Last Update 4/30/11

 

Robin B. Hood (2006)

This Jackie Chan action movie is subtitled, not terribly although it's ungrammatical and occasionally makes no sense. He and his two partners are cat burglars with hearts of gold who get tricked into kidnapping a baby from a wealthy family and end up having to take care of it for two weeks. Naturally they get fond of the kid - who's actually quite cute - and end up rescuing him from the other rich man who believes - incorrectly - that the baby is his grandson.  The usual array of tricks and stunts, a good bit of humor some of which seems a bit cruel, and a completely implausible happy ending. Fun to watch but it looks like it was filmed in a week with no reshoots. 4/30/11

The Wolfman (2010)

I had heard bad things about this remake of the classic werewolf movie, so my expectations were low. The story roughly follows the original - good man bitten by werewolf becomes one, gypsy magic, young woman in love eventually releases him through death, villagers in an uproar. There are new twists as well including the identity of the second werewolf, supposed to be a mystery but I guessed it immediately. Good cast and a reasonably good script.  Some of the photography is brilliant but some of it seemed rather self conscious and artificial. There's actually not much suspense. The CGI werewolf attacks are so over the top - literally dozens of people killed - that they have almost no emotional content. Anthony Hopkins is wasted in a supporting role. The asylum sequence should have been cut entirely.  Neither particularly good nor particularly bad. 4/27/11

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Purists are going to hate this because it's not consistent with the Doyle stories, but then again, Doyle wasn't consistent either. Robert Downey is superb in this rather frenetic version of Holmes, and Jude Law does a very good Watson. They are pitted against a rogue aristocrat who leads a mystical cult seeking to seize control of the British Empire. There are lots of fights and action sequences along with the usual Holmes insights. Rachel McAdams is a very colorful Irene Adler and the supporting cast is also quite competent. What stole the show for me was the sets and backdrops, some of which had to be CGI but some of the best I've ever seen. It really felt like Victorian London with the climax set on Tower Bridge, which was completed in 1894, dating this story slightly earlier since it's still under construction.  Moriarty lurks in the shadows, presumably a preview of the sequel, due out sometime later this year. True to Doyle or not, it's a very exciting and visually impressive movie.

Scream 4 (2011)

I was really impressed by the first two movies in this slasher series - not so much the third. The revival of the series is in much the same mode and in fact my only criticism is that too much of it looked very familiar. Sydney is back in town promoting her memoir when a new ghostface killer begins killing people around her. Most of the new cast is stabbed to death in rapid succession and even though I guessed half the solution, I was never sure and was on the edge of my seat more than once. There are a couple of minor problems. Why don't we ever see most of the parents of all these teenagers, who always seem to be home alone?  And no matter how good a news team is, they don't have stories about stabbings on the evening news with film footage even before the victim has been rushed to the hospital. There is also at least one seen in which ghostface is quite obviously too tall to be the person we are told was in the costume. Better than the third, but not as good as the first two. 4/22/11

The Giant of Marathon (1959)

Steve Reeves historical adventure story, this time defending Greece against a Persian invasion. No one bothered to restore the washed out colors in this release, which is a shame since some of the scenes were probably impressive at the time. The dubbing is awkward, of course, and the story line pretty straightforward. Reeves is Phillipides, a commoner whose personal prowess has made him a popular figure, which naturally attracts the attention of secretive people planning to seize control of the Greek city state. He also falls for a young woman and then incorrectly believes that she is a willing tool of the plotters. Everything works out, of course. The Persians are repelled, the villainous traitors are exposed, and Reeves ends up with the girl he's really in love with, thanks in part to the courtesan who also fell in love with him.  Primitive by contemporary standards but fun. 4/21/11

Hercules (1958)

A sword and sandal epic starring Steve Reeves in the title role. I probably watched this a half dozen times on television as a child. A beautiful noblewoman appeals to Hercules to help recover the missing golden fleece and to clear her father's name because he is accused by innuendo of having assassinated the king to steal his throne. Hercules has to strangle a lion, wrestle the Cretan bull, and accompany Jason and the Argonauts, and outwit a tribe of Amazons (which are somehow merged with the Sirens). The rest of his famous labors were not included. Badly dubbed and with a terrible soundtrack, this is enjoyable only as an adventure story, but the producers decided to demonstrate that Reeves could act - he couldn't - by adding in a pointless love story that sucks some of the life out of the plot. It's  fantasy because of various prophecies and the apparent presence of the gods but they're off stage. The hydra has been replaced by a badly done Godzilla clone that even sounds like the Japanese monster. 4/20/11

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

I hadn't watched this in a long time and I'd forgotten how good the chase sequences were. It's one of those rare cases where the sequel is better than the original. There are a few minor glitches. Why does the policeman draw his gun when he thinks he's investigating a downed power line? And the whole cause and effect business in time travel is always a problem. I think Linda Hamilton overplayed her part a few times, but Schwarzennegger is perfectly cast as the friendly terminator determined to stop Robert Patrick, the liquid metal terminator, from killing a young John Connor. I did wonder how the intelligence chip functioned in a liquid environment but only after the fact. Edward Furlong, the kid, has been very busy in minor films - IMDB lists twelve of them to be released in 2011- none of which I've seen. Good special effects and lots of shooting but comparatively few deaths - the evil terminator only kills five people and no one else dies except in a brief cut scene set in the future and, of course, the scientist responsible for building Skynet, who is fatally wounded by the police. Holds up very well. 4/16/11

The Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends season 2 (1960)

I was an avid follower of the Rocky & Bullwinkle show in its various incarnations (including its very similar predecessor Crusader Rabbit and Rags the Tiger) and this was a trip down nostalgia lane. Their adventures are interspersed with Edward Everett Horton's Fractured Fairy Tales, Peabody's Wayback machine, Aesop & Son, and other bits, with lots of puns, obvious jokes, pratfalls, silliness, and very primitive animation that would not make it today.  The twosome battle Boris and Natasha and Fearless Leader for control of a mine filled with upsidasium, repel an invasion of metal eating mice from the moon, find buried treasure, visit a haunted mansion, and travel to an underwater city. Lots of fun and I remembered a surprisingly large part of the material. 4/14/11

The Land That Time Forgot soundtrack, composed by Chris Ridenour, 2011

2012 Supernova soundtrack, composed by Chris Ridenour, 2011

The titles here are slightly misleading.  These two CDs each contain the soundtracks for several movies, or at least a suite drwn from that soundtrack. All of them were composed by Ridenour.  They include other films like Dragonquest, The 7 Adventures of Sinbad, Princess of Mars, The Terminators, Transmorphers, and so forth. All of these were direct to video or shown on the Sci-Fi Channel or both. All of these are essentially adventure stories so you can guess the general tone of the music. The problem with this format is that even if there are parts of a particular piece that are good, the content often varies enough that the entire piece is not.  2012 Supernova, for example, starts off with some interesting bits but gets boring during the middle and then picks up at the end. The 7 Adventures of Sinbad is only intermittently good, but Merlin and the War of the Dragons is nice almost all the way through. Princess of Mars, a ludicrously bad movie, has one of the better soundtracks. Dragonquest has its ups and downs again. Transmorphers, Fall of Man is one of the better ones. Journey to the Center of the Earth is okay, and The Land That Time Forgot is quite good. In each of these cases the music is better than the actual movie. If the producers exerted the same degree of effort, they might have been worth watching rather than just listening. 4/13/11

Remington Steele Seasons 4 & 5 

Season four opens with a two parter, “Steele Searching”, in which Steele goes to England to discover his past, and runs into a serial killer, while Holt tries to figure out where he went and follows him. The opening still uses clips only from the first season, perhaps suggesting – correctly – that this was their high point. The first half is pretty good, but it changes direction after that. The second half involves some terrorists plotting to assassinate the man Steele believes is his real father, but the story is pretty much nonsense.  “Steele Blushing” is another good episode with Holt discovering that her picture has been published in a pornographic magazine. Zimbalist does an unusually good job in this one and the story is nicely convoluted. A wrestler receives death threats in “Grappling Steele”, but the plot disintegrates quickly. For one thing, a divorce court would not award an insurance policy to the divorced wife who threatened to kill her husband. She would not have an insurable interest, among other things.  Clever rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner”. 

“Forged Steele” is a remarkably stupid episode. Steele has a wild night and apparently lost title to the agency in a card game.  But that makes no sense since Holt owns the agency lock, stock, and barrel. He couldn’t have lost it. The writer had to know that which puts this in the category of contempt for the audience.  Later, Steele is arrested when he enters the scene of a jewel theft, even though it’s obvious that the loot is already gone. And finally, when the scammers responsible skip town, no one pays any attention to the fact that at least a dozen people can support Steele’s story. The confrontation between Holt and Steele about his possible involvement in the crime is also nonsense since she already knew at that point that she was being scammed.  And then Steele is accosted for shooting a man, even though there’s no gun at the scene and he was followed there by the detective. The worst episode yet.  “Corn Fed Steele”, which involves pignapping and murder, is slightly better but there are clunkers in it. How does a bankrupt farmer afford a large scale, brand new livestock van?  

“Premium Steele” displays more ignorance. You can’t insure a stranger and collect by killing him. You have to have an insurable interest. The story involves a man who reads his own obituary, leading to the revelation that his death certificate was forged. But why? And you can’t search a computer looking for evidence of a crime whose nature you don’t even know in ten minutes. “Coffee, Tea, or Steele” is pretty good. Murder on an airliner. A little slow moving. “Prancer, Dancer, Donner, and Steele” is obviously Christmas themed.  A gang of Santas hold our heroes and several other people hostage in a pretty good story despite occasional silliness and a touch of misogyny. The ending caught me completely by surprise. 

“Steele on the Air” involves a murder disguised to look like an accident, a plane crash. Pretty stupid plotters since the man was shot in the head. Hard to sneak that past the autopsy. I blinked when Holt describes it as a “brilliant” plot. Not awful, but silly. “Steele, Inc.” has an interesting premise. A Remington Steele impersonator is murdered and the investigation leads to an entire duplicate agency. Another blunder. Morgues do not release bodies to people without identification just because they claim to be related.  “Steele Spawning” involves murder and a smuggling operation involving caviar. Okay but another big blunder. Moscow police would not be allowed to operate independently in the US.  “Suburban Steele” introduces Holt’s troublesome sister, but when a man dies on your property, most people would call the police, not a detective agency. Major inconsistency in characters as well. We know from earlier episodes that Steele is a skilled cook. So how come he can’t manage spaghetti and meatballs?  And why would the killers remove all evidence of the crime from the house where the man died, but then dump the body in the trashcan?  During a rescue attempt, rather than use the car Steele came in, he jumps aboard a truck, even though he wasn’t being chased and there was no reason to do so. Stupid plot as well. More sloppy writing.  

