Tuesday, April 09, 2019

The Twilight Zone -- Season 2 Episode 4 (A Thing About Machines)

The Twilight Zone had a lot of great episodes.  It also had a few not-so-great episodes.  There are a few, like A Thing About Machines, that I probably never would have heard of had it not been for my ability to stream them.  Unless a TV station is dedicated to playing the series in order or you buy the boxed set, I don’t imagine you’re likely to come across this one, either.

It’s about one Mr. Bartlett Finchley, a writer for food magazines.  He’s surrounded himself with all manner of devices that he hates.  (The episode starts with a repairman fixing the TV.)  It’s not clear how this came to be, but two things are clear:  It’s been going on for a while and Finchley is not a nice person.

His mistreatment of devices may be an outlet for his dim view of other people, as neither the repairman nor his secretary seems pleased to deal with him.  He’s the kind of guy that would chase people off his property just because they’re there.

Things come to a head when the devices start to talk back.  The woman on the television tells Finchley to leave.  The typewriter keeps producing a similar message.  His electric razor even chases him.  The episode ends with Finchley being chased into a neighbor’s pool.

I think the reason that this episode is forgotten is that there’s no real plot other than Kill Finchley.  It’s not even explained why he has so many electric devices.  A car is understandable; it’s necessary for mobility.  One could easily do without a TV or radio, though.  An electric razor could be replaced with a regular blade.  Even an electric typewriter/word processor could be replaced with a manual typewriter.  It seems a bit excessive for someone that doesn’t want it unless it’s neurotic behavior we’re talking about.

This is where the episode falls flat.  We never come to understand Finchley.  We never come to appreciate him or sympathize with him.  Even villains have to be relatable.  This is someone who has probably never been relatable.  He makes no attempt to relate to others.

There’s not even a twist ending.  Other similar episodes have some sort of clue that it might have been real, even when all other indicators point toward fantasy.  Fortunately, episodes like this are rare among The Twilight Zone.   Most are at least decent.  I’m happy to think of this episode as being the exception rather than the rule.



Monday, April 08, 2019

The Twilight Zone -- Season 2 Episode 3 (Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room)

Jackie Rhoades is a petty criminal.  More than that, he’s a relatively minor person in the overall scheme of the criminal organization and life in general.  He never stands up to people and has nothing to show for his inaction.  He’s a nobody.

Jackie begins the episode in a cheap motel room, as the title would imply, waiting for instructions from his handler, George.  Those instructions are to kill a barkeeper who isn’t keeping up with protection money.  This is beyond what Jackie thinks himself capable of, which is exactly why he’s given the job.

While talking to himself in a mirror, Jackie finds a different version of himself.  This version is confident and willing to do what it takes to get noticed.  For purposes of this review, we’ll call this version John Rhoades.  John and Jackie argue about what to do.  Jackie could shoot the barkeep and risk the death penalty or he could not do the job and risk the wrath of George.

The term bottle episode originated with Star Trek, although such episodes have been found in series both before and since.  A bottle episode tends to refer to episodic television using established sets and as few guest actors as possible.  (The term comes from Star Trek having to use only ship sets, hence a ship-in-a-bottle episode.)   The Twilight Zone also had a few entries, this being one of them.

The entire narrative for Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room takes place in one room and involves only two characters.  To make it more of a character study, George only appears for a minute or two at the beginning and the end of the episode.  The advantage is that we get to know both sides of Mr. Rhoades very well.

It actually works kind of well.  The say that you have to be able to look at the man in the mirror.  Imagine having a whole conversation.  It would seem a little simple by today’s standards.  I imagine that this is why the show keeps getting an update every few decades.  Given that the second-season episodes are only 30 minutes each, it’s worth a watch, especially if you can get it streaming.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Shazam! (2019)

Within the various comic-book universes, there seem to be a few well-known characters.  Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman have seen a great many incarnations.  I have to admit that there are those, like Shazam!, that I’m not as familiar with.  In fact, I might not have heard the name at all if not for a line of trading cards produced almost 25 years ago.  It makes me wonder if there’s some push to release superhero movies.  Given that there might be another Justice League movie, it’s possible that this is one of the movies setting up that narrative.  (It was mentioned that there were several extra seats.)

