Category Archives: Movies

Two great companions and the Master’s return: Doctor Who, Season 14

Wow, S14 of the original series was amazing. First rate stories, Sarah Jane’s last episodes, the return of the Master and the intro of Leela, the companion who kills people.

In a media world where formidable women protagonists are a lot more common, I’m not sure anyone can appreciate how totally novel Leela looked when she debuted. A barbarian warrior, she fights well, doesn’t lose her cool (faced with unkillable adversaries in Robots of Death and Talons of Weng-Chiang, she retreats but it’s strategic, not terrified) and has no qualms about killing people. Within the world of Doctor Who she stands out even now: there’s never been a companion as tough and deadly as she was.

The season kicked off with its weakest storyline, THE MASQUE OF MANDRAGORA. Sarah and the Doctor arrive in Renaissance Italy, dragging along a piece of the star-entity called the Mandragora Helix. They’re all embroiled in a local power struggle between Giulano, an enlightened young noble, and his power hungry uncle, Federico (“Only corpses fail to stand in my presence.”), allied with the scheming astrologer Hieronymous and a local cult. The Mandragora, which dislikes human free will and reason, sides with the bad guys; the Doctor and Sarah are on the other side.  I remember liking this one when I first saw it, but rewatching it’s too much mundane swashbuckler intrigues, not enough of the Helix. This does give the reveal that the reason Sarah can speak Italian (or anything else) is a “Time Lord gift” the Doctor shares with her. “It depends on whether the moon is made of cheese and whether thirteen roosters cluck at midnight.”

Sarah Jane bows out with THE HAND OF FEAR, which begins when a literal hand is turned up in a quarry, buried in rock (there are some jokes about the series’  long history of using quarries as barren alien planets). It possesses Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen does an excellent turn) and takes drastic steps to regenerate (“Eldrad must live again!”). With the Doctor and Sarah in tow, Eldrad (much less memorable than Eldrad-possessed Sarah Jane)heads back to its homeworld, but it’s fudged some of the backstory — and there are surprises waiting even beyond that. It’s a good story, ending with Sarah Jane deciding enough’s enough (amusingly, she walks off humming the song My Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow-Wow, little realizing the Doctor would some day gift her with a robot dog). “The Atomic Energy Commission is not going to believe this.”

At the end of that serial, the Doctor gets a summons to Gallifrey. They’re in the middle of a presidential election, but somewhere among the crowds lurks THE DEADLY ASSASSIN … and it appears to be the Doctor. Can he clear his name before he’s executed? This marks the return of the Master after several years absence, though here he’s a physical wreck from running out of regenerations (it would be another four seasons before he returned and got a new face). This one is intense, twisty and effective, though at the time it upset a lot of fans: showing the Time Lords riven by internal politics and coming off almost like humans didn’t fit most people’s ideas of what Gallifrey was like. With time, more people have recognized how good this one is. “You’d delay an execution to pull the wings off a fly.”

THE FACE OF EVIL has a familiar set-up — Earth-settled planet that’s forgotten its origins, devolving into two hostile cultures, one technological, one savage. It’s well-executed though, and it turns out the Doctor has a surprising role in the planet’s history. The best thing about this one, though, is the debut of Leela. “You know the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alter their views to fit the facts.”

THE ROBOTS OF DEATH would be a standout in any other season but it’s almost minor in S14. The TARDIS deposits the Doctor and Leela inside a giant mechanical miner whose crew are scouring a desert world for potentially valuable minerals. Unfortunately, some of the robot workers have decided to ignore the First Law of Robots and begin killing people. Oh, and look, these two strangers showing up must obviously be the guilty parties! The result is a mix of old-school murder mystery and SF. “I see, you’re one of those boring maniacs who likes to gloat.”

Last, but definitely not least we have the singularly frustrating THE TALONS OF WENG-CHIANG. The frustrating part is that it leans very heavily on Sinister Oriental stereotypes including tongs, opium, Fu Manchu-type villains and the general Othering of the Chinese. Not to mention that the sinister Chinese stage magician Chang is a British guy in yellowface. I’m sure for some fans these details will ruin what’s otherwise a fantastic story.

