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Remarkable Tale of Love, Obsession, Guilt and Family
It starts with a day in the life of five-year old Saroo (Sunny Pawar): playfully following his beloved older brother Guddu along an unused stretch of rail trackage; helping him as he hustles for work; sharing a meal with his mother and family, before she has to set off to work as a laborer. Guddu plans to go off to work a long way from home, and Saroo insists on coming along. They pull into a train station late at night -- the brother heads off into the train yard to look for work, and Saroo falls asleep on the platform; when Guddu doesn't return, Saroo finds shelter in the sleeper car of a decommissioned train. Then, the train starts its deadhead move to Kolkata, some 1,000 miles away, and a remarkable story is underway.
"Lion" is one of those films that, if it were not based on a true story, might be dismissed as melodramatic fantasy. Instead, in his feature debut, director Garth Davis has created a remarkable, compelling, and deeply moving film of loss, guilt, and the ties of duty to and love of family that can lead to obsession. The first half of the film follows Saroo through the aforementioned scenes, and into the swirling mass of humanity that is Kolkata. These scenes are accomplished with a minimum of dialogue and yet are incredibly effective, thanks largely to a remarkable performance by Pawar. He immediately establishes a bond to the audience with his sweetness, intelligence, and total lack of affect, and we relate to his joys, his fears, and his remarkable defense mechanisms as he navigates dangers that he cannot possibly fully comprehend. Then, he is adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), and the next phase of his life begins, growing up in a new culture and with an adoptive brother who, if anything, has borne even more horrific experiences than Saroo.
In some ways, much of "Lion" plays a modern-day parallel to Sanjayit Ray's masterful Apu trilogy, and Luke Davies' script anchors Saroo's quests -- both to survive and, a quarter-century later, to find his home -- in believable relationships and motivations, avoiding the temptation to ramp up the histrionics. The grounded story carries its own dramatic weight without artificial enhancement. The performances are uniformly excellent, with Pawar, Kidman and (as the grown-up Saroo) Dev Patel taking top honors. Patel's scenes with Kidman are absolutely riveting, and the final payoff is not only enormously gratifying, but dramatically well-earned.
The cinematography (Greig Fraser), editing (Alexandre de Franceschi), and score (Dustin O'Halloran and Hauschka) are also top-notch, and Davis does a remarkable job blending them to contrast the openness and freedom of Saroo's world in his hometown and on the beach in Tasmania, with the oppressive world of Kolkata and the increasingly confining mental state of his obsessive quest. Such work plainly belies the fact that this is Davis' inaugural directorial effort.
In sum, a deeply moving and effective film that readily warrants its multiple Oscar nominations (and probably should have been nominated for best director as well). "Lion" plainly stands -- along with "Manchester-by-the-Sea" and "Moonlight" as one of the three best films of 2016.
This group of segments is, to put it mildly, a mixed bag.
ACT BREAK (3 of 10)
When a classic television show is rebooted, the risk of repeating the prior show is an obvious one. Indeed, in the 1980s reboot of "The Twilight Zone" did some specific remakes of episodes from the original series (e.g., "Shadow Play," "Dead Woman's Shoes," and "Night of the Meek"); and then, there were episodes that, while not exact remakes, were close reworkings. Unfortunately, "Act Break" is one of the less successful examples of such a reworking, essentially being a truncated version of the very funny hour-long episode from the original series, "The Bard."
Playwriting partners Maury Winkler (James Coco) and Harry (Bob Dishy) are suffering through a creative drought, with the proverbial landlord demanding the rent. While pressing to get their latest work off the ground, Harry suffers a heart attack; Maury can save him using an amulet Harry just happens to keeps on him (though, apparently, Harry has exhausted his ability to use the magic), but Maury has other thoughts on his mind....
One of the joys of the episode this segment reworks ("The Bard") is the fact that the lead character was a horrible writer, but had not clue of that fact; in "Act Break," Maury knows he's a terrible writer, and this fact seriously dulls the comic potential of the piece, and Haskell Barkin's script doesn't really do anything to fill that void. The story is paper-thin to begin with, and though old-pros like Coco and Dishy do all they can, the material simply isn't there.
