Category Archives: TV

Unsatisfying sequels and a disappointing season: movies and TV

JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017) isn’t as much of a train wreck as I anticipated, and certainly an improvement over Batman vs. Superman but it still falls far short of even an average MCU entry. With Superman dead, the world is falling into despair (which I found a false note — Henry Cavill’s Superman in Zach Snyder’s DC Universe was hardly a shining beacon of hope); when an alien warrior named Steppenwolf steals three ancient Mother Boxes to xenoform Earth into a duplicate of his homeworld, an aging Batman (one of the film’s better ideas is that he’s been at this for 20 years) recruits Wonder Woman, Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman to stop him.

The cast is solid, but Steppenwolf is just a generic alien warlord; if they wanted to use someone from Kirby’s Fourth World mythos) (I presume this is based on the New 52 origin where the JLA comes together against an incursion from Apokalips) there are far more colorful adversaries (the Female Furies, Dr. Bedlam, Granny Goodness …). And I really hate Cyborg’s look, less like he’s part-metal and more like he’s wearing an Iron Man suit with his head exposed. Overall, not awful, but it left me with none of the enthusiasm for the team the first Avengers film did, let alone TV’s Arrowverse. “I can’t even understand the physics of me feeling my toes.”

RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET (2018) is the Wreck-It Ralph sequel in which Ralph accidentally disables best friend Vanellope’s arcade game which sends them onto the Internet seeking the needed spare part; upon overbidding for it on eBay, they have to then raise money to cover the bill. This has some good bits such as Vanellope testing her racing skills in a Grand Theft Auto-type universe, but the product placement is very heavy (that we also have made-up names like the videosharing site “Buzztube” alongside Google and Amazon presumably tells us who paid to play) and the satire of the Internet’s dark side (vicious comments, lots of cat videos) felt canned; while Vanellope meeting up with Disney’s princesses had its amusing moment, it still felt too much like bonus product placement (I assume Disney mocking princess tropes is as insincere as Kate and Leopold decrying marketing as immoral). While a lot of reviews liked the themes and the emotional arc overall this felt too canned. With Alan Tudyk as a search engine and Gail Godot as a wildcat street racer. “It’s sort of a Pied Piper codependent strategy.”

Although I enjoyed the first season of the CHARMED reboot, the second season has largely killed my enthusiasm. The new showrunners kick things off by relocating them to Seattle (their base is now under a shared-work space), destroying the Book of Elders and taking out their powers, leaving them ill-equipped to cope with the new threats arising. Which could have worked, but the Macy/Harry romance feels very unconvincing, like something the new crew arbitrarily decided was a thing; as it’s a mainstay of the character arcs, that isn’t working for me.

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Runaways, Nancy Drew, assassins and pirates: TV and movies

With Disney sucking all Marvel back to its streaming service, RUNAWAYS‘ third season is its last (I suppose it could have continued there, but as SyFy Wire says, it doesn’t fit neatly with the MCU brand), but at least it went out on a win.

At the end of S2, the alien Gibborim had taken over several of the Runaways’ parents, and one sleeper among the kids. The kids open the season fighting back, trying to stop the Gibborim before they open a portal and bring more of their people through. By the time they succeed, they have a new problem: Morgan leFay plotting to take over the world by mind-controlling people through cell phones! This actually works well as a story (certainly a better threat than S2’s dirty cops) though they hand-wave that the Staff of One is now really magic rather than quantum physics passing as magic (there’s a reference to magic as unexplained science, but that’s not how they’re playing it). We also get a guest appearance of Cloak and Dagger from that short-lived show, which worked okay but I could have done without. Overall a satisfactory season that ends well — too bad it’s the last. “We’ve done a lot of bad things for our kids — it’s time we do something good for them.”

Sophia Lillis, the Nancy of NANCY DREW AND THE HIDDEN STAIRCASE (2019) strikes me as awfully young, but unlike the Emma Roberts version not awkwardly so — it’s probably that I’m at the age where a lot of people just look really young (plus Lillis comes across as wholesome — though not implausibly so — which implies younger to me). This has Nancy and her friends help Linda Lavin investigate her haunted mansion and discover the secret behind the spooks; it’s not as fun as the Bonita Granville films, but it’s reasonably enjoyable. “Only one person has purchased a large supply of nutmeg recently.”

With THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934) Alfred Hitchcock finally broke out of the mediocre crap he’d been doing and began the kind of film that would make him a legend. Leslie Banks and Olympic sharpshooter Edna Best are the unfortunate recipients of a dying agent’s message about an upcoming assassination; to ensure they don’t interfere, Peter Lorré kidnaps their daughter to keep them silent. Hitchcock himself considered this the work of a talented amateur and it’s certainly not his best, but it is enjoyable, which can’t be said about Easy Virtue. “Before June 1914, had you ever heard of Sarajevo, or even of Archduke Franz Ferdinand?”

Rafael Sabatini’s The Sea Hawk is a great swashbuckling novel that has nothing in common with Errol Flynn’s swashbuckler of the same name. 1924’s THE SEA HAWK is a faithful adaptation wherein a retired Elizabethan privateer gets framed for murder by his dishonorable brother, then shanghaid by pirate Wallace Beery before he can clear his name. By several twists of fate he winds up as a legendary Barbary corsair and eventually heads back to England with his pirate crew to kidnap his lost love and get revenge on his brother. This is a competent swashbuckler (it also has a lot of white people in brown face for the Arab roles), but it badly needs the screen presence of someone such as Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks. “Nearby lived a matron whose conscience was elastic and whose husband was — old.”

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A crisis hits, an Arrow falls: CW’s Crisis on Infinite Earths (and the aftermath)

Due to Trixie’s health problems and other personal matters, I didn’t get much in the way of movies watched this past week. So I’ll take the opportunity to review the CW’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, it’s aftermath and the end of the Arrowverse’s founding series, Arrow.

After the first half-season of the various superhero shows, we plunged into Crisis with a bang. In the opening of the first part of the crossover we see the Earth of the 1960s Batman series and the 1989 Tim Burton movie annihilated (eventually we’d also see the deaths of the Doom Patrol universe, Birds of Prey (the 1990s series) and a cameo by the Flash from the JLA movie). Supergirl witnesses Argo City, the last surviving outpost of Krypton, wiped out along with her brother.

Fortunately the Monitor gathers several of the Arrowverse heroes together to fight back, along with several others, such as Brandon Routh’s Superman Returns Man of Steel (played here as a weary, aging Kingdom Come type). Their efforts, which include visiting Kevin Conroy (the animated Batman voice) as a bitter, ruthless, Dark Knight Returns Batman and Tom Welling as a retired Superman (gave up the powers when he and Lois had kids — so we still don’t see him in costume), collapse in the third installment: Earth dies. All the Earths die. Can the heroes, including Black Lightning (“My god — Superman’s real?”), turn things around?

Well, of course. Fortunately Green Arrow, who dies early on, rises from the dead as the host for the Spectre, the one being with the power to take on the Anti-Monitor (whose moniker led to Cisco shaking his head and grumbling “Can we workshop that name?”). Thanks to Oliver and the heroes, a new, combined Earth rises from the ashes of the multiverse (the ending makes it unclear whether there are still some other surviving Earths) and after a final battle with Anti-Monitor’s forces, life resumes as before. Well, except everyone’s now living on one Earth and they’re the only ones who remember it was ever different. Fortunately J’Onn fills the truth in for the supporting casts of the different shows (except Black Lightning, probably so they can keep that show still at a distance from the main group). Which means team-ups are now easier, as witness the Crisis ends with Batwoman, Supergirl, J’Onn, Black Lightning and others sitting at a conference table in the newly named Hall of Justice. The Superfriends live.

I really loved it. I’m a comic book geek from childhood, and while I enjoy the Marvel movies, their efforts to keep things tied to reality don’t appeal to me as much as the Arrowverse’s willingness to go full comic-book. The Endgame battle with Thanos is epic and I had a hell of a good time, but for me the CW Crisis — jampacked with costumed heroes and Easter eggs and very little concern with realism — is way more fun.

Along with the plotlines from the first half-season, the heroes are now dealing with fallout from the worlds combining. On New Earth, Lex Luthor’s a respected businessman and head of the DEO. Batwoman’s sister Alice now has a doppelganger from a world where Kate saved her and she was never abandoned. And in the last two episodes of Arrow we learn Oliver, in recreating Earth, made an extra effort to save his city: post-Crisis Star City is a crime-free, peaceful place to live, with Moira, Quentin and Tommy Merlyn all resurrected (confronted by another bit of weirdness, Quentin comments that “I just discovered there’s a reality in which I died, so that’s the curve I’m grading on now.”). Diggle actually feels free to move away to Metropolis with his family, but along the way he finds this green lantern and ring that fell out of the sky … why yes, I do think they’re seeding a future role for him.

