30 August 2018

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23 August 2018

Shows I Didn't Finish - Science Fiction and Fantasy Edition

Shows I Didn't Finish – Science Fiction and Fantasy Edition
by Kristin Battestella

Maybe these recent short-lived genre shows deserved more of a chance. Unfortunately, they don't really sell why I should make the time or the inclination. 

The Crossing – Forty-seven refugees on the Pacific Northwest coast are really Americans from the future with super powers in this eleven episode series from 2018. The premise of unexplained arrivals near Seattle tangling with a government agency is immediately akin to The 4400 amid cliches such as the new sheriff with past family issues, cryptic little kids, and officials on the case pawing over jurisdiction because the script says so. The bending time process with talk of future evil corporation takeovers and genetic destiny sound interesting. However, moles, kidnappings, a future virus carried to the past, and worries about isolation and outbreak are treated as afterthoughts between car chases, plot of the week detours, hip music, hot guys, and trailer chic. Poorly paced writing leaves basic questions hanging in faux serious beats – false crescendos and needless actions build to a commercial exit with all the tension in the wrong place. Time wasting visuals linger yet camera shots are only three or four seconds. It's tough to tell a story in such fast intercuts or on the move scenes with up to four plotlines per episode elbowing for room. Drives take long if people talk on the phone for the ride, but the trip is instantaneous for a nick of time rescue when over-compensating action is needed. Confrontations are merely angry phone calls between hollow, arms length conversations relying on more cellphones, laptops, and technology. Investigators watch tablet videos of survivors talking – we don't see the first hand interviews, just watch people watch a video that happens to be the information the audience needs. People tell others what to do when they should already know in redundant dialogue as the point of view bounces between superfluous characters alongside miscast, ham-fisted acting. Multi-ethnic arrivals telling of a terrible future and how now is so peaceful with freedom and rights is totally tone deaf, and the obvious suspicion and xenophobia underestimate viewers while the biblical references go nowhere. Since there's no onscreen stamp or indication of how much time has passed, the DNA tests, barely there doctors, and should have been essential quarantines seem far too late. The loose flashbacks and voiceover montages play catch up with car accidents, more arrivals, timeline changes, and opportunistic assassinations, proceeding more like a regular thriller than science fiction. These network genre television shows try to be edgy yet remain perpetually trapped in a weekly framework – dragging out thin, easily resolved plots over several episodes while delaying the primary storytelling just to meet the prerequisite quota. This should have been a taut eight episodes, yet nine different writers and ten different directors apparently have no idea what's happening here.

Extant – Halle Berry (X-Men) stars in two thirteen episode seasons of this 2013-15 CBS science fiction mystery from producer Steven Spielberg. After a year long solo mission, our astronaut has returned to earth pregnant despite being infertile with her scientist husband Goran Visnjic (ER). There's a futuristic trash can cum instant garbage disposal, GIF photo albums, and outer space effects morph into kid toys – an overused transition accentuating the immediately try hard mix of near future family and just for the cool high tech. Touch screen bathroom mirrors, virtual reality presentations, automated cars, and clear tablets are imminent enough and make the more fantastic android son, robots learning the human experience, and science versus the soul debates feel redundant and windblown. Not to mention all the flashy future tech will look terribly dated in the next decade. Shadowy figures in the hedge and people still believing in a lack of technology get stalled again for our parents in the shower so she can dream about her previously deceased boyfriend. Friend and doctor Camryn Manheim (The Practice) is likewise stuck with the cliché pregnancy revelations, however the implications of this unknown violation are frightening thanks to a zero gravity space station flashback with contaminated samples, interrupted transmissions, system shut downs, and well done interstellar graphics. The male voiced computer, older keyboards, switches, and panels add to the space station perils amid blackouts, faulty airlocks, help me messages, and visions of the deceased. Recent suicides and other incidents at her privatized space firm require psych evaluations and a possible quarantine, but this intriguing story looses steam when intercut with her husband's radical robotics. Ominous agencies are awakening men in stasis alongside mysterious grants and conspiracies – again resorting to stereotypical elements before the audience has a chance to digest the moral implications against the possibilities of great science. Secret meetings in the park and suspicious messages would move the conspiracy forward yet the editing again goes back and forth between the space station gaps and the mysteries at home. This entire debut could have been the solo mission scares before the difficult return home with supposedly not so dead astronauts knocking on her door whispering about trusting no one. This series was announced at almost the exact time Gravity was released before premiering the following season, and such visual need to capitalize makes it's tough to enjoy the character dilemmas. The intercut editing rushes the fantastic drama in forty-two minutes or less, making it easy to quit early despite an interesting premise and fine cast. 

Legend of the Seeker – Compared to Game of Thrones taking eight years for seventy-three episodes or Merlin taking five years for sixty-five shows, today, two twenty-two episodes seasons is a really big episode order for this 2008-10 series based on the Terry Goodkind books. It's surprising this series lasted that long thanks to an unfamiliar cast playing dress up and looking modern young amid mystical texts, knights, magical barriers between realms, powerful stones, and a beefy guy chopping wood in slow motion just because. The cast plays the who is who or in charge details, rules of magic, and clunky dialogue totally serious, making the unnecessary slow motion per every scene laughable yet lacking in the tongue in cheek humor of its Hercules and Xena production progenitors. Despite epic New Zealand vistas, horseback chases, confessors, wizards, and ethereal ladies; it's tough to care because the audience is overwhelmed with constant exposition dumps, just for cool whisking arrow shots, and slaughter of the first born flashbacks lifted straight from The Ten Commandments. He doesn't know, finds out, doesn't want to know, then uses the good for vengeance – the sacrificial family tropes, Chosen One destiny cliches, and basic thousand year old prophecies don't flow with any gravitas thanks to the constant rushing. Flash and action compromise the runes, sword of truth, rustic medieval setting, and magic mood. Instead of a faithful mini series, this comes off like a juvenile, rhythm-less cross between Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter rather than its own literary mythos, reaching with a trite villain a la Richard Lewis in Robin Hood: Men in Tights in the lull before all the gritty fantasy television Thrones hype. There's no time for a sense of awe or wonder – we're told there are oppressed people under a dark lord and now they have hope because of the seeker, but we never see it. In a time when television was switching to the shorter, arc storytelling boon we have today, fifteen different writers in Year One alone tread the episodic fantasy tires here. Perhaps this grows up as it goes on – there are certainly enough episodes to get itself together – however, I'm not going to wait through thirty hours of television for a maybe.

