Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Mahalia, “Presented” by Robin Roberts, on Lifetime

She closed the show at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival and continues to bring down the house whenever Bert Stern’s Jazz on a Summer’s Day is screened. The performing arts center in Louis Armstrong Park is named in her honor. That was appropriate, because even though she was a gospel singer, there was still a lot of NOLA soul in her voice. The legendary performer gets the bio-film treatment with the awkwardly titled Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia (seriously, her name comes before Jackson’s), directed by Kenny Leon, which premieres this Saturday on Lifetime.

As a young child, Jackson’s strict aunt scares her off from joyously singing along with the likes of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey—and she would hew to the gospel straight-and-narrow for the rest of her life (more or less). It took fame a while to catch up with Jackson, because she did not seek it like secular performers. She also had a questionable first husband, but when Studs Terkel played her debut on Apollo, the indie specialty label, things started happening. During most of that time, Mildred Falls was right there with her, dutifully accompanying Jackson on piano.

Rather oddly,
RRP: Mahalia closes with the disclosure the Jackson estate did not cooperate with the film’s production. It is hard to see what they might object to. The screenplay, co-written by the late Bettina Gilois and Todd Kreidler is entirely respectful. Sure, Jackson is sometimes depicted making mistakes and getting a little lost, but humanity is flawed by its nature, right?

Regardless, Danielle Brooks does quite well in the iconic lead role. The Tony-nominee for
The Color Purple has a big voice and bears a strong likeness to Jackson. She also nicely projects her faith and dignity. Rob Demery is similarly credible playing (and humanizing) another iconic figure, Jackson’s friend and spiritual advisor, Dr. Martin Luther King. In fact, they have two scenes together directly addressing the struggles of faith that are smarter and more honest than just about any depiction of religion in film you could think of.

Like her character, Olivia Washington is often shunted over to the corner portraying Falls, but at least her presence gives viewers an appreciation for her playing (someone like Chess Records really should have signed her as an instrumental soloist). However, Jim Thorburn adds some sly energy as Terkel.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Creepshow: Model Kid & Public Television of the Dead

Nothing will get your lousy butt killed in the EC Comics that inspired the Creepshow franchise faster than abusive behavior. That is particularly true when it happens within families, but comeuppance comes just as surely in the workplace. Viewers will see examples of both in the first episode of Creepshow’s second season, which premieres Thursday on Shudder.

“Model Kid,” directed by showrunner Greg Nicotero, is about as classically
Creepshow as you can get. Joe Aurora learned to love Universal-style monsters from his loving, but ailing mother. Unfortunately, when she succumbs to cancer, he is sent to live with his Uncle Kevin, who has contempt for nerd culture. The poor kid is not given the time or space to grieve, but an advertisement in a Creepshow comic book offers a sinister way to deal with his mean-spirited guardian.

The elements of “Model Kid” are all very familiar, but the cool looking Mummy and Gillman have their nostalgic appeal. Of course, the “Gillman” is what you call a Creature from the Black Lagoon sort of character, without infringing on Universal trademarks. There is indeed quite a bit of appealingly nostalgic design work in the opening story, but John Esposito’s story itself is pretty standard stuff and Nicotero fails to lean into its potential for catharsis.

However, Nicotero kicks the season premiere into high gear with the wickedly funny “Public Television of the Dead.” It is Pittsburgh, 1972. The local PBS affiliate’s top show,
Mrs. Bookberry’s Magical Library, is poised to breakout nationally, but the awful co-host is determined to have the time-slot currently held by Norm Roberts’ Bob Ross-style painting show. Roberts is a Viet Nam vet, who has found inner peace through paint, but he has the survival skills his station manager and producer are going to need. Things are about to get Evil Dead-ish when Ted Raimi, playing himself, brings a certain book to the station’s antique appraisal show.

Rob Schrab’s mash up of pledge drives,
Mister Rodgers, and The Evil Dead is laugh out loud funny and the gory effects make a worthy homage. Plus, the pitch-perfect period details totally scream 1970s public television. Mark Ashworth channels Ross in a way that is both sympathetic and completely nutty. Todd Allen Durkin and Marisa Hampton also provide solid comedic support, while keeping things as grounded as possible, playing George the producer and Claudia Aberlan, the station manager.

Monday, March 29, 2021

American Masters: Doc Severinsen

The NEA better hurry the heck up and recognize 93-year-old Doc Severinsen as a NEA Jazz Master. His jazz credentials are impeccable, having played and recorded with the likes of Gerry Mulligan, Charlie Barnett, Chris Connor, Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Milt Jackson, and Stan Getz. Of course, he is best known for leading the Tonight Show Orchestra, but perversely, that level of success and exposure always generates jealousy and skepticism in the jazz world. Doubters should hear the active Severinsen continue to hit his high notes in Kevin Bright & Jeff Consiglio’s Never Too Late: The Doc Severinsen Story, which premieres this Friday as part of the current season of American Masters on PBS.

Severinsen became famous when he was promoted from first chair of the
Tonight Show band to the leader, but he had already played on legions of studio sessions and dozens of legit jazz records. “Stump the band” developed as a regular thing during his tenure. Thanks to his outgoing personality and flamboyant wardrobe, he was as recognizable as Johnny Carson or his co-host sidekick, Ed McMahon. He and Carson could also humorously commiserate over their multiple divorces.

Severinsen also toured regularly with the
Tonight Show band. Again, jazz fans might have forgotten how talented they were. Even irregular watchers should remember Ed Shaughnessy on drums, but the ranks also included musicians like Ernie Watts (who appears in Never Too Late) and Bill Perkins. (If you insist on associating Severinsen with some of the lounge-ish sessions he played on, keep in mind fellow trumpeter Arturo Sandoval pays tribute to him throughout the doc.) It will sort of blow the minds of Gen X’ers and older, but it has nearly been thirty years since Carson (and Severinsen) left the tonight show—almost as long as their run on the late-night staple. Yet, Severinsen never stopped touring and conducting master classes.