The other episode sets up for the possible new series Green Arrow and the Canaries, set in 2040 Star City. As a fall-out from Oliver’s transformation of the city, Mia’s able to grow up happy, fun-loving and hanging out with her older brother William, but now things are starting to turn bad … fortunately Dinah Drake and Laurel Lance have both jumped into the future (this doesn’t quite fit with what we saw in the other episode, but I’ll trust them to explain eventually) and are there to help. Mia’s going to need it …

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From the Red Forest to Eternia, from 2007 to now: TV viewed

Hulu finally streamed the last season of SyFy’s 12 MONKEYS and it was worth waiting for (I binged while all my regular shows are on Christmas break). As someone who’s seen a lot of time travel stuff — hey, I wrote the book on it — it’s hard to impress me any more, but the show did.

At the end of S3, we learned that the murderous Olivia (Alison Down) of the Army of the 12 Monkeys was also the Witness, the antichrist figure who would destroy time and bring about the Red Forest, a timeless world in which we’d all experience our most perfect moment, without end — but without change or growth. As Cole (Aaron Stanford) says, “we can have forever or we can have now” but not both.

Learning there’s a weapon to stop the Red Forest, Cole and the rest of the cast hunt through time to recover it. But when they do, it appears even if they make it work, the solution will erase Cole from reality (as the first person to time travel, erasing him restores causality). What results is a grim race against time to save time, with several surprises and some paradoxes from earlier seasons resolved. The ending shouldn’t have worked for me: the twist of “we must restore the original timeline … but we’ll change just this little bit so it ends happy” normally doesn’t work but they pulled it off. And the cast remains great, particularly Emily Hampshire as Jennifer. “Save Hitler? That’s not what you do with a time machine!”

I also binged the fourth season of SHE-RA AND THE PRINCESSES OF POWER and damn, that was good.  As Katra and the Horde increase the pressure on the Princess Alliance, friendships start to fracture, abetted by the conniving shapeshifter Double Trouble. This mirrors what happens in the Horde, as Katra’s arrogance and ambition alienate even the people close to her, such as Scorpia. And Adora learns there are secrets about She-Ra that she has no idea of yet … It’s good both as action/adventure and at the personal drama level. “That’s why nobody comes to games night any more.”

As I bought TYG the WILD PALMS DVD set, we naturally watched it last month, and I was started to realize this 1993 miniseries took place in the near-future of 2007. Fortunately we live in the real world where we don’t have to worry about authoritarian extremists using the threat of terrorism to chip away at our freedom —oh, wait.

Jim Belushi plays Harry, an attorney swept in a mysterious conspiracy when his former lover Paige (Kim Cattrall) asks for help, though it turns out he’s been unwittingly entangled in things for years. What is the “Go” chip? Why is there a rhinoceros in the swimming pool? Who is Harry’s son really? Solidly cast with Dana Delaney as Harry’s troubled wife, Angie Dickinson as her vicious mother, Robert Loggia as an evil senator and David Warner as a scientist. Despite being 13 years in our past, it holds up well. “Death to the new realism!”

My reason for watching the Bonita Granville and Emma Roberts Nancy Drew movies was that I’ve become hooked on the CW’s NANCY DREW series. Much like Riverdale, sex plays a larger role than in the original books: Nancy and Ned sleeping together, Bess is gay and George was having an affair with a married man. The story arc for the first half-season concerns the murder of said married man’s wife, with Nancy and her friends all looking like suspects. Further complicating things is the ghost of “Dead Lucy,” a beauty queen from Nancy’s father’s generation who died mysteriously and wants Nancy to investigate. How does it fit together? We get an answer at the mid-season break, but I’m confident it’s not the real one. I’m glad CW picked this up for a full season. “I just banished a spirit from the mortal world, now I’m summoning an Uber.”

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Christmas means misers, liars and thieves: movies

First the misers, starting with MR. MAGOO’S CHRISTMAS CAROL an animated adaptation in which Jim Backus’ Mr. Magoo performs as Scrooge on Broadway (the character’s notorious nearsightedness doesn’t figure in the Christmas Carol plot, but does make the director’s life complicated). A good adaptation with some great songs; I’d add them to my Christmas iTunes playlist if I could find them. “A hand for each hand is the way it was planned/Why won’t my fingers reach?/A millions of grains of sand in the world/Why such a lonely beach?”

