Monday, December 29, 2014

Doctor Who: Last Christmas

“Last Christmas” is the tenth Doctor Who Christmas special in as many Christmases — a decade of Russell T. Davies’s and Steven Moffat’s annual systematic warping of holiday traditions and iconography. The ongoing Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” aside, holiday TV has surely never seen anything quite like it. A single Who holiday outing might be something for a fan to pull out and view every year, but ten of them!? To the newbie binge-watching the entire run in the middle of the summer, the fixation must seem absurd (for instance, there are only five regular episodes between 2011’s “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe” and 2012’s “The Snowmen”).

But for the diehards, they’ve become more and more a big part of our yearly celebrations, and under Steven Moffat’s guidance, the Christmas specials are increasingly integral to the continuing story line. This latest outing is a proper dramatic coda to season eight, which back in November left us emotionally hanging (not to mention drained) as to the fate of the intense, complex friendship between the Doctor and Clara — a pairing that seemed in jeopardy of dissolving due to rumors that Jenna Coleman was leaving the show. Well, now we know the score: Not only is Clara sticking around, but she’ll be traveling alongside the Time Lord for the duration of season nine. Anyone who read my recaps for season eight undoubtedly knows that I am giddily delirious at the prospect of another full season of Clara Oswald, which itself is a pretty special Christmas present … but boy, did Moffat make me work for it.

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Time Bandits: The Criterion Blu-ray review

The movie portion of this review was previously published at Bullz-EyeStills are not screengrabs from the Criterion Blu-ray.

If you were a certain kind of boy or young teenager in the ‘80s, then there’s a good chance Time Bandits was a very important film for you. Sure, you loved Ghostbusters, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Goonies, but Time Bandits was special in a different way because not everyone else was in on it; it was seemingly dismissed even by most adults (well, the ones I grew up around anyway). For many young people, it was our first introduction to the whacked out joys of Monty Python, even if we didn’t realize it at the time, as Time Bandits is not a proper Python film. But half of the six-man comedy troupe is involved in the picture, and so when we finally got around to discovering Python, we recognized John Cleese and Michael Palin from this film. Little did we know, though, that all of Python’s strange animations were the handiwork of the guy that directed this piece. Wasn’t it refreshing to not have every fact and figure at your immediate disposal way back then? You picked up information over the years while actively seeking it out. Perhaps, as Time Bandits hints, computers really are the playthings of Evil.

David Rappaport and Craig Warnock
However, it’s also possible you were not a certain kind of boy in the ‘80s, or that you’ve never even seen Time Bandits. If so, let’s lay it out there. One night, 11-year old Kevin (Craig Warnock) lies in his bed. Out of his wardrobe tumble six dwarfs on the run from God (who here is referred to as the Supreme Being). He’s their employer and they build trees for him. But they’ve stolen a powerful map from God, and now travel around through history, attempting to loot the past for riches. Kevin follows, and finds himself in all manner of incredulous situations, such as bantering with Robin Hood (John Cleese) or conning Napoleon (Ian Holm) out of his wealth. At the same time, Evil (David Warner, in one of his very best roles) watches over, secretly plotting his takeover of the world via the map, and eventually, an understanding of computers. Exactly what is “The Most Fabulous Object in the World,” and can the inept group of thieves procure it? 

Sean Connery as Agamemnon
As is probably to be expected, Time Bandits works on two different levels. There’s the fantasy/adventure angle for younger viewers, and a sharp, comical script loaded with observations and commentary for the adults. Much of the film’s satire revolves around consumerism and greed, and the lengths to which people will go in order to satiate such desires. Although John Cleese and Sean Connery get top billing (albeit alphabetical), the film’s stars are Warnock and the dwarf actors. David Rappaport plays the leader, Randall, and the emotional backbone of the film is really the relationship between him and Kevin, which is not even remotely a feel-good sort of thing. In fact, the dwarfs aren’t even particularly nice people, and in one segment, when Kevin is separated from them in Ancient Greece, he meets King Agamemnon (Connery), who is more of a father to him than his real father ever was. The dwarfs kidnap Kevin away from his new, perfect life, because they realize he’s actually smarter than they are, and they need him to further their schemes.

David Warner as Evil
Time Bandits didn’t seem a particularly dark movie to me as a kid, but in rewatching it today, I find myself somewhat aghast at how cynical it really is (although even when I was young I realized how fucked up and bleak the final moments of the film are). This really should come as no surprise when you consider that Terry Gilliam unveiled Brazil, the ultimate dark, fantastical social commentary of the 80s, a few years later. (Gilliam was even trying to get Brazil made before Bandits.) While this was Gilliam’s third film (he’d previously co-directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail and helmed Jabberwocky solo), it was the first in which he indulged himself seemingly every whim and idea. Each frame of the movie is crammed with detail, from the important to the trivial, and perhaps what’s most striking about it today is that all the effects are handmade (also the name of the production company – Handmade Films). This is a CGI-free picture, from back when there was no CGI, and it’s all the better for it. It’s a tangible universe; one that you can feel and believe in.

John Cleese as Robin Hood
None of this is to imply it’s a perfect film - just that it’s an ambitious and fun one. While the movie spares little time getting going, it takes forever to end, and much of the big finish, in which Kevin and the dwarfs battle Evil, goes on for far too long, and undercuts some of the intelligence the film is rooted in. When the Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson) shows up, the movie somewhat recovers, but even by then it feels as though the joke has perhaps gone on for a little too long. Yet these are nitpicks from someone who’s seen it countless times, and is possibly taking it all a bit too seriously. Time Bandits remains Fantasy 101, and a must see for people who enjoy this kind of fare. While you’re at it, why not share it with an impressionable 10-year old?

