Category Archives: TV

Librarians, Dungeons and Dragons, mad science and cartoons: movies and TV

The fourth and final season of THE LIBRARIANS has the team coping with not only a new wave of magical threats but the need to tether the Library to reality (a ritual that will put more responsibility on Flynn than he’s ready for) and the return of Flynn’s original Guardian, Nicole (from the first Librarian TV movie, Quest for the Spear), immortal and very pissed off. The usual fun, though while the ending (involving banishing the Library and the dystopia that results) was good, it wasn’t great (possibly because I’ve seen too many stories where a last minute bit of time travel resolves everything). “They say you can kill a man but not an idea — but I did just that, I killed the idea of the Library!”

Right-wing Christian Jack Chick became legendary for his bizarre “Chick Tracts,” comic strips showing how watching Dark Shadows or playing Dungeons and Dragons would damn your soul to Hell. The short film DARK DUNGEONS (2014) is a comedy fantasy that takes the latter premise literally: two nice young Christian college women are seduced into playing D&D (“People have tried to get those RPGers off campus, but they’re just too popular!”), after which one of them turns to Satanism to get real magical power while the other snaps under the strain. Fun, but the elements it adds to the original don’t all work, from errors (clerics don’t cast magic missile) to making Debbie as ignorant about Christianity in the end bit as she was in the Tract, even though she’s now written as Christian. And throwing Cthulhu into the mix felt like they didn’t have enough faith in their premise. Still, I did enjoy this. “I am proud to announce that more people have decided to become homosexuals this year than ever before!”

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974) didn’t lighten the purging phase of colonoscopy prep as much as I expected so I didn’t laugh as much as I usually do. Still, it’s never a waste of time to watch Frankenstein descendant Gene Wilder reanimate dead flesh, Marty Feldman robbing a brain depository (“It was someone called … Abby Normal.”), Teri Garr showing off her knockers (it may show a generational gap that while I think of this as her big role, TYG thought of Mr. Mom), Cloris Leachman gets outed as Victor’s ex (“He was my — boyfriend!”), Peter Boyle tap dances and Richard Haydn and Kenneth Mars round out the cast. “Tonight we shall hurl the gauntlet of science into the frightful face of death itself!”

THE TOP 10 FORGOTTEN CARTOONS OF ALL TIME doesn’t live up to its billing; the cartoons are perfectly entertaining, but they’re not better than lots of other obscure ‘toons I’ve seen (as four of them come from the 1930s Rainbow Parade series, I wonder if rights to that series influenced what was picked). Still, I did enjoy watching a rabbit trying to wear out a hound dog the night before a hunt, honeymoon couples going “Dancing on the Moon,” an RCMP-clad Cupid uniting two squabbling neighbors, the Toonerville Trolley comic strip coming to life and the rough-hewn mutt Dog Face protesting against being a pampered pet. The weakest was probably the one I was most interested in, Ub Iwerks’ (Disney’s partner in Walt’s early career) “Happy Days,” about a group of kids going fishing. “If he’s a real burglar, I’m Seabiscuit — wait, I am Seabiscuit!”

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Enter Tom Baker, Davros and Harry Sullivan; Fourth Doctor, First Season

They say your first Doctor is your favorite, but I think I like Tom Baker in DOCTOR WHO even more than William Hartnell.

None of the Doctors have much use for the powers that be. William Hartnell sneered at them, Patrick Troughton shrugged them off, John Pertwee snarked at them. Baker meets them with a mocking smile, like a michievious kid who can’t wait to pull a trick on some stuck-up twit. All the Doctors stir up trouble, but the Fourth Doctor relishes the opportunity.

Baker’s stories are probably the episodes I’ve seen most, because they ran in constant daily rotation on PBS in the 1970s. The first season holds up well, though the special effects get pretty bad — worse than most past seasons, I think, because they’re a little more ambitious.

