserve as much credit as Dave Filoni. Somehow articles persistently ignore the fact that Filoni did almost none of the writing until after George Lucas was gone. Maybe this is all seen as a way to effectively promote the brand. But I would say better writing is the best promotion of all.

Anyway, I also liked the dead forest look of last night's episode. It reminded me of a fourth season episode of Farscape called "A Prefect Murder" shot in a recently burned forest. Now why don't they get some Farscape writers working on Star Wars shows?

The Mandalorian is available on Disney+.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Breaking Bread and Other Things with a Vampire

So that nice boy you brought home turned out to be a vampire. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was helping teenagers handle this problem long before Twilight. Before whats-her-name and . . . is it Edward? there was Buffy and Angel.

Mostly what I'm thinking about when watching the episode now is how much older than Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) Angel (David Boreanaz) really is. Over two hundred years older. And why is he in love with her? Because he follows her. Maybe he likes the twist of her wrist as she stakes his soulless brethren. I really do love how inevitably perverted the very concept of vampirism makes any character who happens to be one.

The episode I'm talking about, a first season episode appropriately called "Angel", also fleshes out Darla (Julie Benz) for the first time only to unwisely kill her off immediately.

She's resurrected later, of course, but one has to wonder at the short-sightedness of the writers in killing off Angel's maker and former lover so quickly. Otherwise David Greenwalt does a fine job with the episode. I like Buffy and her friends trying to puzzle out Angel's motives now that they've find out he behaves utterly unlike any vampire they've even heard of. I even like Darla's underhanded set up to make it look like Angel tried to kill Buffy's mother (Kristine Sutherland). I like even more that Buffy doesn't get too ensnared in such ploty foolishness. It ends up saying more about Darla than anyone, another reason her death was premature.

Go for it, Giles, drink the whole coffee!

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is available in a lousy cropped format on Amazon Prime.

Thanks for the Masks

Happy Thanksgiving, people in America. Looks like global society's been transformed this year, doesn't it? I wear a mask every day here in Japan and so, probably, do you, wherever you are, if you do go out every day. Over the course of approximately eight months it's become normal. So I've decided to be thankful for masks this year.

It already feels strange to see a naked face, even of acquaintances. I get to know someone over a few months before I see them without a mask and then suddenly my whole impression of them changes. Their head has a slightly different shape than I thought, they smile more or less often than I thought, they're older, younger, fuller cheeked or gaunt. Usually masks make people look younger which brings an added surprise when I see a student remove one at the junior high school where I work. Suddenly this cute little pillow face is a budding adult capable of nuanced reactions. Some people are better at reading expressions through the masks but I imagine everyone's a bit less capable under the circumstances.

People making masks are getting more creative. I've already seen a few of the designer veils in real life.

These remind me of the controversy in France about anti-veil laws. Those decrying the threat to religious freedom from such laws were countered by those who said a society where people hid their faces all the time would lead to increased crime as perpetrators would be harder to identify. I wonder if it has indeed led to more crime. It might be hard to tell with everything else going on. Obviously France has a problem with Islamic terrorists whose intolerance for the land who gave them safe harbour has led them to commit horrific acts of violence, like the recent beheading of a school teacher. But most of these crimes are committed by men, not the women who would normally be veiled.

I have had the opportunity of seeing a few beautiful women remove their masks and I must say I can see why they appeal to some Muslim denominations. We're effectively creating a new level of nudity and with it a new form of titillation. I wonder how long it would take to make ankles exciting again. The face has a unique set of attractions, though. Baring the face makes the viewer privy to more of the involuntary or irrepressible thoughts and emotions that flash across the complicated muscles of the expressive human countenance. The mask is now a shield, perhaps, in some ways like the internet. Does the mask carry some of the anonymity that makes people more comfortable expressing themselves online? There's less of a chance of one's carefully crafted rude remark being spoiled by a blush or twitching lip. There's still the eyes, though. COVID provides no excuse for covering them though some people choose to. Maybe it will become fashionable.

I often think about how the radical social changes effected in response to the pandemic would not have happened in the 1970s. Although many people are starving and dying due to the catastrophic job losses incurred by the pandemic, such people are by and large invisible to those empowered to influence and impose radical change. And now that many more of this privileged class have confined themselves to working at home, the outsiders have become more invisible. If these sufferers could be persuaded to wear their masks more often, another portion of their humanity would be decently concealed. I suspect this is the cause of some of the hostility I see in some of the memes aimed at shaming the bare-faced.