In fact, one of the coolest aspects of Bright & Consiglio’s film is the attention they give to the commitment required to play trumpet at a professional level. We see the hours the ninetysomething Severinsen still puts in at the gym strengthening his core. Of course, that is on top of the hours he dutifully spends woodshedding.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Altitude, Starring Dolph Lundgren and Denise Richards

Every hostage negotiator in movies and TV follows the model of Kevin Spacey in The Negotiator. They want to just keep talking and talking. Of course, the show would be over prematurely if they said: “I’m not feeling it here, let’s just send in SWAT.” Needless to say, FBI negotiator Gretchen Blair is a talker, who clashes with her guns-blazin’ boss. That gets her reassigned to a DC desk job, but to get there, she catches a flight loaded with hijackers in Alex Merkin’s Altitude, which airs soon on Charge TV.

Blair will be our John McClane for tonight. She was supposed to start the film in coach, but when she went-off on a gross row-mate, the impressed flight attendant bumped her up to business class. That is where she meets the relentlessly flirty Terry, who first offers to take her to Paris and then offers her a whole lot of money to keep him alive. Much to his alarm, he notices several of his former criminal associates boarding the plane. It turns out they double-crossed him first, but he still got away with all their loot.

Naturally, they want it back and they are perfectly willing to kill all souls aboard to do it. Their leader, Matthew Sharpe, is just the sort of mechanical whiz who has all the necessary skills. His trusted lieutenant Sadie (Terry’s ex) is sufficiently psychotic to make sure it happens. However, they did not anticipate a Fed like Blair being on-board, even though she was forced to check her side arm, after her status was down-graded.

Yes, this is basically another Dolph Lundgren VOD movie, but this time around he plays the villain—and he doesn’t even get much screen time, because rough, tough Sharpe spends most of the film locked in the cockpit. Instead, Denise Richards is the lead. Believe it or not, she makes a pretty engaging action protag, despite the limitations of the script and budget. She shows enough backbone and action cred to make us want to see her get another chance to star in a better constructed
Die Hard clone.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Twilight Zone: Come Wander with Me

In 1957, Gary Crosby released a very nice album of big band jazz vocals arranged and conducted by the great Bud Shank. Judging from how rarely you see it turn up in record stores, it probably didn’t sell very well. However, Crosby had several hits during his career, but they were mostly duets with his famous father, Bing. That would be the same Bing Crosby whose abusive treatment was the exposed in his son’s infamous tell-all memoir. In retrospect, the late Crosby son is considered a rather tragically sad figure, which makes his appearance in The Twilight Zone even more poignant. As ill-fate dictates, the song-hunting rockabilly singer he plays does not find the hit he is looking for in “Come Wander with Me,” airing tomorrow morning on Syfy.

You can smell Floyd “The Rock-A-Billy Kid” Burney’s desperation. His career might have held promise once, but he is seriously scuffling now. Hoping to emulate the success of others, Burney is scouring Appalachia in search of unrecorded (and uncopyrighted) folk songs that have a hooky, archetypal appeal. Of course, the proprietor of mist-shrouded general store is not very welcoming. The tombstone with his name inscribed on it is even more ominous, but Burney never sees it.

He is more interested in the waifish Mary Rachel, who is singing “Come Wander with Me,” a wistful ballad that sounds just like what the doctor ordered for Burney. He does not recognize her, but she thinks they are lovers—and their affair is doomed to end violently, because it always has before.

Arguably, “Wander” earns significant bragging rights an early forerunner of the time-loop genre, but writer Anthony Wilson does not emphasize its implied cyclical nature. Instead, director Richard Donner (famous for
Superman and Lethal Weapon) invests the proceeding with an unearthly vibe, evocative of purgatory or an even less desirable post-death destination. This is maybe the most twilight-like atmosphere ever seen in The Twilight Zone. It is all very eerie and even more melancholy. Perhaps the fact this was the final episode produced of the original series (but the third to last broadcast as part of the final season) somehow further heightened the elegiac feeling.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Into the Dark: Blood Moon

Parents of "problem children" with severe mood swings and behavioral issues could very well feel like they are raising werewolves. Leave it to Blumhouse to take the metaphor to its most macabre extreme. Esme’s son Luna (notice his name) is a good kid, except for one night out of every month. However, the devoted mother will do whatever it takes to protect Luna and his secret in Emma Tammi’s Blood Moon, the season conclusion of Blumhouse’s Into the Dark, which premieres today on Hulu.

Luna can be a handful, but it isn’t his fault. He inherited his lycanthropy from his father. Esme tries not to talk about him much. Instead, she does her best to home-school Luna, while constantly moving from one remote southwestern town to another. She has strict rules to prevent the outside world from discovering Luna’s therianthropic nature, but he understandably yearns for a more normal life. It is hard for her to get by, but Miguel, the sympathetic hardware store owner, is willing to offer her credit. Unfortunately, she also attracts the attention of the local harassment-inclined sheriff.

Blood Moon is so realistic, both emotionally and aesthetically, it arguably does not even feel like part of the horror genre. This is nothing like the Howling direct-to-DVD sequels (which might disappoint some werewolf fans). However, Tammi’s execution is impressively tight and economical. Maternally-themed horror is becoming her thing, but Blood Moon is fresher and more fully developed than her prior Into the Dark film, Delivered.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

The Vault: Balaguero Goes from Horror to Capers

The Bank of Spain’s celebrated subterranean flooding vault has a reputation for impenetrability, but it has been breached twice by the Spanish entertainment industry. The first time came during the second season of Netflix’s Money Heist. This English-language co-production is the second. Shrewdly, the team of “salvagers” plans to use Spain’s 2010 World Cup run as a distraction (most Spaniards would gladly trade national treasure for a Cup), but surviving the flooding waters will still be quite a trick in Jaume Balaguero’s The Vault, which releases tomorrow in theaters and on-demand.

Walter Moreland went to great trouble and expense to “salvage” one of Sir Francis Drake old shipwrecks, but the Spanish authorities swoop in at the last minute to confiscate his booty. Drake plundered it from Spain and his ship sank in Spain’s waters, but the old scoundrel believes his sweat equity gives him a morally superior claim. The good news is they do not fully understand what they have yet. The bad news is the stashed it in the Bank of Spain’s underground vault.

For his crew, Moreland recruits his chameleon-like god-daughter, a former British special forces SCUBA daredevil, a local scrounger, and your all-purpose hacker, but he needs Thom Laybrick’s brain to solve his big technical problems, both the expected and the unforeseen. Fortunately, the genius university student needs a challenge to stave off boredom. He is also clearly interested in Lorraine, the master-of-disguise pickpocket.

