While the comic creations of Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, Goscinny & Uderzo, Carl Barks, and Hergé loomed large in my childhood, I’m hard pressed to think of a single author whose chapter books I read more as a kid than Beverly Cleary. This fact was probably aided by the fact that my mom was, like Cleary herself was back in the day, a children’s librarian, and I am of an age that some of the Ramona books were still coming out new when I was of prime age to read them. I also read all the Henry Huggins books, my favorite probably being Ribsy, and also quite liked the tales of Ralph and his motorcycle, which at least one of my kids as now read as well.
If life is indeed something that happens while you’re making other plans, it’s nice to know you can create some magic along the way.
While it’s almost certain I first saw Kotto in Alien, the performance that will always stick with me was seeing him on stage as Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s Fences.
Through all the power, fragility, strength, and weakness in that character was a presence that just couldn’t be faked. As an actor and as a casting director, I obsess about actors “inhabiting” their characters to the right degree — and Kotto always did so. Amazingly so.
And I should point out he could inhabit all sorts of characters in a variety of genres. For Midnight Run, his turn as FBI agent Alonzo Mosely is a perfectly realized straight man in an action-comedy whose plot was anything but straightforward. His gravitas weathers all the shenanigans and manages to ground the film in the stakes, especially at the end.
Although he turned down an opportunity to be Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back, evidently in part to avoid being typed in “space” films, he did come awfully close to being in another venerable sci-fi franchise.
Yes, apparently he was close to being Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation. That would have been a very different Picard, but man would I like to see the stories from that timeline.
Time and again, the appearance of Yaphet Kotto has meant you’re getting a damn fine performance. I’m overdue to revisit his turn as Lt. Al Giardello in Homicide: Life on the Street, a series I should check out again anyway.
You want to talk about the bonus situation? The bonus situation was whenever Yaphet Kotto showed up. May his memory be a blessing.
When you talk with your filmmaking peers, it comes as no surprise they have always have a few filmmakers they follow closely, perhaps someone who isn’t necessarily a household name… or even necessarily an art house movie theater name.
Michael Apted was one of those filmmakers for me. He died at the age of 79, earlier in January (I’m just getting to writing this post now). You can read obituaries and remembrances from the BBC, the Guardian, Variety, and NPR among others.
One part of his career you see mentioned again and again is the Up series, documentaries made at seven-year intervals looking at a particular set of Britons starting in 1964. It has become –as I recall one reviewer putting it– “a time-lapse film of human lives.” It’s simple, straightforward, and extraordinary.
Apted continued to make fiction and non-fiction films for the rest of his career… and the fiction films included a James Bond spy film and an installment of the Chronicles of Narnia. His filmography is rightly described as “eclectic.” And with a background in both anthropology and theater, with a love of films and history, you can perhaps begin to see why he was one of the filmmakers I followed.
For those of you who have seen my biennial Favorite Films sort, none of his fiction films ever make it into my top 50 and –by virtue of me wanting each feature to stand on its own– that eliminates the Up series from competition (its heft comes from the whole package after all). But I would be hard pressed not to find something interesting an energizing about every single one of his movies. In part, I think it’s because he always finds ways to bring forward truth in the fiction.
Nowhere is this more on display for me than the natural double-feature of Incident at Oglala and Thunderheart. The former is a thought-provoking documentary about shootings and subsequent trials at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975. The latter is Hollywood mystery thriller with Val Kilmer, Sam Shepard, and Graham Greene, among others, oh so clearly inspired by the real events, but distinctly different.
There are always bits worthy of note in all of his films. For instance, in 2001’s Enigma, you get a good breakdown of how codebreaking actually works versus the typical “hack the Internets” silliness sometimes on display in films.
I know many people, and the articles, cite his turn as Bilbo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings movies or his absolutely chilling performance as Ash in Alien, but for me, Ian Holm burst into my memory in 1981.
