Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Twilight Zone: The Lonely

"The Lonely," starring Jack Warden as a convict of the future living in solitary confinement, is an episode begging to be expanded out to feature length. Specifically, it gives us an introduction and satisfactory conclusion, but the route from point A to point B feels compromised by the time limitations of a television.

Written by Rod Serling, the episode centers on James A. Corry, a convicted murderer living on a distant asteroid all by himself, and the loneliness and isolation is getting to him. When the show begins, he's already been there a few years, and the only thing he has to look forward is the occasional visit from a supply crew. This time, the sympathetic Captain Allenby (John Dehner) leaves Corry something special: a female android that look perfectly human, Alicia (Jean Marsh).

The physical environment "The Lonely" evokes is impressive. It really looks like a barren, unearthly place, a massive rocky desert surrounded by sharp, jagged, lifeless mountains. In the middle of this abyss is Corry's little hut, and it has this alienating effect. It really does look like a harsh and lonely place, and the episode accentuates this atmosphere with a lot of wide shots that make Corry and his belongings look small and weak.

There's also an interesting political and social element brought up. Is this kind of punishment excessively cruel? Corry argues he killed in self-defense, and Allenby breaks protocol - not just with Alicia but previously, he gave him a classic car to assemble, which Corry notes took him a year to put together - and tries to keep his spirits up by telling him the laws might change. I'm reminded of a couple of articles I've read about how awful solitary confinement is here in present-day Earth; being left alone on a desert planet or planetoid must be a lot worse. It also seems like a horrible misuse of time and resources to keep one man confined to an asteroid.

The story's arc is how Corry is at first insulted by the notion of a robot being his companion. He even calls Alicia a lie, but gradually, through her unwavering programming and support and his desperation, he begins to lose the ability to differentiate her from a real woman, so when he learns at the end he has been pardoned, he can't bear the thought of leaving her behind.

Now, that is a heart-breaking notion, but it doesn't get enough support from the episode. The opening, with Allenby and his crew arriving for a delivery, goes on too long, and it undercuts the physical isolation Corry is enduring because we see him with other people for a while. Worse, his transition from hate and resentment to love for Alicia feels truncated. They only have a couple of moments together in screen time (plot wise, we're told it is quite a while) before Allenby returns to take Corry home.

That said, it is a poignant moment when Allenby pulls out his gun and shoots Alicia to convince Corry to come back to the rocket. Warden sells the grief, heart break, and confusion strongly, and Dehner plays his captain as a man trying to do what's right. But I had questions: was Alicia self aware or just a program? Did she really love Corry in return? Give this episode more time to explore the relationship growing between Corry and Alicia, and it's a near masterpiece.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Twilight Zone: Long Distance Call

"Long Distance Call" is an effective, character-based thriller that doesn't overstay its welcome. I wouldn't call it one of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone, but it's suitably creepy and gets the job done. It never feels like it's straining for material.

The episode opens with a birthday celebration for little Billy (Bill Mumy) that involves his parents (Philip Abbott and Patricia Smith) and his grandmother (Lili Darvas). We see right away just how close and loving the relationship between Billy and his grandma is when she says refers to him as "my wonderful little boy who gave me life again." She gives him a toy telephone, "so you can always talk to Grandma, even she's not there." Before long, grandma dies, but Billy clings to the telephone, always speaking into it. When asked who he's talking to, he says Grandma.

We see and hear Billy talking into his phone quite a bit in this episode, but to the episode's credit, it never reveals whether Grandma really is speaking back to him, so it creates uncertainty. Is her spirit really communicating to her grandson from beyond the grave, or is this little boy, who doesn't fully grasp the nature of death, pretending and convincing himself she's really there and that she really wants him to join her? It would have been much less effective to have given her a raspy, scary voice because when Smith puts the receiver to her ear and then screams that she can hear Grandma's breathing on the other end, nothing can be scarier than what's being imagined.

It's so easy imagine how this story would have been padded if it were made today. There would probably be a lot of special effects and jump scares as Grandma would likely influence other objects to get a jolt out of the audience, and we would probably see her in spectral form. Instead, the episode wisely limits her presence to the phone. The big emotional payoff is when the skeptical Abbott, not knowing if this will work, clutches the phone and weepingly begs his mother not to take his son.

The characterization of the episode is strong. Billy loves his Grandma and is too naive realize what it means to speaking to her on a phone after her death or what trying to join her would entail. The parents have tension: Mom thinks the closeness Billy has to Grandma even before her death is disconcerting while Dad tries to be accepting, telling his wife that his mother lost two children before he was born (That's never explained, but judging from Darvas' European accent, I suspect she lost her other children during World War II).

Even Grandma, the ostensible, unseen, unheard villain, is sympathetic. A woman who has lost so much, she clings with all her might to the one thing, her grandchild, who has given her purpose and joy. If she is trying to reach out and take him with her, it's out of love, not evil. Somehow, that's even more frightening.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Twilight Zone: I Sing the Body Electric

"I Sing the Body Electric" was written by science fiction legend Ray Bradbury. I would have preferred it if it had been written instead by Isaac Asimov.

The story of a family, who recently lost their mother, who customize a robot grandmother that is perfect and loving in every single way raises a lot of unanswered ethical and emotional questions. I kept waiting for some big dilemma or coldly logical conclusion to be presented, but Bradbury and director William Claxton don't go down that avenue. Instead, what they illustrate is how even a robot can be a loving, welcoming member of the family, and it's just schmaltzy.

Early on, there's some intrigue. The family - David White and three kids, including the oldest daughter, Anne, played by Veronica Cartwright - visits a company promising a "data processing system" that can meet anyone's needs, and they go to the shop, and for two of the kids, assembling a grandmother is like ordering a pizza: I want to to have blue eyes, strong hands, dark hair, etc.

This sequence is actually pretty creepy. The shop is this dark, shadowy place with an odd-looking salesman, and most of the shop is black. Areas only light up to highlight individual body parts for the robots, so we see disembodied eyes, legs, torsos, what have you, and it's unsettling. It's like Dr. Frankenstein's department store window.

When Grandma Robot is ready, she arrives homes and is played by Josephine Hutchinson, and she's just perfect: loving, attentive, kind, and she can make objects such as kite strings and marbles appear out of thin air (which to me is the more impressive technology of the episode since it is never explained how she does this). Only Anne, who did not participate in her assembly, rejects her.