Blu-ray Review & Extras: The previous Image Entertainment Blu-ray release was a visual letdown, and barely deserving of the format, so thankfully Criterion has finally stepped up to the plate and delivered their shining goods via this new 2K digital restoration supervised by Gilliam. Time Bandits soars once again! Ported over from their own previous DVD release is a commentary track featuring contributions from Gilliam, Craig Warnock, Michael Palin, John Cleese, and David Warner (though not all together in one room). A new 23-minute piece traces the design aspects of the film through interviews with costume designer James Acheson and production designer Milly Burns.

Running at a whopping 81 minutes is a revealing conversation between Gilliam and film scholar Peter van Bagh. From the Midnight Sun Film Festival in 1998, the interview was recorded not long after Gilliam finished Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, though that particular film is only briefly discussed at the close. The rest of the conversation traces his growing up in Minnesota, his joining of Monty Python, and talk of each his classic films made until that point. If it’s not the definitive Gilliam interview, it’s certainly up there, and it is always a delight to listen to Gilliam talk life and shop, and here he’s given plenty of time to pontificate.

A short, vintage 8-minute piece from Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow is an interview with Shelley Duvall tied to the film’s release, which more than anything else is a great reminder of how obnoxious Tom Snyder was. There’s a short gallery of photos from the set, and a very funny three-minute trailer that wreaks havoc with the concept of trailer voiceovers - also ported over from the Criterion DVD. (The “Time Bandits Scrapbook,” which ran for 3:13 is absent.) Instead of a booklet, this disc’s essay, entitled “Guerrilla Fantasy” by critic David Sterritt, is printed on a large fold out piece of paper, which flips over to reveal a recreation of the iconic map. It’s not as large as the one in the film, yet would look very nice framed, though I suspect David Sterritt would rather me not recommend doing that. Finally, the disc features a snazzy lenticular slipcover, which may or may not be available on future pressings of the disc.

Photo of fold-out map included in the Criterion disc

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Happy Birthday, Ben Watt!

There’s always time and space to write a little bit more about Ben Watt and/or Tracey Thorn, but today the focus must be on Ben, for two reasons: It’s his birthday (happiest of birthdays, Ben!), and because after nearly 25 years of being a devotee of all things Everything but the Girl, I finally got to see half of the band perform live on Thursday, the fourth of December, 2014. Ben brought his one-man show to the extremely intimate venue of the Cactus Café in Austin, Texas, and it was easily one of the most rewarding “concerts” I’ve ever been to. It was a perfect show - certainly as perfect as a solo Ben Watt, touring his solo album Hendra, could possibly have been, anyway. He played the bulk of the new album, three EBTG tunes, and a pair from his first and only other solo record, North Marine Drive, which dates all the way back to 1983.

But the night wasn’t just about music, it was equally about Watt recounting memories and telling the stories of how all these songs came to be. As a musician who’s also written two books, Ben’s storytelling prowess may be on its way to equaling his musicianship, as he took time out between each and every tune to weave tales of days gone by – some happy, some painful, all poignant. The latter assertion should come as no surprise to anyone who’s followed his music over the years. Ben’s music, Tracey’s music, and the music they’ve created together has always been there for me when I needed it, and though it doesn’t have all of life’s answers, it has more often than not seemed to be asking the same questions as I, at whatever point in my life I was listening. It has always felt as though we were on the same page, and there really isn’t any other body of musical work that I can say that about.

Hendra is an insightful and heartfelt work, and one that, while I enjoyed a great deal prior to hearing him play it live, has now moved up to transcendent. There was just something about seeing and hearing Ben play, for instance, the tune “Forget,” mere feet away from me, that made its messages about regret and loss all the more important. Ben, at one point during the show, copped to the fact that the songs that make up Hendra are perhaps not exactly life affirming, happy-go-lucky tunes. But he insisted that what the album was really about is resilience, and how important it was for listeners to feel that within its ten songs. As I get older, and life’s disappointments stack up, I can think of no other message I’d rather hear.

The idea of releasing a solo album 30 years after the previous one must have been a daunting one for Watt, especially with the immense popularity of EBTG in between. Would people show up? Would anybody care? We did and we do. Watt was generous enough to stick around and chat with the diehards after the show, which made me a bit nervous. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been disappointed by meeting a hero (there are countless talented assholes out there), and the last thing I wanted was to in any way be let down by a guy who’s been half responsible for some of my favorite music ever recorded. But I wasn’t. Ben was as genuine and warm in person as anyone could possibly hope for. 

One of the lyrics on Hendra, from the tune “Young Man’s Game,” is “I’m not as good as I used to be.” I beg to differ, Mr. Watt. You may, in fact, actually be better. I all but begged you on Thursday night to keep doing this, and I want to reiterate that here: Please continue on with this second (third?) act of your career. We need you to give us comfort in the late night hours when everyone else has gone to sleep, or when we’re in the kitchen doing the dishes and everything seems so very ordinary. We need you to keep telling your melancholy stories and weaving your extraordinary truths. Simply, life is made a little bit easier with Ben Watt music playing over its soundtrack. 

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Doctor Who: Death in Heaven

Picking up from the various precarious cliffhangers we were left with last week, “Death in Heaven” goes pretty silly for the first 10 or 15 minutes. In the peculiar pre-credits sequence, Clara dives into an extended deceptive riff about being the Doctor in disguise so as to avoid deletion by a Cyberman. Even stranger is the decision to put Jenna’s eyes into the credits where the Doctor’s should be, which I guess extends the joke. This goes on for several scenes, and if nothing else, it’s sort of amazing to find out exactly how much she knows about the Doctor – maybe more than any other companion.

