Category Archives: TV

Disappointing action heroes, but also Kat Dennings and John Goodman! Movies and TV

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: Fallout (2018) was a direct sequel to Rogue Nation in which the IMF learns the Syndicate is still running without its leader, and plotting to launch a nuclear terrorist strike so bad the world order will collapse so a better world can arise. Can Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team stop them when CIA spooks Angela Bassett and Henry Cavill (as stiff and uninteresting here as I found him in Enola Holmes) think Hunt might be the real mastermind?

On the plus side, the final fight with the bad guys is truly spectacular and I like that the terrorist strike shows some imagination (contaminating the watershed that provides drinking water for China and the rest of Southeast Asia). And this writes Cruise’s wife (Michelle Monaghan from the third film) out, presumably so Ethan can hook up with Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who also returns from Rogue Nation. On the downside, it says something I couldn’t even remember which mastermind was returning. And once again it appears the initial tape recording message is setting Hunt up, which happens ridiculously often in the movies (Bassett and Cavill lampshade this by pointing out how many times the government has failed or betrayed Hunt). Mostly, it just didn’t engage me — for all their flaws, the best Fast and Furious films are better. In any case, that’s it for this series until next year’s sequel. “I kill women and children with smallpox. I have no line.”

That said, Fallout was Star Wars compared to THE BATMAN (2022), in which Robert Pattinson’s Darknight Detective and Jeffrey Wright’s Commissioner Gordon try to thwart the Riddler, a serial killer murdering government officials involved in a vast coverup and conspiracy. Can Batman stop him? Is it even worth it if the system Batman protects is that corrupt?

Critic Christy Lemire describes this as a gritty 1970s crime thriller with Pattinson playing Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle more than Batman; I agree but unlike Lemire I don’t think it’s a good thing. Pattinson himself is unimpressive, playing Bruce Wayne like he was sleepwalking and giving voiceovers about Gotham crime like he was channeling Watchmen‘s Rohrschach. And the climax, with Gotham on the brink of destruction, has been a cliched third act for Batman movies since R’as tried bringing the city down in the first Nolan film. Color me very unimpressed, though Zoe Kravitz’ Catwoman adds some fun. “Since your justice is so select/tell me which vermin you protect.”

In the second season of DOLLFACE, Jules (Kat Denning), having regained her closest friends at the end of S1, now has to get a handle on the rest of her life — can she find a worthwhile boyfriend? A good job? And Madison, Stella and Izzy all have the same mission. As with the first season, this wraps up well, with the friends all in good places even if they haven’t figured it all out. I’ll be happy to see a third season. “That’s a lot to unpack — but I’ve now unpacked it and its really bad.”

I picked up a DVD of MATINEE (1993) just four years ago, then learned there’s a BluRay with lots of special features, so I ordered it. The story of Laurence Woolsey (John Goodman) premiering the giant bug film Mant! in Key West during the Cuban missile crisis was great fun to rewatch and the special features cover a lot of details about how much the movie draws on director Joe Dante’s life as a monster-movie loving nerd of roughly the same age as the kid protagonists. There’s also a short version of Mant! (Half Man — Half Ant — All Terror!) with more footage than the movie within the movie. Well worth buying. “One of you will have to go to the atomic destruction without Shredded Wheat.”

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All things must change: Doctor Who Season 18

Tom Baker’s last season as the Doctor shook things up in multiple ways. Starting of course, with being Baker’s last season as the Doctor. A total of seven seasons and almost 200 episodes made him the longest-serving Doctor and the definitive one for many people.

Behind the scenes, Jonathan Nathan-Turner took over as showrunner, which led to a vast improvement over s17. Lalla Ward’s Romana, who also departs the TARDIS, comes off a much stronger character and the stories are al superior. We kick off with THE LEISURE HIVE, in which the two Time Lords visit the eponymous alien vacation spot, currently advertising a miracle rejuvenation treatment as an incentive for visitors. But the treatment has some problems and then the murders start … Not spectacular, but a solid start. “They’re doing interesting things with tachyons.”

I have absolutely no memory of seeing MEGLOS, even though I know I must have. It’s not the fault of the story which involves an alien intellect hidden in a cactus duplicating the Doctor’s body to steal a doomsday McGuffin. Can the Doctr save the alien culture that owns it, and is already falling apart over a science/religion dispute? Jacqueline Hill (one of the original companions) plays the religious leader though they don’t make much of that. But Romana battling the killer tulip I could have done without. “Let’s hope many hands make the lights work.”

