Goes to the Movies, Uncategorized

Trash Culture Goes to the Movies: Future Shock (1994) (a.k.a. the “Satan’s Slut” movie)

If in the mid-late ’90s you watched a lot of movies over the weekend on USA Network (like me), you may recall being exposed to a quirky horror/sci-fi anthology film titled Future Shock. But, like me, you might not have even remembered the actual title of the film, instead only recalling a memorial scene where a shy, uptight man is driven to shout “Satan’s slut!” in recognition at seeing a woman’s dead body. Indeed, if you’re even more like me, you might have thought that the line “Satan’s slut!” was said multiple times, which, sadly, isn’t the case.

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If not that, you might know this movie for Vivian Schilling, the writer/director and star of Soultaker of MST3K notoriety and who stars in the first segment, “Jenny Porter”. And if not that, you might have heard this movie stars Bill Paxton in its second and most well-known segment, “The Roommate”, or that the third writer/director to contribute to this anthology through its last segment, “Mr. Petrified Forrest”, is Matt Reeves, who created the TV series Felicity, directed the modern Planet of the Apes films, and has recently been tapped to fire up a new Batman film franchise yet again.

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The narrative glue that brings this anthology together concerns Dr. Langdon (the hugely prolific Martin Kove), a psychologist who delves into the cutting edge of ’90s virtual reality for therapeutic purposes, treating his patients’ phobias and anxieties by subjecting them to intense and convincing false memories. Each of the anthology’s stories revolves around a different patient: a wealthy woman Jenny (Vivian Schilling) faces her fear of being home alone as she experiences being stalked by a mysterious wolf-like creature that defies even her paranoid security measures; a shy, neurotic, and easily intimidated morgue attendant George (Scott Thompson) gets stuck with the ultimate roommate from hell Vince (Bill Paxton), but things quickly get far more serious than just sleepless nights and late rent payments when George becomes the prime suspect in the brutal murder of Vince’s one-night stand, “Satan’s slut” (Timothi-Jane Graham); and a photographer Fred, after witnessing the sudden death of a close friend, has to choose between conquering his paranoia about death and a blossoming romantic relationship with a woman named Elfie (Pat Alexander)…that is, if he hasn’t already been marked by death itself.

As an anthology, it actually works quite well. The theme of being irrationally paralyzed by fear actually runs strongly through all three vignettes and the tone and quality remains consistent, although I do agree with the critical consensus—well, such as it is out there—that “Jenny Porter” is the best of the segments, especially in how it communicates a genuine feeling of helplessness and dread. It’s undermined a little by some constant shots of wolves and dogs where the story would have been better served by keeping the threat reduced to growls from an invisible source, but that’s a mild complaint for an otherwise genuinely well-presented and well-acted study of terror in isolation.

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But that’s not to say the other two segments are worth skipping; far from it. “The Roommate” is darkly funny from how Bill Paxton captures the spirit of a grown-up bully in the same mold as the thug who kicks sand in the skinny guy’s face at the beach to George’s boss, who is (mostly) mute and communicates his emotions and instructions through very grim facial expressions. And while “Mr. Petrified Forrest” is probably ill-fitting for what is to some degree a horror anthology, it does its work through some pretty effective storytelling, like a fairly subtle scene where Fred’s father nearly breaks through his son’s paranoia but he realizes some badly timed news has made his efforts futile. It also has some beautiful shots, from Fred slowly watching a small plane that crashed and is burning in someone’s front yard to him sitting in bed bathed in blue and surrounded by film stock, highlighting his fear and its consequences better than dialogue ever could. There isn’t much to say about the framing story about Dr. Langdon because it isn’t much of a story in of itself, although it does also have a genuinely funny section in which a staff member frightens away a couple of prospective patients by arguing about a previous patient who went insane from the virtual reality treatment on the phone.

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That said, there are some baffling creative choices here and there. There’s a bizarre sequence meant to communicate the idea of a “food chain” that involves a random man who is implied to have violently kicked a dog for no reason (!!). Also the ending, which sees Dr. Langdon apparently tempted by his own virtual reality device or questions his own sense of reality, and a brief scene where Jenny’s virtual reality experience is being observed by a group of doctors within the dream itself don’t really make sense and feel like remnants of an earlier draft of a script left in. This is somewhat supported by the fact that this movie had an indie comic book adaptation of all things, discussed by Linkara here, which does give more context to both the doctors and the ending with Dr. Langdon, but in my research I couldn’t verify if the comic is actually based on an earlier draft of the script, in which Dr. Langdon had much more sinister motives but was also himself a patient experiencing virtual reality, or if the comic was deliberately “dumbed down” for a stereotypical comic book readership or a little from column A and column B.

