Monday, September 11, 2017

Castle Rock Companion - It (2017)

I figured I should start this post off with a disclaimer because despite my usual method of reading and then watching the film, I haven't read It since I covered the book and mini-series in 2014.  So this won't be a blow by blow comparison as compared to some of my past reviews since my memory of the book isn't that fresh.  But there are at least some changes that are glaring enough that I can remember.

The trailers for this film looked promising from the beginning, and while sometimes they can be misleading versus the actual product, in this case I think they did a pretty good job of preparing you for the scares found within.  And this movie does have a lot of them.  Lots of creepy, gross creatures, lots of frightening moments with our child heroes in peril, and lots of clowns.  But one thing I don't think the trailer shows as well that it really should is the strength of the Loser's Club and their friendship.

This is a pretty stellar child cast.  Finn Wolfhard as Richie and Jack Dylan Grazer as Eddie stand out in particular, but all of the kids do a great job in their roles.  Eddie went from a pretty typical put upon nerd in the book to my favorite character in the movie.  He's basically 13 going on 45, matter of factly listing all the things that could possibly go wrong with every foolish thing the kids choose to do, and he made me laugh constantly.  Richie is still the wise guy, and his humor has been modernized to be less about doing character voices and more about saying sarcastic or rude things that occasionally cross the line.  The kids don't say "beep beep" at him when he goes too far like they do in the book, but there's one moment where Pennywise says it to him as a nod to that.

The movie is definitely aware of the fact that it's a remake/reboot and that many people are familiar with the mini-series starring Tim Curry.  I think if there's anything that makes these adaptations that are also remakes so distinctive in an unfortunate way is that they often feel the need to spend time doing callbacks rather than just telling the story.  I suppose these little things are meant to be Easter eggs to make people who know the original feel like they are sharing a secret together, but in a horror movie where tension is everything, I don't need a wink and a nudge.  I'd much rather just be absorbed in the moment.

And I guess I'm a bit of a hypocrite, because I really loved the Lego turtle Bill picked up and carried with him from Georgie's room into the cellar.  That was a really nice nod to the bigger picture that ties It to the Dark Tower mythology and gives me hope that we may see a little more of that in the next film.  Because this movie is more accurately a half adaptation, as it only features the time when the characters are children.  The timeline is moved forward, setting their childhood in 1989 rather than the 1950s.  They also seem to be aged up a couple years from 11 to 13.  I don't know that a whole lot of time was spent analyzing the differences between childhood in the 50s vs the 80s however.  When Bill tells Georgie to go get the wax from the cellar to coat his paper boat in, my first thought was "No one was doing that in the late 80s."  Perhaps that's a little harsh, but making paper boats and knowing to melt wax to coat them with so they don't disintegrate feels very much like a product of the 50s when kids were still making their own fun.  In the 80s I feel like most of us would have just used one of those plastic tub toys instead.  But we need the first creepy moment in the cellar so it's left in.  It's not necessarily all a bad thing, but to me it just shows a little less thought involved.  It seemed like they just figured they could mention Street Fighter and put Batman on the marquee and call it a day.

There are a few changes to the characters as well, though none of them are earth shattering.  Mike seems to be the one that suffers the most of this, as his knowledge of Derry's history gets transferred to Ben, supposedly doing a ton of research since he's new in town(as he was in the mini-series, and not in the book).  Mike instead has now lost his parents in a fire that killed a large number of people, another example of the awful things that frequently happen in Derry.  He also is initially too kindhearted to kill the sheep that his family raises and slaughters for meat.  While at first seemingly out of nowhere, this change works well, as it both shows how Mike has been hardened by the experiences with It when he is no longer hesitant to kill, and he also brings the bolt gun along with him for their final battle with the creature.

Probably the most troubling change is the one they make to Beverly.  Her father's sexual abuse is covered with just the right level to make him creepy and wrong without spelling too much out for us, and her reactions, hanging out with the boys and cutting all her hair off, are natural reactions to that.  But the big problem is that for the final act she basically becomes a damsel in distress, kidnapped by It and therefore forcing all the boys to come and rescue her.  On one hand, I can see this being a way to get around that awful "Beverly helps them all escape the sewers" plot device that King chose in the book.  Her peril is what is uniting them in this instance, with them all having gone their separate ways after their first fight with the creature.  But her character is stronger than that and she doesn't deserve to become a victim in that way.

The way they fight it is also pretty different.  The kids spend a decent amount of time in the book trying to figure out how they might be able to kill it, like making silver bullets.  Here, the only real weapon they have is banding together and doing their best to not be afraid.  Honestly, it's a good way to save a bit of time and get us straight to the conflict, and it helps you to wonder just how it might even be possible for them to do so.  While it's great seeing the kids band together and slowly losing their fear of Pennywise, I also like that for at least a moment it very much becomes Bill's story.  Having him face the image of Georgie one more time is heartbreaking and effective.  The way Pennywise essentially runs away from them at the end may feel like a bit of a cheat to anyone who isn't familiar with the story, but knowing that part 2 is essential to make this feel whole goes a long way.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Castle Rock Companion - Cell

Unless you are speculating in the science fiction of the future, any story that has a basis in real world technology is going to end up dated.  Such is the case with Stephen King's Cell, written at a time when cell phones were common but still used primarily for phone calls and not much else. Our biggest concern related to them at that point was whether or not they were generating enough radiation to give us cancer. It was also written when the 9/11 terror attacks were still fresh and new and we were all reeling from such a huge event.  King takes those two things and weaves them together, and beyond a few technical details, still manages to write something relevant for today.

