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The Unknown

Hypnotic little thriller
According to a couple different sources, Joseph Stefano originally wrote this teleplay as a pilot for a new TV series that didn't sell, and it ended up broadcast as an episode on the original "Outer Limits" series. This makes sense, since "The Unknown" (aka "The Form of Things Unknown") has more of a Gothic thriller quality to it than a science fiction story. The strange "time tilting device" with its "rare magnetic wires" is about the only nod to the SF genre in the show, though it really has more in common with, say, the eerie "camera obscura" that is the centerpiece of both an episode of "Night Gallery" and the related short story by Basil Copper. In its relationship to "The Outer Limits," this show feels more like "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" did to "The Twilight Zone."

Well, anyway, enough of the vaguely-related comparisons. "The Unknown" makes for a very moody, entertaining experience, especially on a rainy night since the majority of the show takes place in a gloomy mansion on... well, a rainy night. The writing is a little melodramatic at points, but the uniformly strong acting by the cast helps it avoid being overdone. David McCallum delivers a performance that is both intellectually sinister and childishly spritely in capturing the eccentricity of Tone Hobart, the creator of the machine. Vera Miles is coolly elegant as the scheming sophisticate Kassia Paine (she is described as a "sleek sack of sin," -- interesting!), while Barbara Rush plays the part of Leonora Edmond with emotional fragility and pathos -- even though she is not above committing murder. Scott Marlowe delivers a convincingly menacing portrayal of the cunning and evil Andre Pavan and has some of the best lines in the show: for example, "I am noisy rich...but I want to be quiet rich" and "come as you your fine stiletto heels." Finally, Sir Cedric Hardwicke underscores the rest with a spirit of calm gravitas and that marvelous voice of his, one more disparate thread that, with the other characterizations, is woven into an intriguing clash of emotions and ambitions.

Between the superb camera work (all in black & white, which is perfect for this show), the beautifully evocative score by Dominic Frontiere, and the aforementioned performances, "The Unknown" delivers an atmospheric blend of preternatural doings against a backdrop of subtle sexual tension. By the way, I liked the ominous little "bridging" moment in the story when Kassia and Leonora encounter the small funeral cortège on the country road -- just another quirky detail that helps pull it all together.

P.S. At least one explanation of this show on a website discussing "The Outer Limits" reports that there is an alternate version of "The Unknown." In this other version, apparently Andre did not actually die -- the thanatos tree was an invention on his part and was not a lethal shrub, so he was faking his own death. Later in the story, when he DOES die in the car wreck, Kassia takes the gun and returns to the house. Mistaking Tone's desperate entreaties to Leonora as an attack on her, Kassia shoots him and he dies in front of his time-tilting machine, which turns out to be nothing; he was apparently just a madman after all. I'd be curious to know if it was actually filmed this way, or if it was just a script version that Stefano wrote but which never got in front of a camera.

Nicholas and Alexandra

A haunting modern tragedy
While this is indeed a long film, it's worth the time spent if you enjoy historical epics. The writing, direction and acting all come together very nicely in creating the peculiar dichotomoy of Nicholas II as doting father, dominated husband, and apparently well-meaning but ultimately naive and incompetent absolute ruler. I'd be curious to know just how true a portrayal of Nicholas as monarch this was. Was he really a paternalistic czar who simply didn't understand that the world was changing around him in ways he couldn't come to terms with? Or was he really as brutal a tyrant as most of his forebears were? Whatever the truth was, in this film you can't help but feel sorry for him as he makes one bad decision after another that inevitably send him down the road to insurrection and abdication, and he and his family into imprisonment and doom. Michael Jayston certainly looks the part, and he's no slouch in the acting department here.

Janet Suzman does a wonderful job as the czarina Alexandra. If it was possible for anyone to be even more detached from reality than Nicholas, she certainly makes Alexandra come across that way. In fact, it's hard to feel as sympathetic for her as one does for Nicholas; the way Suzman plays her, it's no wonder the Russian people disliked her so much.

Tom Baker is utterly believable as Rasputin, especially with those great staring eyes of his, and Laurence Olivier gives an excellent turn as the prescient prime minister Count Witte. The scene where he is vainly trying to persuade Nicholas not to call for the general mobilization and to avoid going to war against Germany and Austria is truly sad to behold. The actors playing Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and Markov all present the Bolsheviks as the most implacable of enemies.

One last character that I thought was particularly well-played was that of the tsarevich, Alexis. I don't recall ever seeing the young man who played him in anything else, but he does a very fine job here. He alternately comes across as tragic, sickly, and wan, completely out of step with the rest of his vivacious siblings, or as possessing a bitter, vengeful, and imperious spirit out of proportion with his age. I thought one of the most chilling scenes was the one where Nicholas is talking with him after Alexis has attempted suicide, in which Alexis is angry with his father for abdicating on his behalf. I certainly came away from it imagining what the consequences to Russia would have been if Alexis had ever successfully come to the throne.

