Last Update 9/30/09

 

Lost Crime Shows Volume 2 (1950s) 

I recall watching Boston Blackie when I was a kid and the opening credits were indeed very familiar.  The story itself is pretty vapid.  A young man gives in to impulse and steals a load of money from a storekeeper.  Blackie tracks him down in a pretty dull manhunt.  Alarm is a show about fire fighters rather than a crime show, this one a recreation of the story of the Coconut Grove fire.  I knew about Mandrake the Magician, but I don’t think I’d ever seen an episode.  The magician’s sidekicks are a beautiful girl and a muscular assistant. The woman gets kidnapped by foreign spies in this lukewarm episode.  Lee Marvin adds some weight to the episode of Counterpoint. The story’s not bad; a jewel thief is afraid he’s been seen by a man in a clown costume and plots to kill him while Marvin tries to solve the theft. Cute ending.  Last one on this disk is Front Page Detective. A news reporter uncovers a stowaway connected to a smuggling scheme.  Okay, but no prize.  Another mildly interesting but mostly forgettable collection. 9/30/09

Cauldron – Baptism of Blood (2004) 

I had no illusions about this cheapie even before I started to watch it.  Bad acting, bad script, bad special effects, exploitation, gore, and a nonsensical plot all seemed in the offing.  Bad camera work too, and the soundtrack is dreadful.  A coven of witches who have actually managed to summon a demon sacrifice victims to him  They kidnap a young, ambitious woman and promise her success if she’ll join their cult. She refuses, so the witches begin to slaughter her friends, hoping to frighten her into submission.  Closeups of boiling cauldrons and satanic symbols follow, wrapped around somewhat scantily clad women uttering silly lines and looking uncomfortable. The rituals seem to go on endlessly at times, and they’d have been too long even at ten seconds. The singer is so bad that even a demon probably couldn’t help her career. The television interview show about the difference between paranormal and psychic phenomenon (sic) is appallingly stupid.  “Telepathy is known to go around the globe seeking its recipient.”  Paranormal stuff is visible by psychic stuff isn’t. Right.  I only managed to finish this by fast forwarding through the interminable ceremonial dancing. Despite the lurid story line, this is probably PG 13.  The gore is all implied, there’s no nudity, and no one would ever confuse anything in this with reality.  Unwatchable. 9/29/09

Lost Crime Shows (1950s) 

This is a collection of four episodes of old black and white television crime shows, starting with a Shadow tale called “The Case of the Cotton Kimono.”  Lamont Cranston has been transformed into a criminal psychologist and he and Margot Lane look into the death of a woman, shot to death in her apartment. Cranston interviews a secretive man who was clearly in love with the victim. Dissatisfied with the answers he has received, Cranston becomes the Shadow – who has weird hypnotic powers in this version – to investigate further. The victim’s singing teacher is about to spill the beans when he is himself killed right in front of the Shadow. Terrible script, with gaping plot holes. The investigating officer is the real killer and he tricks the boyfriend into implicating himself in one of the stupidest sequences I’ve ever seen. All of this with really cut rate acting. I won’t be looking for more episodes of this show. 

The episode of Unsolved opens with two masked men killing a mobster while he’s being shaved. It’s an obvious retelling of the story of Bugsy Siegel’s death, with some speculation about the circumstances leading up to it.  I know nothing about this program, which doesn’t seem to be listed even in the Internet Movie Database.  A young Simon Oakland is another prominent criminal figure.  Some nice touches in this although the story didn’t thrill me. Screenplay by Bill Ballinger, who wrote some unmemorable fantastic fiction.  I’ve never heard of Chicago 2-1-2 either. The story is about the search for a serial arsonist.  The police picks up the trail with astonishing ease.  Interesting footage of vintage fire trucks but not much of a story.  Last episode is another unknown show, “The Bogus Green,”  but I suspect it’s just an episode in another series. A counterfeiter is using a traveling circus as a cover for his activities, which leads to murder.  Interesting historically, but none of these are lost masterpieces. 9/28/09

The Black Coin (1936) 

Find myself some more cliffhanger serials, of which this is the first I’ve had time to watch.  It wastes no time getting to the action, opening with a chase scene, horses on the North African desert and a gunfight. A horde of tribesmen are pursuing a pair of secret agents, Walter Prescott and Dorothy Dale (the latter played by Tom Mix’s daughter), who discovered that their caravans contained contraband. They also hear of a collection of supposedly cursed antique coins, but the coins and documents associated with them are more significant than they appear. The two agents battle a group of criminals to acquire the coins, which can be assembled as a treasure map. This is one of the rare cliffhangers to actually have a well integrated story rather than just being a series of quasi-related incidents, although it is necessarily episodic because it had to be shown in small segments. The fist fights are less than convincing but some of the stunts are impressively done, and there’s certainly not a dull moment. We have car chases, exploding aircraft, and killer sharks. And since it’s well over five hours long, that’s a lot of action.  Some of the cliffhangers themselves are quite elaborate although several of the escapes are pretty lame. The acting, however, is generally very flat and the dialogue is less than thrilling. 9/27/09

The Moonstone (1934)

Murder at Midnight (1931) 

A double feature starting with a film version of the classic Wilkie Collins novel, using the same music that graced many a cliffhanger serial and bearing several other trappings of that form including the enumeration of the cast of characters during the opening credits. A young man returns from India with a priceless gem which belongs to his fiance, which is stolen during the night.  A Scotland Yard inspector has to figure out which of the several house guests is responsible and recover the lost jewel. One of the guests is surprised to see one of the maids, whom he previously had met, who implores him to keep her secret. This is Van Lucker, who is trying to recoup a debt owed to him by his host. There is also an unhappy suitor for the hand of Anne, and a busybody housekeeper, a mysterious Indian, a doctor, and assorted hangers on.  The jewel disappears and the father is found unconscious. The movie is surprisingly short – 45 minutes – which explains why it’s paired with another Old Dark House mystery.  The story is very condensed, of course, but there are some very atmospheric scenes in this, the first sound version of the novel. 

I had never heard of the accompanying feature, which is also an Old Dark House mystery. It opens with a man discovering his unfaithful wife with another man and shooting him.  Or does he?  It turns out to be an elaborate parlor game at a large house party.  The games continue, but someone substitutes real bullets at some point and the next man to get shot really is dead. Then the shooter is killed, his death made to look like suicide. Not incompetently done, but the various characters never get established as people and I had trouble telling several of them apart, which is almost always fatal to a mystery. Even in the 1930s, however, I suspect that the medical examiner would know that the absence of powder burns meant the man was shot from some distance. Two more murders follow and an innocent man is arrested before things are finally unwound.  The butler didn’t do it but has it done to him, by a mechanism built into a telephone. Has its moments, but not enough of them. 9/26/09

Hearts in Bondage (1936) 

I had no idea that this movie existed, an historical piece involving the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac, also the only movie ever directed by actor Lew Ayres. The commander of the Merrimac, then a Union ship, fails to destroy it and it is seized by the Confederates, later to be turned into the ironclad Virginia.  Leaving history behind, the story assumes that he is the nephew of John Ericsson, designer of the Monitor, and thereby secures a place aboard in order to reclaim his honor.  Our hero gets the inspiration that leads to the Ericsson’s invention. There is, of course, a romance involved as well. The lady’s brother sides with the Confederacy, which puts severe strains on their love affair. The circumstances surrounding the sinking of the Merrimac are at odds with historical fact. Anyway, the brother dies aboard the Virginia, the hero’s honor is restored, and he gets the girl with the blessing of Abraham Lincoln.  Interesting, and the battle scenes are surprisingly well done with miniatures, but the story drags at times and there’s nothing to really make this memorable. SF fans might note that Ericsson is played by Fritz Leiber Sr. 9/25/09

Shadows on the Stairs (1941) 

Most of the action in this mystery story takes place in a lodging house, not surprising since it’s based on a stage play.  In the opening scenes, we have a variety of the lodgers spying on one another for reasons not apparent.  One of the residents, an Indian national played by Turhan Bey, surprises a burglar in his room and stabs him, but doesn’t tell anyone. One of the women thinks she’s being watched and one of the men has been coming and going mysteriously and is obviously involved in something illegal.  He has also been having an affair with one of the servants, who is blackmailing him.  One night a mysterious crate is delivered, the servant leaves while wearing a hood, another woman also seems to have disappeared, and the man we thought was dead appears to be alive, but immobilized under a bed, another lodger is stabbed to death (and the hero, a young writer, stupidly picks up the knife).  Some of the histrionics are a bit over the top when the body is found.  Bey tries to run when the police question him but is subdued. Then the stabbed man reappears, confusing matters even further, and promptly dies, and the missing servant’s body is found in a broom closet, eliminating the prime suspect for the first murder, although there’s part of a suicide note on her body.  The real killer’s identity is quite obvious but it’s still not badly done. 9/24/09

Forbidden Jungle (1950) 

