Last Update 3/30/09

 

Beach Party (1964) 

This was the first of several bikini movies made by Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon back in the 1960s, a genre which petered out pretty quickly, thank heaven.  I went to see it because I’d been a fan of Annette when she was on the Mickey Mouse Club, but she wasn’t nearly as interesting on the large screen.  The movie led to countless imitations like Muscle Beach Party and Beach Blanket Bingo, and eventually to The Horror of Party Beach, Monster in the Surf, and Beach Girls vs the Monsters.  Bob Cummings and Dorothy Malone were given top billing despite their relatively minor parts, and Vincent Price has a cameo.  There's not much plot.  Frankie and Annette are spending vacation at a beach house.  He planned to be alone with her but she invited a dozen or so others to act as chaperones.  Most of the girls wear sexy bikinis, but Annette wasn't allowed to because she was a Disney girl.  Cummings is a repressed anthropologist studying them for a book on teenage sex patterns. Despite the constant allusions to sex, the movie was pretty conservative in its attitudes even for the 1960s. There's a particularly unfunny spoof of beat poets and another of a comic but not very funny biker gang. The 1960s music isn't bad, and there's lots of it, accompanying dance sequences. The course of true love runs awry but all comes out well in the end.  Frothy, but a kind of minor classic. 3/30/09

Don Daredevil Rides Again (1951) 

Although I collect cliffhanger serials, I exclude the westerns.  I make an exception for the Zorro movies, as well as the clones, of which this is one. Don Daredevil is the secret identity of an Eastern lawyer who helps his cousin Patricia fend off a gang of claim jumpers in collusion with the sheriff and a crooked attorney. The existing claims to land were invalidated by a court case, and for some reason no one was previously smart enough to file a new claim, but that is quickly fixed, necessitating more violent means of scaring people away. Our hero also believes that the original grant of land was valid and that a fake one was substituted at one point to facilitate the land grab.  With the help of his friends, the lawyer assumes the identity of Don Daredevil, just as his grandfather did years earlier.  The costume is identical to that of Zorro, but there are no Mexican characters in the movie, just Anglos. No sword or whip either. That’s about all you need to know about the plot.  For some reason, the villains are good character actors but the heroes all deliver their lines like robots.  Maybe they were trying for taciturnity. There are lots of car chases – on horseback – and gunfights – also usually on horseback.  A fundamental flaw in this one is that there is no reason for the lawyer to conceal his identity as there is in the Zorro movies.  And, naturally, everyone acts very stupidly.  Pretty monotonous. 3/29/09

Federal Operator 99 (1945) 

This cliffhanger opens with news of the arrest of Jim Belmont, a notorious criminal and killer, and his immediate escape with the help of his gang.  Jerry Blake is Operator 99, an FBI agent with a British accent. As usual, he performs all of his heroics without calling in any help.  The villain, an experienced character actor, delivers his lines in an oddly convincing precise monotone.  Unlike most Republic serials, this one has no real fantastic content, just cops and robbers, car chases and crashes, deathtraps, exploding buildings,  gunfights, fistfights, double crosses, kidnappings, stolen jewels, and the like.  Some remarkably good shooting at times – hitting a motorcycle wheel at long distance from a moving car – and remarkably bad elsewhen – missing unsheltered targets from close range. The logic of the story is pretty bad even for serials.  “She works for Blake so she must know the code.”  Except that the code has nothing to do with Blake and they know it.  Blake’s secretary gets tied up a lot and her duties include riding around in the trunks of various cars, the back of a stolen truck, rescuing her boss, getting rescued by her boss, and so forth. She even has a brief fistfight with the henchman’s female associate. The story consists of a string of separate episodes rather than one continuous narrative, although obviously it’s a duel between the two main characters.  Some of the capers, particularly the attempt to steal a valuable musical instrument, are downright silly. Not one of the better serials. 3/28/09

Hangover Square (1945) 

Laird Cregar stars in this variant of Jekyll and Hyde.  A promising composer kills a shopkeeper during a blackout. He suspects that he was involved and goes to Scotland Yard but they have another theory and believe him innocent.  His doctor – George Sanders – suggests that he take steps to relax and get out and away from his music for a time.  He goes to a pub and meets an itinerant singer, an ambitious and egocentric woman. It’s immediately obvious that her duplicity when she tries to take advantage of his fame to promote her own career is going to trigger his buried homicidal feelings. It turns out that his mania is set off by certain unpleasant sounds, and an attack follows closely upon his discovering the truth about the singer.  Another woman is attacked – a friend of the composer concerned about his welfare, not fatally, but she doesn’t recognize the assailant whom we must assume is her friend. Pub girl decides to get back in his good graces by flirting.  It works, until he discovers she has become engaged to be married.   During his next attack, he kills her and rather brazenly carries her body to a public bonfire and throws her in.  (Eerily, the actress would later die in a fire.  Cregar himself died at 28 from complications resulting from his self imposed crash diet.  And George Sanders committed suicide years later.)  The police are suspicious but skeptical that he is guilty, except for Sanders. It’s an excellent movie and I’m rather surprised that it’s not better known – I knew the name but nothing else about it until I watched it.  Great Bernard Heermann soundtrack as well. 3/27/09 

The Shuttered Room (1967) 

This is one of those rare cases when a movie, however flawed, is still better than the original.  It’s based on one of August Derleth’s expansions on H.P. Lovecraft, but in the film there is no fantastical element at all.  A good cast – Carol Lynley, Gig Young, and Oliver Reed – almost turn this average thriller into a good movie  Lynley is returning to Dunwich Island and the Whately family, about whom she has partial amnesia.  Her husband, Gig Young, is pitted against a gang of thugs led by Oliver Reed.  The secret she is suppressing is the existence of her homicidally insane sister, held prisoner for all these years, revealed in the closing scenes.  Good performances, nice scenery, and a reasonably good screenplay, but the sound track is horrendously inappropriate.  3/26/09

The Best of Victor Borge

I remember watching Danish comedian Victor Borge from various televisions shows when I was a kid, and his audible punctuation routine is one of the classics of stand-up (or in his case often sit down) comedy.  This particular disc, part of a retrospective collection, contains one of his live performances  from late in his career.  Borge mixed comedy with classical piano music - he was distinguished in both areas and a one time child prodigy.  This contains a great sampling of his work - including the seatbelts on his piano chair, his routine on inflationary language, audible punctuation, and an impressive bit where he and another pianist play the same piece on the same piano.  Borge continued to perform regularly even at age 90 and is still a genuine joy to watch. For those unfamiliar with his career, he was frequently called The Great Dane. 3/25/09

Queen of the Jungle (1935)

Another jungle serial from the 1930s.  There's another white princess in this one, this time a young girl who was lost in a ballooning accident and who is now the object of a search by a playmate, now adult, who hears rumors of her existence twenty years later. But a walk in the jungle isn't a walk in the park.  For one thing, there's the Sacred Cult of Mu, which guards a deposit of radium.  They have the mandatory evil witch doctor.  There's also the mysterious Leopard Woman, who is definitely not a femme fatale.  And the lost girl, now woman, doesn't remember her past. This one's pretty racist.  "Will her white blood overcome her savage instincts?"  The story glosses over the fact that she has had people killed on her orders, I guess because they were all native Africans. It also incorporates a lot of footage from an earlier silent film.  The hero finds her fairly early and begins to teach her English, but the witch doctor - the only white member of the tribe - wants them both killed so they can't reveal the secret of the radium.  They eventually escape after dealing with water that inflicts blindness, killer apes, men living in a river, lions, alligators, strangling vines, tigers (in Africa!), American crooks, poison, and other villainy.  It gets a bit repetitive but the female lead, who once played the feisty little girl in the Rascals, does a pretty good job.  Too bad she retired from films at age 25.  3/24/09

Darkest Africa (1936)

Clyde Beatty stars in this jungle adventure which features more authentic African details than most other cliffhanger serials.  This was the first serial by Republic Pictures, which did many of them in the years that followed.  There’s the usual casual racism – a comic relief assistant named Hambone, a particularly stupid looking gorilla suit, and an unusually unappealing jungle boy who never had another acting role and who was probably chosen because he worked in a wild animal act in real life.  Beatty is off to rescue the jungle boy’s sister, held captive by the high priest of a hidden city.   It can’t be too well hidden because when Beatty hears about it, he sets off without bothering to tell anyone.  A couple of villainous Americans are on their trail, lured by stories of diamonds in the temple.  The secret city has warriors who can fly with artificial wings, an effect done quite well for the 1930s – the serial was also known as Bat Men of Africa.  Naturally the lost city consists of white men.  Conveniently, they also speak English.  There are tigers in this Africa, incidentally, but they’re explained, sort of, as having been imported by the natives somehow.  

Beatty and the kid, alone, have to avoid a tribe of tiger men and survive an earthquake to reach the lost city.  For the first half there’s progress to the story rather than the same situation repeated over and over, although the reason for the girl’s captivity is repeated in detail ad nauseam. The shot of the flight of bat men over the hidden city is impressive.  Inside the city, the captive sister and a few sympathetic allies try to provide aid to Beatty and the boy, Baru.  They eventually rescue the girl and flee, but the bat men pursue them, aided by the renegade diamond hunters, and they’re recaptured. The bat men have radio communications, but no weapon more advanced than spears for some reason. Beatty and the boy escape again, as the story begins to recycle itself.  And like most lost world movies, it ends with a volcanic eruption.  Basically the usual formula, but with more originality than would appear in most of their later efforts. 3/23/09

Government Agents vs Phantom Legion (1951) 

Another cliffhanger, this one pitting a group of government agents against a group of ambitious criminals who have been hijacking trucks and, as in most serials, have a boss who is one of the inner circle of the trucking managers, although we’re not supposed to know which one.  Car chases and crashing cars liven up the opening episode, and the action doesn’t slow down much in those that follow.  There’s an underlying flaw, since all of the hijackings take place in a relatively small geographical area, which doesn’t make sense but does mean our heroes can get into fights on every occasion.  The precautions taken to guard sensitive material are also pretty cavalier.  Most of the usual devices are here – the kidnapped love interest held to hostage, a complete absence of the police, criminals and heroes alike who seem incapable of covering someone with a weapon without getting into a fist fight, hats that are glued to the characters’ heads and don’t come off despite their exertions, death scenes that turn out not to be, transparent traps that people walk into anyway.  The lone female character is more spirited than most, actually fires a gun and saves the day on at least one occasion.  The government apparently ships radioactive materials in wooden boxes!  The sequence with the district attorney – whose investigation apparently ends if he dies – is implausible even by the standards of the early serials.  Those written during the 1950s were not as well written as the ones that had gone before. 3/22/09

Darklight (2004) 

There’s not much good to say about this Sci-Fi Channel original.  Shiri Appleby is Lilith, the one from Christian theology, sort of, except that she’s a demon living a life as a pleasant young woman with amnesia.  John De Lancie is the chief villain, whose plans for the world appear murky even to him.  When a nasty supernatural evil provides more than human powers to a villain, she’s recruited to counterbalance the creature and destroy it, discovering the truth about her own origins in the process.  The story makes no sense, the lighting is often dreadful, and the sound quality is particularly bad, frequently echoing and changing levels unpredictably.  Even the fight scenes are badly done mixes of live action and CGI, and the monster is silly looking.  One of the worst things I’ve seen from this source, and that’s going some. 3/21/09

The Vanishing Shadow (1934) 

Two scientists, Stanley and the professor, develop a silly looking robot and an invisibility belt with which they battle a corrupt business and criminal organization in this cliffhanger serial.  There’s some not very convincing business about an accidental shooting that one of our heroes gets blamed for, sort of, after which there’s a fairly good automobile chase. The professor, who has also invented a death ray, is clearly a bit evil minded himself.  There are confrontations in which both sides are notably stupid in securing their prisoners and Stanley’s love interest, who happens to be the daughter of the leader of the crooks, is taken prisoner.  Some of the visual effects – the invisible man still casts a shadow – are nicely done. There are also “chemical rays” and other goodies. Unlike most serials, the villain has redeeming qualities, chiefly his affection for his daughter. There are chases, fist fights, crashes, kidnappings, proxy fights, superweapons, and the occasional gun battle as well. 3/21/09