Then the Doctor finally follows orders and brings Romana back to Gallifrey … except instead they wind up trapped in the vaguely explained Exospace for three serials. in FULL CIRCLE they land on a planet where shipwrecked travelers have been trying for generations to launch their ship and survive the attacks of the monstrous Marshmen. But the leaders have a secret about the colony’s history that they’re not telling…. this introduced Adric (Matthew Waterhouse), a mathematical prodigy, as the first of the new Companions for S19. He’s a little stolid for me, but by the start of the following season he’s improving. “We can’t return to Tramadon … because we’ve never been.”

STATE OF DECAY has the TARDIS land on another planet where the peasantry are under the thumb of hree sinister rulers who emerge in the dark and have sharp fangs — and did I mention there are a lot of bats flying around? A throwback to the horror stories of S15, it’s not at the same level but it is good. “In terms of applied socio-energetics, this society is losing its grip on level two development.”

As I have a soft spot for weird reality-warped TV stories (though I can be critical of them precisely for the same reason), I really enjoyed WARRIOR’S GATE. The TARDIS materializes on a space freighter using alien warriors to navigate the convoluted time-space of the area; outside the ship there’s nothing but white space and the broken-off front of an ancient building. The Doctor and Romana eventually figure out what’s going on and Romana sees her way out of returning to Gallifrey — staying in E-Space with K9 to liberate the warriors from other slavers (surprisingly most expanded universe stories about Romana have her return to Normal Space rather than stick around in E-Space). The Doctor and Adric return to N-Space. “A busted engine and a lost navigator — we have nowhere to to and no way to get there!’

No sooner do they arrive than THE KEEPER OF TRAKEN, leader of a benevolent union of worlds, summons them to his planet for help. Thanks to his power, evil intrusions manifest as statues and eventually shrivel away — but the latest Melkur hasn’t withered. It turns out that all is not well among the leaders of Traken and whoever’s behind the Melkur is taking full advantage of it. Can Adric, The Doctor and Nyssa (Sarah Sutton), daughter of Traken councilor Tremas (Anthony Ainsley), uproot the menace and destroy it?

This is a good one to start with and more memorable because the “who” behind the Melkur is the Master, returning for the first time since The Deadly Assassin. This story has a lot in common with that one — an ineffective bureaucracy facing a succession crisis, the Doctor suspected of murder, the Master lurking — but it stands on its own. At the end it appears the Master’s done for … until he traps Tremas and steals his body, making up for having used up his own regenerations. “Find your TARDIS, Time Lord — much good may it do you now.”

The season and Baker’s tenure close with the excellent LOGOPOLIS. The Doctor realizes that even in England his TARDIS’ outer shell is out of place — police boxes were largely phased out by then — so he turns to Logopolis, where their mental mastery of “block computation” will enable him to remake the TARDIS’ chameleon circuit. The Master is out to destroy him as usual, but when he arrives on Logopolis, where the monastic inhabitants are engaged in strange computations, he decides to shake things up by killing a few of them (this season was when shrinking people to death became his signature move).

Bad mistake. It turns out that the universe has already achieved heat death; Logopolis has been staving off the entropic end of everything by maintaining wormholes into other universes until it can open up a permanent gate. The Master’s killing so many people has shut the wormholes down so now entropy is catching up. Very fast. In the end, the Doctor and the Master have to work together to save the universe, but surprise, the Master pulls a double-cross! Fortunately the end has been prepared for …

Ainsley’s Master is more a malevolent mustache twirler than the restrained, sociopathic intellectual of the Pertwee years but he works as the new archfoe (he worked much better when I hadn’t seen Delgado in years). Nyssa winds up joining the cast — not only is her father dead, the entropic collapse wiped out the Traken Union — and so does Tegan Jovanka (Janet Fielding, above left). An Aussie air hostess who tries using the TARDIS to call the cops, she winds up trapped inside. I’ve read that adding her to the cast — the first Earth companion since Hand of Fear — was so that there’d be a non-tech person who could ask for exposition (something K9 and Romana hardly needed). They didn’t make her dumb, and she’s the most opinionated, short-tempered companion in … forever? All the ingredients are in place for Peter Davison’s first season as the Fifth Doctor, but that’ll have to wait until my next post.  “This was the work of the most brilliant master criminal in the universe!”

