Feb 16, 2023

Can Netflix redeem itself with "Red Rose," About an Evil App Harassing Gay and Straight Teens?

After my last three or four grim reviews, I have to conclude that Netflix, the streaming service that brought us Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Good Place, Bojack Horseman, and Kim's Convenience, has been reduced to dredge.    But maybe Red Rose, a British tv series about a murderous app, will break the heteronormative trend.  I'll watch Episode #1, "It's Grim Up North."

Scene 1: Manchester, Christmastime.  Snow, trees, ecstatic crowds. Teenage Alyssa says goodbye to her friends and stares in horror at carolers. Come on, they're singing "The Carol of the Bells,' not "Have Yourself a..."    Mom calls to back out of picking her up, so Alyssa walks home.  She rushes into the elegant noveau-modern mansion and turns the smart thermostat up to 27 (80 degrees Fahrenheit).  But it turns down to 0!  And the big screen tv is mirroring her!   Lights and vacuum cleaners go off and on at random.  Alyssa yells for the home app Electra to turn everything off, but it doesn't obey  She runs through the house terrified.  Mum finally gets home, but it's too late: Alyssa jumps off the roof!  WTF?  What was she afraid of?  A cranky home app?  Mum?

Scene 2:
Bolton, a quaint, very English town near Manchester, six months later.  Two teenage girls, Wren (blonde) and Roche (brunette), are sitting on a rustic road, discussing the end of exams and summer plans. They sign each other's shirts, frolick, and almost kiss, but they are interrupted by a third girl.  Any boys in this show?   Finally  -- two boys, Noah  and Antony (Ellis Howard, below), catch up to joke and tease the girls. 

Cut to teens in school uniforms dancing on hilltops.  Noah and Antony dance with each other, but pair off with girls to smoke and drink and play patty-cake (teenagers?  Is that a British thing?). 

A Middle Eastern guy,  Taz (Ali Khan), joins them, which upsets one of the girls but delights the others.  They invite him to join their friend group, the Dickheads.  Are organized friend groups a thing?  

All of the Dickheads except for Roche, who is poor, have been invited to Rich Snob Becky's party.  They approach and ask if she can come, too. Becky tries to exclude Roche by making up a 10 quid ($12) door charge, but the friends offer to pay it for her.  "Sigh...ok, but it's 'dress to impress'"

Scene 3:
While the others are dancing, Wren and Noah (Harry Redding) find a deserted phone booth and make out. What is a phone booth doing in the hills, with no buildings or roads around?  Poor girl Roche sees them and is upset.  She wanders off by herself, and gets a text inviting her to download an app, Red Rose: "Welcome to the new you." 

Scene 4: Morning. Roche awakens and goes downstairs to a shabby, mismatched house, two whiney preteen sisters, a dead Mum, and a Dad who is folding laundry (Samuel Anderson, top photo).  She prepares breakfast, but there's not enough cereal to go around.  She complains that she has to look after the twins all summer, so she won't be able to hang out with her friends.  'Why don't you invite them to our shabby hovel?" Dad suggests.  "Um...no, I'm ashamed that we're poor."  

Scene 5: The five Dickheads are leaving a pasty shop in downtown Bolton, when they run into Jaya (a girl).  She quotes from The Goonies (they're fans of a 40-year old movie?).  She's not going to the Rich Snob Party because, um...she's hanging out with her old mates. Realizing that she actually can't afford the cover charge, Roche makes fun of her.  But you're poor, too.  Covering? 

Next, some bully girls accuse Wren of being a slut; Roche defends her.  Then she breaks away from the group to play with her Red Rose app, which asks: "Do you need help?" "No!"

Scene 6:
Wren working in a tea shop.  Her coworkers ask about the mysterious boy she is dating.  Cut to a cemetery, where Wren meets with an older, bearded guy (Adam Nagaitis?).  He asks if they can be more open about their relationship, but she refuses and stomps off: "Don't push me!" 

Scene 7: Night. Roche (the poor one) is entertaining her sibs with hand puppets. Suddenly the lights go out: the electro-card reader is out of money.  

The app asks again "Do you need help?"  "Yes!" 

 "Write three wishes on a mirror, and chant these disturbing words."  Roche goes to her room and writes: "Wealth. Power. Respect."  The lights come back on -- 100 pounds was added to the account!  In the morning, there's a sparkly princess dress and new shoes waiting for her.  So, what about the power and respect?

Scene 8:  The Friend Group is playing a board game.  Does anyone under 60 still do that?   Roche bursts in to show off her new shoes.  Bestie Wren wants to know if Roche is upset about her dating Noah.  Of course she is. 