100 Million BC (2008) 

I was expecting stupid science from this cheaply made dinosaur movie, and I got it right away. The writer apparently is unaware that the Earth moves through space petty quickly so time travel back eight hours would not displace an object by a few hundred miles.  Anyhow, a rescue team is to be sent back through time to find the crew of the ship displaced during the Philadelphia Experiment, who have left cave markings indicating they survived in Argentina. The team goes back and we have a couple of fair CGI effects, but a lot of the time they couldn’t even afford CGI so we have quick flashes of what appears to be a still painting interposed with incomprehensible thrashing and shooting.  The survivors go back through the portal, but a large carnivore follows them and wanders around the city killing people.  The police and the army can only muster one helicopter each (!) and no alarm is given to keep people off the streets (!).  For some reason, the shot with the heroes jumping out of a helicopter is CGI. The dinosaur can outrun moving vehicles, but can’t catch up to people on foot!  Tack on a stupid ending and a boring, monotonous soundtrack and you have a complete waste of time. 3/20/09

Hit and Run (2008)

I Know What You Did Last Summer with a few new twists.  A mildly obnoxious young woman, played quite well by Laura Breckinridge, hits what she thinks is a bump, drives home, and goes to bed.  Then she's disturbed by sounds from the garage, comes down to find a badly injured man stuck in her bumper, and when he grabs her she beats him with a tool until he is apparently dead.  Panicking, she drives the body to a remote location and buries him but, of course, he's not dead, he gets out of the grave, and comes looking for revenge.  The initial set up depends upon her stupidity and several cliches.  Why doesn't she call the police when she hears sounds in the house?  Why do the garage lights not work?  Why doesn't she call for help?  How does the victim, who's nuts, figure out who she is?  Anyway, she tells the story to her equally obnoxious and not very bright boyfriend.  There's a very effective scene in which the woman goes to retrieve the blanket she used to wrap the body, and finds her boyfriend's body in the grave, but it doesn't make sense.  The killer would have to have known they were meeting there, and perform the murder and bury the body in less than ten minutes. It goes downhill rapidly after that.  Madman ties her to the front of her car and goes joyriding, makes a brief stop to kill his wife, after which the story moves to its violent closing.  The good moments are all early on, and there are no likeable characters at all.  3/19/09

Max Payne (2008)

This violent action film is based on a computer game I've never played, so I don't know how well it reflects its source material.  The title character is a tough cop who goes rogue when his family is murdered, driven by the need for vengeance.  The first part of the movie is very difficult to follow with lots of enigmatic shots and few explanations.  There's apparently a new drug on the streets, one that causes creepy hallucinations. Some of the visuals are impressive, but the batlike apparitions are less effective because it's not clear whether or not they are real.  When a woman he questions is found dead, her body mutilated, in an alley, her sister thinks he's responsible and comes looking for him, eventually becoming his unofficial partner in the search for answers. The another cop finds a connection with the murder of Payne's wife, but he gets killed before he can explain what it is.  For some reason Payne is the prime suspect this time, even though he is found beaten unconscious at the scene. Character motivation is horrible, even when explained, which isn't always the case. As the story progresses, the dark lighting and intentionally dingy sets become more annoying than impressive, and the chaotic story line is no longer interesting enough to keep us trying to figure out what's going on.  Eventually we find links between Viking tattoos and Aesir Pharmaceuticals.  Surprise!  It does become clear at the end.  It's an experimental drug that was supposed to make better soldiers but instead turned most of its recipients insane.  And the identity of the actual evil mastermind is painfully obvious.  Not awful, just lousy.  3/18/09

Allan Quatermain and the Temple of Skulls (2008)

This claims to be a low budget remake of King Solomon's Mines.  Well, it's low budget all right, but other than taking place in Africa, it bears little resemblance to either Haggard's novel or the previous film versions.  It doesn't help that it has some of the worst acting, and worst camera work, I've ever seen in a movie, plus a low key - i.e. leaden - soundtrack, a poor choice of shooting sites, and a plot that doesn't make a whole lot of sense.  Or even a little lot of sense.  I burst out laughing during Quatermain's first confrontation with the villain - the worst actor in the cast, which is a considerable accomplishment in itself - and the brief violent exchange was so badly filmed it looked like part of the film was missing.  Something even seemed to happen to the sound equipment for a while because it echoed oddly.  Anyway, the plot, such as it is, involves the villain's desire for a treasure map which he believes Quatermain possesses.  Allan is aided, rather ineptly, by two young people searching for a friend.  The villain grimaces a lot while the hero looks harried but competent.  The villain, incidentally, is trekking after them through the wasteland and, like the three good guys and another friend, none of them are carrying bedrolls, food, extra ammunition, cooking utensils, or even a change of clothing.  There are times when this is bad enough to be funny, but it's mostly just boring.  3/17/09

Murder She Wrote Season 7 (1991)

Season 7 of this venerable series opened with “Trials and Tribulations”. Jessica is being sued because of evidence she supplied in a murder investigation. A witness has been bribed to recant.  Again there is a depressing lack of knowledge about the legal system.  It’s highly unlikely someone would have been convicted of murder based on the uncorroborated testimony of one witness. Later, his uncorroborated testimony that she bribed him to give false testimony would not have held up in court either since there was no opportunity for her to confront her accuser. Otherwise it’s not bad. “Deadly Misunderstanding” brings murder to Cabot Cove again.  Jessica hires a not very competent temporary typist who is accused wrongly of murdering her husband – who deserves it.  Jessica’s objections to the news story about her accident are rather hypocritical given her penchant for sticking her nose in other people’s business.  And why do the two amateur writers compare their stories in the bedroom?  There’s a nicely complex plot in this one, although it depends on people acting stupidly throughout.   

Jessica is missing from “See You in Court, Baby” and friend Dennis Stanton solves the murder of an obnoxious divorce lawyer in the best story to date using him as the lead. Jessica gets involved with an expose of an old murder case in “Hannigan’s Wake” and nearly becomes a victim.  There’s another error of procedure here.  Lie detector tests are not admissible as evidence so the missing results in this case are not significant.  “The Family Jewels” starts with a kleptomaniac millionaires whose theft is covered up by the jewel store clerk. She’s also cheating on her husband with the chauffeur, who turns up dead. The deferential investigating officer is not believable and kicked me out of the story despite the clever ending. “A Body to Die For” is pretty good.  Two conmen clash and one gets killed, but not intentionally.  Transparent mystery but reasonably well done. 

Way back in the first season, Jessica exposed her publisher as an editor.  Now he’s out of jail and rehired by his old firm – if you’ll believe that’s possible at the behest of an ambitious businessman.  “The Return of Preston Giles” is filled with implausibilities, including the parole of a first degree murderer after only five years. And I also doubt that parole can be revoked just because the parolee loses his job.  The rest of the plot creaks along with absurdities and clichéd dialogue.  Pretty bad. 

“The Great Twain Robbery” is a Dennis Stanton story concerning a faked lost Mark Twain novel.  The setup is so preposterous in so many ways that the story is completely implausible  Clever at times, but obvious and the ambivalent attitude toward the two female con artists is dubious at best.   Jimmy Dean’s last screen role was in “Ballad for a Blue Lady”, playing a country and western singer and composer.  Stanton returns again in “Murder in F Sharp”, which has Ricardo Montalban as a concert pianist.  Montalban is one of those rare actors who elevates even minor material by his presence.  He fakes an accident to his hands when he realizes that he is losing his dexterity. His wife is found dead after a quarrel with their son, but it seemed obvious to me that he was the killer since he’d been sucking up to a sweet young thing. 

“Family Doctor” is embarrassingly bad.  There are some cartoon level gangsters and a wayward playgirl who is so overdone that I burst out laughing when I wasn’t supposed to.  Jessica and her doctor friend get caught up in a Mafia hit, but this one’s so bad the story doesn’t matter – full of nonsensical situations, inexplicable reactions, and other silliness.  Easily the worst episode in the first seven seasons.  “Suspicion of Murder” has Dennis Stanton as prime suspect in a killing when he gets caught up in a marital squabble.  Another badly written one.  “The police don’t involve themselves in domestic quarrels.”  Maybe not by choice, but when there are murder threats and physical assaults, they most certainly do. I almost turned this off when the police detective insists it’s not the business of the police. The mystery itself is screamingly obvious. Season 7 continues its slide into nonsense.  

“Moving Violation” has the sheriff of Cabot Cove in trouble when one of his prisoners dies in custody. I couldn’t believe that the young man’s father was able to cover up his son’s previous peccadilloes this effectively, but it’s a minor point. The major point is that police procedure is grossly misrepresented, again, and the killer betrays herself by an awkward ruse that the show has used a dozen times previously – revealing information only known to the murderer.  “Who Killed J.B. Fletcher?” has a cute premise, destroyed by bad writing.  A woman impersonating Jessica is arrested for breaking and entering, then murdered.  Even though the police have laid themselves open to a major lawsuit, they are rude when the real Jessica proves her identity and don’t even apologize. The newspaper story is equally dumb.  Either the writers changed, were lobotomized this season, or just didn’t care any more.  Another stupid and awkward said-something-you-shouldn’t-have-known solution. 

“The Taxman Cometh” continues the descend into nonsense, opening with a scene in which an IRS agent not only blatantly blackmails someone, but the premise that a two million dollar deposit was mislaid is presented as complete nonsense.  The story gets actively worse as it progresses, so bad that my jaw dropped a couple of times.  The IRS man interposes himself into the murder investigation, also threatening blackmail, and the idea that the ex-husband was going to be a key witness in the tax case is a joke. I’m surprised the show didn’t get cancelled this season because it was so consistently badly written. The question of whether or not a payment was made would have been easily resolved.   Harry McGraw is back in “From the Horse’s Mouth”, in which the rivalry between two horse breeders leads to murder. 

In “The Prodigal Father”, a man believed to have died after robbing a local bank shows up many years later, and promptly gets murdered. It’s not a bad mystery although at times some of the characters are a bit overwrought, particularly the man who married the victim’s daughter.  The solution is also pretty obvious. “Where Have You Gone, Billy Boy?” is another Dennis Stanton. A not very funny ventriloquist is implicated in a murder when his dummy is found at the crime scene.  This one steals slightly from William Goldman’s Magic, but otherwise it’s one of the few good episodes this season.  A woman claims that Jessica’s late husband fathered her child in “Thursday’s Child.” A second plot involves sub-par construction on a school and a plot to frame the son in question to prevent him from blowing the whistle.  Not completely convincing but okay. The answers to both problems were fairly obvious.

"Murder, Plain and Simple" deals with a murder in Amish country.  The initial set up is a bit contrived - an accident between a horse and buggy and a car.  Everyone asserts the buggy was at fault, but that's not the way I saw it.  A self righteous elder ends up dead. One of the better episodes this season, although some of the dialogue leaves much to be desired. Once again the killer reveals herself by saying something she shouldn't have known. A restaurant owner is accused of poisoning patrons in "Tainted Lady." It's another over wrought screenplay with the town people rioting, the sheriff so corrupt that it's a joke, and the defense's lawyer inept unrealistically inept.  A fair mystery can't save this one, and again the killer lets something slip she shouldn't have known. The season ended (thank heaven!) with "The Skinny According to Nick Cullhane."  Pat Harrington is a Mickey Spillane type mystery writer, now a has been, whose new manuscript is the target of various villains.  A welcome upturn but much to late to save this set from being a near total disaster.  I have season 8 waiting to be watched, but after this, I think I'll put it off for a while.  3/16/09

Bruce Gentry, Daredevil of the Skies (1949) 

This cliffhanger serial features Bruce Gentry, a high flying pilot who teams up with a scientist to battle an enemy agent who has created flying discs which can be used to destroy targets.  The discs are the same cartoon flying saucers that have appeared in other Columbia serials, and it’s bad enough to be funny.  Fist fights and car chases abound.  In one instance, Gentry’s car is disabled, but he happens to have a folding motorcycle in the trunk!  The writing, particularly in the early chapters, is dreadful even for serials.  People jump to wild conclusions, fall for the flimsiest of stories, perform logical leaps that make no sense, and speak so unnaturally they sometimes sound like robots.  This is beside the fact that if a foreign power had such a revolutionary military technology, they wouldn’t need to engage in nickel and dime sabotage.  When Gentry is first attacked by a disc, his plane starts to smoke long before the disc is even close.  Why?  Why also does the pretty young thing hold a rifle on Gentry who obviously has bailed out of a crashing plane? The chief villain is the Recorder, who sends all his communications as tape recordings.  But how do the tapes anticipate what is being said by those listening to them???  The thugs get the drop on Gentry at times and then just leave for no reason, even though they’ve been ordered to eliminate him.  On the other hand, Gentry never bothers to notify the police or the government. The real identity of the Recorder is painfully obvious. The cliffhanger was dying by the time this one came out, and this is a good example of why. Gentry teams up with a brother and sister whose ranch contains deposits of an imaginary metal the bad guys need. One good line: “As a last resort, use your brains.”  The car chases aren’t badly done.  In the final chapter, Gentry saves the Panama Canal.  3/15/09

