Monday, March 31, 2014

Beatlesmiscellania - The Beatles cartoon series

Quite probably the earliest version of parody (on film anyway) for the Beatles was this cartoon that aired on Saturday mornings in America from 1965 to 1969.  It was the very first cartoon series to ever be based on real people, and it's clearly not meant to be an accurate portrayal, both in that the Beatles are largely caricatures of the real thing and the situations far too out there to ever be based on anything in real life.  They also didn't even try to pick voice actors who could sound like the Beatles, which is a little confusing considering that each episode has a total of four Beatles songs incorporated into them.

Paul Frees voiced both John and George.  John has no trace of an English accent at all, and has a voice very similar to one I know I heard Frees portray in various Rankin/Bass stop motion animated specials.  George's voice has a bit of an Irish lilt to it.  I'm not sure if that was chosen because George's mother is Irish, or if that was just some kind of strange coincidence.  Paul and Ringo are voiced by Lance Percival who has the bonus of actually being English.  He gives Ringo the scouse accent that you most commonly hear people do these days when mimicking the Beatles, though Paul's accent is very slight by comparison.

As far as personalities, John is presented as the leader and at least once referred to as the brain of the Beatles, whereas poor Ringo is the brainless one.  Paul and George tend to shift a little depending on what's going on.  George doesn't seem to be necessarily "quiet" and Paul is never referred to as the "cute one."  He does develop a strange kind of skepticism as the show goes on, strongly arguing that everything in Hollywood is fake and that he doesn't believe Robin Hood was a real person.  I don't know if that was based on anything Paul once said that has now been forgotten, or if they just needed a role for him and chose that.

As I mentioned, most of the situations the Beatles find themselves in are quite bizarre.  The very first episode finds them in Transylvania trying to rehearse, and having to head to what they believe is a deserted castle to do so.  The place is full of monsters, but it's all okay as the monsters love the music and dance along.  These Beatles also have far more free time than the real ones did, as a lot of times they seem to just be traveling the world going on adventures rather than playing shows.  They also exist in a strange limbo where they are broke but also have to pay a lot of money to the taxman.  Basically, whatever the short needs at the time, that's what they are.

Each episode contains two shorts named after Beatles songs, as well as two singalong songs included in the middle.  The singalongs are usually very minimalist animation or even a sequence of still frames with the lyrics included.  I counted quite a few errors which tells me no one was giving them an official copy of the lyrics and it was just left to someone to transcribe them.  The singalongs also have a lead in where either Paul, George or John encourages you to join in and sing with them, while Ringo fills in for the prop man who is always out sick.  One such exchange has  John saying the next song is a ballad, so Ringo brings out a voting ballot.  When that's not acceptable to John, he comes out in a tutu saying he's ready for the ballet (pronouncing the T).  They only made a very smaller number of these lead ins to the singalongs.  In fact there were only five for season one and three used for both seasons two and three.  It can get a bit tedious when you're watching the episodes in a row.  I can't imagine it could have been much more fun as a kid on Saturday mornings.

Besides this kind of cost cutting, the animation is just very cheap in general.  Most of the Beatles performance animations are recycled episode to episode, and I saw at least one background character reappear  - he was a Spaniard when they were in Spain and a Frenchmen when they were in Paris.  Movements are minimized and any time they can have a still scroll across the screen they will do so.  However given the time period it makes sense, especially when you consider they pushed out 26 episodes for the first season.  They had to make them very quickly, and they were no doubt thinking that Beatlemania was only going to last so long.  The second and third seasons have only six episodes a piece, and do have a few updates and improvements in the animation here and there.  It's also worth noting that while their movements are repeated so often, they do look pretty accurate.  John holds his guitar high and bounces in place, George shuffles his feet back and forth, and Paul moves his bass around in his arms a lot.  Even Ringo adorably bobs his head from side to side.  Some of the later episodes even add in John playing keyboard or piano.

As far as the shorts themselves, most of them have plots as basic as the Transylvania one described above.  Others get a bit more zany, but it always results in them playing the song toward the last quarter of the short and almost always ends with Ringo uttering a goofy laugh. "Huh-huh yeah" will now be a secret in joke only to me when someone is doing something silly.  Some shorts are related to the song, and others feel like the song was shoe-horned in.  For instance, a doctor comes up with a shrinking potion and drops it in a pool to show it works.  John dives in and becomes miniature.  The other Beatles talk about how adorable he looks, and Paul decides he will belong to him, therefore leading into the song "It Won't Be Long" (because they sing "it won't be long 'til you belong to me").  On the other hand, some do fit quite well.  For"Penny Lane" the Beatles walk the street and we witness everyone Paul is describing in the song.  And "Strawberry Fields Forever" has the Beatles stop by an orphanage and bring color back to it (in the most wonderful psychedelic way of course) when they play.

When I first started watching the cartoon, I was completely charmed.  It was all very silly, but also adorable.  The humor is witty while still being simple enough for children to understand, and of course you've got the great music thrown in.  But I quickly found I had to limit my viewing to only an episode or two in a row.  Despite having about 5 albums of material to work with when they began season one, the songs are often repeated from one episode to the next episode's singalong, or vice versa.  It wore on my attention span a little to be hearing the same songs repeatedly.  With the fewer episodes in the later seasons that is improved, but yet they also started repeating a few of the singalongs.  I'm guessing they were either pressed for time or knew they were being cancelled so didn't bother.