As for the movie itself, it doesn’t quite transcend its low budget, so it has an unpolished feel, which depending on your tastes is part of its charm or one of its flaws. Nor do all three of the segments seem to have been originally written for the virtual reality motif. Only “Jenny Porter” really feels as if it was intended for the framing story. “The Roommate” has a twist ending that really doesn’t make sense as part of George’s virtual reality experience while “The Petrified Mr. Forrest” has its own framing device of sorts, Fred having a near-death experience in Purgatory, which means in a way that the story is double framed. Again, though, the stories do share and effectively convey a common theme, which is more than can be said for a lot of movie anthologies.

While I’m more conscious of the flaws here than I was when I first saw the movie as a kid, I’m still very fond of it. It’s genuinely a solid anthology that I would still say is worth watching if you catch it on YouTube or dig up the DVD or VHS copy somewhere. This is even more true today, as it’s the sort of creative, low-budget movie that’s sadly an endangered species in our current era of mega-media monopolies and creatives who are spoiled by choice for potential platforms yet are starved of opportunities for getting their work out there.

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Yes, This Really Happened: Mr. Ed Vs. Clint Eastwood

Despite being a child of the ’80s and ’90s, I actually did get a fairly steady diet of sitcoms from the ’60s thanks to Nick at Nite. Catering to boomer nostalgia, the channel used to take up the nighttime air time after Nickelodeon’s kid-geared programming, so I wasn’t the only couch potato-in-training of my generation who managed to get exposed to yesteryear’s sitcom hits.

My favorite sitcoms, of course, were the ones coming out of the ’60s fad for outlandish sitcom premises: I Dream of Genie, Gilligan’s Island, and, of course, Mr. Ed, the story of a married man in Los Angeles named Wilbur and the horse that talks to him alone. And, no, you can’t even joke à la Jon and Garfield that Wilbur is hallucinating that Ed can talk because, yes, it’s canon that Mr. Ed can talk to other people; he just doesn’t want to for reasons…although you could probably still make the argument that Wilbur suffers from a particularly complex case of dissociative identity disorder.

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The show’s running gag is that Mr. Ed, despite caring about Wilbur, apparently enjoys making him appear as deranged as possible to his wife and neighbors. This is made somewhat easier by the fact that Wilbur is hardly the post-World War II American masculine ideal. Actor Alan Young, to liberally paraphrase one of the show’s creators, was brought on to portray Wilbur as the sort of guy who would talk to his horse. If this does sound kind of like the relationship of Jon Arbuckle and Garfield, albeit with Jon supposedly not being able to understand Garfield, well, you’re not the only one. Maybe instead of dissociative identity disorder, it’s a demon that possesses animals and preys on socially awkward men?

That Mr. Ed is at least occasionally malevolent is definitely the premise of this adventure. Mr. Ed went running off around the neighborhood (did that kind of thing happen in the suburbs of southern California during the ’50s and ’60s?), causing Wilbur to miss a town meeting his wife Carol wanted him to attend. Mr. Ed is upset that a new member of the neighborhood, Clint Eastwood, has an alpha-male horse Midnight who is having an affair with his fillies. Note the plural. I guess being non-human means Mr. Ed is totally unrestrained by the mores of ’50s/’60s American television, given that the show makes it very clear that he basically has a horse harem.

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Clint Eastwood gets further into poor Wilbur’s orbit when Carol retaliates for Wilbur’s disappearance by nominating him in absentia to head a committee for raising money for a neighborhood youth center. His only ally is his neighbor Roger, who was also drafted by his wife Kay. So Wilbur is not only stuck with a wife stewing with rage, but he is stuck with having to write a script for a play to put on to raise money.

You probably see where this is going already. What you might not predict is that Mr. Ed can somehow use a phone and dial, a convenient loophole to his own “only speaking to Wilbur” rule. Exploiting the fact that, at the time, neighborhoods often shared one phone line, Mr. Ed ruthlessly pranks Clint Eastwood and sabotages his conversations with a studio executive and his girlfriend, costing him a movie role and a relationship.

Suspecting Wilbur, a shockingly young Clint Eastwood is about to beat him up. In what I thought was the episode’s funniest bit, a star-struck Roger is somewhere between being nonchalant and outright egging Eastwood on about the whole thing. Alas, both Roger and the viewer is bound to be disappointed. Clint Eastwood is not only easily talked down from violence, but readily volunteers one of his old Western scripts to provide the basis for the fundraising play. Luckily, Carol getting enlisted as a hot frontier town lady also finally gives her the push needed to patch things up with Wilbur.

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As for Mr. Ed’s problems…well, they get resolved pretty neatly through the power of convenient coincidence. It turns out that Clint Eastwood sold Midnight to a studio and got a hot, new filly, whom Mr. Ed promptly sets out to seduce. A promising subplot, in which Clint Eastwood volunteers to train and “discipline” Mr. Ed, doesn’t even really get off the ground once the whole plot is resolved!

It is interesting and a little disconcerting to see a very young Clint Eastwood, still mostly known just for his starring role in the TV Western Rawhide at the time of this episode, but how much you get out of this episode, and any episode of Mr. Ed really, depends on your taste for jokes like:

“Clint Eastwood does not ride bareback.”

“Then why does he call his show Rawhide?”

