Category Archives: Movies

Aliens, both hostile and friendly: movies viewed (with some spoilers)

The Asylum found a successful business model when it began releasing “mockbusters” of current theatrical hits such as Avengers: Grimm or Transmorphers. 2005’s H.G. WELLS’ WAR OF THE WORLDS was a mockbuster of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds that manages to rise above the usual Asylum level, though it doesn’t rise very far. C. Thomas Howell plays “George Herbert,” an astronomer who due to work blows off a trip to DC with his partner and their kid; after the usual meteors-that-aren’t-meteors strike and unleash their cargo, George sets out to find his family (as I noted in the previous War of the Worlds post, a common theme), hoping against hope they’re still alive.

This takes the religious elements of the 1953 film and amps them up big time: George winds up walking part of the way — the roads are blocked — with a priest who’s initially convinced this is all part of God’s plan, so we’ve nothing to fear; later he becomes convinced that the virtuous have been Raptured and he’s been left behind as unworthy. The alien battle vehicles are different from the Spielberg tripods in that they’re six-legged insectoid-style machines (as Wells’ Martians used tripods, I wonder if this was to minimize any legal problems with the Spielberg?). The biggest change is that George injects one of the invaders with rabies from a lab in the hope of infecting them, though for all he or we know, they died of ordinary germs just as in the original.

Overall this is forgettable, but watchable, with reasonably adequate F/X. That said, I doubt I’d ever have watched if I wasn’t working on Alien Visitors. “God rewards the faithful George — he doesn’t punish them.”

I was much more entertained by Netflix’ WE CAN BE HEROES (2020), in which the Justice League/Avengers-like Heroics go up against an alien invasion, and promptly go down. Their government watchdogs hide the kids inside the Heroics’ base, but the aliens are closing in so the kids go on the offensive. Unfortunately, they’re not ready for prime time: Missy (YaYa Gosselin) has no powers, Wild Card has every power possible but no control over which one manifests, Slo-Mo has super-speed but warps time so that he still moves super-slowly. It turns out, though, that the aliens are actually helpful: believing the older generation has failed, they want to force the Heroics’ kids to step up and become the heroes the world needs. The results are pleasantly amusing; if you’re a fan of The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl, this is a quasi-sequel (with the same director/writer, Robert Rodriguez) with the grown-up characters among the Heroics and their daughter Guppy as one of the kids. “‘We can be heroes/Just for one day’ — I know, I know, but it was just sitting there!”

My memory of Stephen Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) was that it was blandly amiable with Richard Dreyfuss spending a shit ton of time making mountains out of mashed potatoes. I wasn’t quite right about that element, but I still find it bland and largely uninteresting.

Dreyfuss plays a Midwestern man who witnesses a UFO (in a nice moment it appears to be a car behind him on the road until it rises into the air) while Melinda Dillon plays a mom in the same town whose son has been abducted. They find a strange compulsion drawing them across country to the Devil’s Rock in Wyoming, which turns out to be where the military are preparing for first contact.

Part of the problem is that the movie makes no sense. We don’t know what the aliens want, and their treatment of Dillon is both scary and inexplicable (what’s the point in trashing her kitchen?). We don’t learn why they’ve singled out Dillon and Dreyfuss for contact. And hell, they’ve kept a group of U.S. pilots in their ship for decades, which is not acceptable conduct (and their compulsions destroy Dreyfuss’ marriage to Teri Garr). We’re supposed to forget all that and just feel a sense of wonder, but I don’t feel enough to suspend my disbelief. As an SF fan since childhood, I don’t find “aliens have contacted us” inherently interesting even when it looks this good — what matters is why and what comes next? Though that said, lots of SF fans do adore this one.

The film does serve as a grab-bag of UFOlogy elements at the time, like the mysterious military cover-up (which would be echoed in countless later films such as Official Denial); it gave back by establishing the “Greys” as the default image of alien visitors (it had only been one of several up to that point). And it made me appreciate one difference between a film like this and reality is that the UFOs are here are undoubtedly real — despite a mistaken identification at one point (a UFO turns out to be a helicopter) the onesDreyfuss saw is unquestionably real. “What I need is something so scary it’ll clear 300 square miles of every living Christian soul.”

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A pretentious mess, a cheap crook and a swashbuckler: this week’s viewing.

When a movie isn’t available on Netflix, I’ll often put it in my Amazon wish list. That’s led to me acquiring Girl on the Bridge and Corrupted Hands, but this year I wound up with POSSESSION 91981), a muddy pretentious mess of a movie. With Isabella Adjani and Sam Neill’s (he looks uncomfortable with his role every second of the film) marriage falling apart, we get loud shouting matches, subway orgasms, gratuitous violence and Adjani having sex with a Lovecraftian horror (I’m sure this Means Something but I don’t care what). Despite great critical reviews, this was a waste of time; I’d suggest double-billing with Polanski’s Repulsion for another deranged female protagonist.“There is nothing in common among women except menstruation.”

