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The Twilight Zone
(1985)

A door closes, a window opens
The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) was a great show; the first revival (1985-1989) set a precedent for its resurrection, an exercise that's been repeated twice more. The '80s TZ makes some changes from Serling's old format. We never see the narrator; there isn't narration for the opening and closing of every story. But I actually think that's respectable - I really felt, watching the first season, that the makers recognized their show couldn't be the same as Serling's, and thought it was more important to try to capture the spirit of it. Also notable is that, despite the fact that non-sitcoms are expected to have hour-long episodes, the makers evidently agreed with Serling that the stories shouldn't be that long, telling two to three stories per episode. The flash of Serling in the new opening is a nice touch to show how important they felt it was to get the spirit right.

The problem in trying to capture the spirit of the original TZ is that the '80s series is inconsistent. It's hard to rate individual episodes, in fact, when the segments within the episodes are inconsistent - "To See the Invisible Man" is a novel concept but is followed by something stupid (and stupidly titled) like "Tooth and Consequences." ("The Elevator" is also in there- creepy and atmospheric, well made, though not totally TZ-esque). "Take My Life...Please!" is a weak piece that sets up "Devil's Alphabet", which is well made and atmospheric.

There are some great stories in season 1: "Nightcrawlers" features some phenomenal acting from Scott Paulin and spectacular scenes recalling the nightmare of the Vietnam War. Ditto Glynn Turman in "Paladin of the Lost Hour", despite the humiliating fact that episode was directed by Alan Smithee.

Ultimately, would Serling approve? I think, in answering that question, you have to keep in mind the fact that Serling himself wasn't infallible. There are less than stellar episodes of the original, and he personally wrote several of them.

Unfortunately, there's a noticeable quality drop in season 2, when the network began to lose faith in the show. "Nightsong" is soap opera-esque and predictable; something like "Lost and Found" is a jokey throwaway before going into "The World Next Door" which is a drag despite starring Jeffrey Tambor (who appeared in the brilliant "Dead Woman's Shoes", a superior reimagining of an original TZ episode). However, "Shelter Skelter" is great, followed by "Private Channel" which is gripping enough. The quality drop is steeper and more severe in season 3, where the narrator Charles Aidman (who didn't really sound like Serling but had the right tone) was replaced by Robin Ward, who sounded way too upbeat. The acting across season 3 becomes, on average, terrible; the production values are sacrificed. That said, there's still some great work here; I particularly found "The Hellgramite Method" terrifying. Altogether, the '80s TZ is head and shoulders above the 2000s version, but neither can touch Serling.

Arrested Development: Everyone Gets Atrophy
(2018)
Episode 3, Season 5

Trophy worthy
This marks my 500th review and, as I often do with these milestones, opted to take the occasion to write on another episode of Arrested Development. Everyone Gets Atrophy comes in the fifth season and shines with many of the hallmarks that make AD so great. This starts with the title, which as usual has a few different meanings, obviously working in "atrophy" but also referring to the family's meaningless (self-awarded) trophy and GOB being left out in Everyone Gets a Trophy days. The episode follows along those lines and is packed with jokes- GOB channels Tobias in referring to his girlfriend as his "beard now"; the real John Beard's rising polls; Tobias going in and out of Michael. And there's some in-jokes, with Ron Howard referencing his movie Solo (which was pretty awful, but oh well). To the dialogue the show maintains its physical humour, with Michael ducking George Michael.

It's great to see the characters back together again after season 4. It speaks to the greatness of the show that Portia de Rossi, though officially retired, returned for a few episodes including this one, bless her. It's a real shame Alia Shawkat indicated she wouldn't be coming back for season 6, though she said she's proud of the work she's done on AD.

This episode also moves AD into the Trump era; in season 4 they foresaw the maniacal Mexican border wall promise and in season 5 began capitalizing on this. GOB's "Cry me a blizzard, snowflake" is brilliant; the Mexicans' response "I rape, and I murder, and I joke" is spot on, and the mimicking of Trump's 2016 gaffes is handled fine enough. AD began in an era of George W. Bush, Iraq and Enron, and as the US is back under the leadership of that party, which has only gone farther off the deep end, the show is attempting to keep up the pace.

