02 May 2021

Science Fiction Meets Comedy!


Science Fiction meets Comedy

by Kristin Battestella

From all out parody to quirkiness and cosmic puns, each of these retro, recent, or blockbuster science fiction tales provide an element of humorous entertainment.

Return of the Killer Tomatoes – It's tomato prohibition in this 1988 sequel to Attack of the Killer Tomatoes starring Anthony Starke (The Magnificent Seven), George Clooney (Michael Clayton), and John Astin (The Addams Family). Self-aware late night movie hosts almost air Big Breasted Girls Go to the Beach and Take Their Tops Off instead, adding then PG-13 saucy to the MST3King itself meta before it was meta. The secret word of the day is “the,” creating an impossible drinking game to match the preposterous Professor Gangreen mad science, lab experiments, tomato tests, and pizzas with some, umm, interesting topping combinations sans tomatoes. The younger generation rolls their eyes at elders treating The Great Tomato war as some St. Crispin's Day glory, flashbacks captioned as “New York City” have San Francisco trolley cars, and call ins ask why they keep showing scenes from the first movie. There are world domination plans to place plants from within the police right up to president, and bad special effects, red lights, green glows, a fuzzy friendly tomato, and a snake named Larry join the handsome assistant Igor. Reporters shame and berate witnesses on the air yet everyone wants to be on camera, and romantic interludes on the beach get ruined by a mime as the fourth wall is often broken thanks to tomato bootleggers, Valerian root powder, and inquires on if it's too late to have a movie chase. Let's yell “Tomato!” in a crowded restaurant and point at the “tomato lover” because tomatoes are evil – a good tomato is a squashed tomato! The within within life imitating art comes to a head with behind the scenes interruptions; they are out of money so the cast and crew are now incorporating product placement right down to the cereal box between the two shot conversation. Rednecks with beer, ninjas in black fighting cowboys in white hats, and “Vigilance is the Price of Freedom. Report any suspicious vegetable activity.” Uncle Sam posters escalate to luxury construction at the toxic waste dump, prison escapes for golfing White House aides, Soylent Green homages, and an interactive Frankenstein. Once the stars ask if they have enough money to finish this turkey, the product placement begats celebrity spoofs, music knockoffs, and killer countdowns with a scoreboard and referee. Fortunately, a page from the script is handy to write a note on asking for help and shootouts result in ketchup. Layered dialogue and visual gags send up everything possible in every scene, requiring multiple viewings for all the laugh at its corny self in on the joke ridiculous. While certainly endearing for those who loved this then, today this remains an enjoyable eighties comedy that's surprisingly intelligent and ahead of its time.

Space Station 76 – Patrick Wilson (Bone Tomahawk), Liv Tyler (Lord of the Rings), Matt Bomer (White Collar), and more are all aboard for this 2014 retro futuristic seventies wink, and we immediately feel the groovy thanks to the deliberately old fashioned space shuttles, colorful special effects, bright white corridors, and spinning station design. Rather than psychedelic in your face weird, the flashing lights, lasers, and saucy visions are pleasing to today's HD eye. Vintage panels, knobs, analog gizmos, mid century plastics, viewfinders, cigarettes, ash trays, wild wallpaper, and roller skates accent the rec room luaus and awkward cafeterias as the interconnected relationships, hidden sexuality, and affairs leave plenty of foots in people's mouths. Between the undefined jobs the crew does poorly, bored housewives, lingering hippie mentalities, waterbeds, and confined interiors a lot can happen. Our incoming career oriented female officer doesn't fit in and can see the going through the motions situations. There are children on board, however the vain and manipulative parents are more interested in Valium, porn magazines, and robots because it's easier to interact with machinery and automation than build healthy relationships. Some remember growing up on earth and doing things for oneself versus space-bound reliance, but the should be idyllic futuristic bliss only creates an inability to cope. One can't even kill himself by dropping the retro radio into the bathtub because the system corrects the overloaded circuits. Naturalistic conversations provide annoyed, off the cuff sardonic socializing attempts while subtle humor – like using the arboretum to grow pot and a robotic hand getting stuck gripping a boob – alleviates any potential tenderness. The ironic, feel good classic soundtrack matches anti-gravity moments enjoying the space faring circumstances, but arguments and lies lead to contrived Christmas parties, stranded consequences, and embarrassing secrets. They are stuck with where and who they are, and somehow have to make the best of it. Although this might have been interesting as a series, the refreshing R zany but not laugh out loud doesn't overstay its welcome. I'm surprised this movie isn't more popular, as other comedy science fiction shows are full blown sends ups, but here the quirky framework anchors serious, well done characterizations. Rather than making fun of the era, the kitschy innuendo helps create a façade for the interpersonal issues, jobs over emotions, and loneliness. This is a touching little film with bemusing nostalgia and social commentary, but labeling this a comedy isn't quite fair once the drama hits too close to home, for we too have technology replacing human interaction and it is far from perfect.

Thor: Ragnarok – Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows) directs the titular Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston (Only Lovers Left Alive), and Tessa Thompson (Westworld) in this 2017 Marvel sequel exploding with eighties sci-fi homage, edgy rock tunes, retro video tours, Willy Wonka notes, flashy colors, and intergalactic flair. Unlike the morose fantasy of Thor: The Dark World; industrial trash, damaged spaceships, and beer are rough and wild – matching the caged and chained Thor as he waxes on his heroic status, the new lack thereof, fiery attacks, and lightning displays. Asgard is in peril, but dramatic choirs and rewritten odes starring Matt Damon (Interstellar) and the delightful Anthony Hopkins (Hannibal) as Loki pretending to be Odin lead to Norway goodbyes, somber conversations, and family regrets. Thanks to trailer giveaways and obvious foreshadowing, there aren't many surprises, but the locales proceed quest-style with friends or enemies along the way including Benedict Cumberbatch's (Sherlock) Doctor Strange and the scene chewing Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth) as the unleashed Hela, Goddess of Death. Visual tricks, sight gags, and umbrella disguises accent the superhero send up as Thor is dragged by his cape and put in his place. Mark Ruffalo's (The Normal Heart) gladiator Hulk and the campy Grandmaster Jeff Goldblum (Independence Day) add personal banter, self-aware charm, and even flirtatiousness thanks to hot tubs and green butt shots. The battle action CGI can be busy, herky jerky messy where you can't see anything, however unique Valkyrie flashbacks, mystical elements, and slow motion superhero cool moments set off the hidden Asgard history, giant wolves, and undead lairs. Unfortunately, it gets a little old when there's a quip, humorous aside, and lighthearted tension breaker interrupting every serious scene. Asgardians are literally being butchered while we're being told to laugh with distracting, gif-able wisecracks. This uneven back and forth between the violence and the refreshing reboot undercuts Hela's threats – leaving us to wonder if we even need the eponymous destruction when this could just be about The Revengers and their baggage escaping Sakaar, cool cool. After spending most of the time here mocking the previous Thor films, the end heroics are ironically played straight and the characters remain more important than the action. While the irreverent attitudes and flippant comedy in the wrong places could have chilled, this doesn't follow typical Marvel patterns. Thor needed to change it up, and the entertainment moves fast for fans as well as viewers looking for something different.

