Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - Cycle of the Werewolf/Silver Bullet

I'm always a little confused about where the line is drawn between short story and novella. I'm sure there are page counts that publishers use to differentiate between them, but all I can say is that Cycle of the Werewolf certainly feels more like a short story to me. It was originally born as a story to go along with a calendar that featured illustrations by Bernie Wrightson. King wrote a short vignette for each month of the year. King being King, he found those very limiting and eventually expanded the story and it was published along with Wrightson's illustrations. But it's still only about a hundred pages and very brief.

The story features the town of Tarker's Mill being plagued by a werewolf. Some months are written about the victims the werewolf attacks and others about the people in the town and how they feel about this problem, and a couple more about the man who is the werewolf and his perspective on the situation. It's all very brief so you have to kind of fill in the details yourself, but King still manages to paint some vivid characters in a brief amount of time. Probably the most striking for me was the victim of February, a Miss Lonely Hearts type who wants so badly to not be alone on Valentine's Day that she embraces the werewolf as he attacks her. I also appreciate that even in such a short amount of space, King provides us with some hints early on who the werewolf is and reveals it nicely toward the end.

This story had to be expanded upon in order to make a film, and King himself wrote the screenplay for Silver Bullet. Names for some of the main characters change, and minor characters are very different from the ones in the novella. It's pretty clear that King saw this as a chance to build a slightly different, more fleshed out story than what he had been forced to do with the calendar set up, and I think that's a large part of why we end up with the different name. Much like Maximum Overdrive and "Trucks," King often does this for a reason.

The core of the story remains the same - it's the town preacher who has become the werewolf, and it's a boy in a wheelchair that figures out his secret. I particularly like the idea of the preacher as the werewolf, as it causes him to really question his morals and what he should do about the situation. It's handled better in the novella than in the film, mostly because we get more inside Reverend Lowe's head and find out how he justifies the things he does. He also spends two months only attacking animals, so it's clear there that he is struggling with his problem and only eventually succumbs to the wolf inside him over time. In the film, it seems like the wolf overtakes him much faster.

Marty is a fairly blank slate lead, sympathetic because of his disability but otherwise a fairly bland character, particularly in the film. I suppose the idea is for a kid to imagine themselves in the same position. The problem is I don't really feel for him, and Corey Haim's bland performance in the film doesn't really help. King also gives Marty's sister a bigger role in the film, even making her the narrator for certain scenes, but it doesn't really help. I imagine that making her the narrator was supposed to create some mystery as to whether or not Marty survived the ordeal, because otherwise it feels unnecessary.

Despite the bland child actors there are some decent performances here, particularly Gary Busey as Uncle Red. Terry O'Quinn, Everett McGill, and Kent Broadhurst also give good performances. But the film is hindered by weak direction and absolutely terrible special effects. This was apparently a very troubled production with director Don Coscarelli leaving in the middle and Daniel Attias taking his place. There was also some disagreement between King and producer Dino DeLaurentiis on the way the creature would look, and I'm afraid what we get and what King wanted just don't really work for me at all. The transformation scenes in particular look really poor to me, and the werewolf just a little too cute and fuzzy. Ultimately, I just found the movie really dry and unmoving.

Obviously I can't really recommend the film, and I'm a little hesitant on recommending the novella too. It's a decent short story and the illustrations by Wrightson are great, but the paperback has a pretty steep price tag for the little you get. But if you can find this at the library or perhaps cheap used, then by all means check it out.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

No Game New Year: Progress report

Since various projects are wrapping up right now, I'm trying to increase the time I spend playing games as well as reading comics.  Here's a few more I've been getting to:

Brothers - I was able to sit down and finish this one.  The controls were still uncomfortable, but I was able to get through to the end.  I think some of the emotional impact was lost on me because I had seen reviews that were trying to remain vague but gave enough hints about the ending to spoil me.  That said, I won't go into too many details myself so I don't spoil anyone else.  I recommend giving it a try.

Skullgirls Encore - This game was free on PSN so I downloaded it and gave it a try.  I like the art style and the fact that the main boss fight requires strategy rather than just slamming down on the buttons is a neat idea, but far above my skill level.

Retro Game Challenge 2 - This game technically does not have an American release, but I am playing a fan translation.  Like the first game (that was released here) you are challenged by Arino from Game Center CX to complete challenges in various games.  The games are originals that often parody successful retro games from different eras.  So far I've played through the challenges for the Pac-Man clone, the Mario-like platformer, Kung Fu sidescroller, detective based adventure game, a Tetris clone, and a shooting game.  I'm currently on the Dragon Warrior-esque JRPG, and part of me doesn't want to rush to get past it, though the severe grinding required may make me move on.  It's a lot of fun as both a fan of Game Center CX and of retro games in general, though as with any collection, some of the games are better than others.  The detective game was super annoying, mostly because it required you to just ask people the same questions multiple times rather than doing any actual puzzle solving.  The Tetris clone has a lot of similarities to other match three puzzle games, so of course I also enjoyed that one quite a bit.  Most of the challenges are reasonable and the games in the collection are an improvement over the first Retro Game Challenge, which had a fun similar idea but not as good an execution.

Resident Evil 4 - No, just no.  It's different than the first three games, that's for sure, but it seems to specialize in sending waves of the zombie-like villagers at you, and I guess you're just supposed to run and maybe also shoot them by pulling off perfect shots and I'm not good enough at aiming with the controller so just forget it.  This game was the opposite of fun for me.

Mass Effect - Been wanting to try out this series for ages.  I played for about an hour and a half, creating a character and going through the first mission on Eden.  I'm playing on the PC so trying to shoot things isn't as awkward as it normally is on a controller for me, but I still had the game warn me multiple times that I was about to die so I better heal.  I'm playing on the easiest settings, both Novice difficulty and the aiming assistance turned all the way up, but I still suck.  The one thing I noticed though is that with the team behind me is pretty smart AI, so for at least some of the time I bet I could hang back and let them do most of the work, though I'm sure that won't last forever.  Nothing about the story has grabbed me yet, but it's also super-early so I'm not making any judgements.

