Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

2017 #129
Joe Dante, John Landis, George Miller & Steven Spielberg | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG

Twilight Zone: The Movie

I can’t remember when I first heard of Twilight Zone: The Movie — certainly not until sometime this millennium — but I do remember being surprised I hadn’t heard of it before. Why wasn’t it more often talked about? After all, here’s a film based on a classic TV series, directed by some of the hottest genre filmmakers of the time: John Landis just after An American Werewolf in London; Joe Dante just before Gremlins; George Miller fresh from Mad Max 2; and, most of all, Steven Spielberg, coming off a run that encompassed Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. I mean, Jesus, even if the movie wasn’t great then surely it should be well-known! It was only later still that I learnt about the infamous helicopter crash. Couple that with a mediocre critical reception and relatively poor box office results, and suddenly it’s no wonder no one ever talked about the film. My viewing of it was primarily motivated by attempting to complete the filmographies of Spielberg and Miller, but I’m glad I did because, on the whole, I rather enjoyed it.

As the original Twilight Zone was an anthology series, so is the movie — hence having four directors. Although the original plan was to have some characters crop up in each segment, thereby linking them all together, that idea didn’t come off. The end result, then, is really just five sci-fi/fantasy/horror short films stuck together — composer Jerry Goldsmith is the only key crew member to work across more than two segments. The advantage of that as a viewer is, if you don’t like one story, there’ll be another along before you know it. Because of that, I’ll take each part in turn.

The Trump Zone

The film begins with a prologue, directed by John Landis, featuring Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd as a driver and a hitchhiker chatting about classic TV and scary stories. Although obviously the shortest segment, it’s good fun and sets a kind of comic tone — not one the rest of the film follows, to be fair, but it’s kind of effective in that it has a knowing wink to the audience: “we all know The Twilight Zone is a TV show. Now, here are four stories from it.”

Landis also directs the first full segment, Time Out, the only one of the four not adapted from an original TV episode. Basically, it’s about a Trump supporter. You might not have noticed that if watching before last year, for obvious reasons, but viewed now it’s kind of hard to miss. What’s depressing it that the point of the film is this guy’s views are outdated in 1983, and yet you have Trumpers spouting the same shit in 2017, three-and-a-half decades later. That aside, as a short moral parable it’s effective. It doesn’t have the ending that was scripted (thanks to the aforementioned tragedy), I think the conclusion it does have is actually more appropriate. It feels kind of wrong to take that view, because the only reason it was changed was that terrible accident. Obviously it wasn’t worth it just for this segment to have a better ending, but there it is.

Scary kid? Check.

Segment two, Kick the Can, is Spielberg’s, and anyone familiar with his oeuvre — and the criticism of it — will see that right away: it’s shot in nostalgic golden hues and contains positive, sentimental moral lessons. In fact, it’s so cloyingly sweet, it’s like a parody of Spielberg’s worst excesses. It was originally intended to be the last film in the movie, and you can see why: it would’ve formed a positive, upbeat finale to the picture. I’m not sure why they moved it — possibly because they felt it was the least-good. That’s what a fair few critics believe, anyway.

Personally, segment three was my least favourite. This is Joe Dante’s short, titled It’s a Good Life, and is about a woman who accidentally knocks a boy off his bike, gives him a lift home, and finds a pretty strange situation therein. I found it to be kind of aimless; weird for the sake of weird. It’s prettily designed and shot, with bold cartoon colours, but if I watched the film again I’d give serious thought to just skipping it.

The final segment remakes arguably the most famous Twilight Zone episode: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. It’s about a paranoid airplane passenger on a turbulent flight, who thinks he sees a monster on the wing. Naturally, no one believes him. I’ve not seen the original version so can’t compare, but director George Miller and star John Lithgow do a fantastic job of realising Richard Matheson’s story, loading it with tension and uncertainty — is it actually all in the passenger’s head? And if it isn’t, can they survive?

Fear of flying

On the whole, I liked Twilight Zone: The Movie more than I’d expected I would. Nonetheless, as a series of shorts, it’s destined to be a footnote in the career of all involved (even Landis has done a fair job of moving on from the controversy — as I said, I hadn’t even heard about it until relatively recently). The only truly great segment is Miller’s finale, but the others all have elements that make them worth a look.