Shazam! is the origin story of the title character.  The Wizard Shazam is looking for a successor, as he’s nearing death.  The movie starts with Shazam pulling a young Thaddeus Sivana out of his reality to The Rock of Eternity so that Shazam might test the purity of Thaddeus’s heart.  Thaddeus fails and is sent back to Earth.  Cut to the present day, and Thaddeus is now a doctor.  He hasn’t stopped looking for a way back.  When he finds it, he takes the power of The Seven Deadly Sins as his own.

Meanwhile, we learn that Billy Batson is a troubled kid.  He lures a police car to a fake robbery so that he might find information on a woman who might be his long-lost mother.  He’s been through many foster homes, as he tends to run away and/or get in trouble with the police.  His latest escapade lands him in the foster home of Rosa and Victor Vasquez, where he meets Freddy Freeman, one of the Vasquezes’ other foster children.  The two become reluctant friends after Billy comes to Freddy’s defense.  After escaping to bullies, Billy finds himself on The Rock of Eternity, being asked to say Shazam and take with him the dying wizard’s powers.

Those that grew up in the 1980s may remember a TV show called The Greatest American Hero.  During the three seasons of the show, teacher Ralph Hinkley is given a superhero’s suit by aliens.  The running gag is that Ralph has difficulty landing and doesn’t know what kinds of powers the suit has.  (He lost the instruction manual.)  Shazam! initially takes a similar approach.  Billy and Freddy have do idea what the suit does.  Initially, they’re not even sure how to get rid of the suit.  They do manage to help some people, like stopping two would-be robbers.

The movie plays out very realistically for me.  It takes a while for the novelty of the superpowers to wear off.  Billy is caught up in being popular and powerful and Freddy is just a little resentful.  Billy could be using his newfound abilities to help, yet is trying to make a few dollars off of them.

It’s not until Dr. Sivana confronts Billy that it comes into focus.  You see, Sivana wants Billy’s powers.  You might ask why this is if Sivana has similar powers.  Billy is the only real threat Sivana might face.  (The only thing holding Billy back is his inexperience.)

I’d say that Shazam! is what I’d expect of an origin story.  The first part of the movie deals with the learning curve.  This is followed by the call to action, where everything comes into focus for the main character.  Because of the release of the movie, I have been learning a lot about the character.  Comparisons were also made to Superman.  Lawsuits ended that until DC bought the rights from Fawcett Comics, allowing the character to come back.  By the time that happened, Marvel Comics had already begun publishing their own Captain Marvel, leading DC to call the character Shazam!.  I find it interesting that this movie was released just four weeks after the Captain Marvel movie.  (it’s also notable that Djimon Hounsou appears in both.)

I will say that the movie is enjoyable.  As I said, it’s easy to relate with Billy Batson.  I think that’s probably close to how I would deal with being given those powers.  The comparisons to Big aren’t undeserved, especially considering that Billy finds one of those big walk-on keyboards.  I will say that there does seem to be a fair amount of product placement for other DC properties.  I mean, even Aquaman gets a nod in the post-credits scene.



Saturday, April 06, 2019

Future Man (Season 2)

Future Man was one of those TV shows that probably could have done well with just one season.  While a second season was implied, it was a complete story that could easily have left you wondering.  Josh Futturman was a guy that was trying to beat an unbeatable game called Biotic Wars.  When he becomes the first person to do so, he’s visited by the game’s two main characters, Tiger and Wolf.  It turns out that the game was a recruiting tool.