The Doctor takes Leela to Victorian London to see how her Earth ancestors lived. They land, wouldn’t you know, just as Chang is mysteriously kidnapping local women using his hypnotic powers, with his not-so-inanimate ventriloquist dummy and the Scorpion Tong eliminating anyone who gets in the way. The Doctor and Leela find themselves working alongside the flamboyant showman Jago (Christopher Benjamin) and Professor Litefoot (Trevor Baxter) to learn what’s behind it all (it turns out to involve a rival time traveler whose scientific theories have some flaws). Despite running six parts, it never feels padded: it’s well-acted, tense, well-performed and cleverly done. Scriptwriter Robert Holmes actually hoped to give Jago and Litefoot a spinoff series, but it never came to pass.  “Unfortunately the night vapors are very bad for my chest.”

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Woman as hostage, as engineer, as office drone, as widow: movies and TV

REAL TIME: Siege at Lucas Street Market (2001) has a convenience-store robbery turn into a hostage crisis thanks to the idiocy of the two stick-up artists; can pregnant Brinke Stevens find a way to keep herself and her fellow hostages alive? Written and directed by Max Allan Collins, who says he wanted to do a found-footage crime thriller film rather than horror (we see everything unfold in real time via the security cameras) and that Stevens’s character is more-or-less his comic-book female PI Ms. Tree (he was concerned using the real Ms. Tree would undercut the cinema verité feel, and might also hurt the money he and co-creator Terry Beatty earned from studios occasionally optioning the character). A good, low-budget thriller. “I don’t have a purse — I came here to shoplift.”

I wasn’t a fan of the two recent Atlas Shrugged movies and apparently neither was anyone else: ATLAS SHRUGGED III: Who is John Galt? (2014) went straight to video, recast everyone and only ran 90 minutes, which mercifully reduces the amount of speechifying. Protagonist Dagny Taggart having reached Galt’s Gulch at the end of II, she gets to hear lots of lectures on the virtue of selfishness and fall in love with John Galt. Back in the regular world, society continues sliding into an unconvincing dystopia (it’s not much worse than the standard media view of New York in the 1970s). And the film is still clueless about how the world works, for examples portraying the trans-continental railroad as a pure capitalist project with no government support (a myth that cropped up in the earlier films). Glenn Beck plays a talking head awestruck by Galt’s visionary speech (which is way shorter than the book). “At last someone had the courage to say the truth and to say it the way it must be said!”

I will give the creators credit, the second season of AGGRETSUKO didn’t simply replay Retsuko’s struggles from S1. Here she’s dealing with her mom’s attempts to fix her up, her desire to find direction in her life, an entitled millennial underling — and if not a happy ending to the season, Retsuko does at least come to accept the good stuff in her life. I’ll be back if there’s an S3, but this works as a stopping point. “It doesn’t matter whether you believe you’re worthy of love — what matters is whether he does.”

I caught the first season of MARLEY’S GHOSTS on the Britbox streaming service and quite enjoyed it; that it was only three episodes didn’t hurt, as I don’t think the premise would work if drawn out. Sarah Alexander plays Marley, who’s stuck seeing dead people, specifically her selfish, unemployed schmuck of a husband, then her boyfriend, then the town’s clueless vicar. The shticks are familiar (like the neighbor across the street wondering why Marley’s talking to herself all the time), but the show and the cast makes them work. “Oh, wait the story’s not from the Book of Luke, it’s from that book of Joan Collins’ — that makes much more sense!”

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Robert Altman, Alfred Hitchcock and the Doom Patrol: movies and TV

After watching Robert Altman’s disappointing Short Cuts, I put his NASHVILLE (1975) in my Netflix queue to see if despite the similarities (sprawling cast, nonlinear narrative, almost three hours long) it was, as I remembered it, a much better film.

