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The Haunter of the TV Movie Mar. 2nd, 2015 @ 06:43 pm

I really wish I could recommend 1991's Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady, a made for television movie which, as it stars Christopher Lee as Holmes, I was looking forward to seeing. I can't blame it all on Morgan Fairchild being cast as Irene Adler--though it's certainly the worst portrayal of the character I've ever seen. The story barely resembles a Sherlock Holmes story involving very little cleverness on Holmes' or anyone's part and the direction is the worst sort of sequence of bland close-ups associated with television of the era.

I've heard Lee has always wanted to play Holmes more often and considers himself especially suited for the role. As far as I know, this was only the second opportunity he'd had to do so in his extraordinarily long career, the first time being 1962's Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace. He has appeared in other Sherlock Holmes films as other characters, like 1959's version of Hound of the Baskervilles and Billy Wilder's underrated The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes where he played Mycroft. Why is it so rare for Mycroft to be played by a fat man, as he's described by Conan Doyle? Well, it's not to say Lee did a bad job.

And as Sherlock, Lee is certainly the best thing about Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady and yet he never feels very much like Sherlock Holmes to me. His friend, Peter Cushing, who played Sherlock in the 1959 Hound of the Baskervilles, was a much better fit. Cushing had that restless, quick quality. Lee is like a walking monument. It's interesting and cool seeing him play the lead in an adventure film. I think he'd make a good Vulcan, actually. What Lee does in Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady is very good but isn't quite Sherlock Holmes.

Well, good except for his pitching woo to Irene Adler. Wow. That strained smile on his face. He can't quite refrain from looking like he wishes he was million miles away as he's forced to perform flustered to her closed circuit chemistry.

Poor Irene Adler. Her portrayal here is so retrograde it makes her original appearance in "Scandal in Bohemia" look like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. In Leading Lady, Holmes and Watson refer to her reverently as "The Woman" and Holmes says he admires her but there's no hint as to why. She's an opera singer and she's kidnapped at one point but she never does anything clever or extraordinary, she becomes a run of the mill damsel in distress, the kind of woman the real Sherlock Holmes would not even begin to be attracted to.

I guess Fairchild looks good in the role even as she's about as receptive to the other performances as a blind and deaf woman. Which I suppose kind of works in a scene where she's hypnotised by no less than Sigmund Freud (sigh). I was distracted by an inexplicable smudge on her breast.

What is that? It's after she was kidnapped so maybe it was meant to be sign of a scuffle? Why only there? Maybe it was Ash Wednesday and they wouldn't let her put ashes on her forehead and her breast was a compromise?

There's not a whole lot else to say about the movie. There's a humdrum murder plot in Vienna sort of tied to World War I. Also in Adler's opera troupe is Engelbert Humperdink, seen here looking remarkably like Ron Jeremy:

Current Location: Vienna
Current Mood: tiredtired
Current Music: "Lay Lady Lay" - Bob Dylan

We are as Ducklings Mar. 1st, 2015 @ 03:23 pm

Last night I dreamt I went outside my apartment to find a completely different environment, it looked like the grounds of an antebellum plantation in the American south. There were a lot of orange ducks everywhere--they hard curly orange fur instead of feathers. I saw a tiny duckling among a group of them with fur the colour of mustard before it disappeared behind two adults.

"Hey, I saw a duckling," I said to a group of people before noticing that group was gathered around five or six ducklings. The people were a middle aged nun with large glasses and some children, all around six years old, playing with the ducklings. The nun said to me, "We've already figured they're going to die."

I asked why.

"We have no medicines for ducklings," she said.

"Surely plenty of ducks have grown up in the wild?" I said.

She became angry and replied, "Where does it say in the bible that fossil records indicate man should lay with woman?"

Putting aside for a moment everything wrong with that question, I simply said, "How is that relevant?"

She seemed embarrassed. "I suppose it isn't." Then I woke up.

I can think of a few things that might have influenced the dream. Missing the ducks where I used to live, the nun and children from the movie Orfanato I watched a few days ago, and of course having finished reading the Old Testament in the King James version of the bible a few days ago. Though the nun in the dream was probably Catholic.