By all means, try to see this film in its uncut, full 189 minute run. There are a couple of important scenes that were cut from the movie for general video release, and some of them help to further develop key characters. All in all, "N&A" spectacularly showcases the tragic final years of a glittering dynasty that makes the Windsors look frumpy by comparison.

Local Hero

A quirky, fun little film
I always thought of this as Bill Forsyth's masterpiece -- when Northern Exposure came on U.S. television in the early 90s it quickly put me in mind of this film. (Too bad the residents of Cicely, Alaska didn't stay as charmingly eccentric as the residents of Furness, Scotland as that TV series wore on.) This one has it all -- memorable performances by the great Burt Lancaster, a young Peter Riegert, Peter Capaldi, and Denis Lawson; an ethereal soundtrack by the incomparable Mark Knopfler; and scenery to die for. Every time I see this movie I long to visit the coast of Scotland. I thought Norman Chancer was absolutely hilarious as Moritz, Mr. Happer's psychiatrist, especially the "I'm still here!" sequence. Also, Christopher Rozycki gives an inspired performance as Victor. I loved his rendition of "Lone Star Man" at the ceilidh, as well as his questions to Old Ben about Ben's ownership of the beach ("Any papers?" -- sounded like a cheery KGB officer). A friend of mine told me that he saw numerous parallels in the dialogue and events in the film to Thomas Mann's "Magic Mountain;" I wonder if anyone else noticed this. If you like offbeat humor, you'll love this wonderful movie; give it a watch.

Noble House

A creditable adaptation of a great novel
I still remember looking forward anxiously to seeing this miniseries when it first aired -- I had considered "Noble House" James Clavell's masterpiece, even greater than "Shogun." I had come away from reading the book with the sense of knowing the characters as if they were real people, and missing them when the book was finished.

In some cases, the characterizations in the miniseries hit the mark. Pierce Brosnan does an excellent job as the supremely self-confident Ian Dunross, John Rhys-Davies gives a truly inspired performance of charming villainy as Quillan Gornt, Burt Kwouk is very convincing as the compradore of the Noble House, and Gordon Jackson did a fine turn as the committed, conflicted Superintendent Armstrong. I also thought Julia Nickson Soul really heated up the screen; she was much better than a young Tia Carrere (in her pre-"Wayne's World" days).

Unfortunately, I thought the American performances were weak. Deborah Raffin was OK as K.C. Tcholok, but I would have preferred it if they had stuck to the story and not had her wind up romantically involved with Ian Dunross. The weakest in my opinion, though, was Ben Masters as Linc Bartlett. While Mr. Masters may be a good actor, I didn't think he carried this role off very well. In the book, Bartlett is a cool, calculating, and yet personable man who comes across as opportunistic but respectful of Hong Kong business and cultural traditions. Clavell wrote him as a friendly, likable man who moves easily into the circles of power in the Colony but who is an unknown, unpredictable quantity to all of the vying factions. I thought that Mr. Masters overplayed the part as too cocky, too brash, and too shallow to be a likable or sympathetic figure. In the novel, I thought Bartlett was an intriguing character on a par with Dunross. In the miniseries, I generally thought he was just a jerk.

That aside, while the miniseries has to trim a lot of the interesting sub-plots in the interest of time, it does a good job of remaining true to the spirit of Clavell's novel. I'd agree with the observation that you should watch the miniseries, then read the novel to see what the story was REALLY about.

So Long at the Fair

Curious little classic
Nicely-acted film, particularly by a young Jean Simmons demonstrating the capabilities that made her such a well-known figure later in her acting career. What's probably not so well known about this picture is that it appears to be based on a real incident that supposedly occurred at the Paris Exposition in May of 1889. In the "real" incident (it's tough to find documentation of it), it is the girl's mother, not her brother, who goes missing, but the details are much the same as presented in the film. It's been awhile since I last saw this movie, but as I recall the film ending was quite different from the actual conclusion; in the latter situation, the young lady never found her mother and was eventually committed to an insane asylum in England. Or so the story goes. True story, or old, old urban legend? Either way, it lends a little bit of added dimension to this intriguing, fairly obscure movie.