(Although it does make you wonder if certain slang terms that are prominent today had the same meaning back then…)

If you belong to my generation or younger, it’s also weird how much shows like this were completely and fatally deconstructed by shows like The Simpsons, namely for their tame jokes and the easily resolved conflicts and the lack of character growth. Experiencing the satire before the subject of the satire definitely gives shows like this a kind of unintended veneer that doesn’t exactly spoil them, at least for me, but also definitely doesn’t really make it easy to enjoy them on their own terms.

That said, it’s usually not fair to write off sitcoms from this era as being entirely toothless, and this episode is no exception. The show’s running gag about the quiet desperation that is the Addisons’ marriage actually has a tiny bit of a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? vibe:

“Forget you’re married to him. Pretend you love him.”

“You know you and Roger are crazy about each other!”
“Yeah, but that’s the only thing holding our marriage together.”

I genuinely did laugh at those jokes. It’s just that, if you do choose to dive into Mr. Ed, it’s best to ignore the moments like when Clint Eastwood’s housekeeper helps in the rehearsal by playing a Native American. I try to argue that sometimes different times aren’t as different from our own as we assume…but sometimes, they really just are.

 

 

 

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Non-Nostalgia Review: Missy, Series 1

I promise this isn’t turning into a Doctor Who fan blog. Not yet, anyway.

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The latest crop from Big Finish’s lucrative “alliance” with the BBC and the resulting welding of the “official” continuity and Big Finish’s own corner of the Who universe is another mini-series starring everyone’s favorite frenemy, the Master…or rather Missy, with Michelle Gomez returning to voice the role. Missy, Series 1 takes place sometime before Missy’s botched judicial execution in “Extremis” and the subsequent efforts of the Doctor to single-handedly keep her imprisoned and redeem her. So, yes, we do get Missy in her full villainous glory all throughout.

In the first story, “A Spoonful of Mayhem”, an unhappy, upper middle-class family in Victorian London have their lives changed forever when the father hires a governess for his two adolescent children. The new governess becomes part of the family overnight, introducing the kids to a new, hidden world of magic and miracles and giving them the education of a lifetime. So, yes, it’s a lot like Mary Poppins; well, if Mary Poppins was a mass-murdering sociopath imprisoned on Earth…

Next is “Divorced, Beheaded, Regenerated”. Henry VIII is about to meet the woman who will become his sixth wife. Except she isn’t Katherine Parr. And Henry VIII isn’t really Henry VIII either, but the renegade Time Lord widely known as “Meddling Monk” who in this case isn’t a monk but is still meddling with human history. However, he’s about to learn he’s not the only one who is where and when he shouldn’t be. “Henry VIII’s” new royal bride-to-be is secretly the “artist formally known as the Master” and, as if that wasn’t enough for him to have to deal with, there are a pack of violent aliens hot on his trail…

The most gloriously odd pick out of the pack is undoubtedly “The Broken Clock”. It’s time for another episode of Dick Zodiac’s America’s Most Impossible Killers. This episode, New York City detective Joe Lynwood is investigating a string of murders that simply shouldn’t have logically occurred at all. Luckily to deal with this improbable case he does have an unexpected ally, a veteran homicide detective all the way from Scotland Yard, DI Missy Masters…

The last episode on the box set is probably my personal favorite, “The Belly of the Beast”. On a small, unnamed planet, slaves have been collected from various worlds and brought together to tunnel underground for a mysterious object at the behest of a ruthless tyrant named Missy. Stuck between Missy’s brutal troops and slavemasters and hostile monsters called the kobolds, three friends in one slave group strike out to join the fabled rebellion set on ending Missy’s reign of terror and misery once and for all. Unfortunately for them, their true circumstances might be even more horrific than they ever imagined…

The stories seem extremely disparate, but they actually do form a very loose arc that ends on a sequel hook. They are also united in that, if you listen to them in order (which I recommend), they slowly build up Missy as being as much of a ruthless villain as her predecessors as the Master. “A Spoonful of Mayhem” does present Missy as a sympathetic anti-hero with some dark edges but is clearly capable of empathy. However, by the time you get “The Belly of the Beast”, she gets up to some downright cruel and callous actions that make her schemes from the TV show look like vandalizing mailboxes in comparison.

To be honest, I am a bit biased because I have a soft spot in my heart for stories starring established villains. And the Master/Missy is one of my all-time favorites in that regard. That said, though, Michelle Gomez’s Missy and Big Finish is a match made in Heaven (well, Hell, honestly, but in a good way!). Big Finish has always cashed in on its license to be both darker and weirder than the TV series, allowing Gomez to take her flamboyant, grimly whimsical, fourth wall-winking interpretation of Missy/the Master to the next level. This is especially true for “The Broken Clock”, which threatens to kick all suspension of disbelief out the window, but by the end it does walk it back enough that it steers well clear of “the Doctor meeting the cast of EastEnders” levels. Overall, “The Broken Clock” as well as the mini-series as a whole is a bizarre but satisfying mix of the grim and the playful, much like Missy herself.