That's the conflict presented in "I Sing the Body Electric." Anne doesn't trust Grandma Robot or accept, and I can't say I blame I her. This is essentially who has replaced her mother, and no matter how well she's programmed, that's what she is a program. She loves the children because that's what she's programmed to do, and that's what the family paid for. It strikes me as a combination of delusional and cynical.

Don't get me wrong. There are plenty of great science fiction stories featuring robots who learn to love, but here there's no drama or gradual realization. Grandma Robot is always perfect and always right; a writer like Asimov could have shown how she could perfectly protocol, do exactly what she's supposed to, and end up wrong. Instead, Bradbury explains Anne's behavior away because Grandma is like her mom, and she's mad at her mom for "leaving" them. But then, Grandma saves her from truck, getting run over in the process, and all is right. Maybe if Grandma Robot did not "survive" that truck encounter, the episode might have had more punch, but no, she gets up, no worse for wear, and we get a cutesy montage of how the kids grew up, went to college, and loved and were loved by Grandma Robot, who learned just as much from them as they did from her. Mm, taste like diabetes.

The Twilight Zone: The Four of Us Are Dying

"The Four of Us Are Dying" feels less like a coherent episode of The Twilight Zone and more like an incomplete crime picture from the 1940s with a sci-fi hook. It has a strong conceit and a couple of great scenes, but I felt frustrated when it ended. Interesting setups aren't paid off, and the resolution we do get feels forced and unsatisfactory, almost as if a character from a completely different story came in to blow it off at the knees.

The episode center on Arch Hammer (Harry Townes), a con artist with the ability to change his face. Until the very end (with a bunch lap dissolves as the various identities fade in and out), we never physically see the change. Hammer will look  in the mirror, move his head around, and then the show will cut to a new angle or a new shot to show Hammer with his new appearance, with Townes replaced by a different actor. It is a subtle but effective method to show his power without relying on showy special effects. In one neat sequence, Townes' Hammer is being taken from his hotel to the police station by a detective, but he makes a break for it the lobby, dashing through the revolving, and when he gets outside, he appears as someone else. There's a nice reveal involving a shadow hiding Hammer's face that reveals he's changed back to his own persona when someone lights a cigarette for him.

Anyway, as you can imagine, Hammer uses his ability for gain, impersonating a number of dead men, including musician Johnny Foster (Ross Martin), who was killed in a car accident, and Verge Sterig (Phillip Pine), a gangster whose boss put the hit on him. Later, in a pinch, he adopts the persona of boxer Andy Marshak (Don Gordon), which comes back to bite him when he runs into someone from Marshak's past.

The strength of "The Four of Us are Dying" - written by Rod Serling, based on a story by George Clayton Johnson, and directed by John Brahm - is the consistency of Hammer's character. All four of the actors playing Hammer in his various incarnations do a splendid job of suggesting that they really the same person. Whether it's the smooth musician seducing his girlfriend or the gangster threatening the boss, it feels like the same slimy, crafty persona is just beneath the service. The film noir atmosphere is also nice. When Hammer walks down the street, beneath the glitzy lights of signs as the slanted camera follows, it suggests that it's easy for a chameleon like Hammer to operate in such a noisy, chaotic world.

Unfortunately, the plot feels disjointed. As the musician, Hammer sets up a rendezvous with the dead man's girlfriend, but then she's never seen again after their initial meeting. The detective who arrives to take Hammer downtown is not mentioned before he arrives, so I wasn't sure who he was or how he had targeted Hammer; their brief interaction suggests they know each other.

Also disappointing is the ending in which Hammer, as Marshak, is gunned down by Marshak's father, who blames his son for breaking his mother's heart and ruining some unnamed, unseen girl. First, it's a mighty fine coincidence that he would just happen to run into Mr. Marshak, but secondly, it just feels off. When Mr. Marshak gets this great big monologue in which he lashes at his supposed son and all the wrongs he's done, it just feels melodramatic and false. It's like, who is this old guy and why should I care about his grievance is?

I suppose it's ironic that Hammer, for all the wrong we see him do, is killed because he assumed someone's identity, which includes their crimes, but I was more interested in Hammer's actions. Was he going to meet up with the girl? Were the gangster's goons to going to find? What about the detective and what he knows? I wanted to see that play out

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Twilight Zone: Two

The great thing about The Twilight Zone is how just when you think you've seen all of the good ones, an episode comes along that you've never even heard of, and it just blows your mind. I had never heard of "Two," and having just seen it, I would rank it among the best the series had to offer: visually exciting, strongly acted, and poignant. Maybe it lacks an iconic alien or supernatural presence of other episodes, but it's a gripping parable about human nature.

Appropriately, "Two" is a two-person show: Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montgomery. Since we never learn their characters' names, I'm just going to refer to them as Bronson and Montgomery. The pair play post-apocalyptic survivors of a war who find each other in a deserted city. Unfortunately, they're on opposite sides, and even though the bombs that wiped out the rest of the human race fell five years prior, mistrust, fear, and hostility still exist between the two.

"Two" is set in the future, but the time element isn't important. As Rod Serling indicates in his opening narration, it really could really be any point in human history: mankind's self-destructive tendencies occur over petty causes and fleeting ideologies. Like in Romeo and Juliet, we don't learn what started the conflict between, and more importantly, it doesn't matter; if we did know, we might start picking sides or start getting distracted. Instead of fighting over past wrongs, "Two" suggests we should come together and build the future.

This is reflected in the costumes. Bronson's uniform looks similar to a Civil War-era infantryman's. Montgomery's resembles a World War II, Soviet era outfit, more contemporary than Bronson's. Both uniforms have fictional insignia and symbols on them; these logos and creeds of the future are meaningless to us in the present, just as our symbols and logos will be meaningless to people in the future. When the country and people who created them are gone, they are just little designs and letters on clothing. By the end, Bronson and Montgomery change into new outfits, symbolizing that they have finally cast aside the old ideologies and are embracing something new.

