Category Archives: TV

From Gotham City to Dunsinane and points in-between: this week’s viewing

BATWOMAN‘s second half-season kept up the level of the first half, which makes me sad Ruby Rose has decided one season is enough in the role of Kate Kane (there’s no official statement, but I’ve heard this credited to injuries in action scenes, the time suck of being a star in a weekly series, or her and the producers not getting along). She’s done an amazing job and plays great with her deranged sister Alice (Rachel Skarsten) and her step-sister Mary (Nicole Kang), who’s easily the best character in the show (I blogged this week about her and the show at Atomic Junkshop). In addition to the running battles with Alice and Mouse, Kate has to deal with her relationship with her closeted ex, Sophie and the discovery that Lucius Fox’s convicted killer may have been innocent, which doesn’t sit well with Luke Fox (Camrus Johnson).  Due to the pandemic the season ends, like Flash, without the final episodes, but I will say the one they did have works well as a cliffhanger. “Kate knowing what she’s doing can be worse than most people not knowing what they’re doing.”

SUPERGIRL‘s unplanned finish was much less successful, mostly because the season’s been a mess. The big challenges carrying over from the first half were Leviathan, a ruthless alien cabal plotting mass destruction and new boss Andrea’s Obsidian system bringing billions of people into a virtual fantasy world; and Lena’s (Katie McGraw) plan to cure humanity of evil with an experimental mind-control system. Adding to this, the post-Crisis reality-altering turned Lex Luthor (Jon Cryer) into a respected businessman and the head of the DEO without changing his evil agenda any; while Cryer’s good in the role this repeated last season’s twist of revealing he’s been manipulating and playing all the various villains for his own ends. It’s too repetitive (he mocks Eve Tessmacher for her foolishness much as he sneered at Red Daughter a year ago) and it doesn’t help when the villains are so unsatisfying. Leviathan’s members are powerful but not notably different from any other conqueror; the buildup with Obsidian felt pointless (despite one great episode with Alex as a VR version of Supergirl) as Andrea doesn’t have an evil agenda. Lena’s arc, finally coming back to the side of good, was the only one that really worked. So the season just fizzled out — it didn’t help that winning (though with Lex still a threat) relied on Supergirl making a very unconvincing inspirational speech. “You arranged a battle with Earth, Wind and Fire and didn’t invite us?”

I don’t think I’d heard of Hitchcock’s YOUNG AND INNOCENT (1937) before watching it, or if I did I confused it with Rich and Strange. It turns out to be a good version of one of Hitch’s favorite themes, the Innocent Accused (it’s very much in the mode of The 39 Steps). When an actress turns up strangled on the shore (shortly after a private argument with her estranged husband), beachgoers spot Tisdale (Derrick de Marnay) running away from the body. He claims he was going for help but nobody believes him, including his incompetent attorney (there’s a lot of comedy in this film). Tisdale escapes and goes on the run with the help of Erica (Nova Pilbeam), a police officer’s daughter. Can they find proof that Tisdale didn’t do the deed? The leads’ love at first sight works much better than the romance in Secret Agent and the film is a good one with some clever suspense sequences, like the leads being stuck in a kid’s birthday party when they have a desperate need to be elsewhere. That said, I’m not sure the plot holds together (there’s no indication the police even tried to contact the husband) and the climax involves a nightclub band in blackface, so be warned. “You forget, it’s my petrol.”

MACBETH was a Folger Theater production streaming through the end of July. A well-executed, energetic production of the “Scottish play” but despite a striking opening (a staffer discussing trigger warnings for violence gets stabbed) it doesn’t stand out from other productions despite Penn of Penn and Teller co-directing (while some of the magic scenes are striking the play doesn’t make a huge thing of them, which is good). “Methought I heard a voice cry out ‘Sleep no more — Macbeth doth murder sleep!”

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Why do we return to the Twilight Zone?

