Category Archives: TV

An avenger, a hunter and a comedian: Movies and TV

I stumbled onto the movie ALLEY CAT (1984) while hunting unsuccessfully for Black Cat, a Chinese version of La Femme Nikita. Karin Mani plays a black belt who slaps around a couple of giggling psychos she catches swiping her tires. Their PO’d boss sends them to teach her a lesson, resulting in her grandma dead and her grandfather in hospital; when the legal system proves useless (when Mani stops the psychos raping a woman, a cop busts her as the aggressor), Mani takes justice into her own hands. This is low budget but works pretty well, except the film throws in a women’s prison subplot midway through for extra exploitation value (women showering naked! Lesbian sexual assault!) and it’s a waste of film. A minor point is that Amazon for some reason lists this as a 1969 film — it’s getting way harder than it used to be to figure out film dates, because there are so many sources and they often disagree. “It can’t be blackmail as I have asked for neither money nor a favor.”

Richard Connell’s classic short story The Most Dangerous Game is a classic in which a shipwrecked big-game hunter finds his Russian host, Count Zaroff, has taken to hunting humans to compensate for the ease with which he kills everything else. Zaroff’s the best of the best, but this time he has an adversary who might be his equal.

It’s not easy to successfully expand a short story to feature-film length, but 1932’s THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME pulls it off handily. Produced by Merian C. Cooper at the same time he was making King Kong, this has Joel McCrae as the hunter, Leslie Banks as Zaroff, and Fay Wray as an earlier castaway Zaroff has different plans for (“First the kill — then love!”)! Sharing some of King Kong‘s sets and adding some of its own (Zaroff’s isolated castle is fabulous), this is a good-looking, well-made production, well worth seeing. “If you choose to act as a leopard, I shall hunt you as a leopard.”

The second season of THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL continues in the vein of S1: Midge and Susie continue trying to build Midge’s career, despite having earned the hostility of an influential comic and Midge’s family freaking out when they learn what she’s been doing with her evenings. The season doesn’t entirely work; Abe’s (Tony Shalhoub) career woes get tedious and the family’s trip to Paris, while funny, feels like one an old TV special (season openers would often take the show to Paris or Rome or somewhere to grab extra eyeballs). A prolonged visit to the Catskills’ “borscht belt” (Jewish-friendly resorts in the days when many hotels were No Jews — it’s the same setting as Dirty Dancing, on the other hand, worked quite well. There are also subplots involving Midge’s new boyfriend and Joel trying to figure out his post-divorce life. However I do hope the final scenes of the season ender do not lead in the direction I think they might (but I’m not spoiling them).  “I feel like Sisyphus, but without the loincloth and the flowing hair.”


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Superheroes and a rain of food: TV and movies

Like Manifest, the second season of BLACK LIGHTNING only ran sixteen episodes, but they were better episodes. In the aftermath of S1, Jeff gets demoted to a teacher at Freeland High while a possibly bigoted white takes over the principal’s office; Tobias Whale launches a scheme involving the Green Light metas introduced last season; and Jennifer and Anissa begin grappling with their roles as superheroes.

The family and racial dynamics are the strongest part of the series (besides the acting, which is consistently solid). Rather than treat meta-hating as a thing itself, it’s interwoven with race issues: the Green Light kids are black, so as one preacher puts it, their powers are just another excuse to gun down blacks. Jeff and Lynn’s efforts to deal with Jennifer’s powers run headlong into her teenage rebellion. While Tobias remains the running foe throughout the season, they break things up with shorter arcs, such as Jennifer and Painkiller going on the run, or Jeff and Anissa battling the white supremacist meta Looker (named for a former teammate of Jeff’s in The Outsiders — they use a lot of Outsider elements this season, probably because there’s a lot more to work with than the short run of Black Lightning).

The ending, while satisfying felt a little rushed. We wrap up way too many things too fast (the supposedly terrifying Masters of Disasters go down too quickly), clearing the board for what’s coming next season. Jeff’s clash with the new principal isn’t resolved well and Anissa’s pursuit of her girlfriend Grace seems to build to something but doesn’t. Of course there’s S3, but still. Overall, though, an excellent season. “I’ll say one thing for those child-snatching bastards, they got great taste in watches.”

