Wednesday, July 25, 2018

My So-Called Life: "So-Called Angels"

Premiered December 22, 1994.

"What is this big thing about Christmas? Everyone talks about it like it's the Second Coming, or something." -Brian Krakow

(Regular readers may recall that last Christmas, we reviewed several Christmas episodes of shows that were cancelled after one season or less.  Life gets in the way of our blogging sometimes, so we're celebrating Christmas In July by finishing up our reviews of short-lived series that produced Christmas episodes)

It's Christmastime in snowy Three Rivers, PA.  The Chase family is talking about their upcoming Christmas celebrations.  Angela (Claire Danes) asks her parents Patty (Bess Armstrongand Graham (Tom Irwinwhy they hardly ever attend church.  

The next day at Liberty High School, Angela is shocked when she notices that her friend Rickie Vasquez (Wilson Cruz) has cuts and bruises on his face.  Rickie says it happened when he slipped on some ice.  When Angela expresses skepticism about Rickie's story, Rayanne (A.J. Langer) says he has a tendency to get beat up, but doesn't like to talk about it.  Meanwhile, the whole school seems filled with holiday spirit. 

Their classmate Sharon Cherski (Devon Odessa) plans to spend Christmas Eve answering phone calls on the teenage help line.  

She's very upset when Brian Krakow (Devon Gummersall) backs out of his commitment to work the help line.  Brian's more agitated than usual and says people always ask for his help because they presume he has nothing better to do.  

While confiding about her holiday stressors to Rayanne, Sharon realizes that Rayanne is a good listener and wheedles her into volunteering in Brian's place.   Rayanne says that she's got nothing better to do seeing as her mom is more interested in her "low-life, sex maniac boyfriend" than her.  She feels her mom won't even notice if she's not around for Christmas. 

We learn that Brian will also be alone over Christmas.  His parents left for a cruise and asked Angela's parents to look in on him.  While Brian initially looked forward to time alone, he's not so sure at this point.     

Rickie stops by Angela's house unexpectedly, fairly late at night.  Angela tells her mother that she doesn't think her friend has anywhere else to go and wants him to stay the night.  

Patty isn't sure about this and points out that they know nothing about Rickie's family or his living arrangements. When Rickie overhears this, he leaves the Chase's home.

Rickie later runs into Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto), who can tell Rickie's been beaten up and shares about similar experiences with his father.  Jordan offers to take Rickie someplace where he can stay - in this case, an abandoned warehouse full of homeless teens.

The next day at school, Angela runs into a mysterious girl (Juliana Hatfield) playing guitar and singing a song.  The girl recognizes Angela and tells her she is looking out for Rickie.  Angela notices that the girl's boots are worn out and full of holes.   

Jordan later tells Angela that he knows where Rickie is staying and offers to take her to him.  The warehouse is unlike anything Angela's ever seen.  It's very dark and full of kids who have no place else to go.  In addition to seeing Rickie, Angela also sees the girl she met.  She leaves her new boots for the girl before leaving the shelter.

Angela asks her mother if Rickie and the guitar girl can join them for Christmas Eve festivities.  Patty quickly vetoes the idea of bringing a stranger into their house.  They have a very heated argument about this and Angela runs away to the warehouse.  

Unbeknownst to Angela, her parents have (somewhat inadvertently) tipped off the police about the warehouse.  When Angela arrives, she encounters a police officer.

Will Angela and Rickie spend Christmas in jail?  Will Rickie find somewhere safe to live, or be homeless for the holidays?  What is the secret of the girl with the guitar?

(The rest of this post contains some 23 year old SPOILERS)

J.A. Morris says:

My So-Called Life is one of my favorite series of all time.  It captured a moment in time and its portrayal of teens felt very accurate and realistic.  However, "So-Called Angels," just like MSCL's Halloween episode, takes the series into the realm of the supernatural.

We learn that the homeless girl who looks out for Rickie is actually his Guardian Angel.  This is hardly "realistic," but I've never had a problem with it.  At this blog, we generally believe that "anything can happen in a Christmas episode," so why not have angels show up in Three Rivers during the holiday season?  