“Santa Claus Is Coming to Steele” is another idiotic plot. If an attempted murderer makes bail, he is prohibited from approaching let alone threatening the witnesses against him, but in this episode we’re told that there’s nothing the police or courts can do if he decides to do exactly that.  And Holt’s inability to see that her building manager is obsessed with her is implausible. Dreadful. “Steele Blue Yonder” opens with a pretty good car chase sequence. A World War pilot is acting strangely, perhaps growing senile, and very secretive. It’s an elaborate sting operation and despite some minor oopses, I think this was the best episode they had done at this point. But when the police arrest someone for a criminal offense, they don’t release him because one of the witnesses says to. “Sensitive Steele” is set a pop psychology spa. Not too bad but the motive is a stretch and it’s a cheat because we don’t know the circumstances until the solution. “Steele in the Spotlight” is a pretty well written script but the story about the search for a one time popular singer is basically dull.  

Steele goes undercover as a butler to investigate his predecessor’s murder in “Steele at Your Service”, which has one of those infuriating situations where the murderer prepares an elaborate trap, but there is no way that he could have known that the prospective victim would be in the right place at the right time. Otherwise this could have been a very good episode. There are multiple plausible theories, each of which proves to be wrong. Both go undercover as homeless people in “Beg, Borrow, or Steele” when they see reports indicating that they have both been murdered. The plot only works because Steele and Holt are both idiots. They don’t ask the police what’s going on, don’t identify themselves, and for no reasons since they have a perfect alibi for the actual time the murders took place. And how did the police identify the bodies, which are already scheduled for burial?  Why not at least call their secretary, Mildred? They do this much later and she hangs up, believing they are impersonators. A plot that depends entirely on highly intelligent people consistently doing very stupid things just doesn’t fly, not to mention the impossibility of the bodies having been mistaken. Why spend the night in a homeless shelter when they have keys to their office? And lotteries don’t pay million dollar payoffs in cash. When Mildred gets arrested for murder, just because she’s the beneficiary of their insurance policies – which is nonsense as well – my hip waders overflowed.  “Steele Alive and Kicking” might have had an interesting idea – a terminally ill man frames himself for murder – and is then cured. Except that his motive is that his insurance policy doesn’t cover fatal illnesses – ridiculous on the face of it – but it does cover execution for murder – which is ridiculous on all the other body parts. And it turns out that he’s only facing a life sentence anyway. Played for laughs, but it doesn’t get many. The season ends with “Bonds of Steele”, an absurd story about a murdered executive in which Holt and Steele act like absolute idiots. Everyone else is also an idiot so I guess it doesn’t matter.  The writer also knew nothing about computers and private security people cannot apprehend people legally outside of company premises. I give Zimbalist extra credit for the various humiliating sequences in the final regular episode.  It’s interesting that her performances got better as the scripts got worse. 

In addition to the various plot blunders, I have to question why Holt – who is so protective of her license – would indulge in so many activities which would get her license pulled. In season four alone there are multiple illegal entries, breaking and entering, impersonating a police officer, petty theft, unlawful imprisonment, reckless endangerment, stealing evidence from a murder scene, slander, malicious destruction of personal property, speeding, suppressing evidence when client confidentiality is not an issue, interfering with a police investigation, moving a body, fraud, safe cracking, aiding an escaped felon, and trespassing.  

The show was cancelled after the fourth season, then revived in a slightly different format, which prevented Brosnan from accepting the role of James Bond, which went instead to Timothy Dalton. There were six episodes in the fifth season, all really one continuing story in which our two heroes, pretending to be married to avoid Steele’s deportation, try to evade an immigration agent who turns out to have some skeletons in his own closet. The scripts didn’t get any better in the new format. Confused motivations, illogical jumps, contradictions, incredible coincidences, inappropriately timed humor, and contrived situations. Efforts to fake their marriage would not at the best of the times make a good basis for the series, and these weren’t the best of times.  No wonder it only lasted for three full length stories. Glad to see the end of it. 4/12/11

Dante's Peak (1997)

One of my favorite disaster movies. This and Volcano came out very close together and this was far and away the better piece. The latter's volcano consisted of lava bubbling out of the La Brea tarpits. This one is much more plausible and spectacular. It also had a better script, better acting, and better special effects. Pierce Brosnan is a vulcanologist who suspects that a small town, whose mayor is Linda Hamilton, is in danger of being destroyed by a Mount St. Helens type explosion. A team is sent in to investigate but finds nothing alarming, until just as they are about to leave when all hell breaks loose. Brosnan and Hamilton and two kids are caught on the mountain by the initial tremors and just barely manage to escape. Spectacular scenery sprinkled throughout. I'm a Brosnan fan and I've watched this several times and still enjoy it. 4/9/11

The Walking Dead (2010) 

I had heard good things about this show, despite the zombie theme, so I picked up the first season.  The opening sets up the situation – not quite believably.  How does the hero live in a coma in the hospital, unattended, for long enough that flowers wilt and most of the human race dies outside without passing away from dehydration, or his wounds?  Once past that,  we have him discovering what happened while he was unconscious, meeting a few survivors, and setting off to Atlanta hoping that his family made it there.  Alas, Atlanta is a deathtrap and the episode ends with him trapped in an abandoned tank by a small army of the walking dead. The story moves on from there with the protagonist reunited with his family, and internal squabbles among the small group of survivors almost as deadly as that posed by the zombies. The cast is so large that it’s not surprising that the writers start killing them off in the fourth episode, but I had a problem with the supposedly mindless zombies launching a coordinated attack on the campsite. Some of the stories depend on coincidence and some of the quieter scenes feel very drawn out, sometimes verging on soap opera. The season ends with a real downer, suggesting that the human race is effectively extinct.  Despite some quibbles and minor stumbles, quiet good overall. 4/2/11

Jurassic Park III (2001) 

The third in this series as better than the second. A young boy is stranded on the island of dinosaurs, and a team drops in to rescue him. The special effects improve with each installment and while the story this time is mostly just people running around while various dinosaurs chase them, there are still some good moments. The premise that the velociraptors can actually speak to one another is interesting.  A very good cast and generally good dialogue. I’m not sure you could really hear a cellphone from inside a giant dinosaur, but it works in the context of the movie. There’s still some obvious anti-science prejudice but it’s minimal. There are some problems with timing – some transitions aren’t plausible within the time frame suggested – but you probably won’t notice them until later, if at all. The sequence in which the trailers are pushed off the edge of a cliff is classic. 4/1/11

Jurassic Park II: The Lost World (1997) 

Although the sequel was not nearly as good as its predecessor, this wasn’t a bad movie at all. Jeff Goldblum returns for a visit to a second island filled with dinosaurs as the parent company that created them undergoes a change of management and philosophy. A team of hunters is dispatched to harvest the island for zoo attractions while Goldblum and his fellows lurk about and try to side with nature. The silly anti-science arguments from the first are mostly absent and the special effects are as good or better. The final scenes with the T-Rex running loose in San Diego seem out of place and almost silly. The movie should have ended with their escape from the island. Good performances from the cast and cameos by the two kids from the first movie. 3/31/11

Megamind soundtrack, various artists, Lakeshore, 2011

Megashark vs Giant Octopus soundtrack, composed by Chris Ridenour, 2011

  The first of these appears to be from an animated movie which I have not seen.  There's a mix of oldies - Elvis Presley, Minnie Riperton, Gilbert O'Sullivan, and George Thorogood, plus quite a bit of original music. Although it's a kind of supervillain vs heero story as near as I could tell, the music is very understated, slow moving, and unremarkable for the most part. Only "Game Over" and "Evil Lair" are really lively, and the only cut I actively liked was "Crab Nuggets", other than the oldies of course. Nothing to chase after. I've only seen a digital copy of the latter, which actually contains theme music from several movies including Mega Piranha, which I have seen. These are instances where the soundtrack is much better than the movie, which wouldn't be hard in most cases. "The Haunting of Winchester House" is actually pretty good, as is "Sherlock Holmes". Most of the bands are so long and involve such varied types of music that it is difficult to describe them  and they often don't seem consistent.  This one hangs together a lot better as something to listen to on its own.  3/31/11

A Christmas Carol (2010)

This is the Doctor Who version of the Dickens story. As a Christmas special, you can guess that it's going to be schmaltzy and it is. The premise is a planet dominated by a Scrooge figure who controls the clouds and hence the world. The Doctor suspects he has a heart of gold and with the aid of a genuine time machine he can show him the past, present, and future and even change them. Some of it is very corny, some of it is quite clever.  Karen Gillam has little more than a cameo. The plot is a bit of a cheat since it turns out that the goal the Doctor was seeking was totally unnecessary and the solution to the original problem - a crashing spaceship - could have been solved without resorting to all that trouble. The usual frenetic performance by Matt Smith, whom I still haven't grown fond of in this role. 3/30/11

Remington Steele Season 3 (1984) 

The third season has a new opening, though it still uses clips from the first season.  The first episode, “Steele at It”, has Steele involved with a mysterious French woman, much to the dismay of Laura Holt, although I find this whole on and off romance bit dreadfully predictable and artificial.  To keep it ambivalent, the writers made Holt inconsistent from one episode to the next, and often irrational as well. Other than that it’s a pretty good episode about various parties hoping to steal a valuable artifact.  “Lofty Steele” has an intruder in Holt’s new apartment, and her subsequent dealings with the management company are so implausible that the story became nonsensical very quickly. The story goes rapidly downhill from there with Holt illegally incarcerated in a hospital and the mentally challenged writer playing havoc with common sense.  Insultingly bad.  

“Maltese Steele” is set in Malta.  A thief steals an ancient cross, after which he is murdered by his female partner. Steele and Holt are investigating a missing body and get involved with smugglers and murder. The sequence where they follow a flying bird across the island is totally implausible but fun. There’s a baseball setting in”Second Base Steele” and guest appearances by Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford. This one has a fairly good mystery and the mild humor doesn’t clash with the story line. In “Blue Blooded Steele” an old swindle comes back to haunt Steele, who has to prove that he is NOT the heir to a British fortune.  The other members of the family then begin dying in rapid succession, suggesting plots within plots.  Very good episode. Alas, we’re back to too  much silliness when Steele gets amnesia in “Steele Your Life Away”.   A not very credible story about an attempt to steal a race horse. 