The Twilight Zone: Azoth the Avenger Is a Friend of Mine
(2002)
Episode 10, Season 1

"The Zone"? "The Zone"?!
Someone get scriptwriter Brent V. Friedman and host Forest Whitaker a tape of the actual Serling show. Its name is The Twilight Zone, not The Zone. Say it with me: The Twilight Zone.

"Azoth the Avenger Is a Friend of Mine" is an episode plagued with the horrifically bad acting that characterizes the 2000s revival of The Twilight Zone (again, not The Zone). Particularly, Patrick Warburton is awful, though in all fairness, he wasn't given much to work with- lines like "I sense we're kindred spirits" come out as laughably ridiculous. Rory Culkin is largely passable, but is monotonous, finding that tone of voice to use throughout the whole episode that doesn't make you cringe, but he never acts afraid, or brave, or surprised, or anything. The characters in this episode react completely incomprehensibly- the mother character tends to Azoth's wounds? In the early 2000s, she would have called the police. "A leather hanging out with a 12-year-old boy," as the dad puts it, would have raised very serious concerns about what this man was doing to the boy.

The new intro to the noughties revival also doesn't do justice to the original Twilight Zone (again, not The Zone, still can't get over that) - too flashy, not unnerving at all, with a similarly splashy title logo.

Darkwing Duck: Dances with Bigfoot
(1991)
Episode 43, Season 1

A political nightmare through and through
I always loved Darkwing Duck and am so glad to be reacquainted with it through Disney Plus. Dances with Bigfoot, however, reveals an ugly side not otherwise seen. I almost completely forgot this episode aside from Darkwing's vowel chant as he climbs the volcano- that was the only part that made an impact on me as a kid, that I always remembered it. The rest was forgettable, and now, it's jaw-dropping appalling.

The plot follows Darkwing being kidnapped and taken to the Pacific Northwest where his kidnappers plan to throw him into a volcano, a sacrifice to the gods. His kidnappers are a confused mishmash of Bigfoot and a native American tribe. Okay, stop right there. Equating an indigenous people with animals - anyone see a problem here? From the word go, the episode plunges deeper into racist caricature - Darkwing calls the natives savages, primitive and Neanderthals (again, identifying native Americans as less than human). The Bigfoot tribe know what zeppelins are, but they also make sacrifices down volcanoes and mistake people for gods. This is from a company that only four years later presented itself as a champion for native Americans with Pocahontas.

Otherwise as a Darkwing Duck episode, there are few laughs. Gosalyn as the Crimson Quackette is the only nice thing about the episode (aside from the aforementioned vowel chant). If you'd put her in another episode, you might have something here.

The Simpsons: Homer and Ned's Hail Mary Pass
(2005)
Episode 8, Season 16

It's all been done (better)
Long running and well past its prime, The Simpsons with "Homer and Ned's Hail Mary Pass" gives us two ideas recycled from fresher years. Homer becoming a mascot via dancing was done before and better in season 2's Dancin' Homer. Homemade movies, Ned's with a religious theme, was done before and better in season 6's A Star Is Burns. Side note: Lisa being straight faced about Homer mooning was done before and better in season 5's Rosebud. This episode stands out for one reason only, the reveal Comic Book Guy's name is Jeff Albertson. This is dropped extremely casually after 16 years in an obvious attempt to tick off long-term fans, something I will give points for (he does look like a Jeff Albertson).

Some things are worth a minor chuckle; The Mario homage, omelets made from the eggs thrown at the Simpsons' house; Homer and Ned's church talk. Secular humanists complaining Christians are shoving their message down their throats (usually the Christian right is complaining it's the reverse).

That said, there are several points in this episode that, in addition to being unfunny (and most of it is very unfunny), rub me the wrong way. Homer wasn't always a jerk to the degree he is gloating over his victory over Bart. Bathroom humour sucks as always. I won't say "Worst episode ever," partly because it wouldn't be true, and partly because I don't want to be compared to Jeff Albertson.