THE BURNING MAN (6 of 10)
To be sure, much of Ray Bradbury's work seems to be readily suited to "The Twilight Zone" canon. While much of the dialogue might read as overly purple when played on screen, the themes and imagination behind them were every bit the equal of regular "Twilight Zone" writers Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson; indeed, the fact that Bradbury's adaptations of his classics "Here There Be Tygers" and "A Sound of Thunder" were never produced for the original series can only be seen as a loss to American television culture. What makes "The Burning Man" peculiar is that it is a singularly watchable episode that sets up a strong atmosphere, believable relationships, and then bails out with a hackneyed and (frankly) unnecessarily depressing ending, completely devoid of meaning or imagination.
A middle aged woman (Piper Laurie) and her nephew (Andre Gower) are taking a Sunday drive along a dusty, Midwestern road on a summer's day, when they pick up an older, somewhat wild-eyed man (Roberts Blossom). As the drive progresses, the new passenger begins to spout more and more sinister and apocalyptic chatter which, unsurprisingly, puts his fellow travelers more and more ill-at-ease.
J.D. Feigelson's adaptation of Bradbury's story does a nice job of creating a nice, familial dynamic between Laurie and Gower, and the actors serve it well. Blossom is a fine character actor who made a career out of playing individuals who were, to put it mildly, a little bit off-center, and he's allowed here to go off full throttle (reminiscent of John Carradine at his delirious best). While it can be fun to watch, the real problem is that the ending telegraphs itself about 5-7 minutes before the end, and there's no real lesson to be learned from the ending -- is there any reason why Laurie and Gower need to receive the fate they're given? Which brings me back to my original point -- why doesn't this story work? I guess because it sets up a conceit within the parameters of the series to which the ending does violence. Perhaps I'm a but of a purist, but when in the Twilight Zone....
DEALER'S CHOICE (6 of 10)
"Dealer's Choice" is an episode that doesn't truly belong in "The Twilight Zone" either, given its horror roots and lack of any ending message or dramatic irony. Nonetheless, for some reason, it overcomes this thanks to a superb ensemble cast and a nice feel for card games and the loyalty the players feel to each other.
Regular card playing buddies Tony (Morgan Freeman), Marty (Barney Martin), Pete (M. Emmett Walsh) and Jake (Garrett Morris) welcome a new player to their game, Nick (Dan Hedaya). As the game progresses, the other players come to the conclusion that Nick may be Satan himself, and begin to wonder what or who he came for.
The story here is about a inch-deep, and the non-hellish characters seem to come to the conclusion that Nick is the Devil remarkably fast, without even a flippant suggestion before settling on their belief that he is the Prince of Darkness. So why does this work at all? In a word, the ensemble work of Freeman, Morris, Walsh and Martin, all friends who may not know much, but they do know they will stand by their friend even to the gates of Hell (albeit much more literally than they could ever have imagined) -- they may not have very much else in common, but they'll be damned before they'll let their buddy check out without a fight. Hedaya is a big help here too -- an actor who oozes (intentional) insincerity and sleaze from every pore, he sets himself up perfectly as someone who will cheat on his own deal, and then, when called on it, will take it with good grace and somehow seem believable.
Superficial -- yes. A little stupid -- yes. Watchable -- hell, yes.
GRAMMA (7 out of 10)
Stephen King is one of those writers who can be maddeningly difficult to make come alive on film or TV. Some of his work, like "Carrie," "Salem's Lot", "The Stand," can be chillingly brought to the screen, while other works that might work on the page (for me, the definitive example is "The Shining," a moody and creepy book that plays as boring and unconvincing in both of its film incarnations) just don't work dramatically. Adapting his work for "The Twilight Zone" presents a special challenge, particularly since much of the work he's most famous for really doesn't fit the underlying conceit. While "Gramma" doesn't quite make it over that hump, the episode does have an enormous amount going for it -- Harlan Ellison's script (based on King's story), Bradford May's creepy direction, and a knockout lead performance by Barrett Oliver.
Young Georgie (Oliver) is left at home one day to do his schoolwork while his mother goes to the hospital to visit his brother. Although he tells his mother he is not afraid of his grandmother (who lies upstairs in bed, ostensibly senile), his tone and body language says just the opposite. When Gramma calls to him for tea, Georgie must fight his own fear to go to her, and finds out some things about Gramma that he probably would have preferred not to know.