The Musketeers – Horses, capes, and muskets accent this 2014 BBC adventure alongside famous French names and the occasional monsieur or mademoiselle. The credits, however, are modern roguish rather than 1630 swashbuckler – matching the contemporary cut costumes, sardonic dialogue, messy hair, and silly mustaches. Despite period buildings and décor, the dark alley chases, anonymous bar fights, and surprising lack of color are too bland for the material. Interchangeable action, tiring slow motion, and over-edited confrontations made gritty miss the Dumas spirit. Any witty or charm has no time to banter amid convoluted crimes, espionage fake outs, and secret corruption almost as if the show is afraid to let a scene play out and instead prefers cliché manpain, trite revenge, hollow dangers, and typical plots of the week that happen to have swords. Intrusive crescendos interrupt the manipulated king, shootouts, poisons, prison riots, and black widowing when subtly better serves the off screen screams, hypocritical religion, and ruthless violence. More interesting conflicted characters take a backseat to duels in the snow, dungeons, and stolen gunpowder while meandering, run of the mill preposterous hurts any attempt at something serious – leaving intrigue, treason talk, or threats to cut off limbs brief and superficial. The female roles are likewise not characters in their own right. Be it a whore or a queen and whether it's being caught in the crossfire, helping the ruse, or kissing one and all; every woman is used by the men each week. Mature guests such as Jason Flemyng (X-Men: First Class), Vincent Regan (300), Tara Fitzgerald (The Woman in White), and Sean Pertwee (Dog Soldiers) would have been fun regulars, and Hugo Speer (The Full Monty) is a better musketeer than all the pretty boys like Santiago Cabrera (Merlin). Unfortunately, this desperate to be cool yarn is not a literary drama like British television is so good at doing. Pirates and slavery are out of place topics when nothing seems to be happening in overlong episodes confusing the obvious with redundant, showy set ups and back and forth double talk on who's protecting or plotting against the king. How did this last three seasons? This series would have been better as stylish special event movies several times a year like Sharpe where they could have just, you know, adapted the books rather than sucked the joy out of the plumes.

18 August 2018

The Mary Tyler Moore Show Season 1

Great Promise in Memorable Mary Tyler Moore Season One

by Kristin Battestella

Everybody toss your tam o' shanter!

The 1970-71 twenty-four episode debut of The Mary Tyler Moore Show introduces viewers to the idealistic Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) as she moves to Minneapolis after a broken engagement, rents an apartment above Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman), and becomes best friends with Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper). Mary accepts a job as associate producer at the perpetually low rated WJM-TV News under boss Lou Grant (Ed Asner) alongside writer Murray Slaughter (Gavin MacLeod) and incompetent news anchor Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) in the “Love is All Around” premiere, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show keeps the situation refreshingly simple without any drawn out crass jokes about being ditched. This move is an opportunity to get on with life complete with at home misunderstandings, newsroom bustle, and borrowed flowers from the formerly intended doctor. Bemusing interruptions and subtle winks accent the likable start – although the ratings demographics age twenty-nine cut off means Mary isn't a young person anymore in “Today I am a Ma'am.” She's shocked to be called ma'am by a younger mail boy, adding to the debate about why older single women can't live perfectly happy lives. Of course, Mary and Rhoda resort to some desperate dates in this the first of many romantic snafus and party mix ups with awkward asides in Mary's tiny kitchen. The Mary Tyler Moore Show addresses ageism, looks, settling for a stinky guy, and the embarrassment of it all with early episodes spending time establishing the domestic because it was more common to see the women's dilemmas there than in the witty office bookends. In “Divorce Isn't Everything” The Better Luck Next Time Club for Divorced People has a meeting with all the expected come ons as everyone seeks something from somebody by both oversharing or under false pretenses, and it's just like social media! The humorous turnabouts highlight the typical talk of a woman sprucing herself up after a divorce for a new man and why aren't you married yet or how is a girl like you single intrusions. The Mary Tyler Moore Show goes beyond its titular star with more scenes featuring the ensemble as the season progresses, balancing on the job happenings with the old school snow footage, local election coverage, and retro telethon style of “The Snow Must Go On.” WJM vows to stay on the air until a winner is declared despite short staff, power outages, and down phones. They have no way to know the numbers and hours of air time to fill in this well-edited bottle show with onscreen ad libs and behind the scenes mayhem. The Second Annual Television Editor Awards also puts the office a flutter for “Bob and Rhoda and Teddy and Mary” while Rhoda's steady seems to be “group dating” both her and Mary, combining the jealousy and awards gags as the delightful discomfort ensues. 

