Saturday, February 27, 2021

Navigating the Beasts About

Giles tells Buffy there are two kinds of monsters in his experience--those that can be redeemed and those who can't. A useful observation in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer filled with beasts in Buffy's social circle. Appropriately called "Beauty and the Beasts", it features Oz's monthly routine of turning into a werewolf, Angel still in a murderous stupor after returning from centuries in Hell, a new teenage demon "monster of the week", and arguably Faith is a monster in the making.

The idea behind Faith (Eliza Dushku) was said to be about exploring the darker side of slaying but I wonder if she wasn't more like Buffy, version two. What if Whedon took the lessons he learned from the quantum leap in writing quality from seasons one to two and asked himself what he would do if he was starting over? The idea of the helpless girl turning on her vampire attacker is a good start but not enough to fill out a character. Eliza Dushku was a better actress than Sarah Michelle Gellar and her character was immediately more complex--at once strong and vulnerable, easy-going and tightly wound. She feels much more like a teenager than Buffy, someone forced into situations where she has to make decisions far beyond her maturity level.

She's the subtlest beast in the episode, to be sure, though this one wasn't really about her. A few episodes earlier, the school counselor deduced Buffy had had a Boyfriend who'd changed and became abusive after she'd had sex with him. In this episode, that same counselor is killed by the monster of the week. The idea seems to be that the writers realised they needed to walk back the idea that Angel (David Boreanaz) and Buffy's relationship was a metaphor for an abusive one. So they set up a clear distinction between types of monsters--not the kind that can be redeemed or can't, as Giles says, but the kind that literally get taken over by a demon beyond their control and the kind that welcomes it.

Again, that's why Faith is more interesting than Oz (Seth Green) and Angel (at least at this point). She's dealing with issues, Oz and Angel are dealing with possession and most of the time they're innocent beefcakes. Well, Angel is a beefcake.

He has an easy time beating down the baddie while Oz had barely held his own in wolf form. Seriously, poor Oz must be one of the most pathetic werewolves in horror history.

I think he was meant to look like Dracula in wolf form from the Francis Ford Coppola movie but he looks more like the trolls from Ron Howard's Willow.

Twitter Sonnet #1447

The subtle breeze disturbs a paper leaf.
The worth of wooden pulp was bleached to bone.
Reflected suns suggest a solar grief.
Assembled clocks eschew the severed tone.
The kettle needed nothing more than steam.
A switching static pushed the screen away.
A thousand ducks converge to shake the stream.
To sink the night we must invite the day.
The tightened tube removed the chance of shows.
Repeating shirts divest the mall of life.
The willow fell without a score of blows.
The bridge was cut without the aid of knife.
Comparing beasts reveals the jumpy bear.
A circle stomach shines with plushy care.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Wanda's Old TV

A somewhat disappointing new WandaVision last night for those hoping for new revelations but kind of an interesting one for those of us who spend too much time thinking about TV and movies.

First we get a brief peek into the backstory of Agatha Harkness (Kathryn Hahn) and I was reminded of how Peter Jackson expressed his dislike for wizards shooting electric bolts from their hands when he decided to make the fight between Gandalf and Saruman more telekinetic. And watching Agatha have an energy bolt fight with the witches who'd condemned her to die I thought, yeah, that is kind of boring. But I guess there wasn't much time to build up atmosphere and mood.

Most of the episode involves Agatha taking Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) on a tour of her past, including her childhood in the fictional Sokovia when she and her brother were played by typically lousy, weirdly manic American child actors.

I think it may be more of a problem with how they were directed, though. I don't think the director has spent much time watching children.

The family learns English by watching sitcoms. As an English language teacher myself, I couldn't fail to see the artifice in the scene--the fluent ease with which the whole family chats in English about learning English. Watching television is a good way to practice the language you're learning, especially if it's without subtitles, though it's better to use children's television before moving on to something as sophisticated as the fast paced, colloquial dialogue of sitcoms. But I guess that's a technical detail I shouldn't get too nitpicky about.