The episode also achieves a stunning if modest post-apocalyptic look: wide empty streets, bombed-out buildings, abandoned cars, overgrown plants, and the occasional skeleton. Directed by Montgomery Pittman (who also wrote the episode), "Two" has a chilling, sobering look at the aftermath of the world's end. While there is a lot of rubble and debris, it's also empty of life, and the effect is disquieting. The episode contains minimal dialogue (in fact, Montgomery only says one word. Her character probably doesn't speak English), and so the story is conveyed through images, tone, and movements.

Most curiously, despite its setting, "Two" is a love story and could almost be looked at as a post-apocalyptic take on a romantic comedy: the couple meets cute, they dislike each other, they grow closer, there's a crisis that threatens to drive them apart, but in the end, they're together. The episode concludes as they walk side-by-side instead of following after one another or peering from behind a rusted car. Somehow, that's sweeter than if the episode had them kiss.

The Twilight Zone: Mr. Dingle, The Strong

Sometimes, all it takes is one image in a movie, and you know right away just what the tone of the rest of the film is going to be. Case in point: "Mr. Dingle, The Strong" ranks as one of the sillier episodes of The Twilight Zone, and we figure that out fairly quickly once we get a look at the aliens who set the plot in motion.

Frankly, these aliens are some of the hokiest creatures I've ever seen in any work of filmed science fiction. Intended to be a two-headed extraterrestrial, the effect is clearly achieved by having two actors share one big costume, and it is enjoyably goofy. The actors' foreheads have also been elongated, so they almost resemble prototypes for the Coneheads (these guys are Martians, Wait until you see what the folks from Venus look like.).

But what makes these creatures funny is not how ridiculous they look; it's how, because of some gobbledygook about how their presence is invisible and imperceptible to human beings, they walk around the other characters completely unnoticed. Also, the actors playing the Martians are completely deadpan and utterly serious, so I couldn't help but enjoy them.

Anyway, the plot of this episode is these aliens conduct an experiment by granting Luther Dingle (Burgess Meredith), a meek vacuum salesman with a stutter, the strength of 300 men. The rest of the show follows Dingle as he uses his newly found power to stand up to a bully played by Don Rickles and perform physical feats to increasing fame and media attention (that the aliens are disappointed this is the only course of action he elects to do with this great power is the only commentary on human nature writer Rod Serling and director John Brahm present).

The fun of "Mr. Dingle, The Strong" is seeing the puny-looking Dingle perform great feats of strength to his own surprise. The aliens never tell him anything, so he's completely befuddled when he starts yanking doors off at the hinges and lifting with ease a vacuum cleaner he previously struggled with. Later, as he grows confident with his strength, he begins showing off, pointing at his bony bicep before he lifts a bar stool by a finger or punches holes in the wall.

Inevitably, the aliens remove the strength they give him, and the result - Dingle trying to perform the same feats to increasingly disastrous results - is predictable, but it's still pretty funny. The episode may be goofy, but it plays out logically and with tongue in cheek, so the characters never realize how big of buffoons they are. Strength easily acquired is strength easily lost.

The Twilight Zone: A Passage for Trumpet

"A Passage for Trumpet" is another episode in which Jack Klugman plays a lonely, depressed man with a talent for one thing, but unlike in "A Game of Pool," he is able to find redemption and purpose here.

Klugman is a Joey Crown, an accomplished trumpet player reduced by alcoholism to standing in the alleyways outside clubs, hoping to play. After being rejected by an old friend for another chance with a band, Joey pawns his horn for $8.50, spending the money on booze, Then, he walks out in front of a truck. Afterward, when no one seems to hear, see, or talk to him, Joey realizes he must be dead; his suicide attempt worked.

An early image in "A Passage for Trumpet" becomes important later: a silhouette of a trumpet player. Joey sees the image early on while standing outside the club and peering through the back door of a club, and the horn player's shadow no doubt reflects how that kind of musical fame is elusive to Joey, an illusion he can't touch. It can also be seen as how dark his life is; the shadow is a reflection of what Joey becomes: a dark trumpet player not really there.

After the truck incident and realizing what it means, Joey is at first happy, or at least relieved. For the first time in his life, Joey declares, he succeeded at something. See, at one point before his demise, Joey says, "Half of me is this horn." He spent his whole life devoted to playing the trumpet, and while he can play beautiful, moving music, success and recognition for his talent went unnoticed. However, instead of getting a chip on his shoulder, he withdrew to the bottle, dismissing the rest of the world as a cold, quiet, empty, ugly place. Take away that trumpet, and Joey feels there's nothing left worth living for. When he sells his instrument and tries to kill himself, Joey becomes a literal phantom.

But after a while, Joey realizes maybe life isn't so bad. If he thought life was quiet and empty, he didn't realize how much worse death was. He sits and remembers how the bartender ordered a record that he played on and put it in the bar jukebox. Then, he hears a beautiful trumpet sound and finds another player in the back alley, and when Joey says what a great performance that was, the man (John Anderson) shocks him by answering. Turns out this guy should know something about trumpet playing: he's Gabriel. We first see Gabriel sitting in shadow, but unlike the aforementioned silhouette, he has body; he's tangible and he offers Joey redemption (it should be noted the silhouette at the start appears in the background, and Gabriel appears in the foreground, highlighting the positive future ahead of Joey).

The climax of the "A Passage for Trumpet" isn't Joey being chased by some representation of Death; it's a conversation between an angel and a man who has to decide for himself whether he'll live or die. Ultimately, Joey decides that life, just like music, can be beautiful.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Twilight Zone: Kick the Can

"Kick the Can" was the episode of The Twilight Zone Steven Spielberg picked to remake for the 1983 feature-length anthology movie, and to put it bluntly, Spielberg's version might very well be the worst thing he ever directed. For a filmmaker who rarely steps wrong, Spielberg's take was gooey, schmaltzy, and all the things people say when they want to knock Spielberg as a director. The original episode, written by George Clayton Johnson and directed by Lamont Johnson, isn't that bad, but it feels padded, a nice, whimsical idea they struggled to stretch out to 25 minutes. 

For a while, "Kick the Can" resembles the old-timer version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The elderly residents of Sunnyvale Rest are lonely, feeble, miserable, and they don't have much freedom or control of their lives. One day, after finding out his son won't take him home, Charles Whitley (Ernest Truex) hits on an idea while watching the local kids play kick the can: maybe there's magic in the games of youth.

