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'It Can't Be Bought'
This episode has some of the best qualities to be found in the series, although the magic it possesses early on doesn't quite last until the end. It begins with Floyd, a cocky 'rockabilly' singer, stepping into the woods to look for authentic folk music hidden therein, haughtily believing that whatever it is, he can buy it. He is unaware, though, that he has begun to get lost inside the forest of his own fate.
The beginning is full of mystery, as Floyd wanders deep into the woods and, in a secluded music shop, encounters a silent, enigmatic old man who seems to have appeared out of nowhere. He is lured further still by the strains of a seductive song sung hauntingly in a woman's voice. Here there is beautifully eerie imagery, especially a dark hooded figure appearing in the background, unseen by our protagonist. It is a stark and chilling indication that he is already wrapped up in this tune and these woods far more than he can ever know.
The forest itself is shot impeccably, making the most of its mysteriousness. The real clinching device, though, is the music, the simple, subtle melody that laconically increases the sense of foreboding. I love the use of folk music as the luring device, for both Floyd and the viewer. It works extremely well here, even more effectively than the song in the earlier episode 'Jess-Belle.' The key really is in the music, I suppose, because what is truly haunting comes from within, from the forests of the mind, and that seems to tie in somehow to our roots music; the songs stretch back farther than we do, and they give the impression of knowing more than we can. The story that follows is apparently eternally recurring; as it happens now, so has it always happened, and presumably will happen again and again, with fate remaining constant, inscribed on the tombstone we see in the opening segment. Dual existence across time is one of the most fascinating concepts, and many of the hallmarks of 'The Twilight Zone' are the ones that deal with it.
Unfortunately, this sublime work only really holds out until a little past the halfway point of the episode. The point at which the story ceases to seduce coincides approximately with the point at which the title song stops comprising the soundtrack. The climax becomes little more than a standard chase with standard chase music just another show of a man racing in vain against destiny. It's as if the makers of the episode lose sight of the magic they created in the beginning. Interestingly enough, it parallels what happens to Floyd: he remains unaware of the song's true power and significance, only seeing it as a means of making a quick profit and that is, ultimately, the source of his downfall.
(Perhaps this is because Donner is the director. He's more suited to more outright thrillers episodes like 'Jeopardy Room,' for example than subtler material like this should be. I'd like to see what this would have been like had Jacques Tourneur helmed it. He made the low-key haunting film 'I Walked with a Zombie,' which also used a song to creepy effect. Tourneur also directed the TZ episode 'Night Call.')
Even if the episode falters, though, it is by no means ruined. True, much of the enchantment is ultimately dispelled, but those first 15 minutes or so are priceless.
The Twilight Zone: Jess-Belle (1963)
'Such stories are best told by an elderly grandfather on a cold winter's night by the fireside, in the southern hills of the Twilight Zone.'
These are the words with which Rod Serling introduces this episode, and they are a perfect summation of what follows.
For a long time I have been enthralled by stories of the supernatural, and I've been struggling to find perfect specimens of such storytelling in the annals of film. I have found several good examples, but few great successes that could fully satisfy my yen for the perfect sort of supernatural world. Possibly the best supernatural film I've come across is the Ealing classic 'Dead of Night' (1945). Since 'Dead of Night' is typically classified as 'anthology' horror, it seems fitting that I should venture toward 'The Twilight Zone,' one of the landmark anthology TV series, to find a similar kind of satisfaction. (A bunch of 'TZ' material seems to take inspiration from works like 'Dead of Night'; in particular, the episodes 'Twenty Two' and 'The Dummy' exhibit very strong influence from that film specifically.)
The idea of a 'Twilight Zone,' a secluded realm for all that is abnormal and mysterious, is in a way exactly what I seek. Unfortunately, many episodes themselves don't quite live up to the brilliant promise of the driving premise of the show. 'Jess-Belle' is one that does. As Serling explains at the opening, this one takes us back to the roots of supernatural storytelling. Perhaps the best and purest way of experiencing it is to listen to ghost stories told around a fire. That is exactly what 'Jess-Belle' does, and maybe that's why it is so satisfying. Its presentation of what could very well be an actual spooky old folktale is wonderfully authentic, right down to the storytelling device of the song heard throughout the episode.
Another film that tries to channel that purity is 'Ghost Story' (1981); however, that film does not quite satisfy, partly because it never fully realizes the potential of employing the old art of the telling. It is notable, though, for one reason: the phenomenal performance of Alice Krige as the ghost figure. Her face and voice brilliantly embody the seductive power of these eerie tales; for that reason, I strongly suggest you check it out. Some elements of the device used in 'Ghost Story' are present in 'Jess-Belle': what is scary is embodied by a beautiful woman, whose dark power draws a man and the viewer toward her, and how thoroughly we are seduced makes it all the more haunting. Even in the first few moments when Jess- Belle slides through the crowd and into view for the first time, it can be felt, and it's presented with great subtlety, quietly indicating that there is more to come.
I initially made the connection to 'Ghost Story' at the climax of 'Jess-Belle,' when the possessed Ellwyn's face brightens and her eyes gleam threateningly as she tries to entice Billy-Ben to dance with her saying some things very similar to what Krige says at particularly eerie parts of 'Ghost Story.' The light of Ellwyn/Jess's face in the dark bears a striking resemblance to that of Krige, but it's extremely effective, I would guess, even to those who have not seen 'Ghost Story.' It is a supremely captivating moment in an overall captivating episode.
