Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - Golden Years episode 7, differences with the DVD version, & final thoughts

Episode 7 "The Final Blow"


Our band of refugees needs a place to stay for the night while they determine their next move, and fortunately Francie knows of a place. If you're surprised that it's a hippy commune, than you haven't been paying attention. One of the residents wearing a captain's hat is identified as Captain Tripps, a winking nod to the name of the virus that kills everyone in The Stand.  Francie knows someone in Wisconsin who can make them fake IDs to help them start over, and she's going to head that way ahead of the others to get them. After some poor jokes about tofu and seaweed, Crewes heads out to find a pay phone to call Moreland and let him know what's going on.

Moreland has quite literally been playing pretend with the plane, in a way that should be terrible but Stephen Root makes very entertaining.  Eventually though The Shop catches up with him, and by the time Crewes calls him, Moreland is just trying to find out his location so he can send The Shop there and save himself. Crewes doesn't give it away, but Captain Tripps is actually a sleeper agent for The Shop and he makes a call at the same time.
Oh joy, it's time to combine our two "funniest" characters, Toddhunter and Billy. 
Toddhunter needs two people to activate the security switches in order to run his tests, and a jamming out to his Walkman Billy arrives right on cue. After a painfully long moment before they turn the switches, Toddhunter sets a bunch of microphones around a clock. He has Billy flip a switch for him and things go green while the clock moves backwards. Because clearly something that would make your cells heal would also reverse the workings of a mechanical clock. The hands move faster and faster until the clock disappears at the two goofballs rejoice.

Gina and Harlan reminisce while dancing to an old song on the radio, and in the morning they make love.  Gina feels certain this is the last time and she says her goodbyes to him, saying that she knows eventually they will be together again.  Maybe it's because I just finished reading The Gunslinger, but the references she makes sound so much like King nodding toward Dark Tower alternate worlds that I can't help but wonder if that was what he was going for.

Andrews throws peanuts at Moreland while interrogating him. Burton interrupts to let Andrews know about the message from Captain Tripps and that he's got Toddhunter on the line. Andrews wants Toddhunter to halt his experiments and convinces him by promising him that he'll have Harlan very soon.  Exit Dr. Toddhunter - we hardly knew ye, yet we knew far too much already.

Terry and Crewes plan an exit strategy which is good because The Shop soon have them surrounded. Andrews threatens Burton again, saying that this is his last chance. Burton is starting to crack under the pressure but it's nothing compared to Moreland who has completely lost his mind. He starts ranting outside the hippy house, revealing their presence to Terry and Crewes, until Andrews shoots him.

One of the hippies wants to convince the cops to let them go, while the others stand in a circle and chant. Could this get any more stereotypical? The hippie even shouts "Hey Jude!" at Andrews. The talk ends with Andrews killing the two hippies attempting to negotiate with them as well as Tripps, who was standing around outside and apparently having second thoughts about being a sell out. They throw smoke and fire bombs into the house and our four heroes make their escape. Andrews of course figures out very quickly that they're gone.
Gina is thoroughly exhausted from their running and as Terry, Gina, and Harlan emerge from a drain pipe, they realize Crewes isn't with them anymore. Andrews emerges from the pipe  instead as Harlan's eyes begin to glow again. The glow spreads over his entire body and he holds Gina close. "You're coming with me" he says over and over, and the two of them disappear. Terry shoots Andrews directly in the heart and Crewes emerges from the pipe, claiming he got lost.

Terry asks him if he thinks people get second chances.  "I think we just did" she tells him.  The two of them decide to go off the grid and live their lives together, apparently deciding that the disappearance of  the Williams couple is simply not a problem to be concerned about anymore.  The mini-series ends with a quick shot of photos of a young Harlan and Gina that we saw in their house early on in the series.

If that ending seems abrupt and strange, it's because it was meant to be a cliffhanger.  King hoped that Golden Years would be turned into a regular series, but I don't think any of us are too surprised that CBS declined that offer.  They also were not interested in giving him a follow up mini-series to solve the mystery.    Honestly, while it's a little odd that Terry and Crewes aren't even remotely bothered by their disappearance, this does feel like an end to me.  Andrews is dead and Burton seems at least more level headed than his boss and would therefore hopefully not be so ruthless.  And if Harlan and Gina have simply disappeared from this world, than they're free.  Once again, that may just be me having Dark Tower thoughts, but when it comes to King's writing, that's pretty easy to do.

I suppose there's also a bit of a dangling thread there with Toddhunter and his experiments, but screw Toddhunter, I don't care.

The DVD release of Golden Years features a condensed "movie" version of the story with an ending that was changed to remove the cliffhanger.  I'm going to let Noel tell us about that because he happens to own a copy.


And I'm going to be very curious to see how they modified the ending on the DVD, because I actually like the note we end on here. I can see it going both ways. If we get a series, another Shop goon will come in and make violent statements that show he/she is even nastier than Andrews. Terry and Crewes can settle into survivalist mode before resurfacing to help out the heroes. Harlan and Gina could have merely teleported to a new location, either to their daughter in Wisconsin or one of their sons' houses. Toddhunter would keep pushing the experiments. But then the next twist is reversing the field*, finding a way to stop the wind back or restart the wind forward, where Harlan starts getting too young and needs to stop running away and instead run towards in order to find the cure to go forward again. If not for him, then for Gina.

[* I'm actually fine with the science of the clock, Angie, as they aren't healing cells, they're causing them to revert backwards to earlier states in their existence, so it being some sort of energy field kinda sorta makes sense in a fictional way. Doesn't explain how Harlan has the other powers he does, or why this isn't affecting his memories, but I can go with it to the limited degree we get here.]

Or, if we just end the story here, Andrews and Moreland have completed their arcs with death, Terry and Crewes wander off to start a new life, having proven to each other and themselves that there's more to them than cold government bureaucracy, and Harlan and Gina have simply faded into the ether, sharing in a last moment all they might lose as time quickly pulls them further and further apart, with the knowledge that their daughter is safe and there's no reason for anyone to hound their sons. Really, the only cliffhanger is Toddhunter relaunching the experiment, so fingers crossed that this is what they cut from the DVD. Seriously, pairing him with Billy is every bit the "oh joy" Angie says.
The episode does start pretty clunky, with the ridiculously stereotyped hippie commune, everyone falling victim to Captain Tripps, and probably the most unsubtle stakeout of undercover agents I've ever seen, handling assault rifles and machine guns out in the open, and touching their ear pieces every single time a message comes through. And why are the snipers standing on the rooftops instead of hunkered down and minimizing their visibility? It's very poorly staged.

But things start to pick up. I love the tender moments Harlan and Gina get to share, even as he's so visibly younger now that I think the only makeup on the actor are a bit on the cheeks and brow. I've really become attached to Terry and Crewes, and how they've significantly grown from the odd, twisted people we first met them when their motives were unclear (love the moment of him falling asleep during his first time on a water bed and her giving his head a kiss). Burton starting to crack is great, again showing how Andrews just burns through sidekicks before dumping them when he's tired of their stress management. And yeah, Root as Moreland steals the show. I especially love the sequence before he goes out on his rant, where he's playing a little game of trying to place a peanut on top of a bottle with the bottle opener, his sweaty mumbling steadily building into frustrated shouts as he ponders the paperwork necessary to allot this much force to a single location in the time they did, and all the red tape he'd get tangled in were he to try the same. And then the big shootout is striking in how brazenly far they take it, militarizing the police force and blowing away innocents in full public view. Which isn't such a fictional stretch these days.

Ultimately, I don't mind the note we ultimately go out on. Was it worth the build? Not really, but at least it gives me some closure, completes character arcs that I enjoyed watching amidst this morass, and ends with a quote from David Bowie. It's really the best I could have hoped for at this point.