The Twilight Zone: It's Still a Good Life
(2003)
Episode 31, Season 1

It's real good you came back, Bill, really good you brought your daughter, but...
"It's a Good Life" is one of my top two favourite episodes of The Twilight Zone, with tension and suspense in that final party scene so thick it can be cut with a knife - a real pull-out-your-hair, sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat type of affair. Of all the Twilight Zone episodes, I'm not sure it's one I would have most asked for a sequel to. It's a lot to live up to, and recreating that level of suspense is likely impossible. Unsurprisingly, they couldn't quite do it, though there are a few seconds of tension.

Rather than recast and pick up where they left off, It's Still a Good Life brings back Bill Mumy and Cloris Leachman, aging them appropriately. I like the fact that they give Anthony a daughter (Audrey) with greater powers. They stay true to Leachman's character Agnes, who always hated her son. Frankly, given the fact that he grew up without discipline or any honest evaluations of his efforts, I'm surprised Anthony didn't turn out as more of a freak plagued by the Dunning-Kruger effect - a challenge in how to revisit this character.

On the down side, I'm not satisfied with the ending. "I brought it all back" fells like a cheat; being stuck together as an ironic fate might have been truer to the original Twilight Zone. Or Audrey gets rid of Anthony only to become the new Anthony. There's no segue between Audrey hating her dad and suddenly loving him in the climax. I wasn't totally satisfied with the pacing and special effects, either (granted It's a Good Life wasn't strong in the special effects department, but they were smart about it). The new intro to the noughties revival also doesn't do justice to the original- too flashy, not unnerving at all, with a similarly splashy title logo.

Naughty Pleasures
(2009)

Divine revelation
It's truly amazing when you can look at something like you've never seen before. (An old maxim: "the thing you love most is never the same thing twice.") I've seen hundreds of hours of female masturbation, photo, video, literature... it's practically my religion, and Abby Winters rules supreme... but when it's really great and real it's like you're seeing it for the first time. Part of that is because every woman is different, and many experiences are different. I've seen some of the women in this film masturbate before (Alice, Charlotte), but a different position, a different background, greater excitement ... these can make a universe of difference.

The first two scenes (Sylvannna and Kararina) are both solid, but not spectacularly memorable by Abby Winters' extremely high standards, no offence to them. It's Hayley's scene that's the first in this film to go platinum; she takes a long time and goes at it hard; she's not faking it- you can tell Hayley really loves masturbating. Charlotte, as usual, likes masturbating on her belly, but first she gives us more of a frontal view than is usual for her.

Lauren and Tiana are sexy and fun to watch, but they barely masturbate at all. That's made up for with the phenomenal next scene, with Alice and Julia. Jane looks like a bit of a tomboy, but once the clothes are off, she's all woman and amazing to watch. Petria, much like Hayley, goes a long time and is very vigorous- top notch stuff.

Darkwing Duck: Hot Spells
(1992)
Episode 8, Season 3

Worthy of an unban
Hot Spells is the only banned episode of Darkwing Duck, aired on Halloween, 1992. It features a trip to Morgana's "Poison Ivy"-league school, where Gosalyn gets the keys to library of forbidden spells - from Beelzebub himself. The idea of Gosalyn practicing Satan's magic was enough to get the episode buried. Check Disney Plus, you won't find it. Never mind the fact that Beelzebub was previously seen in one of the greatest episodes, "Dead Duck." Never mind the fact that Morgana has always been a part of the show. What the hades was Disney's "Night on Bald Mountain"? Chernabog has long been seen as the devil himself, and all of Disney's villains have been doing his works - from Grimhilde to Scar, and, as Beelzebub says in this very episode, Darkwing's own rogues gallery.

