Thursday, October 29, 2009
A well of tradition to draw from
By Edward Copeland
Something happens to the best filmmakers. Even when they are good, once they delve into their own ethnic or societal upbringing, they achieve a deeper greatness, whether the film in question is explicitly autobiographical or not.
Steven Spielberg finally seemed to grow up once he made Schindler's List, even though he'd made great films before that. Martin Scorsese and Ingmar Bergman hit high watermarks early because they didn't delay those explorations. Other filmmakers such as Brian De Palma remain hollow ciphers with little interest in self-examination (or beyond making a couple of interesting film sequences per film).
Though No Country for Old Men showed a new step forward for the Coen brothers, A Serious Man is their first film that openly addresses growing up Jewish in late '60s Minnesota and it is unlike anything they've made before, displaying a maturity unseen in their work while still being great and entertaining.
After opening with a short Jewish fable set in the European past, A Serious Man settles into its Job-like tale of Lawrence Gopnik, a college physics professor in 1967 Minnesota who tries to lives a good life until realities he was completely oblivious to start striking him one after another as his son's bar mitzvah approaches and he's due to learn whether he will get tenure at his university.
Michael Stuhlbarg plays Gopnik with a sense of wide-eyed disbelief at the array of misfortune the befalls him. For some reason early in the film, he momentarily struck me like Bryan Cranston's Walter White on television's great Breaking Bad, but Gopnik isn't that complicated nor terminally ill and he certainly isn't going to become an aspiring drug kingpin. Early in the film, the phrase "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you" appears on the screen and that appears to be Gopnik's approach except for a slight breakdown here or there.
When his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) suddenly announces that she wants a divorce so she can have a ritual Jewish marriage with their friend and widower Sy (Fred Melamed). Sy is an unusual man, wanting to be unusually compassionate and cooperative to Larry while he busts up his marriage. The Gopniks' two children seem disinterested in what's going on with the teen daughter trying to gather cash for a nose job and the son more worried about lousy TV reception for F Troop and money he owes his pot dealer.
Larry doesn't have it much better at his job. As he awaits the tenure decision, he's told that someone is sending anonymous notes questioning his moral turpitude and he's being harassed by a South Korean student and his family who feel that he's been harassed because he's flunking physics and Gopnik won't change his grade or accept his bribe which he may or may not have given the professor.
All of this sends Gopnik on a spiritual journey, embracing his Judaism in a way he never has before, trying to find answers to the all these questions. The Coens keep their own points-of-view close to their chest. You can't be sure if they find all this religiosity silly, if they are viewing Larry's travails from the viewpoint of God or if they take his search seriously.
Whatever the Coens' real-life take, A Serious Man works. In Broadcast News after Albert Brooks' character's disastrous try at anchoring the weekend news, he starts laughing when he describes it to Holly Hunter, explaining that, "At some point, it got so off-the-chart bad, it just got funny." Larry Gopnik never feels that way, but the audience of A Serious Man certainly will as its tone is humor of the darkest shade.
The Coens always have been strong filmmakers, but at times their tendency toward showiness got in the way, especially when the films in question were some of their lesser efforts. There is very little of that here as they do yeoman work on what may be the best screenplay they've written. They're aided ably by frequent collaborators such as composer Carter Burwell, cinematographer Roger Deakins and that phantom film editor Roderick Jaynes.
The entire cast, composed mostly of familiar faces and unknowns, all do good work. Of the supporting cast, I'd single out Melamed and George Wyner as one of the rabbis Larry sees. However, the film revolves around Larry, and the relatively unknown Stuhlbarg pulls it off. His performance is a wonder with so much contained in his face which reminded me of Harold Lloyd. The Coens were smart to place their faith in him to anchor A Serious Man because I can't visualize the film working with another actor as Larry Gopnik.
Labels: 00s, Albert Brooks, Breaking Bad, Coens, Cranston, De Palma, Ingmar Bergman, Scorsese, Spielberg
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Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Drag Me to Hell: the tortured home viewer's cut
By Edward Copeland
Whenever a film hits DVD with the "director's cut," I'm always torn. Should I watch the theatrical version and write about that, since it's what people saw in the theater, or go with the unrated version. With Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell, I toyed with the idea (assuming I liked it) of watching the theatrical version first, which was rated PG-13, and then watch the unrated, unneutered version and compare the two. The best laid plans... Unfortunately, the first DVD that arrived kept freezing and skipping about an hour into the theatrical version. I did all the usual tricks to no avail and then assumed it was a bad disc before mailing it back for a replacement.
When the second disc arrived, the same thing happened, so I tried it out on a portable DVD player, but it didn't solve the problem. Then I noticed something on the screen where you picked between the unrated and theatrical versions: small print indicated that the theatrical version might have problems playing on some DVD players. So, I switched to approximately the same part of the story in the unrated version and finished the film. Therefore, the cut of Drag Me to Hell I saw really was one of my own invention.
Despite the technical problems and my own self-editing hodgepodge, I found Drag Me to Hell quite enjoyable. It's not campy in the way Raimi's early horror forays such as the Evil Dead series was, but Drag Me to Hell is a more straight-forward scarefest about Christine Brown, a sweet young loan officer (Alison Lohman) who makes the mistake of turning down the third mortgage extension to the wrong old gypsy and gets an awful curse placed upon her. Christine's inner, sympathetic instincts might have been to give the old woman (Lorna Raver) to pay what she owes, but her boss at the bank (David Paymer) discourages it and Christine is hoping for a promotion. Given the economic disaster our country has been facing, watching the movie, even though you know Christine doesn't deserve what she gets, you can't help but think it what fun it would have been if some of this country's foreclosure victims, tricked into subprime loans, had been well-versed in the dark arts and taken similar evil action against soulless financial institutions.
Christine does have a smart and attentive professor boyfriend (Justin Long) but she has problems beyond the gypsys's curse to contend with his snobby parents and in addition to her bank boss who still treats her as a secretary while dangling that promotion and a rival loan officer (Reggie Lee) who is after the same job and will sink to anything to steal it out from under her.
Most of the scares in the script by Raimi and his brother Ivan get to be predictable but Sam Raimi's direction moves the action along at such a swift pace that many of the frights catch you by surprise anyway. Lohman, who was so good in the underrated Matchstick Men, really has to carry the film and she does so admirably. Her transformation from sweet and well-meaning to angry, vengeful and willing to do anything to anyone and anything to rid herself of the gypsy's plague is played with great aplomb.
