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Monday, 12 December 2011

The Twilight Zone: The Shelter

'Those people are our neighbours.'

This episode is one of the most terrifying ever written for the Twilight Zone - and there isn't a supernatural element in it. Precisely what makes it so disturbing is that the scenario Serling poses seems to be all too possible, and was possible in the Cold War era of the atomic bomb.

The episode opens with the celebration of the local doctor Bill Stockton, played by Larry Gates; a gathering of nuclear families and the exchange of normality and pleasantries, soon to be broken by a radio broadcast warning of UFOs converging on America. As panic sets in, each of the families leave to retreat to their homes and gather supplies. But the good doctor has something the other families do not - a bomb shelter. The other families plead with the doctor to let them in, but he refuses and events quickly turn nasty as the veneer of normality observed at the opening dinner quickly evaporates.

This 'exercise' as Serling likes to call it is one of his most powerful studies of human nature. The episode examines what happens when humanity is faced with its extinction, and Serling's answer is a troubling, pessimistic one. The families turn on each other with startling, uncivilised ferocity and the imperative becomes not just to survive, but to destroy others to live. Ugly prejudices rise to the surface; pointedly the suppressed xenophobic discourses of post-War America are directed at one of the characters described as a 'semi-American' by one of the men and his wife, who moments before were so amiable. Eventually two of the men decide to destroy the shelter door and they succeed seconds before another announcement is made, declaring the UFOs as harmless satellites.

What happens here is another disturbing idea: the families want to return to normal. The husband who barely minutes before had assaulted the 'foreigner', Marty, defends himself by protesting his fear of death, and Marty himself suggests a party despite the racial and physical abuse he has suffered. They all want a celebration - a performance of normality - apart from the doctor, who is appalled by what he has witnessed, and who suggests that normality, really, is the mob that almost tore itself apart to survive. Normality the episode suggests is a construct, a way of papering over the cracks and prejudices, joining in a false unity which evades the knowledge that you might not know your neighbours as well as you think, and that put in the right (or wrong) situation, they would destroy you to preserve their own lives. It is only the doctor who was prepared for the very possibility of a nuclear or bomb attack - and the disruption of normality -,  and acknowledges that he might well have seen the neighbours in their true colours. The resonance of the episode is produced precisely as Serling forewarns: it is unsettlingly close to home, to the neighbours you may not fully know.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

The Twilight Zone: Eye of the Beholder

I promised a follow up to my Twilight Zone run down a while ago, and after a long procrastination I present one of the all time greats, Eye of the Beholder.

The episode opens in a hospital with a lady whose face is entirely bandaged, and we learn is undergoing some sort of treatment for what we assume to be a hideous, ostracising deformity. But it becomes apparent we cannot see the faces of the doctor and the nurses either, theirs in silhouette or their bodies turned away. The cinematography and mise-en-scene used to achieve this is some of the finest in any of the series of the Twilight Zone, the lighting perfectly utilised to obscure faces in darkness, and low angles employed deftly to create an ominous sense of concealment. That we do not see a face until the end of the episode is stylistically and thematically intertwined, and without spoiling anything, it has to the greatest reveal in the show's history. The problem with reviewing this episode is precisely that I refuse to give away the ending, but I shall nonetheless expand on the themes it touches.

As you might have guessed, the episode is built around philosophical principle 101: 'Beauty is in the eye of the beholder', an ageless principle which is relevant as ever today, but so resonant in contemporary America when both the fear and discursive necessity of conforming or being 'normal' was prevalent in society. Elsewhere in the episode we see television screens with a Stalin or Hitler-esque dictator ranting to the people about the need to conform within a state, and the bandaged woman's doctor frequently refers to her deformity in reference to the state and the measures taken over people with her condition. There are disturbing echoes of ethnic cleansing, genocide, and ghettoisation, and the episode becomes an indictment of the way in which discrimination is in many cases state sponsored, and marginalisation sanctioned in pursuit of an oppressive conformist state model. It is Serling at his very best; moral, political, but subtle and clever without being heavy handed. It is the combination of these elements that makes the best Twilight Zone episodes, and compels me to watch them years after they are supposed to have dated.