So after blogging about Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone revival, I got to thinking about the enduring popularity of Rod Serling’s original. Why is it remembered so well? Why does it keep getting revivals?Well, it’s become a brand name so it’s no surprise CBS wants to keep reviving it. That’s a much safer bet than encouraging people to catch an all-new series — as witness I tuned in to the Peele and I’ve never made any effort to catch Black Mirror (not a reflection on that show, just on the amount of stuff that’s out there to watch). And part of the reason it’s become a brand name is that when it came out there wasn’t anything like it. TV SF was treated as kids’ stuff; TV fantasy was limited to sitcoms such as Topper or Bewitched. Twilight Zone took specfic seriously, as something adults could enjoy and that could be done well. It didn’t hurt that along with Serling, we had Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, both established and excellent writers of contemporary fantasy (among other things). Serling also cast a lot of first-rate actors including Burgess Meredith, Ross Martin, Jack Klugman, Wilfred Hyde-White and others. Running from 1959 to 1964, Serling’s work had an impact I don’t think it could possibly have today.

But not every show that made a big splash back in ye ancient times of a mere three networks has such a devoted following today. The original series holds up well.

Part of that is Serling’s interest in people and human nature, particularly his fondness for the down-and-out and the unlucky losers. The insecure cheap crook in Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room. The anguished bookie in In Praise of Pip, getting one last night with his dead son. Art Carney delivering Christmas cheer on The Night of the Meek. But while people often have crappy lives and don’t get happy endings (case in point, Burgess Meredith’s myopic bank clerk in  All The Time in the World) Serling’s not looking to to shrug and say “life isn’t fair.” He gets that unfairness is something that should be fixed. And in many stories he does, delivering a eucatastrophe, a miraculous (but plausible) happy ending.

Another factor, and I think this is a big one, is the nature of the stories. Twilight Zone had a big range: stories with no specfic element (The Silence), post-apocalypse (Two), space adventure (The Parallel) and time travel (No Time Like the Past), but the “generic” TZ story is intrusion fantasy: a contemporary setting with the supernatural or super-scientific intruding on it. And doing so, in many cases, randomly.

In a few of the episodes, there’s a clear reason for what’s happening, such as Jess-Belle where the protagonist apprentices herself to a witch, or The Trouble With Templeton in which the protagonist’s long-dead wife has arranged events for his benefit. In many more, there’s none: fate or God or Satan has decided to upend someone’s life for no reason at all. The businessman in A World of Difference suddenly finds he’s an actor and his life is the script. He doesn’t do anything to bring it about, it just happens. Ditto the woman haunted by her double in Mirror Image or the rejuvenated seniors in Kick the Can. They don’t cross any lines, tamper with anything forbidden, piss off the dark gods — they’re just shit out of luck. Sure, some of them deserve their doom or their miraculous redemption, such as Dan Duryea’s drunken gunfighter in Mr. Denton on Doomsday. Even so, there’s no reason why Fate should (literally) stop in his town and turn his life around, it just happens.

That, I think, makes it more compelling. Because if things like this can happen at random, then they can happen to us. We don’t have to be chosen ones, or profane an Egyptian tomb to be affected. Any one of us, at any time, could stumble into the impossible.

Into the Twilight Zone.

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A speedster and a cephalopod: TV and movies

Like the CW’s Nancy Drew, FLASH wrapped up short of its planned run due to COVID-19’s effect on shooting. Instead of ending the season’s arc, we wrapped up with a cliffhanger to be resolved whenever next season can finally launch. But hey, it did make a good stopping point, even if it wasn’t planned as such.

While I was disappointed with Bloodwork, the first half-season’s villain, the second half made up for it. We actually have two villains: Carver (Eric Nenninger) is a Luthor-esque corrupt CEO running the dark science crime network Black Hole. His wife, Eva McCulloch (Efrat Dor) — close to the name of DC’s second Mirror Master — is a scientist trapped in a mirror-universe years early. Unstable due to her isolation and from Carver’s lack of interest in rescuing her, she’s determined to break out. Part of her scheme involves replacing Iris and a couple of other characters with mirror doubles obedient only to her. Iris, meanwhile, is trapped inside the mirror and slowly going mad.

Eva makes a much more effective villain than Bloodwork, and by the looks of the final episode she’ll have not only her super-science but the CEO of Doom role. Meanwhile something is happening to Iris in the mirror-verse and it isn’t good …

A B-plot for this season involves Sue Dearborn (Natalie Dreyfuss), a professional thief and adventurer working against Carver who winds up joining forces with Ralph (Dearborn was the maiden name of the Elongated Man’s wife in comics). Like most Flash watchers, I think they’re great together. Another element is that the Speed Force is dying; by the end of the season Barry can’t even whip up enough wind to douse a fire.