Drag Me to Hell won't go down in history as one of the all-time greats in the horror genre but it's certainly leagues above much of what has passed for good efforts in that field in recent years.
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Sunday, October 25, 2009
Lou Jacobi (1913-2009)
His face is much more familiar than his name, but to some extent that is to be expected for a character actor with as lengthy a career as Lou Jacobi, who has died at 95.
He made his Broadway debut in 1955 in The Diary of Anne Frank as Mr. Van Daan, a role he repeated in the 1959 film version. His other Broadway work included Woody Allen's play Don't Drink the Water. He worked with Allen again on film playing the secret transvestite in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask.
The size of Jacobi's roles varied from single scenes to more significant parts in film and on television. In movies, he appeared in Irma la Douce, Cotton Comes to Harlem, Little Murders, Next Stop, Greenwich Village, Arthur, My Favorite Year and I.Q. Perhaps his best or most notable recent film role was as the cranky and stubborn uncle in Barry Levinson's Avalon, holding a grudge over when a Thanksgiving meal was served.
Jacobi's episodic television work was fairly prolific ranging from multiple appearances on the anthologies Love, American Style and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour as well as series such as Barney Miller, That Girl, St. Elsewhere, Cagney & Lacey, The Dick Van Dyke Show and many others. One of my personal favorites is an episode of Sanford & Son titled "Steinberg & Son" where Fred sues when a TV series appears obviously modeled on his life about a junk dealer and his son only the junk dealer is Jewish and played by Jacobi. In one memorable scene, Redd Foxx's Fred gives Jacobi's Steinberg tips on how he should react to the sitcom's version of Aunt Esther.
RIP Mr. Jacobi.
Labels: B. Levinson, Hitchcock, Obituary, Woody
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Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Fountain of Youth
By Josh R
If you believe what you see on television — particularly during commercial breaks — you might be inclined to think that growing older is just one great big piece of heart-smart, low-cholesterol cake. Age is Just a Number and/or a State of Mind, and with the right battery of hormones and a fridge chock full of Activia, late middle-age can be one long, soft-focus stroll along the beach.
Perhaps it’s a sign of the callowness and callousness of youth, but I’ve always taken a rather dim view of aging — no matter what spin Madison Avenue puts on the process of growing older, the inescapable truth is that time takes its toll on every traveler. With age comes decay — the body weakens, senses diminish, abilities fall by the wayside and we become shadows of our former selves.
Rosemary Harris, the Tony Award-winning actress currently starring in Manhattan Theatre Club’s well-presented revival of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s decidedly dated comedy The Royal Family, is 82 years of age. If this venerated veteran of the boards doesn’t really seem to register the implications of what’s printed on her birth certificate, it doesn’t appear that Father Time is paying much attention either. Whatever Faustian bargain she and fellow octogenarian Angela Lansbury — who has proved equally adept in turning back the clock — have struck to remain at the height of their powers well into their golden years is between them and their confessors. Regardless of whether or not they’ve made a deal with the devil to remain in peak form, the experience of seeing them light up Broadway is nothing short of heavenly.
The play itself, it must be noted, shows its age a bit more conspicuously than its leading lady. Examining the trials and tribulations of a theatrical dynasty none-too-loosely modeled on the Barrymores, it’s the sort of featherweight concoction that probably worked on the same level as You Can’t Take It With You or Arsenic and Old Lace for Depression Era audiences — rose-tinged escapism involving zany characters, slapstick, slamming doors and ludicrous plot devices, blissfully unencumbered by anything resembling dramatic substance. What probably seemed like giddy, spontaneous fun to audiences of yesteryear feels more than slightly labored in a contemporary context. With its rusty mechanics and somewhat stilted dialogue, the text seems so careworn that the experience of hearing it aloud is occasionally like leafing through the pages of a yellowed newspaper that disintegrates upon contact. It’s a testament to the tact and skill of director Doug Hughes that the production moves at a reasonably good pace (there are a few passages that no amount of talent could keep from dragging), and locates the laughs where they still exist and mines them for full impact. Not all octogenarians are as spry as Ms. Harris; The play premiered on Broadway in 1927, which was also the year of her birth. If it doesn’t bear the weight of its 82 years as lightly as she does, it still has its share of incidental pleasures, not the least of which are its performances.
From the moment Ms. Harris steps into the spotlight as Fanny Cavendish, the family matriarch who views the acting profession as something akin to a higher calling, time doesn’t just stand still — it seems to be working in reverse. The performance is so fresh and vibrant that, at times, the actress seems to radiate the very glow of youth, and when, as Fanny, she speaks of her love of the stage, there’s more than just a spirit of nostalgia at work; it’s as if an entire legacy of theatrical experience has been brought to vivid and resplendent life before your eyes. With her elegant self-possession and crystalline delivery, Ms. Harris is a performer in the classic tradition of the Helen Hayeses, Ina Claires and Katharine Cornells; you don’t have to read her Playbill bio (littered with Shakespeares, Shaws, Pinters and Cowards) to know that she’s been there and done that, and probably better than just about anyone else — the evidence is right there in front of you.
More than a bit of that majestic glow rubs off on Jan Maxwell, the protean actress who plays Fanny’s daughter Julie, a celebrated star who would handle her designated role as caretaker to a family of madcaps a bit more fluently if she weren’t so scattershot herself. Given how on point Ms. Harris is, it would be perfectly understandable if the actress playing Julie (the role Ms. Harris herself played in the acclaimed 1976 Broadway revival) didn’t register as much more than a daughter living in her mother’s shadow. With her droll mastery of period style, Ms. Maxwell not only avoids that trap, but brings to the role the kind of star quality that dispels any doubt that Julie can and should exist as a legend in her own right. She and Ms. Harris complement each other beautifully, and when Julie lets her composure fall by the wayside at the end of the second act and becomes unglued, Maxwell artfully whips her performance up to the level of screwball tour-de-force.
If none of the other performers manage to reach such blissful heights of fever-pitched hysteria, they are all more than game. As the rakish matinee idol Tony, Reg Rogers is more Marx Brothers than John Barrymore — it’s the rare instance of a performance that could perhaps benefit from a bit more cultured affectation – but his full-out manic energy is very, very funny. Although his delivery seems a bit wispy for the role of the preening has-been uncle, John Glover has certainly mastered the art of the grand theatrical gesture — as his clueless, classless wife, Ana Gasteyer gets her laughs, even though her performance style is exaggerated to the point that it tends to devolve into a catalog of facial tics (it’s the kind of caricature that would seem more at home in an SNL sketch). No one else in the cast makes as strong an impression, although they are a conscientious bunch of troupers, and provide the two leading ladies with plenty of material to play off of.
