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Puppets, a princess, a puzzle and Potemkin: this week’s viewing

For British kids of my generation, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s Century 21 TV was a big deal, providing SF adventure puppet shows including Supercar, Fireball XL-5, Stingray and Thunderbirds. FILMED IN SUPERMARIONATION (2014) is a documentary about the company and its creations, starting when a children’s book author hired the Andersons to adapted her Adventures of Twizzle for TV. Before long the production company was doing its own original work, with innovations including manipulating the puppets from high overhead (allowing for more elaborate backdrops) and “supermarionation,” which electronically lip-synched puppet mouths with actor voices.This era in kidvid ended with the 1960s: puppetry was out of fashion on British TV, the Andersons’ marriage was breaking up and Gerry Anderson had always wanted to do live-action (some of y’all may remember his 1970s series UFO). For a while, though, they were pretty damn cool. “I don’t know if I felt pleased, relieved or sad when it ended — probably all three.”

Century 21’s biggest hit was probably Thunderbirds (the “cast” is in the photo above): TV reports on efforts to rescue some trapped miners in Germany inspired Gerry Anderson to create International Rescue, an elite team equipped with advanced rescue vehicles that could save lives anywhere from underground to the depths of space. The show also made the leap to the big screen with THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO! (1966) in which the first American Mars mission is beset by the sinister schemes of series villain the Hood, to say nothing of the Martians turning out quite unfriendly. This reminds me how much I liked the show (I downgrade it in my memory, I think), but it’s not a success, being several only marginally related parts. First we have the fight with the Hood (put down by International Rescue’s superspy, Lady Penelope), then we have a dream sequence with a puppet Cliff Richard, then there’s the Mars flight, the battle with the Martians and the return home; we never even learn what the Hood was up to. Fun, but flawed. “Be very still doctor — there’s something wrong with your face.”

SHE-RA AND THE PRINCESSES OF POWER wrapped up its fifth and final season this year: with Hordak’s master Horde-Prime crushing the princesses and the rebellion and plotting to seize the Heart of Etheria, can Adora, stripped of She-Ra’s power, rally the good guys? Does Katra have a shot at redemption? Can Glimmer escape Horde-Prime’s orbiting fortress? This was superbly done, and Horde-Prime is very creepy, seeking to bring the entire universe into absolute order and peace — or you know, blow it the shit up. I do hope we see more from show-runner Noelle Stevenson before long. “Why does it always have to be you who sacrifices themselves for everyone else?”

The puzzle was the location of the Hardy Boys’ dad in THE HARDY BOYS NANCY DREW MYSTERIES two-parter, The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew Meet Dracula. Fenton Hardy disappears while investigating an art-theft ring in Europe; following him, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew end up in Transylvania where a vampire is attacking people — but that’s impossible, isn’t it (like a lot of shows from that era, they keep things mundane until the very end implies that it is possible). Pamela Sue Martin plays Nancy but much as I remember, she’s an incredibly bland actor; I used this as a talking lamp rather than really paying attention. Lorne Green and Paul Williams guest star. “This place is so old you can almost feel death!”

STEPS (1987) by Polish filmmaker Zbigniew Rybczynski is a short film in which a group of American tourists get to enter the classic Odessa Steps sequence of Sergei Eisenstein’s silent classic The Battleship Potemkin. The borders between reality and film soon thin, but I’ve seen this gimmick done better. The second short on the DVD, The Fourth Dimension was just pointlessly arty.  “There’s nothing to be afraid of, that was just a scene shift.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ali Baba, Nancy Drew, Emperor Palpatine and other movie people viewed

Note: there are spoilers for Rise of Skywalker below.

ALI BABA AND THE FORTY THIEVES (1944) was one of the first sword-and-sandal swashbucklers wherein Prince Ali (Jon Hall) escapes the Mongol conquest of Baghdad and rallies the Forty Thieves and their leader “Old Baba” to fight for the oppressed people (“As I am Old Baba, we shall call you — Ali Baba.”). Their Robin Hood-style campaign of taking from the rich and giving to the poor hits a snag when Ali’s childhood sweetheart shows up as the stunning (but not terribly talented) Maria Montez, bride to the Mongol leader. Now Ali has extra reason to fight the tyrants, alongside Turhan Bey as a knife-throwing slave and Andy Devine as a blustering loudmouth (surprisingly he gets to kill the Mongol leader rather than Hall). Not an A-list swashbuckler, but fun enough. “I am the sword that hangs over your head.”

