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They still make shows like this?
The detective show clichés and grotesque violence aren't worth discussing. What took me aback was that the characters and dialogue don't seem to be from 2006, but 1946. As part of a plot about animals smuggled from Asia, a man of Asian descent is brutally murdered. When white females are killed, TV cops have been known to spend a little *too* much time lingering over their corpses and staring wistfully at the crime scene photos. For this victim, Inspector Frost instead makes offhand references to "the Chinaman" over and over. What, did the screenwriters dust off a pulp novel from 70 years ago?
It gets worse. The body is found with a notebook of writing in a language Frost assumes is Chinese. "It is, in fact, a notebook, and not a menu," he tells his all-white police squad. Finally, they identify the victim as Lahn Loc, a smuggler with a Vietnamese background working with another man named Flanagan. Superintendent Mullett struggles to discuss the two crooks "Flanagan and that man called, er... The Vietnamese." Right, 'cause Lahn Loc is soooo hard to pronounce. Worse, even after they learn he's Vietnamese, Frost *still* calls him "the Chinaman."
Sounds like "Midsomer Murders" wasn't the only British detective show that needed to get past some racism. This 2006 TV movie was called "Endangered Species," and I hope that in the 9 years since, this outdated treatment of Asians has gotten more "endangered" too.
Babylon 5: In the Beginning (1998)
Babylon 5 newcomers, beware: don't begin with "In the Beginning"
Having watched virtually no "Babylon 5" but willing to check out this series, I made the mistake of assuming I should start with this prequel TV movie, chronologically the "first" story in the series' universe.
Turns out the prequel was obviously to provide pre-existing fans with bonus backstory -- so much so that at times, the film simply gives up on making sense as a standalone product.
As a framing device, we get a badly-lit emperor narrating historical events to a bratty little noble and his sister. At no point does the film care to explain why half the buildings outside the palace are on fire.
The emperor tells the story of Earth's war with aliens called the Minbari. He focuses on the role played by Delenn, a young Minbari leader, and John Sheridan, a human military officer. The war story is the bulk of the movie, until it swerves into left field by thrusting Sheridan and Delenn into a radical context that has nothing to do with the story we've seen up till now. I don't think Delenn and Sheridan ever even met, but suddenly they're shown to be held captive together in parts unknown, not to mention lovers. And again, it's left completely unexplained. I don't think it was the filmmakers' intention to leave me laughing as the end credits rolled.
It doesn't help that the film's structure grows crude. The bulk of the film is well-paced, examining the causes of a deadly war and its first few months. At about the 75 minute mark, however, it pulls the rug out from under a plot it's been developing and suddenly compresses 3 years of events into a few minutes. This is done mostly via battle scene overdrive. These battles are the movie's best CGI, but I'm not sure anyone over 19 will be interested in all this carnage, particularly with the clichéd voice-over. There's something perverse about the narrator celebrating courage while we watch a slow-motion stabbing.
The film's actual resolution is an anticlimax. I can only guess it contains references to TV canon designed to please the established fan.
On the plus side are the costumes and makeup, into which most of the budget seems to have gone with good effect. Poor Andreas Katsulas must have spent hours in the makeup chair, so I'm glad he shines in the role of G'Kar. His reptilian getup is amazing, right down to the scarlet eyes. Theodore Bikel and the too-quickly-dismissed Reiner Schone offer solid support.
When Sheridan assumes command during a crisis, the filmmakers make great use of limited resources, using close-ups and rapidly-shifting lights to ratchet up tension. The Grey Council stands out as excellent minimalist work from filmmakers who were limited to cheap sets. The Council sequences are stylishly lit and well-directed -- way more so than that annoying Delenn/Lenonn dialogue with the candle flames passing in front of the lens.
When a series runs for 7 years -- even when it's the superb Alfred Hitchcock Presents -- we'll find a few duds along the way. I guess we shouldn't be surprised if a series starts recycling old material, either. This week's tale of an isolated housewife facing the prospect of an escaped asylum inmate retreads episodes like Fog Closing In and The Dangerous People. Not to mention, it relies on the outdated, potboiler cliché of mentally ill people as monsters to fear, icky psychos lurking in the shadows.
The cabin setting, and the uncertainty over an at-large villain's identity, echo the episode A Little Sleep as well. The distraught young Madeleine Hall has barged into housewife Ida Blythe's cabin, and is she or isn't she the escapee, whose gender is (awkwardly) kept secret? I can avoid spoiling that, and still say the ambiguity of the women's encounter would be more compelling if the episode didn't stack the deck against Hall. Fay Spain's acting isn't the problem. Last seen as the domineering screenwriter in The Last Dark Step, she's equally good here, but Hall is written as having an absurd penchant for disturbing rhetoric, and condemning doctors and others who don't understand it.
