Category Archives: Movies

Marital discord in Ireland and Scandinavia: movies

DIE NIEBELUNGEN: Kriemhild’s Revenge (1924) is Part Two of  Fritz Lang’s silent film (I watched Part One, Siegfried, a couple of months back) and disappointing after the epic fantasy of the first. Here, Siegfried’s wife Kriemhild is not only dealing with Hagen murdering him but her brother’s refusal to punish his loyal follower. When Attila (yes, the Hun) proposes marriage, Kriemhild agrees, convinced she can turn him into a deadly weapon against Hagen. And if her family get in the way, too bad … This is a much a more straightline story than Siegfried and correspondingly less interesting; I’m also unclear why Hagen kills Attila’s son at a crucial turning point (from what I recall of reading the prose Niebelunglied, this is a problem with some versions of the story too). Impressive visually though. “You swore on the edge of your sword.”

Alfred Hitchcock again — JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK (1930) is a filmed stage play I’d never imagine comes from the same director who later made Rope. Where the later movie is visually compelling despite taking place on a small set, this film comes off way too stagebound, though Hitchcock uses sound to create a sense of things happening off-screen.

The story didn’t work for me either, though apparently it’s much-beloved in Ireland. The story involves a working class family with a shiftless father, goodhearted daughter, son who’s fighting for Irish independence and Mom trying to keep it all together. When a wealthy relative leaves them an inheritance it looks like the clan’s hard luck story is turning around. Then it all comes crashing down and their doom is so heavy-handed I don’t know I’d have cared even on-stage (but a good stage production would certainly work better than this film). “Yes, that’s right — I have fallen to so low a state.”

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Mean Girls and Lost Loves

When I was around 30, I saw a musical called Is There Life After High School? based on the book of the same name. The book’s thesis, IIRC, is that high school leaves it’s imprint on us the rest of our lives; for many of us it’s the high point or low point against which everything else is measured. The musical dramatizes some of the various anecdotes and accounts in the book to make the same point.

I found it very moving. 15 or so years later, I saw another production. It was well done, but it didn’t move me at all. At 30 I responded emotionally to the idea of being shaped by high school; by my mid-forties, not so much.

Which is a roundabout way to get to my topic, various stories I’ve read recently where a minor plot element is people growing up and adulting but not getting over high school.

The cozy mysteries No Saving Throw and Ghost and the Femme Fatale both involve the female protagonist locking horns with the Mean Girl Alpha Bitch she knew back in high school. Even though it’s been at least 10 years since they graduated, their relationship hasn’t changed and the Mean Girl seems to go out of her way to spoil the protagonist’s life (in fairness, I skimmed a lot of both books so the characterization may have deepened as it went along). The same premise figured into the CW’s Emily Owens MD: protagonist Emily discovers her high school nemesis is in the same residence program she is and oh noes, they like the same boy! The show died fast, in case you were wondering.

I don’t see that sort of thing in male-centered stories, but I do seem to have seen a lot of stories like Take Me Home Tonight in which the protagonist is completely obsessed over his high school crush even several years later. Heck, Ross’s fixation on Rachel was a running thread through all the seasons of Friends.

I’m sure it’s partly my distance from high school that makes me notice this stuff, but it still seems unconvincing. Sure, there were people I didn’t like in high school and I had no particular desire to ever see them again, but when I did, I just nodded and moved on. And they showed no particular interest in doing anything about me. Heck, even Flash Thompson and Peter Parker eventually became buddies and put Flash’s high school jerkitude behind them.

I had some crushes too, but by the time I graduated college I wasn’t looking back at H.S. and hoping some day we’d hook up (I did hang on to that fantasy about a couple of college crushes for quite a while). Though I wonder if that particular trope isn’t a subset of “your first love is your true love and the only one for you” which I see in quite a few rom-coms (I really don’t like that one either). This could work if the crush/first love was convincingly awesome enough, but I notice they rarely are; Take Me Home Tonight‘s protagonist is some kind of supergenius MIT grad, but the female lead is just generically attractive.

