Category Archives: Movies

Two Western series, rewatched in full

KUNG FU‘s ratings slipped during S2 which gives me the feeling the show-runners were putting some extra effort into S3 (though it didn’t help). We have several episodes set entirely in China (Besieged and The Devil’s Champion) and some where Caine’s facing unambiguously supernatural forces (The Devil’s Champion again, one that absolutely fascinated me as a kid). There’s also the introduction of a running foe, a cult of Chinese assassins dedicated to hunting Caine down for killing the emperor’s son.Most importantly, we get the resolution to Caine’s quest as he tracks down his brother Danny (and Danny’s son), and gets embroiled in that ne’er do well’s feud with gambling czar Leslie Nielsen (the kind of serious role he was known for before Police Squad! established him as a comedian). I felt a little disappointed Caine just left his family behind to go on wandering, though it’s not out of character (as the episode Thief of Chendo shows, being a wandering defender of the helpless was what he dreamed of as a kid in the monastery. A good finish to a good series (unless, as I’ve noted before, you find the yellowface aspect a dealbreaker); followed by a good movie in 1986 (I plan to rewatch that one eventually) and a forgettable present day-set series, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues. “Both roads, the right and the left, must have an end — and when you reach that end, you will know your destiny.”

The fourth and final season of WILD, WILD WEST picks up from the disappointing S3, though it still isn’t up to the first two years. The good episodes are really good, including Night of the Avaricious Actuary, the Phantom of the Opera riff Night of the Diva and the very Sherlockian Night of the Bleak Island but there’s way too many bland episodes as well. There are, as usual, some good guest villains, including Harold Gould in Avaricious Actuay and Jo Van Fleet in Night of the Tycoons.

There’s not much Artemus: Ross Martin had a heart attack midway through shooting (there was serious fear he’d die or be too weak to keep performing) so the show fills in with several Artemus substitutes, most frequently Charles Aidman as Jeremy Pike. They only show that Ross Martin brought something to the role that his pinch-hitters didn’t have (my favorite is probably Alan Hale Jr. in Night of the Sabatini Death, which ends with a Gilligan’s Island joke). There’s only one Michael Dunn appearance, in The Night of Miguelito’s Revenge. I suspect Tycho, the mastermind in Night of the Raven was a possible replacement if the series had gotten to S5 (super-genius, world-beating ambitions, physically peculiar — in his case, a giant head stuffed with brains).

Minor changes include that Jim smokes cigars frequently (I don’t remember that as much in earlier seasons) and there are a lot more black faces — minor roles, but it seems like a lot more episodes than previous seasons have black bartenders, dance-hall girls or government messengers. One change that had me scratching my head is that they de-emphasize the eye candy aspect, which has been part of the series since the sexist first season (and was normal for most action/adventure shows back in those days). Some episodes (e.g. Night of the Janus) have no pretty girl at all — not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s a surprising choice.

This show had two sequels that were also pilots for a reboot series, More Wild, Wild West and Wild, Wild, West Revisited. As my DVD set of the series includes them, I’ll have them for review soon. And I shall probably watch the widely panned big-screen version with Will Smith, Kevin Kline and Kenneth Brannagh soon enough.

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A projectionist, Miss Marple and a frog princess: movies viewed

THE STARS’ CARAVAN (2000) is a documentary about a film projectionist in Kyrgizstan, doing his best to travel and show movies for nomads and village residents despite the cuts in government support in the post-Soviet era. The loss of support also led to an increase in foreign action movies rather than propaganda, which made me think this would double-bill well with Chuck Norris vs Communism. Interesting, but not hugely interesting. “This is an important shepherd, a hero of socialism, and his family.”

MURDER AHOY! (1964) was Margaret Rutherford’s second Miss Marple film (following Murder, She Said) in which she inherits a position on a local charity’s trustee board just in time to see one of the other trustees drop dead before he could make a Big Reveal. As Inspector Craddock of course refuses to believe Marple’s theory the man was murdered with poisoned snuff, it’s up to her and Mr. Stringer to investigate the old sailing vessel the charity uses as a training camp for wayward youth. Good fun, though even further from Christie than its predecessor. “I cannot ignore the death of Nelson!”