Amusement (2007) 

Revenge for a sin committed in childhood is an old standby in horror movies, from Prom Night to Nightmare on Elm Street to many others. This one mixes that horror theme with the tormented prisoner elements made popular in the Saw series.  The opening build up – with the two teens following a taciturn trucker on a funny detour – is  okay and has a nice surprise, but some bad acting and though the trick comes as a surprise, the logic that gets us there is faulty. Then we have the babysitter on the stormy night troubled by a shrouded figure.   She makes the usual mistake of disabling the killer – now in a clown suit – but not following up to make sure he’s out of action.  There are some creepy shots during this sequence, but the poor writing is too prevalent.  Parts of the third sequence are incomprehensible.  The third girl’s roommate doesn’t show up, so she goes to investigate at a mysterious building – supposedly a shelter for the homeless apparently, and becomes convinced there is a connection. She sends her boyfriend in and he gets killed.  Does she call the police when he doesn’t come out?  No, that would be too sensible. Instead she sneaks inside. The villain is such a bad actor that there’s no chance for any suspense whenever he opens his mouth.  The story goes downhill from there.  Some of the dialogue is so badly rendered that I couldn’t make it out even backing it up and playing it over again. The bit where he fools a psychiatrist into coming to a creepy old mansion to interview a crime victim in a cell in the basement was incredibly stupid. It turns out this is all because as children they turned in a young boy for torturing a squirrel. Pretty much a complete waste of time. 3/14/09

The Number 23 (2007)

The trailer for this looked interesting when it came out, but I never found time to go see it. When Jim Carrey is good, he's usually very good, but when he's bad, he's usually very bad. This time he's very good, as is co-star Virginia Madsen. He plays a dogcatcher who gets obsessed with a book that mixes numerology and predestination and seems to bear uncanny similarities to his own life.  The sequences he imagines within the plot of the book are extremely well done, full of bizarre imagery and impressive effects.  The version of him in the book is a detective who eventually commits murder, and this leads the dogcatcher to fear that he will eventually do the same thing.  Some of the numerology stuff is clever, but of course it's contrived to fit into the pattern. It is, however, also a bit too long.  Once we've gotten the idea and had several scenes to suggest what's coming, what's coming takes its merry old time arriving.  Then the story turns into a reasonably standard mystery as Carrey tries to track down the murderer of a young woman.  There are some interesting surprises toward the end, but some of the scenes are drawn out too long.  I liked this, but I was restless.  3/11/09

Congo Bill (1948) 

Jungle cliffhangers are usually filled with stock footage of animals, obviously fake natives, a man in a gorilla suit, and a scantily clad heroine.  This one is misleading because much of it is not in the jungle at all.  It starts a bit unusually with a lengthy narrated prologue about Congo Bill, apparently a white hunter, which includes some footage from what was probably another serial I haven’t seen.  He also runs a circus with animal acts.  The narration covers about a year of his career, then switches to the US where the circus has just concluded a season. Someone is sabotaging the circus and the big cats are set free, though quickly recovered.  Then we learn of a will leaving a vast estate to a young woman who is presumed to have been lost, or died, somewhere in Africa.  Naturally Congo Bill is a likely candidate to find her.  No surprise that she’s the mysterious princess of a remote tribe.  What an original concept!  It was old long before 1948 obviously, but still a common plot element. The villain is trying to steal gold from the tribe ruled by the heiress.  “I’ll take care of this white queen before she decides she’s the whole deck.”  The gorilla suit makes its appearance, looking pretty comical. Through a convenient coincidence, the men trying to seize control of the circus are also trying to commandeer the inheritance. So they’re all off to Africa, eventually.  The movie is obviously not set in the jungle and other than early on, there’s not even any stock footage from Africa.  The natives look like a mix of nationalities, none of them African. The princess speaks perfect English and wears a western style dress.  There’s even an SF twist, since the natives don’t mine gold but transmute it from other elements.  Unusually bad acting by all hands help sink this one. 3/9/09

Chick Carter, Detective (1946) 

I thought it was time to indulge myself with another batch of cliffhanger serials, of which this is the first, featuring the son of Nick Carter.  This one’s a bit atypical as it is actually a very long, second rate mystery about the theft of a valuable jewel – or is it a theft?  A crooked nightclub owner owes money to another, so he plans to fake the theft in order to collect the insurance.  But has someone taken advantage of the situation to steal it for real?  Since this one ran 15 chapters, the story is really stretched out past what the plot can actually support, and the cliffhangers generally aren’t.  There’s a typical annoying reporter and his comic relief camera man sidekick, and Chick Carter, police detective.  There’s a good deal of repetition, not unusual in cliffhangers.  Surprisingly, some of the supporting actors are much better than usual, although the script is bad enough that it’s often hard to tell. 3/8/09

Stardust (2007) 

This is the screen adaptation of a Neil Gaiman fantasy novel.  The possibly fey son of a small town resident offers to capture a falling star in order to convince the girl he loves to choose him over her more attractive, more successful boyfriend.  As it happens, the falling star is actually a woman who possesses a magical jewel that will determine which of three brothers will become king, if they can take it from her.  There are also three evil witches after her because they want to steal her youth and rejuvenate themselves.  Our hero, Tristan, finds himself caught up in a lot more danger than he expected.  Some of the minor special effects are quite cute and for the most part the story moved quickly with no sense of being rushed.  There were a few times when my interest flagged a bit, probably because information was being duplicated, and I also found some of the humor less than effective. I also wondered why, if the witch had such powerful magic, she tried to murder the falling star by subterfuge when the latter was at her mercy.  Minor cavils aside, this is a very impressive fairy tale, and the last half hour or so is spectacularly good.  3/7/09

Devices and Desires (1991)

As far as I’m concerned, P.D. James is the greatest living mystery writer, perhaps the greatest of all times after Dorothy Sayers.  And fittingly enough, the adaptations of the Adam Dalgliesh novels are the best mystery series I’ve ever seen on television.  This is not one of my favorites, five hours long, finally released on DVD, in which a serial killer known as the “Whistler” is killing women in Norfolk. It’s a very complex story with a lot of characters so the viewer has to pay close attention, particularly during the opening segment when most of the characters are introduced as well as some of the conflict. There’s a disgruntled scientist, a widowed artist, a crusader against nuclear power, a landowner who wants to evict one of her tenants, a destructive computer virus, and several others. Dalgliesh inherits a cottage from an aunt and finds himself in the middle of it all. 

There are plenty of less than admirable characters, almost too many to keep track of.  The troubled scientist is having second thoughts about his job, Dalgliesh is getting romantically involved with a local woman, a woman demands that her lover marry her, a woman is haunted by the accidental death of her father, and another body turns up strangled and mutilated. When the unpopular landlady is found dead, there is some question whether it was the same killer or an opportunistic copycat.  Stirring things even further, the scientist commits suicide after learning of the latest murder. Then the real Whistler kills himself as well, leaving only one murder to be resolved. 

Roy Marsden is, as always, superb as Dalgliesh.  I cannot read the novels now without hearing his voice in the dialogue. The background unfortunately has several of the more rational people - including Dalgliesh - uttering simple minded nonsense about the dangers of nuclear power, sometimes bordering on the preachy. The subplot about the computer virus is also rather implausible. I always thought the real killer was too obvious but your mileage may vary. 3/1/09

Just Add Water (2008)

I don't remember who recommended this to me but it sat on my shelf for quite a while before I got around to it.  In a small, backwater town in California, an unhappy parking lot attendant has to deal with his agoraphobic wife, comatose mother, criminally inclined and sexually frustrated teenage son, crazy neighbors, and a young biker who charges a toll for him to get into his own neighborhood.  Then he discovers that his son's real father is his brother, that his wife has been cheating on him since before they were married. Enter Danny DeVito, who is trying to open a gas station on a road that has no traffic. The area has also been declared a toxic waste site and there is no police force.  His life has fallen apart and he can't even respond to the advances of the attractive store clerk who has the hots for him. But we know the worm is going to turn sooner or later. He organizes a comic commando attack on the biker/drug gang to reclaim the town for law and order.  Cute.  2/27/08

Underdog (2007) 

I had two reasons for wanting to see this.  First, I was a fan of the animated series.  Second, this live action version was filmed locally, and in fact I accidentally walked into an active set one morning.  There is a dog playing Underdog, thankfully, though not quite the one from the cartoons.  I know this is a comedy, but I was annoyed by the opening sequence when the bomb squad opens a suspicious package, with about a dozen people standing around at the crucial moment.  Anyway, Underdog is just another police dog as this one opens.  He speaks to humans and other animals as well as doing the voiceover narration.  Anyhow, he’s sold to Simon Barsinister for lab experiments and gets exposed to a formula that makes him more than your ordinary dog, after which he becomes friends with Jim Belushi, a security guard. Predictably, the dog makes a mess of things trying to master his new powers.  Barsinister and his minion are trying to find Underdog as well.  Some of it is cute, some silly. The story falls apart toward the end, unfortunately.  Amusing but minor. 2/26/09

April Fool’s Day (2008) 

I have never understood why I enjoyed the original version of this movie, because the story made no sense and there were frustrating loose ends.  But for some reason I did, so I came to the remake somewhat warily.  In the original, a young woman invites several acquaintances to her remote family cabin in Maine where she convinces each to disappear – pretending to be have been murdered – in order to establish a murder oriented resort, although we don’t know that until the end.  This time we know that hoax murders are planned right from the outset.  The cast is older and less likeable, not that the original crew were very nice.  But they were just jerks; the characters in this one are actively evil. When a practical joke goes bad and an innocent (and too good to be true) young woman dies, someone decides to get even. There’s also a stupid writer flaw.  Since the dead woman had been given a drug to make her pliable, which killed her, someone should have been charged with involuntary manslaughter at a minimum. Also, the judge transfers management of the family trust from brother to sister, even though both were involved in the plot. Once the first murder is committed, the others don’t go to the police based on the stupidest reasoning I can recall even from real cheap horror movies. The electrocution murder depends on an unbelievable string of coincidences. There’s only the most superficial similarities to the original movie.  And did I mention the relentlessly bad acting and the stupid surprise ending?  Go watch the original. 2/25/09

Torchwood Season 1 (2007)

Captain Jack Harkness, a sometimes companion to Doctor Who, shows up as head of Torchwood, a secretive organization which deals with alien threats.  In the opener, a police constable gets curious about their activities and discovers that their second in command has been seduced by alien technology and has killed three people.  She gets hired as a consequence.  In the second episode, she helps them deal with a gaseous alien that inhabits human bodies and kills men during sex.  Both episodes are good, not great, and there’s some clever writing in the second in particular.  

In the third episode, an alien device provides glimpses of the past. An old murder and a new blackmail plot work themselves out in a fairly complicated and satisfying way.  The fourth focuses on attempts to revive a victim of the Cybermen who has become a cyborg herself.  Alas, she is no longer completely human either.  I can’t say much for the personnel management since this is the second time one of the core staff has gone bad, more or less.  Not one of the better episodes – predictable and repetitive.  The next is much better.  Shortly after an elderly woman sees “fairies” in the woods, a child is protected from a molester by an invisible and vindictive force.  A couple of problems though.  The supernatural seems to contradict the rationale of the story.  More annoying is that in this case evil wins. 

Episode 6 is decidedly creepy.  While investigating several disappearances in the countryside, the team is lured to a house where they find a number of skinned bodies. There’s a surprise in this one, a pretty good one actually.  One of the members becomes a mind reader in episode 7 after meeting an odd woman who is probably not human.  In the next, the name of Torchwood is written in blood at a murder scene.  There’s a good line: “We’ve been talking to the wrong corpse.”  The dead Torchwood agent from the first episode is revived as part of her long dormant plan. This one’s a bit gruesome, and a very good story. Next up, a man who knows about Torchwood wakes to find himself effectively dead in a mysterious accident and invisible to everyone else.   One of the team members tracks down the alien artifact the dead man once owned (and sold on Ebay).  This was annoying because a major plot point depends on a misunderstanding of how Ebay works.

