Category Archives: TV

The murderous alien clowns were the pick of the week

KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE (1988) is a one-joke film but the joke works. A necking couple spots a shooting star landing nearby (while I haven’t kept track, this and having something weird briefly appear on radar are staple opening setups). Next thing you know, ET clowns are cocooning the locals with candy-cotton guns, tracking them with balloon-animal bloodhounds, feeding people to shadow puppets, or jumping out of a clown car that you wouldn’t think they could all fit inside. Can the town survive? I got particular pleasure out of one conversation where the characters try to make sense of this (“Maybe they were ancient astronauts and that’s why we have the idea of clowns in our culture.”). Doesn’t give me any deep inside for Alien Visitors but still enjoyable low-budget fun.“I don’t believe in UFOs, but if they exist, we’re inside one.”

K-PAX (2002) aims higher and falls very far short. Kevin Spacey is Prot, the self-proclaimed ET visitor locked up in an asylum where Jeff Bridges tries to restore him to sanity. But Bridges can’t help noticing his patient is rehabilitating the other patients much better than conventional therapy — and while it’s impossible, you don’t suppose he could really be telling the truth, do you? This mix of psychological drama and SF doesn’t work as either, and feels cobbled together from bits of better movies (Fisher King and Equus come to mind). Spacey, as usual, delivers his lines with a Smartest Guy In The Room air, and it doesn’t work here (if he were more frustrated or more — well, anything — there’d be a more interesting conflict). “I have arrived, so my travels are over for the time being.”

COLOSSAL (2016) has an interesting concept (though not one that qualifies for Alien Visitors) but unsatisfying execution. After drunken party girl Anne Hathaway’s boyfriend breaks up with her, she returns to her home town and meets up with her old boyfriend. When a monster goes rampaging through Seoul, Hathaway realizes it’s acting out her inner frustrations; worse, her ex discovers how to do the same trick and threatens to go on a rampage if Hathaway crosses him (“I will crush an entire suburb!”). There’s definitely a good movie buried in this, but it doesn’t come to the surface. It’s also disturbing that the movie seems to care less about the hundreds of dead Koreans than about Hathaway’s personal growth arc. “Who gets a tattoo that says ‘I’m sorry, this won’t happen again.’”

Guillermo del Toro’s THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017) is another one that doesn’t fit the book, though it’s a much superior film. A mute cleaning woman at an early 1960s government lab discovers they’ve captured the Gill Man from Creature from the Black Lagoon and are subjecting him to cruel experiments, plus outright cruelty. Slowly she bonds with the creature, then sets out to help him escape. Despite some jarring brutality in spots, this is very good, particularly in its evocation of 1962. “That’s the password — ‘And the eagle takes the prey.’”

The 2002 SyFy miniseries TAKEN evokes quite a few eras, starting in WW II when a fighter squadron is harassed by foo lights (though they don’t use the term), then following various families across the decades as they’re abducted by ETs and spied on by the government (though one of the families is part of the goverment UFO Watch program). I was initially unimpressed by this but found it picked up near the end; in fairness, that may reflect I wasn’t a little more relaxed for the ending episodes.

The secret behind it all turns out to be that aliens are experimenting in hopes of understanding emotions (“You have so much that we’ve lost.”). The culmination of their work is the human/ET hybrid Allie (Dakota Fanning) who has powers far beyond the aliens. This made me realize how often this happens, for example with super-powered Elizabeth in V. So stuff was learned, even if it was a slog to get there. “Right son — there were no monsters in my generation.”

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Some TV, a couple of movies and a play

As I kid I loved Gerry Anderson’s UFO (1970-3), a British series about SHADO, the Supreme Headquarters Alien Defense Organization, fighting to stop aliens from rebuilding their dying race with transplanted human parts (the episode speculates they’re also planning an invasion). Cool tech, UFOs and ETs and some wild-looking futuristic outfits and hairstyles, not to mention sophisticated future tech (the series was set in 1980).

