MOVIES IN THE CAMPER: THE HARD WAY

I’m a big Ida Lupino fan. She was a true Hollywood maverick. She was a writer, producer and director who formed her own company. She was the first woman to direct film noir(The Hitch-Hiker 1953) She played everything from sassy comediennes, treacherous femme fatales to author Emily Bronte. While there are many Lupino films that I hold in great esteem, there are several films of Lupino’s that are so good that whenever I see them turn up on Turner Classic Movies, I never miss the chance to watch them again. The Hard Way (1943) Starring Ida Lupino, Joan Leslie, Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson is one of those films. The Hard Way starts off in classic film noir style. A despondent, immaculately dressed Lupino is walking by the pier late at night. She removes her expensive white fur coat…lays it gently across one of the pilings…and jumps into the ocean. A homeless man sees her jump and calls the police. We then see in flashback the events that lead to this desperate decision.


Ida Lupino (left) and Joan Leslie in The Hard Way

Lupino plays the worn out wife of a poor blue collar slob, both working themselves slowly to death in a small industrial town with a sky so full of black smoke that you can barely see the sun. Joan Leslie plays Lupinos young sister, just graduated from high school. Lupino is a devoted sister and tries to steer Leslie clear of all the mistakes that Lupino has already made, trying to make sure she has a better life. Leslie is a perky kid with dreams of being on the stage, a diamond in the rough. One night, while watching a traveling vaudeville show, she happens to meet one of the acts…Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson. Morgan and Carson are a singing/dance act… two guys that don’t seem all that talented, but enjoy the life. During their four day stop over, Morgan and Carson happen to see Joan Leslie in a diner, entertaining her friends by mocking Morgan and Carsons act. Both men see that she’s talented and Carson and Leslie take a shine to each other. Morgan warns his friend not to get involved with “the locals”. But in spite of the warning Carson falls for Leslie.

Dennis Morgan and Ida Lupino in The Hard Way

Lupino sees an opportunity for Leslie through Carson and encourages a marriage between the two. Soon, Lupino has left her husband and is off with Leslie and the vaudevillians. Before long, Lupino manipulates the two men into adding Leslie into their act. Not long after that, Leslie, with Lupino behind her, starts to become a rising star, leaving Morgan and Carson in their wake. As time goes on, Lupino goes to ever greater lengths, to see her kid sister become a star. But as the two sisters climb higher on the ladder of success, the more burned out and love starved Leslie becomes.



Joan Leslie, Dennis Morgan and Ida Lupino

This was a great movie. While it looks as though the film will make Lupino out to be the quintessential “evil” stage mother (or in this case, older sister) the film avoids this cliché, thanks to a wonderful screenplay that leaves plenty of wiggle room for Lupino to give her character some nuance. She is so incredibly good in the role that she rises above such one dimensional pigeonholing. There is no doubt that Lupino does live vicariously through her sister. However, she is also very loving, devoted and protective of her. What could have ended up as simple manipulation by Lupino, actually comes off as Lupino being a very smart, savvy and ambitious woman who leaves her husband because she wants more for herself and her sister. Something that we didn‘t often see in film during the WW2 years. This gives Lupino even greater complexity as she weighs the right and wrong of her actions (and there is some wrong, no doubt) against what she thinks is best for her sister and, yes, herself.

Lupino tries to sway Joan Leslie in The Hard Way

When we finally see the inevitable confrontation between Lupino and Leslie, neither comes away unscathed even though the film forces Lupino to bare the brunt. Even the victims of Lupino’s manipulations seem hypocritical when Lupino confronts them with their own imperfections. Lupino gives her character this great sense of frustration at dreams denied and an even great frustration at those who judge her methods in achieving her dreams. Lupino is impatient with those who don’t understand her and have no idea about her struggles and if she could just get through to them, explain to them that she and Leslie are deserving, then maybe they wouldn’t mind her being so calculating and ruthless. Having watched a lot of Lupino films over the last few years, both obscure and the more well known, I have to say that, in my opinion, this is her greatest role. I enjoy her performance in The Hard Way more than I do in popular roles such as the gangster girlfriend Marie in High Sierra whose love for gangster Bogart is unrequited. And I like it more than the blind woman she plays to Robert Ryan’s angry cop in On Dangerous Ground. Not that these last two films aren’t great, they are, but that will give you some idea how great she is in The Hard Way.

The always classy Ida Lupino

 
Lupino is more complex, more subtle, more polished, more natural than I have ever seen her before. It amazes me that she didn’t even get an Oscar nomination. Lupino’s performance is certainly more engaging and more complex than some other nominees of that year such as Joan Fontaine in The Constant Nymph. Everyone turns in solid performances, including Joan Leslie whom I always thought rather limited and certainly didn’t think she had the depth to pull off a role like this. Leslie is fascinating to watch as the little sister who is every bit as ambitious as Lupino while at the same time she is more than happy to let Lupino do the dirty work while she plays the innocent. While Lupino uses Leslie to achieve her dreams, Leslie quietly and rather insidiously uses Lupino in turn. The film is also beautifully shot by legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe.

From left to right–Lupino, Jack Carson Joan Leslie and Dennis Morgan in The Hard Way


The story is also interesting in that it is loosely based on the life of Ginger Rogers, her first husband and Gingers mother. Even though the Hollywood community of the day knew it was based on “someone in Hollywood”, it didn’t come out until years later when director Vincent Sherman spilled the beans (one has to wonder if Rogers knew who it was about, as she was offered the Leslie role and turned it down) While not a musical per se, there is plenty of great music in this from Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer. Not just a great Lupino film, but a great film period.

Turner Classic Movies will be showing The Hard Way on Tuesday March 5th at 10:00 pm.  Don’t miss this rarely seen gem!

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COMICS IN THE CAMPER: GAIL SIMONE AT ACME COMICS!

Gail Simone and Acme Comics manager Jermaine “Lord Retail” Exum

So today I took a little drive to Acme Comics in Greensboro North Carolina where comic book icon Gail Simone was doing a signing. This was my first trip to Acme Comics. Having seen quite a few comic shops between my native California and the east coast I have to admit that I was highly impressed with this store. There was a great vibe and a large, diverse group of customers milling about, chatting away and buying lots of comics. Located in the northern part of North Carolina’s Piedmont Triad (a grouping of three cities; Greensboro, High Point and Winston-Salem). Located among a group of stores that seem to have more in common with a trendy downtown area than with your average mundane strip mall. Just down the line is a music store, a bar called the Boo Radley Tavern and a neat video café.