There are good moments in the next, wherein a plane from 1953 with three people aboard lands in the present.  Some of the culture shock is excellent. The tension among the characters is not quite as good, occasionally difficult to understand. Another of the regulars shows his nasty side, cheating on his girlfriend, who is also cheating.  Although I like seeing characters have human failings, they overdid it a little, I think, because I found everyone except Captain Jack – who isn’t really human any more – less than inspiring.  On the other hand, this particular episode raises a lot of complex questions – about love, death, and life in general.  On balance, I think it was their best – thought least typical – episode. Then there's a curious episode in which dangerous aliens are kidnapped for a fight club, but there are several problems with the script that spoiled it for me.

In the penultimate episode, Captain Jack and a team member find themselves back in 1941. They run into another version of Jack Harkness, and we learn that our Captain Jack took his name and that we don't know who he really is. The pacing is a bit off in this one, but it's a good story.  Finally, the rift in time that is responsible for a lot of the problems Torchwood has been dealing with is opened in the closing episode, threatening the world. People from other times (carrying old diseases and weapons) start appearing randomly throughout England. There are also portents that "something" is coming, along with ghostly warnings.  A fairly spectacular if not entirely logical finale, but I ended up liking the team members even less than I already did.

The series is impressive at times, but I find it very difficult to warm up to the cast, who are riddled with petty jealousies and personal conflicts.  They’re also very lax about security, talking to people about what they’re doing, taking alien technology out into the world, and so forth. It’s also not clear how they’re funded and how they get the authority to supersede the police. Captain Jack’s invulnerability takes some of the suspense out of some situations as well.  Uneven in writing and concept, but with several good episodes. 2/24/09

Friday the 13th (2009)

This is the reboot of the Friday the 13th franchise, although it's actually more of a remake of the second installment than the first, with the discovery of Jason's home and his mother's head, and with bits and pieces of other films thrown in - the murder in the sleeping bag, the brother searching for his missing sister, the impersonation of Jason's mother.  It has most of the usual cliches, with the good girl surviving - sort of - although it's a bit of a surprise which one that turns out to be.  Obviously not one of the ones who got nude - that appears to be a rule in the series - and just about all the others got gratuitously nude.  The story opens with a quick rehash of the final scene of part one, then a longer prelude with five obnoxious young people searching for a field of marijuana and finding Jason instead.  Then the main story starts with a group of even more obnoxious college students having a bash at a vacation hideaway, while the brother of one of the first group tries to find out what happened to her. 

I went to see this primarily because I was curious to see if a bigger budget and advanced film techniques could make a better movie.  It didn't in this case.  This isn't the worst in the series, but it's close to the bottom.  I could live with the problems about the original story of Jason's return from the dead, inconsistent and never really explained.  But there are bigger problems with this one.  For example, Camp Crystal Lake has been abandoned for twenty years.  So how come the electricity still works?  What happened to the car driven by the first group?  Can Jason drive?  There's a sequnece in which the battery dies in one of the flashlights, but moments later it's working just fine. At the end, the morning after they have "killed" Jason, they dump his body in the lake.  Why?  How are they going to explain all the dead bodies (as usual, Jason kills exactly 13) to the police? Most of the deaths are terribly predictable; instead of actual suspense we have very loud noises to make us jump in our seats.  The action sequences - chases and fights - are in that new choppy, shaky, style I've seen so much of lately.  You know, the one where you can't tell what's actually happening.  I didn't expect much, and what I got was trash.  2/19/09

Return to Sleepaway Camp (2008)

I was in the mood for a cheesy horror movie and this looked like the perfect thing.  It's a kind of poor man's Friday the 13th. The tormented camp attendee kills her tormentors.  In the original, it turned out that the girl was actually a boy whose sex was concealed thanks to a psychotic guardian.  Three technically better but even more derivative sequels followed, and after a long gap, we have this. The aggressively bad music during the first few minutes reassured me that this was not going to be art, or even very good.  Maybe not even marginally watchable.  Just what I was in the mood for. There's the typical bully kid and the typical victims, none of whom could act their way out of a sleeping bag. They switch almost immediately to spoof, with a police officer equipped with an artificial voice heckled off the stage, but can't decide which they want to do.  Isaac Hayes even appears as the chef.

Anyway, we have lots of weird or pissed off people including a counselor who hates the bully, the senior staff, the cook's assistant, a very large female resident, and various of the kids. The cop doesn't even react when the bully tries to kill someone with a knife. Obviously the screen writer assumed that the audience was anxious to get to the slaughter and didn't care about motivation, characters, story line, or plausibility.  Alas, they were probably right. Did I mention that the bully considers frogs his only friends. He's the obvious suspect when the murders start, which  means he can't be responsible, of course.  But after the first couple of deaths, we get episode after episode of the kids tormenting the bully and him tormenting the smaller kids. One of the counselors tries to protect the bully and another thinks she's Angela, the killer from movie one.

One of the odd things about this is that unlike most films of this type, there's not even a hint of sex, just one chaste kiss between two of the adults, and certainly no nudity.  Since the "kids" are almost all in their mid-twenties, it's doubly surprising. Even the violence is low key, more implication than overt gore. There's not even particularly bad language. The murders are only mildly inventive and one of them is physically impossible. Definitely not worth your time unless you're in the mood for really trash. 2/18/09

The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008)  

I watched the pilot when this first came on, but never managed to see another episode.  I came away with a lukewarm impression, in large part because I suspected that the series would become very repetitive very quickly.  For those who aren’t familiar with the Terminator movies, Sarah Connor is a fugitive because she and her teenaged son are waging a war against a corporation which will eventually develop robotic technology that destroys the world.  These robots are also sending back robotic agents from the future in an attempt to kill John, because he emerges as a resistance leader in the future war.  A good terminator (Summer Glau) has also been sent back to protect him.  The pilot also opens with a prolonged dream sequence, which I almost always find irritating.  There are script problems.  A shooting at a school is reported on the new less than a minute after the incident begins. Glau, the good terminator, is temporarily disabled by minor pistol shots, simply to delay the surprise of revealing her identity to the viewer. The good terminator has supposedly been searching for them for 73 days, but she spent that time establishing an identity in a small New Mexico town, not actually searching. Production values are quite good, however, and it’s certainly not dull.  The FBI agent is a bit dense as well.  He knows about Sarah’s “delusion” about robots, but doesn’t wonder about why witnesses insist the latest assailant had a “robot leg”.   When the good guys enter the bank, the terminator demands the keys to the safety deposit box, but then breaks it open with her fist.  So why did she need the key? There’s also a logical contradiction inherent in the premise.  Only organic matter can come back, supposedly, which is why the robots are clothed in flesh.  But if that’s true, why can’t they have advanced weaponry inside their bodies with the other mechanical devices?  Anyhow, they jump forward from 1999 to 2007, materializing naked in the middle of a highway and setting up the episodes to come. 

“Gnothi Seauton,” the first episode in the new setting, tells us that other humans from the future have come back as well, but when they try to contact them, they find them all dead.  Coincidentally, a road cleaning crew finds an intact terminator’s head in the same area, which activates its body, at the local junkyard.  This is stretching coincidence a bit far. Glau has some good moments trying to act human. One variation from the original is that Glau doesn’t have to take orders from either John or Sarah.  Most of the time is spent with them trying to find money, weapons, and false ID. Meanwhile, the bad terminator is after them. Two of them, in fact. The police also manage to miss a wall safe in a room where four dead bodies were found (huh?).  There’s a touch of sinister as well, because Glau kills a man on the chance that he’s lying, as turns out to be the case. 

Episode 3 is “The Turk.”  Another contradiction.  Glau was able to mimic a normal teenager in the pilot, but now she acts like a…well, a terminator at their new school.  The voice over in the opening credits is also wrong, since it says that Skynet sent back the good terminator.  Not true. There’s also a problem with the time line.  We know that the technology isn’t even seriously underway, but the world “ends in four years”.  Not possible in that short a period of time. As I had feared, it’s a rehash of a subplot from the movies.  Sarah destroys the life work of a brilliant computer expert to prevent him from contributing to Skynet’s development.  Next is “Heavy Metal”, in which they figure out that a damaged terminator is rebuilding and following them.  No idea how he manages the latter.  The FBI guy gets assigned to every case that’s relevant, even though there’s no way for them to know they’re relevant, and even though they’re often outside the FBI’s jurisdiction.  Other than the mine field on a public road, this is only mildly badly written.  

“Queen’ Gambit” has a decidedly anti-science underflavor, on top of the implausibility.  The computer program which took years to develop, and which was destroyed earlier, has been completely rewritten from memory in a matter of weeks, so its author is once again a potential menace to the future, particularly since he already has a military contract.  Glau wants to kill him; she’d be better off killing the screenwriter. Then another agent from the future DOES appear to have killed him, but he gets arrested, and there’s a reconstituted terminator on everyone’s trail while the experimental program, or rather the machine it’s loaded into, has been stolen by parties unknown. Major goof here.  The FBI claims there was synthetic blood at all the crime scenes from the previous episodes.  The wounded terminator I could believe, but one is the victim of Glau, and there was no reason she would have left blood samples behind. 

Episode 6 is “Dungeons and Dragons.”  It’s a relentlessly dull installment in which the delirious agent of the future remembers incidents from his past, our future. Even the exciting bits are unexciting.  “The Demon Hand” is available in an extended cut which includes eight minutes of sometimes unfinished footage that wasn’t aired. The intro refers to it as a “lyrical and thoughtful” episode, which often translates to dull. Glau is searching for the hand separated from the rest of the body of the terminator destroyed last time. Our friendly FBI agent has it, but he’s keeping it secret. The interview with Sarah Connor in which she reveals that she has always distrusted machines is gratuitous, and smacks of Luddism. It is not, as they claim, revealing of the character but more of the prejudices of the writers. Connor comes across as a major nutcase. It was a struggle to keep watching through this nonsense. And how did Connor find out which FBI agent was involved and where he lives? As expected, parts of this really drag, although it is a nice twist to have the other freedom fighter turn out to be a bad guy, and the ballet sequence is entertaining.  I did like the scene where Glau abandons the two people being chased by Russian thugs, but the confrontation between the psychiatrist and the FBI man doesn't ring true.  The angst over the tape of her signing over her parental rights is overblown and irritating.

"Vick's Chip" revolves around efforts to investigate a brain chip from the destroyed terminator.  It appears he was married to a human woman who never suspected anything.  Not credible, sorry. Sarah and the time agent investigate the widow's house, which has weeks' worth of accumulated mail outside.  And no one investigated?  Not credible, sorry.  The terminator impersonating an FBI man murders a school official and assaults another, but there is no sign of an investigation, and no one warns the other schools to expect trouble.  Not credible, sorry. It turns out that an experimental traffic monitoring program is essential to Skynet so our heroes decide to write a virus and introduce it to the program, destroying its credibility. To get into city hall, they use plastique to blow a hole in a wall, which they confidently say will be dismissed as the result of an earth tremor.  Not credible, sorry.  Then they easily find find the right access point for the program, not setting off any alarms, and are close to succeeding when computer security blocks them.  This whole enterprise is not credible.  Nor did the armed guards respond to the explosion until it was dramatically required. A dreadful episode.

The strike shortened season ended with  "What He Beheld."  Efforts to retrieve the stolen computer system almost blow their cover, the FBI agent has become a believer, the terminator masquerading as an agent is now under suspicion, and things are not improving in general. There is a nice sequence when the FBI tries to capture the terminator but that's about it.  I didn't think this series had much potential and I'm afraid the series lived down to my expectations. 2/17/09

Quark (2007)

This short lived - eight episodes - SF series was a kind of spoof of Star Wars and Star Trek.  There's even a roddenberry bush. Quark, Richard Benjamin, is captain of a galactic garbage scow with a crew consisting of identical clones, a wacky scientist, a humanoid plant, a man who is sometimes a woman or vice versa, and several non-crew characters including the Head and a four armed communications person.  The jokes are either silly, visual, or both, and they're already repeating themselves in the first episode, like an amorous robot, looking through a microscope with a patch over an eye, and so forth. Their mission is to "scour the universe." They avert a disaster by feeding trash to a spacegoing lifeform (by accident), defeat the Gorgon's doomsday ship using "the source" instead of "the force", survive a rapid aging virus, pass through a black hole (actually a pink hole) and split into good and bad versions of themselves, a planet of seductive illusions, a bossy computer, and there's a two part episode during which they're captured by the enemy that draws on the Flash Gordon movie.  Farce rather than wit. There's also a very intrusive and annoying laugh track.