Yep, it is. Possibly because Short Cuts is a group of separate stories tied together by connections among the characters where Nashville feels like a single story, albeit broken into multiple different subplots, many of which don’t really go anywhere. The narrative spine is a Nashville rally for a third-party politician whom we never see but whose messages (tax churches, end the electoral college) are heard throughout the film. Various other characters include country superstar Henry Gibson, womanizing musician Keith Carradine, Keenan Wynne and Shelly Duvall dealing with a woman’s death in different ways, choir director Lily Tomlin having an affair, a racist British reporter trying to interview Elliott Gould … It’s very much a slice of life, which is a tricky thing to pull off, but it works brilliantly. “Let’s consider our national anthem. Nobody knows the words. Nobody knows how to sing it.”

Silent movies were definitely not Hitchcock’s glory years — Like Easy Virtue, THE FARMER’S WIFE (1928) is another Filmed Stage Play by Hitchcock, this time a comedy one in which a widowed farmer pursues various local women in the entitled conviction he’d a fantastic catch for any o f them. Looks good — there’s a real sense of life around the crowd scenes, like the carnival in The Ring — but the story couldn’t keep my interest. “You are the first man who has accepted my sex challenge!”

Hitchcock shows good judgment in classing CHAMPAGNE (1928) as one of his worst films; the story of a madcap heiress who elopes only to learn her father’s just gone broke — what will she and her fiancé do now? I didn’t care at all. “I’ve met some lively people, invented a new cocktail and bought some snappy gowns.”

As a die-hard Doom Patrol fan, I shelled out for DC’s streaming service and binged their DOOM PATROL over the past few weeks (while there’s other stuff I wouldn’t mind catching, I’ve canceled it until DP S2 comes out in 2020). As NASCAR driver and first-class jerk Cliff Steele, Brendan Fraser wakes up from an accident to discover he’s now a brain in a robot body, living in a creepy old mansion alongside Niles (Timothy Dalton), Rita Farr (April Bowlby), Larry Trainer (Matt Bomer) and Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero). Then reality-warping intelligence Mr. Nobody (Alan Tudyk) kidnaps Niles for revenge and begins tormenting the team in countless bizarre ways, forcing them to change and adapt while making sneering metacommentary (“You’ve spent thirteen episodes whining like a C-list Breakfast Club!”).

This was absolutely fantastic. Adapting Grant Morrison’s DP gave them good material to start with and they’ve used it well. Rita’s arc, slowly going from selfish withdrawal to decent human being; Larry dealing with the energy being inside him and his own homosexuality; Guerrero giving an absolutely amazing performance as a metahuman with multiple personalities. And the show stays strong all the way to the finish. It was actually worth adding another streaming service — next year I might keep my subscription going so I can watch week to week. It’s that good. “I would sooner have sharks in my vagina than spend another minute in the same zip code as you.”

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Undead sexist cliches: “Women never do anything for political reasons”

If I remember correctly, I ran across that phrase in Marjorie Rosen’s Popcorn Venus. Rosen’s point (or whoever, if I’m misremembering) was that in movies, men fight for ideal (or power), women fight for men, or for ideals if men share them.

In Adventures of Robin Hood, for example, Errol Flynn’s Robin opens Maid Marian’s (Olivia de Haviland) eyes to the injustice King John and Guy of Gisborne are wreaking on the Saxons. She’s inspired, but it’s in large part by her love for Robin. In Casablanca, Victor Lazlo’s the idealist, Rick’s an idealist who needs to regain his ideals, Ilsa takes her cue from the men. She goes off to support Victor’s fight against the Axis because Rick told her it was the right thing to do.

In more recent times we have the Helen Slater Supergirl film, wherein her clash with Faye Dunaway comes off less about Faye Dunaway’s plans for world conquest and more about which of them gets to cuddle with hunky Hart Bochner. Or Paycheck, in which Ben Affleck is out to stop Aaron Eckhart’s evil plans, Uma Thurman is out to love Affleck. She’s willing to fight, but only because she’s supporting her man.

Heather Greene’s Bell, Book and Camera makes the same point about witches. Male film witches are out for power (e.g., Julian Sands in Warlock); female witches’ endgame is love (Bell, Book and Candle or I Married a Witch for example).