To suggest that these psychological motives underlie some of the decisions being made is not to say that the masks are of no use in attempts to curtail the virus. Although it's difficult for the naturally contrarian human mind to hold two such ideas at once, it's a perfectly simple matter for reality to manifest them.

No meme or bumper sticker has ever quite been able to account for life's complexities, except maybe the ones with Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park. Life finds a way. And life is often inconveniently amoral.

Twitter Sonnet #1417

Confusing pips described a swooping spoon.
Advancing ships removed the chance of salt.
We all remember steps we gave the moon.
A set of brains remained in mental vault.
An ample serving turned beyond the tea.
We never wore a uniform to fight.
To steeply part resilient leaves was key.
The river bore the cuneiform to light.
Arriving bats present a birdish shape.
The flapping wings resembled hands across.
The moon became a giant, dripping grape.
The waning moon presents a cheesy gloss.
A turkey dream dissolved in gravy fear.
The evening feathers wreathed a starry beer.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Complications of a Glorious Melody

If two people care deeply about the same thing you might expect they could work well together. Yet it's precisely this profound agreement that makes so many people into bitter enemies. In 1960's Tunes of Glory, a Scottish military battalion finds itself torn between two colonels, each of whom feels the other's personality spells ruin for everything the battalion means, physically and spiritually. The two men are brilliantly played by Alec Guinness and John Mills in this film with beautiful sets and locations. It suffers a bit from a little broadly expository dialogue, especially near the end, but nothing can take away the psychological portraits sketched by these performances.

The boisterous, hard drinking Major Sinclair (Guinness) has been "acting colonel" since he was forced to take over the battalion during World War II. Now that the war's over and the battalion's back in Scotland, a real colonel has been assigned to lead them in the form of Lieutenant Colonel Barrow (Mills). His credentials seem at first to be academic--one officer can only recall that he's a brilliant lecturer. But in fact, Barrow had spent much of his time during the war as a prisoner. Now, returning home, he hopes to make the battalion, the command of which he sees as his birthright, better than it ever was.

Sinclair's misgivings about the gentleman colonel seem to be well founded when Barrow soon has the men drilling on such trivial matters as dancing. Barrow is overcome with fury when he sees the men raising their hands over their heads when cutting a caper. His obsession with form overrides any fear that making himself look the ridiculous pedant will be bad for the battalion's morale and reputation.

Sinclair, resentful at being downgraded to second in command, sides with men who show up ten minutes late to duty or wear their caps cocked the wrong way. This, in turn, exacerbates Barrow's dislike for Sinclair. Then, in an unrelated matter, Sinclair punches a sergeant in uniform, an offense punishable by court martial, regardless of the assailant's rank. The question of whether or not to punish Sinclair becomes about whether it's better for the soul of the battalion to show it can follow the rules, however difficult, or whether it's better to give the beloved major a pass due to the circumstances, among them being the victim's desire not to press charges. The point of view shifts from moment to moment. The tricky thing is how Barrow will see himself in making whatever decision he makes.

Mills portrays a man trying desperately to show the resolve expected of a great leader while also being naturally averse to being the cause of suffering. His profound insecurity shows through his gentle manners and Mills conveys with adept subtlety the long lasting trauma of a prisoner of war.

Guinness is also great, doing more with his voice than putting on a Scottish accent. He roars through sentences or is sarcastic with sadistic mirth. In one scene that's both amusing and alarming he pretends to make coffee for a cold blooded officer played by Dennis Price at his most reptilian. For all the bombast of Sinclair, I'd say Price's cool insinuations do a lot more damage to Barrow's mental state.

The end of the film reaches a little too far. I like the idea of Sinclair fearing a ghost--he certainly has good reason to--but the scene where he talks about it feels too abrupt and expository. The film might have been better if there had been a subplot about ghosts or a ghost story that's repeatedly referred to so that the similarities in circumstance at the end could be eerily self evident. It should have been something read on Sinclair's face, not dumped in his words. But I can't fault Guinness' performance and there's a real effective heartbreak underlying the whole film.

Tunes of Glory is available on The Criterion Channel.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Hyena Kids

Some of the oldest looking teenagers I've ever seen are possessed by hyenas in a season one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer called "The Pack". Two guys and two girls, plus Xander. The blonde girl looks young enough but the brunette with the boy cut looks like she established herself as a dentist after completing five years of university three years ago.

The contrast especially sharp beside Sarah Michelle Gellar and Alyson Hannigan who both look like little chipmunks. Their clothes are oddly generic, too. They're like the bullies in a Mentos commercial.