Balaguero is best known for horror films like the
[REC] franchise and Sleep Tight, so it maybe figures that Vault gets considerably darker than the typical caper movie. There comes a point when things look ultra-grim for salvage team, but that helps distinguish it from the pack. The heist itself is also pretty impressive and the bank’s vault and subbasements look unusually big and cinematic.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

The Toll: A Seriously Wrong Turn

What's the fastest way to get to the Twilight Zone, “The Further” from Insidious, or some other sort of nightmare realm in a horror film? Book an Uber. These days, driving for an app is like skinny-dipping in vintage 1980s slashers, but much less fun. There has already been plenty of ride-share horror before, but screenwriter-director Michael Nader navigates an interesting and macabre detour for genre fans in The Toll, which opens in theaters and on-demand this Friday.

After a rough, long-delayed flight, Cami confirms an airport pick-up from Spencer. She is paranoid about ride-share drivers and he is similarly skittish when it comes to potential customers, so they are already a badly matched pair. Nevertheless, his pressure-of-speech keeps him babbling, while her exhaustion and standoffishness make her sound dismissive. As a result, there is not a lot of rapport there, even before things take a massively sinister turn.

Ominously, Spencer’s GPS takes them down a lonely stretch of road, where the car suddenly dies. No matter how far they walk in either direction, they always end up at his broken-down car again. However, there are sketchy signs pointing towards a detour path, but they warn the “Toll Man” must be paid his due.

Usually, stranded-in-the-woods movies go in a
Wrong Turn, angry locals, slasher kind of direction, but Toll is much more ambitious. We probably never really see the Toll Man, per se, but what he shows us of Cami and Spencer’s subconscious is far scarier than most bogeymen. The nightmare visions and flashbacks he conjures up are impressively rendered and pretty darn intense.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

The Good Traitor: Representing Free Denmark

Ambassador Henrik Kauffmann hoped to be something like a Danish Henry Adams, representing his government-in-exile in DC. However, when the government failed to exile itself, he basically assumed that role—and it was a good thing he did. Kauffmann’s extraordinary diplomatic career is the focus of Christina Rosendahl’s The Good Traitor, which opens this Friday in theaters and on VOD.

The Hon. Kauffmann was a natural ambassador, because he and his wife Charlotte always enjoyed entertaining. Unlike many of his Foreign Service colleagues, Kauffmann also readily identified the looming National Socialist threat. He tried to leverage his well-heeled wife’s family connections to the Roosevelts, but FDR will not give him the assurances he is looking for.

Unfortunately, the German invasion happens sooner than even Kauffmann or his hawkish deputy Povl Bang-Jensen expected. In an even worse development, the Danish government remains in place to negotiate compliant terms for the occupation. Horrified by their collaboration, Kauffmann essentially declares his diplomatic mission the highest functioning branch of the free, independent Danish government. Several important embassies back him up, but he really needs Roosevelt to recognize him, especially when the compromised government proclaims him a traitor.

Kauffmann’s cowboy diplomacy makes for a ripping good yarn, which has the added advantage of being completely true. The chutzpah is awe-inspiring, but it was all for a just cause. Far less interesting is Kauffmann’s torch-carrying for his sister-in-law and his wife’s boozy, jealous resentment. Regardless, it is nice to see Bang-Jensen get his due as well. Frankly, Kauffmann’s colleague deserves a film of his own, focusing on his tenure at the UN, where he refused to reveal the names of Hungarian Revolution witnesses to his organization, to protect their relatives behind the Iron Curtain. He was found dead, "under mysterious circumstances,” shortly thereafter.

Invincible, Animated on Amazon

You might think Ironman’s longtime association with the superlative “Invincible” would preclude other superheroes from using it, but you can’t trademark a commonly used word. Besides, Mark Grayson and his super alter-ego were published by Image Comics, independent of the Marvel Universe. “Invincible” seemed like a good name to him when he received his powers, but his early outings as costumed superhero suggest he is anything but in creators Robert Kirkman, Ryan Ottley, and Cory Walker’s Invincible, the new animated series based on their popular comic book, which premieres this Friday on Amazon Prime.

Most kids idolize the Avengers-like Guardians of the Globe, but Mark Grayson is a bigger fan of their independent ally, Omni-Man, because that is his dad. He currently goes by the alias Nolan Grayson, but Omni-Man is an alien from the world of Viltrumite. Mark is a late-bloomer, whose powers just kicked in, but he seems to be able to fly as well as take and give super beat-downs. He is not quite Ralph Hinkley, but he is still a little unsteady when exercising his powers.

Unfortunately, Mark, a.k.a. Invincible, is about to be thrown into the deep end when a huge franchise-shaking event sidelines the Guardians and his father. At least the Teen Team is willing to temporarily team-up with him, especially Atom Eve, who in her civilian life, happens to attend Grayson’s high school, as the popular Samantha Eve Wilkins.

Based on the three episodes Amazon supplied to reviewers, it is pretty clear why
Invincible has been one of Image’s marquee titles. It clearly tweaks the tropes of superhero comics just enough to be subversive, while staying true to the conventions that attract fans to the genre in the first place. Invincible is likely to be compared to The Boys, because it also features incidents of shockingly graphic violence. However, Invincible has none of its Amazon stablemate’s jaded cynicism. In fact, Mark Grayson is more closely akin to vintage Peter Parker, in the way he struggles to balance his teen angst with superhero responsibilities.

The colorful and dynamic animation also hits the right notes. Arguably, it is two or three degrees superior to the quality of old school Saturday morning superhero cartoons, but not so far-removed fans won’t get a nostalgic fix from it. Kirkman, Ottley, Walker, and co-writer Simon Racioppa tell a good story and fill it with intriguing fantastical characters. The big-name voice cast mostly does them justice, especially J.K. Simmons, who dips into his snarky
Whiplash and authoritative Farmers Insurance bags for the commanding tones of Omni-Man (and Nolan Grayson).