THE UNDERNEATH (1995) was Stephen Soderbergh’s remake of the noir film Criss Cross, though this version is too low-key to really feel noir to me. Peter Gallagher plays a perpetual screw-up whose return to his home town gets him in trouble with his bitter brother, his ex and his ex’s mobbed-up boyfriend. Fortunately Gallagher’s landed a job as an armored-car guard so with him as the inside man he can settle up with the boyfriend, then leave with his ex and live comfortable — what could go wrong? A good character study, though I’m not sure what the ending reveal means; Joe Don Baker plays a business owner,, Elisabeth Shue is a bank teller. “I find myself looking to the outer edges of acceptable behavior to make myself feel better.

My friend Ross’s present to me this year was THE MARK OF ZORRO (1920), Douglas Fairbanks’ first swashbuckler. As the listless, effete Don Diego and the daring outlaw hero of Spanish California, Fairbanks is a wonder, a living special effect tossing off acrobatic feats effortlessly. As I’ve mentioned before, old-school swashbucklers tend to be monarchical and this is no exception: Zorro defends the poor but when it’s time for revolution he rallies the aristocratic caballeros; his goal isn’t independence for California but a just governor. Fairbanks is also much less Robin Hood than some versions of Zorro — he beats up soldiers for mistreating the natives and the peasants, but he isn’t robbing the rich to give to the poor. None of which affects my fondness for this delightful film. “Have you seen this one?”

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Hancock and Hitchcock: Movies viewed

HANCOCK (2008) stars Will Smith as the drunken, reckless, possibly immortal metahuman whose interventions cause more property and collateral damage than they’re worth, only he can’t seem to care. Jason Bateman plays a PR Man who offers to give Hancock a makeover into the kind of hero people want to be around — but why does his wife find Hancock so familiar? This is mostly a collection of familiar comics cliches — Hancock himself amounts to Superman with Guy Gardner‘s personality — but I’d suggest double-billing it with the superior The Old Guard for another immortal hero. “Do I have permission to touch your body? It’s not sexual.”

Alfred Hitchcock’s SPELLBOUND (1945) stars Ingrid Bergman as a pychoanalyst who falls for Gregory Peck as the new head of the clinic she works at, replacing her mentor Leo G. Carroll. Unfortunately it turns out Peck is an imposter and an amnesiac whose traumatic memory loss may be in response to murdering the real doctor; can Bergman find out the truth before the cops catch up with them?

Lovers On The Run (and posing as married) is familiar Hitchcock stuff but this lacks the tension of Thirty-Nine Steps or Young and Innocent; the police are ineffective so the real tension lies in Bergman’s efforts to break through to Peck’s repressed memories. It doesn’t work but the surreal nightmare sequence designed by Salvador Dali (see below) is certainly memorable.

Peck is another problem, a movie newbie who isn’t strong enough to make his role work. Bergman, however, is great. While the movie trots out the standard cliches of the era that as a professional Bergman is a cold fish who can’t be a real woman (“Women make the best psychiatrists until they fall in love, then they become patients.”), she’s the one who drives the action. Despite falling love she remains a good enough psychoanalyst to crack the case and expose the real killer; Peck is the equivalent of the pretty-girl romantic lead who needs the hero to save her. “You are going to hate me a lot before we’re through.”NOTORIOUS (1946) reunites Bergman and Hitchcock for one of the latter’s classics — though before this rewatching, I’ve never really liked it (I’ve no idea now why not). Bergman plays the patriotic daughter of an American Nazi, drowning her shame in wild parties and booze (the Production Code tidied this up a bit). American agent Cary Grant romances her, then reveals he wants her to spy on Nazi Claude Rains, who’s engaged in sinister doings in South America. Bergman agrees, becoming first Rains’ lover, then his wife, but will he catch on? Does Grant care about Bergman or is she just a tool for him to use?

This is a first-rate film all around, though it took a long trail to get there. Hitchcock, screenwriter Ben Hecht and producer David Selznick fought over lots of elements (Selznick vetoed having the Rains and Grant characters go over a cliff together) and the Production Code wasn’t happy with even a hint of immoral behavior (there are hints, but during the post-war period the Code’s Joe Breen loosened up some, particularly on prestigious A-list films). The final results are well worth seeing. “It’s a lot of hooey — there’s nothing like a love song to give you a good laugh.”

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A season-long epic: Doctor Who and the Key to Time

For season 17 of Doctor Who, the series went big. All six serials are part of one composite story, involving the Doctor and his new companion’s quest for the Key to Time.

In the first episode, the Doctor gets yanked out of time to meet the White Guardian, one of two entities representing order and chaos (that’s the Black Guardian).  The Guardian explains that while the two opposing forces normally keep the flow of time and existence in perfect balance, once in a while, it needs a reset. That requires the Key to Time, an artifact capable of giving one of the Guardians absolute control of reality. Because of the potential for abuse, the key is scattered across the universe in six separate, indestructible segments. The White Guardian explains that it’s necessary for him so he’s recruiting the Doctor to collect the pieces. Doctor: “What happens if I refuse?” “Nothing will happen, Doctor … ever again.”

