Friday, September 30, 2016

The Good Place (TV): Highly Recommended

The Grinder, The Crazy Ones, Almost Human, Bunheads, not to mention Firefly — Katie-Bar-The-Door and I have a gift for falling in love with television shows the rest of the world doesn't. I have this deep abiding fear that NBC's brilliant (brilliantly nuts!) comedy The Good Place is so very, very good it, too, will join the list.

If you love me, don't let that happen.

The gist of the series? Kristen Bell (star of Veronica Mars, that Disney movie and a bunch of ads on television) is dead and, thank heaven, she's gone to the good place. Except, oops, heaven made a mistake and she most certainly doesn't belong there. Got to keep fooling the amiable dunce (Ted Danson) who runs the place.

Helping her pull off the deception is the guy who's supposed to be her soul mate (but, of course, isn't) (a terrific William Jackson Harper).


It sounds like the set-up for a tedious one-note joke, but it isn't. Each episode goes to an unexpected place, creating an ever-deepening mystery, while exploring the concept of what it means to be good and why being bad is often so much more interesting. The writing is sharp and witty, and the acting is pitch-perfect. Genius.

It airs on NBC, Thursday nights at 8:30 (Eastern). Tomorrow evening (Saturday), NBC will be running a Good Place mini-marathon to give you another chance to catch up. I highly (highly!) recommend that you seize the opportunity.

It's been a hard year for Katie and me — don't make us suffer another tragedy. Watch The Good Place. Watch it now!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Lost In Space (Reprint)

Bill Mumy just tweeted that today is the 51st anniversary of the premiere of Lost in Space. So it is! I wrote a four part essay about the series last year at this time. Here's a short piece of it:

THE ORIGIN STORY "MINISERIES"
Not really a miniseries, of course, but interconnected chapters of one storyline, these five episodes take us from the initial liftoff through the family's first few months on an uncharted planet. Along the way, you'll discover how the Robinsons got lost in the first place, how they reacted to their first close encounter with an alien species, and how the show's best known characters, the villainous Dr. Smith and his odd-couple sidekick, the Robot, came to be on board. Featuring all the best set pieces from the unaired pilot, if you're new to the series or just looking to skim the cream off the top, this is a good place to start.
The Reluctant Stowaway
The Derelict
Island in the Sky
There Were Giants in the Earth
The Hungry Sea

BEST EPISODE OF SEASON ONE
My Friend, Mr. Nobody — A rare episode that centers on Penny (Angela Cartwright), this is a poignant fairy tale about a lonely little girl and her not-so-imaginary imaginary friend. The sort of thing Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone excelled at.

MOST TYPICAL EPISODE OF SEASON ONE
Wish Upon a Star — Filled with the first season's signature elements, this is a top-notch morality tale about the dangers of getting everything you want, featuring wonderfully weird expressionistic cinematography, unexplained alien artifacts, the harsh reality of frontier living and Dr. Smith's self-absorbed jack-ass-ery.

WORST EPISODE OF SEASON ONE
The Space Croppers — A family of shiftless space hillbillies (led by Oscar-winner Mercedes McCambridge) cultivate a carnivorous crop that threatens to devour the Robinsons. This was the series' first full-blown foray into WTF. It wouldn't be the last.

BEST EPISODE OF SEASON TWO
The Prisoners of Space — In this, the best episode of the worst season, a menagerie of alien creatures put the Robinsons on trial for violating the laws of outer space. Kafka with monsters. (Note: You might also check out "The Wreck of the Robot" — MM.)

MOST TYPICAL EPISODE OF SEASON TWO
Revolt of the Androids — A couple of androids drop in on the Robinsons, Dr. Smith hatches a get-rich-quick scheme, and human sentimentality wins the day. This one did at least spawn the catchphrase "Crush! Kill! Destroy!"