A more interesting point one may wonder about is whether or not Wanda compulsively turning to mediocre, particularly escapist television to deal with trauma is the reason she has few apparent compunctions about kidnapping a whole community to serve her emotional needs. The end of this episode reveals the reason the local Vision (Paul Bettany) seems to have an ingrained sitcom personality; he was never the real Vision but Wanda's spontaneously created version, a mixture of her impressions of the real Vision and maybe Dick Van Dyke. So when Kat Denning--and the rest of us at home--were adoring the great chemistry between the two, we were actually watching Wanda's masturbatory fantasy, not unlike Mulholland Drive. The show seems generally pro-sitcom, though, so I suspect the final episode will reveal Wanda had somehow recreated the real Vision and the one being resurrected by SWORD with science, sans infinity stone, is a monster. Which is a less interesting, and less humanist, ending, in my opinion. But maybe audiences have stopped feeling sympathy for Frankenstein's monster.

I liked the episode's more complex take on the SWORD director guy (Josh Stamberg) than previous episodes, though. He has a point when he tells Wanda they can't simply put an expensive and dangerous weapon like Vision in the ground just to satisfy her need for a funeral. It wasn't sensitive of him to show her Vision being dismantled without warning but autopsies aren't so strange.

Agatha takes credit for making Pietro not look like the one Wanda remembers. It would be disappointing to learn Evan Peters' casting has nothing to do with the Bryan Singer X-Men universe, hopefully there'll be another twist on that in the final episode.

WandaVision is available on Disney+.

Mike Hammer Doesn't Meet Columbo

Mickey Spillane guest starred as a victim in the 1974 Columbo episode "Publish or Perish". Like most victims on the show, he's not around for long, not like his starring role in The Girl Hunters more than a decade earlier. He didn't quit his day job as a pulp writer, which is probably for the best. He more or less comes off well playing a pulp writer on Columbo. Not writing detective stuff, as Spillane did in real life, but Vietnam war stuff.

The villains are two--a publisher (Jack Cassidy) and the explosives nut (John Chandler) he hires to kill Spillane. Chandler gives an effective, over the top performance, almost on the level of Frank Gorshin--he seems like a real maniac. He does the job for Cassidy in the hopes Cassidy will publish the book he's written on homemade bombs.

Cassidy is more of a deliciously cheesy '70s TV villain. Columbo's tactic for outsmarting him is clever and pretty satisfying for anyone who likes to analyse writing.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

What's a Slayer to Do?

Season three of Buffy the Vampire Slayer starts with a strong episode written and directed by Joss Whedon followed by a decent but fundamentally wrong-headed episode written by Marti Noxon.

"Anne" is a classic for good reason. Following Buffy in her big city melancholy, now working as a waitress, it presents the aftermath of her departure from Sunnydale. She'd been expelled from school and her mother had thrown her out of the house just for being a vampire slayer. What else could she do but rebuild somewhere else?

Something quite different, I guess, which seems to be the ultimate point of "Dead Man's Party", the episode that immediately follows. Buffy comes back to town and is awkwardly welcomed by mother and friends who'd buried anger over the fact that she'd abandoned them. Everyone is all smiles but then, when Buffy and Willow arrange to meet up, Willow stands her up. Passive aggressive avoidance finally erupts in the middle of a party into a full on fight.

At the party, by the way, is seemingly the whole school who were invited to Buffy's house by Buffy's friends without notifying Buffy or her mother. And everyone acts like Buffy's unreasonable for being uncomfortable. There's finally a zombie attack but not before everyone berates Buffy, who's breaking down in tears, for having left town. Buffy does point out to her mother that she'd told Buffy not to come back but this doesn't seem to hold any water--Joyce accuses Buffy of not understanding that her mother wouldn't handle it well when she discovered her daughter is the Slayer.

The end of the episode implies that everyone was right and Buffy was wrong. It seems like Noxon wasn't happy with Whedon's writing in the season finale and wrote this one as a rebuttal. I have to give this round to Whedon, though.

Yes, it's inconsiderate not letting your friends know if you're dead or alive. But Buffy's considering a state of affairs where she has no home and no school. Setting aside the emotional impact on her for a moment, she might also be considering the practical burden she'd be to her friends--knowing they had their own lives to worry about and couldn't take care of her. And now let's look at the emotional impact--could they really blame her for wanting to start fresh?

"Anne"'s attention to homelessness in LA in the 1990s is interesting now especially because of how drastically the situation has worsened. Whedon shows a city where the homeless youths are runaways and addicts. Now they're outnumbered in California by people who simply can't afford homes. And, of course, it's astonishing that Buffy was able to pay for an apartment by waiting tables at a diner.