I’m pretty sure this is the worst jungle movie I’ve ever seen.  For one thing, it was filmed entirely inside a studio, interlaced with inappropriate and meaningless stock footage of animals in the wild.  A great white hunter comes to a remote part of Africa searching for a white boy rumored to be living among the natives.  First of all, since the natives are mostly white, this would not be remarkable.  For another, he just happens to bring a caged, man eating tiger with him because he didn’t have time to send it home before coming on this trip.  Almost nothing happens until the last few minutes of the movie when the tiger escapes.  Before that, he decides to bring the boy back for the reward, gets sick, is nursed back to health, and realizes the error of his ways.  The dialogue is atrociously bad, but even worse – large parts of it are narrated while the hero stands still, his face twitching to indicate that we’re listening to his thoughts.  Except the thoughts are expressed in the past tense.  Did I mention that the white natives have Asian children? Did I mention that the glass barriers separating the actors from the real animals are arranged so that we can see the reflections of the actors when they move in front of them?  Unrelenting drivel. 9/23/09

Atlas in the Land of the Cyclops (1961) 

It had been a long time since I’d watched a sword and sandal epic, so I decided to scratch the itch.  This one has a cast of, well, dozens. Atlas (aka Maciste) is the heroic figure who rescues the young son and heir of a city whose rulers are overthrown by the evil queen of a rival city.  This dubbed Italian production is almost unwatchable.  The queen has a Cyclops in her dungeon, apparently the descendant of the one blinded by Odysseus, although it’s not clear. The photography is so bad that not much of anything is really clear.  The dubbed dialogue is atrociously bad and the story makes so little sense that it’s occasionally hard to figure out just what’s going on. Lots of villagers get speared or hacked with swords, but there’s no blood.  The soundtrack is so inappropriate at times that it draws attention to itself. The print claims to be in color but it’s just black and white with a red tint. The entire female population of the captive city is crowded into this small room, yes small, but they won’t admit which of them is the queen, and none of the invaders has ever seen her.  Anyway, Atlas survives the usual array of trials before the showdown with the Cyclops and the defeat of the evil queen.  I might have liked this when I was ten but it didn’t thrill me today.  The final battle is okay, but not worth the 80 minute wait. 9/22/09

Green Eyes (1934)  

This old time mystery is based on The Murder of Steven Kester by Harriet Ashbrook, published in 1931. It opens at a costume party in an elaborate mansion. The body of a Mr. Kester is found while the party goers are looking for a young couple, who have driven off after disabling all the cars and cutting the telephone lines, for reasons we aren’t told but which appear to involve elopement – although they are able to call the police about the murder from a neighbor’s house. The fleeing couple are soon apprehended by the police. The dead man was stabbed to death but the murder weapon is missing.  One of the house guests is a detective novelist who offers to help. The dead man was trying to control his granddaughter’s life and she resented it.  Two men who wanted to marry her, including the author, were warned off.  A businessman from his past had appeared without warning. The suspects who aren’t lying aren’t talking either.  My suspicions turned to the secretary and business manager, neither of whom appears to have a motive and both of whom seemed to be truthful. There’s an apparent suicide, multiple revelations, and a trap set to catch the real killer.  The solution involves duplicate costumes, much as I suspected – there was no other reason for the costume party. Not bad, but slow moving. 9/21/09

The Bob Newhart Show Season 3 (1974) 

The season opener this time is more serious than comic as Bob has to deal with his sister’s intention to move in with neighbor Howard.  Bob and Emily have a brief separation to get their priorities organized in one of the better episodes.  Other high points include their flight to Hawaii – Emily is terrified of flying, Bob’s decision to be honest with obnoxious guests, Emily’s redecorating, and the appearance of sister Ellen’s ex-fiance and Howard’s over-reaction to it. Thanksgiving with Bob’s parents is also fun. Both Bob and Jerry give up their practices briefly. Marcia Wallace continues to impress me with her comic talent although the rest of the supporting cast fails to shine for much of this year.  On the whole, the season is very consistent and amusing, but most of the episodes aren’t notably funny and there are comparatively few isolated good lines.  The writers may have run out of good ideas given the basic set up. The low point is the revelation of Bob’s last girlfriend before he married Emily, a decidedly dull episode in which no one acts normally. 9/20/09

The Next Doctor (2009)  

In lieu of an actual season this past year, the BBC did a couple of Doctor Who specials. In this one, David Tennant as the Doctor visits 1851 England to oppose yet another plot by the Cybermen. He arrives to meet an apparent future version of himself, much to the consternation of both of them. Future Doctor has partial amnesia and doesn’t remember his former selves. Meanwhile, the Cybermen are conspiring with an ambitious woman to seize the throne.  A little logical goof or two.  The Doctor mentions someone died a horrible death, but he in fact disappeared and the body was never found, so how could he know?  Later, the mind controlled humans are told to turn left, but they actually do an about face. It turns out this is not in fact the new Doctor but an ordinary human with elements of the Doctor’s personality imprinted in his mind.  The actors bring a lot of enthusiasm to this one, but it seems a bit rushed at times.  Average quality for the current revival of this long running series. 9/19/09

The House of Mystery (1934)  

This classic murder in a house mystery has some familiar elements.  A man steals an ancient treasure in India and he and his family are cursed for multiple generations. Decades later, his creditors gather at his house to spend one week there, a requirement he insists upon to break the curse, before they can receive their inheritance. He is himself an invalid, which made him suspect number one even before the first murder, and his self serving speech about his good intentions is transparently nonsense.  Anyway, the various hopeful creditors take up residence in his large house, ignoring his stories of ghostly apes and ancient curses.  There’s a good deal of light humor – the creditors are a bizarre lot.  There’s also a mysterious plumber hanging around the house. “What is that that inflicts our nostrils?”  A séance raises the spirit of Pocahontas who predicts the first murder, and one of the people at the table falls with a broken neck after the shadow of an ape appears on the wall. The police detective arrives, glances at the body, and announces the woman is “dead as prohibition.” The plumber, who is apparently trying to imitate Groucho Marx, does a passable Abbott & Costello routine at one point.  Meanwhile, we hear tomtoms again and see the ape moving through the house, although it turns out to be one of the creditors in a suit.  He turns up dead, suggesting that he was the killer, but of course he couldn’t be. The adventurer’s Indian mistress overhears him proposing to his nurse and that sets the stage for the climax. The visiting Scotland Yard inspector, incidentally, does not have an English accent.  The general nature of what’s really going on is fairly obvious, but the ending still has a surprise or two.  Not really a good mystery but an interesting one. 9/18/09

The Dark Hour (1936) 

An old style detective story with an irascible man murdered after demonstrating that virtually everyone who knows him would be happy to see him dead.  Two private detectives decide to team up to solve the case, the clues of which include a partially written letter and a dead mouse.  The story, based on a novel by Sinclair Gluck (No, I’ve never heard of him), consists primarily of interviews and conversations, and is presumably a fairly loyal adaptation of a formula detective novel.  One of the women in the case appears to be lying about who was present on the night in question.  The butler is also being less than forthcoming and may have been blackmailing his employer. One of the suspects is a scientist experimenting with gas and the detectives suspect was involved in the first murder, although the victim was stabbed.  Some of the suspects change their stories as soon as they’re challenged, which was less than convincing. There’s also a subplot about arson. Then the butler turns up dead and the semi-invalid brother of the first victim moved to the top of my suspect list. There are multiple reversals at the end, no less than four explanations of who the murderer really was.  Quite good for its time. 9/17/09

Watchmen (2009) 

I confess that I have never read the famous graphic adventure series upon which this is based, so I came to it with no preconceptions or expectations.  The setting is a kind of alternate 1985 in which superheroes exist. When an aging superhero is murdered, another of his kind – Rorschach – decides to investigate.  Rorschach is no prize himself, an intolerant, self absorbed egotist. A younger generation has been filling in for the retired heroes, but Richard Nixon – in his third term as President – has forced them to the sidelines. Many of the others have become dissolute, died, or gone insane but Rorschach thinks someone is eliminating the survivors as part of a plan, possibly related to a nuclear holocaust.  Flashbacks show us that the dead superhero deserved to die and the others have a variety of flaws. In fact, almost no one in the movie is particularly admirable or likeable. The political and business leaders, even the common citizens, are portrayed as venial, self destructive, and not particularly bright. The story is a little difficult to follow at times, though not outrageously so, but it definitely goes on rather too long, well over two hours.  Enjoyable on the whole, but it could have used some editing. 9/16/09

Attack of the Cybermen (1985) 

Colin Baker is Doctor Who in this encounter with one of the best of his recurring villains, although not their best outing.  He and Peri arrive on Earth just as something attacks a pair of sewer workers.  We don’t see who’s responsible, but the title gives it away – it’s the robotic cybermen.  A gang of apparent jewel thieves is also planning to use the sewers to gain access during their next heist.  The Doctor is having trouble with his memory – he just regenerated – and the chameleon circuit of the TARDIS is acting up with amusing results.  Meanwhile, on the planet Telos, two human prisoners are attempting to escape from the cybermen.  They themselves seem peculiarly incompetent and some are killed by the crooks – whose leader turns out to be an alien himself – some by the escaping prisoners, and some by the Doctor. On the other hand, they do manage to get into the TARDIS, although we never get told how they bypass the security.  Then the Cryons show up, a particularly silly alien species opposed to the cybermen and everything gets sorted out at the end.  An unusually weak episode. 9/15/09