Idiot writing in “A Pocketful of Steele.”  Someone steals the prints of incriminating pictures they have regarding an embezzler, which ruins their case.  Our idiot heroes keep the negatives with the prints.    Multiple implausibilities follow but since the whole premise is nonsense, it doesn’t matter.  And why would a licensed private investigator not know that she can’t just walk away from a murder scene without talking to the police on site? And why would the police claim she was found alone with the murder victim when a witness confirms that they found the body together? And who wrote this dialogue: “How many of there are you?”  There’s not much mystery in “Cast in Steele” but it’s an amusing romp with Virginia Mayo, Lloyd Nolan, and Dorothy Lamour playing themselves in a murder investigation. The tacked on surprise ending is, however, absurd.Steele and Holt compete to finish a case first in “Puzzled Steele.”  The relationship between the two is not consistent with the previous episodes, but there are games within games and this was a pretty good episode. 

“Let’s Steele a Plot” involves embezzlement of the treasury of an organization of Mystery Writers.  I thought that if a bank honors a forged check, it was their liability, particularly if all six names were signed in the same handwriting, but I suppose that’s nitpicking. I’ve also never heard of an organization where all six of the board members had checkwriting authority on the same account, rather than just the treasurer, but that’s probably nitpicking too. The relations between Holt and the macho writer are misogynistic, but that’s definitely nitpicking. Kristine Sutherland, Buffy’s Mom, is one of the suspects. It’s apparently her first screen role.  In “Gourmet Steele” he is mistaken for an unpopular restaurant reviewer by a group of restaurant owners who want to murder the man. Another absurd plot idea.  I couldn’t find one good thing to say about this one. Why would a restaurant insist there was an hour wait when half their tables are empty? Cartoon caricatures, implausible events, contradictory motives, and mediocre dialogue.  Possibly the weakest episode yet. And one of the murder attempts is made in front of a half dozen witnesses all of whom know the potential killer.  Doesn’t work as either humor or mystery. “Breath of Steele” also sacrifices serious for humorous as someone is attempting to murder a pair of singing telegram women. When someone takes a shot at Holt and Steele with the two women, Holt immediately assumes the twosome were the target.  Why?  Given the many episodes where someone wanted to kill one or both of our stars, that would be the last conclusion she should come to.  There are some amusing twists but all in all not very good. 

“Stronger Than Steele” is a good episode. An aging television superhero is framed for murder. For a change, we see the murder preparations in advance so we know who the killer is, and her plan is pretty good, although the solution is too easy and depends on the killer not disposing of an incriminating videotape, which is the first thing I would have done.  “Have I Got a Steele for You” starts with an intriguing sequence.  A man buys $30000 worth of travelers check and then burns them. An investigation of fraud has some interesting reversals.  Not bad, but our detectives do an awful lot of breaking and entering without losing their licenses.  “Springtime for Steele” is a variation of the gimmick in The Producers, but it’s not very convincing. “Steele in the Family” is better – hiding a body from the police and a killer – although the plot depends on several people doing really stupid things. 

 The next two episodes are pretty blah. “Diced Steele” involves stolen jewels and “Now You Steele It, Now You Don’t” deals with a kleptomaniac.  “Illustrated Steele” is much better, one of their best episodes.  A comic strip illustrator survives several murder attempts that mimic things that happen in the strip. Or does he? I guessed the surprise but it was still good.  “Steele in the Chips” makes no pretense to being serious. The inventor of a revolutionary chocolate chip cookie recipe is murdered for his secret. A joke turns into an actual murder case in “Steele Trying”, better than average but not great. In the season closer, “Steele on Approval”, the agency’s license is pulled while they are investigating the background of a political candidate.  A not bad story is ruined by the idiocy of the writing – their license is pulled for no particular reason, the licensing bureau has no right to padlock their office, and Holt’s reaction to everything is completely nonsensical.  The problem arises from a case that took place before he was part of the firm. And licensing bureaus do NOT have access to confidential files from detective agencies.  And the cliffhanger ending makes no sense either. A few good episodes, a few awful ones, and a lot of ho hum. 3/27/11

Predator (1987)

As far as I know this is the only movie to have two state governors in its cast, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura. A crack team of soldiers is sent into a South American jungle to rescue hostages, but that turns out to be a cover story to obscure a CIA operation. There they become the prey of an alien visitor who comes to hunt humans.  Great special effects as the camouflaged alien is gradually revealed, and for a change it's not a disappointment when the mask comes off.  The sequel was pretty good as well, with Danny Glover fighting an alien in Los Angeles. Since Arnold doesn't have to say much, his limited acting skills don't present much of a problem and the rest of the cast does a reasonable job. It's not quite as gripping once you know what's going to happen but still a lot of fun to watch. 3/26/11

Pitch Black (2000)

Although I wouldn't call this one of my favorite movies, it has some of my favorite shots, particularly the onset of the eclipse that casts some shipwrecked space travelers into a darkness populated by ravenous creatures on a feeding frenzy.  I'm not a Vin Diesel fan but he is well cast as Riddick, the escaped killer with specially augmented eyes to see in the dark and a heart of silver if not gold. The castaways ignore the early warning signs and take their time about servicing an escape ship they find at an abandoned settlement so they are caught by the darkness.  I'm not sure the ecology of the planet would work. It's a lifeless desert except for the creatures which live underground until the eclipse every 22 years. For that matter, where is the breathable oxygen coming from if there is no plantlife or ocean? The cast gets slaughtered one by one and not everyone whom you're likely to think will survive does. It's worth watching, but the sequel is dreadful. 3/23/11

The Mummy Returns (2001)

One of my favorite movies and one of the few sequels that is better than the original. The original cast is back for this second round of battles, with the addition of a kid who avoids being too cute. Imhotep has been revived as part of a plot to defeat the Scorpion King and raise the army of Anubis from the sands of Egypt to conquer the world.  Our heroes have to stop them and get back their son, who has been kidnapped because he is the key to finding the lost oasis of Ahm Shere where the Scorpion King is entombed.  There are several great scenes - the bus chase through London, the battle in the British Museum - but my favorite is the sword fight between Ankh-Su-Amun and Nefertiti.  Some great shots of the balloon journey as well.  The Scorpion King himself is the weakest of the special effects and the final battle scenes are occasionally sub-par, but on the whole this is a very well done fantasy adventure.  The third in the series, alas, was awful. 3/21/11

Battle: Los Angeles (2011)

This is the second big budget alien invasion movie I've seen recently - following the disappointing Skyline - and it's better, but still not very good.  The aliens land in the water off a couple of dozen major cities and then storm ashore in armored suits  that reminded me of Independence Day.  We see the action from the point of view of a squad of marines trying to get a small group of civilians out of the occupied zone, and most of the movie consists of firefights and explosions.  Naturally they discover the secret of disabling the entire Los Angeles invasion force, and the movie ends with the information being sent around the world where presumably everyone else did the same thing.  There's some back story about the staff sergeant's past but there really isn't time for much characterization - or acting - as the action sequences are pretty much it.  When there is dialogue, it's mostly a testosterone throwing contest. The pace is so fast that there is no suspense at all, and the aliens are sufficiently humanoid that much of it could be just another war movie.  The science is also hokey.  An hour after the attack starts, the aliens have used so much of Earth's water that the oceans are noticeably depleted.  Huh?  My biggest complaint though is the atrocious camera work.  I expected some shaking of the picture during the battle sequences, in part to hide the flaws in the special effects, but even in the very few quiet moments before the action starts, the camera jerks and jumps and shakes so much I thought there was a problem with the projector.    Has there been a reasonably intelligent alien invasion movie since Earth vs the Flying Saucers?  3/17/11

Monsters (2010) 

I had no idea what to expect from this movie about a future Mexico overrun by alien creatures. The premise proved to be nonsense quite early; a space probe investigating the possibility of microscopic life in space results in giant critters in such large numbers that even the US military is helpless to wipe them out. A journalist and a tourist set out to visit the contaminated area and therein lies the story, such as it is. It’s shot on videotape and the sound isn’t always great, nor is the picture particularly crisp or bright, but then again, that helps disguise the fake monsters. It has a lot of the feel of Cloverdale, though the pace is slower.   It’s also very slow getting started.  Except for quick glimpses on television screens, we don’t even see any of the aliens until more than an hour into the movie, and then only briefly and indistinctly. The “surprise” ending that the aliens have gotten out of the quarantined zone isn’t much of a surprise, and it’s also implausible the way it’s shown.  Not an awful movie, just a very dull one. 3/15/11

Independence Day (1996)

This was the first Blu-Ray movie I've watched, chosen because of the special effects and the aerial combat sequences, which I figured would play well on the surround sound system.  It was pretty much what I expected in those terms, but I actually thought the movie was somewhat better than I remembered overall.  At least up to the point where they can fly the alien spacecraft despite no training and tell us that a virus would be compatible with the aliens' mothership operating.  The cast is quite good which means that the acting was fine, the special effects are spectacular, and since the basic story is a fairly simple aliens invade the world and blow things up plot, there wasn't a lot that could go wrong until they started giving us scientific explanations that made no sense.  It would never have won any serious awards but it is not nearly as bad as some reviews might suggest.  3/14/11

Star Wars (1977)

We just bought a new, large screen, high definition television and the first thing I wanted to see was the opening sequence from Star Wars, which blew me away back in 1977.  Although not available on blu-ray, the regular DVD looks spectacularly better on new equipment and I was almost as impressed this time around as before.  I watched the whole movie again, even though I've seen it more than any other movie, at least 20 times.  I wince a little at some of the stilted dialogue, and there are a few minor plot holes that seem more obvious now, but the movie still has all the power that it did way back when, and the special effects hold up well.  A surround system also brought back more of the thrills, particularly during the final siege of the Death Star. I have always been puzzled by the dearth of imitations, low budget or otherwise, considering how successful this franchise was.  3/13/11

The Mummy (1999) 