When I first read Cell I enjoyed it, though found myself a little frustrated by the ending.  Revisiting it this time for the film, I have since been exposed to two classic works I had not the first time.  Night of the Living Dead and its sequels is the first, and while the "phoners" in the book have more in common with the crazed zombies of 28 Days Later than the slow moving ones in that film, I do think there's a bit of influence in regards to how humans react to such a crisis.  King however mostly stays positive in this one, showing a group of individuals who quickly form a family unit rather than turning against each other.  There is a quick appearance of a bible thumper and a couple nasty people, but I can't help but think that post 9/11 King was trying to focus on the good in people rather than the bad.

The other work is I Am Legend, and the influences here are much stronger.  Much like we learn that the vampires in that book are more than just mere monsters, the phoners form a society as well.  I appreciate greatly that King allows them to evolve as the book goes on - starting out like those aforementioned crazed zombies but becoming more like drones with a shared consciousness.  It's an interesting idea, and it makes you think about them more like people instead of the "just kill them all" mentality that most works will give their monsters.  The main characters in the book initially do have that kill response, and they end up being punished for it.  It's a unique idea and one that helped it all feel interesting to me instead of just a general quest for survival and finding out whether or not our main character's child made it out alive.

Clay Ridell is that main character, and he's a slight twist from King's usual writer protagonist in that he puts drawings to his writings.  The graphic novel he's selling also had some interesting similarities to The Dark Tower series which I figured King included as a wink and nod to fans.  There's not a whole lot to Clay, but that allows us to put ourselves in his shoes, as any of us can understand the desire to find out how our loved ones are doing when disaster strikes.  Clay's companions are much more well defined and real.

Tom McCourt is not King's first gay character, but he seems to me at least like the first one who just happens to have that as a characteristic and not something to be made a huge deal of.  Tom starts off panicky and seeming like he's going to be Clay's tag along that you're just going to have to deal with, but he then gets a hold of himself and even picks Clay up when he doesn't seem like he's going to make it.  If I'm ever being forced to cross the country in a post apocalyptic world, I want someone as sensible and collected as Tom at my side.  And we'd find a way to bring our cats along for the journey.

Alice Maxwell is a teenage girl who does a lot of hard growing up once the disaster strikes.  She's smart and capable and loves horror movies, but she finds a single baby sneaker while they are walking, and she picks it up and can't stop fiddling with it as a kind of nervous twitch.  It's the kind of small detail that makes her feel real, and you both understand why she does it and desperately want her to stop doing it as much as Clay does.

On their journey from Boston to Maine they run into a single remaining student at a prep school and his headmaster.  "The Head" is a classic professor type from King's novels, expunging philosophy and making deductions about the nature of the phoners and whether the normal humans have a right to survive anymore.  The student is Jordan, a classic King kid who faces one tragedy after another and somehow comes out of it okay.

The story is downright short by King standards and moves pretty quickly, but never feels overly rushed.  The idea of humans developing telepathy because their brains are rebooted is an interesting one, though I'm not as crazy about the insistence King suggests that it was done by accident - apparently the never explained terrorists that set up the attack only wanted to make people crazy and kill each other, but I say they could have planned to make them drones as well, perhaps planning to use them for an army or other such purpose.  Ultimately I don't think King wants you to spend too much time thinking about the whys, as much as he's just trying to find a way to make it so that humanity won't remain this way forever.  And while our heroes destroy the main colony gathering in the northeast of the US by the end of the book, you do have to wonder what's going on in the rest of the country if not also the world.

Development for Cell as a film began not long after it was published in 2006, with the original plan being for Eli Roth to direct.  Roth couldn't reach an agreement with the studios however, and eventually left  the project.  King wrote a screenplay for it, but it mostly sat on the shelf until 2014 when the movie was finally filmed with director Tod Williams instead.  After being filmed it sat on the shelf again - never a good sign when it comes to movies.  I was starting to think it would never be released at all, or perhaps given a straight to video release like Mercy, when it was finally announced this year that it would have a limited theatrical release as well as video on demand.  So slightly better handling than Mercy but not much.

Quite frankly, I understand why.  I'm not familiar with Williams' work before this, so I don't know how he stands as a director in general.  Nor am I familiar with Adam Alleca, the other credited screenwriter beside King.  But I can tell you specifically that some poor choices were made for this specific film.  It's been a while since I watched 28 Days Later, but I feel like the success of that film proves there's a good way to film crazed maniacs attacking other people and not have it feel incredibly goofy.  Unfortunately that's exactly what it feels like here.  The one thing I can say is that you can tell the various extras were having a ton of fun on set - but the problem is that results in you being able to see them resisting cracking a smile beneath a lot of their rampage.  The lack of frenetic camera angles and movements just really highlights how silly it can all be.

And while the book's phoners evolve and change over time, the movie's never really do.  They develop the ability to create the fax machine like screech that came originally from the phones and therefore infect others when close to them, but they never stop rampaging.  This added trait basically makes them exactly like zombies, just toning down the gore factor since they don't want to eat you.  Their hive mind manifests in that once one phoner sees you, they all then know where you are to come after you.  I imagine this choice to keep them mostly feral was done to try to keep up the tension and the action, but frankly it just doesn't work for me.

Add to that the fact that none of the characters feel particularly fleshed out or real, and you've got disaster.  Gone is Tom's compassion for his cat (in fact the cat now belongs to Clay, and zero mention is made of abandoning it when they leave) or any real heartfelt moments where he and Clay bond.  Samuel L. Jackson and John Cusack are doing the best they can with the material, there's just not a lot there beyond moving them from point A to B.  Tom now mentions he's divorced, and his ex is a man, but it seems like a half ditched attempt to provide personality rather than a real one.  Isabelle Fuhrman is also fine as Alice, but she really gets no personality at all beyond "teenage girl."

