Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - Golden Years episodes 1 & 2


Everyone please welcome Noel as a regular contributor to Castle Rock Companion!  He and I will be going through these straight to film works written by King together.  First off we have King's first attempt at an original television mini-series, Golden Years.

Episode 1 "Time and Time Again"

Angie:

Harlan Williams is a 70 year old janitor at the Falco Plains Research Facility. His age makes him tire easily and he's frustrated by the plant's hi tech computer systems. His boss, a wonderful smarmy jerk played by Stephen Root, tells him that he came in 6% below requirements on his eye exam during the company physical, so they're going to let him go. Harlan knows his rights, and says he will take the eye test again.  Harlan is played by Keith Szarabajka in old man makeup, and he gives a decent performance.

Meanwhile Dr. Toddhunter is about to run a new experiment he's been developing for the first time. One of his assistants points out a problem in their readings, but he threatens them into saying it's just a faulty light.  I'm not sure what's worse about this scene, the actors attempting to be dramatic or the overly drawn out dialogue considering we know exactly where this is heading. The experiment begins and sure enough, things start to go haywire. Harlan hears the alarm and grabs a fire extinguisher to try and help out, but Toddhunter knocks him down as he runs away. The lab explodes and Harlan is knocked backwards, bathed in a bright green light.

Harlan's wife (portrayed by Frances Sternhagen, so I like her already) is making dinner when she hears them announce on the radio that there was an explosion at the plant. She gets no answer when she tries to call there, but not long after a man and woman involved with plant security show up to bring her to the hospital to see her husband. They also plan to bug their house while she's gone.

Soldiers in hazmat suits inspect the lab and find the assistants as well as the rats, that are pulsing that same bright green. One of the assistants is still alive and he explains what happened. They bring him to the hospital where he lies beside Harlan, but he doesn't look like he's going to make it.  Harlan's wife arrives at the hospital. They don't want to let her in to see him, but she sneaks in anyway. He's bandaged but otherwise fine.  In fact, he's feeling a little frisky.  I'd feel like I'm being silly saying I'm grossed out by old people fooling around, but the fact is I don't think I've ever experienced a King sex scene I didn't find horribly awkward or gross.  I do like the chemistry Frances Sternhagen and Keith Szarabajka have with each other though, they're very sweet and you can believe they have been together for a long time.

The female head of security, Terry, talks to General Crewes, who is in charge of the research facility. They've brought Toddhunter in to explain himself, but they're letting him sweat it out in the waiting room while she looks at the file and he flirts with her.  The tone of this whole scene and their relationship is a bit odd, but Felicity Huffman reminds me so much of Gillian Anderson as Agent Scully that I like her a lot anyway. The two of them suspect Toddhunter's responsible for the explosion.  When they finally let him in, he explains he was doing tests to regenerate cells. He blames the government giving him poor equipment for the explosion and lies his way through what happened.

Both Harlan  and the lab assistant occasionally pulse with the green light.  The assistant passes away, but the doctor notices that scars which he had known of from previous medical exams disappeared on the man by the time of his death.  Investigators arrive for the hearing of Toddhunter and his accident, but Terry quickly realizes they are from The Shop, because she used to be one of them. Her former partner is among their ranks.  For those not in the know, The Shop appears in multiple King stories as the government agency in charge of controlling odd phenomenon.  They play most heavily in Firestarter, and even got put into the Lawnmower Man film as an attempt to make that seem like a King adaptation. She threatens to go public to the general but he reminds her how ruthless The Shop is.  He even references a Maui base that King first mentioned in Firestarter, where people are sent but never get to leave.

Lieutenant McGiver (pronounced exactly like Magyver) who heard the assistant's story before he died is willing to testify against Toddhunter, but General Crewes prevents Terry from bringing him up in the hearing.  Instead he reports the info directly to The Shop members outside of it, and they say they'll speak to him privately instead. So of course they kill him and make it look like an accident, because they're the bad guys.  Basically, The Shop knows Toddhunter messed up, but they want this regenerative power so bad they want him to keep working on it.

At Harlan's eye exam, the doctor notices an improvement in his vision. He passes and gets to keep his job. He's in all around good spirits and feeling better than he has in a long time.  His wife Gina also notices that his hair is regaining some of its color.

Terry and General Crewes ask her former partner Andrews to stick around. They want him to keep an eye on Toddhunter and he agrees, but he's really only staying to keep an eye on Harlan, as the wire tapping of his home has let The Shop know what is happening to him.
The events of this double length episode could have been told in half the time, as the set up is pretty basic. Toddhunter is your basic mad scientist, but King feels the need to dwell on him for a long while.  Besides the overly long set up before the experiment, there's a scene where he's practicing his lines before the hearing, plus the hearing itself where it's obvious The Shop has figured out he's lying but is just letting him prattle on anyway.    The remainder of the main cast, however, is a pretty interesting group, and I'm looking forward to seeing more of Terry and Gina in particular as the mini-series goes on.