This episode is filled with the kind of jokes that make Darkwing Duck Darkwing Duck. The dramatic music that plays every time the library is mentioned, the snappy stuff like Yorick having a bone to pick - the fact that his name is Yorick will go over most kids' heads, and many of the more educated parents will get a smile out of it. Morgana, as a witch or sorceress, is the perfect match for Darkwing - the darkness of her nature matches DW's (look at his name). She's just lacking his ego, but now we know (if we didn't already) she's not evil. Morgana's not at her best here, but it's colourful to enter into her world.

Luce
(2019)

Complex and timely psychological thriller
Luce looked like a challenging film to take on, a psychological thriller in which a refugee child-soldier from Eritrea is taken in by West Wing liberals. But then a teacher (Octavia Spencer) comes to his mother (played by the great Naomi Watts) with an alarming message - Luce has written an essay defending violence against enemies. Is he still a terrorist, or the model student everyone thinks he is? Going into this, I was prepared to be challenged, but either straightforward answer - it was all a misunderstanding, or he is a terrorist - would have felt like a cheat.

In fact, Luce goes deeper than that. The fact that Luce is a refugee from a war zone turns out to be not so much important as the fact that he and his teacher are both black Americans in a racially divided United States ... a society that divides not only races but sometimes members of the same races. The characters struggle to cope with expectations, pressures and reality, and the truth is that Luce is neither saint nor devil but simply a flawed person. The old message that high school is often war generally rings true to me, though I can't claim to know what it feels like to go through that experience as a minority.

Naomi Watts does a great job conveying the inner conflict, and the cast is generally strong. The writing is smooth. Little particularly stands out about the visual style, but there's enough talent to carry the film on here.

Darkwing Duck: Dry Hard
(1991)
Episode 36, Season 1

Keen gear!
Who would have thought fighting a watery villain would be so hard?, Darkwing Duck asks. In "Dry Hard," the terror who flaps in the knight meets one of his greatest (though sorely underused) villains, the Liquidator. Made out of water and able to control water, Liquidator is indeed a formidable villain, which is part of what makes him so great, and we see him thrash DW a few times in this episode.

Of course, Darkwing Duck is a comedy, and Liquidator scores well on that point too; based in the advertising industry, the way he talks is promotional in nature. A dog of business, he ensures the only water St. Canard can get is his own bottled water- it's a spot-on critique of psychopathic corporatism (during a hurricane in 2017, pictures showed bottled water priced at $42). Liquidator's $5,000 bottles (adjusted for inflation, $9,425.81 today) would need a bank loan in comparison.

Some good animation for '90s Disney TV and inventive storytelling (DW's outsmarting the villain at the end is perfect), Dry Hard is an overall winner.

Between Horror, Fear, and Beauty
(2014)

Some insights
One of The Criterion Collection's short docs on The Innocents (1961), Between Horror, Fear, and Beauty features short interviews with editor Jim Clark, the script supervisor and cinematographer Freddie Francis. The limitations of this are clear: The director (passed away in 1995) and writers (one passed away in 1984) are absent, so there's not much insight about the story, though Clark notes at the end that there's much open to interpretation. Clark and Francis would be in a good position to talk about the filmmaking itself (there is, after all, no film without cinematography or editing). But the clips of Francis are so brief that ironically, Criterion's other featurette John Bailey on Freddie Francis is more informative.

That said, drawing on their recollections, Clark and the script supervisor reflect on some interesting tidbits on the production. While the most interesting analysis of the cinematography is in John Bailey on Freddie Francis, Between Horror, Fear, and Beauty reflects on what drew the storytellers to the project and how shooting on set created some claustrophobia in what is otherwise a large setting. The actors are all absent but there's recollections on how Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin approached the project (they note Stephens was the professional; he would have to be). Some interest here, but make sure to check out the other doc too.

BuzzFeed Unsolved: True Crime: The Impossible Disappearance of Dorothy Arnold
(2019)
Episode 9, Season 5

A weak Buzzfeed Unsolved
I was thrilled to see a bonus episode of True Crime Buzzfeed Unsolved, out of season - the season finale was officially in May, and the Supernatural version has started up again but I prefer True Crime. This appears to be another paid promotion (Nancy Drew, of all things), but that doesn't matter if it's a great case.