As I’m giving a presentation on the 1960s Batman TV show (I’ll talk about that next week), I rewatched the film sibling BATMAN (1966), in which Adam West’s Caped Crusader takes on the United Underworld of Joker, Riddler, Penguin and Catwoman (Cesar Romero, Frank Gorshin, Burgess Meredith and Lee Meriwether, stepping because series Catwoman Julie Newmar couldn’t fit it into her schedule). The film had been planned as a lead in to the series but as The Batman Filmography says, that changed when ABC decided to launch the series as a mid-season January ’66 replacement rather than wait until fall (I think they may have rewritten the film because of that — the opening clearly assumes we’ll know who Batman is). While the camp approach hasn’t worked for me since I was sixteen, the villain casting is excellent (Meriwether makes a tougher Catwoman than I remembered) and despite the camp the show does capture some of the Silver Age comic-book feel. And as the Filmography noted, the Bruce/Selina relationship gets a lot closer to horizontal here than it could in the show. At times, though, the writing falls short: the Dynamic Duo deduce which villains they’re facing, then make the same deduction in a later scene, and they defeat two villainous attacks with the same trick (it felt canned the second time). And even by camp standards, the ending’s always struck me as dumb. Still, this rewatched better than I expected. “I’ve rarely met a girl with such a potent argument in favor of — international relations.”

Like Into the Spider-Verse, the Lonely Nerd opening of CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS (2009) felt cliched to me. Happily the film picked up as it went along, as the nerd grows into a well-meaning mad scientist whose new invention turning rain into food may save his dying little fishery town … until overuse threatens to drown the world in a food-pocalypse of giant edibles. Visually cool and some good voice casting including Anna Faris as a closeted nerd, Mr. T as a cop and Bruce Campbell as the town’s weaselly mayor. “There’s a Venus de Milo that has your face, next to a Michelangelo’s David that also has your face!”

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Doctor Who’s Horror Era: Fourth Doctor, Second Season

One of the reasons so many Doctor Who fans remember the Fourth Doctor’s era fondly is seasons like this one. S13 was quite unlike anything I’d seen before, borrowing plot elements from classic SF and even more from horror, a trend that runs through Image of the Fendahl a couple of seasons later. It’s surprisingly grim at times: A character in Seeds of Doom dies in a giant composting machine (not as funny as it sounds). In Pyramids of Mars the Doctor shows Sarah what the present will look like if they give up fighting the alien Sutekh and just go home: a dead, lifeless Earth of ash and dust (one of the series’ best scenes).

The series kicks off with Terror of the Zygons, a well-exected Invasion of the Bodysnatchers thriller. The alien Zygons are scheming in the vicinity of Loch Ness; said scheme involves replacing humans with Zygon infiltrators. That’s a stock set-up (it could as easily have been The Faceless Ones from the Hartnell era) but it’s effectively executed, and the Zygons are bizarre-looking enough to be memorable.

Planet of Evil surprised me because I’d confused it with Leela’s debut (coming up next season), Face of Evil. The Doctor and Sarah (and having them off on their own away from UNIT and Harry shows what a good team they were) arrive on Zeta Minor, the planet at the far edge of the universe (the jungle sets are surprisingly effective). Unfortunately it’s actually on the border of this universe and an anti-matter one; a mining expedition tampering with anti-matter rocks is unleashing very unpleasant consequences and a lot of deaths. Where Zygons was an alien invasion story, this one is pure SF horror, much of it taking place in small spaces.

Pyramids of Mars is a classic. Returning from Zeta Minor, the TARDIS lands at UNIT HQ back when it was a mansion. Scarman, the Egyptologist who owns it is now under the spell of Sutekh, the alien Osirian who provided the Egyptians with the model for Set. Scarman is working to free his master (an army of robot mummies helps), at which point Sutekh will destroy Earth and as much of the rest of the universe as he can find ( “Where I tread, I leave nothing but dust and darkness — I find that good.”). As noted above, we get to see what happens if the Doctor doesn’t win, and it looks very much as if he won’t.