The episode works best when Georgie (through voice-over) is working through his own fears and apprehensions, and May's lighting and shot selections enhance the creepiness of the situation, and the stakes for Georgie. Faced with what amounts to a series of extended monologues, Oliver more than rises to the occasion, using his body language, facial reactions, and vocal tone to believably play an 11-year old boy working his way through both the imaginings of his juvenile mind, and the genuinely spooky situation in which he finds himself.
This work sustains the episode almost right up to the end, where it kind of fell apart for me. On its own terms the story is fine (and the script is faithful to the King story), but for a "Twilight Zone" episode, the ending feels incredibly cruel, without any message or at least pointed irony to justify it. Likewise, from the moment the name "Chthulu" is mentioned, the ending (complete with a gimmicky final shot) is about as unexpected as alcohol on New Year's Eve.
With that said, "Gramma" is very effective on its own terms; while it may be second-tier "Twilight Zone", it is a first-rate horror story thanks to Ellison, May, and (especially) Oliver.
PERSONAL DEMONS (2 out of 10)
This segment plays exactly like one of the atrocious filler pieces that used to be a part of "Night Gallery," wasting a great deal of directing (Peter Medak) and acting talent (Martin Balsam, Clive Revill, and Joshua Shelley) in the process. Balsam plays a blocked writer, who begins to see strange, hooded creatures everywhere he goes. The script offers absolutely no substance or insight into the character of the writer -- an imaginative script might have given us some idea of why he's blocked -- and nothing about the direction makes it even remotely interesting. As for the creatures themselves, they basically look like the cast of "The Brood" dressed up as the Emperor Palpatine for Halloween.
A complete and utter waste of time.
COLD READING (6 out of 10)
Show business is filled with stories of creative geniuses (real or erstwhile) who went to often ridiculous lengths to ensure realism or to obtain a desired effect, perhaps none more so than Orson Welles, the epitome of the indulgent creative genius.
Welles is clearly being spoofed in this segment, in the form of Nelson Westbrook, the resident radio genius behind "Dick Noble, African Hunter": the character's first appearance in the segment has him arriving at the radio studio in the back of an ambulance that he's using for a taxi (Welles apparently did the same thing back in the 1930s when he was shuttling back and forth between his Broadway engagements and his radio shows). As played by the late, great Dick Shawn, Westbrook is all flash and megalomania, exercising control over every aspect of his show to a hilariously detailed degree. When he berates his sound effects man (Ralph Manza) over what he thinks is an insufficiently authentic sound prop, he expresses his wish that all of the sound effects on the show could be provided by their authentic sources. As the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for....
This being "The Twilight Zone," each mention of a sound cue (e.g., monkeys, tribal drummers, torrential rainstorms) is greeted by the genuine article. What makes the episode funny is Westbrook's reaction -- for the most part, he's delighted with the results, despite the resulting mayhem. Only when things get to the point they become downright dangerous does our maestro realize he might need to start taking control again.
Like "Gramma," "Cold Reading" is not exactly top-tier "Twilight Zone" material, but it's certainly enjoyable to watch. Martin Pasko's and Rebecca Parr Cioffi's script is light-hearted enough, and wisely plays the ridiculous situation straight-faced rather than fall in the trap of simply telling jokes. Gus Trikonis' direction serves the material well, and the supporting cast is game. And then there is Shawn, who is quite funny and knows exactly how far over the top to go with the material.
In all, a cute little dig at Wellesian artistic types and, while perhaps not a great episode, it's certainly better than most of its type, and infinitely better than the piece of stupidity ("Personal Demons") that preceded it.
Three chapters in a young Miami man's life at ten, sixteen, and twenty-five years of age. We witness his emotional growth, the collapse of his home life, his friendship with one particular classmate, and his growing awareness of his sexuality. Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight" is an extraordinary film that follows this path to give us an incredibly powerful glimpse into an African-American man's life over a decade and a half.