There were some elements that didn’t work so well, such as Caitlin and Frost trying to get Frost a life of her own, and “Nash” Welles convoluted relationship with a new metahuman, but overall, even with the short run, this half was a win.

IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955) was the first of many pictures Ray Harryhausen made with producer Charles Schneer, who supposedly provided the seed idea for this one — a giant octopus pulling down the Golden Gate Bridge.Kenneth Tobey plays the submarine commander whose nuclear sub, in the opening scenes, is attacked by something strong enough to hold it in place. Faith Domergue is one of the scientists assigned to investigate a piece of tissue left on the sub, coming to the conclusion it was some sort of giant octopus. Rather than being a mutant, it’s a natural giant rendered radioactive by nuclear testing; now fish, with their innate sensitivity to radiation, can avoid it so it’s desperately dragging down boats and attacking the coast for food. This isn’t an improvement on the “grew big because, radiation” origin but it does make it a little distinctive.

While the giant octopus is impressive (YMMV if you’re not a stop-motion fan), the story itself is flat. The film spends too much time trying to gather evidence to convince the military the threat is real, which we already know. And while Domergue’s colleague (Donald Curtis) is apparently involved with her, he doesn’t object at all when she goes for Tobey, so that makes it rather pointless. Watchable, but not Harryhausen’s best. “That haystack just became a lot smaller than we imagined.”

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I hoped for better: Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone

I doubt I’d have bothered with CBS’ latest revival of THE TWILIGHT ZONE if Jordan Peele hadn’t been the man in the Rod Serling role (including serving as narrator). Given how good Peele’s Get Out and Us were, he seemed like the right guy to deliver Twilight Zone stories tailored for the 21st century. But whether it’s the different requirements for a TV series from a movie or too much network interference, Peele didn’t pull it off.

He’s not unique. The first attempt to remake Serling was the 1983 Twilight Zone — The Movie which had one memorable story (a remake of  Nightmare at 20,000 Feet) and three “meh” ones. This led to a 1985 CBS series I remember as pretty good, though it’s quite possible I’m erasing the bad stuff. Then there was a completely forgettable UPN revival nearly 20 years ago.

And no, I’m not biased by nostalgia for the original series. I love it but even before I started rewatching it the past few years, I had no illusions it was perfect. I remember many crappy episodes (Cavender Is Coming, Mute, Steel) but the good outnumber the bad and every season has some great episodes. After watching six of the ten-episode first season of the new version I found no great, two good and four bad. That’s not a win.

The first episode, The Comedian, runs an hour, which was a mistake: as the original’s  S4 showed, some stories fail simply by being stretched out. The title comic is Samir, who wants to do political humor but flops with it. Then a legendary comic advises Samir to draw on his life for material; the audience loves this approach, but whenever he talks about his dog, his nephew, a coworker, they vanish from existence. In fact, they never existed and only Samir remembers them.

There’s obvious potential here for a metaphor about creative people mining their own lives for material, or how someone with ambition can discard people in their life on the climb to the top. Instead, this tries to fill the hour by going in too many directions; at one point, Samir pulls a Death Note and starts erasing abusers, drunk drivers and other people, but then we’re off in another direction. The story never has the punch it might have.

To give Peele credit, Nightmare at 30,000 Feet doesn’t simply remake the original story about a man seeing a monster destroying the wing of a plane. Instead, nn investigative journalist discovers the Weird Mysteries podcast he’s downloaded to listen to is talking about a mysteriously vanished flight … that’s the exact flight the protagonist is on. Can he figure out what’s happening in time to avert catastrophe? Not a bad concept, but it never built up enough tension for me.

Replay was one of the good ones. Black lawyer Nina (Sanaa Lathan)is driving her son to college when she discovers rewinding her old camcorder can rewind time. This comes in handy when a bigoted cop starts harassing them, but no matter how many times Nina tries changing how she deals with him, nothing can neutralize the threat.I think it’s the best of the ones I watched.