It’s Harris and Maxwell who make The Royal Family an essential ticket, even if the play itself seems to be stuck in a bit of a time warp. If you haven’t had the pleasure of witnessing Ms. Harris in her natural habitat prior to now, you’d better get a move on. As unchivalrous as it may be to point out, she isn’t getting any younger — then again, if The Royal Family is any indication, she may well remain blithely indifferent to that fact well into the next decade of her career. Even if time doesn’t really stand still, a great talent can create the illusion that it does.
Labels: Harold Pinter, Lansbury, Shakespeare, Theater
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Monday, October 19, 2009
The only causes worth fighting for
By Edward Copeland
Whenever I prepare to write favorably about Frank Capra, I feel as if I should don a helmet first for the inevitable brickbats that will be launched my way. However, with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington celebrating its 70th birthday, I feel it needs recognition not only because it's a great film but it's a reminder of what a disappointment our elected representatives can be. Oh, if only filibusters were still real filibusters like the one Jefferson Smith gives at the film's climax instead of the toothless maneuver we're stuck with today that denies the right to simple majority rule. (We'll forget for the moment that since the entire Senate was against Smith in the movie, a cloture vote to cut him off would have been easily attainable.) Still, whenever I catch Mr. Smith, no matter how long it has been on, I have to watch until the end. It's the curse of being both a movie buff and a political junkie. In a way, with recent events, it seems to have a bit of timeliness beneath the treacle and idealistic love of how this country should work. (Of course, the film conveniently avoids placing any of the senators within political parties.) With all the recent Senate openings that had to be filled by appointment or fiat, Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) turns out not to be someone who can be controlled by the corrupt political boss of his home state Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), only Smith turns out to be reverent of the job he's taken, not a loose cannon like Illinois' Roland Burris, appointed by an embattled governor like Rod Blagojevich or someone who will do what he's told. The strength of Capra's film is its fine ensemble. In addition to Stewart and Arnold, you've got Jean Arthur as a cynical reporter who schools Jefferson Smith on the ways of Washington falls for his ideals, Thomas Mitchell as her fellow reporter, Harry Carey as the president of the Senate and last, but certainly not least, Claude Rains as the senior senator from Smith's state, a once great man who, as most long-serving lawmakers unfortunately seem to do, gets corrupted by the moneymen who keep him in office and call his shots. How little sadly has changed in 70 years. There also are bits with many other recognizable character actors such as William Demarest, Guy Kibbee, H.B. Warner, Charles Lane and Beulah Bondi. It garnered a slew of Oscar nominations in 1939, Hollywood's most fabled year for great films, though of its 11 nominations, it only won for best original story by Lewis R. Foster and Stewart's loss for best actor always has been believed to lead to his win the following year for The Philadelphia Story as a "makeup Oscar." Mitchell won the Oscar for supporting actor that year but not for Mr. Smith. He was amazingly great and busy in 1939, winning for Stagecoach but also giving solid support in Gone With the Wind and Only Angels Have Wings. Other than Stewart, the other two actors nominated by the Academy were Rains and, interestingly enough, Carey. Carey is good, but in a year as competitive as 1939, it's an odd choice to be sure. It's an odd second choice to pick just from Mr. Smith. Alas, the great Jean Arthur wasn't nominated at all. In fact, she only earned a single nomination in her entire career. As for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington itself, like Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, there is such a label of corniness that has been attached to the films that people forget (or never watch) and see there is a bit of darkness as well. Both films feature protagonists who get the shit kicked out of them by life. Of course, George Bailey is a dreamer, but a realist who recognizes the evil around him. Jefferson Smith also is a dreamer, but he's an naive idealist who is surprised to learn the ways D.C. really works. In the case of Mr. Smith, the chief villain is bad enough to run trucks carrying young boys off roads and give them life-threatening injuries when they aren't just using police to turn fire hoses on them. Still, Jefferson Smith doesn't quit and he doesn't cave and the crooks are defeated and right is victorious. It's a Wonderful Life may have an angel, but Mr. Smith in its own way is a bigger fantasy when you consider the crooks and dimwits we have in Congress today. Mr. Smith can give you a little lift and make you dream of a government that could be run for the people under the principles of the Founding Fathers instead of for the powerful and the pols addicted to the perks of their seats in Congress. Oh, and the movie's damn good, too.
Labels: 30s, Capra, J. Stewart, Jean Arthur, Movie Tributes, Rains, T. Mitchell
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Friday, October 16, 2009
Metal on celluloid
With my access to new films growing more limited with each passing week, it's hard for me to say with any certainty if the recent trend has remained true that nonfiction films still prove more consistently worthwhile than fictional efforts. This year, I've only seen one documentary so far, but it is by far one of the most satisfying film experiences I've had and I don't have a single heavy metal CD in my extensive collection, let alone one by Anvil, the subject of Anvil: The Story of Anvil.
Even in my youth I was never remotely a headbanger, yet for the second time in recent memory a documentary about a heavy metal band (the other being Metallica: Some Kind of Monster) kept me riveted. Of course, the stories of the two bands couldn't be more different.
Metallica enjoyed huge success. Somehow, despite critical acclaim within the genre and some early, highly touted albums, stardom eluded Anvil. Metallica's Lars Ulrich even gives an extended interview on the DVD talking about how he heard of Anvil and how big an influence the band's drummer, Robb Reiner, had at the time, fielding offers from many large acts.
Still, the Canadian band stuck together, having to work other jobs and recording albums on their or using vacation time to accept whatever tour or gigs they can book. As all the band's members, having been together for more than two decades, are near or past 50, director Sacha Gervasi chronicles the group and their lead singer Steve "Lips" Kudlow" as they embark on a disastrous European tour and then self-finance what appears to be a shot at a great, polished comeback album by a noted record producer who worked on some of their early albums as well as those of other notable artists'.
Lips provides the heart of the band and of the film. Anvil is his obsession and his life's work and even though other members of the band and their families know that on some level Lips is a heavy metal Don Quixote, tilting at windmills and pursuing campaigns that were lost to the band long ago, quit doesn't exist in his vocabulary. However, Lips is not a subject of mockery as far as the documentary is concerned. He is a dreamer and he loves his music and will keep making it. You can't help but think of This Is Spinal Tap with a drummer named Robb Reiner, a shot of a knob being turned to 11 and a visit to Stonehenge, but Anvil never laughs at the band's expense.