The phones are updated to reflect current times, and while in the book Clay was hoping his son was bored with his phone and therefore not using it, he now says he only uses it for texts and games, not calls.  Tom even keeps his cell phone (which I frankly think is a stupid thing to do given what's going on) and texting does seem to not be an issue with the pulse, though Clay's son only responds in garbled text and they never try to talk to him again.

There's a really great scene in the book when the day after the heroes decide to blow up a large number of phoners who are sleeping in a field, an army of phoners show up, stare menacingly at them, slaughter other humans they found to make a point, and even place Alice's baby shoe on the doorstep in front of them (she lost it in the blast) to prove a point.  In this movie, it's widdled down to just a mound of burned cellphones waiting for them.

The main protagonist in the book is called the Raggedy Man by some and The President of Harvard by others, because he wear a red hoodie with Harvard on the front.  He's chosen as a recognizable figurehead and appears to them all in dreams, informing them that they have been marked as insane outsiders for their crime.  It's acknowledged that as a hive mind he's not really a leader and has no real powers, he's just the chosen one at the time and if he was killed someone else would just take his place.  In the movie it's radically different.  The Harvard part is dropped for I think obvious reasons, but while Alice does mention him labeling her insane, everyone else seems to just have dreams where he torments them.  He also just happens to be the main enemy of the graphic novel Clay was writing before all this happened, as if he had a vision of him.  Another character calls him The President of the Internet for no logical reason I can find, and suggests that killing him will stop it all.  When Clay eventually hits him with a truck and shoots him multiple times with a shotgun, he then looks to be immortal.

In the book, the dreams they are having turn out to be had by all humans, and other people they meet while travelling refuse to associate with them because of their being marked.  In the movie they stop in a tavern for the day, and the people are more than happy to accept them and it turns into a very strange party scene.  Everyone drinks and Tom dances with an older lady, while Clay draws Alice's picture while speaking a non sequitur about angels and humans and calls her an angel.  This is totally not foreshadowing that she's going to die soon.  No, wait, of course it is.  In the book it's a shocking moment, where a human decides to ignore the phoners' orders of leaving them alone and hurls a concrete brick out of a window, striking Alice in the head.  In the film the older lady is drawn to the front door of the bar when she hears a yelping dog, but is instead changed by the phoners when she leans in to listen.  She lets them in and chaos ensues, until she ends up hitting Alice hard in the back of the head with a baseball bat.  Isabelle Fuhrman does a good job with the death scene, but there's just not enough between these characters at this point to really feel it.

As I said earlier, the ending of the book is a bit frustrating.  Young Jordan deduces that there's a worm virus in the programming that turns everyone into phoners that is causing them to start to act differently.  The heroes blow up the gathering of phoners who were holding them for some kind of trial and escape, but Clay stays behind because he knows his son was around somewhere and he's hoping he walked off before the blast.  He finds him, and he's basically acting like an animal, unable to speak or take care of himself.  Jordan suggests this half baked theory that if you exposed a phoner to another phone signal, it might reboot them and make them better, but he doesn't really know.  The book ends with Clay holding the phone to his son's ear.  It's not entirely unlike The Mist, but whereas that ending felt hopeful, this one just clearly wants you to decide for yourself one way or the other what happened.  It feels like a bit of a cheat, or like King couldn't decide himself.

I bring up The Mist because it's worth noting that King said he preferred Darabont's super dark ending to the movie.  People complained to King about the ending of Cell, and he reported in 2009 that he had changed it for the screenplay.  Given the long development time, it's hard to say if the ending we get here is King's doing, Adam Alleca's, Tod Williams', the studios'... who knows.  But it's such a mess that I almost feel like they were intending to pull something like Clue, where different theaters would have gotten one of three different endings, but someone messed up and put all three of them on the video on demand release.  This is what happens:

1. As I mentioned earlier, Clay hits the leader of  the phoners with a truck and shoots him up.  He searches the crowd of phoners surrounding them and a cell tower  for his son, and his son eventually emerges from them.  He and the others start emitting the pulse sound, and we see the leader is still alive.  Clay pulls a very old cell out of his pocket and dials a number that is attached to another cell phone inside the truck that acts as a trigger to a lot of C4.  Huge explosion, fade to black.  That explosive device does come from the book, which is how the heroes escape there.

2. Despite standing in the middle of all the phoners when the explosion happened, we see Clay and his son, who is 100% cured, walking in the woods on the way to catch up with the rest of the heroes.

3. We then cut back to the cell tower and the phoners circling it, with Clay now among them.  His son is nowhere to be found.

I think the idea here is that the explosion never happens, that in fact Clay has simply joined them and he's getting a vision of a happy ending in his mind.  Like maybe every single phoner is now living out some happy little wonderland in their heads, while something else takes over their bodies and has them do whatever.  But we certainly never saw any hint of that before this point, and the cuts between the three scenes are so tonally off that it's not handled well at all.

As a stand alone film, this is an uninspired, not very scary zombie knock off with a poorly executed twist ending.  As an adaptation, it strips the characters of their personality and the plot of its intricacies and leaves only a by the numbers adaptation behind.  I can't recommend it on any level.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Current media 4-20-16

Current reading material:
American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J Ellis
Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin Manual Miranda

Last comics read:
Agent X (2002) #6
Weapon X (2002) #4
Exiles (2001) # 20

Current TV shows I'm watching:
The Grinder
Legends of Tomorrow
Fear the Walking Dead

I am fiercely behind on podcasts because of vacation. Currently caught up on Jay & Miles X-plain the X-men and This American Life only.