I read in Wikipedia that a lot of the Old Testament was written to explain why Babylon was able to capture the people of Judah and put out the king's eyes. If you take God as a metaphor for brutal, unpredictable life, it certainly makes sense. It's frequently mentioned near the end that God is "slow to anger". Which makes me think he must be like Bowser in Mario Kart who gains speed slowly but has a much higher top speed than anyone else. Whether God is slow to anger or not doesn't seem to matter when he seems to maintain a constant momentum of rage.

I was surprised by how often Moses or Samuel reasons with God and talks him down from some much harsher judgement. It kind of flies in the face of God as a being of perfect wisdom. The impression I had was of the prophet coming back to people assembled with a worried look on his face saying, "Okay, guys, he's really angry but I managed to reason with him a little and I think if we follow these complex instructions to the letter he just might let us live."

All in all, the Old Testament is exactly what I was expecting. Which is probably inevitable because those of us who hadn't read the bible have nonetheless been inundated with perspectives on the bible all out lives. Somewhere in the middle of all those perspectives is an impression that's probably more or less accurate. I couldn't stop thinking of God in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, wearing a golden crown, looking grumpy in the clouds saying things like, "'Course it's a good idea!"

And as I said before, all the complicated instructions are obviously there to explain why life "punishes" you even when you think you've done everything right. It reminds me of video game puzzles. Like a murder I was trying to solve in Skyrim last night, a quest chain I couldn't get working because I finally figured out I was supposed to take volume 1 of a killer's journal along with volume 2 to a busy body woman on the street who was investigating the crimes. Without both journals and some pamphlets in your inventory she won't even talk to you about the murders even though none of the dialogue actually brings up the fact that you have those items in your possession. That's the problem with allegory, too--you have to assume everyone makes the same assumptions as you.

Current Location: A puzzle
Current Mood: hungryhungry
Current Music: "Ride On Shooting Star" - The Pillows

Cloth Covers Metal Feb. 28th, 2015 @ 03:37 pm
I heard one of the best Doctor Who audio dramas I've heard yet a few days ago, Spare Parts, a 2002 Fifth Doctor story which in turn influenced a Tenth Doctor television two parter--"Rise of the Cybermen" and "The Age of Steel". And for once, the audio drama was credited and the author of the audio drama was even paid for it. The only really disappointing thing is that the television episodes removed so many of the best elements of the story.

Instead of an alternate dimension where Cybermen are shown to have an alternate origin, the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa go straight past the pointless work around and travel to witness the origins of the same Cybermen we'd seen all along on the series. Also, instead of alternate timeline versions of characters important to the main cast, we're introduced to new characters who are developed early on quite enough for it to be much more horrifying when they're "upgraded".

Writer Marc Platt, who wrote Ghost Light, one of the best Seventh Doctor television stories, appreciates that the Cyberman are much scarier with the cloth masks instead of the metal or plastic ones. That vulnerability, that sense of walking, eternal surgery patients, is so much eerier than the big toy case. It's not unlike the problem with the Green Goblin in the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie.

Spare Parts features Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) as the Doctor's companion and once again provides opportunity to explore her character far more than any of her television episodes did.

Arguments between council members and crude versions of Cybermen and a busybody official (Pamela Binns) who comes off like a Catholic school nun instructor are all wonderfully grey. Unusually for Doctor Who, no one of them feels simply evil, each one has a point of view on what's best for humanity, even the Cybermen. Really good stuff.

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The pretzels of Hell reach through thick glasses.
A pale pancreas recreates the heart.
Sharpened exposition thought of asses.
Bardot's contempt traces the moonless art.
White raindrop slashes separate the ink.
Promotional moth men think of butter.
Nineteen eighties sidewalk art stains the sink.
T-shirts clog all the light in the shutter.
All crude cyborgs know that nylon beats steel.
Gold arrowheads against blue sky remain.
All plastic coils one day become real.
Sturdy pins traced a good mountain's refrain.
Permanent pachyderm decimals mate.
Extended noses need never to wait.
Current Location: Mondas
Current Mood: hungryhungry
Current Music: "Panic In Detroit" - David Bowie

The Vulcan for Us Feb. 27th, 2015 @ 02:40 pm

So many people are posting images and quotes from Star Trek II to-day because Leonard Nimoy has died. He was best known for playing Spock and Spock's death in Star Trek II is certainly one of the most memorable deaths in cinema history and one of the most memorable funerals and eulogies because there was something profound in our love for Spock that had a lot to do with Leonard Nimoy.