The first chapter ("Little") tells us the story of ten year old Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert). We see him bullied by his schoolmates, and rescued after a fashion by Jean (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer, and his girlfriend Theresa (Janelle Monae). As this relationship develops, his mother (Naomie Harris) struggles to make ends meet for both of them, while battling her own growing addition to crack. Meanwhile, a third key relationship develops with schoolmate Kevin. The next chapter ("Chiron") sees the protagonist at sixteen (Ashton Sanders), as his shy personality and lanky frame continues to make him the target of schoolyard toughs, while his mother's downward spiral continues, and his relationship with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) takes more than one unexpected turn. The final chapter ("Black") flashes forward almost ten years, as Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) is now living in Atlanta, and his life has taken a believable, though hardly inevitable, turn; he's now trying to seek some peace of mind in his relationship with his mother and with Kevin (Andre Holland).
Every moment of Jenkins's screenplay rings absolutely true, presenting a realistic and powerful series of vignettes about Chiron's life. Reminiscent of Truffaut's "The 400 Blows" (to which Jenkins gives a knowing tip of the hat), Jenkins is careful to inject not only the negative elements of Chiron's life, but also the small positive notes and setting a fully rounded picture of his day-to-day existence. Each of the three actors playing Chiron help to fill out that picture, creating a remarkable continuity of character throughout the three stages of his life, and each masterfully plays off of the script, which so effectively uses indirect dialogue that Chiron's internal struggles resonate directly with the audience. Indeed, Rhodes' final series of scenes with Holland exquisitely use this type of indirect dialogue to give the audience that sad but knowing sense of paths that might have been -- but weren't -- taken, and the need to move on all the same.
The supporting cast is equally well-rounded. Harris, Ali and Monae are absolutely superb, taking characters that could easily be stereotyped and giving them layers and shadings that we can readily see manifesting in Chiron's character as he grows. It's almost as if the film shows us the making of a man as if he were a sculpture, and we can almost see the clay as it is applied and molded, with each person we see touching his life leaving their own mark.
The film is also beautifully shot, contrasting the sharp and defined colors of Chiron's day to day life with the serene and dreamy blue filtering in the scenes on the beach -- Chiron's escape from the hell of his day-to-day world. The last shot is a universal one -- we've all thought about at one time or another about how we got where we are, and where will our choices take us. It is a final, haunting image that sticks with the viewer, one that makes us see our own lives through the life of someone most of us would never think twice about.
If not the best picture of the year, "Moonlight" is pretty damn close.
La La Land (2016)
Suit the Production Scale to the Script, the Script to the Production Scale
"La La Land" is Damien Chazelle's second major feature, following "Whiplash" two years ago. The earlier release helped define Chazelle's cinematic signature: a love of jazz; highly kinetic cinematography; a fondness for chiaroscuro shots; sharp editing; and tightly focused character relationships. "La La Land" expands this signature somewhat, adding a broader color palette, and accentuating the kinetic visuals with fine (and believable) choreography. In doing so, he's created a fine-looking and charming musical . . . so why does it feel like something is missing?
The story (written by Chazelle) deals with the relationship between a struggling actress (Emma Stone) and a talented but rigidly principled jazz musician (Ryan Gosling) as it develops over a year. Stone's character deals with rejection, while Gosling is tempted with compromised success with the band of a mainstream colleague (John Legend). The relationship between the two evolves believably for the most part, thanks to very good performances from Gosling and (especially) Stone, and largely believable dialogue between them. The songs by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul range from the serviceable to the very good ("City of Stars" and "Audition" in particular). The dance numbers are also a lot of fun, especially the opener on a freeway and the duet between Stone and Gosling on Mulholland Drive. In fact, the latter dance number is particularly good, because we're not watching life-trained dancers performing a dazzling and intricate routine; instead, we're watching two people in character dancing because they simply have no other way of expressing how they feel at that moment. The steps may be simpler (though skillfully performed), but the latter type of number is for me much more personal and impactful than the former.
Chazelle's penchant for striking visuals is also on display here, utilizing more potent color contrasts than were utilized in "Whiplash," but still effectively using the shadows, editing, and movement to keep the viewer engaged. Perhaps the most remarkable sequences comes near the end, in which most of the key scenes are flashed back with certain elements changed, in a way that plays like a character's fleeting fantasy. This scene is so well shot, directed and edited, that it could almost stand on its own as a short film.
