Monday, November 25, 2002

The Movie I Watched Last Night XLIII
Equal parts catching up on the Netflix rentals that sat at my house while I was traveling and a largely antisocial, domestic weekend, the last few days have been a veritable film festival for me and the big blue couch on Magazine Street.

Friday: Altered States
William Hurt stars in this 1980 movie that I remember vaguely from the Mad magazine parody -- but knew little about. I thought it was about medical research involving sensory deprivation tanks, and to some extent I was right. But it tries to be more, blending elements of Carlos Castenada and Timothy Leary in a story -- partly based at Harvard -- about using psychoactive drugs and other methods to find the "original self." In an interesting, albeit slightly ham-handed, twist, Hurt's character's research cause physical and genetic retrogression, turning the obsessed scientist into a simian creature -- who promptly goes on a rampage. Eventually, Hurt forsakes his research for his true love, played by Blair Brownn, but in a fit of shoddy special effects, they're nearly pulled back into the retrogression for once and for all. Only their love could save them, and what do you know? It did. An interesting movie that might have been more at home in the '70s than in the early '80s, but really only a curiosity at best.

Saturday: Doctor Zhivago
This was one of my parents' favorite movies, and as one of the last epic romantic movies, it doesn't surprise me that it struck the newlyweds so strongly in 1965. Starring Omar Sharif, the extremely long movie -- I fell asleep during the intermission (intermission!) and had to pick it up again on Sunday, it was so long -- tells the story about a doctor and poet who falls in love with a political activist's wife and spends most of the Bolshevik revolution trying to track her down -- and reconcile his love for Lara with his love for his, gasp, wife. As I said, it's a long movie, and -- told through the perspective of Zhivago's half brother -- the film follows Zhivago's progress through marriage, raising a family, World War I, and the revolution. The prison train scenes are particularly notable, as are the sequences in the reclaimed house of ice and snow, but as a love story, it's somewhat passive aggressive. That's understandable, given the backdrop on which the romance plays out, but outside of some commentary on the role art and poetry can play in revolution, Doctor Zhivago is long on history and short on romance. There might be a reason they don't make them like this any more.

Sunday: The Twilight Zone
I recently signed up for Columbia House's Twilight Zone DVD club, and this is the first disc they mailed. The DVD comprises four episodes. In "Nick of Time" (air date Nov. 18, 1960), William Shatner plays a superstitious fiance who, lured by a penny-ante fortune-telling machine, becomes trapped in a small town in Ohio with his bride to be. Shatner shines as an actor who'd yet to develop his schtick, and you can barely tell it's Captain Kirk. Also some neat exposition on the nature of superstition. When I was dating Sarah, she didn't like it if we walked on opposite sides of a lamp post. In this episode, Shatner pulls his fiancee toward him so she walks on the same side of a street sign as he does. "Bread and butter," he says. I had no idea! In "The Prime Mover" (air date March 24, 1961), Buddy Ebsen plays a telekinetic diner employee who helps his friend build -- and then lose -- a gambling fortune. The story is at times a tale about abusing friendship but redeems itself in the end when Ebsen's pal realizes the error of his ways, drops the gambling, and proposes to his girlfriend. "It's a Good Life" (air date Nov. 3, 1961) is the throwaway of the lot. It's a position piece that merely introduces a menacing character, leaving viewers in the askew-viewed world but not resolving any of the issues raised. The basic idea is that a 10-year-old boy has the power to make real -- and unreal -- anything he likes or dislikes. There are some skin-thin religious allegories as the boy creates a three-headed gopher, but otherwise, it offers an insight on the tyranny of children and the need for socialized ethics, and then steps away. Unsatisfying. Lastly, "The Mind and the Matter" (air date May 12, 1961) stars Shelley Berman as a disgruntled office worker who, pushed too far by the hustle and bustle of city life, wishes away humanity. Obviously, he becomes lonely. So he wishes that everyone were like him. Obviously, that's not the best bet, either, and we're left with the message that diversity is good, loneliness is bad, and to some extent, when life gives us lemons, we need to at least make lemonade, if not suck lemons. I look forward to future DVD's in this series -- The Twilight Zone is a wonderful, wonderful show, and its period moodiness and Rod Serling cameos are delightful. My one complaint is the clunkiness of the navigation. The giant eyeball is a pain in the butt, and the pastiche interstitial scenes that occasionally punctuate episode changes are a waste of time.

The A-Team: "Mexican Slayride"
As the pilot for this program, this episode runs hot and cold. Yes, it introduces the characters: Hannibal (George Peppard, natch), Faceman, Howling Mad Murdock, and B.A. Baracus (as played by Mr. T). And yes, it sets us up for the formulaic adventurers-for-hire storylines that would grace the TV screen for five seasons (the pilot aired Jan. 23, 1983). But running over the course of two hours, it's a bit much. Tim Dunigan stars as Faceman, later to be replaced by Dirk Benedict. And so many characteristics are established, so many elements of interpersonal relationships, so many catchphrases first used, that I'm curious how much more the writers have in them. The story is simple. A wayward journalist is kidnaped in Mexico while tracking down a story about drug smuggling. A colleague enlists the A-Team -- a process that involves a racist Asian disguise that almost rival Mickey Rooney's character in Moon River -- which heads south of the border. They are in turn captured by the smugglers but promptly escape, enlist the aid of an oppressed village, and quell the rebel forces funded by the smuggling. It's at this point unclear how the A-Team brings so many resources to bear, but perhaps that'll come clear in the future. One interesting Peppard tidbit. The armor-plated bus that B.A. rigs up reminds me of the vehicle used in the post-apocalyptic Damnation Alley. Just a little.

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