Spock was cool, in the old fashioned sense of the word, implying a certain economy of movement and expression. Nimoy was an actor who knew the value of restraint and it served him well--it served all of us well. The scene in Star Trek II where Spock takes the "needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" to its logical conclusion is a perfect expression of what his character had been all along--a consummate scientist. The beautiful ideal of scientific discovery which puts aside the ego and psychological comfort, reflected in the Vulcan renouncement of emotion. It's true, we all need love and validation, but that makes Spock all the more admirable and Nimoy's portrayal of the character all the more beautiful. The version of Spock played by Zachary Quinto, who is much more about the modern compulsion to indulge in emotion and the need to find self-worth, is good and interesting but reminds us of what we've lost to-day with Nimoy's passing.

He was one of my favourites as a child. I really think what Nimoy accomplished with the character directly influenced one of the better parts of my nature and I think that's true for many, many people. We could say he passed his katra to humanity.
Current Location: Engineering
Current Mood: sadsad
Current Music: Swan Lake, Act 4 - Tchaikovsky

You Didn't Think of the Children Feb. 26th, 2015 @ 01:48 pm

We're just never going to be good enough for the ghosts of orphans, it's time we faced it. Horror fiction often plays on guilt, the vague feeling we deserve to be punished, and looking at the sorrowful faces of hundreds of abandoned children can fill one with even deeper feelings of falling short when those orphans died in some accident resulting from negligent adult supervision. 2007's The Orphanage (El Orfanato) is among the many films to play on this psychological dynamic. Somehow it's not very scary but it is stylish and tells a decent story.

The film is almost entirely told from the point of view of a woman named Laura played by Belen Rueda whose lined face tells you this movie wasn't made in the U.S. where female protagonists are required to look no older than thirty five. Rueda gives a good performance as she struggles with her relationship with her HIV positive adopted son while trying to turn her home, an old orphanage, into a place to care for special needs children. Her prospective partner in managing the place is her husband, a doctor (Fernando Cayo). As events unfold, he proves to be not the most sympathetic or caring husband but he's generally supportive when Simon (Roger Princep), their adopted son, disappears one day.

Laura tries to explain how she still feels the presences of the phantom children she and her husband assumed were Simon's imaginary friends but no-one believes her.

There are a lot of jump out scares in the movie that for reasons I can't quite explain never seemed to work on me. Furniture suddenly falling over, a door slamming, a window pane falling out--something about the timing was off, I don't know. I don't really care, jump out scares aren't what distinguish good horror movies. Though it does somewhat sabotage the audience's identification with Laura when we don't jump at the same things she jumps at.

The movie actually reminds me of a much more conservative version of 2004's Saint Ange which I watched a couple weeks ago. Saint Ange is a better and weirder film but The Orphanage is a nice enough way to spend a couple hours.
Current Location: The basement
Current Mood: hungryhungry
Current Music: "Tombstone Blues" - Bob Dylan
Other entries
» The Virtue of Dreaming Avoided for Discussing It

What if a filmmaker really wanted to make a movie set in 1930s New York about a hot shot American reporter and an English orphan girl falling for each other but through some quirk of circumstance that filmmaker was forced to make his movie about Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell? It wouldn't surprise me if that were the story behind the making of 1985's Dreamchild, part breezy little romance, part brief vignette on the real life Alice and the author of the famous books. Featuring Ian Holm wonderful as always as Carroll and a very effective child actress, Amelia Shankley, as the young Alice Liddell, the movie also has some really amazing Jim Henson Creature Shop characters that make you wish Jim Henson had simply adapted the Alice books.

These appear in dream or hallucinatory sequences experienced by the elderly Alice (Coral Browne), now Alice Hargreaves, in the U.S. to commemorate Lewis Carroll's centennial at Columbia University. Nonetheless, she's a little put off by all these Americans insisting on calling her "Alice" instead of "Mrs. Hargreaves", a point the film reiterates far past seeming credible. Her assistant is Lucy (Nicola Cowper), a shy orphan girl, and the two of them are bewildered by a wave of reporters as they arrive in New York. One of them, Jack Dolan (Peter Gallagher), wins their confidences and essentially becomes Hargreaves' agent.