Still, it all seems a bit half-hearted, with no big laughs. There's nothing seemingly "impossible" about this disappearance. A few theories are thrown out but nothing compelling. At the end I can't say Ryan and Shane got me to care about Dorothy Arnold and I'm not sure they cared. Hard to get impassioned when a sponsor gives you an assignment you don't want - maybe that's what's going on here.

Trolösa
(2000)

Scenes from an affair
Standing out for the novelty, Liv Ullmann directs a screenplay penned by her old director, lover, and father of her daughter- Ingmar Bergman. And it's purportedly inspired by their relationship. Like other works from Bergman's desk, there's an intimate, autobiographical feel to it. Lena Endre gives a strong performance- she previously appeared in The Best Intentions (1992), also written by Bergman. Bergman vet Erland Josephson has an important part as well.

Still, Faithless doesn't exactly measure up to Scenes from a Marriage. Part of that is Ullmann's TV movie-style direction; I did like the shot looking over the candles, though. The length is bordering on excessive, as well. The framing, acknowledging Marianne as a fictional character, felt to me unnecessary and gave me the sense Bergman was being self-indulgent, feeling a need to inject himself into his screenplay.

Voyna i mir I: Andrey Bolkonskiy
(1965)

An appetizer for a cinematic phenomenon
Part I of Sergei Bondarchuk's relentlessly ambitious 1965-67 War and Peace, "Andrei Bolkonsky", debuted at the Moscow Film Festival in 1965 and won the Grand Prix. It was also torn apart by critics at that time, according to The Criterion Collection, because it was played at that festival in an unfinished state. It later went to regular theatres, finished, in 1966 and became part of a cinematic phenomenon. Part I gives us an appetizer for the battle scenes to come with Austerlitz. These scenes aren't as impressive as the ones in parts III and IV, but they are gripping and terrifying in their own right.

From the word go, War and Peace boasts an elaborate production speaking to a director with an artistic vision. Nothing is "too much": In Part I, we see a bear attend a debauched aristocrats' party, because why not? We could cut the bear to spare the expense, but no, keep the bear. The creativity is also there, and even if we're looking at something ordinary, it still leaves me impressed. A tree almost comes to life, as if by magic, and we also see some ghostly images as viewed by Natasha. Natasha appears fairly young here, and as with Boyhood (2014), War and Peace offers a rare experience of seeing characters age naturally, a result of a years-long production.

Part I also gives us some philosophy to contemplate by means of Andrei and Pierre's discussions. The fact that Pierre refers to Napoleon here as "the greatest man in the world" is, to say the least, interesting considering what he plans to do in Part IV. If you've finished Part I, fasten your seatbelts - there's a lot more to come.

Dark Minds: The I-70 Killer
(2013)
Episode 5, Season 2

Style over substance
There are a few serial killers who've had a lot of attention, an extreme amount, whose names we all know: Bundy, Gacy, Bundy, Zodiac, Bundy, Dahmer and Bundy. So it often comes as a surprise to me to learn of horrific cases that haven't received as much attention-in fact, next to none. The Golden State Killer didn't really get due attention until shortly before the arrest. The I-70 Killer was another of those when I first learned of him through the fantastic YouTube show Criminally Listed. So I searched for more info and found this show, hosted by M. William Phelps. Dedicated to studying cold cases, Phelps looks for the I-70 Killer.

The episode turns out to be more style than substance. This episode covers many of the important points, but there's no more information than what was contained in a few minutes of Criminally Listed. The info is simply wrapped up in slightly-distasteful "entertainment"- we get a lot of "raven" images and metaphors. That's because Phelps is consulting with an imprisoned serial killer on the case (and other cases, in other episodes). The killer is referred to in the show as only "the Raven". It's actually Keith Hunter Jesperson, aka "The Happy Face Killer."

Dark Minds and "The I-70 Killer" might make for spooky late-night entertainment, but it's not really much of documentary.

