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The Netflix original series “13 Reasons Why” has exploded in popularity, discussion, and controversy since its release in March.

Based on the 2007 novel by Jay Asher, “13 Reasons Why” is consistent with the latest trend of television based projects, in that its a complex story divided into 13 parts or episodes, each with a minor arc and all serving to complete the story as a whole.

The content is loaded with serious tones, broaching such emotional and concerning issues as teenage suicide, bullying, alcoholism and drug use, and sexual assault. I could nitpick some of the production aspects, writing, and odd directorial decisions (we’ll touch on that in a bit) but overall the series is an excellent and gripping production that will have you hooked within the first handful of minutes and can be binge-watched in a weekend, never growing dull along the way.

Hannah Baker is a junior at Liberty High School and – not a spoiler – we learn seconds into the opening scene that Hannah has recently taken her own life. Students at Liberty are dealing with the aftermath in their own way, photos and a makeshift memorial are presented at Hannah’s locker, and her best friend Clay is solemnly sulking around the halls as we hear Hannah’s voice providing narration.

Clay is delivered a series of audio cassette tapes – 13 of them – which Hannah had recorded in the days leading up to her death. Each tape depicts a different reason why Hannah has come to the conclusion that ending her life is her only way out. As Clay progresses through the tapes, fellow classmates and even himself fall into targets of Hannah’s blame – and deeper secrets and atrocities are shed to light.

The performances of the two leads is a thing of beauty. Hannah is played by Australian actress Katherine Langford, and comes across as a perfect representation of what the character is intended to be – a middle of the road teen, quirky and adorable in her own way, and like all high school students, wants nothing more than to fit in with the popular crowd. Likewise, Dylan Minnette is equally effective in the role of Clay – a bookish sort with charm that’s overridden by social awkwardness. Clay has a side that only Hannah can reach, and the pair form a great bond with each other.

The supporting cast is filled out nicely with such recognizable names as Kate Walsh playing Hannah’s mom, Josh Hamilton as Clay’s dad, and Steven Weber as the school principal. I loved the performance of Derek Luke as the guidance counselor Mr. Porter, and kudos should also be given to Miles Heizer, Ross Butler, and Brandon Flynn as various jock/popular kids at Liberty.

“13 Reasons Why” tells the story in two fronts; we follow present day Clay in the aftermath of the suicide, listening to Hannah’s tapes and piecing together the mystery, as well as flashbacks to the two years at school leading up to Hannah’s irreversible decision.
A great aspect is present day Clay seen watching himself and Hannah interact, chastising poor choices he makes or yelling at himself to have responded differently. It’s an emotional charge to watch and listen to Hannah’s narration and even knowing how it will end, we still hold hope that some supernatural element with save the day.

Some of the drawbacks are superficial I suppose, but ones that could have been rectified by different decisions by the creators. The most glaring is the number of tattoos on multiple characters. I suppose one or two on certain person would be okay, but all the jocks and even some of the cheerleaders? One girl is covered from neck to wrist on both of her arms and its somewhat unrealistic being that the story starts with the students as sophomores in high school.

I also thought it odd that every student in the school seemed to have every other students name and number programmed into their phones. I’ll admit texting and cellular technology weren’t an option for me in high school back in the 90s but it does seem strange that a low feeding nerd would be on an Alpha Jocks speed dial. Again not a damaging weakness but one that does present itself as odd at best when these situations arise several times throughout the story.

And as always seems to be the case with any drama occurring in a high school atmosphere, the parties the teens attend are things that would make Hugh Hefner’s notorious grotto bashes shameful in comparison. Going back to my high school days, I’ll readily admit I wasn’t an A-Lister for parties but again – these are supposed to be 15 and 16 year old kids.

“13 Reasons Why” is a powerful, emotional, and gripping drama that will keep you hooked and make you think about how our society, and in particular the school system operates. It has graphic content, but its all relative and important information tat needs to be shared.

7/22/2017

The People v. O. J. Simpson

I was a junior in high school in June of 1994 when football legend OJ Simpson drew the national spotlight; not for his hall of fame play as a running back for the Buffalo Bills in the 1970s, or his current charming and charismatic self, seen continuously in commercials, movie cameos, or mic in hand and giant smile on his face reporting from various NFL sidelines.

It was none of that at all.

In June of 1994, OJ Simpson drew the national spotlight after his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman were found brutally slain in a posh LA neighborhood, and a trail of blood and evidence, accompanied with a dark history of domestic violence made him the primary suspect.