A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1951) remains the king of Scrooges (though next year perhaps I’ll check out Stewart and Scott versions again) as Alastair Sim discover Michael Horden’s Marley is not a delusion brought on by food poisoning, Patrick Macnee and George Cole as young Marley and Scrooge sign on with the “vested interests,” the Cratchitts listen to the pudding sing and human vultures loot Scrooge’s death scene. Always a pleasure. “The boy is ignorance, the girl is want. Beware them both, but most of all, beware this boy!”

The Bah, Humbug! episode of WKRP IN CINCINNATI doesn’t get as much attention as that sitcom’s Thanksgiving episode, but it’s a really funny send-up. The station manager having decided to skimp on bonuses this year, he’s visited by the usual ghosts, giving us a look back at the station’s early years and at its bleak future (“Les Nessman — minority whip in the U.S. Senate!”). “Yes, Scrooge was able to wake up — but Scrooge didn’t eat one of Johnny’s brownies.”

And then we have the Chuck Jones-animated, Boris Karloff-narrated HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS (the Grinch isn’t a miser, but he’s sure a Scrooge) which I imagine needs no recap from anyone reading this. A Christmas perennial for me; this year I learned how the Grinch became green. “He puzzled and puzzed/Till his puzzler was sore/Then the Grinch thought of something/He hadn’t before.”

Then the liars and thieves!
CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT (1945) starts with Barbara Stanwyck as a homemaker/columnist who can’t cook and doesn’t have the family she writes about; by the end of the film she’s apparently cheating on her non-existent husband, sailor Dennis Morgan is cheating on his fiancee, Sidney Greenstreet crashes the party and Una O’Connor and S.Z. Sakall debate goulash vs. Irish stew. Easily Stanwyck’s sweetest role (even in rom-coms, she’s usually tougher). “When the bag lets out the cat, someone gets scratched!”

Case in point, REMEMBER THE NIGHT (1940) stars Stanwyck as a shoplifter (expensive jewelry, not trinkets) facing Christmas in jail after her trial gets delayed. Prosecutor Fred MacMurray winds up taking her home instead, melting her heart even as she gets inside his, but can love possibly bridge across the crook/law enforcement divide? Preston Sturges’ script starts out as smart-ass as most of his work, but softens considerably by the end; still, it works for me. “No, you’re not a kleptomaniac if you sell stuff after you steal it — you lose your amateur standing.”

WE’RE NO ANGELS (1955) has escaped Devil’s Island convicts Humphrey Bogart (swindler/forger), Peter Ustinov (safecracker) and Aldo Ray (murderer and probable sexual assailant — that part hasn’t aged as well) becoming the guardian angels for Leo G. Carroll’s goodhearted family when covetous relative Basil Rathbone shows up. A fun film with a great cast. “We’re gonna cave their heads in, gouge their eyes out, cut their throats — just as soon as we wash the dishes.”

KLAUS (2019) is an Origin of Santa animated film in which a postmaster assigned to a dead-end gig in a feuding town (the only letter anyone’s likely to get is a letter bomb) cons the local kids into sending letters to the eponymous toymaker — if he generates enough business, he can leave town for somewhere better. This not only turns the miserable place around but helps the guy’s own heart grow three sizes, and in the process births most of the legend (“A magic sleigh pulled by flying reindeer? Seriously?”). The best of the new Christmas movies I’ve caught this year. “I’m sure it’s nothing that could fester and become a source of regret.”

Departing from the Misers And Liars theme, LET IT SNOW (2019) is a rom-com anthology like Christmas Eve or Office Christmas Party with a bunch of different Y/A subplots woven together: a dying woman’s daughter meets up with a rock star, a lesbian wonders why her great date from last night doesn’t seem to know her, a guy struggles to speak his love to his female best friend (a shtick I could have done without) and eccentric tow-truck operator Joan Cusack (“She thinks she’s a burrito and the Earth is a giant microwave.”) dispenses advice. Surprisingly fun. “The universe always has the answer — you just have to subscribe to her newsletter.”

As usual, TYG and I watched A CHRISTMAS STORY (1984) after unwrapping the presents and enjoyed little Ralphie dealing with the vicissitudes of visits to Santa, soap-induced blindness, Scott Farkus (“He had yellow eyes — yellow eyes!”) and a bunny suit. “Only I didn’t say fudge.”

And I can’t forget SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN with Rankin-Bass’s Origin of Santa in the story of a young toymaker defying the Winter Warlock and Burgomeister Meisterburger to deliver toys to children. Not the greatest of Christmas specials, but pleasant comfort food. “All the magic I have left is some stupid corn that makes reindeer fly.”