The Four Feathers (2002) 

Having read the book recently, I decided to watch this, the fourth film version I believe.  I saw an earlier one many years back and remember not a thing about it.  There are some minor variations – Ethne’s father is already dead when this one starts – and the extra scenes which emphasize the code of honor in the British colonial forces actually help establish the premise. Harry Feversham’s motive for resigning his commission rather than fight in the Sudan is changed from his love for Ethne and fears about his own courage to doubt about the morality of British colonialism and dislike of the army, a politically correct but unconvincing motive given the situation.  Three of his former friends send white feathers as a sign of their contempt and Ethne adds her own. This being Hollywood, we get a lot more action in the Sudan than there was in the book, most of it invented, some of it murky, some of it boring. Harry’s motives are no less unclear in the movie than they were in the book.  Durrance comes back on a speaking tour and Ethne immediately admits she acted shamefully and still loves Harry, which directly contradicts the book, as does the method through which he loses his vision.  Harry, disguised as an Arab, accompanies his old unit, which is sort of kind of almost like what happens in the book.  Sometimes it’s not really clear what’s going on.  The movie is also far too long at well over two hours, and there are numerous scenes that run too long, repeat things we already now, or add nothing to our understanding of the characters or the situation.  The stupidity and cruelty of the British officers is a case in point. Having Castleton killed by friendly fire is a typical distraction and Harry proves his courage in not always the same fashion.  Not dreadful but largely a waste of good material. 9/13/09

Victory at Sea (1952-1953)

I originally watched this series way back when it first appeared in the early 1950s, a 26 part documentary about the role of navies during World War II.  I sometimes wonder if this was why I have had a lifelong interest in naval warfare.  I even own a vinyl copy of the Richard Rodgers soundtrack. Much of it consists of original footage – in black and white, of course, and some of it must have been shot under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. The entire series runs well over eleven hours and is narrated by a single voice.  There are a few times when the patriotism runs a bit over the top, but for the most part it’s a well balanced narrative and the film is often spectacular.  9/12/09

Delta and the Bannermen (1987)

The Bannermen are militants who have wiped out all members of an alien race excess Delta, who has in her possession an egg sac which could be used to restore her species.  She is hiding on a spaceship visiting earth in the guise of a tour bus, upon which the Doctor and Mel have won free tickets.  Predictably, the Bannermen want to finish the job and are off in pursuit.  The tour also includes a bunch of shapechanging aliens, and they arrive on Earth just as the CIA is trying to figure out what happened to a highly classified missile that disappeared.  It looks very much like the show was cutting corners at this point, very close to its cancellation.  Some of the photography is very amateurish, the special effects are minimal and crude, and a lot of the acting is even worse than the corny dialogue.  I kind of liked Bonnie Langford as the companion, although she doesn’t get much latitude to act here, and McCoy was not well settled into the role either.  This comes across as more silly than exciting, barely above the level of amateur productions.  9/11/09

Dying Breed (2008) 

A team attempting to capture a rare tiger in Tasmania runs into trouble when they encounter a village once the hideout of a famous criminal and cannibal.  There’s some gorgeous scenery, but the photography is so dark that it isn’t as impressive as it should have been. One of the two women is trying to finish a mission her sister embarked on years before, only to drown in the process. The foursome are not particularly congenial and the supposed expedition has little in the way of equipment or, as far as I could see, expertise. After some low key stuff reminiscent of Deliverance and some flashbacks to earlier events, the foursome become the prey for an entire town full of cannibals.  The acting isn’t bad but I had a pervasive feeling of déjà vu. The first half could have been a bit more lively as well. Very much in the tradition of The Hills Have Eyes and similar films. 9/10/09

Image of the Fendahl (1977)  

On Earth, scientists have found a human skull dating from millions of years before the advent of humankind.  The Tardis is dragged away from its normal course, precipitating the Doctor – Tom Baker – and Leela into the midst of a crisis when the skull begins to exhibit unusual properties. The discovery of a dead body bothers some of the scientists but the project head insists that the police not be called in – a rather unlikely scenario, frankly.  Anyway, the scientists begin to fall prey to a creature called a fendahl, a mythological beast on Gallifrey but all too real now.  There’s also a local coven of witches and warlocks, which is somehow connected to the creature.  This was one of Baker’s less scintillating outings, with lengthy conversations, repetitive situations, dismal special effects, and only occasional clever lines.  The fendahl is pretty silly looking even for Doctor Who. I was never a big fan of Leela, his companion either. 9/9/09

Odyssey 5 (2002)   

I completely missed this series when it appeared on television, and I’ve always liked Peter Weller, so I picked up a copy of what is quite possibly the worst written, most scientifically illiterate, and insultingly contrived television series of all time. There’s a rather silly premise.  Earth turns into an orange hole and the only survivors are five people in a shuttle, who are contacted by an alien robot who tells them something is killing worlds but that it always arrives too late to help.  This time he offers to send them back five years in time to defeat the enemy, known only as Leviathan.  How the robot would know even limited information is never really explained, although since they are sent back to their own younger bodies, which explains why it can’t go back itself. Leviathan is apparently a race of artificial intelligences developed on Earth – which doesn’t explain how the other planets perished – who somehow acquired the ability to destroy worlds. Except that some of them are from Mars.  The series was cancelled without any of this being resolved so maybe it would have been in the fullness of time. Decent special effects and a good cast can’t help the bad writing. There’s also a basic contradiction in the background philosophy.  History proves difficult to change in even small ways, and now they have to make a spectacularly big change, except that in later episodes we find that history is changing from the original timeline all the time, even events unrelated to their activities. 

The first half of the pilot is okay, but it goes downhill after that.  They find clues too easily, the bad AIs can take over human bodies, and Weller tries to get information with the corniest and most implausible story I’ve heard in a long time. Things can change when the writer wants them to but not when he doesn’t want them to, with neither rhyme nor reason. By the end of the two episode pilot, the five know pretty much what’s going on, though not the details.  It’s basically a variation of the Terminator movies.  Each of the characters has to deal with upsets to his or her personal life as well, a suspicious wife, a husband who suspects one team member of being mentally ill. 

There are occasional jumps of logic.  The team seems to gather information by osmosis for each episode and by episodes 4&5 they know that the sentients are artificial intelligences and synthetics are their physical manifestations or remotes and have definite leads to investigate that they seem to intuit magically.  They also get access to murder scenes with astonishing regularity and mysterious, informative phone messages from an unknown. There are also startling jumps from one episode to the next.  One of them shows up married at the beginning of “Time Out of Mind”, for example.  Their consultation with a SF writer when three of the crew loses their memory is absurd, as is the idea that a string of symbols on a computer screen could erase memories.   I lost interest about a third of the way into the series for these and other reasons and only picked it up again a couple of months later, hoping for some improvement since I did like the cast. 

“The Choices We Make” did not win me back.  Another mysterious alien being gives each of the cast a chance to change choices they made in the past in a pointless, meandering episode. It also lost all trace of similitude when we discover that the youngest member of the team was partially responsible for the death of another boy and the authorities never bothered to notify his parents. There is one nice touch – the eye chart on the wall repeats the catchphrase used by the alien, but no attention is ever drawn to it. In the words of one of the characters, “it doesn’t make sense.”   

The next episode is even worse.  “Rapture” opens with a tired series of arguments about the value of manned vs unmanned space flight.  The girlfriend – a high school student played by a 23 year old who looks her age – acts inconsistently with what we’ve seen of her in the past.  It’s also inconsistent because the school where the boy is enrolled is filled with people taking a drug that gives them extraordinary mental powers, which did not happen in the past they returned to.  Crappy writing.  The background details are also repeating themselves ad nauseam by now, the byplay about the laptop betrays ignorance of how computers work, and the astronaut faking her meeting with a psychologist seems to have shed about half her IQ. We also discover that the astronauts caught some kind of disease on the moon (!) which apparently is only contagious while you’re on the moon (!) so they don’t have to be quarantined.  We also learn that one medical group has discovered a cure for cancer but doesn’t think it’s important enough to publicize!  It’s available by prescription!  And young Neil takes a psycho-active drug even though he knows it’s dangerous and changes the personality. But the science is so consistently wrong this episode that seems almost minor. 

Having established a plethora of sometimes contradictory subplots and proven to us that the writers know little about science or human interactions, the writers then present us with “L.D.U. 7.”  Once again, they’re sent a clue anonymously, a man who killed his parents because he thought they weren’t real.  The bodies were never found and the man is in an asylum. Continuity stinks.  The romantic attachment between two of the characters last time has been forgotten, and once again they get admitted to a high security facility with minimal difficulty.  I also wondered why they bothered.  There was nothing in the tape they were sent, or in the fact that it was sent anonymously, to suggest it has anything to do with their mission.  The ward also requires a subcutaneous chip injection to get past the electronics, which makes no apparent sense. Surprise! The asylum is run by the artificial beings.  Surprise! The asylum could not possibly function as it is shown without leading to massive legal action, particularly since they acknowledge two inmates died only unusual circumstances only a short time before.  I confess I continued watching now only to see how badly they could get things wrong.  This episode made the earlier ones look good, quite an achievement.  It’s even worse than this summary suggests. Did I mention that the computer illiterate guy manages to find a way to shutdown their entire system by studying the computer displays for ten minutes? 