The escapade of the crime, Simpson’s flight from the LAPD (which I watched in a zombie-like-state along with the rest of the country) and the subsequent ‘Trial of the Century’ became mankind’s latest obsession with a tragic event, joining the likes of the Titanic and the assassination of JFK.

The OJ Simpson case brought the names and faces of the players involved to the top of stardom in a dubious way. Lawyers would grace the covers of tabloids and style magazine alike. Each would write books, give lectures, and financially secure themselves for the rest of their lives as a result of the ordeal.

In 2016, the FX Channel launched the original series “The People v. O. J. Simpson” as a genesis to their ‘American Crime Story’ series. After watching the ten-episode docudrama, I was speechless in revelation at just how excellent the production was.

The series tells the story, one we already know too well, but it does so in a way that tears into the deepest roots of the people and entities that were involved in the mayhem some two decades ago. Like “Titanic,” the viewer goes in knowing full well the outcome, yet its three directors do such a great job of creating a perfect ambiance you’ll believe it’s possible for a result that differs with what’s recorded in history.

The trial itself brought to the forefront racial injustices concealed within the borders of America. The events occur in the fledgling aftermath of the infamous 1992 Los Angeles riots. The opening sequence depicts these atrocities and lets you know that what you are watching is for real. It’s somewhat troubling to see these divisive tones still alive and kicking in the present day. While the issue of black vs. white are present, a contrast with numerous other social problems exists as well, many of which are still at the forefront of our conscious.

One aspect is men vs. women. We watch OJ’s “Dream Team” of high priced celebrity attorneys wage a vicious courtroom battle with Marcia Clark, the lead prosecutor and a single working mother who tries desperately to balance the needs of her young children against a historically popular case that swallows her entire being. With this facet brings about the horrors of domestic abuse, and how the men involved seem oblivious to its impact. Clark unintentionally takes stage as an impact player in the women’s rights movement.“He got away with beating her.” She sternly warns at the onset of the investigation. “He’s not going to get away with killing her.”

We also see the contrast of rich vs. poor as impoverished black folks rally to support OJ, much to the chagrin of assistant prosecutor Christopher Darden, a black attorney, himself labeled an ‘Uncle Tom’ for his role in the case. “It’s not like OJ is a pillar in the black community.” Darden tries to explain to a neighbor. “Once he made his money he split and never looked back. He became white.”

I also appreciated and watched with awe as ’90s countercultures (and accompanying soundtrack) goes up against the established norms and standards of the era. In the days before the internet and social media, we witness as the case itself serves as a launching pad for Court TV, CSI television shows, and today’s generation of fame hungry nobody’s (such as the Kardashian family who managed to cash in). Legendary golfer Arnold Palmer playing in his final US Open, and the NBA Finals were both interrupted by networks showing the infamous Bronco chase throughout the LA freeway system. In can be argued that the OJ Simpson case and trial broke ground for Reality TV as we know it.

What ultimately makes the project so fulfilling is the chilling perfection of the cast members who each look, act, and sound nearly identical to their real-life counterparts. OJ’s Dream Team is led by Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) and Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance). The rivalry between the two is a thing of beauty, with each wanting to take the credit and pass the blame as needed. “If there’s going to be a media circus, you better be the ring master,” another attorney lectures. From the start, Shapiro and Cochran seem to care more about themselves looking good for the cameras than the innocence or guilt of their famous client.

Opposing the dream team are the prosecutors, with Sarah Paulson taking the spotlight as Marcia Clark. Clark’s disdain for Shapiro and Cochran’s trickery is obvious as she continues to hold true the notion that the facts and evidence will ultimately prevail. “We have all the aces, lets hold the high ground.” Clark is in charge of what should be a slam dunk case, but as a colleague reminds her it will be an uphill battle to garner a conviction for a popular celebrity. “We can’t even execute Charlie Manson.”

One of the most powerful scenes you will ever witness occurs when Fred Goldman, the father of one of the victims, meets with Clark in her office. As Goldman lets his emotions out with a tribute to his son, his daughter remains perfectly silent, letting her eyes and her tears convey her emotions. This scene shows that Clark wants justice to prevail, not only for herself, but for the victims as well.

Sterling K. Brown is a perfect complement as Christopher Darden. As an educated black man, Darden is held to a different standard. He must do his job as a prosecutor, but also a representative of his community, who feel like second class citizens when going up against the LAPD. Darden is met with adversity throughout, but remains honorable with his role in the case, despite the objections from fellow black citizens. “OJ spends his days playing golf with old white men, and his nights sleeping with young white girls.” Darden sates when being accused of choosing the wrong side.