The Android Invasion is another alien infiltrator story, though that doesn’t become obvious immediately. The Doctor and Sarah return to Earth but the village they arrive seems a little off, and a little sinister. It turns out to be a mock-up rehearsing alien androids to pass as human, with the real invasion to follow.  This one works better than it could have, but it has some big flaws (why does the deadly virus intended to wipe out humanity only kill one person?).

Back to horror with The Brain of Morbius; the Doctor and Sarah land on a creepy planet, seek shelter from a storm in an isolated mansion and discover Solon (Philip Madoc), a mad scientist cast out from the scientific community for his transplant experiments. What they’ve also found, though they don’t know it yet, is the Time Lord Morbius, now reduced to a brain in a life-support tank as the Frankensteinian Solon prepares him a body from the planet’s occasional visitors. It’s effective and spooky but suffers badly from disability cliches, and peters out at the end (it’s a classic horror finish, but it didn’t quite work for me).

We wrap up with Seeds of Doom, in which scientists discover the eponymous pods of the alien Krynoid, a sentient plant that devours animal life. And wouldn’t you know it, the pods fall into the hands of Chase, a millionaire botanist who’s way more interested in studying the ET plant than worrying about whether it will end all animal life on Earth. Tony Beckley as Chase is a delight, managing to make even his rants about bonsai (the sadistic practice of mutilating innocent plants for human pleasure!) sound natural; when he sides with the Krynoid against humanity, it’s not at all surprising. The rest of the guest cast works just as well. The only drawback is that again, the ending is flat, with UNIT defeating the Krynoid through brute force rather than any sort of cleverness (a Doctor Who story needs a better end than blowing shit up real good).

It was a real pleasure to watch this season again. #SFWApro, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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Satan, the British Empire, a strange plane flight and Galileo: movies, TV and a play

The original BEDAZZLED (1967) stars Dudley Moore as a short-order cook desperately in love with waitress Eleanor Bron to the point he sells his soul to Satan (Peter Cook, Moore’s colleague in Beyond the Fringe) in return for seven wishes he can use to make her his. Moore’s Stanley makes a much better schlub than Brendan Fraser in the remake, and Peter Cook’s Satan is just awesome — no Miltonian grandeur here, as he himself admits his role in God’s design forces him to engage in petty, spiteful stunts, and he’s blithely willing to stab Stanley in the back. I also like that Bron is quite average-looking, which it makes it feel more like love than just looks. Then again, Stanley’s comfortable with having his dream girl mindwiped and personality changed with the multiple wishes, which is creepier than I found it first run; there’s also an amazingly gratuitous rape joke mid movie. I still like the film a lot, but YMMV. “What rotten sins I’ve got working for me — I suppose it’s the wages.”

Reading David Cannadine’s Ornamentalism prompted me to watch ISLAND IN THE SUN (1957) in which the island colony’s British administrators and white planter ruling class struggle to adapt to a black majority that wants a seat at the table (it’s interesting that even with the Empire in decline, the issue is representation in the island parliament rather than independence). The politics, however, takes a back seat to the colorful Caribbean settings and the soap opera plots, most of which involve race mingling: Can salesclerk Dorothy Dandridge and a white author forge a lasting love? Will black activist Harry Belafonte succumb to wealthy Joan Fontaine? Can planter’s kids Joan Collins and James Mason deal with learning they’re Tragic Mulattoes? I have an odd fondness for this kind of 1950s soaper, but I wouldn’t say it was any good — and I could have done without Mason’s casual spousal rape (which is promptly forgotten about as it’s no big deal). Michael Rennie plays a womanizing veteran. “Have you ever heard of a book called Crime and Punishment?”

I didn’t realize MANIFEST wrapped up its season with sixteen episodes or I’d have reviewed it sooner. The premise is that Flight 828 disappeared five years ago, then miraculously showed up, with no awareness of the time gap. What happened? What are the mysterious “callings” guiding them to help others? Can they pick up their lives when everyone they knew has moved on? And what is the government’s interest in 828?