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Crisis in the Arrowverse: Mid-Season reviews

If you follow this blog, you know I’m a huge fan of DC Comics’ superheroes, and of the Arrowverse. So as we’ve now reached the mid-season break point partway through the Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover, I thought I’d review the first half-seasons. Every show but Black Lightning was shaped by the looming crossover and predictions Flash and Green Arrow would both die.

I gave up on the CW’s initial superhero show ARROW after its flat S6 and the uninteresting opening of S7 (Ollie in prison and a B-plot with his kids trying to save Star City in the future). However, with the Crisis looming and this season announced as the finish, I figured I’d give it a try — and I’m glad I did. With nothing left to hold back, the season has Ollie working for the Monitor to try and stave off the looming apocalypse. In the process he gets to see most of the show’s long-gone cast including Thea, Roy Harper, Nyssa al Ghul, Katana and Tommy and Malcolm Merlyn (parallel world versions who die in the first episode when their world is devoured by anti-matter). Plus the show brought the future kids William and Mia and their teammate Connor into the present, and interacting with the regular cast they became much more interesting.

FLASH‘s previous season was so-so (though as I love the character, I rated it better than perhaps it deserved) and the main plot this season was disappointing. The villain, Bloodwork, tried using dark matter to cure his lethal illness and instead became a freak who can create zombie armies by his control of blood. He’s not interesting, nor is he tragic (they try) and the big zombie battle that wrapped up was uninspired. On the plus side, Barry and Team Flash trying to deal with the Crisis and Barry’s inevitable death (spoiler: not so inevitable after all. You’ll see) was a lot more interesting. Unfortunately we’ll be back to Bloodwork next year.

SUPERGIRL also had a mixed previous season, ranging from the high of Jon Cryer’s Lex Luthor to the low of wasting Manchester Black. This season she’s been dealing with J’Onn’s evil brother M’alefic; Lena seeking revenge for what she feels is Kara’s betrayal; and Leviathan, a cabal of aliens out to preserve the Earth by mass-culling of the human population (plus the corporate takeover of CatCo). Some of this worked well, like M’alefic’s redemption, some of it not so much: while I can understand Lena having trust issues given her murderous family, it’s hard to have that much sympathy for her. Katie McGrath does her best, but as Alex points out, Lena kept her own secrets last season. But I’m more hopeful for the second half than I am with Flash.

BATWOMAN started its first season awfully slow as Kate Kane (Ruby Rose) discovers her cousin Bruce’s identity and deals with her longstanding trauma, the death of her mother and twin sister Beth in an accident that Kate survived. However things picked up fast as Kate stepped into the absent Bruce’s crimefighting shoes: Rose is good in the lead, supported by Lucius Fox’s son Luke (Camrus Johnson) and opposed by Alice (Rachel Skarsten) whom Kate becomes convinced is her missing sister, though dad (Dougray Scott) doesn’t believe it.

Skarsten’s Alice is a Joker-class lunatic and the actor nails it. I also like the sibling rivalry aspect: Kate’s stepsister Mary and Alice’s surrogate brother and partner-in-crime Mouse both resent that the twins still have a bond that rivals theirs. The pre-Crisis season ends with everything falling apart, so I look forward to what follows in 2020.

BLACK LIGHTNING ended S2 with the American Security Agency locking up the entire Pierce family. Things haven’t improved this season as the ASA places Freeland on lockdown, nominally to protect from the Markovian terrorists but just as much to control them. By the mid-season point, Jeff has given up on trying to be moderate, Blackbird’s a revolutionary, Jennifer’s doing wetwork for the ASA and the agency’s scheming Odell has Lynn addicted to the greenlight drug. It’s grim stuff, but I’m enjoying it. This show continues staying apart from the rest of the Arrowverse: Jeff appears briefly in the crossover (I’ll review that in a subsequent post) and the show’s final pre-crisis episode involves Jennifer encountering her parallel-world selves from out in the multiverse, before Black Lightning’s earth dies (don’t worry, I’m confident they’ll be back).

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Reporting In the Internet Age, In Fact and Fiction

One of the story elements in this season of the CW’s Supergirl is that CatCo has been bought out and taken over by Andrea Rojas (Julie Gonzalo), a corporate schemer (and, we’ve learned, a supervillain on the side) under whose governance clicks, hits and eyeballs are the sole measure of good journalism. Crap is better than good journalism if the crap is serious clickbait.

