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  • American Gothic (1995) s01e03 – Eye of the Beholder

    American Gothic (1995) s01e03 – Eye of the Beholder

    There’s a slight mea culpa feel to this episode, which is really Pilot: Part III. The show’s finally ready to set up the ground situation, for real this time, and it’s going to be more accessible. There aren’t any big CGI set pieces this episode, but there’s more with crows being sheriff Gary Cole’s evil messengers. The show also remembers there ought to be some Black characters, so Jake Weber’s sidekick Michael Burgess gets the A-plot. Cole wants him to testify against Weber in Lucas Black’s custody hearing, so Cole sends Burgess’s wife, N’Bushe Wright, some kind of cursed mirror.

    To get his wife back, Burgess will have to betray a friend.

    It’s a nice arc for Burgess, who previously just nodded along to Weber’s medical dialogue, and its not too dreary ending is successful. “Gothic”’s got a problem with its cast, lead, supporting, and guest—they can only take so much before they’ll have to leave town, one way or another. Especially since last episode set up the town as the “Bermuda Triangle of South Carolina,” with the most missing persons in the state.

    Because Cole kills them, presumably.

    So it could very easily do a loose anthology format for the A-plot, with the Cole versus Weber and Paige Turco for Black’s soul being the continuous season plot. It still may. But from this episode, it appears “Gothic” will keep things entwined and dependent. It’s a well-executed story, which includes Black making a new friend in conveniently introduced boarding house proprietor Tina Lifford (also Black, so the show’s got at least two Black recurring cast members now).

    There’s some spectacular acting from Black in this episode, whose performance is a masterclass in good kid acting. Cole’s awesome, though his character’s supernatural powers are starting to raise many questions for characters and viewers alike. There are some bad nineties video editor filter montages to show when Cole’s using the powers, and since he can go into a church and be devilish… they’re racing towards needing some explanation.

    Weber’s barely in the episode (Nick Searcy’s not at all), while Turco kind of hangs out with Black, kind of wanders around her long abandoned hometown. It’s a mystery arc. “Gothic” is basically tying four strong protagonists together and hoping Cole’s compelling enough to keep moving in lockstep. So far, so good.

    While not entirely absent, Sarah Paulson doesn’t get much this episode. Including a resolution to her and Black’s “fight” last episode, which was the hard cliffhanger and was in the previous episode recap… something else the show apparently decided to tone down.

    Judi Ann Mason gets the writing credit based on her story with show creator Shaun Cassidy. Jim Charleston directs. On the one hand, Charleston’s not very good. On the other, he knows to let Black and Cole have their space. However, Thomas R. Moore’s editing is way too impatient.

    The end’s a little too neatly tied, going past not too dreary into saccharine. Hopefully, they’ll get the tone settled, as they’ve established the ground situation (again).

  • Eve’s Bayou (1997, Kasi Lemmons)

    Eve’s Bayou (1997, Kasi Lemmons)

    Eve’s Bayou is Southern Gothic, but it’s got a kids’ summer story grafted onto it; by the end, the two genres are working together to great effect. I mean, the end’s got problems, but the way the film gets to it is captivating.

    The film opens with Tamara Tunie narrating from the future—when she was a kid in early sixties Louisiana and played by Jurnee Smollett, she killed her dad one summer. Right away, we get the hook, for better or worse, and it makes the father—played by Samuel L. Jackson—entirely suspicious when he otherwise might not have been.

    Okay, he spends all his time at a party with Lisa Nicole Carson instead of his wife Lynn Whitfield, but he’s just a good host, right?

    Obviously not. Obviously. Multiple times throughout the film, when one of the adults finds out Jackson is a cheating man slut, they react with exaggerated surprise, even though we meet Jackson grinding on Carson. He just happens to be a good dad to kids Smollett, Meagan Good, and Jake Smollett. Good’s about to be a teenager, Jurnee Smollett’s ten, and Jake Smollett’s the youngest. Jack Smollett will be an occasional comedic relief valve and often adorable, but he’s otherwise irrelevant to the narrative. He gives cast members something to do in the background, though he’s absent from the crucial third-act moments.

    It’s not his story.