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The Aliens Are Here: What You Can Expect

As McFarland have the cover ready for The Aliens are Here (originally titled Alien Visitors so you’ll find relevant blog posts under both tags) I’m guessing it’ll be out before the end of the year. So here’s a preview of what it’ll cover.

The introduction covers the general history of alien visitors in fiction, then film and TV. It also delves into “real” encounters with ETs because UFOlogy is deeply interwoven with fictional saucers. Movies adapt “true” stories (The UFO Incident, Fire in the Sky); UFO encounters borrow from film (sightings went up after Day the Earth Stood Still came out).

Subsequent chapters include an overview introducing the topic, then a detailed look at two or three movies:

Alien Invaders: The 1953 War of the Worlds, Spielberg’s remake and Independence Day.

Friendly Aliens: The 1951 Day the Earth Stood Still and V — because sometimes when they say they come in peace, they’re lying.Alien infiltrators: Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, both the 1956 and 1978 versions. It took some work to say something fresh and not just copy what I wrote in Screen Enemies of the American Way but I think I succeeded.Alien superheroes: Superman and Superman II.

UFO Abductions: Fire in the Sky and The Fourth Kind.

Alien Immigrants: Brother From Another Planet and Alien Nation.

Alien impregnation: Village of the Damned (both versions) and the 1964 Children of the Damned.

Ancient Astronauts: Quatermass and the Pit and Eternals.

Alien Monsters: The Thing From Another World, John Carpenter’s The Thing and The Andromeda Strain.

Alien Romance: Starman.

Aliens and Kids: E.T., The Whispers and The Faculty.

Alien Comedies: Tribulation 99, The Coneheads and Resident Alien.

Government cover-ups: The X-Files.

Genre Mashups: Predator, Predator 2 and Attack of the 50-Foot Woman.

I also include some shorter synopses of other films or TV shows in the same subgenre, and a list of added productions at the end of each chapter.

You’ll know more about its progress through editing when I do.

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Women of the suburbs, the West and the future

THE DAY THE WOMEN GOT EVEN (1980) was a TV “cozy” pilot about four suburban women (Barbara Rhoades, Georgia Engel, Jo Ann Pflug and Tina Louise) with an interest in theater who discover Julie Hagerty (soon to be much better known for airplane) is suicidal over being blackmailed by a sleazeball producer with nude shots from her “audition.” Can they take the sleazeball down with their acting skills and the help of a street-smart Latino sidekick? I’m guessing this bland film was inspired by North Avenue Irregulars, a Disney housewives vs. crooks film from the previous year, not that knowing this makes it more interesting. “Pardon me but do you have a brother in Savannah?”

CAT BALLOU (1965) is a great deal more fun, though some of the elements (a Sioux played by a guy in redface, plus scalping jokes!) haven’t aged well. And as you can see, the movie had to qualms playing up sex along with the humor (the trailer makes the most of the star’s looks). Jane Fonda plays Katherine Ballou, back in the West after a few years at finishing school. Unfortunately the town has been taken over by corrupt business interests willing to do anything to drive her father off his land, including hiring a murderous gunfighter (Lee Marvin).

As the two outlaws she’s fallen in with are hardly tough guys, Cat recruits the legendary Kid Shelleen (Marvin too) only to discover he’s a pathetic, broken-down drunk (“He did it! He missed the barn!”). The odds are against her but Cat’s very determined … A good Western parody that netted Marvin an Oscar for his double role. Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole play a banjo-strumming Greek chorus, a detail I liked but I’ve had friends who thought it was ridiculous. “There are a lot of people who are just as depraved and cowardly as they think they are.”

After watching the second season of EXTANT (S1 review here), I wish I’d finished the series before finishing The Aliens Are Here. Mollie’s (Hallee Berry) half-alien son initially appears to remake Species, propagating his kind by impregnating women who die giving birth to the aliens. By the time Molly catches up with him, the hybrids have adapted: they don’t have to kill to reproduce. But the authorities don’t see it that way and they’re about to unleash an army of Humanich soldiers to eliminate the threat. Fortunately there’s no way letting a bunch of humanoid machines off the leash could go wrong, right? The suggestion that we and the hybrids can actually share the Earth is refreshing compared to all the othering I usually witness. “A super-computer in charge of an army of killer robots — it’s a futurist’s nightmare.”

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Chocky and her offspring

Back last summer I watched the BBC’s 1984 Chocky for The Aliens Are Here. I didn’t devote much space to it, as it’s a British production, but it was worth noting as an example of an ET Pied Piper guiding a human child — in this case with good intentions.

