Category Archives: Movies

Reporters, voyeurs and horror: this week’s viewing

I’ve never been a fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940) but I find myself appreciating it more as part of my ongoing Hitchcock viewing: making the first third of the film a comedy makes more sense when compared to The Thirty-Nine Steps or The Lady Vanishes. It still doesn’t work as well as they do though.Joel McCrea plays a crime reporter whose boss ships him off to Europe on the theory a hardnosed investigator with a nose for news will get better scoops than foreign correspondents who just send in the latest government press releases. In Europe McCrea falls hard for Laraine Day, daughter of peace activist Herbert Marshall — this is where the comedy comes in — and meets with a prominent Dutch politician who’s a key player in whether Europe goes to war or not (I don’t really see how the guy could have stopped it, but I’ll accept the premise). When the politician is apparently murdered, McCrea realizes the man was an imposter; Nazi agents have kidnapped the real pol to get the truth about his secret treaty negotiations. Can McCrea rescue him in time? “Your childish mind is as out of place in Europe as you are in my bedroom.”

sex, lies and videotape (1989) blew me away when I saw it in theaters, between it’s frank, unconventional discussions of sexual dysfunction and the presence of Andie McDowell and Laura San Giacamo as sisters in Baton Rouge. They’re in a triangle with McDowell’s husband Peter Gallagher but when his college friend, voyeuristic James Spader shows up, the triangle becomes unstable.

Rewatching now I think that, as Roger Ebert put it, the results are more clever than enlightening; I don’t find it convincing that everyone has as much self-awareness as they do, let alone that they can discuss themselves articulately and without any impulse to lie or shade the truth. This problem has turned me off several Woody Allen films over the year but here the movie holds my interest, primarily because of the strong cast and their relationships. It is more clever than enlightening but it is very clever, and that was good enough. “What would you know about a normal frame of mind?”

I watched AMULET (2020) as part of a streaming program by the local Carolina Theatre but it was definitely not worth the price (but hey, I can say that about lots of films I’ve seen at the nearest multiplex). Nun Imelda Staunton sends a burned-out foreign veteran to move in with a woman and her deranged mother. Everything’s dark and moody with occasional shocks (and to their credit they are indeed shocking) before we learn Mom is a demon the woman is reluctantly forced to watch over. And from there, we accelerate to an ending that made absolutely no sense. I do not recommend it. “Forward is not the only way, Tomaz — there are other roads.”

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An anthology blows up and other links about books, movies, recipes and reporting

So my friend John Hartness of Falstaff Books posted this week on Facebook about some problems with the anthology Flashing Swords #6 (following up on a series of anthologies published around 50 years ago). It seems the publisher was blindsided by editor Robert M. Price and didn’t realize Price hadn’t signed or sent the authors contracts for the stories included therein, and had credited himself as copyright holder (the publisher admits that was a screw-up on their part). The authors were also upset with Price’s foreword, which veers into undead sexist cliches about how women need to stop crying rape, feminists hate het sex, and participation-trophy cliches (he is hardly the first anthologist to do stuff like this). The publisher, to their credit, says they’re killing the book and paying the writers a kill fee, which is precisely the way to handle a mess like this.

Due to the Trump Virus, it looks like the gap between theatrical release and streaming will narrow a lot.

DAW head Betsy Wolheim thinks Patrick Rothfuss hasn’t written anything on the third Kingkiller Chronicles book. This has led to much speculation by my writing friends why she didn’t keep her opinions in house: is he seriously missing deadlines? How close is he really to getting finished? Does it hurt specfic in general if people assume “maybe it’s better if I wait until all the books are out” and don’t buy into series early. One person linked to an article from a few years ago in which Penguin took very late authors to court.

Fifteen years ago, cable was home entertainment’s big dog. Now cable falters as streaming rises.

“This was a time of “Mean Streets” and “The Poseidon Adventure.” “American Graffiti” and “Last Tango in Paris.” “Airport” sequels and “Aguirre, the Wrath of God.” Edgy political thrillers, socially aware satires and mainstream melodramas managed to coexist with B-movies, porn and Warholian provocations. Regardless of their artistic aspirations, most were enormously entertaining.” — Ann Hornaday on why seventies film rocked. It’s an interesting take but as someone generally skeptical about How We Have Fallen Since Decade X, I’m not sure I agree (it rapidly turns into a standard grumble about all those CGI superhero movies taking up the multiplex).