Acme Comics in Greensboro NC

I made the trip to Acme Comics today to meet prolific writer Gail Simone. She was in high spirits and happily chatting with fans. It was a great relaxed event where fans were able to chat at length with Simone. While in line, I spoke with a father and young daughter. It was the wide eyed daughters first trip to a comic shop where she had plans to buy her very first comic! I asked who her favorite character was and she told me it was Iron Man. When I asked her if that was because she was a fan of the film, her father informed me no, it was because he was a Iron Man fan. He seemed very proud that she was following in her fathers footsteps. However, after seeing how happy she was to get her picture taken with a woman cosplaying as Batgirl, I had to wonder if she would disappoint good ol’ dad and walk out with a Gail Simone penned issue of Batgirl. I loved listening to this father and daughter talk and was reminded that every comic is someone’s first comic. I envied this little girls experience being in a comic shop for the first time and remembered my own first experience in a comic shop. I was glad that her first experience visiting a comic book store was at Acme Comics.

This young lady was thrilled to meet Batgirl and Gail Simone during her very first trip to a comic shop!

 
The store has a great atmosphere. It couldn’t have been a more beautiful day for it. I had a fun conversation with one of the stores friendly employees, the blue Mohawk sporting Cody who explained where everything in the store was located and shared several highlights of the stores history including a visit from Powers writer Brian Bendis. I also met store manager Jermaine Exum aka “Lord Retail”. Exum started out at the store as an unpaid volunteer in the mid 90s and worked his way to store manager 2 years later. His creative marketing ideas helped keep the store thriving when all the others were dropping like flies.

When visiting Acme Comics, say hi to Cody!  Hi, Cody!

 

Manager Jermaine “Lord Retail” Exum(left) with customers

This year, Acme Comics, the winner of the Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award, is celebrating it’s 30th anniversary and has plans to host a comic con in the area called “Comic Book City Con” later this year with a guest line up that will include Mark Waid and Jonathon Hickman. I hear that Acme Comics puts on a heck of a Free Comic Book Day and I have every intention of returning to visit this fun store.  Oh, and thanks to Gail Simone for signing my copy of Back Issue #54!

Gail Simone at Acme Comics, giving yours truly her autograph!  I love comics!

 

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MOVIES IN THE CAMPER: THE PUBLIC DEFENDER

Most fans of pulp magazines, comic books, serial adventures and radio know who the Shadow is. The vengeful vigilante with the black cloak and hat and the red scarf to hide all features except for the hawk nose and piercing eyes that was as much a trademark for fans of his pulp adventures as his maniacal laugh was for fans of his radio adventures. Introduced each week to the sound of Camille Saint-Saens “Le Rouet d’Omphale”, the Shadow was a mysterious figure who sought to wipe out crime with the help of his underground cabal of agents who did his bidding. When the Shadow first debuted, he was simply an eerie voice who introduced radio show mysteries that were part of the “Detective Story Hour”, a radio show that spun off from a popular pulp magazine called “Detective Story Magazine.” This early narrator version of The Shadow debuted on July 31, 1930. In less than a year, the “Shadow” became the main star of the show he introduced. On April 1, 1931, The Shadow got his own pulp magazine with stories written by Walter Gibson aka Maxwell Grant. Of course it didn’t’ take long for the imitators to follow. Soon came The Spider, The Avenger, Green Hornet, The Black Bat and many others, all of whom were the forefathers of the comic book hero.

 
 Frank Readick Jr. is the early voice of The Shadow

Right around the same time that The Shadow was making his debut in pulp magazines as the more fully realized interpretation we know today, there was another mystery writer in the UK who was just as prolific as Walter Gibson. His name was George Goodchild(1888-1969) aka Alan Dare aka Wallace Reid aka Jesse Templeton. Goodchild created a character called “The Reckoner” in a novel called The Splendid Crime renamed “The Public Defender” for its US release. The Reckoner had a lot in common with The Shadow and with a character whose creation the Shadow inspired–Batman. The Reckoner used agents with specific talents to help him in his campaign against crime as did The Shadow. The Reckoner‘s alter ego was a millionaire playboy, just like Bruce Wayne. While The Reckoner didn’t have a trademark laugh to send chills down the spines of his victims, he did have a calling card with a picture of the scales of justice along with the words “See You Next Week” which let his victims know that he would come calling on them again to dispense justice. He also had some cool gadgets such as an exploding wallet.



Shirley Grey and Richard Dix in The Public Defender

 The Shadow and the Reckoner were created an ocean apart and too close together in time for one to be an imitation of the other. Gibson and Goodchild both were prolific mystery writers in the early 30s and Goodchild had created several detective heroes prior to the Reckoner. What made The Reckoner interesting and perhaps even relevant today was that he went after corrupt financiers and bankers with the style of a modern day Robin Hood. The Reckoner was an identity created by millionaire playboy Pike Winslow who wanted to get revenge against and bring to justice a group of corrupt bank executives who framed an innocent man for their crimes. That innocent man just happened to have a daughter that Winslow Pike loved. In the movie adaptation of “The Public Defender”, Winslow is played by Richard Dix. Helping Winslow in his efforts to bring down the corrupt bankers are “The Professor” played by Boris Karloff. The Professor is the “talent”, the guy who does the research and gets all the info that Winslow needs to bring down the bankers. The Professor is Winslow’s “Alfred.” Then there’s Winslow’s other partner Doc played by Paul Hurst. Doc is a dead ringer for Shadow sidekick and cab driver Moe “Shreevy” Shrevnitz. Doc is the “muscle”. He helps run interference so that boss Winslow can skip over the flunkies on his way to the top dog. Doc is Winslow’s Robin.

