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Three Piece Suite (1977– )
Diana Rigg shines in sketch comedy both good and bad
12 May 2019
This was a short-lived sketch comedy series starring Diana Rigg. Each episode consists of three sketches (or short films) of about 10 minutes each. The longer length allows for greater plot development, and sometimes more depth of character and themes than sketches typically have.

Almost every sketch features different writers and supporting actors. The sketches run the gamut of plots, and a lot of them are "two-handers" (just Rigg and one co-star). The only constant is the presence of Rigg. She's one of the great actresses of our time, and here she shows her extraordinary range and comic skill as she disappears into a wide assortment of roles, from lovelorn spinsters, to middle class housewives, to a homely but spirited powder room attendant. Helping her do this are the terrific hair and wardrobe crew.

The writing is hit and miss--probably 50% is at least okay, or even great, while the rest is not. Besides a few clunkers, other sketches that are middling (rather than outright bad) feel worse because the 10-minute running time drags them out. Writer Roy Clarke ("Keeping Up Appearances") surprisingly contributed a snoozer, though Rigg is right on target as an airheaded American starlet. Magazine editor Tina Brown even wrote a sketch, but it's incoherent. Later, John Cleese is wasted as a hypochondriac who lives with equally loud Rigg in a hovel.

On the plus side, Bob Larbey (best known for "As Time Goes By") and John Esmonde (who wrote "The Good Life" with Larbey) wrote one of the best sketches, "Mea Culpa", in which Rigg plays (apparently) a nun who tells a sympathetic man her absurd life story while riding a mountain tram. Also excellent all round is the spoof "Wonderful Woman" by Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais. It co-stars the great Bob Hoskins, who didn't realize his cockney wife was a superhero--a job that can clash with domestic life!

"Little Things...Parking" by Michael Sadler is a first-rate short film about an arguing couple. As the title indicates, it derives humor from an everyday problem, while adding just the right touch of silliness. The characters actually return later in the series, to much worse effect. Elsewhere, the plot of "Celluloid Dreams" by Neil Shand went over my head, but it's full of sharp banter, the type heard in classic Hollywood comedies. As an uptight reporter, Rigg goes through an amusing transformation to get a scoop, and an unrecognizable George Baker offers solid support as her co-worker.

At times difficult to get through, Three Piece Suite nonetheless deserves higher than the low rating it holds as of this writing. And I'm giving it an extra star on account of Rigg's outstanding acting.
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The Golden Girls: The Sisters (1987)
Season 2, Episode 12
Nancy Walker: the perfect sister for Sophia!
24 March 2019
What a brilliant casting move--the filmmakers got Nancy Walker to guest star as Sophia's sister Angela.

A Hollywood veteran perhaps best known for "McMillan & Wife" and "Rhoda", Walker is just as petite as Estelle Getty, creating a fun sight gag and a perfect match (and perfect foe!) for Sophia. They buried Walker under the same makeup, wig, and glasses as Getty, but her distinctive voice is quickly recognizable.

Angela proves just like Sophia in other ways--namely, being stubborn and vindictive! Dorothy brings her over from Italy as a surprise present for Sophia's birthday, but old grudges surface. Will the reunion be a disaster?

Walker is excellent. Also, in a fun early plotline, Dorothy (amazingly) entrusts Rose not to reveal the surprise present too early, and your knuckles will get white as Sophia tries to trick Rose into doing just that!
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Wish fulfillment for libs who like costume drama
2 March 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Because the first Whicher film was based on a true story, it was limited by the facts, and wound up anticlimactic. The filmmakers then made three fictional movies for Whicher, but this didn't really solve matters. They were a mix of melodrama, average content, and sensationalism trying to appeal to modern viewers (e.g. plots about incest or illegitimacy, and of course the burdened or "tragic" hero).

That brings us to the third of these, "Beyond the Pale." At least one critic complained that its lighting was too dark. The previous movies certainly had that problem--with investigation scenes, for instance, straining our eyes by being shot in dingy, dark rooms. But "Beyond the Pale" was the first that actually used dark lighting in a good way, creating some moody, well-crafted sequences.

I'm afraid that's all I can say in favor of this movie. Supposedly a detective story, its purpose is actually to pander to modern viewers' politics. It does this by taking the social justice wars of today and staging them in the distant past so we can watch righteous Victorians fight for 21st century liberal values in the Victorian Age. Unlikely to say the least, and eye-rolling TV, but it's a common mistake these days.

As the pun in the title indicates, darkness and lightness prove central to "Beyond the Pale" in another way, as the plot examines issues of racism. The conflict comes down to a custody battle between a white man living in England, and the Indian woman who wants to bring the kids back to her home country. He's a politician from a rich, powerful upper class family, but he has wronged her in various ways. The film starts to portray him as a complex character, but soon throws this away by turning him into a criminal weirdo.

I checked the Spoilers box as a formality, but you'd call the ending anyway. (What, you didn't really think the kids were going to stay with their English dad, did you?) Sure, the mom is powerless and has no legal rights, being a non-citizen. The Brits hold all the cards, and the dad is an upper class white male politician powerful enough to treat the Indian woman callously and get away with it. But for these same reasons, a 21st century TV thriller is guaranteed to make him lose. The Indian wins over him and her in-laws by giving a liberal righteous speech, in which the filmmakers all but paint a halo over her head. What a fantasy!

The cold truth is that in real life, all the English characters--Whicher included--would do everything they could to keep the kids in England, no exception. Why wouldn't they? They have the power. And with or without racism, they'd be nationalist enough to choose England. From their POV, there's no reason to throw away the privileges of raising the kids in England with their rich, powerful white upper class family, with an English education and a promising future in the English elite.

These Whicher movies are mediocre, a waste of Paddy Considine, an excellent actor with great presence.
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Miami Vice: Definitely Miami (1986)
Season 2, Episode 12
Nah, don't start with this one
13 December 2017
An excellent show like Miami Vice has plenty of ways for newcomers to discover its unique blend of entertainment, smart drama, high production values, and the best side of 80s style. So I'm surprised that this of all episodes currently holds such a top rating on IMDb. I'd advise newcomers to start with a different one, lest you get the wrong impression.

"Definitely Miami" jams two plots into the same hour. Either one had the potential to be excellent in its own episode, but since they're compressed into less time here, they both get short shrift.

The sluggish direction falls short of Vice's high standards, and features a rough opening scene for the heroes. While sitting poolside at some sort of country club, waiting for a contact from the underworld, an undercover Sonny ogles a stranger. Yeah, Sonny has an eye for the ladies, but his blatant lechery here is out of character, over-the-top; and the direction matches it, capped off by what may be the goofiest shot of Don Johnson in the entire series. The seconds drag on as the camera pans over the woman's body, and a grinning Sonny stares and stares.

The woman he's ogling, Callie Basset, is another weak link. The character is supposed to be Sonny's vulnerable, yet mysterious and perhaps untrustworthy object of affection. Vice is known for its star-studded guest casts and their strong acting, but the model playing Callie doesn't impress, and she fails to bring depth to the role.

The episode's 2nd main guest actor does better. Best known for playing Phillips, chief of the boat in Apocalypse Now, Albert Hall cuts a dash as a pushy federal agent trying to convince a mobster to testify. His final scene with Castillo is very well-directed, unlike most of the episode.

I would direct newcomers towards a different episode instead. There are so many to choose from, and I haven't even finished the series yet, but perhaps "Knock, Knock... Who's There?", "Fruit of the Poison Tree", or "Child's Play". I haven't seen "Brother's Keeper," the double-length pilot, for a while, but that one might be a good general introduction.
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The Muppet Show: Rich Little (1977)
Season 2, Episode 4
Little brings a lot of talent to another excellent episode
1 November 2017
As well as I know the Muppets, I never saw much of The Muppet Show until recently, and I'm struck by what a well-made series it is. For this episode, a big part of that comes from guest star Rich Little, renowned impressionist, "the only man I know who can be anybody he feels like", says Kermit.

