Saturday, September 18, 2021

Blackstar: "The Mermaid of the Serpent Sea."

In "The Mermaid of the Serpent Sea," the Trobbits gather together a shipment of "power fruits" and "knowledge nuts" for the Mermanites of the Red Crown Reef.  

They sail to the reef, but find that the gentle water dwellers have been attacked by a phantom ship and minion of the Overlord called Captain Typhod.

Typhod wants the shipment of fruits and nuts for himself and his master, and transforms the Mermanites into savage sea serpents. 

Fortunately, Blackstar, Klone and Mara come to the rescue...

In this episode of Filmation's Blackstar (1981), audiences meet Typhod, another colorful minion of The Overlord. He's a nasty sea captain or pirate with a powerful ship at his command. The phantom ship can cloak during battle, and also fire teleporting beams at prey.  In other words, the ship's mast-had (shaped like a dragon), opens its mouth, and a beam comes out that captures victims, like the Mermanites.

Blackstar goes up against that beam in "The Mermaid of the Serpent Sea," and I don't know if I've mentioned it before in these reviews, but his star-sword makes a bionic sound effect when in use. 

Specifically, Blackstar re-uses the familiar sound effect from The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-1978).

"The Mermaid of the Serpent Sea" also begins to explain why the Overlord places such a premium on controlling the Trobbits and their tree.  Their tree produces "power fruit" -- which enhances physical strength and power, and the humorously named "knowledge nuts," which augment intelligence.  So the tree is not just a home to the Trobbits, it is a source of power and energy.

This is an enjoyable episode of Blackstar; one which develops the world and inhabitants sufficiently. For example, there is a nice flashback in the episode showing the crew of the golden galley defeating Captain Typhod in the past, and defending the Mermanites. 

About the only negative quality I can tag about this episode involves Klone.  He has a prominent role, but the writers do nothing to develop his character.  Is this shapeshifter a one-of-a-kind like Deep Space Nine's Odo?  

From a race that lives on Sagar?  

Why is he allied with Blackstar and Mara?  

The character, while useful for his changeling abilities, has no depth at this point. We know nothing of his people, his personality, or even his governing philosophy (like Vulcans and logic, for example).  

Monday, September 13, 2021

Guest Post: Respect (2021)


By Jonas Schwartz


There's a tantalizing movie inside the brick wall that is Respect, the new biography of Aretha Franklin. But due to poor direction, poor writing, and incoherent editing, it's impossible to penetrate it. Jennifer Hudson is volcanic singing the role, but it is impossible to track the character presented because of narrative issues, so the audience loses interest in the story of this musical genius. 


Respect follows Aretha from her childhood, as the daughter of a controlling Baptist minister (Forrest Whitaker) and an estranged mother (Audra McDonald). Aretha suffers both the wrath of her father and the sexual abuse of a congregant (who fathers two of her children according to Wikipedia, but that fact was cloudy in the film itself) and jumps at the chance to escape her repressive family home with a man (Marlon Wayans) just as manipulative as her father. At first, Aretha flounders as she can’t find her distinctive style, but the musical phenom discovers her voice and creates a catalog of monster hits like “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”, “Think”, and “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman.'

The script by Tracey Scott Wilson (story by Callie Khouri, Oscar winner for Thelma and Louise), follows every bio cliché, without adding any dazzle to keep audiences invested, but also clutters the story so that it’s unclear of the facts that led the young girl to sprout into the iconic diva. The film skips around ferociously. One moment, a predatory family friend is locking himself in the bedroom with adolescent Aretha (Skye Dakota Turner), and then she has children. There’s no conversations about a 12-year-old being raped and having a child at that age. She just all the sudden has children running around the house. Later, Aretha scores a huge comeback with “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” but the audience never sees anything from the moment she revamps the song in her unique style with her sisters (back-up singers) forming her version of the already popular Otis Redding song to performing at Madison Square Garden. How does she feel when the song comes out, when her years of being ignored have ended?  I’m not sure. I’ll have to look it up on Wikipedia because the script doesn’t care. 


