Category Archives: Movies

New Screen Rant column: 18 things you didn’t know about the Daleks (#SFWApro)

As my new Screen Rant column explains:

Daleks can climb stairs!

An appearance in Looney Tunes: Back in Action almost kept the Daleks from appearing in the new Doctor Who series.

There’s actually a Christmas song about Daleks.

And more quirky trivia from the nastiest of TV’s aliens. Go read right now or — “Ex-ter-min-ate!”

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Angry Martians, a disappointing black film, TV and a play: reviews (#SFWApro)

THE ANGRY RED PLANET (1960) is by the same creators as the tedious The Time Travelers and equally uninteresting, except for one truly memorable monster, the absurd bat-rat-spider. An expedition to Mars encounters various Martian horrors before the Martians send them home and tell them not to come back, the end. Very, very talky in the drawing-room SF vein (even though most of the talk takes place in labs or on the ship). “Nothing I’ve seen contradicts the theory that basic matter is the same everywhere in the universe.”

A PIECE OF THE ACTION (1976) was Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier’s third and final big-screen team-up (the first being Uptown Saturday Night) and easily the worst. Instead of blue-collar buddies, they’re now master criminals (safe cracker and conman respectively) blackmailed by retired cop James Earl Jones into serving as mentors at a job center for troubled inner-city youth. I loved this the first time I saw it, but now I recognize how many shopworn tropes are in it — this could as easily have been Welcome Back Kotter or one of Warner Brothers’ 1930s dramas about slum kids, coupled with the time-honored plot of Guy Becomes Teacher, Blossoms Into Decent Human Being and lots of stuff about how all the kids need is Confidence and a Good Attitude. Another problem is that there are two main plots, the crime drama (will the vengeful mobsters catch up with them?) and the kid stuff, and the film doesn’t mesh them smoothly. “That’s your first lesson — nobody gives you something for nothing.”

DC LEGENDS OF TOMORROW had a much better season than its first, replacing Vandal Savage with the Legion of Doom (“I got the name from this cartoon I watched as a kid.”), a trio of established villains who very much want to rewrite history to put wrong what once went right. This was just a really fun show and the final episode of the season was spectacular. “Why would a relic from the Crusades turn up in the Galapagos during the Reagan era?”

I recently discovered that the one nonsyndicated episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, The Encounter, was online at YouTube and so thought I’d give it a look. This story of Nisei George Takei and WW II veteran Neville Brand locking horns with each other is superbly acted — given it’s a two-man show, they picked two great guys. Unfortunately the racial overtones are (as they say) problematic, staring with the Big Reveal that Takei’s father was a Japanese spy working with the attackers at Pearl Harbor (there was no Japanese fifth column at Pearl Harbor). The rest of the arc seems to imply that Takei has something to atone for equivalent to Brand murdering a Japanese officer, or that he’s still somehow a threat just because of his sinister Japanese-ness or something, which probably explains why it’s not in syndication or on DVD.THE GRAND DUKE was Gilbert and Sullivan’s last production and I wasn’t optimistic about it given Utopia Limited and Princess Ida (the preceding creations) were hardly their A-game. Surprisingly this was very entertaining: a troupe of actors plotting to take over a small German principality get a lucky break due to an arcane rule of law that allows one of their number to legally assume the Grand Duke’s role. However it turns out that includes the Grand Duke’s responsibilities, such as marriage — or engagements — and it turns out the Duke’s been kind of free with his proposals. Great fun, good looking and well performed; the duke is somewhat modeled on Trump, but that works fine.. “Be a violet — a crushed, despairing violet.”

