Thursday, March 31, 2011

Briefly: Russell Banks, Affliction (1989)

Banks, Russell. Affliction. NY: Harper & Row, 1989

In Russell Banks's Affliction, small town New Hampshire police officer and local well digger Wade Whitehouse is having a crummy week. A crummy week following a crummy life. Overall a powerful novel, with some great characters, dialogue and absolutely fine writing.

Then why did it take me three weeks to finish this novel?

Told through the point of view of Wade's youngest brother Rolfe, who has pieced the events together in so horribly an obsessive manner that he can imagine what Wade was eating, thinking and feeling throughout these tragic events. Rolfe's obsession came about as a result of wanting to understand the horrible tragedy that Wade's life had become, and to come to terms with those final hours leading to horrible acts of violence. An ingenuous method and wholly believable, yet what slows down the narrative is the vast amount of detail, often repetitive, that I felt were not only needless, but intrusive.

Reading through these details I found myself skimming, my thoughts drifting off, wondering why the narrator is so desperate to pound certain points across, as well as certain minor details. The more he pounded, the less I was inclined to buy into his theories, as though we were kids in the schoolyard and he wanted so badly for me to believe his incredibly tall tale that to help convince me he was being insistent, nodding his head aggressively and staring at me as though daring me to disbelieve. Yet because I trusted him at the beginning, this insistence was simply annoying, and I wanted to tell him to just get on with bloody story already. How exhausting, to the point that I was longing for the schoolyard bell to ring and quiet the little bugger.

And yet it is a powerful novel with some great moments. In all honesty, my rant was exaggerated for effect; annoyed is a strong word and I will certainly hunt me down some more writing by Mr. Banks.

I might even check out the movie.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Tales from the Darkside Season Two: Episodes 9 to 16

[Edited on 27 July 2011: added new screen shots.]

For the review of episodes 1 through 8, please visit here.
For the review of episodes 17 through 24, please visit here.
Season One begins here.

During the second third of season two, I discovered that I enjoy the more unusual, surreal and harder to define episodes. I've noticed that many viewers complain that there wasn't enough horror in the series, which is certainly true for something coming to us from the "darkside" (not to mention coming to us partly from George A. Romero), but some of the more unusual fantasies play out nicely, better than the straightforward horror. The comedic episodes are where the real horror lies, as these are usually prime examples of horrible television.

"The Trouble with Mary Jane." (S2E9) First aired 25 November 1985. Directed by T.J. Castronova. Written by Edithe Swensen. Starring Phyllis Diller, Lawrence Tiernay and Anita Dangler. 5/10

Nora and Jack Mills run a "Tea Shop" through which they swindle their customers with false tarot and crystal ball readings. They are recruited by a wealthy woman to perform an exorcism on her granddaughter. The episode consists of the couple's, though mostly Jack's, attempts at sending the possessing demon back to hell. Another weak attempt at humour, with obvious, exaggerated comedy, including a fair amount of slapstick and poor performances by the adults (I've have always found Phyllis Diller annoying, who was appropriately cast as the annoying lead in the poorly written and lamely executed Night Gallery episode "Pamela's Voice"). The unknown Tanya Fenmore as the granddaughter is of fun to watch, and her exaggerated Exorcist-inspired performance almost helps to save an otherwise bland episode.

"Ursa Minor." (S2E10) First aired 1 December 1985. Directed by Theodore Gershuny, teleplay by Gershuny from a story by John Sladek. With Marilyn Jones, Timothy Carhart, Malachy McCourt and Teddy the bear. 7/10

"I'm thirty-one years old, and I don't have the faintest idea what's real."

For her birthday Susie receives a little stuffed teddy bear from daddy. Strange thing is, daddy doesn't remember having picked it up. Well, since daddy is such a hopeless alcoholic, perhaps that's not so strange after all. Soon little accidents begin to happen around the house, like the vase of flowers getting knocked over and paw prints appearing on the wall. It wasn't Susie's doing of course, and without hesitation she names the culprit: "Teddy did it!" Now mommy isn't too happy with Susie not taking responsibility for her actions, and daddy is too drunk too care but keeps putting an end to mommy's temper tantrum, passive as he is. Well, mommy soon begins to suspect that Susie's imagination isn't as over-developed as she had thought, something the audience figured out long ago even though we've just met the little tyke. (Well, I suppose the opening Darkside titles were enough to tip us off.) Mommy is especially troubled when Teddy's eyes suddenly grow a bright red, and while she's stunned by terror, the poor viewer is stunned by the fact that effects crew couldn't come up with a better effect. Suddenly we cut from glowing ruby eyes to mommy tossing & turning in bed, so we're not too sure if those evil-looking eyes were real or part of a dream.

A clever episode that plays well with the generic demon doll storyline, but the ending really tosses the generic aspects aside by being both original and excellent. The finale highlights a number of family and responsibility themes that echo throughout the story. The more than dysfunctional mom & dad relationship is a great touch.

"Effect and Cause." (S2E11) First aired 8 December 1985. Directed by Mark Jean from an original script by Darkside regular Michael Kube-McDowell. Starring Susan Strasberg, Ben Marley, Judith-Marie Bergan and a bunch of objects... or not. 7/10

Free-spirit Kate Collins lives in her run-down home and insists on doing what she wants, rather than get a "real" job. One afternoon, friend David is visiting when the doorbell rings; two paramedics are at the door wondering where the victim is. David is baffled, so the paramedics, in their superior wisdom, clarify: the woman who fell down the stairs. A moment later, Kate falls down the stairs. Cool beginning, but it gets better.

Stuck at home with a broken leg, things begin to disappear, people appear at the door when unexpectedly needed, while other objects simply metamorphose right in front of Kate's eyes. She is fascinated, and while sister Janet, a devout skeptic, refuses to believe her, David is encouraging the neatness of these events. Yet while Kate does think they're neat, the sudden shifting of reality, she soon learns, can also be dangerous.

Whether different realities have crossed or the house itself is somehow out to get her, the reason objects disappear or change is not terribly clear. Yet it doesn't really matter. This neat episode (the best of the season so far) hearkens back to some of the better Twilight Zone episodes, such as "And When the Sky Was Opened" and "Mirror Image," though the disappearing objects in these little plays were usually human. Susan Strasberg does a great job as the free spirit, and while the script does at times fall into silliness territory, the storyline doesn't let up and makes for a good show. It helps too that the ending is quite strong, even a little disturbing.