If I had any complaints, it’s that, as usual, the quality of the voice acting is a bit uneven, as is often the case with Big Finish. Also as much fun as it is to see Rufus Hound’s Meddling Monk bicker with Missy, I feel like there was a wasted opportunity in adding some not particularly interesting alien villains in the mix, instead of having it just be a story with two time travelers facing off against each other in a historical milieu much like the original Meddling Monk story.

Overall, though, the mini-series manages to capture the spirit of the character better than, dare I say it, the TV show itself. Add me to the list of people who are already eager for Series 2. Fans of Missy won’t be disappointed and it’s definitely recommended, even for those of you who are fans of the franchise but haven’t given Big Finish a shot before.

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Doctor Who – Spearhead from Space (1970)

spearheadfromspaceA Cambridge scientist named Liz Shaw is brought to UNIT headquarters where she meets Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, who tries to enlist a skeptical Shaw to investigate a series of recent meteorite strikes that could be evidence of an alien excursion. UNIT scientists arrive at the scene of one of the meteorite landings, but the meteorite had already been taken by a local old man, Sam Seeley. Meanwhile the TARDIS materializes somewhere in Buckingham and the Doctor stumbles out and collapses in a new body. He’s taken to a nearby hospital where his physiology mystifies his doctor. Upon recovering his consciousness, the Doctor angrily demands his shoes. Suddenly, though, the Doctor is abducted by two eerily emotionless men dressed as physicians. Even confined to a wheelchair, the Doctor manages to escape, only to be accidentally shot by a UNIT soldier.

Although the gunshot only grazed the Doctor, he falls back into unconsciousness, which the baffled lower case-“d” doctor theorizes might be somehow self-induced. However, the Doctor recovers and frees himself from the hospital, stealing another doctor’s suit, hat, cape, and even car while he’s at it. The Doctor shows up at UNIT’s headquarters and asks to see his TARDIS. Lethbridge-Stewart is reluctant to trust him because of his new appearance (although the Doctor himself warms up to his new looks, especially how “flexible” his face is) and refuses to hand over the key to the TARDIS which he took from the Doctor while he was unconscious, but he gladly lets the Doctor butt into his and Liz’s investigation of the meteorites.

In a plastic doll factory, a suspicious designer, Ransome, investigates the back rooms of a plastics factory whose owner, Hibbert, had suddenly broken off a contract with him and acts oddly when confronted. He finds a closed-off area full of identical plastic men with guns attached to their hands called the Autons and barely escapes before getting picked up by UNIT soldiers. When the Doctor convinces Liz he needs some lab equipment from the TARDIS, Liz snatches the key from Lethbridge-Stewart while he’s interrogating Ransome. After Lethbridge-Stewart angrily barges in, Liz realizes she was tricked when the TARDIS starts to dematerialize…only to come to a stuttering stop.  “The temptation was too strong, my dear,” an abashed Doctor explains. “I couldn’t bear to be tied to one planet and one time.” The Doctor realizes that the Time Lords had deliberately sabotaged his TARDIS and left him stranded on Earth.

Sam comes clean to UNIT about taking and hiding away one of the meteorites. While an Auton comes close to snatching it, the Doctor and Liz get their hands on it. Although the Autons do succeed in assassinating Ransome, they do know the Autons are based in the plastics factory. When interrogated by Lethbridge-Stewart, Hibbert gives plausible explanations for almost everything, suggesting that Ransome made up the story because he was disgruntled by the factory switching its focus from dolls to store mannequins. Lethbridge-Stewart’s superior, General Scobie, is replaced by an Auton designed to resemble him exactly. When Scobie orders him to abandon the investigation into the meteorites, Lethbridge-Stewart suspects that Scobie was replaced by a Madame Tussaud-esque imposter. Still, the faux-General Scobie is able to use his authority to take the last meteorite held by UNIT.

The Doctor and Liz investigate the new mannequins produced by the plastics factory, which are all replicas of contemporary political figures, and work into the early modern hours on a weapon that could stop the Autons. They are too late, though. On the streets of cities across Britain, mannequins get up on their own and begin massacring anyone they come across and attacking military and communications outlets.

Still, the alien intelligence behind the Autons, the Nestene Consciousness, which has been assembled through the meteorites starts to see its plans to colonize the Earth unravel. Hibbert, their sole face to humanity, breaks free of his brainwashing and rebels, getting killed in the process. Liz and the Doctor invent a weapon, based on an electroconvulsive therapy machine, that can kill an Auton. When faux-General Scobie tries to have Lethbridge-Stewart arrested, the Doctor destroys it with the weapon freeing the original Scobie. While UNIT battles the Autons on the factory grounds, the Doctor and Liz go inside and confront the Nestene Consciousness, a pulsating, writhering mass of tentacles in a metal cylinder that serves as the hive mind of the Autons. Although it attacks and manages to overwhelm the Doctor, Liz deals it the killing blow. Back at UNIT headquarters, the Doctor agrees to work with UNIT in exchange for a lab and the resources he needs to get his TARDIS working again, all under the name of “Dr. John Smith”.