Who exactly gets credit as a recipe creator?

Who should get immortalized in bird names?

An author pushed his book higher on the bestseller list by buying copies himself.

Years ago, critic Leonard Maltin discussed the problem of rating and reviewing a movie when the original version has been re-edited and is no longer available. A few years ago on Inverse, an article discussed the problem of finding the original Han Shot First Star Wars.

I wrote a while back about how bad management had killed reporting at Deadspin. Most of the staff who quit are back with a new project.

And here’s a Virgil Finlay cover to close with.

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Magic like plastic (this is a good thing): Cast a Deadly Spell

The opening text crawl of CAST A DEADLY SPELL (1991) tells us it’s 1948 in L.A. and everybody uses magic. We never learn where or when that started, but the movie makes the premise so real I don’t need to know more.

Everyone takes magic as a given; like plastic or television in the same era, it’s an exciting new invention that’s changing the world and everyone’s on-board. Well, everyone but protagonist Phil Lovecraft (Fred Ward), whose refusal to work magic marks him as an oddball, like someone who refuses to get a cell phone when landlines are so much better. For Phil, it’s part of his stubborn, incorruptible streak: he’s his own man and can’t be bought or controlled. Magic gives someone or something else a small piece of your soul, and Phil can’t stand anyone owning his.

Magic is everywhere in this movie. In a police station scene we see a typewriter printing a report by itself; file cabinets open and manila folders fly out when the secretary needs them. In other scenes people light cigarettes by touch (Phil uses matches) or levitates cocktail shakers. Sneering crime boss Borden (Clancy Brown) has replaced his regular goon squad with zombies: no need to pay them, they don’t get any ideas about double-crossing the boss and when they start to rot he just orders more from Haiti. There’s also a neat little detail I didn’t catch on first or second viewing: one newspaper has a front page article on magic eliminating LA’s smog right next to coverage of Robert Mitchum’s then-infamous pot bust (Mitchum gets the headline).

Lovecraft is your classic hard-drinking chain-smoking PI, hired by Hackshaw (David Warner) to recover a lost copy of the Necronomicon. The first time I watched this I agreed with Borden that it seemed like pure coincidence Lovecraft got entangled in this case. Rewatching it’s obvious that Hackshaw picked Phil because he knows the gumshoe doesn’t use magic. When Hackshaw drops the name of the Necronomicon and Lovecraft doesn’t react, Hackshaw smiles; he’s found a detective who’s ignorant enough to turn over the book and won’t try to tap it for himself. And won’t suspect why Hackshaw wants it turned over no later than midnight in a couple of days.

Leaving the Hackshaw estate, Lovecraft encounters his new client’s daughter, Olivia (Alexandra Powers) whom we first see hunting a unicorn. She comes on to Phil like a classic noir bad girl but he sees through her (if she wasn’t a virgin, she wouldn’t be trying to hunt unicorns). Later in the film, when he gets to know her, she turns out to be quite sweet, though restless at the way her father keeps her locked away from the world.

Meanwhile we see the ill-fated weasel Mickey (Ken Thorley), a former employee of Hackshaw’s, deliver the book to Borden. It turns out to be a fake copy (Mickey plans to sell the real one back to Hackshaw) but the packet of money Borden paid him with is just paper. Then Borden’s sorcerous aide, Tugwell (Raymond O’Connor) whips up the paper in a small magical cyclone and kills Mickey by literally the death of a thousand (paper) cuts. That’s another thing I like about the film: magic is colorful and interesting. Things like the paper cuts or Tugwell “setting the runes” on Lovecraft make even mundane TK tricks like levitating files seem magical rather than psi.

The struggle for the book is more personal than Lovecraft expects because Borden’s his corrupt former partner, from when they were cops together. Not only that but Borden got Phil’s lost love, Connie (Julianne Moore) in the breakup. Borden and Connie both think Phil’s a fool for being so incorruptible but Connie’s not immune to that old feeling they had. But Hackshaw’s deadline is approaching, Borden’s playing hardball, and Lovecraft’s landlady and sort-of friend Kropotkin (Arnetia Walker) is seeing signs Los Angeles is ground zero for the apocalypse. Lovecraft, however, will not back down, not from man, gargoyle or god …

I highly recommend this movie. I do not, however, recommend the sequel Witch Hunt, which replaced Ward with Dennis Hopper and made the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950s into a real witch hunt. It’s much less interesting than a world in which magic is amazing, yet taken for granted.