But then comes A Traveler, set in a rural Alaskan police station where Captain Pendleton (Greg Kinnear) shows a suitably Christian compassion by letting one prisoner out of jail; as he doesn’t have anyone this year, Sgt. Mongoyak (Marika Sila) arrests her brother just so Pendleton can free him. But it turns out Mr. A. Traveler (Steven Yuen) is already in jail, claiming that as a YouTuber who covers extreme tourism, he’s there to witness the annual release. Is he telling the truth? Of course not, but the results make it impossible to care.

Wunderkind isn’t good but it was amusing. Failed political consultant Raff (John Cho) spots an 11-year-old, Oliver (Jacob Tremblay), running for president on YouTube. Everyone likes his simplistic proposals so Raff launches a campaign to put Oliver in the White House. Oops: who’d have thought a temperamental, selfish brat running the government was a bad thing? Why yes, I do think this has a point about politics, but it’s not executed well-enough to work. It hand-waves Oliver being too young to get elected and can’t decide if he’s a brat or a child sociopath.

I’d have stopped there but Not All Men sounded too interesting to pass up. Annie (Taissa Farmiga) goes on a date with her coworker Phil but stops short of sleeping with him. Next morning at work, their boss transfers her current project to Phil, telling her she’ll rise farther as his assistant. Coincidence? Then things get really nasty when a meteor shower unleashes the local male population’s worst impulses; can Annie survive? Can she trust that the guy who says he’s not infected is safe?

This is at its best dealing with the little annoyances women have to put up with (“You’d look really cute if you’d smile.”) and the challenge of figuring out what’s really going on (is Phil punishing Annie for not putting out, or is it just their boss favoring the white guy?). The outright violence isn’t as interesting, and I couldn’t buy the reveal the meteors were a placebo, a rationalization for the guys losing control — why would anyone assume the rocks had that effect? Still, it was interesting enough that in another era I might have kept watching. But these days there’s too many alternatives to give this more of a chance.

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A delayed double feature to last week’s movies

One the Night of the Comet commentary track, writer/director Thom Eberhardt listed TARGET EARTH (1954) as an influence on the film, so that was my first choice for viewing last weekend.The film’s opening scenes in which Kathleen Crowley wakes up (having tried and failed to commit suicide by sleeping pills) to find the small city she lives in completely empty are extremely effective. Then she meets up with a similarly baffoed Richard Denning and a couple of party animals; together they figure out that the city was evacuated while they were all passed out for one reason or another. Then the sight of some rather unconvincing robots tells them why everyone else left … meanwhile the military tries to figure out how to stop the robots sent as the first wave of a Venusian invasion.

Despite the robots and the underlying absurdity (I’m familiar with evacuation issues and clearing out a city in 12 hours is impossible), this is pretty good. I don’t like the gangster who wanders in late in the movie but I do like that the protagonists are just trying to survive; they’re not part of the fight against the aliens and don’t really know what’s going on (I used a similar approach in my Atoms for Peace short story The Claws That Catch). “All we can be sure of was that this invasion was not launched by any power upon this Earth!”

Kelli Maroney says Eberhardt told her to watch Carole Lombard in MY MAN GODFREY (1936) for her role as Samantha and I can sort of see why. Lombard’s character is something of a space cadet, a ditzy heiress who recruits derelict William Powell as a find in a scavenger hunt, then gets him to work for her family as the new butler. Much to her annoyance, he refuses to fall in love with her, but her efforts to change his mind keep the movie humming. With Eugene Pallette as Lombard’s grumpy father and Alan Mowbray (to the left of Powell in the post above) as a former college chum of Powell’s. Definitely worth rewatching in its own right. “What does it matter where one puts flowers when one’s heart is broken?”

And to go with Webber’s Phantom of the Opera I rewatched Lon Chaney’s classic silent THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925). While I suspect Webber may have replaced Chaney as the definitive version of this story, this is truly spectacular production in the sets Chaney’s powerful performance and his grotesque makeup (unlike most later versions, Erik here was born a freak; later incarnations were the result of accidents). Another one that’s a pleasure to rewatch, though Christine has a better role in the stage show. “No longer shall I spew venom like a toad.”