The Third Doctor’s First Words

“Shoes. Must find my shoes. Unhand me, Madame.”

Continuity Notes

The big thing is that this is the first appearance and the first adventure of the Third Doctor played by Jon Pertwee. It’s also the first time we learn that the Doctor, and by extension all Time Lords, have two hearts. (Don’t ask if Time Lords always have two hearts or if they just develop two hearts after their first regeneration. Or, for that matter, if all Gallifreyans are born that way or develop it as a side effect of becoming bona fide Time Lords. For the love of Rassilon, just don’t.)

I talked about it already when I covered War Games, but it’s worth repeating that this episode marks the biggest revamp in the show’s history, arguably even bigger than the show’s revival in 2005 or the introduction of a female Doctor in 2018. The focus of the show is no longer on the Doctor’s travels but on fighting aliens in contemporary Britain, the show is in color, and while the stories are still split across multiple episodes (in this case, Spearhead from Space is four episodes), you no longer get the eight or nine-episode long serials that you had in the First and Second Doctor eras.

There’s also actually an explanation here as to why the Earth gets invaded so much during the Third Doctor’s tenure (and presumably also from here on out): Earth has called attention to itself by sending out satellites and probes. Funnily enough, this exact sort of thing was a real concern for Stephen Hawking before his death.

Sign of the Times

It’s a bit of a stretch, I admit, but it is kind of striking that there’s nothing sinister or ironic about the Doctor and Liz using an electroshock machine of all things to stop the Autons.

Choice Quotes

Liz: “What are you ‘doctor’ of, by the way?”
The Doctor: “Practically everything.”

Comments

I really do love Spearhead from Space. It captures the essence of the franchise’s appeal in a way that’s just about perfect, with the right mix of campy, sci-fi, and horror. I mean, you do have the Third Doctor wrestling with some tentacles that almost look like papier-mâché, but I do think the scene where the mannequins start their rampage on a nondescript city street is genuinely pretty chilling. Their odd baby doll faces and eyeball-less eyes only add to the sublime creepiness. It certainly helps that this is arguably the first “Doctor Who” story that has a high on-screen body count.

It’s also a delightfully character-driven story, which honestly we haven’t seen much of so far. Liz Shaw is skeptical, matter of fact, and assertive, visibly angered by the small bit of sexism she gets from General Scobie and who develops a believable respect for the Doctor after a tense beginning. General Lethbridge-Stewart is appropriately stern but still has his own unique brand of warmth, which no doubt helped make him become one of the most beloved characters from the entire franchise. And the Third Doctor himself establishes himself as a courageous and caring person, but also one who is simultaneously more arrogant and selfish than he was in his last incarnation. Not just the characters but their relationships are established to a “t”.

Anyway, if you’re curious about the classic era of Who, there are worse jumping-on points than this epic story of the Doctor with the flexible face versus killer mannequins.

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Trash Culture After Dark: The Devil in Miss Jones (1973)

Before The Good Place, we had The Devil in Miss Jones, which similarly took a skewed and satirical look at the grotesque absurdities in traditional western Christian views of the afterlife and eternal punishment. The key difference is that The Devil in Miss Jones doesn’t so much present quirky yet profound explorations into the philosophy of ethics as it has lots and lots of hardcore sex.

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The Devil in Miss Jones is a movie that only could have happened during the porno chic era of 1970s America. What’s porno chic? My dear naive reader, porno chic is a very weird bubble in American cinematic history when hardcore porn aimed for more than flimsy excuses for sex in lieu of plots or half-baked parodies of popular films, and in turn they were released in mainstream theaters and got serious attention from film critics. In fact, The Devil in Miss Jones got a three-star rating from none other than Roger Ebert himself!

That’s right. Ebert thought slasher movies spelled the end of Western civilization, but gave the thumbs up to a movie where a good chunk of the second act involves a woman learning about the joys of oral sex. Go figure.

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Well, to be fair, maybe it’s not all that surprising. While there’s no mistaking The Devil in Miss Jones for a movie that isn’t deliberately trying to stoke a hetero libido, it is also an undeniably thoughtful film, especially by the standards of the hardcore pornography of today. For starters, it has a bona fide story. One that arguably has a point beyond being a reason for serving up nudity and sex, even.

Once upon a time, there was a young woman named Justine Jones (Georgina Spelvin). She did “everything she was taught” and tried successfully to live a decent, moral, and dull life, but at the terrible cost of suppressing her appetite for intimacy. Unable to bear the contradiction between her desires and her morality, however, she winds up slitting her wrists in the bathtub. Her soul winds up in a cosmic waiting room where a being calling himself Mr. Abaca (John Clemens) tells Justine apologetically that she was a shoe-in for Heaven, but her suicide, which Mr. Abaca calls her “accident”, was her one unforgivable sin. Disqualified from Heaven by her suicide but too pure for Hell, Justine Jones only has an eternity in Limbo to look forward to.