And as writer Shannon Thompson says, female villains are often defined by wanting the same guy as the protagonist: “When girls get antagonistic roles at all, it is usually as the dreaded other woman. She’s the soulless, vicious, popular harpy you love to hate, prepackaged in the designer clothes you’ve always wanted (but you’d never admit it), and she is on her way to steal your man.”  Of course, a lot of villains are out to get the girl, but it’s never just about the girl. Conrad Veidt in Thief of Baghdad is in love with the same princess as the hero, but he’s about getting power, too. Ditto Guy of Gisborne in the Flynn Robin Hood.

Or consider DC in the Silver Age, when Supergirl and Wonder Woman got saddles with lots of romance-comics tropes in the hopes of bringing in more female readers. Sure, Supergirl saves the world but what good is that if you don’t have a date?

I do think things have improved since Popcorn Venus came out 50 years or so ago. We have more women soldiers, more women PIs and cops, more female superheroes, and I see more of them whose motives do not revolve around the man in their lives, if there even is one. Even back in the 1940s, we had Wonder Woman, and C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry. The CW’s Supergirl fights for truth, justice and the American way, not for a boyfriend, even though romance plays a role in the series.

This is a good thing.

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My week to howl: movies viewed

Ever since I caught Piranha, I’ve been meaning to catch director Joe Dante and screenwriter John Sayles’ subsequent team-up, THE HOWLING (1981). I would have done it sooner but my DVD proved unwatchable so I had to order a Blu-Ray replacement.

Much as I remembered, it has the same running gag of making pop culture references to the monster (clips of The Wolf Man on TV) though some of them are more punning here (someone reading a Tom Wolfe book, for instance). The film opens with reporter Karen (Dee Wallace Stone) going to a meet with serial killer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo — at that time known a serious stage actor). In the moments between meeting him and the cops killing him, she sees something that traumatizes her so much she can’t even remember it. Psychiatrist Patrick Macnee convinces her to recuperate with her husband (Christopher Stone, her then husband — a fact she omitted when recommending him to Dante for the role) at Macnee’s back-to-nature therapy retreat, the Colony. Everyone besides the aggressively sexual Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks) seems so nice and normal, just the place for Karen to get herself back to normality right?

It’s not at all obvious it’s a werewolf film at first (I can’t remember if I knew going in or not). When it finally comes, they’re memorable: rather than simply a man in heavy monster makeup, they’re towering brutes eight feet tall with hulking, massive jaws that can obviously rip you limb from limb. I think they’ve defined the movie werewolf look ever since, as well as the idea of werewolves in packs rather than isolated predators. The pre-CGI transformation on camera is impressive and was groundbreaking at the time — I don’t know if it would have the same impact on anyone seeing it for the first time now. But the film itself is really well done, with a solid cast that also includes Slim Pickens, John Carradine, Dick Miller as an occult bookstore owner (as Bell, Book and Camera says of such characters, he provides the same supernatural advice an old crone in the hills would have given 40 years earlier) and Forrest J. Ackerman and Roger Corman in cameos.  The Blu-Ray is packed with special features about the making of the film, if you’re interested (I was). “Take it, bright boy — don’t you know anything?”

As the special features cited HOWLING IV: The Original Nightmare (1988) as the most faithful adaptation of Gary Brandner’s source novel, I rewatched it, even knowing that in a reverse of the Star Trek films, the even numbered Howlings suck. And yep, the story of best-selling Romy Windsor recovering from her stress-induced breakdown (we writers are prone to those, you see) in a quiet rural town, only to be haunted by visions of a ghostly nun and the sound of wolves in the distance is a complete failure: dull, with mediocre acting and uninteresting werewolves visually. From the online synopses of the novel, it’s not even that faithful. “She was screaming about the sound of bells — and the howling.”