I also caught an episode of the old DESILU PLAYHOUSE, The Time Element, which I’ve wanted to see for years because it’s the pilot from which Twilight Zone launched. William Bendix plays a bookie telling psychiatrist Martin Balsam about this recurring dream in which he wakes up in Hawaii — specifically Pearl Harbor, Dec. 6, 1941. Initially he plans to exploit his knowledge and bet on every upcoming sporting event, but then he starts having qualms and tries to warn people about the Day That Will Live In Infamy — but will anyone listen? The version of the grandfather paradox given here doesn’t make sense, but the cast is solid and the situation is effectively intense; it says a lot about the limited exposure to SF most of the audience had back then that Desi Arnaz, as host, reassures viewers this was all the psychiatrist’s imagination. “The U.S.S. Arizona’s never been sunk!”

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A phantom, a fiend, a comet and a captain: media watched this week.

Due to the current quarantine crisis, Andrew Lloyd Webber has begun streaming his musicals on YouTube, free. Last weekend it was THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and as I’ve never seen it on stage, I watched it Sunday morning. Suffice to say, this West End production — the 25th anniversary special — lived up to what I thought it would be (though I thought the chandelier collapse would be more spectacular, nor was Erik’s scarred face). Looks great, good performances and in the equivalent of a post-credits scene they brought out Sarah Brightman (the original Christine) and several past Phantoms including the original, Michael Crawford, all of whom then sang (not Crawford — I’m guessing it’s the vocal strain he’s had to deal with over the years). A real pleasure. “You alone can make my song take flight/It’s over now, the music of the night!”

DESPICABLE ME (2010) is a very oddball animated entry in the genre of Sudden Fatherhood films (which includes Three Men and a Baby, Kenny Rogers’ Sixpack and the TV series Family Affair). Protagonist Gru (Steve Carrell is the kind of diabolical master criminal who’d give a toddler a balloon, then pop it for kicks; as part of his elaborate scheme to steal the moon, he has to adopt three orphan girls, only to discover, inevitably, that they’re exactly what he needed in his lonely life (well, sort of lonely — he has weird minions who eventually got their own spinoff). A part of me wanted to dismiss this as sappy cornball fluff, but it won me over so I guess it’s good sappy cornball fluff. “The physical appearance of the ‘please’ makes no difference.”

I loved NIGHT OF THE COMET (1984) when I saw it in theaters, and I had much the same reaction watching on BluRay (though I’m way too old to crush on Catherine Mary Stewart as I did originally. She and Kelli Maroney play Valley Girl sisters (that California subculture turned up a lot in TV and movies back then) who are among the few survivors when a comet’s tail reduces most of humanity to dust, while transforming those partly exposed into zombies. Fortunately the sisters are Army brats who can fight, shoot and not loose their cool; but even allied with average guy Robert Beltran, can they survive the zombies and Mary Woronov’s sinister scientific cabal?

Writer/director Thom Eberhardt says on one of the commentary tracks that after seeing the movie Valley Girls he wanted to write a movie using that subculture, and combined it with his fondness for “empty city” SF films such as Target: Earth. The results are a blast, not least because it’s an end-of-the-world movie centered around two capable young women instead of the male lead (though making the last good man on Earth Latino was novel too). And while there’s a lot of humor, the movie manages to get the humor/horror balance right. This was my birthday present from TYG and I’m very grateful. “The legal drinking age is now 10 — but you will need ID.”

Using a First Month Free offer I got to stream the first season of CBS’ PICARD, which brings back Patrick Stewart as Captain (okay, now admiral) Picard. Years ago he quit Starfleet when it refused to support his plans to rescue and resettle Romulans facing death when their sun went nova (“Resigning was my backup plan.”). Now a the death of a mysterious woman possibly tied to the late Commander Data convinces Picard to get back in the game and back into space, accompanied by an inevitably scruffy rag-tag crew. Meanwhile, the dead woman’s exact double is working with XBs (Ex Borg) on a deactivated Borg cube in Romulan space. What’s the connection? And why are Romulans so hostile to all forms of artificial intelligence?