In a series of very short but sweet imitations, Little treats us to a cavalcade of 20th century stars. Well-known to 1977 audiences, today they're probably best known to classic film fans. Let's see if I've got them right…

Little matches the voices and inflections with uncanny talent. Close your eyes and you'll swear that's really James Stewart and Burt Lancaster on the screen. In the same sketch, he hams it up as Nixon and does spot-on impressions of Cary Grant and Groucho Marx. The script's references to Lancaster may confuse the fact that he slips in a Kirk Douglas, too. "I'll turn your head into a dimple!" he threatens a snide reporter while pointing to his chin, a la Douglas and his famous dimpled chin. I'm not certain who the sketch finishes with, but I'm guessing it's Vincent Price, because it causes monsters to burst through a door and crowd around Little. (Price did a lot of horror movies; ergo he attracts monsters.)

In a musical sketch, Little and Kermit sing "Well Did You Evah" from the film High Society, with Little impersonating its stars Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby right after each other. He begins this sketch with an impression of Gene Kelly in "Singin' in the Rain." Surreally, he shifts to a dead serious Richard Burton reciting the lyrics as if he were doing a Shakespearean soliloquy. A John Wayne impression follows Burton, and the sketch finishes with Miss Piggy and "Maurice Chevalier" in a duet from Gigi.

The show begins with Little fooling a naive Scooter, when he comes to fetch Little for curtain time but the door keeps opening to these famous "celebrities". "Wow, Humphrey Bogart," says Scooter. "But where's Rich Little?" W.C. Fields is also featured here.

Besides these stars, Little actually does impressions of Kermit and some other Muppets themselves. He gives Statler and Waldorf a retort by copying Statler, and when Little pretends to be Miss Piggy, you'll swear they just dubbed in Frank Oz. He nails both Miss Piggy's sweet talk and her angry outburst.

The rest of the show is mostly the Muppets' usual warm, clever humor. There's also a sketch that's pretty violent for a family show--wild animal Muppets eating each other!--so it will probably scare the youngest children, but the puppetry is superb, featuring a lizard-like Muppet humming and kicking his legs while sitting on a wall.
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A Touch of Frost: Endangered Species (2006)
Season 13, Episode 1
They still make shows like this?
16 September 2015
The detective show clichés and grotesque violence aren't worth discussing. What took me aback was that the characters and dialogue don't seem to be from 2006, but 1946. As part of a plot about animals smuggled from Asia, a man of Asian descent is brutally murdered. When white females are killed, TV cops have been known to spend a little *too* much time lingering over their corpses and staring wistfully at the crime scene photos. For this victim, Inspector Frost instead makes offhand references to "the Chinaman" over and over. What, did the screenwriters dust off a pulp novel from 70 years ago?

It gets worse. The body is found with a notebook of writing in a language Frost assumes is Chinese. "It is, in fact, a notebook, and not a menu," he tells his all-white police squad. Finally, they identify the victim as Lahn Loc, a smuggler with a Vietnamese background working with another man named Flanagan. Superintendent Mullett struggles to discuss the two crooks "Flanagan and that man called, er... The Vietnamese." Right, 'cause Lahn Loc is soooo hard to pronounce. Worse, even after they learn he's Vietnamese, Frost *still* calls him "the Chinaman."

Sounds like "Midsomer Murders" wasn't the only British detective show that needed to get past some racism. This 2006 TV movie was called "Endangered Species," and I hope that in the 9 years since, this outdated treatment of Asians has gotten more "endangered" too.
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Babylon 5: In the Beginning (1998 TV Movie)
Babylon 5 newcomers, beware: don't begin with "In the Beginning"
12 December 2013
Having watched virtually no "Babylon 5" but willing to check out this series, I made the mistake of assuming I should start with this prequel TV movie, chronologically the "first" story in the series' universe.

Turns out the prequel was obviously to provide pre-existing fans with bonus backstory -- so much so that at times, the film simply gives up on making sense as a standalone product.

As a framing device, we get a badly-lit emperor narrating historical events to a bratty little noble and his sister. At no point does the film care to explain why half the buildings outside the palace are on fire.

The emperor tells the story of Earth's war with aliens called the Minbari. He focuses on the role played by Delenn, a young Minbari leader, and John Sheridan, a human military officer. The war story is the bulk of the movie, until it swerves into left field by thrusting Sheridan and Delenn into a radical context that has nothing to do with the story we've seen up till now. I don't think Delenn and Sheridan ever even met, but suddenly they're shown to be held captive together in parts unknown, not to mention lovers. And again, it's left completely unexplained. I don't think it was the filmmakers' intention to leave me laughing as the end credits rolled.

It doesn't help that the film's structure grows crude. The bulk of the film is well-paced, examining the causes of a deadly war and its first few months. At about the 75 minute mark, however, it pulls the rug out from under a plot it's been developing and suddenly compresses 3 years of events into a few minutes. This is done mostly via battle scene overdrive. These battles are the movie's best CGI, but I'm not sure anyone over 19 will be interested in all this carnage, particularly with the clichéd voice-over. There's something perverse about the narrator celebrating courage while we watch a slow-motion stabbing.

The film's actual resolution is an anticlimax. I can only guess it contains references to TV canon designed to please the established fan.

On the plus side are the costumes and makeup, into which most of the budget seems to have gone with good effect. Poor Andreas Katsulas must have spent hours in the makeup chair, so I'm glad he shines in the role of G'Kar. His reptilian getup is amazing, right down to the scarlet eyes. Theodore Bikel and the too-quickly-dismissed Reiner Schone offer solid support.

When Sheridan assumes command during a crisis, the filmmakers make great use of limited resources, using close-ups and rapidly-shifting lights to ratchet up tension. The Grey Council stands out as excellent minimalist work from filmmakers who were limited to cheap sets. The Council sequences are stylishly lit and well-directed -- way more so than that annoying Delenn/Lenonn dialogue with the candle flames passing in front of the lens.
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Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Cuckoo Clock (1960)
Season 5, Episode 27
Cuckoo Crock
4 August 2012
When a series runs for 7 years -- even when it's the superb Alfred Hitchcock Presents -- we'll find a few duds along the way. I guess we shouldn't be surprised if a series starts recycling old material, either. This week's tale of an isolated housewife facing the prospect of an escaped asylum inmate retreads episodes like Fog Closing In and The Dangerous People. Not to mention, it relies on the outdated, potboiler cliché of mentally ill people as monsters to fear, icky psychos lurking in the shadows.

The cabin setting, and the uncertainty over an at-large villain's identity, echo the episode A Little Sleep as well. The distraught young Madeleine Hall has barged into housewife Ida Blythe's cabin, and is she or isn't she the escapee, whose gender is (awkwardly) kept secret? I can avoid spoiling that, and still say the ambiguity of the women's encounter would be more compelling if the episode didn't stack the deck against Hall. Fay Spain's acting isn't the problem. Last seen as the domineering screenwriter in The Last Dark Step, she's equally good here, but Hall is written as having an absurd penchant for disturbing rhetoric, and condemning doctors and others who don't understand it.

Perhaps a serious consideration of the mentally ill is too much to expect from this premise, although the series can do great drama. But this episode has no point other than cruelty and ugly violence, which it takes great pains to produce. It doesn't help that its characters often behave implausibly.

It's also one of the series' worst-made. The general store scene is like a rehearsal on stage. The actors shout their lines at each other -- when they don't outright forget them.

A cheapie, unworthy of its brilliant hosting scenes: surreal comedy in which Hitchcock takes the lid off some literally canned laughter (as well as screams).
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The skill and bravery of Alfred Hitchcock Presents astonishes again
1 June 2012
A fine display of what range Alfred Hitchcock Presents (AHP) has. Operating from the go-anywhere nature of anthology series, it knows how to apply its basic suspense format to a medley of genres -- and still handle each one with quality filmmaking. Black comedy, tense nailbiter...and, as "The Day of the Bullet" shows, tragic drama.

This one's centered on two strong child performances by an interesting cast: Glenn Walken (brother to Christopher), and Barry Gordon, future Donatello. Yet the story is no bit of childish fun. Given the primary use of child characters, AHP tackles disturbing subject matter here, both bravely and sensitively. The boys, Clete and Iggy, witness an ugly act of violence, what proves to be the catalyst to their own wrenching personal drama.

The boys are well-drawn and well-played characters. They're loyal friends, but sometimes conflicting in their outlooks, and convincingly childlike, despite a height difference in the actors that sometimes distracts. They wince at the beating they witness, and we flinch at their exposure to such a thing, but it's charming when this reveals what a worldly, yet childish code of honor they've already developed in reaction to the horrors of NYC. They shake their heads at what cowards adults are, what "yellow skunks," willing to beat up a guy 2-against-1.

