Thursday, July 11, 2013

Twilight Zone: 2.3

In 1988, the CBS network attempted the television equivalent of a Hail Mary Pass. Their intention was to take a failed prime time series and try to turn it into a syndication success.

Three years earlier, the company had taken a stab at resurrecting The Twilight Zone, the classic television series which had run on that network from 1959 through 1964. While TZ had never been more than a cult hit the first time on the air, the show had earned the company a considerable amount of money during two decades of syndicated reruns.

The 1985 attempt at rebooting the show wound up bringing mixed results. The initial ratings had been strong and critics had given the show a fair amount of praise. Then the number of viewers had started tapering off after the first couple of months. When asked why they were changing the channel, the response from the audience had been fairly consistent.

Some of the stories are fairly interesting

but the general feel of the show doesn't match the

Twilight Zone that we came to love on late night TV.

With ratings dropping below the break even point, the network canceled the show halfway through the second season. Hoping to recoup some of their money by syndicating this version of TZ to individual stations, the CBS executives had to face a second inconvenient reality. Although this sixty minute version of the show has been produced in a way that would allow each installment to be neatly divided into two half hour episodes, the early cancellation of the program had left CBS holding a short stack of product.

CBS needed at least one hundred half hour episodes to make their plan viable. They currently had slightly more than seventy. After considering their options, the company decided to open the checkbook and pay the money necessary to produce another thirty stories.

While seasons 1 and 2 had been completely produced in California, the actual filming of 3 was moved to the greater Toronto area. By shooting in Canada and placing a limit on the amount of special effects these episodes could use, the company hoped to maximize the amount of profit they could earn from syndication. CBS was also paying attention to one of the major complaints concerning the initial two seasons of the revival. Several of the episodes had seemed more concerned with sparkle than with plot.

While reducing the costs on filming and effects, the company allowed the writing budget to remain fairly high. By using this money, Seaton McLean and J. Michael Straczynski were able to attract a wide variety of top notch talent for the third season of the show. Although the production budget for these thirty episodes was significantly lower than the ones that had preceded them, several of them are near the top of the list when it comes to fan favorites.

Here are the ones I refer to as my fabulous five.

The Curious Case Of Edgar Witherspoon

Doctor Jeremy Sinclair has just been handed what appears to be a run of the mill psychiatric assignment. His task is to investigate and report on an elderly man name Edgar Witherspoon. Edgar is a sweet old fellow who's taken to collecting and hoarding a wide variety of items that most people would describe as junk.

After he succeeds in muscling his way into Edgar's basement apartment, Jeremy discovers an entire room filled by a strange contraption made from piano wire, doll heads, playing cards and other assorted items.

“Mr. Witherspoon,” Jeremy says, a touch of concern in his voice. “Would you mind explaining the nature of this device?”

“This machine is the only thing that keeps the everything in balance.” Edgar replies, with a wry smile. “Without it, the entire world would just go poof!”

Harry Morgan as Edgar Witherspoon
Cedrick Smith as Dr. Jeremy Sinclair

Dream Me A Life

Eddie Albert stars as Roger Simpson Leeds.  An old man who can't seem to get away from a bad dream. The problem has been going on for weeks now. Constant repetitions and distortions of the same series of disturbing events. The situation has reached the point where Roger is almost afraid to go to bed at night.

After falling asleep, the man opens his eyes and finds himself barricaded inside a crumbling house. His only companion is an attractive woman, close to his own age, who seems very afraid of whatever is trying to break down the door.

Things become even stranger when Roger meets the newest resident of the retirement home where he lives. Her name is Laural and she's been in a catatonic state for almost ten years. According to Roger's friend Frank, after the unexpected death of her husband, Laurel just sort of “went away”.

Laurel just happens to be an exact ringer of the woman in Roger's night mare.

Frances Hyland as Laurel
Barry Morse as Frank

The Trance

Leonard Randall is a handsome con artist who's only one step away from reaching the big time.

About a year ago, the man invented the persona of Delos. According to Leonard, Delos is a long dead resident of the lost island of Atlantis. After Leonard walks onto a theatre stage, sits in a comfortable chair and allows himself to fall into a trance ... The spirit of Delos enters his body and uses it to advise audience members who believe they might have problems that require a special sort of spiritual guidance.

After months of carefully calculated performances, Leonard has finally gained the attention of the national talk shows. Just as he's about to sign a deal that will send him on a highly publicized world tour, Leonard begins to speak in a voice that belongs to neither Delos nor himself. And it is a voice that Leonard appears to have absolutely no control over.