The first in the Mummy trilogy is one of my favorite movies, a blend of horror and adventure leavened by humor that keeps everything in balance.  Set in 1923, it involves an adventurer and a frustrated librarian who become involved in the reawakening of Imhotep, a mummified priest who has acquired considerable supernatural power during his long sleep.  Why his enemies would have sentenced him to a fate that made him so powerful is not evident, but it really doesn’t matter.  The excellent cast – Rachel Weisz, John Hannan, Brendan Fraser – compliment what is actually a witty and entertaining script. Above average special effects help as well. Once raised, the mummy tracks down those who opened a sacred box in order to assimilate their body fluids and restore himself completely.  He also controls the ancient plagues of Egypt.  Non stop action and loads of fun.  The sequel is pretty good as well, but the third left more than a little to be desired. 3/12/11

Enemy Agents Meet Ellery Queen (1942) 

Ellery Queen vs Nazi spies in the last and weakest in the series. The spy gives himself away early by being unfamiliar with American idioms. The spy ring relieves the police of a prisoner who has knowledge they want.  Nikki gets mistaken for a spy herself for a while and has to be rescued by Ellery.  There’s a valuable shipment smuggled into the country and both the Nazis and Dutch resistance fighters are after it.  Some of this one is so corny and predictable that it’s embarrassing.  The Nazis are more like Keystone Cops. No wonder the series stopped here. 3/11/11

A Desperate Chance for Ellery Queen (1942) 

The second William Gargan outing as Ellery Queen, which series would end with his third.  Margaret Lindsay continues to get equal billing and frankly she’s the best part of this series as Nikki Porter, Queen’s precocious secretary.  There’s a bank embezzlement, the murder of the thief, a blackmailed man pretending to be dead, an impersonation, a conniving woman, a crime lord, and a couple of suspicious policemen.  Ellery pursues his own agenda in and around the others.  Fair to middling, improved by the cutting back of the humorous bits in favor of the unraveling of the mystery. 3/10/11

A Close Call for Ellery Queen (1942) 

William Gargan replaced Ralph Bellamy for this Ellery Queen mystery, although Nikki Porter remained unchanged.  More silliness posing as humor, mostly a distraction from the story.   The story involves a man searching for the two daughters he hasn’t seen since they were infants, one of whom shows up but one of whom runs into Nikki, who temporarily takes her place.  There are also two thugs who appear to be blackmailing the man, who refuses Ellery’s help.  Everything gets confused and then the two blackmailers turn up dead.  The production feels like it had a much lower budget than usual and the characters aren’t nearly as interesting.  3/6/11

The Murder Ring (1941) 

Another Ralph Bellamy appearance as Ellery Queen.  This one dates itself early when the grown daughter asks for an increase in her ten dollar a month allowance. An elderly, wealthy woman rules who represses her son and daughter wants the police to investigate a hospital she owns, and shortly thereafter she is murdered while staying at the hospital herself. Queen decides to pretend to have lost his voice in order to arrange an overnight stay at the hospital.  We know that the son was responsible for an early attempt on her life that didn’t work out, but is he the killer in round two?  The dead woman was also in a conflict with the hospital director over ownership of a new formula.  The humorous interludes – and there are a lot of them – often don’t work; it really wasn’t Bellamy’s strong point.  And once again, Nikki is quicker to solve the crime than is Ellery.  Above average for the series. 3/5/11

The Perfect Crime (1941) 

Ralph Bellamy’s third turn at being Ellery Queen involves a number of odd characters. Flooding causes the destruction of a major, apparently uninsured construction project, causing bad feelings and bankruptcies, particularly since one of the investors essentially cheated the others. The son of the murdered man finds the body, picks up the murder weapon, and is then knocked unconscious by the real killer. There’s planted evidence, a woman more interested in her monkey than in her family, and a lawyer with a secret agenda. There’s less of Nikki Porter and more of Ellery Queen than in the previous couple. The police discover that the stab wound wasn’t the cause of death and Ellery guesses correctly that the body was moved.  The solution is pretty good but the closing scenes are pretty bad. 3/4/11

The Penthouse Mystery (1941)

Ralph Bellamy returns as Ellery Queen.  A group of Chinese hope to raise money for the needy by selling a valuable collection of jewels in New York City.  The courier disappears shortly after arriving. Ellery’s personality changes again; he’s querulous, self centered, and short sighted.  He’s not interested even when the missing man turns up dead, and it’s Nikki, his secretary, who pursues the investigation.  There are contending factions among the bad guys - most of whose identities we know almost from the outset, although it's not clear which of them actually committed the murder, or why.  I figured out the killer simply because one of the characters seemed to fill no other function in the story.  The mystery itself is reasonably good and the performances are all competent, but Bellamy doesn’t seem to have his heart in this one and his acting is uncharacteristically heavy handed. 3/3/11

Ellery Queen, Master Detective (1940)

The third Ellery Queen movie has the third actor in the role, Ralph Bellamy this time.  A wealthy man apparently on his death bed cuts his daughter out of his will, a daughter he hasn't seen since she tried to marry against his will. The wife wants Ellery to find the missing young woman, a task complicated by the fact that she has no photographs. The plot has a lot of raised eyebrow moments.  If the daughter is nearby and would like to see her mother, why hasn't she made any attempt to see her outside the home, or let her know where she is living, or something?  Why would the police agree to search for the missing woman, who left voluntarily, is of age, and doesn't want to be found? There's a feeble excuse for why the man she wanted to marry is actually living with the dying man, which seems very unlikely under the circumstances. The Doctor doesn't tell the missing woman that her father is terminally ill because it might create a relapse of her appendicitis.  Huh? Anyway, Ellery traces her but gets confused between the daughter, Barbara, and the roommate, Nikki, who is a wannabe mystery writer and Ellery Queen fan.  The acting is pretty good but the script lacks liveliness.  Through a complicated series of circumstances, Nikki is in an adjacent room when someone hurries the dying man along after he writes a new will disinheriting his business associates and daughter, and since it's a locked room murder, she's potentially suspect number one. While she is hiding out in Ellery's apartment, someone steals the body. Nikki, played by Margaret Lindsay with considerable skill - she has most of the best scenes, became a recurring character in the movies that followed.  An uneven production with some good moments but nothing out of the ordinary.  3/2/11

The Mandarin Mystery (1936)

The second Ellery Queen mystery, with Eddie Quillan playing Ellery, is based on The Chinese Orange Mystery.  It's considerably less polished than its predecessor.  Quillan plays Queen as rather a wimp despite his intellect, and the sprightly soundtrack irritated me almost from the outset. There's a battle about who should administer a young woman's inheritance and for some reason Ellery appears to have been hired as her bodyguard. The attempt at humorous byplay falls very flat. A very valuable stamp is stolen and Ellery is on the case. The relationship between Queen and his father is entirely different and Quillan is a dreadful actor. A valuable stamp is stolen, but then a dead body is found with the stamp in his hand and his clothing on backwards. The mystery is badly presented, hard to follow, and Ellery makes inexplicable jumps of logic to solve it. Given how good the first in this series was, the disappointment of this dreadful bit of movie making is even more pronounced.  3/2/11

The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935)

The first in a series of Ellery Queen murder mysteries, this one with Donald Cook as Queen, although for some reason the female lead gets top billing.  Queen is on vacation at Spanish Cape near a house filled with people who hate one another and who are generally speaking pretty much cads, cheats, and fortune hunters.  Two of them are kidnapped and one is left tied in the house Queen is renting, where he finds her upon arriving.  Her companion is missing, apparently having been mistaken for someone else, and while he is missing, yet another man is found murdered.  The local sheriff is a jerk, so despite his reluctance to get involved, Ellery must find the real solution. There's a good deal of humor as well, most of it quite funny. A second murder follows, but for some reason no one refers to the kidnapped man during all of these proceedings. I began to suspect the truth at that point and was certain when the third murder occurs. The fourth death is clearly designed to frame someone else. I haven't read the original book but I understand it isn't a particularly loyal adaptation. It' still one of the best black and white mysteries I've seen. 3/1/11

South Park Season 13 (2010)

This season of South Park starts off badly, in fact, “The Ring” is a horribly bad episode.  Making fun of Disney corporation’s ambiguous moral code was a good idea, but this isn’t funny, consistent, or entertaining, and it didn’t even feel like a south Park episode.  “The Coon” is considerably better.  Cartman decides to become a costumed vigilante, then switches to the dark side – not a big jump – when a rival hero shows up.  Both episodes display a subtle shift.  The kids’ fantasies have now become credible to the adult characters, which dissipates a good deal of the charm. “Margaritaville” takes on recession and economic planning. After the economy tanks, Randy begins preaching a return to basics in religious terms with Kyle as his rival. The story unfolds as a parallel to the life of Christ and is cleverly written 

“Eat, Pray, and Queef” did nothing for me.  I’ve never liked the Terrance and Philip episodes, which involve farting, and this one with the female equivalent was just as bad.  It’s more grossout than humor. “Fishsticks”, which is about the boys writing a popular joke, is pretty lame as well, although it has a few good bits sprinkled through it.  “Pinewood Derby” has Randy using stolen superconductor technology to win a model car race, resulting in contact with an alien criminal. Not particularly funny and once again the adult/child division is gone and the story is not consistent with the South Park of earlier seasons. “Fatbeard”, in which Cartman and some other kids become pirates in Somalia, continues the break with earlier seasons.  The crew of a French vessel are terrified of a toy light saber and surrender their ship.  Absurd as the show is, it only works when there is a hint of realism beneath the insanity.  There’s no hint in this at all, and the episode flops miserably. 

“Dead Celebrities” is the first good episode of the season.  The ghost of Michael Jackson possesses one of the boys in order to accomplish a goal he never reached while alive.  “Butters’ Bottom Bitch” is okay.  Butters starts organizing girls to kiss boys for money and gets introduced to adult prostitution. Some funny lines but it’s mostly flat.  “W.T.F” is somewhat better.  A fascination with professional wrestling leads the boys to try it for themselves and they get a massive adult following.  “Whale Whores” features hordes of Japanese slaughtering whales and dolphins in theme parks. They even massacre the Miami Dolphin football team.  This is another one where the kids and adults are interchangeable as Stan becomes a world leader in the dolphin protection movement.  Cartman during Lady Gaga is pretty funny though.