Differences between the mini-series and DVD cut:

Before watching this, I want to start off with a little math. The running time on the DVD is 232 minutes. Adding up the running time of the 7 episodes on Netflix (first is feature-length), we get 370 minutes. We've got about 9 minutes of opening and closing title sequences, another 6-7 minutes of "previously on" material... so there's about 122 minutes, a hair over two hours worth of material, cut from this version. Please be Toddhunter's stuff. Please be Toddhunter's stuff...

I'm just going off my memory while watching this, so cuts I'm noticing:
  • Toddhunter frantically practicing his testimony in his apartment. Cuts straight to him calmly delivering it before the hearing.
  • Bits at the beginnings of episodes designed to recap plot, like when Terry was going through everyone involved on a monitor, or Crewes bursting into Andrews' command center.
  • Doctor Ackerman waking up to discover Andrews in his home. Cuts straight to him sitting over breakfast as Andrews threatens him.
  • We hear mention of a vanished scar from when Harlan visited Ackerman for an examination, but the scene where he first tells Gina about it and gives us the backstory is gone.
  • Terry asking for the lipstick. I'm sure there's some other business missing here, but they cut from her telling Harlan and Gina what Andrews will do to them, to them leaving the house and Terry giving the lipstick back to Gina. Message is still on the mirror.
  • The kids at the mall stealing Terry's car. We still see them when the car is picked up by police.
  • Aside from Billy's intro scene, he's been almost entirely removed. None of the business with the mice, none of Andrews asking him about Harlan's family.
  • After his scene at the hearing, many scenes with Toddhunter, where he was largely just there to remind us he was there, have been removed, including the watch bit with the guard. He comes back in when Andrews asks him about the project, they call the Secretary of Defense, and he resumes the experiment. A number of scenes after this are intact. We hear him promise to smuggle the lab mouse out, but the actual scene with the electric fence is gone. The graveyard bit is still there. Ugh. He still argues with his new staff, but him chasing them out of the lab is gone, as is the requisition nonsense with the cord. Billy comes back into things at the end as we still get the final bits with the clock.
  • The scene where Terry tells Harlan & Gina that it may be to their benefit to shoplift and use the red tape of police custody to keep them away from the Shop has been truncated, losing all of her explanation and instead opening just as Harlan asks what drawbacks would come from being locked up, making it look like he's the one raising the subject as it's quickly shot down by the Jack Ruby discussion.
  • The car crash, where they lose the hearse and steal the cop cruiser, and the ensuing scene of the sheriff and his men coming across the car in the field and talking to Andrews on the radio. We instead cut from Harlan, Gina, and Terry singing in the hearse to next seeing them at the bus stop with their plan to split up.
  • Andrews flashing back to his time with Terry, and firing at a vision of her in the shooting range.
  • The little girl's awful line on the bus.
  • Harlan at the diner, with the flirting waitress and his powers going off again.
  • Crewes and Moreland arriving at the airport, with Moreland talking about square dancing. After they leave the compound, we next see them landing in Chicago. We cut away before the bit of Moreland being left to guard the pilot in the closet.
  • Chunks of Francie at her apartment, including the scene where she and Terry hash things out.
  • Andrews and his men being pulled over by cops who ask about their trunk full of weapons.
  • Jude and his men following the other car out of the underground lot, being blocked by the garbage truck and fruit stand.
  • Terry and Crewes leaving the car, telling the others that if they're not back in 10 minutes, they won't be back.
  • Most of the shots of the undercover cops taking up stations around the house.
I heard the ending had been altered for this release, but it's left entirely as is. [Angie's note: This is why you never trust Wikipedia.]

Noel's Final Thoughts:

I went into Golden Years with a lot of curiosity. Not unmeasured curiosity, as there's reasons I only dip into King from time to time, but curiosity nonetheless. It's the one and only time in his career he attempted to create an original TV series, much in the same way Maximum Overdrive is intriguing because it's the one and only time he directed a film. What's interesting isn't that both fail because they're different wheelhouses that he's bringing himself into, but that's he's bringing too much of himself and not adapting the way he tells stories to fit the constraints of these mediums. I still like Maximum Overdrive, for all its craziness and coke-fueled nasty humor, but Golden Years suffers because he writes it like a novel. He starts, maybe has a basic idea where he eventually wants to go, but is just drifting along, poking at the story and characters until threads start to unspool. It's not a bad way to work out a story, it's just a first draft way, and my problem is that he rarely rewrites or reworks his early drafts, and leaving them be as is, so you can see when he's just wandering around before settling, or trying something only to backtrack, or looking at options and going "eenie-meenie-miney-moe", and never goes back with a branch and sweeps up those footprints. That's what we're getting here, the writer wandering in the woods without a map.
There's other problems as well. Half the episodes are very clumsily directed. Dr. Toddhunter is unbearably played by Bill Raymond, and all they did in the writing was play up that unbearable nature. Entire sequences are odd, out of place, poorly delivered. It's just an all around clumsy show, taking too long to engage with its story, and only pulling off what engagement it has part of the time.

So no, I ultimately don't recommend it.

However, if, like me, you are still curious to check it out,  there are things in there to enjoy. Stephen Root is a delight as Major Moreland, especially as he becomes an unexpected sidekick to adventure, then succumbs to an unfortunate breakdown. Felicity Huffman and Ed Lauter are great as Terry and Crewes, and I love their growth from questionable bureaucrats in a system partially of their own making, to heroes who make a choice and face the consequences head on even as that system of their comes roaring back at them, while also revealing their personal relationship is even stronger than it initially appeared. While he's not fantastic, I do still like R.D. Call as Jude Andrews, who has this casual seethe to his rage as he just quietly, flagrantly mows his way through everyone involved, even burning through assistants every few episodes as he pushes each beyond their breaking point.
And the heart of the show is Keith Szarabajka and Frances Sternhagen as Harlan and Gina, the elderly couple fighting to stay together even as circumstances are slowly aging them apart. The writing wasn't always great, but it was good often enough to keep me invested in the series just to see what would happen to these two. Szarabajka and Sternhagen also bring a magnificent chemistry to their relationship, a tenderness and warmth, while also having all the old fusses and spats of long-built familiarity. And props again need to be given to the late Dick Smith for his makeup effects. Even in just these seven episodes, they way they peeled back the years from Harlan was beautifully handled.

Going through the DVD above, I have to say that I prefer it. It's a leaner, somewhat more focused take on the story, losing fat and lessening characters I don't miss. Not enough for an overall recommend, but if you're going to check one version out, that's the choice I'd make. I'm usually all for seeing things in their most complete, uncut form, and I am glad Netflix has the full episodes available, but this was a chore both times through, so I'd definitely go with the lesser of two chores.

Angie's Final Thoughts:

I said last time that I think one of the issues King had with this writing is that he was writing it as a novel rather than taking the time to pace it as a TV series.  One of the things I sense he struggled with the most was how to build his normally lifelike characters without being able to let us read their inner thoughts.   He seems to think that it has to be done through dialogue instead.  So Terry has to talk to Crewes and then Harlan about the same thing we just saw happen in an episode, and Gina has to fret over and over again aloud to Harlan about how he's getting younger and he's going to leave her behind.  Whether it's seeing the results of past adaptations and being unsatisfied, or perhaps just being a little bit of a control freak who wanted to dominate this story being told, he didn't put enough trust in the cast and crew to show us those things in more subtle ways.  Which is a shame, because beside a few minor exceptions this is a really strong cast.  They found ways to shine even out of this trawling material, and I can't help but wonder how much better it would have been otherwise.

As for the success of the story itself, it just feels too incomplete and unexplored.  Why was Harlan able to make the ground shake?  I suppose when you take the sun going backward and the final experiments with Toddhunter's clock, we're supposed to believe that there was a kind of temporal field around Harlan, where his cells and sometimes his surrounding environment where moving backwards through time.  But they never explained it well and they never truly explored any of the consequences.  Oh, we got plenty of moments between Gina and Harlan worrying about it, but while those were sweet and touching, they never really amounted to much.  Toddhunter's brand of crazy isn't compelling and Terry vs. Andrews is a pretty standard good cop vs. bad cop situation that only barely keeps things moving.