Rewatching a few episodes for Alien Visitors, it’s obvious the critics I resented for talking smack about the show were spot on. Ed Bishop as SHADO’s top dog is a wooden actor and the other cast members aren’t much better (we do get capable guest actors, such as Jean Marsh). Then there’s the sexism, like the butt and boob shots in the opening credits — it’s as if Anderson heard all the criticism of sexism in Star Trek and declared, “Gene Roddenberry, hold my beer!” Having just watched Filmed in Supermarionation last year, I notice the SHADO vehicles look a lot like they were adapted from props for Thunderbirds. So this was a disillusioning rewatching. “Electronic tissue identification is as infalliable as a voice print.”

I had my doubts removing Kate Kane from BATWOMAN would work for me, and sure enough, it didn’t. The season opener has Kate apparently killed (word is the character will be recast eventually), homeless Ryan Wilder (Javicia Leslie) finding the suit and stepping into the Batwoman role, at first reluctantly, then with more confidence.

While I could live without Ruby Rose as the lead (though she had a hard edge I miss), the heart of the show was Kate Kane’s relationships with her father, her good and evil sisters, Luke Fox and Sophie. Without that core, the show just feels hollow. It doesn’t help that new villain Safiyah (Shivaani Ghai) feels like the third and least interesting of Ra’s al Ghul’s daughters. So regrettably, I’m done with this one. “It appears we are under attack — from Bats!”

THE MYSTERIANS (1957) are alien invaders who show up on Japanese soil asking for a home and oh yes, the use of some of our human women; this doesn’t go over well, but with the aliens’ tech advantage, is there anything we can do about it? A spectacular, colorful, entertaining adventure though it’s jarring now that the alien outfits look so much like Power Rangers. “You ask will humans or Mysterians rule the world? Neither — science will rule.”

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: Ghost Protocol (2011) ups the stakes considerably from III as Ethan Hunt’s (Tom Cruise) team gets tricked into serving as a red herring while the bad guy steals Russia’s nuclear launch codes. Now he’s just a few steps away from triggering the apocalypse (confident that a better world will arise in the aftermath), the IMF has been shut down — can Hunt stop him, even with the help of new team members Jeremy Renner and Paula Patten (“Agent Carter” which wouldn’t have triggered other associations back then). This does explain what happened to Hunt’s marriage (staying on made her a target, so he chose Country over Marriage — bad Ethan!) but not how the villain set up the IMF at the start (if the original “your mission” taped message was a fake, that makes the third time Hunt’s been manipulated by someone in the organization — seriously, how bad is their security?). The plot is just something to bridge the action scenes, but they’re good enough to make that work. “I believe that nuclear war has a place in the natural order.”

VANYA AND SONIA AND MASCHA AND SPIKE was a Christopher Durang production from 2012 that I caught streaming (legally).  Three of the four title characters are siblings named after Chekhov characters (their parents were fanatics for Chekhov’s plays); Vanya (David Hyde Pierce) and Sonia spent years caring for their aged parents and have lived in their home since the parents passed. That makes it unsettling when Mascha (Sigourney Weaver) announces she’s tired of paying the bills on the place and intends to put it up for sale. This is very funny in Durang’s usually askew way. “The younger generation are like that — they strip down to their underwear all the time.”

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A Blob Gets Furious: Movies and some TV

According to producer Jack Harris on the commentary track for THE BLOB (1958), his goal was to combine an SF film and a juvenile delinquent film. That gave us this story of a meteorite that hatches out an oozing mass of protoplasm that absorbs any animal matter that comes near it like, for instance, people. Steve McQueen and his girlfriend know it’s true, but can they convince the cops or their parents the town is in danger?

While the film comes off as what Seeing is Believing classifies as conservative centrist — the community of regular folks comes together to fight the menace, no need for a brilliant scientist to whip up a cure — it also strikes me as straining the formula. The sort-of delinquent kids see the threat first but so does the town’s doctor (he dies too soon to weigh in) and cops and parents ultimately turn out pretty reasonable. It’s not an entirely successful mix of genres but it’s an interesting one. “Thanks to you, we’ve wasted our eighty cents.”