Primeval (2007)

 I had not heard of this British television series, but it has dinosaurs so I tracked it down, this being the first two seasons. The first episode obviously sets up the premise. A mildly nutty college student approaches a professor about stories about a prehistoric monster appearing in England some years earlier. Another young researcher tracks down a strange reptilian pet and both parties meet in a forest where there’s a time gate to the past through which the creatures are passing.  The government declares it a classified discovery but the secret seems likely to be hard to contain.  They decide to send an expedition into the anomaly, one of whom is the scientist, whose wife disappeared in this area and whom he believes went through as well.  The sequence with the dinosaur in the school building is quite well done.  Pretty good until the end when a fossil comes back to life and the hero catches sight of his wife, apparently contradicting the rules previously established.  He also spouts some scientific nonsense about the phenomena proving that “everything we knew about the universe is wrong.” 

Episode 2 picks up the story, with the veil of secrecy still imposed by the government despite giant bugs on the subway and other incongruities.  They should have dropped the secrecy because it detracts from the plausibility.  The giant centipede this time is impressive, though I doubt such a thing actually existed. There’s also another phantom appearance of the missing wife. Some of the dialogue is less than thrilling.  The third episode makes the transfers even more rapid and improbable, with a seagoing cetacean materializing in a swimming pool and eating a diver.  The creature in this case is quite well done, although the two heroes who go wading in the water where it has been seen should have shown better judgment. The science is rather wonky and the leaps of logic aren’t justified when the scientist predicts that the next anomaly will be in line with the previous two, and in a body of water.  Why water?  Then there’s a nasty prehistoric bird, also done pretty well. Our hero finally finds his wife, who’s been in the past for eight years, for reasons not at all convincing.  The premise deteriorates steadily as the series proceeds, alas. 

The fourth episode has the obnoxious government man interrogating the even more obnoxious hero’s wife.  He is cavalier about civil liberties; she’s cavalier about human life.  Take your pick. Supposedly she can predict the time and place of the anomalies in advance, by some mechanism we don’t know.  And if she’s a prisoner, why did they let her keep her hunting knife? And to no one’s surprise, she escapes through one of them. The flock of dodos are lots of fun.  The main story this time is that a prehistoric parasite has infected one of the minor characters, threatening to spread through the populace. The team’s security arrangements are terrible, as are their medical precautions.  The team also insists that there is no conspiracy involved in their operation, but it very definitely is a conspiracy. 

A pteranodon is believed to have killed a golfer in episode five, although it turns out a flock of smaller creatures is responsible.  Why do all the prospective victims run down fairways instead of going into the trees? Our hero decides on a “hunch” that it’s not a good idea to kill the creatures that come through the anomaly.  He’s quick enough to kill them when it’s HIS life that’s in danger. Too many of the characters operate through whim and illogic for my taste.  It strikes me as sloppy writing; they couldn’t come up with a good rationalization.  Why does one of the regulars get a blood drip after suffering only a mild concussion with no blood loss?  It’s to lure the pack of predators, of course, but why not a more plausible reason?  And why does no one on the team have a cell phone for emergencies?  Really sloppy writing.

More bad writing mars episode 6, again involving the wife – Helen – and her unnecessary and unexplained hostility to the idea of helping people deal with the crisis and her near omniscience about the time anomalies. This time the creature is from the future, an intelligent, oversized, vaguely anthropoid predator – no explanation of its actual origin. The creature itself is menacing enough and its fight with a dinosaur at the end reminds me of several very old dinosaur movies, though much better done.  This time they change the past and one of the regulars no longer exists – although everything else remains unchanged.  More scientific nonsense, I’m afraid.   

I think episode 7 is the start of the second season – new opening credits for one thing The intruder is a kind of velociraptor this time, and there’s a short scene that is an obvious bow to Jurassic Park. The raptor isn’t as well done as most of the previous creatures and the story isn’t great either, although the chase through the mall was nice.  The missing regular is back as a different person, just assigned to the team.  Strange mist spreads through an office building in episode 8, and something deadly is hiding in the mist. Where have I heard that one before? The creatures resemble the ones from Deep Rising, giant carnivorous worms. Our intrepid heroes venture in unequipped and unprepared for some reason. Their new co-worker has not been briefed, is sent into a dangerous situation, and disregards orders.  I’m afraid the writing has not improved for season 2. 

Episode 9 starts with an unwelcome visitor at a paint gun battlefield, a sabre tooth tiger although we don’t see it until much later.  A nice touch is the juke box playing a song by T. Rex. It borrows a bit from Aliens, with the female team member battling the cat with a piece of power equipment.  There’s also a conspiracy underplot added which presumably we learn more about as time goes on. Given the mystery about Helen, the time jumper, I’m not sure this was necessary, or wise. There’s a futuristic shark in episode 10, with above average dialogue, and further development of the secret plot by a female agent and an executive within the clandestine group for purposes we still don’t understand. There's also another man lurking about who may or may not be involved. There’s also another critter, a much more dangerous one.  Good episode despite the distracting side plots, which converge as Helen returns as head of the plot 

Episode 11 opens with a double cliché, both of which I detest, the cute dog and the innocent child both in danger, although the kid is pretty good. This time they borrow from Tremors, with creatures living below the sand and the upthrust rocks the only safe places.  Another contradiction.  They send a robot through into the past to check the terrain and get telemetry back, but earlier they couldn't communicate through the anomalies with radios. Anyway, they try to rescue the kid, while the conspirators send a mission for reasons of their own. The giant scorpions are quite impressive.

Keeping a lid on things seems unlikely in Episode 12 after a mammoth walks down a major highway, wrecking numerous vehicles. The two male leads are by this point lying to one another and number two appears to have joined Helen's group. The exchanges between the two men later is poorly motivated and badly executed. Other elements in the plot are ill conceived; what good is a clandestine monitoring system that announces its presence the first time it's used?  One good line: "What kind of girl steals your lizard when you break up?" The conspiracy is finally unraveling.  The season ended with Episode 13.  The conspiracy has put mind control devices on various creatures and sets one loose as an object example, contradicting the earlier statement that whatever her faults, Helen is not a killer. All but one of the team are taken captive and Helen discovers her puppet has his own agenda. Most of the loose ends are tied up, and one of the regulars dies, so there should be a new story line for season 3.

In general the show is very watchable, but someone really needed to do a little oversight to make the separate elements make sense. Character motivations are murky at best, illogical and incredible at times.  Many plot elements rely on absurd or unexplained incidents obviously grafted in to justify, sort of, what follows.  On the plus side, the special effects are generally excellent, some of the incidental dialogue is witty, the acting is at worst competent, and the basic idea suggests all sorts of possibilities that have not yet been examined.  I’ll watch season three when it becomes available, and hope for better writing and at least a passing acquaintance with actual science. 2/11/09

Daywatch (2006)

Sequel to Nightwatch, which introduced the battle for control of Earth by two rival supernatural forces, one good and one evil. You really need to watch the first in order to understand the second. In fact, I did watch the first and I'm not sure I entirely understood the second. The opening battle scene set in the time of Tamerlane is impressive, but the story switches almost immediately to present day Russia. The two sides aren't as clearly defined as it appears.  The female trainee half of one Daywatch team - they try to keep the two sides from causing catastophes - proves to be reckless when investigating a lifeforce sucking vampire type. The male half's son has turned to the dark side. Part of the story involves the search for Tamerlane's tomb, focus of considerable magical power and obviously of interest to both sides. One certainly cannot complain that the movie is slow moving because there's actually too much happening. There's even some body switching to confuse things further. Add in a man framed for murder, a magic piece of chalk, and other complexities. We almost don't have a chance to process one development before the next, and I wasn't always clear who was on which side or why. The special effects are impressive, if not always believable. 2/9/09

Pan's Labyrinyth (2006)

Despite all the praise I'd heard for this, I just never seemed to be in the mood to watch it until now.  A young girl is uneasily staying with the government's troops during the latter stages of the Spanish Civil War.  She doesn't realize that she is in the reincarnation of a princess from a magical hidden world.  Her father died in the war and her mother remarried one of the officers. He is not at all a nice man. There's a labyrinth nearby where she meets a faun who tells her she must complete three tasks to reclaim her birthright, although I was suspicious of his veracity from the outset. The first task is to retrieve an object from a giant toad living inside a fig tree. Next is to retrieve another from a hall in which an eyeless creature stands silent guard, but in doing so she violates the rules and annoys the faun. Eventually she is forgiven and gets another chance.  The frame story about the civil war is grim and predictable, even in its tragedies. It has sort of a happy ending, but not exactly.  The special effects and sets are excellent throughout and the young star does a fine job.

Murder She Wrote Season 6 (1990) 

Season 6 opens with another encounter with Jessica’s British spy friend in “Appointment in Athens”.  It’s okay but the killer is painfully obvious.  “Seal of the Confessional” has a different twist.  For most of the episode, we are led to believe that the dead man was killed when he tried to rape his stepdaughter.  Even she believes it, but it’s not the case at all.  A good one.  “The Grand Old Lady” doesn’t involve Jessica at all except that she introduces the story – an excellent one – about an elderly mystery writer who gets involved with murder aboard the Queen Mary.  I believe Angela Lansbury was ill this season, which resulted in her near absence from several episodes. “The Error of Her Ways” also breaks the usual pattern, opening with the arrest of a woman for murdering her husband, apparently based on Jessica’s analysis of the case. Then she is murdered and the sister threatens to sue, while the police are convinced she was not guilty after all.  The solution is painfully obvious, and the fact that Jessica doesn’t even consider that the second murder was committed by another party is inconsistent with her personality. 

“Jack and Bill” is another one in which Jessica is only the narrator.  A bankrupt ex-football player gets stuck with a French poodle when an old friend comes to visit.  The friend ends up dead and someone tries to steal the dog.  Jessica finds an old letter in a piece of used furniture in “Dead Letter”, which she delivers to its addressee, precipitating disaster. He turns up dead after accusing his wife of infidelity.  Average quality.  “Night of the Tarantula” is set in Jamaica.  The young heir to a plantation ignores his family’s plans and marries the “wrong” woman. Racial prejudice and voodoo mix and a locked room murder is the result. The locked room has a secret passage and the elaborate plot to expose the killer is theatrical but not very plausible.  “When the Fat Lady Sings” is slightly out of the ordinary, opening late in the story, with the rest revealed by Jessica’s testimony to a detective.  An aging opera singer obsessed with a young woman shoots her apparently unwanted suitor, but the evidence suggests it was a setup.  Complicated plot, reasonably well done, though I figured out the solution in advance. 

I guessed the surprise fake death in “Test of Wills” immediately and also knew who the killer had to be when a millionaire tries to find out what his family really thinks of him. He gets what he deserves.  A drifter stumbles into a murder and is charged with the crime in “Class Act”, another with only a token appearance by Jessica.  The officer who wants to investigate is under pressure from his superiors to drop it. The set up is ridiculous, I’m afraid.  The detective is sent to teach a college course, with no preparation, no credentials, and a bad attitude. The drifter is convicted despite a complete lack of evidence and the evidence file is sealed by court order, which is absurd since a man was convicted. The drifter would also never have been considered for the death penalty in an involuntary manslaughter case.  When he traces the crime to a state senator’s family, their threats to him are tantamount to a confession of guilt.  Very badly written despite some nice twists. 

“Town Father” is nonsense.  A woman shows up and claims that the mayor of Cabot Cove is the father of her children in the most transparent and ridiculous smear campaign of all time.  Complete crap. The hoaxer gets murdered but it’s almost an afterthought.  Jessica is missing again in “Goodbye Charlie,” in which an unsuccessful PI tries to identify a John Doe as his uncle in order to inherit his estate. The trouble is that two other parties also want to use the body to make claims.  Not realistic but quite amusing.  “How to Make a Killing Without Really Trying” has Jessica’s stockbroker murdered.  There’s an amusing line where one character says that everyone will own HDTV within five years, the “wave of the future.”  Since this was 1990, they were a little early, but not wrong otherwise. Edd  Byrnes is in this one.  Haven’t seen him in years.  It’s a good, middle of the road episode, as is “The Fixer-Upper”, murder in the real estate business. 