So why does it feel like something is missing? I think the problem lies in the fact in the fact that Chazelle's view as a director is broader than the confines of his script. While the visuals and the size of the cast are expansive, seeming to take in large swaths of Los Angeles, the script more or less limits itself exclusively to the relationship between Gosling and Stone. Although others do occasionally drift in, they're given very little to do, save provide expository dialogue -- e.g., Gosling's sister (Rosemary DeWitt) has one scene to establish herself as the practical one of the family to balance out her dreamer brother, then effectively disappears. This approach worked on a more narrow dramatic scale in "Whiplash" -- which relied upon the triangulated relationship between Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, and Paul Reiser -- such a narrow character focus makes the canvas feel somewhat empty here. Whether that is by design is not really clear, but it does make one feel that Chazelle was so thrilled with the Gosling-Stone relationship, that he forgot that the people around them should have more than one dimension, lest they come off more as props than characters.
Is this problem fatal -- no. "La La Land" is still a fun, well-edited, choreographed and directed musical with two very good lead performances. Had Chazelle better scaled the production to the script, or vice-versa, however, it could have been something even more remarkable.
Wonderfully Effective Segment
The ability of human beings to deal with grief is a subject that the original series dealt with infrequently, but when it did, the results could be deeply moving, evidenced by episodes such as "The Trouble With Templeton" and "Death Ship." "Dream Me a Life" is more than equal to the task of living up to those predecessors.
Roger Simpson Leeds (Eddie Albert) is a crotchety widower in a retirement home who has been having recurring dreams of being stuck with an elderly woman in a bedroom, and trying to prevent some unknown force from breaking through the door. When a new resident (Frances Hyland) arrives at the home, widowed and unable/unwilling to speak, Roger realizes that this is the woman in his dreams.
"Dream Me a Life" is a wonderfully effective episode, served immeasurably by J. Michael Straczynski's thoughtful script, and a superb lead performance by one of the most underrated character actors in Hollywood's history. Straczynski's script wisely avoids making the episode's moments overly sentimental or cutesy, and firmly anchors Roger's ill-temper to his grief, which in turn smoothly enables the transition necessary to the story's resolution. Albert is wonderfully modulated, giving us glimpses of the loving, caring man Roger was in one part of his life, while still masking his pain with orneriness. His epiphany as to what the dream is telling him is wonderfully played -- and believable -- as a we see the rational man working his way past his fear. Barry Morse adds a nice counterbalance to Albert, speaking more or less to the better angels of Roger's nature without being preachy.
And then there are the dream sequences, effectively staged by Allan King -- strange enough, using black and white with only minimal set decoration, while avoiding the temptation to use Dali-esque excesses. The result is a frightening, appropriately confusing set of sequences that believably trigger Roger's enlightenment.
This episode is one of my favorites from the second series, as it hits all of its notes on cue, and with a genuine feeling of hope that comes out of the madness. For this type of subject matter, it is definitive "Twilight Zone" material, both in tone and execution.
The Twilight Zone: Acts of Terror (1988)
Dispensing Actual Justice
As many of my prior reviews suggest, I am a fan of the thematic concept upon which Rod Serling based the original Twilight Zone series: tales in which the characters learn a lesson (often with a social message), the good are rewarded and the evil punished or, if not, at least the message is delivered with a tragic irony. And, as you also can probably tell, I tend to prefer episodes from the 1980s version that follow the same concept, especially when they're done well. "Acts of Terror" succeeds on both scores.
The story focuses on a subject the original series would never have addressed directly in the 1960s: spousal abuse. Young housewife Louise (Melanie Mayron) lives under the dominant and abusive thumb of her violent husband (Kenneth Welsh). Her sister (Kate Lynch) gives her a small porcelain statue of a doberman pinscher, which becomes a channel for her repressed rage, manifesting itself as a real doberman to defend her when threatened by her husband. From this point, a lesser scriptwriter would have turned the story into a pedestrian revenge tale. Instead, J. Michael Straczynski makes this a more meaningful story, choosing to focus on Louise's recovering her self-esteem, allowing her to discover for herself that she does not need to be a victim. In doing so, Straczynski properly focuses the story on Louise, rather than taking the more facile route of killing off the husband or trying to delve into the rationale that others might use to explain (or worse, excuse) her husband's abuse.