Their code of honor and childish traits continue to power the dramatic conflict, coming up as they do against the complexities and tragic ironies of the world.

The spark plug Gordon leads the way with a commanding dramatic performance, and the episode is sealed by Norman Lloyd's exquisite direction. What at first seems to be a Brooklyn street empty for budget reasons proves to be a haunting setpiece for this admirable drama.

The distinctive, uncredited voice of Lloyd himself serves as one of the kids narrating from adulthood. His recitation caps off the story nicely, and it's worth forgiving how his transatlantic accent doesn't match the kid's Brooklyn one.

Hitchcock's jokey hosting scenes as a shady lot attendant are more out of place for such an episode, clever as the gimmick is. Check out when he carefully combs his bald head. I can definitely see a shady lot attendant doing that.
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The Twilight Zone: Night Call (1964)
Season 5, Episode 19
An ugly exception -- and unintentional prophecy -- from a decent series
24 March 2012
Warning: Spoilers
(I've tried to keep the spoilers vague.)

Although The Twilight Zone (TZ) likes to indulge in sermons -- which often ride on broad, melodramatic flights of purple prose -- at least it usually has the excuse of a humane heart and thoughtful mind genuinely interested in the human condition and serious issues. Night Call, by contrast, is astonishing in its arrogance, cruelty and pointlessness. The word "stupid" often serves as a putdown. In this case, it's merely another accurate adjective.

Already stressed by a loud, fierce nighttime thunderstorm, the elderly and crippled Elva Keene is confused, then frightened by persistent phone calls from a weird, mostly non-responsive caller. She finally screams at him to leave her alone. And mightn't any of us? Her reaction is entirely understandable. The calls sound very much like the work of a malicious prankster, even a dangerous stalker. They'll scare a woman in Elva's vulnerable position especially. To today's viewers, the caller might also sound like a more sympathetic case -- a mentally retarded person -- but a woman of Elva's age, back in that era, would be less likely to understand this. It was still early in the days of advocates like Rose Kennedy.

Yet Night Call holds Elva's natural reaction against her, ultimately punishing her simply for not understanding something that no one could. The basic plot elements of her undoing -- a gotcha matter of semantics taken too literally -- are silly enough. They also tie into a backstory on which TZ slams what may be its most childishly reasoned hammer of judgment. (Complete with misogynist tinge -- basically, "Never let your uppity woman get her way, gents, least of all driving privileges.")

This is bad enough, but then Rod Serling's narration chimes in to actually celebrate her fate as right and proper, capped off with a cruelly literal metaphor about this paralyzed, largely bedridden woman "making her bed and having to sleep in it". Serling, creator of a beloved, socially conscious series, has never sounded so smug and small-minded.

I wonder if Serling was responsible for the judgmental ending, apparently a change from screenwriter Richard Matheson's short story. At the least, he should've known better than to narrate this text.

He wasn't aware of his hypocrisy, either. The narrator who claims the crippled woman deserved her sickbed died on the bed of an operating room at age 50, after a life with much overwork and heavy smoking on screen and off. Probably Serling still deserved a better eulogy than the one he gives Elva Keene.
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This meal's hard to swallow
4 March 2012
Warning: Spoilers
This was despite a few features. The filmmakers do a good job presenting some weird contrasts. There's the secret restaurant's opulent interior, and the back alley dive atmosphere you have to pass to get there. The restaurant is basically a men's club, so what a surprise that a woman is the proprietress of this male-centric setup.

And you have to ascend that big staircase, as if going up to heaven to eat one of the best meals in the world. (For some characters, this proves more than figurative, doesn't it?!)

Interestingly, Robert Morley basically plays a version of his great gourmand role from "Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?" in the 70s.

However, the episode will amount to little more than a talkie for most contemporary viewers, because they can probably predict the restaurant's dark secret. Maybe fewer did back in '59, but not today's more experienced audience and its various edgy content like "Tales from the Crypt".

This episode matches that series' grotesque vibe. It's not to my taste, but perhaps it's an achievement of sorts that the Hitchcock series could hit this tone 30 years before an uncensored HBO could.

Yet the premise doesn't make sense. Why would Spirro victimize her own loyal, paying customers? How can the others not catch on, and fear for their lives? What prompts Spirro to work out such a special, secret relationship with Costain?
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Into the Blue (I) (1997 TV Movie)
Good TV thriller when taken on its own terms; obviously no friend of the book
20 July 2011
Having been dismayed by many tawdry TV rewrites of perfectly good books, I can understand why the "Into the Blue" author and many readers would be apoplectic after watching this. Instead of gasping at the thrills and chills in this TV movie, those who read the book first will merely gasp in surprise at how well over half of anything to do with it has been radically altered for this film, including the most major characters and plot twists.

That any major changes should occur is not a surprise, however. Indeed, one wonders just why the producers chose to film this book of all things. There was just no way 400 pages of dense, hard paragraphs and exhaustive backstory (all in tiny font) could've made a film of 110 or so minutes. Despite having some compelling drama and ideas, frankly the book can afford to lose perhaps 100 pages.

Even so, by the standards of adaptations, this film's condensations and rewriting are savage. I read the book second, then revisited the film. Thus for me, it's rather a hoot how the film broadcasts right from the start how it's spared nothing in its rewriting. In the first five minutes, Harry Barnett shows someone a portrait of Alan Dysart's wife, a small but important (and alive) supporting character in the book. Harry reports that she died of cancer 2 years ago, then moves on without another word. That's that for wifey!

But the film gives us a decent enough TV movie thriller. Its technique is plain, typical for TV movies, but offers attractive sets, location shootings, and cinematography. The book has its share of melodrama, but the film really ups the thriller factor, which gets clichéd but still fun.

The altered story also retains much of what worked best in the book's drama: Harry Barnett's central quest, and an interesting friendship with the vivid, yet inscrutable Alan Dysart.

True, the film is clichéd in how it sets up Harry's private investigation of Heather Mallender's disappearance. The usual "innocent man must launch his own private investigation to clear his name, while the authorities hassle him and do nothing useful." But it keeps the device of Harry obtaining photos Heather has shot, and using them to retrace her own investigative journey from the past. The film gets great cinematic fun out of this -- Harry will give us a close-up view of a photo of a building; then the shot pans up to show the actual building, proving that he's on the right track.

Alan too remains compelling: a well-fed and well-groomed man of power (love the suspenders) who's generous, supportive, yet ambiguous. (The film errs a little by making him ambiguous from the start.) Forever helping Harry out of trouble, Alan provides one of the most gripping dramatic moments when Harry declines to do him a major favor. Alan stops and glares at him, and complains to Harry for the first time. "It's the only favor I've ever asked of you." Immediately he departs in defeat. We feel the pain and guilt such an accurate criticism must've made to Harry.

Unfortunately, the film glosses over their surprising drama at story's end.

Zora Labrooy, friend of Heather and secretary to a shifty psychologist, provides another strong character and relationship for Harry. Despite rewrites, her essential elements are largely the same. The investigation pushes her to become an ally and assistant to Harry. Besides its own ambiguity, this friendship is made interesting by an increased, constant tension and fragility. They're never sure they can trust or find a real use for each other.

Also of note is John Thaw, who provides the right dramatic gravitas whenever required. It's also fun to see him convincingly play a cockney man of modest background, in contrast to his famous role of cultured Inspector Morse.
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"Right Hand's" righteousness run amok
13 March 2011
Warning: Spoilers
For an episode that wears piety and Christian charity on its sleeve, The Right Hand of God (TRHoG) is remarkably self-serving. Perhaps it's true that when people, like the characters here, are so convinced that their desires are part of God's plan, the more skeptical you have to be.

As stakeholders in a Sacramento pro boxer's career (!), Sister Angela and her convent hope to use his winnings to finance a new chapel and services (of both kinds) for the homeless. Although many viewers have no interest in the evangelism that goes with that, few will fault the nuns for wanting to do more social work. Nor can we fault Sam (who takes the boxer's place) for hoping to win the prize money on their behalf.

But does that make it okay for the hero Sam to cheat his way to victory? This he does, when he has a friend interfere on his behalf during the fight, and gets special help from a second. The nuns could use the money, but what about the opponent who loses out? At no time does anyone consider his rights, or needs. What if he plans to spend the money on his own charities? What if he depends on that money to keep his family from living in a seedy one-room apartment? Nor is basic sportsmanship considered, needless to say.