Perhaps a serious consideration of the mentally ill is too much to expect from this premise, although the series can do great drama. But this episode has no point other than cruelty and ugly violence, which it takes great pains to produce. It doesn't help that its characters often behave implausibly.
It's also one of the series' worst-made. The general store scene is like a rehearsal on stage. The actors shout their lines at each other -- when they don't outright forget them.
A cheapie, unworthy of its brilliant hosting scenes: surreal comedy in which Hitchcock takes the lid off some literally canned laughter (as well as screams).
The skill and bravery of Alfred Hitchcock Presents astonishes again
A fine display of what range Alfred Hitchcock Presents (AHP) has. Operating from the go-anywhere nature of anthology series, it knows how to apply its basic suspense format to a medley of genres -- and still handle each one with quality filmmaking. Black comedy, tense nailbiter...and, as "The Day of the Bullet" shows, tragic drama.
This one's centered on two strong child performances by an interesting cast: Glenn Walken (brother to Christopher), and Barry Gordon, future Donatello. Yet the story is no bit of childish fun. Given the primary use of child characters, AHP tackles disturbing subject matter here, both bravely and sensitively. The boys, Clete and Iggy, witness an ugly act of violence, what proves to be the catalyst to their own wrenching personal drama.
The boys are well-drawn and well-played characters. They're loyal friends, but sometimes conflicting in their outlooks, and convincingly childlike, despite a height difference in the actors that sometimes distracts. They wince at the beating they witness, and we flinch at their exposure to such a thing, but it's charming when this reveals what a worldly, yet childish code of honor they've already developed in reaction to the horrors of NYC. They shake their heads at what cowards adults are, what "yellow skunks," willing to beat up a guy 2-against-1.
Their code of honor and childish traits continue to power the dramatic conflict, coming up as they do against the complexities and tragic ironies of the world.
The spark plug Gordon leads the way with a commanding dramatic performance, and the episode is sealed by Norman Lloyd's exquisite direction. What at first seems to be a Brooklyn street empty for budget reasons proves to be a haunting setpiece for this admirable drama.
The distinctive, uncredited voice of Lloyd himself serves as one of the kids narrating from adulthood. His recitation caps off the story nicely, and it's worth forgiving how his transatlantic accent doesn't match the kid's Brooklyn one.
Hitchcock's jokey hosting scenes as a shady lot attendant are more out of place for such an episode, clever as the gimmick is. Check out when he carefully combs his bald head. I can definitely see a shady lot attendant doing that.
The Twilight Zone: Night Call (1964)
An ugly exception -- and unintentional prophecy -- from a decent series
(I've tried to keep the spoilers vague.)
Although The Twilight Zone (TZ) likes to indulge in sermons -- which often ride on broad, melodramatic flights of purple prose -- at least it usually has the excuse of a humane heart and thoughtful mind genuinely interested in the human condition and serious issues. Night Call, by contrast, is astonishing in its arrogance, cruelty and pointlessness. The word "stupid" often serves as a putdown. In this case, it's merely another accurate adjective.
Already stressed by a loud, fierce nighttime thunderstorm, the elderly and crippled Elva Keene is confused, then frightened by persistent phone calls from a weird, mostly non-responsive caller. She finally screams at him to leave her alone. And mightn't any of us? Her reaction is entirely understandable. The calls sound very much like the work of a malicious prankster, even a dangerous stalker. They'll scare a woman in Elva's vulnerable position especially. To today's viewers, the caller might also sound like a more sympathetic case -- a mentally retarded person -- but a woman of Elva's age, back in that era, would be less likely to understand this. It was still early in the days of advocates like Rose Kennedy.
Yet Night Call holds Elva's natural reaction against her, ultimately punishing her simply for not understanding something that no one could. The basic plot elements of her undoing -- a gotcha matter of semantics taken too literally -- are silly enough. They also tie into a backstory on which TZ slams what may be its most childishly reasoned hammer of judgment. (Complete with misogynist tinge -- basically, "Never let your uppity woman get her way, gents, least of all driving privileges.")
This is bad enough, but then Rod Serling's narration chimes in to actually celebrate her fate as right and proper, capped off with a cruelly literal metaphor about this paralyzed, largely bedridden woman "making her bed and having to sleep in it". Serling, creator of a beloved, socially conscious series, has never sounded so smug and small-minded.