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Star Trek: A bite of the Apple

When I reviewed the first season of Star Trek I mentioned that I could spot many of the tropes the show would run into the ground in later seasons. While I’ll cover most of that in the review of S2 after I wrap it up, I’ll focus on one episode, The Apple, as an example of how not to do it.

The Enterprise is checking out a beautiful, newly discovered planet that looks like a garden of Eden. Until a flowering plant launches thorns at one of the red shirts and kills him. Another gets blasted by an unstable, explosive stone. A third is killed by disintegrating lightning — seriously, it’s almost like a self-parody of the red shirts trope. And now a force on the planet is now draining energy from the Enterprise.

In contrast to the environment, the inhabitants of the planet are peaceful, gentle souls; when Kirk strikes one of them for spying on the away team, the guy is so shocked he cries. The population makes up a small village that serves as votaries to the god Vaal, who lives in a cave with a dragon/serpent mouth. Spock figures out that Vaal is a supercomputer buried deep in the planet with the cave as an access point. Vaal keeps his acolytes in ageless perfect health and prelapsarian innocence, with no children or sex (though one young couple starts to figure it out from watching Chekhov and a yeoman make out); this being the era when married couples on TV were shown sleeping in twin beds, the efforts to tackle the topic are painfully euphemistic.

McCoy and Spock debate the merits of this system: the inhabitants are comfortable, cared for and healthy but they’re little better than Vaal’s slaves. Spock argues they’re content and should be left alone; McCoy advocates for freeing them from the shackles they don’t know they’re wearing (I’ll come back to this topic in another post). But as often happens with the Prime Directive, it’s a moot point: Vaal’s out to destroy the intruders so they have to destroy him first. Eventually by cutting off his food supply (the rocks, though that isn’t clear) and blasting him with phasers, the burn the computer out. The natives will have the chance to develop as a culture naturally and having babies instead of being preserved in amber, though a dubious Spock compares this afterwards to casting Adam and Eve out of the garden. Kirk points out that out of everyone on the ship, Spock looks the most like Satan … and we end.

This was the second world-controlling computer (more will follow the Enterprise encountered after Return of the Archons but there we got enough backstory to make sense of things: Landru, the great leader, programmed the computer to carry on after he was gone and keep society from breaking down (if you haven’t seen the episode, suffice to say things didn’t work as planned). Here I have no idea where Vaal came from; did the village’s ancestors build it and the computer took over? There’s no indication other than Vaal they’ve ever been that advanced. Why is the planet so full of booby-traps? Is it naturally deadly, because the villagers don’t seem to find it so, or is it set up by Vaal, in which case why? Does it see that many visitors? And if one of the natives falls on the exploding rocks or triggers a thorn-flower, do they then have sex to restore the population? The Enterprise crew brings that up but in all the hemming and hawing about discussing S-E-X, they never get an answer. Maybe because an answer would probably require the innocent natives having had sex.

As I’ve mentioned in past posts, “cool worldbuilding” is not something that makes me want to grab a book and read it. But if you’re building a world, it does have to make sense. If I have questions afterwards they should be in the category of “I want to see more!” not “how the heck can that make sense?” The Apple, unfortunately, falls into the second category.

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Immortal women, bee girls and a woman with tattoos: this week’s viewing

THE OLD GUARD (2020) stars Charlize Theron as Andromeda, the leader of a quartet of ageless, unkillable trouble-shooters (“We fight for whatever cause seems right to us.”) startled that for the first time in more than a century, a new immortal’s been born (a black female Marine thoroughly unsettled by all this). Making matters worse, Andromeda’s body is beginning to run down (it happens eventually) and a Pharma CEO wants to capture them all to monetize the secret of their healing factor (I can’t believe not one person in the film made a Wolverine joke). A franchise launch — the ending sets up for a sequel or a series to follow — but a fun one. “Three hundred years at the bottom of the ocean would make anyone insane.”