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

Twitter Sonnet #1446

To question phones is not to call a key.
Embarking late, the feather stitched a bird.
Wisconsin cheese seduced the noble bee.
Explicit songs contain a special word.
We crushed a bone to make a ramen bowl.
In safest dough, the dumpling draws a mouth.
What time we pitched the puck to golfer's hole.
And something half returned from wholly south.
Expensive chilli tells of cheesy tomes.
Without the beans, we spilled the knowing brain.
A string of pearls connects the crystal phones.
A candy moon could melt but never wane.
A beetle crossed a silver road to trade.
In crafted cans, refreshing tastes were made.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

But Who Rescues the Rescuers?

To save a little Australian boy with an unexplained American accent from an Australian kidnapper with an unexplained American accent, two tiny mice from New York are called upon in Disney's 1990 animated feature, The Rescuers Down Under Under. The first official sequel in Disney's animated canon (I guess The Three Caballeros doesn't count), it was a box office failure. With terrible writing and a return to the kind of premise that had failed for decades to bring success to the studio, one might well wonder why the film was greenlit after The Little Mermaid made a splash. It makes a little more sense when you consider 1977's The Rescuers had been the biggest box office success for the studio since The Aristocats. The Rescuers Down Under entered production long before The Little Mermaid was released and Disney saw which way the wind was blowing. So this film was a bit of a throwback but, at the same time, it was the first Disney animated film to be completely inked and coloured on computer. The difference shows, particularly in terms of shading, and I wouldn't call it an improvement.

Although the colours in The Little Mermaid were limited by the cost of paint and so they didn't always properly reflect shifts in lighting, the hard edged shading in The Rescuers Down Under, gratuitously applied, doesn't create an additional sense of depth as much as it looks cluttered and plastic.

The main problem is the film's writing, though, which primarily concerns Bernard and Bianca. Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor both return and both are completely wasted on a sitcomish plot about Bernard repeatedly failing to propose marriage to Bianca. Which is not to say the writing in the first film was first rate but it had the virtue of being closer to the original books. In both cases, the tragedy is in how completely the character of Bianca is divested of the psychological depth she had in the source novel. Being a point of view character whose hopes and anxieties we share, she becomes in the Disney films little more than a cheerful, unflappable object of Bernard's concern. The first film played this for laughs successfully a couple times, as in their flight through New York, but the sequel renders her totally devoid of personality.

The villain is far more interesting. Though not approaching the grotesque heights of Madame Medusa, Percival C. McLeach, voiced by George C. Scott, is a captivating caricature of his voice actor. A vicious poacher, he benefits greatly from Scott's comedic instincts. Scott knew how to play this kind of exaggerated character, he knew the importance of saying absurd lines absolutely straight.

John Candy is a welcome addition, replacing the deceased Jim Jordan as an albatross, brother of Jordan's character. Candy's introductory scene has him playing nicely off a fretting Bob Newhart with the kind of tone deaf disregard for danger and propriety Candy excelled at. Sadly, he gets sidelined in a tedious side plot about his injured back.

The best part of the film involves another bird, though--the astonishingly, and expensively, animated golden eagle whom the little boy rescues.

Watching the flight sequences in the beginning is breathtaking and inspire anticipation of something grand. Following this is a sequence of radio communication across the world as many mice relay news of the boy's distress from Australia to Hawaii to California and onwards to New York. The build up is great . . . and then it crashes with a scene of Bernard fumbling with his engagement ring. Wilbur the albatross couldn't have a worse landing. In a bit stolen from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the ring skitters across the restaurant and, just before Bernard can grab it, it's kicked by a passerby. The shot is framed exactly like Kate Capshaw chasing Lao Che's diamond.

A few scenes later, the film lifts the door knocking gag from C3PO in Return of the Jedi, making me wonder if the film was going to plunder everything from George Lucas.

It doesn't, though, and there are a few funny moments, the standout being a routine between McLeach and his pet iguana as the animal stealthily tries to swipe eggs from the man's lunchbox.

So The Rescuers Down Under isn't a complete waste of time. It has some good garnish around the edges. It's a shame about its saggy centre.

The Rescuers Down Under is available on Disney+.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Early Yoshino

Happy Birthday, Emperor Naruhito. For you, most people here in Japan had the day off from work. On impulse, I took the train down to Mount Yoshino.

It was a little silly for me to go now. Yoshino is a famous destination for tourists in autumn and spring, for red foliage in the former and cherry blossoms in the latter.