"Monsters in My Room." (S2E12) First aired 22 December 1985. Directed by James Steven Sadwith from his original script. Starring Seth Green, Beth McDonald and Greg Mullavey. 5/10

Wimpy little Timmy likes animals, real and stuffed, playing piano and being sung lullabies at bed-time. Stepdad Biff thinks the kid needs some manliness in his bones so tosses footballs at him, makes him drink beer and is all around unpleasant company. Biff doesn't even understand how Timmy could be afraid of monsters in his room, yet these creatures seem a little too real.

A good concept is badly executed. It appears the show was intended to be a light, tongue-in-cheek affair (it is the Christmas episode after all), with a cute kid and an a-hole who gets what he deserves. I suspect the monsters were supposed to be ambiguous, the audience wondering if it was all in his head or not until the final reveal, and yet it fails because it is too predictable. We've seen enough of these good kid/bad guy scenarios to know that, especially around the holiday season, good conquers its fears while bad is simply conquered. There are some amusing bits, some nice exaggeration, though I would've liked more over-the-top bedroom moments. And while the battle between Timmy and Biff rages, poor innocent mom is left at the end to suffer.

"Comet Watch." (S2E13) First aired 12 January 1986. Directed by Warner Shook and written by Jule Selbo and Harvey Jacobs, from a short story by Jacobs. Starring Fritz Weaver, Anthony Heald, Kate McGregor-Stewart and Sarah Rush. 4/10

Another tale of the wimpy husband whose wife doesn't understand him and would rather he be a wealthier and more successful businessman or banker. In this one, the Omega male is amateur astronomer Englebert Ames who is about to gaze through his telescope to watch Halley's Comet as she is about to make her closest pass of the Earth. Well, in barges his less than lovely wife, eating cheap chocolate while her head is in curlers. (This archetypal image alone can alert the average American as to who is whom and how the episode will eventually end. Just recall last season's "The Word Processor of the Gods.") Wife tells hubby to get dressed since daddy has invited them to dinner, and poor mousy Englebert is stricken anxious as the once in seventy-five year event is coming to pass. Well, gazing through the scope he sees a pretty girl who is evidently standing beside a smoke machine. She tumbles into the room through the telescope and we soon learn she has been riding the comet with none other than Sir Edmund Halley himself since September 1910, her wedding day. Halley (Fritz Weaver, whose appearance in the season one episode "Inside the Closet" is far more memorable) has been chasing the lovely bride-to-be for three quarters of a century, and while he's quite frisky she's a little worn out. Well, the characters do get paired off and it's all supposed to be funny and heartwarming but is instead irritating.

"Dream Girl." (S2E14) First aired 19 January 1986. Directed by Timna Ranon, written by Ranon from a short story by Barbara Paul. Starring Carolyn Seymour, John Cedar, Lou Cutell, Shannon Kriska and Dawson Mays. 6/10

In this truly odd episode, New York Chamber Theatre director Andrea Caldwell (Carolyn Seymour, who also performed the female demon voice in Episode 9: "The Trouble with Mary Jane") has lost patience in her search for the play's author, the latest of a string of theatrical disappearances. An actress and an electrician have also gone missing. Soon Andrea finds herself in a surreal fantasy, being controlled by the theatre's janitor Otto Schrog (Lou Cutell) in the most obvious of macho roles. Here she stumbles upon actress Didi (Shannon Kriska) and electrician Joe D'Amico (Dawson Mays), discovering that all four of them are caught in Otto's strange fantasy.

This episode is surreal and unusual, yet while the humour often misses its mark I found myself enjoying the quirky little tale better than most straightforward episodes. Partly it is the quirkiness that I find appealing, the unusual story as well as the almost childish directing attempts to create a dreamlike atmosphere. And the costumes were pretty neat, from Andrea's cute Alps waitress uniform to D'Amico's hilarious shirtless farmer overalls. What I find most appealing, however, is the notion that it is the director who is unable to control the action; she can criticize the quality of the fantasy, the unoriginal scenarios and ridiculous dialogue, but as much as she tries to control the scene she can't. Of course we can relate this to life events, draw up a thesis on the notion of free will and the individual's inability to stage his own life. Moreover, we learn that Otto is a hopeless, sadly unsuccessful dreamer who once yearned for the romance of work at sea. We cannot control our destiny just as we cannot control those around us, and Andrea learns at the end that in her attempt to take control of Otto, not only to seek escape but to stake vengeance, she becomes a mere player in another's fantasy. As silly as the episode may be, it works on more levels than most other season two Darkside offerings.

"A New Lease on Life." (S2E15) First aired 26 January 1986. Directed by John Strysik; written by Michael McDowell and Harvey Jacobs from a story by Adam K. Jacobs. Starring Marie Windsor, Robert Rothman, Ben Frank, Robert Sutton and Patricia Pelham. 7/10

A young professional moves into the St. George, a nifty downtown building for a whopping $200 per month; a price, he says, that wouldn't even fetch a parking spot. The catch becomes all too obvious to the viewer early on, intentionally so, yet makes for good fun as we watch young Archie Fenton (Robert Rothman, blues singer Chicago Babe) exist in complete obliviousness to the fact that the building is alive. Building caretaker Madame Angler (veteran Marie Windsor in a great performance) is a treat to watch, as are handymen Al and Mac (Ben Frank and Robert Sutton), who are somewhat reminiscent of arrogant repairmen Spoor and Dowser of Terry Gilliam's brilliant 1985 film Brazil. Pale neighbour Helen Tanner (Patricia Pelham, or Lady Patricia Pelham-Clinton-Hope, then wife of actor Nick Mancuso) is also a nice addition, making for a fine set of well-rounded characters. It is the people who are truly creepy here and not the building itself, yet this too appears intentional and is a wise decision since emphasis on the building and the inherent silliness of it being organic has the potential of leaning to the unintentionally comedic.