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Angry at this injustice, Justine jumps on Mr. Abaca’s suggestion that she can return to Earth for a time to indulge in the sins she denied herself her entire life. He directs her to a demonic man only called “the Teacher” (Harry Reems), who instructs her in sex and breaks through what’s left of her inhibitions. Once she’s ready, she’s sent to Earth to enjoy herself. Unfortunately, she only has a little while to experiment with her newfound freedom, and, in the end, the price is quite steep. After bringing her back to eternity’s lobby, Mr. Abaca grimly tells her now she has earned her place in Hell. While Mr. Abaca tries to assure her that all the stuff about fire and pitchforks is just “a myth”, Justine finds the reality of damnation is possibly even worse for her: she’s stuck in a room with a madman obsessed with catching flies who refuses to even consider making love to her, no matter how much she pleads.

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Beyond even having an actual story, there is actual artistry in the filmaking. The soundtrack is quite good, whether it’s conveying the sterile boredom of Justine Jones’ existence or Justine’s growing love of decadence under the Teacher’s guidance. There are also more than a few frankly very well-done shots that did indeed deserve a few stars from the United States’ most famous film critic, including the lingering images of Justine’s suicide and the grim, claustrophobic horror of Justine’s final fate. Even some of the sex scenes, while more or less de rigeur for a ’70s porn (there’s even the requisite threeway), convey a sense that they’re meant to be about more than just titillation. Plus there’s a scene involving Georgina Spelvina and a snake that’s not at all as bad as your perverted imagination might think…although it does speak as much to Georgina’s guts as a pornographic actress as to the perverted genius of the filmmakers.

At the core, I think the argument for the merits of The Devil in Mrs. Jones rests on two *ahem* tent poles. The first is that, as someone of different sexual preferences than the intended audience of the film, I was still intrigued by it, even though admittedly the sex scenes that comprised most of the movie’s middle got tedious for me. The second is that it’s impossible to imagine the story and atmosphere of this movie getting pulled off by a movie that didn’t have hardcore sex scenes. The grimy, frantic eroticism just perfectly builds up to the bleak conclusion and its depiction of a moralistic universe fundamentally hostile to the reality of human nature and desire. Hell, I’d go as far as to say this movie does prove porn can indeed be art.

But, unfortunately, instead of the timeline where porno chic got to thrive and evolve, we’re in the timeline where people are wasting hours fiercely and endlessly debating the sexual morality of the lyrics of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” of all things. I think I know how poor Justine Jones must feel.

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Shark Week Special: Street Sharks

I made the mistake of vowing that once Discovery Channel’s Shark Week rolled around, I would return to the jawsome world of the Street Sharks. This was a mistake. Not just because the show itself you might say really bites, but because it’s hard to say anything about the show without using its own level of puns like this is a fintastrophe. In fact, as I watched it, I just wanted to go to the beach and freaking drown myself. 

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Let’s move on.

I’ve talked a lot about how kids have it good these days as far as animation goes. There’s still some stinkers out there, of course, but it’s become almost expected for even kids’ animated shows to have such fancy things as “character arcs” and “ongoing stories”. Such luxuries were largely unknown to the children of my generation, and even then shows like Street Sharks were the nadir of an already low-down trend.

Still, I thought about seeing if my hazy memories of the show were unfairly distorted, and picked out an episode that seemed like it would explore the potential of the show’s premise, “To Shark Or Not To Shark” (yes, every single episode title is a pun). See, the one thing that genuinely made the premise of Street Sharks stand out is that the sharks are supposed to be not only outcasts, but also genuine fugitives, while their archenemy Dr. Paradigm was a well-respected professor. This might have been an interesting take on the ancient “Don’t judge a book by its cover” moral if Dr. Paradigm wasn’t a sinister-looking man who went around in freakish body armor, but again I digress.

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I wanted to give this episode a chance in particular because 1) it spotlights one of the two Street Sharks with an actual tangible character trait, Streex, who is vain, which you can tell because he looks at a mirror and brushes his fin like he would hair because I guess it actually affects his appearance somehow (the other one is Ripster, whose personality trait is “leaderish”) and 2) it has like a solid premise for a cartoon with inhuman protagonists. They get a chance to become a normal human at the cost of their powers and ability to effectively fight evil. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles did it. All the various iterations of “X-Men” did it probably 123,000 times, give or take a hundred. It’s a pretty stock plot, but it’s tailor-made for a series about fugitive heroes. Let’s see how they did!

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Let it never be said I can’t give a subtle hint.

Anyway, I honestly made a little checklist of things that I would consider basic to a story like this. Nothing out of the ordinary that would make something like this stand out, much less be an inspirational classic (although it is a shame we never got a groundbreaking episode of Street Sharks scripted by Maurice Sendak). It’s just for what I, as a writer myself, would consider the bare minimum for a story like this.