He’s also provided the Doctor with a new companion, Romana (Mary Tamm), a Gallifreyan Time Lady. It proves to be one of the classic odd couple pairings: Romana has better education and technical skills, the Doctor has better education in the school of hard knocks. While Tamm is stiff as an actor, her knowledge enables her to hold her own with the Doctor in a way most companions can’t.

The first story, The Ribos Operation, has them hunting for a segment on the eponymous planet. On this medieval-level world, the overcast sky has left them unaware of the rest of the universe; a would be galactic conqueror, the Graf Vinda-K, seeks a priceless chunk of a rare mineral to finance his coming wars. Guess what the Key-detector the Guardian gave the Doctor shows to be the first segment? This one is well thought-of, but I’ve never really liked it; the acting is good but like Curse of Peladon it’s close to pure costume drama only not as much fun. And K9, as he often does, makes things a little too easy for the Doctor. “You can’t be a successful crook with a dishonest face, can you?”

Douglas Adams’ The Pirate Planet, by contrast, is a delight, even though I’d remembered it as over-the-top silly. Seeking the second segment, the Doctor arrives on a planet ruled by a cyborg pirate captain (with a cyborg parrot, no less); as we eventually learn, the planet sustains itself by jumping through space, engulfing other worlds, then strip-mining their resources. It turns out the captain isn’t as crazy or silly (“By the beard of the sky demon, the jaws of death were around your throat!”)
as he seems and there are multiple other players in the game … This one’s first-rate. “Use your tongue, Doctor — it’s the only weapon you have left.”

I also really like the third serial, The Stones of Blood, for its effective use of British stone-circle folklore. The Doctor and Romana arrive in present day England, where something’s going on involving an old circle of stones that supposedly move around so that nobody can count them accurately. And hmm, something seems to be crushing people in the area to death … Does it have anything to do with the mysterious Vivian Fay whose family have held the land for centuries (if I were watching cold, that folklore-laded name would have been a big Warning). While this takes a too-comical twist near the end with the Megaera, alien judge/executioners, it still works. “I think of modern Druidism as a joke perpetrated by John Aubrey.”The Androids of Tara is less successful. Arriving on a planet where despite a generally 18th century lifestyle, the technology allows for android servants, the Doctor and Romana get caught up in a Prisoner of Zenda remake: Romana’s the exact double of the local ruler, kidnapped by the scheming Count Grendel, so can the Time Lady fill in for an important ceremony? I like this one more than it deserves: while Grendel’s a good villain, the androids seem more like a plot device than anything integral to the planet’s culture (in contrast to, say, The Robots of Death). And once again, K9 is a little too handy. “I don’t think I’ll refuse the crown a second time — it might create the wrong impression.”

Power of the Kroll involves an offworld chemical refinery in conflict with the local alien tribes, so the Doctor’s arrival is obviously some scheme by the activist Sons of Earth to side with the “swampies,” right? That conflict proves secondary when it turns out the fifth segment has turned a local squidlike creature into the Swampie’s giant god, Kroll; the creature is impressive as a shadowy outline or when it’s just ginormous tentacles, much less so when we see more of it. Overall, this one’s so-so. “Somehow this lake is producing enough protein to make this operation possible.”

The season wraps up with The Armageddon Factor, taking place on war-ravaged Atrios, which is locked in a losing battle with another world. Here the Black Guardian makes his play, manipulating the power-mad Marshal who leads the war for Princess Astra (Lala Ward, who became Romana’s next regeneration), but the Shadow, his hand-picked agent to obtain the Key of Time. On top of the imminent destruction of Atrios in the war, the Doctor discovers Astra is the final segment: assembling the key will destroy her.

Ultimately the Doctor and Romana do assemble the key, but when the White Guardian asks for it, the Doctor decides it’s too powerful to trust to anyone and wills the segments to disassemble (Astra will live!). Smart move: the White Guardian has been the Black Guardian all along (at least that appears to be the case) and him with the Key would be Very Bad. However the two Time Lords are now on the Black Guardian’s shit list: to prevent him following them, they completely randomize the TARDIS time jumps (the Doctor’s been able to control it perfectly this season, unlike usual). Overall, this didn’t quite work: the Marshal’s a nicely fanatical villain, the Shadow much more stock, and Lala Ward has zero screen presence as Astra. There’s also another Time Lord character who’s too much comic relief. So overall a decent season, but not as stellar as the previous few. “Well of course I’m all right… but supposing I wasn’t all right?”

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“The biggest thing ever to happen to our world!” Movies viewed for Alien Visitors

Alien Visitors will, of course, cover Alien Invasion films so I’ve been watching a few. In the few I’ve seen already (including Day of the Triffids) some patterns and tropes are becoming noticeable.