I asked some of my female friends on FB about the Mean Girls thing and the majority view (not universal) was that no, unless it’s a town small enough that the community can typecast you for life (you’re The Jock, The Smooth Talker, The Brainiac, The Weirdo, etc.) it’s unlikely to happen. And in fairness, both the cozies took place in that kind of community. Even so, I think carrying over high school relationships as a defining part of the story has become, for me, a bridge too far.

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Love in the 1980s, plus Hitchcock plus Sarah Connor: movies

Set in 1988, TAKE ME  HOME TONIGHT (2011) has a great 1980s soundtrack, but it’s more interested in mimicking films of the era than really evoking the decade. Topher Grace is an MIT grad reduced to working at a video store (I don’t think they ever explain why) and largely avoiding his old buddies. Then he learns the high school crush he never dared speak to will be at the Big Party tonight, so he decides to show, dragging along sister Anna Faris (struggling to choose between Cambridge and Marriage) and his best friend. Will he get the girl? Will he be outed as a failure? I found this too trite to care. Buffy‘s Michelle Trachtenberg plays a punk. “Don’t call yourself a failure — you’re much worse than that.”

Rewatching THIEF OF HEARTS (1984) I think I actually liked it even more than when it came out. Steven Bauer plays Scott, a burglar who rips off Mickey (Barbara Williams) and her husband and discovers his take includes Mickey’s diaries, wherein she pours out her frustration and her fantasies. Intrigued by the passionate woman he reads about, Scott sets out to become her perfect lover — but as Think Like a Man put it, the trouble with pretending to be a better man is that sooner or later you have to live up to it. Part of what makes this work is that they don’t shy away from Scott being a stalker, rather than a dream lover. With David Caruso (later to enjoy brief TV stardom) as Scott’s psycho sidekick “I bet I can tell your favorite ice cream flavor.”

BLACKMAIL (1929) is the first Alfred Hitchcock film in the set I’ve been watching that feels close to the style that made him famous. A young woman has an argument with her cop boyfriend, flirts with an artist, goes up to his studio then stabs him when he assault her. Will her boyfriend learn what she did? Can she keep her mouth shut when an innocent man becomes a suspect? Minor (though Hitchcock Romance argues it has a lot of minor elements that would crop up in Hitch’s later career) but a quantum leap over Easy Virtue. “Scotland Yard? If not for Edgar Wallace nobody would have ever heard of them.”

TERMINATOR: Dark Fate (2019) has a lot in common Terminator: Genisys: using T2 as a template, major changes to the timeline, and another alt.Skynet, the AI Legion, becoming the threat to the future. It works a lot better, however as it has fewer time paradoxes and sticks closer to the spirit of the series, particularly in bringing back Linda Hamilton as a gruff, gunslinging older Sarah Connor. Natalia Reyes plays Dani, a Mexican woman who finds herself the target of Gabriel Luna’s liquid-metal Terminator, with Sarah and time-traveling cyborg Grace (Mackenzie Davis) as her only hope for survival, and the future’s. While I wouldn’t bet on the poor box office killing this franchise, if this is the last movie, it’s a good note to go out on. “So your plan is to slip across the U.S. border with an illegal Mexican immigrant and a woman who once had her own episode of America’s Most Wanted?”

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How could you hate my protagonist? She’s so awesome!

An article on Jezebel argues that the characters movies present to us as obnoxious women are often the good guys: they’re mature and they’re dissing the hero for perfectly good reasons (The Mary Sue discusses this in relation to Breaking Bad and the narrower range of options for women to be non-nice without the audience hating them). An article elsewhere some years back made the same point about Rachel on Friends. She’s presented as a a spoiled princess out on her own, but if she stuck with Monica — an overweight, very uncool kid in her teens — there has to be more to it than that.