This works best dealing with the personal drama (the cast is good) and the mystery, less well on the government conspiracy and not at all on the crazy “Xers” who want to kill them all as muties or witches or something. While the payoff may not be worth it, I do hope the show returns. “Right, why wouldn’t I look for them using a crayon drawing?”

Playmakers Theatre did a spectacular job staging Bertold Brecht’s LIFE OF GALILEO and the cast was certainly solid. Unfortunately the play has nothing to say about freedom of thought or Religion vs. Reason that I haven’t heard a hundred times before, and I know how Galileo’s struggle with the church turns out so this really did nothing for us. “To hell with the pearl — I want a healthy oyster!”

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Standout SF from the 1950s: movies and TV

FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) is a frustrating film. It is definitely one of the SF classics, but that makes the flaws more frustrating. Some are due to execution (bad comic relief, and the acting is mostly average), some due to MGM. According to Keep Watching the Skies, MGM was so nervous about releasing an SF film as something other than a B-movie that it arranged a sneak preview. Fans were so blown away, MGM didn’t see any reason to wait for the edits to finish.

The story is set several centuries ahead, a Star Trek-like future in which Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen) leads a spaceship crew heading out to find what happened to the colony on Altair IV since it stopped communicating with Earth. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) tells them he and his daughter Alta (Anne Francis) are the sole survivors of a mysterious force that wiped out the other colonists just as they were about to return home (over his objections). Morbius wants to be left alone but Alta is intrigued by the first strangers she’s seen since childhood (““The lieutenant and I were just trying to get a little healthy stimulation from hugging and kissing.”), particularly Adams. “Robbie” the Robot is a little something Morbius has put together, despite not being a robotics expert. As she and Adams get closer, the invisible force awakens, and it’s angry …

The film was something radical for its day, a movie that took SF as seriously as the best print stories did (despite the gratuitous presence of comic-relief Earl Holliman as the ship’s cook). As it didn’t make much money, it didn’t have much influence on subsequent films, but the film can’t be blamed for that. We have the casual use of tech as just a part of the characters’ world and the mind-blowing machinery of the Krell, the planet’s former inhabitants. Robbie was the most memorable robot of the era’s films, possibly the most memorable until Star Wars.

But the acting is pretty routine, though Anne Francis is charming in her role; Pidgeon, as Morbius, seems to be coasting on his sonorous voice rather than putting anything into the role (the amount of exposition he has to give doesn’t help). And I wish they’d kept some of the deleted scenes, such as one where the ship’s scientist explains how Alta is able to pacify the wildlife. It’s also slow in the first hour, which wouldn’t have bothered me as much when it came out, I suspect; they’re showing off the technology and the science and back then it would have been like nothing filmgoers had seen before.

Despite the flaws, it’s well worth watching. The DVD I got includes deleted scenes, Pidgeon promoting the show on ABC’s MGM Parade show, and Robbie appearing in an episode of TV’s The Thin Man (an uninspired spinoff of the classic films).

Another great bit of 1950s SF is the TV series QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (the source of the same-name film). As in the film, Quatermass is struggling against the government militarizing his rocket research when a downed spaceship turns up buried below a London street. Quatermass discovers it’s a Martian ship and that humanity itself has been genengineered by the aliens. And they’re not done with us yet … Despite adding more than an hour to the film’s running time, this isn’t at all draggy or slow, and Andre Morrell makes a great Professor Quatermass, as steely as Andrew Keir in the movie but hiding it more in an affable velvet glove. This explains some things that the movie had to just touch on, such as the Martians’ agenda on Earth and what causes the final outburst of violence; I still love the movie, but I like this version a lot too. “A funny word, Martian — we wore it out before anyone turned up to claim it.”
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Runaways S2: Good, but not great (spoilers included)

The second streaming season of Hulu’s RUNAWAYS was a mixed bag; mostly very good, but after the death of Jonah, it ran out of steam until picking up at the end.

The first season established the premise: the six LA adults running the Pride charitable foundation are actually murdering runaway teens to sustain the life force of Jonah, their mysterious ET leader (comatose at the time). When the kids find this out and try to do something about it, the parents frame them as the killers so that the Pride’s corrupt cops can collect them and keep them silent. The kids become runaways themselves accompanied by Gert’s genetically engineered dinosaur pet, Old Lace (Jo Chen captures them on a comics cover).