As Disney’s first black princess, the hardworking waitress Tiana really deserved a better movie than THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG (2009). It’s N’Orleans in the 1920s and while Tiana sweats away to save enough money for her own restaurant, jazz-loving Prince Naveen is in town to party and land a rich wife (a white one, in fact — the movie just ignores all racial issues). After the sinister Shadow Man (who also deserves a better movie) turns Naveen into a frog and Naveen’s servant into the prince, Tiana tries curing him, but only winds up a frog herself.

Which is where the movie tanked, because it turns into stock funny-animal adventures with a jazz-loving gator and a lovesmitten firefly as supporting casts. On top of which, the romance felt completely unconvincing (plus it’s that annoying trope of the woman who’s too focused on her job to have a love life).  So thumbs down for me. “It’s the first rule of the bayou — never take directions from an alligator.”

That said, Princess Weekes of The Mary Sue explains why as a black woman she still loves princesses. More from Weekes about Tiana here, and another blogger looks at how prince characters have changed.

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Crime rides the rails! Movies viewed

While I’m sure the films are very far from Agatha Christie, I dearly love Margaret Rutherford’s turn as Miss Marple in four early 1960s movies.  MURDER, SHE SAID (1961) was the first film, in which the indomitable spinster witnesses a murder in a passing train.

Upon discovering she’s a murder mystery fan, Inspector Craddock (Bud Tingwell) writes her off as a dotty old bat. Miss M.’s not about to stand for that, so with the help of librarian Mr. Stringer (Stringer Davis) she tracks the killer to a gloomy old country estate, insinuates herself into the staff and resumes her hunt. But will she expose the killer before he eliminates her as a threat? Craddock and Stringer returned in the remaining three films, while the cast of this one also includes Arthur Kennedy and Joan Hickson, who would later play Miss Marple herself on TV. As fun as I remembered it. “I’ve seen you with your hands like that once before, doctor — around a woman’s throat.”

LADY ON A TRAIN (1945) has mystery buff Deanna Durbin glance out her train window into an office building and guess what she sees? After desk sergeant William Frawley proves as unimpressed as Inspector Craddock, Durbin turns to Ralph Bellamy, the author of her favorite pot-boilers, for help and the game is afoot. This is closer to a straight mystery than Rutherford’s more comical adventure, but it’s also good; the cast includes Edward Everett Horton as “Haskell of the New York office,” George Coulouris as a creepy gentleman and Dan Duryea as the victim’s flirtatious nephew. “I’ve already killed Margo, Josiah, Saunders, my brother and you — I’ll have to start on the other hand.”

Apparently I taped UNION STATION (1950) some years back under the impression it was Douglas Fairbanks’ Union Depot; while not in the same league as that film, it’s a good suspense drama as Nancy Olson alerts railroad cop William Holden (they find each other obnoxious and irritating in a way that makes it obvious they’ll be together by the film’s end) that a kidnapping operation is using his station to negotiate the return of blind Jan Sterling to her wealthy father. The emphasis on cutting-edge police techniques makes it a period piece now, but the execution is solid and Lyle Bettger is a delightfully rotten bad guy (he’d have kicked a dog if there’d been one in the film). “You think you’re going to cut in on any part of that hundred thousand? Only from the cemetery.”

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“I know there ain’t no sanity clause.” A Night at the Opera

It’s been years since I’ve seen A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935) and it holds up very well. It’s also an interesting turning point in their career, one I have mixed thoughts on.

The story has Groucho as wheeler-dealer Otis P. Driftwood sucking down a fat salary for supposedly helping wealthy Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) rise in society. His efforts to actually deliver on this result in Claypool dumping him to help stuffy opera manager Gottlieb (Sig Ruman) bring an arrogant tenor to the US (as there’s no establishing shot or other information, I didn’t realize we were in Italy at first). Driftwood winds up contracting with Ricardo (Allan Jones), a greater tenor and nicer human being, but lacking the reputation for A-list gigs. Groucho, Chico and Harpo work together to bring Ricard to the US, land him an opera gig and unite him with Rosa (Kitty Carlisle), the singer Ricardo and his arrogant rival are both interested in.

