Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Twilight Zone -- Season 1 Episode 10 (Judgment Night)

The Twilight Zone was known for eerie, ironic twists.  One had a world where the concept of beauty is different and what we consider normal is ugly.  Some would get their wish, only to find that they should have been more careful what they asked for.  The series, like many others, was a little uneven in the first season.  There were some hits, like Time Enough at Last.  However, Judgment Night may go down as one of the outliers.

This isn’t to say it’s bad.  It’s just that it doesn’t quite fit in with other episodes in my mind.  It starts with a man, one Carl Lanser, on the deck of a boat.  It’s crossing the Atlantic ocean from Britain to America.  It had an escort, which it seems to have lost.  Thus, they have to be wary of German U-boats.  Lanser can’t remember details of his life beyond name and city of birth, but he assures his fellow passengers that a pack of U-boats wouldn’t waste their time with a single ship.  They’d likely be attacked by one submarine.

Lanser becomes more and more paranoid as the night goes on.  He becomes insistent that they will, in fact, be attacked at 1:15 a.m. by the Germans.  When the time comes, they are attacked.  Lanser looks at the U-boat to see himself.  The ship is sunk with all hands, including Lanser, killed.  On the U-Boat, Captain Lanser talks with a lieutenant.  The lieutenant is wrought with guilt, but the captain assures him that this is war and all is fair.  The episode ends with Lanser standing on the deck of the ship, as at the beginning of the episode.  His hell is to live the fate of his victims, presumably for eternity.

I’m not sure if Serling was trying to make a point with this.  An unrepentant Nazi captain does seem deserving of punishment, but what’s the point of punishing him if he can’t remember?  Each time he appears on the boat, Lanser seems to start anew.  It would seem much more hellish if Lanser had the repetition to look forward to.

There is a moral, of sorts, in that we all get our due in the end.  Hell doesn’t have to be fire and brimstone.  It can be having to live through the hell you inflicted on someone else.  This does present a problem in that you can’t really build any sort of real empathy for Lanser, as he’s essentially getting the punishment he deserves.  I’m not sure if I can feel sympathy for the crew and other passengers of the ship, as I’m not sure if they’re real or not.

This may be why I don’t recall seeing this one on a lot of marathons.  It’s a good episode, but doesn’t really fit well with other episodes.  Even other episodes in the first part of the first season are more in line with what I’d expect.  If you can get the entire series streaming, such as with Netflix, I’d recommend watching it.  I’m just not sure I’d put it on any best-of lists.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

There are certain aspects of a movie that may seem cliché, but often prove necessary.  For instance, you should probably have a protagonist and an antagonist, each clearly defined.  At least one of the characters should learn something.  There should also be three acts; basically, there should be a setup, a story, and a resolution.  Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri doesn’t seem to follow these rules.

We have a protagonist in Mildred, who rents the titular billboards near her home.  Mildred’s daughter, Anne, was raped and murdered and the case is still unsolved.  Mildred uses the billboards to call out the town’s police chief, Willoughby.  Willoughby visits Mildred and reminds her that the case is cold.  None of the DNA matched anything from any other case.  There were no witnesses.  Without a random confession, the case is stalled.

That’s not enough for Mildred, who wants justice, or at least answers.  She’s committed to keeping the billboards up for a full year, despite not knowing where she’s going to get the money.  (She has enough for the deposit, but it takes an anonymous donation to keep it going for the first month.)  As you might expect, the town turns against her.  She can’t even trust her dentist.

You might ask where this is going.  I’ve seen the entire movie and I’m still asking that question.  Without giving out details, the movie meanders.  There are all sorts of major twists and turns, each taking the movie in a new direction.  We quickly learn that there are no sympathetic characters.  Given enough time, almost everyone seems to prove unlikable.  (There are maybe two exceptions to this observation, and one had very little screen time.)

Part of this is that the characters don’t seem to learn anything.  Mildred has had seven months to process her daughter’s death.  Taking out the billboards seems like the kind of impulsive thing someone might do the first month.  We even have Officer Dixon, who gets fired and is still the same racist person back when he had a job.  There’s no enlightenment.  There’s no new information or big revelation.  The movie ends with nearly every character basically the same person they were when the movie started.