The show has some plot holes but Stewart’s tremendous presence anchors it and the supporting cast are excellent, particularly Alison Pill as an AI expert. There are several familiar faces from Next Generation (and one other series), and the show uses them effectively. I don’t know if I’ll pay to stream S2, but maybe … “If you find a way out of this, they should call it the Picard Maneuver — wait, that’s already a thing, isn’t it?”

Alison Pill also appears as another computer whiz in the much less interesting show Devs. I posted a detailed review at Atomic Junkshop.

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Nancy Drew rebranded: the first CW season (with spoilers)

The second half of Nancy Drew‘s freshman season delivered on the first half, but it also disappointed. Disruptions to production from the pandemic crisis mean the last four episodes got kicked over to next season so it wrapped up this week. It’s a satisfactory stopping point: enough stuff resolved to count as a season ender, but a couple of major elements left as cliffhangers.The season launched with the murder of wealthy Ryan Hudson’s wife, but by mid-season another murder had loomed equally important: Lucy Sable, a classmate of Ryan and Nancy’s father Carson, known as “Dead Lucy” after she jumped off a cliff for reasons unknown. At the midseason break, Carson was arrested as the killer; over the second half, Nancy cleared him, solved Tiffany Hudson’s murder and in the process learned Lucy’s ghost has been haunting her because they’re related. As in mother/daughter: Ryan and Lucy were lovers but the conniving Hudsons convinced Lucy he’d rejected her; after she gave birth she gave the baby to the Drews, then killed herself. One of the elements left hanging for next season is that Nancy’s not speaking to Carson right now, resenting that he’s lied to her his entire life.

The second element is that a spirit, the Aglaeca, that she and her friends (whom I think of as the Scooby Drews, but “Drew Crew” seems to be the name online) raised to get evidence to clear Carson. They didn’t deliver the blood price the Aglaeca required and at first it appeared to be very PO’d. Their attempts to placate the Aglaeca failed because, it turns out, they were placating the wrong entity: whatever they summoned is a human ghost, and so the ritual just enraged it. At the end of the episode, the death portents are getting more ominous, including Nancy seeing herself falling over the same cliff as her mother …

The point of this post is not to thumb up the series, though I really like it, but to look at the successful rebranding of Nancy (well played by Kennedy McMann) and her crew. Part of the change is the added diversity I’d expect from any 21st century take: George is Chinese-American, Ned’s black, Bess is a lesbian. The other part, which is less expected, is turning Nancy into a ghostbuster. Dead Lucy and the Aglaeca are only a couple of the spectres and entities haunting Horsehoe Bay, all of which seem to have taken an interest in the Drew Crew.

This doesn’t work for everyone — my brother says he’d have preferred Nancy crack the case and expose the ghosts as fake — but it does for me. I think that’s because even in her new, supernatural environment, Nancy’s still a detective. There are mundane murders and she cracks those; faced with the supernatural she investigates their origins, tries to identify the spirit, figures out its agenda and how to satisfy or thwart it without loss of blood. It’s no different from stopping a mortal killer, except for, you know, the perp is dead.

Making the series a contemporary version of the novels or the Bonita Granville films with greater diversity might have worked, but I think adding the supernatural side was a smart choice. Changes like this don’t always work: the more down-to-Earth Doc Savage of the post-WW II years doesn’t feel like Doc to me and DC’s The Snagglepuss Chronicles didn’t work at all. Nancy Drew pulls it off.

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Flight 828, Freedonia and sabotage: TV and movies

While I enjoyed the first season of MANIFEST, the second season, which wrapped up this week, left me disappointed.

The first season introduced us to the passengers of Flight 828 — most notably siblings Ben and Michaela Stone (Josh Dallas, Melissa Roxburgh) — who disappeared for five years before landing, unaware any extra time had passed. They and the families who wrote them off for dead have to adjust to their new reality, and to the mysterious “callings” in their heads that keep sending them out to save lives.

There’s a lot I like in the second season, such as Jared, Michaela’s ex (he moved on while she was gone, comes back to her, then loses her) accepting it and just becoming a friend, and one passenger founding a church that sees them as agents of God (only to later reconsider whether they’re false prophets of the Biblical end times). But the general tone of the series is that “all things work together for the good,” with the Callings working miracles even when they go against common sense. This is a hard sell for me because it usually comes off way too pat (as in Kiefer Sutherland’s 2012 series Touch), as was the case here. The season climax, involving a trio of drug-dealers getting revenge on Michaela, could have been on any number of cop shows, and one of the B-plots was just ridiculous (even shadowy government conspiracies can’t simply revoke someone’s medical license overnight). I’ll watch S3 if there is one, but I won’t be heartbroken if there isn’t. “For the record, we both turned on me.”