"Printer's Devil." (S2E16) First aired 26 January 1986. Directed and written by John Harrison, from a short story by the prolific Ron Goulart. 4/10

There is little else to comment other than the fact that John Harrison, the dude behind the episode "The Satanic Piano," has brought us another bad episode. Author wannabe Junior P. Harmon (Larry Manetti, most recognizable as Orville Wright in Magnum P.I.) responds to a radio ad and meets successful literary agent Alex Kellaway (an amusing Charles Knapp) who happens to use all forms of magic to promote his authors. Moreover, he expects his writers to perform spells as well, and insists that Harmon would most benefit from animal sacrifices. Occasionally amusing, the episode is mostly dull and utterly predictable. It doesn't help that Kate Charleson as editor and love interest Brenda Hardcastle is miscast.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Planet of the Apes: The Series (1974) Part II

For an overview and a review of the first seven episodes, please click here.
For some great series posters (I've borrowed one below) and other great memorabilia, please visit Hunter's Planet of the Apes Archive.

And so we come to the end. Not just of the season but of the show. As the opening credits of the final episode began and the percussions sounded, I was admittedly saddened; the series grew on me more than I had expected. It's too bad the networks didn't allow for POTA to at least play out the entire season, thereby giving it a chance to garner additional viewers, and at least leaving us with a few more episodes. There is no finale here, no opportunity to let viewers know of the eventual fate of our heroes. The show simply ends, as though the peephole we've been glimpsing through at these events has been boarded up, and while the three fugitives continue on the other side to live on the run, we no longer have any access to them. I truly hope they managed all right.

"The Deception." (Episode 8: First aired 1 November 1974) Directed by Don McDougall (his third and last for the show), and written by Anthony Lawrence.

Human (or ape) nature doesn't change over the centuries. Our heroes stumble upon blind female ape Fauna (Jane Actman) who lives isolated with her uncle. Since she is blind, the humans do not need to hide in Fauna's presence, only to avoid her touch. As a consequence of this deceit, Fauna quickly falls in love with Burke, claiming his voice is similar to that of a former lover. Burke is the second of our heroes to have a female lusting after him (Galen met a lustful female chimpanzee back in "The Good Seeds," and don't worry, there is plenty more female lust to come).

Fauna's human-loving father was a victim of the dragoons, a secret society of apes that perform violent acts against local humans while wearing cloth masks. To help out the innocent members of the local community, Galen infiltrates the organization by becoming a dragoon recruit. There is nothing subtle or surprising about the episode but it is nonetheless well done. Science fiction set in the future often deals with our mistakes of the past (and visiting the past is a common science fiction trick, popularized for television by Star Trek; POTA is uniquely pre-steampunk in that it is set simultaneously in the future and the past--the future of Earth existing in a primitive setting). I wonder how much pressure (if any) producers or writers faced in having to deal with topical issues, or scenarios dealing with recent American history.

The title of this episode alludes to a variety of deceits, from the deceiving of an innocent and sensitive blind ape by our fugitives, to her uncle's deceiving her about his role in dragoon violence and the part he himself played in her father's death. 7/10

"The Horse Race." (Episode 9: First aired 8 November 1974) Directed by Jack Starrett, and written by Booker Bradshaw and David P. Lewis.

Most shows had one of these: an episode consisting of a race with great stakes to be had or to be lost. In this one, Virdon must race against Urko's best horse in order to save the life of a rebelling human farm boy. Urko's team of soldiers do not play fair, setting traps and planning, at the finish line, to kill the opposing jockey. The theme is a little tired and the episode itself is standard fare. Moreover, favourite character Galen has little to do with this, except to get stung by a poisonous scorpion that sets off the chain of events. 5/10

"The Interrogation." (Episode 10: First aired 15 November 1974) Directed by Alf Kjellin, and written by Richard Collins. Guest starring Beverly Garland, Anne Seymour

Director Alf Kjellin is a veteran of television, with work dating back to 1950s Swedish cinema, and a repertoire that includes an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and eleven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Hour; in the 1980s he fared quite poorly, having to work on Dynasty. Either way, the effort put into this hour of television is quite commendable.

In a quick, exciting opening sequence, Burke is captured by gorilla soldiers. In Central City, it is evident to General Urko that Burke's capture will lead the other fugitives to him, so troops are set up at every possible entry point. And while Urko wants to have Burke lobotomized, Zaius instead hands him over to the young chimpanzee scientist Wanda for experimentation. There is a wonderful scene between these three, the orangutan, the gorilla and the female chimpanzee, where Urko's frustration at the others' need to experiment and his understanding of brainwashing is simply hilarious. Mark Lenard, best known for his various Star Trek roles including Spock's father Sarek, is particularly effective here as Urko; while we are faced with his most irrational and threatening side, he manages nonetheless to be amusing to the point of likable. Television icon Beverly Garland does a great Wanda (she has had regular appearances in many TV shows, including the role of Maggie in the The Twilight Zone episode "The Four of Us Are Dying").

As for the washing of the brain, Wanda wishes to use the methods she discovered in a book found in a time capsule from the distant and primitive past of 1986. Oddly, though, the book looks like something printed in the 1940s. What is odder still is that though Wanda wishes to brainwash Burke, to "replace his ideas with other ideas" (paraphrase), what she essentially does is interrogate and torture, asking him over and over which humans have helped him and his fellow refugees. She employs disorientation, sleep deprivation, starvation, and so forth, and I'm really not sure where the replacing of ideas comes into play. I'll blame the confusion on the tattered book having been produced in 1986; that was truly one dated and confused society (I wonder what else was locked into the time capsule, a recording of "Walk Like an Egyptian" and VHS copies of Platoon and Top Gun. The horror.)

Other wonderful moments in this episode include Galen impersonating a woman, and the interactions between Galen and his parents. Yes, we meet his chimpanzee folks, his liberal, loving and rational mother, and his hard-headed father. Anne Seymour makes a wonderful mother to sensitive Galen, while Norman Burton is her fine antithesis as father Yalu. Really, apes are so like humans in nearly every way; why can't we just get along? (Incidentally, Burton was also in the original Planet of the Apes film, playing the gorilla hunt leader.)

And all this excitement is capped off by a great hospital fight sequence. 7/10

"The Tyrant." (Episode 11: First aired 22 November 1974) Directed by Ralph Senensky, and written by Walter Black.

Urko is once again a good ape. Not that he has warmed to our heroes, but simply because he is decidedly at odds with bad ape Aboro, the "Tyrant" of this week's title. In a farming region Aboro, an old academy buddy of Urko's, has bribed his way to the role of prefect. While Aboro is quite amoral, willing to use murder for profit, he says of the ape general: "Urko never approved of corruption." This treats us to a unique view of our heroes' prime enemy, essentially portraying him as an upright lawman bent on chasing our friends from a sense of duty rather than personal vengeance. This portrayal, however, completely contradicts previous Urkos we've seen, especially the overly corrupt one of "The Horse Race." But consistency has never been a staple of television, and given that last week we settled for dumb Urko to great laughs, this week we'll happily accept upstanding Urko.