Apple Corps Ltd. has had the rights to this cartoon series since the 90s, but has never released it officially.  At first I thought that was unfair, but the deeper I got into the series I began to understand why.  Because they travel the world a lot, most of their adventures rely on "ethnic humor" for lack of a better term.  Any time they go to a foreign country, the accents are extreme and the clothes stereotypical.  This affects plenty of European countries and even Texas (where the Wild West apparently still exists), but the absolute worst of it affects Asian,  African, and Polynesian people.  Slanty eyes and buck teeth for Asians, tribal masks and spears for Africans, etc.  While it wasn't intended to be cruel at the time it was made, these are just the kind of things we don't find acceptable anymore.  That said I don't see any reason why a collection with the more offensive episodes removed could not be released.  Remove the repetitive singalong lead ins  while you're at it and maybe just let those speak for themselves, or even have them in a separate grouping in the collection.  Each short has its own credit sequence, so it would be really easy to do.

While it's obviously a bit difficult to get your hands on, I would recommend this for both Beatles fans and fans of 1960s animation if you can find it.  Just be prepared to cringe at those offending episodes and I think you'll find something to enjoy in the rest of them.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - Nightmares and Dreamscapes mini-series pt 1

In July of 2006, TNT aired a mini-series that was a collection of episodes adapting various Stephen King short stories.  They aired two shorts a night on a weekly basis for four weeks.  The mini-series is named after King's short story collection published in 1993, but also contains some stories from other collections.  As a huge fan of King's short stories, I thought this was a great idea.  Of course, like every collection, some shorts will be stronger than others.


A simple but amusing story of a hitman who is killed by living toy soldiers as revenge for killing the maker of a toy company.  This story can actually be found in King's Night Shift collection.  King manages to make most of the fight believable in terms of the damage the little soldiers would do to a person given their relative size, and keeps the tension going throughout what it is a pretty short story.  Before watching the mini-series, I would have guessed this short would have lasted fifteen minutes tops.

It is actually fifty three.  They also made a very bold move in choosing for the short to have no dialogue at all.  I’ll admit I have a really hard time with shorts like this.  It makes sense for him to be primarily silent in the beginning when he goes about killing the toymaker, but I think most of us do talk to ourselves a little when alone in our own homes. I would certainly start doing so when being attacked by little army men, cursing and telling those little bastards I was going to get them.  Having him only grunt and moan through the whole thing seems a bit silly.

There’s also just a little too much excessive padding, as we see multiple scenes where he stitches himself up.  It’s gross enough the first time that I didn't need to see that again.  And while I admit the added scene of him trying to escape in the elevator does help keep things moving and adds a little more action and tension, I had to laugh at the tiny little commando attacking him.  It’s just a little too silly.  It's possible this was a concept that just wasn't going to work right on film, but a tiny little Rambo character certainly didn't help matters.
Crouch End
A Lovecraftian tale about a suburb of London that is one of the “thin places” where you can reach other dimensions from time to time.  There’s not much to the story beyond “husband and wife wander through a strange world, husband doesn't return” but King does a good job of setting up the creepy atmosphere and building a nice amount of tension.  However, putting that atmosphere into film is a different matter entirely, and I’m afraid this part of the mini-series really doesn't pull it off for me.
It pains me to say that the Jim Henson Creature Shop did not do a very good job with the special effects here.  I'm a huge Henson fan most of the time. In the story the wife says she temporarily sees three bikers having rat heads, and for me I was picturing actual human size rats, but here they chose an odd rat/man hybrid look that doesn't look good at all.  The cat with the pink scar tissue around one eye doesn't look too great either.   Beyond the iffy effects, there’s also the fact that the strength of this short relies on the married couple (here changed to newlyweds rather than the parents they are in the story) and Claire Forlani and Eion Bailey don’t really click for me.  They're supposed to be really close and happy and only come apart in their troubled situation, but these two seem unhappy from the beginning.
Too much of what was really spooky in the story comes off as laughable or just boring here.  When the cab driver tries to explain to them what Crouch End is like, it comes off just like every other warning from an old man at the beginning of a horror film, without any true eerie quality to it at all.  With the effects looking as lame as they do, I can't be afraid of these creatures in the same way the characters are, and their reactions come off as too over the top. It’s a shame because I think if they had actually made this one a little longer and spent a little more time on the effects, it could have made a really good short.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

A while back I had posted a review of the original 1960 Roger Corman film and in that I did make mention of this not-quite-remake.  It's an interesting chain to get from there to this one because the stage show was an adaptation of the film and then this film is an adaptation of that stage show.

I said a lot about this film already but I'll say it again, the songs are great, and Levi Stubbs in particular stands out whenever he's singing.  The other actors are comedic actors first and foremost, so their voices are not as strong, but the catchiness of the tunes usually makes up for it.  Ironically, Ellen Greene is a broadway performer and yet she's the one who I like the least.  I suppose it's a style choice and I just don't care for it.

I did really like the set design, which looks a lot like a stage show, giving everything a slightly plastic look to it.  The puppets used for Audrey II also look great and move well, which is no real surprise since Frank Oz is the one directing the film.

Steve Martin is great as the sadistic dentist, but Bill Murray really does steal his scene as the masochist coming in to be tortured.  It's so completely over the top and hysterical and even if you're not a fan of musicals, you owe it to yourself to find this scene and watch it.

This time around I was able to watch the original ending of the film, the dark ending in which Seymour and Audrey die.  I can see why some people didn't like it, as it is very dark and scary, but the song and the effects used as the plants take over the world is fantastic, and it's a shame that most people never got to see this.  The dark end also makes sense for Seymour, who has been murdering people up until now.  Yes, he was manipulated by Audrey II, but he didn't put up much of a fight up until the end.  The story is largely a revenge fantasy for him, and revenge fantasies often (and in my opinion should) end with the person paying the ultimate price.  I also just enjoy dark endings when they are told well.