Not only does Mr. Grant's cameraman nephew film existential ants at the scene of a fire, but he's a little too handsy in “He's All Yours” and brags about it in the newsroom. Although her colleagues defend Mary's good reputation, they also want the juicy details and refuse to believe that nothing happened. Phyllis' Freudian psychology likewise backfires in another charmer rebuffing ageism and sexism as the older ladies refuse a younger jerk. The holiday classic “Christmas and the Hard-Luck Kid II” captures everything this Mary Tyler Moore Show debut is about with our single gal alone at the station on Christmas – guilt tripped into working by veteran family men because what's the holiday to one who has nobody? From the nativity scene said to be in Mary's desk drawer and the two inch tree she leaves on Mr. Grant's desk to the White Christmas and adults snooping in the presents, a wonderful nostalgia accents the sadness of the season amid radio chatter, scary night shift noises, and charming Nutcracker dances. When offered more money as a ladies talk show producer at a rival network in “Party Is Such Sweet Sorrow,” Mary can't afford not to take the job. Although she respects how Mr. Grant took a chance on her and it's a little early for The Mary Tyler Moore Show to have a quit/not quit plot, it's important for her to make a resounding career choice alongside the touching goodbye party moments and coworker repartee. Hey, I'd like to go ice skating with Mary and Murray on their lunch hour for “Just a Lunch!” Unfortunately, a rugged ace war reporter who's married but says he is separated wants more from the uncomfortable Mary after their business lunch. What happens to the other gal when a separated man goes back to his wife? Mr. Grant knows a charming man's man is dangerous to a lady, but Mary insists on defeating this taboo flirtation herself before “Second Story Story” addresses our lady living alone fears when her apartment is robbed. She's upset that a stranger has been in her home – and stolen her new cape – but Mary shouldn't have to apologize for being emotional after a burglary. While the crusty cop versus the officer interested in Mary aspect is thin, character moments that would become one of the series' hallmarks shine as Mary fumbles through the giant phone book looking for the police number and Rhoda screams for help to make them arrive faster. Pat Finley (The Bob Newhart Show) guest stars as overbearingly perky receptionist Twinks in “A Friend in Deed.” She thinks one week of camp with Mary in 1950 means they are BFFs and makes Mary her maid of honor in another somewhat typical plot, but The Mary Tyler Moore Show gets the always the bridesmaid never the bride ugly dress out of the way before the “The 45-Year-Old Man” Season One finale. The headhunting new station manager has Mr. Grant's penciled in next, causing resistance with talk of unions, strikes, and protests. The cowboy stuff is a little silly, but guest Slim Pickens (Blazing Saddles) as WJM owner Wild Jack Monroe is won over by Mary in what is clearly her apartment redressed as his rodeo penthouse. Although perhaps a letdown as a finale, this half hour ironically mirrors the famous series finale with threats of the ax, tissues, and hugs.

In addition to some stereotypical storylines, The Mary Tyler Moore Show also has the occasional off color term with Oriental and native throwaway lines alongside convenient who speaks Spanish or French references and other inconsistencies or changes. Casually mentioned relatives are also never heard of again, and the balance between humor and seriousness is off for “Keep Your Guard Up.” This first mostly office plot has a former second string football player turned insurance salesman hoping to be a twenty grand a year sportscaster, and it's frustrating when Mary can't help everyone who inevitably preys on her kindness. Early on The Mary Tyler Moore Show there isn't a lot of the character development to come, but rather a more traditional situational focus with Mary amid the usual sitcom plots. Although this makes the series a little typical before it finds its own progressive footing, it's probably smart to endear the audience with familiar tales coming from the gal they loved on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Associate Producer Mary, however, is really still little more than a then more socially acceptable secretary making coffee, filing papers, doing mailers, and answering the phones. It's also somewhat silly how everyone acts like they can't hear the tete-a-tetes in Mary's kitchen or Lou's office when there are only mere partitions between them. John Amos (Good Times) as weatherman Gordy is also mentioned several times before appearing in a mere four episodes – usually for a sarcastic comment about erroneous weather predictions or people mistaking him as the sportscaster. We're told he's married with a daughter and expecting another, yet there was no reason for Gordy not to be featured more. Valerie Harper's then husband Richard Schaal (Slaughterhouse-Five) is also repeatedly stuck as both the obsessive Howard and his dull screenwriter brother Paul in the clunky “Howard's Girl.” Though originally aired in January 1971, when viewing back to back now after the stellar Christmas charmer, this half hour is even more of a let down with supposedly cute bungling made too awkward and an embarrassing visit to meet Paul's parents – who of course, praise Howard to the point of it being asinine. Even the View-Master nostalgia can't save this one.

Late Golden Globe winner Mary Tyler Moore's Mary Richards made the decision to leave her two year engagement to a doctor who couldn't say I love you and objects to being asked personal questions that have nothing to do with her qualifications in a job interview – before admitting she is a non-smoking thirty year old Presbyterian. She may have left college early for this broken proposal but won't settle, and the blasé doctor and over the top Howard back to back provide Mary a chance to turn down the wrong men early even if she has trouble being forceful in awkward situations. Subtle dialogue also suggests she can relate to being the only virgin in college, and there are winks about what a man wants from a girl like her or what she is missing by being unmarried. Mary is known to keep brandy stashed in her upper cabinet, too, however, the innuendo doesn't get nasty, and Mary remains ridiculously neat and unable to call Mrs. Morgenstern or Mr. Grant by their first names. She sews for Rhoda and paints furniture but says her popular cheerleader days maybe weren't that happy, for she drove a used brown Hudson and sneezed while playing the dead Juliet. Mary admits she isn't good at exerting authority and knows people think they can take advantage of her long fuse, but by the end of the season, her hair is pulled back and she wears more pants, already having grown up in this debut. Unfortunately, Mary takes off her heels and slouches, worrying she is a self-conscious height bigot in “Toulouse-Lautrec Is One of My Favorite Artists” after hitting it off with an author shorter than she is. Wonderful sight gags, Freudian slips, and witty opposites accent the Emmy winning direction as Mary's short versus tall dating and newsroom action collide. Mary's audited in “1040 or Fight,” too, thanks to her eighteen cents postage due and deductions on $15 worth of shoes under “office supplies.” Of course, when the accountant falls for her charms, the water cooler implication is that the pillow talk helped in her audit. Again rather than saucy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show keeps the superior banter adorable with grazing kisses and mixing business with pleasure politeness. Now if only we all owed $16.73 on our taxes! Although the crabby can get tiring with repeat viewings, there are some gems in “Hi!” when Mary has her grown back tonsil (yes just one) taken out and grates with her hospital roommate Pat Carroll (Cinderella). The too small nightgown, arguments over the black and white hospital television and its giant remote clicker at $7.50 a day, too much ice cream, and Mary's embarrassment over it all become a sort of goodbye to girly childhood, and who knew that the WJM News is actually a great show if you view it as comedy.