    Despite opening with the narration and finding Jurnee Smollett in the past, Bayou widens for the first act, spending lots of time with Whitfield, her sister-in-law Debbi Morgan, and Morgan’s husband, Branford Marsalis. Marsalis is grandstanding delight in the first act; it’s a showcase, letting him be charming to Morgan, a good uncle to Smollett, and even get in drunken fisticuffs with Jackson. Morgan becomes the film’s principal female adult in the second act, whereas in the first act, she’s supporting Whitfield (at least during the party).

    Just as the film seems like it’ll stay wide, it focuses in on Smollett and her reactions to the various events going on with the adults. She also sees something she shouldn’t; when she shares that secret with Good, it works to drive the sisters apart a little. Once aunt Morgan has a vision about a kid being hit by a bus, Whitfield orders the kids under house arrest.

    Simultaneous to this house arrest is Whitfield’s suspicions about Jackson’s catting around now noticeably affecting home life. So the kids are cooped up in a layer cake of agitation. It’s just a matter of who breaks bad first.

    Smollett’s the protagonist in front of those events. Her actions, reactions, and observations drive Bayou. Luckily, she’s excellent. The film doesn’t have any shabby performances, just ones needing either more time or… well, the finale reveal calls a couple of the characters into question, even more, changing the tone before the closing narration comes in to change the tone again.

    So a couple of the performances have asterisks by them.

    But Smollett’s fantastic, ditto Good, Morgan, and Diahann Carroll (as a rival psychic to Morgan). Whitfield and Jackson have asterisks unrelated to the conclusion, just because they’re the parents in a troubled marriage from the kid’s perspective. Outstanding performances, lots of complexities, certain constraints. In addition to the aforementioned Marsalis, Roger Guenveur Smith (as Carson’s husband) and Ethel Ayler (as Grandma) are also delightful.

    Then there’s Vondie Curtis-Hall, who shows up for an unexpected romance arc for one of the adults, and he looks like a romance novel cover. He serves almost no purpose in the movie—there’s not even real character development for his love interest—but he’s terrific. The wig’s magnificent, the performance is wonderful.

    Speaking of character arcs to nowhere… despite featuring three psychic characters, the supernatural aspect’s entirely window dressing. It doesn’t actually affect the narrative, not even really in how the psychic characters experience anything. Like, they’re aware of their visions and premonitions, but Bayou avoids ever affirming their accuracy.

    Then the epilogue narration skips over all the interesting elements. So a muddy finish, but an otherwise excellent picture. Lemmons’s direction is good, her writing strong. Other than the very nineties “psychic” montages, the technicals are all good. Even the montages aren’t bad; they just terribly date the film and muss with Amy Vincent’s photography.

    Bayou’s a complicated, conflicting, haunting experience.

  • Beware the Creeper (2003) #3

    Beware the Creeper (2003) #3

    Beware the Creeper  3

    Almost nothing happens this issue. The cop starts investigating the missing sister, thinking she’s the Creeper. He teams up with her twin, Maddy, for a combination walking tour of Paris and detective snoop. He discovers all the things we saw happen last issue, which isn’t great plotting from writer Jason Hall. Depending on the final two issues, it sure seems like Beware the Creeper didn’t need five issues. Unless they knew it’d take artist Cliff Chiang until this issue to get cooking because, wow, the art’s great.

    There are some big, complicated composition pages where Chiang’s got the Creeper hopping all over the Paris rooftops, but it’s also how the various reveals work. Before the cop starts investigating, most of the issue is just snippets of the Creeper’s hijinks, alongside contemporary reactions and media coverage. She’s the current hero of surrealism as she wages her prank war against the wealthy Arbogast family.

    Now, I have a vague recollection of the finale reveal, so I’m going to baby step so as not to spoil, but as the Creeper targets this one family, people start noticing and asking what’s made them a target. The matriarch realizes it’s got something to do with her shitty son and sends him off to Germany, where he can carouse in peace, seemingly not being as violent to the call girls there. The Arbogast son is a prime suspect in the missing sister’s assault, something the comic laid so heavily into back in the first issue I thought it was Hall doing a red herring.

    I don’t think so anymore. I think Hall’s just really, really obvious, and the setting and Chiang’s gorgeous art distract from the obvious plotting.

    There’s also not much in the way of character development. Yes, the cop is moping over the missing sister and tries to seduce her twin as a stand-in at the Eiffel Tower, but what else is a French cop going to do? Hall plays the remaining twin, Maddy, as an enigma who has at least one big secret from the other characters and the readers. Again, Hall’s pretty obvious.