I would recommend the film to pretty much anyone, regardless of whether you like musicals or not.  Between the strong cast and the excellent puppetry, I think there's enough here for just about anyone to enjoy.  If you're already familiar with the film but haven't seen the original ending, you can find it out there on Youtube as well as on the recent blu-ray release.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - It

I remember when I was young, the length of a novel was largely irrelevant to me.  While I occasionally got odd stares or questions from those who weren't avid readers, I looked down on them for it.  I had all the time in the world back then, and a 1,090 page novel just meant I was going to be spending a lot of time in one individual world and story.  While I still love reading, I don't have as much free time as I used to, and It is one of King's novels I've been putting off for a while because I knew it would take me a long time to get through.

Having now read it again, I can say that I do think it is worth that investment of time.  In a lot of ways, It is really two books in one - the story of what happened in 1958 and the story of what happened in 1985.  I could see another author splitting it, or perhaps even making it a trilogy, making the middle book full of what the characters do in the time in between (though there wouldn't be as much conflict there).  But I think King does a good job of floating back and forth between the two time periods and revealing events in the right order.  We spend a lot of time in the early part of the book getting to know these characters, but I think that is essential in order to feel the bond between them and understand what kind of people they all are.

Since King spends a good portion of the book trading perspective between the major characters, I thought it might be good to at least partially approach this review in the same way.

Bill - The leader of the group of losers, Bill is wise beyond his years thanks to the tragedy of losing his younger brother.  He is determined to kill It at all costs, and his determination gives the rest of the group strength.  He also stutters badly, and while he originally grew out of it, the stutter returns as he begins to remember the things that happened to him in 1958.  Young Bill is played by Jonathon Brandis, an actor I had a huge crush on around that time.  He was about 14 when this mini-series was made, but he manages to bring that necessary maturity to the role.  Adult Bill is played by Richard Thomas, sporting a pretty silly looking ponytail.  He also makes a good Bill, though something about the way he stutters annoys me a lot more than when Brandis is doing it.

Ben - The overweight child with a natural eye for architecture and engineering, and a very strong crush on Beverly.  While some of King's overweight characters are portrayed very negatively, Ben's size is acknowledged as a struggle on his part, but it never feels like King mocks him for it, even as the bullies do.  Young Ben is played by Brandon Crane, who had a recurring role on The Wonder Years around this time.  Adult Ben is played by John Ritter, and I can't believe I didn't remember him being here as I went to read the book again.  While Ben has lived in Derry all his life in the book, it's changed in the mini-series to have him recently moved there.  I suppose they didn't think it was credible for them to all share the same classes but never be friends before now.

Richie - The wiseguy not popular enough to be the class clown.  Man of a thousand voices, which he's terrible at in his youth but sticks with long enough to get moderately famous in his older years.  In the book he is a radio DJ, and in the mini-series he is a comedian.  Speaking of roles I couldn't remember, how was I completely surprised to find out Seth Green was in this mini-series?  He was another of my crushes in my youth, but somehow I don't remember recognizing him in this role the first time I saw it.  Meanwhile I have always remembered that adult Richie was played by Harry Anderson, another of my favorite actors since Night Court.  As such I like the Richie in the mini-series a little more than the one in the book, simply because Richie's constant joking and bad dialect humor don't really go over well with me.  There have always been things in King's books that he makes the characters find hysterical that don't make me laugh, and Richie is at the height of that.  I think both Green and Anderson have enough charm to help improve the character's silly nature immensely.

Beverly - The girl of the group with an abusive father and husband.  While Beverly has trouble standing up for herself in the beginning, I do think her portrayal here is much stronger than some of the women in King's earlier books.  By which I mean that while she may not always be mentally strong, she does feel well rounded and real.  While Beverly's hair is described as red in the book, neither Emily Perkins or Annette O'Toole have red hair.  While there are plenty of other hair color and likeness changes in the book, when you've got Ben writing a poem for Beverly saying that her hair looks like fire, it's a little out of place for her to have plain brown hair instead.

Eddie - The hypochondriac who is smothered by his mother, both Adam Faraizl and Dennis Christopher portray him well as an awkward, waifish boy and man.  In the book Eddie has married a woman who is much like his mother, but in the mini-series he still lives with his mother even as a grown man.  There's something extra sad about that.  They also have him admit he's a virgin toward the end, for no real reason except maybe they wanted his sacrifice to seem more tragic.

Mike- Marlon Taylor and Tim Reid play the group's historian who is tasked with staying in Derry and remembering the events while the others eventually forget.  Tim Reid in particular really makes you feel the weight on Mike's shoulders as he's forced to call up his old friends and bring them back to town.

Stan - The skeptic and fearful one who largely gets dragged through the whole ordeal in their youth because he loves his friends, and is unable to face his fear as an adult and commits suicide rather than come back.  I love that the mini-series portrays him wearing a bow tie both as a kid and an adult.  It  goes a long way in showing how straight laced he is.  Ben Heller portrays young Stan, who in the mini-series is also a boy scout, and the adult version is played by Richard Masur.  We intentionally learn the least about Stan since he doesn't return, but I do like that in the book at least, King does give him his own moments of bravery in his youth.  It's just that as an adult, he no longer has the imagination and belief in the impossible to handle the situation.