One of the best characters in the series belongs to David Schwimmer in the role of ‘Dream Team’ attorney and OJ’s best friend, Robert Kardashian. The arc of Robert Kardashian is an amazing one that sees him steadfast at OJ’s side at the beginning as any best friend would be, to a man who can barely muster the courage to look Simpson in the eyes as the evidence continues to mount up. Schwimmer made his fame in the ’90s with his role of Ross on the sitcom “Friends” and is thoroughly remarkable in appearance and acting in this series.

Initially, I thought the weakest casting choice was Cuba Gooding Jr. as OJ Simpson. At first, Gooding Jr. just didn’t seem the part, with his small stature being historically inaccurate in playing OJ, but as the movie progresses, Gooding Jr proves his acting talents in winning over the part. We get an actual glimpse of how Simpson acted behind the scenes with the portrayal, as he makes inappropriate sports analogies when communicating with his attorneys and is seemingly aloof to the seriousness of the ordeal.

The production itself manages to put the viewer back in the mid-’90s as it was really happening. The off-center angle of the courtroom cameras, nuances like Christopher Darden constantly adjusting his glasses, the racially divided spectators on the streets of LA like scenes from “A Time to Kill” – it’s exactly the way it was as we watched on TV so many years ago.

If you wrote it as a script, no one would believe it. “The People v. O. J. Simpson” is so well done it serves to educate as well as entertain. From the opening scenes to its powerful ending, it’s a great binge watch that you will burn through in a weekend. Its much more than a trial. Its a window into a historic event.

3/15/2017

 

your next stop…The Twilight Zone

Rod Serling was a master of horror, with a twisted mind and knack for telling a story on par with the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Edgar Allen Poe, and HP Lovecraft. His classic television series “The Twilight Zone” would push the limits for what was acceptable network airing and set the blueprint for a host of horror and sci-fi shows that continue to this day.

I first started watching TZ in the early 90s, and it quickly became an obsession. Serling and his stories would be the biggest influence on my own travels as a writer. With unusual and macabre themes and ironic twist endings mashed into a taut and perfect 25 minute run time (save for the 18 episodes that comprise Season 4 which were foolishly extended to an hour) Serling and company formulated a perfect recipe for entertainment addiction.

Big name actors like William Shatner, Burgess Meredith, Mickey Rooney, Robert Redford and Telly Savalas to name a few would take staring roles in TZ episodes done before they were household names. And behind the scenes, Serling would be joined by a host of talented horror and sci-fi writers such as Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury who took turns hashing out the scripts for each tale.

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The original series would span 5 seasons; 1959-1964, and in that time 156 episodes would air with genres as diverse as comedy, fantasy, and of course horror. Serling would often infuse his own political or sociological beliefs into the tales, from acceptance and equal treatment of minorities to his staunch anti-war activism, and serve as narrator to open and close each episode in classic fashion; dressed in a dapper suit and always clutching a smoldering cigarette (the latter heavily contributing to his death at the age of 50).

To fully appreciate “The Twilight Zone” one must put themselves in the mindset of someone from the time period in which it aired. The world was in the middle of the Cold War, with the threat of nuclear strikes from Russia and complete annihilation on everyone’s mind. The United States was just beginning to enter its quest into space – but it would still be a decade before man would step foot on the moon. The Holocaust had just ended, and the fear of technology and change from the tranquil and picture perfect decade of the 50s was everywhere.

Many episodes are true classics, known and revered by casual observes and die hard fans alike. Some are complete bombs and that’s okay – a genius like Serling would always swing for the fences in the creation of his art, and sometimes he missed. The majority of TZ episodes are scattered somewhere in between all time great and also-ran, and with the broad scope of genres covered its tough to make an accurate comparison.

The%20Twilight%20Zone%20-%20Nick%20of%20TimeIn honor of Rod Serling, who passed away 40 years ago this June, I’ve created 2 lists – the top 40 all time episodes, and the top 20 scariest. Enjoy!

Top 40

40 – The Fear – A man and woman are stranded in a rural cabin with a giant alien being stalking them outside.

39 – The Mirror – A dictator receives a present; a mirror that will show the reflection of his enemies.

38 – The Brain Center at Whipples – Great story, and if you substitute the machines for India, its just as relevant in today’s world.

37 – The Shelter – One man has crafted a bomb shelter big enough for his family. So what happens to the rest of the neighborhood when there’s a nuclear strike?