“The Big Show of 1965” is set against the backdrop of the reunion of a singing group at a memorial for another singer whose murder was never solved.  A new murder takes place and all is revealed.  Pretty good episode. “Murder – According to Maggie” is another non-Jessica story.  The writer for a tough detective television movie gets involved in a genuine murder. Tim Thomerson is great as the dumb actor. The murder victim really deserved it; I was kind of hoping they wouldn’t catch the killer.  On the other hand, they arrest the head actor for murder with absolutely no evidence whatsoever.  Diana Canova does a good job in a very enjoyable stand alone piece.  “O’Malley’s Luck” also lacks Jessica.  A miserable business tycoon appears to have murdered his wife, tries to make it look like suicide, but doesn’t get away with it.  Okay, and the ending has a nice twist, but nothing special.

Her jewel thief friend returns for his own adventure in "Always a Thief."  Two separate murderers, a stolen coin that turns out to be a fake, and other complications result in a satisfying, even witty episode.  "Shear Madness" is a bit creepy.  A seriously disturbed man is released from treatment and appears to have repeated a murder from his past. Her nephew Grady returns with a pregnant wife in "The Szechuan Dragon," a rift on The Maltese Falcon. David Warner brings real class to this one and it has a cute ending. Last of the season was "The Sicilian Encounter."  Jessica's British secret agent friend returns to get involved in a crime family plot.  Played largely for laughs, and not very good. A generally average season with a few highs and lows. 2/7/09

Kidnapped (1995)

I recently re-read several or Robert Louis Stevenson's novels, including this one, and was pleasantly surprised to find they were even better than I remembered.  This relatively new film version - a tv miniseries - stars Armand Assante and Brian McCardie as the two protagonists. Assante was cast in place of Christopher Reeve, following the latter's tragic accident.  In the novel young David Balfour is cheated of his inheritance by a wicked uncle and kidnapped aboard a ship, which founders.  Balfour meets Alan Breck Stewart, a proscribed Scottish highlander, and the two have various adventures before Balfour gets his revenge.  The film departs right at the outset, starting with Alan Breck and various relatively uninteresting adventures.  When it moves to Balfour, the story is closer to the novel. But it keeps jumping back to Breck, and the intricacies of contemporary politics, which is only of marginal interest to the main story. The penurious, grasping uncle's first attempt at murder is nicely done, though not quite as it was in the novel.  Some of the suspense is dissipated by these changes, since we know who Breck is even before the two meet aboard the ship where Balfour is being carried into slavery.

Anyway, the roundhouse battle with the crew is handled well, after which the ship founders and only a few survive.  In the book, David is stranded on a small island, and one of the nice touches is that he doesn't realize that he could walk to the mainland at low tide.  The movie skips this entire sequence and has them both wash up on shore, then messes around with the story some more before they are reunited. Balfour gets implicated in a political assassination, much as he does in the novel, and his feelings for Breck are ambivalent. In order to save a local leader, Breck and Balfour must track down the real assassin. Much of the second half of the movie is not from Stevenson and is designed to extend the film to three hours.  Much of it drags on far too long and the romantic subplot is both unnecessary and unconvincing. The scenery is wonderful; the sound track is lousy. There's also a totally unnecessary coda in which a voiceover says they never met again.  Actually they did, in Stevenson's sequel. 2/6/09

Class of 1999 (1990)

I don’t think I’ve ever seen this one before, and I’m not sure I’ll ever watch it again, even though it has Malcolm McDowell and Stacy Keach in the cast.  The premise is that portions of major cities are now run by gangs and the schools rather than the police are trying to restore order.  So they send in robot teachers.  Three major implausibilities and a few minor ones in the first three minutes of the film overwhelmed my suspension of disbelief and sent it running for cover. Our hero has just been released from prison and he gets into a machine gun battle with a rival gang within the first few minutes of his release. He gets involved with Traci Lind, who plays the good girl, and decides to lie low to avoid another prison term, not because he has reformed.  The robots are designed to impose discipline, which they do with casual brutality.  Not surprisingly, the robots eventually get out of control, so we end up cheering on the juvie thugs battling the killer robots.  The robots are laughable, although the history teacher is amusing.  Even though they're being monitored, they display emotions, they assault students with no reason, they lie, and they carry grudges.  Complete nonsense. "The intelligence level isn't artificial any more."  Huh? They even acknowledge at one point that the program is illegal. This is crap on so many levels that I can't imagine anyone enjoying it. One particularly funny scene, unintentional.   The two lead characters break into a teacher's house and the kitchen is full of cans of WD40. There's also the worst car chase I've ever seen.  And the robots don't make mechanical sounds until their skin is removed.  Why? 2/5/09

The Spiral Staircase (1946) 

A classic suspense movie from a novel by Ethel Lina White. A serial killer chooses only female victims who have imperfections.  The heroine is a mute, maid to a wealthy woman, who warns her to leave the house.  Her stepson, who runs things, appears to be solicitous of her safety, but evidence suggests that one of the several male residents of the house is actually the killer.  There’s also a doctor who professes to be in love with the maid.   It’s one of the creepy old house stories, and the spiral staircase is there but really isn’t significant to the story.  It is, however, well done in almost every respect – good soundtrack, good sets, good plot, good acting.  Almost everyone is a viable suspect, which maintains the suspense right till the final revelation. I did guess who it was, but I could easily have been wrong.  Proof that you can do a really excellent movie about a psychopathic killer without bloody death scenes. I miss the days when these narrowly focused, self contained mystery thrillers were popular.  2/4/09

The Sarah Jane Adventures (2007)

One of the best of Doctor Who’s companions, Sarah Jane Smith, got her own spinoff series recently.  She’s back in England, but she’s still in touch with life forms from beyond the Earth.  We get introduced to her in the first episode, “Invasion of the Bane”, through the eyes of a teenaged girl named Maria who moves in next door with her father, following a divorce.  She’s more than slightly reclusive and she’s concerned about the Bubble Shock, a new soft drink and entertainment center for teens. It’s the cover for something sinister, run by Samantha Bond (who used to be Miss Moneypenny in the James Bond movies). Sarah Jane doesn’t have a sonic screwdriver, she has a sonic lipstick.  The company is run by aliens disguised as humans, and she thwarts them, picking up her own companions in the process, a young boy the aliens call the archetype and the girl from next door.  The aliens are impressive, but the story is uneven, sometimes rather silly.  

The boy, Luke, goes to school for the first time in “Revenge of the Slitheen”, which brings back the oversized human impersonating aliens introduced first in the Doctor Who series. The Slitheen have taken over a series of schools and begin draining energy from the entire London area.  A fun episode with lots of running around and a plot that doesn’t bear too close examination.  “Eye of the Gorgon” is set in a rest home “haunted” by a nun, who is searching for an alien talisman.  The nun is part of an order serving a three thousand year old gorgon, actually an alien, who wants to open a gateway to her homeworld. A fairly good story marred by occasional bad acting by some of the non-regulars. Predictably the gorgon is defeated by a mirror. 

There’s yet another alien conspiracy in “Warriors of Kudlak.”  This time it’s a laser tag game site which is sorting out the best fighters for abduction by an alien race. Some of the details are less than convincing in this one, and the story has been done many times before. Big climax on the alien ship which has annoyingly simple security systems for a war vessel, but then this is a kids’ show. In “Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane, ” another alien race appears and erases Sarah Jane from existence.  Thanks to an alien artifact, only Maria remembers her. There's something of a contradiction in this one, since if she had never existed, the previous alien plots would have succeeded and Earth would have been destroyed, which they attempt to explain away as more machinations by the alien, but it's painfully artificial. The aliens are silly looking and the story logic is inconsistent.  And they can hear a meteor approaching the Earth? The weakest episode by far. There was a Doctor Who episode with the same premise - that the Doctor died - and it was much better done.

The final episode is "The Lost Boy."  It turns out that Luke, Sarah Jane's adopted son, may not have been created by the Bane after all, just kidnapped and reprogrammed. He is returned to his "real" parents and she is under a cloud of suspicion as a kidnapper. Not surprisingly, this is a hoax, although how the villains - the Slitheen again - could retroactively create an entire history of the family is left unexplained. Not a very good episode, despite a few clever twists.  This series seemed to decline in quality as it progressed, at least to date. It's also much more for children than Doctor Who ever was, despite the common history.  The story lines are also much less diverse and the science is, if anything, even less sensible.  It's fun, but a lot simpler in plot and execution as well. 2/3/09

Death Race (2008)

If Jason Statham hadn't been in this, I'd have passed it up.  I didn't like the original movie, and the premise for this new one seemed even less viable. The premise is that privately owned prisons televise deadly auto races among prisoners to make a profit.  The opening sequence, while exciting, did not give me a warm fuzzy feeling. We see the end of one such race.  After using machine guns fruitlessly until the last possible minute, a contestant uses a rocket launcher to destroy his opponent.  Why not use it much earlier?  Statham is an innocent man, framed and sent to prison. The guard brutality in the prison is gratuitous, trite, and implausible given that this is only three years from now. Prisoners, even convicted killers, can go free if they win five races.  In 2012?  Give me a break.  It's also painfully obvious that the warden had Statham framed because he is a famous race driver and she needs a new star. Not much time is wasted getting to the race, fortunately.  Although visually exciting at times, there's very little story and what there is is completely implausible. Partway through the race, the rules change into complete nonsense.  The warden is killing off all the contestants with a super-vehicle, which defeats the whole purpose of the television show. And since the warden has the power of life and death, if she really wanted our hero dead, she'd just have him taken out and shot. The ending, when they escape, is insultingly dumb.  The female lead agrees to help because she already has her release papers.  But since she does so by helping kill a number of guards, they obviously would never let her go.  Don't insult the viewers' intelligence!  Not a complete waste of time, but not really a good movie and a dreadful screenplay.  2/1/09

In Search of the Castaways (1962)

A Disney adaptation of a Jules Verne novel, with Maurice Chevalier, George Sanders, and Hayley Mills.  Two children are searching for their father, who was lost at sea but who sent a message in a bottle. They travel to an island off the coast of South America where they encounter an earthquake, a volcanic eruption, cannibals, giant condors, the slowest moving flash flood I've ever seen, a jaguar, a fire, a water spout, ice caverns, gun runners, and other episodes of high - and not very believable - adventure.  South America turns out to be a mistake, based on a rather dumb misunderstanding, so they're off to Australia and New Zealand before finally achieving their goal. Most of the story is played for laughs rather than thrills, but then again, this is a Disney film. Hayley Mills breaks into song occasionally. Chevalier has one of his best roles.  The special effects are pretty good for the 1960s, except for the awful volcano sequence.  Simple fun but entertaining.  1/31/09

Sounds Like (2007)

Part of the Masters of Horror series.  The supervisor of a computer support office develops unusually acute hearing following the death of his son. His wife is a little nutty as well, but he goes increasingly over the edge as the sounds begin to cause irritation and even violence.  His job is in jeopardy and his relations with other people in general become strained.  A therapy session goes badly and it appears that he may be on the brink of a violent nervous breakdown as the sensitivity grows rapidly to the unbearable.  Although this is a fascinating psychological study, the first half is drawn out a bit too far, although the pace picks up later.  The imaginative use of sounds is very effective.  We know that he has killed his wife, but when the body turns up it’s a bit anticlimactic and I could see the end coming a mile away. 1/29/09

The Dark Knight (2008)

I think I resisted watching this one because I enjoyed Jack Nicholson’s Joker so much that I didn’t believe anyone else could measure up, despite the high praise Heath Ledger received for this one.  But Batman was always my favorite of the DC comics group, so it was inevitable that I give in. The treatment is more realistic than in the previous Batman movies.  The Joker is the head of a gang, sort of, since he eliminates all of his employees during the course of a robbery. Right from the outset this has a very different feel than did the other movies, not better or worse but definitely different.   A lot of the movie is shot in these very short scenes that ordinarily I don’t care for, although it works pretty well here. There does seem to be an awful lot of plot in a comparatively short period of time, but it was simple enough to follow it. Ledger does a fine Joker, but I still prefer Nicholson's interpretation, probably because the dialogue was better. Quite a few plot twists and surprise revelations.  An entertaining reimagining of the series. 1/28/09

The Manitou (1978) 

Graham Masterton’s first horror novel is the basis of this low budget but often very effective film about Native American sorcery and revenge.  Tony Curtis plays Harry, a fortune teller with undefined genuine talents, who has a friend with a growth on her back, a peculiar growth which appears to contain a human embryo. Attempts at surgical removal fail and Harry consults a medium to try to find out what is going on.  Harry gets Michael Ansara, a living medicine man, to battle Misquamicus, the evil one trying to reincarnate himself, but he’s no match. Misquamicus is born and threatens the world. Some of the scenes are moderately creepy, but the tension of the novel doesn’t translate very well in this case. It’s also unclear how Misquamicus, when bound within a magic circle, can affect things outside the circle. The lizard demon is quite corny, and the other effects are unconvincing or dreadful. Good supporting cast – Burgess Meredith, Ann Southern, Stella Stevens, and Curtis does a creditable job, but it never quite jells into anything substantial.  1/27/08

Doctor Who Series 4 (2008) 

I’d been looking forward to this for a while, and wasn’t disappointed.  The opening episode is “Voyage of the Damned”, in which the Doctor finds himself aboard a starship named Titanic just as it is deliberately disabled by its suicidal captain.  He and a small group of survivors have to escape the dying ship and a band of killer robots.  Most of them don’t make it in an unusual dark episode.  Good effects and an unpredictable story.  Next up was “Partners in Crime” which introduces a new companion, Donna, when the two of them are separately investigating a weight loss drug that causes people to spawn little creatures.  Kind of silly, actually, but there’s a great scene with the two of them miming to each other, followed by a duel with sonic screwdrivers.  The Doctor has to cause the eruption of Mount Vesuvius to save the world from aliens under Pompeii in “The Fires of Pompeii”, which features a nifty eruption. 

