Frozen II (C). I must say that this sequel to the Disney juggernaut Frozen left me cold <rimshot>. Maybe it’s because the first film really wasn’t set up for a sequel, but this one felt tacked on and arbitrary. Despite the previous film’s happy ending and Arendell’s apparent prosperity under Queen Elsa’s benevolent rule, the Queen is restless and unhappy, imagining that she hears a siren song calling her north. It turns out the royal family has a complicated backstory—as a boy, the girls’ father, King Agnarr, accompanied a mission to an enchanted forest in the north, and for some unknown reason hostilities broke out between the Arendellians and the locals. Agnarr was the only Arendellian to escape before a wall of mist (reinforced with a magical force field) sealed the forest off from the world. Now Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, and Olaf (somewhat more amusing in this film) must somehow penetrate the mist (which they easily do by the simple expedient of having Elsa go first) and find out what’s going on inside. There’s a lot of running hither and yon, and lots of magical “explanations” that made no sense to me. Plenty of songs, most of which are OK.
Ralph Breaks the Internet (B). I remember enjoying Wreck-It Ralph and thinking it had a surprisingly sweet story about friendship at its core. In this sequel, video-game characters Ralph (voice of John C. Reilly, Talladega Nights) and Vanellope (voice of Sarah Silverman, School of Rock) leave the video arcade behind and enter the worldwide web on a quest to find a replacement part for Vanellope’s arcade game. The visualization of the internet is a highlight of the movie, as little avatars of the human users scuttle around from eBay to YouTube (or a lookalike) to everything else. Vanellope falls in love with a Grand Theft Auto-inspired neighborhood ruled by a tough gal called Shank (voice of Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman). In the most inspired part of the movie, she finds herself in Disney’s sector, which is populated by Star Wars characters, Marvel characters, and, of course, Disney princesses (many voiced by their original actresses). The movie starts to drag by the end (an hour and 52 minutes? really?), but it is still definitely worth a look.
Big Hero 6 (B). I finally saw this Disney film the other night, and I thought it was good. The Borg Queen took me to task for not giving it an A grade of some kind, but there’s no way it compares with Disney’s greatest films. (A few examples: The Lion King, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Zootopia, and even Moana, which has risen considerably in my estimation since I reviewed it in these pages.) Also, I suspect Big Hero 6 would play better on the big screen; its futuristic setting was pretty but not immersive on the TV. Anyhoo, this is basically a superhero origin story. Teenaged Hiro is a genius at robots but really comes into his own only after his older brother dies in a mysterious fire and a shadowy villain starts stalking the streets of San Fransokyo. Hiro teams up with his brother’s nerdy science friends and with Baymax, a big balloony robot that Hiro’s brother had been working on when he died. With a few modifications, Baymax goes from cuddly nurse robot to high-flying action hero, and eventually it’s time for a showdown with the big bad. I was entertained. If you like superhero movies, Big Hero 6 is worth your time.
Voyager: Season Two (C). The Borg Queen and I watched every episode of season two in order. (I joined her in her quest to watch the whole series partway through season one, so I didn’t review it.) By way of background, I was big Star Trek fan in my younger days—saw every episode of the original series (most of them many times) and pretty much every episode of The Next Generation, but aside from the movies I pretty much dropped out after TNG. So far, Voyager is a decent enough entertainment. The premise is that some advanced alien technology has catapulted an advanced Starfleet ship named Voyager clear across the galaxy into the “Delta Quadrant,” and at normal speeds it will take Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew, TVs Orange Is the New Black) and her intrepid crew 70 years to get back home to Federation space. Moreover, the Delta Quadrant is a fairly lawless place, full of villains like the cliquish, Klingonish Kazon and the ruthless but plague-ridden Vidiians, so it’s tough sledding. Anyhoo, I dished out Bs, Cs, and Ds to season two’s 26 episodes in roughly equal measure, so there were plenty of average and subpar episodes. If you just wanted to try the highlights, I’d recommend “Cold Fire” (episode 10), “Prototype” (episode 13), “Death Wish” (episode 18), “Deadlock” (episode 21), “Innocence” (episode 22), “Tuvix” (episode 24), and “Resolutions” (episode 25). The season ends with a cliffhanger that I found pretty meh. But if you like Star Trek, you should find season two reasonably tolerable. The Borg Queen tells me it improves in later seasons, so we’ll see . . . .