Last week I cracked wise about whether or not the Londoners would care that they’re being invaded, and it turns out I wasn’t too far off the mark: Selfies. Oh, if poor Karen Gillan was watching, she must have cringed. Speaking of cringing, how about that Cyberpollen? Doctor Who often does weird stuff to get from Point A to Point Q or whatever, and after last week’s set-up, I was curious as to how Moffat would have Cybermen rising from the grave. Never fear! Magic Cyberrain, made up of exploded Cybermen, pouring down on the cemeteries of the world somehow transforms dead bodies into living Cybermen. Surely it didn’t take long for the show to lose loads of viewers based on this process alone (some of the vitriol going around the net seems to confirm this). Don’t expect me to explain it all; I’m not even sure Moffat could explain this beyond what’s on the screen.

UNIT, in the form of Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Jemma Redgrave), her asthmatic scientist sidekick Osgood (Ingrid Oliver), and a bunch of soldiers arrive outside of St. Paul’s. They quickly secure Missy and the Doctor, taking the pair to a hangar, wherein resides Earth Force One. By this point in the episode, it’s pretty clear the stakes are high, and that this is big, big, big stuff. But it gets even bigger when it’s revealed that the world powers have named the Doctor the President of Earth, should an alien invasion occur – placing him squarely in charge of everyone, and specifically the military. The Doctor becomes the thing he’s railed so hard against throughout the entire season.

Read the rest of this season finale recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Nightbreed: The Blu-ray / DVD Combo Pack review

The director’s cut of Clive Barker’s Nightbreed has been a very, very long time coming, and rare is a film more deserving of a top to bottom reworking than this one. Released theatrically in 1990 in a tragically butchered form by Fox, the film should have been Barker’s leap to the big time. While it didn’t necessarily derail his movie career, it certainly didn’t help it, nor did it likely endear the movie business to Barker himself. With a two-hour running time, including 40 minutes of new footage, this is the version of the movie that should have been released 25 years ago.

Yet this new Nightbreed is such an unusual film that it probably wouldn’t have been any more popular at the box office than the tainted theatrical version. It’s just too strange to ever have appealed to mainstream audiences, regardless of its form. But it surely would have amassed a far greater following over the years, and would now be looked back on as one the great horror fantasy films of its time. Maybe it isn’t too late to attain such a title.

Adapted from Barker’s own novel Cabal, the story tells of disturbed young man Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer), who sees therapist Dr. Decker (David Cronenberg) for help with the visions he suffers – visions of a place called Midian. Meanwhile, a vicious masked psychopath is serial killing, and Decker convinces Boone he’s committing the crimes by slipping him psychedelics. But all is clearly not as it seems, and Midian is a very real place beckoning to Boone. Midian, located in a remote area beneath a forgotten graveyard, is where the monsters live – the freaks and genetic misfits that society has no room to accommodate. There they live in peace, away from mankind. But a war is coming, and the inhabitants of Midian will find their reclusive existence threatened by man, with Boone and his girlfriend Lori (Anne Bobby) at the center of the conflict.

The whole point of Nightbreed is that the monsters are the good guys, and humanity is morally corrupt, indecent, and without conscience or empathy. This is also very much the point that was gutted from the theatrical version all those years ago, leaving viewers wondering what the object of the exercise was. The Director’s Cut restores the crucial character and story arcs so that the film now feels well-rounded and full-bodied. Most importantly, the inhabitants of Midian have been brought to the forefront, and Nightbreed is populated by dozens and dozens of creatures – I do not exaggerate when I say that 50 feels like it might be low balling it – many onscreen for just seconds at a time.

Lylesburg (Doug Bradley, Pinhead of the Hellraiser films) is the leader of the colony. Aged and wizard-like, the old man has perpetually bleeding slits on his cheeks, which open to reveal eyes. Narcisse (Hugh Ross), the wild man with peeled back skin and an exposed skull, is Boone’s first tangible proof that Midian exists. Peloquin (Oliver Parker) is the red-skinned, tentacle-headed alpha male of Midian. Kinski (Nicholas Vince), whose head is shaped like a crescent moon – looking like Jay Leno via a Mighty Men and Monster Maker - is one of the first to show Boone kindness. Shuna Sassi (Christine McCorkindale) is covered in deadly needles, like some sort of sexy, birdlike porcupine. And the list could go on and on.

Much like its banner mission of flipping the good guys and the bad guys, Nightbreed seems to thrive on turning horror conventions on their ear, always in the service of casting its heroes in a positive light. It’s almost as if while writing it, Barker would come to a spot and say to himself, “Now what would every other horror writer do here? I think I’ll do just the opposite.” Its themes of persecution frequently hit home emotionally, and it’s sort of amazing how easy it is to care and root for these ghastly creatures in this “horror movie.” It’s the sort of the stuff that’s often the domain of science fiction and fantasy, but almost never horror. And the humans really are awful, terrible people, chewing into their roles with great relish. Charles Haid, best known for his work in Hill Street Blues, tears into it as a local cop, and Cronenberg is such an ideal choice for Decker that it is practically impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Here the infamous visionary behind fare such as Scanners and Videodrome embodies evil incarnate, and a more subversively malevolent movie figure you’ll be hard-pressed to find.