You root for these middle-age men even if you'd never buy one of their albums yourself. People this committed to what they love and willing to sacrifice so much to pursue it for so long turns out to pretty amazing and awe-inspiring. There also are lots of nice swipes at the record industry and though I have no first-hand knowledge of the industry, when Lips claims that an overwhelming number of musicians never get paid by the labels.
I have no trouble believing that when you see the greedy way they demand repeat payments, ruining old movies and TV shows with their Mafia-like extortion tactics. The actors and writers and so on keep getting residuals for their work, why do the owners of song have to get so specialized, restrictive deals that some shows never appear on DVD or get lame substitution music, ruining people's precious memories?
Forgive my digression. I got distracted and perhaps the world's distraction at a certain place and time is what prevented Anvil from becoming a megasuccess. Regardless, Lips still is doing what he loves and Sacha Gervasi has made a movie document that preserves for the ages that Anvil was here.
Labels: 00s, Documentary, Music
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Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Another season, another reason
By Edward Copeland
It's a cliche to say, "They don't make 'em like they used to." It's downright depressing when that trite saying is being employed to refer to a film such as The Fabulous Baker Boys that is just marking its 20th anniversary. Has Hollywood really degenerated this much this fast? In 1989, this was a big studio release. Now, we'd be lucky if someone would pick it up as an independent feature. Maybe if the Baker Boys were built out of Legos or transformed into robots.
When I first saw Steve Kloves' film in 1989, while I liked it, I didn't know quite what to think of it because it really was unlike any major studio release I was used to at the time. Here it was though: a film more like a tone poem than a heavily plotted release with Warner Bros. behind it and marquee names such as Sydney Pollack and Paula Weinstein backing a first-time writer-director on a film whose commercial prospects must have seemed limited. Before Kloves made The Fabulous Baker Boys, his main credit was as the screenwriter of the good but largely forgotten coming-of-age film Racing With the Moon starring Sean Penn, Nicolas Cage and Elizabeth McGovern. Michelle Pfeiffer's star was just beginning to rise, but she couldn't be counted on to lure in audiences. Jeff Bridges was a much respected actor but hardly box office gold and that was even more the case with his co-star, brother Beau. They even dared to allow a film with an open-ended, ambiguous ending. Still, they took the chance and allowed this film to be made and it is one that grows better and better with each viewing, even though I know deep down that if all the planets hadn't been in alignment at the right moment in the late 1980s, this film gem would never have been made. That makes me sad. It also makes me sadder to think of Kloves' career direction. He made another film as writer-director, Flesh and Bone, a mixed bag of a movie most notable for first gaining notice for Gwyneth Paltrow. Since then, he's been purely a screenwriter, albeit a great one, doing a faithful and solid job at adapting Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys and adapting every single Harry Potter book with the exception of The Order of the Phoenix. He got the job because The Fabulous Baker Boys is one of J.K. Rowlings' favorite films. Still, I wish Kloves had the chance to write and direct his own original work again.
Still, even if Kloves never directs again, he's left us a great one in The Fabulous Baker Boys where seemingly every aspect is top notch, from Dave Grusin's moody, jazz-like score which seems in perfect harmony with Michael Ballhaus' cinematography, full of smoke and shadows, almost creating a color noir look to this tale of two piano-playing brothers. You're never quite certain where this film is heading because plot is almost irrelevant, yet Kloves creates a fictional universe with such complete confidence that it's never a concern. Having real-life brothers Jeff and Beau Bridges play Jack and Frank Baker was a brilliant stroke. Not only do the true siblings have a short-hand that only a lifetime of knowing each other could have brought, Baker Boys also gives each of the actors what may well be their finest feature film roles. Most of Beau's best work came on TV after this, but his Frank is memorable as the passive-aggressive control freak, who fancies himself the business brains behind the act and who works to support his wife and kids, even though he knows that his brother is the one with the greater talent. Jack though is the center of the film and Jeff Bridges is superb as the chain-smoking, borderline alcoholic who hates the redundancy of his life and would rather be playing what he wants instead of the same set for the umpteenth time. He can be cruel and as one character describes him, cold as razorblades, yet he still takes time to be a pseudo-surrogate dad for the young girl who lives upstairs from him and frequently is abandoned by her mother for her frequent boyfriends. Bridges has been great so often in so many films sometimes it's easy to forget about him, but I've never forgotten his Jack Baker. Of course, the third member of this acting team is Pfeiffer as Susie Diamond, the singer the brothers hire when Frank decides that perhaps they need a vocalist to jump-start the act. Pfeiffer's work is both sultry and superb and there's a wisp of sadness when you remember when Pfeiffer was on the rise before she began turning down great roles and appeared to commit career suicide in crap such as I Am Sam. Susie not only revitalizes the act, she creates friction about other changes. When one of Frank's kids get sick and he has to let Jack and Susie perform alone, the two relish the chance to change the playlist. When Frank learns later they skipped "Feelings," an argument ensues over whether the song is filet mignon or parsley. In terms of movies, The Fabulous Baker Boys is most definitely filet. In fact, 1989 may be the most recent year to serve up so many delectable entrees and desserts in the form of movies. From the masterpieces to the solid good times, it truly was an amazing year and The Fabulous Baker Boys is another example of what cinematic magic that movie year managed to bestow as gifts to us who worship films.
Labels: 80s, Beau Bridges, Chabon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, Movie Tributes, Nicolas Cage, Pfeiffer, Sean Penn, Sydney Pollack
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Monday, October 12, 2009
On the road to nowhere
By Edward Copeland
When a film is structured as a road trip, basically a series of vignettes, you're going to run into trouble when the characters your main protagonists meet along the way are infinitely more interesting than the film's stars are. Each time you run into a new set of potentially fascinating people, Away We Go jerks the characters away and sticks you back into the company of the two bores you began the journey with and from whom you were seeking respite.