WORST EPISODE OF SEASON TWO
The Questing Beast — So many to choose from, among them "The Space Vikings", "Mutiny in Space", "Curse of Cousin Smith", etc. Here, Penny befriends a papier-mâché dragon that is being hunted by a bumbling knight in King Arthur's armor. How can something so campy be so boring?

BEST EPISODE OF SEASON THREE
The Anti-Matter Man — An experiment gone wrong transports Professor Robinson into a parallel dimension where he meets his own evil self. The scenery is summer stock by way of Dr. Caligari, and Guy Williams, having the most fun as an actor since Zorro, gets to chew on all of it. Great stuff, and for those philistines among you who won't touch black-and-white, the best of the color episodes.

MOST TYPICAL EPISODE OF SEASON THREE
Visit to a Hostile Planet — Season three was wildly uneven, but at least it was trying, leavening genuine science fiction with campy comedy. Here, the Robinsons finally make it back to Earth only to discover it's 1947 and everyone thinks they're hostile, alien invaders. A cross between Star Trek and Dad's Army. Good stuff.

WORST EPISODE OF SEASON THREE
The Great Vegetable Rebellion — Featuring a giant talking carrot played by Stanley Adams (Cyrano Jones of Star Trek's "The Trouble with Tribbles"), this is, in the words of Bill Mumy, "probably the worst television show in primetime ever made." So bad, it's good, this is gloriously awful must-see tv.

BEST GUY WILLIAMS (PROF. ROBINSON) EPISODE
Follow the Leader — The spirit of a dead alien warrior possesses Professor Robinson and turns this warm, rational man into a vicious, unpredictable bastard. Dark, moody, occasionally terrifying, pop-culture critic John Kenneth Muir called this episode a parable of "alcoholism in the nuclear family." One of the series' very best.

BEST JUNE LOCKHART (MAUREEN) EPISODE
One of Our Dogs Is Missing — Although set in 1997, the show usually ignored the fact that Betty Friedan was already a household name by 1965, but here June Lockhart gets to show her chops when Maureen is left in charge of the ship while the men are away. Threats abound and she handles them all with brains, bravery and quiet resolve.

BEST MARK GODDARD (MAJOR WEST) EPISODE
Condemned of Space — I've already mentioned "The Hungry Sea" and "The Anti-Matter Man", so I'll go with this one where the Robinsons are captured by a prison spaceship and Major West winds up hanging by his thumbs on an electronic rack. Admittedly, he had more lines in "The Space Primevals" and "Fugitives in Space", but both of those episodes suck. With Marcel Hillaire as a charming murderer who strangles his victims with a string of pearls.

BEST MARTA KRISTEN (JUDY) EPISODE
Attack of the Monster Plants — As daughter Judy, Marta Kristen rarely got a chance to shine but here she showed off a saucy bite as her own evil doppelgänger. Like much of season one, there's a dream-like quality to the mood and cinematography that papers over some of the episode's nuttier flights of fancy.

BEST BILL MUMY (WILL) EPISODE
A Change of Space — As the series' true hero, there are a lot of Will-centered episodes to choose from — "Return from Outer Space", "The Challenge", "Space Creature", among others — but I'll go with this one in which Will takes a ride in an alien space ship and winds up with the most brilliant mind in the galaxy. And still his father doesn't take him seriously! This is one of those episodes that underscores my contention that not all of the trouble Will found himself in was of Dr. Smith's making. (Note: If I were writing this today, I'd probably go with "Return from Outer Space," but this is a valid choice, too — MM)

BEST ANGELA CARTWRIGHT (PENNY) EPISODE
The Magic Mirror — Well, the second best, and like the previously-mentioned "My Friend, Mr. Nobody", this is a poignant fairy tale about coming of age on the final frontier. Here, Penny falls through a magic mirror into a dimension with a population of one — a boy (Michael J. Pollard) who promises she'll never have to grow up. Beautiful and bittersweet.

