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.