Here before her own eponymous spin-off, Emmy winner Valerie Harper's sassy New Yorker Rhoda Morgenstern says Mary's life is a Walt Disney movie compared to hers. She makes lists of single men, listens to the downstairs apartment through the heater vent, and is often in a battle of insults with Phyllis when not getting stuck in the lotus position. Store window dresser Rhoda makes more money than Mary but resents how Mary resolves everything with a smile. Not to mention she has the better apartment and doesn't know how to decorate it, unlike Rhoda's attic study in hot pink, beaded curtains, bean bags, and fur. She was overweight when in her school marching band, still wishes she could have surgery to remove exactly eleven pounds of fat, and insists chocolate goes straight to her hips. Initially, we don't know much else about Rhoda beyond the fat jokes – she's dressed down in frumpy tent dresses or baggy sweatsuits just to visually contrast Mary. Even her eating bacon or steak isn't so much about not keeping kosher as it is splurging on a diet, and Rhoda thinks a magnifying mirror makes her face looks like moon craters. Fortunately, rather than being just crude jabs, such zingers and flaws make the character human. Rhoda does catch a wealthy boyfriend for “Smokey the Bear Wants You.” She's aware a guy doesn't choose her over Mary often and thus is willing to overlook their suspicions that he's in organized crime – until he wants to leave his then cushy thirty thousand a year VP position to be a forest ranger making a mere ten. City girl Rhoda doesn't do the outdoors, over-packing for a hike to win this opposites attract romance in a singular performance from Harper. Although Rhoda doesn't write as often as her overbearing mother would like, we understand the need for her to breakaway, for when she sends money home, her mother uses it to buy gifts and guilt trip Rhoda with sentimental cards. Nancy Walker's (McMillan & Wife) first visit as Ida Morgenstern in the award winning “Support Your Local Mother” leaves Mary caught as the go between as Ida tries sticking money in her pocket while they chase each other around the pullout over Ida's feigning to leave for a five buck a night motel. 

She's self-absorbed and thinks it is the worst thing that Mary's not getting married, but Oscar winner Cloris Leachman's (The Last Picture Show) Phyllis Lindstrom confesses it sucks surrendering her ego to her boring and perpetually unseen dermatologist husband Lars. Phyllis has a degree, sculpts, learns Esperanto, and follows all the latest fads – from a dance to end capital punishment and being frozen after death to beating a table with a chain to age it while working off her inner hostility. Mary reluctantly hires Phyllis for $82.57 a week in “Assistant Wanted, Female.” However, Phyllis refuses to let the schedule tie her down and objects to the term assistant because it is inferior to coworker. Lou, on the other hand, wants to fire “Princess Margaret Rose” immediately. Billed as a Special Guest, Leachman appears in half the Season One episodes, mostly early in the season before Phyllis is mentioned or spoken to on the phone. Lisa Gerritsen (also of the spin-off Phyllis) as Phyllis and Lars' daughter Bess also appears in two early episodes. In “Bess, You Is My Daughter Now,” she dons her mother's make up and wig before acting out and locking herself in the bathroom. Bess calls her mother by name, and Phyllis lends Mary all the in vogue child rearing books when Bess stays with her while Lars has chicken pox. Mary's caught between being a responsible grown up and a caring friend letting a kid be a kid – but it's all fun complete with a delightfully seventies feel good shopping montage. Unfortunately, thanks to superb writing with great, cranky punchlines, Ed Asner's (of the post-Mary drama Lou Grant, too) often knackered and gruff but lovable boss Lou Grant gets upset when he can't curse around kids or guests in the newsroom. He respects Mary's moxi even if he hates her spunk and gets tough if her work is rotten because he likes giving her difficult jobs in which she learns to be more assertive. Lou has no compassion or patience for Ted's stupidity, yet he buys a knock off trophy as an award for the newsroom, protects Mary as if she were one of his own daughters, and says he's happiest at WJM. Sure their news show is unsuccessful, but Mr. Grant delegates blame and knows how to play upon Mary's guilt. Lou turns down Mary's invitations in “The Boss Isn't Coming to Dinner” because he and his unseen wife Edie have separated. While he's happy to be empty nesters, she goes back to college at forty-three in this sympathetic battle of the sexes. Why would a middle-aged housewife want a PhD in home economics? Lou acts like the prospect of “Doctor and Mr. Grant” doesn't bother him and protests Mary's advice, however, he eventually comes around and invites Mary over to eat the leftovers from Edie's Home Ec test.