Amazons and Gladiators
(2001)

What a mess
Coming our suspiciously close to the hit Oscar-winner and similarly titled Gladiator (2000), Amazons and Gladiators at least takes the inventive step of adding Amazons to the mix, a step that stirred curiosity in even my ancient History professor. It would have been easy and lazy to make Commodus the villain, or Caesar, but Amazons and Gladiators picks out a lesser-known (to lay people) Roman figure, Crassius (almost certainly plucking him out of Kubrick's Spartacus). The gratuitous nudity and extreme cleavage are a plus, and some effort in production design was expended. There, the positives stop.

Unsurprisingly, Amazons and Gladiators is a historical mess from the word "go"- and not just because Amazons are just Greek mythology. To start with, Crassius wasn't one of "Julius Caesar's generals." Caesar didn't become dictator till after Crassius was dead; they were co-rulers (with Pompey) as the Triumvirate, and if Crassius was made a governor that wouldn't be Caesar's whim but a decision made by the Triumvirate, which Crassius was a part of. Given this isn't a documentary, I would have given that a pass, but the ending particularly stirred up "nerd rage" in me, saying Amazons joined the Huns and Visigoths in taking down the Roman Empire "soon." Those invasions and the downfall of Rome came not "soon" after Crassius' death but some 530 years later. Crassius wasn't killed by an Amazon either, but Gladiator takes much the same liberty with Commodus' death.

Setting aside all that nerdish pedantry, Amazons and Gladiators suffers mostly from horrifically bad acting as well as a clumsy narrative. Young Serena and Jennifer Rubin are particularly awful. Would have been ideal material for Mystery Science Theater.

Voyna i mir
(1966)

Staggering and relentlessly ambitious
Sergei Bondarchuk's 1965-67 War and Peace is, if nothing else, relentlessly ambitious with an elaborate production (and this shows no more than in the war scenes). But through its seven hours it also speaks to a director with an artistic vision, one determined to justify that massive budget and manpower. The sheer scope and spectacle of the film itself is impressive, but a point still comes across. Part I ("Andrei Bolkonsky") gives us an appetizer for the battle scenes to come with Austerlitz. Part II ("Natasha Rostova") starts off nicely but veers into soap opera-ish territory, but sets the stage for a stunning Parts III and IV.

To depict the French invasion of Part III ("The Year 1812"), no punches are held; according to The Criterion Collection, Bondarchuk was given no less than 15,000 real soldiers and 120,000 extras as well as 10,000 smoke grenades. Co-ordinating all this must have taken just short the effort to co-ordinate a real war (but thankfully without the real carnage). Part IV, "Pierre Bezukhov," prominently depicts the great Fire of Moscow with some great (but unfortunately brief) shots of "General Winter." Like Part III, the spectacle is grand and sweeping: According to The Criterion Collection, the fire scene had to be planned for 10 months. If no one got killed making that scene, that's an achievement.

This wealth of resources may not be enough if there was no artistic direction; but from the word go, Bondarchuk is endlessly ambitious in his creativity. A tree almost comes to life, as if by magic, in Part I, which also features some ghostly images as viewed by Natasha. In "The Year 1812" an explosion is replaced with a burst of music and panning to a forest that also almost seems to come to life. In Part IV the shot of Napoleon riding out of Russia are dynamic but moody and convey that sense of despair and defeat. The film still finishes on a satisfying note.

Voyna i mir IV: Pierre Bezukhov
(1967)

Full of sound and fury, signifying a lot
War and Peace Part IV, Pierre Bezukhov, might as well be called the "Fire and Ice Edition" given the prominence of the depiction of the great Fire of Moscow as well as some great (but unfortunately brief) shots of "General Winter." Like Part III, the spectacle is grand and sweeping: According to The Criterion Collection, the fire scene had to be planned for 10 months and shot with helicopters and six ground-level cameras. If no one got killed making that scene, that's an achievement.