In the comics the Pride represented all the MU’s strands of supervillain: mutant, time-traveler, mad scientist, ET, sorcerer and human crook. The TV series simplifies everyone down to either human villain or super-scientist, which worked fine (though I do love the Arrowverse for embracing the full range of comics’ insanity), but it does foreshadow why I had a problem with the season. In the comics the Pride are servants of the Gibborim, dark gods plotting to wipe the Earth clean of life. Originally six of the Pride were to be chosen as the immortal founders of a new race of humanity to serve the Gibborim; after they had kids, they decided the children would get the immortality. “Every teenager thinks their parents are evil — but these kids are right,” as the tagline went.

A subplot where the kids take in another teen, Topher, is a good example of the comics’ advantage. There it turns out he’s a centuries old vampire, preying on the kids’ willingness to believe the worst of his supposed parents. The Topher arc in S2 reveals he’s a troubled kid mutated by the same power source as Molly, the youngest Runaway. It’s effective enough, but nowhere near as good.

In S2 we learn the Gibborim are Jonah’s family (and himself), trapped in a buried spaceship. Getting it out will destroy much of California, but now the kids and the Pride are on the same side, uniting to stop him. After that, unfortunately, we have three or four boring episodes where the kids’ taken on the Pride’s crooked cops; we’re assured they’re tough, dangerous dirty cops, but it’s still dull (chopping the episodes might have been better). There’s also a subplot about Leslie’s father taking control of the Church of the Gibborim that doesn’t really pay off but does fill time. Alex getting a girlfriend was a better subplot but ultimately it didn’t go anywhere either.

At the finish, though, things pick up. Three of the Pride have been possessed by the Gibborim (one of the kids, too, but we don’t know which), who lead the other parents in an attack on the kids (playing considerably harder than the human parents wanted). Xavin, an ET shapeshifter who believes Carolina of the Runaways is their soulmate, has joined forces with the kids. Multiple characters are in various perils. It’s a good-enough cliffhanger to make me look forward to S3.

And the cast, as always, was excellent, despite the stories’ occasional flaws.

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Senseless death, an angel and a yellow submarine: a play, movies and TV

This month’s production from Playmakers Repertory Company was the premiere of JUMP, a drama in which two sisters and their father gather to dispose of mom’s things after her death from cancer, and knit together their frayed relationship. Only one of the sisters keeps going up to the nearby bridge and thinking what it would feel like to jump … This didn’t quite work for me, mostly because the big twist was quite obvious (though I didn’t get the details exactly right). Well executed, though, and a good looking set. “This is a strange place to vape.

JINDABYNE (2006) is an Aussie film based on one of the Raymnond Carver short stories adapted into Short Cuts, wherein Gabriel Byrne goes on a fishing trip with his buddies, only to discover an Aboriginal woman floating dead in the water. They do not, however, think that’s a reason to cut short the trip, which completely freaks out Byrne’s wife Laura Linney when she learns about it. This was better than Short Cuts but multiple distractions during the morning worked against me really getting into it (one break from the screen turned into several short breaks). It would double-bill well with River’s Edge in which a group of callous teens similarly discover a corpse. “So who appointed you the chief of political correctness?”

I was never a fan of the 1980s series HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN, in which Michael Landon played Jonathan, an angel earning his wings alongside mortal sidekick Mark (Victor French). Its particular style of heartwarming wasn’t to my taste, though I can see why some people found it satisfying comfort food; comforting enough it ran five seasons, second only to Touched by an Angel as far as angelic TV series go. I watched the sixth season episode Reunion though because a local friend, Hope Alexander Willis, has a supporting role as the wife of a PR guy. I’m not sure I’d have recognized Hope’s face, but I definitely tell it’s the same voice. The story itself involves Jonathan working to bring off Mark’s high school reunion, thereby helping leading man Lloyd Bochner accept he’s aged into character acting and recapture a lost love. However because that’s one of several happy endings at the reunion, I found this less focused than the few episodes I’ve watched before. “It just shows how things we think are unimportant at the time can matter the world to someone.”