DUCK SOUP (1933) was the last of the Marx Brothers’ anarchic Paramount films, wherein Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) becomes the new leader of Freedonia, which undercuts a neighboring nation’s plot to take over. Fortunately they have two spies (Chico and Harpo) to find Firefly’s weaknesses — that can’t possibly go wrong, can it (“Wednesday we fool Firefly. We not show up.”)? Although this bombed at the box office, it’s wild, funny film with many great lines (“We’ll fight for this woman’s honor, which is more than she ever did!”) but the ending is an unsatisfactory resolution to all that energy; still, it makes me appreciate why MGM imposing a more conventional story structure on the brothers worked against their strengths (with the exception of Night at the Opera). “Will you marry me? Did your husband leave you any money? Answer the second question first.”

After the poor The Secret Agent, Alfred Hitchcock’s back in top form with SABOTAGE (1936), based on Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (retitled to avoid confusion with his previous movie — but that only made me confuse it with Hitch’s later SABOTEUR). Oscar Homolka plays a cinema owner married to Sylvia Sydney, earning a little money on the side by acts of sabotage. Now he’s been given a really big assignment; can the greengrocer next door, who’s actually a Secret Service agent, charm Sydney enough to get the goods on her husband?

This is a well-made movie that shows Hitchcock’s belief that the McGuffin doesn’t matter: like the much later North by Northwest, we never learn what, exactly the  bad guys’ agenda is or what they want. It’s not important. It also shows Hitch’s mastery of suspense: a long sequence involving a character unwittingly carrying a time bomb, and constantly encountering delays before he can drop it off, is an absolute nail-biter. I did find the suspense at the end somewhat overwrought, though; after everything that’s happened, it seems Sydney’s actions are more likely to earn her a medal than jail time. “I don’t think I want any cabbage.”

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Krynoids vs. Rutans: the life of supporting casts

So I recently watched the Doctor Who serial Horror of Fang Rock, an outstanding four-part story. And one of the things that leaped out at me was the supporting cast.

The plot concerns a monster lurking at the Fang Rock lighthouse (an alien Rutan, as we eventually learn), which has begun killing off the keepers when the Doctor and Leela arrive. Midway through the story, a ship crashes on the rocks nearby, due to the owner, Lord Palmerdale, having pushed to reach London. The survivors — Lord Palmerdale, Col. Skinsale, Adelaide and Harker — arrive and become added targets for the monster (it’s a small cast, but the body count is high). But at the same time, they’ve all got their own dynamic going on and it keeps on going as the bodies pile up.

We learn that Palmerdale bought up Skinsale’s debts to pressure the latter, an M.P., into giving him confidential government information. If Palmerdale can reach London, or at least contact them by morning, he’s in the money. Skinsale knows he’s acted dishonorably, so he’s thrilled that Palmerdale can’t act on the information, especially as his lordship burned Skinsale’s IOUs. If he can’t act on the information, too bad.

This affects the plot a little (Skinsale smashes the lighthouse “wireless telegraph” at one point to keep Palmerdale from contacting anyone) but it’s mostly independent. And it makes things much more interesting — regardless of the nightmare they’re stuck in, the men’s personal issues take more precedence (and also fill up more time).

But that’s not the only way to handle supporting casts. At the other extreme we have Seeds of Doom in which the Doctor and UNIT battle the alien Krynoid. The guest cast has none of the agendas Fang Rock‘s do: they serve the story. UNIT’s out to stop the creature; Chase wants to enable it; his henchman want to kill anyone who interferes (nothing personal, they have a job to do); the victims die. But that works too.