36 – The Invaders – See below list.

35 – Death Ship – The only hour long episode to make the list, Death Ship features the great Jack Klugman leading a space mission to a foreign planet where he discovers a wrecked ship that’s exactly the same as the one he is commanding.

34 – The Lonely – The type of original story that makes TZ so great. A convicted murderer sentenced to life on a distant and barren asteroid gains the companionship of a unique being.

33 – Third from the Sun – A classic episode that features the brilliant performance of the great Edward Andrews, and one of the best twist endings ever.

32 – Where is Everybody – The series premier gives way to the strangeness that would follow as a man finds himself all alone on Earth.

31 – The Howling Man – Monks have imprisoned a man inside their temple. A traveler must decide which story to believe.

30 – The 7th is made up of Phantoms – Creepy winds and images plague a trio of soldiers as they scout the former battlefield of General Custer.

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29 – The Long Morrow – A true blending of science fiction and horror, The Long Morrow is one you’ll bow your head in reverence to after watching.

28 – Nothing in the Dark – A young Robert Redford plays a wounded policeman under the care of an old woman who’s attempting to evade death.

27 – Dead Man’s Shoes – A solid episode with music so great you’ll enjoy every minute of it.

26 – The Midnight Sun – A great ironic twist story, a constant theme of TZ. The series has boasted a gaggle of attractive young actresses, but none so enchanting as Lois Nettleton who plays the lead.

25 – Eye of the Beholder – One of the top all time classic episodes and one that nearly everyone knows the ending to, including fans of Green Day.

24 – The Odyssey of Flight 33 – The entire episode takes place in the cockpit of an airplane…an airplane that is somehow traveling back in time.

23 – Five Characters in Search of an Exit – What do a clown, hobo, ballet dancer, bagpiper, and an Army major have in common? Nothing, except when they are trapped in an unknown prison and must work together to find a way to escape – if there is one.

22 – The Passerbys – A southern belle sits on her porch waiting for the return of her long lost love at the end of the Civil War.

21 – Still Valley – The Confederate army has found a way to win the Civil War, if they follow the work of the devil.

burgess-meredith-tz20 – One More Pallbearer – A great acting performance by Joseph Wiseman as a grudge holding millionaire preparing to exact revenge on those he feels have wronged him.

19 – Nick of Time – The great William Shatner makes his first TZ appearance as a young man terrified to do anything other than heed the advise of a fortune telling machine.

18 – The Four of us are Dying – A shape shifting con man cornered in the ultimate scam.

17 – Steel – Its the future and boxing by humans has been abolished so to take its place, robots do the fighting. Great concept and brilliant performance by Lee Marvin.

16 – Judgment Night – Another great acting performance, this one by Nehemia Persoff who plays a man on a ship experiencing deja vu – of the vessile being torpedoed by a German U-Boat.

15 – The Rip Van Winkle Caper – The episode features a cool plot, a classic TZ style ending, and one of my favorite TZ stars – Oscar Beregi, Jr.

14 – The Arrival – A plane lands at an airport. Big deal right? Oh wait…no passengers, no crew, and no pilots are on board…

13 – The Gift – A great episode ripe with morals, the story revolves around a peaceful man from outer space and the panic that ensues upon his landing in a remove Mexican village.

12 – And When the Sky was Opened – see below list.

11 – The Jungle – Memorable performance by John Dehner as a man who has just returned from Africa and is tormented by a witch doctors curse.

10 – Night Call – see below list.

9 – A Kind of Stop Watch – Its the type of thing everyone would want. A stop watch that stops everyone else, leaving the owner free to do as he pleases. Nothing could go wrong with this, right?

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8 – The Monsters are Due on Maple Street – A TZ classic, the story about a typical suburban neighborhood that goes to hell in the wake of a potential alien invasion has been retold a few times in various updated Twilight Zones but the original is still the best.

7 – I Shot an Arrow into the Air – This was my first favorite TZ episode. It tells the story of astronauts that have crash landed on some distant and barren asteroid, and has the type of twist ending that the TZ is famous for.

6 – Time Enough at Last – Another of the all timers, this episode stars Burges Meredith as a squirrely man whose only passion is to read and his battle with the outside forces that will stop an nothing to prevent that from happening.

5 – Nightmare at 20,000 Feet – I love William Shatner – see below list.

4 – Deaths Head Revisited – see below list.

3 – A Piano in the House – Brilliant performance by Barry Morse as a wicked man who wants nothing but to bully those around him. He hosts a dinner party with a magical piano that causes those that hear the music to reveal their true feelings.