In “Planet of the Ood” a slave race suddenly begins to turn violent and the Doctor discovers that the company who sells them is maiming them at birth.  The aliens are rather unlikely, but the story is a good one, though once again quite dark.  The militant Sontarans return in “The Sontaran Stratagem”.  Martha Jones, the previous companion, is back as well. Devices planted in automobiles to poison their occupants are the first stage of an invasion, ending with a cliffhanger.  The story resumes in “The Poison Sky.”  Obviously the Sontarans get defeated, pretty much by a last minute deus ex machine, but it’s still a good story.   

The Doctor’s daughter (!) shows up in “The Doctor’s Daughter.”  She was cloned from him – no sex – and she’s in the middle of a war on a distant planet.  Martha gets cut off with the alien enemy while the rest make their escape.  The Doctor has to prevent both sides from acquiring a superweapon, while he adjusts to the existence of his daughter and Martha proves that humans and aliens can co-exist. A fair episode, rather predictable.  A nice touch is that the actress playing the Doctor’s daughter is the daughter of Peter Davison, the fifth actor to play the Doctor. Agatha Christie gets a visit in “The Unicorn and the Wasp”.  Murder and a mysterious jewel thief provide the initial element of mystery.  The killer is an alien disguised as a human but actually a giant wasp.  Another silly one.“Silence in the Library” takes the Doctor to a library planet that has been completely and mysteriously deserted for a hundred years, just as an archaeological expedition arrives.  There’s also a strange connection to a little girl, apparently on Earth in the present. The story ends in “Forest of the Dead”, a decidedly creepy story involving virtual reality and other twists.  The best in the season so far.  “Midnight” is scientific nonsense but not bad otherwise.  The Doctor joins a tour group on a planet bathed in poisonous sunlight when the vehicle breaks down and something starts trying to get in.  Decidedly creepy and well acted, but the ending is a bit weak.  “Turn Left” examined past events if Donna, the current companion, hadn’t met the Doctor and he died during an earlier encounter. It's effective, but very depressing.

The series ends with a two part encounter with the Daleks, "The Stolen Earth" and "Journey's End", in which the animated trash cans are once again trying to destroy the universe.  The Daleks are not my favorite villains, as you might guess.  Sarah Jane Smith and other earlier companions return for this sequence, which opens with Earth being stolen and moved to another part of space. There's far too much happening during the first few minutes, and the Daleks are as comical as ever, diluting the suspense.  There's also an excess of scientific doubletalk explaining how the various allies are communicating with one another, crossing from one universe to another, locating the missing Earth, and so forth. There's an interesting if not entirely convincing solution to the Doctor's capture by the Daleks.  The lecture by Davros about how the Doctor leads people to their deaths is nonsense. Okay, but a little too ambitious for the amount of time they had to spend on the story.  1/26/09

It’s Alive (1973)

It Lives Again (1978)

Island of the Alive (1987) 

Larry Cohen brought us a lot of really mediocre but sometimes interesting horror movies, including this trilogy about killer babies.  I’ve seen commentary that this a cautionary film about the effects of pollution but that’s pretty much nonsense.  A woman gives birth to a child equipped with claws which immediately kills the hospital staff in attendance.  The early scenes are obviously low budget but competently done, in large part because we don’t see the baby for most of the movie. Unbelievably, even though their names are mentioned in the news, there are no reporters at their home.  The understated dialogue and low soundtrack makes the action seem to move glacially.  The baby begins prowling the countryside, killing people, but we catch only the faintest glimpse until well into the movie. The baby finds its way home somehow and the mother, obviously unbalanced, takes it in.  The father, on the other hand, is determined to kill it, although at the end he relents and shelters it. Implausibly, when the police finally take the child captive, they decide to summarily execute it. The acting actually isn’t too bad and the tension between the parents is credible.   

There are multiple mutant children in It Lives Again.  The father from the first movie party crashes a young couple to warn them against the government, which is killing all of the mutant children at birth, with secret strike squads that operate undercover.  Frank, the first father, is part of an organization that wants to save them.  The child is brought to a secret installation where two others have already been hidden. We don’t see much of them this time either, so we’re spared the really cheap effects – we see them mostly as reflections or glimpses of parts of their bodies. This one is also very slow to develop and the acting and logic are both a step down from the first’s not very high standards. The government locates the hidden group but the three children have managed to escape confinement, apparently sensing the danger. It’s not clear what message we’re supposed to get from all this.  Are the protectors misguided?  Are the government agents cruel murderers?  Both? 

The final installment changes the parameters a bit, and has a better cast. Mutants are being born right and left, killing people each time.  The opening trial scene has some excellent dialogue except that the whole situation is nonsensical – and a bit maudlin.  Anyway, the case is made that the mutant children should be confined to an isolated area where they can be allowed to mature.  We see more of the baby this time, but the effects are as cheap and unconvincing as ever, even though a decade had passed since the previous installment.  Once again, the story takes a long time to get going after the opening sequence. The children are moved to an island, but no one knows where they are and there’s no security arrangement, so a group of armed outsiders arrive to hunt the children.  Predictably, they get slaughtered. Meanwhile, the judge who made the ruling died so now the government can do what they want again.  Huh!  And no one has been monitoring the development of the kids? The plot this time is incredibly stupid.  A government expedition finally goes to the island, by yacht, is slaughtered and the yacht is taken by the now fully adult creatures for a voyage to Florida.   A big point is made that all of the crew members were eaten and their bodies disposed of, but when the ship is found off the Florida coast it is full of “dead bodies.”  That’s typical of the logic of the script.  A dreadful end to a mediocre series. 1/23/09

The Ultimate Foe (1986)

 Final installment of the Trial of a Time Lord.  As the trial of the Doctor nears its end, it doesn’t look good, but his old enemy the Master intervenes on his behalf, united against a common foe, the prosecutor of the case.  He brings two witnesses who will confirm that the recordings used to indict the Doctor were falsified.  The explanation of all this contradicts a lot of previously established facts in the series.  The prosecutor turns out to be an amalgamation of all of the Doctor’s evil traits, somehow made physical and somehow integrated into the Time Lord culture.  The Doctor then pursues his nemesis into a kind of virtual reality where anything can happen while Bonnie Langford – who doesn’t get good lines this time - sits in the court room and listens to the Master declaim on the subject. We also discover that Peri somehow survived.  The ultimate resolution makes little sense and is badly written.  I was very glad to see this sequence, and this Doctor, come to an end. 1/22/09

Terror of the Vervoids (1986)

 Bonnie Langford takes over as the latest companion for the Doctor in this one, with no explanation of who she is or how she got there, and no continuity at all from the previous story, in which his previous companion apparently died. I rather liked her but she wasn’t around for very long.  Honor Blackman also appears in this one. The setting is a giant spaceship which is carrying a dark secret and a murderer. The strange plants in the hydroponics section aren’t as docile as they appear but are actually predatory creatures.  In the frame story, wherein the court is viewing a recording of the episode as a future event, the Doctor realizes that the story has been altered from an earlier viewing in order to make him look guilty.  The plants, which turn out to be scientific experiments, become mobile and run around the ship attacking people, in secret at first but then openly. This was the best of the four segments in this series despite the pretty awful outfits for the plant men. The solution is quite funny.  The Doctor simulates autumn and the Vervoids shed their leaves and die.  I guess they were annuals rather than perennials.  But this part of the sequence ends with the Doctor now accused of genocide. 1/21/09

Mindwarp (1986) 

The Doctor appears to have sided with an old enemy this time.  After arriving on a strange planet where bizarre scientific experiments are being conducted, the Doctor and Peri are attacked by strange creatures. As usual, it starts with the Doctor stumbling into a plot in progress and being taken prisoner by the nefarious Sil and his minions.  The Doctor is transparently faking his cooperation in order to undermine Sil and his friends, even though he never explains to Peri. The supporting cast can’t make up for this one.  Brian Blessed eats all of the scenery, the aliens are laughable, the story drags constantly, and doesn’t make a lot of sense in the first place.  Peri spends a lot of time avoiding the amorous attentions of Blessed, then is faced with having her body used in a brain transplant operastion.  One of the weakest of all the Doctor Who serials, and the silliest.  It ends with Peri apparently dead.  1/20/09

The Mysterious Planet (1986) 

This is the first installment of a Doctor Who arc known as The Trial of a Time Lord, in which the Doctor is tried by his peers for meddling and violations of the code of their kind, with the separate sequences representing instances of his transgressions, supposedly. Colin Baker was always my least favorite actor in the title role, which prejudiced me against these when I first saw them, and Peri is not among my favorite companions. In the first, he visits a planet which was supposedly destroyed but somehow has survived.  They are spied upon by two nasty treasure hunters whose dialogue is actually quite clever. The Doctor gets captured by an underground society ruled by a nasty robot and his companion is similarly a prisoner of a barbaric surface culture which also holds the two treasure hunters.  An artifact on the planet could destroy the entire planet if the Doctor cannot repair it in time.  The supporting cast makes up for the unconvincing and over-acting Doctor.  The frame story of the trial is frequently absurdly badly written. 1/19/09

Hercules Against the Moon Men (1965)

The Witch’s Curse (1963) 

Two more Italian sword and sandal stories.  In the first, a meteor from the moon brings an alien form of life to the ancient world, a life form which demands human sacrifices.  The besieged people finally call upon Hercules to help them because their queen is allied with the invaders.  There’s some nice scenery in this one; the other production values are – predictably – less than stellar.  The rock men aren’t bad.  Anyway, Hercules saves a few people, then is tricked and trapped and scheduled to die himself.  The queen meanwhile is planning to sacrifice her own sister in order to restore to life the leader of the moon people and precipitate a cataclysm that will destroy humanity.  Hercules pretends to be infatuated with the queen in order to discover her secrets, then destroys the moon men.  Okay, but parts of this one really drag. 

The second title was completely unfamiliar to me.  A Scottish witch is burned alive by the authorities. A century later, the village girls are tempted to evil and the place where she died is cursed.  This one’s almost unwatchable, turgid, confused, badly dubbed, and even the print is bad.  A new arrival is viewed as the return of the witch and a mob goes after her. The absurdity level begins when Hercules arrives in 18th Century Scotland – yes, that’s right, bare chested and musclebound.  He has to go to Hell in order to lift the witch’s curse.  Barely watchable.1/18/09

Goliath and the Dragon (1960)

The Conqueror of Atlantis (1965) 

Goliath is the defender of Thebes in this sword and sandal epic starring Kirk Morris and, as the villain, Broderick Crawford. His adventures start with a battle against a fire breathing Cerberus puppet and a giant monkey bat while searching for a stolen jewel of legendary importance, but he avoids a fight with the claymation dragon, for the moment.  His brother doesn’t fare as well, captured by the bad guys while pursuing an affair of the heart. The bad guy has a model of the city of Thebes,which consists of about four buildings.  Thebes lite, I suppose.  Goliath’s brother is subverted through a complicated romantic and political plot, and Goliath comes across as a prejudiced boor, but then improves his image by rescuing a woman from a man in a bear suit.  He rescues his brother by wrestling a real elephant and confronts the bad guy in his lair.  Next he encounters a centaur – except that it’s actually a satyr not a centaur part of the time – when his brother tries to kill himself.  His girlfriend is taken away and he rashly defies the gods.  Eventually he does face the dragon, a mechanical head alternating with claymation, and saves the fair maiden. He spends an awful lot of time swearing eternal vengeance.  Corny but entertaining in a bizarre way. 