Streeks does something that really hits home how much he’s lost by being a humanoid shark, i.e. he frightens a bunch of children he’s trying to rescue, an old girlfriend is disgusted with him, etc.

The episode does that…kind of? The Street Sharks’ requisite human buddy, Bends, invites Streeks and…er, the brown Street Shark to check out a car he’s worked on that will be presented at a mall car show. It’s a car that can use most liquids as a fuel, even sugar water, so naturally it’s just to show off at a crappy mall. Anyway, there’s this supermodel who is stuck up and also French (you might think this is so très banal but by being snooty and French she already has more dimensions than most Street Sharks characters) who thinks the Sharks are in Halloween costumes. And they have trouble fitting into the car.

This is enough motivation for Streeks to decide to stop being the city’s only defender against a mad scientist who wants to mutate its entire human population.

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Yes, they use this exact reaction shot at two very different points in the episode. Seriously, this show makes DiC look like a golden age Disney animated film.

It turns out the opportunity to change back to human is a trap laid out by the antagonist.

Okay, this one the show actually did fully do, but even then it’s a bit off. If you go by what we see in this episode, apparently Dr. Paradigm’s plan was to:

1) Find out (somehow) that the Street Sharks were going to a mall during its off-hours.
2) Send two of his bungling henchmen to check out the car (which of course is his real objective in all this), bringing attention to his interest in the car to the Street Sharks, and to awkwardly mention to Streeks that Dr. Paradigm has invented a way to completely reverse geneslamming, while at the same time hoping that Streeks will not start a fight and instead not only believe them, but follow them back to Dr. Paradigm’s lair.
3) Assume that Streeks and the rest of the sharks will be stupid enough to just take the untested scientific formula devised by their archenemy.
4) Also assume that they will believe the information you dropped that the change back to human isn’t permanent unless the formula is drunk a second time within the span of eight hours (and they should, because you’re not lying about it to trick them into permanently becoming human for some reason).
5) Act on your plan before the eight-hour window has passed, trusting that the Sharks won’t let themselves revert back to superhuman beast-men who can effortlessly defeat you and your minions to stop you.
6) Profit!

Dr. Paradigm, you may be unmatched when it comes to making buff aquatic furries, but you really need to take some villainous scheme of the week lessons from, say, Cobra Commander.

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The protagonists are divided over whether or not they should use the “cure”, but ultimately decide to sacrifice returning to a normal life for the greater good.

Kind of, except…not really.

I mean, there’s about a few seconds of dialogue where one of the Street Sharks talks about returning to college and normal life and Ripster shows his leadership skills by saying this is a “bad idea”…but still they’re all convinced in a matter of seconds. The French model (who honestly had no idea who the Street Sharks were before she came to town; you’d think someone would have brought up the whole “fugitive shark men” thing) also returns. But rather than becoming a symbol of what Streeks can have if he goes back to being human, she gives him a tiny bit of encouragement when he rescues her from a fire started by the hench-goons and disappears from the story.

The ex-Sharks discover that Dr. Paradigm is planning to use the car able to use anything as fuel as a means by which he could cover the city with an exhaust that will mutate all the city’s human inhabitants into aquatic half-humans. They do split up, with Streeks wanting to stay human and the others deciding to attempt to stop Dr. Paradigm even though they will stay human for a matter of hours. However, when the other sharks get captured by Dr. Paradigm and he sends his goons to finish Streeks off, he pretty much makes the choice to embrace sharkdom out of necessity more than anything.

So, yeah, there’s really no sacrifice, unless not being able to fit comfortably in most car seats counts.

To hammer this non-point in, we get the last words of wisdom from Streeks after his epic adventure that forced him to mildly inconvenience himself:

“Do you miss being a human?”
“Well, there are great things about being human, but there are great things about being a shark!”

Wisdom worthy of Socrates.

Overall, my assessment is that this episode does less than the bare minimum of what a normal animated series, even in the creative wasteland of ’80s and ’90s animation, would normally do with a similar premise. But, in a way, isn’t that kind of commitment to eschewing all standards of quality what makes Street Sharks stand out from among all the other cartoons that existed only to sell toys? Well, that and its catering to the minority of gay male aquatic furries.

 

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Doctor Who Write-Ups, Uncategorized

The Second Doctor (1967-1969)

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In the timey-wimey ball that is “Doctor Who” continuity, it gets forgotten that originally Patrick Troughton was supposed to just be a younger version of William Hartnell, and not just the same being with a similar yet notably different personality (although, weirdly enough, the way Patrick Troughton’s introduction is handled on screen much better reflects the idea of Time Lord regeneration than just rejuvenation). Plus, throughout his tenure, Troughton still played it like the latter. While Hartnell’s once irascible Doctor softened up over the seasons, Troughton’s interpretation is still a striking contrast. He shares the First Doctor’s commitment to justice and contempt for tyranny (and, really, authority in general), intellectual cockiness, and the benevolence of an eccentric uncle. Yet he is also gentler, more impish, more bumbling, and apparently more timorous, but with well-played hidden depths that kept viewers wondering how much certain aspects of his persona were played up to trick his enemies into misjudging a brilliant and even occasionally ruthless mind. Not to disparage William Hartnell and the First Doctor by any means, but I do think a case can be made that Troughton’s portrayal of the Doctor simultaneously showed how funny and how complex and mysterious the character could be.