Monday, March 22, 2021

Six Minutes to Midnight: The Augusta Victoria College Intrigue

Augusta Victoria College in Bexhill-on-Sea was the sort of finishing school Oswald Mosley could get behind. Eventually, it became a temporary war hospital, but throughout the 1930s, it specialized in educating the daughters of the National Socialist elite. It sounds like the sort of place British Intelligence should have kept a close eye on, so it is a good thing deep plant [Captain] Thomas Miller has accepted a teaching post there. His teenaged charges might not look dangerous, but the violent fate of his undercover predecessor suggests otherwise in Andy Goddard’s Six Minutes to Midnight, which releases in theaters and on-demand this Friday.

Headmistress Rocholl is not overwhelmed by Miller, but his mother was German, so his Deutsch fluency certainly helps. Initially, Miller’s fellow teacher, Ilse Keller, is far more welcoming, but she also acts considerably more suspiciously. Fortunately, the students are fairly accepting of Miller, despite their general Stepford-like demeanor, with the exception of Gretel, the sensitive outsider.

Goddard and his co-scripting co-stars, Eddie Izzard and Celyn Jones do a nice job of recapturing the vibe of vintage John Buchan thrillers, especially when Miller is falsely suspected of murder and forced to flee across the British countryside. The late 1930’s end-of-appeasement era also adds an intriguing (and uncomfortably timely) dimension to the
39 Steps-like intrigue.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Perry Mason: The Case of the Missing Melody

Barney Kessel was such a talented jazz guitarist, he could even take the hippy-dippy music of Hair and make it sound interesting on his album, Hair is Beautiful. For him, swinging Fred Steiner’s “Park Avenue Beat,” the iconic Perry Mason theme was no problem. Kessel did exactly that as a guest star and guest arranger in “The Case of the Missing Melody,” which airs Monday night on Me TV.

Mason and Della Street are attending a surprisingly cool wedding, but the father of the bride looks none too thrilled about his daughter’s prospective marriage to jazz musician Eddy King. Regardless, the trio’s hip rendition of “Here Comes the Bride” sounds great. Unfortunately, they won’t get a chance to groove on “The Wedding March” yet, because the ceremony is cut short by the bride, after she receives a dirty blackmailer’s threatening note.

Although he was originally at the ceremony as a friend of the well-heeled bride’s family, Mason soon agrees to represent King when the blackmailer inevitably winds up dead. Of course, he wants to protect the Courtland family secrets as well, at least as best as he can. However, King’s bandmates, vocalist Jonny Baker (played by the Julliard-schooled Constance Towers) and percussionist Bongo White (portrayed by Bobby Troup, the pop-jazz singer-piano-player, who married Julie London) are obviously deeply embroiled in the whole affair, as well.

Frankly, the first act of “Missing Melody” is a little slow out of the gate. Weirdly, it takes almost twenty minutes to get to the murder. However, Kessel (who is credited with all the incidental music between the opening and closing credits) keeps the episode lively with his interpretations of traditional wedding music and the classic
Perry Mason theme. In fact, they sound so good, it is too bad he did not do a whole Perry Mason/Wedding album. He also arranges and ghost-led the Eddy King band backing up Baker/Towers on “The Thrill is Gone” and “The Man I Love,” which are nice too, in a 1960s big band kind of way.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

TV’s Shane: E1-3

He is the cowboy most famous for leaving, but this short-lived TV series was all about him finding reasons to stay. This is sort of the Shane of Jack Schaefer’s novel and George Stevens’ classic film, but younger—and also somewhat more remorseful. It was far from a hit in 1966, but Shane lives on in reruns on getTV, where the first three episodes will soon be airing.

Shane was one of the deadliest gunslingers ever, but he accepted a position as a farm hand with the Starrett family. Obviously, the widowed Marian Starrett was another motivation, but it is her naïve son Joey who truly adores Shane. Wyoming cattle baron Rufe Ryker is not so enamored with the hired-gun turned hired-hand, but he probably understands Shane better than the Starretts. Nevertheless, Shane consistently sides against the old school cattleman in his campaign to chase out the recently arrived homesteading “sod-busters,” like the Starretts.

The battle turns particularly nasty in the first episode, “The Distant Bell,” in which Ryker does his best to sabotage the settlers plan to build a school in town. Naturally, he opposes anything that would build a sense of permanent community, but Shane believes the local kids deserve a chance to get the education he never had.

“Bell” is a good example of one
Shane’s primary themes—the evolution of the frontier from a wild land of opportunity to more settled and regulated communities. In fact, the series is not wholly unsympathetic to Ryker (even though there it sometimes stokes suspicions he might have been complicit in the death of Starrett’s husband). Veteran character actor Burt Freed’s work as Ryker is consistently one of the best things about the series, starting right from the pilot.

The other major theme of
Shane is the guilt the title character carries from the sins of his past. The conflicted Shane wants atonement, but it is still in his nature to keep moving, much like a shark. That inner turmoil is brought front-and-center in the second episode, “The Hant,” wherein the grieving father of a man Shane killed during the height of his gunslinging days starts haunting him, like a spirit. He is a sad ghost, rather than an angry one, nicely played by John Qualen, but that rather makes it worse for Shane.

Both themes converge in “The Wild Geese,” whose instinctive migration habits clearly serve as a metaphor for Shane’s own impulses. Once again, Ryker is hoping to drive out the Starretts, but this time it just might work. With no paycheck coming, Shane reluctantly agrees to sign up with an old associate hiring guns for range war in Canada, hoping to use his fee to shore up the struggling Starrett farm, but the widow Marian refuses to accept any blood money.

episodes are moodier than typical TV oaters, but they usually build towards a legit western climax (the one in “Bell” is especially well executed). As Shane, the weirdly young-looking David Carradine is solid brooder and he already had respectable action chops. (Arguably, westerns were his second most identifiable genre after martial arts, with Kung Fu qualifying as both). He also has some ambiguously suggestive chemistry with Jill Ireland’s Marian Starrett (she was already seeing Charles Bronson at this point, so you can figure the strong, silent Shane was her type.)

Friday, March 19, 2021

“V.C. Andrews’” Ruby

How much is a name worth? In the case of gothic children-in-jeopardy novelist V.C. Andrews, the I.R.S. determined her name was worth $1.2 million. That came as quite a surprise to her estate, but they got their tax liabilities’ worth by releasing dozens of subsequent ghost-written novels under her million-dollar moniker. The Landry novels were amongst them. They were totally the work of Andrew Neiderman (previously known as the author of The Devil’s Advocate), whereas Andrews’ involvement was literally in name only. Fans never seemed to mind, so Lifetime has continued their Andrews program with Ruby, the first of four Landry TV movies, which premieres tomorrow on the network.