On the Rain Slick Precipice of Darkness 3 - Despite not touching this game for nearly a full year, I was able to pick right back up and play again.  It's a turn based RPG, but does its part to try to keep that more entertaining by having the characters gain 1 MP per round.  So you can either just use a physical attack and build up MP or use a basic special attack each round.  You also become fully healed at the end of each battle, so there's no worry about using up magic in between battles to heal.  The humor is about what you would expect from Penny Arcade, which means a fair number of misses with occasional good humor.  I do enjoy the setting though, and I've reached an interesting part of the game where you go through doors and enter different worlds, like a haunted house or a spaceship.  It's a nice game to play to waste away an evening.

The Sims 2 - EA recently put out the complete version of this for free, and since The Sims 3 very nearly made me break this resolution earlier this year because it looked so entertaining, I figured I'd get it.  However I went through the effort of building me and my two cats, moved us into an apartment complex, and then didn't do anything else.  Maybe I just need to add some more Sims of people I know to help make it more interesting.

Samorost 2 - This is a point and click puzzle game with no dialogue.  The fact that it's a sequel doesn't really matter, as the story is self contained.  A little gnome's dog get stolen by aliens and you solve puzzles to save him and return home.  The biggest problem I had is that you can really only solve most of the puzzles by trial and error, just clicking around the screen to see what each thing does and then figure the proper order to do them in.  Some of them also require timing to get just right.  It's also a super quick game, I got through the whole thing in an hour, but you could do it even faster depending on how quickly you figure out the puzzles.  I figured out the final puzzle but missed on the timing, and faced with having to do a series of annoying tasks again, closed the game and looking up the ending on Youtube.  It's a pretty cheap game so if it's on sale or part of a humble bundle (how I originally got it) it's worth picking up if you like these kinds of games.

I feel like I should point out that the guy who I originally got this idea from has cracked and has been buying games for a while now.  The Steam Summer Sale tempted me, but I reminded myself that given how difficult it has been so far this year to find time to play games, I really shouldn't spend money on something I'm not going to have time for.  I also recently let my Playstation Plus membership expire, so some of the games on my list have been eliminated because they were free only if my membership was active.  That at least makes getting through my backlog a little easier.  I also let my Xbox Live Gold membership expire, because I barely even touch that system and they finally wised up and allow you to use the streaming apps without paying like all the other system do.

Being more than halfway through the year, it seems pretty obvious to me that I'm not going to play every single game in my backlog before the year is up.  But I think the whole experience has at least broken the habit of "It's so cheap, I might as well get it" because now I realistically know that even "cheap" is too much when I'm not actually going to play it.  Note that I'm not saying I'm giving up on this challenge, just that when the year is done I'm not going to keep restricting myself.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Beatlemiscellania - Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978)

In my youth, I really hated the BeeGees.  My parents only listened to the "light rock" radio station when we were growing up, and I guess the 80s were still close enough to the BeeGees height of popularity that they got played quite frequently.  I was completely baffled as to the appeal of these guys with really high pitched voices and big goofy hair.  But the funny thing about the passage of time is that even that thing you grew up annoyed with can suddenly have an appeal to you.  While I still am a little confused as to how women ever considered them sexy, I do have to admit they were talented singers who did a lot of great pop songs from that era.  So while I avoided this film when I was young and at the height of my Beatles obsession, I was cautiously optimistic that I might enjoy it now.

It is a somewhat "adaptation" of the album of the same name, but since that album doesn't truly tell a story it's really just the story of a band, using covers of Beatles songs to move the story forward.  The songs primarily come from Sgt Pepper and Abbey Road with a few others mixed in.  The story is very fantastical in nature and often goes off in strange directions for the sake of covering a new song.  The film is narrated by George Burns, who plays the mayor of Heartland, Mr. Kite.  A large number of other characters also take their names from Beatles songs.

The plot, such as it is, is that the original Sgt Pepper started playing around the time of World War I, and he and his band charmed everyone in Heartland up to his death in 1958.  Shortly before his death, he passed the torch to his grandson, Billy Shears, who recruited the three Henderson boys to join him.  The band becomes an instant success, but while they are being seduced by the evils of Hollywood, Heartland falls to ruin under mean Mr. Mustard.  The boys return home to play a benefit concert to save the town, but an evil organization kidnaps Billy's girlfriend Strawberry Fields to brainwash her and make her love Future Villain Band instead.  The guys stop FVB but Strawberry is killed in the fight, and Billy is ready to commit suicide until the weather vane on the top of Heartland's city hall (which always points to happiness) comes to life and makes everything wonderful again - including bringing Strawberry back from the dead.

If that sounds insane, realize that I didn't even bring up Mr. Mustard's robot girlfriends who tell him what to do, or the moments where the band has to steal back the magical musical instruments from a brainwashing teacher and a demented doctor.  Or that Sgt Pepper's band travels around in a hot air balloon.  Or that Billy is date raped by Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.  Or the big finale on the steps of city hall where all these celebrities suddenly appear and sing the reprise with them, in an attempt to recreate the cover of the album.  This movie is just absolutely crazy, and I'm not the least bit surprised that it flopped.  I will also not sit here and try to tell you that it's a good film by any stretch of the imagination.

That said, I actually really did enjoy watching it.

Peter Frampton is not a good singer, and most of the Beatles songs he sings on fall flat.  But the BeeGees tend to make up for that whenever they do the singing.  They were definitely the band that carried the torch of three part harmonies into the 70s after the Beatles broke up, and so they are really well suited here.  Barry Gibbs' rendition of "A Day in the Life" is particularly strong, but nearly all of their songs are enjoyable to listen to.  Certainly not better than the real thing, but they handle it well.  George Martin produced the soundtrack to the film, and I think that also goes a long way in helping these covers sound great and making all the incidental music really shine.

Some of the covers are really baffling, like having George Burns sing "Fixing a Hole" or Frankie Howerd as Mr. Mustard singing his title song as well as "When I'm 64," or Donald Pleasance doing a kind of spoken word version at one point.  Their choice to tell the story only through songs and Burns' narration means that sometimes you get these singers who are simply not up to par to handle the songs.  Sandy Farina plays Strawberry Fields, and she's at least decent, but she doesn't really bring much to the songs she sings.  Dianne Steinburg as Lucy is a stronger vocalist.