Henry Bowers - The main bully the kids face, the real life horror before they have to deal with the fantastic.  His insanity before encountering It is played down in the mini-series, and a rather silly effect occurs when he does encounter the monster, as all his hair turns white.  He's a necessary part to the plot because he has to injure Mike before the big showdown, but his role is so minor that I imagine someone who hasn't read the book is probably wondering why they went through all the effort to bring him back.

Pennywise - Our monster and boogeyman, who has probably sparked clown fear in who knows how many people.  I love the idea of a monster that can take on the appearance of whatever you are most afraid of, and who in fact feeds off that fear.  The clown guise is actually Its attempt to draw you closer, presenting you with something trustworthy and likeable before scaring you and eating you.  The irony, of course, is that most of us are now at least creeped out by clowns, and this guise wouldn't work well at all.  While I do remember watching Bozo the Clown as a kid, I don't think most children today feel that much affection toward them.  Pennywise is portrayed by Tim Curry in the mini-series, and he does a great job going from friendly to menacing at a moment's notice.  Some of the effects used are poor by today's standards, but I think a lot of them still work well.

The mini-series presents the narrative to us in a different order, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that this was a two part series.  As such the fight in 1958 (which seems to actually happen sometime in the 60s, since the present is 1990 rather than 1985) is presented at the end of part 1, as the characters are only beginning to make their way back to Derry.  This allows for one big fight at the end of each episode.  This fight also has more in common with the encounter in the book that happens at Niebolt Street, where they wound It but don't actually think It's dead.  Perhaps the similarities between the two major end fights made them want to do something different for the first.

While I overall do enjoy the novel, I have two major problems with it.  With Mike Hanlon being the only African American child in town, especially in the 1950s, I realize that the n word would realistically get thrown around at him and his parents a lot.  And I know African Americans often use the word themselves, to try to take away its power.  But as a reader, I became really fatigued of having to read it over and over again.  It is primarily used by the bad guys, but it's still uncomfortable to sit through.  Richie's voices also use a lot of dialects, and some of them are in really poor taste by today's standards.  I couldn't help but wonder if Mike would have really truly found it funny to have his supposed close friend talking at him in a slave voice.  In the mini-series Richie never uses the slave voice at all, and the n word is only used a total of three times, all by Henry Bowers.  I'm a little shocked they even got away with that much.

The other problem I have is the way Beverly "gets them out" of the tunnels in 1958.  An eleven year old girl having sex with six eleven year old boys in a row?  Seriously?  Surely King could come up with a better alternative to this to help unite them after everything was done.  Earlier in the book King makes a point to talk about how none of these characters are truly old enough to understand sex.  Ben, Bill and Richie feel attraction to Beverly, and she's attracted to Bill, but none of them have lustful thoughts in any tangible way.  When Beverly sees Henry and his crew lighting their farts with their pants down, she can't even say the word penis in her head.  I imagine this sharp change is intentional, but to me it's just too strong a contrast and doesn't work for me at all.  As is probably obvious since this is made for television, it does not happen in the mini-series.  In fact, they have no real problem at all escaping the sewers, and their bond remains strong when they are done.

They also made another change to keep our heroes a little more clean - while in the book Beverly and Bill cheat on their spouses together, here not only is Beverly not actually married to Tom, but she ends up with Ben instead.  On one hand, I can understand that, as Beverly and Ben end up together in the end of the book, so having her temporarily hooking up with Bill can be both confusing and irrelevant.  But I do think it worked well in the novel, because both Tom and Audra have separately made their way into town and are in fact very close by when the adultery occurs.  I can see why they chose not to include Tom's journey to Derry in the mini-series, both as a way to tone down the violence and because he literally dies off screen in the book.  But it's a nice touch in the novel to have so many key players there for the finale.

A large part of the fight with It in the book would be very hard to film, as Bill and eventually Richie are literally floating in space, a place between dimensions, and the things they use to fight the monster don't really make logical sense.  You could possibly do something like it today, and if the planned film ever gets produced we will see if they do, but given the budget for this mini-series the fight with the spider is a decent enough ending.  It also makes sense from a budget perspective that they chose not to destroy the town, though it is a nice touch in the book that It is such a part of Derry that the town cannot hold itself together once It is gone.

I hope that if the film ever does arrive, they will bring in some of these elements, as well as the turtle who supposedly vomited out the universe (what an image!), and the Other who seems to fight for the side of good.  While I'll admit it borders on hoakiness, that kind of Good vs. Evil mythos is something that has always appealed to me.  Though it will be interesting to see just how long they have to make the film to fit in everything from this very long novel.

I recommend both the book and the mini-series.  While it will probably be many years before I crack the book open again, I think it's worth the investment at least once.  The mini-series is also both a decent adaptation and full of solid performances from a very strong cast that make it worth watching even if you've never seen the book before.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Razor's Edge

It's almost inevitable that famous comedic actors will eventually go for a dramatic role.  They seem to have the desire to prove themself capable of more than just making people laugh.  These days most of us are pretty familiar with Bill Murray sometimes doing these dramatic roles, but The Razor's Edge was his first such film.  He co-wrote the script with director John Byrum, adapting the novel of the same name.  There was another adaptation of this book back in 1946, and from what I hear it is pretty different.  Probably because Murray puts a lot of influence on the main character Larry Darrell.  What's interesting is that no one wanted to produce this film and it was only because Murray agreed to do Ghostbusters that Columbia agreed to help make the picture.