I guess you could say it's not how old you are; it's how old you feel. The residents Sunnyvale Rest sit around and mope about how old and weak they are, so of course, they're only going to feel old and weak. Charles, watching all those kids play kick the can and hide-and-go-seek, realizes that you can't feel better unless you act better. Somewhere in life, in that inevitably transition between childhood and adulthood, the "fragile magic of youth" is lost and forgotten.

Charles comes to believe it's because the games and fun stop. "All kids play those games, and the minute they stop, they grow old." So, he rallies the residents to start acting like kids again, much to the dismay of his lifelong friend Ben Conroy (Russell Collins), who nags him to act his age, and Superintendent Cox (John "I found my horse's head in my bed" Marley), who wants to keep things calm and orderly. It all leads to one night where Charles leads the others outside after dark for a game to see if they can recapture the magic.

Maybe if I wasn't already so familiar with the story, I could appreciate "Kick the Can" more, but the moment I was waiting for, when the old timers turn back into little kids, occurs in the last handful of minutes of the episode. Before that, it's a lot of back and forth between Charles and Ben with Ben trying to talk sense to his friend, and it makes the episode drag more than it should in such a short running length. I just wanted the story to get on it with it.

Performances are good, especially Truex as the old man with a young soul and a twinkle in his eye. I also liked some of the images, particularly one of the old gang looking down over the railing in the stairwell; they resemble a group of mischievous schoolchildren. I also liked the tracking shot of Charles as he walks past the line of seated residents along the porch before he decides to run through the sprinkler. The image suggests wonderfully how just his getting up and being active physically is disrupting the static, lifeless order of the place. Overall, "Kick the Can" is slight but charming.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Twilight Zone: Walking Distance

I don't recall where I saw it, but I remember reading once that for most people, their ideal future is a return to an idyllic past. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion, and when we look back on personal history, specifically our childhood, and compare it to where we've ended up, it's easy to feel unhappiness and regret and to wonder, "What could I have done differently?" It's also tempting to wish you could remain in the past, in a time when you didn't have worries or responsibilities.

"Walking Distance" explores this idea with a story about a man who finds himself in his childhood town by literally walking into the past. Gig Young stars as Martin Sloan, a vice president who stops at a gas station for an oil change. Turns out, the service station is not far from Homewood, the town where he grew up and hasn't been to in twenty years, so Martin decides to hike over for a visit. However, everyone and everything is exactly as he remembers it, and it isn't long before he runs into his parents and his 11-year-old self.

Written by Rod Serling and directed by Robert Stevens, "Walking Distance" eschews the dark irony and twisted paranoia of other Twilight Zone episodes. In fact, its depiction of small town America with 10-cent sodas (with three scoops of ice cream), carousels, and kids playing carefree next to white picket fences, the episode is closer to Frank Capra than Richard Matheson. Homewood, as befitting of its name, is an innocent, carefree place, so it's no surprise that Sloan becomes enchanted when he recognizes everything and sees how nothing has changed.

It's about this point, when Sloan encounters his parents and his 11-year-old self, you'd expect the other shoe to drop, that there'd be some twist revealing that this presentation of Homewood is an illusion, a plot by someone or something to lure Sloan to his doom, but the episode avoids that route. Instead, Sloan, the overworked, stressed-out executive, tries to reconnect with his past and only ends up getting in the way while the mystery of how he traveled back in time is never brought up or answered.

Ultimately, Sloan's father, after being convinced that this weird adult calling him Pop and chasing after his son really is the same boy (it does seem strange that despite running after a boy on a merry-go-round that Sloan is never arrested or something. I guess even the time this show was made was more innocent, too), tells his son how he sees it. He tells Sloan he can't stay in the past, adding that "We only get one chance," He bluntly tells his grown-up son that he's unhappy because he's always been looking behind when he really should try looking forward. You can't change the past, but you can direct your future.

Ultimately, "Walking Distance" is not an episode I see myself re-watching anytime soon, mainly because it lacks all the fun, dark things that draw me to The Twilight Zone, and it's tempting to call it corny and sentimental. Still, it's got heart and an uplifting message. When Sloan walks back to the present and climbs back in his car, you get the sense he has changed for the better. It's nice when it's not just the audience who learns a lesson.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Twilight Zone: A Game of Pool

One of the first images in "A Game of Pool" is of Jesse Cardiff (Jack Klugman) standing alone in an empty pool hall. It's a long shot, showing the entire length of the hall and all its pool tables, and in the background is Jesse, a small, dark figure looking insignificant and weak, which is exactly how he feels.

Jesse is an accomplished pool player who has beaten everyone except for the late James Howard "Fats" Brown (Jonathan Winters). No matter how good he is, no one recognizes Jesse as the best around because he never beat Fats, and Fats' photo on the wall is a constant reminder to Jesse of his own status as second tier. Frustrated and in a case of be careful what you wish for, Jesse wishes for the chance to play Fats so he can prove he's the best. Fats obliges, showing up for the challenge. He'll play on one condition: the stakes are Jesse's life.

"A Game of Pool" takes place entirely on one set with two characters, and yet, it never feels cheap, static, or restricted. The pool hall is a claustrophobic setting, and the script, by George Clayton Johnson, is tightly focused on the constant one-upmanship between Jesse and Fats. Director Buzz Kulik utilizes a lot of dynamic camerawork, upping the tension with off-balanced shots of the two men as they around the pool table, taking their shots or watching the other guy's. During one key play, the camera follows a ball as it rolls, its intended hole out of frame, and as we watch, we're anticipating whether the shot is sunk. We also get many examples of one of my favorite shots: the sweaty, black-and-white closeup.

As good as the technical craft is, the episode wouldn't work without the two performances, and both are stellar. Winters as Fats is very enigmatic; Winters was a funny guy, no doubt about it, but here, he has such a cool, calm presence, a guy self-assured of his own talent. When he talks, he gets under Jesse's skin, and you're not sure whether he means everything he says or if he's just trying to rattle his opponent and throw him off. Klugman is also great as the pool shark with a large chip on his shoulder and desperate to prove his worth.