I absolutely loved Earth, Wind, and Fire's version of "We Can Work It Out."  It's very much in their style and seeing them perform it during the benefit concert and the energy they bring to the performance is even better.  Aerosmith's cover of "Come Together" is often played on the radio still, and with good reason.  They perform the song as Future Villain Band, and while they fumble around helplessly in the "fight" with Sgt Peppers the performance before it makes up for it.  And Steven Tyler plays dead pretty well.

Steve Martin's performance as Dr. Maxwell Edison is so close to his performance as the evil dentist in Little Shop of Horrors that Frank Oz had to have seen this and chose him specifically because of it.  He sings "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" in the same style that he sang "King Tut" and many others from his comedy album, and he brings his wild and crazy guy energy to the role.  I also found it amusing that they brought in a bit of Star Wars parody when Billy fights him - this movie has been referred to as a 70s time capsule, and what 70s capsule would be complete without a faux light saber fight and a villain that shoots electricity from his fingertips?

Alice Cooper plays the brainwashing teacher, and holy cow, if I had seen this when I was younger the scene would have been nightmare fuel.  The effects and dark eye makeup are simple, but his cover of "Because" (with the BeeGees providing harmonies) turns the song into something truly creepy, and the images work really well too.  A lot of what Cooper did in the 70s looks really mild now compared to guys like Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie who brought it all to a new level of shock in the 90s, but watching this I was able to get a feel for what kind of frightening, imposing presence he had back then.  I like it.

As I said before, this is not a good film.  It's more like a sequence of moments than a true narrative, and some of those moments can be painful to listen to at times and confusing to look at.  If you're a Beatles fan, you're going to have to be open to hearing new versions of the songs you love in order to be receptive to it.  And if you can't find a copy of the film easily, at least check out the soundtrack.  If you're not a Beatles fan, you're going to have to be a fan of campy, crazy musicals.  But if you're in the right frame of mind, you may be able to accept this film for its madness like I did.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - Secret Window, Secret Garden

Secret Window is one of the Stephen King films I actually saw before reading the original written work, and I liked it so much that after a bit of a hiatus on reading King I found a copy of the novella to read.  I was actually pretty surprised to find that the ending had been changed, as its dark tone fell in line with a lot of great King short stories I had read.  Over the ten years since I had originally watched the film, I remembered that there were differences but not what they were, so it was a nice surprise to experience it all fresh once again.

The concept of the story is one that a lot of popular writers experience at one time or another - someone claiming that their work was stolen.  But while this usually involves the courts in real life, Mort Rainey deals with John Shooter showing up on his door step and saying he doesn't want anyone else involved.  Now that should be a huge red flag for anyone to call the cops, but there's actually a good reason why Mort doesn't.  King does a great job of revealing those reasons why in the right time, laying out the clues before hand and then exposing them at just the right point to up the suspense.  The ultimate ending though is a bit weak, in that everyone is saved quickly out of nowhere, and King has to spend the epilogue explaining just how that could have happened.  So the film's change isn't entirely unwarranted.

If you're going to have a film that largely revolves around the main character often alone in his cabin in the woods, you can't get much better than casting Johnny Depp.   While Depp occasionally seems to have a lack of judgment when collaborating with Tim Burton, most of his other roles show his range and strength, and this film is another strong example of his talent.  He takes Mort from his depression of the divorce into his descent to full on madness expertly, with all the twists and turns the movie requires.  John Turturro's role as Shooter has less range, but he makes an imposing figure and I enjoy watching him as much as I do Depp here.

Writer/director David Koepp is often better known for his screenwriting than his directing, but I like the touches he does here during Mort's nightmares as well as toward the end when everything goes insane.  The house cracking apart is a little too over the top, but beyond that I really like the choices he made with the film.

He did make a few changes that really change the nature of the story.  Shooter isn't here just because Mort supposedly copied his story, he's also complaining that Mort changed the ending.  In the original novella Shooter ultimately wants Mort to write a new story and give it to Shooter, I suppose the idea being that it will be good enough that Shooter could get famous over his success.  This all ties into the fact that long ago Mort stole a story from someone in his creative writing class, and that was actually his first ever published story.  In the film Mort's wife asks him if this is "like that last time" so the previous plagiarism is acknowledged, but it's not as important to the final endgame.

And she is his wife in the film, while she's his ex-wife in the novella.  The reason is largely to build suspense and suspicion, as she and her new man Ted want him to sign the divorce papers, and we're led to believe it could possibly be Ted hiring Shooter to scare him into doing so.  It's a decent enough misdirect for the first half of the film.  Mort also acts a little more logical here, going to the sheriff and then when finding him incompetent hiring a private investigator.  It may be different from the original but it still works well and leads us to the major revelation just as well.

Instead of Shooter being Mort driving himself crazy about his previous plagiarism, being triggered thanks to the pressure of his divorce, in the film Shooter is now Mort's creation as a way to get revenge on his wife and Ted for hurting him.  It gives him a proper motivation for killing his wife, and it ties it a little stronger into the story that Mort and Shooter have been fighting about all this time.  Shooter wants him to "fix the ending" of real life to match the story.

I can't help but think that Timothy Hutton was specifically cast as Ted thanks to his prior role in The Dark Half film.  He's once again dealing with the evil alter ego of a writer and has to go to their secluded cabin in order to save the woman he loves.  It's just that this time he doesn't win.

The ending is very dark, as I said, but I think it still fits the King aesthetic and also matches the tone of the film.  The only part that's not so well handled is the sheriff coming to face him directly and saying they know he did it but can't prove it yet.  While it matches what was in the story within the story, it's not executed well and the tone feels a little off.

This is one of those original story/adaptation combinations that I think works well both ways.  I recommend both versions.

As an aside, I had Fight Club on the brain when I was reading this, having listened to a podcast discussing it.  As such I found it interesting to see another story where the main protagonist falls asleep and is taken over by another personality, but also has occasional interactions with him, not realizing he's the same person.  I'm not accusing Palahniuk of ripping King off by any means, I just think it's fun to see the many ways one idea can be used for different stories.  The Dark Half is another way really, just with a bit more supernatural intervention.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Wolverine and the X-men(TV) - episode 7 - Wolverine vs The Hulk

Before Wolverine became an X-man, he was actually introduced in an Incredible Hulk comic book.  His costume was also a little different, particularly in regards to the mask.  This episode pays homage to that original appearance, though it does so in an interesting way.