Most of the movie is about Jack's struggle with proving he's honest even as he is trying to make a buck in the middle of the Great Depression, after all, as he reminds us in dialogue though we're never shown soup lines or anything. Hargreaves can't understand why people are interested in Alice's Adventures In Wonderland and Jack gives her the spiel about how people need to dream.

Gradually, memories take over and we see very brief scenes of Holm as Carroll and Shankley as Liddell. They never have dialogue that establishes their connexion, the film sadly takes it for granted. Carroll has hardly any lines, hinting at one point he wouldn't want Alice to marry the first gentleman who asks her and so on. Though Holm is very good at contriving a stutter like the one Carroll reportedly had and he invests his few scenes with a real sense of the man's discomfort and anxiety with the adult world. Shankley brings out more mischievousness than is hinted at in her namesake character or in the many surviving photographs Carroll took of her. It's a bit jarring when she recites dialogue from the book next to new dialogue created for the movie.

The movie's Alice Liddell seems as though she takes giddy pleasure in the affection the Reverend Dodgson (Carroll's real name) has for her, whether or not she has any real sympathy for him being somewhat in question. This may have been the actual relationship but my impression was that Carroll was charmed more by the credulity and openness of children than he was seduced by their cunning.

The highlight of the film really is the Jim Henson Creature Shop scenes which mostly use dialogue directly from the first book--featured are scenes with the Mock Turtle and Griffon, the Mad Tea Party, and the Caterpillar. The Creature Shop takes faithful reproductions of John Tenniel's illustrations and expands them credibly with splotchy skin on the Hatter and tangled fur on everyone else.

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Pastry tongues trim a real resplendent lip.
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Triumphant flies flambe the fossil sap.
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Purple panic room plants devour Pez.
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» Earth Planing

What is the new old fashioned way? I think that's the question the Wachowskis asked themselves when they made 2015's Jupiter Ascending, which apparently they were commissioned by Warner Brothers to make as the first film in a potential franchise. Judging from the meagre performance at the box office it's not likely to be spawning sequels any time soon. It is a fundamentally flawed film, an improvement over Cloud Atlas, the previous film of the Wachowskis', but still fails to capture the vibrant inventiveness of Bound and the first Matrix film.

I wonder if Jupiter Ascending was meant to be Warner Brothers' answer to Guardians of the Galaxy, the two films must have been made over roughly the same period of time. Both are space operas involving a fish out of water, earthling protagonist, both seem to have been heavily influenced by Farscape. Guardians is the superior film but there are actually some things I like about Jupiter Ascending better--it's not as sappy; the costumes, makeup, and set designs are far more beautiful; and it makes that earthling protagonist female, which is always a plus in my book.

However, the film indulges in a kind of story device that has been avoided by makers of fantasy films for over decade now and has been vociferously denounced by the average analytic geek even after it's been pretty much dead in Sci-Fi/Fantasy for so long: the damsel in distress. Jupiter Ascending is made up of a prelude, four acts, and one Terry Gilliam tribute interlude. In each act, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is vulnerable in a strange, bewildering, threatening situation while Caine (Channing Tatum) is desperately trying to rescue her. In a sense, he's the Aeryn Sun to her John Crichton--he was genetically engineered as a warrior and has trouble dealing with the strong emotions she makes him feel while she inserts the random, earthly wisecracks that worked so well in Guardians of the Galaxy and Farscape. Unfortunately, the Wachowskis made the mistake of thinking that what made John Crichton and Star Lord work so well is that they're normal guys in a strange situation. Actually, neither one of them is normal which, in turn, actually makes them normal--human. Star Lord in some ways is still the little kid who was abducted by aliens while Crichton is a test pilot, kind of the classic definition of someone who's not normal.

Jupiter cleans toilets for a living. It's very, very clear that the Wachowskis have never supported themselves by cleaning toilets, the generally clean homes and bathrooms shown and Kunis' invariably perfect hair, makeup, and clothes, and her enormous home her Russian emigrant family live in in New York city, sabotage any attempt to relate to her as an average working dame. Though it's not quite as disastrous as when she has the means to rescue herself and her family from cleaning toilets for a living and doesn't take the opportunity for unexplained reasons.