For some ~ serious science fiction discussion ~ also consider two Great Courses programs How Science Shapes Science Fiction and How Great Science Fiction Works. I was too busy paying attention and didn't take notes!

20 April 2021

Kindred: The Embraced

What Could Have Been with Kindred: The Embraced

by Kristin Battestella

Based partly on the Vampire: The Masquerade role playing game, Fox's 1996 Kindred: The Embraced is an eight episode miniseries cut short despite enticing vampires and gothic atmosphere. Ventrue vampire Julian Luna (Mark Frankel) is prince of San Francisco and ruler of the Kindred clans – a precarious alliance between Lillie Langtry (Stacy Haiduk) a Toreador nightclub patron, underground Nosferatu Daedalus (Jeff Kober), and Brujah mobster Eddie Fiori (Brian Thompson). Their masquerade to live among humans is threatened by detective Frank Kohanek (C.Thomas Howell) and reporter Caitlin Byrne (Kelly Rutherford) – who falls for Julian, further complicating the interconnected love triangles and vampire peace.

Rooftop chases at dawn open the hour plus premiere “The Original Saga” alongside quick detective exposition and gunshots intercut with ledge leaping culprits, stakings, and victims set on fire in the sunlight. It's a very nineties, busy start crowded with back and forth cop and vampire perspectives. The charred body is enough to start the investigation without the cheap action, and you need a flow chart to figure out who everyone is thanks to the world building and clan intrigue dropped in the dialogue – who belongs to the Gangrel gangs or Brujah mobsters, who's moving in on another Kindred's territory, which ones abide by the masquerade rules to hide from humans, which clans are loyal to whom. Fortunately, the steamy vampire dinner date with steak very, very rare leads to one drop of blood on the white dress, sneaky scalpels, morgue drawers, and chilling kills. One on one conversations and hypnosis add to the tasty and sensuous, invoking the gothic atmosphere amid graveside vigils, moody mirrors, and shaving mishap temptations. In its early hours, however, Kindred: The Embraced is dominated by guests of the week and newly embraced vampires when the main Phantom of the Opera forbidden romance in the third episode “Nightstalker” is a much nicer bittersweet. Uneven A/B plotting and sagging police arguments hamper the superior Kindred stories as vampire killers are held for psychiatric evaluation. There's a fine line between schizophrenia, blood lust, enchantments, and predators. Saucy shadows reveal our Kindred ills and charms as precarious clan war talk escalates to action halfway through the series – finally turning Kindred: The Embraced where it needs to go with guns drawn, vampire standoffs, and mob strong arming that should have come much sooner than the sixth episode, “The Rise and Fall of Eddie Fiori.” The Kindred front at the Dock Workers Union seems pedestrian and this arc was made to wait as if it were less important than the police plots, but clan peace is bringing down the business for Brian Thompson's (Cobra) Brujah leader Eddie Fiori. The Brujah clan prefers carnage to reason, and Eddie sets ups crimes only to act like the Kindred would be safer if he were in charge. Shapeshifting killers, head choppings, decoys, stabbings, and assassination attempts caught on camera provide enough gothic horror without resorting to more of that intrusive cop drama. A vampire using a private investigator is unnecessary in a blood feud, but it's superb when the rival ladies get to sit face to face as the Kindred point fingers over who has blackmail photos or is sleeping with a journalist. Council meetings and swords resolve any broken vampire rules – damage the peace and you will pay.

Ironically, the wire tapes, moles, and crazy cops in the second episode of Kindred: The Embraced “Prince of the City” contradicts the pilot movie. You wouldn't know this show was about vampires as enemies suddenly become friends over a cup of coffee and traitors are discovered or forgotten from one scene to the next. It's a terrible entry and probably deterred a lot of viewers from continuing with the series week to week. “Live Hard, Die Young, and Leave a Good Looking Corpse” is also a great title, but an anonymous, obnoxious Kindred is embracing groupies and leaving them in the streets, again wasting time when the regular players have so little. Kindred: The Embraced could have opened with a newly turned against her will vampire learning the ropes point of view, but debates that could delve further into such assault parallels somehow end up boring and repetitive here. Police dismissing the monster stole my baby claims in the second to last hour “Bad Moon Rising” are unnecessary, too, as evil and ugly Nosferatu vampires abducting babies for blood sacrifices and Druid rituals are terrifying enough. Our vampires fear this banished Kindred wishing to return the clans to a more primitive sewer dwelling state no masquerade needed. Why demand vampires wear suits and drink blood in wine glasses when they can take it all? Kindred explaining their own rules to a sneering cop every single hour gets old fast compared to female Nosferatu, Carmilla references, chains, and ceremonial blades. “I only drink red” quips and garlic braids in the kitchen winks add to the Kindred: The Embraced mythos – some vampires can feed and go out in the sun while others gain more powers under the full moon. Direct questions about who's making love or poisoning whom lead to tender moments among humans and vampires waxing on whether it's them or us who are the real monsters. Suave Kindred fang out for both moonlit showdowns and juicy fireside passion as rivals try to exploit the clan war opportunities while the prince is away at the vineyard in “Cabin in the Woods.” Angry Brujah are determined to put bodies in the empty family cemetery plots while hooting owls, creepy forests, and eerie fog accent fiery flashbacks, attacks in the woods, white wolves, and Kindred truths too fantastic to believe. Past betrayals coming to light and vendettas are revealed, but only the precious healing blood can save the sacrifices and sad choices. Here at its end is where Kindred: The Embraced finds how it should have always been.