Video Games I'm playing:
Avengers Academy (They are having a Guardians of the Galaxy event and I have almost recruited Drax and Rocket is next on the list and if the event ends before I get him I will scream)
Suikoden II

Stuff I finished since last time:

11.22.63 - Check my Castle Rock Companion episodes for full details, but I didn't like it.

Phineas & Ferb - While a lot of the early episodes of the most reason season felt really dull and uninspired, all of the various crossovers (Avengers, Star Wars) and one off specials (the 10 year flash forward, Doofenshmirtz as a teacher, etc) felt really fresh and fun.  Checking the Wikipedia page I see that this was in fact the end of the series, and I'm okay with that.  It would be nice if they did some specials still from time to time, but this felt like a good end to a good show.

Better Call Saul - This was a solid if a bit slow paced season.I fear there may be an issue of them not knowing how long the show will last, and therefore taking their time on moving things along.  But I'm enjoying seeing this early look at some of the characters and the twists and turns have me all wrapped up and connected to the show just as Breaking Bad once did.  It currently is not as strong a show as its predecessor, but I think they are building their way there.  They are certainly doing a good job of making me really dislike Chuck, and I'm so attached to Kim in a way that is so bittersweet.  I adore her and think she's a great companion for Jimmy, but I also know he must have done something to piss her off eventually since she's nowhere to be found in BB.  Or worse yet she's dead, but I don't want to think of that possibility.

In the Mouth of Madness - I watched this for a future Masters of Carpentry episode.  Details will have to wait until that premieres, but suffice to say I liked it.

I've been starting to feel a little restless, like I want to start working on some kind of project again, though I'm not sure what.  Basically just thinking I should spend a little more time creating.  Not stressing about it, but we'll see if inspiration hits me in one form or another.

Castle Rock Companion - 11.22.63 episodes 5-8 and final thoughts

The last episode of 11.22.63 aired a couple weeks ago, and I coincidentally went on vacation the very next day.  Since returning, I haven't felt much of an urge to talk about the series, but I think it deserves a full wrap up.

Episode 5

As I said in the previous recap, I just don't like this version of Johnny.  He comes across as off in all the wrong ways.  James Franco actually directed this episode and I think he did a decent job with keeping the tension high as Johnny keeps Jake and Sadie hostage, but once again the writing fails them.  Because the mini-series added Bill to the equation, he gets to go and see if Oswald did in fact shoot at Walker, whereas Sadie being in danger was enough to prevent Jake in the book.  Distracting him by making him think he sees his dead sister coming out of the church both makes sense and worked fairly well in execution.

Episode 6

In which the mini-series really goes off the rails.  Remember how time is supposed to be really resistant to change of any kind?  Because the writers sure didn't remember.  Inserting Bill so thoroughly into the Oswalds lives should be problematic not just for Jake but for everything.  You can't position him as the potential second shooter because without Jake, Bill would not be in Texas.  It's not like the past goes "oh ok, let's course correct and use this dude now."   It should be stopping Bill just as much as it's stopping Jake.  But they really wanted to play with the idea that Jake could be also causing it all to happen instead, so we get Bill somehow both messing around with a guy's wife and also becoming his new best friend.  Sure, that seems logical and something a severely paranoid person like Oswald would allow to happen.

On top of that, the yellow card man arriving and seeming to willingly mess with Sadie's surgery also doesn't make sense.  Given what we learn about him later, why does the past need him to do this?  Couldn't the mechanics fail regardless?  He's there for Jake to have someone to react to and jump in, I guess, but once again it's a poor writing decision that could have been handled better.

Episode 7

This largely feels like a waste of an episode.  While there certainly needs to be some time where Jake can't remember his mission, it just feels like it goes on too long.  And on top of that, after sentencing poor Bill to a mental asylum now that Sadie knows the truth and Jake has someone else to bounce off of, they decide that's not enough and have him commit suicide.  The one thing I did like about this episode is the encounter with Oswald and how Jake is all set to kill him until he sees the baby in his arms.

Episode 8

Having gotten rid of nearly everything that led the mini-series off the rails, we now return to a very close adaptation of the book.  I will say though that after the ultra-theatrical elements we got in the first episode, it's a shame that the past wasn't nearly as dramatic here.  It's like they spent all their budget on that stuff in the beginning and didn't have enough left for the final confrontation, when it should be the most explosive.

I also really didn't understand what was going on with the yellow card man and how he appears in the car with Jake taking Sadie's place all of the sudden.  Was that supposed to be a dream?  It's radically different from everything else we've seen so far.  Changing him to a man stuck in a loop who has learned he can't fix everything is a fine change, and helps to say out loud some of the things that might otherwise be done by Jake talking to himself.  But it also just doesn't seem to click with what happened in episode 6.  Why is he spending all this time following Jake and trying to mess up his life rather than helping his daughter or just flat out going home?  Why didn't he just tell him all this stuff sooner?

The messed up future is highly simplified, but I largely expected that.  I'll admit not being totally brushed up on 60s and 70s American history so some of the stuff in the book flew over my head too.  King presented it as plausible, but I didn't know enough about the players to know how realistic he was being.  Drilling it down to nuclear bombs being dropped in the midst of the cold war is really all we need to know.

Adding in a moment where Jake seems like he may stay in the past with Sadie makes sense, though having her just happen to be there right in the town at the moment he goes back through the portal feels a little convenient.  She also shouldn't be so open to him, but I get the idea they were going for about how the two of them have a connection that seems to stretch across the alternate realities.  The final moments when he sees her again as an old lady were also really sweet and similar to how they felt in the book.