Having readers or viewers like characters who are supposed to be obnoxious villains is a problem for writers, though I think I see it more the other way around — characters the writers think are great and I or others find insufferable. There are a number of supervillains the writer clearly thinks are seriously awesome and I just find annoying (giving a character mind-blowing power levels does not, in itself, make them interesting). Similarly, readers often look at heroic protagonists, particularly female ones, and dismiss them as a Mary Sue.

Outside of comic-book villains, I think Wesley Crusher on Next Gen was my first encounter with the phenomenon: I didn’t mind him, but I learned that a lot of fans found him insufferable. Lots of fans (myself included) had a similar reaction to TK Danny Chase, a teenager Marv Wolfman added to the cast of Teen Titans (by then just New Titans) in the late 1980s. A teenage spy and the son of spies, Danny considered himself way more competent than the rest of the team and the scripts seemed to agree (Danny takes down two of the unstoppable Wildebeests during the Titans Hunt arc).

The worst-case scenario is where the author’s written a character who’s transgressing boundaries and the story doesn’t acknowledge it. The wizard in Naomi Novik’s Uprooted abuses the protagonist for much of the book, but it’s hand-waved away. I doubt Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang meant for readers to see Orion in their Wonder Woman run as a sexist douchebag, but that’s how he comes across. James Bond’s treatment of Patricia in Thunderball is played for laughs, but it’s creepy as hell.

Or consider My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997). In a reverse of the female characters discussed in the first paragraph, we’re supposed to see Cameron Diaz’s Kimberly as a woman who deserves Michael (Dermot Mulroney) much more than Julia Robert’s Julianne: Where Julianne’s always prioritized career over love, Kimberly’s willing to postpone college and career for marriage, and even give up her honeymoon so sports reporter Michael won’t miss covering any baseball games. This is supposed to make her the Good Girl; all I could see was an appalling doormat and a sexist script (despite AV Club’s argument the film subverts rom-com tropes).

Badass characters in comics are usually supposed to be cool anti-heroes who have no patience with your shit, won’t follow anyone else’s rules and kick butt in a way nobody else can. Wolverine when he’s written badly. Battalion, a loud-mouthed jerk in the Titans spinoff Team Titans (I think we’re supposed to be impressed than when he crosses the street he just smashes cars that get in his way, but that’s just being a jackass). Ravager, a Teen Titan who wins fights just by the sheer weight of her badassery. To me they’re all just jerks. Keith Giffen had the opposite problem with Lobo: conceived as a parody of violent psycho badasses, huge legions of fans decided he was so over the top he was absolutely awesome.

We can’t guarantee readers will have the same reaction to our characters that we do; the best we can do is hope our beta readers or editors pick up on problems. KC, the protagonist of Impossible Takes a Little Longer, is self-conscious about not looking like a classic comics superhero (shorts and t-shirt for a costume — that’s about all she can stomach in Northwest Florida’s heat). The first or second time I read the beginning of the novel to my writing group, several women said it came off more like she was self-conscious about her looks and not being pretty. I rewrote to make it clear it’s not a lack of body positivity, it’s just that she doesn’t look epic compared to say Gil Kane’s Green Lantern or Curt Swan’s Supergirl (the gap between comics and her life as the Champion is a running element of the book).

Beyond that, like so much about writing, we just have to roll the dice and hope the numbers are good.

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Rom-coms based on dating-advice books: a triple feature

I know of at least a couple of others in this niche genre, such as 1970’s How to Pick Up Girls, but despite that one being available on YouTube, I didn’t have time to go for a quadruple play.

First up, HE’S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU (2009)was based on a Sex and the City episode that got turned into an advice book based on the principle that if the guy doesn’t call/call back/propose/ask you out, the only possible reason is that he’s not really interested (speaking as a tremendously shy person, I can say that as a universal rule, this is bullshit — though in some cases, certainly it’s true) Ginnifer Goodwin (pre-Once Upon a Time) plays a woman who keeps making excuses for the men in her life (good thing she meets an Obnoxious, Irritating man who can mansplain how things work); Jennifer Aniston reluctantly accepts live-in boyfriend Ben Affleck is never going to propose; Drew Barrymore tries to figure out if guys contacting her by MySpace (wow, does that date this film now) or email are really interested; and Scarlett Johansson tries to steal Jennifer Connolly’s husband away from her.