I wonder if Serling was responsible for the judgmental ending, apparently a change from screenwriter Richard Matheson's short story. At the least, he should've known better than to narrate this text.
He wasn't aware of his hypocrisy, either. The narrator who claims the crippled woman deserved her sickbed died on the bed of an operating room at age 50, after a life with much overwork and heavy smoking on screen and off. Probably Serling still deserved a better eulogy than the one he gives Elva Keene.
This meal's hard to swallow
This was despite a few features. The filmmakers do a good job presenting some weird contrasts. There's the secret restaurant's opulent interior, and the back alley dive atmosphere you have to pass to get there. The restaurant is basically a men's club, so what a surprise that a woman is the proprietress of this male-centric setup.
And you have to ascend that big staircase, as if going up to heaven to eat one of the best meals in the world. (For some characters, this proves more than figurative, doesn't it?!)
Interestingly, Robert Morley basically plays a version of his great gourmand role from "Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?" in the 70s.
However, the episode will amount to little more than a talkie for most contemporary viewers, because they can probably predict the restaurant's dark secret. Maybe fewer did back in '59, but not today's more experienced audience and its various edgy content like "Tales from the Crypt".
This episode matches that series' grotesque vibe. It's not to my taste, but perhaps it's an achievement of sorts that the Hitchcock series could hit this tone 30 years before an uncensored HBO could.
Yet the premise doesn't make sense. Why would Spirro victimize her own loyal, paying customers? How can the others not catch on, and fear for their lives? What prompts Spirro to work out such a special, secret relationship with Costain?
Into the Blue (1997)
Good TV thriller when taken on its own terms; obviously no friend of the book
Having been dismayed by many tawdry TV rewrites of perfectly good books, I can understand why the "Into the Blue" author and many readers would be apoplectic after watching this. Instead of gasping at the thrills and chills in this TV movie, those who read the book first will merely gasp in surprise at how well over half of anything to do with it has been radically altered for this film, including the most major characters and plot twists.
That any major changes should occur is not a surprise, however. Indeed, one wonders just why the producers chose to film this book of all things. There was just no way 400 pages of dense, hard paragraphs and exhaustive backstory (all in tiny font) could've made a film of 110 or so minutes. Despite having some compelling drama and ideas, frankly the book can afford to lose perhaps 100 pages.
Even so, by the standards of adaptations, this film's condensations and rewriting are savage. I read the book second, then revisited the film. Thus for me, it's rather a hoot how the film broadcasts right from the start how it's spared nothing in its rewriting. In the first five minutes, Harry Barnett shows someone a portrait of Alan Dysart's wife, a small but important (and alive) supporting character in the book. Harry reports that she died of cancer 2 years ago, then moves on without another word. That's that for wifey!
But the film gives us a decent enough TV movie thriller. Its technique is plain, typical for TV movies, but offers attractive sets, location shootings, and cinematography. The book has its share of melodrama, but the film really ups the thriller factor, which gets clichéd but still fun.
The altered story also retains much of what worked best in the book's drama: Harry Barnett's central quest, and an interesting friendship with the vivid, yet inscrutable Alan Dysart.
True, the film is clichéd in how it sets up Harry's private investigation of Heather Mallender's disappearance. The usual "innocent man must launch his own private investigation to clear his name, while the authorities hassle him and do nothing useful." But it keeps the device of Harry obtaining photos Heather has shot, and using them to retrace her own investigative journey from the past. The film gets great cinematic fun out of this -- Harry will give us a close-up view of a photo of a building; then the shot pans up to show the actual building, proving that he's on the right track.
Alan too remains compelling: a well-fed and well-groomed man of power (love the suspenders) who's generous, supportive, yet ambiguous. (The film errs a little by making him ambiguous from the start.) Forever helping Harry out of trouble, Alan provides one of the most gripping dramatic moments when Harry declines to do him a major favor. Alan stops and glares at him, and complains to Harry for the first time. "It's the only favor I've ever asked of you." Immediately he departs in defeat. We feel the pain and guilt such an accurate criticism must've made to Harry.
Unfortunately, the film glosses over their surprising drama at story's end.
Zora Labrooy, friend of Heather and secretary to a shifty psychologist, provides another strong character and relationship for Harry. Despite rewrites, her essential elements are largely the same. The investigation pushes her to become an ally and assistant to Harry. Besides its own ambiguity, this friendship is made interesting by an increased, constant tension and fragility. They're never sure they can trust or find a real use for each other.