For something in the middle, there’s 1936’s Charge of the Light Brigade which I watched last weekend. The plot is a highly fictionalized version of events leading up to the idiotic and suicidal charge at the Battle of Balaclava, but along with the military derring-do there’s a B-plot. Geoffrey (Errol Flynn) is engaged to Elsa (Olivia de Haviland) but she’s fallen in love with his brother Perry (Patric Knowles). Perry, confident Geoffrey will understand, tells him how they feel, but Geoffrey refuses to believe it — of course Elsa doesn’t love Perry! And she can’t bring herself to tell Geoffrey yes, she does. But deep down Geoffrey knows, and as the movie approaches it’s end, he tells Elsa to go and find his brother and be with him. Then Geoffrey makes damn sure Perry is away from the battlefield before the Charge. This triangle doesn’t play as big a role as the financial scheming in Fang Rock but it’s more of a B-plot than the characters got in Seeds of Doom.

Which I guess means I don’t really have any insight. There’s no one right way to handle subplots and the lives of supporting characters; it’s whatever works for the story. Which isn’t a terribly surprising conclusion, but there you are.

#SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holder.

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From Miami to the dawn of time and all points in-between: Movies and TV

Paul Walker’s Brian O’Connor returns in 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS (2003), street-racing in Miami after losing his badge (due to his decision at the end of The Fast and the Furious). Busted by the cops, he agrees to help the cops take down a drug dealer with the help of Brian’s former best friend (Tyrese Gibson) and undercover agent Eva Mendes. I was surprised how much better this played than the first film, whether because of John Singleton’s direction or because the multiple clashing agendas make for more drama as it’s harder to guess who’s selling out whom. I’ll get to the third film eventually though I’m not in a rush. “This is some Dukes of Hazzard shit, bro.”

I wasn’t blown away by MISSION IMPOSSIBLE (1996) when I first caught it but as my friend Ross points out, it has the distinction of lasting six films (with more to come) where attempts to turn The Man From Uncle or Get Smart into a franchise tanked. The film has Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and Claire Phelps (Emmanuelle Béart) the sole survivors when a traitor sells out the IMF; with Ethan fingered by the government as the probable traitor, can they clear his name and catch the real bad guy? Rewatching I found it enjoyable, and certainly well cast, with Jon Voight as Jim Phelps, Ving Rhames and Jean Reno as former IMF agents Ethan recruits and Vanessa Redgrave stealing every scene she’s in as an arms and information broker. The high-tech break-in at the CIA was the least interesting part, compared to the con games used to manipulate their adversaries. And even though it isn’t that faithful to the series (the big twist is one that cropped up a lot in spec scripts and invariably got shot down), it is a glossy, competent action film with a bankable cast, so maybe that’s enough. “Would you care for something from the Ukrainian cinema?”

I used the first season of YOUNGER (2015 to now) mostly as a talking lamp while I was doing other stuff, but it’s pleasant enough for that, and occasionally quite funny. Protagonist Liza (Sutton Foster) is a divorced fortysomething who finds her years out of the workforce make her unemployable. The solution? Reinvent herself as a 20something just starting out, which lands her an editorial assistant, a new buddy (Hilary Duff) and studly 20something boyfriend Josh (Nico Tortorella). Can Liza keep up the pretense? Is Josh becoming more than just a convenient lay? Can Liza fit in with twentysomethings who see the world very differently? The first season ends pretty much where I expected, but it was enjoyable enough getting there. “That was from the Torah? I thought it was from Game of Thrones!”

Based on the same-name novel, THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY (2018) has a writer in post-WW II Britain traveling to the Channel Islands to write the story of the eponymous group and its role in fighting the German occupation (not fictional — Germany really did hold Guernsey and the other islands for a while) only to discover she’s stepped into a complicated drama and has a few of her own to deal with. I couldn’t get into this, but it may have been me rather than the film (COVID-19 worries were bound to distract me sooner or later).

My brother plays Adam in GENESIS — THE BIBLICAL MUSIC EXPERIENCE (2020), a stage show in LA that’s now streaming on Amazon. You’re probably familiar with the story, which starts with Creation, then the Fall, then ends with Noah’s flood and the aftermath, using a video-screen backdrop to expand the action (the sets are simple and sparse, which works fine). This well done with some excellent singing, though I’d have liked it better on stage — this kind of creative staging never looks as good on screen. “Eat not of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

#SFWApro. Adam and Eve by Albrecht Durer, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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