Scene 9: Roche is taking her younger sisters on a wilderness hike.  The app instructs her to build a fire, so she does.  Then it reveals a ghostly image of her Mum.  Horrified, Roche takes the girls to the store where a girl named Ash works.  She doesn't see anything on the phone.  Roche gets a flapjack (what Americans call a brownie).  

Next, Roche and Wren discuss their relationship and upset each other by referring to their parents: Dead Mum, and...um, something wrong with Dad.   Roche rushes off to a mansion, where a middle-aged woman has been minding the kids, and blurts out: "Wren has been seeing Rick!"  Soap opera, innit?  Then she goes home and looks at videos of her Dead Mum.

Scene 9: The middle-aged woman confronts Wren about dating Rick. Wait, the older, bearded guy from the cemetery is not a boyfriend, he's Wren's Dad, who is not allowed to see her.   He must have done something truly horrifying to not even get structured visitation.  "He's better now," Wren argues.  "He doesn't get better! What he did..."   Keep it a mystery, why don't you?

Scene 10: Roche brings the kids to a food bank, where they also have free breakfasts. She didn't get much wealth, did she?  The priest wants to know why she's upset.   More stuff about the fight with Wren.  

Scene 11; We finally get to the Rich Snob Party advertised in Scene 2.  The app instructs Roche to "kiss Noah" (Wren's boyfriend).  She refuses, so it displays a video of her at the food bank.  To humiliate her for being poor?  It repeats: "Kiss Noah, or everyone will know the real you."  So she does -- and that's displayed on the big tv, too!  Wren is upset.

Scene 12: On the way home, the app shows Roche a picture of the kids -- with Dead Mum behind them!  The end.

Beefcake: None.  The three teenage boys don't even have any shirtless pics online.

Other Sights: Lots of Bolton.

Heterosexism: Wren is dating Noah, but the plot is actually about her relationship with Roche.

Gay Characters:  Wren and Roche have a gay subtext romance.  Antony, the member of the Dickheads with just two lines in this episode, comes out as gay later on, but I don't know how much character development he gets.

Paranormal: The app hasn't done anything yet that couldn't be done with computer hacking, but we'll see...

My Grade: B

Update: In Episode 3,  the evil app lures Antony to a public restroom by pretending to be a hot guy on a Grinder-like app. So there are no gay organizations, and everyone is deeply closeted.  Sounds rather retro.

Feb 13, 2023

Pufnstuf: The Dragon and the Witch Compete over Jimmy's Flute

 I can’t watch H. R. Pufnstuf anymore. The lightning-quick takes, psychedelic colors, lame wise-cracks, and aggressive laugh-track are annoying. But in 1969, when I was 8 years old, I looked forward to it all week.

In the opening segment, a cute, androgynous sixteen-year old named Jimmy (Jack Wild, fomerly of Oliver), with a Beatles moptop and a cowboy hat, is prancing through a bucolic mountain countryside, playing with his golden flute (it is not really gold in color but dark bronze, thicker and blockier than real flutes, and extremely phallic later, as it peeps out of Jimmy’s pocket).

 A “kooky old witch” named Witchiepoo (Billie Hayes), passing by on her supersonic Vroom-Broom, spies Jimmy and decides that her drafty old castle could use his youthful vitality – and his ten inches of flute. She instructs a sentient boat to lure Jimmy aboard with the promise of a pleasant journey to Living Island. But when the trip commences, the boat develops arms and claws to hold Jimmy securely in place, while the witch laughs maniacally, and:

The sky grew dark
The sea grew rough
And the boat sailed on and on and on and on

In a scene that is still frightening today, Jimmy manages to free himself from the grasping claws, and dives into the dark, choppy sea. He crawls onto a distant, desolate beach and collapses, half-drowned and exhausted. Then – somewhat too late – help arrives. A tall green-and-yellow dragon named H. R. Pufnstuf resuscitates Jimmy, moves him into his cave, and dresses him in a garish Fab Four outfit (one wonders where the dragon got human clothes. Have there been other Jimmies, lost boys washing up on the beach over and over forever?). Then Pufnstuf introduces Jimmy to the citizens of Living Island, various animals, plants, and inanimate objects, all sentient and wise-cracking, almost all male.

Since Jimmy is well protected, Witchiepoo turns her attention to the flute, now sentient and named Freddy. Most episodes involve Witchiepoo’s grandiose, impractical schemes to steal Freddy, or, when she succeeds, Jimmy and company’s equally grandiose, impractical schemes to retrieve him. Jimmy also mounts a few half-hearted escape attempts, but it is obvious that he has no real desire to leave Living Island. Witchiepoo is more cranky than evil, promising excitement more than threat, and Jimmy is having the time of his life, dancing, singing, putting on plays with a group of caring, attentive friends who tolerate all of his many gender transgressions.

