Category Archives: TV

Thor, aliens, racists and elderly Japanese: movies viewed (#SFWApro)

THOR RAGNAROK (2017) has Thor no sooner expose Loki as having taken Dad’s place (at the end of Thor: The Dark World) than all of Asgard falls to the Odinsons’ elder sister Hela (Cate Blanchett), which results in Thor getting trapped into gladiatorial games on the world of the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). There’s some good stuff (the handling of Hulk, Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie) and Karl Urban makes a great Skurge (the character is so lightly scripted it’s entirely to Urban’s credit his dramatic arc is plausible), but there’s way, way too much comic relief (Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner is played purely for laughs). And I don’t see any real excuse for the Dr. Strange scene other than to remind us they’re in the same universe. Art by Walt Simonson, all rights remain with current holder“Open communication has never been our family’s forte.”

ARRIVAL (2016) is the First Contact film in which linguist Amy Adams and physicist Jeremy Renner try to figure out how communicate with the recently arrived “heptapods” before someone panics and starts a shooting war. The stock opening reminded me too much of V but things picked up as it went along, enough I can forgive the weaknesses of the linguistics (I could spot some even before reading this article). Overall I’m glad I saw it, but I don’t regret waiting for streaming. “Sheena Easton had a hit song in all twelve cities in 1980.”

GET OUT (2017) probably shouldn’t have worked as it’s in many ways a conventional reworking of old horror tropes. However, the story of a young black man discovering meeting his new girlfriend’s family was a bad life decision is very well acted and raising black/white issues gives it a distinctive feel (no, they’re not targeting black victims for racist reasons, just because — oh look, a chicken!). It gets weaker at the gory end (and I can’t see how the protagonist pulled off his escape) but I’d much sooner have seen this in a theater than Arrival. Catherine Keener plays a sinister hypnotist. All rights to image remain with current holder. “I don’t think they’re a kinky sex family.”

TOKYO STORY (1953) shows that the problem of aging parents is apparently universal: A Japanese couple visit Tokyo to see their assorted children, only to have the kid fob the parents off on each other as much as possible and as cheaply as possible, with only their widowed daughter-in-law (who clings to her husband’s memory to an unhealthy degree) showing them genuine kindness. Slow-moving but no less effective for all that; I’m inclined to suggest I Never Sang For My Father as a movie tackling similar issues, though with a much less sympathetic older generation. “You see, even you are dissatisfied.”

Moving to TV, MARVEL’S INHUMANS wrapped up its eight-episode run earlier this week. While not as awful as some reviews paint it , it is very underwhelming: scheming Inhuman Maximus takes over the city of Attilan, sending the rest of the Inhuman royal family on the run (and presumably to slash costs, they shave Medusa so her living hair is off the table). After various adventures, they reunite to fight back against the usurper. Which certainly could work as a set-up but this just limps listlessly along. While not formally cancelled, it doesn’t seem anyone’s eager to give it a second chance. “That will always be my story — ‘he did so well, considering what he’s less than.’”

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The dream of an outsider (#SFWApro)

There is a running theme in pop culture that running the country is really simple — it’s the politicians who make it complicated. And yes, this obviously reflects real life memes (We should run government like a business! This politician is awesome because he’s a “Washington outsider.”), but in fiction we can actually make it happen.

(All rights to image remain with current holder)

Part of the appeal is the perennial fantasy of the ordinary Joe or Jane suddenly elevated into a fantastic life — superhero, monarch, movie star, leader. But I think it’s also drawn on an underlying belief about politics: government is simple but politicians make it complicated. They’re corrupt, act out of self-interest, too partisan to do what’s right. If we could get that out the way and convince them to knock off the bullshit, finding solutions to our problems would be a cakewalk.

So by putting someone in office who’s not a politician — a real American, a plainspoken guy (almost always a guy) who has no dog in the hunt, we can fantasize about how easy it would be for him/us to make this country work the way it’s supposed to.

Dave is a perfect example. Kevin Kline [edited to correct name] as the eponymous protagonist becomes the president’s double; when the president has a stroke, Dave steps in (part of a scheme by political insiders to keep the upright Veep from stepping in and thwarting their plan). Miraculously, he’s able to set the country on the right track because he actually cares about people more than politics. In Gabriel Over the White House (admittedly not a regular guy — the protagonist is possessed by an angel), Walter Huston creates a New Deal-like jobs program to end the depression, ends Prohibition and declares martial law so he can take down organized crime. Then he builds the world’s mightiest navy, so just the hint the US might use it will keep the nations of the world at peace.