While the differences Noel named for the DVD cut may keep things moving faster, the problem ultimately is that this just isn't a compelling enough story to matter.  You can read a much better story about an aging man dealing with strange things happening to him in Insomnia, and see a better look into the inner workings of The Shop in Firestarter.  And if memory serves, you can see a better attempt from King to build an ongoing TV series in Kingdom Hospital, but we'll revisit that one soon enough to see if I'm right.  For now, I recommend passing this mini-series by.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - Golden Years - episodes 5 & 6

Episode 5 "Second Chance"


Captain Marsh of the state police radios into Andrews to let him know they've found the stolen cruiser with 3 people inside that he believes are sleeping. Before Andrews can give him an order, General Crewes interrupts to ask what is going on. He is informed that he no longer has control of his base by Burton who has orders directly from the Secretary of Defense to put Andrews in charge. Andrews orders the police to fire at the car but don't blow it up or hurt Harlan. They can kill the others. Marsh has no intention of following such an insane order.  He orders his crew to shoot the tires and around the car, but not the car itself or the people. Once that's done, the captain slowly approaches the car with his hands up asking them to come out. As expected, it's just three dummies in there, decked out like scarecrows wearing signs labeling them Moe, Larry, and Curly. Andrews throws the radio in a rage as the police laugh. He's even more determined to get back at Terry now.

In order to get to Chicago safely, Harlan decides to split up from Gina and Terry. Gina's not happy about it at all, but she gets on a bus with Terry and leaves him behind. The bus driver is played by Stephen King, and he's super cranky.  He and Terry exchange some banter, and while he's not a great actor, you can tell he's having fun with it.

Crewes sits in Terry's office shooting at the marionettes (hey, they paid for them, they may as well use them again) and looking at her fish. He talks aloud to the security camera she kept in her office that he thinks is still safe from Andrews and wonders if she's still alive out there.  He eventually calls Major Moreland's secretary who brushes him off before realizing who he is and frantically runs to get her boss.  He gets Moreland to come to Terry's office and bring Harlan's file with him.  He also orders him to send everyone in admin home for the day.

Interspersed with these scenes, we see Andrews talks to an unspecified someone on the phone, admitting he's lost sight of them and let his rage for Terry get in the way, and he doesn't know where they are or where they're going.  He then mopes around for a bit before finally thinking of Moreland and trying to get through to admin.  There's a mildly amusing scene where Moreland's secretary sees the phone ringing while she's packing up to leave, and she desperately wants to do her duty and answer it but ultimately walks away.
Crewes sees mention of the Williams' daughter in the file and takes the paper out. He tells Moreland to hack into the database and delete Harlan's file while he shreds the physical copy. Moreland hems and haws while Andrews orders Burton over to admin to get a copy of the file. What results is an eventual race between the two of them with Moreland only just beating Burton to it because a security guard distracts him.  Crewes convinces Moreland to go to Chicago with him because Andrews will kill him if he stays. He gets in Moreland's trunk since he's not allowed to leave the base. The security guard at the gate checks the trunk, looks right at Crewes, then closes it right up and let's them leave.  It's a nice little moment for the guard as he decides to ultimately do what is right instead of what he's been ordered.

In the middle of all this we also get some scenes with Toddhunter that are as painful as always.  He's all set to run another experiment but he's missing a cable.  He calls and orders one, the delivery guy wants him to sign forms, he pushes him out the door, it turns out the plugs don't match.  He orders another cable, and this time the delivery guy makes him sign everything.  If this is supposed to be funny, I'm not laughing.  When he finally gets everything hooked up a warning message goes off that he promptly ignores and begins his experiment.

Harlan has been picked up by a truck driver who has agreed to take him to Chicago.  Harlan falls asleep in the truck just as night falls and starts to glow green. The truck's windshield wipers and radio go nuts before the engine completely dies. Pulled over on the side of the road, the truck driver watches as the sun mysteriously starts to rise again. The driver tries to shake Harlan awake and gets freaked out at his glowing eyes. The ground shakes and splits apart. Harlan's secret is out.

That last moment is completely insane. Talk about taking things to a severe degree randomly out of nowhere. Is it because Toddhunter is doing his experiment at the same time? But why would that effect Harlan so far away? How could he cause the earth to shake or the sun to rise? Where the hell is King possibly going to take this from here?

Beyond that, pacing continues to be a problem, as I figured out pretty early on that the car was empty of people yet that scene of the cops trying to catch them just went on and on.  And there's lots of Andrews just moping about for no reason, and there's a scene with Terry and Gina on the bus that I didn't even bother to recap because it's just Gina asking "what's happening to Harlan?" and Terry answering with information we already know.  These episodes start with recaps of what happened previously besides that, so this constant repetition of events in case this was someone's first episode are really ridiculous and unnecessary.

I guess that whole thing last episode with Andrews going to Billy's locker is just going to be ignored?  And wasn't Toddhunter technically fleeing the facility then?  Why is he back and running his experiments like normal?  Shouldn't he be upset about his dead mice?  I can't help but wonder if something was going on behind the scenes here that forced King to change direction.  Of course it's also possible that I'm  being impatient and all this will make sense in the next couple episodes.

But with all that said, the middle part of this episode was pretty nice.  Watching Burton and Moreland both trying to get at Harlan's file was handled very well, and I honestly didn't know which one of them was going to succeed.  I also liked seeing a little more humanity to Andrews this time around, admitting he has faults and made mistakes goes a long way into making him feel more real to me.  I do wish we were getting a little more Fredericks beyond him just standing in the background of scenes though.



This pacing is killing me. Honestly, this is why I just can't get into King for the long haul, and why I applaud Angie for having gone as deeply as she has. Every time I try, I just run into everything being bloated out with a complete lack of an editorial finesse to let his stories flow and move as they instead slowly flop along. Angie, you pondered if he intended this to be a half-hour show instead of an hour and thus padded things out. I'd argue this padding is inherent King. I run into it in every single novel, every single short story, every single script I've read and watched by him. It's not that he doesn't do brilliant, imaginative stuff, he just doesn't take the time to dig around it and clear excess mud away so we can more clearly appreciate the artifact encased within. The opening scene with the cops is a perfect microcosm of this. There's chunks of it I love, like the police chief's bitter disgust at Andrews' orders, then his determination to resolve it peacefully, then the big laugh they have over what they find and Andrews freaking out. This entire scene could have been done in 3 minutes, 5 minutes tops, but no, it goes on for 15 minutes, an entire third of the episode, with nonsense business about the poor radio reception, General Crewes poking in to reiterate what we already know of how he feels about Andrews (though I do like Andrews' dare to knock a few teeth in if it's worth the court martial), and the chief elaborately mapping out his strategy instead of just cutting straight to it being implemented as, given what's in the car, it doesn't really matter how they get in there.

Stephen King is not a master storyteller in my book, and this is why. He's masterful at creating characters, concepts, sequences, but there's so little craftsmanship to how he assembles it, so little honing of the material instead of just pouring it out on the page raw and largely filming or publishing it as is. I guess this is why I'm always more drawn to adaptations he himself wasn't involved in, because there's someone there actually paring things down.

As for the rest of the episode, the best stuff is definitely General Crewes' continued face turn, making him a much more compelling character, and the odd couple pairing he forces the flustered Major Moreland into. It does drag a little at first, but Stephen Root and Ed Lauter play off each other so wonderfully that moments like the document shredding and Moreland demanding orders in writing actually sell. And yeah, the bit with the guard at the gate is great. I do also love the bit with the secretary and the line of phones, and the whole keyboard race over the computer file. It's a nice scene that does a lot to establish Burton as a new member of the cast, but I am confused why they brought him in instead of just having this be Fredericks. I could understand it if Fredericks was otherwise occupied, but that's not the case. Oh well, it's still a nice scene, and I also quite enjoy the bit with the competent security guard.