After a brief intro where we see soldiers getting attacked in the Canadian wilderness, we cut to Wolverine being chased by the MRD.  They catch up to him and are ready to take him in when a helicopter carrying Nick Fury drops down.  This version of Fury is African American like the film version, but also has hair very similar to the original comics version.  It's an interesting mix that let's you know visually that he's supposed to be taken on his own.

Simply put, this Nick Fury is an absolute jerk.  The MRD flee at his command, because he wants Logan for his own purposes.  He tells him that he needs him to go to Canada to take down the Hulk, and when Logan is reluctant, he just quietly starts naming off the real names of all the X-men.  He says he will report every single one of them and their location to the MRD if Logan doesn't cooperate.  It's awesome in an incredibly evil way.

With no real choice given him, Logan heads to Canada to track down the Hulk who Fury has claimed was destroying multiple villages.  That seems odd to Logan, as he knows from experience that the Hulk would much rather just be left alone than he is into mayhem.  The two of them run into each other and we see a quick flashback to their first battle, featuring Logan in that early costume.  After a tussle between the two of them, the Hulk turns back into Bruce Banner and Logan begins to find out what is really going on.

It's not the Hulk who has caused all the damage, it's the Wendigo.  In the original comic, the Hulk was fighting the Wendigo when Wolverine appeared to take them both out.  Here their previous fight was apparently for some other reason, because the idea of the Wendigo is completely new to Logan.  It's an interesting thing, to have that flashback but also essentially adapt the comic in the present day, albeit with a bit of a twist.

So Bruce explains that he is here because Fury asks him to develop a cure for the Wendigo, who he was told was cursed into his condition, and while Bruce assumed that meant shooting the antidote into the Wendigo from afar, for Fury it meant dropping Banner out of the copter so he could turn into the Hulk and become bait.  The soldiers were incapable of handling both monsters and crashed at the site.  Since then the original Wendigo has bitten all the soldiers and now they're less developed versions of the monster.  It's a good thing Banner made a ton of antidote and brought it along with them.

The two of them make their way back to the copter, but are delayed by a Wendigo attack.  Logan holds them off while Banner continues to the copter.  But of course he does eventually hulk out yet again, and Logan has to both hold off the Hulk who is mad at him for their last fight, and also give the antidote to all the various wendigos.  It's all very nicely choreographed and the Hulk constantly calling Wolverine "little man" adds a bit of humor in to it as well.

When Logan finally takes out the big Wendigo, he transforms back into human with clothes and all, so Logan notices that he was wearing a SHIELD uniform.  A calmed down Banner is also horrified to learn that they were creating these monsters on purpose for use as soldiers, so Logan gives him a nice little shove to help him transform back into the Hulk, leaving him for Fury to deal with.  He also tells Fury that if he comes after the X-men, he'll make him pay for it.

There's all kinds of nice subtle details in this episode that I really like.  When Logan first arrives in Canada, we see how stealthy he is when he walks right up to a deer and pets it, and the smile on his face shows us how much he's enjoying being back home again.  He also struggles to open a case, and finally extends his middle claw only in frustration in order to open it.  They're blink and you miss it details, but they really add a lot to the story.  This episode does nothing to move the season's storyline forward, but it's definitely worth the pit stop.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Robert Rodriguez's Rebel Without a Crew and the Mexico Trilogy

As many of you who follow me know, for the last two years I've been working on a couple of inter-related short films called Targeted. In an effort to possibly learn some new tricks about how to make a film cheaply, I picked up the book Rebel Without a Crew: Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker with $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player. I knew of Rodriguez before, having seen a couple of his films and knowing him primarily from work he did together with Quentin Tarantino, though I wouldn't have called myself a fan of his movies. I just knew that $7,000 was basically unheard of for most independent films of the time period, and I wanted to see how he did it. To give you a state of comparison, Clerks was made for about $27,000 not long after.

The book is very informal, being largely a transcription of Rodriguez's diary entries from the time he made the film as well as the process he went through with the studios to get a deal and the tour he did with the film El Mariachi on the film festival circuit. I feel pretty confident saying he only lightly edited these entries, as he repeats some information on different days as if he forgot he already wrote the stuff down. It's not bad by any means, as he's got a decent writing style even in this informal way and he goes into a fair amount of detail about what he was doing.

He raised most of the money for the film by agreeing to submit to medical testing, something I personally could not see myself doing. He goes into detail about his time in the tests, and how he used that time of being locked in the medical facility to work on the script. He also did it because he didn't want to go into personal debt (like Kevin Smith did for Clerks) and he also didn't want to gain any outside financing from a production company or studio (what most people do when making films). So even if his method isn't one most of us would follow, I think the spirit is a good one.

The majority of his cost for the movie were related to the fact that it was shot on film, and as such aren't really relevant in this modern world. If he was making this film now with the good quality digital video cameras available, his budget would have been non-existent. Unfortunately this also means a lot of his advice in the book is now largely irrelevant, as with digital you can do as many takes as you want before you get it right, there's no cost of film or transfer, etc. But he does also emphasize the idea that instead of just going out there and spending money on things you're "supposed" to have, just get creative and get it done. That's great advice regardless of the time period and technology available.

If you're curious, Targeted's budget is currently just under $3,000 and that's mostly because being a period piece we are forced to buy costumes/props. I anticipate that our next film should come in much lower.

I also found the part of the book where he talks about dealing with the studios pretty fascinating, how they started out presenting this film to straight to video companies and getting blown off and shown the door, but a stroke of luck with a guy who was trying to run a film festival in Texas ended up getting him referred to an agent. Then suddenly major studios were beating down his door, telling him how much they loved the film and wanted to work with him. And even while they are wining and dining him wanting him to sign, he's at home unable to afford groceries and barely making the rent since no contract has been signed and he's flying to L.A. so often he can't work another job.

By the end of the book I was also really wanting to watch El Mariachi, curious how a film that was made so cheaply (and which Rodriguez himself kept calling a practice film that he initially didn't want shown theatrically) could have gotten so many people in Hollywood excited. If you were to watch the film blind without knowing the story behind it, I think you would still be impressed. Not blown away by any means, but it shows that he had a good understanding on how to make an action film and was also capable of telling a simple but action packed and touching story. Having read the book before hand added a lot more to it though, knowing exactly what he went through and the tricks he used to make it work with the little he had.