Also of note is John Thaw, who provides the right dramatic gravitas whenever required. It's also fun to see him convincingly play a cockney man of modest background, in contrast to his famous role of cultured Inspector Morse.
"Right Hand's" righteousness run amok
For an episode that wears piety and Christian charity on its sleeve, The Right Hand of God (TRHoG) is remarkably self-serving. Perhaps it's true that when people, like the characters here, are so convinced that their desires are part of God's plan, the more skeptical you have to be.
As stakeholders in a Sacramento pro boxer's career (!), Sister Angela and her convent hope to use his winnings to finance a new chapel and services (of both kinds) for the homeless. Although many viewers have no interest in the evangelism that goes with that, few will fault the nuns for wanting to do more social work. Nor can we fault Sam (who takes the boxer's place) for hoping to win the prize money on their behalf.
But does that make it okay for the hero Sam to cheat his way to victory? This he does, when he has a friend interfere on his behalf during the fight, and gets special help from a second. The nuns could use the money, but what about the opponent who loses out? At no time does anyone consider his rights, or needs. What if he plans to spend the money on his own charities? What if he depends on that money to keep his family from living in a seedy one-room apartment? Nor is basic sportsmanship considered, needless to say.
This ironic lack of ethics is extra troublesome given the mantle of righteousness TRHoG assumes. Angela's religiosity gains precedence in the plot, reinforced by her manipulative tragic backstory that ends with her born again. She also thinks Sam was sent to her by God to win the prize money. TRHoG would like to think Sam's scheme on behalf of such a person is not just heroic, but holy. In fact, his role in ultimately reaffirming her faith is presented as his purpose in Sacramento no less than his prize-winning is.
The religious elements are rather confused, too. On one level, TRHoG is just indulging in comedy by turning nuns and a priest into boxing fans who train a boxer, attend matches, and cheer on their trainee. The priest even knocks down Sam while sparring. This begs the question of how likely it is that these clerics would show such interest and support for a violent sport that's all about men beating each other until they're bloody, bruised and unconscious.
And its portrayal of Angela as a pious, deeply spiritual woman of faith achieves the opposite. When she fears Sam has lied to her about his plans to win the match for her, it's enough to make her lose faith in God again. A faith that entirely depends on whether one man is telling the truth is a fragile one. Whatever her religious beliefs turn out to be, Angela should probably re-evaluate a few things.
But TRHoG's worst "sin" might be the sexism of Sam pressuring and guilt-tripping his stripper girlfriend to go naked in front of thousands in an arena, as part of his scheme to win his match. Since she's a stripper, he rationalizes, surely this is totally do-able. Compared to this, the clichéd training montages are almost fun.
The Crossing Guard (1995)
Strong, sensitive drama...let down by false advertising!
"Too slow!" "So boring!" "Why the heck is it called 'The Crossing Guard?'" I wonder how many viewers of The Crossing Guard (TCG) said such things because they viewed the same DVD edition I watched. I read the back of the DVD box afterwards, and I had to laugh. It seems to have been produced by people who have no idea what the movie's about. The box's lurid, breathless text markets this as an "action thriller", and makes it sound like a "Death Wish" or "High Noon" revenge showdown! A featured photo shows Freddy swingin' the chair.
Although TCG revolves around revenge, and a gun features prominently, you almost won't know it. TCG is what you'd call a "literate drama." The revenge Freddy plans to exact is the story's driving force, but the bulk of the plot is character study and psychological drama, its two feet very much on the ground.
Unlike some literate dramas -- ponderous, pretentious attempts at art, with static filming to match -- TCG has the goods. It's a sensitive, curious examination of a difficult main character and real-life subject matter. Since TCG gets quite disturbing at times, not least of all because of its broken, volatile, oft-unlikable protagonist, watching can be a challenge, but nonetheless it's refreshing to watch a complicated drama that doesn't push saccharine messages or pretend to have easy answers. It simply lets its characters loose to find their own way through a rather open-ended plot, and never loses sight of their humanity even while it acknowledges their awful acts. Stick with TCG and it will prove to be a rewarding film with both a mind and heart.
The literary genre's artsiness and realismo -- "true-to-life" folks who are quirky but not really funny, half-heard scraps of conversation -- create a few annoying bits in TCG, but not enough to damage the proceedings. Bobby's long speech at the survivor's support group reflects the reality of inarticulate people who can't speak from a polished script, but it doesn't do much for the film. You'll just have to chuckle through TCG's candle-strewn "artists' party," of which only 10% of the dialogue makes a lick of sense. I admit that the John-Jojo relationship and pectoral-clutching push credibility.