Finally I got around to reading the source novel, John Wyndham’s Chocky. It turns out the BBC version is extremely faithful to Wyndham’s story. Mark, a middle-class father, is bemused when his twelve-year-old, Matthew, suddenly acquires an imaginary friend, Chocky. Mark and his wife are more bemused when Matthew starts asking questions — why does it take two humans to reproduce — and arguing with his new friend over whether the family car is a crude means of transportation (Matthew’s very proud of the new car). And how is it Matthew’s math scores and his performance in art are suddenly through the roof?

Much like Wyndyham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, Chocky has come for our children. In this case, though, her goal is compassionate. Alien life is rare and like the rest of her people, she (the aliens are unisex, but Matthew decided Chocky is bossy like a girl) feels a duty to help it flourish. She planned to steer Matthew towards tapping cosmic energy as a clean power source; however he’s attracted attention from powerful people who would like to exploit his knowledge, so best she backs off. There are other children and next time she’ll be a little more subtle …

In contrast to the Triffids or the Cuckoos, this book gives us a genuinely friendly alien. With no real threat, it’s very low-key — even Matthew’s kidnappers are quite civilized and considerate — but even knowing what’s coming I found it engaging.

While Wyndham only gave us the one book, the BBC followed Chocky up in 1985 with CHOCKY’S CHILDREN. Matthew meets up with Albertine, a tween math genius, and discovers they can communicate telepathically. He soon realizes Albertine must be another of Chocky’s protegés, but unfortunately the men who kidnapped him once are still watching … In having the children come together it’s reminiscent of Children of the Damned. However where Chocky was for adults, this is much more kid-centric — though even by that standard, the final episode devotes way too much time to the kids’ fathers working things out. “After what happened with Matthew, I thought it best to keep myself secret from my other children.”

Finally things wrapped up with CHOCKY’S CHALLENGE (1986), with Matthew largely absent as Albertine leads a crew of teen geniuses in developing a cosmic energy power source. Unfortunately what Chocky intends as a gift for humanity, the military sees as a way to launch rockets cheaper and more efficiently (the power creates anti-gravity for flight). As Chocky’s determined to share her knowledge with the world, clearly the government must Do Something …

This follows Wyndham’s low-key approach; one astronomer, realizing she was wrong and Albertine right, immediately drops her opposition to the kids’ research. However the military response, which involves putting one of the kids in a coma for life, seems over the top even for kids’ show villains. And ultimately this doesn’t have the spark the original novel did. Still, I’ve certainly watched worse. “There will be times that your minds will ache with pain.”

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A product of its storytelling time, but in a good way: V

Dealing with Trixie’s diarrhea kept me too zonked to watch any movies last weekend. That works out well as I realized when writing up movies watched for The Aliens Are Here, I forgot the two-part TV movie V (1983), even though it’s one of the films I spotlight. Rewatching it after so many years made me appreciate what a remarkable movie it is, and how it’s very much the product of its time.

For once I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s a product of the era when complex, multi-story TV shows with big casts were in vogue. First came Hill Street Blues (1981), a serious drama about cops operating out of the Hill Street station, then St. Elsewhere and LA Law. Kenneth Johnson’s ambitious script fits the same mode: more than 50 speaking parts (he didn’t even give them names in the treatment he gave NBC, figuring The Cameraman and The Thief would be easier to follow) in multiple plotlines and individual dramas: a thief rebelling against family expectations, a doctor whose marriage collapses, a loser who sees new opportunities in a world conquered by alien fascists.

Johnson originally pitched this to NBC programming guru Brandon Tartikoff as Storm Warning, about a homegrown fascist takeover of the United States (something the 1968 movie Shadow on the Land tried unsuccessfully). Tartikoff replied that audiences would find it easier if the USSR or China conquered us but Johnson wanted to spin off a series and didn’t think that would fly. Alien fascists was the solution.

In the opening scenes we meet the massive cast, though it turns out many of them are tied together, either by family or living in the same neighborhood. Key players include medical student/biochemist Juliet Parrish (Faye Grant), reporter Donovan (Marc Singer), Holocaust survivor Abraham (Leonard Cimino), Julie’s colleague Ben Taylor (Richard Lawson) and Ben’s brother, burglar Elias (Michael Wright). The cast includes men, women, teens and seniors, black, white and Hispanic (nobody gay — that was a rare thing still in 1980s TV, and rarer to be done well).