Written by Nicholas Meyer, INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS (1973) has scientists in a small Southwestern research facility turning up dead due to heart attacks from intense sex, which brings federal agent William Smith to investigate. Could it have anything to do with researcher Victoria Vetri (a former Playboy centerfold totally rocking the Hot Librarian look)? Or maybe sexy entomologist Anitra Ford? Unraveling the mystery involves batshit Weird Science (“If they replaced the androgen and estrogen with androgynous hormones they could reshape the cellular structure!”) the kind of warnings against casual sex that would be standard a decade later (if this had been released 15 years later it would have looked like an AIDS allegory), and lots of hot, scantily clad bisexual women (plus, unfortunately, an ugly attempted rape sequence). The queen bee’s motive is unknown (nor do they explain why unlike the others she can turn her multifaceted eyes normal), which makes me wonder if the subtext is the old antifeminist bogeyman of a ruthless feminazi lesbian cabal reducing men to slaves. In any case, great fun for someone with my taste. “Keep me company in my time of … need.”

The fourth season of BLIND SPOT ended on a great cliffhanger: Burke (Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio) in control of the FBI, Jane Doe’s (Jaimie Alexander) team framed as fugitives, Burke’s Big and Evil Plan underway and the team apparently killed (admittedly the escape was so obvious, I was more surprised that one person did buy it). This season Jane, Kurt and the others fight back trying to stop Burke’s scheme (which involves weaponizing the amnesia drug used on Jane in the past) and clear their names; while I was disappointed with the finish for S2 and S3, I was confident this season and the series would go out on a win.

And it almost did, until they decided to get clever with the ending. First we see Jaimie, Kurt and their friends, happy in their post-FBI lives; then Jane starts seeing visions of herself dying in Times Square seconds after saving the day and getting stuffed into a body bag (mirroring the opening of S1). Is it a dark thought of how it could all have finished or is the happy ending just a dying hallucination (most online critics think the latter, though I believe the evidence shows Happy Is Real). That’s the kind of arty finish I could have done without — and dammit, I wanted a happy ending!  That aside, it was an impressive final episode that squeezed in more than 100 cameos from seasons post. “That’s probably the last time you’ll say ‘let’s focus’ when trying to defuse a bomb.”

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Bad drama, bad horror, mediocre TV but some good TV too

Adapted from Isabel Allende’s novel, HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS (1993) was one TYG watched but I just used as a talking lamp and never felt I missed anything. The three-generation story of family and politics in Chile didn’t seem to catch fire despite a cast that includes Antonio Banderas, Winona Ryder, Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close, and Meryl Streep.

VIVARIUM (2020) starts well as a creepy realtor shows a couple what he assures them is their forever home in a new development — and it turns out he’s right, because no matter which way they drive, they end up back at the same house. Unfortunately the weirdness takes second place to becoming foster parents of the Kid From Hell, and it became less interesting and as meaningless as Aronofsky’s Mother. Jesse Eisenberg as one half the couple isn’t as annoying as he was in Dawn of Justice but I’m still not impressed. “Silly mother — you are home.”

I watched the first episode of Netflix’ urban fantasy WARRIOR NUN (based on a comic of the same name) but unlike several of my friends, felt no need to watch any further. A Buffy variant, the opening episode has quadriplegic Ava (Alba Baptista) dying, then coming back to life fully abled due to having a chunk of the magic element divinium embedded in her, thereby making her the latest Slayer (so to speak). Part of my problem was that it felt really slow (too much Origin and not enough action). A bigger problem is that other than one scene where Ava’s dancing on the beach and glorying in being able to move, her backstory doesn’t seem to matter — Ava’s your standard-issue snarky, pop-culture referencing teen hero and not as interesting a one as Buffy or Dead Like Me‘s George. “What if I told you the forces of evil are real?”

On the plus side, I wrapped up Apple TV’s DOLLLFACE (on Hulu) and thoroughly enjoyed it. Kat Dennings (best known to me as Jane Foster’s sidekick in Thor) plays Jules, whose boyfriend has been her entire world the past five years, but he just dumped her for someone else. On the advice of an old cat lady (literally, she has a cat head) Jules tries to reconnect with her former besties, perfect Madison, sexy Stella and neurotic Izzy. What follows is whimsical and oddball (Ally McBeal was a big influence) but also frequently funny and with some great lines —

“Every experience is a birth. Except birth.”

“Thank you for bringing your dope goddess energy into this space.”

“The answers were inside you all along … sorry, that only works if you really do have the answer.”

The focus of the show is the women and their friendship, so I was glad that’s what became the heart of the final arc: Jules discovers Madison’s supposedly divorced older boyfriend is her boss’s non-divorced husband, so how does she tell Madison? And what happens when it looks like Jules is blowing her buddies off for a man again? It’s a shame S2 has been kicked back to 2021 like so many other shows. “Maybe we should navigate by the stars — I’m an Aquarius, if that helps.”