A few blossoms are just starting to show but mostly all the branches are still dead and grey.

It was late afternoon, though, so there were plenty of interesting shadows.

And not many people. I saw one mother trying to entertain her bored little boy next to the closed off ropeway car, telling him the operator must be enjoying the day off, too.

I got a few little souvenirs--a little wooden spoon for my loose leaf tea, some masking tape, and some azuki bean cakes. It was a pleasant afternoon.

Hey, there's the rabbit!

Monday, February 22, 2021

World's Biggest Rabbit

Last night I dreamt I was trying to google "The largest rabbit ever recorded." Trying to find the right words to get what I wanted, my first attempt for some reason yielded a video from an old Unsolved Mysteries style news magazine show. It was a segment about a woman discussing a paranormal experience she'd had. As usual, they had footage of the real woman being interviewed and a "dramatic reconstruction", an actress portraying the events described. The real woman was saying something about how she'd walked into a particular corner of a room and had this strange sensation of connecting with multiple potential versions of herself. Whoever made the dramatic reconstruction didn't, I felt, interpret her accurately and showed the actress in a queue of copies of herself with different facial expressions.

At that moment, I very distinctly heard a voice behind me say, "I see everything you do." And I woke up.

Here's what came up when I googled "The largest rabbit ever recorded" to-day:

And I think this also calls for a viewing of David Lynch's "RABBITS".

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Female Felines of Luna

With the world's attention diverted by the search for minuscule signs of life on Mars, few of us contemplate a secret civilisation of murderous lesbians on the moon. Fortunately, we always have 1953's Cat-Women of the Moon to remind us. Honestly, though, mocking this film feels so easy it feels cheap. There are some sincerely interesting things about it.

Yeah, it was probably put together by guys who had trouble getting laid and were bent out of shape about it. It begins with a curiously urgent narration, a shot of a star field while the narrator wonders why we have to wait to explore the stars, why not now? Already it sounds like a horny young man and the shot of a white rocket piercing the ether says plenty. But inside the rocket is a peculiarly casual bunch of astronauts.

One guy (Douglas Fowley) is all too eager to report back to Earth whose shirts he wears. He uses his precious time with the radio to plug a product. The only woman in the crew, Helen, played by the great Marie Windsor, uses her time to send a peculiar message to someone called "Alpha" and later claims not to remember saying anything.

Her boyfriend is in charge of the mission, an indecisive, passive older man called Grainger (Sonny Tufts). Another crewman, Reissner (Victor Jory), suspects Helen is really in love with him and that there's something wrong with her brain that makes her think she likes Grainger. We see that Reissner is much more decisive and aggressive--he's the only one who insists on carrying a gun to the moon, and of course it comes in handy. Interestingly, Helen makes the other unexpectedly useful decision to bring cigarettes and matches. They end up helping the crew determine if there's oxygen in the vicinity.

Few guys have their suspicions about the aloof girl confirmed so dramatically. It turns out it really isn't him, it's lunar hypnosis. It's even kind of sweet that the hypnosis goes through her hand and Reissner can break the spell by holding her hand.

The moon women themselves in their black leotards seem like caricatures of lesbians and/or Beats. The point is, they ain't natural. I guess counterculture can be pretty scary. Nowadays they just look cool.

Cat-Women of the Moon is available on Amazon Prime.

Twitter Sonnet #1445

To where the moon disrupts the black we fly.
To where the air is thin and light as thought.
We talked for years about the endless sky.
We levelled metal behind the empty lot.
Devices rendered flat devise a guard.
The money spread between the shaky men.
It wasn't cake but never really hard.
We sorted scripts to stuff the oldest bin.
With crumbly scones, the night succeeds the tea.
About the table, hammers beat the meal.
With gleaming shields, the knight commands the free.
Around the stable, hamsters eat the peel.
When bread's a hybrid, eggs become a joke.
When rocks are white, the magma makes the yolk.

Friday, February 19, 2021

The Office of Wanda

Wigs were at their worst in last night's decent episode of WandaVision. The shift to an Office-style, single camera dramedy came with a lessened fidelity to tone. Also, bad wigs.

Flatter and more natural looking hair is called for which is, I guess, the hardest thing to fake. While Wanda's at home trying, with less success, to pretend everything's okay even as her magic is going haywire, Vision finds himself in a travelling circus where the girl from Thor has been recently brainwashed.