The three previous comedies the brothers made for Paramount (Horse Feathers, Monkey Business and Duck Soup) were insane, anarchic frenzies (I mean that as a compliment); Duck Soup, now considered a classic, was a flop, ending their association with the studio. Chico, however (it’s pronounced “Chick-o” by the way), played bridge with Irving Thalberg, MGM’s superstar producer, and so the Marx brothers shifted to MGM for a more conventionally plotted comedy (conventional compared to their earlier work, that is). There’s a dramatic arc, with the brothers apparently losing on all fronts before the climax.

It works beautifully, but as one book on their movies says, it worked against their strengths. Lots of comedians could do a movie about stowing away on a ship; only the Marx Brothers in Monkey Business would stow away, then go to the captain to complain about the lack of service, then try to get off the ship by impersonating Maurice Chevalier. Other comics got laughs avoiding trouble; the Marx Brothers welcomed it.

Making them more vulnerable worked with Opera, but their later MGM films got increasingly formulaic, wasting their talents.

But Opera did work. As Leonard Maltin says on the excellent commentary track, it’s a trickier film to pull off than it looks. The Marx Brothers have a great time disrupting the opera at the climax and deflating Gottlieb’s pomposity, but the happy ending hinges on Ricardo and Rosa becoming opera stars so the film can’t mock opera too much.

It succeeds. The film has wonderful energy, great lines (“This bill is an outrage! If I were you, I wouldn’t pay it.”), cheerfully insane scenes and good performances. This DVD also came with a mini-documentary on the brothers, a brief interview with Groucho, and two 1935 non-Marx comic shorts, HOW TO SLEEP (Robert Benchley discusses the art of sleeping) and SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE TROCADERO, a musical sketch piece.

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The women of early Star Trek

A few weeks back I started doing something I’ve wanted to do for a while: rewatch the original Star Trek series. It was very much a part of my teen years as I watched episodes over and over in syndication, but it’s been years since I caught any of the episodes, except in passing when TYG was rewatching them. When I began, I discovered Netflix’s run includes the original pilot episode The Cage preceding the first episode, Man Trap. The difference between them was interesting.

Gene Roddenberry has rightfully taken crap for a vision of the future in which women, even though qualified to serve on a space ship, are primarily eye candy. The Cage is a step up from that. The ship’s first officer, Number One (Majel Barrett) is competent; Captain Pike’s female yeoman, Colt (Laurel Goodwin) is much more tomboyish in demeanor than ST: OS’ Yeoman Rand; the show emphasizes that having a female yeoman on the bridge is a novel thing.

The show does make it clear that the woman are attracted to Pike, so who knows how they’d have been written if the original pilot went to series. But having a woman as first officer, and clearly competent, is still striking, particularly in that era.

A little too striking for the network, which told Rodenberry to either dump Number One or get rid of Spock; he opted to keep Spock, believing viewers needed to see an alien on board. Colt got replaced by Rand.

The opening episodes of the regular series do feel much more sexist. Yeoman Rand is mostly there to be pretty and smile and run errands (watching as a teenager, I thought “yeoman” must be something like a valet). Uhura flirts quite a bit with Spock. It’s disappointing to compare.

But then we get to the second episode, Charlie X. This gives the Enterprise it’s first encounter with a cosmically powerful foe, a teenage boy raised by disembodied intelligences who taught him their ability to transform matter. It’s apparently a limitless power, and Charlie’s a teenager, full of raging hormones and completely unused to dealing with other humans. He reacts viciously to slights or hurts and winds up a lot like Billy Mumy’s demigod on It’s a Good Life.

He also looks like the embodiment of the #metoo villain. Once he meets Yeoman Rand she’s all he can think about, and he can’t tolerate being told no. She tries introducing Charlie to a girl his own age; he treats the girl like dirt. His feelings, his needs, are all that he cares about; he thinks he loves Yeoman Rand but she’s just a means to an end, the end being his own satisfaction.

Watching in my teens, I knew he was out of line, but I saw him mostly as a tragic figure, screwed up by his own lack of experience dealing with people. Now I see him as much creepier.

I don’t think I’ll have more to say about the series until I finish S1, but you never know.