But yeah, most of the episode is a slog. I do like the strategy of separating our leads, and the farewell scene at the bus stop is touching (and a great King cameo), but the scene on the bus is bloated, and has that annoying kid with her "Whenever something hurts, you're supposed to kiss it!" line. Ugh! And the fucking Toddhunter SNL sketch. What was that?! The later Andrews' scenes also don't do much for me, as they're mostly just him sulking in his room, and then coming up with something he should have checked in the first few hours of the situation. Seriously, they should have been all over Harlan's daughter with surveillance by now.

And as for the ending, I was totally with it and intrigued when Harlan started shorting out close range electronics, but then he, quite literally, moves heaven and Earth? That is a pretty massive ability to just whip out this early in the game, and where they're going to take it, I don't have a clue.

Overall, more dragging, more frustration, with some nice moments buried in there, but your mielage will continue to vary as to whether or not it's worth the dig. Stephen Tolkin (who I know much more as a film and television writer) does a smooth, clean job with the direction, but King leaves him hanging with too many wandering voids in the script to let it be anything but slow going.

Episode 6 "Third Time Lucky?"

I've become especially curious to reach this episode and the one after, because I learned early they were actually scripted by someone else working off an outline by King instead of King himself. Sure enough, this is resolving a lot of the pacing issues I was having, tightening things up at a snapper clip and finally diving us into threads they've kept dangling away from us the last few episodes. I'm not saying it's still without problems, which I'll get to, but even the music is jauntier this time around.

Terry and Gina are tiring of their long bus trip, over a lack of both sleep and word on Harlan, and Gina's starting to crack as she insists on being able to call her daughter. Terry calms her into waiting as they only have an hour left to ride, but as they again head out, a diner clerk recognizes them from the "Wanted" fliers being passed around. Sure enough, there's a Shop agent waiting for them at the final stop. In a fun if typical scene, Terry convinces a gaggle of jocks that the agent is a man harassing her, so they harass him until coming across his badge, but not before Terry and Gina slip away.

They arrive at Francie's apartment, but she's out on a night shift and Terry says they should get some sleep. She quickly crashes on the couch (somehow waking up later in her bra and panties despite being fully dressed here) but Gina brushes this off and busies herself with worry and tidying up. There's a later line about her looking pale the next day, so I'm wondering if they're setting up a health issue that'll be dealt with later.

Francie arrives, and she's every bit the aging hippie radical activist we were promised, with tie-dye shirts, Lennon shades, and pictures of communist leaders on her walls. Which is surprising as even most actual Marxists are very critical of what Lenin and Mao Zedong did with the movement, especially Mao's scrubbing of cultural history, and being a socialist does not mean being a communist, so somebody didn't think this one through. Anyway, she's played by Harriet Sansom Harris, whom I've loved on Frasier and Desperate Housewives, so I'm happy, and they thankfully don't overplay the character, focusing much more on her instant hostility with Terry, and her relationship with her parents. In fact, I really like the touching scene where the barbs between her and Terry reach a breaking point and they just start opening up to one another, Francie admitting her rebel streak was because she wanted to do something important while her dad was a quiet, comfortably average joe perfectly willing to make due as a janitor all his life, and how he was always so supportive that she rebelled against the world because she had nothing to really rebel against at home. This is capped by a nice moment of Terry admitting she definitely is one of the "pigs" Francie has spent her life fighting against, but she "gave up my snout" once this all went down.

Back with our villains, remember how Jude walked off with Billy a couple episodes back to see the dead mice in Billy's locker? Yeah, so nothing really came of that as he's now showing up at Billy's trailer home and the young man has fully taxidermied them into bookends. Or at least one of them, but who makes a single bookend? Well, it is Billy. I guess. Anyway, I do like Jude's strategy with Billy, being kind and friendly instead of using his usual strong-arm tactics as he knows those would probably lock someone like Billy up, and he uses this friendliness (albeit with an undercurrent of visible frustration) to learn the names and whereabouts of Harlan's children. That's right, in addition to Francie, there's also two sons spread out in cities we'd probably be visiting at some point had this continued as an ongoing series. Burton is able to build what they learn about Francie into her full address (received through a hilariously old shoulder-slung, corded cellphone), and he and Jude fly off to Chicago, where they're met by a pair of Shop agents (one's a familiar nosebleeder) and are promptly pulled over by local cops for speeding and having a trunk full of heavy artillery. This is a bit of a long scene, but amusingly timed in terms of the "who will get there first?" suspense being built, and I delighted in Jude giving the dickiest cop a farewell kick between the legs.

General Crewes and Major Moreland have also flown into Chicago, though Crewes recognizes a Shop plane and, sticking up the pilot, learns Jude beat them there by a hair. He goes off, leaving Moreland to guard the closet where the pilot is making actions of intercourse with a flight attendant.

Harlan has continued hitching his way along. We hear nothing more of the sun rising, but there have been some radio reports of the earthquake he caused. Stopping in a diner for some breakfast, his de-aging self is hit on by a frisky waitress (Margo Martindale!), until his eyes again roll back and glow green, and the place starts shaking. We don't see what happens after, but he eventually makes it to Francie's place, where everything is fully explained and she insists on going with them, along with her seeing eye dog, Whitney. They're uncertain, but don't have time to debate as Crewes is at their door, saying he's on their side and they need to get out as Jude is closing in. Hesitant to steal a car because of how quickly it'll be traced, Francie surprises everyone by producing keys, spares she hangs onto for a neighbor's car. Because that's a thing that happens?

They're met in the underground garage by Jude and his men, and a gunfight breaks out. Whitney gives away their position with a bark, though ultimately buys them some time by pouncing on Jude and tearing into him. Until he silences her with a bullet, the bastard. Terry has the idea of shooting out the fusebox for the lights so Francie, as her blindness isn't affected by the dark, can lead them to the car. But when they get there, the doors turn on the interior lights and Jude opens fire, plugging Terry in the arm as she shoots him across the cheek. Our heroes peel out, getting extra space due to a convenient truck and fruit stand at the end of the alley. Knowing an APB will quickly be put out on them and the car, they pull over under a bridge, and Crewes and the injured Terry go off, telling the others to give them 10 minutes, and if they aren't back by then, they probably won't be. Cliffhanger to the credits.

There's also more stuff with Dr. Toddhunter bossing around a new team of underlings as they power up another attempt at the experiment, and then flipping out when they refuse to go any further without Jude's say so. I do like parts of this, especially the stonefaced scientist refusing to back down as Toddhunter shrieks nonsense about mutiny in his face, as they all fear Jude a hell of a lot more than they do this weenie, but it's still Toddhunter nonsense. And there's another bit with him taking apart clocks that's just... no.

Overall, this episode moves much better than the last few, our story is taking some new twists and turns, the characters are still fun, especially as our hero team takes on a few new players, Allen Coulter's direction continues to be clean and capable, and the peeling back of Harlan's makeup continues to impress. My only real problem is that the new writer - Josef Anderson, a prolific TV vet of the 80s and 90s - can feel pretty forced in some of his dialogue and character interactions, not quite pulling off his attempts at King's goofier human moments. I'm thinking of scenes like Moreland's long spiel about how he just can't do something three times a week with his wife, and reveals it's square dancing, or Jude fuming at how Billy has Christmas lights up all year round, or the horny pilot. They aren't bad bits, they just aren't selling very well. Though they thankfully do take a back seat to character and plot as the episode gets further along. And I do think it's more than made up for by the better pacing. Even though there are still some scenes that drag on a bit, the overall work is much richer and snappier, and I'm curious to see how this holds as we get into episode 7.