Far from the Madding Crowd

I finally saw the 1967 version of Hardy's story, and while I thought it had excellent performances, the 1998 version is more satisfying. I've always liked both Alan Bates and Nathaniel Parker, but I think I'd have to give the latter the nod for his portrayal of the upright, conscientious Gabriel Oak. Nigel Terry is superb as the tragic Mr. Boldwood; his entire demeanor commanded more sympathy from me than did Peter Finch's portrayal -- you simply ache for the poor fellow when he's trying to gain even the slightest bit of encouragement from Paloma Baeza (who is exceptional as Bathsheba). I also thought this version was brighter and warmer than the visually gloomy, bleak 1967 version. (Well, perhaps that's really what Wessex looks like.) I realize this isn't exactly a happy tale, but it's nice to see SOME upbeat moments and sunshine once in awhile. All in all, a very satisfying performance -- a few hours well-spent.

The Ebb-Tide

Intriguing retelling of Stevenson, etc.
This was a very good rendition of one of Robert Louis Stevenson's less well-known tales. Quite different from the original story, with a much more sinister tone to it; it actually looks more like it could have been written by William Hope Hodgson than by Stevenson. Solid, entertaining adventure story, with a fine, moody score accompanying it. Robbie Coltrane is excellent as Captain Chisholm, and Steven Mackintosh as the guilt-wracked Swanson and Chris Barnes as the amoral Bunch both turn in convincing performances. Nigel Terry is chilling as the psychotic Ellstrom; Simon Donald has written the part very differently from Stevenson's and Osbourne's original characterization. All in all, a good show for a rainy afternoon.


If you give this program a chance....'ll probably be pleased with the result. It's reasonably faithful to Conrad's novel, and considering the abundance of different characters and the intertwining plot lines all centering on the Mina San Tome silver mine, the miniseries manages to generally keep it all on track. The performances are generally very fine, particularly by the great Albert Finney, Colin Firth, Serena Scott Thomas, Claudia Cardinale, Lothaire Bluteau, Robert Escobar, Joaquim de Almeida, and Ruben Rabasa. Claudio Amendola is excellent in the title role, conveying both the self-confident ability and the vulnerable integrity of the novel's character very believably. Finney is also superb as the cynical Dr. Monygham. About the only weak performance is that of Ruth Gabriel, who is unconvincing as Antonia Avellanos.

It is admittedly a pretty long miniseries -- there's a lot of ground to cover -- but if you're willing to invest the time it's a superb tapestry of an adventure story.

Arabian Nights

A true jewel of the Orient
"Arabian Nights" is continuing proof that it is possible to put together a highly entertaining, superbly-acted television program with a cast of primarily lesser-known actors and actresses. The performances in the movie are almost uniformly first-rate. For example, John Leguizamo is hilarious and totally believable as Aladdin's genie(s), and far better than Robin Williams' portrayal in Disney's "Aladdin." Mili Avital is enchanting as Scheherezade, and Dougray Scott and James Frain are terrific as the warring brothers Schariar and Schazenan (an interesting re-telling of the original base story line). The ever-reliable Rufus Sewell and Alan Bates give very enjoyable portrayals of Ali Baba and the Storyteller, respectively, and Jason Scott Lee gives a very amusing turn as Aladdin. I particularly enjoyed the segment of the constantly fighting Princes of Yemen, Ali, Ahmed, and Hussain (played with gusto by relative unknowns Alexis Conran, James Callis, and Hari Dhillon). While it is the acting that really shines in "Arabian Nights," the set designs and costuming are truly magical. The special effects are also very good considering the budget limitations of the small screen.

If you're going to rent or buy this on video/DVD, be careful to find the 175 minute version. I don't know what they cut from the shorter version, but honestly you won't want to miss ANY of this marvelous TV movie.

I really hope that Hallmark decides to do a sequel to this with a few more of the tales from the Arabian Nights. There is certainly a precedent for it with the "Sarah, Plain and Tall" films.

Roseanna's Grave

A delightful romp!
"For Roseanna" is a wonderfully sweet romantic comedy about a loving husband and his devotion to his dying wife. The film is full of charismatic performances, but Jean Reno steals the show by a narrow margin. Mercedes Ruehl is also warm and lovely in the title role. For a story so focused on the subject of death, the character of Marcello is the embodiment of vitality, and his various efforts to keep his fellow townsmen alive so they don't take up the last graves in the village cemetery are hilarious. Having seen Reno more typically in dramatic roles in movies such as "The Professional," "Mission: Impossible," and "Ronin," I was impressed with the very gifted comic range that he demonstrates here. With very fine talented supporting performances from Polly Walker, Trevor Peacock, Renato Scarpa, Roberto Della Casa, and Mark Frankel (tragically, his final performance), this is a little jewel of a movie. Don't miss it.

The Prisoner

Still extraordinary 35 years later....
From the time I first saw a few episodes of "The Prisoner" on PBS in high school, the haunting nature of this unique television program has stuck with me. Not just the intriguing plot line, sets, and character, but in particular the remarkable, intelligent dialogue. I agree with many of the other reviews -- it's too bad that producers to this day haven't caught on to the fact that there is a sizable chunk of the population that actually enjoys this kind of entertainment.