This is one of those movies that I had seen because I have Moviepass.  Had I not seen it, I don’t think I would have seen it.  I’m not even sure I could recommend going if someone else paid for it.  It’s going to take me a while to process it and it might make sense if someone explains it to me.  Absent that, it would take repeated viewings and that’s not going to happen.  It has a rating of 8.5 on IMDb right now, so someone liked the movie.  I’m just not sure I can understand the movie.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Twilight Zone -- Season 1 Episode 9 (Perchance to Dream)

Edward Hall knows that he’s a dead man.  He has a heart condition that allows for no excitement and little stress.  The episode takes place in the office of Dr. Eliot Rathmann, a psychiatrist.  Edward wants pills to stay awake.  He’s been having dreams of a woman that would have him go on a roller coaster, thus ensuring his demise sooner rather than later.  Edward knows that he’s going to have to fall asleep eventually, but he wants to put that off as long as possible.

Edward recounts recent events to Dr. Rathmann, telling of how he could make a picture of a boat look like it was moving.  He even tells of the woman, Maya, who’s very attractive, but won’t leave him alone.  Dr. Rathmann points out that it’s just a dream, but it doesn’t matter.  Edward asks if pain is any less painful if it’s imagined.

When Edward eventually realizes he’s not getting any help from the doctor, he leaves only to find Maya is the receptionist.  He turns around and jumps out the window.  We cut to Dr. Rathmann calling said receptionist into the room where Edward is lying on the couch, having laid down and screamed two second later.  Dr. Rathmann says that at least Edward went peacefully in his sleep.

This is one of those episodes that I didn’t quite get as a small child.  It seemed like just a basic story with the twist ending.  What I’ve come to realize in time is that we all are Edward.  We’re all trying to avoid the inevitable.  We all feel like we’re about to die.

The thing is that it never comes the way we expect.  We spend so much time worrying about the obvious things, like taking our vitamins and exercising, that we never see the bus we’re about to step in front of.  Granted, Edward does have a rather immediate threat.  He has a real dilemma in that both options will lead to an immediate demise.  Still, no one gets out of life alive.  The question is how you spend what time you have.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)

A Christmas Carol has become so ubiquitous that it’s almost impossible to do a new take on it.  There seems to be no shortage of listings on IMDb, including the Muppet version and a Disney video game.  Everyone knows who Ebenezer Scrooge is.  Everyone could tell you why there are three ghosts.  So, how do you do something that’s new?  One way is to do the story behind the story.

The movie is based on  Les Standiford’s book detailing the months before the publication of the now-famous story.  Christmas wasn’t what it is now.  Dickens’s publisher is reluctant to publish a book about a minor holiday, especially considering that he’s had three flops since Oliver Twist.  Dickens is intent on writing this book, even if it means self-publishing.  The fact that he hasn’t written a word yet doesn’t seem to deter him; he kind of needs the money.

As you might expect, he has all sorts of distractions.  His house seems to be in a state of renovation, despite the lack of funds.  He has a wife, four children and several servants, all of whom require some degree of attention.  On top of that, his parents decide to drop by, despite the fact that Dickens doesn’t really want them there.  Not only does he have an entire book to write, he also has to get his book printed.  What’s an author to do?

Since the story became famous, I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that the book does get published.  I don’t know that the rest of the movie is known by as many people.  It goes into Dickens’s childhood and why he doesn’t get along with his parents, particularly his father.

To an extent, we also get to see what went on as to the inspiration for the book.  I’m sure a bit of it is fictionalized.  I’ve seen that Dickens did ‘talk’ to his characters, as shown in the movie, but movies do occasionally take liberties with certain facts.  (For instance, to what extent did Dickens ’invent’ Christmas?)  Truth can sometimes be mundane.  I don’t necessarily mind.  It’s just one of those things I always wonder about.

This isn’t a movie I’d have seen on my own.  Having a Christmas-themed movie out for Christmas is just a little cliché.  Having a movie about a Christmas-themed book out just in time for Christmas and releasing it just before Christmas is a bit much.  I will say that it did entertain.  It’s probably not a movie for the kids.  There are scenes of mild violence and there are a few scenes that might be overly scary.  I think mostly, it will be the kind of movie that children would feel that they’ve been dragged to.  This is more a movie for the adults.