Irene Dunne and Richard Dix in the Oscar winning “Cimarron”

Over the course of the film, the main villain turns the tables on The Reckoner, framing the vigilante for murder. Unfortunately for Winslow, his unsuspecting friend Inspector O’Neil is quickly closing in on the real identity of The Reckoner. This movie starts out kind of slow and I almost gave up on it as just another mediocre early 30s melodrama. But then we find out that Dix is a kick ass, Robin Hood Shadow hybrid of a vigilante who has Boris Karloff as a sidekick! How could I not watch that? I was glad I stuck with this fun little pulp movie adaptation. I liked seeing Karloff as a hero (albeit a devious looking one) and I enjoyed the similarities to other pulp heroes who were just a year or so away from being created. Dix’s foray into the world of pulp didn’t end with The Reckoner. He would go on to star in The Whistler film series. The Whistler owed much to the Shadow’s early roots. Like the early version of the Shadow, the Whistler was a mysterious figure who narrated stories of criminals who learned the hard way that crime did not pay. But instead of a maniacal laugh, the Whistler…um…whistled.

Richard Dix loses his mind in Val Lewton’s The Ghost Ship(1943)

1931 was a good year for Richard Dix. He was nominated for a best actor Oscar for his performance in the film adaptation of Edna Ferber’s Cimarron. Cimarron won a then record 7 nominations and won three for production, writing adaptation and art direction. Richard Dix is an interesting actor to watch and over time I have become a fan. You might not “get” Richard Dix if you only watch one or two of his films. He’s an acquired taste and often comes off as kind of wooden. But he has given some rather complex and poignant performances over the course of his far too short career. If you really want to see why I’m a fan of Richard Dix, take a look at his transformation from conscientious objector to bloodthirsty killer in the WW1 film Ace Of Aces(1933). Watch his frightening performance as the homicidal ships captain who slowly goes insane in The Ghost Ship(1943) or watch him in It Happened In Hollywood(1937) as the kind hearted cowboy turned Hollywood silent star whose loses it all with the onset of talkies, struggling to keep his integrity and be worthy of the adoration of his young fans even as he entertains the idea of a life of crime. Turner Classic Movies shows the occasional obscure Richard Dix film now and then. Check out his films if you get the chance. He might just grow on you.        

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MOVIES IN THE CAMPER: MONTE WALSH

In the aftermath of the economic crash of 2008, many people came to (and are still coming to) the realization that the world had changed suddenly and irrevocably. Many lost their homes and their jobs. Many older people who were raised on the old rules that you found a good job and stuck with it till you retired discovered that these old rules no longer applied. Some found themselves unemployed with obsolete skills that were no longer marketable. Some found that technology had passed them by. Many who teased their parents about not being able to work a VHS player now found themselves being teased about not being able to understand I Phones and I pads. Bluray made their DVD collection as relevant as Beta. The world had changed around them and they were forced to face that change and adapt or get left behind. I know people who faced this and even had to deal with it myself to a certain extent after the 08 crash. With this in mind, I found the film Monte Walsh (1970) to be a timeless masterpiece and cautionary tale about old men forced to face a changing world with changing rules. It’s a great western with great performances by Lee Marvin and Jack Palance as well as by the loads of television and film character actors that the film is filled with. It’s a film with a message that transcends the genre.



Jeanne Moreau and Lee Marvin face a changing world in Monte Walsh

 
Lee Marvin and Jack Palance are buddies and ranch hands who find less and less work available to them as the era of the “Cowboy“ is slowly coming to an end. It seems more and more ranches are selling out to eastern corporations who only want the land and are liquidating the cattle. What makes this film so interesting is that, for the most part, there are no bad guys. Everyone is friends with each other but find themselves at odds and in competition due to lack of work and in an effort to prove their worth to those few employers who are still hiring. The cowboys don’t hold it against the ranch owner (Played by Dallas family patriarch Jim Davis) who has to start cutting men due to lack of work because they know he’s a fair person who just has no choice. It’s compelling to see the looks of fear, sadness and sympathy on the men’s faces when one gets work and another doesn’t. They try to distract themselves with good natured ribbing and roughhousing as they all bunk in a sort of Cowboy flophouse. There’s also a touching relationship between Marvin and the prostitute (Jeanne Moreau) that he’s had a long time relationship with. She is also affected by the lack of work for the cowboys and leaves to seek greener pastures.

From left to right; Lee Marvin, Jim Davis and Jack Palance in Monte Walsh

 
The cowboys don’t know how to articulate what’s happening around them as it’s more than simply a lack of jobs. They see the world changing and all they can say in response is “I don’t know how to do anything else.” The actors portray a deep and profound sadness throughout the film mixed with moments of humor when they kid around with each other in an effort to cope. Marvin starts to lose more and more as his woman must leave to find a town with customers who have the money to pay for her wares. His best friend Palance breaks up their long partnership to marry and learn to adapt to a new profession as a store clerk. At one point, old friends become desperate and start to steal from the only available people that have money; former friends who have made good. Marvin finds he must track down the murderer of a friend and discovers the murderer is…another friend. Which makes it all more poignant and heartbreaking. Ultimately, Marvin releases his frustration with personal loss and his complete lack of control over a changing world by breaking a seemingly unbreakable horse and almost destroys a town in the process. When he is victorious, he is offered the chance to be a show rider in a traveling “buffalo bill” style circus. As he tries on the gaudy, colored leather coat with all the fringe, he looks in the mirror, takes it off and simply says “I’m not going to have my life turned into a joke.”

Jack Palance in Monte Walsh

 
Marvin is excellent of course in a role that’s not all that flashy but more introspective, like his role in The Big Red One for example. Palance is also terrific as Marvins friend, who sees the writing on the wall and has one foot in the past and one in the future and seems undecided at times about which way to go. The film has a rich John Barry score and an opening song by none other than Mama Cass Elliot which is very sweet. It’s a very enjoyable film even if you can’t relate to good old Monte. Turner Classic Movies is showing Monte Walsh on Wednesday, October 2 at 6:15 PM Eastern Time. Don’t miss it!

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TV IN THE CAMPER: A FOND FAREWELL TO ALPHAS

As some of you probably know by now, ALPHAS, the terrific television series that blended science fiction and superheroes, has been cancelled. This is very sad news indeed as I was a huge fan of the series. For those who didn’t watch the show, Alphas was about a group of individuals with superhuman abilities who were led by a Doctor who not only helped them understand their abilities, but also helped them to cope with the psychological damage that these abilities sometimes caused as well as making them understand that they had a responsibility to use their powers for good.