FURIOUS SEVEN (2015) is a direct sequel to Furious 6, starting with Shaw (Luke Evans) in hospital, being visited by his brother (Jason Statharn) who vows to avenge him; the camera then pulls back to see how much damage Shaw 2 has wrought getting past the guards which is effective but dumb (Statharn wants his brother to live, which is a lot less likely with the hospital half-demolished). Shortly afterwards Shaw’s revenge puts Hobbs in hospital (in a later scene he busts his arm out of its cast just by flexing his muscles) and blows up Brian and Mia’s house.

All of this forces our heroes into an alliance with enigmatic agent Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell). If they’ll help him stop bad guy Djimon Hounsou from hacking into Godseye, a satellite that can instantly access any security camera anywhere (we’re apparently supposed to be chill with the U.S. government having the tech), Nobody will help them nail Shaw. This leads to the racers traversing the globe, driving between the tenth floor of two skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi, Michelle Rodriguez having a clash of titans with Ronda Rousey and a final showdown in which the cast races around Los Angeles dodging Predator missiles. This was more preposterous and less interesting than the previous film, partly because Statharn’s one-man army doesn’t seem as formidable as his smarter sibling in 6. This was the last movie for Paul Walker, who died in an unrelated traffic accident mid-filming (the ending makes a big deal of saying goodbye to his character). “Only two things keep a group like this together, fear or loyalty — and I don’t see a drop of fear in you.”

GRAY MATTER (2018) is an utterly mindless low-budget SF film with a threadbare plot — Grays send a reprogrammed abductee to hunt down alien parasites taking over humans and turning them cannibal — that justifies endless uninspired action scenes. I watched a lot of this on fast-forward and didn’t miss anything. “Boobs … boooooobs!”

I recently finished the first season of EXTANT, a 2014 CBS SF drama starring Halle Berry as Molly Haskell, an astronaut in a near future setting who returns home from a year in space to discover she’s pregnant. Her boss, Sparks, initially tells her the agency hit her with experimental fertility drugs without telling her because her last miscarriage was so rough (like other stories in this vein, it doesn’t provoke half the outrage is should). In reality, she’s carrying an alien/human hybrid; Sparks is willing to let it happen because the creature can create 100 percent realistic illusions, like making him think his daughter is alive again. A dying techtrepreneur has skin in the game, believing the aliens can save his life. Can Molly stop them from getting a foothold on Earth? How will her android son respond to having such a peculiar brother? Not classic SF but it’s well-cast and I did enjoy it. “I assume you’d like to see your family again — interpret that any way you choose.”

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I put in the hours, but the work did not flourish

Just as I planned last week, I skipped watching movies for Alien Visitors in favor of getting the writing done … only not much got done. A rewrite of the introduction, which is an important chapter — it’s a capsule the history of ETs in print and in popular belief, coupled with an overview of film and TV versions — but I’d really hoped for more.

Unfortunately this was one of those weeks when the doggy care was very demanding. Our visits to rehab are once a week instead of twice, but they’re around 2 PM or so for the next few weeks, so that takes a bite out of the day. Wisp has been in a lot, demanding petting (she gets it) and throwing my morning routine off. The lunch walkies after Monday were all mine; Wednesday, for whatever reason, I was completely wiped out. I’ve no idea why — it’s not like double walks are anything new — but I was not in peak condition to write that afternoon. And last night and the night before, Wisp woke me up around 1 or 2 AM when she decided she was lonely. On the plus side, she’s coming up into the spare bedroom (I sleep there when the dogs get too fidgety for me to sleep in our queen-size bed) when she wants me. She rushes away as soon as I move — she gets very nervous if she’s far away from the doors downstairs — so perhaps eventually she’ll come up and sleep next to me or something. That would be a lot easier. But yesterday and today I was wiped out.