I didn't realize ahead of time that they called in another writer to help King, but I did take immediate notice in the opening credits when I saw that the "Teleplay by" credit featured another writer.  It makes you wonder why they didn't have someone redo all the scripts of this mini-series, turning them into something tighter, perhaps even only four episodes in length, covering all the bases of the story but not dragging it out this far.  Regardless, we get what we get, and what we get is an endgame that is definitely kicking into high gear.  There's a much better feeling of tension with the Moreland/Crewes vs. Andrews/Burton moments, and the shootout in the parking garage. But as Noel said, there's still issues here.

I disagree with Noel on the scene between Francie and Terry.  For one thing, Francie is needlessly combative and rude as a character straight from the start, and does absolutely nothing to endear me to her (I didn't notice the pictures in her apartment, but it doesn't surprise me no one bothered to do any research for this production).  I understand being upset that someone has literally broken into your home while you were gone, but when your mother is there and explaining things, going on and on about how much she doesn't trust Terry is excessive.  And then we get to that scene of them alone, and I don't know who Francie is talking about but it's not the Harlan we've seen the last five episodes.  "That's my father, always planning big things."  What?  From everything we've seen up to this point, he's a simple man with a simple job who enjoys the simple pleasures of living with his wife.  We saw him unwilling to retire, no doubt a desire to not rest on his laurels in his old age, but there was no hint that this man was a crazy schemer thinking of big ideas but never following through on them.  They left their home only when they were clearly in danger and had no other choice.  He's been going along with Terry's ideas all this time because he wanted to keep his wife safe, and no sign that he's finally getting to live out some grand fantasy of having adventures.  If this is meant to be some further insight into his character, I feel like it's coming too late in the game.

And yes, the humor falls flat regardless of who is writing it.  Moreland going on and on about the square dancing, the pilot making horrible passes at the stewardess, Billy staring blankly at Andrews after he asks a question, none of them are amusing.  Even the waitress flirting with Harlan was so cheesy that the good performance being given by Margo Martindale couldn't save it.  I don't think I even have to bring up Toddhunter at this point.  He's annoying, he's uninteresting, I wish he'd go away.

One other thing I want to say about what Noel mentioned earlier in his response to episode 5 re: King's pacing.  There's no denying that a lot of the time it is bloated, and that there are moments where you can tell that he's clearly just spending time with the characters, letting themselves slowly be revealed to him over time, while he waits for that little spark of inspiration that gets the narrative flowing.  There are instances where this is absolutely essential - Pet Sematary would not be half as moving if we didn't know little Gabe well before we lose him, and Louis' action would seem crazy if we didn't have an understanding of who he was and why he would be compelled to do those things.  Then there are novels like Bag of Bones, where King spends a ton of time with a man mourning his wife that has very little to do with the final confrontations of the novel and could easily be cut.  There's also one very important point to be made here: pacing a novel and pacing a tv show (especially a mini-series) should be handled very differently.

Up to this point, King had adapted some of his own written works for the screen, and for the most part he did a good job of revising and condensing them.  But it's pretty clear there was no rough draft in prose that King did first for Golden Years, and that while he's writing scripts in the technical format for television, he's pacing them like he would one of his novels.  Given the intention to possibly stretch this out into an ongoing series, I'd even go so far to say that he probably didn't have anything but the vaguest end goal in mind either.  So that's why I can read the doorstops that are The Stand or Under the Dome and savor every moment, while here I am so beyond ready to get to the final episode that it's ridiculous.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Angry Video Game Nerd movie

We all know that when we make donations to a project via something like Kickstarter or Indiegogo, we don't know what we're going to get.  There's a chance that those asking for donations may never even produce a final product at all, and even if they do, there's no guarantee that it will be any good.  So I want to say right off the bat that this isn't me complaining that I was ripped off.  But still, I can't help but put this in perspective - I paid $100 toward the Indiegogo campaign for the Angry Video Game Nerd movie, and I paid an additional $10 to purchase the film, as a copy was not included in the rewards for the campaign.  I gave the original amount because I wanted to help James Rolfe achieve his dream of making a full length feature film.  I don't regret that.  But it's also hard to not be disappointed when the film itself was downright painful at points to get through.

The last time I wrote about James Rolfe, I was ridiculously giddy and full of happiness.  My thoughts on him as a person haven't changed.  Shortly after that trip, I sent him an email, wanting to say thank you to him for being an inspiration to me, because at the time I didn't get to say any of that.  Despite the fact that he gets so many emails he has to have other people filter through them, he took the time to reply to me, thank me again for the doll, and wish me luck in fulfilling my own dreams.  He was a couple days away from heading out the door in Philadelphia to make a trek across country to L.A. to film this movie, and yet he still did that.  That and other things I've seen with him leave me with the impression that this is a guy who has not let his success go to his head and who definitely appreciates the people who got him where he is now.

Between that time and now, I have to admit that my enthusiasm for his work has dwindled.  Because the majority of his time since then has been spent on the film, a lot of his free content has been much lower effort.  There's a strong emphasis on unscripted videos and he clearly no longer takes the time to research things like he would often do for older reviews.  I would also make the guess that while videos may have originally gotten multiple passes through editing, the number of passes were now greatly reduced.  So you would end up with episodes where he had clearly just let the guest star improvise and go wild for most of it, and he himself didn't take his usual well tuned eye for proper pacing to them and they would just drag.  Or ridiculous glaring mistakes, like a video on TMNT games where he says he can't get the Commodore 64 version to work - when all he needed to do was google the proper command string to type into the computer.  He also let his friend Mike take over producing a lot of content, and Mike is the kind of guy who jumps on every chance to say the word "tits" among other such poor taste jokes.

There's also the simple fact that I'm getting older.  Cursing, no matter how inventively worded, doesn't strike me as automatic funny or cool anymore.  At times, depending on how it's done, it's more like the opposite.  James is a little less than a year older than me, but it's become clear that the fan base he is so appreciative of is always affecting his ability to make a product that's true to himself.  So while the poop jokes are gone, I've noticed that in a lot of the recent AVGN videos, he's trying to recreate the curse filled rants that were present in his early videos and then went away for a while.  Because he would go to cons and everyone would ask him to do those, would badger him again and again asking why he wasn't so angry anymore and he felt like he had to keep them happy.  This happens a lot with people who produce for the internet, where you see them repeating themselves rather than trying something new, no doubt because they are afraid of losing that ad revenue on which they primarily make their living.

Another thing possibly worth considering is that James has been sitting on this script for a long time.  The original draft of it was done in 2007.  Of course, that's both an excuse and it isn't.  Because if you've got something for that long, you've also got a lot of time to do re-writes and revisions, more time to notice things that are clunky, illogical, or just too childish.  You could polish it and make it the best it can be, or you can pull a Southland Tales and make it even more of a mess than it was before.

I'm afraid this is a Southland Tales.*

The movie revolves around the idea that the E.T. Atari game is the Angry Video Game Nerd's most requested review of all time, because it has the reputation of being the worst video game of all time.  A game studio called (sigh) Cockburn Industries is coming out with a sequel to the game that promises to be even worse, because bad is the new good and if the Nerd reviews a game, his fans will go out and buy it.  The Nerd only agrees to review the game if they will go to Alamagordo, New Mexico and dig up the landfill where Atari supposedly buried hundreds of copies of the original game after the video game crash of 1983.  Along the way they also reveal the secret of Area 51 and why that alien crashed at Roswell all those years ago.

So far, not too bad, right?  You've got two urban legends that center in New Mexico that are both at least tangentially related to aliens.  Linking the two is a fairly logical move, and  the way he does so is clever.  The problem is that it seems like he and co-writer/director and friend Kevin Finn also seemed to decide to throw in as many other things that they love as possible.  I love horror movies, let's throw in a scene where the Nerd is chased by zombies!  Aren't dai kaiju movies great?  Let's throw a giant metal monster into the mix!  And then of course there are fans all asking if Mike, the Guitar Guy, the Nostalgia Critic, Pat the NES Punk or other popular internet reviewers will have a cameo, so we better find a way to put them in here too!