Craig Sheffer has all the makings of a standard, B-movie hero of the time period. There’s little that’s remarkable about his work here, and yet he unquestionably gets the job done. Anne Bobby, however, is a little treasure, and Lori’s story arc is far more the backbone of the picture than Boone’s. Midian calls out to Boone; it’s his destiny. Lori has to work for it, and in many ways she goes on far more of a traditional hero’s journey than the picture’s leading man. One of her great scenes, cut from the theatrical version but restored here, is a musical number early in the film. Set in a raucous dive bar, Lori howls “Johnny Get Angry” to an enthusiastic crowd (all while Boone, in the midst of the worst drug trip ever, looks on). The scene shouldn’t work, and yet it’s now impossible to imagine Nightbreed without it. Perhaps the greatest tragedy to come out of this movie’s mishandling is that Bobby didn’t get a bigger career out of it, which she more than deserved.

Blu-ray/DVD Extras: Shout only provided the Morgue with the standard Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, as opposed to the limited collector’s edition Blu-ray set, which has two extra discs, one of which features the original theatrical cut. While I was initially disappointed that I didn’t get the big set, as I really wanted a copy of the original cut, once I viewed the new version I no longer cared. Frankly, it’s been so long since I last viewed the theatrical cut, I couldn’t line list the differences. I only instinctively know that the new version is clearly and vastly superior, and viewing it makes the old version a relic, probably deserving of being lost to posterity.

Extras include an introduction from Clive Barker and Mark Alan Miller, the gentleman largely responsible for making the Director’s Cut a reality. It plays automatically with the film, but is skippable. The pair also has their own commentary track. Beyond that, there’s a 72-minute making of/remembrance called “Tribes of the Moon,” which includes Craig Sheffer, Anne Bobby, Doug Bradley, Hugh Ross, Simon Bamford, and Christine McCorkidale all waxing light-heartedly nostalgic about their time making the picture. While not definitive (frankly, I’d have killed for some Cronenberg on here), it remains a great deal of fun, and most any fan will be delighted by it. “Making Monsters” is a 42-minute featurette on the makeup and effects, which are stars of the film unto themselves. Here we get thoughts from artists Bob Keen, Martin Mercer, and Paul Jones, who only represent a sliver of Nightbreed’s behind the scenes talent, though they frequently discuss all of the other artists’ contributions. “Fire! Fights! Stunts! 2nd Unit Shooting” is a 20-minute interview with action director Andy Armstrong. Lastly, there’s the film’s original theatrical trailer. All bonus programming is duplicated on both the Blu-ray and the DVD. 

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Doctor Who: Dark Water

Let’s not bury the lede here, and please allow your recapper a bit of gloating. All the way back in my recap for “Deep Breath” I posited that Missy was short for Mistress – the feminine of Master (though to be fair, I was only one of many who did), and of course, it is. Beyond that, I’ve since been in an almost weekly dialogue with numerous fan friends who’ve thrown out a dozen different predictions and possibilities as to who Missy really is, and never did I give up on that initial instinct. It was never going to be anyone else, but to say it’s anticlimactic is to miss the rather innovative point of it all.

For several years there’s been a vocal contingent calling, often rather loudly, for a female Doctor. The only reason people are even able to demand such a development is because it could in theory occur, given how Time Lord physiology appears to operate (really, on no other TV series could one insist that the sex of the lead character needs to change). But just because you can do something, doesn’t mean that you must; there has to be a strong narrative reason behind such a radical shift. Within the series, there’d previously been only one confirmation that a Time Lord could change sex, and that was in “The Doctor’s Wife,” when the Doctor offhandedly referenced a Time Lord named the Corsair, who at some point was a woman. That was a big moment, but this development just dwarfs it.

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete Series DVD review

Cult classic sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati, now making its complete series DVD debut, takes viewers to a much different time – before iPods and Sirius, when AM radio was still a very real thing that people listened to and relied on for news and entertainment. Yes, radio had character, and helped dictate and define our culture, pop and otherwise. Running for four seasons on CBS, from 1978 to ‘82 – a period of major transition in America – WKRP was a wacky workplace comedy that helped pave the way for shows like The Office, 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation today. To discuss what makes the series tick, one must first understand its lunatic cast of characters, who are at the root of every episode, every laugh and every plot development. There are eight principles that can be broken down into three categories.

Management: Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump) is WKRP’s sometimes bumbling but always good-hearted station manager, also known affectionately as “The Big Guy.” Though from time to time he appears to possess a modicum of business acumen, for the most part, he’d rather not be bothered with the day-to-day operations of the station, instead focusing on his hobbies, which include fishing and model trains. The series kicks off with Carlson’s hiring of Andy Travis (Gary Sandy) as the station’s new program director. The level-headed center of the bunch, Travis has been living town to town, up and down the dial, and doesn’t see WKRP as anything more than another stop in his career of rebranding stations and making them profitable. Soon enough, he’ll discover there’s something special about this station that keeps him from moving on to the next one. Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson), Carlson’s bombshell-with-brains secretary, shouldn’t technically fit under management, and yet as the series progresses, it becomes all too clear that without the glue that is Jennifer, the entire enterprise would fall to pieces.

The Disc Jockeys: Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman) is the station’s morning drive man. Like Travis, Johnny’s worked at more stations than he can remember, though that may have more to do with years of drug and alcohol use, which is more hinted at than ever explored. Fever is the show’s wild card, and WKRP never shies away from throwing bizarre, unpredictable plotlines in his path. Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid) is Andy’s first move upon changing the station’s format to rock and roll, hiring the jock “away from a station in New Orleans.” Shrouded in a mysterious past, Venus takes care of the evening shift, playing soothing, laid-back tunes for the greater Cincinnati area. WKRP peels away the Venus onion, giving him a little more backstory every season, and one of the show’s very last episodes (“The Creation of Venus”) brilliantly redefines his introduction way back in the two-part pilot.