Saturday, 22 October 2011


Drive is a wonderfully minimalist title, and one which not only describes, but encapsulates the very existence of Ryan Gosling's vacant, ghostly driver, whose cogito ergo sum as he imperatively puts it is, 'I drive.' The film opens with 'The Driver' assisting a robbery as a getaway driver in most probably the coolest opening to a film in recent memory, and later it is revealed he daylights as a stunt driver and is poised to become a racing driver under the patronage of a local garage owner, Shannon. However, there is mob interest in the form of Albert Brooks' menacing Bernie Rose, and the driver's life soon veers off course into a web of indebted money and murder. Notice the several driving metaphors I'll be using here - as many have interpreted the film, Drive is a modern continuation of the existentialist road movie: life is a drive, albeit without the sentimental chaff about twists and turns.

But that is exactly what happens to Gosling's driver, and it takes on a much more disturbing path. His straight shooting driver only knows one thing, and has rigidly defined principles: on getaway drives he gives 5 minutes to get in and out, anything longer and they're on their own. He resembles to an extent Robert de Niro's Neil McCauley in Michael Mann's Heat, whose discipline is never to get attached to anything that he can't walk out on 'if you can't see the heat around the corner', and who is a similarly cold character. And the comparison doesn't stop there, as both men inhabit a visually cold environment with coldly murderous characters, as with Albert Brooks' ostensibly calm but murderous mobster. When the driver gets involved in the murky business of debt and blood money, his principles are thrown out the window, his life is ripped apart and he reacts with a psychosis comparable to that of Travis Bickle or Patrick Bateman. It is tantamount to trauma for the driver, and Ryan Gosling plays the switch from passive observer to avenging angel with a superbly disturbing modulation in performance. The explosions of violence that attend to his path of vengeance are genuinely shocking, and despite protestations by some viewers of gratuity, it is entirely part of the driver's character, whose spectrum of morality is so confused and polarised that he can only respond to injustice with the most excessive retribution. The film itself is split into two halves, as the second half is so in contrast with the dreamy lethargy of the first that it should be understood as a deliberate and masterful control of atmosphere by Nicolas Winding Refn. His direction is fresh if indebted partly to other directors such as Michael Mann, and with any justice, he should be duly nominated come awards season.

The extreme stylisation of the film from its neo-noirish visuals to its synth 80s throwback soundtrack also swathes it in a mood of dreaminess, and as the driver's life descends into disarray the stylisation serves to represent the psychotic fantasy he has entered. In one unnerving, brilliant slow motion sequence the driver visits the diner to revel in the last moments of his next target, Ron Perlman's Jewish gangster, his face concealed by a blank rubber mask he uses for stunt driving. That he uses the mask is also wonderfully ironic, in that the expression Ryan Gosling's driver wears for the majority of the film is immovably blank. The face seems but a mask for the driver, who is surely crumbling inside.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Source Code

I saw Source Code a few months ago on its cinema release and my positive impression of it hasn't changed. The sophomore feature of Duncan Jones, director of Moon, Source Code only consolidates an impressive emerging pattern, and now directorial trademark of intelligently produced, original science fiction cinema. It is a very different film but it shares its DNA with Moon in this sense.

It works successfully on many levels. On its surface level as an action film, it fully exploits its setting on board a Chicago bound train; the minimal space, and the paranoia accompanying modern travel is effectively reproduced and amplifies the film's central premise - what would you do with only 8 minutes left to live ? This 8 minutes as it transpires is the last memory of a passenger killed in a terrorist attack on the train, and is being used by Jeffrey Wright's mad scientist to recreate a scenario for Jake Gyllenhaal's captain Colter, who must re-experience these 8 minutes to work out who the bomber is in alternate reality before they set off a bigger dirty bomb in real time Chicago. This is the function of Source Code: to temporarily recreate the past in order to change the future. It's a genial science fiction concept which resonates on the planes of philosophy and morality while creating a different spin on the sci-fi staple of parallel universe theories.