Morris is also the star of the second feature, an Italian-Egyptian production. Herakles is shipwrecked and wandering the desert when he helps a besieged caravan beat off a band of outlaws. He ends up entering a forbidden land dominated by a female army who have a technology way in advance of the outside world.  It takes him a long time to get there, however, and my attention was beginning to falter.  The Atlanteans have surveillance cameras and androids, so this one is SF rather than Fantasy, but they also use spears and knives rather than advanced weapons (except the queen has a raygun).  One of the chief villains explains to the hero how the city could be destroyed by releasing the power of the volcano beneath it.  Not a smart move. Big battle, everybody bad dies, good guys get away. Okay of its type. 1/17/09

Invaders from Space (1964) 

This completes my viewing of the Starman movies, Japanese cheapies for kids in which the good people of the Emerald Planet send the indestructible Starman to protect Earth from an invasion by the Salamander Men. To soften up the Earth, the invaders unleash a new plague. The aliens are pretty corny, and as usual there are several cute kids to be threatened.  This one is more episodic than the others in the series, almost like a cliffhanger serial.  The kids are kidnapped more than once, as are some of the adults.  Starman rescues them in every case, but the Salamander Men refuse to abandon their plan.  It’s also sillier than the others.  The invaders spend more time chasing the kids than battling the military, and they hobble around with wooden walking sticks and other anachronisms.  The special effects are spectacularly bad. The aliens begin interfering with the Earth’s rotation, which causes isolated items to pop up and hover while everything else remains unaffected! The dubbers also confuse revolution with rotation.  Eventually the kids stumble onto the secret that allows humanity to defeat the aliens. This disc also contains Atomic Rulers of the World, another Starman movie, which I reviewed here a while back.  Among the extras is a short film made by kids about an alien vampire. 1/16/09

Attack from Space (1964)

Evil Brain from Outer Space (1964) 

Two of the Starman movies, kiddie fare from Japan.  In the first, the benevolent rulers of the Emerald Planet send Starman to Earth to battle the Superians, an alien race. Really bad special effects compete with really bad acting and really bad dubbing, to say nothing of the really silly story line.  Anyway, Starman flies through space – he doesn’t need a spaceship or even a suit – to find out which humans are secretly working with the Superians, who have a space station but still need to steal a human experimental spaceship.  Meanwhile on Earth two kids are suspicious of a mysterious man and apparent sabotage of the spaceship project. They are captured by the Superians, who have a secret base under a cemetery. Then they, and their father, are threatened with the Thought Eradicator, which will make them willing slaves.  Starman destroys one space station, then finds a bigger one – with staircases on the outer hull!!! On the other hand, there appears to be both oxygen and gravity on the exterior of the station so I suppose that’s logical.  And naturally the aliens speak English, which helps when the prisoners try to escape. Starman chases the enemy’s new ship to the Death Star, which is actually a volcanic planet, is apparently killed, but shows up in time to rescue the prisoners and destroy the bad guys in a series of poorly choreographed and mostly boring fight sequences, but not until missiles destroy various targets on Earth.

In the second title, a disembodied brain leads an invasion force against Earth which plots to use nuclear weapons.  Since the radiation will spread throughout the universe (sic) and destroy all life, this does not seem a very sensible military tactic. But since the evil mastermind has his brain carried off in a briefcase, he's clearly not playing with a full deck anyway. Starman shows up and rescues a prospective victim of the brain's henchmen. Monstrous mutants begin to appear around the world, causing disasters, but the budget was so low that we don't see them much, and they're very corny loking when they do appear - rubber suits and masks.  The story advances slowly and is filled with nonsense, particularly involving the two menaced children. The fight scenes are, if anything, worse. Then a germ turns into a woman with steel claws who is also a flamethrower and they dance around each other for a while.  Lots of bouncy fights and over acting. 

There are some amusing extras on this disc, including a dairy council film about a space robot and a milkman.  There's an episode of the animated television show, Prince Planet, in black and white. Finally, a bunch of trailers for similar cornball movies.  Some of them look like fun.  1/15/09

Terminator Soundtrack, composed by Bear McCreary, La-La Land Records, 2008

I watched a couple of episodes of this television series, but then missed several in a row and decided to wait for the DVDs.  I was a big fan of the movies but had only a lukewarm reaction to what I did see. The soundtrack interested me mostly because it was by Bear McCreary, whose work for Battlestar Galatica greatly impressed me.  Happily, this meets the same high standards, starting with Shirley Manson's rendition of a religious piece.  After that, it's mostly instrumental, occasionally reprising the theme from the movies but going off in entirely different directions from there, although for the most part keeping the same general tone. My favorite tracks include "Cromartie in the Hospital," "Andy Goode's Turk," "Highway Battle", and "Prisoners of War."  I didn't much care for the second vocal, "Ain't We Famous", although it's still listenable, if that's a word. Some nice variation in tone without straying too far from the central material.  I liked this one a lot. 1/14/09

Nero Wolfe Season 1&2 (2001) 

This cable tv series was based on the novels of Rex Stout, featuring his irascible Nero Wolfe, master detective.  One of the “regulars” is Kari Matchett, who plays a different character every time she appears, and a couple others do the same.  The first episode is “The Doorbell Rang.”  A woman who has been promoting a book critical of the FBI claims that she is being harassed by the agency and wants Wolfe and his sidekick, Archie Goodwyn, to help her get them off her back. The dialogue is extremely crisp and fast moving; you need to pay close attention or you’ll be lost.  Stout investigates a murder generally believed to have been committed by FBI agents in order to get subtle leverage against the agency.  This is the only Nero Wolfe novel I’ve actually read, although I plan to rectify that in the future. The second episode is “Champagne for One”.  The opening sequence, during which Archie attends a society benefit, is beautifully done, wonderful editing, a great soundtrack, great acting and dialogue.  Given the quality of this production, I’m surprised I hadn’t heard more about this show when it was actually being televised.  Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin are great in their roles, and Bill Smitrovich is effective as the unfriendly cop. A pregnant woman is poisoned at the party, and Archie is convinced it was murder, not suicide.  

“Prisoner’s Base” is quite good.  A woman tries to enlist Wolfe’s aid, is rebuffed, then murdered, and Archie is determined to discover who did it.  The solution is a mild cheat but otherwise it’s good.  “Eeny Meeny Murder Moe” opens with a woman being strangled in Wolfe’s office.  A cute story but the solution is obvious almost from the outset.  It’s almost the same set up in “Disguise for Murder.”  During a social event at Wolfe’s house, a woman tells Archie one of the guests is a killer, and sure enough she is murdered in Wolfe’s office a short time later.  This one’s relatively minor and there was no way to guess the killer in advance. “The Door to Death”, in which a mission to hire a new gardener leads Wolfe into murder, is one of my favorites, with a nice dose of humor and an interesting mystery.  “Over My Dead Body” features the arrival of Wolfe’s adopted daughter from Yugoslavia, who disappeared as a child.  There’s a bevy of foreign agents and a couple of murders.  This one was okay, but I thought it fell short of their usual quality level.  

Kari Matchett plays two different roles in “Death of a Doxy”.  A kept woman is murdered and one of Wolfe’s assistants is arrested for murder.  Archie leads the investigation of the sugar daddy, the disapproving sister, the jealous wife, and others in order to solve the case.  This was one of the better episodes.  “The Next Witness” is also pretty good.  Wolfe storms out of a courtroom to solve a murder involving blackmail and a love nest.  “Die Like a Dog” has some excellent byplay between Archie and Wolfe over a dog that follows the former home from a murder scene. Wolfe’s corn delivery gets Archie in trouble in “Murder Is Corny”, but they solve the case, a pretty good one.   

One of the better entries is “Motherhunt” in which a widow finds a baby on her doorstep with a note claiming it’s her late husband’s illegitimate child.  The trail leads to a retired nurse who is promptly murdered when Archie asks questions.  Another murder follows and Wolfe becomes a fugitive in order to solve the case.  Definitely one of the high points in the series. “Poison a la Carte” has Wolfe’s private cook preparing a banquet.  When one of the guests is fatally poisoned, he solves the case in short order.  Another very good episode.  “Too Many Clients” has a fascinating opening.  Archie is hired by a man who claims he is being followed, but he’s an impersonator.  The real person was murdered in his hidden love nest, and the landlord disposed of the body.  The plot goes through several changes before another body turns up.  Quite good, as is “Before I Die”, wherein Wolfe has a gangster for a client and ends up with the man’s daughter as his ward. 

Wolfe turns down the case of a man who received a threatening letter in “Help Wanted, Male” and the man turns up dead.  Then Wolfe himself receives an identical threat and concludes it is linked to an old case.  The main story is good, but the subplot in which Archie deals with the military is intermittently funny and does not fit the tone of the rest of the episode. The solution is also a cheat, depending on withheld information and a rather extraordinary coincidence.  Two illegal aliens are accused of killing a policeman in “Cop Killer.”  “The Silent Speaker” is a nicely complex one in which a murdered businessman turns out to have been uncovered a bribery scheme.  “Immune to Murder” moves Wolfe to a hunting lodge where a prominent politician is murdered.  The investigating police officer is the usual stupid clod.

Last up is “The Golden Spiders.” This was apparently an earlier tv movie which led to the series.  A young boy consults Wolfe after apparently seeing a woman being held at gunpoint.  The boy is killed and the mother wants to hire Wolfe. Two more murders follow in short order before Wolfe solves the case in his usual clever fashion. The production values, sound track, acting, scripts, editing, and other elements are consistently excellent throughout this series.  Even the credits are worth watching.  1/11/09

Court Jester (1956)

Danny Kaye stars in this comic spoof of swashbucklers.  An evil usurper has seized the throne of England.  The resistance wants to restore the rightful heir to the throne - an infant - who is being protected by the Black Fox and his band of Merry Men.  Kaye finds himself drafted to take the place of the court jester to the false king and steal the king's key so that he can be taken by stealth.  Unfortunately, he gets hypnotized by a witch, mistaken for an assassin by Basil Rathbone and his cronies, and the princess falls in love with him.  He ends up knighted and fighting a duel to the death.  The knighthood ceremony and the attack by a man of midget acrobats are both great. The songs are cute if not particularly memorable.  The dialogue contains several real gems, particularly the sequence about the "vessel with the pestle" and the "chalice from the palace" which holds the "brew that is true."    One of the true classic comedies.  1/6/09

Tropic Thunder (2008)

This spoof of action adventure movies opens with some very funny fake previews.  Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, and Ben Stiller are actors sent to film a Vietnam action movie.  The opening sequence is a clever takeoff on a typical Hollywood war movie scene.  The actors are prima donnas so the director is talked into exposing them to some real danger to teach them how things are really done. Unfortunately, the area they pick is booby trapped and the hunting ground of a band of criminals who think the interlopers are drug agents.  The actors refuse to believe it's real, even when their director is blown to bits right in front of them. Predictably, they act brave because they don't think they're in any real danger. Downey suspects the truth but he's such a deep character actor than he is incapable of acting otherwise.  Eventually they learn the truth, and the jokes begin fewer and less clever.  The acting isn't bad but the execution is not up to the conception. Some funny moments, but not enough. 1/4/09

Hancock (2008) 

I never even noticed this in the theaters although I like Will Smith, at least when he has a good role.  Hancock is a wino and a superhero whose escapades usually cause more damage than the bad guys he’s capturing.  He meets a PR man who helps him remake himself in a more appealing image and becomes a hero, but then he discovers that the PR man’s wife is also super powered, although she keeps it secret.  They are both apparently immortals, once married, although he has amnesia.  Then he discovers that he has lost his invulnerability just as vengeful convicts escape from prison, determined to hunt him down.  Some nice fight scenes and special effects, and a good balance of humor and drama.  Much better than I had anticipated. 1/3/09

Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (2008) 

Much to my surprise, I found myself actively liking the first movie in this series, but I never managed to see it at the time it appeared.  Hellboy, for those who don’t know, is a demon who works for the US government.  An ancient crown that controls an ancient mechanical army is reclaimed by an elf and his magical assistants, who have a long standing grudge against the human race. Much of the movie moves at a bit too fast a pace, making it hard to follow, although the story is so simple that it doesn’t matter.  Some interesting creature effects mixed with comically silly ones.  The anti-Hellboy prejudice is distracting and not very well done.  The story is okay but on balance I didn’t like this one as well as the first, though I certainly enjoyed it.  1/1/09

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