Over on TV, Mr. Sterling was a TV series starring Josh Brolin as the son of a Democratic senator appointed to fill his late father’s position. Only instead of being a Democrat as everyone assumes, he’s an independent — OMG, he can vote principle over party! Or Kiefer Sutherland as the Designated Survivor forced into the presidency.

It’s no surprise there are many more examples. Distaste for politics has been around since the Founding Fathers, literally. That generation gave us our first political parties, but it also looked on parties as “faction,” a decision to act based on political agenda rather than principle. But the solution we get in movies like this is a fantasy.

Sure, lots of people think they know what America needs (I certainly do) but we don’t all “know” the same thing. I could see a Christian movie in this vein where knocking off the bullshit means a big speech about how we all know abortion is murder, now let’s get to work and ban it nationwide. That might make perfect sense to right-to-lifers but to me it would be a step towards The Handmaid’s Tale.

Even if we agree on the goal, the fantasy skips the ugly steps that Dave or Mr. Sterling might have to take to achieve it: FDR got Social Security passed by exempting field hands and servants. As most Southern blacks worked in domestic service or agriculture, Southern Democrats supported Social Security knowing blacks in their states wouldn’t benefit.

I know political bloggers who really loathe the movies for presenting a fantasy about how politics works; I’m not one of them. I liked Dave (a starring team of Costner and Sigourney Weaver doesn’t help). But I thought it was worth mentioning that politics doesn’t work like that.

 

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New Screen Rant is live: 20 Terrible SF Shows You Forgot (#SFWApro)

The godawful alien invasion series First Wave. Alcatraz. The TV Timecop spinoff. And of course Baywatch Nights! Take a look.

Below is a photo of Judson Scott (Khan’s son in Wrath of Khan) as that God From Outer Space, The Phoenix. Suffice to say, if you’re making the incredibly stiff Scott the center of your series, you’re doomed.

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TV seasons wrapping up or just starting (#SFWApro)

THE DEFENDERS on Netflix wrapped up after eight episodes, which I didn’t realize (so as E8 wrapped up, I was wondering what they’d do for the rest of the season). This has zero cast in common with the comic-book version (cover by Sal Buscema, all rights remain with current holder), instead putting the stars of Netflix’ Jessica Jones, Daredevil, Luke Cage and Iron Fist together when the Hand’s immortal leaders (Sigourney Weaver most notably) and Elektra launch a scheme that will destroy New York. Seeing all four characters and their supporting casts join forces was a blast, just as much fun as back when I was a kid and superheroes occasionally crossed into each others’ comics. Whatever flaws their might have been faded in that light. “We had a moment — but we didn’t have it long enough.”

The fourth season of STAR WARS: The Clone Wars had a weak opening arc involving a battle on Admiral Ackbar’s watery homeworld but picked up in subsequent arcs: Captain Rex’s platoon falls under the command of a general who sees them as cannon fodder, Obiwan goes undercover with a team of mercenaries, Ventress contemplates a career change and Darth Maul returns. A lot of stock elements (the Rex plotline has a lot of WW II combat-film tropes) but used well. “We’re pirates you fool — looting is what we do.”

 

Moving on to the 2017 season, ONCE UPON A TIME‘s new reboot season has one big asset, Lana Parrilla in a new, non-evil role, and clearly enjoying herself. Unfortunately Gabrielle Anwar’s role as the new Wicked Queen recycle’s Parrilla’s S1 Regina. Of course the whole plot is recycled: a grown-up Henry meets a girl who claims to be his daughter and tells him his family have lost their memories through being trapped in a curse, the same set-up that Emma dealt with in S1. And if they’d done this a couple of seasons ago, I might have bought it, but now it just feels tired. “A glass slipper? Do you know how many girls have my shoe size?”

THE INHUMANS on NBC gives us the original Inhumans, the royal family of the lunar-based city of Attillan, rather than the terrigen mutated characters on Agents of SHIELD. As in a lot of comics, ruler Black Bolt’s scheming brother Maximus (so far coming off more sympathetic than in the books) usurps the throne forcing the royal family — Medusa, Black Bolt, Crystal, Lockjaw, Gorgon, Karnak — to go on the run in Hawaii. I’m watching it, which is more than I can say for Once Upon a Time, but it’s not gripping, just sort of … there. “You have dependency issues, and you chew with your mouth open.”

The new mutant series, THE GIFTED, is a better superhuman show: in a world where the X-Men and the Brotherhood have vanished, a mutant underground tries to stay off the government’s radar, but it’s getting complicated … Back when Chris Claremont started writing X-Men this would have been an unbelievable TV series, but the themes of persecution are so common now it feels derivative — Tomorrow People covered the same territory as well or better, and Heroes Reborn had some of the same elements. To say nothing of hundreds of X-Men/New Mutants/X-Force comics books. I’m still watching, but strictly as a talking lamp. “I have no idea if the blast that killed my girl came from a good mutant or a bad mutant.”