This ironic lack of ethics is extra troublesome given the mantle of righteousness TRHoG assumes. Angela's religiosity gains precedence in the plot, reinforced by her manipulative tragic backstory that ends with her born again. She also thinks Sam was sent to her by God to win the prize money. TRHoG would like to think Sam's scheme on behalf of such a person is not just heroic, but holy. In fact, his role in ultimately reaffirming her faith is presented as his purpose in Sacramento no less than his prize-winning is.

The religious elements are rather confused, too. On one level, TRHoG is just indulging in comedy by turning nuns and a priest into boxing fans who train a boxer, attend matches, and cheer on their trainee. The priest even knocks down Sam while sparring. This begs the question of how likely it is that these clerics would show such interest and support for a violent sport that's all about men beating each other until they're bloody, bruised and unconscious.

And its portrayal of Angela as a pious, deeply spiritual woman of faith achieves the opposite. When she fears Sam has lied to her about his plans to win the match for her, it's enough to make her lose faith in God again. A faith that entirely depends on whether one man is telling the truth is a fragile one. Whatever her religious beliefs turn out to be, Angela should probably re-evaluate a few things.

But TRHoG's worst "sin" might be the sexism of Sam pressuring and guilt-tripping his stripper girlfriend to go naked in front of thousands in an arena, as part of his scheme to win his match. Since she's a stripper, he rationalizes, surely this is totally do-able. Compared to this, the clichéd training montages are almost fun.
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Strong, sensitive drama...let down by false advertising!
3 March 2011
"Too slow!" "So boring!" "Why the heck is it called 'The Crossing Guard?'" I wonder how many viewers of The Crossing Guard (TCG) said such things because they viewed the same DVD edition I watched. I read the back of the DVD box afterwards, and I had to laugh. It seems to have been produced by people who have no idea what the movie's about. The box's lurid, breathless text markets this as an "action thriller", and makes it sound like a "Death Wish" or "High Noon" revenge showdown! A featured photo shows Freddy swingin' the chair.

Although TCG revolves around revenge, and a gun features prominently, you almost won't know it. TCG is what you'd call a "literate drama." The revenge Freddy plans to exact is the story's driving force, but the bulk of the plot is character study and psychological drama, its two feet very much on the ground.

Unlike some literate dramas -- ponderous, pretentious attempts at art, with static filming to match -- TCG has the goods. It's a sensitive, curious examination of a difficult main character and real-life subject matter. Since TCG gets quite disturbing at times, not least of all because of its broken, volatile, oft-unlikable protagonist, watching can be a challenge, but nonetheless it's refreshing to watch a complicated drama that doesn't push saccharine messages or pretend to have easy answers. It simply lets its characters loose to find their own way through a rather open-ended plot, and never loses sight of their humanity even while it acknowledges their awful acts. Stick with TCG and it will prove to be a rewarding film with both a mind and heart.

The literary genre's artsiness and realismo -- "true-to-life" folks who are quirky but not really funny, half-heard scraps of conversation -- create a few annoying bits in TCG, but not enough to damage the proceedings. Bobby's long speech at the survivor's support group reflects the reality of inarticulate people who can't speak from a polished script, but it doesn't do much for the film. You'll just have to chuckle through TCG's candle-strewn "artists' party," of which only 10% of the dialogue makes a lick of sense. I admit that the John-Jojo relationship and pectoral-clutching push credibility.

A better literate aspect in TCG is its humor, a pleasant surprise, especially coming from a writer/director better known for being humorless. When Freddy, falling apart from his rage, suddenly accepts the crowd's plea to join Mia the stripper on stage for a pole dance, it's remarkable, tense black comedy. Even better is when Freddy goes home with Mia, who surprises him by performing (and supposedly composing) a song for Freddy on her synthesizer decked out with blinking lights. Freddy just sits and watches in a stupor; whether it's from his booze or the music show is uncertain. In a Hitchcockian touch, a violent chase by foot detours into a city bus, and the participants must deal with bus fares, mistakes about the stops, and bickering passengers.
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Hingle compelling, but "child-sized" plot fails to fill the hour
28 January 2011
Escaping to alternate worlds and/or one's childhood was a frequent theme on "The Twilight Zone" (TZ). TZ goes hopping and skipping again with "The Incredible World of Horace Ford." Unfortunately the results this time are unconvincing drama and a fantasy gimmick repeated to the point of tedium. You might think TZ was just running out of ideas, but surprisingly this was a Reginald "12 Angry Men" Rose story first televised eight years prior on the anthology "Studio One" (an old haunt of TZ's Rod Serling!). Art Carney starred as Horace, and Jason Robards was his co-worker Leonard O'Brien.

The redeeming factor of TZ's version is Pat Hingle in the title role. Horace Ford may strike some viewers as unrealistic; on the other hand, his odd, clashing traits are interesting to see, and Hingle certainly uses them to create a compelling TV character.

Horace is almost 38 but seems stuck in childhood. Immature in manner, he's also prone to gushing, endless reminiscences about the playground games and old neighborhood kids from long ago. However, this probably contributes to his success as a toy designer, valued by his company. (Amusingly, the story suggests his immaturity goes in hand with him just being a temperamental artiste. He resents the suggestion that he cancel the "light-up eyes" feature of the new robot he's designing, because light-up eyes are central to the toy's whole "meaning" or something!)

Also unexpected is that this childish man has a wife, although, in another infantile touch, the couple lives with his mother. Yet Horace is well aware that his work is what supports the whole household.

Serling's smug opening narration scores points against Horace for being too childish. It seems the fantasy plot that unfolds is meant to reform him in some way. In typical TZ fashion, Horace decides to revisit a childhood neighborhood, and his trip takes him further than expected.

But the resulting drama never comes together. It's uncertain what the episode wants Horace to do. Without spoiling anything, the denouement's conclusion goes too far in taking a proposal with a little psychological truth in it, and applying it sweepingly to a man's entire childhood. For this to work, Horace would have to be not merely eccentric, and immature, but deluded.

The drama is not well-done, and unfortunately neither is the episode is general.

When I complained about repeating the fantasy gimmick, I didn't mean merely that the episode is a rehash of other TZ trips to the past, though many viewers will likely conclude that. Rather, the episode repeats its big long trip two more times with almost no change. We are forced to sit through the same mundane collisions with pedestrians, the same mother screaming the same words out a window, etc. I think they literally reused the same footage. Picture "Groundhog Day" without the comedy or variations. This is just tedious TV.

Also a problem is the ambiguous character of Laura, Horace's wife. Like everyone else, she doubts his story of what happened on his return to the old hood. But then the episode makes a big to-do (again, done three times) about one of the hood kids showing up at her door in his outdated clothes, and returning the watch Horace keeps dropping. Yet nothing comes of this. It doesn't change Laura's disbelief at all, and in fact doesn't move the story forward.

It's surely a burden for a young wife to have to live with her mother-in-law, and do so in an apartment. But that's not enough to explain Laura's cruelty to the woman. At inappropriate times, and after the most minor offenses, she's always telling Mother Ford to be quiet and leave the couple alone. The worst is when the prospect arises of unemployment for Horace. Mother gives a long, impassioned speech about how unfair that would be for the talented Horace, and how worried she is about how the household would survive. All true. Laura's response?

"Shut up!"

Just bizarre.

Mother's speech makes sense, and is well acted, but this too is unnecessary to the story. It's pure filler. With stuff like this, and the tedious repetition, I guess they just didn't have enough material to fill an hour.

We are left with Hingle as what makes this worth watching. He's dynamite as the energetic, moody, sometimes exasperating Horace. Modern viewers who know him mainly from his minor role as Commissioner Gordon will be surprised at his strong acting.

You might just want to fast forward through most everything else, though.
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Danger Man: Deadline (1960)
Season 1, Episode 39
Must've been an eye-opener for US audiences
21 November 2010
In 1961, black actors in American movies and TV series typically didn't appear as more than servants, bit players, and/or characters with no particular intellect or power. Works like "A Raisin in the Sun," whose film version came out that year, were exceptions. The US, after all, was still three years away from the Civil Rights Act ending segregation. It would be even longer before a black actress joined the cast of "Star Trek" to play a minor lieutenant.

Then there's "Deadline", final episode of the first "Danger Man" (DM) series from Britain. Talk about going against the grain!

This espionage series, and its mid-60s follow-up, frequently send its hero John Drake across the world to various real and fictional foreign countries made up of what would be racial and ethnic minorities in the UK and US.