Of course, the series should have never strayed from it's true and unfortunately gone too soon star Mark Frankel (Leon the Pig Farmer) and his Kindred prince Julian Luna. He keeps a tenuous peace between the clans, but Julian's conflicted about being their judge, jury, and executioner. Despite his slick widow's peak and cool control, it's easy to see what gets to him, as Julian continually protects humans and associates with the descendants of his family from before he was embraced. He makes others toe the line about the masquerade yet Julian is sentimental himself, often going with banishment or failed punishments that force more finite, deadly resolutions. Although everyone tells him otherwise, Julian thinks we all can coexist, and he actually might not be that great a leader if his rivals can push his buttons with personal vendettas in hopes of inciting a full out clan war. Fortunately, Julian is nothing if not shrewd. He commands loyalty and respect, orchestrating ploys against his enemies that leaves them out in the sunlight and begging to get into his trunk. No matter the pain or peril to himself, Julian does what he has to do to keep the peace above all else. He admits he was a violent henchman in the past, but his loves and human attachments make Julian want to be a better man. Journalist Kelly Rutherford (Melrose Place, but with whom I always confuse Ally Walker from Profiler, and also with Amanda Wyss briefly on Highlander: The Series. Nineties genre blondes, man!) is writing an article about Julian being a mysterious and powerful businessman, but he never gives interviews. He buys the newspaper and makes Caitlin editor, but she doesn't sit behind the desk, seeking out the hot cases herself and dismissing the spooky connections that lead back to Julian. Caitlin struggles to listen to her conscious when he's around, foolishly more curious despite how little she knows. The relationship is stagnant at times, never really advancing until the finale, but the chemistry forgives the blinded by love stupidity as truths and tearful revelations make for well done human versus vampire emotions. Stacy Haiduk (SeaQuest DSV) as Toreador leader and Haven club owner Lillie makes loose alliances as needed, using her allure for power, jealousy, and to support the arts. Her club is a sanctuary and Lillie saves a young musician with her embrace, but rock stars aren't super discreet. She protects the wrong vampires and Julian insists they are no longer lovers but she makes her presence known by spying on Caitlin when not biting, flirting, and having her dalliances, too. Ultimately, Lillie still loves Julian and dislikes when he lies, expecting the truth after what they've been through together. This is a complex character – Lillie will stab a person in the back and do it with a smile and we don't blame her. She deserved more time and Haiduk's eyes are fittingly enchanting I must say.

Detective C. Thomas Howell (The Outsiders) is top billed on Kindred: The Embraced, but Frank Kohanek is a terribly over the top eighties does forties cum nineties generic copper. The edgy delivery and angry scene chewing jars with everything else, and point blank the series would have been better without him. Frank starts so full of hate and thinks all vampires are monsters even as he is helped and protected by Kindred, but turns a vampire killer over to Julian because his law can't handle them. His entire police element is unnecessary since the Ventrue already have Erik King (Dexter) as their inside cop Sonny, but he isn't featured half as much. Sonny's reveals happen way too soon, leaving him to ride shotgun with Frank as the stereotypical Black cop partner, and Kate Vernon's (Falcon Crest) seductive Alexandra also has her melodrama cut short when Kindred: The Embraced sets up her supposedly great romance with Frank but then tears it apart in one episode. Channon Roe (Bio-Dome) as perpetually scowling Gangrel biker Cash doesn't think being embraced is all it's cracked up to be, and he's actually not that good of a bodyguard because he's always making moon eyes with leather jacket bad girl Brigid Walsh (Army Wives) as Sasha. Although the motorcycle double entendres are cliché, Julian doesn't want his last human descendant to be embraced, forbidding the romance between Sasha and Cash. She doesn't believe the hear tell monstrous, but Sasha is quickly caught between the love of one clan and the hate of another. We know what to expect from an episode named “Romeo and Juliet,” but the secret rendezvous, gang killings, and family payback does what it says on the tin in fitting vampire style and shows what Kindred: The Embraced can do. Jeff Kober (China Beach) is immediately excellent as the Nosferatu leader Daedalus, decrepit and living underground but suave in a smoking jacket as he does Julian's dirty work. Daedalus loyally does the series' scary with a calm and quiet chill but falls in love with a beautiful singer. The “Nightstalker” hour should have been devoted to him, and we notice his absence in weaker episodes. Kober isn't made up to be that much of an ogre, but Daedalus is ashamed of his own clan and dabbles in alchemy to enchant and change his appearance, for who would love him? He disposes of a nasty vampire doctor for hurting children and befriends an ill boy who asks if he is a monster. Daedalus wants to embrace him, but it is of course against the rules. It's another fascinating dilemma that deserved more time on Kindred: The Embraced but c'est la vie.

Although there are no subtitles on the two disc DVD edition of Kindred: The Embrace and the full screen picture is flat; unlike today's overly saturated digital grading, the night time scenes aren't uber dark thanks to practical lighting and ambience. Some shaky cam zooms and herky jerky handheld aren't so smooth now, but contrived police action is brief and choice dolly zoom horrors and great vampire eyes forgive poor fire effects. Picturesque Golden Gate Bridge scenery and San Francisco skylines at dusk contrast charred bodies, morgue toe tags, lunar motifs, and wolf overlays. Lavish wallpapers, draperies, artwork, water fountains, and grand staircases make up for that then luxurious nineties pink marble while creepy underground lairs, candelabras, and scary paintings create an edgy industrial. Red silk, purple satin, crushed velvet, and suave men's suits provide allure; women's fashions are both nineties runway sheer and flowing old fashioned with tantalizing slips and camisoles rather than then taboo nudity. Beheadings, skulls in the incinerator, heartbeats, and flexing jugulars provide chills while brooding nineties music invokes a sexy, classy simmer. Stained glass ruins, graves, greenery, and roses create a sensuous, romantic melancholy as Kindred: The Embraced remains a fine mix of modern debonair and gothic mood. That beeper though with the fake giant screen and super easy to read analog text...lol. With eight different writers and six different directors, obviously no one thought of having one cohesive narrative back then. Maybe twenty-five years ago cross medium interactive content was unfathomable, but today such a franchise with books, games, official social media, and RPGs would be massive. Kindred: The Embraced was caught in the middle – a series that didn't stand on its own but nor did it satisfy the built in audience of Vampire: The Masquerade. Having gaming source material may have even contributed to viewer confusion as Fox shuffled the airings around and potentially out of order episodes seemed lacking in information. Of course, had Kindred: The Embraced stuck to its roots instead of wasting time with nineties cop show intrusions, the vampire love triangles and intriguing clan wars wouldn't have been so crowded. Revelations that could take several seasons happen in the first hour, and it's tough not to shout at the what ifs and ponder what Kindred: The Embraced could have been. Fortunately, Kindred: The Embrace is easy to marathon, remaining entertaining as a fun introductory piece for younger horror lite audiences as well as vampire fans and nostalgic viewers looking for gothic panache.