 

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Exit Jon Pertwee, enter Elisabeth Sladen: Doctor Who, Season Eleven (#SFWApro)

Following Jo Grant’s departure in S10, the opening arc of S11 introduces an even more popular companion, Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen). An investigative journalist, she uses her virologist aunt’s credentials to sneak inside UNIT in THE TIME WARRIOR. After butting heads with the Brigadier and the Doctor, she slips inside the TARDIS as the Doctor investigates the mysterious disappearance of multiple scientists. The trail leads him and Sarah to medieval times, where a Sontaran, Linx, is using them to prepare his ship to return to the stars. It’s a good debut for the Sontarans and for Sarah, who shows no shortage of courage under trying circumstances (producer Barry Letts says in the special features that she won the part by playing scared and brave at the same time). “A straight line is the shortest distance between two points but it’s far from the most interesting.”

The Doctor and Sarah return to London only to find it ravaged by THE INVASION OF THE DINOSAURS (all rights to image remain with current holder), a very good serial reminiscent of some British SF films of the era in its shots of abandoned London. Something is ripping through time to send the dinosaurs rampaging through the city but what? It turns out that a radical scientific group is planning Operation Golden Age, a chance to rewind time to the dinosaur age, send chosen volunteers to occupy the dawn age and do history right next time — which of course, requires erasing all the history we already have. Good, and particularly nice use of Mike Yates, who’s on the revolutionary side after seeing what big business is doing to pollute the Earth in last season’s The Green Death. “It’s a triceratops! Look Brigadier, try and keep it occupied while I’m finishing this off, will you?”

Unfortunately things become a lot less interesting with DEATH TO THE DALEKS. The Doctor and Sarah arrive on the planet Exxilon along with a Dalek scouting party and a human ship seeking a rare mineral that can cure a pandemic. Unfortunately the isolationist Exxilons have a beacon in their fortress that deactivates all electronic devices (the Daleks can move but they can’t zap people) forcing humans and Daleks into an alliance despite the Doctor’s warnings. Unfortunately it all feels rather listless, badly structured and uninspired — and like Colony in Space, it’s annoying that the alien race, though not genuinely evil, obligingly dies off at the end. “Inside each of those shells is a bubbling lump of hate.”

While I found the Curse of Peladon serial a fun costume drama, THE MONSTER OF PELADON is much less fun. Once again the beleaguered government of Peladon is coping with recalcitrant miners; once again the monstrous Aggedor stalks the mines; and lots of running through tunnels to pad things out. The Ice Warriors in their last appearance until the new series of Who, add some spark, but not enough. “You forget, Doctor, I am your judge.”

THE PLANET OF THE SPIDERS was Jon Pertwee’s final serial, reminiscent of The Daemons in its parapsychology. It turns out Mike Yates has been getting his head together in a retreat run by Buddhist monks, only he’s discovered some of the retreaters are up to No Good. Sure enough by tapping the mental powers the monks have taught them, some of the apprentices have contacted the spiders of Metebelis, who plan to use the humans to provide a gateway to invade Earth. I like this better than a lot of people, but it definitely isn’t first rate. However I do give it extra points for giving Mike Yates a character arc, something you don’t see much in the show’s supporting cast. And of course we have the final scene in which the Third Doctor morphs into the Fourth … “While I admire your optimism in the face of the inevitable, will you please shut up?”

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Twilight Zone aesthetics: shabby chic? (#SFWApro)

I just finished rewatching the second season of THE TWILIGHT ZONE and it holds up just as well as the first (all rights to image remain with current holder).

There are some real turkeys, such as the Three Wishes story “Man in the Bottle” and the recycled urban legend “Twenty Two.” But the good ones far outnumber them.

“Shadow Play,” in which Dennis Weaver tries to convince the court sentencing him to death that the whole thing is Weaver’s dream.

Agnes Moorehead is a farmwife who has to battle “The Invaders” in what’s effectively a one-woman show.

“Nervous Man in a Four-Dollar Room” is close to a one-man show, as a petty hood has an unexpected conversation with the man in the mirror.

“The Odyssey of Flight 33,” in which the cockpit crew of a passenger jet realize they’ve slipped through time.

And “The Trouble With Templeton” in which Serling shows that despite his fondness for nostalgic stories about people trying to recapture the past, he knows nostalgia can be a trap too.