Mayron's performance is critical here, providing us with a nuanced and believable transformation from a cowed and self-doubting victim to a self-respecting woman. Lynch is also quite good as the sister who has seen what her brother-in-law is capable of, and gives us unspoken clues that she knows what her sister needs to help regain her self-respect and stand up for herself. Given what I've written above, the part of the husband is almost necessarily underwritten, but Kenneth Welsh does a fine job of showing us not only the violent brute, but also the sometimes charming and manipulative behavior by which he can keep control over his wife. While perhaps not the cathartically violent spectacle with which others might have concluded the story, the ending is both effective and proportionate: the abused spouse will no longer let herself be a victim, and the abuser has lost the thing he most wanted in the relationship -- control.
Which brings me back to my opening point. Of all the writers for the third season of the 1980s incarnation of the Twilight Zone, Straczynski was probably the one who most closely fit the thematic concept set by Serling (for prior seasons, Alan Brennert was probably the best fit). His sympathy for and understanding of Louise and her situation allow the story to do what the original series did at its best: not doling out revenge, but dispensing justice,
Brilliant Remake Matched With a Weak Original
DEAD WOMAN'S SHOES (9 of 10)
Remakes can often be tiresome affairs -- after all, the writers, directors, crews and actors are all essentially walking in footsteps that were left (usually) by creators of great imagination and impact. Too often in film and television, this leads to a form of laziness or misguided reverence: producers will hire people who they can rely upon to produce a profitable product, without concern for whether those people can put a thoughtful and innovative stamp on the work; otherwise creative professionals simply feel content following the same path as their predecessor(s); or those same producers and/or professionals who feel the original work is so untouchable that they fear any effort to make it their own defiles the original. Consequently, it's not surprising that many viewers feel a chill go down their spine at the mention of the word "remake."
Which brings us to a very welcome departure from this normal state of affairs. "Dead Woman's Shoes" is a remake of "Dead Man's Shoes," a largely forgettable (in my opinion) episode from the third season of The Twilight Zone's initial incarnation. In the original version, written by Charles Beaumont and (uncredited) OCeo Ritch, Warren Stevens played a vagrant who takes the fancy shoes off of a corpse and, upon putting them on, is possessed by the vengeful spirit of the dead man, with an eye on getting even with the crooked partner who had him murdered. The conceit was an ingenious one, but the script itself was flat and Stevens didn't do much to elevate the piece (which is otherwise occupied by a bunch of B-movie stereotypes). As mentioned above, the result is forgettable. What a difference two decades, a more thoughtful script, and imaginative performances can make.
In "Dead Woman's Shoes," Helen Mirren gives a knockout performance as a mousy thrift-store employee who tries on an expensive pair of shoes, and becomes possessed with the spirit of a murdered woman, out to take revenge on the husband (Jeffrey Tambor) who murdered her. Lynn Barker's script effectively creates the template for the night and day contrast of Mirren's character, and Mirren's physical and vocal performance allows us to see both characters in the snap of a finger (or, more precisely, the putting on and taking off of a shoe); each performance is equally believable and effectively delivers on the story's underlying conceit. Barker also avoids the original's mistake of focusing so exclusively on the lead character that the supporting characters become stick figures: both Tambor's character and the family maid (wonderfully played by Theresa Saldana) are created as fully rounded human beings. Each scene between two or more of these characters conveys an unspoken history amongst them which enlivens the suspense, a testament to Barker's script, Peter Medak's direction, and there performances of Mirren, Tambor, and Saldana. All this, and a final twist that also improves on the original.
In short, an exception to the rule of remakes and a worthy addition to not only the mid-1980s series, but the entire Twilight Zone canon.
WONG'S LOST AND FOUND EMPORIUM (3 of 10)
The laws of physics tell us that for every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction. Apparently, this rule can also apply to many episodes of the mid-1980s "Twilight Zone" series, where multiple stories were combined into a single episode, and a well-done piece was accompanied by a real clunker. This segment, which aired together with the marvelous "Dead Woman's Shoes," would seem to serve as a definitive example of this principle.