Yet there is another glaring error in the episode, though this one is self contained and not a result of the series as a whole. Our heroes play Robin Hood by inciting humans to steal back some grain, a revolt which leads to the death of a human. (A responsibility our leads do not appear to be guilted by, or even fully aware of.) This cold-blooded killing and the previous attitudes of our heroes inspires a human youth to want to rebel against the apes. Yet now our wise humans, who that same morning roused the same man to rebel, getting another man killed, wisely tell the revolutionary wannabe that it might be best to go through proper channels and meet with the district prefect. Why had they not made this wise, unrebelious suggestion before getting an innocent man killed?

Roddy McDowall once again steals the show with Galen's impersonation of Zaius's assistant Octavio, and the strongest scenes in the episode are those between Octavio and Aboro. The corrupt Aboro is well played by unknown Percy Rodrigues, who lends a fine voice to the role. 7/10

"The Cure." (Episode 12: First aired 29 November 1974) Directed by Bernard McEveety, and written by Edward J. Lakso.

Finally, Virdon can also boast about having a woman lusting after him, this one even more lustily determined than the females desiring Galen ("The Good Seeds") and Burke ("The Deception). Moreover, this time the lust is all human.

We have seen our multi-talented ass-tro-nauts play the role of gladiators, farmers, veterinarians, fishermen, electricians, and jockeys, and in "The Cure" they reveal their talents as both doctors and apothecaries. Our heroes have just left the haven of a small community, forced to return when they learn (conveniently) that a sickness has struck the human population. Being good doctors, they quickly assess the symptoms of malaria, and, as masterful apothecaries they search for the tree whose bark can be ground into a cure. They must, however, match wits with the chimpanzee physician who, it quickly becomes apparent, knows little of ailments, as well as General Urko, who becomes livid when his own men become infected. (Multi-talented, certainly, but just imagine all they could have accomplished had they had access to Wikipedia.)

An average episode with some ups and downs. The ease with which our pilots can treat this illness borders on comical, though I suppose it's necessary for the show to focus on the tensions between Urko and, well, pretty much everyone else. A smart move was to begin with the men leaving the community, the woman Amy (Sondra Locke, successful actress and long-time partner of Mr. Clint Eastwood) already in love with Virdon, rather than to tire us and embarrass the actors by showing the awkward process. 6/10

"The Liberator." (Episode 13: never aired) Directed by Arnold Laven, written by Howard Dimsdale. Guest starring John Ireland.

"If chimpanzees were ever afraid, and if humans were what they were afraid of, I can tell you that is a man to fear." So says Galen of village leader Brun, a man who prays to the gods and, as witnessed by our chimpanzee friend, the gods listen.

In this world laws are as diverse and numerous as the villages. Twice a summer apes arrive at this episode's village to gather five human slaves and drag them to the mines, each of whom, we later learn, dies within a few months. Village members hunt the "meadow people," those who live out in the open to give to the apes in place of their own. Stumbling upon a fleeing villager, Burke and Virdon are caught and held as future slaves for the apes. All of these laws are upheld by leader Brun, even where the happiness of his son is concerned, whose wife is also to be among the slaves.

(Major spoilers.) Whereas earlier our heroes have proven their talents in a variety of areas, here we add to their expertise the knowledge of chemistry. It turns out that the thing killing those who enter the temple is not a pagan god, but a poisonous gas, and Brun survives only because he wears a gas mask (it is this technological defense that is our future god). Moreover, Brun is stockpiling the poison so that he can later use it against the apes, annihilating them. A creepy episode that is essentially about genocide and germ warfare. Canadian-born John Ireland does well in playing Brun, being menacing, kind and naive all at once. Truly a very good episode, in part because both apes and humans are portrayed in their darker colours. 8/10

"Up Above the World So High." (Episode 14: First aired 6 December 1974) Directed by John Meredyth Lucas, written by Arthur Browne Jr. and S. Bar-David from a story by Bar-David (Shimon Wincelberg). Guest starring Joanna Barnes, Frank Aletter and Martin E. Brooks.

"Some humans are much more human than other humans. You! You are the most human." So says wise Galen, though we learn that even chimpanzees can be human, some even more human than humans.

In their final screen adventure, our friends try to help a hopelessly stubborn and ambitious man (the You! from the quote above) named Leuric (Frank Aletter) who has built a glider and wants nothing more than to be the first person to fly. By now we've learned that Burke and Virdon can do anything, so of course they realise immediately that Leuric's glider cannot the mystery of flight, and that they can, in no time at all, build something better. (In fact, the glider's so finely tuned with great steering and comfy first-class seating I'm surprised our heroes can't fly it straight back to the home of their past.) The real treat in this episode, incidentally, is watching an excited Galen perfect the flying machine.

Yet the real excitement sits in blue-eyed chimpanzee Casia, a scientist proven to be more human than hard-headed Leuric. Now, by "human" Galen (and I) mean those aspects that make us desire glory only for ourselves and limit our perspectives of the world as a whole. Casia is strong-willed and driven by a need to show the world that chimpanzees are superior to gorillas and orangutans, and is haunted by the reality that no chimpanzee sits on the high council. Galen is smitten with her, as she is with him, and the attraction, along with Galen's flirting, is great to watch. Moreover, Casia is well introduced in her meeting with gorilla officer Konag (Martin E. Brooks, who was Leander in the previous episode "The Surgeon") as she toys with him and gets everything she wants. As Casia, Joanna Barnes does a great job, both in delivery and in the way she positions those chimp hands.

Directed by the late, long-time TV writer and director John Meredyth Lucas, who has written and directed for Star Trek, and did a fine job with the Night Gallery segment "The Housekeeper" (see my review). Despite some sound trouble in some outdoor sequences, with voices nearly drowned out by strong gusts of wind, Lucas has put together a well structured episode. There is some great lighting and shadow play in the sinister moments in Carsia's quarters, and the flight attempt scene is nicely desperate and chaotic, though this is enhanced primarily by the editing.