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The Twilight Zone, a tree and the Incredibles: TV and movies

With S3 of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, the bloom is definitely off the rose with way more flops than in previous seasons. E.g., Cavender is Coming, The Shelter, The Passerby, Still Valley, Dead Man’s Shoes, Four o’Clock and Showdown With Rance McGrew. Some are preachy and heavy-handed, some are unfunny comedies, some just fill a half-hour of TV and accomplish nothing more.

That said, the season also had some terrific episodes. Elizabeth Montgomery and Charles Bronson give solid performances as post-WW III survivors in Two, which opens the season. Donald Pleasance gives a moving performance as an aging teacher in the final S3 episode, Changing of the Guard. In between we have It’s a Good Life, the anti-Nazi drama Death’s Head Revisited, Five Characters in Search of an Exit and Person or Persons Unknown. It’s worth sitting through the mediocre to get to the good stuff. I’m not sure I’ll feel that way about S4, the notoriously unsuccessful switch to hour-long episodes (I think mediocre-to-bad episodes are the majority) but I won’t turn back before I finish the whole run (are you impressed at my heroism?).

CHARISMA (1999) is a confusing Korean thriller in which a cop is put on mandatory leave after a botched hostage crisis, travels to a small village and winds up obsessing over a mysterious tree in the arae. I’d assume my utter lack of interest in this (I checked out after about 40 minutes) was due to a culture gap if I hadn’t watched and enjoyed so many Korean films for the time-travel book.

THE INCREDIBLES 2 (2018) picks up immediately where the first film wrapped up, as the family’s battle against Undermind creates so much wreckage it looks like superheroes will stay on everyone’s shit list. A billionaire superhero comes up with a solution, using Elastigirl to fight crime on camera so that viewers will see how much good they do; Mr. Incredible, being overly prone to collateral damage, has to become the stay-at-home parent. But a villain named Screenslaver has a plot that may destroy the family for good … This was a lot of fun, and I give them credit for showing Mr. Incredible as a competent parent rather than a complete inability to handle the kids. Jack-Jack isn’t as cute as they think, but overall this makes me hope for Incredibles 3 some day. “Let’s not go testing the ‘insurance will pay for everything’ idea all at once, okay?”

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A superhero, a melancholy Dane and Netflix cartoons: movies and TV viewed

Michelle Yeoh is SILVER HAWK (2004) a millionaire martial-artist riding a motorcycle against crime. A kidnapping turns out to be Step One in a cyborg mad scientist’s plan to turn cell phones into mind control devices; can Silver Hawk stop him even with her childhood best friend now a cop assigned to bring her in. Yeoh, as always, radiates star quality, and the movie is a blast. “My boss is correct — it really does take you four hours to get dressed.”

David Tennant gives a spectacular performance as HAMLET (2009), a Royal Shakespeare Company production shot at Elsinore Castle (not the first film to do that) and one of the more unstable melancholy Danes; in his early scenes with Ophelia, his madness does seem more like he’s snapping than him putting on an act. With Patrick Stewart as Claudius, this is a solid modern-dress production (though the gimmick of having some scenes apparently caught on security cameras brings nothing to the table); Ophelia’s madness feels very out of the blue, though, and as usual I find Gertrude under-written. “Though Hercules himself do what he may/The cat will mew and dog will have his day.”

S2 of SHE-RA AND THE PRINCESSES OF POWER alternates between the Princess Alliance working on ways to take back the territory the Horde have occupied and Katra, Skorpia and Entrapta working on ways to advance Hordak’s end-game. The imprisoned Shadow Weaver, however, has plans of her own … This was an excellent season, culminating in revealing Bow’s secret origin (raised by pacifist academics, he’s been hiding the truth about joining the resistance). Katra, meanwhile, worries her achievement in becoming force commander is rapidly eroding, bringing all her insecurities to the surface. My only complaint is that seven episodes was too short — I hope we got back to 13, or at least 10, next season. “ “All the Horde ghost stories are about evil dead princesses — I can’t believe I never noticed that!”

I also finished the first season of AGGRETSUKO,a Netflix series loosely based on some Japanese anime shorts. Retsuko, the protagonist, is a corporate drone working under a bullying sexist boss in accounting and relieving her feelings by blasting out heavy metal karaoke after work. Can she find love? Or the courage to tell her boss off? Or will she stay stuck in her current mode forever? This was no She-Ra but it was fun, and fits with some of the stories my corporate-employed friends tell about work. “Even a high school boy has better sense than that!”