The first serial, Robot, is a Pertwee UNIT story, reminiscent of Invasion of the Dinosaurs: a cabal of technocrats plots to build a perfect world, and steals an unstoppable super-robot to do it. It adds Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter) as a new companion, so that if Baker wasn’t suited to action scenes, they’d have someone to handle them. Baker was perfectly suited, so Harry wound up being superfluous, often little more than a buffoon, particularly as Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane) and Baker played off each other well. Most significantly, this serial establishes that regeneration is a normal Time Lord ability in contrast to a freak power of the TARDIS (Hartnell to Troughton) or compelled by the Time Lords (Troughton to Pertwee).

THE ARK IN SPACE is a much stronger story, the first to use the horror elements that would be a recurring part of the next few seasons. The Doctor, Sarah and Harry arrive on an orbiting space ark holding humans in suspended animation against the day when polluted Earth becomes livable again. The day has arrived, but so have the Wirrn, insectoid parasite s laying their eggs on the Ark and whose larva have taken over Noah, the ark’s leader.

That leads directly into THE SONTARAN EXPERIMENT, a two-part serial. On behalf of the space station survivors, the Doctor, Sarah and Harry check out Earth to see if it’s really livable. Wouldn’t you know, a Sontaran has captured some of the few surviving Earthlings as a run-up to taking over the planet. This one is competent, but effective.


And then came THE GENESIS OF THE DALEKS, one of the all-time classics. The Time Lords tell the Doctor that the Daleks will inevitably conquer the universe unless someone aborts their creation. The Doctor, Harry and Sarah arrive on Skaro when it’s riven by a thousand year war between the Thals and the Kaleds that’s reduced the planet to an irradiated wasteland. Davros, a Kaled scientist has a solution: forced evolution of his people into a form that can thrive in the radiation, even though it will require a mechanical transport to move around and kill … and while he’s at it, why not eliminate all those inconvenient emotions?

A solid, six-episode arc anchored by the grim tone (the Thals are no longer unambiguously good guys) and by two performances. Michael Wisher as Davros manages a voice that sounds just like a human Dalek, intense yet monotone. As his coldblooded aide Nyder, Peter Miles is equally memorable.

Unfortunately the season doesn’t do as well by the Cybermen in the final segment, REVENGE OF THE CYBERMEN. Arriving at the space ark back when it’s just a minor space station, the good guys become embroiled in a struggle between the human crew, the Cybermen and the Vogans, inhabitants of a planet of gold. Gold, you see, can be used to clog up Cyberman respirators, choking them, which is an unconvincing weakness. The Cyber-actors use their own voices, and the Cybermen come off way too emotional. A disappointing finish to a solid season.

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Danes, Detroit and a Lost Girl: multiple media viewed

Franco Zefferelli’s HAMLET (1990) may not age well, given that star Mel Gibson’s image is now “anti-Semitic loonie” instead of “talented actor/director” (it’s telling that the two special features are both Gibson-centric) Which is unfortunate because Gibson does very well as an intense Hamlet fuming over Gertrude (Glenn Close) marrying Claudius (Alan Bates) so soon after her husband’s death; said rage, of course, turns murderous after the Big Reveal from ghostly Paul Scofield. Watching so soon after the Derek Jacobi version, I can see where the cuts are (Fortinbras, and Hamlet’s advice to the players). What really stands out are the women’s role: Helena Bonham Carter’s Ophelia is much livelier and more active than most that I’ve seen (and Gibsons deliver “get thee to a nunnery” less as an insult and more as “girl, get somewhere out of the line of fire while you can.”). And Close’s Gertrude is a wonder, clearly excited about her new husband, but just as loving to her son; there’s a great bit early on when Claudius is telling Hamlet to stop being so mopey and Gertrude is wordlessly trying to reconcile her two men. Worth seeing if you’re okay with seeing Gibson; Ian Holm plays a windbag Polonius. “I show you how a king may progress through the guts of a beggar.”

Playmakers’ follow-up to the Robin Hood play Sherwood was the much darker SKELETON CREW (by Dominique Morisseau, who recently received a McArthur genius grant). This one is set in 2008 in the break room of a dying Detroit auto plant as a fiftysomething lesbian, her surrogate son/supervisor, a single expectant mother and borderline gangsta all contemplate how to deal with a looming plant closing. The first contemporary drama I’ve seen on stage in a long time, this was well done though a lower key, less downbeat ending than I expected. But that fits well about the themes of struggling to stay afloat and pondering what “afloat” really means. “There’s no way to fight without jumping on the goddamn grenade.”