Sounds like a comic book, right?  Heroic people with powers fighting bad guys.  However, there were no costumes or capes in Alphas and even the word “superhero” was not really part of the shows lexicon. From the first episode, Alphas developed it’s own identity.  Some have compared the show to Marvel Comics “X-Men” and that’s certainly a fair comparison if a simplistic one. A team of humans who, due to a mutation in their genetics, are granted extraordinary abilities and are led by a father figure who promotes peaceful use of those abilities. Sounds a lot like X-Men.  It also had a lot in common with the DC Comics series “Doom Patrol”. Doom Patrol was about individuals who gained their abilities through some tragic accident that ruined their lives and made them very bitter. The leader of Doom Patrol was a scientific genius who wasn’t quite as kindly as X-Men leader Charles Xavier. Doom Patrol leader Niles Caulder often had to manipulate his contentious team into doing the right thing and sometimes into doing things that suited Caulder’s own agenda. Alphas team leader Lee Rosen was much like Charles Xavier and, for better or worse, not entirely dissimilar to Niles Caulder. 

 



David Strathairn as Dr. Lee Rosen

As played by the terrific David Strathairn, Dr. Lee Rosen was dedicated to his team of Alphas. But these gifted people weren’t just agents doing good for some anonymous government agency. They were also Rosen’s patients. The Alphas (a term that Rosen coins to describe these genetically gifted humans) were flawed, damaged people and they needed help just dealing with their lives as well as their abilities and Dr. Rosen gave them that help. He was kind, sensitive, compassionate and legitimately cared for them as though they were his family. But Dr. Rosen was human and he had flaws of his own. He was estranged from his daughter Danielle whom he experimented on as a child in order to understand the Alpha phenomena. This caused a huge rift in their relationship and Danielle ended up a runaway drug addict. Out of guilt, Rosen is motivated to find and help other Alphas. Rosen was driven almost to the point of obsession to stop the megalomaniacal leader of Red Flag (a terrorist organization also made up of people with abilities, often criminals) named Stanton Parish(John Pyper-Ferguson), an Alpha whose ability was immortality and the founder and head of Red Flag. Dr. Rosen’s obsession with Red Flag caused him to do morally questionable things. He would lie to his team, manipulate them and in one instance, he pressured certain members of his team into torturing a Red Flag terrorist to get information. Strathairn played this role with amazing complexity and sensitivity. Strathairn made Dr. Rosen his own and if you watch his performance over the two seasons of Alphas, you will see that he wasn’t just a composite or copy of X-Men leader Charles Xavier and Niles Caulder and to think so would be to do a disservice to the formidable acting skills of Strathairn.


Warren Christie as Hicks

And then you had Dr. Rosen’s patients/team members. Cameron Hicks (Warren Christie) was a former Marine, divorced, an alcoholic, estranged from the son he loved and working in a supermarket. He had the ability of hyperkinesis which allowed him to have uncanny aim, a heightened sense of timing and incredible athletic skill. In the pilot episode, Hicks is brainwashed into assassinating a witness for the CIA. He is recruited by Dr. Rosen into joining the team who convinces him that he can help Hicks get his life back on track by helping him to understand his ability and with therapy.



Azita Ghanizada as Rachel

Rachel Pirzad (Azita Ghanizada) has the ability to heighten her five senses, one at a time. She can see objects on a microscopic level, identify someone by their distinctive pheromones and hear sound from incredible distances. These abilities cause Rachel to have a very difficult time interacting socially. She’s shy, withdrawn, neurotic and often feels the need to withdraw socially in an attempt to shut down her hyper senses. Over the course of the series, I think it’s Rachel that comes the farthest thanks to Dr. Rosen. By the end of the first season she has overcome an almost crippling lack of confidence and by the second season she even musters up the courage to start a romantic relationship. One of the more entertaining aspects of Rachel is the difficult relationship with her parents. Her parents are loving and supporting but also criticize the fact that she is single, not understanding that her abilities make intimacy incredibly difficult. Over the course of the series, Rachel gains the strength to face her parents criticism and intimidation to get her to date so she can marry. Rachel’s “gifts” often lead to some humorous moments as she is often required to smell and taste some rather unsavory things in the cause of catching bad guys.

Malik Yoba as Bill Harken

Bill Harken (Malik Yoba) is a former agent with the FBI who has super strength triggered by the adrenalin caused by his “fight or flight” response. He also has the ability to run at great speeds. Unfortunately, the side affect of this is that Bill has anger issues due to the stress of his ability and is at risk of causing his heart severe injury if he accesses his ability for long periods of time. Problems dealing with is ability led to his being suspended from the FBI and to being a patient of Dr. Rosen. Bill is effectively Rosen’s second in command and the liaison to the various law enforcement agencies that Rosen’s team often has to deal with as well as being the teams tactical leader. Throughout the course of the show, Rosen and Bill are often at odds when it comes to leadership roles. In the second season, Bill is forced to take over as team leader when Rosen’s obsession with Red Flag and his contentious relationship with government handlers leads him to do morally and legally questionable things.

Ryan Cartwright as Gary Bell

Gary Bell is the youngest member of the team and is an autistic savant. He has the ability to see electromagnetic wavelengths and various kinds of radiation and heat signatures. This gives him the ability to see all information sent through the airwaves as well as the ability to access wireless video surveillance cameras. Gary(played by the wonderful Ryan Cartwright) is the heart of the team. Gary’s autism makes it difficult for him to understand social nuance and has difficulty with social interaction but this also causes him to be the teams moral center. Gary doesn’t see subtle motivation or agenda, just what he perceives to be clearly right or wrong. When the series begins, Gary lives with his loving but overprotective mother who isn’t aware that her son uses his ability to help out the government and help solve crimes. Gary becomes more independent as the show progresses and eventually moves into the teams HQ. Gary is partial to superstrong Bill Harken who he considers his best friend. Oh, one more thing about Gary; he loves pudding. A LOT!