STAR WARS: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) drove me nuts in the first third as it couldn’t seem to keep still: Rey & Co. are constantly bouncing from planet to planet, goal to goal, subplot to subplot. After that it starts to stabilize and we get the core plot: Emperor Palpatine has somehow resurrected himself and is preparing an all-out war from the lost planet of the Sith — can the good guys find it in time?

TYG and I enjoyed this, but it’s definitely flawed, pushing Rose into the background and adding way too many new characters. The big twist that Rey is Palpatine’s granddaughter didn’t work for me at all (it has none of the dramatic heft that “Luke — I am your father” did) and it isn’t necessary for the plot (he plans to possess her body, which I imagine he could do to her even if she wasn’t kin). Kylo Ren’s redemption is not great but didn’t really bother me (I’ll have more to say about it later though). Not as good as Last Jedi but better than The Force Awakens. “I saw the thrones of the Sith — and I saw who sat on them.”

NANCY DREW (2007) stars Emma Roberts as a Nancy Drew who seems to have stepped out of the 1950s, which makes her an odd fit when she’s stuck at a hip LA high school while her dad’s doing business in the City of Angels. Fortunately the house she lives in has a mystery (what happened to a long-dead movie star?) and despite her promise to Dad to stop sleuthing, she just can’t help snooping … Roberts doesn’t work in the lead: she looks about 12 and doesn’t seem happy even when she’s cracking a mystery. Not recommended. “Oh, did I mention there’s a strange caretaker?”

ALCHEMY (2005) stars Tom Cavanagh (best known to me as the various Harrison Wells on Flash) as a college computer prof whose solution to a Publish or Perish ultimatum is to test whether his AI can win Sarah Chalke’s heart faster than a smooth-talking ladies man, with the outcome to be published in a woman’s magazine. This is bland, and the ladies man feels odd, more like a parody of a romantic charmer. Ileana Douglas plays Cavanagh’s coworkers and Celeste Holme plays his grandma. “Love is like when you turn lead into gold — what’s the word for that?”

KNIVES OUT (2019) is a lively, twisty mystery in which mystery novelist Christopher Plummer turns up with his throat slit in what appears to be suicide — but then who hired ace PI Daniel Craig to investigate the death? And what exactly was Plummer’s devoted nurse doing while he was dying? This was well done, with some effective jabs at Nice People Who Are Not At All Racist; the cast includes Chris Evans, Don Johnson, K Callan and Jamie Lee Curtis as members of Plummer’s family. “Don’t you see, it’s not a hole — it’s a smaller donut with a hole of its own in the middle!”

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A smuggler, a teen detective and a power struggle: movies viewed

SOLO (2018) is, of course, the story of how young Han (Alden Ehrenreich) got a Wookie BFF, won the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), lost his Great Love (Emilia Clarke), made the Kessel run in twelve parsecs and shot first (doing so in the final showdown with Woody Harrelson can’t be unintentional). This was a lot of fun, but not entirely satisfying — my big problem is that Han comes off too noble an anti-hero to be the money-hungry cynic and crook of A New Hope.  With Thandie Newton as a crime lord. “Did you forget? Never trust anyone.”

NANCY DREW — DETECTIVE (1938) stars Bonita Granville as an impetuous Nancy, convinced the mysterious disappearance of an old spinster right before she could donate her wealth to Nancy’s school is a sign of something sinister (spoiler: she’s right). While I’m not terribly familiar with the Carolyn Keene novels, Granville’s wide-eyed naif seems less like the book version and closer to amateur female sleuths like Deanna Durbin in Lady on a Train. This has the odd catchphrase “I’ll bet you $23.80” (supposedly it’s a standard WPA weekly paycheck) and I wonder if Nancy driving her own car didn’t have different meaning back then (it’s common today for a teen, but I imagine it must have been an unattainble fantasy during the Depression). “The password was bluebell — and a bluebell is also a larkspur.”

Granville becomes NANCY DREW — REPORTER (1939) as part of a school competition, then contrives to cover a sensational murder trial in which her woman’s intuition tells her the accused is innocent. Trying to prove otherwise, of course, plunges her and quasi-boyfriend John Litel (they don’t seem to be dating, but she’s quite possessive of him) into deadly danger, not to mention boxing. This was an improvement on the first film. “The man had a cauliflower ear.”

SKIN GAME (1931) is another of those stiff upper lip dramas Hitchcock seems to have made in his early career, a stagebound adaptation of a John Galsworthy play (even Juno and the Paycock opened the sets better). Ed Gwenn gives an excellent turn as a man of business whose plans for a country village put him on a collision course with the local squire, with both of them playing increasing hardball until a tragedy ensues. Better than Easy Virtue, but if this had become a lost film, cinema would not have suffered.. “Papa, may I spit in his eye?”

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