    Or I’ll be entirely wrong and surprised. Fingers crossed. Either way, I can’t wait to see Chiang’s art. It’s magnificent this issue and has just been improving as Creeper creeps on.

  • American Gothic (1995) s01e02 – A Tree Grows in Trinity

    American Gothic (1995) s01e02 – A Tree Grows in Trinity

    Tree picks up immediately after the pilot, only it’s been however many months since they shot the pilot, and now they’re filming for fall airdates. Lucas Black and Sarah Paulson are both a little visibly older, Jake Weber’s got a completely different haircut, Paige Turco’s costumes are better, and Gary Cole’s even eviler.

    With the previous episode, I was worried the lackluster mid-nineties CGI special effects and bewildering “horror” direction would set the tone for the series itself, regardless of the director returning. Unfortunately, the regular series seems to be doing more bad CGI effects and editing transitions with less money for the effects. More bad effects. It looks goofy.

    But it also doesn’t matter. The show survives the bad special effects, the unimpressive direction (Michael Katleman), and photography (Stephen McNutt). It excels, in fact. Not despite its technical failings but indifferent to them. Once the actors start talking, nothing else matters.

    The show’s split between the good guys—Black, Weber, Turco—and the bad guys—Cole, Brenda Bakke—with Paulson detached because she’s an ethereal being. Everyone else is a pawn in some way or another, most obviously Nick Searcy, who’s got a great, awkward scene with Weber to kick the episode off.

    There are a couple guest stars this episode: Arnold Vosloo (still during his “Renaissance Productions-only” phase) and David Lenthall. Vosloo’s an out-of-town reporter who’s got one heck of a story to tell, while Lenthall is the county coroner. He’s got to do autopsies on Paulson and her father, except Cole doesn’t want anyone finding out he snapped Paulson’s neck and whatever happened with the dad. And Lenthall owes Cole.

    Paulson doesn’t take kindly to Lenthall screwing up her autopsy and letting her murderer go free, so she causes a supernatural incident in the morgue. It’s so much bad special effects at once—and Lenthall’s bad—it seems like the show’s going to derail. But then the regular cast takes over, and things smooth out again.

    While Weber’s not on the level of Black, Cole, or Searcy, he takes it up a notch this episode as he gets to interact with Bakke for the first time. There are some nice muted character reveals and development, and Weber works them in beautifully. And Turco’s better, though she’s still just hanging around. Bakke’s Southern belle femme fatale is captivating, even if the characterization’s not without its issues.

    Series creator Shaun Cassidy again gets the script credit, with the episode really finishing up the pilot responsibilities. It might’ve been nice for CBS to let them do a two-hour premiere… or at least give them enough money to keep the effects on the same level. But, no, “American Gothic” appears it will have some lousy mid-1990s TV show CGI.

    And I do not care.

    Because the rest of it, even when the cast’s interacting with that lousy CGI, more than makes up for it. I’d forgotten TV could look terrible and still be great, thanks to the actors and writers, back when it was more filmed stage productions than segmented movies.


    “American Gothic” gets great by the end of this episode. It’s incredible.

  • Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes (1977) #255

    Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes (1977) #255

    Superboy  the Legion of Super Heroes  255

    In a genuinely startling event, it turns out when it comes to Joe Staton, sometimes you have to fight fire with fire—this issue features Staton’s most successful work. His inker? Vince Colletta. It’s not good art by any stretch, but it’s far more competent and consistent than Staton’s been on the book. Will Colletta be back to save the world from Staton’s pencils? Who knows, the issue feels like a fill-in.

    The end of the last issue promised a Brainiac 5 resolution. This issue also promises a Brainiac 5 resolution… for the next issue. Instead, it’s a very Superboy story for Superboy and the Legion. He’s back home in Smallville, trying to be a regular kid in the fifties or sixties or teens, except he’s just too darn super. Lana Lang is on to him, so he’s got to do hijinks while helping out at Pa Kent’s store.

    The Smallville sojourn doesn’t last long, with the Legionnaires coming back in time on a mission. Someone robbed the Superman Museum in the future, and they need Superboy’s glasses, except the future villain already came back in time and stole the glasses while he was distracted at work. They go back to the future, fight, fail, then go back to Krypton before it explodes to swipe some more Kryptonian glass, which is renowned around the galaxy.