Best. Movie. Year. Ever. How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen, by Brian Raftery (2019). Journalist Raftery proposes that 1999 was “the most unruly, influential, and unrepentantly enjoyable film year of all time.” His book takes a chronological approach, marching through the year’s biggest or most influential releases, telling us how they got made and what kind of impact they had, both at the time and in the long run. I guess he makes a pretty good case. 1999 was the year of The Blair Witch Project, The Matrix, Star Wars Episode I, Election, American Pie, The Sixth Sense, American Beauty, Fight Club, and Being John Malkovich, among the roughly 30 films I see identified in the table of contents. The book was interesting enough, and it did make me want to rewatch a couple of the films and see a couple more that I’ve never seen. But I think I would have preferred a book of straight-up movie reviews.
Love and War in the Apennines, by Eric Newby (1971). First, a word about how I came to discover this book. In the course of internet surfing, I came across a website for Slightly Foxed, an independent British quarterly devoted to books, especially books that have been forgotten and fallen out of print. Additionally, Slightly Foxed republishes worthy books that have fallen out of print. Curious, I subscribed to the journal and for good measure ordered a few of its reprints. Love and War in the Apennines is the first one I’ve read, and it is pretty good. It’s a memoir in which Newby tells part of the story of his experiences as a young British soldier during World War II. In August 1942, he was part of a woefully underpowered band of soldiers sent to knock out a Nazi base in Sicily. The mission flopped, and the Italians took Newby prisoner and shipped him off to mainland Italy. Most of the book is about what it was like to be a prisoner of war and then a fugitive hiding in the Apennine Mountains after the Italian government collapsed in September 1943, all the POWs escaped, and the Germans took over. Also, shortly before his escape, Newby met and fell in love with a Slovenian woman living in Italy; thus, the title. It’s a good read, and very impressive to a not-very-courageous couch potato like me. Newby wrote another memoir about his life after the war called Something Wholesale, and I look forward to reading it someday.
Back to Blood, by Tom Wolfe (2012). This was Wolfe’s last novel, and I liked it better than his penultimate effort (I Am Charlotte Simmons) but probably not as much as A Man in Full, and certainly not as much as his first novel, Bonfire of the Vanities. This is mainly the story of Nestor Camacho, a young Cuban cop on the Miami police force who finds himself at the center of large, significant events three times in the course of the story. I found him a little hard to empathize with (because he’s kind of a self-pitying sap), but he does give us a window into various aspects of Miami’s unique culture(s). We also spend quite a bit of time with his ex-girlfriend Magdalena, who dumps him for her boss, a sex-addiction-treating psychiatrist who likes to appear on TV. We see some of Miami’s upper crust through her escapades and through her eyes. The tale, which also involves Russian oligarchs and art forgery, seems a bit implausible, and it’s a smidge over 700 pages long. But Wolfe’s writing is pretty entertaining, and I enjoyed the book enough to finish it.
Emma. (B+). Did we really need another movie of the beloved Jane Austen novel? I guess the box office will tell. This is a fine and, I believe, faithful adaptation of the book, so being an ardent disciple of the divine Miss Austen I quite enjoyed it. Anya Taylor-Joy was an interesting choice for the title role; her large, wide-set eyes give her a somewhat exotic appearance that may have worked better in her other movies like The Witch and Split, but she does a good job on the whole. In this version, I think Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn, Clouds of Sils Maria) at least looks quite a bit younger than he was in the novel (and the familiar 1996 movie version starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam), and perhaps as a result this Emma–Knightley combination actually generates a little romantic heat. What else to say? The music stands out; there’s quite of bit of it, and a lot of it sounds like religious music of the period (or at least some long-past period). In this version, Emma’s older sister and her family come to Highbury for a visit and make a vivid impression; I don’t remember them from the book or prior movies. Anyway, if you like Jane Austen, or period pieces, or romantic comedies, I think you should like this movie.