They all become assholes and eat a pig. Xander is fortunately distracted, trying to make out with Buffy, while the others eat the principal. That must have been a real sign to viewers when it first aired that there was something different about this show. Not too many innocent teen adventure shows in the '90s were killing off major characters in the first season, let alone so extravagantly. It's definitely the high point of the episode.

Poor Willow being humiliated by Xander is pretty harsh, too, though she ultimately just shrugs it off. I know she knows he's possessed but I feel like it could've led to some interesting soul searching.

I like the library as the gang's bridge/headquarters. Buffy had an inverse evolution to Angel of headquarters for its characters: Buffy's grew steadily less interesting until finally they were meeting at Buffy's house while Angel's was perfected in season two after a boring office in season one. I really loved that hotel.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is available in a lousy cropped format on Amazon Prime.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

The Autumn, Part Fifty

Leaves are still changing colours around here and I still can't seem to handle it. I went for a long walk yesterday to take more photos but I found the best place to be an unused little playground, hidden up on a hillside, a few blocks from where I live.

I love catching glimpses of the old, big plastic animals, hiding here and there.

Wrapped in silent contemplation, the frog observes the sun set on another day.

I always see a lot of crowded graveyards when I go walking.

I suppose that's only to be expected from such an old country.

Twitter Sonnet #1416

Expensive zoos return the shipping costs.
In eggs remaining chicks contrive to stay.
From can to can the wadded lights were tossed.
Another home was waiting 'long the bay.
Assorted pins remind the knees to call.
Another cloud was drifting past the rain.
We tallied 'bots across the graphic wall.
There's only yellowed leaves where once was pain.
Replacement mustard stood a honey bet.
Reclining trees remind the sleeper late.
Between the sharper leaves the ardent met.
Eternal ends entail a longer wait.
The shadow mark was questioned late to-night.
A floating paw was held before the light.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

How Many Faces is One?

So I watched The Face of Evil again. It may be my favourite Doctor Who story, I don't know. I feel it's likely the most relevant to the times we currently live in, anyway. Even the name, "Face of Evil", recalls the Washington Post's libellous headline about Nick Sandmann--The Washington Post and CNN ended up settling their lawsuits with Sandmann, by the way. The terms of the settlements weren't publicly disclosed--one lawsuit was for 275 million and the other was for 250 million. Either one sounds fair considering the publications may have ruined Sandmann's reputation for the rest of his life for a hat he chose to wear as a teenager. Of course, news of these settlements weren't prominently reported in left wing media, which is one example of how people are living in different realities now. I'm not sure if the Doctor's trouble was better or worse--he shows up on a planet where he's recognised as the "Evil One" on sight, a name that's been attached to his likeness for generations among a small hunter gatherer society called the Sevateem.

The Doctor (Tom Baker) finds his new companion, Leela (Louise Jameson), on the planet. Leela, incidentally, was named after terrorist Leila Khalad, who was just recently in the news because a Jewish coalition group successfully lobbied Zoom, YouTube, and Facebook to prevent her appearing at a virtual conference at San Francisco State University this year. Khalad hijacked an airplane in 1969 when she was a fresh faced little lass of 26. A pretty face works wonders for a terrorist's PR. To the credit of Chris Boucher, writer of The Face of Evil, his Leela is portrayed as initially naive until the Doctor starts instructing her in a more pacifist philosophy.

The Doctor extemporises nicely with a few lines.

LEELA: Xoanon!

DOCTOR: Xoanon? What's those?

LEELA: He's worshiped by the tribe.

DOCTOR: What, he's a god?

LEELA: Yes. I was cast out for speaking against him.

DOCTOR: Really.

LEELA: It's said he's held captive.

DOCTOR: By whom?

LEELA: By the Evil One and his followers, the Tesh. Maybe there is a holy purpose. I don't know what to believe anymore.

DOCTOR: Well, that sounds healthy anyway, Leela. Never be certain of anything. It's a sign of weakness. Now, where's this Xoanon held?

Definitely good advice since everyone seems to be wrong about everything. Though, on the other hand, Leela's a basically decent young lady (terrorist inspiration not withstanding) and she owes part of her upbringing to stories of Xoanon and the Evil One. This version of reality made her who she is, I suppose it's her own inner resources that allow her to be intellectually flexible enough to change when the Doctor brings her new information.