Within the first twelve minutes of
Ruby, the sensitive title character learns Paul Tate, her high school love, is actually her secret brother and she has a well-heeled twin sister in New Orleans, who was whisked away by their tomcatting father to placate his barren and snobby wife. So yes, Ruby is totally on-brand. After the death of her beloved Grandmere, Landry’s drunken Grandpere tries to sell her chastity to an old bayou perv, so she runs off to NOLA to find the father she never knew.

Guilt-ridden Pierre Dumas is thrilled to welcome her into the family, but Ruby’s new twin sister Giselle and “mother” Daphne are somewhat less than overjoyed. Frankly, they are both real pills. Nevertheless, Ruby Dumas will do her best to navigate her new life of family secrets, crazy relatives, and voodoo.

Ruby is only getting started with the Landry/Dumas saga, but we have already seen enough. The melodrama is cheesy and the performances verge on self-parody. Honestly, it is hard to imagine sitting through more. Maybe, we’ll try the final film too, Hidden Jewel, to cover the quartet high school style—just the beginning and the end—but no promises.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Phobias, Executive Produced by Radio Silence

Hoplophobia is an irrational fear of guns that afflicts far too many politicians. Ephebiphobia is the fear of teenagers, which is hard to ever dismiss as irrational. A good case of ephebiphobia ought to be enough to overcome anyone’s hoplophobia, but the sinister conspiracy in this braided anthology film is not seeking to cure anybody’s fears. Instead, they seek to weaponize fear in Phobias, executive produced by the Radio Silence filmmaking team, which releases tomorrow in theaters and on VOD.

Poor Johnny is the sole support of his ailing father in Joe Sill’s “Robophobia” (the fear of robots), but the bigoted lowlifes of his skid row neighborhood still pick on him mercilessly. Then one day, he is “befriended” by a rogue AI that downloads itself into his ear and starts to fight back for him. Unfortunately, it doesn’t know when to stop.

We next see Johnny after he has been whisked away to some kind of black-site research facility in Jess Varley’s interstitial “Outpost 37” segments. There he will meet some very damaged people, who have done some terrible things out of fear (and some whose fears were well justified).

Sami is one of them. She should have been more frightened of driving, before she committed vehicular violence in Maritte Lee Go’s “Vehophobia.” Granted, it is sort of quick riff on
Christine, but it is creepy, thanks to some clever use of music and sound. Hana Mae Lee (of the Pitch Perfect franchise) is also terrific as the EC Comics-style protag.

Chris von Hoffman’s student-teacher home invasion horror story, “Ephebiphobia” is probably the darkest and tensest of the fearful tales. Yet, in some ways, it really doesn’t fit with the rest. The unfortunate teacher has made some mistakes in her life, but she is victim, not the aggressor. She deserves to wind up in Outpost 37 even less than woeful Johnny.

The single-mother cop in Camille Belle’s “Hoplophobia” is not wholly unsympathetic either, but her guilt and paranoia have terrible consequences, especially for her. Frankly, there is nothing entertaining about this fearful tale. It is just sort of sad.

Genius: Aretha (The Art Tatum/Dinah Washington Episode)

Aretha Franklin's first charting hit was with Ray Bryant and his hard-driving left hand. Columbia was trying to make her into a jazz vocalist, but Jerry Wexler at Atlantic saw her as a soul singer all the way. Alas, Bryant does not appear in the first episode, but viewers immediately get to dive into her notorious first session at Muscle Shoals’ FAME Studios when Genius: Aretha premieres this Sunday on Nat Geo.

She was known for her R&B chops and gospel roots, but she needed a hit in 1967. Wexler thought there would be hits to be had by letting Franklin be Franklin and one of the best places to do that would be Muscle Shoals, where he recorded a monster hit for Wilson Pickett. That is the sound Franklin wanted, but she did not know it came from a white rhythm section. Franklin eventually warms to the Swampers, but her disruptive, freeloading manager-husband Ted White does not.

It is hard for Franklin to watch White sabotage her comeback session, especially when she remembers where she came from. We see those scenes in black-and-white. Ironically, her talents were enthusiastically encouraged by her highly problematic father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, who had a national following for his fiery, politically-charged sermons. At her father’s parties, she met and was encouraged by the likes of Dinah Washington and Art Tatum (played by Robert Glasper). That was also how she met White, much to her later regret.

For real jazz listeners, the best part about the initial episode is the smart way it features the music and depicts the musicians. Cynthia Erivo is spot-on channeling Franklin’s voice and presence. Likewise, Glasper is an eerie dead-ringer for Tatum (who might not be an obvious choice to include in the Aretha Franklin story). It is also nice to see King Curtis (Marque Richardson is another good likeness), considering how much his solos contributed to Franklin’s hits. Technically, he was more of a jump blues-R&B musician, but he is starting to sound more and more like jazz these days.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Koko-di, Koko-da, on Shudder

This could be the worst Groundhog’s Day camping trip ever. Yet, as bad as it is for Tobias and Elin to be repeatedly brutalized and murdered by a sadistic band of sideshow performers, the grieving couple’s not-so-passive, more-often-aggressive mutual resentment and hostility is probably harder to watch. Time loops reach their maximum level of uncomfortableness in Johannes Nyholm’s Koko-di, Koko-da, which premieres tomorrow on Shudder.

Elin and Tobias were once happily married—until the unexpected, freak death of their daughter Maja. Three years later, they are still together, but definitely not happily so. This ill-considered camping trip was supposed to be a chance to heal their marriage, but the constant arguing and recriminations suggest it is too late. Suddenly, a creepy ringmaster-like character in a white suit (the credits call him “Mog”), a strong man, a psycho woman, and their rabid dog beat, bite, and kill Elin when she steps out of the tent for a nature call, before moving on to Tobias. Then Tobias wakes up from the nightmare, minutes before the attack, knowing full well it is about to happen again—and again.

Koko-di, Koko-da
(which takes its title from the unsettling earworm refrain Mog sings) is a dark, uncompromising film, but beneath the surface cruelty, there is a deep, humanistic empathy for everyone who has endured heartbreaking trauma. Any parent would much rather endure the brutality of the sideshow gang, rather than lose a child.