Noel:

I pretty much wholeheartedly agree with most of what Angie says here. For the most part, what kills this show is the pace. It's ridiculously drawn out, not just in King's typically long-winded writing, but the filming of the scenes themselves have no momentum, no drive to keep the narrative moving. At multiple points, I kept thinking we had to be at the final scene of the episode, but it kept going on, and on, and on. And the lingering pace also made it very clear how poor the direction was at times, with awkward blocking where you can see actors shifting over to marks on the floor, like when the agents show up at Gina's front door and make an instant beeline down a hall around a corner and into another room.

The cast is strong, and what interest I have in future installments is pretty much due to them. I'm also a big fan of Frances Sternhagen, and as Angie said, the chemistry between Harlan and Gina is really sweet and natural as they nail a couple who've been together for most of their lives, and have nobody but each other, yet still love one another so much that that's enough. I'll agree the sponge bath was awkward, but I actually kinda like the scene of them together in the shower, as it felt genuine and tender, and they didn't overdo it, awkward direction aside. I also have to praise Harlan's makeup. You can tell it's makeup, especially looking at the neck, but there's a subtlety to it that largely sells and I was rarely distracted by it. More importantly, Szarabajka nails it with the weakened physicality and mannerisms of a guy begrudgingly approaching 71, and his voice work is so good I'm not surprised to learn he's since become a prominent voice actor. I also like that Harlan as a character has frustrations and stubbornness instead of being made a saintly hero, as it helps me warm to him even more, without going so far as to lose my sympathy. A very relatable lead.

I also love Stephen Root and the gloriously tiny office his attitude is overcompensating for, and am intrigued by the bizarre, if very uncomfortable, romantic triangle of Terry, Jude, and General Crewes. Bringing the Shop into things is a natural fit for a Stephen King series, and I'm curious how much exploration of it we'll get before reaching the end. And yeah, Huffman is going full on Dana Scully in her look, hair, and suits, which surprises me as this was still two years before The X-Files. It must have been more of a look of the era than I remember it being.

The only weak side of the cast is Bill Raymond, rodenting it up way too much as Dr. Toddhunter. This is a type of mad scientist who should have gone out of style by the 60s, and he feels completely out of place here. And yeah, way too much time spent on the investigation into what happened, with multiple interrogations of him and that awful shot of him rehearsing his lines in a dirty robe and boxers. I get that's he's probably going to play a big role as things go on, but this is not how he should be performed, and not the amount of focus he deserves.

Overall, a very clumsy pilot with a distracted focus and the inability to understand pace which we usually get from works scripted by King. But there's still good characters and a nice cast to keep me interested, and a few intriguing threads that I'm curious to see play out.

A few other thoughts:

- I'm glad I've started watching Twin Peaks, so I can more fully appreciate how this is not that. They're trying for a very similar vibe at times, especially the way they make use of their odd background music, but they largely have no clue what they're doing.
- With all the vibrant blues and neon greens, the lab sequence feels like it comes out of a Goosebumps episode. And notice the halo over one scientist, devil horn over another as they're talking on either side of Toddhunter. Which has nothing to do with their opposing viewpoints at all, it's just a thing someone decided to do for some reason.
- Forgot to mention Philip Lenkowsky as the seemingly mentally impaired (this is King, after all) janitor with a sudden love of taxidermy. Oh look, preservation symbology!
- Bowie's "Golden Years" is a great pick for the theme song. Granted, is Bowie ever a bad pick?

Episode 2 "Yes, No, or Maybe?"

It's definitely starting to sink in for Harlan and his wife that he's growing younger. Not only is his hair continuing to brown (subtly layering up through the white in a makeup job that continues to impress) but there's a recovered spring in his step, the lines around his face are beginning to smooth, and a scar he received from an accident a few years back has completely vanished. At Gina's worried insistence, he begrudgingly agrees to again see Dr. Ackerman (John Rothman, who had a tiny role in the pilot but is now a more prominent and named character), but Harlan isn't stupid. As he tells his wife, he's seen how these government facilities operate, and as an elderly janitor with no family but his equally elderly wife, it wouldn't take much to make them disappear.