A battle with noisy bikers in "The F Word" results in an attempt to redefine the meaning of "fag", with occasionally funny results.  "Dances with Smurfs" has Cartman reading the morning announcements at school and using it as a forum to attack Wendy's performance as class president. It's an obvious Glenn Beck takeoff complete with incitement to violence and weird conspiracy theories. This would have been funnier except that the reality is just as bizarre.   The final episode is "Pee" which revolves around a trip to a water park. Cartman is upset about the number of minorities at the park, in a slap at the Tea Party complaint that we need to take our country back.  Overall a very weak season.  2/28/11

Taken at the Flood (2006)

The cast of characters in this Poirot mystery is even nastier than in most of the others.  A rich widow is thoroughly hated by her husband’s family and completely dominated by her obnoxious brother, who aggressively alienates everyone he meets.  Then rumor arises that her first husband, presumed dead, is still alive, which would mean she is not entitled to the estate.   When the supposed dead man is murdered, the brother seems to be the prime suspect, except that he was also planning to pay the man off, which suggests otherwise.  Possibly the most evil villain in all of Agatha Christie, and I couldn’t figure out how but I knew he had to be the one.  Above average. 2/23/11

The Mystery of the Blue Train (2006)

Never get on a train with Hercule Poirot.  There's always a murder.  He's on his way to the Riviera this time when he meets a rich American, his spoiled daughter, and her wastrel husband, among others. There's also an outstanding gambling debt, an extramarital affair, a valuable piece of jewelry, and simple personal dislike to stir the pot. When we learn that two of the passengers are planning to trade compartments secretly, the shape of the murder to come is obvious, but which of the two women was intended to be the victim?  I didn't think this one was quite up to the usual standards.  The picture was dark and indistinct at times, the sets weren't as impressive, and the story is not one of Christie's most scintillating ones; there are just too many subplots for it to be consistently comprehensible. Too many extreme close ups and some of the acting was over the top.  The summing up scene sorts everything out and is actually the highlight of the story, but it comes too late - necessarily - to overcome what came before. 2/22/11

Cards on the Table (2005) 

Poirot and three other detectives and several others are invited to a dinner party at which their mysterious host is murdered.  Presumably, one of the guests is the killer, but all eight were presumably together in two parties of four when the murder is committed.  Poirot’s party were all in another room so are presumably innocent, but the other four may have wandered separately around the room, making them all suspects. The plot is extremely complex and the screenplay is excellent, providing all the clues and details without being confusing.  One of my favorites in this series. 2/18/11

After the Funeral (2005) 

Poirot has one of his more involved cases in this one, which involves yet another dysfunctional family and a contested will.  Following the death of a wealthy man, his wildly eccentric sister insists that it was murder and the will disinherits the presumed favorite in favor of the rest of the family.  Then the sister is murdered, presumably to keep her quiet. As the family conflicts unfold, Poirot discovers that the will is in fact a forgery, though not what viewers might expect.  Then another woman eats some poisoned fruitcake, although she survives.  There are some very nice twists in this one even though I guessed most of the solution in advance.  The actor playing the killer does an exceptionally good job.  The usual high standards in editing, set dressing, and so forth all apply and this was one of Agatha Christie's more intriguing puzzles.  2/17/11

Remington Steele Season 2 (1983) 

Pierce Brosnan and Stephanie Zimbalist return with a new theme song and a bigger budget after the show proved surprisingly popular. The season opener, “Steele Away with Me,” is set briefly in Cairo, and I watched it in the middle of the protests.  With music that sounds like it was designed for a James Bond flick, and without its two supporting stars, this one involves a series of international thefts.  It also included a big name guest star, David Warner. Steele is having trouble with the IRS and is faced with possible deportation.  The IRS aspect is done for laughs and is totally implausible.  When a dying man shows up with a fish full of diamonds, Laura goes to Mexico and is nearly kidnapped/killed/assaulted by the same people who murdered the fish man. The scene in the restaurant with the musicians is so hilarious it was worth the price of the set for it alone.  If Zimbalist was a better actor this would have been an excellent show. 

“Red Holt Steele” has the IRS agent joining the firm. The romantic element continues to be badly done, but the story isn’t bad.  Industrial rivalry takes a murderous turn. In “Altared Steele” an amnesiac is the target of a murder plot. It turns out he has five wives, who just found out the truth about their husband.  Mildly amusing but not a particularly good episode.  “Steele Framed” has a potentially good plot but Zimbalist’s histrionics are out of character and over the top, and she and Steele are far too gullible as they fall into the hands of a clever plot.  And the autopsy would have shown that the man Steele “killed” was already dead. Nor will banks surrender safety deposit boxes without court orders.  Why do the police not match the fingerprints of the dead man and find out he was stolen from the police morgue a few days earlier? And Holt surrenders incriminating evidence without being asked, evidence the police didn’t know existed, for no reason whatsoever.  Terrible writing. Also too many coincidences. 

“A Steele at Any Price” involves the theft and movement of valuable paintings concealed behind those of a relatively untalented newcomer.  A pretty good episode with only a couple of awkward moments.  There’s a vintage car with a checkered history of infidelity and jewel theft in “Love Among the Steele”.   The car attempts to run down our two heroes, apparently without a driver. When they try to return the car to its owner, it is immediately stolen again. “Scene Steelers” involves an attempt to murder one of two feuding actors filming a series of commercials, but which one, and why?  One of the better pure mysteries with lots of suspects, all with good motives except one. “Steele Knuckles and Glass Jaws” involves a stolen baby and a fixed boxing match.  A bit implausible at times but not too bad. 

“My Fair Steele” is a very good episode.  One of a pair of twin sisters is kidnapped and no one knows of the existence of the other, so Steele and Holt enlist her aid in a dangerous impersonation. A nice mix of humor and seriousness, an interesting plot, and good performances, although the solution is a bit far fetched.  Steele is chosen as one of a group of eligible bachelors in “Steele Eligible” but prefers to decline the honor when the others start getting murdered. We know who the murderer is right from the start this time.  But there’s a nice twist toward the end that makes this one of the better episodes. There’s international industrial espionage in “Steele Threads” but it turns into murder.  Another pretty good episode with some surprises to keep us watching.           

“High Flying Steele” is dreadful.  Lost loot and attempted murder in a carnival setting.  The plot holes are gaping, e.g. the killer knows that Mildred works for Remington Steele even though there’s no way he could have known it.  And you don’t learn performance quality trapeze work in a weekend.  Nonsense. “Blood Is Thicker Than Steele” is a little better, but it almost had to be.  Kidnapping is kidnapping, even in a good cause, and this isn’t all that good.  Plot holes abound here to.  A group of kidnappers are prepared for Steele and company when they arrive at places even though there’s no way they could have known where they’d go.  At one point a police car is directly behind the bus they’ve stolen, but it disappears while they stop and discharge passengers, then reappears magically. At another point, the bad guys intercept the right trailer on an interstate highway despite having no information about what it looks like.  And professional bodyguards are usually armed.  

 Holt’s sister and her possibly philandering husband get mixed up with murder in “Steele Sweet on You”, which thankfully was a return to the quality of the first half of the season. The mix of murder, mayhem, and chuckles is well balanced.  An old enemy tries to finish off Steele in “Elegy in Steele”, threatening to kill Steele and Holt within the day.  Amusing, but the villain’s a ability to anticipate every move by our heroes is entirely unbelievable.  The heroes also fall for such transparent tricks that they deserve to have died and there’s some really silly dialogue that seems to have been put in to flesh out a story that ran short of the required length.  The police intervention is absurd, though, and from that point on the episode was worthless.  It also steals the murder device from H.F. Heard’s Reply Paid.   They travel to a small town in “Small Town Steele” and discover that the entire town is conspiring against them.  Terrible writing.  The townspeople are trying to avoid attention, but they openly threaten and lie to Steele and Holt, which just makes them more suspicious. The story gets progressively worse; even after finding a murdered woman, they make no effort to actually contact the state police.  

“Molten Steele” involves blackmail in which the villain places ads in sex tabloids to coerce his victims.  Small goof; private detectives do not get warrants. It turns out that the blackmailer, who gets murdered, was running the same deal with several of the neighboring wives as well.  Not very plausible but actually pretty funny.  A big implausibility though.  There’s no way that the killer could have known that Steele would operate a lift in a commercial garage in time to rewire it as a death trap. Nor can you learn to fly a helicopter, particularly to rendezvous with a moving speedboat, after ten seconds of instruction. 

“Dreams of Steele” is another episode in which the villains have access to information they could not possibly have known.  A clever plot to safeguard jewels goes awry when the villains know everything in advance – impossibly. And when Holt is nearly murdered, they don’t do anything to apprehend the man responsible, even though they know who he is.  And why is the crematorium burning boxes they believe to be empty?  Lazy writing.  "Woman of Steele" has another character from Steele's shady past arriving while they are attempting to provide security at an exhibit of valuable art.  She tries to manipulate him into killing her husband, who is blackmailing her.  A better than average and considerably more serious than average episode.  Tom Baker is the villain in "Hounded Steele", wherein Mildred the secretary stumbles into an attempted jewel theft. There's a heist sub-plot, some extortion, and a reasonably good script.  Last show of the season was "Elementary Steele."  Two criminals masquerading as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson persecute a woman who comes to Steele for help.  Amusing end to a very uneven season 2/16/11

Doctor Who Series 5 Soundtrack composed by Murray Gold, Silva Screen, 2010 

I was quite disappointed in the new season of Doctor Who.  I thought the writing was subpar, and sometimes contradicted the basic premises of the show, and that the performances were so hectic – probably to fit so much into so little time – that I occasionally had trouble following what was going on.  That reservation did not extend to the music, which I actually considered rather good for the series, an opinion confirmed by listening to the soundtrack separately.  A few of the titles are, necessarily, somewhat difficult to enjoy separate from the audio cues – notably “The Time of Angels”, very effective in the show but not as a standalone - but others are quite nice, including the newly revamped theme. There’s quite a variety considering there were elements of adventure, suspense, and humor sprinkled throughout.  The frenetic nature of the show means that the cuts are rather short, and since this is a two disc set we have more than sixty separate pieces of music.  2/13/11

South Park Season 12 (2009) 

Another season of the only animated show I actually like.  Cartman gets HIV in “Tonsil Trouble.”  He gives it to Kyle and the two of them travel to Los Angeles to see Magic Johnson, who seems to have beaten the disease.  The boys bug Britney Spears and drive her to attempt suicide in “Britney’s New Look”, which is not so much a swipe at Spears as at the fascination by paparazzi and others to follow her every movement. Nice Shirley Jackson reference included as we discover that a cult wants to sacrifice her. Kenny gets addicted to cat urine in “Major Boobage”.  A little unfocused but moderately funny. “Canada on Strike” is a very dull episode in which all of Canada goes on strike.  “Eek, a Penis!” has Cartman taking over Mr. Garrison’s class temporarily, with unexpected consequences, after the teacher has second thoughts about his sex change operation. Garrison has a new penis grown on a mouse, but the mouse escapes, while Cartman is drafted into teaching an inner city class.  