“Flux” is a little better, but doesn’t do much to advance the story.  On an unexplained mission, one member of the team is bitten by a minion of the synthetics and begins to change into one.  I did balk when the judge admitted expert testimony on a woman’s mental state from a pediatrician, and the dialogue gets pretty bad toward the end.  By the time I watched “Kitten” I was wondering why the evil sentients didn’t just kill our heroes.  They know who they are, where they live, and what they’re doing, and they have an army of controlled humans, synthetic humans, and influence everything electronic, even making things fall off shelves into water, and they wouldn’t have any problems covering their tracks.  So why do they piddle around with a series of ineffectual feints and jabs?   And why are our heroes so clueless about what’s happening to them whenever some stranger tries to influence their actions?  The brilliant young computer expert, for example, doesn’t blink when his mysterious online friend can find him whenever he sits down at a computer.  And even hear what he says!!!!  The side story about one of the crew caught up in a custody battle – which is not nearly as awful though it gets repetitive quickly - feels like an entirely separate program. Oh, and the writer apparently thinks that orbiting space stations are continually firing their engines to stay in orbit. They also think that if a computer program sends a message to a particular computer, it is physically inside that computer and can be trapped there, and that security cameras can be made to mimic human speech. Insultingly ignorant. 

“Dark at the End of the Tunnel” goes off on yet another tangent, with another member of the team having visions that lead him to a cult expecting the end of the world. More dumb science.  A suction device built by the cult has changed the climate across all of Texas. Which didn’t happen in the original past, which they even allude to, but there’s no explanation of how the timeline changed.   And it doesn’t take 48 hours for doctors to determine that a supposed heart attack is just acid reflux.  And there’s no breeze near the suction device!  And droughts don’t have “epicenters” which meteorologists can pinpoint within a few miles as the “origin” of the drought.  Even in science fiction and fantasy, you don’t get to make up “facts” just to keep an improbable story moving. No explanation of how the timeline changed, no explanation how the team member was converted instantly so that he watched pacifically as a man is stoned to death.  And then he is argued out of his belief in time to change sides.  Not to mention that two different drivers cannot drive the exact same route through rural roads in a rain storm and reach the exact same spot at the exact same instant. 

“The Trouble with Harry” plays the story for laughs, and as a result it’s one of the few watchable episodes.  A rogue sentient – yes, they have separate personalities as well as seven sexes – helps the good guys thwart a jilted female sentient who is so depressed she wants to destroy the world.  There’s an artificial skin that eats its human hosts in “Skin” and moves from one host to the next. This appears to be a sentient from an entirely different source, the gaming world.  It also kills all of its hosts when it leaves and Weller’s wife is infected, eliminating the character from the series. Weller becomes discouraged and vows to leave the group and the scientific team member is working on a secret project to create his own synthetic. We also learn that one team member’s father, a senator, is in charge of the secretive Brighteye project that may be responsible for the disaster.  Except that senators don’t run government research projects.  Science guy on the team has been secretly breeding his own sentient, which escapes in “Begotten.” It’s a mushy faced killer.  Somehow, never explained, they discover its first murder and interview a witness.  Not an awful episode, but the creature has human DNA, so I can buy that it could duplicate its original – but how did he create identical clothing?

The team looks into a series of unexplained murders in “Vanishing Point,” even though there’s no reason to believe that there’s a connection.  One would think they’d be looking for higher priority projects, given their looming deadline to save the world. The senior member returns from his leave of absence and is subjected to a series of efforts by the sentients to provide altered memories in which his wife didn’t die after all. He and some of the other characters have begun to act contrary to the personality established in the earlier episodes.  Really sloppy.  The conversation about downloading human consciousness onto a hard drive so that others can see jpegs of his memories verges on the ridiculous.  You also can’t file a missing persons report because someone is not at his house for a few hours.

I think I've belabored this enough.  The last four episodes are about the same, with the same leaps of logic, about one break-in to a restricted area per hour, and so forth.  In one the sentients use a group of school kids to construct a doomsday machine - which makes no sense since they have a virtual army of adults to do the same with far fewer restrictions. A test pilot sent into another dimension by a human experiment returns as a more than human killer.  A town succumbs to altered water and becomes a den of murderers.  And finally, a moon rock holds the key to a secret organization with NASA known as the Cadre.  Thankfully, it was finally cancelled.  9/8/09

The Deadly Assassin (1976)  

Generally speaking, I didn’t care for the various Doctor Who adventures that were set on the world of the Timelords.  They were generally less plausible, more static, and often written badly.  This Tom Baker outing is no exception. The Doctor is drawn to Gallifrey by a mysterious force just in time to get involved in a complicated game of political assassination and power plays. The Doctor has also had a vision of the new president’s assassination, but since he is technically a criminal, he will be arrested if he leaves the Tardis. He gets out using a pretty obvious subterfuge, with a little help from a cloaked figure who promptly disappears. The cloaked figure is the horribly disfigured Master, back to cause trouble once again.  The Timelords don’t come across as very admirable; they use torture on their prisoners and managing the truth to preserve the authority of the status quo.  But then so do we, so I suppose I shouldn’t be censorious. The Doctor is framed for the outgoing president’s murder but declares himself a candidate for the job, which makes him temporarily immune from prosecution.  There follows a projected sequence in which the Doctor and the Master battle in a mutable virtual reality that is reminiscent of “The Most Dangerous Game.”  We also learn that the Time Lords are limited to 12 regenerations.  Since we’re working on the tenth, we may see this revised in the near future. This one went on too long. 9/7/09

Red Sands (2009)

A group of American soldiers in Afghanistan use an ancient artifact for target practice, as a consequence of which they release a malevolent djinn. Although the acting was not inspired, it was competent, which is more than I expect from most direct to video horror films nowadays, a hopeful sign in the early going. One nice touch is that even though the soldiers are crude and rude, there are brief moments suggesting they feel at least a degree of compassion for the local people caught in the crossfire - with one exception, which gives the viewer some reason to regret what is about to happen to them - we know from a prologue that only one will survive. On the other hand, they're pretty casual about guard duty in hostile territory, and I also wondered why they were sent by jeep to their assigned observation post rather than flown in by helicopter, which would have avoided their wandering around looking for it for several days.  And why does no one come looking for them when they drop out of radio contact? Other than dream sequences, nothing much happens for the first 45 minutes. Then we learn that the Afghan woman who is sheltering with them from a sand storm is actually the vengeful djinn. Some interesting visual effects in what is mostly a psychological study interspersed with anti-war elements until very late.  The individual members have visions of people they have killed and their vehicle is mysteriously disabled. The djinn impersonates members of the company and begins killing them systematically. Competent and understated, this one is quite atmospheric but would have benefited from a little more physical action.  9/6/09

Monster X Strikes Back (2008)

Although this is technically a sequel to an old giant rubber suited monster movie, it's actually a spoof of the form.  The monster lands in Japan just as the G8 is having a summit, and their reaction is a series of sometimes amusing posturings, stereotypes, and bad jokes.  There's some scenes of destruction early on, but they become brief snapshots very quickly.  The monster himself, as you can see from the cover picture, is pretty silly looking.  There are also some feisty kids, an ambitious female reporter, villagers worshipping an ancient god, and other standard devices of the Japanese monster flick, mostly introduced for laughs. The film pokes fun at the media, government, man on the street interviews, talking heads, opportunistic businessmen, communists, and the military in rapid succession. Each country has a plan and each plan fails. At times the humor is pretty vague though, particularly in the second half, and takes too long to reach its punch lines. Eventually the local god defeats the critter in hand to hand combat.  Funny in spots but it goes on too long. 9/4/09

The Unborn (2009)

I didn't know a thing about this horror movie except that it looked to have an interesting cast.  It opens with some peculiar imagery, a woman having visions of a malformed child and a dog wearing a human mask.  It felt like a dream sequence to me and sure enough, that's what it was.  I generally hate dream sequences. Anyway, the youngster she's babysitting for appears to be briefly possessed and a very large bug shows up in her scrambled eggs and elsewhere, suggesting that something is very wrong. Or are they hallucinations?  The mystery slowly unravels, a bit too slowly for my taste, and the understated soundtrack and softspoken actors don't help much.  I never had any particularly strong feeling about the personalities of any of the characters and Gary Oldman's performance was uncharacteristically flat.  Strong on atmosphere and with some nice images but really not successful overall.  9/2/09

Planet of the Dead (2009)

I thought I'd watched all the Doctor Who series that I was going to for a while, but I saw this new episode with David Tennant on sale and couldn't resist.  Particularly since this is one I've never seen before.  It opens with a Topkapi style museum theft by Michelle Ryan. She escapes on a London bus aboard which just happens to be the Doctor, among others.  The bus is suddenly transported to a desert planet, much to even the Doctor's surprise, and apparently at the direction of an alien power.  An insectlike alien captures them and takes them to its crashed spaceship where they learn that some mysterious force reduced a thriving planet to a desert practically overnight.  Then they catch sight of an enormous horde of creatures - presumably the mysterious force - moving toward them and the hole in space that brought them there.  The creatures hope to use it to reach the Earth. The Doctor eventually adapts some equipment from the ship to move the bus back through the hole and save the day.  Good episode.  8/31/09