4 out of 5

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Beverly Hills Cop III (1994)

2016 #105
John Landis | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

Beverly Hills Cop III always seemed to be on TV when I was younger — on BBC1, quite late, but I guess not that late because I always seemed to stumble across it during the theme park climax. In reality it can probably have only been on a couple of times, but that’s how it seemed. And because it caught my attention, I somehow knew that one day I’d end up watching the entire movie, just to see. To see what, I’m not sure; but to see. Of course, that necessitated watching the first and second films first (because I’m me). I very much enjoyed them both. Unfortunately, the third is nothing like as good.

This time, Detroit cop Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) tracks a gang of crooks to Disneyland Wonder World, an L.A. theme park. There, he ropes in his old chum in the Beverly Hills PD, Billy Rosewood (Judge Reinhold), and blatant stand-in for an actor who refused to come back his colleague Jon Flint (Héctor Elizondo), to investigate Wonder World’s head of security (Timothy Carhart), who Axel recognises as the head of the gang.

By all accounts Beverly Hills Cop III was a troubled production. Murphy was in a phase where he could be a pain to work with, and, according to director John Landis, was envious of the careers of Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes, who were starring in straight action movies. Consequently, Murphy was keen to downplay the film’s comedy — much to its detriment, of course, as it’s Murphy’s comedy that makes this series work. Landis knew that: in the same interview, he says the screenplay for the first film was “one of the worst scripts I ever read […] It was a piece of shit, that script, but the movie’s very funny because Eddie Murphy and [the film’s director] Martin Brest made it funny.” The script for the threequel also wasn’t any good (according to some versions of events, that’s why original co-stars John Ashton and Ronny Cox didn’t return), but Landis tried to put Murphy in funny situations and see what improvisation threw up. Murphy, keen to be taken seriously, worked around that.

I don’t think all blame can be laid on Murphy, though. For an example, look at the sequence aboard a broken-down ride about halfway through the movie — it might just be one of the most tension-free thrill sequences ever filmed. Axel has to climb across the ride, storeys up in the air, to rescue two kids who are dangling from another compartment. It seems to take him forever to get there — far, far longer than those two young kids could plausibly hang on for — while interminable early-’90s electronic music throbs in the background. The park attendants stand around doing nothing. A whole crowd of people stare up at him with bored expressions. I’m not sure if that was deliberate, because I can’t really see what the point of a massive crowd of blank-faced onlookers serves, but I also can’t see how anyone involved in the film could’ve read their expressions as being in any way interested by or invested in the action they’re supposedly watching. Well, at least it reflects how the audience must’ve felt.

In my review of the original Beverly Hills Cop, I wrote about how I only really watched it so I could then see the sequels, because they were directed by Tony Scott and John Landis. Ironically, the first one turned out to be good entertainment, and certainly the most enjoyable of the trilogy. Scott’s sequel isn’t half bad; very much a “next best thing” situation. As for Landis’ effort… Well, Beverly Hills Cop III isn’t all bad — some fun slips through the cracks; the occasional glimmer of what made the previous movies memorable. But when taken as a whole film, it’s a crushingly mediocre experience that can’t measure up to either of its predecessors.

2 out of 5

The Blues Brothers (1980)

2008 #99
John Landis | 142 mins | DVD | 15 / R

The Blues BrothersCult comedy musical, with a more-than-healthy dose of the surreal, about two brothers on a mission from God, here watched in the extended DVD version (full details at IMDb). Maybe this is why it takes a while to get going — the first hour or so could do with a kick up the proverbial — and has a tendency to sprawl like an unruly first draft.

On the other hand, its insistence at being random, crazy, and incessantly silly throughout is beautifully anarchic. There’s an array of fabulous cameos — Ray Charles! Aretha Franklin! and Carrie Fisher, feeding the anarchy with her ludicrous attempts to kill one of the titular pair. While there were fewer songs than I’d expected, they’re all classics rewarded with infectiously fun performances. Then there’s the climactic car chase, which surely challenges many more serious examples for pure excitement value.

And any film which sees Neo-Nazis jump into a river to avoid being run over has to be good.

4 out of 5

The Blues Brothers is on ITV4 tonight, Friday 26th September 2014, at 11:35pm.

(Originally posted on 24th January 2009.)