09 April 2021

NYC Vampire Comedies!

NYC Vampire Comedies!

by Kristin Battestella

Who knew New York was so ripe with vampire frights, funnies, and mayhem? These comedies old and new have something saucy, humorous, or sassy for everyone.

Vampire in Brooklyn – Lonely vampire Eddie Murphy wants Angela Bassett (Black Panther) as his willing bride in director Wes Craven's 1995 horror comedy opening with talk of ancient Nosferatu out of Egypt feasting on those lost in the Bermuda Triangle until vampire hunters brought the undead to extinction. Now that's a backstory I'd like to have seen! Foggy harbors, bloody bodies, and a scary wolf invoke Dracula while black and white televisions, hard language, and R attitudes provide refreshing throwback humor. Leaps in the air, breaking through the windows stunts, an unnecessarily elaborate ship crash set piece, and poor visual effects cement the nineties tone, but the Blacula references, monster transformations, no reflections, and itchy gunshots add tongue in cheek to the vampire fangs, pointy nails, and eerie eyes. That wig, though, wolf! The full moon, day servant ghouls a la Renfield, and a heart ripped out of the chest bring the vampy to the street as horoscope warnings, chases, and gore set off the urban creepy afoot. Viewers expect a camp aside or pithy comeback in every scene, but the witty matches the serious horror thanks to little things like, oh say, an ear found at the crime scene that serves both laughter and atmosphere. Increasing ghoul mishaps, “RIP” license plates on the smooth ride, and “Whatta Man” montages set off the dangerous coffin retrievals, but faith versus snakes and vampire lore in a murder investigation are too unbelievable for our tough cops to consider. Unfortunately, the apparently obligatory Murphy disguises are totally out of place. Awkward preacher fakery ruins the vampire build up before another offensive Italian stunt, and the makeup for both is terrible. The evil is good allure could have been better presented with vampire suave rather than dragging the film down with overlong laugh out loud send ups that make viewers wonder where all this is supposed to be going. Why torment this strong woman via stupid delays when you can just charm her instead? The blood pulsing temptations, supernatural flirtations, nightmare paintings, love triangles, and saucy roommates come to a complete stop as if the movie must rely on Murphy's retreads from Coming to America. Excellent “I would love to have you for dinner” winks, sexy bites, and a simmering score better accent character dilemmas over eternal life, predatory pursuits, and rough seductions. Horror attacks, candles, and juicy vamp outs lead to serious character decisions and tense one on one revelations before a wild finale with a fitting chuckle. I'd have loved a sequel with ghoul turned cool Julius Jones! This is oddly similar to Craven's Dracula 2000 in several ways, and there are many flawed elements here – pointless narration, meandering focus between the humor and scares, datedness, and uneven try hard that wants to be both niche for Black audiences yet mainstream hit acceptable. Fortunately, overall the late night fun here is still entertaining; a great re-watch with mature, modern vampire chemistry.

Vampires vs. the Bronx – Sirens, flickering neon signs, new construction buyouts by Murnau Properties, and paperwork sealed with fangs and screams open this PG-13 2020 Netflix original. Suave tunes, multiple languages, and cultural blends set off the summer heat, bicycles, and friendly neighborhood bodega, but missing persons fliers, Vlad the Impaler logos, and Polidori references provide ominous. Adult gravitas anchors the youthful ensemble, but the realistic kids aren't trying hard for the camera. These boys just want to impress the older girls but end up embarrassed by mom wanting to get a babysitter. Narrations and video angles a la Tik Tok balance church bells and scripture quotes, developing the locales and characters well as the youths face local gang pressure to do things they don't want to do. The new white woman in town insists she isn't one of those types who will call the cops, and the genre mirror to nature commentary is superb. It's not the hood the kids fear, but the nasty white folks who've come to suck the life out of town. Vampire vows to wipe them out like vermin are all the more chilling because we recognize the gentrification and racist mentalities. What would the authorities care if vampires are pecking bad guys off the street in the Bronx? A wealthy white man writes a check so no one notices those made to disappear, and such a forgotten, downtrodden place is perfect for vampires who want to stay under cover. Friendships are tested when some want to do good for their community and others are right to be wary. Neighbors disbelieve the hear tell vamps dressed like Hamilton taking out the local thugs while humor alleviates suspenseful close calls – the vampire was just coming in to buy...sanitizer of course. Daytime nest explorations and homages to The Lost Boys accent the self aware genre winks while a bemusing montage establishes the lore herein complete with that cookie they hand out at church that doesn't taste very good aka the “ukarist” and watching Blade. Single mothers try to keep their kids on the up, but the boys are trespassing for vampire proof and stealing holy water in a Sprite bottle. Skeleton keys, coffins, ringtones rousing the dead – what's worse then being chased by vampires and caught in the backseat of the cop car? When their mothers come to get them but the vampire didn't show up on your camera. Fun zooms for youthful actions and watchful eyes match creepy red lights, growls, and hypnotic kills as Haitian history preparations and shootouts don't stop the undead. The kids take the crucifix off the wall and hope tia doesn't notice, but the powdered garlic comes in handy and calling the Bronx a shithole is the last straw. Although a little short at under eighty-five minutes with credits, the swift solidarity doesn't stray from its goal. Rather than underestimate the audience with stereotypical obnoxiousness, this refreshing contemporary take is great for young audiences as well as fans of wise and wise cracking horror.