John Krasinksi and Maya Rudolph star as Burt and Verona, a couple expecting their first child in Sam Mendes' film of Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida's screenplay. The pair are uncertain where and how to make a life. Burt would like to wed, but Verona sees no need and two take off across North America seeing friends, acquaintances and relatives to get ideas of what to do and what not to do in their future. While Krasinksi and Rudolph each have their moments, especially Krasinski, the stars are overshadowed by the characters they meet on their journey,
First, there is an all-to-brief but fun appearance by Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara as Burt's parents. They are followed by hysterical turns by Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan as a long married couple and later by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Josh Hamilton as a New Agey pair who believe they have all the answers and finally set Burt off.
The problem with Away We Go, as with most films of this sort of episodic nature, is that the structure comes prebuilt with its own inevitable series of ups and downs and some parts work better than others and the whole suffers as a result.
This is doubly the case here since we never get a good hook on who Burt and Verona are and why we should care enough to follow these two around to begin with. Away We Go isn't a bad film, it's just one that was flawed from its conception and the movie that ended up being born as a result just doesn't work.
Labels: 00s, Jeff Daniels, M. Gyllenhaal
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Friday, October 09, 2009
By Edward Copeland
"When I Paint My Masterpiece" is one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs, even if I prefer his version to the cover by The Band that opens Observe and Report. It's a strange musical choice to open the movie, but then almost every choice made in writer-director Jody Hill's film is an odd one.
When this Seth Rogen vehicle opened earlier this year, much was made of the scene where Rogen's character basically rapes an unconscious Anna Faris, but I'm not so sure why that scene leaped out as disturbing when most of the tone of the film up to that point has been disturbing. I think Hill set out to make a jet black comedy only most of the comedy got left out and what's left is a fractured, uneven tale that I imagine might resemble what a long 1970s-style Dick Cavett interview with Crispin Glover would look like.
Rogen stars as Ronnie Barnhardt, head of security at a suburban mall afflicted with a parking lot flasher. To say Ronnie is wound tight is an understatement. He views the mall as his kingdom, the cosmetics girl (Faris) as his secret love and his word as the law. While Rogen can be hysterical, he plays it straight and it's only late in the film that it explicitly spells out that Ronnie suffers from bipolar disorder. Prior to that, you think you're just watching an unfunny, dry spoof of Travis Bickle, but the way the film is made, it's not designed to laugh at Ronnie or to feel sympathy for him either.
Rogen gives such a fierce, committed performance as Ronnie that you wish he was in a better movie. In fact, all the actors seem adrift in their own separate movies that somehow have been poured together in some kitchen sink to form an alcoholic jungle juice concoction at a high school party being held while the parents are out of town.
Michael Pena gets some funny moments as another mall guard and seems to be in a subtler comedy. Celia Weston can unfurl her comic talents in her sleep and does it again as Rogen's boozy mom, but again she seems out of another film. Ray Liotta plays his role as a police detective hampered by Rogen's delusions pretty straight, almost as if he realizes Ronnie is a psycho and this shouldn't be a funny movie. Faris seems to be doing an amalgamation of many of her past roles.
While you can't say that anyone gives a bad performance, they are all hostage to a screenplay that just doesn't know what the hell it wants to be. Then, to make matters worse, it tries to slap somewhat of a happy ending on the whole mess, even if it is a happy ending tinged with anger. Someone should have observed this film much more closely as it was being made and report to people in charge that a disaster was at hand.
Labels: 00s, Dylan, Liotta, Seth Rogen
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Wednesday, October 07, 2009
A One-Note Shtick
By Jonathan Pacheco
The initial draft of this review spent 850+ words droning on about the mockumentary aesthetic of Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, going back and forth on whether or not to fault the film for abandoning said aesthetic halfway through the film. When I gave the draft to my friend and unofficial editor, her notes boiled down to this: “Why am I reading this?” My review of District 9 had no hook, no real reason to be read. I realized that my friend didn’t care about what I had to say because I didn’t care about this film. District 9, while not the instant classic many hyped it up to be, really isn’t a bad movie; I enjoyed myself watching it. So why, then, do I feel nothing for it?
When you get down to it, District 9 exists because of its gimmick concept: it’s a fake documentary about humans oppressing aliens — and not the other way around. The film follows the recent effort by a private military contractor, Multinational United (MNU), to move all the aliens from their current home, the slum-like District 9, to the new, more controlled District 10. Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a by-the-books company man, leads this operation, bending morals and laws to make the move as swift as possible. His troubles begin when he’s exposed to an alien biotechnology during the operation.
Like Cloverfield before it, District 9 fascinates until one looks beyond the film’s thin stylistic veneer. I’ll admit, the incorporation of state-of-the-art CG into shaky-cam footage hypnotizes me; a few years ago this was barely possible. Now it’s the de facto technique to ensure your computer generated objects “seem more real,” and most of the time it works. But all you’ll find behind this aesthetic in District 9 is a fairly color-by-numbers action flick, as the movie takes few risks in its portrayal of its reluctant hero, the predictable villains, or any of their interactions. Even the characterization of the maltreated aliens offers little originality beyond the initial switcheroo setup. The “prawns,” as they’re degradingly called, are depicted as violent, relatively unintelligent, and slightly barbaric creatures (of course, not nearly as savage as the evil corporate white man). If the aliens were Africans and the intelligent “prawn” Christopher Johnson was played by Djimon Hounsou, you’d find yourself watching Blood Diamond.
Blomkamp flaunts the themes of racism and xenophobia, making no attempt at subtlety (though with a plot involving persecuted “aliens,” how subtle can you really get?). Consequently, District 9 subjects us to tried-and-true action flick scenes, such as when Wikus and Christopher join forces to tag-team their way through adversity, reaching their goals and gaining a greater appreciation for the other’s uniqueness. Right. Didn’t that also happen in Rush Hour? What seems to be the difference maker for a lot of critics and viewers is the film’s overt political metaphor involving the apartheid (and post-apartheid) system of segregation in South Africa’s history and present day. I won’t lie and tell you I knew the history of these occurrences when I watched District 9, but I also won’t lie and tell you that the symbolism makes much of a difference. I find myself trying to care about the film’s well-meaning usage of the metaphor, but it really has nothing interesting or resonating to say other than, “This is some bad stuff going on, man.”
Comparatively, yes, it’s 10 times more engaging and intelligent than the summer action fare that reigned over multiple screens at your local theater, but objectively, District 9 is a decent cinematic diversion and not much else. By resorting to character clichés and settling for shallow metaphors, Blomkamp prevents himself from elevating his film beyond much other than a stylistic gimmick. Gimmicks can be fun, but once they’re over, why should I care?