Laura Mennell as Nina Theroux

Last but not least is Nina Theroux (Laura Mennell). Nina and Rosen probably have the most complex relationship, more so than any other team members. Rosen has known Nina the longest and Nina’s particular ability, that of mind control, makes her more susceptible to corruption. Nina has severe guilt issues over how she has used her power over the years and who she’s used it on. Out of all the abilities we see over the course of the show, Nina’s proves to be the most addictive and this makes it all the more difficult for her to get control of her power and has trouble with the emotional instability that that addiction causes. Nina seems to love Dr. Rosen for helping her come back from the brink many times but at the same time she’s know him long enough to understand his flaws and this causes her to be the most distrustful of Rosen. Rosen also has strong feelings for Nina that go beyond Doctor/patient or even daughter/father figure but the two have never acted on these feelings. In spite of knowing the most about each other, Nina and Rosen know that it’s important to keep their relationship more professional for their own sake. The one person that Nina’s mind control powers do not work on is Gary, whose autism makes him invulnerable to Nina’s abilities. Nina is extremely protective of the autistic Gary with whom she has a sort of older sister/little brother relationship.

Mahershala Ali as Agent Clay(left) and Strathairn

One of the best things about Alphas was it’s diversity. This was probably one of the more gender and racially diverse shows not just in the genre but on television(at least based on my television viewing). Malik Yoba who plays team member Bill is African American as is the team handler and government agent Nathan Clay (Mahershala Ali). Azita Ghanizada who plays Rachel is Afghan American. There are also some strong, complex female characters in Nina, Rachel, newest team member Kat (Erin Way), Dr. Rosen’s daughter Danielle (Kathleen Munroe), the tech savvy Skylar Adams (played by Firefly’s Summer Glau) and liaison agent Kathy Sullivan (Valerie Cruz). You also have characters with diagnosed mental conditions represented in Gary as well as in the character of Anna Levy (Liane Balaban). Anna was one of the most fascinating characters to be seen in the shows very short run.

Liane Balaban as autistic mastermind Anna

 

John Pyper-Ferguson as Stanton Parish

Anna was introduced early in season one in an episode called “Rosetta”. In this episode, Dr. Rosen and his team raid a Red Flag safe house where they find the barely functioning autistic Anna. Because of her condition, Anna is unable to speak or even  acknowledge the presence of others. Considering Anna to be a dead end, the team focuses on other things, leaving Gary to go through the computers that the other terrorists left behind. Over the course of the show, Gary discovers that Anna is more than she seems when he brilliantly discovers the random noises she makes on various innocuous items (such as a hairbrush) is actually her own form of language. Not only that, but Anna is also able to understand and translate all forms of language and codes. It seems the Red Flag terrorists were forcing her to use her gifts to code information for them. Gary falls hard for Anna over the course of the show and the two work together to prevent a Red Flag terrorist operation. However, at the end, in an amazing twist, Gary discovers that Anna wasn’t being used by the terrorists, but was the mastermind of the terrorist group! It’s extremely rare to see autistic characters on television (off the top of my head I can only think of the character “Max” on Parenthood who isn’t autistic but is diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome) let alone one who is a high profile antagonist.  Anna wasn’t just another villain on the show. She proved to be far more complex and gave us and the characters a different perspective on the Red Flag terrorist organization. As it turned out, Red Flag was attacking various subsidiaries of a pharmaceutical company that was making a drug to give to pregnant women that would prevent children being born with abilities, effectively making Alphas extinct. This information would give Rosen’s team pause as some started to sympathize with Anna and Red Flag. At the end of Rosetta, Gary and Anna have a wildly entertaining battle of wits that leaves Gary only partially the victor as Anna escapes capture to fight another day. In spite of their many differences, Anna and Gary secretly maintain a relationship that, sadly, ends in tragedy.

 
Pint sized Kat(Erin Way) teaches Bill a few tricks
 
Episodes like Rosetta, that highlighted characters with disabilities along with interesting, racially diverse men and women, was one of the great things about Alphas. It was a great strength of the show not just for the obvious benefits of seeing the point of view of people of different gender and ethnicity but for narrative ones as well. The show also taught valuable lessons about teamwork, responsibility, lessons about right and wrong, lessons about loss, forgiveness and overcoming obstacles of the body and mind and heart and, most importantly, lessons about trusting others(a running theme of the show). Alphas seemed to find that perfect balance of comic book heroics, science fiction and just good old fashioned adventure. The writing was smart, witty and the stories were always tense, exciting, suspenseful, humorous and often poignant.  I could go on and on about why Alphas was far superior to a show like Heroes but Corrina Lawson over at Wired has already done a terrific job of that.   I will miss Alphas very, very much. I hope that somehow we’ll be given some closure with a two hour movie finale to wrap up the storyline ala Farscape (another show that was criminally cut short in it’s prime) but I have low expectations that this will happen.
 
Cheers to the talented cast of Alphas!
 

So let me just give my heartfelt thanks to Alphas creators Zak Penn and Michael Karnow, as well as cast members David Strathairn, Ryan Cartwright, Azita Ghanizada, Malik Yoba, Laura Mennell, Warren Christie, and all of the other amazing cast and crew members, guest stars, writers and producers for making such a wonderfully entertaining show that countless fans will be sorry to see go.  We’ll miss you, Alphas.

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TV IN THE CAMPER: THE RISE AND FALL AND RISE OF PRIME TIME SOAP

 
80s era Luke and Laura try to keep warm while the world freezes on General Hospital

I’ve always had a fascination with Soap Operas. When other kids were outside in the sun, playing ball and riding their bikes, I was in the house, three feet from the tv screen watching Dark Shadows and Peyton Place. Yes, I’m old enough to remember Peyton Place. I was much more interested in the lives of the fascinating adults of soap opera than I was relating to kids my own age.


 




The cast of The Big Valley

During the 70s I watched Another World (who could forget Alice and Rachel? The Betty and Veronica of daytime soaps!) and All My Children (yes, I was among the first of the heterosexual preteen boys to think Susan Lucci was cool years before it was hip to say so. It’s still hip to say so, right?). Primetime soaps that focused on wealthy, dysfunctional families struggling to maintain and expand their empires, basically started with the introduction of shows such as Bonanza and Big Valley (which had one of my favorite opening themes). Both series revolved around a strong family leader who ruled over their ranching empires. On Bonanza it was Patriarch Lorne Greene. On The Big Valley it was Matriarch Barbara Stanwyck. This was in the 60s when TV was dominated by Westerns and Bonanza and Big Valley were pretty much the only shows that focused on the family empire theme. You did have The Waltons which started in the early 70s but, come one–The Waltons? Get real. If you wanted to see storylines about hostile takeovers, corporate boardroom drama, sex, betrayal and solid melodrama full of backstabbing and sex, then daytime soaps were the only game in town. Then came Dallas.