BEST JONATHAN HARRIS (DR. SMITH) EPISODE
Time Merchant — Let's be honest, from best to worst, they were all Dr. Smith episodes. Originally, I planned to pick the episode where Smith isn't a colossal dick, but it turns out there isn't one, so instead I went with this one, an inventive and visually-Daliesque time travel story that poses the question, "What if Smith hadn't been on the show in the first place?"

BEST ROBOT EPISODE
War of the Robots — The first episode where the Robot crosses over from a mere machine, no matter how clever, into a fully-conscious Turing-Test artificial intelligence. Featuring Forbidden Planet's Robby the Robot. If Will was the show's hero, and Smith its plot-driving irritant, the Robot was its soul. See also "The Ghost Planet", "The Wreck of the Robot", "Trip Through the Robot", "The Mechanical Men", "Flight into the Future", "Deadliest of the Species", "Junkyard in Space".

BEST GUEST STAR
The Challenge — A lot to choose from — among those I haven't mentioned, Warren Oates, Werner Klemperer, Kym Karath, Strother Martin, Wally Cox, Francine York, John Carradine, Daniel J. Travanty, Lyle Waggoner, Edy Williams, Arte Johnson — but I'm going with Kurt Russell who plays a young prince from a warrior planet trying to prove to his father (Michael Ansara) that he's worthy of his trust, respect and love. A good story about father-son relationships, plus Guy Williams gets to show off the fencing skills that earned him the title role as Disney's Zorro.

BEST ALIENS
Invaders from the Fifth Dimension — The cyclops ("There Were Giants in the Earth") is the most iconic, the "bubble creatures" ("The Derelict") the most outré, but I'm going with the mouthless, disembodied heads from this one. Stranded while visiting from another dimension, they need a brain to replace a burned-out computer component and notice Will has a pretty good head on his shoulders. So they task Dr. Smith with bringing it to them on a metaphorical plate. The show would recycle this plotline over and over but the first time out of the box, it feels fresh. Plus their spaceship is cooler than anything Star Trek ever served up.

BEST OF THE REST
The Keeper, Parts One and Two — The only two-parter during the show's run, this one stars Michael Rennie (The Day the Earth Stood Still) as an intergalactic zookeeper looking for two new specimens for his exhibit — Will and Penny! Coming at the midpoint of season one, this was the high watermark of the show's original (serious) concept of a family struggling to survive in a hostile environment. After this, the camp crept in with mixed results.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Star Trek: The Fiftieth Anniversary

It was fifty years ago this evening that Star Trek premiered on NBC. Let's pause for a moment to genuflect.

I'm a big fan of the franchise but I'll bet I'm the only one here whose introduction to it was via the printed page.

Back in 1971, at the age of ten, I was tagging along with my father while he stood in a long, long line at some local government office — I want to say his driver's licence had expired while he'd been overseas, but maybe it was his voter registration — and to keep me occupied, he bought me a book by the award-winning science fiction writer, James Blish, a collection of stories based on episodes of a show I'd never heard of, something called Star Trek.

To that point I had always been a devoted Lost in Space man, but I was hooked and when a year or so later Star Trek showed up in syndication on local television, I took the deep dive and never looked back.

In celebration, here are my ten favorite episodes of Star Trek. Not the ten best, just my ten favorite.

10. "The Naked Time" — an alien something or the other infects the crew and forces hidden personality traits to the surface. It's an old story-telling trope but it's handled extremely well here. Also known as "Sulu with a sword."

9. "Journey to Babel" — spies, murder, a sneak attack and a ship full of cranky diplomats, some with antennae. Also known as "the one with Spock's parents."

8. "The Doomsday Machine" — a Captain Ahab story, with William Windom as a half-crazed captain who risks everything to chase his great white whale, a mile-long planet-killing machine that destroyed his ship and killed his crew.

7. "Errand of Mercy" — Kirk and Spock try to save a planet from a Klingon occupation only to discover that the primitive, peaceful inhabitants don't need saving. Like all good science fiction, this one sets your preconceptions on their ear. Introduced the Klingons, Star Trek's greatest villains.