Gavin MacLeod's (The Love Boat) sarcastic news writer Murray L. Slaughter has all the insults for Ted but becomes a nosy pal for Mary. Murray says Ted can't say anything intelligible unless he writes it, yet when donning a gray wig to fill in for the sick Ted, Murray begins acting just like him. While Murray would sail to Tahiti if he could, he loves his family and settles for wallpapering his rec room. Joyce Bulifant (Match Game) as Murray's pregnant wife Marie appears in two episodes, and scenes featuring Murray and Ted's banter increase as the season progresses with “We Closed in Minneapolis” as a late season spotlight. Murray's been writing a play for three years, and after several rejections, Ted submits it to the local theater just so he can play the lead. Everyone says it is very good play, but the life imitating art plot is too much thanks to a drama critic's scathing review. Lou thinks Murray is a terrific news writer and wonders why that isn't achievement enough, and in retrospect, this is an interesting episode with Mary saying her life ambition is to be a wife and mother – which doesn't happen – while Ted wants to do a show called The Ted Baxter Show – which kind of does. Ted Knight's (Too Close for Comfort) vain anchorman Ted Baxter is completely unaware he is a buffoon and not the star he thinks he is. He can't pronounce big words like “Chicago,” thinks Albania is the capital of New York, and forgets to remove his make up bib before going on the air. Lou calls his giant cue cards “Idiot Cards,” and Ted reads the stage directions on them such as “take off glasses” and “look concerned” out loud. Ted goes to bed early so he can be up to read reviews on his news the night prior and thinks he deserves to win a Teddy award because his name is Ted. His acceptance speech about his humble start at a 5,000 watt radio station in Fresno is also always at the ready. Cheap and upset that Chuckles the Clown gets more fan mail, Ted regularly asks for a raise even if he's afraid of Lou – who says waiting for Ted to get to his point is like expecting a sneeze. Ted gifts everyone autographed records of The Year in Review as Told by Ted Baxter but when drinking admits he is merely a shallow newsman resembling Cary Grant. At least the ratings go up when audiences watch WJM News to laugh at him. In “Anchorman Overboard,” Ted steps in as guest speaker for Phyllis' women's club. Unfortunately, he isn't good at public speaking without written answers from Murray but nonetheless wants their first hand applause.

Creators James L. Brooks (Taxi) and Allan Burns (The Munsters), most frequent director Jay Sandrich (Soap), and writers David Davis (Rhoda) and Lorenzo Music (The Bob Newhart Show) craft a cohesive format, but of course, The Mary Tyler Moore Show opening titles and “Love is All Around” theme song here in Season One aren't the most famous versions. Mary's bon voyage party and drive to Minneapolis fittingly match the doubtful lyrics before that soon to be iconic hat toss. The closing instrumental music will also change, yet I like this brassy, swanky rendition. Today no entry level single gal could afford Mary's then $130 a month bachelorette pad, but it too changes slightly with the brown pullout couch's position varying per episode along with that vintage turntable and teeny television set. It's also fun to see the play acting phone etiquette and hefty old flash bulb cameras with unraveling film. Mary always has a pumpkin cookie jar on her kitchen counter amid more mod yellow chairs, stained glass windows, and shag carpets contrasting the retro workplace hubbub with pencil sharpeners, file folders, big calculators, horseshoe phones, and clickety clacking typewriters. And look, it's the old school long way to make coffee! The office desks also change their fourth wall angle, and the newsroom has big television sets, huge cameras, giant headsets, and those fancy clocks with all the times around the world. They need to borrow a dime for the payphone, call in for the weather report, and collect trading stamps instead of coupons, yet the quintessentially seventies Mary Tyler Moore Show is surprisingly still very sixties here in Season One. Miniskirts, flip hair blowouts, tall boots, and fur coats feel innocent and girly, but there's a touch of the maturing seventies to come with plaid pants, pantsuits, vests, longer quilted skirts, paisley patterns, wide collars, and big belts in Mary's realistically repeating wardrobe. Even if the print on The Mary Tyler Moore Show Season One DVD is somewhat flat and some episodes appear to be slightly edited syndication versions, the on location Minnesota establishing shots are time capsule treats. There's no play all and the sound is sometimes uneven per episode or even from scene to scene, but the three discs with eight episodes each contain several commentaries. A fourth disc also includes vintage promos, Emmy clips, and fluff such as a photo gallery and trivia, but it's the superb The Making of The Mary Tyler Moore Show behind the scenes documentary that's worthy of a review in itself. Produced by Ed Asner, this hour and a half features interviews in by chapter options as cast and crew discuss everything from the follow up concepts born post The Dick Van Dyke Show and the turn of the seventies to timely feminism and early ideas on Mary Richards as a divorcee. Female writers Treva Silverman (The Monkees) and Susan Silver (Square Pegs) pushed the envelope as the unique Minneapolis setting, visual styling, and casting process came together despite early network interference from CBS not wanting a Jewish character. The Mary Tyler Moore Show struggled to get off the ground with an initially terribly received pilot and bad time slots before character chemistry and great scripts brought debut success.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show is the kind of series where you don't want the happy little half hours to end. It's easy to marathon this must see television with several video, over the air reruns, and streaming options available, and as I said in my Top Ten Favorite Shows List, I can't go a few weeks without a Mary Tyler Moore Show viewing cleanse. This debut remains intelligent and positive for nostalgic elders, millennials seeking mature comedy, or families wanting to watch a safe laugh with the kids. Truly any audience can and should begin the love with The Mary Tyler Moore Show Season One.

12 August 2018


Geostorm Undermines Its Own Potential
by Kristin Battestella

Independence Day writer Dean Devlin's 2017 directorial debut Geostorm undermines its own science fiction disaster movie possibilities with trite characterizations and convoluted conspiracies.

Dutch Boy satellite creator Jake Lawson (Gerard Butler) is called back to the space station he designed by his brother Assistant Secretary of State Max Lawson (Jim Sturgess) when the climate control systems that previously saved the planet malfunction – perhaps due to a saboteur. Weather all over the planet is drastically changing, leading to natural disasters and more catastrophes. Jake performs perilous space walks to root out the satellite's virus and uncover the onboard culprit while Max and his Secret Service agent fiancee Sarah Wilson (Abbie Cornish) investigate which of their superiors is behind the plot, be it President Andrew Palma (Andy Garcia) or Secretary of State Leonard Dekkom (Ed Harris).

