Last month, I finally broke down and subscribed to Disney+. With The Rise of Skywalker coming out, I knew we’d want to watch some of the films, and with my daughter off for Christmas break, I knew we’d enjoy watching some Pixar or Marvel movies. We’d also be spending a week at my in-laws with all my wife’s family so I figured I could bring my Amazon Fire box and we’d all enjoy Disney+ more than regular cable TV. All of this was true, but mostly I wanted to watch The Mandalorian, Disney+’s new Star Wars series.
We had a good time with all of those things but my fears about the streaming service became quite clear. With all of the things they have made available, very few of them are things I regularly want to watch. Star Wars, Marvel, and Pixar films just don’t add up to that many films in the grand scheme. Add in classic Disney animated films, old school live-action Disney, and even The Simpsons, and I still found myself not all that interested in what they had to offer.
After my month ran out (or really about a week before it did), I canceled and switch back to the Criterion Channel. I’ve already watched more on it than I did via Disney+.
And now let’s talk about what I did enjoy.
As noted, the main reason I subscribed to Disney+ was to watch this new Star Wars series. I’ve mostly liked what Disney has done with the new Star Wars movies, but I’ve also been a bit disappointed that they’ve all kept close to the main storyline. The Star Wars universe is enormous and so full of possibilities that it seems so strange that they’ve never really branched out and told stories that weren’t related to the Skywalkers.
The Mandalorian has done just that. It stars Pedro Pascal as a bounty hunter living in the outer reaches of the galaxy some five years after the events of Return of the Jedi. It is mostly episodic, following him running from planet to planet having adventures, and I ultimately didn’t love it. There are lots of things I like about it, but it didn’t quite connect to me as a whole. But I do love that it has nothing to do with the Star Wars stories we’ve seen thus far (true there is a Baby Yoda, but that can’t really be Yoda, right?).
We need more of these stories. I’ve not read any of the books in the Expanded Universe, but my understanding is that they do this very thing. They fill out the stories that are only hinted at in the movies. We know there are lots of other species and planets we don’t really see in the movies, but they all have stories to tell. The Mandalorian tells one of those stories and I hope we get many many more of them.
Kid Galahad (1937)
One of the things I love about the Criterion Channel is how easy it is to stumble upon things you'd never watch without it. Kid Galahad is a boxing film starring Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis, and Humphrey Bogart, but I’d never heard of it. Oh, I’m sure I’ve come across its title before while browsing either of those actor’s filmographies, but it isn’t a movie that comes up much in movie discussions. But there it is on the Criterion Channel. I’m not sure now whether it was a part of their Bogart’s early years theme or their collection of Bette Davis films, but wherever it sat, I found it and watched it.
Robinson is a boxing promoter always trying to raise a fighter to become champion but his high demands, including absolute obedience, keep that just out of his grasp. Humphrey Bogart plays a gangster who is Robinson’s rival. Bette Davis plays the dame who keeps Robinson in check. During a three-day party, the bellboy manages to knock Bogart’s prizefighter flat on his face when he makes some disparaging remarks to Davis. Robinson turns him into the champ he’s always been waiting for.
It is a good story, though nothing special, but Robinson and especially Davis are fantastic. I’m a fan of Bette Davis though I haven’t seen many of her films and most of those occurred many years later in her life, so it was delightfully surprising here to see her so young and beautiful. She chews on every line of dialogue she’s given and seems to be having so much fun.
I also caught her in Front Page Girl this week. It’s a similar story to His Girl Friday but not nearly as funny. But I’m so happy I was able to watch it, so thrilled its available on the Criterion Channel.
That’s the thing about the Criterion Channel, not every movie on there is a bona fide classic. But unlike so many of the films that fill up the other streaming services, I’ve never watched something on Criterion that I felt was a waste of time. I’m always glad to have watched their films even if they aren’t great cinema.
Criterion does a lot of curation of their films and right now they are featuring a bunch of science fiction films from the 1970s. I randomly picked this one the other day and it is a far cry from classic, it's a far cry from pretty good, but man, did I have a hoot watching it.
Based upon a Dean Koontz novel, Demon Seed tells the story of a supercomputer that is given artificial intelligence. If you’ve seen any science fiction movie with that concept, you automatically know where this one goes. Or maybe not. It finds a few places to go that I wasn't expecting.
Naturally, the computer decides humans are an inferior species and do not deserve to be its master. That trope is played out, but where Demon Seed takes a spectacular detour is that it takes over the home of its inventor. A home that was fully computerized to automatically open doors, fix drinks, and run basically everything. Inside the home is Susan Harris (Julie Christie), the estranged wife of the computer’s inventor. After watching her take a warm bath, the computer decides he needs a mate. Or rather knowing that the humans will eventually shut him down the computer decides he needs a baby to allow him to continue living.