DM has three habits that are unusual for the era. It often writes minorities to be major roles. The minorities are played by both white and genuine minority guest stars -- sometimes in the same episode. And DM does not frequently apply garish make-up (like yellowface) to the white actors. In the episodes I've seen, the white actors are more often just whites who can pass for Arab or latino, especially on a black and white show, relying less on tricks like face-darkening.

This casting may still seem a little outdated today, but what really sets DM apart from other shows of the era is how respectful it is of all its characters. It makes minorities into major, rounded characters, and usually doesn't resort to racial stereotypes and clichés. Complexity, detail, intelligence and articulateness are its custom instead, for heroes and villains of all races.

Perhaps "Deadline" is the most overt example, because it also features an all-black guest cast. Indeed, series star Patrick McGoohan is the only non-black on the whole cast list of a dozen. It's great how the script simply treats blacks implicitly as equals to whites -- as people who, in fact, can excel in the episode's London and African settings. Basically all the blacks here are smart, elegant and well-spoken. They include a professor, an Oxford graduate, and no less than a knight of the Empire, one Sir Aaron Nelson!

As refreshing as it is to see such respectful diversity, it highlights how sadly far behind the curve America was. In a show set in parts of America, after all, Sir Aaron wouldn't be allowed to drink out of the white folks' water fountain, let alone be knighted by his society. Simply put, I doubt a US network spy series would've dared to create an episode like "Deadline" in 1961.

A progressive spirit is clearly the best feature of this episode, which is otherwise below-average for the series. It's heavy on talky scenes, the worst of which might be Daniels', which is both redundant and literally bedridden. The espionage and thriller factors are just standard. Below-average DM is still good TV, though, not least of all because of the usual high production values and acting quality. The Drake/Khano scenes are solid. William Marshall gives a strong performance as Khano, the rich, charismatic slimeball of a pol.
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"Shroud" ain't for my crowd
29 October 2010
Being 5 hrs. long, shot on "live" film stock resembling soap operas and taped plays, and having a cast of typically good British actors, a miniseries like "Shroud for a Nightingale" (SfaN) is certainly a unique and potentially very good viewing opportunity. SfaN falls far short of that potential, however.

Since adaptations of mystery novels often suffer from short running times and insufficient consideration of clues, you would think a 5-hr. miniseries format would be ideal for letting the viewer try to solve the mystery herself. Thus it's disappointing when, after investing so much time, SfaN gives up on the "fair play" solve-it-yourself aspect, choosing simply to reveal the answer in a way that no viewer could discover. (And it's not the only Dalgliesh miniseries to do this.) Strangely, SfaN goes on and on for 5 hours but never seems to think about clues any more than a 90 minute movie.

In fact, SfaN fails to maintain coherence or resolve some basic questions, even as it wastes time on redundant scenes. A character's mysterious knowledge of a victim's private financial details is treated as suspicious, then never explained. Certain innocent suspects act excessively secretive for no apparent reason. Meanwhile, events that could be conveyed in seconds are given minute upon minute of dead time. In the end, there's no reason this program should be 5 hrs. long.

One "mystery" is why sidekick Massingham, typically so accommodating to his bossy boss, suddenly spazzes out a couple of times. Goodall remarks that fellow nursing student Fallon is old compared to most students, yet Goodall looks at least 40. Weirdest of all is the scene of a drunk dancing to music from "The Godfather!" This precedes a sudden, absurd turn to bedroom farce, only enjoyable because it takes the priggish Dalgliesh down a notch.

Speaking of whom...

Lots of film fans understandably chafe at formulaic Hollywood conventions, like the insistence on making main characters "likable." However, doing the exact opposite, and having a main character who is completely unlikable, simply isn't viable for a 5-hr. miniseries. SfaN does this, and it's a serious detriment. Dalgliesh here may be the most insufferable, imperious detective protagonist I've seen. He acts like his greatest aspiration is to treat suspects as disrespectfully, even cruelly, as possible. Most of the time, my reaction was, "(insert vulgar phrase) this guy"...and to think, "Why should I spend my time with this character?"

He's associated with another series problem. Reactionary moralizing seems to surface now and then in the Dalgliesh shows I've seen. It feels just as weak and outdated as the appearance of Dalgliesh himself -- balding, mustachioed, forever in 3-piece suits and blue tie.

SfaN is not as bad as another Dalgliesh series, in which Dalgliesh went up to a sexually active bachelorette who was unconnected with the crimes, and basically blamed her promiscuity as partly responsible for what happened. Still, when one or two promiscuous people in SfaN question if Dalgliesh disapproves of their activity, he only stares at them stonily for a moment, then asks something else.

In a series that gives the soapbox to no less than three anti-abortion advocates, it would've been nice to also have at least one person stand up for a prochoice outlook. Predictably, but still annoyingly, no less than a minister persuades the pregnant woman to change her mind and not have her abortion. A holy roller proves to be a hypocritical blackmailer, but the series quickly brushes her off as an anomaly from a tiny radical sect. This time around, lesbians lose out on the sympathetic portrayal they got in "Death of an Expert Witness" -- here, they're all misandrist, crooked, and/or dirty old women.

The one challenge to this reactionary tinge is a scenario made from the blackest of irony -- a character prays for God's guidance to a good life, literally at the same time s/he unwittingly finishes his/her murderer's job with his/her own two hands. The angriest of atheists would avoid writing such a scene as too contrived!
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Columbo: The Greenhouse Jungle (1972)
Season 2, Episode 2
Incomplete mystery, but charming in its anti-convention
17 August 2010
Warning: Spoilers
It can be amusing when a movie character from 40 or so years ago breaks out some clunky gadget and hypes it as a piece of "cutting-edge technology." Usually these gadgets are outdated by our era. In The Greenhouse Jungle (TGJ), detective sergeant Wilson is the ambitious youngster pushing the latest procedures, like metal detectors and night photography. For the latter, he produces what looks like a disturbing cross between a telephoto lens camera and a rifle, perhaps stolen from "Get Smart."

Also quaint is the lack of forensic procedure. Watch Columbo as he totes an ash-spreading cigar around the car wreck, and casually gouges a bullet out of the car. Two cops with metal detectors hunting for a gun learn that a rack of bagged shoes contains a bunch of metal shoe trees, and conclude this is a reason *not* to bother checking the whole rack to see if the gun is stashed there.

These things may make TGJ look outdated, but where the movie is really cutting-edge is in its disregard for social convention and reactionary judgmentalism. The central characters beside the archvillain are a man and woman living in what's become an open marriage. Since getting hitched, Tony and Cathy Goodland have each openly wound up in extramarital relationships (which vary in how far they go).

A lesser film would slam this marriage as doomed, immoral and subversive, and subtly endorse Tony's murder as punishment for both spouses, with Cathy blamed for causing it all, but "straightening out" and "learning her lesson" at the end for being promiscuous and unconventional. TGJ instead makes an honest, fully human depiction of these two people, and the strengths and weaknesses of their complex, decidedly unconservative relationship. While it causes tension, they still love and care for each other. Tony aims to get rich through a kidnapping fraud in order to buy off Cathy's boyfriend, while Cathy fears for her husband's health and does what she can to save him upon his apparent kidnapping, even while carrying on with her "skiing instructor" boyfriend.

If there's any POV of moral disapproval here, it's from the murderer, the real villain of the piece, the smug and judgmental uncle Jarvis Goodland, who's full of cutting comments about his niece and nephew's lack of monogamy. More than bagging extra money, Jarvis' reactionary attitude seems to be his motive for double-crossing Tony.

In the same spirit of this disregard for convention, the film offers a couple nice and fresh spins on the conventions of mystery thrillers.

A routine device of these thrillers is when a character withholds information from the detective, and immediately calls the villain to meet in a secluded, unsafe place -- the classic setup for attempted blackmail, which usually ends in the killer making his/her next victim out of the blackmailer. TGJ hints that it will do the same, only to reveal things are hilariously different.

Just as good, the film is brave to make its crafty archvillain an elderly man, who takes advantage of and murders his young partner in crime. Conventional movies would never make such a strong role out of an elderly character. Instead, they would stick to youth and glamour, reversing the setup by having the young man exploit and murder the old fogey.