A good episode for a series that truly should have run the course of the season. But I suppose network producers are more human than both humans and apes. 7/10

Monday, March 14, 2011

Tales from the Darkside Season Two: Episodes 1 to 8

[Edited for formatting & new screenshots, 3 July 2011]

Season One begins here
Season Two continues here

Many of the first season directors and writers have returned for a much weaker showing; you would think experience with season one would have taught those behind the camera to produce better fare. Compared to the opening season, this one features less originality, less diversity, less creativity, while providing us with some truly poor acting. The first third of the season is consistently average to below average, with a couple of embarrassing entries. While there are the occasional good make-up effects, from Tom Savini and others, there is little to recommend in this batch of stories. The season does improve, but fails to meet the quality of the show's inaugural year.

"The Impressionist." (S2E1) First aired 26 September 1985. Directed by Armand Mastroianni. Written by Haskell Barkin from a story by M. Coleman Easton. Starring Chuck McCann. 4/10

Comedy club performer Spiffy Remo is an impressionist, his impersonations so canny that he is taken away from his show by a mysterious, steel-eyed government agent. He has been unwillingly recruited for a super duper secret mission, so secret that I can't tell you what it is, only that it has to do with aliens and greatly alters the life of our hero, and thankfully for the rest of us, puts an end to his comedy act.

An odd season opener, this one, but not in a good way. I don't think "The Impressionist" attracted many new second season fans. The problem is the story-line isn't all that interesting. It was written by Haskell Barkin, and is Barkin's third and final Darkside, following the first season's "Pain Killer" (S1E3) and "All a Clone by the Telephone" (S1E11). I appreciate the attempt at trying something quirky, but this one just isn't all that interesting. Comedian and voice actor Chuck McCann is average, while the rest of the cast is embarrassing to watch.

"Lifebomb." (S2E2) First aired 6 October 1985. Directed by Frank De Palma. Adapted by Michael Kube-McDowell from his own story. Starring Bill Macy, Robert Riesel and Samantha Harper. 5/10

Successful CEO Ben Martin is approached by an insurance man offering him technology that will prolong his life. The "lifebomb" is attached to the back with various sensors that, when the host is in danger, transforms into a cocoon to protect and administer medicine until help arrives. The episode follows an interesting concept and tries to act thematically as a reminder of the briefness and value of human life. The twenty-something minutes, however, prove repetitive, with some weak acting so that despite its strong premise, it soon becomes less than pleasurable to watch, which again reminds us of the briefness of life.

"Ring Around the Redhead." (S2E3) First aired 13 October 1985. Directed by Theodore Gershuny. Adapted by Gershuny from a story by John D. MacDonald. Starring John Heard, Penelope Ann Miller, Caris Corfman and Greg Thornton. 6/10

A lonely inventor is about to be executed for the murder of a sleaze, and tells an attentive journalist what no jury would believe: that a gateway opened to another universe and it brought him love. Based on a short story by prolific mystery writer John D. MacDonald, it is written and directed in the style of film noir, but often resulting in film 1980s. There are elements of the tongue-in-cheek, with everyone involved aware of how dated and silly the storyline is, but knowing it can still be fun. The story is predictable yet nonetheless enjoyable. Characters are stock, and there are some things more unbelievable than a gateway to other worlds, such as a man being convicted on death row and going immediately to the electric chair rather than having to wait locked up over the course of a few years. Worse still is that awkward moment right at the beginning with a very self-conscious actor playing a security guard showing what I believe is supposed to be disdain or disgust in the face of our hero. And finally, no one would believe the nerdy John Heard would be able to kill anyone. Some of the acting is a little stilted, though this may have been intentional, though Penelope Miller does a good job in her first screen role.

"Parlour Floor Front." (S2E4) First aired 20 October 1985. Directed by Richard Friedman. Written by Carole Lucia Satrina. Starring Adolph Caesar, Rosetta LeNoire and a couple of non-actors. 4/10

"I'm sorry. It was a pretty cat."

You know this one will be about voodoo or island rituals since there is a black man in it. Ironically, Romero did well himself in casting a black man in a non-race specific role in Night of the Living Dead, and continued casting colour-blindly over the years, and while he had little to do with casting here... but I digress.

[Warning: mini rant.] It is unfortunate that most Darksides casting black actors did so consciously, as in "Parlour Floor Front" and "Baker's Dozen," (S3E9) and while "The Satanic Piano" (S2E6) could have been played just as readily by a white cast, there was a kind of 1980s Lionel Ritchie pop sensation thing going on there. The only Asian actor, James Hong, was cast as a Laundromat operator, and later a Hispanic woman is cast as the poverty-stricken victim in "Payment Overdue" (S4E10).

A white couple recently bought a house in which lives a black man in the parlour floor front, who has an unbreakable lease. Turns out he does magic, white woman is evil, the cat dies and oh my god the curse was real all along. The only good thing about this episode, actually, is Adolph Caesar, and it is too bad he wasn't cast in more roles, non-specific race roles or otherwise. As for the white couple... the worst example of acting I've seen in a long time, and I am not surprised that the male half (John Calonius) has only one other credit to his name on IMDb. The female half, Donna Bullock, is so superlatively mean that it's difficult to judge her acting; how anyone would marry her is indeed the most complex mystery in the episode. The directing is not much better: there is a scene where soft white man threatens to leave evil white woman, empties out a drawer, grabs a bag that is really a tiny cloth suitcase and tosses a handkerchief or sock or rag into it, appear satisfied that he's prepared for a long journey, and noiselessly slams the cloth briefcase shut. That'll show her!

"Halloween Candy." (S2E5) First aired 27 October 1985. Directed by Tom Savini. Written by Michael McDowell. Starring Roy Poole, Tim Choate and Savini's make-up. 6/10
Make-up artist Tom Savini has returned for another turn at directing a Darkside episode, after having done a fine job with season one's superior "Inside the Closet." (He will return for the fourth season with yet another strong showing.) This year's Halloween entry is about old curmudgeon Mr. Killup who refuses to give candy to kids on the all important night and pays the price. Savini's masks and make-up are great, but the episode is illogical and unintentionally sad. While Mr. K is supposed to be getting his comeuppance for being so curmudgeonly, I felt for the poor, aging man, who does little other than nap, watch television and eat. "What else is there to do?" he asks his son. What indeed. Hi wife is gone, he's had no career and little in the way of interests, aside from the little TV. The poor widower is eking out his days to the last, and if he wants to be curmudgeonly and left alone, the choice is his right and should not be punishable by death.