Much as I disagree with the premise (they do acknowledge, at least a little, that men fall into the same delusion, but not how bad male “no means yes” assumptions can get), I’m also annoyed they don’t follow through on it: Goodwin turns out to be an exception to the rule, Afleck pops the question after all. The Connolly/Johansson triangle doesn’t even fit the theme because “he’s cheating on you” is not the same thing. A great cast, but a poor production. “I miss the days when everyone had just one phone number and one answering machine and one tape for messages.”

THINK LIKE A MAN (2012) worked a little better for me as this adaptation of Steve Harvey’s how-to-land-a-man guide sticks to the basics in its ensemble’s romantic dilemmas: can a woman win a mamma’s boy away from his mom? Will the player in the group be brought to heel if his new woman withholds sex? The battle of the sexes that results is stereotypical, but more entertaining, though the product placement for Harvey’s book is about 100 times less subtle (so many people turn out to have copies, you’d think it was outselling the Bible) “She’s trying to push me towards my dreams and help me accomplish your goals — why would she do that?”

THE LONELY GUY (1984) works best of the three because it’s a)starring Steve Martin and Charles Grodin; b)it’s partly written by Neil Simon; c)the source book is a parody of the single life so it doesn’t have any message to put. Getting dumped by girlfriend Robyn Douglass leaves Martin talking to ferns, contemplating suicide, adopting dogs, trying to win over commitment-phobic Judith Ivey (“You’re all right for me — that’s why you’re all wrong for me.”)and bonding with lonely schlub Grodin. This is hit or miss (the sneezing-as-orgasms scene fell very flat for me, for instance) but overall very funny; Joyce Brothers and Merv Griffin play themselves. “I think I can say, without undue modesty, that I am an expert on dog poop!”

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Here, I think, is some great marketing

So when I read Blackout, about New York’s 1977 power outage, I though I’d follow it up by watching 1967’s Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?, about the 1965 blackout (which took in a wider area, but had less looting). Too bad for me, it’s not available in any format except VHS, for about $35 (something I discussed over at Atomic Junkshop). The opening, nothing more, is on YouTube. But in the process of looking for it online, I found this copy of the poster.

I know perfectly well that no Doris Day movie is going to be as racy and sexy as this implies. Every review says the movie was an unfunny mess. But the poster still makes me want to see it. Still makes me think the film will be fun, fun, fun, and maybe a little bit naughty (never mind that picking movies on that basis has never worked well for me). So obviously they did good.

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Factory workers, fraudsters and a Manxman: this week’s films

BUBBLE (2006) is a very indie drama by Steven Soderbergh following the relationship between two workers (one a young and aimless guy, the other a lonely middle-aged woman) at a doll-manufacturing factory in a dying town and how it changes when a young woman comes to work there. Suffice to say it doesn’t go well … The low-key, realistic style makes everything almost too understated but it worked for me (certainly better than the other films of the week).“We have obviously gone through a very tragic set of events.”

J.T. LEROY (2019) is supposedly the streetsmart author of a memoir growing up a prostitute’s son; in reality it’s middle-aged Laura Dern, pretending the book is based-on-truth to boost sales. When it’s obvious some personal appearances would boost sales more, Dern recruits her lover’s sister, Kirsten Stewart, to pose as JT, but the two soon find themselves at odds. The two leads give excellent performance (Stewart’s way better than I’d have expected), this based-on-truth film is just too rambling to work for me (I’m guessing it’s because it follows real events too closely).

THE MANXMAN (1929) was Hitchcock’s last silent film and like Champagne one he personally loathes, which shows good taste on his part. The melodrama involves a pair of best-friend Manxmen (residents of the Isle of Mann), a sailor and a lawyer, in love with the same woman; when the sailor apparently drowns, his rival moves in but wait, the guy’s not dead and he’s returning home rich! What will happen now? Like Easy Virtue, the melodrama hasn’t aged well and the ending left me grumpy (even given his kid is not his biological son, it seems cruel to have the sailor lose the baby along with the woman). “All manner of punishment comes to them that breaks its sacred vows.”