THE YELLOW SUBMARINE (1968) was one of LeAnn’s Christmas gifts to me, wherein the malevolent Blue Meanies invade the utopian musical undersea realm of Pepperland with an army of apple bonkers, snapping-turtle Turks, killer clowns and the deadly flying glove. One man escapes in the eponymous vessel that brought the founders to Pepperland. Flying it to Liverpool, he finds a brooding Ringo (“Next to me, Eleanor Rigby lived a gay, mad life.”) and enlists the Beatles to liberate Pepperland. But can they survive their travels through the Sea of Time, the Sea of Holes and the foothills of the Headlands?

This film reminds me a lot of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away in that the designers just don’t seem to quit, constantly throwing in little visual details and touches to scenes that are already stunning. Delightful to look at, whimsical in story, it’s a thorough charmer. I’ve always been surprised the Beatles’ didn’t speak their parts (they sing, of course), as bringing them together in the studio proved impossible (on the commentary track, one of the production team says they stumbled across the voice for George one night in a bar). Definitely worth seeing, if you haven’t already. “Would you believe me if I told you I was being followed by a yellow submarine?”

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Enter: the Legion of Scrooges!

Continuing my immersion in Christmas movies and TV shows, with a particular emphasis on Dickens:

SHOWER OF STARS was a 1950s TV anthology show, and Amazon Prime streams their 1954 adaptation of A Christmas Carol with Fredric March as Scrooge. While March at his best is a terrific actor, he comes off more like a slightly grumpy relative than Dickens’ bitter miser; a bigger problem is that there’s a lot of time devoted to singing and while the voices are good, the songs are forgettable. It also annoys me that like Scrooged, the horror of Christmas Future is simply “you’re going to be dead!” Yeah, who isn’t?  “Days shall come and days shall go/but this is the day of mistletoe!”

THE GIFTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST is a commercial my friend Ross taped for me, in which the title spirit confronts a bad gift-giver with reminders of every rotten gift he ever gave (“Motor oil on a rope — for your mother!”). The solution? Shop at Meijer (a department store, I assume).

A CHRISTMAS CAROL (2015) got my attention because it was Starring Colin Baker, but it turns out that means he introduces and occasionally narrates this bland direct-to-video version (about the level of a so-so community theater production) as Charles Dickens, rather than playing Scrooge. Nothing about it stands out. “This story could happen anywhere — even here!”

GEORGE BURNS COMEDY WEEK was an anthology show with Burns providing the introduction (“Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1943 — I was 17.”) to Christmas Carol II: The Sequel, in which James Whitmore as Scrooge is so compulsively generous (“That’s the largest tip we’ve ever gotten — and you don’t even eat here!”) the Cratchitts (Roddy McDowell and Samantha Eggar) are slowly going corrupt because it’s so easy to suck money out of Ebenezer. Can the three spirits provide a course correction? A good one to revisit, with Ed Begley Jr. as Tiny Tim. “You will no longer refer to me as Tiny Tim — I wish to be known as Tiny Timothy!”

The classic WKRP IN CINCINNATI episode Bah, Humbug! has the station’s manager Carlson skimping on Christmas bonuses so he can impress the owner with his cost-cutting; after eating one possibly mind-altering brownie he finds himself trapped “in one of those Christmas Carol things” as he looks back at the early years, his current disgruntled staff and the bleak fate awaiting them all …Only it’s all done with real humor and warmth that makes it a pleasure to rewatch (the sitcom remains a classic). “Kids, grandmothers, that’s all very nice — but I’m in it for the bread.”

Moving away from Dickens, BEYOND TOMORROW (1940) has lonely oldsters C. Aubrey Smith, Harry Carey and Charles Winninger befriend two young people on Christmas (hence the more marketable title Beyond Christmas); the kids fall in love but when girl loses boy, will the now deceased seniors’ ghosts be able to turn things around? Mostly shows sappy schmaltz about the season predates Hallmark Channel’s holiday rom-coms, and I could have done without Smith’s embrace of the white man’s burden (“What was Australia before England redeemed it from the Aborigines?”). “And now do you believe in the immortal spirit of man?”