We meet Donovan and his partner Tony (Evan Kim) reporting on a rebel camp in El Salvador. At the time the U.S. backed Salvadorian government was deploying death squads to execute “communists,” which often meant “teaching the peasants to read and count so they know if their contracts and paychecks are fair.” The movie thereby declares its politics, much like Rick in Casablanca having run guns to anti-fascists in Ethiopia and Spain.

The government forces arrive and a chopper is about to blast Donovan when it suddenly flees. Turning around, Donovan sees a giant saucer flying behind him, which turns out to be one of several appearing around the world (because of budget limitations these were done by the traveling matte process, something akin to a double exposure, rather than models). The result is 24/7 news coverage including interviews with an off-screen Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke. Eventually a shuttle craft lands and the aliens, to everyone’s relief, turn out to be human, except for their strange voices (Johnson says that was to simplify the plot choices — the Visitors can’t pass among us unnoticed). They’re here to obtain chemicals their planet needs; in return, they offer scientific breakthroughs.

Even so the reactions range from wariness to enthusiasm (Kenner puts out a full line of Visitor action figures and ships) to calculated ambition: Donovan’s mother Eleanor (Neve Patterson) quickly sucks up to them to ensure her businessman second husband gains an edge in whatever business transactions develop. Her ambition captures a running theme in the show, power: who has it? Who fights it? Who kisses it’s ass?

Unsurprisingly, things soon go pear-shaped. The Visitors discover a cabal of scientists plotting to exploit their technology (they make public confessions); outraged, they have no choice but to seize control of the world’s governments. Julie and other scientists become pariahs, the counterpart to Jews in the Visitors’ New World Order. This didn’t entirely work for me — unlike Jews, “scientist” isn’t a sharply defined group and they don’t have centuries of hate against them. Recent anti-covid reactions against doctors and health officials prove it’s not as farfetched as I thought. Julie’s stockbroker husband finds he’s losing a lot of business from being married to a scientist, which ends the marriage; surprisingly he vanishes from the story after that, including the various sequels.

As the Visitors tighten their grip, Julie and some of the other characters form a resistance cell. Julie slides into leadership without trying. When they’re not sure what to do, she suggests something; when nobody volunteers, she does. As leadership duties pile up, she comes close to cracking, but takes advice from a friend to just bluff her way through — nobody will know. Putting a woman in a leadership role was a novel idea back then, and it’s impressive still today. I’d figured Grant for a rising star but after she married Stephen Collins she wound up staying home with the kids.

Donovan, who eventually hooks up with Julie’s resistance cell, learns the truth about the Visitors. First, under their human masks they’re reptilians. The chemicals are a red herring; their goal is to drain Earth of its water and abduct most of the population. Some will be brainwashed into fighting in Visitor wars elsewhere; some will be food. The cabal of scientists doesn’t exist: their confessions were the result of Visitor scientist Diana’s (Jane Badler) brainwashing techniques.

A number of alien invasion movies such as Battleship or Independence Day thoroughly Other the aliens (I’ll be blogging about that soon). They’re monsters, fiends, merciless, and want nothing but to exterminate the human race. They won’t have any mercy so we don’t have to. V doesn’t go that way. There’s a resistance that makes common cause with the human rebels, as well as non-resistance good aliens such as Willie (Robert Englund, before he became big with Nightmare on Elm Street). Some humans are happy to go Nazi (so to speak): along with Eleanor, teenage Daniel (David Packer) is a frustrated loser whose new role in the equivalent of the Hitler Youth gives him power and influence he’s never tasted before. He doesn’t use them well. At the end of the series, all the sides — Visitors, resistance, rebels, quislings — are set up for more adventures.

V set records in the ratings and Johnson was optimistic it could go to series. NBC told him they couldn’ afford it, so he proposed a series of TV movies instead; NBC didn’t bite (later Johnson’s Alien Nation TV series on Fox did wrap up its plotlines by going this route). Johnson then wrote V: The Final Battle to wrap things up but didn’t think the budget would let him do a good job and walked away. It’s good, but not as good; the one-season series that followed isn’t good at all.

This one was a pleasure to rewatch. I highly recommend it.

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Two that didn’t work for me (and why)

Can we learn from failure? With the obvious caveat that one viewer’s failure is another viewer’s work of genius, yes. Caution: spoilers ahead.