P.S. Yes, the title of the movie really does have a period at the end, which I noticed on the opening title card. According to Wikipedia, “The title of the film has a period attached to signify it being a period piece.”
1776, by David McCullough (2005). I think this the first book that I’ve read by the prolific McCullough. I must have found it on sale somewhere, because I’m not a big Revolutionary War buff. (Quick, in what year did the British surrender at Yorktown? 1781. Thanks, Wikipedia!) Anyway, this is a brisk and engaging tale of George Washington’s Continental Army in 1776. (I got the impression that some significant events were happening down in the Carolinas, but we don’t hear about them.) It was pretty much all news to me. First, Washington’s army drove the British out of Boston. Then he moved his army to New York, where the British soundly defeated him. They chased Washington’s ragtag army into New Jersey and then Pennsylvania. All might have been lost, but for Washington’s inspired sneak attack on Trenton, followed by another successfully sally at Princeton. I was surprised to see how inept a commander Washington was in the early going of the war, but apparently he always learned from his mistakes. The book is good, but it could have been MUCH improved by a few battlefield maps to show us exactly what was going on at each of the critical points.
Considerations of the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline, by Montesquieu (translated by David Lowenthal). I learned about this book the same way I learned about Memoirs of Hadrian—from Joseph Epstein’s book The Ideal of Culture. This one didn’t impress me like Memoirs did. The book is only about 200 pages long and purports to sweep from Rome’s humble beginnings to the fall of the Byzantine Empire some 2000 years later. As a result, it moves quickly and lightly over events, and it made little impression on me. Epstein calls it a work of genius, but if it is it went over my head.
The only political podcast I listen to is the Commentary Magazine Podcast. Commentary is a monthly magazine about politics and culture; it is conservative in outlook, and, given that it was founded by the American Jewish Committee, it gives a lot of coverage to Israel and Judaism. In the twice-weekly podcast, magazine editor John Podhoretz dominates an hour-long conversation with three other pundits about current events. I started listening in 2019, so many or most of the shows I’ve listened to have focused on either the Trump investigations or the Democrat primaries. It makes me feel decently well-informed without actually, say, reading a newspaper or watching a debate. And the podcast’s tenor suits me—conservative, but generally finding lots of folly to marvel at on both sides of the red–blue divide.
Richard Jewell (B). This is a solid, interesting little movie about a real-life event that I only dimly remember. A nail-bomb exploded in downtown Atlanta while that city was hosting the 1996 Olympics, killing one person and injuring over 100 (per wikipedia). According to the movie, the federal criminal investigation turned up no real leads, and the FBI decided to focus on Richard Jewell, the security guard who discovered the bomb before it exploded and seemingly saved lots of lives by alerting law enforcement and helping evacuate the area. (The actual bomber was identified and apprehended only years later.) Director Clint Eastwood (Jersey Boys) portrays Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser, I, Tonya) as a real odd duck—hugely overweight, socially inept, living with his mother (Kathy Bates, Midnight in Paris), and yearning to be a real policeman. Olivia Wilde (Drinking Buddies) is an unscrupulous reporter dying for a scoop after the explosion, and Jon Hamm (Bridesmaids) is the integrity-challenged FBI agent who tips her off that Jewell is a person of interest. When she breaks the story, Jewell goes from hero to presumed villain in no time flat, and he turns to the only lawyer he knows, a solo practitioner played by Sam Rockwell (The Way Way Back), to help him fight back. Hauser and Rockwell turn in fine performances, and the movie vividly demonstrates how the combined power of the government and the media can unjustly destroy an ordinary guy’s life and reputation (and really upset his mama).