The entire first season was a series of in-jokes and references to time travel stories and their tropes.  Over various trips, little changes and what does change is usually for the worse.  The season ends with Josh in jail, having ruined his life.  He doesn’t mind so much, as he seems to have saved humanity from Dr. Elias Kronish‘s cure for herpes.

Season 2 begins with Josh visited by Tiger and Wolf again, only to realize that it’s all an illusion.  Humanity wasn’t saved, only it was the actions of Dr. Stu Camillo that did us all in.  Josh must reunite with Tiger and Wolf to once again try to save humanity.

There’s a similar dynamic with the trio.  Instead of Tiger and Wolf being the fish out of water, Josh is also out of his element.  The entire season takes place in the future, leaving the present-day world behind.  (All but the last episode take place in 2162.)  Tiger and Wolf still look down on Josh, even though he makes important contributions.   Names in the new future are based on function rather than being named for an animal.  Wolf finds out that his counterpart makes wheels and is called Torque.  (Tiger’s counterpart is named Ty-Anne.)

Those that haven’t seen the first season may want to start there.  This isn’t a series where you can pick it up anywhere.  It’s also meant for people who are familiar with science-fiction movies.  The season finale alone makes light of all the divergent timelines that the trio has created.  (It would appear that changing events doesn’t erase the original set of events.)  Much of it will seem ridiculous, but this is meant to be a comedy.

There’s a part of me that wonders how long the series can keep this up.  The second season does set up a third.  I’m very curious to see what that would look like.  Could they keep it going for a fourth or fifth?  Possibly.  There’s plenty of science-fiction to parody.  The overall stories are well-planned and obstacles seem natural.  It’s also not concerned with having to use all of the characters.  As with the first season, episodes may focus on Wolf or Josh.

I will warn you that it is for adults.  If you’ve seen the first season, there won’t be any surprises.  Much of it will come across as juvenile.  There are a lot of sexual humor, some of it even Freudian.  Scatological humor isn’t unheard of in the second season.  You get some of it in the trailer I’m including, but not all of it.  (Soiling oneself is used as a test to see if you’re a biotic or not.)  If you made it all the way through Season One, you should be fine with Season Two.





Friday, April 05, 2019

Captain Marvel (2019)

I was recently in Portland, not to far from the last remaining Blockbuster Video.  I was tempted to make the trip over, but I was traveling with my parents to see family.  It was too far out of the way and I don’t think my parents would have wanted the side trip.  For me, it’s really more a curiosity.  It’s not so much that video stores came and went.  Nothing lasts forever.  Rather, it was more about the fact that it was still around.  What was it about the location that gave it that sort of staying power?

The only reason that I bring this up is that Captain Marvel uses Blockbuster and other icons of the 1990s as a backdrop to tell its story.  It starts out in the Kree Empire with Vers (pronounced with a long E) training.  She has full retrograde amnesia, leaving most of her memories beyond her reach.

She and her team are sent to recover an undercover operative, but that mission goes sideways.  Vers finds herself captured by the Krull, who attempt to probe her memory.  One thing leads to another and Vers finds herself stranded on Earth, with all manner of things not meant to last, like two-way pagers and Nick Fury without an eye patch.

This is the origin story where Vers finds out who she is and what’s going on all while trying to save the planet.  Yes, there’s danger and not everything is what it seems.  (The instant I saw the cat, I knew it was more than a cat and I’ve never read the comics.)

This is the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first female-led title.  I think there’s something about being second that steals the thunder a little bit.  Wonder Woman was epic.  Captain Marvel seemed a little less so.  Both featured strong women.  Both had amazing coming attractions.  Something about Captain Marvel seemed a little off, though.

Don’t get me wrong.  It was still a good movie.  It’s just that the movie seemed a little too grounded in nostalgia.  The soundtrack was straight out of the 1990s.  Someone my age is going to get a lot of it.  I don’t envy someone who has to explain to their children what a payphone is.  (“You see, you could put a quarter in and make a call to someone.  No, this was before cell phones.  Why are you looking at me like that?”)  Given that this is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we know that Vers will show up again.  I’m just wondering what a second stand-alone movie would look like.