UNDERMIND (1965) is a British series I started watching for The Aliens Are Here, then dropped when it didn’t appear to have an ET element (I was wrong, but I’m focused primarily on US TV so no big). Anne Herriot (Rosemary Nicols) and her brother-in-law Drew (Jeremy Wilkin) discover Drew’s brother Frank has been brainwashed into committing acts of sabotage. Frank is unusually sensitive to high frequency sound, which is the method fo control; Drew and Anne stop the sabotage plot (Frank dies) but realize there are others out there. The enemy, whoever they are, will stop at nothing to see Britian … undermined.

What follows is a variety of plotlines dealing with ripped-from-the-headlines stuff (prostitution, corrupt politicians and juvenile delinquency) mixed in with more tongue in cheek stories: using children’s books to make them accepting of human sacrifice, arranging for incompetent students to cheat on their tests so that Britain’s best will be incompetent, unimaginative failures. A plot about Irish opposition to British rule treats the Irish as comic-relief seniors when (according to this review) the “Troubles” were already ramping up. The comedy could have worked on The Avengers but we’re supposed to take Undermind more seriously.

Doctor Who writer Robert Holmes comes on for the last two episodes and does as good a job as possible wrapping things up. It turns out “Undermind” is extraterrestrial-based (they’d hedged on the possibility before) but the sonic brainwashing is wearing off; an agent in British intelligence tries to reboot their puppets but fails. In the process we learn their agenda is to build a stargate that will bring their invasion forces to Earth. Of course that raises the question of why they bother with tricks involving children’s literature or discrediting politicians; we don’t get an answer. On the whole it’s watchable, but not satisfying. And the ending for Anne — she’s dating one of the security men they met in the course of the adventure — comes as out of the blue as Leila pairing off at the end of Doctor Who: Invasion of Time. “You can’t legislate against an alien radio signal!”

IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON (2019) is a lot less watchable. In 1988, several people’s heads mysteriously explode; Lockhart (Boyd Holbrook), a cop, becomes convinced there’s a serial killer behind it.When he meets her, Rya (Cleopatra Coleman) knows a lot about him and also that she’s going to die, accidentally, in a matter of minutes. She does — but several years later there’s another wave of exploding heads and Rya shows up again.

Having literally written the book on movie time travel. it wasn’t hard to guess that Rya was a time traveler, and that she was also Lockhart’s granddaughter. In a more entertaining movie that would be forgivable but this one’s too much a plodding obsessed cop vs. relentless killer yarn.

What makes it a failure, though, is the backstory. It turns out Rya isn’t killing at random: she’s changing the future to prevent a 2024 terrorist incident (implied to be 9/11 level) followed by civil war. Rya is using time-travel tech developed by Dr. Rao (Rudi Dharmalingam), who explains her mission to Lockhart midway through the film. Rather than just kill the people who led the country into Civil War, she’s out to kill the people who inspired them with their ideas. His comparison is that to stop the 1860 Civil War it wouldn’t be enough to kill Lincoln, Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee — you’d have to kill the people who influenced and inspired them to see Civil War as the answer.

Dude, WTF? Are writers Gregory Weidman and Geoff Tock seriously equating Jefferson Davis, who led a secessionist nation founded on race-based slavery, with Abraham Lincoln, an opponent of slavery? And the script makes it sound as if civil war was the idea in 1860, rather than stemming from two conflicting underlying ideas, that humans can become property or that they can’t. Spoiler, these ideas are not comparable; it’s not “there’s some good and bad on both sides.” Slavery is bad. Treating human beings as property is bad.

Nor is it easy to see how this maps to a near-future civil war, but perhaps that’s the point. By implying both sides in whatever conflict lies ahead are equally objectionable the movie doesn’t have to take sides; by not saying what the conflict is about, it avoids offending anyone. But when you’re going back and killing people who, according to Rao, are not directly responsible for what happened, it requires a clear case to convince me that right is on Rya’s side (Lockhart eventually sides with her). If the movie were a lot better otherwise, that would still sink it for me. “If it begins with you warning me here on this beach then it always ends with me dying.”

