Watch Television

Don't You Wonder Sometimes About Sound and Vision?

It's back to the good old MCU with WandaVision, a new series on Disney+ that premiered with two episodes last night. The characters of Wanda and Vision from The Avengers movies are inexplicably placed in a TV sitcom format with teasing hints that evil shenanigans are afoot. Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany reprise their roles from the films and both get a better chance to be sweet and charming than they ever had in the movies. So far the writing isn't very interesting, either as a homage to old sitcoms or as an intriguing Twilight Zone-ish story. But I'm inclined to keep watching for the performances.

I gather we'll be watching the super couple progress through eras of sitcoms one decade at a time. Episode one was a 1950s tale resembling I Love Lucy while episode two looks more like The Dick Van Dyke Show or Bewitched.

The obviously computer animated second opening sequence is one of the ways in which the show fails to surpass films like Pleasantville in terms of capturing the look of a real period TV show. Other problems are more subtle, like the editing or the use of low angle close-ups. Taken as episodes of a sitcom in themselves, they feature typical screwball plots about Wanda and Vision desperately trying to impress people while concealing their magical powers. Series creator Jac Shaeffer concocts gags like Wanda, wearing negligee, sneaking up behind Vision's boss to cover his eyes, mistaking him for her husband. The boss's total lack of resemblance to Vision, and being accompanied by his wife, make the plausibility of the gag too weak, rendering it awkward and weird instead of funny.

But Olsen and Bettany are really good, particularly Bettany who somehow manages to project strength, vulnerability, and goofiness all at once. It's nice to see the two of them settle down on the couch at the end of each episode.

WandaVision is available on Disney+.

Twitter Sonnet #1434

The question turned around the mouth like bone.
The worried edge acquired ragged sheets.
A chorus jams the dead and broken phone.
And something cold and distant softly beats.
The useful sack was never clearly wine.
The perfect power wields a sword of teeth.
Distinguished pets observe divided twine.
A hundred blades construct the grassy wreath.
The candy's soft with microwaving hair.
Behind the sun were promised shades of use.
As dancing ducks abandoned splashy care.
The empty coat would ride the black caboose.
Returning sights romance the magic screen.
Decisions shrank to choose the useful bean.
Dancing Men

The Ever Culpable Robert Culp

You'd think Robert Culp would have learned not to tangle with Columbo but one year after he first played a murderer on the show he played another one in an episode appropriately called "Double Exposure". He is pretty perfect as an adversary for Columbo. He smoothly transitions from comfortably smug to bitterly exasperated.

This time he plays some kind of advertising guru who kills a client during the screening of a commercial. Columbo (Peter Falk), as usual, goes overboard in praising the prime suspect, even checking out books from the library Culp's character wrote. The two have nice chemistry.

Two other notable scenes feature a projectionist letting Columbo in on a few tricks of his trade and Columbo wandering around the supermarket. Both are nice little slices of that vanished world of 1970s America.

Columbo is available with commercials on Amazon Prime.
Confusing Device

Why Him, Naomi?

Last time I wrote about The Expanse, I wondered why in the Belt Naomi would be attracted to Marco Inaros in the first place. Last night's new episode sort of gave me an answer, or at any rate it had a flashback to when they were young and in love and Filip was just born.

She looks so mature, not fifteen or sixteen, as I guess her age would have to be. I can't find the age of Jasai Chase Owens, who plays Filip most of the time, anywhere on the internet but considering he has a history of aiding in terrorist attacks I figure he has to be at least seventeen by this point. Dominique Tipper, who plays Naomi, is listed as being 32 or 33 (weird seeing such imprecision about someone in a major TV series). I guess Naomi's meant to be older than Tipper or maybe Belters have accelerated pregnancies.

Still, I don't find Marco (Keon Alexander) or Filip very interesting but I like the story of Naomi's struggle. Tipper's performance makes the scenes really work when she's talking about nearly committing suicide. And I liked how the episode came back to that story in the climax.