Monday, April 01, 2019

The Samuel Project (2018)

There are many movies about the Holocaust.  Some, like Schindler’s List, treat the topic seriously.  Others, like Life is Beautiful, have a more comedic tone.  The Samuel Project isn’t quite either, although it tends more towards the serious.  It takes place in the present with Eli being given an animation project for his media class in high school.  It’s going to be a big project, so it has to be something important.

Shortly after being given the assignment, Robert, Eli’s father, drops Eli off at the apartment of Samuel, Eli’s grandfather.  When Samuel gets a phone call, grandfather and grandson are off on a road trip to visit a dying friend of Samuel’s.

Actually, she’s more than a friend, although Samuel won’t say much about it.  It takes some prying on Eli’s part, but it turns out that this mysterious friend helped Samuel survive Nazi Germany and get out of the country.  Samuel has found the topic for his project.

The movie doesn’t focus on the Holocaust.  In fact, Samuel is reserved with details.  For survivors, it’s not the kind of thing most people want to talk about.  It was a difficult time for many who survived and carries with it a lot of emotion.

Instead, the movie focuses on Eli trying to put the project together and his attempts to get Samuel to open up about it.  Eli is able to use his phone to record his grandfather and animate scenes around that.  He even enlists the aid of classmate Kasim, who plays the guitar.  The two bond over family.  Eli wants to go into art, but Robert would have him get a stable job.  Kasim is trying to fend off his father’s attempts to get him to take over as a butcher.  They realize that both have fathers that don’t really know them that well.

I don’t see a lot of people rushing to the theater to see this or rent it on DVD.  It seems like the kind of movie you might watch streaming.  I’m not exactly sure where to place it.  It’s definitely not a major blockbuster, but it’s not exactly a Hallmark movie, either.  It’s the kind of thing that could be shown to get people thinking hot just about the Holocaust, but those who lived through it, as well.


Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The Twilight Zone -- Season 2 Episode 2 (The Man in the Bottle)

Genie stories tend to be somewhat predictable.  Mere mortals make wishes and the genie either misinterprets the intent or deliberately gives the person something other than what they wanted.  Wishmaster did this well.  A djinn was granted unlimited power, but could only use it if asked.  He would then twist the wish to suit his own needs.  When he wants to escape from a police station, he uses a wish to make a suspect shoot people to create a distraction.

The Man in the Bottle has Arthur and Edna Castle finding a genie who grants them four wishes.  Arthur tests this by having the genie fix a broken display window.  When the genie obliges, Arthur’s next wish is for a million dollars.  The Castles give so much of it away that when the tax man comes, they’re left with only $5.

Arthur’s next wish is to be put in a position of power where he can’t be voted out.  The Genie puts him in charge of Nazi Germany as Adolf Hitler.  To make matters more pressing, Arthur finds himself in the bunker, ostensibly right before he’s to swallow his capsule.  Arthur uses his last wish to put everything back.  He even ends up cracking the display window again.

The episode sets up the premise pretty well.  The genie isn’t so much someone who grants wishes, but rather makes people realize what they have.  The story doesn’t quite bring it all the way to completion, though.  Yes, the Castles have bills to pay.  However, it doesn’t seem like they’re any better off financially, nor do they have any new prospects.  Yes, things could be worse, but they could also be better.

I suppose an argument could be made either way.  Giving the Castles money, even without the burden of a 90% tax rate wouldn’t solve anything.  After a while, they’d be right back where they started.  Then again, maybe they need more of a bump to get things going.  At least send them a customer or two.

I suppose everyone thinks of how they could reword the wish to get what they want, but the underlying fact remains that wishing for something is rarely the answer.  It might help you along for a little while, but the change has to come from within.