Read the rest of the character breakdown, as well as the entire review, by clicking here and visiting Bullz-Eye.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Doctor Who: In the Forest of the Night

If there’s one thing that continues to amaze me about Doctor Who, or more specifically its fans, it’s all the wildly different reactions — most of them valid — to any given episode. I make no claim to offer up definitive interpretations or reactions in my recaps, and likewise it’s frequently baffling when someone insists that a particular episode is awful or without redeeming qualities. Doctor Who often plays its points of view broadly enough that it inevitably leads to differing readings. Pick the greatest and most hailed episode of the series — "Blink," for instance — and somewhere out there is somebody who’ll explain to you how it’s indulgent, poorly written garbage riddled with conundrums, and they might actually have a point. This is a big reason why Doctor Who is great TV: It means something different to every person who watches it, and no two people see it the same way.

With those qualifiers out of the way, "In the Forest of the Night" is the first episode of the season that, for me, doesn’t work within the thematic framework of the ongoing storyline. Yet looking at it objectively, say as a standalone story not related to the bigger seasonal arc, it feels cruel to pick on it or pull it apart. It’s like tearing into Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are for not playing to the adults in the house. This season, which has been so fraught with interpersonal conflict, has been a pretty specific thing, and all of a sudden for this one episode it feels like something that it wasn’t before (and judging by the preview for next week, doesn’t look like it will be again). It’s jarring at this particular juncture, coming right before the finale in which all hell (or perhaps heaven) is about to break loose. It’s too cute, too syrupy sweet — like this season’s been a charging locomotive and here it suddenly runs into a wall of Jet-Puffed marshmallow creme.

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Doctor Who: Flatline

Honest to Pete, it’d be nice if this season could deliver just one truly awful installment, so as a recapper I could have a little fun tearing into the show for a week. (Somewhere out there someone’s saying, “Dude, you had your chance with “Robot of Sherwood” and you blew it.”) “Flatline” continues this unexpectedly wonderful season of Doctor Who by delivering an alien threat unlike anything the series has ever showcased. It simultaneously harkens back to Tom Baker’s swan song, “Logopolis,” in which the TARDIS shrank with the Doctor inside.

The episode demands attention from its opening sequence. A man places an emergency call, frantically babbling about “they” being “everywhere” only to disappear mid-sentence and reappear as a smeared painting on the wall behind where he was standing. The way the camera moves and tilts to reveal his face is like one of those street paintings that only comes into focus when you see it from a certain angle. Sure enough, “Flatline” centers on an alien invasion from a two-dimensional universe, and in ours their deadly handiwork ends up looking like street art – a bizarrely weird idea worthy of Moffat himself, but dreamed up by Jamie Mathieson, who also penned last week’s outing.

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Innocents: The Criterion Blu-ray review

[Note: Screengrabs are taken from the MGM DVD release.]

Two big budget studio ghost stories from the early sixties are cinematic siblings, a notion exacerbated by the fact that in both cases the ghosts may (or may not) be products of overactive imaginations. Those classic films are The Innocents and The Haunting. The latter seemingly steals most of the thunder from the former, but now that Criterion has stepped up to the plate, maybe The Innocents will get some long overdue kudos and love. Based on the 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, The Innocents borrows its title from a stage adaptation by William Archibald, who also worked on the screenplay. Director Jack Clayton wasn’t satisfied with Archibald’s work, so he turned to no less than Truman Capote, who whipped the script into shape, and created the blueprint from which Clayton eventually worked.

Deborah Kerr stars as spinster Miss Giddens, hired by a disinterested uncle (Michael Redgrave) as governess to orphans Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin, in her film debut) at his palatial but crumbling country estate, Bly. Though Bly’s grounds include a staff headed by housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins), Giddens is firmly in charge of the children, and any decisions made about their welfare and well being are entirely in her hands. Giddens learns of the recent troubled history of the estate, namely the untimely deaths of the previous governess, Miss Jessel, and the uncle’s valet, Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde). Soon enough, the visions begin. First Quint and then later Jessel torment Giddens, pushing her to the brink of sanity. The more she learns of the deceased, sexually deviant coupling, the more frenzied she becomes. Soon, Giddens is convinced the pair has evil, dastardly plans for the children, and she’ll go to any lengths to save them.

As to the possible existence of these ghosts, The Innocents is played so squarely down the middle that it really can go either way, and I don’t believe I’ve ever found it as ambiguous as I did upon viewing it via this new Criterion edition. This is to the film’s credit, because in the real world, we (well, most of us) don’t immediately believe someone who says they’ve seen a ghost. Those of us who do not give a season pass on our DVR to Ghost Hunters tend to be skeptical of such claims. The key to appreciating the movie on a level different than ghost story, I believe, is in the viewer’s ability to take Mrs. Grose seriously and not just write her off as a daft old woman who could never understand the supernatural. Because she’s the only other adult playing a major role in the proceedings, and as the movie never shows her as anything other than kindly and wise, her view of events must not only count, but is also crucial. And though Mrs. Grose is far too polite to ever say anything, she clearly believes Miss Giddens to be nucking futs.

I’ve experienced The Innocents on a couple previous formats over the years – official MGM laserdisc and DVD releases - and both were above average presentations, showcasing the movie with a clean print and in its proper Cinemascope 2.35:1 aspect ratio. And yet this Criterion Blu-ray with its spotless 4K transfer remains something of a revelation. This is the sort of movie Blu-ray was made for, as every monochrome frame of The Innocents is crammed with detail that can finally be pored over and analyzed in a home setting like never before. One even wonders if the movie looked this ideal in its original theatrical release.