That still doesn’t necessarily make some of its scenes any easier to watch. Nevertheless, Nyholm has an extraordinarily keen eye for visuals, especially the two expressionistic interludes featuring paper cut-out puppetry. Clearly, this is nothing like your typical killers-in-the-woods horror movie. In fact, it is debatable whether
Koko-di, Koko-da, really is a horror movie, even though it is often quite horrific.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

The Marksman: You Can Actually See it in a NYC Theater

Liam Neeson has less fear and more intestinal fortitude than James Bond or Black Widow. That is because he has opened not one, but two films theatrically during the Covid era. This time around, he still plays to his Taken-style strengths, but also acts his late-60s age in Robert Lorenz’s The Marksman, which is actually playing in brick & mortar New York City theaters.

Jim Hanson was a crack Marine Corps sharpshooter, but that was long ago, during Viet Nam. Most of his life, he was a productive rancher near the Mexican border. Sadly, the love of his life passed away several years ago, after a protracted struggle with cancer. As a result, his Arizona ranch is on the verge of foreclosure. That means he does not have much left to lose.

You can literally see the border from his property, so Hanson is often in contact with the Border Patrol—especially since his grown step-daughter also works for Immigration. One day, he catches Rosa and her young son Miguel, fleeing a vicious Mexican drug cartel through his property. Of course, Hanson cannot help getting involved. After the mother is fatally wounded in a shootout, Hanson reluctantly resolves to take Miguel to his family in Chicago, protecting him from the cartel during their journey. The ruthless Maurico will be hot on their heels, eager to avenge the brother Hanson plugged in the desert.

The Marksman is equal parts Gran Torino and Rambo: Last Blood, which works pretty effectively, just like it probably sounds. This is Neeson at his most weathered and world-weary, but he is still ultra-steely and hardnosed. The Eastwood vibe is no coincidence, considering Lorenz co-produced many Eastwood films (including Gran Torino) and directed him in his helming debut, Trouble with the Curve. The screenplay, co-written by Lorenz, Chris Charles & Danny Kravitz is mostly a straight-forward action road story, but Neeson has the gravitas to sell it and the chops to propel it.

Neeson really is terrific in the lead, but Juan Pablo Raba offers a surprisingly strong counterbalance, as the antagonist, Maurico. It is a chilling performance, but he also conveys hints of the scarred little boy that evolved into a sociopathic monster. He engenders understanding for the devil, if not sympathy, per se.

Calls, on Apple TV+

It is sort of like “Sorry, Wrong Number” for fans of Tenet. Thanks to a strange quantum physics anomaly, people have been getting phone calls from different time periods—in some cases from themselves. Unfortunately, whenever someone tries to alter their timeline, the universe fights back, usually in a rather vicious way. The concept is high but the visuals are minimal in creator-director’s Fede Alvarez’s Calls (based on the French series created by Timothee Hochet), which premieres this Friday on Apple TV+.

Calls starts with the ending—the cataclysmic doomsday end—and then flashes back to the beginning, before filling in the middle with the subsequent seven episodes—except maybe not. There might be a handful of people smart enough to figure what is happening to our plane of reality in time to stop it. Of course, there are those who will try to take advantage of the quantum anomaly to reverse horrible personal tragedies, but these rarely work out well.

Calls is an unusually dark and moody science fiction series. Several episodes, like “Me, Myself, and Darlene,” “The Universe Did It,” and “Mom” are downright downers (the former two being the most poignant and effective). Ironically, the best episode, “Pedro Across the Street,” is a total outlier, due to its humorous tone and the fact the quantum phone call doesn’t even happen in the episode (it is only referenced by the character who called himself).

Calls is more closely akin to a podcast than a television show, because the only visuals are the audio waves and static representing the phone calls heard during each episode. Basically, the viewing experience is like watching the spectrum analyzer on your stereo. (As a point of contrast, Shudder’s terrific podcast Video Palace created a much more intriguing visual loop for its creepy tale of insidious video tapes.) However, the way Alvarez keeps dropping hints about the greater quantum mystery afoot keeps us sufficiently hooked.

Monday, March 15, 2021

SAS: Red Notice

There has already been a “Die Hard on a train,” so that must make this “Under Siege II in the Chunnel,” naturally with a British accent. Fortunately, when a rogue mercenary outfit takes a Paris-bound train hostage, a highly-skilled SAS commando also happens to be on-board. Tom Buckingham is determined to bring them down and protect his [hopefully future] fiancée in Magnus Martens’ SAS: Red Notice, adapted from Andy McNab’s novel, which releases this Tuesday on-demand.

Tom Buckingham is a blue blood more in the tradition of Elizabeth than Harry. Despite his vast estates, he believes in doing his duty for queen and country as a member of Special Air Service (SAS) counter-terrorism force. When his country calls, he hauls, even if that means leaving behind the not-always-so-understanding Dr. Sophie Hart. They are very different people, but he still intends to propose in Paris, after completing his mostly successful mission against the so-called “Black Swans.”

William Lewis’ Swans were caught on cell-phone video torching a Georgian Republic village to make way for a Britgaz pipeline. Of course, the British PM and his deep-state military advisor George Clements hired them for the job, but they publicly disavow all knowledge. The SAS executed a Red Notice on the Swans, but they did not secure Lewis’s daughter and presumptive successor Grace, or her thuggish brother (and pseudo-rival) Olly. No mere loose ends, the Lewis siblings take over the Chunnel train as part of a complicated plot to embarrass the PM and avenge their father, but they didn’t anticipate interference from a “player” like Buckingham.

So, in less than six months, Ruby Rose has gone from playing the
Die Hard-style hero in The Doorman to playing the Die Hard villain in Red Notice. She chews the scenery serviceably as Grace Lewis, but she still can’t match the great Tom Wilkinson’s slyness as Papa Black Swan.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Grace Harte, on MHz

The Ostan Harte is like an Irish Fawlty Towers, but it is more run-down and less welcoming. For years, Grace Harte wanted to renovate, but her husband Leo and his domineering mother were happy with how things were. However, succumbing to the temptations of infidelity after her mother-in-law dies, leads to dramatic noir consequences for the title character in creator-writer Antoine O Flatharta’s Gaelic-language Grace Harte, premiering this coming Tuesday on MHz.