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Criminals, sex and an archivist: movies and TV

The 2016 SUICIDE SQUAD left me unsatisfied but the 2021 sequel, SUICIDE SQUAD, works much better. As Amanda Waller, Viola Davis sends a team including Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), King Shark (Sylvester Stallone), Bloodsport (Idris Elba) and Peacemaker (Joe Cena) into a Latin American country with the mission to penetrate an ancient fortress and destroy Project Starfish, secret research that ties in to a certain gigantic alien invader …

This is much more a typical Suicide Squad mission than the first film and it plays out well, with plenty of twists and a solid cast. My only major complaint would be the Thinker as the evil scientist in residence. In comics the Thinker is either a cunning schemer or wears a psionic “thinking cap”; the movie guy is a generic villain who might as well have been called Evil McSciencePants.“Why would someone put penises all over the beach?”

While I associate British TV writer Nigel Kneale primarily with Quatermass, it’s far from his only accomplishment. THE YEAR OF THE SEX OLYMPICS (1968) is set in a Brave New World where the government has staved off the population explosion by broadcasting so much porn and erotica viewers have been desensitized into asexuality. The programmers (including Brian Cox, who played the first screen Hannibal Lector in Manhunter) are feeling pressure from the higher-ups over tanking ratings — viewers are getting almost too apathetic — so they give in to one restless young man who wants to experience something real. He, his lover and an orphan girl set up as a nuclear family on one of the Scottish islands, trying to rough it in the real world. But they’re not ready and it turns out there are plot twists they haven’t been warned about … Oddly prescient about reality TV and grimly effective in its drama. “They think the show’s over — now it gets real super-king!”

Netflix’s ARCHIVE 81 is an effective series starring Mamoudou Athie as Dan, a film restoration expert hired by high-powered CEO Virgil (Martin Donovan) to recover some old videotapes taken at the Visser, the apartment building where the rest of Dan’s family died in a fire back in ’95. Through the tapes he becomes familiar with the filmmaker, Melody (Dina Shihabi), who’s making a documentary at the Visser and discovering ominous things such as the cult that meets in the rec room. What’s going on at the Visser? What’s Virgil’s real agenda? And is Dan really alone in Virgil’s isolated corporate compound? This was a really good horror series but for me it didn’t stick the landing. It felt like a one-season-and-done arc but instead it ends on a cliffhanger. I found that unsatisfying, but I’ll still watch if it comes back for S2. “This mold is a manifestation of the divine.”

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Aesthetes, super-freaks, a dead guy and the 4400: this week’s viewing

Last year the Delta variant shut down the Durham Savoyards’ plans to stage Gilbert and Sullivan’s PATIENCE live so the went online (if you want to start with the overture, it’s here). They did a really amazing job adapting the story of Bunthorne — an “aesthetic sham” who spouts poetry to impress his female admirers — Patience, the unsullied milkmaid who has never known love and Algernon, the paragon of poetic perfection who steals her heart and that of the other women.

While the 19th century aesthetic movement (at one point Gilbert considered making it about rival curates instead, but decided mocking the church without offending the audience would be too tricky) is hardly a burning issue for most of us, pretentious artists and their groupies are still a ripe topic for satire. The script also mocks the Victorian meloramatic assumptions about love being unselfish and the twisting logic that leads to.

The Savoyards did a great job adapting Patience to an online environment, having much of the discussion take place in Discord chat rooms or Zoom conferences, with memes flowing in the chat channel (“They say I sleep too much — but I’m just dreaming of you!”). The end results were delightful and I recommend catching them if you’re into Gilbert and Sullivan. “I was the beau ideal of the modern aesthetical/To doubt my inspiration was regarded as heretical/Until you cut me out with your placidity emetical!”

THE DOOM PATROL opened its third season by wrappig up the Covid-shortened S2, with Caulder and his grumpy team putting an end to the Candlemaker. Things get livelier as we move into the real third season: a mysterious time traveler appears, the Doom Patrol dies, Rita travels back in time, the Sisterhood of Dada appears and so do some of the team’s Silver Age foes. It’s a weird, quirky mess in the best way, much more enjoyable than S2 was. “Jane dresses like a deranged sock puppet.”

THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY (1955) was one of my least favorite Hitchcock films when I first caught it and rewatching does not improve it. Harry is a dead guy found in the woods outside a small New England town — did Ed Gwenn accidentally pot him while hunting? Was it Mildred Natwick or Harry’s ex, Shirley Maclaine? Can artist John Forsythe get them all out of it? The running gag is that none of the cast really care about Harry except as an inconvenient problem, about as annoying as a speeding ticket; that might have worked for an Alfred Hitchcock Presents half-hour episode but it stretches to the breaking point here.