I know a lot of folks really liked "Fall Out," but actually my two favorite episodes were "Free for All" and "Dance of the Dead." The former is as incisive today as it was in the late 1960s in its parody of the electoral/political process. The fight scene near the end in the "Rover cave" is one of the more peculiar moments in the series. The latter episode, though, captures all of the surreality of the series in spades. It also sports one of the most ruthless and cunning Number 2s you'll see in the series -- charming in a hard-edged sort of way, always one step ahead of our hero and absolutely icy throughout, especially in the trial scene. The late Mary Morris carried off the role very, very convincingly; she is the epitome of femme fatale from beginning to end. It probably won't rank among many viewers' favorites because Number 6 is at a constant disadvantage against this adversary, but if you can get past this aspect of the plot it's a must-see. The whole sequence with the carnival/trial and with Number 6 sneaking around in the back halls of the Village, right down to the eerie, atmospheric music, was a high point in my viewing experience. Like "Free for All," the episode has some of the finest writing in the series; pay close attention to the dialogue, you won't want to miss a line.

For those of you who always like to see the hero win, you'll enjoy "Hammer into Anvil." This one is my wife's favorite. The shoe is entirely on the other foot as Number 6 plays on the paranoia of the episode's cretinous, sadistic Number 2 (wonderfully acted by Patrick Cargill) and systematically destroys him with one deception and misdirection after another. The end is a pretty satisfying moment and leaves you with the distinct impression Number 6 is getting the upper hand in the Village, which is probably why it appeared close to the end of the series.

If you are primarily accustomed to Mr. McGoohan's early television work from watching "Danger Man/Secret Agent," be prepared -- this series is quite different in its style, though no less enjoyable. It really is a feast for the mind. I'm glad "The Prisoner" has finally made it to wide release on DVD/video. Hopefully, the post-baby-boomer generation will be as entertained with the series as so many before them have been.

The Outer Limits

Arguably the best...
...of the science fiction series of the 1960s, and better than most from later decades. It's also much better and generally far less pessimistic than the current television series that bears its name. I frankly liked "The Outer Limits" even more than "The Twilight Zone" most of the time. For its day, "The Outer Limits" had some of the most imaginative stories seen on TV. I especially liked such episodes as "It Crawled out of the Woodwork," "Corpus Earthling," "Nightmare," "Don't Open 'Til Doomsday," "The Sixth Finger," "The Man Who was Never Born," "The Guests," "Demon with a Glass Hand," "The Invisibles," and one that isn't often mentioned, "The Form of Things Unknown." There were outstanding performances from the likes of Robert Culp, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, David McCallum, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Sir Donald Pleasance, Bruce Dern, Martin Landau, Ed Asner, Carroll O'Connor, Warren Oates and Dabney Coleman back before most of them became very familiar names in acting. It isn't uniformly great -- some of the episodes are boring or not particularly inventive -- but when it was on target it was superb.

I'm glad to see it back on the SciFi Channel and out on videotape release; hopefully it shows up on DVD very soon if it hasn't already.

House of Cards

Puts a new spin on "biting political satire"....
Contains Spoiler This is also one of those rare instances when the television program one-ups the novel, mainly with regard to the ending. After all, you have to have a sequel!

"House of Cards" gives new meaning to the old saw, "Old age and cunning will win out over youth and enthusiasm." Ian Richardson's Francis Urquhart is the epitome of gleefully ruthless, Machiavellian, ice water-in-the-veins political opportunist. He's playing chess while every other person he is surrounded by is playing checkers -- except for his wife, a latter-day Lady Macbeth if ever there was one. Great performances all the way around, but Richardson is the delightful centerpiece from beginning to end and makes this series a classic. It's too bad that A) the Mattie Storin character won't be around in the future (SORRY FOR THE SPOILER) and that B) BBC has taken so long to release this for sale. I finally managed to buy copies of this and "To Play the King" after searching for several years. What's with their merchandising department, anyway?

The chief problem for a lot of American viewers is that this show is almost totally devoid of "action" and violence, so for the A-Team/Miami Vice/Baywatch crowd this is likely to be a very boring program. For those who like to watch something thought-provoking, you'll love this!

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling

How could you NOT like this?!
This was a spectacular, delightful series -- energetic, lusty, and highly amusing. It was graced with wonderful performances all around, particularly from Blessed, Whitrow, Beesley, and a hilarious Kathy Burke in the role of Honour. Once the story gets past Tom Jones as a boy it really starts moving and keeps you enthralled. Without a doubt, this was one of the best BBC productions to come out in recent years -- another prime example of the superiority of British televison compared to most of the drivel that comes out of the States!

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