And he's not wrong as all the government operators are in full swing, mostly at opposition with one another. General Crewes mostly falls out of the picture as he has to go meet with either Senate or Congress ("Fruits or nuts, take your pick."), so our focus is on Jude and Terry. Jude's man (character actor Tim Guinee in an early role) overhears a discussion about Harlan between Ackerman and the doctor who conducted the eye exam, so Jude pays a visit to Ackerman the next morning, cooking the man some eggs, bacon, and hash while calmly describing the dental operation he'll perform with a power drill if he finds out any information has been withheld. It's a very nicely played scene, and I love the relaxed menace R.D. Call brings to things. Meanwhile, Terry is catching even more wind of a coverup when a flustered Major Moreland comes to her (in a bizarre sequence involving laser tag target practice against animatronic marionettes wtf!?!) about Harlan's passed eye exam and insists the man be fired. On top of discovering Dr. Redding's corpse had vanished earlier in the day, Terry is sufficiently paranoid about what Jude and the General may be up to, and tries calling the doctor who did the eye exam. Who's sitting at his desk with a bullet between his eyes, which was planted there by Jude.

So Harlan's not wrong to be paranoid himself, especially when, after an exam where everything is brushed off as nothing by Ackerman, he sees the Doctor briefing Jude in the parking lot. So Harlan swings by his wife's beauty salon to get the brown died out of his hair, then tells her everything as they make a plan to stash some packed bags in the front closet and slowly pull some chunks of money out of their bank, and they even do this from the driveway as Harlan suspects the place is bugged. Even with all this sinking in, they still share a lovely moment in the end as they dance to an old favorite song... only for Gina to back out of it as it hits them both that she's too old to keep up with him anymore.

With a few awkward exceptions, this is a significant improvement over the pilot. Each scene is much tighter, with a lot more going on in the story to keep it from dragging. The actors are settling into their parts well, especially Felicity Huffman, who's bringing much more humor to play than we got from her very cold performance last time. Jude is really marking himself as a threat to be feared. Harlan's dawning realizations and how he cooks up plans to deal with the situation is nice. The chemistry between he and Gina is still wonderful, the definite heart of the show. The direction is much smoother, with a tighter shooting style and cleaner blocking. And Dr. Toddhunter has thankfully been minimized to just a couple quick scenes, talking about his watch and glaring at a mouse. They're putting much more focus on Ackerman at the moment, which is fine by me.

It's still not great, as there are some awkward bits (what the hell marionettes, and the forced back-and-forth camera shot of Ackerman and the eye doctor ending on the agent listening in), and the background music is still weird, but I'm definitely more hooked by what we have here than I was with the pilot. They've gone in and swept up a lot of clutter, bringing the story more focus and putting it in much more skilled hands than last time.

A few extra thoughts:

- Jeff Williams as Lt. Vester appears to have been entirely dropped, so I wonder who's now on the other end of the bugs in Harlan and Gina's home. Yeah, there's the new guy on their tail, but he works for Jude whereas Vester worked for Terry, so I wonder who she now has in her corner.
- The scene with Billy's "time flies" joke was unnecessary, as if to just remind us he's still there. Much preferred the scene with the gate guard asking Harlan what his secret is.
- Between the "previously on" montage, the opening title sequence, and the first scene of Terry recapping events with her own personal slide show, there's way more reminder of what happened in the last episode that we had any need of here.
>- This episode was by Allen Coulter, a veteran television director who also helmed the films Hollywoodland and Remember Me.

Angie:

While I agree that this episode was much more competently made, both in direction and performance, I'm going to have to disagree that the show is actually moving forward at all.  Every scene with Harlan and Gina, while enjoyable because of their chemistry, establishes the same exact thing:  she's concerned about what's happening to him and he agrees but is more scared of what the government will do to them if they realize what's going on.  The scene with Jude at Ackerman's home does reveal that he's a bit more crazy than we might have originally guessed, but otherwise he's just fulfilling his role as cleaner for the Shop.  Ackerman and the eye doctor don't tell us anything about Harlan's condition we didn't already learn last week or get confirmation of in Harlan's scenes.  And yes, Terry's scene with Moreland seems to be there to try to add some kind of Twin Peaks oddness into the mix.  Sort of like King is telling us "if this character seemed fairly level headed and cool in the pilot, don't worry, she's just as nutty as the rest!"

Like Noel I really don't know what to make of Billy, if he's supposed to be disabled or just King's poor attempt at comic relief by being odd, as his scenes in both episodes so far sort of halt everything and add nothing.  All I can think is that King is trying to set him up for some sort of pay off later, though I can't imagine what that payoff could be.

I should also say I agree with Noel on the good quality of the makeup and how it's being used.  It's clear someone took the challenge of how to present someone getting progressively younger seriously, and they did a great job.  Szarabjka is also rising to the challenge of slowly showing the changes in Harlan as well.

Toddhunter's short appearance in this episode still managed to annoy me, though this time it was a writing problem - they mention his watch is two minutes fast, and he counters it with the saying that "a broken clock is right twice a day."  But that's only true if the broken clock has stopped running completely, not if it's running fast or slow!  Come on, King, you know better than that.

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