Despite thunder, lighting, droughts, and hurricanes leading to planetary destruction, the opening of Geostorm is already problematic thanks to a juvenile narration with overly serious enunciation and extra emphasis that's almost laughable when viewers today have already experienced enough catastrophes. The audience plays catch up on the initial disasters necessitating this weather control as senate committees argue over who's in charge after the fact before changing their tune fifteen minutes later. Then, Geostorm restarts again three years on with the politicians still arguing after the satellite malfunctions when meeting the global scientists coming together to build a climate control satellite in the first place would have been a better place to begin. Learning the science on how all this might be possible is more entertaining than a kid explaining why the system is called Dutch Boy as if that's all we need to know to suspend our disbelief, and Geostorm plumb takes place at the wrong point in the story. Intriguing space station sabotage, airlock disasters, and hidden files are put on hold as Geostorm jumps from location to location to show eggs sizzling on the sidewalk or anonymous people outrunning lava in the streets. Possible moles, cover ups, and whispers of critical failure are less dangerous when such important information comes by phone, and the dialogue is so millennial they talk about how millennial they are. Geostorm needs to be cool or sarcastic because it is so afraid to be dramatic lest it be perceived as boring or slow. Massive equipment run amok set pieces are okay, however scientists with evidence add better depth than high tech screens or corrupted gear, and Geostorm cuts away from risky upside down spacewalks for ominous jerks on earth stealing White House servers – deflating its story about a weather satellite saving the planet from disaster when it should never leave the space station's tampering and gunpoint confrontations. Granted, bullets in an airtight environment are problematic, too, but so is having the system's access codes hinge on the current president's thumbprint. Of course America would do everything to keep a weather control satellite system from being turned over to international power. Revealing that as some secret shock just so one can kidnap the president in an orange mini cab and drive backwards while shooting at the pursuing bad guys unfortunately makes Geostorm laughably inferior to the Cobra Commander's Weather Dominator on G.I. Joe.

Throw away lines about being born in the UK but raised in the US don't let the bearded Gerard Butler (300) use his full Scottish burr, but he's entitled to some sassy after having saved the day by designing Dutch Boy. Jake is angry at the red tape and scoffs when his undermining brother needs his help. He's sad to leave his daughter with tearful promises, but Jake's happy to be back in business onboard the station. He's cocky but takes charge, knowing how to put what's wrong right whether it's revealing secret codes or getting physical with the bad guys. Jake acts tough but is also a big softy, and Geostorm should have focused on the space heroics at its core. Likewise Talitha Bateman (Annabelle: Creation) as Jake's daughter Hannah should have been more involved or not been in Geostorm at all. She says don't treat me like a child when she totally behaves like one, and after the annoying narration and early departures, she's only seen briefly watching the drama on the television before ending Geostorm with another hamfisted voiceover. Jim Sturgess' Max (Across the Universe) is also an unlikable hypocrite screwing his brother when it suits him before quoting him to the committees and buttering Jake up so he'll return to the project from which Max excised him. His cryptic calls in the night, snooping about security clearances, and trite hacking exposition muddle the picture with brotherly angst and motherly manpain, and I suspect Geostorm may have been better if his entire subplot were removed. It never feels as if he genuinely cares – Max wants to be in charge so he can dispense information to his big brother in an I know something you don't know ego trip. The characters work together because the picture says so, and Max's beady eyes won't let viewers forget his selfish motivation. 

Whether she's obvious in being suspect or going rogue when it matters, Abby Cornish's (Elizabeth: The Golden Age) Secret Service agent is not believable either. She's portrayed as a poor at her job and introduces herself as Max's fiancee as if their lack of chemistry is more important than her work. Although he's also presented as suspicious and wants this climate satellite fixed because it's an election year, I'd be here for Andy Garcia (The Godfather Part III) as President Andrew Palma if Geostorm didn't blatantly play into his red herring. Ed Harris (Appaloosa) likewise seems stiffer than usual as the Secretary of State orchestrating events behind the scenes. Familiar back and forths on men playing god with no real reason for the villain to be so evil become a cop out for the sci-fi disaster. It'd be great to see Harris scene chewing in a no holds barred drama about a corrupt politician's rise to power– but it doesn't belong in Geostorm. All this action was over a crooked politician? As they sing in Newsies, “That ain't news no more!” Rather than providing sophisticated technological insights or intelligent, realistic dialogue; numerous cliché characters litter Geostorm, too, including the geeky but hip black lesbian hacker and the nerdy Asian guy in glasses. Such utilitarian roles are only here because the personnel had to be, and making those placeholder characters minorities creates false diversity onscreen. There's a Mexican scientist who gets blown out the airlock, a French astronaut with a swarthy accent, a sassy British programmer, and a shopworn betrayer motivated solely by money. These characters are often seen and not heard, as if the flags on their sleeves are enough to hit home that international feeling. 'Scusi?