I was sorry not to see Amos or Avasarala this week but an episode focused on Naomi is always a good idea.

The Expanse is available on Amazon Prime.
Strange Shame

One Out of Seven

Despite the popularity of pirate films in the mid-20th century, there were surprisingly few made about the infamous Barbary pirates. 1953's Raiders of the Seven Seas takes one of the first and most successful of the Barbary pirates, Barbarossa, and changes nearly everything about him. A pirate whose exploits occurred primarily in the Mediterranean is depicted as a menace of the Caribbean and as a liberator of slaves instead of a procurer. For a low budget pirate film with a B list cast, it was better than I expected but not by much.

Nearly everyone was miscast, including John Payne as Barbarossa. The real life Turk is portrayed as a Spaniard (in the service of Morocco) by an American actor who makes no attempt to do anything with his accent. The stilted dialogue comes out like a type writer from him and other Americans in the cast but Payne at least had some star quality and roguish charm. He has exactly one good sword fight against a villain, played by Gerald Mohr, possibly the most miscast person in the film.

MST3k fans will remember him from Invasion USA in which he plays, as he so often did, a cheap substitute for Humphrey Bogart. Which makes him stick out like an even sorer thumb in this movie.

Despite the fact that the real Barbarossa died in the 16th century, I did appreciate some historical authenticity in the film's chosen time period of the early 17th century. Nobody wears tricorne hats. And I like how the hold of Barbarossa's ship is portrayed as disgusting.

That's Donna Reed, the biggest star in the film, though she really has no business playing a Spanish noblewoman. She looks fantastic, though, and she fills out her gorgeous costumes perfectly.

Lon Cheney Jr. plays Barbarossa's helmsman unremarkably. I guess it would be a spoiler to tell you he dies in the film except later, thanks to lousy editing, he turns up back at the helm in the background of a shot.

So I don't really know what to tell you.

After the decent sword fight in the middle, the end is anticlimactic. But there are worse pirate films.

Raiders of the Seven Seas is available on Amazon Prime.

Twitter Sonnet #1433

Insistent spots appeared across the grass.
The timing fell as gears were scattered round.
A growing cloud became a hardened mass.
We wanted snow but took an icy sound.
The greeting passed from wall to wall to floor.
The shelter grew to house electric air.
A ghostly crowd detached the fragile door.
A plushy pig was full of warmth and care.
A cherry watched a wave relinquish days.
Returning moons denote the planet place.
The lonesome ships repair to lively bays.
The empty night concocts a watching face.
The extra glasses blurred a pencilled seam.
Eraser smudges craft a novel dream.
Seventh Doctor and Ace

Cold Chicken Feathers

I guess I didn't need to go all the way to Shiga to see snow because we had plenty right here in Kashihara this morning.

Though, sadly, it didn't pile up. Despite the fact that the snowflakes were as big as chicken feathers and it snowed non-stop for over four hours there was almost no sign it'd snowed less than an hour after it stopped. Even these rice fields were all but clear of snow an hour after it stopped.

That's the view from a fourth floor classroom of the school where I'm working now.

So, yes, it's been cold around here lately. A few days ago, I took my hand out of some hot water and noticed steam coming off my fingers that looked like smoke.

I was reminded of the Beast's claws smoking from the hot blood of a recent kill in Jean Cocteau's Belle et la Bete.

I guess it wasn't so far fetched after all.
Ashi no tomodachi

Human Organisation

Amazon Prime is releasing episodes of The Expanse on a weekly basis, on Wednesdays, which should make it easier for me to blog about. But I seem to get sidetracked every Thursday, first by New Years, then by the U.S. Capitol mob. But last week's Expanse, an episode called "Tribes", is certainly not irrelevant to current events, though the terrorist depicted on the show commits a far worse series of crimes.

Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander) is kind of disappointingly one dimensional, coming off as just simply a madman. How did he get anyone to follow him? Why did Naomi (Dominique Tipper) have a son with him? Still, I like how the aftermath of him destroying several Earth and Martian cities has been handled with the other characters. Drummer (Cara Gee), coming to the grim decision that she has to ally herself with Marco for now, is a nice subplot and makes you wonder how often that happens, how often people who aren't 100% onboard with the party line are forced to support it in the interest of survival, not just for themselves but for their people.

Amos (Wes Chatham) has the key line in the episode; "The thing about civilisation is, it keeps you civil. Get rid of one and you can't count on the other . . . People are tribal. The more settled things are, the bigger the tribes can be. The churn comes and the tribes get small again. Right now, you and I are a tribe of two." He's talking to Clarissa Mao (Nadine Nicole) with whom he's trekking through the wilderness in the wake of the attacks. Introduced in season three, Clarissa mostly sat out season 4, in prison for the crimes she committed. Now the prison's destroyed along with the rest of the city and, as she and Amos encounter crazed survivalists and harsh weather, the legal system that says she should be incarcerated indeed doesn't seem to be very relevant anymore.

One of the advantages of studying history is that it provides perspective on human behaviour. Old history books and the events themselves weren't created under the shadow of current attitudes or prescribed morals. It's a way of getting your head above the trees for a moment. Science Fiction is kind of a way of manufacturing this perspective--it has the disadvantage of the writers inevitably being influenced by the current climate but, to bold writers, that can also be an advantage. Anyone nowadays worried about censorship, and there are legitimate concerns on that front, should be reminded we still have access to art and history. In many ways, better access than at any time in human history. The amount of work a controlling power would have to do to truly shut off all avenues of independent thought may be beyond any currently existing human entity.

The Expanse is available on Amazon Prime.
Musician Who

Death and a Wedding and Time Travel

Donna Noble continued her bad luck wedding streak in the 2016 Doctor Who audio play "Death and the Queen". A primarily comedic and solidly written script from James Goss is turned to gold by performances from David Tennant and Catherine Tate.

It begins in the French Riviera in the 18th century where Donna (Tate) meets a handsome prince while playing roulette. She accepts his marriage proposal despite the Doctor's (Tennant) misgivings arising from the fact that he's never heard of Prince Rudolph's (Blake Ritson) country. Donna, for the opportunity of being Queen, isn't overly concerned by such trivial details.

Alice Krige plays the Queen Mum of the mystery country and she and Tate have a lot of amusing verbal sparring. Most of the good stuff is between Tennant and Tate, though, who have brilliant chemistry as always.

"Death and the Queen" is available at Big

Twitter Sonnet #1432

The light of jellied suns assumes the room.
Responses taped the painted wall to wood.
The broken hands were scraped along the loom.
A leaking engine shakes beneath the hood.
A truncheon scraped the beggar's broken drum.
The vanished thief is sleeping close at night.
The heater yields a steady, aimless hum.
Distracted drunks believe they drank the right.
The circling earth was not the kind to see.
The tasty stones were churning arms away.
We gather leaves to dress the naked tree.
Invited late, the night disturbs the day.
The butter layer thinly coats the cake.
A fleet of flowers sank beneath the lake.
Kyoami Looks Up

Familiar Faces and Their Fragile Dreams

I find Akira Kurosawa's 1957 adaptation of The Lower Depths (どん底) strangely comforting. I feel the same way about The Seventh Seal--although both films are fundamentally very grim, they both do such a good job of establishing the sense of a world by creating so many characters with diverse motives operating in it that revisiting them feels like visiting old friends. Considered a very faithful adaptation of Maxim Gorky's 1902 Russian play, watching Kurosawa's version again last night I found myself thinking the story works as a very intelligent rebuke to the famous Karl Marx quote, "Religion is the opium of the people."