THE CHRISTMAS CALENDAR (2017) has a small-town baker fighting a losing battle against the Big Box Grocery’s new bakery when an advent calendar dropped off by a secret admirer makes her store a media sensation. Forgettable.

HOOVES OF FIRE is a claymation special in which Rudolph’s son Robbie arrives at the North Pole to follow in Dad’s footsteps, only to find a vindictive Blitzen (why should Rudolph be famous for one ride when Blitzen’s been leading the sleigh for years?) out to destroy his career. The kind of thing it’s fun to catch every few years, but not a perennial. “I looked him up in the phone book under ‘Wise Old Mentors Who Can Save The Day.”

CLAYMATION CHRISTMAS CAROL is the delightfully inventive special in which two dinosaurs introduce animated versions of “Carol of the Bells,” “Joy to the World,” “We Three Kings” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” while trying to figure out what “wassail” is. I’d have given this a pass this year, but it was right after WKRP on my off-air tape so I couldn’t resist. “There are no Christmas songs about snacks!”

As TYG watched COYOTE UGLY (2000) I wound up following along and enjoying it more than I expected. Piper Perabo plays an aspiring singer who while waiting for her big break winds up paying the bills by working at Maria Bello’s eponymous bar; too bad strutting her stuff on top of the bar freaks father John Goodman out, not to mention interfering with her efforts to find either an audition or true love. Nothing deathless, but watchable. “Stage fright DNA? That’s right, I saw that on E/R last week.”

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Rogue Christmas spirits, forgettable Christmas films and more!

KARROLL’S CHRISTMAS (2004) is a fun Christmas Carol riff; Alex Karroll is a disgruntled greeting-card writer who hates Christmas ever since his ex-girlfriend shot down his proposal (in public, no less), only half aware of how badly he’s slipping into bitter depression despite having a new and better girlfriend. When Bob Marley’s ghost shows up (it seems Jacob spent some time in Jamaica as a young man; Bob’s a descendant), it turns out they’ve mistaken Karroll for his even meaner neighbor, Wallace Shawn, so he finds himself dragged into Shawn’s past life instead of his own. Of course the spirit of goodwill wins out, but not before some fun; in its own way as subversive of the conventions as Scrooged. “Your use of the word ‘lunatic’ is very offensive to me and to, well, lunatics.”

Having watched CHASING CHRISTMAS (2004) for Now and Then We Time Travel, I knew it would make a good double bill for the first film; Jack (Tom Arnold) is the Christmas hater this time, due to catching his wife cheating on him during their daughter’s Christmas pageant; unfortunately after Christmas Past (Leslie Jordan) drags Jack back into his childhood, Past snaps, feeling centuries of guilt-tripping people has been completely futile, and strands Arnold in 1965. And if Jack can’t get back to the present before Christmas Day, he’ won’t exist any longer … A fun one, as I thought the first time I watched it.  “I am not some mean old man — I hate Christmas for a reason and no amount of memory is ever going to change that.”

I also caught EVE’S CHRISTMAS (2004) for the book, but I had no memory of that when I decided to stream it. Nor did the first thirty minutes jog my memory as unlucky-in-love Eve gets transported back to right before the wedding to her hometown sweetheart that never happened when she left for a Big Apple job (leaving your home town and not marrying your childhood sweetheart are terrible, terrible, terrible mistake in rom-coms like this). Once I realized I’d seen it, I stopped (trust me, I wasn’t missing anything).

I can’t say THE SANTA CHRONICLES (2018) did any better for me. This made-for-Netflix programmer has two kids attempt to catch Santa result in Mr. Claus losing the hat that gives him his magic powers. Can kids and Santa recover the hat in time to save Christmas? Despite Kurt Russell as a somewhat grump Father Christmas (constantly annoyed that no matter how much he works out, people expect him to be plus-size), this wasn’t worth finishing either.