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Tuesday, October 06, 2009
Capitalism: a love story
By Edward Copeland
The words that appear on the screen at the opening of Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka, 70 years old today, tells us that the film is set in Paris at the time when a siren was a brunette not an alarm and that when a Frenchman turned off a light, it wasn't because of an air raid. You have to think that those words came from the typewriters of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, who are credited with the screenplay along with Walter Reisch. Lubitsch, Wilder, Brackett and to top it all off, you've got Greta Garbo in a film that was marketed under the tag: Garbo Laughs. So will you. The tone in a way seems reminiscent of Wilder's classic from decades later, One, Two, Three. The story concerns a trio of bumbling of Soviets who come to Paris attempting to sell the jewels of a former grand duchess only to have the deal legally thwarted by the duchess's man in Paris, Leon (Melvyn Douglas), who gets an injunction saying the goods still belong to the woman (Ina Claire) and the Russians have no right to them. When he talks the trio (Sig Rumann, Felix Bressart and Alexander Granart) into messaging back to Moscow an agreement where the the duchess and the Soviets will split the proceeds of the sale, the communist superiors are furious and send a special envoy to straighten things out in the form of Garbo. Garbo plays Nina Yakushova Ivanoff or Ninotchka, a prim, pure committed communist, devoted to her country's ideals and the eventual fall of capitalism that its inherent corruption will bring. She's insulted that Parisians make an issue of her womanhood, feeling perfectly capable of carrying her own bags. She's shocked at the cost and extravagance of the hotel suite in which she's been booked, which could purchase seven cows for her Russian people a day. As she tours Paris, including the requisite trip to the Eiffel Tower, by coincidence she runs into Leon and the two competing economic systems can't get in the way of a mutual attraction, especially since Ninotchka doesn't know Leon is her legal rival at first. She appreciates he might have qualities despite being "the unfortunate product of a doomed culture." Ninotchka brought Garbo the third (or fourth, depending how you count the year she was nominated for two movies) and final Oscar nomination of her career and there is probably a good chance she might have won had she not been facing one of the all-time best actress juggernauts in Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara. Garbo is a wonder here, from her rigid beginnings, to the slow seduction the trappings of Parisian society and Douglas' flirtation make on her. Few times on film has such a humorless character been so hilarious, so much so that when Ninotchka finally lets loose with laughter, it is a true joy to behold. For many, Douglas also might prove to be a revelation as the charming Leon. Many may know him best from his Oscar-winning roles from much later in his career, as Paul Newman's tough, grizzled father in 1963's Hud and as the billionaire industrialist who takes a dim gardener under his wing in 1979's Being There. The younger Douglas is witty, charming, fleet on his feet and a great match with Garbo when the two do a drunken duet. Garbo and Douglas also get able support from the rest of the cast which includes Bela Lugosi who gets fourth billing for a single scene as a top Russian official. It's always nice to see Lugosi in a first-class production before his life and career fell apart. Still, it's Garbo and Douglas, with the strong underpinnings of Lubitsch's grace and Wilder and Brackett's wit, that make Ninotchka such a charmer, even 70 years later.
Labels: 30s, Garbo, Lubitsch, Lugosi, Movie Tributes, Newman, V. Leigh, Wilder
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Monday, October 05, 2009
…and now for something completely different
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
The scene begins as a group of men and women are seated in an area near the counter of a pharmacy — or “chemist’s”, as they’re called in the U.K. There is a sign on the counter that reads “Dispensing Department” and a cheerful employee enters…
CHEMIST: Right. I've got some of your prescriptions here...er, who's got the pox? (Nobody reacts) ... Come on, who's got the pox ... come on... (A man timidly puts his hand up) . .. there you go. (throws bottle to the man with his hand up) Who's got a boil on the bum... boil on the botty... (throws bottle to the only man standing up) Who's got the chest rash? (a woman with a large bosom puts up hand) Have to get a bigger bottle...who's got wind? (throws bottle to a man sitting by himself) Catch...
The sketch is interrupted by an individual, apparently representing the British Broadcasting Corporation, who apologizes for the “poor quality of the writing in that sketch” by displaying a series of words on projector slides that he promises will “not be used again on this programme”: B*M, B*TTY, P*X, KN*CKERS, W**-W** and SEMPRINI. A woman enters the shot and asks innocently: “Semprini?” The BBC official demands she leave at once, and for the rest of the show anyone uttering this word is quickly hustled offstage by a uniformed policeman.
This was my introduction to a classic television show that debuted on this date 40 years ago: Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
How did a sketch comedy program that Python member Michael Palin once described as only being watched by “insomniacs and burglars” become a pop culture phenomenon so huge that it added a new word to the dictionary — “Pythonesque” — to describe its unusual brand of anarchic, surreal humor? The success of Circus can be attributed to many factors, but chiefly among them were the six individuals responsible for writing and performing in the series: Palin, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and animator Terry Gilliam (the only Yank in the bunch). At the time of Circus’ debut, these men were prepared to take risks in the tradition of Beyond the Fringe and the Peter Cook-Dudley Moore series Not Only...But Also, frequently writing sketches in free-form fashion that eschewed the time-honored tradition of endings and punch lines (something they gleaned from Goon Show alumnus Spike Milligan and his comedy series Q5) and taking advantage of the show’s late scheduling to engage in any kind of silliness that tickled their collective fancies. But the educational background of many of the members in Python — Chapman, Cleese and Idle attended Cambridge; Jones and Palin were Oxford grads (collectively they referred to themselves as “Oxbridge”) — was frequently showcased in their sketches, with historical figures like Mozart, Trotsky, Lenin, Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan often made the butt of the jokes. There was also a slight political tinge to the proceedings, with the six Pythons gleefully sending up and lampooning authority figures (politicians, policemen) and other idiosyncratic facets of British life.
At the time Circus was putting up its tent, only John Cleese could be called the instantly recognizable member of the embryonic comedy troupe; in addition to writing for television comedian David Frost, he also appeared in sketches of Frost’s various series, notably The Frost Report. Chapman had worked with Cleese as both a writing partner and performer on a scarcely-seen sketch comedy called At Last the 1948 Show (which also featured an up-and-comer named Marty Feldman). Gilliam, Idle, Jones and Palin made each other’s acquaintances on the cult series Do Not Adjust Your Set, with Gilliam creating animated “links” for the series and the other three writing and performing. The BBC’s idea was to put both Cleese and Palin in a series — executives stressed that the word “circus” had to be in the title — but under the tutelage of writer-producer Barry Took (who at one point could have been the namesake of a series called Baron von Took’s Flying Circus) the others were asked to participate as well. The troupe kept the “Flying Circus” part of the title but decided to add “Monty Python” because it sounded like a disreputable agent in show business. (If the Beeb had not been so insistent on the “Circus” title, it’s possible that I could be writing right now about Whither Canada? or Owl Stretching Time — two of the many alternate appellations for the show that engaged the Pythons in spirited debate.)