Final Thoughts

So now that it's all said and done, do I recommend this series?  I don't think it's any surprise that my answer is no.  I find myself baffled to see so many people online, King included, praising it and calling it a good adaptation.  The writing is poor and makes the characters come off as stupid far too often.  If you're going to use Bill, give him a good reason to follow Jake.  Even better, forget Bill and bring Sadie into the equation even sooner, helping to build their relationship and make it that much stronger.  Then Jake has someone to bounce off of that you don't have to kill off towards the end.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Current Media 3-29-16

Current reading material:
American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

Comics to read next:
Weapon X (2002) #2
Agent X (2002) #5

Current TV shows I'm watching:
The Grinder
Phineas & Ferb
Legends of Tomorrow
Fear the Walking Dead
Better Call Saul

Podcasts I'm listening to:
Jay & Miles X-plain the X-men
Judge John Hodgman
This American Life
Masters of Carpentry
TV Crimes

Video Games I'm playing:
Disney Tsum Tsum 
Marvel's Avengers Academy
Grim Fandango Remastered
Rock Band 4

Stuff I finished since last time:

The Man in the High Castle - While I really thought there was a good concept to be explored in a "what if the axis had won?" scenario, maybe Philip K Dick wasn't the person to do it.  None of the characters are particularly likable, and it makes it very hard to get into or sympathize with their plight in any way.  A whole lot of time is put into interpretations of the I, Ching and leaves those of us with little prior knowledge of it really scratching our heads.  There's definitely a lot more time spent with the Japanese side rather than Germany but it all just ends up poorly defined and the "climax" such as it is is super unsatisfying.  I don't recommend it.

Origin - This is the comic series that told Wolverine's origin after so many years of his early life being a mystery.  I had read summaries of it before, but this was my first read of the full comics.  I think it probably worked much better as a serial when it was initially released, particularly in the first couple issues where no one realized which of the male characters was truly supposed to be Wolverine.  Unfortunately when you take the surprise element away there's not too much left, beyond what suggests that Logan has been repeating the same scenarios over and over again for most of his life.  Frankly, it feels like a story that didn't need to be told.

Weapon X: The Draft - This was a series of one shots each highlighting a character that is included the Weapon X 2002 ongoing comic I just started reading.  The issue highlighting Marrow was well written, but in large contrast to every appearance of the character before.  I can't help but think it was just someone's excuse to have a sexualized woman in a book, rather than properly reflecting how the character herself might feel and want to look.  The Sauron issue was a bit silly and also didn't seem to have much prior knowledge about that character either.  The decision to make Wild Child look exactly like Nosferatu was also a bit of a head scratcher, though I did enjoy that story.  It was all enough to at least make me curious about the ongoing and be willing to give that a shot.

Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine - This is probably the most adult version of Lupin III since the original manga, and is super sexualized to the point of almost feeling like softcore hentai in certain scenes.  The animation style and digital coloring are beautiful, and the music is pretty great as well.  That said, I have to admit I didn't care much for this interpretation of the story.  Most of the characters match the personalities we know from before, with the exception of Zenigata who comes off a bit more crooked when he sleeps with Fujiko when he has her custody.  While he may not be a 100% lawful good character, occasionally agreeing to a truce with Lupin while they stop other, bigger foes, the idea of him being seduced by a prisoner (or worse yet, taking advantage of a prisoner for the sake of getting her to do something) feels wrong to me.  With the focus of the series being on Fujiko, it seems to be suggesting that she's just that desirable and everyone wants her.  Except for the one new character added to the show, Oscar, Zenigata's assistant and sort of foster child.   He's in love with his mentor and therefore hates Fujiko for getting his attention.  It's not handled well at all, and seeing as how this is supposed to be a prequel, it would have been nice to get a better explanation as to what happened to him and why we never see him again.  Though I know there is a follow up film, it's possible it is settled there and I just haven't watched it yet.  Beyond that, there's a plot throughout the series about Fujiko being abused as a child and manipulated to be a living sexualized weapon.  I was really, really displeased with that angle for most of the season.  The finale does do a bit to change my perspective on it, but still sort of feels more like a cop out than a satisfying end.  I'd recommend it for hardcore Lupin fans only, or people looking for something closer to the gritty nature of the manga.

Daredevil season 2 - While I had some minor quibbles with season 1, I had very little to complain about in the second season.  Punisher is fantastic and absolutely the best version of the character I had ever seen.  Jon Bernthal had done such a good job of making me hate him on The Walking Dead that I was a little worried I might not like his Punisher, but he did such a great job of dancing over the line between sympathetic and horrifyingly brutal.  While Elektra felt a little more ill defined that enigmatic at times, I enjoyed her as well.  Matt continued to infuriate me by letting his friends down, Karen remained awesome, and Foggy said everything we in the audience would love to tell Matt while also just being an amazing lawyer and hero in his own right.  I would have loved to see more of Claire, but the parts we did get were great.  Just overall a really strong season, and I think I may watch it again some time in the future at a slower pace like I did the prior season.  Netflix is just really knocking it out the park with these series and I am so ready for more.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Castle Rock Companion - 11.22.63 episode 4

This episode definitely felt more transitional than anything of merit or story on its own.  It moves Jake and Sadie's relationship forward and introduces her ex-husband, and adds a little more information on what's going on with Lee, but it all definitely feels more like set up than a stand alone.