Friday, December 08, 2017

The Twilight Zone -- Season 1 Episode 8 (Time Enough at Last)

Henry is a man who likes to read.  That wouldn’t be a problem except that he’s surrounded himself with people who don’t like to read.  His wife crosses out all the words in a book of poetry.  His boss reprimands him for reading on the job.  He even has really thick glasses.  Henry Bemis just can’t catch a break.

Then, one day, he hides in the bank vault at work to read.  Suddenly, the ground shakes.  When Henry picks himself up and dusts himself off, he comes to realize that the bomb has been dropped -- and he seems to be the only survivor.  Henry starts to bemoan his bad luck until he stumbles upon the library.  That’s when it hits him:  He now has nothing to stop him from reading.  Alas, this is The Twilight Zone.  Is it ever that simple?

Time Enough at Last is one of the better-known episodes.  I remember the final scene being parodied in an episode of The Drew Carey Show.  Why is this episode so widely viewed?  I think that stems from simplicity and accessibility.  Henry is a man that wants one thing:  To read.

Even if you don’t like reading, you can relate to having something that you love doing, even if it’s not popular.  I’ve noticed that bombs tend to be popular for wiping out populations.  I’ve always found it odd when a small group survives.  No one else happened to find shelter?  Still, it’s what the story needs.  Henry finally has time for what he wants.

This is what makes the ending so cruel.  It’s as if there’s some conscious force that wants Henry to suffer.  Why else would he be surrounded by so many people that hate reading?  I can see taking a job at a bank as an act of necessity.  You would think a job at a library would better suit him, but you can’t always get the job you want.

As for his wife, you’d think Henry would find someone with a similar love of reading.  I get the impression that his love of reading isn’t anything new.  How did he end up with someone who would actually deface a book of poetry to spite her husband?

The only major concern for younger viewers would be the annihilation of the surrounding population.  No deaths are shown, nor are there any bodies shown.  The actual act is only implied, but Henry still has to deal with some of the aftermath.

There’s also the running theme of life not being fair, but I’d say that’s a minor point that most children can handle.  When I first saw the episode, it struck me that Henry was practically left with nothing at the end.  Henry Bemis just can’t catch a break.

IMDb page

Thursday, December 07, 2017

The Twilight Zone -- Season 1 Episode 7 (The Lonely)

Isolation is not an easy thing.  James A. Corry was convicted of murder and sent to live alone on an asteroid.  (At least, it’s called an asteroid.  Gravity seems normal enough.)  Sure, he claims it was self defense, but that doesn’t make him any less alone.  His only contact with other humans is Captain Allenby and his crew.  Allenby is a nice enough guy.  He was able to bring James a car, even if it was in several parts.  It’s not said where James gets gas or exactly where it is he has to go.  However, James is appreciative nonetheless.

The installment of The Twilight Zone begins with Allenby bringing James a special gift.  James is instructed not to open the box until the crew is out of sight, which James does.  What’s in the box?  It’s a woman.  Well, actually, it’s an android made to look like a woman.  James is desperate for any sort of companionship.  He begs Allenby for a game of chess, but orbital mechanics prevents Allenby from staying too long.  He has other stops to make and waiting too long will screw up his schedule.

James is a little resistant to his new companion, but he eventually warms up to her.  She even has a name: Alicia.  She’s programmed to be friendly, which is exactly what James needs.  He even forgets that she’s a robot.  When James eventually gets his pardon, he’s allowed only 15 pounds of personal possessions.  He insists on bringing Alicia, but it’s not meant to be.  Allenby has several other prisoners to pick up and there’s not that much space to go around.  It pains James to leave Alicia, but James is made to remember that she’s artificial.  He leaves with what few belongings he needs.

This isn’t one of the better episodes of The Twilight Zone.  It’s not one of the worst, but I don’t think it will be making my top-ten list.  The episode would seem to be a study in loneliness, but has a few flaws, at least one of which will become obvious as you watch the episode.  The first is how cruel it is to put prisoners on asteroids like that.  The episode doesn’t give many details about James’s crime.  I’d like to know who he murdered that the prison system saw fit to give him his very own asteroid.  The cost of sending him there and supplying him every three months or so can’t be cheap.