Unfortunately, the Second Doctor era is more than a bit more monotone than the madcap, genre-busting First Doctor era. Early on, the show abandoned the pure historicals, a loss that would stay with the TV show even into its contemporary run (although, as people as nerdy about “Who” as I am have made me aware, they have been revived to a small extent by Big Finish). In fact, the Second Doctor era would drift away from historical settings altogether in favor of adventures on present-day Earth or a vague distant future. More specifically, the Second Doctor just couldn’t stop spending his time in bases under siege by monsters.

Personally, as I slowly went through the Second Doctor serials, I did miss the headier mix of genres and backdrops from the First Doctor era, a difference given more of an impact by the fact that the Second Doctor era kept the serial format of the series all the way through. It’s still a classic era, though, despite whatever flaws you might find with the format and less diversity in the types of stories told, with what the vast majority of fans recognize as one of the greatest companion teams – Zoe and Jamie. The relationship between the Doctor and Jamie, no doubt tapping into Patrick Troughton’s real-life friendship with Jamie’s portrayer Frazer Hines, really is a wonderful foundation stone for this period of the franchise. Even so, Zoe fits in the dynamic perfectly, forming what I think a lot of people would agree is the most distinctive TARDIS crew since Barbara, Ian, and Susan were on board.

Must Sees/Best Introductions to the Era

The Mind Robber – This was a welcome return to the downright randomness of the First Doctor era. As a result, it rather does stick out from the entire tenure of the Second Doctor, but, like the BBC itself. I would include this show in any list of the top episodes of the entire classic series. It is tremendously odd and goofy, even by “Who” standards, but the strangeness does enhance the creativity on display and give a lot of material for the Second Doctor, Zoe, and Jamie to play off of.

The Seeds of Death – It’s easy to write this off as the “the Doctor versus foam” serial, but, dare I say it, this probably is one of the most suspenseful and intimidating threats the Doctor faces in the whole black-and-white era. I’ve made no secret of my impression that probably the biggest hurdle to newcomers and fans of the modern series when it comes to getting into the ’60s episodes is the serial format. Despite that, this comes closest to transcending the problems of stretched-out and repetitious plots, with a more rigorous pace and more meaningful side plots. It’s just both a good sci-fi/action adventure and a nice Second Doctor tale.

The Moonbase – The first of the “under siege by monsters” episodes, this one’s also easily my favorite. I think this might be a controversial choice, since as far as Second Doctor confrontations with the Cybermen go, people tend to prefer Tomb of the Cybermen. However, I prefer this one as it really does capture the feel what would become a favorite “Doctor Who” trope – people trapped and desperate in an enclosed area with the Doctor doing his best to save them from a mysterious threat – in a way that feels true to the black-and-white period of the show while also predicting some of the best elements of the franchise today.

The Macra Terror – If you can get past the fact that most of the footage to this one is lost, it’s worth giving a try and is far from an unworthy introduction to the Second Doctor. After all, it still has some totally unsubtle yet poignant and timeless social commentary mixed with some classic character moments from the Doctor, so what more could you need? (Well, besides the actual footage for this serial, but anyway…).

The Evil of the Daleks – I was a little reluctant to list this one since it does show off the most egregious sins of the serial format. The story is terribly bloated with subplots and even characters who just go absolutely nowhere. But it’s also the very rare story from this era that casts some moral ambiguity on the Doctor’s actions, its portrayal of the Daleks is genuinely sobering, and, like “Doctor Who” at its best, it deftly merges sci-fi and Victorian tropes. It may not have been the “last Dalek story” like originally intended, but it definitely is one of the best.

The War Games (the last episode) – Okay, I’m cheating a little bit, but there is such a difference between the last episode of The War Games and the other parts of the serial. The final episode is just epic, pushing the fundamentals of the entire show in a way that hadn’t been done since the very beginning and showing the Doctor genuinely terrified and unsure for the first time ever. The War Games as a whole definitely has more than its fair share of moments and the mixture of time periods was a welcome change to all the futuristic and alien settings the Second Doctor has gone through, but it also makes its own argument for all the reasons why ditching the serial format with the coming of the Third Doctor. So, honestly, I can’t fault anyone for skipping the four and a half hours that are ultimately at best just prelude to one of the best and most memorable regeneration moments of the character’s history.

Choice Quote

The Doctor: Logic, my dear Zoe, merely enables one to be wrong with authority.

First Words…

Slower. Slower. Concentrate on one thing. One thing! It’s over. It’s over.

…and Last Words

What are you doing? No! Stop! You’re making me giddy! No, you can’t do this to me! No! No! No! No! No! No!

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