Though the Pythons themselves took on the various characters played on the series — both male and female — there were a few other performers who appeared on Circus from time to time. The most famous of these was Carol Cleveland, who was usually cast as beautiful women with bodacious ta-ta’s, since the females played by the Python troupe had a tendency to be loud, shrill and unattractive ladies that the members referred to as “pepperpots.” Other regulars included Connie Booth (who was Cleese’s wife at the time — she would later team up with her husband to write and appear in one of the classic Britcoms, Fawlty Towers), Ian McNaughton (the show’s director), Neil Innes and the Fred Tomlinson Singers — who were used when a musical number needed performed. The Pythons also created some memorable characters who, unlike today’s Saturday Night Live, were used sparingly so as not to wear out their welcome. They included Graham Chapman’s bristling Army colonel (who would interrupt sketches that he felt were getting “too silly”); Terry Jones’ naked, smirking organist (also played by Terry Gilliam in the early episodes), Michael Palin’s “It’s” man, who was featured in the opening of many episodes — a hirsute hermit with torn, ragged clothing who just barely managed to get out the word “it’s” before being cut off by Gilliam’s animated credits and John Philip Sousa’s The Liberty Bell, the show’s theme song; and the Gumbys — the male counterpart to the Pepperpots; a group of mustachioed men wearing wire rim glasses, handkerchiefs on their head and gum boots. Cleese also created a dapper, tuxedo-wearing BBC continuity announcer that would often keep the show moving along with his pronouncement: “And now for something completely different…” — which served as the title for the troupe’s first feature film (a compilation of sketches from the first and second series) in 1971.
By the second series, Flying Circus had become such a cult favorite that members of the public would scramble to get hard-to-acquire tickets to attend tapings (a far cry from the early days, in which the audience would be made up of the same type of Women’s Institute members shown applauding in stock footage, another of Circus’ running gags) and the show was given the green light for a third go-round as well. It was then that writer-performer Cleese became disgruntled with Circus; it wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy performing with the other members of the troupe, it’s just that he felt they were repeating themselves in many of Series 3’s sketches. Cleese, who once described himself in an interview as having “a low threshold of boredom,” was also annoyed because he had become the most recognizable of the six-member group in the eyes of the public…due in large part to one of the show’s classic sketches in which he played a government bureaucrat who worked in “The Ministry of Silly Walks.” (Anyone familiar with this bit knows that the physical comedy demonstrated by Cleese is simply falling-down funny — but when constantly asked by people on the street to “do the silly walk” it quickly loses its novelty.) Cleese opted out of doing a fourth series, so the remaining members finished out Circus’ run with a truncated run of six episodes (also shortening the show’s title to Monty Python) that gave writing credits to the departing Cleese for some sketches they used that had been cut from their second feature film, the cult classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974). On Dec. 5, 1974, it mattered very little as to what the series was called; BBC-2 aired the final episode, cementing the show’s place in television history.
That same year, with the success of bringing series like Upstairs, Downstairs to American audiences, the BBC arranged for the 39 Flying Circus repeats to be syndicated to PBS stations throughout the U.S. (they were first shown on Dallas’ KERA-TV). The six installments of the fourth series were purchased by ABC and featured on the network’s late-night Wide World of Entertainment program…but unfortunately the episodes were so heavily edited and censored viewers couldn’t make heads or tails of them — and the presentation of the shows infuriated the Pythons, who took steps to settle the matter through the justice system in a landmark case that ultimately granted them the right to control all subsequent U.S. broadcasts…and also allowed them to gain the rights to the programs from the BBC when their contracts with the network expired in 1980. (A little-known fact is that the Beeb originally had planned to “wipe” [erase] the original Circus videotapes in a cost-cutting measure that has since robbed TV historians to see some valuable British programs — the early episodes of the groundbreaking Till Death Us Do Part, for example. Someone working at the BBC tipped off the Pythons, who were able to sneak the tapes out and make copies for their own collection…until the emerging popularity of the series convinced the Beeb to change their plans.)
Since the end of the original Flying Circus transmissions, the remaining members of Python (Graham Chapman passed away in 1989) have gone on to both successful individual projects, reuniting on occasion for feature films like Life of Brian (1979), Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982) and The Meaning of Life (1983). All of these films are lofty testaments to the team’s success and talent, but I fervently believe that the original television series remains their crowning glory. One of the first major DVD box set purchases I made after acquiring a DVD player was The Complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus — a collection that was so pricey (even though I bought it at a substantial discount) I first had difficulty justifying its presence in my library. But I know that if I have a particularly shitty day, I can always pop one of the discs in the player…and as soon as I hear that rousing Sousa theme, my cares and worries have been wiped away. (Know what I mean, squire? Nudge nudge, wink wink?)
Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. blogs at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, and continues to maintain that had he not been exposed to Monty Python’s Flying Circus as a kid he might have turned out to be a normal, productive member of society.
Labels: 60s, 70s, Cleese, Terry Gilliam, TV Tribute
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Friday, October 02, 2009
Submitted for your approval
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
I watched a lot of television in the summer of 1981, and most of that came courtesy of WGN in Chicago — which due to its “superstation” status was offered by our cable service in my hometown of Ravenswood, WVa. Most people remember that summer as the year of the Major League Baseball strike (the fifth one since 1972) and while I haven’t forgotten it either, at the time it didn’t matter much to me. My team, the Atlanta Braves, were perennial cellar-dwellers but I also enjoyed watching Chicago Cubs games (the great thing about the Cubs was if they won, it was great...and if they didn’t…well, it’s not like it came as a surprise) and the strike meant WGN would have to fill up the usual time allotted for games with alternative programming. That summer introduced me to the delights of The Honeymooners, the landmark situation comedy starring Jackie Gleason, Audrey Meadows and Art Carney — a series that was culled from the popular sketches featured on Gleason’s Saturday night comedy-variety program.
But there was another series rerun at that same time that really made me sit up and take notice. A series that allowed me to travel 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. That’s the signpost up ahead…next stop, The Twilight Zone!