I also watched HOWLING VI: The Freaks (1991) under the impression I hadn’t seen it before, but I believe I have (the only thing I remember is the final battle). A drifter in a Southern town makes the mistake of not tracking the lunar calender; after he turns wolf, a traveling carnie owner captures him as a sideshow exhibit. Which isn’t entirely bad news for the protagonist, as the carnie is a monstrous fiend (no explanation exactly what, though it looks like some sort of demon) who killed his family and cursed him with lycanthropy. Now for the reckoning! Like a number of other horror franchises, it’s not really tied to the earlier films, just a werewolf film borrowing the branding.

Howling VI suffers fatally from its low budget. As you can see above, the werewolf looks like a hairy guy with weird eye makeup; the freaks in the sideshow are likewise too mundane for a supernatural owner. A decent budget might have helped … but probably not enough to make it good. “I know the truth when I see it — what we saw was not God’s creation?”

While HOWLING VII seems impossible to find (operating at the lowest of low budgets, it recycled footage from the previous films to save cash), I should have the eighth film arriving from Netflix soon.

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Thank heaven for little girls? I don’t know ..

Honest to god, it has been a long time since I thought of thirteen year olds as romantic figures. Not since maybe, I was fifteen? Which made rereading James H. Schmitz’s The Witches of Karres a little odd.

Not that there’s any statutory rape or inappropriate thoughts about the relationship between the book’s adult hero, Captain Pausert, and his psionic “witch” sidekick, Goth, who’s thirteen at most. Or even any romance on Pausert’s side. But early on, Goth informs him that they’re going to get married when she’s of age (sixteen for the people of Karres) and it’s quite obvious yes, that will happen eventually. And before that, when Goth’s fourteen-year-old sister Maleen says she’ll marry Pausert (she’s not sincere), Pausert gives this serious thought (Maleen’s a lot prettier than Goth).

As a general rule, I’m not much bothered by age differences in real life and not necessarily in fiction. Once you get into adult/teen stuff, it gets a little … well, not so much squicky as just unconvincing. Pausert’s at least in his early twenties’ marrying a sixteen-year-old does not seem like the best option. It wouldn’t have struck me as odd when I first read it because I’d have been around thirteen, and so a thirteen-year-old romantic interest wouldn’t have seemed strange (that it would be weird for an older male protagonist didn’t concern me). Now, though, that age gap leaps out at me when I see it. And that a lot of creators apparently do think it’s sexy or romantic.

For example, George Lucas thought Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark could have been 11 or 12 when Indie, in his twenties, deflowered her. A plotline in Steve Englehart’s run on Green Lantern involved the teenage alien Arisia using the power ring to mature herself physically so she’s old enough to be Hal Jordan’s girlfriend. A run of Dr. Fate in the 1980s has a ten-year-old boy magically matured and becoming involved with his stepmom (even given they turn out to be reincarnates who’ve been together in countless lifetimes). The Storm miniseries has her losing her virginity to T’Challa when she’s twelve (even given he’s only a few years older that’s way too young to portray as a romantic moment). In some of Fritz Leiber’s later stories of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser his heroes’ interest in nubile young girls has a very dirty old man vibe to it. Schmitz comes off pretty good by contrast; like I said, Pausert isn’t into Goth and writes her interest off as a teenage crush. But it still struck me as odd (even given we’re little more than a century from when the age of consent was 10).

I’m less bothered by older teen/adult romance (not so much the legal issues of age of consent as whether it feels like the kid’s old enough to be in a relationship), depending how its handled. For example if it’s a prime-time soap where everyone’s banging everyone. Or where immortals are involved; once you hit a hundred, let alone 1,000 years, why would you care about a few years either way? And I’ve read stories where yes, they made me believe the relationship was true love.

My age definitely influences my perception of this, but I’m not sure whether it makes me see more truthfully, or less.

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Two fighters, one superhero: movies this week.