Recent developments at the Deadspin sports-and-news site have demonstrated that’s a very realistic prospect. The new owners promptly told everyone that to draw more eyeballs, they should stick to sports coverage and nothing else. The flaw in this argument being that the political stuff drew lots of hits: if the owners had any brains, they’d have run with it. As former Deadspin reporter Megan Greenwell puts it, “The tragedy of digital media isn’t that it’s run by ruthless, profiteering guys in ill-fitting suits; it’s that the people posing as the experts know less about how to make money than their employees, to whom they won’t listen.” Which is why so many of the staff are resigning.

Part of the problem may be that “publishing well-written, well-researched articles that address various subjects with authority takes longer and costs more than publishing a high volume of short posts that exist only as filler underneath narrow-topic headlines designed to game Google searches.” Which fits with my experience at the Freedom News chain: I often felt like upper management would have been happy to convert the papers to endless pages of ads and “Cutest Cat” contest instead of actually paying anyone, only they, at least knew that wouldn’t work. It’s why I became suspicious of the business-speak phrase “content providers” which implies that reporters and photographers are really no different or more important than the people who submit press releases, fishing photos or letters to the editor. It’s all content, what’s the difference?

Where Supergirl gets it wrong is that, as Greenwell puts it, “the journalists at Deadspin and its sister sites, like most journalists I know, are eager to do work that makes money; we are even willing to compromise for it, knowing that our jobs and futures rest on it.” Again, that fits with my experience. I know writing about city council budget meetings or zoning hearings might as well be blank space as far as most readers are concerned (though it’s still a bad thing that local news coverage is disappearing), even though it affects their lives big-time (more than once I’ve seen someone declare at a Destin City Council meeting that there’s been no information released about a particular issue or city project, even though I’ve written dozens of stories about it). But I do the best I can to make them interesting and readable. And I also do stories that are more appealing to readers: talented kids and their accomplishments, local writer publishes book, new business development on the harbor.

Kara, Jimmy, Nia and their fellow journalists, however, don’t think about that. As Greenwll puts i, it’s a story where “idealistic journalists, unconcerned with profit, are posed against ruthless business-doers” rather than journalists trying to combine quality and popularity with management that happily flings crap against the wall in the conviction they know what will stick. Nobody argues with Andrea that their serious news article will be a better hook than whatever clickbait she has in mind, they just protest on principle.

Of course, I also have problems with the opposite handling of journalists, where their only standard in covering stories is how it will advance their career (e.g., the graphic novel Genius: Siege). Most of the reporters I’ve known find covering stories and writing about them interesting; awards are great but they’re not the prime motivator (and bosses don’t usually assign coverage based on what will advance our careers).

Still, despite my criticisms, Supergirl comes closer to capturing 21st century reporting than the comics have lately.

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Two great companions and the Master’s return: Doctor Who, Season 14

Wow, S14 of the original series was amazing. First rate stories, Sarah Jane’s last episodes, the return of the Master and the intro of Leela, the companion who kills people.

In a media world where formidable women protagonists are a lot more common, I’m not sure anyone can appreciate how totally novel Leela looked when she debuted. A barbarian warrior, she fights well, doesn’t lose her cool (faced with unkillable adversaries in Robots of Death and Talons of Weng-Chiang, she retreats but it’s strategic, not terrified) and has no qualms about killing people. Within the world of Doctor Who she stands out even now: there’s never been a companion as tough and deadly as she was.

The season kicked off with its weakest storyline, THE MASQUE OF MANDRAGORA. Sarah and the Doctor arrive in Renaissance Italy, dragging along a piece of the star-entity called the Mandragora Helix. They’re all embroiled in a local power struggle between Giulano, an enlightened young noble, and his power hungry uncle, Federico (“Only corpses fail to stand in my presence.”), allied with the scheming astrologer Hieronymous and a local cult. The Mandragora, which dislikes human free will and reason, sides with the bad guys; the Doctor and Sarah are on the other side.  I remember liking this one when I first saw it, but rewatching it’s too much mundane swashbuckler intrigues, not enough of the Helix. This does give the reveal that the reason Sarah can speak Italian (or anything else) is a “Time Lord gift” the Doctor shares with her. “It depends on whether the moon is made of cheese and whether thirteen roosters cluck at midnight.”