There are a few scenes the script gets perfectly. First, an argument in a dressing room with family friend Dinah Washington (Mary J Blige) that sets Aretha on her course of finding her groove. Second, the moments that demonstrate the creative process are effective. The scenes at the Alabama studio where — under the eye of her producer, Jerry Wexler (Mark Maron), the studio founder Rick Hall (Myk Watford), as well as her hot-headed husband — Aretha and the band of southern Caucasians turn a bland song into the hit “I’ll Never Love a Man (The Way That I Love You)” are riveting.  Also observing Franklin and her sisters restructure “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” into the blockbuster it became is exhilarating.  But those scenes are few and far between. 


Director Liesl Tommy, who comes mostly from Broadway and episodic television, is directing her first major motion picture and her direction on the film lacks the epic scope required for the subject matter of this caliber. The movie drags, mostly because every scene seems lifted from a TV-Movie biopic you’d find on Lifetime. There are no surprises in store for the audience OTHER than THAT VOICE.


It's no wonder Franklin personally picked Jennifer Hudson to play her. Hudson sells a song like she’s expelling a deadly toxin from her body before it eats her alive. Her intonation, her vocal heft, her kindness towards the lyrics, exemplify a master Diva. She can act a tune and make the audience feel every emotion flooding from her. Her acting in book scenes, though, is fair. She’s not a poor actress, but her caliber while singing far surpasses her depth when speaking for the character. Her Oscar® for Dreamgirls was mostly due to “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” and “I Am Changing” — NOT for her dialogue. And for those two songs, she deserved every ounce of the gold.


The rest of the cast give fine performances, particularly Whitaker, but the script gives them little on which to chew. Audra McDonald, a multi-Tony-winning dynamo (she could walk across the stage and still win a Tony), is wasted in the underwritten role of her mother. She shines in her moments interacting with young Turner, but the audience should get to spend more intimate moments with the two. 


Respect features an outstanding soundtrack, with Hudson owning all the songs that made Franklin a star. But the film itself makes little sense. It feels like the film canister accidentally mixed the reels and left two or three in the trash. Aretha Franklin deserves more RESPECT. And so does Jennifer Hudson. 

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Blackstar: "The Lord of Time"

In “The Lord of Time,” the third episode of Filmaton’s sci-fi/fantasy cartoon Blackstar (1981), a minion of the Overlord called a Time Lord -- where have I heard that title before? -- attacks the Trobbits.

In particular, the villain named Kadray uses his time scepter to revert the magnificent red tree to an acorn. Because the Trobbits “will be done for without the tree,” Blackstar attempts to prevent the Lord of Time from collecting the acorn.

Unfortunately, he fails on his first attempt, and the Lord of Time plans to drop the acorn into the fountain of fire: “a source of great evil” located in the Castle of the Devil Spirits.

“The Lord of Time” is a fun episode of this series that sees a minion of Overlord with an amazing power.  He can use his time scepter to send age or de-age any object.  He not only turns the Trobbit tree into a big red acorn, he evolves a Sagarian insect to turn into a giant, buzzing menace.  The episode is very creative in its use of the specter. 

For instance, the Time Lord discovers that the Fountain of Fire is guarded b peaceful sprites who won’t do his bidding.  Therefore, he reverts them to a prehistoric form, as savage, cruel warriors who will do his bidding.  Quite a weapon.

The other intriguing element of this episode is that it attempts to imbue John Blackstar with a bit more in terms of distinguishing personality.  He wise-cracks a lot in this episode, which is new. “It’s time for a rewind,” he jokes.  Or “my how time flies,” he observes. 

While these moments may sound goofy, in fact they go a bit towards making him a larger-than-life hero.  In the previous two episodes I noted that Blackstar, while a great fighter, doesn’t have much personality or drive.  In fact, Mara seems a far more important “rebel” in “City of the Ancient Ones,” and “Search for the starsword.”  Through his bad punning here, Blackstar begins to take on some color, at least

Saturday, September 04, 2021

Blackstar: "The Search for the Starsword"

In “Search for the Starsword,” a volcanic eruption rocks Sagar, and monstrous Lavalocks -- fierce minions of the Overlord – emerge to steal the Star Sword, interrupting a picnic between Mara, Klone, Blackstar and the Trobbits in the process.

The Lavalocks attack the Trobbits and get the sword, but Blackstar isn’t out of the game yet.

We learn a bit more about the characters and world of Blackstar (1981) in this second episode of the series.  