At one point, Jesse tells Fats about how when he grew up, all the other kids were good at something, and his own lack of talent in other venues made him "feel that big," as he pinches his fingers together. When he discovered pool, he knew he found something he was good at and devoted his life to it. He doesn't date or go to the movies; he says he even made a deal with the owner of the pool hall so he can practice after hours.

But what he calls striving for greatness, Fats calls "rotting in this miserable dark hall." Fats was a great player in his life, but he says he found time for other things: travelling, romance, trips to the beach, etc. Pool is a friendly little game to Fats, but to Jesse, it's a win-at-all-cost affair.

Fats may just say all that to distract Jesse during their match, but there is truth to it. Jesse is a bitter loser at life who has sacrificed everything else to achieve greatness at one, rather unimportant game to make himself feel big. It reminds me of last year's Whiplash, which is about the extreme measures an aspiring jazz drummer takes to achieve his dreams. I have the same question here that I did watching that movie: is being the best worth giving up everything else that makes you human?

The Twilight Zone: Steel

You want an example of how strongly The Twilight Zone holds up? This episode, "Steel," was adapted in 2011 as a feature-length film starring Hugh Jackman and scored nearly $300 million at the box office worldwide and has a rating of 7.1 on IMDB. I have not seen Real Steel, so I can't comment on its quality, but I do know it involves massive, bulky robots duking it out in the boxing ring guided by human controllers, and the movie has a subplot involving the Hugh Jackman character reconnecting with his son.

"Steel," written by the great Richard Matheson, is expectedly more low key and more contained than the recent blockbuster. Lee Marvin plays Steel Kelly, a boxing manager in the future year of 1974 in which human prizefighting has been outlawed and androids are programmed instead to fight. Steel, a once great boxer himself, manages Battling Maxo B2, a broken down, outdated robot that Steel insists on fighting over the objections of his mechanic Pole (Joe Mantell). Having used the last of their money to travel for a bout in Maynard, Kansas, they prepare Maxo only for their fighter to completely break down at the last minute. Needing the payoff, Steel decides to step in the ring in its place.

Again, I haven't seen Real Steel, but I'm pretty sure Jackman doesn't climb in the ring and box the other Transformer-sized robot when his machine malfunctions; so for anyone keeping score, Lee Marvin is a tougher SOB than Hugh Jackman (as if there was ever any question about it).

To be fair, there's no way Jackman could have been able to pass for a robot in his story. The android boxers here are human-sized and built to resemble the real thing. At one point, Steel mentions how they are designed to bleed and sweat like humans. The effect is achieved using actors and makeup that make them resemble eyeless mannequins or Ken dolls. It's not elaborate, but the performers sell the jerky, automated movement just right, not overplaying it. Director Don Weiss gives us insert shots of Maxo's control unit on his back as Steel and Pole work on him, so we do get glimpses of the machine beneath the human exterior. The episode opens with the human pair wheeling around the covered robot on a broken set of wheels that Steel has to keep stooping down to fix, so it effectively primes us for the inhuman figure beneath the sheet; before we see its full form, we already think of it as a machine breaking down.

In terms of social message, human boxing has been outlawed because of the danger it poses, and yet, people have a blood lust that must be satiated. During the bout, the crowd hoots and hollers, cheering on their favorite android to "kill" Steel, oblivious that that's exactly what might happen. After the match, they pelt the loser with garbage and refer to him as a "pile of junk." It's pretty sad; humans have invented this wonderful, amazing technology, and all we see them do with it is have robots destroy and fight each other until they're broken down and useless.

We like think of our athletes as superman and superwomen, finely tuned machines who can perform amazing feats of strength, speed, and endurance, but all machines break down after a while, and when that happens, it's off to the scrap heap. Look at how many formers athletes of today who were prime physical specimens rolling in millions of dollars but are now consigned to bankruptcy, obscurity, and health problems. "Steel" shows us when athletes literally are objects with no feelings, and it's still not pretty. Human behavior is still barbaric.

It would have been easy for Matheson and Weiss to have gone the Rocky route and showed Steel going the distance or somehow overcoming the odds, but they adhere to the logical outcome of a physical fight between man and machine. That should be a cold, downer of an ending, and yet, "Steel" demonstrates the importance of hope and determination. No matter what happens or what obstacles are thrown his way, Steel himself holds out hope he and his robot can get back on top, Even after being pulverized in the ring and underpaid by the promoter, Steel immediately begins planning for how he's going to use the money to fix Maxo and upgrade him. Human Steel cannot be broken.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Twilight Zone

Introduction
The Twilight Zone

Season 1
The Time Element
Where is Everybody
One for the Angels
Mr. Denton on Doomsday
The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine
Walking Distance
Escape Clause
The Lonely
Time Enough to Last
Perchance to Dream
Judgment Day
And When the Sky was Opened
What You Need
The Four of Us Are Dying
Third from the Sun
I Shot an Arrow into the Air
The Hitch-Hiker
The Fever
The Last Flight
The Purple Testament
Elegy
Mirror Image
The Monsters are Due on Maple Street
A World of Difference
Long Live Walter Jameson
People are Alike All Over
Execution
The Big Tall Wish
A Nice Place to Visit
Nightmare as a Child
A Stop at Willoughby
The Chaser
A Passage for Trumpet
Mr. Bevis
The After Hours
The Mighty Casey
A World of His Own

Season 2
King Nine Will Not Return
The Man in the Bottle
Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room
A Thing About Machines
The Howling Man
The Eye of the Beholder
Nick of Time
The Lateness of the Hour
The Trouble With Templeton
A Most Unusual Camera
The Night of the Meek
Dust
Back There
The Whole Truth
The Invaders
Penny For Your Thoughts
Twenty Two
The Odyssey of Flight 33
Mr. Dingle, The Strong
Static
The Prime Mover
Long Distance Call
A Hundred Yards Over the Rim
The Rip Van Winkle Caper
The Silence
Shadow Play
The Mind and the Matter
Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?
The Obsolete Man