There’s the military, struggling heroically against the enemy until someone — typically a super-smart scientist — figures out a solution. There’s chaos as everyone loses their shit and panics — it’s every human for themselves, dragging drivers out of vehicles to take them and escape. There’s the desperate need to evacuate cities and people wandering around an empty downtown (e.g., Target Earth). Frequently someone searching for a lost love or family member. And the destruction of countless monuments — the Capitol building in DC, the Eiffel Tower. Not that all of these elements are present in every single movie, but they’re common enough, I think, to count as genre tropes. Though I may revise the list after watching a few more.

The movie I’ll build the chapter around is, logically, WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953), George Pal’s superb adaptation of the Wells novel (seen on my library’s Criterion DVD so it looks gorgeous and bulges with special features). Set in the present, it starts with an opening reminding us of technology’s role in WW I, WW II and the atomic age — and now we face a new battle against weapons of super-science, a … War of the Worlds (the quote in the title is from the trailer, included on the DVD). Then Cedric Hardwicke’s narration discusses how the intellects of Mars, a cold and inhospitable world, had decided it was time to relocate: scanning the Solar System it becomes obvious Earth is the most viable alternative. Before long what appears to be a meteor lands in Southern California, drawing the attention of excited locals — what a tourist attraction! — and Forrester (Gene Barry), a brilliant scientist fishing in the area.

When it turns out it’s not a meteor, the military step in, but to no effect. Unusually for a 1950s SF film, neither is science: neither the atom bomb nor anything else can stop the eerie alien ships and their horrific heat rays. Forrester’s role is to run, protect pretty Sylvia (Ann Robinson) and fall in love with her.It’s an excellent film; the emphasis on religion at the climax would probably annoy the agnostic H.G. but it feels appropriate for the film. While some people dislike Forrester falling desperately hard for Sylvia after knowing her so briefly, I can accept that kind of rapid love as a fictional convention. It might not have seemed strange at all to people coming out of WW II, when rushed romance before a soldier shipped out was a thing (check out the Judy Garland film The Clock as an example).

And those alien ships are just gorgeous, like manta rays with a serpentine tentacle/eye stalk rising out of them. The aliens are indeed alien, doing everything in threes even though, as the commentary track points out, one ship alone is unstoppable. Indeed, that’s something of a weakness: unlike Wells novel and the first drafts of Barré Lyndon’s script the ships are absolutely unbeatable. That ramps up the threat but it makes talk of heroic resistance around the world (and the movie does make it clear this is a global fight) kind of pointless — fight or run, it doesn’t make a difference. Overall, though, this is a great film. “Once they begin to move, no more news comes out of that area.”

Stephen Spielberg’s  WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005) has Tom Cruise as a hardhat jerk who finds himself struggling to keep his family alive during an invasion by — well, not Martians, but comparably  nasty aliens. In contrast to the ’53, this has a real feeling of despair about it, as the characters go up against unstoppable force with superior technology and struggle to survive, usually by running (though Cruise does find a way to take down a tripod at one point). Just as Wells used the aliens to question British colonialism — this is what it’s like being a tribesman with an assegai facing a Gatling gun! — I assumed Spielberg was making a point about our invasion and occupation of Iraq. Instead the film’s tone (as I learned from some interviews) was actually meant to reflect our shock and horror at 9/11 which feels slightly ridiculous to me. Sure, 9/11 was a shocking moment in history, but despite all the propaganda about the terrible threat of Muslim terrorism it was never comparable to the aliens here (“They defeated the greatest power on Earth in a couple of days.”).

A bigger problem is that unlike the Pal version, the aliens don’t make any sense. They teleported their tripods to Earth millennia ago, buried underground — Spielberg wanted an alternative to coming down from the sky — but why are they only now teleporting down to activate them? Why are they disintegrating humans when they see us as a food source? And while the tripods are impressive, they feel, I don’t know, more F/Xish than the sinister ships of the Pal version.  “Watch the lightning — that is them.”

EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956) is Ray Harryhausen’s War of the Worlds riff (he’s one of many filmmakers who unsuccessfully pitched adapting the book over the years) in which UFOs demand the Earth surrender — though despite the title, the battle focuses almost entirely on Washington DC, which gives the alien ships a chance to destroy prominent memorials and crash into the Capitol building after they go down in defeat. The movie shows the influence from the Pal film — both movies have a similar discussion of the spaceships’ mechanical eye, for instance and these have a similar force-field — but it doesn’t catch fire the same way (protagonist Hugh Marlowe doesn’t have anything as intense as Gene Barry’s search for Robinson to occupy him, for instance).  However the ships are absolutely awesome, with far more personality than the aliens inside them. “Earth, crippled by these events, waited for the first sign of an invasion from outer space!”