The story is a fairly common one of a man in search of himself and the meaning of life.  Larry is a carefree spirit, having much in common with the rascals we've seen Murray portray in film up to this point.  But he's sent to Europe as an ambulance driver in World War I and the experience changes him dramatically, leaving him lost and confused.  He postpones his planned wedding and declines an offer to be a stockbroker in order to go to Paris.  His travels also take him to India before returning back to Paris.  He spends time with Tibetan monks and tries to be a good man, though a sequence of tragic events make him question whether or not it all truly matters in the end.

While Murray's wit does come through in some of the scenes, overall this is a pretty quiet film, relying far more on drama than comedy.  He handles it well and Catherine Hicks, Theresa Russell, Denholm Elliot, and James Keach round out a strong supporting cast around him.  Perhaps the strongest scene happens while he's still in the war, when the man leading them (I'm not sure if he's meant to be a captain or not) dies.  He had seen the man insult other servicemen who had just passed away, clearly a way of dealing with their deaths.  As such, he leans over the dead man and talks about how much of a slob and a glutton he was, mourning him in much the same way.  It's partly emotional because the man is playing by Murray's brother Brian Doyle-Murray, and partly because it was Murray's tribute to his recently deceased friend John Belushi.

Like a lot of adaptations, the movie has the feel of just scraping the surface.  I get the feeling that the depth of the relationships Larry has with the other members of the cast probably goes a lot further than what we get to see in the film.  His time in India deep in meditation would probably be better explored as well.  That said, the movie doesn't feel like it's missing anything either.  They seem to have done a good job of finding key points to build a proper story around.

I was surprised to find that this film was not well received when it was released.  Maybe at the time people weren't quite ready to accept Murray as a dramatic actor.  As for me I enjoyed it a lot.  If you're the type of person who thinks the journey is far more important than the destination, I think you'll enjoy it too.  While not well known, the film is currently available and I recommend watching it if you get the chance.

Friday, March 14, 2014

NGNY: Progress Report and the trouble with Resident Evil

While I got off to a strong start in January, in February various other projects got in the way of my playing video games. As such, in March I decided to set aside one day a week to play, and even stream if possible.  Here are just a few I managed to get to:

Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy - I played this one for a bit to discover it's yet another Sony made 3D platformer without much charm.  This one had a bit more jumping puzzles than the Ratchet & Clank game did, which meant I got frustrated a lot.  The game also kept throwing tasks at me, but had no good way to look through them once assigned to get a feel for where I needed to go to accomplish some of them.  Overall, just a little too mediocre of a game for me to continue with.  This was another free PS Plus game, so I don't feel bad crossing it off the list so quickly.

Mario & Luigi: Dream Team - I've been continuing with the game, usually playing for about an hour before bedtime.  I've had a little trouble with some of the  boss fights, but I'm enjoying it.  I'm not great at the real time response moves, and that's generally what gives me the biggest challenge.  Probably the most exciting part so far was when I became giant Luigi.  It's got such a different feel from the rest of what happens in the game that it felt really fun.

Nights into Dreams... - This game thoroughly confused me.  Apparently you just sort of free float around levels and collect things? Maybe also kill enemies somehow?  It just didn't really make any sense and there was no real tutorial and I have so many other games to get through.  Another freebie, another deletion.

Resident Evil 3 - I had purchased 1-4 of this series at deep discounts a while back, interested in checking out the series after I had loved Silent Hill so much.  I played the first game and found myself really disappointed.  It has not aged well at all, and isn't so much about scares as it is Inventory Management: The Game.    In the meantime Jak had played through the second game and complained about similar problems, so I went ahead and jumped forward to 3.  It started out as a vast improvement over the first game, as the inventory is much more reasonable to manage and you get to explore the entire city rather than just one building for most of the game.  I really enjoyed the first four hours or so that I played.  I then decided to stream it and that stream started out by me dying a lot.  When I got past that part, I ended up in the clock tower which looks an awful lot like the mansion from the first game.  I'm not sure I really want to continue with this one.

This series continues to just be about making sure you have enough ammo and first aid to survive to the next storage room.  Don't get me wrong, Silent Hill had similar concerns, but it was much more reasonable in doling them out to you and not limiting you to inventory slots. Here you can die simply because each mixed herb takes up one inventory slot, and maybe you've got plenty back in storage but you can only carry one or two along with the other items you need to get things done.  Silent Hill let you explore a whole town, limiting your access by either collapsed roadways or broken locks; here you often get trapped in one building and have to constantly backtrack when you find a new key that lets you open a few more rooms.  Perhaps it's not fair to be harsh on a series that was around before the other one that could learn from its mistakes, but the fact is that moving backwards in this case was a very bad idea.  I also think a part of the problem is that the only scares you get are jump scares.  The music and images don't go very far in scaring you at all.

Obviously, all this applies to only the first three main games in the series.  I think I'm going to go ahead and jump ahead to 4, which I know made some dramatic changes in terms of the controls at least.  It's also not set in Raccoon City at all, which sounds like a plus to me.  We'll see if the changes are something I like or not.

Also, I'm sticking to my promise of not buying any new games, but I don't see any harm in downloading free games.  As such I've downloaded Brothers, Fallout 1 , 2, & Tactics, and Dungeon Keeper.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - Apt Pupil

It’s a pretty natural reaction to have some degree of fascination with the holocaust.  The atrocities committed, the immense number of people murdered, and the idea that a society could somehow let it happen are all things that we can’t entirely understand.  We’re horrified and disgusted and afraid it could possibly happen again, but there’s no denying that it’s also interesting, in the same way serial killers are interesting.  The desire to know more about these kinds of horrifying events is natural, and it doesn't mean there’s anything wrong with the average person who wants to know.