Season 3
Two
The Arrival
The Shelter
The Passerby
A Game of Pool
The Mirror
The Grave
It's a Good Life
Deaths-Head Revisited
The Midnight Sun
Still Valley
The Jungle
Once Upon a Time
Five Characters in Search of an Exit
A Quality of Mercy
Nothing in the Dark
One More Pallbearer
Dead Man's Shoes
The Hunt
Showdown with Rance McGrew
Kick the Can
A Piano in the House
The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank
To Serve Man
The Fugitive
Little Girl Lost
Person or Persons Unknown
The Little People
Four O'Clock
Hocus-Pocus and the Frisby
The Trade-Ins
The Gift
The Dummy
Young Man's Fancy
I Sing the Body Electric
Cavender is Coming
The Changing of the Guard

Season 4
In His Image
The Thirty-Fathom Grave
Valley of the Shadow
He's Alive
Mute
Death Ship
Jess-Belle
Miniature
Printer's Devil
No Time Like the Past
The Parallel
I Dream of Genie
The New Exhibit
Of Late I Think of Cliffordville
The Incredible World of Horace Ford
On Thursday We Leave For Home
Passage on the Lady Anne
The Bard

Season 5
In Praise of Pip
Steel
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet
A Kind of a Stopwatch
The Last Night of a Jockey
Living Doll
The Old Man in the Cave
Uncle Simon
Probe 7, Over and Out
The Seventh is Made Up of Phantoms
A Short Drink from a Certain Fountain
Ninety Years Without Slumbering
Ring-a-Ding Girl
You Drive
The Long Morrow
The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross
Number 12 Looks Just Like You
Black Leather Jackets
Night Call
From Agnes - With Love
Spur of the Moment
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
Queen of the Nile
What's in the Box
The Masks
I Am the Night - Color Me Black
Sounds and Silences
Caesar and Me
The Jeopardy Room
Stopover in a Quiet Room
The Encounter
Mr. Garrity and the Graves
The Brain Center at Whipple's
Come Wander With Me
The Fear
The Bewitchin' Pool

The Twilight Zone

"You're traveling through another dimension. A dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. Your next stop—The Twilight Zone."

The Twilight Zone, the anthology series that all anthologies shows must be compared to. The brainchild of creator, writer, and executive producer Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone originally ran for five seasons, from 1959 through 1964, each episode its own self-contained story. Revived twice, once in the eighties and again in 2002, as well as adapted into a feature-length movie, its impact and quality can't be overstated. Many of its moments are enshrined in pop culture immortality.

The classic theme music composed by Bernard Hermann, Sterling's opening and closing monologues, the iconic black-and-white photography, the memorable twist endings, and the deeper social meanings beyond its narratives all helped define the show. Made at a time before filmmakers and television crews had access to the kind of special effects we take for granted, The Twilight Zone depended on strong writing, memorable performances, and sharp direction to give us stories about aliens, monsters, giants, nuclear wars, angels, ghosts, astronauts, and other strange and fantastical beings and events, often with a message or lesson for us to consider back in the real world. 

Serling had a reputation in Hollywood as the "angry young man." A workaholic, he wrote more than 90 of the show's episodes and often clashed with executives and sponsors over its direction and what he could and could not do. Serling used the trappings of the science fiction, horror, and fantasy genres to convey strong social critiques about a wide array of issues he otherwise might not have been able to discuss on television at the time, including racism, war, censorship, the government, and the human condition. The world (or worlds) The Twilight Zone took place in may be a strange, wonderful, and frightening place, but we can recognize the people there.

Serling's wife, Carol, reportedly said that her husband considered "the ultimate obscenity is not caring, not doing something about what you feel, not feeling! Just drawing back and drawing in, becoming narcissistic," and looking at just about any episode of The Twilight Zone, you can see that theme shining through. Compassion, equality, love, hope, courage, these are the traits we should pursue; they are our common connections that should unite us regardless of nationality, race, gender, or religion. To cast that aside, to oppress people, hurt them, divide them, or ignore them, costs us our humanity. Serling used the show to speak his mind on a variety of topics he felt strongly about, and more than anything else, he seemed to want to remind us of what we all are: human. 

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Tales from the Darkside: Dream Girl

At one point in "Dream Girl," someone wonders why the villain's fantasy dream world would be in the theater where they all work, and I said aloud to the TV, "Because it was cheaper to film there."

"Dream Girl" is a stupid, lame episode of Tales from the Darkside, never funny, clever, ironic, or horrific. Some janitor at a theater somehow traps the play's crew members who have treated him poorly in his dreams where he forces them to act subservient to him. like having the butch female director role play a buxom waitress. You'd think in his own dreams he'd at least have a better wig.

The characters aren't interesting. The rules of this dream world are vague and muddled. It was just a chore to sit through, and I can't really think of one thing I liked about it. Well, there is no fat, loud, obnoxious wife in hair curlers eating chocolate, so I guess that counts for something.

The structure of the episode is just awful. Before we're really introduced to anyone or the setting, the episode begins weaving back and forth between the waking world and the dream world, and since both look identical, it takes forever to figure what the hell is going on. The episode also neglects to demonstrate how Otto, the janitor, is able to pull people into his dreams. True, we never learned how Freddy Kruger got his dream powers, but he died and stalked teens in their dreams; I can accept that he found some power in the afterlife. Otto is just bald weirdo.

His dream is disappointingly unimaginative: being mean to waiters, have a pretty lady on his arm, etc. Otto doesn't seem to give his fantasies much thought, and neither, apparently, did the makers of this episode.

Tales from the Darkside: Comet Watch

"Comet Watch" was shaping up to be one of the worst episodes of Tales from the Darkside. It's another non-horror entry in the series with a focus on a science fiction romance, and it includes that disappointingly common archetype of the show: the fat, loud, obnoxious, selfish wife who wears hair curlers and eats chocolates. Seriously, were the showrunners going through a nasty divorce at the time? It's misogynistic and gratingly one-dimensional. Sure, the show has given us plenty of bad male characters, but so many of the women are nasty in all the same ways.

Rant over. "Comet Watch" deals with an amateur astronomer, Englebert Ames (Anthony Heald), who wants to stay home to watch Halley's Comet, but his wife Charlene wants him to go to a big, important dinner with her businessman father. After he stalls her for a bit, he peers through an elaborate telescope and sees a woman, Lara Burns, and before Englebert knows it, Lara climbs out of the telescope and introduces herself. Seems, she somehow ended up on Halley's the last time it approached Earth, in 1910.