COLOR OUT OF SPACE (2020) has Nicolas Cage and his family raising alpacas on his late parents’ farm when a chartreuse-glowing meteor (one drawback to doing this in color is that the meteor doesn’t get to be a color never seen before by human eyes) crashes to Earth, causing a catalog of ominous effects ranging from telephone static to mutations and insane behavior. This H.P Lovecraft adaptation got several good reviews, but I just found it aimless — all the weirdness never adds up to any sort of building tension, let alone horror. Karloff’s Die, Monster Die adaptation of the story was more fun. “It smells like someone burned a dog.”

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Let’s say farewell to these films for another year

So over Christmas week, as usual, I plunged into watching Christmassy stuff and emerged with my sanity intact. What can I say, I love being Christmassy at Christmas time. First, the regulars:

MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947) has Edmund Gwenn insisting he’s the one and only Santa Claus, Maureen O’Hara horrified daughter Natalie Wood believes in magic and William Frawley warning judge Gene Lockhart against declaring Santa a myth (“The toy companies are going to love you.”). Rewatching this year I was struck by the caliber of the cast, from Gwenn’s pitch-perfect Kringle to Natalie Wood’s skilled portrayal of an overly sensible little girl. “I am not in the habit of substituting for spurious Santas!”

WE’RE NO ANGELS (1955) has con-man Humphrey Bogart (“I got ten years for better looking account books than these!”), safecracker Peter Ustinov and murderer Aldo Ray (“The problem wasn’t that I asked my uncle for money, it’s how I asked him.”) save store owner Leo G. Carroll and his family from catastrophe at the hands of vicious cousin Basil Rathbone. A charmer, even though Ray’s penchant for rape (“It wasn’t that he chased the girl, it’s what happened after he caught her.”) hasn’t aged well at all. “You’re an honest man, I’m simply going to draw up your accounts to reflect that.”

SCROOGE (1970) is the musical adaptation of Dickens with an all-actor cast including Albert Finney as one of the most misanthropic Ebenezers, Michael Crawford as Cratchitt, Judith Anderson and Kenneth More as two of the three ghosts and Alec Guinness as a dour Marley. This plays up Scrooge’s tragic romance even more than most versions, probably because they get a song out of it — but I like the music, so that’s fine. “Another idol has displaced me in your heart.”

As always, TYG and I spent the post-presents period Christmas Day watching A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983) as Ralphie navigates the hazards of school bullies (“Yellow eyes! He had yellow eyes!”), writing themes, saying Fudge (“Only I didn’t say ‘fudge.’”) and soap poisoning before finally getting his hands on a Red Ryder double action BB gun with a compass in the stock. “Only one thing could have lured me away from the soft glow of electric sex.”

And then there was the new stuff I watched to fill various odd gaps in my schedule. I’d meant to include Die Hard but that’ll have to wait for December 2021.

CHRISTMAS SURVIVAL (2018) is one of those films where Christmas is an excuse for a family to come together, with a British woman, her expat sister and their families celebrating Christmas at their late parents’ farm. Inevitably this British film shows Christmas cheer getting hammered by inheritance squabbles, stoner teens, adulterous affairs and collapsing marriages. The results are enjoyable, though somehow I missed the resolution of one critical plot point. “You killed him — I hate you forever!”

OPERATION CHRISTMAS DROP (2020) has a budget-cutting congresswoman send her aide to investigate the eponymous military operation — a real-world Christmas goodwill operation that sends presents to scattered Pacific islands — in the belief the Pacific base the operation calls home can be shut down to save a few mill. Wouldn’t you know, the head guy on the operation is a charmer the aide finds Totally Obnoxious and Irritating at first — need I say more? Given this program has been around for years, treating it as a fringe idea the congresswoman has never heard of is odd; that said, adequate rom-com (I watched mostly for a friend of mine with a bit part, but I couldn’t spot him).

HOLIDATE (2020) has pissed-off Emma Roberts and golf pro Luke Bracey agree to be each other’s platonic dates for holiday events, thereby shielding Roberts from family criticism for her single status and Bracey from women getting too serious — which of course, won’t be a problem for them, right? In the spirit of Bad Santa, this has characters dropping the f-bomb, having casual hookups and smoking pot; that didn’t bother me much but it did annoy me that, like Kate and Leopold, Bracey has everything together while Roberts is a screw-up whose issues almost kill their romance. Still, adequate to fill time with; Kristin Chenowith plays Roberts’ lecherous aunt. “So you’re comparing sex with me to eating snails?”

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Let’s talk Christmas movies!

First the old reliables — WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954) helped fill some time when I wanted to watch something but not pay close attention — I know the plot so I could visualize things from the dialogue and then look up whenever a dance number got going. Probably the least Christmassy of Christmas movies (the plot wouldn’t change much if it were July 4) but as I’ve mentioned before, a lot of Christmas movies aren’t very Christmassy. “Let’s just say we’re doing it for an old pal in the Army.”

