Saturday, October 26, 2013

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) ***

In 1983, Warner Brothers released a much anticipated film version of Rod Serling's classic TV series, The Twilight Zone.  With two successful young directors attached, Steven Spielberg and John Landis, the project looked like box office gold.  However, a tragic accident during the filming that resulted in the deaths of Vic Morrow and two child actors has cast a grim legacy over the production.  Nevertheless TZ: The Movie holds up as a curiosity in 1980s pop culture for its wry nostalgia for classic television.  For many like myself too young to remember the original series, the film served as introduction to the best anthology series of all time.

An amusing "prologue" with Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks opens the film.  On the road late at night, two guys play a TV trivia game to relieve the boredom of the road.  They swap stories about how The Twilight Zone influenced their childhood, but unfortunately ends with a cheap piece of schlock horror - not in keeping with Serling's legacy.   

The first segment stars Vic Morrow as an angry middle aged man passed over for a promotion.  In a bar he goes on a racist rant.  Upon leaving, he's transported to Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow South for some rough lessons on tolerance.  Landis's attempt at social commentary came off as a clumsy liberal sermon.

Spielberg's segment hasn't aged well either.  A stranger played by Scatman Crothers arrives at a retirement home and offers the residents a chance to return to their youth.  Stereotypes and broad generalizations sink Spielberg's attempt to make a statement on aging.

Joe Dante remade "It's a Good Life."  The TV episode starred Bill Mumy as a kid with telekinetic powers. Dante effectively used some creepy special effects with tinges of dark humor. Arguably, it's the most memorable segment.

The last tale, directed by George Miller of Mad Max fame, "Nightmare at 20,000 feet", has Jon Lithgow (reprising a classic William Shatner performance)  as a neurotic plane passenger who claims a monster is on the wing.  From a teleplay by Richard Matheson, the story plays on the terror of being stuck in claustrophobic space with a crazy person.  As a piece of film making it works because Miller let the audience emphasize with Lithgow who delivered a memorable performance.

Rod Serling's imagination continues to inspire.  TV shows like The X-Files, Lost, and Breaking Bad owed much to his legacy.  Perhaps the time has come for Hollywood to make  their own 21st century version of The Twilight Zone with a new crop of directors.  But as a piece of 1980s pop culture TZ: The Movie remains worth revisiting, albeit with the knowledge it had the potential to be much better.  

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Gravity ****

Gravity displays the amazing power of cinema.  To fully appreciate Gravity, experiencing the film in 3D is a must. Like any great story, it's one of survival. Humanity versus an inhospitable environment. Watching the film has the effect of reading Jack London at his best.  Director Alfonso Cuaron does an amazing job of depicting the feeling of being in space and capturing the mystical nature of the universe.

Two astronauts, played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, an engineer and medical doctor, face catastrophe when a Russian satellite crashes into their space shuttle.  In a gripping 20 minute shot we are carried along in a unique sort of terror evoking both helplessness and awe. Clooney's pitch perfect as the veteran astronaut holding it together during a crisis (channeling Dr. Ross from ER).  Sandra Bullock's performance does something even more special.  She keeps humanity in the story.  Countless films sacrifice the human element for an endless parade of banal special effects.  But not here.  Bullock experiences crisis after crisis in the 93 minutes of Gravity and keeps the audience engaged at every step.

Space itself is the other major character.  While experiencing the film, it's easy to to just look on with wonder at the amazing visuals and forget the story.  Cuaron includes several shots of the astronauts looking minuscule between the earth and space reminding us of two things: our smallness in comparison to the universe and the beauty of being part of something so mysterious.  Films like Tree of Life and 2001: A Space Odyssey create a similar sense of wonder. Gravity avoids trying to answer the big philosophical questions, but brings them up in a more natural way.  A sudden threat to our existence quickly makes philosophers out of us all!

Comparisons with Kubrick and Cuaron's conceptions of space are inevitable.  In 2001, Kubrick portrays the universe as indifferent while suggesting other intelligent life may exist.  Cuaron also forces the audience to ponder the indifference of space. In the final 20 minutes he makes us believe humanity can transcend its limitations.   Both films end with moving images recalling our own past and future.  Cuaron's the humanist; Kubrick the existentialist. 

Another irony is that America's current space program faces it's own uncertain future.  NASA's glory days of Apollo are long gone and many wonder whether space travel is worth the investment. In 1970, a mission to Mars appeared within easy grasp.  Now space missions seem to exist outside of my lifetime.  Maybe, we'll see.

As a follow up to Cuaron's Children of Men, Gravity will stand as one of the best films of this decade.  All the elements are present for a great film: acting, special effects, sound, music, and all around immersive experience.