I love how we settle in with the idea of the Doctor's face representing evil to these people long before we find out that he implanted a copy of his personality into the computer that's gone insane, hidden behind the mountains. First we play with the idea of how a symbol can be dramatically repurposed for a different context, then we have a sort of metaphor for how a symbol can take on an unstable but viciously powerful life. In the first parts of the serial, it's not just the Doctor's face but various terms and artefacts that have been repurposed from the long forgotten crashed spaceship--the "survey team" becomes the "Sevateem", etc. And now Leela and her comrades are ready to kill or perish for names whose meanings have been distorted by time and who knows how many different rhetorical appropriations. I think about this when I talk to someone and realise that whatever particular collection of media they're voluntarily or--more often--involuntarily being exposed to has slowly given them a thorough and detailed basket of misinformation. I bet there are thousands of tribes of Sevateem on Facebook alone, nevermind Reddit. The Face of Evil also offers a sobering reminder that, within the context of their realities, people who might seem cruel or savage to me might in fact be perfectly decent.

Friday, November 20, 2020

The Outer Rim Gets Further Away

Carl Weathers directed a decent episode of The Mandalorian for last night, the latest in a season that continues to outperform the previous season. Weathers returns as an actor, too, reprising his role as Greef Karga, though he's not as good as he was in the Taika Waititi directed finale of last season. Actually, Cara Dune (Gina Carano), is the character with the vast improvement in this episode.

I didn't really like how the scene introducing her in the new episode is disconnected from the rest of the episode. We see her, now a "Marshal", beating a bunch of alien thugs to retrieve some stolen items. As an action scene, it was okay, though it had that beyond-cliche shot of her hitting someone behind her with her elbow at the end of the fight like an afterthought. That felt cliche when Legolas did it in The Two Towers twenty years ago.

That scene and the one at the end, where a New Republic officer tries to recruit her, felt like they were tacked on by someone who decided the episode could be a backdoor pilot for a Cara Dune series. And I can see how such a series would be good. I found Carano's performance dreadfully dull last season but she seems to have improved a bit--maybe she's taken some acting classes. And her muscles even look a bit bigger.

This past week, people have been talking about how George Lucas has started talking at length about his original plans for the sequel trilogy. His description of a post-Return of the Jedi galaxy in which crime lords are filling the power vacuum left by the Empire is actually pretty close to what we're seeing on The Mandalorian this season. I'd heard rumours that Jon Favreau was trying to honour Lucas' original vision, now I'm starting to hope they're true. I just wish Dave Filoni didn't have to be involved. I'm hoping the episode he wrote and directed for next week will be good, especially since it looks like the one that will introduce us to a live action Ahsoka, but Filoni's track record, particularly when writing for Ahsoka, has been pretty dismal. At least Rosario Dawson is the kind of performer who can make even bad dialogue sound good.

Anyway, the Carl Weathers episode last night did a good job establishing Din (Pedro Pascal) as a badass, despite a really cute opening where he unsuccessfully tries to get Baby Yoda to help him fix his ship. Comedian Horatio Sanz returns as Mythrol to be the cowardly comrade to make Greef and Cara look more badass so that they, in turn, can make the Mandalorian look like the ultimate badass when he saves the day. That's strategy. Even if the end was predictable, it was still nice, though not quite strong enough to prevent Sanz's character from disappointingly overwhelming a scene here and there.

The Mandalorian is available on Disney+.

Twitter Sonnet #1415

Restricted tracks repeat a training song.
To count the ample ham, a sandwich fell.
There's nothing down to make the apple wrong.
The ring repealed a rusty chapel bell.
A final point's divided twixt the eyes.
A button nose engaged the engine tongue.
Conveyor belts produced some saltless pies.
And here the iron shape was loudly rung.
A stronger Hulk conducts the spider home.
The muscles green with holding fists convene.
The time it was to brush the curly tome.
And here the fighting ghost would eat the bean.
The double engine drove the bird to space.
A hundred eyes were sunk inside the face.

From the Swamp of Muddy Animation

All it takes is two little mice to save the day but Disney's 1977 animated film, The Rescuers, definitely brings inadequate resources to bear. A very uneven film, it adapts the charming books of Margery Sharp into something with far less complex characters and adventure with less substantial stakes. Certain characters are brilliantly animated but again hamstrung by the ugly xerox process, now combined with lower quality backgrounds. On top of this, the film has some of the worst songs of the Disney canon. But the performances by Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor are good.

The two mice, Bernard (Newhart) and Bianca (Gabor), are much more vibrantly rendered in Sharp's prose. Both characters are English in the book and Sharp does a brilliant job contrasting Bianca's pampered, upper class upbringing and Bernard's working class background without making either seem like caricatures. Bianca is very sweet, using her natural and cultivated grace to navigate a new, grimier world of crooks and sailors. The film's Bianca is never given much nuance but Eva Gabor's efforts are used to better effect than they were for her character in The Aristocats. The Rescuers plot about rescuing a kidnapped girl at least has more suspense than the earlier film.