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Werewolves and superheroes: two films

Courtesy of Netflix, I caught THE HOWLING REBORN (2011), the last entry in the Howling franchise to date. Like most of the earlier sequels it’s in Name Only: right before graduation, high school nerd Will (Landon Liboiron) finds sexy bad girl Eliana (Lindsey Shaw)luring him for a walk on the wild side. And now he feels so strange, so animalistic … what’s she done to him? In a nice twist, nothing: Eliana’s human but Will’s supposedly dead mom (Ivana Milicevic) is a lycanthrope (bitten while pregnant so the strain is latent in her boy) eager to have him join her pack. Too bad Eliana knows too much to live … The high school romance makes me suspect Twilight is part of the inspiration (Liboiron looks very much like Robert Pattinson) but despite the one good twist, this doesn’t have enough spark to work (I wish they’d played more with the idea of the absent parent shoehorning their way into the kid’s life). I’ll give them points for keeping their werewolves in shadow as much as possible.“If someone finds this video, please stream it to YouTube so my life won’t have been in vain.”

JUSTICE LEAGUE VS. THE FATAL FIVE (2019) pits the JLA against the time traveling villains Mano, Persuader and Tharok, who’ve come back from the 31st century to capture reluctant Green Lantern Jessica Cruz (voiced by Diane Guerrero of Doom Patrol) while Batman realizes Arkham patient Thom Kallor’s babble about coming from the future to stop a disaster may not be entirely delusional. Action-packed (all members of the Five do put in an appearance eventually) and fun, though I do hate this version of Tharok (a cyborg killing machine, rather than the original conception of him as the super-genius to end all geniuses). Kevin Conroy voices Batman again and Batman: the Animated Adventures producer Bruce Timm voices Two-Face. “This is the end of the era of heroes — and the beginning of our own.”

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Rom-coms viewed on vacation, plus a biopic

TWO-NIGHT STAND (2014) is a charming-enough rom-com wherein Analeigh Tipton decides that to ease the pain of being dumped, she’ll have a one-night stand with a guy she picks up online (Miles Teller). Her desire to get out the next morning goes south when a freak blizzard traps them both in the guy’s apartment, leaving them snarking about each other’s sex skills (“It makes me think of Helen Keller’s teacher going down on her.”) to frank discussions of sex to boy getting girl, then losing girl, then — no, I won’t spoil it for you. Nothing I couldn’t live without, but I did enjoy it. “It’s not like we’re competing in some erotically charged Japanese game show.”

THAT TOUCH OF MINK (1962) is, as one critic joked, a Rock Hudson/Doris Day rom-com but with Cary Grant in the Hudson role — and Cary Grant’s much better at it. Suave businessman Grant and sexy but innocent Doris Day (“Men look at you, then suddenly discover their wives don’t understand them.”) meet cute (his car splashes her with water as she’s standing by a puddle), then spend the rest of the movie flirting and equivocating over whether Day is ready to have sex without marriage. Even at the time, the film’s attitude to sex must have looked rather dated, but thanks to the cast and some sharp writing, it’s still way funny. Backing up Grant and Day we have Gig-Young as a sellout, John Astin as a sexual harasser (“He’s so low, when they bury him they’ll have to dig up.”) and Audrey Meadows as Day’s tart-tongued best friend. “You clearly don’t know the girls of Upper Sandusky!”

Renee Zellwegger plays JUDY (2019) during her final London tour, struggling to keep her head straight, falling in and out of marriage for the fifth time and trying to earn enough that she can settle down in one place with her kids. This is a good biopic with an outstanding performance by Zellwegger; Michael Gambon plays a showman and Rufus Sewell is Judy’s very estranged last husband. “I’m unemployable and uninsurable — that’s what people who like me tell me to my face.”

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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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