Aside from the sheer elaborateness of the production, director Sergei Bondarchuk once again justifies this with artistic vision: Even the shots of Napoleon looking over his conquered Moscow (pre-fire) are impressive and inspiring. The shot of Napoleon riding out of Russia are dynamic but moody and convey that sense of despair and defeat. The end cinematography of the Russian landscape is great, though it's a direct callback from Part I. Andrei's dream sequences are also artistically masterful.

Part IV is short by itself while covering a lot, but it still wraps things up a satisfying note. It captures that homecoming feeling after a war; Pierre seeing the grown Natasha (with flashbacks to their memories of each other), has that "V-J Day in Times Square" kissing sailor image written all over it. The full seven-hour experience can leave any viewer feeling exhausted but mightily impressed.

Waterloo
(1970)

Downfall 1815
Coming off War and Peace (1965-67), it seemed Sergei Bondarchuk was looking if lightning could strike twice with Waterloo (1970), almost looking like a sequel, minus the philosophy. This time promoting Napoleon from supporting character to protagonist, Waterloo chronicles the Hundred Days and the French Empire's final defeat.

I see Waterloo being called "the real thing"; the Soviet Army kindly took a break from destroying Czechoslovakia to pitch in with the battle scenes, just as they did with War and Peace (only they weren't devastating Czechoslovakia at that time). The result does make for some large battle scenes, but they're just an imitation of War and Peace. The rest of the film tends to drag, unfortunately, and tries to include too much: I didn't see the need to start with Napoleon's initial abdication, then see the whiplash from "France won't follow you" to promoting him to emperor again.

There's no doubt there's a lot of technical competence here, and outside the battle scenes too: the costumes and sets create that period flavour. It's a film set up well and deserved a better script.

Voyna i mir III: 1812 god
(1967)

Shock and awe
The centrepiece of Sergei Bondarchuk's 1965-67 War and Peace and the only one not named after a main character, "The Year 1812", as the title suggests, puts the war of Napoleon's invasion of Russia front and centre. And that's part of its power. Bondarchuk, from the word go with his seven-hour film, is relentlessly ambitious, and that shows no more than in the war scenes. To depict this invasion, no punches are held; according to The Criterion Collection, he was given no less than 15,000 real soldiers and 120,000 extras as well as 10,000 smoke grenades. Co-ordinating all this must have taken just short the effort to co-ordinate a real war (but thankfully without the real carnage).

That wealth of resources may not be enough if there was no artistic direction; but from the word go, Bondarchuk is relentlessly and endlessly ambitious in his creativity. That goes for "The Year 1812" too; replacing an explosion with a burst of music and panning to a forest that almost seems to come to life magically (much like the oak in Part I) is impressive.

The sheer scope of the spectacle of war itself is impressive, but a point still comes across. This isn't fun; war is seen as a loss for everyone, and when we see a commander-in-chief totally disconnected with reality, insisting it's a great victory, I felt my heart sink. War and Peace is a work that offers philosophy. It's both pro- and anti-war; the invasion was horrific but once started the Russians are given no choice but to defend themselves, and the turn of tide expressed at the end- the downfall of Napoleonic France- is momentous.

BuzzFeed Unsolved: Supernatural: The Demonic Curse of Annabelle the Doll
(2019)
Episode 8, Season 5

Amusing despite retreading Unsolved tropes
Annabelle Comes Home is coming to theatres, and just as with La Llorona, here comes Buzzfeed Unsolved with their companion episode that I hoped was well-paid for. At least Annabelle is a fun little legend, but at the end of the day this is just two guys taking a day trip to the Warrens' house ("museum") of Halloween junk. Where the episode succeeds is its humour. Of course, much of it is cliche by now. Shane dares the doll to kill them, and it's funny, but he doesn't seem as aggressive with it as with the Goatman. Ryan professes to be scared but I'd seen him look more scared. I'm not sure if either's heart was fully in this one, but going back to the hallmarks gets a few chuckles.

The funniest part unquestionably is Shane telling Annabelle to turn on the flashlight if it plans to kill Ryan. This show goes to the flashlights a lot, and even thought they've provided a possible "scientific explanation", the fact that it keeps happening and with great timing is a good sign it's faked. Not that that matters since I view Buzzfeed Unsolved Supernatural is more entertainment than education.