A better literate aspect in TCG is its humor, a pleasant surprise, especially coming from a writer/director better known for being humorless. When Freddy, falling apart from his rage, suddenly accepts the crowd's plea to join Mia the stripper on stage for a pole dance, it's remarkable, tense black comedy. Even better is when Freddy goes home with Mia, who surprises him by performing (and supposedly composing) a song for Freddy on her synthesizer decked out with blinking lights. Freddy just sits and watches in a stupor; whether it's from his booze or the music show is uncertain. In a Hitchcockian touch, a violent chase by foot detours into a city bus, and the participants must deal with bus fares, mistakes about the stops, and bickering passengers.
Hingle compelling, but "child-sized" plot fails to fill the hour
Escaping to alternate worlds and/or one's childhood was a frequent theme on "The Twilight Zone" (TZ). TZ goes hopping and skipping again with "The Incredible World of Horace Ford." Unfortunately the results this time are unconvincing drama and a fantasy gimmick repeated to the point of tedium. You might think TZ was just running out of ideas, but surprisingly this was a Reginald "12 Angry Men" Rose story first televised eight years prior on the anthology "Studio One" (an old haunt of TZ's Rod Serling!). Art Carney starred as Horace, and Jason Robards was his co-worker Leonard O'Brien.
The redeeming factor of TZ's version is Pat Hingle in the title role. Horace Ford may strike some viewers as unrealistic; on the other hand, his odd, clashing traits are interesting to see, and Hingle certainly uses them to create a compelling TV character.
Horace is almost 38 but seems stuck in childhood. Immature in manner, he's also prone to gushing, endless reminiscences about the playground games and old neighborhood kids from long ago. However, this probably contributes to his success as a toy designer, valued by his company. (Amusingly, the story suggests his immaturity goes in hand with him just being a temperamental artiste. He resents the suggestion that he cancel the "light-up eyes" feature of the new robot he's designing, because light-up eyes are central to the toy's whole "meaning" or something!)
Also unexpected is that this childish man has a wife, although, in another infantile touch, the couple lives with his mother. Yet Horace is well aware that his work is what supports the whole household.
Serling's smug opening narration scores points against Horace for being too childish. It seems the fantasy plot that unfolds is meant to reform him in some way. In typical TZ fashion, Horace decides to revisit a childhood neighborhood, and his trip takes him further than expected.
But the resulting drama never comes together. It's uncertain what the episode wants Horace to do. Without spoiling anything, the denouement's conclusion goes too far in taking a proposal with a little psychological truth in it, and applying it sweepingly to a man's entire childhood. For this to work, Horace would have to be not merely eccentric, and immature, but deluded.
The drama is not well-done, and unfortunately neither is the episode is general.
When I complained about repeating the fantasy gimmick, I didn't mean merely that the episode is a rehash of other TZ trips to the past, though many viewers will likely conclude that. Rather, the episode repeats its big long trip two more times with almost no change. We are forced to sit through the same mundane collisions with pedestrians, the same mother screaming the same words out a window, etc. I think they literally reused the same footage. Picture "Groundhog Day" without the comedy or variations. This is just tedious TV.
Also a problem is the ambiguous character of Laura, Horace's wife. Like everyone else, she doubts his story of what happened on his return to the old hood. But then the episode makes a big to-do (again, done three times) about one of the hood kids showing up at her door in his outdated clothes, and returning the watch Horace keeps dropping. Yet nothing comes of this. It doesn't change Laura's disbelief at all, and in fact doesn't move the story forward.
It's surely a burden for a young wife to have to live with her mother-in-law, and do so in an apartment. But that's not enough to explain Laura's cruelty to the woman. At inappropriate times, and after the most minor offenses, she's always telling Mother Ford to be quiet and leave the couple alone. The worst is when the prospect arises of unemployment for Horace. Mother gives a long, impassioned speech about how unfair that would be for the talented Horace, and how worried she is about how the household would survive. All true. Laura's response?
Mother's speech makes sense, and is well acted, but this too is unnecessary to the story. It's pure filler. With stuff like this, and the tedious repetition, I guess they just didn't have enough material to fill an hour.
We are left with Hingle as what makes this worth watching. He's dynamite as the energetic, moody, sometimes exasperating Horace. Modern viewers who know him mainly from his minor role as Commissioner Gordon will be surprised at his strong acting.
You might just want to fast forward through most everything else, though.