This year watching CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT (1945) had me wondering if a gender-flipped remake would work better than straight (they already remade it once, without catching the original’s charm). Instead of Barbara Stanwyck passing herself off as a fake perfect homemaker and mother in her columns (she can’t cook and doesn’t have any kids), we have a shy nerd who writes Virile Manly Man columns; instead of Dennis Morgan as a WW II veteran, we have a female vet. But regardless, the original is always a delight to rewatch; with Sidney Greenstreet, Una O’Connor and S.Z. Sakall among the backup cast. “I’m the type who does kiss married women — and I like it!’

CHASING CHRISTMAS (2005) has apparently made the cut to Christmas perennial, as Leslie Jordan’s burnout Christmas Past (“I’ve been doing this for 2,000 years and it hasn’t made the world any nicer.”) snaps while trying to de-Scrooge Tom Arnold, leaving the latter stranded in his own childhood and at risk of erasing himself from reality if he doesn’t make it home before Christmas. A fun riff on the story. “Dickens was one of our ‘clients’ — he wrote that book even though we specifically told him not to tell anyone.”

Alastair Sim’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1951) remains my favorite Realistic Scrooge with Sim realizing almost from the first how badly he’s screwed up his life but worrying he’s too old and set in his miserly ways to change. With a cast that includes Michael Horden Ernest Thesiger, Hermione Baddely and Patrick Macnee, this is always a pleasure to see again. “If ever my heart has changed towards you, it will be because my heart has ceased to beat.”

Seymour Hicks plays a very grouchy, irascible SCROOGE (1935) in an adaptation that runs little over an hour; to economize on time this drops Scrooge’s lonely childhood and gives us one Christmas Past scene, where his fiancee learns what a hard, grasping man she’s married. Surprisingly this also spends several minutes on the Lord Mayor’s feast, contrasting it with Scrooge’s lonely isolation. Not a favorite, but quite watchable. “Mr. Cratchitt, it’s obvious to me that my needs and your needs are not the same.”

MR. MAGOO’S CHRISTMAS CAROL is an animated TV special in which Magoo performs the Scrooge role on Broadway, unleashing chaos on stage due to his short-sightedness. The production of A Christmas Carol itself is quite winning, with some genuinely good songs. “Guineas and threepence and tuppence and bob/Give them away and nobody will rob — you.”

And the new stuff— Michael Horden plays Ebenezer himself in a 1977 CHRISTMAS CAROL, competently acted but nowhere up to the best. Part of the problem is that the cast is small, so we don’t get the Victorian crowd scenes I’ve come to expect.  “Would you so soon compel me to put out the light that I would give?”

CHRISTMAS CRUSH (2019) has potential in its premise. A woman makes a Christmas wish for her neighbor’s love, but when the spell instead zaps her new neighbor on the other side of her apartment, she has to cope with the man’s unwanted attention. To make matters worse he’s engaged and the guy she really wants despises her for tearing the couple apart. The execution of this Christmas rom-com was only adequate, tnough, and I doubt it will make the annual viewing roster. “I’m doing seasonal temp jobs to pay for a wedding I’m never going to have.”

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Christmas and aliens: some movie/TV reviews

While it’s not as well known as their “I thought turkeys could fly” Thanksgiving episode, the “Bah, Humbug!” episode of WKRP IN CINCINNATI is every bit as entertaining. Station head Mr. Carlson is stiffing everyone on bonuses so he can buy new equipment and impress his “Genghis Khan of a mother” with his business savvy. Then he downs one of Johnny Fever’s brownies and finds himself trapped in one of “those Charles Dickens Christmas Carol” dreams. While I intend to acquire the whole series in DVD, this time out I just watched on YouTube, which revealed the syndicated off-air rerun I recorded for annual viewing actually has some funny moments cut. “I want my grandmother to see Eight Is Enough on a color TV set just once before she dies.”

Rewatching HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS gave me fresh appreciation for how much Chuck Jones’ imagination adds to this classic. It’s a great story and Boris Karloff’s narration is amazing, but Jones makes it far more visually inventive than it needed to be. For example, the sequence in which the Grinch steels the ornaments off a tree by treating them like billiard balls and sending them ricocheting into a sack. “And then the true meaning of Christmas shone through — and the Grinch found the strength of three grinches plus two!”

MADAGASCAR was a Christmas special spinning off from the movie. When King Julian’s forces shoot down the red-clad sky demon who pelts Julian with Cole every December 24th, the zoo animal protagonists realize Santa is lying in front of them unconscious. Can they take over his route and save the day, despite the longstanding Cold War between penguins and reindeer (“Santa operated out of the South Pole until they tempted him to the Arctic with offers of low-wage elf labor!”)! Cute. “Everyone wept tears of joy when they beheld the wonder of the infant Julian.”