Kat Dennings was already giving a sitcom-ish performance so it seems like there's really no shift when she starts playing a dippy escape artist. Vision starts interrogating her about his past. Are we going to get an explanation as to why Vision was acting like a sitcom character in earlier episodes?

The end of the episode brought another big reveal, though it's one people on the internet had partially predicted, unlike the one with Quicksilver. This all seems to be leading into the Doctor Strange movie now, which is starting to raise my enthusiasm. Not only is Sam Raimi directing the new Doctor Strange, Danny Elfman is doing the score. I'm glad to hear those two have mended fences after Elfman quit in the middle of scoring Raimi's Spider-Man 2. Doctor Strange seems like it would be an even more appropriate project for the two of them, too. If Benedict Cumberbatch dropped the American accent, I'd be anticipating the film whole-heartedly.

Dust or Beauty

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is a cliche but nowadays I think it's more or less held generally to be true. Which makes it a little difficult to describe someone as simply "beautiful" in prose unless you're a really easy going writer, willing to let your reader's imagination do all the work. To-day I read "Eyes of Dust", a short story by Harlan Ellison included in his 1967 collection I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. Maybe "easy going" isn't the best way to describe Ellison but, like many of his stories, "Eyes of Dust" begins at a nice brisk pace, rapidly establishing a civilisation of universal beauty with two blemished characters--a woman with a mole on her cheek and a blind man--who get married. Right away I ask, is a mole so ugly? In fact, a mole on the cheek sounds a lot like what people call "a beauty mark". But there is a disturbing insight at work in this story. When a trio of handsome firemen uncover the mysterious being called "Person", who has those titular eyes of dust, the effect is somewhere between the opening of Pandora's box and the discovery of Dorian Gray's portrait--it changes the whole society. Because Person is ugly.

We get a few snatches of description--jowls, pale hair and skin, big hands. Is there an eye that beholds jowls as beautiful? Jowls only a mother could love, as they say. Personally, I don't think beauty is entirely subjective, though I think people can be hypnotised into liking anything. Some appreciation for exceptional beauty has to be cultivated, beauty like that found in the paintings of Rembrandt or in classical architecture. I think beauty operates on an instinctual level but I think people sometimes need discipline to perceive what their instincts are telling them. Sometimes, too, people have to fight past their own preconceptions to recognise beauty--seeing with honesty requires a kind of discipline.

But what is Ellison saying, using that striking image of "Eyes of Dust"? They are "the gray of decaying bodies" Ellison says. The suggestion seems to be that they see the passage of time, the eventual death in everything, like Raistlin Majere's eyes. But is death really ugly? Tennyson might say no, Wilfred Owen might say yes. Again, it seems to be subjective. It's not usually happy, I suppose.

If you ask me, the image of death is more like the lifeless edges of modern architecture compared to the beautiful flourishes in the tiles of a Shinto shrine. Death is the relentless dopamine pump of internet media snacks compared to the contemplation of a slowly unfolding Tarkovsky or Lynch movie.

It's all subjective except it clearly isn't.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Your Station for Space Mystery

I like a mystery with a big bucket of red herrings. "The Passenger", a first season episode of Deep Space Nine, kills off its killer at the beginning then puts out a lot of possibilities as to how he could survive. But which is the herring we're actually looking for?

Is it the Federation security chief introduced at exactly the same time, who butts heads with Odo? Did the officer who had the killer in custody switch places with him? Did the killer transfer his consciousness to another body? Dax and Bashir investigate.

I like the unexpectedly sunny smile Dax gives Sisko when he tells her "Good work." I don't remember her being such a sweetheart. The moment almost feels improvised.

The killer looks quite a bit like William Shatner, actually. That would've been a hell of a twist.

Deep Space Nine is available on Netflix.

Twitter Sonnet #1444

In rapid time the topic turned to grease.
The buttered pan rejects the mild cake.
Assorted symptoms change the mind of peace.
Beneath a purple sun tomatoes bake.
A future's root was shaved beside the cash.
An extra egg would fall below enough.
A steady crowd collects about the bash.
The forest teeth were jagged, coarse, and rough.
The constant scarf condoned its owner's neck.
Permission passed between the shirt and chest.
The king's confused before a mateless check.
The devil kids had worn their Sunday best.
With freedom came the famous stools for toads.
Deliver bowls across shiitake roads.