'Jess-Belle' tells a simple tale, but it tells that tale impeccably, with an engrossing power near to that of a well-told fireside ghost story one that takes us, as we listen, enthralled, into the Twilight Zone.
Brilliant yet rather depressing
On the surface, this is an incredible movie. A very successful musical in modern times is something one might not expect. "Chicago" is almost everything you could want in a movie musical -- it's a stylish, sexy, sensational powerhouse bursting with cynicism and immorality. It's a delightfully dark story, as well as a rather insightful look at the justice system. The film is superbly made on all fronts -- it's brilliantly directed, with a smart, fast-paced screenplay, spectacular cinematography, and amazing production and costume design. The acting is superb, with surprisingly good musical performances from all five principal actors.
However, the film is also a sad statement about movies today. Brilliant as it is, one can't help but notice what it lacks, in comparison with the classic musicals of old. Those movies had a wonderful way of being easygoing and pleasant, yet at the same time powerful, rousing, and energetic. "Chicago" is not in anyway easygoing. It's powerful and rousing, but its constant over-the-top motion is beyond energetic -- it's frenzied. The film constantly gives the impression that its makers were trying very hard. The classic musicals like "Singin' in the Rain" conveyed an almost effortless charm, which is just about lost by today.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that nothing should have moved in "Chicago". Quite the contrary - the motion of the camera and of the dancers put together is extremely powerful. However, in the old musicals, the power would come from the dancers alone. Today we no longer have dancers who act; we have actors who dance, and their dancing alone isn't quite enough to hold the movie up. However, the editing overcompensates greatly. It's good editing, but there is far, far too much. This is frantic, overdone, rapid-fire cutting, and it tends to give me a headache. It helps to heighten the kinetic energy of the movie, but it also deprives you of an opportunity to really take in the excellent visuals. The movie tends to cut away before you can really appreciate what you are seeing. "Chicago" demands repeated viewings in order to fully comprehend everything that is so obscured by the editing.
In short, watching "Chicago" is like having your head in a pinball machine for two hours -- but it happens to be an exceptionally brilliant and beautiful machine. You never get to focus on any part of it for very long, but everything you see looks great as you are whisked along from one image to the next.
The musicals of today sadly cannot become the classic musicals of yesterday. While watching today's musicals, we'll just have to accept their new-millennium shortcomings. But with that in mind, "Chicago" is about as good as they get.
Barney & Friends (1992)
Is there anyone who likes this show???
"Barney and Friends," the notoriously stupid kids' show about a big cuddly purple dinosaur who makes kids use their imaginations, has been the brunt of so many jokes since it started airing (my favorite spoof of it was Animaniacs' "Baloney & Kids," in which Baloney, the numbskull orange dinosaur, is taunted and has anvils dropped on his head). There are too many things wrong with this show for me to discuss here, so I'll just say my favorite ones:
(1) All the kids look like they are (and they probably are) preteens and teenagers, and this dopey purple idiot is teaching them things like the alphabet, counting, colors, shapes, and everything else every 5-year-old should know. If this were real life, the kids (or, should I say, teens) would throw stuff at Barney and laugh, instead of sitting in awe while he teaches them the difference between indoor and outdoor voices.
(2) I know that using one's imagination is important, but here, Barney needs to tell them to imagine. It's as if they can't imagine so much as a rock without saying, with Barney's instruction, the magic words "Shimberee, shimberah, shimberee, shimbeRAAAAHHHH!"
(3) The show's methods of teaching lessons to the 2-to-5-year-old crowd are really lame. The dialogue is so banal that I can't see how even the cast members believe any of this junk. And the lines are not unintentionally hilarious enough to inspire a chuckle in a cynic like me. Except for one notable exception, the "5 Senses" episode, which contained lines such as the following (all said in amazed tone of voice):
"This rock is smooth...but it's hard!"
(banging on sand) "This sand is hard. (picking it up) But now it feels soft. (rubbing it in hands) But now it feels scratchy!"
(surprised/delighted even beyond usual "Barney" standard) "This chair is hard!!!! But the cushion is soft!!!!!!!!"
So if you want a good educational show for your kids, turn on "Sesame Street" or "Mr. Rogers." They are much better than this baloney.
Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
The best adaptation of a Christie work.
Of all the movies adapted from the works of the great mystery writer Agatha Christie, this one would have to be my favorite. Rene Clair's And Then There Were None, hailed as a classic, was very silly and couldn't hold a candle up to the book. Murder on the Orient Express, a story of my favorite Christie detective, Hercule Poirot, had an unsatisfactory star performance (Albert Finney), and a great supporting cast (Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, John Gielgud, etc.) went to waste. But Witness for the Prosecution triumphantly carries Christie's wit and suspense to the screen. Billy Wilder directs with style and flair, showing once again that he can master both comedy and drama. The screenplay, by Wilder and Harry Kurnitz, contains expertly balanced suspense and dry humor. The performances are a joy, notably Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, and Elsa Lanchester. All in all, if you're an Agatha Christie fan, you really should see this exceptional film.