"The Satanic Piano." (S2E6) First aired 3 November 1985. Directed by John Harrison. Written by Harrison from a story by Carl Jacobi. Starring Michael Warren, Lisa Bonet, Phil Roth and Felice Orlandi. 2/10

"What the hell do you know about sexy?" Warren snaps at teenage daughter Bonet. The image of innocence both here and the early years of The Cosby Show, actress Lisa Bonet would prove to be more than sexy (and little else besides) only two years later with her infamous screen time spent with Mickey Roorke in Alan Parker's Angel Heart. Such are the connections we make through visual media.

And we are forced to seek some frame of reference in order to stave off boredom in this lacklustre episode. Popular musician Pete Bancroft is experiencing composer's block when he is mysteriously invited by a mysterious stranger to a mysterious address to receive a mysterious offer concerning a mysterious piano. It has something to do with sucking souls and the musician's "I love you daddy! I wrote this song for you!" daughter is sucked into the sucky situation of an episode that simply sucks.

We do learn the important lesson that over-produced synthetic 1980s music is the choice of sound for the devil, soul music, if you will. Bonet is quite awful and Warren is simply irritating (he was at the time near the end of his long stint on the popular Hill Street Blues), but really they are stranded in a story with a script beyond bad. The set-up, during which we learn about the musician's woes, takes nearly half the episode, while the rest is fleeting, predictable and unremarkable. The music itself is painful generic 80s Faltermeyer-like. I can blame only John Harrison for the entire fiasco, as he not only adapted the story and directed, but also composed the music. This was the third of eight episodes he directed and composed the music for.

"The Devil's Advocate." (S2E7) First aired 10 November 1985. Directed by Michael Gornick. Written by George A. Romero. Starring Jerry Stiller. 6/10

Luther Mandrake, midnight talk radio host of "The Devil's Advocate," is more devil than advocate as he not only rants and raves about the unfairness of life, but does his best to drag his listeners and callers down. As with first season episode "It All Comes Out in the Wash," it's a kind of monologue or one-man show carried by a single actor, with occasional interruptions (in this case, solely by voices). Jerry Stiller is well cast and able to practice the all-out rage he later perfected as Frank Costanza on Seinfeld. These kinds of episodes are difficult to produce as they must maintain a single idea over twenty or so minutes while keeping viewers interested by mounting suspense and delivering quality mono/dialogue, with enough movement on screen to keep the audience watching. There are some nice touches, such as host Mandrake watering his plant from the cooler, spilling thick soup onto the voice modulator of his flashing console, and a zombie-like engineer who eventually falls asleep on the job.

The ending is not surprising but surprisingly sad since we (at least I) did feel a pang of sympathy for Mandrake. Unfortunately there is too much exposition and the voice at the end is somewhat unoriginal and even silly.

"Distant Signals." (S2E8) First aired 17 November 1985. Directed by Bill Travis. Written by Theodore Gershuny from a story by Andrew Weiner. Starring Darren McGavin, Lenny Von Dohlen and David Margulies. 5/10

Mysterious Mr. Smith appears with bars of gold, insistent that production on a 1960s detective TV show be completed. The show, "Max Paradise," was cancelled mid-season, yet evidently has a following far away. A cheap, poorly written detective show about a man seeking his identity.

I always like to watch Darren McGavin, whether as the dad in the wonderful A Christmas Story, the lead in Kolchak: The Night Stalker, or in his many roles in anthologies such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Tales of Tomorrow, but even he can't save the drivel that is "Distant Signals." He is well cast, though, a hearkening back to his portrayal of Mike Hammer in the late 1950s. The episode is all-too-predictable, with Mr. Smith's identity evident as soon as we see him. The episode is a simple affair, with false tension created by McGavin's sudden inability to rehearse, easily remedied, and his out-of-nowhere expository revelation of why the show was completed is just silly. Moreover, Lenny von Dohlen is too self-conscious as Mr. Smith, appearing like a kid in his first high school stage role.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Planet of the Apes: The TV Series (1974)

For the remaining episodes, please visit Planet of the Apes: The TV Series (1974) Part II

Planet of the Apes aired a total of thirteen episodes in 1974 from 13 September to December 6th. A fourteenth episode, "The Liberator," was never aired but is included as episode thirteen on the DVD.

Rod Serling wrote up the first treatment of the series along with a pilot and follow-up episode, though he receives no official credit. Hi pilot is evidently radically different from the one produced, and I don't know if he had anything else to do with the series. The stories themselves take place in 3085, nine hundred years before the first movie, and are set in California rather than New York. Some ape characters seem to reappear, such as General Urko and Dr. Zaius, or maybe just their names are recycled. Perhaps in the original movie they are a thousand years old. Roddy McDowall also reappears but as a different, though similar, chimpanzee. Here is no longer Cornelius, but named Galen.

In the pilot Zais and Urko mention another set of astronauts they encountered ten years before, so it would appear that Taylor and his original crew landed a decade prior to the series opening. However, since the film is set nine centuries later, perhaps the apes are mentioning another set of human spacemen who are similar to Taylor and his crew. (Do recall that to apes all humans look alike.) Through the opening credits it is undoubtedly clear when these astronauts are from and when and where they eventually find themselves, so that the producers appear to be highly conscious of where in the Apes legend this series is set.

In actuality, the series is a reboot of the franchise, playing with its own set of rules. We learn early on (episode two, "The Gladiators") from an ape map that the story unfolds in California, rather than New York. The series was filmed in Malibu Creek Park, a year or two before the park opened up to the public. In most cases the scenery is very well utilized for the series and helps to make it a pleasure to watch.

Aside from the notion of rebooting ideas and recycling characters, there are some clear inconsistencies between movie franchise and television series. The series aired a year after the final film was released, so the entirety of the saga's history was established and there is no incongruity resulting in developing the series prior to ending the films. For one thing, humans here can speak, so while humans of the 1960s through the 1980s haven't evolved much (as seen from the different sets of astronauts--the ones from the series are from 1980), the humans of the TV series have learned good English, are generally cleaner, wear better (and more) clothing, and are distinctly weaker actors while managing to be less attractive. What sacrifices we humans must make in learning to communicate. The decision to allow humans to speak is a smart one as it allows for more diverse human characters, greater human interaction, and saves us from having to watch, week after week, our heroic astronauts trying to mime their way into human trust. Moreover, since the TV series plays out before the first film, it falls part-way between the fifth movie and the first (you'll recall that aside from the first sequel, the others were set historically before the first film). Humans have not yet lost the ability to speak, yet being enslaved we can assume that is part of their natural progression. In the series human speech is simplified, even primitive (though arguably that can be said of the overall quality of most television scripts).