The first film, Chariots of Fire, is included in the montage below. He didn’t win an Oscar for supporting actor, but he did win a BAFTA and one from Cannes and the moment you see below is about a nice a quiet payoff moment as you can want as a character actor.
The second film, Time Bandits, was another family favorite and, perhaps being exposed to it in my formative years, Ian Holm’s portrayal of Napoleon remains one of my favorites (one of the three times he played Napoleon).
As the years went on, it was always a pleasure to see him pop up on screen. He had incredible presence in the moment, yet didn’t skew the scene or chew the scenery: a consummate character actor. Even where he plays a major role, he’s part of a team.
So let’s close with something that Ian Holm (as Napoleon) professed to like: little things hitting each other!
One of the nice things about his work was that his characters were perfectly at east with who they were, be it an alien, a corrupt sheriff, or entrepreneurial pilot. If he turned out to be a villain, his character would metaphorically or literally shrug, as if to say, “Do you get surprised that a wolf is a carnivore?”
My all-time favorite scene with Brian Dennehy comes from Never Cry Wolf below:
The beauty of this scene is all the character and clues about motivation that Dennehy puts into Rosie. You think it’s just a fun, kooky scene when you first watch the film, but when Rosie turns up later in the film, you realize that everything he does is completely in line with what he told you in the beginning. His entire performance, as with so many of his others, is a kind of zen: totally in the moment.
I hope this doesn’t become too frequent, but I had to post something about one of the recent victims of the pandemic. As is being reporting in multiple outlets, John Conway has died at the age of 82.
I know Conway the same way so many people know him: from his game of Life. No, not the family board game with the impressive spinner in the middle of the 3-D board. Conway’s game was abstract and far more mathematical (but it still has spinners!). It was like an endless civilization-building simulation.
I first tried my hand at it using graph paper, but found this to be very manual, so I took to using a Pente board, not realizing Conway himself had used a Go board when he was coming up with the game from the 60s. Thankfully, far cleverer people than I ported it over to the Interwebs, where you can test much vaster combinations much faster than I ever could manually. My favorite is over at Bitstorm.
So, take a moment at some point and play around with it. It’s very absorbing.
(Note: not being a mathematician, I really can’t comment on what I understand are vast contributions in terms of other areas of mathematics, but I believe there are some links to that and some interviews in the Ars Technica article).
A towering presence in cinema –literal and figurative– had died. Max von Sydow, an actor we’ve seen on screens since the 1950s, has died at the age of 90.
You can read (and listen) to accounts in the BBC, Variety, and NPR among many others.
What struck many of us moviegoers was the wide range of parts he would play… and could play with such quiet conviction. Here is a man who played the Son of God as well as the Eternal Adversary. But whether as tormentor or tormented, he would bring a bit of gravitas to whatever work he was in, even if the work was more than a little cartoony (I’m looking at you, Ming).
His unequivocally prolific body of work means that audiences will find him in dozens of films for decades to come — and personally, that has always been a delight. Especially for some of his later work, where he moved from leading man to supporting character, his presence wasn’t always announced, so I adored his appearance in Intacto and wished for a few more scenes of him in Star Wars, but enjoyed it nonetheless.
As some have noted, he’s been a presence in our cinema lives for so long, it’s hard to imagine him not popping up again in this TV show or that movie, whether to be chilling or entertaining, but always affecting.
It’s been one amazing chess game, sir. Well played.
Turner Classic Movies (TCM) does a wonderful remembrance of the film artists we lost in the past year. I’ve mentioned it before, but it always makes me wistful and reminds me to rewatch a movie or three.
I thought this year’s was especially good, perhaps because of the many quotes from the people they used.
Goldman was, and will continue to be, enormously influential for writers and his book, Adventures in the Screen Trade, is one I’ve given as a gift to several fellow writers, not only for its insights about writing and the writing process, but of that crazy fantasy land known as Hollywood.