    Why couldn’t the bad guy go back in time to Krypton himself, maybe even head to a glass factory? Don’t ask.

    There’s a funny moment when the Legionnaires ask Superboy to suit up–they wouldn’t want anyone seeing Clark Kent with some scantily clad exhibitionist time travelers. It’s unfortunately not self-aware; writer Gerry Conway keeps the plot moving, but there’s nothing to it. Clark’s bored in Smallville because it’s dull, and he’s not wrong; Conway writes a dull Superboy solo story.

    It’s a mediocre narrative, but the not-horrendous art gets it through. Staton and Collettta. I’d never have guessed it.

  • My Life Is Murder (2019) s03e04 – The Village

    My Life Is Murder (2019) s03e04 – The Village

    I think this “My Life is Murder” is the most empathetic episode ever. When Lucy Lawless gets to the solution to her murder mystery, there’s a lot she doesn’t like about it and has feels. She also has feels because her brother, Martin Henderson, has gotten out of prison and hasn’t contacted her. He’s the gardener at her latest investigation, a suspicious drug overdose in an elite retirement community. The victim’s a former judge, introducing assassination potential, and her son, Kelson Henderson, is an entitled prick.

    Luckily, Kelson Henderson’s only got the one scene. Lawless is really investigating because Rawiri Jobe gave her the case, promising an interesting mystery—the victim died of a heart attack while on LSD. Tatum Warren-Ngata is back helping Lawless out, but like last episode’s teaser promised, Ebony Vagulans makes her return. Vagulans doesn’t have time to help out with the case; really, it’s mostly wrapped up by the time she arrives from Paris (which the show seems not to be explaining). Having Martin Henderson participate in the investigation—Lawless’s reluctant man on the inside–also changes the chemistry.

    It’s a more ensemble “My Life is Murder,” which is fine; the cast is more than enough fun to sustain it. Though Jobe doesn’t get much to do—he and Lawless are apparently on the outs, she won’t even go for coffee with him as the show continues to shroud their extra-professional relationship in bemused secrecy. The revelation of previously unknown brother Martin Henderson also causes some relationship bumps.

    However, there’s a weird scene with Joseph Naufahu and Warren-Ngata in his café; he pesters her to buy something or stop using his WiFi. I sort of assumed if you worked with Lawless, you got to hang out at Naufahu’s. It just seems like an excuse to give Naufahu a scene, but he’s setting a weird boundary with Warren-Ngata.

    All of the suspects are good. There’s husband Temuera Morrison (in a charming, brief cameo—they got him for an afternoon, it looks like), next-door neighbor Elizabeth Hawthorne, drug-dealing nurse Jessie Lawrence, and bent community manager Blair Strang. Any of them could have a motive, but having Henderson on site—doing more than gardening, it turns out—complicates Lawless’s investigation when he’s found out.

    Lots of good acting. Strang’s hilariously put out once he realizes Lawless is a cop, and then Hawthorne’s fantastic. She and Lawless have a nice character arc. Lawless handles the more emotional stuff well—her scenes with brother Henderson, for instance; it’s probably her best performance this season.

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  • American Gothic (1995) s01e01

    American Gothic (1995) s01e01

    I was happier than I should be to discover executive producer Sam Raimi didn’t direct this pilot episode of “American Gothic.” Raimi and Rob Tapert’s Renaissance Pictures produced the series (for Universal and CBS), so I just figured Raimi directed the first one. But, no, it’s Peter O’Fallon. Instead of talking about Raimi being unable to direct a TV show, I just get to say O’Fallon’s an exceptionally mediocre TV director. It’s not entirely his fault; it’s the mid-nineties, and it’s TV. There’s hacky CGI to shoot for, there’s some video footage split in, and there’s whatever’s going on with Ernest Holzman’s photography. Hopefully, O’Fallon won’t be the show’s template but given his bare competence doing a genre show with supernatural special effects… it’s kind of amazing when the show gets great.

    The show doesn’t get great and stay great; it just has enough great scenes, sometimes cut short by commercial breaks (still the bane of narrative flow), sometimes just gone wrong. The show gets through its rocky but compelling start by the halfway mark. In time for Paige Turco’s graveyard exposition dump to be forgiven, even as O’Fallon misses they’ve dressed Turco in a Southern Gothic hooded cape thing, and he doesn’t know how to shoot for it. “Close-ups O’Fallon” is not an inappropriate nickname.