On a more realistic note, it should be noted that "So-Called Angels" deserves kudos for its subject matter.  Rickie is both Latino and gay and he wasn't the sort of character you'd see on many TV series when this episode was produced.  It's not uncommon for Christmas episodes to feature characters volunteering at soup kitchens or performing another charitable act.  But we rarely see scenes of homeless teens squatting in warehouses.  

One of the tropes of MSCL was parallel plots and dialogue and we see those in this episode.  Brian has a much more stable homelife than Rickie, but he is shown to be just as alone in some ways as Rickie.  There's a nice moment where the two boys look at each other and express their friendship without words.  

In addition to Rickie's story, "So-Called Angels" also gives other characters some great scenes.  AJ Langer gives a great performance in the scene where Brian (unknowingly) calls her on the teen help line.  Is Rayanne's behavior acceptable?  No, but it works in the context of this episode, and she does succeed in making Brian feel better.  

Some viewers may not like "So-Called Angels" because it injects spiritual and supernatural elements in to an (otherwise) very realistic setting.  However, it's treatment of homelessness and abuse is very well done and still an issue that this country is facing today.  I think it's a great episode and highly recommend it.  

J.A. Morris' rating:

4 candy canes.

RigbyMel says: 

I was a bit late to the party (so to speak) in terms of My So-Called Life -- I didn't see any of it until the mid-2000s.  As J.A. Morris says, it's a generally excellent series and has one of the best TV portrayals of being a teenager that I've ever seen.   It's also (at this point), kind of an amazing time capsule of the 1990s.  The inclusion of Juliana Hatfield who both acts and sings in this episode contributes to the 90s time capsule vibe.   Hatfield's folky song "Make It Home" is very thematically appropriate for the episode.

This episode's themes of homelessness and child abuse are quite heavy and the writing is ... not subtle about making sure those themes are hammered home.  That being said, they're important issues year round, and making use of an episode set during the "season of charity" to highlight these issues was probably a bold choice for a mid-90s show aimed at a teen/young adult audience. 

It's interesting to note that the writers weave multiple versions of A Christmas Carol and It's A Wonderful Life  into the narrative.   We see Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol as well as the 1935 Seymour Hicks version of the Dickens tale as well as It's A Wonderful Life on in the background on TV at the Chase home.

This rings very true to life and also highlights Patty's Scrooge-ish reluctance to let Rickie and the unnamed homeless girl come to Christmas Eve dinner in tandem with her George Bailey-esque run through the snowy streets when she "sees the light".   Additionally, like A Christmas Carol,  "So-Called Angels" is a ghost story!  It's a nice homage that dovetails nicely with the message the episode conveys.

The multi-layered writing with intertwined stories of multiple forms of homelessness at the holidays (Rickie, Brian, Rayanne, the homeless girl/ghost/angel), plus general feelings of confusion about what we think the Christmas season is supposed to be like as opposed to what reality sometimes brings crashing down on us during the season makes for very satisfying television. 

"So-Called Angels" is a great holiday episode, but probably not a great first episode if you're new to the series.   But My So-Called Life is definitely worth your time to watch.

Rigbymel's rating: 


3 and a half candy canes

Monday, July 16, 2018

Hocus Pocus

Premiered July 16, 1993.

In Salem Massachussetts, All Hallows Eve, 1693, Winifred "Winnie" Sanderson (Bette Midler) and her two witch sisters Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Mary (Kathy Najimy) cast a spell on a girl named Emily Binx (Amanda Shepherd) that sucks out her life force, making the witches younger and killing Emily.

Her older brother Thackery (Sean Murray) witnesses this and the witches transform him into a black cat, condemned to forever ruminate over his guilt at failing to save his sister.

The Sanderson sisters are subsequently captured and hanged.  Prior to their execution, Winnie casts a spell that will resurrect them on an All Hallows Eve in the future when a virgin lights their black flame candle.

Three hundred years later in Salem, another All Hallows Eve (aka Halloween) has arrived.  Teenager Max Dennison (Omri Katz) is having a tough time adjusting to life in a new place.  He and his family have just moved from Los Angeles and he's having a tough time fitting in.

Moreover, he has no use for Salem's witchy Halloween traditions, viewing the holiday as something made up by candy companies to sell more candy.  Despite this, Max is interested in his classmate Allison (Vinessa Shaw), who is very enthusiastic about Halloween and witches and isn't impressed by Max's cynical take on the holiday.