Peter Scolari as Leonard Randall

Room 2426

Professor Martin Decker ... A research scientist who's been imprisoned in a mental hospital. His only crime appears to be a steadfast refusal to cooperate with an oppressive dictatorship. The Professor invented a compound that could possibly be used to produce a deadly nerve gas. The regime appears willing to do anything necessary to learn the formula.

Professor Decker's “therapy” has gone on for several months. Sleep deprivation. Drugs. Long periods of isolation. The man still refuses to give his captors any information about where his files are hidden.

During the past several weeks, Decker's last remaining connection to sanity has been an enigmatic cell mate. Although the young fellow's conversations have always appeared to be quite sane, he has just made Decker an offer that seems to come from the depths of absurdity.

“They sent me to get you out of here, my friend.” The young man whispers in Martin's ear. “ I can use the power of my mind to teleport the two of us to safety. You simply have to believe in me.”

Dean Stockwell as Martin
Brent Carver as Joseph

Crazy As A Soup Sandwich

Tony Franciosa stars as Nino Lancaster, a Mafia Boss who is owed more than 100 grand by a street punk named Arky Lochner. It seems that Arky has a first class reason for his inability to repay the money he borrowed from Lancaster's loan sharks. The man bet every penny of it on the local horse races, after making a deal with a Demon to learn the names of all the long shots that would cross the finish line first.

Unfortunately, while each of Arky's horses were indeed the first ones to cross the line, every single stag and mare was disqualified for one reason or another. Which means that Arky now has a much larger problem than his inability to repay Mr. Lancaster. He's also unable to fork over the One Million Dollar Bounty which would prevent the Demon from having the right to claim Arky's immortal soul.

Nino Lancaster now finds himself in a very unenviable situation. If he wants to regain the money which is rightfully his, the man will have to help a pathetic loser defeat a highly powerful Minion of Darkness.

Wayne Robson as Arky

I sincerely hope you take the time to find the episodes of Season 3 and enjoy them. Your imagination will thank you for it.

Travis  Clemmons

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Movie Discussion: Man Of Steel


Here There Be Spoilers!

Let me start off by saying that Man Of Steel is a very good movie.

What seems to be causing it to catch flak from a significant number of Film Critics is that too many of them were demanding a perfect movie. The problem with making this demand is that perfection can be a very subjective thing, especially when it comes to getting professional critics to agree on something. If you manage to please Smith, you're likely to piss off Patel. And if you somehow make both Smith and Patel happy, Krueger will probably accuse you of being a no talent hack.

Having taken the critics to task, please allow me to point out the three fixes that I believe could have turned this good movie into a great one.

- A -

At 143 minutes, the story is about 25 too long.

At least 15 minutes of this is due to the “Destruction Of Krypton” chapter that began the story.

Huge Mistake!

When Paramount produced Raiders Of The Lost Arc … Did Lucas and Spielberg feel it necessary to spend 20 minutes showing the audience how the Arc was stolen from the Israelites, by the Babylonians, and then accidentally misplaced for something like five thousand years?

Absolutely not!

The production team clearly understood that starting the story on that note would cause a significant distraction from the main storyline. So they wisely began the movie by introducing Indiana Jones and demonstrating what he does best. Then they allowed the back story concerning the Arc to gradually creep in along the way.

Man Of Steel should have used the same type of beginning. It could easily have started with Clark Kent working on an oil rig that was being torn apart by tidal waves and explosions. Then flash back to a part of his childhood before leading him up to his discovery of the Kryptonian scout ship. As the story progressed, General Zod and the Ghost of Jor-EL would have had plenty of opportunities to fill in the missing pieces. Everything would have run much more tightly and smoothly and the production budget would have been a few million lower.

- B -

Another 10 minutes could easily have been shaved off by being just a tad stingy about the time allowed for the Action scenes. The cold hard truth is that Action is never more than a dance partner for Plot. While a judicious use of Action can greatly enhance a Plot, the first should never be used as a replacement for the other. During the final third of the movie, there were too many instances where I felt like I was watching someone else play a video game. There reached a certain point where I wanted all the bombing and the fist fights to stop for a little while. I wanted to get back to the actual plot. But this other guy … the guy who was working the video game … He just kept playing Hack & Slash for another ten minutes till he finally had to drop the control pad and rush off to the Men's Room.

- C -

The biggest mistake the story tellers made was that they did not respect the character of General Zod. More to the point, they betrayed the man at almost the exact same spot where they started letting the action sequences get out of hand. Having proceeded in the same basic direction for the first two thirds of the story ... Zod suddenly took a left turn, that was completely unjustified, based on how he had behaved up till that point.

Is Zod a fanatic?

Hell Yes!