Little Women (2019) (A-). I haven’t seen any of the numerous prior dramatizations of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel, and I haven’t read the book itself in decades, so I was a fairly clean slate. I just remembered it was the story of four sisters (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy) living with their mother “Marmee” in the North while their father was off with the Union army in the Civil War. Director and adapter Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) complicates the narrative by making the “present” some seven years later and having headstrong sister Jo (Saoirse Ronan, Atonement) remember the Civil War-era events in extensive flashbacks.
At first, I didn’t care for the movie very much, but it quickly grew on me. I think it was mainly the story—the little domestic squabbles, setbacks, and victories—that won me over. Aside from Ronan, who’s always good, and Meryl Streep (It’s Complicated…) in a small but fun part as the girls’ rich and crusty spinster aunt, I thought the acting was merely adequate. Emma Watson (This Is the End) didn’t have a lot to do as oldest sister Meg. Laura Dern (Star Wars Episode VIII) mostly just beams happily at her wonderful daughters. And I thought Amy, the youngest sister, was miscast. I vaguely remember her as a flighty, spoiled, kid-sister type in the novel, but Florence Pugh (Midsommar) is a sturdy, husky-voiced gal who seemed more mature than all three of her “older” sisters. I expect she’ll be a better fit for her part in the upcoming Marvel movie Black Widow.
Knives Out (B). Director Rian Johnson (Star Wars Episode VIII) got quite a cast to sign on for this stylish new mystery movie. The whole Thrombey family has gathered at the spooky old country home of wealthy patriarch Harlan (Christopher Plummer, The Fall of the Roman Empire) for his 85th birthday party. Then, as so often happens after these dreary affairs, the maid finds poor Harlan dead in his study. Was it suicide or foul play? The list of suspects is long: Harlan’s uptight daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis, Freaky Friday), her caddish husband Richard (Don Johnson, Tin Cup), Harlan’s hangdog son Walt (Michael Shannon, Man of Steel), Harlan’s needy, new-agey daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette, The Sixth Sense), plus a few grandchildren (including Chris Captain America Evans) and a couple of servants. Enter private investigator Benoit Blanc, who is played by Daniel Craig (The Invasion) and sports the broadest Foghorn Leghorn-style southern accent I think I have ever heard. Blanc quickly attaches himself to Harlan’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas, Blade Runner 2049) as possibly possessing the key to the whole affair. It’s a fun and twisty ride. As is normal in mystery or caper films, I didn’t really understand what happened, even after it was all explained, but happily there’s this amazing new website called google.com that helped me find people to explain it to me after the fact.
As at least one critic has observed, in Episode IX director J.J. Abrams does his level best to ignore or undo everything that happened in Episode VIII. Although the Resistance seemed to be whittled down to about 5 or 6 people by the end of Episode VIII, Episode IX kicks off with General Leia (Carrie Fisher, When Harry Met Sally…) back in charge of a typical, seemingly well-manned rebel base. Villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, Frances Ha) destroyed his Vaderesque mask in the last movie, but he solders it back together for this one. The painful love story between Finn (John Boyega, Pacific Rim: Uprising) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran, XOXO) is mercifully dropped. That stuff about Rey (Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express) being the orphaned child of a couple of nobodies? Mm, not exactly. And so on.
But there is some continuity: Episode IX continues the recent tradition of strip-mining the original trilogy for material. Remember how Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid, The Return of the Jedi) got killed when Darth Vader hurled him down a bottomless air shaft? Well, you can’t keep a good Sith Lord down, and fifty years on he is rested up and ready for action. But before we get to the inevitable showdown with Palpatine, our heroes have to go on a tedious quest looking for the Magic Crystal of BlizzBlazz that will reveal Palpatine’s secret hiding place. None of the main characters is very interesting. I think Adam Driver is a terrible villain. Poe (Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina) and Finn are just dull. Rey is cute and kind of fun to watch if only because her Force powers far outstrip anything we ever thought even a trained Jedi could do, but she spends pretty much the whole movie scowling. C-3PO is actually kind of entertaining in this outing, and I loved the little muppet guy who has to crack 3PO’s droid head open to get at some secret Sith data. Billy Dee Williams (The Empire Strikes Back) pops up for a couple scenes, looking genuinely amused at being in the film. None of it makes much sense, but I thought the climactic battle between Rey and Palpatine was kind of cool. And the final scene, when Rey goes to Luke Skywalker’s boyhood home on Tatooine, warmed the heart of this old original-trilogy-loving geezer.