After school, Max's parents order him to take his 8 year old sister Dani (Thora Birch) trick or treating.  They eventually wind up at Allison's house, where her parents are hosting a very fancy Halloween festivity.

Allison talks Max and Dani into visiting the old Sanderson house, which is now a shuttered museum.   Naturally, Max winds up lighting the witch's black flame candle, causing the curse to come to fruition and bringing the Sanderson sisters back from the dead to steal the life force of more children!

The kids escape and steal the Winnifred's spell book.  Max, Allison and Dani gain an unexpectedly ally against the witches in the form of Thackery Binx, who, in spite of being a cat, can speak.  Binx vowed to stop the Sandersons if they ever returned and wants to help the kids defeat the witches once and for all.  Dani is quite taken with the Binx and decides to adopt him.

The sisters are uncertain what to make of Halloween and the modern world.  They are mystified by roads made of asphalt rather than dirt.  They smell children, but don't recognize them because the kids are dressed up in costumes for trick or treating.

The drawback of the witches' return is that the Sanderson sisters need more children's life force to brew the  potion that will keep them alive and young forever.  If not, they will die at sunrise.

The Sandersons chase Binx and the kids all over Salem, determined to get their book of spells and gain immortality.  Will the witches succeed and suck the life out of Salem's children?  Or will the unlikely quartet of heroes save Halloween and Salem from the Sandersons?

J.A. Morris says:
I'll start my review by saying that I like this movie, but I didn't see it until years after its release (I was in college in 1993 and I wasn't exactly the target audience.  It's become part of our annual Halloween viewing.  The witches are delightfully over the top and the kids are likeable and sympathetic.  I've owned several black cats, so I appreciate the presence of a talking black cat.

Bette Midler's performance of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You" (featuring backing musicians dressed as skeletons) is a high point of the movie.  Midler later dressed as Winnifred during live performances of this song.

Sarah Jessica Parker also gets a nice moment in the spotlight to sing "Sarah's Theme," Sarah Sanderson's song that's intended to hypnotize children.

Garry Marshall appears in an uncredited role wearing a devil costume.  The Sandersons believe him to be Satan himself!  Any movie that includes Garry Marshall dressed as the devil is worth watching at least once in my book!

In a bit of stunt-casting, the wife of "the devil" is portrayed by Penny Marshall, Garry's real-life sister.

However, it's not a perfect movie and I can understand why it wasn't well received by critics or audiences when it was first released.  Hocus Pocus is a film that doesn't seem to know what audience it's trying to reach.  During the first few minutes we see a little girl killed and three witches hanged.

There are jokes about how the Sandersons can only be resurrected if a virgin lights their candle.  Billy the zombie is beheaded onscreen.   These contrasting tones sometimes took me "out" of the movie.

Still, compared to Christmas, there aren't many Halloween movies (that aren't slasher films), and I'm glad it's around.  Recommended, but the criticisms above keep me from giving Hocus Pocus a higher rating.

J.A. Morris' rating:

2 and a half jack-o-lanterns.

RigbyMel says: 

Like J.A. Morris, I am late to the Halloween party insofar as Hocus Pocus is concerned.   I was in high school and probably considered myself above live-action Disney movies at the time (animation was another story, but that's neither here nor there). 

That being said, I think I like the movie more than J.A. Morris does -- it's fun and funny and the dark touches are appropriate for Halloween.  It's not a movie for little kids, but I can understand how folks who were of the tween persuasion in 1993 or thereabouts would have latched onto this film.    As was customary with Disney releases, Hocus Pocus became a regular feature on cable TV and the film's following grew as a result of cable and home video.

Yes, the plot is a little bit silly at times, but the performances by Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker are comedy gold. The child actors do a fine job insofar as child actors go.  Young Thora Birch's performance as Dani is particularly strong. 

Moreover,  I have a weakness for black cats and am not at all surprised that many a millennial pet black cat has been named Binx.  I rather suspect that nostalgia plays an important role in the affection that people of a certain age have for the movie, but even 25 years later,  nostalgia is not necessary to enjoy this as a Halloween classic.

RigbyMel's rating:  

3 and a half jack-o-lanterns.