Colter is sent back several times through Source Code to catch the bomber, which means we keep returning to the same environment. But it rarely becomes dull despite this, and there are plenty of twists and false starts to vary the deja vu setup. One sequence for example makes a clever riff on the paranoiac assumption that all terrorists are non-white Muslim suicide bombers. But there is also plenty going on between the sequences which give the film emotional clout and a core of human sensitivity to the film which was also present in Moon. Without giving too much away, Wright's Dr. Rutledge and Vera Farmiga's captain Goodwin reveal to Colter that he is an unwilling test subject for Source Code, and each time he returns he is both given and makes ultimatums which will have consequences on his own life. With Colter flitting back and forth between the Source Code and reality, he begins to invest himself more and more in his assumed identity and becomes increasingly attached to Michelle Monaghan's passenger Christina, while realising that he can use the parallel reality to find out about Colter's. It's all finely but superbly balanced, and Gyllenhaal gives a nuanced and multi-faceted performance of a man trapped in a limbo of emotional and even metaphysical sorts. Colter is a man forced to visit the great beyond several times through Source Code as he inhabits Sean Fentress' last moments, and Gyllenhaal perfectly conveys the psychological weariness of having to face death time and time again.

Akin to a Philip K. Dick story, Source Code is also a highly intelligent science fiction film which engages with the ethical implications of its imaginary technological invention, much like the classic Blade Runner, the excellent Minority Report, and indeed Jones' first film, Moon. It sets Source Code apart from simply being a thriller with a science fiction element, to a sophisticated mind bender which imagines the possible moral questions should something like 'Source Code' ever exist, and is expressed through the growing sympathy of Farmiga's Goodwin for Colter, and her increasing doubts about the morality of the project.

Satisfyingly, the film endeavours to follow its ideas of quantum physics through to conclusion in its ending, which seems to have split audiences, but I think works perfectly, and plays cunningly with a Hollywood genre cliche in the process. Although it may be the clinching moment for some who see it less favourably (or miss the point altogether), I see it as a brilliantly inventive coda and shows the film hasn't run out of ideas, even as the credits are about to roll.

Sunday, 28 August 2011


I'm so glad my prejudice against Guy Ritchie gets to stay intact, because this is surely one of the worst films I've ever seen. At first I really did want to give this film the time of day, but after 10 minutes I quickly realised this was his usual fare, only amplified and worse, itself carrying some ugly prejudice of its own. It manages to bounce racism and homophobia for (non-existent) laughs through Tom Hardy's coming-out-scene and a copious and nonchalant use of the word 'immigrant' in pretty much every scene with Tom Wilkinson, who pantomimes his way through every scene as a hammy sub Bob Hoskins cockney gangster, and subsequently becomes an unintentional parody of a character type we've seen many tedious times before. I like Tom Wilkinson, but I must admit he gives way at times to chewing scenery - just see his performance in the risible television series 'The Kennedys' for recent reference. But with RocknRolla the dialogue is so excruciatingly contrived there's not much more to work with than self-parody. Ritchie's insistence on dividing the English language into Cockney and not is the funny thing about the film, along with his supposedly original idea of having a painfully unsubtle Roman Abramovich clone move in on his territory as a play on the possibility of Russian gangsters moving in on London gangster territory. And the final seal that we're watching a dreadful comedy is the idea that the Abramovich clone gets into a mob war with Wilkinson's goons over a missing painting, commandeered by Toby Kebbel's titular RocknRolla, Johnny Quid. Frankly, it doesn't get sillier than that. Performances hit the usual one note Ritchie demands, i.e., wisecracking Cockney hostility, although Tom Hardy, Toby Kebbel and Mark Strong do the best they can.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Man in the Bottle

To open up my Twilight Zone marathon, a familiar parable about a genie in a lamp. Arthur Castle is a pawnbroker struggling to pay the bills and unable to abandon his charity for a poor elderly lady, who one day brings him a seemingly worthless bottle to pawn. A genie inhabits this bottle, which appears to Arthur to grant him 4 wishes - but warns him of the consequences.

Although this episode is a fairly predictable narrative and the moral message takes the oft heard form, 'be careful what you wish for', it nonetheless has one very memorable moment when Luther Adler's Arthur wishes to become the leader of a modern country 'who cannot be voted out of office' - only to become Adolf Hitler at the end of the Second World War. It becomes unintentionally funny when Adler, adorned with the fuhrer's moustache, turns round and realises his mistake - 'I'm Hitler, I'm in a bunker !" - but it remains a great illustration of what man might do were he given four wishes by a genie. John Ruskin also gives a good performance as the foreboding genie, quietly awaiting Arthur's catastrophic wishes but granting them all the same. The admonition 'be careful what you wish for' seems to occur frequently in The Twilight Zone, and to invoke psychoanalytic theory, Serling engages with the notion that humans can never achieve or realise their desires without provoking consequences or debts (To be consumed or ridiculed accordingly).