    Thank goodness he’s not back directing.

    Shaun Cassidy gets the script and creator credit for “Gothic.” He’s responsible for the episode’s considerable successes, though it’s all about getting it to the right actors. Just one episode in and “Gothic” has four outstanding performances. Top-billed Gary Cole’s murderous Southern sheriff, garbage human being Nick Searcy as his conflicted deputy, Sarah Paulson as the traumatized, non-verbal girl Cole murders in the third scene (which Searcy witnesses), and Lucas Black as Paulson’s little brother. Paulson has the best moment in the episode; now a spirit, she’s called Black back to their house (and her murder scene), so she can show him Cole rape their mother ten years ago, watching his own conception.

    The mom’s long dead, their dad (Sonny Shroyer) cracked in the first scene and went after Paulson with a shovel—Cole was being opportunistic in killing her—and Black’s got to know the truth if there’s going to be a show.

    The episode also introduces the good guys—Jake Weber as a town doctor, a Yankee moved down South to better the place, and Turco. Turco is Black’s adult cousin (we don’t get the family tree just yet) who left town when her parents mysteriously died in a fire… their bodies discovered by Cole, who must’ve been a teenager or something. Unclear at this point.

    Then Brenda Bakke is Cole’s femme fatale accomplice. She’s the good girl school teacher by dawn, Southern vixen by night. Weber and Bakke are both quite good; they’re just quite good for 1995 television. They’re not transcending like the four top-tier performances.

    Turco’s just okay. It’s not a great part this episode. She’s literally inserting herself into the plot, and there’s not room. She’s got some good moments, though. Unfortunately not the graveyard monologue… Five Easy Pieces it’s not.

    At the start of the episode, I was more than a little concerned with the nineties Renaissance Studios mise-en-scene (i.e., brightly lighted, artless action sequences and lousy CGI), but “Gothic” comes through thanks to writing and casting. I do hope future directors are a little better with composition, establishing shots, and spotlighting performances; the cast shouldn’t have to hoist the whole thing up, regardless of their ability.

  • Tomb of Dracula (1972) #22

    Tomb of Dracula (1972) #22

    Tomb of Dracula  22

    I got halfway into this issue, until Quincy Harker shows up after Lilith attacked him in Giant-Size Chillers, and stopped to go read Giant-Size Chillers, as it seems to have taken place before this issue.

    But then the end of the issue says go read Chillers and then you’ll be ready for next Tomb. Dracula goes from the U.S.S.R. to England in record time, even for a Marvel comic.

    Drac’s still in the Soviet Union after his encounter with Roger Corman’s James Bond villain Doctor Sun. He gets into a regional squabble with a local vampire who won’t bow to Dracula’s commands. It’s an ego trip for Dracula, who then becomes the Soviet vampire’s suffering widow’s de facto protector. The Soviet vampire, Gorna, has been terrorizing his wife since he died, feeding on her, killing her suitors, and just being a general pest. Her parents knew Gorna was a vampire but didn’t tell her, so when she thought he was dying, the wife told him off.

    So now he’s torturing the wife more than he would’ve otherwise, dragging out her vampiric conversion.

    Outside a very awkwardly written flashback, the wife’s not even as big a character as her parents. They’re the ones who finally confront Gorna (it’s unclear why they waited so long to actually intercede), and they have the best moments with Dracula. He’s vicious to them, but the comic can’t help but play it like a comedy beat.

    The parents are also the ones who bemoan how godless Communism has made Russia ripe for vampires and all sorts of other evils, as they’ve abandoned God. It’s unclear what writer Marv Wolfman’s going for—obviously, somehow, U.S.S.R. bad, but the parents are also numbskulls. And they enabled their daughter’s abusive marriage; the husband used to lock her up for weeks on end, which the parents must’ve known about. Basically, it’s a horrible situation for the wife from every angle.

    Even before her dad and his town council buddies form a lynch mob and put on skull masks to go kill the vampire. It’s entirely unclear if the family tells the town they’ve got the Lord of Vampires, Count Dracula himself, on their side.

    Good art, obviously; it’s Gene Colan and Tom Palmer, and the story’s engaging. It’s a little ho-hum, especially Quincy’s whiny C plot, but an okay TOD.