Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Middle Ground between Light and Shadow

Twilight Zone: The Movie was a film I'd not seen since its debut on cable back in the early to mid eighties when I decided, some thirty plus years later, to give it another look. Watching it again with older, maybe wiser, eyes revealed a film so inconsistent as to make one wonder why they bothered releasing it. Add on to that the fact that three actors ( Vic Morrow, My-Ca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi) were killed during filming due to questionable filming practices, ignored safety standards and violations of child labor laws and one really does get the feeling that out of respect alone they should have shelved it. But they didn't and I suppose Vic Morrow, the great character actor with such an extraordinary gift for playing the jerk, deserves recognition for his final performance, something too often overlooked in write-ups on the film.

Vic Morrow's performance comes in the first tale told (there are four in all, bookended by a mildly entertaining, yet completely pointless, prologue and epilogue featuring Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks). The tale concerns a hateful bigot who, after spending his evening complaining about every non-white ethnic group secretly controlling the world, walks out of a bar and into the Jewish ghetto in Nazi Germany. Get it? He's a Jew now, suffering divine retribution for his sins. Moments later he is a black man being held by the KKK (with a young John Larroquette as their leader) and then a Vietnamese man escaping American troops in Vietnam. This last sequence involved a scene where Morrow and two children (the actors named above) escape a helicopter attack which ended, in reality, horrifically, as the helicopter lost control and descended upon and killed all three actors below. Whatever that scene entailed it was clearly vital to the sequence because without it the Vietnam sequence is so weak and meaningless that it honestly should have been left out. Editing out the helicopter scene, and the previous scene with the two children, but leaving in all that surrounded it seems both disrespectful and dishonest. Because the sequence is so weak and barely understandable (it's not even made clear that he is a Vietnamese man - that was made clear in the footage with the children apparently) it feels like it was left in just so they wouldn't lose any usable footage. Of course, showing any of the footage the led to the deaths of three people on the set is highly questionable in and of itself and filming at night with child actors illegally hired to avoid adherence to child labor laws is deplorable.  (the details of the entire disgusting episode are here). But back to Morrow. He is, as expected, excellent. Whether at the beginning of his career (Blackboard Jungle) or near the end (The Bad News Bears) Morrow could project hate and anger like few others. He is perfectly cast here and makes an otherwise unmemorable segment better if deeply tragic.

Then there's the second segment, directed by Steven Spielberg and without a doubt the weakest of all four segments. No, that's not right, it's much worse than weak. It's horrible, insufferable, unbearable. It's a story about a group of old timers who get the chance to be young again thanks to a magic man with a twinkle in his eye and... need I continue? The music is goopy, the shots are sickly sweet, and the child actors playing the old timers after their transformation are painfully affected.  Someone should have stopped them and that someone was Spielberg, just coming off his massive success with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial the year before, a movie in which the child performers were uniformly excellent.  Maybe it was that success that caused Spielberg to drop his guard and let the kids run wild but one gets the feeling that no one is controlling their overbearing "acting" at all.  Sadly, it's not only the worse segment of this movie but probably one of the worst things Spielberg has ever done.  As none of the segments relate to the others or the prologue or epilogue, I'd recommend simply skipping this segment altogether.

Moving on to the third segment things improve dramatically. The music's still awful (only because Jerry Goldsmith, a great composer otherwise, doing "John Williams Whimsical" is just about the worst thing the Earth has ever known) but the story and pacing are a hell of a lot better. Kathleen Quinlan stars as Helen, a woman taken to a strange house by an odd boy named Anthony who can make anything happen by wishing. He has, we find out, held four people captive that he reveals to outsiders as his family. A fifth hostage, and true relation - his sister, sits in the bedroom silently watching cartoons, her mouth long ago removed by the vindictive Anthony. The story races along at a clipped pace as we watch the immensely entertaining set of character actors, including Kevin McCarthy, wiggle and squirm through sycophantic tributes to Anthony. The biggest fault of this story is it pretends to have a nice ending with Anthony telling Quinlan he let everyone go as she smiles and says she wants to be his teacher. Thing is, it's alluded to by one of the characters early on that his parents met a horrible fate at his hands. No mention is made of this as we all hold hands and watch flowers grow alongside the road as the new teacher and homicidal student drive off into the sunset. Ugh. I guess when Steven Spielberg is your producer these kinds of endings are unavoidable (or at least, I should qualify, the Spielberg of 1983).

That takes us to the fourth and final segment, a reworking of the original series classic Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. John Lithgow takes over the role William Shatner made famous as an airline passenger terrified of flying who sees a gremlin on the wing of the plane destroying the engine. No one else sees it of course and Lithgow does a tremendous job of playing full-bore hysterical throughout most of the segment. It's not any better or worse than the original (maybe slightly worse - it plays the hysterical angle a bit too long) but it's not a bad capper to an otherwise undistinguished affair.

In the end, the first two segments (the first for its banality, the second for its no-holds-barred awfulness) weigh too heavily on this enterprise for the movie to succeed. By the time we get to the good stuff we've already entered an advanced state of indifference to the whole damn thing and even Joe Dante's and George Miller's very good third and fourth segments can't resuscitate this comatose patient. When the credits roll we feel a mixture of depressed detachment and relief. The movie didn't really affect us one way or the other and yet we're glad it's over. Like Rod Serling's famous narration, it occupies the middle ground between light and shadow, never really venturing fully into either, staying the middle course, playing it safe and finally, and ultimately, failing as both.