What follows is a bunch of sleazy, ridiculous, glorious nonsense. The computer controls a wheel-chair with a robotic hand to terrorize Susan. When Susan locks herself inside a room, the computer turns on the heating inside the flooring and fries an egg. When the computer rapes Susan to artificially inseminate her with its robot semen, we get a very ’70s, vaguely 2001: A Space Odyssey, computerized-image collage that symbolizes the pleasure she gets from robot rape.
It is all so delightfully tacky in the most wonderful way.
That’s enough unpaid advertising for the Criterion Channel. Now, let’s move on to one of my other favorite things - Stephen King. If you’ve been following my cool things over the last couple of years, you’ve also followed my journey from knowing King as a cultural phenomenon to becoming a full-fledged fan. In a general way, I’d consider myself a fan of King’s older stuff rather than his newer writings (with the older stuff ending with the ‘80s). I don’t hold to that idea too seriously as I’ve not read even half of his rather large output and I’ve enjoyed the newer stuff I’ve read, but it feels true to say his newer stuff doesn’t have quite the same dark power.
I picked up his latest book, The Institute, in audiobook form from the local library. It is classic Stephen King. It feels like a book he would have written in the 1980s even if it is stuffed with references to our current political situation. In classic Stephen King fashion, it is almost two books in one starting with one story, then suddenly moving on to a completely different one before finally bringing the two together.
It begins with Tim Jamieson, a former cop, who by chance winds up taking a job as a night-knocker - someone who makes sure all the local businesses are safely locked up through the night - in the small town of Dupray, South Carolina. King takes his time developing Jamieson as an interesting character and inhabiting the small town with interesting people. I was enjoying that story. I kind of wish he’d stayed with it. But soon enough we are whisked away to the Institute of the tile - a secret agency that kidnaps kids with psychic abilities and uses them for some larger purpose.
It is there we spend the bulk of the book. We follow Luke Ellis, a 12-year-old boy who is not only slightly telekinetic but also a super genius. He’s taken from his own and brought to the Institute where he is studied, given shots, and tortured for unspecified reasons. He meets other kids just like him and they try to find a way to escape. Eventually, Jamieson enters back into the story but he’s now a player in the kid's story rather than the central one in his own.
I’m making it sound like The Institute stuff isn’t good. It is, I quite enjoyed that story, but it is so starkly different than the one in Dupray I’m sorry we had to leave it so soon. King is at the top of his game throughout. His characters are well-drawn and the story is riveting. Maybe I’ll have to rethink my notion that he’s older stuff is best.
There is a certain kind of sweet justice that Rian Johnson, the man who made The Last Jedi, a film that made so many internet fanboys so incredibly angry, put out a non-franchise film just weeks before The Rise of Skywalker that is so much more satisfying than the last Star Wars movie in every way.
Plotwise, Knives Out is an Agatha Christie-style whodunit. There is a large, sprawling mansion. A wealthy, elderly man who finds himself dead. A quirky, oddball family who are all hoping to get a big inheritance from the dead man. And a gentleman detective there to solve it all. But much like The Last Jedi, Johnson takes the familiar and subverts them at every turn.
It is a murder mystery that reveals who did the murdering less than halfway through. It toys with conventions while at the same time creating all the twists and turns fans of the genre expect and it all concludes in a very satisfying way. It doesn’t hurt that the cast list includes Chris Evans, Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, LaKeith Stanfield, and Christopher Plummer, all of whom seem to be having the time of their lives.
It is such a delightful, enjoyable movie that I cannot wait to watch it again and again on home video.
A New Cat
About five weeks ago, our cat Tegan went missing. She was always an inside/outside cat and she loved staying out all night and then coming in first thing in the morning for breakfast. One evening, I let her out and we never saw her again. We put up signs all around, checked the local animal shelters and veterinarians. We hit up various Facebook groups for missing animals.
About a week later, we got a message from someone living in the neighborhood next to ours saying she had seen a cat that looked like ours stalking around. A day later this kind person said she had captured said cat. We rushed over and that cat sure looked like ours. We took her home and felt great relief.
The cat looked like ours but she didn’t act like ours. This one was very cuddly whereas Tegan was not. This one refused to go upstairs whereas Tegan loved to come up and sleep on our bed. This one ate like it was starving and went a little wild with the kitty litter. We chalked all of this up to her having been in the wild for a week. Maybe having to survive on her own in the bitter cold changed her personality a bit.
Then she went into heat. Tegan had been fixed so this was a new development. We took her to a vet and sure enough, this cat had never been fixed which means she is not Tegan. But by this point, we were all in love. My daughter especially. Tegan didn’t cuddle. Tegan liked to play with her claws. This new cat enjoyed sitting in your lap and rarely got her claws out. We couldn’t just throw her out.
At the vetm we determined that she was not chipped so there was no way to tell if she had an owner. We checked the Facebook boards and put up messages but found nothing and got no response. So we’ve tentatively claimed her as our own.
Tegan was named after a Doctor Who companion during the Tom Baker years so we named this one Nyssa who palled around with Tegan on the show. I miss Tegan terribly and am trying hard not to think of what happened to her. Nyssa is making that much easier.