There are a couple minor mistakes, particularly that his close ups are a little too tight, and the actors are all amateurs so there's no real mind blowing performance here. The movie is largely told through action, with only the most basic dialogue for most of the film. But the action is dynamic and the story has the capability to make you feel something when it counts. I can see how this helped launch his career.

The DVD for El Mariachi has a special feature with the same name as a section of the book, "Ten Minute Film School." In it he guides you with examples on some of the things he did to make the film cheaply. It's got some nice pointers on how to work creatively. The director's commentary for the film also mirrors a lot of the details he goes through in the book.

There are points in the book where he mentions that he really wanted to remake El Mariachi with a proper budget, that this was just a practice film to show people what he could do. He had originally intended to only sell it on the Mexican straight to video market and use it as footage to show people. But Columbia insisted on giving it a proper release, and instead he went on with them to make a sequel called Desperado. I remember seeing at least parts of this film before on television, and I also remember my high school boyfriend developing a man crush on Antonio Banderas after he had seen it. Having now watched it all the way through, I certainly understand why.

You can see where Rodriguez was at least trying to do a partial do-over for El Mariachi in parts of the film. While it's definitely a sequel, there's enough of a similar structure here that he's almost trying to show you that he could have made El Mariachi so much better. And clearly with a proper budget for effects and a strong cast, he could. Desperado is an incredibly fun movie, full of amazing shoot out sequences and great performances from Steve Buscemi, Danny Trejo, Banderas, and Salma Hayek. It's got a great sense of humor and is just a ton of fun to watch. I was also happy to see that he brought some of the actors from El Mariachi back in small roles, no doubt to give them a paycheck as well as some acknowledgement for helping him get where he was at that point.

I'll admit though that the ending does fall a bit flat. The reveal of the relationship between El Mariachi and Bucho doesn't quite work, and the fade out is really weak - what happened? Did they just let them go? Did he kill them all somehow? Why not show us that moment? There's a lot of tension building up, and to fade out rather then see some kind of resolution is a little disappointing. Apparently it was done because the MPAA was going to give the film an NC-17 rating with the violent shootout left in. I still think a re-shoot or a trimmed version of the scene would have been a better alternative. This is where his "get it done quickly and just work around it" style hurt a little bit. Still, making a movie like this for $7 million was still pretty amazing, and showed that even in Hollywood he could do these films for cheaper than most other directors.

There's a bonus feature on Desperado called "10 More Minutes... Anatomy of a Shootout" where he once again shows some of his techniques. It was fun to see him suggest something we had already done on Targeted, that being going to the location ahead of time and getting your storyboards on video rather than drawing them, and going through the action with your actors ahead of time so things run smoother the day of. With action scenes, I think that's essential if you want them done consistently on time.

While Rodriguez spoke of his intentions to make this story a trilogy pretty early on, audiences had to wait 8 years for the last film. In the time in between, there was Four Rooms (a film of four interconnected shorts, one of which he wrote/directed), From Dusk Till Dawn (written by Tarantino), The Faculty (written by Kevin Williamson), and two Spy Kids films, where Rodriguez showed he was capable of making films appropriate for all ages as well. His short in Four Rooms is probably my favorite of the bunch. From Dusk Till Dawn though, I don't really care for. The story feels like it wanders too long before we get to the vampires, and there are some moments in there clearly just for Tarantino's foot fetish and it's super creepy. It's interesting from an effects perspective, there's some really gross stuff there, but I just don't care for the plot. I've never seen the others listed above but I plan to check them out soon.

Also in between El Mariachi and Desperado he did a made for television movie Roadracers. Writing credit for the film is split between Rodriguez and Tommy Nix, and I don't know which one of them to blame, but the movie is terrible. All of the characters are one note and cookie cutter, and the plot feels like there are chunks missing - there are brief lines of dialogue that mention more history between the characters but it's not explained well and leaves you wondering why they seem to hate each other so much. The cast is solid and gives decent performances, but the story is a mess. The film was also made in 13 days, and I'm not sure if that hurt it as well. Rodriguez was able to work just as fast on El Mariachi, but that film also had a lot less story.

Because of the long span of time before he shot Once Upon a Time in Mexico, it also ended up being experimental in its own way - it was the first film Rodriguez shot in HD rather than on film. I had heard that a lot of people don't like the film, even seeing one review that stated that Johnny Depp was the only good thing about the movie, and I have to wonder just what it is that people were so disappointed by. Yes, it's a little different from Desperado, but it's still primarily an action film, has a lot of great shoot out sequences and humor, and Banderas is still great in the role. Perhaps hearing it compared to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly ahead of time helped my expectations, but I feel like it's a good film on its own merits. He handles a fairly complicated plot and a large cast of characters well and I found the film really enjoyable. My only complaint is the way he kills off Salma Hayek's character, but that was done because she was filming Frida and couldn't appear full time in the picture.  I also thought the digital effects he used worked really well and knowing he did the score this time as well as shooting, editing, and directing makes me wonder if there's anything he can't do.

Once again the DVD contains a lot of bonus features, including "10 Minute Flick School" that was all about shooting digitally, a tour of his at home studio where he edits, mixes, and records the score for his films, and a good look at the special effects as well. There's even a "10 Minute Cooking School" where he shows you how to make puerco pibil, the dish that Depp's character is obsessed with in the movie.

I really, really wanted to do a tasting video for you guys, like  I did long ago tasting both versions of brass monkey when I did my Beastie Boys post, but I could not find annato seeds or achiote paste anywhere around here.  I did end up making the dish, substituting chipotle paste into the recipe, but it doesn't seem fair to review a modified recipe. (For the record, it did taste really good.)  Here's hoping one of the other 10 Minute Cooking Schools on his future releases are easier to recreate!

Of his work after the trilogy, the only one I've seen before was Sin City, which I found creative and nice to look at but didn't care for the stories very much. However I'm willing to put the blame on Frank Miller's shoulders for that one, as I'm not a fan of his gritty style in general. I probably won't be seeing the sequel. I guess I should also count Predators among his work I've seen as well, because while he only gets producer credit he did write the original script for the film. The Machete films I very much want to check out, as they look as silly and fun as Desperado. Danny Trejo has such a wonderful imposing presence that I'm looking forward to having him get to survive a film for once.