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The eighth wonder of the world, plus teenagers; movies and TV viewed

Rewatching KING KONG (1933) for the first time in more than 20 years (a digitally cleaned up DVD print including and the infamous censored scenes), it hit me afresh was an amazing movie it is (TYG was quite impressed too).

Part of what makes it great is that it takes its time; despite being half the length of Jackson’s 21st century remake, it’s very leisurely about setting up its characters and premise, not getting to Skull Island until halfway through. We open with Denham (Robert Armstrong) explaining that before he leaves NYC to start work on his new film he has to find a female lead; his previous films have been “swell” but the distributors and theater owners keep complaining that there’s no love interest. This time he’s going to find one. When Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) passes out in a breadline, Denham buys her dinner and pitches her on signing up (he assures her there’s no casting couch involved). On the voyage to Skull Island, Ann and crewman Jack (Bruce Cabot) fall for each other, which of course amps up the tension when the local savages kidnap her as the bride of — Kong!

I’m guessing you probably know the rest of the story; I do, but it’s still amazing to watch. That the cast shows no sympathy for Kong (in contrast to the two remakes) only makes it stronger — by the end of the film, who isn’t rooting for the big ape to get away somehow. And the ending on top of the Empire State Building remains one of the iconic screen moments, one I recognized years before I saw the film (the 1976 film’s decision to use the World Trade Center was just dumbass). Imitated and remade, but never matched. “We came here to get a moving picture — and we found something worth more than all the movies in the world!”

I loved the 1982-3 TV series SQUARE PEGS so when I found a cheap DVD on sale at the library, I snapped it up. The premise is that Weemawee High School freshmen Patty and Lauren (Sarah Jessica Parker — yes, later of Sex and the City — and Amy Linker) are determined to become popular and get in with the cool kids; the cool kids aren’t having it, so the girls wind up hanging out with New Wave space cadet Johnny Slash (Merritt Butrick) and smart ass would-be funny guy Marshall (John Femia). It’s a simple premise but with a capable cast to act it out, it works well.

The series is very much a 1980s time capsule: The Waitresses provide the theme song, Devo, Father Guido Sarducci and Bill Murray guest-star and there are plenty of references to other pop-culture notes of the era. Along with the New Wave guy we have preppy Muffy Tepperman (Jamie Gertz) and Valley Girl Jennifer (Tracy Nelson). It’s also a product of its time in having no gay characters and a black character — Jennifer’s BFF LaDonna (Claudette Wells) who rarely gets more characterization than Sassy Black Friend. And Weemawee’s use of Native American iconography for sports and such is more eye-raising now than it was at the time.

What I really like about the show on rewatching — other than that it’s still funny — is that the high school dynamic doesn’t follow the usual tropes. A typical TV/movie high school (this is a subjective impression — I haven’t attempted a deep analysis) has the Cool Kids going out of their way to torment the protagonists; even without the torment the protagonists are miserable because they’re outcasts and so life isn’t worth living. Here Muffy, Jennifer and the others (who aren’t a united clique — Jennifer and LaDonna can’t stand Muffy either) mostly just ignore Patty and Lauren; it’s the girls’ determination to crack the clique that gets them in trouble. And with Marshall and Johnny, they have a good social circle, they just don’t see it. Well, mostly Lauren doesn’t see it; Patty often seems on the brink of asking why on Earth they want to hang out with Jennifer anyway. It’s available streaming (as well as a less bare-bones DVD set) so if you get the urge … “You said you’d guard this with your life — and you’re still alive!” #SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holder.

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Puppets, a princess, a puzzle and Potemkin: this week’s viewing

For British kids of my generation, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s Century 21 TV was a big deal, providing SF adventure puppet shows including Supercar, Fireball XL-5, Stingray and Thunderbirds. FILMED IN SUPERMARIONATION (2014) is a documentary about the company and its creations, starting when a children’s book author hired the Andersons to adapted her Adventures of Twizzle for TV. Before long the production company was doing its own original work, with innovations including manipulating the puppets from high overhead (allowing for more elaborate backdrops) and “supermarionation,” which electronically lip-synched puppet mouths with actor voices.This era in kidvid ended with the 1960s: puppetry was out of fashion on British TV, the Andersons’ marriage was breaking up and Gerry Anderson had always wanted to do live-action (some of y’all may remember his 1970s series UFO). For a while, though, they were pretty damn cool. “I don’t know if I felt pleased, relieved or sad when it ended — probably all three.”