The Curse of Fenric (1989)

This was the next to the last Sylvester McCoy adventure as Doctor Who for the BBC, and it's the last in my stack of unwatched episodes, at least until I buy some more of them.  The DVD version has some improved special effects and extra footage, but still can't save what I thought was very close to the worst in the series.  It's set in World War II England and involves the arrival of two Soviet castaways at a British installation just as the Doctor and Ace arrive. It turns out the building was built on a Viking grave site - never a good sign. There's some nonsense about an ancient curse and evidence that something deadly lurks in the water.  The waters turn out to be infested by vampires from the distant future who act more like zombies most of the time. There's also the entity known as Fenric who has been trapped in a kind of alternate dimension for countless ages.  The various story lines never really congeal and the story is alternately suspenseful and silly.  8/26/09

Ghost Light (1989)

This was one of the stranger Doctor Who episodes, taking place primarily in a sprawling house in Victorian England.  The Doctor arrives to discover that the residents are all under some form of mental control, that the butler is a Neanderthal man, and that the basement is actually a kind of space capsule in which an alien intelligence is forming.  It turns out that one of the two crew members on an alien survey ship mutinied, put his partner in suspended animation, and has now managed to evolve into the form of a human being as part of his plot to assassinate the Queen and seize control of England. Then the imprisoned alien returns to consciousness and tries to reverse the flow of evolution, sort of, until the Doctor convinces it to cease.  The Doctor gets everything resolved at last, including a mild time travel paradox.  This was a very short adventure, the last to be filmed with McCoy until the American tv movie , although it was not the last one televised. 8/25/09

Remembrance of the Daleks (1988)

The Seventh Doctor Who and his companion Ace, not one of my favorite characters in the series, travel back to 1960s London in a visit to the setting of the very first adventure, An Unearthly Child. Sylvester McCoy hardly had a chance to settle into the role before the series was cancelled, so I've never really had an opinion of whether or not I liked him in the part. The Daleks are there as well, secretly in league with a group of fascists, and intent upon using the Doctor to secure the Hand of Omega, which is very powerful. I believe this was the first adventure to seriously suggest that there were divisions among the Daleks, who are color coded and not happy with one another.  There are some unusually extensive battle sequences among Daleks, between Daleks and humans, and among the humans.  The supreme Dalek manages to suppress the dissidents but is ultimately trapped and commits suicide.  It was nice to see some diversity in the Daleks and there were even hints of a decent budget, but it came too late to prevent the series from going into a lengthy hiatus after only a few more episodes.  8/23/09

Revelation of the Daleks (1985)

Davros and the Daleks return in this late adventure in the career of the sixth Doctor Who.  He lands on the planet Necros at the site of a mortuary and is promptly attacked by a mutant.  The Doctor and Peri consist of one of two parties trying to visit a scientist supposedly in suspended animation, but who is actually being transformed into a Dalek.  This contradicts previous histories of the Daleks.  Davros is alive again and is running a not particularly believable organization involving a sort of cannibalism. The usual captures and escapes follow as the Doctor discovers who is really manipulating things behind the scenes.  The Daleks are shown for the first time capable of climbing steps - they can levitate in some fashion like ground effects machines.  Not a bad episode, but confusing at times, and not entirely consistent with previous scripts involving the Daleks. 8/18/09

Marley & Me (2008)

It was time for a change of pace so I decided on a comedy.  Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson are among my favorites, which made the final choice easy.  They're married, both journalists, and they're thinking about having a baby, although Wilson is having second thoughts so he buys a dog to distract her. Marley, the dog, turns out to be the worst dog ever.  He howls at night, refuses to sleep in his box, eats for three dogs, and chews up pillows and everything else in sight. Even after he's fixed he manages to get into trouble at every possible opportunity.  Eventually Wilson decides it's time to have the baby, but when he has second - or I guess they're third thoughts - Aniston announces she is pregnant. The story then follows them through several years, three children, changes of careers, and a host of comedies, culminating as you might expect with Marley's eventual death.  A bit of a tear jerked but not offensively so and a good blend of drama and comedy.  8/16/09

Timelash (1985)

Once again the sixth Doctor Who finds himself on a planet ruled by a despotic ruler, in this case the Borad who never shows himself publicly and who enforces his dictates by means of an army of androids. There's a plot to revolt and one of the rebels is sentenced to the not entirely explained Timelash of the title. The Doctor takes the Tardis into the Timelash to rescue his companion and ends up in 19th Century Scotland for some reason. Then he's back, facing the prospect of interplanetary war and racial annihilation, prevents the attack from succeeding, unmasks the villain, establishes a democratic government, and departs to live happily ever after - until the next episode.  This one's not awful but it regurgitates a bunch of situations that the series has used several times before and there's nothing really to recommend it. 8/14/09

100 Feet (2008)

There's a fairly interesting premise to this horror movie.  Famke Janssen has just been released from prison where she served three years for killing her abusive husband.  Now she's under house arrest, wearing a bracelet that summons the police if she goes more than 100 feet away from the house.  The problem is that the ghost of her husband is haunting the house and he's pissed off.  Complicating matters is the involvement of the dead man's partner - they were both cops - who thinks the murder was unjustified.  His assignment to the case struck my implausibility nerve because I doubt that someone personally involved would be chosen, but it's a minor point. Nor do I believe they would leave her alone in a house with a phone connected, but no electricity.  How could she cook or keep fresh food?  The special effects are mediocre at best and there's not many surprises.  Blood stains reappear, ghosts stalk down the staircase, flying plates, the usual. Then we learn that she killed her husband during a fight when he came after her with a knife, after she had filed 6 police reports for abuse and had filed for a divorce.  There is no way a jury would have convicted her for murder under these circumstances.  At one point our protagonist sticks her hand into a garbage disposal to recover a ring even though the angry ghost has already proven he can activate or deactivate material objects.  That pushed it beyond my ability to forget plot problems and I watched the rest out of a sense of duty rather than because I enjoyed it.  Aren't there any intelligent screenwriters still working?  8/13/09

A Stir of Echoes 2 (2007)

I didn't expect this to bear any relationship to the original novel by Richard Matheson, which was one of the first supernatural novels I ever read, and I was right.  Rob Lowe has returned from a tour in Iraq and is trying to take up his old life after a traumatic experience involving a young girl and her family, accidentally killed by US troops.  Wounded himself, his return is marred by visions of the dead family whom only he can see.  Some of the tension within his family is forced, some is hard to fathom, and some is just silly. Nor does it make sense why he would be haunted because he was the one who tried to prevent the incident that resulted in the family's death. Not that there's much plot anyway and some of the visions have no relevance to the original event.  Rather than develop suspenseful situations, the movie relies on things jumping out at you. The surprise is that the ghosts are motivated by the death of a teenager in the US, and Lowe's son is one of the ones responsible.  Lowe gets possessed, accidentally kills his wife, son is exposed, and Lowe is committed.  That gets pretty boring after a while.  Even Rob Lowe's excellent acting can't make this turkey fly.  8/12/09 

The Two Doctors (1985)

This is another of the reunion episodes of Doctor Who, with Patrick Troughton reprising his role as the second Doctor teaming up with Colin Baker, the sixth.  Troughton and Jamie are sent by the Time Lords to a space station manned by humans and a brutal alien work force.  His mission is to discourage research into the nature of time which is destabilizing the universe, but things get disrupted when a Sontaran force attacks. When the Sontarans seem to kill the second Doctor, the sixth Doctor becomes queasy and realizes he might be an artifact of time change and might cease to exist at any moment. The story turns into a complex rescue mission as new Doctor has to figure out where old Doctor is being held prisoner and save him before he is put to death.  Despite the not entirely convincing time paradox elements, this was one of Colin Baker's better outings and one of the few with a reasonably well written story.  8/11/09

Sweeney Todd (1987)

I'm a Johnny Depp fan and I've been saving this for a while.  Today seemed to be the right day.  One of the best opening credit sequences I've seen in a long time set the mood right away. This was a Broadway musical first, and Depp is not the most skilled singer, but his performance is otherwise superb and the sets are as bizarre and impressive as one would expect from a Tim Burton production. On the other hand, I didn't much care for the music either, which struck me as pedestrian and uninteresting. Depp is Todd, a barber unjustly expelled from England by a corrupt judge who lusts after his wife, returned after several years searching for revenge. He also learns that his wife committed suicide after being raped by the judge.  He sets out to murder his enemies by slashing their throats in his barber shop.  The bodies are disposed of by baking them in pies as Mrs. Lovett's Pie Shop, because she is in love with him.  It has a rather Shakespearean ending.  Sweeney kills the judge, among others, and a madwoman who turns out to be his wife, alive after all.  He then kills Lovett for lying to him and in turn is killed by a young man who loved Lovett.  His daughter, the judge's ward, and her boyfriend, a sailor, call the police to a scene littered with bodies.  A bit slow at times but visually impressive throughout and with top notch performances from all concerned.  8/10/09

The Mark of the Rani (1985)

Doctor Who has to deal with two enemy time lords in this one, his old nemesis the Master and the Rani, a woman, and not one of my favorite villains.  The twosome have an uneasy alliance as they attempt to foil the Doctor and steal brain fluids from 19th Century humans. The Master is trying to stimulate scientific advancement so that he can use the technology for his own ends but the Rani just wants a source of the fluids. The Doctor discovers the nature of the plot fairly early this time, but his early attempts to foil her fail.   Ultimately he manages to sneak aboard the Rani's TARDIS and steal some of the fluid with which to restore the affected victims to their normal mental state.  Both rogue time lords are foiled, although both are clearly are going to return at some future date.  One of the better Colin Baker adventures in this series.