The final season of LOST GIRL was an improvement over S4, but that’s not saying much. This time the Big Bad is the Olympians (“The most powerful fae of all time.”), particularly Bo’s father Hades (Eric Roberts), who it turns out has big plans for her, and not pleasant ones. Lacking Kenzi most of the season really hurt, and the Tamsyn/Bo/Lauren triangle didn’t work at all. However they did pull off a first-rate season ender — the showrunners definitely knew ahead of time this was their last hurrah (Dragoncon’s Lost Girl panel said they had a different showrunner for every season, which explains a lot). “Great, I’m going to die next to a girl wearing gingham.”

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Send in the Marines! Or the shaolin! Or the Ghostbusters! Or the Sailor Scouts!

HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO (1944) is Preston Sturges’ screwball classic in which William Demarest’s Marine platoon discovers 4F Eddie Bracken has been lying to his mother about fighting overseas rather than disappoint her by not following in dad’s footsteps. Simple solution: the Marine fit him with a uniform and some spare medals, take him home and pass him off as a hero. Complication: everyone in town turns out to celebrate and opponents of the windbag mayor decide a war hero would be the perfect choice to run against him. And what about Ella Raines, the girl Bracken left behind, now engaged to the mayor’s son? A great comedy, and in an age where “thank you for your service” is supposed to be the automatic response to meeting anyone in the military, Sturges’ gentle mockery of soldier-worship (“Nobody knows what I did, they just know I’m a hero.”) hasn’t aged a bit. “They’ve got four bands out there — one medal isn’t enough!”

The second season of KUNG FU(1973-4) sometimes gets a lot closer to a conventional wandering-hero TV western than S1 did, but not so often it lost its distinctive charm (as noted in my S1 review, if you don’t want a white guy in yellowface as the Eurasian lead character, the charm may be lost on you). Among the memorable episodes are A Dream Within a Dream (Caine investigates an apparent murder, only the body vanishes) and Empty Pages Within a Dead Book (a vengeful Texas ranger learns the difference between Law and Justice) — and yes, the titles are definitely part of the charm. There are also some whimsical episodes such as The Spirit Helper (a young Native becomes convinced Caine is his spirit guide) and the zany two-part season ender, The Cenotaph, which includes a fight with a Chinese warlord who is emphatically not a master of the martial arts. With the TV season starting up, it may be a while before I get to my DVDs of S3, alas. ““That woman must have died of gallstones — 2,000 pounds worth.”

Rewatching the 2016 GHOSTBUSTERS remake during my Florida stay didn’t change my opinion that it’s a very worthy follow-up to the original, as “ghost girls” Kirsten Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Johnson discover a seething misanthrope (if they’d made it this year, I suspect he’d be an incel) plots to raise the dead to terrify the living, Melissa McCarthy avoids a fatal high five, Mayor Andy Garcia insists he is not that mayor from Jaws and Chris Hemsworth tries to answer the phone. A shame it didn’t win over more people.  “Laborers such as you shall be spared until the end of the butchering, so make the most of your extra time.”

The third season of Sailor Moon, AKA SAILOR MOON S, uses much of the previous seasons’ formula (energy-draining monsters dominated by villains who keep failing and getting destroyed, but a bigger bad behind them), in fact too much for my taste. On the other hand, it has some good stuff, such as Chibi-USA’s relationship with the seriously ill Hotaru and the enigma of Sailor Scouts Neptune and Uranus, tougher, more mature and more experienced fighters (also lesbians, something dropped from the original US dub) who think the regular cast just isn’t hard core enough to stop the coming of the Messiah of Silence (I do like the episode in which Usagi demonstrates that silly and tenderhearted though she is, she’s still top dog on this show). I’m sure I’ll get to the remaining run eventually, even though I’ve never heard anything positive about it. What they say is true, I was naive and foolish — but I was also right!”