The Hitchcock Romance does make an interesting case that this the flip side of the small communities seen in Shadow of a Doubt and Rear Window, the difference being there’s no murderer here: the core cast are all innocents, none of them mistrusts or suspects the others of lying about their ties to the dead guy. I think that’s spot on, but I still don’t care for the film at all. That wouldn’t interest you, doctor — it’s purely personal and not medical.”

When the CW announced it was reviving THE 4400 I was puzzled why — sure, I liked the show, but it wrapped up in 2007; is 15 years long enough in the past a revival is necessary? Much to my surprise, though, it worked. The emphasis here is that the alien abductees mysteriously returned to Detroit are predominantly black, including a trans doctor from the Harlem Renaissance, a woman civil rights activist from the early 1960s and a black lawyer who vanished just 15 years ago — which is still time enough to have transformed the people she loves. And of course the ruthless government agents and bullying cops now feel like the evening news, rather than just something knocking off The X-Files. I do hope this makes it back for S2. “The answers you think you want will only lead to your death nd the death of hose you love.”

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A whole lot of mysteries

ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING was a 2021 comedy-mystery series from Hulu. Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez star as three residents of the Arconia apartment building. When one of Mabel’s friends is murdered, the trio strike up a friendship; discovering they’re all fans of true-crime podcasts, they launch their own. Which, of course, requires investigating the mystery: could fellow resident Sting be the killer? What is Mabel (Gomez) hiding from the guys? Who poisoned a neighbor’s obnoxious cat? Solidly cast (Nathan Lane and yes, Sting) this was a great deal of fun. I genuinely did not see how it would play out (I spotted a couple of twists along the way) which is a plus. While I normally find climactic reveals that the killer is insane disappointing, the show even got that to work.  “I understand now why all those doctors were so mean to Doogie Howser.”

NANCY DREW only had 13 episodes this season (S3 — reviews of S1 and S2 at the links) which I hope isn’t a bad sign. That said, it was a solid season as Nancy and the Drew Crew become entangled with Nancy’s ancestor Temperance (Olivia Taylor Dudley), having broken the spell laid by the Women in White that kept Temperance away from Horseshoe Bay. All she wants, though, is help reuniting with the spirit of her deceased daughter — surely that’s not so bad, is it? There were also some great humorous bits such as crashing a mystery convention and learning George Fan (Leah Lewis) has “Fan Fans” who see her as a daring ghostbuster ably supported by her sidekick Nancy. This has enough cliffhangery stuff in the final episode I really want it back — but hey, I’m a fan so I’d have wanted it back anyway (the CW has yet to confirm or deny S4). “So they’re evil relic-hunters who also sell their homemade crafts online?”

After watching that Sherlock Holmes collection I got for Christmas, I decided to rewatch the other Arthur Wontner Sherlock Holmes films in my library. Unfortunately one of the DVDs fell out of another boxed set so all I have on hand is Wontner’s THE SIGN OF FOUR (1932). As I remembered, a much stronger film than Wontner’s first, The Sleeping Cardinal (review at the link), adapting the second Holmes story well. “If you absolutely insist on weeping, may I offer my shoulder?”

Shifting away from mystery — THE EMPIRE OF CORPSES (2015) is a steampunk anime set in an alt.history where Victor Frankenstein’s research has led to reanimated corpses functioning as everything from the servant class to cannon fodder (“It’s said only The One that Frankenstein created had a soul.”). M of British intelligence recruits medical student Jon Watson to race the Russian scientist Karamazov to obtaining Victor’s Lost Notebooks and attaining true power of life over death. This mash-up of Doyle and Mary Shelly sounded intriguing but the film’s a generic adventure for two-thirds of the running time. “The sublime won’t be missed in a world unable to contemplate it.”

With the core Fast and Furious series winding down, the franchise branched out with FAST AND FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS AND SHAW (2019). Squabbling tough guys Hobbs (Duane Johnson) and Shaw (Jason Stathairn) go up against cyborg Idris Elba (“We’re being chased by the Terminator?”) to save Shaw’s sister, who’s fleeing Elba with a capsule containing a doomsday virus (like No Time to Die, it can be tailored to wipe out people with specific DNA strains). This is way more tedious than any of the main series, with Hobbs and Shaw playing endless rounds of Whose Is Bigger and long stretches of mindless action. Hobbs and his daughter were much more engaging in conversation. “What I’m upset about is that Jon Snow had sex with his aunt, then killed her and nobody seems to care.”

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