6. "The Corbomite Maneuver" — in an early episode, a giant ship threatens to destroy the Enterprise. Kirk responds not with phasers but with quick wit and fearless compassion, setting the tone for the entire series. Features perhaps the greatest story-telling twist in franchise history.

5. "Mirror, Mirror" — known to one and all as "Spock with a beard," here Kirk and his away crew wind up in an alternate universe where the Federation is an empire and assassination and genocide are just good business practices.

4. "The City on the Edge of Forever" — number one on a lot of lists, Kirk and Spock are thrown back in time and have to make a great sacrifice to save the future of humanity. Had a famously troubled production history: science fiction great Harlan Ellison penned an award-winning script (available here) that Gene Roddenberry heavily rewrote. The best version of this episode, in my humble opinion, was written by the aforementioned James Blish, who combined the best elements of the Ellison and Roddenberry versions (here).

3. "The Devil in the Dark" — a murderous monster has killed fifty men deep in the mines of Janus VI. Featuring another of the series' greatest twists, Kirk proves compromise and compassion can be pretty ballsy choices. Television science fiction at its finest.

2. "Balance of Terror" — a thinly-disguised retelling of The Enemy Below, Kirk matches wits with a Romulan captain threatening interstellar war. One of the best episodes at depicting a crew beyond the bridge, it's exciting, tense and poignant. Introduced the Romulans.

1. "The Trouble with Tribbles" — utterly goofy, utterly brilliant, the delicate peace between the Federation and the Klingon Empire is almost brought to an end by a furry ball of fluff with a prolific sex life. The funniest episode of what was often a very funny show.

Did I leave out your favorite? Tell us about it in the comments section below.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

If You Only Know The Late Arthur Hiller As The Director Of That Crap Movie Love Story, Try These Instead

Love Story! Love Story! Bad enough the man is dead, all the papers think to mention is that he directed Love Story. Love Story stunk on hot ice in 1970 and it stinks worse now!

Try these instead:

1) The Americanization of Emily (1964) — A tart anti-war comedy starring James Garner and Julie Andrews in arguably their finest roles.

2) The In-Laws (1979) — Peter Falk as a CIA agent, Alan Arkin as his impossibly buttoned-down in-law. The most underrated comedy of the 1970s.

3) The Hospital (1971) — A savage black comedy about the sorry state of American medicine starring George C. Scott and a very hot Diana Rigg.

4) The Out-of-Towners (1970) — A salesman and his wife (Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis) try to check into a hotel in New York for 101 hilarious minutes.

and

5) the very first episode of television's The Addams Family! You gotta love a guy who directed the very first episode of The Addams Family!

Monday, August 8, 2016

Professor Abronsius's Robustly Random, Eccentrically Inquisitive, Garlic-Infused Mid-Summer Back-To-School Quiz

From Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. Play along on your own blog, here in the comments section or at Sergio Leone's site.

1) Name the last 10 movies you've seen, either theatrically or at home
Last ten movies? I can't remember the last ten minutes! Okay, okay, the last ten movies I saw for the very first time — that's the best I can do: Love & Friendship (2016) (yes!); The Rum Diary (2011) (no); Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) (yes!); The Martian (2015) (a qualified yes); Der Müde Tod (1921) (not really); Bardelys the Magnificent (1926) (yes); The Parson's Widow (1920) (yes); The Jungle Book (2016) (yes); Spectre (2015) (no! worst Bond film since Moonraker); Beyond the Line of Duty (short) (1942) (no).

2) Favorite movie feast
I assume this means a feast that takes place in a movie, in which case, the dinner party at the end of The Thin Man. Otherwise, that time Katie-Bar-The-Door and I ate chicken wings at Wings Over College Park while watching Rear Window, which happened to be on behind the counter. Speaking of which ...

3) Dial M for Murder (1954) or Rear Window (1954)?
Is this a trick question? Rear Window, of course!