Bombshell. (B) I had time to squeeze one last movie in before the end of 2019, so of course I opted for the one starring the flawless Nicole Kidman (Aquaman). It’s based on the sexual-harassment scandal that engulfed the Fox News organization in 2016 and ultimately took down CEO Roger Ailes (played here by John Lithgow, Confessions of a Shopaholic). I’ve never watched Fox News and paid no attention to the scandal, so it was all rather new to me. The incomparable Kidman plays Gretchen Carlson, a Fox personality who first got demoted, then got fired, and then sued Ailes individually for sexual harassment. Charlize Theron (Atomic Blonde) plays Megyn Kelly, an even higher-profile Fox newswoman who has to decide whether to protect her very successful career or come forward to corroborate Carlson’s story with her own account of Ailes’s misconduct some ten years earlier. And then there’s Margot Robbie (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot), who plays a wide-eyed up-and-comer who’s currently being victimized by Ailes. Although the movie was interesting, I think it suffers from the fact that Robbie’s character is fictional (a composite of several women, I’ve read). The main suspense of the action is whether any women who work at Fox will come forward to substantiate Carlson’s claims, and the movie sort of sets you up to expect that Robbie’s character will be the one to come forward because, unlike Kelly, she’s suffering from Ailes’s misconduct right now. But then she doesn’t, presumably because she’s not a real person and the movie wanted to stick closer to the facts. Anyway, I thought it was worth seeing, and I note that Theron and Robbie have picked up Golden Globe nominations for their performances (though not Kidman, criminally).
Also, I was again impressed by the Alamo Drafthouse’s pre-show entertainment, which included clips from Kidman’s first film, BMX Bandits, and a comic bit from Funnyordie.com in which Theron pretends to be practicing an Academy Award acceptance speech in her bathroom mirror.
Christmas Wedding Planner (A). Well, my sister doesn’t have cable, so I couldn’t watch a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie before the holiday rolled around. Fortunately she does have Netflix and we were able to make do with this little treat—commercial free, too! It checked off most of the critical boxes:
A cute and quirky heroine to root for. In this case, her name is Kelsey, and she is trying to kick off a wedding-planning business by arranging her cousin Emily’s Christmas wedding to the lackluster Todd.
An unattractive, uncharming romantic interest for the heroine. This role is filled by Connor, who starts showing up at Emily’s pre-wedding events uninvited. He tells Kelsey that he’s a PI who’s been hired to look into this lackluster Todd guy for Emily’s protection.
Musical montage. Kelsey reluctantly agrees to help Connor, since he’s looking out for her beloved cousin Emily, and they indulge in said montage while doing a stakeout on the sinister yet lackluster Todd.
C-list celebrities in minor roles. Here, Kelly Rutherford (TV’s Melrose Place and Gossip Girl) and Joey Fatone (boy band NSYNC) fit the bill.
With all the ingredients in place, this 86-minute Christmas confection is ready to please. Kelsey and Connor experience the obligatory misunderstanding that briefly drives them apart, but everything hurtles to a satisfactory conclusion. Well, satisfactory for all except poor Emily, who winds up not a Christmas bride but a maid of honor at Kelsey and Connor’s Christmas nuptials instead. But even Emily really seems pretty okay with it, so we don’t have to feel guilty about shedding wedding tears of joy for the winsome Kelsey and the homely Connor. Happy holidays!
Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951). I learned of the existence of this novel from Joseph Epstein’s The Ideal of Culture, and it did not disappoint. It is a fictional memoir of the Roman emperor Hadrian (reigned 117 to 138) in the form of a long letter to his adopted grandson and heir, Marcus Aurelius. Hadrian’s death is near, and he sums up his life and tries to offer some advice to his successor. I get the impression a ton of historical research went into this work, so I assume it sticks pretty closely to the facts as we know them. I really liked it, but then I’m a sucker for the swords-and-sandals genre. So your mileage may vary.
From Fire by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith, by Sohrab Ahmari (2019). The subtitle tells you most of what you need to know about this book. It’s an autobiographical conversion story. That may not be your cup of tea. But if you give it a chance, I think you’ll find it interesting, because Ahmari is a good writer and has an interesting background. He was born in Iran, and his childhood years there coincided with the early years of the Khomeini regime. Then his mother moved to America (Utah!) and took young Sohrab with her. His stories about growing up in America and trying out various left-wing ideologies are interesting. At 207 pages, it’s a quick read. I would have liked to learn more about Ahmari’s wife and what she thought of his becoming Catholic less than three years after they got hitched.
Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (B). I saw this 1983 sci-fi B-movie in its theatrical release, and it left such a big impression on my teenaged self that I could still vividly remember certain scenes and lines today. So you can imagine my glee when I was killing some time at a Fry’s Electronics and found the Blu-ray for around $9. I watched it last night, and it was just as cheesy as I expected it would be—but I still enjoyed it. A spaceship blows up out in deep space (an accident caused by something it really seems like they should have anticipated), and three passengers (attractive women all) escape in a lifeboat and crash on a desolate world where a plague decimated a human colony and turned the whole place into a Mad-Max-ish sort of environment. (I think they filmed the crash scene in Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park, if I’m not mistaken.) A scuzzy Han-Solo-ish space jockey named Wolff (Peter Strauss, XXX: State of the Union) is in the neighborhood and could use the reward money, so he lands his ship and starts rolling across the desert in his Mad-Max-ish SUV. He picks up an orphaned scavenger named Niki (Molly Ringwald, one year before Sixteen Candles came out and two years before The Breakfast Club) and discovers that an old acquaintance named Washington (Ernie Hudson, Ghostbusters) is also on the planet searching for the lost ladies. After some encounters with hostile but not especially competent local mutants, Wolff, Niki, and Washington end up at the Thunderdome-like enclave of the villainous cyborg Overdog (Michael Ironside, Starship Troopers), who has captured the lost ladies, and a climactic showdown ensues. Strauss and Hudson don’t seem to be taking the movie all that seriously, but Ringwald really commits to her role, spewing amusing space slang a mile a minute and generally acting like a petulant American teenager the whole time. And did I mention it’s only 90 minutes long?
So that’s what you’re in for if you can find this lost gem! You’ve been warned!
Mystery Science Theater 3000 Live: The Great Cheesy Movie Circus Tour (B). The principal creator of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Joel Hodgson, is on the road doing live shows in venues around the country. I think I heard this is supposedly going to be Hodgson’s last road show. Anyhoo, my sister and I caught the show last weekend in Dallas’s fancy opera house. The show is basically a live recreation of an episode of the MST3K TV show, with Joel and his two robot sidekicks (Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo) riffing on a terrible movie and occasionally taking little breaks to do (allegedly) comical skits. The terrible movie for our show was a cheesy 1986 Karate Kid rip-off called No Retreat, No Surrender (featuring a young and villainous Jean-Claude Van Damme, Timecop), and the riffing was very amusing. I’d probably give the show a B+ or an A- based on the riffing, but the skits were unfortunately unentertaining (just like they usually were during MST3K’s TV run). Note that Joel is the only person from the original show involved in this production; the robots are voiced by two new guys, and two new actresses participated in the skits. I think it was a pretty clean show, too, if you’re thinking about taking the kids. Definitely worth catching if they come to a town near you. Looks like they’re about to do a bunch of shows in Florida if you’re down that way!