The Music of Star Trek performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, Silva Screen Records, 2009

Battlestar Galactica Season 4 soundtrack composed by Bear McCreary, La-La Land records, 2009

Torchwood: Children of Earth soundtrack composed by Ben Foster, Silva Screen Records, 2009

The first of these three features lush performances of the music from the first 10 Star Trek movies and the various television manifestations.  Much of it is, of course, very familiar, and some of it is better than I recalled, although the orchestration is probably a contributing factor there.  The band from In Search of Spock was the first real high point for me.  The cut from Final Frontier is probably my favorite on the album. On the other hand, I never cared for the music in The Undiscovered Country and this reminded me of that fact.  For the most part, these are quite faithful to the original sound and in some cases I was unable to distinguish them from the versions I remembered.  Pleasant listening.

The Torchwood soundtrack covers season 3, which had a different format than its predecessors.  The show, if you've missed it, involves a team of people who secretly combat alien threats in England. Much of this suffers from the inherent problem of some soundtracks - the music matches the action and cannot stand on its own - but there's also quite a few cuts that I thought stood well on their own like "What's Occurring?", "Tractor Attack," "The World Looks to the Skies," and "Double Crossed."   Overall this is worth listening to but there is necessarily a certain degree of repetition and specificity that might make you skip some tracks.  The last few suggest an exciting ending - will be looking forward to seeing the show when its available on DVD.

Finally we have the fourth season soundtrack of Battlestar Galactica, written as before by Bear McCreary.  I've been very impressed by all of his work that I've heard to date. This is a two disc set, the second from Daybreak, which I gather is a subset or tie-in to the show.  I confess that the opening piece, a vocal, did nothing for me, but the pace picks up quickly thereafter with a variety of impressive tracks.  One of the things I've liked about McCreary's previous soundtracks is the mix of types of music, instrumentation, ethnic overtones, and so forth that result in a very diverse and unpredictable listening experience.  Sometimes that means that I don't like every cut, and there are certainly a few on this that I consider minor, but there are also many that I liked a great deal and a few that are extraordinarily good.  This also seemed more restrained than some of the earlier seasons, possibly because the season itself was more restrained - haven't seen it. I think my favorite track on the first disc was "Kara Remembers."  Good stuff.  8/6/09

Vengeance on Varos (1985)

The sixth Doctor Who finds himself on a planet with a repressive government, public executions, and other corruptions.  The planet is also negotiating with an equally villainous mining company executive and the alien Sil, who move behind the scenes making things difficult for everyone except themselves. This also leads to more chases and escapes, a few monsters, cannibals, and other dangers, before all the running around ends up with a reasonably benevolent solution to all the problems.  I was not fond of Colin Baker in the role of the Doctor in the first place, but he was also hampered by some of the worst scripts in the show's history, of which this is a good (or bad) example.  8/5/09

Fear of the Dark (2002) 

The young protagonist of this film is, as you might guess from the title, mortally afraid of the dark, after an encounter of which we see only a glimpse.  The establishing sequences are actually surprisingly good, nice dialogue and convincing acting.  The boy’s older brother thinks he’s just looking for attention but his parents cater to the younger boy’s fears.  Things start to get weird and the brother slowly begins to realize that there really is something going on in the house. The creepy creatures are a bit corny and they would have been better served if they’d stayed as shadows, but it’s a quibble.  Lots of suspense in this one, without blood or gore or sex, although I did wonder why they didn’t just leave the house. Likeable cast and a story that doesn’t go through the usual jumps and hoops. Not great but pretty good and a lot better than most recent horror films I’ve seen. 7/26/09

The Caves of Androzani (1984)

Another Peter Davison Doctor Who story, another one set in caves, and also one with androids.  The human population of Androzani is at war with the androids for reasons not quite clear.  He and his companion Peri are captured, or perhaps rescued, by the leader of the rebels, but for some reason they are both feeling sick.  Obviously there are secrets within secrets in this relatively non-violent adventure, although wide scale violence lies luring beneath the surface throughout the story.  Eventually the Doctor discovers the truth, cures the disease, mediates a lasting peace between the two sides, and eventually leaves in the Tardis for further adventures.  But you already knew all that, didn't you?  One of the best of the Davison stories despite the subpar special effects and a tendency toward talkiness.  7/25/09

Harvest of Fear (2004) 

Did you ever notice that in slasher films, no matter how fast you run from the masked killer, he can walk normally and get ahead of you?  This one is set in the small town of Devil’s Lake, which – we are told by the narrator – conceals deadly secrets. An old pattern of murders is being repeated and the new sheriff doesn’t want to hear about it, even from his predecessor. There’s some decent acting, interspersed with bad acting, and none of it is helped by the less than scintillating dialogue and trite situations. The dumb police procedure is ridiculously badly done – you don’t remove bodies from a crime scene before you’ve even photographed them, among other things.  Nor do you operate things as normal after at least four brutal murders in a very small community.  The message in this one is clear – try to have sex and you die. Many of the victims wander off alone in the dark even after hearing about the string of murders to investigate mysterious noises and the girls don’t run even when their boyfriends have pitchforks in their chests. Some wasted potential, but not much.  The second half really gets bad though and not even the competent actors can save it.  The big town meeting has less than a dozen people even though there have now been nine murders. There’s also one of the stupidest dream sequences I’ve ever seen. Nor do you arrest a person simply because he was seen in the vicinity of one of the crimes, with no evidence, and despite the fact that he wasn’t even in town when the first murders took place. Or was he?  Stupid surprise ending.  Stupid concept. 7/24/09

Resurrection of the Daleks (1984)

As I've mentioned before, I'm not really a fan of the Daleks even though they've become the primarily villain in the Doctor Who series.  This adventure of the fifth Doctor is split between two periods in time.  The Doctor returns to present day London only to fall into a trap laid by his long time enemies, while in a fairly near future, Davros - creator of the Daleks - is being held in suspended animation in a space station orbiting Earth, where the Daleks hope to rescue him. The Daleks also plan to build a duplicate of the Doctor and use it to infiltrate Gallifrey's defenses.  There is some attempt to make the Daleks more plausible, but not much, and the plan fails because one of the androids created by the Daleks turns traitor, which seems unlikely.  An okay but unexceptional episode.  7/23/09

Ancient Evil 2 (2005) 

I have not seen Ancient Evil 1. This sequel did not inspire me to go look for it.  A group of young adults revive the Egyptian god of the dead in a small New England town, and he wants to kill everyone in sight.  The opening scene is a prologue set in the past and it involves one of the hokiest sword fights I’ve ever seen, not a good sign.  On the other hand, the opening music is quite good.  The first scene with dialogue shot down any hope I had – corny, inane, badly delivered, and the soundtrack is slightly out of sync with the video, or it was dubbed, badly. Anyway, nasty girl has gotten hold of a magical book with which she can bring the god Anubis to Earth, except we are told that it is not the actual Anubis but a distorted version, presumably to justify the bloodbath. Bad girl actress must have been hungry because she devours the scenery.  She even curls her lip dramatically. The plot development is so silly that it defies description, and the dialogue a mixture of clichés and nonsense.  “My virginity is very important to me.”  “Just because I gave your wee-man a handshake doesn’t mean I’m ready to spread my legs.”  “You didn’t realize the ramifications of your blasphemy.”  And on and on.  The only redeeming thing in this mess is the soundtrack, which is probably the main reason I kept watching. Even fans of gory murders will be disappointed since the first death doesn’t take place until you’ve sat through 48 minutes of boring silliness, and they couldn’t afford much fake blood.  Fortunately, the first victim is the worst of the actors.  Unfortunately, the others escape for another forty minutes. 7/22/09

The Five Doctors (1983)

This was not one of my favorite Doctor Who stories, more of an excuse to reunite five aspects of the Doctor - 5 of the actors who played the part.  A renegade time lord has constructed an elaborate trap for the various aspects of the Doctor, luring them all to Gallifrey where they are pitted variously against Daleks, Cybermen, etc.  Eventually they begin to join forces, defeat their immediate enemies, and figure out what's going on and who is responsible.  Some of the companions also reprise their rolls.  I'm sure this sounded like a great idea initially but it really doesn't work very well, becoming unfocused and more than ordinarily contrived.  7/21/09

Spliced (2002) 