Through a door in a San Francisco sex shop (which easily provides the most lively scene in the segment), a jaded young man (Brian Tochi) accesses a mysterious storeroom in search of the eponymous emporium. Soon, other people start drifting in via entrances in other parts of the country: an elderly woman seeking to recapture her artistic spirit/talent; a young woman trying to recover her sense of humor; an older man trying to regain the respect of his children. The young man is dismissive of their needs since, of course, he's trying to get back his empathy. If the story sounds like abstract theater, imagine the worst possible kind.
The script is a major letdown from the usually fine Alan Brennert (whose Zone episodes include "Her Pilgrim Soul," "A Message From Charity," and "Dead Run"). Unlike those scripts, which allowed the characters to reveal themselves through normal conversation, Brennert's teleplay here consists almost exclusively of clumsy exposition and risible epiphanies. For example, each person is able to precisely identify that part of themselves they want to recover, and say so in so many words. In the Tochi character's case, it is particularly glaring, as the fact that he realizes he's lost his empathy and wants it back would seem to be entirely inconsistent with someone who has lost his empathy.
The direction and production design aren't much of a help. The warehouse looks like nothing more than the props closet for a Guillermo del Toro film, and the actors are blocked in a fashion that looks like something out of a low-quality acting class. When old hands like Carol Bruce and Stacy Keach, Sr. can't make their characters seem believable, you know you've got a problem.
Ah, well, at least there's "Dead Woman's Shoes" -- and the woes of the sex shop customer expressing dissatisfaction with the blow-up doll he purchased...
The Twilight Zone: Memories (1988)
To Remember, or Not to Remember
After a career of helping clients surmount their traumas by getting them in touch with their past lives, regression therapist Mary McLean (Barbara Stock) steps into a world where EVERYONE knows their past lives. When she can't recall her own past lives, she is kidnapped and drugged by some shadowy figures, who try to find out why she's the only person not subjected to the hell of those memories.
"Memories" plays like one of those "Twilight Zone" episodes that probably sounded fantastic in theory, but really comes off as something of a mess in execution. Part of the problem is that Bob Underwood's script seems really pleased with its idea of inverting the standard notion of releasing past traumas, without grasping the implications of its key plot twist -- i.e., Mary finds a new purpose helping folks repress those past memories, which are apparently more traumatic. Rather than address the downsides of both approaches (or at least, make some dramatic irony out of a society that would want to repress memories), Underwood's script simply dives into the notion that repression is always a good thing, with no apparent awareness of the potential consequences. As such, instead of playing as a satire of faddish psychological theories (from both extremes), it plays instead as an exercise in the author's blind faith in a quick fix.
Stock does what she can with what little she's given to do. Her disorientation during the initial interview comes off as genuine, and her character's compassion for her clients is real enough. Unfortunately, this believability is ill served by a story that doesn't seem to know where it wants to go, much less believe in the destination.
An Extreme Way to Climb Aboard the Wagon
"The Hellgramite Method" is a genuinely disturbing story of an alcoholic (Timothy Bottoms) who, on what seems to be a lark, takes a rather unconventional path to sobriety. When another patron of his favorite bar gives him a matchbook advertising the eponymous approach, he decides to follow the advice of the doctor in question, a genuinely creepy sort, who gives him a red pill. Only then does he learn that the pill releases a voracious tapeworm that thrives on alcohol -- if he refrains from drinking, the worm will go into hibernation; if he continues to drink or falls off the wagon, the worm will literally eat him alive.
The script and direction are pretty fierce here, once Bottoms' character takes the plunge. The withdrawal scenes are pretty uncomfortable to watch (how accurate they are I have no idea), and Bottoms' confrontation with the doctor is really something to see. In this respect, William Selby's script and Gilbert Shilton's direction know just when to pull out the stops, letting Leslie Yeo go overboard at just the right moment while keeping it at least somewhat motivated. Bottoms is also effective, though he seems more effective when going through withdrawal than as a somewhat superficial, happy-go-lucky drunk.