The narrative is obligatory. Of course, Englebert is going to fall in love with Lara, who is everything Charlene is not: beautiful, charming, polite, curious, and smart. I braced for the worst, but then an amazing thing happened: Fritz Weaver showed up as Dr. Edmund Halley, apparently having ridden the comet baring his name all these years, and he wants Lara back where she belongs: on the comet where she is Queen of the Cosmos.

It's about this time I noticed that Heald bares a striking resemblance to Dr. Who, bow tie and all, and I took a shine to this part of the episode. It's still predictable - gee, who is going to end up on the comet with Halley - and the science and history is completely ridiculous, but Weaver is just awesome. He's completely decked out in the wig and fop wear, and he plays Halley as a pompous gentleman twat so assured of his own genius; he's a riot. I like also like his attempts to sway Lara to return with him, telling her she was not meant for mortal life; she belongs to the heavens.

I also liked the symmetry with the two couples, each with a domineering member and a put-upon spouse. It's only fitting that everyone gets who they deserve. 

Tales from the Darkside: Effect and Cause

Well, if nothing else, "Effect and Cause" passes the Bechdel Test. The main character, Kate, and her sister have a couple of conversations about the reality of what Kate is experiencing, and their personalities are well delineated: Kate is a carefree, creative artist while her sister is a career woman who wants Kate to grow up.

"Effect and Cause" starts off intriguingly with a neat idea, which it then promptly abandons before collapsing completely in a lot of noise but not much sense. That's the trouble with these reality-bending stories: the rules need to be clear; otherwise the audience will be confused and won't care because anything can happen and nothing really means anything. As Roger Ebert might have said, this episode plays tennis without a net.

Reality, as we define it, tells us that cause precedes effect, but as the title indicates, there's a reversal going on. Kate discovers this when she's at a home with a friend, and then some paramedics show up and ask where the woman who fell down the stairs is. The friend says there must be some mistake, but right at that moment, Kate falls down the stairs and has to go to the hospital. She spends the rest of the episode with a cast on her leg. Later, a grocery clerk shows up with a delivery, even though Kate didn't order anything, but as he reads the list, the items in her fridge vanish before her eyes, almost as if reality didn't want to make the clerk a liar.

Now, that's all interesting, seeing the results of an action before the action occurs. What could be causing that? Does it have something to do with the old pictures Kate has painted over so she can reuse the canvas? Unfortunately, the episode descends into confusion as events that don't really tie into that premise start happening and overwhelming the action until it's all noise and chaos. Items begin vanishing from the house, the telephone ends up in the fridge for some reason, the sink and stove go haywire, and then the house blows up. By that point, I stopped caring.

There's some gobbledygook about how reality is shaped by the thoughts we give to it; without that mental energy, small items vanish easily, and once Kate realizes this truth, her reality crumbles. I guess that's interesting, but it doesn't mesh with the inversion of cause and effect. In the end, this is a rehash of the previous season's Slippage.

Tales from the Darkside: Distant Signals

"Distant Signals" foretells the likes of Galaxy Quest and "When Aliens Attack," the Futurama episode in which the Omnicronians threaten the Earth until they see the end of an episode of Ally McBeal stand-in Single Female Lawyer. It's not horrific in the slightest, but it is pretty clever and kind of touching in its own, low-key way.

"Distant Signals" centers on a failed TV show from the 1960s called "Max Paradise," a detective show about an amnesic played by Van Conway (Darren McGavin) and written by Gil Hurn (David Margulies, the mayor from Ghostbusters). The show was cancelled mid-season; Hurn has moved on while Conway is a boozing bartender. Out of the blue, they're approach by the mysterious Mr. Smith, who says he represents wealthy investors who want to finance the show and complete it's run, to wrap up the storyline. To show he's serious, Smith pays in gold.

Smith's true nature is fairly obvious, even though he always appears human looking in a suit. The episode has fun hinting at what he really is, mainly through little slips in his understanding of human behavior, mispronouncing words ("Vitt-a-mins" instead of vitamins) and not understanding slang (when asked if the gold bars are hot, as in stolen, he says touch them. It's a bit predictable but amusing.

There's not much in the way of conflict - Smith is essentially a walking deus ex machine - but "Distant Signals" works because of its theme. Writers, and other artists for that matter, develop their ideas, but they can't know with complete certainty who their work will speak to or how they will take it. To Hurn, "Max Paradise" was a cliched cop show, a hokey job for hire, but Smith tells him the audience he represents considers it high art, a drama of great meaning and importance. A show that no one on Earth remembers is loved and cherished by aliens who want to see the story resolved. Hurn is stunned anyone cares about the show, but as Smith tells him, "When you wrote it, you cared."

Meanwhile, the show offers a comeback for Conway. Afraid, kind of bitter, he initially refuses, and at his first reading, he storms out, convinced he can't do it, but Smith does ... something to help him with his addictions, and the show is completed. A guy who couldn't be a star on Earth discovers he's an icon beyond the stars.

Tales from the Darkside: The Satanic Piano

You know, "The Satanic Piano" might have worked better if the music this device created sounded better than a cheap 80s synthesizer and the Satanic warlock who built it didn't look like a sweaty, poor-man's Danny DeVito with a blonde skullet.

This episode has a standard selling-your-soul-for-stardom plot spruced up by a sci-fi gimmick and improved by the presence of Lisa Bonet as the sympathetic daughter of the struggling composer. Michael Warren plays Pete Bancroft, a composer who's won Grammys and sold millions of records but is now on hard times while Phil Roth is the perpetually perspiring inventor Wilson Farber who offers him the device that plays the music inside Bancroft's soul.

"The Satanic Piano" works better than expected because Bonet as Bancroft's daughter Justine gives the episode more stakes and a likable presence. If Bancroft were by himself, I wouldn't care what happened to him because he's a jerk, but his daughter represents what he stands to lose. She too composes music, and Farber decides to take her soul instead. When he goes to save her, Bancroft is able to redeem himself.

Music is the language of the soul, or so the old saying goes, and that's a nice sentiment. As a concept for a horror anthology, it just doesn't work. Apparently, the instrument Farber built harvests the person's soul by tapping into the musical wellspring he or she has inside them, but I don't know how that's supposed to work. The music this thing generates isn't very impressive and nowhere near as moving as it needs to be for this concept to work.