The internet stops working in South park in “Over Logging”, which causes rioting and other disorders. It’s a spoof the dust bowl days and our dependence on the internet.   Mildly funny. “Super Fun Time” is better.  The class is visiting an annoying historical replica village when a gang of crooks takes them hostage. Cartman is convinced the Chinese are going to invade in “The China Probrem.”  It also includes a jab at the last Indiana Jones movie that is justified but overdone.  “Breast Cancer Show Ever” is another good one.  Cartman offends Wendy who challenges him to a fight, and he’s afraid he’ll lose to a girl.  The first really good show in a lackluster season. 

There’s a plague of Peruvian flute bands in “Pandemic.”  Then come the giant guinea pigs in a cute spoof of Cloverdale. It’s a two parter, with the boys sent to Peru where they discover the secret.  Not bad, and the real guinea pigs in the cartoon world – wearing various costumes – are cute. "About Last Night" pokes fun at the Presidential election. McCain and Obama are crooks working in collusion. Both sides get roundly spoofed. The point is that nothing really changes.  "Elementary School Musical" takes off on the popularity of the high school musical movies. The kids start doing song and dance routines in school and Kyle has to decide whether or not to participate or lose Wendy's friendship.  A very good episode. The season ended with "The Ungroundable."  Also very good.  A Stephenie Meyer vampire group starts at the school and makes life difficult for the local goths. Overall, the first half of the season was pretty flat, but the second half was much better.  2/11/11

Civilization V, 2010, around $50 

I have been a big fan of the Civilization computer game series for years and rarely a week goes by that I don’t play a game of Civ IV.  I recently picked up the newest version, which has many changes, and I wasn’t entirely happy.  Some of the changes are improvements, some neutral, and many are negative.  The first category includes changes to the interface, improved graphics, and more gameplay options.  The second encompasses a quite different combat system, the elimination of town building, and some changes in game logic.  The last group is more significant.  For one thing, the improved graphics are so busy that I have trouble finding my mobile units on the screen unless I zoom in so close that I lose perspective.  The trading and diplomacy system confuses me because few of the computer players are willing to trade with me under any circumstances even when we’re on good terms.  The addition of city states which can be bribed sounded good, but in practice they require more money so often that I abandoned the effort as unproductive.  The summary screens have been changed, eliminating the city summary screen which I use constantly – I ended up making one up outside the game and using it as I played.  The various advisers rarely provide any useful hints.  There are fewer world types, fewer empires, and fewer leaders than I am used to.  But worst of all, every time I’ve played a marathon game the system locks up at some point between move 1100 and 1200 so I never get to finish a game.  I won’t be removing Civ IV from my PC. 2/11/11

The Hollow (2004)

Poirot is invited to a house party and eventually finds himself dealing with a man dead and a woman apparently responsible for killing her philandering husband.  Naturally things aren't that simple. A varied and interesting group of suspects - played by an excellent cast - suggest several possible scenarios. The dead man had a mistress, and one of her admirers wants her for himself. Then there's the aunt frustrated by the way the estate bypassed her. There's also an actress who is also involved with the victim, a gun enthusiast, and others to stir the mix. Although everyone seems friendly enough, hints of animosity begin to appear in a story that has surprisingly little Poirot in it during the first half.  Things change perspective when the weapon at the scene is proved not to be the murder weapon. A very clever puzzle with a satisfying ending.  2/9/11

Jack Armstrong (1947)

A somewhat corny serial adapted from the radio program.  Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy, and his friends have to battle an evil scientist who has a working spacecraft orbiting the Earth. Jack, who looks too old to be a college student let alone a high school senior, has a rocket powered car to help him in the car chases. One of the sidekicks is such a bad actor I'm surprised the rest of the cast could refrain from laughing, and the story - though simple minded - is pretty typical for a cliffhanger. There are early hints of a problem.  "Those strange radiations are coming in again." No secret about who the villains are either. The radiations are on an "ultra high frequency band." "Cosmic rays? What are those?"  "It's hard to say, but I'm sure a human source is responsible."  Needless to say, the science gives a whole new meaning to the term hokey. The evil scientist has extracted a substance from uranium which is found only in the sun (huh?) and which creates a kind of laser beam. Anyway, a good scientist is kidnapped to a remote island in the Pacific and our heroes - without backup - are off to the rescue.  Unfortunately, the island isn't uninhabited and the natives are unfriendly.  The bad guys have a remote viewer of some sort that shows things happening elsewhere even though they don't have cameras!  The good guys flew a thousand miles over the ocean in a small plane, land in the middle of a rocky field despite the failure of their engines, but forgot to pack any provisions! The natives are white and the men wear dresses. The bad acting will make this unwatchable for many.  2/2/11

The Mysterious Pilot (1937)

There are ten different plane crashes in this fifteen chapter cliffhanger serial set among the Canadian Mounted Air Force.  In rural Canada, where most of the locals have a strong French accent, officer Jim Dorn gets involved when a woman witnesses a murder, which makes her the target of a ruthless entrepreneur and his henchmen.  The police at one point arrest a man, but tell him that he's not entitled to know what the charges are, which wasn't plausible even in 1937. When he does find out, the police tell him that he'll have to prove his innocence even if they don't have any proof that he's guilty. The thrills and chills are pretty low key and the flat delivery by most of the cast doesn't help. This serial has a lot of the flaws common to movies bridging the gap between silents and talkies.  Exaggerated emotions.  Lengthy pauses in the dialogue.  Plots so simple they aren't really engaging. It also has the problems inherent to the serials in general - repetitiveness, mediocre to awful acting, poor special effects, minimal set dressing, and a disregard for logic.  It is also one of the most boring I've seen.  2/1/11

King of the Forest Rangers (1946)

An Indian blanket suggests that it's part of a treasure map.  An old man unwisely reveals its existence to a couple of villains who want the treasure for themselves.  King is a local forest ranger, and our hero, who has to thwart the bad guys - who already have the missing half - and save the day, to say nothing of the heroine in distress.  The bad guys have access to a hidden chamber where they plot their nastiness, but even though it's supposed to be an ancient ruin, it has modern style doors.  The forest rangers are armed and can put out large fires with a single fire extinguisher.  They can also spot small fires from miles away somehow.  The details of the plot are about what you'd expect.  Lots of coincidences, fights with guns and fists in which no one ever loses their hat, and a cliffhanger at the end of each installment.  No one's a very good shot and no one does a very good job of holding onto prisoners. I swear the hats are pinned to their heads, and the good guys have white ones and the bad guys wear black. And why does everyone leave their keys in their speedboats?  And where were the police in this epidemic of murder, mayhem, barfights, thefts, explosions, and other crimes? For some reason, the bad guys need to get possession of various properties owned by different people and they use coercion, crooked gamblers, and other devices to get what they want, most of it very unconvincing. Why does the farmer take such great care to hide an artifact he thinks is worthless?  The writers apparently didn't know, or didn't care, that sales agreements signed at gunpoint are not binding. There also seems to be an endless supply of bad guys and the good guys make up laws as they go along. Except for a few of the minor characters, the acting is atrocious even for a serial, and the dialogue is so bad that even a good actor would look pretty bad.  This was one of the cheapest of the Republic serials and it shows. 1/31/11

Jungle Jim (1937)

This is the cliffhanger serial with Grant Withers in the title role, not the one with Buster Crabbe.  A young white girl is lost in the jungle.  Years later she is queen of a local native tribe - naturally - under the sway of a brother and sister, also white, who are criminals on the run from the authorities.  She is also heir to a large fortune.  A lawyer who wants to return her to civilization hires Jungle Jim to lead him to her, while a rival claimant - the bad guy - hires thugs to help him kill her.  The fair maiden isn't all that likeable; she sentences people to be torn apart by lions without batting an eye.  There are also two rival tribes which leads to large scale fights and burning villages, exploding buildings, and a host of bad guys, which leads to gunfights, chases, captures and escapes, an erupting volcano, and various death traps. Lots of cliches.  The girl goes swimming and is attacked by a crocodile.  Lions and tigers are running around in the wild together. One of the characters even mentions there shouldn't be tigers in Africa. Most of the acting is mildly corny; some of it is very bad. Almost every part of the jungle looks identical, because it was the same set used over and over again. Repetitive at times, as are all the cliffhanger serials, but despite many problems this was surprisingly entertaining, perhaps because I like jungle settings, even hokey ones.  1/30/11

Poirot Set 1 (1990)  

I reviewed three of this set previously, but the other six I’d not had access to until now.  Check the series index if you want to see those reviews. First off is “The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim.”  Davenheim is a banker who goes for a short walk but never is seen again.  High production values as always and a really spectacular house as the Davenheim home. Inspector Jaffe challenges Poirot to solve the mystery without leaving his house.  A rival businessman with a grudge had an appointment to meet the missing man and arrived at his house moments after he set out. I suspected from the outset that Davenheim had done a bunk in disguise – we don’t see his face when he leaves the house and his clothing is found in a nearby lake. There are a couple of genuinely funny lines in this one as well as a nicely plotted and edited mystery. 

“The Veiled Lady” is one of those stories where Poirot’s chivalry gets him into trouble.  The mysterious woman is apparently being blackmailed and Poirot decides to burgle the culprit’s house and steal the incriminating letter. But he gets caught!  And it is all, as I suspected, a deliberate set up by imposters. The surprise is given away by the obviously insincere acting by the two crooks, who have concocted an elaborate plan to get Poirot to do their dirty work for them, and it also has a flaw because there was a fifty fifty chance that he would open the correct side of the puzzle box and find jewels instead of the letter. 

“The Lost Mine” is about just what the title suggests.  A man with a map to a lost silver mine disappears along with the map. Poirot unravels a plot involving opium, theft, murder, impersonation, and various other unpleasantries. The solution to this one is fairly obvious given the lack of alternate possible killers. An okay episode but a step down from the previous two.

"The Cornish Mystery" involves a woman who believes, with some justification, that her husband is trying to poison her. She reluctantly consults Poirot and tells him that her grown niece has recently moved out with no explanation. They travel to her home to investigate and find that she has died mysteriously. His subsequent investigation is frustrated by the fact that nearly everyone connected to the dead woman appears to be lying. When her husband later comes under suspicion, Poirot must prove him innocent by finding the real poisoner. The ease with which this one gets solved kept me watching for a reversal, but it wasn't there.