Some of these elements work well, and others don't.  The zombies, for instance, come in a very clever dream sequence that serves the plot pretty well.  Most of the cameos aren't too bad, but a lot of them end up padding out moments that otherwise could have been quicker and cleaner if the film had only contained a couple examples rather than trying to shove in as many of people's favorites as possible.  The kaiju is by far the worst of it though.  It is introduced in a scene that completely interrupts the narrative flow and leaves you shaking your head and wondering what that was all about; and then suddenly pops up again for the climax and is eliminated by literal hand waving.

Unfortunately, the convoluted plot isn't the only problem.  There's also the fact that most of the characters are primarily one dimensional and uninspired.  The bad guys are angry and curse a lot.  The good guys are cookie cutter characters at best, and flat and uninteresting at their worst.  Jeremy Suarez, originally a child actor with a decent amount of experience in acting, gives a good performance as the Nerd's sidekick but the problem is that he has so little to do.  I suppose the idea is that they felt like the Nerd should have someone to bounce off of at all times, but by the time the other characters start interacting with the Nerd, he largely becomes irrelevant.

Sarah Glendening is the female "love interest" and co-lead, and her role is far more unfortunate.  She starts off as literally a fake gamer girl - she works for Cockburn and dons fake glasses and pretends to love video games for the sake of getting on the Nerd's good side.  Now I don't think James meant any real harm with this.  One of the things about him that is also obvious if you see any Q&As is that he lives very much outside of internet culture.  It seems hard to believe for someone who makes their living through it, but it's true.  I once saw someone ask him "What do you think of the slash art people have done of you and the Nostalgia Critic?" and he had no idea what slash was.  He admits his confusion and then asks "Do you mean the fan art people did of us after we made the video together?  That was really cool."  So I don't think this decision was more along the lines of a statement of "fake geek girls are real!" as it was coming from his own limited experiences and not knowing many girls personally who are into video games.  Now you would think that doing what he does now, meeting girls like me (and many others who were in that line with me to meet him) that he would know we do.  But I suppose it's possible he's under the impression that we just think the videos are entertaining regardless of whether we play the games?  Ultimately, this character in the film is taking on the classic role of the one who works for the bad guys but hangs out with the good guys long enough that she sides with them and joins them.  She plays a lot of games and seems to enjoy them, and ultimately tells the Nerd that he doesn't have to review the game if he doesn't want to.  But even if James was ignorant of the fake geek girl controversy, it's a little hard to believe that no one involved with this production tapped him on the shoulder and let him know that this might look super bad to a part of his target audience.

Of course, once you factor in that there's a female bad guy ultimately for the sole excuse to see the two women fight each other at the end (seriously, they break the fourth wall to tell you that the fight is just fan service), maybe I'm just making too many allowances here. As he's now a man with a newborn daughter, I would hope that any future films of his don't come out with such childish, narrow views about women.

One thing that's really more of just a minor annoyance, is that the film makes a lot of changes for the sake of avoiding lawsuits or having to pay licensing fees.  So he's not reviewing E.T., it's Eee Tee and Eee Tee 2, and the alien featured on the cover is not the brown big eyed creature we all recognize but a more generalized green alien.  Footage of the original game plays the same, but the graphics were changed/recreated so that there's technically nothing there under someone else's copyright.  It's understandable, but I can't help but feel it takes away from the film to have such inaccurate representations of Atari and NES games shown.  The graphics and sprite movement are a little too smooth for that era of games.

Ultimately, as sloppy as the film is, it's pretty clear that it's meant to be a tribute to the fans of the series and a thank you to everyone who has made the character popular.  He also seems to be trying to have it both ways, and spends a good ten minutes at the beginning of the film both explaining what kind of character the Nerd is and using many, many clips from fans saying how much they love the show and how much he means to them.  On one hand, it's very touching, and on the other it goes on so long that if I hadn't once met that extremely humble guy, I'd think this was someone repeatedly patting themselves on the back for being so awesome.  It happens again later in the film, when you see fans flocking to Alamagordo just to see him and hear what he thinks about the game.   While he has the bad guy say "it's not your hatred for these games but your love for your fans that drives you" to help drive the point home that the feeling is mutual and he appreciates these people, I can't help but wonder if this angle was truly necessary.  The Nerd character is the most entertaining living in his own little world and getting ridiculously upset about video games.  Adding in a kind of meta level that blurs the lines between fiction and reality just doesn't really work.  Do another video and thank your fans personally, don't incorporate it into your movie.
There are various short form videos Rolfe has created, for AVGN and other series, that show he's a competent director.  Technically speaking, there's certainly nothing wrong with the film.  I didn't expect much from this film in terms of quality, but I had hoped there would be enough there to help him properly launch his film career.  He's already talking about making a proper film, he just needs to decide what story to go with.  Unfortunately, I don't think showing anyone in the industry this film is going to do him any favors in terms of financing.  Maybe he'll turn to his fans again for donations, and I have no doubt that many will support him once again.  Unfortunately  I don't think I have enough faith anymore to give much myself.

* It figures that, the evening after I post this review,  I get my copy of the script I was due thanks to the Indiegogo campaign, along with a 22 minute video of James Rolfe and Kevin Finn talking about it and some of the changes they made.  So here are some details and my thoughts based on what they said.
  • Finn said that the script went through a total of 85 drafts, according to Final Draft software. In earlier versions, they went more for a Revenge of the Nerds style plot, with a jock villain.  They didn't really explain why they chose to change it.  When he says 85 drafts he may just mean that they saved changes 85 times, but it does sound like they were tweaking it a lot.  They also mentioned that they would only work on it while together or occasionally through Skype, because they lived across the country from each other.  Working on it only two hours at a time with months in between may also play a part in hurting the quality of the script.  They of course call it a bonus, as it forced them to look at the script again each time.  I disagree.
  • Considering that during the script commentary video Kevin Finn made such poor jokes as "I'd like to put Mandi in a bag, if you know what I mean" along with getting all excited about a deleted scene with a female nymphomaniac and the woman who wants her breasts signed, I think we can blame him for the representation of women in the picture. Of course James could have vetoed that stuff so he's not entirely blameless, but it seems for his part he mostly was going for the 80s style nerd who is just doesn't know how to talk to girls. It also basically says to me that Cooper is an insert for Finn himself, who perhaps wasn't comfortable taking on such a major role in the film (he has a cameo as a Roswell scientist instead) or had to be the director behind the camera while James was on screen.
  • They say that the character of Zandor was originally supposed to be Howard Scott Warshaw (the guy who designed the game) but Warshaw preferred to have a much smaller role in the film.  I pretty much assumed this without seeing their video, as much of what Zandor does fits better as a guy who was a game designer who also happened to work at Area 51.
  • Reading the script made me realize that Cooper claims the giant mech kaiju lives under Mt. Fuji. The Atari logo was designed to look like Mt. Fuji. Later, the crazed military guy decides to destroy Mt. Fuji because it's the symbol of "that company the gamers loves so much" thereby waking up the kaiju. So they were trying to build connective threads there, but I do still think it's handled poorly.  The way they convince the monster to go away still makes no sense in the script.
  • There are a handful of mentions in the script where Kyle Justin aka the Guitar Guy, is mentioned shown on the side of the road or otherwise almost off frame playing songs that soundtrack the film.  I imagine this was rejected when Bear McCreary signed on to do the soundtrack.  Considering that Kyle's only appearance in the film is an obvious green screen moment with Mike Matei most likely filmed in Philadelphia, I imagine he also couldn't make it out to the locations required to be shown that often.
  • The script makes references to specific real games throughout the narrative, which makes me wonder if they only realized later on they wouldn't be allowed to use the footage, and that's why the fake games look way too modern - they were rushed.  There's also a Wilhelm scream joke that may have been dropped because of rights issues (the joke is about how it's overused, so I don't think that would have been the reason to remove it.)
  • There are other minor changes, like avoiding a poor taste joke about Asian tourists, but for the most part the version they are providing is very close to the film.
  • At the end of the commentary video, James expresses concern about the humor, saying you never know if anyone else is truly going to think it's funny.  He uses the reactions they've been getting at limited screenings to say he's relieved to find out it was.  But I don't think a bunch of die hard fans all packed together in one room is really a good indication for that.  Laughter is infectious, and people who are devoted to you will often laugh even if something isn't that funny.  But if this movie was truly for the fans, and most of them are happy, I guess that's all that truly matters to him.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - Golden years episodes 3 & 4

Episode 3 "Am I a Winner?"