2 – After Hours – see below list.

1 – Living Doll – Tough to pick one favorite, so I went with the one that scared the crap out of me as a kid, so much so that I had to force myself to watch it. Its the type of episode that conjures true terror, goosebumps throughout, and five decades worth of influence.

Top 20 Scariest

MV5BMTg0NjgwOTc1OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjI5MzI2MTE@__V1__SX1303_SY591_20 – Mr. Garrity and the Graves – A comedy for the most part but the final scene is really creepy and an obvious influence on the plethora of zombie shows and movies that would follow in the 60s and 70s.

19 – Come Wander with Me – A weird episode with a tone set by the haunting song sung by the female lead throughout.

18 – Stopover in a Quiet Town – A husband and wife awaken in a strange place with no one else around, save for the occasional sound of a child’s giggling.

17 – Ring-a-Ding Girl – Tame for the most part, but an end that will send shivers down your spine.

16 – The Fever – The addiction of gambling isn’t all that scary, but the garbled sound of a slot machine that keeps calling to the main character is truly terrifying. Franklin!!

15 – Perchance to Dream – A man on a Psychiatrist’s couch who is afraid to fall asleep because his dreams will kill him. Freddy Krueger anyone?

14 – And When the Sky was Opened – One of the first episodes to deal with space travel and the aftermath. Three astronauts return to Earth after a mission – and begin to vanish one by one.

13 – It’s a Good Life – One of the TZ classics, the episode focuses on a six year old boy with magical powers and a wicked mind.

12 – 30 Fathom Grave – The 18 episodes in Season 4 are an hour long and most are terrible for it. The pace is slow and cluttered with unnecessary scenes and dialogue. 30 Fathom Grave would be one of the all time scariest if it had been cut in half. The constant clanking of metal on metal from a crashed submarine on the ocean floor is second in scares to the ghosts of the sailors aboard that are beckoning to the still living captain to join them.

11 – Caesar and Me – Dolls and dummies are scary, simply put. The theme is addressed in 3 TZ episodes, and this one is the most tame, though there are a few parts where the dummy is flat out sinister.

10 – Deaths Head Revisited – An SS officer who fled Germany has returned to visit the concentration camp he was in charge of. Little does he know the ghosts of those he gassed are waiting.

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9 – The Invaders – No dialogue adds to this spooky tale about a woman in an isolated farm house doing battle with a battalion of tiny aliens.

8 – Nightmare at 20,000 Feet – A man who is afraid to fly isn’t really scary. But when said man is tormented by a ghoul on the wing of the airplane he is riding, all bets are off.

7 – The Lateness of the Hour – The premise is creepy enough; A family hold up in their estate with their lifelike robotic servants, but the episode was one of 6 shot on videotape in lieu of film and that just makes it all the more eerie.

6 – Long Distance Call – Could anything be more frightening than a child receiving calls from his dead grandmother on a toy telephone? Would have landed top 5 if not for the soft ending.

5 – The Dummy – A drunken ventriloquist is haunted by his lifeless stage partner. The scene in the dressing room where the dummy’s head keeps turning in the mirror is a thing of sheer horror beauty.

4 – Twenty-two – A woman’s recurring nightmare places her in a hospital morgue, and the screams she unleashes every time she wakes up would make Jamie Lee Curtis take note.

3 – Night Call – A facet lost in today’s cellular world is just how terrifying the sound of a ringing telephone to shatter an otherwise peaceful silence is. Now factor in the recipient is a crippled old woman. And when she answers all she hears is an unearthly moaning voice. And then she finds out the calls are coming from a telephone line that was knocked down in a storm. And the telephone wire is draped across a grave in the cemetery. Bravo Mr. Serling, bravo.

Talky-Tina-The-Twilight-Zone-June-Foray2 – The After Hours – Mannequins are scary, this much we know. So how about a woman locked in a department store at night being chased by them???

1 – The Living Doll – One of the first stories to feature a murderous doll that comes to life, the episode would be the obvious blueprint for dozens of movies and shows that would follow. Telly Savalas is a stepdad, and kind of a jerk. His stepdaughters new doll, Talky Tina, doesn’t really like that. It wins on the creepiness of the doll itself, restricted by budget to a cheap looking toy, Talky Tina it far scarier than Chucky. The episode never strays from true horror, and the score accompanies the story perfectly. Telly Savalas is awesome in a pre-Kojak role, his interactions with Tina being some of the best scenes in the history of television.

5/27/2015