I like how Bokuzen Hidari's character never directly claims to be a monk, despite bearing the accoutrements of one, but everyone calls him a fraud anyway. When he kindly tells the dying woman (Eiko Miyoshi) about a paradisical afterlife or the alcoholic actor (Kamatari Fujiwara) that there's a temple where his damaged liver can be healed, the gambler (Koji Mitsui) and Sutekichi (Toshiro Mifune), the thief, bitterly relish making cynical pronouncements about it under a thin guise of good nature. They both assert of course we all know he's lying but isn't he kind?

If they thought about it for a moment, they might realise showing off their own powers of perception would have a devastating impact on the people Hidari was trying to console, as it does for the actor.

Those shots of Fujiwara sitting motionless in his bunk while the prostitute (Akemi Negishi) is arguing in the foreground are so devastating. I like how Kurosawa shows the actor draw the curtain across his bunk but then shows us through two wooden beams that he's still just sitting there, staring into a void.

I also like how Kurosawa doesn't go to a closeup of him when the prostitute runs outside. The camera stays outside and watches him say farewell through the rain.

This is all after the three principle actors have left the film--Toshiro Mifune, Bokuzen Hidari, and Kyoko Kagawa. The drama about Mifune and Kagawa's brittle romance is rightly placed at the centre of the film, the dream that takes form but is dragged down by the general misery is a perfect cornerstone. But it's a film about the suffering of a society so it's important for the narrative to cast a wider net and place the leading conflict in the context of other lives with other motives and other desperate dreams.

The Lower Depths is available on The Criterion Channel.
Spoils of War Spoil Your Thyroid Artery

The Appeal of Simpler Fiction

I'm still watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I'm now seven episodes into season 2. "Lie to Me", which first aired in November 1997, was written and directed by Joss Whedon and is the first really interesting episode from him so far, not counting the pilot. There's more to it than jokes and pulp, you start to get a bigger sense of emotional stakes largely thanks to a one-off character, an old classmate of Buffy's called Ford (Billy Fordham).

He shows up at Sunnydale High at the beginning of the episode much to Buffy's (Sarah Michelle Gellar) surprise. She's surprisingly candid in explaining to Xander (Nicolas Brendon) and Willow (Alyson Hannigan) that she'd had a massive crush on Ford in fifth grade. She even mentions listening to know "When I Think About You I Touch Myself", lamely adding that she didn't originally understand what the song meant. Could a fifth grader in L.A. really have been that innocent in the 90s? It seems implausible--though not as implausible as Willow just at that moment figuring out the song's meaning. It comes off more like coy burlesque humour, which I can kind of appreciate.

I found it a little more difficult accepting the fact that, when Ford reveals he knew Buffy was the Slayer, no-one asks how he came by that information, not even Giles (Anthony Stewart Head). But I can forgive the episode its faults when its plot about a vampire worshipping cult naively bargaining with vampires pays off so tragically.

It's the first moment of moral ambiguity on the show--suddenly Ford seems to have a point when he wants to live forever, and the vampire being a demon concept suddenly seems especially cruel. And it adds an intriguing shade to the subplot about Angel (David Boreanaz) and Drusilla (Juliet Landau) advanced in this episode.

It feels like, with this episode, Whedon finally caught up with reading Anne Rice as the layers of tragedy in Drusilla's past have that kind of operatic despair. She's almost Claudia from Interview with the Vampire. There's an interesting juxtaposition, now that I think about it, between Angel recalling how he obsessed with the exceptionally pure innocence of the human Drusilla and the innocence Buffy exhibits chatting about her crush on Ford. Adding another layer of intrigue is the fact that we've not yet been told that Angel has regained his soul in the years since he turned Drusilla into a vampire.

The episode also continues a satisfying development for Willow from throughout the season. I love the scene where she invites Angel into her room--he walks in all in satin and leather while she's wearing a big shirt and bunny slippers.

What a fun way to break the Anne Rice vibe (and I say that as someone who likes Rice's early books). Yet it's not so ironic as to break the fourth wall. Willow's personality always comes off as authentic, that's part of her charm.