Ah Pook Is Here
(1994)

How I learned death needs time for what it kills to grow in
A puzzling short I saw years ago and rewatched again just recently, Ah Pook Is Here was hard to wrap my head around those years ago, particularly if you're just tuning in after not paying attention at first. But the point is fairly simple behind the surreal animation (that yes, and the detractors point out, is fairly ugly- but so are the topics it describes). From William S Burroughs, the author of Naked Lunch (and actually narrated by him), Ah Pook Is Here features philosophical riddles: "If Control's control is absolute why does Control need to control?" and "What does death need time for?" It's a short that doesn't provide many answers, but gets a point across and does what it aims to do as a six-minute short.

Une aussi longue absence
(1961)

Long absent from cinephiles' watchlists
A Long Absence tied with Luis Buñuel's Viridiana in winning the Palme d'Or at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival; despite this in the long run Viridiana has enjoyed a much easier staying power among the ranks of world film classics. A Long Absence is in many ways a "safer" film; less outrageous or daring than Viridiana, but it still hits a touching note that makes it easy to see why it struck a chord in its day. While arguably "safer", it also avoids a cheap tacked-on happy ending.

A Long Absence uses World War II as a backdrop and looks at a war widow and the story of the soldiers who lost their identity and fell through the cracks. We have a Tramp who the war widow believes is in fact her long-lost husband; he struggles with amnesia and she struggles to cure him. We've had stories of homeless Vietnam War veterans in later years; rarely have I come across stories of a homeless WWII veteran.

Despite the fact that I'd argue A Long Absence is "safe" in comparison to Viridiana (or other Palme d'Or-winners in later years), it's not totally an easy film; whether the Tramp is in fact the veteran is left to interpretation; the evidence is stacked in favour of that view but reasons for doubt are also given. Long Absence is worth a watch and possibly a small re-evaluation.

The Majority Report with Sam Seder
(2004)

A hilarious look on the slow death of our civilization
There's a reason why "Debate Sam Seder" memes have taken off. Sam is a comedian- Jimmy Dore would say a failed comedian- who in debates can run circles around even the people who hold doctorates or run societies for "liberty", bringing laughs to the viewers and enraging the opposition. Sam offers thoughtful analysis on what's happening in the U.S. and around the world, but we can't help but laugh. Much of it also owes to assistant host Michael Brooks, master of the impersonation. Brooks created characters and made them come alive- Right Wing Mandela took on a life of his own.

The hosts in many ways complement each other. Sam's focus is on domestic issues, with a particular interest in the judiciary (I think he's the only non-lawyer on Ring of Fire). Sometimes, I see him educating his younger co-hosts/producers. Michael is knowledgeable about matters beyond the U.S. Kelly, now gone, had contagious laughing fits; she's been replaced by Jamie who adds a more radical stripe to the show.

The Majority Report started during the run up to the Iraq War. I discovered it post-2016 election. It has special importance now that democracy is dying around the globe. Sam cares, and he can still make us laugh, and sometimes he offers hope. There's no one he can't refute. Try him, Dave Rubin.

Klute
(1971)

Cool, smooth neo-noir, goes down nicely
Klute is a little gem of the '70s, one I never heard of before Criterion announced they're planning a release for it. A neo-noir private-detective story, it stars Donald Sutherland (with smoothed-down hair) as the titular "square" PI and Jane Fonda, a force of nature here as Bree (Ebert suggested the film should have been called "Bree", though "Klute" kind of stands out itself.)

The dialogue is smooth and the film is well-written. Sutherland gives a stoic, straight faced performance that brings his character to life in an odd kind of way; it's impossible to imagine this character being played by anyone else after seeing Sutherland do it. I usually like Roy Scheider but he doesn't stand out among the supporting cast here so much as a man I'd never heard of before, Charles Cioffi, who's believable in the various lights he's seen in and gives a great final monologue. Klute is a real, authentic-feeling experience.

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