The cast of Dallas

I came on board with Dallas in the early 80s although it debuted in 78. This show was a completely different ball game from the average, or even above average, daytime soap. Dallas was much faster paced, much more confrontational, more outrageous and much more epic. Things happened on Dallas that made the shenanigans of daytime soap seem tame by comparison. Of course Dallas, unlike daytime soap, was only on once a week. But the show packed at least a months worth of daytime soap action into that single hour. Dallas made daytime soaps obsolete for me and based on the stories we started getting in daytime soap opera in the aftermath of the debut of Dallas, the networks realized they needed to step it up. General Hospital was taking it up a notch with the hilariously insane yet wildly entertaining story arc that had Luke, Laura, Holly and Scorpio trying to stop evil genius Stavros Cassidine from freezing the world. No, really, that happened. And it was awesome. People of all ages were talking about that story back in the early 80s.

Krystal (Linda Evans, left) and Alexis (Joan Collins) just working out some issues on Dynasty

 

The cast of Dynasty

Shortly after Dallas came Dynasty. Like Dallas, Dynasty used the oil industry as a backdrop but after a time, focused almost exclusively on family dynamics. Dallas on the other hand, maintained it’s strong focus on the oil industry and was about 50/50 when it came to the business end of things and the family melodrama. When I started watching Dynasty, the “Oil” backdrop had become so peripheral that I wasn’t really sure what the family business was. I didn’t care a whole lot for Dynasty when it first came out in spite of my childhood crush on former Nancy Drew actress Pamela Sue Martin. One of the main reasons I initially passed this one by was because Joan Collins didn’t come on my radar until after she’d been on the show a couple seasons(she wasn‘t a cast member until season two). I think it was around the time of that epic Krystal/Alexis catfight that I finally paid attention (yes, I’m predictably male). Collins was the main draw when it came to Dynasty just as Hagman was for Dallas. However, when it came to Dallas, I was much more interested in all of the characters. With Dynasty, it was all about Collins and I didn’t really care for any of the other characters story arcs. One thing that Dynasty did have was a seemingly unending stream of great guest stars (Charlton Heston, Rock Hudson, Diahann “Julia” Carroll).

The cast of Falcon Crest
 
Jane Wyman as Angela Channing

After Dynasty came one of my all time favorite primetime soaps, Falcon Crest. The backdrop for Falcon Crest was the wine business. The terrific Jane Wyman played the family matriarch Angela Channing and man, she was one tough old broad! The protagonists of Falcon Crest were Chase Geoberti (played by Robert Foxworth, husband of Elizabeth “Bewitched“ Montgomery) and his family. Angela Channing was always after the Geoberti winery and would do any underhanded thing to try and get it. Even though I was a fan of Falcon Crest from the very beginning, it had something in common with Dynasty in that it really didn’t take off until the second season when it introduced a new polarizing character, Richard Channing (played by former Dark Shadows star, the great David Selby). Leading up to his introduction, Richard Channing was only talked about in hushed whispers. Angela Channing’s lawyer once told her that “only two things scare me: sudden death and Richard Channing.” This added an interesting element to the story. Falcon Crest already had a villain in Wyman and a hero in Foxworth. Adding a mixture of both with the introduction of David Selby added a real wrench in the works. He was a wild card and you never knew whose side he would fall on.

David Selby as Richard Channing

 What made Richard Channing such a wonderfully complex villain was that even though he seemed destined to be a bad guy(what with his ties to the mob and all sorts of other dark cabals), he craved a family. He was actually looking forward to a relationship with Angela who was his real mother. However, Angela rejects him when they first meet and this rejection ignites a war between the two that would not end until the shows final episode. After Foxworth left the show in 1987, Selby’s character was softened up just a bit and he ended up becoming much more of a good guy, even marrying the shows main heroine Maggie Geoberti played by former Another World cast member Susan Sullivan.

The one thing these primetime soaps had in common were that the stars were adults. Hagman, the character that Dallas revolved around, was 47 when Dallas debuted in 1978. Over at Dynasty, stars Forsythe, Linda Evans and Joan Collins ranged in age from mid 40s to mid 60s respectively. Falcon Crest was pretty much the same thing. Of course, this had always been the case almost from the inception of television. Throughout the 60s, 70s and early 80s, TV stars were older adults. If you were a teenager on television then you were either the good son or daughter of the star or you were a pot smoking, hippie giving the cops trouble.


The cast of Beverly Hills 90210


Times and tastes and audience demographics change and eventually all of the prime time soaps that began in the early 80s had lost their appeal by the end of the decade. By 1993, Dallas, Falcon Crest, Dynasty and the Dynasty spin off The Colby’s had ended. In 1991, NBC tried to revive the gothic soap Dark Shadows but unfortunately the timing couldn’t have been worse. Primetime soaps that focused on big business and older, wealthy white adults (and vampires) were on their way out. But primetime television, like nature, abhors a vacuum and almost immediately the adult oriented soaps of primetime were replaced by a new breed of soaps that focused on the young. The 1990s were all about young, good looking teens and twenty-somethings. Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place and Dawsons Creek dominated television all through the 90s and the old folks were relegated to minimal screen time in roles like the wise old boss or the worrying parents.  Old folks were no longer the bad asses. This phenomena wasn’t just happening on television either. It carried over to big screen films as well.



 

Night time dramas that focused more on older adults didn’t really make a comeback until the resurgence of all those Cops, Doctors and Lawyers shows on television with things like CSI, Law and Order, ER, Grey‘s Anatomy, etc. Like prime time soaps about family empires, shows about Cops (Hill Street Blues) and Doctors (St. Elsewhere, Trapper John MD) and Lawyers (LA Law) had previously been on the outs by the late 80s-early 90s. It wasn’t until just recently, while watching season one of Downton Abbey on Netflix (so I could finally see for myself what everyone was talking about) that I realized that prime time soaps had come back. And in a fairly big way. The new breed of night time soap opera has become a mixture of stories focusing on the young as well as the old. Family, as well as business and have become much more age inclusive.