Blu-ray Extras: Cultural historian Christopher Frayling pulls double duty here, with a 23-minute introduction, as well as helming the commentary track. Though there is a fair amount of overlap between the two, I have to give the guy some props: He’s engaging to listen to and seems to know more than anyone else about this movie; indeed, he may even know more than the people who created it. A new 19-minute interview features cinematographer John Bailey discussing Innocents DP extraordinaire Freddie Francis and his approach to the film and working relationship with Clayton. A relatively short piece (14 minutes) on the making of the film, entitled “Between Horror, Fear, and Beauty,” briefly features Francis himself, as well as editor Jim Clark and script supervisor Pamela Mann Francis. It’s a shame that someone didn’t (or wasn’t able to) round up Pamela Franklin and/or Martin Stephens for commentary as their POVs would seem invaluable to Innocents discussion. The disc also features the film’s trailer and the inner booklet offers up an essay entitled “Forbidden Games” by Maitland McDonagh. From an extras standpoint, not one of Criterion’s strongest showings, but as is nearly always the case with this company, the exceptional film presentation is the real star.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Doctor Who: Mummy on the Orient Express

After last week’s episode, aspects of which seemingly half of Whoville had big problems accepting, it must be reassuring for disgruntled fans to get back to the basics with the far more plausible idea of an invisible mummy stalking people on a flying space train. What’s been so wonderful about this season so far is that no matter how outlandish the plots have been, the emotion-driven, personal aspects have been thoroughly down to earth and relatable. A communication breakdown – the inability for two people to understand each other’s position – must be one of the most common causes of emotional stress and pain, and Doctor Who is seemingly devoting an entire season to exploring it through the lens of the fantastic.

After Clara’s blowup, there was every reason to assume she might not feature in “Mummy,” and all of the publicity over the past week seemed to confirm that. Shrewd marketing BBC and BBC America folk, keeping Clara entirely out of the picture, right up until the episode aired and she stepped from the TARDIS alongside the Doctor, both dressed to the nines. Now that the cat’s out of the bag, can somebody please release some proper publicity shots of Jenna looking so magnificent and classy in her flapper garb? We want those to make memes out of to share back and forth on Facebook. The silver PJ’s were pretty keen, too. I should go ahead and say this if it isn’t already obvious: I am in companion love with Clara, which hasn’t happened for me since Rose Tyler (and long before her, Sarah Jane Smith). Companion love is potentially dangerous, because you become so invested in the fate of the character, that you begin finding it difficult to imagine the show without her, which is never a reasonable place to be as a Doctor Who fan.

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Doctor Who: Kill the Moon

Doctor Who is no stranger to outrageous, unbelievable plots. One could even say the show has practically been built on them. “Kill the Moon” is cut from a cloth that emphasizes emotional wallop and wonder over hard science, and for some folks that could be a difficult hurdle to overcome. If you’re one of the yeahright people (as in “Yeeeaah, right!”), there’s a good chance this episode left you wanting something a little more grounded in reality. But if you’re a Doctor Who fan, and surely you must be or you wouldn’t be reading this, you’re used to suspending pachyderm-sized amounts of disbelief. If you can do that with “Kill the Moon,” it’s a dazzling foray into the beautiful, demanding, and strange, cobbled together around a thrilling sense of uncertainty.

Right off the bat it grabs the viewer with an utterly compelling pre-credits sequence. At first it seemed a function of the script to join the proceedings mid-adventure—as if we’ve been thrown into the middle of a real time episode: 45 minutes are on the countdown timer, Clara and her student Courtney are in the midst of something perilous, and the Doctor is nowhere to be found. Surely he’ll show up to save the day? We’ll find out soon enough that "Kill the Moon" isn’t nearly that predictable. Indeed, whatever criticisms one might have of the episode, predictability surely can’t be one of them (except for one thing, but we’ll come to that).

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Doctor Who: The Caretaker

However you might react to “The Caretaker,” hopefully everyone will at least agree that, given the setup of the season so far, it’s a story that needed to be told, and halfway through the season seems a good time to tell it. We’ve been frustratingly teased with the Doctor/Clara/Danny triangle for the past four episodes, curious to know where it’s headed. Where opinions will differ, I imagine, is over the manner in which the story is told.

The bulk of the triangle’s tease has revolved around Clara’s deceptions, which crumble entirely in "The Caretaker," thanks to the Doctor covertly scheduling an alien invasion intervention in Miss Oswald’s backyard, Coal Hill Secondary School, and finally coming face to face with her boyfriend (and vice versa). One of the cheapest-looking aliens the new series has unveiled, the Skovox Blitzer is attracted to the area because of all the artron emissions, which were likely left by the Doctor himself since the TARDIS materializes and dematerializes at the school regularly, not to mention his numerous other visits to the area in his past lives. The invasion storyline is so rote and B-movie in scope that it must exist only to serve as a basic introduction for Danny to the world of Clara and the Doctor. In any case, the Doctor either hasn’t considered that he may actually be responsible for the alien’s presence, or he has and has chosen to take care of business and not mention that part (to Danny he outright denies it). Either is a real possibility with the Twelfth Doctor.

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Doctor Who: Time Heist

Show of hands: Who else guessed the identity of the Architect as soon as the premise was thrown out there? It wasn’t that there were any particular clues, but with an episode that, per its title, involves time travel, and with X amount of characters on display early on, it seemed sort of obvious. But more detrimental to the perception of this episode is that it arrives on the heels of the groundbreaking “Listen,” which the internet quickly declared one of the best Doctor Who episodes, evah! (It was pretty brill.) Having said all of that, there’s plenty to dig about this episode, starting with Clara’s clothes dryer, and the Doctor being mesmerized by it, which strikes me as quite comical.