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A sheriff, a Victorian damsel and a Harlem hero: Movies and TV (#SFWApro)

SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF (1969) stars James Garner as a drifter (“Just so you understand, I’m on my way to Australia.”) who becomes the sheriff of a small gold-rush town struggling with local landowner Walter Brennan’s stranglehold on the community (the only way to ship anything in or out is over his property). This is more of a conventional Western than the sequel, Support Your Local Gunfighter — where Garner in the second film is just a conman, here he really is a supremely fast gun — but it’s still very funny. Both films make use of Harry Morgan, Henry Jones and Jack Elam (“He’s the town character.”), plus this one has Joan Hackett as a feisty hoyden and Bruce Dern as a gunslinging bully. Well worth catching.“It’s an Arizona trick, but I’ve seen it as far north as Montana.”
Much as I loved Mia Wasikowska’s Alice in Wonderland, ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS (2016) wastes Wasikowska and my time. After life events take away everything Alice gained at the end of the first film, she’s called back to Wonderland where the Mad Hatter has gone completely mad due to his tragic backstory — can Alice go back in time and change things? I enjoyed the first film reworking Carroll, but this just has too little source material (and for obvious reasons, the time travel aspect was depressingly familiar) and way too much retconning — did we really need the Red Queen and the Mad Hatter to have a single determining incident explaining them? Wasikowka’s still great, but the film is sub-par.  “I need to find her immediately, but there’s no hurry.”
The first season of Netflix’s LUKE CAGE, as one critic said, is remarkable for how much it embraces it’s blackness: overwhelmingly black cast, references to black authors such as Chester Hymes [edited to get the name right], Harlem setting and more. The story has ex-con Cage (previously in Netflix’ Jessica Jones) reluctantly becoming Harlem’s hero in residence to stop a scheming politician, the crimelord Cottonmouth and the even more vicious Diamondback. I liked it all the way through, more than either of its predecessor series, but it seems a lot of people found it wearing out its welcome. So YMMV. “I don’t go past — I go through!”

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Goodbye Jo, Goodbye Jackanapes: Doctor Who, Season Ten (#SFWApro)

As I don’t have enough material for a book-review post this week, how about Doctor Who? Season Ten was noteworthy for writing out Jo Grant and for losing the Master (afterRoger Delgado died in a car accident, nobody wanted to replace such a fan favorite write away).

The season kicks off in high style with The Three Doctors (all rights to image remain with current holder) in which the renegade Time Lord Omega threatens all time and space; when the Third Doctor fails to stop him, the Time Lords send in the Second and the First (though Hartnell’s health issues left him only an image on the TARDIS monitor). This was an outstanding one, though slightly undercut by the low budget — Omega’s monster servants look like they’re spackled with gumdrops. Noteworthy also in that ends with the Doctor regaining his freedom to travel the time stream. “If I exist only by my will, then my will is to destroy!”

In Carnival of Monsters, the TARDIS’ first test flight appears to land the Doctor and Jo on a cruise ship in 1937, only it seems time is repeating over and over … because the ship is actually trapped in a time-space viewer an alien huckster is using to entertain another planet. Oh, and the monsters from some of the other time-space snapshots are breaking out … This gets a bit too crowded — the issue of the aliens overthrowing their despotic leader gets very short shrift — but it’s not bad. “They’ve no sense of responsibility. Give them a hygiene chamber and they store fossil fuel in it.”

In trying to return from that adventure, the TARDIS materializes on a space freighter plying THE FRONTIER IN SPACE. That doesn’t go well as Earth is convinced the alien Draconians are preying upon Earth shipping; the Draconians, conversely, are convinced Earth is responsible. Hmm, could someone be setting the two sides against each other? This starts stiffly with the guest cast clench-jawed in intensity, but it picks up as it goes along. And I really like that Jo gets some great moments, such as blocking the Master’s hypnosis (not easily done). This included the Master, the Ogrons (their last appearance — surprisingly the new series has yet to revive them) and the Daleks; the ending sets up a battle between the Master and the Daleks but Delgado’s death nixed that (as the ending is primarily a segue into Planet of the Daleks it’s a little awkward anyway. “Allow me to congratulate you—you have the most closed mind I have ever encountered.”

PLANET OF THE DALEKS comes off as a remake of the series’ second serial, The Daleks: once again the Doctor and the Thals (the other inhabitants of Skaro) join forces to attack a Dalek citadel (where several thousand Dalek warriors are in suspended animation waiting for reactivation). Of course by this point there were lots of fans who’d never seen the original (I hadn’t) — but by the same token, I wouldn’t have gotten any kick out of the return of the Thals (“Who?”). This does have a great turn by Katy Manning, as Jo’s virtually a solo act for half the first episode. “Earth doesn’t exist — it’s a name out of old legends.”