Sarah Jane bows out with THE HAND OF FEAR, which begins when a literal hand is turned up in a quarry, buried in rock (there are some jokes about the series’  long history of using quarries as barren alien planets). It possesses Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen does an excellent turn) and takes drastic steps to regenerate (“Eldrad must live again!”). With the Doctor and Sarah in tow, Eldrad (much less memorable than Eldrad-possessed Sarah Jane)heads back to its homeworld, but it’s fudged some of the backstory — and there are surprises waiting even beyond that. It’s a good story, ending with Sarah Jane deciding enough’s enough (amusingly, she walks off humming the song My Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow-Wow, little realizing the Doctor would some day gift her with a robot dog). “The Atomic Energy Commission is not going to believe this.”

At the end of that serial, the Doctor gets a summons to Gallifrey. They’re in the middle of a presidential election, but somewhere among the crowds lurks THE DEADLY ASSASSIN … and it appears to be the Doctor. Can he clear his name before he’s executed? This marks the return of the Master after several years absence, though here he’s a physical wreck from running out of regenerations (it would be another four seasons before he returned and got a new face). This one is intense, twisty and effective, though at the time it upset a lot of fans: showing the Time Lords riven by internal politics and coming off almost like humans didn’t fit most people’s ideas of what Gallifrey was like. With time, more people have recognized how good this one is. “You’d delay an execution to pull the wings off a fly.”

THE FACE OF EVIL has a familiar set-up — Earth-settled planet that’s forgotten its origins, devolving into two hostile cultures, one technological, one savage. It’s well-executed though, and it turns out the Doctor has a surprising role in the planet’s history. The best thing about this one, though, is the debut of Leela. “You know the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alter their views to fit the facts.”

THE ROBOTS OF DEATH would be a standout in any other season but it’s almost minor in S14. The TARDIS deposits the Doctor and Leela inside a giant mechanical miner whose crew are scouring a desert world for potentially valuable minerals. Unfortunately, some of the robot workers have decided to ignore the First Law of Robots and begin killing people. Oh, and look, these two strangers showing up must obviously be the guilty parties! The result is a mix of old-school murder mystery and SF. “I see, you’re one of those boring maniacs who likes to gloat.”

Last, but definitely not least we have the singularly frustrating THE TALONS OF WENG-CHIANG. The frustrating part is that it leans very heavily on Sinister Oriental stereotypes including tongs, opium, Fu Manchu-type villains and the general Othering of the Chinese. Not to mention that the sinister Chinese stage magician Chang is a British guy in yellowface. I’m sure for some fans these details will ruin what’s otherwise a fantastic story.

The Doctor takes Leela to Victorian London to see how her Earth ancestors lived. They land, wouldn’t you know, just as Chang is mysteriously kidnapping local women using his hypnotic powers, with his not-so-inanimate ventriloquist dummy and the Scorpion Tong eliminating anyone who gets in the way. The Doctor and Leela find themselves working alongside the flamboyant showman Jago (Christopher Benjamin) and Professor Litefoot (Trevor Baxter) to learn what’s behind it all (it turns out to involve a rival time traveler whose scientific theories have some flaws). Despite running six parts, it never feels padded: it’s well-acted, tense, well-performed and cleverly done. Scriptwriter Robert Holmes actually hoped to give Jago and Litefoot a spinoff series, but it never came to pass.  “Unfortunately the night vapors are very bad for my chest.”

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Woman as hostage, as engineer, as office drone, as widow: movies and TV

REAL TIME: Siege at Lucas Street Market (2001) has a convenience-store robbery turn into a hostage crisis thanks to the idiocy of the two stick-up artists; can pregnant Brinke Stevens find a way to keep herself and her fellow hostages alive? Written and directed by Max Allan Collins, who says he wanted to do a found-footage crime thriller film rather than horror (we see everything unfold in real time via the security cameras) and that Stevens’s character is more-or-less his comic-book female PI Ms. Tree (he was concerned using the real Ms. Tree would undercut the cinema verité feel, and might also hurt the money he and co-creator Terry Beatty earned from studios occasionally optioning the character). A good, low-budget thriller. “I don’t have a purse — I came here to shoplift.”

I wasn’t a fan of the two recent Atlas Shrugged movies and apparently neither was anyone else: ATLAS SHRUGGED III: Who is John Galt? (2014) went straight to video, recast everyone and only ran 90 minutes, which mercifully reduces the amount of speechifying. Protagonist Dagny Taggart having reached Galt’s Gulch at the end of II, she gets to hear lots of lectures on the virtue of selfishness and fall in love with John Galt. Back in the regular world, society continues sliding into an unconvincing dystopia (it’s not much worse than the standard media view of New York in the 1970s). And the film is still clueless about how the world works, for examples portraying the trans-continental railroad as a pure capitalist project with no government support (a myth that cropped up in the earlier films). Glenn Beck plays a talking head awestruck by Galt’s visionary speech (which is way shorter than the book). “At last someone had the courage to say the truth and to say it the way it must be said!”