Also, Star Lord and Crichton have agency. Sometimes they need rescuing but they have ideas that move themselves from place to place, they contribute to plans the group is making. Jupiter is basically passed from one villain to another like a potato while Caine is struggling to catch up. I don't mind a damsel in distress story on principle, one of my favourite movies of all time is the Errol Flynn Robin Hood. But Tatum's character doesn't have the charm of Errol Flynn and the battles he engages in aren't as interesting. The movie clearly banked on Jupiter carrying the personality load and while I do think Kunis is perfect casting for that the screenplay cuts the floor out from under her by attempting to make her some theoretical idea of normal.

Maybe they were aiming for a Twilight style young adult fiction where the protagonist usually is this glossy, boring version of normal. But I think to write that kind of boring character and story properly you have to also be a boring person, much more boring than the Wachowskis.

Sean Bean is a welcome respite from Tatum in a supporting role and there's a cute scene with bees. The main Sci-Fi concept of the film, which I won't spoil for you, is interesting and somewhat reminiscent of Dune but much more vicious. As usual when critics say a movie is confusing Jupiter Ascending isn't remotely confusing. If the Wachowskis had remembered what made Bound and Matrix good was that the protagonists were a bit larger than life, Jupiter Ascending might have been a really good film.
» When a Movie Flies

So I was wrong. Maybe not surprising considering I hadn't seen most of the movies but even if I had seen Birdman, which I watched after the Oscars last night, I don't know if I'd have predicted it to win. Though as Harry Knowles tweeted after the announcement of its win, it makes sense given how many actors are Academy voters. The movie is a massive, dripping, love letter to actors. In fact, acting is about the only category in which I think it deserved to win and about the only category in which it didn't. Michael Keaton not winning is truly an egregious snub, I suspect it's due to the fact that, even though it was a vulnerable and demanding role, it was far too subtle and made use of the notoriously under-appreciated talent of comedic timing. Still, wow, amazing to see Keaton back from what I had assumed was retirement. And he's good.

Also great in the film are Edward Norton and Emma Stone even though the screenplay really short changed them, particularly in Stone's case. Norton starts off as a great, slightly supernatural parody of actors like, well, himself. Norton is notorious for wanting to leverage his respected talent into taking creative control in his films--rumour has it that's why he didn't come back as the Hulk, which makes Birdman's tale of an actor known for playing a superhero all the more appropriate. Stone, meanwhile, is a lazily sketched junkie misfit daughter with whom her father, Keaton, has trouble connecting. Nevertheless, Stone knocks it out of the park and I'd love to see what she could do with a better written role of this kind. Of course, she's a superhero movie veteran herself, having appeared in the Marc Webb Spider-Man series that has just been jettisoned. I haven't seen those, in fact I think this is the first time I've seen Stone in anything but I can definitely see why so many directors want her in their films.

Birdman is about the movie industry adjusting emotionally to the rise in prominence of the superhero film and thematically it's a bit like a superhero film, kind of the opposite of the Book of Job where self validation is the goal. Keaton's character telling his ex-wife a story about imagining being in a plane crash on which George Clooney also happened to be a passenger, and then Keaton's daughter seeing the next day only Clooney mentioned in the headline, is just pathetic enough to make you want Keaton to fight for his ego's validation. An embarrassing couple of passive aggressively written scenes of confrontation between a villainous theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan) and the two male leads seal the deal on the underdog cache.

One thing I find really strange is that I don't see Wikipedia or any articles connecting Birdman with the Hanna Barbera character or mentioning Harvey Birdman, the parody series that aired on Adult Swim a few years ago. The film Birdman's mask is a little different but it clearly looks like it was meant to be the same character so I don't know what gives.