 
Hayden Panettiere(left), Connie Britton(right) and a generation gap(middle).
 

Take the CBS show The Good Wife for example. Unlike LA Law, which was more focused on the courtroom and law office politics, The Good Wife gives us a potpourri of storylines in which we see the main character, single mother of two teens and lawyer Alicia whose story intersects with an estranged husband running for office, a sexy, bi sexual, ass kicking investigator, a business in peril and plenty of personal family drama. ABC’s Nashville focuses equally on a 40 something Country Music star played by Connie Britton and her rival, a young rising star played by Hayden Panettiere. The supporting cast is equally varied in age. Over in the Cop’s department, you have a show like Blue Bloods which isn’t just about the lives of cops, but about a family of policemen and police women from a long line of police officers. There’s even been a revival of Dallas that’s been fairly popular although I’m not sure how well the show is going to fare in the wake of Larry Hagman’s passing.

The cast of Downton Abbey

Maggie Smith as the Countess of Grantham

Then there’s Downton Abbey. This show is probably more akin to Dallas, Dynasty and Falcon Crest than anything else currently on television and, consequently, it’s not surprising that it’s the most popular. This is a true family saga that focuses on the Grantham Family and it’s patriarch, the Sixth Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), his wealthy American wife Countess Grantham, their three daughters, their servants, and the continuing struggle to hold on to the family estate Downton Abbey and the family title. The show uses actual historical events as the backdrop such as the sinking of the Titanic and World War One and jumps ahead in time by months and years, unlike other primetime soaps where time passes by the hours and days. Downton Abbey also gives us a nice mixture of characters young and old. In fact, the main scene stealer of the show has to be the 78 year old Maggie Smith as the bitingly witty Dowager Countess of Grantham.

The medium has come a long way since it’s humble beginnings on Radio and Television as small little dramas funded by advertisers such as Dial and Palmolive and other soap companies (hence the term “Soap Opera“) and yet in many ways it’s still the same. Still focused on family drama, professions, wealth and people good and bad. It’s also nice to see older actors once again getting a much higher profile. I’m happy to see these night time soap operas return with a vengeance. They’ve always been my favorite part of television when I was growing up. Well, except for things like Doctor Who and Rockford Files and Six Million Dollar Man, but that’s a whole other article.

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COMICS IN THE CAMPER: YOUNG HEROES IN LOVE PART 2

 

We continue with our little retrospective on DC’s mid 90s superhero romance series Young Heroes In Love. Last time we took a look at what was going on in the world of comics when Young Heroes was released and took a look at the first issue. This week, we’re going to take a look at issues two and three. When we last left our young heroes, team leader Hard Drive was sharing a bit of post coital bliss with Monster Girl. Issue two opens with Thunderhead and Bonfire out on patrol.


 

As we saw in issue one, Thunderhead has a bit of a crush on Bonfire. The two do a little flirting and Bonfire tries to get the super strong and seemingly indestructible Thunderhead to jump off a five story building as a demonstration of his powers. Later, at the Young Heroes HQ, the team is still getting used to their new home. Hard Drive is anxious to get the team into an adventure as soon as possible. Monster Girl on the other hand wants to spend more time training the team and get a feel for each others powers. The teleported Off Ramp is keeping an eye on the news for any crimes. Frostbite confronts Bonfire about the feelings that seemed to stir between them in issue one and is confused that Bonfire seems to have cooled off a bit with regards to the strange attraction for each other that their opposing powers seem to have inflamed.


 

The tiny sized Junior has been doing a little spying and sees that Hard Drive and Monster Girl have become romantically attached and is concerned about the situation. He tries to tell Frostbite and Bonfire about it but Hard Drive shows up. He takes Junior aside and gives him one of his motivational speeches that causes Junior to forget what he saw. It doesn’t take long before Hard Drive gets his wish for action. Seems there’s a giant Mummy terrorizing a local army base. Thunderhead, Bonfire and Monster Girl try and fail to stop the Mummy but Hard Drive seems to dispatch the creature with a single telekinetic mind blast. Hard Drive does a little schmoozing with the reporters as the other Young Heroes excitably talk about their first adventure.


 

 
Issue three opens with a funny single page splash showing Frostbite and Thunderhead hanging the sword of the giant mummy that they dispatched in issue two as Bonfire admires their respective backsides. The series again concentrates more on conversation than battles as the Young Heroes discuss subjects like the mysterious mummy they just fought, which superheroes have the best costumes, what’s the deal with blue Superman’s powers and other random topics. Meanwhile, in the gym, Frostbite is still upset at the way Bonfire seemed attracted to him and then turned her affections to Thunderhead. He takes out his frustrations by constructing a giant ice sculpture. Hard Drive tells the others his concerns that Frostbite might be feeling alienated and lonely and takes them to see the ice sculpture. But as Bonfire discovers, this isn’t just any ice sculpture. It contains a hidden message that only she can read by accessing one of her abilities, the power to see strange temperature patterns. An ability that she shares with Frostbite.

 
Before Bonfire can investigate this revelation more closely, the team discovers that the mysterious Mummy has turned up again to attack the same army base. When they arrive they are happily surprised to see Superman battling the giant mummy. They lend a hand but it’s Frostbite who ends up incapacitating the Mummy by freezing it solid. This keeps the Mummy from escaping into another dimension which is how it escaped the unwitting Young Heroes during their last confrontation. In the aftermath of the battle, the star struck Young Heroes gather around Superman. Hard Drive asks Superman to join their team. Superman kindly declines due to other responsibilities. Hard Drive presses the issue. But when Superman declines again, Hard Drive not only loses his temper but bursts into tears and runs away. The other Young Heroes are shocked by the behavior of their usually composed team mate. All of them except Monster Girl who has a devious smile on her face.

As in issue one, issue two and three have enjoyable writing by Dan raspier and wonderfully whimsical art by Dev Madan on pencils and Keith Champagne on inks. Madan has such a great spirit of fun. These characters are just a joy to look at and Madan and Raspler are able to make each of them leap off the page. Issues 2 and 3 continues with the theme of showing what young, impressionable heroes do on their off hours which is to gab about their favorite subject–superheroes. Unlike the majority of comics of the day, Young Heroes In Love was definitely not grim and gritty. These are fun, light hearted comics with characters who are fun to look at and listen to.