It’s that simple domesticity versus unimaginable adventures in time and space that fuels much of the Doctor/Clara dynamic right now. She’s perfectly happy at home, doing Clara things, such as going on a second date with Danny Pink. He’s bored traveling alone, enough so that staring into her dryer holds more revelations than visiting the Crab Nebula. So when the TARDIS phone rings and Clara hasn’t left for her date yet, of course he’ll answer it, at which point they’re instantly propelled into an adventure they know nothing about, alongside two people they do not recognize, Psi (Jonathan Bailey), a cyborg, and Saibra (Pippa Bennett -Warner), a shape-shifter whose look might be modeled on Grace Jones in A View to a Kill.

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Zero Theorem

As someone who’s been a disciple of all things Terry Gilliam for the better part of 30 years, it seems pretty obvious that his most innovative filmmaking days are probably behind him. Those of us that continue to return to his well keep our expectations firmly in check. We don’t expect mind blowing Brazil-level satirical explorations, or profound science fiction trips such as 12 Monkeys, but we are happy to indulge our favorite mad uncle when he unveils something a little less groundbreaking, from somewhere in between, and that’s more or less what The Zero Theorem is.

Set in some nearby hazy nether-future – a grotesque exaggeration of our own reality – the film revolves around hypochondriacal misanthrope Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz, looking like Bob Geldof after he shaved all his hair off in The Wall), a number-crunching programmer working for a soul-sucking mega-corporation called Mancom. He appears to be more than adept at his job, but awful at the rest of life. With virtually no social skills to speak of, Qohen (pronounced “Cohen”), when he isn’t at work, keeps himself holed up in a dilapidated mansion in a sketchy part of town, waiting for a mysterious phone call that he hopes will bring change. His sole desire is to be allowed to work from home, so he can be close to the phone and away from people.

Read the rest of this movie review by clicking here and visiting Bullz-Eye.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Doctor Who: Deep Breath Blu-ray review

Wait a minute! Wasn’t this just on my TV a few weeks ago!? Yes, the feature-length season premiere of Doctor Who, entitled “Deep Breath,” has already made its way to Blu-ray (and DVD), and to entice you into picking up a copy, the BBC has added a few nifty extras that we’ll get to shortly.

The 80-minute Victorian-set, steampunk infused adventure that properly introduced viewers to Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor has already been reviewed here at STARLOG by Matt Delhauer, who had mixed feelings about it, although I wrote a gushing recap over at Vulture, because I’m really rather in love with the whole thing.

The one caveat worth adding at this point is that “Deep Breath,” despite being the beginning of a new era of the series, is probably not a great place for newbies to start. It’s far too rooted in much of the lore set up over the past few seasons to make much sense to someone unfamiliar with the series in recent times. Therefore if you’re a budding Whovian, resist the urges to skip ahead blindly into Capaldi’s maiden voyage as the Doctor.

Read the rest of this Blu-ray review by clicking here and visiting STARLOG.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Doctor Who: Listen

Part of the genius of Season Three’s benchmark “Blink” is how utterly standalone it is, which is why it’s often the go-to installment to show to newbies: The ride can be enjoyed with virtually no knowledge of the Who mythos. “Listen” comes from a different direction; our protagonists are front and center throughout the episode, and far more so than “Into the Dalek,” this feels like a proper introduction to the world of Danny Pink. Whereas “Blink” was about Sally Sparrow and angels that nobody had seen before, this is about the Doctor, Clara, Danny, and ghosts that nobody will ever see.

Perhaps the real difference between the two is where Steven Moffat is as a Doctor Who writer. Back in season three, he was a scribe for hire, likely eager to make another defining mark, but now he’s been the showrunner for five years. Moffat may no longer have any interest in telling a Who story that doesn’t involve the mythos he’s created or is in the process of creating. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as long he can occasionally churn out an episode this inventive. Surely one of the most unexpected, abstract episodes the series has produced since Moffat took over as head writer, “Listen” is the sort of fare that should have the torch-wielding villagers ceasing their charge…well, until the next episode, anyway. The show can’t tell stories like this each week, or everyone’s kids would end up in therapy.

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Mark Gatiss: Robot of Sherwood Interview

Mark Gatiss writes and acts, and we could have an intense debate over which he does better. You’ve seen him onscreen in Game of Thrones as Tycho Nestoris, of the Iron Bank of Braavos, a role he’ll be reprising next year. Even more prominent is his ongoing stint as Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s devious brother in Sherlock, the series he not only writes for and stars in, but also co-created and co-produces with Steven Moffat. Yet we rang up Gatiss to chat about Doctor Who, Moffat’s other series, for which Gatiss wrote this past weekend’s episode, entitled “Robot of Sherwood.”

I had a great laugh — many laughs — watching “Robot of Sherwood.”

Oh, good!

As much as I love Doctor Who, I can’t say that it’s often that I have a big grin across my face through an episode.

The whole intention was to write a kind of romp, really. I’ve always loved the Errol Flynn movie. I love Robin Hood, actually, but that film particularly. To me, the essence of Robin Hood is that it’s a fairy tale. I’ve never had much patience for the muggy, grim versions because I think they’re missing the point, really [laughs]! So the chance to do Robin Hood meets Doctor Who was a bit irresistible.