Century 21’s biggest hit was probably Thunderbirds (the “cast” is in the photo above): TV reports on efforts to rescue some trapped miners in Germany inspired Gerry Anderson to create International Rescue, an elite team equipped with advanced rescue vehicles that could save lives anywhere from underground to the depths of space. The show also made the leap to the big screen with THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO! (1966) in which the first American Mars mission is beset by the sinister schemes of series villain the Hood, to say nothing of the Martians turning out quite unfriendly. This reminds me how much I liked the show (I downgrade it in my memory, I think), but it’s not a success, being several only marginally related parts. First we have the fight with the Hood (put down by International Rescue’s superspy, Lady Penelope), then we have a dream sequence with a puppet Cliff Richard, then there’s the Mars flight, the battle with the Martians and the return home; we never even learn what the Hood was up to. Fun, but flawed. “Be very still doctor — there’s something wrong with your face.”

SHE-RA AND THE PRINCESSES OF POWER wrapped up its fifth and final season this year: with Hordak’s master Horde-Prime crushing the princesses and the rebellion and plotting to seize the Heart of Etheria, can Adora, stripped of She-Ra’s power, rally the good guys? Does Katra have a shot at redemption? Can Glimmer escape Horde-Prime’s orbiting fortress? This was superbly done, and Horde-Prime is very creepy, seeking to bring the entire universe into absolute order and peace — or you know, blow it the shit up. I do hope we see more from show-runner Noelle Stevenson before long. “Why does it always have to be you who sacrifices themselves for everyone else?”

The puzzle was the location of the Hardy Boys’ dad in THE HARDY BOYS NANCY DREW MYSTERIES two-parter, The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew Meet Dracula. Fenton Hardy disappears while investigating an art-theft ring in Europe; following him, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew end up in Transylvania where a vampire is attacking people — but that’s impossible, isn’t it (like a lot of shows from that era, they keep things mundane until the very end implies that it is possible). Pamela Sue Martin plays Nancy but much as I remember, she’s an incredibly bland actor; I used this as a talking lamp rather than really paying attention. Lorne Green and Paul Williams guest star. “This place is so old you can almost feel death!”

STEPS (1987) by Polish filmmaker Zbigniew Rybczynski is a short film in which a group of American tourists get to enter the classic Odessa Steps sequence of Sergei Eisenstein’s silent classic The Battleship Potemkin. The borders between reality and film soon thin, but I’ve seen this gimmick done better. The second short on the DVD, The Fourth Dimension was just pointlessly arty.  “There’s nothing to be afraid of, that was just a scene shift.”

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A doctor, a pirate: this week’s movies

Reading Amicus Horrors prompted me to rewatch Amicus’ contribution to the Whoniverse, DOCTOR WHO AND THE DALEKS (1965) . This reworking of TV’s The Daleks — on the big screen! In color! — starred Peter Cushing as “Doctor Who,” with Who apparently his real name (I’m equally curious why he’s reading an issue of the Eagle weekly comic; you’d think TV Comic, which had the actual Doctor Who strip would be the choice). Still it’s a nice character bit: while his granddaughters Barbara (Jennie Linden) and Susan (Roberta Tovey) read physics for fun, old Who is reading SF comic strips like Dan Dare.

In this story, Who has invented TARDIS (no “the”). When Barbara’s boyfriend Ian (Roy Castle) shows up, Who shows off his machine, Ian accidentally activates it and they land on an alien planet where radiation has left everything dead. As in the TV show, the Doctor fakes a TARDIS breakdown to give him an excuse to explore a nearby city. Unfortunately the city is inhabited by the Daleks, just as malevolent on TV. Can the time/space travelers and the pacifist Thals stop the Daleks from killing them all?