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Our heroes have always been bad guys: Movies and TV

Hank Pym forces ex-con Scott Lang to become ANT-MAN (2015) and reclaim Pym’s shrinking technology before former protegé Darren Cross can use it to create Yellowjacket, the ultimate killer. While I didn’t care for the drawn-out origin in Doctor Strange, this takes almost as long and it works, perhaps because Scott’s character arc is stronger. The cast includes Michael Douglas as Hank, Paul Rudd as Scott, Evangeline Lily as Pym’s daughter Hope and Corey Stoll as Cross (the villain from the first Scott Lang Ant-Man story). A real winner — I’ve rarely seen a film do so well with shrinking special effects.“I’m just destroying everything that gives your daddy’s life meaning.”

Errol Flynn’s classic THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938) made a double-bill for both Ant-Man and last week’s viewing of Sherwood. Rewatching the story shows why Robin endures as a legend and symbol — the fight against tyranny and corruption and 12th century England’s 1 percent is probably always going to be relevant. Plus Flynn’s laughing swashbuckler makes being a rebel and an outlaw look like the most fun in the world. Alongside Flynn we have Basil Rathbone’s sneering Guy of Gisborne, Claude Raines coolly evil Prince John, Una O’Connor as a flirty servant, Alan Hale as Little John and Eugene Pallette as Friar Tuck. Olivia deHaviland plays Maid Marion who like countless movie heroines has to be awakened by the hero to what’s right (you could also look at it as checking her Norman privilege). Given I just finished a book about Technicolor (review tomorrow) I was very aware of how gorgeous the movie’s colors are. “You’ve come to Nottingham once too often!”

THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT (1996) which starts with Geena Davis as a school teacher afflicted with amnesia for everything beyond the past eight years — why that’s right, the missing years do contain a dangerous secret! It turns out Davis is a CIA hitwoman who’s unwittingly believed one of her cover identities is the real her — and she’s regaining her memories with the help of sleazy PI Samuel L. Jackson just at the point her former bosses are up to something very nasty (“Budget cuts? Is that what this is about?”).

This is a wildly over the top film (the protagonists take damage that would kill anyone without healing factor), but it’s also thoroughly entertaining. While Bourne Identity would be a logical double bill, the clip of 1973’s The Long Goodbye shown on TV makes me think that would make sense as well (even though I hate it): another story of someone faking their death, and Elliott Gould’s seedy PI, matching Jackson’s. With G.W. Spradlin as the president, David Morse as a sadist (“A woman is never as beautiful as when her face contorts in pain.”) and Craig Bierko as a smirking nemesis. “I was busy coming up with that ham sandwich line.”

After a disappointing fifth season, THE AMERICANS managed to finish its run with a bang. It’s a year or two after S5; Paige is now a spy in training, Philip’s working full-time at the travel agency (which is slowly collapsing) and Elizabeth, spying without him, is beginning to crack under the strain. Now with the US/USSR START arms-reduction talks in progress, the KGB assigns Elizabeth to spike negotiations if Gorbachev gives away too much; Oleg returns from the USSR to ask Philip to stop her. Will the marriage survive? Will Stan finally catch on to what his neighbors are up to? Will Paige find happiness? This leaves enough loose ends I wonder if they have a sequel in mind, but it’s still excellent. “You’re my best friend — the only friend I’ve had in my whole shitty life.”

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TV Time Travel, invasions from the moon and death playing chess: TV and movies

Netflix’ time-travel show TRAVELERS had its merits, but didn’t quite click with me. The premise is that a team of agents from the future has come back to 2016 to avert their future by changing a key event or two. To make the leap, they land in the bodies of people on the brink of death, which saddles them with their host bodies’ various relationships, jobs, health problems, etc. Focusing on personal drama more than changing time was a smart move, but it didn’t integrate the personal with the SF elements the way Odyssey 5 managed to do, and the bleak, downbeat tone of the personal stories just lost me. I won’t be back for S2.

12 MONKEYS’ third season, by contrast, worked great. At the end of S2, Cassie discovers she and Cole are the parents of the Witness, the leader of the Army of the 12 Monkeys plotting to end time and create a timeless, deathless world. Worse, Cassie wound up a prisoner of the Army, so they can see the Witness brought up to fulfill his destiny. Can Cole rescue Cassie? What will their allies do if they learn killing Cassie in say, 1990, would end the Witness’s threat? It’s a twisty entertaining season setting up for the finalé in S4. As usual Emily Hampshire steals the show as Jennifer Goines (a more entertaining version of Brad Pitt’s character in the film), particularly when she has to turn herself into a star of the Paris stage. “Nothing in either morality or causality prevents me killing you.”