Read the rest of my interview with Mark by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Doctor Who: Robot of Sherwood

Season Eight has been dark so far, but I don’t think I realized exactly how dark the first two episodes were until I started watching “Robot of Sherwood,” an episode which triggered a huge grin that refused to go away throughout the episode. And it was sort of a relief, because perhaps we needed to be reminded that this show is still capable of and not shy about making us laugh. This is no slight against all the other episodes, but I can’t recall the last time I had so much unbridled fun watching a new episode of Doctor Who. Here the Doctor declares he detests banter. Thankfully writer Mark Gatiss does not, because this episode overflows with witty repartee.

The series hasn’t had a celebrity historical for quite some time. Nothing in season seven unless you count Hugh Bonneville’s Henry Avery. Season six made a joke of Hitler and Nixon figured into its opening two-parter. But there arguably hasn’t been a proper one of these since “Vincent and the Doctor” way back in the fifth season. At that time, based on the strength of the material, I wondered if writer Richard Curtis had maybe “ruined” the format by making the definitive example of it, but here comes “Robot of Sherwood” to thankfully prove me wrong. Maybe the gimmick just needed a good rest, as there have been times when it felt positively strained (I’m looking at you “The Unicorn and the Wasp”).

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Doctor Who: Into the Dalek

After 50 years of Dalek stories, it cannot be easy coming up with something that hasn’t been done before — something that can also be realized on the TV screen. Having exhausted our view of the Daleks from the outside, the show takes viewers inside of one, in an episode that is less about Daleks and more about soldiers and what the cost is for being one; pretty weighty fare by Doctor Who standards, to be sure, though the episode never takes it quite as far as it could’ve.

“Into the Dalek” begins in the middle of an epic space battle, inside the ship of Lieutenant Journey Blue (Zawe Ashton, easily the stand out guest star). Seconds before her death, the Doctor materializes the TARDIS around her, saving her from certain destruction. After threatening him, and the Doctor smooth talking her into saying please, the pair head for her nearby space station of origin, the Aristotle, where the Doctor’s disdain for the military is evident (“Dry your eyes, Journey Blue. Crying’s for civilians…how we communicate with you lot”). Finally, the hook: a war torn, battled-scarred Dalek that is hurt and in pain…yet has somehow miraculously turned “good” via its hatred for all things Dalek. Can the Doctor repair it, the crew wants to know? (It’s never explained whythey care.) One thing’s for sure: He can’t do it alone.

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Doctor Who: Deep Breath

Since last we spoke, loyal readers, it’s been eight months of equal parts anticipation and dread. The former because it’s a new Doctor played by an enormously talented actor whose TV résumé dates all the way back to the time when Peter Davison was still playing the part. The latter because the head writer and lead creative mind on the show is still Steven Moffat, who last time we checked in with him at Christmas proved that even he can cock-up the end of an era that he spent four years shepherding. Would he actually be able to deliver on all of the promises he’s made in the intervening months that we’d be getting a new, reinvigorated version of Doctor Who?

With only one episode down, it’s impossible to answer that question, but based on this 80-minute opener, the future looks tight. To rework some classic dialogue from the Master, an entire season of this level of quality scarcely bears thinking about. Here we’ve been blessed with an episode of Doctor Who that feels like cinema. The scenes play out for four and five minutes at a time. The script isn’t in a rush to get to the end. The performances feel as though they’re building toward something fresh and new, rather than being built upon something that previously existed. The amount of quotable dialogue could make up its own recap. And yet it’s never, ever an “everything but the kitchen sink” type of affair. It has to be one of Moffat’s finest, most restrained and well thought out Who scripts.

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Leviathan: Blu-ray review

In 1989, there were no less than three underwater sci-fi thrillers in cinemas, but only one truly made waves: James Cameron’s masterpiece The Abyss (seriously, a case can be made that it’s his best movie, even if it isn’t his highest grossing or the most popular). The other two films – Deep Star Six and Leviathan – were released prior to Cameron’s movie and failed to find much of a theatrical audience. Eventually, both films moved on to rest comfortably on many a video store shelf, where they found viewers looking for a Friday night distraction. And while Deep Star Six has never really received a decent home video release here in the States, Scream Factory has stepped up to the plate to deliver a nice little Blu-ray of Leviathan.

Set miles below the surface in an underwater mining station, Leviathan tells the story of workers who discover a sunken Russian ship (named ‘Leviathan’), and inadvertently bring aboard an alien evil residing in its bowels. One by one, it begins to pick them off, yet death is not quite the final word for this motley crew. As you might surmise, Leviathan is short on originality, shamelessly cribbing from Alien, Aliens and Carpenter’s remake of The Thing. Curiously enough, aside from its setting, Leviathan bears almost no resemblance to The Abyss.

Read the rest of this Blu-ray review by clicking here and visiting STARLOG.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery Blu-ray review

With the steady, ongoing rise of streaming media, encyclopedic TV-on-Disc collections are heading the way of the dodo bird. So when a classy Blu-ray box set such as Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery hits the market, it’s worthy of celebration. Peaks, with its modest number of installments (30 episodes, two of which are movie-length), is the perfect show to which extra-special treatment should be given, especially in light of its cult following—which, ironically, has increased over recent years thanks to the series’ availability on streaming.

As with the Peaks Gold Box DVD collection from 2007, content producer Charles de Lauzirika is the man that should be celebrated here. Among de Lauzirika’s other home video credits are The Alien Quadrilogy and Blade Runner: The Final Cut, so the guy knows what fans want and this Blu-ray is no exception. But before moving on to the fine collection de Lauzirika has assembled, let’s talk Peaks for a bit.

Read the rest of this Blu-ray review by clicking here and visiting Starlog.