But the man is compassionate fanatic … genetically bred, and judiciously trained. The preservation of life (especially Kryptonian life) is of the utmost importance to him. Zod did not try to seize power on Krypton until it became crystal clear that the Grand Council was completely incapable of dealing with the imminent destruction that was facing the planet.

In his attempted coup, Zod was working towards the same basic goal as Jor-EL. Each man wanted to protect the genetic information Codex and eventually use it to rebirth the Kryptonian race on a new world.

If life is this important to the man, why does he suddenly try to use the terraforming power of the World Ship to transform Earth into a replication of Krypton. There are thousands of lifeless planets out there that would be perfectly suitable for his purpose. Why take a tool of resurrection and turn it into a weapon of cataclysmic destruction by unleashing its power on a world where a lesser (but quite promising) civilization already exists?

The man is understandably miffed when he learns that Jor-EL had transferred the genetic information of the Codex into the cellular structure of Kal-EL. But miffed isn't enough to drive a compassionate dictator to commit genocide. Before taking an action that extreme, he needs to perceive Earth and its people as a threat.

The Humans need to have shown that they are to be feared. And Man Of Steel always left the forces of Earth stopping a few steps shy of that mark.

What if the military had succeeded in killing one or two of Zod's gladiators? Not an easy task, but one that could be accomplished by tapping into the R&D resources of a major conglomerate like Lex Corp.

Think about it. The name kept popping up here and there during the course of the story. A sign on this chemical tanker. A banner hanging over that construction site.

Lex Corp

A multinational organization which would conceivably be working on the development of a number of devices that might be of use to the military, if the planet were facing a threat from beyond our solar system. Something like a variable wavelength LASER projector. A machine that could be programmed to mimic the energy that would be produced by a red sun.

Most likely, there would be only two prototypes. Each would need to be cranked up way above the safety limit if it were going to be effective against a Kryptonian. Which means that each device would most likely burn out after only one shot.

The weapons are deployed. We succeed in killing one warrior and severely wounding another. Zod doesn't need to know that these are our only two guns. We've got his attention now. He understands that we're a credible threat. We're sure he'll do the logical thing and decide to back off.

Which is exactly when General Zod makes the decision to double down and go for broke. His reasoning is quite sound. If the Humans are this much of a threat now, what will they be capable of doing in a thousand years?

That's when Zod unleashes the power of the World Ship. The Human's did something completely unexpected. Now its his turn.

In spite of the fact that the movie's producers were foolish enough to not seek out my scripting advice, I find myself eagerly looking forward to watching a sequel. And I'm especially curious as to what part Lex Corp and its founder will play.

Only time will tell.

Travis Clemmons

Monday, July 1, 2013

Movie Review: Much Ado About Nothing

It is important to remember that Much Ado About Nothing was written in the 16th Century. During that earlier time, the word “Nothing” was often used interchangeably with “Noting” … a term which could hold a wide variety of meanings that are not well known in modern society.

* Small talk

* Petty or malicious gossip

* A willingness to listen in on conversations which the participants believed were private

So there is indeed a lot of “Nothing” going on in William Shakespeare's 1599 play. The entire story spins on a nexus of “who said this” and “who heard that”. All of it unfolding in a manner which brings about both silly humor and heart wrenching tragedy.

As adapted and directed by Joss Whedon, the story takes place in a world which appears rather similar to our 21st Century but which seems to have none of our modern day aircraft. This means that a journey of more than a thousand miles will take at least a handful of days to complete.

Being a part of the island of Sicily, the Province of Messina is currently under the control of the state of Aragon. Prince Pedro of Aragon (Don Pedro) has been engaged in a lengthy diplomatic mission far away from home. As he and his associates make their way back towards Northern Spain, their motorcade pauses at the villa of Leonato, the Governor of Messina. Having not seen his old friend for a number of months, Leonato invites the Prince and his traveling companions to stay with him for a period of several days.

This pause in their traveling is good news for some and inconvenient timing for others. The young Count Claudio is quite pleased by the opportunity to spend a bit more time in the company of the lovely maiden Hero, the only child of Leonato. For her part, Hero seems just as happy to learn that Claudio's travels have brought him back in her direction. On the other side of the issue, Hero's cousin Beatrice will not cease in her assertion that the travelers would have been just as welcome to continue on their journey and pass right by Leonato's estate.

While quite happy to see Don Pedro and most of his associates, the woman has an incredibly sharp tongue when it comes to any discussion of (or with) Sir Benedick. The man is an officer in the employ of the Prince and it appears that Benedick and Beatrice have a bit of past history. The two of them constantly demonstrate a willingness to allow the events of yesteryear to intrude upon their present day behavior.