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Reading, writing and viewing: It’s no longer a mad, mad, mad, mad, mad, mad, mad world

You heard it hear first — okay, you probably already heard it somewhere else. But it’s worth marking the imminent death of Mad Magazine. I was never really a fan of Mad, but it was so omnipresent in my teen years that it still feels like a blow. The article says part of the problem is that Mad-style satire is now common everywhere. Then again, one of my Atomic Junkshop co-bloggers said that should have made it a perfect time for Mad to take the role Cracked did as a kind of online satire and commentary central. But it never happened.

Reading Fran of the Floods got me curious about the many strips I read in my sisters’ Diana and other books. If you’re at all curious, this is a good source. New Statesman gives a historical overview; I’m a little disappointed to learn the girls’ comics market has apparently died out, though as noted at the link there’s a lot of reprinting in trade paperback going on.

Microsoft is shutting the Microsoft Bookstore. And when it does, whatever ebooks you’ve bought will cease to exist.

Isabel Cooper on why originality is over-rated.

The days when Hulu and Netflix could stream almost everything we wanted to watch are going as everyone launches streaming services. As Mighty God King says, if it takes three or more streaming services to watch everything we want, what’s the point of cutting the cord? I haven’t watched Star Trek: Discovery because it’s CBS streaming, nor have I caught Doom Patrol (though I will probably subscribe later this summer, just long enough to watch it).

Another article (I don’t have the link) argued that this used to be the dream: instead of having everything bundled together, allow us to pick and choose what we want to watch! Why the fuss? I certainly wanted un-bundling, but I wasn’t looking to pay for CBS, NBC and ABC separately. It was more about having to take Fox News, CNN (a better channel, but I don’t do TV news), ESPN and QVC if I wanted to get Cartoon Channel, Turner Classic and a couple of others I liked. That said, plenty of people saw this development coming, so I’m not that surprised. And it does make me glad Netflix still has DVDs, which won’t be affected.

M.A. Kropp says to write what you want, not what “they” want.

John Wayne was a racist, homophobe and sexist. Should we stop watching his movies?

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Ghosts, killers and Spider-Man: this week’s movies

Following on last week’s viewing of Topper, I caught TOPPER TAKES A TRIP (1939) based on Topper-author Thorne Smith’s sequel. After the happy ending of the first film, word of Cosmo Topper’s (Roland Young) supposed scandalous conduct has leaked out to Clara (Billie Burke); when she can’t win a divorce, she lets a friend convince her to fly off to the Riviera and flirt with a gigolo. Fortunately Marion Kirby (Constance Bennett) has been called back from heaven to finish her good deed of helping Topper, and whether or not he wants help, he’s going to get it …

This one didn’t work as well as the first film. It doesn’t have as strong a narrative spine, which makes it just a stock mix of invisibility shticks as Marion works on getting the Toppers back together. It contributed one element to the later Topper TV series, a ghostly dog accompanying Marion here (though small, where the TV show had a St. Bernard). “Mrs. Parkhurst, even if I liked you I wouldn’t want to talk to you.”

I had much more fun with TOPPER RETURNS (1941) a hybrid of ghost comedy and murder mystery.When Joan Blondell and her best friend stay at a spooky old house, Blondell gets murdered; she recruits Topper to help find the killer, which requires skulking through secret passages and dodging booby traps alongside Clara, new maid Patsy Kelly and new chauffeur Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (“Stuff like this never happened when I was with Mr. Benny.”). Good lively fun, making me glad I finally shelled for a replacement copy (someone else walked off with it). George Zucco plays a sinister doctor and Dennis O’Keefe is a heroic cabbie. “I see no reason to stay in this awful house while you go around opening and closing doors!”