The storm clouds, satellite images, weather graphics, and frozen eerie in the wrong environment can be great. Spacesuits, weightlessness, solar panels, and spacial switchboards invoke the sci-fi mood amid countdowns and power reboots while the futuristic yet old fashioned shuttle launches sentimentally recall those vintage NASA flights we don't see anymore. However, Geostorm has an unrealistic and jarring digital gradient, as if the print has been through too many filters and we can see the Photoshop. Lighting changes as people stand near windows in separate cross coverage are apparent, and up close shots almost look like graphics themselves – overlays hiding if actors weren't in the same place at the same time with Ed Harris particularly appearing as if he was digitally inserted into his scenes. Where space should be drifting or quiet, Geostorm's look is both stilted and fast with hip music and cool action giving no pause for the audience to awe. Every scene transition is an unnecessary establishing pan – we don't need the obviously fake D.C. townhouse swoop when we know the character inside is earthbound. Such expensive but poor shots make Geostorm look wasteful on top of uneven sound and contemporary redundancy. Characters say silly things about Chromebooks, but will Chromebooks still be around in seven years? It might have been neat to only see the natural disasters from the space station's point of view as crew tap into satellite footage or watch the global devastation from above– as compared to the typical in your face disaster action with babes outrunning snow on the beach. Fittingly, the trailers on the Geostorm rental disc also look the same with fast editing and that boom...boom....boom... music. From ominous set ups, cool slow mo action, silent money shots, and a comedic stinger; Ready Player One, Tomb Raider, Justice League, and Blade Runner 2049 become a seven minute advertisement for one long interchangeable CGI fest. In a world where all films use the same CGI company and trailers follow a broad, formulaic pattern, there was one man who could save the movie marketing industry from itself. His name: Don LaFontaine...

Viewers can tell Geostorm had multiple writers and re-shoots with a different director across two years, as it really is two movies in one. Audiences looking for science fiction will be frustrated by the pedestrian conspiracies – that's not what it says on the tin so expecting one movie and getting another is not a pleasant surprise. The messy script and faulty framework provide humorless flavor to the popcorn, and shoehorned plots with unnecessary characters detract from the disaster action. Geostorm was already up against the wall with shuffling release dates; it's tough to enjoy such weather fantastics after so many real natural disasters, and the tacked on White House conspiracy is now tone deaf, too. Although fun for fans of the cast or those seeking late night action kicks, Geostorm doesn't embrace its entertaining space station moments, remaining cliché and cynical when viewers are in desperate need of a feel good, heroic piece.

03 August 2018

Alien: Covenant

Alien: Covenant is a Confusing Disappointment
by Kristin Battestella

Alien: Covenant – the latest film in the Alien franchise and the 2017 sequel to Prometheusstruggles with its franchise identity crisis, leaving the potentially interesting science fiction parables and body horror monsters wanting in the confusion.

When the colonization vessel Covenant is damaged by passing neutrino blasts, the android Walter (Michael Fassbender) must wake terraforming chief Daniels (Katherine Waterson) and the rest of the crew. After receiving a nearby signal from a mysterious, too good to be true planet much closer than their original vetted destination, leader Oram (Billy Crudup) decides to investigate. Unfortunately, inhaled alien toxins on the surface birth beastly parasites, and David (also Fassbender) – the android survivor of the lost research vessel Prometheus – has been living alone on the planet for the past ten years, studying the remaining Engineer evolution techniques and perfecting their monstrous designs with terrifying results...

Whether it's Prometheus 2 or Alien 5, Alien: Covenant is immediately frustrating. If this is really an Alien movie, then Prometheus never should have held anything back in hopes of a sequel and just told its tale in one movie. However, returning director Ridley Scott and screenplay writer John Logan (Penny Dreadful) play it both ways as Alien: Covenant opens with android quizzes on The Statue of David, Wagner gems, and Valhalla. Such meaning of meaninglessness threads from Prometheus will confuse viewers who didn't see it, and Alien: Covenant restarts with the titular colony vessel and its android custodian, Mother computer, and crew in stasis almost as if it's trying to reboot said predecessor. Fortunately, pod fatalities, charred bodies, memento mori, and offline systems build suspense while radio chatter, spacesuits, and rogue transmissions create science fiction atmosphere. Eerie forest destruction, Pompeii-like remains, and crashed ships add mood but drop ships and lost contact are similar to Aliens while inconveniently convenient planetary storms mirror Prometheus. An entire team trots off for an expedition – leaving only one person behind to make lander repairs – before separating further so a careless guy taking a leak can get infected by some spooky alien particles. Educated people ask obvious questions to which they should already know the answers, adding stilted dialogue on top of back and forth scenes deflating the body horror when not acting stupid for the plot to proceed by willfully scratching and sniffing mystery polyps and not reporting when they feel sick. Friends insist on taking the infected back to the ship, but there's no procedure amid the hectic radio calls and blood splatter. Women are on the mission just to whine – one tries to lock in another when both are equally contaminated and the visual hysterics don't let the viewer actually see the out of control. Cutting to what's happening elsewhere is a mistake when it leaves the bloody reveal a blink and you miss it special effect. It's scarier when people are trapped with a fast growing monster building claustrophobic fear toward fatal ship explosions. However, the paired off crew members react so over emotionally to death yet barely at all to the creature shocks, necropolis infrastructure, and the suspicious survivor found there. Flashbacks and exposition detailing the pathogens, crashes, and destruction post-Prometheus ten years prior is really where Alien: Covenant should have began, but we're watching a woman strip down to wash her open wound in what hopefully isn't contaminated water instead. After objecting to flying the colony ship down to the planet, minutes later the crew changes their minds once the route is more dangerous while fast action scenes, convoluted lingering, and rushed quality scenes contribute to the unevenness, hampering creepy encounters with new aliens, familiar eggs, and delicious facehugger revelations. From the prologue to the ship and the planet to the necropolis, rival androids, and onboard terrors; Alien: Covenant is an overlong and confusing two hours with cargo bay trucks, out the airlock solutions, and unnecessary sexy showers littering a nonsensical Aliens copycat finale. What should be wonderfully chilling – gagging up mini alien eggs for the incubator to the Ride of the Valkyries – treads tires because between all the Prometheus rewrites, the four credited writers here, and who knows what more behind the scenes meddling, nobody mapped out where this disappointing prequel plot goes.