Not as Good as It Could Be

Vamps – Alicia Silverstone (Clueless), Krysten Ritter (Jessica Jones), Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey), Wallace Shawn (The Princess Bride), and more familiar faces star in writer and director Amy Heckerling's (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) 2012 vampire comedy opening with whimsical period artwork and humorous explanations on the blood sucking process. Our darling vamp Goody was excited about the eighties – the 1880s thanks to electricity – and she relates to ageless silver screen stars before her loneliness is mended by new bestie vamp of the nineties Stacy, who teaches Goody about Napster and going to college. Hometown soil, needing a stem vampire to make new ones, drinking rats with straws, and more important vampire lore comes fast and loose in busy clubbing scenes, and putting on lipstick without a mirror, drinking the pizza guy, vampires preferring the term ELF for extended life form, and goth night on the town are cute but aimless fillers with flat dead pans as the quirky tries much too hard. Van Helsing works for Homeland Security, Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange) leads the Sanguines Anonymous meetings as 362 years clean knitter Vlad Tepish, and undead is not unfeeling mantras are much better, and the eponymous girls feel like the wrong point of view for the old versus next generation clashing about not drinking people or dating the dead. Tanning salon mishaps become brown face wrongs amid other inappropriate slang, leaving the social parallels and garlic gags that should be funny off the mark. Self-referential vampire hunters disguised as cable men are far more humorous, and Sigourney Weaver (Alien) is delightful as the sassy cougar vamp who doesn't care about the daylight savings accidents, jury duty, and in the system persecutions affecting the vampire community. She objects to not understanding youth because she's been young for so long, and the elder cast sending up the vampire tropes is superior to the trying to conform hipness. Commentaries on intrusive government and technology jar with funny sex scenes juxtaposed with tender moments and mixed messages on following the trends instead of being yourself. Montages gloss over interesting vampire/human relationships, and between the romance love and lost, opposites attract, and the vamps adapting to the modern world; it's tough to tell what the plot is. Predictable kill the stem vampire plans, pregnancies, cancer patients, and humanity fixes add more unevenness before a convenient eclipse resolves the vampire dilemmas with delete file and recycle bin clicks. By time the vampires unite with Van Helsing and get serious with one on one confrontations and bittersweet longevity, it feels out of place when it should have been the focus. This could have been really charming, but it's seems content to be very of its time, though younger audiences won't get the ragtime references and the special effects are downright terrible. While cute for bubble gum goths or younger horror lite fans, viewers looking for a shrewd vampire comedy will find this lacking.

27 March 2021

The Mary Tyler Moore Show Season 4

 The Mary Tyler Moore Show Season 4 provides More Favorites

by Kristin Battestella

The Fourth 1973-74 Season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show is yet another award winning entry thanks new characters pushing the envelope as beloved friends depart the series. Risque plots, affairs, separations, and age gaps remain focused on the people we love in the first quarter of the season thanks to supporting turns and past guests returning to cause mayhem at home and in the newsroom.

Henry Winkler
(Happy Days) unfortunately, is the odd man out at the little table when there aren't enough chairs in one of my Mary Tyler Moore favorites “The Dinner Party.” WJM's flirtatious Happy Homemaker host Sue Ann Nivens insists on arranging everything for Mary's impromptu party after interviewing a congresswoman at the station, but BFF Rhoda says she thought Mary knew her parties always end in disasters and gruff boss Lou Grant takes too much of the Veal Prince Orloff. Mary thought no one else knew she's a terrible hostess and the sophisticated eating schedule all goes awry, but it's wonderful. Likewise, the surprise party in “Happy Birthday, Lou!” makes our boss as cranky as ever – especially when he gets caught hugging and tickling his wife in the newsroom. Lou hates surprises, leading to one at a time doorbell hi jinks where everyone has their moment of hatred because Lou won't let anybody get sentimental and affectionate. Landlord Phyllis Lindstrom also gets her real estate license in “Cottage For Sale” and wants to sell Lou's house for $50,000 – a tidy sum when he originally paid $18,000! Lou, however, isn't quite pleased, packing but unable to throw anything away and dropping hints to Mary about how miserable he is. The Mary Tyler Moore Show tackles the progress versus sentiment triangle with unique role reversals as Mary supports Lou's memories and Phyllis pushes the escrow. Work and home collide again when Mary's idea to produce a Sunday afternoon talk show in “The Co-Producers” gets off to a bad start because it was actually Rhoda's idea. The two decide to collaborate, but the station insists anchorman Ted Baxter and Sue Ann Nivens host the program, leading to pesky fashion insults, fake compliments, and who's name will be first debates. No one likes anybody's ideas, and Mary is caught in the middle between flattering her stars or laying down the law in another ensemble episode that let's everyone do what they do best. “Best of Enemies,” however, humorously tears the camaraderie when Rhoda lets it slip that Mary lied about being a college graduate on her WJM application. Rhoda doesn't think it's a big deal, Mary's shocked at her insensitivity, and Lou's just glad Mary isn't the only person on earth who always tells the truth. Though such a rift is slightly contrived, The Mary Tyler Moore Show utilizes our ladies' diverging paths for embarrassing apologies and friendly innocence. Lou says the application didn't matter – Mary was right for the job because she said “excuse me” when she bumped into a desk. Who is nice enough to apologize to an inanimate object? Ted's shy girlfriend Georgette represents the audience's fear over not having our besties together, ultimately uniting them with adorable awkwardness about garbage.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show has addressed age relations previously and “Angels in the Snow” is slow to get rolling as Mary frolics but questions if twenty-five is too young to her thirty-three. Our ladies don't fit in with the changing, groovy times, and Mary dislikes the boys in the office telling her this is a youthful mistake. Despite a few great scenes, the twee mellow misses the mark today. “Two Wrongs Don't Make a Writer” also has similar writing classes done better earlier in the series. Mary waxes on writing a novel while Ted ad libs the news in verse. Lou can't kill him on the air because there are witnesses and the physical comedy is superb, but Ted's intrusion in the classroom embarrasses Mary when he steals her story. He's confused over the “write what you know” adage, and the individual moments work in small doses. If you catch this half hour as a one off on television, it's pretty priceless, but in a twenty-four episode season marathon, it's too derivative. This entry does however give us the title of Lou's long gestating war novel: Too Many Foxholes and Not Enough Love. Fortunately, “Better Late...That's a Pun...Than Never” leads to late night giggles and disastrous obituaries when Mary's bemusing send off to Minneapolis' 110 year old citizen is read on the air. Lou's insistence that the news must remain sacred is interesting to hear in this day of sarcastic fakery and social media, and Mary is suspended two weeks without pay for her innocent breach. Initially she accepts this rather than being fired, but she resents being treated like a child and quits over the suspension. It may seem like small potatoes to us today, but taking a stand is not easy – especially when Mary strikes out at subsequent interviews for being qualified but too attractive for the job. For any other program this would be a typical leaving but not really leaving entry, but The Mary Tyler Moore Show provides a delicious breakdown when Mary can't take it and wants to come back, but a new female associate producer has already taken her place. Lou also wants to shake things up with an on location feature in “I Was Single for WJM,” nixing Mary's sixties nostalgia idea in favor of a singles club that's the new rage. Although she'll play a different character in two episodes when Mary moves in Season Six, here guest Penny Marshall (Laverne & Shirley) is a shy girl at the bar amid all the cliché come ons and awkwardness. The camera crew scares the crowd, too – leaving our ensemble live in an empty bar with dead air to fill in an excellent season finale.