I was frustrated to discover my DVD of  DIE NIBELUNGEN: Siegfried (1924) was scratched enough the last 40 minutes were unwatchable (I compensated with a German edition uploaded to YouTube). Fritz Lang’s film itself, though, is superb, telling the legend of Siegfried who over the course of the film forges a sword, slays a dragon (a really impressive sequence — Full Metal Alchemist: The Movie has Lang filming it during a visit by Elric to our world) and then helps the weakling king Gunther win the warrior queen Brunhilde under false pretenses (helping the king invisibly during trials of strength) in return for the hand of the king’s sister. Hmm, it’s possible this will not end well …Great-looking and impressively epic; I do hope Part Two is in better condition. “Whoever forsakes loyalty to the blood brother shall perish at the wayside, all honor lost.”

Alfred Hitchcock’s THE RING (1927) is a romance about a small-time boxer whose rise in the rankings becomes a personal quest when he discovers his wife is stepping out with the current champ. A vast improvement over Easy Virtue, with some excellent visuals, such as the opening scenes of carnival gaiety. However the romance is less than compelling (the wife is so faithless, it’s hard to be happy he wins her back) and one character drops the n-word mid-movie, neither of which is a plus.

SHAZAM! (2019) reworks Geoff Johns’ New 52 version of the original Captain Marvel (the name change is because Marvel’s Captain Marvel has that name trademarked so DC’s version can’t use the name in the title). Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a tough street kid desperate to find his long-lost mother, now stuck in his umpteenth foster home and unable to see it’s a good one. A wizard (Djimon Honsou) gives Billy the power to transform into super-powered Shazam (Zachary Levi) but neglects to tell him that Sivana (Mark Strong), who was turned down for the gig, has now freed the Seven Deadly Sins and plans using their power to steal the Shazam-magic.

I’m glad they shot for an upbeat film rather than grim-and-gritty because Cap — er, Shazam — is a light-hearted character. But Levi’s Shazam comes off more like a nine-year-old than the focused, tough-nosed Angel and Strong’s Sivana is generic in his evil evilness (making him a Child of Abuse is a cliche — and having his father played by John Glover makes this feel like a Smallville reboot); the goofy comic-book version would have fit the mood better. The Seven Sins are also surprisingly dull, just big CGI monsters; despite Honsou warning that they’ll corrupt the world, they’re more about killing and destroying. They might as well have been Plutonians.

The best part of the film is Billy bonding with his family and finding a way out of his loneliness. It’s sweet, but it’s not enough to save the film. “You seek a purer soul, old man — but none are worthy.”

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Stacking the deck: Twilight Zone’s “Miniature”

So I wrote a couple of weeks back about the way writers stack the deck to make their point: that life is fair/isn’t fair, that God is good/shitty, that violence is/isn’t the answer, that the legal system can/can’t be trusted. Watching the Twilight Zone episode Miniature, it occurred to me we stack the deck in our stories on a personal level as well.

The story is part of the show’s fourth season, when it jumped to hour-long episode and most fell flat on its face (I think the ratio of good to bad is at best, 1/3). But it had gems and Charles Beaumont’s Miniature is one of them. Robert Duvall plays Charlie, an introverted guy who just doesn’t fit with the world. His boss fires him because he doesn’t like to hang with his coworkers and that’s bad for morale. His mother obsessively takes care of him. His sister (the most likable of the supporting cast) tries to fix him up with a girl but Charlie’s not at all comfortable with her. And everyone assumes he’s the problem. Being in the Twilight Zone, of course, he has an escape hatch: a beautiful, elaborate dolls’ house at the local museum. Gazing into it, he fantasizes the young woman of the house is alive, and as lonely as he is … if only he could be with her, she’d be a woman he could connect with. If only … Of course everyone tells him it’s a delusion but guess what? It isn’t (yes, you probably guessed that). And two lonely people end up finding each other.

It didn’t move me as much as it did first go-round, probably because, like Harlan Ellison’s Jeffty Is Five, I got past the point where I was inclined to withdraw from the world into fantasy. It’s still well executed, with a great performance by Duvall. But it got me thinking about how stories stack the deck in regard to characters’ lives, as well as the big picture political/economic stuff.