Hotel Harte is closing for the season, just like they always do. Sadly, it will be Madame Harte final season ever. Grace figures this is the time to finally modernize the premises, but Leo lashes out and closes down whenever she broaches the subject. That in turn drives her into the arms of Danny McDonagh a young surf-bum with a dodgy past. Pretty soon, McDonagh starts making suspiciously vague offers to “help” Harte with her husband problems. As Leo’s jealousy escalates, Harte leaves an ill-advised voice message asking just what he might have in mind.

Without consulting with Harte, McDonagh seizes an opportunity to take care of her husband permanently—or so he thinks. Keep in mind, the body is not immediately recovered. Nevertheless, Harte is ready to move on. She is unaware of whatever McDonagh did or did not do, but the media frenzy surrounding her husband’s disappearance is exhausting.

Filmed in an arresting black-and-white,
Grace Harte looks even more noir than it is. In terms of genre and tone, it sits in an interesting place nestled somewhere between The Postman Always Rings Twice and the stormy Richard Gere infidelity drama Unfaithful (remade from a Claude Chabrol original). Visually, GH is about as cinematic as TV gets, thanks to the windswept coastal landscapes and Dave Grennan’s distinctive cinematography, which serve them so well. You can easily see why people here might go a little crazy.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Bulletproof: South Africa, on the CW

South Africa has become a popular location for international productions, because of its financial incentives and pool of skilled, English-speaking crew talent. However, the nation still faces a high crime rate and a beleaguered, under-paid police force. That makes it the perfect setting for a special 3-episode “getaway” season for popular wise-cracking British coppers Ronnie Pike and Aaron Bishop. They came for a vacation, but stay to rescue a kidnapped girl in Bulletproof: South Africa, which premieres Monday night on the CW.

Pike finally booked a well-deserved vacation with his wife Arjana and their two daughters—and naturally his partner is tagging along. Bishop is like family, even if the orphaned cop has trouble dealing with that concept. They have a couple pieces of police business to finish before leaving in episode one, which are notably accompanied by Nina Simone’s urgent “Sinnerman.” Of course, they think they can relax once they hit the beach, but viewers know better. The Pikes are happy to see their daughters befriending young Kayla, so they are just as shocked as her parents when she is abducted from the ice cream stand.

It turns out Kayla’s father William works for a De Beers-like gem consortium. Somehow, the kidnappers know his company will be processing a shipment of ultra-rare rubies, so they want him to intercept them, to exchange for his daughter. They strictly warn him not to tell the police and nobody has much confidence in them anyway. However, Bishop and Pike agree to launch their own loose cannon investigation.

Bulletproof franchise never denied its debt of inspiration to Lethal Weapon and they even tip their hat to genre-defining buddy-cop movie in episode one. Maybe it is not blindingly original, but it does what it does very well indeed. The gibes are sharp and the action sequences are big and loud. It has all the elements and they come at viewers fast-and-furious, so to speak.

Friday, March 12, 2021

The Zhengs’ Insight

This is a Cain and Abel sibling story, told by a brother-and-sister filmmaking team. It also incorporates a whole lot of martial arts and some mild fantastical elements. Jian Huang is a highly skilled fighter who also has the gift of second sight. That certainly makes him sound formidable, but the same was true of his somewhat estranged brother, who just died under mysterious circumstances. Huang will uncover the bad guys behind his murder with the reluctant help of a LAPD detective in Ken & Livi Zheng’s Insight, which releases today on VOD.

Much to their bafflement. Detectives Abby Lerner and Carl Stevens have been pulled off a high-profile kidnapping case to greet Huang at the airport. Evidently, Huang has powerful friends in the Federal government, because of his work as a Jack Bauer-style counter-terrorism agent. His brother used to serve in the same agency, before he left for a job in Vortex, the tech company owned by the villainous Wallace Jackson. Initially, his brother’s death looked like suicide, but his visions clearly tell a different, homicidal story—one that deeply implicates Vortex.

Lerner was pretty put-out when she was ordered to escort Huang—and even more so when she finds herself bailing him out of jail. However, she soon gives credence to his suspicions. Of course, they are mostly on their own, but Huang is one hard cat to kill.

Okay, so
Insight is basically a B-movie, but it is a thoroughly entertaining one. It represents a big step up from their last martial arts narrative feature, Brush with Danger. Ken Zheng is clearly a seriously skilled martial artist. This time around, he has the benefit of the support from some always reliable and entertaining character actors, starting with the great Tony Todd, playing slightly against type as the uncorrupted Det. Stevens. Plus, Keith David and John Savage both add grizzled grit as Stevens and Lerner’s Captain Duke and Huang’s superior officer, respectively.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Cosmic Sin, Starring Bruce Willis & Frank Grillo

The "Dark Forest Theory” suggests any intelligent civilization in the universe should try to remain undetected from any potential rivals, who would most likely consider them an existential threat to their own survival and act accordingly. The military of the Earth-based Alliance generally subscribes to this theory. Unfortunately, the strange hive-like aliens clearly do as well. They appear to have a higher level of technology, but we have Bruce Willis and Frank Grillo, so its more or less equal in Edward Drake’s Cosmic Sin, which releases this Friday on VOD.

When a rebellion threatened to fracture the Alliance, Gen. James Ford put it down permanently by dropping a quantum Q-bomb. Ever since then, he was dishonorably discharged and derided as the “Blood General.” However, hawkish colonists on the edge of the frontier still regard him as a folk hero. Logically, when the outer colonies were attacked by an alien race, Gen. Ryle, the latest grizzled, hardnosed military commander recruits his predecessor to do whatever needs to be done.

The plan, such as it is, involves an elite squad (including Ford and Ryle, so take that Picard, you armchair captain), strapping into quantum mecha suits and basting off to the war zone with another Q-bomb. To make the line-up even more unlikely, it will also include Ryle’s hard-charging soldier son Braxton and Ford’s judgmental scientist ex-wife, who radiates contempt for the military she serves. Fortunately, Sol Cantos, the leader of the remnant of human resistance they link up with is more on-board with the whole saving humanity program.