On the Jake and Sadie side, it's possible that a mini-series or film is just never going to leave me satisfied when it comes to relationships and love. In the book we get the chance to see these two really get to know each other and become close, and here it seems like we're just skipping to the smooching and sleeping together with them barely knowing each other.  I feel like the show is expecting you to believe they're in love based solely on the chemistry of the two leads, and I'm just not feeling it that deeply.  Especially when most of the scenes are focusing on how much Jake is keeping from Sadie.

On top of that, Sadie's confession to Jake about what happened in her former marriage was very poorly handled.  For one thing, wouldn't that be something she'd want to discuss before sleeping with him?  I seem to recall that's the way it goes in the book, or she at least admits that things were not quite right with her husband.  When she does tell him, it comes out in a confusing jumble, like they didn't want to get into all the details King describes in the book so they just sort of skipped through it and it barely made sense.  It should have been a very sad moment but instead it just ended up confusing.

We then meet her ex-husband Johnny, and they could not have chosen to portray him any more over the top than he is.  I admit he's a lunatic in the book as well, but something about how he's portrayed here made him come off as really cartoony to me in an otherwise realistic world.  It just didn't work.  And once again, Jake handles it all really poorly. I think the idea that this mini series is trying to establish is that Jake will eventually decide the past is better without him, but boy is it tedious to watch it get there.

The other side of the episode is Bill watching the Oswalds.  King presents Marina Oswald as a pitiable character in the books, a beaten down wife under the thumb of her husband.  Bill is at least somewhat taking over Jake's role in witnessing the abuse and feeling sorry for her, but in what is now typical fashion the mini-series has to take it once step further and have him interfere and become affectionate with her.  I am starting to think of this as the dumbest timeline. 

Remember all that stuff in the earlier episodes where the past was fighting back every time Jake changed a little tiny thing?  All those horrors? Because the writers seem to have forgotten and not given a shit. Bill talking to Marina, Jake talking to Johnny, these should all be big events.  Where are the bugs and natural disasters?

And I feel like that gets right down to the heart of this. The writing on this series is just really poor.  I think we've witnessed at least three times now Jake driving all the way from Jodie to Dallas just to arrive, talk to Bill for a couple minutes, then turn around and go back home again.  Phones existed in the 60s, dude, just call him.  But this show doesn't care about that, it cares about "Here's this information, now let's move on to the next thing" without taking any time to think it through or act in a natural fashion.  They rush through the relationships, the humanity that makes the story so compelling and interesting, and instead insert a bunch of CIA conspiracy theory (that was not in the book at all) because they think that's what America wants to see.  Oh, and make sure you drop a few f-bombs per episode, we've got to keep it edgy.  Also can we include some strippers or whores in there?  Great, thanks.

Ugh.  As you can tell, I'm pretty disgusted.  I almost didn't write this review, thinking I might save it and lump future episodes together.  I don't like posting nothing but complaints.  I guess we'll see what happens next time, but if you don't see a post for a few weeks, it means I'm just tolerating this as best I can to do a wrap up at the end.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Current Media 3-7-16

Current reading material:
The Man in the High Castle (e-book)

I'm not even going to bother listing comics until I finally start reading them again.  At this point I'm not sure if I'm going to renew Marvel Unlimited if I can't seem to find time to read.

Current TV Shows I'm watching:
The Grinder
Phineas & Ferb
Legends of Tomorrow
Lupin III: The Woman Named Fujiko Mine

Podcasts I'm listening to fairly regularly:
Jay & Miles X-plain the X-men
Judge John Hodgman
This American Life
Masters of Carpentry
TV Crimes

Video Games I'm playing:
Disney Tsum Tsum 
Marvel's Avengers Academy

Stuff I finished since last time:

Deadpool - As predicted this was the next film I saw in a theater.  I had fairly low expectations going in, and ended up pleasantly surprised.  There was plenty of extreme humor to justify the R rating, but there was also a fair amount of heart.  Not just in the way that this was clearly a passion project from Reynolds and most of the crew, but in the character and story too.  My hope is that this will lead to Fox being willing to take more chances with their X-films from now on.

X-files mini-series - I would say about half the episodes were really fun, and the others just okay.  I always had a preference for the sillier episodes of the show, so it's no surprise that the were-man episode was my favorite of the bunch.  That ending was pretty infuriating, so let's hope everthing works out and it all gets renewed.  If nothing else, it did make me want to start a re-watch of the series, though it's going to have to wait until after this current season of shows are all over.

Books of Blood vol 1-3 - I'm glad they grouped all three volumes into one book, as it really allowed me to see Clive Barker's writing style evolve and strengthen over time.  There were some really weak stories at the beginning, though his vivid descriptions of gore were there right from the start, as well as some of his more fantastical things.  Like any short story anthology there were stories I enjoyed and others I was ambivalent about, but all in all it made me want to delve a little deeper into his work in the future.  I think I'm going to skip most of the movie adaptations though.

Lupin III series 3 - The ugly art style of this series was a strike against it from the start from me, not to mention the poor representation of African people and the need to rip a woman's clothes off at least every other episode.  But there is good to be going in this series, especially whenever the stories dropped all pretense of being serious action pieces and embraced silliness.  I'd put it behind the first two series in terms of quality overall, but I still recommend any Lupin fan giving it a chance.

Agent Carter season 2 - This was a good solid season over all.  I could have done without the love triangle for Peggy, but the addition of Ana Jarvis in all her glory helps to cancel that out.  It's not the kind of thing I have a whole lot to say about, but I enjoyed it.