I was very tired when I watched it so the amount of running back and forth from the city to the dead forest got pretty tedious. And the Thals drop their pacifism way too easily when the Doctor pushes them. That said the sets look decent, the Daleks are menacing and Cushing makes an enjoyably grandfatherly Doctor, much more affable than Hartnell’s rather toplofty First Doctor. And while TARDIS’ interior is a mess, it certainly looks like something the Who family could have cobbled together in the back yard. “If the Daleks consider us to be monsters, what must they look like?”THE CRIMSON PIRATE (1952) starts Burt Lancaster in the title role as one of the most acrobatic swashbucklers ever, which may have something to do with having actual circus acrobat experience (Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate is the only one to match Lancaster).  Captain Vallo (Lancaster) captures a British envoy (Leslie Bradley) out to crush revolution in the Caribbean. Vallo strikes a deal to sell the envoy’s cargo of guns and gunpowder to one of the rebel movements, then capture the leader and sell him back, all of which horrifies a traditionalist pirate (Torin Thatcher) who declares “this isn’t piracy — it’s business!” Like so many cynical opportunist heroes, Vallo and his sidekick Ojo (Nick Cravat, Lancaster’s trapeze partner, who stays silent to hide his thick Brooklyn accent) are out for themselves, but when Vallo gets a look at Eva Bartok as the rebel leader’s daughter, things start to change.

This is a terrific, fun movie, and quite unusual in swashbucklers. Despite all the evil tyrants who get overthrown in these films, the genre is actually pro-monarchy — once you remove the usurper or the corrupt vizier or awake the king to his true duties, it’s a great system of government. In The Crimson Pirate and The Flame and the Arrow Lancaster overthrows colonial governments in favor of independence, rather than resolving things by having the king appoint a better governor.

A second departure from the usual is the climax. One of the revolutionaries is a scientist and when the revolution takes on the British troops they’re equipped with steampunk versions of tanks and machine guns. It adds fun to what’s already a delightful film. The only flaw is that Bradley isn’t quite strong enough as the villain. “If you know it was bolted you must have tried it — and if you tried it, you know why it was bolted.”

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Who watches the Watchmen? Not me, it turns out

So this month Hulu began streaming HBO’s WATCHMEN free; seizing the opportunity, I caught a couple of episodes. It’s not bad the way Devs was bad, but I didn’t feel the need to go past two episodes.

The film is set in the same universe as the classic Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons comics series but years after those events. Rorschach has inspired the fanatical Seventh Army anarchists into a relentless war on authority, particularly cops; protagonist Angela Abar (Regina King), like other cops, has to operate masked, her identity secret. Dr. Manhattan is on Mars somewhere; Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons) is an old fart who in one scene burns a man to death in a re-enactment of Dr. Manhattan’s origin.

The cast is solid and there’s quite a bit I do like. The Tulsa massacre looms large in the backstory (Angela’s ancestors lived through it) and issues of race and resentment weave through the two episodes that I caught. So why aren’t I watching?

Well for one thing it’s the perennial problem of the modern age: there’s simply too much awesome TV.  It’s not as if skipping Watchmen means I’m stuck with Gilligan’s Island or Victorious; there are dozens of excellent shows I’m also not watching. Much as I don’t get excited about coming books these days, it’s hard to feel I must catch Watchmen or anything else. Plus, of course, quality is not the only factor: keeping up with the CW-verse or rewatching the old series Square Pegs on video appeals to me more than any number of arguably superior TV series.

Then again, with Damon Linkelof in charge of this one, I don’t know that it will be superior. I thought Lindelof’s Lost was a botched mess and I don’t want to commit to the remaining episodes of Watchmen only to discover Lindelof left as many plot arcs hanging as he did the previous series.

Then there’s the connection to Watchmen itself. Moore and Gibbons have been adamant that their series was completely self-contained: no sequels, no prequels, it said all that needed to be said. And that’s how it would have been had things happened as planned, with Moore and Gibbons regaining the rights once the collected Watchmen went out of print. But it never did (deservedly. It’s a classic that earned its praise) and so they never regained the rights. So inevitably we got a prequel series, Before Watchmen and now this sequel. That makes me a little guilty about watching it (I haven’t even bothered with Before Watchmen). More significantly, the TV series just doesn’t have enough of a connection to the series. Despite the name references, this could as easily be an unrelated dystopia with the sovereign citizens militia movement committing the killings. Much like Exit Stage Left and A Study in Honor, the connection to the source material is too tangential to work for me.

And last but not least, there’s the whole masked cop thing. Just as opening with the Tulsa bombing of a century ago has added resonance in the current policing debate, so does the idea of cops going masked and hiding their identities because of fears of anti-police violence. Trouble is, it’s resonant the wrong way: we now have masked, unidentified cops on the streets and loud complaints about cops being persecuted and I simply can’t buy a world where cops concealing their identities is a good thing.

So I will stick with the original series, thank you.

#SFWApro. Covers by Dave Gibbons, all rights remain with current holder.

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