I recently watched Grindhouse, but I think I'm going to save that for a future review since there's a lot more there than just Planet Terror to talk about.  Plus there's JT's barbecue recipe to try...

I don't know that you have to have an interest in making films of your own to truly appreciate Rodriguez, but I do think anyone who is certainly deserves to give his films their attention. Or maybe I should say specifically his DVD releases, as the director's commentaries and bonus features are a wellspring of knowledge. He's clearly enthusiastic about the process, and wants anyone with an idea to join in on the fun.  His best advice?  "Stop saying 'I want to be a filmmaker and just go be one.'"

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - The Langoliers

The concept of The Langoliers hinges on a very different kind of time travel story than we normally see.  It establishes that trying to change the past is a pointless exercise (even mentioning the JFK assassination, which makes me think the seeds for 11/22/63 have been there in his mind for some time), because the past is in fact deserted. Not only that, but after a short period of time, round creatures with very sharp teeth come along and eat the whole thing up.  It's an interesting enough idea, but in and of itself doesn't really make a good story.  The characters stuck in the situation are far more important.

King makes the survivors primarily a group of ordinary people you might expect to see on a red eye flight across the country, adding in a pilot because how else would they land and take off the plane, a mystery writer to help do a little deductive reasoning about their situation, and a blind girl because in King fiction young and/or disabled also means psychic.  But the real wild card, the one who makes everything interesting and is a far more compelling villain than the strange little creatures eating up the past, is Craig Toomy.  On the surface he's a belligerent white collar business man who wants things his way now now now, but beneath that he's also insane.  Years of verbal and physical abuse from both his parents have completely broken him, and after recently sabotaging his career, he's ready to go off the deep end.  He also has a peculiar habit of ripping up pieces of paper in long thin strips while entering a meditative trance.

Toomy is, without a doubt, the reason to read this novella.  While the concept is interesting, the way the characters get out of it is fairly logical, and the mystery writer Bob Jenkins is like that annoying teacher who took far too long to get to the point and demanded class participation - he can't just come out with what's wrong, he asks his fellow passengers to look around them and tell him what they see.  The secret service man on board often goes violent with Craig Toomy, but why he never slapped Bob to make him just spit out what he's getting at is beyond me.  King adds lots of obstacles to their journey, but none of them are anywhere near as interesting as Toomy's madness.  As such, once Toomy exits stage left, the story becomes far less interesting.

The mini-series version was adapted and directed by Tom Holland, and it is what I would call a "by the numbers" adaptation.  Holland cuts one or two short scenes, simplifies it so that only Toomy's father was abusive, and eliminates the drunken passenger who sleeps throughout most of the story, but otherwise adapts the story whole cloth, even down to King's dialogue.  While there are a couple nice touches of direction, it's largely plainly shot and the score is generic and boring, so all we're left with is the actors' performances to help bring this to life.

They made two really great choices in that regard.  Bob Jenkins gets an upgrade from his story persona because he is played by Dean Stockwell.  I may be a little biased seeing as how I loved his performance as Al in Quantum Leap, but Bob and Al have very little in common, and while there are still a few "tell me what you see" moments there, Stockwell has the right amount of charm to pull them off.  The other genius choice is Bronson Pinchot as Craig Toomy.  Pinchot was of course already known for the over the top character of Balki on Perfect Strangers, and while once again there's a lot of difference in the characters, Pinchot shows he's clearly willing to go for it.  He truly acts mad here, and yet also is able to tap into the more pathetic side of Toomy, the one who clearly wants to move on from the abuse he faced as a child but can't.  His performance is great.

The rest of the cast is really just average.  There's nothing bad about any of their performances, but they are a little bland.  It may be that the characters from the original story are already fairly bland to begin with, but considering how Stockwell managed to change Jenkins from the most annoying character in the story for me to one of the better ones in the mini-series, I think stronger performances could have helped them.  Kate Maberly gives a pretty good performance for a child actor, but I don't think she ever really does a good job of convincing us that Dinah is blind.  It's a minor complaint though, as it's not an easy thing to pull off.

Unfortunately, this mini-series is really dated now, and it's all because of the CGI.  I guess getting footage of an actual plane flying in the clouds was too expensive, because they chose to digitally create the plane in the air.  The technology was clearly not up to par yet, having that distinctive look of "this is a digital image laid on top of video footage."  But the worst of it is the langoliers themselves.  I'll admit, I'm not sure you can truly make these creatures scary.  Even as I read the story, I pictured these guys:

Definitely not scary, and in fact even kind of cute.

The langoliers are really far more scary for what they can do, not what they look like.  However, what we get is these:

What that gif doesn't quite portray perfectly is the way those teeth are constantly rotating, and how badly placed they are in the video.  They are super duper shiny and so obviously not really there.  I think they did the best they could with the technology of the time.  I certainly wouldn't call those cute like Mr. Chain Chomp above, but it's hard to not giggle a bit when you see them wreaking havoc.

That said, I'm still making a tentative recommendation for the mini-series.  It has its flaws, but I think Pinchot and Stockwell help to keep it entertaining.  I would however, also really like to see this one done again in the future, perhaps as a feature film rather than a mini-series to help keep the non-Toomy scenes from feeling so dry.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Beatlemiscellania - The Monkees TV series

When I first compiled my list for this project, I didn't include the Monkees because they're not really a direct parody.  You can't really point directly from one Beatle to one Monkee and say they are a copy.  But the fact remains that The Monkees TV show was created after the film A Hard Day's Night became such a success.  What resulted from what was essentially someone's attempt to cash in on Beatlemania became a fascinating story in and of itself.

Besides A Hard Day's Night, the show shares a lot of characteristics with The Beatles cartoon in its structure of playing two songs per episode while the group engaged in wacky antics of some kind.  The show is really like a cartoon in a lot of ways, with its fast paced editing, silliness, and occasional breaking of the fourth wall.  It's this unusual approach and overall charm of the four actors chosen for the group that has made the show almost timeless, charming children and teenagers in the 80s who caught it on syndication just as it had those in the 60s on its original run. The catchy tunes go a long way to help that as well.