The Muppets season 1 - The show took a while to find its tone and direction, even more so thanks to them changing the creative team halfway through the season.  I never had the problem with the first half that a lot of people did, though I'll also readily admit it's not as good as some earlier incarnations of these characters.  My biggest problem with the latter half of the season is the same problem I have with a lot of the Muppet films - I don't care about Kermit and Piggy as a couple and don't need a big long story line about the two of them getting back together.  Gonzo and Camilla getting back together was just the right amount of romance for me.  The Gonzo, Rizzo, and Pepe moments are probably the best on the show, and a lot of the other background characters are great in their bits too.  Maybe from here on out they can just have Kermit and Piggy together and leave it at that.  If it's even renewed.

Ex Machina - Finally watched this movie after hearing so many rave reviews.  It's a little slow moving for my taste, mostly because I felt like I figured out most of the secrets ahead of time, and I was just waiting for them to unfold.  That said, I did enjoy a lot of the wait, and I was genuinely interested in both Caleb and Ava's fates.  I was mostly okay with the ending, though I did have to do some of my own deduction to make it alright.  I'd recommend the film for anyone into the more cerebral end of sci-fi.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Castle Rock Companion - 11.22.63 episode 3

I had heard from a Stephen King fan site ahead of time that this episode would be divisive. Having seen a promotional image ahead of time of Jake and Bill both listening to the surveillance equipment, and the way episode 2 ended, it seemed pretty clear what the change would be. Having done enough of these, I'm used to adaptations including someone for the main character to bounce off of. It's a natural addition. But you can't just add a character without taking time to figure out how they fit.

Bill goes from exceedingly hostile and distrustful of Jake to wanting to join him in the blink of an eye. Technically there's a whole drive from Kentucky to Dallas where the two of them may have bonded, but since we see none of it we have no indication as to why Bill changes his mind or why Jake would trust him. Bill's main purpose at this point seems to be to make Jake look less stupid by acting even more moronic than Jake has previously. He's an uninteresting and annoying character, and showing him as a victim of abuse does nothing to make me like him more or be sympathetic to him.

On a better note, we get to meet the Jodie cast of characters now, though sadly the students and their jamboree are nothing more than Easter eggs now. I suppose it makes sense to cut this for time, but I really would have liked to see a little more of them.

Fortunately we still get a good look at Sadie and Ms. Mimi. Unless I missed something, Ms. Mimi is white in the books, but I think making her black here is a good way to show Jake's frustrations with the racism of the past, and deals with those issues more head on than King does in the book. I just hope they don't drop her relationship with Deke because of it. Tonya Pinkins brings a lot of Mimi's spunk to the role which I really enjoyed in the book.

As far as Sadie, there's clearly more to be revealed about her past in future episodes, but I like how Sarah Gadon is playing her so far. She has a decent amount of chemistry with Franco, though the skipping of time makes it all feel a bit rushed. I also feel like the dance number wasn't as exciting as it could have been. Whether it was direction or choreography or the actors I'm not certain, but they didn't feel as electric as King describes it in the book.

Finally, we also get to really see the Oswalds. Cherry Jones plays a perfect doting mother, and I hope we get to see a little more of her in future episodes.  Daniel Webber seems to be doing a strange accent as Lee. I'm not sure if there are recordings out there of Oswald's voice that he's trying to match but it makes his delivery awkward at times. He's certainly doing a good job of playing an unhinged man whose strong beliefs could lead him to do extreme things.

Am I losing hope for this series to end well? To be honest, yes. I don't think it's completely lost at this point, but I think it's got a long way to go win me back. It's sort of odd that things seem to be moving so quickly yet we still have 5 episodes to go. Maybe it's going to severely slow the time progression down from this point onward. We'll see.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Castle Rock Companion - 11.22.63 episode 2

Another episode in, and it's pretty clear this is the kind of adaptation that will simply brush over the main points and not look to adapt what actually happens in the book.  If you're a purist, that's definitely going to be disappointing to you.  As for me, I'm not entirely bothered by the fact that they are changing things, just that some of the changes are really making Jake look like a much worse character, and that's a shame.

It's natural for him to be incredulous about the reality of time travel, but it's not so natural for him to be so ignorant about it and how to behave in the past.  Time travel as a concept has existed long enough, and Jake should be able to think logically about these things to act a little more carefully.  You sure as hell don't admit to someone that you're a time traveler so quickly, and how the hell did he just leave that newspaper article  about Kennedy's death lying around?  Of course this is also a dude who took a few days before he abandoned his cell phone too.  I guess I'm just going to need to accept that this version of Jake is going to bungle his way through the whole thing rather than properly planning anything.  And maybe having Bill Turcotte to help him along they can put their brains together and improve things.  I'm okay with that change, by the way.  While not exactly logical, they clearly want someone for Jake to interact with while he's spying on Oswald to  help keep things more interesting.

Despite my grumbling, I did enjoy the episode for the most part, and while Jake continued to act like a moron while trying to stop Frank Dunning from killing his family, Josh Duhamel did a great portrayal of a man off his gourd enough to eventually make an attempt at killing his family.  The scenes in the meat packing plant were truly disturbing, and I whined and squirmed when that poor cow was put in the gate waiting for its head to get bashed in.  There was a moment there when I was worried that Jake might cave and do it for the sake of trying to impress his new friends, and I was very glad when he didn't.