Mary Richards says age is not a big deal, but she likes her short hair, pantsuits, and being an over thirty professional. Mary is an associate producer – she's not going to do all Ted's little jobs anymore and wants more difficult, challenging duties. Though cautious, Mary's excited when her documentary gets great reviews. Her biggest secret, however, is getting home late and pretending not to see a note from Rhoda. She feels silly talking to plants but isn't surprised by obscene phone calls, for her father was a doctor and she's heard those terms. Head cheerleader Mary was at the top of the pyramid and wears Minnesota Vikings shirts, but she gets over the notion of firing someone when the Lothario sportscaster comes on to her in “Hi There, Sports Fans.” Mary asked Mr. Grant for more responsibility, but the firing before the hiring leaves Ted filling in and her working hard to find a replacement – only to be disappointed when all the new sportscaster has to do is read three scores. It's also nice to see The Mary Tyler Moore Show isn't always setting up Mary anymore. She's had proposals, but she's a career woman, end of story. When Mary does briefly date an anchor from the superior Channel 8 in “WJM Tries Harder,” she's jealous at their overwhelming newsroom and embarrassed by her own last in the ratings, laughable little station. She fears her idea to hire college stringers looking for hot tips will backfire if they get the wrong story, but Mary sticks to her guns and for once, WJM gets the scoop. She's tired of people making light of her problems as cute or little when she's miserable, so Mary's going to stand up for herself. Window dresser Rhoda Morgenstern believes Mary's life is a shampoo commercial, but she's looking like a sassy, confident professional herself when not apologizing to her fern or misting the plants in Mary's apartment. Rhoda complains it would take a minute and fifteen seconds to read her old love letters, and the thought almost makes her bored enough to call her mother. At the hockey games, she likes to sit by the penalty box so she can pick up players, and Newman/Redford movies are her favorite because it is two fantasies for the price of one. The Mary Tyler Moore Show uses Rhoda to go for broke in the romance department, for she makes her mother cry by saying the first man already won't be her husband, and the answer to THAT question is when she was 20, and no it didn't hurt at first. Of course, Valerie Harper will soon depart for her own spin off, and parents Nancy Walker and Harold Gould guest star in “Rhoda's Sister Gets Married” as a semi soft launch with a trip to New York for Rhoda's little sister's wedding. Although much of the Morgenstern family history will be retconned on Rhoda, Ida and Martin are offended by the thought of Mary staying in a hotel instead of with them – insisting she sleep on the couch while airing out all the family angst. Rhoda, however, mixes business with pleasure after meeting the grandson of the store owner in “Love Blooms at Hemples.” She's afraid to take a chance or scare him off too soon, and Mary tells her to stop inventing reasons to date beneath herself. At last Rhoda looks happy, classy, and sophisticated as the episode alternates between Mary's office success and Rhoda's romance – permanently defining their individual sitcom paths.

WJM boss Lou Grant blames Mary for telling him an idea was wonderful instead of rotten. He's glad when she has some producing success but annoyed it means he can't ask her to do dumb things like bring him a jelly doughnut or make the coffee. She's excited when he makes her an omelet for working on a Saturday – until she tastes his secret beer ingredient – but Lou's long lunches mean something's wrong in the Emmy winning “The Lou and Edie Story.” He wants to talk to Mary man to man but he can't because she can't call him Lou. He tries to act naturally about seeing a marriage counselor, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show uses the workplace camaraderie to built mature characterizations as Ed Asner puts on a humorous one man struggle. Lou has to get it off his chest, but he can't talk – a drinking middle aged authority grappling with trouble at home for the first time. He takes out his anger on everything from suitcases to fruit instead of saying what needs to be said. Lou doesn't understand Edie's need to know who she is without being someone's Mrs., asking her not to leave until he gets home so the house won't be empty. For a comedy The Mary Tyler Moore Show makes a surprisingly tender episode in an era where separations were not dealt with on television. In “Lou's First Date,” Priscilla Morill's (Newhart) Edie is attending an awards dinner with someone else, so Lou intends to impress her with a great date himself. Unfortunately, he's mistakenly set up with a grand, but old, old lady, and Ed Asner's physical comedy shines in superb looks and reactions as exasperated Lou is nervous, embarrassed, and finally able to respect his classy date. A bottle of beer and Oreo's is Lou's idea of a single man's breakfast in “Just Friends,” so Mary brings him cereal, wake up calls, and does his laundry. Lou intrudes until she agrees to spy on Edie, who misses Lou but doesn't want him to think a dinner invitation means they are getting back together. Of course, he acts like everything is how it was, unable to accept the titular concept as The Mary Tyler Moore Show once again uses frank wit to address the shocking notion of the friendly post-divorce. In “Lou's Second Date” Rhoda attends an awards dinner with Lou, and they actually have a good time because there is no pressure or awkwardness. Sue Ann is jealous, however, and the station loves to gossip. Rhoda and Lou resent the implications, but neither is going to cancel dinner or miss a good hockey game because others ruined it for them.