Moving along... Dogs seem to have been resurrected for TV. In the films we learn that dogs and cats became extinct some time ago. Television has managed to bring them back to life (and remember, this is pre-CGI). Moreover, humans from the future are now known as "ass-tro-nots," and have left behind nifty little grenades that are awesome at opening doors. I prefer knobs and handles myself, but I am a bit of a neat freak and couldn't stand the mess these little bombs tend to make. In the movies the humans described themselves as explorers, or travellers, never as astronauts.

As for this human, I shall explore these amusing episodes individually.

A brief note on the characters. Roddy McDowall appears in costume once again, this time as Galen, an open-minded chimpanzee who is faced with too much evidence against everything he has been taught about humans that his faith in "truth" begins to wane. Ron Harper is "ass-tro-not" Alan Virdon, the veteran and more reasonable of the pair. Harper appears to have been doomed to star in shows of titanic proportions (Titanic in that, like the famed ship, they were unable to survive their maiden voyage). James Naughton is co-"ass-tro-naut" Pete Burke, who is younger, handsomer, and more of a risk taker. He appears to have had a somewhat better career as a character actor. Both are awkward at the beginning, but they become less painful to watch as the show progresses and soon begin to fit better into their roles. Of course this might just be my perception as I slowly become accustomed to these fellas, since, as is often the case, the episodes likely did not air in the order in which they were filmed.

"Escape from Tomorrow." First aired 13 September 1974. Directed by Don Weis and written by Art Wallace. Co-starring Royal Dano.

Directorial duties for the pilot went to veteran Don Weis, who had been directing for television since the early 1950s, including a number of episodes for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and the excellent The Twilight Zone entry with Lee Marvin, "Steel." There isn't much innovation here, and honestly it appears the actors are on stage as most scenes, including those taking place outdoors, are primarily shot from a single straight-facing camera at a distance of several feet, with all the players upstage in front of the camera. This does not do justice to the actors, as they are forced to act to the equipment rather than to each other, or risk having their backs to the lens. Scriptwise we fare better at the hands of veteran Art Wallace, the man behind the once popular fantasy soap Dark Shadows.

As with the movie entries, some contemporary astronauts (they took off from earth on 19 August 1980) crash-land on monkey planet and must survive in this ape-ruling society. They soon receive the help of charming and progressive chimpanzee Galen.

An enjoyable opener despite some embarrassing flaws. The pilots are on their way to Alpha Centauri, yet ride in a tiny ship strapped to their leather seats rather than in some form of hibernation. At one point the senior pilot muses over how he'll never see his wife and child again... yet if you take up a trip to Alpha Centauri, do you actually think you'll be able to return in time for your kid's next birthday? Is science so advanced in the distant future of 1980 that such a voyage can be undertaken over a long weekend? Moreover, it's about time someone builds a ship with proper landing gear.

Something I have learned from this episode is that monkeys are better actors than humans, but this should be as expected since their talents for mimicry have long been documented. McDowall is, as usual, great, while the human leads are flat in their stereotypical roles. They fail to be convincing even when sucking in their guts (we witness this practice in later episodes as well). The two other speaking human roles are played so awkwardly that it is a shame the species has by that time not yet become extinct. 7/10

"The Gladiators." First aired 20 September 1974. Directed by Don McDougall. Written by Art Wallace. Co-starring William Smith, John Hoyt and Marc Singer. The ape map first appears in this episode.

In this entry our heroes find themselves in a settlement where the prefect has created a peaceful community by giving the humans what they instinctively desire: bloodshed. This is done through the form of gladiators, though on a diminished scale. The warriors here fight less like Russell Crowe and more like William Shatner, and hero Pete, stuck in the ring, uses the same judo flip moves repeatedly, and why not since his opponent keeps setting himself up for the simple trick?

The acting is definitely an improvement over episode one. John Hoyt is great as Prefect Barlow and his scenes with Roddy McDowall are the most enjoyable in the episode. William Smith looks impressive as gladiator Tolar, and Marc Singer (best known as The Beastmaster and journalist Mike Donovan from the miniseries V) is surprisingly watchable as innocent passifist son of Tolar. Directed by über veteran TV director Don McDougall, and the second and final script by Wallace.

"The Trap." First aired 27 September 1974. Directed by Arnold Laven & written by Edward J. Lasko (his first of two). Co-starring a decimated San Francisco.

Chased into a crumbling, earthquake-ridden San Francisco Bay area suburb, Burke and General Urko fall through the street and get trapped in a well-preserved subway station. In order to keep up with the most clichéd of ideas, the two must learn to set their differences aside and work together in order to survive. Meanwhile, above ground, Virdon, Galen and some of Urko's troops must learn learn to settle differences aside in order to help save Burke and Urko.

While they settle their differences aside, we learn a good deal about the distant future of 1980 through some appropriately planted posters on the subway wall. First, there's the meal in a pill, so food is no longer necessary; you can simply take three pills throughout the course of the day. Sounds appetizing. We also learn that solar energy is so advanced that the underground lights are still working! They work so well, in fact, that the subway looks as bright as, well, a television studio set. Meanwhile humans still had zoos and caged apes, and continued offering them bananas. (I suppose the meal in a pill had not yet been upgraded for ape use.) The most exciting thing we learn, however, is that paper is so advanced that after more than a thousand years these posters barely have a crinkle in them. And the city looks so well preserved, barely a bit of rust on the steel bars and stairs.

And this brings me to the flaw of the episode: Burke knows about the meal pills, explaining the concept to Urko, yet the poster is advertising it as a new invention. Therefore, civilization was wiped out shortly after Burke and Virdon flew off in their ship. What is surprising is that Burke doesn't connect the dots. (Which is because the writers hadn't connected them either.)

An overall average episode, made watchable due to the neat city design and the incidental humour. 6/10

"The Good Seeds." First aired 27 September 1974. Directed by Don Weiss (his second of two) and scripted by Robert Lenski. Co-starring a windmill and some other gadgets. And a cow.