I will give the creators credit, the second season of AGGRETSUKO didn’t simply replay Retsuko’s struggles from S1. Here she’s dealing with her mom’s attempts to fix her up, her desire to find direction in her life, an entitled millennial underling — and if not a happy ending to the season, Retsuko does at least come to accept the good stuff in her life. I’ll be back if there’s an S3, but this works as a stopping point. “It doesn’t matter whether you believe you’re worthy of love — what matters is whether he does.”

I caught the first season of MARLEY’S GHOSTS on the Britbox streaming service and quite enjoyed it; that it was only three episodes didn’t hurt, as I don’t think the premise would work if drawn out. Sarah Alexander plays Marley, who’s stuck seeing dead people, specifically her selfish, unemployed schmuck of a husband, then her boyfriend, then the town’s clueless vicar. The shticks are familiar (like the neighbor across the street wondering why Marley’s talking to herself all the time), but the show and the cast makes them work. “Oh, wait the story’s not from the Book of Luke, it’s from that book of Joan Collins’ — that makes much more sense!”

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Robert Altman, Alfred Hitchcock and the Doom Patrol: movies and TV

After watching Robert Altman’s disappointing Short Cuts, I put his NASHVILLE (1975) in my Netflix queue to see if despite the similarities (sprawling cast, nonlinear narrative, almost three hours long) it was, as I remembered it, a much better film.

Yep, it is. Possibly because Short Cuts is a group of separate stories tied together by connections among the characters where Nashville feels like a single story, albeit broken into multiple different subplots, many of which don’t really go anywhere. The narrative spine is a Nashville rally for a third-party politician whom we never see but whose messages (tax churches, end the electoral college) are heard throughout the film. Various other characters include country superstar Henry Gibson, womanizing musician Keith Carradine, Keenan Wynne and Shelly Duvall dealing with a woman’s death in different ways, choir director Lily Tomlin having an affair, a racist British reporter trying to interview Elliott Gould … It’s very much a slice of life, which is a tricky thing to pull off, but it works brilliantly. “Let’s consider our national anthem. Nobody knows the words. Nobody knows how to sing it.”

Silent movies were definitely not Hitchcock’s glory years — Like Easy Virtue, THE FARMER’S WIFE (1928) is another Filmed Stage Play by Hitchcock, this time a comedy one in which a widowed farmer pursues various local women in the entitled conviction he’d a fantastic catch for any o f them. Looks good — there’s a real sense of life around the crowd scenes, like the carnival in The Ring — but the story couldn’t keep my interest. “You are the first man who has accepted my sex challenge!”

Hitchcock shows good judgment in classing CHAMPAGNE (1928) as one of his worst films; the story of a madcap heiress who elopes only to learn her father’s just gone broke — what will she and her fiancé do now? I didn’t care at all. “I’ve met some lively people, invented a new cocktail and bought some snappy gowns.”

As a die-hard Doom Patrol fan, I shelled out for DC’s streaming service and binged their DOOM PATROL over the past few weeks (while there’s other stuff I wouldn’t mind catching, I’ve canceled it until DP S2 comes out in 2020). As NASCAR driver and first-class jerk Cliff Steele, Brendan Fraser wakes up from an accident to discover he’s now a brain in a robot body, living in a creepy old mansion alongside Niles (Timothy Dalton), Rita Farr (April Bowlby), Larry Trainer (Matt Bomer) and Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero). Then reality-warping intelligence Mr. Nobody (Alan Tudyk) kidnaps Niles for revenge and begins tormenting the team in countless bizarre ways, forcing them to change and adapt while making sneering metacommentary (“You’ve spent thirteen episodes whining like a C-list Breakfast Club!”).

This was absolutely fantastic. Adapting Grant Morrison’s DP gave them good material to start with and they’ve used it well. Rita’s arc, slowly going from selfish withdrawal to decent human being; Larry dealing with the energy being inside him and his own homosexuality; Guerrero giving an absolutely amazing performance as a metahuman with multiple personalities. And the show stays strong all the way to the finish. It was actually worth adding another streaming service — next year I might keep my subscription going so I can watch week to week. It’s that good. “I would sooner have sharks in my vagina than spend another minute in the same zip code as you.”

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