Ted Knight's cream soda drinking anchorman Ted Baxter brags when his weekend is “sin-sational” and wants to announce it on the air but objects to reporting live on the scene without his sport coat. He hates when everyone knows something before him and Ted's jealous when he isn't asked to narrate a documentary about chimps – and the chimp gets the last word on him. Ted turns to sportscasting to make himself a renaissance man and tries wearing ridiculous platform boots, but he thinks he can't be taken seriously because he's too good looking. He also thinks he can put a drop of black hair dye in gradually for seven days and no one will notice the difference. When the League of Women Voters wants Ted to run for city council in “We Want Baxter” Lou drinks and Murray gets ulcers, but Phyllis insists he is an honest, controllable candidate. Lou points out the conflict of interest, but Ted sincerely thinks he can do some good. He also lost a school election and wants to prove himself, and a few goofy campaign ideas make Ted seems witty – until he forgets to register so he can vote. Ted's more shocked when his dad visits in “Father's Day,” and pretends he has lost his voice to not speak to his father. The Mary Tyler Moore Show balances the serious abandonment questions with humor as Ted shows off his fake autographs from famous folks and tells his father about that infamous 5,000 watt Fresno start. Despite the tender changes in Ted, he still struggles to sign the check when his father asks for a loan. Ted has Monopoly in his dressing room because he works hard and plays hard, too. He hires Rhoda to design his awards campaign in “Ted Baxter Meets Walter Cronkite,” for bribing the judges last year didn't work. When Ted finally wins, he's so overcome by the recognition and approval it almost bamboozles the titular meeting of his hero. Georgette encourages Ted to mend things with his dad and supports all he does, but Georgia Engel's innocent girlfriend doesn't want him to get into politics or become successful if that means he has less time for her. She takes shorthand notes for his production meetings, adding adorable little asides when she disagrees. Unfortunately, Ted takes her for cheap drive thru dinners and offers a lame mouth to mouth explanation for his dalliance in “Almost a Nun's Story.” Her one woman retellings of Ted' shenanigans are endearing – Georgette is tired of crying over him and we agree she should live it up and have fun for herself. When unhappy Georgette sees men who don't compare to Ted, she decides to do something good and join a convent, leading to some great mistaken flirtations with an unconventional nun as Ted realizes he misses Georgette. Now she gets to lay down the law on their relationship.

The late Cloris Leachman's landlord Phyllis Lindstrom loves to point out people's nerve when they stick around after a humiliating experience. Phyllis strikes out and wonders if she lost her charm, but after failing at writing and sculpting, she knows she was born to sell real estate. She's also too much of a real woman and that threatens men, so she has her husband Lars trained to call home every fifteen minutes because their relationship is built on trust. Her naive denials about her marriage make for an Emmy winning scene stealing performance, but of course, the Season Four premiere “The Lars Affair” introduces Betty White (The Golden Girls) as The Happy Homemaker Sue Ann Nivens. In front of the camera she is all about getting the stains out, a sweet and helpful persona contrasting her behind the scenes maneater tendencies and passive aggressive corrections. Her crew hates her, too, even unplugging her oven to ruin her show. The unseen Lars, however, gives Sue Ann a ride home, and the all night body shop repair excuses and collars cleaner when he comes home evidence is all the newsroom gossip. Viewers don't see the scandal, of course – delectable performances carry the innuendo – but the final blows between the ladies come down to chocolate and a ruined souffle. The Mary Tyler Moore Show combines the at home and show within a show, threatening Sue Ann to keep the under the sheets away from her public image, and it's fascinating how when the series started, Mary couldn't be a divorcee and now we have wickedly humorous adultery. Murray Slaughter hates when he's in a Monday mood and humming Mary is just so chipper, but Gavin MacLeod always has delicious zingers for Ted. The anchor wants to talk man to man with his writer, but Murray says they are one short. Once again, he has little else to do but jab from his desk, and a few family mentions seem inconsistent, but Murray's fifteen year old daughter takes a summer job at the station in “I Gave at the Office.” Murray doesn't want to be one of those parents, but the covering for her does come between Murray, Mary, and Lou. It's a little reminiscent of previous incompetent hires running amok in the office, but Lou can't swear, Ted's playing matchmaker, and it's interesting to see how a small change effects the entire newsroom dynamic. If they ever carpooled, Murray says he, Lou, Mary, and Gordy would be in one car with Ted in another, and yes, weatherman Gordy is referred to often but only appears in one episode this season when he replaces Ted as an anchorman. Gordy sarcastically tells Ted he's more content with the weather, but after his troubles, Lou gives Gordy a raise so WJM won't lose him. Of course, this is John Amos' last appearance until a guest spot in Season Seven – after Gordy has gone on to be quite successful. Chuckles the Clown also makes a zany appearance when Jerry Van Dyke returns for “Son of “But Seriously, Folks”.” The writer has quit the station for freelance but isn't doing well and applies for a news writer position so he can strike up again with Mary. She feels guilty that he likes her more and their working together becomes increasingly difficult thanks to a terrible idea to film the news in a new behind the scenes casual format hysterically mixed with drunken disappointment and disastrous rejection.

The new Year Four credits for The Mary Tyler Moore Show are a buzz with elevators, city high rises, and working girl content when Mary's not washing her mustang and not enjoying the inflated price of beef. Such solo outdoor scenes and workplace shots reiterate how our series is growing up compared to the tacky colors and grandma looking doilies on The Happy Homemaker set. Mary's apartment is spruced up too with more plants, tables, chairs, and a new bookcase wall visually expanding the space – even if the location doesn't make a lot of sense when we see more use of the house stairwell. There's fondue, vintage popcorn makers, and nostalgic charm like removing your earring to talk on the rotary phone. Far out boutiques sell metallics and platform boots while bell bottoms, wide lapels, and wild plaid pants match the chunky bracelets and brooches as each character is firmly suited in his or her own swanky style. Newcomers step in to The Mary Tyler Moore Show without missing a beat as viewers say goodbye to beloved players, and Season Four continues the trail blazing, award winning success with laughter for all.