I have very vague memories of watching the TV show in my youth.  It was fun watching the series this time around and getting occasional flashes of memory from what I remember seeing back then.  It happened most often when I would recognize something in season 1 they would later use for the opening titles of season 2 (which was what was used for syndication).  I also remember my aunts (who are about a decade older than me, and were therefore teenagers at the time) asking which Monkee was my favorite.  I eagerly replied "the one with the hat!" because apparently I wasn't bothered with remembering names yet.  They were of course all about Davy Jones.  They are crazy.  Mike Nesmith with his southern drawl and quiet but clever demeanor is still the best.    Micky is probably the funniest and Peter wins me over because I can't imagine how annoying it would be to play an idiot like that all the time (and probably get treated as such in real life, no matter how smart you are).  Davy is just kind of boring by comparison with his constant crushes.

The biggest problem the show suffers from is that they were clearly always trying to push the latest singles around the same time, so you get a lot of episodes in a row that play repeat songs.  When you're watching them on disc that can get a bit tedious.  Apparently in the 70s they re-aired the show but edited in then current Monkees songs into some of the episodes.  While that might create more variety, some of their later songs simply aren't as good and therefore that isn't really much of an improvement.

The other problem that stops at least some of these episodes from being completely timeless is their use of various foreign stereotypes for humor.  Probably the worst was the "evil Chinese" episode, with white actors using makeup to slant their eyes and speaking in Engrish.  "I have you in my crutches!" the villain exclaims at one point.  It's painful to watch now.  Fortunately, these episodes are fairly few in number, leaving the majority of the series to good clean fun that holds up well today.

There's even some particularly smart episodes that I liked a lot.  The Monkees in general stand for self expression and being yourself, and I really enjoyed the episode where they are chosen as "Typical Young Americans of the Year" by a magazine that then chooses to misrepresent them as what they want them to be.  Their behavior at the reward ceremony puts the magazine in their place and brings their own message to the forefront.  It's a fairly common theme for late 60s media, but it's still enjoyable.

The songs from season one are mostly very strong ones, with the exception of  "Your Auntie Grizelda" which grates on my nerves and made me groan every time it popped up in yet another episode.  The performance sequences are also pretty amusing to watch in their own way - while Mike and Peter were actual musicians, they clearly didn't have much stage presence yet and they look just as awkward if not more so than Davy and Micky.

The songs in season two are a little more of a mixed bag - by that point they were starting to insist on being a part of the writing process at least some of the time, and they simply weren't very good song writers. The performance sequences are actually stronger, because the four of them had a lot of chemistry and look like they're having a lot of fun together, but the episode format was changed slightly. While season one often had a song in the middle of the episode to break things up, season two is just straight plot for most of it, ending with a romp where a song plays and the Monkees terrorize whoever has been the villain the whole episode. We then get another performance video right afterward. There are also fewer quick cuts and breaking of the fourth wall becomes all about the Monkees forgetting their lines or literally reading the script on screen. It makes the episodes seem duller, because they're just generic plots that the Monkees don't make any more interesting. Apparently after a long bout of touring, the guys had a hard time recording these episodes, and it shows. There's also a fair number of them where Mike is just not there, because he had a tonsillectomy and they didn't want to stop their schedule for him to recover.

The above applies to about 75% of season two, with the remaining 25% standing out as markedly different and downright experimental. There's a fairy tale episode set up like a play, with minimal sets and Mike playing double duty as himself and the princess they are rescuing. There's an alien episode that features segments with Pat Paulsen doing the comedy he was best known for at the time. Frank Zappa appears in an intro for an episode, where he destroys a car and calls it music. "The Monkees Go to Paris" has no plot to speak of, and is really just a series of vignettes of them running around the city set to music. And then there's the finale, co-written and directed by Mickey Dolenz where an evil magician mind controls everyone with the help of a talking alien bush whose name Frodis was the Monkees code word for marijuana. These odder episodes stand out from the rest and make the season worth checking out, and show that the Monkees themselves were yearning to do something a bit different than the standard plots being thrust on them. Unfortunately the studio wasn't ready for it and so the show was cancelled.

The Monkees kept making music long after the show ended, but at least in my opinion, most of it isn't very good. These guys had a lot of natural charm and comedic timing, but they were not very good musicians. The music they fought so hard to write just doesn't compare to the fantastic songs written for them in the early years.

After the series the Monkees made a film called Head, which was far, far different from the show. I have not watched it yet, as it is perfect material for the Monthly Midnight Movie Exchange.  But included on the second season disc of The Monkees is the televised special 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee. It's been referred to as the television version of Head, and oh boy does it give me a lot to look forward to in that regard. It's definitely closer to performance art than a typical variety show television special, though there is a great middle segment featuring Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Fats Domino. Beyond that though are strange dance numbers and an evil Charles Darwin. It's really hard to describe on its own, you just have to see it for yourself.

There was also Hey Hey It's the Monkees, a special that aired in 1997 and marked the last time all four of them got together before Davy's death. It was written and directed by Nesmith, and the main joke is that it is supposed to be episode 781 of the show, acting as if it was never cancelled and the guys have just been living in that beach house still trying to make it big all this time. The jokes are incredibly corny and I can't tell if it's just that the guys are of the age that they can't make anything other than goofy dad jokes or if this was Nesmith's view of how bad he thought the original show was. The special also works as a promo for Justus, their reunion album that had come out the year before, and those songs are just plain awful. They also do a medley of their classics "Last Train to Clarksville," "Daydream Believer," "I'm Not Your Stepping Stone," "I'm a Believer," and "Pleasant Valley Sunday" which is pretty good. I was a little disappointed by the fact that someone on the show requests Mike to wear the hat again, and he puts in a line about how he lost it. As if someone couldn't have recreated a similar one for the special. Don't be such a grump for once and just wear the hat, Mike. Yeesh.

That kind of frustration is a lot of what I feel for the Monkees in general. When you watch interviews from the 90s, it's amazing to see how much ire they still had thirty years later for things that happened to them. Don Kirshner was the man who chose the early hit songs for them, but if you listen to Mike and Peter in particular, you would think the man was a demon. I'll admit from the interviews of him I've seen, the man doesn't have much charm himself, but it's pretty clear that he had an ear for music and knew how to choose hits. The Monkees were the first boy band in a lot of ways, and the auditions they signed up for seem to make that pretty clear, but they always seemed to fight that from the start. With no established record of this kind of model of business, I guess you can expect some kind of kickback from your talent but these guys seem to be living in some kind of lala land.