"Double Sin" starts with Poirot announcing that he plans to retire. While on a sort of vacation, he and Hastings run into a young woman who is secretly transporting valuable antiques to a sale and an unusually rude young man. I guessed the answer well in advance this time but the revelation that the real thief had a confederate and the identity of the second person was quite surprising.  The title should have warned me.

In "The Adventure of the Cheap Flat"  Poirot meets a young couple who have acquired a new apartment on suspiciously favorable terms, arousing the detective's curiosity.  Someone else has taken an interest in Poirot as well. A disparity about the time their lease started also points to something shady going on.  There's also an overbearing American agent investigating the theft of submarine plans.  Poirot commits burglary again, but doesn't get caught this time, though it's close. I didn't care for this one.  It seemed disorganized and uneven. 1/29/11

The Crime Doctor's Diary (1949)

The last of the Crime Doctor films includes a young Lois Maxwell and a seasoned Robert Armstrong among the cast members.  Dr. Ordway is trying to prove the innocence of one of his ex-patients, who is on parole after being convicted of arson. The ex-con was involved with the jukebox business and we are led to suspect that the arson was actually performed by a business rival with connections to the underworld. Maxwell is in love with him, despite his relationship with another woman.  Armstrong is one of the businessmen.  I had no idea that their was once a business where people called, asked for particular songs, and listened to them through the phone.  Sort of a pay for listen system. Naturally there's a murder and who else would the police suspect that a recently paroled man with a grudge against the murdered man? The script is actually pretty good, moves quickly, and is quite clear despite a few convolutions in the plot. Nice to see the series ended with an upturn. 1/28/11

The Crime Doctor's Gamble (1947)

The penultimate Crime Doctor movie. While visiting Paris he becomes involved in the murder of a man whose killer, the police insist, is the victim's son, who has mental problems and who thinks his father resented his new daughter in law precipitating a blackout murder. Dr. Ordway thinks otherwise despite the man's conviction that he is guilty.  The series was running out of steam by now and would probably have ended with the next one even if the star hadn't died.  It's not that the mystery itself is bad but that the production is so low key that it feels flat and bland even when another murder is being committed. We know from the outset that someone else committed the murder and there are so few alternative suspects that there really isn't much suspense. Despite the ostensible French setting, the sets are dull and generic. The only character that really comes to life is the artist and the dialogue is relentlessly dull. The ease with which Ordway and the police accept the "coincidental" murder by a burglar of one of the associated characters is also implausible.  Disappointed.  1/27/11

The Millerson Case (1947)

Almost finished with the Crime Doctor series. Dr. Ordway goes on a long overdue vacation, but that's not going to keep him from investigating another crime. He is treating typhoid victims when he discovers that one of the deceased was actually poisoned. The dead man was a notorious philanderer with lots of enemies, all of whom had access to the poison in question. The local doctor is the chief suspect at first but he is lured into a fatal trap and killed as well. Some of the characters are overdone but the mystery is well constructed and the solution not telegraphed at all. There's even a fist fight in this one. Most of the series had been more intellectual than active until now. The sanity test given to the killer at the end is so zany it's funny.  1/26/11

Just Before Dawn (1946) 

Another Crime Doctor movie. Dr. Ordway is summoned to treat a diabetic who has fallen into a coma.  The man carries insulin, which Ordway uses, but it has been poisoned and he dies.  It turns out the man had a lot of enemies, including his sister’s fiancé, his brother, and various other family members and hangers on. His dying words are a quote from Shakespeare, which we don’t discover until late in the movie.  The actual murderer is connected to a funeral home.  Two women disappear – apparently murdered – as soon as they talk to Ordway over the telephone.  Ordway gets shot but, obviously, survives. It turns out that there’s a plastic surgeon changing the faces of wanted criminals and the first victim tumbled to what was going on and decided to try his hand at blackmail.  More of a police procedural than traditional detective story, and a good one. 1/25/11

The Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt (1946) 

Dr. Ordway’s latest patient, who suffers from blackouts and amnesia, is found murdered and the prime suspect is the woman he was engaged to marry.  There’s a boarded up house that isn’t quite as disused as it appears, a woman who insists she’s only covering up a murder to protect someone else, and a pair of disgruntled thugs who want money.  The usual running around and talking to people, a few minor red herrings, and a somewhat bland plot overall.  Reasonably well done but not really up to the quality of the previous few in the series. 1/24/11

Silver Nemesis (1988)

Sylvester McCoy was the last Doctor Who until the series was revived, unless you count the made for television movie.  Unfortunately he wasn’t in the role long enough to establish himself very well.  In this relatively short serial, he battles cybermen, neo-Nazis, and other villains all at once and with very little time to work with.  There’s also a meteor scheduled to hit the Earth which contains a superweapon.  The Doctor and Ace are in England during the year when the meteor is supposed to hit when someone tries to kill them. Almost all of the cast seemed half asleep in this one, reciting rather than delivering their lines, and the musical soundtrack is wildly inappropriate, as are the juvenile attempts at humor.  The story proceeds at a frantic pace despite the laconic acting but it really lacks the feeling of a Doctor Who story despite the trappings. 1/23/11

The Crime Doctor’s Warning (1945) 

Another pretty good entry in this series, this time focusing on the art world.  The prime suspect in the murder of a woman is a man subject to blackouts, an artist who had employed her as a model.  There’s a great cast of supporting characters, both sinister and oddball.  I didn’t quite buy part of the set up.  Our hero, Dr. Ordway, arranges to buy an expensive painting from his client/patient to give him a psychological boost.  And how many working artists do their painting wearing a jacket and tie? Meanwhile, more models turn up dead.  There are some awkward moments in the script which detracts from the otherwise generally good acting. There’s a good deal of sneaking around in the darkness, shrouded figures creeping into bedrooms, and so forth.  The murder is connected to a painting by another artist, whose location is presently is unknown. Warner Baxter, who plays Ordway, was at one time in his career the highest paid actor in Hollywood and an early Academy Award winner. He also appeared in one of the most famous lost films of the silent era, The Great Gatsby. The Crime Doctor series was after his star had fallen, in part because of his failing health.  Peripheral note.  I looked this one up on the Internet Movie Database and was appalled to see comments that the plot was too complicated.  Are people really that intellectually lazy?  1/22/11

The Crime Doctor’s Courage (1945)

Fourth in the Crime Doctor series of psychologically oriented murder mysteries. A man whose two wives both died in accidents during their honeymoons, and some people suspect he murdered them – he’s certainly peculiar enough.  Then the double widower is himself murdered and Dr. Ordway is talked into looking into the matter by wife number three.  Part of the mystery involves a night club where the dancers have a very peculiar act, and who imply that they are vampires. They avoid mirrors, claim to have lived for centuries, keep matching coffins in their basement, and not incidentally they drug Ordway when he tries to find the dead man’s now missing widow.  The dead man appears to have killed himself in a locked room, but that’s obviously not the case.  Ordway picks up the supposed murder weapon.  “Nobody except authors worries about fingerprints nowadays.”  The dialogue is quite good in this one, though the plot has some holes.  I guessed the killer but it was a near thing. 1/21/11

Underworld (1978)

A Tom Baker Doctor Who adventure.  This time the Tardis materializes at the very edge of the universe where a spaceship crew is trying to retrieve the remnants of a nearly extinct alien race before they are destroyed.  The crew is obsessed with the task and take the Doctor and Leela prisoner before risking destruction in the interior of a newly formed planet.  There are inhabitants, of course, masters and slaves, and the Doctor gets caught up in freeing the slaves, revealing the true nature of the universe, helping the space travelers achieve their goals, and other tidying up.  A lot of familiar elements from other installments mixed poorly lighted sets and awful special effects.  One of the lesser Baker entries in the series. 1/20/11

Shadows in the Night (1944)  

Third in the Crime Doctor series, with a young Nina Foch among the cast.  A woman troubled by weird dreams prevails among Dr. Ordway to visit her seaside home where the dark house is filled with suspicious characters.  Lots of spooky goings on, but one of the difficulties with stories in which there are faked dreams is that I rarely believe that the victim would not have spotted something in advance.  In this case, there’s some kind of gas which induces sleepwalking, which seemed awfully convenient and entirely implausible.  One of the party turns up dead, apparently after an accident, although we all know that is not the case.  Other than the silly hypnotic gas bit, this was a pretty good mystery. 1/19/11

The Dominators (1968)  

Patrick Troughton is the Doctor in this Doctor Who adventure set on a world of pacifists occupied by an invasion force equipped with military robots.  For much of the story, the locals don’t even know they’ve been invaded and even when they do realize the truth, they insist that non-violence is the proper response.  The robots are particularly silly looking, and some of the acting is subpar even for the early Doctor Who days.  Jamie, one of the companions, is particularly irritating.  The villains are more than usually comic book bad guys and the robots are even less practical than the Daleks.  Not awful but not very good. 1/18/11

The Crime Doctor’s Strangest Case (1943)

Second in the Crime Doctor series, with a very young Lloyd Bridges among the cast.  While trying to help a man suspected unfairly of a murder, Doctor Ordway discovers that he is implicated in another murder, of the man’s present employer. Sloppy writing early on.  They arrest a man for the murder who has no motive and whom they haven’t even questioned. And then he escapes and bolts, for equally insufficient reasons. Meanwhile the cook is acting very suspiciously.  This one is more of a mystery than the first in a series, with our hero stumbling around in a deserted nightclub, a sinister family conspiracy, old secrets revealed, and a nice trap to capture the killer.  Quite good. 1/17/11

The Space Museum (1965)

The Chase (1965) 

Two episodes of the very first Doctor, when it was more obviously a children’s program.  This was one of the more interesting of the early stories, with some odd time paradoxes disturbing the companions when they arrive at a planet filled with derelict ships and an enormous museum, in which they themselves are exhibits, apparently having been trapped sometime in the future.  They also appear to be invisible to the museum staff. Hartnell flubs his lines from time to time and the dialogue wasn’t scintillating to begin with.  Eventually their two timelines coincide and they become visible to the staff, half of whom want to capture and exhibit them, half of whom want them to help lead a revolution. The second episode, one of the longest in the series at six installments, is the direct sequel and has the Doctor pursued by vengeful Daleks. It contradicts one of the later episodes because the Daleks have a time machine, which they’re not supposed to have.  The Doctor also claims to have built the Tardis, which is also not the case later on. In the opening scenes, most of the characters display remarkably bad judgment about poking their noses where they don’t belong, or wandering off into the night without a light. They get separated and variously lost on a desert planet with the Daleks looking for them. As usual the planet is inhabited by English speaking humanoids.  The supposedly American characters are pretty dreadful. They visit various times and places including Frankenstein’s laboratory in Dracula’s castle – which doesn’t make sense because it is fiction, not history, but the series never has been too consistent on that subject.  The Daleks build a robotic imitation of the Doctor to infiltrate the Tardis.  Lots of the usual running around in cheaply decorated sets.   A bit rambling but not bad overall. 1/16/11