The final traveler of note is Don John (The Bastard Prince). John is the younger half brother of Prince Pedro and it would appear that their father's marriage to his mother was a ceremony which was not given approval by the local Bishop. As such, he has always been the black sheep of the clan. A designation which he has taken to heart and allowed to influence his actions.

As the story begins, John and Conrade (his sultry lady friend) are shown to be in handcuffs. The diplomatic party has just made its way to friendly soil and the two of them are finally allowed to cast off their shackles and move about freely. While the scene plays out, the viewer is left to infer that John may have gotten into trouble in some foreign land. Which could well be the reason why Pedro and his associates have found it necessary to make this time consuming journey. Whatever the truth of the past might be, the truth of the present is that John and Conrade are not the least bit rehabilitated. Given the slightest opportunity, the two of them are perfectly happy to stir the trouble cauldron again and wait to see what might spring from it.

Whedon has done a marvelous job of taking this 450 year old tale of whimsy and heart break and transplanting it into a 21st Century setting. I wish I could congratulate the man for doing a perfect job, but there are a few small instances where I feel he should have gone in a slightly different direction.

On the positive side, the casting of Riki Lindhome as Conrade was a stroke of absolute genius. By changing the gender and making the character a very attractive female, and by allowing her to be the attention demanding lover of Don John, Whedon has opened up a new dimension in the relationship between the two malcontents. Mischief is the most basic type of foreplay for this pair. They whisper ideas of it to each other during intimate moments. They casually conspire to create trouble in much the same way as an average couple would plan an evening at the theatre. They find great entertainment in observing the fruits of their efforts as the vines unfurl and reveal their bitter grapes.

The downside to placing Riki in this role is that Whedon did not make the necessary adjustments in the script to compensate for the role reversal. During the course of the film, the character is constantly referred to as Master by those around her. This is actually quite humorous when she and Borachio are being interrogated by Dogberry and the other members of the inept Constabulary. Yet it becomes painfully grating when the term is being used by household servants (or party guests) who are calling her Master while properly referring to Beatrice and Hero by a correct term such as Maiden, Mistress or Milady.

Taking a second look at the Constabulary, Whedon missed a fine opportunity to show the modern day audience what these individuals were initially intended to parody. In the scripting of Dogberry and his associates, Shakespeare had his eye trained on what the people of our 21st century would commonly refer to as a “Neighborhood Watch Organization”. And it is quite clear that he held them in no greater esteem than much of present day society feels for the “Citizen Councils” or “Local Militias” that we often find existing near us. 

Contrary to how things might appear, Dogberry is not a professional police officer. He is a common citizen who has been drafted by the local government and forced to perform the task of Security Officer for a period of about two weeks each year. These are the men who could not scrape together the few coins necessary to be able to buy their way out of the obligation. They have little or no training and they are utterly ill equipped for the task of conducting a proper investigation of the events which are unfolding around them. The fact that Dogberry and his associates are able to expose the plot of Don John is a testament to the fact that Luck has found reason to turn its back on John and smile on almost everyone else.

The insertion of a couple of lines could have made the predicament of Dogberry much clearer to the modern day viewer. And I'm quite certain that, if a list were compiled of people who could properly fake Shakespeare, Whedon would very near the top of the names. The fact that he did not take this opportunity to slightly tweak the script causes me to feel that he failed somewhat in the task of helping the story fit the needs and expectations of the modern audience.

Having taken my nit picks, Much Ado About Nothing is one of the best films I've seen this year. In no small way, this is due to the casting. Each performer is flawless in their part. Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof can be absolutely gut busting as Beatrice and Benedick, then effortlessly transition to heart wrenching when the mood of the story changes.

Nathan Fillion is hilarious as Dogberry.

Clark Gregg stepped in at short notice, after Anthony Head became unavailable for the part. You'd never begin to think he was Whedon's second choice for the role.

My most enjoyed bit of acting comes from Jillian Morgese as Hero. The girl begins the film as a cute young Tom Boy … attractive yet unpolished. She's always believed that her cousin Beatrice was the pretty one in the family. When it becomes clear that Claudio wishes to have her as his mate, the young woman's confidence begins to blossom. Once Hero allows herself to believe that she is as attractive and desirable as Beatrice, her beauty quickly begins to rival that of Beatrice.

From acting … to directing … to camera work … to lighting … I'll happily cite Much Ado About Nothing as a prime example of how solid storytelling can triumph over exotic locations and expensive special effects. Produced on a budget that could be rivaled by ten dollars and a bicycle spoke, the movie is absolutely enjoyable.

I strongly recommend this motion picture.

Travis Clemmons