In the back of issues 2 and 3 we get pictures of some of the team members along with an odd little personalized poem for each. For example, under Frostbite we get “Not your basic lean and mean, not your basic vanilla ice cream, not your basic polar extreme, not your basic metagene” Apparently this was simply filler while waiting for the letters section to kick in. But the editors promise to give the readers a letters section for issue 4.

Next week we’ll take a look at issues 4 and 5. 

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MOVIES IN THE CAMPER: BELLE STARR THE BANDIT QUEEN

This week on TCM, Gene Tierney stars in the wild and rousing Belle Star The Bandit Queen (1941).

The Civil War is over and one thing is for sure, Belle Shirley hates Yankees! Well, except for handsome Major Crail (Dana Andrews), a union soldier trying to keep law in Belle’s corner of the south. But she’s quickly turned off by his determination to hang southern hero/rebel and scourge of carpetbaggers everywhere, Sam Starr (Randolph Scott). After Crail discovers Belle has been hiding him in her house, he regretfully arrests Belle’s brother and Sam and then burns her house to the ground.

Dead shot Belle then orchestrates Sam’s escape and the two get married, becoming a major thorn in Crail’s side as they draw more and more disenfranchised southerners to their cause. But as more bloodthirsty thieving cutthroats join Sam and Belle’s crew of rebels, Belle fears her righteous goal of driving every last Yankee out of Missouri may be jeopardized by her gang’s preference for violence and murder.

Belle and her gang.

Belle Starr The Bandit Queen is wildly un-PC and might not be to everyone’s taste or appeal to some sensibilities. It has its fair share of cringe inducing stereotypes the likes of which I haven’t seen outside of Disney’s Song Of The South, making this a movie that might never be released on region 1 DVD(and that possibility alone makes it worth checking out). Things like the slaves rallying around the southern rebel who’s driving all the black carpetbaggers out of town, or scenes like Louis Beavers as “Mammy Lou” holding down Scott as they try to remove a bullet from his rear end as he screams “Get this Ethiopian elephant off of me!”  The films Technicolor photography is so vivid that Tierney’s bright blue dress started burning my retinas. The story does get silly, but in a good way.

Yankees beware, Belle Starr The Bandit Queen will be appearing on TCM on Friday, December 28 at 3:00 AM Eastern Time. 

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MOVIES IN THE CAMPER: MY REPUTATION

Barbara Stanwyck month is coming to a close on Turner Classic Movies this week so I wanted to be sure to mention one of my favorite Stanwyck films, My Reputation (1946).  Stanwyck has said that this film was her personal favorite of all her films and it’s easy to see why as she gives a fantastic performance.

Stanwyck is a newly widowed mother to two teen boys who have recently gone away to school. Alone, afraid and grief-stricken, she struggles with what to do next with her life. She leans on her best friend played by Eve Arden (unsurprisingly wonderful in this role) and chafes at her mothers (Lucile Watson) efforts to control her. She meets army major Brent and they start up an affair that quickly ignites gossip.

Stanwyck has an amazing scene with Arden when her grief and fear of a life alone causes her to have an emotional breakdown. She also has some fun moments as she awkwardly ventures into her romance with the jovial Brent. The movie culminates with a Christmas party where scandals are exposed and later on New Years Eve where all the drama comes to a head. Stanwyck is just wonderfully nuanced here. The movie skillfully avoids being sappy and instead comes off being very genuine. It’s poignant, romantic, amusing and just plain entertaining. It’s a great film for the winter holidays and a must see for Stanwyck fans.

Turner Classic Movies will be showing My Reputation on December 27th at 10:00 AM.

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COMICS IN THE CAMPER: MASKS 1 & 2

Mask #1.  Cover by Francesco Francavilla

One of my favorite new series is Masks from Dynamite Entertainment. Once again Dynamite shows that they are the masters of reviving and reinventing Golden Age and classic Pulp characters. I loved just about all of the Project Superpowers books as well as their take on The Spider and Masks is must more of that kind of fun. Written by Chris Roberson, issue one is painted by Alex Ross, issue two has art by Dennis Calero. Masks gathers together some of pulp’s greatest heroes including The Shadow, The Spider, The Green Hornet and Kato, Miss Fury, Green Lama, Zorro and the Black Bat (and this is just who we’ve seen so far!). The story takes place in the late 30s in New York. A new political party has taken over key state government positions under the guise of the “Justice Party” by promising voters that the “freeloaders, the slackers, the aliens and outsiders who want what we have–their day in the sun is over”. A fascist, well armored police force made up of former hoods and murderers rob criminals on a whim. The poor are prosecuted, jailed and executed as are any who speak out against the newly elected state government.


A sample of Alex Ross’ painted interior art from Masks #1

In issue one of Masks, The Green Hornet and Kato are unaware of exactly how deep this corruption runs but they learn pretty quick as Kato watches the police unjustly arrest a young artist named Rafael Vega. The Shadow knows exactly what‘s going on and he‘s determined to exact all the justice he can get. Also on hand to help is The Spider. The issue ends with the odds stacked firmly against our heroes. In issue two we see The Shadow, Green Hornet and Kato and The Spider forced to retreat and regroup while in another part of the city, Miss Fury, Green Lama and Black Bat join the fray to try to save innocent civilians from a fascist police force out to “collect taxes.”

Masks #2.  Cover by Jae Lee

Issue one is painted by Alex Ross so it goes without saying that it looks beautiful. The story starts quickly, throwing us into the action immediately and with abandon as we almost immediately see a confrontation between the Shadow and the Green Hornet. It’s a fast paced story with lots of pulpy goodness.

A sample of Dennis Calero’s interior art from Masks #2

 
Writer Chris Roberson seems to really know these characters and it’s clear that he’s having a ball writing them and that joy is infectious. Issue two has Dennis Calero on art. I’ve never heard of Mr. Calero before reading Masks and I was very impressed by his art in issue two. It’s larger than life, lush, full of rich detail and bold splash pages and close ups that have a great intensity. Roberson keeps the pacing taut and consistent, making both issue just really fun to read.  If, like me, you enjoy seeing these 30s pulp characters revived and brought to the page in style, then I recommend getting Masks 1 & 2.

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