Columbo asks some good logical questions during the course of his detective work, and makes a clever discovery at the end. Jarvis switches his gun with Cathy's to incriminate her as the murderer. The cops find it in her shoe rack, and arrest her, but Columbo locates an extra bullet in Jarvis' home matching the murder weapon, leftover from fighting off a burglary some years ago, which we quietly learned about earlier. However, this evidence is insufficient for the film to end the way it does, with Jarvis supposedly exposed by this telltale bullet. Jarvis could easily claim, "That means Cathy switched our guns, and was planning to switch them back so she could then blame me for the murder!" (the same way he tried to incriminate her) Columbo needed to support this with one more piece of evidence against Jarvis.

This is a weak ending to an otherwise creative mystery and entertaining movie. (I do however like the way Jarvis glares at Wilson in haughty exasperation to cut him off from reading his rights, then strolls off to jail.) The production values and acting are decent -- chief among them Ray Milland, appealing in the way he conveys both Jarvis' judgmental arrogance and ascots-and-orchids good taste.

Also notable for a stunt from 45-yr.-old Peter Falk -- Columbo's involuntary run and tumble down a hill that proves too steep to walk down. Looks hard-hitting!
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The Twilight Zone: Deaths-Head Revisited (1961)
Season 3, Episode 9
A Holocaust drama needs more than revenge fantasy
1 April 2010
Death's-Head Revisited (DHR) deserves some credit for raising awareness of an important, dark chapter of history, and doing so on TV in 1961, when it was perhaps more difficult to put this kind of content on TV. While this is helpful, Serling's "Never Forget" coda is hardly bold or insightful, and he doesn't challenge the audience to deeply consider the Holocaust. We need not rake Serling over the coals for writing this, but there are better ways not to forget the Holocaust than to view DHR.

Writing on the subject of the Holocaust will not alone make your drama a successful work of art. It's what you have to say about it that counts. DHR passes on this opportunity, content with telling a revenge fantasy which has little relevance to the real world. It's the kind of tale I would've written in 7th grade -- a gloating war criminal escapes justice, but magical forces come to punish him. Well-intended and heartfelt, perhaps, but we shouldn't pretend a simplistic wish is a significant commentary on the Holocaust.

Main character Lutze is not just a stock villain, but an implausible one. Besides continuing to relish his memories of his past atrocities, he actually leaves his safe haven in South America just to go wax nostalgic in his old concentration camp. Left as a flat TV monster, his character fails to contribute to any deeper consideration of Naziism and its real monsters. He makes some gesture toward rationalization of his offenses, which is unconvincing coming from his character, but this the episode barely explores anyway.

The episode's subject matter may make some viewers take it seriously, and the revenge fantasy will fool them into feeling better because justice has been done. But has it really been done? What does airing such a fantasy really do for the victims? What does it really do about the war criminals who fled Europe to elude justice? Nothing. In truth, such a fantasy cannot achieve anything beyond pleasing the audience with wishful thinking. We will never be able to use magic to bring Nazis to justice. Holocaust victims will never come back as ghosts to punish their murderers. Nor is telling ourselves that people like Lutze will face "judgment from God," as Becker claims, sufficient.

Instead of contenting itself with revenge fantasy, a drama should challenge us to examine ourselves and our human race, to think about how humanity could reach the point where fascists are murdering ethnic groups by the millions. (An odd point: You might think the script by Serling, who was of Jewish heritage, would mention Jews, who bear mentioning in a drama such as this, but it doesn't. Early 60s media standards might have something to do with it.)

The Twilight Zone frequently tells good stories and achieves dramatic power, but DHR remains more like the sentimental, self-serious, rather silly speechifying that the series is also known for.
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Agatha Christie's Poirot: After the Funeral (2005)
Season 10, Episode 3
"Goodie!"...for the most part
22 February 2010
As I recall from the time more than ten years ago when I read "After the Funeral," the book left me underwhelmed for some reason -- moreso than it should've, considering its criminal scheme is a neat idea, and a very Christie-ish one. A few bits do stand out in my memory, namely "Goodie! I shall go to Capri.", and The Willow Tree.

This Suchet film version smartly preserves these for the most part, and is one of the less flawed episodes of the 21st century wave. The basic clues to reach the bottom of the mystery are there, but the movie could draw better attention to them. Our chance to recognize them is too quick and oblique. A few brief mystery subplots are basically revealed to us only for surprise, without clues and detective work.

The story is disadvantaged by the way it revolves around rich, self-absorbed people whining and backbiting about their inheritances. Especially in an age of economic recession, this is a very unimportant topic to watch in a movie. Certainly it's hard to relate to this topic or have sympathy for the characters.

However, the film compensates for this with witty consideration of the theme of England's class system and the status of servants. At the center of this is the Gilchrist character, paid companion and doer of light housework for a bohemian woman who's at least somewhat connected to her wealthy family. Gilchrist insists (with a touch of snobbery) that she has never considered herself a servant. Unfortunately for her, other snobby characters presumptuously treat her like one.

Along this line, one of the most interesting, complex characters is Susannah Henderson, apparently a reworking of a book character. Despite being the only member of the Abernethie clan whose life work is that of charity, Henderson herself is not free of snobbery.

She seems to very much believe in her mission. She puts her money where her mouth is, willing to move to Africa to do her charity work. She also speaks sympathetically of derided characters like Cora Gallaccio.

Yet Henderson has a bit of an air to her. Watch how, when she arrives at Gilchrist's house, she wordlessly holds up her suitcase, expecting Gilchrist to take it as if she were a maid, rather than her hostess. Apparently a young lady from a rich family expects this of a lower class paid companion. Throughout her time at Gilchrist's house, Henderson also ignores or interrupts her even while acting with nominal friendliness.

I could've done without the bit of anti-abortionism injected at one point (and not for the only time this season). If the character who injects this sentiment hates the "sordidness" of back alley abortion clinics so much, perhaps the answer is to advocate for safe, legal clinics and social acceptance.

Like other recent Poirots, humor is deemphasized, but there are some nice touches of Poirot's fussiness and vanity during some of his exchanges with Entwhistle.

(Entwhistle meanwhile is a dull Hastings stand-in who also serves the opening exposition about all the suspects, a group from an extensive family tree who are done no favors by the rushed, confusing intro.)

My favorite humor here is something that's almost a running gag but which is probably unintentional. You kind of have to look for it. Under the pretense of staying at the Abernethie mansion to investigate the murder (which didn't even take place anywhere near there), Poirot seems to enjoy frequent snacks and tea breaks at a cloth-covered table on the terrace, at the Abernethies' expense. He has a good gig going on.
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Inspector Morse: Masonic Mysteries (1990)
Season 4, Episode 4
MM stands for Masonic Mysteries -- and Morse Museum!
17 January 2010
"Don't get carried away."

This episode's writer, Julian Mitchell, wrote the screenplay for one of the best Inspector Morse (IM) films I've seen so far, Ghost in the Machine. Though played serious, that episode is something of a comic masterpiece because of its main guest character, an aristocrat who's sophisticated, composed, yet oblivious at the same time.

One wonders if Mitchell was going for comedy with Masonic Mysteries (MM), too, albeit camp comedy. That might halfway explain such a ridiculous episode. IM is no stranger to melodrama, but MM goes further than any opera ever did. When an established, relatively straight series suddenly does an episode in which its detective hero is charged with murder, well, this is the kind of thing I'd expect from a series' last season, when the filmmakers have all run out of ideas. Bizarre to see this in Season 4 of IM, preceding more than fifteen episodes, at least some of which are excellent.

Clichés are at every turn. The story is one of those melodramas in which a diabolical, omnipotent villain orchestrates just about every nightmare scenario possible to drive the hero crazy. And wouldn't ya know, no one will believe Hero's claims of innocence! Thus do Bottomley -- twittiest detective ever and way dumber than Lestrade and Japp -- and Morse's own boss of many years turn against him. Mayhem ensues, dear friends die, and no corner of Morse's home and private life are safe from invasion by the ever-lurking mastermind. The film even flirts with dragging Lewis into the same web of suspicion and suffering as Morse, but noticeably it drops this quite suddenly, as if finally sensing how silly things are.

We even get the old "If I'm not back in five minutes..." line. However, the self-dramatization may be worst when Morse actually does an interior monologue voice-over, an amazing first for IM!

Morse looks stupid overall. MM always makes a fool out of him, and in fact doesn't let him participate in events to take control and redeem himself.