Despite some glowing reviews, I found myself bored by THE VAST OF NIGHT (2020), a 1950s SF drama in which a radio DJ and a switchboard-operator-cum-science nerd discover a mysterious signal. Calls to the radio show claim there’s something up in space, manipulating and controlling us, so off our heroes go to investigate … I really like the female nerd but otherwise this felt somehow recycled from bits of better stuff. And the trick of introducing it as an episode of a Twilight Zone-style anthology served no purpose. “In the future, everyone will be assigned a phone number at birth, for life.”

LIQUID SKY (1983) isn’t good but it’s certainly not boring. This SF drama mostly focuses on backstabbing, feuding and relationships in New York’s punk scene, complicated by aliens showing up and killing one model’s lovers mid-sex to drain their pleasure hormones. I described it to a friend as “the kind of movie you’d have enjoyed watching stoned in college.“In the beginning, aliens were spotted in areas with large amounts of heroin.”

Back to Christmas — HOLLY STAR (2020) is the tedious story of a young puppeteer who returns broke and jobless to her home town and becomes obsessed with unearthing a treasure she’s convinced she saw Santa Claus bury when she was a kid. Didn’t work for me.

JINGLE JANGLE (2020) didn’t particularly work for me, but I may have just been too frazzled to enjoy it. A black cast, headed by Forrest Whittaker, tells the musical story of the eponymous genius toymaker who ages into an embittered recluse after his assistant betrays him and steals his designs. Years later, however, his granddaughter appears, determined to put right what went wrong and reconnected her grandfather to the human race. I’ll try this again next year.

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Christmas, ghosts and aliens: movies viewed

It’s time for Christmas movies again, but of course with Alien Visitors underway, I have other films mixed in

I kicked off my Yuletide viewing with the lesbian Christmas rom-com HAPPIEST SEASON (2020) in which Mackenzie Davis asks girlfriend Kristen Stewart to come home and meet the parents (Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen). Only on the drive there, Davis reveals that oh, I didn’t actually come out to them last summer, so you’ll have to pretend to be my roommate. Once they arrive, she proceeds to blow off Stewart to hang with her old friends, leaving Stewart bonding with Davis’ ex (whom Davis did not treat well, it turns out). While the movie explains Davis is terrified of disappointing her parents by coming out to them (and a gay friend points out that’s entirely possible), she still comes off as a jerk; if the leads and the supporting cast weren’t so likable I doubt this would work. “I’m not shaming you, I just think the choice you’re making is dumb.”

PARANORMAN (2012) is an unimpressive, dreary film about a teenage boy who’s an outcast in both his family and his small town because he sees dead people. Then it turns out he’s the only one who can avert an ancient witch’s curse on the community but will anyone listen? There’s something dismal and downbeat about this that didn’t work for me, and the Outcast shticks are too cliche to engage me.. “Not believing in the afterlife is like not believing in astrology.”

KRONOS (1957) is the Giant Robot Film With a Difference, the difference being the utterly nonhuman appearance of the eponymous mechanoid (“It’s been named Kronos for the terrifying giant of Greek mythology!”) feeding off human energy sources while mind-controlling scientist Morris Ankrum to further its agenda. This starts weak — the character bits at the start aren’t as winning as they’re meant to be — but picks up steam as it progresses. “I can’t get over the feeling this is the calm before the storm — and at any moment the storm is going to break.”

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978) remakes the Don Siegel film, setting it in San Francisco and making it a metaphor for the death of the counter-culture: pod people carry on the same jobs the originals had (from their perspective they are the originals, but improved), but simply stare listlessly at the walls between tasks, rather than talking, stretching, reading … As director Philip Kaufman says, they’re the kind of employees and consumers big business would love to have, with none of that annoying individuality gumming up the works. The F/X get heavy-handed in spots but overall this is an excellent remake — though I could have done without longtime friends Brooke Adams and Donald Sutherland turning out to be secretly in love (a trope I dislike enough I’ll probably blog about it t some point).. “Why not a space flower? Why do we always expect metal ships?”

After reading in Superman vs. Hollywood about the genesis of SUPERMAN III (1983), I’m inclined to think part of the problem is that the Salkinds just took all the ideas they’d considered in production and didn’t let go of any of them: there’s Superman battling his own dark side, a killer computer (the book suggests it’s a holdover from when Brainiac was going to be the villain), Robert Vaughn doing a Luthoresque tycoon (watching so soon after the first two films, I can appreciate how much his dialog resembles Gene Hackman’s) and of course Richard Pryor as a computer super-hacker. The book says Pryor had mentioned during an interview that he’d love to be in a Superman film; given he was an accomplished, successful comedian, the Salkinds snapped him up, then Warner Brothers refused to let them trim him back any. The results is Pryor taking up way too much screen time for the caliber of his performance with the plot awkwardly filling in around him.