Drake also wrote the recent Willis vehicle
Breach, so maybe someday in the future film scholars will write scholarly books about the great Breach-Cosmic Sin duology. If so, it will probably have to be the French. At least, Sin more unambiguously sides with humanity against the alien menace. Indeed, the Dark-Forest-Hunting aliens explicitly undermine touchy-feely liberal idealism with their own war-mongering words.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Still Life in Lodz

To most collectors, a still life by Tolpin, a virtually unknown Russian painter is a far cry from Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (the painting in Woman in Gold), but to Lilka Elbaum (born Rozenbaum), it holds similar significance. Her family reluctantly left it behind when they were forced to immigrate by the Communist regime’s anti-Semitic purges, but its history in Lodz’s traditional Jewish neighborhood extended back before them, to the 1920s. Documentarian Slawomir Grunberg uses the painting as a device to examine the history of Lodz’s Jewish community in Still Life in Lodz, which opens virtually this Friday.

Pola Erlich and her sons were the original tenants of Elbaum’s family flat and they first hung Tolpin’s still life, where it would remain for decades. The collaborating resident who took possession during the German occupation kept it up and so did the Rozenbaums when they moved in after the war. Although Elbaum was born post-War and eventually immigrated to America, she kept in touch with the daughter of the family that sheltered her mother, so from time to time, she returned to Poland.

As a result, Elbaum felt a diasporic kinship with American-born Paul Celler, whose mother, Rosa Posalska, survived the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz, as well as Roni Ben Ari, an Israeli artist, whose grandfather, Moshe Halpern, immigrated to Israel before the War. Elbaum and Grunberg accompany them as they explore their own family connections to the historic neighborhood specifically and to Poland in general.

Still Life
might sound like a conventional documentary about the tragic Jewish Holocaust-era experience, but Grunberg finds ways to make it feel fresh, including incorporating brief but distinctive animated interludes. He also shoots some surprisingly cinematic aerial shots that give viewers a good sense of the geography and scale of the neighborhood.

Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Come True: She Doesn’t Dream, She has Nightmares

Fall asleep during this film at your own peril, because it suggests unhealthy sleep patterns can really mess you up. Eventually, those shadowy sleep paralysis figures show up, but there is more to it than mere Freddy Krugerish chills. Fortunately, it is also sufficiently intense to keep most genre fans wide-awake. Signing up for a sleep study leads to all kinds of paranoia and anxiety for a young runaway, but at least she gets paid $12 an hour in Anthony Scott Burns’ Come True, which releases Friday on VOD.

We never really learn why Sarah ran away from home, but when the mother of her best remaining friend gets tired of her sleeping over, the local university’s sleep study sounds like a perfect solution. Several of her fellow subjects have apparently done this before, so no worries, right? However, her persistent nightmares are getting worse and the post-slumber questions are more than a little off-putting. However, what really alarms her is the realization one of the grad student researchers has been following her, or maybe really stalking her. Yet, by confronting him and threatening to quit, she manages to blackmail “Rif” into explaining the nature of the study, to some extent.

Come True is to sleep paralysis and nightmares what the original Flatliners was to near-death experiences. There are definitely science fictional elements, but the tone and imagery are indeed nightmarish. In fact, Come True has some of best nightmare sequences since maybe the Nightmare Detective films. In this case, there is a Giger-esque fantasy element to Burns’ nightmarescapes, which makes them so weird and disturbing.

Monday, March 08, 2021

Stay Out of the F**king Attic, on Shudder

Take it from me, moving a collection of LPs is no picnic. However, your still better of schlepping vinyl than boxing up a creepy old house like this one. The owner is paying a hefty bonus to have all the work done by morning, but the weird noises and his sinister belongings will be quite a distraction in Jerren Lauder’s Stay Out of the F**king Attic, which premieres this Thursday on Shudder.

Schillinger is an ex-con, who sort of made good with his Second Chance Moving service. He gets enough work to employ Imani, his sort of girlfriend, and his newest hire, Carlos. Vern, who looks like a somewhat shorter Angus Scrimm, contracted their services, but he has strange requirements. All his junk has to be out by morning, but they don’t have to worry about the attic and basement. In fact, they are supposed to stay the asterisk out.

The old weirdo waves around enough cash for the three movers to agree to his terms. Unfortunately, as the box up his clutter, they start noticing an unsettling pattern. It seems like Vern has some sort of National Socialist fetish. Mengele in particular seems to hold a peculiar fascination for him. Schillinger can pick up on it better than his employees, because of his Neo-Nazi prison affiliation, which he now deeply regrets.

Let’s be frank, exploiting Mengele and his crimes against humanity for grubby horror movie thrills is a dubious proposition. We tried to give the film sufficient latitude to proves its good intentions, but when one of the characters gets caught in a Zyklon-B death trap, we have to throw the bad taste penalty flag. Honestly, in an era when Gina Carano gets canceled for a not-particularly-well-thought-out social media post discussing divisive Nazi tactics (which didn’t really say what you maybe think it did), a film like this is asking for far worse. Yet, people of good conscious should not wish to see Lauder canceled any more than Carano.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

NYICFF ’21: Zog and the Flying Doctors

The old fellow might be a dragon, but he is also the original jaws of life—and the wings too. Although it took him a while to sharpen his dragoning skills in his first Magic Light Pictures-produced BBC special, he has since found his purpose shuttling Princess Pearl and Sir Gadabout as they tend to the medical needs of the animals and fantastical beasts of the kingdom. Unfortunately, the King has more traditional notions of nobility in Sean Mullins’ Zog and the Flying Doctors, the latest Julia Donaldson animated adaptation, which screens as part of the Magic Light Celebration at this year’s New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Dr. Princess Pearl’s ideas of royal duty are a lot like those of Queen Elizabeth II, who drove ambulances as a young woman during WWII. She can cure lions with the flu and sunburned mermaids. Sir Gadabout is a bit of a tool, but he can help a unicorn with an extra horn. The fastidious knight and the clumsy but kind-hearted dragon often clash, but they will have to work together when Princess Pearl’s uncle, the King, locks her in the palace and forces her to do Princessy things.

All of the Magic Light-BBC adaptations of Donaldson’s children’s books are charming, incorporating nice furry animals and big-name celebrity voices (the most notable in this case are narrator Sir Lenny Henry and Rob “The Trip” Brydon as the King). Princess Pearl is even more the kind of animated role model parents can get behind this time around, while Zog is still just a big sweet, likable lug.