There was a time when I was excited for whatever film Michael Fassbender did next. Unfortunately, somewhere around Macbeth or Steve Jobs, Fassbender sold out with all these non-starters and uninteresting flops. Despite this superb dual performance as the poetic, T.E. Lawrence obsessed android David and the clueless but loyal and supposedly inferior model Walter, it's difficult to look back at Hunger and believe this is the same actor who once so bled for his craft. It's totally obvious what David is going to do, and the entire homoerotic flute fingering sequence is the invisible car of Die Another Day franchise rock bottom. Surely, there was a better way to show Walter as a stunted childlike machine designed as lacking creativity expressly because David was so disturbingly human in his desires. It might even have been more interesting to not reveal Walter as an android until the xenomorph acid destroys his hand when he protects Daniels. Walter naively thinks he can gain the details from David regarding their creator Weyland and how the Prometheus survivor came to be on this planet. However, David waxes on Lord Byron and thinks himself Crusoe, admonishing Walter for serving the unworthy, dying humans. He preys on Walter's potential, saying it is love not duty he feels for Daniels, revealing himself as an abuser who already destroyed the life on this planet. David wants to communicate with the neomorphs and earn their respect while he experiments with the hybrids. Walter knows this is wrong, but David is pleased with himself for creating the perfect organism – and he's very disappointed in Walter for standing in his way. David has at last procreated, and it's chilling to see his views realized in several wild births, radical experiments, and violent assaults. Sadly, Alien: Covenant's clunky exposition and trite script ruin the intriguing android developments with ridiculous encounters and not so secret switcharoos leaving no resolution for Walter when both characters deserved more. Alien: Covenant may awe over David's ambition and chew on the possibilities, but there's so much happening the audience doesn't have any time to revoltingly enjoy the villainy.

Although Sam's daughter Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) is supposed to be the lead, Danny doesn't do a lot beyond wearing her deceased husband's iron nail around her neck in a messianic loose thread similar to Shaw's cross in Prometheus. She's made less pretty than the other women, and when she officially protests stopping at this perfect planet, she's presented as a moody bitch only sharing her emo grief misgivings because there's no point in a home now without her man. Naturally, all the men are allowed reckless manpain over their ladies while Danny easily discovers what David has done when the script bothers to have her look. By the final act she conveniently wants a 2,000 strong colony ship to rescue her just because the plot says it's time to let the xenomorph on board and make her a kick ass action hero. Billy Crudup's (Inventing the Abbotts) reluctantly in charge supposed man of faith Oram only decides on this planet to prove he's up to snuff and doesn't realize he messed up until it personally affects him. Tennessee cool pilot Danny McBride (Your Highness) recognizes John Denver music in the alien signal amid all his sexist jokes before risking the entire mission for his woman – whom viewers already know to be dead. Of course, shortly thereafter, he's laying the groundwork for his next hook up. A brief prologue appearance from Guy Pearce (Brimstone) returning as Peter Weyland should have come at the end of Alien: Covenant to fully accent David's twisted achievements, and Noomi Rapace's Elizabeth Shaw is unceremoniously written off post-Prometheus with only a few effigies. We're told she put David back together, he loved her for her kindness, and that's that. The movie should have started with the Prometheus characters on this unknown planet and then met the colony ship only upon their arrival. Alien: Covenant is from the wrong perspective and over crowded with far too many unnecessary characters – mostly screwing up husbands or similar looking wives raising the body count. Anonymous people being in relationships may make excuses for their behavior but it isn't character development and doesn't give viewers reason to care. Showing two guys with matching wedding bands as an attempt at gay inclusion is also embarrassingly homophobic when their only scene is one dying after ejaculating a neomorph from his mouth. Sneaky James Franco (Tristan & Isolde) moments are silly as well because... it's just James Franco in a promotional campaign for Alien: Covenant.

Thankfully, Covenant is a cool looking spaceship with solar sails, blue hues, green lighting, touch screens, and interface graphics along with red alarms, spooky chains, dangerous ladders, and perilous equipment. Unfortunately fiery damage leads to CGI spacewalks and noticeable animation intruding upon the interstellar fantastic. Crowded submarine style rooms and music motifs from Aliens are also apparent amid waterfalls and mountain vistas borrowed from Prometheus. It's also flat out dumb to waste time on a cool drop ship water landing when there is terra firma everywhere, and what's with all the dang hoodies? Blood, gore, and creative reverse alien births are appropriately disturbing, however the surrounding CGI is again weak. Dark scenes and hectic firefights also make it difficult to see all those potentially intriguing hybrid creatures, twisted deliveries, and scary designs. The contrasting advanced ship technology and stranded apothecary research are likewise nice touches that deserved more time – embryos and stasis versus dissections and bestiary drawings. Facehugger scares, acid effects, and freaky attacks are always fun to see, yet more than anything, these Alien homages cum knockoffs makes one miss the originality and practical design advancements from Aliens. The spaceship action is very messy in Alien: Covenant with pointless, drawn out action sequences littering the narrative, and it's not surprising to read interviews with the film's editor recounting the post-production struggle to balance these multiple storylines each playing at their own pace. Alien: Covenant needs to be re-watched for all its Alien movies pieces trying to bring together the creation theories from Prometheus via confusing Engineer goo, deacons, or xenomorphs yet this entire piece is also in dire need of a re-cut.

Instead of running with what was good from Prometheus, Alien: Covenant plays with its Prometheus connection the way Prometheus played with its Alien connection. Unfortunately, such inconsistent and contradictory carrots string along loyal franchise fans and won't gain viewers who haven't seen Alien. As with Prometheus and Alien 3 before, Alien: Covenant can't serve both its masters and ultimately provides little repeat value, which ironically can be said for Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection. Once again, we have no connection to LV-426 when all people ever wanted to know was how the Space Jockey got there in the first place. Frustration on such could haves or should haves being saved for yet more sequels compromises Alien: Covenant's potentially entertaining science fiction, religious warnings, and monstrous possibilities with ennui.