Another problem is that Margot Kidder and the Salkinds no longer being on speaking terms, the film sidelines Lois in favor of Annette O’Toole’s Lana Lang. I like O’Toole but as Siskel and Ebert observed, her romance with Clark makes Superman irrelevant; if Clark was merely the good-natured, gentle guy he seems to be, nothing would have changed. That’s a poor substitute for the Clark/Lois/Superman triangle. And there’s the oddity of Vaughn’s bimbo girlfriend hiding the fact she’s a genius (“How can Kant say that absolute categories can’t exist in transcendental thought?”); I like the idea, but it needs a payoff that never materializes.The film’s only saving grace is that Reeve still delivers; his evil Superman is surprisingly good. “You know what I hate? Greed.”

A cast including diva reporter Tallulah Bankhead, U-boat captain Walter Slezak, swabbie William Bendix and radio operator Hume Cronyn are stranded in a LIFEBOAT (1944) after Slezak sends a merchant marine vessel to Davy Jones (his sub was hit soon afterwards). Now the survivors have to work together despite personal issues, political conflicts and the question whether they can trust the stinking Nazi. This is a Hitchcock film I admire more than I like, but I do like it and there’s a lot to admire in the tight little one-set film (not so tight behind the screens — Hitchcock finished it late and over budget). “He’ll eat our food, drink our water and double-cross us the first chance we get.”

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Two TV seasons of two 1960s shows: Twilight Zone, Star Trek

Following its fourth season switch to hour-long episodes, TWILIGHT ZONE reverted to a half-hour for its fifth and final season. It did not lead to an uptick in quality, but like S3, it has lots of terrific episodes amidst the bad ones. Just not enough of them. The opening episode, In Praise of Pip, has Jack Klugman in his fourth and final turn on the show, as a low-life bookie who goes on a strange, surreal bender when he learns his son has died in Vietnam. In other A-list episodes, William Shatner endures A Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, Mickey Rooney gives a dynamite one-man show in Last Night of a Jockey, and Number Twelve Looks Just Like You is an absolutely chilling tale of conformity.

The failed or merely mediocre episodes, though, are too many to list. The pretentious allegory of I Am the Night — Color Me Black. The forced humor of A Kind of Stopwatch (though I was amused that mansplainers were spouting pretentious business-speak 60 years ago). Flat takes on the Evil Ventriloquist’s Dummy (Caesar and Me) and immortality (Queen of the Nile). More hamfisted humor in From Agnes — With Love.

A pleasant surprise though is that two episodes exempt from the original syndicated run are available streaming. Sounds and Silences stars John McGiver as a windbag obsessed with surrounding himself with noise at all costs; The Encounter has Nisei George Takei lock horns with a veteran who once murdered a Japanese officer after the man surrendered. The first (kept out of syndication due to a plagiarism lawsuit) is only okay (I feel more sympathy for McGiver than I’m supposed to, which messes up my reaction to the ending). The second has some dynamite, intense action and some sharp moments as Takei’s character pushes back against the idea he’s not as American as the vet. However it labels Takei’s father a traitor who guided Japanese planes to Pearl Harbor — contrary to popular belief at the time, Japanese Americans did not help with the attack — and implies Takei bears as much guilt for his father’s action as the veteran does for being a murderer. It is, as they say, problematic.

STAR TREK’s second season provoked a similar reaction in me. The first season had only one awful episode,  but S2 has bunches of them, with some gems mixed in. The shticks the show began using in S1 get a lot more play here: the alt.Earth (Bread and Circuses, Patterns of Force, Omega Glory), the godlike adversary seizing the ship (Who Mourns for Adonais?, Catspaw, Gamesters of Triskelion), and Evil Computers (The Changeling, The Apple, The Ultimate Computer).

There’s also an increased emphasis on the core trio of Kirk, Spock and McCoy with the rest of the regulars reduced to supporting parts. Chekhov (Walter Koenig) is part of that: adding a new crew member reduces the amount of air time any of them get. That said, the relationship between the Big Three gets better and richer with many great scenes.

And some of the episodes are awesome. The Theodore Sturgeon-scripted Amok Time gives us our first look at Vulcan, and the script truly makes it a complicated, alien place. Journey to Babel introduces us to Spock’s parents. Mirror, Mirror gives us the mirror universe. The Trouble With Tribbles is hysterical fun and Obsession gives Kirk a good character story (blaming himself for an alien creature that killed his crew-mates years earlier, he puts the Enterprise in danger when he encounters the thing again). The final episode of the season, Assignment Earth, was a pilot for a show involving agents of an advanced civilization working to keep 20th century Earth from destroying itself; a time traveling Kirk and Spock get involved.

But then there’s The Omega Glory, in which Kirk, Spock and McCoy are stranded on a post-apocalyptic alt.Earth and help everyone rediscover the wisdom of America’s Founding Fathers. It’s painfully, laughably awful; I wouldn’t have rewatched it if I hadn’t been determined to work through the whole series.

NBC decreed the series wasn’t pulling its weight and axed it, only to have fan support raise Star Trek from the dead for one final season. Where, unfortunately, the ratio of good to bad got even more unbalanced. I imagine I’ll be back to review S3 some time next year.

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