I also really enjoyed the scenes with Edna and Arliss Price.  While Edna is a pretty standard King character of the devoutly religious, she was fairly subdued compared to some of them.  She was also played by Annette O'Toole, who is not just an alum of former King adaptations, but specifically played Beverly Marsh in the IT TV adaptation.  This had to be an intentional choice on the part of someone behind the scenes, as the Dunning family is located in Derry, Maine in the books, and Jake runs into a young Beverly and Richie, returning to their young lives not long after their initial defeat of Pennywise in the 1950s.  Obviously, that story wasn't going to be included in this mini-series, as not only does it not have any real bearing on the narrative, it's just a wink and a nod to long term King fans that he tends to leave in his books.  But including Annette O'Toole allowed them to leave their own wink and nod to those of us who have read the book, and that was a nice touch.

Arliss' speech to Jake initially feels like it comes out of nowhere, but Michael O'Neill's performance soon made me disregard those feelings.  He speaks as if he really committed those acts, and it's a great way to warn Jake that his mission is not going to be as easy as he probably thinks it is.  Frank Dunning and Oswald may be sick bastards, but killing a man is never an easy thing.  While I liked the messy nature of Jake's killing of Frank, and find myself very grateful we don't have to witness the gruesome scene King describes in the book when Jake is initially too late, I have to say I feel like Franco missed the landing yet again.  I knew I was supposed to be seeing a Jake who is upset by the blood on his hands and weight of his actions, but I just didn't feel like he was selling it to me.  The point where he walks away from the faucet and lets the rain hit him was also such a cliche of writing/direction that it also made the scene lose weight for me.

My main hope at this point is that maybe Franco can impress me a little more as a romantic protagonist rather than an action oriented one.  Jake and Sadie's relationship is certainly a highlight of the book and I imagine we have to be getting into that next episode.  I'm also interested to see how all the various Oswalds will be portrayed.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Castle Rock Companion - 11.22.63 episode 1

After finishing The Dark Tower series, I walked away from King again for awhile.  But with the release of the 11.22.63 mini series pending, I picked the book up late last year and read it for the first time.  It was definitely a joyous return, as there's nothing quite like coming back to King with a really good one of his books, where it's all comfortable and familiar and yet also totally new.  This one is fairly light on horror, and trades in supernatural for the science fiction of time travel.  "What if you could go back in time and stop Kennedy's assassination?" is a question King has brought up casually in other books of his before, so it was no surprise to read in the afterword that this was a book he has been planning for a very long time.  I'm no expert on the event, and I certainly wasn't alive in the 60s, but the book at least seems like King did his homework and prepared appropriately.

While the look at Oswald and what he's doing and whether it could be prevented, and what would happen if you could are all very interesting and thought out, the real strength of the story is Jake Epping's life that he builds for himself in the past while waiting for the event to occur.  Because this isn't some time machine that will bring you exactly when you want to go, but rather a portal in which Jake arrives in 1958 and has to bide his time and prepare for the big day.  I could see someone potentially feeling impatient, but for me the stories that unfold while Jake tries to make a friend's life better, then travels to Texas where he falls in love and finds a new group of high school students to inspire make the journey interesting and worthwhile.  The way the past is trying to stop him because it doesn't want to be changed helps build a nice amount of tension and urgency throughout.  I also think it's nice that it isn't just accidents and disasters that work to stop him from accomplishing his goals, but also his happiness.  Another thing that I think is important is that King tempers his rose colored view of the past where everything tastes better and people are more trusting and kind with the harsh reality of the racism that also existed at that time.

When I first heard of the mini-series, my main reservation was related to their choice to cast James Franco as Jake.  While I loved Franco on Freaks and Geeks, his roles since have largely been one note.  He has a "serious face" and a "wise guy face" that he alternates between, and not only did I see Jake as a bit older, I also imagined him a lot softer than Franco tends to be.  The first change I heard they were making is that the portal brings you to 1960 rather than 1958, and that didn't bother me at all.  Speeding things up a little is pretty much expected in these adaptations.  The book itself jumps ahead fairly rapidly at certain points, so making things happen in two years less time doesn't hurt anything.

The first episode contains some logical changes and some real headscratchers.  We see Harry Dunning read aloud his paper about the night his family was murdered by his father, as well as watching him graduate.  What doesn't make a whole lot of sense is moving the events of his childhood to Kentucky instead of right there in Maine.  His wife shows up with the divorce papers, a good way to provide that background of his relationship with her, but she also drops a line about his father dying recently.  This is basically an excuse for him to call his father via payphone when he gets to 1960.  I get that they wanted an action packed sequence early on showing what happens when he tries to change the past, but it also makes Jake look really stupid.  Yes, let me call my father who doesn't know I exist yet and even refer to myself as his son.  This will go well.

One thing that I felt was mostly an editing mistake was the way they had him talk to Al for quite a while, have the two of them argue, and then he changes his mind overnight and comes back to find Al dead.  At least I assume he was dead?  But on top of that we get cuts of Al giving exposition dumps while he's in 1960.  While I agree that cutting up the exposition is good, it also leaves me wondering just how long he was sitting there with Al before he went to bed, and why would Al be giving him so much information when he hadn't even agreed yet to go back and fix everything?  It's not a detail that ruins anything, but it is a bit distracting.

Obviously it's hard to judge this completely without knowing where the mini-series is ultimately going, but my main concern at this point is that this may be the only trip Jake takes back to the past.  In the book he goes once and botches it so badly that it requires a reboot, but he's done so much by now, having gone to Dallas early and all, that I'm not sure if he's going to do that.  At least it would seem to me that if you were going to do a restart, you would do it in the first episode, and not somewhere down the line.  It's possible that the incident at the Dunnings will still result in his starting over in the second episode.  I hope so, as he's screwing up so badly this time around that it certainly seems like it would require a do over.  At the least it's making me a little less sympathetic to him as he just seems like a moron who is stumbling his way through this rather than the educated and clever character he is in the book.
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