Then, there’s the inhumanity of a 50-year prison sentence.  It would be bad enough having a roommate.  Could you imagine being on an asteroid for 50 years?  You’d think he’d at least be allowed visitors.  Speaking of which, there’s no mention of guards.  Couldn’t a friend of Frank’s follow the supply ship and figure out which asteroid Frank is on?  That would have to be the easiest jailbreak ever.  You could probably make a business of putting a tracking device on the ships and offering to spring all the prisoners for a price.

This is another episode that might have benefited from the hour-long format.  A good portion of the episode is spent giving James the android and another good chunk is spent taking the android away from him.  This doesn’t leave much time for bonding.  It seemed kind of rushed.  I don’t know what else could have been added other than maybe some details on how James ended up on the asteroid.

As I said, it’s not a horrible episode.  (I don’t recall The Twilight Zone ever having an outright miss.)  This one usually makes the marathons.  Even given its flaws, it’s still an enjoyable episode.  The episode is generally safe for children.  There’s no sex.  The only possibly objectionable part is the android being shot with a gun and the wiring exposed.  If you’re watching on Netflix or catch it in a marathon, it’s worth watching.  I wouldn’t go out of your way to find it, though.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

The Twilight Zone -- Season 1 Episode 6 (Escape Clause)

WARNING:  This review gives away major details including the ending.

There’s a saying that has several variations:  When the gods wish to punish us, they grant our wishes.  Such is almost the case for Walter Bedeker.  He’s a hypochondriac.  Escape Clause even begins with Walter’s doctor making a house call.  As the doctor leaves, he tells Walter that he’s in perfect health.  That doesn’t seem to satisfy the patient.  Walter remains in bed as the doctor leaves, as does his wife, Ethel.

Enter Mr. Cadwallader, a man with an offer that Walter can’t refuse: Immortality.  Walter is, of course, curious about the details.  Walter never get sick.  He’ll never have to worry about being hurt or injured.  Mr. Cadwallader even throws in a stipulation that Walter will never visibly age.  Walter eventually figures out who Mr. Cadwallader is.  He’s the devil.  All Walter has to give up as payment is his soul.  If, at any time, Walter should tire of his new gift, a painless death will be arranged.

Walter doesn’t mind much, as this is the perfect bargain.  He immediately goes out and throws himself under the bus.  Seriously.  And a train.  In fact, he stages over a dozen accidents for the thrill of it.  Of course, the insurance settlements don’t hurt.  However, it doesn’t quite bring the thrill that he expects.\

He goes to the roof of his apartment building and considers jumping.  That’s when an opportunity presents itself.  Ethel follows him up and accidentally falls off the roof.  Rather than tell the truth, Walter says that he killed her.  What better way to get a thrill than to take a ride in the electric chair?  Much to Walter’s dismay, his lawyer manages to secure a sentence of life in prison.   Knowing that he can never leave, Walter activates the escape clause.

Walter is not a man of forethought.  I remember watching this episode with my brother once.  He pointed out something that plenty of other people pointed out in that Walter could easily have outlived any building or government imprisoning him.  People have also pointed out that Walter should have expected prison.  He has no reason to believe that surviving the electric chair would spare him prison.

My question is why he gave up so easily.  He wanted a thrill?  How about the thrill of trying to escape prison?  He doesn’t have to worry about death.  Even if he was recaptured, he could try as many times as necessary.  (Actually, if he were looking to use death as an escape, he could have faked his death while escaping.)

It seems that all of Walter’s plans are short sighted.  He never considers hang gliding or bungee jumping.  I’m not saying I wouldn’t consider insurance fraud given this opportunity, but I think I would space it out with some more mundane ways of excitement.  There are plenty of things normal people do for thrills.  Maybe he could swim with sharks.  He’d probably be great at alligator wrestling.  Instead, he sticks to accidents.

The big problem here is that Rod Serling only had 30 minutes to work with.  There’s so much more that could have been done given enough time.  This probably would have been a better episode had it been done during the fourth season, when episodes were an hour each.  Like other Twilight Zone episodes, it’s a story of someone undone by their own desires.