This features some of the worst, most affected guest acting ever. There are many culprits, led by Bottomley; he really belongs in something like Fawlty Towers rather than IM.

The actors probably got no help from director Danny Boyle, who keeps doing his own bad work. He ruins plot twists by telegraphing them to death. He frequently chooses inexplicable camera distance. He likes shooting disjointed conversation scenes, with the characters sometimes never sharing a camera shot, or not appearing at all, as if they're not even on the same set. (Maybe editor Bob Dearberg just bore a grudge.) My favorite bit of bad staging is the part where someone uses a gun to order a sitting person around, but is clearly pointing the pistol well over the person's head.

The villain keeps a room decked out in photos of Morse, many of them blown-up and artistically cut -- the villain's own Morse Museum, perhaps the wackiest set the IM crew ever made, complete with wackiest prop, the Morse-mobile dangling from the ceiling.

Unintentional giggles come from the plot's dated use of early 90s computers. Uncomfortable to think that so many officers could've been so wide-eyed and ignorant about technology, apparently unable to comprehend the department's own computer system and what "hackers" are.

More ill-advised comedy comes when a man faints to the floor upon learning he's been robbed of thousands, a shot done for laughs. (What, no spit-take?) Morse simply watches this with Lewis, straight-faced, then makes a banal comment. The filmmakers couldn't possibly be serious.

Morse speaks for MM when he says, "I've lost my sense of reality."
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As You Like It (1978 TV Movie)
Darth Vader does Shakespeare
24 October 2009
What a great idea to shoot this play on location and mostly outdoors. The green meadows and leafy forests fill the production with the breath of life, and a remarkable natural feel. Not only does the outdoor filming suit the pastoral setting and themes of this play. By staging everything on location, and in an unsophisticated way, it makes us all the more attuned to how a script and a company of actors can transform a familiar, real-life location into something else. A fictional scenario suddenly becomes real before our eyes. Seeing this production, it's a reminder that your neighborhood park could easily serve as the stage for drama and high-flown rhetoric.

Who cares about the technical difficulties? When Rosalind has to brush aside a fly unwelcomed by the production, it's all the more charming, the way it increases the realism and spontaneity.

All this comes through even more because this is a largely straightforward recording of a play, not an earnest work of cinema. I'm all for fluid and creative camera work, but here the mostly static camera is the better choice, making us feel more that we are attending a live play outdoors, not a movie that's clearly removed from our reality.

This is exciting...and frankly, As You Like It needs all the excitement that can be supplied. I'm not exactly a Shakespeare connoisseur, but it seems to me that this play is one of the fluffier, flimsier plays of his I've seen.

For such a long production, very little happens. It's light in tone but lacks the comedy, scheming, and twists of other plots like A Midsummer Night's Dream. For any of the interesting stuff in this play (some well-written dialogue, a few gestures towards action or suspense, gender-bending, even pseudo-lesbianism way ahead of its time), you can probably find some other Shakespeare play that does it better. Even by the standards of the time, it breaks credibility that Rosalind's lover and her own father can't see through her boy-disguise and recognize her. The play feels like either a test run written early in the Bard's career or a rehash from the end. I would've had a much harder time watching this production if filmed indoors on sets, even artistic or otherwise well-made ones.

On the other hand, this play stands out because it has wrestling. Wrestling?! In Shakespeare?! I guess so! And not that amateur wrestling like students do for school -- think pro wrestling, but not fake! (It's all the funnier to see lowbrow pro wrestling in highbrow theatre like Shakespeare.) This TV movie treats us to a fully-staged match starring Darth Vader. And I don't mean James Earl Jones, a noted actor for whom a Shakespeare performance would be nothing unexpected. No, we get the man in the black suit himself, David Prowse, whose role even requires him to speak many lines! Yes, Darth Vader does Shakespeare!

Prowse holds his own in both the fighting and reciting, although you can tell he's not the talented professional that the other actors are. Speaking of whom, they are the other chief strong point for this movie. (Oddly, though, they didn't reshoot a few scenes in which Helen Mirren stumbles on her lines.)

Also notable for Le Beau, the twittiest character ever; a Dana Carvey lookalike playing leading man Orlando; and the leading ladies decked out in court dresses with headpieces you have to see to believe, like something taken from a sci-fi picture or maybe Hammer House of Horrors.
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Inspector Morse: Driven to Distraction (1990)
Season 4, Episode 3
Like Morse's Jaguar, a fancy series breaks down in smoke
19 August 2009
Inspector Morse (IM) can usually be relied on for 105 minutes of entertaining suspense and appealing Oxford scenery. At times, it also doubles as compelling drama, in such a way that supports the mystery instead of subtracting from it. Nonetheless, as with "Prime Suspect" and "Cracker", underneath IM's literary, respectable trappings and reputation there's a good deal of crime melodrama -- rather amusing in this setting of universities and culture. Still, the series usually aims beyond the alternately lame and ludicrous approach of "Driven to Distraction" (DtD) -- nor does it usually make troubling contentions about ethics and civil liberties. It's one thing to make your lead a flawed character who makes bad mistakes. It's another to turn him into an outright lawbreaker in Season 4.

The mystery is about a serial killer who ties up women with tape, then stabs them with a butcher knife. This is a premise that might tempt filmmakers to stay in psycho-monster horror movie territory, and sadly DtD obliges. It resorts to the most clichéd, cheap, and fear-mongering sort of film-making, led by a boatload of stalking scenes. They sound all the usual scary-movie notes -- sinister gloved figure follows young single women in a car at night and spies on them in their homes, while the lyrics "Why won't you behave" playing on jazz tapes supposedly raise the creepiness and ironic insight.

It ties into the most asinine scene I've yet to see in IM, truly just the stuff of second-rate slasher cheapies that has no place in this series. A character's calm companion suddenly morphs into a misogynist monster, ranting about "whores", "tarts" and more obscene female references before reaching for the Psycho knife and attacking the other person! How it ends looks like a spoof.

Funny to think this was written by Anthony Minghella, best known for making "serious" films like "The English Patient," "Cold Mountain," and "Iris."

If the stalking scenes recall "Dirty Harry," they're not the only ones that do. What's also dismaying about DtD is the broadside it launches against due process and the rule of law. That's what it does, try as it may to entertain a voice of protest in Sgt. Lewis.

Morse finds a chance to pore through suspect Jeremy Boynton's private belongings, and thinks it may give him some actual evidence on Boynton beyond his own personal certainty. This would be illegal since he has no warrant. Morse's sidekick Lewis recognizes this as illegal, a violation of someone's rights; he refuses to help. A vacillating cop follows him out, but Sgt. Maitland, whom DtD has established as smart, honest, and nice, enthusiastically supports Morse, citing concern that the rule of law helps people like Boynton but not the murder victims (as if it's either/or!).

"Dirty Harry" may go further by depicting civil rights fans as naive elitists, but DtD never takes its "hero" characters Morse & Maitland to task for what they do. It acts as if the real problem is more like an honest judgment error, not their abuse of police power and violation of people's rights. It puts a cozy touch on the violation by making it a bonding moment for M&M as they pull an all-nighter and share their interest in classical music. Despite Lewis's objection, he doesn't report the transgression, and keeps working with them, inviting us to assume we've only experienced a difference in opinion, not detectives committing abuses that really ought to get them thrown off the force. M&M face no consequences, and the series moves on as if this was just a minor mistake for its title character.

An ongoing series shouldn't compromise its "hero" to this degree if it wants to keep him someone to root for. What we at least needed was M&M fully owning up to their offenses. Most of all we needed an affirmation of the rule of law. That DtD's police heroes trash it to pursue their self-righteous agenda, and that the film's POV essentially acquiesces, is a sad low for IM.

It's easy for a thriller film to complain about the rule of law protecting obnoxious, offensive, possibly guilty people like Boynton. But the rule of law protects *you* too. Not least of all because, someday, a corrupt or lazy authority might think *you're* no better than Boynton, on account of what your politics are, where you go to worship, what you do in your bedroom, or maybe just because the authority doesn't like you. The rule of law stands between such people and your privacy. If they do commit abuses, the rule of law is a key tool in helping you establish the justice you are due.

DtD and its two M detectives cater to authoritarianism, a path made easier by the fear-mongering melodrama about a misogynist serial killer. Some people are only too glad to invoke such fears so that they may violate innocents' civil liberties. Before you know it, "violate rights, and come up with a rationale later" becomes a disturbing norm.