Our heroic trio stumble upon an ape farm. No, not a farm where apes are bred, but a small, dusty farm run by apes. An ape family, to be precise. With Pa Ape, Ma Ape, Eldest Son Ape, Daughter Ape, and finally, you guessed it, Youngest Son Ape. Galen is injured so our rough-on-the-outside soft-on-the-inside monkeys take them in while the chimpanzee heals. Of course, being human, Virdon and Burke must labour on the grounds. As they work they teach our apes proper farming, from irrigation to building proper fences. Yet there is some tension with Eldest Son Ape to keep this wholesome, educational episode on the brink of excitement. See, the custom is that the eldest boy can only start his own farm when the heifer gives birth to a bull, and boy oh boy does this eldest want his own farm. Humans are bad luck to cows (I wonder if this episode was ever aired in India) and the boy is considering giving these humans up to patrolling apes, afraid the calf will be female.

Toss in a cute little love sequence with Daughter Ape and Galen and this one really gets tossed over the top. Well, the love sequence is really just incidental, which is unfortunate. had the episode not spent such as lengthy time on the preamble, perhaps more minutes could have been devoted to this. Love and Galen, unfortunately, take a back seat this week.

One of the better series episodes, it was written by Robert Lenski, the man behind the adaptation of Stuart Woods's Chiefs, one of the best TV miniseries ever produced. 7/10

"The Legacy." First aired 11 October 1974. Directed by Bernard McEveety, written by Robert Hamner. Guest-starring as Virdon's surrogate family are a very young Jackie Earle Haley and an attractive Zine Bethune.

What a loony bit of fun. Though an incredible mess, so far this was among the more entertaining episodes. Our renegade trio stumble upon crumbling Oakland ruins, semi-populated by fearful and hungry humans. They discover a neat holographic machine that holds the secret of man's scientific knowledge, and while Galen frets and Burke tries to build a battery, Virdon is held captive with a lovely lady and a little brat.

When our trio first makes it to the top of a their current hill, they spot in the distance the remains of a city. Awed, Burke says "I'd forgotten what a city looked like," which is odd since they spent the majority of an episode two weeks ago in one. In fact, when they reach the ruined streets, the city is strangely similar to that same one they had left so long ago (I say "so long ago" since Burke has already forgotten about it). Of course, it is possible there was some attempt at continuity but the episodes were aired out of their intended sequence. Just speculating here.

But let us move on. We learned in "The Trap" that the earth faced Armageddon shortly after Burke and Virdon flew off toward Alpha Centauri, yet they discover a machine that was built by humans far more advanced than they; so advanced, in fact, that it looks like an over-sized piece of 1970s trash. The machine emits a hologram of an elderly, wise-looking man who says that in case of some international disaster humans have hidden the wealth of their scientific knowledge in different parts of the world, and that the one in this city is hidden underneath garble garble garble. Timely little machine has a sense of humour, giving out at the worst instant, implying that the wealth of human science is worth very little since something so advanced can break down at such a pivotal moment. So our space explorers decide to build a battery, because all pilot "ass-tro-nots" from 1980 are precursors of MacGyver.

We learn some interesting things in this episode about our future humans. For one thing, their hair and skins are so well taken care of that somewhere in the ruins of Oakland there must be a popular salon and spa. We also learn that the need for a family is integral to our social construct. However silly this episode is, and perhaps because it is so silly, it was utterly enjoyable. It is capped off with a deep deep line worthy of Captain Kirk, when they finally find the (massive) super computer storing man's scientific knowledge: "Could man ever have known so much and done so little with it?" 7/10

"Tomorrow's Tide." First aired 18 October 1974. Directed by Don McDougall & written by Robert W. Lenski (who also penned "The Good Seeds"). Co-starring Roscoe Lee Brown and a few sharks, both real and plastic.

In this rather weak installment, our heroes come across a man floating at the beach strapped to a piece of wood, and soon get enmeshed in a tale of fishermen and odd, primitive customs. Virdon and Burke spend much of the episode topless, pulling back their shoulders and sucking in their guts. The highlight of the episode is when the two men must battle with a shark, which must be so petrified of the men and their bulky manhoods that it freezes mid-swim, looking suspiciously and suddenly half its size and very much like a plastic toy someone nabbed from a kid's swimming pool. Roscoe Lee Brown, who I like quite a bit, does little, even with that distinctive voice, as an ape named Hurton. 5/10

"The Surgeon." First aired 25 October 1974. Directed by Arnold Laven & written by Barry Oringer. Co-starring Jacqueline Scott (who also appeared in "The Good Seeds").

Writer Barry Oringer has written a good deal of television throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and also developed two television series, including Hotel (which is akin to Love Boat on land). With his experience you would hope for a good Apes episode, and indeed he delivers, feeding us with the strongest entry in the show's first half.

When Virdon is shot Galen must appeal to successful chimpanzee surgeon Kira for help. To complicate the scenario, surgeon Kira happens to be a former lover. Not only must Galen dredge up suppressed emotions, but matters are complicated with the hospital's head (and Kira's current emotional interest) tossed into the mix, as well as Burke getting interested in a female human hospital worker, a young woman shunned and treated terribly by the other humans, including her own father.

When Virdon is shot, Galen says he can seek help from Kira who works just outside central city which is only a couple of miles away... wait a second, haven't they been running away from the city and toward the coast these last couple of months?

While the plot is waves above the standard Apes episode, what makes "The Surgeon" a fully realized play is Galen's central involvement. For the first time since the pilot episode Galen plays a pivotal role in the plot, and it is his charm and emotional investment in the story that draws the viewer in. McDowall is always a pleasure to watch, and his charm is fully evident even through (and perhaps enhanced by) the heavy chimpanzee make-up. His appeals to Kira, the hiding of the book on human anatomy, the impersonation of a famous doctor... all of these elements are wonderfully presented. Jacqueline Scott does fine work as Kira in her second guest appearance in Apes (she played Zantes in "The Good Seeds"--see above).

Furthermore, the show has some great humour, with Galen and Burke stealing Zaius's book on human anatomy and using the ape's bust to impersonate him. It is even possible that Virdon's bit part in the episode helps to heighten it, since of the three lead actors he is the least interesting to watch. Furthermore, the only bad guy (at least during the first half) is a human rather than an ape (until, of course, Urko's appearance). In all respects a fine piece of work. 8/10

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