Terry is woken up at 3 am by one of her informants who tells her about the eye doctor being murdered.  She jumps out of bed to investigate, but also makes a  quick stop at a payphone to wake up General Crewes in D.C. and ask  him to find a payphone of his own and call her at another location later.  She even gives him the phone number using baseball plays as a secret code, because she's that confident that The Shop is tapping both their phones.  At the crime scene, she sees the sheriff and a classic King character if there ever was one, a photographer who works double duty for the newspaper and the sheriff's office in this small town, Steve Dent.  He's a total gore hound, humming a tune while taking grisly pictures and talking excitedly about all the gross things he's seen.  The sheriff shoos him out once he's done taking pictures, and then Terry pleads with the sheriff to let her inspect the crime scene alone.  He's reluctant, but the two of them clearly have some prior history working together and he eventually lets her do so based on the fact that he thinks she'll help him catch the killer.  Once he's gone she goes straight to the patient files, and confirms that Harlan's file is gone.  She's confident Andrews is responsible.

And she has good reason to, as we see him driving around listening to a tape of the conversation she had with her informant early this morning.

After another poor attempt at humor where a trucker is hogging the pay phone saying sweet nothings to his wife, Terry calls up Crewes, who plays the role of idiot just so she can explain all this just in case the audience hasn't been paying attention.  She also tells him she wants to take Harlan and Gina out of town somewhere, because she's confident that Andrews will kill Gina and capture Harlan.  He's reluctant to agree to this, and knows she will do it anyway.  We cut to Andrews killing off the photographer Dent, before we get one more scene of Terry asking for Crewes' approval again via another phone call, before he finally says okay and she heads to the Williams household.

She arrives there and ultimately gets them to trust her by revealing to them that their house is in fact bugged.  She convinces them to leave with her now, and it's a good thing because Andrews is on his way.  She can't resist leaving him a note before they go:  "Just like old times," it says.  Andrews nods at the message.  We then see him doing target practice, which is accompanied by a flashback of the time that the two of them used to work together.  Andrews has a man torturing a young man for information, and Terry orders him to stop.  She shows him some pictures that provide hard evidence of his abuse (including one of him holding an hilariously fake severed head) and assures him the photos are just copies.  He's to stop now or she'll leak the photos and make him infamous.  He was forced to stop then, but now he swears that she's got nothing on him, and he will kill her.  While the flashback is a little silly, the target practice is well done, where the camera cuts from him shooting targets to actually shooting Terry in a fantasy.

Terry asks the Williamses if they want to head east or west, and Gina chooses west.  Their daughter Francie lives in Chicago, and she's a political activist so Gina knows she would want to know about this.  Harlan doesn't really like the idea of getting her involved, but he agrees.  They also mention that she has a seeing eye dog named Whitney.

Meanwhile, Andrews has called in Fredericks, the guy who we saw snooping on the doctors last episode, to assist him and works with the sheriff's office on this.  He explains that his plan is to frame Harlan for the murder of the eye doctor, claiming he did it because he actually failed that last eye exam and the better results were just a forgery.  He's now supposedly taken Terry (who had arrived at the house to arrest him) and Gina hostage on the run.  It's actually a fairly logical cover up.  While Fredericks has the police looking for Terry's car, Andrews goes and talks to good old Dr. Toddhunter, telling him that Harlan is in fact turning visibly younger, and wouldn't he love to run some tests on him?  Toddhunter absolutely would, so Andrews tells him to make a phone call to the Secretary of Defense and convince him that catching Harlan is a high priority.  Frankly, I don't understand why this bit is necessary beyond trying to include Toddhunter in a scene.  From everything we've seen so far, Andrews has plenty of power on his own and shouldn't need Toddhunter's help here.
Meanwhile, Terry is getting a bad feeling about being out on the road, so she pulls over at a mall and finds a hearse in the parking lot.  She hotwires the hearse so they can steal it, and they leave her car there in the parking lot, hoping someone else will take it and run.  A group of teenagers do just that.  It's all a good plan - pick an oddball vehicle that the average policeman wouldn't think to suspect, guarantee that your car will do its own travelling - but the problem is this is a trick that Andrews taught her, and the moment the teens are caught joyriding in Terry's car, he knows exactly what's going on.  One police report of a stolen hearse later, and he's on to her.  He also decides to make a phone call to General Crewes as we fade to black on the episode.

While there's still a little bit of fat here that could stand to be trimmed, particularly in the beginning, this episode definitely feels much tighter and helps the story move forward much better.  Terry continues to be an interesting and likable character with a bit of quirkiness to her, but without anything as oddball as those marionettes last episode.  Harlan and Gina continue to have great chemistry, and the makeup is still doing a good job of showing us that he's continually getting younger.

I still don't really care for Andrews, but adding in Fredericks to play off of him helps tremendously.  I particularly like the part where Andrews barks some orders at him before hanging up, and Fredericks shouts in frustration "I'm not your secretary!" as he slams the phone down.  The biggest turn off for the episode for me though was one scene where, apropos of nothing, Andrews is lying in bed with a random woman, and the scene starts off zooming in tight on her bare leg slowly moving up and down before finally moving up her body until you see the two of them.  It's lecherous and creepy and does absolutely nothing for the story.


I agree with Angie. There's still some pacing issues, some scenes that drag or are played too leisurely to fully connect, but the story is definitely moving along. Terry makes a bold choice, uprooting us from the small town locale to the broader setting of the road (and the promise of Chicago), while also fleshing out the small town a bit more with the introduction of the Sheriff and the (yeah, totally a King stock) crime scene photographer. I also like how Harlan and Gina are played, with her usual concern and indecision now being contrasted by her being the one to trust Terry and choose their destination while he's the one gritting his jaw with worry. Very curious to see who's playing their daughter, Francine, as she already sounds like she'll be fun.

Terry herself is evolving very nicely as a character, making her far richer and more compelling than she initially appeared. Early on, she was much colder and I didn't quite know where she was going to stand on things. She was sharp, biting, smart, all business, and her arguments over the handling of Harlan seemed to be more in the realm of a pissing contest between her branch and the Shop. We're seeing the human beneath that now. She's still brash and abrasive, but she's seen the hell Andrews can unleash and doesn't want to be party to it again, especially in a small town where she's come to know people. The scene between her and the Sheriff is a nice touch, showing the strong bonds she can forge while still remaining aloof.

I do like R.D. Call as Andrews, because he has this great casual evil about him, but I don't always like how they're handling his character. As Angie said, the bit where he imagines Terry on the shooting range, complete with a voiceover monologue which is usually tough to pull off, is chilling, but the flashback to their time together feels forced, fills in blanks we didn't need filled, and the abstract, expressionistic slanting of the set does not work at all. I also don't get why he killed the photographer. What purpose does that serve, and how does it not call even more attention to a coverup crime scene they supposedly want to sweep under the rug? It gets better in the second half as the interstate cat-and-mouse games build, and I love the laugh of stealing a hearse with a stiff in the back being undercut by Andrews instantly recognizing the tactic as one of his own.