So as Apt Pupil begins, we may be able to understand why Todd Bowden goes to Dussander to find out about the Nazi experience from a first person perspective.  But it doesn't take long to realize that there’s nothing normal about the Todd featured in the novella.  Apt Pupil, like Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and The Body, is grounded in reality, however it is a worst case scenario version of reality.  For these two sick individuals to find each other and influence each other the way they do, there’s no other way to describe it.  While King does clearly try to shoulder some of the blame for how Todd is on his parents’ laissez faire form of discipline and his father’s view of the poor, it’s pretty clear this kid was born unbalanced.  With both Todd and Dussander’s actions, this is definitely far more a horror story than either of the two tales that surround it in Different Seasons.

The film version of Apt Pupil is pretty mild by comparison.  Director Bryan Singer said he toned down the violence because he didn't want it to appear exploitive.  But that change does also change the nature of the characters.  While the Todd present in the film is clearly disturbed by his relationship with Dussander, he doesn't come off as callous and cold as his written counterpart.  Dussander remains sick and twisted, but perhaps a little less cunning.

Beyond that though, I think he did a good job of condensing the major events.  Shortening the timeline so that everything happens in a one year period is an improvement, as I find it a little hard to believe that a guidance counselor is really going to remember someone’s grandfather he met four years ago, especially when he has so many students to take care of.  I also think making it so that the vagrant isn't actually dead when Todd arrives, forcing him to finish him off, works really well.  It makes the two of them complicit in this murder, and is a good way to make up for Todd not killing all the winos like he does in the novella.

The end result of these changes is that this is less a worst cast scenario and just a bad one.  Singer reportedly said that he changed the ending of the story because he didn't feel like he could live up to what King wrote.  In the end, I think his ending is just as disturbing in its own way.  This Todd may not be a full blown sociopath, but he’s disturbed and it certainly seems that he is going to get away with murder.  He’s also now learned tactics of manipulation, and it’s clear he could keep using them for the rest of his life.

Brad Renfro and Ian McKellen are strong actors who make this film work well, but David Schwimmer is just plain bad.  His character is supposed to be a smuck, and he is, but something about his delivery of the lines just doesn't work for me.  Singer is a strong filmmaker and I love The Usual Suspects and both his X-men films, but this one doesn't really feel like his. Maybe it’s not supposed to.  It's an adequately made film, but I wouldn't call it a strong one.

While I was initially disappointed by the lack of violence in this version, I have to ask myself if I would truly want to see an accurate adaptation.  I certainly wouldn't want to see any of Todd’s disturbing sex dreams brought to life, and a film that featured so much killing only to end in a shootout murder spree would be so bleak and depressing that you probably would not be able to watch it without it affecting your mood.  In retrospect, I think Singer’s decisions were sound.  Some things just work better in written form, and this very bleak story is one of them.

A note about The Breathing Method:
While the first three stories of Different Seasons were all adapted into films, the final story was not.  I think it’s partially related to the fact that unlike the others, this story is not grounded in reality, and the climax is rather gruesome.  The other most likely reason is that it is so short; still technically novella length I assume, but much shorter than the others.  However, while re-reading it I couldn't help but think that the story would fit well in an anthology film.  Probably not Creepshow, but something like Tales from the Darkside would work well.  The fact that it’s framed as a story within a story is even better – the tale is told at a club where men get together to tell each other tales, and each Christmas they tell tales of the uncanny specifically.  Fill out a few more details of the club, add in a couple more stories to be told, and you’d have a nice film.  One day, perhaps, we could see it happen.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Beatlemiscellania - The Flintstones - "The Hatrocks and the Gruesomes"

This post features a melding of two things my father exposed me to at an early age - The Beatles and The Flintstones.  I never thought it was odd for an adult to watch cartoons because both my parents loved The Flintstones their whole lives.  I'm fairly convinced one of the reasons we owned a VCR in my youth was so my dad could tape as many of the episodes off television as he could.  When we weren't in school, we came inside from playing at 2:05 to watch the show.  It would only take a few minutes back then to go "Oh, so it's the episode where Fred gets hit on the head and can't remember who he is" or whatever.  Watching this episode again after so long brought back many fond memories for me.

This episode is from the 5th season of the show, so the gang is all here.  The Flintstones have Dino and Pebbles, and the Rubbles have Bamm-Bamm and Hopper.  This is a return appearance for both the Hatrocks, hillbillies who had a feud with the Flintstones in Arkanstone, and the Gruesomes, the Flintstones' other neighbors who are a clear parody of The Addams Family and The Munsters.

The main plot is that the Hatrocks are passing through town on their way to the World's Fair and announce to Fred that they will be visiting.  He starts off afraid they're coming to rekindle the feud, but they just wanted to say hello.  Fred then opens his big, fat mouth and says he wishes they could stay longer, and they do just that.  They take over the Flintstones' home, eating up their food, sleeping in their beds, and controlling what they watch on television. Fred's mouth extends their stay from one minute to one night to one week to indefinitely.

Frustrated and uncertain of what to do to get them to leave, Fred thinks he's found the answer by having them go over to the Gruesomes' house, convinced their menagerie of monsters and man eating plants will scare the hillbillies away.  Naturally, the Hatrocks love every second of it, posing for pictures with the octopus, taming the man eating crocodile, and asking for a sprig of the man eating plant because "it makes a great baby watcher."

There is one and only thing that bothers the Hatrocks, and that thing is "bug music."  The 4 Insects with their mop topped look and their song that goes "She says yeah yeah yeah, he says yeah yeah yeah, yeah yeah yeah yeah!!"  The Flintstones use a magic screwdriver and the help of the Rubbles and Grueseomes to wire the radio and telephone and don wigs to surround the Hatrocks with bug music and send them back to the hills.