It also doesn't help that Roth is about as menacing as a guy selling beer at a football game concession stand. Sure, he's gross and grotty, but he doesn't come off as very intimidating, too dumpy looking. A more charismatic, threatening presence could have elevated this episode.

Tales from the Darkside: Parlour Floor Front

Stupid yuppie landlords try to evict a Voodoo witch doctor in this episode of Tales from the Darkside, and you better believe I'm rooting for the witch doctor.

Doug and Linda buy an apartment building they intend to renovate for themselves but find they legally can't evict Mars Gillis, the old guy who's lived there for ages and pays only $85 a month. Then, they find out he also practices Voodoo, and Linda decides she's going to do what it takes to get rid of him, leading to business involving a broken vase, a curse, a wedding ring, and someone coming back from the dead to claim what's his.

"Parlour Floor Front" is a straightforward just-desserts story, no really surprises or much inventiveness, but it's a decent example of the formula. Doug comes off as reasonable, even hiring Gillis to work around the building, and Gillis does his best not to be a burden, but Linda is a nasty, selfish shrew, unsubtly so. She goes as far as to tell Gillis in their first meeting that he's getting away with murder with the rent he pays and treats him like he's subhuman. At one point, Linda declares, "I don't have a guilty conscience," and that's what comes back to bite her: when human morality fails, the supernatural finds a way to balance the scales of justice.

Linda does terrible things in the episode, and the one time we sympathize with her - a miscarriage - we discover she faked that - never even pregnant - and it drives Gillis to kill himself. When Doug learns this, he leaves her, and I don't blame him. Then, she goes to Gillis' casket and takes back the wedding ring she gave him to lift a curse, ignoring the warning from the dead man's sister that gold is where he stored the evil.

Much of the strength of "Parlour Floor Front" comes from the performance of Adolph Caesar as the voodoo practitioner, Mars Gillis. He goes from kindly old man to mysterious witch doctor to vengeful walking corpse very well, and his throaty voice is especially creepy at the end when he rises, climbs the stairs, and and enters Linda's room, declaring, "I want my ring." It might have been scarier if he was more ghoulish-looking as a zombie, but the episode builds the tension of his return well enough, showing his empty casket, his feet as he climbs the stairs, his voice echoing through the building, and his shadowed form appearing at the open bedroom door just before he gets her.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Tales from the Darkside: Lifebomb

"Lifebomb" is an episode of Tales from the Darkside that really could have used a more devilish touch. A CEO working himself to death receives an offer from a mysterious salesman he can't refuse: immortality.

Bill Macy plays the CEO, Ben Martin, and he gives the character more complexity than would be expected from one of these stories. True, he neglects his wife and is rather callous when talking with his assistant about an ongoing lawsuit involving the families of miners killed in an accident (he complains that they knew the risk when they took the job), but he's not a ranting, cackling fiend. He knows his job is killing him, but he has two sons in college, a wife he loves to support, and he notes that the company is going through a difficult financial period (though the latter is never really evidenced and we never meet the sons).

That's why he eventually accepts the offer from salesman Henry Harris. His device, the Lifebomb, will keep him alive through anything, and it won't cost him any money. I fully expected it would cost him his soul, but Harris later explains the insurance companies pay for the device because it's cheaper to pay for this device that will keep him alive rather than pay out millions to his family if he croaks.

That's a neat explanation; it contains a ruthless, business logic, and it's also a nice touch when Harris discusses the other types of clients the Lifebomb has, and Martin notes its' a "who's who" of Fortune 500 CEOs and executives. Yes, you can stay alive and protect your family if you have the clout and money to do so. The downside being, after your wife leaves you and everything around you just starts falling apart and you wish for it all to end, the company and its device will keep you alive indefinitely.

The episode main failing is the Lifebomb itself. Before it activates, it's a bulky plastic box that looks awkwardly duct-taped to Martin's back. When deployed, the episode employs stop-motion animation to show this red cocoon encasing him (one time, all other occurrences happen off screen). Both stages just look lame and cheap.

Also, the ending, in which Martin realizes the device won't let him die, needs a bigger punch. Harris explains the situation, and Martin weeps in his hospital bed, It needs something visceral, a jolting realization of the truth on Martin's part. This is just too low key and static. Maybe Martin finds himself trapped in the device, unable to get out, unable to die, buried alive forever, and his wife, not knowing he's inside it, can have it dumped in the garbage That would have been creepy and ironic.

Tales from the Darkside: The Impressionist

Here's another episode that would have fit better on Amazing Stories. Chuck McCann plays Spiffy Remo, a nightclub impressionist recruited by the government to communicate with an alien. Apparently, the alien, which scientists have dubbed Hoffgosh, responds better to those who mimic its gestures and movements and lashes out at those who aren't so good at it. OK, well, no one ever said these Tales from the Darkside episodes had to be plausible.

To be fair, "The Impressionist" is more of a comedy, and the idea that when an alien does show up we won't know how to communicate with it is certainly one that lends itself to all sorts of story possibilities, comedic or otherwise. I suppose bringing in a guy who mimics Laurel and Hardy to talk to an alien is not the worst idea the government ever had.

The problem with "The Impressionist" is how little screen time is devoted to Remo and the alien interacting. Those encounters should have been the heart of the episode, but more time is devoted to the scientists explaining to Remo why they need him because the alien holds the secret to nuclear fusion and needs to leave the planet soon because it isn't adapting well, and I just didn't care for all that stuff.

Even the encounters between Remo and the alien don't add up to much. Basically, we're watching Chuck McCann match movement with an actor in a cheap alien mask and silver jumpsuit. A more inventive episode would have been able to convey the mutual feelings of distrust that grows into a connection that becomes a friendship.

To be fair, the episode has one great shot: when Remo first enters the interrogation room to confront Hoffgosh, the camera is perched up from a high corner, almost like a surveillance camera, looking down on both figures as the human nervously approaches the alien, which has its back to us so we can't see its face. Even when the pair do move around, the frame highlights how vulnerable Remo is and how weird the alien is.

The ending is kind of touching, with Remo reuniting with Hoffgosh and joining him on his spaceship, the nightclub crowd no longer holding the same sway it once did for him. If their relationship had been better supported, it could have been really touching.