While I’d planned to rewatch 12 Dates of Christmas it appears I gave that one away with many of the other time-travel DVDs. So instead I went with the old reliable WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954) in which entertainers Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby put on a show to save their former CO’s Vermont Inn, and possibly snag dancers Vera Allen and Rosemary Clooney for themselves. As familiar as an old shoe by now, but there’s no denying the charm of the performances (particularly Kaye and Vera Allen in “Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing”) and the gorgeous Technicolor look. I also found myself thinking of ways it could have gone horribly wrong, like if they’d done the minstrel-show number in actual blackface. “‘Wow’ is somewhere between ‘ouch’ and ‘boing!’”

Another perennial is TWILIGHT ZONE: The Night of the Meek with Art Carney as a burned-out, drunken department-store Santa who gets to play the role for real when he finds a bag that allows him to give everyone the present of their dreams (hmm, where do you suppose it came from? Why, that’s right!). Rewatching, I was struck by the episode’s generosity of spirit; the officious department store-owner is precisely the kind of character who usually gets coal in his stocking in some fashion, but here even he gets a merry Christmas. “Just once, I’d like to see the meek inherit the Earth.”

MR. MAGOO’S CHRISTMAS CAROL (1962) stars the short-sighted cartoon character voiced by Jim Backus as a Broadway star, here performing in an musical adaptation of Dickens. This squeezes in a substantial amount of plot for under an hour, though dropping some details such as Scrooge’s family. Well done, with good songs, though I’m curious what millennials would make of the stylized, simplified style of animation UPA uses here (it was considered quite groundbreaking back in the day). “A hand for each hand was the way it was planned/Why won’t my fingers reach?/A million grains of sand in the world/Why such a lonely beach?”

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Let us sample some Christmas treacle

As anyone who’s been reading this blog for more than a year knows, I love immersing myself in Christmas movies. I spent about a decade of Christmas mornings alone before moving up here (family scattered all over the map) so I compensated by watching a mix of old classics and new TV movies until I was stuffed with Christmas cheer. Normally I’d have started right after Thanksgiving but with the weeklong stretch before December, it didn’t feel quite right.

As a result I caught FAME (1980), in which aspiring musicians, actors and dancers struggle to graduate from a performing arts school while also coping with family, teen angst, career struggles, insecurity and love.While I enjoyed the TV-series spinoff, I’d never seen the movie before; pleasant enough, and I absolutely loved one twist when a rejected dancer appears to be contemplating suicide. “Who cares if it wasn’t ready? They liked it!”

Next comes some new-to-me Christmas stuff, but even by my low standards it was disappointing. A BAD MOM’S CHRISTMAS (2017), for instance, plays like a TV spinoff special jacked up to a feature film. Original Bad Moms Kathryn Hahn, Kristen Bell and Mila Kunis struggle to stay afloat under the demands of being a Mom At Christmas, an effort made worse by their various mothers (wild child Susan Sarandon, overbearing diva Christine Baranski and insufferably perky Cheryl Hines) all showing up for a long stay. Despite some amusing moments (Hahn as the raunchiest mom has a lot of those), the themes about Christmas have been done before, and better.  “You should never have to watch your mom lick your boyfriend’s nipples!”

SO THIS IS CHRISTMAS (2013) is sufficiently Christian that I was surprised the Wise Handyman who helps everyone out didn’t turn out to be Jesus.  Eric Roberts and Vivica A. Fox are the parents watching their kids cope with drugs, sex and petty theft before discovering Jesus and Christmas Pageants Are the Answer. Forgettable. “You’re going to write the script. We need seventeen speaking parts.”

I fear my iPad is finally expiring, which may be why CHRISTMAS CRUSH (2012) kept crashing when I streamed it. Fortunately a movie abouta twenty-something returning home for her high school reunion where she’s surrounded by her far more successful old friends, gets a shot at reuniting with her high school crush and fails to notice her male bestie still has eyes only for her probably isn’t going to surprise me any. Not that I require rom-coms surprise me (as I’ve said before, love is a cliché) but it didn’t interest me much either.

I think I may stick with the tried and true for the rest of the month. Because even fluff like 12 Dates of Christmas is better than that troika of treacle above.

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Filed under Movies, TV