4) Favorite song or individual performance from a concert film
Pete Townshend's performance of "Drowned" in The Secret Policeman's Ball


First runner-up: Anita O'Day (Jazz on a Summer's Day)


Second runner-up: The Beatles performing "Hey Jude" on The David Frost Show


Excluding another film from the same director, if you were programming a double feature what would you pair with:

5) Alex Cox's Straight to Hell (1986)?
Never heard of it, but from the look of the poster, I'd guess something by Tarantino.

6) Benjamin Christensen's Haxan: Witchcraft Throughout the Ages (1922)?
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

7) Federico Fellini's I vitelloni (1953)?
Never seen it. Didn't The Earrings of Madame de ... come out the same year?

8) Vincente Minnelli's The Long, Long Trailer (1953)?
Such a bad, bad movie, I'd have left the theater long, long before it was over. Pair it with Endless Love, my least favorite movie ever.

9) Sam Peckinpah's The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)?
Dunno, Little Big Man, another comedy western from the same year, perhaps?

10) George Englund's Zachariah (1971)?
Never heard of it. Based strictly on the poster, Tommy.

11) Favorite movie fairy tale
Is The Wizard of Oz a fairy tale?

12) What is the sport that you think has most eluded filmmakers in terms of capturing either its essence or excitement?
Snooker.

13) The Seventh Seal (1957) or Wild Strawberries (1957)?
The Seventh Seal

14) Your favorite Criterion Collection release
Robinson Crusoe On Mars.

15) In the tradition of the Batley Townswomen's Guild's staging of the Battle of Pearl Harbor and Camp on Blood Island, who would be the featured players (individual or tag-team) in your Classic Film Star Free-for-all Fight?
An amusing bit from Monty Python. No need to do it again.


16) Throne of Blood (1957) or The Lower Depths (1957)?
Throne of Blood

17) Your favorite movie snack
popcorn

18) Robert Altman's Quintet — yes or no?
Never heard of it.

19) Name the documentarian whose work you find most valuable
Bruce Brown.

20) The Conversation (1974) or The Godfather Part II (1974)?
The Godfather Part II

21) Favorite movie location you've visited in person
I've worked in and/or visited many places that are incidentally movie locations, but I can't honestly say I think of them in those terms.

22) If you could have directed a scene from any movie in the hope of improving it, what scene would it be, and what direction would you give the actor(s) in it? (question submitted by Patrick Robbins)
In Bull Durham, Kevin Costner's line reading of "Come on, rook. Show me that million-dollar arm, 'cause I got a good idea about that five-cent head of yours." The only clunker line-reading in an otherwise terrific movie.

23) The Doors (1991) or JFK (1991)?
Neither.

24) What is your greatest film blasphemy or strongest evidence of your status as a contrarian? (H/T Larry Aydlette)
A contrarian is a conformist who pretends to think for himself.

25) Favorite pre-1970 one-sheet
Gone with the Wind

26) Favorite post-1970 one-sheet
Star Wars

27) WarGames (1983) or Blue Thunder (1983)?
War Games

28) Your candidate for best remake ever made
The Maltese Falcon (1941) with Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Elisha Cook, the third version of Dashiell Hammett's classic novel.

29) Give us a good story, or your favorite memory, about attending a drive-in movie
Saw four or five movies at the drive-in as a kid. Forget the nostalgia and mythology, it was a miserable way to see a movie.

30) Favorite non-horror Hammer film
None.

31) Favorite movie with the word/number "seven" in the title (question submitted by Patrick Robbins)
Seven Samurai is the best, but The Magnificent Seven (1960) is my favorite.

32) Is there a movie disagreement you can think of which would cause you to reconsider the status of a personal relationship?
No.

33) Erin Brockovich (2000) or Traffic (2000)?
Most decidedly neither.

34) Your thoughts on the recent online petition demanding that Turner Classic Movies cease showing all movies made after 1960
Daft nincompoopery, to put it mildly. The petition, that is, not my thoughts.