Even the World's Fair isn't safe for them.

This is a fun and absolutely adorable episode of The Flintstones.  It's also fun to see something parodying the Beatles as they were at the height of their popularity.  I imagine there were probably a lot of adults in particular who were pretty sick of hearing "She Loves You" at this point that this parody song would have felt spot on.

In doing this post I remembered another episode of the show featuring The Way Outs, who were another band who kind of parodied the Beatles.  If the tie is strong enough, I may cover that one in another post.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - The Mist

I'm experiencing a strong sense of Déjà vu at the moment.  I should be, because I've technically already reviewed The Mist before.  Long before I ever thought about this project, I had rented the film and had very strong feelings about it, strong enough that they warranted a blog post.  If you've followed my blog long enough that you remember that post, some of this may sound familiar to you.  But the main difference this time is that rather than just reading a Wikipedia entry (shame on me!) I actually read the story before watching the film again.

I know I liked this story quite a bit when I first read it.  Revisiting it, I'm not quite as impressed.  It feels like it's missing a lot of meat on its bones, despite the fact that this is technically a novella and not a short story like the rest of Skeleton Crew.  I like the concept of the story, this strange mist that settles over the small town after a storm, and the way the people - a mix of tourists and locals - react while stuck inside the grocery store.  I mostly have a problem with some of the characters' reactions.

I like the movie better than the story, as I feel it improves upon the original - at least up until a certain point.  Frank Darabont once again presents a mostly faithful adaptation, with only a few changes. This is his first time dealing with a true horror story, and the change in genre doesn't affect his directing skills in the least, though I have some opinions on how he writes for the genre.

Our main character David is an artist with a wife and child.  He leaves his wife behind at home and brings his son to the grocery store.  Once the mist settles in and it becomes apparent that there is something out there, he has no idea whether his wife is alive or dead.  While I admit her chances aren't good, it makes him a distasteful and disgraceful person in the story once he starts lusting after Amanda, a woman who is trapped in the market with him.  He even sleeps with her.  I know this is supposed to be brought on by the stress of the situation, but I can't really imagine getting horny when there are monsters outside that could break in and kill me at any moment.  It just leaves a really bad taste in my mouth for this character. 

Fortunately, Darabont chose to drop this moment completely.   In interviews he said it was unforgivable for a movie hero as compared to a book hero, though obviously I believe it applies to both.  I like that he and Amanda have a clear amount of chemistry and have banded together in the film, but that it's not about lust at all.  We also get an added moment where we get clear confirmation that David's wife is dead, whereas in the story he couldn't get far enough down his street to find out.  But then this adaptation is all about eliminating grey areas.

In the story there is no definite explanation for the mist.  David repeatedly mentions that the creatures out there fill the people with a horrible sense of dread, and it most definitely calls up ideas of H.P. Lovecraft's monsters.  I love the monsters themselves too, similar to our own world's creatures but also different in just enough ways to escalate their horror.  You wouldn't catch me going outside in that.

While it's strongly suggested in the story that the mist is related to the Arrowhead Project the military is taking part in, here we get a member of the military police flat out confirming it.  While I liked the uncertainty in the book, I really like the way Darabont made the military more involved in the struggle, particularly the addition of Wayne, a local boy who had no real power at the site and didn't know what was going on, but gets caught in the crossfire.  His romantic feelings for the clerk Sally are a fairly predictable set up for her death to be more tragic, but that doesn't mean it doesn't work.  Add to that seeing Mrs. Carmody and the others kill him when they reach their full insanity, and I think he's a truly worthy addition to the story.

Speaking of Mrs. Carmody, she is a much more interesting and dynamic character in the film.  While she is portrayed as flat out crazy in the novella from start to finish, I enjoyed that the movie occasionally showed us brief glimpses of her being human.  It takes the rug out from under us so much more when she does go completely insane and start calling for people to die.  There's no doubt I also have to give credit to Marcia Gay Harden for her performance here.

I sense that Darabont may be great at bringing out the best in his actors in general, because a lot of them shine.  William Sadler plays a character who grows and changes dramatically throughout the film.  Some of it was present in the original story, but Darabont expanded it a bit more and Sadler makes every turn the character makes completely believable in this high stress situation.

There are two characters that are pure Stephen King and are great in both versions and those characters are Ollie Weeks and Mrs. Reppler.  Ollie is the store's balding, nerdy assistant manager who continually surprises David and us by being brave and capable, and is also apparently immune to getting drunk.   Mrs. Reppler is an elderly school teacher who proves to be tougher and more capable than a lot of the younger characters.  I was cheering for her and her cans of raid as she took on the spider creatures in the pharmacy.

The monsters in the film are largely CGI productions, but to their credit this is never a jarring distraction.  King described the bugs on the window as looking more like moths than dragonflies, but the designs in the film are so good that I can't complain.  There's a great amount of tension and chaos when the flying creatures make it inside the store, and the moment with the spiders in the drugstore is truly horrifying. 
The heart of the story however is all in the tension between the people stuck inside the market, and this is handled extremely well.  I cannot help but make comparisons to Night of the Living Dead here, and I have to say it holds up to that classic.  You can understand at least a little bit what each side is thinking, and as such it leads you to thinking about where you would stand and what you would do in the same situation.  It's excellent.