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

Twitter Sonnet #1431

The wrinkled cup supports an even tea.
Confirming flights, the narrow phones report.
Advancing trays collapsed to feed the bee.
A group of feathered men with grace contort.
A punching card was holes away from rock.
Approval spoke in scattered sounds and blips.
Galactic dough retreats beneath the sock.
She takes her drink and time and slowly sips.
Mistaken skulls were floating out the mall.
We traded hats between the empty racks.
Decision sports create a choosy ball.
The heavy shirts condemn the brittle backs.
The even rooms distort misshapen lights.
A metal rod disturbs the wooden fights.
Kyoami Looks Up

Of Mobs and Government

It's been hard to focus on much but the news to-day. Especially since, as usual, it's difficult to find articles and reports unfiltered by significant bias. So often a story convinces me something happened but leaves me asking, "What really happened?" prompting me to seek out more and more sources. By a rudimentary net of cross-referencing I gain something like a clear picture of circumstances. Of course, when both The Guardian and Breitbart say Trump Supporters invaded the U.S. Capitol building, it's a good bet that's exactly what happened, though Breitbart has since removed the term "Trump Supporters" from their headline.

It's this widespread obfuscation that has led to frustration on both sides and fomented rage on both sides. Though to those Trump supporters who would argue that it's evidence of election fraud I would ask them to compare the 2016 and 2020 elections. When Hillary Clinton lost the electoral college and won the popular vote, she didn't incite invasion and vandalism of a federal building, she didn't stubbornly refuse to concede for months. And Biden won both the popular vote and the electoral college.

The invasion of protesters has rightly been called a terrorist act because it was intended to and succeeded in inspiring terror. And like most terrorist acts, the terror it inspired had the exact opposite effect of what the terrorists hoped to achieve. Republican lawmakers who previously supported Trump's dispute of the election results, like Senator Loeffler, changed their minds as a direct result of being frightened out of their minds by a mob intruding on and vandalising their workplace. Again, I'm reminded of 2016 when I said I thought the best movie to watch to understand the Trump presidency was Luis Bunuel's Viridiana. It was hard not to think of the dirty beggars rifling through the household finery, a move that shook the titular character's desire to champion their liberty, when I saw pictures of a Trump supporter kicking back in Nancy Pilosi's office, or that guy in the buffalo hood romping around on that familiar blue carpeting, amid the marble columns. Only now Trump isn't the figure of tighter security, of the iron fist who promises to keep the rabble in line. Now he's truly the figurehead of the rabble. There are few things he could have done that would more decisively turn Republicans against him.

For years, I've watched the rhetoric on both sides of the political spectrum ramp up and I see it in full, grotesque extravagance to-day. Both sides call for violence, both sides point to the irony of the other side's attitude about their own violent protests. And then both sides are seemingly shocked that the other side would dare use violent rhetoric.

I looked through the Twitter account of Ashli Babbit to-day, a Trump supporter shot and killed by police in the Capitol. She was unarmed but she was trying to break into the Speaker's office. The comparisons between her and George Floyd are already flooding social media. She's an obvious flashpoint for the two sides to condemn each other as monsters. As it happens, she's from San Diego, my hometown. Her Twitter is filled with pictures of familiar seasides. Mostly she retweeted other people but she also has videos in which she rants about border security, liberal media, and the California Governor, whom she blamed for many people losing their homes. She doesn't come off as a smart person, she may even have been a hateful person, but she seems like she genuinely cared about people. That's the kind of thing the Democrats are going to have to recognise if there's any hope in truly avoiding a civil war--the two sides have to recognise each other's humanity. That's looking increasingly unlikely.

Last week I listened to the infamous hour long recording of Trump in a phone conference all but begging for votes, his argument pathetically dissolving into flat assertions that he'd won the election. As though, like a spoiled child, he could make something happen just by saying he wanted it. And I thought again, how could anyone take this guy seriously? How could anyone think he belongs in a place of authority? But maybe it's not surprising when so many have praised selfishness for years while the quality of education has decreased.

I hope for the best but I think we're in for the worst.