And this morning she was hyper-fidgety. Rush in, get a quick pet, rush out again into the cold and rain. Decide she doesn’t like it, come back. Rinse, repeat. I know, cat, but it’s not typical for her. At the moment she’s snoozing on the couch again. I had Trixie on the other side of me so I could pet them both, but Trixie sulked and went to the other couch. I really hate feeling that she feels neglected (especially when I was making a point not to neglect her).

So not much Alien Visitors. I might have squeezed some in during my morning viewing while I exercise and eat, but I wound up bingeing and finishing DC’s Swamp Thing, now streaming on the CW website. I don’t feel bad about it (I’ll have a review up soon).

On the plus side, I did turn Undead Sexist Cliches into a print manuscript on Amazon and ordered a copy. I’ll go over it for any final errors/changes and then I’ll be done. Well, once I get a cover. I intend to try Draft 2 Digital‘s print-on-demand service too, but they require a cover before I start. I’ve been very pleased with their ebook service so I want to see if their paperback publishing works better than using Amazon’s kindle POD service.

And I got started on another project, contributing an article on golems in fantasy and comics to an anthology on Jewish specfic. Truth is, the only reason I made my hours this week is because I pushed to finish Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman’s The Golem of Hollywood — dreadful book (reviews will follow) but definitely relevant.

And I did do plenty of Leafs which is more money in the bank. That’s always welcome.

And now the weekend. I’m ready.

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From Avalon to San Francisco, wrapping up some TV seasons (with some spoilers)

TEARS TO TIARA is a game-based anime whose odd mix of Arthurian and Celtic folklore reminds me of countless complaints about how American media mangle foreign folklore and legends. The setting is an alt.Britain under siege by the Empire and its ruthless warlord Gaius; when someone awakens the demon king Arawn from centuries of sleep, he joins forces with the Gael leaders Arthur and Riannon to fight against the Romans. But there’s a worse threat in the wings: Arawn was once Lucifer, one of the Twelve Spirits ruling the world for God, but he turned against them because of their brutal treatment of humanity and free will. If the Empire falls, the White Spirits will act … This is a thoroughly pixilated mix of British legend (I haven’t even mentioned Avalon’s maid cafe!) but it does have its charms and overall it worked. “No human can defeat me — watch your beloved brother take his final breath.”

JOAN OF ARCADIA was a 2003- 05 series starring Amber Tamblyn as a high school student named yes, Joan, who finds herself hearing messages from God — not mentally, God manifests in various people throughout Arcadia, giving Joan various assignments, from trying out for cheerleading to ruining her best friend’s art project.  It’s the sort of show I usually hate, where everything’s working for the good and seemingly random events all tie together (e.g., Kiefer Sutherland’s 2012 show Touch). Here show-runner Barbara Hall and her crew pull it off: things are just dark enough and unjust enough and complicated enough not to be too saccharine (one of the  special features on this S1 set says it would have been a lot more saccharine pre-9/aa). It helps that the cast is first rate, not only Tamblyn but Joe Mantegna and Mary Steenburgen as her parents. It’ll be a while before I get to S2, but I look forward to it. “Is this a real conversation or an Abbott and Costello routine?”

The third season of YOUNGER ended with Liza telling the truth to best buddy Kelsey — that Liza’s a forty-year-old posing as a twentysomething to duck age discrimination — and with twentysomething Josh breaking up with Liza after he spots her kissing her boss. I figured that as usual, the show would have these issues wrapped up in two or three episodes, but Josh and Liza stayed broken up this season, culminating in him marrying an Irish barmaid to get her a green card (partly, he admits, because having a ring on his finger will put Liza permanently off-limits). I figured Liza’s almost-relationship with her boss Charles would finally take off, but that tanks too when Charles’ ex re-enters the picture. So the show is capable of surprising me, which is good. “Do you have a hospice patient you could introduce me to?”