Spoilers in this one.  This horror film has also appeared as The Wisher.  It opens with a typical horror film device, the memory (or sometimes dream) of a childhood fright, in this case the latter. A high school senior obsessed with horror movies begins to have her wishes come true, but always in violent ways.  None of the high school kids look less than 25 but I’ve come to expect that. Ron Silver is, as always, convincing, this time as the school psychologist, although I doubt that school psychologists are allowed to prescribe sleeping pills for students. There’s the usual tension with the “beautiful” kids.  Yawn.  One of the dream sequences is pretty creepy, but I hate dream sequences. There is an early problem with the screenplay because the first wish granted is one she made BEFORE she saw the movie, which is internally inconsistent. Then six weeks past, during which we are presumably to believe that she never made even a passing wish?  Seems unlikely to me.  I already wished this had been a better movie.  A bigger plot hole follows.  After seeing several news stories suggesting that there are subliminal instructions embedded in the film, the heroine examines a tape and finds some.  But if there had been that much publicity, the authorities would have checked a long time earlier. To say nothing about the fact that subliminal messages are illegal, which the screen writer apparently did not know. Then there’s the familiar swimming alone in the school pool at night and the lights go out scene.  Schools in horror films don’t have locks unless you’re trying to escape a psycho killer.  She tells her sister at one point “no going out alone unless Mom or I are with you.”  But that wouldn’t be going out alone, would it?  Anyway, my theory that the protagonist is herself responsible for all the incidents appeared to be wiped out when one of her companions observes the same mysterious figure. But a policeman stops them and only speaks to the protagonist, which reconfirmed my original theory.  Nor does anyone else talk to her in the scenes that follow.  This turns out to be a red herring and there’s a “rationalized” explanation, but it’s neither rational nor an explanation.  Despite all of the cavils above, this has decent production values and is quite watchable so long as you let your suspension of disbelief inflate to its highest point, although the internal logic and plausibility are completely missing from the climax. 7/20/09

Earthshock (1982)

This Doctor Who adventure involves an elaborate cave system, which inclined me to like it.  A group of explorers are being menaced by mysterious dark figures.  The Doctor and friends run into them and the strangers are identified as hostile androids. They eventually escape on a spaceship having identified the author of their woes as the Cybermen, returned for another plot against the human race, and revenge against the Doctor.  With the help of a traitorous human, they seize control of the ship and advance their plans to destroy the Earth, but the Doctor is too smart for them once again and their plans go predictably awry.  One of the better Peter Davison outings in the part and the first appearance of the Cybermen in several years.  7/19/09

Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

Contrary to my usual practice, I read several reviews before going to see this, the sixth installment in the series.  They ranged from calling it the best Potter ever to describing it as the dullest, and a few even called it a failed romantic comedy.  I also found the inevitable website with fans of the books decrying even the smallest diversion from the novel.  Sigh.  Anyway, the truth lies somewhere in between.  This is necessarily a place marker, setting the stage for the final battle, making the battle lines clear, eliminating Dumbledore so that Harry has to stand on his own, or at least with only the help of his friends rather than a powerful mentor.  The tangled romantic scenes are cute but take up very little of the movie.  There is some truth to the charge that with Voldemort absent this time around, there's somewhat less focus than usual, but I didn't think it was a serious wound.  It does not stand well on its own.  I thought that the first five could have been viewed individually without the viewer getting lost, but that's not true this time.  You have to know a lot about the story in advance.  I also thought the sets this time were better than ever, and they've always been excellent.  Non-purists should get their money's worth and more.  7/18/09

Evil Remains (2004)  

I actually recognized some of the names in the cast of his horror film (aka Trespassing), so I was a bit more optimistic than I usually am.  The plot is nothing to write home about - a group of young adults explore a supposedly cursed mansion in Louisiana, ostensibly to disprove the legends.  You and I both know they’re going to have an unpleasant surprise.  If we didn’t the early cut scenes of someone grabbing clippers and stalking dark hallways would have told us for sure. Then we hear about a boy who strangled a dog and killed his parents, and  supposedly died in the ensuing fire. Alas, the dialogue that opens the main story did not inspire me.  The conversation between the researcher and psychologist did not ring true as he describes things that could not have been known by anyone in the process of providing the story of the curse. I also wondered why a psychologist who lived in New Orleans for more than twenty years had absolutely no accent. The movie is annoyingly underlit, even the daylight scenes, so much so that I had considerable difficult keeping the characters straight, and sometimes I couldn’t tell what was going on. The first mortal blow came when the two women find mantraps in the woods, in one of which is a human skeleton, and aren’t even particularly upset.  God forbid they should call the police. At one point, the two women walk right into a large hole in broad daylight even though it isn’t camouflaged in any way.  oo many close-ups, too much talking, too vague about what’s going on, even at the end, and the reasonably competent acting just can’t make up for all the flaws. 7/17/09

The Visitation (1982)

Peter Davison was not my favorite Doctor Who, but he wasn't my least favorite either and I was gtting used to him about the time he left the show.  This is his fourth adventure, set in a 17th Century England where an alien presence has resulted in several deaths. In short order the Doctor finds a hidden alien enclave guarded by an android and, predictably, some of his companions are taken prisoner. The alien is a rather corny reptilian type who controls the will of others by forcing them to wear bracelets. In due course we learn that they are escaped prisoners and that they plan to subjugate the human race, but the Doctor outwits them and eventually destroys the invaders, to no one's surprise probably including the aliens.  Sometimes tedious, and with cheaper than usual special effects.  7/16/09

Joy Ride 2: Dead Ahead (2008) 

Joy Ride was a fairly watchable horror movie about a psycho trucker who crosses path with some young people.  This attempts to recapture that success with a less interesting cast of characters.  I started to lose what little interest I had when their car seizes up and the owner doesn’t even seem concerned by the loss of her property, let alone being stranded in the middle of nowhere. And naturally they can’t get their cell phones to work. They walk through the desert, shedding clothing but without sweating, and find a house elsewhere in the middle of nowhere. Since none of them are very nice people, I really didn’t care if they lived or died; if anything, I preferred the latter.  The goth guy is both stupid and nasty and almost repulsive enough to make me stop watching. They “borrow” a car to get back to civilization, not realizing the car and house belong to a serial killer trucker who is not happy with them.  You can fill in the rest of the plot from there. Mix liberally with unlikely coincidences, implausibly insecure morgues, an almost supernatural ability to sneak up on people, and assume no one will ever actually do anything sensible, like calling the police.  If you can get past the scene when the goth begins to cry in the car, you have a high tolerance for nonsense.  And don’t be surprised when the heroine fails to make sure the bad guy is dead when she clobbers him with the shovel. 7/15/09

The Day the Earth Stopped (2008)  

Since this is from Asylum, I figured anything even watchable would be a pleasant surprise in this rip off of The Day the Earth Stood Still’s remake, which was pretty much a ripoff of the original.  Earth is invaded by not one but by several hundred giant alien robots (not “intergalactic robots” as indicated on the illiterate cover copy). They demand that Earth prove itself worthy of survival.  It opens, however, with a naked woman strolling through the woods, just to wake up the male viewers. Then the robots arrive, finding places to stand in the dense downtowns of the cities they invade. The details of the plot are so nonsensical that it would be hard to describe them but there are two aliens as well who are kind of good cop bad cop, and they have unusual powers like teleportation which only work when it suits the plot for them to work.  The army units have virtually no equipment and only a handful of men – probably because they couldn’t afford extras.  The acting ranges from bad to not awful.  The aliens, incidentally, are indistinguishable from humans, succumb to human anaesthetic darts, and arrive without equipment – not even clothing.  An already stupid story reaches new depths when the officer in charge decides to torture the aliens, and fails to arrest a soldier who strikes a superior officer. And then it really starts to go downhill.  Don’t waste your time. 7/14/09

Megasnake (2006)

It's obvious that this giant snake, sci-fi channel movie is a spoof of similar films.  A snake handling nut steals a magical snake and refuses to obey the rules that keep it under control in a scene that is an obvious pastiche of the opening scene in Gremlins.  The snake then proceeds to grow progressively larger, menacing a small town, battled by the snake handler's brother, who has a phobia because he saw his father killed by a poisonous snake.  Although it's a trite story and a satire, the acting is surprisingly good and the dialogue actually doesn't suck.  Some of the humor misfires and the CGI snake isn't very convincing, but I was surprised at how watchable this one was, much more entertaining than most sci-fi channel fare.  Or maybe it just didn't take much to impress me after the spate of bad movies I've watched recently.  7/13/09

Terror at Baxter U (2003)

This must have been a high school student's senior project, and it probably got a "C" at best.  It's a slasher film that includes absolutely leaden acting with stupid, inane dialogue, wrapped around a plot that doesn't make sense, illustrated with odd camera shots that are designed to obscure the fact that the special effects budget was probably a hundred bucks or so.  Someone or something is killing or abducting students, a phenomenon that has gone on for forty years without anyone taking particular notice.  The supposed graduate students act like junior high kids, and the professors all seem to have escaped from the psycho ward.   The screenplay doesn't reflect common sense or logic, let alone and understanding of police procedure, college life, or even rudimentary interpersonal relations.  It's like a horror movie produced by an alien race that has an imperfect understanding of human civilization. Did I mention the horrid soundtrack and poor lighting? "These killings are very serious."  "Yes, particularly for the victims, Doc."  The professor thinks it's a chupacabra living under the university, which for some reason is confused with the legend of the succubus.  A contender for all time worst movie.  7/12/09