On a final note before we move on, just wanted to pay further respect to Dick Smith, the makeup supervisor, who as of this writing just passed away at age 92. He was an Oscar winner on films like The Godfather and The Exorcist, and was noted for his ability to believably age actors. If nothing else, this series is another testament to his abilities as Harlan's slow transformation continues to take effect.

A few extra bits:

- Yeah, the multiple calls with the General go on waaaaay too long, and what's with the bit with the janitor and security guard? That never goes anywhere.
- I wonder if "I'M NOT YOUR SECRETARY!" was an on set improv. It was wonderful and felt so spontaneous. I'm so glad Ted Guinee went on to a successful character career because he's so much fun to watch here.
- We did not need this scene of Dr. Toddhunter. No no no no.
- Some parts of the music are starting to grow on me. They're drifting away from Twin Peaks, a bit more towards King's love of rock guitars.

Episode 4 "Not On My Watch"

With 40 miles left to go before reaching Francine in Chicago, Terry pulls them over to an abandoned farm for the night, where Harlan has the idea of further making their vehicle more conspicuously inconspicuous by spray painting it bright red. While there, they further stew about their situation, with Gina upset over the growing gap between her and Harlan's ages and his potential fate, Terry being pushed to get some sleep by a Harlan now fit enough to watch over himself, the stiff in the coffin being promised he'll be reunited with his loved ones (love this scene, with Gina being the one who took a peek as it still gives Harlan the willies), and Harlan bouncing all the potential fates around in his head. Whether he dies by the hands of the shop, old age, or reverse aging back to the point where his life even began, he figures he'll soon see the end of his journey one way or another, and he's now just fighting to make sure it goes on his terms and leaves Gina safe. Again, Gina and Harlan are wonderful together, the absolute heart of the show, and Terry is more than holding her own alongside them. Especially as she refuses to lie to them about their chances.

I'm sure Angie will also catch the amusing namedrop, where Terry says Andrews is even more of a skilled assassin than John Rainbird was. While I do like Andrews, I don't know that I'd go that far. Unless we're just talking about the filmed versions of Rainbird. :)
Back at the facility, everyone's freaking out. Dr. Ackerman has seen enough colleagues die that he's flipping out with paranoia. John Rothman overplays it a bit, but not unbelievably so, and I love the moment of him seeing headlights and trying to unlock his convertible door before just hopping over it, but can't start it because the keys are still in the door. The car, of course, explodes. And then General Crewes is back, and majorly pissed at how far Andrews' operation has gone, only to run into bureaucratic red tape which now has him subservient to Andrews and barred from leaving the base. And the local Sheriff is equally flustered as the command center for their operation is being uprooted and put behind base gates with the police completely cut off. And Fredericks still isn't getting any sleep.

And then we get more Dr. Toddhunter being Toddhunter, and wow, they just keep pushing it. He's fine in the first couple of scenes, playing his crazy more subdued as he studies the only surviving mouse from that fateful day, but then he gets all creepy, shielding the mouse from others as he strokes against the glass, packs up several of its girlfriends with it to smuggle to his home, and then... oh Angie is going to love this scene... he goes to his father's grave, digging up a lunchbox full of broken watches as he goes on and on about his obsession with the limits of the time we each get... then curls up for a nap against his dad's gravestone as he tells his father how much he loves him. Why did we need to go here! Ugh!
Anyway, his attempts at smuggling the mice out goes awry when they get loose from his van and two of the three run into the electrified fence. Where Billy has, of course, scooped them up for a taxidermy project, which Andrews is quick to learn about as he escorts the young man to his locker. His fate is left unrevealed so far.

Before our leads move on, Terry tries convincing Harlan and Gina that their best bet is to be picked up by local authorities for petty shoplifting, as that would put enough red tape in Andrews' way to buy them some time and get their case some public attention. Granted, they could still be killed in prison (Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby come up) so it doesn't guarantee a better fate, but it might be more of a chance. Cut to Andrews guessing this tactic and renewing his effort to get them first. Cut back to them as Gina convinces Harlan they should just push on.

Then there's a very well put together sequence of them driving along, all singing a happy church song over atmospheric music on the soundtrack, until they see a car flipped off the road with a man guarding his injured young son until help can arrive. Terry wants to push on, but Gina refuses to leave the boy, and when police arrive, the officer is quick to recognize them and pull a gun. Until Terry comes up behind him with her own gun, and he's left handcuffed to the hearse, dealing with a parroting ambulance driver. Our leads speed off down the road in a police cruiser.

Again, it's overly drawn out a bit, there's maybe one or two too many conversations at the farmhouse that night, and holy shit Dr. Toddhunter why, but I liked this episode. It's another done by Allan Coulter, and I really like the way he blocks and paces his scenes, and frames his shots, giving us nice moments like the sing-a-long in the car, Toddhunter's stroking fingers on a monitor next to his face, the POV fate of the poor mice. It's nicely done and he's definitely shining faults on the other, weaker directors we've had so far.
The chemistry between the leads remains. I love the General coming back only to have his power instantly neutered. The dueling strategies as the heroes work out how best to run, Andrews how best to pursue. And that entire climax is perfectly staged in my book, with even Gina's instinctive bungling of the situation feeling natural.

I'm not saying it's great, but these Coulter episodes (he also did the second) are the highlight of the series for me so far, showing what this show could be like in the right hands. Again, not that it entirely works (Toddhunter!) or would have magically kept going as a result (plot is wandering a bit much, Andrews is weeding through cast like a Mad TV Steven Seagal sketch), but I'm at least enjoying it more during these chapters.


I suppose if you can give King anything with this show, it's that he's being consistent.  Nearly every episode so far starts off really drawn out and slow, so that for the first quarter I'm sitting around wondering if any progress will truly get made at all in the episode.  Time and time again we see characters continue conversations they already had in their last scene with no new information being discussed, or even worse, a character will tell a new character something they told another character in a prior scene.  I've seen  him handle these kinds of situations fine in his very long novels, so I'm really confused as to why he chose to do this for television.  It makes me wonder if he initially thought of this show having half hour episodes and someone mandated they fill an hour time slot instead.

As far as this episode itself, once it finally started making some progress, I enjoyed it.  Watching Ackerman completely unravel when he knows he's next was fun to watch, and John Rothman really gives it his all.  It's over the top but also logical given how he's seen everyone else dropping like flies around him.  Maybe I wasn't supposed to laugh when his car exploded, but I really couldn't help it, it just the perfect sudden climax to all his blustering and freaking out.

And yes, Noel, I was sitting there going "Really?  really?!" during that scene with Toddhunter at the graveyard.  Once again,  I find myself confused here.  Is it that Bill Raymond isn't quite up to the task of playing one of King's madmen?  Or is it that this time around King has just slipped off the rails a bit?  I usually love his truly off the wall characters - think of Toomy in The Langoliers, Annie Wilkes in Misery, or Col. Kurtz in Dreamcatcher, among plenty others.  Toddhunter doesn't seem quite as capable of murder as some of them, but King's clearly trying to show us a man living in his own delusional version of reality. That scene at the graveyard certainly suggests abuse from his father playing a role as well, but Toddhunter is just no where near as interesting or fun to watch as any of those other characters.  Though I did enjoy the way he just randomly hides the mouse from Andrews' view, it was a nice bit of humor if anything else.

Also, I can't believe the whole weird set up with Billy the janitor was so he could steal the dead mice from the fence.  Surely we could get those in Andrews' possession some other way.

That said, I  hope we get to see Harlan and crew making it to Chicago by next episode.  While the moment at the accident had a nice amount of tension to it, I don't think I really want to see Gina, Harlan, and Terry continually running from cops every episode. 
 Particularly because every single time Terry comes up with a plan, Andrews figures it out immediately.  Yes, he's one step behind them therefore giving them a little bit of a lead, but Terry really needs to start playing from a different playbook than his.
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