RADAR MEN FROM THE MOON (1952) ain’t an A-list serial but it shows the competence with which Republic usually approached the genre (as opposed to The Undersea Kingdom). A quasisequel to King of the Rocketmen, using that film’s flying suit (the inspiration for The Rocketeer) but with a new character, Commando Cody. In the first episode, gangsters working for the first wave of a lunar invasion are disrupting American shipping with a devastating nuclear cannon; brilliantly deducing this ties in with atomic activity on the moon, Cody leads his cast to our satellite, where Retik (veteran villain Roy Barcroft) is indeed plotting Earth’s conquest. This is better all round than Undersea Kingdom, but annoyingly mundane, with a few too many car chases and shoot outs. Fun, nonetheless, but they never explain why they’re “radar men.” “Do you have an atomic bomb strong enough to start a volcanic eruption in the Mt. Alda volcanic crater?”

After reading We All Are Legends inevitably I rewatched Ingrid Bergman’s THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957) in which a young Max von Sydow plays a knight terrified of what might await him in the next world; when Death shows up, he buys time by talking Death into a chess game. Meanwhile his squire and various l0w-comic characters intrigue and romance each other (I can see a similarity to Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night), unaware that with the Black Death at hand, Death can’t be far away. Visually impressive, dark and one of the movies that made Bergman Bergman. “You play chess, don’t you? I’ve seen it in paintings.”

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Dr. Mabuse vs. the Black Panthers, Abba vs the Librarians: Movies and TV

With THE DEATH-RAY MIRROR OF DOCTOR MABUSE (1964) the 1960s Mabuse cycle ends not with a bang but a whimper. Peter van Eyck, who was adequate as part of the ensemble in 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse is miserably dull as the central character, a super-spy out to secure the title McGuffin for England while You Know Who wants it for his own ends. This is a Mabuse film done as a Bond film, with a lot of similarity to Thunderball (David Kalat, author of The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse, wonders if Death-Ray Mirror could actually have influenced the later 007 adventure) but none of the flair Eon brought to the Bond films of this era. It’s also much more sexist than Bond in its treatment of the female lead, and has the least mind-control of any of the films (mostly just a vague reference to Mabuse mindwiping people at the start of the film). “The almighty took seven days to create the world, and you could destroy it in a few seconds.”

THE BLACK PANTHERS: Vanguards of the Revolution (2015) is a good documentary about how an Oakland movement to stop police abuse of blacks (which, of course, makes this depressingly relevant) broadened into providing free breakfasts and health clinics while attracting followers across the country (as much because of their apparent pride and self-confidence as their actual policies), including a large percentage of women. The film chronicles the FBI’s obsessive war against the Panthers, the party’s attempt to switch to straight politics (“After the loss, there was no plan B.”) and the gradual internal collapse, heavily influenced by the FBI’s efforts at subversion. “We didn’t get those brothers to revolutionary heaven.”

MAMMA MIA: Here We Go Again (2018) is the sequel to the 2008 stage-to-screen musical, alternating the story of Amanda Seyfried struggling to open late mom Meryl Streep’s dream hotel despite everything going wrong with her secret origin as her mother heads to Greece for a summer of love and winds up bedding three different men in rapid succession. This was pleasant enough, but doesn’t feel as well structured as the first Mamma Mia — Cher’s appearance at the end is quite gratuitous, though she does give a great rendition of Abba’s Fernando. “You have the courage of the lion, the heart of the panther and the wisdom of the flamingo.”

The third season of THE LIBRARIANS has the cast coping with an unleashed chaos demon plotting to turn the world upside-down and a new government magic-hunting agency that’s determined to put the Librarians and their assets under lock and key. This has the series’ usual quirky fun, such as a reluctant cult leader trapped by her own popularity, a reunion of evil monsters and a magician wreaking havoc as he tries to impress his (he thinks) true love. I’ll also give them points for resolving Cassandra’s cancer problems without the usual miracle cure. “He didn’t tell you the Eye of Ra requires a human sacrifice.”