The Burrowers (2008) 

A family of ranchers disappears and a posse is formed under the assumption – incorrect – that they’ve been taken by hostile Indians.  They set off in pursuit, sort of, but they’re such a miserable collection of nasty people that we’re more interested in seeing them get killed than in worrying about what might happen to them or the missing people.  Pretty good production values for the most part, and a competent if uninspired cast.  We viewers know that whatever it is that’s responsible, it travels underground, and when members of the posse begin disappearing or dying mysteriously, we’ve got a pretty good idea where they’re going.  After the opening scenes, the action is quite low key, more suggestive than informative, for quite a while.  Too long a while actually and the momentum is uneven from that point forward.  When the creatures finally get some screen time, they're interesting though not completely convincing - and they don't appear designed to function as burrowers.  They are also vampires of a sort, since they don't die despite impaling and other injuries, but melt in the sunlight.  An okay horror film that might have been a lot better.  7/11/09

Victor Borge's Funniest Moments (2008)

This is the second in a six volume set of Borge's comedy that I acquired a while back.  It repeats several of the same routines, not surprisingly, and includes several clips from earlier in his career, the era of black and white television.  In addition to his usual companions, he has appearances with Robert Merrill and Sergio Franchi, and in a more recent clip, visits the Muppets.  The routine in which he impersonates Franz Liszt is less than thrilling but the rest of the entries here range from good to very good.  7/10/09

Casablanca (1943)

I hadn't watched this in three or four years, but I could almost have written a summary of the scenes from memory.  I'm a fan of Humphrey Bogart and this is one of his most famous roles.  Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, who joined him in other movies. If you're one of the few people who've never seen it or heard of it, the story is about a fugitive trying to flee to America during the height of World War II.  His wife was once romantically involved with Bogart, who runs a night club in Casablanca, which is a jumping off point for some refugees despite being occupied by the Germans and the defeated French authorities.  I once saw an interview with one of the writers of the screenplay who said that he and his fellow writers never thought of it as anything special at the time, just another war time movie, but obviously they tapped into something that has had widespread and lingering appeal.  Contrary to common belief, the line "Play it again Sam" does not occur in the movie.  The duelling anthem sequence is a classic, and I can't hear the song "As Time Goes By" without flashing to Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.  7/7/09

Rise of the Lycans (2009)

This is the prequel to the first two Underworld movies, which dealt with battles between vampires and their former slaves, the werewolves.  In this one, we learn that werewolves were not able to change into human form at first, but that changed and the vampire faced an increasingly assertive underclass.  Since most of the action in this one takes place in an expansive, gloomy castle, the predominantly black and blue colors (how appropriate) are perhaps justified but nonetheless provide us with an unpleasant, gritty, and visually monotonous viewing experience. Otherwise the special effects range from pretty good to pretty bad, with a high proportion of spewing blood, slashing blades, slavering jaws, and steely glares. The wolves often look more like apes than canines. Half the characters want to eat each other and almost the entire cast wants to eat the scenery. Each successive movie in this series seems to me more expensively made and less entertaining.  Anyway, our hero gets tired of being a slave and becomes the leader of his people, originally with the support of some of the vampires who want to turn him against the wilder strain of his people.  Dreadful soundtrack. The villains are too villainous to be believable and the violence verges on the sadistic.  There are also the usual star crossed lovers, vampire noblewoman and werewolf slave.  How trite can you get?  More so.  Slow motion, ethereal sex scenes.  Abominally bad, worse than many direct to video quasi-amateur films.  7/6/09

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince soundtrack composed by Nicholas Hooper, New Line, 2009, around $16

The movie is coming out next week so I obviously haven't seen it, but now I've heard the music.  As expected, it's not that dissimilar from its predecessors, lots of choral music, lush orchestral adaptations.  As with most soundtracks, some of the individual cuts feel thin without the visual accompaniment while others stand quite well on their own. One cut is not in the film, presumably a dropped scene. It's a rather nice Dixieland style piece.  The opening cut is considerably lower key than I had expected, and the several cuts following are light in tone and rather short. In fact, the entire first half has an introspective feel with hints of mystery or danger but nothing indicating high adventure despite titles like "Living Death" and "Ron's Victory."  That actually matches my recollection of the book, which seemed more serious and thoughtful than the earlier ones in the series. The pace picks up a bit in "Into the Rushes" and thereafter but is still generally restrained. I rather liked "The Weasley Stomp."  7/6/09

Frankenstein Unbound (2009)

Roger Corman did this adaptation of the novel by Brian W. Aldiss with a good cast headed by John Hurt and Bridget Fonda.  Hurt is a scientist who develops a particle beam weapon at the same time that time displacements are occurring around the world, apparently connected to the experiments. The he is himself displaced back to the 19th Century where he encounters a real version of Doctor Frankenstein. Although production values are generally good, but there are some odd lapses in the plot.  Before he is displaced, Hurt wonders if they can find a way to reverse the phenomenon, implying that they've been trying for a while.  Afterwards, he asks the same question of the computer in his car - displaced with him - and it laments the fact that it will take four days to compute because it doesn't have access to the mainframe.  Inconsistent logic there. Anyway, Frankenstein wants to destroy the monster, who looks more alien than reanimated, but the monster wants a mate and promises to murder more people if it is not done.  Hurt and Frankenstein eventually pool their resources eventually, but only after Hurt unsuccessfully attempts to prevent a young woman from being hanged as a witch.  The monster meanwhile manages to outrun a team of horses to kill Frankenstein's wife and there are some unnecessary and badly done gore scenes.  The ultimate confrontation between Hurt and the monster in an empty, futuristic building is less than impressive. 7/4/09

Punisher: War Zone (2008)

I was not particularly impressed with the first adaptation of this Marvel comics vigilante, in part because I am inherently suspicious of vigilante justice.  This time our hero, Frank Castle, inadvertently kills a good guy and, in remorse, decides to hang up his guns.  But an old enemy, now sporting a mutilated face, is out for revenge on an innocent family so Castle has to go into action again.  Appropriately enough, most of the action scenes have typical comic book implausibility, but with a surfeit of mutilations this time that occasionally exceeded my tolerance level.  They also lose their effect when they're the rule rather than the exception. Most of the acting by the various "gangsters" is beyond eating the scenery into self parody. Julie Benz (Darla from Buffy) is the widow in peril. Although the bad guy gets captured, he springs a deal by informing on a terrorist plot to get free and the FBI also provides information about Castle's associates.  Stupidly, they don't tell the associates. Had they left out some of the unnecessary gore and tightened the plot up a bit, this would have been fairly watchable, but as it stands, it's just a little too far over the top.  7/3/09

War (2007)

Jason Statham and Jet Li headline this martial arts style action movie. Statham is an FBI agent whose partner is killed by a mysterious Japanese assassin nicknamed Rogue working for organized crime. Naturally he wants revenge, even if that means breaking the agency's rules, and three years later he finally gets a lead, though his obsession has already cost him his marriage and have now put him in the middle of a vicious gangwar. The plot is almost secondary in movies of this variety, although this one has a more complex plot than most as well as better acting, although some times motivations aren't clear, and I wasn't convinced that an agent who had this many cases of unnecessary violence would still be in charge of investigations.  Rogue is deliberately provoking a war between the Triad and Yakuza, apparently for reasons of his own, although there are some surprises along the way.  The attraction is primarily the action sequences however.  In this case the chases are better than the fight scenes.  The surprise revelations at the end aren't particularly credible, but they certainly do come as surprises.  7/2/09

The Rage (2007)

Splatter films remain popular, ranging from the absurdly cheesy to the occasional entertaining one.  This is somewhere in the middle, using the device of the drug/parasite/whatever that turns people into homicidal maniacs, and causes them to grow great lumps and lesions all over their body.  Yup, pretty much a zombie movie without zombies.  No time is wasted.  The opening scenes has the demented scientist experimenting with a captive family who have already been reduced to monsters, hoping to create a plague of psychopaths to bring America to its knees. Past victims, still alive but insane and malformed, are held in cages nearby.  Naturally he used substandard restraints and the infected subject escapes, killing his maker in the process. Then there's a scene at a rave where we are told repeatedly that one of the female characters is acting in an incredibly lewd fashion, but she's simply dancing, not enough suggestively.  The music also sucks. The female lead is listed as Erin Brown, known on the porn circuits as Misty Mundae, but although there's a lot of talk about sex, there's almost none in the movie, not even nudity.  There is, however, a surfeit of gore, eyeball eating, dismemberments, and so on.  And since the characters are by and large awful people, the viewer is not expected to care about their fate.  After escaping a flock of contaminated vultures, the survivors fall prey to the original scientist, back from the dead, in an over the top half hour of absurdity. Bad special effects, bad acting, bad continuity, bad dialogue, bad bad bad.  This is not the bottom of the barrel, but it hovers around the lowest rung.  7/1/09

 

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