For instance, John Blackstar is categorized as a “rebel who stands against the Overlord,” suggesting that the Overlord represents established authority.  The Overlord is not merely a factional leader of outcast from society (as Skeletor might be described on He-Man.) Rather, he is the Establishment; the real power on Sagar. 

Another scene also suggests this fact. We briefly see the Overlord in a room surrounded by a menagerie of creepy life-forms or aliens. These are his retainers, one might conclude, and he is holding court.

We also learn that the Overlord’s over-arching quest seems to be to unite the two pieces of the Star Sword – Power and Star.  If he does so, we must assume he would become incredibly powerful.

We see, as well, in “Search for the Star Sword” that one of Mara’s many powers involves “the power of prophecy,” to see what is bound to happen. She is very reminiscent of Ariel on Thundarr: The Bararian (1980 – 1982).

This episode also finds a lot of action for the Trobbits, and the little red-skinned, white haired denizens of the planet. It is intriguing to realize that The Smurfs (1981-1989) were introduced on Saturday morning the same year as were these little tree hobbits, but that the Smurfs took off in the pop culture.  Blue gnomes won out over red ones!

Friday, September 03, 2021

Guest Post: The Suicide Squad (2021)

The Suicide Squad…Take Two


By Jonas Schwartz


The third in The Suicide Squad saga (after the ’16 Suicide Squad and ’20s Birds Of Prey) acts more like a reboot than a sequel. Most of the original cast is either gone or make a quick cameo, and in their place are a slew of top stars (Idris Elba, John Cena, Sylvester Stallone) to accompany three leads from the first film: Joel Kinnaman as the team leader, Viola Davis as the callow Intelligence officer, and the main course, Margot Robbie as the delusional, psychotic anti-hero, Harley Quinn. Snatching a Marvel director, James Gunn (Guardians Of The Galaxy 1 and 2), the latest Suicide Squad has a more humorous vibe than the other DC films of this millennium, but still feels shallow when compared to their competitors.


A squad of hardened criminals including Quinn, Rick Flag (Kinnaman), and a coupling of characters from the first film (Jai Courtney as Boomerang), and fresh convicts (Michael Rooker, Pete Davidson, Nathan Fillion) land on a South American Island to tackle a new, vicious regime. While the team learns why they are named “The Suicide Squad,” another team sneaks in at another location to continue the mission. They include Bloodsport (Elba), Peacemaker (Cena), the walking, talking shark, King Shark (voiced by Stallone). The survivors of the first landing team up with their counterparts to stop the new illegal government from exploiting “Project Starfish,” a deadly, mind-controlling entity steered by “Thinker” (Peter Capaldi), an egghead with electric nodes sticking out of his noggin. The team discovers that the entity is more than an experiment, it’s a living organism bent on world domination (is there any other kind?)


The Suicide Squad tries too hard to be shocking, irreverent, or original. Though extremely gory, with humans blown apart, pulled to pieces, and exploded, none of the deaths are creative enough to distinguish it from any other action film these days.  The camaraderie between the team feels thin, and many of the shots (heroes walk in slow motion several times – Thanks Tarantino for starting that cliché) have a ordinariness to them.


When Robbie is on the screen, it detonates. Though her character is wavering on the outskirts of reality, the actress invests layers of quirks and humor onto the certifiable, expert assassin.  Gunn animates the lunacy in her head, as flowers instead of blood flows from her victims. One solo take-down of enemies is a witty ballet of stunts, fake-outs, and female empowerment. 


The other leads are fine and have moments, particularly powerhouse actor Davis unleashing rage upon her subordinates and Cena revealing his true motivations. Unfortunately, the villains aren’t interesting. Capaldi’s Thinker turns out to be an ineffectual blowhard. Joaquín Cosio plays your standard, third-world country dictator stereotype. John Diego Botto, a very talented actor, has titillating chemistry with Robbie, but his scenes are too few.


Too much monotony and not enough Robbie is The Suicide Squad’s biggest issue.  One of our biggest talents, Robbie lifts the entire film on her shoulders and sprints around the rest of the cast.  Had the film focused purely on her or found a way to transmit her energy to the rest of the film, the many scenes without her may not have dragged down the film. 

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