Next: A classic of the Twilight Zone pantheon involving a lot of bandages. A lot.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

The Twilight Zone Revisited

Over the next few weeks and months I'll be (re)visiting Rod Serling's classic series to coincide with the remastered release of all 5 seasons of The Twilight Zone on DVD half a century since the seminal show first aired. Its legacy is unmistakeable. A theme tune younger generations recognise decades after the programme ended and associate with horror, science fiction, the mysterious and unexplained. The trademark clipped delivery of Rod Serling's opening caveat at the start of every episode. And some of the most memorable moments, and (oft imitated) twists in television history.

For its time, The Twilight Zone was a groundbreaking series, critically acclaimed, and earned Serling multiple Emmys for his consistently superb writing. But it was much more than a science fiction television programme, weaving contemporary political and social issues, morality and philosophy into the fabric of many of its episodes. As a genre, science fiction is extremely fertile as a vehicle for allegory, and The Twilight Zone exploited the possiblities of the supernatural, super-scientific and hypothetical to invert the way we look at the world. After some episodes we are left even wondering whether the real world is, actually, the Twilight Zone.

The famous opening describes the Twilight Zone as 'the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge'. It is a ground of moral grey areas, double edged situations and paradoxes which forces us to examine whether people are as moral as they believe they are. In the postwar, ideologically conformist America of the 1950s and 60s, the Twilight Zone was a bold programme which used its science fiction form to subtly challenge contemporary politics and social prejudices. It interrogated the human condition and examined its hypocrisies, ironies and superficialities, and didn't shy away from politics in its critique of the state as a vehicle for totalitarianism.

I'll be reviewing my favourite episodes as well as those held in high esteem by fans and critics, so stay tuned while I navigate you all on a trip, through the Twilight Zone ...

Friday, 29 July 2011

30 Days of Night

The mythical lore of das vampyr has been incarnated on celluloid countless times dating back to Shreck's portrayal of the Nosferatu, regarded to be the definitive interpretation of the living dead; through to Bigelow's twist of a vampire western, Near Dark, and Coppola's Dracula, spattered with blood and the obligatory camp, although the majority of these renditions fail to convey a less than romanticised view of the stark brutality of a vampire's carnal existence - the breed of bloodsucker to be found in 30 Days of Night shares little with its predecessor, albeit the immaculate dress sense, and is as far removed from humanity as possible.

The clan of vampires, led by a passive, but imposing Danny Huston, communicates among its number lingually through screeching utterances in vampire tongue, and it is one such instance of the excellent use of sound to invoke fear, an aspect which is sometimes as visceral as the visual brutality - the sequence in which the town is rapidly decimated is one that lingers indelibly on the mind, and the combination of the three primary colours, in this case sanguineous red, black and white impress on the eyes a bleakness and desolation that accentuates the nightmarish situation. What really gives the film bite, is the extremity of the violence; one sequence involving the vampire's ploy to draw out the survivors culminates in the torment of and eventual murder of the woman being used as bait, that is deeply unsettling to watch, and possibly requisite of another visit to the censors.

Disturbing and perturbing, 30 Days of Night is one of the most effective horror films of recent times, and gnaws at the jugular for the entirety of its screen time.

Black Swan Cinema Review

An outstanding film with a tremendous performance from Natalie Portman as Nina, the obsessive ballerina torturing herself in pursuit of the ultimate performance of both the White Swan, and the Black Swan. Aronofsky's unique auteur style transposes amazingly from The Wrestler - where previously he captured the grit and degradation of amateur wrestling the ballet stage is a shadowy mirror world, the Freudian subtext hanging deliciously and maliciously in the air. Certain sequences might appear to tip the subtle fantasy into generic horror but they're constructed with an indeed balletic panache and nightmarish-ness that it's as exciting as it is psychologically sinister. Vincent Cassel is also very good as the demanding director, and Mila Kunis suitably lascivious and alluring as Lily, Nina's nemesis and feared usurper. Portman deserves all the plaudits she gets as this is by far her best ever performance; the dedication she put into the role is brutally visible, her performance a mirror of Nina's gruelling pursuit of perfection.