As for the Oscar ceremony itself, astonishingly badly written jokes for host Neil Patrick Harris, mostly terrible or average singing with the very notable exception of Lady Gaga who took command of a Sound of Music medley as well as really anyone could have. She hit all the notes without having that slightly melted cassette tape sound standard to Broadway-esque singers, demonstrated by Neil Patrick Harris and Anna Kendrick at the beginning of the show. Being a rock singer doesn't necessarily mean you can carry a demanding show tune but Gaga definitely has the goods.
» The Big, Sickly, Bloated Night
I hadn't really planned on watching the Oscars but I'm at my parents' house and my mother's throwing a little Oscar themed party. I haven't seen most of the nominees. I suppose either American Sniper or Selma will win. I haven't seen either one. I'm leaning towards American Sniper for my prediction. The ironic thing about the outcry over Selma's initial shut out is that the movie looks unmistakably like Oscar bait to me. I suspect academy voters won't like being shamed so, even though Clint Eastwood presents a generally conservative worldview in his films, sort of the anti-Argo, I think the voters will go with him because he's royalty.

I don't have any illusions about movies winning on artistic merit. I'm almost to the point where a movie winning an Oscar seems like an insult to the filmmakers to me. But if I were pulling for anyone, I guess I'd want Grand Budapest Hotel to win Best Picture, The Tale of Princess Kaguya to win Best Animated Feature, and Ida to win Best Foreign Film.

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Sticky white gum emerges as the king.
Hairnet boots confirm the rocket probates.
A song rattled a coin filled cup to sing.
Ham enclotted eyebrows break out the meat.
Birds wearing wing-tips will not ever fly.
Passion's plastic suffocates the love seat.
Couch consecrations praise potato fries.
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» The Watchful Clouds
It's funny how infrequently my comments are approved on io9. I see the many misspellings I commented on in this transcribed Sherlock Holmes story weren't fixed, either. You know, I'd feel like a jerk pointing this stuff out except lazy spelling and grammar seem to be a real epidemic, not to mention the fact that io9 publishes articles deploring lazy writing practices. And in this case, too, I was genuinely curious if the many misspelling were part of the original copy of the recently discovered story. I see this version does not contain the typos and now, like Sherlock Holmes, I wonder if I can deduce where those misspellings came from. The only thing I can think of is that the story on io9 was manually transcribed instead of copy and pasted, for some reason. Anyway, this site makes a pretty good case for the story not having been written by Arthur Conan Doyle at all, as people are also noting in the comments to the io9 story.

Why do I hold io9 to such a high standard? I guess because I genuinely like a lot of their articles and feel the tone of their "geek" reportage is more sincere than most. Gods know I make plenty of mistakes on my blog. I may be in the minority in actually preferring people correct my mistakes in public--I've gotten a few slightly chafed private e-mail responses to public comments I've made pointing out an error. And I've gotten private e-mails informing me of an error I've made now and then. I invariably feel uncomfortable with it. I don't like creating the illusion that I saw a mistake I really didn't but artists and writers seem to feel a lot of anxiety about not looking perfect. Which I think in an odd way leads to more and more problems as people find it easier to simply block their errors out of their minds than to acknowledge someone saw them make a mistake. I feel this urge sometimes, which is a big part of why I like to be corrected in public. That's a peg I would really prefer to be knocked down from because it's the kind that inhibits intellectual growth.

The foot of pride, and all--gods, is the bible influencing me? Well, I don't advocate Jerusalem being razed for typos.

I did take some time off from the Book to listen to a Doctor Who audio play this week, a 2002 Eighth Doctor story called Neverland. As the title suggests, the story draws comparisons between the Doctor and Peter Pan which prove to be so apt I wonder they've never occurred to me before. The Doctor's companion, Charley, voices most of the observations which speaks well for her and her insight. There's also some insinuations of Charley wanting to sleep with the Doctor, which was a surprise and an interesting precursor to the 2005 television relaunch. The Doctor reacts like a kid and there's a funny moment where he introduces Romana and Charley to each other, each woman as his "best friend", and doesn't seem to notice the slightly chilly "hellos" they give each other.

Lalla Ward returns again as Romana though disappointingly in her role as president of Gallifrey, and a very good president, which is close, true, to the academic Romana is introduced as in The Ribos Operation but completely misses the fun inherent in the chemistry between her and the Doctor. The writers should note how the Doctor behaved when he was president of Gallifrey, treating it halfway between a lark and a strategic manoeuvre.

I was amused by a strident line given to Romana about how there're no such things as gods which may have been a nod to Lalla Ward's husband, Richard Dawkins.
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