The feature film Pufnstuf appeared in July 1970. In a new back story, Jimmy has recently moved from England to a resort town (Big Bear Lake, California), where he plays the flute in the school band (rather a fairy choice of instrument, I thought). During a practice session on the front lawn of a gaudy, baroque junior high school, the other boys insult him, mock his accent, and finally trip him, and he knocks over some music stands. True to junior high form, the teacher concludes that Jimmy is the troublemaker, and kicks him out of the band. Jimmy runs away, through a town of small brown cabins and autumn-orange trees that, for all its beauty, promises nothing but brutality and viciousness. Eventually he stops by the lake to rest. Suddenly his flute grows longer and thicker, changes from gold to brown, and starts to move of its own accord – an awkward moment for Jimmy to enter puberty!

Witchiepoo happens to be flying overhead, and the plot proceeds as in the series. But now she has a homosocial motive for her designs. She believes that Freddy the Flute will be a perfect trinket to impress the other witches, especially Witch Hazel (Mama Cass Eliot of The Mamas and the Papas), with whom she has a sort of Auntie Mame/Vera Charles rivalry.

All of the many witches we meet in the film are female, and all are aggressively heterosexual. Witchiepoo tries to sneak into Pufnstuf’s cave by flirting with him as vampish dance instructor Benita Bugaloo, and when she telephones Witch Hazel, their conversation consists mostly of gossip about which female witch is dating which man. The film makes Living Island, conversely, a veritable Fire Island, inhabited by ten men (or male beings) and only two women, Pufnstuf’s sister and Judy the Frog (a parody of gay icon Judy Garland).

 None of them is married or involved with the other sex, nor do any of the male residents “boing” with lust over Witchiepoo in her bodacious disguise. It was not unusual for children’s films a generation ago to omit heterosexual content, but quite unusual to place it squarely in the laps of evil witches while infusing the hero and his friends with a blatantly gay sensibility.

Certainly Jimmy’s cherubic cuteness and sexy Cockney accent made the show a must-see for me in 1969, but there is more. The crux of the action is a competition between the female Witchiepoo and the male Pufnstuf over control of Jimmy’s phallus ( Freddy the Flute), and it ends unequivocally in the male camp. Witchiepoo lives in a dark, sinister castle dug-through with dungeons and pits, and Pufnstuf in a gaudy psychedelic Arcadia, with living trees and flowers. Witchiepoo barks out orders to cowering servants, Pufnstuf offers advice to dear friends. Who would disagree that the Dragon is far superior to the Witch?

There's a gay hookup story about Jack Wild on Tales of West Hollywood.

Feb 12, 2023

The Male Ladybug and His Biceps

17 episodes of The Bugaloos aired during the 1970-71 season, and were rerun in 1971-72.  That's a little short, even for a Sid and Marty Krofft live action-animatronic series: Sigmund and the Sea Monsters had 29, and Land of the Lost had 43.

But millions of Boomers fondly recall the 17 episodes, and the infinite array of tie-in merchandise: a record album, a lunchbox, a board game, a 4-issue comic book series, costumes for Halloween, 3 novels.

The Bugaloos were a hippie family/rock band composed of  British insect people, all named after virtues.

1. I.Q. (John McIndoe), a gangly blond grasshopper
2. Harmony (Wayne Laryea) a black bumblebee
3. Joy (Caroline Ellis) a female butterfly
4. Courage (John Philpott) a muscular male ladybug.

Very muscular.  Always wearing a tight red shirt that highlighted his pecs and lay bare his arms and shoulders.

And exceptionally tight pants.

Unlike most Krofft shows, they were not trapped far from home: they lived in a hippie commune, the Tranquility Forest, singing, dancing, flying, and displaying no heterosexual interest

But their Eden was threatened by Benita Bizarre (Martha Raye), who hated their youth, their beauty, their freedom, their talent, and. . .well, their tranquility.  She stole Joy's voice and IQ's wings; she kidnapped and branwashed Courage; she tried to drive them out of their forest.

Establishment fear of the youth counterculture,but from the counterculture's point of view.  Clash of innocence and experience, age and. . um, obviously a metaphor for. . .um. . .

Who could think about anything but the male ladybug, with his sleeveless shirt and obvious bulge?

Update: The Bugaloos was John Philpott's only acting gig.   He performed in several bands and as a cabaret singer, and is now retired and living in France.  As far as I can tell, only his family and friends had the opportunity to see his muscles close-up.

See also: Pufnstuf

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