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Is There a Doctor In the House? Lots!

The past week reminded me of when I’d be watching nothing but time travel material for Now and Then We Time Travel. I started subscribing to BritBox, a streaming service for British shows. The main reason was the access to Doctor Who, which is surprisingly spotty on Netflix. I’d Netflixed the first two Tom Baker serials a while back, but I started on Britbox by going back further …

THE POWER OF THE DALEKS was the first Second Doctor serial; Patrick Troughton here is so dotty and so unlike William Hartnell’s cantankerous senior that companions Ben and Polly and even the Doctor himself aren’t sure he’s really who he says he is. To make matters worse the TARDIS has dropped them on a colony planet riven by rival factions, one of which is convinced these mechanical creatures they found in a spaceship will make wonderful robot servants … Although the video was lost the soundtrack wasn’t, so the Beeb animated it as they did with Hartnell’s The Reign of Terror. Not a classic story, but a landmark for proving the show could survive the loss of its star. The emphasis that the Doctor survived through the power of the TARDIS shows they still hadn’t established regeneration as normal — even when Troughton left at the end of War Games, it was the Time Lords forcing him to change (it wouldn’t be until the Fourth Doctor that regeneration became a normal Time Lord thing). “The law of the Daleks is in effect.”

Enough of THE WHEEL IN SPACE survives that rather than use animation, the BBC used stills from the show to accompany the voice track (two episodes remain intact). The Second Doctor and Jamie land on a drifting rocket from which they wind up on the eponymous space station. Here they meet Zoey, a brilliant, petite young woman who begins to realize her life has trained her to prepare for emergencies but only carefully predicted ones. Which does not include an attack on the Wheel by the Cybermen … Zoe’s one of my favorite companions (cute, small, brainy brunette — it’s like I have a type!) and the serial is overall good, but loses steam at the finish (the purpose of all the Cyber-scheming to seize the Wheel is quite underwhelming). And it’s depressing to think of the Time Lords just wiping Zoe’s memory at the end of War Games and dropping her back on the Wheel; I do hope she found some other way to break out of the box her society put her in. “Logic, my dear Zoe, only allows one to be wrong with authority.”

Last year’s Christmas special TWICE UPON A TIME (on Amazon Prime, not BritBox) has Capaldi contemplating not regenerating when he winds up meeting the First Doctor (David Bradley) who’s contemplating doing the same thing, which would, of course unmake the entire series. Can they survive and work together long enough to stop the seemingly sinister schemes of …. Testimony? A fun concept, though a bit heavy-handed on First Doctor Sexism; the ending gives us the new female Doctor, though not for very long. “By any analysis evil should always win. Good is not a practical survival strategy.”

THE FIVE (ISH) DOCTORS REBOOT was a spoof special tied to the 50th anniversary of the show in which Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy (Doctors Five Through Seven) desperately try to convince current showrunner Stephen Moffat that they’re a vital part of the history and need to make an appearance — oh, did you know McCoy was in The Hobbit, a major blockbuster theatrical release? Fluffy but very funny. “Instead of a sonic screwdriver I could have sonic beams come out my eyes!”

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A superhero, a Jew, a rom-com and spies: this week’s movies (and one TV show)

M. Night Shyamalan’s UNBREAKABLE (2000) stars Bruce Willis as a train-crash survivor confounded by comic-book buff Samuel L. Jackson’s insistence that he survived because just as Jackson’s bones are abnormally fragile (“They call me Mr. Glass.”), Willis’ body is indestructible. This was Shyamalan’s second movie and I like the way he plays with comic book tropes. However I don’t see why Willis would also acquire a kind of spider-sense for spotting evildoers, and no question Mr. Glass is a Cinema of Isolation cliche (particularly the isolation aspect: he apparently has no social life except his mother, and the film treats his condition as if he were unique). And I wish the ending captions had told us what happened to Willis, not just Jackson, though I gather a sequel may be in the offing (but given how much Shyamalan’s quality has fallen, I’m not optimistic). The deleted scenes here were interesting but a documentary on comics (including a number of noted creators) was disappointing: I’d be more interested in how Shyamalan applies the tropes here than a general comics discussion. “I’m going to ask you a question — it may sound a little strange.”