The second season of MCMILLAN AND WIFE has a stronger set of mysteries than S1, most notably Cop of the Year in which Mac’s (Rock Hudson) sidekick Sgt. Enright (John Schuck) apparently guns down his unstable ex in a locked room, with nobody else around. It’s a classic set-up and they do well with it … if you overlook the unlikelihood of Enright being allowed to keep working on the investigation.

That’s generally the weakest part of the show, that the mysteries are invariably personal: a psycho stalks Sally (Susan St. James) in No Hearts, No Flowers, a family friend is a target in Two Dollars on Trouble to Win, Sally gets kidnapped in The Fine Art of Staying Alive and a criminal double replaces Mac in Terror Times Two (regrettably Hudson’s not enough of an actor to exploit the double role — too bad they didn’t have Sally doubled instead). I think this reflects that the show’s roots are husband/wife mystery solving teams (the Norths, the Charles and a few others) where it’s often personal, but that doesn’t fit well with Mac’s role as San Francisco’s police commissioner. Despite the flaws, I enjoyed the season. “Now that we’ve established our butcher is not poisoning lamb chops, may I get some sleep?”

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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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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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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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First do no harm: Star Trek’s Prime Directive

Star Trek‘s Prime Directive is a nice moral statement but a pain in the butt when it came to actually writing episodes.

The Prime Directive, as every Trekkie knows, is the rule that the Federation and its starships don’t interfere with cultures that have not achieved spaceflight. No intervening in them politically or changing their natural course of development. No giving them signs that life exists beyond their world, such as showing advanced tech or evidence of alien life. This is so fundamental, if it’s choice between saving your ship, your crew and yourself and breaking the Prime Directive, a starship captain should choose death before dishonor.

I’ve read this was partly a pushback against the Vietnam War. During the Eisenhower presidency the U.S. had supported the French colonial regime to stop the Vietnamese independence movement — communist oriented, therefore the bad guys — from winning. Eventually the country divided into two parts, North and South Vietnam, with elections to follow; as it was obvious the revolutionaries would win, the U.S. and its allies refused to let elections happen. Instead, we provided military support for South Vietnam, then eventually committed our own troops. It was a major scar and influence on U.S. society at the time, and increasing numbers of people went anti-war (you can read Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam for an excellent history of the nation and the war).

Vietnam wasn’t a unique screw-up. We overthrew lots of democratic governments in the 20th century — El Salvador, Guatemala, Iran, Chile — because we didn’t like who the people voted for. While we saw ourselves as the champion of freedom against tyranny, all too often we went in the other direction. And as David Rieff says in A Bed for the Night, any attempt at a humanitarian military intervention is a contradiction in terms: military force isn’t humanitarian in nature. As in a lot of things, I think the part of the Hippocratic Oath that says “first, do no harm” might be good advice for us.

In practice, though, the rule was a mess. If we go by the Prime Directive, Kirk had no right to challenge the Landru-computer’s control of its world in Return of the Archons, or to take down Vaal in The Apple. Indeed, the latter story seems like a textbook example — Vaal’s control of his people is totalitarian, but it does apparently keep them at peace, happy and immortal. Will destroying Vaal improve things? Will shutting down the war computers in A Taste of Armageddon actually end the nightmare war, or will they go fully nuclear? As a kid, these episodes worked fine; as an adult I wonder if Kirk has not, in fact, done harm.

Of course not intervening is the opposite of how we expect heroes to work. When good guys stumble into a tyrannical society, fictional convention says they’re supposed to liberate the people, not turn a blind eye. That can, of course, make for dramatic tension, but it could obviously turn a lot of people off: what if the Enterprise crew doesn’t intervene at all to affect the repressive caste system of The Cloud Minders?

There have been multiple expansions and explanations of the details of the directive to handle all the contradictions and try to rationalize it. Ultimately it’s an interesting idea but very awkward, perhaps unworkable, in practice.

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