Last and least we have THE GREEN DEATH, in which Jo gets involved in a protest against a polluting corporation, then discovers (along with the Doctor) that its pollution is breeding Giant Killer Maggots, oh plus there’s an evil computer in charge plotting to take over the world. The elements are there for a good one, but they never pull together — while the idea the maggots result from the computer’s neglect rather than intentional evil is interesting, it never gelled (it’s like The War Machines just happened to be rolling through London at the same time as the Doctor fought WOTAN). Add in heavy-handed ecological preachment (even though I’m sympathetic to the sentiments) and Jo become much more dimwitted so the Professor (whom she goes off with) can demonstrate his braininess makes him worthy to claim her affections from the Doctor. However I do highly recommend Global Conspiracy, a short mockumentary in which a reporter tries digging up the incredible truth of what exactly happened during the serial (or is it just an urban legend, like “stories of lizards in vests attacking seamen?”). It’s pitch-perfect, and hysterical. “A shame we didn’t arrange for an orchestra to play a symphony at my ascension.”

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Musketeers, Wolverine and a Ravaged America: Movies viewed (#SFWApro)

THE FOUR MUSKETEERS (1974) is, of course, the sequel to The Three Musketeers in which Oliver Reed remembers the girl who got away, Raquel Welch enters a convent, Faye Dunaway’s maid informs her Michael York didn’t come (his reaction always makes me laugh) and Dunaway proves even Puritans succumb to her charms. Slightly less slapstick than the first film, with a much darker ending, but also a climactic duel (Christopher Lee vs. York) in which it looks like the fighters are actually feeling their wounds. That said, the story of Milady’s past (which is true to Dumas) makes me wonder if anyone’s ever written her as more sinned against than sinning (i.e., she might have reformed had Athos been more supportive). All rights to image remain with current holder. “He marches to Paris, to the bed of his queen—his lascivious Roman queen!”

LOGAN (2017) stars Hugh Jackman as the aging, dying Wolverine in a world where mutants have largely vanished. Spending his days trying to help out the addled, dying Xavier (Patrick Stewart, who gets to swear in this one), Logan then has to assume the added burden of protecting his clone daughter X-23 from the corporation that created her. Very good, though with several loose ends (one mad scientist claims to have a prior connection with Logan but it’s not really explained) and the ending doesn’t entirely make sense (Transigen will commit murder and slavery, but draws the line at illegally crossing the Canadian border?). Given the heavy parallels with Shane, that movie would be the logical double-bill.  “Now let’s not bring out the worst in each other, okay?”

AMERICA 3000 (1986) is a typical Cannon Films SF product of the day, set in a post-apocalyptic future America where barbarian women with good hair and eye makeup rule over men (who also have great here) reducing them to breeders or manual laborers. Then a runaway male discovers a lost military base and uses the tech to present himself as the prophesied “president” who will save the world. I’ve seen more sexist versions of woman-ruled futures but that’s not saying this was any good.  “I believe the legend, great president, that you have come to lead us into tomorrow.”

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Nostalgia and Slapstick: movies and a play (#SFWApro)

I haven’t been at all impressed by Woody Allen’s 21st century films such as Anything Else or Whatever Works but Midnight in Paris (2011) holds up remarkably well on rewatching (all rights to poster with current holder). Owen Wilson has the Woody Allen role as the nostalgist who falls in love with Paris, then even more in love with Paris in the 1920s, where he gets to hang with Tom Hiddleston’s F. Scott Fitzgerald, Adrien Brodi’s Dali, Kathy Bates’ Gertrude Stein and most especially Marion Cotillard’s sexy couturier. Rewatching I noticed with interest that it’s a pompous ass at the start of the film who delivers the theme message; and of course I do like that Wilson doesn’t end up back in the present with Cotillard’s exact double. There are some minor quibbles (it’s too early for people to refer to “science fiction”) but they’re forgivable. “Is there a difference in beauty between two rhinoceroses?”

SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL GUNFIGHTER (1971) was James Garner’s follow-up to Support Your Local Sheriff in which conman Garner finds himself posing as the front man for a legendary gunfighter who can tilt the balance in a struggle between rival mine owners Harry Morgan and John Dehner. Not as fun as the first film, but certainly entertaining, with a cast including spitfire Suzanne Pleshette, saloon owners Marie Windsor and Joan Blondell, low-life Jack Elam, telegraph operator Henry Jones and Chuck Connors as the real psycho gunfighter. “We share ancestors as far back as Adam and Eve — I desire no further relationship to you than that.”

I suppose the Marvel film DEADPOOL (2016) counts as slapstick of a sort, with all the over-the-top comedic violence, but despite the film’s popularity, I can’t say it clicked with me. Mostly it felt like something that would have been fresh in the 1980s (super hero adventure with boobs! And cussing! And an anti-hero! And look, Deadpool makes fun of the X-Men!) but now kind of stale? And way too much banter—it makes me appreciate Arrow‘s good sense in making Felicity the only one with this kind of patter. Plus for all the comedy, this is still relies on the Cinema of Isolation cliché about the cripple/scarface who must make people PAY for his physical injuries. So color me not impressed (as TYG says, this looks like what a 19 year old would find edgy) “You look like an avocado that just had sex with an older avocado, and not in a gentle way.”

THE SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS is a commedia dell’arte production I caught with friends on my recent trip, wherein a low-comic servant’s plan to double dip by working for two traveling gentlemen at the same time runs afoul of a complicated romantic quadrangle (suffice to say, one “gentleman” is a cross-dressing woman trying to reconnect with the other, and that’s just part of it). Full of energy and slapstick, very entertaining and great costumes to look at. “If I were queen I would make every faithless man carry a branch in one hand — and all the towns would look like forests.”

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A spinster, a drunkard and an African Queen (#SFWApro)

While staying at Cindy’s house during my trip, she and I rewatched the 1951 classic THE AFRICAN QUEEN. It’s a great film but it’s also a great example of an unconventional romance and a very well done “strong female protagonist.” (All rights to image remain with current holder. Source here)

As the movie opens it’s 1914 and the Great War has just broken out. Katherine Hepburn plays Rose, a spinster working in her brother’s (Robert Morley) African mission to convert the natives. Seeing them as an unwanted English intrusion, the Germans show up and torch the place. Morley collapses in shock and dies. Rose might have died too but she’s dragged away by Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), a gin-swilling engineer who skippers the African Queen, a mail boat traversing the local rivers. He figures on getting Rose to safety; she over-rules him. Rose insists on heading down river to find the German steamer that dominates the local waters and use some explosives on the Queen to blow it to hell and back. Over the course of the film, Charlie and Rose (surprise!) fall in love.

It’s a remarkable film, not least because more than 75 percent of the time the two stars are the only ones on screen. While finding someone obnoxious and irritating is a classic romance trope, both Bogart and Hepburn are restrained, only occasionally losing their temper. Instead, Charlie cajoles and suggests; Rose issues decrees in the way of strong-minded British spinsters, at least in fiction. Her sheer force of will begins to impress Charlie, as does her excitement when they go over the first in multiple rapids (“I see, Mr. Allnut, why you enjoy boating so much.”). Everything is underplayed, but no less effective for that.

From a writing perspective, Rose’s character is really interesting. Her kind of spinster is a stock type, but Hepburn infuses her with tremendous energy and character. When they make it through the rapids, it’s possibly the first time Rose has ever done anything risky or exciting in her life, and she comes alive. When she falls for Charlie, she doesn’t hold back or make prudish protests, she follows her heart. When the going gets tough, she’s willing to hack at the water weeds or help repair the boat, getting as dirty as she has to. Charlie never argues that it’s not a woman’s place, or tells her she can’t do it. Rose transcends the gender norms, but without any Holy Shit, She’s Transcending Gender Norms—she just does it. And she’d probably insist there’s no big deal, she’s just doing what has to be done.

I’m not sure it would have worked as well with anyone but Hepburn in the role, but she was, and it does.

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