I wanted to double-bill Topper Returns with Abbott and Costello’s Hold That Ghost, only to discover I don’t have it. Instead I turned to the murder-mystery parody ABBOT AND COSTELLO MEET THE KILLER, BORIS KARLOFF (1949), which has Bud and Lou as respectively a hotel detective and a bellboy at the Lost Caverns Hotel (when we finally get to the caverns for the climax, it’s a cool  set). When an attorney writing a tell-all book about his clients gets whacked while staying at the hotel, Lou is the prime suspect. Fortunately there are plenty of other possible killers including phony mystic Boris Karloff, poisoner Lenore Aubert (who previously performed with A&C in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein) and Alan Mowbray (the butler in the first two Topper films) as the hotel manager. A favorite of mine.“That’s not a red herring — it looks more like borscht.”

SPIDER-MAN: Far From Home (2019) is an excellent sequel to Homecoming in which Peter swears off superheroics so he can take a summer trip to Europe with the science club and hopefully launch a romance with MJ. That plan collapses when Nick Fury ropes Peter in to help Jake Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio (“That’s not his name, the Italian TV was calling him a ‘man of mystery.’”) stop an army of elementals from destroying the world. The big twist won’t surprise anyone who knows Spider-Man comics but the movie and the cast worked fantastically just the same. “E.D.I.T.H. stands for Even Dead I’m The Hero — Tony loved his acronyms.”

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A martial artist, two spooks and Satan! Movies viewed

THE LAST DRAGON (1985) is an absurdly goofy movie that I loved on first viewing and enjoyed rewatching. Leroy “Bruce Leroy” Green (Taimak), a young man in Harlem obsessed with martial arts, both in movies and in real life, to the point he wears a Chinese robe and eats popcorn with chopsticks. Having attained the “last dragon” token from his sensei, he’s ready to move on to the ultimate level, which requires funding the ultimate master (I guessed who it was before Leroy did, but that didn’t spoil the fun). To complicate the quest, we have rival martial artist Sho’nuff (Julius Carry) who wants to prove himself the greater fighter; Arkadian (Chris Murney) a crazy crime boss; and Laura (Vanity), a VJ currently in Arkadian’s gunsights for not promoting his girlfriend’s music videos. She needs a bodyguard, and my, would she like Leroy to guard her body …

Along with the martial arts action, two charming leads and Carry’s villain (Murney’s nowhere near as memorable), this has many oddball touches, such as a group of Chinese men trying desperately to be hip and black, played off against Leroy who’s decidedly not hip. The supporting cast includes Ernie Reyes Jr. as a kid martial artist and Keshia Knight Pulliam in a brief cameo. “You’re holding a fortune cookie with no fortune, written by a master who does not exist.”

TOPPER (1937) stars Constance Bennett and Cary Grant as idle sophisticates whose drink-to-drink lifestyle ends in a car crash; stranded on Earth as ghosts, they realize they need to do something good before they can move on. And what could be better than helping their stuffy banker, Cosmo Topper (Roland Young), a man drowning in his own respectability, find a little fun in his life? Topper is less than thrilled to have two ghosts trying to rearrange his life, and as the “fun” mounts up, his wife (Billie Burke) is even more horrified. This is a delightful film and a spot-on adaptation of Thorne Smith’s same-name novel. It generated two sequels (I’ll be getting to them next month) and I highly, highly recommend it. With Alan Mowbray as the Toppers’ stuffy butler and Eugene Pallette as a baffled hotel detective. “No, only a fallen woman would wear a thing like — like that!”

SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN (1929) is a much, much worse adaptation of A. Merritt’s thriller about an explorer pitted against a criminal genius. This mostly-silent adaptation (coming out post-Jazz Singer the studio tacked on some sound) has as its hero a wannabe explorer planning a trip to Africa for adventure. Suddenly he and his girlfriend are kidnapped to a spooky old house where they meet a variety of freakish looking weirdos, all warning them about their master, Satan! It turns out (I pegged this about 45 minutes before the reveal) that this is just an elaborate ruse to convince the protagonist adventure is not really his forté. Stock and silly, and Merritt deserves better. “Beware the man who walks with crutches!”

That film is still more interesting than ANOTHER TIME (2018) in which a businessman tries to go back in time and win his colleague’s heart before she found the man she’s currently engaged to. Like Little Miss Sunshine and I‘ll Follow You Down the film uses time travel as the basis for the character conflicts rather than an end in itself, but it’s fatal flaw is the bland lead — I honestly had no interest in watching him — and the stock office conflicts before the time-travel plot gets going.

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