The Ideal of Culture: Essays, by Joseph Epstein (2018). More great essays by the great essayist. I have sung his praises before, and you can read some of them here, here, and here. The down side of this volume, if it has one, is that Epstein includes several essays about lesser-known masterpieces of literature, and he’s such a good salesman that I ordered two of them online before even finishing this book.
Longbourn, by Jo Baker (2013). In the Jane Austen novel Pride and Prejudice, Longbourn is the name of the estate where the Bennets—the family at the center of the story—live. Longbourn is a novel about the servants of those very same Bennets, before, during, and after the events of Pride and Prejudice. I liked it well enough. The main character is Sarah, a young servant whom the Bennets took in after she was orphaned as a child. Two interesting men come into her life at the same time—a new servant working down at the Bingleys’ house and a mysterious stranger the Bennets take on as a footman. It’s kind of fun to watch little snippets of Pride and Prejudice take place in the background, and to see the Bennets from a different (and not very flattering) angle.
The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell (1996). How about a science-fiction novel about first contact with an alien species that is chock full of religious talk? That’s what The Sparrow is. In the near future, a radio telescope discovers unmistakable signs of intelligent alien life on a planet in the (relatively) nearby Alpha Centauri solar system. Remarkably, the Jesuits (a Catholic religious order) are the first to mobilize after this discovery, putting together a team of priests and lay people to pilot an asteroid-turned-starship to this alien world. The author’s style didn’t really grab me, especially the many scenes that I guess were supposed to be humorous. Also, the story takes a long time to get going because Russell starts out telling it on two tracks: the story of the discovery and mission preparation, and, some 50 years later, the story of the Jesuits’ attempt to figure out what went wrong by interviewing the mission’s sole survivor and returnee. But after bouncing between these two narratives for a while we eventually get to the first-contact adventure, and I must admit that part of the story held my attention. Although I can’t say I loved the book–there’s some fairly gruesome/lurid stuff in the first-contact-adventure part of the story–I sort of want to read the sequel to find out what happened next….
Untamed Youth (B). This delightful youth-exploitation film from 1957 stars blonde bombshell Mamie Van Doren (Girls Town) as a would-be rock-and-roll singer. Unfortunately she and her sister are arrested in some backwater burg, and the crooked judge sentences them to be slave labor on a farm run by the judge’s co-conspirator. Entertaining episode, and the disc features a short interview with Mamie as a bonus feature.
Hercules and the Captive Women (C). This is a cheesy European Hercules flick from 1961. The title is inapt because there are no captive women in evidence. Sure, the evil queen of Atlantis is trying to sacrifice her daughter to the gods throughout the whole movie, but that’s just one woman. (Apparently the movie was sometimes called Hercules Conquers Atlantis.) Anyway, this is a pretty average outing for Joel and the robots, and the extras on the disc are also unremarkable.
The Thing That Couldn’t Die (A-). Now we’re getting somewhere! Mike and the bots have a great time skewering this 1958 horror cheapie. A cute-ish blond girl is doing a little water-witching around her aunt’s dude ranch when she discovers an old chest containing the 400-year-old head of some evil guy who got himself executed by Sir Frances Drake. The head can hypnotize people into doing its evil bidding, and of course its top priority is getting the water witch to find his long-lost body! The riffing is great, and even a couple of the host segments are funny as Mike encounters the supposedly super-intelligent Observers.
The Pumaman (B+). Another fan favorite, this is a super-cheesy 1980 superhero movie about a guy who supposedly has the powers of a puma and who must use them to fight evil forces led by the great Donald (Halloween) Pleasence (whose name is misspelled Pleasance in the credits). The guy is more Greatest American Hero than Superman, and his Aztec mentor constantly has to bail him out of trouble. The extras on the disc are a bit unusual. One is a complete and unriffed version of The Pumaman; why anyone would want to watch it, I can’t imagine. The other is a lengthy interview with the actor who played the Pumaman. He was a New York City lawyer who tried acting for about ten years and then went back to lawyering. He was a good sport to be interviewed for the disc because he really didn’t appreciate the MST3K guys making fun of this movie!