Serling did a lot of stories about people desperate to escape into fantasy. Into their past, or their youth or some other world. But unlike a lot of writers who wallow in that (Jack Finney was particularly fond of rejecting the present for what he imagined was the wonderful 19th century), Serling knew it could be a trap. In Trouble With Templeton, the protagonist learns to stop living in the past and get on with his life. Jack Klugman in Passage for Trumpet is bitter and miserable about life, but learns “it can be as rich and sweet as the music he plays — if only he will listen.”

Stacking the deck is how Serling (and writers on the show such as Beaumont and Richard Matheson) show us which is the right outcome. Is the problem that the protagonist needs to embrace life instead of hiding from it? Or that life really sucks, as for the frustrated nursing-home residents in Kick the Can? Is love a possibility if you reach out, or have they lost the big chance already? Does the hero need to change, or is it other people? The answer is whatever the story tells us or shows us.

Of course sometimes I just don’t buy what it’s showing. Ida Lupino in Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine seemed to me like someone who needed to embrace the world, but she gets a retreat into fantasy instead. That’s the risk of stacking the deck: if you’re not plausible about it, it won’t work. And it’s hard to stack the deck if the audience really wants it stacked the other way. I can’t get into stories where the happy ending is the protagonist becoming a happy recluse because for me that’s a sad ending (the whole withdrawing thing).

But that’s the risk we take with writing.

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From Mystery Island to Mauthausen and all points in between: movies

MANHUNT OF MYSTERY ISLAND (1945) is a fun serial from Republic Pictures, despite Richard Bailey’s ineffective performance as ace criminologist and nominal hero Lance Reardon. To make up for that we have veteran serial villain Roy Barcroft scowling as Captain Mephisto, who’s imprisoned a brilliant scientist on Mystery Island to steal the secrets of his invention for broadcasting electrical power wirelessly. On the good guys’ side we have Linda Stirling (who appeared the year before in Republic’s Tiger Woman), who’s not only more fun than the hero, she’s extremely capable, saving him a half-dozen times and proving she’s a crack shot even with her arms bound. Like many serial villains Mephisto has a secret identity, created by using a “transformation machine” to change back and forth from one of the owners of Mystery Island (some sources refer to this as reincarnation or time travel but no, it’s just a physical change by pseudoscientific gobbledygook). Definitely fun if you’re into old-time serials. “It’s dangerous — but we’re all in danger, every moment that man lives!”

DRESSED TO KILL (1947) wraps up Basil Rathbone’s run as Holmes (horrifying fans at the time) with a reasonably ingenious mystery. Patricia Morrison plays a female schemer strangely determined to collect three music boxes by fair means or foul, but what secret do they contain that she’s willing to kill for? This has some nice touches like Morrison setting a trap for Holmes by leaving her distinctive cigarette at a crime scene (“I’ve read your monograph on distinguishing 140 types of tobacco.”). “So fearfully awkward to have a dead body lying around, don’t you agree Mr. Holmes?”

TYG recently bought the DVD of DADDY’S DYING … WHO’S GOT THE WILL? (1990) which I’d vaguely assumed was a lowbrow Southern comedy. It’s actually a well-done dramedy about a family (wild child Beverly D’Angelo, frustrated Tess Harper and abusive jerk Beau Bridges) showing up at their dad’s deathbed alongside various partners (most notably Judge Reinhold as D’Angelo’s hippy boyfriend). I don’t like it as much as she does, but I did enjoy it. “I don’t think it’s God’s will you have six husbands before you’re 40.”

Alfred Hitchcock again — EASY VIRTUE (1927) is what The Hitchcock Romance would classify as an ironic romance, in that the obstacles triumph over the lovers. A beautiful divorcee (another example of Hitch’s Innocent Accused trope, in this case accusations of adultery) finds new love only to have it slip through her hands due to the hostility of her husband’s family turning him against her (it’s already doomed by the time her past comes to light). This filmed adaptation of a Noel Coward play interested me even less than The Lodger but the heroine’s relentlessly hostile mother-in-law is very much the forerunner of countless nightmarish mother figures in Hitchcock’s later works. “We married because we loved one another — no explanations were necessary on either side.”