Crime Doctor (1943) 

First in a series of mystery movies with a doctor as detective. A bunch of college students find an injured man who has been dumped out of a moving car. He recovers but has amnesia and eventually becomes a criminal psychologist and prominent figure.  But he is actually a professional criminal who was double crossed by his old gang. His old gang is after him because he is the only one who knew the location of a large stash of stolen money, which doesn’t make a lot of sense because why then did they try to kill him without retrieving it first?  It’s more of a crime story than a mystery, and rather slow moving actually, although the emphasis on psychological analysis was surprisingly intelligent, although sometimes a bit too good to be true. 1/15/11

The Crusades (1995)  

Terry Jones is narrator of this extensive examination of the Crusades - four hour long episodes, pointing out in the opening sequence that the first Crusaders turned cannibal and ate Muslim men, women, and children. Of course Jones uses a light, frequently humorous touch with animations and mini-skits, but without diverting us from the facts being presented. The presentation is filled with interesting observations, including the point that the Crusades were in large part an excuse to get the quarrelsome knights out of Europe, where they were causing considerable problems for the church and crown. Among other things, many of the cities that were sacked and people who were killed were Christian; the Crusaders never bothered to check.  The Pope had told them it wasn’t a sin to kill non-Christians, but they weren’t particularly fastidious.  Richard the Lionhearted doesn't come across as very humane either, having butchered 3000 prisoners including women and children because they were inconvenient to hold. The Europeans were essentially the barbarians attacking the civilized world - the last crusade actually destroyed the Christian city of Constantinople instead of attacking the Holy Land. One interesting point is that public opinion was not a potent force within the Moslem world until the Crusades, where it arose most obviously with the rise to power of Nuradin, who inherited the role of leader of the jihad. A lot of the footage is set on the actual sites, although obviously the buildings are often just ruins.  1/14/11

Planet of Fire (1984)

The Master plots against the Doctor – Peter Davison this time – in one of the few adventures which I could not remember at all.  Perhaps I somehow missed seeing it back in the 1980s.  Anyway, this is the episode where they pick up Peri as a companion.  Turlough, the companion I like the least, and Kamelion, the robot, are also aboard the Tardis. They’re on a future Earth and then an alien planet where an island nation burns unbelievers, which prejudiced me against them right from the outset.  Peri provides considerably more cleavage than most of the previous companions, but Kamelion has been taken over by the Master, though he has taken a different form so the Doctor does not realize what is happening.  A more complicated plot than most and one of the best of the Davison outings. 1/13/11

Revenge of the Cybermen (1975)

Tom Baker is the Doctor in this adventure involving the robotic Cybermen. After being misdirected through time and space once again, they find themselves aboard a space station facing plague and an attack by the Cybermen. As usual, they are immediately suspected of being criminals, even though we know that there's a secretive alien race trying to get free of the Cybermen, a human spy, and other problems. As usual, the Doctor gets separated from his companions, who are taken captive on the planet while the Doctor dodges Cybermen aboard the space station.  There are some really silly special effects in this one, but it's one of the better stories from the Baker era.  1/12/11

Growth (2009)

Parasites are invading human bodies!  Nothing new, but in this case they've infested an island surrounded by salt water - which makes them dissolve - where experiments created them decades earlier.  Supposedly wiped out, although there's no indication that any real effort was actually made to do so, they are ready to pounce on a bunch of people who return to the island much later. The CGI parasites are nice and squiggly but not very believable. Night of the Creeps did this much better. There's the usual problem in cheap horror movies - I found most of the characters obnoxious. One scientist on the island knows they're back, but not only does he not sound the alarm, he has an infected corpse with active parasites sitting on a table in his office, uncovered, capable of infecting anyone who comes in range.  Not surprisingly, his assistant promptly gets infected and is shot by the local sheriff. The movie pretty much lost me at this point, only 18 minutes in, even though the acting was generally okay and most production values were at least acceptable. Then the protagonist apparently accepts a statement that town ordinances supersede state law about real estate.  If I hadn't already been disconnected from the story, that would have done it. There are some effectively creepy scenes but the total is less than the sum of its parts and I was disappointed, though at least not insulted until the fight in the forest - an hour in - which makes no sense whatsoever.  Nor do they ever explain why the two people who know the antidote refuse to reveal it to anyone. Oh, and I didn't know that a parasitic infection taught you martial arts. 1/4/11

Rise of the Dead (2007)

One could make a good case that anyone who bought this film could return it for a full refund because of the false advertising.  The packaging clearly states that it is “a frightening zombie thriller.”  In fact, it has nothing to do with zombies at all; it’s about a ghost who possesses people and uses them to attempt to murder the protagonist. The plot is otherwise not bad, but the acting is so subpar that you probably won’t notice.  The photography is pretty bad as well; the colors are washed out and the framing is erratic. The ghost is of a baby who shot himself with his daddy’s gun while his parents were arguing.  Nothing to recommend it.  No reason to watch it. 1/3/11

Remington Steele Season 1 (1982)

Although I’m a Pierce Brosnan fan, I don’t believe I had ever seen an episode of this detective show until I picked up the DVD set.  Stephanie Zimbalist invented the name Remington Steele because no one wants to hire a female investigator, and pretends to be working for the imaginary character. Brosnan shows up in the first episode “License to Steele,” and involves himself in the potential theft of a parcel of priceless jewels. His double impersonations lead to some amusing complications and his loyalties aren’t entirely clear. “Tempered Steele” has the firm in trouble due to a lawsuit when their security system fails to prevent the robbery of one of their wealthy clients. The tone switches rather dramatically and Steele goes from suave and competent to suave and foolish with no explanation.  A more traditional detective story this time, but the solution cheats a little.  “Steele Waters Run Deep” is pretty good.  They are hired to find a missing executive who doesn’t seem quite real.  And with good reason.  “Signed, Steeled, and Delivered” is just silly, too silly to be entertaining except in small snatches, and the logic of the story displays gaping holes.  A young man, not very bright, insists the CIA is trying to kill him.  Well, someone is. 

“Thou Shalt Not Steele”  is a very good episode involving the theft of a painting from a museum and reveals a little bit about Steele’s past improprieties.  “Steele Belted” isn’t quite as good.  I figured out that the lawyer was actually doublecrossing his client long before the cast did.  “Etched in Steele” involves the husband of an erotic novelist who either jumped or was pushed from a balcony, a death predicted in his wife’s next book. Strong start but this one falls apart mostly because of the efforts to make it humorous. “You’re Steele the One for Me” would have been better if someone had done his homework.  Military intelligence does not ordinarily look into crime in the US even if it does involve gun running, nor do they routinely murder innocent citizens on a whim.  Nice twist at the end of this one.  “In the Steele of the Night” involves a murder among a group of private detectives, potentially a good idea but spoiled by the obvious lack of ethics and professional knowledge by the supposed detectives.  

“Steele Trap” is quite good, a variant of Ten Little Indians, acknowledged along the way.  They’re at a party on a remote island and someone is killing the guests one by one.  “Steeling the Show” on the other hand stinks.  An aging actress is framed for murder.  Criminally insane inmates are NOT housed in dormitories.  A philanthropist is killed in “Steele Flying High” and no one but Remington believes it is murder. The Sam Spade references are clever but too many of the motives are transparent. “A Good Night’s Steele” is okay, murder at a sleep clinic, but the script betrays considerable ignorance of medical procedure, to say nothing of the fact that no one seems to have investigated the disappearance of a staff member officially, and no one keeps track of the bodies in the morgue.  “Hearts of Steele” is another half spoof mystery about a lawyer whom someone is trying to kill.  They infiltrate the circle of angry women in the case with completely unbelievable ease and why do they have the physical evidence in a subsequent murder that the police should have taken away?  And why does their client, trapped in his house by a sniper, call the detectives rather than the police? Also logical flaws: if the killer knew the victim didn’t drink, what was the point of the poisoned wine? If the gears on the car were changed at a garage, how did the victim hear someone fooling around with his car in the middle of the night?  And if the killer was confined to a hospital until after the shots were fired at her husband, how did she fire the shots? 

Steele and his staff are operating independently of one another, but unwittingly on the same case in “To Top a Steele.”  A small time thief gets mixed up in a big time operation, potentially a deadly one.  Great episode, with an unusually good soundtrack.  “Steele Crazy After All These Years” involves murder and a fake ghost.  Amusing, but if it was physically impossible for the victim to hang himself from a flagpole, how could the police dismiss it as suicide? A silly episode but the hippie girl – Annie Potts – is worth watching.  They also cheat by deciding that they will never figure out how she put the bodies on the flagpole!  “Steele Among the Living”, which involves a faked murder that turns real, is also pretty good, though profoundly ignorant of police procedures.  “Steele in the News”, which involves murder at a news program, is pretty well done but rather preachy. 

“Vintage Steele” involves murder at a winery.  Nice concept – the dead body keeps moving unexpectedly to new locations – but not adequately explained.  In some cases, it was physically impossible for it to have been moved.  Funny at times but too implausible to be genuinely good. “Steele’s Gold” is about a lost cache of prospector gold, but there’s too much silliness.  An elaborate con job fools a crook in “Sting of Steele,” another pretty good episode. Final show of the season was “Steele in Circulation.”   This time their client is on the other end of the con.  Okay, but not a strong finish. 

All in all, I enjoyed this very much despite a mild antipathy toward Stephanie Powers’ character.  The blend of humor and mystery usually works, though not always, and a few of the episodes suffer from writing goofs, but the acting and delivery are generally quite good, particularly the second half of the season which featured some really good supporting actors. There is also quite a diversity of plot types.  The cast seems to commit a breaking and entering every second episode, which suggests the writers don’t know that would cost them their license. One complaint though: showing all of the highlights of each episode before the opening credits is a major error. 1/1/11

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