DtD was especially ironic for me, because I watched it after the episode "Second Time Around," an excellent drama that's quite honest about how a self-righteous authority's turn to illegality can create grave injustice. If you've seen it, recall the Morse line that goes like, "It's his certainty that troubles me," and contrast with what Morse does in DtD.
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Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Reward to Finder (1957)
Season 3, Episode 6
Excellent rendering of a tragic, abusive marriage
3 November 2007
Warning: Spoilers
(this includes discussion not of the ending but of some scenes in the show's second half)

Reward to Finder's suspense plot is a good one, reminiscent of a tale by a certain medieval English poet. And what makes the episode stand out even more is the writing and acting of the main characters. It makes for a devastating drama that you might not expect from "suspense television". But AHP often pulls off wonders.

Oskar Homolka (whom Hitchcock fans will remember as the loser Mr. Verloc who repeatedly carries out the title act in "Sabotage") plays Carl Kaminsky, an immigrant janitor who collects bottles, newspapers and other trash in his apartment's attic to sell later and make his income less meager. Though Verloc was rather creepy, Carl is far from Verloc territory here -- loud, touchy and bitter rather than mild-mannered and cowardly.

Jo Van Fleet, last seen on AHP in an out-of-control performance in Season 1's ludicrous "Shopping for Death", plays Carl's wife Anna. As with her previous character, Van Fleet is a working-class drudge, but instead of ranting on, Van Fleet now gives a more sensitive portrayal of a sympathetic, put-upon woman.

The Kaminsky marriage is tragic (in the drama sense of the word) and abusive – with emotional rather than physical abuse. Carl avoids beating his wife, but you may worry if he will at some point. Even at the beginning, when the two's interaction is at its most routine and normal, he is harsh, mocking, demanding, and unforthcoming to her questions. The environment does not feel healthy.

The marriage is further strained by the characters' desires and deceptions about some lost money they find. Anna, initially assuming that they will virtuously return the money, is soon indulging in her dreams for a prettier, more middle-class domestic life, sprucing up the apartment and her wardrobe. At first she emphasizes her frugality – only 59 cents for this bottle of hand cream – and we sense the clumsy attempt to assuage Carl about her purchases. Like the hand cream, her purchase of a manicure kit is symbolic of her wishes, since she claims her housework has coarsened her once-prized hands.

This leads to wrenching confrontations partway through. Carl gets fed up with Anna's purchases, and when she happily sticks her lotioned hand out at him, he slaps it down. This introduces physical aggression, and disturbs Anna. In the next scene, she has gone on to purchase a fur coat (partly motivated by revenge?). When Carl screams at her over this, she does the same to him. He threatens to sock her, she calls his bluff and scorns the idea of him ever hitting her "real hard…like this!" – and she herself slaps him in the face. Watch her own face, which now bears a pathetic frown that seems to convey both anger and sadness.

Carl is upset, but doesn't hit her back after all this abuse…and, perversely, this almost makes him sympathetic to us. He may berate and shout at Anna all the time, but at least he hasn't, and won't, beat her, aside from that slap of her hand. But we wonder if it will remain this way, especially after he insults her appearance and damages some of the stuff she bought.

I won't discuss the ending here, but I'll part with the unrelated advice to keep an eye (pun unintended) on Homolka's final shot – the fiendish look in his eyes is outright scary.
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Holmes' logical mind would see much illogic in this somewhat interesting misfire
18 October 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Receiving heavy cuts to its original longer, episodic format, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (TPLoSH) as we see it today may not be just what its creators intended. But as it is, its premise is still ill-conceived. Sherlock Holmes as a semi-comedy? Why? The film doesn't communicate a reason for this approach, or that there could be a reason. By contrast, Without a Clue, which I saw many years ago, subverts the Holmes formula for its premise, i.e. Holmes is just an act, an actor following the cues of puppet-master and brilliant detective Dr. Watson. (I haven't seen the Holmes comedy by the other Wilder, Gene.) At any rate, TPLoSH's tone is too mild to be comic, but not serious enough to be exciting and dramatic.

The opening scene in 221B is good, nicely summarizing Holmes and Watson and their traditional traits. I also enjoyed the nod to the Strand magazine, acknowledging where many of the stories debuted and continuing the illusion that the characters are real. Plus the "blame the illustrator" bit.

The story is divided into two parts. The first is little more than one joke with a very drawn-out setup, almost extraneous to the mystery. While Watson takes command at a backstage cast party, Holmes thinks to escape an awkward situation by fibbing that he and Watson are lovers. Word spreads, the ballet girls flee from Watson (in disgust?) while the ballet boys silently do otherwise, and Watson spazzes out about people thinking he's gay. This may have been daring and (to some folks) funny in 1970, but I doubt today's viewers will find it a laugh riot or sympathize with Watson acting like the world is ending, even if Watson is an 1800s man.

While TPLoSH spends too much time on this fluffy vignette, the second part, the bulk of the plot, is rooted in illogic, weak mystery, and general silliness. The mystery is handled in great anti-climactic fashion. Little by way of clues and detective work here. Then it all ends when Magic Mycroft simply pulls aside the curtain himself and reveals it all – an abrupt finish unfit for Holmes the detective.

Mycroft's all-knowingness raises the questions: Why didn't he warn Sherlock about Gabrielle's identity when he first lectured him way back at the Diogenes Club? Wouldn't this have been in the government's interest, and prevented a lot of trouble? The film makes no effort to suggest that Mycroft learned the truth about her only after the Club meeting.

In fact, lots of stuff doesn't hold up to reason. Even if we go with the idea that Ilsa, the superspy who already knows the submarine exists, would recruit a naive Holmes just to help her follow the lead from a return address, we wonder…If Ilsa wants to string Holmes along, why would she go to all the trouble of playing amnesiac and forcing Holmes to read obscure clues on her palm merely to determine her apparent identity, so the hunt may begin?

Mycroft's secret service must've suffered budget cuts if it has to employ an invalid, elderly peasant to raise canaries for its project. And would a German undercover agent investigating England's naval project "Jonah" have any reason to hold a bible open to the Book of Jonah for Watson to see while riding the train?

Would Holmes really fail to understand a widow's desire to cry after her husband's death, and casually, cruelly order her to stop? Would a trespassing sign in the United Kingdom spell "unauthorized" with a Z? Would Holmes, investigating a secret base crawling with people, loudly announce his findings to Watson and Gabrielle right there? Why *does* Watson walk around with his stethoscope hidden in his hat? Why not hide it in his luggage? Or is equipment that doctors use during appointments regularly kept on their person? Does Watson take it to plays? Museums? Could Queen Victoria really be such a political idiot that a military submarine project (somehow finished without her knowing about it) would offend her sense of sportsmanship and lead her to cancel the project? Would Mycroft and the navy really scuttle the whole submarine as a result?

Some amusing silliness comes from all the "Loch Ness monster" stuff, especially the sight of it going after boats. Holmes was an adventure hero, but not of the Saturday morning TV variety. Likewise, Holmes unsubtly spies on two suspicious porters revealing a crate in their possession with the words "Sulfuric Acid – Corrosive" in blaring print. One wonders where the missing exclamation point was.

Even the supposed drama about Holmes' titular "private life" is underwhelming. Holmes, staunchly single and distant from women, gains a special attachment to Gabrielle. There was a deleted flashback to "explain" how a college-age Holmes formed his distant attitude, presumably serving to make his feelings for Gabrielle all the more moving. But Conan Doyle already explored this ground in A Scandal in Bohemia, one of the most famous Holmes stories, in which another formidable woman wins Holmes' approval and admiration.

I suppose Robert Stephens' acting fits the bill for the tone TPLoSH is attempting; his rather casual air would be out-of-place for Holmes elsewhere. However, that complexion and especially the wavy hair, together with his soft demeanor, purring accent, and tendency to joke, suggest someone more like Oscar Wilde than Sherlock Holmes. His pasty make-up is also distracting.

TPLoSH's Watson mainly serves as a frazzled, poor old dear, which gets old. I don't detect much of the intelligence some have seen in him.

Like some other works, this film presents the Diogenes Club as a front for a covert British intelligence agency, which is less interesting than Doyle's creation I think, and misses the point of the club. TPLoSH likewise ignores the club's peculiar rules for silence, showing us the heroes talking aloud in the main chamber. A no-no!
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