19 March 2021



Possessor is a Sophisticated Sci-Fi Parable

by Kristin Battestella

Writer and director Brandon Cronenberg's (Antiviral) 2020 British/Canadian co-production Possessor is a stylish science fiction tale combining unethical psychological dilemmas and invasive horror as assassin Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) jacks into unwitting hosts with the help of handler Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to orchestrate elaborate murder/suicides and advance their company's billion dollar agenda. Despite difficulties at home, Vos takes on their next big contract – killing data mining mogul John Parse (Sean Bean) and his daughter Ava (Tuppence Middleton) under the guise of Ava's boyfriend Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott). Unfortunately, glitches and a degrading time window make this takeover complicated – blurring the lines between host and possessor.

Bloody plugs squish into the scalp and Possessor immediately catches the audience with bittersweet tears and gunshots breaking the silent luxury. Medical awakenings lead to vomiting and severed links with the host, but there are no lingering side effects or anomalies – supposedly. Memory debriefings and artifacts from childhood help our assassin adjust before returning to the modest home and family, but the dinner conversation is a lie, detached just like the news reports of the preceding crime. The scientific chats, however, are cold but honest, for one can't really bring these experiences home. Surveillance begins for the next project alongside practicing mannerisms, abducted subject prep, and scheduling details. Three days and no room for error adds ticking clocks and technicalities to the personal amid the fantastic crimes and dual performances. After spending time in our assassin's point of view, now Possessor has her inside the man who will unwitting kill his lover for someone else's corporate gain. Exterior spying and interior simulations layer the invasive intimacy as multiple sensations and minutia over stimulate our host – leading to fractures in the mind and body connections. Friends and lovers blur as hiding in a social situation is easier than facing the coupled dishonesty. The woman in a man's body reversal acerbates the rough sex and suppressed consciousness as the slow burn suspense and initial hesitations culminate with kills both calculated and messy. Editing matches the close quarters blows while brutal scenes play out – taking their gory time without special effects exaggeration. Glitches make retrievals difficult as the violence and science go wrong and unforeseen problems like will power blend our personalities together. We are with both characters at the same time, but in set up fixers, and the need to survive question who is dominant. Possessor enters a mental surreal as the personas fight each other, one donning the distorted mask of the other as corrupted memories and homicidal guilt bleed together. The killings intrude on the home and family sacred with sad but disturbing predatory revelations, and the psychology, performances, and physicality merge as the cruel turnabouts come full circle.

Vos says she's fine but we know she's not, and Andrea Riseborough (The Devil's Mistress) is pale and sickly, rehearsing being herself and pretending to be glad after a work trip. She wants to take time off and fix her marriage, but Vos is detached even during intimacy and the use of Tas at home but Vos at work shows her conflicted identity. It's easier to be someone else than herself, but the complications are increasing and Vos chooses more violent weapons like knives and fireplace pokers over easier guns. She lies that there are no disruptions yet spies on her family as her subject, realizing the choice between work and home that's holding her back. Unwitting host Christopher Abbott (First Man) as boyfriend cum killer Colin Tate is initially a sassy lover, but he makes mistakes, hesitates, and loses control as Vos emerges. Tate is weakening outside but fighting in their mind, forcing conflict as Possessor presents two people playing the same character. We feel for both in this fascinating twofer because they need each other to survive and end their torment but their relationship will never be mutual. Swanky, hobnobbing, corporate big wig Sean Bean (Sharpe), however, and his saucy daughter Tuppence Middleton (Dickensian) fight about her dating a nobody like Tate. Parse has elaborate parties but living it up is not enough and he's taking his data mining tech to the next level. Both he and the seemingly devoted Ava treat Tate as the latest plaything, but they have no way of knowing Vos' influence – leading to disturbing payback. Initially handler Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight) seems to care, too, debriefing Vos and reclining beside her during the assassinations with tips and tech support. A former assassin herself, Girder wants Vos to eventually replace her, but she thinks her star performer would be better off if she didn't have real world attachments. Girder sends in a fixer to assure this critical contract is fulfilled – doing what she has to do to see the mission accomplished.

Exotic hotels provide futuristic mood thanks to red lights and a reflective black sheen. Rather than excessive CGI sci-fi world building or wasting time with future city skylines and rad technology, smart use of color and mod chairs in the otherwise sparse briefing room offer enough cool without contemporary omnipresent technology to eventually date Possessor's timeless concepts. Calibrations and scientific dossiers let us know the dangerous perimeters while jack ins, the melting away self, and flashes of the takeover invoke a seventies science fiction arty as one person molds into another. Possessor is shocking but pretty with blurs, distortions, dual echoes, and overlays showing the inside another person's mind intimate. Practical effects and in camera action create an audience tangible to the within within dilemmas. Classic cars are both a sign of wealth and a visual throwback while vaping instead of smoking also feels niche and elite. Grandiose architecture, fresco ceilings, and marble staircases symbolically ascend while blunt gunfire, squishing stabs, and merging pools of blood pierce the senses. Lighting schemes and mirrors allow us to see multiple characters in one at the same time – an eerie but simple self-awareness amid invasive big brother televisions, cameras, and screens paralleling the who's watching whom and who is really in control familiarity. Some enjoy the voyeurism, upping the sex and nudity when they know there's spying while Possessor winks at the cinematic experience itself. Ironically, the censorship between the R and Unrated versions is more about erections then gore, adding intrigue elements regarding women predators versus macho men, ambiguous sexuality, and gender identity. The rental blu-ray also features deleted scenes with extra character details and lengthy behind the scenes conversations, but when I went to buy the elusive Possessor Uncut blu-ray, it was an “only one left” click and my purchase was ultimately canceled. 😕

Possessor may be slow for viewers accustomed to science fiction action and high tech in your face cool a minute. The well done gore is brutal yet this is not outright horror for those expecting formulaic scares. The chilling what if invasive is disturbing, and old school touches accent Possessor's bizarre. This looks like one of dad David Cronenberg's (Rabid) films, and that isn't a bad thing. Fine performances carry the science fiction pains, and the personal intelligence and sophistication keep audiences thinking about the consequences long after Possessor ends.