THE PHOTOGRAPHER OF MAUTHAUSEN (2018) is a Spanish docudrama set a Nazi-run camp for Spanish communists shipped there by Franco. One of them becomes assistant to the camp photographer relentlessly documenting the brutalities around them; when he realizes the Nazis will want to destroy the evidence someday, the assistant sets out to preserve as many photos as possible. Effective at showing (as the director Ernst Lubitsch once put it) that it no more takes sadism to run a death camp than it does a laundromat; the callousness with which the Nazis deal with their charges is chilling. “The party is paranoid and it needs to clean up its mess.”

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Sherlock, She-Ra and Jack the Ripper: movies and TV

Continuing my viewing of the Basil Rathbone Holmes filmsTHE PEARL OF DEATH (1944) remains a personal favorite, a relatively faithful adaptation of Doyle’s The Six Napoleons. A stupid stunt by Holmes enables Moriarty-esque mastermind Conover (Miles Mander) to steal the priceless Borgia pearl, but where did he hide it? Does the theft tie in with a series of brutal murders by a killer who likes to break his victims’ backs and then smash plates? A solid story, with Mander fine in his vicious role, backed up by Evelyn Ankers (much better as a bad girl than the wharf rat in Voice of Terror) and acromegalic Rondo Hatton as the brutal “Creeper.” “I don’t like the smell of you — an underground smell, the sick sweetness of decay.”

Moriarty himself returns in THE WOMAN IN GREEN (1945)with Henry Daniell as an understated but ominous Moriarty (I can easily buy him as a mathematics professor) who actually gets some of Doyle’s dialog from The Final Problem. Unfortunately he’s in a mediocre movie involving hypnosis and an implausible blackmail scheme involving cutting off women’s fingers. This is narrated by Gregson, one of Doyle’s secondary detectives, which doesn’t add much (apparently the producers felt Dennis Hooey’s buffoonery as Lestrade wasn’t needed when they already had Watson for comic relief). However Daniell does manage to pull off one of those “let’s not put a bullet in Holmes right away” drawn out endings that annoy me so (“I’ve waited a long time for this moment.”). “Then we shall walk together through the gates of eternity, hand in hand.”

TERROR BY NIGHT (1946) has Holmes and Watson taking a train to safeguard the fabulous Star or Rhodesia, only to have the gem disappear en route with its minder dead. Could it be the woman traveling with her husband’s corpse? The dead man’s mom? The couple with the tea pot? Is it possible the real mastermind is Sebastian Moran? Competent, but no more than that, with Dennis Hooey returning and Watson at peak levels of stupid. “Col. Moran was directly responsible for what nearly turned out to be my premature death on three separate occasions.”

At six episodes, the third season of SHE-RA AND THE PRINCESSES OF POWER is even shorter than S2, but in compensation it’s very good. The story arc focuses on Hordak’s plans to open a portal and bring through the full Horde but the strength is in the character bits: Hordak and Entrapta bonding, Shadow Weaver switching sides, Adora freaking from the fear she’s failed everyone, Katra demonstrating she’s really as good as she thinks she is. Highly recommended. “I’d sooner see the world end than let you win again, Adora!”

When I picked up the Holmes DVDs at the library, I also snatched up a collection of early Hitchcock films. THE LODGER (1926) is widely seen as the first “Hitchcockian” film as it addresses one of Hitchcock’s favorite themes, an innocent man under suspicion. Based on a successful British novel (which the film’s script reworks radically) this has silent star Ivor Novello as the gentlemanly eponymous boarder striking sparks with his landlady’s daughter — but is it possible he’s also the mysterious Ripper-esque serial killer, the Avenger? This shows Hitchcock Romance‘s point about Hitchcock’s romantic streak as the heart of the film is the romance triumphing over the obstacles (suspicious parents, a disgruntled former boyfriend). Unfortunately that doesn’t make it interesting — it’s more a dry run for future classics than substantial in itself. “When I put a rope around the Avenger’s neck — I’ll put a ring around Daisy’s finger.”

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