A few of the animators who'd worked for the studio from the beginning were still at Disney when The Rescuers was being made and it shows. In particular, the animation for Madame Medusa (Geraldine Page) and Orville, the albatross (Jim Jordan) is amazing.

The film's villain, Medusa is a tour de force from animator Milt Kahl whose last film this was for the studio. With drooping breasts and back fat filling a cocktail dress out like a burlap sack, every line is squeezed for all it's worth as she waves her lanky arms and seems to bite at every word with sharp teeth.

The albatross, meanwhile, was the brainchild of Ollie Johnston who had the terrific idea of borrowing the movements from the real life, graceless take-offs and landings of albatrosses. Paired with the voice of comedic actor Jim Jordan in his final role, Orville's a fantastic little creation. One of my favourite bits of dialogue is when he flies through a red light intersection.

Bernard complains but Bianca chides her companion, "I do it all the time." The understated absurdity of Bernard's line is met with the equally understated absurdity of Bianca's response and both performers play it beautifully straight.

Not all of the film's backgrounds are bad but most of them are. There also seems to have been some extraordinary difficulty at making the animation cells blend smoothly with the backgrounds. It often looks like bad blue screen. This looks especially bad with recycled cells from old movies, including a notoriously weird cameo from Bambi and his mother.

The songs are even worse, sounding like generic, 1970's love themes. The film's slightly gloomy mood is nice and the characters are often charming or captivating. But all together, this is one of the studio's weakest efforts.

The Rescuers is available on Disney+.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

The Gambit that Never Was

I guess everyone's talking about chess right now, at least according to some media outlets, who credit it to Queen's Gambit, a recent NetFlix series. Well, I love chess and I love movies and TV shows that feature chess. So I watched the first episode of Queen's Gambit last night. I found it sometimes entertaining and often a bit silly.

The story of chess prodigy Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy/Isla Johnston/Annabeth Kelly) begins in an orphanage after her mother is killed in a car accident. Between the walls of the sparsely furnished orphanage, the kids are dosed regularly with a strong sedative, and Beth's superpower is unlocked. After witnessing the janitor (Bill Camp) in the basement studying the game, she figures out the basic rules of chess on her own, visualising a chessboard and pieces on the ceiling, courtesy of the magic of drugs.

I saw an interview on CNN with Garry Kasparov and Judit Polgar who both wore taut smiles while speaking with strained enthusiasm about the series. Polgar's name has been mentioned a lot lately as the real woman to have beaten a reigning world champion at chess--Kasparov. Beth Harmon, in case you didn't know, is not a real person.

It may come as a surprise considering much of the advertising makes it look like this series is a biopic, despite the fact that it's based on a work of literary fiction published in 1983. If the makers of the series intended to mislead people, I must say it's a pretty pathetic thing to do. The topic of women in chess has been a sensitive one for decades and continues to be debated, especially as, even now, there has never been a female world champion. Is it systemic patriarchy? Is there something about women's brains that makes them less liable to achieve greatness at chess? At this point, those really seem like the only two options.

Polgar is far from the only woman to have made an attempt for the title, though she is the only one who was ever seriously in the running. Her own sister, Susan, is also a great player, and there is a long list of female grandmasters like Hou Yifan and Alexandra Kosteniuk. Chess is most popular in European countries where equal opportunity for the sexes is considered to be greatest in the world. This has led many to opine that there must be something different about the way women think that prevents them from contending for the world championship. Until a woman actually does become world champion, the argument will never be put to rest.

Is the miniseries endeavouring to inspire girls to try? Judit Polgar, in the CNN interview, is very gracious but can't help taking a dig at the series when she mentions a real professional chess player can't afford the decadent lifestyle of sex and drugs Harmon leads. Polgar talks about her efforts to educate kids about chess by promoting it as something that teaches responsibility and logical thinking, two things Beth Harmon is hardly a shining example of. Like many modern fantasies, it seems not so much about victory through discipline and sacrifice but as a natural side effect of reckless hedonism. Will this show really inspire better chess players? It does use real chess games--historically great games with some input from living grandmasters, including Kasparov. Notably, all of the sources I've been able to find for the show's games were played between men in real life. Perhaps the show is more likely to make better chess cheaters than better chess players.

Queen's Gambit is available on NetFlix.