The only production of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE I’ve ever seen was a 1970s TV movie. When I rewatched it a couple of decades back, it left me wondering whether it was just a poor production (despite a cast including Laurence Olivier) or the play itself was dull (even Shakespeare can’t bat 100 percent). After watching the 2004 version with Al Pacino as Shylock, I can say it was definitely the production. Pacino does a great job as the resentful money-lender who puts up money for Antonio (Jeremy Irons) to help his bestie/possible ex-lover Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) woo wealthy heiress Portia (Lynn Collins). But when Antonio’s bill comes due and he can’t pay, Shylock demands his right to the forfeit — a pound of fles, cut out from Antonio’s heart. Powerful though it was, the anti-Semitism is still repellent: Shylock pays a penalty for being Jewish and the Christian bigots all get happy endings (Shakespeare After All may have a point that Shylock pays for being anti-joy as much as being Jewish, but that doesn’t erase the anti-Semitism)  “You called me dog before you had a cause; since I am a dog, beware my fangs.”

SET IT UP (2018) has the stressed-out administrative assistants to demanding bosses Taye Diggs and Lucy Liu decide to make their bosses fall in love and hopefully take it easy—when you control someone’s schedule completely, how hard can it be to arrange a meet cute? As they struggle to get the couple past the inevitable obstacles (including that Diggs is quite a jerk), they also notice how cute each other is … This is a pleasant enough movie, but for the life of me I don’t see why it’s gotten so many gushing reviews online. For a double bill I’d suggest White Christmas for a variation on the same premise. “We are not Cyrano-ing, this is totally The Parent Trap.”

The fifth season of THE AMERICANS was a disappointment — not bad, but they juggled a lot of plotlines and none of them paid off strongly enough to make the season work. There’s a possible American bioweapon targeting Soviet grain, Paige’s torment at being the child of spies, Henry getting an arc of his own, follow-ups on Oleg and Martha in Moscow (Martha, a character from previous seasons, really felt shoehorned in) … the cumulative effect leads to a personal turning point, but not enough to make the season work. Still, I’ll be back for S6. “Now I have power — I can crush people for you.”

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A djinn and a detective: two series on DVD

Given my love for the Arabian Nights, it’s not surprising that as a kid I loved SHAZZAN, Hanna-Barbera’s fantasy series about two kids and their nigh-invincible genie. Rewatching as an adult, I can see all the flaws I expected, but I still enjoyed it.

The premise is that two American kids, Chuck and Nancy (Janet Waldo, Jerry Dexter) find two halves of an ancient ring, join them together and are instantly transported back to fantasy Arabia. The genie of the ring, Shazzan (Barney Phillips), whose name is an obvious riff on “Shazam!”, tells them that to return home they must deliver his ring to the Wizard of the Seventh Mount, but he has no idea where the mage is. Until then, they have a magical flying camel, Kaboobie, and whenever they join the ring together they can summon him. Which of course they need to do as they run into a variety of wizards trying to oppress, conquer or otherwise wreak havoc (so yes, we have something of a white savior element).

The animation is more imaginative than I expected, though the stories are formulaic. A bigger problem is that Shazzan is so powerful, he usually overwhelms everyone he goes up against. As the series goes along, the kids get absurdly powerful too. At the start they have a couple of magic items (enchanted rope, cloak of invisibility) but by the end of the show they’re just pulling endless magical gadgets out of their utility belts, as it were.

Still, I had a lot of fun watching this.

THE UNPLEASANTNESS AT THE BELLONA CLUB brought back Ian Carmichael as Peter Wimsey. The eponymous unpleasantness is that an elderly general expired in his arm chair at Wimsey’s club on Armistice Day. Nothing suspicious about it, until it turns out the exact time of death will determine the distribution of sizable inheritance. And someone worked very hard to cover up the time … This is much better than Clouds of Witness (of course, it’s a better book) though it’ll be a while before I get any more of Carmichael’s later seasons. “If you keep people young with monkey glands, they’re not going to die of heart failure.”

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