Of course, it's been nearly another two decades, and I'll admit I haven't caught any recent interviews to see if maybe they've mellowed out since. I'm sure the criticism they received in their early years didn't help either, and was truly ridiculous considering that session musicians and songs written by professional song writers rather than the band themselves was something quite common place for the time period. If they hadn't been structured to resemble the Beatles so much, they probably never would have received that flack at all. But I think by the 80s at least people had a much better understanding of what they were about; it's a shame they never let go of that chip on their shoulder and just embraced it themselves.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - The Revelations of Becka Paulson

This short story is a fairly unique case.  It started out in 1984 as its own stand alone short story about a woman who believes a picture of Jesus is telling her to kill her husband.  King later incorporated it into his novel The Tommyknockers in 1987, where Becka is now one of the residents of Haven being affected by the titular creatures.  But the original story was also adapted into an episode of The Outer Limits in 1997.

Unfortunately, I can't find a copy of the original story.  If the episode is anything to go by, Becka starts having her visions when she accidentally shoots herself in the head.  The bullet lodges there and leaves a hole, but it doesn't kill her so she just covers it up with a band aid.

What's interesting is that a lot of the abilities the Tommyknockers bestow upon the residents of Haven are the same as what the bullet gives Becka.  She gains knowledge about what other people around her are doing, she learns how to upgrade technology around the house, often with the use of batteries to increase the power.  The main change for the episode is that instead of Jesus, it's "the 8x10 man."  Apparently Becka was so taken with the man in the picture that came with her 8x10 frame that she never put an actual picture inside it. It's a pretty funny idea, but I like the idea of it being Jesus better.  It creates a better internal conflict for Becka when he's telling her awful things and she doesn't know whether or not to listen to him.

The episode is forty minutes long, and I feel like the story probably could have been told better in half the time.  Wife has accident, wife has visions and realizes her husband is cheating, designs a crazy way to kill him.  It's simple enough that we don't need the diversion of her going to a vet to inspect the hole in her head or watching her husband play poker with his buddies.  The poker game at least comes from the original story (or at least how it's present in the novel) but the vet visit seems to be added in for humor.  And admittedly, it's bizarre enough to work well, it just feels unnecessary.

While not great, the episode is at least worth a watch thanks to Catherine O'Hara's performance as Becka and Steven Weber's appearance as the 8x10 man.  This is also the first time where Weber also directed a King adaptation, and only one of two directing credits he currently has to his name.  As of right now it's also free to watch via Hulu, so what do you have to lose?

Overall, I think King made the right move in incorporating the story in with all the other odd things that happen in Haven.  On its own the story doesn't quite have enough meat to be interesting.

Becka's story is also adapted within The Tommyknockers mini-series.  There she is played by the adorable Allyce Beasley, and is made a deputy so that they can introduce her into the story a little earlier.  In  this case it's the host of a dating show on her television that turns to her and starts telling her the truth.  Her husband's fate is the same, but here Becka gets committed rather than killing herself after she realizes what she has done to him.  It's just a small footnote in the larger events that are happening in the town, and for the most part it works.  I think the image of someone in a straight jacket in a padded room singing softly to themselves is a little cliche at this point, but otherwise I enjoyed this version.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - The Tommyknockers

There's a lot in The Tommyknockers that we see in other King works - primarily a struggling alcoholic main character, aliens influencing humans, and a small town slowly going insane thanks to an outside source.  The problem is that these things are handled better elsewhere.  This was clearly King's attempt to write his own Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and while I can't compare it to the original work, I can say that this version doesn't really work for me.  The aliens being buried inside the ship for so long makes them uninteresting villains, and the townspeople, who become the true villains of  the piece under their influence, aren't particularly compelling either.  They want to uncover the ship and keep people out of their town.  That's pretty much it.  And our hero, Gard, spends so much time in the novel drunk and therefore not accomplishing anything that it makes it really hard to cheer him on.  I spent a good portion of the novel not knowing just how King was going to wrap this up, and given the long stretches where he meanders showing us what happens to outsiders trying to enter the town, I have a feeling he didn't know where he was going to end it at first either.

With the dramatic changes that occur to the townspeople as they become - losing all their teeth, their skin becoming translucent, their entire structure slowly stretching and changing - I knew changes were going to be required for a 1993 television mini-series adaptation, and I was right.  I found it particularly amusing that when our two main leads, Jimmy Smits and Marg Helgenberger lose teeth, it's always ones towards the back so they can stay "pretty" for most of the film.  The citizens start to take on a kind of gray pallor after a while, and that's a fairly decent way to show their changing while keeping the budget under control.

This version of Gard has a much better handle on his alcoholism, which keeps him a little more pro-active and more of a hero.  Bobbi also takes a little longer to get completely under the influence of the aliens, which makes far greater sense for the pacing of the narrative.  While things get shifted, this is pretty much an accurate adaptation.  Bobbi's domineering sister gets dropped along with a few other minor townspeople, but all the main events of the novel are present.

Unfortunately a good adaptation doesn't always equal an entertaining mini-series, and with such poor original material to work with it never shines above it.  Green growing light is not enough to produce scares, and more often than not just seems really silly.  Whether it's Bobbi rolling around on top of the ship in ecstasy or Traci Lords as mailwoman Nancy Voss shooting people with her modified lipstick, it's just ridiculous.  But none of that is as bad as when the aliens finally make their appearance.  With their squat heads and Creature from the  Black Lagoon arms, they're ridiculous.  When the first one put his hand out to grab Gard on the shoulder, I laughed.  It seems like no thought was put into the actor's choreography of movements, and they just seem really goofy.

While Gard still sacrifices himself to get rid of the ship at the end, Bobbi is allowed to survive in this version, as are most of the townspeople.  I don't really care for that, as these people, especially Bobbi, have gone so far beyond the pale that they don't truly deserve to survive.  King pulls a bait and switch on us, having us think at the beginning of the novel that she is our protagonist, when in actuality she becomes the villain.  She largely acts the same way in the mini-series, but yet she's allowed to come out okay.  I prefer the ending of the novel, where only the two young boys of the town survive, the one small amount of hope that someone will have learned from this experience.

Overall, I can't really recommend either version.  Needful Things and Under the Dome are better novels from King of a town going mad, and I'd read either of those before you bothered with this one.
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