Fifty years ago on this date in television history, CBS-TV introduced a brand-new television series that was shaping up to be a big question mark on its fall schedule. The series’ creator, Rod Serling, was a well-known and well-established TV playwright who had garnered both Emmy Awards and critical kudos for many of his televised plays. Patterns, The Rack, The Comedian, Requiem for a Heavyweight — these and many more were insightful pieces that examined and probed the human condition, and even years after their original appearances on the cathode ray tube, continue to pack a powerful dramatic punch today.
But Serling constantly ran up against walls of interference from the producers working on the programs on which his plays were presented. A dramatic anthology program forced him to change a line about the Nazis exterminating Jews with gas because the sponsor of said program…was a gas company. In A Town Has Turned to Dust, Serling was forced to water down the play’s content when his patrons objected to the subject matter — a thinly disguised dramatization of the Emmett Till trial. His political drama The Arena experienced similar problems — he would not be allowed to write about tariff (because this favored Republicans) or labor (Democrats). “To say a single thing germane to the current political scene was absolutely prohibited,” he later lamented.
Serling began to toy with the idea of doing a series that would be a blending of the science-fiction, fantasy, suspense and horror genres he so loved as a kid — with a special nod to one of his radio heroes, Norman Corwin, and to NBC’s landmark science-fiction radio drama X-Minus One. By putting his ideas “in other worlds,” he felt he would be able to deflect criticism from the people holding the purse strings by presenting his social commentary in the form of allegories or parables. His opportunity to test-drive this concept came when Bert Granet, the producer of Westinghouse’s Desilu Playhouse, found an old script of Rod’s in the CBS vaults entitled “The Time Element.” Granet insisted on doing Serling’s script on Playhouse, arguing that the author’s name would add a little prestige to a program whose biggest draw was an irregular run of hour-long I Love Lucy comedy specials starring Lucille Ball and husband Desi Arnaz. “Element” featured William Bendix as a man who inexplicably found himself going back in time to Honolulu in 1941, prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Bendix is telling all this to a psychoanalyst played by Martin Balsam, who assures his patient that time travel is impossible…but in the production’s twist ending isn’t quite as confident about his theories as he once was when Bendix inexplicably vanishes into thin air.
Audiences and critics were delighted by “Element,” and buoyed by both a glowing New York Times review by Jack Gould and nearly 6,000 letters of viewer support; Granet had enough leverage to convince the network that Serling’s science-fiction/fantasy series idea had some merit. A second pilot for Zone, “Where is Everybody?” was produced (this production became the series’ inaugural episode), starring Earl Holliman as a man who finds himself completely alone in a seemingly deserted town. Despite the confidence placed in Serling, network executives still found getting sponsors on board a hard sell — and the creator himself was subjected to a great deal of skepticism before the show’s debut. In a now famous interview with future 60 Minutes regular Mike Wallace, Rod was submitted to a grilling from the tenacious pit-bull reporter, who felt that prestigious playwright Serling had obviously fallen out of his tree. Commented Wallace: "...[Y]ou're going to be, obviously, working so hard on The Twilight Zone that, in essence, for the time being and for the foreseeable future, you've given up on writing anything important for television, right?"
Ah, but as Aesop himself would say: “He who laughs last, laughs best.” Serling’s hard work paid off huge dividends (he even became a television icon by appearing as the series’ host) and though The Twilight Zone was never a monster hit, it drew a cult audience from the moment of its debut; an army of viewers who were only too happy to push the series into the national dialogue. U.S. intelligence analysts began to reference the “twilight zone” during the Cold War to define the “grey area” in diplomacy where the U.S. had no policy regarding certain countries. Serling thought he had made the term up, but a few years after the series’ run he learned that the term was used extensively by the U.S. Air Force to describe the imaginary border between “night” and “day” on a planetary body. Serling, who wrote the bulk of the original series’ 156 episodes, was allowed to let his imagination run loose and focus on taboo topics of the day like nuclear war, mass hysteria and McCarthyism — all coated with a fine fantasy/sci-fi sheen. Case in point: “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” in which a suburban neighborhood comes apart at the seams when “strange things” like mysterious noises, lights and temporary loss of electricity begin to occur among its inhabitants. This classic half-hour beautifully illustrates the famous words of Pogo cartoonist Walt Kelly: “We have met the enemy, and they is us.”
The prestige of The Twilight Zone was such that it attracted a slew of highly respected writers to pen the scripts Serling could not; they included the likes of Richard Mattheson, Charles Beaumont, George Clayton Johnson, Jerry Sohl, Earl Hamner, Jr., Reginald Rose, Harlan Ellison and Serling’s boyhood hero, Ray Bradbury. Even today, the quality of Serling and company’s episodes attest to the high-water mark set by the series: “Time Enough at Last,” “A Stop at Willoughby,” “The Howling Man,” “The Eye of the Beholder,” “The Invaders,” “The Obsolete Man,” “A Game of Pool,” “To Serve Man,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and so many more. My personal favorite — and in many ways the quintessential Zone episode — is “Walking Distance,” a bittersweet drama about a jaded, tired business executive (Gig Young) who finds himself back in the hometown of his youth. He achingly yearns to stay in a time of summer carnivals and soda shops, but his father implores him to return back to the present, advising him “there’s only one summer to every customer.” The mere mention of this poignant dramatic piece brings tears to my eyes…and if I happen to catch it on a repeat…Niagara Falls.
The success of the original Twilight Zone spurred on two attempts to capturing lightning twice — one that lasted two seasons on its original network (CBS) beginning in 1985 (it was also inspired by the success of a 1983 feature film based on the original), and a second revival on UPN in 2002-2003 (the 1985 version also had a short run in syndication). Neither of these could capture the specialness of the original show, earning enmity from both audiences and critics, but the Twilight Zone phenomenon continues on in the form of a successful radio series, books, musical tributes, comics, video games…and even a theme-park attraction entitled The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Rod Serling’s unassuming little series allowed many individuals to cash in on its fame — but it also taught me that there is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity; it is the middle ground between light and shadow between science and superstition and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. And for that, I am truly grateful.
Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. blogs at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear…and is not at all ashamed to admit that when he first caught sight of the “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” gremlin he did a stupendous back flip (from his seated position in front of the TV, of course). However, the judges were not impressed.
Labels: 50s, 60s, L. Ball, TV Tribute
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