As I mentioned reviewing the first season, Serling has a fascination with losers, the lonely, the down-and-out. Giving them a second chance, or sometimes taking away their last chance (as in the first season’s “The Big Tall Wish.”). Watching S2, I wonder if the set design doesn’t reflect this.

It’s common for characters on TV who have next to no money to still have huge, attractive apartments. Not in The Twilight Zone. Here cheap rooms look like cheap rooms, flophouses look floppy, a decayed boarding house looks rundown. Struggling small-town diners look small and struggling. It’s most noticeable in “Penny for Your Thoughts,” in which Ace, a compulsive gambler, discovers his best friend Jimbo (Buddy Ebsen) has TK, which he doesn’t use for anything but little everyday tasks. Ace badgers Jimbo into using his powers to cheat at the craps table and they have a brief shot at the big time before Ace ends up broke but wiser.

The thing is, even when they go to a casino to play, it doesn’t look at all glamorous. It’s a little hole-in-the-wall motel/casino somewhere in Nevada, a big step up for Ace but still small time. And it looks it. Ace never even gets close to glamor.

The cheap look wasn’t budget or a lack of vision. The series has no trouble portraying a nice, middle-class lifestyle as in the prosecutor’s house in “Shadow Play.” So was it a conscious decision to drive home that these stories are about the down-and-outers of the world?

Or is it that with everything in color, these just look even shabbier than they originally were? Or maybe this was the norm for 1950s TV, before things got glossy, and it’s just that Twilight Zone is the only 1950s stuff I watch regularly?

I don’t have an answer but I do find it an interesting question.

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Projectionists, fantastic beasts, lost girls and brothers: movies and TV (#SFWApro

Chuck McCann is THE PROJECTIONIST (1971) at Rodney Dangerfield’s revival house, who constantly fantasizes about himself as film superhero Captain Flash, as a Bogartesque PI or romancing Ina Balin (the movie uses scenes from old movies to build its fantasies). This indie didn’t work for me at all, because McCann’s fantasies seemed less like daydreams than a bunch of movie clips randomly strung together — Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid might be a good double-bill. “Did you notice my fingernails were immaculate?”

The film I actually picked to double-bill with it though was the excellent SHERLOCK JUNIOR (1924), a silent starring Buster Keaton as another daydreaming projectionist After his romantic rival frames Keaton as a thief, Keaton fantasizes about being the legendary detective in the film he’s screening, leading to both metafictional jokes (one attempt to sit down gets thwarted as the scene keeps changing) and to Keaton’s distinctive brand of slapstick. Extremely funny.“The master mind had solved everything, except the location of the pearls and the name of the thief.”

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM (2016) is set in 1920s in the Harry Potter universe as a collector of magical animals arrives in New York to release a Thunderbird into the wild (I should note Rowling’s use of Native American myth has been heavily criticized). This entangles him with a muggle baker, an anti-witch crusader, an obscurial (a creature born of repressed magic power) and scheming auror Colin Farrell. This is pleasant enough but relies too much on cool visuals and pretty animal pictures and not enough on plot — the subplot involving publisher Jon Voight and his politically ambitious son goes absolutely nowhere. And as one evil mage points out, why are they so scared of the muggles (or as Yank wizards call them in the film n0n-majjs) when all the power is on the wizarding side? “We need an insect, any kind of insect—and a tea pot!”

The third season of LOST GIRL was only so-so, as I didn’t find Bo’s quest to pass a fae ritual terribly compelling and that’s one of the major arcs of the season. The second arc, involving Lauren going to work for a scientist with a sinister agenda, worked better, and threw in some twists I didn’t expect. And despite the season’s flaws, the last episode of the season made for a good, action-packed cliffhanger. “It’s like my birthday combined with the St. Valentine’s Day massacre!”

The second season of THE ADVENTURES OF PETE AND PETE was where I started watching the stories of the Wrigley Brothers. IIRC “The Call” was the one that kicked it off for me: a phone in one booth has been ringing non-stop for years, but who’s on the other hand? In other stories, little Pete meets the man who inspects his underwear, Ellen drives a math teacher insane, Big Pete struggles to have a talk with his dad and the International Adult Conspiracy plots to destroy Artie, the Strongest Man in the World. Delightfully loonie — it’s a real crime the third season isn’t out on DVD. “Don Ho will not emerge from the valley of darkness.”

My friend Ross has been sending me videotapes of TEEN TITANS GO! for several years and I finally finished them. While I personally preferred the more serious Teen Titans series that preceded it, this nutty take on the team did have some wonderfully goofy moments (what happens when Batman and Trigon both show up for Thanksgiving?). And I quite like this ‘toon’s surly, snarky Raven. “If we don’t celebrate birthdays, the universe has no way to know how old we are.”

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