The main problem I have is that the longer these tense situations go on, the more pessimistic the movie becomes.  Our hero group gets together and basically predicts that everything is going to go to shit because these people have lost electricity and the ability to go home.  I simply cannot agree with this at all.  I live in New Orleans and I was affected by Hurricane Katrina and many other hurricanes throughout my life.  While people can certainly get unreasonably cranky when you turn off their A/C for a few days, it doesn't turn them into savages.  Can looting and violence occur?  Yes, unfortunately.  But that tragedy is far outnumbered by the kindness and generosity people show towards one another.  We see this time and again when natural disasters occur, and so I have a hard time swallowing this movie's belief that we're all animals deep down.  Human decency does exist.

So the events play out largely the same as they do in the book, though a few more people attempt to make the escape with our core of heroes.  Unfortunately, that choice is really only made for most of them to become fodder.  It's really unnecessary, because losing Ollie is painful enough.  I cried for him on this last viewing.  Toby Jones was fantastic, and I was sad to see him go.

It's time to discuss the ending, and this is the part where if you read my old review you know what I'm going to say.  I was partially hoping that maybe, on this repeated viewing, knowing what they were going to do, my initial shock and hurt feelings might be gone and I could try to appreciate it for what it was.  But, no, I still really don't like it.  In the novella, David writes down his story from a motel where they stopped for the night.  Here, they never stop once, not to sleep and not to attempt to get gas.  They do not hear anything on the radio.  So they make the choice to kill themselves.

Well, you know, I say that, but it's barely a choice.  They don't talk, they just look at each other and nod.  But here's the thing that makes this so damn stupid: shortly after poor Ollie's death, a spider jumped on top of the car.  It cracked the glass, but as soon as they're all shut inside, it moves on, literally walking over the car.  From what we see on their journey before they run out of gas, they are perfectly safe inside the vehicle as long as they slow down or stop moving when the creatures pass.  As horrifying as that enormous creature is, it doesn't really pose a threat to them because they are so small compared to it.  And even more importantly, the military shows up within one minute of David stepping out of the car.  The mist clears away.  Were they seriously never looking behind them?  And even if those pauses they took are what required the military to catch up to them, why would you shoot yourselves immediately when there are no monsters outside pushing against the car or otherwise proving a threat to you? And how does a man like David manage to do it so fast, to shoot his own son in the head as he's waking up and looking right at him.  He's not a soldier, he's an artist!  If anything you would expect him to have a severe amount of trouble doing anything violent!

So it's not that I feel betrayed by the fact that they killed off these characters.  Honestly, beyond Mrs. Reppler, I don't even like most of them all that much.   It's just that we're not seeing enough believable motivation for them to kill themselves.  The twist of knowing that they would have been fine if they had just waited a few minutes, and the added "hey look, that first woman who left the store was rescued!" is just completely lost because I'm too pissed off about this bad writing choice.  Thomas Jane is acting the hell out of that moment, making the perfect pained noises that someone who has just experienced far too much would make, and seeing him silently screaming on the ground while the two military guys in gas masks look at him clearly wondering what the hell happened is all great.  But the twist doesn't work.

For what it's worth, Stephen King really liked this addition, and I'm sure there are other people out there who agree.  He said he liked the fact that it wasn't a nice, neat ending, and you know from my previous reviews that I love an unhappy ending in horror when it's treated right.  But I know from that previous post I did that I'm not the only one who feels like Darabont missed the mark with that choice.

If I was Mrs. Reppler, I would give this film an A- as an excellent adaptation, with points taken away because of the ending.  I would give it a B- as a horror film which is tense and suspenseful, but has too pessimistic a world view and can't sell its own ending.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Nothing Lasts Forever

This film is another mostly forgotten Bill Murray appearance, primarily because the film has never had a home video release.  As a primarily black and white film meant to have the feel of  the 1930s, a lot of film clips were used, and Warner Bros has never fully secured the rights that would allow a DVD release to be possible.  The copy of the film I was able to find was clearly taken from VHS and contained a lot of audio corruption, so it is out there if you know how to find it.

The plot of the film makes you expect this to be a Terry Gilliam picture:  a young man trying to make his way as an artist in New York City discovers a secret society living underground.  They work to bring a better world for everyone, and they want young Adam to journey to the moon and fall in love with a local girl there, Eloy, because doing so will help them bring peace there.  He's able to go because tours are conducted on a regular basis sending elderly there to shop, though when they come back they find every time they try to say "the moon," "Miami" comes out instead.

The film was actually written and directed by Tom Schiller, who was an original writer on Saturday Night Live.  As such the film is produced by Lorne Michaels and contains Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray.  It also stars Zach Galligan, best known as the star of Gremlins.  Aykroyd plays Adam's boss at the Holland Tunnel, and Murray is the tour guide on the bus tour to the moon.  It makes him the somewhat villain of the piece. as he doesn't want Adam to interact with Eloy or otherwise disturb their lucrative money making scheme they've set up on the moon.  He's a smiling villain, playing nice with the elderly guests but stern and mean with Adam.  It's a bit different from the characters I've watched him play up until now.

I wanted to like this film.  The black and white retro feel has a nice charm to it, Galligan is a decent, likeable lead and the fantastical nature of the story is amusing.  The plot barely makes sense and is barely resolved, but the design of the moon landscape and the way the film just kind of randomly stops so that Eloy can sing the title song to Adam is very sweet.  But the film spends a little too much time getting to the good parts and feels overly long for its 82 minutes.

That said, while I would probably never watch this film again, I do hope it does eventually get a DVD release.  Fans of Aykroyd, Murray and Galligan would definitely find it worth a watch, and a cleaned up version of the film would probably look really nice.  If you're a fan of whimsical modern fantasy, it's worth finding.
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